Archives For spirituality

Whenever I speak about gratitude, I usually get eye rolls. And I do get it. The world is now replete with self-help books expressing its spiritual benefits. It is impossible to get through afternoon talk shows without a sappy, Oprah-anointed guru psychobabbling at us to be better individuals and recognize the importance of being grateful. Then add to that a shared YouTube video showing someone expressing thankfulness sprinkled by a chiffonade of attached Facebook memes dripping with gratitude epithets, and you have a really hard-to-swallow saccharine-dripping torte that would challenge Pollyanna Whittier at the height of her powers. I will squeal with delight if I can be the first to leave that cake out in the rain. Like I said, I really do get it.

Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno

Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno

In practice though, I actually make the effort to spend time being grateful. With so many challenges in the world and with all of us facing personal and local difficulties, the feeling of gratitude can be hard to summon. It can be elusive and, even when we’re able to beckon it forward, there is often a sense of guardedness. And for some of us, deadpan cynicism and sarcasm have become so second nature that they overwhelm our ability to reflect on the moment.

It’s as if we are perfectly fine with cynicism, grief, frustration, and anger; but when we get to gratitude, there’s a discomfort. I can only suppose we like to believe that those tough attitudes and emotions harden us for the better. While the soft emotions seem to be socially scripted as expressions of weakness. It really begs the question why we choose to deride feeling warm and fuzzy. But, there once again is the rub. As a scientist, I’ve had to come to grips with a couple of irritating facts: cynical beliefs aren’t so good for me and being grateful has lots of benefits

Cynical beliefs have been studied for some time in different disciplines with the central question being their consequences on the individual. To be clear, this is not skepticism or realism. Rather it is a worldview that others are basically functioning deceptively and are fundamentally untrustworthy while directing their efforts to their own self-interest. It is of course a longstanding philosophical argument about human nature. But psychologists don’t focus on the philosophical. They focus on the empirical consequences on behavior, and, in this case, the measurable effects of cynicism on individual functioning.

With that question in mind, both correlational and experimental studies have led to some challenging findings. Those individuals who approach the world with fundamentally cynical beliefs report a non-trivial set of outcomes including increased mortality (Everson, et al. 1997), dementia, (Neuvonen et al. 2014), and obesity (Bunde & Suls, 2006). Such beliefs also affect work success and overall satisfaction (Leung, 2010).

One recent study by Stavrova & Ehlebracht (2015) tracked several thousand Americans who were stratified based on their cynical belief. What they found was that the more cynical an individual was, the lower the income of that individual over several years. To be clear, not all these studies demonstrated causation between cynicism and a negative outcome. But they do point in a direction suggesting that cynical outlooks are really hazardous to our well-being. The implication, of course, is that cynicism should be moderated. But how?

The answer to that question lies with gratitude. Empirical research on gratitude has shown that it can not only overcome cynical belief but also strengthen us in many ways. Roman Statesman Cicero first noted that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” And like a parent, it knows how and when to fortify us. It acts as a bulwark against depression, anxiety, cynicism and envy by promoting feelings of well-being and happiness (McCullogh, et al., 2002).

Developing a sense of gratitude has positive effects on sleep patterns and results in increased feelings of serenity. This was demonstrated not merely through self-reports but also through observable changes in the brain visible through neuroimaging (Emmons & McNamara, 2006). And gratitude speeds the building of relationships while nurturing them to deepen our support and understanding of one another (Williams & Barlett,  2015). This is an amazing mix of benefits.

Additionally, gratitude produces effects that have cascading positive outcomes. Grateful people exercise more often and report less physical pain. It also improves self-esteem and increases our resilience in difficult emotional and physical situations. Gratitude even helps us with body-image issues (Emmons, 2008). All of these improve our functioning and our ability to accept our selves and others.

And all of this occurs without ever answering the central question about gratitude: Grateful to whom?

Research suggests that the answer to that question is actually irrelevant in order to receive the benefits of gratitude. There are many ways to show gratitude, and there are many permutations to feeling grateful. But the practice of gratitude does not require a target or a benefactor. There is space for the atheist and the believer. No belief or patron is required. We only need us. Gomez was grateful for Morticia without ever having to wonder much else.

The power of gratitude is that it develops the spiritual strength to recognize the moment and the privilege of experiencing it. Our ability to feel grateful involves us in the here and now, and helps us acknowledge the blessings that come from our connections to one another. That also extends to our connections to other Beings, Spirits and Nature. But gratitude does exist as a powerful human gift in its own right and bluntly one that we so often overlook or, ironically, take for granted.

In the spiritual space, I often feel that gratitude has been appropriated as a virtue exclusive to the Abrahamic religions. I feel our Christian colleagues, for example, seem more comfortable with acknowledging and expressing gratitude. So too in Islam and Judaism, gratitude is at the forefront of worship. While some may not personally internalize their gratefulness, they cannot escape being reminded that it is a virtue, important in practice and central to worship.

Likewise, Hinduism also embraces the centrality of gratitude. One of my best friends growing up was Hindu and his mother reminded us at every festival about the significance of gratitude to the Gods and each other. It is a dharma that is both human and divine. Gratitude was a daily practice and a sensibility to be developed, which ultimately protected us from ourselves.

But, it is easy to forget that we all have our own magic at play here as well. We each have our own reverence and relationship with nature, and our own spirit to harness. Each of us can reclaim gratitude as an asset of our own. The seeds of that strength have already been sown.

For some of us, this time of the year is the fulfillment of our trust in Nature. It is the time when our conviction in the order of the seasons brings forth a harvest that has been ongoing since Lughnasadh and is completed in Samhain. Yet, this time of year is often a moment forgotten because of the many demands on our time and the many events heralded by the first day of autumn.

While fall gets a lot of attention, I personally believe that Mabon really gets the short end of the calendar stick. The autumnal equinox closes out summer and with it the end of vacations and the timelessness that goes with the long days. The remnants of summer slowly shut down from crab shacks to tourist traps. It then turns from sad to hectic quickly. For some of us, the school year begins; for others we prepare for colder weather. From ballet to soccer to football, autumn revs up into full swing quickly filling up our schedules. Some of us, move right into Samhain with decorations, party planning and organizing rituals and events.

My Facebook feed is currently a testament to the rise in posts on Halloween decorations and ritual activity. All the summer white space on my calendar is now a daily rainbow of activities punctuated by “to do” pointers littered across my free time. We become busy again. And with all that, we become unavailable to ourselves.

Just this week, I received a lovely reminder of that point. Just as I finished the first draft of this column, gravity decided to teach me a lesson in gratitude. What started as a tingling on the top of my left foot after an evening run became excruciating pain that had me wrestling with the floor until rescue services arrived. The check-in at the emergency room was not quick enough.

Let me publicly state here that I am apparently an exceptionally unpleasant person when I’m in severe pain. I become unsparingly sarcastic, willful and quite adept at being insufferable. Although my pain kept getting worse, my husband stuck it out with me through the ordeal. When the physician asked about medical history my husband said “insanity runs in the family but you’d never guess it.” With one sentence and a smile, he cut through all the rancor. I calmed down; the pain went down and I even refused Dilaudid. The treatment was made more effective by being grateful my husband was there.

We can be grateful for our medicine and magic, and we can be grateful for the reminders of basic things like health and even the ability to pay for a hospital visit. The counting of what we are grateful for really begins with our relationships and, through both, we produce those powerful effects on which science reports.

Photo Credit:  S. Ciotti

Photo Credit: S. Ciotti

Back to Mabon, this season is a reminder of the promises of gratitude. We sow and harvest both in nature and our relationships. And it really is our holiday. It doesn’t co-mingle with others like Christmas or Easter or even All Saint’s Day. The closest neighbors might be Rosh HaShanah and EId-al-Edhabut with a different meaning. In the Wheel of the Year, Mabon is a time of rest and reflection. It is a day uniquely ours.

As the days grow shorter, we celebrate our accomplishments and are offered a gift to simply be grateful for being present. Mabon invites us to have a nice long chat with ourselves. Mabon invites us to share the harvest and to reflect on how our cynical selves build within us temples to materialism and self-doubt. Mabon invites us to have an optimistic and appreciative conversation that we often reserve for others and rarely reserve for ourselves. It is moment to reframe the many hostilities directed toward us into opportunities for change. Transforming emotional energy is Pagan strength; and gratitude can be a powerful catalyst.

Nature is teaching us that this is a moment of gratitude as well. The harvest is a promise fulfilled; one that began at planting. And while it is a promise kept, there were never any guarantees. There was a lot of hard work. There were moments of doubt. There were torrents of rain and wind as well as drought. And yet the fruits are here. They range from the apples of the fields to the smiles of those we love. We can rejoice in a moment of abundance in both the land and in our relationships. And we can be grateful for them. It is our Thanksgiving.



Bunde, J. & Suls, J. (2006).  A quantitative analysis of the relationship between Cook-Medley Hostility Scale and traditional coronary artery disease risk factors.  Health Psychology, 25, 493-500.

Emmons, R.A . (2008).  Gratitude.  The science and spirit of thankfulness.  In D. Goleman et al. Measuring the immeasurable.  The scientific case for spirituality.  (pp. 121-133). Boulder: Co:  Sounds True.

Everson, et al. (1997).  Hostility and increased risk of mortality and acute myocardial infarction: The mediating role of behavioral risk factors.  American Journal of Epidemiology, 146, 142-152.

McCullogh, M.E., Emmons, R.S. & Tsang, J.A. (2002).  The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112-127.

Neuvonen et al. (2014).  Leate-life cynical distrust,risk of incident dementia, and mortality in a population-based cohort.  Neurology, 82, DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000000528

Stavrova, O. & Ehlebracht, D. (2015).  Cynical beliefs about human nature and income:   Longitudinal and cross-cultural analyses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000050.

Williams, L.A. & Barlett, M.Y. (2015).  Warm thanks:  Gratitude expression facilitates social affiliation in new relationships via perceived warmth.


Today there are engineered foods designed to not trigger leptin, the hormone that tells us we are full, so we eat the whole bag. Planned obsolescence has us throwing away rather than repairing appliances and other consumer goods, so they go to landfills and scrap yards. Advertising is intended to cause desire and dissatisfaction, so we buy things we don’t need and don’t even want.

We are told that economic growth is the way for all of us to financially succeed. Yet the growth since the 2008 crisis has been entirely to the benefit of the ownership class; this tide floats only the yachts. The exemplars of things that grow uncontrollably are cancer and algae blooms. The first kills its body; the second drowns itself in its waste. How can we believe in an economic doctrine that contradicts how we know Nature works?

The Pagan way of walking lightly on the earth is a value, even if often only an aspiration. It is a way of expressing the experienced sanctity of this world in which we live; a way of positively valuing the natural and the sustainable. It is rooted in our experience of ourselves in integration with the world, especially the natural world around us. This spirituality (spiritual knowing) leads to ethical decisions and policies regarding our patterns of consumption, intended to reduce their negative effects.

The alternative to this are the zombies. The current form of this trope is the deceased, and the newly so, become mindless consumers…of consumers: us. In this image, ‘we’ are the prey-food. But we also represent all consumer goods, and the zombies are the ultimate consumers. They have no limits to their consumption, nor any apparent goal, save to consume, and perhaps to make more consumers; that is zombies.

Zombies from "Night of the Living Dead" (Public Domain)

Zombies from “Night of the Living Dead” (Public Domain)

Zombies are also lacking one other critical component: interiority. They are mindless and unfeeling, relentless and untiring. There is “no one home” in the mass-consumer zombie. From this comes the zombie hunter’s ethic: zombies can be killed without qualm. Humans have long had classes of beings that can be thoughtlessly killed: slaves, infidels, foreigners, never mind the animals, even plants, ecologies and so many more. Their otherness makes them easy to slay. The zombies are aggressive, which makes it ethically easier.

Where does this lack of interiority in the zombie trope come from? There is a place in life where we meet humans that appear to have no interiority. They are silent until their stop comes. Then they all move without any apparent cognizance of each other. These are the people on the street, on the bus, the train, even in the other commuting cars on the road ways. Deep down inside, with the flickering of the subway lights, do the fellow riders look pale and bloodshot, ready to rise up and eat you? Consumers, consuming all in their path. It is the image of our society.

This image is a failure of spirituality. It is a failure of the lived experience of the interiority of the Other. Most folks can barely conceive of the feelings and thoughts of others; not naturally, of course. The dulling of their lives on the treadmill of indentured servitude servicing debt narrows the horizon of the ‘cared for’ to their families, if they are fortunate, or only to themselves. Arms stretched out to clutch at the desired, never to be satisfied, yet consuming all. What else is there to do?

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

Pagans recognize that an animistic perspective is a profound contradiction to this horror show. While it takes many forms throughout the world, animism is fundamentally the intuition of interiority and subjectivity in all entities about us, whether humans, animals, plants singular or in collectives, ecologies, even machinery, buildings, natural features, nations and so forth.

For some at the beginning, this is the mere knowledge that the Other has interiority. But with development comes the taste and touch of other minds and presences. Over time these presences become relationships, friendships, even kinship. Many Pagans have this experience; mature Pagans live in it. Here the subway lights steady, warm to flesh from their pale florescence, and we perceive the inner lives, joys, suffering, and purpose in those who sit beside us. We feel with them and share in those subjective realities. We feel their fears of the zombie apocalypse, the revelation that everyone else is out to eat them. But, we catch an eye, share a smile that spreads and warms the entire car. We see the person, not the consumer.

Our society in its current, raging pathology does not support seeing our neighbors as ourselves. We are isolated in our competition for the few and the rare, even when the shop shelves are full. Even in the pews, they all sit in rows staring up at the man with the book, not seeing each other alongside themselves. The zombies are a pale, aggressive reflection of our consumer, consuming culture. Yet when the light shifts, the color to their faces return, their feelings within become visible. When they are animate, ensouled and living beings, we see them as none other than ourselves.

In the animistic view, we meet the domestic cat and dog, the wild bird and squirrel, the creek, the mountain, and the sea all as living entities, to talk with, cry with, to support and be supported by, just as we do with the rest of our two-legged neighbors.

Can we see in the zombies flesh-eating dissatisfaction, in their out-reaching arms the desire to connect with other? Is there anybody out there? Would they sit beside us ungrasping if they were fed and satisfied? If the food filled, if the goods were reparable, if the media did not dangle forlorn carrots of unobtainable delights to sell laundry detergent, would the zombies stop?

In the sixth century BCE the Buddha taught that in all experience is dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, and that the way to end this is to not grasp after the transitory. Our overculture makes insatiable zombies of us all, trapped in profound suffering, creators of suffering. Yet the nectar of subjectivity recognized in all, the profound insight of animism, cures the zombie plague. Then we meet our neighbors, human and not, and know we are not alone.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than our team can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

The Temple of Flux, 2010 (Rebecca Anders, Jessica Hobbs, Peter Kimelman and Crew)

The Temple of Flux, 2010 (Rebecca Anders, Jessica Hobbs, Peter Kimelman and Crew)

  • HuffPo Religion looks at 10 years of Burning Man temples, and quote scholar and friend-of-The Wild Hunt Lee Gilmore, author of “Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man.” Quote: “Burning Man is that wild, uproarious desert party that hits the Nevada desert every August. But to call it a party alone is to miss the critical spiritual dimension that grounds much of the festivities. This spiritual dimension is perhaps best characterized by the temple artists and architects build every year on the playa. The tradition began in 2000 with artists David Best and Jack Haye’s Temple of Mind. The temple took on greater significance after one of Best’s friends passed away weeks before the festival, setting the tone for what would become an annual space of memorial and contemplation on the playa, or what author and religion professor Lee Gilmore calls the ‘sacred heart of Black Rock City.’ (Black Rock City or BRC refers to the temporary town that Burning Man becomes every year.)”
  • Religion News Service analyzes the trend of the millennial generation abandoning formal religious affiliation in large numbers. Quote: “Any replacement for religious membership will have to match the moral power of religious narratives. It is always hard to keep going with civic and political work; persistence is a lot easier if you see yourself connected to a permanent community with a prophetic vision of the future. Religions also appeal to deep moral commitments. While you do not have to be religious to be moral, being a good citizen requires commitments to other people — and perhaps to nature — as intrinsically valuable. Those commitments do not come from science or reason. In fact, science suggests that people are dramatically unequal and that nature is fully exploitable. So responsible people develop ‘faith-based’ commitments. Secular equivalents must be at least as powerful.”
  • The U.S. Army has approved “Humanist” as a religious preference for members within their ranks. Quote: “Lt. Col. Sunset R. Belinsky, an Army spokeswoman, said Tuesday (April 22) that the “preference code for humanist” became effective April 12 for all members of the Army. In practical terms, the change means that humanists could face fewer hurdles in trying to organize within the ranks; military brass would have better information to aid in planning a deceased soldier’s funeral; and it could lay the groundwork for eventually adding humanist chaplains. The change comes against a backdrop of persistent claims from atheists and other nonbelievers that the military is dominated by a Christian culture that is often hostile to unbelief.” At the ACLU, Major Ray Bradley says that Army Humanists are “no longer invisible.” Pagan faiths are still engaged in this process, working to expand beyond the handful of options currently available (which includes “Wicca” and “The Troth”).
  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker writes about why myth matters for the Intercollegiate Review. Quote: “Against all odds, through popular culture, myth is more potent and omnipresent in modern society than anyone could have imagined. Why? Because in an increasingly global society, myth is a universal language. Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Spiderman and Batman transcend cultural divides. Mythic heroes in movies communicate universal values in their fight against evil. In a culture where the abstract theories of academics are out of touch and meaningless, stories communicate more effectively and more universally. Furthermore, in an increasingly irreligious age, mythical movies and literature carry the truths that religion had traditionally conveyed.” Despite Fr. Longenecker’s theologically conservative brand of Catholicism, I think there are some interesting points raised here that some of my readers might appreciate.
  • Center-left American think tank the Brookings Institution has published a new report on economic justice and the future of “religious progressives.” Quote: “Religious voices will remain indispensable to movements on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, and middle-class Americans. The authors point to specific opportunities the progressive religious movement can act on.” Michelle Boorstein at The Washington Post notes that demographic shifts might bring about a bright future for left-leaning religious organizations. Quote: “The report sees perhaps a bright future for the religious left. One reason is demographics. A far bigger share of younger Americans call themselves religious progressives (34 percent of those ages 18 to 33) than religious conservatives (16 percent of the same group). Another is the model offered by the civil rights movement, which the report says ‘interwove religious and civic themes’. . . and was so successful because it was so ecumenical. We may be at such a moment, the report argues.”
Photo: VICE / Phil Clarke Hill

Photo: VICE / Phil Clarke Hill

  • VICE says that Santeria is growing in visibility and popularity in Cuba now policies regarding religion in that country have been relaxed. Quote: “The religion owes its continued existence over the centuries to the prevalence of the oral tradition, with believers passing on, preserving, and nurturing its secrets through countless generations. Today, Santeria has emerged from the shadows of a Cuban society now at liberty to practice religion, and is witnessing not only an increase of acceptance but also of popularity.”
  • The Economist explains how European politics are different than American politics, that there isn’t a “religious right” per se, but there are a number of “identity politics” camps that must be appeased if you want to win elections. Quote: “It is hard for European politicians to build a career by claiming the traditionalist ground; they would generally lose more votes than they would gain. What does exist in Europe is the politics of identity, including religious identity. In this area Europe’s parties and politicians always think carefully about the signals they send and getting it right or wrong has consequences. That’s a helpful way to see David Cameron’s re-embrace of the Anglican church.”
  • Barbara Falconer Newhall at The Huffington Post reviews Patricia Monaghan’s posthumous work, the new edition of her “Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines.” Quote: “I wish I had known Patricia Monaghan. She died a year and a half ago after a rich life as a poet, author, goddess scholar, and pioneer and mentor in the contemporary women’s spirituality movement. She was an academic, yes, but also a hands-on kind of woman. According to her husband, she was as concerned about the temperature of her root cellar as she was with the depth of her research. That research is stunningly thorough. I have in my hands the posthumously released revised edition of her Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines. The first, very popular, edition was published in 1979. This beautiful, fat — in a good way — expanded version tells the stories of more than 1,000 ancient goddesses and heroines from such far-flung corners of the earth as Mongolia, Benin, Tierra del Fuego and Wisconsin.”
  • Jackson Free Press has an article focusing on Pagan author and teacher Chris Penczak. Quote: “While the Mississippi Legislature was polishing its Religious Freedom Restoration Act (which opponents say opens doors to legal discrimination for religious reasons), Christopher Penczak and other believers of a mostly misunderstood and reviled faith—Wicca—planned a workshop. Penczak, 40, is one of the founders of the Temple of Witchcraft in New Hampshire. From its humble roots as a magickal training and personal growth system, the temple has become a formal tradition of Witchcraft.”
  • The New York Times Magazine spotlights The Dark Mountain Project. Quote: “A man wearing a stag mask bounded into the clearing and shouted: ‘Come! Let’s play!’ The crowd broke up. Some headed for bed. A majority headed for the woods, to a makeshift stage that had been blocked off with hay bales and covered by an enormous nylon parachute. There they danced, sang, laughed, barked, growled, hooted, mooed, bleated and meowed, forming a kind of atavistic, improvisatory choir. Deep into the night, you could hear them from your tent, shifting every few minutes from sound to sound, animal to animal and mood to mood. […]  The Dark Mountain Project was founded in 2009. From the start, it has been difficult to pin down — even for its members. If you ask a representative of the Sierra Club to describe his organization, he will say that it promotes responsible use of the earth’s resources. When you ask Kingsnorth about Dark Mountain, he speaks of mourning, grief and despair. We are living, he says, through the ‘age of ecocide,’ and like a long-dazed widower, we are finally becoming sensible to the magnitude of our loss, which it is our duty to face.”

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these we may expand into longer posts as needed.

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: 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.)