|The School of Athens by Raphael (1511)|
When I was in college I lived in a fraternity house with a ping pong table on the front porch. We played a lot – sometimes regular games and sometimes beer pong. When I moved in I could barely play; by the time I was a senior nobody could beat me. I thought I was pretty good, so I went up to the student center and entered a tournament with a lot of guys from Taiwan and Malaysia who held their paddles funny and stood way back from the table. Turns out I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.
Religion, spirituality and magic aren’t competitive sports. But if they’re really important to you the question constantly arises: how am I doing? We have the stories of our gods and heroes, but while they can inspire us we know we are mortal – we can’t measure ourselves against Lugh or CúChulainn or even Arthur. It’s easy to look at your local situation and your on-line friends and decide that what you’re doing now is great and you don’t need to do anything differently.
At Between the Worlds I watched, listened to and talked with a dozen of the most respected Pagan and magical practitioners and teachers alive today, as well as many other folks like myself. I’m not as arrogant as I was as a college ping pong player and I know myself a lot better at 50 than I did at 22 – I didn’t really change my opinion of where I am in my spiritual growth.
What I learned was where I can go from here – what I can do and how I can go about doing it. I saw what’s possible, not from gods and heroes but from ordinary humans.
The first thing I learned was where to focus. It’s easy to go to a seminar or read a book, fall in love with a teacher, then start trying to copy everything she does without thinking through how well her tradition and teaching matches your interests and calling. When you are presented with many teachers representing many traditions, it becomes obvious this isn’t possible. You can’t follow them all, and trying to pick and choose bits and pieces is a recipe for confusion.
I’m a Druid – I need to focus on Druidry and become the best Druid I can be. I had several conversations with a priestess of Hecate – she needs to become the best priestess she can be. Beginners can and should sample from a variety of traditions and practices until they find the best fit for themselves. But as you grow, your focus must narrow. You can’t follow all these great teachers, but you don’t have to. Dive deeply into your tradition.
I went to graduate school at night. I know a lot of masters and doctoral students and aspiring professors. The workload at that level ranges from heavy to murderous. If you want the magical, religious and spiritual equivalent of an advanced degree you’re going to have to put a comparable amount of work into your study and practice. If you’re a full-time writer, teacher and counselor this is simple – not easy, but simple. Those of us who make our living in the mundane world have to make some tough decisions: you only have so many hours in the day – how do you really want to spend them?
Learning never stops. These teachers went to each others’ workshops. Thorn Coyle live-tweeted from the Saturday panel discussion. John Michael Greer had been a student of Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki many years ago and was clearly excited to talk to her again. He apologized for missing one of her workshops: “I’m teaching in the same time slot.”
Thorn said it best: “beware teachers who only have students.”
Learning from the best doesn’t just mean living teachers. Sam Webster is working on a PhD under Ronald Hutton, but much of his dissertation draws from the ancient Greek philosopher Iamblichus. Thorn Coyle presented material on the Sphinx drawn from 19th century occultist Eliphas Levi. John Michael Greer has made a career out of finding obscure magicians and resurrecting their work – he recently served as co-translator of the medieval grimoire The Picatrix.
While there was a great respect for old traditions, many of the teachers emphasized the need for efficacy: “don’t value something because it’s old and don’t value something because it’s new – value it because it works.” As an engineer this speaks to my core.
My prayer before going to Between the Worlds was to learn how to become a better Druid and priest. I learned a few specific things I expect will be helpful as I integrate them into my practice. What was most valuable, though, was the example presented by the twelve teachers. I now have a clear picture of what I can be and what I need to do to get there.
And for that I give thanks.