Category Archives: Paganism

Yes. No. Maybe… You decide – part 2

The second installment of Nils Visser’s guest blog.

In Part One of this guest blog, I delved into my own past to explain how the spiritual elements in the Wyrde Woods books (Escape from Neverland & Dance into the Wyrd) came about, focusing specifically on the religions I encountered as a child when I lived in Thailand and Nepal.

My stay in Nepal was not to be the last foreign sojourn, followed as it was by extended stays in East Africa, the United States, England, Egypt, and France. Much of the rest of my adolescence (Africa and the US) was mostly focused on the hopeless pursuit of romantic interests and drinking too much beer, though there were times when I would have a spell of fascination with local shamanic traditions, mostly African (with its emphasis on honouring your ancestors) and Native American, specifically Lakotan culture, which has remarkable similarities to the Anglo-Saxon Wyrd.

Real interest was rekindled in my early twenties when I was living in Canterbury, England. Recalling the words of the Lama, I looked beyond the relatively new Christian traditions to discover the far older religions of the British Isles. As you can probably imagine, with my spirituality much influenced by the colourful myriad of Gods and Goddesses, spirits and demons of the Buddhist, Hindu, and shamanic beliefs in Asia, I was much taken by Celtic Britain and what is known of Celtic religion. I began to read on the subject, which led me to the Arthurian Cycle soon enough, and for years after I devoured everything I could find: Fiction, non-fiction, serious studies, conspiracy-theory-esque stuff…you name it, I read it. The Mabinogion and works by John and Caitlin Matthews became my constant companions. I went on pilgrimages to Glastonbury, not the town, but the sacred wells and the Tor. I even started writing the beginning of a novel, my own take on Arthur, which I never completed.

Back in Kent, at full moon on clear nights, I would wander off into the woods, much to the delight of my border collie, and we would roam all night. I delighted in the connections I felt with the land on nights like that. Twice, I saw those connections very clearly, in the form of a multitude of coloured strands which formed complex webs between trees, rocks, hillocks. These coloured lines weren’t solid threads, rather they seemed to be made of energy, with a slight flicker and electrical aura. It’s hard to describe, and it might sound a bit crazy, but they were there, clearly so for spells of some ten minutes. I also messed with some stuff I was unprepared for and had been warned to avoid until I was truly ready, after which I distanced myself from the spiritual world somewhat, having become wary of the potential dangers – something I really should have known given my experiences in Asia.

I found myself in the Netherlands again, and the next two decades were more or less committed to career and long-term relationship, worries about bills and the mortgage taking precedence over more abstract matters, other than a few incidents – always on holiday in England – during which I was keenly aware of presences, both benevolent and malevolent…reminders of that other world (some of which made it into the Wyrde Woods years later).

Life had become rather mundane, but I was content until everything began to fall apart. After twenty-one years, the relationship died, I got depressed, lost my job and – seemingly in the blink of an eye –, found myself alone, without a job, homeless, and generally without any sense of purpose. I couldn’t get my head around it, I couldn’t comprehend the sudden change in fortune, couldn’t fathom why I should draw another breath.

Clutching at straws, I decided to make my way to Glastonbury…to Avalon, which I had continued to visit throughout the years, and where something magical always seemed to happen…and I was in need of some magic, believe you me.

I touched down in Kent, but before heading west, I stopped by Whitstable, to visit C.J. Stone, an author whose writing I much admire, and whom I knew from my previous residential spell in Kent.

When we were talking about his books over a pint in the pub, I dropped that I had been playing around with the notion of rekindling my own writing ambitions. CJ’s reaction was lack-lustre, which I now understand better because whenever I tell people I write books, usually the first thing I hear is that they too might write a book one day.

I stumbled and fumbled when CJ asked what my book might be about, because I hadn’t really thought it through, other than that I wanted something that touched upon the undercurrent of the English psyche.

His advice was short and didn’t make any sense to me at the time. “Find the Wyrd,” he said. “Find the Wyrd, and the rest will come to you.”

I continued my journey to Glastonbury, increasingly dubious about my fervent hope that I would find answers, or anything at all to help me climb out of that deep, dark pit I had ended up in. I had already learned not to go actively looking for Avalon’s magic. If it happened, it would be unexpected. So it was this time.

Wandering about the town, I passed an esoteric bookshop, and decided to go in to see if there was anything on Arthur or Merlin which I hadn’t read before. It was a feeble attempt, for over the years I had lost much of my passion on this subject. No matter how hard I tried, the Celtic world, fascinating as it is, always seemed to elude me somehow, as if I couldn’t grasp it properly and make it mine, the way I had done with Thai and Nepali culture in my youth. So much for the Lama’s advice to look for wisdom at home, had become my cynical conclusion.

It quickly became clear that I had come to the right place. There were scores of books on Arthur and Merlin, and hundreds of books on Celtic history, spirituality, and culture, not to mention reams of fiction with firm Celtic roots. However, my eye fell on a single book: The Way of the Wyrd, by Brian Bates.

“Find the Wyrd,” CJ had said, and lo and behold… coincidence or synchronicity?

Studying the book, I reflected on the irony of being in an English bookshop which had hundreds of books reflecting the culture of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and seemingly just the one book related to the Anglo-Saxon culture. To be sure, I asked the shop owner if he stocked anything else to do with the Anglo-Saxons – other than as bearded, ale-chugging, fur-clad, and rowdy enemies of the Dux Bellorum and his warriors of Camelot. He looked at me as if I was crazy, which was answer enough.

All sorts of realisations struck me at once. The first was that I had rejected the Lama’s words too hastily. “Look at home,” he had said. I believe that there is some kind of ancestral memory in all of us, but never really considered that I am descended from Frisian and Flemish stock, the Folk of Wotan, branches of which had settled in England not even all that long ago. That was the ‘home’ I should have looked into, instead of becoming obsessed with the neighbours, the Celts, and then becoming disappointed because that culture somehow remained elusive. I still love the Celtic tales, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland…but my deepest attachment has always been to England. There is no place where I have ever felt so fully at home (and I’ve lived in a fair few places), and felt so…connected.

I bought Way of the Wyrd, climbed the Tor, and read it up there in one sitting. By the time I came down, I knew that I was going to write a book, and, because so few other people seemed to be doing so, place the story in an Anglo-Saxon context. It wasn’t much of a plan, but I had nothing to lose, and nothing else to be gunning for, and for the first time in some years, I felt a spark of hope, as well as a sense of homecoming, so why not? I had nothing to lose, for I had nothing, and for the first time I perceived that as a blessing of sorts. That was the beginning of the Wyrde Woods, and although I didn’t realise it at the time, the beginning of a new life (I now live in Sussex).

Back in the Netherlands, I started researching the old Anglo-Saxon culture, as well as the wider Folk of Wotan context, for I truly knew very little about my own cultural heritage, other than they had been opponents of my hero Arthur – often portrayed as brutal barbarians.

Looking into the word ‘Wyrd’, I ran into a similar word, ‘Wyrde’, which is Anglo-Saxon for ‘word’. Struck by the similarity between the two words, I coined the name Wyrde Woods, for I liked the notion of a fictional woods existing only within a story, i.e. made real by words, and thus called Word Woods, with the Wyrd playing a large part in it.

I also read a lot of old folk tales, and I was struck by a sense of loss. So much has been displaced, by a combination of the Victorian cutification of the Fair Folk, focus on Celtic tales, a staple diet of the Brothers Grimm, and further simplification by Disney movies. Dig a little, however, and there is a rich mine of Anglo-Saxon folklore waiting to be (re)discovered. Go for a walk and it won’t be long before you run into a hill, copse, stream, or vale that is home to an almost forgotten dragon, witch, faery, or giant.

I wanted the Wyrde Woods to reflect that. There would be ‘fairies’, but none of the cute stuff. Instead, I wanted the Saxon Pucan, or Pooks, sometimes called Pharisee/Farisee in the Broad Sussex dialect. These were the capricious Fae that folk were warned to stay well clear of, the ones with a mean streak. Feeling audacious, I ‘borrowed’ Oberon, Titania, and Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because they are my favourite characters in my favourite play, feature in my favourite Blake painting, and to me represented that far older Fae tradition before contemporary cutification.

I selected a lot of Sussex locations and folklore, and casually moved it all into my fictional Wyrde Woods in the Sussex Weald, adding elements from Kent, Somerset, Cornwall, and the Isle of Skye for good measure. I then changed bits and pieces around to suit my narrative or invented wholly new elements.

Way of the Wyrd was my main source for understanding Anglo-Saxon magic. I liked the notion of wise women and wise men who weren’t necessarily all-powerful wizards, but who were able to see a different world than most, the kind of world teeming with spirits, Pooks, demons, and other supernatural elements. In short, I returned to the animistic shamanism which had formed my own understanding of the spiritual world in my childhood. Noting how important healing and herbalism was, I inserted elements of that into the story as well. The Anglo-Saxon notion that a human life is temporary and therefore land is not so much owned as taken care of for the benefit of future generations has been worked into the Wyrde Woods as well.

I refrained from signposting everything in Neverland and Dance, to prevent the whole thing becoming a pedantic lecture. There is a sense that the Pooks and other beings are there, but not quite there in the story. They might well be lurking around the corner to appear any minute, or then again, they might not. Some events may have been partially caused by magical interference, or perhaps not. If you have read the books, you may, or may not, be surprised to find out that Wenn’s mum makes an appearance on two occasions. One reader was disappointed that the promised Fair Folk seemed to be missing, much to my surprise, because they play a major part in the story. There’s usually one or two of them present just about continuously, but don’t go looking for pointy ears.

The mythical tale of the wedding of the Green Man and the Red Queen is enacted around a fire on a hilltop, much as would happen in the old days. The ceremony is described, but there is no reference to this being an ancient and important Anglo-Saxon ritual, just as something that happened in the story. Readers with knowledge of the old festivals are likely to recognise it, but there is no harm done if they don’t. Herne’s Hunt, on the other hand, receives a bit more contextual background, as do rituals entirely of my own devising – but rooted in my personal experiences of shamanist beliefs around the world.

So is it Wicca? Not quite, but I’m reasonably confident that most Wiccans would recognise a great deal in the story, although they may be left puzzled because sometimes things might seem almost right, but not quite, simply because there could be faint echoes of Thailand and Nepal in there, or simply make-believe elements which I believed furthered the story. After all, Neverland and Dance are meant to be works of fiction, not accurate non-fictional treatises.

What I can tell you, is that there is something strangely magical about the books. I have mentioned that I blatantly stole a great many parts of the Wyrde Woods from England and Scotland. Not every corner of the Wyrde Woods though, some places came from my imagination as I was writing, such as the Whychmaze and the ruins of Tuckersham Church…

…or so I thought at the time…

There have been a few occasions over the past few years, during which I visited places in Sussex where I had never been before, only to come to a dead stop, Goosebumps all over, and a shiver running down my spine. I recognised these places instantly as Wyrde Woods locations which I had previously assumed to be products of my weird mind, only to find out that they were there all the time, for real.

I can only assume that I’ve found the Wyrd, or else the Wyrd has found me. Welcome to the Wyrde Woods.

Advertisements

The allure of lost Gods

Anyone who has followed me for long will know that I’m not much of a polytheist. Partly this is because I have no innate capacity for belief, coupled with very little experience of the divine. I’ve spent time actively seeking the divine and the results were interesting, but vague.  I am not beloved of the Gods. I am not priest material. I do not get UPGs or messages or instructions or anything of that ilk. No one has chosen me, and equally, while I find the stories interesting, I’ve not felt moved to even try and honour a deity for a very long time.

This doesn’t mean I don’t think Gods exist. I am happy to accept the existence of Gods for other people. I just don’t have a life that has Gods in it.

We know that the Celts had local Gods. We know that many of the deities who are now famous are associated with very specific places. Locally we have Sabrina, at the River Severn, and Nodens about where the Severn turns to salt. His temple is on the other side of the river from me. There was a temple on the hilltop here, and there is a massive Roman mosaic depicting Orpheus not far from where I live. The hills themselves are quiet. There are carved images in local museums, but not much to go on.

I was, as a consequence of all these things, rather taken with this post from Robin Collins, talking about Gods in the Cotswolds Hills. Gods with guessed at names, no temples, no surviving stories. Lost Gods. Reading it was the first time I’ve had any meaningful feelings about deity in a very long time. https://stroudwalking.wordpress.com/2018/09/22/2730/


Pagan Pride

At the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending Pagan Pride in Nottinghamn. It’s a very large Pagan gathering, but hard to tell how large with people spread out in a park, under trees. As someone who finds tight packed crowds incredibly stressful, I was delighted to find that there was always room, and space, and tree shade, and at no point was it overwhelming.

Much to my delight, the event gave me opportunity to meet in person many people I have known online for years, including Moon Books authors Barbara Meiklejohn-Free, and Taz Thornton. My son went to one of Taz’s workshops and had a fantastic time. It was good to meet Indie Shaman’s June Kent, too, and to catch up with Paul Cudby – author of The Shaken Path, a brilliant book taking a sympathetic look at Paganism from a Christian perspective. Quite a few people told me that I email them about review books, or that they follow this blog, or know me from my Pagan Dawn column, which was all very exciting. Working quietly at home it’s easy to feel that I’m not having much effect, so it’s incredibly affirming getting feedback like that.

In terms of meeting new people, the absolute high point for me was finally getting to meet Mike Stygal. I’ve known Mike as an online and in print voice for many years. He’s currently the vice president of the Pagan Federation, after serving for many years as president. He does an amazing amount of very effective work supporting the Pagan community but he’s not a self publicist. He’s a fine example of a person using their power to get things done rather than seeking power for the sake of being important. I’m a big fan. I had to make quite a lot of conscious effort not to go all fan-girl on introduction. He’s every bit as awesome in person as he is in the internet ether.

There is a real power in getting to be bodily in the same space as people. There’s something incredibly uplifting about being in a gathering full of fellow travellers and kindred spirits – I find this is just as true at folk festivals and steampunk events. There is a joy in being surrounded by people you feel are your people. Having time where you can feel a real sense of belonging and acceptability, is wonderful. Pagan spaces are pretty diverse, so it’s not like anyone can look round and see obvious reflections of themselves, but in that space there is so much room to be as I am, and that’s worth so much.

There are questions to ask about what the environmental cost is of gatherings and travelling to gatherings. How we balance up the impact of what we do. I acknowledge a personal, emotional need for spaces where I can connect in person with other people. I acknowledge that there is always an environmental impact to doing this. I think if you yearn for something because it feeds your soul, then the answer may well be to make more dramatic changes in some other aspect of your life so that your overall impact isn’t too high.


My thoughts are not my prayers

There are a number of statements that float around the internet as memes – my work is my prayer, my thoughts are my prayers, my words are my prayers… it is all too easy to assert this and have it be a way to not really make any effort.

My thoughts are not my prayers. Firstly, I think a lot. While I am ambivalent about deity, I certainly don’t believe that deity is especially interested in me and I don’t imagine that every random thing wandering about in my head is something to ask a God to bother themselves with.

I do not have a disciplined mind, nor do I ever intend to have this be the case, nor do I think it’s a good idea. Thinking is good. Reflecting, pondering, questioning, imagining, planning… For any of this to work, you need room to try things out, and change your mind. You can’t be creative without giving yourself space to think things that you may later reject as rubbish. If every thought is a prayer, when is there time to be creatively messy?

If your thoughts are your prayers, then the inside of your head has to be pretty saintly. I aim to act well in the world as much as I can. I give myself permission to feel all the little shitty things that pass through. Frustration. Resentment. Anger. Envy. All the knee jerk reactions to experiences that have me wanting to put politicians in wicker men. I give myself space to process these reactions and to work out better ways of expressing them. These are not prayers. I do not want them answered. These are things I need to take responsibility for. Equally, there are old feelings of guilt and shame, uselessness, anxiety, despair and unacceptability that surface now and then. These are not prayers, but they do need processing.

I firmly believe that to be human is to have this full range of experience. To be human is to get cross about things, to worry about aspects of the future, to regret past action or inaction… we don’t learn or grow without being able to do all of this. If the insides of our heads were only prayerful, there are too many things we wouldn’t be able to process. Repressing all the awkward stuff doesn’t make it go away, it just means it emerges in weird, uncontrolled ways. The sudden lashing out that you can’t explain. The telling yourself you’re doing one thing when really doing another. Make no room for your shadows, and you’ll end up with some serious cognitive dissonance, especially around who you are.

I don’t believe that the point of a spiritual life is to transcend being human. I don’t believe in higher self, as I’ve said before – I’m much more interested in deeper self. I want room to explore and to ponder. I like to treat the inside of my head as my own, private space. By giving time to reflection, working with my shadows, owning the awkward bits and working to heal them, I become more whole, and in turn less fraught. I realise this does take me, slowly, towards a place where all the things in my head could be beautiful and functional and worthy of being directed towards something other than myself. But at the same time, I always want to be angry at injustice and frustrated by needless hoop jumping. I will always need space for daft ideas so that I can work my way towards good ideas.

I can’t help but feel that thinking you’ve overcome the least good bits of your own humanity is probably only ever a sign that you’re successfully kidding yourself.


Sacrificing Virgins

Having been ‘out’ as a Pagan since my teens, I have always attracted questions from people who know nothing. “Do you dance naked?” and “Do you sacrifice virgins?” (no, and no).

My guess is that the idea of Pagans sacrificing virgins comes from bad horror films, B movie Satanists and the lurid dreams of people who want to shut Paganism down. I think for a long time, Paganism functioned as a kind of shadow self for Christianity – if you think about the ways people imagined witches, for example. Naked, having orgies, smearing themselves with strange substances, snogging devils and so forth. The idea of witchcraft has created an emotional space in which incredibly repressed people could think about sexy things without having to feel guilty, so long as they kept telling themselves they were horrified by it.

I see similar patterns today in tabloid ‘news’.

The obsession with virginity is a Christian thing, not a Pagan one. I think many of our more permissive Pagan ancestors divided women up only in terms of whether they had birthed a child or not – no child makes you a maiden. This is a pretty easy state for an observer to figure out, and making mistakes about it doesn’t matter when it’s not especially loaded with cultural implications anyway.

Virginity is a concept deeply linked to patriarchy. It is woman as property, unspoiled by the touch of another ‘owner’. It is reproduction as the property of the man, and female inexperience enables male ownership. Virginity is a construct, not a reality, and for many young people, gaining experience is a process, not an event. The idea of virginity tends to be focused on straight penetration and to miss out the experiences of gay and lesbian people. Sexual experience should be about exploration, not focused on this antiquated notion of ‘deflowering’. Virginity itself is a concept that doesn’t reliably hold up well in a Pagan context.

Human sacrifice has always been a popular thing to accuse your enemies of. It’s also been something many cultures have practiced. The Romans were deeply opposed to human sacrifice, considering it a barbaric custom and a reason to conquer a tribe. At the same time, Romans crucified people to make political points, and celebrated the deaths of countless people in the gladiatorial arenas, with death as a popular spectacle. Christians who burned/hanged Pagans and heretics did so ostensibly for the good of the sinner’s soul, but it still looks a lot like human sacrifice to me. The lines between punishment, ritual and spectacle are often blurred and uneasy when we look at the past.

Sacrificing virginity when it means the taking it for ritual or magical purpose just makes no sense in this context. People who practice sex magic are looking for the power and energy that can be raised through the act and for that, you need confidence and experience.

Why do people think Pagans want this kind of thing? I think it says far more about the people who ask the questions than it does about us.


Higher Self, Deeper Self

I’m wary of the language of ‘higher self’ although it crops up a lot in New Age writing. For me it goes with a sense that things away from the earth and body are superior. Elevation goes with notions of hierarchy, too, which also makes me uneasy.

Talking about deeper self has an earthy sound to it, evoking something more like archaeological layers. Just as the earth is made up of rock and soil layers that represent history, so the deeper self is a vast accumulation of where we’ve been and what’s happened to us. It does not have authority over the everyday self, but it has resources the everyday self doesn’t.

Who we fully are can’t be expressed in a single moment. Who we are will depend on context, and what emerges in response to whatever is going on. We draw on our deeper selves all the time. Intuition, off the cuff decision, inexplicable whim – this can all be rooted in the soil of our deep self. How we understand the world and what we think is normal can also be part of a bigger identity that we aren’t necessarily conscious of. How we react to different things can teach us a lot about who we are.

Spiritual language is often full of hierarchy and authority. It’s there when we talk about transcendence, and enlightenment. It’s there in any spiritual tradition that tells us to overcome the body and worldly things for the sake of the soul. The language of ascending as a spirit to the sky God, permeates our language and even if you haven’t been raised a monotheist, those ideas are everywhere. Even if you don’t believe in it, ascending towards light can turn up as a layer in your deep archaeology. It amuses me greatly to suggest this. Bodies of course tend to go down rather than up in the natural scheme of things. Our earthy parts make their way back to the earth.


Unsolicited interpretations

People are quick to try and help each other by explaining things. Whether that’s symptoms, or symbols we dive in and offer our take on it. When that’s unsolicited, it can often be problematic. Unsolicited medical advice from people who KNOW that if you just ate this particular fruit the cancer would go away and that if you went for a run every day you’d stop being depressed. One of the problems here is that people mistake the fixing of small, easy things for the fixing of much bigger ones. This is especially true with mental health where minor problems can indeed be eased with a bit of nature, but serious depression cannot.

When it comes to interpreting signs and symbols, it only works if you share culture. Most signs are open to multiple interpretations. Owls can mean Blodeuwedd, or Athena. Ravens go with Odin, and The Morrigan. Jesus and Dionysus both claim the wine. Black cats are lucky or unlucky, depending on where you live. Personal symbolism further complicates things – your mother archetype in a dream will mean different things if you mother is horrible, or dead, or has been missing for years, or is likely to wake you up with coffee at any moment.

In many ancient Pagan cultures, the business of interpreting signs and dreams belonged to the priesthood. I think this is because it is a job that confers authority. The power to tell a person what their symbols mean is a considerable power. Used badly, it is the power to wipe out personal difference and deny personal experience. It’s the opportunity to force cultural norms onto someone resisting them – we don’t care what your mother was like, you’ve dreamed about the archetypal mother who is good and kind and bountiful.

The symbolic language we use in our sleep is personal. It draws on images and experiences from waking life, from the books and films we choose to encounter, and from how we think and feel about things. We have nightmares about the things that frighten us personally, not the things our cultures consider symbols of fear. To impose a meaning on someone else’s symbolic experience is thus to impose a certain authority over them. The pushier we are, the more we claim to have absolute truth and rightness, the more we risk reducing the person whose symbolism we have the ‘answers’ for.

The desire to interpret is one to watch closely. Fair enough if it is your job to interpret, or someone has asked you to – that’s a considered relationship. Rushing in to offer unsolicited interpretations is a whole other thing. I notice this on facebook where I sometimes post dream content – usually because I think it was funny, or odd, and primarily to entertain. Sometimes I ask for suggested interpretations and sometimes I don’t, but I get them either way. People who know nothing much about my life can be very confident about what my dreams signify. None of them have ever considered that I may have withheld details, or matters of context to avoid embarrassing someone else, for example. Interpreting an un-discussed, unexplored dream is not a good way to do it. The person whose symbol it is must retain the right to decide what the symbol means for them.

If you feel the urge to interpret – be that symptoms or symbols, check in with yourself about why that is. Do you want to seem clever? Do you need to feel more important? Do you want to show off a body of knowledge? Do you believe that symbols all have straightforward meanings that apply to all people in all circumstances? I think we’re often well motivated when we pile in – we want to help and believe we can, but belief that we’re helping doesn’t mean we’re actually helping. If you want to help someone, don’t try to steal their authority. Offer them possibility ‘it could be’ ‘it might’. You can share your insight without imposing your reality. Just because your ravens mean Odin doesn’t mean their ravens do. Perhaps they’ve just been to the Tower of London. Perhaps Raven is their animal guide. Perhaps Bran is trying to talk to them. There’s always more possible answers available.


Belief, self and Paganism

‘Know thyself’ might be one of the most ancient Pagan instructions out there. Let’s look at the interplay between faith, and who we believe we are.

To be a witch and to put your will into the world, you have to believe that your will is powerful enough to change what’s around you. You also have to trust that your judgement is good enough to make those changes wise.

To work with any spiritual entity – Gods, faeries, ancestors, totems, guides, not only do you have to believe in them, but you also have to believe in yourself. You have to believe you are someone a Goddess or others would want to work with. You have to believe that your experiences represent something valid and profound. You have to be confident it isn’t the voice of ego or wishful thinking in your head. You have to be confident that what you experience is not madness.

To work with intuition you need that same confidence that you aren’t just perceiving your own fantasies. If you suffer from anxiety or depression it is much harder to trust your perceptions, much less your intuition. You need to be able to believe in your capacity to see clearly, un-muddled by fear, over-optimism, desire or distress.

Often in Paganism, you need to be able to hold the belief that your individual action matters on a bigger scale than your own life. You may need to believe that the universe has a benevolent attitude to you. For almost all magical practice you need to believe that you are worth having things changed for. Sometimes by extension it becomes necessary to believe there are reasons why other people aren’t as valued, protected and blessed. It can lead you to a place where you have to do some really interesting thinking to explain when you do all the things and aren’t protected or blessed.

You won’t go looking for Goddesses if you do not believe that a Goddess would be interested in finding you. You won’t do magic if you don’t believe your circumstances could change. You won’t pray for intervention if you truly don’t believe you deserve any better. You won’t undertake rituals unless you believe those rituals have some kind of effect. What we believe about ourselves can be as influential on our spiritual lives as any belief we have about how the rest of the universe functions.


Spirituality without Structure – an excerpt

This is from the introduction to Spirituality without Structure – a small book of mine but one which I think has a lot of big ideas in it.

This is a book for people who have given up on formal religious systems, or want to, and are wondering where that leaves them. It’s often a confusing space to find yourself in. There isn’t even an agreed terminology to describe what you are doing. Some who step away from religion may identify with philosophies, or New Age thinking, some may hang on to elements of religions whilst wanting to do their own thing. Others build from scratch. No matter where you come from, trying to find your own alternative to religion will bring you to a commonality of issues faced by others who work in the same way. For convenience, I’m going to abbreviate this kind of questing down to the term ‘own path’ as being a functional, descriptive term.

Own path practice is full of challenges and, by definition, lacking in wider support networks, so this book aims to offer some ways of thinking about how to go it alone. Many people yearn to be spiritual without wanting to be tied into a formal practice; simply knowing that you aren’t the only one can be very helpful.

I’m not making any assumptions about the beliefs of potential readers. I think if a thing is going to work, it needs to be as viable for as many people as possible. Thus I’m writing with an eye to atheists, polytheists, agnostics and people of monotheistic faith alike. The things that draw us to religions are human, the things we need from a spiritual life are human, and I’ve come to the conclusion that what we believe about the presence, absence or nature of deity is the least important thing in terms of how we practice. From a personal perspective, belief or the absence thereof might well feel like the most important thing. It can be incredibly divisive. If we step away from the issue of belief and look more about what religion is and does, what spirituality means, what the human issues are, then we can find commonality and make better sense of things. That said, I am a Pagan, and a lot of my ideas come from my experience of contemporary Paganism. I’m writing from what I know, and at times that may well colour things.

 

There’s a small awkwardness with this book in that in the acknowledgements section, Tom is thanked for the cover. He designed me a beautiful cover. Unfortunately, the book designer totally ignored it and used this weird combination of photos that frankly makes no sense to me. But there we go. these things happen in publishing.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/pagan-portals-spirituality-without-structure 


Pagan Prayer

This is an excerpt from When a Pagan Prays. I started out exploring prayer as an intellectual idea, and discovered that the only way I was going to make any sense of it was by doing it. The book was a result of more than a year of exploration. It was a really interesting process that had a huge impact on me. It also made me realise that I didn’t want to continue shaping my personal practice around things I might later be able to write a book about.

“First and foremost, to stand before the unknown is to recognise the existence of the unknown. That which is bigger than we are. That which transcends our understanding. Prayer is an act of opening awareness that puts our small lives into important perspective. Most of the time we need to protect these fragile, human minds by not letting them be swamped with how much there is outside of us. We tune out far more sensory information than we allow into our conscious awareness. However, it benefits us to drop that defence now and then, to consider the terrifying, glorious enormity of it all. Death. Infinity. Eternity. You might call it deity, you might not. Of course our human natures want the enormity to wear a friendly face, pat us gently on the head and say, “Well done, keep up the good work.” Of course we want mystery to be on a manageable, human scale. This is why we like to give bits of it names, beards, clothing preferences and stories. Religion is all about making the unimaginable possible to engage with. Prayer is all about letting go of those stories again to try to encounter what we cannot hope to
comprehend,

I cannot tell you what it means to stand in that place of awareness for a few seemingly bright seconds. I’d love to say it’s like this familiar thing, or that other thing you do, and bring it down to a more mundane level. If I did that, I wouldn’t be telling you what it is like. We go there for ourselves, or not at all.

I’m conscious that I am barely skimming the surface of mystery and that many others will have gone far deeper in their quests. I have only deliberately worked with prayer for about a year now. I have an advantage in that nearly two decades’ worth of meditation work have given me some mental discipline and I know how to open my mind a bit. I can be still and quiet. It also helps that I can shift fairly easily from dealing with the mundane, to states of mind appropriate for ritual and trance. I find those same sorts of mental states are necessary for prayer.

What I struggle to do, is to remain in that place of openness to mystery for more than very short bursts. My psyche simply cannot maintain it, and I recognise there may be very good reasons not to go too far, anyway. Practice is no doubt key here, returning over and over to a deliberate opening up, and listening, to glimpse some fleeting thing and fall away again. It feels very much as though I am breaking my mind open. Perhaps if I managed to do this all at once, my reason would not survive the experience. I am here to live in this world, not to gaze continuously at something else. It is absolutely essential therefore that I crack myself open gently, slowly and with care. Not just to avoid madness, but because I think there are other processes happening here and I suspect time is needed for those.”

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/when-pagan-prays