Now that I am starting gradually to bring a focus on Paganism again in my blog, I feel out of honesty for myself it is important to write a blog about where I am at after my heavy dose of scholarly cynicism, from college a few years ago. This is a helpful reflection for me, and those that walked that experience with me as I was going through it. Most college students of a secular religious studies university program start their choice in major because of a spiritual draw to their religion. After all choosing to study religion in college requires enough passion to override the need to get other practical majors like marketing, or computer science that have better job skills involved. Yet as you study the religion you once felt such spiritual meaning and inspiration from through methods of cognitive science, sociology, anthropology, and critical historical perspectives that do not favor supernatural/theological explanations…it does disillusion you to a lot of things. I have heard a saying from a few friends over the years “inside every cynic is a disappointed idealist.” This definitely holds true for me.
From Idealist, to Disillusioned Cynic
Witchcraft/Paganism and other metaphysical/occult things use to be my driving force of motivation to get up every morning. I grew up with a mother in transition of leaving her protestant Christian background and converting to Hippie Mother Goddess/reiki/yoga/acupuncture world and she brought me along with her. At a young age I was attending psychic development classes, reiki workshops, Michael Harner styled shamanism workshops, and going to eclectic Sabbat ceremonies (the solstices and equinoxes). My mother defined herself as the “black sheep” in the family and after her divorce with my father and her having primary custody of me. I felt the same. Between having intense learning disabilities that kept me from reading smoothly until I was in the fifth grade (and even then presented challenges with learning and academic skills that still impact me today). Never quite fitting in with peers because of my lack of fitting masculine norms. My shared fascination with my mother in the occult and nature oriented spirituality. I had very little that gave me social currency to fit in with peers. The primary place I found any sense of community and social enrichment was with my mother and her Pagan/New Age friends. I got use to hanging out with people older than myself and that defined themselves as being outliers of societies social norms. My own feeling of being distanced from peers my age throughout grade school furthered my solidarity with my mother’s community that built identity spiritually and socially on being outside of the norm and being empowered in that feeling. After all it’s hard to relate to peers that go to church every Sunday or even have atheist parents when you, yourself can only talk about going out in the woods to commune with faeries and nature spirits.
As my fascination, and my mother’s, grew I ended up finding my own interests in the world of the occult and metaphysics. Witchcraft, Paganism, and Shamanism in particular was something I was drawn to most. The ceremonies that emphasized the earth as a feminine mother, the ritual structures that were more intricate and involved burning intentions on a piece of paper in ritual fires, chanting and evoking spirits. These were things that felt most natural to me as I grew up with my mother and I ended up getting books on the subject as my mom and I would have outings to the local metaphysical book store. I read scattered material on Pagansim at first, but I eventually came across the book “Sons of the Goddess” by Christopher Penzcak. An author whom I personally know today and am a fifth year student of his in his own mystery school. Christopher’s books were so much more well-rounded, practical, and rational then the abstract and intellectually obscure other books on the subject of witchcraft. He actually took time to give solid and brief (yet intellectually-sound) information about concepts as he explained them and discussions on common controversies. He did so without inserting too much of his own dogma into what you ought to do or believe about the information. While also giving rituals and exercises to apply the information he presented so you can get hands on application with the material as you go.
After a few years of reading through both Christopher’s books and others. As well as attending other local workshops and weekly groups on things like Tarot, Reiki, and local Wiccan teachers as well as psychic mediums. I eventually found out Christopher taught an online course in his “Temple of Witchcraft” mystery school. He could not teach me at the time as I was 17 and he had a policy against teaching minors. So I ended up studying with a local “Celtic Shaman” who recently moved to the area from the UK and unfortunately had to quit teaching before I could finish my course with her, due to her having a personal life crisis. After getting into my freshmen year of college at a community college (planning to get my Associates of Arts before transferring to a University) I reapplied to Christopher’s Temple of Witchcraft online mystery correspondence school. To my excitement and thrill I was accepted and began with Witchcraft one while also beginning my freshmen year in college.
A more focused study (from a practitioner perspective) with my favorite author of all time was more enriching to me than most in person teachers I had, had over the years growing up. The Temple of Witchcraft (here after referred to as ToW) was by far more rational and practical in its approach. The fellow students and mentors I corresponded with were more well-rounded and less dogmatic then the “fluff bunnies” I had met over the past several years who were lost in their self-referential universe and personal dogmas. Christopher’s books were not only helpful to me as a Witch, but also as a gay boy who went through coming out at 16. His book “gay witchcraft” was a lifesaving inspiration as I dealt with coming out in high school and finding personal spiritual inspiration to cope with the stress of it. My path as a gay boy and witch became intimately intertwined. So much so when I founded my colleges first LGBTQ student run organization, I ended up organizing a privet side group of Pagan spirituality to many Queers I had met through that process based on the observation of the Sabbats. It was casual and loosely run…but a powerful experience for all of us to have a spiritual outlet as queers.
As I finished my second year of study with ToW I ended my involvement and leadership with the LGBTQ org to transfer to a university (App State) to pursue my undergraduate study in Religious Studies. I came to this program thinking I was going to focus on their Eastern Religions course of study as publically you could either focus on western religion or eastern religion. But on my first day of class in world religion I met my professor who in fact was on the board of Pagan Studies in the American Academy of Religion and did his master’s thesis on Wicca/Paganism. We instantly hit it off and began doing independent studies that added a focus of Pagan Studies to my degree, in addition to the foundational eastern studies and method and theory courses I had to take to graduate.
Here I began my third year in ToW, that emphasized shadow work. This in a nut shell in facing your own antithesis, the less than ideal aspects of yourself and by extension the world you live in. Your spiritual pursuits get down and dirty and no longer focus on “love and light” fluff. At the same time as doing this interpersonal work with ToW, I also began to dissect Paganism with secular scholarship and got disillusioned with many things. While coming face to face with my own shadow, and the shadow in other people that I use to idealize…I also began to put my religion under a microscope. I not only began to see the difference between a romanticized and supernatural interpretation of the history of Paganism and the critical historical perspective that strictly examined empirical facts. I also began to question the spiritual experience of the mysticism involved. You don’t simply study what people believe and the history in a religion in a Religious Studies program (especially when you hit your upper classmen courses). You learn how to apply the latest research in cognitive nuero-science that explains the biological and psychological mechanics of mystic experience to explain a natural and not supernatural explanation grounded in empirical scientific facts. Of course when I went back home and talked the fluff bunnies in my community they responded by citing Gregg Braiden and so called “atomic physics” to justify their “magical thinking.” When most scholars in universities have dissected those authors and the critical issues of them to a “T.” I was simply too cynical to accept “gap explanation” arguments that were popular in the new age world, but were debunked by university scholarship. This certainly didn’t make me popular with local Pagans I use to be so engaged community-wise with, and it certainly made my religion feel less “magickal” as a practitioner.
My “Dark Night of the Soul”
Skipping all the details of how my shadow work progressed as well as my research (as I have exhaustively discussed it in earlier blogs). Needless to say I went through a disillusion period that I called my “dark night of the soul.” I hit a nihilistic period of my life. My religion no longer had meaning. Where I once found deep inspiration in the occult and in paganism I could no longer simply just accept simplified supernatural explanations for things. I wanted tangibility and authenticity that did not betray the integrity of my research as a Religious Studies major. So it felt like my religion was one big phony lie. That spirituality, no matter what way it organized it’s supernatural structure, was one big falsehood that the human mind invented to escape its existential fear of reality. Nobody could offer me anything that maintained integrity of my academic research and the information I gather from it that could prove otherwise.
During this time, I continued to show up to the spiritual practice though. Even if it was one big delusion I made up to feel better about my existential conundrum, I stuck with it. What else was I to do? I had already invested all my time and energy to get this far. Ever since I was a kid studying metaphysical things with my mother, I wanted to walk this path and dreamed one day making it the focus of everything I did. Even if it all felt broken and torn apart…it was all I really had. My shadow work only took me deeper into my Nihilism and disenchantment as I began to see the worst side in people around me and in myself.
Ram Das (notably not a pagan author, but still one I felt most drawn too in this time) describes the “dark night of the soul” as the experience of being separated from divinity. That’s exactly what it felt like, it felt like my experiences and spirituality had betrayed me and left me high and dry. I began to feel more and more empty and void of meaning. During this time in my life I began to (for the first time ever in my life) get more worldly. I had such an engaged spiritual up bringing that I never really found much interest in pop culture, bars, and secular worldly things. But now that everything in my life seemed equally meaningless…at least the worldly things would bring me relationship to other people. Now that the relationship from spirit I use to have was gone completely…I wanted to find “relationship” anywhere I could.
After writing my senior thesis on the gay men’s movement in Contemporary Paganism and graduating college. I went back home and began to explore the experience of being a gay male amongst other gay men. It was really the only thing I had left after my research that seemed to give me “relationship” that I had never had before. I was too busy focusing on spirituality and transcendence to really ever develop my sexuality, or cultural currency in worldly things that brought me closer to more secular people. Since gay men typically could only connect through sex and gay bar culture…that was my new adventure. Gay culture was secular and didn’t require me to examine the pain of being separated from spirit. It did bring me closer to guys that could relate to me though, and give me access to opportunities to explore my sexuality which I never really took much time to explore, even when I was an LGBTQ org president and “out and proud.” I, at that time in my life, was on a mission to help people not gratify my sexuality.
This new mission to find gay brotherhood and embrace a sex positive worldview that required me to embrace worldly things. Was a welcome distraction to taking a break from examining my existential nihilism under a microscope. Since most gay men are disenfranchised from religion, we found ways to relate through other things. Our sexuality, pop culture, our sub-cultural history. While doing this I was also doing my fourth year of study in ToW that emphasized Qabalistic High Ceremonial magick. Even though I was ultimately disenfranchised with spirituality at this point, its intellectual edge helped me largely examine what I was doing as philosophical and ritualistic. Having something with intellectual concepts to reflect on, like the paradox of Hod and Netzach didn’t necessarily require me to believe in anything supernatural. How could I experientially resolve the paradox of intellectual perspective and experiential perspective without betraying the legitimacy of either one? Then ritualizing that into symbolism as I explored the different Sephiroth. My spirituality became more and more a psychological/philosophical model of exploring my consciousness that was getting increasingly agnostic in nature. While also exploring myself as a worldly person for the first time.
But in reflection…I needed that separation from divinity to be motivated to be part of the world. I had grown up so spiritual I never related to the people around me unless they were equally engrossed in spiritual devotion. Perhaps if there truly is a guiding spiritual consciousness. It abandoned me to force me into relationship with the physical realm and to actually play my part in being a part of it. It is my karmic duty to actually play my part as self-identity Elliott Skaggs, a gay man, born into the world I was, with the family and problems I have and be a part of the world I am in. Which meant engaging my sexuality, engaging my desires, and what my ego wanted for itself. I remember in college reading an article on Buddhism that put a psychological study on the concept of ego. Scientifically speaking unless you are a Buddhist monk that has been meditating close to three hours a day (every single day without wavering) for close to 60 years there is no physiological way the brain can change chemically and physically enough to eliminate your awareness of yourself distinct from its environment as a permanent state. You can definitely have short experiences where your awareness of “self” and “other” dissolves, but it’s never a permanent state of being and you do come back from that with the ego intact. So you have to develop your ego and build a healthy relationship with it. The key is developing an awareness that is not limited by it entirely and can observe it at a distance. Very few of us are truly called to be the Buddhist monk living a life of isolated discipline that does nothing but eat, clean, and meditate until their brain changes enough after 60 years of time to neurologically no longer have a self-distinct identity. And if you think eliminating your ego is what your path is about…perhaps you do need to be abandoned by divinity and the supernatural to be humbled into the reality that no matter how spiritual you are, you are no more or less evolved then sexed crazied gay boys in the gay bar with Beyoncé videos and alcoholism. You have no true knowledge of the world that is better or worse. Because your ego needs just as much validation as theirs and you will never exist beyond that basic need. The fact you might consider yourself at a “higher level” of consciousness then that behavior is indicative of your ego shining throw. I had to learn that lesson, and there are many spiritualists lost in their self-referential experiences that need to, too.
All I have left is experiences in life…
So now I am in witchcraft 5 (the fifth and final year with my studies in ToW, after which I have the possibility of being ordained as a minister in witchcraft). I am still recovering from that dark night of the soul separation. My spiritual path use to be chasing after “highs” of spiritual bliss and “oneness.” Those “highs” slowly became less common and frequent the more I experienced them. Then I began to critically analyze it under a microscope and everything slowly had begun to lose meaning. I got so cynical and disenchanted with the pagan community between the delusional interpretation of our history, to the drama of “witch wars” and dishonesty amongst our leaders who were quick to point out others egos and problems but hesitant to own their own. I started out an idealist fallowing my passion for spirituality and occultism. Then as I matured on the path cynicism developed as all I thought to be true and meaningful fell away. Here I am trying to figure out what is next and where I go with all my experiences from here.
As a few people I look up to and respect have told me, I need to integrate where I have been and change into what is next. Instead of chasing after something that was good in the past. Now that my knowledge base has grown (and I am never done learning, no one is) and I look back on lots of failed expectations, personal betrayals, and philosophical disillusionment…What do I have left? Was there ever any meaning in any of it at all? While Michael Harner comes with all kinds of colonialist cultural appropriation (such as the word “shaman” never actually being used by the cultures he references until white oppressors forced the word on them), was his technique and the experience it induced for me at all valuable? Even if now the technique no longer holds effectiveness for me…maybe the experience that unlocked a certain psychological mechanism in my consciousness that alleviated stress, anxiety, and induced a sense of being “connected” to others…was simply all that was really important. The rest of it: where it came from, what was “real” in that experience, cultural authenticity…perhaps that was all really meaningless and not that important at all.
I am trying my hardest to move forward with something that use to be my primary motivation in life, but has undergone so much disillusionment it can no longer be what it once was for me. So I have to throw the dirty bath water out…and see if I can’t keep the baby that as matured into an adult. Witchcraft 5 has required me (sense it technically is the seminary portion of ToW’s mystery school) to think about what I am actually going to do with witchcraft and work towards finding out what that is…what is my “ministry.” Well what was meaningful to me and my journey, with all the bullshit taken out of it. My journey seeking out community and overcoming my challenges as a gay man was important, witchcraft both as a practice and community was instrumental in that for me. Seeking out the quest for “truth” no matter how difficult it was to swallow was part of my journey. Honesty and being earnest with myself was important in my journey. That is to say not just settling for half assed band aids to resolve my problems and existential conundrums and being honest about if something is working or not and how it truly impacted me and my state of being. Learning how to be in relationship with others while also honoring the integrity of my boundaries was important. Also simply learning how to live a good life that I could say was worth living in spite of any adversity or hardship that may be in it. Finally trying to find something meaningful while also not dismissing my honest doubts.
Are the Gods real? Is there really occult magickal energies at work when I cast a spell? Well to be honest after really examining it all under a microscope I really don’t know, I use to think so before I began to mature in my path, but know I prefer not to accept anything as an absolute. But what I do know is that interacting with these things and allowing my consciousness to experience what comes from that perceived relationship does have pragmatic results. It makes me feel connected. It helps me work through psychological states of being through the method of abstract symbols. It gives me a road map to explore the narrative of my life’s story with symbols that give me inspiration when I struggle with unknowns or lack motivation. Regardless of how or why it does these things, it does do them for me. Perhaps that is good enough and some mysteries are meant to remain ultimately unknown, and that’s okay. Not that we can’t question them or doubt them, but to accept when something works…maybe that’s all it needs to do.
So now when I show up to practice, I simply enjoy the creative outlet it gives me to express myself. I accept that it’s a method through which I find states of well-being and explore the narrative of my life as it unfolds. I choose to make it about the experience my consciousness has with it, rather then what an author tells me it should or shouldn’t be, what other practitioners think is right and wrong about it, some cryptic echo of a romanticized past, or even seeing it as a need to find absolute answers. I just show up and do it, what happens, happens. It is what it is. If there truly is any divine being it would likely exist well beyond the limitations of our anthropocentric perspective. If we need to create Gods in our own image to explore our life narrative through symbols, then so be it. I have yet to experience the same effects of peace, insight, self-actualization, and relational connectedness through any other method. I suppose I grown to a place of pragmatism, just simply use the methods that work, the rest is bullshit really. My goals are to live a good life, to experience love and connectedness, to find meaning in my existence even if it is arbitrary and self-generated, to live in the realities of the world in a way that whenever I do die I can have peace in the life I lived for all the good and bad. To be in a state of “well-being” and address the adversity and challenges life presents as best I can, knowing I will make mistakes and fall from grace from time to time. If witchcraft helps me show up to the realities of my existence and somehow address it with a sense of “well being” and “inspiration.” Perhaps that’s all one can ask for at the end of the day, and the question of why and how don’t really matter as long as it works for the goals defined.