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On Madness, Hallucinations, Being Wrong, Magic, and Belief

People frequently ask me, “How come I can’t perceive spirits/energy/Gods/ghosts?” Others want validation that what they sense – whether it be visual, audio, tactile, or even smell and touch – is “real” in some way. Some see the way I move in the world, where I take for granted that the things I perceive, including things that aren’t easily sensed by our everyday senses, and beg me to teach them how.

You (yes, you) are already seeing things that aren’t there. You’re already perceiving things that your intelligence can’t easily explain. The problem is, it’s happening without your conscious will for it to happen. The things I’m thinking of happen whether you want them to or not.

Let’s start with the most basic. Every person has a “blind spot”. This is a place where your optic nerve passes though the retina, which prevents visual processing. But it’s not like everywhere you look there’s a small void of nothing that follows you wherever you go (unless you’re Eeyore). Instead, your brain fills that space in with whatever else you’re looking at. This means that if you’re in a crowded city, like say Times Square in NYC, your mind is actively creating tourists and cars that don’t actually exist. Unfortunately, you’ll never know which of the annoying slow-walkers is imaginary, because the sense is fleeting and by the time you focus on that spot, you’ll no longer be perceiving an image your mind created so as to “fill in the blank”, but what’s actually in the spot you’re looking at.

When most people think about this, they truly start to wonder what is “real” and what is “imaginary”. They see the two categories as binary opposites, with no spectrum in between. But as any good optical illusion can teach you, there very much is a middle ground, for even when you already know how the optical illusion is created, your brain continues to perceive the illusion. It’s using adaptive technology that we evolved to interact with our world better, but in this limited instance that technology refuses to stop engaging.

Here’s another example: when you drive away from a building, it seems to get smaller and sink into the earth. That’s a literal translation of what your eye is signaling to your brain. However, we have learned in both intellectual and evolutionary ways that the building is exactly the same size and has not (tragically) collapsed into the earth. Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are.

These sorts of perceptions are the very beginning to accepting the idea that not everything you see or sense exists in an objective “reality” that you share with everyone else. Tell me you’ve never had an argument with someone over the exact shade of a color – you demand that they see peach, but all they can see is pink. Does that mean that the shirt exists somewhere in the middle of pinky peachness? Or does it mean that in your reality, the shirt is obviously peach; but your friend is living in a different world that only has pink?

The crossroads of all of these odd human mind tricks is something I’ve done a lot of thinking about for quite a long time. It’s about the idea of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Humans (as we know) love boxes rather than Jackson Pollack paintings; they want easy categories that separate fact from fiction. But this is a lesson you can happily learn from your friendly neighborhood madman – that there is a world (or more than one world) that exists inbetween anything that we perceive as “real” and “imaginary”; and that just because something is “real” doesn’t mean that it’s “right”, and just because something is deemed “imaginary” doesn’t mean that it is wrong.

Have I completely lost you yet?

Madness can impart some pretty awesome life lessons if you only give it a chance. Stop fighting it for a moment and let it give you unique insights into the shapeshifting fog that surrounds us. Where perceptions feel so objectively real that to question them is to automatically be “wrong”. Yet we crazy folk know that sometimes what we perceive, either with our senses or with our emotions, can sure feel real to us in the same way a chair or a balloon is real.

Let’s start with the most obvious. You don’t have to be mad to hallucinate (but it sure helps, and it is sometimes cheaper!). Hallucinations can be brought on by extreme physical exertion, or fever, or from drugs like LSD or DXM, or even just from skipping a couple of meals. Heck, minor mirages (like seeing “black ice” on a highway or water in a desert) don’t require doing anything weird to your body or mind. And even if you’re fully aware that the thing you perceive is “not there”, your eyes and brain continue to do it’s damnedest to convince you. This also happens to people who hallucinate because of a mental illness or neurological problems – they see things that aren’t really there, and most of the time they know full well there isn’t a giant purple horse in their living room but yet they keep seeing it. It’s not like Tinkerbell, where if you don’t believe it will die.

Now here’s a thought: most of us think of some hallucinations as being fertile ground for ecstatic spiritual experiences. Many of my ordeal clients have pushed their bodies to a point where they have a breakthrough, and come to some grand spiritual conclusion about how we’re all connected or objectively feel something they couldn’t bring themselves to feel before. Other friends have had faith-altering experiences with entheogens (legal and not so legal), where they saw things and allowed themselves, for the moment, to believe in its realness because, well, that’s the point in taking them to begin with most of the time. And when people write or relate these experiences, we generally accept them as being “real” in the sense that they changed their friend’s mind, or revealed to them a spiritual truth they didn’t understand before.

For example, the first hook pull I ever experienced was not in a space one would think of as “conducive to spiritual breakthrough”. I was in a gymnasium at a summer camp, surrounded by people trying out different kinds of kinky play for the first time. To this day, I don’t know what lead me to ask my friend (and later mentor) Captain to pierce me then; it just seemed like the right time. So I had two eight gauge hooks put through my chest and was attached to some scaffolding by paracord.

I couldn’t honestly tell you anything else that happened in that gymnasium. Someone could have been crowned King Of All That Is and I wouldn’t have known a thing. I was lost in my own trip. During the actual pull, I kept feeling that if I leaned back, I would just fall to the ground lightly, as if in slow motion. There was a point of tension where no matter how hard I was pulling, I didn’t feel anything in my chest at all. It allowed me to have a wonderful experience of feeling like my body was not an immutable boundary between me and the rest of the world. I was the hooks, I was the person with the hooks, I was the hardwood floor, I was the trees outside and connected to all the people inside. What I took away from this was that my body was no longer a limitation, which for someone like me is a pretty big chunk of thinkydo that changed me forever.

When the pull was over, I went outside into a summer’s twilight. I looked up at the sky as stars began to appear, and I literally saw bands of bright blue light that pulsed between all the living things – the trees, the individual blades of grass, the people in the distance, the stars above. I posted a short recording to my journal that makes me sound like a blissed out hippie.

When I facilitate similar experiences for people, I tell them that whatever they eat or drink once the ride is over, will be the best XXXX they ever ate or drank. For me it was bread. I craved bread like a bread-craving bread craver. And even though the bread was slightly stale and unremarkable, to me it was like experiencing the manna that the Jews in exile were given by God. It was the King of All Bread-like Products. I ate slowly, mindfully, treasuring this odd experience of having the best bread I’ve ever eaten.

Objectively (whatever that word means), all of what I related about my experience is “wrong”. I was not literally a hardwood floor. There were no blue beams of light. The bread was pretty damn mediocre. But at the same time, every time I tell that story no one jumps up at me and demands to know if anyone else verified that I was a hardwood floor. No one feels cheated when I tell them it was the best bread ever (and that they’ll never taste it because, well, I ate it all). They can accept that since these things were perceptionally true for me at the time, and that I am not actively trying to deceive them by inventing experiences I did not actually have, that the story is not only true, but spiritually signficant.

Things change when we start talking about hallucinations brought on by means that don’t have the spiritual trappings to it, or if the hallucinations themselves aren’t of a spiritual nature. Once, when I had a very high fever, I was convinced I was not actually laying in my bed, but was hovering over it by such a small distance no one could see. I can still recall the sensation in both my mind and my body, and yet most of you are ready to dismiss this as being false, not true, not spiritually significant, because it was a) brought on by fever and b) isn’t inherently spiritual (at least to them).

Entheogens are a grey murky ground. Most, but not all, people can understand that some have spiritually significant experiences while ingesting certain herbs or chemicals. But I bet you’re already thinking to yourself that LSD can be spiritual, but DXM (sold over the counter in most cough syrups) cannot. Or, coming at it from another perspective, that if I tripped on acid and spent an hour looking at the tie-dyed head of one of my drums (I will not confirm or deny…), that was likely not spiritually significant. (It was.) But if I tell you that smoking a cigar made my skin feel the warmth and breath of a dead person who smoked cigars, you’d probably agree that it was “real”, or at least “significant”.

People who deal with deceptive perceptions – that is, crazy folks – get to live in a quagmire where it can be difficult or impossible to create such clear distinctions over what is “true” and what is “false”. When I am depressed, I feel like my life is made of all things sucky and no good at all. Even if, at the same time, my lovely boyfriend is over for a visit and is showering me with affection. I just can’t access the part of my mind or soul that sees that as a good and life-affirming thing, because depression tunes all our senses to “worst case senario”. Maybe I told myself, “He’s just doing that because he likes having sex with me”, or “He’s just being nice because he wants me to do something for him”. Let me tell you, even clothing that I usually love to wear can become scratchy and uncomfortable when I’m depressed.

Maybe that’s not as grand an example as a schizophrenic who hears voices, but I wanted to go for the lesser extreme and more relatable example.

Now, how does this all relate to seeing ghosts and talking to Gods?

I find that the most difficult two blocks most people face in this endeavor are things that most humans hold dear and aren’t ready to relinquish, even if it means having “super powers”. The first, and most fundamental, is the idea that they could be wrong. That at the moment of their death, completely convinced that they’re going to Valhalla, swept away by the Valkyrie, because they died from injuries in a streetfight over a woman’s honor (let’s say). But then the machine makes it’s long, unended beep, and then nothing. Nothing. No Christian Heaven and Hell, no wandering meadows of Summerland, no Longhall and hangouts with Odin or Freya, no River Styx or seventy-two virgins. You just cease to exist, the end, thank you very much.

I use that example because it’s one most people struggle with but rarely talk about. We all want there to be something more than this, either because we can’t handle the idea that our unique characteristics and funniest stories can disappear and the world keeps turning, the Universe doesn’t even notice. But at the same time, unless you’ve experienced something that you can accept as being a “ghost”, a remnant of someone who was once alive, it can be hard at times to hold onto the belief that there’s a world NASA can’t pilot to where all the dead people ever are hanging out and maybe boffer fighting or playing some damn good harps. (I think if I end up in Christian Heaven – like the Pope says I might – I am going to lead a rebellion to change harps to banjos. Or maybe Ukuleles.) Even some people who’ve had near death experiences eventually doubt what happened and contribute it to random synapse firing.

So having a belief – whether that belief is Valhalla or that you’ve been abducted by aliens – also means facing the feelings that come with being wrong. And our human society tells us that being wrong is a bad, terrible, awful thing. It makes you eat everything from your hat to your shoe, which doesn’t sound like the Best Bread Ever. It removes an illusion – disillusioned – that you had before. It makes you feel as though you want to die or vomit. It may turn out that there are no purple horses in your living room, and it may also turn out that although you lived your entire life as a Godspouse only to find out that the Mormons were right and all us crazy Pagans were making shit up.

Now, most Pagans (well, especially Pagans, but other people too) carry around the concept that I can believe with all my heart that Loki is my spiritual Dad and that when I die I will be welcomed by Hel into Niflheim; but if you believe that, upon death, your soul will go to the Summerlands and frolic with dryads and faires for all eternity, that’s totally cool. Even though the underlying language means one of us – probably you, because if all eternity is frolicking in a meadow I want to live forever, is wrong. But we consider it anything from impolite to downright heresy to declare your spiritual belief to be wrong or misguided, no matter how much personal experience we may have that says that you are. People who believe their religion is right and everyone else is wrong are either fundamentalist Christians or Islamic terrorists, right?

So if the first block is pushing forward with your spiritual beliefs and experiences with the full understanding that you could be 100% wrong, the second block is even harder. You will have to accept that nobody experiences the same reality as you. We could have a scientific debate about whether that statement is factually true, but since I’m totally okay with being 100% wrong (at least most of the time), we’d probably be wasting precious time we could be masturbating or something. When I teach magic (as opposed to spirituality, as I believe the two are fundamentally separate things), I tell people that the first step to doing magic is believing it exists and then going out and seeking proof of this. Whether it’s smoking a cigar with the intent of summoning your great-grandfather, or seeing the delight in a child’s eyes when you become the “dragon” that their little cardboard swords attempt to slay, it doesn’t matter how you approach magic or how you want to define it. But there’s no skipping the step of becoming totally invested in the belief.

And this is not some halfassed silly excuse why some people do “spells”, or even “curses”, and don’t get a result and others do. I’m not the kind of dude who’s going to judge your failed attempt by saying, “well, I guess you didn’t believe in Tinkerbell quite enough”. At the same time, we all know stories of mothers who have lifted cars off of their children, even when they’re elf-sized and need help carrying groceries. Because in their terror, they only saw one option to save their child, and in that moment the belief that maybe, just maybe, they can do something, excited the neuropathways of the mind and the body began pumping her full of adrenaline and other hormones, and before she can stop herself and say, “Waita minute, I am not the Hulk!”, her child is no longer trapped.

Another thing I frequently teach about magic is that, to me, it is only 50% metaphysics. Yes, there are some tried-and-true ways of doing magic that yield results, like the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram (google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about). I could blather on with different metaphysical theories, but I’ll save that for some night when we’re both drunk and want to talk about metaphysics. The other half of magic, the part that needs you to believe in purple horses and cigar-summoning rituals, is psychological. In the same way that if I tell you seeing Elephants means you’re going to win the lottery (yes, I’ve used that example before) you’ll start seeing Elephants where you didn’t – if you do a spell to help you find a job, you’re also going to notice more job-getting opportunities, listen to conversations and notice when someone mentions their business is hiring, and you’re more likely to peruse job sites on the Internet. Whereas if you just keep thinking to yourself, “I should do a spell to help me find a job”, you’re likely going to only notice how hard it is to find anything you might be qualified for, and your friend’s conversation about zir’s business will sound like ze’s droning on about how great the company ze works for is, again.

Here’s the point I’ve been frolicking around in my blog meadow, making long-ass paragraphs along the way. If you sincerely want to have psychic experiences, you need to simultaneously believe that whatever you may psychically perceive is 100% unprovable by any objective means, and that sometimes you’re going to be 100% wrong. Whether you try divining for the first time, or think that Anubis wants you to wear black lingerie on every other Saturday, you need to do your best to invest in the idea that you’re right about that, at least in the moment, and do whatever you need to do to bolster your belief in your rightness. But, with a bit of cognitive dissonance, you also need to accept that you might be totally bonkers, or just outright wrong, or that ghost you see of your dead business partner might be a blot of mustard.

When I hear Gods, I know that there’s a chance that it’s not actually a God at all. It might be my own inner voice, my intuition, sounding more removed than normal. It might be another spirit masquerading as the God I’m trying to reach. Or it might be a God, but not the one I thought it was. For example, I’ve had a few cases lately of people thinking that Loki wants to marry them, only for me to discover that it’s not Loki; however, because there are lots of Loki’s wives on the Internet, some of them are disappointed and don’t want to be the only Aegir’s wife or Angrboda’s husband on the web. They wanted to join a community of people having similar experiences, and so they were doing their damndest to believe that voice was Loki’s. On the other hand, who the fuck am I? I mean, I can talk about how long I’ve been doing this spirit work/shamanic thing, or give you references to many people for whom I’ve helped them with their relationships with Gods, or whatever, but in the end, you either have to invest your belief that I am actually talking to Gods and can tell which God is which, or there’s no fucking reason to ask me in the first place.

I tell people all the time, that for the first three years I was working with this mysterious spirit who showed up in the looney bin, I thought Loki was Talesin, a Celtic hero. I had an altar to Talesin, read stories and other research about Him, made offerings and prayed to Him. I have no idea what Talesin thinks of all of this, as I’ve never actually talked to Him (even after making the differentiation and wanting to apologize). All that time, Loki knew I was wrong, and He was okay with it. He didn’t punish me or abandon me or break me; He just waited for me to figure it out. I can’t promise all Gods will have the same reaction, but that’s not why I tell this story. I got it wrong, big time, for three years.

It happens. Part of spiritual evolution is figuring out when something you believe in doesn’t serve you any more, or isn’t as true as you thought it was, or is downright wrong. I do not believe in the divinity of Christ, but I sure did when I was 18. After some reflection and thought and feeling myself out on the matter, it just didn’t make sense to me anymore.

I want to make sure I credit the book I’m currently reading, which lead to this diatribe. It’s called “Being Wrong; Adventures In the Margin of Error”, by Kathryn Schulz. I definitely relayed some of her ideas and examples, but did not actually quote the material. It’s an excellent book, and if this did anything for you, or if you want to understand how being wrong doesn’t have to be as bad as wanting to die, I highly suggest you take the time to read it.

About Del

A shaman who writes about spiritual things, but not in that namby-pamby "everything is light and fluffy" sort of way.

10 responses to “On Madness, Hallucinations, Being Wrong, Magic, and Belief

  1. “Maybe that’s not as grand an example as a schizophrenic who hears voices, but I wanted to go for the lesser extreme and more relatable example.”

    I am a schizophrenic who hears voices. And sees things, too. I have also long clung to the REAL / NOT REAL binary. I’m under a huge amount of stress right now (a major trigger) but for some reason, the wheels have yet to come flying off of my little red wagon. I can’t say that it is because I am actively trying to let go of my black and white world view on what is real and not, but I have a suspicion that it is helping in some way. And, Odin. *shrugs* He’s probably up to something :)

    Thank you for this post, it nicely sums up a lot of what I’ve been trying to get out of my brain and into words. And it is lovely to be referred to as a grand example ;P

  2. Myriad

    “If you sincerely want to have psychic experiences, you need to simultaneously believe that whatever you may psychically perceive is 100% unprovable by any objective means, and that sometimes you’re going to be 100% wrong.”

    This. I think I’m going to frame this and put it up in my office, or make a sigil of it or something. I think that wanting to be right 100% of the time, or rather being 100% scared of being wrong, is something that happens easily, especially when you’re just beginning to get involved with spirit entities (mostly Deities). In the first couple of months, there were a lot of things that I needed to be real at the time… some of which have turned out to be not quite that, later. When I read Trickster makes this World by L. Hyde, a part about how Trickster teaches you to “hold onto your ideas lightly” stuck with me. Probably one of the first and best (and also hardest) things I learned (am learning).

  3. This is the hardest aspect for me to swallow, because it’s so faith based. It comes down to being forced to trust your own experience, no matter what anyone else says. And you can’t just look at one or two experiences, you have to look at them as a whole, stretched out over time. It it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, you know the rest. My biggest pet peeve is when somebody who is long distance, who doesn’t even know me, has only had a few conversations with me and wasn’t in the room with me when it happened, claims to know what something I saw was. This has caused the biggest arguments, and resentment on both parts. Or that somebody claims to know a God better, or hear Him better, than I do and speaks for Him. Then what they say doesn’t measure up to my own experience. This is what I’m talking about. It’s hard enough trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not by yourself, let alone who to trust/listen to and who not to, and how much of it to listen to. I measure it against my own experience and perceptions. If it doesn’t match up, I throw it out. Someone recently tried to tell me that my hypnogognic hallucination upon waking(when I believe I had been seeing Loki BEFORE that state of mind) was some fairy disguised as an ugly guy I know who I rarely see in real life, and would NOT do the sick things he was doing to me in this experience, where just before that I had been feeling/seeing Loki, at least I hope it was Him. That could have been just a dream too. That’s what’s hardest for me, when I desperately want to interact with Him and see Him, and I think I am, to admit there’s a possibility it might not be real and all in my head. But there’s a possibility that it IS real. I can’t get proof and have to just trust the experience because I’ve had so many others like it for years. But it’s hard enough when my own MIND tries to confuse me, let alone an outsider who’s not even there to see what’s really going on.

  4. aeddubh ⋅

    Very, very good.

    And I totally want to get drunk and talk metaphysics with you sometime.

  5. aeddubh ⋅

    Reblogged this on The Words Swim, Waiting and commented:
    Truth is multiple. There is scientific truth, religious truth, mythic truth, poetic truth. My truth, your truth, their truth, our truth.

  6. Pingback: Some Disconnected Thoughts | Mountain, Path, and Pool

  7. Joh ⋅

    Thank you for this amazing essay.

  8. Having a brain injury or a neuro disorder will complicate seeing stuff.

    My husband who has various brain disorders regularly experiences flying and floating off the ceiling. Now he could interpret this as an alien abduction since he sees shadows and is parallelised. Or he can chalk it up to brain doing brain stuff. His choice. Now, he doesn’t think space aliens exist, so he chooses to say brain stuff.

    Having a brain injury that damages your vision center changes things. I cannot see a door knob, I can only assume one is there. I cannot see what is in front of me since the brain scrambles the vision part. Part of my therapy is to find work arounds and sort everything out.

    Added to that is seeing time in colour and written words coming out of people’s mouths. In short, I have to establish protocals over what is real and what is not. So if my “imaginary friends” are speaking to me, I have to figure out with my protocals which ones and if They are speaking or is it me. Like the old commercial – “Is it real or is it Memorex?”.

    One handy thing is divination. Works every time for me. Also noting repetition of something. Perhaps a message is trying to get through.

  9. syrens

    Reblogged this on Urban Meliad and commented:
    The whole “being wrong” (or “being bonkers”, for that matter) thing is one that I worry about when it comes to trance work and Listening and such-like. The question (the fear) of “What if I’m just messing with my own head” and, beyond that,”What if I’m *not* messing with my own head, but the Person who I *think* I’m talking to isn’t *actually* who I’m talking to” are big ones for me. So I thought I’d reblog this, because it addresses those things a little bit.

    Cheers,
    Meliad the Birch Maiden.

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