Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Taking a Pagan Entitlement Fast

Recently I went on a hike on a trail that wound over and around a beautiful river with lots of bridges.   I sat on some rocks underneath one to watch the river, and saw what I believe to be a woodpecker feather.

I contemplated this a while, some old bad habits starting to itch at me.  See, when I was younger, I know I would have taken this feather.  I would have done, it even knowing that possessing this feather was illegal, telling myself I had a spiritual reason for it and therefore was morally in the clear.

I didn't take the feather.  I took a picture of it, although as I'll mention later, I may refrain from this for a while, too.  I haven't picked up a feather in years owing to understanding the legality of it, but in addition, I was deliberately avoiding taking anything natural out of those woods, no matter how innocuous I thought it was.

Paganism has an entitlement problem.  We feel that we have a spiritual right to take things, that when we encounter them they are being given to us.

Find a feather on the ground?  No matter it's probably illegal to pick up and possess, that was "given" to you by the Goddess.

Found some ghost pipe?  Who cares if its sensitive populations are being wrecked by hipsters picking it to make tinctures because they're purple and purple is cool?  Just ask the plant if it's OK.

Encounter a particularly pretty set of rocks?  Stack that shit up next to a trail, even if seventy people have done it before.  It's spiritual, right?

Read about an interesting rite of passage done by indigenous folks on a different continent?  Of course it relates to you somehow, go right ahead and re-write it to commemorate something totally different.

These are all real, fairly common examples of things spiritual people (not just Pagans, although Pagans are in my lane, so to speak) do that involve taking from a resource that we are not really connected to, or that is rare, or that is ethically dubious, under the premise that these things somehow "speak" to us or give us some unique spiritual benefit that other people don't get.

Well, hate to burst your bubble, but... you really aren't that special.

Not that you're not important, valid, a gleaming mirror image of the Divine and whatnot, but here's the thing:  All of us are.  And the environment that we're in is not one where there are a few spiritual seekers out there being given beautiful natural gifts as a reward for being the spiritually adept few, but one where lots and lots of people tell ourselves that we're doing something that makes our consumption of natural items, plantlife, and cultural practices more morally sound than other people's.  And outside of a few Pagans who lack confidence in their worthiness, we all think that way and come up with all sorts of excuses why we think that's right.

My favorite?  That we spoke with some spiritual entity who said it was OK.  The Goddess.  The Universe.  The spirit of a plant or animal.  Our ancestors.

Listen, I talk to these entities, too.  I've been a Pagan almost 20 years!  But even after that 20 years I can think of many, many times when I had to concede that what I was really talking to was... myself.  Separating the voice of a spirit and your own inner dialogue is not always easy, especially when your ego really, really wants something.  When you really, really want that woodpecker feather for your shrine.  When you really, really want that purple tincture.  When you really, really want to construct that stack of stones and post it on Instagram.  It's times like these when you have to consider most seriously that perhaps you, like most of us, are justifying your own entitlement.

Again, this is a natural thing, especially growing up in the culture most of my readers will have grown up in.

But it's something we need to contend with.

And that's why I suggest you take an entitlement fast.  This is a deliberate, long-term dedication to explicitly avoiding taking things and simply reflect on anything that gives you that tugging urge to acquire.  If you feel that your deities or spirits really do encourage you to take things, tell them about this exercise and request that they allow your mind to remain clear of their messages during this time.  Most of them will appreciate this, as it will help you learn to listen to them much better.

When I found the woodpecker feather, I sat for a while and pondered it.  I felt that addictive urge to pocket it, although I didn't... I thought to myself "Why would I need this feather on my shrine, when I can look out the window next to my shrine and see live woodpeckers practically all year round?"  "Why do I assume that this was placed here for me and not for everybody who passes it to ponder?"  "Why do I assume every beautiful thing is a spiritual message, anyway?"  "Why do I feel that possession of this feather is a spiritual need?"

Of course, there are plenty of times when you will have an actual need to have something in the physical (as herbalists know well), and there are plant and animal parts that are both legal to acquire and perfectly ethical due to their abundance (perhaps even invasiveness!), but this exercise is meant to help you kick the idea that everything is yours for the taking.

It just isn't.

Finally, although I haven't done this yet, my next project may in fact be a fast not only from taking things, but from photographing them, too.  There's nothing immoral about taking a picture, don't get me wrong, but this isn't just about leaving things be, but digging the entitlement out of your practice.  Are you more interested in getting Instagram likes than learning the messages these natural pieces have to offer you?  Of branding yourself spiritual?  I'd certainly rather you post pictures of ghost pipe happily growing than uproot whole stands of it to tincture, and I'm very much a fan of posting cool nature photographs--they help more people experience things--but it may help to fast from this too for awhile to help get to the whole heart of entitlement.