Identity and Group Mind

Oh wow, it’s been more than a year now since my last post. And in light of that, I probably don’t need to say that the idea brewing in my head at the time didn’t exactly work out. For a while it did, about four months there things felt solid, stable again – then the cracks started to appear and the whole thing shattered. The rest of the year was spent feeling as though I were being jerked around from one thing to the next, looking for the end to this problem and finding that I’m still, always, missing the mark. I was exhausted by the end of it, despondent; wanted to put my fist through something, bang my head against something, throw everything out the window, throw myself out the window, give up and move into the cave in the woods and be done with it all.

Still here though, having caught whatever number wind I’m on now, still trying to work my way to the bottom of this. This whatever wind it is has brought with it a new angle, courtesy of some online discussions I’ve been privy to. Permit me, if you will, a rambling trip through this thought process.

For the last couple years I’ve been following John Micheal Greer’s blog (and the Dreamwidth one, too). I’m not a commenter there, five years ago I would’ve gone for it, tried for some sense of community, but I’m still too burned out, too wary, not quite willing to take that risk right now. So I just read, absorb, learn. And it has been quite the education, I’ve had my perspective challenged, changed, broadened on any number of issues. He’s a traditional occultist, something that the Pagan traditions I came from tended to treat like it was cooties (and still do, as I see). To be fair, exposure to watered down pop culture Wicca doesn’t help matters, but Western Esotericism is more than just Wicca (much less watered down pop culture Wicca). I’m finding it so far, the philosophy, the world view, to be interesting and, in a lot of ways, to make more sense than much of what I’ve come across before.

Here’s where I saw passing reference to egregores. Nothing too in depth, but enough to hook my mind, to be sitting there on the mental back burner when an unpleasant revelation hit me and sent me after a recommended book on the subject.

I’ve been able to visit my family in recent times, after having not seen anyone in person for seven years. On the one hand it has been nice seeing people again, the nephew who was a toddler when I left or the niece I never met at all, but on the other hand…it’s odd. That amount of time and things are both familiar but also kind of new to you, you’re distant enough that you experience things as an outsider might. I look around and think nothing has changed; then, my god, nothing has changed. This exact same oppressive whirlwind of negativity is what I grew up in. Fucking hell, how did I ever breathe? I don’t know, I find it kind of hard to breathe in now, if I don’t go with at least some small measure of protection I can find it hard to shake off later; it sticks to you, a miasma that blackens the mood and shortens the temper.

I think there is an egregore at work there, attached to the family. If that is the right word for it. Some powerful behavior patterns, a drama enacting itself over and over again. I had a vital role in that drama, growing up, though I didn’t see it that way at the time; I thought of it instead as just who I was, not a part I was unwittingly cast in (though having played in it for so long, it is to a degree who I am now, though not as strongly as it once was). I was the scapegoat, the antagonist, the negative comparison. And after I abruptly escaped that prison, not right away but over the course of time, it seems one of my siblings was recruited to fill the role that I left, in order for the drama to go on.

To an extent, I knew this; I still talked to people, got two sides of the same story, suspecting but never too sure where the bullshit is. Seeing it was a completely different thing, And there were always things that I wondered about, behaviors admitted to by both parties, things that mirrored my own – though my behaviors stemmed naturally from a childhood trauma, not collective family trauma something that was mine alone. It never really made sense to me for said sibling to be acting this way. But then a very casual conversation with a different family member pointed out, to my amazement, the similarities did not stop there. Even down to very fine details I missed, or didn’t want to see, it was beyond eerie. This person who at one point was on a very different path than me (had a different role in the drama) has since become, in a way, a version of who I could’ve been, had the gods not intervened.

That really threw me for a loop; still does. There was a moment of is this my fault, did I cause this somehow? But no, and I do know that; I may, possibly, with my departure created a vacuum that needed to be filled, but I am not the source of this drama and I’m not to be faulted for saving my own skin. My troubled mind lingered more on questions of why me? Why was I spared? Because I was, when Hermes showed up on my doorstep and offered me an out; I wouldn’t have gotten out of there on my own without the synchronicity string he arranged on my behalf, and I know that (as a side note, I strongly suspect now the name change I was given on my way out the door was not (only) a devotional move, but a way to further sever me from this group mind). So why me? And there is probably an answer to that question, though I may never learn it, not in this lifetime. Mostly it’s just troubling, because I see this whole situation coming to a bad end; I hope not, I hope some measure of course correction can be set in before things go speeding past the point of no return, but I don’t know. There’s not much I can do about it either way.

Not that that was my only exposure to the power of group minds, I had ringside seats to a first class spectacle with the last group (cult) I was involved in before I pulled all the way back. It’s something I try not to focus on much because I don’t want to be another of those people blaming everyone else for my problems; it’s possible though I also downplay the influence it had. I almost wish I’d had the presence of mind to take better notes when it was all happening, it could have been a fascinating thing to look back on: the gradual way one person’s delusional fantasy life came to dominate so many people (okay, it was a handful of people, but still, more than it should’ve), the way this one person lost the ability (assuming they ever had it in the first place) to tell the difference between fantasy and reality and swept others off with them. Including myself, to a degree. I never got as deep into this, shall we call it live action religious role play, as others did, I was more peripheral to it, but it did affect me. Years of inane jumbled horseshit I mistook for UPG, that’s where it had its roots; I didn’t act much on those thoughts but they were there, had to be picked off like leeches at a later date. It’s easy to see the influence now, but I didn’t get it then, it slid right under my radar.

But this is an extreme example, and it’s always easier to see the extremes. This little cult of personality though splintered off from a bigger group that itself splintered off from various parts of the broader Pagan and Reconstructionist movements, sealing itself in a little online echo chamber. Group minds form wherever there are groups, so what about this one? What was the legacy it left me? What beliefs, routines, expectations, still embedded in me, have roots there? And more importantly, how many of them are actually legitimate and how many are leeches in need of being picked off?

I’ve journaled about this a bit, trying to trace these beliefs, routines and expectations, trying to see the overall effect, then and now. The conclusion I come to, every time I think about it, whatever it may sound like, is most (not all, but many) of those people from back then didn’t know what they were talking about – they thought they did, but they didn’t. I think a lot of people were in it for reasons other than what they said, less about the gods maybe and more about their own image (I’ll throw one example out, that bullshit that circulated for a time within this group that putting serious work into spirituality, into mysticism and devotional relationships, was not necessary, that expecting work was elitism – that’s about protecting people’s fragile egos, not about the way things really work). And I think some, beyond the few I know about for certain because I witnessed it up close, lost the ability to tell the difference between wishful thinking (or delusion) and actual divine messages (and with a group mind that doesn’t encourage good discernment, apt to believe everything from the in crowd or otherwise with little to no question, expect that shit to spread – and yes, including myself here).

A lot of this is just a feeling, I admit, a guess, something I notice when I compare the source material I’m reading now, the few people I’ve observed enough that I do think they know what they’re talking about (and who have a reputation as such extending well beyond just me), with the stuff I remember from then – there’s a difference in quality I can see, even if I can’t articulate it. The quality of a group mind can be judged by the results it produces, and what do I see there? A lot of people who have crashed and burned; people who have vanished, or quite visibly moved on to other things; devotional relationships and responsibilities with fancy titles turning to smoke around them, slipping right through their fingers. The people still around, often are the ones that backed off early, or weren’t that involved. I don’t know the individual reasons behind each and every instance, I don’t pretend that I do, but it does create an overall impression, and sometimes that’s all you have to judge – this is a group mind that creates faith not strong enough to last the test of time, perhaps not even strong enough to take one of those good hard blows life is bound to throw your way. And unless I want to end up in the same position, I might want to rethink everything I learned at its feet.

And how did any of this happen? How did I get so entangled in so much bad shit? That ties into thoughts sparked from the current discussion on Ecosophia, that of identity – a term I tend to think is way overblown nowadays, but the conversation there has been interesting. What can happen when your sense of identity is weak, when you lose it altogether, what might you fall prey to in a desperate attempt to know who and what you are.

NeoPaganism was the framework I started out with, and it was never a perfect fit; there was always a lot to it that didn’t speak to me, a hell of a lot of people I felt like I had nothing in common with, but it was close enough. I can recognize a lot of that now as the pop culture aspect, the alternate lifestyle and political baggage that made it a hip and trendy place to be among certain circles (a phenomenon rapidly switching into reverse I think). I met a lot of those types when I was involved one of the larger NeoPagan organizations: I’m here because I’m kind of a hippy, I like veganism and polyamory and environmental activism, and that’s what we’re all about here, right (yes, I have heard this). Oh, and this ritual stuff is cool too, I guess. And maybe it was, maybe they were interested, but you also got the sense if the group abandoned the ritual element, became say, a vegan social club or an environmental activism movement, they’d still come because it would still be giving them what they’re after. I would not; I was only interested in polytheistic worship and mysticism. Religion in other words, and in a group that often so loudly resists being labeled as one.

Last big group public ritual I ever went to, not one where I really knew anyone, but it was local so what the hell. And I see a crowd of people just chatting, not about anything important, just mundane stuff: kids, work, laundry, home repairs. And this conversation is paused long enough to spit out a ritual (and yes, it was kind of like that, a clapping of hands and okay let’s move into the clearing and get this on with), and as soon it was over the same conversation just picked right back up again, like nothing had happened. This ritual, this sacrifice, this calling of the gods and meeting with something holy, wasn’t worth talking about, it was a blip at best. Never went back, never wanted to. The one right before that, such as it was, seemed to spend most of its time talking about some other local guy they hated, who was a mega asshole yes indeed, but still, is that all you’re bringing to the table? Are we only here because you want to show that guy up (the answer in the end was yes and it was a wasted effort)? That second was a group where, at least on paper I should’ve had more commonality, people who claimed devotional relationships and whatnot, but when it came right down to it their focus was clearly on personal drama, religion was an afterthought.

Some differences I expect, of course; not everyone is interested in mysticism, most people won’t be walking down that path, that would happen whatever tradition I was in, whatever god I was following. The gap here though, often times felt too great that it wasn’t worth putting up with the drama; as I moved away from the very beginner simple prayer and devotion lay person stage, it felt irrelevant. So I backed away from both it and Reconstructionism (where I felt some more commonality but also many of its own problems). I don’t regret that decision at all, I think I reached my natural limits with both of them, these two frameworks I built off of that were neither of them right but close enough. Only…well, now what?

Labels, never any shortage of labels around, fancy titles people could claim for themselves. And people talking themselves up like they were masters of the universe (to be fair, many I think were just happy to have somewhere to talk about this shit without people looking at them like they had three heads, and went a little overboard; this same sense of freedom at last probably also contributed to the erosion of skepticism). Beyond that it was all really nebulous.

To be fair again, I get that some things can’t be expressed in words. I also get that, past a certain point, mystical paths are very individualistic, it’s you and your gods and no one else can point the way for you. But that’s after a certain point, surely there is a whole highway of preliminary stops along the way before sailing forth into unmapped territory? Certain basic practices applicable to all, to get you to the point where you’re open enough for any sort of continuous mystical work? Preliminaries that were largely not discussed but vaguely assumed? Things I know I missed out on in my earlier Pagan career, and I suspect I was far from alone in that boat; many of the people around then likewise came from other non magical Pagan traditions because a patron relationship developed into something more – the beginning of a call, not a teleportation to its end (these may be the people who convinced themselves, over time, they didn’t need that work at all).

And that relationship, too, up and changed on me; I didn’t think it would then, but it did. And what was it now? I had a word for it, a label borrowed from community use, but what did it mean? For me? For him? What am I supposed to do with it, how am I supposed to act? I didn’t know; fuck, I still don’t know.

Is that part of what threw me so far off course? That I found myself lost in the wilderness without a compass, just the added pressure that more responsibility has been bestowed upon you and results are expected? That I didn’t know how to relate to the gods any longer? That I had no role models to follow, and the people who welcomed me into their alliance gave me nothing but bad advice, not that I had the knowledge to tell that at the time (well, some of it, others I really should’ve known better)?

To be fair for a final time, I also know these are new traditions that don’t have a long history in place. Were I a Christian mystic I’d know where to go and what do to; alas, not what happened. Here, people are still, mostly, figuring things out as they go, and they’re bound to make mistakes – sometimes awful ones. And some people are better suited for that than others. Me, I loathe rigid tradition, but at the same time still have the programming in my head that tells me I’m a screw up, and while that doesn’t have to matter a lot of the time, when it’s something important to me, when I don’t want to let someone down, that’s a different thing. Some firm guidelines to get started, a better definition of terms, clearer expectations and some amount of reasonable skepticism. And help; I don’t know if there was no help to be had, no one I could’ve turned to for this basic groundwork, or if it was just in my head, but I never felt like I could ask, could admit that I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Considering that I was not the only person burned by this group when in its largest stage before the various splintering occurred, I’d have to say it probably was not just in my head.

I’ve never thought about it like this before, but it does make a kind of sense. And stripping away all the bad group mind influences (even the really sneaky ones), while necessary, would do nothing to address the central problem that allowed them to grow in the first place, that I don’t really know what I am anymore. Fuck, maybe that’s the reason I keep looking for some bigger change, trying out radically new ideas before discarding them, unable to focus on anything – if I had to start all over again, maybe things would start to make sense again, like they did before.

Well, if that is it (or part of it), I do think the occult literature I’ve been reading, the blog I’ve been shadowing and the odd traditions it’s had me seeking out, put me in a better place to manage it. I have some of those basic preliminaries in simple to follow steps and I’ve been working on it (sporadically, what with all the jerking back and forth last year – long enough to see some results, to have perhaps cracked a door open that may not be closed again, but not much more than that). The shedding old egregores, the resetting my expectations into something approaching realistic, continues on (hampered now only with bouts of frustration). This new angle, I’ll have to see what I can do with it.

And I do hope it comes to something. Because I’m tired. Just, really tired.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s