Thoughts on discernment
Note: I will use the term god as a catch all for deity(ies)
Lately discernment has been a topic foremost in my mind. Have you guys ever seen this certain thing go down in kink communities, where everyone has a fetish but they’re all convinced people who don’t get off on the same things as them is nuts? Yeah, pagans and polytheists are really good at that too. But there is a point where we have to get serious with ourselves and realize when we’re normalizing–in the case of the kink example–something abusive, and there’s a point in our journeys with belief where we have to separate the gold from the dross.
I guess you could say I have some controversial beliefs myself. I think both recon and UPG are important, but I tend to value UPG above history, for example. At the same time, while I believe that popular renditions of gods can be an excellent stepping stone to a variety of faiths, I am very skeptical about a practice solely based around a popular interpretation of a god. I think animism is real and I believe in spiritual shapeshifting, but physical shifting is impossible. I think faith can be full of joy and wonder, but that it should be taken seriously. I don’t think it’s a fashionable coat you can put on and take off as it suits you. And so forth.
So when I encounter a new controversial thing, I tend to consume all the material I can find on it before I decide how I really feel. Some big names in polytheism have very controversial reputations, but I did my own research and a lot of those people wrote things that have spoken to me the most. Without that, I don’t think I could have fully understood certain divine experiences I was and am having. Maybe that’s the first step to discernment: do your own research!
Anyway, I am not really going to delve in to the particulars of what I have been exploring lately, but let’s say the response to this particular belief tends to be omg get counseling you fucking crazy schizo person! You’re ruining heathenry/polytheism/paganism and you hate puppies/kittens/sunshine/and joy! When outsiders get ahold of these things it tends to devolve in to “just kill yourself” very quickly.
So I guess this disjointed post is about how we decide what we’re experiencing is actually from the gods, and where do we draw the line when it comes to identities, interpretations of the gods, and so on.
One thing I want to get out of the way up front is that yes, I am schizoaffective. I have other disorders, but this is the one that obviously distorts my perception of reality the most. It’s also one of the big bad disorders that gets brought up (or more often its cousin schizophrenia) when people encounter a polytheistic/pagan belief that seems fringe to them. I think the most valuable thing I can contribute to the ongoing “how do we practice discernment?” debate is this perspective. I’ve also been sucked in to ‘religious’ situations in the past that weren’t healthy, and beliefs about myself that ultimately weren’t true.
How do we draw lines for ourselves, and how do we practice discernment, i.e. figuring out what is god and what is man?
1) Does the identity or spiritual message make you feel particularly special and unique?
2) Conversely, does it make you feel worthless, abused, or unworthy of love?
In short, does god seem to hold all the beliefs and perceptions you do? If so, you need to re-evaluate. This is not to say that god(s) aren’t ever going to hold similar beliefs to you. We attract the gods we need, or maybe the ones we deserve. It would be an exercise in frustration for a god to choose a mortal who held completely opposite notions (though I am sure it has happened). But when god reflects everything you think and believe perfectly…be careful. This kind of gets in to one of the big questions which is, if you have a delusional disorder how do you decide what is coming from god and what isn’t?
Personally, if I am off my meds, sick, or otherwise not at my best, I don’t go to the altar. This is because when I feel like this, the godphone turns in to something malicious. It is appropriated by my illness and I can’t puzzle out Their voices anymore. It’s better if I don’t try. There are also physical signs when a delusion is about to happen. I feel pressure on my head, almost exactly how the characters experience sanity loss in Call of Cthulu games! Things distort and take on malevolent qualities. The world tilts on its axis, maybe.
Of course, people who are skeptical about religion and spirituality in general will always see every experience I have as evidence of my delusions, and that’s fine. All I can tell you is that I am very well medicated and though all of my other delusions went in to remission (more or less), my belief in god(s) remained. For me, that is good enough.
3) Does the belief draw out, exacerbate, or otherwise support a harmful or negative part of yourself? Or, is the belief/identity more about controlling the people around you than it is about your inner spiritual wholeness?
By this I mean, if you have trouble with, say, social anxiety, is your belief that you’re some type of mythical creature (or whatever) something you’ve created so you don’t have to take on the world? Sometimes it’s easier to say “I’m X, you wouldn’t understand” than it is to say “I have social anxiety and I need to get professional help.” For people with genuine spiritual experiences who are also mentally ill, this process can be even more complex. Is there something missing within you? Are you hanging identities on yourself like ornaments in the hopes they will keep your self loathing or grief or whatever it is at bay? Or do you craft elaborate beliefs/identities so you can force other people to acknowledge them at every turn? Keep in mind I am NOT referring to things like asking people to adhere to your pronouns if you’re trans, but rather elaborate fringe beliefs that you have to constantly work in to every human interaction. If you’re actually suffering from narcissism or obsessive compulsive personality disorder I know you won’t be able to absorb this advice, but for those of you with FLEAS it hopefully helps.
It’s important to realize that fantasy is very attractive, and while we may experience fantasy quite strongly, it’s important to control it and not let it control you. Another aspect of this concept is whether the identity is grounded in something negative. I am skeptical of identities that orbit around those types of planets. I think this is why so often people say “I am not my disorder” when discussing cancer or other chronic illnesses. It is not always healthy to cling to identities that keep you from being as happy and healthy as possible. Investing too much of yourself in a maladaptive behavior is a good way to never change and grow, and I think being the best person possible is linked to changing and growing. This isn’t the same as having a realistic idea of what you can and can’t accomplish given the reality of your limitations.
Lastly, personality disorders can often hide in identities and beliefs considered to be fringe. This isn’t to necessarily say that everyone in a fringe community is measurably mentally ill or has a fractured personality. But just like kink can attract and protect rapists and other sex criminals, fringe beliefs often have a non-exclusionary ethos built in which can be exploited by toxic and sometimes downright dangerous people. As someone who had an entire community destroyed by just one of these people, it pays to be skeptical. I don’t walk around paranoid that everyone I meet is a serial killer or anything. I think most people in real life would describe me as at the very least polite and friendly. even to strangers. But I don’t trust people either, until they give me a good reason. Part of discernment is protecting yourself and drawing boundaries, with yourself, with other people, and yes, even with your gods (though that’s another post).
4) Is the belief based on a misconception, especially if that misconception is colonial or otherwise problematic in nature? Appropriating the transgender experience, the mental illness experience, racism, and so forth is not an okay thing to do, no matter your beliefs. Now before people get upset, no I don’t think worshipping the gods of a people you aren’t ethnically a part of is inherently appropriative in every scenario (which is ANOTHER post..I’ll get back to my racism series soon). I am a Kemetic and I am almost 100% Irish. While I do follow my people’s traditional religion–in particular worship of the Morrigan–that’s not the entirety of my path. But if you’re taking on oppressed identities without sharing in that oppression, you have a problem. Likewise I am all for UPG but if your belief is based on colonialist images, for example, it needs to be discarded. This is a good place to do research in to the history of whatever religion you adhere to, because research will help give your UPG the proper shape.
5) If someone else is telling you something about you, your identity, or your spiritual path, do they have an ulterior motive? This isn’t easy to spot, but I’ll go out on a limb and call it a huge problem. I think a lot of young women have experienced older male ‘elders’ willing to trade spiritual knowledge for sex, but it’s not just a problem between men and women. Be on the look out for people who want something from you. Note that this is not the same as fair payment for someone’s time, but be wary. Some of the cult like situations I found myself in were because the people operating within them wanted a new person to have sex with and then discard. When it became clear that I wouldn’t give in, I was dropped, ignored, and otherwise shunned. Up until that time they were going out of their way to tell me how spiritually important I was and how rare my identity was and blah blah blah, all forgotten when I wouldn’t open my legs.
Likewise, are these people operating under a delusion, and now the two of you have entered in to a shared delusion where you reinforce one another? This one is really tough because of course we sometimes experience similar spiritual things that are legitimate, or at the very least harmless. But sometimes, we get pulled in to another person’s fantasy world.
6) Are you in a place in your life where everything has gone to shit, and the people that make up a certain subculture, religion, or community of belief are the only ones offering you love and understanding? This one is insidious. And it’s not always bad, I hasten to add. Many times people have found religion, or the gods, or what have you at very dark times in their life. Coming from a shamanistic perspective, that can even be appropriate. For me one of the core concepts of shamanism is the shamanic death. I believe this death can be a literal medical reality, but it can also be the death of self, the death of one’s major support structures, and so forth, and at times when we are processing a death we often acquire a new life at the end. However, any time you put a wounded or lost energy out in to the world, predators will sense it and start to circle. Be wary of people who offer you too much too quickly.
tl;dr keep your wits about you and be painfully honest with yourself