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?"

No comments:

Post a Comment