July in the northern hemisphere is a month for heat, celebration, and fun. Pagan celebrations abound. In the United States, the Fourth of July heralds Independence Day, a national celebration of freedom gained in part through the signing of a formal document that explains why a group of colonies broke away from their colonizers. The Declaration of Independence is a representation of choice and has been used as a model for other countries around the world.
The spirit of such a document is celebrated annually with feasting, fireworks, and flags. For many Pagans, the embrace of religious freedom is cause for equal celebration. Where there is freedom of religion, there is freedom of choice. Worldwide, where there is freedom to practice native, indigenous, or chosen religious beliefs, all ensure that such continues through an embrace of commitment to their chosen paths or beliefs. Whether the label is Witch, Polytheist, Heathen, Druid, Pagan, or nothing at all, we seek to enjoy religious choice. We fight for that freedom every day in all parts of the world. Our individual and group practices are a reinforcement of our commitment to such freedom.
As Pagans, we might browse for groups, online or at a local Pagan Pride or other gathering, as we seek to find others who worship, socialize, and celebrate as we do. In a town, city, or country where our practices often are in a tiny minority, how we find each other matters less than that we can find each other. Perhaps the search begins at a local bookstore with shelves – or whole sections – devoted to the learning and devotional practice of indigenous and native religious traditions, Witchcraft, polytheism, Druidry, Ásatrú, and others. Somewhere in the store, perhaps by the front door or the cash register, there is a list of announcements or cards for public rituals, introductory classes, or divination services.
However it happens, eventually a group or chosen practice is found. Whether a practitioner is in the middle of nowhere with an online group and a bunch of printed materials as a start, or in the middle of a metropolitan area as a member of a large in-person group with access to multiple Pagan organizations for companionship and variety – at some point, there is joy and celebration. Once a community is found, the search seems to be over.
Many who come to a Pagan path are seeking freedom. Some are fleeing past hurt or injury within a majority religion, such as Christianity. Others may have never embraced a religion at all, yet seek freedom to express themselves fully in a manner that differs from the community or family in which they were raised. Finally, there are others who seek their ancestral lines in the practices of native and indigenous traditions. In the initial embrace of a newfound path, there is great joy, anticipation, and enthusiasm.
BooksThere are numerous works that detail an introduction to a particular Pagan religious path. A quick internet search of the term “Witchcraft Introduction” produces 9.5 million results including YouTube videos and numerous tradition websites, while a search of “Introduction to Witchcraft Books” yields 7.52 million results, a number of them compilation lists for the best introductory materials.
In the beginning, for nearly all paths, a commitment to knowledge and learning is required. For some, this means finding as many books as possible for a particular path. When a potential tradition candidate is found, after a few rituals and gatherings, the desire to try this new path with a group often leads to classes and a book list. How many times upon entering a practitioner’s home, of any pagan tradition, does one find a great number of books and materials for magical use? They may be hidden in a closet, under a bed, or just out in the open as the decorating motif for a living room, dining room, bedroom, altar room, and bathrooms. With the rise of published works in digital format, now it is easier to have thousands of printed works available on a phone, rather than a living space that quickly becomes cramped with old and new materials. Books, altars, statues, stones, incenses, candles, and magical artifacts represent a firm commitment to the newfound path.
When we find a group in person or online, we meet new people. We make connections with those who live far away by attending conferences for social, religious, or academic purposes, such as the Quest Conference, Pantheacon, Mystic South, Paganicon, or the Conference on Current Pagan Studies.
We do the work to climb the ladder of degrees from neophyte through a three-degree system and beyond. Written requirements for prerequisite work to complete the First Degree studies for any path are approached with strong commitment. Some individuals will remain at this level, while others will proceed through time and practice to an equivalent Second Degree study path. More may decide not to go farther. Then there are those who attempt and successfully complete a tradition’s equivalent Third Degree study. For those who seek Second and Third Degree equivalent and beyond, there is a commitment that continues to fuel the energetic flame needed to maintain the love and devotion to a path after the initial joy has expired.
Dwindling FlameDespite the initial rush of enthusiasm, within the strongest of groups, covens, circles, groves, or traditions, there are hiccups – times when the group and even the tenets of the religious tradition seem stale, boring, and no longer relevant to the individual. Sometimes this feeling happens after the newness of initiation into a given group changes into the hard work that must be done to maintain the strength of not just the group, but of the individual’s practice. One question that often arises when considering a group is how a religion or faith will fit with what an individual wants or is seeking; however, what may not come up is what to do when the “bored” feeling sneaks in, as it will.
As humans, we delight in what is new as something exciting and captivating. We cannot direct our attention away from it. We only want to spend our time with it, completely immersed in our love affair with all aspects of the new religion, those who represent it, and those who practice it with us. We feel the strength that we derive from our choice of practice and our freedom to choose that practice. If our tradition requires honoring the Gods with libation twice a day, every full moon, every new moon, and every religious sabbat, we do so with great joy and abandon. If we are required to write down our dreams, our spells, our ritual workings, and our tarot castings, we do it. If we need to change our living quarters, our prior social habits, and sometimes even our job hours to meet the needs of our new tradition, we do it. The first blush of intoxication is the first of many steps toward a lifetime commitment to the craft, and we are in love.
Like in a long-term relationship, there may come a time when, as individuals, we feel that we know enough about our religion, that there is not much more out there to do or to experience. There are signs that boredom is creeping into one’s religious path. Perhaps our practice has slowed with a lessening of activity, whether in daily personal practice, group practice, or public practice.
Do we share these feelings of apathy or dispiritedness with others? Perhaps with a few who are close to us, but no, we don’t often let people who are around us know. Sometimes there is burnout, rather than boredom. With burnout, the risk of walking away entirely increases. If commitment is freedom, then giving into boredom or burnout is relinquishing that freedom for the shackles of false contentment. Eventually this leads to a weakening of the tradition’s strength.
In initiatory paths, the individual joins a larger whole and provides another layer of durability to the tradition and the religious practice. When those who have been around for while stop going to ritual, practicing their craft, doing their lessons, maintaining good spiritual hygiene, or just stop being a positive role model for the newer members and initiates, freedom’s doors start to close. If a tradition focuses community work, and someone ceases to want to do their part, be it through burnout or lethargic inactivity, then that person faces a crossroads: fan the flame back into a healthy fire or let the fire die.
Many who are seeking groups, especially at this time of the year when gatherings are held outdoors, are looking to see whether the members are longstanding and true to their tradition, or if the group is just created from others who are disgruntled with a different group or tradition. Some are seeking groups where they can heal; longevity and stability indicate that a group may be a safe space for such work.
In 2015, in a piece called “Lessons Learned from When a Friend Says Goodbye,” I wrote about one experience where a long-term member of a Pagan group left to return to Roman Catholicism. Like many, this individual came to Paganism seeking to flee her experience of organized monotheistic religion from childhood and early adulthood. For over a decade, this individual defended the religious tradition until she made a sudden decision to no longer do so. Putting aside the serious consequences of breaking oaths taken before the gods during the course of initiation, there is the question, again, of commitment. How someone chooses to leave a tradition is just as important as how one arrives.
To prevent boredom in the form of hopping from group to group, addressing up front such issues as why the individuals in the group choose to stay and what they get from the religion is critical. Such repetition helps to maintain a healthy flame in any tradition.
Reviving the BloomOne way to figure out how to maintain a long-term commitment to any religious path is to look at those who have been around for 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years. The 15 to 20 year mark is a good length to gauge what strategies are useful for renewing and energizing internal and external religious practice. Here are some strategies that I might recommend to people seeking such practices.
Going Back to the Beginning: When first starting a path, there are exercises, rituals, magical pieces, and often group work that strengthen the individual in preparation for initiation and beyond. Emphasis is often made on developing a personal practice, studying with others, and gaining strength through religious devotion. The written study materials for pre-initiates or those who are going through the lower initiatory stages are just as valid for those who are feeling a bit of boredom in a personal or public practice. Look over them. See how you might answer the same questions now. Go to other group rituals in other areas. See things through the eyes of someone who is just starting out on the path. Finding someone new, who has been to only one or no rituals and has many questions, is a good place to start. Going back to the beginning is one way to break the slippery slope of boredom.
Find a Labyrinth: It may take some doing, but finding a labyrinth to walk can also help with the renewal and sustenance of faith and practice. As a tradition, walking the labyrinth can be found in many religious traditions, including Christianity, which means that local labyrinths may be found on church properties, as well as within gardens and on other parcels of land. Indoor labyrinths can be painted on floors or made from any number of materials. One local Pagan Pride celebration has a temporary labyrinth made of twisted cloth each year. Temporary labyrinths can be made of any material, including straw.
Walking within the paths of the labyrinth towards the center is symbolic of removing the layer of spiritual lethargy and returning to a renewed state. A slow, step-by-step motion from the outer circle to the inner circle, pausing to meditate at the center, and then returning towards the outer circle is a workable practice, common enough to have online instructions. The Labyrinth Society has a research bibliography for healing. Even American Nurse Today, the official journal of the American Nurses Association, has an article on the use of labyrinths for burnout. In short, using the tool of the labyrinth can help with maintaining the commitments that will increase freedom.
Connect with the New by Breaking the Old: Going back to the beginning and walking a labyrinth are steps to breaking a downward slide into lethargy and early burnout. Building a stronger foundation can be found by acknowledging that a slide is happening and forming a new structure. At the start, we have boundless energy for new paths, a myriad of rituals, and their increased time commitments. With time, that energy may have waned, so it is time to be gentle and develop a new routine that works with our new energy levels so that a healthy time commitment can be formed.
Taking a break to address personal spiritual hygiene, what can be called “self-care,” is a healthy start. This may be as simple as adding an hour of sleep to a daily schedule or taking a mini-retreat where the real self can be faced and the source of the lethargy can be found.
For some practitioners at higher levels who realize that the lessened desire may be symptoms of burnout, finding a higher-level peer or a professional counselor to listen to the situation may help to reset the cycle. If the old practice involves just reading materials by rote and never engaging with the broader community or working with ancestor veneration, then adding those components may help to soothe the tiredness.
Ground – Center – Reset: In many traditions, there is the act of grounding and centering. Taking a walk outside in the grass in bare feet works, but so does walking in the mud, feeling the wetness squishing between your toes. Another method is to push your own energy into a tree and receiving its pure energy in return. Getting into water, such as a hot tub, an ocean, a lake, a river, or a pond, helps as long as the body is covered to about chest-high; once there, focus on centering, using the element of water. Finally, basking in the sun or sitting in a sauna to ground and re-center is another method for bringing about a reset.
In the end, staying true to a tradition when the bloom is gone is a reminder that religious freedom lies in a continued commitment that is made and re-made on a regular basis. Commitment is freedom; freedom is commitment. Each step along the road allows for a choice, whether to strengthen each bloom in the garden, or to weaken them all due to a lack of commitment.