Humanistic Paganism

An experiment in spiritual socialization

This Memorial Day weekend will be spent with my folks and relatives up in Ely, Minnesota.  I’m taking the opportunity to experiment further with Martin Buber’s spiritual practice of dialogue.  Expect a post on this next weekend.

Meanwhile, tomorrow’s post will focus on a controversial topic: nontheistic ritual.  Enjoy!

No rapture: Resonance, not transcendence

Vine leaves on pillar

Nontranscendence means not seeking other worlds, other bodies, or other lives. Instead, there is this earth, this body, this life.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 20, 2011

– by B. T. Newberg

This post celebrates Non-judgment Day, the day which is not the May 21st Judgment Day predicted by Harold Camping and followers, but rather a day for celebrating who you are, promoted by the queer nuns called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.  So, in honor of non-judgment, we have a non-theme: nontranscendence.

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In the last post, I mentioned that Humanistic Paganism does not seek transcendence.  This provoked one commenter to remark “this leaves me feeling a little sad.”  Yes, it is sad.  But when you’re done being sad, it becomes wonderful.

Nontranscendence means not seeking another world, another body, or another life.  Instead, there is this earth, this body, this life. However imperfect they may be, they are ours.  They are yours.  Embracing that fact is the first step to finding yourself in a world that resonates with every step.

I don’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve yourself or the world.  On the contrary, such improvement is essential to Humanistic Paganism, as encapsulated in the Fourfold Path under responsible action.  There are plenty of challenges to be met, and HP affirms the responsibility and power of the individual to meet those challenges.  By so doing, the world can become a better place, and you can become a better person.  If that’s what meets your definition of transcendence, then by all means bring it on.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.  The idea I have in mind has more to do with the mystical and fantastical.  There are many religions and philosophies today that focus on other worlds, bodies, or lives.  Harold Camping’s prediction that the rapture will arrive today is a case in point, but there are less extreme examples.  Christianity and Islam look forward to an afterlife, while Contemporary Shamanism communicates with a spirit world.  Many New Age cults concentrate on a subtle or light body, at the same time that the pseudo-religion of consumerism obsesses about that perfect body that you just don’t have (not without product x!).  Meanwhile, forms of Hinduism and Buddhism postulate past and future lives, and cryonics panders to the desire for immortal life.  The problem is not that these hypothesized other worlds, bodies, and lives are necessarily false – we’ll let empirical investigation determine that.  Nor is it that they cannot have psychological benefits – I engage many spiritual practices for that very reason.  The problem is that they can distract from something equally extraordinary right here and now: the world of the ordinary.

Tree and lamppost at night in Loring Park

By opening awareness to sensations normally relegated to the dark of the unconscious, the ordinary can become extraordinary.

photo by B. T. Newberg, May 20, 2011

The extraordinary ordinary

What do people seek in other worlds, bodies, or lives?  I’ll concede that some may genuinely pursue them for their own sake, but I’d hazard to guess that many if not most are really seeking escape from the ordinary.  Much of what masquerades as spirituality is really hope for something elseJoseph Campbell suggests that people aren’t really seeking the meaning of life so much as an experience of being alive.

The humdrum rolling on of life, the daily inundation of violent or depressing news – who wouldn’t hope for something more?  It’s human nature to always want more.  Where we go wrong is in assuming that something more must come from something else.

That’s just not true.  The ordinary world, just as it is, has so much more to offer.  In fact, it has so much to offer in each and every moment that our conscious minds cannot possibly take it all in, and that is one of the reasons why it quickly acquires a tedious veneer.

Cognitive psychologist Timothy D. Wilson explains in Strangers to Ourselves that our minds assimilate some 11,000,000 pieces of information per second from our sense organs, but only about 40 can be processed consciously.  The rest, according to Wilson, are handled by the unconscious.  This enables us to consciously concentrate on one thing while unconsciously monitoring the environment for danger.  So, the vast majority of perception happens beyond conscious experience, beyond what we normally take for our world.  The result: as non-critical sensations are relegated to the unconscious, the everyday environment quickly begins to feel ordinary.

However, how would our experience change if we brought attention to a fuller range of sensations?  For example, have you ever stopped to really take in all the sensations of eating an orange – the sound of peeling the skin, the softness of the pulp, the spray of juice as you bite into it?  What an extraordinary experience it becomes when you bring awareness to this thoroughly ordinary phenomenon.  Likewise, many meditation techniques call attention to the breath.  The rhythmic rising and falling of the abdomen, the warmth of air passing over the upper lip, the fleeting moment after one breath is finished but before the next has begun – a sense of peace and wonder may accompany observing these ordinary sensations.

So, experiencing something more doesn’t require something else.  It only requires a deeper approach to what is already present.  Through mindful practice, the realization gradually dawns that the extraordinary is already available in the ordinary.  All it takes is an alteration of awareness.  The world begins to resonate, suffused with a new vibrance.  The humdrum bursts to life, the droll pulses with vitality.  There arises a sense of wonder, or as Campbell puts it, an experience of being alive.

Resonance and the Five +1

The Fourfold Path of Humanistic Paganism addresses this through exploration of the Five +1.  These are the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, plus one introspective sense that perceives thoughts, feelings, emotions, and mental imagery.  By turning awareness to these phenomena, particularly to those normally relegated to the unconscious, a fuller experience is raised to consciousness.  The fruit of such activity is a profound sense of wonder at the world of the extraordinary ordinary.

Is this a kind of transcendence?  Maybe.  If there are those who wish to use the word for this, I won’t argue.  But I prefer resonance.  The word transcendence seems to imply getting over or above or beyond something, as if there were some lack to be overcome.  On the contrary, the task is not to go beyond but right into the heart of things.  Deep in the trenches of experiences is all the rapture I need.

Mythology and Resonance

But wait a minute… what about the Fourfold Path‘s emphasis on mythology?  Why isn’t bare perception enough without mythologizing it?  Isn’t this just another attempt to go over and above the ordinary, to seek something else?

Here is where we return to what was said earlier about spiritual practices, including those focused on other worlds, bodies, or lives.  They can have psychological benefits.  The question is whether they orient the individual toward or away from ordinary experience.  Approached from a desire to escape the ordinary world, they become escapist and unhealthy.  Approached from a desire for resonance with the world, however, they can be profoundly beneficial.  Furthermore, they can actually lead the individual to the ordinary by way of the extraordinary.

In a previous post I mentioned a storm in which I felt the majesty of Zeus, god of thunder.  This was a case in which mythology reminded me to look deeper at the environment, to open my awareness to a fuller range of experience.  As a result, the brooding sky acquired a more vivid, vital aspect.  The clouds almost breathed.  It was not that I was no longer perceiving the sky, but rather that I was meeting it with more of my being – not just the five senses but also imagination.  The entire field of experience, the Five +1, was humanized and unified.  By including the imaginal realm of myth in the experience, inner and outer worlds became one.  The sky as well as my whole being was in resonance.

It is not necessary to transcend this world, this body, or this life – at least, not in order to have an experience of being alive.  What is necessary is to go deeper into everyday experience.  Exploring the Five +1 can enable that, as can developing a relationship with mythology.  If motivated by a desire not to escape the ordinary but to achieve communion with it, something extraordinary can happen.  World, body, and life begin to resonate.

Hailstorm sky

By allowing the world of the five senses and the imaginal world of mythology to meet, inner and outer worlds become one.

photo by B. T. Newberg, enhanced with Typhoeus & Zeus, Chalcidian Black Figure Vase, c 540 BCE

Humanistic Paganism

Retreat, day seven: Reflection, vulnerability, and the goal

Arches under bridge over the Mississippi

Reflection leads into the vaults and echoes of the mind.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 8, 2011

– by B. T. Newberg

Yesterday was the final day.  In the morning I performed the final rituals and meditations, and at noon rode my bicycle in a cool, damp drizzle to the Mississippi River.  There, at the moment of greatest light, which was actually indistinguishable from any other moment due to an overcast sky, I tossed my token stone into the river to mark the end of the retreat.


Reflection proved one of the most valuable experiences of the retreat. It was instrumental in bringing to the surface a wealth of insight and self-knowledge.  Each day I spent most of the afternoon and much of the evening setting my thoughts and feelings down in writing, generating artwork, and crafting posts of which I could be proud.  I am ecstatic about the results – enough material has been generated to keep me thinking for months.

Making the reflections public by posting them on this blog enhanced the experience.  Knowing that I would have to give a public account helped me take reflection seriously.  I went into greater depth and detail than in the past.  Perhaps it was the threat to my self-image, the vulnerability of putting myself out there publicly, that pushed me to probe deeper.

Reflection, by Lucien Freud

Reflection exposes faults and frailties of the human mind, leaving one vulnerable.

Image enhanced from original by Lucien Freud


“So how did the retreat go?” asked my friend Drew Jacob, author of  I sat in the passenger seat as we cruised along the freeway en route to a friend’s house.  “Fine,” I said.  “No complaints.”

No complaints?, I thought to myself.  Is that all I can say?  It wasn’t that I was being modest, or hiding my feelings.  But at that moment, the evening after the conclusion of the grand experiment, I felt nothing special.  What an underwhelming finish to the experience.  Suddenly, I wondered if I had made a mistake.  Shouldn’t a retreat leave you feeling like a million bucks?  Serene and enlightened?  On top of the world?  I felt the urge to “talk up” the experience in front of my friend, to “sell” it as a success.  Instead, I just gazed out the window at the houses whizzing by.  Perhaps the whole retreat had been a sham.

I could already feel myself hardening toward the experience.  This morning, as I woke for the first morning in seven days that I was not obliged to perform ritual, there was a feeling of vague revulsion as I passed the statue of the goddess Isis.  Through my mind flashed an image of myself kneeling and chanting before the statue, then an image where I was not doing anything religious, anything spiritual, anything weird like that.  Accompanying the second was a sense of being acceptable in the eyes of others.  The two contrasting self-images stood side-by-side in uneasy tension.

It was then that I recognized a pattern in myself.  Something was happening to the retreat experience that had happened many times before.  I was beginning to withdraw from the experience, to dis-identify with it, to alienate myself from it.  Why?  Because I had allowed myself to become vulnerable.  It was a threat to expose myself as a spiritualist.  Even though I had done it of my own volition and yearning for self-discovery, there was a part of me that now wanted to put that behind me.  In its place would be nothing but an image of uncontroversial, uncomplicated conformity.  Nothing to explain, nothing to defend.  Nothing to justify to my fiance or to my friends, but most of all to myself.  Having two conflicting self-images – of Brandon the eccentric spiritualist and Brandon the regular Joe – was producing that peculiar discomfort that psychologists call cognitive dissonance.  The rift between the two images was experienced as a wound.  And the blade that struck that wound, by laying plain the contradiction, was the retreat.  Hence, in a mostly subconscious process, I was already beginning to resent it.

This wasn’t the first time this pattern had emerged.  For about five years I practiced Buddhism, and for another five a polytheistic form of Paganism.  Both of those seem alien to me today; I can no longer identify with them.

But the pattern had also emerged more recently than that, very recently in fact.  I realized that I had done the very same thing with my graduate program to get my teachers license in ESL.  Over the last twelve months, I had gone through one of the most demanding academic experiences of my life.  At one point during student teaching, I was putting in ninety-five hours per week.  I had emerged just one week ago shaken and uneasy.  I couldn’t relax without feeling guilty, and couldn’t think about the job search without feeling anxious.  A string of psychosomatic illnesses had arisen throughout the program, and showed no signs of stopping.  That was the reason I entered therapy, and it was the primary motivation for this retreat.  The realization dawned that the grad program, too, had left me wounded.  I had taken on a greater challenge than ever before, laying myself vulnerable to failure.  And in that moment of vulnerability, my body began to rebel.  Stress-induced illnesses revealed the limit of how far I could push myself.  Hitherto, I had always been a success at whatever whim dared me to do.  There was a sense of infinite potential.  But this experience showed me a self that was finite.  The two self-images, that of Brandon with infinite potential and Brandon who can handle no more, collided with each other.  The result was cognitive dissonance, a wound, and the urge to flee from the teaching profession.  From this perspective, it became clear that my self-image had become totally identified with the program, so that success as a teacher equaled success as a person.  A threat to the one was a threat to the other.  Teaching itself had become an object of fear.

There it was.  The source of my anxiety was unmasked.

Leaf below the water of Quaking Bog

Beneath the surface lies knowledge waiting to be discovered.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 10, 2011

The goal

No complaints?, I thought as I sat beside my friend in the car after the end of the retreat.  Was the experience so un-enlightening that I had nothing more to say than that?

I see now that a goal had been achieved.  It wasn’t serenity, or peace, or ecstasy, or enlightenment.  No, the goal achieved was nothing so dramatic.  But perhaps it was worth far more.  It was self-knowledge.

Humanistic Paganism is not a path of transcendence.  It does not seek mystical elevation, divine epiphany, apotheosis, redemption, or the cessation of suffering.  Rather, it centers the individual on humanity and the human experience.  That includes all the faults and frailties that go along with being human.

I entered this retreat with hopes of relieving stress and putting the path into practice.  What I have emerged with is a new understanding of myself.  Whereas before I felt the source of my anxiety in teaching, now I know it to lie within myself.

Now begins the real work: changing my attitude to reflect this insight.  Acknowledging a truth is one thing, integrating it quite another.  Mental habits need to change.  Only then will the pattern of vulnerability-wounding-withdrawal give way to a more productive structure.  I need to learn to recognize the fear inside me and own it.

It occurs to me at the end of this post that the preceding may appear sentimental.  After all, I have not done anything special to arrive at this claim of self-knowledge.  I have not climbed a mountain, braved the wilderness, or created a lasting work of art.  Mostly I have stayed home and worked on my own frailties of mind.  But to denigrate that endeavor is to distance once again from the experience, to shield the vulnerability.  Even as I write this, I can feel the urge to harden the heart.

And that is not how it will go this time.

Pool below Minnehaha Falls

Within the depths lies the goal: self-knowledge.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 9, 2011

Humanistic Paganism

Create Your Badge

Bit of a delay tomorrow…

Due to a full schedule of socialization tomorrow, the final post of the retreat will be delayed.  Sunday will feature the last post of the retreat.  I will be talking about reflection and wonder.

Retreat, day six: Displacements

Dawn over Minneapolis

Waking at dawn is not something I normally do unless I absolutely must, and that is why it made an effective practice.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 13, 2011

– by B. T. Newberg

The retreat is almost over already – tomorrow is the last day.  From the beginning I’ve been carrying a token, a small stone found at Minnehaha Falls.  This represents my commitment to the retreat.  Tomorrow at noon, at the moment of greatest light, I will throw the stone into the Mississippi River to mark the official end of the retreat.

The token serves as a kind of reinforcement called a displacement.  That’s what I’ll be talking about today.


Buzz, buzz went the alarm on my phone set to vibrate.  It was 5:10 a.m. and I wanted anything but to haul my behind out of bed.  My fiance mumbled an incoherent word as if deep in a dream, then rolled over.  Outside, the darkness lifted ever so slightly, as the first hints of morning seeped in through the window.  I pulled back the covers and stumbled into the bathroom to brush my teeth.

Waking at dawn is not something I do unless I absolutely must.  That is why it was perfect as a displacement, or practice which displaces the ordinary flow of the status quo.  Most retreats and spiritual paths feature something like it – special restrictions or duties undertaken as part of the experience.  Some of these are cast in moral terms, others purificatory.  Often they are consistent with the lifestyle required of a specialist in the path, such as a monk or priest.  For example, Buddhist retreats may hold participants to a number of monk-like precepts, such as abstinence from drinking alcohol, eating after a certain time, or lying on luxurious beds.  Ignatian Christian retreats may include total silence as part of the experience.  In the ancient world, the Isian Mysteries required a period of sexual abstinence prior to initiation.  Such practices typically have important rationales within the worldview of the particular spiritual tradition, and serve to instill values and support progress toward the goal.  At the same time, they also serve another function, which usually goes unstated.  That function is to signal to the mind that something out of the ordinary is happening.

We go through our day so supported by habit and routine that it can be difficult to break out of that flow.  It’s not enough to tell yourself to change; your whole being needs to hear the message.  For that, you need to engage the language of the subconscious: symbolism.  By performing certain symbolic actions or taking on certain signs of commitment, you can communicate a message your subconscious will understand.  Wearing special garb, such as a monk’s robe, can do the trick, since clothing is so central to identity.  Abstaining from a favored activity, such as eating meat or drinking alcohol or coffee, can also be effective.

In my case, I have chosen three major displacements: 1) waking at dawn; 2) abstaining from junk food, sweets, alcohol, and coffee; and 3) carrying a token on my person at all times, to be given up at the end of the retreat.  These are effective choices because they are quite contrary to my usual routine.  I don’t normally wake at dawn.  I consume an embarrassing amount of junk food and sweets (cookie dough is my Achilles’ heel), and often enjoy coffee during the day and alcohol in the evening.  And it is certainly not my habit to go around carrying little fetish-like tokens on me.  So, these displacements constitute a significant break from the status quo.

An important note should be inserted here: It cannot be emphasized enough that in Humanistic Paganism, displacements imply no moral judgment of these activities.  They are simply disruptions of routine that signal the mind to wake up.  One may decide to abstain from sex during a retreat, for example, while affirming the positive value of this natural human activity.  No comment whatsoever is made as to whether it is good or bad in itself, only that abstinence marks a difference.

The token - a stone found at Minnehaha Falls

A small stone found at Minnehaha Falls on Day One served as a token carried on my person throughout the retreat. Tomorrow, at noon, I will cast it into the Mississippi River.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 13, 2011

Displacements and cognitive dissonance

These practices can support you in times of flagging enthusiasm.  When you encounter the desire to give up – which may come to the surface when tempted to “cheat” by ignoring a displacement – you are forced to ask yourself why you are on retreat in the first place.  Is it really worth it?, may come the voice.  Would it really matter if I “cheated” just a little?  A moment of reflection is imposed as you decide.

At this moment of decision, there flashes into play the influence of cognitive dissonance, that uncomfortable feeling which accompanies conflicting beliefs.  In this case, the conflict is between the belief that you are a rational human being and the belief that what you have chosen to do doesn’t matter.  If it didn’t matter, it would have been irrational to undertake it in the first place.  But I am a rational person, so it must matter, you tell yourself.  Thus, that feeling of discomfort prods you to stay the course.  This is a bit of mental sleight-of-hand that keeps us going, not just through retreats but through jobs and relationships too.

If at this point it sounds like lying to yourself to avoid change, you’re right – partly.  Cognitive dissonance can keep us in negative situations, spurring us to rationalize dead-end pursuits just to maintain our self-image.  But I wouldn’t sell it short; cognitive dissonance can have positive value too.  Employed mindfully and for the right reasons, it can offer precisely the support needed to overcome momentary temptations and continue toward a greater payoff in the future.  Displacements, like a commitment not to eat chocolate for the duration of the retreat, serve as stimuli for the fruitful engagement of cognitive dissonance.  When that Hershey bar appears before you, you hold back so as not to spoil what you have worked for.  In so doing, you are shown something valuable: how far you are willing to go to create change.  Your resolve becomes even greater than if you had undertaken no displacements at all.  The Hershey bar becomes a symbol of your commitment.  And that is a message the subconscious can understand.

By the way, the feeling of worthlessness that follows upon failure to uphold a displacement – i.e. if you do eat the chocolate bar after all – is a result of cognitive dissonance too.  When you “cheat”, your subconscious understands that the retreat really isn’t worth it, that it really was irrational to undertake it, and that you are a stupid human being for having done so.  Hence, the result is low self-worth.  Approached mindfully, such an experience can be instructive.  You are not really stupid, of course.  It was simply a moment of impulse in which you lost sight of the goal.  Next time, you will know that the payoff in the end is worth the little stuff in-between.  Reasoning thus, self-esteem can be restored at the same time that commitment is reaffirmed.

I had both successes and failures on this retreat.  First of all, there was frequent craving for Cheez-its and chocolate, and I really thirsted for a beer in the evenings, but I stayed pretty true to my resolve.  My fiancé did call me out on some hot chocolate, though.  When I resolved to abstain from sweets I had cookie dough and ice cream in mind, but not hot chocolate.  I guess it is a sweet, though.  So, pride brought low, I admit a bit of cheating there.

Second, getting up at dawn was rough – I wanted to give up almost every morning.  Once I got going, though, it was no big deal.  I actually had more energy throughout the day as a result.

Finally, the token proved interesting.  It is a different kind of displacement than the other two, insofar as it imposes nothing to carry it around in my pocket.  The temptation, rather, was to forget it was even there.  It took a while to figure out how to involve it more in my practice, to make its presence felt throughout the week.  Finally, I gave it a role during the observations of sunrise.  I would hold it in my hand as I gazed at the sun and said an affirmation: The night ends, the day begins; it will be a good day if I let it.  Then I would kiss the stone and return it to my pocket.  Throughout the day I would thumb it gently, reminding myself it was there.  By now the stone feels personal, like a bond has been made.  I almost want to keep it now.  When I cast it into the river tomorrow to end the retreat, it will be significant.  Which is exactly what I’d hoped.  Giving up an item to which I have bonded should invoke enough pathos to make an impression on the subconscious.  The moment will be memorable and transformational.

Last, before ending this post, I have a final confession.  I have been absolutely terrible about observing sunset.  It wasn’t a displacement specifically, but it’s still a significant violation of commitment.  Time and again I found myself wrapped up in writing retreat reflections.  Even when I started setting an alarm for myself, I would still try to finish up things before going out to see the sunset – and end up forgetting altogether.  I guess that says something about how I work.  Perhaps my therapist was right; maybe I do need to “dial back” the intensity a bit.  This gives me something to work on as I head back into the ordinary flow of non-retreat life.

The overall effect of displacements on the retreat experience has been to remind the mind, constantly, that something out of the ordinary is happening.  As a result, I experienced enhanced resolve and heightened awareness.  There is no intention of making permanent ethical obligations of them – I do love my Cheez-its and cookie dough, after all.  And I can’t wait for a beer.  But I can say with confidence that the retreat was far more fulfilling for having gone without.  It has taught me the strength of resolve that I can bring to bear when needed.  It has shown me my commitment.  And it made every moment of the retreat stand out as something special.

Sunset over Minneapolis

Gazing at the sunset, I marveled at the beauty I so often miss.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, May 12, 2011
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