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.

The Pagan World is Different (Adult)

This post is really meant most for those who have come to check out Atheopaganism from the atheist/skeptic community.

Thus far, the material on this blog has all been “family-friendly” from the standpoint of mainstream Western society. Even my post on the 10th Principle was more cautionary than encouraging, though at its core is encouragement that people take pleasure in the sensory experiences they encounter in life.

This reflects a goal on my part: I want Atheopaganism to be an inviting path for those coming from the skeptic/atheist community as much as it can be for those coming from the Pagan community. While much of the Pagan community is cheerfully open about sexuality, my experience of the atheist/skeptic community is that many of its members are quite cerebral, living (like me) primarily “in their heads”. They may find such topics awkward and embarrassing, and so I’ve avoided them.

But a friend of mine recently reminded me of just how often we used to do our rituals skyclad back in the early 90s, and I was musing about ways the Pagan community really is quite different from the surrounding culture, so…well, here goes. We’re adults here, so let’s talk like adults for a minute.

Adults do adult stuff. They have sex and some of them use (legal or illegal) consciousness-changing drugs.

The fact is that there are qualities about the Pagan community that may be hard for people from the mainstream culture—including many of the skeptic/atheist community—to be comfortable with when they first encounter it. None of that stuff is necessarily a part of Atheopaganism…but depending on who is practicing the religion, it may be if they so choose.

All of the below is meant in the spirit of clarity and fair disclosure. None of it is “secret”, in the sense that I am revealing material that pretty much anyone experienced in the community would tell you.

So let’s stop there, and start asking questions.

Q: If I’m practicing Atheopaganism, am I therefore a part of the Pagan community?

A: Only if you want to be.

Many (some say most) practitioners of the various flavors of modern Paganism are solitary practitioners. They may attend an event now and then—or not—but their practice is a solo affair. They generally do not do ritual or share their spiritual practices with others, except perhaps a tight circle of close family and friends.

So you can be an Atheopagan by yourself or just with your loved ones, and you don’t have to deal with how others practice their various flavors of Paganism at all. Hell, you don’t even have to use the term. You need not consider yourself to be part of a broader movement or subculture if you do not wish to do so.

But let’s say you decide, for instance, to go to Pantheacon, the annual conference in California that is considered the largest indoor gathering of Pagans in North America. There are plenty of reasons to go: wonderful people, inspiring and informative rituals and workshops, and, by and large, a great feeling of community and common cause. Let’s say you decided to dip into the larger Pagan community and see what it was like.

Q: Okay, let’s say I went to PCon. What would I see there?

A: To start with, bear in mind that you are seeing people dressed up in their “Con clothing”. Most of them will not dress as they do at Pcon out in the workaday world. That said, you will notice a higher proportion of unusual-looking people than in the mainstream society. This may involve clothing, hair coloring, unusual facial hair, tattoos and piercings, or it may be people who present in a manner that doesn’t put them squarely into one gender category or another. You will note a higher proportion of LGBTQ people in the Pagan community than in the general population, because Pagans are generally welcoming of such differences, and many LGBTQ folks are Pagan. Tolerance of diversity—indeed, celebration of diversity—is a core value of the Pagan community writ large.

Along those lines, you may also see that some are wearing or carrying implements that suggest involvement in BDSM or other sexual fetish play. That’s generally because those individuals are into that, and the Pagan community broadly speaking considers sexuality to be sacred and celebrates all forms of pleasure between consenting adults, so they feel they can demonstrate rather than hide this proclivity, as they might when traveling in circles of the mainstream culture.

Some even incorporate such play into their ritual lives. That doesn’t mean you have to have anything to do with such activity if you don’t want to…nor does it mean that such activity is going to be sprung on you if you go to a public ritual. By and large, Pagans who are public about their sexual tastes still understand the principle of privacy.

Q: What the heck is a “skyclad”?

A: Some Pagans prefer—or are directed by their traditions—to perform rituals unclothed. This is called “being skyclad”. It is a powerful technique in that it immediately brings participants into a state of connection and openness. It is amazing how much our sense of being “enclosed within ourselves” is a function of our clothing. Circling skyclad is a way to fast-track the shared vulnerability, connection and sense of import that lead to the Ritual State.

But again: if that’s not for you, that’s fine. I suspect that most Pagans do not work skyclad (except possibly when doing solitary work). There’s nothing that says that you must. On the other hand, if you’re comfortable with it, it may be something you want to try.

Q: Seems like some of these folks are really lovey-dovey with each other. Something is going on there. And what’s this “polyamory” thing?

A: The Pagan community—like Atheopaganism—has in general a core value that love and pleasure are good things, rather than sources of guilt or shame. Many Pagans are involved in relationships which are sexually open: meaning, the members thereof may take lovers outside of the relationship, with the blessing of their “primary” partner.

In many cases, these liaisons are not casual flings, but rather are emotionally bonded love relationships. The condition of being involved emotionally and sexually in ongoing relationship with more than one partner is called “polyamory”. In the Pagan community, it is not terribly unusual to meet people who are in ongoing committed relationships involving three, four or even more individuals.

While this may sound like some kind of fantasy, in reality it is a great deal of work, and when it goes wrong it can be messy. Clear communications among all participants, processing issues of jealousy, and efforts to ensure all partners are safe from STDs can occupy significant bandwidth in a polyamorous person’s life.

And it probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it: the comments on sexual culture in the Pagan community you see here apply only to adults. Sexual interaction of adults with minors is both illegal and immoral, and it is not tolerated in the Pagan community any more than in the mainstream society at large. Safety and consent are very active topics of effort and conversation in the Pagan community; it is not a free-for-all, a “swinger” environment, or anything of the sort.

Q: What about other “adult stuff”? Do Pagans take drugs for their rituals?

A: Again, you really can’t generalize about a group as diverse and far-flung as the Pagan community, but it’s safe to say that most don’t–at least, they usually don’t. However, the Pagan community tends to have a libertarian (small “l”) approach to so-called “victimless crimes”, and to believe that what an adult chooses to do with her body is entirely her own affair until she reaches the point where she is endangering others (say, by driving a car under the influence).

Many Pagans view certain drugs (typically, marijuana plus those generally categorized as “hallucinogens”, including legally available plants) as religious sacraments which—generally in small amounts—can enhance their ability to enter a powerful Ritual State and to remain there for long periods. They believe that their ritual experiences are heightened through use of these “plant or chemical allies”, and report powerful and transformational experiences while so altered. They may refer to these substances as “entheogens”, meaning literally “god-inducers”.

Myself, I sometimes like to have a single glass of wine (or the equivalent) prior to beginning a ritual. It takes the edge off any self-consciousness or “stage fright” I may be feeling, and makes it easier for me to shift into the Ritual State. More than that, however, is counterproductive. In effect, I take a carefully calibrated dosage of alcohol to achieve a particular brain state that I find facilitating, and then stop there.

I have heard other Pagans describe their usage of various “entheogenic” substances for ritual similarly: careful administration of just the right amount to augment, rather than detract from, the ritual experience. Some Pagans are quite reverent and meticulously careful in their interactions with such substances, believing them to facilitate communing with god/desses or, indeed, to contain a sentient spirit themselves.

On the other hand, many Pagan rituals and most public rituals request that celebrants be completely sober if they wish to participate, which should, of course, be honored.

Please note that I am encouraging nothing: merely describing what I have seen.

Overall, drug abuse is no more or less of a problem in the Pagan community than any other. If you are in recovery, there are groups comprised of and serving Pagans in recovery from addiction. You certainly should not feel that there will be any pressure to use mind-altering substances, as I have never seen an example of that in the Pagan community.

So: there you have it.

Questions? Things I missed? Comments?