Mundane vs Physical
I have seen a few comments around the internet recently complaining of mystic-types who use the word “mundane” pejoratively; the comments seem to assume that such word use implies a rejection of the physical world in favor of woo-woo spiritual experiences off in the ether. Now, frankly I suspect that this sort of complaint is often being used to justify the author’s preference for materialistic pursuits over actual spiritual practice, but regardless I think it’s an issue that deserves being addressed. Because it’s true that some people drawn to mysticism might make the mistake of turning their backs on the Here and Now in a misguided attempt to be more fully immersed in the realm of the spirit.
As a caveat, I do think there are some types of mysticism that require such single-minded focus on the invisible, in which the negatives are outweighed by the potential of the specific Work involved, but generally this doesn’t apply to spirit-work, shamanism, nympholepsy, godspousery, or other such roles, all of which usually require some degree of involvement with physical reality. In fact, many of these are specifically predicated on the mystic taking a position between the worlds, bridging the spiritual and the material, making “a road for the spirits to pass over” (as in the Dead Can Dance song, supposedly from the Algonquin). Personally, my Work absolutely requires me to have a foot in both worlds as much as possible both on a daily basis and more intensively during ritual and trance (with a few forays entirely Over There for certain purposes), through such practices as pathwalking.
So what do I mean when I speak derisively of mundanity? An important lesson for me has been separating my understanding of and relationship to the natural world from my experience of the current culture in which I live. Physical reality as a whole is neither inherently “good” or “bad” but it is an important aspect of our existence and one which is intimately tied to the gods and spirits in so many ways, both obvious and subtle. But culture is a human construct and it can either support or hinder a spiritual approach to life for its members; in the case of modern American culture, the dominant values are often in direct conflict with almost any kind of spiritual mindset. Some of these values as I see them are:
CONSUMERISM – one of the most obvious and most destructive values, as our constant craving for stuff to fill our lives comes at the expense of the environment, the animals, plants and wights that live in it, other human beings, and often our own happiness as well (although we often don’t realize it). It is also insidious, often creeping into our spiritual lives – how easy it is to get wrapped up in wanting this or that shiny new object for our altars or our magical work, even if it isn’t really necessary, or if we could do just as well with something found or made rather than bought. (One might even think that buying religious books or objects is the same as worship, a fallacy which Phillupus nicely disputes here.)
PASSIVE ENTERTAINMENT – a bane to the “examined life,” this fills our hours but is the mental equivalent of empty calories – what is watched usually just fades from memory the minute it is over. We have gone from playing games to watching other people play them, from making music to simply consuming it, from telling stories to watching them on television. I’m not saying that there’s no room in a spiritual life for a little down time, not at all, but one must be careful not to get sucked into the quagmire that our culture encourages us to lose ourselves in (and pay for the privilege of doing so).
INSTANT GRATIFICATION – I see the direct consequences of this inculcated mindset on spiritual practice all the time – pagans who switch patrons, pantheons or traditions at the drop of a hat, who give up on regular spiritual work the moment they hit their first roadblock, who complain that they aren’t feeling any connection even though they’re not doing anything. It’s even more destructive to the pursuit of dedicated spiritual vocations, which require huge amounts of time and effort – witness the proliferation of be-a-shaman-in-a-weekend workshops, for instance. We don’t want to hear that a deep, intimate relationship with the gods will take years to establish, or that a particular knowledge may only be acquired through painful ordeal, or long study, or the undertaking of difficult challenges. I see people contenting themselves with much less than they could achieve if they were willing to commit their whole lives to the endeavor, either believing themselves to already have reached the pinnacle, or even going so far as to denounce such effort as unnecessary in these modern times.
DISTRACTION – this is in some ways the culmination of all the other “values.” After all, a person won’t mindlessly consume products if they are paying attention. They won’t let themselves be passively pandered to if they have a purpose. They won’t require constant hits of (short-lived) pleasure if they can draw satisfaction from a longer view. Distraction is also an enemy of those spiritual practices that require fixed and steady awareness – which is most of them, really. We are not truly present with our prayers if in the back of our minds we are thinking about updating our Facebook status or watching the next episode of whatever’s currently popular on tv. Sure, it is difficult sometimes to stay in the moment even in the most spiritually-minded environment – the human mind is a tricky devil. But that’s all the more reason not to tempt it with the million meaningless distractions readily provided by modern Western culture. What do those things really add to your life, especially compared to what they may be keeping you from?
This is the “mundane” world we must avoid, to keep ourselves on the path. Not the physical world of sea, sky and earth, not the natural world of trees and birds and insects, not even (at least for many) the human world of relationships and hearths. Not the material, but rather the extreme, pernicious materialism that our culture pushes, and which is so detrimental to a spiritual life. And they do push it, like a drug dealer – they have a vested interest in dragging us down with them if they can. In fact, it seems to me that it is the dominant cultural paradigm that always is the most anxious to have every single sheep in its fold. Anyone questioning the underlying values is a threat to the whole system. (Just witness the reaction these days if you tell people you don’t own a car, or *gasp* a cell phone.) But in fact, everyone paying attention (and that should include all spiritually-minded people) will question it, and many will choose to opt out entirely – especially once the consequences to ourselves, our spiritual practices, and the rest of the world are fully comprehended.
So while I can’t speak for anyone else, when I mention trying to avoid mundanity, this is what I mean. I love this world dearly, and I am committed as well to being a gateway for the spirits, straddling the hedge. I have no intent to live permanently off in the lands beyond our own, at least not while I am living. But neither do I intend to get pulled into a materialistic worldview that negates the spiritual, no matter how hard it is pushed on me by the culture I am surrounded with.