Tag Archives: Druidism

Spiritual Traditions — and Liberation From Same

11450442_sI had a bit of a debate recently with a very pleasant and erudite Druid named John Beckett over on Patheos. The debate concerned his article on difficulties finding the “right tradition for you,” and I chimed in with comments observing that maybe the problem is in the premise that any one existing tradition is “right” for you. Apparently this and the ensuing discussion provoked the good Druid enough that he followed up with another post explaining why, in his view, sticking with an established tradition is the only healthy way to pursue a spiritual path, and raising alarms about the dangers of choosing methods and ideas “at random.” (As an ironic side-note, Mr. Beckett mentioned the late Isaac Bonwitz as one of his mentors. It’s ironic because, although Bonewitz was indeed one of the founders and framers of modern Druidism, he was also one of the most eclectic, creative mages around, and one of those most inclined to thumb his nose at pretensions of orthodoxy.)

Rather than tiresomely pursing the matter in further comments and making a nag of myself, I decided to write a post of my own on the subject.

What is a Spiritual “Tradition”?

In essence, a spiritual tradition is a religion. Its focus is on the spiritual quest more than on the exoteric concerns of religion such as public morality, but otherwise it differs from other traditions in the same way as one religion differs from another. This encompasses three things: philosophical concepts, mythology, and spiritual practices.

Philosophical concepts include theology, but go beyond that to also include metaphysics and epistemology and ethics. Mythology encompasses the deities, imagery, poetry, and symbolism of the tradition. Spiritual practices include meditations, religious and magical ritual, physical exercises, lifestyle disciplines, and learning, all oriented towards achieving enlightenment, as the tradition views that concept.

There’s a certain congruence or commonality about spiritual practices that arises from their pragmatic nature. Either something works or it doesn’t, and few traditions will continue for long using a practice that doesn’t work. Thus one finds, for example, mantra and mandala meditation among Yogis, and Catholics who pray the Rosary, an exercise that’s functionally identical. All spiritual practices work an effect on the mind and the mind-set, blurring the artificial boundaries of selfhood and awakening the practitioner (potentially, anyway) to the larger Identity that hides behind the normal waking concept of I. The range is wide but not unlimited.

Mythology varies more widely. All deities and other mythic images are metaphors for the indescribable, and while not every metaphor is apt or meaningful, the array of possibilities is huge. Some mythologies, such as that of Hinduism, are highly visual and colorful. Others, like that of Islam, avoid any concrete images of the holy and emphasize the ineffable nature of God. Christian mythology resides somewhere between that of Hinduism and Islam on this scale, while most Neopagan mythology leans more towards the Hindu end of rich, poetic and artistic imagining. Anyone who has walked a spiritual path for long and achieved any significant degree of awakening understands that all of these are valid approaches.

Philosophy brings us to areas of genuine disagreement, but even here the disputes lose their significance in the face of the fact that coherent knowledge that can be expressed in words is hard to come by when dealing with the cosmos in its entirety, or the mysteries of consciousness. Those are the subject matter of the spiritual. While we cannot approach these subjects directly and straightforwardly, we can do so sideways, as it were. The discussion and the debate help move that process. The richer the discussion, the better.

A tradition, like an exoteric religion, adheres to a single set of philosophical ideas, a single body of mythology, and an authorized set of spiritual practices, rejecting all ideas, myths, and practices which lie outside this compass.

Strong and Weak Traditional Exclusivity

The idea of traditional exclusivity — that only one tradition holds truth and all others are wrong — can take what might be called a strong form and a weak form.

Strong exclusivity is the idea that only one tradition is right for everyone. One finds this idea expressed by fundamentalist Christians and, in pure form, by no one else, although Muslims come fairly close to it, acknowledging some measure of validity to Christianity and Judaism but claiming that Islam holds a more complete truth and rejecting all religious ideas outside the Abrahamic lineage.

Spiritual traditionalists who have any awareness and have made any progress seldom express strong exclusivity. More common is weak exclusivity: the assertion that following one tradition or another exclusively is the right approach for everyone. Some tradition is right for you, even if it’s not our tradition. It’s as if they’re claiming that everyone should be a fundamentalist, while declining to specify what sort of fundamentalist one should be.

Is there any basis for this claim?

What a Tradition Offers Versus What it Costs

What a tradition offers — or claims to offer — is structure, reassurance, guidance, and externally-imposed discipline. (That’s if we dismiss any claims to exclusive possession of the Truth.) All of this contrasts with the non-aligned, who must build their own structures, learn by exploration and choose which guides to follow (if any) and when not to follow them, dive boldly into the spiritual waters seeking reassurance only from success, and create discipline from within.

Following a tradition is easier. It requires more in the way of obedience, and less in the way of courage. It provides a comforting voice when the doubts inevitably arise (there are always guardians at every gate). It sits best with those who are most comfortable accepting the authority of others. Those who find staying within the limits imposed by a tradition hardest are the wildly creative, the strong of will, the highly self-assured, and the boldly self-assertive.

The problem here is that those are also the very people who are most likely to achieve the most success on the spiritual paths. Take a look at the history of any great prophet or spiritual leader, including the founders of traditions or powerful voices within traditions. Without exception, these are people who had problems with religious authorities on the way. They ran away from home in youth, like the Buddha. They were crucified like Jesus, or had to flee for their lives like Muhammad.

There’s a reason for this. The cosmos is not tame. It is wild. And its voice is seldom heard in safe, secure settings.

Is there danger in striking out on one’s own, in refusing to be contained within the limits of a tradition? Of course there is, but not nearly as much danger as some would have us believe. Magic is powerful and potentially self-destructive stuff, but beginners in the art are seldom able to raise enough power to be truly self-destructive.

Beginners make mistakes, it’s true. Does that mean they need to be carefully guided away from error, and kept on the safe path? No, because making mistakes is the only way a person learns. The journey is the destination and the question is the answer, and no one grows without making that journey and asking the questions, seeking answers rather than being spoon-fed them.

So long as people tamely follow a tradition, spirituality will remain a safely compartmentalized part of their lives, never endangering their world-views — or expanding them beyond the comfort zone. Safe spirituality is impotent spirituality.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with learning from a spiritual tradition, and knowledge is always good. And for a time, it’s perfectly understandable that a person might need the structure and comfort that comes from belonging. But unless you feel that need (something I never have, but can vaguely comprehend), there’s nothing to be gained by defining oneself — which is to say, limiting oneself, as that is what “definition” means. Sooner or later, the child must leave the home.

Or else remain forever a child.

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Spirituality and Magical Power

13424453_sThis relates to my current work in progress, Volume Two of Refuge, titled The Ingathering. The main character is a magical prodigy, potentially a huge asset to the Andol in their struggle against the Droon (see here for information about the Refuge world). But she has serious barriers to developing her abilities. Her magic is suppressed and causes her to exhibit psychotic symptoms, bipolar disorder with hallucinations. As she speculates:

Maybe it was like the pressure in an abscess. Her magic, bottled up inside her, pushed at her brain and wanted to get out. According to Richard, that was what caused her mood swings and hallucinations. If she learned more about it and gave it ways to come out, the pressure would drop and her symptoms should go away, or at least get better. That’s if Richard was right. Claire wasn’t totally convinced about that.

The other problem is that Claire, a Buddhist, is convinced that use of magical powers is antithetical to the quest for desirelessness and enlightenment. Use of magic feeds the ego and prevents a person from rising above the illusion of the individual self, or so Claire believes. Her powers manifest normally only in small and mostly passive ways, enhancing her perception of the world and allowing her to sense people’s feelings, see auras (including the malevolent auras of the Droon), and gain intuitive insights into the past, present, and future. She is capable of much more, but (so far anyway) these greater powers have only manifested when she loses a measure of control in a depressive or manic episode. When that happened, her depression disappeared (temporarily), but she is reluctant to learn how to use her magic because of what it may do to her spiritual journey.

This internal conflict suggested itself to me because it really exists in some spiritual contexts, mostly but not exclusively Eastern, particularly Buddhist. But one finds it in a Hindu setting as well, and Abrahamic religions have a dubious view of magic, too. Refuge is contemporary fantasy, set in our own world, and so I am in a position to use real-world religious teachings such as Buddhism and Christianity (the latter being the faith of the Scourge of God) as part of the story. In an other-world setting this may not be possible, but in crafting the religion, spirituality, and magic of the other world, or in applying fantasy elements within this one, the conflict between spirituality and magic (and its resolution, if that is possible) become potential story elements and, at very least, parts of the world.

What I’m setting out below are some points in regard to the relations between magic and spirituality as they actually exist. It’s possible to craft a fantasy version of magic that bears little resemblance to the real thing, of course, and then some of the points below will cease to be valid; magic will simply be a type of natural force that exists in the fantasy world but not (as far as we know) in the one we inhabit. My own preference both as a writer and as a reader is to start with real magic and blow it out of proportion or give mages abilities that are beyond my own, but the same in principle — something analogous to speculative science fiction, which starts with real science and speculates on what might be given further developments. The points below assume that context.

Spirituality is magical

The rituals and methods used for spiritual purposes in many esoteric and meditative paths are very similar to those used in magical practice for other ends. The power raised is essentially the same, and so are the methods by which it is channeled and focused. The only difference is the purpose to which it is put. From the point of view of religious authorities, it is those purposes that are problematical, not the power of magic itself. (Unless of course the power comes from an unacceptable source, which it may, but need not — and any mage with a grain of common sense will avoid power sources inimical to his or her own existence!)

Religious authorities are not only uncomfortable with the idea of magical power being used for worldly and perhaps malicious ends, but also with the increase in spiritual experience that may result in a context beyond their control. Every prophet is a heretic, inspired by the power of the cosmos to penetrate under the comfortable and secure illusions that religion weaves and dispute the standard doctrines. If prophecy becomes widespread, belief will become ungovernable, and religious authority will face constant rebellion, chaos, anarchy!

One finds countermeasures applied in all religious contexts. Some religions simply suppress magic and spirituality both, and try to keep everything on a rational basis. Note that this is not the same as a scientific basis. Science is rational, but its reasoning is based on observation as a touchstone. It is quite possible to be rational but unscientific, basing one’s reasoning on assumed first principles or sacred texts, rather than observation. A rigid framework of doctrine defines such an approach, and any spiritual insight that points outside the framework is condemned. What should be in the domain of mythos is instead subjected to the rules of logos.

Where suppression is either impossible or, for whatever reason, not desired, religious authorities have instead attempted to contain magic. Those with magical talent and spiritual awareness are discouraged from having children (hoping to snuff out any genetic predisposition that may exist — something we don’t actually know, of course). One finds this in the Christian and Buddhist monastic traditions and in the Hindu tradition of renouncing the world in pursuit of holiness. At the same time as the talented are forbidden to breed, they are also forbidden from being involved in the world. The monk has all his worldly needs met and turns all of his efforts and powers towards achieving holiness or enlightenment; the sadhu lives in deliberate poverty and does nothing that might impact society. Among those who might not be willing to pursue a monastic or renunciate life, teachings are spread suggesting that the use of magical powers interferes with the quest for enlightenment (such as Claire believes), or that all magical power comes from evil sources.

This is a pattern found in all the world’s major religions, but there are some religious exceptions. Notable examples are the African and African/Christian fusion religions such as Santeria, Voodoo, and Candomble, and also Neopagan religions such as Wicca and Druidism. But it is characteristic of these magic-encouraging religions that they exercise less doctrinal and behavioral control by central authorities than is common with the major faiths.

The head of the dragon

The power of magic and spirituality has been likened in one Yoga tradition to a serpent that winds about the spine. Another metaphor that I’ve used in the past is similar: this power is like the head of the dragon, which may be lifted up to the skies in flight, or may drop down towards the Earth and breathe fire.

The potential tension here is between the quest for enlightenment and the quest for power. The power of the dragon (that is to say, of magic) may be used for either one. But if it is exclusively focused on enlightenment, then it makes no difference in the way the world functions, and the potential good it might do is lost. On the other hand, if the focus is exclusively on power, then the danger of power being misused (deliberately or inadvertently) is real and high. Only by soaring high can the dragon gain the vision needed to guide his power. But only by dropping low and breathing fire can these insights be put into practice.

And that is the dilemma that Claire will face as she confronts situations where she must use her magic or see all her friends die — and at the same time, retain her focus on enlightenment that has defined her life up to now. Because if she doesn’t learn to use the power, then it will use her, and not necessarily in ways that she would like.

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