Friday, May 13, 2011

The Next Level (Or, No Wicca For You!)

An interesting dynamic was formed a number of years ago in the Pagan community, a dichotomy that is very nearly oxymoronic if not diametrically opposed. It is the conversation, the debate, between dogmatic pagans (for the purposes of this article, we’ll interchange ‘religious’ pagans with ‘dogmatic’) and spiritualist (or ‘seeker’) pagans. Now, I realize that many folks will immediately get hung up on my terminology, so I will attempt to clarify what I mean by each of these terms.

A religious/dogmatic pagan is one that ascribes to certain religious or spiritual doctrine or rules. Under the Pagan Umbrella, these folks are typically the ones with proper names: Wiccan, Asatru, etc. (And, yes, I realize an entire discussion could be had on whether Wiccans or Asatru and the rest are technically pagan, but we’ll leave that for another time.) So, basically a dogmatic pagan has…well…dogma. They have rules and standards and practices and such. One cannot simply claim to be Wiccan without doing the work that comes along with the rules and ideologies and tenets of Wicca.

A spiritualist/seeker pagan is the other side of that Pagan Umbrella. It’s the folks who barely label their spiritual beliefs at all, that claim Pagan usually because of its associations with either magic, earth worship, or an otherwise earthy, natural system of practices. I think I’ve made it fairly clear that I fall into this category, simply because every time I am presented with a set of rules and regulations, I begin poking at them with counter-research and further academic study until (to mix metaphors) that boat won’t sail.

Being in that second category, I admit to being quite jealous of those in the first category. There are times, and these times are typically at the big 2 sabbats of Yule and Samhain, when I long for simpler beliefs. A story. No…simpler is not the right word, because belief in any deity at all is not a simple thing, but a rather big leap of faith. A more relegated faith…perhaps that’s the right terminology. A story that is told, a wheel and a walker of the wheel, a God and Goddess of the earth and sky. All of that.

But…sadly…being in the second category (which is almost its own umbrella including academically minded pagans like myself and apathetic pagans here for the party) I constantly push the envelope. I question and compare and contrast until the rules and regulations not only don’t make sense…they seem a little silly. Now, I should stop here and say that whatever category you are in, I completely abide by the Project Pagan Enough tenets. I would never, and am not going to here, say that because you are a dogmatic or apathetic pagan that you are not a ‘real’ pagan, or that my way is superior to anybody else’s. So…yeah… With that said, I have one particular hole that I’d like to poke at a little more. Please exit here if you dislike snark and/or particularly dislike when folks discuss the pros and cons of covens.

Recently one of my favorite pagan podcasts had an interview with a guy who talked a lot about what it means to initiate into and be in a coven. It was a fantastic conversation, but (like many of you when listening to my show tell me in your feedback) as interesting of a discussion as it was I completely disagreed with the ideas. Again, I’d like to just carefully remind you all that I am simply posing a counter-argument.

The big issue I took with the conversation was the emphasis put on one person deciding when another person is ready for “the next level.” Whatever “the next level” is in your respective tradition. He actually made a big deal about patting himself on the back for disallowing someone initiation into his coven for 8 years, but still allowed the person to be a member…because they weren’t ready for the awesomeness of the change that would come over them - or should come over them - when they actually did initiate. At least, I think that’s what he meant. There was an analogy about initiation being the equivalent of shoving salt in your mouth until you’re forced to drink water…which just seemed a bit off to me. But, I make a lot of odd metaphors, too. So…there’s that.

Ya know, if someone is hanging around your group for 8 years, I think they’re dedicated to you, your group, and whatever mighty secrets you think you have to impart as a High Mugwump of your tradition. I think it’s the height of exclusion to kind of dangle the carrot of inclusion in front of someone for nearly a decade, holding the keys to the secret Wiccan kingdom of wisdom until you feel someone else is ready for them. Isn’t it?

To my understanding, a lot of initiatory paths in the Pagan kingdom of dogmatic faiths have a year and a day principle. Your waiting period to make sure you’re serious is a year and a day, your degrees each take a year and a day to obtain, and so on. Shouldn’t the opposite of those time periods be true? If after a year and a day of knowing someone that is interested in joining your coven you feel they simply are not in the right mindset, shouldn’t you tell them to go away or recommend another coven or possibly recommend the proper tools that will help them get ready in whatever way they’re derelict - according to you?

For example, if you’re making someone wait 8 years to enter your coven because they just can’t seem to get the basics down, couldn’t you have them reread, I dunno, Wicca: A Guide… by Scott Cunningham, or further have them read something a bit more academic about what it means to be Wiccan/Pagan in America in the past half century like Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler? If it’s because they don’t have the history right, recommend the textbooks you believe. If they are just mentally or physically unfit to accept the awesome magicality, the spiritual significance of initiation…couldn’t you recommend a good therapist or a gym membership?

I think the biggest problem I have is when someone else tells a person that they cannot do something for no other reason than you think they’re unfit to do it. They’re not ready. I’m not talking about if someone were to tell me that I can’t walk into the White House and just become the President or I can’t walk up to the bench press and knock back three sets of 12 reps at 400 pounds. There are real reasons why I can’t do those things. Now, maybe one day I could if I tried very hard, but at this point in time the possibility of that happening is non-existent.

No, I am talking about the times when someone says you cannot do something because of their individual, subjective opinion that you’re just not fit for that kind of thing. I’m going to get a little cliché and talk about Beethoven here. For those of you who don’t know, he is widely regarding as one of the greatest classical composers to ever live. He was also deaf and a child born into a family where nearly all the other children died from terrible complications at birth. In fact, if you have any folks in your email circle of friends that happens to be pro-life, then you probably have gotten an email to the effect of “A woman was told to abort her child after having 5 children die at birth because of physical or mental retardations and terrible complications. Instead, she chose life and that child became Beethoven.” Some of those facts are true, some aren’t, but that’s not what matters.

What matters is that Beethoven was deaf and for all intents and purposes he should not have been able to compose the way he did. An anecdote is widely circulated in the musical world that when Beethoven was conducting his final symphony, he continued to conduct even after the music had been finished, because he couldn’t hear the end. And yet, he is immortalized as one of the greatest composers the world has ever seen.

Who are you to say that someone cannot try? Who are you to say that someone is not ready for your super secret club of Wiccan awesomeness? But, then, if someone is truly not ready, if they do not have the proper instruction, preparation, or mindset to seriously do the work of your coven…who are you to keep them hanging on?

This is what I do not understand, and it takes a special place of significance when it comes to your God-In-A-Box of choice. I do not understand how someone else can subjectively tell someone else who is seriously attempting to study/learn/grow with your group that they are not ready for “the next level.” I believe that the various religions, faiths, and belief systems are just multitudinous methods for putting the infinite in a box. For categorizing and compiling the divine into a box and making it pop when you want. It’s a personal hurdle of mine, and I realize it is off-putting to most, but there you have it.

None of us knows the true nature of God(dess). None. Of. Us. Not your High Mugwump in your Boogie Woogie Coven. Not your Super Sage Sassypants in your Extra Magikkal Grove. Not your Fire and Brimstone Preacher, nor your Dalai Lama, nor you, nor me. So, who do you think you are in telling someone else when they are ready to continue on their very personal, very sacred spiritual path towards that divine?

If you have knowledge, share it. I’ve always been like a kid wanting to get in the cookie jar when I know someone knows something important and is keeping it from me. I feel a need to know, to understand. I have never understood why, if the information could benefit that person, you would keep it from them.

Though, admittedly, this is exactly why I am in that second category of pagans. Secret knowledge and levels and degrees and super secret codes and sigils and all of that…it seems like bunk to me. It seems like an unnecessary dividing line. A way to have a little power or assumed authority in a path where those things typically don’t matter. Of course, not every High Mugwump is like that. Many (probably most) genuinely desire to teach and to cultivate an initiate into a fully fledged practitioner. And, I am not trying to call folks out as charlatans or false priests, but merely asking…what’s with the holding back? If someone isn’t ready or worthy enough for you, do you help them get that way or do you just make them wait, promising them initiation at an ever-increasing timeline? 8 years…seems like an unbelievably cruel amount of time.

Really…I’d like to know.

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte

9 comments:

  1. I agree. I am most decidedly in the second grouping as well. I feel a little bit like being "accepted" (or not) in the manner described is too close to begging the popular girls to sit at their lunch table. The whole discussion/process brings up complicated feelings and memories for me that then completely turn me off to the prospect of being in the first category. I fully admit I have ALOT of baggage in that regard but I don't think I'd hang around anywhere for eight years being told I wasn't cool enough. And yes, that leaves me very alone in alot of ways but I just can't follow many other people. I do believe there are people with knowledge that vastly outweighs mine. No question. But, at what price do I want that particular knowledge to be handed out to me? Not at the price of me feeling demoralized and that is what I fear many aspiring Pagan feels.

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  2. I did write a long post about my experiences in & out of covens, the human need to belong, groups dynamics and so on when it struck me that this all about peoples perceptions about initiation.

    There are 2 broad perceptions:-

    Initiation is a magical and spiritually transforming process that changes the initiate in many ways.

    Initiation is just a formality, a part of the process, like filling out an application form. It does nothing more than states that you are a member of the group now.

    Which one you believe in is a matter of faith and down to the applicant to decide.

    In the 8 year applicant's case, maybe he truly feels that he needs the transformational experience and is prepared to wait until he is ready. Then again maybe he just desperately wants to join to be with the 'cool pagans'. Who can say?

    As for the administrator who keeps refusing entry, it sounds like he's on a bit of a power trip as he is using the situation as a praise worthy event and trying to gain prestige. But then again maybe he has really tried to help the applicant over the 8 years but they just don't get it.

    Personally I'd say that's sounds unlikely and that they are keeping the poor guy hanging on. It should be seen as almost a failure of the coven as they have been unable to bring him up the desired standard in 8 years.

    Did they say why he keeps failing to be accepted?

    If it was down to me I would have suggested looking elsewhere a long time ago as they were not compatible with the ideals and direction of the group. Perhaps they could start their own group as after 8 years of study they should know plenty!

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  3. 1. Mugwump...tee-hee!
    2. I have been extremely hesitant about looking for a coven for the reasons you stated. I would rather follow a solitary path and meet folks at pubic rituals or festivals.

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  4. Here's the thing: some Initiations can actually turn people's lives inside out. Things fall apart as they experience the changes that come with such Initiations.

    As such, some Initiators tend to be quite cautions about doing those Initiations and when they do them. They feel it the height of negligence to unleash that kind of chaos into someone's life -- even if the other person is asking for it -- without having some sense of how prepared they are to handle it.

    Then there's the fact that there is some actual learning to do. Sometimes, that learning takes some time and even requires some initial unlearning. To be frank, you don't come to a coven to learn a way to do things. You come to a coven to learn their way of doing them. And a lot of people prolong their own learning time by failing to accept this. You don't go to a karate school and insist that you don't have to learn the fundamentals of their school because you already know jujitsu. Don't expect a coven to operate any differently.

    And yes, even with a student willing to learn/unlearn, the process can take time. Even years. Again, you wouldn't expect karate teacher to let you determine when you're ready to advance to the next belt. That's why zie is the teacher.

    Of course, part of the problem I see here is the assumption that anyone has a right to someone else's knowledge, particularly without the willingness to work for it. But I think there's a more troubling assumption underlying that: That being in a coven or following a particular path is solely or even primarily about what the individual gets out of it rather than, say, serving the gods of the coven.

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  5. 'If you have knowledge let others light their candles in it' - Margaret Fuller

    This is mainly irrelevant to what you're saying here, but you made me think of it. It's a principle that's very important to me. I'm not a Pagan (I'm a long-time lurker of your blog and podcast - a very open-minded Christian with an interest in all religions and spiritualities), so I can't comment on your points specificially, but thank you for reminding me of that principle. And thank you for letting me light my candle in your knowledge, Rioters!

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  6. I would like to know how, exactly, you can discuss something that you have never done before. You dismiss the importance of initiation out of hand without ever having experienced. It's like reviewing a restaurant that you'd never been to before. You have no credibility to do so. Get initiated into a group, and THEN talk about why initiation is not important. Otherwise, you don't have an argument worth reading.

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  7. Hedgerider,

    The article isn't saying initiation is not important. It can be quite important for a number of psycho-social reasons, as well as spiritual ones. I am saying that it, and mystical knowledge by extension, should not be used as a carrot to dangle in front of people for inordinate amounts of time so some High Mugwump can go on a power trip.

    I am also questioning the need for secret knowledge by extension, and want makes the knowledge so special that it cannot simply be shared after some nice, intelligent exchanges between individuals.

    Also, how can someone discuss something they have not experienced? Well, I'm sorry, but your example has absolutely no application this instance. I'm not examining food, I am examining a practice, which I need not undergo in order to objectively evaluate. It's like when an attorney is discussing the reason for presenting his recent case to a colleague. The second attorney is not privy to all the details of the case (like a client's name), but is let in on most of the pertinent details. The second attorney can agree, criticize, or comment on the reasons for arguing a case in a particular way, question motives, etc. because they also are an experienced attorney.

    I'm a pagan. I'm a practicing pagan, as well as a magical practitioner. I have over a decade of experience practicing, and I have spent the better part of the past 5 years dedicating myself to academically researching all aspects of pagan and magical practice. So...how can I comment on initiation? Well, I've studied initiations both in history and in modern day. I've spoken to dozens of people that have been initiated into various groups. And, from my research and my gaining of other's first-hand knowledge, I have formulated an opinion and a set of questions about certain kinds of initiations and secret knowledge. Thus, I expressed them.

    But to write someone's view completely off simply because they've not jumped through your required hoop is kind of the height of elitism and an attempt at false exclusivity. I hope you don't mean it that way, and if you do, please take another look at Project Pagan Enough.

    Love and Lyte,

    Fire Lyte

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  8. How well do you think a lawyer who has spent his entire career handling criminal cases would be able to critique and review a constitutional case? How well do you think a career divorce lawyer would be able to critique and review a case about a motor vehicle accident?

    Yes, I know you've been a Pagan and magical practitioner for fifteen years. Same here. (You realize how little time that is in the grand scheme of things and compared to the decades of experience the elders of the initiatory traditions you're criticizing hold, right?) But neither of us has experienced every flavor of Paganism and magical practice out there. So I will maintain that this means that stuff outside either of our experience exists and that means our opinions on those things are tentative at best.

    You keep bringing up the issue of secrecy, but what do you know of it? Do you know what kinds of things are kept secret? Do you know why? Have you actually talked to any of the elders of the various Oathbound traditions? Are you aware of how little is actually required to be kept secret? Have you considered that Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente, Patricia Crowther, Vivianne Crowley, Ed Fitch, Ray Buckland, and Scott Cunningham all managed to write and publish multiple books sharing all kinds of things while maintaining their Oaths of secrecy? (As I understand it, some might be inclined add "more or less" in one or two of those cases.) Do you know that there's an entire Yahoo group -- which has been running for well over a decade -- where Traditionalist Initiates (including the oldest living Initiate of one of the lesser known traditions) speak with Seekers? That group has been running for almost as long as you and I have been practicing Pagans/witches, and the Initiates still find plenty of things to discuss and share
    about their respective traditions and Traditional Wicca in general while maintaining their Oaths. They've even discussed the very topic of secrecy.

    And what do you know of those traditions? Do you know that while a handy frame of reference, they generally don't consider the elements as central to Wicca as they understand it as the average eclectic usually does? Do you know how their understanding of reincarnation differs from the better known Buddhist or Hindu understanding of the same? Do you know that their understanding of the gods they serve actually resembles the Santerian understanding of the Orishas or the voodoo understanding of the Loa? All of that is publicly available knowledge (much of it is explicitly stated or can otherwise be gleaned from published books, even).

    Before you start criticizing secrecy, I'd challenge you to ask yourself to consider how much (or little) you may actually know about those who practice secrecy, stuff they will gladly tell you about themselves.

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  9. This is a common predicament in the Reiki community, too - there're the traditionalists who insist on lineage, physical hands-on instruction, and who disown any other Reiki practitioner if their education isn't "up to par" with whatever standards the hold. Of course most of these people don't practice Reiki in the form set down by Dr. Usui (and still practiced at his school in Japan), but that's not important to them. They seem to take pleasure in turning Reiki into a very elite club and doing a pick-and-choose from among the ones whom *they* believe are spiritually qualified. If one follows the five principals set out by Dr. Usui (don't worry, don't get angry, be kind, be thankful, work hard), then Reiki should be a spiritual practice which develops peace, kindness, and acceptance, but I've encountered more disapproving, closed-minded, argumentative, and dismissive teachers in the Reiki community than I have anywhere else. My suspicion is that - like with the coven situation you described here - leaders fall into the trap of savoring their authority and the ability to wield power over others. Here's hoping for a change?

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