It comes up every few months. It starts small but soon enough blossoms to a full-time preoccupation. I drift through reality, experience heightened by desire, appetite sharpening my senses. I’m unable to resist the enchantment even when I fear the strength of its pull.
So what’s my drug? Tantric sex? Trance dance? Ayahuasca?
Nope. Fan fiction. (For the uninitiated—internet-based, fan-crafted stories about popular characters from movies and TV).
In high school English we learned about the themes of literary fiction: man against world, man against himself, chaos and order, life and death, coming of age, and so on. They were meant to provoke deep thought about our place in society and the universe.
Fan fiction has its themes too, not subtly suggested in elegant prose, but announced up front in “tags”. The purpose of these motifs, as far as I can tell, is to hook me more completely than English lit ever did. It was a pretty heady experience, after years of self-imposed intellectual snobbery, to discover that thousands of other people wanted to see their favourite Norse God or British detective in a “hurt/comfort” scenario as much I did!
The appeal of the tagged themes is various—erotic, romantic, sentimental—but in the end they all offer the opportunity to feel deeply such basic emotions as concern, excitement, and grief. Guilty pleasure though it may be, I’m not sure that’s really such a bad thing.
Fan fic authors love to subject their borrowed heroes to extensive and increasingly creative wounding. Such scenes open up the raw vulnerability we all may be feeling inside, laying it out on the page in detail. They give us the chance to imagine ourselves in the characters’ place, helping or being helped without judgment. Since physical pain lacks the stigma of mental distress, many of the scenes involve injuries that evoke straightforward concern that's easy for the reader to share. But even emotional pain can be presented sympathetically because we are granted entry to character’s backstory and moments of self-blame. We empathize with their suffering, and learn, by extension, how to acknowledge our own.
In “forbidden love” scenarios we encounter not just the exotic or delightfully unexpected, but a mix of vulnerability and bravery that evokes our compassion. This surge of sympathy is just the hit we’re looking for. We are moved by those who dare to love at risk to themselves, because our inner heart wants to believe that we too can be brave, and that we too needn’t be perfect to love or be loved. Our strong attraction to such portrayals is a testament to our true aspirations, so often set aside in a world that seems to demand distance and self-protection.
Fan fic has powerfully reminded me of what I really long for, and primed me for the work of cultivating compassion for real people. They have backstories too, and filling them in imaginatively is a spiritual practice Buddhists call “karuna meditation.” (Yogis and pagans use visualizations and pathworkings to similar effect). They all affirm the same truth: if I can see beyond another’s annoying behaviour to the suffering behind it, if I can call up the flavour of tender feeling and apply it those I meet, I can find my heart’s fulfillment in the here and now:
Now for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart—
Take my hand quick and tell me
What have you in your heart.
Speak now and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say.
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.
Step One is "We admitted that we were harming ourselves and others and that our lives had become overwhelming."
When I am overwhelmed, my primal brain is in control, and all it cares about is survival. I've been under the control of my primal brain for most of the year so far, even when things were going good. I was aware that something was wrong, but I kept putting off examining myself to find my problem while I helped other people find and work out theirs.
That's what I'm doing with my life. I help people identify their problems, figure out solutions, and empower themselves to take those steps. I am a healer, a teacher, and an intuitive consultant (sometimes known as a psychic,) but all those roles are simply aspects of Helper.
Like so many Helpers in this world, every single one that I've met so far in fact, I neglect to help myself. I plan to. I know I should. I talk about it. I encourage every client to put their own needs first and fill their own tank up, remind them that running on fumes is counterproductive and inefficient, while silently nudging myself to practice what I preach.
Two weeks ago, I finally started doing just that. I personally am a huge fan of my friend Grey Ghosthawk's sweat lodge, and he started a Wheel of the Year sweat lodge series this year - the first of which was the weekend before last. I went. I spent the whole weekend taking care of my own needs without offering intuitive consultations or healing sessions for others, though I frequently and freely offered plenty of hugs. I came home with my batteries fully charged...but I came home and kept the same habits I had when running on empty.
This weekend, I picked up a book called The Recovery Spiral for a friend. While previewing it, I read the introduction, and when I got to the quote with which I started this blog post, I stopped and re-read it three times. Holy crap, I thought. I need to do this book too!
This book is a Pagan version of the 12 steps, complete with tarot spreads and rituals. It is not just for alcoholics and drug addicts. It is for everyone who has self-harmful habits, living in a state of overwhelm.
Step Two is "Came to believe that a power within ourselves and our world could restore us to balance." I already believe this. I empowered myself to conquer lifelong depression three years ago. My goal in life is to empower as many people as I can. This book groups step one (admitting the problem) and step two (believing the problem can be solved) together in the first chapter.
Yesterday, I read through the first chapter, made my friend read through the first chapter, and after my son went to sleep, we did the tarot spreads for the first and second step.
At first, we wanted to use this program to help him stop smoking and to help me stop overeating. Very quickly, the cards helped us get to the real problems. He is not addicted to cigarettes - he is addicted to depression. Depression is what makes him feel overwhelmed, and what drives him to smoke. The spread for the second step helped him come up with a specific, doable plan of action to empower himself to overcome depression, and he started immediately.
When I laid out the cards for me, I was taken by surprise. I thought my harmful behavior was overeating, but the cards told me that I'm addicted to diversion. And they are absolutely right. This year I have barely paid my bills on time, though I have the potential to live comfortably if I would finish my dingdangdong projects already! But I have read, on average, five novels a week, most of them books I've ALREADY READ! I have spent hours every day EACH playing a game on my computer, watching netflix with my family, AND browsing Facebook.
Now that I've pulled out of the pattern and given it a good look, I see about 8 hours a day that I could have been spending quality time with my kid, cooking, writing, cleaning, and learning skills that will help me help more people. I will NOT beat myself up about that - shame is a totally counterproductive, draining emotion that has no place on the path to healing and personal growth.
What I am doing, now that I see the problem, is treating it like a physical addiction. I quit smoking when I was pregnant, started again when my son was a baby, and quit for good before he was one. This is how I did it: I recognized my triggers and I practiced a replacement habit.
As a smoker, I only smoked outside. So every time I went outside, at first, I felt a powerful urge to smoke. I also smoked at certain times - first thing in the morning, after every meal, when my friends wanted to smoke, and last thing before bed.
When I quit the final time, I avoided going outside with smokers. I changed my morning and evening habit to sitting outside with a cup of tea. I stayed inside after meals and distracted myself from the urge to smoke with a book or another cup of tea. It took about a month of sustained effort before I no longer wanted a cigarette and they started stinking to me again. I get nauseated when I smell cigarettes now, and I like it that way.
So now I've got to quit distracting myself from my life. This is a little more complex than the cigarette thing. I can avoid novels and the TV, but I have to go online for my business and I have to use my computer to write. I used to always read, watch something, or play a game while eating, and now I have to make a habit of ONLY eating when I eat, only paying attention to my food and how my body feels because if I give in to the urge to play a game or read, I'll slide right back into that well-worn groove of distracting myself for hours and oh look no time to do anything productive before I head off to work.
My friend and I are walking the recovery spiral together. How about you? Do you feel stressed out and overwhelmed? Would you like to take this journey together?
At the time of writing, several friends of mine are engaged in formal initiation proceedings, leading me to consider my own experiences with initiations. It was easy to pinpoint those formal initiations such as being initiated into the National Honor Society, or being initiated into a co-ed social group at my college that I can only explain as being modeled on the Merry Pranksters. But the experience that first came to mind when thinking of initiatory experiences was working the Twelve Steps.
Anyone who has a desire to stop using can become a member of a Twelve Step group. You do not have to work the Twelve Steps. However, the process of working the Twelve Steps is the manner in which one draws closer to the program or becomes truly initiated. It is how we begin to view fellowship as family. Since we work the Twelve Steps with a sponsor, we are forced to reach our hand out and ask for help. No longer are we able to sit in the back of the room, not talking to anyone. We must make connections in order to move forward. As we reveal ourselves to our sponsor, we learn how to become open and more vulnerable. We become open to taking suggestions, and learn about humility. These are essential elements for being part of a society instead of being a party of one. Not only does the process of the Twelve Steps change us into better people, but we also learn how to be with people as we work the steps.
The many tales of underworld descents provide a poetic structure through which to understand a program of recovery. Much of what we do is painful, and involves spelunking around in some of the darker neighborhoods of our psyche. If we persist, at the end of the experience we are reborn. As in the Sumerian tale of Inanna’s descent, there are seven gates (steps) we must pass through in the Recovery version of the Underworld, and at each of them we must turn over some part of ourselves just as Inanna was required to turn over a symbol of her power and wealth. In Step One, we hand over our attachment to the idea that we shall ever be able to exercise any power over our drinking or drugging. In Step Two, we give up the specter of self-sufficiency. In step Three, we turn over our will and our lives. We hand over denial and self-delusion in Step Four, and in Step Five we part ways with our pride. In Step six we relinquish our attachment to our character defects, and then in Step Seven we actually ask for them to be removed. As Inanna became stripped of the symbols of her holy priestesshood, so too do we become more naked and vulnerable as we go along. When we question, as Inanna did, why we have to do this or that, our sponsors or old-timer’s might snap at us as the Chief Gatekeeper, Neti, snapped at Inanna, “Quiet Inanna, the ways of the Underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned.” We’ve all met the Big Book thumpers who talk like this!
Those familiar with the tale of Inanna might think I am about to say that Steps 8 and 9 (where we make a list of all persons we have harmed, become willing to make amends to them, and then do so wherever possible) are like the part in the story where Inanna turns into a corpse and hangs from a meat hook for several days. Luckily, we get to skip the whole meat hook experience. Having done the difficult work of Steps 1-7, we are at a point where the worst of our addictive selves have been stripped away and a new being has emerged. We have done significant healing, and we are ready to leave the underworld and ascend. We are safe to mix with humans and do the work of repairing the relationships we damaged during our active addiction. While making amends can be quite painful sometimes, it can also be a gorgeous experience where we have the wonderful opportunity to see new life come into relationships that we once thought dead. Steps 10-12 are the maintenance steps, designed to make sure that with careful attention we won’t have to revisit this particular underworld ever again.
Many people say after doing their 5th step that they finally feel like they are truly a member of the Twelve Step fellowship. The process of exposing yourself in front of your Gods and a trusted person opens a gate. When you walk through it, you change significantly. The 5th step, which almost always involves another member of the fellowship who has done the step before, is a significant moment in every recovering person’s story. I look forward to writing more about that in a future blog post, but for now I will just note its importance as a gate in the initiatory experience.
I believe that looking at the Twelve Steps as an initiatory process, and understanding the ways in which it can be framed partially as an Underworld descent, can help us to poeticize and ritualize the experience in ways that are helpful for Pagans. There is so much room for exciting magic and ritual here. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.
I’ve started a group on Facebook for Clean & Sober Pagans. It is a “closed” group, which means that people can see who the members are but cannot see anything that is posted in the group. If you want to join, just click this here.
“We now honor our connection with the divine, as we understand it, and we accept the process of change.” Step Three of The Spiral Steps
“Made a decision to align our Will and our lives to that of True Will and place the care of our lives into the hands of the God/dess as we understand Him, Her, It, or Them.” Step Three of The Twelve Steps for Pagans by Khoury
"Made a decision to connect the powers within and without and see them as One.” Step Three by Anodea Judith
As I mentioned in a previous post, independence is a hallmark of Pagans and Witches. We like to do things our own way, and we relish marching to the beat of our own drum. It is not easy, then, to confront this third step that tells us that surrendering our will is the way forward. For many of us, the fear that leaps into our mind is perfectly explained within the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:
“Yes, respecting alcohol, I guess I have to be dependent upon A.A., but in all other matters I must still maintain my independence. Nothing is going to turn me into a nonentity. If I keep and turning my life and my will over to the care of Something or Somebody else, what will become of me? I’ll look like the hole in the doughnut.” P 36, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
I’m so fascinated by this fear of being a nonentity because I think it speaks very deeply to the fear that the reality of interconnection and interdependence bring up in modern man and woman. To admit that we are deeply connected, on a spiritual and physical level, is to dismantle the idea of individuality itself. We’ve all heard about how we are made of stardust, and this can feel inspiring. But it also reminds us that we are not our own; that the very physical material of our bodies is borrowed and communal. it was once one thing, and it one will day be another. Many Pagans have worked hard to dismantle ontological dualism and Cartesianism (the philosophy perfected by René Descartes that the world is divided into three different areas of existence-that inhabited by physical matter, that inhabited by the mind, and that inhabited by God) and have placed enormous emphasis upon the sacredness of our bodies. Thus there is not one set of laws governing our material self and our spiritual self; the one is embodied in the other (they are the same). Thus, our whole selves dip from a common well, and if these energies can be said to belong to us in any way it can only be for a brief wink of the cosmic span of time. I breathe, but at what point can my breath be said to be my own? In those moments when it is held like a cup by the material of my lungs which is made from organic material that I am only borrowing? It feeds me and sustains me, but it is not mine. I can only dance with it.
Making a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understand him, is to embrace this idea that even things as seemingly all-consuming and steady as a desire or a want is washed away in the sea of all-beings. Surrendering our will is shorthand for behaving as if things are more deeply connected than ontological dualism asserts and that there might then be a higher purpose for us than what our desires dictate. This can be very frightening. This fear that our autonomy and sovereignty will be lost is described later in the 12 and 12 as “a fear of losing something we already possessed or failing to get something we demanded.” When we work the third step, we turn directly into that fear. What would happen if we didn’t get what we wanted? What would happen if we lost something we thought we needed? If we turn into these fears having surrendered to the idea that we exist less uniquely than we thought, the fear fizzles and, according to the Big Book, “we have been rocketed into a fourth dimension of existence of which we had not even dreamed.”
The discussion until now has gone along spiritual terms, but what does this look like in practical application? A chief indicator of our existential fretting in active addiction is the amount of energy and time we would devote towards trying to manage people, events and outcomes so that we would get what we want or avoid losing what we had. We also tried to manage our drinking or drugging like this, trying to imbibe the correct amount, or in the correct order, so that we could get to just the right place that would provide relief from pain but also avoidance of harsh consequences. Trying to manage is a deeply existential activity. it is built on the idea that we need certain things to happen in order to be happy or comfortable, and that being happy or comfortable is the chief aim of our lives. It supposes that we, in our infinite wisdom, are the best determinants of what is best for us, and that we should not cease to struggle until we make those things a reality.
When we work Step Three, we walk away from this idea. We cease our love affair with managing people, places, things, drugs, drinking and other behaviors. This might mean that Susan stops engaging in being a people pleaser all the time because she realizes that trying to make everyone like her is really just an effort to manage her own reality. Joey might cease trying to make Mom and Dad get along and accept that they hate each other. Rebecca might work Step Three by letting go of the idea that she has to be the one to play Devil’s Advocate in her office. For me, it looked like ceasing my efforts to play the victim so that others would feel sorry for me and take it easy on me.
From those examples above you might have gotten the secret about Step Three. This is a Step about responding in a different way we don’t get what we want or lose something we had. In this way, this is an alchemical step. We are turning dross into gold. Turning dross, or base metals, into gold was just one of the many aspirations of the alchemists. This is the alchemy we perform when we work Step 3. We take the dross of life- all the things and people that didn't turn out or act the way we wanted them to- and we turn our experience of them into gold by showing up in that situation in a fresh new way. What fresh new ways are possible? It could be an attitude of acceptance. It might be a focus on service (i.e. how can I make myself of use to others in this situation?). Gratitude is a very powerful attitude to show up with in the face of something disappointing or difficult. These are just some examples; there are many options. “Okay,” some of you might be saying at this point. “That makes sense, but why does ‘God’ with a capital G have to be involved with this? Now that I have a new understanding about my unmanageability and powerlessness from Step 1, why can’t I just begin to behave in a different way?” I welcome you to try, but I offer this wisdom from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
“If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago. But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how much we tried. We could wish to be moral, we could wish to be philosophically comforted, in fact, we could wish these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn't there. Our human resources, as marshaled by the will, were not sufficient; they failed utterly. Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves.” P 44, Alcoholics Anonymous
What does that mean, exactly? Logistically, it means we plug ourselves in so the current can flow from this power to ourselves. That can look very different to different people within different traditions. Some people might begin spending more time contemplating in nature. Others may take up a serious meditation practice, or engage in regular devotional work. You could begin to engage in trance work, or ecstatic dance, or simply praying. Probably we need to find a way to incorporate some service work into our lives, and take up a gratitude practice. These simple actions can have the effect of radically shifting our perspectives so that we can do what was discussed above-showing up in fresh new ways to challenging situations.
The Third Step, when understood and activated in your life, actually puts you into a very “Pagan” mindset. This is a world in which you are not the center of the Universe. Your needs and wants are not more or less important than those of your neighbor. You are neither queen or victim. You are part of a vast web, and you hold a responsibility to other beings in that web. You are willing to work with what shows up and flow with the energies present, not demanding that reality reshape itself to your preferences. As you encounter difficult people and situations, you hold a sense that there is a sacredness and a usefulness immanent in all things, and that possibility lurks behind every corner. I see this as in keeping with the life-affirming, interconnected conception of divine immanence that many people identifying as Pagan share. I believe this is a very holy and sacred way to live our lives, and in ceasing to struggle with the world I have actually had the freedom to be more myself as I actually am: an expression of energies in a unique configuration for a moment in time.
As always I look forward to what you think. What do you think about the Third Step? How do you work with it in your tradition? In what ways does the traditional wording create tension for you, and how do you resolve that-or not?
She’s looking at herself in the bathroom mirror of a motel on Van Buren and 24th. Her friend is staying next door. It’s early and the sun creeps between the ripped curtains and missing blinds. A man is in the bed, another on the sofa. She hid a bottle last night and pulls it out from the pack she carried through various parts of town. Her hands are dry. Her mouth cracks. There is no water and the fan makes annoying sounds. Her head has hurt for two weeks. A few pills line her jean pocket. Lovers speak in muffled sighs and sentences she cannot fully make out. She can no longer look into her eyes, only at her hair, an eyebrow, the curve of her shoulder. The wrinkles are showing up in every inch of skin, a world map of miles she never intended to travel. There’s never enough time, yet all she has is time. Limitless time. Time like a knife killing minutes. She’s stopped wondering what happened. Now all she must do is move. There’s a word from the bed. She knows it’s time to go again.
As a former social worker and addictive type, I struggle to find meaning in certain aspects of modern recovery, psychology and spiritual movements that center around making the “derelict” a “normal person”. There exist two creatures of spiritual and psychological wellness: one roams the land of modernity – gracing those who have enough with more, or comforting small annoyances in a culture of anxiety and complexity, while attempting to normalize the “ill”. The other paints its face the color of trees and canyons and listens closely to the dying breath of a beggar. It doesn’t ask for formality or intellectual discourse on rites and passages; it lives in the breath of the world. It is the accepting, dreaming and innate aspect of being alive – the intrinsic will to live and belong.
I do not intend to malign the mental health system or the pursuit of knowledge relating to modern medicine, psychiatric care or spirituality. I believe meaning is a necessary component of a healthy life. Private ritual gives us pause and unites us with our deeper selves, our intentions and fantasies that ultimately form our actions. Social cues also serve as a foundation of community, sometimes strengthening the bond between the unique talent and offerings of the individual in relation to the function of communal life. By ritual, I use the definition of “an act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time…”. We are creatures of habit and our small habits create a sense of well being and stasis, control over an otherwise uncontrollable world. Ritual assumes a sense of place, if not a home. Ritual assumes an identity in culture, in family and in the landscape.
This construct of ritual therefore seems to be unachievable in the lives of the homeless and mentally ill. What ritual can take root when you are hungry, cold and without shelter? How do you find the time for a grander scheme of meaning and contemplative reverence when survival is your sole pursuit?
Unlike organized religion, which has historically abused its privilege to catechize the desperate, downtrodden and oppressed, personal spiritual expression and ritual have remained relatively absent when treating the individual in times of trauma and crisis.
Matters of belief in one’s meaning and whether or not there is an elemental wisdom that guides us to our cosmic purpose have reverted to mere luxury among the comfortable. Buddhism, Taoism and Goddess cultures have become trends of the anxious mainstream seeking ways to redeem themselves of a life devoid of cultural identity. Clearly, and especially within the past few decades, there has been a consistent dialog on matters of spirit and science and how to reconcile logic and reason with wonder and hope. Hope remains elusive these days despite most people in the United States agreeing with some kind of God concept or Christian identity, with hundreds of thousands spent on retreats, books, private sessions and workshops. It’s as though we are walking the line between what faith would have us do versus what modern seductions drive us to achieve – and ignoring the clash of these two identities: a moral person vs. a successful person. I believe this quandary has produced a hybridization of religions and spiritual paths, a sort of a la carte spirituality where we can carry on with our drive for consumption, possession and self-interests while assuming a spirituality not our own (Native American, indigenous, Eastern, old European, etc.) in order to feel redeemed of our otherwise comfortable lives. I believe the same disparity exists in modern psychology and social work and why classism continues to guide spirituality, choice and self-expression.
Among those churches and denominations that have been most successful in addressing social issues relating to homelessness and poverty, the United Church of Christ has been instrumental in viewing the homeless or underserved individual in a holistic light, encouraging not only access to food and shelter but also deepening the discussion of self-understanding, a meaningful life, a purpose and dignity. Certain branches of Catholicism – such as the Dominican Order – are deeply rooted in the social justice movement of the 1960’s and onward, and have been active in feeding the body and spirit, while taking an iconoclastic frontline approach to global human rights efforts. Still, the basis of the outreach remains illuminating the teachings of their Christ.
Unfortunately, spirituality as expressed in nature or self hasn’t found its way to our urban streets with quite the same vigor. Its “live and let live” approach and lack of evangelical dominion has resulted in Christianity dominating social work in the streets, in homeless shelters, in food banks and across the map of recovery services. Ironically, paganism, earth worship and “witch”craft were once the very domain of the commoner, those who lived among the branches and streams, where intuition, magic and kitchen table healing were pinnacle to the health of the community. Almost every culture – at some point throughout history – relied upon its local healers who used plant medicine, rudimentary psychology, symbolism and guidance to alleviate the despair felt in times of migration, extreme inequity, warfare and disease. And, the practice of symbolic spirituality continues among more remote communities and indigenous cultures. (Symbolic being my own definition – reality is the perception of the perceiver.)
“Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. ― May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude
Perhaps spirituality and belief come to us when we are either anxious in our comforts or lost in our perils? Questions arise when we are on that tipping point where the wolf hours stalk us and ravage our existence. Spirituality wants us in our complete wake – when we know no other place to turn, when logic has failed us and there is no apology or explanation that appeases the people who love or once loved us. Yet, it comes when there is still a flicker of hope left.
Rituals for the mentally ill, for the lost, require reaching into the most profound of places, the layers that have less to do with social acceptance and more to do with the hymns of transcendence. Working with ritual and those on the verge of external and internal atrophy start with the simple spells of food and shelter. This work requires an almost existential approach – a bird will come to anyone’s fountain and not ask questions. In other words, a spirituality of hopelessness must be borne of non-judgment or constraints of normality. It must arise from seeing only the struggle of another life and honoring that which is holy in everything.
This is no work for the weak or opinionated. This is no work for those with an agenda from state, church or otherwise. I believe this healing work often comes from those who have seen sorrow yet have no desire to change the course of anyone’s path. It is not only acceptance but also empowerment. It allows the individual to shape his or her thoughts, dreams and interpretations.
When working with those who are facing crises related to basic needs, there are ways we can encourage a meaningful life by honoring the experiences of the survivor. Here are some examples of experience-honoring approaches to working with survivors of classism, racism and other forms of oppression, as well as those who have experienced the disease of addiction, homelessness and trauma.
1. Place is a significant factor to developing identity
Rather than trying to move the individual away from his or her background, this is an opportunity to affirm tradition and roots. Individuals who have lived in traumatic situations or who perhaps had to participate in illegal activities in order to survive often have their shame or self-aversion reinforced by social workers, healers and institutions. Ritual can be any form of art or personal expression that affirms the strength that was relied upon – finding the “good” or positive memories amongst the realness and truth. An example of forming ritual encouraging place includes a small altar devoted to origin, landscape, family and one’s past that can be created in place that is seen every day. This should include those experiences that are often viewed as “dark” or taboo, with the eventual goal being the removal of shame and secrets, while reinforcing pathways to identity and worth.
2. Self-expression and body safety are paramount to healing
Healing and recovery models rely upon language and definitions that often ostracize those who come from cultures, families of origin and classes that are not represented in modern medicine and mental health. Trying to adapt to foreign concepts of wellness, language and the body can further entrench distrust, shame and fear. Rituals for expression can be used, in this sense, to provide room for the individual to communicate his or her needs and beliefs around self-care, boundaries and communication preferences. Rituals that are helpful include morning or evening yoga nidra (a form of meditative yoga often used to treat PTSD), nature exploration or empowering forms of martial arts or meditation.
3. Placing focus on gifts rather than on barriers
Much of the language used to describe those who seek social services is rife with negative language and descriptors, focusing on the problems to overcome rather than on the unique talents and history of each person being served. Because, as behavioral health and medical practitioners, we rely heavily upon diagnosis and treatment, we look for qualifying sets of characteristics that apply and broadly lump people into assigned illnesses and their corresponding treatments. In the quest to stabilize, the needs of the person are often negated in favor of a streamlined system of care. Rituals that can be used are daily affirmations based on skills, wisdom and gifts. Unfortunately, most vocational training assumes a classist approach to limited job opportunities – favoring the most rudimentary of jobs in backrooms, kitchens and warehouses. A ritual of empowerment could include practice as ritual – in other words, encouraging the individual to explore their potential through daily practice or research in areas of interest but perhaps not skill.
4. Encouraging social justice and peer communities
Peer to peer recovery models are gaining in popularity, recognizing that the person who has been in similar situations oftentimes has more insight and empathy and can provide a living example of transcendence or transformation of experience. However, most peer to peer or navigator roles follow traditional recovery and mental health models that encourage social order and limited aspirations. Ritual, in this sense, can be found in healing circles and fellowships rather than in group therapy or traditional 12 step groups. Through weekly sharing, peers can recognize their role in what they’ve survived as well as ways to organize around social, environmental, mental health and other forms of activism.
5. Offering real choice in therapies and treatments
Lastly, many institutions and nonprofits rely upon federal and state funding which dictates the type, duration and method of treatment. Rarely, are there opportunities for alternative or traditional forms of healing. Examples of this include herbalism, sessions with traditional healers, wilderness therapy, body or energy work, storytelling, naturopathy and so forth. Through the use of ritualized self-care and a control over treatment options, the individual can be allowed to explore tradition and belief systems that resonate most with him or her, and therefore use the tools most influential to the person’s concepts of healing and wellness.
We all live with everyday rituals that support our sense of self, our identity, our feelings of safety and belonging. Rituals can be high art or mundane. Sacred or profane. The experience and value of ritual need to be as important to those who have faced extreme poverty, violence or homelessness. While not everyone faces dirty motel rooms, urban streets or places society shuns, they are valid experiences, mirroring a place of confusion that is shared – at one time or another – by all. If we are to move beyond despotic, prescribed social work, recovery and belief, the inherent truth of the individual needs to be the guide not the follower.
The First Step leaves us in a terrible position. We are utterly beyond human assistance. Our lives are unmanageable no matter what we do. We will never be able to control our drinking. Certainly this is a stance of hopelessness.
Many alcoholics or addicts will say “I worked the First Step long before I came into the program.” This means that they spent many years well aware of the hopelessness of their situations while still in active addiction. This was my experience as well. I was in terrible pain, and knew my lifestyle was unbearable and untenable, but I could not envision a way to live that did not include alcohol and drugs to numb the anxiety and panic that swelled up to swallow me whenever I was sober. I had to stop, but how?
The second step is the “how” in “how am I possibly going to do this?” The key was that I wasn’t going to do it-I was going to rely on a power greater than myself to do it. I had been trying to envision my escape from addiction as propelled by my own human will and power. Things changed only after a divine source became involved.
This is what happened to me; I was young, a college student. I had spent a summer hitting bottom, a summer I had intended to spend getting myself dried up and cleaned up before heading back to school. It was now late August and all my well intentioned plans had failed to come to fruition, forgotten in one lost night after another. I was confronted, not unfairly, by my mother with the fact that I was going back to school in just a week and that I hadn’t done any of the things I said I was going to do. Angrily, I screamed at her and then rushed out of the house, intending to drive to my apartment to get drunk, to forget my feelings of shame and panic in the ease that pours from the bottle.
But the Great Spirit did not let me. Something about that time was different. Was it just that I was finally desperate enough? Halfway down the street, I stopped my car and wailed like a lost child. “Help me help me help me help me,” I sobbed. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.”
The Great Spirit put my hands on the wheel, and instead of driving me back to my apartment, it had me drive to a place that had always been very sacred to me. There, I lay in the cool sand of a dark beach and, gazing at the stars above me, I cast a circle around me for the first time in a long time. I asked Hir to help me not drink. I lay there and cried and was soothed by the crashing waves. That night I fell asleep without drinking.
The next day, the anxiety and shame remained, but I was able, suddenly, to keep from a drink. And the next day, and the next. And so on. Suddenly something that had been impossible for me was possible. I could stare into oblivion, at the wasteland that had become my life, and not drink. Nights yawned before me and I felt full of fear but still, I did not drink. I did not understand how this was possible, but it was. And I have not felt the need to take another drink for over ten years.
Before this had happened, I had stood on the shore of sickness, desperate to get to the other side to reclaim something approaching a human life. But in-between had been this raging river of doubt and fear. I had been delivered across that river, with no effort upon my part other than simple asking. It wasn’t that everything was perfect on the other side. But things were possible there that had not been possible before. Had I been insane before? It’s a loaded word, to be sure. We’ve all heard the maxim that to do the same thing over and over again expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Well, we had certainly drank and drank again, expecting that this time, finally, we would be able to drink without consequence. Each time, we had been shown to be wrong, yet we tried again. Or perhaps we knew our drinking was hopeless, but we were so in its grips that we kept at it. That was its own kind of insanity.
As I did in my last post, I’d like to take a look at what some of the versions of the 12 Steps that have been rewritten for a pagan perspective have to say about the second step.
We came to believe that there was hope for healing, health and balance. The Spiral Steps
Came to believe we could realign the power within and the power without such that each served to enhance the other. Anodea Judith, A Pagan Approach to the 12 Step programs
We can see that these rewritten steps have greatly changed the entire concept of the step. In the original second step is an acceptance of the fact that while we, with our own human power, cannot solve this problem, a power greater than ourselves can and will do so. What was once an acknowledgement of the need to look to sacred or divine places for our solution has turned into the idea that somehow the very same human powers that were not enough before will now start being enough. For me, this does not provide the necessary transformative agent that is required for the propulsion into amended behaviors. *
As in step one, I understand the desire to excise some of the concepts inherent in the Second Step from these rewritten versions. First and foremost, there is the issue of “A Power Greater than Myself.” Many Witches do not hold with an image of a sentient God or Goddess figure that is positioned higher or more superior, and they might resent the idea that suddenly they are being asked to come to believe in this figure that they are supposed to go beg for sanity from. That can seem like way too much like old ideologies that many of us left behind in the past. I share this concern. This is why I understand the word “greater” not to mean higher or superior, but larger. I do not personally resonate with the concept of deity, but I experience the Universe as having a Divine nature, of which I am but a small part, and alignment with the raw power of this Divine Nature enables me to pursue right living (or, obtain sanity). One of my sponsees sees her Higher Power as her best self, a sort of Platonic ideal that encourages and inspires her. Or maybe you aren’t convinced that your idea of deity or divinity is necessarily so concerned with humanity and our needs. What about land spirits, or ancestors, archetypes, thought forms? If you are a classic hard polytheist most likely you already believe in a deity that has the power to restore sanity, and you will know the proper devotions and practices along those lines. Maybe your concept of a higher power can as simple as that sacred feeling you get when you sit in Nature and the sense of reverence it inspires in you. If all else fails, just go with what old-timers like to snark; “There is a higher power, and it isn’t YOU.”
The authors of the Twelve Steps believed that “the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, to, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you. ” Do I expect that the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous would have understood Witchcraft or Pagan spirituality? No. But I steadfastly believe that the steps as they were originally written were done so in a way that can accommodate all manner of belief or spiritual practices.
There is much room for creativity, and we have every freedom to construct the “"power greater than ourselves” that makes sense to us. We should remember that when we share our experiences in the rooms to share generally so that as many people as possible can relate. If someone else does choose to share more specifically, and uses language that makes us feel marginalized, we have to ask “Is this really about me?” We need to examine our own attachment to labels and definitions and if we can be open to constructing a new understanding of these words.
Why do I think it is important that we all follow the same steps as they were originally written? I believe that one of the most harmful character defects found in almost every alcoholic or addict is the belief that their individuality is so pronounced that they are separated from the human condition to a degree that the tools other alcoholics and addicts use to recover cannot possibly work for them. This is such a grand excuse for not going to meetings, not finding a sponsor, and not working any steps at all. We call this being “terminally unique”, as in, you are so different from everyone else that it might just kill you. No doubt, Witches have a unique spirituality. But is it so pronounced that what works for millions of others will not work for them? Is it so acute that the generous language of the Twelve Steps cannot accommodate these beliefs and practices? My inclination is to doubt it.
* This is just my opinion. Your mileage may vary. Share below!
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Witches thus adopt a way of viewing the world that understands humans as being fundamentally powerful beings. So what then, of helplessness? Of powerlessness? What then, of submission and surrender in the face of defeat? What then, of the addict or alcoholic Witch who awakens one morning, hangover piercing their brain, withdrawals fogging their thoughts, who finally understands that life cannot go on this way any longer but who has utterly failed in every attempt to exercise autonomy over themselves and address their addiction problem ? Whether they go to rehab or enroll in an intensive out-patient program, or look for recovery support on their own, they will likely at some point be directed towards Twelve Step recovery where they will learn that the program revolves around the following concepts; Powerlessness, Surrender, Submission, Dependence, Humility, Willingness, Open-mindedness and Honesty.
Without a doubt there are going to be spiritual concepts and practices in recovery that are going to feel uncomfortable and wrong to many Witches. For a witch, who understands empowerment as a sort of sacred act, the act of admitting powerlessness might feel like turning her back on the very concept of an immanent Divine that dwells within. The concept of “Thy will, not mine, be done” might feel like a defeated return to that cringing deference that they cast off as adults. Does this mean that Twelve Step recovery is fundamentally incompatible with Witchcraft traditions? I think the many happily recovering Witches in the rooms today would heartily say “No!” But what is required is open-mindedness and a willingness to look at these concepts passed the initial reaction. Twelve Step recovery is like an animated kids movie; there is the initial level, that is simple and easy on the surface and is exactly what it says. Then, there is the more sophisticated second level. The one that makes the parents in the audience laugh and glance at each other over their kids heads, gaping at the slightly risqué reference. This is where we have to go to find a place where Witches in recovery can enter the literature, the program, and be comfortable.
In these blog posts, I am going to go through the Twelve Steps and come at them from both the perspective of a Witch and the perspective of a recovering person. I will ask, how do these two perspectives complement each other? How do these two perspectives complicate each other? Where are the conflicts? Where are the solutions? We will also take a look at the issue of Christian language in meetings and in the literature, and other topics as suggested and considered.
I hope you will join me on this examination. Mine is but one perspective and I would love to hear yours. I am no more qualified to talk on this topic than any other Witch in recovery. Do you think Twelve Step recovery is compatible with Witchcraft spiritualties? Can someone recover without fellowship? What else would you like me to write about? What about the wider issue of Pagans in recovery? Please just think of me as your meeting secretary! Did anyone remember to make the bad coffee this week?