Retreats and Advances

Sufenas Virius Lupus on the Pagan Portal at Patheos recently reflected on his general ennui in the post-PantheaCon letdown.

Years ago, when I was in the Christian fold, we referred to events like PantheaCon as “mountaintop experiences,” referring to Moses retreating to Mount Sinai to receive the stone tablets of the Jewish Law from none other than God Himself, only to return to the world below with a glow on his face — a glow that slowly faded, which seems to be one of the irreducible aspects of such experiences.

I’ve had a lot of experiences like that in the last four decades. Church camps. Music camps. A musical performance tour of Europe. Burning Man. A series of workshop weekends on love, intimacy, and sexuality. Our annual Dragonfest pagan event, which I’ve been attending since 1996.

Even Disney World.

I should probably explain the Disney Experience was profoundly spiritual for me because I had gone on special family vacations to Disneyland in California when I was four, and again at seven, and again at fourteen. When I went back with my own children at the age of thirty-five, I found that I had changed, but the world of Disney had not. Every image took me on an extended flashback to the beginning of my life: a past-life therapy session mediated by Snow White.

At any rate, Sufenas ponders why the religious — Pagan, Christian, or Buddhist — do so much “retreating” and so little “advancing.”

My wife and I have been discussing a related topic recently. She is nearing the end of her Bardic training in OBOD, and one of the features of this training is a number of periods of “gestation.”

Both of us have quite spontaneously taken a lot of gestational time. Our metric-oriented, work-ethic infused brains try to tell us we’ve merely been lax in our efforts — we both started the fifty-two week coursework in the Fall of 2005, and I’m still only halfway through, still immersed in the element of Earth.

As my wife moves through the final lessons, however, she’s discovering she’s already done all of the work. I suspect I will find something similar.

The key lies in the gestational periods.

I was raised in a hostile universe, as was my wife. A universe where parents smack you silly for misbehavior, and God does the same thing to the whole human race. I hear a lot of this kind of talk within the Pagan community as well — I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that “the Goddess smacked me upside the head with a two-by-four.” Just like God, but in skirts. A world where we must earn our keep, pull our weight, prove our worth. This universal hostility suffuses our entire imaginal existence.

When I first self-initiated into the Druidic tradition, years ago, I received a very different lesson. I was reading John Michael Greer’s excellent book, The Druidry Handbook, and hit a section that bothered me. He was talking about how the ancient Druids viewed reincarnation, and spoke casually of the “hard life” of the “lower life forms.”

I performed my initiation in a grove of lodgepole pines at nearly 10,000 feet elevation in Wyoming. We’d gone there to camp over the Fourth of July weekend, and many of the roads and campsites were still snowed-in. By September, the snow would fly again.  The air is very thin — you can see the brighter stars in full daylight under the right conditions.

This harsh alpine forest was overrun with wildlife, and not one of those critters seemed to be suffering from a “hard life.” As I watched them, I observed something very different: these “lower life forms” do not put up with hardship. Every natural species lives a bountiful, easy life — or they move to a more hospitable environment, or they die. The one thing they never do is to live “hard lives.” That is reserved for civilized humans.

A spiritual path is at root an attempt to find a way back to Eden: back to that place where we walk with the gods in the cool of the garden, a bountiful, easy life. That is the place the black squirrels and gray jays live and die among the alpine lodgepoles.

It is humans who are sundered from Eden.

One of the main things that separates us from Eden is civilization itself. I don’t know if it is possible to have civilization and Eden both. It would have to be a very different kind of civilization than what we’ve known for the last 10,000 years.

So if we civilized humans demand Eden, we’re faced with two alternatives.

We can retreat. We can create special times and places where civilization is temporarily suspended — retreats, festivals, workshops, deep woods and mountaintops. For a brief time, we savor a taste of Eden by stripping away our jobs, our deeply-ingrained reticence to approach others openly, our fear of living our truth and our passion. For a weekend, we pretend we do not live in a hostile world of hardship ruled by deities who will smack us upside the head “for our own good” — or for the irreligious, we pretend we live in a universe free of the zombifying effects of prejudice and superstition.

Such retreats remind us of Eden, but there is always something false about the reminder, because we know we have no choice but to return to the real world in a day or two. When we do return, we suffer again as a fresh wound the exile from Eden. The glow fades from our faces, and we wonder if the joy we felt was really worth the pain we now feel.

There is another alternative: to walk the long walk back to Eden.

What does that mean? It means we never leave PantheaCon. We never come home from Dragonfest. We never return to the “real world.”

This requires a complete transformation of consciousness. It isn’t an unnatural change; to the contrary, it is the most quintessentially “natural” transformation possible. But it necessitates that we change the way we view the universe: our civilization, our work, our homes, our neighbors and families. And that is extremely difficult for those of us raised in a hostile universe.

Such a transformation consists of planting seeds, and then allowing them to germinate and sprout. It requires gestation.

In this process, retreats can be a valuable resource. They remind us of what Eden is supposed to taste like, even if there is an artificial aftertaste. But what’s really valuable is when we pay attention to what parts of civilization — what parts of our daily life — we had to suppress to bring us even that close.

And I think I’ll leave the topic right there.

To gestate.