A Finer Focus: The Ascetic's Path
First the fasting - three days with only water to drink, until he feels clean and clear all the way through. Then the rest of the purifications, inside and out. Then, when he is entirely clean, he goes naked into the woods, with only the great mantle of black wool, lined with linen. He lays the cloak on a bed of soft pine needles and sits on it for a while, centering himself and sending out his senses, connecting with the wights of the place, preparing himself. He chants each of the nine long prayers to his patron deity, nine times each. Over and over. It is his discipline, and he welcomes it.
Then, as night falls, he lays down and wraps himself in the cloak. Head, eyes, body, all covered like a fetus going back to the womb. He will be here, under the cloak, all night and perhaps into the next day. Perhaps longer. A small bottle of water is his only companion; he will make its sips draw out slowly, so that he will not have to relieve himself for a long time. Eventually, in the dark and the closeness and the emptiness, the wights will speak to him and the answer will come.
The Ascetic's Path has three important points to it: discipline, purification, and paring down. It has been practiced by hermits and anchorites all over the world for as long as human beings have sought out the transcendent. Also called the Path of Silence, its purpose is not to work the soul up into a state of high vibration in order to blast it open, but to work it downwards into a place of utter stillness and silence, so that it may open gently and slowly.
It's a slow path, and probably the least likely to give any form of immediate gratification. In fact, it's the opposite of everything to do with immediate gratification. However, doing it with a martyred attitude is not going to get you the results that you want. As with all these paths, headspace counts for a lot. Going into it with a semiconscious mental rumble of "This is boring. When can I quit? When am I going to get to where I want to go so I can stop this?" is a sure route to self-sabotage. It's all right to acknowledge emotional and spiritual struggling, but your attitude should be one of being determined to engage in that struggle, not merely flailing passively and resentfully. If you absolutely cannot do an Ascetic's Path activity with a decent attitude, don't do it. Try something else instead.
On the other hand, if you begin an Ascetic's Path activity and you find it difficult , but you're not so sure that you want to give up just because of difficulty, ask the Gods and wights for help in deciding. They may have a better idea than you as to whether this will be useful. Some people do just give up too easily, and it may be good for you to stick it out. If you've been ordered to do one by a deity, you'd best do it even if you hate it. Your task will then be twofold: making it through the activity, and working on having a decent attitude about it while you're doing it.
The Ascetic's Path is one of coming to terms with limitations and restrictions. It's not
about overcoming them, it's about using them as tools. Most people think of limitations and
restrictions as entirely negative, but you can't focus on something fully without limiting your
peripheral attention in some way. Some restrictions are good, like a rope anchor while mountain-climbing, or a safety helmet, or not living on chocolate fudge and soda for fourteen days in a row.
In fact, spirit-workers throughout time have deliberately taken on restrictions and limitations in
order to gain more power, or been ordered to take them on by the spirits that they work with. We
call these taboos, and the further you go down this path, the more taboos you will gather. That's
why I've put the chapter on shamanic taboos at the end of this segment of book.
The first point is one that many modern folk have a hard time with, especially those on Pagan paths. Spiritual discipline is seen as something that other, more uptight, less hedonistic religions do - Catholic or Buddhist monks, for instance, or Hindu beggar-priests. It's not ecstatic like the Path of Sacred Plants or the Path of Rhythm, and it's not impressive like the Path of Ritual or the Ordeal Path. At the same time, it's daunting. As one teacher of spirit-workers points out elsewhere in the book, getting someone to do even one small devotional thing every single day is nearly impossible, especially in today's hyperactive sound-bite fast-food society. We are, as a culture, very poorly equipped for any work on this path. That's a good reason why we need it all the more. Remember that part of getting into an altered state has to do with doing things that are not part of your outside-world routine, things that jar you into a different state of being. For those who lead irregular lives, a disciplined routine for even a few minutes per day can create that non-everyday space.
Spiritual discipline has been likened to the soul-equivalent of developing body memory. As any martial artist knows, if you do the same movement over and over in a ritualized manner, eventually your body will pick up the memory of how to do it, and be able to replay it without conscious direction from your mind, thus freeing you up to do other things while the body runs on automatic. Similarly, the psychic acts of grounding and centering and other techniques, if done often enough, can create a psychic astral-body memory that will run on automatic while your mind is freed up to notice other things. Spiritual disciplines do this same thing for the soul. Eventually, after a time, your soul will learn to fall into a groove and reach a certain preliminary state of openness and clarity, triggered by the discipline.
Conversely, body memory - especially when done mindfully and accompanied by the proper moving of chi through the body - is a common and accessible route to spiritual discipline. Certain types of martial arts are good for this, especially meditative ones such as tai ch'i, or the ones with repetitive solo katas. Getting up and doing the same series of body-and-chi-moving exercises over and over can be a good tool for quieting the mind and creating spiritual silence. Other useful body-path vehicles might be yoga, repetitive physical labor, or running.
I get a lot of clarity from running. In my case, running very long distances is a good thing for me. I consciously run; I'm not just some idiot jogging. I'm purposeful and I'm scouting or I'm being an envoy, listening and looking around to see what's happening in the woods or with the animals, being aware of my breathing, not shirking from the negative emotions that are coming up. If I do ten or fifteen miles, I can pretty much push everything aside for that time. Fifty miles? It comes and gets you. You can't ignore, it, because you don't feel good all the way through a fifty-mile run. So when it comes and gets me, I continue to breathe, and do my various mind-tricks for it. If I really can't just ignore whatever it is that's bugging me at the time....if it's physical pain and discomfort, I'll say, "OK, I'll run for a thousand paces and then I'll see what it feels like." And then if it still feels bad, I'll take a ten-minute walk or something, and then I'll stop altogether if it really still feels that lousy, but generally it doesn't.
But in terms of personality crises - you kind of wear them down. After three hours or so of running, you've thought of all the obvious stuff to think about, and it's all gotten a bit boring. Now you're starting to think about things you've done; maybe they were worthy and maybe they weren't, and invariably your mind comes to rest on things you've done that weren't so worthy. But you can look at them from the point that you're running a fifty-mile run, and that's a very worthy thing to do. So it's an antidote to wallowing.
Other disciplines might be daily meditation, or devotions, or repetitive physical activity, or using repetitive breathing as a daily cleanse, or specific prayers that are done routinely at certain times every day, or during certain specific activities. If you want to do some kind of daily discipline and can't seem to remember to do it every day, lining it up with other things that you do every day can help that. Some people have lined up their daily prayers with the first meal of the day, or brushing their teeth or hair, or even taking daily medication.
One young woman I knew had a schedule so amazingly erratic that there seemed to be nothing that she could count on doing every day, including remembering to eat food until late in the afternoon. She felt that there was nothing that she could use as a trigger. I asked her if she had to go to the toilet every morning when she awoke to urinate; she responded, "Of course!" I suggested that she do her prayer every morning while on the toilet. At first she felt that this seemed somehow wrong or sacrilegious, but I pointed out that if this was the only guaranteed routine moment of privacy and stillness that she had every day, it was better to do her prayers on the can than not to do them at all.
Mental disciplines can also be used as a form of mindfulness. One example of this would
be spending a period of time speaking only absolutely truthful things, or speaking only absolutely
necessary things, or not using specific words that trigger patterns that aren't good for you. One
person that I know spent a good deal of time not using the "I" pronoun, either referring to himself
in third person or (more generally) mindfully restructuring sentences so as not to refer directly to
himself. This was done as a way of hammering home the personally needful message of "It isn't all
about you." The idea isn't that one is doing this for the heck of it, but that the restrictions are part
of building a healthy spiritual structure that discourages all those things we use as excuses for not
doing what we're supposed to do.
Purification is about removing blockages from the body, and cleansing both the body and
the spirit. While there are many ways that one can do small amounts of physical and psychic
purification - healing baths, herbal teas, energy work, etc. - the Ascetic's Path takes it further.
Indian yogis, for example, have come up with some truly extreme levels of bodily cleansing, from
cleaning out your sinuses with string to severe enemas. In the Northern Tradition, we don't
necessarily go that far, although if you're drawn to that, do what thou wilt. On the other hand,
techniques such as fasting, herbal detoxing, and ritual sweats are often used in this tradition.
The northern-tradition ritual uses of the sauna (or banya, as it is called in Russia) are outlined at the end of the Path of Ritual section, so here we will only touch on the cleansing and purifying effects of using sauna as a solitary Ascetic's Path preparation. Sauna meditation is not only a strong physical detoxification, it also (ideally) has the added benefits of being done in a small, isolated, consecrated space with spirits already present and watching. If sweat-work is something that works for you, embrace the fire-etin path and go with it. Combining it with the Path of Breath and a personal ritual can be highly effective. This is the path of Muspellheim, and if you have spiritual questions about it that can't be answered by human beings, ask the dwellers in the Land of Fire.
The sauna can be a gentle purification, or it can cross over into the ordeal path, depending on how hot it is versus the heat tolerance of the individual utilizing it. Which way any particular worker leans will depend on what paths they work with; some like to push their limits as part of their purification, and some don't. Saunas have proven health benefits, including raising one's heart rate in the same way that exercise does, expanding blood vessels and improving circulation, relief from arthritis stiffness, calming respiratory problems, reducing tension, stimulating endorphins, and of course a good detoxing through the skin. (Remember not to lick the sweat off of your own or another's body during a sauna; it's loaded with your toxins and can make you nauseous. Shower off afterwards and get all that off of your skin.)
Because it's similar in many ways to inducing a fever, saunas can give your immune system a boost as well. Saunas have little effect of people with normal blood pressure, but they will temporarily lower high blood pressure. Those with naturally low blood pressure should be careful about high temperatures; calibrate your sauna tolerances slowly. The steam released from splashing water onto hot rocks also releases negative ions, as the positive ions are heavier and ground out on the rocks. This can cause a feeling of well-being and even euphoria - ever stood outside during or after a storm and breathed the air, and wondered why you were grinning like a fool? Sauna heat also increases the need for oxygen, so you breathe more deeply. Both changes in breathing and ion situation can create subtle changes of consciousness.
The tradition of going outside after a winter sauna naked and standing in the cold, or even rolling in the snow, has its own effects as well. One gets massive goose bumps, the heart continues to beat rapidly, and sometimes one can get psychedelic flashes bouncing across the retina from increased adrenal activity. A fast hot-cold transition stimulates the kidneys, causing a need to urinate. Going from hot to cold like that can be symbolically seen as stepping from Muspellheim to Niflheim, and can be ritually used in that way. In terms of ritual, the group sauna ritual later in this segment can be used solo as an opening to personal purification. However, the House of the Ancestors is usually a place where silence feels more appropriate, so don't plan loud, verbose rituals, unless you and the sauna spirits have discussed it and it feels right.
Remember to remove all of your metal jewelry when going into a sauna, especially the
jewelry embedded in your flesh. It can heat to skin-burning temperature in the hot steam, and it's
bad to be interrupted in the middle of a ritual purification in order to run outside screaming and
stick your ear, nipple or other tender place into a snowbank. If you have piercings that shouldn't
come out because they will close, replace them with heat-resistant organic materials such as bone
or horn, perhaps even special ones made for the occasion that can be charged with intent. Stone
and glass will heat up like metal, and unfortunately amber isn't a good idea either, as it is sensitive
to high temperatures and can crack, melt, or break down, and fossilized mammoth ivory can
sometimes do that as well. Organic piercings of bone or horn can be wonderful ritual things,
partaking of the energy of the Dead and/or horned animal, but they should be put into well-healed
piercings, not stuck into fresh ones, so if you've got a fresh hole, heal it up first before going into
a sauna or else use plastic, lucite, or some other non-heating but sadly synthetic material. Glasses,
too, may need to come off if they've got metal frames.
Moving from the technique of Muspellheim to the technique of Niflheim, we go from fire to water. Water is thought of as a gentler purifier than fire; this depends on how it is used. The simplest and most ancient water purification is bathing, generally a soak in a salt water bath, using about a cup of sea salt to the average tub of bathwater. Bathing regularly in the ocean is even better, but may not be possible for reasons of location or climate. Water purification is also associated with Aegir and his family, especially if you're using sea salt or the ocean itself. Herbs can also be used in the bath to produce certain magical effects; any nonpoisonous herb can be crumbled into the water, or made into a tea that is then poured in. Rather than making a giant list here of all the sorts of herbs one might use for specific things, it would be better to choose the herbs on the basis of their magical meanings or deity affiliations. For instance, one might suggest yarrow, rue, and elder for a purificatory bath prior to working with the Dead.
The areas of Niflheim that are water rather than ice include many lakes, but also the great Well of All Rivers, Hvergelmir the Boiling Cauldron. The purification technique associated with Hvergelmir is the enema, which goes back thousands of years all over the ancient world. Flushing out the bowels can be done as part of a ritual preparation of cleanliness; depending on how your body reacts to it, an enema can also verge over into the Ordeal Path, or even the Path of the Flesh. It is an intense physical experience, and the feeling of cleanliness afterwards is unmistakable.
It is also very humbling, and forces one to deal with the eliminative parts of the anatomy, which most people would rather pretend they didn't have. It forces one to be aware of the root-chakra powers of feces and rot and burial; it is important to remember that Niflheim and Hvergelmir are some of the haunts of Nidhogg, the Dragon who devours the corpses, the power of the Bottom of the Tree where compost is created that new life may grow. To deal ritually with one's colon and anus is to see the sacredness in the part of the cycle of life that includes death, rotting down, and letting go. It is about facing the depths rather than the heights, and learning that there is no shame or disgust in being a whole person who eats, shits, and partakes of the entirety of the natural world.
For a ritual enema, we strongly suggest either pure water only or water with the addition of some strained herbal tea made from very mild herbs, heated to just above body temperature. Don't add soap, alcohol, drugs, or any of the other things that people have put in for purposes of "cleanness" or intoxication. Yes, the lining of the rectum is more permeable than that of the stomach, and substances put in there are quicker to get through the mucous membranes and into the bloodstream...but that also means that it's much harder to calibrate the right dose. Also, those mucous membranes are much more prone to irritation, and chemically-induced colitis is no fun.
There are plenty of medical and nursing books on how to properly administer enemas, so
there's little point in taking up space detailing it here. Counterindications for this method include
being in the third trimester of pregnancy, having active and severe hemorrhoids, intestinal
obstructions, and an actively bleeding colon. One of the problems with too-frequent enemas (and
what's too frequent will depend on the individual in question) is depleting the friendly flora in the
bowels, You might also want to follow up an enema by eating some form of acidophilus for the
next few days, either in active-culture yogurt or in capsule form if you can't do dairy. Another
piece of advice to remember is that this is not something to be approached with a macho attitude;
several small doses are just as good as something large and painful. The point is purification, not
warrior-ego, which has no place on the humbling Ascetic's Path.
When people think of fasting, the first thing that they usually think of is simply ceasing to eat all food, existing only on water. Certainly that is something that many spirit-workers use, and we'll get to that in a moment, but first I want to make the point that fasting can simply mean refraining from doing any one of one's usual activities. It doesn't even have to be food; one could fast from any substance that comes in contact with one's body, or any particular activity. One example of this could be fasting from contact with polluted air, or overly-chemical cleaning agents.
In terms of food fasts, the place of beginning is fasting from specific foods for spiritual reasons. Many people already avoid certain foods for reasons of health, or allergies, or dissatisfaction with the way those foods are harvested. To fast from a specific food(s) for spiritual reasons is a mindfulness activity. One example is our Ancestor Fast. For this, we simply spend three days each season (usually the three days leading up to a solstice, equinox, or cross-quarter day, because they're convenient markers) abstaining from foods that our ancestors would not have had at that time of year. This sounds simple, but try abstaining from anything made from grain, beans or seeds for three days leading up to Lammas! It simply reminds you, by way of limitation, of your place in the Universe. (The full description of the Ancestor Fast is in Feast And Fast In A Pagan Worldview on the Asphodel website.)
Fasting for purification moves from simple mindfulness to actually having an effect on the body and mind. If you can't do a nothing-but-water fast due to health issues, you can still cut down to very simple foods for a few days. I'm hypoglycemic, and can't go without a certain amount of protein for more than about 12 hours, so my version of fasting is raw fruit and vegetables, and raw dairy for protein (I keep my own milk goats, so that's probably easier for me than for others). If I am fasting for more than a few days, I will add in soaked grains, but the idea is to put in just enough protein to maintain blood sugar and the rest lightweight foods. It goes without saying that any food eaten on a fast should be organic. In fact, one of the things that spirit-workers should fast from frequently (and possibly permanently, if you can manage it, which not everyone can) is chemical-laden foods. It really helps with signal clarity and sharpness; your extra "senses" will have less interference.
If you're trying a fast for the first time, you don't necessarily have to go all the way down to water-only. For inexperienced fasters with no blood-sugar disorders, it's probably best to go down to a juice fast, just drinking raw fruit and vegetable juices. For most people who are used to the average Western diet, that alone will be quite a shock to the system. Regardless of whether you're drinking water or juices for your fast, don't cut down on liquids. In fact, you should be drinking more liquid than usual, especially extra water. This will keep your kidneys going, which is imperative during any detoxification process. Keep the internal rivers flowing for your own safety.
Doing a nothing-but-water fast is what most people think of when they imagine fasting. The health benefits of water fasts have been documented in many places; it is a strong detoxification method that burns up waste elements in the body. Its mental effects are both short-term and long-term. The initial short-term effects are a side effect of low protein, including light-headedness and mental fuzziness that is the body's alarm system for lack of fuel. While this phase can be mistaken by some people for enlightenment, it's more a matter of low blood sugar. In a reasonably normal body, this will pass after a while, although a general feeling of lightheadedness may continue, including times of euphoria as the body attempts to release endorphins to deal with the discomfort associated with not eating.
Ideally, this phase of consciousness moves into another phase, where the body goes into "hunting mode". Senses become sharper, and the brain wants to focus strongly on specific things. (If your mind continues to be fuzzy, and you never move into this phase, that's a serious sign that fasting isn't for you.) While the atavistic purpose of this phase is to hunt food, it can be used for focusing on other things, including psychic work and spirit-work, religious devotion, meditating, writing, studying, crafting, or other focused activities. The emotions, on the other hand, may not be nearly as focused. Fasting can bring up all sorts of issues, and it's fairly classic for the presence of other people to seem irritating, and to be irritable towards them. There's a reason why ascetics of old went off into the wilderness in order to fast. It's an art best done in solitude, where there are no other people to break your focus or for you to snap at. It combines well with isolation, silence, low-stimulation environments, and repetitive discipline, the other ascetic-path tools.
Fasting, as a tool of consciousness, is associated with Vanaheim and the Vanir. This seems at odds with their rulership of food-growing and abundance, but few in the Nine Worlds know better about nourishment and the effect of food on the body than the Vanir, and that includes the effect of lack of food. If you have spiritual questions about fasting that cannot be answered by other humans, speak to the Vanir about them, especially Nerthus.
There are a few cautions when dealing with fasting. First, your body needs to be built up enough to be able to maintain a fast. Most modern people have a terrible diet, with enough serious holes in their nutrition that they may be subtly malnourished in certain ways. The best prelude to a fast is eating simple, healthy, nourishing, organic foods for a month beforehand to build up your nutrition. I'm not one to say that this or that food group is bad; every body and metabolism is different and there is no one diet that is best for everyone, but I'm personally in favor of food that is entirely made of food, meaning that it has not been processed into inertness. The ideal is to reduce the number of steps between harvesting the vegetable or animal product, and putting it into your mouth. Simple food, made from recognizable ingredients, is best in my opinion. Build up the nutrients in the body before depleting it.
Also, continual off-and-on fasting, just like dieting by the same method, can convince your still-living-in-the-Paleolithic body that there is a famine on, and decrease your metabolism drastically. The likelihood of this will vary depending on your natural genetic metabolism, your gender and hormone levels, your level of muscle mass, whether or not you have ever been pregnant, and how much serious exercise you are getting between fasts. If you notice your metabolism slowing, discontinue fasting and do a period of healthy eating and exercise instead. Some people just have slow metabolisms that are easily triggered into famine mode, and fasting should be used only occasionally and with care by these folks. Full fasting can also be contraindicated for people with blood-sugar disorders such as diabetes or hypoglycemia, or who have liver or kidney problems. It's also contraindicated for those with a propensity to gastric ulcers, or any condition where leaving the stomach empty can lead to internal corrosion. These folks should probably just try an extremely correct, extremely organic, partly or entirely raw version of the best diet for their health problems in lieu of fasting. If that's what they're doing anyway as a matter of course, well, there are plenty of other methods of consciousness-change listed in this book and others.
Another caution is for the medically managed, individuals who are taking daily medication of some sort for health problems. On a fast, medication (especially oral meds) may act differently, becoming stronger or weaker. It may cause gastric distress; your stomach may be able to handle getting nothing better than it can handle getting nothing but pharmaceutical chemicals. If your digestion shuts down temporarily, as it will for an extended fast that is more than two days, the medication may pass through you unabsorbed. This includes such things as oral contraceptives, antibiotics, etc. If you are on regular medication that you can't stop for a few days without serious side effects, see your doctor about getting it in injections rather than oral methods for the duration of your fast. Even if you can afford to be off of it for a few days during fasting, remember that the toxin-clearing effects of fasting can eliminate its residual effects entirely from your system, which means that after an extended fast you may need to start over as if you'd been off of it for a much longer time. This is something to keep in mind for people who take psychiatric medications, which must build up in the body in order to be fully effective. If the medication is habit-forming, you may end up dealing with those effects during your fast, which can be distracting.
I fast at least one month a year. Fasting is good for a lot of things. First, it's just good for your body, because your body's got two settings, like a self-cleaning oven - the "I'm cooking food" setting, and the self-cleaning setting. The self-cleaning part comes on after about two days of not being able to digest food. Your body then will scour everything that isn't needful, and use it as fuel. This makes you feel really cranky, because it's running your car on the dregs of the diesel to get the tank cleaned; it's running on dirty fuel, so it hunts up fat cells to use them. Some people have done very long periods of fasting; for example, people with cancer who have fasted on water for 90 days or more have found that their body has actually consumed their cancer, because the body recognizes that the cancer cells aren't actually something that it needs to survive and it eats them. There have been a number of studies that have been done on this....but when all else fails, why not try fasting for 90 or 120 days? There have been some quite miraculous cures from that.
But I don't do it like that. I'll fast on juice or something for two to three weeks. I like the MasterCleanse system, which is drinking fresh lemon juice with maple syrup and cayenne pepper to just give your body enough energy to keep doing everything. Then the last week is pure water. It's good for your body. Mentally and emotionally, food is such a comfort thing that it distracts us, so fasting gives you more time, because you're not spending any time cooking or preparing food or eating it or cleaning up after it. You have much fuller days, and the days seem to last a long, long time. So you come face to face with your karmic accounting; you can quite dispassionately look at your issues. When you're fasting your body seems to give signals that say, "We might be dying. This might be a starvation thing going on that won't stop until we're dead, so now would be a good time to get the accounts in order." So it tends to bring up those issues.
Mentally, the first couple of days are "Fucking hell, why am I doing this? I want to eat!" I have that for two days, and then from the third day on there's a great amount of clarity and it's very easy to meditate and travel and see things in a new light. You feel good about yourself, because you're purifying. I tend to incorporate the sauna and Epsom salt baths and salt-water flushes as well. You're detoxing, and it's just a good thing in general. I do it because I know that I'm a lazy coward, and if I can prove to myself by doing such disciplined things that I'm not one, then this helps me to do my job better. I definitely have to energy-feed a lot more when I'm fasting, and I'm a lot more interested in it. Everything gets very sharp, because when you're hungry you hunt better. When you're sated you don't hunt as well.-Lydia Helasdottir
III. Paring Down
Paring down is about reducing distractions. That's why isolation and sensory deprivation
are important techniques of this path. Our lives are inundated with thousands of bits of data and
stimulation, all begging for our attention. Some of us may live in a constant state of multitasking
in order to simply cope with it all. No matter how hard we try to work on getting into another
state of mind, those outside things clamor for our meager focus and distract us. If getting into that
other state is of absolute importance to your work, you may need to forcibly remove those
Isolation is the first technique. Just being alone with no one to interact with for a period of days can be amazingly challenging for some people. To really do it right, one should remove all the modern faux interactions of television, radio, the phone...and yes, the Internet. To go one step further in terms of isolation from the minds of others, one could cut out all reading of written material and/or playing of music with lyrics. Yet another step might be a vow of silence for the duration, effectively removing one's own voice from the mix. Especially for those of us who are serious talkers, the impact of going for days without seeing or hearing words, or hearing a human voice - including our own - can create intense changes in consciousness.
Set and setting become crucial when it comes to using isolation as a technique. The idea is to cut down on stimulation, and that includes clutter, loud noise, lots of random objects, and other people. This means that such activities as cleaning, throwing out clutter, and giving away unused physical possessions can be a good soul-practice leading up to or during a period of isolation. It not only creates a lower-stimulation environment, it can also be turned into a ritual paring-down of parts of your life that are no longer needed.
Of course, using this technique may find you forced to be alone with your own thoughts, fears, anxieties, neuroses, and other things that you've been avoiding. It may be that you find it necessary to spend some time - days, even - plowing through that muck in order to get beyond it. It may also be that you need to utilize other techniques to push even that aside, especially if you have a job to do, but you can be guaranteed that when you get back, they will no longer be willing to sit quietly in the basement. The price for facing them while in a non-ordinary state and temporarily going beyond them is that they will be the first things to greet you at the gate when you get back. When you go into an isolated space for this sort of thing, remember that consequence before you leave and decide how you will handle it.
Most human beings have an absolute horror of isolation, being social animals. Much has
been written about how forced isolation drives people mad, which it certainly can. On the other
hand, I was struck by the words of a Western man who was in prison for years in a Third World
country, and who told Western newcomers to that prison that it could be a torment, or it could be
a monastic experience...it was all in how one approached it.
We depend on our senses day-to-day in a way that we generally only notice when they're muffled or cut off in some way. When this happens, our first reaction is usually annoyance - we're not getting the full spectrum of information that we're expecting - and then, if it doesn't resolve itself, we may progress to mild panic. To be cut off from information about our surroundings can make our survival-brain feel helpless, and we have to move past those feelings in order to cope with any kind of sensory deprivation. After a while, though, our bodies adjust. As anyone knows who's done the experiment of blindfolding one's self for a whole day or more, our other senses extend themselves to compensate. That's why sensory deprivation is used for psychic work; if you close off enough of the senses, the nonphysical ones may start to pick up the slack, and it's a way of forcing them to do that. While for some people this may simply recall the Star Wars scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi puts a blinding helmet over Luke Skywalker's head and tells him to "use the Force, Luke" to hit the ball with his light-saber, there is solid magical practice behind that concept.
Severe sensory deprivation techniques have included the so-called "witches' cradle" or "cat's cradle". This term refers modernly to a variety of techniques which either suspend a person in a frame or specially-built harness and subject them to pendulum-type movement, or fasten them securely to inversion devices that immobilize them in an inverted position. The former technique is the more popular of the two. Researcher Jean Houston is credited with inventing the "witches' cradle" in its modern form. The modern technique is named for a medieval torture method of binding suspected witches in a sack, suspending them from a gantry, and spinning the sack around until disorientation produced hallucinations and confessions. As far as we know, there are no references to this particular technique prior to the late medieval era, and then only as a torture technique. Using it as an altered-state method was developed in the explorative 1960s and 1970s, where the "witches' cradle" term was fancifully applied to it, and eventually that got the attention of modern witches.
The classic witches' cradle consists of mummifying the body tightly in cloth wrappings (or these days a full-body suit harness), stopping the ears and eyes, and suspending the person from a gantry to swing. After a time, unable to see or hear or touch anything, and unable to move or even find where one is in space, with the inner ear constantly disoriented from light swinging, the individual "goes within" and then goes out of themselves.
The low-tech traditional equivalent to this was the practice of "going under the cloak", for both Celts and Norse/Germanic peoples. As illustrated in the first section of this chapter, this was simply about wrapping one's self in a cloak and staying there, in the closeness and dark, until visions came. The most famous recorded incident of this practice was in the year 1000 in Iceland when Thorgeirr the Lawspeaker, a pagan elder, went under the cloak for a day and a night to ask as to whether the religiously divided Iceland should accept Christianity as its sole faith. When he emerged, he sadly told the waiting masses that the Christian conversion was the only way to avoid widespread war and slaughter over the entire Icelandic colony. (One also wonders if he sensed the drawing apart of the worlds, and the fading of the doors to the Tree, which had begun by then.)
Going under the cloak is a combination of the Path of Meditation and the Ascetic's Path, in that it can be used as an adjunct to utiseta. The most common places to go under the cloak were barrows, or burial mounds, where one could commune with the Dead, but it was also used to commune with the Gods and seek out knowledge of the future, as Thorgeirr's example shows.
On a smaller scale, mild sensory deprivation as an ascetic discipline need not be so all-encompassing or immobilizing. Simply spending a period of time limiting a single sense to ritually cut down on stimulation, or creating a very unstimulating space in which to do work, can be done in a way that can be combined with limited (or even regular) daily activities. One might wear gloves on one's hands, or keep one's face and head covered, or not raise one's arms above the heart. While some of these may seem rather silly and useless, they do create a condition of mindfulness and in some cases an altered state. Jessica Maestas's essay below shows the value of this practice, ordered by a Northern-Tradition deity. Indeed, silence and sensory deprivation are things often associated with Hela, the Goddess of Death, and the other demigods who are the staff of Helheim. It is very much a Helheim-type practice, which is why it is associated with the Dead, but at the same time it also has associations with such silent Aesir goddesses as Vor and Var.