Seeking Together (Pagan Experience Project March wk3)

Though this week’s original prompt, “What do you seek from the divine?” has been switched to a prompt about the types of relationships shared with the divine, I’m actually choosing to write about the first one. I’m doing this because I think being honest about our motivations within relationship, whatever configuration that relationship might be, is part of what helps that relationship develop in a healthy and productive manner.

While I don’t necessarily subscribe to the magico-religious theory that holds a specific action or petition is going to have an automatic result simply for having asked (aka, the cosmic vending machine theory), I am a fairly ends-oriented practitioner in many regards. That is, various religious and magical practices are engaged in with a particular desire in mind. These practices are chosen, in part, because they seem to offer what I hope to achieve and because the process seems compatible with my magical skill, my style of practice, the web of commitments I’m part of, and so forth. It’s the second part that sometimes gets left out in ends-oriented planning.

There’s the cliché story about the teen girl who wants to do a love spell and so heads off to the local witch shop with a shopping list culled from a love spell printed in a book. The proprietor suggests simply making an apple pie instead since all the same ingredients are used (and when I tell the story, I like to add that even if the protagonist is rejected, she still has consolation pie). The girl throws up her hands – that’s too much work! Baking is hard! Can’t I just do a spell for love instead? Yes, this story is a cliché and yes this actually does happen from time to time (witch shop proprietors can certainly tell you a few stories), but there’s more than one lesson to take away from this. First, of course, is the lesson that magick is work and takes effort and skill, just like baking a pie.

The second lesson in this story is about choosing between two paths that lead (ostensibly) to the same outcome. The teenager in the story might be quite terrible at baking and so knows that her efforts are likely to fail and alienate the object of her affection. The teen might also have also engaged in some personal magickal practice and already has a little skill built up. The point is that you have to choose the processes that are most compatible with your skills, aptitudes, experiences, and so forth.

Of course, if I were in this situation, I’d do both. I’d make a love pie and do a love spell. There’s nothing wrong with addressing a problem with multiple strategies to best leverage their respective advantages. This is why I meditate *and* cultivate a consciously more compassionate mindset. This is why I live quietly *and* petition Santa Muerte for a peaceful life. And you know what? The Powers are much more willing to lend a hand if you’re actually making an effort on your own. You will find that their blessings flow more freely and obviously when you make an accounting of what you’re going to do with those blessings.

Like some other magicians, I was never very good at money magick. I could magick up an extra $20 now and then but my success was sporadic and not really dependable. Then a while back I hit on the idea of actually saying what I wanted the money for. What exactly am I doing with the prosperity I’m asking to receive? What are my precise monetary goals? Once I started included this information in my petitions, the magick started working better. I still struggle financially and I’m frequently on a real knife edge of need but when the money flows, it flows – and it flows from me to many other ends that help further the Powers’ presence in this world.

Ultimately I guess I seek a partnership with the Divine that helps me become a better person. I seek to be more capable of helping others and serving the world because thereby do I serve Them. If they are present, here, now, in this world (and they are!), then expanding my efforts towards improving and serving this world is going to help Them. And it does.

But past that ultimate desire is something else, an arching vault of emotional resonance that keeps pulling me up and up. Relationship is not outcome. Relationship is not ends-oriented. Relationship is process, experience, the present moment. Losing sight of that is losing sight of the real power of sacred relationship. Relationship should not be forced into a value-oriented paradigm; we should not have to prove our emotional priorities by holding up the outcomes of our divine relationships. Once again: we should not have to prove our emotional priorities by holding up the outcomes of our divine relationships.

Sometimes – not frequently, but occasionally – there’s an effort in greater pagan and polytheist dialogue to make devotional relationship mean something. And this is fine because devotional relationships can and do have very positive outcomes – but that’s not really the point. It is, however, a place to start. Srila Prapupada replied to a question about the appropriateness of praying to Krishna for money by replying that any prayer was good prayer (I summarize; I can’t recall the precise quote. I believe it’s from a little book called Perfect Answers to Perfect Questions).

Faith is not necessarily automatic. We don’t generally offer our whole hearts to the divine without some indication that they’re there and that they are responsive to us. (There are of, course, major exceptions to this but we’ll set those aside for a moment.) This happens through an exchange of attention, gifts, and so forth. We seek their attention and blessing, which is recognized as evidence of their love and affection. We celebrate their power and presence, which in turn helps endear us to them. Eventually this exchange of energy (rather nicely typified by the rune Gebo) is less about any possible future outcome and more about a present saturated by sharing.

A relationship with the Gods generally begins with desire. We seek something – proximity, affection, refined awareness, knowledge, aid in magick, or the satisfaction of curiosity. Being honest about the fact of desire and trying to identify precisely what is desired is a good thing, a very good thing. Many of Them desire something of us – proximity, affection, refined awareness, knowledge, aid in magick, or the satisfaction of curiosity. Relationship helps achieve these and many, many other desired outcomes. But sooner or later, at some point, all parties of the relationship are participating in something much, much more.


Coming to Compassion (Pagan Experience Project Feb. week 4; C is for…)

If you had told me many years ago that compassion would become a central part of my religious life, I might not have believed you. This was not a concept strongly present in any of the traditions that provided a foundation for my spiritual life; nor was it really central to any of the traditions I found myself exploring as my spiritual life unfolded.

I came to compassion like many other people do – as a direct result of profound personal suffering. This is perhaps the first thing to understand about compassion; it’s not a concept that others can tell you is valuable. You have to come to this realization on your own, through direct experience of the constellate emotions that reveal its boundary.

My spiritual life has been endlessly rich and possessed of intense, profound value. It has also been the source of a degree of suffering I didn’t imagine myself capable of enduring. Experiencing those heartbreaking depths was arguably necessary for growth but the months and years of saturated distress broke me. I very gradually came to understand – really understand – that I wasn’t alone in this suffering. What I was feeling wasn’t actually unique. It was personal, but it wasn’t unique to me. Everyone on earth, all sensate beings incarnate or not, also suffered with a pain and distress as deep and immediate as my own. The causes of their suffering might be known or unknown to me, might appear to me to be greater or lesser in effect than the causes of my own experience, but these things weren’t actually that important. What was important in that moment was the realization that I was not alone. Neither, for that matter, was anyone else.

This realization has unfolded to include many nuances and further realizations. For instance, my empathy and compassion are not dependent on my intellectual understanding of another’s distress; nor should they be. Knowing that my own distress and any resultant traumas are real is enough; after all, I am not alone in these experiences. Valuating the relative impact of another person’s experience of distress and suffering is also unimportant. These subjective experiences are difficult (or impossible) to objectively measure. No tick on a number line should determine how much I care. Though I am limited in material resources and in terms of personal resilience, and though I’m also limited by whether or not another person needs, desires, or even wants action motivated by compassion, none of these things diminish the reality we all experience.

I am not very literate in the subject of compassion and nor have I studied its philosophies very deeply. I’ve relied on my personal experiences and my observations to teach me what I need to know though eventually I need to delve a little deeper into the subject because I can’t always come up with answers on my own. There are questions I have that I might someday be able to figure out but masters and teachers and guides exist for a reason.

Though I strongly believe in the value of compassion and have found it to be of great practical use, I do still struggle with it. There are many circumstances when it seems like it simply doesn’t make any difference or that my mental and emotional energy would be better spent by getting angry or going on the offensive. Sometimes I feel like “having compassion” is used as a mask for bland platitudes and meaningless sentiment. Sometimes being told that someone has compassion for me is cruel. “Do you?” I feel like asking, “Do you really suffer with me in this matter? Or are you simply trying to tell me that you pity me, that you feel sorry for me, that you believe I deserve to feel anguish because of the choices I’ve made?” Compassion is not a simple subject and its expressions are immense and complex.

I find myself wary and weary of the rhetoric of violence. This is only one possible frame for categorical tensions, whether these tensions exist between the groups people align themselves with or between other axes of alignment. This might be strange coming from someone with a Heathen bent. I did after all spend a number of  years trying to fit into that community, I worship Gods who come from that context, and it is the tradition (rather broadly speaking) that taught me my spirit work. It’s also a tradition rather known for celebrating the trappings of violent conflict. Though I understand that these things are frequently celebrated in a historical context – modern Heathens celebrate the bravery and valor of our personal and collective ancestors – perhaps other parts of this tradition’s historic heritage are also worthy of celebration. It’s possible to be known as a tradition of explorers, artists, farmers, and yes, even householders. These are things best served by diplomacy, negotiation, and conflict resolution.

Arriving at a point where I value and celebrate compassion by no means indicates that I’m “good” at it. I’m not. I’m repeatedly forced to confront the trauma I’ve endured reflected back in the experiences of others. I respond by withdrawing and internalizing my pain. I hold this value close to my heart and will still choose actions that lack its mediating influence. I’m still mean, I still choose the lower road, I still take actions that I’d counsel others not to take. I still step into the sphere of others’ emotional lives and feel offense on their behalf; this leads me to dislike and mistrust others when I have no personal reason for doing so and the result is the loss of a compassionate stance.

I am heartened that I have endless opportunities to practice compassion in all its manifold expressions. This, like many other things in my life, is a sadhana, a spiritual practice undertaken for the refinement of the self in this and other worlds. Sadhana pares down the bullshit through discipline and reveals its strength with repeated application. Compassion is a powerful force and it drives an evolution that is reshaping me to the very core.

Powers in my life: Saint Death (Pagan Experience Project Feb week 3)

santamuertaLooking back over my blog I’m noticing a very heavy emphasis on the Hindu side of things, which might suggest that this is a dominant force in my religious life. It’s actually not, at least not on a day to day basis. There are some devotions and observances I maintain and I’ll eventually get to those but at most I regard myself as a student of this collection of traditions, not as a member or participant.

I’ll start by talking about the Power in my life with the most controversy. Interestingly enough, that Power is not Loki.

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A is for Absence (Pagan Experience Project week 4)

I haven’t given up on the Pagan Experience Project. I thought perhaps I would but I’ve been thinking about that A/B prompt for, uh, two weeks now and figured if I can’t shake the curiosity over the project then perhaps its worth continuing. It also took me two weeks to decide what to write about.

Radha Alone by Shyamarani Dasi. More information and purchase options here:

Radha Alone by Shyamarani Dasi. More information and purchase options here:

Absence is definitely one of the most challenging feature of a life lived close to the gods and a frequent companion of people seeking Their attention. Typically, absence is an experience we seek to overcome; it’s an obstacle to the state of sacred communion that the devotee seeks to return to. Often, the experience of absence is taken as an indication that there’s something wrong. The practitioner’s affection is lacking, the practitioner has failed to fulfill some task that would bring on the feeling of connection, the practitioner is unworthy to experience the presence of the Divine, or the practitioner has failed to captivate the Beloved quite as much as the Beloved has captivated them. Absence is regarded as the indication that something is wrong and that the practitioner has failed in some way.

I’ve experienced lots of absences in my spiritual life and those vacant months piled up as evidence of my failure. Nothing in life had changed but there was no illuminating quality to anything. Though I later learned the regard absence as the opportunity to learn a kind of spiritual self-reliance, even after identifying a valuable outcome from the experience it wasn’t easy or pleasant. These absences taught me to inhabit a space of radical solitude. This solitude is not loneliness or isolation, it is a deep, deep comfort with one’s own company. Absence taught me to be OK with the sound of my own thoughts and the resonances of my own spirit. Absence taught me the sound of my own ego.

(To cast self-reliance as some kind of rugged individualism that resists the throughput of material, social, emotional, and mental support from other people and the systems we have built is short-sighted and rather unnecessarily isolationist. Spiritual self-reliance, to me, is not the fulfillment of one’s spiritual needs through one’s own efforts. It is instead the reliance upon – and requisite trust in – one’s spiritual self, including intuition, magickal ability, and esoteric skill. This reliance results as knowledge of the spiritual self is gained. This includes the recognition of one’s own egoic voice and desires. Ideally, this spiritual self-reliance is weighed against the guidance of the Powers and negotiation on equal footing can begin.)

Quite recently I came across a little passage of text that suggested that absence has a different and more esoteric dimension.

In Blue Lotuses Everywhere: Divine Love in Gaudiya Vaisnava and Catholic Mysticism (in Gaudiya Vaishnavism and ISKCon: An Anthology of Scholarly Perspectives ed. S J Rosen), author June McDaniel writes:

These states of separation and union in Catholic mysticism are associated with the sates of purgation and illumination, which lead towards the ultimate union of love. In this state of purgation, the devotee is without God, and life is dry and arid. […] For St. John of the Cross, the purgative period included both the dark night of the senses, and the dark night of the spirit. In the night of the senses, there is darkness, pain, a lack of joy or enthusiasm. It is a crisis of the senses which is given by God to develop a higher kind of love. […]  Purgation leads to the development of the internal senses (especially imagination and memory) and encourages the transformation of sensual love into spiritual love, and natural into supernatural.

Emphasis mine. Emphasis possibly yours, too.

This assertion is accompanied by relevant selections from the Catholic context and then paralleled, contrasted, and augmented with information about the development of the spiritual body within a Gaudiya Vaishnava context. Though interesting, the topic wanders a bit from A is for Absence and more into B is for Body, Spiritual; a worthy topic but one for another day.

Basically, what we can take from this perspective is that absence can play a very important role in spiritual development, specifically in the transformation of our emotional nature into an aspect of self potently accessible to the divine. This spiritual emotional nature thereby becomes the interface that allows for more nuanced expressions of relationship and all the manifestations that emanate from those feelings.

Radha-Rani sanjayThis transformation can be characterized with the help of the solve et coagula formula if you’re so inclined; something emerges once something is pulled apart. It can be framed in the formula or rot and resurrection. It can be framed as refinement and the shedding of dross. It can be framed as the dedication of aspects of the self to a higher service. It can be framed as an alignment with the spirit world and the creation of the self as a conduit for Their manifestation. There are lots of ways to think about it. But perhaps these things aren’t super important to you right now.

Perhaps right now it’s more important to sit with the idea that the absence you’re experiencing isn’t indicative of your failure or or shortcomings or flawed character. Maybe the idea that this experience is a positive one will transform these days into something more refined, as well.

Deity and the Divine (Pagan Experience Project week 3)

I’ve tried to start this post four different times. I’ve read the responses to this topic by friends and strangers hoping for some clue that would get me started in a fruitful direction. After several hundred aborted words mostly about my pissy attitude, I gave up. Maybe this stupid project was a dumb idea. Maybe I should just quit. But no. My practice and a significant share of my spiritual experience relates quite specifically to the divine. Leaving them out of a blog specifically intended as an platform for writing and thinking about my spiritual life leaves me without a whole lot to say. Ultimately I decided to go with a Q and A format. We’ll see how this goes.

So: God, huh?

Gods plural. The Gods. Those Gods, them Gods, my Gods, your Gods. Plural. Distinct and recognizable, but not necessarily known in their entirety by the human race. Possessed of their own priorities, motivations, ambitions, and desires. Vulnerable to their own mistakes and failings. Frequently interested in the advancement of human concerns, but not necessarily so. Occasionally injurious but again, not necessarily so. They have an elaborate system of interactivity set up that allows people (and non-people, why not?) to connect in reasonably safe and meaningful ways. Getting the Gods to actually show up and party is best left to experienced and/or ambitious weirdoes with an irrational taste for standing right close to spiritual radioactivity.

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Pagan Experience Project (Week 2): Personal Practice

I’ll be honest – this topic was almost why I didn’t decide to start this project. I have a hard time talking about my personal practice.

See, I can talk about *what* I do; I can talk about the obstacles I run up against, I can talk about the various ways the Gods fit into my practice, I can talk about how the things I’ve done have changed over the years. I can talk a lot about the details but I have a very hard time pinning down any unifying theme or underlying philosophy. Maybe by writing some of this down I can begin to puzzle a bit of it out.

I feel like ideally my personal practice ought to serve as a reminder of what’s important to me. It should be an emotional and spiritual touchstone that orients me and gets me pointed in the right direction. Because these private moments serve as an orientation, they ought to be done frequently. Without this reminder, I could get distracted by things that aren’t actually high on my priority list. I could lose touch with the principles that I’ve decided are important.

So is this what my personal practice does? Well, yeah, pretty much. It certainly hasn’t failed in any of these respects. However, what I’m noticing is that I might be trying to do entirely too much if my goals are this straightforward. The time that I spend doing what might be called my personal practice is actually pressed into the service of many different goals:

  1. Providing a spiritual and emotional center and mental clarity.
  2. Connecting in a meaningful way with the Powers most dear to my heart.
  3. Practicing hospitality, attention to detail, and general ritual skills.
  4. Giving time to meditation, mantra, breath work, energy work, and other important techniques.
  5. Study, study, study.

That’s a lot of juice to squeeze out of the personal practice fruit. “Is it any wonder,” I asked myself, “That I struggle with my daily practice?”

One’s personal practice can be all kinds of things. It could be a devotional practice, a magical practice, a ritual practice, a prayer practice, a scripture study practice, etc. But perhaps – just perhaps – it doesn’t need to be *everything*. Maybe I need to simplify. For a long time my trajectory has been pointed towards greater complexity, towards more time spent. And this makes me happy. It makes me feel good. I love what I do. I want to do more of it. But the fact of the matter is that I’m doing less even as I’ve approached doing more.

That said, there was a period of more than a year where I did do all these things every day. It was great, I loved it and somehow I made it happen. I don’t know how. A magician I know rightly pointed out that a schedule fully kept even with moments of struggle and indifference will have greater fruits than a schedule kept only when it seems convenient.

I firmly believe that the Work sustains you. It sustains me, that’s for certain. It draws me back to what I’ve chosen to prioritize and it gives me a center when I can’t find my own. I want to love it and I want to serve it. Part of that is feeding it through practice. In a way, I’m saving up for my own emotional future.

I’m torn between giving into my impulses to spend more time at the altar even though I’ve got loads of other things on my hands and decreasing the complexity of what I do in an effort to make it  happen more easily and more frequently. Some kind of balance has to be found. I want to just toss my obstacles into the fire of practice and let them go but that’s not exactly the way I work. I know myself well enough. It has to be a gradual grind, a very slow refining if the changes I make are going to stick.

I made up my mind this morning to think about one day at a time. I would decide “Today I am going to practice” every day. I made this choice this morning. Thus, I will find some way to follow it through today. Tomorrow I’ll get to make another decision and we’ll see where that leads.

The Pagan Experience Project (Week 1)

My friends Beth (Wytch of the North) and Jolene (Strip Me Back to the Bone) have posted a couple responses to The Pagan Experience Project, a themed blogging effort. I decided to give it a try. I have no idea how long I’ll be able to keep up my efforts on this particular front but I’ll stick it out as long as I’m having fun.

Week 1’s prompt has to do with resolutions. I don’t actually make any. I consider my generalized irresolution as a character flaw and I’ve found that when it comes to fighting the battles of self-improvement, it’s not a good idea to go up against this particular flaw in addition to whatever else I might be trying to change. That said, there are a few things in 2015 I’m looking forward to.

First, I’m looking forward to a successful trip to PantheaCon. I’m excited to reconnect with some people I met last year as well as meeting some new people this year. I’m happy to have polished my presentation and I hope that people enjoy it.

Second, I’m curious to see just where this book making project will take me. In many ways, it’s more sustainable than certain other of my artistic efforts (clothing design specifically). It might even offer greater potential for marketability. This is actually a fairly important concern given that getting rid of the things I make keeps my living space livable. Books take less room to store than fancy gothy clothes, so that’s nice.

Third, I’m tentatively optimistic about presenting at Many Gods West. I won’t hear back if I’ve made the cut for a few months. Being accepted would be an honor; being declined would be a relief. I’d love to go but not having a major financial obligation in the middle of the year would be OK, too.

And finally, I’m quite committed (but not resolved!) to working on the new book. I don’t know when it will be done. There are other writing projects I’m sorta working on but this is definitely the priority.