Much like the authors’ first book, Paganism: An Introduction to an Earth-Centered Spirituality, the Higginbotham’s have taken a rational approach to a fundamentally non-rational perspective. With Pagan Spirituality, the authors have applied the theories of Ken Wilber, a spirituality psychologist, to the broad spectrum of beliefs that fall under the umbrella term ‘Paganism.’ Wilber sees consciousness as an evolutionary continuum wherein the individual develops a healthy ego, then transcends that ego by embracing increasingly higher definitions of self, until the self dissolves into an experience of Formless or Nondual awareness. This is a model wherein the practitioner gradually becomes worldcentric by maximizing his/her human potential through spiritual, moral, cognitive, and social self-development.
The first chapter explains Wilber’s ideas of evolutionary spirituality and human development - the quadrants, levels and lines. It is one of the simplest introductions to Wilber’s ideas I’ve ever read, and is interspersed with some useful exercises. For example, the authors use knotworking to drive home the concept of developmental stages. They do a very good job of laying out the complete theory for a Pagan audience. When the idea of “developmental hierarchies” arises, they use Riane Eisler and her distinction between dominator and actualization hierarchies as an example. They also emphasize the notion of the “spiral” in Spiral Dynamics, thus using a symbol with which Pagans are intimately familiar.
At the core, the Higginbothams believe that Pagans don’t do enough inner spiritual work, and can learn much from other spiritual traditions about how to calm the mind and elevate awareness. In this I think it is a case of Pagans talking about what they *should* be doing, rather than actually following the practices.
That is a challenge, and one that may not appeal to many readers. Moreover, the authors seem to ignore common practices in favor of their new exercises as a way to do the work. For example, the knotworking exercise is given as the way to understand the developmental stages, but no where is there mention of the far commoner practice of meditation or visualization. It does come up later, but I really wanted at least a mention of meditation at this point.
One of the best discussions was on “the Dark Night of the Soul,” the sense of loss that comes from moving from one development stage of awareness to the next. Many of us experience this helpless despair and struggle to find our way through. (In my tradition, this is an integral part of the 2nd degree experience.) The Higginbothams note that this can happen at any stage of development as we mourn the person we are leaving behind, and developing skills and an entirely new set of behaviors and new way of thinking about the world. I found this part very useful. However, the authors conclude that the Dark Night of the Soul is primarily a Christian problem, because Pagans don't inherently believe they can ever be separated from Divinity. What? An intellectual understanding of inherent Divinity does not automatically make one serene. Or joyful. Or immune from despair. (I might even argue that having once known the joy of immanence, losing it makes the loss three times as difficult to endure.) Shedding the ego is always painful, I fail to see how it is a Christian problem.
I also felt that the authors glossed over the problems that can arise from getting politics and spirituality confused. Not that they can not be cohorts, but you can see in our community when people see Christians as the enemy and base their politics on that perception. It is hard to cultivate ego development when side-tracked by anger invoked on behalf of partisan politics. (The Dalai Lama would say that it is impossible to cultivate ego development when angry, period.)
Chapter Four is a perfect chapter. It is intensely practical and takes an aggressive approach to encouraging Pagans to differentiate the Divine from our tiny egos. It encourages us to “grow up” spiritually - but each at our own pace. One of the practices given by the Higginbothams includes asking yourself with which (the four presented) form of communion you are least comfortable, and defining practices and activities to overcome that discomfort.
The chapter consists of several other exercises:
Listening: A relatively common meditation exercise based on labeling all of your thoughts as thoughts, and standing outside of ego to find your Observer self.
Returning the Embrace: An exercise in which you feel the “embrace” of the universe, and return it. This exercise reminded me of some of the Buddhist practices of invoking compassion.
Connecting to That Which Flows: A meditation on the element of Water, the element the authors associate with Wilber's first quadrant.
Centering Prayer: Intense, meditative focus on a concept such as “love” or “compassion” until the concept melts away and only the pure essence of the activity itself remains. Again, very Buddhist in flavor.
Communing and the Labyrinth: A very long visualization that builds on the Spiral Dynamics labyrinth exercise in Chapter 3. I liked it a lot, but it is very complex, and I’m not sure it can be done without a group.
Blessing Ritual: A very Pagan-y blessing that involves accepting the gifts that Wilber's four quadrants have to offer you and your spiritual practice.
The chapter concludes with a discussion of how different developmental levels may approach each type of communion, and the limitations each level needs to focus on overcoming in order to advance their spiritual practice. The authors are harshest on “Red” (passion-driven) Pagans, who take a literal view of Deity and use them for egocentric purposes: “We have met adult Pagans who told us that seasonal birds migrate because they told them to, that they can imprison angels and spirits, that several goddesses are fighting over who gets to be 'pulled down' into them as priestess at the next ritual, and how they will dispatch a particular goddess to keep the utility company from turning off their gas service.” (p. 124) They also call out the tendency of Orange (rational) Pagans to debate and belittle their brethren, and of Green (globally-aware) Pagans to bash those who don't mimic their own “enlightened” choices. Wise words.
I appreciated the authors encouraging people on the Path to push their spiritual development to new levels, and doing it in a generally constructive as opposed to negative way. Most of their material is of the “Here's what has worked for us. Try it yourself, and see if it benefits you.”
Overall, this is an excellent book, with some flaws. It has taken me almost a year to work through it, giving the exercises my attention, and dealing with the issues that arose. Considering that I normally read and review a book within a month that is saying a great deal. Personally, I’m going to add it to my ‘required reading’ list for my coven members who want to get aggressive about moving through their degrees.
~review by Lisa Mc Sherry
Authors: Joyce and River Higginbotham
Llewellyn Publications, 2006
pp. 260, $14.95