The Most Common Question About Gnosis: “Is this real, or is it in my head?”
“I personally believe it’s all in your head– you just have no idea how big your head is.” — Lon Milo Duquette
Frequently, I hear people talking about these things as though, somehow, there was a hard line between messages from the divine, messages from the unconscious, and what we “figure” or reason, should be true. “I don’t know if what I’m experiencing is real or in my head. Am I making this up?”
I’d like to share with you some facts about human consciousness.
Hello, I am the rabbit, welcome to my rabbit hole.
“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” — Wayne W Dyer
Everything you remember, everything you think you are experiencing, is all being processed by your brain. We are not born with a complete and innate understanding of how to process that information. Indeed, as infants, it takes time for us to realize that the pink squirmy thing in our field of vision is our own hand. It takes time to recognize that objects can have permanency, that they continue to exist when they are not in view. We have to learn that a moving blotch of colors dancing across the glass is a “cartoon.” Our mind draws lines of meaning around what we have learned, over our lives, are the relevant bits. The rest, we have learned to filter out.
When we are learning to make sense of a particular type of information, we use “bottom up” processing. This means that we are taking the data, analyzing it without expectations, and making meaning based on the details. This process is more reliable, but it is slow. Once we have learned how to process that type of information, we use the same heuristic the next time around. We begin with an assumption about what sort of pattern the information will form, and file our experiences into that mold. We call this, “top down processing.” This is reliable enough, so long as we don’t mistakenly apply it to the wrong set of information, and it is much faster.
Mundane perception isn’t entirely accurate. Expectation and experience mix together in the cauldron of the mind, and what we think we see, taste, hear and feel is the result of that mixture.
Oh, but it gets worse.
Let’s Talk About Memory
“If we remembered everything we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing.” ~William James
When you recall a memory, you are actively reconstructing the past. By re-writing memories, we make them stronger, easier to recall, but also, we can introduce inaccuracies. It is, in fact, entirely possible to implant false memories. This is why eye witness testimony has over a dozen legally admissible causes for dismissal.
Memory, too, is mixed into the cauldron, along with expectations, values, beliefs, perceptions, imaginings, emotions and all else. What we remember is less a measure of what happened, and more an internal illustration of who we are as people: our biases, our fears, our society, our culture, and even our political views.
Now, let’s talk about Psychic Perception
“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” — C.S. Lewis
I’ve given you good reason to call your experience of mundane reality into question. So, you won’t think it insulting if I now proceed to call your psychic perception into question.
Psychic perception, like perception of every other kind, is organized by our minds. Our minds, as I’ve just painfully illustrated, are a bubbling cauldron of toil and trouble, filled with all of the above.
When the gods emerge from that cauldron, they are covered in a thin film of human madness. They must wait in line, behind the desires we will never admit we have, the truths about our lives that we can never accept, the terrors of a world that is far less orderly than we want it to be, and a mess of things which, true or false, we must believe or lose ourselves to emotional hysteria.
There are lots of things we can do to clean our cauldron, but if we know that we haven’t, then we at least need to give the gods time to make themselves properly heard. It is the unique talent of deities to inhabit human dreams, to marionette them, and eventually, to shake off the sludge we heap onto them.
Check-List For Divine Messages
- Does this message confirm what you already think?
- Does this message support your dislike of other people or groups?
- Does the message seem to focus on your gifts, and the short-comings of others? Or does it focus on short-comings in general?
- Is the message effectively contentless? (IE: “You already know what I mean” or “Follow your heart” or other platitudes)
- Does the character of the message seem to be surprising in light of the established mythology?
- Does it lack independently verifiable facts?
- Does the deity somehow seem limited by your knowledge? (Example: unable to recall basic facts of their own childhood, because you don’t know them.)
- Does the deity lack qualities that their mythology says they should have? Is Apollon being irrational? Dionysos, dogmatic? Hermes, inarticulate?
- Are the qualities that the deity lacks the same as the qualities which you lack?
- Is your deity always agreeing with you?
- Would the message, if revealed, make people feel more distant from the deity or less interested in their culture?
- Is it hurtful to someone (especially someone you are jealous of, or think poorly about), without actually being in any way helpful?
If you answered “yes,” to most of or all of these questions, it doesn’t mean that you are crazy, or that your deity isn’t actually there. It means you to seriously call the accuracy of what you are hearing/seeing into question. If you answered “yes,” to three or more, or especially if you answered “yes” to 11 or 12, take some time to think through what you are hearing, and perhaps ask for verification for a non-psychic sort of gnosis (like a bird omen at a pre-agreed on time) to make sure you heard them correctly.
Just like with the jelly-beans, you are taking your experience of the divine, and using your expectations of what should be there, what needs to be there, what you have to believe is there, to organize your perceptions.
You are using the basic empathic assumption, that everyone you know basically thinks and feels the same way you do, which is accurate enough to fill in a missed word or two when talking to a human in person, and applying it to deities, who fundamentally aren’t as similar to you as other humans are.
Don’t give up. Try again. Your deity is still talking, and the conversation isn’t over. Trust that when you can get out of your own way, that the gods can communicate with you, that it can be accurate, and that you can get more knowledge and wisdom from them than what you already have floating around in your head.
You need to take the time to do some bottom-up processing. That means throwing your heuristics out of the window, and sacrificing your expectations and beliefs so that you can see or hear more clearly. It also means that you need to admit that your perceptions, physical and psychic, aren’t as accurate as you’d like to think. This is why many cultures rely on an in-depth system of physical omens.
Cleaning Out The Cauldron
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” — Carl Jung
There is no short cut. If you want to have accurate psychic perception, you need to face your inner demons, confront your fears, acknowledge your forbidden desires (and then understand that they are forbidden for a reason, and come to peace with desiring and never having), own up to your bitterness, own your jealousy, and understand that your deity sees these things as faults that you have, and loves you anyway.
The following pieces of wisdom, however, can take away the sting, a little
- A deity’s love is not a zero-sum game. If a deity loves another person, it doesn’t mean that they love you less.
- Just because a deity loves someone you hate, doesn’t mean that they love the things that the person is doing to you. They want to help that person to stop hurting people, because it isn’t good for anyone.
- Just because you hurt someone doesn’t mean your deity hates you. Your deity loves you, and knows that you hurt yourself when you hurt others.
- If your deity doesn’t agree with you, it doesn’t mean that they are upset with you. Part of their job is helping you to learn. That means that they understand that you don’t always get things right.
- You don’t need to prove yourself to the gods. You just need to love them.
- If you deliver an inaccurate message, it isn’t the end of the world. If you mean well, and you are still trying, the deity will understand that. If you actually own up to your mistake, your god or goddess will give you mad credit. This is especially true of Greek deities, who love humility more than a fat kid loves cake.
- Different people have different gifts. Learning to accept that someone has talents that you don’t means that you can benefit from that talent. Don’t compare yourself to others, just give what you have.
- Success is not a zero-sum game, especially not in Paganism. The more successful Pagans there are, the stronger the whole movement will be.
“Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.” — Lao Tzu
“I personally believe it’s all in your head– you just have no idea how big your head is.” That’s a brilliant quote! I have said almost the same thing to people who want to talk about my weird, not fully-formed ideas about religion, without realizing I was practically quoting someone.
I know you wrote this a long time ago, but I was randomly poking through your archive and just came across it. I had to say that these are such fantastic points about how our minds actually work. Speaking as a working researcher in psychology (evolutionary psychology, specifically), you did a great job boiling down some of the most mind-blowingest things that psychologists generally agree on. Honestly, just telling people that what you experience as a memory (or even direct perception) is actually always being actively built by your mind, and should not be trusted as a veridical recording of what actually happened, is a public service. It certainly helps defuse arguments between me and my husband when we remind ourselves of that!
And of course, so, so important when we’re talking about perceptions of divinity. It’s so easy to slip into your own biases when there isn’t even another human you shared the experience with who can tell you your perception didn’t match theirs.
You might (or maybe not, in which case, sorry and ignore me) be interested to know that babies appear to actually come preprogrammed with quite a few assumptions about how the world works. Object permanence, it seems, is one of these assumptions. Rene Baillergeon has done some amazing work with very young infants to show that they actually do assume that objects continue to exist when they’re not in view. They still have to experiment to figure out a lot of specifics about their own bodies, though. This doesn’t touch your main points, of course. Just quibbles within psychology that demonstrate how very little we actually know