Wednesday, 7 September 2011

the uses and abuses of community

Lately I've been reading blog posts and forum threads approaching the subject of community. Some address how it enhances the spiritual path while others focus on the negative aspects - the drama, the disagreements, the responsibilities that would be absent if practice was solitary and there weren't other people to consider.. I can see both sides of the coin and wanted to clarify my own thoughts.

Moots are difficult to come by in my current location. I do attend a Tarot group once a month but would also like to be involved in Pagan events again. Getting face time with other Pagans is usually either at the Henge gatherings (when it's in passing and of a generally light-hearted nature) or at unexpected times when we realise we're both Pagan through connecting over a passing comment. I have one close Pagan friend but although discussion between us regarding spirituality is frequent, we don't practice together, since she's a spellcraft girl and I'm not.

The benefits of being solitary in my path are clear to me. For one, as a pantheist I've felt my fair share of alienation within the online community which is largely frequented by polytheists. Although the Pagan cyber community is accepting and welcomes debate, it can be difficult for me to take any kind of stance in a twelve page thread full of discussion about whether or not Loki is cool with you also dedicating yourself to Odin. I don't believe in literal, interventionist gods who care whether you worship them or not. I'm all for the idea that pantheons are wonderfully poetic man-made attempts to sum up 'the all'. So, yeah, I can often find myself being the odd one out. When I'm practising my spirituality it's a huge comfort to me to know that my path is the right one for me and that it's a no compromise zone. Could I really deal with any issues that might arise as the result of practising with others who don't hold my exact beliefs?

The downside of not being regularly surrounded by other Pagans is loneliness, at times. I've managed to find a few places online which are frequented by like-minded pantheists and we do have a good old chin wag. (I'm not saying I'm not fond of debate or differences of opinion but, admittedly, I do like to just converse with 'my own' sometimes, if only to feel relief at the reminder that I'm not alone in my outlook.) I so often wish we were conducting our conversations in a pub, sipping real ales out in the beer garden and looking at the moon. There is something stale and anticlimactic about cyber high-fiving at the end of a discussion.

The main issue I read about from Pagans who have a heavy involvement in a community is drama. The main source of drama seems to be differences of opinion on practices or points of view which lead to factions breaking off to rant without full disclosure to the rest of the group. Another reason can be the forming of romantic relationships between members in the group and the shitstorms that can occur when those relationships end. Also, power struggles, members feeling undermined by their lack of position in the group and disagreements about hierarchy. These are all things I feel I'm lucky to have avoided as a solitary. I strongly suspect that if I actively began searching for a Pantheist Pagan group I'd be overtly idealistic about finding the perfect bunch of people. In contrast, I could go in search of an open, non-descript Pagan group who accept all beliefs but that would be missing the point for me - cohesion and belonging. I can log on to the internet any time and chat to Pagans on every type of path I can imagine whereas, for me, joining a group would be about finding people who are on a very similar path to me.

The positive things I've heard about community include new friendships, a sense of belonging, a chance to have fun with the like-minded and a way to push the spiritual boundaries and get you thinking outside the box. All of these things sound great to me. Community can provide a good safety net for Pagans who feel they need counselling and support regarding their path. Sabbats can become times to honour other Pagans as well as the turning of the year and can be made into incredibly lively, significant events with the energy of people power. Community membership can bring spirituality into focus. If you're the kind of Pagan who goes through regular slumps or can't seem to designate time to practice, it can be great to know that your regular group work will offer you that scheduled dedication.

I think, for those who've successfully been long-standing members of a Pagan group, the advice is probably clear: be honest, be open, be accepting, take your obligations seriously and enjoy it. For me? I just worry that there'd never be a group I'd manage to find that could fulfil all of my hopeful fantasies.. And I don't want to go looking for disappointment. If I did find a group I could grow to be part of, would I use it to bolster my spiritual standpoint instead of appreciating its true purpose as an aid to my personal path rather than the absolute crux of it? At what point does it become more about being in love with the group than the path itself? And isn't Paganism best practised when we don't have rules and group mentality and lines to tow?

It's a subject I continue to wrestle with from time to time.