04 December 2009

Parliament: About me

2009 Parliament of Religions

I write from Melbourne, Australia: I have come to attend the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, an international conference held every few years, which starts tonight. I come in the company of friends, including Pagan author and teacher Thorn Coyle, whose Solar Cross project—a nascent effort to provide community resources to Pagans in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond—I have done some work to support. Thorn has her own mystery school, tons of spiritual mojo, and a small measure of fame in the Pagan universe, while I just have a blog with a few dozen readers and a few steps on my own slow road to enlightenment, so if I expect to pull my weight on this trip I had better get back to blogging daily, to report on my Parliament experiences. (Of course, Thorn has already started saying some interesting things about the Parliament on her online journal, so I really have to make an effort.)

In the hope that I will have a few readers coming by to read about the Parliament who don't already know me, and in recognition of the postmodern distrust of the disembodied authorial voice taught to me in school, before things get started I feel obligated to situate myself a bit.

I am, in increasing specificity: A Pagan, a magickian, a student and practitioner of Western Hermeticism, and a participant — if only an occasional one — in a Golden Dawn lodge. I hope that readers either will forgive a bit of rambling long-windedness as I dig into what that means, or will just jump ahead to my description of events at the Parliament.

It's a strange and surprising place to find myself. When I was young, I regarded myself as a skeptical atheist and an assimilated American Jew. Yet in truth that has only shifted a bit in the years; replace “skeptical atheist” with “skeptical Pagan” and that still describes me. My father was the scientistic-rationalist child of first-generation Russian Jewish immigrants, my mother a less vigorously skeptical lapsed Catholic. A lover of the natural sciences, who majored in physics in college, I long took after my father's cranky religion-is-bunk atheism. Who needed faith when you had the verifiable and no less wondrous natural world?

But I also had a fascination with religion, counting it among my many dilettante interests. In college I baffled (and, it seemed, occasionally charmed) Baptists at my local dorm lounge Bible study by quoting John and Exodus, comparing Christianity to Islam, and explaining the Hindu conception of karma. That fascination, combined with a voracious reading appetite and a parallel interest in (for want of a better term) weird stuff meant that by the early '90s I had my head bubbling with a brew of things typical for a certain kind of geeky White American with a foot in both the bourgeois and countercultural worlds: the smart popular Buddhism of folks like Alan Watts, the attempted grand synthesis of Ken Wilbur, the not-entirely-crazy-after-all chaos magick of folks like Peter Carroll and Robert Anton Wilson, the surprisingly sober-minded Golden Dawn influenced magick of folks like Israel Regardie and Donald Michael Kraig. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area I met actual Buddhists and Witches and Thelemites and so forth, some of them obviously thoughtful people who had something real going on. I saw and experienced some uncanny stuff. All which gave me an itch.

David Simon, the creator of The Wire, says that good police detectives in real life, unlike in TV and movies, aren't really motived by justice or catching bad guys; rather, their motivation comes from a kind of intellectual vanity. You thought that you could get away with this? That I wouldn't be smart enough to catch you? So too, from then until today my quest for enlightenment has reflected less a hunger for the numinous than a frustration with the mystery of the Mysteries. I see a truth lurking under here, and I insist that I can make sense of it. After a couple of decades of knocking around with that itch, I still have in no proper sense a faith, a religion, or a path, but I have things I like better: some operating assumptions, some practices, and a clear picture of my project.

I still love the special kind of understanding of the world which only the natural sciences provide. But the question of human experience does not respond to those tools. My own subjective experience is one long un-reproducible result. And what I see when I look at human experience is that we have strange encounters with subtle, non-human forces in the world: The Job Market, The Artistic Process, Morale At The Office, Murphy's Law. The ancients called these bodiless forces spirits, angels, gods, and so forth; they are names for the ways in which humans experience and process these encounters with the forces in the world. And just as the New York Stock Exchange is real — a non-human entity, a pattern in the world, with a certain character, with things we perceive as preferences, intentions, and even moods which a person can interact with — so too the gods of the ancients like Hermes, Thor, or Jesus are real. So too even “made up” entities like Santa Claus or Chtulhu are, in an important sense, real.

We can get clever about how, in our human experience, we interact with these entities: how we think and act to get the response from the world that we want. That process, after spooky old Aleister Crowley's usage, is convenient to call “magick,” because its methods are the things we associate with the word: rituals, symbols, and meditation. If that seems silly — and frankly, there are times when it still seems silly to me — I consider that in college I learned to predict the movements of cannonballs and invisible electrons by meditating on occult symbols drawn on a blackboard. That's magick.

Westerners who take seriously magick and engagement with a range of gods and other entities have a funny name: Pagan. And okay, that's me. I'm now at a point in my life where that funny name doesn't seem too awkward to apply to myself: sure, it's easily misunderstood, and puts me in a category together with some pretty embarrassing folks ... but doesn't any language in talking about spiritual experiences have that problem? Heck, most Christians feel that way, and they have a much bigger propaganda machine than Pagans do.

Also characteristic of Pagans—and of me—is an immanentist rather than transcendent understanding of divinity and the spiritual project. The transcendent school is more familiar to most folks: the divine is distinct from the mundane, and contact with the divine is an escape from the merely material world. The immanentist spiritual orientation regards the divine as inseparably manifest in the material world, and the worthy project is not escape from materiality but rather deeper engagement with and sacralization of the material.

Now most Pagans—most religious people of all schools — have what I would call a devotional project: they engage in practices to bring them into communion with the numinous as they understand it. I do a bit of that — f'rinstance, every day I make a little offering to Hermes, god of communication, transportation, commerce, fast talk, skilled crafts, magick, and (these days) the Internet — but for me that ultimately serves to support a developmental project, the attempt to transform myself in order to transform my relationship with the world. A Zen monk seeking enlightenment is engaged in a developmental spiritual project, transforming his or her self. My developmental spiritual project also centrally concerns seeking a certain kind of enlightenment.

In my understanding, gleaned from mystics I respect, it's useful to distinguish two different kinds of enlightenment. There's a “higher” enlightenment that I like to refer to as the experience of the non-dual: the realization of a profound cosmic unity ... “i am thee and you are me and we are she and they are all together” ... neti neti ... one taste. Less familiar to most folks is a “lesser” enlightenment that many folks in my sphere refer to by the somewhat goofy name “Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel:” a fully integrated Self, liberated from psychological traps, buoyed with bliss, and empowered with clear purpose and fierce compassion. “Know your dharma, live your dharma.” The pursuit of this is often called the Great Work.

So far I have not achieved Knowledge and Conversation, but the Great Work is my spiritual project. Having concluded that it is possible, it seems to me to be an utterly compelling pursuit. There are of course many ways to pursue the Great Work. When I registered for the Parliament, the website asked me to identify my tradition, and I found it a bit of a tricky question. My central practice is in the Golden Dawn tradition, but I'm too syncretic for that to be an adequate description of where I'm coming from. The Golden Dawn practices are a particular manifestation of the Hermetic approach, which also includes things like Renaissance magick and alchemy, and arguably connects all the way back to ancient philosophers like Pythagoras. So I told the Parliament, “Western Hermeticism.”

This school seeks to order the practitioner's consciousness through rituals and meditations that give him or her a vivid set of symbols for understanding their experience. In this way, the relationship between the mind, perception, and action can be clarified, and refined, inviting in the change in consciousness of Knowledge & Conversation, and making the transition to that different consciousness as smoothly and effectively as possible. All the sigils and symbols involved appeal to my mind and temperament: it simultaneously makes me feel like I'm doing Real Spooky Magick ... and yet also feels to me of a piece with when I studied physics.

Plus, on top of that: still Jewish. I don't go to shul, but every year I co-host a seder for Passover: wine, food, ritual, prayer, storytelling, theological debate, and more wine. If that ain't magick, I don't know what is.

Okay, that's more than enough about me. Next up: The Parliament begins.

Parliament: First night

2009 Parliament of Religions

I write to you after lunch on the first full day of the Parliament. There are so many fascinating talks and events that it's hard to find time to write.

Last night we had the first plenary session: greetings from various local dignitaries, and invocations from many different traditions that included prayers, chants, music, and dance. I was particularly impressed by the Sikh invocation; with their booming voices and great beards and swords, they were physically imposing, but more importantly the brought a tremendous measure of that thing that we lamely call “energy.” The Sikhs have got it going on. There was also a Shinto sign language dance performance that really struck me: the music was a bit schmaltzy, but the dozen women dancing were so graceful together they could have made an Eminem track seem appropriate to the occasion.

No Pagan invocation; we're small potatoes. But we had a rabbi singing in Hebrew. Comfort food!

The plenary started with a quick history of the Parliament. The first round was done in Chicago in 1893, and a century later the current organization picked up the mantle for a second session. The rhetoric and imagery is stirring to a cosmopolite American like myself: better understanding through dialogue, leading to a better world. Vibrancy through diversity. Harmony arising from the values we all share. I remind myself that the world also contains sharp religious divisions — theocrats turning the power of the state to intolerance, terrorists claiming justification in religion, wars between and among states over religious differences — but here, the Enlightenment dream of fraternity (“siblingity”?) between all peoples seems almost within reach.

Seeing pictures from the first Parliament, and the people walking the convention center halls, there is the vivid imagery of people in colourful costumes: robes and turbans and collars and pendants and coats and hats. There are a lot of monks in saffron, and a surprisingly big contingent of New Thought / Unity folks around wearing white scarves as a way to find one another in the crowd. At first I felt a twinge of cynicism, thinking that perhaps this was only a kind of Diversity Theater, but it's hard to stay cynical. I myself have been wearing, in addition to my usual suit-and-tie, an ornate beaded Tree of Life necklace that I constructed for myself last year. It has already been a real conversation-starter, which is part of the point of so many people dressing up: we are all, in a sense, acting as ambassadors, and dressing the part is an act of respect both toward each other and toward ourselves.

Many of the speakers at the plenary made much of honouring the indigenous peoples of Australia, and a striking digiridoo performance was part of the beginning of the ceremonies. To hear White Australians talk, they are committed to justice and respect for the nation's indigenous people; I cannot claim to be sophisticated about Australian politics and culture, but I'm attentive enough to know that the reality doesn't match the rhetoric. Perhaps in truth, justice for indigenous people is as anemic as in the US, but it certainly seems to have a lot more rhetorical juice, which is refreshing.

The other striking rhetorical theme of the evening was the global environment. Speakers mentioned it again and again; at one point, someone alluded to us striving for a “just, peaceful, and sustainable world.” There are numerous events on the program devoted to global warming and the environment, as well. I later heard a few Pagans grumbling about these Johnny-come-latelies to lovin' the Earth. But discussing it with Thorn, we found ourselves saying that when it's uncontroversial to put sustainability on the short list with peace and justice, it's time to declare victory. Would that all this attention didn't reflect the depth of the crisis.

I left the plenary utterly exhausted. But even so, it was hard not to be exhilarated by the extraordinary circumstances of an event like this.

Next up: Kicking things off with Pagans.

Parliament: Getting started with Pagans

2009 Parliament of Religions

I'm planning on spending most of the Parliament trying to get a taste of a broad range of things, involving as many different religious traditions as I can, but I got started with several Pagan events.

Before the opening plenary, there was a hospitality suite for Pagans attending the Parliament; the hotel room was filled beyond capacity with about two dozen people, roughly evenly split between folks from the US and Australia. I was charmed by how alike both contingents were: cheerful, glamorously sloppy, and a bit boisterous appears to be universally Pagan. (Fortunately Patrick McCollum was also there to represent for the Pagans With Neckties brigade.) I learned that the legal situation for Pagans in Australia is quite different; since Australia has, after the British example, an official state church, there are complicated issues around legal recognition of legitimacy. But on the other hand, Australian Pagans have made a serious effort to reach out to the press, who have learned to turn to reliable Pagan voices for comment on relevant news stories; I was told of a recent newspaper article which made a point of confessing that they had not been able to reach Pagan representatives, promising to follow up.

The following morning, Thorn had a workshop on the Parliament event calendar in the very first morning time slot, “Dancing the Seven Directions.” She was terrific as usual, of course, and it was good to get the blood flowing with the movements. We migrated from the room she had been assigned, to just outside the convention hall. A quiet little klatch of protesters bearing a “No Religions, Only Jesus” banner scowled, a passing forklift driver waved his free arm to match our movements, and passerby kept stopping to join in. I spoke to dishy, silver-haired woman from a Midwestern school for metaphysics who dropped in; we had a couple of Jews with kippas as well, and I overheard Thorn talking to a man from India who turned out to be a Lutheran minister. (Over on her journal, I see that the Indian minister made an impression on her as well.) An auspicious beginning to the interfaith project.

After that, I went to a panel talk entitled, “People Call Us Pagan — The European Indigenous Traditions” given by the three pagans who have succeeded in getting a voice on the Parliament's organizing committees: Angie Buchanan, Andras Arthen, and Phyllis Curott. I went provoked by the title. Defining contemporary paganism in terms of being “indigenous tradition” seemed odd to me. Shouldn't we reserve the term “indigenous” for the people and things that reflect a continuity with something different from the West? And what of Pagans, like me, who frankly admit that their practices are recently invented rather than the survival of much older lost and secret traditions?

Though the panelists did make numerous references to defining Paganism in terms of “indigenous tradition” (and more on that in a moment) the discussion was more a loose and lively exploration of the slippery question of what Pagan practice involves. Can you engage with nature in your living room? What is our relationship with the Pagan religions of the ancients? There are no easy answers. The discussion was perhaps a bit more Paganism 101 than I might have been drawn to, but it was gratifying to see that so many non-Pagans in attendance were impressed with the vigor and richness of the discussion, and the description of Pagan practice.

Mr Arthen told a funny story about an encounter he had a previous Parliament, when numerous Native American spiritual teachers had vigorously criticized Western appropriation of their traditions and symbols. At the end of his talk, during which he had expressed his solidarity with the sentiments of the Native Americans concerned with appropriation, three burly young Native American men insisted that Arthen come with them to meet with an elder. “Tell him what you just told that room,” they insisted. When Arthen had finished an abbreviated version of his talk, the elder said, “Thank you. I have learned two things today. First, obviously there were Indians in Europe long ago. Second, I thought that White people were drawn to our teachings because they didn't have them at all; now I see that they are drawn to them because they have lost them.”

Given this attention to the problems of appropriation of indigenous cultures, I remained uncomfortable with the rhetoric of indigenous-ness, so I buttonholed Ms Buchanan afterward. I asked about whether that was really a wise way to frame Paganism ... but between our conversation getting cut short, and some crankiness on my part from an empty stomach, we didn't get far. I ran into her later and we resolved to find time to finish the conversation; as I write this, I'm still looking forward to that.

The afternoon was devoted to other things, but that evening there were community nights hosted by local congregations of various traditions. Though I was tempted to go mark shabbos with the Reconstructionist Jews, I wanted to get connected with Pagans at the event early on, so I went to the event hosted by the local Reclaiming group. I'm glad I did.

The circle, singing, and storytelling were nourishing to the soul, and I met some lovely people. I was relieved to discover that I was not alone in being a Hermeticist among Witches; I had a lively chat with an woman with tales of the mystery schools of England. A fella made a wonderful comment that won my Quote of the Day: “Everyone overestimates what they can do in a year ... but they underestimate what they can do in a decade.” The unreasonably dishy Wendy Rule sang a song about Hekate. I returned to my bed happily exhausted.

Next up: Art, politics, and awesome Muslims.