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.
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.