Tag Archives: religion

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.


Writing about Spirituality

Big claims and authoritative voices sell ideas. It works in politics, in the media and it most assuredly works in non-fiction. The confident presenting of a big claim – especially claims around more for less, are persuasive. Tell everyone it’s going to be easy, pain free, cheap, and at the same time way better than anything they might have had to make an effort for, and you’ve got sales. Part of why climate deniers get attention comes down to this – who cares about science when someone is willing to tell you that you do not need to make any difficult changes in your life? It’s why ‘make your life perfect in five minutes a day’ books sell even though they don’t work. Too many of us want miracle cures and get rich quick schemes and will keep buying them regardless of all evidence that it doesn’t work. The next one will be the one to save us.

This, it has to be said, is one of the places I fall down as an author. I’m not very good at making claims for the marvellous powers of my books to totally transform your life in three easy steps. Every now and then someone comes back to me because a book, or a blog post has had a transformative influence in their lives. I have to say not one of them has ever suggested it was easy, and often those transformations occur because people were already looking, already doing the groundwork and just needed a bit of insight or inspiration to help them in their journey. I’m glad to be a part of that, but it’s not all about me, by any stretch of the imagination.

For me it’s an ethical issue. Not setting the reader up to believe something I know isn’t true. My meditation book will not bring you enlightenment in just three weeks. I don’t even have a list of ten easy things that will transform your life. My ancestors book doesn’t have any radical theories about how Atlantians from outer space taught Druids how to talk to dolphins. I’m afraid that When a Pagan Prays is not a telephone with all the gods’ phone numbers in it and I cannot promise that following my approach to prayer will cause the universe to give you everything you want and need. To be honest, I think it won’t, I don’t think that’s what prayer is or how it works. Worse yet, Spirituality without Structure is not religion made easy, and has made some people a bit uncomfortable, by all accounts.

Coming soon from me: a dream book that will not enable you to decode every dream in order to predict the future, will not teach you how to improve your life in five easy steps and doesn’t have any nice little lessons in it for really easy things to do now and then when you feel like it. While I wouldn’t object to making a living as an author, I can’t write the kind of misleading sales pitch that seems to get people excited.

But, here you all are, my inexplicable tribe of blog followers who turn up and read and share and feed back. It reassures me greatly to know there are at least some people out there who don’t need impossible claims and a hard sell of instant salvation to show up. There are other people on spiritual paths who expect to struggle, to hurt sometimes, to get confused, angry and frustrated and to have to deal with that. I’d rather write for people who can use it than produce any amount of best selling ‘all your spiritual troubles solved’ books that manifestly don’t solve anything. I have read enough of them, for research purposes, and I have yet to see any simple solution that gives you everything you want for no effort and might work. They don’t work, and then you have to bend your reality to explain why they don’t work, or convince yourself that the shit you’re going through is, for reasons that are beyond you, somehow for your ‘greater good.’

It’s quite a relief, I find, to be able to say ‘shit happens.’ Sometimes for no reason, often with no side order of utility, and no evidence of a greater plan. It probably isn’t your fault, you didn’t earn or deserve it or make a contract before you were born. Shit happens, and none of my books will spare you that, but they also won’t make you feel guilty about things you have no control over.


Sacred submission

Deity orientated religions often talk about submission to the divine, or the will of the divine as being the goal of spiritual practice. Religious activities are designed to attune the believer, and enable them to submit to the will of their deity. Paganism isn’t always so submission orientated, many prefer to stand before their gods, but we have these threads too.

Sacred submission isn’t an event. It’s not something you do once and then are all sorted. Submission to deity, to a belief system, to a way of living, is a day to day, moment to moment sort of process involving every choice and action in a person’s life. It is the ongoing nature of it that makes it so powerful; the constant, conscious submission of personal desires to a higher goal. I don’t follow that path, but I can entirely respect it.

Submission is a gift. It is a gift we may offer to deity, or to a partner, or to a cause. The problems start when the flow is in the other direction. Submission should be an act of gifting from one who submits, not forced on them by someone with more power. If you are making someone act in accordance with your religious rules, or making them perform acts that you want, in no way are they submitting. They may be coerced into going along, but this is a whole other thing, and it tends to be very toxic, and very abusive not only of its victims, but of the ideas that have been subverted.

For a spiritual path to be meaningful, it has to be chosen. Anything we do in fear, under duress and threat of violence, is not being given freely. If there is no gifting, there is no spiritual power. There is no spiritual depth and value in what is done, you just go through the motions to stay alive. From the outside, it isn’t always easy to tell who is giving freely, and who is forced to conform – the veiling of women provides a wealth of examples of both. Veiling by choice is a powerful act of dedication. Veiling out of necessity is an affront.

You can’t force gifts out of someone. They cease to be gifts and become the fruits of conquest. An act of submission, is an act of gifting, and needs valuing as such. It should flow from love and be an expression of love. To demand submission is to be a tyrant, and there is no love if the submission is not gifted.


Wanting and spirituality

I’ve been considerably exposed to the idea (mostly, but not exclusively Buddhist) that as wanting is the cause of all suffering, the goal of the spiritual life is to free the self from want. What this line of thought does not express so clearly is the logic underpinning it. To escape from wanting is to escape from living. It’s a process of transcending the realities of this life, on the assumption that something better than this life is available. Many religions are, in essence, about getting out of all this nasty, messy, hurty physicality and on to the good stuff.

As a Druid, my spiritual life is rooted in the earth. As a maybeist, I just don’t have the clarity of belief about afterlife to want to dedicate this one to reaching for what might or might not come next. If an approach isn’t relevant right now, it’s not going to work for me. (Other people with other beliefs and world views are welcome to do differently, this is not a judgement of anyone else’s perspective, just an expression of what works for me and what doesn’t.) As I don’t want to transcend this life, do I need to uphold the same approach to wanting that is held by religions that are about escaping from the physical? I think not. Avoiding want is only a spiritual virtue if it connects to the spiritual goal of transcendence. We’ve turned want into a suspect thing. ‘I want doesn’t get’ and all that.

Recently James blogged at Contemplative Inquiry about wanting, and I wanted to respond in some way… so here we are.

 

I want

 

Not climbing imagined ladders

To pure, elated wants

That are other-named

Smug-sought

 

Not flesh transcending

Life denied

Nor pain ignoring

Not so live

 

Only raw truth

Animal self

Tired, hungry,

Living, longing

 

Vulnerable honest

Yearning, seeking

Questing craving

Desire to exist

 

No quiet escape

To unfeeling places

Present in want

Gifted in wanting.


Spiritual exposure

We are all our own priests and priestesses as Pagans, which rather suggests we do not need anyone to mediate between us and the divine. You can do that for yourself. What we don’t talk about so much, is what happens if you can’t.

Many Pagans have stories to tell of direct, personal experience when Gods have spoken to them, shown them things, made requests, demands and offers. There are many others who don’t do Gods so much, but have intense relationship with spirit, spirit guides, ancestors and the like. Some part of the universe speaks spiritually to them in a way they are confident about recognising and understanding. This makes it very hard to put up a hand and say ‘that’s not what I get.’ It feels like failure, lack of effort, insufficient worthiness. How can I call myself a Druid if nothing is particularly talking to me? This is what I’ve got, because apart from a handful of odd experiences I am none too confident about, I do not hear the voice of spirit. Gods do not choose me, or talk to me. I have no guides and no totem anything.

It’s not for lack of trying. Years of study, lots of rituals, deep work with meditation and prayer over many years. Dedications, offerings of self, work done. I’m not that good at belief, and perhaps that closes the door on me, but others who do not believe have startling experiences that change them into people who know. That’s not been me. I’ll admit I have all kinds of less than perfectly enlightened responses to the profound and intense experiences others describe. Jealousy, above all else. Frustration, confusion. Why them and not me? What am I doing wrong? What should I be doing more of? I come with a will to serve, give, work and so forth, why are so many others worthy of attention when I am not?

It would be easy to hide this, to lie about it and pass myself off as being just as beloved of the gods as the next Pagan. It would be easy to become wholly disenchanted and settle into comfortable atheism and feel no responsibility for what I am not. I’ve managed to settle on Maybeism, holding the possibility, and accepting this is where I am and that for whatever reasons, a great deal of regular Pagan religious experience just doesn’t happen for me. I can feel inspired, and I can feel wonder, and perhaps I have to just get over the desire to feel a bit special and acceptable to deity, and get on with making the best of what I have.

Writing ‘When a Pagan Prays’ felt very exposed indeed, because it is a confession of what is absent in my life and practice, and exposure of what it means to have no certainty, no confident firsthand experience. Putting it out there left me feeling decidedly naked and vulnerable – now all the people who are proper Druids and Pagans, in relationship with the Gods of their ancestors, will know that I am not one of them, not part of their experience. At times it feels like it is just me; that everyone else can do these profound spiritual things that are beyond me, but perhaps that isn’t so. Perhaps there are others quietly staying silent about what they are not, and what they can’t do. My hope is that if there are, this exposure of experience will at least make that less bitter, less demoralising.

A person can be spiritual without having certainty, can dedicate to the ideas of Gods and religions even if nothing speaks back to them. We can choose ways of living and being because they seem like wise choices, not because we had a vision or a higher being told us to. I’d like to think it is entirely valid to choose a spiritual way of life even if your quest for the numinous never brings you to anything. It is the choice, the quest and how we choose to live as a consequence that matters most, if all we have is a fairly mundane experience of the world.


Love and spirituality

When religions and spiritual practices are at their best, they teach us to love. Who and what they teach us to love and in what circumstances in many ways defines the essence of that religion. My feeling is that anyone who practices hate in response to any religion, is doing it wrong. Sadly there’s a lot of it out there, but no religion has core tenets that teach hatred. Whether we find the inspiration to love or to loathe in our religions really says far more about us as individuals than it does about the religion we happen to be working with.

Druidry directs our capacity for love in many different directions. With the best will in the world, loving everything and everyone is not something most of us will ever manage, but there are many different paths to explore.  We may fall in love with the land – very likely with a small and specific area that we relate to closely. We may come to love deities, who might be associated with that land, or with the traditions of our ancestors. There may be a modern Druid tribe that we come to love, or some other community where we feel involved and connected. Causes and ideas, dreams, visions, facets of the natural world… we are surrounded by that which we might love if we choose to open our hearts to it.

Love is a word that gets horribly misused. All too often ‘love’ is marketing hype for ‘consider it ok’ or ‘quite like’. I’ve grumbled about that before. A very narrow depiction of romantic love otherwise dominates. The love stories we most often tell are about the first flushes of attraction between a young couple, usually to have a happy ending. The couple will normally be heterosexual, white and passably affluent westerners and they will face a few more or less plausible challenges before getting it together.

That kind of falling in love is a brief high in the body-chemistry. A couple of weeks manufacturing your own private love drugs for a bout of madness and euphoria, and then it wears off, sometimes leaving nothing at all but a sense of loss. That can be addictive, leading to lots of short term and ultimately unsatisfying encounters with other humans. To love is to open the heart deliberately, and keep it open. Not for a couple of weeks of self-induced high, but potentially for the rest of your life.

Love understood in this way is a day to day choice. It is all about commitment, dedication, and a practice of being open hearted. That can be held and developed through or alongside prayer, meditation and acts of religious devotion. Mostly the Gods do not show up for most of us, most of the time. To learn to love a deity is to learn to love that which might not respond in kind. Choosing to do that anyway, choosing to care, to feel, to be open to some other thing, is a powerful process. Be that a landscape, another person, or a piece of music, love as a deliberate choice is available to us.

That’s not to say it is in any way safe, tame, comfortable or easy. Rather the opposite. In the lunacy of a short-term chemical attraction, there is no sense of choice or control, and that can be liberating. Opening up deliberately is in many ways more exposed, and more exposing, much more interesting, far more sustainable, sometimes terrifying.


Religion is people

One of the things that occasionally drives me nuts with a small number of atheists, is this idea that religion is the root of all evil, and if we could only get rid of religion, the world would be a much better place. Anyone who has read Spirituality without Structure will know I’m no great fan of organised religion, for all the same reasons many atheists take issue. However, religions are not something that have a terrible influence on people. It is important to remember that religions *are* people – made by people, and run by people.

Take away religion and the world would not magically become a better place. All of the people currently using religion to justify prejudice and cruelty would not suddenly get over it and become lovely. They’d find other spaces supportive of their hatred. Race, culture, politics, countries, languages even…there are plenty of other things humans make that can easily be co-opted to the same effect.

It’s also worth noting that while religion can be a force for good in many lives, so too can culture, politics, patriotism and all the rest. Love for and devotion to anything can turn out to be a force for good.

It is one of the particularly bat-shit crazy things about people, that we invent stuff, and then convince ourselves that the stuff we invented now means we have to do something, or can’t do other things. Not because they are right or wrong. Not because they are helpful or cruel. Not because we want to do them, or loathe the idea, but because the book we wrote says so.

It’s not religion we need to get rid of, but the idea that having power over other people is a good thing. It’s not all belief that is the problem, but the more specific belief that in some circumstances, cruelty, violence, abuse and prejudice are perfectly acceptable. If we could shake off the idea that there can only be one truth and that making people believe yours is therefore acceptable, religion would be no problem at all.

People make religions. That gives us the possibility that we could do a much better job of it, and while we’re at it, a much better job of all the things we’ve been using religion to disguise.