Discernment, or, Delusions (and How to Avoid Them)
It’s one of the most difficult things about being a pagan in the modern world. Many of us are on paths that are not only based upon but require personal experiences with the Divine (as opposed to traditions who have impersonal Gods with orthodoxic theologies) or the metaphysical. Indeed, my primary tradition, Wicca, is more concerned about experiences than it is with beliefs. It is, indeed, an experiential religion that focuses on interactions, feelings, and observations; beliefs, theology, and doctrines are secondary.
But how do I know if my experiences are authentic interactions with the Divine and the metaphysical and not the product of wishful-thinking? How do I discern if I’m having genuine communion with the Divine or metaphysical or if I’m just fooling myself with self-delusions? I have an informal syllogism based on a few key criteria I use to help me make that determination.
1. Lore and Myth
Is what I experienced consistent with lore or myth?
While Wicca is not a religion of the book or an orthodoxy, and belief (lore and myth being codified beliefs) is secondary to experience, lore and myth can provide insight into the history of similar experiences of others across history. Lore and myth also act as a sort of “historical record” of Divinity or the metaphysical and how it existed, interacted, or expressed itself through time. Is this how this God typically acts? Is this how this God has historically interacted? While certainly lore and myth are not infallible and the Divine/metaphysical is not necessarily immutable or changeless, it is a good starting point for analysis. After all, it forces me to check my ego and guard myself against Special Snowflake Syndrome by asking myself, “Why would the Divine/metaphysical be different for me?”
If my experience meets the expectations set by myth and lore, then I can feel confident that it my experience can be determined to be as genuine as any experience with the Divine/metaphysical can be confirmed to be. If it fails to meet the expectations of myth and lore, then I have further analysis to do.
2. Peer Consensus
Have others experienced what I have?
While I feel that Wicca is certainly an religion of personal experience, it is also one of group experiences as well. Self-exploration and meditation go hand-in-hand with group-exploration and contemplation. If I worship and work with a certain set of Gods and others work with Them, too, it is not unreasonable to imagine that we would have shared experiences. Indeed, communion and interaction with the Divine/metaphysical being so subjective, one of the best ways to filter your idiosyncratic internal influences from the objective reality of your experience would be check it against those who also work with this particular manifestation of the Divine/metaphysical.
If my experience is corroborated by those of my peers and by myth and lore, then I assume that it was an actual experience with the Divine/metaphysical. (Again, as far as one could reason in such unquantifiable matters.) If they do not, then I can apply one further measure in this litmus test.
3. Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG)
Does the experience match up with my existing cache of UPG?
Now, UPG is a topic that deserves its own post and we won’t get to it for quite some time (U being so low in the alphabet). So, for the sake of this post, we will skip the discussion of which and how beliefs go enter the corpus of one’s UPG. So, the final consideration, to confirm whether an experience with the Divine or metaphysical reality or event did in fact occur would be assess if the event matches up with one’s previous experiences. For many of us, this is where some of the most profound things rest, but we must, in my opinion, be very cautious about how liberal we are with using this criterion as it’s also one of the most credibly tenuous.
If the experience matches up with the body of beliefs that is my UPG, then I can, at least for the moment, regard it as an honest and genuine experience and not a self-indulgent fantasy. If it doesn’t live up to my own UPG, then I begin to work on figuring out what internal issues needs to be addressed (e.g., What self-indulgent need did this experience validate? What internal motive would cause me to create an experience whole-cloth? Etc.)
So, that’s my own personal Bullshit Test. What’s yours?