All over the globe we modern people are facing a crisis of community. With the invention of the internet (virtual relationship) and with the effects of globalization, people are less connected to their local community and neighbors than in any time in history. People regularly feel alone, vulnerable, marginalized. I saw a stat that made my head spin. Here in the States when people were asked, “how many people can you ask for help from in a crisis?” More than 40% of respondents replied, “0-1”. That is terrifying. Now think about an indigenous tribe living in the Amazon, let’s say there are 400 people in the community. If you asked anyone of them, how many people they can rely on in a crisis, they would most likely respond, 399 (actually they would probably say “many” or “all” as some people in the Amazon only have three numbers, “One, Two, and Many”). Here in our modern Western societies, we may be surrounded by literally millions of people, yet we are often completely alone, ignored, friendless, homeless. How did this disconnection come to be?
The answer to this is too long to address appropriately, but it is the result of civilization and agriculture. When we stopped gathering from the land and began to plow it, we stopped a dynamic of relationship of being an equal interdependent part of the landscape, to one of boundaries and ownership. This shift from hunter/gatherer to agriculture was so profound, it changed the very nature of our human interactions with each other, our tribe and with the landscape. And as such, it radically shifted the nature of our religious ideals and the religious practices that grow out of those ideals.
Let’s explore these two topics, ideals and practices.
The differences in religious ideals between hunter/gatherer societies and agrarian societies have been well documented by anthropologists. It is the difference between the shamanic and the revealed, between direct communion with the spirit world and that of the priestly caste. We see a shift from seeing all of Nature as sacred, to one where Nature is viewed as a resource, something that can be owned, used, traded, and sold. One religion teaches total engagement with Nature, with the spirit world ever-present and living. The other teaches the Earth is under the dominion of humans and the physical world is debased, sinful, fallen, and we leave it to the Devil when we die and go to paradise (somewhere not of this Earth). What does it say of a religion that teaches we leave the Earth (our Mother and source of all we are and know) when we die? The earlier religions teach we go back into Nature, we become part of the landscape, part of the spirit world which is ever-present. We join our ancestors, which are always with us, helping us, guiding us. The revealed religions have set doctrines that we receive from the authority of the priestly class. It is the church and priests that teach us how we are supposed to live. Shamanic religions teach that our ethics come from direct experience of the Divine in Nature and strive to bring the individual and the community back into right relationship with the natural world, the seen and the unseen. This divide is huge. One listens to and engages with the spirits of place, the other accepts the teachings of the revealed religions. And yes, I realize my writing here is simplistic and without nuance.
The second thing that shifted dramatically is the very nature of the religious practices. The hunter/gatherer societies see religious ecstasy as a normal essential part of daily life. People seeing spirits, hearing voices, having visions, these are not ‘abnormal’. They are gifts from the gods, from the spirit world, from the ancestors. It is considered “abnormal” not to have these experiences. In the revealed religions, these are considered heretical, reserved for the priest, or all to frequently today, as psychosis that needs to be treated and drugged. In indigenous religions, the tribe regularly seeks ecstasy together. Religious practices are designed to bring ecstasy to everyone, not just to the priest. This is a defining difference between hunter/gatherer societies and that of agrarian societies. Once a society shifts from foraging with perhaps a little horticulture, to farming and herding, communities no longer share the trance experience. They no longer have shared vision and ecstasy. And these are the ties that bind. Without shared vision, shared ecstatic experience, without trancing together, people no longer feel that sense of oneness with the tribe. People begin to feel alone, separate, without place, and without purpose. These things simply do not exist in societies that regularly share collective trance experiences.
Think what exile meant to our ancestors. It was basically a death sentence – worse than death, as everything one knew and did was in relationship to the greater community. Exile wasn’t just taking one’s life but taking away one’s way of life, one sense of self which was tied to the vision of the tribe as whole. Today we are willing to cast off whole sections of our communities that can’t manage to function well in our modern capitalist system. We exile people who don’t even have an offense against the tribe. We simply let them go because they aren’t needed or can’t keep up with the rest of us as we work our jobs and exploit the environment to have a lifestyle that even ancient kings couldn’t have dreamed of. This dynamic of modern life is a complete and utter failure. It is unhealthy for us and it will eventually come crashing down around us. We either create communities that are inclusive, where everyone has a place, or we will sow chaos and endless destruction.
The divide in religious practices of hunter/gather societies and agrarian societies is a big topic and there have been huge amounts of research on this. What I want put out there is this. We as humans crave community. We are tribal creatures at heart. We crave ecstasy (I believe the lack of ecstasy is the source of drug and alcohol addiction). We need ecstasy to feel whole, to be connected, to be integrated. Those of us in the pagan community, let’s build ritual opportunities for sharing trance together as a community. This is the reason I crafted (with the help of others) the Weaving ritual. It is call the Weaving – a Pagan Rite of Vision. This is a ritual that is focused on the community sharing trance and reaching for a vision together, not for the individual, but for the whole tribe. Anyone interested in hosting this ritual in your own community, please let me know. I don’t ‘own’ this ritual. And without the ritual being exercised and experienced by others, it ceases to exist.
Is this rite enough? Certainly not, but it is a start. Sharing trance (dance, music, art, etc), along with gifting circles, permaculture, cooperatives, and local economies can begin to help us have healthy communities where half of us are not exiled via economic exploitation, or simply ignored and marginalized. Trance and ecstatic religious experience is the key. Without sharing religious ecstasy, we will never have whole communities, feel connected, integrated, belonging, knowing we have a place in the world. Without everyone feeling connected and integrated into Nature, we will always see the human as above and outside of Nature. And this is the very source of our unhappiness and the ecological devastation and desecration we see around the globe.
One final note about trance and ecstasy, there is no doctrine here. These things move beyond the revealed and into direct communion. This dynamic cannot be owned. So each person’s experience is valid, equal and needed. Let me close with this, communities that trance together, stay together. Those that do not, inevitably fall apart. Ecstasy it the tie that binds.
Blessings of ecstasy and integration,