A Pagan perspective on Sin

There’s a thing that happens in social dynamics, where a person “breaks the rules,” or says or does a thing that’s wrong. This causes the person to lose social standing, and be treated as if they have a “black mark.” (For example, watch a recent season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.)

If we upset a person, they might have an emotional (angry, upset) response. They may set a boundary. They may take action against us. They might tell other people about the transgression.

If we upset a group, we may lose our status in that group. This could mean being shunned, or removed entirely. Our participation in the group may be limited.

This is a normal thing. (Well, by normal, I mean it happens all the friggin time without us even realizing it.) If we were talking about this from a religious (Christian) perspective, we might call this sin. It happens when we do the wrong thing, and it leaves a lasting mark on us – personally, and either from the person we injured or from a group.

Now, I want to tread lightly. The term [sin] is … loaded. A lot of folks, myself included, have baggage with the term [sin]. Also, [sin] has a lot of different meanings. Still, I’m not sure if there’s a better word, so I’m sticking with this one.

Also, think of this as a thought experiment: Does the concept of [sin] have a place in modern Paganism?

How Sin works

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately.

I experience a lot of anxiety. When I do something that I know a person won’t like, I experience feelings of guilt and shame. It doesn’t matter if I don’t like the person, or don’t speak to the person – simply doing a thing they don’t like generates feelings of guilt and shame.

For me, those feelings of guilt are washed away when I “confess.” Even if that’s just confessing to a therapist, something about speaking them out loud and articulating my regret makes me feel better.

I can see this dynamic playing out in other areas.

For example, many Pagans – especially those of the LGBTQ+ community – believe that J.K. Rowling has sinned in her opinions about transgendered people. Some people feel like it’s a sin when you charge money in exchange for magic. I’ve even heard people treat criticism of a spiritual path as a sin.

So some the features of sin, from a human-psychology perspective, include:

  • A person breaks a rule or social norm
  • The sinner may or may not be aware of the rule they are breaking
  • The sinner seems to incur a sense of debt to those they sin against
  • The sinner loses social standing as a result of their actions
  • The sinner is expected to express guilt, shame and reparations to restore their standing with the group
  • Some people like to see the sinner experience punishment or suffering
  • Some people use the guilt of the sinner to extort additional concessions on behavior or materials

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it should get us started.

Sin in Paganism

A lot of Pagans like to think we’ve left the idea of sin behind. That’s part of what many of us reject about Christianity – the idea that we are bad and dirty just by being born. We tend to reject the idea that our actions can result in a “stain” on our “soul.”

But, as I mentioned in the introduction, rejection of the concept of [sin] doesn’t mean that human behavior doesn’t still happen. For example, in Paganism, many people feel like it’s a sin to criticize their teacher. Some Pagans consider it a sin to criticize another person’s spiritual path. Many magical practitioners consider it a sin to charge money in exchange for magic.

Paganism, however, doesn’t have a good mechanism for dealing with social transgressions. Most Pagan groups seem to look away uncomfortably from the sense of social debt that’s incurred when someone offends someone else, or breaks a social rule.

We’re rejecting the concept of sin, while at the same time holding people accountable for their sins.

So just because we reject the theological concept of sin doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in our groups. It seems like it would be helpful to have a term for it that wasn’t loaded with religious baggage. (I don’t have any suggestions, but I’m open to them.)

Who adjudicates sin?

Generally speaking, the victim of a transgression is the one who determines whether a sin was committed. Consider the term TERF – Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist is a label that’s used to identify feminists, usually women, who don’t conform to transgender-inclusive culture.

With the term TERF, it’s not straight white guys who are labeling someone a TERF. They have no skin in the game. Rather, it’s the people who are affected – the victims, usually transgender people – who are labeling a person a TERF.

(This is not intended as any kind of criticism, but rather an example of how the process works.)

Sometimes, it’s a group that decides whether a particular action is a sin. This may be deliberate, where a specific action is labeled inappropriate. Sometimes, the rules just evolve unspoken.

In our group, it’s a sin to be convicted of a violent felony or a sex crime. People who have done those things are not allowed to be part of our group. Committing that kind of crime against a child shows that a person a) cannot be trusted with the safety of children, b) puts their own interests above the health of children, and c) is just an icky person we don’t want to spend time with. We decided that these are the rules, and we adjudicate them by refusing entry to people who have broken them.

In the case of most groups, there’s no formal method for identifying and adjudicating sin; it happens organically. The group tacitly agrees on whether an action is coherent with the group identity, or whether it violates the group.

This creates problems when people aren’t made aware of the group rules beforehand. Many people have been kicked out, blacklisted, shunned, or had other action taken against them for transgressing, without ever knowing what the transgression was.

It also creates problems because of the imperfect nature of humans. Here on the political left, there’s this idea that everyone should be perfect paragons of equality and social justice. If a political candidate (or any famous person, really) has ever written something that could be seen as racist, sexist, or any other -ist, it is a sin.

But something that is a sin today might not have been a problem 30 years ago. Consider the TV sitcom Friends. Insanely popular show. However, many of the jokes are rooted in homophobia, which would be taboo today. Judged by the culture 30 years ago, the jokes were just funny. Judged by the culture today, they are offensive.

Humor is like that. Try to read comics from 100 or 150 years ago, and they probably won’t make sense. Language and culture change, making it harder to understand. Without a current context for the language and the subtle social understanding, something may look wildly inappropriate when it’s actually benign.

(Historical ideas can also be just as bad as they appear. Rhetorical arguments promoting slavery, for example.)

In most circumstances, the victim of a particular sin is the best person to label and adjudicate it. If a woman lies to me and manipulates me, I get to decide if that rises to the level of sin, and what response is appropriate. However, I’m probably not an appropriate adjudicator to label someone a TERF, because I’m not transgender.

Is the adjudicator of sin always right?

People have the ability to be horrible to each other. This is a human thing, not restricted to gender or skin color or any other class category. So it’s probably not appropriate to adjudicate and label sin by class. In other words, women and trans people aren’t the only ones who get to decide what’s a sin.

Traditionally, however, certain protected classes have been the target and victim of a disproportionate level of abuse. That’s why we have protected classes – we recognize, as a society, that members of certain classes of people have had it rough. Granting additional protection helps to level the playing field.

This is a good thing. We want to believe victims when they tell us they’ve been harmed.

But as soon as there are rules in place, there are humans who seek to bend or twist those rules to their advantage. Like the white guys who oppose affirmative action programs in college, claiming that it creates a bias against them by their race. Logically, it seems sound. But it opposes the very spirit of affirmative action, which is to invite a more diverse student base to universities.

So we want to believe victims, except when they aren’t really victims. And we want to have organic rules for behavior, but we want people to know about them ahead of time. We don’t want mob rule, where anyone can sling an accusation to ruin a person. (Well, maybe some groups do, but this is an unhealthy dynamic.) But we don’t want an authoritarian group micromanaging people’s behavior, either.

Talk about a bunch of contradictions! How on Earth can we establish what is sin, and what’s not sin? And what if someone is using the label [sin] in bad faith, to achieve a personal or political goal?

Moreover, how do we guard against people hijacking a group’s sense of [sin] in order to persecute a member of a group?

There is no perfect group or moral standard

Here’s where perfect inclusivity breaks down. If I say my group is inclusive of everyone, that means it’s inclusive of people of color, and it’s inclusive of white supremacists. Either one has a claim to be part of my group, if I’m trying to be perfectly and universally inclusive.

I think we would all agree that it would be bad to include both people of color and white supremacists.

A better method is to establish what is OK and what is not OK. This means that some people will be excluded from the group. If our group doesn’t allow sex offenders, sex offenders simply have to find another place to go.

Being up front and transparent about those values up front sets people’s expectations. They know ahead of time what behavior is acceptable, and what’s not. People then have the option to self-select in or out of the group. If they behave inappropriately, then they can be removed from the group with a minimum of grief.

This only really works for private social groups. Public groups – the kind who access community-owned resources, like parks or City Council – cannot have restrictions by class without marginalizing people. We don’t want that.

But it is OK to say that your group prohibits marginalizing transgender people. You can kick people out for being anti-trans. You’ll send a clear signal that anti-trans people aren’t welcome in your group, which is good because you don’t want them there. You’ll also send a clear signal to transgender people, that they are safe and welcomed.

This will lead to all kinds of different private social groups. Not all of these groups will get along.

The price of having a coherent and healthy private group, is making peace that other people have different morals and values than you. What you consider to be a sin might be no big deal to someone else. Setting the morals and values for your group means relinquishing any right to set those values and morals for another group.

Which is why we laugh at Christians who say we’re going to hell. They’re the ones who have that moral code, not us. They don’t get to say what’s a sin for people who aren’t Christian. (As much as they would like to.)

So. Transparent, clear guidelines for behavior. Clear boundaries. And a clear course of action if someone crosses those boundaries. And a realization that if they’re not part of your group, you can’t really hold them to your standard of ethics.

Coming back from transgressions

Sometimes, a person commits a sin and feels bad about it. They want to atone, to make things right, to re-establish their place in the community.

Right now, Paganism doesn’t really have a way to do that. We don’t seem to want to talk about sin, even though we have people committing personal and social transgressions.

Consider the case of the child molester who wants to go to church. Some studies show that they need community support in order to not re-offend. They want to change, and they need the help of other people to make that change.

On the other hand, other people’s kids are at risk if the child molester is allowed into the church. Child molesters are extremely skilled manipulators – how can we justify the risk to children, and risk allowing ourselves to be manipulated? And how can we know if the child molester really wants to change, or is just telling us that to get us to lower our guard?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this. I wish there were.

For some of the people we’ve asked to leave our group, there was no sign that they would ever change their behavior. They were toxic, and for the health of the group they could not be allowed to continue. The transgression was deliberate, unremorseful, and ongoing.

But I wonder. If someone came back to us and said “Hey, I’ve done a lot of work, and I’m trying to change. May I rejoin the group?” How would we respond? Should we let them back into the group?

I’ll expand it a little further. Say a popular author said something 30 years ago that was sexist. Someone finds it today, and calls them out, and rallies their group to boycott that person. Support grows, and suddenly that author is a pariah. They are blacklisted from speaking events, their daytime job is threatened, and they receive threatening phone calls.

There has been no legal ruling. The rules that person violated didn’t even exist when their statement was made. They may not even believe those things anymore. What then?

As it stands right now, it’s mob mentality. All you have to do is use the right buzzwords, and you can rally your army of social justice keyboard warriors to your side, and decimate your opponent. We’ll see to it they never work in this town again.

But what if the mob is wrong? What if the statement was taken out of context? What if they grew, and became a better person in the last 30 years?

I feel like the Pagan community is missing something important, if we don’t have a ritual to atone for our sins.

Atonement

In Catholicism, as I understand it (since I’ve never been Catholic), when you commit a sin you confess to a priest. The priest may grant forgiveness, or they may set a series of actions a person must complete to earn forgiveness.

Clearly, this is a system that has been abused throughout history.

I think a better way to think of this is using the concept of debt.

Debt (and credit) have been theorized as originating not as a way of exploiting other people, but rather of tracking the fairness of a particular trade. It goes like this: I promise to trade you 10 loaves of bread for 5 pounds of beef. But I don’t have 10 loaves of bread right now, and if I did they’d go bad before you can use them. So you give me the beef, and I give you 2 loaves of bread, and I owe you the other 8.

Similarly, if I make a joke that offends you, I’ve hurt your feelings. Now, I’m in your debt, because my actions caused you discomfort. My atonement is to apologize, and make an effort in the future to avoid making jokes that offend you. If you accept the trade, my debt has been absolved.

In Anglo-Saxon England, there was a concept called were-gild, or man-gold. This was the price of a man’s life. If your actions caused a person to die, this was the price you paid to make things right with the family.

So. In our social groups, it might be helpful to think about degree of transgression, and proper repayment. What are transgressions that a reasonable person should be able to shrug off? What transgressions incur a debt to another person? And what transgressions are unforgivable?

I can’t make that determination for you. I think that in Pagan spaces, transgressions should be directly related to Pagan topics. For example: psychic vampirism, contributing to the group, exploiting other members of the group, and following through with commitments.

This could apply to a gender group. Lots of LGBTQ+ people find their home in Paganism. Their groups might add dead-naming, being a TERF, or using the wrong pronouns to their list of transgressions.

Once you have a rough idea of the transgressions, set your atonements appropriately. For an egregious violation, maybe it’s removal from the group. A mid-level offense might mean an apology or mediation/conflict resolution. A minor transgression might only require an apology, or it might require the victim simply to exercise resilience and let the transgression go.

Again, I can’t make that determination.

But what I see, is many Pagans and Pagan groups blacklisting allies, because the allies don’t perfectly align to those groups’ ideals. (I’m looking at you, Pantheacon.) If you want your social movement to fail, start attacking your allies because they aren’t performing perfectly according to your social codes.

Gotcha moments

Contemporary American culture now, especially online and in business transactions, seems to be rooted in the “gotcha.”

A gotcha works something like this. First, a person does the wrong thing. This might be something illegal, or against the group morals, or even something that costs another person time or money. The wrong thing can even be something as simple as causing offense.

Once a “wrong thing” has been committed, this incurs a social debt. This allows other members to marginalize or exploit the person who did the wrong thing. That person was “got,” and now they “owe” the group.

For example. Say a person is driving through the parking lot. The cut a corner a little close, and brush the fender of another person’s car. If the owner of the second car sees it, they have a “gotcha” on the first driver. The first driver is now liable, and can be held for damages to the second car.

Another example. A group sets up an event for women at a major Pagan convention. To create a balance between inclusivity and safety, the group creates events for anyone, for people who identify as women, and for women born as women. Because their whole event isn’t perfectly and universally inclusive, some people take offense. They have a “gotcha” on the group, and use that to stage protests and have the group removed from the event.

The “gotcha” is a quick way for a person to get something they want. This is a predatory approach – just like the owl that catches a mouse that makes a mistake fleeing across a field, wielding a “gotcha” lets one person benefit at another’s expense.

However, the predatory nature of the “gotcha” means trouble for a community. Once a community allows predatory behavior, it becomes competitive. Competition leads to a loss of safety, compassion, and cooperation. When a group becomes competitive, a few people benefit greatly, while the rest of the group suffers. This creates an unhealthy community.

The “gotcha” is also related to tit-for-tat, scorekeeping, and revenge. There are many, many blood feuds going on in the world right now, because both sides are unable to let go of their desire for revenge over a grievance. Many times, the original offense has been forgotten; only the debt and the pursuit of a “gotcha” against the enemy remain.

The spiritual side of sin

As with most human behavior, the concept of social debt expands into our spiritual space. Most religions include the concept of transgression against non-physical entities.

Also, as with most human behaviors, this is a tricky space to navigate. On the one hand, we’re dealing with non-physical phenomena, and it’s easy to make up bullshit transgressions to put people in debt. On the other hand, spirits and deities actually can take offense to some human action, and require reparations to restore and repair standing.

So, first the bullshit. In case some readers have never been Catholic, or have never studied the history of the Catholic church, here’s how it used to work. Humans would sin, and be required to atone (make amends) to God (via the priesthood) for those sins. If a person died before atoning, their soul could not proceed to Heaven. Instead, it would go to an in-between realm, called Purgatory, to purge the sin from their souls.

So the Church would label certain biological human behaviors to be sinful (aka, sex). When people naturally behave that way, the Church labels it a sin. Now the Church has a “gotcha” against the person. The person has to perform a certain behavior in order to make amends for the transgression.

You can see how this could be abused by a greedy or lecherous priesthood. And it gets worse.

If a person dies with unaddressed transgressions, they are stuck in purgatory. But the Catholic church has a fix! The living can atone for the dead, and pay off their debt so they can enter heaven. Or, instead of atonement, the living can pay a fee (called an indulgence) to the Church, who then puts in a good word for the deceased to get into Heaven.

As Pagans, Witches, and other alt-spiritual people, most of us probably have a strong feeling of revulsion to this sytem. And rightly so.

However.

The other side of this, is that sometimes you actually can piss of spirits and deities. In Mongolian spirituality, it is highly offensive to local water spirits to urinate in rivers. In Eastern spiritual traditions, snake spirits called Nagas act as helpful magical spirits. However, they are strictly vegan, and they will take offense if offered animal protein.

Here in the US, the most frequent transgressions for magical practitioners come in the form of angry land spirits and ghosts.

Many magical traditions also deal with a thing called crossed conditions. Sometimes, shit just goes sideways. Maybe you’re on the outs with a land spirit, or in your daily actions you run afoul of some invisible and unknown force. Suddenly, your spiritual (and sometimes physical) sphere gets weird. Strange things happen, spells may fail or backfire.

Taking spiritual action to clear crossed conditions – or to make reparations for offenses – is central to some magical traditions. And they work! This may include a cleansing bath (to wash away the yuck), a ritual to clear crossed conditions, or even offerings and atonements to specific spirits or deities in reparation.

Now – you might be thinking, this seems a lot like the bullshittery that the Catholic Church engaged in. And you’re right (kind of) – there’s not really a good way to distinguish between a bullshit spiritual condition and a real one.

Personally, I think this is an area where we as magical practitioners have fallen short. In our effort to excise all the Christianity from our sphere, we’ve tossed out some important material. Like the idea of incurring a spiritual debt.

Healthy sin vs. Unhealthy sin

I never thought I’d be writing a section title like this.

I think that, in a lot of circumstances, sin is a bad thing. It’s mostly used for exploitation of others, and I am firmly against that kind of bullshit.

I would define unhealthy sin to be:

  • External – you are labeled or “gotcha’ed” by another person
  • Coercive – certain specific behaviors or payments are required to “atone”
  • Unrepentant – a person who wrongs another person or group feels no regret, or has no intention to change
  • Predatory – actions that treat other members of the group as prey, or which foster a sense of unhealthy competition
  • Punishing – if the focus of reparations is on punishment, instead of reparations
  • Arbitrary – the group changes its values to selectively target individuals for violating them
  • Class-based – the sin is based on your gender, skin color, or other genetic variable that people have no control over

I would define healthy sin to be:

  • Guilt – you feel bad for doing the wrong thing to a person or spirit
  • Reparations – you want to make things right with the person or spirit you wronged
  • Motivating – the transgression moves you to work to be better in the future
  • Cooperative – the focus of identifying the transgression is on helping a person behave better as a member of the group
  • Genuine – you’re not simply apologizing or acting as if you’re sorry, you are genuinely trying to make reparations for the situation
  • Action-based – you have acted in a way that is offensive, or failed to act in a way you agreed to act (as opposed to sin rooted in identity)

The right way to address transgressions

Or at least my suggestion for the right way.

First, everyone should be acting in good faith. If you suspect someone is acting in bad faith – either the person who sinned or the person sinned against – that should be sorted out first. Examples might be being overly dramatic and taking offense where none is intended, claiming to be a victim without actually being a victim, or labeling a person “cursed” in order to sell them an uncrossing remedy. If one side or the other is acting in bad faith, this whole process is being hijacked.

Second, both sides need to feel like they are seen, heard, and understood. The aggrieved person needs the sinner to understand the impact of their actions. The sinner needs the aggrieved to understand their intentions, and what they are doing to make amends.

Third, both sides need to agree on a remedy. This may be a 5-part apology, a specific action, or even a mediated solution.

The 5-part apology:

  • Acknowledge the transgression
  • Say the words “I’m sorry”
  • Acknowledge how the transgression made the other person feel
  • Articulate the plan to prevent future transgressions
  • Follow through with action and behavior change

Fourth, the remedy is implemented. This may be changed behavior, or it could be a peace offering (apology cookies, buying a drink). Whatever the agreed-upon action, this is the point where it has to be followed up on. In some cases, this may be an “agree-to-disagree,” especially where people have different and irreconcilable views. In extreme cases, this may include one person leaving or being removed from the group.

Finally, both sides need to find a way to forgive, let go, or move on from the transgression. Once the apology and reparations are made, the sinner must regain their full status in the group. Any scorekeeping or holding grudges will only serve to turn the group predatory and competitive.

Calling in vs Calling out

I wanted to draw special attention to this article. Especially with the trend of social justice in Paganism, Witchcraft, Wicca, and alt-spiritualty, Professor Ross has addressed call-out culture in an excellent, compassionate, and effective way. I especially appreciate that she works to bring the focus back to a healthy community, instead of a “gotcha” moment.

What if Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In?
Prof. Loretta J. Ross is combating cancel culture with a popular class at Smith College.

Creating a culture of safety and compassion

The whole idea behind this article on sin is to help the magical community develop better communities.

It’s pretty hard to have community if people don’t feel safe. This goes back to Skinner’s basic writings on the Hierarchy of Needs. Even though it has its flaws, it still acknowledges that people need a sense of safety in order to achieve the levels of trust and vulnerability that create strong social bonds.

This is not to say that everyone in a group has to be exactly the same. Rather, this is a model for addressing the hurt feelings and disagreements that inevitably erupt in a group of strong, independent, and empowered people.

One way that we create that sense of safety, is by being accountable to each other. This happens through working cooperatively toward the group’s coherence. It also happens by tracking the social debts we incur with others, and addressing those in a healthy way.

It works to our benefit that the same model we use to maintain healthy social relations also work for our relations to the spirit world.

Like many things, a lot of this advice boils down to, the world is already hard and shitty, and we don’t need to make it harder and shittier for other people by being an asshole.

But I think it goes a bit further than that. We actually are assholes – sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately, and sometimes unavoidably. But being an asshole doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. By addressing our assholery, we can build a sense of trust with one another such that, even if someone acts like an asshole, they can still make up for it and be treated as a trusted, cooperative member of the group.

Perspective check – pandemic version

So apparently there’s some virus or something going around. I went to the grocery store, and it was like something out of the movies. The canned goods were picked over like Wal-Mart on Black Friday. The toilet paper and paper towel aisle was empty. All the gallons of milk were gone, though half-gallons were still available.

Idaho currently has 2 (update: 50) confirmed cases of COVID-19. We don’t really have a dense population, so we’re unlikely to get a bad outbreak. But we do have a lot of folks who are preppers, and/or who fantasize about the zombie apocalypse.

I feel strangely unaffected. Like, I can feel the anxiety growing when I watch the news, but it’s nothing more than a normal anxiety day for me.

So I’m gonna share a few thoughts on that.

Pandemic Anxiety

Sounds like the name of a punk band.

There’s this sort of itch I get when I’m feeling anxious. It’s like a tingle about an inch or so outside my skin. Maybe a psychic itch is a good way to describe it. Like all my tiny little arm-hairs are standing up, hyper-tuned to the air currents.

I find myself looking around, watching my surroundings. Odd or abnormal behavior stands out – is that person drunk, or having mental illness issues, and are they considering violence? Is that person just nervous, or on meth, or are they hyper-fearful?

I consider what other humans are doing. I’m not afraid of the apocalypse, but other people are, and they’re buying up all the toilet paper. So I better stock up, because who knows what those other people will do.

The schools are closed, so now I have to worry about the kids being home. Work might close, and I don’t know what I’ll do if they cut my pay. I’m especially worried that people won’t come in to where I work, and that loss of business will hurt my company.

And what about my uncle with lung cancer? What if I catch COVID-19, and pass it to someone with a sick grandma? What if – what if – what if…

That’s what’s going on in my mind.

Here’s the thing though. My brain does that all the time. If you’re struggling too, here are a few things that help me.

Obligatory disclaimer

I’m hot a healthcare professional. I’m not trained or licensed to give medical advice. If you’re experiencing mental illness or distress. please see a professional. Email me if you need help finding one.

Magical and spiritual advice is not a substitute for scientific or medical information.

These suggestions should be read as a supplement to your existing mental health treatment plan.

Onward.

Reducing acute anxiety

Use these techniques if you have an immediate or intense spike of fear or anxiety. Your goal is to re-engage your rational mind, so that it can override the emotional parts of your brain that are freaking out.

First of all, breathe. Slowly. Use your finger to measure your pulse, and inhale for 4 heartbeats, then exhale for 4 heartbeats.

Keep doing that until your heart rate slows down. I feel it as a sensation like cool water is washing through my body.

Count to 20, slowly. Visualize each number as you count it. If you get distracted, start over. When you get to 20, go back down to 1.

Name and list all the colors you can see. (Seriously. This works like gangbusters for me.)

Now, breathe again. Let your belly expand, instead of breathing into your chest. Ground and center. Use your breath to connect to the Earth and Cosmic energy channels.

Let’s do something about those beliefs

Part of the reason you’re freaking the fuck out, is because of secondary information. For example: when you see a spider on the wall during the day, and it’s got a tiny little shadow underneath it, the spider is less scary. When you see that same spider at night by the light of a table lamp, the spider throws a longer shadow making it look bigger and scarier.

The spider hasn’t changed. Your perspective changed. The shadow is secondary information, which your brain is associating with the spider.

Also, the information you associate with the spider changes your reaction. If you believe spiders represent dirty, poisonous, disembodied hands, alien-looking creatures, sticky webs, sucking the liquefied guts out of insects – sure, spiders are terrifying.

If you think of spiders as shy, helpful critters that eat harmful bugs you can’t see in your house, they suddenly seem a lot less frightening.

Your beliefs determine your reality. Right now, you might be thinking “If I get this virus, people could die!”

Let’s put that in perspective. If you get any virus, people could die. Certain strains of HPV can cause cancer. HIV causes AIDS.

Virii are a normal part of nature. Herds of elk, antelope, and even cattle are regularly wiped out by diseases. Plants can get diseases too, that affect crop yields. People get diseases.

There’s a belief, I think, that our normal state is to always be healthy. This extends a bit into believing that if we don’t prevent an illness, it’s the same thing as causing an illness. This is logically inaccurate.

You don’t have to accept a particular belief at face value. Instead, challenge it, and see if it fits with everything else you know. It might not. Or it might. But you don’t know until you evaluate it.

First Belief:

Is the virus really that bad or abnormal? In your mind, think of a range of different diseases. Bubonic plague: killed millions, easily treated with antibiotics. 1918 flu: killed millions, targeted weird demographics. Mad cow disease: scary as hell, but quickly contained, and not transmitted between humans. Polio: holy crap bad, like crutches and iron-lung bad, but vaccine-preventable.

Chicken pox: Sucky, but not too bad. Smallpox: really bad, but vaccine-preventable. Measles, mumps: bad, but vaccine-preventable.

Common cold: sucky, but survivable even without medication. Seasonal flu: sucky, but survivable, though take precautions to stay hydrated.

COVID-19 is slightly more serious than a seasonal flu, and seems to be quite a bit less serious than the 1918 flu. So if you get it – and you probably will – it’s probably not the end of the world.

And even if it is – believe that, and take appropriate action to prevent or mitigate that. There’s a whole meditation practice on contemplating your own mortality. Check it out.

Second Belief:

I can always trust [authoritative source] to tell it like it is!

OK – so I’ve heard rumblings that this is an “escaped bioweapon,” that “cities have been placed on lockdown,” that “This virus is no big deal, just act normally.” That’s a lot of conflicting information.

It’s easy, I think, to distrust the news agencies and the government. When we’re getting a lot of conflicting stories, it’s tempting to just assume the worst. In this case, the worst is motivating individuals to take actions that are really unhelpful for societies.

Instead, practice good news hygiene. Don’t take everything you hear at face value. You can weight the value of a particular piece of information differently. For example – one healthcare professional in Italy might have a frightening story. I would wait until I heard 2 or 3 stories from healthcare professionals in different regions before giving this story a lot of weight.

Sometimes a person’s story can be weighted depending on the context. There was a really bad outbreak in Washington… at a retirement home. Trump is saying this outbreak is no big deal… because he doesn’t want the stock market to crash on his buddies.

The WHO and CDC are organizations that study disease. Their word should carry a moderate to high weight. It might be tempting to consider them participating in a cover-up. If you do, it’s helpful to think – what would they stand to gain? Is it feasible for them to effectively cover up something this big? How do their stories compare to other healthcare professionals? Is it better for me to trust people who study disease, than to distrust them?

Look for the extremes, then look for moderate positions between them. Give more weight to moderate positions. If someone is hyping you up with a lot of fear, they might be trying to hold your attention on behalf of their advertisers. If they’re telling you nothing is wrong, they may want you to keep buying things so their stock portfolio doesn’t crash. If someone says “Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and stay away from large crowds,” that is a much more moderate and reasonable position.

Third Belief:

I can prevent myself from getting sick.

You have control over precisely one person: yourself. You cannot control the actions of another person.

So we could, as a society, collectively agree to stay home. We could agree to wash our damn hands. We could suspend travel, and avoid large gatherings.

But there’s always that one asshole who ignores the warnings, catches the bug, and passes it to everyone. That literally happened in South Korea.

Practice good hygiene for yourself. Advocate for others to do the same. Consider that some people won’t, and take appropriate precautions. And please, challenge any of your beliefs that would lead you to assume the best or worst about other people.

Other Beliefs:

Only you can know what your beliefs are about this. And only you can challenge them. One helpful trick is to reframe the argument. That is, put it in a different context, or change up some of the argument. For example:

Some people believe that talking about a 2-3% mortality rate is the equivalent of wanting people to die. Challenge that belief – what are some of that person’s other motivations? Do they want people to die, or are they reassuring themselves? Are they talking about deliberately exposing one sensitive person to Coronavirus, or are they speaking in more general terms about a population?

Some people claim that chloroquine is a miracle drug for combating COVID-19. Some people who have taken it have died. Or at least, that’s how the stories go. This is not much different than believing that burning sage will kill all the coronaviruses. (It doesn’t.) It’s easy to start grasping for anything that might offer hope of a cure. This is not much different from a drowning person reflexively drowning their helper. Challenge the belief, and find a variety of different perspectives before knocking back that bottle of aquarium cleaner.

Acute Anxiety/Fear vs. General Anxiety/Fear

The first set of suggestions above was designed to help you with acute anxiety. That’s when there’s a clear trigger, and an intense feeling of anxiety.

The second suggestion was designed to help you with general anxiety. That’s when you feel like you have to look over your shoulder, like you could get blindsided, or you just generally feel unsafe.

It’s important to recognize the difference between acute anxiety and general anxiety. What works for one doesn’t always work for the other.

For me, it works sort of like this. On any given day I’m probably running at about 8 out of 10 anxiety. It might dip to 6 or 5, if I stay away from people or stressful situations.

(I’m working on it. After a couple years, I’m down to about 3-5 / 10 on most days. Also, personal note – if you’re new to experiencing a lot of anxiety, this is what it’s like every day for some of us. Let us show you around, we know the area. ūüôā )

Each stressor I experience amps up that feeling of general anxiety. I might start the day at a 1. Get up, and read something shitty on the internet – boom, up to 2 or 3. Phone rings, but I let it go to voicemail – 4. Drive to work, someone drives like an asshole – 5. At work, I have to make a phone call – now I’m at 7 or 8.

The height of that anxiety rating is the approximate percent chance that I’ll have an acute anxiety attack. So, if I’m at a 2, that’s about 20% chance of being triggered. At an 8, I’m at about 80%.

When I’m feeling anxiety, it affects the way I perceive things. Remember the spider on the wall? The more anxiety I feel, the more I perceive that spider as a threat. I have to literally tell myself – out loud, sometimes – that it’s just a tiny little arachnid, and can’t possibly harm me. Sometimes, that counter-messaging is the only thing that works to counter the inner feelings of fear.

That fear prevents me from seeing anything but the terrifying spider. I can rationally know that the spider is harmless, but my whole body is screaming at me to kill it with fire.

Now – consider this from the perspective of immigration. If you have that body-level anxiety about immigrants, there is no way you can possibly think rationally about them. You’re going to feel threatened, and respond accordingly.

People feel this about people of color.

About witches.

About women.

About strangers and social situations.

Anything, really. But especially, right now, the Coronavirus.

We make different decisions when we’re anxious

This should come as no surprise to anyone in the New Age or adjacent spiritual circles. I mean, we’ve all been beaten to death by the “Choose Love Not Fear” messaging.

The reality is trickier than that.

Sometimes, people don’t know that their perspective is limited. Because that’s the only perspective they have. They don’t have anything to compare it to.

Further, people tend to make more conservative choices when they’re afraid. If you’re scared of the spider on the wall, you’re more likely to kill it than escort it outside. Likewise, if you’re afraid of Coronavirus, you might feel like you need to stockpile face masks and hand sanitizer.

If you’re afraid of people who are afraid of Coronavirus, you might also stockpile face masks and hand sanitizer. And toilet paper.

If you’re afraid of criminals, you might feel like you need to own a firearm. If you’re afraid of people of color, you might hesitate giving them the right to vote, or you might screen them more heavily for crime and firearm possession.

If you’re afraid of immigrants, you’re more likely to want a border wall.

The thing is, people don’t often realize they’re acting out of fear. It’s like having a pair of colored glasses (or ski goggles) on. Eventually, your brain filters out the color and it looks normal. You don’t even realize you’re not seeing certain colors.

If you’re thinking right now that voting patterns can be predicated on how much fear a group of people is experiencing, I would say you’re on the right track, and posit that it’s a more common political strategy than we both realize.

Individual vs. Group

I wanted to touch on this for a moment. I’m pretty sure I’ve written about this elsewhere – originally, Jason Miller articulated it well. Essentially, the conversation is different when we’re talking about individuals versus when we talk about groups.

In a perfect world, we would recognize that each of us is an individual. But that’s not really how our brains work. Our brains like to chunk information together, so we can expand our understanding to bigger bits.

It should be no surprise, then, that when people share a common trait, it’s natural for us to lump them together as a group.

When we’re talking about sociology, politics, or even pandemics, the big picture is often all people have the mental capacity to handle. Can you imagine if each epidemiologist had to keep each person’s life story straight, for each infection in an outbreak?

Yikes. Not possible.

So, it’s helpful to consider the source. When an epidemiologist is talking about a pandemic affecting certain portions of the population, it’s not that they don’t care. It’s not that they want those people to die. They’re just focused on big-picture. It’s literally not personal.

In addition, the actions you should take can be different, depending on whether you are acting as an individual or as part of a group.

We’re being asked to practice social distancing because we’re members of a group, and this is a better policy for the group as a whole. But it’s damn inconvenient for some individuals. Like those who want to go out bar-hopping. Or people who don’t want their airplane stock to lose value.

Individuals looking out for themselves is the reason we have toilet paper shortages. Those people prioritized their own individual interests over the interests of the group. As a result, society doesn’t have enough toilet paper.

Incidentally, this can be applied to money (billionaires hoarding money), housing (landlords hoarding properties), even famine (food companies hoarding food). When the supply of a thing is restricted, the price goes up. My hope is that we, as a society, realize this – and that we realize how much power we can wield as a group. (AKA union.)

But back to the individual. We each have to look out for ourselves. In Nature, it’s a rough existence, with disease, famine, and predators always out to get you.

But having to watch over your shoulder, and be totally responsible for you and you alone, creates a lot of fucking anxiety and exhaustion. (Ask me how I know.)

Fortunately, most animals – humans included – come equipped with a Social Module. This causes us to bond with other people, to create cooperative and trusting communities. We reinforce these communities with language, culture, shared values, shared resources, and common defense. We protect them with laws and rules to punish people who act against the group’s interest.

I have more to say on this, in the context of personal versus social identity. Look for that in another post.

For now, just consider that in order to receive the benefits of being part of a society, you need to be mindful of the balance between your personal interests and the group’s interests.

In other words, wash your damn hands – no one else wants your cooties. And quit hoarding the toilet paper. Breathe, chill out, and it will all be OK. Even if something bad happens –

It Will Be OK.

A few final thoughts

I hope you’re coming away from this post with a few things to think about.

Main point: fear and anxiety change the way you behave. Take immediate action to get out of a place of fear, and into a place of love and compassion.

Another way to put it might be this. You have two basic modes: smallness and bigness. When something new and big comes along, smallness freaks the fuck out, because there’s no way it can handle all of that. Bigness has the capacity to handle that new thing without feeling overwhelmed.

The difference is sort of like dumping a gallon of water into a drinking glass, versus dumping it into a swimming pool.

(In case it’s not obvious, you want to be in bigness mode. Hat-tip to Fabeku Fatunmise for his work on bigness and coherence.)

With regard to the virus, keep two minds. Remember to take care of yourself. That means rest, hydration, nutrition, and washing your hands. Also remember that you have an obligation to your community, to help keep the outbreak from getting out of hand. Follow the CDC and WHO recommendations and change your behavior.

Viral outbreaks are totally natural. You’ll probably catch this one at some point. What we don’t want, is to catch it all at the same time. It’s easier to handle 50 people at a time in the hospital for several weeks, than 5,000 people all at once.

Stay safe out there, folks. Catch you next post.

Friggin vampires.

Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film Dracula, courtesy of Creative Commons licence

I should have known. Maybe I did know, and I just decided to give this guy the benefit of the doubt. I mean, he did identify himself as a predator by calling himself a vampire.

But it never ceases to amaze me, the lengths people will go in order to exploit other people.

Story time.

The backstory

Helping to run a Pagan community means dealing with a wide range of different people. There are a lot of folks I wouldn’t exactly call Pagan, but rather Pagan-adjacent. This includes LARP-ers, New-Agers, reiki practitioners, rock-hounds, naturopaths – you get the idea.

Normally I am totally fine with this. When building a community, it’s important to be as inclusive as possible. Our values are to be inclusive regardless of class, and selectively exclusive of individuals based on poor behavior. (You don’t have control over your class. You do have control over your behavior.)

In order to start building connections and community between different Pagan and Pagan-adjacent groups, we’re setting up a Pagan Leadership group. For our first meeting, we got a request from a guy who lives about two hours away. He brings his girlfriend to the first meeting, and they seem really excited about bridging the gap and finding common ground between Pagans (and Witches) and Vampires.

Now – this guy was a bit of a weirdo. Like, he wore fangs to a professional leadership meeting. Wears his hair in a skullet. Dresses in black. (Not weird.) With lots of ornate, video-game-like jewelry. (Sorta weird.)

But I’ve seen weirder. Plus he had some experience as a leader, and he wasn’t behaving too inappropriately, so we let things slide.

The ethics

Vampire guy had a very strict, authoritarian model for managing his group. Totally not our style, but we figured maybe it was necessary for keeping the Darque Vampire people in line.

For example – at social functions, his charges were only allowed two drinks. (Which I think is bullshit. Either they drink responsibly, or they aren’t invited.) He defended it, claiming it was necessary.

Whatev’s.

He also has a tiered system for infractions, and the consequences include things like “ghosting” (pretending the person isn’t there), temporary banning, and permabanning. They had a point system. Some infractions are one point, some are two. When your point total reaches a threshold, a scaling punishment is applied.

That’s some pretty complicated tracking for someone who isn’t an employee. But again, it’s their group, so whatev’s.

During the meeting, Vampire Dude was very clear about consent. He said that in order to “feed” – whether energetically or on actual blood – a vampire must get consent from their “donor” first.

So we thought, again – not for us, but it sounds like this guy is at least respecting our cornerstone of Informed Enthusiastic Consent.

So we flagged it as Wait And See.

The red flags

Vampire dude likes attention. He likes to talk over the top of people. He wants to get the group to use the rules he’s using. He doesn’t like having to adapt to other people’s ethics or values. He also likes to brag, and call attention to his myriad accomplishments and titles.

Vampire dude loves to talk about his lineage. He’s one of those guys who can’t introduce himself without rattling off his 6 Impressive Titles, 3 Magical Names, and Really Important Lineage.

When other values were brought up, he sort of ignored them to talk about how he does it in his group. He does that thing where he seems to talk without breathing, and you have to start looking for a pause in his monologue for a chance to say something.

But, so far, not a total deal-breaker. We’ve had this kind of guy around before, but we figured it might be nerves. We figured we’d at least let things play out.

Oh yeah – one other red flag. I asked him, point-blank – what did he make of identifying as a predator, in the context of being a healthy participant in a group? In other words – vampires, in all the literature and movies – are depicted as predators. They eat people, and those people either die or are harmed by the feeding. So anyone who wants to identify as a vampire is doing so knowing full well the predatory nature of vampires.

So – if we don’t let sexual predators in our group, and if we boot people who exhibit other predatory behavior, how does he reconcile pro-social requirements with being a predator?

The solution, apparently, is consenting “donors.” And punishments for people who break the rules

OK then.

A bit about vampires

There are some common themes among vampires that I’ve met:

  • They want to appear “otherworldly”
  • They want people to be impressed by them
  • They “feed” on people
  • Their identity is largely based on modern fictional narrative
  • Many of them claim a specific lineage for “authenticity”
  • They incorporate heavy elements of sexuality

Most of these tropes come from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Some are from Dracula derivatives, such as Interview with the Vampire, or Blade, or What We Do in the Shadows. But the themes of ancient, undead, predatory, and sexual are all pretty much straight from Stoker.

That means that most people who call themselves vampires are rooting their identity in narrative fiction.

With that said, most cultures have stories of the dead rising from the grave. Unlike Dracula clones, this is never a good thing. The “undead” are horrific monsters. There is nothing redeeming about them. They eat people, and they are scary. They are irredeemable. Whether or not the culture is Christian, the undead are always from a dark and evil place.

That means that the Darque and Mysterious Vampires of today aren’t rooting their identity in actual cultural beliefs.

As a narrative device, vampires represent hidden, animalistic desires that are inappropriate to act upon in a particular culture. For instance, sex was a taboo subject in the Victorian period when Dracula was written. The Count’s character was a representation of mankind’s hunger for sex, which had to be concealed because of the monstrous effect it would have on society.

You could make a similar case for vampires as meat-eaters (predators), or even as payday loan companies (predatory lending, sucking the life force out of its victims, and the victims getting hooked and having to come back for more).

The point is, vampires as we understand them are a cultural construct, and are easily traced back to Bram Stoker. Vampires that aren’t working under those assumptions generally have nothing to do with sexuality.

Which is a long-winded way to say: Most people who identify as vampires are LARPing.

A note on LARPing

If you’ve never heard of it, LARP stands for Live Action Role Play. It’s like those guys who dress up in medieval costumes and beat each other with sticks in your local park.

There are lots of different LARP groups. I am familiar with a vampire LARP, a Dungeons and Dragons LARP, the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA, which I’ve also been told stands unofficially for Society of Consenting Adults), Belagarth, and a few other small ones.

It goes like this. You take on a persona, like you’re an actor in a play. Then you pretend to be that person in a variety of situations. Maybe you get together with other LARPers on a camp-out, where you’re cooking and sewing and swordfighting as if you were in medieval Europe.

Or maybe you and some friends meet in the park on Saturdays to whack each other with foam weapons.

But here’s the thing with LARPing: It’s fantasy. Some people take it a bit too far and have trouble separating the fantasy from reality, but at the root, it’s all just play-pretend.

(Personal side note: That’s why I do karate from an authentic Okinawan lineage. No one cares if I am proficient in hitting people with a foam sword. But someone who tries to hit me will definitely care if I’ve spent the last ten years maximizing the power of my punches.)

Now, there are some crossovers between LARPing and Paganism. (Even between D&D and Paganism.) So LARP is something I might categorize as Pagan-adjacent. And I have nothing against LARPers – there is nothing inherently wrong with their hobby.

But Paganism is rooted in authentic spiritual experiences. When Pagans cast a circle, we’re creating a personal experience that’s as real as yoga and meditation in an Ashram, or as real as Catholic Mass, or as real as a Buddhist empowerment.

There are certainly Pagans who put on faerie wings, or who dress up in medieval-style clothing. But generally, most Pagans are at least a little skeptical about fantastic elements that have no material evidence for their existence. Such as fireball spells, actual faeries, actual unicorns (which aren’t rhinoceroses), and actual bite-you-and-drain-your-blood vampires.

There are people who believe they are actual faeries. There are people who believe they must consume human blood to survive. There are people who believe that eating the heart of a wolf will turn you into a werewolf. I have not seen any proof to support these claims. While I remain open to the possibility, my threshold for belief requires more than simply claiming to be the thing.

So, LARPing – while adjacent to Paganism – is really about enacting a fantasy, where actual Paganism is about seeking an authentic spiritual experience.

Oh. And of the men we’ve kicked out of our group, the three most recent ones were heavily into LARPing or gaming.

Psychic vampires

You might be thinking, “Well what about psychic vampires?”

That can actually be a thing.

In fact, Vampire Dude basically admitted that many of the “feeding” behaviors of vampires happen on the energetic level.

There are some people who suck energy out of other people. Sometimes they draw excitement and enthusiasm out of a social situation. Sometimes they actually draw subtle magical energy from another person or group.

Often it’s just a pscyhological thing. For example, say there’s a member of the group who’s depressed and can’t pull out of it. When they’re around, other people’s mirror neurons will kick in, and the mood will shift to match the depressed person. This looks a lot like the depressed person is “sucking the energy” out of the situation. Really, it’s just that humans are hard-wired to mimic the emotions of other humans.

Psychic vampirisim can also be someone attempting to dominate and control a social group. If you leave a social event feeling drained, you may have been struggling to be heard over an attention-seeker. Or you may have experienced someone using dominating tactics to take over the group. These can include talking over people, coming back to the same topic over and over, and refusing to listen to new points or other perspectives. Some especially toxic habits include looming over people, or invading their personal space, or touching them without permission.

So – yes, psychic vampirisim is a thing. But like most magic, it can be subtle, and a lot of the time there’s a compelling real-world explanation.

Our vampire’s problematic behavior

Vampire dude came to our Witches’ Ball. We had a great crowd this year – about 70 people, and everyone had a ball. (Hehe, get it?) We taught some dances, did a few short classes that were a hit, and overall everything was pretty awesome.

But there were some things happening that we weren’t aware of.

There was a second vampire guy attending as a Pagan girl’s plus-one. Apparently, there is a protocol for interactions between vampires and their plus-ones. Vampire Dude was not following these protocols. This created tension.

Vampire Dude and his “Faerie” girlfriend were getting in the face of the other vampire and his girlfriend, bad-mouthing their Queen, and sticking phones in their faces to record/take photos.

Vampire Dude claimed to attend the Witches’ Ball every year (false), and that he was going to become a member of our coven (also false).

Vampire Dude went around telling everyone that we (the organizers) needed him for “protection.” (We’re experienced witches who handle our own “protection.”)

Vampire Dude said that activities with witches were the best ones to go to, because witches are always raising a lot of energy on which vampires can “feed.” (We did not grant permission to be fed upon.)

The victim tried to come talk to us, but Vampire Dude physically blocked her path to come talk to us.

Vampire Dude kept trying to make eye contact with or physically touch the victim, in order to “feed” on her, without her permission.

At the end of the night, Vampire Dude spent a half-hour showing us pictures of the stuff he makes, wanting to sell it in our shop. Nothing said about the altercations. Nothing said about membership in the coven, or anything else. It was curiously pro-social, as if to cover the tracks of his misbehavior.

Why it was wrong

In the first place, Vampire Dude was exploiting another person without getting Informed Enthusiastic Consent. Big no-no.

When the victim tried to get help, he physically prevented her from doing so.

Vampire Dude made false claims to impress people he thought were his subordinates. However, he presented a completely different story to the organizers, whom he believed were his superiors.

Vampire Dude’s actions were not consistent with his words.

Vampire dude is participating in a fictional fantasy narrative, in which his relations with other people are defined by a predator-prey relationship. This causes him to behave in a way that exploits members of the community. Further, he demonstrated that his goals are selfish, designed only to benefit only himself. This is fundamentally incompatible with the purpose of the group, which is to build community and participate in meaningful ritual.

Appropriate response

Our head organizer sent Vampire Dude an email, letting him know that he was no longer a member of our Leadership Group, and that he was deemed not in good standing. As such, he was no longer welcome to attend any of our events. Further, this decision was final, and we would not reply to any further communication from him.

I mean, this guy was doing the exact same thing that disintegrated our whole community a couple years ago. That was a hard lesson, but well-learned. If you can’t behave, you get the boot.

We received a follow-up from him, asking if there was anything he could do to change our mind. We ignored it.

I felt a slight energetic twinge from his direction. Someone who knows him said later that he was threatening us with some kind of Darque and Skerry Magical Attack. I don’t know if it was that, or just my anxiety.

But I did a quick little Hekate spell to lock him out, and that was the end of that.

The Aftermath

None. We had another leadership meeting since we booted him, and we didn’t hear a peep. I think we kicked him out before he could have much influence on anyone in the group.

My takeaways

How do we get better at managing our groups? And how do we prevent people from violating consent, and preventing a victim from seeking help at our events?

First, actions speak louder than words. Listen to them.

By that I mean, if you’re running a group, and you have someone come in who’s really excited and interested to be there, but you hear conflicting stories from other people, pay attention. If a person says they’re one thing, but they are behaving differently, pay attention.

Second, your decision on whether to include bad actors in your group is a vote for the quality of your group. If you kick toxic people out, you’re voting to have a better group (even if it feels like it’ll be smaller). If you allow toxic people to remain, you’re voting to have a toxic group.

Toxic people will come up with all sorts of tactics to stay in the group. They’ll promise to be better. They’ll lie to you to throw you off the track. They’ll spread (and start) rumors to discredit you. You can avoid all these things by kicking them out of your group.

(Side note: Weirdly, I don’t think toxic people always realize they’re being toxic. I think they are often motivated purely by emotion. Toxic behaviors are how they learned to get what they want. They may play the victim – they may even feel like the victim! – but you are not obligated to correct or teach them.)

Third, I’m on the fence about helping people get better. I really want to believe that people can change for the better. I would love to create a space where people can make mistakes on their path to growth.

But the reality is, most people are comfortable where they are at. And most people are not willing to face the discomfort of change – even when that change is for the better.

Fourth, consider how connected a person is to reality. If a new member is making claims that seem a little too far outside the realm of possibility, listen to them.

It is totally fine to work with Faeries. It is totally fine to work with Monsters. It is totally cool to play with energy, cast spells, whatever. If someone says they are a Faerie, or a Monster, it’s totally OK to want evidence.

Fifth, watch how people respond when you set boundaries. If they respect them, chances are they’re a healthy person for your group. If they get angry, or if they push against or creep past boundaries, they’re going to be a problem.

Final thoughts

Like, what’s the actual deal with men, fantasy, and toxicity? Is it just that they are unhappy with reality, so they cultivate this alter-ego that takes over? Do they find that playing pretend gets them laid more often?

I mean, I can’t imagine that any of these toxic dudes we’ve kicked out have fulfilling relationships. Or even super long-term ones. At some point, the friction between fantasy and reality is too much for most people – and any reasonable partner is going to bail.

If a fantasy dude* is especially toxic, he might try to use violence, coercion, or manipulation to try to keep a partner. Which never ends well.

Guys – if you’re reading this, remember. Informed, enthusiastic consent every time. Be real. Be authentic. You don’t need to pretend. If you do need to pretend because you’re boring or offensive, see a counselor and find a hobby.

*Or dude-ette. Women can be just as toxic as men. This post refers specifically to my experiences, which have been with toxic pagan and pagan-adjacent men. I’ve heard stories about equally toxic pagan and pagan-adjacent women. Same goes for non-binary or any other class definitions around gender. (Obviously.)

My $0.02 on the Hekate brouhaha

So, apparently somebody wrote an article on Patheos about Hekate worship. Then, a few other people wrote responses.

Judging from the uproar, it seems like a lot of folks are struggling with this. So, here are a few thoughts you might find helpful.

This is not part of the dogpile. I thought the original author had some good points. I also thought some responses had some good points. This isn’t about those points. This is about the dogpile.

It’s not just about you

OK – so what I mean by this, is that each of us needs to reconcile our agency, autonomy, and individuality against the same agency, autonomy, and individuality of others.

Here’s the thing – in general, it doesn’t hurt you for someone else to be worshiping whatever deity, however they want. We don’t have to care. It doesn’t do jack to my partnership with Hekate for any of these people to be doing whatever they’re doing.

With that said, sometimes there is a public consensus on a particular topic. For example, Hekate is a Greek name, and it’s usually pronounced [HECK-uh-tay]. Some people change the emphasis, and say [heck-AH-tay]. People who are really striving for authenticity might say [eck-ah-tay].

If you pronounce her name [heck-kate]. you’ve just marked yourself as a noob. Sort of like pronouncing Samhain as [sam-hane]. (In case you’re new, Samhain is pronounced “Sow-wen.” It’s Gaelic.)

Now, as a linguist, I recognize that sometimes we learn words from reading books. Some words don’t sound like they look, and I don’t want to patronize people who learn words from reading.

But I still notice. Everyone notices.

So there’s this social/community aspect that we need to be aware of. Language and words don’t just belong to one person. In order for language to have any meaning, there has to be a common understanding of what a word means.

Jason Miller’s article (linked above) does a pretty good job of outlining the difference between historically-accurate practice, versus personal practice. Think of this like “true for me,” where we might have a personal definition of a word or deity – versus “true in general,” where the same definition/deity holds across a group of people.

I’ve had some things revealed by Hekate, which she has in no uncertain terms told me to keep to myself. Because it’s not canon, not historical, and meant for me personally. It’s not for me to broadcast those as The Godess’s Revealed Truth. Because they might contradict history and other people’s personal experience; who am I to say my perceptions are better for another person than their own?

What I mean by “it’s not about you” is this: you aren’t the decider on what is or is not a valid practice. Nor what is a valid word, definition of a word, or pronunciation of a word. These things belong to the “hive mind” of the group. You very well may need to adjust your personal definitions, pronunciations, and even practices in order to align more closely to the group you want to participate with.

The place where people run into trouble

Most of the time, people who write these opinion pieces have a hidden assumption that someone else needs to change what they are doing.

Wanna know how many people have changed their mind because of something they read on the internet? About five (if you count me).

So the odds are not in your favor for changing someone’s mind.

(Side note – maybe some bloggers already realize this, and are simply repeating a point to build community. Outrage is the machine that runs Fox News and Facebook, after all. They’re preaching to the choir, but the choir buys more stuff when they’re pissed off.)

This is an invitation to challenge the idea that someone else should be doing something about whatever the thing is.

What can I do about this?

Not me, the writer. Though I try to practice what I preach.

I mean you, the reader. Read that heading out loud. What are you doing to change?

If you want something done, you have to do it yourself. So, what are you doing? Are you reading up on your Hekate history, so you have some context about what’s historically authentic? Are you performing rituals and listening for some kind of feedback or communication?

There’s another dimension to this, which I think is (conveniently) overlooked by many Pagans. It’s not popular. In fact, even mentioning it can get you ostracized from the Pagan community. But I’m a bit of a contrarian, and it needs to be said.

Sometimes you’ve got to adjust a little in order to fit with a group.

In today’s world of self-centered identity, many people are struggling to a) figure out who they are, and b) stand authentically in their identity. This is especially true for those struggling against oppression. I get it. I’m a Pagan in Mormon-occupied US, and I so get it.

Wanna know how I made it through an awful childhood, and into adulthood? By learning when to listen and keep my fuckin mouth shut. Learning when I need to swallow my pride/individuality, and “when in Rome” my way through a situation.

Don’t think of this as advice to change who you are. Rather, think of it like this: society and language belong to everyone¬†who¬†use¬†them. You probably don’t like being forced to act or speak a certain way. Other¬†people¬†don’t¬†like¬†it¬†either. In other words: no one appointed you Emperor of the English Language, Decider of Universal Gender Pronouns and Methods of Goddess Worship.

You might have to let some things slide in order to participate in a community.

About community…

Remember that bit about how the community belongs to everyone? Yeah. Wanna know how well community works when everyone is trying to make things go their way?

It doesn’t. That’s how you fuck up a community. (Ask me how I know…)

Here’s a logic puzzle for you. If you want to be part of a community, but you want it to accommodate your every little anxiety and discomfort, so you decide the community needs to be changed to fit you – why do you even want to join that community in the first place? If you change it, it’s no longer the community you want to join, right?

Like, I’m a straight white guy. I’m sure, somewhere out there, is a women’s group I could join to learn more about feminism or women’s concerns. (If they’d even let me through the door. Which is a a topic for another time.) But I would be decidedly unwelcome if I joined that group and took over and tried to make it run more like a men’s group.

I wouldn’t even have to try to make it an MRA or PUA group (though, for real, those are disgusting). Just a social club, like the Freemasons or Billy Bob’s Beer & Bullets Shootin’ Club fer Men. I’m sure you have a pretty good idea of what the culture of those clubs might look like. Why even join them, unless you want to participate in that culture?

I think Pagan communities work the same way. We can work to accommodate everyone in the community, and try to hold a space that serves most folks. But that requires a couple of things. First, some folks are going to have to reconcile that the community isn’t going to be everything they want or need. Some people might have to leave a few wants and behaviors at the door. Second, some people will need to be excluded for the safety and harmony of the group. (Like sex offenders, toxic people, violent criminals, thieves, etc.)

Bringing it all together

So, the bridge where we get from “I want this thing to be this way” to “Hey, this is an awesome community I like being part of,” is when I do the work. Again, not I the writer, but “I” the person reading this.

So – in the context of Hekate, it’s helpful to remember that other people experience her differently. We don’t have a High Priest/ess of Hekate who reveals the Truth. And even if we did, this isn’t a case where there’s a single “truth,” but rather many, many facets of truth that apply to individuals. Also note how Christian denominations tend to go astray when there’s a single infallible leader. There but for the grace of The Mistress of Keys go we.

Seriously. Just let people have their stuff. Maybe have a discussion where you can share equally in your experiences. Aim to listen –¬†really¬†listen – to what the other person is saying. The cream will rise to the top – that is, the experiences that are valid and verified will become more noticeable, and the weird individual experiences will simply stay private.

You’ve gotta give a little to get a little. And it’s important to decide what it is you want. Do you want community? A place among followers of Hekate? Respect as an authority over things that are known (and unknown) about Hekate?

Or do you want a soapbox? A place to yell at other people to get off your lawn? An individuality so loud and strong, that no one else can stand to be around it?

I don’t care what you want. It’s your choice. But I am pretty sure I know which kind of person I’d rather be in community with. And the only way I can get there, is by becoming the person I want to see in the group. Which – once again – means I need to adjust myself a bit.

A Pagan perspective on Death

Here in the West, we go to great lengths to avoid death. How many people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on healthcare, just to buy a few more months of life?

Lots.

To be fair, this avoidance of adversity can be found in other areas as well. We avoid setting boundaries to avoid coming across as rude. We bathe our brains in neurotransmitters to avoid feeling emotional pain. We even stay in shitty situations because at least we know what to expect, because it’s uncomfortable to face the unknown.

And Death is the ultimate unknown.

What happens when we die?

I don’t really have an answer to this. No one does. There are a few people who claim to have come back from death. I don’t feel like we can always trust what they have to say.

With that said, I feel like we do have some information about what happens after we die. These are my perspectives, based on my Pagan worldview and other cultures that I’ve explored. There may be some influence from Jason Miller’s teachings, from Yoga, Buddhism, and more. I promise, I’m not trying to plagiarize, just write out my thoughts on the matter.

Death is not The End

Some part of us lives on after we die. There are enough verifiable accounts of small children recalling concrete facts, that I think reincarnation is a thing that happens. I’m not sure it happens all the time, but I’m convinced that some people come back around.

So that leads me to believe that there’s a part of us that is permanent, and transcends our bodily functions. I’ll call it a Soul, for lack of a better term.

Even though we have a permanent soul that can store memories across lifetimes, that doesn’t mean all our personality traits are rooted in the soul. If they were, people with brain injuries might not have their personalities so strongly affected. Likewise, a person under anesthesia appears to be gone – absent, like their consciousness is absent.

So in addition to the soul, I think there are other aspects of our non-physical existence. For the sake of discussion, let’s say there are:

  • physical body
  • energy body
  • conscious/astral body
  • soul

Note: I’m not an atheist, nor an atheopagan. Even if I were, I feel like there’s enough evidence to demonstrate an existence beyond the physically measurable. However, even if you’re an atheist, the people you love still affect you after their death. You grieve their loss and are moved by their memory. Even if you’re an atheist, death doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is gone, so long as they are remembered.

What happens when we die?

I’ve seen several family members die. Mostly grandparents. Fortunately, I’ve been Pagan and a practicing sorcerer for most of that time. When someone dies, I turn on the “wizard eyes” to see what’s going on.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the recently dead tend to be confused. I suspect there are a couple reasons for this. First, I think the afterlife is not generally what they were taught to expect. Second, it’s like learning to walk – you have to re-learn how to operate your non-physical body, after a whole lifetime of using a physical one. The confusion seems to last for 1-6 months, after which there’s a gradual shift in how close the spirit is to this world.

Some dead people move¬†on. I don’t really have a better word for this. Maybe go¬†to¬†rest is another way to put it. When I reach out to contact the resting¬†dead, I get a very faint response (if any response at all). If I had a very strong connection with the deceased – like a relative – I sometimes get a response. This is usually love, and happiness, and joy at being connected and seeing how we’re doing. These dead seldom want to hang out and interact with the material world.

Some dead stick around. There are lots of different narratives about why this happens, and what to do about it. Some dead want to stay in touch with their families. Some are stuck. Some are pissed off about stuff that happened in their lifetime, and that creates bonds that keep them here. Some take a vow to help the living – boddhisatvas, for example, who promise to stay on this plane of existence until every human achieves enlightenment. Or, just as likely, grandma sticking around to make sure you don’t screw up the pie crust recipe.

The Physical Body

There is a concrete, documented process that the human body experiences. This starts before the actual time of physical death, and extends to the gross parts of decomposition.

The actual time of death can be a matter of debate. Recent experiments with dead pigs  invite us to question whether brain-death is really a thing. Likewise, there is a controversy around declaring time of death early, so that organs can be harvested and transplanted.

On this, I tend to agree with the atheists. Once your physical body is dead, you’re dead. Your cells stop converting ADP to ATP to create the energy used to move muscles. No muscles means no heart or lungs, which means no oxygen, which means no brain activity.

I think it’s highly¬†unlikely that a person could physically come back after they’ve started to decompose. If you’re curious as to the process of physical death, I encourage you to read more on the subject.

The Energy Body

The energy body is the part of you that feels good after a workout. It’s where other people perceive the emotions you’re feeling, and where you perceive “vibes” and magical activity.

This part of you is a system of channels, vortices, and pools that store, cycle, and move energy. Movement seems to be an effective way to cause this energy to move. Specifically, breath and muscle movement. Emotions also create and affect this energy. Strong emotions seem to be able to “color” energy, imbuing it with a sense of that emotion. Have you ever walked in on a tense conversation? Stumbled into a Christian revival, just as they hand out the collection plates? Get a creepy vibe on a date? That’s emotion “coloring” the energy you’re sensing.

When we die, I think most of this energy dissipates quickly. If there’s an especially energetic person, I think their energy can get “stuck.” Just like a concentration of spiritual energy can spontaneously achieve its own consciousness, I think the energy of a deceased person can become a sort of spirit.

Spirits created in this way seem like the deceased, but I think they’re just an echo of part of that person’s existence. These spirits can still be contacted for help with magical or spiritual tasks. They sometimes have information or allies, and can operate on the spiritual realm. However, they tend to be limited to the biases of the person they were in life.

So if Grandma was good at making pies, her energy body might hang around and help you out in the kitchen. If grandpa was a racist, his lingering energy body probably won’t become un-racist. This part of a person doesn’t seem to get any extra powers that a regular person wouldn’t have

The Conscious/Astral Body

This is the part of us that is the “I Am.” Each of us has a place in our body where we feel like we exist. It’s the place where we feel like we’re perceiving the world around us. Usually our head, here in the West. Interestingly, we can focus on that sense where we feel like ourselves, and move it around in our body.

You can try this right where you’re sitting. Where in your body do you feel that “I Am”? Try moving that location to another place. If you feel the “I Am” in your head, try moving it down to your heart. Try to figure out what it would be like to perceive the world from the location of your heart.

This is the part of you that does astral travel and shapeshifting. Consciousness is a weird thing. It is affected by our physical brains, our emotions, our physical senses, and our energy body.

But it’s also got some features that are independent from those.

Consciousness can manipulate energy. That’s the fundamental method of spell-work – we use our consciousness to decide what we want, then we raise energy and use our consciousness to send energy into that desire.

I think that the conscious/astral body is what we most commonly refer to when we’re talking about ghosts. This is the part that can “move on,” or linger locally. Some are quiet, some are restless.

Historically, most death rituals were designed to help the consciousness/astral body move on to a place of rest. (Or to a new incarnation.) For the ones who were angry or restless, we had procedures to help them find peace.

Our modern death rituals don’t do that anymore. This is creating a problem with angry ghosts. And since these spirits can manipulate energy (and hence, probability), we are seeing the results of several hundred years of social trauma weighing down our society. We literally can’t get past slavery or abuse, because so many of our ancestors are restless ghosts twisted up in those traumas.

These ghosts can be called upon. Sometimes, they don’t respond – I interpret this to mean that particular spirit has moved on. If they’re lingering, they may be restless (angry dead), or they may stick around to help (honored dead). Since these spirits are conscious, I feel like they have a decision about what they do when they die. We can ask for contact or help, but they are typically not obligated to do so.

I think that the Consciousness/Astral body influences where they go after death. Further, I think that the collective beliefs of consciousnesses can collectively create environments to live in. So, maybe there really is a heaven that Christians go to. Maybe there is a Hell where the wicked sign up for punishment. Maybe there is reincarnation, where a spirit hangs out in the Summerlands for a while before hopping back on the ride. The choice appears to depend on what the deceased believed when they were alive.

The Soul

I feel like the Soul works sort of like a video game. If a person is the character in the game doing the things, then the player holding the controller would be like the Soul.

I think there’s a “Spark of the Divine” aspect to the Soul. When we get to this level of existence, it’s really hard to wrap our material minds around it. For example, time doesn’t work the same from a soul-level than it does from the material level. Imagine what you’d look like if time weren’t a factor – you’d be old and young at the same time. Rather, you’d be all ages at all the same time. I don’t know about you, but my mind isn’t really equipped to make sense of that.

The Soul is what preserves information that we experience in our lives. I figure the data has to be stored somewhere! If a consciousness lives a life, then dies, then incarnates into a new life, sometimes they have memories of a previous life. These memories can be verified. The consciousness doesn’t take anything physical with them when they reincarnate – so it seems to me that the Soul is a place where all that life experience and memory is stored.

The Soul is a quiet influence on our life. If we’re getting information from our physical body, our energy body, and our consciousness, then a part of ourselves so far removed as the Soul can be very quiet in comparison. It can guide us, and we can learn to listen to it. Sometimes, I think the Soul will “hack” reality, and put things in our path for us to deal with. This could be another person (for a “lesson”), or even a set of circumstances. Personally, I don’t feel myself if I’m not doing martial arts. I suspect that’s a Soul-level thing.

I can’t pretend to know what each Soul’s agenda is. But there do seem to be common themes of experiencing reality, learning and growth, and increasing agency and prosperity. And connecting deeply with others. Maybe also being of service to others and society, but that doesn’t seem universal when placed in the context of people who hurt others. I think that any model of the Soul has to account for people who seem called upon to hurt others. It’s not a fun thing to think of. It lends itself to victim blaming (which is not cool). But it could explain why some people seem called or compelled to commit harmful acts.

The Soul is invincible. You can’t sell it to the Devil. You can’t damage it with trauma. If you consider the analogy of a wise parent, a soul would be like a wise great-great-great-great-grandparent. It doesn’t usually manifest in front of you and tell you what to do. Truth be told, I feel like sometimes mine goes on vacation somewhere else, leaving me at the wheel (and that’s why sometimes I experience more anxiety and depression).

What should a Pagan do with Death?

If you have a loved one dying, one of the best things you can do is let go. Let them die in the way they wish to die. You can help this by telling them that you’ve got this, and they can let go and move on.

You can invite your Honored Dead and Ancestors to be present. Those Who Came Before often have a perspective and a wisdom that can help the Newly Dead ease through the transition. Even holding this space can allow Those Who Came Before to help process the traumas of the Newly Dead. There’s some Shamanic work that can be done here, if you have the inclination.

Allow yourself to grieve. Grief is a natural part of the process, and it has¬†to¬†happen for you to process the loss. Grief is weird – it’s highly personal, there are common themes, and people can be motivated to do different things. I feel like anyone who loses a loved one gets a pass for 24-48 hours afterwards, where the things they say and do kinda don’t count.

Incidentally, humans grieve whenever we experience loss. If you are trying to stop smoking, you might try grieving your relationship to cigarettes. I know when I’ve let go of things I’m attached to – even when they’re not good for me – grief helps me process and be more successful at leaving them behind. This goes for relationships, political parties, bad habits, old cars, you name it.

If you’re still grieving after several months, that might be a sign that you’ve crossed into unhealthy behavior. You might consider scheduling an appointment with a counselor who can help you work through your grief.

Hold a memorial. Some religions do a wake, some do a death watch, some do a funeral, some have a photo at a memorial, some have a feast. Schedule a get-together for all the friends and family of the deceased. Have people bring lots of food. Provide space for people to relive their favorite memories of the deceased.

Avoid forcing emotions, for yourself or for others. Some Newly Dead were real assholes, and deserved to be gone off this planet. If you feel that way about someone who’s died, it sucks trying to sort the grief from the anger. Give people who are angry space to say or do the things they need to do. Try to avoid coercing people into expressing themselves the way you think they ought to.

Weirdly, a lot of sex happens after a death. This is normal – life asserts itself in the face of death. For yourself, remember the agreements (marriage, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.) that you are committed to. If you know someone who had sex after a death, just realize that’s a totally normal thing to do. (Though you are free to deal with any broken agreements as you see fit.)

Consider keeping a memento that belonged to the Newly Dead. I have, and I’ve found them incredibly helpful for seances and other rituals to speak with them. Possessions can help boost the signal and help the Honored Dead find you. With that said, don’t hoard their possessions. Their things need to be dealt with. Clean out the house. Have an estate sale. Let family take things that they want or need; for example, if the grandson just moved into an apartment, it’s totally appropriate to pass along the dishes.

Don’t fight over a deceased person’s possessions. No good can come from that. Like the person, just let things go. You may have wanted those earrings, but trust me, it’s not worth the fight, and you can find another memento to remind you of that person. You don’t want to come across like a vulture, picking at a dead person’s belongings.

Have someone write a nice obituary. If you’re the one writing it, here are a few tips:

  • Say what the person meant to you (briefly)
  • Recall a fun memory
  • Recall a touching memory
  • Speak briefly about their legacy, or something they were passionate about
  • Tell readers where the service is, and where food/donations/flowers can be sent

Ritual Suggestions

It’s important to consider the wishes of the Honored Dead. When my Lutheran grandmother died, the minister kept saying she was “Dancing at the feet of Jesus.” Dude even added it to the obituary I wrote. It annoyed me a little, but – the funeral wasn’t about me. It was about Grandma.

I doubt the church ladies would have been impressed had we done a Pagan circle and spiral dance as a send-off.

Some families get into arguments about what the deceased wanted. Mormon families especially want to conduct Mormon last rites, even when the deceased identified as Pagan. This doesn’t have to be a problem. Let the family do as the family is going to do – they have a say.

But they can’t stop you from having a Pagan memorial on the side. We’ve done these for members of the Pagan community, and they can be lovely. Some ideas to consider:

  • A Memory Candle to represent the Soul and Consciousness that transcends this life
  • A photo to remember the deceased
  • A token of the deceased, in case they wish to attend in spirit
  • You can have everyone hold an unlit candle, then light one from the Memory Candle, then each person lights their candle in order around the circle – this can represent the love and the impression the Newly Dead left on us
  • Food
  • Casting a circle, and inviting in the Newly Dead (and Honored Dead / Ancestors)
  • Give everyone space to speak, if they want, about their favorite memory of the deceased
  • Incense, to carry the thoughts and wishes from the physical world to the Newly Dead
  • A short blessing, spoken out loud, to help the Newly Dead hear your wishes and find their path
  • Plant a tree in their name
  • Scatter ashes in a place that was special to the deceased
  • Collect donations to give to a charity in the deceased person’s name

These are just a few ideas. You are welcome to take them and improve upon them.

Final Thoughts

OK, yeah, bad title for a section.

Seriously though, Pagans die. And you’d think with all the work we do on the non-physical plane, that we’d be better equipped for dealing with death.

But many of us aren’t. Plenty of Big Name Pagans have died, and their spouses had to set up GoFundMe accounts for final expenses. Like a frickin casket.

So here are some things you can do to make your own death easier on the people around you.

Write a will РSeriously. This tells your survivors what you want done with your things. You should include computer passwords, safety deposit boxes, and bank accounts. There should be a master plan that outlines where you stashed all your stuff.

Set some money aside РOr, have life insurance. Leave some money with instructions on what your family should do with your body. Cremation? Burial? Planted as a tree? Cremated, then your ashes turned into a jewel set into an Athame? Leave some money to handle these things.

Leave¬†instructions¬†for¬†magical¬†projects – You probably have spells going, or you might have ongoing relationships with spirits (and perhaps deities). You may want these things buried with you. They probably couldn’t be cremated with you. If there are special instructions for decommissioning statues or other objects, make sure you leave those. You would not want spirits to get pissed at your kids because they didn’t follow a protocol you established with your guides.

Death is scary. But it doesn’t have to be paralyzing. There’s enough evidence that part of us continues to exist, that we need not fear the “Greatest Adventure.” I hope this article gives you some ideas on how to handle Pagan deaths in your social group. If you have any questions, you are totally welcome to email me and ask away.