Paganism, food and spirituality

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Selina Rifkin

Selina Rifkin

Selina Rifkin, L.M.T., M.S. is a graduate of Temple University and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. In 1998 she graduated from the Downeast School of Massage in Maine. She has published articles in Massage Therapy Journal, been a health columnist, and published The Referral Guide for Complementary Care, a book that describes 25 different healing modalities. In 2006 she completed her Masters program in Nutrition with a focus on traditional foods, and the work of Weston A. Price.
Currently she is the Executive Assistant to the Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, the first Pagan seminary to offer Master’s degrees.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_blacktomatoes2_sm.jpgWhere and how does food become a religious issue? I can think of two cases. The first is when we have a relationship with what we eat. The second, when there are purity issues at stake. In his Moral Foundations theory, Jonathan Haidt says that human concepts of purity are shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination, and holds that the body is a temple that can be desecrated by eating something that has been contaminated. While this has not, in my experience, been the case with the Pagans I know, it is common in many other religions.

I’ve found the first case is far more common for Pagans. Ritualizing the harvest of a carefully raised animal is now not uncommon among Heathens. Of the Pagans I know who garden, raise livestock animals, or grow their own food or herbal medicines, every single one has a relationship with the land, and the living beings that thrive there. Such relationships are deeply interactive. Goats are fed and milked. The milk is drunk, and soap is made nourishing humans and creating products that can be gifted or sold. Chickens are fed and housed, their eggs supporting bodies and their antics providing food for the soul. Gardens are carefully planned, mulched, fertilized and the harvest proudly shared, or preserved.

And then there is the ethic of caring for the Earth. Modern agriculture is one of the nastier things we do to the planet.

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  • Jenn
    Jenn says #
    I am a homesteader and so food is definitely a sacred part of my life. We raise chickens (for both meat and eggs) and Shetland she

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b2ap3_thumbnail_justice.jpgWhile ethics is one of my favorite subjects, Pagans don’t have a set that we all agree upon. (duh) Some follow the Charge of the Star Goddess, or the Three-fold Law, and some work to cultivate virtues as opposed to following laws. But if we’re all working to be good people, why can’t we mange to get along a little better? In his TED talk, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, says that if you’ve ever been confused about why people just can’t get along, he might have an answer for you.

Haidt researches human morals and started by asking the question of why do human morals around the world have more to do with just how people treat each other? The norm in all cultures but Western, is that morals have to do with all sort of things that we often mock. For example, what you can and cannot do during menstruation, what you eat and with whom, and what you wear. For most Americans – let alone the small subset that is our religion – such questions are weird and alien. That’s because we live in a WEIRD culture. The term WEIRD stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic, and was created by psychology researchers Joe Henrich, Steve Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. As Pagans in an industrialized culture, we cannot escape this.

The reason I am excited about Haidt’s work is because he is interested in the biological basis for our moral behavior. And it seems there are evolutionary arguments to be made that much of our moral preference is, in Haidt’s words, "organized in advance of experience." Haidt postulates six moral foundations:

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  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham says #
    Thanks for posting! I appreciated your insights and the insights presented in the Ted talk you linked.
  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin says #
    I've really found Haidt's work to be transformative and will be writing more about him in the future.

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Permaculture goes beyond the idea of sustainability into what can we do to add health and vitality to the Earth. It is not enough to sustain, we must do more than just get by if we are to have a relationship with life on our planet. Relationships don’t thrive on ‘sustainable.’

Even before the industrial era, we have been extracting from the Earth without giving back. Tillage – which is plowing for agriculture – destroys soil fertility and irrigation inevitably creates salt contamination in former farmland. Cutting down too many trees has wiped out civilizations. However the industrial era has generated far more toxic messes than did the agricultural era, and the industrial solutions for land recovery have been less than satisfactory and are often expensive enough that the product stops being viable on the market.

Permaculture, the idea that nature can provide effective solutions to complex problems, even has answers in the case of soil toxicity. Truthfully, who among us would do without our computers or heat in our homes? The byproducts of producing these things are environmental toxins. But, it is possible to clean up those messes in a way that benefits our planet.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_garden_sm.jpgI’ve been building a garden. It’s something I seem to do over and over, so this one is the result of years of experience. But this one is not just about growing food. This garden is about creating planetary change. It is a way to put shamanic, magical energy into my vision of what I think would make life on our Earth better. The principles are broad, and for the most part, I trust deity to move us toward greater health and well-being, although I do continue to educate myself as best I can.

The four areas I am working with are: agriculture and food production, sustainable finance, communication and human connection, and entertainment.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_harvest1_sm.jpgThe human population has passed the 7 billion mark. When I was in high school I took a class with the alarming title of World Problems. Population was one of the highlighted issues, and I could feel the pressure of 4 million people pressing on my Pagan soul and sucking up the planet’s resources. Some of my darkest nightmares revolved around that dreadful movie about pollution and overpopulation that schools were all showing in the 70s.

I have heard it expressed from both the left and the right that some sort of population collapse event is inevitable. I think we feel this way in part because we cannot imagine how all those people will be fed, and what kind of world we will have in the process. Scary as it is, I believe there is hope for us. This is not just blind faith in the goodness of the Universe. In the course of learning about sustainable, permaculture style food systems, I have come across some remarkable pieces of information.

The first is that mixed use, biodynamic farms and other permaculture style integrated farming systems, produce more food per acre than conventional farms. A lot more. In Asia, combining fish production with livestock and vegetable production increased fish output 2 to 3.9 times. David Blume in his 2 acre Silicon Valley mini farm, produced 8 times the amount of food per acrethat the USDA claimed was possible. Blume lays out the math.

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  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin says #
    It is my hope that Pagans will help to lead this charge. Our love of the land is a natural match for permaculture, and other techn
  • Soli
    Soli says #
    How fortunate you are that you were able to attend this! Salatin's farm should be put up as an example to everyone who considers p
  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin says #
    The Russian people have a long tradition of food not lawns. It is both sustainable and practical in that it provides food security

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On Saturday, I went to the New England Resilience Gathering. This was a day conference on what people had been doing to promote sustainability in their local areas and what the next step might be. Much of what was being done was based on permaculture, a practice becoming more familiar to the Pagan community. Starhawk practices permaculture, (and she says why it matters to Pagans) as do a number of Heathens of my acquaintance. Permaculture fits neatly with Pagan values about the health of the land, and has the benefit of requiring intimate knowledge of one’s local landscape and community.

Permaculture

takes into account all the inputs and outputs of any system rather than creating externalities. Externalities are effects of any system that are not taken into account. For example, when a mining business does not count the cost of clean up when they extract something from the earth, that unaccounted cost is an externality. When we subsidize industries, we as consumers pay for the externalities.

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  • Jamie
    Jamie says #
    Ms. Rifkin, Thank you for sharing the concept of permaculture to a broader audience! We don't do it, but I wish we could. Going

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b2ap3_thumbnail_corntassel1_sm.jpgToday I was touched by Corn. Not corn, but Corn.

As I weeded in the hot sun, the leaves brushed my back and I felt a rush of energy washing away the dizziness and fatigue. A whisper-soft offering to my flushed and sweating body.

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Over at Patheos, Sam Webster wrote a most engaging essay on the revival of the Pagan concept of sacrifice. The article starts with the traditional and ancient concept of animal sacrifice and continues on to more symbolic sacrifices such as invocations and acts of service. Naturally, it was the part about animal sacrifice that generated the most comments, many thoughtful and appreciative, and quite a few that were angry and accusatory.

It’s not a surprise that some people have a natural revulsion to the kind of blood sacrifice practiced in the religions of the ancient world, and in some branches Paganism and Afro-revival religions. We have little exposure to death in our industrial world, and what exposure we do have is from the media ie. news, film fiction, and video games. Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones concluded with a scene of violent and dishonorable death, and more than one person I know found it deeply disturbing and unnecessary. (For the record, so did I) I’m not sure how realistically GoT portrays a feudalistic society, but the version we see on HBO is certainly nasty and brutish.

And our industrial farming practices are no less horrendous. When the idea of animal sacrifice comes up, the miserable life of such animals may be the first thing that comes to mind. A visceral repulsion to keeping animals confined, and feeding them the wrong food while keeping them from anything resembling a descent life is – in my world – healthy.

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  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy says #
    Religious animal sacrifice increases the level of care. Increasing the level of care increases the level of caring. To give what w
  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch says #
    I can't agree with you enough, and in fact I posted on this very same issue back in December. Animals that are killed as part of t
  • Dver
    Dver says #
    Animals not under human care don’t ever die nicely. Oh thank you so much for a (sadly rare) reasonable and intelligent post on th

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What does religion have to do with a particular political party? Not much. Political parties are fluid, and politicians are more interested in power than in a particular moral stance. Reagan gave a nod to fundamentalist Christians, and they leapt to align themselves with the Republican party. But now the GOP is getting pressure from many of its members to change its stance on marriage. What will these Christians do then?

My fellow blogger here at Witches and Pagans, Gus DiZerega, would have us be convinced that being Pagan is quite incompatible with being Libertarian. I’m not convinced. Gus spent many years being a Libertarian and has offered considerable philosophic reading in his links. But ultimately, I didn’t come to my interest in Libetarianism through philosophy and scholarly study, but through politics and economics.* My interest in Libertarianism is that it is all about getting government to be smaller and less intrusive. This means fewer laws, and a trust that the market will be better for humans and Nature than will government. Since Gus brought it up, I started thinking more deeply about what spiritual values might underlie our political choices (if any). From there I considered the connections between compassion and responsibility, and personal happiness.

An argument can be good and valid on one level, without reaching deep enough to touch our core values. A great deal of political discourse falls into this category. A dictionary definition of “politic” says: shrewd or prudent in practical matters; tactful; diplomatic, or contrived in a shrewd and practical way; expedient. Spiritual values should certainly not be "expedient," and certainly not "contrived."

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  • Greybeard
    Greybeard says #
    It is not "BIG" that makes government and business bad. In a nation of over 300 million people and almost 4 million square miles
  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch says #
    I maintain that the only political issue that truly applies across the multitude of Pagan faiths is religious freedom. One can fin
  • Greybeard
    Greybeard says #
    Agreed 100%. Getting the government off our backs and out of our pockets should be a goal of every freedom loving human being. G

b2ap3_thumbnail_elementcandles_sm.jpgWhat do we do in the darkness – either literal or metaphorical – when our bodies or souls convulse with pain, and our minds can’t stop spinning? This is when we need a spiritual practice. The habit of a achieving a quiet mind and sense of purpose is like any other habit or skill (which is not to say they are functionally different), it is one we must practice.

I’m not talking about monthly rituals here, I’m talking about some form of daily practice, which was once referred to as piety. Piety got itself a bad name when, in the context of Christianity, it became a reference to rigid behavior that justified abusive acts. My grandfather ran away from home (permanently) because he was getting beaten for not saying his catechism correctly. But piety is simply showing reverence for deity in a consistent manner. In other words, some form of daily prayer.

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Today Connecticut is passing some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country. Approximately 60 pages of details about which long guns are now illegal, and when, where, and how people who have criminal and mental health issues may or may not have access to a firearm of any kind. In wading through the legalese, I looked and looked for something that, had it been in place before Newtown, would have stopped the murder of 26 people. I can’t find anything.

A conservative commentator, Bill Whittle, says,

We want to blame something, anything that we can control. But what we really want to ban is violence and murder and insanity, and we don’t talk about that because deep in our hearts we all know that violence and murder and insanity are built into the human condition, and likely always will be.

And I have to consider what I, as a Pagan, think about that statement. Of course I don’t believe in some Angra Mainyuesque power that pulls us toward horrible, despicable acts. But if we did not have any pull to do these things, we would not need ethics. Pagan gods provide many more obvious behavioral models than the monotheistic religions. We have plenty of warrior gods and goddesses, we have deities that destroy creation, and deities that make trouble. But we don’t condone rape because someone was possessed by Zeus, and we would not excuse a bomber because they said Kali wanted something destroyed.

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  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven says #
    I am so sorry you had such a distressing struggle with your step-daughter and glad that some of that burden has been lifted for yo
  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin says #
    This is the first I have heard about any other mass killer having an autism spectrum disorder, and if this is common in the media,
  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven says #
    Dear Selina, I was unaware you were a New Town resident. I cannot imagine how it feels to be a member of that community now. Just

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Windturbine_sm.jpgMom raised me to be an environmentalist. That meant we took our newspapers to be recycled long before there was any curbside pickup, and she donated money to the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. The dream of the future was one where people got power from sun, wind and tides, and lived in clever, energy-efficient homes and drove electric cars. Paganism fit beautifully with this vision. I loved it that when I moved to California, that I could drive down I5 and see miles of wind turbines. I thought they were lovely. Still do.

But somehow, this form of power continues to be out of reach for many Pagans. It’s a dream, but not one our pocketbooks will allow. Now with the government subsidies going to green energy projects, and Europe fielding more wind and solar power, there is renewed hope among the Pagans I know that the dream will become a reality. I wish it were true. I don’t personally know any Pagans who have solar panels on their roofs or wind turbines in their back yards. And that is because it is expensive, and can demand technical know-how.

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  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega says #
    Selina- The thread ran out with you making statements that cannot be supported by facts, so I am continuing the discussion. The is
  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven says #
    Oh, heck, I don't care if I'm off-grid or on-grid. I'd just like to do my part. Solar hot water is probably the easiest place to s
  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin says #
    On grid will be easier. My husband is an electrician so I get to hear about this stuff. Managing the battery packs that come with

b2ap3_thumbnail_porcupine.jpgIn thinking about how my religion informs my political choices, I realize that it only does so in the most general sense. Paganism values Nature not because there was a political movement called Environmentalism, but because our ancestors couldn’t get away from it, and because the poets and artists of the Romantic era placed Her in stark contrast to the burgeoning industrial complex.

As a movement, Environmentalism has some massive failings that I’ve written about here. Gus diZerega advocated voting Democratic in the last election, not because the Democrats were friends of the environment, but because they had a slightly better record. Hardly a ringing endorsement, and certainly not one that touches my religious sensibilities or values. And perhaps it shouldn’t. But I’ll get to that.

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  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch says #
    Have you ever checked out "The World's Smallest Political Quiz"? http://www.theadvocates.org/quiz

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b2ap3_thumbnail_MM900040941.GIFRecently I read an article by a conservative Pagan. It was a very different view point from what I hear from my community in the Northeast. The writer defined why his voting choice followed his religious principles. Since this blog is about grounding our spiritual principles into our everyday lives, I enjoyed reading how he approached that.

Certain branches of Pagan practice have been deeply influenced by the liberal Left. The Environmental and Feminist movements have been a good match for a religion that engages with Nature, and indeed, it would be fair to say that Dianic Wicca emerged from a human need to express deeply held beliefs in a group, spiritual setting. Liberal political attitudes are the norm where I live, and not just with Pagans. But as Mr. Taylor points out, there are plenty of conservative Pagans, and not only among those that practice Norse Traditions.

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  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien says #
    While the substance of these posts is valid and interesting, I'm surprised at the unnecessary crankiness. IME, dialogue is more pr
  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega says #
    One final point. My blog here at W&P does make substantive points about how we should relate to our environment. I think your poi
  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega says #
    There are people on the left and liberals (two different categories BTW) who dehumanize those who disagree with them, though since

b2ap3_thumbnail_Samhaintable2_sm.jpgAs I write this, Samhain has just passed. I think about my maternal grandfather who left his family in Boston because he was tired of being beaten over a badly recited catechism. He fled north to Maine where he must have helped one of the locals work the fields in exchange for room and board. He was listed on the 1910 census and then dropped off the radar for a while as he traveled around the country doing whatever job came his way. He did stone masonry and lumbering, and worked the railroads, and eventually made it back to Maine where he married my “Old Maid” grandmother. I never knew him, and barely knew her before she developed dementia.

Connecting with them is a challenge. Grandpa is a bit easier because mom was close to him and I have more stories. I like to do things with stone and wood as he did, and I often feel him near me when I am building rough stone walls or doing carpentry. Grandma is tougher. Mom found her critical and doesn’t talk about her much. But I know she cooked. And I know she canned food because some of the jars are still in the basement, 50 years later.

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  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin says #
    Thank you! I came into this for my health as well, and found that it connected me in a very deep way to my spiritual values. I ser
  • Soli
    Soli says #
    Really? I have to admit that I have been quiet about my spiritual life around real food folks because so many of the ones I know t
  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin says #
    Please note that I live in a very blue state, and am self employed, so my risk was relatively low. Coming out is a very personal c

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b2ap3_thumbnail_BackyardAqauponics_sm.jpgThe next principle is eating clean food produced without chemicals, preferably using biodynamic or permaculture standards. Even the average American today understands the concept of “organic,” although the reality is not quite the same. USDA organic certificationis most certainly better than conventional agriculture in terms of spraying fewer nasty chemicals on our food, which adds up to less poison in our air, water and bodies and healthier farm workers.

It does not however, mean that there are zero poisons on the veggies. Organic standards allow for naturally occurring pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to be used. In addition, these standards, in practice, do not do anything about feeding soil fertility, or about the quality of life for livestock.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Paulus_Potter_-_Cows_in_a_Meadow_sm_20130207-012507_1.jpgOne of the most important beliefs that Pagans hold is that life is cyclical. We are born, we live, we die, and are re-born. Death is not escapable. No one gets out of here alive. Mortality is part of existence, but all things return. Relationship is another aspect that defines Pagan attitudes about food. For Pagans, deity is immanent in the world. Every rock, every tree, everything that moves and breathes is sacred. Including what we eat. It is very common for Pagans to feel a deep kinship with both animals and plants. This creates an ethical dilemma that conflicts with the natural cycles of life and death, and is not easy to solve. How does one eat one’s brother? Industrial farming is repugnant to anyone who takes the time to look. But even more so to a Pagan who claims kinship to all living things.

Veganism –the practice of eating no animal products at all - has been one solution to the relationship problem, although, as with the general population, vegetarianism – not eating animal flesh, but consuming dairy and eggs - is more common. For physiological reasons, veganism is extremely difficult to maintain, and generally requires far more asceticism than is generally acceptable in Paganism. Vegan Pagans don’t get much sympathy in a religion where enjoying one’s food can include exclaiming over bacon and groaning over a chocolate confection. Although most Pagans still eat a standard American diet, vegetarianism is common. I have yet to go to a Pagan event that did not have some sort of vegetarian option for food.

Another aspect that defines Paganism is the sacred earth. Modern Paganism was deeply influenced by the environmental movement, and as a religion based on the seasonal cycles of nature, we honor the health of the planet. Sadly, modern methods of meat production are bad for every living being directly involved with, or anywhere near the process. A great deal has been written about these issues and it is not my intent to re-cap them here. Nor is it my intent to convince anyone to be a vegetarian. Our ancestors ate meat, and every culture seeks access to more if they do not have a ready supply. This is not a failing, it is part of being human.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_rusting_plow_sm.jpgThe first principle of Pagan kosher is eating locally. Local is a scale of distance. It might be the chickens in your backyard, or on your roof if you live in a city. It might be the milk you buy from the farmer in the next town, the grain from the next county, or the potatoes from the next state over. This both cuts down on the use of fuel needed to transport food and honors the place where we live. We live in a highly mobile society and, as Pagans, it can be hard to connect with a local landscape. We often use meditation as a way to make that connection, and while that is a valid approach, knowing what lives near your home that can feed you is far more visceral.

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  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin says #
    Anne, from a nutritional standpoint, veganism is highly risky behavior. But I completely support it from a religious standpoint, a
  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven says #
    An article in support of your position, though it's not too friendly to vegans. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/1
  • Pumpkyn
    Pumpkyn says #
    I really enjoyed reading this entry. I'm looking forward to reading more about Pagan Kosher.

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b2ap3_thumbnail_dinnerplate1_20130102-151811_1.jpg

Jews may avoid shellfish and pork, and Hindus can pass on the beef. Having food laws in the context of religion is a familiar concept, but why would I suggest such a thing for Paganism? I am not advocating for is a set of hard and fast rules such as never eat walnuts,but a set of guidelines. By Pagan, I mean the family of modern religions that honors the earth and women, and that may use ancient cultures as models for ritual construction and more tribal living. I am borrowing the term “kosher” because it is in common use, and because my husband is Jewish. I acknowledge there is an aspect of cultural appropriation to using a Jewish term when I am not Jewish, but it is my hope that we Pagans will come up with a term of our own. One of my friends suggested "Eating Gaian."

But why should it matter? Are not all acts of love and pleasure Her rituals? Certainly eating chocolate can approach the experience of ecstasy. But what if that chocolate was harvested with child labor? And how good can we feel about an industry built on a foundation of slave labor? The sugar trade spawned the African Slave trade, and never mind what it does to our health. But this is just one example. The food we eat should not just feed our hunger, our desire. It should feed our bodies and minds. It can connect us with our ancestors and our descendants. It can connect us to our local environment. Every time we eat, it is a chance to affirm our ethical choices, and create alignment with our communities. Food is powerful.

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  • Diotima
    Diotima says #
    Oh, and I like to call this kind of eating "fair-trade", because that is what needs to happen, not only in an economic sense, but
  • Diotima
    Diotima says #
    Thank you for addressing this, Selina. It's a vitally important topic, one which environmentally-aware people (and I'd like to thi

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b2ap3_thumbnail_cauldron.jpgLately I’ve been contemplating the title of my blog. Cauldron is magikal space. The theta wave brain state where we access guides, ancestors, and deities stands in contrast the kitchen, mundane space. Many Pagans struggle in mundane space. But even those of us that function effectively in the world outside the circle or festival, often find ourselves longing for that place of magik and connection.

We all know how hard it can be to keep swimming in the cauldron when the kids or boss is screaming, and bookkeeping (my personal nemesis) is looming. I go to a yearly festival, and, in the last few years, weekend conferences here and there. For the first few years of attending Rites of Spring, I would return home feeling torn and saddened. At the closing ritual, we were invited to take the magik back out into the world and that just seemed so impossible. But I kept working on it.

Food has been my main focus, and examining how my connection to the great unseen relates to what I put in my mouth has been an exercise in expanding connections. How much more grounded can you get than food? But food is easy compared to bookkeeping, or picking up after my family (I don’t work full-time so I get the job) both of which I really do not enjoy. But then again, I didn’t enjoy cooking when I started either.

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