As I was reading through Dwelling on the Threshold, I stumbled upon this sentence that struck me. It quite accurately explains something I’ve been considering for the past week, though the issue has been on my mind much longer. (You can read the post that this quote is from here.)
…the gods are entirely independent of our brain chemistry, but our experience of Them is not.
Since beginning walking a religious path, I’ve been dealing with doubt. Doubt is a part of discernment, for me, a necessary part of being a religious person or spirit-worker. I don’t assume every experience, every voice, or every vision is from the gods. I don’t assume every omen I see is actually an omen. I question. I wonder. I ask myself if I am understanding and hearing correctly.
But I don’t doubt that the gods and spirits exist. (I do, I should note, doubt some spirits – one of my closest spirits had to deal with almost a month of me shaking my head and proclaiming he didn’t exist, because his existence challenged some of my ideas about spirits and how the world worked – and I doubt my interactions with some spirits.) The gods are real, out there, outside of me. So are the spirits. That’s just how the world is for me. It’s not something I can deny, and while I may doubt my ability to hear and truly interact with them, I don’t doubt that they are out there.
Part of that is because I have had experiences that confirm, for me, beyond even my discerning mind, that spirits exist. Part of that belief is something as intense, real, and beating as my own heart. The spirits are, and my belief in them is wrapped around my veins and under my skin. It isn’t something I can deny.
I definitely question my understanding and experience of them.
Am I making up this experience? Did I see or hear what I thought I heard? Is the impression I’m getting mostly myself, or is one of my gods nudging me? Am I interpreting this correctly?
I know some people say that, since we can see how the brain reacts when we pray, when we have religious experiences or touch the gods, that somehow it’s ‘just the brain’. Which makes me laugh, honestly. Why is there only room for one possibility? Of course our brains start churning and whirring. Aren’t our gods immanent? Why wouldn’t they affect our bodies in ways we can (now) see?
I’m neither anti-science nor incredibly eager to incorporate it into my practice. Science is just something that helps us understand our world and how it works, and while I like learning about various subjects because learning is just fun, I don’t think it explains away the gods or spirits. While I’ve always been a more mythic, feeling, woo-woo type, I enjoy science because our world is just so full of amazing things and we can always learn more and isn’t that just kind of incredibly cool?
So science shows our brains do really interesting stuff when we have religious experiences. We can see the effects prayer and meditation and journeying and such have on our mind. And while, for some, that means the gods and spirits and experiences are only in our heads, to me that’s just seeing how I process the gods and spirits. I experience them, so my body responds, and…that’s that.
We’re humans and made of meat stuff, so we process the gods as humans. And sure, that means I’m probably at the periphery of most Pagans and even polytheists, but like I said – I know the spirits are real, and it’s as close to me as my heart is. I can’t tear out one without tearing out the other.
And I think that’s what I’ve been striving for, trying to explain when I explain doubt and what doubt is for me. Doubt for me isn’t doubting the existence of external spirits, gods that don’t rely on me to live and move, but questioning my own experiences. Checking myself, constantly. Never getting complacent or assuming every whim I feel is god-given. Am I hearing the gods? Am I hearing them clearly? And when I’m not, what can I do to keep a connection to them?
I have to open myself to them, for when they come and share themselves with me, when they set my mind on fire, so I can be ready to hear and listen and understand and come out on the other side stronger and better able to serve them (especially during those times when I can’t hear or feel them).