Tag Archives: Paganism

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.

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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.


Urban trees for magical transformation

Like many Pagans, I do not in fact live in the wilderness. Most of us are urban, which makes the idea of nature as something away from humans rather awkward. How can you celebrate nature, commune with it and base your spirituality around it if nature is somewhere else? There can be a temptation to work with ideas about nature rather than direct experience. For me, one of the things that makes Paganism so good is that we don’t have to rely on what we can imagine, but can instead have that direct, first hand experience of the living world.

Urban trees can be a great way of experiencing non-human entities on a daily basis. It helps that they tend to stay put so can be visited reliably. Trees are good for people in all kinds of ways. I’ve just been sent some really interesting stuff from The Woodland Trust about how urban trees impact on us, so I thought I’d share some of that. I think there’s a lot to take on here about what it means to be in contact with trees, even in apparently unpromising environments.

I think it’s widely known that trees reduce air and noise pollution, and that a single mature tree can release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support two people. Access to any kind of green space encourages good mental health and physical activity. Urban trees help slow rainfall, and also reduce temperatures in hot weather – overheating can be a killer. Some of the impacts The Woodland Trust are reporting were more surprising, though.

Public housing residents with nearby trees and natural landscapes reported 25% fewer acts of domestic aggression and violence. I think this is a staggering figure. Humans without trees are not as functional. Further, children exposed to nature score higher on concentration and self-discipline; improving their awareness, reasoning and observational skills, doing better in reading, writing, maths, science and social studies, are better at working in teams, and show improved behaviour overall. We are better people when we have trees.

One piece of tree data I found surprising is that street trees may improve driving safety. One study found a 46% decrease in crash rates across urban arterial and highway sites after landscape improvements were made and street trees were planted. Clearly, trees do not improve visibility for drivers, but they do break up the monotony, perhaps encouraging drivers to be more aware of what’s changing around them. Perhaps trees alongside roads are just calming in the way trees are other places.

I started supporting The Woodland Trust years ago because it seemed like a good expression of being a Druid, and a good way to contribute to the wellbeing of landscape and that which dwells in it. The challenges facing humans are so vast right now, so overwhelming that it can feel impossible to know where to start responding. It can feel like one person’s small difference is hardly worth making, and that can render us powerless.

We are better and healthier people when we have trees. We are less likely to kill each other. If children have better reasoning and observational skills when exposed to nature, it seems reasonable to assume that adults will too. Which means that if we want to change the people around us, helping them to be kinder, more reflective and able to make better choices, one of the ways we can do that is with tree planting. It’s a lot less emotionally exhausting than trying to reason with the unreasonable as well. Working to develop urban green spaces might move us towards answers to far more complicated problems. Trees have a magic of their own, and when people experience trees, they can change simply because of that.

Some sources –

Kuo, F.E., and W.C. Sullivan. 2001. Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: Effects of Environment Via Mental Fatigue. Environment and Behavior 33, 4:543-571. Facts reported by the University of Washington http://depts.washington.edu/hhwb/Thm_Crime.html

Sigman, A. (2007) Agricultural Literacy: Giving concrete children food for thought www.face-online.org.uk/resources/news/Agricultural%20Literacy.pdf

Donovan et al, 2013, The Relationship Between Trees and Human Health: Evidence from the Spread of the Emerald Ash Borer https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749379712008045

3 Naderi, J.R. 2003. Landscape Design in the Clear Zone: Effect of Landscape Variables on Pedestrian Health and Driver Safety. Transportation Research Record 1851:119-130.

 


Alternative daily practice

When we talk about having a daily practice in Paganism, we tend to mean ritual, prayers and meditation – separately or in combination. That doesn’t work for everyone. However, doing something every day can be affirming and help you stay active in following your path, so here are some things that are worth trying. It’s important to do things you can sustain and that nourish you, and that suit how your mind and body works. Many more options exist.

Communing – just spending time with something else, be that a plant, a stone, a stream. Not doing anything necessarily, not asking anything, just being there, with whatever you’ve chosen to be with.

Getting outside – to walk, or stay still, or move slowly by any other means. To be on the land, and with it in a conscious way. To just let that happen to you and be open to what it does.

Making a deliberate sensory engagement with the world – be that looking, listening, touching or smelling (tasting is risky!) taking the time to connect with some other thing in a conscious way, but not necessarily with any intent beyond that.

Resting – for many of us, stopping is as difficult as it is necessary, but you can make resting a sacred act of honouring your animal body, and you can use it to make time for your animal body, and that can be powerful.

Creativity – creating is good for the soul. It doesn’t matter how good you are, or what anyone else might think of it. Whether you’re singing the half remembered pop songs of your youth, making exquisite ink drawings, learning to cook, dancing with just your hands… making time every day for something creative is a good way to let magic in to your life.

Some of us don’t have the heads or bodies for the kind of formal discipline some paths may suggest. Some of us really can’t do half an hour of meditation and may be panicked by the memes that say in that case we should be doing an hour. Making Paganism an every day thing does not have to mean hurting yourself or struggling, or fitting in to anyone else’s ideas of what a daily practice should even look like.


Pagan Community – matters of access

To be a proper community, we need plenty of spaces people can access without having to pay. Many other religions have advantages over us in this regard – having physical spaces people can turn up to with a paid clergy on hand. Many other religions set the bar far lower than we do – a person need only show up to a church to be included in a service. Modern Paganism doesn’t recruit and fundraise in the way some religions do, which is also why we don’t have the infrastructure. I like us better for that, but it does mean we need to be careful about access.

I’ve been in and out of an assortment of big Pagan groups over the years. I have paid my way over the threshold, and, once in have usually felt some degree of belonging and involvement. Every time I’ve left somewhere, I’ve noticed how easy it is. How ‘community’ evaporates when I can’t, or won’t pay to carry on there.

In more local contexts, participation has often meant being able to afford to access the venue. Can I afford to go out for an evening? Do I have the clothes, the money for the door or a half of something? How am I going to get there, and back and who will take care of my child? For most of those questions, physical energy can be as much an issue for me as the financial cost.

The internet has given us a lot of space where people can meet. Many Pagans are still geographically isolated from other Pagans, and it is only via membership of the big groups or participation online that they can connect with other Pagans. However, the quality of online spaces isn’t what it could be. It’s very hard for a new seeker to tell what’s reliable and what’s wishful thinking, what’s trustworthy and what’s a bid to get into their wallet or pants. There are far more people who want to learn than there are teachers – that’s been an issue for decades. Much as I love the internet (here we all are, after all) there are things that can’t adequately be taught long distance and that need the energy and magic of being in the same place.

There are lots of reasons to set the bar high with access to our working groups. If you want to do serious Pagan stuff, then constantly having to educate newbies can be a real distraction from that. Not everyone wants to teach. Too much fluidity in a group makes it unstable and stops it feeling like the safe and intimate space many of us prefer for ritual. There isn’t really a space in a Pagan ritual for lay Pagans, you can’t be stood in a circle and not be an active participant, it just doesn’t work. So we can’t have the same casual attitude to people rocking up that a Christian church might have. What works for them doesn’t work for us.

I don’t think there are many widely applicable answers to the question of making the Pagan community accessible, and not dependant on jumping through hoops. It does however help to have slightly permeable edges to groups and to do the occasional public facing thing that allows the curious to make contact and have a look. The more groups are able to be a little bit available sometimes, the easier it is to answer this need without creating too much work for anyone.

I can’t help but feel that learning your Paganism from Facebook groups and chat rooms, and the odd blog, or even books, is probably about as good as learning all your sex style by watching pornography. There’s a lot of technical stuff that you will certainly pick up. But, odd things may happen to your expectations, and you may get some unhelpful ideas about how the relationships work. There is more we can do to make internet and book experiences more real and grounded, and less like magic-porn.


Spirituality and depression

One of the effects that depression can have is a sense of separation from the world. This can play out in all kinds of ways – a sense of alienation from other people, a sense of dislocation from what you’re doing, distance from your own body and actions. The spiritual consequences of this detached feeling can be vast and deeply disturbing to deal with.

There have been springs when my inner season has remained winter and I’ve just not been able to connect with what was going on. There have been many days when it seemed as though all the life and colour had drained out of the world. How do you practice a Pagan faith when everything tastes like cardboard? When all you can do is skim the surface of life and not experience any breadth or depth? When you can’t feel a sense of connection, depression can rapidly become a spiritual crisis as well.

When I am depressed, I have tended to lose either my intuition or my ability to trust it. I’m not creative, or am less creative. I’m not open, so very little can get in, including the things I really need to have permeating me – the seasons, the time of day, the weather, the songs of birds.

I have a suspicion that depression may be worse for Pagans than for people of many other faiths. In many religions, there are rituals, prayers, songs, actions, regular gatherings for worship. It is normal to show up to these because it’s what you do rather than in the expectation of anything massive happening. Paganism has a far greater emphasis on personal revelation, experience of the divine and the numinous, and for a person mired in depression, these experiences are not very likely at all. We’ve got a priesthood, but it’s individuals working alone, mostly. We don’t have the support infrastructures to help take care of people who run things when they are in difficulty themselves.

I hold inspiration sacred. I’m dedicated to the bard path, a big part of my spiritual life is about creating and performing. Again, these are things that it is very difficult to do at all, or to do well when the black dog has sunk its teeth in.

I don’t have any tidy solutions to this. It helps to know that you are dealing with depression and not Pagan-fail. You may not be able to do the things you normally would – anything calling for concentration – so meditation and ritual can be too difficult. You might not feel as you normally feel – no sense of the animistic reality around you, no sense of the gods or the voices of spirit in the wind or whatever it is you normally do. That itself can be painful and disorientating and will add to the burden of depression.

Believing that all of this will pass can be the hardest belief to hold onto.


Complexity, spirituality and Paganism

The world religions which have a monastic element tend to emphasise simplicity. However, these are often also religions where there’s an aspect of rejecting or overcoming this material world in favour of spirit. One of the things I’ve always liked about Paganism is the soulful embracing of the physical that goes with nature based religion. Questions of simplicity and complexity do not look the same from a Pagan perspective.

Nature is complex and often gloriously inefficient – evolution wanders forward, and while the longstanding form of the shark may seem graceful and enduring, if they stop swimming about, they drown. Pandas. Everything about pandas demonstrates how evolution can and will take bizarre and complicated routes. Then there’s the issues of food chains and eco systems – subtle and complex webs of interdependence. Where there is life, there’s complexity.

We humans have an observable appetite for it. Our urges to create, to play, to invent and imagine demonstrate that simplicity doesn’t come naturally to us. It has to be imagined, taught, created through discipline and given value. I think many ills can be traced back to this – people forced to live narrow, boring, predictable, grinding lives tend to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol just to give existence some breadth and depth.

Many years ago, I minored in psychology, and became aware of the relationship between complexity and child development. Children need environments that stimulate their senses, but don’t overload them. Sound, touch, smell, sight – whatever is available to you needs something to chew on in early childhood to develop as a human. The same is also true of baby rats, and no doubt all other mammals too. We are not designed for bland or sterile environments but for spaces vibrant with life, possibility, danger and wonder.

As Pagans we know that if you spend time in nature, there’s a lot going on in terms of movement, sound and colour in most parts of the world. A still, silent environment is dead, and probably human. And at the other extreme, the maddeningly over-stimulating environment is also human, because we don’t know when to stop. Rush hour traffic, multi-screen leisure time, noise and light pollution – we’ve become rather adept at creating forms of complexity that make us sick.

We need complexity and stimulation, we suffer when faced with either too little, or too much. The question, as always, is one of balance. We need the kind of complex things to think about and interact with that uplift us – be that the glorious chaos of wild places, a chess game or an opera. Complexity is life, and life is complex. Given any chance to question what we’re doing and I think most of us know what’s too much. We develop skills to tune out, to not see or hear so as to avoid information overloads. The answer is not to keep doing that, but to do something better where we can.


Making new traditions

For me, one of the great joys of modern Paganism is the scope we have to create new traditions. Not, I hope, with an eye to becoming the dogma for future generations, but in a playful and light-hearted way that enables us to let go of anything that doesn’t work.

We have a wealth of inspiration to draw on from folklore and mythology, but we don’t have to be excessively faithful to it. You don’t have to spend long studying these things to realise that they change over time anyway. Traditions are all about people keeping the bits they like, letting go of the bits they don’t and innovating new things to suit the time and place in which they find themselves.

Midwinter is the season of festivals, and there are a great many we might look at. Or, we can make our own. For me, one of the key seasonal features is the Christmas pudding. This is largely because of all the festive foodstuffs, it’s the one I truly love. I’ve been making puddings for years, and where I can, I make puddings to share. Having a pudding tribe is an important part of the season for me. One of my other personal traditions is visiting the swans – I live near Slimbridge, where migrant swans come in each winter to feed. They travel thousands of miles escaping the arctic winter for the relative mildness of the UK. There are also huge duck migrations, and I’ll enjoy seeing them, too.

Traditions give us fixed points in the year, they can connect us to ancestors, landscape, other living things, communities… they are very much what we make of them. Too much tradition is inevitably stifling, but sprinkled through a year, traditions form points of familiarity and continuity that can help us feel secure and give us a sense of place in both time and the physical world.

Anyone can start a tradition, and keep it for as long as they wish. As Pagans, we can, and I think should craft our traditions based on our experiences and needs, knowing what we want and need from them and acting accordingly. If we’re going to invest in keeping on doing something every year, it should be something that feeds the soul, lifts us, helps us bond with each other and brings joy, comfort, coherence, and connection.


Pagan Clergy

Last week I read this excellent post on The Ditzy Druid blog – https://ditzydruid.com/2016/04/23/why-i-believe-pagans-need-clergy/ which got me thinking about Pagan clergy.

In organised religions, clergy tends to mean hierarchy. It means people with more power and influence, perhaps in a many tiered system. I can’t say it’s something I find attractive. As a Pagan doing the clergy job, I’m very aware that I don’t have much of a formal support network. No one is paying me to support others through crisis or to offer guidance. There isn’t someone I can definitely go to for support myself, or advice or anything like that. I have no doubt it’s easier to do the work when you get paid for it and you’ve got backup.

In practice if I’m struggling, I’m likely to look around and see who, of the wise people I know, might have some ideas, or some spare energy. I am a celebrant, and an advice giver, but there are times when I need the benefit of someone else’s insight and experience. Sometimes I need a perspective from someone not as emotionally caught up in things. If I need a rite of passage, I need someone else to do that for me. If I need witnessing in something, I need someone else to do it. I think this is true for all Pagans.

One of the oft touted ideas in Paganism is that we are all our own priests and priestesses. We can all talk directly to what we hold sacred. However, in being priests and priestesses, perhaps we need to think about that role not in purely personal terms, but in community terms. In every tarot reading, every assist with a troubling dream, in ritual, in exchanging ideas and in comforting each other, we act as each other’s spiritual guides and counsellors.

Priestwork need not mean authority or hierarchy. It could be understood in terms of shared responsibility. We all need people to advise, support and challenge us once in a while. We can do that without sacrificing autonomy, by having it happen in a more fluid way.


Challenges on the Druid Path

Faiths can be a lot like love affairs. You start out full of excitement and enthusiasm. This will be the one! This will change your life, heal your broken heart and make everything perfect. For the honeymoon period, you do all the things. You carefully celebrate seasonal festivals, make and maintain an altar, have a daily practice…

And then you don’t achieve enlightenment. You don’t become a super-capable magician. Your problems still exist. Your broken heart is not perfectly restored. Maybe it wasn’t the faith for you. Maybe it’s time to try another, to fall in love with a new set of ideas. We can end up wandering about being offered fantastical, magical answers, and never really getting what we wanted.

This is, I think an important aspect of being on a path, and one we probably don’t talk about enough. It’s too tempting to focus on the more meaningful experiences, and on times of change, even though that’s not what day to day spirituality looks like. I’ve been exploring Druidry for years. There is so much I do not know. There is so much that I am not. Dramatic events and big revelations are scarce through to non-existent. There’s a slow process of building on what I know, and changing how I am in the world. Druidry has not solved all my problems, but it has given me some ways to handle things better.

The divine does not speak to me, mostly. There are odd moments that leave me wondering, but nothing clear enough to be comforting. Birds do not fly to my hands. I do not see the future. I cannot heal people with the power of my mind. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges Paganism offers us, is that having invested in these magical, enchanting ways of seeing the world, we still have to deal with the mundane realities, socks still get dirty, injustice still stalks the earth, bad things happen. We aren’t magically protected from all things in all ways, and we probably know we shouldn’t be anyway. To embrace the idea of magic while accepting the frequent absence of it isn’t easy.

Real growth, and real learning are often about tiny shifts that aren’t visible while they’re happening. It’s natural to crave the dramatic revelation, but what you’re more likely to do is get evolution by tiny increments over a long time. Shifts in how you see and feel that are subtle, and that you don’t register as they happen. We’re changing all the time, but we won’t see it until more time has passed.

The faith we thought was our one true love maybe hasn’t let us down after all, maybe we just had unrealistic expectations. Part of why we have those expectations is the way others sell ideas of rapid progress and instant development, and the way some people play up their own experiences and fail to mention the boring bits.

I’ve been a Druid for over a decade, and mostly it’s very quiet. There are moments of wonder and inspiration, there has been a slow change taking place in me. I get excited about ideas and connecting with other people but I’m still basically a flawed, often confused human muddling along as best I can. All of us are, to at least some degree.