BOOK REVIEW: WHEN A PAGAN PRAYS

Nimue Brown:

I’m always touched by people reading my stuff. I’m always moved by people responding, but this one achieves whole new levels for me, because there’s something very personal picked up on in all of this, and the reviewer is someone I very much look up to.

Originally posted on contemplativeinquiry:

Highly recommended When a Pagan Prays by Nimue Brown is an ambitious book, and a courageous one. On my reading it blends two voices. The first offers a cool appraisal of prayer by a Pagan Druid strongly influenced by existentialist philosophy. It tells us that value and meaning are not written in the stars: we have to provide them for ourselves, and it’s our responsibility as self-aware humans to do so. The second voice describes a personal journey, essentially a recovery story centred on re-connection with the “numinous”. This leads to a re-frame of scepticism about prayer and a hard-won willingness to say: “I like prayer. I’m not angry with it any more. I’ll keep doing it, keep asking and searching, doubting and wondering”.

I will start with the second voice, for me the predominant voice of the book, though it takes a while to be heard. This is at…

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Valuing the ephemeral

Science can incline us towards the idea that what matters most are the things we can measure. It tends to help that the things we can most readily measure, we can also point at, and are therefore more able to agree about. How much money you have, how many cars and how big a house are easy things to point at when you want to compare yourself to others. For much the same reasons, governments like to point at employment figures, and do not want to get bogged down in conversations about whether those jobs are any good or worth doing.

Worth is very hard to measure, unless you judge it by money. The same is true of quality of life, happiness, wellbeing, sense of community and the state of your soul. Sure, you can survey people and ask them how they feel, but then you’re relying on self reporting, and of course people aren’t reliable and can lie to you. How do you measure love, friendship or enlightenment? How do you measure and value the way a sunset makes you feel?

That we can more readily measure some things than others invites us to invest more effort and attention in the things we can measure – both personally and as a culture. So we talk about how many lives are saved by different medical interventions each year, not the quality of life for those who continue to live. We take our measure of spending as a measure of how well we are doing as a country, no matter what that money is being spent on. We want faster train travel and more oil and we can measure the profits, and the growth but we can’t measure the value of the landscapes these destroy, and so we don’t measure that value, and we trash something irreplaceable.

I’m generally pro-science. I recognise that by its nature, science can only go around measuring measurable things. Issues like the state of your soul and the beauty of your location are hard to approach that way. The habit of measuring locks us into some very narrow ways of thinking about worth and value. Because money is the most readily measurable thing in the equation, so we down-value what we don’t pay for – the domestic work of women, the dawn chorus, our clean air, the future of our children – we tend to be very short term around how we see the price tags, too.

This all fits in with what I was exploring yesterday (thank you Helen Noble for the prompt on facebook). When you take narrow measurements of value, a certain kind of resource and person will tend to dominate your society. Those who can accumulate material wealth are treated as the most valuable members. Not those who are most generous, or cause most happiness, or do most to enable others. Not those who have brilliant ideas, or who add beauty to the world, but those who have the biggest pile of coins, no matter who they exploited and what they ruined forever in order to achieve that.

Our current value system actively encourages us to trash the planet on which our lives depend. We need to change that, because as the saying goes, when there’s no clean water to drink and no food to eat, you try eating money and see what good it does you.


Cultural power games

It can be tempting to think of patriarchy as a system that benefits all men at the expense of all women. This itself is a line of thought that benefits patriarchy, because the more you entrench ideas of gender division, the easier it is for the patriarchy to stay in place. Most men do not benefit from this system, but by creating the illusion that they could be winners, they are encouraged to play along, and have been for hundreds of years. There are also women who play along, who seek ease through complicity, seek to win on the terms patriarchy lays out, and who are happy to denigrate other women to make a position for themselves.

Patriarchy can be really shitty to many of its male participants. In unbalancing gender relationships, it undermines what relationships you can have. Just as there are limits on what you can do as a nice slave owner, there are limits on what you can do as a nice guy in a heavily patriarchal culture. If you do not match how the culture defines masculinity – maybe you are gay, non-violent, not ambitious, not hungry for power over others – then you will be labelled as feminine and the culture will denigrate you that same way it does its women. If women are cast as inferior, then a woman being better than you at something is really threatening. Patriarchal cultures put most men in positions where they do not get to feel superior, but are forever watching their backs, and are as limited in their identity options as their womenfolk are. Culture is people, so this only works because the majority are willing to participate or do not notice what they are upholding. (Consider ‘throws like a girl’.)

The important question to ask, is who wins this game? Who benefits?

Patriarchy is a system of power-over. It gives men power over women, but it also gives men power over each other. Physical power, financial power, ownership of resources, and that more ephemeral notion of ‘authority’. It is a system that encourages all participants to let the people (mostly men) and institutions (mostly run by men) that are in charge, to stay in charge, because they have authority and authority should be respected. If that upsets you, then in a patriarchal culture, the answer isn’t to challenge those above you, but to kick an inferior so as to achieve catharsis (UKIP in a nutshell, most forms of fascism in fact). Inferiority is constructed along lines of gender, race, poverty and lack of power. Only a handful of people really benefit in a system of this shape, and they get to sit at the top of the heap, wielding authority because that’s what they’ve always done, because they have more money and habits of power than anyone else.

If you like having power over people and you want the freedom to use other people as objects, then patriarchy is a system that will suit you well. If, regardless of gender, you don’t enjoy using or being used, this is not a system you are ever going to be happy in. What enables it to survive is that patriarchy does not present itself as a system, it has always offered itself as an unassailable reality. Of course it’s just natural that these are the people who end up in power making all the decisions. And now, cleverly, they have us largely convinced that we pick them by voting, and not looking hard enough at how many of them went through the same elite educational institutions.

Gender conflict is a symptom, not an underlying cause. It is a consequence of a system that fundamentally believes in power-over and the use of resources, where other people’s lives, bodies, minds, health and existence most certainly do count as a resource to be used. My feeling is that we are only going to sort out issues of gender politics when enough of us stop being enthusiastic players of the power-over game which has been set up explicitly such that none of us can win it. This is basically feudalism with a new hat, and we have been persuaded to do it to ourselves.


Tides in personal Druidry

What we do isn’t necessarily a linear ascent, becoming ‘better’ Druids year on year. When I started, I was very focused on the wheel of the year as represented by the eight standard festivals. I worked extensively with the four directions and all the associations that can be brought into that circle. I studied cycles of life and correlations between the elements and pretty much everything.

After a while this started to feel reductive, a limiting narrative. I became interested in approaches to ritual that weren’t seasonal, and more nuanced ways of thinking about seasons. They aren’t events after all, but subtle shifts from day to day. I started looking at landscapes and thinking about ritual circles that responded to the land rather than the arbitrary four directions.

Then I started to find ritual forms too restrictive, needing something more fluid, responsive and of the moment. I came to explore contemplation and just being in a space with people in a non-ritual way. My practice became much more about walking, presence, quiet communion. Things it gets ever harder to point at and say ‘that’s me doing my Druid stuff’. I’m making wine and chutney with gifts of the season, and foraging for some of that, and that feels a lot like me doing my Druidry, but at the same time, it looks a lot like me standing in my kitchen doing things to fruit. No ritual, no special words.

At Druid Camp this year I was reminded that there are things I like about ritual – not least the bringing together of people to share experience and inspiration. I think it would be interesting to have a mass Druid chutney session, but tricky to arrange. I think there’s real spiritual power in practicing fundamental life skills together. But it’s not the same.

And so some kind of inner wheel turns, and I find myself drawn back to the idea of doing rituals, and inclined to work with elemental meditations again. Not because one way is better than another, but because these things also have their tides and seasons.

Sometimes Druidry seems small and simple to me. Sometimes it seems vast and complex. A flower seems small and simple if you stand over it in a field. It seems large and complex under a microscope, or if you’re given its chemical makeup to ponder. Get far enough away from a city and they resolve into simple shapes, too. No one perspective is more true than another.

 

 

 

 


Bare breasts, bare feet

As those of you who have been with me for a while will know, I have an exploration underway into having unfettered breasts. I’m ample enough up top to have spent the last twenty years strapped up, so building up the capability to go unstrapped is taking time.

At Druid Camp this year I had chance to play with a few possibilities in a safe space. I spent the week mostly barefoot, sometimes with a bra, sometimes with a bikini top that offered far less support, sometimes loose under whatever top I had on. As I had suspisioned, being bare foot on grass makes a lot of odds. Most of us walk differently with no shoes on, tending to drop pace and place bare feet more gently. This reduces impact and means there is less swing generated further up.

Soft earth and grass doesn’t impact as much when you walk on it – I’ve done plenty of barefoot walking on tarmac and the difference is huge. The jarring impact of putting feet onto a hard surface jolts the free-range breast about rather a lot, making walking uncomfortable. It’s also hard on your feet. Softer surfaces make bare foot walking more viable, and reduce impact on the breasts. I find I can jog short distances barefoot on grass with little or no breast support. Neither feet nor chest could bear that on a hard, urban surface.

The moral of the research at this stage seem to be, if you want to be in a natural state, you need to be in a natural state. The more artificial your habitat is, the more you will suffer if you don’t protect breasts and feet from the consequences.

If you’re wondering about all the sticks and stones inherent in natural places… if you are barefoot you learn to pick your way carefully, and you don’t end up with the same rhythms. On rough terrain, you walk differently. With tarmac and concrete we can march vigorously over many miles, battering that tempo into our bodies. It’s worth remembering that the Roman roads were built precisely so they could march armies about quickly. Roads, tarmac and cement come from our desire to be places faster than our bodies are designed for. Modify your habitat and you have to modify your body to cope, hence shoes become more important, and you can’t run without a bra once you have shoes and a hard surface.

I’ve gone over to softer bras with no metal underwiring, and to floating about unfettered where I can. But, depending on my feet for transport, and having no choice about the surfaces which get me where I need to go, I’ve got to have boots to deal with the impact of the surface, and I’ve got to have chest support to deal with the impact of the boots on that surface. The more you can match your shoes to the needs of your breasts, the better this is going to work, though.


Chemical adventures in feeling appreciated

For much of my life, I’ve struggled to know how to handle positive feedback. Those of you who have said encouraging things to me in person know how odd and awkward I can be around that. Part of it is simply lack of practice – praise was not a significant feature of my growing up so I was late learning anything about how to handle that socially. I’ve had far more negative feedback than positive, such that I tend to worry more about being wrong, failing and being a nuisance, than I tend to anticipate good responses. The desire to be ‘good enough’ in other people’s eyes has always been a significant motivator for me, but for most of my life, I had no sense of achieving that.

For about five years now, I’ve been in a relationship with a man who praises, enthuses and expresses delight. Initially I found this all a bit alien and ascribed it to him coming from a more innately exuberant culture (he’s American, I’m English). Apparently over the years I’ve got used to this a bit, until recently I’ve been noticing a thing that has some interesting implications. I’ve become able to enjoy the experience of praise. I feel a warm glow in response to it, rather than disorientation.

Arguably everything that happens in our bodies comes down to chemistry. The bonding of parent to child is a chemical process, so is falling in love. Pleasure is chemical – an orgasm has a lot to do with oxytocin. Reward experiences are chemical, and it is into this chemistry that recreational drugs plug themselves.

Up until recently, my body apparently wasn’t releasing any kind of reward chemicals in response to praise, and now it is. I have no real idea why any of this is the case – why I didn’t before, why I do now. Some things in our bodies seem to be innate and automatic, others have to be triggered or learned, some can be learned in unhelpful ways. I’ve not tended to trust praise, waiting for the sting in the tail, (it was good considering how rubbish you are, etc) or the suggestion that as I can do it after all, I will have to do everything else to the same level or be considered a slacker… Historically, praise just didn’t feel safe, more like softening me up so the next slap will sting more. I can’t pin that to any specific experiences, but as teasing and bullying featured heavily in my childhood, it’s not wholly irrational.

I think what’s happened is that I have learned to trust a bit. I’ve learned to feel that people who say positive things may not have hidden intentions. They may not be softening me up in order to get something out of me or do something to me. It may not be going to pave the way to ridicule, or to increased demands, or some kind of knockdown (see, if you’d made some effort before you could have done this all along!).

It is entirely possible, that all these years later, my body has caught up to something that perhaps is there from the start for most people. A sense that praise is a good thing to be enjoyed, and a simple chemical release alongside that, to reinforce the feeling of something good. I’ve spent my whole life aware that I was missing something around this whole issue, but not knowing what it was, or how to name it. That sense of not being quite a whole or normal person may not have been crazy after all. May not have been some kind of self indulgence based on making myself seem special by claiming to be odd in some way (been round that a lot). Maybe I just was missing this small, vital chemical trick that changes everything about how I interact socially with others, and how I get to feel about myself and my achievements.


Telling nature stories

How we tell stories about the natural world informs so much of our understanding.

I only started to learn about moths this summer. There are hundreds of different kinds, and I was familiar with a few of the day-fliers, but until recently most moths were just dusty night things and I could not identify any of them. I have a long way to go.

I’ve been to two moth walks, and seen quite a few of them now. They have a subtle beauty – many of them spend their days on tree trunks, cunningly camouflaged. Some have the option of flashing colourful underwings to see off predators. Where there are moths, there are also usually bats feeding on them, and my bat identification skills are not what they could be.

There are different ways of knowing and learning. We can acquire tick-box knowledge, putting names to shapes, but little else. It’s good for showing off, especially if you can do it in Latin. Rather than connecting us to the world, abstract facts can just reinforce a sense of superiority. That which you can name, you have power over, and nature does not get to name itself.

Other kinds of knowing are all about the context – knowing how what you are seeing lives, where it fits with other things, what it feeds on, what its cycles are. The cinnabar moth and the ragwort share a story which in turn has implications for livestock. Some kinds of knowledge help us see the relationships, the interdependence and the fragility. Being able to spot a cinnabar caterpillar is one thing. Knowing the plant it is sat on can make your horse sick, is another.

We’ve constructed ways of learning about nature that reinforce our sense of dominance over it and our belief that we are entitled to exploit. Other stories are available, like the stories of how moths, bats and trees all relate to each other.


Spiritual exposure

We are all our own priests and priestesses as Pagans, which rather suggests we do not need anyone to mediate between us and the divine. You can do that for yourself. What we don’t talk about so much, is what happens if you can’t.

Many Pagans have stories to tell of direct, personal experience when Gods have spoken to them, shown them things, made requests, demands and offers. There are many others who don’t do Gods so much, but have intense relationship with spirit, spirit guides, ancestors and the like. Some part of the universe speaks spiritually to them in a way they are confident about recognising and understanding. This makes it very hard to put up a hand and say ‘that’s not what I get.’ It feels like failure, lack of effort, insufficient worthiness. How can I call myself a Druid if nothing is particularly talking to me? This is what I’ve got, because apart from a handful of odd experiences I am none too confident about, I do not hear the voice of spirit. Gods do not choose me, or talk to me. I have no guides and no totem anything.

It’s not for lack of trying. Years of study, lots of rituals, deep work with meditation and prayer over many years. Dedications, offerings of self, work done. I’m not that good at belief, and perhaps that closes the door on me, but others who do not believe have startling experiences that change them into people who know. That’s not been me. I’ll admit I have all kinds of less than perfectly enlightened responses to the profound and intense experiences others describe. Jealousy, above all else. Frustration, confusion. Why them and not me? What am I doing wrong? What should I be doing more of? I come with a will to serve, give, work and so forth, why are so many others worthy of attention when I am not?

It would be easy to hide this, to lie about it and pass myself off as being just as beloved of the gods as the next Pagan. It would be easy to become wholly disenchanted and settle into comfortable atheism and feel no responsibility for what I am not. I’ve managed to settle on Maybeism, holding the possibility, and accepting this is where I am and that for whatever reasons, a great deal of regular Pagan religious experience just doesn’t happen for me. I can feel inspired, and I can feel wonder, and perhaps I have to just get over the desire to feel a bit special and acceptable to deity, and get on with making the best of what I have.

Writing ‘When a Pagan Prays’ felt very exposed indeed, because it is a confession of what is absent in my life and practice, and exposure of what it means to have no certainty, no confident firsthand experience. Putting it out there left me feeling decidedly naked and vulnerable – now all the people who are proper Druids and Pagans, in relationship with the Gods of their ancestors, will know that I am not one of them, not part of their experience. At times it feels like it is just me; that everyone else can do these profound spiritual things that are beyond me, but perhaps that isn’t so. Perhaps there are others quietly staying silent about what they are not, and what they can’t do. My hope is that if there are, this exposure of experience will at least make that less bitter, less demoralising.

A person can be spiritual without having certainty, can dedicate to the ideas of Gods and religions even if nothing speaks back to them. We can choose ways of living and being because they seem like wise choices, not because we had a vision or a higher being told us to. I’d like to think it is entirely valid to choose a spiritual way of life even if your quest for the numinous never brings you to anything. It is the choice, the quest and how we choose to live as a consequence that matters most, if all we have is a fairly mundane experience of the world.


Gods of the wild yeast

In my kitchen a strange, magical process is taking place. Alchemy, if you will. The wild yeast has found the blackberries I harvested and laced with sugar to attract it, and now there is fermentation. I’ve not made wine this way before – although it is traditional. The same is true of bread – while you can get packets of yeast, yeast is airborne, and it will come to you.

Fermentation is the basis of settled agriculture, which in turn is the source of our civilisation. There are debates as to whether we started planting cereals for the beer or the bread first, but either way, the wild yeast was essential. We have a plethora of grain and grape deities. Wine and bread crop up a startling amount in the Bible as well. I can’t think of any deities of the wild yeast (pile in if you know). It is the transformation into bread that makes the grain easy to digest. Raw grain from the field is not easy to eat or extract energy from.

The easy calories of bread and the intoxication of alcohol both give us a large feel-good effect. If you want to feel that the world is a safe and benevolent place, a belly full of bread and beer will aid this process considerably. Get drunk and you’ll hit the phase of feeling like you love everyone. Obviously if you glut on the bread and the beer, less good things happen in the longer term, especially if you aren’t using those calories for something. But our ancestors were more likely to starve than balloon, this probably wasn’t so much of an issue for them.

Enchanted by the magic of wild yeast in my kitchen, and the wondrous transformation of blackberries into wine, conscious of the role of the yeast in creating our own culture… I have come to the conclusion that Paul Mitchell is onto something serious with Far Better Pagan (play it, it’s a very funny song and then go to his site, http://paul.makingithappen.co.uk)

(I do love my God and I love my Goddess, but I’m a far better Pagan when I am pissed).

And for a more sober bread-based magic, Talis Kimberly and Wild Yeast:

 

We have created a habitat that is unnaturally lit, with few mysterious shadows in it. Most of aren’t feverish, starving or drunk in the affluent parts of the western world. We’re in the stiff reality of caffeine, worshippers of the bean. If we spent more time with the wild yeast, perhaps the world would look very different to us.

 

 

 


With the Fisher King

I brought my broken heart hidden in a chest. Not my ribs, but metal, locked firm to hide away the shame of it. For fear of how my shattered centre would seem to others. For fear of ridicule and rejection, I placed my pain in that box and shut the lid, and went on through the world until I came at last to the great hall.

There, the Fisher King lay, blood endlessly seeping from wounds that would not close. Staining cloth, smearing floors, a life seep affront with metallic perfume. And yet, a King I would bow to. The horror in me asked ‘how can one rule who is so weakened?’

What could I do but sit with him?

From the locked box in my arms, the tattered wreck of my heart cried out: How can one who bleeds so much be this strong? And so broke all the bonds and bared itself.

How can one bleed and bleed and still hold sovereignty? How can one hold sovereignty in this age, and not bleed?

How can my fragile heart be a hidden shame

When the Fisher King lies wounded

And the land has yet to be healed?

 

 

 

(I should mention that I wrote this having not seen the film, and unaware of the Robin Williams connection. Something in the ether, perhaps.)


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