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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Grief Is

This upcoming week marks six months that I have been grieving.

I’ve heard that the first year is the hardest, encountering all those “first” reminders of holidays, birthdays, memories, desires, etc. It’s probably one of the only things that keeps me going at times like this, thinking that next year it might be a little bit easier to breathe.

When I first started my grieving process, it felt profound. I was determined to grow and change through it. I was determined to live in a way that would have made her happy.

I’ve made changes to my life…yes. But reckless ones. There are days when I don’t even recognize myself anymore.

More often than not, grief just feels empty now–a gaping hole of missing.

I’m pissed off at a world that no longer has the person I want to see. I’m angry at a god I don’t believe in. In fact, I’m more convinced than ever that there can’t possibly exist a benevolent, all-powerful god who would allow something so senseless to happen.

In some ways, this disillusionment is more difficult than grieving. I’m so used to seeing emotional pain as a catalyst for growth that it borders on devastating to realize that sometimes it’s not.

I feel like I’ve stepped into a Dr. Seuss book.

Oh the things you will find
as the sacred you mine.
Your grief is a sign
that your love lasts through time.

Except when you can’t
because treasure is scant
when you’ve lost your whole soul
to that motherfucking cancer.

Bad rhymes aside, I’m having to realize that not everything can be silver-lined. Grief is not always filled with wisdom and life-changing moments of expansion.

Sometimes, it just is. It hurts, and there’s no way around that.

Maybe next year it will seem less bitter and more sweet.

 

Sometimes Magically Mundane (I had to make a pun on my blog name at some point)

At the beginning of every seasonal change, I find myself dusting, vacuuming, and rearranging.

When I get out of work after a long day, I often find myself changing my clothes, washing my hands, or even showering.

Both habits seem entirely mundane, but they are actually incredibly important spiritual rituals.

Yes, I called them rituals.

Often rituals get characterized as formal ceremonies, requiring special attire and tools.

In reality, anything that someone does on a regular basis in a specific way can be considered a ritual. The way you make coffee in the morning is a ritual. The way you get ready for bed is a ritual.

We are creatures of ritual and habit. We all have dozens of rituals in which we participate every day. It’s just that most of us don’t realize that we are performing them.

It’s not a bad thing, per se, to go through a ritual without thinking about it. Part of a ritual’s purpose is to create continuity and stability in life, and mundane rituals certainly do that. Anyone who has ever had their morning routine fucked up can attest to how much it affects the rest of the day.

But there is so much potential in recognizing the rituals of the mundane…so many ways to bring magic into one’s world without even having to try.

I first became aware of my after-work ritual when I found myself unable to leave “work at the office” for the first time in my life. Moving into mental health from retail meant that my interactions carried considerably more significance than before. I wasn’t prepared for the way that conversations, stories, and interactions would come home with me, haunting me, plaguing me with what should have been different or what to do next.

I needed a way to signal to myself the end of the work day and the beginning of my private life.

At first I spent some time trying to devise something to help me, until I realized I already had it. The very first thing I did when I got home was to kick of my shoes and rip off my bra. They were the most uncomfortable things on my body, and I couldn’t wait to be out of them at the end of a day.

Taking a ritual that was already in place and creating intention around it was transformative. Suddenly, changing my shoes and clothes came to symbolize switching out of a role and transitioning into a new space.

On days that I found it particularly difficult to signal the end, I began using a ritual of washing grime off to also wash off energetic grime and energy.

Not every ritual is daily like that. My seasonal ritual of giving my home a miniature “spring clean” happens every few months or so. Before, it may have just been a compulsion I had to deep clean after doing surface cleaning, e.g. dusting around but not under knick knacks, vacuuming what I could see or feel under my feet, etc. However, at some point I realized that it was a perfect way to reset my focus and spiritual intentions.

Now, giving my apartment a good dusting provides me an opportunity to clear out or stir up the energy that has become stagnant. I can refresh my altar with new items and identify a goal for the next couple of months. It helps prevent my own spiritual life from becoming dust-covered and forgotten.

We can’t take the mundanity out of life. Indeed, I’m not sure that any of us would really want to, even though it’s tempting when we’re bored.

However, we can infuse our mundanity with magic. The mundane can become significant and meaningful with a little attention and intention to our habits.

Getting to Know your Anima/Animus: An Intuitive Exercise

In Jungian psychology, everyone supposedly has an anima or animus, the aspect of the self that is the opposite of the self. Men tend to have a female anima who holds the more feminine characteristics of their personality while women tend to have a male animus who holds the masculine part of their personality.

The anima or animus serves as a way of alienating and othering the parts of ourselves with which we feel less in tune, making the anima or animus a shadow part of the self initially. As a shadow, it holds the possibility of wreaking havoc in one’s life if left suppressed and unintegrated. However, the anima/animus is also an incredibly important part of the self, thus each of us feels an attraction to it and to the things we encounter in the world that represent or symbolize it.

So long as the anima/animus is unknown, we run the risk of seeking integration with it in its destructive form; however, when brought out of the shadow and into consciousness, it can become an aid to the self rather than a destroyer/controller of the self.

I’ve been exploring my animus over the last year and have developed some fun exercises that I wanted to share with anyone who may be interested in getting to know their “other half” as well.

Getting to Know your Anima/Animus

Start by identifying the broad type of personality of your anima/animus. This is most easily done by taking note of the characters in books and movies to whom you feel magnetized. You’ll probably notice a trend emerge if you start to list them.

This isn’t your basic “I like this character” feeling. It’s stronger and deeper than that. It’s the characters that you fantasize about—the ones that you don’t entirely understand why you’re so drawn to them, but the ones that are irresistible nonetheless.

I suspect that part of the fascination that Twilight has held despite how bad it is (both in writing and in content) relates to it tapping into the unconscious animus of many women. (Picture of Edward and Bella from Breaking Dawn p. 2, 2012)

I suspect that part of the fascination that Twilight has held despite how bad it is (both in writing and in content) relates to it tapping into the unconscious animus of many women. (Picture of Edward and Bella from Breaking Dawn p. 2, 2012)

In making the list, avoid judging whether these are good characters or bad. You probably will have a mix, but getting into analyzing whether it’s a healthy attraction to a good character or not will merely interfere with tapping the unconscious. For the time being, suspend your judgment and treat them as if they were all neutral.

Once you have a list, step back and take a global assessment. You might have a ridiculous range of characters, some heroes in their stories, some villains. Some people you might want to know in real life; others you might never want to meet in actuality.

What do they share in common though? There will be something, perhaps many things. Are they all inventive? Perhaps they all tend to be very loyal. It’s those similarities that are key and that create the core of the anima/animus personality.

If you prefer a less analytical way of discovering core characteristics, you could also do a form of “divination” using story cards, tarot cards, or story cube. Roll (with the cubes) or draw (with cards) 6 to 10. Identify the characteristics they bring to mind in relation to your list.

Once you get the core shared personality characteristics, then you bring the analysis in. Given what all of your characters share in common, what makes them different? What makes one a good character and another a bad one?

The “bad” character, or the one you feel sort of uncomfortable with having on your list, holds valuable information about how your anima/animus could potentially be unhealthy. It may be what you fear you will become if you merge with the anima/animus or it may be the way that the anima/animus tends to reveal itself when you are not integrated.

However, even the negative anima/animus symbols hold the possibility for being healthy and good. They can guide you in where you might need some character development. They can inform you in where to take care as you get to know yourself, perhaps where you need to put in boundaries for yourself or evaluate your motives.

For example, quite a few of the characters on the list I made were either people who used power to protect the less fortunate or power to revenge the privileged. Thus, I know that my animus can help me in my activism and fight for social justice…or he could use oppression as an excuse to become an abuser himself. I have that choice, and knowing my animus allows me to consciously and actively do something about that choice.

Identifying the personality as well as the potential expressions of the personality for your anima/animus is the most important step, but you don’t have to stop there. If you wish to go further and get to know your anima/animus individually rather than just as a group of symbols, you can do some active imagination with your anima/animus.

It’s a little like meditation, but instead of sitting there without much purpose other than breathing and noticing, you invite your anima/animus to visit with you. Balancing between allowing your mind to go where it wants and directing it towards your purpose, you can interact with your anima/animus in a sort of lucid-dream-like meditative journey.

Don’t feel too distressed if your anima/animus doesn’t show up right away. It takes time to be active in your journey without your conscious mind interfering too much. If you haven’t done much work with intuition before, it might be easier to start by exercising your intuition with a less specific goal may be helpful.

This has been one of my favorite and most rewarding journeys. I hope that if you take this journey in bringing your anima/animus to consciousness that you will find it as rewarding as I have.

Quick note regarding queer individuals. Much of the language for the anima/animus theory is pretty hetero/cisnormative. I have tried to avoid language that “boxes in”and leave it more open. I have a fairly strong dominant feminine side, and my animus presents as masculine even though I’m not solely attracted to men. However, I wouldn’t presume to be versed enough in the theory or in queer experience of the theory to propose how other LGBT+ individuals may find this expressed for themselves. I am open to feedback and welcome hearing the stories of queer individuals who may have done work with their shadow side/non-dominant side.   

A New Moon Tarot Spread

I developed the spread below in order to tap into the power of the new moon this weekend. I invite you to pull out your deck and see what this underappreciated stage of the lunar cycle has for you this month.

                1

                 2                              4

                3

 It’s supposed to look like the moon! Not shown is the optional fifth card.

  1. What is gestating: This card represents things that are in the works and that need the darkness of the new moon to continue to ripen. Basically, leave well-enough alone. Don’t focus too much on them. Just let them incubate.
  2. What is hidden: This card reveals an aspect of your life that you are blind to—something perhaps that it may be good to begin shining a light on as the moon waxes again. It’s likely an area that is spreading difficulties in multiple parts of your life.
  3. What needs to be shed: This card represents the things in your life that need to come to an end and be released. Take some time to symbolically shed and mourn their passing this weekend. Don’t carry them into the new month with you.
  4. What needs to begin: This represents the new seeds in your life that you are sewing right now. Have you already started to bring them into the works? Or are the seeds still waiting to be planted in the rich soil of your life? Got on that. It’s planting season.
  5. Optional guide card: If you feel the need for more information or guidance on how to begin using the knowledge gleaned from the four cards above, you can draw an optional guide card. It may apply specifically to a single card in your spread, or it could tie them all together somehow.