Firstly, I feel the need to apologise. As we reach the pointy end of the Pagan Blog Project, I’m struggling for ideas. ‘U’? Really? Damn, why does that need to be in the alphabet? For a blog devoted in the majority to the experience and spiritual significance of native Australian flora and fauna and locations, etc., I could no doubt find a ‘U’ for you, like “Uluru” which would make for a very fine post. And no doubt, one day I will visit Uluru and have a greater body of personal experience to detail in regards to its spiritual nature. Until then, anything I write might be speculation, or just copies of other people’s experiences, I need to be sure, at least for myself.
And that’s the thing really. There are “facts” here in the blog, but it’s not a blog devoted to empirical evidence, it’s a blog devoted to my personal experience and understanding. In that way, I acknowledge, it’s a risky business. At any point anyone can take me to task, detail a thoroughly different understanding, though, I confess that doesn’t tend to happen, and when it does it’s generally very friendly and share-y. They’ve no desire to tell me I’m wrong, but rather take mine, and give their’s in the spirit of a shared deeper understanding for both.
Therein lies one of the personal reasons I do write this blog. Am I afraid of testing and examining my own experience through comparison and contrast with others? No, or I would not write it down in a public forum. Conversely, there are reasons I don’t detail every ritual, vision and trance, and dream experience I do have. The information here is filtered out, to preserve the rest from the public. I’ve as much interest in sharing it here as I do in posting naked pictures of myself. Simply put, the personal experiences I have can not be repeated (even sometimes by myself), nor tested scientifically. And I don’t need to prove them, nor expose them in such a way as to take the shine off things that form part of the story of me. And it is a story.
Religion, spirituality is story. The story of nations, the stories of creation, of the Land, the stories of heroes, queens and individuals. It is little wonder I find pagans of all and any ilk to be rather creative folk. Musicians, visual artists, craftspeople, writers. I was only in conversation with another the other day regarding ritual as performance. We create atmosphere through various methods designed to facilitate an experience for ourselves and others. There is a very strong argument for every religious and spiritual experience as being, whether on purpose or not, known to the individual or not, entirely made up by those having it.
I had this conversation with one of my dearests after our Rosemas ritual last week. Like many people, her point was that she often feels on some level she’s just “making it up”, all the same sense that “it’s not real”. When I started down the path of ecstatic witchcraft I had those moments. I think we all do. There’s a different point we need to reach. My reply these days is a simple hypothetical: If tomorrow they/science proved definitively that there were no Gods, Spirits, life after death, ghosts, that your experiences were in fact entirely made up, by you, whether unconsciously or not, would you stop practising what you do? Most people I think would change the conditions of the hypothetical. That is, they would reply “well they can’t can they!” And that’s true so far, and may always be. But that is not the place we need to be.
My answer is no, I would not stop, and I’m fine with making it up. All great art must also be entirely made up, I’m happy to be the hero in my own story, I’m happy with anything that deepens the meaning of “me”, that allows me to explore other ways of being, even plants and animals, and ultimately other people and humankind, empathetically. If I am “making it up” then what a grand thing our brains, minds and imaginations are! What wonderful stories we all write! If it is a function of my brain that somehow aids my problem solving, makes me more creative and increases my happiness, then it seems a perfectly rational pursuit, a muscle that should rightly be exercised. No one questions the person who runs nowhere on a machine 3 times a week. Because running is something human beings do, and exercising it for it’s own sake is so rational an idea we actively promote running in a stationary position and going nowhere. There are whole complexes devoted to such activities, in almost every suburb, town, and city on the globe. No one questions how any piece of art, painting, music, film, performance can inspire another to think differently about anything, nor that the pleasure it brings is valid for its own sake.
Life for individual human beings is a narrative. And we have this capacity to be so varied and diverse in our experiences. Meaning found in any thing can go from the sublime to the ridiculous in any random group of people. It seems to me that religion and all spiritual pursuit is just one big long tradition of unsubstantiated personal gnosis.
When I decided on the topic of my post, I went looking for people writing online on the subject. There are some interesting thoughts. For the most part, pagans everywhere seem to suffer in the grand compare contrast to the religions of the Book. Because we have lots, or none, and none of them sit at the centre of a vast authoritative institution that claims any sort of historical accuracy. It is best to remind ourselves that when Moses went up Mount Sinai, received the Ten Commandments, they were vastly different to what everyone else not on Mount Sinai were doing, and a perfect example of UPG. Just because he convinced everyone else of the validity of his personal experience does not actually make it any less unsubstantiated or unverified. Thousands of years later, we still have no evidence to suggest God carved the tablet, in fact Moses smashed the original tablets, and they don’t exist any more. “Everyone else is doing it” is not a proof. And when one considers the basis upon which Christianity later gained a lot of that consensus, it’s probably not going to pass the “ethical test” either.
Whilst each and every one of us premises our practice on our personal experiences, there is a grand tradition amongst us of checking our ideas against other sources. Anthropological, historical, archaeological, even scientific research and understanding, along side our myths. Certainly, we check our experiences with each other, and there are lots of ways in which people have been able to come to an understanding of an experience based on the testimonies and descriptions of others. And there is some great advice in terms of how to go about that.
For myself, John Beckett posting at Under the Ancient Oaks at Patheos, ‘Unverified Personal Gnosis‘ broke it down very well:
How can we know if a religious experience is good and right and true? […] We can’t, at least not in an absolute sense of knowing. But we still need to interpret and evaluate it.
First, we should judge it against our lore, our literature, and our history. How well does it match with what’s generally considered true? If it’s new information, is it consistent with what’s already known? If not, is it plausible, given the changes in time and place since the lore was established? If you tell me Cernunnos appeared to you and told you to plant trees, I’m likely to believe you. If you tell me he told you to buy a new SUV, I’m not.
We should judge UPG against our own experiences, both spiritually and materially. Is what you experienced consistent with other experiences? Is it meaningful and helpful?
We should judge UPG against the experiences of others. If multiple people have the same dream in a short period of time, it’s a pretty clear indication something is up. If the Morrigan tells me one thing and you something similar and a third person something else that’s related, we should pay attention.
Finally, is it reasonable, ethical, practical, and helpful? People do terrible things in the name of their gods because they never stop and ask themselves “is this ethical?” The same moral blindness that causes some Christians to kill abortion providers and caused some Muslims to fly airplanes into buildings can cause us to do things that are clearly wrong unless we stop and ask ourselves “is this in alignment with my core values?”
Sam Webster, writing at Pagan Studies ‘UPG: and ugly, misguided notion‘ considered how pejorative the term has become in Pagan circles, and how much such negativity takes away from our entire experience. He writes:
Experience is the centre of all spiritual and religious life. Text is at best derivative. By creating and using such a term as UPG, “Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis” we privilege text over experience. Even more damagingly, by framing someone’s experience as a UPG we dissociate ourselves from the primary data of spirituality. We can then bracket and set aside the immediate real, and go back to our books. In the process we may have damaged both the knowledge we could have shared in, but also possibly the recipient of that knowledge, who could have been another culture bringer, but instead was told their experience was of diminished value, or of no value at all, simply because we can’t substantiate their insight in a book.
At Inciting a Riot, Fire Lyte flips the negativity in his critique of the above mentioned post in ‘Unverified Personal Gnosis: A Response & A Challenge‘, writing:
Here is my challenge: Why is UPG an offensive label? It should be taken as a challenge! A challenge to learn more about your experience! A challenge to those of us experiencing these experiences! How did this experience occur? What images did you see? How did you feel? Research those images! Search those feelings! Dive deep into the mysteries of self and learn more about YOUR relationship with the Divine.
For myself, I think these are all pertinent points. We, none of us, are forced to take on the experiences of another as fact, incorporating them into our practice, we can still be rational creatures of judgement, and test our own and others experiences. But we do not have to discount the relevance and significance an experience has for the other. It seems to me an especially significant discussion for those of us experiencing things for which there are very few examples in the myth and lore, or that otherwise exist in traditions so far removed from our own. Like myself, working in Australia, where my testing and checking often requires me to delve into Aboriginal Dreaming.
P.S. ‘U’ is for ‘UPG’. This post participates with The Pagan Blog Project 2014.