Tag Archives: spirituality

Spirituality and Selfishness

The general wisdom is that selfishness is the enemy of spirituality. This goes very effectively with transcendent spirituality that aims to overcome this life. However, if you are doing embodied spirituality, you aren’t mortifying your flesh. A little selfish thinking in the form of self care becomes a very different proposition.

There are many different forms selfishness can take, and much of it is good. We should be able to devote time, care and resources to dealing with our needs. It should be perfectly ok to want things, to act on personal desire and to pursue your own goals. Without a degree of selfishness, how are you to follow your calling, or your awen?

I’d go further and say there should be times when we get to put ourselves first. I think this is especially important for anyone who was raised female in a context that reinforced gender stereotypes. Girls are often taught to put other people first. What is read as go-getting, ambitious and desirable in a boy, or for that matter a man, is often treated as mean, selfish and unreasonable when girls and women do it.

How much scope you have to be selfish will also likely depend on your race and class, how much money you have, how much power. Who gets to put their own needs first and who is expected to serve others first is a question we should ask routinely. It’s all too easy for the person who has a lot of scope to be selfish to ignore what that costs everyone around them.

As is so often the way of it, selfishness is a question of balance and fairness. It’s not an easy thing to explore, either. For people who feel obliged to martyr themselves, looking at alternatives can be scary. For people who have never questioned their own entitled attitudes, this can be uncomfortable territory. However, if you’re serious about a spiritual path, then challenging yourself is going to be part of that.

Most mammals manage to live more selfish lives than we do without bringing each other down. Most mammals do what they have to, and then sleep, play, sunbathe, and socialise. It’s more sustainable to be selfish when you don’t need a lot of resources to do that, and often the most satisfying things we can do to answer our own needs don’t call for a lot of resources anyway.

In seeking simple bodily comfort, we work with nature as it manifests within us. Enjoying this as selfishness can help us resist the things we are sold as ‘luxuries’ to compensate for the simple animal needs we aren’t meeting. Slowing down is selfish – you aren’t powering the economy. Working less, owning less, buying less – these things often make life easier, and take us away from consumerism.


Darkness in spirituality

I find myself increasingly uneasy about the way the language of darkness is used in spirituality. We equate lightness and whiteness with good, darkness and blackness with evil. There are clear racist issues in this. It’s also a line of thought I think owes much to the Middle Eastern sky Gods who are all very much about the penetrating light of the divine.

Paganism is full of Earth Gods, underworld Gods, night Gods and other deities of darkness. Inside wombs and cauldrons there is darkness, not light. There is absolutely no reason to associate light with goodness and darkness with evil – both are necessary and both are harmful in excess. You can die of too much light, dried out, burned, or cancerous. There is comfort, sleep and healing to be found in the natural darkness of night. There is mystery and beauty in the dark places – and the way our ancient ancestors went there to do beautiful cave paintings is well worth contemplating.

There may be some value in talking about human actions and choices in terms of good and evil. Often, talking about light and darkness in this way just allows us to externalise our own choices and reduce our feelings of responsibility. A person can be in darkness or in light and their actions are of their own making. What we do in the privacy of darkness – sex particularly – isn’t necessary shameful, just something we don’t want to share with everyone. If doing it in broad daylight seems like the more honest and virtuous position – I rather feel the politics of the last few years should have scuppered that illusion.

Light and dark are both good in their own ways, and both potentially problematic. Walking a dark path, working at night, celebrating underworld Gods – there’s nothing inherently evil here. This may in fact be taken as a path of great healing and compassion. As for light working – I am reminded of a conversation earlier in the year with a woman who has made a living as a light working, talking about ‘the compassion trap’ and how it was ok not to care about the death of a baby… Perhaps it was no coincidence that the baby in question wasn’t light or white. People who spend too much time staring into the light are not necessarily good or kind. I’ve encountered more backstabbing from ‘peace and love and light’ folk than ever I have anywhere else.

What would it mean to identify as a follower of the darkness? What would it mean to refuse to use the language of darkness to describe negativity? What would it mean in terms of how we might be unconsciously thinking about race? Can we let go of the idea that a good witch is a white witch and a bad witch is black? Can we make more room? Can we not have this lingering sense that white is superior and black is not a good way of being?


Spirituality without Structure – an excerpt

This is from the introduction to Spirituality without Structure – a small book of mine but one which I think has a lot of big ideas in it.

This is a book for people who have given up on formal religious systems, or want to, and are wondering where that leaves them. It’s often a confusing space to find yourself in. There isn’t even an agreed terminology to describe what you are doing. Some who step away from religion may identify with philosophies, or New Age thinking, some may hang on to elements of religions whilst wanting to do their own thing. Others build from scratch. No matter where you come from, trying to find your own alternative to religion will bring you to a commonality of issues faced by others who work in the same way. For convenience, I’m going to abbreviate this kind of questing down to the term ‘own path’ as being a functional, descriptive term.

Own path practice is full of challenges and, by definition, lacking in wider support networks, so this book aims to offer some ways of thinking about how to go it alone. Many people yearn to be spiritual without wanting to be tied into a formal practice; simply knowing that you aren’t the only one can be very helpful.

I’m not making any assumptions about the beliefs of potential readers. I think if a thing is going to work, it needs to be as viable for as many people as possible. Thus I’m writing with an eye to atheists, polytheists, agnostics and people of monotheistic faith alike. The things that draw us to religions are human, the things we need from a spiritual life are human, and I’ve come to the conclusion that what we believe about the presence, absence or nature of deity is the least important thing in terms of how we practice. From a personal perspective, belief or the absence thereof might well feel like the most important thing. It can be incredibly divisive. If we step away from the issue of belief and look more about what religion is and does, what spirituality means, what the human issues are, then we can find commonality and make better sense of things. That said, I am a Pagan, and a lot of my ideas come from my experience of contemporary Paganism. I’m writing from what I know, and at times that may well colour things.

 

There’s a small awkwardness with this book in that in the acknowledgements section, Tom is thanked for the cover. He designed me a beautiful cover. Unfortunately, the book designer totally ignored it and used this weird combination of photos that frankly makes no sense to me. But there we go. these things happen in publishing.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/pagan-portals-spirituality-without-structure 


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.


Tao, Druidry and authenticity

I first became aware of Taoism in late childhood, via The Tao of Pooh, which I read, loved and no doubt mostly didn’t understand at all. But it spoke to me nonetheless and when opportunities have come up to explore further, I’ve taken them. I own several interpretations of the Tao Te Ching. My Druidry has always been coloured somewhat by the things I’ve learned from Taoism.

One of the Taoist ideas I find especially appealing to explore is the role of personal authenticity. Religions that are about transcending this world tend to encourage practitioners to put aside the self, the ego, the illusion in order move on up into the realm of spirit. I’m a spiritual materialist, my feet are on the earth and my sense of the sacred is earthly. I’ve no desire to transcend.

Taoism says be yourself, but see yourself as part of something far bigger and longer lasting than you. It teaches that human nature is naturally in tune with the Tao, if we let it flow, and that human artifice is the thing that keeps as away from being part of the flow of the universe. To live well and live simply is the goal, to be quietly part of the world and acting from our true nature so as to be aligned with the Tao. I’ve been in too many contexts that wanted me to hack bits off myself. The affirmation that my most authentic self is a good thing is something I find helpful, and healing.

It’s a line of thought that brings me back to Mary Oliver’s ‘You do not have to be good, you only have to left the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’ For me this has been the basis of stripping away artifice and finding my authentic self. Whatever that is. I’m still looking, still finding things that aren’t me but have been squashed onto my surfaces. Still hunting out bits that have been hacked off in the past.

There’s a ‘good enough’ notion at the core of this. A human is fundamentally good enough. What we do to ourselves and each other can take us away from that, when we deform who we are to try and become what we think we should be… But in essence we are all good enough, we just need to settling into that, be with it, make room for it. Cruelty is not natural, nor is taking far, far more than we need in order the waste the vast majority of it. Our animal selves are likely much better than the weird socially constructed humans we’ve been cobbling together for thousands of years.

I do not have to overcome my ego. I do not have to deliberately crush any part of me that feels good about things. I do not have to punish my body to be spiritual. I do not have to deny my earthly being and my earth-based life to be spiritual. I just need to settle down in this soft animal body I have, and love the warmth of sunlight on my skin, and love the tactile surfaces and the warmth of other soft animal bodies, the hills beneath my feet, the shade of trees, the sunset… Rather than the spiritual path seeming like some vast and daunting effort, it seems gentle, easy even.


Deep or shallow spirituality?

This was inspired by Tommy Elf’s recent post – https://tommyelf22.wordpress.com/2016/10/10/going-deep-or-swimming-shallow/

What makes a spiritual practice deep or shallow? It’s no doubt easier to judge others from the outside than it is to make a fair assessment of our own spiritual paths. On reflection, what I have is odd, to say the least…

When I was trying hardest to be ‘deep’ I was at my most obsessed with surface and appearance.

When I tried to be important, I was at my least spiritual.

When I tried to teach others, I did a great deal of learning.

When I stopped striving and started seeing what happened, more happened.

When I was kinder to myself, I found more reasons to practice gratitude.

When I went to the woods for the sake of the woods, and not in search of anything sacred, I found something sacred.

When I let myself enjoy the surfaces of things, it stopped feeling like something shallow.

When I stopped trying so hard to seem deep, I learned how sacred mirth can be.

I suspect I could go on with this almost indefinitely. Spirituality is paradox. It’s the learning that teaches you how little you know.  It’s the wisdom to realise you are an idiot, and the devotion to be able to handle things with a light touch. But beyond that, it’s whatever makes sense to us, regardless of what sense, if any, that makes to anyone else.


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.


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.


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.