Happiness, Ecstasy, and Threading the Needle

I stumbled out from the trees atop the mountain, Matagalls—the second-highest in Catalonia.

I was teaching at a children’s language camp, and at the end of the camp we had taken a day to lead the students on an expedition to climb the peak. Cold weather had moved in and many of them had remained in a meadow at lower elevation with the rest of the adults. But I and a handful of kids pressed on.

It was steep at the end, and my legs were burning as I climbed the forested trail to the summit. The scent of rain-dampened earth filled my nostrils, the cool air pumped smoothly in and out of my lungs, my heart beat in my temples and chest. I was alive.

I could feel that something was happening. Something was opening within me. Perhaps it was the knowledge that my long time in Spain was coming to a close: that soon I would hit the road again, eventually to land back in California. Perhaps it was just that smell, the adrenaline, the gorgeous landscape of Catalonia.

I moved ahead of the children. I knew I’d have only a minute or two atop the summit by myself if I pushed on now, but it would have to be enough. I was swelling with joy; I could feel tears starting.

When I stepped out of the trees to the clearing atop Matagalls, I could see the whole world spread before me: a ragged blanket of clouds far below, peaks emerging like islands, the glint of a river through a hole in the clouds. Everything.

Everything.

And something grew to bursting within me. I began to sob and laugh at the same time. YES. 

YES!

All this, and me alive to experience it, in this little moment I am given. The blessed, Sacred world.


Recently, Rua Lupa and John Halstead have written about the ecstatic religious experience. John has written about its value; Rua cautions about pleasure-seeking for its own sake, warning of hedonism and suggesting that pursuit of pleasure for its own sake is wrong.

The thing is, they’re both right to a degree. Pleasure-seeking without regard to consequences is clearly unhealthy and destructive. And seeking the ecstatic religious experience is moving, transformative, and deeply pleasurable.

I disagree with Rua when she suggests that pleasure-seeking for its own sake is somehow wrong. There are plenty of pleasurable experiences that can be had which cause no harm to anyone else, nor to the Earth. What’s wrong with those? Why must pleasure-seeking have a “purpose”?

That said, I’d say that Rua puts her finger on one of the two major points to religion when she speaks of  contentment. Contentment is a baseline of happiness: a satisfactory level of felt wellbeing that leads to a sense of living as worthwhile and fulfilling. That baseline, however, is only a mean–in order for life to feel lived, you need some lows and highs by way of contrast. And among the highest of those highs are the experiences of religious ecstasy John cites.

Which brings me back to the basic question:  “why Atheopaganism?” The answer being, because it can help us to be happier, and because it provides a framework of values within which life can be meaningful and service to the Sacred may be inspired.

Do I think people who are constantly chasing the high of a peak experience are ungrounded and lost? Yes, I do.

Do I think that people who never seek such experiences are muted and kind of sad? Yes, that, too.

Mainstream values in the Pagan community tend towards the hedonistic. We value pleasure as a good in and of itself, so long as none are harmed. And while I think a bit more self-reflection would be a positive addition to that cheerful pleasure-seeking, at root I agree. I have no use for Calvinistic, greyfaced disapproval of fun and enjoyment. I want to grab life with both hands. I want the story of my having been here to be one filled with color.

That said, I’m not just here for me. My peak spiritual experiences have led me to deepen my commitment to the biosphere of the Earth and to redouble my efforts on its behalf. The two are not at loggerheads; they compliment and reinforce one another.

I understand John’s point about religious ecstasy reinforcing a sense of connection with and commitment to That Which Is Larger Than The Self: The Earth, the Cosmos. And I understand Rua’s point about the kinds of practical religious experiences which can bring us more into harmony with reality, such as the fact that we are going to die.

But must pleasure always serve a purpose? Is there something wrong with pleasure that’s just…pleasurable?

I say there is not. If no one is harmed, if the Earth itself is not harmed, I say pursue happiness. Seek joy.

As Rua puts it, pleasure should not be the pinnacle, the sum total goal of religious experience. But that doesn’t mean that pleasure can’t be one of the goals thereof.

Pleasure is great, and I recommend you find as much as you can, within the constraints of care for others and for the Earth. And of the pleasures there are, few are greater than religious ecstasy, for it is not merely a cascade of serotonin and dopamine: it is a moment of profound understanding of life’s purposes, of what is important, of what is Sacred.

Which is what I found, weeping atop a mountain in Spain, with children coming up the trail behind me.

Shown: Matagalls, Catalunya.

Children in Circle

Recently, there has been some discussion in the Pagan blogosphere about children in ritual circle: whether and when they belong there, what the considerations are.

Those of us with experience circling in Pagan ritual know that this can be an issue. A crying baby, an ebullient toddler, a sullen, checked-out teenager who just stands there and refuses to participate…these are all distractions that can make it hard for a ritual to bring participants into the Ritual State* (also known as Presence, Trance, or Flow).

I’ll be the first to admit: I’ve been in rituals that were pretty much ruined for me by kids. I’ve also been in rituals where the presence of children has been a delight, an adorable reminder that our religion is a multi-generational thing; that, though most of today’s Pagans are converts in adulthood, this will not be true in future decades.

My feelings about disruptive children in circle have varied widely. Sometimes I’ve felt stabs of impatience. Sometimes I’ve felt a sinking disappointment that a moment which could have been fervent and meaningful has been scrambled by childish cries or banter.

And then, as I said, there have been the waves of fond warmth.

When I feel kindness and indulgence and familial about children’s inappropriate behavior in circle, it is because I feel connected with them in community. Because I understand that they are just doing what they have to do at their stage of development, and I feel caring for them.

And that’s why we must continue—most of the time, anyway—to indulge children in our circles. Even if it sometimes diminishes our own experience. Because a central aspect of why we circle is to build connection with one another: to create, deepen and grow community.

Recently, I’ve begun work on organizing Moon Meet, the first Pagan gathering specifically for nontheist Pagans and those who are interested in what we do. I’m excited about it, and for exactly the same reason I don’t get upset at children doing what children do when I’m in circle: because it will build community. And that’s a big chunk of what religion generally—and our religion specifically—is about.

Yes, there are times when its inappropriate to have minors at a ritual. When that’s the case, don’t have them there. In some cases, it may be optimal to have separate activities for children. But when celebrating most reasons for rituals, I say let ’em stay if they want to. Parents, carry out your responsibility to shepherd them, but don’t feel shame when they act like the children they are. Goes with the territory.

We should let our kids turn the wheel of the year with us. Let them be a part of naming ceremonies and weddings and memorials with us.

Who knows? Perhaps many or most of them won’t want to be Pagans when they’re old enough to choose.

But in my experience, most of them will. And the community will grow, and healthy values will spread. The world will be a better place.

And by the time they’re grown, they’ll be terrific ritualists.

It’s not about us. It’s about something larger.

It’s about the future.

 

 

*For more about the Ritual State, see the Atheopagan Ritual Primer.

Between Worlds

It’s a thing many Pagans say: “We are between the worlds”. It signifies that within the contained context of ceremonial ritual, we are apart from the mundane—that we are somehow outside of the natural world, and suspended in a space wherein all is possible. Where magic can happen.

It isn’t something I say. I know that whether or not I have drawn the circle or otherwise created the felt sense of a container of sacred ritual space, I am still in the natural world, which is the only world there is. Many things are possible there, but not all. We are constrained by physics, by the nature of sacred Reality. What is found there is safety to experiment—to play—and to connect with one another and the greater whole of the Universe in manners which may be surprising, powerful, transformative, and profound.

Still, the key to ritual freedom, to making the magic of ritual, is suspension of disbelief and release of the stiffness of the internal critic’s voice, of embarrassment and shame. Just as we must do this to play let’s-pretend, to enjoy a book or a movie, so must we surrender our critical minds to the moment in order to submerge ourselves in ritual.

So, rather, I might say, We are here, free beings in sacred space, where so much is possible. Where we may be ourselves, naked hearts before the glory of the Sacred World. Joy is found here, and change, and release, and power. Welcome.

But I digress.

Because we all live in many worlds, don’t we? Not literally, but poetically: the world of home, the world of work, the world of family, the worlds of differing circles of friends. All are facets of the great glittering gem of the one world, but they can feel as different as Earth and the Moon.

Since Pantheacon, I have indeed been between worlds. Part of me, caught in the warm liquid swirls of community and exploration and pleasure that are the Con for me, and the rest plunged back suddenly into daily routines and workaday meetings, tasks, and deadlines. It has been a deeply challenging transition this year, and I didn’t give myself enough time for readjustment. I’m pining, a bit. And disenchanted with my ordinary life, lacking as it is all the newness and near-constant stimulation of the conference.

So what is a man to do, under such circumstances? How does an Atheopagan reintegrate into ordinary experience following a peak experience?

Well, I start by taking care of myself. I have begun my Spring Fast again, eschewing alcohol until the vernal equinox. This weekend, I will tidy my home and catch up on household tasks that weigh upon me. I’m taking time to look at the sky, to watch the sunset and enjoy the shining stars. And, sheerly for self-preservation, I have been trying only to track the barest sketchy outlines of the daily sewerage emitting from Washington, D.C.

Ritually, I light candles on my Focus and contemplate the relics of Pantheacon that rest there. I love and am loved, I think. I am respected and a leader. I am helping to build something meaningful. My community is strong.

Reflecting on the love in my life, on the remarkable, beautiful humans I have been blessed to count as friends and loved ones, I feel blessed. I feel empowered and strong.

At work, I have struggled to focus and be productive, but the sheer volume and urgency of the work drive performance whether I feel up to it or not. Once I have caught up on my sleep after this weekend, it will be better. And I have a friend at work whose interesting mind and respect for me have helped me to feel stronger in that arena than I might have otherwise. We had a visit this evening and it was a real shot in the arm.

But more than anything else, I have begun to plan, looking forward, to create some more of the kind of juicy joy that I had at Pantheacon in the coming months. Not at anywhere near that scale of event, of course, but on the scale I can manage. So I’m thinking about a little gathering for High Spring, and planning for Moon Meet in August.

The latter is really exciting: an Atheopagan festival, where our ways are the mainstream. Where atheists and agnostics and scientific pantheists and naturalistic and humanistic Pagans can explore together what it means to be ritual-enacting, Earth-revering cosmological naturalists, not in the margins around the godtalk of the theists, but as the norm. It’s going to be great!

So that’s how I do it: a little extra self-care to protect the tender parts that came to the surface during the Con, a continuation of my religious practice, and a look to the future when I can have some of that sweetness again.

In these hard times, all are needed. We need to keep coming together, to support one another as we can, even though great distances may separate—but not divide—us.

Take care, friends. Be good to one another, and yourselves, in all your various worlds.