Tag Archives: belief

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.

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Habits of the anxious mind

We all see reality through the filters of our beliefs. We interpret experience in-line with what we already believe, we pay attention to things that fit with what we already think, and ignore or explain whatever doesn’t fit. This is often necessary because there’s too much information coming into our little minds, and this helps us deal with it. Obviously there are downsides.

A mind suffering with anxiety filters all experience through the assumption that things are dangerous. It will see threats where other minds would not. It hears criticism and setback, hazard and risk. This is often because the anxious mind has previously been overloaded with stress and/or trauma and is acting in a perfectly reasonable way to try and protect itself. It cannot see the world as anything other than hostile.

Anxiety may well have shattered a person’s ability to believe in themselves and have confidence in their skills and abilities. This means that the slightest setback or criticism can look like disaster to an anxious mind. It’s also why a response that tells off the anxious mind for overthinking and panicking actually makes things worse. It can simply confirm to the anxious person that they are stupid, over-reacting, useless. The anxious mind can latch onto that criticism instead and see themselves as a failure.

It is not easy for an anxious mind to consider the evidence in a non-anxious way. However, stopping and having a good look at a situation – however scary that seems – does help. Affirm to yourself that you are not irrational – there are perfectly good reasons why you feel as you do. From there, it’s that bit easier to just consider whether your perfectly good reasons are totally applicable in this situation. A tiny margin of uncertainty can make a lot of odds, and thus can allow a bit of reconsideration. Was it meant that way? Is it definitely doomed? Well, maybe not, and the uncertainty allows a tiny step down from the panic.

When any single way of relating to the world becomes normal, it’s really hard to challenge and change it. Be that fear, or depression, entitlement, arrogance, or a belief that your positive thinking will make everything magically come out for the best. It is not an easy thing to notice the mechanics of your own thinking, much less to change them, but it is possible. If you can’t make reasonable predictions about what’s happening around you, the odds are you have a dysfunctional filter of some sort. The emotions you most often feel will indicate what sort of filter you have running.


Beloved of the Gods

Who would not choose to be loved by the divine? It’s the ultimate validation, the proof of worth that none can challenge, the proof of rightness and righteousness and whatever else you want it to be, to go forth into the world confident that a deity, or deities, love you.

There’s a vast array of perspectives within Paganism about what deities are, and how you might interact with them. How much scope to pick and choose the deity has can vary – in people’s minds at least. For some (based on what I’ve read) it’s enough to show up interested, your relationship with the divine will flow from this. This is often the Christian perspective – when they postulate their God as one of unconditional love, all you have to do is show up for Jesus and that love will flow towards you. My understanding is that when Christianity came along, this was one of its more unusual features and that historical Paganism viewed its deities as a fussier and more demanding lot.

In my teens I was drawn to the idea of deity for a while, and there were moments, but nothing clear aside from a couple of very intense dreams. In my twenties I lost all sense of divinity, and in my thirties, as part of a deliberate project (When a Pagan Prays) I set out to try and reconnect. The gods do not talk to me, I do not feel called to work for, or be lead by, or blessed by any deity in particular, and no matter what I do or how I do it, nothing much happens. And I know, because I’ve faced the sentiments repeatedly, how much of a validation it would be to be picked. Special. Chosen. Wanted by a deity for some purpose that I alone can serve. It’s not happening. My wanting it does not make it happen. Either what I’m doing is sufficient and requires no interference, or there’s nothing I could do, or I’m irrelevant or combinations thereof.

It raises some interesting questions about the idea of equality within spirituality. Are we all on an even footing, or are some of us more spiritually advanced than others? If you think we’re reincarnating towards perfection, then it’s a given that some are doing better at this than others. While there’s something tempting about the idea that we’re all good enough and loved by the gods, there’s also something bland and limiting about that idea. The heroic cultures of our ancestors were all about standing out, being memorable, and myth-worthy. But taken too far, the urge to specialness becomes a way to put down those you see as less special. To speak for the deity is to have power, importance and status. For fallible humans, there’s a lot of risk to your spiritual wellbeing involved in buying into the idea of your own importance. It’s so often the case in organised religion that worldly power becomes more important than personal spirituality. For some people people to be special, others of us have to get our heads round not being special, and I’m increasingly inclined to think that’s ok.

Perhaps the gods speak to me in ways that I remain too ignorant, fearful or closed to hear. Perhaps there are right things I could do that I’m not doing. Perhaps I’m not good enough. Perhaps it isn’t my path. On the whole though, it may be as well for me that I have nothing of this in my life. I watch the debates go by on blogs and social media about fashions in deities, and who really knows what, and who really is in a relationship with their god… and I am glad to have nothing to say. There’s a certain relief in having nothing to contribute. There’s nothing of mine that can be hurt by other people believing or not believing me. There’s nothing in my spiritual experience that gives me any entitlement to claim authority.

Of course there are times when the security of being loved by the divine would be a welcome, encouraging thing, a balm for my troubled soul perhaps. There is no one to do the work for me, and whatever is broken inside me is mine to fix, and only mine. On the plus side it makes me easier to be around for other people who do not get miracle cures, magical insights and demands for action. I think the days when I am jealous of those who have a personal experience of deity, is outweighed by the days when I’m glad of not having to deal with that, and not having to navigate my all too fragile ego through the many traps spiritual authority has to offer a person. I’m just a scruffy Druid, muddling along, and learning how to be ok with that has been an important part of my personal journey.


Creating my own reality

We have beliefs about the ways in which, by action and sheer will, we can change our reality, and we also all have beliefs about the ways in which there is no scope for change whatsoever. Some of these are more sensible than others, and I am picking some examples that strike me as especially nuts.

A great many adult humans spend vast amounts of money on products and interventions which promise the illusion of youth. We are all getting older, that’s a key feature of being alive. Rather than accept this process and work with it gracefully, we expend vast amounts of human time, energy and resource on fighting it. This tide will not go back no matter how we shout at it.

On the other hand, we’re willing to treat human constructs as inevitable and unassailable. We’ve built a vast and complex house on the sandy base that is cheap energy. When the oil runs out, we’re in trouble, and yet we do not consider changing the system. We’ll look anywhere for answers, no matter how short term and suicidal rather than even consider the systems we built might have to change.

All too often, we don’t believe we can change our health by changing our lifestyles but will pay for pills that claim to do it for us, and never mind the side effects. Death is inevitable but we want a magic pill to chase it away.

Too many of us no longer believe we make a difference by voting, while far, far too many are happy to trust decision making to the dubious few who put themselves forwards.

We believe that there’s no money to feed and house our poorest people, while at the same time we’re also happy to believe that spending £100billion on nuclear weapons and the capacity to kill 45 million people is a prudent investment for jobs and future security.

Look at the things we seem willing to believe as a society, and the quantity of cognitive dissonance is astounding. 97% of scientists say man made climate change exists and yet we still consent to be ruled by people do not believe in it. England, if we were a person, we’d have to be medicated to the eyeballs and put in a padded room because our delusions are vast, and our beliefs so shockingly irrational.

With our beliefs, we create our reality, and by this means we shall have a vast array of nuclear weapons and people in poverty killing themselves. We shall have miracle anti aging face creams and continue to die younger than we might have done as a consequence of obesity, air pollution and road deaths. As for what we’ll do when climate change and peak oil wash away the foundations of sand – that’s anyone’s guess, but I don’t have much confidence that at such a time, we will collectively wake up and think clever thoughts. We’re just not in the habit.

And then there’s that merry band of us, Cnut-like, shouting at the sea of humanity to go back. Try something else. Irrationally optimistic that we can get people to change their beliefs. Wet feet it is, then.


Belief as a form of magic

Belief has a great deal of power. The person who believes themselves invincible will act very differently from the person who believes they are doomed. Belief in medicine gives us the remarkable placebo effect, belief in the stock market holds our economies together… or sometimes doesn’t.

From what I‘ve seen of chaos magic, there are systems in which cultivating your capacity to believe whatever seems expedient, is a source of power. I could easily say the same thing of politics. I have no doubt that our ability to believe has a huge influence on the world. If we used this power to improve things, it probably wouldn’t worry me so much.

We believe that the market will magically solve everything, acting with god-like intelligence to resolve all problems.

We believe that we can have infinite growth with finite resources and can persist in taking more from our planet than is sustainable and that somehow, magically, there will be no consequences.

We believe that polluting the air and the drinking water is not a problem even though we know that some 11,000 people have already died in the UK alone this year as a consequence of air pollution.

We believe that fracking is safe and will solve our energy problems, and not poison the water or really contribute to climate change, and we don’t really believe climate change is happening anyway.

We believe that short term profit is more important than quality of life and long term survivability, because the market is going to magically fix everything.

We believe that nuclear is a safe and clean option, telling ourselves that business in Japan was really unlikely and could never happen here, and not believing that the thousands of years required for the cleanup process will be an issue. It’s not our issue at any rate.

We believe that giving more power to corporations so that they can sue governments if their interests are harmed, will be just fine because the market will magically solve everything, and if business is happy, the market is happy.

We believe that poor people caused the recent economic meltdown and should be punished, while bankers are fabulous people who need a big pay rise to reward them for their mistakes.

Every now and then someone will try to tell me that Pagan beliefs are irrational. We believe in nature, in so far as one can do that. We believe in stuff that exists, all too often. But even the most exciting of fluffy new age unicorn Atlantis theories starts to look quite sane and harmless when you compare it with the beliefs western humanity seems to be holding about where the magical powers are and how the world works.


Religion is people

One of the things that occasionally drives me nuts with a small number of atheists, is this idea that religion is the root of all evil, and if we could only get rid of religion, the world would be a much better place. Anyone who has read Spirituality without Structure will know I’m no great fan of organised religion, for all the same reasons many atheists take issue. However, religions are not something that have a terrible influence on people. It is important to remember that religions *are* people – made by people, and run by people.

Take away religion and the world would not magically become a better place. All of the people currently using religion to justify prejudice and cruelty would not suddenly get over it and become lovely. They’d find other spaces supportive of their hatred. Race, culture, politics, countries, languages even…there are plenty of other things humans make that can easily be co-opted to the same effect.

It’s also worth noting that while religion can be a force for good in many lives, so too can culture, politics, patriotism and all the rest. Love for and devotion to anything can turn out to be a force for good.

It is one of the particularly bat-shit crazy things about people, that we invent stuff, and then convince ourselves that the stuff we invented now means we have to do something, or can’t do other things. Not because they are right or wrong. Not because they are helpful or cruel. Not because we want to do them, or loathe the idea, but because the book we wrote says so.

It’s not religion we need to get rid of, but the idea that having power over other people is a good thing. It’s not all belief that is the problem, but the more specific belief that in some circumstances, cruelty, violence, abuse and prejudice are perfectly acceptable. If we could shake off the idea that there can only be one truth and that making people believe yours is therefore acceptable, religion would be no problem at all.

People make religions. That gives us the possibility that we could do a much better job of it, and while we’re at it, a much better job of all the things we’ve been using religion to disguise.


When despair helps

Generally I’m pro-hope as a way of keeping going, staying sane and emotionally viable, and being able to get stuff done. Sometimes though, hope traps us and despair sets us free, and I thought it would be interesting to ponder that a bit.

Hope allows us to imagine that things will get better, that we can make a difference, that time will heal and wisdom will prevail. Hope is what enables you, day after day, to show up to the nigh on impossible and keep trying to move mountains. Without hope there can be no epic changes, no wild innovation and all the people who say it can’t be done get to be right. With hope, that apparently impossible task can turn into that which you have actually done. Hope is a powerful thing.

However, misplaced hope is not a helpful thing. If we hold onto the belief that it will get better, and that our staying and slogging away at it makes a difference, we can give a lot of time to achieving very little, or to staying in spaces that hurt us. Maybe one day he will value me and be kind to me… maybe this job will be better next year… maybe the neighbours will move and I won’t feel so intimidated… maybe this government won’t sell us out to the corporations… maybe once they see the evidence they’ll be reasonable… and on we go.

Many things only work if you’re dealing with sane and reasonable people. When you’re not, then hope becomes dangerous. Hoping that climate change won’t happen… hoping that politicians will see sense and do something about it – this does not work. It is misplaced hope, and we need to invest our belief and energy in changes we can make for ourselves and become the tidal wave that changes everything.

Despair can give us the push to move on. In giving up, we can become able to shake off what’s restricting us, kick it squarely in the shins and get on with our lives. Giving up on ideas, beliefs, hopes and people hurts like hell. It is a loss that can be as profound as a bereavement, but without the wider support because nothing visible died. What died was inside you, in your heart, in your head. We don’t do funerals for the loss of political ideals, although I suspect there are a lot of grieving and betrayed Liberals out there who could have done with just that. We don’t have funerals when we realise our idea of someone was imaginary and the real person is totally different. Our ideal is dead, but we have no means to honour it.

These private deaths and personal losses are deeply affecting, and agony to go through. However, on the far side of the death of hope, is a fresh start. A chance to rethink, do differently and find a better place to invest our hope.


Knocked down, getting up

I start today tired, and wondering how on earth I’m going to manage the things that need doing – some of which are large and hard to make sense of. Some of which have floored me. Life is full of knock downs and we all get them. The rotten luck, the tragedies, the being crapped on from a great height. So here are the things I’ve learned.

Good friends are precious beyond words, and when you’re on your knees and life threatens to break you, friends are everything. Sometimes there’s insight, experience and perspective that can help turn a problem around. Sometimes it’s the sheer power of having people who believe in you and won’t give up and will sit with you and hold your hand and help you try to get up again, and support you when you wobble a bit. Friends who cheerlead. Friends who refuse to let you quit even when you’re so beaten it seems the only option. Friends who carry hope for you when you have none of your own.

Often what will keep me down once I’m knocked is the belief there is no point getting up again. That’s not always a depression issue. That’s for the days when three toxic things rolled in one after another and I can’t face another panic attack and there doesn’t seem to be any way of fixing things. There is no getting up unless you can work up some faith and hope things might get better. Belief like this can be wholly irrational – I’ve been through enough things I was told could not be done. Sometimes what it takes to get up is the skill to magic up irrational belief that it can get better.

I have to believe that I do not deserve the knock down. I do not belong on the floor. That’s been hard to get to grips with, and is not an easy thought to hold when things are bad.

Then there’s the decision about what sort of person I want to be. I don’t want to lie on the floor in a snotty heap, whimpering. I would rather die fighting. While there is breath, while I can act in any way, it is better to have the metaphorical sword or the actual pen in hand and to wield them. Thus far, every time I’ve thought I could not possibly bear any more, I have eventually managed to drag myself up for another round. I have taken beatings, emotional, psychological. I’ve been pasted physically by illness. I get up and I do it again. I won’t sit down, shut up and consent to being a victim. Never again.


What makes a religion?

About eighteen months ago I read Alain Du Botton’s Religion for Atheists. I’m not an atheist, but I like exploring philosophy from different perspectives. It’s a fascinating book, and I recommend reading it. The most important thing is that it considers religion as a social phenomenon. What do religions do for people that atheists miss out on? What could atheists learn from religions? Good questions. That got me thinking about the relationship between religions as structures, and spiritual practice.

What is a religion? In essence, it’s an organised human response to the idea of divinity. Ways of thinking about deity, ways of relating to it, pleasing it, serving it and so forth accumulate around a religion. Habits of behaviour, ways of thinking about the world, dress codes and all manner of other things get drawn into the mix. Things that started as a way of connecting to the divine (I assume!) can turn, over time, into ways of participating in a system that is all about other humans and has precious little sacredness in it. When a religion becomes more about its own structure than about spiritual experience, something has gone wrong.

I’m fascinated by religions, by ideas and practises from all over the world. I’ve read widely, and been lucky enough to meet people from all kinds of backgrounds. I see quite often a disconnection between the spirituality of the individual, and the institution of the religion. Mark Townsend’s struggles with the Anglican Church are a case in point. Mark is a deeply spiritual man with a deep love of Jesus and a troubled relationship with the Church. One only has to look at Mark’s work to see the separation of belief from formal religious structure.

Religions offer us off-the-peg ways of expressing and exploring faith and spirituality. They make it very easy to show up and look the part without ever needing to engage meaningfully at all. In fact, the way in which spiritual experience takes power away from authority figures puts spirituality at odds with religious structure. If you can experience the divine directly, you don’t need the religious structure. There are financial implications to that. Big organised religions tend also to be financially busy, and independent believers are less likely to fund them. There’s a huge tension between the financial needs of a religious institution and the spiritual needs of the individual sometimes.

Whether your path is shaped by a formal tradition or not, I think to be spiritual you have to do a lot of figuring out on your own terms. You need to explore what it means to you. Spirituality is about experience and seeking the divine. You can do that in a religious framework, but entering a religious framework does not guarantee that you will be walking a spiritual path. If all you engage with is the surface, you’ll miss out on a lot, irrespective of which religion you are drawn to.

Following on from that line of thought, I set about trying to unpick what it is that religions do, from a spiritual perspective. How do they function? What does a spiritual person making their own path need to know? Most Pagans are, to some degree own-path folk and we don’t have the same structures as many religions, but we can learn by looking at them. There’s also a lot more diversity of religion out there than exposure to Judeo-Christian traditions might suggest so I’ve tried to give a sense of the range and plurality. There are many ways of being a spiritual person, inside a religion or purely on your own terms. If you feel some tools for deliberately working on your own path may be helpful, do saunter over and have a look at Spirituality without Structure http://www.amazon.com/Pagan-Portals-Spirituality-Without-Structure/dp/1782792805/ref=sr_1_1_bnp_1_pap?ie=UTF8&qid=1383822624&sr=8-1&keywords=spirituality+without+structure


The legacy of fear

I’ve got to the stage with the anxiety that I don’t live there all the time. In terms of quality of life, that’s huge. It’s mostly due to knowing that my bloke can stay in the country, and knowing that I can keep my child – having both of those in doubt for a number of years was making me very ill. It means that on a calm, unstressy day I am now a passably function human being. I forget, all too easily, how many panic buttons there are and how easily they are pressed, so if I do ok for a couple of weeks I’m badly thrown by the panic when it comes. Of course life is not stress free.

There are some kinds of stress that I can handle, and I’m building a picture of what it is that tears my body up and makes me not just emotionally messy, but physically ill. That which I have no control over is a significant issue. If I have scope to act in a way that can fix, offset or avoid, then even really stress things are bearable. Things where it’s out of my hands – as it felt like with Tom’s application to stay, are really hard.

But why? In part because I assume the world is hostile towards me. I assume that the more I want something, the higher the risk that I am going to be punished simply for daring to want. I get very anxious around things I need that are awkward and inconvenient. I am afraid of answers roughly shaped ’you cannot get there from here.’ My logical mind knows that mostly, there are ways, and that ‘you can’t get there from here’ does not exist in many sane and functional systems. It probably doesn’t help that not all systems are as sane and functional as I would like them to be. What underpins it is too long in contact with people who were not reasonable, or fair, or I sometimes think, terribly sane. It’s been an odd sort of life…

And there it is, the thing I want, and the challenge to overcome before getting it (yet another evil and terrifying form, of course, and bureaucracy always makes me a tad queasy.) I want this enough to be terrified. Then the racing pulse, the stomach cramps, the sleeplessness. The speed at which I move from emotional response to bodily distress still surprises me. It shouldn’t, I’ve lived with it for years.
I’ve found it helps to pick apart the fear, and name it. Nameless dreads are always worse than the ones you can pin down. Where possible I give mine names like Bob and Geoff, Nigel, and Justin, because that makes them a tad more manageable. I’ve learned not to try and shut down my mind in escapist ways, but to walk into whatever the heart of the fear is, trying to face it and name it. I can’t say this helps with the getting to sleep, but it gives me tools. In the short term, emotion and body fail are far more potent and immediate than logic. However, every time I throw my rational mind at the fear, I make some small bit of headway.

“You are not a nameless dread, you’re a snorting application form.”
“Snort,” said the application form.

A lot of people live with fear. Being open about it has brought me a lot of heart breaking stories from fellow travellers (feel free to keep them coming, because it helps to acknowledge this stuff). Fear is easy to hide. It doesn’t show up in bright purple blotches across your face. No one else can hear that your heart is racing, or feel your gut tying itself into dysfunctional knots. It’s hard to explain. People who are not afraid look at the apparently small thing that is crushing you to death and see how small it looks to them and think you are being melodramatic. It’s just because they do not realise that to you this thing has manifested as an elephant, or a landslide of mud and that it really is squashing the life out of you.

To those of you who do not understand, be grateful. It is a precious gift in life to live without terror.