One spirit in the dark

There’s a chant out there from the Spiral Rhythm CD I Am – that goes

One spirit in the dark, like a candle wavers.
Many spirits joined as one, burn with the power of the blazing sun.
There is strength in community, the circle empowers you and me.
The circle binds yet sets us free, as we will, so mote it be.

I listened tonight, as I walked home from my evening reference shift at work (random music shuffle is a form of divination and sometimes consolation) while I was thinking about a recent post on the blog Making Light which essentially asks “What happens when new spiritual experience opens up under our feet, and we’re not sure what to do with it?”

My answer is far too long for a comment there – and I knew this before I even started typing – so I figured it would be a fine post here instead. (Look! This blog still exists! Really!)

My background:

For people who aren’t familiar, or who are going “Remind me?”, I am a priestess, initiate, and witch in a small religious witchcraft tradition founded in Minnesota about 15 years ago. (Wicca is a good first approximation, but there are differences.) This post gives some ideas of my practice and outlook, though some details have shifted in the 15 months since I wrote that, and my Seeking site (designed for people curious about modern Paganism, and religious witchcraft in specific) has a lot more of my take on things.

Now, my religious path is very deliberately neither safe nor comfortable. There are ways it can break people, break relationships, break functional understanding of the world. And in my 11 years of practice n the tradition, and all my training, and all my work with students (I’ve worked with perhaps 10-15 people closely over those years for some part of their training in the tradition, and more generally with a few dozen others. Not bad for small group work) I’ve seen my share of people going “Yikes! What just happened there?”

My favourite description of what I do – as given by a friend – is that I am a professionally trained stunt priestess: I am a generalist in most ways, with a few depths. I’m the kind of person whose week usually includes at least 1 and sometimes 5 or more emails from people I know going “Hey, Jenett, this thing here, help?” Sometimes it’s a shoulder, sometimes it’s a “Religious thing, help me make sense of it?” Sometimes it’s “Magical thingy, help?” And I hang out on a forum or two where this kind of thing comes up.

Which means I get asked this particular question a fair bit.

I have been through my share of crises and massive changes in my life – starting with the death of my father when I was 15, four religious initiatory experiences, a major health crisis, and two moves across country where I knew almost no one on the other end. The stuff I say below has helped me, and I hope some piece helps you or someone you know who needs a little help.

(I moved from Minnesota to Maine just over a year ago, and I’m still working on putting down religious roots here. If you’re in Maine, and reading this, and interested in coffee, please let me know.)

So, the earth has opened beneath my feet, what do I do now?

Take care of yourself. 

Stress does weird things to our bodies, and even the best changes in the world bring some degree of stress. (The uncertain earth-shifting ones bring more stress.) Buffer that by treating your body as well as you can. This seems like awfully prosaic advice in the midst of spiritual emergence or spiritual emergency, but our bodies are complicated things, our brains even more so, and all this stuff doesn’t hurt and might help.

Breathe. Do it again. I’m not talking about formal meditation or yogic breathing here, though if you already do that, doing some more is good. But just breathe. Put on some music that relaxes you and breathe with the music. Use your whole body to breathe.

Eat in ways that make your body work better. Yeah, it’s hard when your world is crashing down. I keep stuff that tastes good to me and feels good to my body in the fridge for the days when I really need it. (This means that I always have chocolate in the house. Your mileage may vary.)

But have stuff that you can eat that’s a real meal for you, that doesn’t take a lot of time or attention – what a dear friend and I call Opportunity Food. (Mine includes canned soup, frozen stuff that heats in the oven, hummus and pita bread. Stuff I do not need to think about prepping. If it requires more than “open, maybe heat, and eat”, it is too complicated for Opportunity Food.)

Sleep as sensibly as you can: Stress tempts us to stay up late watching stuff. Or mindlessly clicking link to link on the web. Or playing games on our electronic device of choice. And sometimes that’s the right thing. But if all else is changing on you, sleeping – or at least relaxing – will help your subconscious sort through things a bit more quickly and reliably.  (And if you are on the computer, may I recommend f.lux to change the light tone of your computer so that when you do go to bed, it’ll be easier to fall asleep?)

Do something – however briefly – that you enjoy each day. Read. Pet your cat, dog, hamster, rabbit, ferrett, whatever.  Hug a tree or your romantic partner or your kid. Smell a flower. Lounge in flannel sheets naked. Whatever.

Consider your environment: when I start getting stressed, I spend longer in the bathtub (with a good book, and interesting bath additives that make me happy.) I also have a playlist on my computer that helps put me in a better mood. Even a couple of tracks from that can often get me from cranky and misanthropic at the world to much more able to cope. Now that I live in a rural area, going out and standing under the stars on a clear night also often does wonders.

Think carefully about your media consumption: Even if you’re normally okay with them, this may not be the week/month/year/decade when watching endless newsreels of misery in the world or reading magazines all about how you could Improve Your Body In Ten Minutes A Day. Make time instead for stuff that makes you feel better about the world, yourself, and your place in the world.

Don’t panic

Just because you have had Major New Maybe Spiritual Experience doesn’t mean you have to do anything about it Right This Moment. Obviously, if you are having problems with the basics of daily life (coping with work, basic personal needs, major obligations like taking care of your kids or other dependents) then yes, you need to get to that point as fast as you can, or find a solution to the necessary bits that other people can help with.

But panic doesn’t help anything. And it sometimes makes things worse. So when you can avoid it, it’s pretty sensible.

Recognise that you are probably not unique in the world

This stuff? It happens to people. It has happened to people before you. It’ll happen to people after you, very likely. This is useful to know for two reasons.

1) Other people survive it – and come out on the other side and thrive. Chances are good that sometime in the process you will find this reassuring. Chances are also good that sometime in the process you will find it utterly infuriating. Either way, it’s still true.

2) You do not need to reinvent the wheel. This can also be both reassuring and infuriating, but at least it’s somewhat more helpful. Chances are that if you think you have a deity trying to get  your attention? There’s someone else out there who’s had that. (With that deity, or something close enough that comparing notes is actually useful.)

If your “abyss below my feet” is at all Pagan related, and you are reading this, I am glad to see if I can be of help. I can at least point you at some useful resources and other people to talk to. (My general first suggeston on the Pagan-friendly side of this is The Cauldron, a Pagan-and-others forum I’ve been active on  in some incarnation of its existence back to 2000 or so. Like all spaces, it’s not for everyone, but there’s good people there, and good info.

Right. What do I actually do with this thing?

Recognise that you are going to be mostly responsible for deciding what to do with this experience. 

This is really hard. And really annoying. (And for people whose religious life is fully in community-centered religious paths with reliably available clergy, it is often a very foreign experience. It comes a lot in the Pagan communities I hang out in because most priests, priestesses, and various other names for clergy work other jobs, have other obligations, and so on.) And there are many many people who follow their faith on their own, or with a couple of close friends or family, or only interact with other Pagans through the occasional online forum.

But it’s your life. You’re the one who gets to make the decisions.

In a moment of synchronicity, my mother sent me a book that arrived today, from someone who’s a Sister in the order where my mother is a lay sister. The book is Secrets of Prayer: A Multifaith Guide to Creating Personal Prayer in Your Life by Nancy Corcoran (C.S.J.) I only just snagged it from the mail at 9pm tonight, and I haven’t had a chance to do more than thumb through it, but I love this from the blurb,

“Here is the real secret of prayer: the Holy is much greater than any one teaching can ever tell us; it is up to each of us to find the spiritual practices that feed our spirit and connect us with the sacred.”

She goes on in the introduction to point out that she’s been a nun for 35 years, and she doesn’t know any nun – you know, people who are supposed to know about this stuff if anyone does – who really thinks they pray well.

The more I do this priestess thing, the more I come to the same conclusion. There’s some stuff I’ve got a handle on, sometimes. But there’s always vast areas where I know how little I know, and how little I do, and – you know, that’s okay. It’s good to have goals. But it’s also good to know that I’m not alone.

What I can do, and what I can control, is what I do about the experiences I care about.

It’s okay to say “No”. Or “Not right now.” 

Other points that sometimes startle new Pagans: a deity comes knocking. Aren’t you supposed to say yes?

Nope. You can say no, just like you’d say no to someone who wanted to date you who you weren’t interested in. Or someone who was a perfectly nice person, but not a friend you wanted to spend time with all the time. Or any number of other options. It’s not that these things aren’t also complicated (a little reading of Captain Awkward indicates we are not alone there either…)

Anyway. Just because an entity comes knocking doesn’t mean you have to let them in. Just because you have an experience doesn’t mean you have to uproot your life. You might choose to. But make it a choice, not a reaction. It’s definitely okay to do your research and ask around first.

One time limited opportunity options should be looked upon the same way you’d look on that kind of offer to sell you something: a potential scam, manipulation, abuse, or whatever other name you’d like to give it. Just because something doesn’t have a convenient body while they’re telling you doesn’t change that.

This is not the only awesome. 

You go to an awesome concert. Do you come home saying “Wow, to do that every night…?” Maybe. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to run off and join the circus or the performance or whatever. Something can be compelling and awesome and entrancing – and still not be the right thing for you.

Enjoy the awesome. But don’t forget there’s a lot of awesome in the world. This will not be your only chance for the awesome.

Think about what you do want to do:

Take some time. Do the stuff that helps you sort your brain out.

For some people that’s journalling or talking to a friend or meditating. For some it’s music or art or watching really great movies, or making something (knitting, wood, whatever.) For some people it’s a long walk, or exercise, or dancing until they’re dripping with sweat. For some people it’s a specific place – a grand forest, the edge of the ocean. For some people, it’s reading and letting their brain process while they read something totally different. (If you’re not sure which it is for you, try some of these.)

A big part of my witchcraft training was fundamentally about knowing myself, in the sense of the paragraph above (and far beyond that, later). However, this is something a lot of spiritual traditions don’t really talk about overtly (and that’s as true of various Pagan groups as anyone else).

Recognise your own context:

If your only spiritual experience has been in a particular line of practice or belief, then .. well, it’s easy to think that’s the thing out there. But it isn’t. It’s a big wonderful complicated world. Ask friends you trust, if what you’re going through sounds like anything they know about (even if it’s not what *they* do, they may know people who might have great ideas.)

And that’s where I started, back at the top of this – well, it’s an essay now, isn’t it? (2400 words and counting…) We exist as part of a larger cosmos. What we do that relates with others, that recognises that they experience the world as we do – tends to build stronger shapes over time. More resilient shapes.

There are weeks, months, years, decades, when we need all the resilence we can get. Where you find that community doesn’t have to be physical – I have some *amazing* online interactions that saved my soul during the worst of the medical stuff. It doesn’t have to be local.

It doesn’t have to be overtly religious or spiritual or whatever. And it doesn’t need to be “all the people in the world”  (Many of my closest friends are self-admitted misanthropes who can deal with other humans in only limited doses. And most of us, I think, are serious introverts.) But humans are .. we grew as social animals, out of sheer need, and other people mean we don’t have to invent the wheel ourselves.

At the same time, it’s up to us to choose when we step into circle, which bonds we take on, and how we act on our own inherent power and possibility. Not anyone else.

Next steps:

I can’t begin to map out the possible answers to your personal abyss. Writing in advance of data is always a bad move. But what I can tell you is that there’s more than one way out of the box. You may not like any of the ways, or you may only like one. But you have choices, you can make changes, and you don’t have to do anything about your spiritual sense of the world that you don’t choose.

And there’s other people who’ll be glad to talk about what works for them, and why. Listen to the ones who don’t try to tell you to do just what they did. Listen instead to the people who say “Hey, this thing was handy.” or who just are living the kind of life you want to be living.

And then go forth and do it with your own inimitable style. No one can do your life like you can.

A footnote: 

A final note in case I needed proof that music as divinatory tool is viable, music that’s come on while I wrote this has included Savatage’s “Chance”, which has strong ties to certain experiences for me, Seanan McGuire’s “Wicked Girls”, and “Going Back to Hogwarts” from A Very Potter Musical. Along with a few other things. And yes, that’s my “songs that make me think” playlist. Just because it’s spiritual doesn’t mean it’s all serious.

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