Gelli Fach

Gelli Fach

I'm a cell, I'm fragmented, I change my form;
I'm a repository of song, I'm a dynamic state.
I love a wooded slope and a snug shelter,
and a creative poet who doesn't buy his advancement.

Wyf kell, wyf dellt, wyf datweirllet;
wyf llogell kerd, wyf lle ynnyet.
Karaf-y gorwyd a goreil clyt,
a bard a bryt ny pryn y ret.

From: Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, edited and translated by Marged Haycock

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Shadows and Shimmers: Conversing with the Otherworld

I said in my last post that I’d write something about my relationship with Brigit as goddess and saint. My plan to visit Brigit’s church at Llanon more often had made me start to think about this, mainly because I was a little uneasy about using the church in this way; it seemed rather like accepting hospitality from people some of whose views I profoundly disagreed with. And since my main connection with Brigit is as a goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft, just where does St Brigit fit in?

The trouble was that once I started to muse about all this I found I had pulled at a thread which led to a very long tangle! What did I believe about gods and goddesses and God. What was my relationship with Christianity and with neo-paganism? I decided to try and put into words my thoughts and intuitions - not easy to do, to formulate something coherent and communuicable. I found it interesting as an exercise though and was curious to see what would emerge.

So I’m going to start at the beginning, and I don’t expect to finish it in one post but will divide it up into perhaps three parts.

How I understand the spirit world and deity.

I find it difficult to believe that an all-powerful God made the universe and I don't tend to believe it has a purpose. It seems to me to simply exist in a dynamic state with its own natural laws. The way Lao Tsu describes the Dao - "That which can be expressed is not the eternal Dao" etc - gives an idea of its mysterious unknowability. I think in this instance I have what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’ which he defined as when a person “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Maybe scientists will be able to penetrate its mysteries at some point in the future – or maybe not. The quantum physicist Niels Bohr said that the world is not only stranger than we thought, it is stranger than we could think - almost echoing Hamlet's words to Horatio: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy".

I wonder if we have evolved on this planet with intelligence and senses that might not have the capacity to see, or perceive or understand the spiritual world – much as we cannot hear sounds that dogs can hear but which undoubtedly exist. Certain drugs which alter people’s chemistry and physiology cause them to be able to see things another way – different colours, shapes, movement. So our physical make-up determines how we see/perceive/understand the world and what we think of as reality.

I always remember watching the scientist Carl Sagan describing how a three-dimensional object would appear to a two-dimensional being who would be unable to conceive of it. (The aim of this was actually to help us to understand the fourth dimension, since we are trapped in three dimensions). Amazingly, I found the very clip on YouTube so here it is:

While this doesn't give an exact analogy, it is suggestive of the way that some people experience supernatural or mystical phonemona. It seems to me entirely possible that there are dimensions we cannot conceive of but which we occasionally glimpse in shadows and shimmers and whispers.
I have only my limited powers of reason, my intuition and my own experiences to draw upon to make this unseen realm, this Other world, intelligible to my own satisfaction. What follows is simply a working hypothesis - I don't know what the truth actually is.


It seems to me that because the spiritual world or the Otherworld is invisible to us - because we are only dimly aware of it through shimmers and whispers - we can only describe it and relate to it by drawing on the imagination. We make up stories about it - creation myths, the activities of the gods and goddesses and so on - we people it with beings somewhat like ourselves but with supernatural abilities or with bizarre creatures and mysterious beings. Imagination, then, becomes the tool through which we try to understand, describe and relate to this other unseen dimension; imagination becomes the tool through which we try to understand and relate to a greater reality.

To me, this model makes sense of the different religions there are in the world, the different gods and goddesses and supernatural beings - and why people with different beliefs have visions, hear voices, experience presences consistent with their own particular religion, in near-death experiences for example. These deities and other spiritual visitors may seem to be mutually incompatible unless you conceive of them as diverse tools that various people and groups have developed to enable them to access the Otherworld, through prayer, meditation, visualisation and art. In this view, the gods and goddesses become sacred instruments enabling us to access a larger reality.

Do these deities actually exist? Yes and no. "No" in that I don't think that such beings exist in the forms we imagine in that dimension, "yes" in that they exist as mediums or proxies, as an interface between this world and the Other. An imperfect interface that works erratically and/or selectively and sometimes not at all - rather like the remote control on my new mini digibox which sometimes responds immediately to my wishes and sometimes refuses to allow me to switch channels or access the menu or makes strange messages appear which are incomprehensible. (Most annoying, I have to say!) Or to put it another way, I am not my name "Hilaire" - but if I am in range or not unable or unwilling to respond, then when my name is called or I am addressed, I will answer to it.

I am assuming here that an 'other' dimension exists 'out there' as it were. But it is also possible that this Otherworld is not outside but inside us. The psychologist Carl Jung thought of the gods and goddesses as archetypal forces within our collective psyche. Modern science has begun to investigate the workings of the brain by neuro-imaging and seems to be coming to the conclusion that supernatural experiences are merely the result of physiological processes. For instance, apparently 80% of people experience being aware of an unseen presence when areas of their brain are stimulated by artificial means. Job done, the conclusion seems to be, it's all just the brain causing illusory sensations. But this seems to me just to lead to more questions. What is stimulating those areas of the brain when there is no human intervention? What effect does increasing blood supply to that area of the brain have? Might it enhance certain functions and abilities, the perception of unseen presences for instance?

Neuro-imaging has discovered that people in meditation are able to diminish the flow of blood to the parietal lobes - the area of the brain that is associated with orientating ourselves and awareness of stimuli among other things. Again, this seems to lead scientists to the same conclusion - that the feeling of loss of ego and merging with the timeless is only a sensation caused by physiology. But what might we be able to tune into when some of the parts of the brain that help us to be aware of our surroundings are switched off? Relieved of the distraction, perhaps the area of our brain that allows us to experience another way of being is enhanced, rather like when you are trying to hear someone speaking against loud music from a radio; when it is switched off, what the other person is saying can be heard more easily.

It does seem possible that when we are relating to something that seems to be outside of ourselves we are actually simply relating to an area of ourselves that is out of our conscious access. In my consideration of the mysterious way that poetry sometimes appears I am aware of the huge role that the unconscious part of the mind plays. Yet consciousness itself is still a mystery and it's possible that the unconscious mind is in some way connected to another dimension.

I tend to think that the brain and the conscious and unconscious mind are not a closed system. My reasons for this are rather "fluffy" and purely the result of intuition. For one thing, the awareness of other beings or presences or energies are often activated by certain places or natural phemonena in the natural world, and for another, I expect some people reading this will have had the experience, as I have, when in a certain heightened state or simply a state of well-being and good functioning, of coincidences, opportunities and luck coming into one's life and moving us forward in tune with our path in life. At those times the outside world seems to be participating in our reality to give us a helping hand. Well, as I said, this is "fluffy" but that is the experience!

All this may seem "wondrous strange", as Horatio said of the ghost of Hamlet's father. It is strange. So is quantum physics - so strange in fact that even quantum theorists don't really understand what is going on, they can only explain the phenomena. Quantum reality defies common-sense, is at odds with Newtonian science and even logic - one of the mainstays of science - has to be modified: quantum logic is known as 3-valued logic because as well as 'true' and 'false' it has to also posit 'maybe'.

The "many worlds" interpretation of reality states that at every act of measurement of quantum phenomena by a human being, the physical universe divides into separate universes. Apparently a majority of quantum physicists believe this is true...

I'm not saying that I think quantum reality is the unseen realm - I'm just saying it's very strange, only recently discovered and beyond the ability of the best scientific minds to totally understand. So I don't really have a problem with imagining and relating to another reality which isn't yet, or ever will be perhaps, compatible with scientific thinking.

William James, 1842-1910, the American psychologist and philosopher, had some interesting things to say in his lectures on The Varieties of Religious Experience. For instance: "Yet the unseen region in question is not merely ideal for it produces effects in this world. When we commune with it, work is actually done upon our finite personality, for we are turned into new men, and consequences in the way of conduct follow in the natural world upon our regenerative change. But that which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel as if we had no philosophic excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal." His approach was ultimately pragmatic, as is mine, and I agree entirely with the personal statement he makes at the end of the lectures:

"The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have meaning for our life also, and that, in the main although their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in. By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to keep myself more sane and true..."


Next time I'll write about the particular story I embrace as my sacred instrument for relating to the Otherworld - the story of Brigit.