Hardship, Growth, and the Gods

Recent conversations with a young relative facing difficult times prompted a conversation that I think bears repeating here.

Heathens have a different relationship with our gods than the people of the major religions do, and as a consequence,  we also pray in a different way. We don’t tend to ask to be taken care of, or protected. We might ask for help, we might ask for a specific boon to be granted, but we do not in general look to our gods to take care of us.

To illustrate my point, let me retell the popular “Footprints In the Sand” story from an Odinic perspective.

One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with Odin.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to Odin.

After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.

This really troubled me, so I asked Odin about it.
“Odin, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”

He yelled, “Of course I left you, you @^%#$ idiot! How the hel will you ever learn anything or become strong if I go around carrying you? Use your head!”

The heathen way is to develop the self, and to try to become a better person, in all the different ways we heathens define that. We heathens do not wonder why there is evil, hardship, and bad luck. We do not expect that our gods will protect us from these things. Instead, we try to use these things to learn and grow.

Hierarchy as a Religious Concept

Today, it is time to talk about an important, yet increasingly overlooked part of heathen religious philosophy: hierarchies. Ah, I can hear the outraged howls and lunatic rants of the Righteous Radical crowd already. You know who I mean. The crowd that believes that all hierarchies and ranks are inherently evil. The crowd that spends all of its time online ranting about how everyone except for them are fascists who need to be forced to think and behave Correctly. The crowd that starts screaming “Help! Help! I’m being oppressed!” every time anybody expresses an opinion that contradicts one of their own. The crowd that has to spend all of its time foaming at the mouth in cyberspace because it can never get anything real done. Because when they get together, every least detail of every proposal has to be debated by everybody. Because everybody’s voice has to be heard about everything. Because only the person who is holding the Talking Feather at the moment can talk, and there are a lot of people waiting for their turn with the Talking Feather.

When everybody gets to be Captain, nobody’s a Private. Trouble is, Privates are the ones who get the actual work done, and part of the reason why they can get the work done is that only one person is giving them orders. Instead of, you know, an unruly mob of puffed up egos all trying to give orders to each other. The reason that all human societies create hierarchies is that it is stupidly, fatally inefficient to reinvent the wheel for every single problem you face. Experience is required to solve any significant problem, to perform any important task. Not everybody has the right kinds of experience to solve every kind of problem, and the totality of human knowledge is so vast that no one person can understand all of it. So humans develop specialists. Some gain the experience to govern societies, others gain the experience needed to master a science, others learn how to educate children, and so forth. This way, each job can be done well, and there is no need to waste the enormous amount of resources needed to educate everybody about every single thing.

Look at it this way: when the leopards start dropping out of the trees, which group of people do you think is going to survive? The one where one strong, experienced leader instantly shouts out orders for defense, which are instantly obeyed because everybody knows their roles? Or the one where everyone sits down and pulls out the Talking Feather to determine whose vision of a defense strategy should be used?

Odin is the heathen embodiment of the understanding of the need for hierarchies. He is the chief of the gods, the lord of Valhalla. He is the leader of the einherjar and the valkyries. In many ways, Odin is the god of hierarchy. His people tend to not only believe in hierarchies, but to see the spiritual world expressed in a wide array of hierarchies.

Odin is not only a god of leaders, societies, and hierarchies, though, he is also a god of individuals. He is the god of the young warrior trying to work his way up the military or political hierarchy of his people. He is the god of the scholar who seeks to learn and grow enough to work his way up the academic hierarchy. He is the god of the wargs and loners who reject hierarchies and choose to live outside of them. This seems like a contradiction, but in fact it embodies a profound understanding of human nature and the way in which human societies function.

Human societies function because of dynamic tension. A society run by conservatives would be a nightmare. So would a society run by liberals, though in a different way. A society where both conservatives and liberals hold some power, and pull society first one way and then the other? That manages to be almost livable on frequent occasions.

A society which is too rigidly hierarchical tends toward the fascistic, the bureaucratic, the inefficient, the evil. A society which tends completely toward the individual at the expense of hierarchies tends towards the chaotic, the savage, the divided, the unjust, and the inefficient. What is needed is a society that has hierarchies that are counterbalanced by strong individuals, some of whom work within the system and some of whom live outside of it or even fight against it. THIS is a healthy society. The individualism in it restrains the hierarchies from excess, and the hierarchies tame individual excesses.

This is why Odin is god of hierarchy and of individualism both. He represents the dynamic tension that a healthy society needs to survive and even thrive.

Two Battles

I used to be an amateur mixed martial artist. For ten years, I took part in an open-hand nearly-no-holds-barred tournament against a wide variety of fighting styles, in a setup much like the UFC was back in the days of Royce Gracie. I sometimes also fought in a collar-and-elbow wrestling tournament, and was also a member of the Broadsword League, dueling dozens of opponents (with wooden swords). I learned a lot from these experiences. One of the most important things that I learned was the fact that every fighter fights two battles for each fight. There’s the fight itself, of course, but there’s also the fight that happens before you step into the ring.

Every fighter who’s not an idiot or a psychopath knows what I am talking about. At some point during the lead up to the fight, whether it is mere minutes or days ahead, fear sets in. You know how much pain you are facing. You know that, even in a largely safe sport, you are still risking your life. You know that, even if you win, you are going to end up battered, bleeding, and exhausted in a way that few people could even imagine. You get assailed by doubts about your skills, about your strength. You can’t shake the thought that your past victories were flukes, due to luck, and that this time you’re going to get stomped. You worry that your opponent is tougher, stronger, and more skilled than you are. These fears can become powerful. It can take all of your nerve and willpower to take the walk and step into the ring. Those minutes before the referee calls “FIGHT!” can be amongst the most nerve-wracking you have ever experienced.

During the fight itself, of course, you are usually much too busy to bother with such matters. But I’ll tell you this for free: fighting that first battle builds character, and then some. It builds willpower. It helped me develop the willpower to quit smoking. It has helped me become strong enough to do absolutely anything I put my mind to. It has helped me to keep going at any task long after everyone else has quit or collapsed.

This is one of Odin’s most important lessons. Even in this relatively peaceful modern age, even ordinary people who have never seen a battlefield and who will never see one can still benefit greatly from what the god of battle has to teach. I recommend that everyone have at least one good fight in their lives, something that can serve as an initiation experience, or a coming-of-age experience. Something scheduled for at least a month away, to give you plenty of time to face that first battle. You may get hurt, but the lessons you take away from the experience will aid and enrich your life for the rest of it.

Hail Odin.

Everything Furthers

If I had to sum up the heart of the Odinic path into two words, they would be these words:

Everything furthers.

An Odinist does not shy away from doing something that is hard, because effort is beneficial. An Odinist does not shy away from doing something that is painful, because pain is a most useful tool. An Odinist does not shy away from sacrifice and loss, because these things too can be beneficial.

When times are tough, Odin does not offer mindless reassurances that everything will be alright. He does not claim that every bad thing is part of some mysterious, invisible greater good. He does not promise an eternity of reward in some future existence. Instead, he teaches practical ways to use and benefit from the world as it is.

The wisdom that Odin teaches is the wisdom to see the benefit in everything. By that I do not mean some blind Panglossian optimism, I mean learning to use all experiences for your own benefit. Consider:

Have you been injured, and find yourself in constant pain? Then you have the opportunity to learn how to focus your mind, be productive, and keep your mood up under difficult circumstances. If you can manage to do these things, you will be sharper, happier, and more disciplined for the rest of your life.

Hungry? Then you have the perfect opportunity to use the clarity of mind that hunger brings to sharpen your meditative state, which brings mental health benefits.

Lost your job? Now you have the chance to work on your powers of persuasion, which will benefit you in all areas of life.

Have you been betrayed by a loved one? You now have an unparalleled opportunity to work on disciplining your emotions, on being productive even while heartbroken, on not lashing out in anger when you feel pain. Learning to do these things will make you a better person.

Are you suffering from depression? Then you have the chance to condition yourself to think in ways that do not reinforce the depression, and instead lead on to better moods. While medications may help, conditioning your mind to steer clear of depression naturally will be a much more effective treatment.

Everything furthers. The mind of an Odinist is like a bonfire: everything put into it becomes fuel. Good things, bad things, indifferent things, all become fuel. Pleasant things, unpleasant things, the mind of an Odinist takes all that comes his or her way and turns it to his or her benefit.

This makes an Odinist unstoppable. An Odinist does not run from fear, or pain. An Odinist keeps going long after everyone else has quit or collapsed. An Odinist can be knocked down, but cannot be kept down.

Some people find Odinists to be dark, strange, even unpleasant. They do not understand why we embrace pain and suffering the way we do. Let me tell you something. It isn’t masochism. It isn’t even really darkness. It’s more a matter of being able to recognize power and opportunity where most people cannot see them. Odinists desire growth, strength, intelligence, and wisdom above all other things, so we take advantage of everything that comes our way.

And you know what? Being able to see value even in scary, painful things means that fear and pain aren’t such big deals to us. It actually makes us happier, and more well adjusted in general.

Now, Odin’s way is most certainly not for everyone. However, his example is something that anyone can learn and benefit from. Especially when times are dark. All you have to do is remember that everything furthers.

May Odin bless you.

The Power of Negative Thinking

People talk a lot about the power of positive thinking, and it does indeed have its benefits. I, however, often think I have gotten more mileage out of the power of negative thinking. Before you think I’m just being funny, let me try to put it to you from an Odinic perspective.

Life is hard, sometimes. Sometimes, it’s hard all the time. Occasionally it seems unbearable. Positive emotions such as hope can sustain you through these times, but the darker the times get, the more difficult it is to experience them.

Odin’s way shows another, surer, form of motivation. One of the paths that he teaches to his devotees is the path of the warrior. He is the god of war, and often gifts his followers with war-related skills and experiences. Another is the path of the ascetic. As his sacrifices at the Tree and the Well show, his particular type of mysticism utilizes pain and sacrifice.

Both of these paths make extensive use of negative motivation, negative thinking. Any fighter knows what it’s like to be knocked down, gasping for breath, vision a tunnel, stomach a hell of nausea, with the enemy still on his feet, strong, fast, closing in. It isn’t the power of positive thinking that comes to your aid then. It’s the cold, heartless voice from deep within, or far without, that says “Get on your feet, you pathetic weakling.” Any ascetic who has used the Fast Path, the Diamond Way, knows the point where all of your resources are gone, and all of a sudden you AREN’T resisting the pain any more, and there’s a moment of panic, and that moment’s enough to trigger a vicious cycle of doubt and fear. At that moment you are beyond self confidence. You are beyond hope. You are naked and alone before everything that ever hurt you. The motivation to hang on, re-establish the meditative state, and reach then end of the rite instead of giving up comes instead from sneering, mocking laughter at your failure. It comes from the fear of negative consequences.

This principle does not just apply to extremes of Odinic practice. Sure, use positive thinking, positive motivation, when you can. But do not neglect the power of negative thinking. Adopt the principle that “Everything furthers,” everything is useful when approached properly. Feel guilty about treating someone badly? Don’t just try to get over it, USE IT TO CHANGE YOUR BEHAVIOR. That’s what the emotion’s for, after all. Fearful of failing midterms? Don’t try to relax. Use that fear to drive you to go study some more, and increase your odds of passing. Feel a lack of self confidence? Don’t paint over the problem by learning to “love yourself as you are,” use the badness of that feeling as a goad to make yourself become someone with the skills and abilities to give them self confidence.

Negative thinking. Is it nice? Hel, no. But it’s damn useful.

Putting on the Wolf Skin

frontcoverIntroducing my latest book, Putting on the Wolf Skin: The Berserkergang and Other Forms of Somafera.

The berserkers are legendary: mad, hairy Viking warriors who fought like wild animals, giving no thought to fear or pain. How did they perform seemingly supernatural feats – and what did they have in common with ancient Greek women dancing to exhaustion in pursuit of their god, or Vodoun practitioners eating glass while possessed by spirits, or Pentecostal preachers speaking in tongues, or even mad scientists walking the fine line between inspiration and insanity? Although arising out of widely varying cultures and worldviews, all of these people used heavily altered states of consciousness to enhance the functioning of their bodies and brains.

Today the berserkergang is being revived, drawing not only on ancient accounts, but on similar traditions around the world and throughout history. Together these practices are called somafera, “the body wild.” This book explores the many variants of somafera – including its martial, religious and intellectual applications – with a concentration on the berserkergang. The author shares his personal experiences as well as the results of decades of research. Both theory and practice are addressed, and examined from a unique combination of spiritual and scientific perspectives.

Available for purchase on Amazon.com, or direct from Createspace.

Some Thoughts on Odin’s Path and the Modern World

Today is the anniversary of my berserker initiation. Fourteen years ago I stood in the ancient ruins of Dogtown, abandoned centuries ago and considered haunted ever since, and faced the ritual fire. In the years since that night, I have been asked why many times. I have answered that question several times, in other places. On reflecting on the experience today, I was moved instead of why to talk about the reason why the question gets asked at all.

The simple reason why people ask me this question is that today’s world is seriously lacking some of the Odinic values. Many people, even many heathens, do not believe that Odin has anything to offer today’s world. But it’s not as simple as that. You see, this is only one side of the issue. The other side is the other question I get asked by a very different bunch of people: why don’t I rely on the aggression of the berserkergang and the Odinic path more than I do? There are, broadly and stereotypically speaking, two kinds of modern heathens. Both of them tend to miss the true Odinic path in some ways, I think.

To understand the context of these questions, I have to share a little bit about my past. I was born in “The Armpit of the Nation,” that area of Massachusetts comprising the cities of Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, and Lovell. It was an economically depressed area, all dying mill towns and gangs. My childhood was rather violent. I was shot before I hit my teens. It gave me a rather skewed understanding of the world, perhaps, but it also gave me a high tolerance for hardship and danger. It is a big part of what made me an Odinist. I needed power, and the ability to fight, and he offered me both. It also helped lead me to live the kind of life that I have lived since growing up.

I am, as I discussed in my last post, primarily a scientist. My life has largely been dedicated to pursuing my own scientific studies, even though there is no money in it. That is, after all, how I helped to redevelop the berserkergang as a living practice. As such, I know a lot of academic people, a lot of thoughtful philosophical types. Some of them are heathen. Many of them are atheist. Most of them are liberal. Many have been my friends. Most of them don’t get me, though. They find me scary, and violent, and they do not understand the “dark, risky” path that I have chosen to walk. They ask me why I am an Odinist. They ask me why I have become a berserk. To them, such things are insanities from a bygone era. And yes, this includes many modern heathens.

It seems that they don’t understand two things. One: the world actually is still a scary, dangerous place. Yes, they have the fortune to live in the better parts of a rich country, and can choose to pretend that such places do not exist. That does not make them go away though. A great many people aren’t as fortunate as they are. I got myself out of a bad beginning to life through the Odinic path. The things I have learned on that path have been of use to others.

Additionally, Odin is a god of much more than war. He is the god of inspiration, and also of science. (Which is just a specific form of inspiration-derived work.) Science depends on the eureka moment, the moment of insight when everything become clear and you realize how it all works. That moment can be deliberately triggered, through the practice of certain Odinic arts, and that is a skill of inestimable value to all forms of science. It is also difficult, and extremely stressful. The character development I have gone through pursuing the Odinic path’s more, er, vigorous aspects is of incalculable value in this too.

I have never much cared for the stupid little rules and popularity contests of society, so it was easy for me to make the decision to reject it all and live the way I wanted to. A big part of this has involved wandering the Earth. I live to see cool stuff. I live to discover secret things, and to set my eyes on sights never seen before. I have traveled all over the Americas and Europe, in both hemispheres. I have been privy to the secret rites of the Chanting Dervishes, and talked at length with an Isawiyaan elder, whose kind has long been thought to have vanished. I have walked through a necropolis on the other side of the world, explored caves running far beneath the surface of the Earth, been in a fortress with walls so thick they had internal highways, and seen places that look far more like alien planets than places from this world. I have partied with bikers and with crowds that contained fashion designers and Kennedies. (Bikers party WAY better.)

When you wander that far, you keep winding up in strange and even dangerous situations. I’ve had to intervene in domestic violence situations more than once. I’ve gotten involved in trying to get an idiot out of the dangerous situation with organized crime that she thought she could handle. I’ve been accosted by various street thugs and robbers. I have fought no holds barred matches against sumo-sized giants and special forces soldiers half my age, in a ring made of barbed wire. It hasn’t been a boring life.

Because of this part of my life, I have also come to know a wide variety of soldiers, professional sport fighters, thugs, borderline criminals, outright criminals, hookers with hearts of gold, lowlifes, noble hobos, vaudeville performers, and various other colorful characters. Many of these have been right wing. Many of them have been heathen. Many of them have been my friends. They don’t get me either, mostly.

I tend to end up having the same conversation with these people, too. For example, I was discussing my martial arts training with a younger fighter one day, and mentioned that my sensei had rebuked me sharply one night when I came to see him, expressing pride at winning a street fight. He told me that hand to hand combat, though a necessary skill, was a minor one, and only to be used as a last resort. He said that instead of pride I should feel shame, because I was not instantly aware of the situation well enough to manipulate it to be resolved without violence.

The kid found this puzzling. He asked for an example. So I told him about one of the more dangerous shifts I had as a social worker. I have been a security guard and a body guard, but I NEVER saw so much action as when I was a social worker. One night at the shelter for runaway teens, my kids came running in quickly, then sat down and behaved very well. This naturally made me suspicious, and I soon had the truth out of them: they had gotten into a gang fight with a gang that had proved to be more hardcore than they were, and they had fled. Upon further questioning, they revealed that they may not have lost them while fleeing the battleground.

Sure enough, the shelter was soon confronted with some 14 tough guys demanding that my boys come out and face the music. Calling the cops was no good. In that neighborhood, they never showed up in under 30 minutes, hoping things would resolve themselves first without risk to them. So I told my idiots that I was going outside and that if they didn’t stay inside, then if we all survived the confrontation, I would kill them myself. Because I had proved to them that they could trust me to look out for them AND to kick their asses if needed, they obeyed.

So, I went up to the end of the driveway and faced the other gang. Because I was alone, I had several seconds in which they would listen to me talk. After all, I obviously was not a threat. Because I have had, thanks to my sensei, extensive training as a Mentalist (read: Headologist, or Functional Amateur Psychologist) I was able to do what is known as a cold reading on several of them, particularly the leader. My single unarmed man bit bought me the time for it. So we chatted for a few minutes, while they aired their grievances and threats, and I selected a strategy. I berserked, but only a bit. Just enough to seem dangerous. And I told them, in a calm level voice, that they did indeed have the numbers and weapons to kill me. I also promised them that the first four across the line that separated us would die. I described how, in detail. And I promised them that I was not going to allow them to go after my idiots, even though, yes, they probably were the ones in the wrong.

Somehow, none of them wanted to be one of the first four. So they all held back. Once their hesitation went on long enough, I made it clear to the leader that he had lost control of the situation, and that it was time to move on. Not being a total idiot, he did.

You see, I had used a much better weapon than a gang of armed teenagers. I used Story as a weapon. I fed them a story that they would believe, that would make them choose of their own free will to behave as I wanted them to. What, a strange man confronting a gang of armed street thugs all alone, without any weapons? Talking like he has no fear at all? Well, they’ve seen that scene a hundred times, in movies and on TV. The obviously outmatched weirdo always turns out to be a vampire, or a legendary hit man, or something like that, and kills everybody. And, well, what kind of halfwit would BLUFF something like that, right? So they believed me just enough to lose their nerve.

The young fighter I was talking to asked why I took the risk I did. I am a skilled berserk, he pointed out, and could likely have simply scared them all off or actually kicked their asses (not bloody likely) rather than dissemble, bargain, and manipulate in a scheme that required me to be unarmed and alone. He thought it a foolish risk. He thought my sensei’s advice foolish. He said that I should have taken pride in my berserker nature, and my status as an Odinic priest, and taught them a lesson they would never forget.

I get questions like this from this crowd all the time. And similar ones, like why I pay heed to the moralities and beliefs of other cultures, or why I still hand out with elitist eggheads and never joined the armed forces and fought in a real war.

You see, this sort of heathen doesn’t really understand Odinic values in this modern world either. It is no longer enough to fight for the sake of fighting! That is a foolishness of the ancient world, a weakness that we would do well to leave behind. My left-wing friends are correct there. All lives are valuable, all lives should be cherished. An Odinist in today’s world SHOULD have handled that situation as I did. Odinists are expected to be heroes. Modern people are expected to have ideals. So I do not feel, as my right-wing brothers and sisters, that such sentimentality is a weakness. Indeed, I have found it a great source of strength. And because I am a hero, I will take risks to live up to those ideals. That means protecting the stupid teenagers I was responsible for from the consequences of their own actions. It ALSO meant protecting the attackers, if I possibly could manage it.

And you know what? I DID. I sent them all packing without ANYONE having to get hurt.

Particularly me.

All because I used a warrior’s BEST weapon: that 8 pound lump of grey goo in my skull. And this wasn’t an isolated incident. Since I graduated from my martial arts program, and got enough experience in the real world to have some worth as a serious fighter, you know what?

I’ve never had to fight. I have handled every situation that has arisen in the last several years by using my head and my words. And this is because I think I do understand a thing or two about Odin’s path and its relationship to today’s world.

My pacifistic, liberal brothers and sisters are wrong that only thugs and professional lawmen have need of the skills of war. Lawmen cannot be everywhere, and even privileged rich countries have many dark and bad things happening all over. Because I had the skills needed to fight for my life, I had the confidence to tackle a few of these situations. My more war-like right wing brethren are also wrong. Because I had the benefit of modern, peaceful, evolved ideals I could manage to resolve things, again and again, so that nobody had to get hurt. I survived to fight another day. My kids survived. Mission accomplished, minimum fuss, maximum efficiency. Because I could take the high road, and show that you could be a better person even in the face of danger, I could really make these kids listen when I told them that their lives could be better, even nobler, than the lives they were then living. It is because I see both Odin’s higher intellectual functions and his base warrior functions that I could do these things.

Of course, many of you dear readers are going to see this as a simple excuse to boast on my part. Somehow, whenever I have to talk about any experiences from either my scientific work or adventuring, most people leap to that conclusion. But I think that what I have to say here is important. Odin offers something unique to the modern world, something that it needs. Odin’s path allows everyone, even lay people, to receive some of the benefits of the warrior’s path, without the need to become a soldier. It encourages people to have heroic ideals. And it offers a way to uphold those ideals, without either weakness or compromise. Odinists can benefit from the perspective of both right and left wing, both liberal and conservative. Odinists can go far beyond the limits of either of these philosophies. And that understanding won’t be passed around unless people talk about something other than either the knee-jerk violence and warrior-responses of the right wing heathens or the often unworkable but still beautiful and all too necessary ideals of the left wing heathens.

I came to much of this understanding on a road that started on the night that I stood in the ruins of Dogtown, and held my hand in a fire, and understood what GOING BERSERK truly meant.