Aug 13, 2022
Martin Goodson

Bargaining with Spiritual Powers

The Hidden Art of Spiritual Transformation

While the spiritual world may or may not be real, the way humans have bargained with these powers have many common features.



The sense that we are subject to greater powers in the world has filled humanity with both awe and terror, which have been, and still continue to be, personified.  Whilst it may be true that the forms of divinity are the product of imagination, what they point to is quite real in experience. Little wonder then that we have always sought to strike a bargain with this ‘otherness’, these powers which we instinctively feel to be shaping and guiding us and the world around us.  There are several ways of relating to something; as an equal, as a superior or as an inferior and there are several sub-categories within these three divisions.

The Inuit shaman has power of his own and, if he needs to wrestle the soul of one of his patients back from the denizens of the Seal Mother,  he will undertake the spirit journey himself and, using his own spells and power, will endeavour to bring back what was missing to make his patient well again. In this way the shaman sees himself as co-equal with such spirits and if he meets some power greater than his own then a more powerful shaman will have to be called upon. 

On the other hand, in the tradition of Dr. Faustus, the magician commands the spirits armed with Holy Names and words and is the superior of the powers he calls forth. But this method too is fraught with great dangers, the primary one being the pride of the conjurer.  Taking the superior standing means one is ever anxious of being usurped. Therefore, the powers called are seen as demonic, not to be trusted. Because the magician has assumed to himself a power that is not his own (it belongs to the God whose names he uses to command), he clings to it. His fear makes him susceptible to temptation and thus we have the traditional folk belief in the pact with the devil and the calamity which that brings in its wake.

The attitude of inferiority to the other power results in the many examples of making bargains in order to bring about the desired result. “If you get me out of this crisis, then I promise to be really, really good!” The problem with this attitude is the one of duplicity;  under pressure I’ll promise to deliver the earth but, once the crisis is over, then it is a different matter and such promises no longer seem important.

The well – known story of Mother Hollé, from the Brothers Grimm, is a good example of this type of intentional manipulation of other power.  We have the two sisters; one innocent and one, (driven by a calculating mother), avaricious.  The first sister happens to fall down the well and finds herself in a magical landscape.  She performs the required good works and meets Mother Holle and with her good attitude ends up receiving her golden rewards.  When she gets back, the mother pesters the other daughter to try her luck so, whereas the first daughter accidentally fell down the well, the second daughter jumps in!  However, her mind being on the prize, she is impatient and neglects the good works and the duties given by Mother Holle and thus her reward is to be covered in tar and the subsequent humiliation of being sent home in this state.

Undertaking a spiritual practice can also reflect these three attitudes, perhaps at different times.  I want something, - maybe it is enlightenment (whatever I imagine that may be and it being a mystery is not a stop to the imagination!), or perhaps I am experiencing some specific problem that I believe a spiritual practice can help me with.  There is also the possibility that life, as it is, feels dull and my curiosity is aroused by the idea of spiritual fulfilment.  The Buddha was well aware of this and his teaching of the Four Noble Truths reflects this wish to solve ‘my’ problems. 

In striking a bargain with a greater power, whether this power is sacred or secular, the usual process is to make some kind of payment. In this way, both parties seek to gain something from the transaction. However, the Buddha’s answer is very different from the usual; he says that the wish to get something for myself is to be laid down first. Of course, this is impossible for me to do, any more than I can lift first one leg off the ground and then the other without any outside support. 


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