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!).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Loki’s Virtual Temple – February 2017

I didn’t forget! Well – I didn’t forget to make the video but I *did* forget to release it to the public. I was in such a rush to make sure the video was produced and released to Patreon supporters before going to PCon that I completely forgot to adjust the settings a couple days later so it could be viewed by everyone. I’m sorry if I kept you waiting. It’s a lovely video and I hope you like it.

I have *lots* of work to do to catch up on Loki’s virtual temple stuff, including several accountability posts regarding budget. I have received a few donations and sponsorships so far this year and I need to make sure that those are reflected in my records accurately. While I remain entirely committed to continuing these monthly video releases for as long as I feel She is on board with them, I think you can tell from the videos when someone has stepped up with a small financial contribution. 🙂 Being able to buy more, nicer flowers is perhaps the most visible aspect of this support but there is also candy, fruit, beverages, essential oil for the candles, and special incense used in these videos. After all, the intention is to reflect as accurately as possible the full experience of a worship ritual; to my mind, that includes what offerings I am able to provide (even if they are not visible on the videos themselves).

So! Here is February’s video. March’s video is rendering even as I type this and will be released first to my Patreon supporters at the $10+ level(s). Later this week it will be live for everyone to view and access. Now I’ll add the subtitles to the video and it will be completely done!

Advancing Practice, Seeking Contentment

 

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Maimane – Nikolai Astrup (Wikimedia Commons)

In my recent Pantheacon sessions I brought up a couple closely related points. First, that there is no other vehicle or container for sacred sentiment than the self; we are our only site of practice and the human element is ever-present in one’s movement through the experiences, thoughts, sensations, and realizations that distinguish this path. The second is that there is no such thing as “advanced” devotional practice. If sacred sentiment is the core ingredient of devotion, then there is no meaningful way in which one dimension of sentiment can be measured as more advanced than another. It is, however, possible to refine our capacity for sentiment, to expand our spectrum of emotional experience, to increase our vocabulary with which we talk about sacred emotions, and to improve ourselves as a site in which and through which devotion occurs. Even so, we will constantly find ourselves at the beginning of a new aspect of our devotional life; as we advance our skills in one respect we discover before long what needs addressed next. If I might be so bold, perhaps this ever-present newness and the on-going need to return to the mind and stance of a beginner is something characteristic of emerging polytheist devotional traditions.

I picked up a book recently called The Three Principle Aspects of the Path, a book containing the oral teaching of Geshe Sonam Rinchen (tran. Ruth Sonam). Though based in a Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the book struck me as enormously helpful so I bought it. (While Buddhism’s many threads aren’t really my jam, I have found many of its teachings to be enormously beneficial so I tend to pick at philosophy and thought from the Tibetan sects from time to time to give me a refreshed perspective.) The book so far has some very good points in it, its main one being that if one doesn’t attend to the necessary mental and emotional refinements then any amount of formal or organized practice is going to be more or less useless.

As far as devotional practice is concerned, I don’t think that one’s formal practice – being in front of the altar, praying, studying, etc. – is useless in the same absolute sense that the text describes regarding its own body of practices, I do think that the fullness of these basic devotional practices will be lost unless effort is made to improve the self, and especially the pieces of the self that come into most obvious contact with our expression and experience of sacred relationship(s). For instance, if I have difficulty trusting in general, I will have difficulty trusting the Holy Powers I’ve chosen to share my life with. This lack of trust or difficult achieving a solid basis of trust will prevent me from experiencing the full unfolding of the relationship(s) I find myself in. I will also have trouble experiencing any more nuanced forms of interaction, new experiences, and other riches that might be available.

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Foss og bre – Nikoli Astrup (Wikimedia Commons)

To clarify – if I (in this hypothetical) struggled with extending trust to the Powers with whom I shared relationships I have absolutely not failed at devotion. My practice isn’t broken and I am not broken. I simply have a problem with trust. Effort is required to see how that problem manifests in my practice and in my interaction with the Powers. I must also strive to see how the problem prevents me from approaching Them with honesty, clarity, and openness. Taking steps to resolve this trust problem will help me better understand my emotional nature and see how distrust interferes with having the kind of life experiences and spiritual experiences I want to have. Improving myself is therefore not separate from improving my practice.

This little book has had many valuable passages and phrases that have struck me deeply. Perhaps most significantly I have so far taken away the message to develop contentment. This is something that I’ve struggled with for a long time and only fairly recently have I been able to put a name to it. Gradually I discovered that despite having achieved most of the Big Picture goals I have in life, I am not actually very happy. I experience constant worry and anxiety even though there seems to be nothing particular causing it. I must conclude that either I actually want very different things than what I have achieved so far OR that my happiness is not caused directly by having these things. In my case, I believe the second interpretation is the most correct. I will not find contentment, happiness, peace, or satisfaction from sources that ultimately can never provide these things. For instance, the apartment I have always dreamed of having is more or less exactly the one I have now – but there is nothing intrinsic to this apartment that causes contentment. Where would this substance of contentment be? Is it in the floorboards, the glass windows, the tall ceilings, the stairs leading up to my door? Is it in the kitchen or the bedroom or the bathroom or the tiny hall? I must bring my own contentment to this space in order to experience it at all.

I have chosen to seek a leave of absence from one of my jobs in order to give myself some essential time for healing. I’ve made myself physically and mentally ill by working as hard as I have. I’ve told myself it’s necessary, that every dollar is required to attend to my needs, responsibilities, and obligations, that every dollar left over is helpful for my dreams and desires. And this is true as far as it goes. It is also true that I’m now seriously sick. I can pare down enough to live very simply for a few weeks and do some tough thinking about myself and where I’m at. Time seeking a little inner contentment will not be wasted. I know I won’t achieve much of it but experiencing even a little bit will be good. It’s necessary.

Once again, begin at the beginning; return to the student’s stance and let the unknowing state wash over me. This is my constant truth and it will always be fresh and unfamiliar.

Prepping for Pantheacon

Pantheacon 2017 is rapidly approaching and I’m busy getting my sessions ready for sharing. This year I have the pleasure of presenting two sessions – Advancing Devotional Practice on Saturday morning and Beginning Devotional Practice on Sunday morning. (They aren’t related to one another; I just happened to give them very similar names without thinking it through.) Beginning Devotional Practice is a brand new session and I’m excited to take it for a walk. In the past I’ve managed to present my PCon sessions locally to work out the bugs and to give my regional community a taste of what they can expect at Pantheacon but I wasn’t able to secure classroom space this year. Next year!!

It takes me several months to get ready for an event; that’s one of the reasons that I don’t travel to present very frequently. Calls for programming submissions began about nine months ago; once I chose my submissions and sent them off, I began revising any existing material and writing new work. I aim to have an outline of new material finished by fall so I can begin polishing it – if I have been accepted as a presenter. Although I’ve been granted the opportunity to present at PCon for the past few years not every session I’ve proposed has been accepted (it’s been about 50/50 for me). Notes for rejected proposals are set aside for use at a later date and notes for accepted proposals are given priority. I spend the winter organizing what I want to say and making a Powerpoint slide show with visuals if the session needs one. In January I like to do a local presentation to see how everything fits together. I’ll use that experience to make changes to the session so that it’s as good as I can make it by the time I’m ready to leave for PCon. Before I leave I’ll print my notes and spend plenty of time reviewing them and making last minute adjustments before my session. Before the convention even ends I’m thinking about next year’s proposals. As you can see, it really does take me a whole year to get ready for just one 90 minute presentation.

I’m fortunate to be one of those people who really likes speaking in front of crowds. I did a lot of school and community theater as a teenager/young adult and I got over stage fright pretty quickly. I also really love teaching and sharing information with people – perhaps because I also love learning.

Of course, preparing my session(s) is only one part of getting ready for Pantheacon or another event. I also have to arrange for time away from my jobs, buy a plane ticket, make hotel reservations, and save up lots of money for food and other travel expenses. Sometimes I think about taking a year or two off from presenting and just focusing on writing or on saving money for something major (like moving to a state with Medicaid expansion) but it’s just been a pipe dream so far. I love presenting; I love teaching. I’ve gotten to know some amazing people by going to events like PCon. Although I’m happy speaking in front of people, I have some social anxiety – and so do many other people at these events. I certainly can’t say whether attending Pantheacon or Paganicon or Many Gods West or the Esoteric Book Conference or other similarly flavored events would be worth it for you, but if you’ve ever considered it I’d definitely suggest giving it a shot. Only by trying it will you actually know whether the outcomes will be worth it. Taking that risk has been more than worth it for me.

Curious about what other excellent things are happening at Pantheacon 2017? Check out their programming schedule. I’ll be selling copies of Walking the Heartroad and Worshiping Loki (full and half price editions). I’ll also have some time blocked out just to do readings, so I’ll keep everyone updated about it. Please come and say hi; if it helps, you can be pretty sure that I, too, am a little panicky inside.

 

 

Divination available!

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I’ve worked through my current client list and now have slots available for more readings this month. It’s been great to read for regulars again as well as a few new clients. Email readings include a report and photos of the spread.

Head over to the form on the Divination Services page, review the terms, and send a request my way.

If you’ll be at PantheaCon and are interested in a reading, I’ll be doing readings one day (possibly two, depends on what blocks of time are available); my special convention rate is $20 for 20 minutes but if you would like a more intensive reading I can certainly schedule you specially. I’ll also be setting up new Etsy listings for tarot readings again very soon if you prefer to do things that way.

Thanks for welcoming me back to the world of professional reading! It’s great to be back.

 

Elevating Beauty

For more than a year I’ve been spending time with people who believe, really believe, that beauty is greater than force. “Beauty over power,” the saying goes. This is a complex message related strongly to their fundamental philosophies but it’s nonetheless a lesson I’ve reflected on countless times in my own life. This simple statement challenges assumptions of the road to success – how do I expect to succeed? how do I expect to achieve my goal? – and calls essential attention to the way that one’s emotional priorities affect reactions to force. More importantly for me, it challenges me with the question, “When did I start believing that force was strongest?”

Like you, I’ve been sitting in a morass of my own powerlessness for several months now. I saw directly and clearly that my magic – the power that was supposed to be able to solve all my problems – failed to have any apparent affect at all. Although several people have chosen to take this outcome as an indication that new tactics must be developed, I’m still weighed down with some pretty heavy depression and haven’t been able to really think through my next step.

Force didn’t work. Coordinated, organized force didn’t work. Independent, improvised force didn’t work. Direct and focused force didn’t work; neither did more subtle and indirect mayhem. Force from familiar allies didn’t work, force from distant climbs didn’t work – the option to plow through the problem didn’t get the hoped-for result.

For all we’re taught about crafting successful spells, I’m not sure if we’re taught very much about coping with defeat.

My tactic was wrong. Sure, I’m witch enough to power through the small obstacles in my small life, but force has never been my strong suit. I’m neither a war witch nor healer, which are what my friends tend to be. I’m something else and that’s sometimes hard to remember. Not hard in the sense that I forget, but hard in the sense that maybe I want to think of myself as something else. And sure, I can take many roles (and have) and be successful enough that I’m still standing but by choice, nature, or circumstance I’m part of a different division. There are many essential players in a battle – soldiers and medics are only two.

I’m also an artist – specifically, I’m an author. I’m also a clothing designer, book maker, and unapologetic dabbler in any medium I can get my hands on. Many artists are stepping up in a way that says, “I know that art is powerful, and I will make more art than ever before and I will make better art than ever before.” I heard them and believed them and ignored them. I believe in the power of art – of beauty broadly – and still chose to use a power that was more obvious, more direct, more apropos *even though I knew I wasn’t good at it*. Somewhere not too deep down I was saying, “Yeah yeah, art is powerful, sure OK. This is the time for something different, though.” That’s the belief I chose for the basis of my actions and I failed. That failure has led to a deep and complex depression and it’s shaken my confidence in myself as a magical being. (And yes, I keep thinking how nice it would be to jettison all the fairy stories and just go back to a nice rationalist view of reality and use tactics only informed by a realistic view of reality – but I can’t.)

Failure is inevitable and essential in both battle and art. For all the times that you succeed and achieve the end you desired there were uncountable opportunities for things to turn out differently. Knowing that failure could sit on the other end of any unfolding chain of possibilities can’t prevent the attempt; otherwise nothing gets done and there are lessons to be learned even in failure. All of the “good” things I’ve made have sat on top of mountains of “bad” things. I’m rarely convinced that my “good” things are “good”, merely broadly adequate. In this case, however, I refused to even consider failure because I knew that doing so would prevent me from taking action at all. I’ve had much to learn in the past four months, not the least of which is fear management.

But now that saying, “beauty over power”. Beauty – desire, appeal, aesthetics, relationship – all these things have the ability to reorient our emotional selves so fundamentally that power – force, coercion, pinch, and press – simply don’t have the same effects. A goddess I knew as the every embodiment of dynamic, powerful force transformed into a being of radiant, pristine loveliness, a poised and perfect goddess shining out a transcendent sweetness and purity that still brings me to my knees. From the no-nonsense sword to the delicate and miniscule noose and goad. Then from these tiny implements – sharp and arresting in their own right – a flute emerged and trembling I knew that beauty is stronger than force. Underneath the trappings of power is the profound gravity of desire – and desire is something I understand.

I can’t commit myself to beauty – I’m not good at commitment – but reflecting on these things has given me a spark of internal heat I haven’t had for quite a while. I can believe in the potency of beauty and all it embodies and chose to use what tools I’m best at or I can continue to ignore this knowledge in favor of actions that might be satisfyingly familiar to my crude understanding of success. In other words – am I willing to change my mind about what success looks like in order to effectively use the tools I’m already good at, or do I stick with the overculture paradigm that tells me stories about force that have turned out not to be true?

 

 

Loki’s Virtual Temple – January 2017

Please enjoy the January installment of Loki’s virtual temple (my personal contribution to the Virtual Temple Project). Feel free to share it with anyone you think would enjoy this contemplative online polytheist space.


Accounting for January
Incense – $0 (used existing supplies)
Tea – $0 (used my own)
Candles and dressing – $0 (used existing supplies)

A $20 sponsorship was received for the purchase of flowers. Sponsor(s) may choose to be thanked in the video and will receive a portion of the item(s) they supported and other ritual supplies that can be used for personal devotional work. I am very grateful to have received support that helped make this video possible.


Community support helps sustain Loki’s virtual temple and make possible further developments. More information about donation and sponsorship can be found here.