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Penetrating the world of Spirit

One of the most interesting discoveries I made about modern Paganism is the large number of people attracted to us because they feel at home here. They like the way we celebrate seeing ourselves as a part of a larger world of intrinsic value and beauty. Our society gives little opportunity for people with these feelings to come together in a community. We do, especially in our public Sabbat celebrations.  But they say they have never had a powerful spiritual experience, in whatever way they might define the term.  Some even describe themselves as Pagan atheists.

Their motive for identifying with the rest of us seems to me an excellent reason to consider oneself a Pagan. On the other hand, I am surprised at the numbers of us who have never had a personal experience with this enchanted world. This blog entry is dedicated to those who haven’t and wonder how they might

But I want to make one initial point very clear.  I do not think people who have not had such experiences are in some sense “less evolved” or “inferior” to those of us who have.  In my judgment the core of spirit is love, not amazing encounters, and the size and openness of your heart is a better indicator of your spiritual qualities than whether you see auras, encounter spirits, or can go into trance.  But with that said, such experiences became an important part of my own spiritual life, and in my particular case ultimately enlarged and opened my heart as well, which is their true value.

Two Reasons why people do not have such experiences

There is a famous psychological experiment involving people asked to watch and count the times a basket ball changes hands on a court. A person in a gorilla suit then walks through the shifting players, stops briefly to pound its chest, and moves out of camera range. The bizarrely unusual was in plain sight, and most observers did not notice. (See it for yourself.) 

How much do we all miss for similar reasons? The numinous, the extraordinary, is all around us, penetrating into every dimension of existence, and we do not see it. Instead we learn from our culture as a whole and from the restrictive “monotheisms”  most of us grew up with, that our world is basically just “stuff.” In our broader society debates about spirituality focus in whether or not the unworldly exists or, because only that is supposedly the realm of the spiritual.

In my experience even though it is all around us, the numinous is more subtle than a gorilla walking across a basketball court.  Plenty of such gorillas might be walking by us unnoticed every day, and by the end of this post I hope to teach most of you how to see one.

Secondly, we are taught that while we are centers of will and action, beyond us the world has little of it.  Science has finally caught up with many ‘naïve’ people who long considered animals conscious beings as well.   But as for the world, it is supposedly we who act on it, and it that then reacts mechanically to what we do.  This is a basic assumption of most scientific methodology that usually then equates this knowing mechanistic predictability with knowing Truth.

But if the broad Pagan perspective is true, our connections with the world are primarily relational, not mechanical. And as anyone should know, treating people as if they were objects is not a good way to enter into a satisfying relationship with them.  Manipulation or simply being a spectator does not often result in good relationships. More often it results in inner isolation and loneliness with regard to others. The same holds for the rest of this world.

It seems to me there are three ways from a Pagan perspective that facilitate our entering into a deeper relationship with the reality of the living land, deities and spirits.

Contacting the Numinous: They reach out.

The first is the most spectacular and is also the most out of our control. The numinous contacts us.

For their own reasons, a spiritual power might make itself known to you in a way you cannot deny. Such events have happened to me. The first and most important was when I was a guest at a Midsummer Sabbat in Berkeley, and the Wiccan Goddess was invoked. She came, and nothing was ever the same for me again.  Another encounter much different from that was during a vision quest on Mt. Shasta. Its aftermath was my personal practice taking a strongly shamanic shape with increasingly frequent interactions with the Spirit world. These two encounters were very different except in their being completely life changing and involving an encounter with a far greater than human reality that was aware of me.

Both were completely unexpected.

In both cases I had gone to the trouble of putting myself in the appropriate place for occurring. Indeed, that first Goddess event was utterly beyond my power of imagination let alone expectation. The second was not as unimaginable, but I had been on a vision quest before, and nothing much had happened.  I assumed this one would be little different, and was proven as wrong as I have ever been in my life. I no longer pooh-pooh stories people tell about Mt. Shasta.

Many people have done vision quests and attended Sabbats and do not report such events.  My first such quest was like that, and most of my experiences at Sabbats and Esbats do not involve anything like what I am describing.  Both occurred decades ago and initiated sharp turns in the way I lived and understand my life.  Perhaps that is why they happened.

The lesson here is that these kinds of events are not predictable, but it helps if you put yourself out there.  You are opening yourself up to a relationship with the more-than-human, and She/He/It/They have their own priorities into which you may or may not fit. Relationships are two way things. They happen when they happen, and the decision as to when that will happen, if it does, is not ours. But if they do happen, in my experience they are blessings beyond measure, but often extraordinarily expensive ones. They are far from free.

Beyond putting oneself out there and perhaps praying, there is little one can do.  Patience and persistence are virtues in this regard

Contacting the Numinous: We reach out.

The second strategy is to explore spiritual traditions that accept and encourage personal encounters with spiritual powers as part of that way. There are many ways to practice Pagan spirituality and, thank the Gods, no one claims or could hopefully ever claim a lock on any one way being better than all the others.  But with respect to encountering the sacred and numinous within ritual space, some traditions are vastly more experienced than others. Some seek such encounters in every ritual either for a few participants or even for many. Other traditions are more devotional and communal most of the time. 

I am not arguing traditions focusing on establishing and deepening these connections are superior to those that do not, except in this one dimension.  Because that is what they are about.  Important as it is, there are other dimensions of life and of spirituality that are also important. 

That Midsummer where the Goddess came into my life and transformed it was within a tradition where She was always invited but never invited into the priestess, or anyone else.  That She came in such a context should make it clear I do not regard the distinction between these kinds of groups as making one intrinsically better than the other.

Importantly, groups encouraging various kinds of spirit incorporation generally make greater demands upon their members.  You are enlarging your universe of relationships, and as we all know, relationships in the human world take time and effort to establish and deepen.  The same holds with the more-than-human world. Many people are happy knowing a larger context exists and find meaning and comfort in that knowledge while themselves doing different things with their lives. This is fine. Human life is rich and no one lifetime can explore everything a being is capable to doing.

But for Pagans seeking more intimate relationships with the numinous, in my opinion the greatest loss to Pagan spirituality was the over 1000 year void in the West, where people knowing how to contact and deal with this dimension of the world disappeared from sight. It has nibbled around the edges of Christianity, but is almost always rejected because of theologians’ claim that the spirit world is “fallen” and there is only one God who is very jealous. People are afraid to explore. I regard the Quakers as the most deeply spiritual of Christian traditions because of their emphasis on the heart. They are also unusually open to this dimension, but they are very quiet about it.

Trance mediumship, shamanism, and the gradation of practices between the two, make up a valuable human spiritual heritage our society has almost entirely forgotten. It is present in Africa and the African Diasporic traditions, among the traditional peoples of Asia, including the Chinese, and with traditional Native Americans as well. In fact they exist in one form or another all over the world where monotheisms have not extirpated them. 

That said, African Diasporic agan traditions such as Santeria, Umbanda, and Voudon are present in this country, and sometimes with very deep roots.  Many Pagans have learned a great deal by working with them. In my experience Native Americans are more reticent in sharing this dimension of their knowledge, but it is there if you are fortunate enough to meet and work with an experienced teacher. Today our NeoPagan community is far more aware of this dimension of spiritual experience than was true when the events I mentioned earlier happened to me. We are growing in our own wisdom on these matters. This is particularly the case in NeoPagan traditions that practice theurgy, spirit incorporation, or “aspecting.” In more concrete terms this includes many Gardnerian and British Traditional Wiccan groups and the Reclaiming  and Feri  traditions. In addition, some of those seeking to reinvigorate and enliven old EuroPagan traditions are also exploring this dimension of their past. (If I have left someone out it is from lack of knowledge, so correct me and expand my knowledge in a comment.)

Working with qualified teachers in these traditions is the second way to bring yourselves to the attention of the spirit world. But again, we are describing establishing relationships with the more-than-human.  They have their own time frame, their own expectations, and making contact with one of us is their decision. Patience, humility, openness, and good judgment trumps confidence, ego, and pride every time.

To give a comparison that I think is fair, in the 60s many people believed entheogens were a quick way to acquire spiritual awareness and perception. Entheogens did many good things, and for some, not so good as well. But they did not accomplish that goal. They could and often did open the doors of perception,  enabling us to see a gorilla or two, but those doors then closed.  We were left outside, knowing something marvelous was inside. Only a few were to some degree transformed. Most were not.

These Pagan traditions allow us to step into the room and to some degree stay there, unlike our naïve 60s efforts with entheogens.  Not only that, they put us into contact with some of the spiritual powers that are most easily encountered there.  How far we enter and how far we pursue those contacts is still a matter of substantial future effort. But we have found a door and a key to opening it.

And that discussion will be part II of this post, coming soon.


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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


  • Trine
    Trine Thursday, 07 March 2013

    Very interesting post. I particularly liked the gorilla reference, it made a lot of sense to me. I remember watching that video a while ago and being completely confused when someone asked if I'd seen the gorilla. It's a good parallel to everyday life - "what do you mean, the Divine tried to block my view of the TV?"

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