Building Right Relationship: Part 2
In modern Hinduism, there are generally thought to be four paths of Yoga (or spiritual discipline) through which a person can reach Moksha (enlightenment). These four Yogas are Bhakti Yoga (the path of devotion), Karma Yoga (the path of action), Raja Yoga (the path of meditation), and Jnana Yoga (the path of knowledge). While these four disciplines aren’t directly recognized in modern Heathenry, I have seen them reflected within the practices of Heathens and have personally used these disciplines (whether consciously or not) to deepen my own relationship with the gods. But why should the four yogas be relevant to a discussion about building a relationship with Norse deities and spirits? It is thought that each of the Yogas represents one of four primary temperaments in human beings and an approach to life. All of them have the potential to lead you into a deeper experience of the divine, and it is likely that you are already drawn to one or two of these practices in particular. Ironically, I have noticed that people who tend to unknowingly gravitate to one of these disciplines sometimes disparage those Heathens who are drawn to another, as if just one of these disciplines is the “right way” to do Heathenry. However, the potential for all of these spiritual disciplines is inside us, and I have found that trying to find some balance within all four of them is an effective way to flesh out one’s understanding of and experience of the Holy Powers.
I think it would be accurate to say, that of the four spiritual disciplines this is the one that is most promoted and celebrated within modern Heathenry (and within other reconstructed religions as well). Jnana Yoga involves the study of ancient and/or sacred texts, using them to build a spiritual philosophy, and then applying those philosophies in order to understand the Holy Powers and our own place in creation. We find our relationship with the divine by attempting to intellectually understand the divine.
As a reconstructed religion, Heathenry has required that modern practitioners study and analyze the scant evidence of the past in order to build a new tradition that’s in as close an alignment with the original as possible. Because our original pre-Christian traditions were essentially exterminated, it is almost as if scholars and archeologists have taken the place of gurus and spiritual teachers in our communities as we seek out meaning and understanding in our new traditions. This exploration has also created many professional and amateur scholars within our own midsts, and has led to the development (and discussion) of many different philosophies: What is Wyrd? What is Hamingja and how can it be gained or lost? What is the nature of the ancestors? It is difficult at times to decipher the meaning of these spiritual concepts from our remaining sources, as we are rarely ever offered a glimpse of what these things meant to the original practitioners of Germanic Polytheism, which has led to a great deal of disagreement and speculation.
As of today, it seems that the Heathens who most closely follow this discipline are those that identify themselves as reconstructionists, and who attempt to reconstruct a religious culture as similar to the originals as possible with the historical evidence available. I have often seen this discipline receive the most criticism from those of a more devotional or meditative persuasion, who might argue that a strict focus on research can get in the way of a personal experience of the divine, and serve as a replacement for a real interaction. I would, however, argue that the path of knowledge is extremely important, and is a valid way to deepen one’s relationship with the Holy Powers.
In order to understand how we should interact with the Holy Powers, we need to try to come to some conclusions about what they are and what they are not. Examining how the ancestors treated them can lead us to some conclusions about what it is that they believed about them. Understanding the culture of the ancestors can help to uncover some of the hints and metaphors that I believe are hidden within our surviving myths and legends. Knowledge can also help us to practice discernment in our spiritual communities, and preserve qualities of etiquette and respect towards the Holy Powers. It can help us to gain the right understanding and reasoning through which to construct more effective spiritual technology and rituals.
However, as I alluded to in my previous article, there is a difference between a literalist approach to spiritual knowledge and a philosophical approach. I feel that knowledge becomes a spiritual discipline when that knowledge is used to expand our understanding of the divine instead of limit it and pigeonhole it. Our modern, Abrahamic culture has largely taught us a literalist way to knowledge: you memorize these facts about God that are unchanging and exist in these stories that literally happened, and they teach you how to live life correctly. In a similar fashion, I have sometimes seen the memorization of facts and “lore” trivia as the primary badge of approval within modern Heathen circles. I think it is for this reasons that many Gurus will advise that people of a more intellectual persuasion should avoid Jnana Yoga in the beginning, and instead should either focus on Bhakti or Karma Yoga and work their way gradually into Jnana Yoga, otherwise rather than meditating upon knowledge as a tool for developing a deeper understanding of the Holy Powers and ourselves, the path of knowledge becomes about the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake. They “why” gets lost in the “what”, and we have the tendency to transform ourselves into armchair Heathens who have a lot of theory but zero practice. It is said that the disciplines of devotion and action are more effective in breaking down the ego and keep the seeking of the Holy Powers in the center of our consciousness so that the pursuit of knowledge doesn’t purely become an ego-driven activity.
My own practices of this variety have included the study of Germanic lore and culture, as well as learning what I can from living Indo-European traditions. I believe that the former helps to teach how to look at our surviving texts in a more symbolic/philosophical way by teaching me what those symbols and metaphors may have meant to the Germanic ancestors. This was my method when I was writing Playing With Fire, where I first really experienced performing research as a method of devotion and gaining spiritual understanding. The discipline of knowledge can take you into very deep understandings of who the gods are when you seek the meaning in their stories, folklore, and methods of worship. It can also point you towards experiencing what I like to call the god’s “true name” (which becomes a more direct experience in the path of devotion). For someone who wants to experience Jnana Yoga, here are some practices I would recommend:
⁃ Pick one of the Holy Powers you want to deepen your knowledge of. Find a source (or sources) whether primary or secondary through which you can study them. Learn everything you absolutely can about that being, including first-hand accounts by people who have worshiped and walked with that deity for a long time. Let yourself become obsessed, all with a heart of devotion and a desire to know that Holy Power. When you fall in love with someone or something, you naturally want to know everything about it.
⁃ If you are reading a myth about a deity, don’t just take it at face value. Read the story, and then in a notebook, try to answer some of these questions: What actions did this deity perform in this story? How did those actions change/effect things? Are they performing some kind of spiritual function, and if so what is it? Are there any kennings hidden in this story, and if so, what are they? Are there any historical practices in Germanic or other Indo-European cultures that resemble what happened in this story? Is there another relatable Indo-European god that performs this function? How does that culture worship that deity and why? What can this new understanding of this deity teach me about how to approach them?
⁃ Before you study, Pray. Pray to the Germanic ancestors for help in understanding those things which have been lost or forgotten, and pray to the Holy Powers to lead you to the right information, to hone your intuition, and to lead you to the right understanding.
⁃ Allow yourself to explore and run on intuition as you study. This isn’t a history club, this is a spiritual practice. If while you study you have spiritual insights, follow those insights and see where they lead you. If they lead you towards a philosophy or practice that’s useable, start using it. All of this knowledge does us no good if we can’t put it into practice.
The path of Devotional Heathenry and Devotional Polytheism, in general, is one I see growing more and more in popularity. Perhaps in reaction to what I would see as the predominantly Jnana approach to Heathenry that seemed to hold sway in the 70’s through the 90’s, people are hungry for love and connection, and many people are stepping forward with new methods and practices to help people to fall in love with their gods. However, when I say “fall in love”, I would like to make a distinction between the devotional love that is fostered in Bhakti Yoga, vs the kind of love a person might share with a romantic partner or the kind of unattainable, obsessive love one may develop for an actor or a character. I have observed that the former has a tendency to dissolve into the indulging of romantic fantasies that don’t bring a person any closer to an experience of the divine.
Bhakti Yoga is designed to teach us to experience the divine as the embodiment of love. Love in our culture has the reputation of being an effeminate emotion, and therefore I don’t really see it talked about in Heathenry as much as more “masculine” concepts like honor, truth, duty, etc. However, I would personally say that devotional love is the most powerful motivating force within a spiritual practice. When you have truly learned to lose yourself in your love for the Holy Powers, it teaches you how to be self-less and to surrender to something other than our own egos. Learning to serve the gods with love teaches you how to serve others and our natural world with love. Once you experience devotion for the gods, and you begin to see the gods in everything, your act of inner devotion has the potential to turn into outer acts of service (which I will discuss more when we get to Karma Yoga). Devotional practice is a catalyst that can put us into an altered state of consciousness through which we can be filled with and directly experience divine love. I also believe that through devotion we can begin to experience what I call a god’s “true name”. Rather than being a literal name, I see that as being the god’s core “feeling” or “essence” that is unique unto them, and which can only be felt and known through continuous relationship with them.
The primary tools utilized in Bhakti Yoga are prayer, worship, ritual, sacred song, sacred dance, and pilgrimage: all which are designed to help us surrender ourselves and our waking experience to the Holy Powers and transform our emotions into unconditional love. This can be tricky for some, and I know there are many people out there who want this devotional experience but aren’t sure how to attain it. There is no way to teach somebody how to fall in love: it’s something that happens to you, not something you can force or necessarily predict. Sometimes love is instant and earth-shattering, and sometimes it is something that is built over time through a building of familiarity and trust. There is no right or wrong way to love, and in essence, the path of devotion is one which permeates and motivates the other three Yogas in their purest form. For those who are interested in pursuing the path of devotion, here are some recommendations:
⁃ If you want to build a devotional practice with the gods, make time for them. Set aside just 10 minutes in the morning. Light a candle for one or more of the Holy Powers, and just start talking to them. Call them by their praise names (this is where Jnana Yoga will help you out), loose yourself in the feeling of them and their qualities, and really just allow yourself to experience them. If you feel inspired, you can even sing praise songs to them. No relationship grows through neglect, so as often as possible, give them a little of your time.
⁃ Give offerings to your gods. Gifts and offerings were an important aspect of Germanic culture, and circles of gifting helped to keep and build relationships. These gifts can be as small or extravagant as you desire, from a candle and a glass of water to a communal feast/sacrifice: whatever is in your means. Keep track of the gifts that the gods have given you, and make sure that they are reciprocated and acknowledged.
⁃ If you are inclined artistically, write songs, make art, or make other beautiful things that honor the gods. Aside from giving you a way to honor and interact with the gods, these things can often serve as bridges to help other people experience the Holy Powers and build their own relationships with them.
⁃ Investigate devotional tools to help you in your personal devotions. These days there are a growing number of Heathen devotional books, prayer books, prayer beads, “Novenas”, and other ritual tools designed to help you focus your devotion on the Holy Powers.
⁃ Make an altar for your ancestors in your home and don’t forget ancestor reverence. Even if we don’t necessarily remember the right ways to keep relationship with the Holy Powers, the ancestors do. Serving and honoring those who came before you can help you to build devotion and reverence for their gods/practices as well.
The path of devotion often leads us to a place where we begin to see the Holy Powers not just in the lore and within ourselves, but also in the world around us. Our gods are the gods of the natural world: Loki isn’t just “the god who controls the sacred fire”, he IS the sacred fire. Ægir isn’t just “the god that makes the sea do things”, he IS the sea. When our devotion causes us to see the gods in all things, our actions in the world begin to follow suit. This leads us to the path of Karma Yoga.
In Hinduism, Karma Yoga is the practice of acts of service which teach us to act selflessly on behalf of others. Devotion leads us to experience selflessness, and the road of action leads us to act selflessly. More and more I am beginning to see Heathen and other Polytheist activists, who are primarily motivated to create change in the world around us and serve our natural world and fellow humans as a religious act. I have even heard such people disparage Devotional Polytheists for not being humanistic enough, and putting their focus on deities rather than the physical world. Hopefully I have been able to demonstrate how these two practices are actually not in competition, but ideally are complementary. If you have a deep devotional practice to Óðinn (who is often depicted as a wandering mendicant) I believe this will naturally begin to change the way in which you relate to the homeless. Likewise, having a devotional practice to Rán will naturally change the way you look at the ocean and the way it has been abused in our culture. Being a devotee of Loki may effect the way you view the plight of marginalized people, just as being devoted to Freyja may effect the way you view our culture’s treatment of women.
The tricky key to Karma Yoga is learning how to turn our acts of action and activism into selfless acts of devotion rather than actions designed to serve our own egos. No gain or reward (including the praise of others) should be expected. The fruits of your labors are given over to the Holy Powers, not kept for yourself. Likewise, doing the work for the work’s sake and doing our best is what is important, not becoming overly attached to outcomes. Acts of service can include feeding the hungry, serving the people in your community, building temples, cleaning altars and shrines, being mindful of your impact on the natural world, volunteering to clean at parks or natural, sacred places. All actions can become sacrifices when they are performed with the mindfulness of devotion. For those drawn to the discipline of action, here are a few ideas:
⁃ Get acquainted with Heathens or Polytheists who are involved in some form of activism and find out how to get involved in your community.
⁃ For those who serve the community as clergy, it is interesting to note that the word Goði can be broken into Goð-i (“god inside”). Meditate on how the deities are able to work through your hands in the world, whether it be in the teaching/counseling of others or through impacting the world around you. I have a friend that has an acronym for ego (EGO = Edging God Out). Understand that while you can try to accomplish things on behalf of the gods, you are their instrument (not the other way around).
⁃ Donate to causes that are in alignment with and serve your Holy Powers.
⁃ Take care of those natural places in your area that serve as holy places for you. There are a few places in my area that I consider especially sacred (Lake Tahoe being among them). If you are visiting those places, pick up trash if you see it. Speak to the land spirits of that place and give them offerings when you can. Do what you can to preserve them and care for them.
⁃ If it is within your means to do so, help to construct temples and sacred places for the gods in your community. Even if your only “temple” is a small alcove in your house, keep it clean and take care of it regularly.
⁃ When you have developed a ritual or piece of spiritual technology that worked well for you, share it with your community. This is how “traditions” form.
⁃ In all things that you do, try to maximize doing good things and avoid doing bad/harmful things.
⁃ If you are performing an act of service for one of the deities, sing a song or say a chant in their honor while you are performing the action. This will help to keep your mind in a space of devotion rather than getting lost in the tediousness of the work. For example, if you are cleaning your house, sing to Frigg or the Disir, or pray to them while you work.
Raja Yoga includes spiritual practices that aim to discipline our mental and physical energies and harness them towards spiritual enlightenment. The Hindu practice of posture, breath control, and holding to a strict, sometimes ascetic lifestyle that we generally call “Yoga” in the West actually falls under Raja Yoga. While Heathens may not have had practices that resembled Yoga in practice, modern Heathens are reviving practices that utilize a similar, meditative discipline. I would see revived practices such as Rune work, Seiðr, and Utisetta as falling under the heading of meditative practices.
Where in the road of devotion we learn how to pour ourselves out the divine, I feel that meditation is the other part of the conversation where we learn to listen. Nobody benefits from a one-sided conversation. Meditation, more than just sitting on top of a mountain chanting, is actually about learning how to discipline our minds enough to be receptive to gaining insight from the ancestors, the deities, or even the spirits of nature. As long as our monkey minds, insecurities, and loop tapes are chattering, there is no room to hear the gods.Shutting off our mind static is actually MUCH harder than it sounds, and one really has to practice at this to make sure that the insight you received is really from a divine source and not just from a sock puppet in your head. I personally feel that when venturing into these kinds of practices, the other three paths I have mentioned are vitally important. We need knowledge to keep discernment, we need devotion to be receptive and focused, and we need action to practice discipline and act upon our insights.
There are many people in Heathenry who are very skeptical and critical of anyone who claims to have any kind of extrasensory insight, which to a point is understandable. I have seen people beat themselves up with emotional complexes wearing god masks in their heads. I have seen people act as diviners or mediums from a place of ego aggrandizement, offering their own advice as authority rather than allowing the gods to speak. Not every vision is valid, and not every message is meant to be shared with the world. I think it is healthy and right to be skeptical, and I personally hold the usefulness, accuracy, and effectiveness of a divine message to be the test of its authenticity. However, every religion in the world (including the religion of the ancestors) was built upon some kind of spiritual interaction with something greater than ourselves. Many modern Heathens take the same approach that some Christians do: God doesn’t talk to modern people anymore, and all of his messages were just for the prophets. I personally don’t believe that, and therefore see the path of meditation and “UPG” to be one of the four legs of a functioning spiritual practice.
With divination being as vital to the Germanic ancestors as it was, they undoubtedly had ways in which they trained their specialists to gain that kind of otherworldly insight. Today, we have had to turn to unbroken traditions that can teach us how to discipline our minds to enter into altered states of consciousness in order to gain that insight. It’s with that in mind that I’m offering these suggestions for people interested in developing a meditative practice:
⁃ If you already have a daily devotional practice, make sure to leave some time to listen to the gods as well as speak to them. When you have called the Holy Power to you, reflect on it, and allow yourself to be filled with the feeling of that “true name”. Quiet your mind and be receptive without expectation, and see if you gain any insight.
⁃ Begin practicing some form of daily divination. A popular method that I’ve seen people do is to ask how your day is going to go and draw three Runes first thing in the morning. Write them down, and return to the list at the end of the day to check your interpretation. The more you work with any one system, the more your instincts/impressions will be honed to it.
⁃ Set a timer for 10 minutes every day, and during that time do your best to keep your mind blank. If thoughts trickle into your mind (and they absolutely will) acknowledge them and allow them to drift by. Practice this as much as you can, because this is the same empty state of mind you should be aiming for when practicing divination, seership, or anything of an oracular nature. If your mind is chattering, the gods/spirits won’t be able to get a word in edgewise. This is a tedious discipline and isn’t very fun, but it is extremely important and useful.
⁃ Take a class on meditation. These aren’t that difficult to find these days, and I personally don’t see anything wrong with learning from other traditions who still have the means to accomplish things that were lost to our culture.
These four disciplines make up practices that I personally have found to be important to building a good relationship with the Holy Powers, my traditions, and other people. I have seen some people disparage some of these practices while embracing others when in reality, I think we and our communities need all of them in order to stay in a state of balance and to bring our traditions into a state of strength and maturity. Everyone will have their personal inclinations of course, and you may have seen yourself in one or more of these practices (you also may have some better suggestions than I do as how to implement them). I would encourage you to try them all (especially those that you may not have put much effort into before) in order to expand your understanding of the Holy Powers and yourself. Ideally, I think as devotees of the Germanic gods we should all have the capability to love, serve, meditate, and understand.