Friday, November 10, 2023

The Path to Paganism: Part 10: The UPG

Photo by Omkar Jadhav on Unsplash.

In the New Testament of the Bible, we read about a dramatic experience involving the apostle Paul. The man then known as Saul was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus and return them for questioning. On his way, he saw a blinding flash of light and fell to the ground. Then he heard a disembodied voice ask, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Paul tells us that the voice proclaimed itself to be that of Jesus. Blinded for three days, he regained his sight upon arriving at Damascus, after which he was baptized and became the ancient world's leading evangelist for Christianity. 

History is rife with examples of supernatural encounters like Paul's, but few have had such a profound effect on the world. If not for Paul's vision, there's a good chance that Christianity would have never amounted to much but a peculiar Jewish messianic sect that probably would have died out in a few generations. Just imagine how drastically different the world would be today if Christianity had never become a global religious phenomenon. We owe its presence, and to large part its persistence, to Paul's road-to-Damascus experience. 

These types of religious experiences, for lack of a better term, happen in paganism, too, where they've taken on the label "unverified personal gnosis," or UPG. There's a particular focus on them among the reconstructionist contingent. And depending on whom you ask, UPGs are met with considerable derision or are seen as valuable tools in helping practitioners fill in the blanks when we have little surviving information to go on.

I find this topic interesting both because these religious experiences have been so prevalent through the centuries, notably among the Catholic mystics who always drew my interest when I considered myself a fellow traveler, and also because I've had a few such experiences myself. In fact, I may have just had a UPG last night, though I'm not going to place too much weight on it until I've had a chance to ponder it a bit.

To be clear, there's scant historical evidence for UPGs among the ancient pagan ways, though I suppose you could argue that any type of ecstatic vision or trance that involves a religious belief would qualify. The problem is that it's all, by definition, so subjective. You might really believe that Aphrodite visited you and pulled you into a loving embrace, or you might believe that Jesus knocked you down and blinded you. What's real and what's not? How can you tell? And in the end, does it really matter?

Well, I think it does matter, because our brains can so easily play tricks on us. They can show us what we want to see, especially in times of personal crisis. That's not to say that saints and deities don't actually visit us or send us messages. They may or they may not. To say with certainty either way is far beyond my pay grade. But there's also a good reason, for example, that the Eastern Orthodox warn people to be skeptical of the kind of personal visions and revelations that are common to the mystics. In a nutshell, the Orthodox remind us that our imaginations can run away with us, and those imaginations can be notoriously unreliable as a gauge for authentic religious experiences. 

Now, the flipside of that argument is that the Orthodox are a Christian sect with dogmatic beliefs to protect, so you might naturally expect them to discourage belief in UPG-type experiences, especially if the experience runs counter to dogma. By the same token, you might expect pagans to be a little more open-minded about this type of thing. But being open-minded doesn't mean being gullible. Discernment is always an important tool to have in any spiritually minded person's toolbox. What happens, for example, if two different people on the same pagan path experience contradictory visions from the same deity? Is one right and the other wrong? Are they both wrong? And again, how do you know?

I'm going to use my UPG-ish experiences as an example.

The first one I can think of is when I was coming back to the Catholic faith after many years away. I recounted this experience a few posts back. Looking for some spiritual direction, I attended a "Mercy Night" service, a quarterly event hosted by a Seattle Catholic church with the intent of welcoming home weary pilgrims. It was designed as a gentle, welcoming, and deeply contemplative service. The church was lit only by candlelight, a small group of musicians played softly to heighten the beautiful mood, and there were prayer groups you could sit with, candles you could light, and priests you could confess to. Some folks over the course of the evening came to the lectern to share their inspiring experiences of coming back home to their faith. But nobody had to do anything at all, other than sit in the darkness of the pews and meditate or pray. With no one telling you what you had to do or say or think at any given time, there was ample space available for people to just sit with their thoughts and ponder what it really was that they wanted out of their spiritual journey.

I eventually decided to sit down with one of the prayer groups for a while. I no longer remember what we talked about, but as our conversation went on, I remember being distracted by a nearby statue of Mother Mary. I had the distinct feeling that she was calling me over to talk to her when I was done. And so I did. I knelt before her and just had a long heart-to-heart with her, like a child might do with a loving, doting mother. 

I took that feeling of connection with Mary out of the church that night, and I continued to have personal conversations with her throughout the days and weeks that followed. I didn't come to her in fear or seeking repentance. I just opened myself up to her, offering to let her guide me, trusting that she wouldn't lead me astray.

This all culminated in an experience I had at a side chapel at another Catholic church. I wandered in one day with my daughter, and standing before an old antique wooden likeness of the Blessed Mother, something prompted me to reach out my hand and grasp hers. The moment we made contact, I felt a warm tingling sensation all through my body, along with a sense of what I can only describe as a feeling of unconditional love. It was as if Mary was letting me know that however I felt about myself, whatever doubts I may have had, she loved me without question, no matter what. She wanted me to know that she accepted me as I was, and that nothing I could ever do would change that. It was a beautiful feeling. I've never experienced anything like it, before or since. 

My daughter said something and broke the trance. The moment lasted only a few short seconds, but it felt like hours. I felt like I'd been transported to some other dimension, however briefly. That was the closest thing I've ever had to a full-on religious experience. 

Now, here's the deal. Mary was an important religious figure to me even when I was a kid. My birth mom was a horrible human being, and although my maternal grandparents took me in out of the goodness of their hearts and gave me a stable environment to grow up in, the unfortunate truth is that I didn't have a great relationship with Grandma, either. In short, I lacked a good mother figure in my life. And because of that, I think Mary became a surrogate of sorts. She was the mother who would listen to me, who wouldn't hurt me, who would always love me and care for me. Now, did I project those feelings on to Mary when I had my intimate religious experience with her? Did my mind just create the experience that I wanted to happen? I have to consider that as a distinct possibility.

I eventually left Catholicism again and embarked on an eclectic path that included Mary and some Catholic saints, but also some figures and symbols from other religious traditions around the world. One of the figures that over time came to prominence in my imagination was Lilith, the so-called demoness of Hebrew myth. I also talked about her in a previous installment. Where Mary became for me a symbol of humility, Lilith was the other the side of the coin -- a symbol of agency and independence. There's a time to stand down and leash your ego, and a time to draw a line in the sand and refuse to budge, and Mary and Lilith were for me symbols of those ideas. I'm sure many people would consider my relationship with Lilith to be problematic, but I don't really care much about that. And I have to mention her in this discussion because of a peculiar instance of synchronicity that may or may not have been a sign from her. 

I'd been talking to my daughter about Lilith and what she symbolized, both for others and for me. I don't remember exactly what it was we were discussing anymore, but the subject came up that Lilith is sometimes symbolized by an owl, because of an association created in some translations of a specific Bible verse. Isaiah 34;14 makes mention of a desolate place where the wild animals and other creatures come together to rest. Among these creatures is a figure called Lilith, who in the given context is considered a demon or a night-hag. But some translations render "Lilith" instead as an owl, or a screech-owl. It's unclear what the proper meaning is, but it's the clashing interpretations that have created the association between Lilith and owls.

Shortly after I had this discussion with my daughter, we wandered out to the local grocery to rent a movie from the Redbox machine. As we approached it, I noticed something sitting on top. It was a ceramic mug that someone had apparently forgotten. The mug was made in the likeness of an owl. 

Now that was a creepy experience. My thoughts immediately went to Jung's teachings on synchronicity. In brief, Jung asserted that what we would perceive as coincidences happen around us all the time and we usually don't notice them. It's only when we do that our minds make associations that make us think the universe is trying to tell us something. We're not talking about superstition here as much as we are personal intuition. When you pull a particular grouping of tarot cards in a reading, you can believe that the cards somehow contain some magical quality that conspired to send you a message from some unseen spiritual realm, or you can just think the whole thing was a fluke, or you can engage your mind to try to understand why you found a connection to that reading in the first place. Why, in other words, do you find personal meaning in it, apart from the seeming coincidence of drawing that particular set of cards? That's where the real magic starts.

The synchronicity between my discussion about Lilith and the appearance of the owl mug made my mind create a connection between them, and that was what mattered. And yes, you'd better believe I took that mug home with me. To this day it remains on a little side altar dedicated to Lilith in the mediation area of my Dad Loft.

Now, was the Lilith experience any more or less authentic than my Mary experience? You tell me. There are lots of people who would try to debunk one, the other, or both. Regardless, they both held meaning for me and helped shape my relationship with both figures. And that's really all that matters to me.

But how do you process this stuff? What do you do to place it in its proper context? After all, you could drive yourself insane thinking that every unusual personal thought or experience is a "sign from God." Well, again, this is why you have to develop some sense of discernment about these things. Where the Eastern Orthodox perhaps lean in the direction of dismissing all UPGs and related experiences as figments of an overactive imagination, I think that's just as problematic as interpreting every experience you have as profound and potentially divine. There has to be a middle ground. 

In some respects, finding that middle ground just comes from experience. The longer we're on our spiritual paths and the more seriously we take them, the more wisdom we're bound to develop. And that wisdom can sharpen our intuition to help us see what makes sense and what doesn't. For example, does your UPG fit in with what you know about the deity that you think gave you the message? Or would it be out of character? Maybe you're bending the deity to your will. Maybe you're making it do what you personally want it to do. If, for instance, you think you got a message of warm, fuzzy unconditional love from Hekate, the dark mother of tough love, you probably got your wires crossed somewhere along the way, and you should take some time to rethink what your UPG really meant.

Or does your UPG directly contradict the UPG that someone else you know received from the same deity? They can't both be right. Again, see if either experience matches up with what you'd expect to be in character for that deity. You could just be psychologically projecting your wishes on to that deity, It's also possible that your UPG and other person's are both wrong.  

You might also ask what you learned from the UPG. Do you think it's something beneficial for you on your spiritual journey? Do you think it brings you closer to the deity who sent the message? Sometimes these answers aren't clear in the moment. It can take time to sort things out. And again, this is something that will come with time and practice.

I might be new-ish to the pagan world, but I've been walking my own spiritual path for a long time now, and I like to think I have a pretty good handle on how to suss out the flashes of insight that come my way. One thing that you really shouldn't do, I think, is rush to judgment. Sit with your experience for a while and see how you feel as the emotional peak of the moment fades. That's one reason I'm not jumping to conclusions about the possible UPG I mentioned that I might have just had. I'll see how I feel about it in the days and weeks to come.

I won't share too much detail, but my recent experience involves a book and a dream. In the book, the main character just underwent an intense spiritual transformation that opened him up to the influence of the gods. Shortly afterward, a spiritual entity steals his soul, and he has to act quickly before his physical body gives out. In the process of looking for a way to retrieve his soul, he's tricked by the spirits into seeing his travel companion, a shaman, as a horrendous-looking demon, causing our hero to scream in terror. 

That's where I left off reading for the night. Before I settled down to try to sleep, I sort of put a casual thought out to anyone who might be listening. I'm not a praying person, but I just decided to state that if any of the deities I've been thinking about as I more deeply explore the pagan path want to make themselves known to me, I was going to make myself receptive to whatever messages they decided to send me.

Mind you, I sleep terribly and almost never get past a dream state of very light slumber. And last night, I happened to have a pretty intense dream where I imagined that my house was haunted and the spirits were having their way with me. The whole thing came to a head when I was in bed and the mattress, with me on it, got flung across the room. I slammed into the opposite wall, and I was trapped there. I grunted out in my sleep, which is something I haven't done in a long time. When I woke up, I remember not being scared so much as angry that I couldn't control the spiritual forces in my dream. 

It took a while for me to settle back down, but when I managed to get back into a light doze, I remember dreaming that there was a thread hanging out of my nose. It was connected to a needle that was protruding through the roof of my mouth. I didn't know how it got there. I only knew that I needed to get to a doctor to get it taken out. 

Now, do either of those dreams have any relation to the thought I put out to the universe before bed? Are they just the product of a sleep-deprived mind? Did the book I was reading have an influence on my dreams? Did the CBD supplement I took before going to sleep give me more vivid dreams than I usually experience? I don't have any answers right now, and that's why I'm not going to jump to conclusions. And I think that's good advice for anyone who thinks he or she might have had a UPG. 

Lots of people have personal religious experiences. These experiences are often so intense that the person with the experience will undergo a permanent shift in his or her worldview. In these cases, there can be no talking the person out of the fact that the experience may not have any special significance outside of his or her imagination. Just look at Paul. Modern science tells us that the way he explained his experience of Jesus could suggest that he had some kind of epileptic episode. In other words, his brain might have convinced him that something profound had just happened, when in fact nothing at all occurred save for some kind of physiological misfire in his head. And 2,000 years later, here we all are, with the largest religion in the world a possible result of one man's epileptic seizure. Again, this is why you really have to think about the experiences you think you're having. They can change your life, and even the lives of those around you. All our actions have consequences. And that warrants some serious discernment.   

In the pagan community, some see UPGs as a useful tool in helping reconstructionists piece together clues about ancient religious systems and practices. Where history leaves gaps, the gods can speak to us. Or do they? The uncertainty that lies between intuitive insight and wishful thinking is the reason many pagans view UPGs with skepticism, sometimes even scorn. And I do think it's good, as a general rule, to be skeptical of any such experiences. Our brains can make us see things that we subconsciously want to see, especially if we're going through a time of particular stress or uncertainty.

The bottom line is that you don't have to accept every idea that pops into your head. If you believe there's no way an idea or experience could have come from you, and if it tells you something significant about your practice or the deities you honor, then maybe you should listen. But I think you always have to carefully weigh the evidence. Otherwise you'll fall for anything.

[WC: 3,288 / TWC: 34,028]

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