The Process of Belief

I want to believe


“The process of belief is an elixir when you’re weak;
I must confess, at times, I indulge it on the sneak…”
-Bad Religion, “Materialist”

Given where I currently stand and where I see myself going, editing and re-posting the Hekate Phosphoros series was a gutsy decision.

I’d had enough doubts about their publication the first and second times around, and when rebooting this blog, I was very tempted to skip over them, double-check to make sure the blog where I first posted them was shut down, and hope to hell that their appearance in Isis-Seshat didn’t reach too many readers. Ultimately, I decided there was nothing to be gained by attempting to hide from what I’d written so publicly; that is the coward’s way out. To bury my head in the sand would be to repeat the mistake I’d made when I first wrote the series, and there is no growth in that. There is a lot of growth, however, in reconciling past actions (the ones we’re proud of as well as the ones we’re not so proud of) with who we are at present–extra credit for working in who we’d like to become.

The 800-lb. gorilla in the room, for me, is the fact that I was basically telling the world, “Here, this is what a goddess told me. Take it or leave it.” There are two problems with this:

1.    The claim of divine revelation and the beliefs necessarily undergirding that
2.    That such a stance amounts to a rejection of responsibility for something I wrote for a public audience

Honestly, at the time the inspirations took place, I was operating under the belief that Hekate, the real goddess, had sent them—in retrospect, the only thing I can say for certain is that I had the subjective perception that Hekate had sent them (which can be very effective magically, where things only need be “real enough” to do the trick). What took place in my mind was different from contemplating or reasoning my way to certain conclusions; the content was not the product of my rational, conscious self. It all came from outside of that in an intuitive flash, and guess what? That happens to people all the time. It happens to devotees of all faiths, and it happens to hardcore atheists. Flashes like this are responsible for some insane and destructive events, even as they are responsible for some of the world’s greatest scientific breakthroughs.

It all came in Hekate’s voice, her image dominating my mind’s eye—but what does that prove? The human mind is amazing, and we are only taking our first, shaky strides toward understanding it.

Why does it matter? In the grand scheme of things (at least in this case), it probably doesn’t. The thing is, if I hold that Hekate herself spoke to me, then I’m making the implied assertion that other Hekate devotees should pay attention, and I don’t think those messages are necessarily relevant to them. I don’t speak for them, and I certainly don’t want to. If anyone listens, despite the fact that I specifically stated that I make no claim as to the absolute truth value of the messages, it may be just because they trust me when I say Hekate was talking to me. That’s called Appeal to Authority, which is a fallacy, and it doesn’t sit well with me.

I’m sharing all of this because I’m feeling like this is one of the things I would like this blog to be about: Exploration of themes related to magic and mysticism in a more general sense, but specifically, my experiences with them, high and low points included. I see a lot of writing out there with positive advice about what practitioners should do, or accounts of interesting and arguably “successful” workings. When discussing missteps that one might take, it seems like authors like to speak in generalities. I want to explore missteps with a personal touch, which I think will make them more relatable. I don’t just want to write another “how to” blog or my own particular formulation of concepts and techniques on an impersonal level. Rather, I want to address some of the daunting challenges I’ve encountered when it comes to integrating magic and esoteric studies with my day-to-day life. That’s my coyote/Fool mojo at its best: Shamelessly being an ass every now and then, with the hopeful result that someone can learn something from my mistake (or at least be entertained).

When it comes to magic, belief is a tricky beast. I’m not saying it’s bad; magic could be described as the art of kidding oneself skillfully, so hard that something ends up “sticking” to objective reality. That being so, it’s inevitable that we will kid ourselves unskillfully along the way. Denying it when it happens will only bring stagnation.

Beliefs have consequences. They aren’t always troublesome for those around us, or even particularly harmful to the person who holds them. What they frequently are, however, is a very effective crutch—a way to sidestep some inner obstacle or friction. This isn’t the most pernicious thing in the world, mind you. Like physical crutches, some people need them. Some need them for a while, and others will need them for the rest of their lives. For those who need them, crutches are facilitative, expanding their options (some people are more confident or take more risks, on the basis of belief, that they may not otherwise take; sometimes, it works out for them). For those who don’t really need them, however, they are nothing but a hindrance. Would you walk around on crutches if your legs and back were in good working order?

Unlike with physical crutches, however, it’s not always obvious when beliefs are hindering. They may seem helpful at best, or neutral at worst, and that’s fine for people who have no interest in working towards mastery. If you’ve got beliefs, they aren’t causing you or anyone else any problems, and you don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything by maintaining them, then gods bless. This wasn’t written for you, and I have nothing against you; I’ve believed some pretty crazy shit in my day. I’m just thankful to have recognized it and gotten past most of it. Had I been satisfied with some of my beliefs in the past, I would have been the textbook example of a hopeless magical failure. Instead, I’m a magician who fucks up a lot, owns it, and keeps reaching. I am The Sorcerer’s Apprentice who will not quit. The day my training ends is the day I die.

Admittedly, I am like Fox Mulder: I want to believe. Contrary to the opening quote of this post, I’m not a materialist. I’ve been one in the past—more than once—and I can correlate my bouts of materialism with bouts of severe depression and disillusionment. Spending time focusing on a materialist perspective is a valuable way of grounding and hitting the “reset button” when belief has carried one a bit too far astray, and it has saved me from going off the deep end, but it isn’t my prevailing cosmological model. I prefer a more tempered view.

I can even cop to the root of my desire to believe: When I was a little kid, I used to lie awake at night trembling at the prospect of dying. I couldn’t get my head around simply ceasing to be one day, and it terrified me. Beyond that, I’ve derived a lot of personal meaning from a world view that includes a spiritual side. Once upon a time, I could not experience life as meaningful otherwise. This is something I am slowly transforming, and harsh honesty with myself is how I’m chipping away at such a limiting value system. I am coming around to the view that if life isn’t meaningful on its own terms, I’ve got some issues to work out.

It’s important to understand the general themes underlying one’s beliefs. If, like me, you want to believe, but value truth more, you’ve got to keep awareness of your desire front and center, or you will fall victim to confirmation bias. It may not seem like a big deal if you have wacked-out religious beliefs as long as you aren’t hurting anyone, but the problem is that those beliefs easily translate into erroneous beliefs about yourself, your life, and the other people in it, and those are the main beliefs from which you act every day. It can be surprising what your beliefs come to govern for you in life, instead of you governing your beliefs.

Confirmation bias, like a drug, can start out small and casual and quickly snowball into a habit that routinely overwhelms your ability to put in check. You remember every sign, omen or instance of dumb luck that supports the view you began with, and dismiss, forget or downright deny the times you were flat-out wrong. Before long, you’re living in your own reality bubble with no sufficient way of limiting how much it differs from consensus reality (which many magicians pooh-pooh, forgetting that it is the very reality we do magic to influence in the first place). It’s an easy step from this to bona fide superstition. This is an extremely disempowering way to live, most especially because you will likely feel more powerful than you actually are.

The dynamics behind disempowering beliefs are much easier to see when it comes to specific beliefs, and this is where I swing the narrative back to the realm of deities. Taking faith in deities as a given, there are a number of associated beliefs that usually go along with it:

1.    Deities are completely superhuman—superior or more enlightened than human beings in every way.
2.    Deities are responsible to and are looking out for you (this, too, is often the root for belief in deities as absolute: the need to feel that someone greater than yourself has your back. We project parental roles onto them that they may not particularly care for even if they are real).
3.    Deities are older than humanity – making them our “elders,” who know what’s best for us—and should therefore be obeyed by default.
I shouldn’t have to point out how scary the above is in the case of a person who is delusional, but it may be even scarier in the case of a person who is merely self-deluded. The latter will have rationalized a great deal of their behavior and experiences, sometimes with very intricately-woven lines of faulty and convoluted reasoning that is a pain in the ass to disentangle. Often, that intricacy is the linchpin—so complex that people simply tire of bothering to follow it at all. This is bad if you’re caught up in it, because they won’t be able to help get you out. Good luck.

The major feature that I retain from my days as a Theosophist is conviction in the Theosophical Society’s Second Object: To encourage the comparative study of religion, science and philosophy. Until I was taught better, that was the very essence of Theosophy to me. It points to what I have long held to be the only way to approach belief soundly: You don’t just grab assorted notions willy-nilly and run with them if you want them to really work for you. Many people come easily enough to the conclusion that science must temper belief. Unfortunately, comparatively few people consider tying it all together with philosophy: Logic, ontology, ethics, metaphysics, and perhaps most importantly, epistemology. How do you know what you know (or believe you know)? Unfortunately, without the crucial link of philosophy, it is entirely possible to hold contradictory beliefs supported by a less-than-solid linking of known facts. A lot of superficial, inchoate, new-agey BS comes about in just this way, and it sells a lot of books and tapes to uncritical hordes of people who ultimately just want to feel better about you-name-it, or everything. It lends itself to glib platitudes, so Facebook is never in short supply of it.

The world is full of Bible-thumping Christians who believe God is on their side, and maybe even has a mission for them. Some consider themselves to be one of God’s chosen on any number of random grounds supported in the world’s best-selling book. Most people who aren’t them, among them New Agers and Pagans, look at them as kooks.

Meanwhile, New Agers meditate for messages from Ascended Masters, who fulfill all of the qualifications listed above with regards to deities, and believe themselves to be closer to the mark because their beliefs are more compassionate, less bigoted, and hold fewer contradictions. In a sense, they’re right, but in another sense, save for the differences of specific belief, they are doing the same thing as the Christians to whom they feel superior.

I’m sorry to say, the same holds true for Pagans, including the Pagan me who wrote the Hekate Phosphoros series.

The one saving grace I will offer is that the whole time, I also held in reserve the recognition that I might be totally wrong, or that my inspiration just might have been a flash of run-of-the-mill intuition that took the form of Hekate so I’d effing listen to it. This did not stop me from conducting my life for a number of years as if my belief were true, so in the end, it’s a wash. When all was said and done, I found myself in a position where only the most desperate of rationalizations could even begin to exonerate what I had duped myself into.

So was it Hekate? I’ll be honest, I don’t know. More importantly, however, I don’t need to know. This is why I am always reticent to share things like this. The message is meaningful to me regardless of the source, and I will continue to say it was “Hekate” talking to me (because subjectively, it was, and it’s just easier that way) while keeping in focus the possibility that it could have been my Higher Self, or my unconscious mind. Here we can see that it’s not necessarily belief itself that causes problems, but attachment to beliefs definitely does. Having examined the contents critically, I think there are some valuable insights there, and I hope someone gets something out of them.

Just don’t believe them, okay?

Having smashed the platform upon which the Phosphoros series stood, my next post will jerk you around by presenting one of the stories that prompts me to give Hekate’s voice and activity in my life as much credit as I do…

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