Beyond Beginnings

“What now?”

I see this question asked with some regularity. What can I read beyond Wicca 101? Celebrating the Wheel of the Year is nice, but isn’t there more? How do I go deeper? The specific questions vary but the theme doesn’t: a seeker has found a Pagan or magical tradition, likes what he’s done so far, but doesn’t know quite where to go from here.

There are many different approaches toward what I call Intermediate Pagan Practice. This is what worked for me and for others who’ve followed it. It’s not the only way to move beyond beginnings, but if you’re wondering “what now?” it’s worth a try.

Commit to Daily Spiritual Practice. No matter what your specific religion, tradition, or path, there is no single thing you can do that will have a greater impact than committing to a spiritual practice every day. Prayer, meditation, walking, making offerings… the list of possibilities is long, and if you’re asking “now what?” you’re almost certainly doing one or more with at least some regularity. Now commit to do one of them every day. If this is your first time, pick the one you like the most. The discipline you develop with easy practices will carry over when you move to more difficult practices.

There is no shortcut, no substitute for doing the work of spiritual practice. The American Buddhist teacher Baker Roshi said “enlightenment is an accident, but practice makes us accident prone.” This is as true for Pagans – or anyone else – as it is for Buddhists.

Get Out of the Bookstore. I love books, bookstores and libraries. I spend most of my waking hours at home surrounded by books, and it is rare for me to not be in the process of reading at least one. But at some point, Hermione Granger has to put down Hogwarts: A History and pick up her wand.

Write a ritual. Do a ritual. Visit a sacred site or a place of natural beauty (they’re frequently one and the same). Make offerings to your gods and goddesses. Work a spell. Plant a garden. Pick up trash. Unclutter your life. Move from passive learning to active learning.

You’re not going to stop reading, but if you’re moving to Intermediate Pagan Practice you’re going to need books that aren’t on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. Give thanks for used bookstores, for online booksellers who carry more items than any physical store possibly could, and for e-books and print on demand services that allow publication of books whose sales are so small no traditional publisher would ever touch them.

Get Out of the House. We can debate whether or not Paganism is a nature religion, but in the words of the Reformed Druids of North America, “Nature is good. Likewise, Nature is good.” The modern Pagan movement is in large part a response to the excesses of the industrial world, which has isolated we human animals from our environment. We need to breathe fresh air, feel the Sun on our faces, howl at the Moon and hug the trees. For at least a few minutes every day, step away from the computer and go outside.

As well as literally getting out of the house, get out figuratively. Go to Pagan Pride Day. Go to open rituals and public celebrations. Go to festivals and conferences. Go see what other Pagans are doing. Talk to people – find out what’s working for them and what’s causing them difficulties.

Becoming part of a CUUPS group was one of the two or three most important, most influential things I did as I moved from Beginner to Intermediate. The other Pagans in my group are my teachers, my students, and my friends. They encourage me to be the best I can be and they hold me accountable to do what I say I’m going to do. I would not be where I am without them.

Beyond that, there are things you can do in a group you simply can’t do on your own. A solitary procession is more of a walk. A solitary spiral dance can’t be done. I’ve spent plenty of time in solitary communion with gods and goddesses, but I could not have had an experience like the Morrigan Devotional Ritual on my own.

Look around for the right group. Christians are notorious for church-shopping – there’s no reason Pagans can’t coven-shop. If a group doesn’t seem like a good match for you, keep looking. There are no perfect groups, but your basic beliefs, practices, goals and expectations should be compatible with what a group is already doing.

Go Back to the Bookstore. Only this time stay away from the Pagan shelf. Pick up a book on Buddhism or Islam. Find the similarities with your own beliefs and practices, and see where you’re different. If you follow an ethnic-based tradition, read the history of those people. Read science. Remember: “Nature is good. Likewise, Nature is good.” Richard Dawkins is a lousy theologian but he’s an excellent biologist. The common origin of life on Earth is a very meaningful fact for Pagans… and for everyone else. The more you learn about our world, the better you can relate to it.

Serve. Why are we taking the time to learn all this stuff when we could be wasting our lives with the mindless distractions of television? We’re trying to learn and grow so we can make a difference – or a bigger difference – in the world. Put all that personal development and practical magic to good use. Volunteer at a retirement home or a soup kitchen. Pick up trash on the street. Serve on a committee – festivals and events don’t plan themselves. Do something tangible to make the world a better place for other people and other creatures.

That feeling of “what now?” is a good thing. It means your curiosity is engaged and your desire for something more is active. It means you’re motivated to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. It means you’ve already started Intermediate Pagan Practice.

There are other ways to move beyond beginnings – this is what worked for me. If something else worked for you, please share it with the rest of us.

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  • I think for me, and a lot of my friends, the biggest step was joining a Pagan College Group at the local university. Suddenly we all found ourselves surrounded by other Pagans, and began doing ritual together, sharing experiences, etc. As the oldest guy in the group (a spry 24) I was one of the oldest members, and found myself in the middle of a Pagan bootcamp, putting together ritual for dozens of people.

    Before anyone says “I’m _____ and too old for a college group” that was never the case with us. We had people from 15 to 70 as a part of our group, and university attendance was not required. Being young and stupid there were a lot of dumb politics, but I wouldn’t trade the experience now for anything.

    I enjoyed “Back to the Bookstore” but some of my favorite “higher level” stuff was “Academic Pagan.” I devoured Hutton, Clifton, and most of the lesser known authors who released academic Pagan works. I read books on ancient pagan religions, and fifteen years after starting that path I’m still reading those types of books. (I just finished “Conjure in African American Society” and got a lot out of it, and now I’m onto “Going Clear” the latest book about Scientology).

    Great column, I love that you are here on Patheos Pagan.

    • John Beckett

      Thanks, Jason. I like the “Academic Pagan” stuff too, but much of my “Back to the Bookstore” reading has been in anthropology, psychology, and the evolution of language. For a while I was obsessed with finding the origins of religion, but it seemed that all the academic types were focusing entirely on the social aspects of religion (“binding the tribe together”) and ignoring personal spiritual experience.

      It’s amusing – in college I was what the English majors called a “barbarian engineer” (we called them “unemployed”). But in the years following graduation I’ve read tons of humanities and social sciences.

      • I honestly don’t think I’ve bought a Pagan book in quite some time.

        I take that back–I re-bought Drawing Down the Moon in e-book format just a few weeks ago since someone had borrowed my paper copy and never returned it!! My “Back to the Bookstore” includes Wade Davis, Karen Armstrong, Jared Diamond, and Stephen Jay Gould as essential authors…I could go on, but its actually a very long list, lol!

        • I love Karen Armstrong – she writes about all the things they don’t teach in Sunday School, but should!

  • The Low Priestess

    There were several important parts of my moving on from the new seeker stage. 1) Pilgrimages. I would choose a sacred site and visit it. On the way there I would not read books or distract myself in any way. I needed to be focused on my journey. I was open to messages I might receive from the Otherworld. I got messages in the language of flowers, from animals, from the weather. And sometimes, from people I met. 2) Pathworkings. I used John and Caitlin Matthews The Western Way volume 1 which has pathworkings in it. One of them is a deep working (they indicate which one but I shan’t say, it is better to find it). It took me into many extraordinary places, in fact I would say the Otherworld Beings initiated me this way. 3) Setting up days of silence and retreat – may be harder for people with children, partners, or jobs it is hard to escape. No phone, no TV, no computer. Not even books. Being with yourself, your animals, with plants or trees in a garden or park. Constructing an altar in this time out of time. 4) Making things for ritual use. Letting the making be a ritual act. Concentrating on the energy you want to be in the thing you are making 5) – Dreams. Intentional dreams – sleeping as way to hear your unconscious. Sleeping in a diferent place to call the dreams. Under special ritual blankets. There is more but this is what I can think of at this time.

    • John Beckett

      Thanks for sharing your techniques. I’ve never tried a day of silence, but I have set up retreat days, either at home or in the woods. They’ve been very helpful and very restorative.

  • Winterswan

    We’re lucky enough to have an active and really great CUUPS group here in South Florida and most of what I do as far as Pagan socializing is related to that. Lots of the people I’ve met there are also online so I’m in touch with people of like spirit on a daily basis, which helps me to feel more connected and understood. I too have been obsessed with finding books on the origin of religion but thus far have had little luck in finding what I’m looking for. I do have a book by Richard Dawkins coming from Amazon, though. I’ve never read his work and hope to find it informative and interesting.

    • John Beckett

      I’m always happy to hear about good CUUPS groups!

  • Lisa Dunn

    Great advice from your blog and from the comments I have read. I think one of the most important things for me was joining groups. They weren’t always successful groups, but I learned something from all of them. I gained new perspectives to think about, and experienced different ways of doing things. I really value my UU congregation because we are such a mix of belief systems, and that keeps things from becoming stagnate.
    And practice, practice, practice! Daily practices are very important to me. I do have times when I allow life to get too hectic and my daily practice falls away, and then my life is usually chaotic in an unhealthy way. As soon as I regroup and refocus on my practices, life seems to fall in line. And then I wonder why on earth I let myself stop my daily rituals. But it’s called PRACTICE for a reason, right? Like you never become perfect with it but are always practicing it. :o)

    • John Beckett

      I know some people are averse to working in groups, but there’s just no substitute for being a part of a community. As you say, you learn from them all, including the ones that aren’t so good.

  • Kilmrnock

    For me getting to this point has been a long and twisting journey . Like most i started out as a solitary sorta Wiccan , reading all i could find and mostly lurking in pagan online groups learning all i could . Origonaly i did consider myself a Celtic pagan , like i said sorta Wiccan . Through a rough , painfull bad coven experience i dicided Wicca wasn’t for me, besides there were parts of Wicca i could not reconsile . I was part of a coven that imploded badly , lots of name calling , power struggles etc . But as they say ……. that which doesnot kill you makes you stronger . We my wife and i remained friends with the core of that group . After that and as part of my healing process i discovered a Warrior path and ethic . Also amasingly , actually its part of the warrior ethic i hold no grudge against Wicca or Wiccans . Part of the Warrior ethic is not to waste time and valuable energy on harmful and /or useless things , after all resentment and anger really only hurts the one that feels it , holds on to it . It serves no useful purpose, helps no one .Also as part of my Warrior ways i follow a strict Code of Honor/Conduct . Then i started looking deeper into the faith of my own Celtic Ancestors, liked what i found and eventualy found a home , again after alot of research, reading and lurking in groups listening and learning .at this point i still am a Warrior , but also a Sinnsreachd /Druid . I fall under the guise of Celtic Reconstructionism , which is actualy a methodology for finding a Celtic Pagan faith . We sometimes call ourselves CRs or Celtic Polytheists .along the way i also joined ADF to fill a raging need for fellowship , commerodery , and ritual with fellow Celtic Pagans . The grove i belong to is what ADF calls Celtic focused , and ADF is also Recon in its structure and basic function with a few exceptions i can deal with .Sinnsreachd is a fairly young movement we are still few and scattered .This Journey has taken me a bit more than 25 yrs and i still consider myself a learner . I will not say being pagan and finding my particular niche was easy altho i will say it was well worth the effort and pain . I like most CRs and alot of ADF follow/honor the Tuatha De Dannan , my Ancestors, and the nature spirits . I am now happier and more fullfilled than i have ever been at any other point in my life , am one very happy altho slightly crazed Celtic Warrior , Sinnsreachd /Druid .

    • John Beckett

      Glad you found ADF. I picked OBOD over ADF and for me it was the right call, but I really like their liturgy, and I’ve made a lot of friends in ADF.

  • Sigmundr

    Never find anything at Barnes and nobles worth my time anyway.
    Although I found a great book at my library “The well of remembrance” I think it was called?
    If you’re ever interested in reading a good book about Germanic and Norse paganism particularly the actual traditional pre Christian stuff like the Seiðr shamanism and Odins berserkers etc.