Most of my writing is intended for intermediate practitioners – people who have been a Pagan for a while and are looking for concepts and practices to deepen their Paganism. I describe my book The Path of Paganism – An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice (due out May 8) as a “Paganism 201” book. Most of my popular blog posts fall into that intermediate category. When I write about either very basic stuff or the minutia of advanced practice (or when I write about politics) blog traffic drops dramatically.
So I rarely write for raw beginners. There are tons of 101 level books and blogs available – we don’t need any more. Or at least, we need more intermediate and advanced material before we need more entry-level stuff.
But occasionally I come across someone who is very, very new – someone who doesn’t know much about Paganism but feels attracted to it. Someone whose only exposure to witchcraft is through Hollywood but who senses that there’s a witchcraft that’s more than fiction. Someone who hears the call of the Gods but isn’t quite sure what to make of it.
Someone who asks “will you be my teacher?”
Maybe you’re one of those very new people and you’re wondering where to start. Or maybe you’re an intermediate practitioner and you’re not sure how to respond when a beginner approaches you. Before you tell someone to go read Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide For the Solitary Practitioner or Morgan Daimler’s Irish Paganism (an excellent 101 book I’m starting to recommend over Cunningham, because polytheism), there are some questions a new student needs to ask themselves – particularly if they’re asking for a one-on-one teacher.
Why do you think you need a teacher?
Our mainstream culture romanticizes the teacher-apprentice relationship. An expert elder says you have the ability to be as good as they are (or maybe even better), takes you in, and gives you lots of personal attention. Maybe they coddle you like your favorite grandmother and maybe they kick your ass like Pai Mei in Kill Bill, but they care deeply about your development and they make sure you learn and grow. What’s not to like?
I’ve benefitted from a teacher-apprentice relationship at various times on my spiritual journey. It was helpful, and in one case it absolutely essential for what I was trying to learn. It was also very painful when the relationship ended.
But this isn’t the only way to learn, and in most cases it’s not the best way to learn. Think of all your years of schooling – how much was spent in a class of ten or twenty or thirty? You still learned what you needed to learn.
There are some Pagan and especially witchcraft traditions that are only taught one-to-one. If that’s what you’re looking for, then yes, you must have a teacher. But other than that, you may very well not need a teacher, at least not yet.
What, exactly, do you want to learn?
Good teachers teach what they know. Bad teachers teach what they think they know. Those who are part of a lineage can only pass down that lineage and not any other.
If you want to learn Gardnerian Wicca I can’t help you. Oh, I know Wicca well enough, and I could certainly get a beginner started. But I don’t have the intimate, first-hand knowledge of Wicca that comes with years of Wiccan practice. And I’ve never been initiated into Wicca, so I can’t initiate anyone else. If you want to be a Gardnerian Wiccan, you have to find a Gardnerian Wiccan teacher.
Now, if you want to learn the particular form of ancestral, devotional, ecstatic, oracular, magical, public polytheism that I practice, I can probably teach you a thing or two. But if you want to learn that right now, you’ll have to move to Denton, Texas.
Beyond that, each teacher has their own personality and their own areas of expertise. Each student has their own learning style. I can’t handle authoritarian teachers. Others need the structure such teachers provide.
Until you know exactly what you want to learn, you aren’t ready to start looking for a teacher.
I know what the mainstream culture has taught a person about Paganism, so I’ve got a pretty good idea of what misinformation needs to be countered. What I don’t know is what Pagan sources have influenced them.
If someone asks me about Druidry and tells me they’ve read one of Philip Carr-Gomm’s books, I know they’ve got some good basic ideas we can build on. If they tell me they read 21 Lessons of Hogwash and they loved it, I know I’ve got my work cut out for me.
Beyond that, I’m looking to see how much breadth and depth a person has. Have they read five good books on Druidry? One on Wicca, one on Heathenry, and one on traditional witchcraft? Three books that would best be described as New Age fluff? There’s no right or wrong answer, but it helps establish the starting point for future teaching.
What spiritual practices do you do and how long have you been practicing them?
Pretty much all forms of Paganism are more concerned with what you do than with what you believe.
If the answer is “um, nothing?” that’s OK. Our mainstream culture tells us that religion is all about what you believe and that being religious means going to church on a semi-regular basis. If you haven’t started meditation, prayer, devotional readings, offerings, study, and other spiritual practices, that doesn’t mean you’re not ready to study Paganism. It just means you’re a beginner.
And that means it’s time to begin practicing.
What teachers and groups have you investigated?
A Theosophist saying often misattributed to the Buddha says “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” If that saying is true – and I’m not sure it is – the teacher doesn’t materialize out of the ether. The teacher and the student find each other because they’re in a place where they cross paths.
You have a better chance of finding a teacher in your local open circle group than you do in your living room. You have a better chance of finding a teacher at Pagan Pride Day than at the grocery store. You have a better chance of finding a teacher by becoming a regular participant in a Facebook group on witchcraft or Druidry than by popping into said group and asking for someone to teach you.
If you want a teacher and you’re convinced you really do need a teacher, do the work to find a teacher.
I rarely teach one-on-one
These questions are how I respond to “will you be my teacher?” About half the time I don’t even get a reply. That tells me the person in question likes the idea of having a teacher, but not the idea of doing the work necessary to learn.
If they respond, I’ll make a few suggestions for books and practices and tell them to get back with me when they’re ready. Again, about half the time I don’t get a reply to that. And that’s OK. With more work, most people realize they don’t need a teacher, or they aren’t ready for a teacher, or I’m not the teacher they’re looking for.
Most of those who remain go on to OBOD or ADF or another group. If they’re local they may come to Denton CUUPS. They check in from time to time – we talk about how things are going and what they might need or want to do next. We talk more as friends and colleagues than as teacher and student.
There are a few who insist they need a one-on-one teacher and they want me to do it. But when I explain how that requires a substantial commitment of my time for which I expect to be compensated, half drop the request and the other half gets mad. “You’re just in it for the money!” At that point I generally drop the conversation. The word “entitled” gets thrown out too frequently in our wider culture, but I think it fits in this case.
Beyond that, the majority of my Pagan friends who teach tell me that people who don’t offer and don’t make a fair exchange are their least consistent students. Those who make a financial commitment also have more spiritual commitment. That isn’t always true… just almost always.
So, will I be your teacher? Probably not, for a variety of very good reasons. But if you work through some basic questions around why you want a teacher, you’re more likely to find the teacher you need.