Seira, transformative experiences, and spiritual materialism

Several years ago, while reading Platonic works, I found myself wondering how I and another devotee of Apollon could have such divergent perspectives and how, both of us presumably having had some kind of experience at the root of that, such a divergence was possible. Later, and as a related question, I started encountering ambiguities in the way that seira were discussed in the texts, with almost a slippery attribution of various philosophers (like Proclus) to different deities and an unwillingness from others to answer. Recently, I started thinking about a third question: How do we separate the beauty and loveliness of a divine experience from the ego taking it on as something it may never have been intended to be? Finally, many of us feel close to specific deities for a time, where closeness is defined as seeing them as infinitely relatable and loveable, and after that appropriate time has “sunsetted,” for lack of a better term, we move on. Often, when I asked these questions, they were taken to be either referendums on transformative experiences themselves or my interlocutors seemed to lack interest in these questions at all.

We can view these questions as having two basic roots: how we relate to the Gods we are suspended from and the impact of embodiment, with all of its contexts and considerations, and how it places limits and provides opportunities for this expression in incarnated time.

Now it’s time for me to take a step back and talk about vocabulary. In Platonism as developed over millennia, one concept (especially in Proclus) is the divine hierarchy, with us (partial souls) at the bottom of that immortal divine participation (before we get into species, minerals, &c. that are sacred to one or more Gods). We are at the bottom because we are the soul that measures itself out in time and incarnates; unlike heroes, the level of soul above us, we can “dip down” into various types of nonrational lives, whereas heroes’ terminal “dipping point” is in species that reason and can do heavy intellectual work, like humans and many species of cetacean. Above heroes are daimones proper, which do not dip like that; above them are angels; and above them are the Gods. When we have any type of interaction in prayer, we are interacting with an intermediary of the God(s) we pray to. 

Every one of these intermediaries — and we can actually call this entire class daimones — is suspended from a specific God. It is inaccurate to think of this as a branching process because that introduces an artificial sense of spatiality and distance, but we can think of the God as the “trunk,” the angels as the primary “boughs,” and the various levels of daimones as the branches that we as leaves are suspended from. Each daimon has a cluster of souls beneath it, and our souls are included in that “suspended from a God” designation. Platonism is not the only tradition that holds to this idea. I have read about a slightly similar idea in some types of African religious thought, and especially one of the traditions that is a seed for African Diasporic faiths. There are likely some differences in how the metaphysics behind it is described, but otherwise, it’s very neat to see this concept present there, too. Anyway!

When it comes to us partial souls, we have a challenge brought about by our embodiment: our forgetfulness and our ability to be “caught up” in things related to specific incarnations or series of incarnations. In addition, we sometimes incarnate in a life-pattern that is related to our leader-God, and we sometimes incarnate in a life-pattern that is not. To further complicate things, each soul’s pattern of lives is unique, like a fingerprint, and its choices of like and unlike lives express something unique and precious. Some souls’ journeys express the beautiful tragic potentialities of their leader-God, or the violent and horrific ones, or the disappointed ones; others just skim the surface of generation, like an albatross diving quickly into the sea only to come back with serviceable nourishment. The story of Cassandra, for instance, is metaphorically about being given gifts and then turning away from a God who cannot be run from because he is already the core of her; there are just as many people given the same prophetic gifts and who are not believed, yet never turn from the source of their good. In this context, part of the maxim γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself) is to uncover this knowledge of who we truly are when we cast away all of those garments and to perform our role in the most just way possible. The role may not be an easy one regardless of how we make that approach.

We have a further complication. In the Symposium, Alcibiades describes Socrates as having a Dionysian (satyric) exterior and many Gods on the interior. In discussions of Socrates, some will link him to Apollon due to the role of the Delphic Oracle and Socrates’ life mission; others link him to Artemis due to his role as an intellectual midwife devoted to birthing good ideas from his interlocutors. Proclus embarked on his philosophical journey after a vision of Athene; Marinus describes him as Hermes’ person in the Life of Proclus. I felt so fond of Iamblichus after reading him, as if I were being spoken to by a dear teacher, that I looked up and saw his family’s connections to an indigenous Syrian solar God, Elagabalos. I thought it was charming and relatable given that Apollon has solar connections through his association with Helios; perhaps due to my strong feelings of warmth towards the philosopher, I had a dream that linked Iamblichus to Zeus, as if there were a “well actually” troll haunting my dreams.

This is the complication that often led, and leads, to “hmmm” or “well that’s interesting” or “no, definitely my interpretation” whenever I bring it up in polytheistic conversations. It’s obvious that seira means several different things, that its meaning is elastic and that we in our relative distance are ignorant of the source of this confusion. If we can have lives like and unlike our leader-God, if we can have lives in various levels of proximity with higher divine orders and lives and sequences of lives that are enacting every possible iteration and expression of that leader-God, we are yet again at the feet of the problems of one and many that are brought up in the Parmenides.

While praying recently, I had an intuition about this in the form of an image. In Greek vase art, there are often scenes of Gods pouring libations to other Gods; the Art of Libation in Classical Athens, a study of libations in art by Milette Gaifman, which brings together a wide variety of examples of this motif. I thought about that motif very suddenly and realized it directly addressed this thing I’ve been puzzling through. Water is a symbol of generation; in some sense, a God pouring a libation for another God, or doing sacrifice in general for another God, is a gift of participation in a portion of their divinity to another, mediated by this weird realm of generation where so many things are possible. In the Timaeus, our “bodies” are formed by the action of many younger Gods; while I know nothing of astrology, I know that it has traditionally been used to comment on Gods someone is connected to intrinsically and in one’s life, and every God is supposedly present somewhere in that chart. I’m not an astrologer, so I cannot comment on that.

We are each, at our core, a one, and the flower at the core of us is always connected to the God we are suspended from; we are, at our periphery, dazzled by and participating in the amalgam of divine delights, a reflection in water of the feast that the Gods share in the Phaedrus. This is the mystery at the core of having compassion for others, even when you are at war with them or peeved by their decisions, and it is also the core of our own inner steadiness and connection to the Gods.

In generation, the beautiful divine patterns — each driven by a specific God — freeze out. Like a frustrated spin glass, there is no configuration of the whole system that can be metastable permanently. (Proclus describes this frustration in his essay on evils, albeit in a different way.) These conditions, and these phases of imperfect stability, evolve with time. We are locked in one position only to shift to another. We have that stability of who we are, but also that instability inherent in this environment. Some types of closeness with a God or Gods are driven by where we are in our life or lives; others are metastable over long periods; and only one relationship is absolutely intrinsic.

Close your eyes, find that stillness, and the God who is intrinsic to you is there. It is not something available to the privileged few, but directly accessible to all. Every human soul, and I do mean each and every one of us, is a prayer continuously without you even realizing it, just as a heliotrope follows the sun.

We can add so much insecurity to this innate wonder of existence. We can also fall prey to our egos, propping up specific fragmentary experiences above the experience’s actual worth. How many people have had a vision of a deity and propped themselves up as a New Age cult leader? How many have had a delusion, or the triggering of a psychological episode in need of treatment, that never gets treated because it is mistaken for something divine? How many have laminated and displayed a transformative spiritual experience in a way that has made them miserable due to their reliance on it as a cultic object instead of taking it for the transient beauty it truly was? They could have instead focused on the God! How many have mistaken a divine gift of insight into their own nature, a sacred unveiling of their soul through the power of the God’s providential love, for being chosen by either the God at their core or the God ruling their present life or a God of affinity? How many have used personal experiences like this to engage in appropriation, spiritual materialism, and spiritual bypassing that take the wonder of what happened and turn it into something awful?

This is where we get into that third question about how we go wrong — and in fact, the third question is the final one I am answering, as the fourth question was sort of embedded in what I just discussed above. I know that the questions I asked in the previous paragraph make people uncomfortable. Some of you are thinking, “Is she talking about me?” while others are thinking, “Is this about plastic shamans or those people selling ayahuasca trips to rich people?” and this is not productive for our conversation. Therefore, I will use myself as an example. 

The quotations below come from Chögyam Trongpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, specifically the essay called “Spiritual Materialism.”

It does not matter what we use to achieve self-justification: the wisdom of sacred books, diagrams or charts, mathematical calculations, esoteric formulae, fundamentalist religion, depth psychology, or any other mechanism. Whenever we begin to evaluate, deciding that we should or should not do this or that, then we have already associated our practice or our knowledge with categories, one pitted against the other, and that is spiritual materialism, the false spirituality of our spiritual adviser. Whenever we have a dualistic notion such as, “I am doing this because I want to achieve a particular state of consciousness, a particular state of being,” then automatically we separate ourselves from the reality of what we are.

When I started to focus on the Hellenic Gods, it was after a dark period in my young adulthood. I was 20 and had been having night panics about mortality again, which I hadn’t had since I was 8 and learned that the Sun would go nova and swallow the Earth. I read Sallust at that time and joined some listservs. Sallust was mind-awakening. Another experience I had was, in the dark of winter, feeling like I was being held, that a God was looking out for me. The night panics stopped, and things started to get better. 

Simultaneously, I started acculturating myself into the Hellenism(os) (which is an inappropriate term, given that I’m not Greek or Hellenized, but I didn’t know that at the time)/Hellenic Polytheism listservs. There, I learned that the Rules were that I could only worship Hellenic Gods because to do anything else was impure, and I learned that the fact I grew up in Wicca-informed Neopaganism could get me slandered and banned because people really, really hated Wicca. So I shunned Wiccan-style rituals and stopped worshipping non-Hellenic Gods who I had worshipped since childhood. I always had this severe anxiety hanging over me every time I participated in rituals done by my mom’s coven, as if somehow, someone would find out. I paid more attention to these arbitrary rules that were set down by well-meaning former Christians who still had a lot to work through, who thought about things in terms of religious purity and labels, not in terms of what we were there to do — worship the Gods.

We believe that we have accumulated a hoard of knowledge. And yet, having gone through all this, there is still something to give up. It is extremely mysterious! How could this happen? Impossible! But unfortunately it is so. Our vast collections of knowledge and experience are just part of ego’s display, part of the grandiose quality of ego. We display them to the world and, in so doing, reassure ourselves that we exist, safe and secure, as “spiritual” people.But we have simply created a shop, an antique shop. We could be specializing in Oriental antiques or medieval Christian antiques or antiques from some other civilization or time, but we are, nonetheless, running a shop. Before we filled our shop with so many things the room was beautiful: whitewashed walls and a very simple floor with a bright lamp burning in the ceiling. There was one object of art in the middle of the room, and it was beautiful. Everyone who came appreciated its beauty, including ourselves.But we were not satisfied and we thought, “Since this one object makes my room so beautiful, if I get more antiques, my room will be even more beautiful.” So we began to collect, and the end result was chaos.

While “acculturating” to American worship of Greek Gods in its dominant form in the US at the time (appropriated Hellenismos), I joined an organization because I grew up pagan and knew that having legal evidence for one’s beliefs was important without looking closely at its tenets and, truthfully, being woefully underinformed every time I voted in anything. It wasn’t until I started to get more engaged that I realized it wasn’t a great fit. Here ends that example.

I tacked on so much to those initial experiences. While an important lesson, and definitely one that has enriched my understanding of current controversies among worshippers of Hellenic Gods, the approach I used was tainted by spiritual materialism. How different would things have been had I done the same research and the same work with an open mind? Had I trusted my gut instincts about people and organizations and the overall approach we were using? Why did it take me until I was 32 to start moving beyond that “antique shop” and more towards what was there before “we filled our shop with so many things,” when “the room was beautiful” and simple? 

Things started changing when I cracked open Plato. While it does risk being an accumulation of a hoard of knowledge, and many people do lose sight of the landscape for the individual trees, I have thankfully benefited from conversations and nudges from a variety of people, including those who encouraged me to consider each dialogue and text as a living organism that I was having a conversation with. I have also benefited from hard reflections on what I’m reading, gradually assessing uncouth beliefs to uncover what makes the most sense. This leads me to a second example.

I had a mind-bending religious experience while reading Hermias’ On the Phaedrus in translation in 2019. Over the past week and a half, reading Chögyam Trongpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is, honest-to-Gods, the first time I have found any helpful writing for processing it. Most of us are left rootless and alone when stuff happens to us because we lack the structure of a real religious community. It’s no wonder that so many of us struggle to reintegrate what happened into our daily lives.

Thankfully, I did not interpret that transformative event as any kind of chosenness (although I might have been vulnerable to that mindset had I been a decade younger). The experience was definitely only relevant to me! I interpreted it as a sign to dig into books, study up, and do something beautiful. Like a supernova, I knew the aftereffects of what had happened would dim after a few weeks or months; I determined that I would take advantage of the lingering internal fire to go fast and hard for as long as I could. I did various meditation things and contemplative exercises that all went spectacularly. Some of it seeded poems or essays. It was truly beautiful and divine. I associated, and still associate, this experience with Apollon.

The afterglow abruptly ended when I acquired a set of prayer beads for Apollon from one of the online Etsy shops, an accumulation of routine and an expression of excess that left less room for contemplation. Despite all of the theological arguments for having symbols, using chants, and praying with agalmata, there is definitely a line between what is essential and what is overmuch. 

In order to develop an appreciation of your collection you have to start with one item. One has to find a stepping-stone, a source of inspiration. Perhaps you would not have to go through the rest of the items in your collection if you studied just one piece of material. That one piece of material could be a signpost that you managed to confiscate in New York City, it could be as insignificant as that. But one must start with one thing, see its simplicity, the rugged quality of this piece of junk or this beautiful antique. If we could manage to start with just one thing, then that would be the equivalent of having one object in an empty room. I think it is a question of finding a stepping-stone. Because we have so many possessions in our collection, a large part of the problem is that we do not know where to begin. One has to allow one’s instinct to determine which will be the first thing to pick up.

I didn’t realize that that was what had happened until I started reading the book about spiritual materialism. It shone a light on the simplicity I had sacrificed for excess and the ways in which, even working on aspects of our “statues” (referring to cultivating virtue/arete, referencing Plotinus), we can let other things slide and fall vulnerable to the same acquisitive, materialistic impulses. The Late Platonists, while they are notoriously slandered in academic circles for their rituals and religious engagement, emphasize not coming to the Gods in a divided manner, and I now understand that divided manner to be (at least partially) related to these materialistic excesses. 

I still use those prayer beads sometimes. More often, I speak the prayer I created from the heart or chant bios bios apollon apollon helios helios kosmos kosmos phos phos while holding the agalma of the black hole’s glowing event horizon in my mind. Things are improving now that I am working to identify the essentials from the extraneous accumulations. Knowing how to apply what Chögyam Trungpa said to my own situation required having the knowledge I have built from the Platonic teachings, and it is an example of how we can receive the most precious advice from the most unexpected places. 

The other advice he gave was to avoid gripping experiences. 

Much like how the God is at the core of each of us regardless of how much we are forgetful of their presence, when we grip the memory of an experience too much, and when we focus on mind-blowing ecstasies at the expense of treating our every moment as a quiet unfolding (even the bitter and bad moments), we make that experience vulnerable to exploitation by our egos. 

In the Platonic system, this is also where vulnerability to material daimones (which you should definitely not read in a negative “must exorcise” way; instead think of material daimones as programmatic routines that you can unintentionally get in the way of) and fate can come into play. It is where we must be attentive to the stages of the virtues where we are active — civic, cathartic, contemplative, paradigmatic, hieratic. (I am at the civic and cathartic stages and would not dare claim that I have mastered the cathartic ones fully.) In our decentralized modern American polytheisms, we have another vulnerability — our tendency to subconsciously look to evangelical Christianity (like the cringeworthy Jim Bakker show; I recommend the Vic Berger YouTube compilation) and model how we process experiences off of that. 

We can encounter truth in dreams. We can experience the beauty of a God in contemplation and struggle to express what we intuited in the poetry we write afterward. However, veering towards that “God has anointed me” mindset present in those American Christian sects, or conversely veering too much toward “wow, look at my brain doing its neurotransmitter cascades” present in evangelical atheism, do not do these experiences any service. 

Whatever insights we stumble upon in contemplation or prayer, we must not grip them. We must allow the libation to pour out and detach ourselves from the outcome as much as we can. Pleasures and pains rivet us to the body. The desire to be liked, and the desire to fit in, is a horrifically powerful human instinct. We are not all Socrates. Some libations water the ground at our feet, others the ground of our specific community. Very rarely could a libation have a broad impact. Only so many babies’ mouths are filled with honey.

This post began with posing some questions, and it ended talking about spiritual experiences. I used myself as an example with these. Hopefully, it contributed to conversations about divine seira and experiences in a productive way. Never stop working on your statue.

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