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.

November 21, 2016

I need to care about the universe because otherwise, everything loses meaning.

I need to care about my particular human experience, every breath and moment and feeling. I need to care about every heart I touch, every emotion I pass onto another being.

I need to believe in the divinity of cosmos because to not believe in that divinity is to lose myself to utter nihilism.

In a divine cosmos, every heartbeat matters. In a divine cosmos, every movement I make in this world is a step in a beautiful dance, a tiny but beautiful detail in an artwork of inconceivable magnitude.

For you, maybe divinity is not a filter you need or find useful. It may seem like a wishy-washy concept, an unnecessary distraction from the reality of the world we live in, the magnificence and the devastation of it. But for me, the filter of divinity is the only thing that separates me from the greatest fear of all: the fear of meaninglessness, pointlessness, futility. The fear that nothing I do will ever feel like enough, because nothing I or any human could ever do will ever really matter in the greater scheme of things.

When I paint the cosmos as divine, then every second matters. When I paint the cosmos as divine, everything I feel, and every feeling I pass along, becomes a beautiful fragment, a mimesis of something greater of infinite meaning. When I paint the cosmos as divine, I am simply imbuing with meaning this mysterious process of existence that we will never understand, and in which we play a bewilderingly tiny role.

When I struggle, I turn to gratitude. I turn to awe. I look at even the most mundane or difficult or fleeting experiences of my life and think: this is a gift. And this. And this.

Every second of every day, I am this alive.

When experience becomes a gift, a window onto something bigger and imbued with incomprehensible meaning, then things can matter again.

This struggle is not new. It is not new to me; and I doubt it’s new to you, either. This existential battle is what we call the human experience. But this seems to be a lesson that needs to be learned over, and over, and over again. The spiral of nihilistic despair is always waiting, if you let yourself go there.

And so: I look for more faith. I try to release the fear of not finding or doing the right things in life—because at the end of the day, it’s not the things that will matter, it’s the doing of them. It’s not the legacy we leave behind (because no legacy is immortal), it’s the beauty we feel and inspire in the moment. And I remember that big and great things often come in small packages.

My life has so often been touched and changed by a paragraph, a thought, a sentence. I can never tell when something I put into the world might create such a moment for another person. The important thing is to keep reaching, keep sharing, keep loving, keep experiencing, keep dancing that dance of life.

November 13, 2016

The political thunderstorm of 2016 has left me shaken. Perhaps I am naïve to feel so taken aback at the directions which many major world powers have been taking; but I am taken aback. I am disheartened. I am worried, scared for the future of this planet. 2015 saw some positive moves forward in my book—Ireland voted for marriage equality, a man with actual left-wing politics was elected to the British Labour Party… And so perhaps I was lulled into a false sense of security that an increasing number of people in the world were holding my views.

This is not a political blog, and I’m not about to start making it one. But I can’t pretend to isolate my religious beliefs from my political ones; I can’t pretend to isolate my spiritual life from everything else happening in my world. And today, I am afraid for the integrity of many things which my spirituality holds sacred.

I could write at length about my fears for the environmental crisis, my fears for all the ways in which vulnerable people’s quality of life will suffer, my fears for the repercussions across the globe. But there is already a wealth, an overabundance even, of such material online. So instead I want to write about how the election—and other political events this year—have made me feel about spirituality, my moral obligations, and my agency in this world.

One of the things I hold most sacred is the feeling of connectedness. It’s a feeling that is often hard-won. Connectedness on a cosmic level is something I can only drop into when I am at my spiritual peak, meditating every day, and thinking actively about divinity. But during those times when I have been able to access that feeling, it has given me hope and energy: hope that it really is possible for one individual to reach out and send tremors across the web; and the energy required to harness my creativity in order to make those tremors happen.

For the first few years of my interaction with the spiritual community, it was enough to see that I was influencing other people’s spiritual practices. It was enough to see that I had helped people clarify their thoughts, built ritual, or allow themselves to be spiritual in the first place. I had a deep, residing belief that spirituality was the key to people’s happiness—or at least to the happiness of my peers, those people in the West who had already fulfilled the first three or four levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Over time, it’s become increasingly clear to me that this influence—inspiring others to be spiritual in the face of western scientific naturalist dogma—does not feel like enough. It’s not enough for me to shy away from involvement in political, social, and environmental activism under the guise of separating my spirituality from my morality, or not knowing where to start.

The changing political environment in the West has shaken my underlying belief in the efficacy of spirituality to really change anything. It has woken me up to the fact that, at the end of the day, when I am writing about Paganism from a progressive, feminist, inclusive, green perspective, I am really just preaching to the choir. The problem with online spaces is that they become echo chambers. We all follow each other, read each other’s words, and interact within the community in which we feel most comfortable. And that is important—it’s empowering and affirming, and ultimately safe. But it’s the very safeness of those echo chambers that has led me to becoming unconsciously complacent about the direction in which the wider world is going.

So now I am wondering: how can I help to create tremors that will change anything on a more fundamental level? How can I contribute? I am more than willing to keep putting energy into fortifying our community—giving us the spiritual backbone and clarity we need to put our stamp on the world. But I want to start thinking about how our community can push beyond the boundaries of our current influence. I want to think about what I can do as a spiritual writer and thinker to help build a better future.

Because the most resounding realisation this difficult year has brought to me is this: My spiritual practice has been so much sand for me to bury my head in. I told myself that connectedness with the Cosmos, with the All, with Goddess, was the most important thing. I told myself that connection to our community was evidence that I was reaching out. I told myself, worst of all, that if I was a pantheist, then the destruction of our particular society, ecosystem, and planet could only be seen as one more sacred process in the divine creative/destructive cycles of Cosmos. Therefore, my environmentalism, my socialism, was peripheral to this central tenet.

If revering natural processes is what I’m all about, then I need to revere the natural empathy and outrage I feel for those who are suffering. I need to revere this impulse to help stand in the way of the destructive march of capitalism. I need to revere my morals and my beliefs about social order. If the microcosm mirrors the macrocosm, then this desire for equality, for reducing suffering, for creativity over destruction, is mirrored in the divine whole of Cosmos. I am ready to own that. I am ready to stand for that. I am ready to belief that my influence and impact can do more than convince others that a spiritual practice is all we need for true happiness.

Spirituality can stand for more than a distraction from social responsibility. If I truly believe in the power of self-made religion, in the power of harnessing symbols that are meaningful to us as individuals, then I should believe that our spirituality can empower us for anything we choose. I am for spirituality that revitalises the self. But I am also for spirituality that revitalises a society, or a world.