Continued from Part 2 …
SACRED JOURNEYS AND THE WESTERN MYSTERY TRADITIONS
Through years of deep study of the Western Mystery Traditions I have identified some “base elements” in the “Sacred Journey”, in which earlier paleolithic shamanic practices become “re-articulated” and re-adapted through subsequent traditions, including the Paganisms of the classical age (Greek, Roman, Celtic, Teutonic, Norse), Hermeticism, Alchemy, Medieval Witchcraft, as well as other so-called “esoteric traditions”. These base elements are also found within the western Christian mystical traditions (Hildegard von Bingen, Saint Francis, Mister Eckhart). Broad parallels in the underlying structure of this formulation might be seen in such diverse traditions as Carl Jung’s Archetypical Psychology, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey ( or “monomyth”), Ralph Metzner’s Green Psychology and Michael Harner’s Core Shamanism, although important substantive differences exist which I won’t discuss here due to space constraints. I believe these sacred practices are at the heart of Nature Religions as they serve to make the natural world a sacred place and strengthen our spiritual connections to our planet
Base Elements in the Sacred Journey
1. Individuals begin with an experience of psychological crisis verging on insanity. Included here might be intense feelings of isolation, fragmentation, nihilism, alienation and despair. In this state of misery ego blocks intuition, attempts at healing, wellness and wholeness are thwarted, and traditional ways of seeing prevent the new perspectives needed move forward or change. In this initial state people often feel separated from the natural world and thirst for a unifying wholeness.
2. Individuals partake a “Sacred Journey” in which they “travel” beyond the realms of their culture’s pre-established and accepted ways of knowing through an ecstatic state in which they reclaim a forgotten gnosis. This is a journey of death and re-birth, for the old Self shall die and a new Self will emerge. While physical pilgrimages to real places have long been essential forms of Sacred Journeys, other types of “travel” have equally long lineages. While many traditions in the Western Mystery Tradition see this journey as a literal voyage to another realm, for Religious Naturalists the notion of a journey is more symbolic and denotes more inner transformation than actual travel to another place.
3. All Sacred Journeys involve a change of consciousness. The techniques used to achieve such transformations are many, and might include the real-world trials and tribulations of a life lived, overcoming physical limitations through disciplined training, sensory deprivation, “shadow work” (in which psychological “demons” are confronted), entheogenic sacraments, mystical experiences, contemplative practices or other trance-inducing methods. Some of these transformational processes may be virtually unmotivated and spontaneous, while others involve intensely motivated effort, arduous study and greatly focused attention. Rejecting mind / body dualisms, I envision all these vision quests as involving the full human.
4. These processes of non-ordinary states of consciousness dissolve the subjective mind, deflate the ego and re-connect the human with nature. The outcome of these Sacred Journeys is a new way of viewing the world, other life forms and ourselves. Individuals enter a state of egoless becoming, personal integration and transcendence. A universal vision in which individuals experience themselves as part of ongoing humanity embedded in the very processes of creation may also result.
5. Having found their Holy Grail—a new way of seeing the world, a new and transcendent sense of identity, and new ways to bring healing to their community, individuals return to re-integrate into mundane social life with numerous gifts and forms of wisdom. The recovery of the numinous leads to a state of wholeness and health.
Humans have an innate need to alter states of consciousness. This need has evolved in our species over hundreds of thousand of years and serves evolutionary purposes. These purposes include the generation of new ideas and perspectives, psychological integration, health and wholeness, re-connection with nature and other living beings, and numerous other religious functions. These practices have been institutionalized and enculturated in diverse shamanic and other spiritual practices throughout history.
My focus has been on locating these practices in the traditions of my Northern and Western European ancestors, although clear parallels exist among other traditions, including those of indigenous people of the American, African and Asian continents. This focus on the spiritual traditions of my European ancestors avoids many of the ethical problems involved the cultural mis-appropriation of non-European practices, in which, for example, “white shamans” enormously profit from stealing Native American spiritual practices.
In the language of the soul, we might state that the individual, prior to the Sacred Journey, has lost contact with the sacred. To re-establish our connection to the soul, direct experiences of the sacred are necessary. The Sacred Journey is a form of soul retrieval. Everything, both animate and inanimate, is imbued with spirit. We need to re-populate the woods, rivers and mountains with numina, for our dis-ease is linked to our dissociation from the natural world. I hold that all of the Universe (by which I also mean “Nature”) is sacred. For me, this “sense of the sacred” is invoked by (1) the incredible mystery at the center of our understanding of the cosmos; (2) our absolute dependence on the natural world as a source for all life and for our very sustenance, survival, revelation and fulfillment; and (3) awareness of our humble human fragility in the face of nature’s awesome power.
Humans seem to naturally distinguish between that which is sacred and that which is profane, and to say that nature is sacred is to insist that it must be treated with respect and reverence and never violated. It is of utmost important. It is holy and ultimate. This conception of the natural world as sacred is intended to change our relationship to the planet and even if it is built upon a somewhat mythic metaphor, this radical leap of imagination can be a purposeful act which promotes ecological consciousness.
While elements of these Sacred Journeys are at the heart of most Nature Religions in the Western Mystery Traditions (such as Wicca, reclaimed Paganism, Druidry, etc), thusfar, Religious Naturalists have not embraced these “base elements” of the Sacred Journey. Enter Dionysian Naturalism.
To be continued …
About the Author
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world. Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues. He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.