The Impossibility of Advanced Spiritual Practice

The Impossibility of Advanced Spiritual Practice March 22, 2022

The first public class I ever taught was Daily Spiritual Practice for Pagans, at the North Texas Pagan Pride Day in 2010. I’ve taught variations on this class many times, and I’m sure I will again. Regular spiritual practice is the foundation of any good religion. The practices vary, but whatever it is you do that makes you a Pagan or a witch or whatever you call yourself, it needs to be done on a regular basis.

Good religion is about what we do, not what we believe. Regular spiritual practice keeps us connected to our highest values, maintains our sacred relationships, and reminds us who and what we are. There is no substitute for regular spiritual practice.

Last year I taught an on-line course called Introduction to Pagan Spiritual Practice – A Polytheist Approach. It was an eleven-week class that covered prayer, meditation, offerings, and other spiritual practices – what we do and how we do it. That class is on-demand – if you’re interested you can take it now.

I just finished teaching Intermediate Spiritual Practice. It covered journeying, the Otherworld, and what to do when people bring their spiritual emergencies to you (if you have skills in this, they’ll find you, one way or another). That course is also on-demand, but you have to take the Introduction course before you can take the Intermediate course.

I haven’t done the follow-up survey for the Intermediate class, but I’ve already had some people asking if I’m going to teach an Advanced Spiritual Practice class. I try to never say never, but I don’t think I can teach a class in Advanced Spiritual Practice. I don’t think anyone can, at least not in the way I understand it.

And I think that’s worth exploring in more depth.

You never outgrow the basics

Our education system tells us we learn the first grade material, then we leave it behind and move on to the second grade material. That’s not really how it works, but our experiences in school leave us with the expectation that we learn something once, and then we don’t have to learn it again.

That’s not the case with spiritual practice. It’s not facts to be memorized or even techniques to be mastered. It’s something we do because it keeps us connected to who and what we are. A class can introduce you to these practices, but then you have to practice them – over and over and over again.

You learn to cook, and then you keep cooking. Over time your skills may improve, but the main thing is that you keep cooking – because you need to eat every day.

Prayer, meditation, offerings, and other spiritual practices are things we do every day, every week, every month, every season. We never outgrow them.

Depth, not breadth

How much instruction do you really need on prayer? Many Pagans need some instruction, because they have inaccurate and unhelpful ideas about prayer – mostly rooted in bad experiences in other religions.

But once you learn the basics of prayer (from a teacher or a book or just from observing healthy examples of prayer) all that’s left is to pray – every day. By saying the same scripted prayers over and over again, the power of their words sink into our souls. By saying extemporaneous prayers over and over again, the sacred desires of our hearts become more and more obvious to us.

Learning from good teachers is wonderful. But to truly learn something – and to learn it in depth – we need to do it regularly for years. We become experts in these few practices – we develop spiritual depth.

Advanced practice is mostly solitary work

What do we mean by Advanced Spiritual Practice, anyway? Are we talking about the kind of depth described in the previous section? Or are we talking about more specialized and more obscure practices?

There is value in arcane practices. They’re no substitute for the basics, but once you’ve built a foundation – and are committed to maintaining it – they can increase your knowledge and skills of spiritual, Otherworldly, and magical matters.

The problem is that most people – including most Pagans – aren’t interested in deep knowledge of spiritual, Otherworldly, and magical matters. Or they think they are, but when they get into it they find that it’s more work than they counted on. Or they find it’s scarier than they imagine.

So you end up doing a lot of this work alone. And much of what you learn comes through your own first-hand experiences, which are always at least slightly different from other people’s experiences.

It’s great when you have someone to do this work with you. I have a very, very few people I do this work with. I’m grateful for their support and companionship. But we’ve struggled teaching it in person – I can’t imagine trying to teach it on-line. If you want to do it, you pretty much just have to do it.

Ground yourself in ordinary practice

My Baptist father used to complain about people who were “so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.” I’m not sure what the Pagan equivalent of that would be, but if you’ve been doing this stuff for very long, you know people who fit the description. Try not to be one of them.

The best way to do that is to stay grounded in regular spiritual practice. Even better is to be a part of a Pagan group that does ordinary Pagan things: celebrating the seasons, running public rituals, spending time in Nature, and such. For me, this is Denton CUUPS. These people are my co-religionists, but they’re also my friends. They support me in my deeper work and they also keep me grounded in this world.

And no matter how far you go, make sure there is someone you respect enough to listen to their advice. Make sure there’s someone who can tell you “no, you shouldn’t do that.” Even if you become the most expert person in the world on a given topic or practice or tradition, find an elder or a peer in another tradition who can help you along when you need it – because you will need it sooner or later. As Thorn Coyle taught me years ago, beware of teachers who only have students. And don’t become one.

If you ground yourself in ordinary practice, you’ll be able to do deeper work without getting lost between the worlds – both metaphorically and literally.

Go off the map

Here’s the bottom line for authentically deep spiritual practice: there are no maps. There are maps that will get you started. There are maps that will help you go deeper – I wrote two of them. But at some point there are no more books, no more classes, no more teachers. There’s just the open sea and the stars and the wind.

There’s only learning by doing.

Don’t mistake this for “just do whatever feels good.” You have to learn what’s on the map before you can move off the map. Otherwise you’ll be out there on the open sea with no idea how to set a sail or a rudder or figure out where you are by the stars and the sun.

But once you’ve built that foundation of knowledge and skills, go where you’re called to go – even if no one (that you know of, anyway) has been there before.

Take good notes

Journaling is an important spiritual practice on its own. It’s especially important when you’re doing deep spiritual practice.

You won’t figure out everything the first time. Something you experience today may lie dormant inside you for months, and then unexpectedly you’ll suddenly understand its context and meaning. Don’t count on remembering it all, because you can’t. Write it down.

As you figure things out, share what you learn with others. Maybe this means writing a book. Maybe it means starting a blog, or a podcast, or a video series. Maybe it means just sharing your notes with a few close friends.

Increasing the amount of spiritual knowledge in the world is a very good thing to do.

Is there such a thing as Advanced Spiritual Practice?

Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced are loose descriptions. They’re not grades or degrees or any sort of formal hierarchy, and if your goal is simply to move from one level to another, I’m not sure you understand the point of spiritual practice yet.

On the other hand, there is a real difference in the knowledge, skills, and experiences of someone who’s just starting out and those of someone who’s been practicing diligently for years. Wanting to learn and grow is a good thing.

I can show you how to do the things I do. But then you have to go and do them yourself. Over and over again.

How far you go depends on your natural abilities and on your devotion to your practice. And, of course, on the participation of the Gods and spirits you work with, and who work with you.

I presented all the techniques I know in the Basic and Intermediate courses. Now, I’m still practicing. It’s possible I’ll learn or develop new techniques in the coming years. But I expect I’ll be doing what I’ve been doing, only deeper and better.

I love education. My mainstream education served as the foundation for my paying career, which has supported me throughout my adult life. My spiritual education helped me get out of fundamentalism and into this Pagan polytheism that means so much to me.

But at some point, class is over.

At some point, it’s time to go to work.

Blessings and good luck as you follow the path that calls to you, whether it’s well-marked or whether you’re exploring unmarked territory.

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