Lately I’ve seen multiple people speaking – usually with some sadness – about not being able have deep spiritual experiences. The Gods aren’t talking to them. Their magic isn’t working, or if it is working it’s the kind of subtle magic that’s all too easy to rationalize away. There’s no sense of connection to the Otherworld.
Can I be honest? I understand that feeling – and that sadness – more than I wish I did.
The Gods are still there. I’ve made too many connections over too many years, done too much worship, and made too many long-term commitments to lose touch with Them. But They seem more distant than in previous years. My magic is still working (quite well most of time) but it’s been a long time since I’ve had a “wow!” experience.
On one hand, this is normal and to be expected. Most of life is lived in this world, dealing with the needs and concerns of this world – there will be plenty of time for the Otherworld after we’re dead. “Peak experiences” are just that – peaks that happen occasionally, not all the time. Our Paganism, polytheism, and witchcraft are primarily about the simple things we do on a regular basis that form a solid foundation for a good life, not something that creates a drug-like high and leaves us in withdrawal when it’s gone.
But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss those big spiritual experiences.
And some people have never had them.
In the past couple of weeks I’ve heard the same message in meditation twice, from two different persons: “if you want to have mystical experiences, you have to put yourself in positions where they can happen.”
The good news is that I’ve been here before. I know what I’ve done that’s worked and what I’ve seen other people do that’s worked. I also know what I’ve tried that didn’t work.
Spiritual and mystical experiences of any variety happen in their own time. They cannot be programmed. The Gods cannot be commanded. But there are things we can do to facilitate these experiences: to put ourselves in a position where they can happen and are more likely to happen.
1. Build and maintain a regular spiritual practice
The extraordinary is built on a foundation of the ordinary. Peak experiences are built on a foundation of common experiences.
There are many spiritual practices. My core practices are prayer, meditation, and offerings. Some I do daily, some weekly, some seasonally, and some annually. There is no “best” spiritual practice and no one right combination of them. There is only what you’re called to do, and what helps you form and maintain respectful and reciprocal relationships with your Gods, ancestors, spirits, and the persons with whom you share this world, both human and otherwise.
There are some people whose journey into Paganism (or another religion – this isn’t exclusively a Pagan thing) began with an unplanned and unexpected ecstatic experience. But those are rare. For most of us, the journey begins with ordinary things done with dedication and consistency.
2. Read and watch magical fiction
Magical fiction is fiction. We can’t do what the witches and wizards and priestesses we see on TV can do. People who base their metaphysics and theology on fictional worlds set themselves up for disappointment (treat them kindly – most of them are beginners who haven’t learned better yet).
When I watch or read about fictional magicians doing the kind of magic we can’t do, I’m almost always inspired to delve more deeply into the kind of magic we can do. In 2017 I wrote 12 Movies to Inspire Your Magic: that lists some of my favorites.
If you’re already deep into your practice this may not add much for you. But if you’re having trouble getting started – especially if you’re trying to start again for the second or third or tenth time – grab some magical fiction and see if it will help get you in the right frame of mind for some non-fictional magic.
3. Perform a rite of purification
Purification rites were very important to many of our Pagan ancestors. They understood the importance of being in the proper spiritual state and frame of mind when approaching the Gods. In our world, this practice has been corrupted by the Christian emphasis on sin – especially in regards to the elements of life they call sinful that we know are good and holy.
Still, if you’re cooking dinner you’re going to wash your hands – and your knives – after you finish chopping onions. Not because onions are bad or sinful or impure, but because you don’t want to get onions in the cake you’re baking for dessert.
So if you’re trying to put yourself in a place where a mystical experience can happen – especially if you’re feeling stuck – do a rite of purification. Take a ritual bath, cleanse yourself with sacred smoke (sage is not required – use something native to where you live), make a special offering. Do your best to set aside your mundane concerns. You can’t forget about them forever (wish we could) but you can leave them long enough to concentrate fully on your worship, your magic, or whatever spiritual activities you have going on.
4. Make a pilgrimage
This is not a quick and easy option (and it’s certainly not cheap) but it’s been effective for many people in many religions for many, many years.
A pilgrimage is a journey you make, to a sacred place, for the purpose of doing some religious act – worship, veneration, sacrifice. We can pray to the Gods anywhere, we can work magic anywhere, but some places are especially well-suited for these activities. Plus the pilgrimage is as much about the journey as the destination. Done well, you will learn things along the way (both going there and coming home) that are at least as valuable as your experience while you’re there.
So if you’re trying to facilitate a spiritual experience, one way is to begin the process of preparing for pilgrimage.
5. Spend time in wild places
Nature is everywhere. The Gods are everywhere. But it’s easier to hear and see and experience Them in wild places… or at least, it is for me.
I’ve had some amazing experiences in national parks, in remote deserts, and on the sea shore. But for facilitating spiritual experiences, the local greenbelt parks work just fine. All you need is enough trees and lakes and rocks to block out “civilization.”
Doing ritual in a public park can attract unwanted attention. Solitary ritual – especially the kind that doesn’t use a lot of gear – is less obtrusive. Prayer and meditation are easy. But for me, the best use of wild places is simply to walk through them, becoming a part of the place. Even if I don’t experience Cernunnos on the trails through the woods, walking them puts me in the right frame of mind to experience Him when I get home.
6. Create a magical atmosphere
Can’t get to the woods? Need something you can do indoors? Then create a magical atmosphere in your house.
Perhaps you have the space to set up a dedicated shrine room. I don’t, but I can turn my office or bedroom into a temple in just a few minutes. Cover the windows, turn off the electronics (though playing some music can help), light some candles and incense. Take the deity statues off the bookshelves and create a working altar. If you have a private back yard, you can do the same thing outdoors.
And then work your magic. Perform your acts of worship. Do divination – some of my best divination has been done in dark candlelit rooms with Pagan-ish instrumental music playing softly in the background.
Is that overly dramatic? I don’t know – does it put you in the right frame of mind? If it does then it’s good.
7. Work in small groups
I love leading big formal rituals. There were 75 people in the Tower Time ritual at this year’s Mystic South – it was amazing. Most of my regular spiritual practice is solitary: my daily prayers, weekly offerings, and weekly meditations are all done with just me and the Gods and spirits.
But the most powerful mystical experiences I’ve had have been in small groups – somewhere between two and thirteen people. There were seven people at my first ecstatic experience of Cernunnos. I was one of two people in a group of ten who journeyed into the Otherworld in search of knowledge. I was called to an ecstatic communion at a retreat in rural Texas and I asked one trusted friend to accompany me as a “lifeguard.”
You need not have a coven for this. You can assemble different groups of different people for different workings. But a small group of people who see the world in the same way can support you in your efforts to experience the Gods and spirits first hand.
And you can support them.
8. Have goals that are bigger than yourself
Ecstatic experiences are amazing. They can be addictive. With someone who isn’t properly prepared for them, they can make it difficult to concentrate on living in the ordinary world. Or they can feed someone’s needy ego and turn them into a would-be prophet.
I think the Gods know this. And I’m pretty sure They aren’t concerned with “proving” Their existence to you or to anyone else. And so the Gods and the other spirits who are capable of creating mystical experiences are rather reserved about who they give them to.
They give them to someone when there’s a need for that person to have one. Sometimes that’s for personal growth (I’m pretty sure my second one was exactly that), but most of mine have been in the context of a larger effort, a larger project – something that furthers the work of the Gods.
When you’re working on something that’s magical and spiritual but it’s about something more than yourself, you’re in a better position to receive a spiritual experience.
9. Keep at it!
Persistence is important in any worthwhile endeavor. It’s especially important in spiritual matters.
Every time you put yourself in a situation where a magical or mystical or spiritual experience can happen, you increase the odds that it will happen. The more often you put yourself in the right frame of mind, the more likely you’ll be in the right frame of mind when something comes your way. The more you work with others the more you’ll see what these experiences look and feel like, so the more likely you’ll recognize one when you encounter it.
Keep at it.
What’s most important is living a virtuous life
Still, there are some people who can’t experience the Gods for themselves. They aren’t unworthy or damaged or sinful, they’re just “God-blind” – like color blind, only with Gods. I don’t know why.
Your value as a person and your authenticity as a Pagan or polytheist or witch are not dependent on your ability to have ecstatic experiences.
Honor the Gods. Live virtuously. Leave your corner of the world a better place than you found it. The rest will take care of itself.