Moving Beyond Character Creation

I am in a spiritual slump … again.  I have not been able to get into my practice for a long time.  I even took off my Pagan necklace because it just didn’t feel right.  It’s not that I don’t identify as Pagan.  It’s that I’m not feeling it.  I’ve lost my Pagan groove.

Actually, this is kind of the story of my life.  Emerson wrote, “Life is wasted in the necessary preparation of finding what is the true way, and we die just as we enter it.”  When I first read this several years ago, I recognized myself in the words, and I vowed it would not be me any longer.  Since then I have gotten better at living life, instead of getting ready to live life.  And the ethos and logos of Paganism have been instrumental in helping me really live my life.  But I’m still not so good at living the spiritual life — living my life attentive to what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “mystic spiritual tone” at the heart of life that gives meaning to the whole.   I have difficulty maintaining what I would call the pathos of Paganism.

Back when I was in high school, before the iPads and Xboxes that preoccupy my teenage son nowadays, there were role playing games.  The kind that came in a cardboard box and had ten-sided die.  I was one of those geeks that liked role playing games.  The funny thing was, I didn’t really like playing role playing games.  I role played with friends on a few occasions, but I found the experience actually pretty boring.  What I liked to do instead was read manuals and create the characters.  I would spend hours creating different characters.  My favorite role playing game was called Powers & Perils because it had a very complex character creation process.  But I never did anything with the characters I created.  I was stuck at the character creation stage.

In retrospect, I realized that, in a way, I did the same thing with Paganism.  When I discovered Paganism, I spent a long time reading books.  I would make trips to various University libraries, driving over an hour each way, to research obscure points of mythology, like the Babylonian Tammuz lamentation liturgies, the Irish “loathly lady” motif, or pre-Homerian Hellenic myths.  Over this period, I slowly constructed a 52-week ritual calendar that had at least one ritual a week.  Each ritual had long readings and artwork from the Internet that I had collected.  I spent a long time getting ready to practice Paganism.  But in the end, the whole thing was too unwieldy to actually practice.  I had succeeded in creating a complex mythology in my mind, but surprisingly the rituals inspired by that mythology seemed, well, uninspired.

I was in a funk for some time after that, until something prompted me to try a simple libation ritual.  And then a whole new practice was born for me, a simplified practice that arose more from my right brain than my left brain.  Eventually, my daily practice arose and my seasonal practice of pouring libations.

But often, I just can’t bring myself to do it.  Part of this, I know, is that I have just never been good at routine in spiritual matters.  The process of creating ritual is just so much more satisfying to me than the actual day in and day out of ritual practice.  It’s tempting to get stuck in the character creation phase, so to speak.  Only in this case, the consequences are more serious, because the “character” being created is my self.

When I was a teenager, ironically, it was imagination that that I found lacking from the actual playing of role playing games.  There was little to no storytelling and the gameplay itself was mechanical.  The actual play stood in sharp contrast to the highly imaginative storytelling in the the role playing manuals and the storytelling I myself would do as I created a new character.  Ideally, the actual playing of the games would have been an extension of the creative process of storytelling that began with the character creation, but it never really lived up to that ideal.  In short, the gameplay was disconnected from the story that inspired the play in the first place.

I think the same is sometimes true of my ritual practice.  The ritual words and gestures become disconnected from the acts of imagination which brought forth the ritual in the first place.  Many people advise going through the motions, faking it till you make it.  But I think I am at an age now that I can safely say that I just do not have the constitution for this.  I have to feel it, every time, or I quickly become disillusioned.  Ideally, every word and gesture of ritual would come to me as “something unique, never to be repeated, and inexhaustible” (Heidegger) — the antithesis of what many people associate with the word “ritual”.

I want ritual to feel like Geoff Bartley’s “The Language of Stones” (sung by Sarah Stockwell):

The strangest landscape begins to look familiar.
I can walk this country in my sleep:
signs of divination,
the Maze of Emergence,
the ritual dreams for saving the soul of the world.
The sounds are as intimate as breath.
Our lips move over the syllables like a blind woman’s fingers over the face of her first-born.
Insects hum at the forest’s edge and the sun stops overhead.
Smoke rises from a ring of river stones and the ashes are thrown downwind.
The smell of sage and cedar will be on my skin forever.
Everything becomes sacred.
Bits of thread flutter from the bushes,
as if marking a trail.

This is, I think, what Novalis described as the “romanticizing” of the world, which makes us aware of mystery and wonder of the world, and  educates the senses “to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite.”  But how to accomplish this is the question.

Too often ritual, even my private ritual, seems more like the Prairie Home Companion skit “Midsummer Unity Festival”, a series of mechanical gestures disconnected from the rest of my life.  The tragedy of this is that the purpose of ritual is precisely to create the sense of meaning and experience of connection.  I need to find a way to connect the enthusiasm I have for ritual creation with the actual practice of ritual.  In other words, I need to find a way to make ritual feel like an act of (re-)creation, rather than an act of repetition.

  • http://journeyingtothegoddess.wordpress.com Daughter RavynStar

    I can sympathize with your dilemma as I too sometimes go through slumps, even to the point of going through what I call my “Atheist Moments” that sometimes last from a week or so even up to a few months in which I don’t know what I believe, or if I even believe in anything at all. It’s a time to go back to the drawing board, to go inward to try and figure out what feels right or what’s been outgrown and no longer serves a purpose.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      “It’s a time to go back to the drawing board, to go inward to try and figure out what feels right or what’s been outgrown …

      I agree!

  • http://paganlayman.wordpress.com Soliwo

    Let go of all your ritual habits and liturgy. Dance yourself into frenzy. Go skinny-dipping in the middle of the night. Paint. Sing. Whatever inspires you. Whatever will take you somewhere new. And I will try to do the same.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      Excellent advice!

    • http://journeyingtothegoddess.wordpress.com Daughter RavynStar

      LOVE IT!!!!

  • http://herlanderwalking.wordpress.com syrbal

    As Soliwo says, sometimes movement is the action. Dance makes me feel my embedded in a web of reality both seen and unseen. As for ritual? I rarely do it; I strive for what I call “sacramental living”….recognizing and relating to the sacred in my daily actions. It works far better for me as the analytical skeptical sort of person trying to relate to occasional moments of mystic bliss.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      Ideally, ritual would facilitate sacramental living. That’s what I am hoping for anyway.

      • http://herlanderwalking.wordpress.com syrbal

        I found occasionally it would do so, just the odd perfect synchronicity ….but generally, it felt artificial and stilted to me. I had to find something (and this is ironic as I am very NOT Zen) more Zen-like and connected in every moment.

  • http://photomemoires.wordpress.com kateeleigh

    I think I agree with you, John. For years, I have tried to do ritual, and eventually, I just let it fall by the wayside, because every time I do ritual (which is supposed to be a sacred act connecting you to the divine) I just feel silly, and my words are whispered hurriedly, in the fears that I might be heard (even when I have the house to myself).

    I’d really love to find a practice I can do on a daily basis, something simple-like. Lighting a candle and uttering a mantra for five minutes every morning, or keeping (and actually writing in!) a spiritual journal.

    But I struggle, and in the end, do nothing. It leaves me dissatisfied.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      It took me a long time to get comfortable with the sound of my own voice in ritual. But it’s a powerful experience for me now to speak personally numinous phrases. I still have problems when I have an audience though, even when it is my family.

  • http://earlybudlatebloom.wordpress.com/ Hope

    Maybe you write liturgy.
    Maybe you just don’t write your own.

    I understand the deep satisfaction that comes from building some deeply layered, complex and rich. (I too played Roleplaying games and loved the creation aspect!!) And I know well how all that design can sink like a stone when you are trying to raise a moment up from the mundane to the sacred.

    What would it mean to manifest ritual from a spontaneous place? To give up control and allow the moment to lead? What might happen? After you get over feeling uncomfortable and unmoored, what might you begin to feel you have permission to do? How might you surprise yourself, or be surprised by your Gods? If you don’t insist on being the author, they might write a story for you.

    You find the experience of making ritual deeply satisfying. How can you share that and fulfill that love? Maybe you make beautiful custom grimoires and sell them or give to friends. You can still create beautiful ritual. Maybe you aren’t writing these rituals for yourself.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      Hope, that’s an interesting suggestion. Personally, I don’t believe that really good ritual can be written for other people without their participation though. (Kind of like divinatory practices, like tarot.) I think ritual needs to arise from within us. Jungian James Hollis writes: “Rites are not invented; they are found, discovered, experienced, and they arise out of the archetypal experience with depth.” This has been my experience.

      But I do agree with you about “manifesting ritual from a spontaneous place”. I think this has to happen in ritual creation. And I also am realizing it needs to happen during ritual too, even if the ritual is prepared, else it is mere routine. I think ritual creation is a little like learning the steps of a dance. Once you learn it, then you can be extemporaneous.

  • http://naturalpantheist.wordpress.com naturalpantheist

    I can identify with this a lot. I’m forever trying to learn about new practices and ideas and making things complicated but rarely getting round to actually putting things into practice. I’m always finding myself “preparing” as you say.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      I’m beginning to suspect that, in my case, some of this may be an unconscious fear of where ritual will take me. And so I delay, prevaricate, and … blog.

      • http://earlybudlatebloom.wordpress.com 12StepWitch

        Oooh, I want to hear more about this!!! Where are you afraid it will take you?

        • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

          Out of my comfort zone. Away from my cozy suburban slumber. Into madness.

          • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

            Jung wrote: “Recognition of the shadow is reason enough for humility, for genuine fear of the abysmal depths in man.”

            • http://www.12stepwitch.com 12StepWitch

              Gosh, Jung needs to chill. Humility is just the state of being teachable. Abysmal Depths, what? Yes, me puny human. This is not a surprise to anyone, is it? There is nothing abysmal about it, a little fretful maybe but abysmal? How grandiose! How we exalt ourselves with our language of how low we are! If we aren’t the Gods, then by Gods, we will be the lowest creature to scrape that there ever was!

            • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

              “Abysmal” doesn’t imply a negative judgment, only the depth, i.e., of the unconscious. He meant we should approach the unconscious with the the respect its is due. It has the power to save, but also to tear our lives to shreds.

            • http://www.12stepwitch.com 12StepWitch

              My personal practice holds that the divine force that permeates the universe also permeates my darkest moments, my darkest depths, my most abhorrent thoughts, and my deepest madness.

              When I jump, I jump holding onto a gleaming shining cord that connects me to that divine force. You can call the cord trust, faith, belief. I called it “experience”. Experience has shown me that when I go out of the comfort zone holding a flame of love and humility in my heart, I am able to find my way home.

              But I’ve had the experience of being ripped to shreds–and being totally lifted from it, inexplicably delivered from a seemingly hopeless way of life, simply as a result of asking for it inside a cast circle. That experience informs everything I do. There is nothing we truly have to fear, because nothing is beyond the reach of the divine.

              As always, YMMV.

          • http://www.12stepwitch.com 12StepWitch

            There is a middle ground between “out of my comfort zone” and “into madness”, you know.

            Just a hint ;)

  • http://endlesserring.wordpress.com/ Treeshrew

    Well, that nailed it for me! I have a very similar background with games like Warhammer. Lots of time creating characters, writing complex back-stories and painting models, not so much time actually doing anything with them afterwards. I am the same in spiritual stuff too, coming from an academic background the temptation is to research a spiritual path to death and think that’s a substitute for actually living it. I’m far too much of a neophyte to have any useful advice, but I tend to try to set some time aside one evening a week for ‘druid stuff’ and then even if I end up slacking on other days, I have that sacred time to re-connect.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      I have the same difficulty. I guess I can thank my Christian upbringing for the habit of Sabbath observance so taking one day a week to reconnect does come easier for me.

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  • Phae

    I’m not sure that elaborate written rituals are every really meant for solitary practise. The symbols and poems, to my mind, were always to help keep a group “on the same page” so to speak. Those running the ritual are always half out of the experience because they are keeping an eye on everyone else.

    Move that to a solitary setting, and you are sort of cheating yourself out of the experience, KWIM? Solitary ritual, in order to lift you out of your everyday headspace, needs to be spontaneous. The most pre-planning I do is to bring offerings with me. Everything else is by the seat of my pants. That way you can be open to the moment and allow for divine inspiration to strike.

    Movement and sound can help with getting into this headspace. Even if all you are doing is humming and swaying.

    • http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com John Halstead

      Good advice. I do try to create space for spontaneity in my private ritual, bracketed by pre-planned formalities. I do need to add more movement.

  • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

    Yeah, what Phae said.
    I’d add one more thing: Ritual schmitual. I know the stereotype is that Pagans love ritual, but maybe you’ve been doing too much of it. So, take a break. Lay off for a while. Let yourself get hungry for it.
    Myself, I do very little of what many would recognize as ritual at home with the family. Then again many things that aren’t recognized can be ritualistic if you look at them the right way. On a regular basis, I meditate, I bake bread, I write. Rituals. Of another sort.
    Speaking of ritual creation, though, I’m keen to create a cycle of rituals that do not require speaking. Singing perhaps, chanting even, but no speaking. I don’t know why but that’s what I’m itching for.
    Pardon my rambling.

    • http://earlybudlatebloom.wordpress.com 12StepWitch

      I have a friend who uses ASL sometimes instead of words to call quarters and invoke. Maybe you can incorporate that.

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