Observations of the light and the dark of what is, was, and might be in the Pagan community's expansion and evolution.
Kool-Aid & Amrit
In the last several weeks I've seen links and posts buzzing around in the Pagan social media realm related to the topics of dishonorable leadership, the warning signs of a bad magickal group, cult awareness, and so forth. This is nothing new and indeed at least once a year there seems to be a flurry of this kind of interest. One of the earliest Pagan writers on this topic was Isaac Bonewits, founder of Ár nDraíocht, who in 1979 created the first version of his Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame. It was quite good and updated versions of it are readily available online. Certainly wherever human beings are involved, there is the potential for all manner of dysfunctional behavior. I certainly think that we should be vigilant and on guard against systems, groups, or individuals that make the fulfillment of their needs paramount over our personal spiritual development. On the other hand, and this is where this blog post is headed, our fear over the potential for exploitation has its own unhealthy cost.
The space available in a blog post is short, so I’ll add some specificity to my comments. If you are seeking real training to become competent as a magician, a witch, a priest/ess, or minister a.k.a. someone who tends to their community, etc. then some of the warnings against being abused or exploited may prevent you from reaching your goal. If you are seeking people to celebrate with and enjoy the holidays, Deities, and the social and cultural milieu of Paganism, then you may not need what I'm about to say.
If you have ever studied martial arts, you know the importance of a teacher and also of being able to interact with other students. The same is true if you have taken lessons to learn to play a musical instrument or to improve your singing voice. Whether it is arts, crafts, or athletics, there are many circumstances where you must rely upon the judgment of a teacher in order to progress well and safely. This is the crux of the problem. The most common and most pervasive message within Paganism about teachers and formalized groups is beware. I suspect you would not find it difficult to remember the last time you heard a warning about not giving yourself over to a teacher or school, but when was the last time that you were given a warning about the perils and difficulties of being self-taught. Of course, if you are sincere and persevere you can learn enough to create something that works for you on your own. But if you have the need or desire to go further than that, in all likelihood you will actually need a teacher.
There are rare individuals whose interests and intellect are balanced in a way that allows them to be their own best teacher. Michelangelo numbers in that short list of autodidacts that were successful. And though I could also argue that in a manner of speaking we are all self taught, it is also true that we cannot teach ourselves what we do not know. This is clearest when we consider the problem of not knowing which question to ask. And there's also the problem of what we like and what we don't like. One of the proper roles of a teacher or system is to enforce a curriculum. I know very few people who find all fields of study to be equally interesting. I know very few people who have a special knack or a talent for every field of study. The self-taught student or the student that has not accepted the value of listening to a teacher, tends to study what they like, which may or may not be what they need. Gaps in knowledge, some of them perceived and some of them invisible, lead to misunderstanding and a distortion of what they do know and choose to study.
What I'm calling for is more conversations, essays, and articles that have a balanced representation of the dangers and the benefits of formalized magickal instruction. I'm certain that all the warnings have prevented some troubles, but they've also have a chilling effect on people exploring the breadth and the depth that comes from commitment and from a willingness to recognize that someone else might know better. Please note I am saying might know better not just might know more. You would not confuse going to an all-you-can-eat buffet as being the same thing as sitting down with a dietitian or some other health care practitioner to see what would be a balanced diet for you. If we replaced “buffet” with “workshops and books” and “dietitian” with “teacher” the logic would still hold true.
I’m going to suggest a book that is not a direct tie-in to this blog post, but it certainly addresses issues that I think are important to the matter of teaching. A Perfumed Scorpion (1978) by Idries Shah is in theory a Sufi book but in practice a book that has much to say about teaching, teachers, students, errors in thought, chains, and freedom that can apply to all of us. For those that are concerned about learning from someone who is outside the box of Paganism, Idries Shah was also the author of the first book on magick that I read. He was also a contemporary and friend of Gerald Gardner and Robert Graves.
My personal experience has been that I have learned the most and gained the most wisdom when I've allowed myself to understand the thought process of my teachers. Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I have a fiery personality and perhaps too many opinions. Yet, I have sat meekly and allowed for the full sequence of the explanations of an idea, concept, or principle to settle in before beginning my process of critical analysis. This has sometimes required chewing my tongue and sitting on my hands. Sometimes the resistance to being taught masquerades as a show of autonomy or defiance. I do not believe everything that I have been taught, even by people that I regard as my teachers, but I know better than to think that I know enough to have a fixed position until I have understood their position. When I am teaching, I am overjoyed when a student asks a question that challenges me, but actually indicates understanding and mastery of the topic.
Be cautious, both in what you let in and what you keep out. Just because fool’s gold is easier to find does not mean that real gold does not exist. It it is my hope that we spend more time exploring how to tell the difference between Kool-Aid and Amrit. Collectively, I fear that we have probably spilled more nectar of the Deities, more drops of inspiration, on the ground than not.
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