Spiritual Experiences – Separating Reality From Illusion

Spiritual Experiences – Separating Reality From Illusion August 18, 2019

I’ve long argued that our spiritual and religious experiences are unquestionably real. We see, hear, and feel what we see, hear, and feel and we should never allow anyone to gaslight our experiences.

But things get complicated when we start the process of interpretation – when we decide what those sights, sounds, and feelings mean and what we should do with them.

Last year I wrote Discernment: Distilling the Truth from our Pagan Experiences. It outlines a process for interpreting our experiences based on context, knowledge, observation, analysis, and synthesis. That process allows us to make a decision as to what we think they mean and how we should respond.

Hearth of Hellenism blogger Angelo Nasios pointed me to a Hindu site with an interesting piece titled The Illusion of Experiences. It’s a short essay – I encourage you to read it for yourself. Here’s a key quote:

To be alive is to have experiences.

But the only test of the authenticity or otherwise of an experience is the impact it leaves. Very often in spirituality experiences are nothing more than a projection of one’s own deepest desires.

This is true. As it’s happening, you’re sure a God is speaking directly to you. Later on you start wondering “am I making this up?” One of the ways to determine that is to ask yourself if it’s telling you something you really want to be true… or conversely, something you’re terrified might be true.

Figuring that out requires self-knowledge, something most of us are lacking to one degree or another.

Because I practice an ecstatic polytheist religion and because I write about it publicly, I hear a lot of stories about peoples’ experiences of the Gods. Most of them strike me as genuine encounters with Otherworldly persons, though I often question specific interpretations. But occasionally I hear someone whose story sounds like the product of an overactive imagination filtered through a currently popular movie or TV show.

As sure as I am that many experiences of Gods and other spirits are absolutely genuine, I’m equally sure that some are projections of human desires.

The Hindu blogger (if their name is on the website I couldn’t find it) made another point I hadn’t given much thought.

There are often people who claim to have visions of deities or saints or other holy characters with all conviction and sanguinity and yet there is not one inch of change in their attitude, lifestyle or behaviour pattern. How is it possible to have such ‘powerful’ encounters with deities and things like that, yet remain the same old flawed individual all through?

… a lot of people who sincerely believe that they get visions or such from deities and other powerful ethereal entities, still lead a life that is joyless, cribbing about things they did not get, bitching about all and sundry, just like any average person. Which means not one of their so-called experiences triggered any innate or genuine transformation.

I need to say a few things before I get into my response. First, I’m not a Hindu and I have only a basic knowledge of Hinduism. This is not a critique of the Hindu blogger’s ideas. Rather, it’s an exploration of how a plain reading of their words can be helpful to us as Pagans and polytheists.

Secondly, I’m reluctant to say that personal growth and transformation is the ultimate goal of spirituality, as their post implies. I’m not saying the author is wrong, but this is a difference between their religion and my religion.

With that understood, however, I think the author has a very good point. If our experiences really are experiences of the Gods, there should be some noticeable change in our lives.

My own experiences

I don’t know which God or Gods was involved in my first Pagan initiation – it wasn’t done in a polytheist context. What I do know is that during the initiation, a connection was made, and it felt right. I was committed to this path and I was happy about it. 16 years later I’m still going strong.

My first direct experiences of a deity were of Cernunnos. The first one was rather mild – the second one was not. He screamed at/through me “be my priest!” And so I am.

My experiences of the Morrigan have led me to write things She wanted written, and to get off my butt and get my first book finished. Eventually they led me to take an oath to Her and to serve as Her Druid for the rest of this life.

Other experiences are less dramatic but no less important. They haven’t changed the core of who I am, but they have changed my life, very much for the better.

There is no Pagan version of the Damascus Road

In the particular form of Evangelical Christianity where I grew up, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus was presented as the model for “coming to Jesus” – sudden, overwhelming, and permanent. It was supposed to change your life in an instant.

The fact that I had no such dramatic experience was a cause for concern… as were the numerous conversions that seemed to last a week or two before the person in question was back to their old “sinful” ways. It was only when I became a Methodist that I learned this model was not normative for most of Christianity.

If this was a bad model for Christianity, it’s a worse model for Paganism. We have roads, but they are long, hilly, and winding – and there are precious few maps.

There are times when a deity will claim a person suddenly and even violently. Ordeals can be transformative. These experiences can turn you upside down, but they will only change your life over time.

Our ecstatic experiences of the Gods are powerful – sometimes overwhelmingly so. But ultimately they are less about flipping a switch and more about planting a seed.

Set your expectations accordingly.

Transformation is best gauged in retrospect

I noticed my first gray hair at 27. Then one day I looked in the mirror and there was more gray than brown.

Because transformation is mostly slow and gradual, it’s hard to notice. This is one of the reasons I recommend journaling as a spiritual practice. Writing out your thoughts and feelings on a regular basis not only helps you better understand them now, it provides a record you can review months or years in the future.

That doesn’t help you decide if your experience was authentic or not right now. But over time it can serve as a check on your interpretations, which will give you confidence for your future experiences… or let you know you need to get better at discernment.

More transformed than thou

Different Gods call different people to worship and work with Them in different ways. Established polytheist religions develop traditions and norms, but modern Western Paganism mostly isn’t there yet – we’re heavily focused on the individual. Even in established traditions, some are called to mysticism, some are called to religious service, and some are called to honor the Gods and live ordinary lives.

Being judgmental isn’t limited to Christians. It’s all too easy to say “you aren’t as devout as I am, so your experience of the Gods must not have been real.”

We have no business doing that.

If someone asks for my opinion, I’ll give it to them… although I rarely attempt to interpret other peoples’ experiences. If someone publishes theological opinions I think are wrong, I’ll rebut them. But it is not my place to tell anyone “your life isn’t sufficiently transformed, so you made it all up.”

Beware of doing this to yourself. Just because your life hasn’t been changed in the same way someone else’s has doesn’t mean you didn’t really have an experience of a God. You’re responsible for doing what you’re called to do, no matter how seemingly-small that may be.

A divine encounter is never a trivial thing

While it is dangerous to make general statements about the Gods, I have never known a deity to contact a human to say “everything is great just the way it is – you don’t need to do anything.” It’s always – always – a call to change something in your life. Maybe something small, maybe something huge, but there is always something They want us to do.

If there was no call to change something, I encourage you to revisit your interpretation of your experience. If there was a call and you haven’t responded, I encourage you to reconsider. It is unlikely to make your life easier. It will almost certainly make it deeper and more meaningful.

And that’s about as real as you can get.

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