Naturalistic Paganism

Bit of a delay tomorrow…

Due to a full schedule of socialization tomorrow, the final post of the retreat will be delayed.  Sunday will feature the last post of the retreat.  I will be talking about reflection and wonder.

Retreat, day six: Displacements

Dawn over Minneapolis

Waking at dawn is not something I normally do unless I absolutely must, and that is why it made an effective practice.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 13, 2011

– by B. T. Newberg

The retreat is almost over already – tomorrow is the last day.  From the beginning I’ve been carrying a token, a small stone found at Minnehaha Falls.  This represents my commitment to the retreat.  Tomorrow at noon, at the moment of greatest light, I will throw the stone into the Mississippi River to mark the official end of the retreat.

The token serves as a kind of reinforcement called a displacement.  That’s what I’ll be talking about today.


Buzz, buzz went the alarm on my phone set to vibrate.  It was 5:10 a.m. and I wanted anything but to haul my behind out of bed.  My fiance mumbled an incoherent word as if deep in a dream, then rolled over.  Outside, the darkness lifted ever so slightly, as the first hints of morning seeped in through the window.  I pulled back the covers and stumbled into the bathroom to brush my teeth.

Waking at dawn is not something I do unless I absolutely must.  That is why it was perfect as a displacement, or practice which displaces the ordinary flow of the status quo.  Most retreats and spiritual paths feature something like it – special restrictions or duties undertaken as part of the experience.  Some of these are cast in moral terms, others purificatory.  Often they are consistent with the lifestyle required of a specialist in the path, such as a monk or priest.  For example, Buddhist retreats may hold participants to a number of monk-like precepts, such as abstinence from drinking alcohol, eating after a certain time, or lying on luxurious beds.  Ignatian Christian retreats may include total silence as part of the experience.  In the ancient world, the Isian Mysteries required a period of sexual abstinence prior to initiation.  Such practices typically have important rationales within the worldview of the particular spiritual tradition, and serve to instill values and support progress toward the goal.  At the same time, they also serve another function, which usually goes unstated.  That function is to signal to the mind that something out of the ordinary is happening.

We go through our day so supported by habit and routine that it can be difficult to break out of that flow.  It’s not enough to tell yourself to change; your whole being needs to hear the message.  For that, you need to engage the language of the subconscious: symbolism.  By performing certain symbolic actions or taking on certain signs of commitment, you can communicate a message your subconscious will understand.  Wearing special garb, such as a monk’s robe, can do the trick, since clothing is so central to identity.  Abstaining from a favored activity, such as eating meat or drinking alcohol or coffee, can also be effective.

In my case, I have chosen three major displacements: 1) waking at dawn; 2) abstaining from junk food, sweets, alcohol, and coffee; and 3) carrying a token on my person at all times, to be given up at the end of the retreat.  These are effective choices because they are quite contrary to my usual routine.  I don’t normally wake at dawn.  I consume an embarrassing amount of junk food and sweets (cookie dough is my Achilles’ heel), and often enjoy coffee during the day and alcohol in the evening.  And it is certainly not my habit to go around carrying little fetish-like tokens on me.  So, these displacements constitute a significant break from the status quo.

An important note should be inserted here: It cannot be emphasized enough that in Humanistic Paganism, displacements imply no moral judgment of these activities.  They are simply disruptions of routine that signal the mind to wake up.  One may decide to abstain from sex during a retreat, for example, while affirming the positive value of this natural human activity.  No comment whatsoever is made as to whether it is good or bad in itself, only that abstinence marks a difference.

The token - a stone found at Minnehaha Falls

A small stone found at Minnehaha Falls on Day One served as a token carried on my person throughout the retreat. Tomorrow, at noon, I will cast it into the Mississippi River.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 13, 2011

Displacements and cognitive dissonance

These practices can support you in times of flagging enthusiasm.  When you encounter the desire to give up – which may come to the surface when tempted to “cheat” by ignoring a displacement – you are forced to ask yourself why you are on retreat in the first place.  Is it really worth it?, may come the voice.  Would it really matter if I “cheated” just a little?  A moment of reflection is imposed as you decide.

At this moment of decision, there flashes into play the influence of cognitive dissonance, that uncomfortable feeling which accompanies conflicting beliefs.  In this case, the conflict is between the belief that you are a rational human being and the belief that what you have chosen to do doesn’t matter.  If it didn’t matter, it would have been irrational to undertake it in the first place.  But I am a rational person, so it must matter, you tell yourself.  Thus, that feeling of discomfort prods you to stay the course.  This is a bit of mental sleight-of-hand that keeps us going, not just through retreats but through jobs and relationships too.

If at this point it sounds like lying to yourself to avoid change, you’re right – partly.  Cognitive dissonance can keep us in negative situations, spurring us to rationalize dead-end pursuits just to maintain our self-image.  But I wouldn’t sell it short; cognitive dissonance can have positive value too.  Employed mindfully and for the right reasons, it can offer precisely the support needed to overcome momentary temptations and continue toward a greater payoff in the future.  Displacements, like a commitment not to eat chocolate for the duration of the retreat, serve as stimuli for the fruitful engagement of cognitive dissonance.  When that Hershey bar appears before you, you hold back so as not to spoil what you have worked for.  In so doing, you are shown something valuable: how far you are willing to go to create change.  Your resolve becomes even greater than if you had undertaken no displacements at all.  The Hershey bar becomes a symbol of your commitment.  And that is a message the subconscious can understand.

By the way, the feeling of worthlessness that follows upon failure to uphold a displacement – i.e. if you do eat the chocolate bar after all – is a result of cognitive dissonance too.  When you “cheat”, your subconscious understands that the retreat really isn’t worth it, that it really was irrational to undertake it, and that you are a stupid human being for having done so.  Hence, the result is low self-worth.  Approached mindfully, such an experience can be instructive.  You are not really stupid, of course.  It was simply a moment of impulse in which you lost sight of the goal.  Next time, you will know that the payoff in the end is worth the little stuff in-between.  Reasoning thus, self-esteem can be restored at the same time that commitment is reaffirmed.

I had both successes and failures on this retreat.  First of all, there was frequent craving for Cheez-its and chocolate, and I really thirsted for a beer in the evenings, but I stayed pretty true to my resolve.  My fiancé did call me out on some hot chocolate, though.  When I resolved to abstain from sweets I had cookie dough and ice cream in mind, but not hot chocolate.  I guess it is a sweet, though.  So, pride brought low, I admit a bit of cheating there.

Second, getting up at dawn was rough – I wanted to give up almost every morning.  Once I got going, though, it was no big deal.  I actually had more energy throughout the day as a result.

Finally, the token proved interesting.  It is a different kind of displacement than the other two, insofar as it imposes nothing to carry it around in my pocket.  The temptation, rather, was to forget it was even there.  It took a while to figure out how to involve it more in my practice, to make its presence felt throughout the week.  Finally, I gave it a role during the observations of sunrise.  I would hold it in my hand as I gazed at the sun and said an affirmation: The night ends, the day begins; it will be a good day if I let it.  Then I would kiss the stone and return it to my pocket.  Throughout the day I would thumb it gently, reminding myself it was there.  By now the stone feels personal, like a bond has been made.  I almost want to keep it now.  When I cast it into the river tomorrow to end the retreat, it will be significant.  Which is exactly what I’d hoped.  Giving up an item to which I have bonded should invoke enough pathos to make an impression on the subconscious.  The moment will be memorable and transformational.

Last, before ending this post, I have a final confession.  I have been absolutely terrible about observing sunset.  It wasn’t a displacement specifically, but it’s still a significant violation of commitment.  Time and again I found myself wrapped up in writing retreat reflections.  Even when I started setting an alarm for myself, I would still try to finish up things before going out to see the sunset – and end up forgetting altogether.  I guess that says something about how I work.  Perhaps my therapist was right; maybe I do need to “dial back” the intensity a bit.  This gives me something to work on as I head back into the ordinary flow of non-retreat life.

The overall effect of displacements on the retreat experience has been to remind the mind, constantly, that something out of the ordinary is happening.  As a result, I experienced enhanced resolve and heightened awareness.  There is no intention of making permanent ethical obligations of them – I do love my Cheez-its and cookie dough, after all.  And I can’t wait for a beer.  But I can say with confidence that the retreat was far more fulfilling for having gone without.  It has taught me the strength of resolve that I can bring to bear when needed.  It has shown me my commitment.  And it made every moment of the retreat stand out as something special.

Sunset over Minneapolis

Gazing at the sunset, I marveled at the beauty I so often miss.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 12, 2011

Retreat, day five: Socialization and dialogue

Dimensions of dialogue

“Man is a social animal” writes Aristotle.  Yet the meeting of two people in dialogue can take grotesque forms.

Image enhanced from original by Jan Svankmeyer

– by B. T. Newberg

The world begins to hum.

That is how I felt today as I cruised along the Midtown Greenway on my bicycle in the midst of an afternoon drizzle.  In such rain I could have been huddled with teeth gritted; instead, I felt relaxed and open.  It wasn’t that I was ecstatic, nor oblivious of the world.  I just felt at one with experience.  Colors were a bit more vivid and sounds a tad more full.  I’d felt it before, on Buddhist retreats and at times when I felt “in the zone.”  D. T. Suzuki was once asked what it was like to experience satori, or enlightenment.  He responded, “Just like everyday ordinary experience, but two inches off the ground.”  Now, I’m not about to compare my experience to enlightenment – whatever that might mean.  But it’s true that there is a different quality of experience that manifests at times of high spiritual functioning.  The world begins to hum.

Today I’m going to talk about socialization.  It’s a topic of some controversy in retreats, and one I’ve been looking forward to all week.


The typical meditation retreat cuts off socialization, save for others going through the same experience.  All the social crutches are taken away, so that nothing remains to keep you from facing yourself.  A total break is made from the world of daily routine.  There is value in this, to be sure.  Yet, it’s a double-edged sword.  Although great insight can be gained, one does not learn how to maintain that insight in a social environment.  At the end of the retreat, one goes back into the social world and quickly slips back into old habits.  If, on the other hand, insight is achieved in a socially integrated context, it may be easier to hold onto it once the retreat ends.  That is one reason why socialization is a primary feature of this Humanistic Pagan retreat.

Another reason is that Humanism is concerned with human fulfillment, and social contact is a basic human need.  “Man is a social animal” writes Aristotle.  Thus, a primary goal of any Humanistic path ought to be orienting the individual toward others.  The development of key social skills, such as empathy and perspective-taking, should rank high on the list of objectives.  For this reason too, socialization features in this retreat.

This is not entirely without precedent.  Although many spiritual teachers have emphasized the essential aloneness of the individual, others have disagreed.  Gurdjieff, for example, taught his pupils to seek enlightenment within everyday life.  In the Classical world, Epicurus prized conversation at meals; he was famed for saying he would rather not eat than eat alone.  Socrates made a life of engaging his contemporaries with questions.  Confucius, too, created a way whose basic orientation was toward society.  And the Vimalakirti Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism likewise affirmed the possibility of enlightenment for the householder.  So, there is a long tradition of socialization within a spiritual context.

I take time in the retreat each evening to be with friends.  On Day One, I met with my good friend Drew Jacob, author of  He and I share different beliefs but similar orientations to life and living.  Drew has unwavering clarity of vision, tempered by a jovial sense of humor (and a booming laugh).  But what stands out most is his sincerity.  How often do you meet someone who makes you feel like you’re really being seen?  Being heard?  It’s a rare trait.

Other evenings I’ve spent with my fiancé.  She doesn’t share my beliefs either, and it is awkward sometimes trying to explain what I’m doing and why.  Yet she is ever willing to listen, and even when she doesn’t agree she always keeps a sense of humor about it.  It’s a wonderful personality trait, and one of the reasons I love her.

I mention these traits of Drew and my fiancé because the company you keep is relevant to personal growth.  The more you surround yourself with positive people, the more positive you become.  The converse is also true – negative friends can drag you down.  So, discernment in friends is a key aspect of spiritual socialization.

Over the course of the retreat, I’ve noticed a change in the way I relate to people.  As I sat with my fiancé over breakfast on the morning of Day One, I felt turned toward her, not just in body but also in mind.  The mention of “turning” is felicitous, for in another context it constitutes a primary spiritual practice.

Agamemnon Watches as Achilles Presents the Prize of Wisdom to Nestor during the Funeral Games, by Michel Martin Drolling

The Iliad is in many ways a story of mismeeting between Achilles and Agamemnon, but in the end they enter dialogue and make amends.

Image enhanced from original by Michel Martin Drolling

Dialogue and the Practice of Turning

After good experiences with socialization the first few days of the retreat, I decided to take it a step further.  For deeper insight, I turned to Martin Buber, whose existential spirituality made a religion of conversation.  Dialogue, Buber felt, is where we meet God in the eyes of the other.

At one time in his life, he practiced Hasidic mysticism, but an experience changed his mind.  After a morning of ecstatic elevation, an unknown young man came to him with a question.  Buber, still with half a mind on his morning’s reverie, failed to listen with his full being.  He writes in his book Meetings:

I conversed attentively and openly with him – only I omitted to guess the questions which he did not put.  Later, not long after, I learned from one of his friends – he himself was no longer alive – the essential content of his questions; I learned that he had come to me not casually, but borne by destiny, not for a chat but for a decision.

After that, Buber gave up mysticism and devoted himself wholly to the art of dialogue.  His most famous book, I and Thou, is a poetic exposition of spiritual socialization.  The crucial discipline in this path is the act of “turning.”  By this, Buber means turning away from self-centered preoccupations and toward the other, in body and soul.  This, I felt, was the instruction needed to take my socialization to a higher level.  For the remainder of the retreat, I resolved to practice the act of turning.

I can think of a time when I definitely did not achieve this kind of turning.  It was years ago, when I was with a previous girlfriend.  During our intimate moments, I would describe her body in poetic phrases.  How surprising it was when she asked me to stop.  “I feel like a piece of clay,” she said.  “A piece of the clay that you’re molding into something I’m not.”  That was a revelatory experience for me.  People don’t want to be extolled; they want to be seen.  Seen for who they really are.  To truly be with her, I had to give up all semblances and turn to her completely.

There were plenty of opportunities to do better with my fiancé during the retreat.  As she arrived home from work, vented frustrations about her day, or just moved in for a hug, I found myself half-involved.  At these moments I deliberately stopped what I was doing or thinking about, and turned to her.  Within me I could feel a qualitative change.  It actually felt different to relate in this way.

I noticed a response in her, too.  As I went through the retreat in the apartment we share, she seemed infected by the positive energy – unusually bright, cheerful, and open.  I felt her turn to me like few times before.  Whether this was a result of the spiritual socialization or just the positive ambiance of the retreat, I cannot say.  When I told her how I felt more open and turned toward her, she said she couldn’t tell.  She can never tell with me; I guess my expression of emotions is subtle (which is an interesting insight in itself, but that’s a matter for another time).  Nevertheless, there was a new openness swirling between us.  During the retreat came one of the most intimate nights of our relationship.

I do not wish to make a guru of Buber – there are certainly aspects of his work to criticize (go here for a critique from a polytheist viewpoint).  Yet, with a little creativity, it can be applied fruitfully to a broad range of spiritual paths ( for example, go here for an application to ADF Druidry).  Humanistic Paganism in particular stands to gain, not the least because Buber himself has been called a humanist.  In any case, dialogue, Buberian or otherwise, can be a powerful agent of personal growth.

When this retreat began, I wasn’t sure how socialization was going to play out.  Would it hinder introspection, by cluttering the mind with chit-chat and social posturing?  Would it cause conflict as I engaged with people who did not share my retreat experience?  Neither of these have turned out to be a problem.  On the contrary, socialization has led me even deeper.  And since I have arrived at insight within a social context, perhaps it will not be as difficult to integrate that insight as I return to everyday social activity.  Time will tell, but prospects appear hopeful.

Green Dialogue

When two people turn two each other with body and mind, genuine dialogue can take place.

Image enhanced from original

Retreat, day four: Psychology and mythology

Hailstorm sky over Minneapolis

The sky puffed and brooded at sunset last night, recalling the awful grandeur of Zeus.

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

– by B. T. Newberg

The sky roiled red last night.  Neighbors in my apartment watched in horror as hail rained down on their cars.  Afterward, my fiance discovered the door to the roof had been left open, so we went up and beheld the blood-red sky.  Through my mind shot a phrase from ancient Greek, Zeus uei – Zeus is raining.”

Zeus rules the sky and casts the thunderbolt.  It was commonplace for the Greeks to say not “it’s raining” but “Zeus is raining.” What is the effect of mythologizing the rain so?  What does it do for mental health?  And what does it do for me?


For the first time in my life, I find myself in therapy.  Over the course of the last year, as I underwent an intensive graduate-level program to get my teachers license in English as a Second Language (ESL), I started to experience poor health.  A string of illnesses, from canker sores to strep throat to mono to a strange rash on my left foot that doctors could not diagnose, appeared suspiciously timed to stressful events in the program.  Bringing my concerns to the doctor, I was put on medication for generalized anxiety.  I had a terrible reaction, though, producing one of the most traumatic weeks of my life.  Instead of alleviating anxiety, it actually induced it.  I found myself unable to study or work; all I could do to keep it together was watch T.V. while gently rocking myself.

I got off the meds, and that was the end of that.  Now I have more time, so I’m trying another option.  This morning was my first session of group therapy.  It felt weird and uncomfortable having a cohort of strangers fix on me and my issues, even for a few minutes.  Nevertheless, some important points were made.  I have a tendency to throw myself into tasks heart and soul, whether it’s teaching or this blog, and work tirelessly to create a product of which I can be proud.  Unfortunately, this same process wears my body down due to accumulated stress.  Indeed, I have found myself working late into the night to publish these retreat reflections, not unlike how I pushed myself when I was student teaching. Even on vacation, I’m working myself into an early grave.

The Desperate Man, Gustage Courbet, 1844-45

Medication induced anxiety, creating one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.

image enhanced from original by Gustave Courbet


Psychology has made much of myth in the last century.  Freud used it to form his Oedipal theory, as did Jung to inform his theory of the collective unconscious and its archetypes, and Claude Levi-Strauss to discover his “deep structures.”  Joseph Campbell thought he found a single “monomyth” pervading all mythology, a story told over and over in various iterations of the hero’s journey.  James Hillman founded his archetypal psychology on polytheism, Rollo May developed the notion of the daimonic from its mythic origins, and Carol Pearson mined myth to construct her model of hero archetypes in the personality.  Each in their own way gazed at myth, with its cast of deities and heroes, and saw some deeper meaning or structure.  Emerging from this vision, they concluded that the figures of myth are something other or more than they appear to be.

This is part of a tradition of allegorical interpretation going back as far as recorded history, and perhaps farther.  Alongside those who took gods and myths literally, there were those who had other ideas.  The Stoics of Greece and Rome, for example, proclaimed deities to be metaphors for forces of nature.  Some scholars believe myths are the products of early peoples’ attempts to explain the natural universe, a pre-intellectual mode of speculation called mythopoeic thinking.  The allegorical tradition has a venerable pedigree indeed.  However, I can’t help but feel that each in their own way has somehow gotten it wrong.  Interpreting myth x to signify meaning y has an air of finality to it that silences other interpretations.

What myths really are, in my opinion, are deeply resonant images to which the human imagination responds by creating meaning.  In the act of searching for the “true” meaning, a new meaning is created.  Myths are not reservoirs containing meanings waiting to be found; they are creative stimuli midwifing the birth of the new.  Each allegorist is startled to see in it something no one else has, and feels compelled to go tell it on the mountain.  In truth, however, they are simply participating in an eternal process of meaning-making.

I participate in this process when I contemplate myths, read omens, or talk to gods in ritual.  Each time I do so, something new is created that colors experience and situates it within a meaningful aesthetic context.  Erich Fromm wrote of two modes of meeting the world: the reproductive and the generative.  The former reproduces what is encountered “out there” as realistically as possible, while the latter brings something to the world from one’s own productive powers.  Everyone employs a combination of the two; I happen to be a highly generative person.  For me, experience is meaningful by virtue of a symbiosis between sensations from without and creative interpretation from within.

Apollo, c 450 BC

The gods, such as Apollo, send illness when they feel deprived of the honor they deserve, just as illness erupts when parts of the psyche are neglected.

Image enhanced from original: Apollon, Athenian red-figure kylix
C5th B.C., Archaeological Museum of Delphi

Psychology, myth, and me

Sitting at a picnic table at Elliot Park beneath a leafy canopy, watching parents watch their children play, I contemplated how it is that I manage to overwork myself to the point of illness.  The therapist had urged me to “dial back a notch”, to turn down the intensity to a reasonable level.  I’ve never thought of myself as an overly-ambitious person or a perfectionist.  Certainly I’d never experienced illness as a result prior to this grad program.  It is a bit of a mystery as to how I managed to become so over-zealous this past year.

With these questions in mind, I ambled about the park picking up trash.  Do you really think picking up a few plastic bottles makes any difference?, came a voice in my head.  I responded by asking, A difference to whom?  It certainly wasn’t going to save the world.  As for the environment, it’s but a drop in the bucket.  The park may be a little cleaner, but then again the same amount of trash will keep appearing day after day.  The real difference it makes, I concluded, was a difference to me.  I feel better for having done it, for supporting the planet in some small way if not saving it on a grand scale, and for being a responsible inhabitant of this earth.  Gaia, the earth mother, deserves as much.  Cleaning her parks is cleaning myself.  To put the outer world in order is to put the inner world in order.  It has meaning for me.

There goes that generative mode again.  Over and above the environmental impact of the activity is the personal impact on meaning.  What I bring to the activity is as significant as the activity itself.

It occurred to me, as I circulated the park, that I have two obsessions: one with science, and the other with myth.  The former is needed to feel effective, for I am not satisfied to teach and write and create for mere entertainment.  I want what I do to have a positive and lasting effect, and for that it is necessary to proceed according to proven, logically-sound, empirically-verified principles.  The latter, on the other hand, is needed to feel inspired.  As a grad student, I went all-in on the scientific side in order to procure the knowledge necessary to be an effective teacher.  Meanwhile, the mythic side steadily grew impatient.

The gods send illness when they feel deprived of the honor they deserve.  Apollo, for example, struck the Achaeans with plague after Agamemnon kidnapped one of his priestesses.  Perhaps it was my single-minded devotion to work that offended that other side of me, so that it sent me illness.  Psychosomatic sicknesses followed as the irrational, creative impulse erupted in protest.

This finally brings me to the Greek phrase that shot through my mind last night during the trembling storm: Zeus uei, Zeus is raining.  Why did the Greeks mythologize the rain?  Why have cultures throughout history turned to mythology to understand experience?  And why does the allegorical tradition continue even within modern psychology?  I get the feeling that mental health is a balance of inner and outer energies, a harmony of the reproductive and the generative modes.  True, many people live full and complete lives without particular need for mythology.  But others are more generative, and turn to myth as an aid in meaning-making.  The Greeks mythologized the rain to make it their own, to bring it within the fold of their creative understanding.  I mythologize my life in the same way.  Myth helps meaning body forth through creative acts of interpretation.  And this brings wholeness and healing to the psyche.

Picking up bottles

Over and above the environmental impact, picking up trash has creative personal meaning for me.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, 2011

Retreat, day three: Meditation

Foam on the Mississippi River

When the mind is clouded, meditation helps clear away the muck.

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

– by B. T. Newberg

It’s the third day of the retreat.  In my experience, day three is the make-it-or-break-it day.  The initial high has worn off, and the challenges have begun.  Temptations to quit cloy at the mind, and your resolve is put to the test.  This was true to my experience today.  I’ll talk a little about that, and then about a very important topic: meditation.

The omen drawn last night from the Haindl Tarot was the Three of Stones: Work.  Knowing that day three often brings challenges, I thought to myself, Now the real work begins.

Meditation I: Deep Relaxation

The last activity of each evening on the retreat is deep relaxation meditation.  I use it to let go of the day and slip into a deep, restful sleep.  It is widely recommended by psychologists and spiritualists alike, and is not hard to learn.  You simply sit or lie down in a comfortable position, and bring your awareness to each part of your body, relaxing each in turn.  Listening to a guided meditation recording can be helpful.  Click the link below for an mp3 audio recording.

Click for a Guided Meditation in Deep Relaxation – mp3

(opens in Fileswap)

Deep relaxation is something I’ve been practicing since high school, yet I found it difficult during my grad program this last year.  I found myself so full of tension from study and work, that I couldn’t let it all go.  I could only attain a superficial level of relaxation.  Only now, during vacation after the end of spring term, am I finally finding myself able to go deeper.  I have yet to reach the levels I used to reach, however.

Rocky lake shore at Lake Toba, Indonesia

Deep relaxation soothes, calms, and clears away tension.

photo by B. T. Newberg, 2002

Interlude: Ritual and Cognitive Dissonance

In the morning I awoke at dawn and went to my statue of Isis.  As I poured the water libation and chanted, I could feel a reaction inside me against it.  Quickly turning my gaze inward, I saw that it manifested as a warm, unpleasant sensation in my solar plexus, and it seemed to resist the idea of performing rituals before a statue.  Intrigued, I used imagination to allow the feeling a voice, and it said in a cynical tone, Seriously?  Praying before a statue?  Have you lost it completely?  Without responding to the voice, I realized what I was experiencing was cognitive dissonance.  This is an uncomfortable feeling caused by entertaining contradictory ideas at the same time.  On the one hand, I withhold belief in the literal existence of gods.  On the other hand, I perform ritual to mythological gods for its psychological benefits.  The conflict between withholding belief and performing ritual was creating cognitive dissonance.  Reflecting on this, it occurred to me that this might not be a bad thing.  Instead, I could see it as a trigger for questioning.  Why, exactly, did this part of me object?  Was it genuinely concerned with rational consistency, or was it more worried about what others would think if they saw me?  Was it concerned with my well-being, or the opinions of others?  As I contemplated these questions, the feeling dissipated rapidly.  In its wake was a sense of insight and self-knowledge.

Hailstorm sky

Conflicting beliefs create roiling tensions in the mind.

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

Meditation II: Fire, Ice, and Fog

How often do we find our minds too clogged and cluttered to peer into its depths?  This has been discussed with regard to divination and ritual, two practices which can help get past that surface chatter.  The trump card, though, is meditation.  Through a combination of relaxation and concentration, meditation is able to focus the light of introspection into a laser.

But there are many different kinds of meditation, so I should be clear about what I’m talking about.  One kind, as seen above, is deep relaxation.  Another is breath meditation.  This is probably what I’ve found most useful over the eleven or so years that I’ve been meditating.  There are already lots of excellent audio-recorded training talks available online (Gil Fronsdal, Tara Brach, and Mark Nunberg are personal favorites), so I won’t introduce breath meditation here.  What I do want to introduce is an experimental meditation which I’ve been developing and exploring during this retreat.  It belongs to a third type of meditation, namely visualization.

Visualization is the practice of picturing certain imagery in the mind’s eye, imagery which may have desired effects on the mind.  For example, you may imagine walking along a seashore, and as a result begin to feel the calm that goes along with such an experience.  Neurological research has shown that the same areas of the brain activate when thinking about an action as when actually doing it.  In other words, there is no difference in terms of brain activity between skiing down a slope and visualizing it.  This gives some idea of the potential that lies in visualization meditation.

The Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation, also called the Three Wells meditation, is a visualization intended to assist introspection of three kinds of mental phenomena: desires and aversions, repressed material, and mood states.  There are many more species of mental objects, but these have been singled out for their particular utility in managing emotions in one’s daily life.  Desires and aversions are visualized as fire, which greedily spreads toward an object (desire) while at the same time its tongues leap away from it (aversion).  Repressed material is represented by blocks of ice encasing what your mind doesn’t want you to see.  Finally, mood states are seen as mist or fog that body through the air and may obscure your vision.  These mental phenomena are neither good nor bad in and of themselves, but their influence can take you in places you’d rather not go if you’re not careful.  Becoming aware of them breaks the spell of their influence, so that you can live free and fully conscious.  That is the intention behind this meditation.  A nuanced development of the Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation is available here.

Each morning during this retreat, I’ve performed the Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation.  Three wells are visualized, one filled with fire, another with frigid black water in which blocks of ice float, and a third with wisps of mist.  By gazing into these wells, a picture of one’s inner state is revealed.  The shape of the tongues of flame, for example, may suggest or bring to mind specific desires or aversions which are manifest presently but not necessarily obvious.  In this way, ignored or missed thoughts and feelings can be brought into the light of awareness.  Once noticed, they can be dealt with fruitfully by observing them, questioning them, and gently letting them be.

Of all the benefits I’ve ever experienced from meditation, by far the greatest is knowing what you are feeling at the moment you experience it.  It sounds simple and automatic, but often we go unaware of our feelings, even intense ones.  For example, how many times have you failed to notice yourself getting angry till a friend points it out to you?  Or how many times have you walked into a crowd of new faces and not realized your nervousness till your words fumble coming out of your mouth?  Awareness of such feelings gives you the opportunity to step back, take a deep breath, and make a conscious decision of how you want to act.  Knowledge is power, as the old adage goes (or perhaps we should say, awareness is power).

In this retreat, I’ve become aware of feelings of excitement, joy, nervousness, embarrassment, tiredness, hope and hopelessness, and more through the help of the Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation.  I’ve noticed unhelpful self-critical thoughts and self-aggrandizing preoccupations, as well as positive self-affirming thoughts.  I won’t go into them all, but there’s one that deserves detail.  It has to do with the tarot card drawn last night.

The tarot card was the Three of Stones: Work.  This morning, as I sat in meditation, I vividly perceived a desire to present my experience in a certain way for this blog.  Thoughts of how to present what I was doing so cluttered my mind that I could barely concentrate on what I was actually doing.  I realized that I was turning the experience into work.  With that discovery, it became easier to refocus on the task at hand, no longer harried by visions of how great it might look on the web.  This illustrates how becoming aware of mental phenomena empowers you to take conscious control of how you live each day.

By now, a picture is starting to form of the psychological benefits that are claimed for spiritual practices.  Consistently throughout this retreat, divination, ritual, and meditation have dug up important insights that might otherwise have lied buried beneath the mental clutter.  If that isn’t progress, I don’t know what is.  This is preliminary evidence that Humanistic Paganism is a valid path capable of helping one fulfill that ancient injunction inscribed above the gate to the Oracle of Delphi: “Know thyself.”

Foam and trees in the Mississippi River

Beneath the muck, amidst the roots of the mind, lies self-knowledge.

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