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.

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About des

Des is an Australian teacher, musician and writer.

6 responses to “Selling Spirituality”

  1. dgmattichakjr says :

    Books are indeed the mainstay of many occultists’ course of study and, as you say, it is nearly impossible to make a living producing genuinely valuable works on magick. Of course if you just want to cobble together a book of love spells, avoid any serious scholarship and appeal entirely to the fairy dusters then it is probably a reasonable way to make some quick cash. To think that you can develop a long term career as a respected writer on occultism might be drawing a long bow as there will always be the next faddish book to replace yours.

    In many ways this mirrors the plethora of workshoppers and guru style instructors in the dark arts that now abound on the web. In most serious schools of magick the rule has always been that you are responsible for the cost of your own advancement. If this includes paying dues to compensate other people for the time that they spent performing initiation ceremonies for your benefit then that is part of the cost. After all it doesn’t pay to haggle over the price of a black hen’s egg if it is necessary to perform the next step in your Great Work. To a certain degree this really makes it incumbent upon students to ensure that they are not creating a financial burden on their masters- but no more. Showing others the first steps on the Path doesn’t entitle you to live in luxury for the privilege.

    There is so much that I would say on the subject of silence- but I shant.

    • deryckrj says :

      I found it hard to get around this subject without citing specific examples and inviting the sort of litigious scrutiny I would like to avoid. I agree that the cost of one’s spiritual advancement is one’s own responsibility, and that certain costs are inevitable. I suppose I really object to the charlatans that place appearances before substance and require that they be financially compensated for their *time* when passing on the mysteries. The point being if they’re that sort of person, it ain’t mysteries they’re peddling, as sure as black hen’s eggs make chickens (or some sort of nasty omelette in the Dark Arts, presumably).

  2. Ed Hurst says :

    There are strong parallels in Bible=based spirituality, too, and obvious ones at that. Some of us devoted Christians are completely out of the institutional system for the very reasons you cite. We would rather receive what people freely give us and struggle, than to live comfortably on pretending to sell something which simply cannot be bought in mundane terms.

    • deryckrj says :

      Thanks for your reply, Ed. I particularly appreciate your mentioning that vital separation from the mundane. Money is not spiritual currency. That struggle to which you refer most certainly is, if I understand your meaning correctly.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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