Archives For spirituality

Yesterday the BBC News Magazine posted a look at “spiritual, but not religious” people, cobbling together various studies and perspectives to try and understand this rather nebulous (yet growing) demographic. Interestingly, the lump modern Pagans in as part of the larger “spiritual” trend noting that “the spiritually aligned range from pagans to devotees of healing crystals, among many other sub-groups.”

Mike Stygal, is a secondary school teacher who practises paganism in his private life. He believes in a divine force in nature. “I believe everything is connected, I feel very in touch with nature and the changing seasons. Awe is a very good word for how I feel. It’s a sense of deep respect for nature. I can communicate with the deity.”

They also point to a quote from pop superstar Pink where she talks about her spiritual-but-not-religious makeup.

Pink on the BBC, October, 2012

Pink on the BBC, October, 2012

“I love Native American spirituality and paganism, and I’ve studied Buddhism. I think organised religion is one of the top problems of the world actually, so no, I’d say I steer clear of religion and go straight towards spirituality.”

Increasingly, I think more and more people are finding Paganism not as discrete religions, but as a part of an open-sourced kit to build an individualized belief system or practice. They aren’t Wiccans, or Druids, or Asatru, they are practicing “Paganism” as a syncretic and eclectic system in its own right, people like Shirley McMichael a community engagement worker with the Policing Board in Belfast.

“The widow described herself as a pagan rather than a witch — although she does have a small ceremonial broomstick, a wand and casts spells. “Wicca (witchcraft) is more structured than our Pagan Voice group but we have quite a lot in common” she said. For Mrs McMichael, paganism — the worship of natural forces often personified as a god and goddess — is a way of being in tune with the environment.”

I think McMichael’s quote there is important because it highlights that she sees Wicca as a religious system that she chooses to work outside, though finds some affinity with. Likewise, turning back to the BBC News Magazine article, we find a woman reviving “ancient traditions” but with no real interest in labeling herself as a Pagan.

Bridget McKenzie, a cultural learning consultant, does daily walking meditations. “It’s about making time to contemplate the awesomeness of life on earth, the extraordinary luck this planet has in sustaining life.” She is not a pagan but for the summer solstice organises a Garlic Man Parade in south east London to reconnect with ancient traditions. “We all sense changes in the light as the seasons change. It’s important to mark the occasion.”

When the census data for England and Wales was released, I noted that as impressive as Paganism’s growth was, they may have been many more of “us” hidden in other categories.

Bringing to just over 80,000 (or so) Pagans. That number doesn’t count how many Pagans there might be lurking within the category of “Mixed Religon” (23,566), “Own Belief System” (1,949), or “Spiritual” (13,832). Other figures of note in the “Other Religion” category include Vodoun at 208, Traditional African Religion at 588 (both numbers that I think are too low), and New Age at 698 adherents.

The spiritual category might have included the Garlic Man Parade organizer mentioned above, the one who wants to reconnect with ancient traditions, and “mixed religion” would most certainly have encompassed a pop star who loves Native American spirituality, Paganism, and Buddhism. In short, Pagans are indeed much larger that some give us credit for, but our numbers will always be diffused through several categories because Paganism doesn’t demand brand loyalty or exclusive rights to your soul.

People are rejecting “religion” in ever growing numbers, and a growing number of individuals are defining themselves as “spiritual but not religion” even if they claim a religious affiliation. This decline simply speeds the decline further, as it becomes easier and more attractive to jettison religious labels.

Pagans dance in "nonreligious" Estonia. Photo: BBC.

Pagans dance in “nonreligious” Estonia. Photo: BBC.

“The idea is pretty simple,” said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the University of Arizona.”It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility. [...]  In a large number of modern secular democracies, there’s been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%.” The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the “non-religious” category. They found, in a study published online, that those parameters were similar across all the countries studied, suggesting that similar behaviour drives the mathematics in all of them. And in all the countries, the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction.

What happens is that you start to encounter cultures where “nones” dominate, and where spirituality is often shaped by the landscape, and by the people living in it. This can be very Pagan as in the Pacific Northwest, where the authors of “Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia,” note residents are “eclectically, informally, often deeply ‘spiritual.’” Specifically, New Age and nature-oriented spirituality loom large among “nones” here.

“According to the just-published “Cascadia: the Elusive Utopia.” … a lot of these “nones” in the Pacific Northwest are actually very spiritual, walking a path of their own making, but not into organized religions and churches. Sociology professor Mark Shibley of Southern Oregon University wrote the lead essay called “The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia.” “This region is different. The people here are not as connected to religious institutions,” he says. The alternative spirituality here shows itself in two main ways, Shibley notes: “nature spirituality,” such as you see in the secular environmental movement, and the more well-known New Age spirituality, where the gaze is shifted inward.”

While some Pagans seem to scorn this growing contingent of eclectic, syncretic, label-free, spiritual people, I think it is this growing phenomenon that will deliver vital cultural shifts for those of us who are explicitly members of a Pagan religion. The rise of the unaffiliated in the world weakens the power of the religions that seek to create a homogenous “united” religious identity under their moral guidance. Call them wishy-washy, or unable to commit, or whatever invective you choose, but the “spiritual” people are the buffer that allows for the continued growth of Paganism around the world. Pink’s love of Paganism helps create a future where even more people can learn to love us.

[While I like to keep something of a firewall between my work at The Wild Hunt, and my job at Mythic Events, the folks who put on Faerieworlds in Eugene, and the FaerieCons in Seattle and Baltimore, I felt that in this case an exception was in order. Faerieworlds, while not explicitly Pagan, is steeped in the same mythic, transformational, energy you'd find at any number of festivals marketed to our community. This year, we are immensely proud to have recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Donovan headlining, and Robert Gould, a co-owner and Producer of Faerieworlds, has written an eloquent appreciation exploring why this artist fits so well into the ethos our event inhabits. I greatly enjoyed reading it, and I felt that many of you would as well.]

“Why Donovan?” is a question we have been asked since we announced his landmark appearance at our event in Eugene, OR on July 29th, several months ago.

A master of the poetic evocation of place, character and emotion, Donovan is, first and foremost a storyteller in the bardic tradition. Tales of love, longing loss, rapture, adventure, crisis, mystics, heroes, heroines and above all, devotion fill his songbook. Tactile and sensual, these stories have deep roots in mythic and folkloric tales of the Land and the cultural, often timeless challenges faced by humanity within our global community.

Like any great artist, Donovan sees and uses words and music as symbols for ideas and emotions; rarely are his expressions fixed or overtly literal. He seeks and showcases the inherent poetry within words and the syllabic rhythms they contain as best evidenced in “Wear You Love Like Heaven.” Melodies often flow over a drone of instrument or voice, serving as an inner mantra for the expression of the lyric. He has a respect for and appreciation of the importance of poignant, delicate and fragile musical moments that produce enormous emotional impact: within even in his most dramatic songs there is a heart of suspended stillness. Such moments become fixed in time and memory and produce instantaneous, visceral recall when heard even decades later.

His gentle, often whispered voice with its warm, Northern burr creates a seductive intimacy that quietly commands attention. The master of the sideways glance, Donovan rarely addresses any subject directly; all is liquid, evolving, emerging. His lyrics do not offer obvious observations or insights, they are as if observed in a mirror, tempered by a poetic symbol or provocative metaphor. His music is welcoming and seductive, accounting in part for the exceptional number of artists he has inspired or influenced. His unique finger style method alone has spawned a celebrated lineage of the finest guitar players of our time.

The most common and unifying quality of great art is ambiguity: it’s ability to be experienced and interpreted by people of any gender, age, culture or time. Donovan’s music shares this rare, open quality: it is most often simple in form and melody but at the same time elusive and ephemeral. He hangs his art in the air and subjects it to the harmonizing influence of the elements. Never dogmatic, he addresses social issues as a poet, not as a politician and avoids literal conversations about power within his art.

Since the beginning, Donovan’s spiritual practice has been at the heart of his physical, emotional and spiritual life. He joins George Harrison as a pioneer and champion of introducing and popularizing the philosophies and music of the East to the West during the 60s and 70s and his presence, influence and support lies at the foundation of much of what we call alternative culture today. His work has transcended being solely linked to two world-shifting decades because his music, poetry and the subjects of his art are timeless.

In a rampant consumer and celebrity obsessed culture that is addicted to the empty calories of entraining, metronomic beats and autotuned robo-voices, Donovan’s music reminds us of the transcendent power of a compelling melody and a poetically crafted lyric to touch the human heart and soul and bring Meaning, if only for a moment, to our all too temporal lives, To accomplish this, Donovan sources his art from something greater than himself. It is evident that his lifetime practice of meditation has produced an enormous bounty. For Donovan, life, art and music are a ceremony of innocence and a sacrament of devotion. He lives and creates today in joyful celebration of and in service to Spirit and Beauty, a wise and accomplished artist and poet humbled before the greatness and vastness of the Universe to which he knows he shall return.

Simply put: Donovan is an artist very much of our time and completely embodies the intention, heart and spirit of Faerieworlds. Donovan has always been and remains to this day, an artist for the ages.

[I'd like to thank Robert Gould for sharing this with us. Donovan performs at Faerieworlds, the music and arts festival in Eugene, OR, on July 29, 2012. For more information, visit: www.faerieworlds.com. Stay tuned, because I may soon have an exclusive interview with Donovan to share, one that I think many Pagans will find interesting.]

Don Lattin, author of “The Harvard Psychedelic Club” and “Following Our Bliss,” reports on growing pains at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, for the Religion News Service. According to Lattin’s piece, there are growing complaints about the “corporatization” of Esalen, long a haven for spiritual seekers, with some claiming it is “turning into a spa for the 1 percent.”

A view of Big Sur, California.

A view of Big Sur, California.

“David Price, the son of the late Richard Price and a former general manager of the institute, is one of many Esalen veterans who complain that the place has lost its edge. Others point to upgraded rooms in which a spiritual seeker can spend up to $1,595 for a weekend workshop. Standard rooms, with two or three people sharing a room and bath, cost $730 per person for the weekend. What began with a burst of hippie idealism, they say, is turning into a spa for the 1 percent. There’s even some talk of an “Occupy Esalen” protest. Some staff members, workshop leaders and temporary “work scholar” volunteers have begun gathering in a daily “circle of silence” to protest recent layoffs and staff changes designed to improve efficiency. Meanwhile, the blogosphere is abuzz with “Esalen Friends” letting off steam on a Facebook page.”

Jeffrey Kripal, author of “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion”, tells Lattin that what Esalen is going through are classic generational struggles that all religious movements face, the “institutionalization of charisma.” In addition, Esalen President Gordon Wheeler says “we certainly don’t want to turn into one of today’s big bad corporations” and that those stirring up discontent aren’t tuned into what Esalen is like today.

Esalen President Gordon Wheeler said most of the people stirring up discontent “have not been here for quite a long time.” ”They are remembering a time when the world was different. People didn’t have to show up in the same way,” said Wheeler, a Gestalt therapist who first taught here in 1997 and went onto become the CEO. ”Sometimes we make mistakes, but we certainly don’t want to turn into one of today’s big bad corporations … Everything we do here is about the evolution of spiritual transformation.”

Interestingly, Lattin’s article doesn’t directly cite the critical site Esaleaks, or mention the recently released (and earlier leaked) leadership culture survey, which showed a cautious, “reactive,” culture of leadership at Esalen. As the resort hits its 50th anniversary, their troubles ask larger questions about the overlapping “Human Potential” and “New Age” movements. Movements that have had quite a considerable influence on modern Paganism (take a look at Esalen’s past teachers list as confirmation).  Lately, with the United States dealing with one of the worst economic downturns in recent history, with the high rate of unemployment, and with the rise of populist backlashes to the status quo (especially in the Occupy Movement), we are more sensitive than ever to the money and power-related failings of movements which claim to be working for the benefit of all.

This crisis of identity at Esalen comes during a time of scandal for the New Age/Human Potential movements, from Anusara’s sex-and-power shake-ups, to the deadly power-tripping of “Secret” teacher James Arthur Ray. It truly does seem like a “midlife crisis,” but I think it’s more about a lack of accountability to the values that these communities claim to espouse. There has always been scandal in the New Age movement, but in better times it didn’t seem to hit as hard, nor did the stakes seem to be as high. There was a long-running joke in the Pagan community that the difference between a Pagan event and a New Age event was where the decimal point was placed in the check you wrote to attend, but I’m starting to think it goes a little deeper than that. Yes, our relative poverty compared to the New Age has kept us humbler, less out of touch with the world around us, but I also think that because we’re a movement of religions, we are fundamentally different from the “spiritual but not religious” elite.

The New Age movement is, at the end of the day, a means towards transmitting a set of technologies for living, usually acquired for a monetary price. Your theology is ultimately immaterial, which is why it can encompass both Oprah and Robert Anton Wilson. Because a number of those technologies overlap with the beliefs of modern Pagans, we have sometimes seen our teachers “cross over” to their high-paying events (though not often), and many Pagans have happily attended New Age seminars looking to pick up new teachings. That overlap, however, should not be mistaken for one being the other. Wicca and other Pagan faiths were once mistakenly called “New Age religions,” but that’s a misnomer, one that was eventually corrected as more research was done. We are spiritual and religious.

Pagan faiths are also going through generational struggles, though they are more about evolving our stances on social issues, or creating new leadership, than about money. We are more worried about building simple infrastructure than evolving that infrastructure into resorts for the rich. Perhaps a day will come when Pagans, too, will argue over corporatization and whether we are out of touch with the non-rich, but I somehow doubt it. Our open-source experiential nature will always unbalance attempts to codify our faiths into money-making machines, no matter how much some attempt to automate the process. We will never, I predict, collectively escalate far beyond the middle-class in our ambitions. That may frustrate some of us who yearn for “New Age money,” but it will also spare us the crisis of conscience and leadership faced by institutions like Esalen.

BBC News has run a story on the Church of England’s efforts to reach out to “spiritual but not religious” people, complete with hipster missionaries sent out to psychic fairs, and alternative meeting and worship services. But do these experiments in boosting church attendance really work? Not so much, according to reporter Jolyon Jenkins.

Ian Mobsby, an emerging church guru, argues we live in the age of the “spiritual tourist”; a “world driven by individualism… where people want to experience something that brings peace, centredness and depth.” He sees parallels between today’s post-religious culture and the early days of Christianity, a time of prevailing mysticism in Europe. “We are entering a world where people aren’t interested in whether something is true or not, or whether they believe it or not, but whether it works,” says Mr Mobsby. In other words, if an emerging church can offer a sense of community and give a feeling of inner peace, that may be enough – belief will follow. But three years into his mission in Telford, Mark Berry’s core community is not spiritual-but-not-religious recruits, but already-committed Christians who use his gatherings to deepen and provide new perspectives on their faith. There may be a hole in people’s lives, but there’s not a great deal of evidence that it is God-shaped.

This isn’t scientific, but my own experiences with alternative Christian outreach programs have backed this up. While the  curious may drop in from time to time, the committed members are usually self-identified Christians already. So psychic-fair outreach programs, Church-led extreme-sport events, and goth masses,  act more as retention programs than anything else. Not that there is anything wrong with trying to lure estranged church-goers back into the fold, but I agree with “emerging church guru” Ian Mobsby’s claim that were moving into a results-based religious future. A future that doesn’t necessarily favor large institutional religions.

If your faith is losing members, a new marketing plan, no matter how effective, won’t stem the tide. Who knows though? Maybe hanging out in psychic fairs and doing extreme sports will end up changing the outreachers more than the (potentially) outreached. Perhaps these new “hip” emerging-churchers are simply becoming the change they want to see, and that may wind up being a more effective ministry than any sort of “alternative” event. (Thanks to Mike for tipping me off to this story.)