My “Golden Rules” of Magic and Spirituality

A while back, in this thread on the Wildspeak Forums, I wrote this in response to “What if it [magic/spirituality] isn’t real?”:

For myself, there are a couple of checks and balances I keep in place.

1. Is what I’m doing negatively affecting my mundane life? If so, I need to evaluate very seriously.

2. Am I hearing only things I agree with? If so, I need to question what I’m hearing.

However, there also comes a point where I have to stop questioning, and accept that yes, this is real. Yes, the spirits have an objective existence of their own, though they interface with my subjective perception of them. And when there is positive change being made in my life, that’s proof enough that regardless of what the “reality” is, this is a valuable thing to me.

This also ties into some continued thought-chewing from my post a few weeks ago where I asked some questions about shamanism and service to the gods/spirits. And having thought about it, I’m pretty happy with my two Golden Rules. Here’s why.

#1: Is what I’m doing negatively affecting my mundane life? If so, I need to evaluate very seriously.

This rule pretty much came into play early on; it’s one of the first things I figured out to keep myself sane and grounded amid mysticism, spirituality, and magic. It’s easy, especially when you’re just beginning to learn about magic and other such things, to get carried away by the perceived Otherworldliness of the whole thing. I remember how awesome it was to find out that magic wasn’t just in my head, that it existed, and that there were explanations for it besides “It’s just superstition” or “You’re going to hell”. It was also nice to know that I wasn’t the only person who talked to spirits as a kid, who didn’t just see it as imagination, and who thought Nature was more than just resources to be used and abused by “dominant” humans.

When I talk about negative affects, I’m not just talking about the grandiose self-delusion of Apocalyptic Destinies, wherein you are convinced you and your friends are at the center of a great war to save the Universe or something similarly ungrounded but otherwise harmless. Nor am I talking about things such as BDSM spirituality and kink magic where consensual kink is utilized for ritual purposes. I’m referring to using your spirituality/magic as a crutch to excuse harmful patterns in your life. For example, if you spend all your time holed up in a ritual chamber and isolate yourself from the rest of the world except to get food and (if employed) go to work, something’s probably going very wrong with you. Spirituality and magic should enhance and be balanced with the rest of your everyday life, not replace it.

Being interested in a subject or having a bizarre belief (by mainstream standards) isn’t a problem in and of itself. When I was writing A Field Guide to Otherkin, I interviewed a therapist about her thoughts on the concept of Otherkin (the interview may be found in one of the appendices of the book). One thing she said that really stuck out to me was that, as a therapist, it was not her job to determine the validity of my beliefs. What her concern was, was how my beliefs affected my life overall. Since I function just fine in modern society believing that on some spiritual/psychological level there’s part of me that registers as “wolf”, I take it as a clean bill of health. In fact, the concept of therianthropy gives me a good structure on which to examine and understand this part of myself, and therefore is a benefit. On the other hand, if I had clinical lycanthropy (which is an exceedingly rare disorder) I would be so convinced that I was literally, physically turning into a wolf that I would be crawling around on all fours, trying to bite people, and be quite unfit for public consumption. Still, I keep a sharp eye on where my beliefs intersect with all areas of my life, not just in the ritual room.

It’s especially crucial to question what you’re doing when it negatively affects someone else, not just (or instead of) yourself. In certain religions, for example, it’s perfectly acceptable to marry a spirit or deity. Voodoo is a good example; marriages to the loa aren’t for everyone, but they do occur. In healthy situations, this does not prevent the person from having relationships and marriages with other people. An unhealthy example, on the other hand, would be if the spirit or deity told the person they wanted to marry “You must leave your present significant other and spend all your time with me!” This is different from, say, a deity or spirit telling a person to get out of a patently abusive relationship and seek professional help. If you’re using your spirituality to excuse something you wouldn’t otherwise be doing to another person, there’s something very wrong, and you need to take a step back and evaluate the mundane, woo-free reality of what you’re doing. Look at the situation as if you had absolutely no belief in spirituality whatsoever. Be brutally honest. If it sounds crazy or toxic from that perspective, if it’s something you would tell other people not to do, then there’s a good chance you need to really seriously consider your choices.

Now, the concept of negative effect is open to interpretation. For example, a gay person who is out of the closet could be said to be negatively affecting family members who are embarrassed and scandalized by hir choice to come out. However, there’s also the consideration of what staying in the closet does to the gay person. Having been stuffed in a few closets myself, I know just how screwed up it can make a person, and how much healthier it is to have the room to come to terms with who and what you are rather than hiding it. Is the other person’s embarrassment worth my depression, stress, anxiety and ill health overall? Is it worth spending my life feeling like I’m a mistake? Sometimes it’s a delicate balance between being aware of the effect on others, and on yourself.

However, if the concrete, mundane, physical effects of what you’re doing are running counter to your spiritual justifications, either in regards to yourself or others, it’s time to take a time-out and have a realistic, detached look at what you’re up to.

Let’s look at the second Golden Rule:

#2: Am I hearing only things I agree with? If so, I need to question what I’m hearing.

This is a later refinement based on the first rule. Every person relies, to one extent or another, on Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG). Even in religions with a well-established set of dogma and rules, such as the various denominations of Christianity or the various types of Judaism, there are disagreements and individual interpretations. For example, one church may be fully in agreement with the idea that “God hates fags”. Another may say that God says to “Love the sinner and hate the sin”. A third insists that “God is love”, no matter who you are. Even so, individuals within each church may disagree to some extent on the details. Having a collective of people who back up your beliefs can be seductive–no matter how many people agree with you, it’s still important to have an amount of healthy skepticism.

And this is something that fundamentalists of all religions (yes, pagans have fundies, too) don’t want to hear–that our relationship to the Divine may be more subjective than we initially believed. I believe very strongly that deities and spirits are much “bigger” entities than we are, or at least live on a more multifaceted dimension. Therefore our understanding of them is the understanding a two dimensional world would have of a three dimensional being. Since we can’t comprehend them all at once, they show us each the face we most need to see. It’s like a more complex version of the faces we put on for different people; you probably act a bit differently around your boss than you do around someone you’re flirting with!

I also don’t believe that deities and spirits communicate to us in words. When I communicate with the totems, or the Animal Father, I don’t think they’re speaking English to me. Rather, whether they communicate through energy or emotions or some other force, the best way for me to interpret it, at least initially, is through words and, to a lesser extent, images. Sometimes, though, with an entity I have a good connection with, I can open myself temporarily to pure stream of consciousness that transcends the limitations of words–but still makes sense. However, even then, that information is filtered through my tunnel vision, my experiences and my headspace. In other words, as an anonymous person put it, “You know you have created God in your own image when your God hates the same people you do”.

And this is why we need to be wary when we’re only hearing what we want to hear. It’s very easy to misinterpret things, or to selectively use them to justify our position on something. Religious fundamentalism comes about when a person of any religion insists that the way they understand things is the most correct way to interact with that deity/spirit/etc. and anyone else is doing it wrong. While simple disagreement is more common, everything from murder to war has been justified by “God told me to….”. When your belief tells you it’s okay to negatively impact someone else’s life (especially if you think “It’s for their own good”), there’s a damned good chance that you’re actually using religion as an excuse to further your own personal agenda, even if you don’t consciously realize it. As numerous tyrants have learned over the years, religion is a great veneer for political and social agendas–it gets people emotionally riled up, and their rationality goes right out the window.

But remember the last part of my post?

However, there also comes a point where I have to stop questioning, and accept that yes, this is real. Yes, the spirits have an objective existence of their own, though they interface with my subjective perception of them. And when there is positive change being made in my life, that’s proof enough that regardless of what the “reality” is, this is a valuable thing to me.

Caution is good. Questioning is good. However, if what I am doing is overwhelmingly constructive, and if it isn’t being used as a justification for screwing someone (myself included) over in a way I would not normally do, then I’m more likely to move forward. One way that I know therioshamanism has been good for me is that I look back over the time since I started my initial training in September, and I see where what I have done and learned has provided me with very useful tools that I’ve been able to use to improve situations in my life overall. I have become a better, healthier person through it, and I feel more confident in my ability to help others do the same. That doesn’t mean I won’t keep a watchful eye on any negative “side effects”, but I can point to very concrete, physical ways in which my spirituality has had a positive effect on my life. If other people point out blind spots, then they can be dealt with.

However, overall I can say that the path I have walked for over a decade, and most recently therioshamanism, has contributed greatly to my overall health and happiness, and to making me a better person. It has also helped me to become more aware of the world around me and my impact on it, and while I haven’t yet achieved perfection, I have many tools at my disposal to help me get a little closer. My Golden Rules give me the focus and grounding I need to continue in this endeavor.

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