Introductory Pagan Theology Book — $1 Kindle E-Book Sale, Plus Paperback Release!

Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies

All, I’m excited to announce that my book Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies is now available in paperback as well as an e-book edition! I hope this gives those of you who are using it in reading groups more options. 🙂

Additionally, Amazon.com will be offering the Kindle edition for $0.99 on Monday 7/1, then at a reduced price of $2.99 for about a week thereafter. Hooray for sales!

After watching the Pagan blogosphere explode this past month over theological issues, I feel ever more strongly that having a sophisticated theological vocabulary can only help both our intrafaith and our interfaith communication (especially as I watch writers misdefining key terms!). What is monism (because it’s not the same as monotheism!)? What about pantheism vs. panentheism? Dualism vs. duotheism? And how do these ideas describe and inform our practice?

Seeking the Mystery includes chapter summaries, discussion questions, and activities at the end of each chapter. I hope some of you will consider it as your next Pagan book club selection!

[Want a preview? You can read the table of contents, introduction, and glossary here. Also, thanks to John Beckett for updating his kind review on the occasion of the paperback release.]

Visualisation, meditation, and pathworking

Meditating in Madison Square Park

Meditating in Madison Square Park, Manhattan, New York City (Wikipedia)

Often people use the terms visualisation, meditation and pathworking interchangeably, but they are different techniques, with different purposes and histories of development.

A meditation invites you to focus on your breathing, your body, or your feelings; it does not usually involve visualising. It is designed to increase awareness of your body. Typically, meditation techniques are drawn from Taoism or Buddhism.

Another related technique is contemplation, where the practitioner focuses on a deity, virtue, or quality (such as love). The technique is used in both Christianity and Islam, but was also advocated by Plato. Examples of contemplation include contemplative prayer, centering prayer, and lectio divina. Some people contemplate Nature as a spiritual practice.

A visualisation invites you to focus on specific images; sometimes it tells a story or involves travelling through a landscape (real or imaginary); sometimes it is intended to bring about a specific result – this is known as creative visualisation. Visualisation is popular with both Pagans and New Agers.

A pathworking takes you on a journey through an inner landscape. Pathworking as a technique is derived from magical uses of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. In that system, a pathworking is a journey along one of the 22 paths of the Tree of Life, each of which has a specific set of landscape and symbolism associated with it (and corresponds to one of the twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana of the Tarot).

I would say that guided meditations were suitable for large groups; guided visualisations and pathworkings should probably be used in smaller groups where the person leading can be more aware of participants’ emotional responses.

Some visualisations are not safe (e.g. ones that invite you to visualise going out of your body) and should not be attempted by the inexperienced. People often think that it’s all happening in your head and therefore you can visualise whatever you like with no consequences, but that is not necessarily the case. Magic (defined here as “the art of changing consciousness in accordance with will”) does have real effects, even if they’re only psychological effects.

I never pre-record either visualisations or meditations – I prefer to do them live and feel the mood of the participants, going slower or faster depending on whether I feel the participants are following, and adding bits for the specific audience. Also, I would always try out a visualisation myself before leading others in it.

I have come across a lot of people who cannot visualise at all. For small group work, I always ask if there are people who can’t visualise, and adapt by talking about feelings and spatial cues as well as visual imagery.

You can test whether someone can visualise by getting them to think of an orange – most people can manage to see an orange sphere in their mind’s eye, and if they can’t, the chances are that they are one of those people who cannot see with their mind’s eye. I, and several other people that I know, can taste on my mind’s tongue (and smell on my mind’s nose) but many people can’t do this.

You can check whether people can experience all five senses with the orange visualisation – imagine touching the pitted surface, prising the fruit open with your fingers, hearing the noise of the tearing peel, smelling the orange oil from the skin and the juice inside, then tasting the fruit, and feeling the juice on your tongue. For people who can’t visualise in any sense modality, get them to remember the emotional feeling they get when they eat an orange; you can then use the same approach for other visualisations.

When knowledge was power

Lynne Kelly

Lynne Kelly

Ritual often seems like an activity designed only for interaction with the preternatural or the supernatural. However, in non-literate (oral) cultures, it can have a mnemonic function – to remember and pass on traditional lore, about how to grow and manage crops, about animal and plant species, how to interact with the land, how to use tools.

Lynne Kelly is an Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at LaTrobe University. She is researching the ways in which knowledge is transmitted in non-literate cultures.

In a discussion on ritual on the British Archaeology mailing list, she wrote:

My research is into the way non-literate cultures learn, store and transmit information – vast amounts of it – when they don’t have writing. I then apply that to the archaeological record. A wide range of apparently enigmatic objects become very practical when the memory systems used are understood. The deliberate destruction or disposal of objects is common when there is no initiate suitable to take over the object. Unfortunately, it all takes too much to explain in an email. It is all to do with preserving the critical survival information accurately, among other things. Think of initiation as being initiated into higher and higher levels of a knowledge system, much of which is practical. I draw particularly (but far from exclusively) on our Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherer cultures.

To give one example of the way indigenous rituals can appear superficial, but aren’t, I’ll use a Pueblo example because it is so beautifully recorded. Alfonso Ortiz in ‘The Tewa world: space, time, being, and becoming in a Pueblo society‘ (1969) talks a lot about the stories of the Corn Mothers and the variously coloured Corn Maidens. Lots of ‘rituals’, many of which are restricted to a select group of initiated males.

Ortiz also suggests, in later writing, that you read Richard I. Ford, an ethnobotanist. Ford describes the same rituals – ceremonies – rigidly repeated acts – in terms of the outcome. Effectively, these ritual performances ensure that multiple varieties of corn, each known by the different colour, have been maintained pure over centuries, if not a lot longer. These are the descendant of the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) cultures. Careful selection and planting of multiple varieties means that no matter how bad the weather that season, some corn will produce food. Corn cross-pollinates very readily, so it is quite complex to ensure all varieties are maintained pure. Consequently, Ford titled the paper ‘The colour of survival’, (1980), Discovery, pp. 16-29. [Not the common magazine, Discovery, but an academic journal.] Ford suggests you read Ortiz to get the Puebloan way of describing the same events and outcomes.

I have covered the Puebloan knowledge system and associated ‘enigmatic’ objects in the thesis, and have plenty more examples like this from other cultures. For example, think of ‘Hunting magic’ as ceremonies which remind all of the group about strategies … and so it goes on. Knowledge is stored so differently by cultures without writing that the pragmatism is often disguised and it is easy to see only simplistic ‘religious’ reasons as the purpose for the ceremonies. All the oral cultures I explored integrate the secular and the sacred so the two become almost indistinguishable.

If you think about it, contemporary Pagan rituals are also designed to transmit knowledge – to enable people to understand sacred stories from within, by re-enacting them; to transmit knowledge of magic, symbolism, and mythology. This also got me thinking about how ritual could be used to transmit botanical knowledge, or astronomy, or other scientific information. I once did a ritual about quantum mechanics, so why not? Learning through ritual engages the right hemisphere of the brain as well as the left, so is probably a more effective way to transmit knowledge.

[Note: the above quote is used with Lynne’s permission. Her research will soon be published as a book.]

[Photo credit: Lynne Kelly, used with permission]