The gods are real, trance isn’t just visualization, and further ranting
[This is a post I made to my Livejournal, on February 2, 2010. It received more comments than almost any other post I ever made, and inspired several other people to make related posts to their blogs - two of which can be found here and here. Clearly, this is a timely topic.]
This was going to be a post reviewing Diana Paxson’s book Trance-Portation, which I just finished reading, but I think it’s going to end up larger than that. Honestly, I wasn’t impressed with this book, but then I wasn’t surprised either, as I think we have very different definitions of “trance” in the first place. To me, guided meditation does not equal trance journeying. It may eventually lead to such, it may be a nice practice or exercise, but it is not the same thing as actually journeying to otherworlds. Then again, Paxson’s consistent use of terms like “inner space” and “inner journey” implies that she’s more focused on the unconscious than on anything external. But more on that in a moment.
The book isn’t bad if you want to learn basic meditation and visualization techniques. It’s certainly not as fluffy and awful as most books on the topic. And obviously I appreciate a polytheistic perspective rather than a New Age one. And if we’re just talking meditation, then I would agree that an accessible book for anyone and everyone is appropriate. However, I question the assumption that everyone can or should learn to do trance. To me, this seems like another example of pagans rejecting the wisdom of countless traditions in favor of a thoroughly modern American attitude. I can think of no traditional culture in which any and all members would be encouraged to take up trancework, or even believed to have the ability. That’s why there are specialists. Similarly, not everyone is expected to be a surgeon (although most people can probably learn some basic home medical care, which would in this case be equivalent to learning the basic techniques of meditation, grounding, centering, awareness, etc. that Paxson covers). Real trance work is dangerous, difficult, stressful, time-consuming and exhausting (in addition to plenty of positive qualities as well), and thus it seems to me it should only be taken up by those who either have an intense calling for it, and natural ability as well, or those who cannot help but do it and need to get some control.
However, again I think I may be talking about something very different from what the author is referring to. Because throughout most of the book she seems to take the position that any “reality” to the experiences is at best irrelevant. As long as it feels beneficial, it doesn’t matter if the gods are real, or the worlds journeyed to, or if you find an independently-existing spirit ally or merely invent one. Perhaps this is convenient for an audience of pagans who largely seem to have issues truly believing in any of the spiritual things they like to discuss. Certainly it’s the attitude most often expressed in popular pagan books. But I think what bothers me most is that, from what I can tell, Paxson does believe. And yet, she feels the need to constantly water down any sense of concrete spiritual reality so that it becomes non-threatening and easily palatable.
And this is where the issue becomes much larger for me than this one book (which, although I might have strong personal feelings about it due to my closeness to the subject matter, is by far not the worst example of such writing and is actually pretty solid when it deals with basic exercises and beginner’s work). Because more and more I’ve become aware of what appears to be a significant lack of belief on the part of many pagans – and in particular polytheists, who by definition at least theoretically believe in a number of gods. And for those who do believe, there is a reluctance to come out and state it flatly without some kind of caveat admitting that one can never be sure, or it’s okay if you don’t, or some such thing.
Yes, obviously, one cannot be sure about anything. I cannot be sure that my friends are “real” either, or this computer I’m typing on, or anything at all. But that’s really besides the point, a topic only for late-night philosophical meanderings. When it comes down to it, if we’re going to accept anything as real at all, if we’re going to deal with how we practically experience the world, then I believe in the gods. I know the gods. I know them better than 99.9% of the people on this planet, whom I’ve never met. I believe in the otherworlds. I believe in spirits. I believe these things exist independently of me or any other humans, and that while they may interact with us and even be influenced by us (as we are by them), they are not entirely created by us nor dependent on us, and their sole purpose is not our edification.
Radical, I guess, but there it is. I literally believe in the gods.
I fear that paganism may not have the strength to last in the long-term if we ourselves do not firmly believe in our spiritual reality. You don’t see Christians following up a discussion of accepting Jesus into your heart with some caveat like “or if you don’t believe in Jesus, just imagine a similar loving entity or warm light.” Or “if you need the help of a saint and don’t like any of the ones you’ve read about, just invent a new saint in your mind that betters suits you, and contact them.” As if these things are all the same. Yes, I know that many Christians go in the opposite direction and become strictly orthodox, insisting on every detail of belief, and I also know that this is what many pagans are reacting to. But it’s time to stop reacting and start building a real, solid faith that will last – and for that you need, well, faith. Reading this book, it just kept occurring to me how there was no leap of faith involved, no risk, no passion, in what she described (not necessarily reflective of her own spiritual life, of course, but then to me that made it worse, because I felt she had a duty to stop equivocating). Compared to other religious traditions, it felt insubstantial. I kept waiting for her to be willing to say, “this is real, and awe-inspiring, and this is why we do it.” And this is something I’ve felt many times, reading the work of pagan authors, or even the writings on blogs and journals and email lists.
Which is why, in a way, I can’t review the book at all. How can I discuss its treatment of trance when the worldview it encompasses doesn’t even allow for what I would call trance? Because in my world, a trance journey actually goes Somewhere, a spiritual place outside oneself (well okay, it can be within as well, but it isn’t always or even predominantly thus), and the entranced person is helped by actual Allies, who have lives of their own and wills of their own and do not solely exist to serve. (At one point, Paxson suggests that sometimes it is appropriate to let a seemingly fierce animal spirit devour you, shamanic-style, but that before letting this happen, you should “ask if its purpose is destruction or transformation” – as if all spirits would be honest, as if they would all even deign to answer, and as if shamanic death and rebirth would be facilitated by spirits happy to ease one’s fears and walk one through the process gently.) In my world, if someone is dictating the scenery and even the dialogue (as is done in guided meditations and “pathworkings,” and as she gives examples of in the book) of a supposed trance journey, then it is unlikely that said journey is taking place anywhere other than in the imagination. There is a world of difference between visualizing a pre-set series of events and interactions with a tiny bit of room somewhere in the middle for imagination, and actually meeting gods and spirits in a foreign land. Yes, visualization can be an entrance into a deeper state of trance, a catalyst for something real, but it should not be confused for being the same thing.
I am only so harsh on the book because I had hoped for more from a practicing polytheist and trance-worker. More than cute pop-culture references and flippant phrases (I could have used less of the term “invisible friends” in reference to spirit allies and even gods… sure we all say things like this in conversation with each other, but when writing for others I think a greater level of reverence is called for). Essentially, it felt like it did for trance what Harner did for shamanism – trying to make it accessible to anyone and independent of tradition, when neither was appropriate (spiritual traditions, in their beautiful and varied forms, are what give meaning and substance to these practices, and taking them out of the equation diminishes the latter). Perhaps, for me, a book like this simply can’t satisfy me because I doubt its very premise and purpose.
So, do modern, Western pagans believe? Do they truly, deeply believe in the gods and spirits and otherworlds and all of it? Are they just afraid to admit it – to the world, or even to themselves? Or is this just a stimulating game of imagination or an intellectual exercise for most? I wonder about this, as I see people come and go from the community, often not dedicated or even interested enough to stick with the religion in any form for the long run. Maybe what’s missing is that sense of conviction that stems from direct experience, far beyond books or internet forums or even real-life communities, that deep faith which grows and deepens as one persists along the path, between just oneself and the gods. Hell, maybe that means everyone should do some trance – the serious kind, open to uncontrolled interactions with the spiritual world – if that would help solidify their faith during the rest of the time. I don’t know… it just feels sometimes like I am in a very small minority, with my unrepentant theism.