13 February 2012

Identifying Hurdles on the Path to Spirituality

The age we live in is an age of free thought, free knowledge, and free speech. It is an age of science and empiricism. The nature of modern society grants us access to many, many more options when it comes to spiritual journeys than our ancestors had, but it can also make encountering the spiritual more difficult.

In this article I'll discuss some of the possible motivational hurdles on the path to spiritual experiences, based on my personal experiences. Solutions may sometimes be obvious, but often are not. However, merely recognising that these problems have existed in my own past attempts to explore the spiritual is an important step that may, hopefully, eventually lead to an understanding of religion and magick that has both personal meaning and longevity.

The Symbol Dilemma

Few of us in this day and age take deities and other elements of spirituality literally. We understand that they are, at least in part, symbols created by mankind. This doesn't necessarily make them any less valuable. However, it may be very difficult to approach spirituality when one realises that it is, on some level, 'made up'.

There is really no easy solution to this problem. You'll just have to try to embrace spirituality, practise ritual for the sake of ritual. Try to remember it is not the symbols that count, but the feelings evoked. Alas, practice and perseverance is the only true key to success, there is no easy way through. No magick bullet, just a magick grindstone...

The Authenticity Dilemma

The origins of most spiritual traditions are far removed from us, either in time or in space. Modern pagans seek inspiration from past millennia. Some may turn to the far east, to yoga or Buddhism. But the truth is, having grown up in a different culture, we can never hope to fully understand these different traditions. And in the case of ancient traditions, we don't even know much fact about them, it has simply been lost in the course of time.

Now this isn't necessarily a problem. Since we recognise deities as symbols, it is hardly vital that we understand them or worship them in a fashion identical to original practitioners. It is even perfectly OK to radically reinterpret or reinvent mythological figures. Striving for authenticity is, in my mind, rarely helpful, since it is, essentially, impossible. However, it is possible that nagging seeds of doubt remain in the back of your head about whether or not you have understood the symbolism of this figure correctly, or aspects of a figure that you don't particularly like (lets face it, few mythological figures are perfectly suited for any of our tastes in every respect) may continue to haunt you.

The obvious solution to this problem is avoiding active use of material that you feel you can't be sufficiently familiar with or accept whole-heartedly as it is. You could use modern creations instead of ancient deities. Or generalised, nameless deities, such as the Wiccan Goddess and God. Referring to your deities with the names of famous, loved characters is tempting, but names can be very restricting.

The Learning Dilemma

Long incantations, lists of correspondences and the like abound in occult texts. Learning such things by heart may come easily to some, but I am not one of those. The way we learn, in schools and elsewhere, has changed much over the last 100 years. We learn more by doing, by applying, than by endless repetition of lines and litanies. With all our work, hobbies and social obligations, we hardly have time to learn things by heart. (And I do believe there should be more to life than spiritual endeavours. Otherwise what's the point? Life is for living.)

The further I've come along this path, the more I've come to appreciate simplicity and intuitiveness. I'm sure simple meditation or short, repetitive chants can be just as effective as lengthy, lofty incantations, if not more so, since having to read text from notes or a book or devoting mental resources on trying to recall the exact wording is bound to distract from the ritual itself.

Yet there is all that wealth of traditional material in those books that one may easily feel a kind of obligation towards. Having learned a fair deal about the occult world, yet not enough to bring it all forth 'on the fly', how does one abandon excess knowledge in order to truly 'go with the flow'? (Not to mention the money spent on books...)

So, if learning things by heart is troublesome, trim down, limit the amount of text in your rituals. Don't be afraid of improvising. Well written rhythmic verse can also be easier to remember than prose. For tarot, I find decks with names printed on small cards as well as the trumps (like Crowley's or Haindl's, for instance) very handy.

The Language Dilemma

Basically all the material I read on occult topics is in English. However, I am not a native English speaker, although I have a stronger background in it than most people in my country.

I have written many rituals in my native language, often loosely adapting from English sources. But I never seem to be perfectly pleased with the end result. This is largely personal bias, not criticism of my language, but for me it seems to lack a certain poetry and loftiness that ritual seems to require.

Of course the truth is that the language is much less important than the emotion you put into the ritual. Language, like any other ritual element, is simply one tool among many. Perhaps a little strangely, I doubt I'd have any problem with, say, an invocation in Latin or some other ancient language. That sort of thing seems to go with the territory when it comes to magick. So why should I have any qualms about using English? It is a language with a long tradition, roots reaching back to pagan Germanic times. It has a strong connection to modern occult tradition as well, through the Hermetic societies, Wicca and the likes. And for me personally, even though I live in a non-English community, it is a part of my heritage.

(As for Latin and the like, I'm afraid there's not too much usable material at hand that I'm currently aware of, and my own skills at such languages aren't good enough to create any. Also, such passages would obviously be even harder to learn by heart.)

There's no right answer to this problem. It is very much a matter of personal taste. But it's a decision that any non-English speaking occultist must make at some point.

The Qabalah Trap

There was a period when I was very influenced by qabalistic correspondences and the Tree of Life. The Tree can be a useful tool. Understanding the tarot, for instance, without a clear underlying structure would be much more demanding.

However, it's a little too easy to start viewing the whole world through the scheme of the sephiroth. You may find yourself mapping every other system on the Tree of Life. Every deity, every entity, every concept must have its corresponding sephira. In the end, it may become more restricting than helpful. It can become a mediator, a barrier between you and the actual subject matter. And if you distance yourself from the spiritual world in this way, it will make connecting with it all the more difficult.

I think a more direct, intimate relationship with each individual spiritual entity is likely to be much more useful. How concepts relate to each other is in the end much less important.

Ritual Inertia

Probably the greatest hurdle on the spiritual path is the difficulty of actually doing. Debating various theoretical points in your head is easy. Lighting a candle, picking up a wand or athame and speaking to the universe is hard.

'Do, or do not,' a wise adept once said, 'There is no "try".' And this is very true. Every act of magick is an act of magick, regardless of the end result. The only way to improve at magick is doing magick. If you don't... well, you simply don't. And that's the end of it. Occult theory is just another form of procrastination.

For me, it's not just a matter of fear of failure, or of insecurities and hesitation brought on by all the other problems mentioned in this article. Sure, they may all be factors, but in the end I doubt it's anything that grand or deep. It's simply a matter of laziness. And that is, frankly, harder to overcome.

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