A few weeks ago the Rune Soup podcast featured Lionel Snell, aka Ramsey Dukes, author of My Year of Magical Thinking and other books on magic and related subjects. In the podcast, Snell talked about a job he had early in his career, working as a computer programmer in an environment he called “the most deadly boring thing I could imagine.” One co-worker spent all his spare time looking at travel brochures (obviously in the pre-internet days), and then once a year he’d take off for some exotic vacation.
Snell said “He’s coping with this boring life in a way that I can’t … He can live his whole life happily, just having that dream.”
Except it’s not a dream… or at least, not only a dream.
The benefits of ordinary travel
Very few of us get to follow our bliss. Most of us make a living doing what we have to do and then spend what free time we have doing the things that bring us joy.
Travel is one of the most educational and life-expanding activities you can do. It gets you out of your comfort zone. Travel – especially international travel – puts you in new and different situations. Sometimes that’s fun and sometimes it’s frustrating, like when flights get canceled and luggage gets lost. But you figure it out, you do what you need to do, and in the process you learn and grow.
Travel lets you experience things first hand. I’ve read and watched plenty on Islam, but being in a Muslim country gave me an understanding I couldn’t get any other way. A bus ride into the Yukon showed me what wilderness really means. And exploring Orkney was a pilgrimage in every sense of the term.
If you don’t have the resources for big trips, I strongly encourage you to take smaller, less expensive trips. Go somewhere while you still can.
The benefits of mundane travel also apply to otherworldly travel.
Autumn officially arrives on Friday and that means Samhain isn’t far behind. This is traditionally the season where the Veil Between the Worlds is thinnest. On top of that, many of us are convinced the Veil is shredded. So whether by seasons or by cycles, if you’re going to journey beyond the Veil, this is the time to do it.
Some people – including some Pagans, including some theistic and magical Pagans – view otherworldly travel like Lionel Snell viewed his co-worker’s ordinary travel: as an escape. It’s not “real.” Even if they think it’s possible, they don’t think it’s a good use of their time. Otherworldly journeying is too “out there” (and in some cases, too “New Age”) for serious Pagans to put much stock in it. Never mind the fact that most people who have mystical and otherworldly experiences describe them as the most real things they’ve ever known.As with ordinary travel, our otherworldly travel brings benefits.
I have misgivings about the traditional upper world – middle world – lower world model, but there is value in journeying to the upper and lower worlds, whatever they may be. We can see how things are in an idealized state and then work to manifest them here in the middle world. We can see things that are important but hidden and then bring them out into the open, where we can deal with them more effectively. We can learn the wisdom of the depths.
We can journey backward (and perhaps, forward) in time to recover lost information, to meet ancestors whose names we will otherwise never know, and to learn more about ourselves and our origins. Can we change the past while we’re there? I tend to think not, but maybe.
The Otherworld is home to Gods and ancestors, and also to other spiritual beings. Sometimes they come here, but other times we can go visit them in their homes. Great caution and diplomacy is advised, but there is value in visiting them.
Our Samhain journeys are perhaps the most beneficial. We visit with our ancestors, we peer into the Otherworld, and the unknown becomes a little more known. Then when death comes – as eventually it comes for everyone – we will not be afraid, because we will remember our journeys and we will have at least some idea where we’re going and what it’s going to be like when we get there.
This isn’t a cruise
I like cruises. I don’t love them, but I like them – they’re a (mostly) safe and (generally) relaxing way to see a lot of places in a short time. But they’re nothing like visiting a country on the ground, navigating yourself around an unfamiliar place, finding new places to eat and sleep, and dealing with different languages and customs.
Otherworldly travel is not a cruise. It’s not first class travel planned by a competent agent. It’s not even Ryanair and youth hostels. Otherworldly travel is an American on foot in an Asian country where you don’t speak the language, with no cell service and an out-of-date map, with a wallet that has plenty of money but in all the wrong currencies.
It’s doable, but it’s a challenge, and it really helps to have an experienced traveler along with you, particularly the first couple of times.
Read the stories of our ancestors – the dangers are real. It’s one thing when otherworldly beings come into our world – it’s quite another when we venture into their territory. Be polite, be gracious, be scrupulously honest, and above all, pay attention.
Traveling beyond the Veil
As with so much else beyond the basics of Paganism, this isn’t for everyone. It requires a certain curiosity, a certain determination, and to be perfectly honest, a certain arrogance. What makes you think you can go where the living aren’t intended to go and make it back in one piece? Not everyone who tries can do it, and not everyone who does it comes back unharmed.
But some do.
And so like the computer programmer of days gone by, we contemplate what’s out there, how we can get there, and what we’ll encounter when we’re there.
And then we go.