Eric Raymond: Dancing with the Gods

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10 Jul 1995

Dancing With The Gods

An autobiographical account of my `religious’ beliefs and how they got that way. If you start this, please read it through. Stopping partway would probably leave you with some very silly misconceptions.

I was raised Catholic by a Catholic father and a relaxed Protestant mother. I had my first mystical experience in 1967 at the age of 10, at an old-style Latin Tridentine mass in the hills outside Rome, as the priests were censing the aisle of the church during the Offertory. It presented itself as a sudden, intense sense of being in a moment outside time, an eternal instant co-existing with every other eternal instants of history, with the illusion of time and change stripped away. “As it was in the Beginning, is now, and ever shall be, World without End, amen” conveys the flavor exactly.

I was aware even at the time that this experience was inside my head, induced by the Mass but not specifically Christian in content.

From an early age I was exposed to, and very interested in, skeptical/ scientific accounts of the world. Reichenbach’s “The Rise of Scientific Philosophy” and Korzybski’s General Semantics taught me to value evidence, logic, and rationality.

On Thanksgiving Night of my twelfth year, as I was being offered the sip of sherry my family hauled out for the kids at holiday meals, I made the first major spiritual commitment of my life. I realized that the religion I’d grown up in was like the wine — attractive but cumulatively toxic, promising exaltation but delivering the death of reason.

I quietly refused the wine. I am a teetotaler to this day, refusing not only wine but psychoactive drugs of all sorts (I do drink tea, which affects me very little). With it, I renounced — and swore enmity to — not only my birth religion but any other form of belief founded on faith and soi-disant `revelation’, as opposed to evidence and reason.

For years after that I was militantly and indiscriminately anti-religious. Spending ninth through twelfth grade at a Catholic school hardly discouraged this :-). I read the Bible and the Koran and the Upanishads and the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead and found them wanting. I developed all the attitudes, knowledges, and ignorances of an Enlightenment philosophe. I read Voltaire and Russell. And drank no wine.

Sometime early this period I was first exposed to Hindu and Buddhist mysticism. It was immediately apparent to me that (ignoring the religious stuff) there was interesting content there. I consciously experimented with meditative techniques, treating them as a sort of mental calisthenics in an effort to alter and broaden my perceptions. (This was the early Seventies; people were still wearing bellbottoms and peace symbols, and the hippie “doors of perception” thing was still very much part of the Zeitgeist.)

My second major mystical experience was a successful though unexpected result of one of one of these experiments. It happened on a school bus at about 3:30 on a fall afternoon, I think in 1972. I had been attempting to visualize a larger and larger range of distance scales in the cosmos, from angstroms to megaparsecs. I was holding in my mind vibrating hydrogen atoms and galactic clusters, and I tried to push further in both directions. And something happened — something that was a bit like seeing the point of a joke, a bit like an orgasm, and a bit like being pinned by powerful headlights. I believe it was a classic satori, ego-death, consciousness of All (though I did not understand those terms or their implications until years later).

By the time I entered college in 1976, I felt I had learned most of what I could from such mind-games. Lest you get the wrong impression, they had never been a major interest for me. For every minute I spent thinking or reading about religion or mysticism, I undoubtedly spent thirty devouring huge amounts of science, history, philosophy, and mathematics. (No, I didn’t have much of a life! I was a skinny, runty kid with cerebral palsy and few social skills, fanatically devoted to improving my mind because it was the only part of me that seemed to work right. I was all hungry intellect and raging hormones :-))

I had filed the whole topic away as interesting but not worth a lot of my time — not likely to produce scientifically replicable results and too close to what I saw as the huge, nasty mind-mangling traps for the stupid and credulous otherwise known as `conventional religions’. I had grown — I readily admit it — rather smug in my enlightenment, quick to dismiss religiosity and mysticism in general as a sort of childhood neurosis of the species, to be abandoned by any rational individual and eventually by everybody as we march forward into the light of secular scientific understanding.

Anyone who can’t predict from the above that my complacency was soon to be shattered has no ear for irony…

When I was in my junior year in high school, I had started learning how to play guitar. Unfortunately, it was my sister’s guitar. My interest rekindled hers, and she reclaimed it just about the time I entered college, during that itchy period you get while learning when you have to play, every day. Desperate for something to feed my jones, I snaffled my other sister’s abandoned flute.

And wow! I was a natural…immediately better with it than with the guitar I’d been hacking at for months. I was commuting to college at the time, and took it with me. I’d play as I walked between classes. Six weeks from a cold standing start I sat in with a professional jazz band for the first time…and they liked it.

This was delightful but mystifying. All I’d had to do was learn to play a scale, and this amazing river of music poured forth with barely an effort on my part. It seemed almost as though my hands and lips had always known what to do, had been waiting for me to pick up the flute.

Something happened to me when I played that instrument. The angry, anxious, frustrated adolescent kid I was then just disappeared. I was powerful, competent, passionate. And I got these stunning rushes of pure timeless joy, when my consciousness seemed to expand outwards from the limits of my skin to fill the universe and I could no longer tell whether I was playing the music or the music was playing me.

Nor were these effects just going on inside my own head.

At the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology there’s a large, circular domed chamber in the Oriental wing with a skylight at its apex. Directly underneath that skylight they display the second largest natural-crystal globe in the world, a flawless five-inch sphere on a silver stand in the form of a dragon. I found it there one day with the sun shining full on it. Feeling utterly compelled, I ran ten blocks and back to get my flute, gazed into it, and started playing.

I don’t know how long I played. When I was aware of the world again, echoes were dying away in the high dome, and a dozen or so people were lined up at the four entrances, keeping absolutely still. Rather stupidly, I said “Why are you all standing there?” thinking that if they’d wanted to listen they certainly could have entered the room. And a man said “We didn’t want to interrupt you…” in a hushed, totally awed tone of voice that embarrassed me no end. We all looked at each other like we’d been caught in some weird intimacy in public. I mumbled something and fled.

And this kind of thing kept happening. Without my intention. Without my understanding it. Until the girl on the landing.

I was climbing the stair to the fourth floor in one of the quad houses one day, to visit some friends. A girl stepped onto the landing, saw me, and turned white as a sheet. I said something obvious along the lines of “Why are you looking at me like that?”

She started to babble something about last week when she was studying, looking outside at the quad and seeing me walk by “…and the leaves were following you!” And it was like I was the Spring and the life in the grass. And a whole bunch of other stuff that made me wonder what drugs she’d been doing (this was 1976 or early ’77; every second dorm room had a bong and blotter acid was easier to score than good music). So I shook my head dubiously and rolled on upstairs and visited my buddies.

I was walking home, idly puzzling over this peculiar incident, and damn near fell over when I finally got it. That girl had been trying to cope with a theophany; she had looked at me and seen a god. A particular god. And I knew, suddenly, with utter shattering certainty, which one it was. And that it probably was not the first time I had inadvertently triggered such an experience, and would almost certainly not be the last.

You have to understand that I was not happy about this at the time. I’d known the score since my early teens; religion was an instrument of oppression, deities a delusion, mysticism a bag of sterile mind-games and somatic circus tricks. I didn’t need any of it. I was proud of not needing any of it.

But I still had an omnivorous curiousity, and one of my friends was “into the occult”. Had a chin beard, read Crowley, wore black turtlenecks. He loved to talk endlessly about Eastern mysticism and archetypal psychology, shamanism, the organizing role of ritual, magic as mind-change, metaprogramming (I sat for him once while he did LSD). A minister’s son; turned into a Fundamentalist with an alcohol problem years later. But he was very educational at the time.

Thanks to him, I had started months before the girl on the landing to see clearly what I’d only dimly grasped in my first pass at the subject; that there is a kind of live internal logic to mysticism and religion, something entwined with psychology that sends runners and shoots all through culture and art.

Not that I took any of it seriously as a description of the real world. It was an intellectual chew-toy, perhaps at best a way of understanding the pathologies that prevented human beings from living the infinitely more desirable life of reason and science.

Until I realized, finally, belatedly, what had been happening to me. Until the Great God Pan reached out of my hindbrain and thundered “YOU!” And his gift is music and his chosen instruments the pipes and flutes. And his, too the power of joy; magic so strong that when it flowed out of me, even before I knew what I was doing, it amazed people into awe and incoherence and poetry.

That day I was reborn; from a skinny lame kid with a flute into a shaman and a vessel of the Goat-Foot God, the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the Horned Lord. And the music was my first power, but not my last.

(And, oh, yes. The first time I handled a set of pan-pipes I could play them. Fluently. Effortlessly. And knew I could before I touched them.)

During the next several months I went through a wrenching re-adjustment of my world-view as I assimilated what I have just related here. There was simply no way it would fit in either the religious categories I’d grown up with or the comfortable, naive materialism I had constructed for myself. I clung to the conviction that I live in a rational, explicable universe — but the Gods had spoken and after that transforming moment of realization I could no more go back than a butterfly could crawl back into its cocoon.

I knew I wasn’t crazy, even by my own rather strict definition of sanity. I was coping pretty well — in fact, I was becoming a whole human being for the first time in my life. Opening up emotionally. Playing beautiful music. And … um … getting laid. (Well, what do you think happens when you start channelling the freaking God of Sex Himself? :-))

So I coped. I read Jung and Crowley myself. I gradually learned how to evoke Pan in myself nearly at will. I constructed a world-view in which the forces I experienced fit within the natural order of science, as what Jung called “archetypes of the collective unconscious”. I rejected supernatural explanations, but learned to believe in magic — the magic of the human mind and hand and heart.

Here is what I learned:

All the Gods are alive. They are not supernatural; rather, they are our inmost natures. They power our dreams and our art and our personalities. Theurgy and ritual can make them stronger, more accessible to the shaman. They can be evoked in a human being to teach, heal, inspire, or harm. Occasionally they manifest in spontaneous theophanies; the result may be religious conversion, creative inspiration, charisma, or madness.

Magic is loose in the world. It is not the magic of fantasy — no would-be violators of the laws of physics need apply. Real magic acts in and through human agents. The two forms of practical magic are healing and divination. Healing works because human minds have more control over their bodies than we normally think; divination works because humans know and perceive more than they are consciously aware of.

The mode of the religious is faith. The mode of the mystic is experience. We do not enact rituals and promulgate dogmas to express our `faith’ that the sun rises in the east, because it is a fact of experience. No more does a true shaman or mystic invest faith in the god(s) he or she invokes; they too are facts of experience. The elevation of `faith’ is, in fact, a sign that a religious tradition is losing its ability to induce theophany, or has already lost it.

More generally, allegiance to fixed religious forms reliably murders true religious experience. Descriptive theology (“Oh, yeah, Hermes and Thoth are basically equivalent…”) is worth doing; prescriptive theology is at best a waste of time and at worst an invitation to holocaust. The Gods personify everything humans have ever imagined as sacred. Good things, bad things, and occasionally jokes that got out of control. They’re all in there, all waiting to be tapped.

The Gods taught me these things while I was being some of them. Usually I’ve been the Horned Lord (Pan/Cernunnos/Freyr/Krishna). Occasionally I’ve been the Trickster (Coyote/Mercury/Loki/Eris) or the Sage (Thoth/Merlin). Just once, by accident in a martial-arts class, I have been the Warrior (Thor/Indra/Cuchulain).

But I’m getting ahead of my narrative. It wasn’t till the early ’80s that I learned how to invoke gods other than the Horned One.

In late 1977 a woman I was involved with, who’d seen some of my odd gifts in action and shared something of my developing understanding of them, invited me to go up to New York City with her to meet some friends. She was singularly mysterious about them, and kept smiling as though she knew something I didn’t.

She did. They were a Wiccan coven called Blue Star. And they knew what I was. They’d seen it before. And they had a whole technology for raising the God Pan and his triune Goddess and exploiting those altered states, that I hadn’t known existed.

Now, understand, I hadn’t thought of myself as a witch up to then. To the extent I labeled myself at all, I thought of myself as a shaman or experimental mystic. I didn’t use ritual induction (no need). I didn’t work with other people. I knew very little about Wicca.

They showed me that the imagery and energy I’d stumbled into using on my own was part of a larger picture; that it fit the mythology of Wicca and animated its ritual forms. They showed me that I was a natural witch, albeit of a kind uncommon in this century. Most spontaneous Wiccan theophanies happen to women. For a man to spontaneously channel the Goat-foot God before training is unusual, though not unheard-of.

So I decided I was a witch — or, at least, that I was willing to play with the Wiccans. Nothing else resembling a live religious tradition seemed to have any room in its categories for my experience. And they were completely comfortable with my scientific skepticism. “Do what works,” was the attitude, “worry about explanations after you leave the ritual circle.”

Subsequently, I made numerous friends in the neo-pagan movement. (The Wiccans are the largest single group in that movement.) I went to many festivals, and founded and ran a coven of my own for six years in the 1980s. I became a respected priest, elder, and bard. I developed something of a reputation as a ritual designer and theoretician. And out of me flowed poetry and healing and inspiration, and by these signs I knew and others knew that the Gods moved and lived within me.

I helped and trained and initiated many people myself, teaching them by design skills I had discovered by accident. There is a living Wiccan lineage today (Tradition of the Rainbow Wheel) that calls me its founder and still uses portions of the Book of Shadows I wrote.

The original coven I founded broke up in 1986 under circumstances that aren’t relevant here, but which turned me off of group work for a while. By the time I was ready to become active again, my life had become filled with other challenges.

While I still use the gifts of the Horned God, and identify with neopagans, and do the odd bit of practical magic now and then, these days most of my spiritual life is wound up in my martial arts training. I’ve once again become very interested in Zen Buddhism, enough to read primary sources and seriously consider doing dokusan and the whole monastic-retreat thing at someplace like the Mountain Zen Center in Vermont. I may do it yet.

Zen represents a return to my earliest, non-theurgic mystical experiences as a child. Zen is very … clean. It doesn’t have the practical utility or drama or sexiness of the neopagan path. But there is one thing it does better; it strips away illusions. To experience things as they are, just as they are, without the drunken monkey of the mind perpetually layering them over with expectations and interpetations and preconceptions and yammering till you can’t hear yourself be — that is the Great Way of Zen.

There’s my experience. Now some theory for you skeptical types out there.

If my language is too “religious” for you, feel free to transpose it all into the key of psychology. Speak of archetypes and semi-independent complexes. Feel free to hypothesize that I’ve merely learned how to enter some non-ordinary mental states that change my body language, disable a few mental censors, and have me putting out signals that other people interpret in terms of certain material in their own unconscious minds.

Fine. You’ve explained it. Correctly, even. But you can’t do it!

And as long as you stick with the sterile denotative language of psychology, and the logical mode of the waking mind, you won’t be able to — because you can’t reach and program the unconscious mind that way. It takes music, symbolism, sex, hypnosis, wine and strange drugs, firelight and chanting, ritual and magic. Super-stimuli that reach past the conscious mind and neocortex, in and back to the primate and mammal and reptile brains curled up inside.

Rituals are programs written in the symbolic language of the unconscious mind. Religions are program libraries that share critical subroutines. And the Gods represent subystems in the wetware being programmed. All humans have potential access to pretty much the same major gods because our wetware design is 99% shared.

Only…that cold and mechanistic a way of thinking about the Gods simply will not work when you want to evoke one. For full understanding, the Apollonian/scientific mode is essential; for direct experience, the Dionysian/ecstatic mode is the only way to go.

One great virtue of this dual explanation is that it removes the need for what William James, in his remarkable “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, called the “objective correlative”. By identifying the Gods with shared features of our psychological and inter-subjective experience, but being willing to dance with them on their own terms in the ritual circle, we can explain religious experience in respectful and non-reductive ways without making any anti-rational commitments about history or cosmology. Scientific method cannot ultimately be reconciled with religious faith, but it can get along with experiential mysticism just fine.

This much I figured out early, by 1979 or so. Later, I learned some more things:

Primary mystical experiences like mine are common. A study by two British sociologists I read once seems to have shown that they are widespread in the general population, though perhaps more common in children and adolescents. Our culture provides very little context or language for such experiences, however; they are not generally categorized or recognized by the subjects as `spiritual’, and are commonly undervalued and forgotten.

Religions are, mostly, the rotting corpses of dead mystical schools. They’re founded by people who have primary mystical experiences or theophanies and (for whatever reason) do not interpret the content of those experiences into the terms of the religious traditions available around them. These primary mystics recruit disciples and attempt to teach them how to replicate their theophany.

Usually these founders (having neither training for nor interest in science or analytic rigor) mistake the incidentals of the experience for its cause, and teach induction methods which are only accidentally effective. As time goes by the induction methods accrete layers of ritual and dogma that crowd out the theophanic aspect, and are adapted for other purposes.

Very occasionally a charismatic mystic will arise within a religion and strip away the dogmatic accretions, re-creating a living mystical tradition. Meister Eckhardt and George Fox did this in a Christian context; the semi-mythical Sixth Patriarch of what was then the Dhyana school seems to have done it in an early Mahayana Buddhist one. The movements they founded (the Pietists, Quakers and Zen) became exemplary, but they were the exceptions.

Most late-stage religions distrust mystics and lock them up in monasteries or hermitages; they rightly fear the renewing but disruptive effect of theophany. Eventually, for most of the religion’s followers, even the theoretical possibility of unmediated experience of the God(s) is lost, or thought of as the preserve of specialists and madmen.

And this decay impoverishes our spiritual lives. It cheats most of us of our birthright to the sacred lightning…

And this is why I am implacably hostile to Christianity in particular and the other Zoroastrian-offshoot religions in general. Never mind the fact that they have a long history of torturing pagans and mystics like me to death, and I fear they will begin doing it again the second they have the power.

No…their crime in present time is that they are such tragic, monstrous cheats. They create huge chasms of disconnection between us and our Gods, and then tell us that is inevitable because we are `sinful’. They associate the spiritual domain with so much dogma, cant and irrational garbage that anyone with a functioning brain has to either live in hypocrisy or reject the whole package — and then wonder why life is so empty. They warp the language of spiritual discourse; they exert a sinister gravity on living mysticisms, tending to remake them in their own diseased images. In the name of God, they strangle mystical experience; in the name of love, they murder; in the name of truth, they tell lies.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I have seen. I have been. I have known. The mysterium tremendum is within reach of everyone, “closer to you” (as the Koran puts it) “than the vein in your neck”.

To find it, it is only necessary that you abandon both the dogmatic materialist prejudice that it’s not there, and the dogmatic religious preconception that you know what it is. As the Buddha said from his deathbed to his favorite disciple Ananda, “Have no fixed beliefs, and find your own light.”
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10 Jul 1995

Eric S. Raymond

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