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Games have always held a particular fascination for me. I love ultra-geeky games like Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering, as well as more conventional fare such as Monopoly and Solitaire. I’m not a great player at any game, mind you – but I do get into them!
When I first discovered the world of tarot, I immersed myself in the debates concerning the origins and history of the tarot cards. In one camp were those convinced that the tarot cards had been designed as a cryptic repository of occult secrets. In the other camp were those equally convinced that the cards had been created for the “trivial” purpose of a card game, with their symbolism being accidental. As with most extreme dichotomies, the truth no doubt falls somewhere in between.
My own style when confronted with arguments like these is to question the premises. In this case, both camps seem to take it for granted that no “game” could be designed with a serious or spiritual intention. This assumption is an artifact of our own times, when recreation has become very narrowly compartmentalized. It was not always so, and in fact it is not difficult to find many instances where the boundaries between recreation, instruction, and real-life task blur.
I’ve lately been reading Rules of Play, a book on game design by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. This is an interesting but somewhat frustrating read, being a textbook on a subject that has not yet solidified. The authors dip into an impressive range of topics that appear relevant to game design, from cybernetics to complexity theory to behavioral psychology, without ever managing to settle down into any kind of recipe for good game design. They don’t even quite manage to define what a game is, but a key idea is that a game creates a kind of special zone of time and space in which the player faces challenges or competition under artificial constraints. Games, perhaps, are a kind of safe rehearsal area for visiting the struggle of life in microcosm.
The authors favor the term “magic circle” to describe the way the game zone is set apart from the flow of ordinary life. Within the circle, you follow the rules of play, both explicit and tacit, while the rest of life waits outside. This naturally led me to think of the other kind of magic circle – the creation of sacred space for ritual, magic, or divination in my own spiritual practice.
Spiritual work has some things in common with games: the separateness, the immersion, the rules. Yes, rules. Obviously, there are rules for those practicing a formal spiritual system: patterns of ritual and such. But even those who practice a freer, more spontaneous spirituality work within a set of assumptions about the nature of things and the process of spiritual growth – special assumptions that we may not share with others or work with in our mundane lives. Spiritual practice presumes some system of belief and praxis, even if that system is somewhat fluid and permeable.
Meaning changes inside the magic circle. The ace of cups is just a piece of cardboard with art on it when I’m thumbing through a new deck. It is a harbinger of bliss when I’m doing a reading, and fodder for stalling tactics when I’m playing the game of tarot.
The authors return repeatedly to another concept: meaningful play. Play becomes meaningful when we are engaged in actions that move the game forward toward some kind of goal. The player’s actions need to have some visible effect on the state of the game, and that effect must be integrated somehow into the overall arc of play, not an irrelevant sidebar. Game play falls apart of we lose this sense of doing something that makes a difference – and so does spiritual work.
Furthermore, many of the most successful spiritual practitioners are devoted to the importance of playfulness within spiritual work.
So is all this that we do – ritual, magic, divination, meditation, prayer, contemplation – some kind of game?
Although there are many shared qualities, there is an important difference. A game is truly self-contained. Winning at Monopoly just means you won at Monopoly. You can’t bank the play money or go stay in your Park Place hotel. In spiritual work, on the other hand, this is exactly the hoped for result: that what we do inside the magic circle changes how we live outside it.
The promise of spiritual work, it seems, is to capture that special intensity of focus that comes when we set aside a special time and place and take up a different set of rules – capture it and release it back into life at large. We don’t want to just step out like we step out of a game, we want to somehow carry the work along with us, expanding the magic circle rather than stepping over it. (This image has given me a new sense of meaning around the classic Wiccan closing “The circle is open but unbroken”.)
The Beltane issue of Starweaver’s Gems from Earth and Sky is now available on the web at www.telp.com. Contents of this issue include
A new issue of Gems from Earth and Sky is published eight times a year.
I’ve had a long history of fascination with scientific skepticism and its relationship with spiritual practices, particularly divination. It’s a topic interwoven with my own life story in complex ways. My education and training is in the physical sciences. While in college and graduate school, I was a committed skeptic (a member of CSICOP even). Science is still my profession, and my daily work involves using statistical tests to make inferences about uncertain events. I’m quite familiar with how appealing claims often fail to hold up under scientific scrutiny. I’m also a practicing tarot reader and astrologer, and have come to feel that skeptical critiques of such practices often miss the mark. Today, I’ll share part of my thinking on that subject, focusing on a particular concept, that of anecdotal evidence.
What is anecdotal evidence? The phrase refers to an isolated account of something happening, without any comprehensive or big-picture study being made of it. If my neighbor says she drank grape juice for a week and it cured her glaucoma, that’s an anecdote. For a scientist, anecdotes may stimulate one’s curiosity, but they don’t have much credibility in themselves. For science to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the juice and the cure, a lot of questions need to be answered. We need to look at a large number of people with glaucoma, and give some grape juice and give others none, and count the number of cures in each group. Ideally, we try to eliminate any other differences between the two groups that might make a difference. And, furthermore, we probably want to give the “control group” a placebo (carrot juice, say), and not let on which juice we think might have curative properties. That way the psychology of people’s expectations won’t come into play. We’d want other researchers to be able to reproduce our results with entirely different groups of test subjects, and so on.
For the scientist, an isolated incident means very little. There’s no way to tell whether the observed effect is something we can count on working for everybody, or whether it’s just a coincidence.
Now let’s look at divination. People who use astrology, tarot, I Ching, runes, or other such tools will happily tell you stories about their effectiveness: the astrologer who told me things about myself she could not possibly have known in advance, the tarot reading that was absolutely uncanny in predicting my present situation and its outcome. (Parallels can be made with other spiritual practices, too: the Christian whose prayers are miraculously answered, the Pagan whose magic spell produces immediate and dramatic change, the Buddhist or mystic whose meditation experiences changes her whole perspective on life.) These are classic examples of anecdotal evidence, and the skeptic will tend to dismiss them out of hand. The skeptic is thinking, Yes, but now many times was it wrong – you don’t remember those, or the astrologer/reader just has good interpersonal skills, so they picked up on your situation.
Divination doesn’t hold up under controlled studies. Astrology has received the most attention. Although astrologers often point to a few studies that appear to show some statistically significant effects, scientists evaluating the whole body of scientific studies of astrology find little evidence of any predictive efficacy. When science tries to narrow astrology down to specific predictions (Capricorns tend to be leaders, Aries-Leo couples get along better than Aries-Cancer couples), the predictions just don’t pan out with random samples of large numbers of people.
Such “tests” are not entirely satisfying, though. In real life, astrologers and other diviners do not make such simplistic and literal predictions. They don’t look at the cards or at your birth chart and say “you will become a world leader” or “if you marry Jason, you will live happily ever after”. The reading may identify that you have leadership potential that is complicated by issues of self-confidence and the need for security. The client then goes away and works with those aspects of their situation through self-examination or by taking some initiative to address them. It’s pretty hard to squeeze that sort of process into the mold of a scientific experiment that would let us tally up “astrology right” or “astrology wrong” for each person who received such advice.
But there is also a fundamental question that comes up when the successes of divination are dismissed as anecdotal. In graduate school, we used to joke that the state lottery is a tax on people who don’t understand math. You can calculate your probability of winning, and conclude that buying lottery tickets will most likely simply part you from your cash with no winnings to show for your trouble. However, if you are the one who wins a million dollars through the lottery, that calculation becomes irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of people lost, you won. It’s a major event in your own life, and it is what it is. You didn’t receive the “average” return on your ticket purchase, you won a million dollars.
The probability calculations are important for the state officials who are setting up the lottery, because they predict the expected revenue for the project when large numbers of people play over the course of many years. But the individual player never gets the “average” return. They either win or they don’t.
In an internet discussion many years ago, someone was advocating a very rationalistic approach to life, even saying that he would choose who to marry by objective criteria, rather than by feelings. While he recognized that there were unpredictable factors in such a decision, he maintained this would give him a higher probability of a successful marriage. I understood his point of view, but it amused me that he would evoke probability in thinking about something like marriage, which is not something most of us are likely to repeat a thousand times so that we end up with the statistically average return of marital bliss.
Many of the most important things in life, it seems, are one-offs. If you listen to people talk about the important things that shaped their lives, they are largely stories of unique, unrepeatable events: the love-at-first-sight, the overseas adventure, the peak experience, the time they lost everything and had to remake themselves, the opportunity to pursue a dream, taken or not. Life is a series of anecdotal experiences.
The successes of divination are indeed anecdotal. But I’d like to suggest now that this need not be viewed as a weakness. Given that the important turnings of life are usually unique, personal, unquantifiable, and open-ended, perhaps there is a role for an anecdotal technology, tools and practices that help us approach the one-of-a-kind experiences that create our own personal story. Rather than predicting the probable outcome for a large random sample of people, a technology of the anecdotal would grapple with those ineffable qualities that make my experience differ from the statistical average.
I think divination does this. When interpreting an astrological chart or reading tarot cards, I feel like I am dancing in a great cloud of symbolic combinations and possibilities. There are thousands of ways to pull meaning out of what the planets or the cards present. I’m creating an opportunity for a special kind of event, where one of those thousands of possibilities lights up and presents itself as important. There is often a sense of recognition when this happens, like a truth just below the surface of the water that has now emerged into the daylight.
In my skeptical youth, when I had heard about astrology and other forms of divination, but had never studied them, it was easy for me to say why these unscientific practices were dangerous: if they made wrong predictions or gave wrong advice, people would do the wrong thing and come to harm. I expect this happens from time to time, when an astrologer or tarot reader gives some very forceful, literal advice (or advice that is taken literally by the client). Mostly, though, I think this concern is unfounded. Divination is usually about uncovering things that we recognize as important when we see them. One follows up on these things because they are intrinsically worth pursuing, not because of a blind faith in astrology or tarot. If a reading doesn’t uncover anything profound, we just make a mental note of it and get back to the business of living life.
In other words, the nature of the process is we get a big return when it hits the mark, and lose very little when it doesn’t. In my experience, it hits the mark quite often.
Divination, I think, is a way of cultivating those special experiences and insights that make the story of our lives unique. It’s not about predicting what will happen on average. We have other, more mundane ways of doing that. The very word divination comes from an earlier conception of cause-and-effect. Today, when something happens that we can’t predict, we call it random, with the implication that if it is random, it must be meaningless. Before the development of probability theory, the things that could not be predicted were seen as messages from the gods (hence, reading them was divination). Their unpredictability made them more meaningful, not less.
As we practice discerning personal significance in the placement of the planets or the symbols of a tarot card, we step outside the neat world of average cause-and-effect and into the larger landscape of the unpredictable, where meaning is personal, not statistical, and where the stories of our lives are largely written.
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.