Was recently reminded (via some great blog posts) of a couple of important lessons for almost any polytheistic practitioner, and particularly relevant for mystic types who sometimes need reminding of the basics. I’ve touched on these ideas here before, but they bear repeating.
“For religions of practice, there is never such a thing as “going through the motions.” What do I mean by this? Any of the activities that one undergoes in polytheistic practice–from making offerings, to walking in a procession, to singing or reciting hymns and poems, to various forms of meditation, prayer, breathing exercises, magical activity, and any number of other activities–are “spiritual technologies,” which is to say they are processes or techniques via which one does something to produce a specific effect. For something like making an offering, one connects oneself with the deities and entities concerned through gift-giving; one may feel it more strongly or less strongly, but the actual action involved is the essential “point” of it….While the notion that “it’s the thought that counts,” or that intention is important in various spiritual activities, often does come up in the modern world, including in various forms of modern polytheism, the reality is that effectiveness requires much more than thought and good intentions, and both of these ought to lead to effective, productive, and useful actions.” (Phillupus at Aedicula Antinoi, “Going Through the Motions“)
On the one hand, it can be difficult sometimes to perform devotional acts but not feel anything in response – one feels like one is just “going through the motions” and perhaps the effort is meaningless. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as C.S. Lewis discussed in The Screwtape Letters, those times are when it is most crucial to redouble one’s efforts, not only to prove that one’s devotion does not depend on constant reciprocation in the form of warm fuzzy feelings, but also because doing those actions is exactly what will eventually rekindle the flame for you. Through the repetition of ritual, we remind ourselves of our relationships, commitments, love, past experiences, and connection. Also, as I’ve said before, even if you can’t hear Them, They can hear you. Your actions are not taking place in a void, they are being directed toward entities that can appreciate them, regardless of your personal mood.
On the flip side, there is definitely a danger for advanced practitioners of feeling that their special relationships with the gods and spirits mean that they no longer need to engage in the basic devotional acts of offering, sacrifice, prayer, etc., but that is simply not true. Such relationships are built on a foundation of devotional acts, and continue to deepen over time through the reiteration and enhancement of such acts – just like any human relationship (a marriage, for instance, requires constant attention and care to keep it healthy and rewarding for all involved). Even the simplest practice will often produce countless levels of revelation if you stick with it long enough. While you may sometimes outgrow or move away from a specific practice for certain reasons, you will never reach a point where all “spiritual technologies” are unnecessary. Look at the practices of lifelong mystics around the world, and you will see proof of that – the most advanced almost always do more work than anyone else, not less. Which segues into my next point:
You’re Never Done
“As James Austin documents in Zen and the Brain, states of consciousness don’t stabilize until you’re very far along the path. You may have established Knowledge and Conversation with your Holy Guardian Angel, but especially early on the link will fade in and out. Furthermore, once you’ve established the link it doesn’t mean that you’re going to think and act like an Adept all the time. But the idea that you have “arrived” at the 5=6 degree obscures this fact. In reality the link to the HGA depends on continuing the work – if you stop doing your daily practices you can lose regular contact with it. The lesson? You’re never “done.” Spiritual realization is like an improper integral that approaches the infinite but never quite reaches it, not a ladder on which you can climb up a certain number of steps and then rest. A sure way to identify this problem in others is to look for individuals who once kept up their practices but no longer feel a need to do so. We all go through phases of being better and worse about our practices, but a sure sign of trouble is someone who thinks he or she is at “another level” where they are no longer necessary.” (Scott Michael Stenwick at Augoeides, “Thoughts on ‘Spiritually Transmitted Diseases‘”)
This can be an insidious mistake in approach. For one thing, dropping your practices will eventually cause you to regress on the path, unable to do the things you once could when you were more consistently working on it. In a devotional context, this is horribly rude to the gods and spirits who have nourished and assisted you in your earlier work. And furthermore, it is not only arrogant but ignorant to think you will ever reach an end point, an apex to your Work beyond which no other progress could be made. Let your benchmarks always be those mystics who have gone further than you could even imagine – learn about the history of magic, mysticism, shamanism, until you see what is truly possible, and hold that in your mind when you examine your own situation. And if someday, you are truly keeping company with those advanced spiritual practitioners, then imagine something further, and aim for that.
Because otherwise, you will miss out on so much. If you have an amazing experience and think you have now reached a stopping point, you will never discover what is beyond that. I have seen this over and over again, and it is tragic. So much potential is lost this way. Whereas in my experience, the wisest practitioners, even if they are very advanced, always know that there is more Work ahead of them – and are usually excited by the prospect. After all, if you love what you do, why would you want it to end? If you are passionate about connecting with the gods, how could you ever cease reaching for Them?