In the core practices of the Starry Bull tradition course I teach we deal a lot with spiritual discernment, which is a topic of such importance that I’ve shared some of that material over at the Bakcheion. One of the students taking the course asked some really good questions, beginning with how does one practice διακρίσεις or discernment when they are suffering an episode of mental or emotional instability.
Step One: Self-evaluate. What’s going on, how bad is the episode, does it respond to the treatments laid out here, how is it impairing your mental and other faculties, can you talk it through with a friend, colleague or trusted elder or do you need the kind of assistance that only a competent professional can provide, etc. Along with self-evaluation should come self-care. It’s okay to put things aside until you’re able to deal with them again later. That doesn’t always work – sometimes shit just keeps happening, whether we want it to or are capable of handling it – but know it’s at least something you can try, and that doesn’t make you less of a devotee, spirit-worker, etc. It takes more time and more effort to come back from a break, so don’t be irresponsible and bootstrap it when you know you shouldn’t.
Step Two: If this situation is not at a crisis level but is still affecting your perception and ability to function, begin by writing everything down. Just because you’re having an episode does not mean that everything you’re experiencing is automatically the product of delusion. On the other hand, you can’t be certain that it isn’t, either. So don’t make any rash decisions or take immediate action based on what you’ve received. Instead, come back and analyze the material once you feel more stable. Does it still make sense or does it read like the ravings of a lunatic? More importantly, of what use is this information? If it has the potential to alter your understanding of the Gods and Spirits and how you relate to and worship them or is deeply personal, then keep pursuing your line of inquiry; if not then either discard it or file it away for future reference, as it may end up making more sense down the line.
Step Three: At this point, you have several options open to you. You may choose as many as are helpful and execute them in whatever order suits you, or not.
- Pray for guidance, instruction, discernment and any other spiritual gifts that will help you navigate this uncertain terrain. While you may get a direct response from them it is best merely to ask for assistance and confirmation going forward, as your signal clarity could have become compromised.
- Hit the books. See if you can find corroboration in the lore, academic literature or the writings of contemporary practitioners. Some of the bizarrest stuff I’ve encountered while working with altered states or while suffering from a manic episode has turned out to be a strain of tradition I simply had not been aware of previously. A lot of information can be found online, but tread carefully as most of it is utter crap. Now, just because something appears in a book or on a website does not make it true; likewise, plenty of true things have never been written down. All that this material can do is provide you a glimpse into other people’s experiences and insights. Sometimes there’s convergence; plenty of times there is not. Also keep in mind that experiences with Gods and Spirits are always idiosyncratic; two people may go through the same thing but describe it very differently.
- Talk with friends, other people who are doing similar work, or a religious specialist whose opinion you trust. See if they have had similar experiences, if they have suggestions for further research, if they can recommend other people you can talk to and if they have any thoughts on what’s happening or how you should proceed. Now, depending on your relationship with and level of trust and respect for this person you will know how much weight to give their suggestions. That’s all this should be – it still falls to you to decide whether you accept what happened or not, and to act upon it. If everyone is telling you it sounds like bullshit, that’s definitely something to pay attention to – but on the other hand they may not have the first clue what they’re talking about. All this and the previous line of inquiry can do is suggest; you still must decide for yourself.
- Divine divine divine. Because of your closeness to the situation, you may want to have a trusted diviner read for you in addition to whatever divination you perform. Different traditions have different protocols on this, but I tend to hire three diviners and then compare the results from each reading. No matter how bizarre your experience, if all three come back positive it’s a pretty good indication that this is a legit thing. Keep in mind that this is very different from shopping around your questions until you get an answer you want and I strongly advise you to only provide the absolutely necessary information and keep back some significant piece as a means of verification. Of course, just because that piece doesn’t come up in the reading does not necessarily render it invalid: often the Gods and Spirits will only provide answers about what you asked (and how you asked it) which is why you must choose your words carefully.
- Ask for a sign. Something specific enough that you can be relatively certain when you see it, but also open enough that you do not strain their ability to act. For instance, you may ask for a clear message or kledone or that a certain symbol appear three times. Set a reasonable timeframe, and then pay attention because signs often come to us in unexpected ways and unconventional forms. If you receive your sign make a generous offering to the God or Spirit since they’ve gone out of their way to assuage your doubt. If no sign appears then that means no sign appeared. It probably also means that you were wrong but that cannot be inferred just from this. Sometimes a sign doesn’t appear because you need to do this without knowing, trusting in their guidance.
She also asked what one should do when they were reasonably certain about a divinity’s identity but what they’re receiving doesn’t really line up with what others get.
Well, I add that to the list of evidence that I am compiling and continue with my inquiry.
All by itself the fact that your experience does not line up with the experiences of others is of limited significance. There are plenty of perfectly valid explanations for why this might be:
- You are encountering a distinct, localized expression of the divinity.
- Either your encounter with the divinity was not as deep as theirs or it was much deeper.
- The divinity may be showing you a different side of itself because each person will have different needs, degrees of intimacy or roles to perform.
- Either you or they may be encountering an entity which is masquerading as the divinity. This can either be because that entity is part of the divinity’s train or retinue and thus partakes of their nature, because it is malign and trying to deceive you or because the divinity and the entity have made a prior arrangement and there’s some reason why it must engage with you in this form. Or your brain is just reading them as X because of their closeness to the divinity and no deception was intended on their part.
- Others may be wrong, delusional or lying. Conversely, this may be true of you whether you realize it or not.
But it is something to pay attention to, especially if your experience not only doesn’t conform to the experiences of the majority of the divinity’s devotees, but also does not reflect what is commonly known of this divinity’s personality, attributes, powers and domains, as well as what may be found in the lore and academic literature on them. All of these, individually, may not hold much weight but taken together they provide a pretty solid argument that what you’re encountering may not be what it seems. Now, again, you may just be dealing with a different form of them, but it should give you cause for reflection, to say nothing of divination and other external methods of corroboration.
If everything points to them really being them, and they seem okay with it, then just start dealing with them in this particular form. Figure out what their preferences are, if there are specific rites that need to be performed or taboos observed and go about building up a devotional relationship with them as you would any new divinity you happened to meet. You may or may not maintain separate cultus for this divinity under their more conventional form.
One of the things you’ll need to decide is how much you share with others, particularly when they deal with a radically different form of the divinity. Specifically, what do you get out of sharing; how does the other party benefit from the sharing and is it something they can actually do something with or will it be purely theoretical for them; how likely are they to respond negatively to this information; what can you lose by sharing it; is it the proper time and space to share such information; how does the divinity feel about you sharing what is likely very personal and intimate; and are there specific protocols associated with its sharing?
Finally, she asked how we can avoid letting preconceptions about a divinity limit our interactions with them.
The simple answer is seek them in their fullness, without distinction or judgment. But simple is not always easy, especially when you don’t know how to do the thing.
So begin by asking yourself:
- What preconceptions do I have?
- How did I arrive at them?
- Is there any basis in reality or are they shaped entirely of supposition, fear and uncertainty?
- Why do I hold onto them?
- In what ways do they influence me, even if on an unconscious level?
- What would it mean to lay them aside?
- Specifically, how would laying them aside change how I understand and interact with this entity?
- What would laying them aside even look like?
- What would I replace them with?
Sit with these questions for as long as you need to. Spend time actively reflecting on them as well as letting your brain mull them over while you go about your day. If it helps, try writing out your answers stream-of-consciousness style in addition to taking notes. Once you have answers, go back through and feel out what it would be like if your answers were completely different. Then actually try doing it. It’s going to feel weird, artificial, awkward at first. How can you consciously change your thoughts or alter your emotions? If you are determined enough you can do anything. In the early stages you may want to tie a string around your finger or wrist as a mnemonic aid, and when you notice it reinforce your change of mind and behavior. (Remember – the brain doesn’t hear “no” so frame it as a positive.) You may find yourself falling back into old patterns of thought or encountering mental blocks you had dissolved already. Keep going. With time and practice, it’ll feel more natural to you and you may only need to do it long enough to facilitate some kind of personal breakthrough in your relationship with the divinity. Alternately you may want to ritualize the process by tearing up, cleansing or burning cards representing your preconceptions so that they will no longer have any power over you.