Tag Archives: philosophy

Seeing the Opportunities

And so I continue with the project of trying to milk meaningful thoughts and reflections out of the current mess of my life. There is that piece of wisdom, ‘when life sends lemons, make lemonade’. I’ve seen it amended in a number of ways lately. ‘If it doesn’t also send you water and sugar however, your lemonade will be vile.’ ‘Ask for salt and tequila’. There’s a truth here, and it pertains a lot to what scope we have for happiness. It does assume that there can be good in any situation.

One of the key notions in Buddhism is that life is pain and the only way to transcend that is to learn not to want. That philosophy allows a certain kind of contentment with very little, and a way of getting through hard times by trying to want and need less. I’ve tried that as a way forward, and I’m not going to recommend it. Learning to make do with less, can enable you to tolerate all sorts of things that it would be better to fight against. It can lead to a paring down of soul and self that is neither happy, or noble.

So, my challenge for today is to see the potential for good in what is happening to me. To stop drowning in pain and dismay, and try to find a way of relating to things that not only makes it easier to bear, but helps me move forwards.

There is always scope for learning. Whatever is going on, where there is life, there are things to be learned, even if they are things we have no desire to know. Accepting that possibility and looking for the lessons within experience can soften the stings.

I’m personally inspired by Brendan Myers work on heroic virtue (see ‘The Other Side of Virtue’ which is brilliant). Even if we have no apparent choice about our fate, there is always the choice of how to face it. Heroic cultures, pagan cultures, favoured facing your fate on your feet, with a weapon in hand. Certain doom can be faced with style, panache, courage and honour. Sometimes, it turns out not to be certain doom after all, because the insane, desperate attempt against all odds does work out sometimes. There is a solace of sorts to be found in taking a heroic stance, willing to accept whatever blows honour or passion demand. Celtic love stories are seldom happily ever afters, but they are epic, wild, and love burns very brightly in them. And so I will take it as a challenge, a chance to shine, not as a setback.

There’s scope for looking at accidental benefits that can be caused by challenges. The changes and demands of hard times can set us in new directions, creating new opportunities. Looking back at previous setbacks, some of them turned out to be blessings in disguise, most made me stronger, there were often unexpected ripples.

What do I have here? No shortage of opportunity to learn, grow, become stronger. I have a challenge to face, and it is going to take courage and determination. So be it. I have the chance to demonstrate to the love of my life, how far I would go for him, how much I would do and give to be with him. And he has the opportunity to do the same for me. Watching his eyes as we talked yesterday, seeing the fierce passion, the fire and determination in him, has affected me deeply. It is inspirational. Out of the pain we craft something stronger, deeper. Most people do not get chances to fight monsters and risk everything for the sake of their beloved. Life for most people most of the time is unremarkable. But I am caught up in something huge, shattering, hard, and I will have to fight, and so will Tom. My life is an epic romance. Seeing it in those terms makes it a very different thing to deal with.

We have this, now. We have moment to moment the breathtaking reality of living with a love that will cross oceans and do battle with bureaucrats. And I also see how this is touching all the people around us. Friends and family who are stepping up to help, and who are investing in our struggle. And so you too become part of this story. We had best make it a good one. Something worthy of remembering and repeating. A tale that in future years, people will look back on and say ‘I was there, I saw.’

Who knows what that might bring into the world?

Looking for Meaning

Some druids are rather existentialist in their outlook, not feeling there is any external source of meaning, and that the relevance we find in life we make for ourselves. Others feel that existence is full of inherent meaning and that the world of spirit is constantly trying to communicate with us.

When huge events unfold in your life – especially hard and painful ones, it’s reassuring to think it serves some kind of purpose. Christians will talk about God having a Plan and needing to trust that it is all for the best. That’s very difficult to do when you are reeling in pain, shock and grief. Some people end up feeling like God’s Plan isn’t remotely benevolent. You can’t really have external sources of meaning without external arbiters of meaning – usually deities, watching over things, keeping score, cranking the gears of reality so that experience Means Something.

Moments of wonder, awe and beauty can also suggest meaning. Stood on a Portland beach, my arms around Tom’s waist as we looked out at a double rainbow, seemed laden with meaning. I’ve never seen two rainbows like that, with so low a curve, and one bow inside the other. Knowing we were soon to be parted, those two rainbows seemed meaningful, like a good omen. But then, we both wanted, needed a good omen.

The druids of old apparently were able to divine the future from natural phenomena, and for as far back as we have had stories, people have searched for meaning in the movement of stars, the flight of birds, the death throes of sacrifices, and other random events. If all things are connected, then one thing can provide insight into another, right? Even if that is so, the meaning derived from it depends on human insight. A shooting star the night before a battle cannot be a sign of victory to both sides, after all.

I think about those twined rainbows. To a person recently bereaved, they might have offered a very different interpretation. To a woman longing for a child, a different story again might have suggested itself. Each person brings their own history, need and expectation with them, so that many people all viewing the same event can understand it in radically different ways. It’s not a good idea (I think) to imagine that reality is laden with personal messages just for us. That can get crazy very quickly.

Life is full of weird coincidences, inexplicable setbacks, powerful moments of beauty. We experience them, or we tune them out depending on our own natures. Moment to moment we can find richness and hear the voice of spirit trying to guide us, or we don’t perceive that way. We can take every experience we have and discard it as meaningless, abandoning all hope of self knowledge and control. I think it is important to know what we have shaped, and what experiences come back to us from our own actions. Some people don’t. We can stray too far the other way, convinced that the secrets of the universe are coded into the raindrops on the window, paralysed with the need to understand what is inevitably beyond us.

I believe that we make our own meaning, but we do not do so in isolation. The world is full of other self aware things, spirit is present and perhaps sometimes it does wish to communicate with us. I try not to assume too much in either direction, holding to my own ability to find, or create meaning out of the experiences I have, and to accept when I can’t. Sometimes the meaning I ascribe comes down to ‘shit happens’. I don’t imagine for a moment there’s any right way through this, although I think the extremes of avoiding or seeking meaning are dysfunctional. What I think is important is conscious engagement with experience, taking each one as it comes, and being able to accept it as part of your life, regardless of its impact. Whether you find inherent meaning or not, that’s ok, but pretending something isn’t happening to you really doesn’t work at all.

Dignity through work

I started at 6.30 this morning, and have done three hours of house cleaning and tidying before sitting down to the computer. Yesterday I worked on various things, domestic and economic for 14 hours before curling up to read to my son. When I’m not using my brain for jobs (and let’s face it, cleaning is not brain intensive) I tend to contemplate things. Sometimes it’s the fiction work, but I do all kinds of other plotting and planning, and considering the world.

I can’t remember which of the UK politicians was making noises about dignity through work. It doesn’t entirely matter. The theory is that work equates to dignity. Up to the elbows in soap and dirty water, doing unpaid work I know will probably not even be noticed by the other folk in this house, much less rewarded with thanks or reciprocation… I thought about work and dignity.

In practice, for most people it’s not work that creates dignity and a feeling of worth, it’s having money and the attendant economic power. Staying home to raise a child is not seen as inherently worthwhile. Cleaning, feeding and caring for your tribe gets short shrift – not just from the powers that be, who want our tax money, (unpaid = not tax paying) but from wider society too.

I have an unnervingly low income at present. From an economic perspective, I should (and sometimes do) feel uncertain about my own value because of this. But I can conjure a nutritious and tasty meal out of raw ingredients and feed my son for very little. That’s something to take pride in too. It is also work.

It’s not paid work, necessarily, that defines dignity. People get all kinds of things from what they do – money is one, but status, a feeling of being useful and valued and contributing something useful is also tremendously important. Many jobs might issue cash, but they do not give much inherent satisfaction. I know too many people for whom work is, or has been demoralising, depressing and destructive. Focusing too much on the money takes us away from a far more important notion – work should be for something beyond the moving of money. It should improve something, and we should be striving after work we can feel good about, not sullied by.

The respect accorded in response to the things we do is also a source of dignity. Again, that doesn’t have to be about how much money is moved around. Dignity comes through the recognition of our efforts and value, through supportive human interaction, being thanked and appreciated. No amount of payment can substitute for that kind of response.

Good work is inherently dignified. It gets something done, it improves the world, it gives back to you as much, if not more than you put in. So no, three hours of housework and the resultant aches do not feel entirely undignified to me. I have done something useful. I do such work on a daily basis, as my grandmothers did before me back into history, and no doubt the majority of them were unpaid, and unremarked upon. There is honour in doing what needs to be done.

It’s often the lowest paid people who do the most essential things that keep our civilization moving. Industry depends on it. Without the workers on the shop floor, nothing gets made. Without the retail assistants and warehouse folk, nothing gets sold. I could go on. Power, and money are often too far removed from work and important action. We can’t overthrow the system this morning, but we can change how we think about our own work, paid and unpaid, and how we relate to those who are contributing, financially and otherwise. We can respect what is done, not the amount of money that changes hands because of it. There lies a personal revolution for anyone who can embrace it.

Conscious Choice

For me, what matters most is action. While action comes from will and intention, those aren’t always knowable. Action can be seen, judged, responded to. Action has a tangible reality in the world, far more significant than the interesting, ephemeral nature of belief and ideas.

It is not enough to believe. It is not enough to hold nature sacred, or reverence the old gods as a personal, emotional thing. Being a pagan, is an act of dedication. It is a willingness to sacrifice. Not blood, but time, energy, and the comfort of not knowing.

Every choice I make is a conscious one. That’s hard work, and even so I get things wrong, speak with insufficient care, fail to hear properly, and make bad choices. Sometimes a shortage of cash wins out over ethics, or personal need seems more important than environmental awareness. In April I flew to America and back. That does not sit easily, but the man I love is on the wrong side of the ocean. There are seldom many easy choices, and in being consciously, actively pagan, we sacrifice comfortable disinterest in favour of being uncomfortably aware. Choosing, consciously, when not to care and when to give up and walk away is one of the most painful things to have to do. Conscious choice means becoming aware of inaction as well.

Moment to moment we make choices about how we live and who we are. In every communication, every act of consumption, every waste, every sharing of inspiration. To live with that kind of awareness is sometimes to court misery and hopelessness. With so much wrong in the world, it can be overwhelming. However, we can also choose to embrace the beauty around us, to notice more, interact with our world as we encounter it. Conscious living is not just about opening yourself to the wrongs of the world, it’s about seeing nature as it exists around you, and being able to appreciate it. There are many rewards to be had this way. Every good conscious choice is a small triumph, and a way of improving things.

 To be pagan is to know what you are doing, and why, moment to moment. Expressing belief through action, and recognising that the small details are important too. It is easy to go blindly, ricocheting from one experience to the next with no feeling of control or purpose. In choosing awareness, we take control of our lives, our actions, we become more fully ourselves and life becomes a lot more real and meaningful as a consequence.

Family Breakdown

Being related by blood doesn’t guarantee much. The accident of birth can place us amongst people we don’t like, can’t relate to, are unhappy with, or worse. For people who discover their pagan identity, when their families have a different path, that difference can prove insurmountable.

However, family, ancestors and duty are important values in paganism, and were much respected by our pagan ancestors of old. How do we tackle this when things go wrong?

Where issues of physical and psychological abuse are concerned, there’s not much to ponder. No one owes a duty of care to a person who has harmed, injured or mistreated them, no matter what the blood connection. However, for most people, the trials of family life create a far more grey and uncertain experience. No matter how our parents try, most folk do not escape from childhood unscathed – I suspect it’s just a part of the process. No one, and nothing is perfect, and the places things go wrong teach and shape us. How much of that teenage feeling of being misunderstood should we carry into adult life?

Perhaps the answer here is not to look out, but inwards. What do we need now, to flourish? Do we need to forgive, let go and move on? Do we need to step away from relatives because we find their attitudes poisonous? Do we need to challenge and teach the people who failed to teach us? There’s no one right answer here, but for any kind of relationship to work, you have to know what you want from it, and what you will give, and tolerate. Stepping back from blood family and acknowledging that you do not need their approval, understanding or recognition any more is incredibly liberating. Being an adult is about not needing to be so closely parented, and it means letting those relationships change. The power to do that lies in your own perceptions, even if blood relatives still insist on treating you like a child.

Each person has the right, the duty even, to set their own boundaries and define their relationships. Family can create unbalanced relationships where one party acts as though all the power and right lies with them. It is not something any other person needs to co-operate with. Sometimes, refusing to play the same game can make a lot of odds. Duty is not a one sided thing, it is part of a balanced relationship. Where there is no balance, there is (to my mind) no obligation. It must always be an option to identify any relationship as unworkable, and step away from it. If it means a relinquishing of responsibility, then that must be done with absolute care and honour.

We should not seek to own people, nor permit them to own us. If a family scenario is unworkable for some reason, if there is no fixing it, then there is no dishonour in acknowledging the situation. There should be no power without responsibility. No duty without some kind of reciprocation. No obligation without respect. We can show by doing, by living responsibly, with care and honour. That means not only being mindful of our own actions, but also not allowing those biologically closest to us, to treat us dishonourably.

Fur Babies and Familiars

People have lived with animals as companions for a very long time. Certain creatures, we accept into our households as additional family members. Owning a cat is an iconic witchy thing to do as well. If you have no children, or are living alone, a fur baby may seem a good alternative. They give warmth, companionship, affection, they make us feel better, provide an alternative to siblings, create laughter and bring joy.

Why is it that we (as a culture) prioritise some creatures while giving so little regard to others? In Living with Honour Emma Restall Orr points out – “…for the vast majority, the incredible hypocrisy of choosing to care deeply for a dog, while eating bacon without a moment’s consideration for the pig (a generally more intelligent creature who has suffered a life of traumatic abuse), is not only rampant in our society, but perceived to be rational and acceptable.”

In many ways our attitude to animals reflects how we relate to other humans. We choose who is inside the clan, the family, and who is ‘other’ and therefore ok to exploit, eat, etc. It may be part of human nature to be clannish, to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’ and have different rules accordingly. That doesn’t mean it’s a thing to celebrate. Looking at how, if and why we relate to some animals as family, and others not, can teach us a lot about our own values.

Keeping pets and raising creatures to eat has environmental impact. There’s a New Scientist  here- http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20427311.600-how-green-is-your-pet.html about the impact pet keeping has. Anyone concerned about carbon footprints needs to also think about the impact of creatures they keep, or who are kept on their behalf. Cats are a disaster for wildlife. Whether hungry or not, many of them hunt, doing horrendous damage to rodent and bird populations. It may be in the nature of cats to hunt, but we keep them in a density that is far from natural, and they deplete the species around them. Animals kept as pets, in cages, for amusement, as living toys… can be ethically uncomfortable too. I write as someone who has kept hamsters. It takes work and imagination to give a caged animal a decent standard of living. Children should not, I think, be given animals as toys.

I keep a cat – he doesn’t hunt, so far as I can tell – he doesn’t go out much and is lazy. He’s taught my child about sharing, and respect, and the effects of pointy paws. These have been good lessons. He sleeps on my bed and I am glad of his presence. I’ve lived with cats who savaged the wildlife. I couldn’t do that again. I would not have taken this cat on had I not been assured that he doesn’t hunt.

As with all other aspects of life, the keeping with animals needs thought and consideration. There’s scope to do it well, or to do it very badly indeed. So much of what is wrong in the world stems from people acting without thought, serving their own immediate desires with little care for long term impact on themselves, much less anything else. How we make our families, who (furry or otherwise) we choose to include, and how we handle that, is of vast importance in terms of how we shape the future for everything that will live in it.

Perceptions of Reality

First published by White Dragon magazine.

One of the things a great many pagans seems to have in common is that we occasionally admit to seeing, hearing and otherwise knowing things we shouldn’t. I’ve heard plenty of tales of mystical experiences that, if presented in the right context, would probably win the speaker a diagnosis of mental illness if not a nicely padded room. This kind of experience, by its very nature, cannot be rationally explained. However, there are aspects of research into human perception that perhaps casts these pagan experiences in a different light.

Our entire understanding of what the world is, comes to us through our senses. There are a great many things we cannot perceive directly – due to their size, or because they fall outside the spectrums we are aware of. There are also many things we do not perceive consciously – perhaps most importantly, the detailed workings of our own bodies. The senses we depend on give us a very partial view of what is around us. We can’t use magnetic fields to navigate like geese, we can’t hear sounds dogs can pick up, nor smell half of what’s out there, for example.  These limitations alone are significant when considering how restricted we are in perceiving all of the available reality. However, we are more aware than many life forms – plants manage their lives with light perception, and something resembling touch, and very little else so far as we know. Our senses are remarkably complex, allowing us to understand objects relative to each other, to hear spoken words against a backdrop of traffic sound and other such wonders. As Bruce Durie points out, “Our perception goes far beyond the bare sensation.”[i] Perhaps this very capacity for complexity makes us more vulnerable to confusion and error.

The brain spends a lot of time filtering out most of the massive amounts of data it receives and ignoring it. At any given time you are unlikely to be fully conscious of all the information coming from all of your senses, and if you had all of it, you’d probably go mad. We tend to notice sudden changes – of temperature, light levels, movement etc, where small, incremental differences fail to register. We focus on what seems important and this is no doubt an evolutionary tactic designed to keep us alive. If we aren’t going to fight it, feed on it, flee it or reproduce with it, is it worth noticing? In terms of evolution and species survival, probably not. The big changes are the ones most likely to harm us and thus to require our attention. We’re good at focusing – useful for hunting, but sometimes this has interesting consequences. It’s quite amazing what we don’t notice. Daniel Simons, a psychologist at Harvard University, and Daniel Levin of Kent State University, Ohio carried out an experiment in which a person was approached and asked for directions. As they were explaining, two men carrying a door walked between the two, then the querrent asked if the giver of directions had noticed any changes. 50% of those taking part failed to notice they were talking to a different person!  The walk through with the door had allowed the swap.[ii] Part of what’s happening here involves how our short term memory functions, and how little detail we bother to save if we don’t consider it important (we need the stimulus of fight, flight, feed and f… reproduce again). These assessments of significance are not made consciously, so we have no idea what we are forgetting.

In a different study participants were asked to count ball passes whilst watching a film of a ball game. 40% of the participants failed to notice the man in the monkey outfit who wandered through the middle of the game. Once they had been alerted to his presence, they were entirely able to see him in replays of the footage, of course.[iii] This demonstrates that we quite often don’t see what we aren’t looking for. We don’t see people we know in settings where we aren’t expecting them. What else do we miss simply because we aren’t looking, or because we assume it’s not there?

Synesthesia is a condition which poses some interesting questions about the nature of perception. People who have it experience sounds as colours, textures as emotions, or have other strange mix ups with their interpretations of sensory information. In the past this has tended to be ignored as fantasy or led to diagnoses of schizophrenia. However in recent years the condition has been taken seriously and explored at some length. According to Durie there “is growing evidence that crosstalk in the brain between different sensory areas mixes up things more than we might imagine[iv] – and goes on to suggest that our understanding of minor chords as sad, may be a manifestation of the same condition, along with our capacity for metaphor. Does it mean the perception is wrong in any way? Are these crosstalks merely nonsense (like some metaphors), or do they offer an equally, or more valid way of interpreting the world?  Interestingly, there are people who experience the suffering of others as their own: Mirror-touch synaesthesia causes people to sense being touched when they see others touched. Might this be some way towards an explanation for empathy? Does it have anything to do with those more esoteric and otherwise inexplicable experiences a significant number of pagan folk seem to have of picking up other people’s emotions?[v] Does it represent some kind of deeper truth, or point to a brain dysfunction as the reason for some magical experiences?

Why do we perceive as we do? Are Synesthetes awry in some way, or more advanced than the rest of us? Or is it just one of those random, meaningless things? Has it served some purpose in the past, now no longer relevant? Not having the condition, I have no idea what it would be like, but the notion is fascinating.

It is remarkably easy to trick the mind. Neuroscientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, were able to make subjects feel that a mannequin’s body was their own, streaming visual input through cameras and showing the mannequin being touched whilst the subject was actually touched. Apparently it took a mere two minutes to create the illusion that the mannequin’s body was in fact the subject’s.[vi] I recall at school being told that if you wore glasses to invert your view of the world, you could adapt to it in about 24 hours and function perfectly well. Brain flexibility obviously has its uses, but does it leave us vulnerable to misinterpreting some of our experiences?

 Brain injuries and illness alter our perceptions – fevers, sleep deprivation and drug use can all give us wildly different experiences of what is real. Every time I run a temperature I believe I understand all the secrets of the universe. Is this disease addled madness, or do I genuinely have a few hours of profound insight? Admittedly, what I remember makes no sense to me, but I doubt that proves anything either way. Do we see more during these times, or simply the white noise generated by our struggling brains? Shamanic practices harness this kind of derangement for spiritual purpose, which at the very least offers some way of relating to it that might make it more tolerable.

Everything we ingest can and does affect how we feel, and through the filter of our emotions, how we experience the world. Caffeine. Sugar. Alcohol. Food additives. Chocolate. Fats. There’s even a claim that an excess of coffee can cause hallucinations.[vii] That’s without taking things specifically for mood altering purposes – St John’s Wort, Prozac, opiates etc. The world is full of things we can eat in order to change how we perceive, while experiences of insufficiency – lack of sleep, food and water can equally bring on altered states of mind. So our whole experience of reality is filtered through our senses, affected by our diets and the state of our brain chemistry, and informed by our expectations. Can we really trust our perceptions to be accurate? Do we need them to be? We may have sound mental health reasons for seeking changes of perception – “Hallucinogens – and to some extent cannabis and MDMA – allow us to escape, temporarily, from a reality ruled by logic, ego and time, and explore other aspects of our consciousness.”[viii]  With the implication in the article that this is probably a good thing. It’s worth bearing in mind that drugs can only influence our perceptions by tapping into our existing brain chemistry – we have the capacity for these shifts in perception, we just need to trigger them. Why assume that the chemistry-informed perceptions we have when tanked up on caffeine are somehow more valid than the perceptions we have when seriously drunk or using other mind expanding substances? Or, for that matter, why disregard the reality we perceive when feverish, or hallucinating from sleep deprivation?

Even assuming that we perceive the world in an accurate way, we also have to contend with our memories, which may be wildly inaccurate as well. False memory syndrome is a well documented problem :  It is likely “the act of remembering makes a memory malleable, and therefore susceptible to misinformation”.[ix] As with misleading a person about what they are perceiving, it is disturbingly ease to generate false memories. “Under repeated questioning people will readily construct false memories of realistic events and believe that they actually happened.”[x] There are a few things I have been told about so often that I remember them as though I had been present. I avoid inadvertently creating false memories by thinking about some things in third person, so I can readily tell the two streams apart – being a writer and daydreamer this is an ongoing issue for me.  When thinking about occult experiences, this issue is especially important. It is common practice amongst pagans to discuss unsusbstantiated personal gnosis on the internet, sharing strange experiences. Might we be at risk of unknowingly and innocently changing each other’s memories as we reach for consensus? Are our memories (if we have them) of the supernatural informed by what we read, and hear others talking about? How can we trust that anything has been remembered and recalled accurately? But equally, how can we be sure that our mundane memories are valid? There is a great deal of cultural pressure not to perceive certain things (pixies, unicorns, angels and aliens to name but a few). How do we know that we aren’t carefully tuning them out based on a deep seated belief that they aren’t there, in just the same way that those 40% of people in the baseball study didn’t notice the monkey?

How we understand our perceptions of the world very much informs how we relate to spiritual experiences. Dropping acid and thinking you are talking to god is a cliché, but does that make it any less real an experience? Is it all in the brain chemistry, or is something ‘real’ going on. How do we define ‘real’ anyway? If we have a consensus about what reality means, where does that leave the group of people who didn’t realise the person they ended the conversation about directions with was not the one who had begun it? There was an objective reality, verifiable by others, but not everyone was able to properly engage with it. In this instance, it’s easy to tell what is ‘real’ but frequently that isn’t the case, and all we have to go on is what we can verify by cross referencing with other people. One of the things this area of study suggests is that if we have a shared, agreed upon reality, we can all very happily go along with it, even if it’s totally erroneous!

Much science is informed by the idea that the world is basically a coherent place full of rules, and if we can discover them, it will all make sense. This is, really speaking, a philosophical position, not a truth. We don’t actually know what reality is, and although there are rules that seem to work, sometimes they don’t. Occasionally, when I am feeling especially brave, I dip into the wilder end of New Scientist – speculative science, mad physics, all of it weirder than anything I could imagine. Parallel universes. The power of randomness and chaos.

 “Assuming an external reality exists, however, physics theories aim to describe how it works. Our most successful theories, such as general relativity and quantum mechanics, describe only parts of this reality: gravity, for instance, or the behaviour of subatomic particles. In contrast, the holy grail of theoretical physics is a theory of everything – a complete description of reality.”[xi]

There is so much that we do not know or understand. We do not even know with certainty that the tools we have developed for understanding reality give us true reflections of the natures of things, much less whether we can trust what we perceive, or believe we have perceived.

Entering a pagan worldview takes you away from consensus reality, however you do it. Perhaps the least dramatic shift is into something like Naturalistic Druidry, which sees no need for anything beyond nature. However, the scientifically minded folk drawn to this movement are likely to be more aware of the uncertainness of reality than ever people with more mainstream perceptions are.  For most pagans, moving into a spiritual tradition represents a radical shift in understanding, with huge consequences for how we relate to the rest of the world, and how we understand our own perceptions. Consider some of the tenets that frequently go with paganism – that all life is sacred. That spirit/magic/deity pervades all things, is inherent in the world. That everything is connected. With that view embedded in their psyche, a pagan typically sees the world in radically different ways to a non-pagan.  And as previously discussed, what you expect will very likely colour what you get.

I don’t just see a tree, I see the things that live in the tree, and the wind in the branches, I see if there are leaves, or buds, and what kind of tree it is. I see it as an individual living entity, and as such may well greet it. Others may be aware of some greenery. My experience so far is that I see things that other people do not – birds, animals, plants – things that are very literally present, which most people don’t register at all. I am frequently not focused on anything much, and not assuming too much about what is there to be perceived, which may help. And of course, I see other things – corner of the eye things, glowing things, ethereal things that other people do not see. Are they any less real than all the other things most people don’t see? How do I tell? If the science can give situations in which 50% perceive one thing and 50% another, we don’t even have weight of numbers to create a consensus reality. If such high percentages of people are capable of missing obvious things, it does make you wonder what else goes unregistered.

If you understand the way the things you ingest act on your perceptions, you can work with it – it’s not something that just happens beyond your control. A healthy body, well hydrated with the right amount of sodium and potassium in it, a healthy blood sugar level, and not suffering the effects of uppers like caffeine or downers like alcohol, might be best placed to perceive the world. Ignoring the differences that creep in during times of pressure and altered body chemistry seems both unwise and irrational.  When our bodies are out of balance, our perceptions shift, and we interpret the world accordingly. For example, I find when I have cried too much and lack salt in my body, I become irrational. The less salt I have, the worse the irrationality. I have a friend who becomes paranoid if he imbibes too much caffeine. Such experiences have radical effects on how we see the world and respond to it. Amusingly, religion may also be a factor Dutch Calvinists notice embedded visual patterns quicker than their atheist compatriots[xii]  according to psychologist Bernhard Hommel. Being in control of your perceptions would be a powerful thing. I have no idea if I am, or how I could tell. Being sufficiently out of control that you can see what’s there – not what you think is there – is also very powerful as an idea. Again, how do you tell? We need to be simultaneously absolute sceptics regarding our own occult (and ordinary) experiences, and willing to accept the possibility that they may have validity – be that as an expression of our inner states or as a reflection of an objective (if weirder) reality.

Go out into a wilder, quieter place and explore your perceptions – be open to your senses. There is a great deal to notice, to see, hear, smell, feel, taste even. Once you stop looking for anything in particular and stop assuming what you might experience, there is so much more to be and know. The world around us is not something to tune out and ignore – not on the pagan path. We need to be here and now, feeling, sensing and perceiving as fully as we can. By discarding assumptions, we might see the world afresh, and see it more truly. If I assume there is no point in looking up, I will never see the stars, or the moon. If I assume a city centre to be a dead and soulless place, I won’t see the starlings, the sparrows, the urban trees. We are surrounded by nature, by beauty, wonder and magic, and most of us do a very good job of not noticing any of it.

[i] New Scientist 29 January 2005 Senses special: Doors of perception, Bruce Durie
[ii] Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, vol 4, p 644 (1998) Failure to detect changes to people during real-world interaction Daniel J. Simons and Daniel T. Levin, 

[iii] New Scientist 18 November 2000 Blind to Change, Laura Spinney

[iv] New Scientist 29 January 2005 Senses special: Doors of perception, Bruce Durie

[v] New Scientist, 23 June 2007, Sense of touch is crucial for empathy.

[vi] New Scientist16:09 02 December 2008 Swapping your body becomes a virtual reality,  Helen Thomson

[vii] 15 January 2009  http://www.sciam.com

[viii] New Scientist, 13 November 2004, The intoxication instinct,  Helen Phillips and Graham Lawton

[ix] New Scinetist, 16:14 05 December 2008 Brain quirk makes eyewitnesses less reliable, Ewen Callaway

[x] New Scientist 23 July 1994 When memory plays us false,  BOB HOLMES

[xi] New scientist, 14 September 2007 mathematical cosmos: Reality by numbers Max Tegmark

[xii] New Scientist 17:50 14 November 2008 Religion alters visual perception,  Ewen Callaway