Inspiration, Imagination, and Experience – A Call For Discernment

Inspiration, Imagination, and Experience – A Call For Discernment August 23, 2020

In last week’s post Folklore, Fiction, Scripture, and Myth: Know the Differences! I argued for people to understand that fiction and folklore are two different things. Folklore is grounded in someone’s real-life experiences, while fiction is a product of the imagination.

WanderingDruid raised an important point in the comments:

It feels to me like you are missing a category when you say a story either comes from experience or imagination. What of Awen (inspiration)?

Sometimes when you write a story, it is clearly something created by you. But sometimes it can feel more like the story is a living thing or a whisper from elsewhere, just looking for someone to manifest it in this world.

My post was a response to people who are basing their beliefs about the Fair Folk on fictional stories that are clearly and properly classified as fiction. They’re like those who try to base their witchcraft on Charmed or something like that. It’s one thing to see fictional portrayals of magic and say “I want to learn the reality behind this.” It’s another thing entirely to build your practice on a work of fiction.

Still, we recognize that some stories aren’t just made up. They tap into something deeper and more meaningful. Sometimes this is an insightful author who reads the mood of society, or who spots trends years before they begin to spread.

And sometimes it’s more than that. A quote usually attributed to Carl Jung says “people don’t have ideas – ideas have people.” The Awen doesn’t only come to us for our benefit, it comes to call us into service to something greater than ourselves.

If your worldview includes Gods and spirits who interact with us, then you know that sometimes inspiration comes to us in the form of first-hand experience of them.

So let’s take a deeper look into the question of whether something comes from imagination or experience.

Our experiences are always filtered through our brains

When we’re engaging in imagination, we’re using our brains. And probably some other things, but mainly our brains.

When we’re engaging in experience, we’re using all our senses. But those senses are filtered through our brains, which orient the experiences, contextualize them, and help us interpret them.

What comes to us from an external source and what comes from inside our heads? What is raw experience and what is our interpretation of our experiences? If we aren’t very careful, it’s easy to mistake one for the other.

Know thyself!

I almost never hear anything from a God or spirit with my ears. It’s usually a thought that pops into my head from nowhere.

When I talk with people who are just starting to interact with Gods and spirits, they often ask “how can I be sure I’m not making it all up?”

It’s challenging. But the most straightforward way is to know yourself. Know your thoughts, your feelings, your hopes and fears. Know what’s you. Then when you “hear” something that’s not you, you can be fairly confident it’s coming from an external source.

I remember walking through the crowded lobby of the Doubletree at Pantheacon and recognizing Jason Mankey’s voice out of a loud crowd – it was familiar. Likewise, the more you work with a deity, the more accustomed you grow to Their voice. I recognize the Morrigan and Cernunnos and rarely question if what I’m hearing is really from Them. With, say, Cerridwen, I’m much less certain.

Of course, it helps to have had a strong religious experience that leaves you with no doubts that your deities are real, but that’s another topic for another time.

If you know what’s you it’s much easier to figure out what’s not you.

Sometimes inspiration is both experience and imagination

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “you, Druid – write this!” And so I start writing.

The words are mine. The sentences are mine. The movements in the ritual are mine.

But the ideas that those words, sentences, and movements communicate are not mine. They are the result of my experience.

Sometimes it’s not as straightforward as “you, Druid – write this!” I get the feeling that I need to write about something, not because I have something to say but because something needs to be said. An idea has me, to use Jung’s phrase.

And it’s not just me. Virtually every polytheist writer I know (plus a lot who aren’t polytheists) say the same thing, or something similar.

Important things rarely come through only one channel

We call the wisdom and information we gather through first-hand experiences “UPG” – Unverified Personal Gnosis. This label acknowledges that while these experiences are meaningful and powerful, we can’t expect someone else to take our word that a deity wants them to do this or that… even though sometimes a deity “asks” us to tell them just that.

But our Gods never choose only one prophet. If something is important, I’ll hear it, and you’ll hear it, and someone in another country will hear it. That’s why I often ask “what are you hearing?” in a public forum – our stories provide confirmation for others. If multiple people get the same UPG, it becomes SPG – Shared Personal Gnosis. If enough people get it and accept it, it becomes confirmed gnosis – a new part of the lore of a tradition.

Some of whatever needs to be communicated (whether from the Gods or the Fair Folk or other non-ordinary persons) may come through fiction writers who will incorporate it into their stories – that’s what fiction writers do. So yes, a fiction writer can document what amounts to new or updated folklore in their stories.

But because important things rarely come through only one channel, they won’t be the only ones talking about it.

Experience is inherently anecdotal

UPG is personal experience – my experience happened to me, not to you. You may have a similar experience – that happens a lot – but yours will be different, if only because your experience is filtered through your brain and my experience is filtered through my brain.

The same thing is true with the experiences from long ago (and in some cases, not so long ago) that became our folklore. This thing happened to that person.

When we combine multiple reports of multiple experience over many years, we start to notice patterns. We develop belief systems from those patterns. The more accurate those belief systems are (i.e. – the more they conform to reality) the more useful they’ll be as roadmaps and guides for regular practice and future experiences.

But they are never fully complete. When we come across UPG not supported by lore, it’s possible that things have changed. It’s also possible that we’re just now encountering it. But also, we may also determine that it was mistaken and that we should discard it.

The point is that our Pagan religious traditions are never fixed. While things that have proven true and helpful over the years should never be discarded carelessly, neither should we allow our Paganisms to become stagnant.

Discernment is always required

So, are imagination and experience always separate things? If something contradicts the stories of our ancestors must it be rejected entirely? As always, it’s complicated.

Before you incorporate something into your belief system or your regular practice, see where it comes from. If it comes from the experiences of many people, it’s probably good and useful. If it comes from pop culture, it’s highly suspect.

If the source is questionable but the method seems to work, think about why that might be. Maybe they have a piece of the truth and if you check some other sources you can find more pieces. Maybe they’ve taken artistic license with a sacred tradition, and if the changes are removed you can more fully connect with that tradition and the spiritual persons associated with it.

Or perhaps the Awen is flowing through them and they’re hearing something that the rest of us aren’t… yet. If so, pay attention. You’re likely to be hearing about it from other sources before too long.

If it works, it’s true… just make sure it really does work

Any time I write about beliefs and concepts, someone will pop up with “who are you to tell me what to believe?”

That’s the wrong question.

You are of course free to believe whatever seems right to you. Religious questions are inherently uncertain and I take a very pragmatic approach to them – if it works for you, I’m happy for you.

But before you become too invested in beliefs that are comfortable and convenient, make sure they really do work. Make sure they’re strong enough and resilient enough to support you when things get tough.

Make sure they’re grounded in experience, not in imagination.

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