Last week my friend Nicholas Graham had a Facebook post I thought was very insightful. He restricted it to his friends only (so I can’t link to it) but he gave me permission to quote from it in this post. Here’s a key excerpt:
The cost of gnosis is never being able to divest yourself of it. Once you begin interacting with real spirits and real magic with real consequences … it takes you outside the margins of what is conventional, and you become weirder, and far more alone in your experience of the world than you ever could have imagined.
Eventually you will reach a precipice in which you realize that the chance to decide whether or not you want to be “all in” is long since passed. It is a choice that you have made, and … you cannot again reduce yourself to your former capacities of existing, of being.
And you are left with nothing but to stand upon that double edged sword, and leap.
I immediately thought of some people I know who got a look behind the curtain of consensus reality into a wider, Otherworldly reality. They ran away screaming, a couple of them literally.
And I thought about a time in my own life when I stood at a line, knowing what it meant to cross it – and also what it meant to turn back. My fear of regret was greater than my fear of what might lie on the other side of that line, and so I stepped across.
Almost 20 years later, I’m confident I made the right choice.
At least I saw the line. Others, as Nicholas describes, don’t realize they’ve crossed it until long after they do. And at that point it’s too late.
This isn’t unique to Paganism. People who cross these spiritual lines – and the consequences that brings – can be found in every religion, including Christianity. But as Pagans and polytheists, as witches and other magicians, we have our own unique perspective on this spiritual reality.
Because what is seen cannot be unseen.
A broken worldview is a scary thing
A sign I used to see with some regularity said “In God we trust – all others pay cash.” It was intended as a comment on the realities of cashflow in a small business, but in a completely different context it explains the worldview of mainstream Western society. That is, it’s nominally Christian but highly materialist.
Most people don’t think deeply about spiritual matters. They pay them lip service, particularly when they’re used to justify their preferred cultural and political positions. They pray when they’re in trouble, but not otherwise. The nature of the divine? What comes after death? Why we’re here? Nobody’s got time for that.
When it comes down to it, they really don’t believe in ghosts, or demons, or even Gods. When they experience something that points toward the existence and agency of spiritual persons, they look for “a rational explanation” (by which they mean one grounded in materialism) and if they can’t find one, they’ll make one up.
But sometimes, people experience something that defies a materialist explanation. They have an encounter with a God, or an other-than-divine spirit, or they see magic work in a way that can’t be denied.
All of a sudden they’re confronted with the fact that the world is a lot bigger and a lot stranger than they thought it was.
And we know what happens when most people are presented with evidence that their core beliefs and opinions are false. They deny the evidence and double down on what they’ve always assumed was true. They tell themselves it was a coincidence, a trick of the light, their imagination.
But deep down, they know what they saw, what they heard, what they experienced. They may not have the context to interpret it properly, but at some level they know it’s real.
And it scares the hell out of them.
Spirits do not exist to “help” humans
Even those who accept the reality of Gods and spirits often have their foundational assumptions challenged. They find that fairies aren’t what Disney told us they were. They learn the spirit world is full of persons doing their own things for their own reasons, some of whom are ambivalent at best when it comes to humans. They find that Gods have Their own agendas and your comfort and safety aren’t very high on them.
In other words, they learn that life isn’t all about us.
And also, they learn that when you assume someone you just met is there to serve you (“what do you have to teach me?”) those persons tend to react in a rather unfriendly manner.
All this can leave you face to face with someone you assumed would be a house cat that turns out to be a tiger.
When you’re seen, there’s no going back
There’s the trouble you get when you see things you didn’t think were real.
And then there’s the trouble you get when those things you didn’t think were real see you.
Contrary to what some of us were taught as children, there is no evil spirit that “goeth about seeking whom he may devour.” Most spirits – that I’ve encountered, anyway – have better things to do than harass random humans just because they can.
But the stories of our ancestors are full of reports of people who encountered spirits, and those encounters often went poorly. Make deals with spirits and you’re in their address book forever. Break promises and they’re likely to seek satisfaction in their own ways.
Or just show you have some potential with magic and they may want you working for them, whether you want to or not.
We aren’t helpless. Our ancestors are usually helpful allies. One of the advantages of being a devotee of a deity is being under Their protection. And with study and practice, we can become powerful magic users in our own right.
But once you’re seen, there’s no returning to anonymity.
Some get to choose – others do not
Informed consent is the idea that before you make a choice, you have the right to know what you’re getting into, what the ramifications are, and for your choice to be free and uncoerced. It’s an important concept in human ethics. It’s also a fairly modern idea that’s mostly unknown in the spiritual realms.
The Fair Folk don’t care that you didn’t understand what you were agreeing to. You said yes and they’re going to hold you to it. Even Gods – who are the epitome of virtue – sometimes simply take what they want.
I was called to this path – I could have said no. Or at least, I think I could have said no. But I know others who did not have a choice. A God claimed them. The spirits sought them out. The dead are in their heads like a speaker phone that can’t be turned off.
If you get to choose whether or not to explore the spirit world, be thankful. Choose carefully, but be grateful you have a choice.
Because some do not.
Opportunities not taken will eventually be withdrawn
When I stood in front of that line between the ordinary world and the spirit world, I had a vision of the future. I couldn’t see where saying yes would take me. I knew there was risk – the risk of the unknown.
But I could clearly see where saying no would take me.
I had a vision of an older version of myself. Now that I think about it, in my vision I was about the age I am now. I was sitting in a pew in a mainstream church and I was bored to tears. The people in that church were good people trying to do good things, but they had no power, no inspiration, no connections to anything bigger than themselves.
I looked back – back in the church and back in time – and where there was once a line there was now a door. The door was closed, and I didn’t need to try it to know it was locked. The opportunity had been withdrawn.
I couldn’t unsee what I had already seen. I would always know there’s a magical world out there… and I had turned it down.
At that point the decision was clear. I said yes, and I’ve never looked back.
If it’s there, I want to know what it is
A childlike curiosity is a wonderful thing. A childlike ignorance is not.
Too many people really believe that ignorance is bliss. I don’t care how scary something is, if it’s there I want to know as much as I can about it. Now, I may very well decide that I’m better off leaving it alone, but I want that to be an informed decision.
Mainly, if it’s there I want to know all I can about it.
Honestly, this is what bothers me most about those who see something Otherworldly and run away screaming – whether literally or figuratively. How can you know that something or someone is out there – because you’ve seen them yourself – and not want to know more?!
How can you tell yourself it’s not really real, it’s all in your head, it couldn’t possibly exist – instead of exploring it (with respect and caution) and learning what you can learn?
Author Philip K. Dick said “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” If it’s not going to go away, I want to learn as much as I can about it, not pretend it’s not there.
The costs are real
For some, it’s not just a broken worldview and dealing with spirits with agency. It is, as Nicholas said, moving outside the conventional, becoming weirder, and becoming alone.
It’s keeping your most meaningful thoughts to yourself, because people simply don’t want to hear them. It’s family and friends deciding you’re too weird for them. It’s hearing people repeat the most ridiculous and false rumors about your religion, because they won’t bother to learn the truth.
And it’s knowing you can’t go back to the way things were before, because that would be living a lie.
I have no regrets. I made the right choice, and I’m happy with it.
But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been costs.
Make an informed choice
Paganism, polytheism, witchcraft… they can all change your life. They’ve been great things for me, and for many others.
For some, they’ve been disturbing.
If you feel called to this path, I hope you’ll investigate it, explore it, and begin to practice it. Make no promises and swear no oaths until you’re sure you’re ready, but do study and practice diligently. See where it takes you.
But understand that each step takes you closer to a line that once crossed cannot be uncrossed – and you may not know exactly where that line is.
You can always forswear magic. You can always go running back to Christianity… or to atheism… or to whatever spiritual path tells you everything is going to be OK because it’s all about you anyway.
Just know that once you’ve seen the reality of spirits and of magic, you can never unsee it.