“UPG” stands for “unverified personal gnosis” and I’ve been spending time lately in internet spaces where this type of experience is either celebrated or scorned. Gnosis means “knowledge of spiritual mysteries.”
Earlier today I posted about a book I’d been reading in a social media group. I asked if others had read it too. One man responded that the book was “one man’s UPG” with a lot of “MUS.” (The book in question actually contains material from several people.) I had to ask the meaning of “MUS.” It stands for “made-up shit.”
I read that and had feelings…
Okay, yes, there is lots of “MUS” in this world. Lots and lots. “Gubmint” is full of it these days. And I, in common with you, dear reader, deplore what seems to be a widespread, general decline in critical thinking skills.
However, I’m not willing to sneer at or dismiss “unverified personal gnosis” just because someone’s numinous, transcendent, shamanic (yes, I know this word is often overused in a culturally inappropriate way), meditative, ecstatic, or otherwise deeply meaningful experience doesn’t “fit” within an established spiritual or religious canon. And since this blog contains some of my own “UPGs,” you will understand that I have a major bias against such outright dismissal.
Not that discernment and critical thinking aren’t good things to bring into this arena, but honestly, how in the world would anyone else have been able to “verify” the quality and content of my “spontaneous combustion” experience or the meaning of some of my most powerful lucid dreams? How would someone be able to “verify” yours?
Aside from the meaning that an individual attaches to a personal gnosis, I suggest that the only context for “evaluating” so-called “UPGs” is through a socio-cultural-religious lens that incorporates anthropological and religious studies as well as a broad knowledge of sacred literature and historical accounts of mystic experiences combined with an account of what happened to the person during the specific incident.
Some people also use “PCPG” which stands for “peer-corroborated personal gnosis” in which information and narratives are vetted by comparing independent accounts from several people which might convey similar “information.” Raven Kaldera explains PCPG as a way to assessing personal accounts and experiences in Jotunbok: Working with the Giants of the Northern Tradition (pp. 3-6).
An interesting book which I need to re-read is The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine, by Barbara Tedlock, Ph.D. (an anthropologist). (Here is The Occult Book Review on YouTube.) Tedlock’s book surveys an array of cultures and practices, but with regard to this blog, I am remembering that the book contains a discussion of how women (and female-identified people) are historically and culturally more likely to be “self-initiates” (Tedlock calls them “inspirational” shamans — having UPG experiences!) and/or hereditary shamans, linked with a family tradition. In other sorts of spiritual traditions, cis-gendered men tend to be initiated within an institution or a mystery school. (I am guessing that people who are gendered beyond binary, including those with multiple genders, were probably also often self-initiates.)
Tedlock writes: “Shamanism as a practice, however, has rarely become a formal social institution. Almost everywhere, shamanism was in the past and still is today a set of local activities and perspectives, rather than an ethnic or national institution” (p. 20). She suggests we consider “shamanic activities and perspectives” rather than “‘shamanism’ as an ideology or institution” (p. 20).
Common perspectives include perceptions of “vital energy,” “a web of life,” various “levels” of reality and the ability to journey to and through them, and “extraordinary forces, entities, or beings whose behavior in an alternative reality affects individuals and events in our ordinary world” (pp. 20-21).
According to Tedlock, shamanic activities may include forms of divination, trance work, healing, ritual ingestion of special substances, rituals, meditation, dreaming, waking dreams and visions, spirit journeys, spirit possession, gender shifting, erotic ecstasy, spirit “marriages,” chanting, and other ways of pursuing knowledge and serving the community.
These activities are ancient. And in addition to the above activities labeled as “shamanic” in Tedlock’s book, people have fasted, prayed, had ritual energetic sex, danced, ritualized pain, worked magic, focused on yantras or other sacred art, and done many other practices in pursuit of spiritual connection and transcendence, with and without concern for verification.
In ancient Greece, the Delphic Oracles experienced the gift of prophecy by inhaling ethylene fumes that occured naturally from a small cracks in the floor of the temple (first dedicated to Gaea, then Apollo). The ancient Greeks knew about the fumes as a causal factor but the Oracle, always known as Pythia, was presumably well educated and esoterically trained as well (for example, she was said to give her prophecies in a form of poetry known as dactylic hexameters). I mention this as our modern world is overrun with common sources of petrochemical toxins that effect our neurology. For example, carbon monoxide poisoning can cause hallucinations. Teenagers huff oven cleaners, glues, spray paint, and other inhalants to get high.
In addition to environmental toxins, other factors that could contribute to a UPG might include: side effects of prescription medications; recreational drug and alcohol use (not associated with esoteric ritual); “mental health” history; and even physiological or medical conditions such as electrolyte imbalances. As a teenager in the 60s, I had two experiences of nirvana on LSD, and while the effects of these two enlightenment episodes were emphemeral (compared to the life-changing impact of non-drug related UPGs I’ve written about this blog), they did seem quite “real” at the time. So I get how intentional or unintentional use of “entheogens” can work. I don’t believe that the existence of any of the above factors necessarily negates the value of the UPG either.
Given that some spiritual traditions include meditation on a “yantra” (geometric representation of a deity) or actual image of a deity or spiritual being as a way to gain spiritual advancement and attributes, I note with pleasure the role that pop culture can play in creating ecstatic experiences for fans of superheroes and antagonists, such as Marvel Loki. This video of the actor, Tom Hiddleston, appearing as Loki at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con, is a great example of a witty and vibrant invocation of an mythic figure with a growing following. I would not be surprised to learn that at least one fan “saw god” during this brief appearance! It’s no secret that persistent focus on a beloved “movie idol,” pop star, or character might very well create states similar to religious ecstasy and a longing for connection that can sometimes get out of hand for both fan and “star.” As a hypnotist, I often counsel my clients to practice self-hypnosis and/or listen to recordings to create robust neural pathways to support the changes they want. Spiritual practices are also ways of creating robust neural connections. Like the meditative focus on the tiny dot in the middle of the Ganesha yantra above, ecstatic or devotional focus on representations of deities (pop culture or otherwise) can also create experiences of personal gnosis.
So I suggest that it would interesting to know if a person’s experience of “personal gnosis” included any of the above elements. This could provide a better context for understanding and for also legitimizing the phenomena in general. (Remembering however that spontaneous experiences can also occur and transform a person’s life.)
What say all of you? If you’re a fellow traveller, please get in touch.