Category Archives: Rituals

Syntheistic rituals

Atheos and the art of introspection

Don't forget to breathe

Don’t forget to breathe

“Focus attention on the feeling inside you. Know that it is the pain-body. Accept that it is there. Don’t think about it – don’t let the feeling turn into thinking. Don’t judge or analyze. Don’t make an identity for yourself out of it. Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you. Become aware not only of the emotional pain but also of “the one who observes,” the silent watcher. This is the power of the Now, the power of your own conscious presence. Then see what happens.”

― Eckhart Tolle (the power of Now)

Introspection

All religions have identified the need to artificially introduce introspection into our lives. Modern man has a way of keeping the mind busy. Either working toward a goal or distracting ourselves, to take our mind off all our hard work and other worries. When we’re not doing either of these we too often feel stressed, as if we’re wasting time. All religions seem to agree that we all need to take time out of our busy schedules regularly to stop and think. To explore our minds to see whether we are in fact headed in the right direction in life. If the goals we have set for ourselves are the correct or worthwhile goals. Or just to let feelings stirred up throughout our day sink in and get processed. Introspection, contemplation, prayer, meditation, reflection and self-examination are all names of the same or very similar activities. The oh-so-popular-of-late Mindfullness probably belongs in this category as well.

“If you do not know to which port you are sailing, no wind is favourable.”

/Seneca the younger (Stoic philosopher)

I’ve identified two general themes of religious introspection. One is directed introspection; the practitioner is asked to meditate on specific topics, or ask certain questions. The other is to calm one’s mind and open it to whatever thoughts pop up and refrain from judging. The expressed goal of the second is often to be able to clear one’s mind entirely of thoughts.

Directed introspection

The Zoroastrian credo can be summed up as right thoughts lead to right words, lead to right actions. Much of the Zoroastrian scriptures are composed in verse and in the form of a mantra. Mantras are insightful thoughts; thoughts for reflection, contemplation and meditation on the universe, personal spiritual growth, introspection and commitment to the principles of the faith, as well as formulation of one’s personal goals. Here is a Zoroastrian morning meditation.

I pray for the entire creation,

And for the generation which is now alive

And for that which is just coming into life

And for that which shall come thereafter.

I pray for that sanctity which leads to well-being

Which has long afforded shelter

Which goes on hand in hand with it

Which joins it in its walk

And of itself becoming its close companion as it delivers forth its bidding,

Bearing every form of healing virtue which comes to us.

And so may we be blessed with the greatest, and the best,

And most beautiful benefits of sanctity;

Aidun bad – so may it be.

/Avesta, Yasna 52.1-3

Yoga is another form(s) of directed introspection. This will be an extremely condensed introduction. Originally Yoga was a collection of meditative techniques within Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism intended to help the practitioner (yogi) attain Enlightenment. But now in the modern world it is very popular primarily as an exercise technique. Yoga operates on the assumption that the mind and body are connected. To relax the mind, the body needs to be in “harmony” and “balance”. For example, anxiety and negative thoughts often lead to shoulders being pulled forward and up, as well as a general collapse of the bodies posture. This is bad for all manner of things, especially circulation and just keeping the brain oxygenated. The reverse can also be true. An unfit body can lead to soreness and ache, which in turn leads to negative thoughts. The idea is to work on creating a posture and muscularity of a happy and healthy person with the hope of the mind following and leading to a person who is actually happy and healthy. Mind and body in connection.

There is a vast variety of ways to practice yoga, but a general theme is that the physical exercise forms of Yoga places emphasis on keeping one’s mind focused on one’s body and on how muscles and bone interact in physically taxing positions.. Partly to block unwanted thoughts, and partly to increase the stretch. In all Yoga one of the most important factors often missed when looking at it at a glance is the great stress on the controlled and slow Yoga-breathing. When oxygen is constricted in the way it is in Yoga it acts to calm the mind of the practitioner further allowing them to “be in the moment”.

Christian prayers are also directed meditation, and places great focus on letting go of the ego (which is good) by completely focusing on Jesus and God (which I fail to see would in any way is beneficial to the practitioner or anybody). But just because I don’t understand something doesn’t make it wrong.

Now and again the Catholic Pope makes decrees. They come in the form of letters to the bishops. In 1989 the “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of Christian meditation” was distributed. It warns against New Age practices which they say risk “degenerating into self-absorption” or “into a cult of the body”. It also warns that if “euphoric states” are attained this is not proper Catholic meditation. I tried my best to find some positive take-away from this. Here is the complete text if you wish to give it a shot.

The Trappist monk Michael Keating has created a system of meditation he calls Centering Prayer which is liberally based on the Catholic system and borrows heavily from Transcendental mediation. Here he describes it.

The Thinker, Rodin

The Thinker, Rodin

Free-floating introspection

Buddhist meditation is the other type of meditation aimed at clearing the mind of thought. The trick to them is to allow thoughts come crowding in and resist to urge to act on them or flee from them. Just let them wash over you. Open up your heart and feel them, but only observe. Just let them swirl around and hover in your mind. We (humans) have very well developed methods of self-deceit and self-denial. We are good at finding ways to avoid having to look at ourselves critically. We’re good at finding ways to mentally flee. The goal of this meditation is to stop fleeing. To accept yourself.

A simple guide to Buddhist meditation:

1. Find something soft to sit on.

2. Find a reasonably quiet room or outdoor space.

3. Sit comfortably. Preferably with a straight back. But if that is too taxing, feel free to slump forward. The point is physical comfort without allowing you to fall asleep. We’re aiming for relaxed yet focused.

4. Let your hands rest one in the other on your lap, palms facing upwards, or place your hands palm up on your knees with your thumb touching your second finger.

5. Close your eyes and start to count your breaths. Count on each breath in…breath one, breath two, breath three… Try to breath deeply and slowly. Relax your face and jaw. Relax your hands. When you get to ten, start again at one. If you miss ten and find yourself at 12 or 13, don’t worry; just go back to one. With each breath out, feel your tension going out as well.

6. When thoughts come into your mind, try not to follow them. Just identify them and let them go. The same with sounds and sensations. “I just thought about my car” “That was a dog barking” “I am hungry”. If you simply identify thoughts and distractions and don’t follow them or focus on them, they will begin to just pass by you.

7. End the meditation by beginning to move slowly. Open your eyes slowly, let your hands fall to your sides, stretch your toes, feet and legs.Come to your feet slowly. If you immediately hop into full-on action you’ll most likely lose the benefits.

8, Initially it is recommended to meditate limited periods, and then gradually extend the periods. 10 minutes is plenty when you’re starting out. The key to success is doing it regularly. It’s hard. If you push yourself too early you’re likely to kill the fun and you’re not as likely to find it as beneficial in the long run.

Science

Not only are there spiritual benefits of meditation. There are immediate and measurable gains from it. Here’s a study (done in April 2013) on the efficacy of meditation immediately preceding attending a lecture. There are no surprises here. Meditating students retain more information and score higher on tests. Here’s a similar study on yoga that reaches the same conclusion.

Here is a general summary of what science has to say about meditation. There’s a whole host of positive effects and no negative effects. It can help everything from PTSD to heart conditions to insomnia to CD4 cell counts of AIDS patients to just plain old stress management. No surprises there. So get on your knees and pray sisters and brothers. According to the science, what is of less consequence is to what you pray.

MIndfullness is so popular today that I won’t waste time describing it. There are many places to check it out. Here for example. What is relvant it that it has been proven to help all manner of mental and mood problems, like depression and anxiety. It also makes us more attentive. Which should be a pretty obvious gain. I think it is still worth noting.

 

References

Meditating Before Lecture Leads to Better Grades

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12671-013-0199-5

Same goes for yoga

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130605190552.htm

The science on meditation

http://transformationalchange.pbworks.com/f/Health%2BBenefits%2Bof%2BMeditation.pdf

http://www.jpsychores.com/article/S0022-3999(01)00261-6/abstract

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031938400003863

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289601000708

Science on Mindfullness

http://www.gwern.net/docs/dnb/2010-zeidan.pdf

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20462570?dopt=Citation

Yoga breathing

http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/Breathing.html

Zoroastrianism

http://www.heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/worship/healingprayer.htm

Guides to Buddhist meditation:

http://www.how-to-meditate.org

Catholic directed introspection.

http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19891015_meditazione-cristiana_en.html

The Trappist monk Michael Keating’s Centered Meditation. Link

 

Athea

The child god depicted nude, standing in a languid pose with his weight on his right leg, the left bent at the knee, the left arm bent and held out to support a fruit-laden cornucopia entwined with a snake, the right arm bent acutely with the hand toward his face, the forefinger extended toward his lips in characteristic fashion, his head turned to the side, his hair centrally parted, adorned with the plaited side lock of youth and surmounted by a hedjet-crown fronted by a Uraeus, atop the original headdress-like socle.

Harpocrates, Greek god of silence and secrecy

“I don’t think…” then you shouldn’t talk, said the Hatter.” 
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Trees are barren. Birds have flown south. Wings of insects long frozen. Crunching snow below your feet breaks the silence. When stopping to look around, to see if you are still headed in the right direction, silence.

We are now transitioning into Athea, one of the four main Syntheist festivals. We have named the period between the winter solstice and spring equinox Atheos. Atheos is the empty god. The god of nothingness. The god of not existing. The god of silence. Surely a god worthy of worship for an atheist.

We focus on darkness, moderation, introspection, solitude, stillness and emptiness.

Athea, winter solstice

All religions place emphasis on introspection, to regularly still one’s mind and explore what thoughts intrude. To force oneself to confront fears and admit our weaknesses. To resist the urge to occupy our minds with trivialities. A requirement for introspection is to have a space made available to us with few distractions. Temples have always been islands of calm in hectic cities devotees (or anybody off the street) can sit and collect their thoughts.

When was the last time you took some time out of your day to stop and reflect on your life or just observe what is around you? 

Some religious devotees go one step further. The God of Silence, worshipped in silence, is a deity that has turned up in many forms widely worshipped in many cultures, for a variety of reasons. Unlike other adherents, however, those specifically following the God of Silence in its various aspects have most often been mystery cults, and therefore didn’t write anything down. We’ve had to construct them based on odd scraps found in historical texts or simply based on guesswork from archaeological digs and artefacts. Here are a few we can let ourselves be inspired by for this season:

– Sige is the goddess of silence for the Gnostics. Pagan theology has a way of letting metaphor and reality blend and mix seamlessly. Sige is the mother of Sophia, the goddess of wisdom. Sophia is locked in an eternal struggle against the Demiurge of ignorance. It’s weapon to spread ignorance is the constant babble of nonsense. Ignorance is seen as a of force of nature that constantly needs to be pushed back, or it’ll over-run us completely. There are no preserved temples to Sige. We have no surviving idols or depictions. It wasn’t until 1945 and we unearthed the Nag Hammadi cache that we got an insight into this lost cult. We know very little about her worship in practce. But we do know that devotees stayed silent and were tasked with “confronting themselves”.

– Meretseger is the Egyptian (Kemetic) goddess of silence, vengeance as well as forgiveness. She was tasked with protecting the tombs of the kings. She had major festivals to her honour and a large dedicated temple complex in Thebes. We don’t know the practicalities of how she was worshipped other than that sacrifices was made to her. During festivals she was believed to inhabit her idol and if you would admit to your sins and repent in her presence she could grant you forgiveness. Since she had the head of a cobra and was to protect the tombs she presumably bit any tomb-robbers in the face? We really don’t know.

– The Greeks worshiped a god of silence and secrecy named Harpocrates. We know nothing of it’s worship today. To our knowledge there were no temples solely dedicated to Harpocrates. But his statue is very common in the temple of other gods. We have no idea what the significance might be. Apart from his image, all we know is that he’s the Greek God of Silence and secrecy. The rest is a well kept secret indeed.

During the Italian Renaissance ideas began to spread that there was some sort ancient pagan knowledge suppressed by the early Christian church that would explain some powerful ultimate universal truth of reality beyond that of what they were told by their priests. What this knowledge could be or what it would be for, or why it was a threat to the church is unclear. Secret societies were formed where these ideas were discussed. Harpocrates became the symbol for this entire movement. The members considered themselves very much Christian.

For reasons only Aleistar Crowley himself can answer, (presumably in a seance) Harpocrates also came to prominence in his movement Golden Dawn, the Thelema movement (that sprung from it) and modern occultism. Harpocrates came to symbolise “the Higher Self” and even “the god who is the cause of all generation, of all nature, and of all the powers of the elements’ and as such he ‘precedes’ all things and comprehends all things in himself”. Perhaps because these were inherently mysterious? The Sign of Silence was performed at the end of rituals to symbolise this mystery. Even though modern occultists often like to think their rituals involving Harpocrates are ancient, these should be seen as wholly modern inventions. I think it should be clear by now what Syntheists think about newly invented religions.

Aleister Crowley and the Sign of Silence (also known as Sign of Harpocrates.

Aleister Crowley making the Sign of Silence

–  The Norse god of silence, Víðarr. This is also the Norse god of vengeance. Which might explain the need for discretion since it’s never wise to announce these kinds of plans in advance. The reason given for Víðarr’s silence is that he was so focused when he killed the Fenris wolf that he was unable to speak. Either way, he was worshipped in silence. At his festivals followers would assemble and say nothing.

– Atri, technically NOT a god of silence. Rather the opposite. He is the vedic god of saving us from silence. During an eclipse Hindus were forbidden to speak. A demon had swallowed the sun. In order not to distract the demon-slayer, Atri, it was important to stay silent. Since he was worshipped in silence I think Atri qualifies for this list.

– Angerona is a Roman goddess of Silence. Appropriately for us today, she had a major annual festival on the winter solstice (they called Divalia) where her idol (with mouth bandaged over) would be placed on one of the gates leading into Rome. In the presence of her idol it was forbidden to express anguish or unhappiness. Which isn’t silence as such, but this was still her name. During this festival the ban covered all of Rome. People were then only allowed to say pleasant things to one another. She was the god who relieved men from pain and sorrow and could in certain circumstances also be the god of fulfilled desire. During this festival sacrifices were also made to Volupta, the goddess of sensual pleasure. Which I guess is the opposite of calm introspection. But who said religion always has to be serious and sombre?

– The Lord of Infinite Stillness (Silence) is believed to exist within and/or govern silence and is called on by Buddhist and Hindu adherents to assist in meditation.

– Quakers. A significant part of Quaker mass is to be spent in silence contemplating. Sometimes a Quaker mass is simply an hour of sitting in silence.They take utmost care not to disturb one another during this time.

– the Unnamed (or Unknown) God, aka Silence Incarnate. This cult is briefly mentioned by Paul in Acts 17:22-31. To its devotees it was considered the most powerful of gods, has no designated gender or personified characteristics aside from what the observer gives to it. Apart from it’s mention in the Bible this cult is lost to history.

Angerona, Roman godess of silence

Angerona, Roman godess of silence

As an ending note I should add that all religions condemn cruel gossip, obscene jests at an other’s expense, idle talk, and overly personal and curious prying. They condemn these for all the obvious reasons. It’s all about inflating one’s ego or aiming to damage another’s. Neither will aid you in connecting with those around you. Silence is always to be preferred to these.

References

Gods of silence

Sige, Harpocrates, Modern Harpocrates Thelema Crowley’s ritual of the pentagramVíðarr, Atri, Angerona, Quakers, The Unknown God

Disclaimer

The ritual and practice described in this text is only a suggestion. There is no wrong way to do Syntheism. If you don’t like our festivals, gods, the way we use them or the names we have for them…. feel free to invent your own.

 

Synthea

“The falling leaves drift by my window

The falling leaves of red and gold

I see your lips the summer kisses

The sunburned hands I used to hold

 

Since you went away the days grow long

And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song

But I miss you most of all my darling

When autumn leaves start to fall”

/Jacques Prévert

 

Coping with great loss

The heat of the summer nights are fading. Coats are clenched to the body. The pensive beauty of autumn is here. Any stable state will eventually change. At some point bliss will end. Such is the nature of existence. Any outlook denying that the good times will end will assuredly be a fearful life. Learning to accept, endure and overcome our inevitable losses and failures are lessons we all will learn, sooner or later. Sooner is better.

We are now transitioning into Synthea, one of the four main Syntheist festivals. We have named the period between the autumn equinox and winter solstice Syntheos. It is from Synthesis, the Greek word for “bringing together”. Undoubtedly the greatest asset of any religious community has always been in times of personal crisis, helping us deal with loss, being there for us when we need it the most.

This season we will focus on endings, death, transformation, change and ridding oneself of the old and redundant

Synthea, autumn equinox

Philosophy and science teaches us that the world we have in our minds, our memories, are all symbolic representations in the brain. This is undoubtedly true. So why does if feel differently being in the moment, than having had it pass? What is the difference between a cool breeze on our faces a hot summer’s day and our memory of it? What about an imaginary breeze? What is the difference between a the memory of a friend alive or dead? What is the difference between an imaginary friend and a real friend?

I write this text moments after having learned of the death of a friend. I’m now a whirl of conflicting emotions and my conclusion is that none of my understanding of the nature of the world matters. A heart in pain doesn’t care about the philosophical implications or what science tells us is natural or normal. It doesn’t care whether it makes sense to feel hurt. All it requires is human contact and comfort. To find the warm and caring eyes of compassion. A place to feel safe.

Sanctus: Written by Zbniew Preisner to his friend and artistic collaborator Krzysztof Kieślowski as he was dying in hospital.

Since we’re atheists, shouldn’t it make us, the Syntheists, better at dealing with loss than other religions? We aren’t afraid of the naturalistic reality of life. I have to conclude; probably not. All religions are excellent at dealing with grief. Which is odd considering that the vast majority of religions have ideas of an afterlife. An outright denial of death is standard practice. When a loved one dies why are they sad at all? Their loved one is now, allegedly, in a happier place? Aren’t they?

Which brings me back to my earlier point. The heart feels what the heart feels. Comforting lies and wishful thinking, no matter how often repeated, cannot give comfort in times of great emotional turmoil. Only the genuine caring compassion of a community will be good enough. It certainly seems like all major religions figured this out early on and are all good at it. They’ve just neglected to tell anyone. They all have successful models we can use.

An Islamic funeral ritual

1) Bathing the dead body, The immediate family and others trusted by them clean the deceased together. Psychologically it works on many levels. It brings home the reality of what has happened powerfully. It serves to remove any sanitized image one might have had about the person. This body is unquestionably lifeless, but life has to continue and those surviving can find help and solace in each other. In the shared ritual they are physically helping each other, and may act as a bridge to allow them to open up and help each other emotionally.

2) Enshrouding the body in white cotton or linen cloth. A symbol of our equality. At birth and death we truly are all equal.

3) The funeral prayer, Salat al-Janazah

“O God, if he was a doer of good, then increase his good deeds, and if he was a wrongdoer, then overlook his bad deeds. O God, forgive him and give him the steadiness to say the right thing.”

If one wants to be cynical, one might say that it’s not about asking God to forgive the deceased, but the congregation, family and friends; and not allow any perceived sins besmirch those surviving the dead. Allowing each person to be their own.

4) Burial of the dead body in a grave. Emotionally it’s normal to outright deny that somebody you have lost is actually lost. The burial acts as forcing the survivors to physically expel the dead from their lives. Not their memory of course, but unhealthy hopes of a future together. 

5) Positioning the body so that the head faces Mecca. To emphasize the Muslim identity and being part of a community.

It is arguably the single most important feature of any religion. What we can do differently is cut the bullshit. Leave the platitudes and one-liners we all know have never helped anybody.

The way we react to death of loved ones makes it all too obvious that we’re primarily emotional beings. It’s important to acknowledge that we’re all, at times fragile and in need of being taken care of and comforted by somebody we trust.  Much like a parent comforts a child. It doesn’t matter how rich we are, how economically efficient world we create for ourselves if we don’t primarily focus that world on taking care of human insecurities and character flaws. Without compassion from our fellow humans, we are truly alone in this world. We need to support each other, help each other, because we know nothing else will.

Please take some time to think about those in your life, the people you care about, who you know are suffering from a loss now, those who are overcoming grief or hardship. What kind of support do they require? Is it within your power to help them? Is your help welcome? Often all that is needed is to let them know that you’re there for them if they need you.

 

If there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are surely no theists at a funeral.

If there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are surely no theists at a funeral.

 

Disclaimer

The ritual and practice described in this text is only a suggestion. There is no wrong way to do Syntheism. If you don’t like our festivals, gods, the way we use them or the names we have for them…. feel free to invent your own.

What is a flash mass?

Syntheists experiment with the celebration of flash masses. A flash mass is a hybrid between a flash mob and a spontaneous street mass, and the most obvious large scale example is of course the burning of The Man on Saturday night every year at the Burning Man festival  in Nevada. However, a flash mass can be celebrated just about anywhere at any time – indoors or outdoors – and although it may have thousands of participants, it actually requires no more than two friends gathering and is often small scale.

Flash Mass

A simple and often celebrated form of Syntheist flash mass is initiated merely a couple of days in advance, and is typically celebrated in somebody’s home or a nearby public park, lasting anywhere between 25 to 45 minutes. A flash mass often opens with a sounding ceremony; where the participants hold hands while standing in a ring and make sounds to make their bodies feel as one, rather than as the usual seperate entities. This is followed by a homilia; a short speech on for example a spirtitual, scientific, or syntheological matter. This is in turn folllowed by a meditation, a social moment of silence.

The meditation, which may be as long or as a short as the participants wish, is followed by a personal testimony, a story which can be told by just about anybody in the group on what brought them to the flash mass. The testimony may for example be a shared insight into a personal spiritual quest. Next the participants often listen to, or make, music together, after which they share peace hugs with each other; hugging as many of the other participants as they can or want to, followed by the pressing of hands to the right top of each other’s chests, looking the hugging partner into the eyes, while wishing her or him peace.

You and your fellow Syntheist friends may of course experiment with the celeberation of flash masses too anywhere and at any time you like. Please feel most welcome to share your experiences here at syntheism.org. This is indeed religion in the making.

Pantheos, here we come

A Scandinavian Midsummer celebration

A Scandinavian Midsummer celebration

We’re nearing the summer solstice, Panthea. One of the four major Syntheist festivals. We have named the period between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox Pantheos. It’s Greek for “God is everywhere”. Since Syntheists accept that all gods are invented, why not invent some more and have gods everywhere? Want a god for the cool touch on the tongue of an ice-cream on a hot summers day? Or how about a god for the fleeting warm and contagious smiles we sometimes get while commuting to work? Now, as a Syntheist, you can have them. I think it suits a season of abundance and plenty.

This season we will focus on light, strength, vitality, joy, passion, pleasure, ecstasy, confidence, optimism and enjoying life to its fullest extent.

Last season I took the season’s concepts and referenced what the existing religions of the world have to say about it. I did the same for Panthea.

PANTHEA

For the joy of living

A woman in Congo speaking in tongues

A Pentacost in Congo speaking in tongues

Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. Being overly self obsessed and worrying unnecessarily about life’s minutiae. When what we should do, need to do, is relax and enjoy what we already have. Live a little.

To understand how religion can help us with this I think it can be of value to take the plunge into ancient Roman and Greek religion. Please bear with me. I promise it’ll be worth your while. The ancient Greeks and Romans valued being in control of one’s emotions. Overt displays of emotion was generally frowned upon and seen as weakness and a character flaw. But they also acknowledged that too much emotional control was negative to the human spirit. Our feelings needed an outlet. They acknowledged that societies pressures, especially those of the powerful upon us, would corrupt our thinking. Make us overly self-conscious and cowardly. That’s where the worship of Dionysus came in.

Dionysus was seen as a liberator of the spirit, whose wine, music and ecstatic dance frees the mind. Today the worship of Dionysus is mostly associated with the excessive orgiastic drinking-parties called “Bacchanalias”. Always held in secret locations. As for the rituals, I’m sorry to say, what happened at a Bacchanalia stayed at the Bacchanalia. We have no surviving reliable accounts other than little snippets here and there.

When blent with the flute light laughters awaken,
And the children of care have forgotten to weep
Whensoever is revealed the cluster’s splendour
In the banquet that men to the high Gods tender
And o’er ivy-wreathed revellers drinking deep
The wine bowl drops the mantle of sleep.

-Euripides (The Rationalists)

On that note, In Vino Veritas isn’t just a funny thing Romans said about drunk people’s inability to keep their trap shut about sensitive subjects. Pagan Romans and Greeks thought genuine wisdom could come from being off-your-tits drunk. It was the ointment that could remove intellectual blockages. I personally suspect that if artists and thinkers all were teetotallers we wouldn’t have nearly as rich artistic heritage as we have today.

Even though we don’t know so much about the Bacchanalias we do have a good grasp of the big annual festival in the honour of Dionysus, called the Dionysia. All today surviving ancient Greek dramas were works especially commissioned for the Dionysia. They were seen as safe outlets for emotions. Once a year Greeks and Romans gathered and were allowed to let all their emotions pour forth while watching the plays. It was socially acceptable and encouraged. Wine, or other mind altering drugs, was seen as a tool in helping them lose control, to allow them to laugh and weep together.

Dionysias wasn’t only watching plays. A good portion of it was singing, dancing and drinking, for days. All day. All night. The culmination was a procession called the “Pompe”. A modern day analogue would be the Rio Carneval. A full on celebration of all that life has to offer.

Roman frieze 100 CE

A Roman frieze of a Dionysian pompe, 100 CE.

Dionysus was also the god of foreigners and the foreign. This was the time to let go of familiar suspicions and allow oneself to be curious. Greeks who usually were so adamant about excluding outsiders from their community and rituals, let them, this one time a year, be a part of their religious celebrations. The foreign was uncharacteristically embraced and admired. An acknowledgement that a rigid mind is stagnant mind.

This idea of having one feast a year where we allow ourselves to go a little crazy isn’t unique for Roman and Greek pagans. In the Hindu and Tibetan festival of Ganachakra the faithful are allowed to eat some foods and drinks otherwise considered taboo for sober vegetarians. A shared communal meal is integral. The transgression of the taboo becomes a shared experience. Reminding them of the importance of community, the importance of sharing our joys and sorrows. Being supportive and allow oneself to be supported by your peers.

A Ganacharka meal in Tibet

A Ganachakra communal meal in Tibet

When was the last thing you did something crazy? Something uncharacteristic of you? Did something just to shock your system? Please remind yourself that life is more than the daily grind of work-life.

So what about ecstasy? What about euphoria? Religion has in all ages been associated with instances of extreme bliss and altered states of consciousness. How can this be achieved? What is it?

Religious Ecstasy

Jessica Ennis celebrates after winning the women’s heptathlon Olympic games 2012

Jessica Ennis celebrates after winning the women’s heptathlon Olympic games 2012

The most common methods of reaching religious joy and ecstasy is singing and dancing. Sufi whirling is a form of physically active meditation. It is a dance performed within a worship ceremony, through which dervishes aim to reach the “source of all perfection”. This is sought through abandoning one’s egos or personal desires, by listening to the music, focusing on God, and spinning one’s body in repetitive circles.

Here is the Mandira Devadasis performing a traditional Hindu Desiattam. Every time there is a religious festival the particular god of that festival is thought to inhabit the statues of that god. A good Hindu host always offer an honoured guest the “sixteen hospitalities” (as defined by the Tirukkuṛaḷ), two of which are song and dance. The take away is that the Hindus don’t acknowledge that they’ve had a good time unless there’s been some singing and dancing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prQOdTmF8u0&list=PLIb9m0R9s9REOx9e6aO-qCL0yEpqAtBaD

We’ve all seen stock footage of traditional African dancing as found in all the West African religions. No, it’s not just performing arts. Dancing and singing is an integral part of all West African religions. They do it for a variety of religious reasons. But always to reach an altered state of consciousness, an improved state. So regardless of the magical hand-waving and supposed woo, it’s obviously good for something. So please feel free to do what I do. Do it for the sheer fun of dancing!

As you might have noted from these videos of traditional religious dances pleasure isn’t only derived by being decadent and indulgent. These dances require discipline and years of training. By being intensely in the moment. Letting go of your ego. By focusing on the expression you are good at, what you’re proud of, without allowing yourself to overflow with pride, you will reach new heights of ecstasy. What are your dreams? What do you want to experience in life? What motivates you? Do that! And do it a lot!

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has labelled this mental state Flow.

“You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that it’s almost that you feel that you don’t exist”

When it comes to the beneficial values of singing and dancing there’s no shortage of modern day science to back it up. Considering how uncontroversial this belief is, I don’t feel the necessity to back it up with links to studies. The Internet is awash if you’re curious. The neuroscientist Björn Merker has the hypothesis that before we were thinking talking humans, we were dancing and singing apes. He argues that it’s instinct. We need to sing and dance together in groups with others to be truly happy.

This explains rave parties. This explains singing along at concerts. When was the last time you sang and danced? If it was a long time ago I suggest you just go for it now! Back away from the computer, stand up, take a deep breath and enjoy your body and what it can do!

The ecstasy of saint Theresa

The ecstasy of saint Theresa. What is that angel doing to her?!?

Just relax. Relax. Take deep breaths. Feels better, doesn’t it?

Sometimes, our lives are a stressful grind and what we need to enjoy ourselves isn’t new heights of ecstasy, but just to take break from it all. Focus on the small joys of life. Judaism can help us here. If you thought Judaism was all guilt, duties and joylessness. Think again! On the Sabbath they see it as a religious duty to relax, have fun and enjoy oneself. This includes, among other things, the divine command to drink wine, have sex and not take oneself so seriously. This duty is named “Oneg Shabbat”

Isaiah 58:13-14

“If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:

“Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”

And you thought Judaism only was about restrictions and discipline? Why not do what the Jews do, relax and live a little.

Ok, I’m stoked. This joy and ecstasy thing sounds like a blast. How can I get some? What are the Syntheists doing about it?

Midsummer

When it comes to researching possible rituals us Syntheists can steal; this is made quite easy as most of Europe Pagan midsummer celebrations have survived to this day, more or less, intact. This falls on the summer solstice, ie the same day we Syntheists have chosen for Panthea. Midsummer is still the largest religious festivals of Scandinavia and the Baltics. Yes, you guessed correctly, the maypole is a symbolic penis used to penetrate mother earth. The raising of the maypole should be seen as a ritual sexual act. The pagans weren’t shy when it comes to pleasures of the flesh. So if you’re in any of these countries, why not just join in the fun with the locals? If not, a maypole isn’t hard to make. 

Happy Panthea! Please try to enjoy your life. It’s the only one you’ve got.

 

References

http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/pr/pr05.htm

http://www.let.leidenuniv.nl/Dutch/Latijn/ErasmusAdagia.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dionysia

http://www.biolinguagem.com/biolinguagem_antropologia/merker_2009_synchronouschorusing_humanorigins.pdf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sufi_whirling

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midsummer

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganachakra

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midsummer

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+58%3A13-14&version=KJV

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/07/health/07brain.html?em&ex=1163134800&en=8ddde54669058ebc&ei=5087%0A&_r=0

http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/aug/05/london-2012-team-gb-medals

 

Disclaimer

The ritual and practice described in this text is only a suggestion. There is no wrong way to do Syntheism. If you don’t like our festivals, gods, the way we use them or the names we have for them…. feel free to invent your own.

Tantra: Transcendence, World Affirmation, Ecstasy and Bliss

Much confusion has been spread around about what Tantra is. Common questions that come up are “You mean like Tantric sex?” or “Tantra, that is all about sex, right?” Well not quite. To say such a thing is like claiming that every bicycle is a Schwinn. Yes there is an element of sex, or sexuality that is within Tantra, but at the same time this is not the sole purpose.

sri_yantra_red
When asked what Tantra is there can often be confusion because Tantra is not a method that could be described, but more an experience. Where Tantra is unique to most Indian spiritual practices is that it is heavily female centered. It is an Indian practice where a lot Yogi’s, Swami’s, or Guru’s are in fact women. Because of this Tantra will have a different view of Moksha than most Indian traditions. In general Moksha would be liberation from the physical world. Your average Tantrist would define Moksha as liberation from separation of the mental, physical, and spiritual world. Because Tantra is based heavily on feminine principles there is an emphasis on eliminating binaries dualities. This could be male and female, Higher or Lower, Left or right, mind or body, Spiritual and Material ect. The purpose of Tantra is to eliminate the binary within these terms as these are terms that intensive agrarian societies have used as a way of control. Instead Tantra strives for complimentary opposites.

So what is Tantra? The best way for me to describe it is that it is a goal to get to a state of being that is a combination of ecstasy and bliss. Were reason is good, but not everything is limited to it. Where the conscious self observes all reason, thought, feeling, and desire so that all will be directed in ways that are beneficial to the practitioner, so that you do not have to be some great ascetic to attain inner stillness or enlightenment.

The compatibility with Tantra to Syntheism is that the view of God is not something separate from Nature or oneself.  The purpose of Tantra is to see all existence as sacred.  To see us as the very universe exploring itself.  Since there is little difference between spiritual atheism and pantheism, and since Syntheism does not separate between spirit and matter, the goal of Moksha as I described above would be something that a Syntheist could apply to their daily lives.  If for no other reason than most Syntheists live in a culture based on duality and such a practice could help the Syntheist unlearn this cultural conditioning that he/she has been brought up with.

Many people and practitioners that come to Tantra have their spiritual and material goals connected. Tantra for many people who experience it (as it is not for everyone) increases ones charisma, charm, and compassion as well as reason. At the same time aiding in personal relationships, be they romantic, friendships, family, or business. The idea is that desire, passion, and even the ego are not bad in and of themselves, but are aspects of our being that need to be directed. Through being conscious of these very aspects of our being we can be better at accomplishing our duty or “darma” in this world and eliminate boundaries to the service we can give the world. That every mundane endeavor is in fact a spiritual one and through our duty we bring happiness and peace to the world we live.

Kenneth

Religion and Psychedelia: The Syntheist take on a controversial topic

One of the most controversial issues in theological debates is the widespread and growing use of psychedelic substances to encourage religious experience. Undeniably, psychedelic substances like magic mushrooms, LSD, MDMA,  and ayahuasca activate the very same areas of the human brain as traditional religious experience and have been widely used in various religions for thousands of years. So why the current controversy, and is there a Syntheist take on the growing use of psychedelic substances for religious purposes?

Psychedelia 3

Some Syntheists prefer the exclusive use of techniques such as mediatation and contemplation to achieve their religious experiences. Others welcome the occasional additional usage of psychedelic substances. Since the former is widely accepted in contemporary society while the latter remains highly controversial, the important thing is not to succumb to a temporary contemporary morality – many things we now take for granted as part of our human freedoms have been banned in the past for the most ridiculous and prejudiced reasons, the bias against psychedelics may very well be one such area of prejudiced moralism today – but to leave the decision on whether to use psychedelic substances for religious purposes to each individual practitioner and to increase scientific reasearch on the long-term effects of psychedelic substaces rather than succumb to moralistic prejudice.

Syntheism therefore takes the stand that we respect the choice of religious practice each grown-up responsible individual Syntheist makes, leaving our religion in the making open to sound and creative experimentaton, and that laws and regulations in society should be adjusted to scientific knowledge and not to biased prejudice. Denying people the right to a proper religious experience on the grounds that the practices are morally upsetting to other people – whom it does not really concern – is unacceptable and could rather be viewed as a modern form of religious persecution.

Psychedelia 2

So while neither encouraging nor discouraging the use of psychedelic substances for religious experience, Syntheists are asked to act responsibly and with respect to scientific knowledge (please remember science is sacred to Syntheists) while not succumbing to the moralistic prejudices prevalent in contemporary laws and regulations. After all, we worship Syntheos and not the Logos of any government when such a Logos contradicts our firm beliefs in human and religious freedom.

To be a Syntheist is to be open, creative, on the move, especially in relation to the wrongs and injustices of the times we live in. To be a Syntheist is also to act firmly against any form of drug abuse, since abuse is opposed to the freedom and enlightenment we support and encourage for all human beings. But non-abusive and enlightening drug use can and should not be categorized as abusive, on scientific and ethical grounds.

Syntheism is after all the utopian religion par excellence. We do not believe God created us, we believe we are capable of creating God. And for some well educated and responsible people, this ambition may include the occasional use of psychedelic substances. Live and let live!