Tag Archives: Paganism

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.

Sex in Paganism

Sex is life. It’s a simple truth that came up in a conversation recently. We are here because of sex, for many it’s a powerful, magical thing to hold sacred. Many of our deities, especially the female ones, are depicted in distinctly sexy ways, and the wheel of the year is often expressed as a narrative of reproduction.

I tend to resist all of this. Not least because sexual expression amongst humans is a lot broader than reproduction. Some of us are celibate, or unhappily single, some of us are non-sexual, and some of us have histories that make the celebration of sex pretty much impossible. How a person feels about their own body, their own desire, what scope they have for expression and acceptance – is all part of this mix. Some desires should not be expressed or accepted; anything that involves the non-consent of a participant.

Fertility is a tricky issue too. We could do with a collective slow down on human fertility. In many parts of the world, we’re living longer, child mortality is down, and our populations are expanding. Human fertility puts enormous pressure on the planet. We manipulate and control the fertility of other creatures – largely the mammals we eat – to work for our benefit, and we’ve changed wheat to the degree that it cannot naturally self seed – it cannot reproduce without our participation. Sex can be both one of the most natural, and one of the least natural things we get involved with.

Sex can be power – if you think about who is allowed to have sex, and who is allowed to enjoy it, the issues of power balance are considerable. For a lot of history, sex has been a part of male power over women, with ignorance and shaming reducing the scope for women to enjoy it. The ‘lie back and think of England’ advice from Queen Victoria offers us sex as something women must endure, not enjoy. Sex is incredibly political, and it’s only relatively recently that the law recognised that rape in marriage was even possible. A wedding ring, we’ve finally decided, is not consent to anything at any time forever. What does it say about us that for so much of human history we’ve been happy to make rape part of the institution of marriage while being horrified by women who express and enjoy their sexuality? And there are plenty of places in the world where that’s still happening.

Sex is a big concern for religions. Who is allowed to do it, and under what circumstances. If you look at religious laws, what it often comes down to is a way of controlling women’s sexual activities so that men can be confident about who the father is. Any religion that encourages people to deny the flesh for the sake of the afterlife tends not to be very keen on sex at all, and will tolerate it only between man and wife for the purposes of producing children. The pleasures of the flesh are often represented as being at odds with spirituality, so in a fair few traditions, dedicating to a spiritual life means celibacy.

The theme here for me, is allowing some people to dictate to other people what their relationship with sex ought to be. Whether it’s ‘you have to have sex to be initiated’ or ‘you cannot have the sex you want and be acceptable to god’ there are issues of control. We don’t have to have sex at Beltain. As Pagans, we should not feel obliged to do anything sexual, nor obliged not to. Consent is everything. If we’re not harming, or abusing someone else, then what we do, or don’t do, should be our own business. We can honour the energies of life without having to enact them. We can enact on our own terms should we choose to.

If sex is not celebratory and magical for you, then you need to start from where you are. Feeling pressured to react in a certain way is no kind of liberation, and if Paganism means to hold its head up as a sex-positive spirituality, we must also have room for those who say no.

Put on my Pagan trousers!

For me, the first consideration when thinking about clothes to do Druidry in, is that it should enable me to spend time comfortably outside. Walking boots are a default – if I’m inside I’ll take them off and go barefoot. I think in terms of waterproof coats, rather than cloaks, I may also don waterproof trousers. Otherwise for a large chunk of the year, warmth is a major consideration, and in the brief summer, not over-heating is high on the list. Most of the time I won’t carry much extra gear to change into because I’m limited in how much I can carry, not having a car.

I take a very different approach to celebrant work, because I’ve found when working with unfamiliar people, and often with family groups that are a significant percentage non-Pagan, looking the part helps them. I do have a slinky black velvet dress and I’m not afraid to use it! People booking a celebrant tend to pick accessible places, sheltered and easy to work in, and they tend to do their celebrating in the warm part of the year, which makes this easier.

Going to Pagan events, I notice that a lot of people take the opportunity to wear and enjoy their more alternative clothing – which is great fun. I’m lucky in that I live in Stroud, a place that’s becoming a byword for hippies and green innovation, and that has a lot of Druids in it. In an understated way, I perpetually look a bit alternative and feel safe wearing things I like, so I just tend to carry on in that vein unless I’m thinking about it.

But I’ve also started thinking about it, because frivolity and play are on the list for this year, and I see a lot of frivolity and play in the things Pagans wear to do their stuff. This is no way to suggest that having special clothes to be Pagan in, is in any way not serious spirituality – I think play is important, and something I don’t do enough of.

I’m not cut out for slinky velvet witchcraft. I’m inherently scruffy, and I can’t really pull it off for more than brief bursts. As a person I’m not shiny – I cobble things together, I improvise, I’m more practical than elegant, and I’m seldom at ease in anything designed to draw attention to gender or sexual possibilities.

Last year I made a tabard – dark green and dark red with gold leaves appliquéd on. It’s lightweight and easily carried, and can be put over or under other garments so is passably practical. As an item to wear to rituals, it’s worked out well for me, and does a decent job of being celebrant kit as well. This year I’ve decided to go a bit further and make a cloak. I’m knitting it. I’ve had a lot of problems with my hands around knitting, so I’m making tiny squares and sewing them together. Most of the wool is other people’s rubbish – always my favourite thing to be working with. It’ll be mostly green and mottled, and at the moment (I have the hood and shoulders) looks a bit like the commons when the summer flowers are out, which is an evocation that pleases me greatly.

Overtly Pagan clothing can be about wanting other Pagans to recognise us and take us seriously. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m generally too hung up on other people’s approval for it to be a good idea. I need to work on being accepted as myself, not trying to fit in. Working out what to wear, and which needs I can answer in my choice of clothing, is an ongoing consideration.

Art and Paganism

A recent blog of mine on the question, What is Paganism? provoked some interesting responses here and on social media. So I think it’s worth carrying on with this one. One of the concerns people raised is wanting to make value judgements about other people’s behaviour when really problematic, and the idea that without really firm edges, Paganism doesn’t mean anything.

So, let’s talk about art! Literally anything can be art these days. It’s not defined by what you create, but by the act of putting a frame round it, or putting it in a gallery, or announcing it as art, or being officially An Artist. Arty people have pushed this one in every way imaginable, which means that ‘can this be art?’ is, from an art perspective, no longer an interesting question. Curiously there’s now a resurgence in art that looks like representation of things. Once the question of ‘is it art?’ is no longer relevant, the question of ‘is it any good?’ becomes more relevant. ‘Good’ is notoriously hard to define, and we will all disagree about which works of art are ‘good’ clever, innovative, and which are rips offs and rubbish.

I think there’s a lot of similarity between Paganism and Art. For decades we’ve been pushing the edges of what can be considered Paganism. Is a Zen Druid a Pagan? Is a person whose practice is almost entirely Yoga a Pagan? Can Christians also be Pagans? Is a World of Warcraft Druid a Druid? And despite the lengthy internet arguments, the truth is that if someone wants to self-identify as a Pagan, then it’s impossible to prevent them using the term. By saying ‘I am a Pagan’ we’ve hung ourselves up in the Pagan gallery, we’ve framed ourselves in a certain way.

Like the question ‘is it good art?’ the question ‘is it good Paganism’ is often subjective. Good Paganism for a polytheist Heathen living in a yurt is not necessarily going to look much like the Good Paganism of an urban vegan Witch or the Good Paganism of a Yoga Druid. Having framed and carefully labelled ourselves, we might look round at all the other frames and labels hanging in the Pagan gallery and find they make no sense at all. But then, this also happens with art. In a physical gallery many of the things on display won’t make much sense to us either. Goat with flowers, still life of dead birds, blotchy thing, unmade bed and of course urinals and piles of bricks. Art doesn’t have to make sense to everyone looking at it. Maybe Paganism doesn’t either.

The problem with wanting to define Paganism along ethical lines, is that we rapidly have to exclude all ancient Pagans. Animal and human sacrifice would not be acceptable today. In modern Paganism, we do need ethical considerations. We do need to be able to say ‘what you are doing is not what I think a modern Pagan should be doing’. However, I think ethics are more effective when they aren’t tied to a belief system, but come from a more pragmatic view of the world. An ethics you can argue a logical basis for is a lot easier to explain and defend than an ethics that depends on belief. You don’t need an Art Ethics to decide whether burning £20,000 or giving away everything you own as a piece of art might have an ethical dimension.

I think it gets really interesting when we hold these three things separately.

Is it Paganism? To answer that we have to decide what we mean by Paganism. We will all come up with slightly different answers.

Is it good Paganism? A wholly subjective question, but well worth asking, as we also have to figure out what ‘good’ means.

Is it ethical? Which requires us to decide what is ethical in the first place.

There will never be tidy agreement between all Pagans on this, there will always be people who self identify as Pagans who are innately troubling to other Pagans. The question is not how to eliminate the ‘problem’ Pagans. You only have to look at other faiths to see how unworkable that is, or how vile it is when it works. So let’s ask some other questions about what we do with this, because those are bound to be more interesting.

What is Paganism?

Paganism is an umbrella term covering an array of beliefs and practices, some of which are heavily informed by older civilisations, others of which are largely modern innovations. The trouble with the label is as soon as you say ‘this is Pagan’ there’s an implication of not-Pagan, which can be used to hurt and exclude. All too often what I see is people saying ‘I do this and I am Pagan and you do something different so you aren’t a proper Pagan’. And then we get bogged down in arguments, sucking up time and energy.

The logic of saying ‘you aren’t a true believer’ goes with recruiting religions based around authoritarian structures. These are, for the greater part not set up to be about spiritual experience, but designed to give power to a few. Most religions have aspects that are all about serving an elite, and every religion has spiritual people who aren’t primarily motivated by power. If you aren’t interested in controlling and manipulating people, why would it matter if what they do is not what you do? Historical Paganism was as much guilty of power wielding to herd the masses as any other set up, but we don’t need to recreate that aspect.

There are reasons we might want other people to agree with us. We may feel threatened by difference, and more comfortable when our beliefs and habits are reflected back by those around us. We may want to be in charge and so must get everyone onboard for our way of doing things. We may have bought into the idea of one true way – perhaps a legacy from the faith we were raised in. We may be so excited about our personal truth that we think it’s bound to work for everyone. While sharing ideas and experiences is good, dogma is suffocating, and if we feel the need to say ‘you’re not a proper Pagan’ it’s worth asking what our problem is, not theirs.

What is Paganism? It isn’t in books, it isn’t a single coherent tradition, it does not have rules. There’s no racial or cultural barrier to membership, there’s nothing to swear, nothing to sign. Dedications are a personal thing. There are no specific gods you have to worship. You don’t even have to believe in gods to be Pagan. What does that leave? How can we make sense of the term when there’s nothing familiar to pin it to?

Let me suggest a thing. Paganism is a human response to the experience of being alive that finds sacredness in being alive. It’s a response to the seasons, life changes, the moon and tides, the agricultural year, the land, the weather. It’s a response to living and dying and to the constant cycles of life and death in this world. Anything that comes from a human response to life, is inherently Pagan. So the urge to make light and festivity at the darkest time of the year – that’s a Pagan urge. The urge to dance and party in the summer evenings, that’s a Pagan urge too. Celebrating the harvest, singing about the dear departed, honouring relationships, respecting the land we live on – no one needs telling how to do this. Every last one of us could come up with a way of being Pagan in response to life with no reference to anyone else.  Solstices, equinoxes, shifts in the season – these things are self evident.

How can we get this wrong? Because if we’re inspired by other people to celebrate our human experience of being alive, that’s fine. We can find inspiration in each other for sacred expression. If we get it from a book, that’s fine too. If we make it up, it’s still humanity responding in a spiritual way to life.

Look at it this way, and the only thing a person could do that could be readily labelled as non-Pagan is telling another Pagan that they’re doing it wrong. Perhaps we could all be a bit gentler with each other.

Visualisation for non-visual people

Visualisation takes a number of forms in Pagan practice – it comes up in certain forms of magic, it can be key to developing the tools for shamanic journeying, and the more creative forms of meditation depend on it. Visualising a sacred inner grove is a key piece of Druidic meditation. What happens if that isn’t available to you? Not everyone is born sighted, and sight impairments can’t always be an easy match with instructions to visualise the beautiful, intricate details. I have no firsthand experience of this and cannot therefore comment with any great confidence, although I think there’s a good chance what I’m poised to suggest could be helpful.

I have a very poor visual memory and a weak visual imagination. I cannot hold the shape, and look of a clearing surrounded by trees, in my head coherently for more than a few seconds at a time. I can’t see it. I’ve been trying on and off for over a decade on this particular exercise, and I still can’t see it. My visual thinking skills have improved very slightly over that time frame, but it’s taken a lot of effort and I still can’t do what many seem to do easily.

I have a good memory for words and sounds. I can remember smells, and I really remember touch. I have a recall capacity for physical sensation which I didn’t really explore for years, while I was struggling away with what I could not see inside my own head. I also have good emotional recall, which works well alongside the touch memories. I can recall cats I knew thirty years ago, and remember the shape of their bodies and the texture of their fur. I can do the same with people I have touched.  I can remember a number of actual clearings in the woods as bodily experiences of being in a space.

I think the only reason we have ‘visualisation’ and not some wider ‘sensing’ is because most people are primarily visual. Some of us aren’t, especially not when it comes to memory and the mind. What happens if we take the idea of visualisation, and stop being so visual about it? In my case the short answer is, success!

If visualising doesn’t work for you, let it go, in whole or in part, to explore other forms of sensing. Work with the senses that most involve you in the world and that your mind can most readily conjure up. I work increasingly with my felt responses. I don’t know what a grove of trees looks like beyond a most general sense. If I imagine what it’s like to sit with my eyes closed, in a place surrounded by trees, then the smells, sounds and bodily feelings of that are quite available to me, and I can blend memory and imagination to productive effect.