On the Threshold, Looking Forward

So I’ve been thinking about initiation, and how I may have been getting it wrong.

The way I remember people talking about initiation in circles I once ran in, it’s always a singular moment, a traumatic event – one dramatic ritual where you are rattled, overwhelmed, the top of your head is torn off and divine wisdom poured directly onto your brain, and from that moment forth nothing is the same again. Even leaving aside people’s tendencies toward wild exaggeration, it was still always a one time thing that changed you forever somehow.

That type may make for more entertaining (or more easily exaggerated) stories, but I don’t think it’s the only way, or perhaps even the most common way. Sometimes, maybe even often, it’s more gradual. It’s laying down a foundation through repetitive action, doing the same ritual with the same symbols again and again, meditating on the same concept again and again, until it’s ingrained deep within you and then it just clicks, falls into place. The change in world view and personality is taken in steps, phases that start small and build on each other, you may not even notice it happening right away – though if you do, it still won’t be as overwhelming as the tear your head off variety.

(In fact, without this more work based mode, does the first variety really count for anything in the long term? It’s intense in the moment, yes, but emotional highs fade, memories degrade; if you don’t ground the experience in some more tangible way on a regular basis, do you lose it in time?)

So some time back, I started trying to do the Sphere of Protection (one version found here) as a daily routine. John Micheal Greer has said the way the exercise is presented, the adding in each step one at a time, serves as an initiation. I don’t think I knew that at the time I first adopted it, it was in a book I bought while I was looking for advice and seemed a good enough place to start. It’s been a very touch and go process, derailed multiple times, once deliberately when the messages about something big having changed became too loud and all I could think to do was cease all activity to investigate the claim; over the last year though it’s been subject to my continual frustrations over my inability to get anywhere, to pin point that change so I could work with it, move on damn it. The cycle would be I thought I’d hit some enlightenment, it would go well for increasingly short amounts of time and then it would fall apart and my mood would plummet with it; sometimes the mood change happened without any enlightenment, I would just start to feel so hopeless, that my efforts weren’t amounting to anything so why bother?

It really came to a head two months in the fall, where I did almost nothing and came as close as ever to giving up. But for whatever reason, around October’s end a switch was flipped, and with grim determination I picked this thing back up with the intention of getting through it. I stripped it of anything unnecessary that might get in the way of accomplishing that goal – which meant no invoking gods, keeping meditation to the ritual, the elements, so on. And I got to it.

I made it this time. And in doing so, I realized I’d been wrong to stop it in the first place. Because it’s an initiation and the process needs to complete.

There was some indication of that, but I can be a bit slow on the uptake at times. The Hierophant was a frequent visitor in my daily divination, one month in particular I picked it almost every day. That had me looking through the internet for as much information, as many different takes as I could find, hoping for some special insight into this loud message. Not a good card to do that with, that’s one that brings out people’s biases in full force. Tradition is what my brain settled on, and from there unraveled it – follow the tradition, do the work, keep it up.

Those dark moods still showed up, but this time I noticed the daily tarot reading would predict their arrival. Not the same card every time, a small number of them, similar themes; before I used to think it an indication I was doing something wrong, again, so when that feeling of hopelessness came, it would get wrapped up in it and make everything worse. Now, I had six to twelve hours advanced warning, I could brace myself for it, impress upon myself that no matter what I would be there doing the ritual tomorrow. Not only did that work, the depression never hung around more than a day.

Maybe this was all part of the process? Left over negativity that needed to surface before it could be released? Or is it a matter of new ideas, the new tradition laying its foundation, the old foundation needing to be torn out first and encountering resistance? I did a lot to leave bad ideas behind, the obvious ones from the more unstable crowds, but then there’s the ones that are less obvious, the ones that have become so ingrained you think that’s just the way things are.

I think it’s high time I stepped back from NeoPaganism as a whole – not just a particular denomination or organization, but the whole damn thing. I admit, I’ve really soured on it of late, from both enlightening group conversations about its flaws and short comings seen from the outside, and behavior I’ve been seeing from within. I don’t see a healthy tradition, I see something in rapid decline, tearing itself to pieces on the way out. I know there are people who strongly disagree with that, and okay; this is just my perspective as someone that used to be involved in the community, disappeared for a number of years, tried to come back and was horrified by what I saw – I was not inside the gradual transformation to its current state, I just see the end result. Time will tell I suppose; meanwhile, I want to be clear of the splash zone, I need something more stable.

And it is always possible something of it will survive after a large number of its current adherents have purged themselves and moved on to other things, after a large number of its current organizations have flopped. In spite of my sourness, part of me hopes so. It did introduce or popularize ideas into alternative spirituality that I hope to see salvaged, spread further. Like polytheism; like the idea that spirituality doesn’t have to be an entirely celestial, eyes to the heavens escape from the earth affair.

Another cause for the sourness is looking back over the last fifteen years or so and asking myself what exactly has it brought me in terms of growth, of progress? It got me started, got me out the gate, but after that? It seems sometimes like I’ve been stuck in one place for years, looking around, asking well what next and getting jumbled crap as an answer. If all I had wanted was to worship the gods and celebrate holidays, then I would’ve been set, NeoPaganism (and especially the traditions I was involved with) are good at that. And there is nothing wrong with stopping there, but that wasn’t where I wanted to stop. And deeper paths are harder to find, and what guidance there is can make it deadly to navigate.

The deeper paths is where the total lack of definition or structure becomes a fatal weakness. At least in my opinion. Spirituality is whatever you want it to be, whatever you feel like it is, do whatever you want; can sound good in theory maybe, but in practice it can be a mess that produces knowledgeable and competent people by accident rather than by design, and not reliably at that. With no rules, no structure, few questions asked, how do you ever avoid the situation that I saw: people mistaking astral static, other people’s thoughts or their own wish fulfillment fantasies for divine revelation or commandment?

A phrasing I saw over on Ecosophia some weeks back regarding NeoPaganism, “focused more on emotional states than spiritual realities” has stuck with me. I think that explains a lot of what I saw in the places I’ve been, as well as where I personally started to go wrong. The ways in which my relationship with Hermes, or the way that I perceived it, became very unhealthy, unmoored from anything but what it symbolized to me, overloaded with emotional weight and hung like a millstone around my neck. With that all play no work attitude, what can any of it be but feelings, little stories you tell yourself, an emotional high you chase after with increasing desperation as it fades further and further from view?

The more time that goes by, the more convinced I am that relationship is over. Or at least over for now. I tell myself not to worry over it, to just let things come as they will, whatever it is I’ll just have to deal with it; the longer I can keep that mindset going the longer it is that I don’t think about it at all. Though that sense of fear, tied into the symbolism and emotional weight, still crops up, and maybe will for a while yet. I don’t know what happened, and maybe never will – is it something that was never meant to be, or a glimpse of a path I could’ve taken, was maybe being set up for before some turn in the road closed that door forever? I used to lean toward the latter, but it’s the former I now look at more and more. I wonder if I didn’t make a few assumptions early on there, when he showed up out of the blue to help me out, that I should not have made? Read things into the situation that were not there, things I never questioned and no one else did either, because of the foundational assumptions of the groups themselves about the way spiritual realities work? That image of myself on the spiritual path, bursting out the gate and then remaining stuck in one place for so damn long – maybe he was only ever meant to get me started but I was always going to end up elsewhere, only I never moved because I mistakenly thought I was home? Possible, very possible.

I’ve found myself drawn into John Micheal Greer’s works, having stumbled upon it by coincidence and then staying because it’s been helping me out, helping me make sense of things; also his online presence attracts an interesting crowd of thoughtful people with little to no drama (quite the novelty for me I’m sorry to say). Anyway, I’ve decided to embrace that. Maybe an example of when the student is ready the teacher appears, if in book and blog post form; I have some reason to think that. I ended up coughing up money for his Dolmen Arch course, after his announcement of its pending publication I got a strong push this was something I needed to do, and divination confirmed it. A very strong push, since that was more money than my poor self will usually spend on a single book, much less a blind purchase even from an author I otherwise know is solid. At least I’ll only have to pay for the first volume, I mentioned it to the family and volume two has been pledged as a birthday present, so that’s good. And there’s two to five years worth of work to get me started.

I’ve considered whether or not to join AODA, go whole hog into the Druid tradition he writes about. I remember coming across the organization many years ago when someone I then knew had a passing interest in joining (and then didn’t; AODA dodged a bullet there, let me tell you); I remember being impressed by some of their training requirements, particularly the part around environmental concerns – make three changes in your own life, no your activism does not count. Very impressed, but it didn’t amount to anything then. If he was still the archdruid I probably would, but as it is I don’t know what the organization looks like from the inside, if it still operates by the same principals that keep a lot of problems and drama at bay. The dangers of tying yourself spiritually to the wrong group is not a lesson I need learn twice, I’d investigate carefully before trying again. It’s something I may ask after in time, but it’s not a huge priority right at the moment (though hey, if by chance someone reading this is/was a member, feel free to comment and fill me in).

In addition to that, or perhaps directly tied into it, something I hesitate in mentioning but feel I probably should if only to rid myself of its weight – I may have been adopted a few Irish gods. And that is really weird.

This is not a new thought, I’ve had it before; no it’s not the wrong one from last year, it’s older than that, it dates from when I was still unhappily trapped on the other side of the country and discovering the one bright spot that was vacationing on the coast. My then dormant and defeated spiritual instincts were roused on that trip to the beach (along with many other things that in a year’s time worked to launch me to a better place), I thought I came into contact with something that felt Celtic, and my mind spat back Manannan mac Lir. It seemed so out of nowhere I thought it had to mean something, I held on to it for a while, kind of half incorporating it alongside the thing with Hermes I’d hoped to rebuild; in time though, its out of nowhere quality began casting long shadows of doubt and I discarded it in favor of something more familiar. See the thing is, I looked into Irish mythology a long time ago, when I first found NeoPaganism, because I am mostly Irish (with a big helping of Scottish thrown in there, too), so what the hell? I found Celtic mythology (in general) entirely unengaging, not only not bringing me in but actively pushing me away. Why? I don’t really know. I enjoy the history of the Celts, things about the culture, I have a bad habit of hanging around Druids and Druid organizations, I love the languages the Celtic branch is my favorite language family and the one I dive back into most often (language learning has grown into a side hobby of mine, one I haven’t discussed much here); I even like some of the themes, the world view revealed in Celtic myths when one steps back and discusses them separately, but the myths themselves? Aside from one Welsh story, yeah not really.

And yet, at the times I relax my mind and my expectations, this is what comes through. It’s not always like that, too often I find myself taking the repeating themes and patterns in my meditations and forcing it through a particular lens, something more familiar, more expected. Sometimes now I can catch myself doing it (I think I can credit the regular banishing ritual to that growing awareness), but often it’s unconscious – the remnants of an old foundation, the basic unquestioned assumptions about the way things are, trying to impose its layout on the new structure being erected on its grounds. My brain has resisted this, and its every resistance, its every attempt to force a different image has always led to the same dead end; and from out of that dead end, the same idea of something or someone Celtic awaits. Pushing through to the complete banishing ritual has only made this more intense, more difficult to ignore.

I don’t know what to make of it, but I probably ought to try getting to the bottom of it. Maybe it’s just some passing bit of weirdness, maybe it’s a temporary situation or something I need to learn, or maybe it’s the new state of affairs, for whatever reason. And maybe I’ll learn how to deal with my disinterest in Celtic mythology. Hell, maybe the disinterest will change, I’ve heard of it happening.

I did not intend for this to be a new year’s post, believe it or not this is just when things happened to wrap up. But since it is, I don’t think I’m allowed to hit publish without some commentary on the passing decade. That decade really sucked. It began with my preparing to move somewhere that I never should have moved to (though the circumstances being what they then were, I’m not sure what I could’ve done differently), and from that low point it was a near constant stream of shit, one disaster after another, losing friends I kind of wish I hadn’t as well as ones I wish I’d never made to begin with. Five years it took to strip me of just about everything I’d built for myself since moving out into the world and into the NeoPagan community three years prior; it took the next five years to pick myself up from that onslaught and figure out how to move on. Or start to figure it out.

This decade, with some degree of understanding gained, some sense of direction found, some actual training accomplished and more on its way, is looking a lot better.

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