Putting the “P” Back In UPG

druidcraft_minor_swords_10Amongst some circles of polytheists, the term UPG (Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis, for those just joining the party) has long been a dirty word, particularly for those with a more reconstructionist bent.  UPG is “fluffy bunny” or “just so Wiccan” or “unscientific”. (Yup.  That’s because we’re practicing a spirituality, not conducting an empirical experiment.)

Anyway, for much of the past 10 years or so, in an effort to legitimize UPG in the face of the lore-thumpers, there was a move towards PCPG (Peer Corroborated Personal Gnosis) or SPG (Substantiated Personal Gnosis) as a solution.  The premise is that if a bunch of people are experiencing similar things when interacting with the gods, then maybe those experiences can be used to build modern lore around these beings.

To be blunt, this led to a lot of oversharing.

Remember the old chestnut of “to know, to will, to dare, to keep silence“?  There are some very good reasons why keeping one’s own council is important, and why it is rarely, if ever, appropriate to make any sort of UPG the basis for group policy.

Spirits Lie
Unfortunately, humans aren’t the only ones with agendas. Not every spirit is going to be benevolent, nor is every spirit going to have the same goals as you.  Plus, spirit communication–true spirit communication, not just mental masturbation–is often very unclear.  Even when talking to another human we can have trouble understanding each other.  When the other person doesn’t have a body and may have a completely different ethical structure, things can get sticky.  What we would call a lie, a fae may simply see as stretching the truth. This isn’t the spirit’s fault, it’s ours for not understanding what we’ve gotten ourselves into.

When dealing with spirits, it takes patience to sort out what they’re trying to tell us.  They often have a very different time-scale from humans, and what we perceive as something that has to be acted upon RIGHT NOW may in fact benefit from taking a step back and sitting with the information for weeks, or even months.  Getting independent confirmation from a diviner outside your group or a priest in the service of that entity can help, but ultimately, you have to use your own discernment as to the veracity of what the spirit or god is telling you.

And until you’ve figured that out, keep it to yourself.

People Lie
The next layer of complication occurs when the person sharing the UPG lies, whether knowingly or not.  Let’s start off with the old glass/light analogy for communicating with the gods and spirits. Ideally, when we listen to the gods, we are as if a clear, flat piece of glass which flawlessly (ha!) lets the light of the spirits pass through us.

In reality, however, we are imperfect. We all have things we carry with us that change the color and shape of that glass. As those imperfections or lies-to-self creep in, instead of us being that piece of clear glass through which the light of the gods and spirits can pass, those fibs and half-truths warp and silver the glass. We end up experiencing a reflection of our own psyches rather than the messages of the spirits–or worse, some mix of the two.

I experienced this first hand when I was part of an online pagan echo-chamber (I refuse to give it the dignity of calling it a “community”) in the late 2000s. It screwed up my spirituality big time because I listened to what my peers were saying instead of heeding my own heart; the influence was insidious.  What started out as a genuine desire to share information and experience of the gods slowly became a fap-circle of delusion and fantasy.  People would subconsciously begin ever so slightly changing their stories so that they lined up with the larger narrative of the group-think–it wasn’t so much outright lying as it was fibbing to ourselves about our experiences in order to fit in.  Before we knew it, there was one “gatekeeper” of the official narrative and anyone who stepped out of line with the PCPG was slandered and shunned.

Now, that is an extreme example.  The kicker is, most people really don’t mean to lie to themselves,  but even these small untruths can have a huge impact on others when they are shared in the context of being divine messages. What we expect to happen in our journeys and meditations warps to fit the expectations of the established gnosis. If the line between personal visions and public revelation becomes blurred, it is shockingly easy for good folks to get sucked into a maelstrom of drama.  Which brings us to…

Power Over
Someone may start out thinking they’re doing the right thing by passing along messages that they believe have been given to them by their gods or landwights or whatever. However, our experience of any spirit will always be tinted by the state of our own minds and hearts. The temptation to manipulate social situations to our advantage is strong and often driven by a subconscious fear for survival. Four times out of five when someone has shared UPG with me about our past lives together it’s been an attempt to place themselves into a position of power on the basis of the past–it’s not done maliciously, but out of insecurity and a desire to define the current relationship.

This is the crux of the problem with PCPG. You take that same insecurity about one’s place in the group and then multiply it by the number of people involved in the shared gnosis.  Inevitably, one or two people will share their UPG to make themselves look more important or to gain status in their community.  If they are the ones with the only true connection to the land or the gods, you’re swiftly moving into cult territory (ask me how I know).

It comes down to this: PCPG can feel wonderful, and even bolster a group’s cohesion for a time.  Nevertheless, “spirit” drama is intoxicating in its excitement.  Increasingly, people feel a false sense of importance, aka ego inflation, rather than focusing on their own growth and healing. Anyone who won’t tow the party line, well, they usually either try to slip quietly away or are actively cast out of the ever-dwindling inner circle.  It’s heartbreaking and it’s entirely avoidable if it’s caught early enough.

If there’s one thing you take away from this article, it’s this: don’t cede your power to someone who claims to speak for the gods, the land, or the spirits. Forge your own connections. Listen. Breathe. Trust the land itself, trust your ancestors, trust your gods. And question every. single. thing. they tell you.

 

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MAGUS: Mid-Atlantic OBOD Gathering

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I’ve been attending the OBOD East Coast Gathering since its inception 7 years ago and now there’s going to be yet another OBOD camp gracing the eastern seaboard: the Mid-Atlantic Gathering of the United States, or MAGUS for short.

Please note, this has to be one of the best names EVER for a Druid event.

More information can be found on the event’s website and FaceBook group.  According to the organizers, spaces are about 1/3 filled in the first couple of weeks–astounding for a brand new event!  And did I mention stone circles?

Yeah. Druids. In stone circles.

‘Nuff said.

East Coast Gather 2015

Whew, it’s been a couple of weeks of crazy prepping for and going to the annual OBOD East Coast Gather. There was more than a little bit of crafting overdrive between finishing an item for the silent auction, random ritual paraphernalia (painted stones, hag tapers), and making sure all the labyrinth supplies were packed.

Bear journal for the silent auction.

Hag taper, lighting the way from Bard to Ovate.

Sacred stone WIP (not posting the final, well, because, reasons).

Better bloggers than I (John Beckett, A Druid Way) have done excellent rundowns of the individual events of ECG, so I’ll not tread that ground again here. My experience of this year’s gathering can be summed up in the words “kindness” and “community”.  There was an overwhelming amount of kindness: from Damh the Bard, who took time out of his busy schedule to play music with the kids, to John Beckett, who was willing to let me chew his ear off about polytheism and my Lady of Birds and Horses, to the young woman who kept an eye on my son so I could help with the Ovate initiations.  A harvest of kindness is something to be proud of, indeed.

Very blurry Damh the Bard.

On the community end of things, earlier this year I came up with a slightly nutty idea of creating a labyrinth for folks to walk (more of this story may show up in the Order’s magazine, Touchstone).  I probably could have done the whole thing myself; the beautiful thing was, I didn’t have to. The labyrinth was formed by over 330 LED color-changing tea lights, which had the (hopefully!) fae and fanciful effect of shift color and pattern as a person walked the path. Once the seed pattern was set, a small group of folks gathered to stuff candles into paper bags while the kids gathered up pebbles to keep them weighted down. Then, every night, a flock of volunteers descended to turn on the lights, and in the wee small hours of the morning, another crew gathered to turn them off.  None of this was officially organized. It was an outpouring of spontaneous community spirit which was humbling to behold.

Labyrinth by day…

…labyrinth by night.

Every year it’s hard to leave Druid Camp, as my kid calls it. But far better to be sad at the parting than to be excited to leave! Next year, we won’t be having any guest speakers. We’ll be able to dig deep and focus on each other’s wisdom, and twine our roots more deeply across this land. I can hardly wait!

Dangerous Diaries

Druids training within OBOD are encouraged to document their experiences by creating some sort of physical journal. In fact many mystery schools coming out of either the Golden Dawn or grimoire traditions encourage the keeping of written notes about one’s spiritual and magical practice. (And actually, if one wants to note small irony, the inquisitors and witchhunters also were encouraged to keep diaries of their observations.) Even as far back as the PGM we find spell formulae being written down to preserve them and pass them along to other seekers.  In the West, at least, the written word is a cornerstone of preserving our esoteric and occult heritage.

However, on more than one occasion it has occurred to me that keeping a dairy can be a dangerous thing.  What were once meant to be private experiences, or only meant for the eyes of other like-minded people, can fall into the wrong hands.  Or, if not the wrong hands, hands that don’t know what to do with them.  Paper trails and documentation form the basis for our society, from legislative to judicial activities.  If it was written down or otherwise recorded, it can potentially be used against you.

Now in the age of the Internet, the diary has taken on a new, more public form: the blog.  This brings with it a whole new set of hazards. Not only are one’s thoughts potentially out in the open for everyone to see, but there is an undeniable risk of ego inflation and celebrity-seeking that one to simply not have to worry about with a private, physical journal.

In addition, there is the phenomenon of various subcultural blogospheres: the pagan blogosphere, the polytheistic blogosphere, the peak oil blogosphere, etc. Probably one of the most critical threats blogging poses to original thinking is constantly exposing the writer to confirmation bias. People tend to seek out like-minded folks – in and of itself not necessarily a bad thing – but time and again small, cliquish echo chambers are created around two or three forceful personalities who inadvertently begin to dictate the tenor and subject matter of what is or is not spiritually and socially significant.  I begin to think that I should be writing about whatever XYZ Topic the big-name-pagan-of-the-week is ranting about, when really, most of the time, I couldn’t give two figs about the latest online pagan community kerfuffle.

Media fasting is a concept I was first exposed to when I did an Ayeurvedic cleanse back in 2007. While I’m not sure I want to experience the “nothing but juiced greens for 21 days” again, the notion of separating myself from the constant drone of popular and news media has proved quite a useful tool.  I don’t read blogs except for Friday nights when I’m at the pub, and whatever I’m able to read in that time I get to, and anything else I pass to the trash bin.

Three iterations of field notes.

Three iterations of field notes.

There’s also something to be said for eschewing the entirety of the blogosphere and plumbing one’s own depths for inspiration. Over the past several months, instead of trawling the Internet for ideas I return to my little book of Ovate field notes. Once a week or so I go through and highlight potential blogging topics in yellow, spiritual observations in pink, and observations about the natural world in green. Then I make a series of seed drafts within WordPress that I can come back to and play with at a later time. I love how this has helped keep my writing on track and true to me. (I also love how it lets me indulge in the luxury of my own handmade journals and a fountain pen.)

Only being able to speak for myself, as a blogger I do find myself craving “likes.” This ain’t healthy, folks.  It becomes an obsession rather than a metric. With that in mind I’m actually going to remove the “like” button from my blog posts.* I find myself increasingly irritated that a post which took hours of research or creative struggle gets only a little notice, while a flippant statement with the intellectual and emotional rigor of “I like cheese!” garners an avalanche of little WP stars. It’s very easy for me to fall into the trap of people pleasing, and an abundance of likes definitely feeds into that character trait – whether or not what I’m writing is what I want to be writing or should be writing for my own path and truth.

You don’t need to depend upon Internet echo chambers for inspiration. Just go out and sit in the sun, listen to the gulls, and taste the salt of the sea. Awen flows in the quiet spaces between, if we let it – not in the incessant static buzz of the blogosphere.

*Comments are always welcome, and I love engaging people in discussions, so please do continue to drop notes about posts that move you for whatever reason. 

Tool Time

7527856418_97cb6526bd_zI’m definitely one of those Druids who believes that tools gather power from being used on a regular basis. One of the big things I try to cultivate in my spiritual practice is eliminating the separation between sacred and mundane. This goes hand in hand with my very firm belief that humans are a part of, not separate from, Nature. Inevitably, I find myself questioning the necessity of spiritual purification. Many Polytheists and Reconstructionists become superstitiously fixated upon the dangers of miasma.  It’s too easy to become caught up in the Purity Olympics, and to blame any sort of misfortune upon inappropriate cleansing of self and home.

The same thing happens with some folks in regard to their tools. In the most extreme cases, a practitioner will have a complete meltdown if a person touches something on the altar. Now, of course it’s good etiquette to ask before handling someone else’s tools, weapons, kitchen implements, what have you. But sometimes, shit happens, and when it does, you need to be able to take care of your own psychic hygiene with a minimal degree of fuss.

I tend to view spiritual/psychic hygiene in the same light on view physical hygiene: wash your hands with regular soap and warm water for 30 seconds, and nine times out of ten you will have taken care of any gunk or nasties that you’ve accumulated since you last perform this little ritual. You don’t need the nuclear option of antibacterial soap, wipes, disinfectant sprays, or the magical equivalent thereof for your day-to-day needs. Soap and water works just fine.

In fact, I’d like to carry the hygiene analogy a bit further. The immune system, psychic or otherwise, needs a degree of exercise. Several studies have now been published about children who grow up in more sterile environment having many more allergies and an inability to deal with illness. The theory goes that without some agitation, our body’s defenses turn on themselves because there’s no enemy to attack, leading to increased allergies and immune disorders.  To extend this into the use and sharing of ritual tools, I view other people respectfully handling my sacred implements as strengthening my defensive capabilities. I don’t consider myself worth my own magical salt if I can’t do an instantaneous cleansing on a tool I just lent to a friend or neighbor.

To be clear, I don’t go loaning out my ritual sword to the average Joe (pointy objects are pointy, after all). However, the two tools that I use most often for both mundane and sacred work are a utility knife/multi tool and a pair of pruning shears. If I’m out in the garden and somebody needs to cut a piece of twine to stake their tomatoes I have no issue handing them my working knife to do the job. A couple of quick gestures, a breath, and a prayer, and it’s all set to cast circle in the woods if need be.

Now, I don’t recommend this approach if you get twitchy about other people handling your magical equipment. Some folks are just that way, and that’s ok. There’s something to be said for keeping a piece secreted away, but it really depends on the type of work you’re doing. If I were in the cursing and hexing business, I probably wouldn’t be so cavalier about letting folks use my stuff! It is true that the tools I keep for spirit work or other occult (in the sense of hidden) practices I don’t leave lying about for anyone to put their paws on. However, the tools that I use in tending the land, or for casting a circle for group ritual, tools which serve to build and strengthen my community, only increase in power from being used by others.

Sawyer Hill Sauté

  
Happy Memorial Day! As usual, our cohousing community had a great big potluck in honor of the holiday. I took the opportunity to do some weeding in the community garden and found a whole lot of Lambsquarters, sometimes called goosefoot, which I thought would make a great addition to the potluck. I cooked them in olive oil with some walking onions and lemon verbena, which we grew in the herb garden. In all, it turned out to be quite a tasty dish!

I love being able to introduce my neighbors to the forageables that grow wild on our land. There’s something fitting about the community eating food that comes from where we all live, plants that most people discard, not even knowing that the land supports us in so many different ways. It’s a way for me to share my Druidry beyond a very specific spiritual circle, into my broader community.  

 

Death and the Lady

14243610469_c27d51f9c3_zAs some of you may know, one of my day jobs is helping older folks manage their bills and balance their checkbooks. It’s extremely satisfying work, one of those rare instances where you can actually see your actions affecting someone’s life for the better.

But my clients are elderly. They’re entering the twilight of life. It means sometimes I lose them.

My favorite client, Mrs. Z., is currently in hospice care. She’s an opinionated, 97-year-old spitfire from West Virginia with a pretty rich fantasy life.  She’s at home, which is good, and her bed is now in the living room which is bright and lets her have visitors. If you can catch her eye, she gets an impish look and begins telling you about how she’s going to be going to Leningrad next week.  She still likes her brownies and her Vermont Country Store catalogs, though the New Yorker is a bit beyond her now.  The point is, she’s alive.

I once heard a hospice nurse say that people are never really “dying,” they’re either alive or they’re dead.  Don’t treat a live person as deceased until it actually happens. And yet the palliative care Mrs. Z is receiving falls so far short of that. Yes, she’s bed-ridden. Yes, she has a catheter. That doesn’t make her less of a person, less alive. She’s having pretty bad dizziness or vertigo, and claws at the air looking for something to steady her. All it takes is someone to hold her hands and she calms down. That’s it. Simple, human touch.  One of her aides was dismissive of Mrs. Z’s agitation, saying, “Oh, she’s just confused.”  While that may be true, it doesn’t make it any less terrifying for her. To her, it is real.  She’s dying, she’s scared, and if someone just sits and holds her hand, it’s all ok.

Mrs. Z isn’t my first dying client.  That would be K., whom I watched fade for over four months after she had fallen out of her bed in the nursing home and broke several bones.  She had memory problems, but always smiled when she had visitors.  Pretty new to the job, I didn’t really know how to interact with her, what to do. I’d run in, take care of her bills and filing, and run out again, counting myself lucky if she weren’t in her room. I found myself avoiding her, ashamed at my cowardice, but not certain how to push through it. I’d say, “Next week. Next week I’ll have some time. Next week I can be braver.”

And then she died.

I regret that I ran. I regret that I couldn’t have made that extra effort just to sit with her for a little bit as she watched the resident cockatiels from her wheelchair. And that’s the thing. It takes so little to do right by someone when they’re dying, so precious little. I didn’t need to wait for a divine thunderbolt or new research study to tell me what to do–I just needed to hold her hand.

I don’t know if I’ll get it right with Mrs. Z this time. But I do know that this time I’m not running, and I’ll be there when she needs me. I think that will be enough.