Archive | November 2012

Responsibility, Accountability, Initiation and Reason

Events in my private life have recently led me to pondering the concept of personal accountability. It’s a sticky subject, for a number of reasons. What does it mean to be held to account for one’s actions? Does it differ from taking responsibility for one’s actions? If it does, it’s in a very subtle way, which is part of the stickiness. I’ve learned that responsibility is, at least in an interpersonal sense, rather a subjective notion. It seems to rely upon whether or not an individual is prepared to accept responsibility for their actions. If they refuse to accept responsibility for their actions, then they cannot be held to account for them. At least, they will refuse to be held to account for them in the same way that they refuse to accept responsibility for them. I’m sure anybody reading this will be familiar with the scenario I’m describing.

Now, in civilised society we have laws, and officers of the law, whose duties include enforcing personal accountability in the form of the limitation, in some form or other, of an individual’s freedom. This might take the form of a fine, a community based order, or even a prison sentence. It is thought that through the process of administering the law of the land an individual is brought to the realisation that they are responsible for their actions and have been brought to account for them accordingly. It’s not a perfect system, I know. It would seem that being told by a judge and a jury of their peers that they are responsible for some action does not necessarily mean that an individual accepts that responsibility, even after they have been held to account for it. It’ll do, however, for the interests of society. Society likes to see that justice is being carried out.

In the case of interpersonal relationships it is somewhat different. We generally can’t force people to accept responsibility for their actions without being in breach of the law ourselves. So where does that leave us? Why, with rational discourse, of course. It is possible that an individual can be encouraged to share the view of another if they are prepared to enter into a rational discussion of the matter. It might go something like this:

Arthur: “Bill, I think you shouldn’t have told Fred that he was a noodle-brain.”

Bill: “But Arthur, Fred forgot to bring his knee-pads to training again. It’s happening often and it’s very frustrating.”

A: “I understand that, but when you called Fred a noodle-brain it hurt his feelings. Is it worth hurting someone just to express your frustration about their forgetfulness?”

B: “Well, I suppose not. I didn’t want to hurt Fred’s feelings, I really just wanted him to realise how annoyed I was feeling so that maybe next time he would try harder to remember his knee-pads.”

A: “I’m confident Fred would accept that as being the truth. Perhaps you could pay him a visit, or call him and explain your position?”

B: “Yes, I should also apologise for hurting his feelings, I feel bad about doing that.”

In a perfect world, everyone would be of a rational disposition and would conduct themselves in an entirely rational manner. Our world is far from perfect, so a more likely scenario would be:

A: “Bill, you’re a bastard for calling Fred a noodle-brain.”

B: “Blow it out your ear, Arthur. You’re not the boss of me.”

OR

B: “No I didn’t, who told you that?”

OR

B: “Well Fred told me you play with dolls.”

and so on…

In the interpersonal sphere of experience, we have traditionally broken ourselves up into neat groupings called “families”, and we have used these family structures as microcosmic societies, with their own systems of justice. Parents would lay down the law, children would adhere to the law, order was maintained. This is still the case in some families, and in some cultures more so than in others. In the West, generally speaking, the family unit is breaking down, due largely to increased mobility of the workforce, increased divorce rates and commercial television. Well, the first two, anyway. Perhaps I should have added the advent of “aged care facilities”. Anyway, there have always been alternatives to the family unit when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Sometimes we will group ourselves according to interests or beliefs. Religions, charitable organisations, clubs and societies, sports teams and such can act upon us in different ways. Sometimes they stand as intermediaries between the greater society and the family. Sometimes they have hierarchical structures similar to both families and society.

I read an excellent article recently that looked at the nature of initiation in a spiritual sense. It looked in detail primarily at self-initiation of various kinds. What was lacking was some insight into the nature of initiation into a tradition such as Wicca. There are two distinct qualities that differ from self-initiation: taking oaths before one’s gods and other people, and making a commitment to a group. A Wiccan group, or coven, is hierarchical in its structure in much the same way as in a family or in society as a whole. But when one is initiated one is bound to that group by oaths that honour not only the tradition but also one’s fellows within that tradition. Witches who work in covens will often report that after a time they become attuned to their coveners both emotionally and spiritually. The relationships formed in this manner can tend to be intense and highly charged, and in the past the general rule was that one wouldn’t socialise informally with one’s coveners. This was to avoid public blow-ups of energy that more rightly belongs in the controlled environment of a circle. It’s not a perfect system either, and unfortunately many a personal relationship has been damaged or broken because uncontrolled energies spilled out into the private lives of witches.

Because one has taken oaths, and because one is bound to a group of other minds, personal responsibility is of the utmost importance. Within the coven structure interpersonal disagreements can be brought forward and at that point the parties involved are obliged to conduct themselves in a rational manner, and it is the responsibility of those further up the hierarchy to maintain an objective viewpoint and to ensure that the dispute is resolved in a fair manner to all parties. Again, it’s not a perfect system and it’s been my experience that on several occasions even people in this situation can simply refuse to accept responsibility for their actions and hence cannot be brought to account. However in these instances there are other minds to consider, and there are often repercussions felt throughout the group when one member goes awry, not to mention the fact that oaths have been taken.

Now someone can have a bit of a tizzy without breaking oaths, that’s not the issue here. But the question arises that if not for the betterment of oneself why does one seek a spiritual path? I have written before on the qualities necessary to be spiritually “upright”, as it were, but I shall add to that the necessity for self-exploration. “Know Thyself”, the seeker at the Temple of Delphi was told. “The unexamined life is not worth living”, Socrates said. These are fundamental tenets not only of philosophy but also spirituality. The only explanation as to why someone wouldn’t behave rationally is if they are unable to, for whatever reason. Perhaps they are mentally incapable. Perhaps they are emotionally incapable. Irrational refusal to accept responsibility for one’s actions seems to point towards an unwillingness to acknowledge something about oneself. That’s certainly been my experience. People who are afraid to look into themselves and examine what they find closely also tend to be the people who will deflect rational enquiry and apportion blame where it isn’t due.

We all do this, or have done this at one time or another. Whilst recently I have had cause to call out one person on their appalling behaviour and lack of personal accountability, I’ve also had to acknowledge that I had been at fault and allowed my behaviour to adversely affect another. It was uncomfortable and difficult to do, but also completely necessary. I could have adopted an attitude of belligerent denial of my culpability but what would it achieve? In the end, I’d have only been deceiving myself.

So finally, here’s a question for you: What is the purpose of reason if there’s no-one to reason with? To my mind, right now at least, I contend that individualism, especially in the form of the ego, is in fact the enemy of reason.

Shameless Self-Promotion

These three words seem to be something of a cliche these days, but nevertheless, I’m going to promote the band I play bass in. We’re called The Mersons, we recorded a demo earlier this year and after the singer and drummer finished meddling with it, it ended up sounding like this.

http://soundcloud.com/the-mersons/sets/the-mersons-demo-1

 

Phil: Internalising Man of Mediocrity

It was just getting dark as Phil fumbled for his keys and attempted to kick the gate shut behind him; an almost balletic manoeuvre he’d never quite perfected. Each and every time Phil reminded himself that the process would be a lot less troublesome if he’d just close the gate in a more careful fashion before reaching for his keys. But each and every time Phil tried to emulate the one and only time he’d successfully completed the routine. On that occasion he imagined that to the casual observer (or even a rapt observer, he didn’t mind which) he would have appeared to be the kind of dexterous, athletic and cock-sure kind of man he’d only ever really seen on television. He’d even ended with a flourish, twirling his keys on their ring around his index finger as, say, a sunburnt and hard-faced cowboy might have done with his six-shooter. “Kapow!” he almost said. But he didn’t. Because nobody saw it happen.

Unabashed, Phil still tried to return to past glories as he made his way into his house, and unerringly failed to pull it off. On more than one occasion, there had been a spectator present to enjoy the show, and not one of them missed the opportunity to remind Phil of it whenever they saw him.

“Whoah, steady on there, mate!” One would say, whilst mimicking an exaggerated (Phil thought) impersonation of a man ungracefully losing his balance.

“Fallen into any nice rose bushes recently?” Another quipped.

Izzaaak, who lived two doors down with his parents, would bray, “Bah-hahahahaha LOSER!” with the kind of cruel derision that can only be mastered by an eleven year old. Phil would console himself on these occasions by noting how Izzaaak would hold up his left hand with thumb and finger forming the letter “L” on his forehead, and that this was wrong and made him look foolish, because to everyone else the “L” was back-to-front.

This time Phil at least managed to stay upright and out of the foliage, and upon regaining his balance closed the gate carefully and opened his front door. Of this he was grateful, because this evening was no ordinary evening: He was expecting company.

Of the female variety.

It’s probably a little unfair to imply that Phil’s interactions with women were infrequent, because he worked with several women (all of whom despised him in an utterly irrational way, as you may recall, for simply being competent and totally unconcerned with them) and also visited his sister and her family every so often. He thought the lady at the shops was quite nice and they would chat about trivial things like what her husband might have been up to because he came in late last night and don’t even get me started on those bloody kids! In truth Phil found those conversations quite terrifying and often felt his participation was due simply to the fact that he was paralysed with fear. He certainly didn’t do much of the talking. This led the lady in the shop to conclude he was “a good listener”, although he secretly wished her impression of him was more that of “a fast runner”.

Anyway, tonight Phil was playing host to Phyllis, a woman he’d met under circumstances that she had likened to the kind of kooky plot lines one found in Hollywood romantic comedies (or rom-coms, as Phyllis had said, to Phil’s instant distaste) and she would often re-tell the story to Phil as if he hadn’t been there. What had actually happened was this: Phil was sitting in the park a block down from his office, eating a sandwich (egg and lettuce) and wishing the stray dog that had sat at his feet would go away and stop psyching him out for a bit of his lunch. Phyllis happened by at that moment and mistakenly thought the dog belonged to Phil. She remarked upon how “cute” and “sweet” the dog was as Phil smiled uncomfortably at her and nodded. Some time later, when he felt Phyllis had stopped talking for longer than it took to draw breath, Phil was at pains to explain the mix-up, that the dog wasn’t his and in fact he would rather it hadn’t chosen him or his sandwich as its prey that afternoon. Phyllis listened and when Phil had finished she laughed good-naturedly at length about the humorous nature of the situation. Then she told the dog “shoo!” and it dutifully trotted away, much to Phil’s relief and astonishment. After they had parted Phil pondered briefly how out of the ordinary this encounter had been but by the time he had returned to his cubicle he was once again focused on his windows.

“What a wholly uninteresting Hollywood rom-com that would make,” one might surmise, and one would undoubtedly be correct. But that’s not the end of the story. Later that evening, after lengthy deliberation and several false starts, Phil signed up for one of those online dating services he’d heard so much about. It took an unspeakably long time to fill out the various questionnaires and endless forms but he persisted and after a time was browsing through prospective “dates” like a seasoned professional. For a moment he considered that being a seasoned professional at browsing online dating websites probably meant you weren’t enjoying much success in the actual dating part of the process, but he shooed that thought away much as Phyllis had with the dog earlier. After a few evenings spent in pursuit of a suitably compatible woman he plucked up the courage to make arrangements with someone who seemed very nice. They were to meet at a local cafe for a coffee and chat, which seemed to Phil to be suitably innocuous, and public enough to ensure a swift exit was possible should things not work out. At two o’clock on that Saturday afternoon Phil went to Café Frappé and chose a seat outside, under an umbrella. After a few minutes he remembered that sitting outside a cafe was a singularly unpleasant experience and found a table just inside the door. He sat there for what seemed an age, politely deflecting the serving staff until they politely offered to show him the door unless he purchased something. After an hour had passed he began to suspect that perhaps this date wasn’t going according to plan. His mind began to conjure up images of what might have gone wrong, why Leanne – his date – hadn’t shown up or called him to say she was running late.

Am I doing this wrong? he asked himself. Should I be calling her, or would that seem a bit forward and creepy? Phil had learned from reading magazines in the waiting room at the dentist that being “creepy” was something to be avoided. The trouble was that it seemed a difficult condition to define, and seemed rather too dependent upon circumstances and subjective opinion to be something he could be sure of avoiding. What was “creepy” to one person may be “showing some concern” to another. After another half-hour Phil had resolved to call Leanne and find out what the problem was, maybe he could offer to help or something. He reached into his pocket for his phone. It wasn’t there. He stood up and began patting himself down, in case he’d inadvertently put his phone in a different pocket. But still, it was nowhere to be found. Realising it would be pointless to linger, Phil paid for his obligatory orange juice and made to leave. Just as he passed one of the other tables near the door, a man moved his chair out as he stood and Phil’s foot became entangled in it. As he lost his balance he had enough presence of thought to notice that the man was wearing a particularly incredulous expression and was laughing as he said “Whoah! Steady on there, mate!”

Phil performed a kind of pirouette and was fortunate that the glass door was already open as he twirled toward it, and then out into the street, only to then collide with a passer-by. It took him a moment to register that he had fallen onto someone, a moment longer to register that it was a woman and by the time he’d figured out that it was in fact Phyllis, the dog-whisperer from the park, he was on the verge of catatonic shock from the ignominy of the encounter and the bizarre nature of this convergence of fate.

Phyllis was very understanding and barely injured and laughed in her good-natured way about the incident which made Phil feel slightly less than mortified with embarrassment. It was the coincidental, rather than the accidental nature of their meeting like this that made Phyllis draw comparisons with Hollywood movies, which puzzled Phil. Anyway, Phyllis invited him to go with her to see a friend play in her band, who were called The Olecranon Process, at a local venue and they had a great time. Well, Phyllis had a great time listening to the music, dancing and singing along; whereas Phil enjoyed the fact that it was too loud for small talk, so he could have a couple of glasses of house white and not interact with Phyllis beyond smiling at her, more with relief that she hadn’t called the police when he wound up flattening her earlier than with any affection or guile. Phyllis seemed happy with that and at the end of the gig she breathlessly told Phil how much fun she’d had and that if he didn’t mind she’d like to see him again.

Phil rapidly played out a number of possible scenarios in his mind, but his lack of experience in this sort of situation left him at odds with his feeling that he ought to reciprocate Phyllis’ kind invitation and general goodwill and understanding.

“Do you like pizza?” he asked.

As it happened, Phyllis did. Very much.

To be continued…

People problems

The problem with people is that they all can’t be alike.

Mediocrity Man 3 – The Reckoning

Phil always took the train home from work. It wasn’t a complicated decision: he lived too far away to walk, he didn’t own a car and he refused to ride a bicycle because he felt it left his elbows unnecessarily vulnerable to scrutiny.

Travelling by train brought with it some difficulties at first, but Phil had learned to overcome them, gradually, through a process of positive self-affirmation and unflappable determination to be left the heck alone. He came to treat the train as his “Fortress of Solitude”, a place not unlike that of the Superman comics, a place in his mind where he could exist entirely separately from the rest of the world, and more importantly keep enquiring minds from attempting to probe his innermost secrets through the arcane and mysterious art of “small-talk”.

Phil was deeply suspicious of small-talk, even the name seemed misleading. The first (and last) time he had allowed himself to be engaged in this activity he had come within a hair’s breadth of revealing almost everything about himself in what seemed to him to be only a few sentences. The instigator clearly knew more about Phil than he was comfortable with, because this individual, whose name could have been “Steve”, felt from that moment onward he could broach virtually any topic with total impunity. But Phil didn’t want to know Steve’s opinions about sporting events, television programming or “women, eh?”, and was intensely relieved when Steve’s attention was drawn abruptly to another office-party-goer with whom he had clearly established even greater familiarity at an earlier juncture, and he went away.

Catching the train home was an activity Phil had made into something of an art. He prided himself on what a symphony of procedural sophistication it had become. The trick, initially, was to break it down into parts. Firstly, he would ensure that the walk from the office to the station took exactly twelve minutes, allowing for the inevitable delays caused by the teeming mass of less organised travellers – queueing, and such – so that he could catch the 5.38pm train. In other words, not the train all of these other people were clamouring to get on. Arriving home 20 minutes later was an infinitesimally small price to pay for a less crowded carriage.

Once aboard, Phil would find a seat and build his fortress. The seat had to be a two-seater, not a three. On rare occasions when no such seat was available, Phil would simply disembark and wait for the next train. It had to be perfect, or it wouldn’t work. Just as a house needed firm foundations, Phil’s Fortress required appropriate seating parameters. The next two phases of the construction involved two props: a device that stored and played music with a set of large headphones and a book. Each element had been selected with tremendous discretion, along with some minor trial-and-error “tweaks”. For example, too-large headphones attracted unwanted stares, whereas too discreet might imply that whatever is being listened to isn’t so important that the listener shouldn’t be interrupted.

The choice of book was more problematic. If it was something other people might find interesting then that might encourage unwanted attention. The same can be said for something too uninteresting, which would also promote staring. Phil eventually decided the safest course was to find relatively small books that had nondescript binding at the second-hand book shop. That way he could maintain his focus whilst obscuring the content of the text at the same time. Today’s book was a 19th Century treatise on the nature of creosote.

Once headphones were in place and book open, Phil would adopt an expression he had decided after some practice in front of his bathroom mirror gave an impression of a deep, cultivated level of concentration. He hoped that this would repel small-talkers, either because they might be fearful that he would either fly into a rage for being interrupted (unlikely), or intimidate them with the details of his obviously very specialised and possibly rather occult and unwholesome interests (yes, that seems more likely).

“Seven-hundred-and-sixty-three days since last incident,” Phil reminded himself as he found his seat. Everything proceeded as planned, his Fortress was sturdy, his headphones were in place and his book was open to the last third. He had begun to settle into his fifteen minute journey when the unthinkable happened.

An unkempt man sat down heavily in the seat next to Phil. Although he was no expert on such matters, Phil sensed that the man had been drinking. He was aware of the fact that the man was being studiously ignored by everyone else in the carriage and Phil reminded himself that he was still in his Fortress, that it was impenetrable by all, that he existed in a place where the cares of such men as this could not reach him. The man nudged Phil with his elbow and nodded solicitously at him.

“Eh?” The man said, and then said it again, with another nudge, to add emphasis.

Phil shifted uncomfortably in his seat for a moment and evaluated his position. He could continue to ignore the man until he went away, but he had noticed on the way in that there were not many free seats. Then, if he continued to ignore him, the man may choose to persist, and escalate his attention-seeking behaviour to truly unacceptable levels.

“Eh, mate? Eh?” Said the man, with much nudging and nodding.

Phil chanced a polite nod and weak smile before returning to his book.

“M’name’s L.P., mate. Wotcher readin’ there?”

Phil wasn’t sure what to call the stage beyond which a cringe ended and the next uncomfortable sensation began, but he’d reached it. He scoured his mind for options and decided his best bet would be a kind of awkward mime he hoped would convey “I can’t hear you, I’m wearing headphones and I’m listening to something I really enjoy and oh, look here’s this book I’m reading and… well, you know… sorry”

L.P. either wasn’t sure what Phil was trying to convey, or didn’t care. He continued:

“Yeah, mate. L.P. Not like the records, ya know? Not like Long Playing,” L.P. drew the syllables of those last words out, carefully. “But Lonely Place.”

That actually surprised Phil, and caught him off guard. By the time he would otherwise have kicked himself for looking at L.P., it was too late. L.P. noted the acknowledgement with another nudge (My elbows! Phil thought) and continued.

“My mum called me Lonely Place, because she said I was born in a really lonely place, ya know?”

Phil allowed himself to consider what sort of a place that might have been. L.P. kept talking.

“Yeah, she was real lonely, in this lonely place. I arksed her once where it was, an’ all she said was that she wouldn’t ever go back there.”

Phil was overcome with a sadness, what he assumed was a kind of empathy for this unusual, most likely drunk man who had intruded upon his Solitude, broken down the walls of his Fortress and made so little sense in the process. Against his better judgement, Phil decided on this seven-hundred-and-sixty-fourth occasion he would break with tradition and engage with this man in some form of conversation. Phil removed his headphones and looked at L.P.

“Did you ever find out where it was?” He asked L.P., whom he’d only just realised hadn’t stopped talking during his reverie and was already changing subject to something someone else had told him the other day. But when Phil spoke, L.P. stopped.

With a wistful look, he said “Yeah. I did.” His expression began to change from wistful to pained and Phil was instantly even more sorry he’d asked.

L.P. gestured to one of the more offensive stains on the linoleum floor of the carriage with a tilt of his head. “It was over there.”

A large tear welled in the corner of L.P.’s eye, then rolled clumsily over the weathered skin of his cheek, magnifying a trail over some of L.P.’s more excitingly broken capillaries. Phil was dumbfounded. Before he’d had time to absorb this bizarre revelation L.P. had sprung to his feet, raised his arms above his head and turned to address all of the occupants of the carriage, most of whom remained in their Fortresses.

In a voice that suddenly took on a tone reminiscent of the most fervent television evangelists that Phil had remembered watching late at night while he couldn’t sleep for the worry, L.P. declared:

“I reckon…. I reckon that we all are s’posed to be here – all of us – right now!”

It was Phil’s stop. He let the nice old lady, who seemed a little startled, get out first.

“Zero days without incident,” he muttered.

Free Will, or not

The question of free will is one that has troubled me for as long as I can remember. Part of my reasoning behind choosing to study Philosophy was to pursue an answer to this question. If I may refer you to the Wikipedia page about free will you will note that the question has been the topic of debate for as long as history and at least hundreds of serious attempts have been made to address what might be called the problem of free will during that time. The problem, in simple terms is that if everything around us appears to conform to basic rules of cause and effect, causality, then why shouldn’t we? Why do we perceive a difference between the laws that govern Nature and the “laws” that govern our own behaviour? Surely, if we are effectively biological, physiological machines, then our cogs and wheels are subject to the same causal relationships as those in a car or a printing press?

So the “problem”, if you read through the very large entry on the topic, seems to boil down to how much we are prepared to accept that our lives are determined by causality. If our lives are completely determined by causality then free will is simply an illusion, and all of us are just acting upon the universe as some small element within it, the course of our lives already set according to the myriad causal circumstances that brought us into being.

If our lives aren’t entirely determined by causality then how is it possible to figure out by how much? Do I have enough free will to go down to the shops for a pie, or only enough to decide that I like pies?

It’s questions like this that philosophy was invented to address, and indeed it’s questions like this that only seem to find a simple (acceptable) answer through a belief in spirituality. I don’t know how the atheists get on, but I suspect it’s much like everyone else: in a state of uncertainty. With spirituality it’s possible to address uncertainty with faith. In an atheist world view I suppose it’s possible to address uncertainty with either a fierce adherence to the argument that best suits your needs (hard determinism is a compellingly simple option, yet it does make things a little sticky, ethically speaking) or I guess there are other ways to distract oneself… Look! A shiny thing!

Having just witnessed the great, globulous mass, festooned with tinsel and bunting that is the United States elections, I ask myself how the question of free will is any different when applied to political will? Is there really such a thing as a “free” election, or do voters go to the polls as pre-determined elements in a larger, pre-determined sequence of causality? Can people really be persuaded by the arguments of one politician over another? Taken on a broader view like this, it seems easier to think that political “movements” have purpose and will of their own, but when you reduce the concept down to its composite parts you have to accept that such things are but a macrocosm to our individual microcosm. It does make for rather a hollow victory, does it not?

So, what to do? I think, on measure, most people take the most pragmatic path, which is to simply not give the idea any thought and get on with things as though it weren’t there. I won’t say I’m not still troubled by the question but within my personal world view I see a necessity for control of one’s will, even if it’s not strictly, one-hundred percent “free”. That fits in with my spiritual beliefs, which demand responsibility for one’s actions. In fact, the actions of my will are fundamental to my world view, and I think the way to get around the whole causality thing is to consider the nature of time. What if it’s just because we’re really only equipped to comprehend time in this linear way? What if there were other ways to conceive of reality that didn’t require this sequence of cause and effect? Surely if some deity created the universe then they also created time, and so therefore they must exist outside of time? That might work, at least for the deists. If time is really actually linked to the way in which space and gravity interact, then what of these other dimensions some scientists are suggesting might exist? In other dimensions there may be no reference points from which to observe time! Maybe in those dimensions time doesn’t exist as we understand it at all! Zounds!

I suspect that it’s not just my limited understanding of science that’s the problem. I think it’s the fact that reality is subjective, and if, at the end of the day I have come to accept a kind of reality that differs from another, then it’s no big deal. If other people share that same view, then all the better. Really, I’m happy to accept that I can assert my will to create change, because I have found that in my reality (and apparently in some others’) that has been shown to happen. I suppose it’s a kind of casual causality. It might even look good in corduroy slacks.

Selling Spirituality

Necessity, as the adage goes, is the mother of invention. With that in mind I have recently been brought by necessity to contemplate a number of interesting topics, ranging from ethics to mercantilism to a much deeper and more uncomfortable examination of my own beliefs and motives. So, as inventively as I can manage, I will attempt to bring a number of these ideas together into an article of writing to amuse and bemuse in possibly equal measure.

The matter, I would reply if someone were game to ask, “What’s the matter?”, is related to in what manner and to what extent it is acceptable to profit from one’s spirituality. “Oh, is that all,” you might reply and go back to your needlework. I have chosen the term “spirituality” here quite deliberately, as I’m rather loath to use the term “religion”, because I don’t believe they’re synonymous. How one defines “religion” is really a topic that deserves its own article, and perhaps one day I will give it some consideration but not today. For the purposes of this piece, the term “spirituality” refers to a person’s beliefs of a spiritual nature, whether they be associated with an established religion, a recognised mode of spiritual practice or just whatever their approach to contemplating the great transcendent “otherness” might be. It will have to suffice as an unlikely umbrella, under which I will stuff (quite against their will) Christians, Muslims, Wiccans and Zoroastrians, with “solo eclectic practitioners”, hedge/kitchen/fairy witches and so on. The more I try to make it work the harder it appears to be but I’m going to do it anyway, as much for the sake of expediency as anything.

Just to make things a little clearer I am also going to acknowledge and dismiss, for the most part, the manner in which the world’s major religions have fleeced the public for centuries as being common knowledge. We all know about things like tithes imposed by the church and so forth, so I’m not going to explore those issues in any detail. This is partly because to do that I’d have to conduct some meaningful research on the topic, but mostly because it’s all rather irrelevant to the principal topic of paganism. Pagans and witches don’t, generally speaking, own large amounts of property and enjoy tax exemptions from the government. So I will limit the scope of my enquiry somewhat and focus upon how us pagan and witchy folks have, and continue to profit from our spiritual beliefs.

Of course, as I look at the bookcase next to me I see a great many books on a variety of topics that bear some relevance to my beliefs. So one of the first ways a witch or pagan can profit from their beliefs is to write about them. A good book is a great treasure, and I have noticed that a great many witches and pagans possess significant libraries. I suppose part of the reason for this is the occult (i.e. hidden) nature of most pagan and witchcraft practices. The knowledge that seekers seek is seldom easy to obtain, and historically the process of finding one’s way through the dark is to follow the lights cast by scraps of text hidden in books. All of the great names have published works: Gardner, Starhawk, Valiente, the Farrars. None of them have enjoyed sales figures like J.K. Rowling, however. Making a living as a writer of non-fiction books within such a limited field of interest must be next to impossible. Anyway, now we live in the Internet Age, and the old ways of going about pagan business are falling into disuse. Once upon a time you would put an ad in the classifieds calling for students (often worded in a somewhat cryptic fashion) or announcing oneself as seeking. Now you just google “paganism” or “witchcraft” and you can have a whole world of information to choose from. So, with a certain degree of irony, what was once hidden now remains hidden, only whereas once it was occult through scarcity and the necessity to hide from unwanted attention, now it is occult through the sheer mass of information that is very often endlessly reproduced from un-cited sources, plagiarised from extant sources, or simply (apparently) made up on the spot. I have both experienced the frustration of the former and witnessed the frustrations of others with the latter.

So how does the money come into it? Well, apart from spending it on books, which can be a thoroughly worthwhile and rewarding pursuit, there seem to be more and more “teachers” emerging who are offering their services for a fee. (They’ve always been there, by the way, I recommend to anyone unfamiliar with Frank Zappa’s song from 1974, Cozmik Debris to give it a listen.)

My personal ethics, and those of my spiritual belief system forbid me from charging people for any knowledge or wisdom that I have acquired through my spiritual path. I believe if you operate in a group system, such as a coven or learning circle, it is entirely reasonable to ask for basic costs to be covered by participants – purchase of consumables like candles and wine, for example, or to maintain tools and paraphernalia. But for teachers, “leaders”, “instructors” or however they like to style themselves to profit personally from passing on “spiritual” knowledge or wisdom in the form of a structured “system” to me, at least, seems highly unethical. And now here comes the difficult part where I have to explain that.

It is difficult, this is now my third attempt. And I suppose the reason why it’s difficult is because in order to explain my position I feel I have to venture into parts of my own path that are not generally something I would share openly. I will go back to a previous article and re-invoke what I consider to be the core principles of witchcraft; or at least should be the core qualities of a witch, which are humility, discretion and the ability to remain silent. To my mind, for someone to use the knowledge they acquired through their own instruction within the context of a structured system for the pursuit of profit they are in breach of all three of these fundamental ideas. I must make it clear that I am trying to limit my premise to the teaching or instruction of spiritual system of practice. I should also reiterate that in my personal view, which is very traditional, knowledge that is passed on through traditional training is free, and should not be used as a source of profit.

Maybe if I examine these concepts further I can address my concerns. In a way, the third quality is really related to the first two. It’s as much about knowing when to be silent as knowing how. Silence is one of the most powerful weapons a witch possesses, and it requires such discipline to be good at it that it strikes me as though if you had taken the time to really come to grips with it, it would seem antithetic to go and sell your words to seekers. Likewise, as a seeker the ability to remain silent is probably the first and most important skill to perfect. How can you hope to hear what you need to hear when your mouth is loud and your mind is raucous?

Discretion is important to a witch because one is very seldom presented with scenarios that offer simple outcomes. This is true as much for one’s craft as it is for life in general. You can’t teach discretion, beyond offering advice, giving pointers or reminding the seeker to always learn from their mistakes. When you think about it, if you’re one of those that hopes to make a living from selling witchcraft you can’t afford to be discerning or to turn anyone away. You have to take all-comers in order to fill your pockets. It is, after all, what advertising folk might describe as a “niche market”. That, in itself, leads down a very difficult ethical path, because to my mind it is not ethical to pass on significant spiritual wisdom to someone who is unfit, for whatever reason, to receive it.

Humility is the most important of all three qualities. This is largely because it suffuses every element of the craft. Without humility you cannot remain silent or employ discretion. Without humility you cannot be anything other than what you perceive yourself to be. It takes humility to be able to release oneself from ego. However one who presumes to offer spiritual training for money can only be motivated by ego, and hence is not acting with humility.

Think about this (he says, in his best Morpheus-from-The Matrix-voice): how can another person tell you how far you have progressed spiritually, without you already being in possession of that knowledge? If I attend (or enrol online, as is more often the case these days) for Madam Moondrop’s school of all-things-witchy and pay to achieve the “first degree”, what does that mean, at the end? That I have enjoyed value for money? If I was humble, I would see that it doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. If I had used discretion, I would have considered, “if the doors to spiritual instruction could be found by anyone with a library card, then money is unlikely to be the key to opening them”. If I had remained silent, I might have heard my common sense prickling at me.

Generally speaking, the great and ever-expanding library of books covering various aspects of witchcraft and paganism contain all of the “knowledge” a seeker needs. It’s been said a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and it is instruction in the use of that knowledge that is at the heart of spiritual practice. I implore all of you to employ your intelligence, refuse to suspend your disbelief, and go about your spiritual path with your eyes open. By all means take a course in Tarot, or Reiki, or herbology, or attend workshops in what-not or whatever. But if someone is telling you that enlightenment, “initiation” or occult power can be yours for a fee, then they’re trying to take advantage of you. The means of connecting with the Divine are many and varied, but ultimately your path is your own, and no-one can charge you for your own relationship with divinity. If you’re humble, use discretion in your choices and know how and when to remain silent, then instruction will come to you.

The return of Mediocrity Man

Phil worked at a computer programming firm, where he specialised in windows. There was nothing at all that could in any way be described as extraordinary about Phil or his work. He simply did what was required of him and nothing else. Ambition was not a motivating factor in his life.

Every day he would sit at his terminal in his small and unadorned cubicle alongside the other 50 or so programmers in the room on the 19th floor of one of the more architecturally aspirational office buildings in the city. Phil’s work life was quite blissfully monotonous and he really quite liked it. However, he was completely oblivious to the fact that every one of his workmates seethed with bitter resentment for him.

They were unable to comprehend how he could lead such a peaceful existence, apparently unhindered by the pressures that drove each of them to medications for stress, anxiety and other ailments their working lives induced. They were utterly absorbed in their frantic, desperately competitive and miserably unrewarding careers, which spilled into their equally hectic, vacuous social lives. They would spend an inordinate part of their down-time bitching and moaning about Phil, whether it was during coffee breaks or at fashionable bars and cafes. They would carp on endlessly to their spouses and partners about this guy at work who just didn’t seem to get it, who wasn’t a team player, who thought he was too good for them.

Phil, of course, kept to himself and dreamed of his windows and remained utterly unaware that his co-workers never stopped once to notice how much of their precious time was devoted to such an unassuming and ordinary person.

But then, at work, nobody knew about his secrets.

An article on Men in Wicca

Originally written for the Mount Franklin Annual Pagan Gathering blog, below is an article that attempts to examine at once both the role of men in Wicca and how the sabbats of Imbolc, Ostara and Beltane relate to them.

I was asked some time ago to contribute an article to this blog on the topic of “The Role of Men in Wicca”. Since then I pondered, in the ponderous manner that is characteristic of my thinking, this topic in some detail, and from several angles. Time passed, and I was also asked, since the previous article was still yet to materialise, if I’d mind terribly writing something about Imbolc, and then Ostara.
Then Beltane rolled around and finally my ideas began to coalesce into one reasonably strong premise: The role of men in Wicca has a lot to do with Imbolc, Ostara and Beltane. “There,” I told myself, “I can write something about that”. But another incident occurred just prior to Beltane that gave me pause to consider something else, namely that there is something, orthings, that tie the former premise into a much larger and more significant premise: “The role of Men in Wicca is not an issue”.
So, how to write an article that not only has two premises but two premises that appear to contradict one another? Some may suggest “systematically”. Others may suggest “with a strong basis in contemporary research”. I know some witches to whom the liberal application of footnotes and appendices induces such bacchanalian fits of rapture and ebullience that one had best stand clear, or carry an umbrella. Personally, I’m more one for hyperbole and rambling, so I’ll stick with them.
The role of men in Wicca has been covered before by a number of people, and as far as I can tell the conclusion invariably depends upon the author’s political disposition. Like most people, I’m prone to categorisation and generalisation, but feel rather uncomfortable about being too unconditional in their use. And so it is here. The terms of the premise must be defined. I know this, because I am unlike the greater proportion of men in the world because I have been awarded a post-graduate qualification. So right off the bat the term “men” becomes divisible by the number of them that might have pursued higher education. This could go on endlessly, like Zeno’s paradox about Achilles and the tortoise (See? Now I’m just showing off) so I will opt to get over my squeamishness and say that, at least for the purposes of this article, the term “men in Wicca” means pretty much what you would expect the term to mean, that is “the male human adherents of Wicca”. I added “human” there just to avoid the inevitable “but my dog’s a Wiccan” counter-claims. The heck with that.
But, all of this blather has been avoiding the really sticky definition, which is that of “Wicca”. What does that mean? I could be annoying and say “It means all things to all men”, and that’s not too far off the mark these days. The term has been picked up and run with by many an aspiring witch and kicked around now for so many decades that its original meaning, however much some people would like to disagree on this point, is largely irrelevant to everybody except those to whom it means something in itself, which is to say the followers of Gerald Gardner, who is widely accepted as the first to coin the term in reference to a “system” of ritualised witchcraft. The thing is, there can be such a rift between what one man calls Wicca and what another calls Wicca that they would both be talking about entirely different things (there’s some parable about blind men and an elephant that fits quite nicely here). Indeed, there are some brands of Wicca that men are forbidden to claim a part in altogether.
So it’s a bit of a pickle. I could go down the “pagan” route, but it’s not true that all Wiccans are pagans. Also, to compare some pagan men with some Wiccan men would be like comparing battle-axes with bluebells, and isn’t at all useful for my purposes. Eclectic witchcraft has, it would appear at least, decided to put a stop to the confusion by embracing “Eclectic witchcraft” as a collective term in itself. However, I was asked to talk about men in Wicca, and whilst many Wiccans can be quite eclectic in their manner of practice (not least of all those famous progenitors, Gardner and Sanders) most of the “traditional” Wiccans have enough in common that I can probably make do without having to embrace “eclecticism”.
So, questions that have been asked include, “are Wiccan men submissive to the women in a group?” Or, “do Wiccan men have a problem with being primarily goddess-worshippers?” And more often than not “so, do men choose a Wiccan path to get all sky-clad and stuff with female witches?” It is sometimes implied that Wicca is something of a gynocentric path, and that men are perceived as similar to the self-castrating priests of Cybele, the Gallai, subservient to the High Priestess in all matters. I have heard of some groups who operate in a strictly gynocentric manner, and that all men, even the High Priest, are subservient to the High Priestess. I have also heard of cases where the opposite is true. I can’t speak for all men, but I would suggest that the reasons for seeking the Wiccan path must vary considerably from one man to the next. My own experience has changed as my understanding of the Craft has developed. At first one of the attractive features of Wicca to some of the other paths I had pursued was that there was an equal role for both men and women. Not even so much that there was an equal role but that equality was an essential element of practice.
So let’s look at the sabbats. Imbolc, even while the days and nights are still cold, it’s generally the time when I find I catch the first whiff of Spring. Everyone knows what I mean, it’s a certain something in the air that marks the beginning of the end of Winter. For men, it’s the first stirrings of the return of the God, or god-paradigm, if you like. In Central Victoria it’s also roughly around the time when lambing season begins, which fits in well with the definition of the term “in the belly”. The snowdrops always come out at this time, so I always feel that it is rather portentous. As a man, I see it as being a return to the time of year when the god makes his presence felt most strongly, and my head-space begins to shift with it.
Ostara, the vernal equinox, is very nearly my favourite time of year. It is accompanied by a much more distinct change in the air, at least in this part of the world. One recognises the lengthening of days (even if it’s only by how long the kids think they’re allowed to play outside before coming in for dinner) but again, importantly for men, it is that quite palpable sense of power as the god returns to make his presence felt. This is entirely my point of view, and some may think that perhaps I suffer from some kind of seasonal affective disorder, but it’s nothing like that. It’s not as though the god begins to take over, it’s just that the more contemplative, darker aspect of the god throughout the Winter months changes character into the more fecund, playful and youthful aspect we see culminate at Beltane. I understand the Druids (at least the modern variety) consider these three sabbats as being one cycle, and I’m inclined to agree. It feels like a gradual build-up of male essence that begins, almost quietly, at Imbolc, and is given release at Beltane. Hail the Summer! Men of the Wiccan world, take up thy staff and well, you know…!
Some have attempted to draw me into discussions about gay or trans-gendered men on this point. To them I have but one reply – if you identify as a man then this is the time of year when you should celebrate your masculinity! Your tradition will have its own means of doing so, but really all one has to do is look around to see how that vitality should be brought into being. It’s happening everywhere. The world begins to hum, to vibrate with energy. Get outside, put your hands in the soil and feel life. Furthermore, some of you may be thinking this is all rather androcentric and I am neglecting the feminine in all this. Well, that’s true, because I’m talking about men in Wicca and I think a woman is far better qualified than I to describe how they perceive the return of the God during this part of the year. Some might even go so far as to suggest that celebrating masculinity is unnecessary because we already live in a patriarchal society where such things are not only celebrated but sensationalised. Whilst it may be true that we live in a patriarchal society, that’s a political matter and as such has nothing to do with how I practice my spiritual beliefs. I’m a firm believer in keeping politics and spirituality separate. People tend to agree with me when the spirituality in question is Islam or Christianity, but Wicca is ok? Please feel free to comment below should you happen to disagree. I feel myself drifting off-topic. Time to move on.
Just before Beltane I had cause to remind someone of some of the basic tenets of Wicca, which are not by any means secret, but are at least to my mind fundamental to correct practice. They are humility, discretion and the ability to remain silent. These ideas aren’t exclusive to Wicca, and there is a good argument to be made that they are really pretty basic common sense. But also they are what make being a man in Wicca a non-issue. Regardless of your gender I think to find fulfilment in your practice you must adhere to these basic principles. Men in Wicca must be humble, and that humility is what people often mistake as submission. Men in Wicca must employ discretion in their actions and decisions, because the ability to discern the correct path is essential to the way of a witch. Finally, it takes strength and conviction, along with humility and discretion to know when to remain silent, and when to speak out. This is not exclusively related to men, but rather all witches. So really, being a man in Wicca is a question of adhering to basic values. Know thyself! Be true to your own values and to your gods. Wicca is about celebrating all that is female and all that is male, and all that comes about when the two meet. If you are of the Wicca, being a man ceases to be an issue, it’s just simply as it must be.

Some cross-pollination

It occurs to me that I can at once add some of my writing to this blog whilst simultaneously promoting another blog-meister (and mentor), David Mattichak.

http://dgmattichakjr.com/2012/11/03/pop-music-guest-post-by-des-reaburn-jenkin/

It’s a bit of a rant about the state of popular music, in case you’re wondering. After you read it and feel as though you’ve really learned something, check out the rest of David’s excellent blog page.

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