Humanistic Paganism

Retreat, day four: Psychology and mythology

Hailstorm sky over Minneapolis

The sky puffed and brooded at sunset last night, recalling the awful grandeur of Zeus.

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

– by B. T. Newberg

The sky roiled red last night.  Neighbors in my apartment watched in horror as hail rained down on their cars.  Afterward, my fiance discovered the door to the roof had been left open, so we went up and beheld the blood-red sky.  Through my mind shot a phrase from ancient Greek, Zeus uei – Zeus is raining.”

Zeus rules the sky and casts the thunderbolt.  It was commonplace for the Greeks to say not “it’s raining” but “Zeus is raining.” What is the effect of mythologizing the rain so?  What does it do for mental health?  And what does it do for me?

Psychology

For the first time in my life, I find myself in therapy.  Over the course of the last year, as I underwent an intensive graduate-level program to get my teachers license in English as a Second Language (ESL), I started to experience poor health.  A string of illnesses, from canker sores to strep throat to mono to a strange rash on my left foot that doctors could not diagnose, appeared suspiciously timed to stressful events in the program.  Bringing my concerns to the doctor, I was put on medication for generalized anxiety.  I had a terrible reaction, though, producing one of the most traumatic weeks of my life.  Instead of alleviating anxiety, it actually induced it.  I found myself unable to study or work; all I could do to keep it together was watch T.V. while gently rocking myself.

I got off the meds, and that was the end of that.  Now I have more time, so I’m trying another option.  This morning was my first session of group therapy.  It felt weird and uncomfortable having a cohort of strangers fix on me and my issues, even for a few minutes.  Nevertheless, some important points were made.  I have a tendency to throw myself into tasks heart and soul, whether it’s teaching or this blog, and work tirelessly to create a product of which I can be proud.  Unfortunately, this same process wears my body down due to accumulated stress.  Indeed, I have found myself working late into the night to publish these retreat reflections, not unlike how I pushed myself when I was student teaching. Even on vacation, I’m working myself into an early grave.

The Desperate Man, Gustage Courbet, 1844-45

Medication induced anxiety, creating one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.

image enhanced from original by Gustave Courbet

Mythology

Psychology has made much of myth in the last century.  Freud used it to form his Oedipal theory, as did Jung to inform his theory of the collective unconscious and its archetypes, and Claude Levi-Strauss to discover his “deep structures.”  Joseph Campbell thought he found a single “monomyth” pervading all mythology, a story told over and over in various iterations of the hero’s journey.  James Hillman founded his archetypal psychology on polytheism, Rollo May developed the notion of the daimonic from its mythic origins, and Carol Pearson mined myth to construct her model of hero archetypes in the personality.  Each in their own way gazed at myth, with its cast of deities and heroes, and saw some deeper meaning or structure.  Emerging from this vision, they concluded that the figures of myth are something other or more than they appear to be.

This is part of a tradition of allegorical interpretation going back as far as recorded history, and perhaps farther.  Alongside those who took gods and myths literally, there were those who had other ideas.  The Stoics of Greece and Rome, for example, proclaimed deities to be metaphors for forces of nature.  Some scholars believe myths are the products of early peoples’ attempts to explain the natural universe, a pre-intellectual mode of speculation called mythopoeic thinking.  The allegorical tradition has a venerable pedigree indeed.  However, I can’t help but feel that each in their own way has somehow gotten it wrong.  Interpreting myth x to signify meaning y has an air of finality to it that silences other interpretations.

What myths really are, in my opinion, are deeply resonant images to which the human imagination responds by creating meaning.  In the act of searching for the “true” meaning, a new meaning is created.  Myths are not reservoirs containing meanings waiting to be found; they are creative stimuli midwifing the birth of the new.  Each allegorist is startled to see in it something no one else has, and feels compelled to go tell it on the mountain.  In truth, however, they are simply participating in an eternal process of meaning-making.

I participate in this process when I contemplate myths, read omens, or talk to gods in ritual.  Each time I do so, something new is created that colors experience and situates it within a meaningful aesthetic context.  Erich Fromm wrote of two modes of meeting the world: the reproductive and the generative.  The former reproduces what is encountered “out there” as realistically as possible, while the latter brings something to the world from one’s own productive powers.  Everyone employs a combination of the two; I happen to be a highly generative person.  For me, experience is meaningful by virtue of a symbiosis between sensations from without and creative interpretation from within.

Apollo, c 450 BC

The gods, such as Apollo, send illness when they feel deprived of the honor they deserve, just as illness erupts when parts of the psyche are neglected.

Image enhanced from original: Apollon, Athenian red-figure kylix
C5th B.C., Archaeological Museum of Delphi

Psychology, myth, and me

Sitting at a picnic table at Elliot Park beneath a leafy canopy, watching parents watch their children play, I contemplated how it is that I manage to overwork myself to the point of illness.  The therapist had urged me to “dial back a notch”, to turn down the intensity to a reasonable level.  I’ve never thought of myself as an overly-ambitious person or a perfectionist.  Certainly I’d never experienced illness as a result prior to this grad program.  It is a bit of a mystery as to how I managed to become so over-zealous this past year.

With these questions in mind, I ambled about the park picking up trash.  Do you really think picking up a few plastic bottles makes any difference?, came a voice in my head.  I responded by asking, A difference to whom?  It certainly wasn’t going to save the world.  As for the environment, it’s but a drop in the bucket.  The park may be a little cleaner, but then again the same amount of trash will keep appearing day after day.  The real difference it makes, I concluded, was a difference to me.  I feel better for having done it, for supporting the planet in some small way if not saving it on a grand scale, and for being a responsible inhabitant of this earth.  Gaia, the earth mother, deserves as much.  Cleaning her parks is cleaning myself.  To put the outer world in order is to put the inner world in order.  It has meaning for me.

There goes that generative mode again.  Over and above the environmental impact of the activity is the personal impact on meaning.  What I bring to the activity is as significant as the activity itself.

It occurred to me, as I circulated the park, that I have two obsessions: one with science, and the other with myth.  The former is needed to feel effective, for I am not satisfied to teach and write and create for mere entertainment.  I want what I do to have a positive and lasting effect, and for that it is necessary to proceed according to proven, logically-sound, empirically-verified principles.  The latter, on the other hand, is needed to feel inspired.  As a grad student, I went all-in on the scientific side in order to procure the knowledge necessary to be an effective teacher.  Meanwhile, the mythic side steadily grew impatient.

The gods send illness when they feel deprived of the honor they deserve.  Apollo, for example, struck the Achaeans with plague after Agamemnon kidnapped one of his priestesses.  Perhaps it was my single-minded devotion to work that offended that other side of me, so that it sent me illness.  Psychosomatic sicknesses followed as the irrational, creative impulse erupted in protest.

This finally brings me to the Greek phrase that shot through my mind last night during the trembling storm: Zeus uei, Zeus is raining.  Why did the Greeks mythologize the rain?  Why have cultures throughout history turned to mythology to understand experience?  And why does the allegorical tradition continue even within modern psychology?  I get the feeling that mental health is a balance of inner and outer energies, a harmony of the reproductive and the generative modes.  True, many people live full and complete lives without particular need for mythology.  But others are more generative, and turn to myth as an aid in meaning-making.  The Greeks mythologized the rain to make it their own, to bring it within the fold of their creative understanding.  I mythologize my life in the same way.  Myth helps meaning body forth through creative acts of interpretation.  And this brings wholeness and healing to the psyche.

Picking up bottles

Over and above the environmental impact, picking up trash has creative personal meaning for me.

Photo by B. T. Newberg, 2011

Retreat, day three: Meditation

Foam on the Mississippi River

When the mind is clouded, meditation helps clear away the muck.

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

– by B. T. Newberg

It’s the third day of the retreat.  In my experience, day three is the make-it-or-break-it day.  The initial high has worn off, and the challenges have begun.  Temptations to quit cloy at the mind, and your resolve is put to the test.  This was true to my experience today.  I’ll talk a little about that, and then about a very important topic: meditation.

The omen drawn last night from the Haindl Tarot was the Three of Stones: Work.  Knowing that day three often brings challenges, I thought to myself, Now the real work begins.

Meditation I: Deep Relaxation

The last activity of each evening on the retreat is deep relaxation meditation.  I use it to let go of the day and slip into a deep, restful sleep.  It is widely recommended by psychologists and spiritualists alike, and is not hard to learn.  You simply sit or lie down in a comfortable position, and bring your awareness to each part of your body, relaxing each in turn.  Listening to a guided meditation recording can be helpful.  Click the link below for an mp3 audio recording.

Click for a Guided Meditation in Deep Relaxation – mp3

(opens in Fileswap)

Deep relaxation is something I’ve been practicing since high school, yet I found it difficult during my grad program this last year.  I found myself so full of tension from study and work, that I couldn’t let it all go.  I could only attain a superficial level of relaxation.  Only now, during vacation after the end of spring term, am I finally finding myself able to go deeper.  I have yet to reach the levels I used to reach, however.

Rocky lake shore at Lake Toba, Indonesia

Deep relaxation soothes, calms, and clears away tension.

photo by B. T. Newberg, 2002

Interlude: Ritual and Cognitive Dissonance

In the morning I awoke at dawn and went to my statue of Isis.  As I poured the water libation and chanted, I could feel a reaction inside me against it.  Quickly turning my gaze inward, I saw that it manifested as a warm, unpleasant sensation in my solar plexus, and it seemed to resist the idea of performing rituals before a statue.  Intrigued, I used imagination to allow the feeling a voice, and it said in a cynical tone, Seriously?  Praying before a statue?  Have you lost it completely?  Without responding to the voice, I realized what I was experiencing was cognitive dissonance.  This is an uncomfortable feeling caused by entertaining contradictory ideas at the same time.  On the one hand, I withhold belief in the literal existence of gods.  On the other hand, I perform ritual to mythological gods for its psychological benefits.  The conflict between withholding belief and performing ritual was creating cognitive dissonance.  Reflecting on this, it occurred to me that this might not be a bad thing.  Instead, I could see it as a trigger for questioning.  Why, exactly, did this part of me object?  Was it genuinely concerned with rational consistency, or was it more worried about what others would think if they saw me?  Was it concerned with my well-being, or the opinions of others?  As I contemplated these questions, the feeling dissipated rapidly.  In its wake was a sense of insight and self-knowledge.

Hailstorm sky

Conflicting beliefs create roiling tensions in the mind.

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

Meditation II: Fire, Ice, and Fog

How often do we find our minds too clogged and cluttered to peer into its depths?  This has been discussed with regard to divination and ritual, two practices which can help get past that surface chatter.  The trump card, though, is meditation.  Through a combination of relaxation and concentration, meditation is able to focus the light of introspection into a laser.

But there are many different kinds of meditation, so I should be clear about what I’m talking about.  One kind, as seen above, is deep relaxation.  Another is breath meditation.  This is probably what I’ve found most useful over the eleven or so years that I’ve been meditating.  There are already lots of excellent audio-recorded training talks available online (Gil Fronsdal, Tara Brach, and Mark Nunberg are personal favorites), so I won’t introduce breath meditation here.  What I do want to introduce is an experimental meditation which I’ve been developing and exploring during this retreat.  It belongs to a third type of meditation, namely visualization.

Visualization is the practice of picturing certain imagery in the mind’s eye, imagery which may have desired effects on the mind.  For example, you may imagine walking along a seashore, and as a result begin to feel the calm that goes along with such an experience.  Neurological research has shown that the same areas of the brain activate when thinking about an action as when actually doing it.  In other words, there is no difference in terms of brain activity between skiing down a slope and visualizing it.  This gives some idea of the potential that lies in visualization meditation.

The Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation, also called the Three Wells meditation, is a visualization intended to assist introspection of three kinds of mental phenomena: desires and aversions, repressed material, and mood states.  There are many more species of mental objects, but these have been singled out for their particular utility in managing emotions in one’s daily life.  Desires and aversions are visualized as fire, which greedily spreads toward an object (desire) while at the same time its tongues leap away from it (aversion).  Repressed material is represented by blocks of ice encasing what your mind doesn’t want you to see.  Finally, mood states are seen as mist or fog that body through the air and may obscure your vision.  These mental phenomena are neither good nor bad in and of themselves, but their influence can take you in places you’d rather not go if you’re not careful.  Becoming aware of them breaks the spell of their influence, so that you can live free and fully conscious.  That is the intention behind this meditation.  A nuanced development of the Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation is available here.

Each morning during this retreat, I’ve performed the Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation.  Three wells are visualized, one filled with fire, another with frigid black water in which blocks of ice float, and a third with wisps of mist.  By gazing into these wells, a picture of one’s inner state is revealed.  The shape of the tongues of flame, for example, may suggest or bring to mind specific desires or aversions which are manifest presently but not necessarily obvious.  In this way, ignored or missed thoughts and feelings can be brought into the light of awareness.  Once noticed, they can be dealt with fruitfully by observing them, questioning them, and gently letting them be.

Of all the benefits I’ve ever experienced from meditation, by far the greatest is knowing what you are feeling at the moment you experience it.  It sounds simple and automatic, but often we go unaware of our feelings, even intense ones.  For example, how many times have you failed to notice yourself getting angry till a friend points it out to you?  Or how many times have you walked into a crowd of new faces and not realized your nervousness till your words fumble coming out of your mouth?  Awareness of such feelings gives you the opportunity to step back, take a deep breath, and make a conscious decision of how you want to act.  Knowledge is power, as the old adage goes (or perhaps we should say, awareness is power).

In this retreat, I’ve become aware of feelings of excitement, joy, nervousness, embarrassment, tiredness, hope and hopelessness, and more through the help of the Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation.  I’ve noticed unhelpful self-critical thoughts and self-aggrandizing preoccupations, as well as positive self-affirming thoughts.  I won’t go into them all, but there’s one that deserves detail.  It has to do with the tarot card drawn last night.

The tarot card was the Three of Stones: Work.  This morning, as I sat in meditation, I vividly perceived a desire to present my experience in a certain way for this blog.  Thoughts of how to present what I was doing so cluttered my mind that I could barely concentrate on what I was actually doing.  I realized that I was turning the experience into work.  With that discovery, it became easier to refocus on the task at hand, no longer harried by visions of how great it might look on the web.  This illustrates how becoming aware of mental phenomena empowers you to take conscious control of how you live each day.

By now, a picture is starting to form of the psychological benefits that are claimed for spiritual practices.  Consistently throughout this retreat, divination, ritual, and meditation have dug up important insights that might otherwise have lied buried beneath the mental clutter.  If that isn’t progress, I don’t know what is.  This is preliminary evidence that Humanistic Paganism is a valid path capable of helping one fulfill that ancient injunction inscribed above the gate to the Oracle of Delphi: “Know thyself.”

Foam and trees in the Mississippi River

Beneath the muck, amidst the roots of the mind, lies self-knowledge.

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

Retreat, day two: Nature and the Five +1

– by B. T. Newberg

Today I’ll talk about spending time in nature, and exploring the Five +1 (fives senses, plus one introspective sense).  Befitting the topic, there’s extra sensory stimulation in this post: not only images but a video too (click play above).

Last night I drew an omen for today (see Day One for a discussion of naturalistic divination).  The card that came up was the Nine of Swords: Cruelty, which in the Haindl Tarot signals either suffering or inflicting oppression.

This morning I awoke at dawn to meditate and soon encountered cruelty of a kind.  Whereas yesterday I was aglow with excitement for this retreat, today I felt no such thing.  I had to drag myself out of bed.  Then, as I knelt before my statue of Isis, I thought to myself Why am I doing this? and This is stupid.  I looked out the window, and it looked so rainy out there.  Oh, greatSo much for spending time in nature today.  Pretty soon my fiance, unable to sleep, got up.  Suddenly I was filled with nervousness and embarrassment.  I usually do ritual alone, because I feel weird doing spiritual practices around other people who don’t share the same beliefs.  Even my fiance, who loves and supports me in this, puts me a little on edge.  I couldn’t concentrate because half my mind was worried about what she might think seeing me chanting in front of a statue of a goddess that I don’t even believe is real (see Day One for why I do nontheistic ritual).

That’s when I realized I was inflicting a kind of oppression.  It wasn’t cruelty toward others, but toward myself.  The voice of the self-critic was blaring away in my head.  From the moment I got up, it had been one vitriol after another.  Catching myself thus, I made a decisive decision to change my thinking.

Trees rippling in Quaking Bog

The mind is easily clouded with surface chatter. Spiritual practices like spending time in nature can help bring deeper thoughts and feelings to light.

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

Spending time in nature

Gazing out at the early morning rain, I decided to make the most of it.  I went out on the veranda with my camera and started filming.  Quickly I grew absorbed in the work.  Lightning forked across the sky, and the camera caught it reflected in a puddle forming on the patio table.  A rumble of thunder followed, and all my negative feelings disappeared. I stood entranced by the cool pitter-patter of drops on my head, and the smell of fresh rain.  When I finally went inside, I went straight to work mixing the clips into a video meditation, which you can see for yourself above.

I had expected the day’s nature experience to be a wash (no pun intended), but instead it turned out profound.  All it took was a change of attitude.  Spiritual practices seem to have the power to catalyze such changes – but I’ve already talked about that.  Now, I want to talk about the world of our senses: the Five +1.

Pondside trees at Wirth Park

Spending time in nature calms and quiets the mind.

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

The Five +1

Nature comes to us through five doors: the eyes, ears, tongue, nose, and skin.  By the proper application of these five senses,  empirical science has developed detailed knowledge of nearly every aspect of our world.  The five senses are the keys that unlock knowledge.

But there is another sense that yields knowledge, self-knowledge.  The power of introspection, which enables us to perceive feelings, emotions, thoughts, and mental images, can be thought of as a kind of sense.  We don’t normally think of it as such here in the West, although Buddhism made that conceptual leap some 2500 years ago.  The power of introspection amounts to an additional faculty of sensation.  I’ll refrain from calling it a “sixth sense”, lest it acquire psychic or magical connotations, and instead call it the “+1” in Five +1.  What I’m talking about is thoroughly ordinary.  The extraordinary thing is that we typically pay it so little attention.  Other than surface thoughts and gross feelings like hunger, most mental phenomena slip by unnoticed.  Further, what little consideration we do give mental processes is often biased or confabulated (see introspection illusion).  Often it takes a practice like therapy to help us realize what’s really going on deep down.  If, however, we conceive of introspection as a faculty of sense, then we are empowered to look inside and discover a new frontier of nature (yes, nature, for we humans are as much a part of nature as stars or toadstools).  Just as there are birdwatchers, we can be thoughtwatchers.  The value of such activity is self-knowledge.

I mentioned earlier that I caught myself thinking negatively this morning, and turned my attitude around.  Spiritual practices like meditation and ritual seem to aid in such introspection.  In this case, it was the image of last night’s tarot card that helped me see the cruelty I was inflicting on myself.  Another particularly helpful practice is spending time in natural environs.  Walking along a wooded trail, mountain path, or seashore seems to have the effect of calming and quieting the mind.  It is then, when the ordinary surface chatter is muted, that deeper thoughts and feelings can well up from below.  Insights may arise, or just a simple sense of peace.  Nature outside begins to sync with nature inside as the illusion of separateness dissipates.  Wholeness permeates the complete world of the Five +1.

Birch branch at Quaking Bog

Harmony is when outer nature and inner nature are in sync.

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

Responsibility, almost

After the rain stopped, I took my bike on a long ride out to Wirth Park and Quaking Bog, which are almost in the suburbs.  Meandering around the wetlands, I found myself getting off my bike and trudging around off-trail.  My senses were heightened as I carefully weaved my way around branches, thorns, and fallen logs.  A brilliant red cardinal sang above me, and a wild turkey shot through the bushes.  Beneath my feet the ground squished and slogged.  I had to weigh each step to make sure I  didn’t sink into the muck.  I felt my thought process slow, and my awareness grow, as I adjusted to the pace.

The wetland was littered with plastic bottles, and I started gathering them up as I went along.  I had no idea how I was going to carry them out, as I had no bag with me.  I just started making piles, partly for the fun of it.  Honestly, I actually enjoy picking up trash.  I call it trashmonking, because I have this ridiculous vision of monks walking along meditating and picking up trash.  In any case, after gathering plastic bottles for a while I came across some plastic bags and ended up carrying three full shopping bags of bottles out of the wetlands.

Feeling proud of myself, I headed home on my bike.  Unfortunately, I was a little too proud, and cruised through a crosswalk without noticing the don’t walk light.  A left-turning car honked and the guy behind him shouted, “Hey, don’t you know what ‘Don’t Walk’ means?”  So, I was a responsible citizen today – almost.

The value of responsibility is several fold.  Not only is it good for others around you, it’s also good for you.  The Humanist Manifesto III boldly affirms the greatest potential for human fulfillment lies in benefiting others.  If you don’t buy that, there’s the simple fact that people need to live together, so preserving the circle of good will and trust is in your own interest.  Environmentally, a similar relationship obtains: sustainable living keeps the planet livable for us and our descendants, so it’s in our interest to treat the planet well.  Finally, there’s the generally pleasant feeling that accompanies doing right by others and the world.

I felt a hedonist’s delight today as I was hauling trash out of Wirth Park.  And when I messed up at the crosswalk, I curtailed the anger I might have felt at the drivers.  Using the power of introspection, I was able to notice my feeling of embarrassment, acknowledge it, and gently observe it fade as I went on with my day.

Today began with a bit of cruelty, but a change of attitude opened me to a rewarding experience of nature – first in the rain, then in the park.  By the faculty of introspection I sensed awareness growing within, and a sense of peace pervaded the world of the Five +1.

Picking up plastic bottles at Wirth Park

It’s in our interest to do right by others, ourselves, and our planet.

 photo by B. T. Newberg, May 9, 2011

Retreat, day one: Divination and ritual

Libation scene

Divination and ritual operate on a psychological level to realize human potential.

image enhanced from original: Libation scene, Greek red figure vase, c. 480 BC

– by B. T. Newberg

Today is the first day of a seven-day Humanistic Pagan retreat.  Each day I’ll concentrate on describing one or two key experiences or activities.  Today I’ll talk about divination and ritual.

Divination

What do I need to see to make the most of tomorrow?, I quietly asked while shuffling the deck.  Then I turned over a card from the Haindl Tarot.  It was the Three of Wands: Virtue.

I find that tarot cards, far from telling the future, tell about the mind.  The evocative cards spur a creative process.  Associations leap as the mind interprets their meaning, and what results may reveal hitherto hidden thoughts and feelings, or generate new ones.  Card selection is random, and each card is rich enough to apply to nearly any situation.  The game of divination is essentially an exercise in lateral thinking.

The card that came up this time was the Three of Wands: Virtue.  It suggests the power of character.  My mind associated it with the virtues of willpower, creativity, and integrity which will help me respond productively to this retreat.  With this image swirling in my mind, I went to sleep.

Three of Wands

Forget fortune-telling – even if divination did have the power to tell the future, it would pale in comparison to the power of unlocking one’s inner voices.

image enhanced from original by Hermann Haindl

Ritual

I woke at dawn, leaving my fiance to sleep.  Emerging from the bedroom, I went out and took in the pale blue sky from my third-story apartment window.  I didn’t bother turning on the lights, but went straight to my statue of the goddess Isis.

In Egyptian myth, Isis is the archetypal mother and magician.  Her husband Osiris is the murdered king and lord of the dead, and her son Horus, the young heir to the throne.  She was identified with Demeter, Artemis, Io, and other goddesses of the Graeco-Roman world.  I know her as the Veiled Lady from a dream-like experience in which she appeared as a woman with a white veil covering her face, glowing from within.  When a wind lifted the veil, it revealed only more darkness beneath.  This image fits an inscription on her temple at Sais, reported by Plutarch: “I am all that is, was, and shall be, and no mortal has yet lifted my veil.”  Ever since, she has been my goddess, even as I withhold belief in the literal existence of gods.  I have always been agnostic, and the dream image further confirmed me in that.  After all, it suggests that the unknown is the unknown, and that is that.  Try as you might to lift the veil of mystery, but all you shall find is more darkness beneath.

I knelt before the statue of Isis, knowing that she represented a part of me, my highest self, and that to kneel is not to submit but to honor that self.  Ritual is connecting with deep parts of oneself or the world through dialogue with mythological forms.  By communicating outwardly with the forms, one communicates inwardly with the parts of oneself that project onto those forms.  I lit a candle, rang a bell three times, then chanted an Egyptian prayer of awakening I’d learned years before.  I find chanting calms me, takes me outside my normal frame of reference, and puts me in touch with a voice deep inside.  The Pavlovian associations built up over years of such chanting efficiently recall a contemplative state of mind.  Today, it had that same effect.  I found myself slipping into a calm, relaxed state of concentration in which words could flow from the heart.  After chanting, I poured a libation of water into a cup before the statue.  Libation is a kind of ritual, a form of offering common in Ancient Greek, Roman, and other Mediterranean cultures.  It consists of the pouring out of a liquid, such as wine, honey, milk, or water, accompanied by a prayer to a deity, ancestor, or spirit.  I spoke words to Isis, requesting that I might see what I need to see this week in order to overcome stress and recover my center.  As I asked for wisdom and courage, I could feel the grip of stress loosening.

Isis statue

Through the outward form of interacting with mythological beings, an inner voice is awakened.

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

The value of divination and ritual

That morning I felt clear and open.  Perhaps it was the excitement of a new experience.  When my fiance came out and joined me for breakfast, I felt like I was genuinely turned toward her with both body and mind.  Later I rode my bike to Minnehaha Falls, enjoying a strenuous but exhilarating ride.  When I arrived, I cleaned up trash around the park for my good deed, and found a modest white stone to serve as the token I will carry for the week.  It was a good start to the day.  Soon, however, I grew uneasy.  I had trouble feeling a connection with nature, and instead felt guilt for taking this time for myself.  I’m on vacation, but somehow I still feel like I should be working.  Irritation grew as the sunny weather turned gray, and the line for food at the park restaurant grew long.  I came home feeling like I wasn’t really on retreat anymore.  My previous habits of mind had resumed.

Last night’s tarot card had pointed at virtue.  An association leaped to mind, reminding me that the quality of my retreat experience depends on my attitude, my virtues of character.  Will I let myself get irritated and depressed, or will I notice these mental habits and change them for the better?  This point was reinforced by the homework assigned by my therapist, a reading on self-talk and mental habits.  Last night’s tarot card aligned with these very challenges of mind.  It all stacked up to communicate an important lesson about attitude.

As I write this, it occurs to me that the lesson, though meaningful and true, is utterly cliche: “your experience is what you make of it.”  If someone had simply told me that, I would have shrugged it off without a second thought (and probably with a cynical smirk).  But instead of being told it, I experienced it.  That is the value of divination, in my eyes.  Through the powers of association and imagination, wisdom wells up from within.  A voice speaks, and the experience is personal and meaningful.  Forget fortune-telling – even if divination did have the power to tell the future, it would pale in comparison to the power of unlocking one’s inner voices.

The value of ritual is similar.  Through the outward form of interacting with divine or spiritual entities, an inner voice is awakened.  Perhaps the mind is hardwired to respond to ritual stimuli; a growing body of cognitive research suggests it does.  In any case, it has been my experience that enacting ritual conduces to a contemplative state with therapeutic effects.  Sometimes a lesson or insight is learned, other times it is simply a feeling.  Either way, it is a valuable human experience.

In the end, it makes little difference whether divination tells the future or ritual contacts real-existing beings.  A far more interesting question lies in the psychological effects of divination and ritual.  Both offer benefits that help human beings realize their potential.  By doing so, they help bring about a better, fuller human being.

Minnehaha Falls

Minnehaha Falls, part of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis

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

Words into action: A Humanistic Pagan retreat

Sowing and reaping seeds with Demeter

This week I will sow the seeds of a new way of life.

image enhanced from original, original, and Demeter, Attic red figure, c. 480 BC

– by B. T. Newberg

It is time to put words into action.  I am taking the coming week, starting tomorrow, as a seven-day Humanistic Paganism retreat.  This comes at a time of great stress in my life, as well as great potential.  I hope to recover a sense of calm, become centered, and put into practice the principles of Humanistic Paganism.  This will serve as a trial of the validity of this new path.  It will also explain the path in greater detail by way of concrete example.

Goals

  1. release stress and achieve wellness after an extremely demanding graduate program
  2. put principles of Humanistic Paganism into practice

Daily Schedule

Each day will follow the schedule below.

Dawn (5:20 am)
wake at dawn
observe sunrise on veranda at 5:53 am
water libation
yoga
Fire, Ice, and Fog meditation

Day
exercise and time in nature – a different park each day
one good deed each day
Household chores
Exploratory, reflective, or creative free time
Wednesday morning only – therapy

Dusk (9:00 pm)
Observe sunset on veranda at 8:26 pm
cook dinner
social time with my fiance and/or close friends
journal reflection
water libation
Divination for following day

Night
Deep relaxation meditation
Sleep

You’ll notice this schedule dedicates time to socialization.  Some may find this peculiar.  Many spiritual retreats emphasize the aloneness of the retreatent, temporarily cutting off contact from the social world.  I find solitude an important element in the retreat process, and most of my day will be spent alone.  However, complete solitude may be contrary to the spirit of Humanistic Paganism, which emphasizes human needs and potential.  “Man is a social animal” said Aristotle.  Humanistic Paganism does not aim to isolate individuals from that inherent social need.  Epicurus valued socialization so much he’d rather not eat than eat alone, and Martin Buber made dialogue the centerpiece of his existential spirituality.  Humanistic Paganism does not seek a journey away from the world, but toward it.  The Humanistic Pagan functions within the world, including the social world.  The goal is not transcendence but resonance.  Thus, this experimental retreat grounds experience in socialization each evening.

Conversation

“Man is a social animal” says Aristotle. Socialization is an integral aspect of Humanistic Paganism.

image enhanced from original

Incorporation of the Four-fold Path of Humanistic Paganism

The schedule incorporates all four elements of the Humanistic Pagan path, as shown below:

  1. Dedication to the Five +1 – meditation, time in nature, empirical framework of interpretation
  2. Relationship with mythology – libation, divination
  3. Responsible action – one good deed per day, social time with significant other
  4. A sense of wonder – unplanned, spontaneous, but encouraged by time in nature and journal reflection

Displacements

In addition, I’m undertaking a number of what I will call displacements.  By this I mean special practices that displace the status quo, disrupting the ordinary flow of routine in daily life.  Almost all mystical and initiatory religions employ such displacements, but they are typically phrased misleadingly as moral or purificatory injunctions.  These function as signals to the mind that something outside the ordinary is afoot, leading to heightened awareness and openness.  The displacements I will undertake are presented below.

  • waking at dawn
  • abstaining from junk food, sweets, coffee, and alcohol
  • carrying a token, to be sought and found in nature on the first day; the token will be carried on my person at all times, then cast into the Mississippi River on the last day, signalling release from displacements and completion of the retreat

With any luck, this pattern of goals, scheduled activities, and displacements will produce a significant spiritual experience.  I’ll be posting each day on my experiences and challenges along the way.

Meditation at Penang, Malaysia

Meditation is a powerful way to release stress and build awareness.

photo by B. T. Newberg, 2001
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