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Modern American Wiccan Practice and Its Parallels in Consciousness Theory
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In this essay I would like to introduce the main concepts of the modern American Wiccan belief system. I would also like to discuss its parallels with the mind/body connection and the nature of consciousness. Is this belief structure compatible with the views of the philosopher, scientist, or mystic? I hope to shed light on these questions in the following pages.
According to the philosopher Christian de Quincey in the article “Consciousness: Truth or Wisdom?” there are four major worldviews on mind and body. They are dualism, materialism, idealism, and panpsychism.
Dualism is the viewpoint that mind and matter are completely separate from each other, even though both are completely real. There is a major ontological problem in this theory however. “Dualism requires a miracle to ‘explain’ how two utterly different and separate substances could ever interact” (p. 11) . How can non-conscious matter interact with pure consciousness if they have no common basis?
The second worldview, materialism, states that only matter is real. But then how could consciousness ever exist? How could mind develop out of “mindless matter?” Why are we conscious beings?
In contrast to materialism, idealism is the worldview that only mind is real. The problem here is explaining our manner “of living in the world if we do not treat matter as real.” If one truly lives according to the idealistic belief system, one would not avoid jumping off of skyscrapers or walking into freeway traffic. One would also not reap the consequences of such actions.
Panpsychism, the fourth view, states that “consciousness and matter are inseparable, and both go all the way down- so that even single cells, molecules, atoms, or electrons are bundles of sentient energy. In panpsychism, matter (or energy) itself intrinsically feels” (de Quincey, 2000, p. 11) . The panpsychist way of thinking and interpreting the world seems to naturally align with the Wiccan point of view in many ways.
In Roots of Wisdom, author Helen Mitchell asks the questions, “What ways does a theistic God have of communicating with us? What forms might this communication take? What could it tell us about the nature of God?” (p. 201) . In the Wiccan case, God is primarily the Great Mother, or the Great Goddess. Wiccans who are pantheists may call her Gaia or the Earth Mother, as they believe that she is fully expressed in nature, that she IS the earth.
Wiccans who believe that the divine is greater than the earth alone would espouse panentheism. This is the belief that the divine is expressed in the world but is also more than just the planet Earth. They may also refer to Her as Gaia, or Diana, or any of the many other Goddess names. Most commonly She is referred to as the Goddess.
Almost all modern American Wiccans are either pantheists or panentheists, with panentheism being the more popular viewpoint. In either case, the sacredness of nature and of Earth are key points.
Some Wiccan practitioners honor the God as well as the Goddess. The God is the son and the lover of the Goddess. He is the Horned God, reflective of the wildness of nature, and is often known as Cernunnos or Pan. Along with everything else, however, he too originates from the Goddess.
It is thought that the Goddess communicates in numerous ways. In fact, She is always speaking to us. We just need to listen. Messages can come in the form of dreams, synchronicities, other beings, or innate knowing. A message can come in the falling of a leaf, or the flight of a bird.
The interpretation of the message may vary from individual to individual, but Wicca is a religion that values individuals and varied personal beliefs. Wicca strives to be non-dogmatic, and emphasizes direct personal communication with the divine. There is no one truth, no one way. All paths can lead to the Goddess. The particular path taken may affect which aspect of Her you meet, however.
She can be met as Gaia, the great Earth Mother. She may have the face of Venus, or wear Kali’s necklace of skulls. She is infinite, and non-static. She may appear differently to each individual, and may appear differently each time one meets her. Wiccans may have a personal affinity towards one or more of her guises, however, and naturally relate more to her in a specific form.
This way of thinking fits well with the mystic’s way of knowing. It may not be so compatible with that of the philosopher or that of the scientist. Then again, Wicca prides itself on being a practical religion. If it works, do it. This can be seen in certain ritual practices, such as spellcasting.
In The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, Rosemary Ellen Guiley defines ritual as “a prescribed form of ceremony to achieve a transformation of consciousness” (p. 280) . Ritual is a way of contacting divine forces. It may be performed solely as a religious practice, to honor the Goddess. Ritual can also be used to bring a desired state into being. Spellcraft would fall under this definition.
Guiley defines a spell as “a spoken or written formula that...is intended to cause or influence a particular course of events” (p. 316) . A spell is considered similar to a prayer. Prayer is defined as “a ritual consisting of a petition to a deity or deities for a desired outcome, and which involves visualization of the goal, statement of desire for the goal and ritualized movements or body positions” (p. 316) .
A Wiccan spell may be cast to find money for next month’s rent. But a Wiccan would not perform the spell if she didn’t believe it would work. Spell work may use physical tools, such as a green candle, to symbolize wealth and attune the practitioner’s mental focus to the desired effect, in this case, money. The tools are not essential, however. What is essential is the direction and focus of intent.
It is thought that everything is linked together, on the physical plane, and also on the astral plane. The astral plane is considered the realm of possibilities. When an individual projects thoughts or emotions, these are thought to exist on the astral level, but the astral can affect the physical, and vice versa. They are considered interrelated. Unfortunately, there is no real scientific evidence in the community to back this up. To a successfully spell-casting Wiccan, the success of the spell supports the hypothesis.
Of course, direct action on the physical plane is considered much quicker and more effective. Don’t throw out the Help Wanted ads and just expect a high paying job to fall into your lap because you lit a candle. Efforts on both the physical and astral planes simultaneously are considered the most effective of all.
This is one reason why Wiccan belief will easily embrace the panpsychist worldview. If told that matter and consciousness are interrelated down to the smallest level of reality, a Wiccan will say, “Of course!” Those whom I spoke with in the process of writing this essay did, in fact, all instantly take to the panpsychist theory. A Wiccan may not know what a quantum is, but she certainly believes that everything bears life force and/or consciousness to some extent.
De Quincey states that “consciousness is the ability that matter-energy has to feel, to know, and to direct itself.” (p. 39 cns5000 reader) . Characteristics that he states are prerequisite to consciousness are feeling, subjectivity, knowledge, intentionality, choice, self-agency, purpose, meaning, and value (p. 57, cns5000 reader) .
A conscious being must possess one or more of these characteristics. Consciousness is not the same as energy, and it is not separate from physical matter, “it is the ‘interiority, ’ the what -it-feels-like-from-within, the subjectivity that is intrinsic to the reality of all matter and energy” (de Quincey, p. 38-9 cns5000 reader) .
In following the panpsychist belief system, everything is conscious to some extent. But there is a visible difference between the consciousness of a dog and the consciousness of a rock. This can be explained by further defining types of consciousness. A dog would be said to have unitary consciousness, while a rock would be considered to have aggregate consciousness.
Aggregate consciousness says that while consciousness extends all the way down to the quanta, each separate quanta, or each separate “particle” of the rock possesses its own consciousness. The rock as a whole does not have the particular point of view of being a rock.
In unitary consciousness, consciousness still goes all the way down. But there is also a greater consciousness, including and yet more than the “particle” consciousness. Thus, there is a specific “what it’s like to be a dog” way of seeing and being in the world.
The belief in unitary consciousness can be seen when a Wiccan considers trees, plants, and other animals equals to herself. She talks to them and believes she can communicate with them. She may not consider a rock an equal, but she may still talk to it and will definitely consider it to have its own spirit, “vibration, ” or “field, ” all non-technically correct uses of the word which basically say that the rock is something more than just dead inert matter. In this case she would be referring to its aggregate consciousness.
Consciousness itself can be defined either philosophically or psychologically. With the philosophical definition, one is either conscious or not. The light is on or it is off. There is no in between. A human would be considered conscious, even if sleeping or in a coma, but not if she was dead. A rock or a chair would be considered non-conscious.
“Philosophically, consciousness is a state or quality of being characterized by having a capacity for sentience and subjectivity” (de Quincey, p. 39 cns5000 reader) . The philosophical definition does not account for the panpsychist theory of aggregate consciousness.
The psychological view is that there are varying degrees of consciousness. The non-conscious state as defined philosophically would still apply (ex. death, chair, etc.) , but consciousness is defined as “a state of awareness characterized by being awake or alert” (de Quincey, p. 40, cns 5000reader) . It is contrasted with the “unconscious, ” the levels of the subconscious, the dream state, and the coma state, all of which would not be thought of as fully conscious. The psychological view of consciousness installs a dimmer switch on the philosophical on/off light bulb.
According to de Quincey, there are eight meanings of the word consciousness, summarized in the following mnemonic: I-SAPRIU (D) . Each letter stands for a different definition or type of consciousness. They are inter subjective, sentience, awake/awareness, personal, reflexive, interpersonal, unitive, and dissociative. These are seen as evolutionary levels of consciousness, except for dissociative, which is a pathological form, and inter subjective, which is the condition for all forms of consciousness.
Inter subjective consciousness is “the foundation for consciousness shared between all inter subjects- what many traditions refer to as ‘spirit’” (de Quincey, p. 67, cns5000 reader) . Technically, it is not a state of consciousness, but the ground for all varieties of consciousness to occur. Sentience is the capacity for feeling in an individual being. Awake/awareness is a higher form of sentience. The being can be conscious or unconscious. A being with personal consciousness has an awareness of itself. One with reflexive consciousness is conscious of being conscious. Interpersonal involves “awareness not only of personal identity, but also of deep inter subjective foundation of all consciousness” (de Quincey, p. 67, cns5000 reader) . Unitive combines all previous forms of consciousness into an “experienced unity” (de Quincey, p. 67, cns5000 reader) .
Wiccan belief in the consciousness of all of nature is reflected in religious practice and observance of the Wheel of the Year. This is the belief of “so within, so without.” The continual life cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth are reflected in the changing seasons of the year. The Wheel of the Year is very significant to Wiccans, and is a key in understanding the religion. “For a Wiccan, all of nature is a manifestation of the divine and so we celebrate the turning seasons as the changing faces of our Gods” (Phillips and Sandow, website) .
“The Wheel reflects both the natural passage of life in the world around us, as well as revealing our own connection with the greater world. To a Wiccan, all of creation is divine, and by realizing how we are connected to the turning of the seasons and to the natural world, we come to a deeper understanding to the ways in which we are connected to the God and Goddess. When we celebrate our seasonal rites, we draw the symbolism that we use from the natural world and from our own lives, thus attempting to unite the essential identity that underlies all things” (Phillips and Sandow, website) .
By following these practices, a Wiccan is affirming her belief in the sacredness of the Earth. The Earth is the Mother who sustains her and gives her life. Wiccans honor the Earth Mother by observing the changes of the seasons, and feeling these changes reflected inside themselves. In seasonal rituals focus is placed upon different aspects or guises of the Goddess: the young Maiden in the spring, the mature Mother in the summer, and the Crone in the winter. For a Wiccan, the Goddess and nature are one. By honoring the changes of the seasons the Goddess is honored as well.
Wiccans celebrate eight Festivals, which are roughly six weeks apart, and are important points in the seasonal cycle. Four of these Festivals are called the Lesser Sabbats, or Quarters. These are the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, and the Winter and Summer Solstices. Respectively, they are also called Ostara, Mabon, Yule, and Midsummer. The other four festivals are called the Greater Sabbats, or Cross-quarters. They are Candlemas, Beltane, Lammas, and Samhain.
Samhain is the Wiccan New Year. Falling on October 31st, it is the time of the Goddess as Crone, of endings and new beginnings, and of honoring one’s ancestors. Yule occurs on the longest night of the year, around December 21st. Symbolically it honors the (re) birth of the sun. That which has died in the previous cycle is now reborn. Candlemas, February 2nd, is the time of planting and young love. The Goddess is honored in Her Maiden aspect. Ostara, roughly March 21st, is the celebration of the return of spring. It is a season of growth, both inner and outer.
Beltane, May 1st, honors the Goddess as Mother and Lover. It celebrates the divine union of the Goddess and God, and of fertility everywhere. Midsummer, roughly June 21st, is the longest day of the year. It honors the sun at its peak, and also the Horned God. Lammas, August 1st, is the beginning of harvest time. The grains of the Earth, and all gifts and nourishment from the Mother, are honored. This is also the symbolic death of the God, until next Yule when He is again reborn. Mabon, roughly September 21st, is a harvest celebration and a time to prepare for the upcoming winter.
Even though Wiccan religious theory may not go into such structural detail, this fact is not necessarily important. In practice it still aligns with Blaise Pascal and his proposal to consider whether or not to believe in God as a wager. Mitchell describes Pascal’s wager as follows:
One can choose to believe in God or not. If one chooses to believe and there is a God, one receives eternal life and joyousness. If there is no God, one has only lost out on a few earthly pleasures and conveniences. If one chooses not to believe in God, there is no loss if correct, but there is infinite loss if incorrect.
Wiccans do not believe in a heaven or hell in the afterlife, but they would agree with Pascal’s advice to live one’s life as if God does exist. The difference here is that if one treats the Earth as the living embodiment of the Goddess, it doesn’t matter if it is the Goddess or not.
If it is, then we are honoring the Goddess by honoring the Earth. If it is not, then we are still honoring the Earth and thus, helping to preserve the Earth and ourselves.
We are ensuring our own survival.
de Quincey, C. (2000) . Consciousness: Truth or wisdom? Ions Noetic Sciences Review, March-June 2000, 8-13, 44-46.
de Quincey, C. (2002) . Paradox: Language, energy and consciousness. Nature of Consciousness: Philosophy, Science, and Mysticism, John F. Kennedy Reader Spring 2002, 33-56.
de Quincey, C. (2002) . Switched on consciousness. Nature of Consciousness: Philosopy, Science, and Mysticism, John F. Kennedy Reader Spring 2002, 62-69.
Guiley, R. (1999) . The encyclopedia of witches and witchcraft. New York, NY: Checkmark Books.
Mitchell, H. (1996) . Roots of wisdom: Speaking the language of philosophy. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Phillips, J. and Sandow, M. (Accessed 2002) . The wheel of the year. http://www.sacred-texts.com/bos/bos325.htm
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