Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Prelude--"The Great Awakening"

While the earliest part of the 19th century is generally characterized as a period specifically rife with religious revivals and experimentation, truthfully it is difficult to find any period in history where folks haven't tried to modernize a religion or bring practices into accord with a newly invented (or rediscovered) yearning for an idealized past. As the westward expansion of the United States got underway, it should be remembered that none of these "new" lands were blank canvasses. To the contrary, these regions had permanent inhabitants who effectively lacked political rights. Native peoples were oftentimes resettled (The Cherokee were moved from Tennessee to Oklahoma) or as in the case of California during the Gold rush, became non-entities because they were perceived as an obstacle keeping miners from their gold fields. Some of these tribes were moved to lands deemed worthless due to the presence of smelly black substances oozing from the ground or yellow rocks that fogged photographic film.

This transition from the untamed wilderness of the Pilgrims (itself an interesting cultural construct) happened so fast and so thoroughly from the perspective of Western history that it is easy to not notice that North America had and has any number of sub-cultures existing alongside the one true and catholic vision of reality that CNN, Fox News and others reassuringly display sanctify and invoke 24/7. These sub cultures are regional and participatory in nature.

A slower and quieter approach is needed to find these Other Americas. There are sweat lodges and vision quests regularly held a few hundred feet from Interstate Highway 10 in west Texas with ceremonies conducted in Spanish and Nahautl. Not everyone in the Duwammish region of West Seattle has forgotten the Rock Too Terrible to View, and Thunderbirds still dance in the summer sky over the Great Plains, revealing themselves to those brave or foolish enough to visit them. There are shrines to Saints hidden in the desert of New Mexico, and Inuit traders still follow the routes from Siberia to Alaska, bringing trade goods and stories, just as their ancestors have done for countless thousands of years. These lands do not speak with a single voice, nor are these voices necessarily in English. As North Americans, our crops, festival traditions and language in America have been informed by these peoples, and it does not serve anyone well to forget that.

As is generally true, regions perceived as frontiers are occupied by people thrown out of more "civilized" society. The Clearances in Scotland would produce any number of sandy-haired Lakota speaking, kilt wearing Scots/Lakota cowboys who lived between their two cultures.
There are many, many places where the land has not been forgotten, nor has the land forgotten its children, but these realms cannot be found from an airliner or through traveling down a highway at 70 miles per hour. To borrow a phrase from an Anglican chaplain I know, these are "the thin places" known in other times and places variously as faerie, the lands of the small folk, the first folk, and by many other names.

Following the model that Brandy Williams articulated for the Seattle Pagan Scholars community ( almost a decade ago, here is my self-disclosure on this topic:

Any occultist who claims to not have an agenda probably can't have a pulse either. Look for the guy behind the visage of the "Great and Terrible Oz" in these instances. I don't know if I believe in spirits, but treating them as if they are at least partially external and real results in a shorter and simpler chain of logic than asserting their non-existence.

I have post traumatic stress disorder, courtesy of the NSA. The process of dreaming brings with it the risk of nightmares. Not all of my dreams are terrors, though that is true for the vast majority of them. Many evenings I cannot go to sleep until the sun comes up for fear of what sleep brings. Of those relatively harmless dreams I do have, most of them consist of the normal flotsam and jetsam of the day's happenings leavened with absurdities. Yet there are others...

The dream comes sharp and crisp as the salt spray of the cold Pacific ocean. I breathe, open my eyes, and find myself in the City, the real Seattle.

I've walked its cobbled brick streets for almost two decades now. The city is built on the edge of a desert, a place where the Great Northern Forest of conifers stretches from Mexico to Alaska and converges with two rivers that flow to the Sea. The City rests comfortably in this spot and has been here always in Forever Years.

My oak floored, glass-enclosed second story loft has a view of both rivers and the market, a place where Gods and spirit beings shop for food and exchange stories. There's a visiting spirit from the great plains standing on a corner, dancing and singing to a music that carries the message of thunder beings from far away. Next to him Fox woman minds her children as they wait for a bus to take them home. Past the row of neat "Painted Lady" Victorian houses on my block stands a community theater, owned and operated by an extended family of ritual magicians who have married lodge magic with English drama. My computer, a 2001 Amiga Deskpro's screen glows faintly as I pause to make breakfast for the day.

I'd thought that this place was a fairly private manifestation until I met others who have inhabited the same place. Imagine my shock at finding a Pioneer Square comic book artist who draws this creation that I inhabit but did not invent.

The real Seattle isn't the only place in this realm--I've visited the etheric double of Chicago where a ceremonial magician I know tends to the needs of the Dead in the labyrinthine mausoleum complex that lies at the heart of that metropolis. And there's another person I know whose close spirit companion inhabits a flat in ethereal Atlantic City.

What are all of these places, and how do they relate to esoteric practice? I have no firm idea, save that they exist and exert influence on those of us who wander through them. The phrase that has come to mind is the notion of "an ecology of spirits". One of the great breakthroughs of 19th century New Thought and Spiritualism is the concept that the complexities of the webs of life are in some fashion mirrored in the more subtle realms. I have no clue as to their ultimate origin. Spiritualists that I know assert it is simply enough to know that the spirit realm is tangible, and all other speculations are best saved for after hours discussions with bread, cheese and a bottle of wine gracing the table. From my experiences the inhabitants of the subtle realms are as varied as slime molds, willow trees and elephants.

But back to the Great Awakening of the early 19th century. I'm not sure how many of my readers are familiar with tent style revival meetings. They are much less common now than thirty years ago. For many participants these are visceral, gut wrenching encounters with some of the scariest, most repressed and most hoped for experiences imaginable. And there's almost always a sensual undertone that many people experience as a sort of sexual awakening to their concept of God. Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggert are cousins after all, and the energies of Elvis and Fabian performing in person caused thousands of otherwise perfectly healthy teenage girls to writhe in spasms of ecstasy that equal anything that Teresa of Avila or a Python priestess in classical Greece could have described. And folks in the heartland of early and mid 19th century America were getting salvation on a regular basis. (As for me, my Mennonite grandfather revival-proofed me before the age of eight, and I find Tridentine masses to be more meaningful than the tent based church services.)

The preachers of the 19th century were as adept at manipulating these emotional interactions as any Roman general leading troops into battle. Out of this stream of revival events the seeds of the Noyes' Oneida Colony and the Church of Latter Day Saints were planted, fertilized and harvested. Joseph Smith was one of many folks who were puzzled by the origin of Native Americans. Could they be descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel? Did they leave a cache of golden treasures somewhere nearby, and was he enough of a diviner to find it? What Smith produced was an amazing myth that was strong enough to get folks to move from relatively civilized regions to a desert and build a nation.

So why did spiritualism take the Anglo portions of North America by storm? Forensic sociology is a wide open field, and anyone can play. I suspect that the desire for a personal experience of divinity coupled with populist sentiments was enough to launch and sustain the movement. From my perspective it is a mistake to view the popularity of spiritualism as something that was inevitable, it was simply one of any number of possibilities in the astral gene pool.

The defining moment in Spiritualism as seen by historians was the sequence of events that began with the Fox sisters on March 31st in 1848, just outside of Rochester New York. The three sisters claimed to have heard an insistent rapping that was not explicable, and further, the entity responded when addressed as "Mr. Splitfoot". Said entity described his life before death, resulting in the excavation of a basement. Current opinions on this matter seem to fall into one of two camps with some shades of grey between them.

The noise was either made by one of the girls cracking the joints of her foot or hand, or a differently embodied person was talking to the sisters from beyond the grave.

Modern day spiritualists I've spoken to have proposed a third alternative--why not hold seances and determine for yourself the truth of the claim that spirits can manifest or communicate with the living?

There are three classic phases to a seance (meaning "to sit" in French). The first stage is referred to as "holding the Silence". This is the basic underlying state of consciousness common to most esoteric workings in the over-subcultural Anglo esotericists, the remaining stages being "Concentration" and finally "Meditation".

Considerable differences of opinion exist as to the best means of attaining the Silence. The recitation of a prayer by the group or the singing of a hymn often precedes the working. Flowers and live plants seem to positively influence the spirits, and Subdued lighting is considered beneficial as well. The method I recommend is to consciously listen to the tides of blood and breath and attentively wait for the quiet places between breaths that can allow for manifestation of the Silence. Sit comfortably upright in a favorite chair or couch. Some modern spiritualists use recorded music as an aid to the Silence. Experiment and see what works for you.

The first few dozen or so times it is likely that you'll encounter your own inner chattering rather than an express message from inhabitants of the hollow earth or Zeta Reticulans who have chosen you as their spokesperson. It is possibly a good idea to hold off for a while on writing that multi-volume book series that explains the deep structure of the universe.

The women's movement and the anti-slavery movement were nurtured by spiritualists who tended to view equal rights as a logical consequence of their world view. The foremothers of the Physical Culture movement were involved in spiritualism, magnetic healing and kindred fields up to their eyeballs as well.

"Other Powers" by Barbara Goldsmith is an excellent in depth presentation of the interplay of these social movements, and I highly recommend this book.

Next time--"Gooey Things II" and the arts of storytelling.

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