That Time a Cult Survivor Attended a Winter Solstice Ceremony and Survived

I worked up the courage to go to a solstice ceremony this past week. I haven’t been to an actual religious ceremony in years, mostly because I can’t stand being in churches or church-like buildings–but a good portion of that also stems from the distrust I carry.

Since the ceremony was taking place outside, that removed the problem of the setting being an unnecessary trigger.

I have been curious about some of the public sabbat ceremonies held in my area for quite some time, and with the help of a new friend, I finally convinced myself to check it out.

Much of it was familiar enough from reading Starhawk that I could understand what was going on. I think it was good that I had that map because I might otherwise have been too insecure to stick it out.

There was the opening of the circle and calling in the four directions, followed by a short soliloquy about the symbolism of the solstice from who I assume was the High Priestess.

I was jumping out of my skin with apprehension, but I also found it really powerful to be in the company of people who honored nature and who didn’t deny the integration of darkness with light.

It was similar to church in some very small ways, but it was also significantly different from church—more than any other type of ceremony I’ve been to. Even when I checked out a Buddhist meditation, that felt more “churchy” than not. This one felt like the “churchy” feeling was residual for me, not due to the ceremony itself.

After the High Priestess finished her piece, people were invited to bring a stick up to the central fire and burn it with their solstice intention.

My readers who come from the IFB will probably chuckle or cringe to read that. A symbolic stick-burning was a very integral part of the indoctrination experience at the summer camp we would often be sent to. Four days after being separated from everything and everyone familiar, being run around ragged, and listening to sermons on hellfire morning, afternoon, and evening, The Wilds would “invite” us to throw a stick in the fire to represent surrendering our lives.

Summer after summer I would be pressured into showing my submission after being systematically terrified of dying on the drive home if I didn’t, so I fully expected to be freaked out of my mind when I heard the invitation at this ceremony.

But it was, again, different. No one was asking me to give up anything in the process of participating. I was setting my own intention. I could share it or keep it private.

And it was actually beautiful to hear the things that people were wishing for the world—things like peace, love, and healing. Even for a ceremony that acknowledged and embraced darkness, there was none of the “darkness” of the hatred and judgment and othering of the IFB.

Then came the dancing…and that’s when my participation meter maxed out.

I wanted to dance. I loved the idea of dancing as part of a religious ceremony. I was desperately cold by then and would have appreciated the warmth of dancing near the fire.

But I’ve also spent too much time studying the ways that people are influenced by cultic groups. I know that dancing in a group or singing in a group can be a subtle way to create a lack of oxygen, decreasing critical thinking and potentially even stimulating a trance-like state. Group participation increases the conformity and belonging drive. The combination of all of that can be a vulnerable mix.

Not a bad mix, per se. Dancing, singing, chanting, etc. can also be used to stimulate spiritual experiences that are entirely healthy.

However, I couldn’t know what would happen during or after the dance. I was new to this group and needed to keep my wits about me. I needed to know I was safe, that someone else wouldn’t try to make demands or interfere with my process while I was in a vulnerable state.

I simply couldn’t know that about this group the first time.

I felt awkward dropping out to the edge of the circle and watching. Part of me was afraid that it would be considered inappropriate, but I also knew that dropping out would be a good test of the safety of the group. If someone tried to coerce or pressure me into participating, that would tell me that my own limitations weren’t respected and that there may be more toxic elements to this group.

Spoiler alert: that never happened.

I was able to withdraw and stand at the edge, watching, without any interference. Moreover, I was able to observe, with my critical thinking, observing mind, that those who participated in the experience had nothing to fear regarding others trying to influence them during that process. No one tried to recruit new members to join the group. No one tried to pressure attendees to give money.

After the dancing, the dancers regrounded their energy. I was able to rejoin for the closing of the circle and farewell to the directions.

And that was the end.

In some ways, this feels like a huge milestone for me even though all I really did was go to a public place and stand at the fringes of a group, barely participating. What was happening inside was far more significant than it seemed on the surface.

I was healing and teaching myself that I can hold my boundaries in group situations that are unfamiliar.

Ultimately, I was able to face down some of my own fears and participate in something truly lovely while respecting my limitations and enjoying an actual ceremony that didn’t feel at all cultic.

It was a lovely Solstice gift to myself.

 

 

I Put a Spell on You…and Myself

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A witch casting spells over a steaming cauldron by H.S. Thomassin

Let’s talk about magic.

I’m currently working on developing a binding spell for Trump’s presidency to limit the damage he can do. I realize that it may not work, but it feels better than doing nothing.

Depending on where you look in the world of magic, you can get very different messages about binding spells, some warning that you should never ever do them and others suggesting that sometimes it’s appropriate but you’d better have a good reason.

In both instances, the fear is that a spell designed to interfere with the free will of another has the possibility of creating some…karmic payback.

Wiccans in particular cite the “Rule of Three”—the idea that what you put out into the world will return to you threefold.

I don’t personally believe in the rule of three in a literal sense, nor do I ascribe to a spirituality that is all positive rainbows and sunshine. Darkness, destruction, and shadow emotions have their place. I also don’t expect myself not to have emotions such as anger because binding spells are usually my response to boundary violations that have gotten out of hand. Anger is entirely appropriate.

But I never let myself cast the spell when I am actively feeling vindictive. I think it’s valuable to consider how I would feel about being the recipient of my own spell because it makes me consider my intentions. For me, a binding spell is about setting a boundary not about “getting even.”

I write them in a way that if I were to be on the receiving end, I could live with what I was doing. Thinking about myself being the recipient helps me keep the best interest of the person in mind. It reminds me that I don’t want to prevent them from being happy. I don’t want to prevent them from accomplishing good.

I do want to limit their capacity to harm others (including me)…and I am totally okay with that coming back to me threefold or twentyfold because I also want to limit my capacity to cause harm to others.

Generally, I don’t even write the spell to force their choices or actions to change. I write the spell to interfere with how effective they can be if they make those choices.

In other words, I don’t try to mess with their free will. I just try to stimulate failure for any action that might be abusive or harmful.

So far, I have done three binding spells—all of them scarily effective considering that those people pretty quickly chose to exit my life afterwards.

Trump is definitely different because I don’t know him personally so I don’t know what his good intentions or positive qualities might be. It’s a little more tempting to wish him ill.

I also realize that it’s not enough to just cast the spell and rest comfortably in the hope that he won’t harm me personally. I have to also keep a watch on how he is affecting others and stay involved to the extent that I am willing to stand up to injustice, even if it’s not knocking on my door specifically.

However, I recognize that wishing him general failure means wishing the nation failure as well because, like it or not, he will be leading us come January. I have to work even harder to ensure that my motivations are pure, fueled by righteous anger but not coming from a place of malice because I don’t doubt that malicious intent towards someone so influential will have ripple effects on the rest of us.

In this instance, I specifically want to bind him from causing or inciting violence. I want to open his ears to hear the people who are vulnerable right now. I want to tie his success to justice, and call up failure on anything he attempts to do that would violate the rights of others.

And as with the other spells, I design my spell with every intention of having to live under it myself. I am committing myself to the same values with which I want him to lead. More than that, I am binding myself to staying active in the cause.

If you are a spell-worker, will you commit your energy to the same?

 

 

 

Adventures in Proselityzing: It’s Not a Religion. It’s a Relationship…With Someone Who Tears Me Down

It’s been a really long time since I’ve found myself cornered by an Evangelical Christian hell-bent on telling me all the ways that they aren’t “religious” but “in a relationship with Jesus” who, of course, is the best friend, counselor, teacher, etc. that I could have if I would only convert.

This week brought that streak to a sudden halt.

It came out of nowhere…it had to in order to catch me off-guard and prevent my escaping before it happened.

I was surprised by what it brought up for me. Or rather, what it didn’t bring up.

Generally when I have previously been witnessed to, I’ve been able to hold my ground, but inside I’m trembling, triggered, angry, and secretly terrified that the spiritual onslaught will never end. I’ve never been the type to lash out at those who try to slip their proselytizing into a “casual” conversation, but I’ve never felt particularly strong or compassionate either.

Usually it mirrors the way that I feel about getting harassed by a stranger at a bar. I might smile and decline politely, but it’s coming from a place of fear that suspects that things will only be worse for me if I express outrage. It’s a placating kindness.

However, when I suddenly realized I was in a room with someone who was going to “witness” as if my life depended on it (which to her it probably did), I was shocked to realize that it didn’t feel threatening.

I still didn’t want to listen. I’ve heard it all before. Hell, I’ve said it all before!

But the dominant emotion wasn’t fear or rage. It was somewhere on the spectrum of pity and amusement.

Amusement because despite her attempts to sound genuine as hell and to convince me she wasn’t talking about a religion, it was as canned a response as if she had broken out into a Hail Mary. They were memorized phrases that she had been instructed in how to use in her witnessing to convince others that her religious expression was more genuine than any other type of Christian’s.

The pity came in at the way that she couldn’t help but devalue herself in the process. In order to talk about how wonderful Jesus was to her, she had to talk about how unworthy she was of God’s love and how imperfect and depraved a person she was because, for her, the wonder of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice was in that it wasn’t “deserved” but given in spite of it all.

She couldn’t build up the object she wanted to share with me without creating a foundation that tore herself down.

I realized at one point that we actually shared something in common. As a Pagan, I also don’t believe I am particularly perfect. I have a shadow side. I have less than admirable motivations and compulsions to work through. I make mistakes.

However, the difference is that I don’t see myself as needing to be “saved.” I don’t see my flaws and imperfections as indications of how worthless I am. I especially don’t think that the answer is to eradicate myself and replace myself with an inner Jesus.

Within her framework, there is no room for anything but shame towards the self.

In contrast, my spiritual inclinations help me celebrate that I am not perfect. Perfection would be boring. Or just nauseating. It’s in the imperfections that growth happens…and growth is part of life.

I have no desire to destroy those parts of myself that are flawed. Rather, I want to engage with them, learn from them, integrate with them, and transform them.

Having come from the same shame that I saw her expressing, I can remember how devastatingly awful it was. Brene Brown says, “Shame drives disconnection.” That is true especially with the existential shame that certain sects of Christianity try to foist on members. This kind of shame drives a repulsion of the self, which in turn drives shallow interactions with others built on judgment and fusion.

I could recognize this time around that this woman posed no threat to me. She wasn’t even fully present in the interaction as she spouted off her memorized phrases. She was speaking from a fragmented and alienated self, and I felt sad that she was caught up in that and desperately thankful that I had escaped.

The Pagan and the Atheist

I go through cycles in my spirituality. Sometimes I’m more focused on meditation, being still, calming my mind, enjoying the moment, etc. Other times I’m all about the visions and trance journeys, dreams, scrying, and working with guides. Still other times I pull out my spellbooks and get down to business with working some magic.

And then there are periods when all of that is fairly quiet and my agnostic side is dominant.

I never worry when a piece of my path recedes because I know that it will come back around again whenever it’s needed; however, I hadn’t realized why my agnostic side felt so disconnected from the rest of that cycle until I read two very different books: The Spiral Dance by Starhawk and The Atheist’s Way by Eric Maisel.

One was a very well-thought perspective that blended a deep respect for the author’s own beliefs and experiences with a kind of casual take-it-or-leave-it attitude. The author could clearly laugh at themselves, recognized that there was a certain level of absurdity to things, and wasn’t invested in anyone else believing as they believed. They expressed a healthy skepticism about the world along with some deeply held values, and they encouraged readers to make sure that reality testing worked with their own belief system as well. They addressed social justice issues and the way their worldview contributed to that. And they demonstrated respect for the whole person (rational, emotional, conscious, and unconscious).

I hardly expected to be blown away by either book, but after I finished the first, I was quite impressed.

The other book, in contrast, had the opposite effect.

From the first chapter, the author exuded classism and prejudice. They demeaned anyone who did not ascribe to their beliefs and presented humans as having to fight against their very nature and to uproot anything not in line with the presented worldview. Even worse, they used progressively religious, fear-mongering language in favor of the strict form of belief presented, warning of “backsliding” to those who dared stray from their path. All in all, they presented some of the most blatant slippery slopes, straw men, unaccepted enthymeme’s, and naturalistic fallacies I’ve seen in a book, religious or otherwise.

Would you believe it if I said that the latter was written by the atheist?

Despite stating over and over that his readers had the freedom and power to choose what they wanted to believe about the meaning of life, it became clear that there was only one acceptable choice in Maisel’s mind.

I guess up until then I’d never realized that I’ve carried around a mild shame over my chosen path. In my personal dialogue with myself about my beliefs, I’ve always said, “It doesn’t matter if it’s real or not because it is nurturing my psyche and helping me accomplish growth.”

But in conversations with others, I’ve always felt a need to hide my beliefs just a tad, especially around atheists.

It was sort of like I saw this hierarchy of spirituality.

Not being tied to a religious tradition out of fear felt like a step up from where I’d been, but not believing in gods at all seemed like the “better” more “rational” stance. (After all, I had basically chosen my own beliefs partially because they seemed more fun than believing in a non-magical world.)

But the truth is, I’d be much prouder to be like Starhawk than like Maisel.

Maisel’s atheism hasn’t made him more open-minded or more logical. In fact, I dare say that atheists like him and Dawkins are closer to religious fundamentalism than they would like to think. That’s not the kind of person I want to be!

I certainly don’t think all atheists are like that.

When I no longer have a bad taste in my mouth from this last book, I look forward to reading more atheist writers to round out my experience.

At the same time, I also no longer feel the inferiority of choosing to believe in the power and value of my own path.

Maisel was right, I do have the ability to choose the worldview I want to give my life meaning. What he failed to realize is that atheism is not inherently better. As Starhawk reminded me, my spirituality can enhance the meaning I find, strengthen my social justice commitment, and create harmony between my rational and “child-like” self.

Even if it’s based in make believe, I think that’s better than a worldview that cuts me off from parts of myself, makes me fear my own spiritual longings, and participates in systems and patterns of oppression.

 

 

 

 

New Moon Meditation: Creating Mantra Cards

I’ve developed an interest in watercolor painting recently and have started a project of creating mantra cards for myself. I’m hoping to have a deck about the size of a small oracle deck when I’m done, but it won’t be for a while yet.

Trying to decide what quote or message to put on the cards as well as what to paint on them is an overwhelming undertaking for someone who is a perfectionist.

To help ease the pressure I placed myself under as soon as I settled on this idea and bought supplies, I have chosen to paint only one a month–probably on the new moon as part of the inner reflection of that time.

The first I created was in honor of my grief, a blue card with spidery script and rain splatters.

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“The best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain.” -Longfellow.

It reminds me of the importance of sadness, the futility of resisting my own process, and the beauty of surrendering to it.

This new moon, I was feeling the need to validate both my body and my sexuality. While being slut-shamed by my doctor, fighting imbalances in my body, and seeking to recover my confidence of being worthy of love and pleasure, I needed something that would be body-positive. I pained a torso of a woman in a sheer scarf and selected a quote by Lenore Kandel.

“You’re a divine animal and you’re beuatiful the divine is not separate from the beast.” -Lenore Kandel

I liked this quote in particular because it doesn’t seek to deny either the body and its humanness or the divine and its sacredness. It reminds me I don’t have to be flawless in order to love my body and celebrate my sexuality. In fact, the flaws are part of the package. They are not to be overlooked but rather to be celebrated as part of the whole. That holds true for subjective flaws like, “my stomach looks weird!” to susceptibility to infections and complications.

At first, I thought the process would be fun but that the meditation portion of what the mantra cards were for would come afterwords. As I built a collection, I envisioned myself shuffling them and drawing one out to focus on at various times.

What I discovered, though, was that the very process of creating the cards was a meditation in itself, requiring me to tap into the feeling behind the quote to understand what the picture should be, and then to further focus on the quote itself as I wrote it out.

I’m a beginner with watercolors, so there was also a certain amount of uncertainty and experimentation, allowing for flaws in my own work as well as trusting my intuition from time to time. Both seemed as important a part of this sacred process as the creation aspect itself.

I don’t know what I will be painting in the future. I find that trying to plan ahead which quotes or ideas I will explore decreases the power of what I’m trying to create. I prefer to wait for the message to come to me when and as it is needed each month.

Balancing Resistance: Yin and Yang

Yin Yang beer

I’ve been becoming more conscious of the fact that I organize much of my thinking along the lines of yin and yang and the concept of balancing duality. As I explore my own developing concept of counseling, human nature, etc., I find myself continuously walking the line “between.”

When I cringe at positive psychology, it’s not because I think it’s wrong or ineffective to focus on resiliency, what’s going well, strengths, etc.

People need positive goals towards which to work. Whether in personal growth, activism, or career development, if all one ever does is fight against what isn’t desired, burnout is inevitable. There will always be more to fight against, to change, to reject.

Merely pushing away from what isn’t wanted leaves a person directionless, often flying from one unwanted to another without direction or purpose.

Thus, defining where one wants to end up is essential. Have uplifting goals is necessary for renewing energy and fostering hope.

That being said, I find it equally unhealthy to eschew the negative. Resiliency doesn’t exist as a concept without its shadow side. Personal growth is more often the result of grappling with the shit life throws out.

And of course, ignoring the shadow doesn’t make them go away. More often than not, suppressing the shadow forces it to fester and grow stronger. Eventually it will demand attention one way or another.

So often, positive and negative seem to be pitted against each other, as though one has to win over the other, but such a dichotomy always leaves something lacking.

The yin needs the yang in order to be complete.

Of course, I’ve heard the yin yang symbol explained in terms of embattlement—that the dark and light are warring against each other, with the implication that one or the other wants to win. However, I find it far more intriguing to consider that the light and dark battle each other in an attempt to achieve balance.

Rather than the symbol being a representation of some cosmic arm-wrestling match, I think of it as a cosmic acrobatic performance. The resistance of each helps the other.

The Magic of the Masked Raccoon

I’ve been exploring a relationship with a new spirit animal lately. Raccoon came to me shortly after my friend died, and it seemed to be the perfect expression of how I had grown as a result of her presence in my life.

Raccoon is known for being a curious creature with a lot of personality, but the aspect of it that has stood out to me has been its famous mask.

I’ve been obsessed with masks and all of their nuance.

On the surface, the most common association with a mask is hiding, perhaps deceit. I won’t deny that masks have their shadow side which can easily come to mind; however, masks carry so much more magic than that.

Masks create mystery. Some of the most dynamic roles I can think of in movies involve people whose faces can’t even be seen. As a result, their actions have to convey something mesmerizing–e.g. the phantom of the opera’s voice or V’s alliteration.

Similarly, masquerade balls are fun because of the excitement of the unknown—the sense of being attracted and drawn to people and having encounters with people in a capacity that leaves you guessing who they are at the end of the night. Masks deny us the basics of facial recognition and the non-verbal feedback of expressions, forcing us to pay attention to other clues.

But masks also create unity. In V for Vendetta, the mask of Guy Fawkes becomes a symbol of the power of a people who refuse to be controlled any longer. The anonymity of the masks removes the impediment of fear, allowing them to come together for their shared purpose.

Masks empower. In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne makes a comment that Batman’s mask was meant to inspire the people of Gotham—it’s not about who is behind the mask because the point is that anyone could be behind the mask. Of course, we don’t often get to see the benefits of empowerment with a mask in real society, but it’s a present enough truth to make an appearance in most of our hero stories: From Zorro to Spider Man.

Masks also help to embody. Halloween is fun because it allows me to try on a character or archetype—to put on the energy of that person or creature for a bit, to feel it within myself. When I put on a costume, I connect with something deep within me that relates to the energy of that costume, bringing out that part of myself to which I may not otherwise have access.

Perhaps most importantly though, masks help to express. One of the greatest lessons I cherish in my grief is the idea that every day is a day for dress up and costume. Every day, we get up, look in our closets, and choose what mask to put on for that day.

Sometimes it’s the mask of professionalism.

Sometimes the mask of flirtation.

Or practicality.

But every day, we choose to portray or hide different aspects of ourselves.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing that we each have different faces in different situations or around different people. We are complex beings with many facets and layers to our personality.

The question raccoon asks is, “Are you doing it authentically?”