When you can’t see
I’ll tell you something that isn’t spoken of nearly as much as it should be: Not everyone who can trance and talk to spirits and leave their bodies can see visions. We tend to think of visions as the default way of experiencing the otherworlds, accessing oracular knowledge, making spirit contact, etc., but in fact just as we parse the physical world through several senses (some stronger than others in each individual), so too can the realm of spirit be conveyed to us by varied means.
I would further posit that sometimes a strong visual orientation can actually be a handicap rather than an asset. It is easy to mistake visualization (which takes place in one’s mind) with the actual visual manifestation of the spirit world (which is external to oneself). As Sarah Lawless says in her post Walking Between Worlds:
“I have to say this – visualization and guided meditations are NOT walking between worlds or trancework – they’re painting a lovely picture of doing so in your head. If you are still in your head, you are not walking between worlds. Any practice where you are using only your imagination and not actually leaving this reality or your body is not hedgecrossing.”
While it seems that the majority of people are primarily visually oriented, including in the context of trancework, there are definitely other senses through which we can perceive the spiritual.
Hearing is probably the next most common. Many people receive communications from their gods and spirits through “hearing” Their voices speak to them – I put this in quotation marks because it’s not always an external sound, indistinguishable from the voice of a person in the room with you, but often a voice in the mind, the way you can recall a voice or a song you have heard, without there being a current physical source of sound. Either way, it’s interpreted by the brain in the same basic way. (Just like the difference between seeing something manifest right in front of you like a physical thing, with eyes open – what we might term a “hallucination” – and seeing something in your mind’s eye, whether a memory or imagination or an actual spiritual entity or place. In both cases, the key to discerning its authenticity is in practice and experience and often confirmatory divination.)
While not as common, it’s also possible to smell and taste the otherworlds. I have heard of at least one person who primarily navigated spirit interactions by his sense of smell. There is also touch. In the post Communicating with the Gods II: Presence on the Lagutyr blog, the author writes:
“One way I experience the presence of a God or Goddess is by, quite literally, holding out a hand or hands and feeling the responding touch. This can be interesting, giving you a new, very immediate sense of the God or Goddess that goes outside the realm of meditation.”
This is something I have been doing for years, but had never seen described by anyone else before. It certainly doesn’t always yield strong results, but when it does, it is more memorable for me than almost any other encounter.
There are other physical senses as well, beyond the five we were taught in grade school. Sense of temperature, sense of one’s body in relation to the environment, sense of pain, sense of magnetic fields, sense of time, etc. These can all be ways in which spiritual forces might be perceived (especially that last one – many stories tell of time distortions related to certain wights, for instance). One way I often feel the sudden presence of my spirits is in a sharp disturbance in my equilibrium – more than simple dizziness, I am nearly pushed over to one side by an invisible force. This is as clear as any visual cue would be.
And then of course there’s that “sixth sense” – the alteration to consciousness that is difficult to describe but unmistakable, when Their presence kind of hits you heavily with a whump and you feel Them there without necessarily having any traditional sensory cues at all.
Even if visualization and visionary experiences come easily to you, these other methods can augment your practices, fill in some gaps, lead you in interesting new directions. They also can be tied in nicely with the various ritual acts we all do to connect with the gods and spirits, which involve our senses as well. Burn a particular incense often enough for a god, for instance, and you may start smelling it at other times when the physical herb isn’t present, but the god is – it can become a signature. In fact, doing the physical rituals is a really solid foundation for everything else, and can always be returned to when one’s “spiritual senses” aren’t open enough. Grounding the spiritual in the physical is extremely powerful in itself. As the Swamp Witch says in Visualization: Casting circles, grounding and centering:
“So what do you do if you still can’t visualize? Then you DO. You can call it low magic, you can call it cheating (yes I’ve actually heard this, senseless as it is) but we have magical tools for a reason.”