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.

~ by Dver on June 9, 2010.

12 Responses to “The gods are real, trance isn’t just visualization, and further ranting”

  1. I am so glad you made this available. It’s a very important piece.

  2. Oooh, I remember this post! I haven’t checked out the posts you linked to, but I definitely remember after you posted this seeing similar things popping up on blogs. It definitely became a turning point for me after I read it to seriously re-calculate what I believed, and how I showed it to other people. I kept following along the lines of “well, I believe they exist, but I could be crazy too” or “I believe about 80% that they exist” or whatever the popular turn of phrase was in the pagan community at the time.

    But.. I DO believe Dionysos exists. He’s in the wine, he’s in the trees, he’s in the earth, he’s in the thunder across the sky. I believe Aphrodite exists, I believe Bast exists… well, the list can go on. I do believe, 100%, they exist. Now, they’re relationships with humans is the part where I go “well, I’m not too sure b/c it’s different for a lot of people”. But anyways… from that point on, I chose to stop being apologetic about it, because truthfully I am tired of being apologetic because of what I believe, because it is somehow offensive to people, or that I’m somehow a stupid neanderthal who hasn’t “evolved” yet.

  3. Thank you SO much for having the balls to say guided meditation and visualization is not trancework or journeying! It makes me incredibly happy to know there’s more people out there calling bullshit on such misconceptions.

    The spirits, gods, and otherworld are real – and they’re scary. Maybe it’s better for those who prefer gentle guided visualizations to avoid it altogether…


    • Indeed! Glad you liked the post.

      I’ve been reading through your blog and really enjoying it. May also be making a purchase or two from your shop at some point, particularly that bird salve. Btw, since you’re interested in animal skulls, you might like the jewelry I make:

  4. I’m a french pagan who just discovered your blog two days ago. It’s too bad you prefer being retired from the Internet, because I think you have some pretty interesting ideas to share. I was delighted to FINALLY read someone which thinking is close to mine… (specially enjoyed “Shaman notes”)

    Here in this post, I was very happy to clearly see the distinction between visualization, meditation, inner travel (a form of meditation/visualization), guided meditation and trance which so much more “hard” and deep. Your critics about this book I did not know is thus rich with reflexions, the kind which reveals a wider scope : the state of the pagan “community”.

    I was wondering if you had written an article about the problem of faith, but it seems you did not. So I find these questionning of yours throughout the review very precious. I sometimes feel like I’m a weird polytheist because I do not think one deity can be replaced by another from another pantheon because one feels it better. I’m a hard polytheist, hard believer, in all the Gods (even if I work the most with one pantheon). I’m a hard believer of the Otherworlds, the Spirits from everywhere, aso. I think in fact you summed up all the possible reasons of an hesitant public faith from the community in your last paragraph :
    – Not enough self-confidence to admit it
    – People being unable to know what they look for in religion, and so changing from one to another, or quitting
    – From the lack of experience (cf: experiencing the Gods ;))
    – Too much emphasis on thinking rather than on doing (books, internet aso)

    Thank you very much for sharing.

    • I’m not totally retired from the internet, just from online communities. I have been really enjoying blogging here and plan to continue for the foreseeable future.

      Glad to hear from someone who sees the situation in a similar light. Good to know I’m not alone! Thanks for commenting.

  5. […] The first time I noticed it was after reading Christine Kraemer’s post “Opening a Pagan Theological Dialogue” at the Sermon in the Mound.  Encouraging Pagan theo/alogy is a subject dear to my heart.  Christine provided a link to her book on Amazon, Seeking the Mystery: Introduction to Pagan Theologies.  After downloading the sample, I purchased the book, and I am enjoying working my way through it.  On part in particular caught my attention: the discussion of “hard polytheism”.  There I read this fascinating quote by Hellenic polytheist Sarah Kate Istra Winter’s blog, a forest door: […]

  6. Are there any substances that can aid in trance?

  7. […] change from the hard polytheists who prevaricate on this issue to appease the atheist-pagan set (ahem), as well as from those neo-shamans who outright won't commit to believing in the very spirits they […]

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