This week we dive into the field of neurotheology with an essay by Rhys Chisnall.
Is the brain a necessary condition to having religious and mystical experiences? Is there a biological underpinning to the experiences of deities, spirits as reported by religious people? Is there a connection between the brain and consciousness of the whole as described (metaphorically) by those who have undergone mystical experience? The established science of Neuro-theology, a branch of neurology suggests that there is.
The brain is an amazingly complex organ, containing millions of neuronal connections, the product of eons of evolution by natural selection. It is through the complex interactions of these neurons, with the rest of the body and the environment that consciousness, unconsciousness, cognition, and emotions emerge (Toates, 2007) . Pretty much everything that we experience, everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think and feel is mediated through the brain; so it seems to be the case that religious and mystical experiences are no exceptions.
The neurologist and Zen Buddhist, Dr James Austin, underwent a spontaneous mystical experience while waiting for the tube in the London underground. He claimed that he saw things as they really are: that he had a sense of eternity, the sense of I, and self, had disappeared and that he had been graced with the ultimate nature of everything (Austin as cited in Begley, 2001) .
As a neurologist Austin reasoned that the parts of the brain that deal with the orientation of the self in space, separating the self from the rest of the world, had gone quiet. These functions are located within the parietal lobes at the back of the brain. The amygdala, often cited in connection with religious experience, and is most famous for its flight and fight response also monitors the surroundings for threats had ‘closed off’. Also the frontal and temporal lobes, which contain the functions of self-awareness and recognition of time, must have dropped away (Austin, 1999) .
All this was corroborated by Dr. Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili who suggested that these kinds of mystical and religious experiences seem to share common themes across all cultures. They carried out an experiment that involved the scanning of brain activity with a single photon emission computed tomography machine, SPECT for short. Essentially what they did was to scan the brains of meditating Zen Buddhists at the peak of their meditative experience, and compare these with the SPECT scans of Franciscan Nuns at the climax of their prayers.
Although both groups interpret their experiences differently the underlying experience of unity (with God or whatever) is the same. What the SPECT scans show is an increased level of activity in the prefrontal cortex, where, as you would expect the function of attention is located. However there was also a drop off in the parietal lobes; that part of the brain mentioned above which is to do with location of self in space.
Newberg concluded that it was this shutdown in this region of the brain that forces the self to associate with the entirety of the whole. In other words the meditators don’t know where they stop and the rest of the universe begins – a familiar experience for those engaged in magical operations (Begley, 2001, Newberg and Aquili, 2001) .
Interestingly Newberg argues that certain kinds of practices associated with the Craft and paganism have a direct effect on the brain. For example, drumming, dancing, invocations, rituals, scourging, sex, chanting, etc, all focus our attention onto one source of stimulation. No doubt these techniques will sound somewhat familiar to those you practice the Craft and other Occult traditions. They can also invoke heightened states of emotions within us, which seems according to Newberg, to be the key to their success.
These techniques can have the effect of stimulating the hippocampus. The hippocampus is located in the medial temporal lobe and amongst other things is associated along with other parts of the brain with maintaining neuronal activity equilibrium. It can put the breaks on neuronal activity, limiting the flow of activity to the parietal lobes and other parts of the brain associated with religious and spiritual experiences (Begley, 2001, Newberg and D’Aqulli, 2001) . This again leads to the sense of loss of self and identification with the whole.
More often associated with religious experience is where individuals hear the voice of God, gods and spirits. Does neurology explain George W Bush’s assertion that God asked him to invade Iraq? There seems to be some evidence that it did.
The Neurologist Dr, Ramachandran suggests that religious feelings may be caused by naturally occurring activity within the temporal lobes. This is born out to some extent by Michael Persinger’s helmet, a strange device that creates an electro-magnetic field around the participant’s head so as to stimulate the temporal lobes. The result is that participants experience strange sensations, such as unseen presences; even within arch atheist and psychologist Susan Blackmore when she wore it as reported on a recent Radio 4 programme. This part of the brain is also associated with speech perception.
The Psychologist Richard Bentall suggests that when people hear the voice of God, they are actually misinterpreting their own inner voice. The Brocca’s area of the brain, which is associated with speech production, turns on, and when sensory information is restricted such as in mediation and in the use of other altered states of consciousness techniques, such as prayer, the practitioner may be fooled into thinking that the inner voice has an external source. This is also likely to happen in time of high stress and heightened emotions such as in times of jeopardy (Bentall, 2000) .
There is also evidence that the anterior cingulated part of the brain activates when people hear actual sounds in the environment and also when they hallucinate sound, but not while they imagine hearing something. This part of the brain may be responsible for deciding whether a sound is external or not, and if it is appropriately activated it may fool us into believing that our own inner voice comes from an external supernatural source (Begley, 2001) .
Does all this mean that mystical and religious experiences are all the result of biology? I would suggest not, though the evidence does suggest that the brain is a necessary condition of spiritual experience, as it is a necessary condition for all aspects of our lives, but it is not a sufficient condition. Our experience of numinous depends not just on our biology, though it underpins it, but also on our complex interactions with our environment, including the enormous complexity of the culture in which we live.
Within our culture we encounter the myths (the metaphors) and the science and philosophy that we use to interpret our experiences, enabling us to weave our personal patterns into the warp and weft of the world. It is a two way process, the metaphor of myth inspires within us spiritual experiences, and we reinterpret them in accordance with these myths thus socially constructing our complex realities.
This may mean that mystical and religious experiences are not mere wishful thinking, but could be rooted within the natural world with potentially life changing consequences. In other words they are genuine experiences that really do matter. As to whether this biological underpinning refutes or confirms the literal existence of supernatural beings, or the literal existence of other levels of reality, that is for you as intelligent people to decide.
Austin, J, (2001) , Zen and the Brain, MIT
Begley, S, (2001) , Your Brain and Religion: Mystic Visions or Brain Circuits at Work, Newsweek
Bentall, R, (2000) , Hallucinatory Experiences, in (eds, E. Cardena, S. Jay Lynn, S. Krippner) Varieties of Anomalous Experiences, Examining the Scientific Evidence, American Psychological Association
D’Aquili, E, Newberg, A, Rause, (2001) , Why God won’t Go Away, Baltimore Books
Toates, F, (2007) , Biological Processes and Psychological Explanations in (eds. D, Meill, A, Phoneix and K, Thomas, Mapping Psychology, Open University
Rhys Chisnall grew up in the Suffolk countryside and as such has a deep interest in nature and wildlife. He works as a lecturer at Otley College of Agriculture and Horticulture, specifically with special needs students, and is currently studying for a degree with the Open University in Philosophy and Psychology. He has been interested in Paganism since his teen years and was lucky enough to be trained by a coven who takes a naturalistic approach to the Craft. He later joined that coven and now runs a training group for those interested in initiatory Witchcraft.
– by B. T. Newberg
The last post emphasized how critical it is for those neither religious nor secular to make their voices known. Now, here is an opportunity to do that.
Humanistic Paganism is now accepting submissions.
What’s the point of having only one voice represented? The more diversity, the better. Do you have an experience to share? Some artwork to show? Or a naturalistic community to promote? Or are you critical of Humanistic Paganism, and have a challenge to offer? All these are welcome. Even those who do not identify with Humanistic Paganism, or even flat out disagree with it, are encouraged to share words in the spirit of dialogue (so long as it’s constructive and civil, of course). See the new “submissions” tab for details.
We’re kicking off our new multi-vocal direction with a post by Rhys Chisnall who’s going to talk about a fascinating subject: neurotheology. Watch for that this coming Sunday. But first, here’s the story of how I began speaking my truth.
I grew up in the tiny town of Hector, population 1151. In a place that small, it’s not easy for a sensitive, intellectual dreamer like me to feel accepted. Actually, I felt like a space alien.
I knew that I thought differently than those around me, but I learned early on not to voice those thoughts or risk ridicule, ostracism, or even violence. More than that, I came to assume that I was the only one like me. Finally, I grew to accept that the way I saw the world was just a fantasy, entertaining perhaps but of no social value.
I spent my youth just waiting to get out of that town, much like Luke from Star Wars, who said of his home world of Tatooine: “If there’s a bright center of the galaxy, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”
When I finally got away to the city for university, and then further away for study abroad, I discovered I was not alone. There were other thinkers like me.
Yet it was not until I met a certain young atheist – we’ll call him Norton – that I ever suspected I could take responsibility for my own spirituality. He was no perfect role model – an introverted young mathematician, arrogant and condescending as anyone I’ve ever known. Yet there he was, believing in himself and actually living his truth. It gave me an inkling that maybe I could too.
I had long since known that I was both agnostic and spiritual, but never did I think I could live life openly that way. It took Norton’s encouragement before it dawned on me that I really could be who I was.
What’s more, I didn’t need to be more like him. I needed to be more like me.
That’s how it came to be that my first “spiritual teacher” was an atheist, strange as it may sound. He taught me one of the greatest spiritual maxims of all:
Speak your truth.
Fast-forward to 2011. The last decade had seen me explore Buddhism, Shamanism, Wicca, Druidry, Humanism, and more. Each of those paths taught me invaluable insights, and I would not be who I am without them. Nor would I be able to say what I feel with any nuance had I not first learned from these great traditions. Yet none of them were quite right for me.
That’s when I decided to start the Humanistic Paganism blog. Surely there were others like me, I thought. Perhaps if I began putting myself out there, they would find me.
And they have.
Since launching this blog, I’ve met tons of like-minded people. Let me introduce you to just a few.
Rua Lupa – Originally intending to create a belief system for a fiction novel, she soon discovered she was developing her own real-life naturalistic tradition.
Ethan Zaghmut – When I met him at a Nature Spirituality meetup, I was shocked to find someone with monk-like calm and compassion, but no formal Buddhist training. He found mindfulness his own way.
Rhys Chisnall – His writing shows a clear depth of understanding of both Paganism and how the mind works as we call to gods and spirits.
And I’m meeting more like-minded folks every day. In fact, I’ve met enough to justify opening the blog up for submissions. I’ll still remain the primary author, but why not let other voices take the floor too?
Aesop has given us a wonderful story of Aletheia, the personification of truth. One day, the potter Prometheus decided to fashion Aletheia from clay, in order to guide his other creation, humanity. But his plan was confounded when he was called away by an unexpected summons from Zeus. Prometheus rushed off, leaving his workshop in the charge of Dolus, his apprentice. Now Dolus, whose name means “trickery”, undertook to copy his master’s work. The forgery was almost flawless, like the original in every way but one – he didn’t have time to make the feet. When his master returned, Dolus trembled in fear, hoping he would not notice. Prometheus beheld not one but two figures of “Truth”, and was amazed. Seeking to take credit for both, he fired them in the kiln, then breathed life into them. That’s when the fatal difference was revealed. Aletheia stepped forward in measured steps, but the false copy, lacking feet, stood stuck in its place.
That is what it is like to speak your truth. You can walk by it. The inauthentic voice, on the other hand, immobilizes you, keeps you tied to someone else’s version of “truth.” What is needed is that voice which breathes life into you, which frees you to move forward.
Of course, there are those who feel they might have a voice, but it has nothing special to say. Many need a little encouragement – just as I needed it from Norton. Yet when you look at the thought and care those same people put into a conversation, or an email list post, or an artwork, it’s plain as day that they have plenty to offer.
And I’m pretty sure you have something to offer too.
May I add as well, if it isn’t already clear, that whatever you write, it must be your truth. What you bring to the table might not look anything like the picture of Humanistic Paganism I have painted so far. And that’s just fine. As ecologists know well, diversity is the sign of a healthy population.
Don’t stop with Humanistic Paganism, either. Sure, I’d love to have you here, don’t get me wrong. But what would be really cool is for folks to be vocal in their communities. There are a number of groups and forums, online and offline, that are sympathetic to spirituality from a naturalistic point of view. See the “resources” tab for some of these. There are also lots of places in the wider community where we can add our voices to the growing diversity. The Witches’ Voice is one site in particular where you can get a lot of exposure without having to be a great writer.
So if you’ve been waiting for encouragement, here it is. If you’ve been hesitant to speak up, now’s your chance.
Learn from my friend Norton, and follow one sweet, simple maxim:
Speak your truth.
– by B. T. Newberg
Do you find yourself between worlds, neither religious nor secular? Do you feel without a home? It can be frustrating for those with a naturalistic view of the universe, but an inclination to spiritual metaphor and growth. There aren’t many high-profile traditions espousing such a path. Many of us end up feeling lost in the cracks between the religious and the secular.
Our culture hasn’t yet developed secular words adequate to describe the magnificence of life. Perhaps that’s why many of us still feel called to terms like “gods” and “spirit”, though we don’t mean guys in the sky or ghosts in the machine. What we express by these words is a certain reverence toward existence, a reverence we can only describe as spiritual.
Yet that reverence is easily misunderstood.
The ultimate “rock and a hard place” metaphor comes from Homer’s Odyssey, where the crew of Odysseus’ ship has to navigate the narrow straits between two sea monsters called Scylla and Charybdis. That’s the situation in which many of us find ourselves today. Tossed between hardcore religionists on the one side and fervent secularists on the other, we struggle to navigate a way home.
Since starting this blog, I’ve met many who identify with Humanistic Paganism. I’ve also met those who look on it with bewilderment bordering on disgust. A Facebook conversation sparked by HP saw this comment from a Neopagan Druid:
“Why bother with a ritual to a deity if you think it’s fake? Wouldn’t that be a waste of time? I personally don’t care what other people believe or not, but the whole ‘just do it even if there is nothing behind it’ way of thinking just seems stupid to me. … If their actions or words are empty, I’d rather they shut up and stay home frankly.”
While this comment grossly misconstrues the spirit of HP ritual, it is a common reaction. Many assume that spiritual practices without literal belief in deities must be “empty”, and shake their heads in amazement.
Others get possessive. For example, a few years ago a Hellenic polytheist wrote that if I did not believe in the literal existence of the Greek gods, I should not use their names, because there are those who do believe in them. Apparently they own the copyright to Greek mythology! I do understand what she was saying – we should not treat flippantly what others take seriously. But HP takes mythology seriously too, just in a different way.
Meanwhile, Pagans are not the only ones who look askance at HP. I recently attended a Humanist event where I introduced myself as a “spiritual humanist.” That single word spiritual was enough to send the event leader off into a long and defensive aside about how she is uncomfortable with that term. Others at the event seemed to assume without question that “Humanism” meant Secular Humanism, even though that is only one branch, and a recently invented one at that. No one was rude, but I went away feeling like I had not found a welcoming community.
I don’t blame any of the people mentioned above for their comments. Humanistic Paganism is confusing. The same goes for Spiritual Humanism or Religious Naturalism or Enchanted Agnosticism or whatever moniker you choose. These are counter-intuitive terms that provoke a double-take. Dare to call yourself one of these, and you will have your beliefs questioned.
But that is no reason to keep quiet. One of the reasons for misunderstanding is simple lack of visibility. Humanistic Pagans and others of similar persuasion need to put themselves out there. That is one reason this blog exists. It’s not just a place to articulate ideas, it’s a forum to educate the community.
If you’re wondering how a ritual could possibly work without literal belief in gods, this is what you should be reading. If you think spirituality can’t possibly have something to offer the naturalist, again this is the blog for you. Whether you come to agree with the ideas here or radically oppose them, at least you’ll understand what it’s all about. Ignorance is the enemy. Difference is beautiful.
All this talk about resistance might give the impression of being under siege. Actually, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Although there are those who attack and ridicule, the vast majority I’ve met in both Pagan and Humanist camps are open-minded. In the Facebook conversation quoted above, several theists stood up in defense of HP. The person quoted actually found herself shouted down. Likewise, at the Humanist event there were those who were interested in Buddhist meditation, church-like organizational models, and other connections to spiritual traditions. Suffice to say the open-minded folks usually outweigh the closed-minded, even though the latter tend to leave a bigger impression.
For those neither religious nor secular, attempting to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis, Humanistic Paganism is a beacon fire. It’s a safe harbor where that counter-intuitive viewpoint, which may provoke questions and resistance, can be openly explored. It’s a port town where those from diverse backgrounds can exchange ideas and learn about their differences. Lastly, for some, it’s a home.
But Humanistic Paganism is not yet a group, nor a tradition. That may emerge in time, but if so it must happen organically. One person cannot start a tradition; others must come together to create it. Or create something else, something better.
Until then, those sympathetic to HP can find fellowship in a number of groups that are similar in spirit. Perhaps the closest analogy can be found in the Yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism. Two other close kin are the World Pantheist Movement and Universal Pantheist Society. Further community might be found in the Druidic Order of Naturalists or the forums of Spiritual Humanism. For still more, see the Resources page. Continue to check back as I’m finding more and more each day.
Are there other communities you love, communities in the borderlands between the religious and secular? Please share them in the comments section.
Or share your experience: What is your story of navigating between the religious and the secular, between Scylla and Charybdis?
– by B. T. Newberg
“You don’t really think that’s going to work do you?” said my dad. I had arranged the twigs, kindling, and birch bark in a tepee, just exactly so, and he came along and tossed newspaper and wood haphazardly all over my precious creation. I could feel irritation rising. “This from the guy who says he’s uncomfortable in the woods,” I shot back. He looked stung. At that moment, I knew the conversation had taken a wrong turn.
We were up in the North Woods of Minnesota for a family event at a lakeside cabin thirty-minutes’ drive from the nearest tar road. My dad, who feels claustrophobic in the forest, had graciously consented to come along at mom’s request. Building the fire in the yard was a job we both volunteered for – a great opportunity for father-son bonding, right? But straight off the bat, the “bonding” was driving us both crazy.
Family bonding is just one example of a larger topic I want to talk about today: socialization. Interacting with others, whether through conversation or shared activities, presents an excellent opportunity for spiritual practice. The art of listening, empathizing, and perspective-taking can be a powerful means of growth. At the same time, it can go wrong.
Each time my father put a new piece of wood on the infant fire, I carefully moved it so it wouldn’t block off the airflow. Meanwhile, I was noting how he had to control everything, had to be the “alpha male” – perhaps especially because he felt uncomfortable in the woods. Aha, I thought, maybe he’s over-compensating for his lack of confidence in this environment. But it wasn’t just him, it was me too. The more he tried to control the fire, the more I wanted it to be my fire. What irritated me most was that his haphazard technique actually seemed to be working. The more he piled on the wood, the more the flame leaped up. At that point, I conceded the battle and went inside the cabin.
What could have been a bonding experience turned out to be just another chore. What could have been a moment of spiritual growth was anything but. What had gone wrong?
Existential theologian Martin Buber calls the failure of two individuals to fully engage with each other a mismeeting. Inhibited by self-centered preoccupations, they remain isolated individuals. In contrast, if two turn to each other completely, then there may arise between them a presence that is neither the one nor the other, but a genuine meeting. This is the oft-quoted I-Thou relationship for which Buber is famous. It is also the bonding that could have happened between my father and I, but didn’t.
A meeting requires a double turning: a turning away from self-centered preoccupation and a turning toward the other. What held my dad and I back was the self-centered need to control the fire and whatever it may have represented. Fixated on this need, we failed to see what the other needed. A better approach would start by turning away from this preoccupation. This does not mean ignoring one’s feelings, but rather seeing them in the big picture. To turn away is to make room for something other than preoccupation.
Of course, turning away from such preoccupation would necessitate being aware of it in the first place. Aye, there’s the rub: so often we are unconscious of our feelings until it’s too late. That is why mindfulness of the Five +1 is so important. By paying attention not only to the outer world (through the Five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) but also to our thoughts and feelings (the +1 of the Five +1), we can keep better tabs on our emotional state and thus on our readiness to turn toward the other. If we are not conscious of our emotions, they tend to dominate our behavior.
An internal state or structure that dominates to the exclusion of all others is what existential psychologist Rollo May calls a daimon. This term he takes from the ancient Greek word for a spirit, which originally meant any divine being. To be dominated by a daimon is thus to be in the grip of a god. Like possession by a spirit, emotion can possess us. This is wonderful when it is a positive emotion, such as joy or compassion. On the other hand, there are less positive emotions. To be possessed by the daimon of control is to be temporarily incapable of relinquishing control. My father and I were kept apart by our respective daimons.
The way to escape possession is to become aware of it. Once raised to consciousness through mindful awareness, the daimon loses possession of us. It flitters off into the shadows from whence it came. Or to put it more precisely, it assumes a balanced, as opposed to dominating, role in our psyche. The balanced state enables normal rational consciousness as well as the ability to look past preoccupations and see the other person.
A daimon played a role in one of the most famous mismeetings of Western literature, that of Achillles and King Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad. The conflict between the two is finally resolved when the king relinquishes the woman he stole from Achilles. Instead of admitting wrong, however, he explains his actions by claiming his mind was clouded by Ate, the personification of madness, delusion, and infatuation:
Zeus, Fate, and the Fury stalking through the night,
they are the ones who drove that savage madness in my heart,
that day in assembly when I seized Achilles’ prize–
on my own authority, true, but what could I do?
A god impels all things to their fulfillment (Fagles translation, 19.101-105)
Ate (rendered here as “madness”) is a daimon who takes away the wits of men and sends them down a path of reckless impulse. After being cast out of Olympus for causing trouble, she wandered the world, treading on the heads of people rather than on the ground. Agamemnon claims the gods drove her into his heart, and that’s why he did what he did to offend. Is this a way of dodging responsibility? Maybe, but I don’t think so. The king is actually saving face in a culturally-acceptable context. For him to plead madness is to say he will not do it again, for he would never have done it were it not for that divine influence. In any case, he is turning from his self-centered preoccupation and toward genuine dialogue with Achilles.
The way to counter the power of Ate, according to myth, is by that of the Litae, which personify prayer. The Litae are daughters of Zeus who follow Ate, but being old and lame of foot they are easily outrun by the one they follow. If Ate can be seen as self-centered preoccupation and the Litae as turning away from this and toward dialogue (which is akin to prayer), then the advice agrees with Buber. The spiritual task is to turn from that which consumes us by mindfully cultivating a more balanced state, then turning toward the other in a spirit of genuine communication.
A meditation on mindfulness of Ate can be found here.
Building relationship is a lot like building a fire. You can’t just do it with half a mind, like turning on a light switch. You have to turn to it, and ask yourself what it needs to catch fire and then to flourish. You have to stoke it to keep it going. And when you’ve done that, you’ve got more than just a source of warmth. You have a presence, a flickering, burning, wonderful presence. In the case of my father and I, the wood caught fire, but the relationship was sputtering.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the only relationship built that weekend. My family and I enjoyed three days of meaningful bonding in the North Woods. The fire-building incident proved the exception rather than the rule. On the last day, we worked together to plant a garden in front of the cabin in memory of Grandma and Granddad, who had both passed on in the last year. Quietly helping out toward a common goal, turned away from self-centeredness and toward each other, we created a presence. The garden was an outward sign of it, but that’s not the presence I’m talking about. Rather, it was a presence between us, a palpable sense of communion. Without self-centered preoccupation, without possession by daimons, without the troublesome goddess Ate, relationship flourished. It was the I-Thou relationship of which Buber spoke. It was the presence of the Litae. It was a genuine meeting.
– 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.
Effectiveness can only be assessed in terms of objectives. The goals of the retreat were to:
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.
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.
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.