I’ve been talking a lot about deep practice and dark practice lately. One of the points I keep making over and over again is that these things aren’t for everyone. That’s OK – there’s a place in our many Pagan and polytheist religions for people at all levels of interest and commitment. Not everyone has to be a priest or a mystic or a magician. Our communities also need people who are accountants and engineers.
Some people simply aren’t interested in deep practice. Some are committed to a worldview that does not allow for things like Gods, spirits, and fae. Some are at the very early stages of their Pagan practice and aren’t yet ready for deeper practice. If you’re in one of those groups, this post isn’t about you.
This post is for those who feel the call to deeper and darker practices, but who are afraid of them. It’s for those who’ve experienced something that was more real than they expected and now are leery of continuing.
And it’s also for those who are rushing into dealings with spiritual beings with all the caution of a college student leaving a party with a blood alcohol content of 0.15 and insisting he can drive himself home just fine.
Fear isn’t always a bad thing. Humans have an innate fear of snakes – so do other primates. That helps us avoid dying painful deaths after being bitten by a venomous snake. Problems arise when reasonable fears become unreasonable… and when reasonable fears cannot be avoided.
There are things in the depths that can harm us. There are also treasures in the depths. Feri co-founder Victor Anderson said “anything worthwhile is dangerous.” Our job is to evaluate the risks calmly and accurately. This will allow us to avoid risks that carry little reward, mitigate risks that are necessary, and be prepared for risks that play out in ways that are difficult or harmful.
The fear of the unknown
In Danse Macabre, horror master Stephen King explained how not showing the monster is scarier than letting it be seen:
After mounting apprehension about the fear we are about to confront, somebody eventually has to respond to the scratching sound at the door and throw it open — only to reveal, before our terrified eyes … a ten-foot-bug!
And no sooner do we register that fear – hairs standing erect on our necks, gooseflesh crawling up our arms – than we begin assessing and processing it; in an instant, an equal-and-opposite reaction sets in, tinged with disappointment: “Oh,” we think. “A ten-foot bug. That I can deal with. I was afraid it was going to be a hundred-foot bug!”
If we grew up in a society where concepts like animism, polytheism, and magic were part of the culture, deep practice wouldn’t be so scary. Like our ancestors, we would learn from birth how to approach the Gods, how to interact with the fae, and how to work spells and charms.
Sadly, we don’t live in that society. Most of our neighbors ignore such concepts and beings, while those of us who are drawn to them are left trying to figure out where the boundaries are, what’s a real risk, and what’s a hundred-foot bug manufactured by our imagination.
The best way to combat the fear of the unknown is to make it known. Read, study, and practice. Working in a group means you have other resources at hand – someone to say “I don’t think that bug is a hundred feet tall.” If you can work with an experienced person, you’ve got someone who can say “I’ve never seen a hundred-foot bug and the ten-foot bugs only hang out in certain areas that are easily avoided.”
But if you never open the door, you’ll never know.
The monsters within
I believe the Gods and spirits are real, distinct, individual beings. Attempts to understand them in purely psychological terms are insufficient to explain my experiences and the experiences of many others. But that doesn’t mean the psychological explanations of spirits and magic are completely wrong – they aren’t.
There are metaphorical monsters living inside each and every one of us. As much as we like to think we’re good, compassionate, non-violent people, each of us has the capacity to do great evil – particularly when an authority figure tells us to do it.
Mostly we don’t think about these things, and that’s mostly a good idea. The New Age concept that what we dwell on we will manifest is more true than not. But like most everything else we don’t like, ignoring them won’t make them go away.
In order to do deep spiritual work you must first know yourself. This is one of the reasons so many magical orders focus on self-discovery and self-development. Too many people never get past the emphasis on the self, but that’s another rant for another day. When you examine your inner self, your deep self, you are likely to find monsters – and monsters are scary.
Some people refuse to ever open that door. Some slam the door shut and go back to pretending they’re made of nothing but light and love.
I want to know what’s living inside me. I want to know just what these monsters are. Some are my evolutionary heritage from ancestors most ancient. Some are the product of my upbringing and early childhood experiences. Some… some I don’t know where they come from, I just know they’re there.
Some of these monsters can be reasoned with. Some can be healed. Some can be constrained with prayers and magic. With wise and diligent practice, we can keep our monsters from harming ourselves and others.
And some I prefer to keep around. As much as we try to make the world a kinder, gentler place, it often isn’t. There are times when monsters are necessary.
But I can do none of that if I’m afraid to take a cold hard look at the monsters within.
The monsters without
Some of the scary things we encounter in deeper practice are parts of ourselves. Some aren’t.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had first-hand encounters with Gods, ancestors, fae, spirits, and things I can’t classify and won’t try. I’ve worked magic for a very long time (even if I wouldn’t have called it that at first) and I’ve seen results I can’t deny. I’m to the point where it’s easier to just go with it than try to rationalize it away… and I like it better that way anyway.
But not all these experiences have been positive. Some have been rather unpleasant. Practice deeply enough for long enough and you come to the realization that where ever humans are in the grand scheme of things, it’s not at the top. Even if the Gods are virtuous (and They are) They aren’t particularly interested in your comfort and security.
And there are plenty of beings out there that aren’t nearly as virtuous as the Gods.
I’ve done a lot of hiking over the course of my life. Some of it has been in relatively safe places, but some has been in wild places where large and/or carnivorous wild animals live. It can be dangerous wandering into bear or cougar territory.
But these are also some of the most beautiful and magical places on Earth.
If you know a bit about wild animals and you show them some respect, they’ll mostly leave you alone. They won’t be your teachers and they certainly won’t be your servants, but they’ll allow you to pass unmolested through their territory to do what you came to do.
Some of the monsters without are like wild animals. Others are more like your next door neighbor who yells when your leaves blow into his yard, but who was quite friendly the time you brought him an apple pie. And others defy comparison.
As with all relationships, our dealings with Otherworldly beings must be grounded in respect, reciprocity, and honor. Be impeccable with your word, and do not offer or promise what you cannot or will not do.
If you practice deeply enough for long enough, you will encounter beings whose very presence will scare you. Let your fear teach you how to be a good explorer, not how to stay on the couch.
Here is the door
Another world is out there. If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably encountered it a time or two. Or perhaps you’re starting to see an opening where there used to be a solid wall.
There are scary things on the other side of that wall. There are also beautiful, powerful, and magical things… things that once seen cannot be unseen… things that will permanently change your ideas about the world and how it works.
I cannot tell you to open the door. Some of you aren’t interested in deeper practice. Some of you aren’t ready for it… but when are any of us really ready for an Otherworldly experience? And some of you are afraid of the monsters that live in the depths. Your fears may be overblown, but they aren’t groundless.
But here is the door, waiting to be opened.