ON NORTHERN SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
I recently went through the reviews of my book Journeys in the Kali Yuga, and published most of them on my website here. Almost all of them are very encouraging and reading them makes my work seem worthwhile.
There has so far only been one negative, vaguely resentful review of my work, published in the recent issue of the popular Ananda yoga magazine. Although the award-winning, popular magazine has featured interesting articles through the years (including a long interview with me and a positive review of my Finnish-language book), recently certain ideological streams have been seeping into its pages, as evinced in the newest issue by the editorial speaking of white male privilege, and a preachy and decidedly unfunny full-page comic strip about a queer unicorn titled “Queer-yoga”. In light of this, it comes perhaps not as a full surprise that my book does not receive the warmest of reviews, as it is definitely at odds with these modern ideological streams holding sway in academia and mainstream culture at the moment. I mention this, as I find it important to openly criticise this negative trend before it becomes unquestionable holy writ for us all - if that is not already the case.
But I will forego the superficial or ad hominem -style arguments of the review, and concentrate instead on the relevant point of contention which it does bring up.
The main gist of the review is the perceived lack of genuine sadhana (i.e. spiritual practice) in European paganism or ethnic religion. This is a very real cause of criticism against paganism: the lack of authenticity of a broken tradition (such as we have in Europe to different degrees), versus a living tradition (such as those of India). This is a problem I deal with extensively in my book, and it was one of the reasons that I originally went to India myself: to see and learn first-hand how a living “pagan” tradition works, and then to use that knowledge, via analogy, to see my own tradition more clearly.
While the European pagan traditions may be severely fractured, they are by no means dead. The old gods still whisper to those who have ears to hear, as can be witnessed by the resurgence of paganism and ethnic religion in various forms throughout Europe. The mytho-poetic world of our pre-modern ancestors lives on in us. Even in the new issue of Ananda magazine itself there is not just one, but two longer articles dealing with Finnish folk-tradition (one about mantras and the Finnish tradition on songs and spells, and the other one about “forest-yoga”).
The solution to a fractured tradition is not the adoption of a completely alien tradition and culture of a foreign people, along with its outer trappings. The solution is the rediscovery of original living tradition, the revitalisation of its essence, and the expression of that tradition in a new but authentic form. This requires religious creativity, discernment and dedication. It is not an easy path.
The biggest difference between me and someone like the editor of Ananda magazine, who is a Finnish Vaishnava, is that while he worships Indian gods in his urban apartment, I revere the gods of my ancestors in their original temple - the forest. While I do not wish to dissuade anyone from their spiritual path, I do not see the adoption of the outer trappings of a foreign folk-religion as being very successful on any large scale. It does not bring us closer to a deeper sense of connection, which we are obviously lacking in the modern world.
I do not believe in pick-and-choosing religion from the global spiritual marketplace, as many modern Westerners do. I also do not believe in choosing a religion because of strategic or politically motivated reasons either. Just as one does not choose one’s family, one does not choose one’s ancestral tradition. The core truth is that I am already part of the mythic and magical world of my folk, and for all that it might be lacking, it is at least genuinely mine. Rediscovering and embracing this world is equivalent to a spiritual homecoming.
As to the question of genuine spiritual practice in paganism, we have deep wells to draw from for its rediscovery and practice - and it is already being practiced, although not as widely as the world religions of course. Besides the original sources, many who have gone before us have left us with their work we can now learn from. Scholars have devoted lifetimes to studying the myth, lore and history of our various ethnic religions. Pagan philosophers, both ancient and modern, have left us with an impressive corpus of thought to study and build upon. Artists have in countless ways expressed the numinous spiritual essence of pagan tradition in their works. And it is this essence, beyond philosophies and ideas, that still lives on in us.
Ultimately, paganism is not about abstract thought or right belief so much as it is about right action and a living relationship to the world. Indeed, the Abrahamic concept of creedal “religion” was foreign to many of our distant ancestors, as every aspect of life was for them part of an organic order, including the divine powers and how one interacted with them. Simply put, a pagan is one who partakes in the rites of sacrifice.
If we define paganism as the mytho-poetic worldview of our pre-modern ancestors, the central aspects of which are: a sense of connection with locality and nature, a sense of the ancestral chain one is part of, a hyper-consciousness of mortality, a cyclical worldview, and a sense of and relationship with the sacred (or “the gods”), how might we then approach this worldview in the modern age?
Collin Cleary offers some sage advice for what might help this process along in his appendix “Some notes on a form of “Therapy” for Moderns” in his book Summoning the Gods: Essays on Paganism in a God-Forsaken World (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2011 , which I can recommend. Although Cleary’s thoughts on the matter are too in-depth to be adequately summarised here, in short he suggests the following activities: Ego-displacing Activities (inducing “peak experiences” through physical risk; meditation and other forms of mental exercise; the use of mind-altering drugs), Primal Activities (activities carried out in nature; hunting; competitive sport such as fighting; sex), and both combined with an immersion of oneself in the study of the religion, culture and tradition of one’s ancestors.
As for myself, being of dominantly Finnish and more broadly Scandinavian and Northern European ancestry, I am seeking to embody the essence of authentic nordic spiritual tradition, of which I embrace both the exoteric and esoteric manifestations of. I study the lore, myths and history of my folk, and make pilgrimages to holy sites. I revere and give sacrifice to the gods and higher powers. I partake in seasonal ceremonies marking the wheel of the year along with personally significant rituals, and also conduct rites-of-passage, such as marriages and name-givings. I am devoted to learning various magical aspects of the tradition. Furthermore, with a small spiritual group and community we come together monthly for religious and vitalistic activities such as those described above.
I realise that to plant the seed for something strong to grow is the work of a lifetime. But as the Greek proverb goes, a society grows great when men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. I encourage others people to do the same, whatever culture and tradition they might be part of.
Happy Kalevala day and day of Finnish culture!