Paganism for Beginners: Social Structures

The social world as it is currently structured is the product of a particular set of assumptions about the world, about the role of different genders, and about the relative worth of different social roles and different cultures.

The fact that people can own land, that property is deemed more important than human life by our current laws, that those with wealth and property are given more power and status, that making war is given priority over creating community or protecting the most vulnerable people, that certain social functions are seen as female and others are seen as male – these are all cultural constructs resulting from thousands of years of  looking at the world in a particular way. They have been built up by custom and practice over a couple of millennia. But they are not inevitable.

A lot of our current social and economic structures exist because of agriculture. Hunter-gatherer and other early societies organised themselves differently.  The archaeologists excavating the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey have discovered that there was very little gender specialisation in people’s roles, and that people from different genetic groups lived together.

Many of our current legal and social systems come from the structures imposed by Christianity and its cultural ancestors (such as the Akkadian empire). Many ancient pagan and polytheist societies were organised differently, with matrifocal culture, matrilineal inheritance, collective ownership, and other variations.

"Earthlights" - Data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC.Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC. - http://eoimages.gsfc.nasa.gov/ve//1438/land_lights_16384.tif. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Earthlights_dmsp.jpg#/media/File:Earthlights_dmsp.jpg

Earthlights” – Data courtesy Marc Imhoff of NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge of NOAA NGDC.Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC. – http://eoimages.gsfc.nasa.gov/ve//1438/land_lights_16384.tif. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Different social models

Patriarchy is a system where descent is counted through the male line, and property passes from a father to his first-born son. This meant that a man had to control the sexuality of the the woman he had children with, otherwise he might pass his property on to another man’s son. Women were punished, often killed, if they had sex with a man who was not their husband.  The word “patriarchy” means “rule of the fathers”, and before the rise of feminism and the emancipation of women, the father was the head of the household, and men had a considerable amount of power over women. Married women in England could not own their own property until 1870, and if a couple split up, the man got custody of the children. Various patriarchal systems are still in force in many parts of the world, and patriarchal attitudes persist everywhere.

It is worth noting that unless there is a notion of individual property rather than communal property, there can be no notion of inheritance, so patriarchy would be unlikely to exist without the concepts of private property and inheritance.

Patriarchal societies also tend to enforce rigid gender roles for men and women, and often separate the sexes into different spheres of activity. Women are frequently required either to stay in the house, or to wear a veil when they go out.

Rape culture is the patriarchal belief that women do not like sex (a belief promoted by so-called radical feminists as well as “men’s rights activists”), and that men are inherently predatory and want sex all the time. According to this view, women always have to be coerced or cajoled into sex. This erases the possibility of meaningful or enthusiastic consent. In this view, any woman who actually enjoys sex is a “slut” and is therefore “fair game” to be hit on by men (note the predatory language). Think of all the times you have heard the idea that a rape victim was somehow “asking for it”.

Rape is mostly about exerting power over the victim; it is mostly not about fulfilling a sexual urge. It is also worth noting that when a man rapes another man, it is often done to “feminise” the victim, in other words, to exert patriarchal power over him. A similar motive occurs in the so-called “corrective rape” of lesbians by men – an attempt to “put them back in their place” in the patriarchal power hierarchy.

Kyriarchy is an expansion of the concept of patriarchy to include hierarchies of class, sexuality, and race. According to Wikipedia:

The word is a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.

Multiple inheritance is a system in some societies where property to be inherited was divided equally between the children of the owner. The problem with this approach was that it created smaller and smaller parcels of land. The interesting thing about this system is that there are no “surplus” males to be sent away to conquer other lands.

Matriarchy is a system in which the mother or oldest woman heads the family. The most important line of descent and relationship is that traced through the female line. It is also defined as government or rule by a woman or women. There are no known purely matriarchal societies.

Matrifocality is where the family is focused on a woman, usually the mother (typically because the male is absent). It does not imply anything about power outside the home. It can also be used to indicate that more “feminine” values (such as nurturing, relationship, and negotiation) prevail.

Matrilineality is the tracing of descent through the female line. It may also correlate with a societal system in which each person is identified with their matriline – their mother’s lineage – and which can involve the inheritance of property and/or titles. Many cultures (especially Celtic and Native American and Jewish) trace descent through the female line.

Egalitarian systems do not advocate the specialisation of roles by gender; do not regard people as property; and are non-hierarchical.

What does this have to do with the Pagan revival?

There were many factors that prompted the Pagan revival. One was the disenchantment of the world – the sense that everything was emptied of meaning and sacredness, because everything had become a commodity. So people began to see Nature as sacred. Another was the loss of the Divine Feminine and the relegation of women to second-class citizens. So the Pagan revival went hand-in-hand with the rise of feminism and ecological awareness. There was also an important utopian, socialist, and gay aspect to the early phase of the Pagan revival – mainly embodied in the persons of Edward Carpenter and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson.

Among the impulses and stirrings that led to the Pagan revival, people began to look at alternative ways of organising communities, relationships, and property. They looked forward to imaginary utopias, and back to earlier societies, and outwards towards other cultures. They examined existing social structures and realised that they were grounded in a particular way of looking at the world – a patriarchal, hierarchical, heterocentric, property-oriented, capitalist, Protestant way of looking at the world. Some realised that our attitude to the Earth – regarding her as a resource to be used instead of a mother to be cherished – was inherently patriarchal. So they began to imagine other ways of relating to each other and to the world. That conversation, that process of reinvention, is still going on, not only in the Pagan and polytheist community, but in other communities too.

So, examining social structures and relationships has everything to do with Paganism. It’s about how we relate to the Earth, to other animals, and to our deities.

If we cease to see land as a resource to be used, and instead see it as a sacred place, then we begin to realise that it cannot be owned.

If we begin to see women as subjects rather than objects, we begin to realise that women cannot be owned, and women’s sexuality should not be controlled.

When we come to see all life as sacred, we come to see all that sustains life as sacred.

The earth is a living, conscious being. In company with cultures of many different times and places, we name these things as sacred: air, fire, water, and earth.

Whether we see them as the breath, energy, blood, and body of the Mother, or as the blessed gifts of a Creator, or as symbols of the interconnected systems that sustain life, we know that nothing can live without them.

To call these things sacred is to say that they have a value beyond their usefulness for human ends, that they themselves become the standards by which our acts, our economics, our laws, and our purposes must be judged. No one has the right to appropriate them or profit from them at the expense of others. Any government that fails to protect them forfeits its legitimacy.

All people, all living things, are part of the earth life, and so are sacred. No one of us stands higher or lower than any other. Only justice can assure balance: only ecological balance can sustain freedom. Only in freedom can that fifth sacred thing we call spirit flourish in its full diversity.

To honor the sacred is to create conditions in which nourishment, sustenance, habitat, knowledge, freedom, and beauty can thrive. To honor the sacred is to make love possible.

To this we dedicate our curiosity, our will, our courage, our silences, and our voices. To this we dedicate our lives.

–from Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing

When we see all life, and all that sustains life, as sacred, we will truly honour and celebrate diversity, and the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” – people of all colours, all sexualities, all genders.

A place or a being who is sacred cannot be owned, so societies that regard them as sacred will also be egalitarian, co-operative, and consensual.

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Agreeing To Disagree

Different colours, by Gari

Different colours, by Gari [Pixabay] CC0 Public Domain

Arguments make some people uncomfortable. It is true that conflict can be divisive, but it can also be healthy, because it can help to clarify aims, goals, beliefs, and values. Trying to sweep conflict and arguments under the carpet and pretend they are not happening is counter-productive and just creates more conflict in the end.

I have been saying for a while that we are not all climbing the same mountain. As John Beckett points out, a fish is not just a fish: it might be a halibut or a hake, a a pike or a perch.

The Pagan umbrella (or big tent) is only a problematic concept if we try to define it too narrowly. The Hindus have many different sects, philosophies, and belief systems as part of the Hindu dharma. As a similarly pluralist religious movement, we should be able to do the  same.

In a previous post on the varieties of religious experience, I outlined Arne Naess’s model for different groups to collaborate on a shared project without compromising their core philosophies and values. Naess’s model shows how it is possible to agree on common goals for a particular project without necessarily agreeing entirely on goals for non-shared projects, or theology, or even the underlying reasons why you are pursuing the goals in the shared project.

If our focus on our particular values or beliefs gets in the way of the shared goals of the project, then our allies have a right to complain.

For example, many Pagans and polytheists agree that the environment and climate change are major priorities for humanity and for us. But – due to our different political and theological analyses – we might disagree on how best to tackle the problem, or what the underlying causes are. Many of us think that it is capitalism, or perhaps it goes deeper than that and is caused by the kyriarchy; others are unsure of the cause and just want to fix the problem. But rather than trying to align our philosophical perspectives completely, we can agree on shared goals without compromising our values and beliefs – but this requires being clear about what those values and beliefs are, how they inform our analysis of the issue, and what we believe the means to achieving our aims should be. So when it comes to actually working together to fix the problem, we don’t have to set our differences aside to achieve the desired outcome, but we do need to agree to differ, and allocate tasks and resources based on the interests and concerns of the members of the group.

Let’s look at Naess’s model again, and how it applies to wanting to save biodiversity without overly compromising our values.

Level 1, irreducible diversity, the base of the scheme, consists of the many different religious and philosophical traditions in the space labelled “Pagan movement”. They may overlap, but they are not reducible to each other. 

Level 2, common platforms, where groups can form alliances. These can only be formed on the basis of what the irreducibly diverse groups have in common, but without sweeping differences under the carpet.

Level 3, planning, where the groups actually agree to act. Group A, informed by its commitment to anti-capitalism, believes that the destruction of habitat is caused by capitalism. Group B, informed by its intersectional feminist approach, believes that the kyriarchy is the cause. Group A decides that it should start by formulating alternative economic models to capitalism. Group B decides that it needs to work on dismantling kyriarchal structures and creating alternative social models. The two groups notice that despite their different philosophical approach, the alternative social models and the alternative economic models have some similar features and would work well together, so they pool their resources and ideas to see what the differences and similarities are.

Level 4, action, where the groups actually carry out their plans. In this example, because the alternative social models and the alternative economic models actually complement each other, a better outcome is achieved, because the two different philosophical approaches were allowed to inform each other and complement each other, but not merged into a single unified philosophy.

Where are we at?

At the moment, the Pagan / polytheist blogosphere is at multiple levels – some people are trying to plan; others are trying to identify the irreducible diversity; others are trying to identify common platforms; and there has even been some action (in the form of A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment and A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer). However, we need all of these activities – and it is great that they are happening.

Disagreement, discussion, and even argument are good – as long as they are civil and civilised – by which I mean that we don’t attack each other for thinking a certain way. I am not tone policing here – it is fine and perfectly understandable for people to get angry, but let’s get angry with ideas, not attack the people with the ideas (in other words, by all means say “that idea won’t work because x, y, z counter-arguments” but don’t say “you are stupid because you think that”).

Spirituality – let the buyer beware

At its best, “spirituality” (whatever that term actually means) is a spur to greater compassion, engagement with social justice, and trying to make the world a better place. This used to be called mysticism, which actually meant something and sought to wrestle and engage with the wider tradition in which it was situated. Many times, organised religion sought to crush the mystics, with their call to genuine compassion, and their speaking truth to power, and their direct engagement with the divine other (or others).

At its worst, “spirituality” is a mess of cultural appropriation, exploitation of the vulnerable, silencing of dissent, sweeping justified anger under the carpet, and offering a pabulum of spurious advice, airy-fairy sayings, and consumer offerings of easily-digested “wisdom” and manufactured artefacts to make you feel “spiritual” and get in touch with your inner wossnames. Many ‘spiritual directors’, ‘life coaches’, and other self-styled spiritual leaders – most of whom are not even qualified therapists – prey on the vulnerable to make them feel that they cannot have self-worth without succumbing to a rigorous programme of self-help, self-examination, and generally beating themselves up for not being spiritual enough. They keep their ‘followers’ as perpetual neophytes, never empowering them to lead the group themselves.

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him

Every time I have an encounter with someone who has an interest in spirituality, and also possesses power over others, I find that they want to silence my anger at injustice because it is “not spiritual” to be angry. I find myself bruised and diminished by their criticism of my way of being in the world. Any engagement with the intellectual or theological or historical context of an issue is also silenced by these people, because that is “not spiritual” either. These people are so convincing with their “peaceful” mien and unfurrowed brows, untroubled by actual social injustice or the suffering of others. These are the type of people who silence those who complain of racism, sexism, and homophobia, claiming that they are “obsessed” with race, gender, and sexuality.

Some of them do engage with the suffering of others, but in my view, they only exacerbate it by placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the sufferer, convincing them that they must “work on themselves” and buy whatever the latest self-help book, video, course, life-coaching, etc happens to be. Some of them even say that the first step to being more spiritual or loving or whatever is to accept oneself. The natural response of many people to this is to feel guilty for not loving themselves. However, the lack of self-love and self-esteem that many people suffer from is caused by alienation from other people, from nature, and from life. It will not be solved by increased introspection, but by going out and doing what you love. If you are an introvert, that might be different from what extroverts love to do, and that is just fine. The first step to accepting yourself is to stop worrying about yourself so much.

The blame for social ills is constantly shifted from the collective to the individual in many contexts. Instead of preventing bullying in the workplace, employers hire stress and time-management consultants to ‘fix’ individuals who haven’t ‘adapted’ to the workplace.  The same applies to dieting, where the fact that it is difficult to avoid eating fattening food, and difficult to get enough exercise to burn it off, is laid squarely at the door of the overweight individual, and hardly anyone bothers to look for social or societal factors that  might contribute to obesity.

Whenever you see a self-help book, or a person who sets themselves up as an authority on spiritual matters, ask yourself what qualifies them to be such an authority. I am not saying their life has to be totally organised (whose life is not subject to misfortune and the vagaries of circumstance?) – but rather, how do they respond to disaster? Do they curl up in a welter of self-pity, or do they actually get out and do something, perhaps getting involved with trying to right the social injustice that caused their misfortune (if applicable)? As the wonderful saying has it, “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. Anyone claiming to be a Buddha is not a Buddha. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. Indeed, it was Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha himself, who said that if the things he said did not make sense to his hearers, they should ignore him:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

Subjecting advice to scrutiny and reflection about whether it applies to your own life is of course a principle that you should apply to anything that I write as well. Nothing is exempt from this principle. My perspective is also limited to my own experience, as is that of every other writer.

Do without doing, and everything gets done

If all the money and energy that was expended on trying to become more spiritual was expended on trying to make the world a better place for everyone, think how much better the world would be. I am not saying that people should not indulge themselves in a bit of pampering like a massage and a bath with some nice candles and a bit of tinkly music, but do it unashamedly because it makes you feel good, not because you think you ought to, or because you think it will make you a more spiritual person.

As the great Viktor Frankl once said:

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”

― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Personally, I derive more benefit from going for a nice walk in the woods, or going on a demonstration about a social justice issue, or having a nice evening with friends, than I ever have from any attempt to “be more spiritual”. I am not a naturally introspective person in any case. You can derive a great amount of self-worth and connecting with others by going to take part in conservation work, or feeding the homeless, or helping animals, or doing something creative – you don’t need to sit about worrying about whether you are spiritual enough. I also derived a great deal of benefit from being a trades union caseworker, because I learnt to speak truth to power, but I became a caseworker because it was the thing in front of me that needed doing, and I knew it was the right thing to do, not because I particularly hoped to gain anything from it.

The other day, I saw a brilliant and hilarious video by J P Sears, How to be ultra-spiritual, which sends up the “spiritualler-than-thou” types (as I call them): the people who speak ultra-softly and go about dispensing unsolicited “wisdom”. It is a merciless send-up of the “ultra-spiritual”, and a critique that needed to be out there.

And then I saw a post by a “life-coach” giving women contradictory advice about how to be irresistible to men, where one of the pieces of advice was a blatant piece of slut-shaming. Fortunately, a bunch of people had posted hilarious comments on the piece, sending it up mercilessly.

I vividly remember my first encounter with a “life-coach” and I remember thinking it was a load of pretentious tosh and quite possibly a sugar-coated version of “how to be a capitalist bastard and succeed in the rat-race”.

I feel much the same about most so-called “self-help” books, which again locate the source of suffering in the individual, and fail to offer any remedy that we might all undertake as a society. There are a few excellent exceptions, such as Families and how to survive them by Robin Skinner and John Cleese, Taking care by David Smail, and Women who run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (brilliantly satirised by Women who run with the Poodles, however).

This is why I have been trying to eliminate any talk of “spirituality” from my speech and writing, and instead talk about embodiment, and connecting with the body. This too might become problematic if we assume that there is only one right way to be embodied, but at least it is more earthy, and takes actual physical and emotional needs into account and makes a connection between them. Writers on embodiment that I have seen do actually seem to engage with the world around them.

Spirituality as a commodity

Nevertheless, it strikes me that the elephant in the room, and what really ails us, is the commodification and marketisation of everything – also known as capitalism. Value is no longer seen as intrinsic to an experience or a thing, but only as a marketable commodity. “Spirituality” has become yet another marketable commodity – a thing that should be our birth-right, that should be as natural as breathing, has been packaged and marketed back to us as something that can only be mediated by experts.

They say “the best things in life are free” and actually, it’s true. Having a consensual hug or a massage with someone you love, or a stimulating conversation with a friend, or a lovely walk in the woods, or some other experience of shared beauty, is much more effective than hours of “spirituality”-related activities.

One of the things that has made me a more empathetic person, and possibly a nicer person to be around, is reading novels, because novels teach you about the nuances of feeling and allow you to empathise with someone else’s pain in a safe space (the privacy of your own mind) before going out and practising compassion in the real world. The trick is to make the connection between the character in the novel and real people, of course.

Look outwards, not inwards

Many people have emphasised the idea that you need to love something greater than yourself, and/or other than yourself, in order to find happiness. Of course, many people who aspire to be spiritual do love God, or Nature, or something beyond themselves; but then they spend a lot of time worrying about how to be more spiritual, and fall back into introspection and self-doubt.

Viktor Frankl explains that the only way to find meaning and peace is to look beyond the self:

“By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

So, all this relentless self-examination is actually counter-productive. The Muslims say that “Allah is closer to me than my jugular vein”; Buddhists say that enlightenment is only a heartbeat away. The great mystery of life is always available, always present, always pouring itself into reality at every moment, waiting to be experienced and enjoyed.

For me, the central mystery of my religion is love. The word religion comes from the Latin word, religio, to reconnect. Love is about connection, connecting fully and deeply with another human being. There are many types of love involving different types and depths of connection (eros, filia, storge, and agape are some that have been named).

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Our culture has also sought to commodify love, and reduce it only to romantic love, but it is much broader and deeper than that. In Hebrew, one of the words for love is Ahava, meaning ‘I will give’. The Tanakh (Jewish Bible) contains an extended meditation on the meaning of Ahava in the story told in the Book of Ruth. Another is Chesed, meaning steadfast love, loving-kindness. This term is often translated into Greek as eleos. Eleos is the personification of compassion in Greek mythology. Her Roman counterpart was Clementia. Ancient paganism had thought about love, compassion, and forgiveness, and these were among the virtues they cultivated.

Photo of Robert Indiana's 1977 Love sculpture spelling ahava. "Ahava" by עברית: רוברט אידניאנה, נולד ב-1928 - Talmoryair. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of Robert Indiana’s 1977 Love sculpture spelling ahava. “Ahava” by עברית: רוברט אידניאנה, נולד ב-1928Talmoryair. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

All the best writing seeks to broaden our humanity by encouraging us to connect, to have compassion, to love (both ourselves and others). If we cannot be compassionate to ourselves, how can we have compassion for others?

Love is a fierce and joyful thing

Love does not mean complete negation of the self. I am a human being with needs and desires, and I deserve love and compassion as much as the next person. Transcending the ego is not the same thing as erasing or negating the ego. All that happens is that one becomes aware of a reality beyond the ego, and seeks to connect with that greater reality.

Love is not a mealy-mouthed, weak thing that allows others to walk all over one. Love is a fierce and joyful thing that seeks the greatest well-being for all – bearing in mind that another person’s well-being may look quite different from yours. As many sages have said, “love thy neighbour as thyself” – in other words, love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.

Buddhism talks about ‘foolish compassion’ – the type of compassion that fails to involve the mind as well as the heart, to try and assess what would really help the suffering other. Love is not afraid to speak truth to power, or to tell the schlemiel that he is a fool.

Love is out on the front line telling the world that Black lives matter, standing up for the rights of LGBT people, indigenous peoples, immigrants, asylum seekers, and the marginalised. Love may be gentle and kind, but it is also fierce and joyous, and angry and sad, and embracing diversity.

A bubble of complacency

One of the things that enables me to function more-or-less effectively is the notion that bad things won’t happen to me. I call this “the bubble of complacency”. The bubble is a sense that all is well, life is generally benevolent, and other people do not actively wish one harm, and that the arc of history may be long, but it points towards justice. When bad things do happen to me, of course, the bubble gets popped, and I walk around all raw and unprotected. In 2010, I was in a car crash which was not my fault, and it was then that I first realised that the bubble existed, as the car crash popped it, very suddenly and abruptly. there was also a wonderful rush of relief at not having been killed in the car crash, during which I loved all my friends and family intensely, and even tiny mundane details of existence were intensely beautiful.

The following year, 2011, was really awful in a number of ways. I had an awful line manager, my relationship was on-again-off-again, I was planning to leave my job and start a course, but had no idea where I was going to live or how I would support myself during the course, and all the options I thought I had kept closing down. In November 2011, my beloved cat Harry died. I now realise that all those options closing down was actually the Universe trying to tell me that I was headed in the wrong direction, but it was painful at the time. My home, job, relationship, income, and spiritual journey were all in question. Normally it is pretty stressful if only one of those things is in doubt, but all of them at once was bad.

So, during 2012, my bubble of complacency started to reassert itself, living in Oxford, enjoying my job, and gradually getting everything together. I met my lovely partner in August of that year. But even in my bubble, I remained aware of social justice issues and tried to raise awareness of them.

In her excellent novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing, Starhawk talks about El Mundo Bueno (the good world) and El Mundo Malo (the bad world). Every situation has two possible outcomes, a good one  and a bad one. With our magic, prayer, and positive thinking, we constantly try to create the good world, the one where everything goes right. But every so often, we fall through the cracks into the bad world, the one where everything went wrong. My “bubble of complacency” is an attempt to keep walking in El Mundo Bueno.

“Doña Elena used to say that there was the Good Reality, El Mundo Bueno, literally the Good World, and the Bad Reality, El Mundo Malo, and they were always vying with each other. In the Good Reality you have a mild headache; in the Bad Reality you have a fatal brain disease. In the Good Reality, you catch hold of the rail as your foot slips; in the Bad Reality, you miss, slide down the stairs, and break your neck.

“We walk in the Good Reality as if we were treading the thin skin on warm milk. It’s always possible to break through and drown. …

“There is a hopeful side to Doña Elena’s teaching. … Even in El Mundo Malo, the Good Reality is always just on the other side of the surface of things. If you can learn to reach and pull yourself through, you can make miracles.” (Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing, page 44)

But recently I have become aware that my “bubble of complacency” may actually be a bubble of white privilege. Part of white privilege is the ability to walk down the street without being suspected of a crime, to get a job based on one’s qualifications, to get a house without being discriminated against by the seller, the estate agent, or the person renting it to you. In short, these are actually rights that everybody should have access to. White privilege is also the inheritance of wealth and resources stolen from colonised countries and enslaved people – again, something that the descendants of those people should be entitled to, but are still denied, due to the lack of a will to offer or even discuss reparations.

The horrific shootings of far too many Black people in the US, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, has made me aware that for Black people in the US, there can be no “bubble of complacency”. If you can’t walk down the street without fear of arrest or shooting for “walking while Black” – if you fear for the safety of your children when they leave the house – if you know you will be treated more harshly by law enforcement, and cannot get justice or equal treatment in any sphere – then El Mundo Malo  is always lurking just beneath the surface, ready to swallow you and all that you hold dear.

Here in the UK, I have become involved recently with two organisations, both of which have made me aware that my bubble of complacency is very much a privilege.

The first is Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary. They are a group that campaigns against institutional racism, in particular the indefinite detention of asylum seekers by the Home Office. They have campaigned (successfully, in several cases) against the deportation of LGBT asylum seekers back  to countries where being LGBT is illegal. They also campaign against the detention of other asylum seekers and people who have been imprisoned for very minor crimes who are under threat of deportation. One of the most egregious injustices that they have highlighted recently has been the death in custody of Pinakin Patel, a 33-year-old holiday-maker from India who was detained with his wife Bhavisha by the UKBA (UK Border Agency) on arrival in the UK for a holiday, on suspicion of coming here to look for work. Detaining innocent holiday-makers from India is deeply racist (assuming that they were lying about coming here on holiday, among other assumptions). Make no mistake: Yarl’s Wood and other detention centres are, in effect, concentration camps. Another very worthwhile campaign against them is Close Campsfield, which in addition to campaigning for the closure of the immigration detention centre just north of Oxford, has also organised conferences to try to raise awareness of these unjust and inhumane places. Britain is the only country in Europe which detains asylum seekers indefinitely.

Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre

Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre (photo by Yvonne Aburrow)

I have also been talking to other people about the issue of how badly asylum seekers and immigrants are treated in Britain, and have been met, for the most part, with indifference and in some cases, casual racism. The only people who get it are people who either come from elsewhere, or have partners or friends in the same situation.

If you read my recent post, Blue Beltane, you will see that El Mundo Malo was trying to break through into my world, as my partner was having visa issues. Thankfully, these have now been resolved, and he is back with me, in time for a belated Beltane celebration. But that situation heightened my awareness of other  people’s problems with visas and immigration.

The other organisation is the International Liberty Association, an organisation which has consistently campaigned for democracy and human rights in Iran and the Middle East, and which promotes a tolerant and egalitarian version of Islam, where women are recognised as equals and encouraged to take up leadership roles. 2700 of their members are currently trapped in a transit camp (called, somewhat ironically, Camp Liberty) near Baghdad airport. The forces of ISIL are closing in on one side, and the Iraqi forces on the other. Because they promote democracy and human rights, the Iranian regime wants to extradite them to Iran and execute them. The Iranian regime has already murdered thousands and thousands of people who campaigned for democracy and human rights. Last night I had the privilege of meeting some people who have recently been rescued from Camp Liberty. Brave, brave souls. These are people whose relatives have been murdered, who have been in constant fear of their lives from rocket attacks, arrest, torture, and imprisonment. They have never had the luxury of a bubble of complacency.

How can we, as Pagans, respond to all these horrific situations? Certainly not by retreating ever further into a cosy world of magical illusion, bickering over the right way to cast a circle, or what colour your candles should be. Rather, by engaging in the struggle for social justice, and promoting a vision of a world where all life is sacred.

Laura Bruno expresses it well:

…we live in a Both/And Universe. El Mundo Bueno and El Mundo Malo exist simultaneously, and we summon them by honoring or rejecting the sacred — in ourselves, in others and in the “world” at large. Every time we calm ourselves and remember (re-member … give new form and vessel to) the sacredness of Air, of Fire, of Water, of Earth and of Spirit, we pull ourselves back into the Good Reality.

Rhyd Wildermuth, Alley Valkyrie, T Thorn Coyle, Crystal Blanton and others have all been doing their best to promote a compassionate and engaged Paganism, one that connects deeply with the sacred, with the gods, and with the vision of a way of living that acknowledges that life is sacred. Rhyd and Alley in particular have correctly identified capitalism as the biggest threat to the flourishing of life. Why? Because capitalism disconnects the maker from the made, the worker from their work, and encourages the idle rich to make money from the labour of others. In the UK, the gap between rich and poor has become even wider during the Conservative administration and their austerity programme.

Wikipedia’s definition of capitalism glosses over the biggest problem, which is the extraction of profit by shareholders from the enterprise.

Capitalism is an economic system and a mode of production in which trade, industries, and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned. Such private firms and proprietorships are usually operated for profit, but may be operated as private nonprofit organizations.

Capitalism is not simply a market economy, where small traders make and sell their goods. It is the notion that a person who invests in a company, but does none of the actual work, is entitled to a share of the profits. The alternative to this (which has proven to be very viable and successful) is the co-operative, where every worker in the co-operative is a member and gets a share of the profits.

Pagan worldviews and visions – of what is sacred, of how we might live in harmony with the Earth and each other – are deeply important in showing what is possible. Pagans were among the first to argue that the Divine is both feminine and masculine. Now that view is widely acknowledged. Pagans were among the first to argue that Nature is sacred. Now that  view is more widely acknowledged. We also were among the first to welcome LGBT people to our circles and groups (though there are still issues with heterocentrism). Many Pagans (but not enough) are actively involved in the struggle against racism. We are often at or near the forefront of movements for social change. We can be agents of transformation, both in the struggle for social justice, and in the practice of magic to help bring about change. I would argue that showing up for demonstrations against injustices is a form of magic, in that it brings about a change in consciousness.

So, I aim to transform my “bubble of complacency” into an effort to bring about the manifestation of El Mundo Bueno for as many people as possible. Instead of luxuriating in my privilege, I intend to work  to extend that sense of comfort to as many people as possible.

The Enchanted, a beautiful article by Lia Hunter at Gods and Radicals expresses the contrast between a world of selfishness, greed, and exploitation and a world where everyone is valued, including the natural world. She writes:

We can cancel the terrible show and start writing and rehearsing, or even remembering one that does not eat our children and destroy mind, body, soul, Earth, and connection. It made us forget what community is, and what sacred means, but we can find them again. Some of us have already begun. Some of us in indigenous communities never lost them and can share them. There are paths strewn with fulfillment rather than endless hunger. We can find the paths with vital air to breathe, clean water to refresh, and solid ground to stand and circle with each other upon. Our ancestors knew them, walked them, danced them. Some continued to remember them throughout empire, despite the illusions of usurious capital and divine right of kings, and preserved markers for us in myth, symbol, and language. Nature, itself, contains markers and inspiration. Our home and kin are calling us.

Yes! We do not have to dance to the tune of war, austerity, destruction, greed, and selfishness. We can articulate a vision of a world of beauty and sacredness. We can build communities, friendships, and connections. We can work towards a world where all are equal, safe, and free. This is the sacred vision towards which our gods are calling us, which the whole of Nature is crying out for.

Transplanting from one culture to another – appropriation or exchange?

Many people do not understand what is and is not cultural appropriation because they assume that practices and techniques can be easily transplanted from one context to another, but this does not take into account the issues around the particularity of traditions to their culture, place, and history, and it does not recognise the impact of colonialism and the commodification and commercialisation of indigenous traditions.

Dandelion seeds in the morning sunlight blowing away in the wind across a clear blue sky

Cross-fertilisation: dandelion seeds blowing away in the wind. Photo by Brian A Jackson, courtesy of Shutterstock

Take for example the practice of calling the quarters. This is based on several assumptions: that circular space is the most sacred; that there are four cardinal directions, and four elements with a meaning that is embedded in a particular cultural context (the Western Mystery Tradition, or of several Native American traditions), and that making a connection with the four elements and the four sacred directions helps you to become more connected to Nature, or the universe, because we are the microcosm of the universe (an idea found in Neo-Platonism, Kabbalah, and Swedenborgianism). If the practice of calling the quarters is transplanted to another tradition which does not have these assumptions, myths, and symbols, it will only be a shallow version of the practice, and will probably not even make sense in the context to which it has been transplanted.

People who charge money for the practices of others, without respect for their situatedness in a particular culture, history, tradition, and totally failing to notice the power relations involved in the colonialism of the very recent past, and the continued assertion by the West of the superiority of capitalism, consumerism, and the rationalist enlightenment is a big ethical issue. Spiritual traditions are not and cannot be divorced from context, and they are not automatically the property of all humanity. We need to approach other traditions with mindfulness and respect, and not assuming that everything is ours for the taking.

Spiritual traditions are rich with meaning, both mythological and historical, and taking a practice or a ritual out of the context within which it was created strips it of the rich associations that it had in its original context. If you take practices out of context, you are very likely to end up doing them superficially.  Respectful engagement with other traditions requires a reasonably in-depth engagement with them, and a certain amount of immersion, not just a brief encounter. I guess ‘respectful’ is the key word in all of that.

As a minor example, even copy-cat behaviour towards an individual can be problematic. A few years back, I had very specific labels in the religion and politics boxes on my Facebook profile, which I had arrived at through considerable soul-searching, angst, and upheaval, both social and personal. I was also recognised by other members of the groups I belonged to as a member of those groups. Imagine my horror when some eejit who did not even know what they meant (and I know he didn’t because I asked him) decided he was going to copy them for his profile. He was not even a member of either of the religious traditions concerned. I was furious. (And there was not even a history of colonial oppression in the history between him and me.) Now imagine how people from other cultures feel when that happens with their identities and culture.

However, say you have encountered a practice that really speaks to you, or that will significantly improve your health, and you want to borrow it respectfully. What should you do? Is it enough to ask someone who might be considered an authority in the tradition you want to borrow it from? The problem here is that there are many different people within a given tradition, and they do not all speak with one voice. So, what should be the criteria for whether or not a person can be considered the keeper of a tradition? Is it strength of belief? Is that they are a priest or recognised holy person? Many people would argue that the laity should have just as much say in the matter as the priesthood. Or should the criterion be the consensus view of many members of the tradition?

However, the construction of an argument around strength of belief as a possible criterion for being the keeper of a tradition, or the idea of a holy person as no more worthy than a secular person, is all grounded in a particularly Western and rationalist and Protestant view of how religion works. My argument has nothing to do with strength of belief, keepers of tradition, or any inherent ownership of ideas: it is about the historical and cultural context in which something arose, and (in the case of Native American spirituality in particular) the colonialist appropriation of ideas, artefacts, rituals, and the commodification of them. Cultures whose spiritual traditions have been appropriated are complaining about the commodification of their ideas, and the way they have been packaged and sold and marketed by fake gurus and shamans in the West.

A priest or shaman has been trained in the technique and the safeguards that go with it. Many popularisers of various meditation techniques forget to tell you the safeguards. The shaman or priest is steeped in the culture and the context and the meaning of the practice. A populariser (whether a lay person from the same culture, or someone from another culture) is not necessarily aware of the context, meaning, safeguards, etc. The people who don’t want their practices taken out of context are not doing it to protect the practice as a commodity which they could package and sell – as far as most of them are concerned, their practices are not for sale. They are very likely to be trying to protect us from bad / shallow / poorly understood versions of the practices. Because without the safeguards and correct techniques, and an understanding of the context, some practices are dangerous. The people doing the commodifying are the appropriaters, who often want to make a fast buck out of repackaging the practice for a Western audience, usually stripped of its sacred context and meaning.

All of this does not mean that you can never borrow a practice or a ritual from another culture – but it does mean that shallow engagement with it is not enough. You need to examine whether the practice fits within your own tradition, by looking at the religious, spiritual, and cultural assumptions which have gone into its construction.

There have been many fruitful and successful moments of syncretisation of different traditions, and some failed ones. The most successful ones seem to be when the two traditions met as equals, and engaged in genuine dialogue and exchange (as when Buddhism met Taoism and created Zen Buddhism, or when Buddhism met Shinto and created Ryobu Shinto). When an imperial and colonising tradition moved in, the indigenous religion was often either crushed (like when Christianity met ancient paganisms) or subsumed (like when Buddhism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity met indigenous religions).

Anyone studying the history of encounters between religions and cultures can easily see that cultures are not monolithic, intact, or impermeable. In fact, cultures are always exchanging ideas, inventions, material goods, books, food, recipes. There is clearly a lot of healthy and respectful cultural exchange. Hence the attempt to make a distinction between culturing borrowing and cultural appropriation, both in this article about decolonising your yoga practice, and in my previous attempt to write about the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.

Appropriation means claiming that you own something or have a right to it. Borrowing means acknowledging that the other party owns it. They are not synonymous.  Borrowing can be respectful. Appropriation is disrespectful. The trick is learning the difference.  However, if a person from another culture says, hands off, you cannot access this without going through the proper process – then proceeding to take it without their approval is theft.

If the culture which you had the misfortune to be born into goes around colonising other countries (both by conquest and via economic power) and you then come along and steal their spiritual traditions, despite them saying no: that makes you part of the colonisers.

If on the other hand you acknowledge them as the ones with expertise, and learn from them, and acknowledge their sovereignty, and they decide to give freely: that is respectful.

An obvious analogy is Wicca. There are practices in Wicca that I would not recommend to anyone uninitiated (because initiation prepares you for them) and that would not make sense outside of the symbolic framework of Wicca.  Although these practices are available from other spiritual traditions, invocation is also carefully situated within a symbolic framework and an initiatory process in those other traditions, too. It occurs in Buddhism, and they have a very elaborate system around it – with good reason. And the same with all the other practices.

I know there are things in Wicca that don’t quite fit in Druidry, and vice versa – and those two traditions are reasonably similar. Consider how difficult it is, then, to import a practice from a dissimilar tradition. I generally don’t do Buddhist practices because I disagree with the basic founding premise of Buddhism, that all is dukka (suffering) and that the only way to free yourself from suffering is to avoid attachment. If you don’t buy into this basic premise of Buddhism, then a lot of their meditation techniques don’t make sense.

In my previous post on this topic, I outlined some thoughts on what constitutes appropriation, and what constitutes respectful borrowing. When I wrote that post, I was largely unaware that sometimes people accuse non-Europeans of cultural appropriation when they try to join in with European forms of Paganism. I learnt this from reading the excellent book, Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Ellwood, and Brandy Williams. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend doing so.

Cultural appropriation cannot be properly understood unless you look at it in the context of colonialism, power, money, exploitation, and capitalism. Although Pagan religions are not part of the dominant paradigm of Western culture (which is predominantly Christian with an overlay of Enlightenment rationalism and a big dollop of capitalism), and are often relegated by the dominant discourse to the realms of the “primitive” – white practitioners of Pagan religions still benefit from being members of the dominant social group much of the time. Cultural appropriation is usually done from the dominant position in any encounter between two cultures. So if you are not in the dominant position in the encounter, it will be difficult to appropriate the culture of the other.

To sum up, then: ritual techniques and practices are not universal, and it is difficult to lift them from one context to another; doing so without consideration for their original meaning and context is disrespectful; and it is often a continuation of colonialism, capitalism, and commodification.