Exercising Your Will

Rhyd Wildermuth has a long and thought-provoking essay on Saturday’s Wild Hunt titled Manifesting An Other World.  In it, he argues that beliefs should mean something – they should cause us to take action to manifest the kind of world we say we value.  This is particularly true for those of us who worship Gods we believe are real, distinct, individual beings – Gods who are capable both of blessing us immensely and of making our lives as miserable as Prometheus.

Many Pagans don’t seem to take the kind of strong action our professed beliefs would suggest.  Rhyd sees much of this as a lack of freedom.  He’s not wrong, and his comment that “the moment you act as if the gods are really-real, you will be called insane” reminds us of the power of the mainstream culture and of consensus reality.

At some level, though, this is not a question of lack of freedom but of lack of will.  I was reminded of the quote from G.K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936), who, speaking of his Christianity, said “it has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found hard and not tried.”  I would argue that’s true of any religion worth a damn.

I remember when I first discovered Paganism: the relief at the idea that God is more than an angry old man looking to smack you down for breaking his impossible rules, the joy that sexuality was something to be celebrated and not something to be ashamed of, the possibilities of magic, and perhaps most importantly, the wisdom expressed by the Reformed Druids of North America:  Nature is good.  And likewise, Nature is good.

Eventually, though, it became apparent that if my Paganism was going to be as deep and as meaningful as I wanted it to be, it would have to become a two-way street:  giving as well as receiving and working as well as celebrating.  Some call that balance – I call it reciprocity.

Life can be joyful, but it’s also hard.  There is pain, suffering, and loss; there is injustice and hatred; there is poverty, war, and disease; and eventually there is death.  Our religions help us deal with these difficulties by placing them in the context of a greater narrative, by encouraging a community of mutual support, and by empowering us to take action to make things better for ourselves and for others.  These benefits are helpful and necessary, but it is easy to forget when we’ve received enough and when it’s time to give.

And to Rhyd’s point, this is doubly hard when what we need to give goes against the mainstream, its values of consumption and exploitation, and its motto of “I’ve got mine, screw you.”

If I said I had a good solution I’d be lying.  I can preach the value of Pagan piety as well as anyone, but I can also tune those sermons out just as well as you can, particularly at the end of a long week when I’m tired and frustrated and just want some mindless entertainment and a nice bottle of wine.

I do know this:  manifesting an otherworld – or a different this-world – is an act of will, and as Thorn Coyle explained, will must be exercised and trained like a muscle.  We may be born willful, but breaking our will is a priority of our education and employment systems.  We’re told what we should want and how we should want it – those who cooperate are rewarded and those who rebel are punished.

The biggest stress reduction in my life came when I accepted that I want what I want and not what I had always been told I was supposed to want.  I was well into my 40s when that happened.

I’ve found two helpful exercises for the will.  One is daily spiritual practice.  Whether it is prayer, meditation, walking, making offerings, or any of the many spiritual practices, the act of pausing every day and doing something that is both intentional and in explicit alignment with your religious values helps build the will.

My prayer beads broke for the third time a few months ago and I haven’t restrung them, but they did their job – after three years of praying four times a day, I don’t miss too many rounds even without the tangible reminder.

The second helpful exercise is to simply decide you’re going to do something and then do it. It doesn’t have to be something big.  The act of consciously choosing and then following the choice with action reinforces the idea that you are consciously creating your life and not just reacting to choices made by others.  It reinforces the idea you have sovereignty.

Doing this once or twice or ten times won’t make you immune to the sway of popular culture and the maleficent sorcerers of Madison Avenue.  But it will begin the immunization process.  After a few dozen times it gets easier – because your will is stronger.  Not easy, but easier.  After a few hundred times it becomes second nature – because your will is stronger still.

It gets easier, but it never gets easy.  Manifesting an other world is hard work.

But if our beliefs mean something, if our experiences of the Gods are more than a pleasant interaction of brain chemistry, then we have a calling to manifest the kind of world we say we value.

What kind of world do you value?

What do your beliefs tell you to do?

What will you do to strengthen your will?

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • http://www.rendingtheveil.com Christopher

    Thank you. An excellent post.

    When I think of moving forward from today’s American Paganism, I think of Japan’s Shinto’s shrines and role in the larger community — in parallel with other religions. I know, we’re not there yet.

    Like the various Shinto shrines, we Pagans don’t agree on everything. Truth be told, we sometimes don’t agree on much of anything.

    But, to get back to your post, we Pagans have our practice. We embody peoples’ ability to connect to the spiritual, both our own spirits and deities. It is these practices that set us apart. Our paths might look different, but our commonalities are vital.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Thanks, Christopher. There is much modern Pagans can learn from Shinto.

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        If you are ever up here in the Seattle area, John, I’ll be happy to escort you to the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, where I’ve been enjoying learning about Shinto by participating in their ceremonies several times a year for nearly seven years.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

          Thanks, Lupus. We were in Seattle in 2011 and loved it.

          Have you written anything on what you’ve learned from Shinto that is relevant to Paganism? I’d be very interested in reading about your experiences.

          • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

            Yes and no…
            If you search on my blog for “Shinto,” you’ll find loads of posts where I’ve mentioned events at the Shrine and things I’ve thought about them.
            I’ve wanted to write a piece on “Antinous and Shinto” for a number of years now, and when it gets done, it will be in Volume 2 of The Doctor’s Notes.
            And, I’ve thought that I’d like to write a (perhaps short) book on Shinto from a Polytheist Perspective, or something like that. I’ve met more Pagans at the Shrine than I have casually anywhere else other than perhaps PantheaCon and other specifically-Pagan events.
            If I were to characterize my thoughts on Shinto and Paganism/polytheism into three bullet-points (as Shinto likes threes!), I’d say the most important things I’ve learned with it are:
            1) The importance of purification;
            2) The importance of posture and ritual gestures;
            3) The importance of speaking less and doing more in rituals.
            Since I’ve been going to the Shrine, so much about my practices has improved, for the better and more effective, I think…

      • Guest

        Very true, John. I’ve gappled with varying success in looking at Shinto from a number of viewpoints in a number of blogposts (do a search at adruidway.wordpress.com). If there’s one lesson I’ve begun to take to heart from Shinto, it’s the need to reduce the I, the ego, in the presence of the kami — to put it back into correct proportion with Other Things and with the spirits/gods. For any relationship to happen, there needs to be at least as as much listening as talking. After all, as a Jewish friend reminds me out of his tradition, we’re given two ears, but just one mouth :)

      • Dean Easton

        Very true, John. I’ve grappled with varying success in looking at Shinto from a number of viewpoints in a number of blogposts (do a search at adruidway.wordpress.com). If there’s one lesson I’ve begun to take to heart from Shinto, it’s the need to reduce the I, the ego, in the presence of the kami — to put it back into correct proportion with Other Things and with the spirits/gods. For any relationship to happen, there needs to be at least as as much listening as talking. After all, as a Jewish friend reminds me out of his tradition, we’re given two ears, but just one mouth :)

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    I’ve been dealing actively with the tension I feel around the issue of living into beliefs and values for some years now… the more I change my life to better reflect some of my values, it seems, the less I have in common with the physical community I live in — in fact, the fewer chances I seem to get to even interact with people who don’t share my political and religious beliefs. And since staying in relationship with those who DON’T share my values is itself a value… *sigh* Suffice it to say that trying to live into *that* belief necessitates a whole series of conflicted choices, especially resulting from what it takes to live in one of the most expensive U.S. cities.

    All of that is to say… knowing that the Gods are real has never made me feel particularly insane. Trying to take responsibility for the consequences of my actions as part of a larger effort to change the world I live in is far more insanity-making. The Gods don’t all want the same thing, for me or for the world, and I am forever working with imperfect knowledge, trying to balance impulses that don’t all point in the same direction. (Sometimes they all come together, for a while — always a relief! But ultimately I end up with the burden of choice again. No surprise since that’s one of the foundational elements of my particular Craft tradition.)

    I wish Rhyd hadn’t used the term “assault” when referring to Pagan efforts to make social change. This is not a war, and my neighbors are not my enemies. Many of their values are opposed to mine (I live in a mostly Latino and African-American working-class neighborhood), but seeing them as part of a system that oppresses me makes no sense… and the thing is, if I go visit my family in the suburbs, we share (and fail to share) about as many values as I do with my immediate neighbors. Everyone I come into contact with is, like me, caught in a web of unequal power relationships, in which we all have to make conflicted choices. And sometimes the Gods help me with that, but I still have to make those choices, fully aware of all the shades of grey. Getting help doesn’t remove my responsibility or extract me from the web.

    So I’m uncomfortable with the article. It seems to suggest that we can achieve a level of ideological purity in which our actions and beliefs can be a perfect match. My experience of the world is one of tension between multiple sets of values, multiple calls, multiple relationships, multiple Gods, where everything is a compromise and nothing is simple.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I have no use for purity, except in the sense that Lupus describes in his comment above. And I find calls to arms to be generally unhelpful unless someone is actually shooting at you. At the same time, I feel this incredible sense of wrongness in our society and a need to DO something, even as I realize I’m benefiting from this society.

      Tension? Oh, yeah.

  • http://quakerpagan.org Cat C-B

    I like where you go with this, John.

    I also agree about the need for daily practice. But I think, at least in my case, the quality I’m training is willingness, not “will” as most of us Westerners conceive it.

    Our culture has been compared with an addict, and I buy that. And as the child of an addict, I take notice of the wisdom that says “addicts cannot will themselves into
    healthy sobriety—indeed, that ego and self-reliance are often a root
    cause of their problem.” Self-reliance is related to the idea that the Other is not real, after all. And if my gods are real, my will is not the center of my relationship with them.

    Maybe it’s a distinction without a difference for some of us, but for me, it seems to make a difference that matters, like the subjects of the U of I experiment.

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-willpower-paradox/

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      At the least, willingness is the beginning of will.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ the Old Adam

    My ‘will’ is what continually gets me into trouble.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Then I would suggest you’re probably confusing your will with your whims.


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