On the forums I spend time on, one of the most common kinds of early questions is someone coming in and saying “Here’s what I believe, what path am I?”
It’s a totally understandable question, especially for people coming from Christianity (where nuances of belief are often a big dividing line between denominations). But it’s not actually very useful within Paganism. This article explains why, and what you can look at that’s probably more helpful.
- It’s about choice
- What’s in your past?
- What’s the focus?
- Personal practice versus a larger path
- Family background
- The good news
- Questions to ask yourself
It’s about choice
The first thing that’s hard about “What path am I” is that no one else can tell you that. It’s about what you choose to do, and how you choose to identify. (Within reason: you can’t just declare yourself part of a path that has a defined method of membership or initiation without going through their process.)
So, at best, other people can say “Hey, this path does some of what you want.” But you’re going to have to sort out what practices and other things matter most to you. And you’re the one who’s going to have to sort out whether you want to maybe do things with other people (now and in the future) and if so, what the options near you are might be.
Other people can help you find resources, but you’re the only person who can tell if you like the people you find or who can decide on practical things like how far away or whether their scheduling will work for you.
What’s in your past?
If you’ve been involved in other religious paths in your life, you probably already know some things you like and don’t like. You might know that you really like quiet meditation, or that music is important to you as a devotional focus.
Knowing which things worked for you in the past (and which ones turned you off) can help you sort out future practices more easily. Take a few minutes to write down a list of your most meaningful spiritual experiences (and what they included or had in common) and then ones where you bounced off an experience or felt excluded or uncomfortable. This list can help you sort through options later.
What’s the focus?
As I mentioned in my essay on terms, many Pagan religions are focused on shared practices rather than shared beliefs. That means that you can have people (even in the same small group) in the same ritual who have very different ideas about the nature of deity, what happens after you die, or pretty much any other question.
Think of it like going to a party with friends. Different people will have different ideas of what food to bring to share. They’ll have different things they find fun in the evening (some people might like floating from conversation to conversation, other people might curl up in the corner with one or two good friends and talk all evening, some people might play games.) Maybe some of them connect with an old friend they haven’t seen, some people make a new friend.
Everyone’s at the same party, but they’re bringing different things to the experience, and they care more about some bits than others. With any luck, they all have a good time – but they’re not all doing the same thing or for the same reasons.
Personal practice versus a larger path
I believe that everyone should have a personal practice alongside whatever larger-than-themselves path or group work they might also have. (Just like you should have hobbies and interests that are yours, besides the things you do for work or with friends or a spouse or romantic partner.)
When everything works right, our larger path should support our individual interests (or at least not conflict) and our individual interests should deepen our experience of the larger path. But they don’t need to be exactly the same thing, and really shouldn’t be. There will always be places where you care more about a specific thing, or like a specific practice that isn’t a part of the larger path.
The good news is that most Pagan paths are pretty okay with this. There may be some specific practices (or beliefs) that don’t fit together, and sometimes groups will have restrictions during the time you’re in formal structured training about what other things you do outside the group work. But those are generally short-term and often include a chance to negotiate specific things you’ve committed to doing for some reason.
(These kinds of restrictions are meant to make sure you can learn the path’s specifics without confusion and so that if something goes weird, the teachers can sort out what happened more easily.)
Short version: look for what matters to you in terms of a larger path, and then see if and where you want to fill in with personal practices for any gaps. It may take some time to sort this out, and that’s okay too.
Sometimes people wonder if they need to follow the Pagan background of their ancestry. The short version is “Nope.”
The longer version is that you might be interested in exploring that. (And if you have no idea where else you want to start, it’s as good a way as any other to pick something out of a hat). But you may be Irish and drawn to Kemetic reconstruction. You may be American with ancestors from a dozen different countries and interested in a path that isn’t linked to a particular location or heritage. You could be adopted, and drawn to the culture of your adoptive parents.
Most reconstructionist groups don’t care about your personal genetic and cultural background – they care a lot more about whether you care about the relevant culture and will follow their practices when you’re working with them. There are a few who do: they generally make this clear in their membership information and actions so people who think that’s biased or unhelpful can avoid them.
The good news
You can focus on sorting out what practices matter to you.
If you’re working on your own, you have tons of leeway. A specific entire path may or may not suit you (or you may need to study to learn it – not everything’s learnable from books!) But you can piece together practices that do work for you from various sources, and apply your own beliefs.
If you want to work with a group, it’s a little trickier, but you can still focus on a group or path whose practices mostly work for you, and then do things in your personal practice that fill in any gaps you care about. (Of course, be aware of any actual conflicts, but there are a lot fewer of these than people actually assume at the beginning.)
Many people find that as they learn more, some of their beliefs are things they think, but they don’t actually care about doing much about (for example, someone might believe that fairies or angels exist, but they don’t actually leave offerings for the Good Folk or try to contact angels so it’s not a part of their practice.)
Constructing a cohesive path from various pieces can be a bit tricky to do well (for reasons outlined over in my essay about constructing a path) but it’s possible.
Questions to ask yourself
A path shared with other people can have a lot of benefits – there may be some structured ways to learn, other people will have collected resources and can help with questions. But paths with other people mean getting to know other people, and may involve negotiation differences between what you’d prefer and how the path does things.
2) What practices matter the most to you?
If you feel strongly about celebrating seasonal holy days, a path that doesn’t have them may not be satisfying to you. If you believe strongly in deities, a path focused on magic or seasons may not be satisfying. If you are not a believer in deities, a path that focuses on building relationships with them probably won’t work for you.
If you want some ideas about practices, you can take a look at the essays on ways we learn and the sample year and a day essay to get you started brainstorming. (Or hang out and read posts on a Pagan forum for a couple of weeks and make note of practices as people mention them.)
3) Are there practices or beliefs you cannot have as part of your path?
Some people have things they just absolutely can’t deal with – sometimes because of health reasons, sometimes because of past trauma. You know yourself best, but it’s probably good to make a list of what those things might be for you.
4) What things matter most to you?
For some people, this might be having rituals to anchor their life or specific goals. For some people, it might be having other people to talk to and share their religious life with. For some people it might be the changing cycles of nature or social justice issues, or a path that recognises a wide range of identities and orientations.
There’s all sorts of options. It’s also okay to try some things out and decide it’s not the right fit for you.
[last edited December 23, 2016]