28 February 2009

Urdummheit: Primeval Stupidity

This is an adapted and expanded version of an essay I wrote in a personal blog.

Recently I learned a new word thanks to the book Exploring the Northern Tradition by Krasskova and Kaldera. Urdummheit: A German word that means--basically--that those who came before "us" are stupid. That there is a "primeval stupidity." People who believe this theory believe that we--in our enlightened, rational society--are somehow smarter than those who have come before. They believe that they made up myths and legends out of whole cloth and believed those legends literally and exactly, the way modern fundamentalists take the bible literally. It was believed literally by the people--not to be taken as symbol or allegory--because they were wholly ignorant and largely incapable of understanding the world around them.

Read the rest of this essay over on Weaving Wyrd.

24 February 2009

The Role of Prayer

A lot of heathens seem to have extremely odd views when it comes to prayer. Many seem to shun it, viewing it as unnecessary for one reason or another. These reasons are varied, but I tend to see many of them miss a deeper question of "Why Pray?" Raven Kaldera states that "To me, prayer seems like a natural extension of believing in deities" and, in the Foreward of Galina Krasskova's Sigdrifa's Prayer: An Exploration & Exegesis presents arguments against some of the major reasons as to why people do not pray.

But to me the more interesting question is "Why Should We Pray?" If prayer is a natural extension of believing in deities, then it is natural that in periods of doubt we would pray less. These times, however, are when I believe prayer is most essential even if they aren't "really" there. What, in essence, is in it for us?

One answer is that we should pray because the gods command it of us or that the gods deserve devotion. This is all fine and good, but it is again tied to our doubts and fears, it is mired in our attachments. It also means that when we fail to pray, we feel like we have failed our gods. I do not believe this is strictly the case: I believe that in failing to pray we fail ourselves, not the gods. The gods do not need our prayer and I believe that there is something more to prayer that makes it valuable even if we wonder whether the gods are listening to us.

To answer that in more depth we must first ask what is prayer? Prayer, to me, is a way of attempting to connect with something greater than ourselves. It is the process of opening oneself up to a myriad of possibilities and directions, and laying ourself bare before the universe and--more importantly--ourselves. It is the process of clearing our minds of distractions and reaching for the Divine. Prayer, to me, is not that much removed from meditation. Centering prayer in particular is very clearly a form of meditation, but all prayer has that element to it.

So treating prayer as a form of meditation, one of the major purposes of such is help train your mind. To train yourself to be able to fall into that state of divine reverence, to open yourself up, and to ponder the deeper meanings of a phrase or passage while falling completely into it.

To quote Galina Krasskova in Sigdrifa's Prayer:

I can only speak from my own perspective here, but to pray properly is to lay oneself bear before the Gods. It is to take full responsibility for the flow of one's wyrd and to choose to stand in absolute vulnerability before the Gods. Prayer, when done rightly, can be an immensely frightening thing. It's one-on-one dialogue with the Gods without any distractions or any excuses. [...] It's a frightening thing that inevitably draws one closer to that numinous force that will, without fail bring about change and spiritual evolution. Sometimes it's downright terrifying.

Prayer, essentially, is a state of mind that is related to the words you speak only in how your mind responds to them. The Nicene Creed is a statement of belief, but the proper mindset for saying the Nicene Creed is not rote recitation: it is reflective on what it means. What does it mean to say that Jesus is "begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father?" What are the implications and history of this belief? Mere recitation pales in comparison and is shallow substitute to educated and considered belief.

When we recite Sigdrifa's Prayer, what are we really saying when we finish the closing:

Eloquence and native wit bestow on us
And healing hands while we live

It's a beautiful passage, but there is more to it than merely reciting it rote. Such has a place, but mostly in so far as its an exercise to train the mind. It is a great place to practice mindfulness.

This is extremely important, to quote Chah Subhatto (ชา สุภัทโท) in Right Practice -- Steady Practice:

You should all bear in mind that this practice is difficult. To train other things is not so difficult, it's easy, but the human mind is hard to train. The Lord Buddha trained his mind. The mind is the important thing. Everything within this body-mind system comes together at the mind. The eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body all receive sensations and send them into the mind, which is the supervisor of all the other sense organs. Therefore it is important to train the mind. If the mind is well trained all problems come to an end. If there are still problems it's because the mind still doubts, it doesn't know in accordance with the truth. That is why there are problems.

In all of this we see several natural reasons to go about the process of praying: It helps us focus our mind and we can honor the spirits. Going about this process says something about ourselves and what kind of people we are, true, but it is more than that: we do it because we need to take those moments out of the day to quietly reflect. Before we talk to a spirit we should cleanse our space and strengthen our connection to the gods as much as possible, and entering that quiet, reflective, prayerful state is a great way to do that.

I'll close with a quote from Henri Nouwen's excellent Wounded Healer

There he comes to the shocking, but at the same time self-evident, insight that prayer is not a pious decoration of life but the breath of human existence.

21 February 2009

Thoughts on Urban Paganism and Urban Spirit Work

This is a revised and expanded version of an earlier essay I've written.

One of the challenging things about my path is that it is entirely urban. This doesn't mean that I create new, urban deities and follow those but rather than my practice draws me to the city and binds me to the city in a way that some people are bound to the countryside.

I don't follow "Squat, Skor and Skram" or make offerings to "Asphalta," I don't get tattoos for competition representing capitalism (particularly because, for most of us, capitalism is cooperative and not directly competitive), and I don't have body piercings or plan to get them. I don't use gasoline or antifreeze in my rituals, and I think if I ever think that such is a good idea for my elemental practice I should have someone commit me to an asylum. I am not a tribal eclectic pagan or chaos magician who happens to live in the city, which seems to be who Kaldera and Schwartztein's book The Urban Primitive: Paganism in the Concrete Jungle is aimed at. I am also not studying what is called "Technoshamanism," per se, and am not a member of the modern primitive movement. I have no issue with those who practice such paths, but they are not my path.

Read the rest of this essay over at Weaving Wyrd.

19 February 2009

Reality, Spirits, Gods, and The Afterlife

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
fair fame of one who has earned.

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
the doom on each one dead.

I am not a psychopomp and, though I have seen them from afar, I have never been past the gates of Helheim. I have some experiences that I attribute to past lives, but nothing that I am 100% sure of and nothing--even if the experiences are completely factual--that would indicate the mechanics of what is going on "behind the scenes."

A while back a young woman sitting next to me on the light rail started trying to convert me to her brand of Christianity. A large portion of her argument dealt with the "life in the world to come" and how G-d would cast me if I did not believe. This is bad theology in general, but it is beside point: What does it matter what happens to our soul after we die?

It seems a lot of people get caught up in this. They firmly believe in some specific outcome, and challenging the factual nature of that outcome is considered anathema. The young woman trying to convert me was mortified when I told her that I didn't especially care about what happened after my death because, after all, I'll know for absolute certain soon enough anyway.

There are numerous reasons to do "good acts," to strive to live "a simple and harmonious life with nature and people," and to treat life as a continual learning process that exist independently of any form of afterlife, next life, or judgement. Quoting Nathaniel Branden in his essay The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

I am referring to the principle of benevolence, mutual helpfulness and mutual aid between human beings. I believe it is a virtue to support life. I believe it is a virtue to assist those who are struggling for life. I believe it is a virtue to seek to alleviate suffering. None of this entails the notion of self-sacrifice. I am not saying that we should place the interests of others above our own. I am not saying that our primary moral obligation is to alleviate the pain of others. I am not saying that we do not have the right to place our own interests first. I am saying that the principle of benevolence and mutual aid is entirely compatible with an ethic of self-interest and more: An ethic of self-interest logically must advocate the principle of benevolence and mutual aid.

Given that we live in society, and given that misfortune or tragedy can strike any one of us, it is clearly in our self-interest to live in a world in which human beings deal with one another in a spirit of mutual benevolence and helpfulness. Could anyone seriously argue that the principle of mutual aid does not have survival value?

What happens to my soul after I die doesn't even enter into the equation. There are too many good reasons to, as Mahatma Gandhi put it, ""Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever" that are wholly independent what happens after I die. I might as well act accordingly. I have to believe that, if there is a judgement step in the process, they (or I) will understand my reasons for caring more about acts and learning in my life than in whatever my specific beliefs were in the process.

Similarly, I do not know the mechanisms behind the spirit world and shamanic practice. I do not know for an absolute fact if they are a matter of psychological abstractions, Psi, some form of manifestation of the collective unconscious, singular aspects of single pantheist deity, reflections of previous and current human imaginings, or true gods, wights, and spirits as described by old pagan religions.

Sure, I believe in the reality of such for a variety of reasons, but the truth is that--like Archbishop Rowan Williams and the Virgin Birth--I believe in it but am not "too fussed" about it. What matters to me is the much deeper and more fundamental question of "Does it Work?" There is something there, I am talking to it, and it is talking back to me. I am gaining from this interaction and I see a positive development in my life and in the lives of others from working with this entity, so what does it matter the specifics of how the entity came into being?

Does it work?

Going up to some entity I am getting to know and informing it that it is a mental abstraction seems like the height of arrogance to me. Treating it as "just an abstraction" of a greater whole or some sort of collective unconscious implies to me that you think you actually know what is going on. I certainly don't know for sure, and I am not about to tell something which my mind portrays as bigger, more powerful, and wiser than I am will ever be that it doesn't really exist. Such would be rude.

Even if this is the case and we all recognized it to be so, I wouldn't tell part of my psyche that "you are just a part of me, you know." The more I study shamanic states of consciousness and psychology, the more powerful I realize the mind really is. Perhaps that is the explanation for what Edith Turner saw when she said:

Then I knew the Africans were right. There is spirit stuff. There is spirit affliction; it is not a matter of metaphor and symbol, or even psychology.

Perhaps it can be contained wholly within the mind, perhaps combined with whatever mechanisms are behind Psi. Perhaps not. Either way, the more fundamental question is still "Does it work?" Does shamanic healing work? Do shamanic states of consciousness work? Does faring forth and pathwalking work?

Do we gain from it, can we help ourselves and those around us, can we make a difference in either this world or in the spirit world we believe we travel to that is useful?

I believe that they are not abstractions, that they are functionally deities regardless of the mechanisms by which they came about, but I don't pretend to know for absolute sure. I am also not so much of a hardliner as Raven Kaldera, when he says in his Northern Tradition FAQ that:

This is a polytheistic spiritual tradition. No way to get around that one. Not only do you have to believe fully and thoroughly in these Gods and wights in order to really practice it, if you come at them with any less than complete faith in their existence, they may be offended and refuse to deal with you...and for this tradition, it's all about dealing with the spirits. No spirits, no luck. Not only are they all real, they are all distinct from each other as well.

If you choose to approach them with that attitude, they may very well choose not to do business with you (or clobber you over the head so that you do believe in them, which they are perfectly capable of doing). My own psyche would probably refuse to do business with me if I approached it with such arrogance and such attachment to my own assumptions about the nature of my own subconscious. On the other hand, even if they are "merely" psychological in nature that still implies an amazing amount of power. Quoting Shamanism and Psychology on Therioshamanism:

Apart from the physical effects this may have, if you assume journeyers travel inwardly instead of outwardly, you are talking about someone who is exploring the depths of hir own psyche. The archetypes and motifs experienced along the way are the brain’s method of structuring the psyche.

In many indigenous societies, shamans are trained by their predecessors. This includes methods of not going batshit insane (and yes, these cultures generally know the difference between a shaman/holy person/medicine person/etc., and someone who is simply mentally ill to the point of impaired functioning). However, most core shamans don’t have a psychological background of any sort, and core shamanism such as it is is a woeful substitute, comparatively speaking. While this doesn’t render all core shamans ineffective, it does mean that often the seriousness and potential danger of journeying is underestimated.

In short, I'm not "too fussed" about it: My approach is orthopraxy focused instead of orthodoxy focused. Approaching and treating the gods with respect, approaching them without preconceptions and without treating them as bowdlerized and flattened abstractions, is far far more important than that you absolutely 100% believe in their existence before you start trying to talk with them. The safety concerns do not change, the conversations do not change, and the need to treat them with respect does not change.

In mathematical modeling we like to quote George Box in saying that "All models are wrong, but some are useful." I know that my mental model of reality is wrong, probably fundamentally so in a lot of respects, but that isn't the point.

The question would be "is it useful?"

What is my Path?

By way of introduction, let me give a little history on myself and my beliefs.

I am a 29 year old Software Engineer with a firm background in applied mathematics. After being raised as an Episcopalian (with five years of Roman Catholic education and religion classes on top of that) I converted to a variation of Solitary Wicca in 1998. I mostly treated this as an abstract theoretical framework, and viewed magic as a psychological framework. To quote Aleister Crowley in his Initiated Interpretation of Ceremonial Magic: 'The spirits of the Goetia are portions of the human brain.' He goes on to say:

If, then, I say, with Solomon:

"The Spirit Cimieries teaches logic," what I mean is:

"Those portions of my brain which subserve the logical faculty may be stimulated and developed by following out the processes called 'The Invocation of Cimieries.'"

And this is a purely materialistic rational statement; it is independent of any objective hierarchy at all. Philosophy has nothing to say; and Science can only suspend judgment, pending a proper and methodical investigation of the facts alleged.

I practiced with a friend of mine, and we had some interesting--and some rather powerful--experiences, but nothing I considered definitive at the time. Then, while i was home visiting my parents in New Orleans, I saw something glowing. It was hovering about a foot off of the wall, and there was no mistaking it for a trick of light. I slept in the next room and, the next day, wrote an email to a friend of mine who I knew was very experienced with these kinds of things. She checked in remotely, explained that it was probably a house boullie--a kind of benign entity--and the mere fact of being able to name and identify it was very comforting. I asked her to teach me.

After that she brought on other students and we formed a small teaching coven that was separate from her primary Celtic Trad coven. We had Celtic Trad members, a Wiccan, a shamanic practitioner, a student of Christian Mysticism, and one other individual of uncertain leanings in our mix. I learned a great deal with them, and started what would turn into a very longstanding relationship with Coyote and Grandfather Raven. Toward the end of my work with them, I started to be drawn more into the Norse worldview, and was practicing something along the lines of Norse Wicca.

Then I moved away. From there I continued my study, taking Daven's High Magic course, but for the most part started to fade.

Then after Katrina They stepped in and helped me out of a bad situation, and so I pledged myself and so at their request began moving farther into the Northern Tradition Paganism and Ásatrú. I found that whatever it was I was looking for was not in Ásatrú proper, but I didn't have a term for it yet. They wanted me to do something, but I had trouble ascertaining exactly where they wanted that path to lead.

So after about a year, when I had managed to settle down into a better living situation, I talked with a friend of mine about it and she indicated that one of her friends was on that path and was starting to look for students. Thus formed the group I have been training with ever since. In this time my relationship and signal clarity have both improved, and I believe that I am a better person for it.

That is a rough outline of how I got to the path I am on now. I am now training in Northern Tradition Spirit Work and am a follower of Odin, though I have developed relationships with many others along the way. My focus at the moment is on Shamanic States of Consciousness, on Faring Forth, and on other things along those lines, though I know the time for me to study galdr is coming up...

In Their Service.