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Spirit is sometimes referred to as the “fifth element.” This idea goes all the way back to Aristotle and his idea that the celestial realm was made of a fifth element (quintessence), ether, which is not found here in the sublunar world.
Four is the number of order and stability. A house has four walls; there are four cardinal points of the compass. The laying out of buildings and boundaries with right angles was so important to our ancestors that our words for measuring off squares are intertwined with our words for propriety and authority: rectangle, regular, regulation, regiment, rex (king), ruler (both kinds), right (both senses), rectify, direct (both senses), correct, rector…the list goes on and on.
The four-fold order is static, not dynamic. Every element has its quadrant, and every quadrant its element. There is no room for mystery, for surprise, for magic. Something is missing, and that something may be called spirit. Here’s one way to think about spirit: if someone created a robot that looked and behaved just the way you do, would the robot be you? Most of us would say no—being alive is more than simply going through the motions. We also have consciousness, a point of view, an interior depth; there is something more than mind, will, heart, and body, some center of awareness that experiences our thoughts and desires, feelings and sensations, without being completely defined by them.
Most Pagans believe that spirit is not something we humans alone possess by virtue of having a soul (in the Christian sense), or by virtue of having complex brains (as the scientific worldview would have it). Rather, we see spirit manifesting everywhere: in the plants and animals we share this world with, and in the grand, slow life of the cosmos as a whole.
Some people use the word “spirit” in connection with the element of fire. It has a different meaning in that context. Compare the two words spirited and spiritual. “Spirited” describes someone brimming with energies and desires and willfulness; that is spirit in the fiery sense. “Spiritual” refers to a connection with deep sources of meaning that lie beyond the confines of the ego. That is spirit in the sense of the fifth element.
The Wiccan pentagram symbolizes this mystery by opening the four-fold cross of the elements into a five-fold star. The pentagram gives physical form to a truth that is not itself physical. We don’t call five “quarters” when we cast a circle, and the four elements retain their own symmetries and contrasts. Spirit is not one of the physical elements. It is everywhere and nowhere. It has no list of correspondences, because everything can be an opening into spirit.
While it is essential to recognize spirit along with the other elements, it is also essential to keep it somewhat distinct, and not trivialize it by simply tacking it on the elemental quaternity.
Gnosticism is an ancient belief system whose basic tenets seem to reappear in many different times and cultures. Gnostics hold that this world is essentially a prison for the spirit. In Gnostic forms of Christianity, for example, the creator god of the Bible is interpreted as an evil demiurge, who built the world to trap us; the real God is on a higher plane entirely, and Christ is our connection to him, providing the possibility of reuniting the trapped spark of spirit within us with its divine source.
For gnostics, our physical bodies are also of the material world, and part of the evil snare that traps us here. Gnostics, therefore, sometimes tend toward asceticism. Although full-blown gnosticism was rejected by the early Christian church, it did leave its mark on the development of Christianity. The notion that material pleasures are sinful, and that life should be about preparing one’s immortal soul for a heavenly afterlife, has a decidedly gnostic ring to it.
The basic gnostic ideas are also present in some eastern religions. In many forms of Hinduism, for example, the material world is deemed to be an illusion (maya) that binds us down karmically and delays or prevents our liberation from the wheel of reincarnation.
Gnostic ideas are also woven into popular culture. The movie The Matrix presents a quintessentially gnostic view of the world, with the ancient gnostic mythos updated into a high-tech futuristic dystopia. The “new age” or metaphysical community, while not tied down to any detailed doctrinal system, nevertheless frequently plays with gnostic ideas, to a greater or lesser degree.
The relationship between modern Paganism and gnosticism is a complex one. On the one hand, many of our metaphysical ideas and magical practices derive from the Western mystery tradition and forms of occultism connected with it. This tradition has always had a heavily gnostic coloring. The “great work” of alchemy and high magic, returning the self to its divine source, comes straight from the gnostic-influenced Neoplatonists of the Hellenistic era. Some Pagans have a spiritual practice involving eastern-style meditation designed to lift consciousness out of an ego-bound and body-bound mode. Many of us would not take issue with the bumper sticker that says “I am a spiritual being having a physical experience.”
On the other hand, I think the core sensibility of modern Paganism is anti-gnostic. We feel at home in this world, and we revel in the physical experience of it. We feel at home with the plants and animals, with the changing weather and the strong earth beneath our feet. We love the pleasures of the body, and embrace sexuality as sacred. For most Pagans, the divine is not a distant light we must struggle to reunite with, but rather is as near as our own breath and flesh.
For myself, I find some gnostic ideas to be enriching. It is good to occasionally step out of my immediate experience and see it as mere “clothing” over a more universal spiritual reality. There is wisdom to be gained by transcending the details of physical life. For me, though, such transcendence is a tool, not an end in itself. It means little to me until I return and engage this life once again, enjoying its pleasures and making the most of my time here. Although I think there is a spark of spirit in each of us that is not bound to this earthly existence, I do not see the earth as a prison or an evil to be denied. Rather, experiencing this world is the great joy and calling of the spirit, it is what I am about.
My beliefs about reincarnation have shifted and developed over the years, and remain rather tentative still. When I was young, my worldview was dictated by rationalism and skepticism, and I regarded belief in reincarnation (like belief in a heavenly afterlife) to be wishful thinking, a pleasant delusion by which some people sought to avoid the reality of death.
As I became more spiritual, my skepticism softened but still lingered. I appreciated that many people had had sincere experiences of past lives, or had experienced a strong sense of recognizing other people from past lives. I tended to think of their talk of past lives as a way of articulating those experiences and their meaningfulness. but I didn’t feel the any need to take such talk very literally.
A couple years ago, I attended a workshop in past-life regression and had an experience of a past life in India in the 1700s. It was quite vivid, and its relevance for me was clear and profound. I wouldn’t say that the experience “converted” me to being a true believer in reincarnation. I’m not really a true believer in much of anything; I tend to hold my beliefs lightly and with a bit of humor and humility, and to make use of whatever belief systems seem to be helping me along my way. My scientific training has left me with an appreciation that we’re always working with models of reality, even when we talk about them in a very literal, matter-of-fact way. The reincarnation model of human life is often a helpful one, as it gives us a context for understanding our present life and its lessons.
Many people work with a pretty simplistic picture of it, I think – a person dies and their essence departs and lands in a new baby, where it carries on pretty much intact, complicated only by social and biological pressures to “forget” what the previous life was about.
My own way of thinking about is somewhat more fluid than that. It seems to me that consciousness, or spirit (or whatever terminology you prefer) is transpersonal and undifferentiated; it permeates everyone and everything. Our sense of having an individual, personal consciousness is a convenience for us in going about the business of life, but is not the best way to think about consciousness when we are trying to mature and grow spiritually.
As embodiments of spirit, we collect personality, memories, and physical being around the spiritual core that we share with all things. I see us as little vortexes of consciousness, collecting bits and pieces of things that distinguish us from others and give us a sense of personal identity. Many of the world’s spiritual traditions teach that each of us possesses a layered consciousness or a hierarchy of bodies from the simplest spiritual essence to the full physicality of our biological bodies.
Just as our physical bodies are recycled by the Earth when we die, our spiritual bodies are also recycled. The central core, in fact, has never lost its connection with the One. But the experiences, memories, qualities of personality, knowledge, and understanding that give us a sense of individuality when we are alive somehow return to the mix for reuse as well.
It seems to me that those personal qualities seldom come back as a complete unit, packaged just like before. Rather, I would say that the characteristics most closely tied to our physicality and the circumstances of our life fall away most readily when we die, and our more spiritual qualities, such as accumulated wisdom and sense of connection and relationship, cling together longer. I think the recycling process is often a mix-and-match business. Each new child draws from many previous existences and from a range of qualities and characteristics. In a past-life experience, we identify one strand of our spiritual make-up and trace it back to a person who has gone before. Saying that the person we find that way is me, however, is an oversimplification of a reality that, to me, seems much richer and more fluid.
My wife, who is an animal communicator, recently encountered a cat whose personality divided after he died, to return in several different animals, each of which was a part of the original (and, of course, something new and unique as well). I would think this is often what it is like, and we just focus on a one-to-one model when we talk about reincarnation because it makes it easier for us to grasp and work with.
Just like the matter in our bodies can be reused in many different ways, our spiritual “stuff” can get recycled in lots of ways too.
I like this way of looking at it; it makes me appreciate the vastness and intricacy of my interconnection with other creatures, past, present, and future. We are all threads in a tapestry, weaving in and out, touching and touched.
Everyone seems to have a blog these days. I resisted the lure for some time, preferring to work on my traditional web site instead, where I felt I had more control over the presentation and perhaps more of an ambiance of permanence.
I’m attracted to the more spontaneous and interactive nature of blogs, however, so I decided I’d give this a go. Whereas the web site is periodically updated with polished articles and artwork, the blog is my place for musings, comments, and observations. Look for a new posting every Friday (at least), and feel free to comment!