One of the things that often frustrates me about some modern Pagans, or practitioners of various spiritual disciplines of witchever (yeah, intentional) kind is the move towards thoughtless hodge-podgery. Now, I don’t mean eclecticism–there’s nothing wrong with drawing on elements of different but related traditions. What I’m talking about is the thoughtless blending of anything that catches one’s eye.
Let’s use cooking as an example. I love a good steak. I also love my sister’s homemade strawberry freezer jam. But the two just don’t go together very well. And neither one has any business being paired with avocado paste (I’m sure someone will argue, so let’s just agree that you’re completely wrong and what the hell were your parents thinking and I’ll buy you that missing chromosome for your birthday and leave it there). Of course each is great on its own, and works well when combined with a plethora of other foodstuffs. But a little sense goes a long way towards pleasing one’s palate. Luckily, when it comes to food, we’ve all had enough trial and error throughout our lives to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. It’s not often that we all apply such sense to spiritual practices.
Even within spiritual traditions that, to the outsider, seem intrinsically related, this sort of thoughtless eclecticism can cause profound and far-reaching issues. In his article That’s the Way Indians Do It, Mi’kmaw author Daniel Crowfeather writes,
“Now, as these Nations try to reclaim their heritage, many are adopting ceremonies and practices that rightfully belong elsewhere. This can lead to further loss of their own culture, and to a great deal of confusion caused by potentially conflicting beliefs. As an example, there is a growing circle of Mi’kmaw people who have adopted the Sundance from the plains Nations. The Sundance was originally intended to honour the buffalo, which we have never had here in the Maritimes. Because the Sundance tradition is not strongly rooted in the Mi’kmaw culture, it is also being changed by the adoption: I have heard a Mi’kmaw Sundancer claim that nobody can become a Medicine Person for the Mi’kmaq unless they have completed a full commitment to the Sundance. Apparently the Mi’kmaq have been doing it wrong for over ten thousand years…In this case, the adoption of someone else’s tradition has created confusion and, worse yet, has created rifts between different segments of a Nation.”
To Crowfeather, and to the Mi’kmaw people, the introduction of a Plains First Nation ceremony has been incredibly problematic. Someone has tried to combine strawberry jam with couscous and the result has been stomach-turning. Rather than promote community, friendship, and togetherness, the Sundance has accomplished the opposite when introduced to another system; a system which does not possess the enabling conditions and internalized belief structure that make the ceremony so powerful and vital to the people from whom it originated.
It’s been said that one should master one spiritual system before one begins to learn another, and in my own experience this is true, which brings us to the idea I’m going to call the Magical Computer.
We might think of the human being as a computer (no quips about deus ex machina, please…it’s not as original as you think). And different computers have different internal architecture and different operating systems. Some operate on Windows while others use the iOS. Still, others operate on Android, Linux, Chrome, Blackberry, and so on. Each system has its merits and flaws, and each can accomplish similar things according to its own operational parameters. Spiritual systems are like this. For example, let us assume that Sufism is Windows (after all, Rumi wrote, “close the language door, and open Love’s window…” ha) and Wicca is iOS (because you can cut an Apple to find a pentacle). Both spiritual traditions can create ritual, just as both operating systems can create written documents. The end product (spiritual development) may be the same, but the underlying code and the way each functions is quite different, and they are frequently incompatible.
If we liken a spiritual practice to a program, not all practices work within the operative framework of all religious paths, just as a program designed for Windows won’t work on an Apple computer. Crowfeather’s comments, quoted above, demonstrate this. Praying, in Arabic, towards Mecca has meaning for a Muslim–an internalized, powerful significance–but what would be the point in, say, a Wiccan doing the same? And what good would it do a Muslim to pray to the Moon? It’s no different than hitting ctrl+alt+del on an iMac; those keystrokes have meaning to someone using a Windows computer (usually ‘goddammit, Gates, you prick!), but not to someone using iOS.
And therein lies the risk in spiritual hodge-podgery. Many modern books on spiritual development, magical systems and mysticism reference the subconscious mind, and it’s use of symbol systems to communicate with us (always, of course, important for those who are Jung at heart). We spend our lives programming imagery into our subconscious–we fill a symbol with a meaning that we internalize; these symbols can be (sub)cultural in origin, or spiritual, or come from a number of other sources. Once again, symbols mean different things to different operating systems; their meaning is not intrinsic. A crescent moon means one thing to a Wiccan and something different to a Muslim. Neither interpretation is wrong. Each is right within the context of its own underlying conceptual framework. If we’re constantly confusing the issue–which we do when we thoughtlessly cobble together Frankenstein spiritual systems (sort of a monster mash…no?), we, at best, stunt our own progress. After all, a dream about a snake has a very different meaning for an ophidiophobe than it does a person who absolutely adores all things serpentine, and cognitive dissonance is only valuable when it forces us to examine what’s causing it. A third degree with whom I’m acquainted works with an Afro-Caribbean goddess as well. He didn’t begin this practice until he had ‘mastered’ the Wiccan system, and even so, he wisely keeps the two practices separate.
In the end, a little thought and a little consideration regarding why we do something can go a long way, just as it does when we expand from why and ask should we? In the end, just as a computer of any type needs electricity, spiritual systems do all tend to agree with the motto of the Greek Mysteries–γνῶθι σεαυτόν. Know Thyself. The road to self-knowledge is the one we all walk when we wholeheartedly practice a spiritual system, and in the end that’s the goal we all seek, regardless of which type of computer we choose to frustrate us.
And if we’re not devoted to self-knowledge, well, really…why are we wasting our time?