Tag Archives: religion

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.

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Atheists, God and asking the wrong questions

Not all atheists, obviously – but too many – obsess over God. They ask religious people what their proof for God is, the religious people invariably reply that they are happy with their personal proof that God(s) exists. The atheist says this evidence is inadequate. No one is changed as a result of this exchange, in fact it may serve to entrench people in their positions.

As a Maybeist I find myself well placed to annoy deists and atheists in equal measure. As someone whose primary spiritual focus is finding inspiration sacred, I don’t fit the assumptions many atheists and deists have about what belief even means.

My personal belief is that I couldn’t care less who anyone does or does not worship, or why. I am in no place to judge what they get out of it, although I remain concerned about the devaluing of women in many of the world religions, attitudes to LGBTQ folk, and attitudes towards the wellbeing of the planet – sexism, racism and ecocide are just as likely to come from believers as non believers, I suspect. However, these are all things that can be dealt with by considering the words and deeds of the (non)believer, with no reference to any external agency.

We need to hold each other responsible for what we do, and do not do as a consequence of our beliefs, politics and prejudices. At the same time, we could also try respecting each other for the good things we may be inspired to do by our various beliefs.

I, for example, find the atheist habit of making it all about proving the existence of God both boring and at best useless. It distracts from the issue of discussing what people do and holding people to account. On the other hand, I celebrate atheists who’ve stopped with this pointless game and are asking much more interesting questions about the role of religion, the political power of religion, the things people do with religions that need examining. I have huge respect for Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists.

We should be asking about the financial power of religions, about the prejudice religion can fuel. No religion should consider itself above the law or not obliged to hold up the rights and dignities of all humans. When we’re demanding proof of other people’s Gods, no matter how we frame it, we take attention away from what humans do in the name of their God – and those responses are diverse. Not all Muslims are terrorists. Not all Christians hate LGBTQ folk. Not all Satanists are evil – in fact from what I’ve seen, many are excellent examples of humanity when you look at what they actually do. It pays to ask better questions.


Challenging Apathy

“They’re all as bad as each other, there’s no point…”

Whether we’re talking about religions, politics, corporations, the media, or anything else with power, this kind of apathetic thinking is really problematic. If we won’t call to account the ones who are actually awful on the grounds that nothing better exists, then what we do is give our support to the worst that’s out there.

Alternatives always exist. They may seem like long shots. There may only be small improvements you can push for. Sometimes you may have to choose between a mouldy pear and a rotten apple, but a few good bits have to be better than entirely gone off.

There are those who will tell you that wanting anything better is just naive daydreaming and you don’t live in the ‘real’ world. This of course is just another way of keeping things as they are. If the majority of us rejected this thinking, the real world would rapidly have no place for lazy cynicism.

It is easy to say ‘they’re all the same, there’s no point’. It saves a person from feeling like they have to bother. If nothing can be done, why make any effort? Why bother trying to find a reliable news source, or a party that has some values you could respect, or a religious group that isn’t a money making operation? If nothing can be made better, you free yourself from any possible reason to make any effort at all. This is how what’s worst in the world is allowed to thrive.

As long as we give ourselves excuses not to act, terrible things are given room to flourish. We have a human world made entirely of people. It’s just people doing stuff. Anything and everything can be changed if there’s the will. We don’t have to let apathy make us complicit.


Considering the Nature of Prayer

This is an excerpt from the start of my book When A Pagan Prays…

When I first started thinking about prayer, it was very much from a position of intellectual curiosity. In many ways, my prompt was Alain du Bottan’s Religion for Atheists, which explores the social benefits of religious activity. Prayer was notable in its absence from the book. However, the idea of considering religions in terms of what they do in this world, appealed to me. While I am not an atheist, I’m not very good at belief either. In many ways the atheist position seems too much like certainty to me, but nonetheless I find a lot of atheist thinking appealing. Demanding that things make sense on their own, immediate terms rather than with reference to unknowable, ineffable plans, is something I have to agree with. Looking for rational approaches to religion led me to write Spirituality without Structure in one of the gaps while this book was being wrestled into submission.

There isn’t really a fixed modern tradition of Druid prayer. Some groups and Orders have defined approaches to praying, but my impression is that the majority do not. Early conversations on the subject indicated to me that many Druids feel uneasy about what they see as being a practice we can only borrow from other religions. Petitioning the gods for things feels both pointless and wrong. Looking further afield, I found that people generally take prayer to mean petition, unless they are deeply involved with a spiritual path that includes a more involved understanding of the subject. This seems to be true of
people of all religions.

My thinking at this stage was: other religions use prayer extensively and apparently we don’t. Why is that? Are there good reasons to reject prayer, or are we missing a trick? I admit that I thought the question could just be tackled intellectually. Being the sort of person who defaults in all things to getting a book on the subject, I set off to read around.

When I was first looking for books to read about prayer, I poked about online and in bookshops. Books of prayers are plentiful, but not what I wanted. Books that consider prayer as a process are relatively few, although I did eventually track down some excellent ones, and you’ll see scattered references as we
progress.

In a Christian bookshop, a generous woman spoke to me about her own prayer practice. She viewed the urge towards prayer as innate to the human condition. She also found me some books, and did not blink too much when the subject of Druidry came up. “I pray to God as if I was talking to my father. He is my
father. I can go to him and ask him for things,” was the gist of her description. I did not learn her name, but remain grateful for her help. She spoke to me about prayer as something intrinsic and natural, and found it odd I should want a book examining how and why we pray. The shortage of such books suggests that many religious people would agree with her perspective.

From that first book (How to Pray, John Pritchard) a new way of thinking about the idea of prayer began to open up before me. “Essentially it is about entering a mystery, not getting a result.” I found this resonant. The author is an Anglican Christian, but the sentiment struck me as being totally compatible with Druidry as I practise it.

My next read was a Catholic book (Ways of Praying, John C Edwards) by which time it had become plain to me that in some quarters, prayers of petition are considered to be the least important form of prayer, at least by the people for whom praying is a professional and serious business. After that, my reading took me into works from other traditions and I wondered if I would be writing a comparative religion text. However, that would have largely been a rehashing of other people’s work, and I’m not convinced the world really needs something like that.

I had considered surveying the modern Druid community in a more formal way to deepen my understanding of what we do and how we do things. However, my initial enquiries had raised the issue that a significant percentage of the Druids I had talked to were not praying at all. There are some who admit to occasional petitions, and several groups with much more involved approaches. I could get figures for the praying and not praying, I could ask nosey questions about who people pray to, and what they think they get out of it, but how much would that help? This was my first inkling that intellectual research might not be able to shed enough light on the subject. It could easily be like scraping the paint off pictures and weighing it to make judgments about the value of art works. That leaves the anecdotal, and self-reporting, neither of which constitute good science – not even in softer subjects like psychology. I don’t have the kit to study what happens inside people’s brains when they pray.

Why was I fearful of writing a spiritual book about a spiritual subject? It was a question I did not know how to ask myself at the time, but looking back it seems significant.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/when-pagan-prays

 


If prayer is awkward

Some Pagans find prayer an easy and natural part of their practice. I’m the other sort. I spend a lot of my time writing about things I find difficult, because I find it makes for more fertile explorations. It’s not the easiest sales pitch in the world though! I can’t solve all your problems, there won’t be an easy five minute solution, but if you’re uneasy too, and uncertain, and wondering, then wander with me and maybe something will happen.

Here’s a snippet from When A Pagan Prays.

What is prayer? Prayer is something that people do as a manifestation of religion or as part of a spiritual practice. Beyond that, it is remarkably difficult to pin down, being a term for a vast array of activities. Prayer crops up in religions across the globe, but what exactly it is, and how it works, depends a lot on who is doing it in what context, and why. Prayer runs the full gamut from insidious control method to means of enlightenment. I’ve tried to unpick how some of that works.

As with most things, what you get out of prayer depends a great deal on what you bring. The reason you undertake prayer is going to influence what happens to you. If you are a lovedrenched tree-hugging pacifist, your prayers will probably be full of love and light and at the very least, more feel-good affirmations. If you are a person in pain, or full of anxiety, you’ll pray differently, but that’s no less meaningful. People coming to prayer out of curiosity, a desire for mystery, a hunger for connection, can do all kinds of good work. If, on the other hand, you are a fascist control freak with a desire to torture puppies, you aren’t going the enlightenment route this week and the experience of prayer will probably just reflect your own fantasies back at you.

Mostly what we bring to prayer, is us. Mostly what we do in prayer, is us. If we want to reach out to the cosmos, or some aspect of it in an honourable way, we’ll do that thing. If we want to justify our own greed and bullshit, prayer is a tool to be used.

Dear God, I’m good!

If you are intent on being self-important, are deaf to all criticism and blind to the suffering of others, prayer will not help you much. You get what you bring. If you are willing and able to be open, vulnerable, listening, if you are here to be changed, that’s a very realistic possible outcome, no matter which
tradition you follow or the methods you adopt.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/when-pagan-prays

 


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.


Beloved of the Gods

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

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

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

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

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

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


The spiritual materialist

I’m a very materialistic person, in that I love and value objects. There are many items in my home that are precious to me and that I would be grieved to part with. Musical instruments. A bookcase that belonged to my great grandparents. Gifts from friends, handmade items, objects made with love and skill. Some of my grandmother’s artwork. The artwork of people I admire. Books. So many books. I’ve collected the objects that share my space with care and attention and some of them have been with me a very long time. They have stories, which weave their existence into mine.  They have utility and beauty. I am attached to them.

Materialism gets a really bad name. It is used to imply greed and consumption, and fixation on the wrong things. Many (but not all) religions divide the physical world from the spiritual, and to be involved with things material is to be less spiritual in such paradigms. To own little and feel nothing for it may be a spiritual goal for some, but it doesn’t really work for me, because I become fond of things.

To my eye, consumerism, and the kind of materialism that sees objects as the means to status works in very different ways. The object is not valued for itself, but for what others might think of it, for the status or power it gives. If a better object comes along, the old one will be discarded. There is no affection for the object in a consumerist mentality. Equally, greed is about stacking up as much as you can that has a value. It’s not about having things you can use or that are beautiful, it’s about having things for the sake of having them and in the hopes of having a bigger pile than someone else. Things are bought because buying is soothing, display empowering, ownership appealing. There is no other connection between the person and the object.

Where there is a relationship between person and object, created by history and story, gifting, use, beauty and fondness, the object is not disposable. I would not replace my great grandparent’s bookcase with the most expensive bookcase in the world even if someone offered it me for free. I like the things around me and am not on the lookout for ‘upgrades’.

Peltless, squishy things that we are, we depend on objects to keep us warm, to act as tools, and we’ve got very good at making things that help us do more than just survive. I sit at a chair by a table, and I am glad of these things. Glad of the window, the bed and all the other useful things in my space. There’s not much here for anyone else to covet, or be awed by, or that could cause someone to think I had power, which is fine because I don’t. There is no desire to impress, just a small space I find comfortable and pleasing.

I find it curious that religions can teach poverty as a virtue and argue against any affection for the material, whilst accumulating great wealth for temples and turning a blind eye to the excesses of the rich and powerful. It is my suspicion that poverty as a virtue has bugger all to do with spirituality and everything to do with keeping the poor meek and compliant. The absence of care and affection for what is around you is a far greater spiritual shortcoming than liking your own small nest. The throwaway, status obsessed careless attitudes that go with the desire to display wealth and own precious things, the mindset that takes beautiful art and locks it in vaults as an investment, seems a lot more suspect to me than any small scale homely materialism ever could.

Poverty is not piety in any faith, and affluence is not virtue. Care and kindness, generosity and warmth are things you can do with whatever you have.


Bird watching for enlightenment

There’s an issue I’ve been wrestling with for a while, and reading Mark Townsend’s work has really brought it into focus for me. There’s an aspect to following a spiritual path that says ‘you are not good enough right now, but if you do all the things you will get a better outcome’. Whether that’s enlightenment, heaven, or some other notion varies, but the idea of improving yourself is part (surely?) of what religion is for.

The idea of improvement creates problems though. I strive, and study and try and do all the right things. (Thank you Mark, for letting me know it isn’t just me, or I would not have been able to admit this). Sometimes, I start to feel like I’m getting somewhere. External achievements help with this. Ooh look, X has occurred and therefore I’m a better sort of Druid! Which on its own would be fine, but it raises the temptation to look around and see who isn’t this far down the path, isn’t this clever, or this good. It may be one of Druidry’s saving graces that we don’t have an agreed model for what the perfect Druid looks like, whereas Christianity suffers a good deal more from the effects of this because there are clearer patterns to follow.

I catch myself doing it sometimes, and it leaves me uncomfortable. In the recognition of this as ‘failure’ is also the sense that there should be some other, better way of doing this that doesn’t risk replacing wisdom with smugness or experience with superiority. It also makes me anxious because I worry about being judged by others, not being a good enough Druid myself, not keeping up, not knowing enough or being clever enough and all the rest of it.

I may have come up with something.

When you take up bird watching, there’s a sudden learning curve as all the anonymous and familiar birds around you become individuals you can name. It’s exciting. You move on to less common birds over time, you get more confident about telling one from another from a burst of song or a flash of tail. Then, quite possibly, a thing happens. It stops being the birds that are exciting, and starts to be about the bragging. It’s not the seeing the crane, it’s the knowing how jealous other people will be when you tweet about it (sorry, couldn’t resist). You travel hundreds of miles to see a bird that isn’t rare where it lives, but is blown off course. You dash in, get a picture, dash out – you’re a hardcore birdwatcher now, and you don’t bother yourself with boring, everyday birds.

I think this is how it can go with religion, all too often. The practice, the trappings, the process start to take over from the thing that is the core of what you are doing. In the case of bird watching, what’s called for is just being able to enjoy what is there, still being excited about the everyday birds. What is the equivalent for Druidry? As Druidry is harder to define in the first place, I think the short answer is ‘showing up’. Be present, do the things (whatever they are for you) show up and experience, and don’t let the idea of big shiny things take you away from the little everyday things. Get excited about seeing something rare and precious – that’s a blessing – but maybe it doesn’t mean much. Maybe it doesn’t mean we’re getting somewhere, maybe it’s just luck, or grace and we do not need to feel important.

I’m a cheerful, naive bird watcher who still gets excited about robins and blackbirds. I’m going to try and take more of that mindset into the Druidry, and see if I can fret less about being a good Druid.


Spiritual superiority and how it will hurt you

You’re a spiritual person. You’ve adopted a way of life, a practice, a set of beliefs, and you’ve done this because they strike you as being good and right and likely to make your life better. Maybe for a while life is better, and you feel uplifted, reassured, affirmed and good about what you are doing.

Something goes wrong.

You can count on this. Someone gets ill, or dies, or is hurt, someone else’s anger impacts on you, or your boss is shitty or you lose your job or some practical thing stops working or explodes, or one of those things happen to someone you care about or somewhere in the world some awful thing happens and the images on the TV make you cry.

Then what?

The sane and sensible answer is to admit that your religion is not a cure-all and that you are not so enlightened and magical and special as to be able to avoid all of this. Other options are available though. What the other options do is allow you to uphold the superiority of the system you are in, or perpetrate an illusion of your spiritual superiority. None of this does a person, or the people around them much good in the long term.

  • Denial: Just refuse to let yourself think about it or admit there is a problem.
  • Blame: It’s the other person’s fault for thinking negative thoughts, having bad karma, not trying hard enough.
  • Justify: This is really good for you, that’s why it’s happened.
  • Insulation: practicing not caring so as not to feel either your own troubles or anyone else’s.

None of these choices help us improve situations. Pushed far enough and any of them can turn into cognitive dissonance – where the story you tell yourself about what’s happening is so far removed from reality as to be dangerous to you. This is what happens when victims convince themselves that their abusers are only doing it as an expression of love, for example.

Often, when you infer the existence of a higher plan, a spiritual failing or a deservedness to explain something awful, what you do is remove any need to take action. It ceases to be your problem, and while that has an insulating quality, it also dehumanises all of us. It dehumanises the person whose situation is being explained so as to be ignored, and it dehumanises the one who is refusing to recognise that sometimes, life is a bit shit.

Sometimes, life is a bit shit, and if we can be honest with ourselves and each other, we can do something to alleviate the shit bits, sometimes. No one is so saintly, enlightened, magical, or clever enough to avoid the nastier sides of life. Anyone who claims otherwise is probably trying to sell you something.