It seems fitting to turn my thoughts toward Aphrodite during the month of February when Valentine’s Day is on the minds of those who wish to express their love and those who would rather not speak of that day, as my eldest daughter puts it. Truthfully, I don’t have a very close relationship with Aphrodite, but She has always helped me toward excellence in sometimes very intimate ways.


The every-other-week nature of The Zen Pagan sometimes makes for delays between an event that inspires a column and the column itself. The Big Game will be a fading memory by the time you read this, but I started writing this installment of TZP on Superbowl Sunday — one of those strange holidays of American secular religion. And while it’s not very meaningful to me (which is why I’m sitting in an anarchist coffeehouse/bookstore writing this instead of glued to a TV), I am reminded of another Superbowl Sunday, twenty-three years ago, a day which for me involved no football but did involve an LSD-catalyzed mystical experience.

I’m ending a longstanding policy of silence regarding my drug use by writing about this, but I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has passed and that I’m safe if it becomes known that I used an “illegal” (skipping over the questionable validity of various drug laws) psychedelic drug over two decades ago. As for more recent use…I shall maintain my silence.

As cracks start to open in the ban on psychedelic research, and with the use of psychedelics remaining a popular clandestine activity at festivals (including both Pagan festivals and Burns), it seems to me a good idea to spend a little time considering the idea that psychedelics can be a useful catalyst (not a sole cause) for producing a genuine and worthwhile mystical experience.

A 3D Model of LSD via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
A 3D Model of LSD
via Wikimedia Commons
public domain.

I don’t want to be cavalier here — drug use has risks. This should be obvious regarding hard drugs but let me state it explicitly: heroin is a bad lifestyle choice, crack is whack, and meth is a fast-track to looking like a zombie extra for The Walking Dead. And when you buy something on the black market you’re taking a risk. This was starkly illustrated to me a few years ago when I found myself kneeling in a puddle of oily water and urine, rendering first aid to a young man having a seizure from some impure club drug.

But even pharmacologically safe substances can pose dangers to our personal development if we misunderstand their nature.

I would like to suggest a metaphor: psychedelic drugs are power tools for changing consciousness. They are like chainsaws. They can cut you up, and so by no means should children play with them. Adults should learn the appropriate safety rules, and should consider whether a less powerful and dangerous tool would be better.

But sometimes, a chainsaw is just the thing to get the job done.

Those cautionary notes in place…that Sunday two decades and more ago, head full of Albert Hofmann’s problem child, was a defining moment in my life. It was not my first psychedelic experience; that had come at a Grateful Dead show (yes, really, sometimes life is that cliche) the year before. And that had been pretty significant — when I got home found my mind overflowing with ideas, and grabbed a notebook to start writing. It was a connection with the act of writing that I’d never experienced before. Looking back, I found a note in the margin of that notebook: “Be able to say, ‘Well, it was an acid trip at a Dead show that got me writing again!'” Which is true, maybe. I’m not sure if my book, this blog, or my pages and pages of poetry would all ever have happened if I had Just Said No.

But fast-forward almost a year to that Superbowl Sunday 1992. That day I spent in the company of my friends M. and N., and in addition to those magical pieces of paper we indulged in a bit of old-fashioned cannabis, making many jokes about a “Super Bowl“, yuk yuk. I got restless at some point and went for a walk through the neighborhood, getting a kick out of throwing snowballs at a “Drug Free School Zone” sign (both left- and right-handed, experiencing a dialog between my cerebral hemispheres in the process). When I returned home M. had the idea to walk over to the nearby shopping mall — he needed a new pair of shoes, if I recall correctly, and somehow it became a mission, a grand quest, to go in search of a pair.

I don’t think we found the shoes. And along the way we encountered something that would have been odd enough in the DC suburbs even without the drugs: two men out falconing. A large bird of prey suddenly alighted on a tree in front of me, and we looked over the crest of the hill to see two men with big leather gloves, one with another falcon (or hawk, maybe, I’m not an ornithologist) perched on his hand, apparently out after the rabbits who lived in the scrub brush on the hillside. A reminder that life is both as beautiful as the hawk’s flight and as terrible as the screaming death of the rabbit caught and rended.

All these years later (plus, you know, the drugs) I’m not sure if it was before or after the falcons, or before or after the sporting goods store. And I don’t recall who it was who dove onto the snow first. But one of us had the urge to make a snow angel, and the other two joined in. And so the three of us ended up on our back in a vacant field, looking up at a sky which the grey heavy snow-clouds had left, partly blue and partly puffy white.

And that’s when he appeared to me.

I suppose we’ve all seen things in the clouds. “That one looks like a sheep.” “That one looks like face.” And “I dropped acid and saw God” is a cliche. But cliches grow because they have a root in the truth.

And so it was that I saw in the heavens a dragon (Chinese style), made of clouds and walking among the clouds, striding toward me, looking right at me with complete benevolence and acceptance. He looked down on me and breathed, the breath of life, a rainbow hexagonal lifeline that reconnected me to the sky.

There were no words but I knew, the way one knows things in dreams, that this was a “he”, the Sky Father if you will; and if I were to verbalize his message to me it would be something like “You belong here. I accept and love you fully.” That was the insight, the opening, the crack in the wall, the current that started flowing, the circuit that was activated.

And it was something I desperately needed to hear/feel, as a young man who was the grown-up version of a bullied child.

Here’s how much my life changed as a result of that blessing: at the time I was a grad student in Computer Science, and was the stereotypical geek. I embodied an old joke: “How can you tell the extroverted computer scientist? He looks at *your* shoes when he’s talking to you.” I had essentially not dated since my freshman year of undergrad, and except for one drunken fumbling attempt on a hotel room floor (please don’t ask) was a virgin.

But a few weeks after this experience I was emboldened enough by my sense of actually belonging in the universe to dance with a lady at a club, which led to a date, which led to my first real relationship, with regular sex and sleepovers and all. Yes, it only lasted for a few months, but it was the definite passing of a threshold.

It is important to point out that I had been doing a lot of self-cultivation before this. A psychedelic can only act as a catalyst, speeding up a reaction that would have happened anyway given enough time and energy. If you are utterly lost and directionless and take a psychedelic, you will be utterly lost and directionless in a faster and more energetic manner. You have to build the circuit, carve the channel, before you add the energy.

My vision might have lasted ten seconds, or maybe it was five minutes…I don’t know. Again it is cliche to say that this happened outside of time, but it is true. I heard M. or N. say something and knew I had to return to time, sat up and looked around at the snow and my friends, and it was all the same as it had been a few minutes before.

Except I now had a secret lodged deep in my heart, about my relationship with the cosmos.

So, psychedelic drugs? There are hazards, but all in all, I believe their careful use can be beneficial.

“The Zen Pagan” appears every other Friday. You can keep up by subscribing via RSS or e-mail.

I’ll be presenting at PantheaCon, February 13-16 at the San Jose Doubletree Hotel — if you’re there, look for the purple top hat (I think it’ll fit in the suitcase) and say hello. You could buy my book! And have me sign it! This is my first West Coast pagan event, and my first hotel-style instead of camp-style gathering. I’m hoping I can remember not to go wandering about skyclad.

If you do Facebook, you might choose to join a group on “Zen Paganism” I’ve set up there. And don’t forget to “like” Patheos Pagan over there, too.

[Editor’s Note:  This is a guest post here on the Agora by a contributor on our A Sense of Place blog, James Lindenschmidt.  We hope you enjoy this article here and hope that you’ll visit his regular home there as well.]

I don’t regard Valentine’s Day as a particularly Pagan holiday, although some of the ideas and practices around Valentine’s Day have their roots in Paganism. Regarding its namesake, relatively little is known about Saint Valentine. According to the prevailing narrative, he was a 3rd century Roman saint (or possibly an amalgam of two people), martyred on February 14. In the 3rd century, the political structure of Rome was well-established. As “country-dwellers,” the Pagans were largely those who had already been conquered, those who existed outside the protection, but under the dominion, of Rome, with some existing on the fringes and beyond the borders of the Roman Empire.

Valentine’s Day was first established in 496 by Pope Gelasius I, more than a decade after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. This was a time of enormous political and social transition for the Pagans as well as the Romans. This same Pope had crushed the celebration of Lupercalia, a public, 2-day fertility festival, given that all Pagan rites had been outlawed. The Pagans resisted, struggling for their right to celebrate their traditional holidays and culture. Over time, Gelasius’ aim was accomplished, and Valentine’s Day replaced Lupercalia in public consciousness.

After a few centuries, it was embraced by the nobility in their culture of courtly love. Chaucer popularized it in in his works. Exchanging handmade gifts, often paper tokens or cards, became a common practice. Soon after Chaucer, great changes were coming to Europe.

By Shakespeare’s time, the romanticization of Valentine’s Day continued. People of the court could enjoy their candies, cards, and other trinkets, often under the lingering smell of smoke from the latest Pagan who had been burned alive in the square.

The Witch Hunts were a time of extraordinary transition and struggle across Europe, as feudalism gave way to capitalism. The brutality that accompanied this time period, when so many of our present cultural ideals were being established, remains the paradox of our age:

“In this ‘century of geniuses’ — Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Shakespeare, Pascal, Descartes — a century that saw the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, and the development of philosophical and scientific rationalism, witchcraft became one of the favorite subjects of debate for the European intellectual elites. Judges, lawyers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, theologians all became preoccupied with the ‘problem,’ wrote pamphlets and demonologies, agreed that this was the most nefarious crime, and called for its punishment” (Federici 168).

The Pagan world was shifting radically again, as the Pagans were…

“forced from lands and social relations that provided subsistence without having to sell either one’s products or oneself, ie, they suffered Enclosure. Without these moments of force, money would have remained a marginal aspect of human history. These moments were mostly of brutal violence, sometimes quick (with bombs, cannon, musket, or whip) sometimes slower (with famine, deepening penury, plague), which led to the terrorized flight form the land, from the burnt-out village, from the street full of starving or plague-ridden bodies, to slave ships, to reservations, to factories, to plantations. This flight… drove ‘everyone’ into the monetary system.” (Caffentzis, 238).

By the 19th century, capitalism was well established, and like nearly all traditions, Valentine’s Day was exploited where factory-made cards became the norm. What were ostensibly heartfelt tokens of love and romance became commodities, a process that continues to this day. Nearly $20 billion is spent annually on flowers in the US alone, “60% of which are imported from Columbia. 84% of the flowers produced in Colombia are exported to the United States, but the conditions for those who harvest and prepare the flowers are atrocious” (Van Horn). The chocolate and cacao industry — another hallmark (heh heh) of Valentine’s Day — has similar difficulties.

Cupid in a Tree, by Jean-Jacque-François le Barbier. Public domain
Cupid in a Tree, by Jean-Jacque-François le Barbier. Public domain

The prevailing images around Valentine’s Day are also interesting to look at. The first image that comes to mine is Cupid, commonly depicted as a fat, winged child with a bow, arrows, and a quiver. The idea is that he hits you with one of his arrows, and it causes you to fall in love. This is an infantized conception of love, in the sense that it suggests one can become a victim of love, it hunts you, and it is something that happens to you as opposed to something you co-create in relationship. The pre-pubescent imagery also desexualizes romantic love, further obscuring the traditions of Lupercalia.

Given this history of Valentine’s Day, I am a bit suspicious about it and don’t really participate in it. Of course, admitting so in public carries with it a stigma, the reaction is that I am not romantic or that I don’t love my wife or people in my community. On the contrary. I think that conflating a prescripted, commodified expression of romance with love is reductionist at the very least, and delusional at worst. Romantic bliss is not the only possible ontological state of a relationship, it is but one of many necessary for health and longevity of the relationship. Love is both a noun (something you feel) and a verb (something you do). It is co-created in relationship, and does not require dead trees, dead flowers, or chocolate.

Works Cited

  • Caffentzis, George, In Letters of Blood and Fire (San Francisco: PM Press, 2014).
  • Federici, Silvia, Caliban and the Witch (New York: Autonomedia, 2004).
  • Van Horn, Rebecca, “Stand in Solidarity: International Day of the Flower Worker”. Online. Retrieved 12 February, 2015.

James LindenschmidtJames Lindenschmidt has embraced the word “pagan” for more than twenty years, though he is less and less comfortable with that term as time goes by. He feeds his spirit by bonding with his ecosystem, and learning to work with it in better and better relationship. He views fermentation as a devotional practice, with mead being the highest alchemical expression of an ecosystem.

He is originally from the midwest, but has been living in Northern New England for nearly two decades, having settled in a small place in the woods with his family. He is also a music lover, a recording engineer, and an acoustics consultant.

You can read his other writing here on the Pagan channel at A Sense of Place.

I have been reflecting a lot on what it means to love. I confess that as Valentine’s day approaches, I find myself leaning into the place where I think of myself as a failure. Especially when I look back at my failed attempts at romance, I wonder:  what sadist came up with a holiday celebrating romance? There is a certain inclination to wallow in self pity, eat chocolate, and listen to the “all alone on a Sunday morning” anthems of love lost. I know I’ve been there; right now is one of those times actually. And, as I watch the end of yet another failed attempt of romance, I wonder why we have this expectation of what it means to love, be loved, and love another?

Image via Erick DuPree
Image via Erick DuPree

The universe has an odd way of inviting me to question deeper. As I sat down to write today, the tea bag in my cup of tea offered this wisdom, Let your heart speak to other’s hearts. And I thought to myself, what might it look like if Valentine’s Day were re-framed? What if, instead of romantic love and the pursuit of it, we instead focused our hearts on loving the self as an entry point to knowing the heart? What does your heart say to you, and how does it lead the way?

Giving yourself permission to let the heart lead the way doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it is so easy–one of the easiest invitations–and it starts with saying these magic words called a metta sutra.

May I be filled with loving kindness.
May I be well.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be happy.

Even if at first you don’t know if you believe them, these words invite the feeling of love that already exists in your life. These words are the dedication of energies to love yourself, heal your pain, and welcome the possibility to live more fully. It’s a simple yet profound practice that will cultivate your heart to speak to other hearts. Loving kindness is the practice of inviting the heart, and it is essential to our health and happiness. Self-love is having the courage to make a deliberate decision to make a special place for yourself in your own heart … just as you are–right this second–flaws, fears, and all.

To cultivate the metta, start with oneself. The Buddha said, “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

To begin the metta practice, dig deeply to find your deepest wishes. Take your time to find your own words in your own language to express two or three or four of these deep wishes. From that intention of the heart, recite:

May I be filled with loving kindness.
May I be well.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be happy.

Connect to the meaning, repeat the words slowly, and invite a gentle rhythm with your breath. Breath to heart, heart to mind, and mind to body, for at least five to ten minutes. Just start where you are.

Thich Nhat Han says, “Loving oneself is the foundation for loving another person.”  Knowing love, and being open to love that is boundless, is hard. In a culture that seeks defined beginnings and concrete endings, being in relationship takes work. Really all we can do is manifest the love that is within, heart to heart. That is where I find the practice, even when I cry in my pillow. When we dedicate the merit of love, first to ourselves, we set in motion the current of a heart that leads the way. The capacity for love is the greatness thing that makes human-kind unique. We have the potential to be virtuous and to live that virtue of love.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, I come into the practice of self-love, in the presence all all that is divine.

With that in mind, I invite you to lean into Valentine’s Day with a little more compassion for the self. Loving-kindness is a simple practice and one that can transform the way you experience the heart. As your heart’s capacity for it grows, you’ll find a great fullness of being, discover a warm kinship with all beings, and reveal the radiant heart within. When the heart leads the way, all is love, and love attracts more love.

What happens when you try this meditation? Please share in the comments.

Alone In Her Presence is published on alternate Wednesdays! Subscribe via RSS or e-mail.

WooWoo Scale 2.0

When I came into Paganism. I went to a guided meditation class to meet my totem animal. I was a bit miffed because I found a snowshoe rabbit approaching me — especially when I compared myself to the guy who met the green and gold dragon with iridescent scales that glimmered in the sunlight. He hopped upon the dragon and found a magical sword suddenly in his hand. As the dragon’s wings beat to tornadic proportions, they rose into the sky to survey the lands and were mystically transported to another place where the dragon told him he would one day be king.

After my initial reaction of “Bullsh$t,” I began to think about some of the things I don’t normally tell people that would be considered just as farfetched as what this guy was spouting off. Maybe this encounter with the dragon really did happen… but what about his account made it seem doubtful?

I thought about how I raised my son, how I navigated the waters between children’s fantasy and supernatural reality. And that led to me creating the WooWoo Scale.

Then I lost the WooWoo Scale and, when asked to find it for a friend, was unable to come up with the paper. So here I am probably ten years later, revamping, updating, and creating WooWoo Scale 2.0.

What is WooWoo?

Just recently I came across a website called Here’s its definition:

WooWoo (Adj.) – 1. Term used to describe beliefs outside support of empirical or mainstream scientific evidence. 2. Term used to describe practices that have strong popular opposition, questionable validity, or accusations of being fallacious. Example: “Patty went to one of her WooWoo meetings last night.” (Patty was at a UFO channeling meeting). Other spellings: “Woo Woo,” “woowoo,” “woo woo.” See also the SkepticWiki entry entry for another good definition.

The author goes on to say that “WooWoo is used lovingly, not as an insult but more in fun.” The website presents a level system to rate WooWoo on a scale of 0 to 10, 0 being the Sceptic and 10 being tinfoil hats to stop mind reading. They even have a WooWoo quiz that will give you the percentage of WooWoo you currently carry. (Mine is 79%.) gives good reference points for woowoo, so let me boil down the basics here.

    • Level 0 – Absolute Skeptic
    • Level 1 – Belief in God
    • Level 2 – Ghosts, Reincarnation, Fortune Telling, ESP
    • Level 3 – Belief in Angels, Spontaneous Healing, Miracles
    • Level 4 – Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot, Bermuda Triangle
    • Level 5 – UFOs, Communication with Angels
    • Level 6 – Atlantis, Crystal with Healing Properties
    • Level 7 – Dragons,FairiesNature Spirits
    • Level 8 – Scientology, Channeling, Goblins, Ogres, Vampires, Mummies, Ghouls
    • Level 9 – UFO Abduction, Astral Projection, Super Powers
    • Level 10 – Tin foil protection, UFO Pregnancy, Stickers on your cell phone to cut radiation

Who has the WooWoo?

The author of the WooWoo Scale previously mentioned takes a broad view of WooWoo by stating that a belief in God is a step on the scale. I concede that to some without a belief in a God, that belief might be enough to land you on the WooWoo Scale.

What the author doesn’t say is that at Level 10 you have definitely left WooWoo and entered into the area of “needs mental health assistance.” Schizophrenia and other types of mental illness that are notable for auditory and visual hallucinations or defined by extreme paranoia will fit into the Level 10 WooWoo Scale category.

That being said, most Wiccans, Pagans and “other” spiritual practitioners are going to have more than a 50% WooWoo outcome. Some may even have as high as a 100% outcome. So how do you tell you have crossed the border and need medication or intensive therapy? How do you raise relatively grounded children who will still have wonder, mystery, and magic in life?

How did you get your WooWoo?

This caused me to consider my own upbringing. I remember having a dream about an airplane that was broken and running into the living room to tell my biological parents. They turned down the television and I stood in front describing the plane, the part that was broken and how it should be fixed, as only a five-year-old could do. The next day, I was shipped off to my grandmother’s.

“You know that plane you dreamed about?” my grandmother asked, and I nodded.

“Well that plane was real, and it was broken. It fell out of the sky and lots of people died.”

“Why didn’t mom and dad just call and tell them what I saw? I saw the piece that was broken and it could have been fixed and nobody would have died,” I replied with complete confident ignorance.

“Time is a funny thing,” she replied. “Sometimes dream time and real time aren’t the same thing. You dreamed about the plane as it was crashing so there was no time.

“Belief is funny too,” she continued. “There are things that you can see, do, and know that make you special. Your mom, she used to be like you, but it scared her too bad. So she blocked it all out. Are you scared?”

“Sad,” I reply. “Why would I dream it if nothing could be done?”

“I don’t know,” she says rubbing my back, “but I know that what you know will scare people, so you have to learn not talk to people about it. I have always used these three rules: 1. The gift isn’t you, it is God in you. 2. Never take money for what God lets you know. 3. What you can do is not a game, don’t use it to show off – Keep it secret. Keep it sacred.”

This would mark the beginning of conversations with my grandmother about WooWoo. Of course at the time I wasn’t aware this is what we were talking about. Although people have argued with me about the rules she gave, they have kept me sane and grounded. They have also given me the basis for WooWoo Scale 2.0.

Time is a funny thing

After some more time in community and some more thought on the experience of WooWoo, I decided that if I had had such a profound vision as the guy who met the dragon, I would be struck silent. The amount of time you know the people you share your WooWoo with is very important to whether or not you will be believed. This guy had a great experience that he should not have shared with a group of strangers. He should have analyzed it and meditated upon it and harbored it in his heart as a jealously guarded, profound moment in his life, not blurted it out to every Tom, Dick, and Jane that was sitting in class.

WooWoo, when it is true, should change you – profoundly.

It should be something you are shy about sharing. It should be something that you recognize is partially crazy and something you know without external validation is not. It should take time to assimilate and it should have the possibility of many meanings. You should sit around and worry about what the WooWoo really means and how it will change your life now that you have experienced it.

WooWoo, when it is true, should take significant amounts of time to assimilate.

Sacredly scared

Scared and sacred share the same letters. The higher on the scale the WooWoo event, the more it should scare you, and the more sacred to you it should become.

WooWoo should also scare you to share. You should be completely aware that if you are quickly sharing your WooWoo, you are looking for external validation instead of trying to assimilate the event into your life. If your WooWoo is sacred, then a time will come when you will run across someone else who has had some similar situation or with whom you know you can share your WooWoo without ridicule. Then and only then do you share.

My life’s work came from a Level 9 astral projection event. I still don’t know what it means. I am glad these events don’t happen all the time or I would have a really rough time staying on top of it all. And no, I am not going to tell you about it. Maybe when I have figured it all out, I’ll write a book about it… but the likelihood that I will say the book was inspired by a Level 9 event is very, very, very small.

You validate the WooWoo, the WooWoo does not validate you

I would not use my WooWoo to validate the things I write in a book or say in a presentation. In fact, when I use WooWoo to try to validate myself, it has the opposite effect. I am invalidated, because “keeping it secret keeps it sacred.”

If you have experienced a great WooWoo event on Level 9 or Level 10, then you should NOT expose that WooWoo to general consumption. Much like a woman that is ageless, you want to allow the people who hear you speak or read your words to wonder where your secret lies. On very rare occasions you may want to share your WooWoo experience, but ultimately, the change the WooWoo brings into your life is the testament to the power of the WooWoo.

WooWoo of great significance is validated by the universal truths that it exposes. It is often riddle-like, a cluster of images and messages that must be thoroughly explored and deconstructed. WooWoo should expose something of great significance to the recipient, and if the message is real and true, then it will expose some universal truth that can be evenly applied to all of humanity.

A little bit of woowoo can happen every day, maybe

WooWoo can happen on a small scale on a regular basis. Pagans believe in the little miracles and signs that accompany belief in angels, spirits, and gods. That belief, however, should be tempered by a skeptical mind. Is the candle flickering a message? Or is the candle catching the air from the vent directly above it? Is the bunny your totem, or should you put up a better fence around your vegetable garden? Are the crows portending the death of someone in your house? Or are they migrating this time of year?

I have employed a few rules of thumb that might assist you:

  1. Unique & Unusual: When dealing with the animal kingdom, unique and unusual sightings tend to have a significance. When I saw a cow killer wasp walking down my front walk, I knew there was a magical message in its approach. I had live in Georgia all my life and never seen one before, even though research led me to understand that they are native to Georgia. It was walking as bold as you please up the middle of my front walk when I went to get the mail and I was barefoot. Its hairy red and black stripes warned even the bravest of souls that it had a stinger that would hurt you…. hence the name cow killer – a stinger that can bring a cow to die of pain. My life was in turmoil at the time from two different distinct sides. I studied all about cow killers and what they meant and applied those lessons to my life. I took action based on the emergence of the cow killer. Another day, I opened my red door to a preying mantis doing the love dance on my front step. It was in love with my door. I could never apply the preying mantis to anything that was happening in my life, but I cherish the memory of that preying mantis to this day. It may have had a significance I missed. However, it taught me that unique and unusual is important, but to be WooWoo, it must be applicable to my life at that moment.
  2. Frequency: When dealing with the animal kingdom, take into account frequency of sightings. Crows are plentiful in Georgia. If I see one, I don’t much take notice unless I see them at the same time every day in the same place doing the same thing. Then I have to apply that encounter to what is happening in my life and ask if what the crows were doing was significantly unique and unusual to warrant having any special meaning.
  3. Candles: The only question when dealing with candles is: where is the wind coming from? It is hard to believe that some message is being sent through a candle if noticeable air currents are impacting it.
  4. Pendulums: I don’t use or like pendulums because I feel like our subconscious mind can play too easily upon the outcomes of them. There are others who swear by them. They use pendulums regularly and hone the skill. They always ground and center before using the pendulum and they have a ritual of sorts that always accompanies the use of the pendulum.
  5. Divinatory Tools: Like the pendulum, tarot, runes, ogham and any other type of divinatory tool can be influenced by the subconscious mind or interpreted according to what someone wants the tool to say, not what the tool actually says. To combat this, going over the tool in deliberate way–for example, studying the runes, ogham or tarot deck one card at a time in a specific order–helps to solidify the meaning of the tools and better allows the reader to understand when they come up in a reading.
  6. Magic: When you do magic, you should not speak of it again until it has come to its completion. If you did a spell to get a job, you shouldn’t mention that spell until you get a job. Live life like the change you invoked has already happened. You live in a world already changed by the magic that was done. Keep it secret to keep it sacred.

Woowoo Scale 2.0

The scale below is a good visual for rating and dealing with your WooWoo.

WooWoo Scale


A represents a low WooWoo happening that you choose to share quickly after meeting someone. “I am Wiccan” or “Pagan” might be in the A area.

B represents the high WooWoo that should take years to assimilate and requires a much better understanding of those you would share it with.

C represents moderate WooWoo that happens to you frequently, such as a feeling in the pit of your stomach that leads you to go a different way to work or being visited by an animal.

D represents a person who has high WooWoo level happenings all the time. If this is the case, then it is possible that mental evaluation should be undertaken.

E represents a frequent magical thing that happens but it isn’t unusual: for example, getting shocked and determining that was karmic retribution, or a candle that flickers when energy is applied to it.

F represents a very unique and unusual thing happening often. Again, if this is happening to you, consider mental evaluation.

G represents the normal, not very unique or unusual thing happening often in someone’s life.

H represents the unusual or unique thing happening infrequently in someone’s life, which would be considered the norm.

XX represents safe areas.

Birthing Hereditary Witchcraft is published occasionally on Agora. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

In my most recent post on PaganSquare, I asked the question: who does your spiritual practice benefit? That question isn’t the one that changed my life, but as I began thinking about it, it caused me to reflect on the question that did. It’s a question I ask myself every day at the start of my day, but also at various other moments. The question is, “Who can I help today?”

I didn’t always ask that question. It never really occurred to me that I should care about who I could help. Like many other people, I just focused on living my life, dealing with my problems, and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Spiritually, I was focused on my experiments or solving my problems. There was no real connection with other people or what was going on in their lives. There were occasions where a friend would be in a spot of trouble and I’d help out, but my desiring to connect or help pretty much focused on myself or the people I knew.

When I started going to networking events, I quickly learned that if you come in with an attitude of “When am I going to get business,” it will be obvious to other people and they will avoid you. Now everyone is at a networking event because they do hope they’ll get business, but there are a couple of key points to remember. First, you’re there to develop relationships with other people, get to know each other, and as a result, establish trust. You’re also there to connect with the people they know that might need your services. In other words, you aren’t there to get business from them directly, but rather, you are there to get business from people they know. And most importantly, you want to go to a networking group with an attitude of giving. When you come in with a desire to give to other people, it shows that you are thinking outside of your immediate needs and are focused on the success and well-being of everyone in your group.

I didn’t know any of this when I first attended networking groups, but I gradually figured it out, and I started looking at my interactions a bit differently. However, I still wasn’t asking myself “Who can I help?” every day. I came to ask that question because of a shift in my spiritual practices. I started looking at why I practiced magic and what it was for, and the answers I came to were mostly unsatisfactory. But as I began engaging in meditation practices and used them to explore my interactions with the world, I looked at how much my inner turmoil showed up in my life. Eventually I got it sorted out, and I looked at my place in my communities and asked myself what I was really doing to contribute to those communities. That’s when I started asking who I could help.

I ask that question every day. I ask it with an understanding that helping someone doesn’t always involve me helping them directly. Sometimes I give indirect help, such as when I refer a person to someone who can solve their problems. Sometimes it is direct. And sometimes “help” is just being part of a mission, driven by people that want to make change happen in the world. That question drives my interactions with other people and the communities I’m part of. Asking myself who I can help forces me to look at my interactions and examine how I’m showing up and being of service. The reward for asking that question and following through is intrinsic. It is the fulfillment from being of service to others feeling that drives me to continue asking the question.

What drives you every day? What question do you ask yourself as you get ready to go into your day and into the interactions you’ll have? How do you show up in your communities? What motivates you to reach out and connect with other people?

Socially Responsible Magic is published on alternate Wednesdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

Although I write fiction and nonfiction, my first literary love, even as a very young child, was poetry. For that reason, I’ve always been drawn to Brigid, and as my Imbolc celebrations continue, I wanted to share a poem that I’ve written this year as an offering to the goddess of smith-craft and poetry. May the dark season be lifting for you, and may we step with joy into the light.


Keeper of the perpetual fire
that burns at the hearth center of my soul
Brigid, I honor you with every creative breath.

Lady of the lamb, great maiden mother,
you fill me with words
to weave in your honor.

There is never a day when you are far
for your fire burns within me–
a perpetual tribute to your gifts.

Welcome the sun, welcome the little ones
born on your visions –flesh and ink and bone.
May you guard and keep us all.

-Imbolc 2015


photo courtesy of shutterstock:

The Busy Witch is published on alternate Tuesdays. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

One of the joys of social media is that it doesn’t always follow the short attention span of the 24/7 news cycle. If you follow someone who shares an article that’s a few months old, suddenly embers of an old debate can flare back up and shed a little light, heat, or both.

I keep a weather eye on Zen teacher Brad Warner‘s blog and Facebook page, because beside liking his writings I got to scope him out in person at Starwood a few years ago and determine that he’s not a cabbage but an actual human being. I don’t always agree with him, but I’m interested in what he has to say.

He recently linked to an months-old entry at the blog of Ron Crouch, an insight/Vipassana meditation teacher, regarding the blow-up between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris on Real Time with Bill Maher. Brad’s post ignited a long Facebook thread, and put me in mind of a few points about religion and identity that I think need to be addressed (and which also make for a good followup to our last episode).

But since Harris is a controversy magnet I want to say a few things about him first. Sam Harris is a smart guy, and we’re both atheists (after our own fashions) with an interest in mystical experiences and mediation and the martial arts. I think he and I could have some interesting discussions over a few drinks.

But in some ways Harris is deeply confused about how the world works, and that makes some of his political opinions dangerous. One of these points of confusion is the social nature of religion, and this is a confusion that Crouch seems to share — though not to the point of crossing the line into Islamophobia as Harris unfortunately does. I don’t get the impression that Crouch would claim that “We are at war with Islam” as Harris has.[Harris]

Anyway. Enough skirting of ad hominem. I’d like to address the claim that Crouch, in defense of Harris, makes about religion and identity. According to Crouch, all ideologies are “toxic beyond imagining”, in that they “hack” the normal and healthy formation of psychological identity:

One does not just think that it is true that Jesus is the son of the creator of the universe, one becomes a “Christian.” One does not merely think that Mohamed met with an angel, one becomes a “Muslim.” One does not just believe that the proletariate will eventually seize the means of production, one becomes a “Communist.” And in my own little corner of the world, one does not just believe that the Buddha discovered an exit from being born over and over again, had psychic powers or was omniscient, one becomes a “Buddhist.”

It is not overstating the case to say that if we used the same critical faculties to evaluate such claims that we use to choose car insurance, all superstitious and utopian ideologies would disappear in a day. But because these kinds of ideas disrupt the process of identity-formation, taking it over, we refrain from saying, or even thinking, the obvious to avoid offending others or frightening ourselves.[Crouch]

When I look at my own experience, though, this is not what I find.

Now you may be surprised to learn this, but I wasn’t born a Zen Pagan Taoist Atheist Discordian Transcendentalist. I was born into a Catholic household and raised Catholic, in the manner of my Polish and Irish immigrant great- and great-great-grandparents. (Though with a New Age twist — Dad had Edgar Cayce books on the shelf, and Mom believed she lived a past life in Atlantis. Have I mentioned I grew up in the 1970s?)

That Catholicism was a big part of my identity up until my teens or so. But I did not become a Catholic by intellectually considering and then accepting the doctrines of the Church. It was more the case that I learned to identify myself as a Catholic — not as a result of deliberate teaching and intellectual instruction, but in the same way that I learned to speak English and to root for the Orioles, through a process of imitation.

Memorial Stadium. Image via Wikimedia Commons (cropped). Public domain.
As a Catholic boy growing up in Baltimore in a time when the O’s were contenders, I don’t know if Memorial Stadium or the local church was more of a holy spot.

As I grew up I was taught that Catholics accepted a certain set of doctrines, and only later and vaguely was I taught some details of those doctrines. For a while I accepted those I found congenial and neglected those I did not. It was only when I was asked to make a formal acceptance of the whole shebang that, taking the prospect of Confirmation more seriously than my peers, I found it necessary to walk away, out to a space where I could start to think for myself.

In other words, the casual chain was exactly backwards from the story that Crouch is telling. I did not accept the proposition that the poor old carpenter-rabbi known to history as Jesus was the son of the creator of the universe and thus become a “Christian”; rather I became, through an almost osmotic process, a Christian and thus learned to nod at the accompanying doctrine. (For a few years, at least.)

“But you were just a child!” one may object. Well, yes, but that is how most people absorb their religion. Carl Sagan wrote that “Many people have inherited their religion like their eye color,”[Sagan p 339] and that really is an on-target analogy. But even when religion is not inherited that way, when there is a conversion, the cultural aspects of a religion usually come first, the dogma later.

Consider the famous conversion of Sammy Davis Jr. to Judaism.

He did not sit down with Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions and read up on the doctrines of various faiths and choose Judaism as a set of intellectual propositions. Instead he met a couple of rabbis who impressed him with their attitude toward life and their cultural customs. “Jews have become strong over their thousands of years of oppression and I wanted to become part of that strength….I wanted to become a Jew because the customs of Judaism held a cleanliness that no other philosophy on this earth can offer.”[Davis]

We might argue that it ought not be that way. Certainly some of us, through whatever combination of circumstance, have found ourselves distanced from our native cultures and without another one ready to grab on to; we were sufficiently alienated to step back and consider the matter intellectually. Those of us who have been though that process might consider it a superior way to form a relationship with religious practice, that everyone ought to do that.

But it is a dangerous confusion to base our politics on ought instead of is.

When people like Harris make arguments of the form

  1. People form their religious affiliation as a matter of selecting intellectual propositions.
  2. These people are Muslim (or Christian or Jewish or Hindu or…).
  3. Therefore we know that they wholeheartedly accept this set of propositions that define Islam (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism…).

they have mistaken how most people experience religion, right at step 1, confusing how people ought to form their religious affiliation and personal identities with how they in fact do so.

And when people call for armed conflict on the basis of such mistaken reasoning, it’s nothing less than tragic.

Crouch suggests that if we applied critical thinking to religion the same way we apply it to consumer choices, supernaturalism would quickly fall. But I think he is mistaken in believing that critical thinking plays much of a role in our consumer choices! If it did, surely all the money and energy put into the black magic of advertising would be a waste. Critically thinking profit-oriented companies would stop useless appeals to emotion and culture in favor of intellectual arguments about the suitability of their products for various applications.

But the “rational consumer” is a mostly a myth found in economic theories divorced from reality. People don’t shop like that.

And they don’t worship like that either — the “rational adherent” is a character in sociological theories that aren’t reality based.


Crouch, Ron. “In Defense of Sam Harris, Sacred Cow Butcher”. Aloha Dharma. 28 Oct 2014.

Davis, Sammy, Jr. “Why I Became A Jew.” Ebony Feb 1960.

Harris, Sam. “Mired in a religious war.” Washington Times 1 Dec 2004.

Sagan, Carl. Sagan, Carl. Broca’s Brain. New York: Ballantine Books, 1980.

“The Zen Pagan” appears every other Friday. You can keep up by subscribing via RSS or e-mail.

I’ll be presenting at PantheaCon, February 13-16 at the San Jose Doubletree Hotel — if you’re there, say hello.

If you do Facebook, you might choose to join a group on “Zen Paganism” I’ve set up there. And don’t forget to “like” Patheos Pagan over there, too.

Green Tara. Image courtesy of the author.My love affair with Green Tara and her soothing OM TARA TUTTARE TURE SOHA chant is endless. How many of us come into the presence of divinity unintentionally? I didn’t actively seek this relationship with her, but she wouldn’t let me go. What started as a month-long practice in healing others has become a partnership that is dynamic in the exchange. She brings me into a state of communion as a conduit.

I find that I whisper words about her endlessly, I seek her images online, and I chant her mantra almost nightly. I chant to ease the ‘dis’-ease in people’s lives that leads to suffering. Chanting is alchemy, the great transmuter of the challenges faced by many. When chanting to Green Tara, I invite the compassion that all faces of humanity need. Though Tara is portrayed a goddess, manifested in female form, she is essentially formless and genderless. She is the embodiment of the all, the Shakti that flows in, among, and around us. She is immanent and transcendent. Enlightened beings are said to be beyond the limiting conditions of ordinary human consciousness. In her Green Tara form, she symbolizes awakened activity and deep compassion. It is not uncommon for Tara to come to us, as she did me, in visions of green smoke. When I chant her mantra, I feel and envision green smoke wafting around me, my chanting dancing on this expression of Tara’s presence.

In my chanting practice I serve as Tara’s agent, absorbing the suffering of others and lifting them up to Tara, where she transmutes the suffering and transforms it into blessings.  My work with Goddess Tara is truly amazing, because it balances my own suffering and empowers my intuition and empathy. In the devotional chanting, my awareness expands and I can feel the power of the blessings of Tara. I can see her touching the suffering of those whom she has guided me to chant for. I do not always know why, but I always know there is a need for those whom I chant for.

Tara continues to anoint my practice with her powerful, compassionate and forgiving love. I find the mantra very calming and relaxing. It helps quiet the noise in my mind and aligns my breathing, moving me into centeredness. Each evening, I light candles as puja that I have blessed, and I let go of any clinging to particular outcomes and instead open myself to Tara.  Since I have been chanting, I have come into a presence of inner compassion. Friendliness and tolerance flower in our being as the qualities of Tara manifest.

I recite Green Tara’s mantra 108 times as part of my daily practice. I chant for myself, I chant for those Tara has steered me to, and I welcome others to chant with me. The more her healing mantra OM TARA TUTTARE TURE SOHA is chanted, the more suffering is transmuted into blessings. Together, we can begin the healing of the world and open ourselves to the deepest and most profound self.  If you are looking to invite Tara into your life, please visit my Chanting Green Tara Page. Here you can download a Green Tara puja card, learn the mantra, and request to be included in my devotionals to Green Tara.

You can also discover the power of manifesting Tara’s 21 Faces with my colleague Yeshe Rabbit Matthew’s 21 Tara Tuesdays, a Tuesday evening 7 pm PST online practice. Each week they explore one of the 21 manifestations of Tara with a a brief informational session and chanting at Tea & Chanting,

Alone In Her Presence is published on alternate Wednesdays! Subscribe via RSS or e-mail.

How to Survive Life and DeathWhen I first read the title How to Survive Life (and Death): A Guide for Happiness in This World and Beyond by Someone Who Died Three Times, I thought, “This is going to be a kooky and sensational book.” The premise, as it turns out, was quite down to earth for a book about near death experiences.

In the book, Robert Kopecky claims to have had three near death experiences that taught him how to enjoy life and accept death. The tools he learned, such as the power of kindness, forgiveness and acceptance, he shares with the reader as a means of not only striving in life, but as a path to a happy and easier death.

I had started the book hoping for wild descriptions of near death experiences and the afterlife, because I am a drama addict. However, what I received from reading the book was perhaps more profound. What I found was a simple guide for becoming grateful for one’s life and fearless about one’s inevitable death.

In general, the book was an easy read for anyone looking to begin their quest for answers about dying. The simplicity of writing had both its positive and negative sides. I appreciated that Kopecky gave the reader projects that can be started right away and used every day. Throughout, he was clear that death could be around the corner and that we should start living our lives with that in mind. It was helpful and empowering that he started his lessons with easy suggestions such as “being kind and doing kind things for others will reduce the physical pain you experience” (91).

The one drawback was the oversimplification of the Buddhist themes that ran throughout the book. It is too common in the New Age and self-help world to water down Eastern philosophies in order to make them accessible to Westerners.  For instance, karma is not “What goes around comes around” (50) as Kopecky first describes it. Eventually, he more skillfully writes about karma in terms of action, cause and effect. Yet, any reader new to the idea would likely be left with the common misunderstanding that karma is a reward and punishment game.

With that said, I did appreciate that Kopecky did not focus too much on lofty religious ideas. Instead, he proposed that the key to life and death is how we love and treat those who we are in relationship with.

Notice, when we’re “coming to the end” of our time in this life with someone we love or for ourselves, just how precious and how special the remaining time suddenly is. How intensely focused our love and appreciation for each other becomes in those few moments that are left. We need to try to treat each other that way all the time, and grow spirituality together in that kind of Love. We need to recognize the eternal in each other, always. That’s what’s really important here; everything else is a distant second place. These may be lofty ideals, granted; but pursuing this, throughout our lives is time well spent, and leads to a sense of fulfillment that can never be matched in any other way. (101)

When I let Kopecky’s words really sink in, I felt blessed for all that love I had in my life. Sure, I had heartbreaks in the past and probably will have some coming in the future. But, when I focus on my present relationships, I know I am lucky. With that knowledge, I was driven to show everyone the love, kindness and forgiveness that Kopecky suggests throughout the book.

The other big gifts of the book were the skills offered to face and tackle the fears of death.  Kopecky writes that “Life is always good, as long as we eat and sleep and are together, with the sun on our faces and a little cuddling. Changes come and go and rarely require a great deal of effort. There’s seldom a real need for fear” (75). While I would argue that there is plenty to fear in life (racism, sexism, war, etc.), when you can focus on being good to those in your life, then the regrets and fears seems to fade away. In fact, Kopecky suggests that if we focus on Love, both grieving and dying can be manageable. He writes about contemplation and meditation that:

You can find that all souls you have loved, who have loved you and have meant something in your life, can all be with you there, looking over your shoulder. Ever -present in your life. Speaking softly into your inner ear…

You can hear them in your mind when you’re not thinking, and feel them in your heart when you’re open in that way. And they will all love you anyway, whether you believe they’re only in your imagination or not. (120)

In the end, the book had a few oversimplifications and was not as sensational as I had hoped. Yet, I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in facing the fear of death and improving their view of life and the afterlife. Personally, I finished the book feeling both satisfied with my own life and encouraged that death can be experienced with grace and wisdom.

CJWilloweCecily Joy Willowe, M.Div. is an eclectic Unitarian Universalist Wiccan currently living in Colorado. After completing her Master of Divinity degree from Naropa University, she went on to work at local shelters as a homeless outreach manager and victim advocate. She is passionate about African Diasporic spirituality, interfaith work and social justice. More of Cecily’s writing can be found at Daughters of Eve.

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