September 23, 2017

For the first three years of my practice, the Autumn Equinox was a big deal for me. Since coming back to academia, it’s still a very meaningful time, but it also coincides with one of the busiest times of year—the beginning of a new academic year. I haven’t so much as written a blog post about the equinox since then.

This year, on the back of what I wrote about in my last post, this equinox feels all about bringing different parts of myself into balance. It occurred to me last night that I have been thinking about this issue as though I am not already a coherent whole—a single multifacted human. Where the “Órga” and “Warren” versions of me come together is in my legal surname—which is neither of the previous. Both Áine Órga and Áine Warren are pseudonyms and personas of sorts. I have never been constricted to being one or the other, and neither of them constitute the whole of myself, either.

I have been making an active effort to refocus my practice on devotion, on observing and celebrating life as it is—rather than using the observances of the Wheel of the Year as a time to berate myself for not having changed and improved myself enough since the last one. My religion is not therapy, I told myself last night. For some people, that works. But I am too self-reflexive for my own good on a daily basis; so I need my devotion to be more outward-focussed rather than inwardly-focussed.

But thinking about these facets of myself, how they interact and meld together, doesn’t just feel like an exercise in self-improvement. It raises questions about what I experience when I sit at the altar; whether I carry this experience into other components of my life; and to what extent I let—or should let—the more “mundane” aspects of my personality and experience of the world into that “sacred space”.

Right now, I don’t have answers to those questions. Previously, I think I have made my altar and my practice a sort of safe haven split away from my sceptical, “mundane” self. This was largely a conscious action—a choice to have a time and place where I could act out the feelings and beliefs I have that conflict with the scientistic worldview I have largely learned from my university education and peers. But if I maintain this strict boundary, how can I bring those “spiritual experiences” back into my everyday life? It’s all very well for me to suspend disbelief and engage in enchanted worldviews in the space of my spiritual practice, but it seems somewhat pointless to me if the end result doesn’t feed back into the rest of my life.

I’m all for embracing cognitive dissonance and the power of using belief as a tool; but perhaps I need my core practice to feel a little more in the middle. When I sit at the altar, I don’t want to feel as though I’m just performing “Áine Órga”; I want to feel like there is space there for all of my inconsistencies and conflicting beliefs and perspectives.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to be chucking anything out of my practice—and if anything, it’s made me feel more empowered about embracing the Pagan label. But as time goes by, I want to stay aware of this tension, and respect it. My kneejerk response to these thoughts was that I might weaken my spirituality if I allow the “non-spiritual” parts into that space. But who knows: maybe my practice will deepen as a result.

September 11, 2017

So the thing is, I’ve been leading a sort of double life for some time now.

I got into the habit of drawing strict boundaries around areas of my life when I was still a librarian/archivist, and first delving back into the world of pantheism, Paganism, and witchcraft. For a start, it was never relevant or even particularly appropriate for me to bring up these interests at work. As friendly as we all were, there was never any particular call to talk about our religion or lack thereof–never mind to discuss what was, at that point, a very tentative exploration with a large side of navel gazing.

Once I realised that this whole Pagan thing was going to stick–that I was starting not only to adopt regular Pagan-ish practices, but also to identify myself as part of this very diverse community–I started to open up to friends and family about it. I divulged the fact that I had been blogging and making videos, and even (gasp) engaging in a self-made religious practice that was pantheistically-oriented and Pagan-inclined. Even this simple step was a little tricky, which is something I talked about in a post from way back about Pagan pride.

Then I came to Edinburgh to study Religious Studies. Doing this was something like hitting a massive reset button on my life. I left behind almost everything from my old life, and the people I met here in Edinburgh had essentially no preconceived notions about me. I was free, or so I thought, to introduce myself to the world as someone who was a spiritual practitioner, who was interested in this stuff* from a personal perspective, and was moved to study it in an academic setting because that’s just sort of how my brain works.

I did do this initially, at least a little. But over time, much to my surprise and dismay, new boundaries began to erect themselves, almost wholly out of my conscious control. The more I critically analysed various forms of Paganism, the stranger and more hollow it seemed to practice. And the more time I dumped into academia, the less time I had to be practicing in the first place. By the time I realised what was happening, I had turned into another slightly different version of myself: Áine Warren, the Religious Studies scholar, who may-or-may-not-but-probably-was-not Pagan.

So who the hell, I find myself wondering, is Áine Órga?

It got to the point where Áine Órga seemed utterly disingenuous; where I was even embarrassed by much of what I have written and shared under that name. But you know what? Áine Warren, in so much as she is distinguished entirely from Áine Órga, is utterly disingenuous too.

I didn’t come here to study religion because I think it is sociologically interesting, or because I thought Paganism (on YouTube) would make a good research project. I came here because I care deeply about the narratives I tell myself on a daily basis about cosmos and my place in it, and engaging in a Pagan spiritual practice has been the best way for me to avoid a paralysing nihilism. I came here because Pagan pantheism became a lifeline for me in a storm of late modern meaninglessness. So why do I keep trying to hide away those motivations?

The reason is simple: at some point, I internalised the notion that that kind of emotion doesn’t make for good academia. Religious Studies, for better or worse, is hugely invested in separating itself from theology, and from any sort of confessional or normative stance. And I have swallowed that tenet hook, line, and sinker–and have, ever since, apparently been trying to turn myself into a kind of scholar that I am not.

So look, I didn’t come here to impress any academics. I didn’t come here to start on a path towards a professorship, to fit seamlessly into an academic debate and community. I came here because the way we ask questions about the nature of the universe fascinates me. I came here because I am more interested in what people designate as “religious” or “sacred” than in the social and historical contexts of their practices.

And so I’m sick of trying to keep that safe from my in-person relationships. Perhaps it has always just been a defense mechanism, a way of avoiding real-life confrontation. But I no longer want to be someone who hides her true feelings and opinions behind internet anonymity. I also no longer want to fall into the habit of aping the language of other people in the spiritual community to make myself more accessible or more relatable. So both identities need to talk to one another, inform one another, until I can find something more in the middle.

So, there it is. It’s time to start working on being Áine Órga Warren. Doing this will make me intensely uncomfortable, but hey, insert some inanity about comfort zones here.

 

*where “this stuff” is “religion”, Paganism, what have you…

August 1, 2017

Today is the 1st of August, the first day of autumn in my Gaelic culture, and I am sitting in a café and contemplating what it is that my spiritual practice needs this year. As I often do at the Sabbats, I read back over all my blog posts written on or near this day over the past six years. And I had a sobering realisation: my spiritual practice began to really, drastically falter this time two years ago.

In hindsight, I am no longer surprised to revisit what I wrote on the 31st July 2015 and read depression and hopelessness between the lines. My beloved cat, Bumble, had died less than three weeks before. I had spent the past twelve months gradually dismantling my life in Dublin. And in the end, I perhaps felt that I had not burst out of that difficult period with the brilliant new life I had hoped for. I was excited to move to Edinburgh a month later; but I was still mired in a relationship which was making us deeply unhappy, but which we still were unable to relinquish. In a way, it felt as though I had given up so much with little return.

From my perspective now, two years later, I am starting to see the progression of my spirituality – its rise and decline – as a caution to myself on imposing a burden of expectation on my practice. In 2015, I was not merely conjoining my spiritual practice with my self development – I was expecting that working harder and harder at my practice, at my ritual, would magically (sometimes literally) make me a happier and better person.

I don’t think this attitude is inherently problematic; but it became a problem for me. I felt frustrated that I was not emerging from a sort of spiritual chrysalis as a perfected being, contented and creatively virulent. All of the dissatisfaction I felt with my daily life, I felt I should and could be solving if only I could just feel more in ritual – if only I could be more spiritual and have deeper, more ecstatic experiences.

If I could go back in time, I would counsel myself some patience. I would remind myself that it’s ok for life to become hard, and to experience emotional turmoil. I would remind myself that when this happens, it’s ok for things like a spiritual practice to feel a little hollow sometimes. But most of all, I would tell myself: your unhappiness is not a failure of faith. Your uncertainty is not a failure of diligence. And for gods’ sake, try to just find one thing that really, truly brings you joy and excitement, and focus on that for a while.

Two years on, I am finally in the process of slowly – so slowly – breathing life and vigour back into my spirituality. What I have learned so far is that, while self-care and self-development need not be segregated from my spiritual practice, if I get too caught up in transforming myself as the aim of practice, it eventually falls flat. If I expect my spirituality to be the driving force behind the changes I want to see in my working and creative life, this will inevitably lead to disappointment, exhaustion, and even resentment in my spirituality.

I need to stop waging a war against myself – and nowhere more than at the altar. I can see now that self-development became a stick with which I beat myself; and after some time, this became synonymous with my spiritual journey.

Instead, now, I am focusing on shifting awareness. I don’t need to change, my habits and my life don’t need to change, in order to “be spiritual”. I simply want to sit at the altar and remember the web of which I am a part. I want to sit at the altar and feel my awareness expand, feel this tiny self expand out to meet the infinity of cosmos. And I no longer want to expect that when I return to normal consciousness, this spiritual experience will have magically transformed me into a perfect, creative, energetic person who can “live her bliss” without stress, anxiety, uncertainty, or obstacle.

June 17, 2017

This morning, I opened my window to a view of tall blue sky and sun-drenched mountains and sea; a waning half-moon just rising behind our mountain. Birdsong and the calling of sheep mingle with the constant rushing of the river at the bottom of the glen. We have a home now in a place where I can slip out the front door and walk twenty minutes in the morning sunshine, down a narrow, stony, grassy path to the beach below, without meeting another person.

I spent an hour there on the strand. There, I finally encountering tourists bussed to the beach on this beautiful Saturday morning; but walk far enough along the unbroken ten kilometres of sand, and you can outwalk even most of the locals. Once in relative solitude, I removed my shoes and socks, hiked my leggings above the knees, and waded out through the fierce push and pull of the tide into the beach-warmed ocean-cool water.

I relinquished myself to the waves. Time stood still as I walked, more slowly now, feeling the water tugging against my legs, first out to sea, then back in over the sand. I gazed out to the mountains, watching the waves come, letting them dash against me. And I could feel something deep within me stirring, some deep cleansing and renewal.

Being here has reiterated a few key components for me of maintaining mental health and personal wellbeing: spending time in beautiful natural spaces; spending time outdoors; establishing some utterly unscheduled days; spending time at the altar, in devotion; and spending time alone.

Toady has been the first I’ve had in a very, very long time that incorporated a significant amount of all of these criteria. I have had to guard them jealously; and I will not pretend that I have magically unwound, all of my tensions released in one perfect day. But I know that I’m doing something right when I find myself spontaneously creating and expressing—the thoughts that are usually so caged within me spilling out onto a clean page.

I believe that this feeling—or at least regular intervals of it—is what many of us struggle to cultivate in our day-to-day lives. I know that when I feel it, I recognise it as the elusive and difficult-to-describe element around which I would like to build my life.

And so I offer up these components of my day as a potential recipe for this peace, this productive contentment. I know that a full and busy life requires some plans and order, but I posit to you that the more scheduled your day-to-day is, the more you might need to incorporate the non-scheduled. I love the life and social potential of the city—the connecting and bonding experiences they provide. But time away from noise and infrastructure, time in green places with clean air, alongside other forms of wildlife, feeds my soul in a way that the city cannot. If this can be done alone, all the better; because nothing clears my mind and my heart like letting myself breathe in my own company.

The urge to create an altar and spend time at it seems, like other forms of creative self-expression, to arise most easily when I make space for all of these things. I know from experience that once honed and cultivated, I can feed and maintain a spiritual practice for some time amongst the chaos of daily urban life—in the brief stolen moments between work and socialisation, my candles mirroring the sparkling lights of the never-sleeping city. But I find that after a while, the practice becomes stale. After a while, I have nothing new left to feed it, and I am recycling stale spiritual air that has been cycled through too many times.

The remedy, it seems, is simple—time, nature, solitude—but in the context of an urban lifestyle, difficult to find. But I’m starting to see how much has suffered due to this stagnation. When I find myself creating a new altar, and excited to spend time at it, I know that my creative juices are starting to flow again. It is in these times that I create the most, both in private self-development and public output. No matter how swept away I get, no matter how excited and rejuvenated I am by the things that the social, urban life can provide, sooner or later the well dries up—and when it does, everything I love doing most dries up with it.

So I’m starting to see that a lifestyle that does not allow me to make this space, to take this time, is just not worth it. It’s not worth anything to experience that well going dry, to feel the pale drag across parched stone. This might mean certain sacrifices; this might mean cultivating a lifestyle different from what I once envisioned for myself. But if we don’t give ourselves our best chance at being free and alive, then our priorities have gone awry.

For those of us who have these choices, I believe it our human duty to allow ourselves to fulfil our potential as best we can.

December 11, 2016

Dancing on the edges of mundane reality is often what we—as Pagans and practitioners of alternative spirituality—are all about. But this is a fact that I have let slide at various points along my spiritual path. Being a pantheist who is largely immersed in scientific-rational discourse in my daily life, I often get in my own way in this regard. It’s all too easy for the ecstatic, experiential side of things to slide down my list of priorities; because with every lag in my practice, the doubting part of me steps in and questions the validity of spiritual experiences.

As part of my PhD research, I sat down today with a book by Sabina Magliocco, called Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. While many Pagan scholars are themselves in some way personally affiliated with Paganism, few are as open or explorative as Magliocco about the experiential aspects of engaging in this kind of ritual practice. This may be in part because she approached the Pagan community not from personal interest, but as a researcher; her deepening involvement and personal investment grew out of her initial stance as an outsider. Thus, she had to renegotiate her scholarly position as she underwent her research, rather than having considered her position before getting into it.

While her book is largely sociologically descriptive (and thus lighter on theory than I would have liked for my own research purposes), what caught my interest was the focus she developed, as a result of this deep personal involvement, on the experience of ‘religious ecstasy’ at the heart of Pagan ritual.

‘Pathworking’—a term I wasn’t particularly happy with but used in lieu of a better one—became central to my ritual experience in 2013; I’ve talked about this a bit, here and in videos. As with so many such skills in altering states of consciousness, it was an ability and a practice I took for granted, until I lost it. In the last few months, I started to realise how valuable it was to me and my practice; and reading Magliocco’s work really sparked something in me too. It reminded me just how important such practices are to my sense of connection to divinity, to the numinous.

Strangely, I dropped my pathworking practice not so much out of lack of time, but out of apathy. I began to question it as a practice—I felt as though I was just ‘talking to myself’, or making things up in my head, rather than experiencing something real. I also questioned to what extent this practice was really related to my religiosity, my sense of reverence, rather than just a form of convoluted self-help or naval-gazing.

What I’ve come back to realising is that it doesn’t really matter on what level any of this is really real—not from my perspective as a religious practitioner. What matters are the feelings it evokes, and whether it works as a tool to expand my sense of reverence, expand my understanding of divinity, and break out of the confines of consensus reality. I have great respect for what the scientific paradigm can achieve in terms of knowledge expansion and conceptual creativity. But feelings of awe, reverence, beauty, and connectedness are not conducive to scientific inquiry. Thinking about things from a scientific-sociological perspective doesn’t help me experience divine awe. And whether or not these things have any basis in material reality, these experiences have formed some of the most important moments, decisions, and focuses of my life. They have made me happier and more creative than the scientific-rational paradigm ever will.

So I’m going to open myself up to those experiences again. I want to build back up my skills for entering trance and experiencing visionary states. I want to delve deep into the murky world of creative consciousness, get lost in the symbolic richness my unleashed mind can offer. Because the experiences created by our own minds are all we have in this life; and those which are inspired by something other than direct, material sensory input can be just as transformational, and just as profound.