Naturalistic Paganism

To build a fire: The spiritual art of socialization


Building relationship is much like building a fire.  You have to turn to it, and ask yourself what it needs to catch fire and then to flourish.

image enhanced from original

– by B. T. Newberg

“You don’t really think that’s going to work do you?” said my dad.  I had arranged the twigs, kindling, and birch bark in a tepee, just exactly so, and he came along and tossed newspaper and wood haphazardly all over my precious creation.  I could feel irritation rising.  “This from the guy who says he’s uncomfortable in the woods,” I shot back.  He looked stung.  At that moment, I knew the conversation had taken a wrong turn.

We were up in the North Woods of Minnesota for a family event at a lakeside cabin thirty-minutes’ drive from the nearest tar road.  My dad, who feels claustrophobic in the forest, had graciously consented to come along at mom’s request.  Building the fire in the yard was a job we both volunteered for – a great opportunity for father-son bonding, right?  But straight off the bat, the “bonding” was driving us both crazy.

Family bonding is just one example of a larger topic I want to talk about today: socialization.  Interacting with others, whether through conversation or shared activities, presents an excellent opportunity for spiritual practice.  The art of listening, empathizing, and perspective-taking can be a powerful means of growth.  At the same time, it can go wrong.

Each time my father put a new piece of wood on the infant fire, I carefully moved it so it wouldn’t block off the airflow.  Meanwhile, I was noting how he had to control everything, had to be the “alpha male” – perhaps especially because he felt uncomfortable in the woods.  Aha, I thought, maybe he’s over-compensating for his lack of confidence in this environment.  But it wasn’t just him, it was me too.  The more he tried to control the fire, the more I wanted it to be my fire.  What irritated me most was that his haphazard technique actually seemed to be working.  The more he piled on the wood, the more the flame leaped up.  At that point, I conceded the battle and went inside the cabin.

What could have been a bonding experience turned out to be just another chore.  What could have been a moment of spiritual growth was anything but.  What had gone wrong?

Cavemen campfire

The tradition of socialization around the fire surely goes back to the earliest days of our species.

image enhanced from original

Turning, daimons, and the goddess Ate

Existential theologian Martin Buber calls the failure of two individuals to fully engage with each other a mismeeting.  Inhibited by self-centered preoccupations, they remain isolated individuals.  In contrast, if two turn to each other completely, then there may arise between them a presence that is neither the one nor the other, but a genuine meeting.  This is the oft-quoted I-Thou relationship for which Buber is famous.  It is also the bonding that could have happened between my father and I, but didn’t.

A meeting requires a double turning: a turning away from self-centered preoccupation and a turning toward the other.  What held my dad and I back was the self-centered need to control the fire and whatever it may have represented.  Fixated on this need, we failed to see what the other needed.  A better approach would start by turning away from this preoccupation.  This does not mean ignoring one’s feelings, but rather seeing them in the big picture.  To turn away is to make room for something other than preoccupation.

Of course, turning away from such preoccupation would necessitate being aware of it in the first place.  Aye, there’s the rub: so often we are unconscious of our feelings until it’s too late.  That is why mindfulness of the Five +1 is so important.  By paying attention not only to the outer world (through the Five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) but also to our thoughts and feelings (the +1 of the Five +1), we can keep better tabs on our emotional state and thus on our readiness to turn toward the other.  If we are not conscious of our emotions, they tend to dominate our behavior.

An internal state or structure that dominates to the exclusion of all others is what existential psychologist Rollo May calls a daimon.  This term he takes from the ancient Greek word for a spirit, which originally meant any divine being.  To be dominated by a daimon is thus to be in the grip of a god.  Like possession by a spirit, emotion can possess us.  This is wonderful when it is a positive emotion, such as joy or compassion.  On the other hand, there are less positive emotions.  To be possessed by the daimon of control is to be temporarily incapable of relinquishing control. My father and I were kept apart by our respective daimons.

The way to escape possession is to become aware of it.  Once raised to consciousness through mindful awareness, the daimon loses possession of us.  It flitters off into the shadows from whence it came.  Or to put it more precisely, it assumes a balanced, as opposed to dominating, role in our psyche.  The balanced state enables normal rational consciousness as well as the ability to look past preoccupations and see the other person.

A daimon played a role in one of the most famous mismeetings of Western literature, that of Achillles and King Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad.  The conflict between the two is finally resolved when the king relinquishes the woman he stole from Achilles.  Instead of admitting wrong, however, he explains his actions by claiming his mind was clouded by Ate, the personification of madness, delusion, and infatuation:

Zeus, Fate, and the Fury stalking through the night,
they are the ones who drove that savage madness in my heart,
that day in assembly when I seized Achilles’ prize–
on my own authority, true, but what could I do?
A god impels all things to their fulfillment  (Fagles translation, 19.101-105)

Ate (rendered here as “madness”) is a daimon who takes away the wits of men and sends them down a path of reckless impulse.  After being cast out of Olympus for causing trouble, she wandered the world, treading on the heads of people rather than on the ground.  Agamemnon claims the gods drove her into his heart, and that’s why he did what he did to offend.  Is this a way of dodging responsibility?  Maybe, but I don’t think so.  The king is actually saving face in a culturally-acceptable context.  For him to plead madness is to say he will not do it again, for he would never have done it were it not for that divine influence.  In any case, he is turning from his self-centered preoccupation and toward genuine dialogue with Achilles.

The way to counter the power of Ate, according to myth, is by that of the Litae, which personify prayer.  The Litae are daughters of Zeus who follow Ate, but being old and lame of foot they are easily outrun by the one they follow.  If Ate can be seen as self-centered preoccupation and the Litae as turning away from this and toward dialogue (which is akin to prayer), then the advice agrees with Buber.  The spiritual task is to turn from that which consumes us by mindfully cultivating a more balanced state, then turning toward the other in a spirit of genuine communication.

A meditation on mindfulness of Ate can be found here.

To build a fire

Building relationship is a lot like building a fire.  You can’t just do it with half a mind, like turning on a light switch.  You have to turn to it, and ask yourself what it needs to catch fire and then to flourish.  You have to stoke it to keep it going.  And when you’ve done that, you’ve got more than just a source of warmth.  You have a presence, a flickering, burning, wonderful presence.  In the case of my father and I, the wood caught fire, but the relationship was sputtering.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the only relationship built that weekend.  My family and I enjoyed three days of meaningful bonding in the North Woods.  The fire-building incident proved the exception rather than the rule.  On the last day, we worked together to plant a garden in front of the cabin in memory of Grandma and Granddad, who had both passed on in the last year.  Quietly helping out toward a common goal, turned away from self-centeredness and toward each other, we created a presence.  The garden was an outward sign of it, but that’s not the presence I’m talking about.  Rather, it was a presence between us, a palpable sense of communion.  Without self-centered preoccupation, without possession by daimons, without the troublesome goddess Ate, relationship flourished.  It was the I-Thou relationship of which Buber spoke.  It was the presence of the Litae.  It was a genuine meeting.

Memorial Garden outside Cabin at Ely

Quietly helping out toward a common goal, we bonded by building a memorial garden for Grandma and Granddad outside the cabin.

photo by B. T. Newberg

Nontheistic ritual: Is it effective?

Hollow inside tree trunk in Loring Park

The retreat yielded neither peace nor serenity, but led deep inside toward self-discovery.

photo by B. T. Newberg

– by B. T. Newberg

Two weeks ago I completed a seven-day Humanistic Pagan retreat.  In this post, I evaluate the effectiveness of the retreat, and then focus on one of its most controversial aspects: nontheistic ritual.

Was the retreat effective?

Effectiveness can only be assessed in terms of objectives.  The goals of the retreat were to:

  • put into practice the principles of Humanistic Paganism
  • relieve stress after a demanding graduate program

The first goal is self-explanatory – the daily posts of the retreat serve as record and testimony to the practical implementation of Humanistic Paganism.  The second is more complex.  The short answer is yes, the retreat helped relieve loads of stress.  The long answer is that a complicated series of practices proved effective in making a change in the subconscious mind.

Essentially, stress is an internal response to demands in the environment that seem beyond the ability to cope.  After the triggering event, the effects of stress linger as the mind continues to hold on to that anxiety.  Relieving stress is thus a matter of making a change in the mind.

The retreat served remarkably well for making that change.  It didn’t grant peace or serenity, but it completely turned me around.  Before the retreat, I felt the urge to “run away” every time I thought about my career as a teacher of ESL (English as a Second Language).  I’d put in as much as ninety-five hours per week during the grad program in order to get my teachers license.  At the end of it, I felt not only exhausted but also phobic.  The thought of what my first year of teaching would be like terrified me.  Would I be able to handle the stress?  Would I end up getting stress-induced illnesses, like I did during the grad program?  Would I have to quit half-way through the year as a result?  I could hardly bear to contemplate it.  Now, I am normally a fairly confident person with no history of psychosomatic illness.  Obviously, something big was going on deep inside me, somewhere in the subconscious.  Thanks to the retreat, I was able to confront it.  I came out feeling like I’d made a 180-degree turn, like I was no longer running away but now facing it directly.  It wasn’t that everything felt cheery and hopeful now, but rather that I’d found the courage and strength to meet challenges head on.

You wouldn’t think that a regimen of myth, ritual, and meditation would be the best way to do that.  It might seem like questioning your beliefs or giving yourself a good pep-talk would be the best route.  The problem with such rational approaches is that they tend to stay on the conscious level, whereas the root of the issue may lie deep in the subconscious.  Thus, you have to communicate with your subconscious in a language it understands: the language of symbols.  The imagery of myth, the physical postures and gestures of ritual, and the clear perception of meditation all work together to send a message the subconscious can understand.  Using symbolic images and actions, these practices activate neural networks that go beyond conscious, discursive thought and access deeper levels of the mind.  In this way, more of yourself is recruited to the effort at hand.

Overall, I’ve experienced lasting effects from the retreat, including relief of stress and a renewed sense of wonder.  The benefits of some of the practices that contributed to this are well-established: exercise, diet, spending time in nature.  Others are more controversial.  The rest of this post will be devoted to one of the most debatable aspects: nontheistic ritual.

Sprouting leaves in cave of tree trunk in Loring Park

Plunging into the recesses of the subconscious, ritual led to life renewed.

photo by B. T. Newberg

Was nontheistic ritual effective?

Nontheism can be described as practice which is not primarily concerned with the divine.  Deities may or may not be part of the picture.  Buddhism, for example, is considered a nontheistic religion since it is primarily concerned with human enlightenment, even though the Buddha talked about numerous deities.  Goals of nonthestic practice may include psychological benefit, creative inspiration, social integration, and so on.  Nontheistic ritual, then, is ritual with the primary aim of human development.

During the retreat, I made daily water libations to the goddess Isis.  This ritual proved profoundly effective, despite my belief that deities exist only in the mind.  How could that be?  The answer requires a foray into the psychology of ritual, and the relation of the conscious and subconscious mind.

Conscious thought is but the tip of the iceberg, or as cognitive psychologist Timothy D. Wilson puts it, more like “a snowball on the tip of the iceberg.”  It is associated with the prefrontal cortex, which was the last major region of the brain to evolve.  Now, when evolution upgrades, it doesn’t re-invent, it revises.  It builds on what was previously present.  That means that the human brain is but a revision of the brains of our ancestors, going back to mammals, reptiles, and all the way back to the earliest nervous systems.  We still have those early-evolved systems operating in our own contemporary brain structures.  It’s a bit like having Windows on your computer screen, but still having DOS running in the background.  Just as computers don’t operate primarily on what we see on the screen but on hidden bits of binary code, so too do we operate on a different language.  The largest part of us does not process information in terms of conscious, rational, discursive thought, but in terms of instincts, emotions, associations, habits, and gut reactions.  If we want to make a change in our life, we need to plug into that part of our minds.  Otherwise, the change will fail to penetrate to the root, and we’ll become frustrated with the results.  One way to reach the subconscious is through spiritual practices.  By engaging the language of symbols, we can send a message that gets through to those parts of the brain that evolved before rational thought but which are still very much a part of our human operating system.

I found ritual effective in communicating with the subconscious.  The rhythm of chanting put my mind into a slightly-altered state, open to non-discursive information.  Meanwhile, the physical gesture of offering water as a libation to the goddess Isis activated neural networks surrounding the ancient practice of gift-giving (for cognitive effects of ritual bodily gesture, go here).  Feelings of generosity, gratitude, and relationship emerged in response.  Finally, speaking to the the statue of Isis, even though fully aware that no deity existed outside the mind, initiated the enormously-complex neural program of communication.  The words didn’t matter half as much as the feeling of relatedness, which I can only describe with Martin Buber as an I-Thou relationship.  A qualitative change in consciousness occurs when we address a being as a subject rather than as a mere object or instrument of use-value.  That change occurs naturally for most of us when we converse with people.  The same happens for many who talk to pets, even though they know full well the animals don’t understand their words.  For some who have established a relationship over time with a figure of myth, as I have with Isis, the relationship is similar.  There is no need to believe literally in the existence of the deity any more than there is to believe that your pet can understand English.  The brain reacts the same.  What’s more, that reaction happens on more than just a verbal level; it engages the whole mind.  Nonverbals, including gesture, posture, and vocal tone, recall modes of communication used by mammalian and reptilian ancestors that are still part of our human functioning today.  As a result, the message gets through to the subconscious.  Deeper parts of the mind understand that something out of the ordinary is happening, and suspend habitual patterns of behavior accordingly.  That’s why it becomes possible to make a change.  Old habits are disrupted, and the mind becomes open to forming new patterns.  Ritual opens the mind to change.

A further aspect of ritual may contribute to its effectiveness: interaction with extraordinary, even impossible beings.  Deities shock the mind into paying attention, because they are entirely out of the ordinary.  Pascal Boyer suggests that the mind perceives things in terms of basic ontological categories, and those that defy the typical attributes of their category, such as winds that talk or bushes that burn without being consumed, are more memorable to the mind.  Deities are non-human entities that display will and personhood, and affect the world despite having no material bodies.  These are highly-counterintuitive attributes.  As a result, they send a message to the subconscious, the same very simple message we’ve seen all along: that something out of the ordinary is happening.  It doesn’t seem to matter, in my experience, whether you believe the gods are real beings or not.  So long as you are able to temporarily suspend disbelief, in the very same way as with a story or movie, the brain reacts the same.  Before and after the experience there may be some cognitive dissonance (for examples, go here, here, and here), but that is not necessarily bad.  It can be taken as a sign that what you are doing is getting through to the subconscious, enough that it is responding with palpable discomfort.  That discomfort, in turn, can be used as a stimulus for reflection and contemplation.  And since you know the subconscious is now listening, that reflection is more likely to be effective in creating lasting change.

Ritual is a complex practice influencing the subconscious mind from multiple directions.  By accessing the symbolic language of imagery, gesture, and action, and by relating to beings that defy the attributes of their category, it disrupts habits and creates a sense of the extraordinary.  This results in what educators call a “teachable moment.”  Alert to new threats or rewards in the environment, the mind opens to a moment of learning.  Ritual is a tool to educate the mind.

Implications for further Humanistic Pagan retreats

The bottom line is that this retreat offers support for Humanistic Paganism as a viable path.  Principles have been put into practice, and effects have been measured.  Nontheistic ritual has proven powerful for stress-relief as well as self-discovery.  Further retreats may thus benefit from the model provided here.

Must every Humanistic Pagan retreat look like this?  Absolutely not. This retreat was highly contextualized to my own situation and needs.  Furthermore, it drew on some eleven years of practice in meditation and retreat within numerous spiritual traditions.  Others coming from different situations should modify the regimen to address their needs and take advantage of their own background and skills.  For example, those who relate to mythological deities better as characters in stories may choose to dramatically re-enact the myths rather than perform ritual.  It is up to the individual to decide what suits them best.  There is no one authentic way to practice Humanistic Paganism.

Of course, changes in the retreat will produce changes in results.  The watchword in all cases is empirical investigation.  Whatever practices you adopt, treat them as experiments and observe effects on the quality of your experience.  Thanks to the Five +1 (five senses, plus one introspective sense), we are empowered to see for ourselves the potential of spiritual practices.  Rather than relying on traditional religious authorities, we can take the matter into our own hands.  We can take responsibility for our own self-development.

Plants sprouting in asphalt in parking lot

At the end of the journey: renewal of life.

photo by B. T. Newberg

An experiment in spiritual socialization

This Memorial Day weekend will be spent with my folks and relatives up in Ely, Minnesota.  I’m taking the opportunity to experiment further with Martin Buber’s spiritual practice of dialogue.  Expect a post on this next weekend.

Meanwhile, tomorrow’s post will focus on a controversial topic: nontheistic ritual.  Enjoy!

No rapture: Resonance, not transcendence

Vine leaves on pillar

Nontranscendence means not seeking other worlds, other bodies, or other lives. Instead, there is this earth, this body, this life.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 20, 2011

– by B. T. Newberg

This post celebrates Non-judgment Day, the day which is not the May 21st Judgment Day predicted by Harold Camping and followers, but rather a day for celebrating who you are, promoted by the queer nuns called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.  So, in honor of non-judgment, we have a non-theme: nontranscendence.

*                  *                  *

In the last post, I mentioned that Humanistic Paganism does not seek transcendence.  This provoked one commenter to remark “this leaves me feeling a little sad.”  Yes, it is sad.  But when you’re done being sad, it becomes wonderful.

Nontranscendence means not seeking another world, another body, or another life.  Instead, there is this earth, this body, this life. However imperfect they may be, they are ours.  They are yours.  Embracing that fact is the first step to finding yourself in a world that resonates with every step.

I don’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve yourself or the world.  On the contrary, such improvement is essential to Humanistic Paganism, as encapsulated in the Fourfold Path under responsible action.  There are plenty of challenges to be met, and HP affirms the responsibility and power of the individual to meet those challenges.  By so doing, the world can become a better place, and you can become a better person.  If that’s what meets your definition of transcendence, then by all means bring it on.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.  The idea I have in mind has more to do with the mystical and fantastical.  There are many religions and philosophies today that focus on other worlds, bodies, or lives.  Harold Camping’s prediction that the rapture will arrive today is a case in point, but there are less extreme examples.  Christianity and Islam look forward to an afterlife, while Contemporary Shamanism communicates with a spirit world.  Many New Age cults concentrate on a subtle or light body, at the same time that the pseudo-religion of consumerism obsesses about that perfect body that you just don’t have (not without product x!).  Meanwhile, forms of Hinduism and Buddhism postulate past and future lives, and cryonics panders to the desire for immortal life.  The problem is not that these hypothesized other worlds, bodies, and lives are necessarily false – we’ll let empirical investigation determine that.  Nor is it that they cannot have psychological benefits – I engage many spiritual practices for that very reason.  The problem is that they can distract from something equally extraordinary right here and now: the world of the ordinary.

Tree and lamppost at night in Loring Park

By opening awareness to sensations normally relegated to the dark of the unconscious, the ordinary can become extraordinary.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 20, 2011

The extraordinary ordinary

What do people seek in other worlds, bodies, or lives?  I’ll concede that some may genuinely pursue them for their own sake, but I’d hazard to guess that many if not most are really seeking escape from the ordinary.  Much of what masquerades as spirituality is really hope for something elseJoseph Campbell suggests that people aren’t really seeking the meaning of life so much as an experience of being alive.

The humdrum rolling on of life, the daily inundation of violent or depressing news – who wouldn’t hope for something more?  It’s human nature to always want more.  Where we go wrong is in assuming that something more must come from something else.

That’s just not true.  The ordinary world, just as it is, has so much more to offer.  In fact, it has so much to offer in each and every moment that our conscious minds cannot possibly take it all in, and that is one of the reasons why it quickly acquires a tedious veneer.

Cognitive psychologist Timothy D. Wilson explains in Strangers to Ourselves that our minds assimilate some 11,000,000 pieces of information per second from our sense organs, but only about 40 can be processed consciously.  The rest, according to Wilson, are handled by the unconscious.  This enables us to consciously concentrate on one thing while unconsciously monitoring the environment for danger.  So, the vast majority of perception happens beyond conscious experience, beyond what we normally take for our world.  The result: as non-critical sensations are relegated to the unconscious, the everyday environment quickly begins to feel ordinary.

However, how would our experience change if we brought attention to a fuller range of sensations?  For example, have you ever stopped to really take in all the sensations of eating an orange – the sound of peeling the skin, the softness of the pulp, the spray of juice as you bite into it?  What an extraordinary experience it becomes when you bring awareness to this thoroughly ordinary phenomenon.  Likewise, many meditation techniques call attention to the breath.  The rhythmic rising and falling of the abdomen, the warmth of air passing over the upper lip, the fleeting moment after one breath is finished but before the next has begun – a sense of peace and wonder may accompany observing these ordinary sensations.

So, experiencing something more doesn’t require something else.  It only requires a deeper approach to what is already present.  Through mindful practice, the realization gradually dawns that the extraordinary is already available in the ordinary.  All it takes is an alteration of awareness.  The world begins to resonate, suffused with a new vibrance.  The humdrum bursts to life, the droll pulses with vitality.  There arises a sense of wonder, or as Campbell puts it, an experience of being alive.

Resonance and the Five +1

The Fourfold Path of Humanistic Paganism addresses this through exploration of the Five +1.  These are the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, plus one introspective sense that perceives thoughts, feelings, emotions, and mental imagery.  By turning awareness to these phenomena, particularly to those normally relegated to the unconscious, a fuller experience is raised to consciousness.  The fruit of such activity is a profound sense of wonder at the world of the extraordinary ordinary.

Is this a kind of transcendence?  Maybe.  If there are those who wish to use the word for this, I won’t argue.  But I prefer resonance.  The word transcendence seems to imply getting over or above or beyond something, as if there were some lack to be overcome.  On the contrary, the task is not to go beyond but right into the heart of things.  Deep in the trenches of experiences is all the rapture I need.

Mythology and Resonance

But wait a minute… what about the Fourfold Path‘s emphasis on mythology?  Why isn’t bare perception enough without mythologizing it?  Isn’t this just another attempt to go over and above the ordinary, to seek something else?

Here is where we return to what was said earlier about spiritual practices, including those focused on other worlds, bodies, or lives.  They can have psychological benefits.  The question is whether they orient the individual toward or away from ordinary experience.  Approached from a desire to escape the ordinary world, they become escapist and unhealthy.  Approached from a desire for resonance with the world, however, they can be profoundly beneficial.  Furthermore, they can actually lead the individual to the ordinary by way of the extraordinary.

In a previous post I mentioned a storm in which I felt the majesty of Zeus, god of thunder.  This was a case in which mythology reminded me to look deeper at the environment, to open my awareness to a fuller range of experience.  As a result, the brooding sky acquired a more vivid, vital aspect.  The clouds almost breathed.  It was not that I was no longer perceiving the sky, but rather that I was meeting it with more of my being – not just the five senses but also imagination.  The entire field of experience, the Five +1, was humanized and unified.  By including the imaginal realm of myth in the experience, inner and outer worlds became one.  The sky as well as my whole being was in resonance.

It is not necessary to transcend this world, this body, or this life – at least, not in order to have an experience of being alive.  What is necessary is to go deeper into everyday experience.  Exploring the Five +1 can enable that, as can developing a relationship with mythology.  If motivated by a desire not to escape the ordinary but to achieve communion with it, something extraordinary can happen.  World, body, and life begin to resonate.

Hailstorm sky

By allowing the world of the five senses and the imaginal world of mythology to meet, inner and outer worlds become one.

photo by B. T. Newberg, enhanced with Typhoeus & Zeus, Chalcidian Black Figure Vase, c 540 BCE

Humanistic Paganism

Retreat, day seven: Reflection, vulnerability, and the goal

Arches under bridge over the Mississippi

Reflection leads into the vaults and echoes of the mind.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 8, 2011

– by B. T. Newberg

Yesterday was the final day.  In the morning I performed the final rituals and meditations, and at noon rode my bicycle in a cool, damp drizzle to the Mississippi River.  There, at the moment of greatest light, which was actually indistinguishable from any other moment due to an overcast sky, I tossed my token stone into the river to mark the end of the retreat.


Reflection proved one of the most valuable experiences of the retreat. It was instrumental in bringing to the surface a wealth of insight and self-knowledge.  Each day I spent most of the afternoon and much of the evening setting my thoughts and feelings down in writing, generating artwork, and crafting posts of which I could be proud.  I am ecstatic about the results – enough material has been generated to keep me thinking for months.

Making the reflections public by posting them on this blog enhanced the experience.  Knowing that I would have to give a public account helped me take reflection seriously.  I went into greater depth and detail than in the past.  Perhaps it was the threat to my self-image, the vulnerability of putting myself out there publicly, that pushed me to probe deeper.

Reflection, by Lucien Freud

Reflection exposes faults and frailties of the human mind, leaving one vulnerable.

Image enhanced from original by Lucien Freud


“So how did the retreat go?” asked my friend Drew Jacob, author of  I sat in the passenger seat as we cruised along the freeway en route to a friend’s house.  “Fine,” I said.  “No complaints.”

No complaints?, I thought to myself.  Is that all I can say?  It wasn’t that I was being modest, or hiding my feelings.  But at that moment, the evening after the conclusion of the grand experiment, I felt nothing special.  What an underwhelming finish to the experience.  Suddenly, I wondered if I had made a mistake.  Shouldn’t a retreat leave you feeling like a million bucks?  Serene and enlightened?  On top of the world?  I felt the urge to “talk up” the experience in front of my friend, to “sell” it as a success.  Instead, I just gazed out the window at the houses whizzing by.  Perhaps the whole retreat had been a sham.

I could already feel myself hardening toward the experience.  This morning, as I woke for the first morning in seven days that I was not obliged to perform ritual, there was a feeling of vague revulsion as I passed the statue of the goddess Isis.  Through my mind flashed an image of myself kneeling and chanting before the statue, then an image where I was not doing anything religious, anything spiritual, anything weird like that.  Accompanying the second was a sense of being acceptable in the eyes of others.  The two contrasting self-images stood side-by-side in uneasy tension.

It was then that I recognized a pattern in myself.  Something was happening to the retreat experience that had happened many times before.  I was beginning to withdraw from the experience, to dis-identify with it, to alienate myself from it.  Why?  Because I had allowed myself to become vulnerable.  It was a threat to expose myself as a spiritualist.  Even though I had done it of my own volition and yearning for self-discovery, there was a part of me that now wanted to put that behind me.  In its place would be nothing but an image of uncontroversial, uncomplicated conformity.  Nothing to explain, nothing to defend.  Nothing to justify to my fiance or to my friends, but most of all to myself.  Having two conflicting self-images – of Brandon the eccentric spiritualist and Brandon the regular Joe – was producing that peculiar discomfort that psychologists call cognitive dissonance.  The rift between the two images was experienced as a wound.  And the blade that struck that wound, by laying plain the contradiction, was the retreat.  Hence, in a mostly subconscious process, I was already beginning to resent it.

This wasn’t the first time this pattern had emerged.  For about five years I practiced Buddhism, and for another five a polytheistic form of Paganism.  Both of those seem alien to me today; I can no longer identify with them.

But the pattern had also emerged more recently than that, very recently in fact.  I realized that I had done the very same thing with my graduate program to get my teachers license in ESL.  Over the last twelve months, I had gone through one of the most demanding academic experiences of my life.  At one point during student teaching, I was putting in ninety-five hours per week.  I had emerged just one week ago shaken and uneasy.  I couldn’t relax without feeling guilty, and couldn’t think about the job search without feeling anxious.  A string of psychosomatic illnesses had arisen throughout the program, and showed no signs of stopping.  That was the reason I entered therapy, and it was the primary motivation for this retreat.  The realization dawned that the grad program, too, had left me wounded.  I had taken on a greater challenge than ever before, laying myself vulnerable to failure.  And in that moment of vulnerability, my body began to rebel.  Stress-induced illnesses revealed the limit of how far I could push myself.  Hitherto, I had always been a success at whatever whim dared me to do.  There was a sense of infinite potential.  But this experience showed me a self that was finite.  The two self-images, that of Brandon with infinite potential and Brandon who can handle no more, collided with each other.  The result was cognitive dissonance, a wound, and the urge to flee from the teaching profession.  From this perspective, it became clear that my self-image had become totally identified with the program, so that success as a teacher equaled success as a person.  A threat to the one was a threat to the other.  Teaching itself had become an object of fear.

There it was.  The source of my anxiety was unmasked.

Leaf below the water of Quaking Bog

Beneath the surface lies knowledge waiting to be discovered.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 10, 2011

The goal

No complaints?, I thought as I sat beside my friend in the car after the end of the retreat.  Was the experience so un-enlightening that I had nothing more to say than that?

I see now that a goal had been achieved.  It wasn’t serenity, or peace, or ecstasy, or enlightenment.  No, the goal achieved was nothing so dramatic.  But perhaps it was worth far more.  It was self-knowledge.

Humanistic Paganism is not a path of transcendence.  It does not seek mystical elevation, divine epiphany, apotheosis, redemption, or the cessation of suffering.  Rather, it centers the individual on humanity and the human experience.  That includes all the faults and frailties that go along with being human.

I entered this retreat with hopes of relieving stress and putting the path into practice.  What I have emerged with is a new understanding of myself.  Whereas before I felt the source of my anxiety in teaching, now I know it to lie within myself.

Now begins the real work: changing my attitude to reflect this insight.  Acknowledging a truth is one thing, integrating it quite another.  Mental habits need to change.  Only then will the pattern of vulnerability-wounding-withdrawal give way to a more productive structure.  I need to learn to recognize the fear inside me and own it.

It occurs to me at the end of this post that the preceding may appear sentimental.  After all, I have not done anything special to arrive at this claim of self-knowledge.  I have not climbed a mountain, braved the wilderness, or created a lasting work of art.  Mostly I have stayed home and worked on my own frailties of mind.  But to denigrate that endeavor is to distance once again from the experience, to shield the vulnerability.  Even as I write this, I can feel the urge to harden the heart.

And that is not how it will go this time.

Pool below Minnehaha Falls

Within the depths lies the goal: self-knowledge.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 9, 2011

Humanistic Paganism

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