Tag Archives: Paganism

Not being in control

There are all sorts of Pagan and otherwise spiritual activities that focus on being in control of something. There are strong associations in many traditions between being spiritual and being disciplined. Often what religious practices are for, is taking us away from our basic animal urges towards something more elevated.

How does this work with Paganism? Does it make any kind of sense to try and discipline ourselves away from our animal selves? We are animals, mammals – is it even possible for a human to do something that isn’t a reflection of our animal nature?

Perhaps part of this stems from the mistaken ideas we’ve had about what animals are and how they exist. We have a considerable history of reducing animals to meat machines that do everything unthinkingly, by instinct or by conditioning. This clearly isn’t true. There is so much evidence out there to demonstrate that mammals are thinking, feeling creatures and that we all have a lot in common on that score. 

Most mammals spend a lot of time resting. Humans often describe that in ways that assume laziness, or sensual indulgence. What we project onto animals has so much to do with wanting to feel superior to them. What we imagine when we see them not actively doing something, is that they are doing nothing. We don’t assume that a cat gazing into space is contemplating philosophy, or deeply involved in some spiritual practice. Just because we have to write books and read books and talk to each other a lot and try very hard to develop prayer and meditation practices doesn’t make it special. Maybe we aren’t superior for having figured this out, maybe we’re inferior because cats just crack on and do it anyway without needing the paperwork.

Being in control is itself often an illusion. We only think we are in control because we don’t understand the influences affecting us. We don’t realise what we’ve unconsciously absorbed, and which stories we are playing out, all too often. We like to feel busy and as though we are being productive and making progress. The more in control we appear to be, the more progress we feel like we’ve made.

I see this come up a lot with how people approach dreaming in a spiritual context. The value placed on controlling dreams bothers me a lot. It feels to me like a process of cutting down a vibrant ecosystem and replacing it with things we’ve planted in straight lines. That’s not progress. It is control and it takes away far more than it gives.

I think of dreaming as being a wild landscape. There is more to gain from entering that wild landscape without wanting to control it, I think. There’s a lot to be said for looking at anything humans have come up with and asking whether it is designed to try and take us away from our human, animal selves. Existence is not something to overcome, it’s something to embrace.

I have a dreaming book that isn’t about controlling things, more over here – https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/moon-books/our-books/pagan-dreaming 


Every Pagan Is An Activist

If we are to have any kind of relationship with any aspect of the natural world, we have to be activists. I firmly believe that it is not possible at this point to be a Pagan without being an activist. The person who feels entitled to simply take from nature – be that magically or practically, has a destructive relationship with this planet and everything on it.

There are, however, many ways to be an activist. If you are working from a place of care to try and protect, nurture, and support life, you are already doing this work. You might want to consider dialling it up, making it more explicit and more visible. There is always more that can be done, but if everyone did something we’d be in a much better state.

All compassionate work is a form of activism – up to a point this also includes self care. Promoting rest and health means pushing back against the idea that we should work and consume endlessly. When self care is sold as a product, it becomes part of the problem. When self care is the excuse we use for not bothering, then it stops being activism.

We have to be careful to avoid things that are primarily undertaken to put ourselves centre stage. Activism that is mostly ego doesn’t get much done. 

Pagans are especially well placed to talk about power. Anyone on a magical path has a considered relationship with power. There’s a lot of philosophy in Paganism around power-with rather than power-over, and this is key around activism. Mainstream culture teaches people to feel powerless and ineffective. Paganism teaches people to stand in their own power and use it well. If we can model how to do that for people who are not Pagans, we can help people overcome the feelings of futility and powerlessness that stop many from acting.

Everything can be changed if there’s enough willpower to make a difference. We have the resources. We have the knowledge. Anything can be changed, but only if people believe they can change things. What we know about will, belief, and intent could make a great deal of difference. 

And so I write this to remind you that you are powerful. The things you do make a difference. Your words are spells. Your actions have an impact. Your will affects the world. 

(With thanks to Helen Woodsford-Dean for the prompt to write this.)


The economics of spirituality

One of the things Paganism doesn’t really do, is enable people to live full time as devotees to their path. Many religions have monasteries, allowing people to make a full time commitment to spirituality. Many religions have paid posts for priests so that the person called to work in their community has a viable way to do that. 

This kind of infrastructure isn’t possible without the religion itself being organised and having a hierarchy. Pagans tend to rebel against that sort of thing. We mostly want to be independent and free to follow our own calling, but the trade off means that there are economic restrictions on following your own calling.

Yes, we have paid priests, but that income is occasional and unpredictable. Doing a job where part of the job involves chasing the work and trying to make yourself financially viable is a lot of extra job for the money and it takes a toll. 

The calling to work as a Pagan can also take people into writing, healing, teaching, divination, making clothes, tools, and other materials, and offering guidance. None of these jobs pay a person much unless you also spend time promoting yourself and your work – this doesn’t always go down well and can lead to resentment. Pagans all too often resent it when other Pagans need to be paid for the work they do. The jobs that might make you a full time Pagan actually don’t make you a full time Pagan because of time spent on marketing and accountancy and business type things.

I don’t have an easy practical answer to any of this. Clearly there are a lot of Pagans who feel the call to be full time in just the way many people around the world feel called to centre their lives in their beliefs. We don’t have the support systems to make that possible and I doubt we ever will. But we’re also not really dealing with the implications of that. We could do a lot better in socially supporting our would-be full time Pagans and we could at least have a culture of treating people kindly when they step up to this way of working and being.

We exist in a capitalist society, and Pagans have bills to pay just like everyone else. Much of the work a person might do is not spiritually nourishing. Those of us able to do work we find ethical, rewarding and intrinsically worthwhile are in the minority. Not everyone can balance part time work with part time Paganism. At the same time, not everyone can afford to pay for the kind of work we want and need Pagan priests to do for us. The answer is not to get angry with our full time Pagans over this. As is so often the way of it, the actual solution will lie in dismantling capitalist systems, so that we can all live on better terms.


Inclusive thinking

One of the easiest and most problematic mistakes to make is simply to assume that everyone else we deal with is just like us. I’ve seen it in books and articles, in how people organise events and manage volunteers, and more. It tends to come from people who have enough privilege that they don’t have to pay attention to how privilege manifests in their lives. When you think you are normal, it’s a small step to thinking that anyone different is just being awkward or uncooperative and thus feeling no obligation to respond to their needs.

If you’re stepping into any kind of leadership /authority /author role as a Pagan, I think it’s incredibly important to consider how your notion of your own normality might impact on how you treat other people. It takes effort and empathy to look past your own experiences to learn about how the world works (or doesn’t) for other people. It takes effort and imagination to consider where your assumptions might make your efforts exclusive. It takes integrity and courage to look at how your beliefs might unwittingly have made you ableist, racist, sexist, classist. And it is so important to dig in and do the work.

If leadership is the comfortable acting for the benefit of the comfortable, while leaving the disadvantaged on the outside, it’s more about self indulgence than service. It is certainly the case that making everything totally inclusive for everybody tends to be both prohibitively difficult and expensive, because we operate within systems that are problematic. But that doesn’t mean you are free to not try.

This isn’t about the imaginary people who might want to get involved. Not being able to cater to the need of the imaginary people can just be a way of letting yourself off the hook. What matters most is to include the people who show up wanting to be included. The real ones who are in your immediate community.

Here are a few things you can do in this regard. 

  1. Be explicit that you are open to hearing from people about their access needs or barriers to attending.
  2. When people tell you about access issues and barriers, listen with respect and take them seriously.
  3. Try to find workarounds based on what you are being asked to do, trusting that the person asking you to improve inclusivity knows most about what would help them participate.
  4. Consider it your responsibility to enable participation.

If you aren’t acting as a leader in any capacity you can help by flagging up access issues when you see them, and by supporting people who ask for things to be made more inclusive. Amplify, affirm, take seriously and treat with respect people who need help around access.


God Issues

I’ve been interested in Pagan deities since childhood. I’m deeply attracted to the stories, and early on I was much more of an active polytheist, seeking relationship with deity. The reasons that I fell out of that are many. I’ve no problem with the idea that gods exist and that people interact with them, it just doesn’t work for me.

I struggle with the feudal language that always comes up around deity. It’s funny because there’s a massive sub streak in my nature but most of the time I have no desire to be in a relationship with a being who is so much more powerful than me. My urge to serve doesn’t translate into an urge to serve a deity, and I have no idea why.

I struggle with the gendered language. It’s taken me a while to figure out anything much about the ways in which gender doesn’t do it for me. So much of the language we have is so very gendered when it comes to deity. Some days I find Goddess material difficult because while I have a (mal)functioning womb, my experience of being embodied just doesn’t chime with a lot of what other people seem to be doing around Goddess worship. I know there are gender complicated deities out there, but none of them really speak to me either.

I struggle with the whole notion of anthropomorphic Gods, a lot of the time. I think humans tend to favour picturing Gods as a lot like humans because for many people that helps. For me, it’s a bit of a barrier. I don’t actually want the spirit of the land to show up with a human face and talk to me in my own language. For me, that would feel like a loss of magic, not a more accessible manifestation of deity. If I want to talk to the land, I talk to the land, and I don’t expect any kind of reply.

Around all of this, I have an experimental and intermittent prayer practice. I’ve found that it works best for me just to address things to the universe, or to any bit of the universe that might be listening and interested. I listen, on the off-chance there’s anything out there that wants to talk to me – and mostly there isn’t, which is fine. Most days, there is no reason at all for anything out there to take interest in me, and most of the time I feel that this is far better for me anyway. I’m not sure it would be at all healthy for me. I have too much hunger around wanting to feel special and important, and I think that would make me a problematic worshipper, and an even more problematic priest. Better to work through those issues in my own time than load that onto a relationship with a deity and risk where that might take me.


Happy Hana Matsuri

My plan for this year was to honour Japanese festivals as part of what I do with my altar. This is partly because I’ve been trying to learn Japanese. I’ve not made much headway in the last month, but there we go.

Today is Hana Matsuri. It’s a festival celebrating the birth of the Buddha, and it is celebrated much earlier in Japan than anywhere else. This is a consequence of Japan adopting the Gregorian calendar and having a date shift on festivals – something that may also have happened with traditional festivals in the UK when said calendar came in.

I spent some time wondering what, if anything I was going to do, and in the end I’ve not done much. I’m not a Buddhist. I’m really not a Buddhist in that many of my personal beliefs are at odds with Buddhism.  I’m not held by a cultural context that celebrates this as part of its calendar – and I think that would be very different. Japan has festivals that are secular (as with the doll festival last month), there are a lot of Shinto festivals – about 300,000 of them, focused on local shrines. There are Buddhist festivals, the western New Year, Christianity has been present in Japan for some time…  It’s very different showing up for a festival that isn’t part of your religion but is part of your culture.

I have longstanding unease about the way in which western Paganism appropriates from eastern cultures. We’ve lifted so many things, taken them out of context and bundled them together. Such that a person can talk about mindfulness and chakras in the same breath without flagging up that these come from totally different backgrounds. I am deeply uneasy about the way many modern Pagans take Zen out of context, and talk about it with no reference to the history, and culture it comes from.  The only Pagan writer I’ve ever seen talking about Zen from the basis of having spent time in a Zen Buddhist Monastery had a radically different perception from every other white Pagan I’ve seen trying to talk about these concepts.

Today I am not celebrating Hana Matsuri, because I don’t know enough about it, and because I don’t have a context.  I’m honouring the festival by talking about it, because that’s something I can do.

Projection and fantasy are always potential hazards for anyone following a spiritual path. We should be extremely vigilant when we’re attracted to practices from living traditions to make sure we aren’t appropriating, misrepresenting or exploiting. Taking those traditions and turning them into what we want them to be isn’t respectful, or useful. No one really learns from perpetuating their own fantasies, or gains much from studying the fantasies of other white westerners.


What feeds you?

What inspires you? Where do you find nourishment for your soul? What lifts your spirits or eases your heart?

The glib answer for Pagans is often ‘nature’ but by ‘nature’ we often mean something dramatic and exotic. It’s a horrible irony that nature is often a place we have to drive to. Many people in the UK are desperately short of access to green spaces close to home.

One of the reasons for following a spiritual path is that it can provide nourishment for our souls. This is easier, I think in contexts when you can either get out to those wild places, or get into circles with other Pagans. We’re lifted as much by what we can share as a community, as we are by communing with nature. Many of us engage better with ritual as a group activity rather than a solo practice. And honestly, working with other people makes us more accountable and more likely to show up.

The internet gives us options for sharing personal practice in a way that means we can inspire and uplift each other. Photos of the lovely walk, the beautiful altar, the devotional art, videos of your chants and songs, blog posts about prayer and meditation… There’s a lot of good to be found in this, and it’s something I’ve been glad to participate in. For me, it really brings into focus how much the effectiveness of spirituality in our lives can be about our relationships with people.

I’ve taken plenty of people into the woods (not in this last year, though) who were only spending time with trees when there was a seasonal ritual to show up for. It was the community they were showing up for, and through that connection, they had tree time and meaningful encounters with the land.

However much we might long for interactions with Gods, spirits, fairies, guides etc, these are unreliable. Not everyone gets called. Not all offerings are answered. Not all dedications lead to powerful interactions. People are a lot more reliable and will often show up when you invite them. People will witness you and hold you to account. They will be moved by the beauty of work your spiritual practice has inspired you to create. With that feedback, it is simply easier to show up as a spiritually minded person.

I think this is something to embrace and work with. It’s not just a spiritual issue, either. Many of us do our best parenting when there’s another adult about to impress. We may well do our best creating, our best activism, our best ethical choices when we have people to witness us and either nourish us with their approval, or make us worry about not looking good. We are fundamentally social creatures, and this year of pandemic has deprived us of a lot of that contact. Things that used to feed you may not work so well as solitary activities. There should be no shame in that. It’s just easier to be, and enjoy being your best self when you’ve got a supportive and appreciative audience.


Druidry and everyday practice

There are a lot of advocates out there for having an everyday practice. There are people who will tell you that if you can’t meditate for ten minutes a day, you should do it for an hour. I don’t know that this is helpful.

Some people do really well with routines and predictability. If that’s you, excellent and you likely already have a fair idea of what you need and how best to do it. Much of our daily behaviour tends to be habit based, so if you’re the sort of person who runs on autopilot, then setting up good routines and good habits is a really excellent idea that will serve you well.

But what if it doesn’t? What if routines chafe you and stifle your creativity? What if doing the same thing every day makes you miserable?

Druidry teaches us to honour nature. How nature manifests in you needs to be part of that. How your mind works is part of how nature manifests in you, and we’re not all the same. I think we’re too often persuaded to think of our minds as a special human thing that makes us separate from nature. Your brain is squishy tissue, chemicals, evolution and experience, it is a hot mess of mammal reality and is just as much a part of your animal self as any other bit of your body.

Some creatures like routines; they wake at the same point in each day in relation to the light, seek food in the same places and are reasonably predictable. Some creatures do not have predictable cycles – they don’t breed at the same time each year, they don’t come past the same sites each night, you never know where they might be or what they might be doing. Otters are like this.  Some creatures are seasonal, with habits for certain parts of the year that change at other times. There are lots of different ways of being a mammal.

It’s ok not to have a routine. It’s ok not to have a daily Pagan practice if having one makes you unhappy. It’s ok to make things up as you go along, doing what feels right whenever the mood is upon you. It’s no less valid. We live in a culture that praises and values discipline and predictability, but these are things that work well for industrial life and current workforces. It’s not the only way to be. In Europe, we also have a long history in which Christian monastic life has shaped our cultural ideas about what a good and substantial spiritual practice looks like. It’s not a universal truth that spiritual people work within deliberate structures to focus their dedication.

Structure can be a way of not paying attention, thinking or truly engaging with your spirituality. Being spontaneous can be an excuse for being careless and not really investing much time or energy. There are pitfalls and opportunities either way.


The Secret, Special Knowledge

If someone claims to have secret, special knowledge they are probably wrong, mad or lying. If they want a lot of money from you, or sex, or attention, they probably know they are lying. They may want to be treated as super important because of the secret special knowledge, but to keep it secret, they won’t actually be able to share it with you. It also doesn’t help that it doesn’t exist, and when you press them about the ancient book they have (there is often an ancient book in the story) it will turn out to be on loan at the moment, or recently destroyed in a house fire. You will never get to see the book.

There are no big secrets in Paganism. There are secrets of course – many schools, orders and traditions, even family lines will have secret knowledge only available to members, initiates, blood relatives… When this happens, there tends not to be one keeper of the special knowledge – there tends to be a whole school, or family line, who know the things and only share what they know with people they feel have earned it.

One of the great things about Paganism is that you can figure out a lot of it all by yourself. You may be able to find your own secret special knowledge – it will come from your relationship with the land, or the work you do with the ancestors, or the personal gnosis arising from your work with deities, or something else of that ilk. And that’s wonderful, and yours, and exactly as secret as you want it to be – unless you get some sort of geas from whoever you are working with in which case it will have to be very secret indeed.

Someone else’s personal gnosis is not going to be more secret and special than yours. The more claims they make for how important their personal insight, the more likely that they are spouting rubbish. The desire to be important can do terrible things to people. Best not to feed into that – you do not owe anyone your interest and curiosity even, no matter how important they say they are. And it’s worth remembering that negative attention – anger, confrontation, argument – is also attention and will feed people who are desperately attention hungry and can encourage them to stay with their unreasonable claims.

I once had a run in with a chap who claimed to understand the ‘truth’ about the Brehon laws because he was descended from the lawmakers – the evidence being that his surname sounded a bit like Brehon. He had one of those secret books. These people turn up with tedious regularity and they don’t even tend to be very original.

The land is there. Your ancestors are in your blood. There may be all kinds of Gods, spirits, fairy folk, and so forth who might be willing to talk to you. Find your own secret special knowledge. Join a group that shares its secrets. Don’t be intimidated by anyone who makes outlandish claims.


Druidry and your environment

We are shaped by our environments. The context in which we live our daily lives has a huge impact on us. We do better as people when we have green space, and there’s evidence out there that we are kinder, better humans when our environments include trees. Lockdown has made it apparent that poverty and impoverished environments go together and that those who have least are also required to live with insufficient space, and green space.

How we live is informed by the space we live in. How much room we have and what resources are available to us. There are things you can do to create an environment that works for you, but this will be limited by your financial resources. As a Druid you may well want trees, perhaps a whole woodland, but whether you can afford to own or access that is another question. For people in serious poverty, there is no spare budget for houseplants, or to grow herbs on the window. I have done well rescuing nearly dead, reduced to clear plants, but when you do that, you take what you can get.

If you rent your home, you may not have much scope to put things on the wall or choose the wall colour. As a renter with white walls for a winter, I had a terrible time of it. I need colour in my environment and living with so much white wall space ground me down. I know some people find pale and plain environments soothing, but I’m not one of them! I crave vibrant colours and lively space.

Many Pagans choose to make their homes overtly Pagan looking as a way of re-enforcing sense of self, celebrating the path and connecting with whatever most appeals. It’s interesting to examine what, in your living environment actively supports your Druidry. Is it an altar space? Depictions of divinity? Or of nature? Is it natural objects or crafted objects, representation of the elements, or your hearth-space? Is it your books? Do you keep your ritual or divination tools on display?

What in your surroundings supports and nurtures you? What inspires and uplifts you and reminds you of who you are and what you are doing? What comforts you? What helps you? It’s worth looking around at your space on these terms and asking what you can invite in, what’s not helping and what could be changed.