Tag Archives: Paganism

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.


Apparently I have skin

It came as a bit of a surprise. There were a few hours, recently, in which I could feel my own skin. There is was, being the edges of me, being real and present, delicate and sensitive. It was a kind of feeling alive that startled me. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced my own skin in that way before.

I find embodied Paganism difficult because I’m not really embodied. I spent some years assuming this was just me doing it wrong. I should try harder. Get out of my head. Do more physical stuff as part of my practice. But the truth is, I don’t have any consciousness of my own skin unless something is impacting on it. It’s not something I can change at will. I’m not even sure what going around with an entire functioning skin would feel like because so far it has only been partial.

I poked about, found out about and looked up disassociation. Apparently this is a common trauma response that can last for hours or even, in more extreme cases, months. The internet has not told me what to do if you find it’s where you’ve been living for most of your life and you are curious about how to leave. Apparently I have skin. Or at least the potential for skin, sometimes.

I remember experiences around the age of fourteen, when I discovered, thanks to my first boyfriend, being able to feel my own body shape. It was a bit of a revelation, feeling grounded by someone else touching me. Experiencing my edges as edges for the first time and having a sense of my own physical presence. I look back at that now, and am wondering if that was normal, because I think it wasn’t.

I’ve never enjoyed being in this body, it has been something I struggle with, fight against, try not to be defined by. It’s never been a happy place, and I start to think there are reasons for this, and that the answer was not, New Age style, to love myself more. There’s something much deeper going on here, and working out how to have skin is going to be a process. I can see how a person could delight in their own body and their own embodied experience, based on that experience of having some skin. So, I shall stop beating myself up for being rubbish at embodied Paganism, and start trying to figure out how to inhabit myself differently, and what might help me achieve that.


Are we good?

One of the key underlying concepts in religion is the question of whether we are inherently good or not. There are of course various takes. Some religions or subsects of religions treat this world as inherently bad, with transcendence the only thing to aspire to. We have to overcome our sinful bodies and lives, chained to karma, or however else it’s framed, and transcend into pure spirit. We have to work at being good in order to do this.

Paganism tends not to judge us so harshly and is much more in favour of this world.

In Taoism I’ve run into the idea that humans are basically good, but that can be distorted. The aim is to get back to our natural state so that what we do is good without having it work hard at it. The person who is in tune with the Tao can just get on with things and it will all flow and work out. Effort can be the enemy of this process.

Whether we are innately good, or innately vile is a question that underpins our politics. Are we more interested in helping the needy, or stopping people abusing the system? Are we more afraid of corruption, or suffering?

It’s an interesting question to ask of yourself, as well. Do I think my nature is fundamentally good? Do I think the expression of my true nature would be the best that I could be? Do I feel tainted, fallen, sinful, loaded with karmic debt, and otherwise in need of redemption? And if I feel that way, why do I feel that way?

So often, taking pleasure in life is treated as sinful. How do we construct our ideas of good and evil in the first place? Why would joy be sinful? Why would pleasure be sinful? Why would relishing this one precious existence be some kind of moral failing? Who benefits from those ideas? What happens to us when we work very hard at denying ourselves the things our mammal bodies yearn for?

For me, being Pagan means a starting place that says we might be good. We’re probably ok. We may have the capacity for terrible things, but it’s not inevitable. There is no atonement required. We do not need saving. Wine and sex and laughter and dancing and all those things are good and to be relished, not feared. We may in fact do more good by seeking simple pleasures and joys that don’t diminish anyone or anything else, than by tying ourselves in knots trying to fight our fundamentally animal selves.


The Hidden Goddess – a review

The Hidden Goddess, by Laurie Martin-Gardner explores feminine divinity in Jewish and Christian tradition. It’s a book that looks at texts, historic practice and modern interpretations and in a small space covers considerable ground.

The book is written in a narrative style, and while there are enough references that you can get in and check things if you want to, this is not an academic text. It is immensely readable and ideal for someone who just wants to get in and explore the ideas. It’s not a book claiming to have exclusive insights or unique knowledge, but it is a bringing together of sacred femininity evidence from traditions that, superficially at least, seem to lack for that sort of thing.

For me there was a mix of the familiar and the wholly unknown here. One of the consequences of reading this book is that I feel inspired to try and read the Bible and look at this for myself. I have tried to read the whole Bible before (and failed) but to go in looking for these details might make a lot of odds.

I think this is the ideal read for anyone who has moved to Paganism from a Christian or Jewish background and who wants to find ways of balancing their old path and their new one. It will also be valuable for anyone whose ancestor work has felt difficult – seeing how the Goddess has always been present in these traditions may help bridge the divide between modern Pagans and our immediate ancestors. For Christian Druids I think it’s a must have (unless you’ve already covered this ground somewhere else!).

I found it an enjoyable read that expanded my knowledge and that may have set me on a reading adventure.

Read the first chapter here – https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/blogs/moon-books/the-hidden-goddess-chapter-one-the-quest-begins/


Learn Witchcraft in a Week

Recently, The Independent newspaper published an article from a woman who had spent a week learning witchcraft. I’m not going to link to it because I don’t want to give it any oxygen, but it’s out there should you want to look. There were (unshockingly) a lot of problems with it. One of the issues it raises for me is how long we think it takes to get to grips with something.

The smaller and narrower you think something is, the shorter a time it would seem reasonable to have to spend getting to grips with it. Modern witchcraft has a history of more than 60 years and reference to historical witchcraft is of course much older, appearing in all kinds of texts. To get to grips with the history, variety, philosophy and practices of witchcraft might fairly be assumed to take more than a week. It’s hard to imagine anyone suggesting you could have a meaningful understanding of Christianity after just one week. Or existential philosophy. Or Zen.

One of the problems here I think is that we have so much modern literature that suggests you can do a great deal with very little. Glossy New Age magazines that tell you how to have everything with a few minutes of minimal effort. Highly priced courses offering instant life changes and satisfaction. All the serious witches I know are clear that you’ve got to put in the time to change yourself and your life.

But, we’re still close to the New Year – that time of instant and magical transformation. New Year, new you! it’s a pernicious lie that helps sell us all kinds of things. Real change takes time. Even the most superficial and cosmetic of changes can require more than a week.

The inclination to be changed quickly suggests to me a deep dissatisfaction with self. The person who wants a whole new identity in the space of a week, or a weekend, is clearly in trouble, and won’t be rescued in that kind of time frame. Self development takes time. Growth and healing take time, and effort. Studying anything much takes time. Nothing worth having for the long term can be grasped in a matter of a few days. We are creatures of habit – changing how your brains work and what we do with our time takes a while. A new you might be possible, but you’ll have to build that you, and work on dismantling the old bits of yourself that trouble you, if anything real is going to take place.

It’s frustrating running into things like this shoddy bit of ‘journalism’ but I remind myself that twenty years ago and more, media coverage was even less helpful, less informed and less sympathetic. On the whole we’ve come a long way in getting Paganism taken seriously. It may take a while yet to establish that these are valid spiritual paths and not passing amusements for bored fools. But, nothing worth having is ever perfectly quick and easy…


Time outside time

This is the time of year when I tend not to notice any seasonal shifts. Nothing much is growing. The catkins on the trees were there a month and more ago, and aren’t open yet. The first flowers should be a few weeks away. We may have moved past the solstice, but in practice I’m not feeling much return of the light – the overcast skies often negate any feeling of longer days.

Where I live, there hasn’t been much weather drama. It’s cold, but not freezing. There are no predictable patterns – the whole winter could go like this or we could get a sudden dip in temperature, frost, ice, winter storms and so forth.

It’s a time of waiting, for me. Waiting for the light to return. Waiting to see what challenges I might have to contend with. Waiting for spring. I think many wild things are waiting at this point – be that seeds in the ground, seasonal migrants, or anything else that will crack on with life changes when spring comes. Of course some creatures are already underway – deer mate in the autumn. Mammals giving birth in the spring may well be pregnant already, or pairing up. The hibernating female bats are pregnant, although those pregnancies won’t really get going until spring wakes them.

Mostly I want to hibernate too. Thankful not to be pregnant ready for the spring. I find the longer hours of darkness gives me the urge to sleep more. I’m at the same time affected by personal-seasonal changes in my own body and not sleeping well. I am out of kilter with some things, and perfectly aligned with others, and I think that’s often the way of it.

Modern Paganism tends to foreground the sun cycle as something to be in tune with. However, when you look at any season, what creates its distinct flavour and energy isn’t just the sun, but the way other living beings respond to it, and to each other. There’s always diversity. Hungry migrant birds are not in the deep sleep of winter. The owls outside my flat are active for much longer each night because the darkness is for them. There’s always something to empathise with, even when the sun cycles don’t resonate with your experiences.