Devotional practice shouldn’t make you feel like a failure

I always get blog post inspiration five minutes before I go to bed. I have many undoubtedly brilliant posts that have simply been lost to Unisom.

There are some housekeeping posts I need to make. Instead I’ll talk about devotional practice (yay!).

Japanese_Maple,_Shinjuku_Gyoen(Shinjuku_Imperial_Garden)

Carbonium [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

It’s hard to generalize about devotional practice and devotional experience in polytheism and paganism but a common thread I’ve observed is the “I don’t feel like I’m doing my practice enough.” There are lots of questions and statements vocalized about the practitioner’s concerns about the inadequacy of their practice – they aren’t doing as much as they used to, they aren’t spending as much time at the altar, they worry that they’re not doing the work they set out to do.

I have lots of reassuring things I say to people and I 100% entirely and absolutely believe these statements because everything in my experience and observation supports them. But when I’m personally beset by feelings of inadequacy with regards to my practice, none of these nice words mean anything and I don’t believe them at all.

If I may be so bold, I think there are three primary reasons why a person might engage in some kind of devotional practice (there may be others but these are the reasons that came to mind):

  • To say, “I love you” to the gods
  • To build discipline
  • To learn about and explore our particular spiritual traditions and/or personal spiritual inclinations

Naturally these objectives are going to have a lot of overlap and even if we don’t set out with all three firmly in mind we are likely to find that they come to pass anyway. That is, even if you engage in devotional practices with the aim of exploring a particular spiritual tradition you are likely to find that you build a little discipline along the way. Similarly, if you want to express your affection for the gods each day, you will probably find some expressions distinctive to the tradition they are most associated with to use in your daily visits.

Arch_to_the_pool_-_panoramio.jpg

im Dewer [CC BY 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

People select different expressions of devotional sentiment – prayer, altar worship, conducting ritual, making offerings, etc. – according to what they feel inclined to do based on personal circumstances, skill, available resources, and so forth. However, these expressions should not be mistaken as the only way that devotional sentiment is manifested. (Devotional sentiment is the emotional fact of relationship as well as the longing for relationship. This emotional fact contains many feelings including those we might label love, humility, joy, companionship, friendship, reverence, familial affection, etc.) Indeed, there are some teachings that state that devotional sentiment should not be manifested at all with outward gestures (such as tears, etc.) but instead be kept firmly internal and digested, so to speak.

A devotional practitioner – and I say this to myself as much as anyone else – should not mistake the doing of devotion for the experience of devotion. Anyone can say a prayer or light a candle. These gestures are in themselves meaningless and empty unless filled with the sentiment of sacred love AND/OR with the desire and hope for that love. I will strongly add that we may do these actions in order to stimulate sacred love in its many forms. It’s pretty darn difficult to voluntarily switch emotions on and off, which means it’s unreasonable to expect ourselves to feel the same intensity and flavor of sentiment at the altar each and every day, for decades on end.

We arrive at the altar and perform our chosen expressions to stimulate those sacred emotions, to give them a container to sit in, to invite their arousal. Furthermore, it’s not even necessary to *feel* these sacred emotions in an immediate manner while at the altar. Knowing that they have a reality within your lived experience (and your hoped-for future experiences) is entirely adequate and is sometimes all we have to go on. YOU ARE DOING DEVOTION EVEN IF YOU DON’T FEEL ANYTHING IN THE MOMENT. You have shown up and stood as a living testament to the fact that sacred relationships can and do and will exist.

Pool_on_the_Bruar_-_panoramio

im Dewer [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I will speak circumspectly about someone who shared a measure of frustration that she was not doing her altar practices because she was busy day in and day out fulfilling the terms of a vow she took to the Power whose altar she didn’t have time to visit. An altar is just a place, just an opportunity, just an invitation for remembering and for experiencing sacred relationship and sentiment; it is not (necessarily) the primary locus of devotional engagement or experience (although for some people it is and that’s great). It’s just one among a lifetime of possibilities. How is the fulfillment of a vow *not* a potential expression of devotion?

In one of my PantheaCon sessions this year I made the surprising statement that regularity in practice is fantastic and that if you don’t do something regularly you’re doing just fine. This brought some justified confusion and requests for explanation. Having a regular practice is probably one of the best things you can do for your spiritual life BUT what cycle constitutes regular and what “doing” you wish to do has enormous flexibility. Furthermore, one needs to have the self-knowledge to recognize when regular actions are taken just for the sake of being able to say that they are done (this might be called devotional practice for reasons of duty or obligation) or when actions are taken to provide fodder for self-deprecating thoughts.

To the first point, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong about engaging in devotional practices for reasons of duty or obligation. For instance, a person might be born into a family who has for generations prayed at a particular temple. A child might feel a familial obligation to continue this tradition regardless of whether they feel personal spiritual relevance in the doing; so long as this sort of doing isn’t exploitive or abusive there is probably little wrong with it if the doing at least lets a person say, “OK, I’ve done what I need to do.” However, this is unlikely to make for a satisfying religious life unless some part of the attitude or doing changes.

To the second point, I’ve occasionally caught myself (not recently but it still kinda happens) using my apparent failure at devotional regularity as a club to hit myself with, emotionally speaking. “Oh, I’m so bad; I can’t even remember to say my prayers every day/week/whatever. I let a day/week/whatever go by without lighting the incense. Oh I’ve failed to speak with the Powers, I really suck, why do They spend any time with me?” Although I have made much progress, I still frequently feel like I’m kind of a devotional failure, like my Beloveds would be better served by someone else, that what I’m giving isn’t as good as They deserve, that I should be all around a better, brighter, smarter, sexier person before I even bother with Them.

tree

Nyx Ning [CC BY -SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

These thoughts are entirely natural BUT they are not a very healthy or helpful way to think about my role in the sacred relationships I’m part of. Do I imagine that the Gods haven’t ever been forgotten for a day? Do I imagine that They have never lived with someone busy from morning to night with the cussed DOING of life? Do I think that They expected me to be some kind of super practitioner when They shacked up with someone surrounded by unfinished art projects, unfinished book projects, and a sink full of unwashed dishes? Did they simply not notice my pervasive human flaws?

They know us. They know us as humans and as individuals, although Their knowledge regarding both continues to grow in ways we don’t understand.

I can’t use devotional practice as a source of evidence proving that I’m a shitty person. If you look up at that list of three reasons for doing devotional practice, proving that I’m a shitty person is not included.

(Of course, I say all these things and I recall the words of saints declaring themselves low and worthless and I’ve knelt at the temple altar and known – KNOWN – that nothing I do will ever be an adequate expression of all the love I feel and I was stunned to realize that these thoughts could have a holy manifestation rather than a pathological one. They saints aren’t lying when they call themselves worthless and nor are they sick or deranged; they are overcome by the realization that sacred love and related sentiments are bigger, stronger, more enduring, and more complicated than anything in this world and that therefore nothing in this world – including themselves, their words, and their works – could demonstrate a faction of a fraction of a fraction of this enormity.)

In some traditions, a maturing devotional practice needs to include the gradual shift of priorities from “doing devotion because it makes me happy” to “doing devotion because it makes Them happy”. I think this is a fantastic benchmark of progress but I know in my life I’m not nearly there yet. I’m working towards the benchmark of “doing devotion because I am secure in being situated in sacred relationship”, perhaps finally passing the milemarker named “NOT doing devotion because I’m sure I suck and I don’t want to think too hard about my suckitude”.

We need to examine the whys of our devotional doings. We need to seek to clarify what our motivations are and then to see if those devotional doings are an appropriate avenue for these motivations. We also need to think about how we use these experiences. Do we think back and disbelieve past experiences of sacred sentiment by imaging that we are worthless and unqualified for sacred love? Do we experience these sentiments and then think ourselves much greater than we have actual evidence for? Can our doing of our chosen devotional practices become evidence of success, of relationship, of emotional vibrancy, and of the gradual improvement required to participate ever more fully in the sacred relationships we are part of?

Be gentle. Be kind. Be gentle and kind to yourself, to others, and to the Powers.

 

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