Tag Archives: personal

PantheaCon and Paganism, Part 1

Last week, Mallory, Teejay and I went to PantheaCon, and found it a profoundly un-positive experience. I don’t mean to say that we didn’t enjoy any of it, there were things which we very much enjoyed, and we are happy that we went, as it allowed us to experience things that we otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see. That said, a good deal of what we did see at PantheaCon was troubling and disconcerting.

After the fact, reading about other people’s PantheaCon experiences, the internet is atwitter with how positive and uplifting it was. It is incredibly difficult to find anyone willing to voice concern or dismay. And here I find myself torn, because I want to insert a caveat that I am not trying to discredit anyone’s positive experience of PantheaCon, and yet I feel like if people were willing to look objectively at the Pagan community as presented at PantheaCon, they would have had a significantly different experience. I have hesitating all week to speak about our experiences at PantheaCon because I simply can’t shake the sensation that any criticism will either be roundly ignored or shouted down. At the convention itself, I was amazed at how many people were absorbing what was being said entirely uncritically. There was one ritual in particular that I found deeply, deeply troubling and I remain uncertain how to treat the experience, and if I should write about it, naming names, or simply let it go unacknowledged.

I really did get the impression that a great number of people there were, to put it bluntly, drinking the Kool-Aid. There appeared to be very little critical thinking on display. I remember particularly a conversation I had wherein I mentioned how surprised I was how small the Wiccan presence at PantheaCon was. For as formative and important Wicca has been in American Paganism, I was disturbed that there was very little official Wiccan programming and that the three Wiccan organizations at the convention were all lumped together in one hospitality suite on the tenth floor. The person with who I had the conversation became incredibly defensive and said, essentially, that Wicca is no longer relevant to the Pagan experience. However, given the fact that some people claim Wicca to be one of the fastest growing religions in the United States, I really have to question that assertion. I also have to wonder what the actual demographics of those in attendance were, as I would be surprised if the majority were not some form of Wiccan.

I can only then surmise that the traditions on display were a result of fad, as much as anything. Wicca is hardly exciting at this point in time. As much as Wicca may still define the face of American Paganism, its role seems to be hardly acknowledged anymore. This is one of the reasons why I found it so troubling to see the programming focussing heavily on shamanism and African-Diasporic traditions. I honestly do not like to make accusations of cultural appropriation, as I think they are largely false and unfounded. Cultural appropriate is a tool of oppression and control, and I think that the way the charge of cultural appropriation is bandied about the Pagan community shows a remarkable lack of concern for the cultures being referenced. There is a difference between borrowing a technique from another culture, fully aware of what you are doing and citing your sources, and simply refusing to acknowledge that the techniques which you are using have a long and complicated history of use by another culture.

That being said, it disturbed me to see so much focus on the traditions of minorities when Mallory and I saw less than ten African Americans (there may have been more, but if so they didn’t make up a significant percentage of the attendees) and Teejay thinks he saw one Asian, maybe. Several of the African Americans which we did see were obviously presenters. It was odd as well that they only Latinos we saw were the hotel staff. Judging by PantheaCon, one is led to believe that Paganism is largely the religion of White People.  Those in attendance at PantheaCon didn’t even seem to represent the general demographic break down of the United States.

I’m not saying that we need to stick to White People traditions since we ourselves are all White People, simply that we need to be careful how we relate to the minorities within our community and ensure that we are engaging respectfully with their cultures. Having a series of events rotating around African-Diasporic traditions when there were very few African Americans in attendance really makes me question how comfortable we as a community make the minority groups we contain feel.

Now, PantheaCon did include a few nods to the minorities, with things like the Pagans of Color Caucus. Though, the official programming did not include T. Thorn Coyle’s panel on Pagans and Privilege, which was hosted by, yes that’s right, the Wiccans, in the Covenant of the Goddess suite, instead. I would love to know what was discussed there, but given how small the venue was I have had a hell of a time finding anyone who has actually discussed the proceedings.

I have a good deal more to talk about as a result of our PantheaCon adventure and I expect to have several weeks on content. I would apologize for being an ornery bastard, but it’s my nature. That said, I really do appreciate comments and responses. I write this stuff to generate dialogue and address issues which I view as important to the Pagan community. I am not trying to cause trouble, simply to highlight issues which I believe require further attention.

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Curious Antipathy: The Ongoing Struggle to Define Modern Paganism

Modern Pagan belief is largely founded on personal spiritual experience. Though there is, sadly, a great deal of infighting about what constitutes authentic experience, and near constant accusations of cultural appropriation, Modern Paganism marks a return of spiritual authority to the lay practitioner. Each Pagan has a unique and personal relationship not simply to the divine, but to discrete deities and spiritual beings. Paganism allows us not only to worship God as we choose, but to choose which Gods to worship. Essentially, Paganism is about building our own relationships with Divinity distinct of church structure. I am not, of course, saying, that everyone is therefore correct, no matter what they do, merely that Modern Paganism allows us much more spiritual freedom than many of us have ever experienced. There are still rights and wrongs, those concepts have simply been recontextualized.

From that basis, I find it baffling that so many of us spend so much energy trying to dismantle Christianity. We are all familiar with the various arguments against the authenticity of the Bible, with the historical malfeasance of the various churches and of the contemporary issues which many Christian faiths continue to struggle with or blatantly ignore. However, none of this says anything about the authenticity of the spiritual experience of Christians. How many of our source texts can evade the critiques which we level at the Bible? None. Not a single one. We talk about the lack of historic references to Jesus and the absence of archaeological evidence for the events depict in the Hebrew Testament, but how many trustworthy historical references and archaeological proofs are there for our own beliefs? Why do we require this kind of evidence from Christians, but not from ourselves?

I myself was raised in what I casually refer to as a cult. I personally understand the desire to distance ourselves as much as possible from Christianity. My experience was difficult and painful and I am still recovering from a lot of the trauma that I experienced. However, the reason why I eventually left that church had almost nothing to do with my personal struggle. The more I spoke to my fellow church members and to people of various faiths, the more I came to realize that my personal faith was simply not strong enough to justify my continued identification with that church. That itself was a traumatic experience. I had used that identification as a badge throughout much of my childhood. I hid behind it and used it to excuse my alienation from my classmates and peers and to disguise the things I found shameful about myself. That breakage was just as affecting as the religion itself. For years, I felt as though I had no solid identity. Eventually, this spurred me to do a great deal of personal reflection, and to figure out what I myself needed to foster and support my spirituality, my faith. I emerged from Christianity, and am emphatically not Christian, but that history had a profound effect on me and played a vital part in my spiritual development. While Christianity caused me profound pain, I know that without that experience I would not be the man I am today, a man that, for the most part, I am proud to be.

I think that we, as Pagans, need to accept our personal histories and understand the ways in which they continue to influence not only our personal progression, but also our progression as a culture. We need to resist the urge to attack the faiths with which we cohabitate. Of course, we feel persecution and alienation in contemporary culture largely as a result of the high saturation of Christian faiths in the Western World. That said, we do ourselves no favors by placing ourselves explicitly at odds with the people to whom we are trying to prove our authenticity, our equality. It is especially problematic when we, as a faith community, co-opt the strategies of the Atheist movement to attack our perceived enemies. We cannot require hard evidence of faith. We cannot demand proof which we ourselves cannot provide.

If we are willing to accept people who claim to have deep spiritual relationships with deities who have not been properly worshiped for close to a thousand years as speaking the truth, why do we refuse to recognize the deep spiritual relationships which Christians have with their God? We simply cannot denounce Christianity as false because it makes us uncomfortable.

The fear of Christian persecution has been built into the foundation of Modern Paganism. The Wiccan Rede reads as it does as an attempt to make Wiccans appear less threatening to their Christian neighbors. How many times do we hear random Pagans at Pagan events miscellaneously bad-mouthing Christians with little to no provocation? Our Christian antipathy frequently seems to be incorporated into Modern Pagan culture itself. That is problematic for so many reasons. Some of this, I believe, is a result of our continuing struggle to define our community identity. The simple question, “What is Paganism?” is notoriously hard to answer to everyone’s satisfactions and the current fuss brewing over at Patheos about polytheism versus nature worship is a good example of the constant back and forth bickering that has come to define the question. Pagansisms, and the plural there is intentional, are so varied from person to person, from practice to practice that any single rubric fails to account for all of the various forms of worship and theology that the Pagan community has incorporated into itself, or which have blossomed out of the occult and spiritual revivals of the first half of the twentieth century.

It is because of that difficulty that I suggest that many of us fall back on negative descriptions of ourselves. We are Pagan, and that means we are not Christian. Mallory and I have discussed this dilemma at some length, and she, quite rightly, asserts that people need something to define themselves against as a means of solidifying group identity. It is true that group identity is strongest in opposition, psychology has shown how deeply entrenched people become when challenged with an opposing idea, even casually. To a certain extent it makes sense that we look for things which differentiate us from the faith communities which surround us. The problem arrises, as I see it, when we solely define ourselves against other groups. Paganism cannot be defined negatively. Now, I know a lot of people have been doing a lot of work to produce positivist descriptions of Paganism, and yet it seems like a good deal of the community is content, in a practical sense, to simply identify as Non-Christian. There is, of course, the other pole of this wherein we end up saying things like “We’re just like you, only we worship the Goddess instead of the God.” Both of these definitions retain Christianity as the central term. Paganism is defined in relation to Christianity. These descriptions fall back on simple reductivism.

We simplify our identities to make them more palatable either to ourselves or to others. I firmly believe that if we are to continue to identify as a single community despite the broad variations which Modern Paganism contains that we need to do a lot of work as a community to build a coherent and cohesive definition. In doing so, however, we need to be willing to set aside our own identity defenses and end up in inter-community bickering, trying to establish ourselves as more Pagan than you. There is a large array of characteristics which combine and overlap to describe contemporary Pagan practice, and we need to be careful not to privilege anyone of those over the others. Doing so only leads to defensiveness and tension between different Pagans and Paganisms. We cannot reduce Paganism to Polytheism versus Monism, nor Nature Worship versus Deity Worship, nor thaumaturgy versus theurgy, nor any any other combination of polar relations.

Part of the difficulty in this discussion, I believe, is that may people see these polar relations as just that, polar and therefore incompatible. This dualistic relation, I do think, stems from the Christianity infused culture that Paganism has emerged from, at least in the United States. We as Pagans need to be able to release the dualistic world view of God against the Satan, of good against evil. At the very outset, Paganism has proposed a plurality of forces which act in the world with a variety of prerogatives none of which are necessarily good nor evil, nor even concerned with human activity. If we are willing to make that theological leap, why do we seem so hesitant to follow through with the appropriate ontological shift?

Hard and Soft Polytheism are not necessarily incompatible. Dionysus was worshipped across the Hellenistic World with a variety of guises and epithets, and yet each iteration still relates back to the same essential deity. Different regions, different villages would all have unique and idiosyncratic forms of worship and conception of Dionysus depending on the needs of the people, and yet, across these differences, the same God was being worshipped. We need to recognize that the Ancients’ relationships to their Gods was not as hard and fast and strictly defined as we would like. Our grade school mythology fails to describe the actual experience of these Gods and their relation to their devotees. Across cultures, the Ancients viewed their Gods as having profound control over their presentation and prerogative depending on the task at hand, on the social class of the supplicant, on the needs of society, and yet they still remained the same volitional beings, the same discrete Gods despite the variety of epithets with which they may be approached. We also seem to be properly terrified of admitting the role of syncretism in the Ancient World. The spread of Gods across Europe and Britannia should be sufficient to show that this was a strategy consistent with Ancient Worship which each culture had very little issue with. Would we really be willing to assert that the Isis worshipped in the British Isles is an entirely different being from the Isis of Ancient Egypt? What about the Isis cult of Rome? Are these not the same Goddess in different guises, in different aspects suited to the needs of the varied communities and cultures? Hard and Soft Polytheism begin to collapse into each other.

I recognize that I have provided very few strategies for moving forward and that, as it is, this sits as a rather harsh critique, and yet I feel like this is a necessary part of the greater conversation. Part of the difficulty with generating strategies is that it seems to me that we have a great deal of work to do both personally and as a community on coming to terms with the unique stresses that being Pagan in a domineeringly Christian culture has placed on us. A good deal of the time these stresses get ignored or externalized and the blame ends up getting passed around either within the Pagan community or pushed off onto our perceived foes. We need to be willing to do the work we need to do on ourselves before looking out into the community at large for all the answers.

Of course, not everyone wants to be part of the larger Pagan community, but those people need to respect the work that others our doing to build and foster the Pagan community, and if they are unwilling to do so, then they must simply keep themselves to themselves. We simply do not have the time nor resources to indulge in this petty sniping, these divisive and alienating more Pagan than Pagan arguments. We must be willing to approach the work of community building compassionately and intelligently, and foster understanding of our selves and our relations to others, as well as the roles which we play in the world at large. If Paganism is to survive as a community then we need to be willing to lay our personal issues aside and approach each other mindfully focussed toward the community, and finding that which makes us alike rather than that which makes us different. Only then will the community be able to serve broadly as a means of strength and support. Otherwise we are better off fracturing off into our own little schismatic factions and focussing our attention on our private affairs.

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Starting Again, a Month Later

Almost a month later, my husband and I are settling in to our new city. From what I’ve seen, thus far, I really like it here. Washington State is beautiful, and I constantly impressed with how lush and green everything is. I really get the feeling that if you leave something alone outside, after two weeks it will be covered with moss with a fern growing out of it. There’s a retaining wall directly behind our apartment, building, in fact, with a fern growing out of it which I have become strangely attached to. I have resisted the urge to name my little fern friend, but it makes me smile every time I pass it. I love little fern friend.

Of course, this transition has been a little strange and awkward. My husband and I are without reliable transportation, but that’s as much my fault and my laziness at getting my driver’s license renewed as anything else, and the weather has been pretty erratic as well. So, we’ve been spending a good deal of time sitting around the apartment. I have always had a difficult time establishing routines, and living as we do, it’s been difficult for me to keep track of the passage of time. All of which plays in to my ongoing difficulties establishing a spiritual practice.

Every morning I meditate for ten to fifteen minutes after taking shower and cleaning up for the day. That, as much as I hate to admit it, makes up the vast majority of my active spiritual practice. That said, the vast majority of intellectual life is caught up with spirituality, both my own and in the abstract, so I do feel as if I devote a good deal of my time to spiritual matters, even if actively spiritual pursuits make up a small portion of my day. However, even in saying that, I recognize that meditation simply isn’t enough.

Which is where my art making comes in. I have been incredibly hesitant to describe my creative pursuits as acts of worship. I suppose that my Christian Cult upbringing as tainted the idea of worship to me: I have a hard time giving myself over to something that I am told is holy. I do believe in divinity and the divine and I do view my art making as a way of connecting with those concepts, but worship, to me, carries so much baggage that I simply do not want to unpack. However, I also know that in order to grow, I need to confront the things that scare me. Worship, proper worship, not the fake for appearances performance that I engaged in in my youth, needs to be examined and experienced.

My art making is essentially an ecstatic state. When I am creating, I am buried in the act, and other concerns no longer bother me. When I am deep in the process, I will go all day without eating, all of my attention is focussed on the task at hand. On the surface, this should connect quite easily with my views toward worship and with the divine powers and ideas that I do connect most easily with. And yet… I am hesitant and, truth be told, afraid.

I do feel that proper worship is an ecstatic experience, a way of being that takes up the whole of one’s being. I have a very good friend who dances as a form of worship, and this makes perfect sense to me. Watching her dance, her entire comportment changes and there is nothing in her but the dancing. It’s a beautiful thing to see. I am really drawn to that kind of spiritual expression, to creation and creativity as the core of one’s spiritual practice. I suppose it is a means of worship which I view as preserving one’s innate being in relation to the divine. It seems to me that this kind of approach forces one to analyze and examine oneself and to transform one into a vessel of divine expression. The artist, the dancer is still always there, they are just there towards divinity. Worship, then, is an expression towards divinity, it is a way of being in that expression, ecstatically.

So, I have come to realize that I need to approach at least a portion of my art making as worship. I need to incorporate it into my daily practice and devote it to the powers that I feel in my life. I really have no idea what the final form of this work will take, or where it will lead me, but I need to allow myself to be in the act, to let it carry me where it will. I have no more excuses to hesitate, no more justification for my fear.

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I Am Not Born This Way

I have always hated the popular assertion that someone is born gay or straight, as if that is enough of a justification for one’s behavior. I understand the popularity of the phrase, being “born this way” allows people to side step the charge that they have a choice in the matter. When closed minded bigots yell at you for being gay, for acting gay, you respond that you were born that way, you don’t have a choice, you were made to be gay. But that’s really not true. I suppose the hidden attack in that position is that, “I was born gay, and you weren’t born Christian/Republican/Evil/a self-righteous prick, you learned that behavior.” Of course, that’s not true. We all learned to perform our sexualities as much as we learned to perform any other identity.

The issue at hand isn’t whether we are biologically determined to perform gayness, it’s whether we have the right the perform our sexuality as we choose. One could make a stronger claim that someone born into a religious family is born religious, since they would be raised from moment of birth in that frame. One isn’t born gay, by that reasoning, but becomes gay with the development of their sexuality: straight families spawn gay children.

That said, I knew from an early age that I was unlike the people around me. I knew that I was different. That was, to say the least, uncomfortable. But, I wasn’t gay. I didn’t know that I was gay until I was twelve or thirteen. What I felt before was a sense of alienation totally unconnected from my sexuality. I was a very intelligent, shy, emotional child. I thought too much and too quickly. Most of what I encountered didn’t make sense to me, nor could I understand why a lot of the adults in my life believed and said things that I could reason through and undermine as a seven year old. I was raised in a religious household, and yet I can at no time remember believing any of it. I quite emphatically remember my confusion at the way the people around me blindly repeated nonsense as if it were undoubtably true. Of course, I knew all the right words and all the answers, but it was more like playing make believe or something: rearranging words to make a kind of sense within a very particular frame. I knew the stories of Jesus and the apostles and all the prophets and their prophecies, but I think I had more faith in First Officer Spock. My burgeoning sexuality was just a coincidence.

I think when people remember feeling alienated as children, they tend to elide it with other traumas. Sadly, in contemporary society, one’s sexual development is a severe trauma for a lot of people. One’s sexuality suddenly leaps back and invades all the queerness, all the awkwardness, all the alienation that one has felt. People aren’t willing to simply be other, to be really basically queer, it was their gayness all along, hiding and showing itself just long enough to make other people uncomfortable, but not revealing itself fully until… well, trauma.

I am not gay because I was born this way. My birth in no way relieves me of responsibility. I am queer because I have embraced that as a part of myself and act accordingly. I own my queerness, I live in my queerness. Had I so decided, I could have owned my religious upbringing, I could have made that the whole of my being, and today I woud be living a very different life as a Jehovah’s Witness. I didn’t make that choice. I had every right to, but I chose something else. I chose to live my life as I saw fit. I chose to make sense of the world and of myself for myself. We all make choices, and that’s the right that needs to be defended.

I am not born this way, I am this way because I chose to be this way. I have worked long and hard to make myself into the man I am today, and I am fully aware of the missteps and struggles along the way, all of which make me even prouder of the times when I have succeeded. I am not born this way because I take full responsibility for being who I am. I worked with the resources I had to transform myself into someone who, despite my shortcomings, I am quite proud to be.

We all need to be able to say that we are who we are by choice, and know deep inside of ourselves that this is true. That’s the right we fight for. Not the right to be what we were born to be, but the right to be what we make of ourselves.

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Gladly Beyond Any Experience

In three weeks from today, my husband and I will be boarding a train and travelling across the country to a new home waiting for us in Washington State. While this adventure has been in the works for almost six months, it all fell together quite suddenly at the end of August, and only in the last week has it finally begun to feel real to me. I will be leaving Pittsburgh, the city that I was born in and lived in for twenty-nine years and travelling almost literally as far away from it as I can go without crossing an ocean. Oh, gods, the ocean. I have never even seen the Pacific Ocean. I imagine that it’s very much like the Atlantic (how different can it really be?), but still, I can only imagine. I am overflowing with anticipation and wonder.

I have gone on trips, before, of course. I have an uncle who lives in Colorado and in my teens my family would visit him semi-regularly. I always loved Colorado. Everything seemed more real there. Of course, it helped, I imagine, that we were up in the mountains surrounded not just by nature (I have a lot of nature here, too, Pittsburgh is very green), but enormous nature. No matter where we went, the sky was hugely there. The mountains dominate the horizon, and the trees! The trees were, well, everywhere and really big. I know that Washington and Colorado are very different, but it’s really the only reference I have. Going to visit my uncle always felt like an adventure, like there were new things, new realms of experience everywhere.

I know that in time that sense will fade, but I’m thrilled to have it for as long as it lasts as my husband and I establish ourselves in Washington. Routine, I think, abolishes wonder. Yet, I think it is this wonder that fills life with real meaning. As much as I have tired of Pittsburgh, and of living in a place that I have come to feel simply has nothing left to offer me, I do still try to detach myself from routine and just experience things. My husband and I go on adventures whenever we can, even if that really just means wandering around the park and playing with other people’s dogs, or going to a coffee shop and trying a lavender vanilla latté for the first time. These are small things, though, and I’m excited to have a whole new unfamiliar world of adventure. I want to hold on the that adventure for as long as I can.

Now, we are moving for serious reasons. My husband and I have family and friends on the west coast who are going through difficult times and they need familiar faces with them. We really don’t have too much tying us to Pittsburgh, and so we offered to go to them. When people ask me why we’re moving, that’s what I tell them, and it is the gods’ honest truth. I am told, then, that I’m such a good friend, such a caring person to just pack up and go, and yet, I feel a little disingenuous. I am moving at the behest of people that I care deeply for, and I would do anything in my power to alleviate their suffering, it is a delight to do so, and yet…

I am thrilled with the thought of all of the new things, of all of the opportunities, of the new worlds unfolding in front of me. I feel very selfish. I am in the process of applying to a graduate program in Northern California which, if all goes smoothly, will alter the course of my life entirely. I am moving not just out of a city, but out of an entire way of living, of being. More than anything else, I’m thrilled to have someone that I love so deeply that I did the one thing that I was certain I would never do, and married. My husband and I are travelling into an entirely new life together.

I am so excited to see how this change effects my art, my spirituality, my philosophy. I have been focussing a good deal, lately on the idea of wonder and its spiritual significance, which I can guarantee I will discuss in greater depth on this blog, and this whole adventure seems like a perfect opportunity to explore these ideas further. I feel so much like I am on the edge of a great transformation.

I am put in mind of one of my favorite poems:

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

– e.e.cummings

Place and person are beautifully elided: a whole new adventure…

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I have always been aware that I am susceptible to the emotional states of those around me. As I child I was both very emotional and very empathic, some times cripplingly. Over the years as I grew up, I gradually closed myself off. However, I have always been, as they say, sensitive. The silly thing is, that now, as an adult, I had all but forgotten about how heavily the emotions of others press on me.

These last few weeks I have felt bogged down and listless. I have had a hell of time motivating myself, I haven’t seemed to have any energy to get things done; even my creativity has waned. A few days ago, I realized that this wasn’t just a phase. I decided to make a conscious effort to improve my mood and motivate myself.

I always get a little irritated with the people who tell you to “think happy thoughts,” as though being happy were as easy as that. As someone with depressive tendencies, such advice always struck me as vapid and hollow. It’s patronizing. If I’m sad, I have reason to be sad, and when I don’t, I know that it’s my brain being weird and I work around it. Well, I realized that this long stretch of ennui wasn’t for any good reason, and I have to work around it. Thinking happy thoughts doesn’t work, so what does?

A few months ago, Emjay suggested a book to me, which I promptly forgot about and then only again remembered when she posted a review of it on her blog. I promptly bought and read Sophie Reicher’s Spiritual Protection, and then, as I do, filed it away as useful information to return to later. Well, as it turns out, I’m kicking myself for not having immediately put the ideas in that book into effect. As I said previously, I tend to forget how susceptible I am to the moods and emotions of those around me. Also, working at a coffee shop, I encounter a lot of less than lovely people who range from casually cruel to actively spiteful. I simply hadn’t thought, as a spiritually aware and active person, how much of the negativity of other people was beginning to collect around me and weigh me down.

So, earlier this week, I pulled out my chunk of black tourmaline and after grounding and anchoring myself, charged it to deflect and absorb the negativity, petty viciousness and outright cruelty and malignancy of the people and forces that I encounter. I have taken particular time to strengthen this charge before going to work. As silly as it is, I have to say that these last few days I have been feeling quite lovely.

Now, I am always hesitant to ascribe a magical/spiritual cause to anything. It is possible that the effect is entirely psychosomatic. I have this stone in my pocket that I touch occasionally when I feel pressed upon, and I am taking time every few hours to control my breathing and center myself. Already that is enough to ease my tensions. I have found my head to be clearer and my energy levels to be much improved with no other real changes to my routine.

One of my very few objections to Sophie Reicher’s book is the immediate assumption that you are under spiritual attack. The entire text is written as though you are under siege from malign forces, as though you are surrounded by malign practitioners bent on making you suffer. On further reflection, however, I find myself largely agreeing with her position. Though I think that your average spiritual practitioner is hardly likely to be under active magical attack, my experience of the last few weeks has certainly led me to believe that for the spiritually aware person, the world is quite overflowing with things that we need to protect ourselves from, be they conscious attacks or casual unpleasantness. I would hardly say that I am under attack, but I do know that there are people around me who enjoy provoking and antagonizing those around them. I have come to the conclusion that for my own well being it is necessary for me to take steps to protect myself mentally and spiritually from such malefic influences.

I have been thinking, recently, that as we become more spiritually aware of ourselves we become more, and I hesitate to quite use this word, but I shall, vulnerable to the spiritual influences around us, for good or for ill. As much as I flex against the idea that we are constantly under attack, I’m not certain if that it actually a bad metaphor. While we may not be the direct targets of negativity, we are certainly besieged by it. I have come to realize, lately, how vital it is that I be aware of and combat these forces in my life. I think that it is important to come to terms with the fact that we don’t live in perfect little spiritual bubbles. We are influenced by the world around us and we need to be capable of protecting ourselves. The world is not sunlight and roses and puppy dog kisses, and no matter how good a person you are, no matter how enlightened you may be, that won’t protect you.

I was planning on writing a fairly detailed review of Spiritual Protection, but honestly, I don’t think that I have much more to say than Emjay already said, and so suggest that you go read her review instead. Now that said, I’m not necessarily, after that long preamble, advocating that you cling to every word that Sophie Reicher wrote. Spiritual protection is incredibly important and Sophie Reicher’s book is a very good, concise and detailed volume describing various techniques for various situations, but, as in all things, every individual is going to have different view points. I suggest detailed research and investigation, and Spiritual Protection is a good place to start, but it is by far not the only text available. In the end, all that matters is that we be aware of the forces around us, that we understand ourselves well enough to recognize when we are feeling the effects of forces outside of us, and that we are able to act appropriately. It’s not so much that we are under attack, I think, as we are surrounded.

They’ve Got Us Surrounded!

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Under the Blue Moon

This Friday past was the blue moon. I decided, on the cuff, to get some friends together and go moon gazing on the hill top in Frick Park. We picked up a few bottles of wine and around 10:30 wandered off into the park. Now, I will admit that my initial intention was to perform some sort of experimental group ritual, though with the final composition of the group it became apparent that was not going to happen. In the end, though, I think we all had an enjoyable, variously enlightening experience.

There is something quite interesting to me about the blue moon: unlike other astronomical events, the blue moon is an entirely calendrical artifact. The blue moon only has significance because of the way that we decided to carve up time, a sidereal calendar wouldn’t produce blue moons. Yet, something about the approaching full moon at the very end of August felt somehow special, alluring. I wanted to use this as a chance to experiment in fairly low stakes environment. If the ritual ended up as nothing more than a silly pantomime, or failing catastrophically, well, it wasn’t marking anything in particular, save an occasional calendrical oddity: the full moon will come again.

I have been deeply interested in the function of ritual, lately, and particularly given my own spiritual orientation, I find a good deal of group rituals to be less than thrilling. I admit, that I have attended relatively few group rituals, and that there has only been one local organization which has consistently impressed me not only with the precision of their rituals, but also with their scholarship, a local chapter of ADF. The reason that I have been repeatedly drawn to the open rituals of this particular group is because of how engaged they are with the theatricality of ritual. They seem to recognize how important it is to capture the attention of the participants and viewers and engage with their spirituality through their imagination. The rituals of theirs that I have attended included a lot of story telling, singing, chanting, divination and  costume. All of this has gotten me thinking on what is actually necessary in ritual. If you recall a prior post of mine, I have taken a semi-phenomenological approach to materia magica, and I think I similar approach is useful here.

For my birthday, a friend danced a blessing for me. Her spiritual practice is sacred dance. No words, just movement. In absolute honesty, I was shocked by how much power she was able to draw upon, by how much energy she worked up by dancing. In the Western Occult tradition we are repeatedly told how important the words, the words, the words are, and never shall you ever tamper with these spells handed down from times immemorial. Of course, modernity has struggled with this concept, and intent has krept in, weaseling around the edges, acknowledged but poorly explored. Intent, we are told, again, is vital and perhaps all of magic reduces to intent, so maybe all you need to do is intend really, really, really hard, and then, whizz bang, magic! Intent itself is a tricky subject, as a great deal of human experience is bound up in intent, and if we are going to have a functional definition of magic, shouldn’t it be precise enough to exclude the mundane intention of paying your cell phone bill from the uncanny intention of warding your apartment? Intent alone is insufficient, just as the word alone is insufficient. The dance succeeds because it looses both word and intent in the action.

I want to pull in here, as well, my previous musings on art as something which pulls you back to pure surface, to the act of perceiving. Indeed, I think ritual operates in a very similar way. Frequently one encounters descriptions of the importance of trance states in magic. Thusly, I posit that trance operates as a restoration of perception to itself. Descriptions of emptiness, of the perceiving of nothingness, of the evacuation of I, the ego, the subject, the cogito in the trance state, I suggest, are descriptions of perception returned to itself, reflexively engaging with itself. When one is in deep trance one is perceiving oneself perceive. I argue, then, that ritual aims to bring its participants fully into the state of pure perception. Magic, will, intent, may then spring up from that perceptual reflex.

My intention on the hill top under the light of the blue moon was to begin exploring these ideas in a group setting. In the end, though, everyone so inclined wandered off from the group, found a quiet patch on the greensward and offered themselves up to the beauty of the moonlight. The moon, that night, was truly beautiful. It shone brighter than I have seen in a long time, and the entire park was uncannily lovely. Myself, I offered up a libation to the moon and praised its beauty, its clarity, its radiance. Strangely enough, all our private adventures on that hill top provided a comforting sense of community. Some of us worshipped, some of us prayed, some of us simply enjoyed the beauty of the evening, and others chatted quite happily in the cool breeze, enjoying the companionship. It wasn’t a group ritual, but the space became special, spiritual, regardless.

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Theory, Practice & Confidence

August has been a very busy month for me so far, and I I feel the need to apologize for not updating as regularly as I would like. I have had a lot of family and social obligations that have kept me far too distracted to properly organize my thoughts.

However, all of this plays fairly neatly into some things that I have been trying to work out for a while. I have been struggling for a very long time about asserting my spirituality and my spiritual practice. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I have a sense of shame surrounding my practice, merely that I am intensely private when it comes to my spirituality. When my now husband and I first started living together, I did everything in my power to keep my practice out of his sight. It’s not to say that he wasn’t aware of my work, merely that I have been so solitary for so long, that the mere presence of another person, even someone that I love deeply, utterly altered the tone of my work, and I really didn’t know how to adapt. Over the course of a few months, however, I became comfortable with engaging in my practice in front of another person.

Now, I hardly do anything advanced or complicated on a daily basis, the vast majority of my practice consists of meditation and mantra work, however, this deeply personal, internal work doesn’t really leave room for other people. It doesn’t help that I’m pretty damned reticent to reveal my work to other people. I am an incredibly private person, and, for a very long time, I have lacked the confidence in my work to be comfortable dealing with other people questioning my practice.

Lately, though, I haven’t had the luxury of privacy. From various family obligations that have kept me away from home or my work schedule, split between two jobs, I haven’t really been able to establish a regular routine. I’ve been meditating in a rush, in little corners or places tucked away, trying to find some privacy. My practice has really suffered for it.

I have always had a hard time organizing my time, but when I have any kind of outside pressure, my schedule collapses entirely. Sadly, my spiritual practice is the first thing to suffer. I’ve realized recently, that for as much weight as my spirituality plays in my life, I haven’t done the personal work necessary for it to really support that weight.

It has become incredibly apparent to me that I need to spend more time not only building up my confidence in my practice, but also my assertiveness when it comes to that practice. I need to be willing to make time for myself to practice even if that means revealing my practices to the people around me. I know that in no small part, my hesitation stems from an assumed antipathy that I feel other people, especially family, would have toward me. However, I’ve reached a point in my life where this secretiveness is no longer helpful.

Early in anyone’s spiritual development, I do believe that privacy and solitude are terribly important, however, there comes a time when one must be willing to embrace that spirituality in all aspects of there life. What I find so strange about my own behavior is that I am quite comfortable talking about my spirituality in a theoretical sense, as far as discourse goes, my spirituality is pervasive. However, my practice remains, as silly as I find this phrase, deeply in the broom closet.

I have become, over the years, quite confident in my theory. I know that a good deal of this is a result of my academic nature. I have always been fascinated with theory. Now, as a result, words, language, philosophy dominate a good deal of my practice, writing this blog is deeply tied to my spiritual and magical practice.

My personal project for the next few months is thus to engage more deeply with my practice and build up my confidence.

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Beauty and Emptiness

I find myself constantly returning to Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” I also constantly connect this with Marina Ambramovic’s disturbing refrain, “Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful.” Art in my understanding of it is only and only ever can be two things: beautiful and useless. All other qualities, all other descriptions, come from outside of art. Art itself, pure, actual art is merely beautiful and useless: art is empty, evacuated, devoid.

What does art do that nothing else can do? It presents, perfectly and wondrously, pure spectacle. Art restores the world to pure surface, it signifies absence. It marks perception as perception, restores beauty to its primal state, before commodity, capital, value. The allure and seduction of art lies in its vapidity, in its total lack of depth. It is entirely because of this that from nearly the beginning of human history, art has acquired a value beyond measure: art is precisely that which negates all value.

Let us not, now, elide the techniques of art with art itself. The techniques of art, of its production, of its mystique have been utilized across time and culture for purposes which are distinctly anti-art. The most obvious of these to the modern mind will be propaganda and advertising. Both of these forms utilize the techniques of art, but unlike art, which is entirely kenotic, attempt to cover over the empty plain of pure surface with meaning, to mine into and implant social, political and commercial depth. Propaganda and advertising aim to tell you things, they carry with them a terrible depth, a drowning depth which seeks to override your own perceptions, to alter and subsume them into the desires of others for you.

These schemas blaspheme the face of art, which is entirely indifferent, blind. The aim of propaganda and advertising is to penetrate you, to fix you in the gaze of the political, the commercial, to transform you into an object of political and commercial power. Art itself serves only to deliver you back to yourself through its frigidity, its vacuity. What is absent in art is delivered into it through your perceptions. Art, strangely and viciously, however, remains entirely detached, it has given you back to yourself through its indifference. Art remains unaltered by you, by your perceptions. Your perceptions echo back from the pure surface of art and through you entirely into your own echo chamber. That which resonates in art is yourself.

There are, of course, the softer declensions of the techniques of art, those which maintain the usefulness of objects: crafts, and the like, those operations which concern themselves with the beautifying of things. A carpenter makes a beautiful table. The table is not art, it is foremost characterized by its use, it will always be a table, until it rots, or breaks, or is replaced, at which point it becomes garbage. The beautiful once table may be transformed at anytime into art, once its use is stripped of it, once it no longer becomes defined solely by its table-ness. Museums are full of antiques that once served as along side their peers to fill grand houses, demarcating social space and the use thereof, now, inert, next to busts and vases, they are returned to total object-hood, again empty, returned to the total surface which defined their materials before production.

Yet even the museum serves as an engine of commodity, marking what it acceptable as art and what is not. The contents of museums suffer and decline, loose some of the gloss of their pure surface in the face of the grand institutionalization of the commodity of art. The museum, the cultural bastion, seeks to implant depth, cultural depth back into art. Only the most dramatically useless, the most woundingly beautiful works can survive this violence. The great artists are held to be great because they strangely succeeded in creating total absence, art which endures is the art of nothingness. Only nothing can withstand the cultural turbines of the historicizing institutions.

Let it be clearly understood: art is not a mirror. A mirror serves to show you to yourself, to return to you your image. Art does not serve. It maintains itself in its uselessness. When you engage with art, you are engaging in a feedback loop within yourself, you are confronting the total surface of pure objects and the surface turns your perceptions back upon themselves. Art makes you perceive perceiving, and so doing, multiplies bizarre effects as perception, that which goes unnoticed, is thrown into sharp relief within the psyche and it becomes the only thing noticeable. Pure surface returns perception to you, fills you with it. You perceive not yourself, as in a mirror, but your perceptual powers themselves. Art is when it restores perception to you, when it collapses the reflex of perceiving into a single action, and embeds you psychically in perception, destroying your detachment from subject and object.

This is, obviously, a polemic. It suffers, as all polemics must, from an incredibly narrow and reductive focus. For that I apologize. There is a great deal here that I intend to return to and expand, to open back up.

I have been struggling for some time to write about the role of art and art making in my life and spirituality, but I have found the process much more difficult than I had originally realized. I found myself over and over writing mere validities like “art is deeply important to my spirituality” and then being unable to continue.

I realized after writing the above polemic that there I simply care too much to simply write about the role of art in my spirituality. I have too many theories about the political power and importance of art, about the cultural relevance of art, about the commodification of art and its position within capitalism to talk merely about its spiritual significance, especially as for me, the spiritual role of art penetrates into all of these other fields of discourse.

And so, I am opening up yet another project on this blog: an exploration of the spiritual import of art and its ramifications on the function of art in society.

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Metamorphosis

I woke up this morning from a strange dream. I have been having very strange dreams these last few weeks, but this one in particular left me, well, shaken.

I dreamed that I was walking along a busy street. It was a city that I’ve never been to, but it was the city I lived in. I was quite familiar with everything. I have to say, too, that it was a lovely city, full of sunlight and white stone and well kept gardens.I found myself caught up with a group of women dressed like conservative Jews talking in hushed tones amongst themselves. Evidently they were on a mission, a very important mission. We all stopped before a long slung stone and glass structure, vaguely Japanese looking, with broad overhanging eaves and a lovely garden of small herbs set in a patch of pale grey stones. The women had either not noticed or did not care about my presence, and so I decided to continue and observe.

As well as the garden, there were two deep pools of water with a large cairn rising from the center of the pools. However, the left most pool had been drained. Before the pool on the right sat an older man dressed like a conservative Rabbi. He held a long brass rod with a small cup attached to the end of it. With this device he scooped up a cup full of water and poured it upon the stone, praying.

One of the women, a motherly looking lady, approaches the man and gestures angrily at the empty pool. He mutters something, upset that she interrupted her, and says that the women responsible for setting up the pool was sick this morning. She snaps something back at him and he shrugs her off. Furious, she turns on her heel and storms into the building. Several young men in the older man’s retinue rush off after her.

I step forward from the sidewalk to examine the pool, and a young man in an ill-fitting suit stops me from coming any closer with an expression strangely of sympathy and confusion. Taking my accidental distraction as her cue, a young woman rushes forward to the pool, pushing past a few young men. The older man shrieks at her. She has a small cup in her hand. The young men turn to grab her, but are suddenly caught up in the arms of the other women.

She cannot touch the water, the water is holy. The water is holy and the stone atop the cairn is holy, and she must venerate the stone, as the stone which has been privileged to her sex was not prepared this morning. It seemed this was an ongoing struggle. She, however, must not touch the water. She kneels down and leans carefully, as her companions scuffle with the young men behind her. She canot quite reach the water. One of the women slip free and holds her so that she can lean further out.

She gets a small cup full of water. The old man in shrieking his prayers. She casts the water out and it splashes upon the stone. Her friend hauls her back upright and she spins and dances and the stone flashing upon which she stands gives way and she plunges into the pool.

No one moves. The young men are paralyzed, the old man has collapsed onto his knees. “God save her!” I shriek and leap into the pool. The women follow me.

There is a ledge within the pool. The pool is much deeper than it appears. There is a large cubic block upon which stands the cairn. She has fallen down, another twenty or thirty feet, between the side of the cube and the wall of the pool. The broken ledge lies on top of her. “God save her!” I cry again.

The women swarm down to the bottom of the pool. I am standing atop the cube, my head and shoulder above water. I yell at one of the young men to fetch an ambulance. He shakes out of his paralysis, nods and runs off. Over and over I am screaming “God save her, God save her, God save her.” The women are struggling to remove the broken ledge. A young women is returns to the surface, but she has no strength to lift herself to the surface, as she comes up to the edge of cube, I grab her and haul her up. Twice more I do this. I look down, “God save her, God save her, God save her,” where there were two women there are twenty, five young men are lifting away the ledge, and she is brought up to the edge of the cube, and I haul her and the last two women atop the cube and she is a dolphin.

A young man rushes to the edge of the pool. The ambulance is here, but he is silent, because he sees that she is a dolphin. We lift her from the pool, and as her head and shoulders break the surface, she is a woman, bruised and breathing raggedly. “God save her.”

And I awake.

Now, those who know me will know that I am the last person to cry God save anything. Honestly, upon waking, that was what disturbed me the most. I have never been a man of faith. Which isn’t to say that I don’t believe, that I don’t feel strongly, just that I don’t, well, have faith. Or at least, certainly not the kind of faith that would drive me to turn to God, any God, for help. I have never been the kind of man who thought that a God would care, could be moved, to reach out to us. I look at the world and I do not see love pervading. I see love, of course, in little places, in small rooms, between two hands, in eyes and glances and the tenderness of shoulders. I don’t see love, though, as a force in the world. So, I think, perhaps, then, I have never seen a God, and maybe I am looking in the wrong place, and maybe I don’t know what I am looking for. I was raised, as well, in a religion which for the longest time destroyed all hope for me. Only over the last four or five years have I been able to regain my spirituality.

The oddest thing, though, was the waking realization that the God I was calling to, the God who I was filled with faith for, was Dionysus. Of course, Dionysus would save her, and of course he would save her by turning her into a dolphin. And then, doubly odd, was the realization that what my faith had done, was not only save a woman’s life, but demonstrate to these other people of faith, that there was more than one God, and that it was not their God which saved the life of one of their people.

It was a very strange dream, and there was a good deal that I do not understand. I live in a neighborhood with a large conservative Jewish population, so it makes sense that my mind would turn to their aesthetic to depict a devout religious group. The gender binary was also important, and so, again, the attachment of the Jewish aesthetic was fitting. I have always had a great deal of respect for the strength of women, and so it makes sense to me that they would be the protagonists in my dreamworld. Women too often must fight for what is theirs by right. So, of course, I am given the struggle for faith in terms of women demanding their birthright.

I am left wondering: do I have faith, now? Do I have that thing which has baffled me, that Neo-Pagan buzzword, a Patron Deity? I don’t know. I know that I have a great deal of work left to do. I know that I am still deeply affected by a very short, very strange dream.

I really would appreciate any insights or comments that any of you have to offer. The thing that I am mostly deeply looking for is a community, is conversation and mutual understanding and growth. Please, let’s talk.

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