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Archive for November, 2009

Guilt and Spiritual Practice

Perhaps it’s a product of our results-oriented society that people have a tendency to feel guilty about their spiritual practice. Or maybe it’s left over, for some of us, from our childhood religions which admonished us to live in a certain way for fear of not achieving salvation. I mean, wow, there’s an excuse for some self-loathing! Not only am I not living up to my spiritual commitments, but now I’m damned for it! What excuse could I possibly have for being *so* lame?

The thing is, in the Craft, that’s not so much of an issue. I’m sure there are differing views on this, but, as I understand it, there is no judgment day at the end of life or at the end of the world.* There’s just another bend on the cycle. And whether the other side of that bend finds me still being “me” or not is of little consequence.

So, then, what is spiritual practice for? Specifically in the Witch’s worldview, but also more generally – from wherever you are standing. Many people would agree that the point is to be “a better person,” whatever we mean by that. My understanding is that the point is to help us become more authentic, more centered, more able, more effective. What good is my practice if it doesn’t help to align me with my True Will, my divine nature – that part of me which knows why I am here and what I want to accomplish – so that I can do what I am here to do in the most effective way possible. Whether you believe that what you are here to do is an assignment from God or just the whim of your particular bag of flesh, why would you want to be anything less than successful at it?

Witchcraft is about relationship. Who am I? Who are the Gods? Who makes up my communities in location, family, friends, peer groups, religion, ancestry, ecology, economy, spirit, and so on? I don’t know about you, but I do my work to better understand myself and where I fit into the many (many) groups to which I belong, by choice or by circumstance. It’s about making allies, being cooperative, and coming together in ways that produce mutual benefit instead of mutual harm.

And at this, you might say I’ve failed again and again. You might say we all have. I know that I’ve picked stupid fights with people I love. I’ve sought revenge over something petty. I’ve neglected to call people. I’ve offered lame excuses to get out of obligations. And again and again, I’ve let my practice slide, allowed myself to tilt off balance, let the internal grime build up until I couldn’t see through my clogged-up filters.

What to do when we suddenly wake up and say, “Oh, man. How’d I let myself get here?”

It’s so easy to slip into guilt. Because we have this “goal” and it’s off in the distance and if we don’t stick to the path we’ll never “get there.” Because we know we’ll never be “perfect” but gods damn it, I could have been better! Bring on the guilt! Let’s beat ourselves up for not trying hard enough! Let’s look at all of our tools lying on the floor in disarray, collecting dust, and instead of picking them up and cleaning them off and putting them back to use, we can lament over all of the work we haven’t done yet!

Yes! Guilt! Woo hoo! It’s so much FUN! But let’s be honest… guilt is just one more way to put things off. It’s one more way for us to disconnect. It’s one more excuse to not even try.

It’s likely that if you feel guilty about “failing” at your spiritual practice you are also baiting yourself with some unrealistic goal that simply doesn’t exist. Even if you are working towards attaining a specific skill, you haven’t failed because you can always start again. Are you imposing a phantom timeline on your work? There’s probably no quarterly earnings report that you have to worry about here. Is it really appropriate to be so upset that you made a choice to better your life and then didn’t get very far? Why not make the choice again, instead. Why not evaluate where you are today and take the next step from there. Sometimes this means starting over, and even that is nothing to feel ashamed of. There’s a reason we call it “practice.”

Even if you really can’t start again, for whatever reason, you are still presented with the opportunity to live in full authenticity, in dynamic balance, and in right relationship to the people, spirits, animals, and things around you. Because the big secret is: your goal is right here. There is no journey that leads anywhere but deeper into yourself. Your aim isn’t to be a “better person” someday. It’s to define what being a better person is for you, and to be that now. It’s a challenge to remember that and to be present enough in each moment to make the effort. But the challenge is not insurmountable. Each breath can be your reminder.

Breathe in:    I am here.
Breathe out:    I change the world.
Breathe in:    I take what I need.
Breathe out:    I give it back.
Breathe in:    I am alive.
Breathe out:    I am connected.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t take our practice seriously, or that we should let ourselves off the hook by saying “well, I can just start again tomorrow.” No. Instead, we can let each moment house our practice. We can let each breath bring us back to presence. And with each exhalation, we can let go of any guilt for having not tried harder, for having not done our best, for having slipped into complacency.

* There are, of course, myths that speak of a judgment at the end of life. One I am definitely familiar with, as a devotee of Thoth. Perhaps I will revisit this topic someday. For now, I’ll just say that my suspicion is that these myths – like all myths – can be interpreted at face value, or they can be keys to a deeper understanding of mystery.

Next time: Letting Practice Do You

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