There is often a great deal of resistance in Pagan, Polytheist and (in general) “independent religious or spiritual tradition” discourse to the idea that religion or spirituality are disciplines which require discipline to perform. The word “discipline” carries with it an inherent meaning of submission to instruction and process. In the context of describing a field or topic (e.g. “divination by runes is a discipline”) it refers to branch of specialized knowledge and skills which were obtained generally through the submission to a disciplined approach of learning and training. This is why fields of medicine are referred to as “disciplines”, and why academic avenues of study which draw from different platforms or lenses of examination and intent are referred to as “interdisciplinary studies”. A “field of discipline”, or merely “a discipline” for short, is an area of pursuit covering a breadth of knowledge and performance-based skill which are honed through the submission to rigorous instruction, regimented training, and ongoing maintenance evaluations (such as ongoing medical training, continuing professional training, peer-review standards, and so forth). The field and pursuit of religion (and religious community, for that matter,) is similar, although certainly not necessarily limited to academic avenues of structuring, and achievement within these realms must be measured in terms of submission to disciplined standards.
Too often our communities, especially in today’s rapid-speed broadband blogcentric network-driven-yet-still-way-disconnected post-internet age, “discipline” is seen as a thing that we don’t need to bother with. Those who speak about discipline (or, gasp, standards of any kind) are often branded as exclusive tyrants, fascists, or fundamentalists, regardless of what these terms actually mean and how poorly they fit the profiles of those to whom they are applied. As a result to of the “anti-discipline” approach that seems so prevalent, even those in our communities who did submit to training and have a place of achievement and placement or platform earned by rigorous efforts and skills built and honed, often have trouble recognizing that their own skills must be constantly exercised and re-honed and that education is an ongoing thing. Those at the “top” are even more strongly required to continue to develop their discipline through rigorous daily practice and critically driven pursuits in order to remain useful at the level that they have reached.
An example I will give is a hypothetical that I have seen play out a dozen times. Some guy — we’ll call him Kelley di Dude — has an experience with something during his daily [meditation, journey, trance, mushroom trip, whiskey binge, office-chair-spinning-competition], which he is very [excited, or terrified, or aroused, or indifferent] about, so much so that he shows up at his local [Neo-Pagan, Heathen, Hellenic Reconstructionist, Celtic Revival, Omntheistic Pleromist Salon] to chat it up with others and gleefully tell them about his experiences. He sits down and at the earliest opportunity begins to speak in excited tones about his experience. He tells them all that [insert very popular or obscure deity here] contacted him for the first time, and that They were giving him [knowledge, downloads, messages, sexual advice, real estate tips] and as a result of this he was pretty sure he needed to [start a fight with the group he’s sharing with right now, buy into questionable real estate propositions, become a lion tamer] because the gods told him to. A valid question at this point in the telling should be, but rarely is, “How do you know that it was [deity] who was contacting you?”
Very few people ever seem concerned with asking this (unless they are just being trolls seeking to put-down the person speaking, or use that person to leverage a greater statement against Polytheists-who-talk-to-gods), despite it being an incredibly important point. If Kelley di Dude is new to communion with spirits — or maybe can’t tell the difference between external deities and internal archetypes — it may not occur to him to question an experience of this sort. Yet, it is the act of questioning the experience — not necessarily the entity or spirit itself! — which allows one to have the beginnings of a deepened relationship with said being, as well as with the path and avenue of discipline in the first place. So if this discernment process is so important, why are so few people willing to ask the question of Kelley (ignoring the trolls who will do so only from a place of scorn or shaming flames) when he (somewhat naively, neophitishly) recounts his experiences and conclusions? My observation is that the reasons vary, but ultimately come down to one form or another of personal, social, or devotional insecurity.
In part, many people seem concerned because they might not have practiced their own preaching on discernment when it comes to their own relationships with deities in the dark of their own private experiences, or perhaps haven’t dotted all of their own i’s and crossed their t’s sufficiently to feel inclined to bring up the questions of discernment with somebody else. Others still might not bring it up because they, like Kelley, don’t know that they should. Now, here’s an important bit: I am not saying that it is “every person’s job” to police the experiences of every other person, but rather that every individual has a collective responsibility to uphold some semblance of structure and standard… and that this can be modeled by beginning conversations, which for many can be just as well deployed with regard to their own experiences as with that of a friend or colleague or collective circle-jerk coconspirator. The degradation of standards and of critical assessment of our experiences — be they profound or terrifying deity experiences, or mundane misunderstandings between theological combatants, or something altogether tragic such as an abuse of the physical, sexual, emotional or spiritual nature on a child, a newcomer, or otherwise somebody who for any number of possible reasons was situationally unable to properly defend themselves against such predation — are amongst the most dire of topics for our collective consideration and adamant clarification, as a set of communities supposedly interested in proliferating progress (and in many cases, peace) within our worlds.
We are sitting in a period of raw, freshly triggered communal distress and shock and distortion and in many corners still heated debate around various scandals (which I have been attentive to with my various communities in private and group correspondence, ministerial counseling and group organizational consultation this season, but have otherwise chosen not to blog about directly and publicly) and we are in many ways still collectively reeling from some very uncool and painful and sensitive revelations. Some of these are revelations about the identities of some we called elders, while others are revelations about the tragic pasts of some we have called brothers or sisters who were caught up in a fucked up machine of pain and cover-up. Others still are around the sputtered revelation of “holy shit, why do these conversations even need to take place in the first place, what the ever-living-fuck is wrong with some people?”. I am not, before such gets tossed around, comparing a lack of discernment around one’s personal gnosis with spirits (or archetypes or gods!) to abuse scandals, nor saying that a lack of proper discernment in one’s spiritual practices or experiences is in any way “the same” as abuse on another person, or the covering-up and defense of such atrocities. Rather, what I am saying is this:
Disciplined discernment is a part of a structure (gasp! the s-word!) of critical thinking, critical engagement, and critical experience that can lend itself to a whole metric fuckton of applications, both spiritual (Kelley di Dude’s deity experience, above!) or emotional (the response of loyalty one might feel toward a community member that stands accused of terrible crime) or objectively physical (a present or recent abuse that has taken place, or may well be about to take place, against one’s person or community). What I am saying is that we’ve all presumably “bought into” this set of community collectives, spiritual and religious identities and groupings, be they “Big Umbrella” or little entrenchment in a muddy battle field wrought with fires and littered with spattered standards hanging heavy and wet in the evening’s winded swirl. What I mean by “bought in” is become invested.
Having spiritual or communal “investment” — having “bought in” to a certain structure or paradigm, in the sense that one might “buy in” to a shared enterprise, property, or business opportunity — helps when navigating with others, as well as with one’s own self. In the case of gnosis discernment (di Dude, above!) it can be helpful in choosing words and tones and approaches or even maintaining clear perspectives while dealing with those who may be exactly where you are at, or not quite where you are at, or ahead of where you are at (in a given area, pursuit, or enterprise). Similarly this can help in solitary practice in remembering — perspective, again! — that nobody in our world exists “on an island” (proverbial, here, meaning “with complete independence”) and is instead in a complex set of and constant continuum of relationships with other people, spirits, entities, place, communities, experiences and deities. If indeed the “Big Umbrella” structure that so many are so quick to step in and close-ranks in defense of is a sort of “co-op” communal property, it stands to reason that people have “bought into” that structure and therefore own a stake in it (investment!), a stake that can be at a minimum measured by one’s interest in seeing it properly maintained. Discipline and discernment? Those are kind of the currency of minding one’s investments, of any kind. Not everyone has the same experiences or skill-sets, however, which is why not everyone is the same person: this is why we need to have clergy leadership, as well as laity leadership, as well as instructors, as well as counselors, as well as sacrificers and construction crews, and those that can tend fires and those that can organize events. It is inappropriate for any one person to either be left holding all of these positions or to self-elect themselves to the job of doing “all the things” (although many of us wear more hats than is ideal, just to keep things moving until support crews show up to share the load).
Not all of these concepts are popular in all circles and communities, as experiences and backgrounds and personal philosophies differ. A prime example in this is around giving respect to clergy and elders, which for many is a very “hot topic” quickly rejected and cast aside as being “not what we’re about” in some communities. It is challenging for some people without a martial arts background, for example, to understand why it is important (and naturally *right*) to give respect and deference to a person who has achieved a certain level of rank or proficiency. The same applies to things like the military command structures. Position isn’t about “ambiguous posturing and illusions of status”, but about earned place afforded by virtue of achievement, dedication, discipline and demonstrable ability. It is a tired thing to continue seeing people with little or no “spiritual investment” failing to offer respect to the process, or to those who are further into that process, and then bemoaning folks who aren’t conditioned the same way, and lobbing around terms like “fundamentalist”. Structures, standards, investments, disciplines, respect — these are all part and parcel of the whole package of this collective thing we’re supposedly trying to build, or maintain, or drive forward into the future, for the sake of our gods, for our children, for our communities and for the good of shared specialized knowledge and ritual craft and sacredly experienced and received gnosis.
You may be asking yourself, “But Thracian, what does Polytheist or Pagan leadership or positions of eldership have to do with deity discernment or response to and prevention of abuse in our religious communities?” It may seem like I’ve strayed a little bit here, but I don’t feel that I have. Throughout these three areas I have been discussing the importance of discipline and discernment, of critical thinking skills, and indeed of structure itself (which so many seem so diametrically opposed to the mere notion of). The longer that we as a set of communities, lineages, traditions and religious movements back away from the actual lived and authentic implementation of so many of the “keywords” and phrases we throw around in “pop-pagan-and-polytheist-culture”, such as discernment, the closer we come to failing in every single thing that we have ever set out to do, which in at least some of our cases are jobs handed to us by the gods Themselves, and by the ancestors who speak through us in this and the Other worlds we walk. Too often we fall short of action and stand only on a platform of pretense and the perception of progress; we say the words, but do we do them?
Where is our discernment, when we close ranks to defend the accused instead of stepping forward to shelter, defend, and empower the abused? Where is our shadow work when we sit in the shadows of our keyboards, made brave in our ignorance by the distance of the internet, a thing meant to bring us so close together? A little bit of critical thinking could go a long way, I think. There was a time where those with knowledge were honored and given a place to share it from, and the respect to make such worth their while. There was a time where those with vision were embraced and safeguarded by their societies, who recognized that sometimes — often — the gods and the holy powers and the spirits of our beloved mighty dead speak to us through those with fire in their eyes or thunder in their voices, whereas today social reward is given to those who will choose silence over standing or stating that which is critically found and felt to be right. We glorify impulsivity and reaction, and we shame and shun the process of discerned management of all this that we have invested so much of ourselves into.
In the field and pursuit of religion, achievement must be measured in terms of submission to disciplined standards, else we have little hope at all of discerning shadow from light, doorway from obstructing wall, keyhole from bullet-wound or reasoned platform from bigoted masturbatory mayhem strewn out for no reason beyond distracting attention from the utter lack of examined self that owns a stake of invested interest in the underbelly of every fucking community.