Journey - Family - Home

There is something eerily soothing about the bus trips between DC and Cincinnati.  It's a long trip, and given Greyhound's ancient infrastructure, I'm left with a dying phone battery and a lot of time to look out a darkened countryside and think.

I first moved to DC on Halloween, 2002.  I had made a wreath of maple leaves in a leather braid, and I wore them on my head like a champion wears a laurel.  That bus ride was shrouded in fog, and I was starting a new life in a new place.  The country was dark, the trees stripped bare, and there are no lights on the highway, but your headlights.  That night I felt like I was on a journey.

Every time that I have taken that 14 hour bus ride since, I have felt like there is purpose in the trip.  A wedding, a funeral, a birth, a funeral, a wedding.  Each time is packaged as an experience of life changing moments in my family.  And this time is no different. 

I come back to Cincinnati now because of the death of my grandfather (paternal side).  In a month that was filled with family calamity, this was a death that was really unexpected.  Approaching his 80's, if not already in his 80's, he had lived a decently long life.  Unlike my father's extremely premature passing which happened at 47. 

So as I sat on this bus trip yesterday, my brain was filled with thoughts of death.  The countryside, dark, bare, and foreboding kind of amplified these feelings.  As someone who is 36, I know that death is something that is looming.  Sure, it could happen, theoretically, at any time.  But my expectation of living a regular life is now bracketed by the ages of men in my family who have passed.  47.  80.  There's a window.  Sure, I may live to be a hundred.  But there is a fear, and a growing fear about these ages.  I should put it out of my mind, because no one can ever know when they will die.  But I can't really help myself.

On the third leg of this trip (DC - PGH, PGH - COL, COL - CIN) I was in a window seat and a father with his little blonde son sat next to me.  Wrangling the child proved a difficult task and he got on last.  I looked at this tow-headed child in his camouflaged winter coat, and his blue collar father with his plastic/foam baseball cap, I was struck by the fact that this scene could just as easily have been one in my life.  I was a flaxen blonde child, and my dad was a lot like this one.  He held and kissed his son, and put him to sleep in the dark while he texted back and forth with someone.  The child rolled his head, and kept falling asleep on my bicep.  The father would shuffle the child around and eventually the boy would roll back onto me.  I didn't mind.  But it did kindle a little spark about family.

I have actively resisted building a family (nuclear family) of my own.  Not just because I'm queer, but because I've always felt like I would not be able to provide for a stable family life.  In my brain I've always told myself that I would want to be able to provide for every need.  This is of course absurd, because the goal post keeps moving.  And now I wonder if I would ever want to have a family at all.  People tell me I would be a great father, and I probably would.  But I have put it aside.  Maybe for now, maybe forever.  I don't know. 

Of my generation of cousins (there are a few younger) all five of us are now married.  And with marriage comes expectations, whether you're gay or not.  And in moments when I look at death I think about generation.  Will I ever raise a child?  Will that child love me?  Who will care for me when I grow old?  Who will be there to find me when I die?  Who will mourn my loss, and arrange my funeral?  I know there are many friends who may step up, but no matter how distant the blood bond, there is something that calls us back to each other.  These rituals of birth, adulthood, and death call us back to each other. 

I am very far flung from my family.  They have all settled and stayed pretty close to where we call grew up.  But I have wanderlust.  Much like Bilbo Baggins I have to get up and go on an adventure every once in a while.  I love being a homebody, but I get itchy.  I've lived from coast to coast. I've flown half way around the world.  And while I may feel comfortable in different cities, I've lost something like a sense of home.  My childhood home is gone.  Foreclosure has taken a memory.  My grandparents have begun passing over.  My generation has spread themselves further.  And my hometown has less and less of a reason for me to come back. 

And now I mourn that loss as well.

There used to be a moment, where I would crest a hill, and see a certain wall and know that I was close to home.  That moment, that landmark, stuck with me. Another moment was when we would turn a curve on 471 and I would get a peak of the skyscrapers in Cincinnati breaking through the tree line.  My heart would swell, and I would feel "home."  I never felt that feeling in Seattle.  I don't know why, but it always felt transient.  Like a place I was at to accomplish something, but not a home.  I get that feeling in DC, when I see the capitol dome or the Washington monument while driving back from MD or VA.  But that wall.  I will probably never see that wall again, because there is less purpose to take me there.  That home is gone for me.  And I feel like I've lost a piece of myself, my history. 

So, coming "home" isn't coming home any more.  An anchor has been lifted, and I've lost some of my moorings.  And with each loss in the family, I drift ever further and further away. 

Sinners and an Angry God

archerThis has been a week of incredibly disturbing events, followed by equally disturbing commentary.  But I want to focus on one element that I see crop up time and time again.  Puritans.

Nobody calls themselves Puritans these days.  I mean, Puritanism has a bad brand reputation.  But nevertheless Puritanism, as was known deeply in the 17th century American colonies is still alive and well today.  We just call it Fundamentalism, now. And soon that brand will be worn out and they'll change the name and the package, but still it will be the same product. 

Take for instance Mike Huckabee. When he took to the podium to talk about the reasons he believe led to the massacre in Newtown CT, here's what he said.

"We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools.  Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?"
These kinds of statements always remind me of the most famous sermon that has probably ever been delivered, Jonathan Edwards "Sinners in the hands of an angry God."  Amazingly, Edwards was also from Connecticut.  I had to read this sermon as part of an American Literature class in high school.  Not for its religious content for its own sake, but as an example of the mindset of early Puritanical America.  This was juxtaposed with the records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and some other works from the same time period.  But that sermon has never left my mind, because it so clearly captures the mindset of what we now call the radical Religious Right.

God can withdraw his salvation from even his chosen people, and send people swirling into that Job-like tornado of damnation and straight into the pits of hell.  Example:

The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood. Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God. However you may have reformed your life in many things, and may have had religious affections, and may keep up a form of religion in your families and closets, and in the house of God, it is nothing but his mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction. However unconvinced you may now be of the truth of what you hear, by and by you will be fully convinced of it. Those that are gone from being in the like circumstances with you, see that it was so with them; for destruction came suddenly upon most of them; when they expected nothing of it, and while they were saying, Peace and safety: now they see, that those things on which they depended for peace and safety, were nothing but thin air and empty shadows.
This is the mindset of the Fundamentalist.  God is angry, and vengeful.  He is the God of the Old Testament, who drowned the world because of its wickedness.  You must obey, you must be completely subservient, or your immortal soul will be cast in the fires of Hell.  The world is not a place for your amusement.  The world is a harsh and unforgiving test; the outcome of which will mean an eternity of either bliss or suffering.  Though most everyone will suffer, because we are all wicked deep in our hearts. 

So when terrible things happen to innocent people, there is a greater cause, and inevitably that cause is that God has forsaken you.  You have sinned against him, and he has withdrawn his protection from you.  He has let you slip into those fires of hell, because you deserve it.

When I read this in high school it made me sick.  It still does.  And when I hear elected politicians using this kind of language from the 17th century, about a vengeful and angry God who demands worshipful obedience or will allow a psychopathic gunman to slaughter your children... Well, it makes me hate.  I don't use that word lightly, because it is a strong emotion, but yes, it makes me hate.  I can't imagine a worse faith to espouse.  it is a bitter, angry, controlling thing, and it should have no place in a modern society. 

I know the world isn't all sunshine and puppies, but don't tell me that God did this.  That's unfair to God, and it's unfair to the real world we live in that has real problems and requires real solutions.  Magical thinking and all the prayer in the universe will not get us through another gun massacre.  Politicians like Mike Huckabee need to get their heads out of the clouds and start looking for solutions here on earth.

Post-Election Racism, and Change I Can Believe In

OhioVote2012I went with my husband and my friend Jonathan to Nellie's bar and watched the NBC election night coverage on Tuesday.  Sometime around 10:30 or so they started showing the map of the state of Ohio go up.  And I sat there grinning.  They weren't even close to calling it, they only had a fraction of the vote completed, but I saw the undeclared pockets and I knew it was over.  Having grown up in Ohio, you know exactly where all the cities are, and you know that those cities are by and large African-American enclaves, and substantially more liberal than the rest of the rural counties in the state.  I was just grinning and grinning and everyone around me was like "what?"

"That's Columbus and that's Cleveland.  There's no way that Romney is winning Ohio with those being the only places left to turn in results.  They're huge and they're blue."

And I was right.  

You don't have to be a prophet to know that about Ohio.  You do however have to live in the real world, where people of color, cities, and people who disagree with you also happen to exist.  

So, it was endlessly, and repeat-watchably hilarious to me to see Karl Rove, the "master strategist" of the Republican party, misunderstand this very fundamental fact about the state of Ohio.  To have Megan Kelly say to his face "Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better" was priceless.  But honestly, the same is true of pretty much EVERY city in the country.  City populations outnumber the rural populations, and cities trend liberal.  Large counties take the longest to vote, and they are the last to come in, and they are almost inevitably blue.  It's just a fact.

And the following day the racism started coming out of the woodwork

whiteestablishmentA friend of mine posted a picture of screen captures of all these people who were tweeting racist slurs against the President.  And I had to sigh.  Because that's exactly the kind of shit I heard every day where I grew up. 

See friends, I grew up in a rural village in deep red Southern Ohio.  We didn't have a lot of people of color.  I had one teacher in elementary school who was Indian, I had a pediatrician who was Filipino (I think.), and we had one boy who moved to my school when I was 18 who African-American.  That's pretty much the only exposure I had to people of color growing up.  Seriously.  But I heard plenty of racism.  The "N" word was common around my household from my parents, grandparents on both sides.  My father gave me all kinds of advice about not becoming friends with "those people."  It was always really uncomfortable for me. 

I think I was 15 or 16 when I walked away from Thanksgiving dinner when they were telling racist jokes. I asked them to stop and they didn't.  So I took my food and went to eat in the bedroom.  I don't know that it was the first or last time there was a scene at a family dinner.  Though I have to say that after I started coming out to my mother we had to have a very awkward conversation about what would be worse in my father's eyes, a white boy, a black woman, or a black man as a lover?  :D  Seriously, though that was a funny/tragic conversation.

But this isn't just a digression for the sake of telling stories about my family.  I grew up in one of those red counties in Ohio.  And racism was part of the fabric of every day life.  My town was white.  White as you could ever find.  And most of the people who grow up there, they stay there.  There is a fear of leaving, and especially a fear of the city.  And I mean, Cincinnati is not a scary city.  It's like really tame people.  But I can't tell you how many days my mom and dad agonized over the chance that I was going to get shot and killed just for living in the CITY.  And that's the mindset of rural America.  It's an unbroken chain of white people being afraid of non-white people and never (or hardly ever) leaving their little enclaves of whiteness.  This is what perpetuates racism, reinforcement of the familiar, fear of the other, and maintaining homogeneity.

But let's get back to the tweets.  So, a bunch of people, many of them young people, took to Twitter to call the President names and say all manner of disgusting bullshit online.  But here's the thing.  What you say online doesn't just stay in your little whitebread town.  It's global.  EVERYONE can see that.  And that's where Jezebel not only made my week, but gave me a glimmer of hope for what the future could possibly be.

Almost immediately after the racist tweets started coming out, they started cataloging them, and then they started calling schools.  Schools, you see, have codes of conduct for what their students can say and do as representatives of their school's image.  So, of course they took it seriously when a national level news outlet called them about their student's behavior.  This was met with consternation, denial, and angry rebuttals from the teens, but mostly it was met with many of these Twitter accounts being shut down out of shame, embarrassment, and necessity. 

And that's where I have hope. 

See, the Internet is a place where anyone can speak and say pretty much anything*.  But just because you're entitled to your opinions, does not mean you are entitled to be free from criticism.  And anyone, from around the entire world, can call you on your shit.  You may grow up in these little sundown towns, and never see a person of color in the flesh, but when you go online you will inevitably be met with the reality of the diversity of the entire world.  When you step into a public forum you are responsible for what you say and people will hold you accountable for it.  And this is where racism will fizzle and die. 

I don't know what it is about me that made me turn against my family's personal racism problems.  Maybe it was my gay brain.  Maybe it was the constant streams of Sesame Street that I watched as a child.  Maybe it was some innate quality of my nature that can't be pinpointed by looking back on my past.  But I can't help believe that being exposed to Global Culture via the Internet will expand children's views of the world, of how people of all shapes, sizes, genders, colors, and orientations can be friends, and, as Dr. King said, that we should look to people's character and not the color of their skin.  It's clear to me that there is a big portion of this country that believes in Dr. King's vision, and there is a lesser, very vocal portion of the country who still doesn't believe this.  We may not be able to change those people, but this isn't something that flips overnight.  It takes generations to change.  But I have hope that it's moving faster, and deeper than we suspect. 

"You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."  --John Lennon


* This totally depends on where you live.  There are certainly countries who police their user's internet traffic and shut people down for what they say and who they associate with online.

Life is Unfolding

fernI am oddly peaceful right now.

It's been a while since I've picked up the blogs, and as I type this I feel the callouses developing on my left hand fingers from all of the time spent playing guitar.  I've recorded three original songs, and I've gotten some very positive feedback and reception about it. That gives me so much joy I can't even express it.

I've been thinking about where I'm going and what I'm doing and I sometimes find myself spinning in circles.  Sometimes I feel like I'm rock solid, and other times I feel like I'm in quicksand.  But the one thing that always brings me back is learning something that I never knew before. 

Every day I read a ton of information.  Some of it is banal pop culture stuff, some of it's memes, but a lot of it is thought provoking material from somewhere that inspires me.  I think I read every article that comes out of BoingBoing, a fair chunk from the Atlantic, the Harvard Business Review, and the New York Times.  I'll also occasionally wander into unknown territories and see what I stumble upon. 

I've been thinking about Malala.  And from Malala I thought about all the other people who don't get the opportunity to read.  And I thought about Banned Books Week, and about how it's not just the Taliban that wants to suppress people's minds.  And I realize that I'm lucky.

I grew up in a small town, and we had our share of conservative religious suppression.  They banned drama from school until my class graduated high school.  But I grew up.  I moved beyond.  I kept exploring, and I grew further.  Again, I'm lucky.  I know that I have privilege.  But I want other people to have it too.  And I can't help but feeling that reading something new is where that starts. 

One of the most beautiful aspects of living is that you will never stop being confronted with new things.  For me, it feels like I'm constantly unfolding in new, strange, and beautiful directions. It kills me to see people's minds and hearts stunted, held back, and not allowed to dream.  I can think of nothing more like hell. 

For my part, I dare to dream,
to try,
to do,
to strive,
to struggle,
to exceed,
to overachieve,
to seek,
to explore,
to wish,
to hope,
and to continually forever unfold.

Teachers in the West

Yesterday's panel discussion on Eastern Esotericism in the Western Mode raised so many interesting questions.  The previous one I blogged about, with the ultimate attainment of Moksha was the most outstanding one.  (And I'm going to update that post in a second).  But the panelists asked another really probing question.  Why is it that Westerners can gravitate to Eastern gurus and teachers, but that the West doesn't really cultivate a lot of internal esoteric teachers (or at least hasn't in a long time).  I think that you could argue the point, but I think its a valid criticism.  Would the West know a mystic teacher of their own when they saw one? 

Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society for Krsna Consciousness, came to America with fiften dollars in his pocket and through sheer force of will built a cult following for Krsna that still exists today. 

I think that you have to look back to the Theosophists and the Golden Dawn to really see Western mystics who develop anything like a following.  Blavatsky, Crowley, Mathers, Besant, etc.  The criticism in the panel was that these people turned to Eastern esotericism to supplement the material that built their traditions.

When I started thinking about this, I started thinking about the difference between Western and Eastern religious traditions as the root of that issue.  Eastern religious traditions tend to be decentralized.  They don't develop authorities that determine the validity of a faith or a cultic devotion.  They simply accept them as yet another part of the mutliplicity of life.  Devotees of one God or practice tend to focus on their cultus, and everything else becomes a part of the spiritual background.  Western religious traditions are very focused on determining who is right or wrong, and what religion is "the true" religion.  This leads to hierarchies and power structures, suppression of dissenting viewpoints and a concept of "heresy." 

Christianity first and then Islam took a viewpoint that their theology was completed in the life of an individual person.  In Christianity it was Jesus, in Islam, Muhammad.  Subsequently there developed a worldview of deference to the books that contained the words of those supreme teachers.  Each tradition sees their master as the last possible prophet, the highest teacher that could ever be.  So, to me it seems no surprise that there is a dearth of enlightened masters in the West.  When you believe you have reached the pinnacle, and that it is the only pinnacle, then there is nothing else to strive for.  You can remain complacent in your knowledge, because it is "complete."  This of course leads us to the danger of thinking thoughts beyond those of what your leader tells you, and the threat of what may come of this kind of knowledge.

I think there is also a problem in finding esoteric traditions and masters due to the West's inherent materialism since the Age of Enlightenment.  We commodify everything we can get our hands on and what we can't quantify or verify through the lens of the Real is suspect. Esotericism is something unquantifiable and therefore something that is far more difficult to sell. 

So, really the question for me is can the West develop an esoteric master within the paradigms of western religions and a materialist impulse? 

I think this may be one of the reasons there may be such a resurgence in Western Pagan practices.  The Pagan worldview strips away the concept of a supreme and complete master, and allows for a similar devotional and spiritual experience to that of Eastern mystics. 

Your Brain On Samsara

One of the programs today really triggered something for me.  The discussion was on the eastern esoteric elements (Yoga, Chakras, Prana, etc.) that were incorporated into western esoteric traditions (like Theosophy and Thelema).  But the part that really intrigued me the most was when they were discussing the Hindu concept of Moksha.

We're all pretty familiar with Samsara, which is the cycle of birth-death-rebirth and the countless lives we have lived before, and will probably lead after as well. Moksha is the end goal of religious practice in Hinduism, and there are two main attainments that can happen. One side is dissolution of the soul, Advaita.  Like a drop of rain flowing to the ocean you merge with the oneness of Brahman.  The other side of this is Vishistadvaita, wherein you achieve something of an apotheosis of self becoming a unified spiritual body, retaining your individual personality and qualities but in a perfected form.

These are two very radically different outcomes for the practitioner, and it's not clear to me which of these is the ultimate goal of any particular practice.  But as I was sitting there in that session I was reminded of Jill Bolte Taylor's amazing TED talk on her experience with the two different halves of her brain.  After her stroke she was able to physically experience two very different things because there was a separation between the two hemispheres of her brain.  In left-brain mode she was her discrete self, interacting with objects, and writing papers.  In right-brain mode she melted into the substance of all the things around her.  There were no discrete differences, everything was one and the ego dissolved into unity. 

It feels to me that these two experiences of Moksha correspond very deeply to left-brain/right-brain experiences.  Vishistadvaita is the left-brain solidifying the self and perfecting it as a discrete entity.  Advaita is the right-brain dissolving the self into the oneness of the cosmos. 

But this carries over into a lot of other eschatologies beyond the Hindu one presented here. 

The Buddhist Nirvana is a dissolution of self.
The Christian afterlife is the permanent retention of the self as it existed in this singular life.
In Greek-Roman Paganism there were mutliple afterlife options depending upon the attainment in life.  Some people went and just faded into the shadows, others went to live on an island of heroes, and some were deified.  The perpetuation of the ancestor cult was to prevent the dissolution of the self in hopes that you too would be remembered.

I don't really know what all this means exactly, but it was really striking to me and I felt I had to share it. 

The Difference Between Ideal and Real

Something this last few years has just really struck home with me, and that is the vast gulf between the ideal and real.

When I thought about the ideal before, it was always in the context of Plato, and his "Forms."  The recurring example was the ideal "chair" that is the perfect example of "chairness."  This is not something that you can envision exactly, and that all the chairs in the manifest world (i.e. here on earth) are at best just shadowy approximations of that ideal. 

What no one in Philosophy class ever tells you is that this applies to absolutely everything in your actual life. 

Take for instance, Marriage.  Marriage is an ideal.  It is something that you envision as some perpetual blissful bond between two people, who come together, have some kids, and raise a family that loves each other.  And yet, in the real world, we are always riding some tangential approximation of the Ideal Marriage.  People don't tell you about the thousand little details of the daily life of a marriage that will impact your reality.  They don't tell you about managing feelings, or dividing chores, or household finances, and how sexual tension builds and ebbs and flows, and the recurring conversations that you have to sort out the issues that happen between you. 

And Marriage is only just one example. 

Career is another one.  When you're talking to children you ask them "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And innocently they will say that they want to be a firefighter, or a princess, or a cowboy, or a doctor, or something like that.  What no one dares tell a child is that you will ask yourself this same question for the rest of your life.  So, you became a doctor.  Are you satisfied with just that?  Why not become a surgeon?  Or the head of a special department?  Do you want to explore hospital administration?  How ambitious do you really want to be?  How far is just far enough to satisfy your childhood dream?  If you achieve that dream, will it bring you happiness?  Are the days of endless toil meaningful and bring you joy?  Did you make a mistake when you went into this career? 

My Body is one of the worst.  Anyone who reads this knows how much the media will push what they believe should be an ideal body type, and we each construct what is the perfect "me" from this pastiche of unattainable ideals.  This leads very young people to dieting.  Some people turn to anorexia or bulemia.  Some people go through skin bleaching or plastic surgery.  All to make themselves more "perfect."  They can't believe that there isn't a "perfect body."  And they will starve themselves until they become walking corpses in an attempt to achieve the unachievable.

Don't get me started on "The American Dream."

I think that dreams and aspirations are very important to us as people.  They give us hope and they help us think beyond our day to day lives.  They give us that light to strive toward.  But I think that when we get confronted with the dissonance between the Ideal and the Real that a lot of us turn to despair.  Our marriage wasn't good enough. My job wasn't perfect.  This body I live in could be just that much better.  My life isn't everything I hoped it would be.  All of this tears us apart for not living up to the perfection of something that could never be in the first place.  It's all just Santa Clause or the Boogeyman.

There is no ideal marriage.
There is no ideal job.
There is no ideal body.
There is no ideal life.

These things exist in a world that is messy, complicated, screwed up, and in a constant state of flux. 

And that's okay. 

Because that's REAL. 

Everyone has to figure out how to make these things work best for themselves and their circumstances.  No one person has all the answers to figuring this shit out.  We're all just making it up as we go along.  Some people have open marriages and some people have serial monogamy.  Some people go through jobs like they change their clothes, and some people will work in the same assembly line for their whole life.  Some people continue to push themselves at gyms to train for decathlons and some people just don't give a fuck and just do whatever. 

Each of us finds our own way.  It's not right.  It's not wrong.  It just IS.  And we need to accept what IS, instead of despairing over what isn't.


More Things In Heaven and Earth

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
--Hamlet, Act 1, Scene V

Let's talk about overgeneralization for a minute, shall we?

Maybe it's the political season that is leading people to more frequently make grandiose claims, but there have been a lot of really bold statements coming from friends and from articles online that all succumb to this problem.  Republicans are evil.  Liberals are cowardly.  Libertarians are conspiracy theorists.  Atheists are condescending assholes.  Islam is a religion of terrorists.  Christianity is trying to destroy America.  Religious people are deluded.  Let's not even get into racial and ethnic stereotypes.

All of this paints entire classes of people with a very broad brush, and denies the reality of individual experience.  When we ignore the realities of individuals we "Other" them, and can more easily dismiss their individual issues and concerns. 

At a recent training session I was introduced to this incredibly wonderful teaching aid to understand the different individuated vectors related to sexual and gender identity within an individual.  It's called the Genderbread Person. 


What this diagram illustrates really well is the actual complexity of an individual's life.  Each vector is not a yes/no choice, but rather a spectrum that an individual may swing through over the course of hir life.  Ze is not just heterosexual or homosexual, but somewhere along a spectrum of orientation. And each of these vectors play with one another. 

But what this does even more for me is underscore the problem inherent in overgeneralization. 

Gender and Sexuality are just one vector in an individual's life.  Each individual person is a unique combination of economic and social classes.  The circumstances of their families.  Their religious vectors can range from militant to non-practicing.  Their educational and intellectual lives are unique products of the schools they attend and the classes they take, or do not take.  Who they study with.  What they wrote, and what they thought.  Their social circles.  Their political leanings.  Their passionate interests. 

As it says in the Book of the Law.

Every man and every woman is a star.

One can never assume from any given statement that an individual who identifies with any particular group is inherently 100% in line with everything produced by that group.  When an individual identifies as X it behooves us to clarify what that means to them.  Because only that individual is the arbiter of hir worldview, and only ze can explain where ze is coming from.  

I've been accused of playing this card as a reductio ad absurdum.  That I can't see the forest for the trees.  I'm okay with that.  Because I would rather know that there are thousands upon thousands of species of trees than to know that there is one forest. 

As a Radical Faerie we learn about developing what we call the Subject-Subject Consciousness.  Most of our transactions in life are Subject-Object, where I, as subject, engage with object as thing to be used.  In the Subject-Subject mode we collapse the hierarchy and power dynamic to bring ourselves in line with truly understanding the other as Subject.  When we come to know someone as an individual, and the uniqueness of that being, and personal concerns and personal worldview, we become more empathetic to hir concerns, to understand as someone who is just like us.

I opened with that quote from Hamlet as a reminder, and it's something that comes to my mind fairly often.  This is a huge, wildly diverse, complicated world.  Generalization is an easy way out.  It is a way to make bold statements.  It is the easiest way to ignore the rich complexities of the human experience, and it destroys us a little bit at a time.

Spiritual Experience and Making Meaning

Over the last few weeks I've shared some perspectives on the work of Robert Graves and some psychological aspects at play in the reading of Tarot. In each of those articles I asked, does it really matter if it's ahistoric, or if it's based on spurious scholarship?  Does it matter if we are engaging in a psychological activity in the guise of a mystical activity?  In each case I said no, and I still hold that to be true.  But I want to clarify that statement a little bit in light of an article that came out this week.

At the blog Pagan Square Ivo Dominguez Jr. shared his insights into what he calls "Chosen Belief."  For Ivo, reconciling the scientific worldview with the mythic experience is akin to the same experience we have when we engage in a willful suspension of disbelief when entering a theater to watch a movie, or when we read a book.  We know that the film we are about to see or the book we are about to read is a work of fiction and yet we accept the experience on its face an immerse ourselves in it anyway.  Ivo lays out an axiom for this methodology.
The extension of the practice of the willing suspension of disbelief to the willing acceptance and empowerment of beliefs as a set of virtual truths for a given span of experience.
Ivo echoes the work of Karen Armstrong, where we explore spiritual truths in the context of playing "make-believe."   I have some mixed feelings about these sentiments.  So let me unpack it a little. 

There is a dichotomy between belief and fact.  Facts are what we obtain through reason and inquiry.  We test them, challenge them, put them aside if we discover them to be untrue.  It is a product of the best work of the scientific method.  Belief is the step beyond the realm of fact, and into the realm of speculation via trust (faith).  The "leap of faith" is made in the absence of empirical evidence.  The realm of the spiritual has been pretty solidly in the quadrant of faith.  The suspension of disbelief asks us to put aside reason even if only momentarily and to accept as true that for which we have no tangible evidence, or that which may be contradictory to established fact.  It is engaging with a fiction.  But is that what we're actually doing?  Well, perhaps partly, but I think it's more complicated than just walking into a fiction.

Experience of the Spiritual

T.M. Luhrmann in her book "When God Talks Back" explores the phenomenon of people engaging in a dialogue and relationship with the Christian God as expressed in the evangelical Vineyard Church.  These people have crossed a kind of mental threshhold past the realm of reason and engage in conversations with God.  And they engage in these conversations all day long, every day, living in God 24/7.  We see this exact same experience in Pagan traditions, where people speak either with the voice of a Goddess, or who hear, internally, the voice of a Goddess (or God, Daemon, Spirit, Angel, What Have You).  When we walk into a ritual circle we see the Priestess calling down the Goddess, and hear Her speak to us.  This phenomenon is documented time and time again, and people believe these experiences to be true encounters with God (et al.). Where suspension of disbelief comes in is when we choose to believe that it is a God.  Whether it is in fact a God, or whether it is, as Julian Jaynes posits, a function of the human brain is almost irrelevant.  The belief that it is a God is unnecessary to the process.  There is a physiological, psychological, emotional experience on behalf of the individual. The experience itself is real.

Personally, I believe that voice and that power comes from a place inside our brains, and it uses the component pieces of our subconscious minds to tell us things.  In fact, if we explore the kind of experience presented in Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" where flashes of insight and gut reaction have a basis in reality, the information that comes from that experience can prove exceptionally useful.  But its physiological and psychological origin does not detract from the message.  Rather, I believe it lends more weight to the value of the experience, because it is constructed from our own experiences, knowledge, and feelings.


The spiritual experience provides additional information to the individual.  Dream states, trancework, meditation, prayer, ritual, drugs, divination, communing with God, whatever the method, the individual engages in a world rich with symbols, connections, words, parables... all of this is data.  The immersion in this experience brings out and highlights certain elements above others, and the individual walks away with more information than he began with.  This revealed information may or may not carry weight with the indvidual depending on what he does with it. 

When I look at Robert Graves, plunking away at The White Goddess, pulling out his dusty old books and cobbling together a justification for the Triple Goddess, or Margaret Murray looking for the Witch Cult, I see two things.  I first see revisionism, shoehorning history to fit a spiritual narrative.  But secondly, and more importantly I see vision.  In my mind, Graves did not need to qualify the existence of a triple Goddess through historical or literary source materials in order to prove her reality.  His vision of her was the key experience. The method by which he attained this vision was through what he calls the "analeptic memory" which posits that "forgotten events may be recovered by the exercise of intuition, which affords sudden glimpses of truth 'that would not have been arrived at by inductive reasoning."  That is direct, experiential, vision.  This image of a triple Goddess came to him from any number of disparate elements and manifested in his brain.  Everything else that he did to justify it after the fact was window dression for the purpose of advancing the vision.  But it was that seed, born of a visionary experience, that holds the kernel of truth.

Meaning Making

When presented with information revealed in a spiritual context the individual begins making new mental connections linking his personal life experience with the divine revelation.  He becomes actively engaged in the process of making meaning of his life.  It is an act of self-analysis, decision making, and ultimately about telling the story of one's own life through the lens of the mystic.  We contextualize our experiences to build meaning for ourselves where none is apparent.

When we look at the Tarot, we not looking at a deck of cards that can accurately forecast the future.  What the Tarot does, is it activates those disparate elements lurking in the back of our brains and bubbles them to the surface.  We take all those pieces and we tell ourselves a story about our lives, and the people in our lives, and we examine our circumstances in the light of that story and how it may or may not play out.  That is a direct, experiential, vision used to make meaning of one's life.

I believe that the physiological, psychological, and emotional experiences that we have in sacred space should be seen as a direct experience; whether or not we classify the experience as "spirit" or latent phenonomena of the brain shouldn't matter.  Because of their basis in direct experience, the spiritual experience, or anything revealed during a spiritual experience, may be classified as a "virtual truth," but it is always a unique, and true, experience for the individual in the context of his own life and mind.  What the individual then does with that spiritual revelation is to use this information to make meaning of the component pieces of his life in the context of the mythical superstructure of his tradition/culture.  This act of self-analysis is unique, personal, and has very real impacts upon the life of the individual.  For some people, this process is an ongoing, permanent state of being, constantly engaging with the spiritual for information and interpreting their life in the continued context of revealed information, without arbitrary delineations of sacred versus profane.

Where the spiritual experience always runs aground is when people, like Graves or Fundamentalists, look at this spiritual information as something more than myth or context, but rather as historic or future facts.  We don't need to rewrite history to prove the existence of a global matriarchal goddess cult for the Triple Goddess to have meaning.  Similarly we don't need to dig out caves to live in the apocalyptic future revealed by some monk who lived in the desert for a tale of crisis to help us understand a society falling apart at the seams.  Spiritual information is a means of helping us understand the human condition.  It doesn't need to supplant reality, but complement it. 


Over on my facebook page Ivo suggested that I re-read his article, because his point was not directly about the suspension of disbelief about about choosing instead to empower a set of symbols in order drive magickal action.  It's a distinction worth noting.  However, as the axiom posited above states chosen belief is an extension of suspension of disbelief, which moves it from a passive consumption to an active practice.  This ties in interestingly with a video I watched recently on PBS "Off Book" where they explore how fandom changes the practice of media consumption from a passive to an active practice

But I have to ask myself, because I'm always asking myself questions, how is this different from any other time when we choose to believe something?  Scientific inquiry gives us a lot to think about, but there are still a number of speculations that we have which have theoretical models, but no evidence one way or another.  For instance, the big bang, and whatever preceded it.  Theoretical astrophysics doesn't really know what happened.  But what we can see is that there is a point in our universe from which all other astral bodies are radiating.  From that we deduce the origins of the universe from a central point, and construct a narrative of the big bang as the source of the creation of our universe.  But we don't really know for certain how or why it occurred, and we're also not really sure about what's going to happen to us in the end.  And so we develop models and tests and look for more data to support or discard those models.  Following the line of reasoning established by science, and the deductions that one makes in support of those models is the same thing as choosing to believe a particular narrative of existence.  It is a choice that has a lot more data involved in it, and it also has a lot more doubt. 

And I think I'm okay with that.  Mostly because I'm more concerned about empowering concepts that may not have any basis in fact, or that may contradict fact. 

As I've written a lot on here, I consider myself going down a road of a somewhat rational mysticism.  There are things I don't understand, and I'm kind of agnostic about some things.  But there are other things that I'm less willing to part with because they speak to a reasonable understanding of the world.  So for instance when I look at magickal action, I look at understanding methods of control and flexibility more generally, and how they apply in the physical world we live in.  I don't really buy into mystical energy working like Reiki or chanting causing the bonds of fate to snap.  For me, magickal action is conscious operation.  It is awareness of your impact upon your environment, and the changes that you can make within the bounds of your circumstances. 

The best example I can think of to illustrate this actually comes from an episode of Doctor Who.  At the end of the first new Christmas special entitled "The Christmas Invasion" then Prime Minister Harriet Jones uses a giant laser beam to blow the Sycorax out of the sky.  The Doctor, livid at the fact that she has done this, and with technology that is clearly alien, and far beyond the means of humanity in 2006 tells her "I can take you down with six little words."  He turns to one of her security guards and whispers to him "Don't you think she looks tired?"  And this starts a chain of events of a whisper campaign, talking about how she is unfit for the role of Prime Minister and that it's taking a terrible emotionally exhaustive toll on her.  That evening the Doctor watches her in a press conference denying rumors of her growing emotional and psychological exhaustion until she ultimately resigns from the role of PM. 

That is a magical action.  It takes nothing numinous or supernatural to make that happen.  It simply takes an understanding of the way that people behave, how they think, and how to influence people.  Books like How to Win Friends and Influence People or Getting to Yes illustrate the same kinds of principles. 

So if we are choosing to empower a set of beliefs, I choose to empower a worldview that incorporates psychology, communication skills, biology, chemistry, physics, and neuroscience.  If there are Gods I see them as waystones to understanding.  If there are plant spirits, I see them operate through their botanical chemical properties.  I also know that there are many things I don't know, and I try and retain an open mind to the possibilities that are out there.  My starting point will always be the rational.  And if I can find a rational explanation then I will go with it.  If I can't, then I will look beyond. 

Want evidence of my beyond side? Ask me if I believe in ghosts.

Oracles and Confirmation Bias

I was discussing tarot with a friend of mine this morning.  He asked me if tarot reading was "real."  I had to think about that for a minute because I wasn't sure what he meant exactly. Usually when people ask that question it's asking about the validity of whether or not tarot can predict the future. 

Personally I think that Tarot does do something real.  But I don't believe that it's predicting the future. 

When a tarot card reader tells a story to the querant the information presented is vague.  It tells you nothing of the specifics of anyone's personal life and a good reader won't bother to ask any specifics of the querant.  The cards present scenarios, and those scenarios are universally applicable to anyone's life.  Though some scenarios are more applicable than others at different times. 

But it's not the tarot reader who is doing the work in the reading; it's the querant.  The querant's job in the reading is to take the information presented by the reader and figure out what it is that the reader is telling them via the imagery on the cards and the tale that he is spinning.  Very little of what that the reader says has any kind of direct information.  So the querant fits those vague details into the story of her life, filling in the gaps.  Most of the time the querant walks away from the reading feeling like she's heard information that she already knows, shaking her head like "Yes. I know exactly what you're telling me."   Well, of course!  Because you're probably hearing what you want to hear.

Confirmation bias has been at the forefront of my brain lately.  This is an observation in psychological studies whereby, when presented with information that is vague or contradictory to one's point of view, that an individual will either a) spin the vauge to fit their belief or b) dismiss the contradictory.  Both of these things play out very obviously when reading tarot.  Those statements that fit the querant's narrative are confirming their beliefs, those elements that are sufficiently vague are spun into confirmation, and elements that are contradictory are either questioned for clarification (which then confirms or denies) or dismissed as being the unknowable mysterious elements lurking in the background.

I ask myself then, as I do all the time.  Is confirmation bias on behalf of the querant in a tarot reading a problem?  And I'll say no.  One of the good things about tarot reading (or psychic hotlines or I Ching or spinning tortoise shells) is that sometimes people need to believe that external forces are helping guide them in making the choices that they need to make.  Now, the tarot reader shouldn't be telling someone to not date a certain man or to quit their day job and run off to be a lion tamer.  But they don't have to say that.  All that the tarot reader needs to do is tell the story presented in the cards and the querant will interpret that story as part of her understanding of herself and her circumstances, and when she walks away she will have gained personal insight into her own life by looking at her situations through the lens of the mystic.  It is a technique of self analysis.

When I was in my early 20's I went to a tarot reader for the first time.  I sat down with Alanna and she read my cards and at the time I was debating on moving across the country to go to graduate school.  She laid down cards and was telling me a story about deferred dreams and about regret and holding onto the failures of other people and believing that they defined me.  And I knew she was right, because I had already known that this was the case.  That I was reluctant to begin a process that would set me further and further apart from my family for my own personal growth.  But in the end I made that change.  Because it was what I wanted, and what I needed to make my life a better one.  That one reading meant a lot at that crucial turning point.  Not because I believed in the mystic element of tarot, but because it made me examine my motivations and my reluctances. 

But interpreting tarot is no different from the myriad stories we have of waffly oracular advice.  My favorite story of oracular confirmation bias comes from Herodotus' story of Croesus.  King Croesus of Lydia asked the oracle at Delphi if he should attack Persia.  The response was "If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed."  Believing this to be a favorable omen he went, and was subsequently crushed.  I think we could debate the merits and influence of the Lydian empire, but the indefinite article in the Delphic statement was there for a reason. 

Oracular advice is in the eye of the beholder.