Recently, on the Naturalistic Paganism Yahoo discussion group, a new member asked what to make of a Pagan author who claimed to have traveled to Faerie. His question was basically this: Should we assume this author is speaking poetically? Or should we conclude he is insane?* This question can be applied to just about any religion, from Pagan fairies to Christian angels to indigenous ancestral spirits.
The discussion the followed reminded me of a TV series I watched a few years ago called “Awake”, about a police detective (Britten) who is living two alternate realities. He’s in a car wreck with his wife and son, and either his wife or his son die, depending on what reality he is in. After the wreck, every time he goes to sleep, he switches to the other realities. Neither reality seems like a dream to him. (The two realities are filmed with an orange or blue/green tint to designate which reality he is in.) Little things are different in each reality. And things that happen in one reality give him clues to things going on in the other reality. It may be a clue to help him solve a case or an insight about how to better connect with his son or wife.
What was really interesting to watch, though, was the two therapists he has in each reality. Both therapists assure him that he is awake in “their” reality and not dreaming and it is the other reality which is a dream. But both approach the “other reality” very differently. (There’s an article about it here.)
Dr. Lee is intent on proving to Britten that the other reality is a dream, i.e., a fantasy. Many of his comments to Britten are along the lines of: “Isn’t the more reasonable explanation that …” He tells Britten: “You condition is the result of a deeply fractured psyche. It is a problem. It is not a tool.”
Dr. Lee tells Britten that it is a problem that he is allowing his “dreams” to direct his real life because “the subconscious can be a highly unreliable witness.” According to Dr. Lee: “This fantasy is far from benign. While your brain should be resting, recharging, your subconscious is using it to uphold a detailed and complicated alternate reality. If we don’t deal with that, the situation will eventually become unsustainable.”
In contrast, in the “green reality”, Britten’s therapist, Dr. Evans, sees the dreams not as a problem, but as a tool. Dr. Evans is not concerned with what’s “real” and what’s not. When Britten encounters the same young woman (Kate) in both realities who are in very different life situations, Dr. Evans tells Britten: “I think what’s more relevant than the question of which Kate is real, is why you are seeing her in the one world and reflecting her so differently in the other.” In other words, rather than trying to prove to Britten that the dream is false and her reality is real, Dr. Evans tries to get to the meaning of the dream. Mind you, she never treats the dream reality as “real” per se, but she does treat it as meaningful. In fact, she treats Britten’s “dreams” as a boon. After telling her about how clues in the one reality helped him in the other, she tells him:
“My God, that is interesting. Do you know that the exact access to the unconscious mind that you are describing has been sought after since the beginning of civilization. The Greeks used to sleep in temple chambers hoping to receive insight from their dreams. Even philosophers and scientists have recorded incredible breakthroughs delivered to them while asleep. I think these kinds of connections between your worlds can be incredibly beneficial. I support a more active connection between your conscious and unconscious mind. I think it’s going to aid you in uncovering and processing the source of your emotional issues.”
My wife is a therapist herself, and she leans more in the direction of Dr. Lee’s “reality-focused” approach. She tries to give her client’s what Dr. Phil calls “wake up calls”, to show them that that they are doing is not really working for them. But I wonder, when someone is caught in a “fantasy”, is it effective to just tell them that what they experience as reality is not in fact reality?
Dr. Evans’ “meaning-focused” approach, in contrast, works from within the fantasy and tries to find its meaning. My wife would counter that insight into the meaning of one’s reality is all well and good, but it takes us nowhere unless there is a corresponding change in reality, i.e., in behavior. I agree with that, but I sometimes feel like the reality-focused approach is so caught up trying to prove whose version of reality is “real” and misses the meaning of our experience. What is point of striving to strip all “fantasy” from our lives, if in the process we also strip all meaning from it?
As I watched the show, it occurred to me that my interaction with skeptics (like many HP subscribers) and believers (like most Pagans) often mirrors the conversations that Britten has with Dr. Lee and Dr. Evans respectively. When I speak to people who self-identify as atheist, or to Naturalistic Pagans who emphasize heavily the naturalistic side of the Naturalistic Paganism equation, I feel very much like I am talking to Dr. Lee. The conversation centers around the question of “what is real?” For them, fantasy is not real and is “far from benign”. On the other hand, when I talk to theists, or to Naturalistic Pagans who give more emphasis to the pagan side of the Naturalistic Paganism equation, then I feel like I am having a conversation with Dr. Evans. The concern is not “what is real”, but “what does that mean?”
I think the reality perspective is very important. Sometimes we are so stuck in our behavior patterns, which are not working for us, and we don’t see how we are responsible for our own life circumstances. We are, in a sense, not even aware of our own reality. And sometimes we need to be made aware of the reality of other people—otherwise we become narcissists.
But I don’t think that should be the end of the discussion. In recent group discussion at my Unitarian church, one of the participants declared that all spiritual experiences can be connected to changes in brain chemistry. He’s right in so far as that goes. But for him, that somehow seemed to prove that such experiences are worthless. A quote from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods came to me: “There is one who ‘does not have the faith and will not have the fun.'” (paraphrasing C.K. Chesterton)
I have bounced back and forth between the two approaches both in my writing and in my private life. In my writing, if I’m talking or writing to a reality-focused audience, I try to emphasize the meaning-focused perspective, and when I am writing to a meaning-focused audience, I try to emphasize the reality-focused perspective.
In my personal life, I move back and forth as well. On the one hand, I don’t want a realty-focused perspective taking the lead when I am participating in a Pagan ritual or when I’m trying to make sense of a spiritual experience. I think this is why a lot of atheistic and naturalistic Pagans like me have trouble getting down with ritual (and some avoid it altogether).
On the other hand, I think too many Pagans seem to be living in the meaning-focused perspective, and the result is an anti-critical mindset and a disconnection from reality. This often manifests as a preoccupation with relationships with imaginary people and a lack of engagement with social justice (real people) and environmental activism (real matter).
I think being able to move intentionally between the two perspectives is the ideal. Britten moves back an forth between his worlds, but the transitions are involuntary, and he can’t tell which is which. This may be the definition of insanity. Ideally, one could move intentionally between the two modes of being, suspending disbelief while operating in the meaning-mode, while distinguishing fantasy from reality when operating in the reality-mode.
So are people who see fairies insane? Or are they poets? Both may see fairies (or angels or wha thave you), but distinguishes poets (and prophets) from madmen is this ability to move back and forth between the two modes of consciousness.
There’s a famous story about James Joyce, the author of Ulysses. Joyce had a daughter, Lucia, who was an artist herself, and Joyce said that she was the only person who really understood him. But Lucia was also mad. Joyce took Lucia to see the psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. After Jung’s session with Lucia, Joyce asked him, “Doctor Jung, have you noticed that my daughter seems to be submerged in the same waters as me?” Jung responded, “Yes, but where you swim, she drowns.”
The swimming metaphor is an apt one for religious experience as well. We need to be willing to plunge into the waters of religious experience, but we also need to be ability to swim to side and get out of the water when necessary. The plunging in corresponds with the meaning-focused mode of consciousness, while getting out of the water corresponds with the reality-focused mode of consciousness. I think the key to a healthy religious life is the ability to intentionally move back and forth between the two.
* He also considered the possibility that the author was lying. One of the people who responded suggested that the author might be lying as a way of “tricking” initiates into a mystical experience. That’s an interesting possibility, but I think it’s just another way of saying the person is speaking poetically. Wasn’t it Plato who said that all poets are liars?