Saturday, September 15, 2007
What is it like to have a relationship with Dionysos? Well, to begin with, he is a very intense god, whose presence intensifies everything, often to a fever pitch. He comes into our lives like a whirlwind, frenzied, ecstatic and beautiful, melting, changing, heightening everything he touches. Those walls we built up, those masks we carefully constructed to shield us from the painful and frightening things in our past and in the world dissolve before him like brittle clay submerged in water. He coaxes us out of the shadows into the light of day, unfolding us gently like a flower to behold the beauty and warmth of a world enchanted and infused with his radiance and life-nourishing essence. He drives off our sorrows and fears, leaving us free and alive, a whole vista of unexplored sensations and emotions now open to us. He holds out a cup full of the wine of life and bids us drink deeply from it, then courses through our bodies: a dizzying, maddening, blessed fire which drives us to dance and shout and laugh in a state of unparalleled bliss. This is what it means to touch god and be touched by him in return - and having felt the ecstasy of an encounter with Dionysos you will never forget it.
But sometimes that's the problem. We are mortals. It's not possible for us to maintain that peak of pure experience, of divine joy, indefinitely. Some try and manage an intimacy with him which most can only dream of - but even the greatest mystic must eventually come down from the mountain and walk amid the mortal world. And for some this can be a sad and disheartening experience. But it needn't be - in fact, it shouldn't be. Because Dionysos is no world-denying, body-hating ascetic contemptuous of the commonplace, dreaming of a fantasy land that doesn't exist. His world is here, now, and he recognizes no dichotomy - and in fact tears down all barriers which might impede the flow of life and spirit.
The goal of the Dionysian is not to have great mind-blowing trips, to cultivate strange powers and unique experiences like notches on a belt, with all the time between as this dull, dismal interlude to real existence. Rather, the purpose of the true Dionysian is to resist such spiritual dilettantism and to work a much more subtle and powerful form of magic than the maenads of old did when they drew fountains of wine from the earth or tore apart wild bulls with their bare hands. Our task is to gradually transform consciousness, to awaken ourselves to an awareness of the world as it truly is, to its beauty and complexity and contradictory nature, the inherent rhythm of creation and destruction which beats through the hearts of all living things. This pulse is so omnipresent that we often cannot hear it, since it has been with us from the moment we drew our first breath and before that even. It sounds in even the humblest of circumstances, in the cadence of our footfalls as we walk through the hallway at work, in the splash of water as we do the dishes after dinner. It is with us always, and so we never hear it; but Dionysos urges us to open our ears and listen, for that song is his song, the song of life which he performs for all creation. Such a simple thing, really, this mindfulness, this being present in the world around you - and yet for many in our fast-paced, hectic society it's next to impossible to accomplish. And so they feel disconnected, alien, cut-off from the source of life. But how much of that is just in their heads?
The biggest barrier to a rewarding spiritual life is usually one's own self. Not the true self, the primal core of their being whose fiery essence is composed of the same essential stuff as the stars in heaven and Dionysos himself - no, not their true self, but the illusionary self that we create for ourselves, composed of fears and self-doubt and the internalized criticism of our family, friends, and society. Our wants and petty aspirations, our material desires, that part of us which is defined by the work we do during the day, the clubs we belong to, our political, racial and even familial identity - all the things that we take to us and wrap around our true selves, weaving a cocoon of illusionary identity in order to fit in with other people who have a similar identity. But none of this is who we truly are, as we find when those strands are cut and fall away. It may be painful to lose them, since we can grow attached to our carefully constructed ego, but we will not cease to be if they are lost. And that is an important distinction to keep in mind. Because if we should begin to lose part of our true selves, a process of death begins. And sometimes the weight of all these masks, all these layers of ego can begin to smother our true selves, snuff out the flame of our immortal being.
And when Dionysos senses that happening he intervenes. He comes to us and challenges us to remember who we truly are, to loosen the threads that bind us, to lift the masks and stare out at the world with our own true eyes once more. And when gently coaxing and subtle reminders are not enough, Dionysos will put on a frightening visage and he will begin to tear all of that stuff away from us, devouring it with his sharp and vicious teeth, and that can be the most painful experience imaginable if you are deeply attached to the false layers. It can feel like you are being torn apart alive, the flesh peeled from your body to reveal muscle and blood and raw nerve endings. And if you resist, if your fear gets the better of you and you fight to stay trapped in ego-snares, you can even die. But if you trust him, if you let him dissolved the falseness, you will find him to be gentle and kind and full of greater love than you could ever have imagined. Not a soft, sentimental, indulgent love - for Dionysos' love is a challenge which we must always strive to meet. His love is freedom and truth, an erotic attraction to our primal being and the transcendent unity of all creation. With that love blazing in our hearts we flee from our homes, our settled, conventional existence, to run free through the forested mountain heights, proclaiming our adoration of him through ecstatic song and dance. Io euoi! Io Dionysos the liberator!
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