Posts By: Shauna Aura knight

Art, Ritual, and Shamanism by Shauna Aura Knight

Posted by on Jan 24, 2015 in Uncategorized | No Comments

Shauna Aura Knight:

My article has been published on Pantheon: A Journal of Spiritual Art. Enjoy!

Originally posted on Pantheon: a journal of spiritual art:


Water Bearer (c) Shauna Aura Knight

I often wonder if I’m painting or if I’m going on a shamanic journey. Am I facilitating a ritual or creating installation/performance art? Am I singing a song, or am I engaging people in a trance state to open to sacred work? Is it the creative fire in the head or mystic communion with the divine? Every time I mull on this question, I ultimately come to the same answer—to me, it doesn’t matter. What matters is transformation. What matters for me is that I am giving people a chance to experience the hero’s journey. This could be at an event, a ritual, a performance, an installation, a workshop, or this could simply be experiencing a song or a piece of two dimensional art.

For me, being an artist and being a shaman are both professions, and I see the job of the artist…

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Filed under: Uncategorized

Book Release: Calling to our Ancestors

CallingToOurAncestors_Front_lowres I’m excited to announce that Calling to Our Ancestors, an anthology of devotional work with ancestors, has been released. I have an essay in it called, “Ancestors and Descendants: Building Connections.

Below is an excerpt, and a little more info about the anthology.

About the book:

This devotional is dedicated to giving a voice to those roads that honor the Ancestors, and to those who seek the Ancestors. The Ancestors can be found by many roads: by blood, adoption, the Gods we worship, and the Elements that sustain us. They can be found in the newly or ancient Dead, in the old forests or the candle flame. The devotional is dedicated to giving a voice to those roads, and to those who seek the Ancestors.

Several excerpts from my essay “Ancestors and Descendants: Building Connections”:

In the fall of 2010, I planned a public Samhain ritual for the Chicago Pagan community. One of my team members was pushing for more work with the Ancestors, and I was pushing for more work with our personal shadows and wounds. Both kinds of spiritual work fit well with Samhain and the Underworld. But once again I found myself faced with my guilty secret as a Pagan leader—that I really didn’t feel any spiritual connection to the Ancestors….

Though my connection to the Ancestors was weak, I was profoundly moved by the Descendants. Those who come after us, those for whom our actions will shape their future…this was an extremely visceral piece for me, often bringing that emotional “full” sensation to my chest and tears to my eyes.  Partly my emotions were triggered because so much of the work I do is around trying to transform and heal this world of ours….

My father passed away the February following that ritual; I had been procrastinating going up to see him. He was young, in his mid 50’s, but he’d had several medical complications in past years….

One month before my father died, he frantically called friends and family. He’d had an intense spiritual vision, a mystical communion and rapture with the divine where he spent two days going in and out of a spiritual rapture. When we talked on the phone about this, he had never sounded so happy. He said he’d been crying at the intensity of love, the feeling of being connected to all that is.

You can read the full essay, as well as many others, in the anthology.

Contributors include:

To Buy:
You can purchase Calling to Our Ancestors in print and ebook forms, or specifically in Kindle format here.


Filed under: Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: adoption, ancestor, ancestors, beloved, blood, bone, book, calling, Calling to Our Ancestors, dead, devotion, devotional, Disir, elevation, healing, hope, inspiration, poem, poetry, praise, prayer

Ritual Facilitation: Why I do it

DSC01624_SmallWhat has sustained me through long years of practice and training in the ritual arts is the desire to facilitate transformative work.

There is that moment when I’m leading a chant with a group of people, and we’re drawing in closer around the fire. They have tears streaming down their faces. They are feeling and connecting and I can see the rapture on their faces.

I have stood by a ritual fire with a black veil over my face while people told me secrets, old pains, things they couldn’t tell anyone else. They were telling the Dark Goddess so she could take their pain beneath the earth. “Will anyone ever love me?” “I left mom to go back home and then she died while I was gone, I feel so guilty.” “Will I be alone forever?” “I’ve gone through my whole life and I don’t think anyone has ever seen me.” “Why did they do that to me? How could they hurt me like that?”

The reason I’m constantly working to learn new ritual techniques, or explore multiple intelligences, or strengthen my voice so I’m a stronger singer, or practice frame drum, or learn didgeridoo…and the reason I’m constantly writing about ritual and teaching people facilitation techniques…is because it matters. Because I want people to have access to that deep-within, to the all-that-is, to that something larger. I want people to feel that the divine is out there, that they are not alone. I want people to be able to do the work that calls to their soul.

Facilitating compelling ritual is a lot of work, but to me it’s worth it. It requires those of us who facilitate rituals to not only learn technical skills of public speaking, chanting, and trance technique, but it also requires us to do our own personal work. If we cannot find our way to the well of divine water, we cannot bring that water cupped in our hands back to our groups. If we cannot face our own shadows, we cannot take our group to the mirror of souls. If we aren’t vulnerable first, we cannot bring the magic.



CoverRitualFacilitationIf you are interested in learning skills for facilitating ritual, you  might consider checking out my book Ritual Facilitation, which you can purchase direct from me as an ebook, via Amazon, or as a hardcopy. If you are looking to buy 5 or more copies for your group I can work out a reduced rate, and I offer wholesale pricing to stores and vendors.

Filed under: Facilitation, Leadership, Pagan Community, Ritual

Pagan Response to Racism

Posted by on Dec 4, 2014 in Activism, Pagan Community | No Comments

shutterstock_104520869Crystal Blanton is one of my favorite Pagans. She has been a tireless activist voice within the Pagan community and beyond it. Her focus has been speaking up for those marginalized by society at large, primarily focusing on People of Color, but also focusing on issues around class, gender, and sexuality.

Recently there have been several high-profile cases of unarmed Black men being killed by police officers, and despite the fact that there was evidence that the Black men were not resisting, or evidence (including video in some cases) that the police were using excessive or inappropriate force, the police officers were not charged with murder.

What does this have to do with Pagans? The issue is that Paganism is a minority religion. We’re used to being persecuted, and many Pagans jump at the chance to defend other Pagans from being unfairly treated. The Pagan community has long been a refuge for other minorities, such as GLBTQ community members. Yet, in a recent Facebook post, Crystal spoke up about the silence of Pagan organizations on issues of race. And that silence is something that is worth speaking about.

Here’s what Crystal wrote:

Crystal Blanton:
I am noticing… again… the silence of the Pagan organizations in light of the recent unrest, death of unarmed black men, injustices, protests, and harm within society. As a POC Pagan, I am looking out into my community and I do not see the community standing up for me.

This is an opportunity to stand up and support the people of color within the Pagan community, and society, by saying… we see you. We are not ignoring you, we are not staying silent.

When the Pagan community does not stand up to support the POC members within their community that are hurting, it is an “in your face” way of reminding us that we are not welcomed.

An African Zulu greeting “Sawubona” translates to mean… I see you. More than the normal seeing…. seeing the core, our humanity, our spirit, our worth… our souls.

So tonight I am saying to the Pagan community, I see you….. the question is… do you SEE us?

I thought I’d offer some context about where I stand on this. First, I’m not the leader of any large organization, so I’m not in much of a position to release a formal statement to any non-Pagan group. Or at least, not one that carries any weight with the media. However, I do have a voice within the Pagan community.

My activism has, in the past, primarily focused on environmentalism. And then transgender activism, and GLB activism, within the Pagan community. And then I became an activist for consent culture (vs. rape culture) as well as an activist speaking out about issues of abuse and rape.

Where I’ve tried to be an activist for People of Color, as well as other minorities, is through using my voice to begin to speak to the issue of privilege. I feel that that is a key step in this whole process.

I use myself as an example; I’m white, heterosexual, cisgender, and female. I grew up thinking I was incredibly poor–and by comparison to my classmates, I was. I grew up in an all-white town thinking that racism was over, never realizing how many racist attitudes I was raised with. Several years ago I was (very harshly) privilege checked. The way it was done, it pissed me off and I had a bad reaction to the P-word for years. It wasn’t until talking to Crystal, and attending part of the first Pantheacon discussion on privilege that I really understood it.

A lot of my activism around privilege is practically one-on-one. I post conversations on my FB, write blogs, and I hope to introduce the concept of privilege in a way that is more accessible than how it was thrown at me the first time.

Why do I bother?

Because for me, once I understood privilege, I understood that we don’t actually live in a color blind society. I’m often appalled at my own racist assumptions. And these are just autopilot things that I never even considered; it’s just what people did and said around me when I grew up. “Lock your car door when you’re around Black people.” And, “It’s not racist if it’s true.” And dozens of other things.

By understanding my own privilege, I understood a lot more about racism, and it’s made me a better ally.

What is an Ally?
Certainly I’m not a perfect ally–I’m sure there’s more I can do, I’m just a little clueless as to what. As I said, most of my activism has focused in other areas. I see environmentalism and ecological sustainability as a core issue of social justice. Who lives next to the toxic gas exuded by factories? The poor, who are often minorities. Who gets exposed to the weird chemical runoff in the water that causes exotic cancers? The poor, who are often minorities. Who isn’t going to be able to afford to pay for clean water? The poor, who are often minorities.

My activism is usually twofold. One is, I work to live my own life in a way that is in accordance with my values. I reduce what I use and try to live more sustainably. I’m an advocate for consent culture so I shift my behavior to support that.

The other is that I speak out. Again, my platform is typically within the Pagan community, so I speak out about environmentalism and ways we can change our behavior as a community to be more environmentally sustainable. I speak out about how heteronormative rituals aren’t inclusive of gay, lesbian, and bisexual community members. I speak out against the discrimination against transgender community members. I talk about sex and abuse and consent and rape. I hope to expose people to these concepts so that, even if just within the Pagan community, we can begin to make those changes.


And I also write about privilege because I find that once people can see the perspective on their own privilege, they begin to see how the system harms those at the bottom. People of Color, GLBTQ, Pagans, the poor…there are so many who suffer because the system treats them differently. But we can’t really effectively help, or change the system, until we first SEE the system, and acknowledge our own place in it.

Privilege is usually accompanied by silence. Meaning, people who have privilege–even if they don’t see that privilege or understand how much privilege they have–don’t tend to speak out about injustice because they don’t see that injustice is happening.

And many, many people try to argue with me that they didn’t come from privilege, and they perpetuate the “American Dream” myth that anybody, regardless of class or background or ethnicity or skin color, can pull themselves up by their boot straps if they try hard enough.

As long as we hold up that myth, we are supporting the system that murders unarmed black people.

Being an ally first means acknowledging the system. And then, working to change it, even if all you are doing is speaking up to confront racism in others. You don’t have to join a protest with a sign to be an ally. But, I also acknowledge that it can be difficult to navigate how to best help as an ally.

How Can I Help?
There are ways I already speak out, but I acknowledge that there’s more I can do. Speaking for myself, I don’t always know how I can help. I’ll be more specific. As I said earlier, I’m white, I grew up in a pretty much all-white town. I’ve slowly been learning how many microaggressions I’ve committed against People of Color (check Wikipedia or Google if you want to understand microaggressions) and I’ve worked to correct that behavior.

But I don’t always know how I can best serve as an ally or activist for People of Color. I can work to wake people up to the concept of privilege…but how can I impact the larger system? How can I help?

Going further, how can I help in a way that respects Black and brown voices and doesn’t seek to put my voice above theirs?

I know that many don’t consider themselves to be activists at all. And I’ve heard with some frequency from other white Pagans that they, also, feel at a loss for how to help. What I’d love to do is begin to gather together some concrete actions that Pagans can take to combat racism.

I feel that the first step is for all of us–all of us–to acknowledge our own racism and classism. Our own privilege. Our own discrimination against minorities. Let me tell you, I was a little horrified once I realized how many racist assumptions were just ambient noise in my head. And I’ll be clear–these are things I learned from teachers, classmates, family, television.

Once I began to recognize my own racism and discrimination, I had the tools to begin to take it apart piece by piece.

Concrete Actions
What I’d like to do is put out some information–probably in the form of blog posts–about what are things that people (Pagans) can do to combat racism. And for that, I’d like your help. I’d love to pull together a list of specific, concrete things that people can do to help. Personally confronting our own privilege and racism is a start. And talking to others about racism (and checking others on racist comments) is another. Asking larger Pagan organizations with a media presence to speak out is yet another.

But what else will really help?

I’ve found that running Pagan events is very similar to activism work. When I’m running an event and I post on Facebook or in email and just vaguely ask for help, that usually gets very few results. What works better is asking people, “Will you help? Here are five concrete things that you can do that would help me.” That gets a lot better response.

In fact, in an activism workshop I was in years ago, there’s an entire category of activism that isn’t at all about being out on the streets with the signs–it’s the person who’s good at strategizing those 5 things that people can do, and coordinating the helpers.

Posting on Facebook is potentially a way to shift people’s thoughts and ideas. And I’ll keep posting on privilege because I know I get through to a few people every time I do and build the pool of allies. But I’d love to know what are other concrete actions that I can take that would help this cause.

Brainstorm and Boost the Signal
Send along your ideas in the comments, or repost this blog on your Facebook and put it in the comments there. Tag me if you post this on your Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or elsewhere, or otherwise send me an email with a link to make sure I see the comments.

If we, Pagans, want to see a world that gives us justice, we can’t sit by and watch People of Color get trampled by that same system. Let’s look at ways we can help change this system for all of us.

Filed under: Activism, Pagan Community

Boundaries, Events, and Event Planning

Posted by on Dec 2, 2014 in Pagan Community, ritual | No Comments

5984468_xlRecently Circle Sanctuary opened up registrations for Pagan Spirit Gathering, or PSG. However, in the ongoing process of hosting large-scale events, sometimes the event organizers have to change things. In the Pagan community, announcements of any change in how an event is run leads to feedback both positive and negative.

This post isn’t about PSG so much as it is about Pagans and Pagan events, and in specific, it’s about boundaries, accessibility, and the related challenges within event hosting in the Pagan community.

As a specific case study, PSG will no longer allow people to attend just the closing weekend of the traditionally week-long festival. The announcement sparked a 200-comment thread (and additional threads) with all of the types of things that I would expect, having attended and run many events. Some posts were supportive, some angry, some whiny, some downright confrontational.

As a Pagan event planner, I absolutely resonate with why Circle made this decision for PSG. But understanding the why–and the issues people have with the decision–is crucial for us to explore as a community.

Let’s give a bit of background for this particular case study. PSG is in its 35th year and has been a week-long (Sunday-Sunday) festival. Several years ago they began offering the option of weekend-only passes for the final Friday-Sunday of the event.

Here are the benefits of this:

  • Cost: This allows more people to attend who can’t afford the week
  • Time off: This allows people to attend who can’t get a week off of work (or can’t afford to take that time off)
  • New attendees: This allows people to attend for just a few days if they aren’t sure about attending a week-long event, which is a significant commitment
  • Accessibility: This allows people to attend who can’t cope with camping for an entire week

However, in the past years of offering this option, PSG organizers have observed several significant down sides to this option

  • Logistics: It was challenging for the volunteer staff to accommodate the influx of attendees at the final stretch of the event
  • Experience: People attending the final three days weren’t really getting the experience of the week-long event
  • Energy: An influx of new attendees impacted the energy container of the whole event
  • Behavior: Some of the weekend attendees (though certainly not all) seemed to be more interested in a party than a sacred experience

The complaints that I saw on the comment thread are the complaints I’ve seen any time a Pagan event organizer tries to enforce a boundary. They are the complaints I’ve fielded when organizing my own events.

Here are some of the common complaints that I hear whenever a Pagan organizer enforces a boundary on an event.

  • Cost: I can’t afford to attend that event (or the whole event)
  • Travel: I can’t afford to travel, or I don’t have transportation
  • Time: I can’t take that much time off of work/one of my family members can’t take that much time off
  • Discrimination: You’re discriminating against people who can’t take a week off/can’t afford to attend
  • Location: Why do you host that event there? That’s too far away from me
  • Timing: Why do you host that event then? I can’t attend at that time.
  • Accommodations: I can’t attend your event, my body can’t cope with camping.

Boundaries and Event Energy
Let’s talk a bit about boundaries and energy with a spiritually-focused event. I’ve been to a lot of different types of events. I’ve been to conferences, to festivals, to weekend intensives, to workshops, to coffee nights and bar nights, and to parties. They all have a different vibes.

When I was doing leadership and ritual training, any attendee would travel to Diana’s Grove (never less than a 3-hour drive) and stay on-site in cabins for 3, 4 or 7 days. It wasn’t generally allowed to arrive late or leave early. You were there eating together, sleeping in bunk houses, attending rituals and workshops together, and in general, communing together.

That communal experience was a core part of the work.

Let’s look at a similar style of event. I’ve hosted 1-day, 2-day, and 3-day intensives to teach ritual facilitation or leadership skills. While I typically offer these in a city and we aren’t staying together communally, the work still builds upon what was taught at the beginning of class.

There isn’t a single time that I offer a class where someone doesn’t ask me, “Can I just attend a few hours on Saturday?” Even for a day-long intensive. In fact, the last time I hosted a 3-day Ritual Facilitation intensive, I had several people register for the class who did not attend the Friday or Saturday session, and just showed up on Sunday. They had prepaid, and they were solid members of my local community, but in other circumstances I’d have asked them to leave. I first took them aside and said, “We’ve been working together for two days now so I’m not going to be able to backtrack and cover topics from Friday or Saturday.”

They said that they understood, but after about an hour or two they left looking very disgruntled.

I went into this a bit in my recent post on how you won’t learn the deeper mysteries in books, but in a nutshell–sometimes it’s important for an event to be set up the way it is. There are reasons for it that aren’t about how much the event costs.

There is a communal energy that forms during a weekend intensive, or during a week-long festival. The boundaries of the event and the agreements we share as a community during that time are important to the energy of the whole event. The organizers of the event are structuring boundaries…a container…a circle, of sorts…to hold that event and that community and that intention.

When you shift the boundaries of the event, you impact the energy.

Event Boundaries and Experience
Once upon a time, I offered the main ritual at a smaller festival. It was an intense ritual and people went to a place of catharsis and weeping. One of the attendees was organizing a Pagan Pride-like day-long fest in his local community and asked me to facilitate a ritual like that at his event.

I told him that I was good, but that I would not be able to pull that off. Why? Boundaries and logistics.

I’ve written about this in my book Ritual Facilitation, but the gist is, there’s a big difference in what I can do with group energy after we’ve been living together and communing for three days….and what I can do for a more casual day-long event. In that context, people might be there for workshops or they might just be stopping by for shopping, we have non-Pagans watching us in a public park, cars are driving by, it’s daytime, it’s noisy, and there’s no privacy. We don’t know each other, we haven’t connected.

Energy is sculpted. Event planning is all about sculpting the energy of an experience, whether that’s a conference, festival, intensive, workshop, or ritual.

Deciding what energy you want–what intention you’re focusing on–is a core part of event planning and leadership. And if you’re planning an event, you get to decide what intention you are supporting.

In other words, events are different. And you can’t please everyone–nor should you try.

Discrimination Against the Poor
On the other hand, we do have a real problem in our community that many true and genuine seekers don’t have the money to attend some of these events. Many teachers and organizers are not taking into account how to accommodate our less financially-sound attendees. While I don’t buy into the “Pagans won’t pay for that” mindset, or even the “Pagans are all broke” mindset, I have seen a lot of Pagans who genuinely don’t have the extra cash to attend events.

In Chicago when I’ve hosted events, I have a number of people who are genuinely broke. Like, finding bus fare money to get to the event is a stretch, kind of broke. For the folks that can’t afford to pay the event fee but are willing to help, I’ve always been willing to make accommodations. And, if you’ve ever been to one of my events, you know that I always need help with setup and takedown, because I like blinging out a space with the right decor.

At the same time, my “Sliding Scale/Scholarships/No one will be turned away for lack of funds” policy has also meant that I’ve had to cancel events. And it is, in fact, why I’m not doing as much traveling and teaching right now, and why I’ve taken a brief hiatus from offering events in Chicago.

Put bluntly, I can’t afford to be holding the bag on an event that doesn’t break even. I want to make events that everyone is welcome to, but I’ve run events where we didn’t make enough money to cover the costs of the event.

I’ve worked very hard to make offerings available to people no matter how much they can afford to donate, but in doing so, I’ve ended up covering a lot of those costs myself, and that isn’t fair to me. Nor is it fair to any other leader or event organizer who is doing this on a volunteer basis.

Events and Privilege
The truth is, attending events like conferences and festivals is a privilege. It’s not a right. And, that’s not how I want the world to work, but it’s how it is. In my ideal world, there are enough scholarship funds to go around so that those who have less income but who are dedicated seekers can still attend events.

Why someone has less income doesn’t really matter. Some, like me, live a lean life in order to live a dream as an artist or writer or activist. Others are underemployed or unemployed in the current economy. Some might be stay at home parents or have an ill family member. There are dozens of reasons why someone might not have the extra income to sink into attending a Pagan event.

And for some folks, yes, we can make the argument that “If you just cut back on one cup of coffee a week, you’d have $5 to sock away for XYZ event.” That’s true for some, and I’ve heard that argument from a few Pagan event organizers who run fairly expensive events.

But we can’t have this conversation without looking at both sides of the privilege issue. Privilege is one of those hot button words these days, particularly in the Pagan community.

Privilege is, essentially, the benefits and advantages that we have that are invisible to us. For instance, I was raised by parents who were always broke. We were on foodstamps and welfare, and I grew up thinking I was incredibly poor. And I was, in comparison to my classmates who were gifted cars on their 16th birthday. It took me years to realize I was very privileged; I grew up in a school where I got an excellent education. It was safe to play in my neighborhood after dark. Nobody was getting shot in my school. I’m well-spoken, I went to the doctor regularly, and I’m white so when I get pulled over by the police for speeding, they give me the benefit of the doubt. I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture.

Privilege sits next to entitlement. Privilege is the advantages that we don’t see, and entitlement is when we assume we should have those advantages.

Privilege and Making Events Accessible
It might piss you off to hear this, but attending a Pagan event is a privilege. You don’t have a right to attend for free.

It costs money to put that event on, and chances are that the people organizing that event is putting in a lot of hours without getting paid for their time.

Going further, while anyone has the right to complain about an event, ultimately how the event is run is up to the event organizers. And if they want to enforce a boundary on their event or change how things are run, that’s their prerogative.

On the other hand, I also don’t want to see Pagan events that are only accessible to the privileged. I don’t want to see Paganism lean the way of the New Age movement where events are only available to those who can pay hundreds of dollars.

Problem Solving: Inclusivity and Exclusivity
So what do we do? How do we continue to run excellent events while finding ways to include those who are financially struggling? The answer isn’t “The event price should be cheaper for everyone, it’s too expensive!” Nor is the answer, “Everyone who can’t afford the event should be allowed in for free.”

But the answer also isn’t, “Only those who can afford to attend should be there.” The answer isn’t, “If people just stewarded their resources better they could make it to the event.”

Check out Michelle Hill’s blog post on Pagan Activist about how she was ostracized out of several local rituals because she couldn’t afford to attend.

It’s appropriate to establish boundaries on behavior at events. It’s appropriate to charge a reasonable fee for an event. It’s appropriate to select a venue for the event. For instance, Pagan Spirit Gathering is a camping event. It’s a difficult event for people with physical limitations to attend. Heck, it’s a difficult event for me to physically do, and there will come a day where I’m not able to hack the camping.

The advantage is a camping event is less expensive than a hotel event. Pantheacon, Convocation, Paganicon, and Sacred Spaces/Between the Worlds are all events that might be easier for you to attend if you have physical challenges with camping–but there’s a price tag on it. Hotels are expensive, even if you’re sharing a room.

And when the pricing of an event eventually goes up–because, costs rise every year–people get irate.

Spiritual Home Vs. Capitalism and Consumerism
People get angry when costs rise, or when a family discount isn’t offered, or when there are other barriers to attending an event. And if you are attending an event that you consider to be your spiritual home, where you get to see friends you wouldn’t see any other time of the year…and especially if you’re not active in your local Pagan community and this is the one event during the year where you get to connect to other Pagans, I could see how terrifying that might be to discover you might not be able to go.

Maybe you have been going to that event for years but this year you can’t afford it. Maybe you could afford it if it was just you but now you have a family. Maybe you have physical difficulties this year that you didn’t have last year.

The difficulty here is that the event organizers have to pay the bills. And the event organizers can only do so much to accommodate people’s needs.

People don’t want to talk about money, so that makes it difficult to talk solutions. And Pagans tend to reject the notion of donating or tithing. But the thing is, the successful Pagan events tend to use a capitalist/consumerist model. In other words, you are paying a set fee for a good or a service, instead of donating a percentage of your income toward the hosting organization for them to utilize as needed.

The pay-per-good model tends to shut out those without the money to attend events and, by its nature, prevents the host organization from being able to offer discretionary scholarships.

I only wish that anyone who had the desire to attend an event was able to, regardless of ability to pay. But that isn’t financially sustainable for most groups/classes/events. If we build more of a giving culture in the Pagan community, things might be different. PSG, for instance, is a fundraiser for Circle Sanctuary. Not many people donate to Circle, and their operational costs are primarily raised through the registration fees for PSG. Circle does a ton of things for the Pagan community on a shoestring budget, and most of that shoestring budget comes from what they make from PSG.

We aren’t going to shift the financial culture of Paganism overnight, but it’s worth considering that there are alternatives. The crowd-funding model is one idea, but even that method largely hinges on people who are buying goods and services vs. just donating toward a worthy organization. At the very least, it’s worth considering how we charge for events.

  • For event planners, I ask the question: How might we encourage more sliding-scale payments and additional donations vs. a flat fee?
  • For event attendees, I ask: Would you donate the same amount to that organization every year if you weren’t getting something in return? What would encourage you to do so? Would you be willing to donate money toward a scholarship for those who need assistance?

Defining Boundaries
In essence, different events have a different focus, and it means that not every event is going to be for everyone. Some events are more focused on education. Some events are more of a party. Some are camping events that are really only appropriate for those physically able to attend. Other events are expensive conferences that are more physically accessible but have a higher price tag.

And until we build a culture of giving and philanthropy within the Pagan community, we’re largely stuck with the pay-per-thing model. There aren’t any “right” answers to this, but it’s something to consider when your favorite event raises their prices or changes how they are doing something–or, when your favorite event continues to run just as it is, even though that means you cannot attend any longer.

Remember that event organizers are largely volunteer and it’s a heck of a lot of work. Most event organizers do not have a nefarious plot to exclude you, it’s just that there isn’t always a great way to include everyone.

And if we want to change things for the future, we have to explore different models of doing things.

Filed under: Pagan Community, Ritual

Sexual Initiation, Discrimination, Consent, and Rape

Posted by on Nov 18, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments

Shauna Aura Knight:

I’m reblogging my post from Pagan Activist on the topic of sexual initiation, discrimination, consent, and rape.

Originally posted on Pagan Activist:

shutterstock_162051386I have heard from many people who felt pressured to undergo a sexual initiation with a teacher, coven leader, or other person in a leadership position. And by definition, if someone’s been pressured into sex, that’s not consent. It’s rape.

I believe in transparency so I want to be clear I debated with myself about posting on this topic. Why? Specifically because I have never belonged to a tradition that conveys mysteries/initiation through sex.

I’ve been accused of “destroying Wicca” with some of my blog posts about sex and consent, so I felt it was important to explore this topic. As with any of these big questions, I’m left with more questions than answers.

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What is a Magician?

Posted by on Oct 30, 2014 in magic | No Comments

shutterstock_119862811I’ve been asking the question “What is magic” for rather a while now. I tried answering it over a series of blog posts (referenced at the end) but I still come down to some challenges with the word. Then I asked myself, “Well, what is a magician?” And for me, that question is far easier to answer.

What is a magician? A magician is one who understands the inner workings of the universe.  Magician, wizard, shaman, witch, priest, priestess…there are a lot of words for this. However, overall it’s someone who knows the mysteries. Let’s look into what that actually means.

There are times when people ask me, “Do you have a spell for ___?” Or, I’ll talk to seekers who are really sure that they have Phenomenal Cosmic Power because they read a book of spells and rituals, or because they had some psychic experiences. Or, because they are convinced that they are under psychic attack. (And I have a whole separate blog post on that.) The point is, a lot of people associate magic with power. Specifically, with wanting to gain power and control.

And with magic, it seems like the appeal for many is the power and control over this invisible mysterious force.

Knowledge is Power
Let’s take things back a step to a very old axiom. Knowledge is power. Let’s take things to a very pragmatic place. Most of the words we use these days like wizard, witch, druid, all likely hail from root words that mean, in various form, “wise one.” Though these days the word “wizard” often has a bit of a silly connotation, it comes from an older word, vizier, which was a term for an advisor and leader.

Let’s look at that word “occult,” which is often misused. Occult means “hidden.” Now, when you see pictures of the Medieval-era occultist, magician, or alchemist, what do you see? Often it’s the iconic images that share rather a lot with a wizard’s study or a mad scientist’s lab. Books, scrolls, test tubes, and usually the token skull on the desk.

In fact, skulls and other remains are generally used as a visual trope to imply “creepy” when used in context of a magician. But why?

Let’s go back to an iconic mad scientist, Leonardo DaVinci. Stacks of books, secret lab, inventions, human remains? Check, check, check. Human remains are thought of as creepy, but the people who were getting in trouble for studying these things were the original scientists. Many of these magicians, alchemists, occultists, and explorers were studying human anatomy back when that was still illegal (not to mention grounds for serious consequences from the church). These were the folks studying chemistry before it became chemistry. In short, these were scientists, but they got labeled as being “creepy.”

Sound familiar? Pagans and witches and magicians have born the brunt of that branding campaign as well.

Science is Magic
The more you know, the more it’s science. And the word science seems to take the wind out of many a seeker’s sails. “But, if it’s not science, then it’s not magical!” And yet, here’s the irony. Science implies that a theory was proven, and thus, the experiment can be reliably repeated. And what many magical seekers want is a spell that is reliable and repeatable. They want to read a spell and know the exact words to say, what oil to dress the candle with, what color candle to use, what color cloth, and what herbs to burn, in order to get the desired result.

If you are looking for precise instructions and repeatable results, you’re looking for science.

And guess what. A lot of the ancient so-called “lost” mysteries of our ancient Pagan ancestors? Science again. Our ancestors tracked the four directions before they had a compass. They tracked the equinoxes and solstices in stone. They tracked the cycles of the moon and the stars. They learned how to sing and dance to go into a trance state, they learned how to use particular herbs to heal people. They knew when the drought was coming by the signs they read in the earth and the patterns of the animals. They encoded some of that knowledge into songs and stories and traditions.

Guess what all of that is? Science. The shaman/witch/druid/medicine man of the tribe was the one who knew the mysteries, the magic. They were the one who understood the deeper underpinnings of the world. What they did would seem like magic to the uninitiated. Mysterious, unknown, hidden. If you don’t know how it works, then it’s magic.

And therein lies the rub. To be a magician is to understand how much of this is actually science. And initially, that may take the magic, mystery, and power out of it. It might be deflating to see the Matrix Code underlying the universe, to understand that what you’re doing is ultimately science.

Science is Beautiful
I know what fire is. I know that it’s a chemical reaction. But, looking into a candle flame is still magical. I know what a shooting star is. I know that it’s a meteorite burning up in the atmosphere. That makes it no less beautiful to me. I know why the moon cycles, I know why the stars twinkle. I know what is happening during an eclipse. None of these things make it less cool for me. In fact, knowing the science of what’s happening sometimes makes it more fascinating. To think of the layers and layers of math that it took for that moment to occur. That this planet, our bodies, our very universe, all are a factor of physics and math that seem infinitely complex.

I sometimes think that magic is science, and spirituality is putting the art back in.

Skill and Talent
These words get conflated a lot, but there’s a core difference. A talent is something you are born with. Some people are born with artistic talent, or are born with the ability to sing with perfect pitch, or a talent for math. A skill is something you can develop. A musician may be born with talent, but they still need to learn how to sing–how to strengthen their voice, how to improve their breath control, how to use particular vocal techniques. They may need to learn how to read music, or how to write music to compose.

If you attend a concert, it might seem magical…effortless. But, it takes rather a lot of work, thought, and planning. There are the various musicians who have worked together to make the music happen, practicing day after day. There are the lighting and sound crew, there are special effects.

What does that have to do with magic? Well…if magic is something you want skill at, you have to practice. You have to learn. You have to understand. A magician sees how the world works and can use that to manipulate an outcome. The more skill you gain as a musician, or a magician, the less what you are doing feels like an invisible force. It feels like hard work that is paying off.

You may have an affinity for magic or spiritual work, a talent for it. But if you really want magic, it’s going to require developing a lot of skills. It’s going to require practice, and learning. And ultimately, it’s going to require understanding how the universe works. The more you learn, the less it’ll feel like magic, and for many this is kind of a let down.

What is a Magician?
I believe that a magician is one who has gained knowledge and wisdom. One who knows the mysteries of science and of spirit/the unseen. A magician can effect change, they can cause ripples and shift currents. The universe has places where it is liquid, changeable if you know how.

What I find to be more of a pressing question is, what will you do with your phenomenal cosmic power when you gain it? Are you just out there to put a patch job on your ego to soothe the wounds of your past, to make you feel like you are important, to make you feel that you have power over others? If so, you’re not going to get very far. That’s why so many programs of magical and personal work put a focus on personal transformation. Why, indeed, I would go so far as to say that most magicians aren’t going to be very effective until they’ve faced a number of their own shadows. None of us are ever going to be “perfect” but if you’re out there doing magic because you’re afraid everyone’s out to get you, that you’re under psychic attack, or that you have to prove something to people…that’s not going to get you very far.

It’s also not to say that every magician “must” focus their work on making the world a better place. Magic is no more good or bad than a screwdriver is good or bad. It’s science, it’s the way the world works, and it’s gaining an understanding of that. However, if you are seeking to learn magic, especially in connection to taking on a role of serving community, then you have to look at what impact you are having on the people around you and the world around you.

Below are a series of articles I’ve written mulling the idea of “what is magic.” But here’s another article that might be tangentially of interest; it’s breaking down the Egyptian word “Heka” which is usually translated as “magic” but actually tends to mean “Authoritative speech.” I’ll be exploring that more in a future post.

Filed under: Magic

Why do Ancestor Work?

Posted by on Oct 28, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments

Shauna Aura Knight:

Another great post from Tim Titus. This one explores how Ancestor work can become a little complicated, and yet, also explores some of the reasons to do this type of spiritual work.

Originally posted on Intersections:

Yesterday, my friend Erick DuPree posted a very thoughtful piece on embracing the secular Halloween and avoiding the ancestor reverence that is so important to many pagans and witches this time of year.  In a very touching way, Erick discussed his troubled history with his father and his wish to separate himself from the misogyny and racism that permeates his family line.  That same misogyny and racism is likely to pollute the family line of every person of European descent, including myself, so that is a decision I can fully understand.

Yet, I feel like there are still reasons to do ancestor work.  Don’t get me wrong – I’ve never been very good at ancestor work.  I have an ancestor altar at which I pay my respects daily, but I don’t do nearly as much work contacting my family on the other side as many other witches do.  I’m just…

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Reblog: Your Hate Has Made You Powerful

Posted by on Oct 26, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments

A while back I blogged this over on Temet Nosce but thought I’d reblog it here:

download (1)There’s a quote from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi that has nagged at me for years. In my 20′s, it was an inspiring quote that brought a lot of energy to me when the chips were down and I was fighting the good fight.

After I did a lot of feminist leadership training, I reversed my opinion on the line: “Your hate has made you powerful.”

Here’s what has itched at me.  Hate is “bad,” right? So why is it some of my greatest creative bursts come when I’ve been enraged enough to see red? I have painted large murals in mere hours when fueled by my wrath…I have felt that hot, dark pulse of creative inspiration in a moment of anger.

But if I am feeling hate, then I’m not a spiritually-developed, balanced person, right?

… the rest here:

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Reblog: The Perfect Victim

Posted by on Oct 22, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments

I’m reblogging this post that is an excellent articulation of the cycle of abuse, and it does a great job of also articulating the fallacy of the perfect victim. I know a lot of folks out there are trying to wrap their brains around abuse, and why people stay with their abuser, and how could they be so weak…and also, how could they possibly have been abused if they are larger or stronger or smart or if they talk back. Read this article if you want some insight into that. I, too, am an “imperfect victim.”

“The perfect victim is a white, cisgender, straight woman.  She’s smaller than her abuser, who is a man.  She never says anything cruel or unfair that might “provoke” him.  She’s supportive and loving, meek and gentle.  Her abuser is violently physical, and she finally leaves when he hurts her so badly that it opens her eyes.  She has to protect her children.  Or maybe just herself; that might be okay. She certainly never, ever hits back. She is as rare as a unicorn, and the rest of us, we imperfect victims, are deemed unworthy of compassion and support by comparison. “

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Facilitation and Public Speaking: Tips for Authors

Posted by on Oct 20, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments

Shauna Aura Knight:

I posted this article on facilitation; while it isn’t specific to Pagan groups and it focuses on authors, the tips may be of general use. Enjoy!

Originally posted on Shauna Aura Knight:

shutterstock_148262060Many authors dread public speaking, and it’s the number one fear people cite. I recall attending panel discussions at science fiction and fantasy conventions in my twenties, thinking, I could never do that. Then, there was a point in my life where I had to let go of that fear. I realized, if I want to do the work that calls to me, I have to be able to speak in front of a group.

That moment helped me push through the sometimes awkward learning process. Here’s the good news; there are many easy skills that you can learn to be a better presenter. The bad news is; it’s a process of skill building and just plain getting used to doing it. It gets easier with time, but you still have to do the time.

Here are a few tips to improve your public speaking, and we’ll start with tools that…

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Mysteries: You Won’t Learn This In Books

Posted by on Oct 20, 2014 in magic, Pagan Community | No Comments


The first thing most seekers want is books. And yes–books are valuable. I write books, I read books. But some things, you just can’t learn from reading. And that’s people involved in spiritual work mean when we say, “It’s a mystery.” The mysteries are the things that we can write about over and over, but you really won’t get it until you’ve experienced them for yourself.

I field a lot of questions from seekers on various online lists and groups, as well as when I travel and teach at events or offer events in Chicago. What’s the first question people usually ask me?

“What books should I read?”

What Do I Recommend?
First, let me offer what I usually recommend as far as books go, and then I’ll go into the difficulty with the book-focused Pagan seeker.

I usually recommend River and Joyce Higginbotham’s book Paganism because, though it does have a leaning toward a Wiccanate perspective or what I call “post-Wicca,” it’s not teaching Wicca specifically and it offers exercises to determine what you believe before choosing a particular tradition. It’s a book that many people gift to their friends/parents when they are coming out, so it’s pretty accessible.

However–I tell them that this is just a beginning, a way to figure out what they believe. The book offers some tools to figure out, are you a pantheist or a polytheist, what your core beliefs are, and more. These things are all useful in helping a seeker to figure out what tradition might be of interest.

Attend Rituals
Early on I try to encourage people to go and attend public Pagan events to get a sense of what might call to them. I suggest that they attend the rituals of different groups’ rituals. If it’s in Chicagoland, or another area where I have taught, I give them a run down of local groups. I try to give them a heads up on necessary local politics, for lack of better words, without overwhelming them. For instance, “There’s XYZ tradition that meets for sabbats over at ABC venue. They are nice folks, but they’ve been running that group for over a decade so they are a little bit of a clique. However, if you like the ritual work, keep going and you can become a part of the crew, just know that it’ll take time, and I know that’s frustrating for someone who shows up not knowing anyone.” Etc, etc.

But so very often, I know that people don’t ever go out and attend anything.

Why the Focus on Books?
Overall, I hear people wanting me to recommend books. And I think there are a few reasons, some that are helpful and some that aren’t. There are various online programs for Pagans these days that have hundreds, if not thousands of people signed up. Why? They want someone to tell them what to read, what they need to learn, and to say, “Yes, you passed this class.”

In the worst cases, we’re talking about seekers who fit a certain profile. These would be Pagans who come to it wanting to learn “powerful magic.” They want to learn the spell that will “magically” fix their life, which feels broken. Truth is, these folks are often wracked with poor self esteem. These are people who have been bulldozed by life, bullied, hurt. They want the power to change their lives and they think Paganism/Wicca/Spells is going to do it. And for these folks, no spellwork is going to fix their lives, not until they do the deep personal work. That work is possible to do from books, but, it’s also definitely one of those mysteries that a book can’t contain. It’s dependent on the individual practitioner.

I think that a lot of seekers are looking for a way to learn without having to physically attend a class. I also think many seekers are looking for a replication of their primary school experience where someone says, “Yes, I approve of you, you got an A. You have learned these mysteries.” Sometimes it’s a matter of travel distance–they are in a rural area without good transportation to get to any group activities. Or, they are Hellenic Reconstructionist and there aren’t any recons in their area, only Wiccan covens.Add to that all the cranky leaders and dysfunctional groups out there, as well as the really poorly-facilitated rituals, and I can see why people go for books.

Books are easier.

However, we start to run into a problem. Many Pagans confide in me that, though they’ve been reading Pagan books for 5-10 years, they have never ever felt like they could do a ritual, even a private one for themselves, because they are worried they don’t know enough.

Problems With the System
I think that it’s easier for people to go to books because people are afraid of looking stupid. There isn’t a lot of easy access to 101 education except through books. There are teaching covens, and the occasional Pagan class, or a bigger name author comes through town to teach a class, but in many areas there’s not really good access to basic 101 education unless you are taking an oath to a particular tradition. And, I have some issues about that, largely in how the word “oathbound” is often used to facilitate abuse, but that’s another post entirely.

In addition, most public rituals I have attended are really poorly facilitated, particularly in the sense of being accessible to new seekers. Many of these rituals give absolutely no way for people to access the divine unless they are already advanced practitioners on their own. I use ecstatic ritual not necessarily because of my theology, but because of science. It works. I’m not there to tell you what the divine looks like, I’m there to get you singing and dancing and in a trance state so that you can get there on your own.

I have actually burst into tears on a few occasions when people attend one of my rituals and say, “I’ve been Pagan for 20 years and I’ve never actually felt anything in ritual until now.” I’m not trying to toot my own horn–I’m just using the ecstatic ritual techniques that I learned. Techniques anyone can learn to use, but they don’t. They do ritual the way they learned to do ritual, without perhaps every questioning if there is a better, more effective way to do it.

It Takes Time to Learn This Stuff
Right now I’m struggling to write a book on how to facilitate effective rituals, because, it really is stuff that needs to be taught in person. I can talk to you about singing techniques and breath control, which is wholly different from the experience of 50 of us singing together and learning how to use that to connect to the divine. There’s a value in the book as a textbook. As a resource to explain how it works. But if you want to learn how to facilitate effective rituals, you need to do that in person. And you need to devote the time to it.

People often ask me to teach leadership and ritual techniques in 1.5 hour time slots, or maybe 3-4 hours, but when I propose a whole day, a weekend, or a 3-day, they are like, “Oh, no, that’s too long. We can’t take that much time”

It takes days of working together to get a group into an intimate/spiritual/working headspace. It takes that long to begin to break through the ego barrier, and that’s a whole function of the mysteries that is difficult to explain, and must be experienced. At Recaliming Witchcamps and intensives, or Diana’s Grove intensives, we had 3 or more days to get into the groove. They were retreats–you are away from the world, and there’s a reason that that is important for work like this.

Can’t You Teach That in an Hour?
If you want to actually learn leadership and facilitation, or, do deep personal transformative mystery school work, it’s a big time commitment. A decade ago, I experienced that it was a lot easier to fill a room full of 20 people for a weekend intensive. These days, people will ask me, “Can I just show up for part of one day?” Which…totally defeats the purpose of the intensive. Last time I taught a 3-day ritual intensive in Chicago, I had a local group leader (who had pre-registered) and 2 of his volunteers (who had not pre-registered) show up on the third day, and then get frustrated that nothing made sense.

I have found it harder and harder to get people to commit to longer intensives. It’s not just a money thing–given I always charge on a sliding scale. (There is the factor of people who can’t afford to take the time off of work, of course.). I do notice that more affluent people tend to be more willing to make the time commitment. Specifically, even when I offer reduced rates for people that I know are struggling financially, that doesn’t necessarily mean those folks will attend the class I’m offering.

It seems to be partially an issue of numbers within the Pagan community. In any given area, there often just isn’t a critical mass of interested folks to be able to offer education that is energetically and financially sustainable. It’s also an issue of dedication and effort. Again, it’s easier to pick up a book and read it when you feel like it. Way, way harder to drive 3 hours to the woods for several days to live communally, or devote three days a month to intensive education.

It seems like there are less and less people willing to make the sacrifice of the time commitment to do this work. It’s way easier to just buy a book. Even easier to buy a book that sits on a shelf and you don’t actually read or do the exercises.

What Would Offer a Better Model?
The most successful community models I’ve seen are congregational Pagan communities, usually organizing out of a UU church or some other unity initiative where it’s about community gatherings, not about one specific tradition.

I’ve been on a soap box about why Pagans need to learn how to raise money as groups. Because it takes money to be able to offer this work, there’s no way around it. You need space to do the work–land, or a rented retreat center or any private venue. You need facilitators, and you need facilitators who can devote their professional focus to that work. The only way to do that is to have self sustaining clergy/leaders, and the only way to do that is through some kind of tithing/fundraising.

I also see various organizations that serve the broader Pagan community emerging (or growing stronger) and I believe those resources will help.

But ultimately, I have to face a truth. You can lead the horse to water but you can’t make it drink. I can offer education to my community, but I can’t make anyone decide to sacrifice the time that it’s going to take to really learn these things. Individual seekers need to make that decision for themselves. But, there is another simple truth. Either you devote the time, or you don’t. And if you aren’t willing to devote the time, don’t expect to gain mastery.

Books are an excellent resource. They can help you begin your path. They can offer resources as you go along. They can teach you tools and techniques, give you background. Books are still part of the process.

However, if all you’re willing to do is read a book or a web site, don’t expect to experience the deeper mysteries.

Filed under: Magic, Pagan Community

Activism, Burnout, and Magic

shutterstock_18780682Sometimes bloggers will ask me to write a bit about my thoughts on a particular issue…and, being longwinded, I usually have a hard time coming up with a a concise quote. Tim Titus asked a really pertinent question and I had a lot of answer, so here’s the full text of what I wrote in response.

The issue is activism, overwhelm, burnout, and magic.

Tim Titus asked me:

“There are so many pressing social, environmental, human rights, and justice issues across the world right now that it can be hard to keep up. Many witches and other magickal people want to help, but the problems seem so widespread and so intractable that it can be hard to know where to start. Sometimes that leads us to just give up. How do you choose issues to take action on? Knowing that we can’t always physically lend aid, What magickal acts can you suggest to help heal some of the world’s most difficult problems?”


Here’s the original blog post on Tim’s site along with some great quotes from other Pagans.

This topic something I think about a lot. I’ve suffered various types of burnout not just as an activist but as an event planner, as an artist, and a writer. Specifically as an activist, I’ve learned to limit my focus. When I worry about all the ills of the world I get overwhelmed, stressed out, and I freeze up. In fact, as a kid I was so hypersensitive that seeing TV commercials with the starving kids in Ethiopia would make me physically ill. As an adult, I realized that watching the news stressed me out. In fact, I can’t even really watch TV shows about characters who are horrible people because I get too upset. I think about all the horrible people out there in the world and I want to just crawl into bed and hide.

While there are a lot of things in this world I’m concerned about, my activism in the past has primarily focused on environmental issues. While I’ve blogged and spoken about environmental activism to educate people how to live more sustainable lives, the bulk of my activism there has been through living more simply and reducing my own impact. I’ve also done a lot of what I’d call daily activism in the area of speaking up about privilege, bullying, racism, homophobia and transgender discrimination.

Impact on the Activist
Of late, my activism has focused a lot on supporting a sex positive culture and fighting rape culture, particularly within the Pagan umbrella. That’s a type of activism that works well with the resources I have at my disposal—social media, blogs, articles, and public speaking. I have written books, I have a following, and so I have a voice within the Pagan community/communities.

However, I’m the first to admit that this particular activism has also proven to be really emotionally exhausting. Whenever I put up a blog post taking someone to task or asking for accountability, and especially speaking up about sex and ethics issues, what folks might not realize is that I’m then dealing with days of intense comments. I’m dealing with the occasional hatemail, or even just long discussions with people who disagree with me. I value dissent, however, living my values and talking things out takes hours of time, and costs me in terms of stress and anxiety.

I also receive numerous messages from people who have been abused and who need someone to share their story with who will understand. Sometimes I’ll get a huge email from someone telling me about their story that they can’t speak up about because of the recriminations they will face. Other times people ask me to talk to them on the phone. And I’m honored that people feel safe checking in with me, but it is a lot of emotional weight to carry.

So every time I post one of those really intense articles or blog posts, we’re talking at least a full-time day of managing comments and emails, and about a week of what I’d sum up as emotional fallout.

What’s the impact on my life? Well, I’m mostly a hermit.

As an introvert, one of my primary coping mechanisms to avoid stress is simple; I avoid people most of the time. The more anxiety I have in my life, the harder it is for me to have the emotional resources to do things like simple social events. The impact on my life is that speaking up about these things and dealing with the fallout makes it hard for me to write, paint, or design–in other words, to do the things that bring in income.

The impact on my life is that the more stress I’m under, the harder it is for me to want to teach workshops at a Pagan Pride, or to organize a class or workshop in my local community, or even to go out on a date.

I value the work that I’m doing, and I acknowledge that activism is sacrifice. To build the world I want, I’m willing to let a little bit of my own blood. I mean that metaphorically in terms of my own energy. In other words, I’m willing to exchange some of my own life force to bring about the change; no change ever happened by everybody being comfortable. Someone has to sit in the wrong spot on the bus, drink from the water fountain, chain yourself to the tree, blow the whistle.

But, the various shaming, victim blaming, and other crap that I deal with has begun to edge toward “more than I’m willing to give.”

How Does Magic Help?
To the question of what magical acts I can suggest…that’s probably the toughest part of this question, because my relationship to the word “magic” is complicated. Or rather—I have struggled the past years to redefine magic for myself. I look at magic as understanding the mysteries of how the world works behind the scenes. I see magic as the power of transformation. Thus, I understand magic mostly in the sense of, determining a goal, and marshaling my resources (energetic, mental, and physical) toward that goal.

However, in the Pagan community, I experience that many people use the word “magic” to mean, “Imagining that I’m sending energy to something when I’m not willing to do the actual work to make it happen.”

So I tend to be leery of using the word “magic” in terms of activism.

Here’s the thing. Changing the world isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of work. There’s setting intention, and then there’s the physical work to do it. That’s part of magic too. While rituals and spells absolutely serve to set that intention, they also aren’t the whole package. You can’t say, “I want to heal the earth,” and then keep drinking bottled water and using resources the way most people do.

Once, years ago, I was asked to facilitate an earth healing ritual at a festival, and I likely will never do so again.Why? Because years later, the people of that festival leave piles of trash behind them when they return home. They eagerly discuss all year long all the extra camping supplies they’ll bring, and they load in tons of things like flats of bottled water and beer, and then they fail to even sort their recycling.

Maybe the ritual helped inspire some of them reduce their use of resources…but I think for most of them it was a way to fell like they were doing something to heal the earth, when they really weren’t. I think for most of them it was a “feel good” ritual.

Magic and Dedication
If you want magic, if you want change, it requires dedication. One of the daily pieces of magic that I do is speaking the truth. What I mean by that is, I’ve taken a vow to—as best I can—speak the truth. And that’s far more complicated than you might think. However, over time, this means that my words have more power, more magic, more ability to transform the world.

Here’s an example. Most people say, “I have to go do ___.” Do you have to? Or, are you choosing to? It doesn’t matter if the task is unpleasant and you’d rather not. Today I chose to go to the Post Office and spend $100 mailing out packages. I didn’t have to, I chose to. Many people say, “I have to go visit family for the holidays.” Or when asked if they can help with something, people will make up an excuse. “Oh, I can’t, I’m washing my hair.” We tell lies all the time.

I work to speak the truth, even when it’s awkward. I try to keep my tongue clean of lies and half truths. It not only builds up my personal magic, but my relentless honesty is part of what gives my blogs, articles, and public speaking their power. People believe me because they know I speak the truth. And–to speak the truth here, I don’t always manage it. I do my best to speak the truth whenever possible, but there are times when I slip up and speak the easy white lie or the half truth. But this is something I work hard at.

It takes daily commitment, and this is just one of my daily practices. Other consistent magical practices I engage in are relentless personal work and shadow work.

I suppose what I mean is, I think people mistake “magic” for “easy.” Magic is still work. However—what I would say is two things if you are finding yourself overwhelmed.

  1. If you are finding yourself overwhelmed by all the pain out there, you might need to take some space and work on your boundaries. You might need to say “No, I can’t help with that” for a while. And you might need to look at what activism to focus on, which is both looking at what you are most passionate about, and where you can have the most impact. There are a lot of different types of activism. I go back to the axiom, Know Thyself. Focus on what you care about, not on what you “should” be helping with. If you focus on the “shoulds” you’ll lose energy fast. Focus on where your fire is; your passion for the cause is your fuel. A good rule of thumb is, if it doesn’t piss you off, it’s probably not your calling.
  2. The other thing is that there is some magic that is really effective at transforming ourselves to keep our spirits up.

Magic for Centering
As someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, I admit I don’t always use the tools at my disposal. Some of the tools that come from magic and ritual that are excellent for centering ourselves and keeping our spirits up include listening to music, and especially singing along to music or singing chants, using singing bowls…sound is incredibly powerful magic and can help you shift your mood from sad/anxious/depressed and into a more focused head space where you are making better decisions. Light a candle, light incense, do some intentional movement like Yoga or Tai Chi or exercise or go out dancing, or other forms of meditation.

I call this “short term” magic; the various actions we perform when doing ritual, spellwork, or personal devotional practice aren’t necessarily going to change the world in the long term, but they’re going to help you to be able to center and keep your focus so that you can sustain doing the work.

Magic and the Vision of the Future
Overall, a lot of magic is about knowing what the goal is, and looking at how you will approach working toward transforming yourself and the world to support that goal. And—for some of the big activism, there’s the realization that you will die with the work unfinished.

Let me tell you, that one’s hard. I’m still working with wrapping my head around that one. Look at the goals, and look at what you can, as an individual, reasonably accomplish. Keeping focus may help you to reduce your overwhelm.

I wish I could say pretty things here. I wish I could say it gets easier, but the truth is, most activists burn out. The truth is, most activists end up pissing people off because they are vocal about what they’d like to see change and speaking up about issues. The truth is, many activists have a hard time sleeping because they see shit running through their brain and can’t shut it off. Many activists have a hard  time being happy because they are so sensitive tot he pain in the world around them. Because they see past the curtain. They see the Matrix Code, as it were.

I’m writing this at a point of some serious activist burnout on my part. Writing about sex and ethics and leadership ethics in the Pagan community and having so many people tell me they’ve been sexually abused…and so many other people say that they still support leaders/teachers who are abusive. Or people saying that if you take sexually abusive practices out of their tradition it’s destroying their tradition…seeing so many verbally abusive Pagan leaders out there…it’s wearying.

When I post a blog about the abuses I went through with my ex fiance, I will have people simultaneously message me and yell at me to say, “Quit defending him, you keep making excuses for him,” and others messaging me saying, “Quit your whining, you blame everything on him, I’m sick of your woe-is-me posts.” And far worse messages, and the occasional threat.

I’m not really doing a good job with this post on selling people on being an activist, am I?

However, here’s why I keep at it. Because if I don’t, who will do this work? If I don’t act, can I look at myself in the mirror? Can I look into the faces of the next generation and feel like I did my best?

Callings aren’t easy. But somebody’s gotta do it.

For another great post on determining where to focus your energy as an activist, and when to hold a boundary, check out my friend Lauren’s post on Pagan Activist.

Filed under: Activism, Leadership, Magic, Pagan Community

Activism, Leadership, Trolls, and Accountability

Posted by on Oct 6, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments

Shauna Aura Knight:

Here is my newest post for Pagan Activist on how activists are leaders–whether or not we signed up for the job. And how we all need to look at the impact of our actions. Those of us with power, with a voice, need to step up and take responsibility, because our actions have larger impacts.

Originally posted on Pagan Activist:

shutterstock_41419060– By Shauna Aura Knight

Lately I’ve seen a lot of examples of Pagan leaders acting badly. Or, perhaps to be more accurate, spotlights on leaders who have acted badly and are finally being called on the carpet for their poor behavior. There are a lot of conversations happening in the Pagan blogosphere, particularly since the arrest of Kenny Klein on charges of child pornography, about problems with sex, abuse, and poor leadership.

The ripple effects of that–and the questions it has raised about Pagan community and events–have brought up further issues of leadership. What does this have to do with activism?

If you’re an activist, you’re a leader. Whether or not you wanted to be one. And when you are a leader–when you stand up, when you take an action–your actions have more consequences, more impact. Leaders must take more responsibility because we have a greater impact.

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Filed under: Uncategorized

But I’m Always Right! Pagan Know-it-alls

9046121_xxlI’m on a number of Facebook groups, including groups for Pagan leaders. From time to time, I’ll see people make comments that are really condescending, but that also invite conversation on the topic. However, when people offer a different perspective, or ask what they meant by some of the terms, the person will launch into a heavy debate with them, often escalating into a personal attack. The underlying theme seems be a bait and attack from the perspective of, “You are all neophytes and of course I am right about everything.”

Not a day earlier, someone on a Facebook group for a popular Pagan festival was asking if it was possible for there to be an etiquette guide to prevent attendees at workshops from interrupting the workshop leader or worse, playing the one-up-the-presenter game.

The resulting conversation discussed how it is unfortunately common that at Pagan workshops, there’s often one attendee who will heckle a presenter, particularly a new or nervous presenter. It’s often someone who is an expert–or who thinks they are an expert. Last week I focused on facilitation techniques for how to deal with extreme situations where you’re being interrupted or heckled.

This article focuses more on understanding why someone’s interrupting, and techniques to prevent those interruptions.

I think that both examples above are talking about roughly the same thing. We’re talking about trolls and Know-it-alls. But, in some cases, we’re also talking about people who may have different social norms than we do. And in some other cases, we might be talking about someone on the autism spectrum. Knowing the difference is important.

This article addresses two main factors:

  1. Understanding the difference between social norms, intentional disruption, and whether or not someone is going to be able to be self-reflective about their behavior and recognize what is, and what isn’t, appropriate in a particular group.
  2. The other is, as a facilitator, techniques to keep Know-it-alls and other interrupters from taking over your workshop.

Fear of Hecklers
One of the reasons that I teach workshops on how to teach workshops is that many  of the newer/emerging public speakers that I’ve talked to over the years express that they are absolutely petrified of hecklers. Now, I use the term hecklers because, there’s a huge difference from someone who’s very experienced in an area attending a class, and someone who is interrupting the presenter.

I’m lucky in that in my early facilitation, I was in a supportive environment. But there was a time where, if I had been interrupted by Know-it-alls, I would have gotten flustered, totally lost my train of thought, and had massive anxiety.

Public speaking is especially difficult to step into; in fact, fear of public speaking is one of our most common fears, as humans. Why? Ultimately, it’s fear of rejection–if I screw up as a public speaker, then people won’t like me, moreso, they won’t value me, and they’ll kick me out of the communal cave and I’ll be alone and die. We’re talking to reptile brain here so it doesn’t have to make rational sense.

Facilitation is actually fairly complicated to get good at. I liken it to parallel parking; at first, you’re thinking about every little thing and you’re nervous as heck, but once you get the hang of it, it gets easier.

I myself don’t get many interrupters, in part because I set up really clear agreements, and I have fairly confident body language. Paradoxically, newer, more nervous facilitators are the most likely to get interrupters.

Facilitator Pro Tip
One of the type of facilitation that is the most prone to interruption from a Know-it-all is the “pompous windbag” approach. And, newer facilitators are prone to this, whether or not they intend to be. There’s a huge difference between being confident, and being an arrogant show-off. Many workshop teachers become, themselves, a Know-it-all, and thus they irritate any potential Know-it-alls in their group.

  • If you’re standing up in front of a group and officiously talking at them in “expert voice” for an hour and a half, you’re asking to get interrupted.
  • If you’re approaching things from the, “My way is the One Right Way” approach, that also sets you up for disagreement.
  • If you have a really defensive personality/communication style, that actually invites people to attack you.

When you give people a short opportunity to speak and be heard, especially early on in your workshop, that derails a lot of Know-it-all behavior later.

Know-it-all-itis is fairly common, in my experience, among people who have poor self esteem. In the Iron Pentacle teaching tool that Reclaiming and the Feri tradition use, the idea is that you want to be in balance. Looking at Pride, for instance, or self image, we want to be confident. Iron is where we want to be at; iron is strong, solid. However, we often slide into the Gilded or the Rusted pentacle. Gilded would be arrogance, Rusted would be self deprecation.

Poor self confidence and self esteem are–in my opinion–an example of why Pagans and Pagan leaders often have such a difficult time working together.

In fact, the root of the problem with most Know-it-alls is that they want your respect and admiration because they know so much. Unfortunately, this is what most therapists would probably call an unsuccessful strategy to get their need for respect met.

Default Behaviors
Let’s look at an attendee at a workshop who interrupts, or even tries to one-up, the presenter. The thing is, we all have different cultural assumptions about what behavior is all right in a group. For that matter, we each have differing individual autopilots. There are folks who love to debate and who have no idea how offensive they come across to those of us who prefer nonviolent communication. There are folks who are stuck in the autopilot of “I have to be right” and have no idea that they are coming across in a way that is really pretentious or aggressive.

I’d say a lot of my work as a leader is trying to figure out if someone in my group (or my workshop, or whatever) is intentionally being a jerk, or is just clueless.

For instance, usually I teach in the Midwest. When I teach further south, I notice a lot of people will just light up a cigarette in the workshop. Nobody around Chicago would ever do that. They aren’t trying to be rude–that’s just a social norm there. My long-ago ex husband was raised in a household where people would smash their fists on the dinner table and enjoy a rousing debate, which I found tremendously aggressive and startling.

I think that one of the paths to leadership is being self aware of our own autopilot tendencies, and working on transforming them. I’m not going to be a very effective leader if I keep offending everyone around me. I think there’s a huge difference between the idea of changing ourselves to fit someone else’s expectation and then losing something of ourselves, vs. finding out what we do that’s really offensive and working to shift that behavior.

Example: Here’s a behavior I’ve worked to shift in myself. I used to be the control freak boss/leader who would do a crappy job of explaining what I wanted my employee or volunteer to do, and then when they failed to do it properly, I’d roll my eyes and say, “Let me just do it,” and practically take it out of their hands. Then, my boss did that to me and I realized how annoying it was. It’s still one of my tendencies, but, I’ve worked to notice when I’m doing it so that I can shift my behavior and not be a jerk. I’m a way more effective leader for it.

Identifying Disruptors
In Chicago I hosted a 3-day ritual facilitation intensive and there was one participant who really had no business being there. She was looking for people to do magic for her, not learning how to facilitate ritual. She was clingy with the facilitators and would bug them in the time before, after, and in between sessions asking non-relevant questions or chat their ear off talking. Every time we went around the circle asking people to comment on a topic or ask questions, she’d randomly talk about her family; it was a total non-sequitur.

Basically I tried to gracefully move things along to reduce her impact. At the time I made the choice to not kick her out of the class as I felt that would have been more traumatic and disruptive than minimizing her impact. However, I’d never allow her into an intensive again. Usually someone like that isn’t too disruptive in the 1.5 hour format, but over 3 days it can distract a group.

What’s usually more immediately disruptive is the person who jumps in to talk, or worse, corrects the facilitator. And it is unfortunately really common in the Pagan community.

Supporting a Weaker Facilitator
I admit it. I sometimes I attend workshops and then internally groan because I can tell the facilitator isn’t really knowledgeable, and then I’m stuck there for an hour and a half. Sometimes, I choose to excuse myself if it wouldn’t be horrifyingly rude. More frequently, I attend workshops where the content is good, but the facilitator is so nervous that it makes it hard to listen to them. I usually try to throw my whole focus to that facilitator. Energetically, this helps others to focus on the facilitator.

It’s particularly helpful at a festival where there’s lots of sound distractions.

The only time I would consider offering a comment to contradict with a workshop facilitator is if they are posing some things that are actually a little dangerous. Like, if I attended someone’s workshop and they talked about pressuring people into sexual situations, I’d probably ethically have to step up and say something against that.

But if someone’s teaching a chakra workshop and gets some of the chakras wrong…well, nobody’s going to die. They just might be a little confused when they pick up a chakra book later on.

Dealing with Hecklers
There are ways to facilitate workshops that both 1. reduce the interruptions you get, and also 2. handle the interruptions gracefully. However, these are also techniques that require some practice, and might be difficult for a very new facilitator to use. It’s a lot to keep track of, but it does get easier with time and practice.

I’ll admit, I don’t really have a lot of hecklers in my workshops, even though this is, unfortunately, very common at Pagan events. I do have people who occasionally interject and start taking up too much of the group’s time, or people who start taking things on a tangent.

Partially that’s because I’m a confident facilitator. And partially it’s because at the beginning of most workshops and rituals I set up clear group agreements.

Why You Need Group Agreements
Some groups need really strong facilitation and clear agreements. Others are really naturally polite or at least, share your social norms. It depends greatly on many factors. However, there’s a leadership rule of thumb that is especially visible in facilitation: If you want something, ask for it. If you don’t, then you can’t whine that you didn’t get it. I can’t expect people to read my mind.

For instance, the example I offered earlier about people in some areas who are used to being able to smoke at workshops. It didn’t occur to me to ask people not to smoke in my workshop because I’d never taught at an event where people did that. However, now I know to look at cultural norms; when I teach in areas with a lot of smokers, I ask people to not smoke in the workshop.

Years ago, I helped to bring together about 30 Pagan community leaders in Chicago to meet and network. For the first meeting, I laid out a number of specific ground rules so that we didn’t start some kind of a Pagan interstellar war. One woman later told me that she was offended that I set up those ground rules. “What are we, children?” she snarled at me. “We don’t need to be told to treat each other with respect.”

…….So at the next meeting, we didn’t set up any ground rules. The meeting ran 2 hours longer than we’d scheduled it, people were talking and droning on and on for forever, there was no focus, people got snarky.

At the end, I gently suggested that we might establish a facilitator and some ground rules, and that didn’t mean the facilitator was in charge, just that they were keeping things on track. Some rules we agreed to were things like:

“We come here together in mutual respect. And what that means is, we wait our turn to talk, we don’t have side conversations, and when we’re making a point, we don’t talk for more than a minute, maybe 2 if it’s really important/complicated.” Etc, etc.

Example Group Agreements
One agreement I frequently bring up is, “We’ve only got an hour and a half for this workshop, and it’s my job to keep things on track so I can teach you what I promised. So I might have to interrupt you or close down a discussion, even if it’s interesting, so that we can move forward. This isn’t a judgment, and we can always talk later. Does that sound good?” And everyone nods, so I have their consent on that, and on the rare occasions I do have to shut someone down, they tend to be more agreeable about it.

Now, in the case that someone’s being rude, I have no problems ejecting them from my class. I tend to do a 2-3 strikes thing. And it’s energetic–there’s a difference between someone who clearly doesn’t know that they are rambling on and taking up airtime, or taking us on a tangent, and someone who is being a know-it-all or worse.

I don’t generally need to say, “Nobody punch anybody,” but if I’m hosting a discussion night, I might say, “If you are really passionate about a point, please don’t lean forward and pound the table, or get in anyone’s face. Please do not engage in ad hominem attacks, and please do not shout.”

Here are my more standard group agreements for any workshop where we’re doing deep personal transformation work.

We all come here in mutual respect, and what mutual respect looks like is this:

  • I ask that each participant listen to others when they are speaking and not interrupt or have side conversations.
  • I also ask that you listen to what people are saying, but don’t offer suggestions or try to fix them. Just hear them.
  • I ask that each person speak from their own experience, or I-referencing; if you’re not clear on what that means, don’t worry. I may ask you to rephrase something and see how that changes the meaning for you.
  • I ask that each person take responsibility for themselves. That means if you need to get water or go to the bathroom, or smoke a cigarette, you can take care of that on your own. You don’t need to raise your hand, but if you’re going to smoke you need to be far enough away that it doesn’t drift here.
  • This also includes personal responsibility for your emotions. If we’re discussing an intense topic and you need to step out, you’re welcome to. If you are having an emotional response to something and you are crying, I’m not going to come over and try to hold you or fix you. If you need something, if you want a hug, you can ask for that, but I won’t make the assumption for what you need, and I ask each of us to do the same. Wait for someone to ask for what they need instead of assuming they want us to hold them or fix them. Yes, holding space while someone weeps can be uncomfortable. But, I can tell you that if you come over and make soothing noises and hug me, that’s going to shut down my process when I just need to grieve.
  • Please be aware of how much time you are taking when you speak. We’ll have several opportunities to go around and check in about various topics. Try to keep your responses short. We only have so much time here together, and I want to make sure that each person has an opportunity to speak.

Sometimes there are agreements that I add in as well, like confidentiality, and sometimes there are agreements I don’t focus on as much, like the emotional self responsibility.

The Problem with Late Arrivals
Pagan Standard Time is actually directly responsible for some of the challenges in facilitation. When I facilitate a class, it’s layered. It builds in intensity, and the workshop depends upon the growing trust of the group.

Part of what makes that happen is the first 15 minutes of the class.

  • Introduction (1-2 minutes)
  • Ground rules (1-2 minutes)
  • Check in (5-15 minutes) where each person mentions why they are there. In a large class, I may have to do it more brainstorming/popcorning, but I try to go around and have everyone at least speak their name into the circle.

So imagine someone’s coming in 5 minutes late. They’ve missed the ground rules. Which means I have to decide, as a facilitator, whether or not to take a minute and repeat them, or not. Knowing that if I don’t ask for the ground rules, I may risk the rules not being followed. And that happens all the time; often when I opt to not go over agreements, the late arrival is the one breaking the agreements.

Then imagine someone coming in 15 minutes late. They’re coming in while people are sharing why they are there but they’ve missed what everyone else has said. In some personal growth-focused workshops, my next step is to introduce a topic, and then have people share more about their own experiences. But, when a new person shows up in the middle, they don’t feel safe. That safety is built upon the structure of the workshops, layered intimacy and agreements.

It’s similar in a ritual; safety and intimacy and connection are built over time from people speaking and sharing within the safe container of a group with clear agreements.

Going Deeper into Behavior
As a facilitator and leader, I have read a lot on psychology, personality disorders, multiple learning modalities, and a lot of other related topics. In fact, most of the things that I teach with ritual facilitation is more based in the psychology of how we learn things vs. any one religious or magical tradition.

In other words, I work hard to understand people. And I have to understand the difference between someone who’s being a jerk on purpose because they like drama, someone who’s just clueless and who can learn that their behavior is inappropriate, and someone who is on the autism spectrum who may not be able to read body language.

The woman I mentioned in that ritual facilitation intensive seemed to have some of the behaviors of someone with a brain injury, or who is on the autism spectrum. Her behavior was absolutely not malicious, but she clearly had no comprehension of body language or appropriateness of her topic.

I’d welcome her as an attendee at a public ritual, so long as she wasn’t disruptive, but it’s not appropriate for her to attend a leadership class given the disruptiveness of her behavior in that context.

Poor Social Skills
Now, I’ve also had lots and lots of people in workshops and at events who were just unsocialized, or, who grew up with different social expectations. I mean, heck, I used to be a total shy wallflower who told stupid jokes. I couldn’t even make eye contact with people. I had no idea how to be social, how to be around people without sounding like a doofus.

And I’ll tell you my deep dark secret; when I’m around someone who makes me nervous, I sometimes default to that behavior. I notice it because I have a lot of anxiety and I start making stupid jokes to break the tension. So believe me when I say that I  have compassion for people who are just socially clueless.

At the same time, my responsibility as a facilitator is to make space for the whole group.

One-on-One Conversations
I might have conversations with people one-on-one about their behavior. This is in the context of someone who is a regular attendee of my workshops, rituals, or other events. This wouldn’t really work if it’s just a one-off workshop at a festival. If my energetic read of someone indicates that the person may just not be reading body language, or might be socially clueless as I once was, I’ll have a conversation with them about that behavior and how it impacts the group negatively, and give them a chance to work to address their behavior.

However, there are folks that I won’t have much of an impact with, no matter how great of a leader or teacher I am. I’m speaking of “trolls,” or in other terms, people who seek out drama and who enjoy stirring up trouble. There are also various types of personality disorders that either have no treatment, or that typically don’t respond well to treatment, such as sociopaths/psychopaths (now known as antisocial personality disorder) as well as borderline and narcissistic personality disorder.

I’m going to put my time and effort into people who are genuinely willing to work on their impact.

Making it Easy
The root of the word “facilitate” means “to make easy.” Facilitation isn’t necessarily easy on the facilitator, but it does get easier with time and practice. The more you understand people and behavior, the easier it becomes to set up appropriate agreements, and derail inappropriate behavior.




Filed under: Facilitation, Leadership, Pagan Community

Advanced Facilitation: Dealing with Problematic Behavior

Posted by on Sep 29, 2014 in Leadership, Pagan Community | No Comments

shutterstock_187864790smOne of the more common questions I’m asked is, how do you deal with a disruptive participant when facilitating a ritual or workshop? In fact, one of the things many Pagans tell me is they are afraid to teach workshops because of all the heckling and know-it-all behavior they’ve observed as a workshop participant. The purpose of this blog post isn’t to go into why it happens, but to outline a few scenarios and how you might handle them. I’ll talk about workshops, rituals, and touch on behavior that comes up in longer-term groups.

Scenario: Know-It-All Leader
What do you do when a local leader, elder, or otherwise experienced practitioner vocally heckles you in the middle of a ritual? Maybe they are telling you that you called the quarters wrong or something else. Instead of taking you to the side after the ritual, they step into the center and loudly bully you. Not only do you have to deal with them, you have to somehow refocus your group and offer a ritual. 

When someone vocally defies the ritual setup and gets confrontational about it, that is probably one of the most challenging things to facilitate. Harder even than dealing with an altar on fire.

What I can honestly say is that if a facilitator has basic competence and confidence, and sets up their agreements for behavior, this type of thing rarely happens. Really rarely. I’ve heard some horror stories of it happening, but I’ll be honest–this hasn’t yet happened to me. And, I often facilitate rituals that might invite this sort of challenge.

The less aggressive version of this is the sort of standard heckling/know-it-all when facilitating a workshop. I don’t typically have that happen either, though in a workshop setting it’s a lot easier to shut someone down if they are interrupting. If I’ve set up the agreement asking people to not interrupt each other, and if I’ve set up the agreement asking people to keep their contributions brief…heck. Even if I haven’t set up that agreement, if someone is being contradictory, or playing know it all, there are really 2 ways to handle it depending on how aggressive they are.

1. If they aren’t really aggressive and are making a decent point, particularly if they seem actually knowledgeable, I’ll say something like, “You seem to know a lot more about the Occult ____ of tarot, and I just want to reiterate that for the purposes of this workshop, I’m working more with the personal growth aspect of Tarot cards. And there’s a number of exercises I promised I’d do as part of this workshop so I want to go ahead an move on to the next topic, but if you can stick around after the workshop, maybe folks who are interested in talking about Occult ____ can ask you some questions.” This one’s more of a, someone’s making a good point but it’s derailing the class.

2. If someone’s continually interrupting me or being otherwise rude in contradicting me, I will be a little more direct. Again, if I’ve set up agreements, this happens rarely but it does happen. If they are making a good point, I acknowledge it, but I would say something like, “So I just want to refresh our agreements here together for not interrupting. I hear that you ___person’s name__ have a lot that you seem to want to say, and I’m glad you’re excited by the topic, but the focus of this workshop is on ____. I’m going to ask you to hold your comments until the end and I’d be happy to talk more then about your specific ___issue/topic__. I have a lot of material to cover for this workshop and I want to make sure I cover what I promised.”

And, if they pull the KnowItAll/interrupting again, I’ll interrupt them–calmly. “I’m not going to address that at this point because ____ topic, and I again ask you to hold off on tangents so that we can keep on track for the workshops. I want to remind you of the agreements to not be disruptive.” Depending on the room layout, I might use body language, like standing next to that participant. Strike 3, I ask them to leave, but that hasn’t happened.

Ritual Interruptus
Typically, I hear of the ritual interruptus sort of thing happening when someone who is trained in a particular branch of Wicca has an issue with how someone is doing a ritual. I’ve heard of ADF druids having a local Wiccan priestess go off on them for failing to cast a circle. And I’ve heard of other scenarios that basically run out as, the ritual has started, and a well-known local leader literally steps into the center and loudly says some version of, “You’re doing it wrong.”

Again, I haven’t had to deal with this, and my response would greatly depend on the energy of the room and the hostility of the person. However, assuming that we’re at a public ritual with 50+ people, many that I don’t know, and they are all kind of shocked by this, and assuming that the person has just a vague edge of hostility…I might approach it like this.

Assuming it’s me they are interrupting and not one of my ritual team, I’d turn to face them, perhaps step closer to them (but not get in their face). And I’d say something like, “The ritual format I’m using is pretty common to several different traditions and I’m really confident that the way I’ve set things up are going to work for this ritual and for this group. But, I can see that this ritual probably isn’t going to work for you, and your actions are a pretty significant breach of our agreements here together for mutual respect. And with respect, I’m going to ask you to leave this space. Energy like this is not welcome here.”

(Depending on hostility, they might interrupt me before I get that far, of course.)

I’d probably ask everyone else to take a breath and take a step back, and then I’d escort the person out or engage some of my team members in doing that. Then, of course, there’s the work of re-centering and focusing the group. People don’t tend to emotionally deal well with conflict like that, but asking people to reconnect, take a breath. Re-stating the agreements. Asking people what they need to feel safe. Perhaps inviting them to sing a tone with me to help recenter. There’s a way to do it, it just takes time.

Most of the time, what happens is the person interrupting ends up being someone really intimidating, like someone who has been leading a group for 20-30 years but who has issues. And it’s usually a younger, less confident facilitator who is getting bullied. The key is to stay calm, project competence and confidence, and clearly state the agreements and the consequences for not upholding them. Getting angry and defensive just makes things worse.

What Wards and Safeguards Do You Use?
I don’t really use what most people would think of as wards. I work with. I tend to work more with here-and-now behaviors. If someone’s acting in a harmful way toward the group, then I have a responsibility to check in with them, and perhaps eject them from the group. The core of my warding is pretty mundane, but really darned potent. It’s setting up group agreements. The core of it is pretty simple–it’s letting people know what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not. There’s an axiom, “If you don’t ask for it, you can’t be upset that you didn’t get it.” This is really true with group behavior. If I want people to engage in particular behaviors, and not in others, then I have to spell out what the accepted behaviors are.

There are typically some things I don’t have to state. “Don’t start punching each other.” That’s pretty well assumed.

Group Agreements
For instance, most of my events are dry (no alcohol), so I used to explicitly state “no drugs or alcohol.” In Chicago, I don’t really state that on emails/flyers because it’s never been a problem; in all my years of running events, I can only really think of two times someone has come to an event clearly drunk.

However, for any workshop or ritual, I’ll usually offer my standard set of group agreements. For ritual, that includes letting people know that while we are connecting together in a circle, people can go to the bathroom if they need to, or step outside for some air, as long as they come back with respect. The basic agreement is I ask for people to attend to their own needs; if they are cold, come closer to the fire. If they are thirsty, there’s where they can get water. If they need to sit, they can. The agreement is for self responsibility.

Agreements for Emotional Self Responsibility
Agreements for intense work include emotional self responsibility. Those agreements are more complex. Basically I might articulate the theme of the ritual/intensive. Maybe we’re going to the Underworld to release an old wound from our past. I ask people to not try and fix anyone–if someone’s crying, letting them have their process, not go over and try to hug someone and “fix” them. (It’s not actually fixing, it’s derailing both people’s process.) On the flip side, I tell people that if they are crying and upset and they’d like a hug, that they can ask for that. I offer that in my case, if I’m crying and someone comes over to try and hug me, it’s not going to help me, it’s going to make me feel like I need to stop crying.

Similarly, if someone’s focused on “fixing” me, it’s derailing them from doing their own work there in the Underworld. But, it points to how difficult many people find it to just sit there and be uncomfortable while someone else cries.

And then I follow it all up with the info that if someone’s curled up on the floor wailing, I’m going to assume that’s what they need for their process. I’m not going to come over and try to tend them. However–if anyone comes to the end of the ritual and needs a little help coming back, or processing anything, that I and other facilitators are there for that. But I do ask people to be generally self responsible and not do work that is too much for them to do in that context.

That’s a pretty specific, intensive example, but basically it follows the general axiom of, if you don’t ask for it, then you won’t get the behavior you want.

Additional Standard Agreements
I have other more general agreements, such as, asking people to be considerate about how much time they are taking up in a meeting or workshop during discussions or checking in, asking for mutual respect and not interrupting others, or not offering advice to someone’s check in unless they have permission, a few other things.

If people are behaving in ways that are aberrant to this, I might interrupt that behavior. Like if someone’s going on and on and I need to move on with a workshop or ritual, I’ll interrupt them. I give them the benefit of the doubt that they just lost track and were rambling, but, I also check in with them after and ask them to be more aware of how much of a chunk of time they are taking up.

If the behavior is significantly outside the realm of what’s ok in a ritual, I may try to find a way to keep someone calm during a ritual and address it after. If I really had to, I’d eject someone from a ritual. I haven’t ever had to, at least, not from an event I was running.

At an event where I was a guest facilitator, one guy had an episode during a ritual; he was medicated for anger management and he started swearing, rocking back and forth, seething, ramping up to get violent. My cofacilitator pulled the guy over to the altar/station I was managing and told the guy to give his anger to Brigid’s Forge (I was Brigid at the Forge) and in that case, it worked, but I wouldn’t have allowed that guy into a future ritual.

Poor Behavior in Longer Term Groups
With closed rituals and long-term coven practices, you have a lot of advantages, and one specific disadvantage. The advantage of the coven/closed group relationship is pretty specific–you know people more intimately. These aren’t just random people coming in for a public ritual, these are people you’ve worked with before. These people become acquaintances and even close friends, depending on the intensity of the work.

The disadvantage is that when we know someone well, we want to make space for them to heal, we have more invested in each other, and it’s harder to cut someone off. We get into that codependent dance with them–and it’s because we want them to be able to be involved. These are, I would say, the hardest people to cut out of a group, because it’s not that they’re terrible people. It’s just that their actions are consistently destructive to the group.

In my Pagan Activist blog post on mental health  in the first part of the article I offer the example of the group leader working with a woman diagnosed with Bipolar. She worked with that woman for 10 years to the overall detriment of herself as a leader and to her group–the woman kept on stopping her treatment plan, acting out in harmful ways, and one by one, other group members left over the years.

I’ve also written about some of the specific red flag behaviors that a group leader–particularly of a smaller more intimate group or a leadership team–will want to keep an eye out for:

Intimacy and Issues
While I’ve never been part of a coven, the monthly intensives at Diana’s Grove had a similar feel because, after attending events for a year, everyone knows who you are. Everyone knows what baggage you’re working with. Everyone knows each other, and even though the intensives were groups of 30-50, many of us became close friends.

With the advantage of knowing someone, and with the advantage of seeing someone’s behaviors playing out long-term vs. just at the occasional public event, you have the opportunity to address those behaviors with someone. This is especially useful for folks in that gray-zone of, doing some things that are somewhat inappropriate, but, they can probably address their behavior. Vs. the folks that are really acting out in ways that it’s pretty clear aren’t going to change.

Example: Having the Hard Conversation
A quick example–maybe it’s a group that puts on public rituals, or, a group that puts on an annual Pagan Pride, or even just a coven where different people are expected to take different ritual roles or do different organizing of rituals or classes for the coven. If there’s someone who frequently takes on a job and then drops the ball, that’s something where eventually a leader-type person will need to have a conversation with them and outline:

“In the past year I’ve noticed that you’ve taken on tasks X, Y, and Z, and each time you were very excited to step in and help, and each time you did not complete the task and someone else had to do the task instead. The impact that this has is that the people who have to step in and do the task have a lot less planning and preparation, and, they also already have other tasks they are responsible for. I’m guessing that isn’t the impact you want to have, so let’s talk about what’s going on.”

If you look at the “Conflict Resolution Part 6″ blog post linked above, there’s a lot there about behaviors that in and of themselves aren’t terrible, but added together they become a problem.

The idea is that with a longer-term group, folks are more close-knit and there’s more opportunity to see patterns in our fellow group members. The disadvantage is that usually this ends up being an exercise in enabling; people would rather excuse someone’s poor behavior than confront them about it.However, with the right group agreements and skilled facilitation, this can be more of an opportunity to work with someone’s behavior and express the impact of that behavior.

If the person can change the behavior they can become a stronger part of the group. If they continue engaging in red flag behavior, then it’s time to consider removing them from the group.

Confidence and Calm
There are a lot of scenarios that can come up that require leaders and facilitators to address conflict or a really emotional scenario. The key is keeping calm, and being confident. A confident (not arrogant) facilitator will face less heckling, and also will be able to keep more calm when attacked. A facilitator who isn’t confident and who has poor self esteem or other baggage will be more defensive. We defend our weaknesses. Defensiveness will just escalate the issue and cause more drama, whereas confidence allows you to stay centered and clear.

True confidence allows you to be really clear about the issues and keep calm. And, sometimes that’s just something that you need to build over time. If you are heckled and your first urge is to yell at the person and take them down a peg, you’ll want to take a look at why that’s your first response. Being angry at rude behavior makes sense, but also look at the long term impact you want to have. If you are trying to teach a workshop, and you dressing down the rude participant becomes the focus of the rest of the workshop, that’s probably not what you want.

Sometimes you can’t avoid it when someone brings drama to your door, but how you handle it will help determine whether or not you get to finish facilitating that workshop or ritual or if things break down into fisticuffs.

Pro-tip: It sounds cliche, but taking that cleansing breath (or three) before you speak to someone really will help clear your head. Breathwork (and chanting, by extension) are really powerful techniques to manipulate your body’s natural adrenaline response and to bring centering and calm.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community

Reblog: The Secret to Breaking Out of Our Most Destructive Habits

Posted by on Sep 26, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments

I posted this on my Facebook some months back but wanted to reblog it here as it’s a great resource for anyone doing personal growth work.

The Secret to Breaking Out of Our Most Destructive Habits

All of us occasionally become the angry, unpleasant, depressed, reactive people we don’t want to be. So what happens in the brain that scatters all our good intentions?
…Once the jolt of this dramatic treatment failure wore off, I began to focus on the question of what I’d missed in my work with Patrick and other clients that could account for the shockingly short-lived impact of our therapy. I’d always counted on the big bang of therapeutically induced emotional catharsis to create the kind of instantaneous “learning experience” that would result in a life lived differently. What I’d forgotten was that true learning doesn’t come in a sudden breakthrough: it takes most people years of trial, error, practice, reinforcement of some behaviors, and active discouragement of others to become civilized adult human beings….

Filed under: Uncategorized

Conflict, Mediation, and Victim Blaming

Posted by on Sep 19, 2014 in Leadership, Pagan Community | No Comments

shutterstock_60329779Over the past weeks I’ve seen a number of Pagan leadership issues emerge in entirely separate communities. I wrote a bit about some of them in my Pagan Elders post. There are other communities that I’m aware of that have very similar issues, however. Specifically, I want to talk about that problem that seems to be the core of so many Pagan community conflicts. Namely, where Group Leader A and Group Leader B have a problem. Particularly the scenario where Group Leader B is acting in a particularly reprehensible way and Group Leader A is at a loss for how to deal with it.

In some cases, Group Leader A speaks out. Or asks for help from their peers. Now…sometimes this borders into the land of triangulation where one party is pitted against another, but sometimes it’s a genuine attempt to figure out how to resolve the situation. Either way, it’s heartbreaking to watch it play out. The conflict, in some of these cases, is not actually resolvable. Group Leader A speaks out, some people suggest mediation, others blame the victim. It’s so common I can tick off the phases of the process like clockwork.

I’ve seen it happen a few times recently, so I’m offering a generalized process based on a few different real life examples.

Local Leader Issue
Sometimes I get to hear about a local community’s issue with a particular local leader when I travel and teach. I can think of a few examples where I was teaching leadership workshops and, one by one, local leaders and group members would take me aside and say, “So, I have a problem with a local leader.” They’d outline the situation without naming the problematic leader in question, but–given I keep my ear to the ground, I figure out who they are talking about and I say, “Do you mean Group Leader B?” and they say, “OMG, yes. I didn’t want to badmouth them, but their behavior has been so difficult…we just don’t know what to do.”

Sometimes in a situation like that, I’ve had interactions with Group Leader B online or at previous events. Sometimes I haven’t. Either way, it’s like trying to pull together a portrait of someone from a rough mosaic of pieces. Sometimes the portrait is pretty clear, particularly when group leaders and members from various groups are telling a similar pattern of stories that are in alignment with poor behavior I’ve seen from that group leader either online or in person. While it’s all still “hearsay,” it gains legitimacy through consistency as well as through the lack of benefit to the people telling the story. If that many people come to me with a story about a leader, and they don’t have anything to gain by telling me, and in fact, they at first try to shield the identity of the leader they are talking about, that says something.

What Do You Want?
People usually want one of a few things at that point, either from me or just in general.

  1. How can I fix this leader and make them stop being abusive? or,
  2. Can you help mediate this situation and fix it? or,
  3. If there’s no way to fix them, how do I make them stop leading and hurting people? or, when it’s really desperate,
  4. Can you render a judgment against this leader so that they stop?

I’ll start with that last one first. I have no powers to render any judgments. I do use the power of my “bully pulpit” on occasion to speak out against specific leaders, but I typically only do that when I have the direct proof of horrific things they’ve publicly said or written, or, if I have some credible information including first-hand experiences. And, just because I speak out against a leader that I’ve named doesn’t mean I have any more power than anybody else does to “make them stop.” As I’ve said over and over–because the Pagan subculture has no hierarchy (since we’re a collection of hundreds of different religions and spiritual paths) there’s no “Pope” who can defrock someone, with the exception of a few specific traditions.

Therefore, the only power to remove anyone as a leader is really through the mob-mentality politics that run any poorly-managed consensus group, which is to say, the outspoken people, charismatic people, and the bullies all tend to have more power. Generally, it becomes a PR war and a popularity contest, the same as it does with government politics. It’s not pretty, and the “witch wars” of the past are part of why people are now so gun-shy about speaking up about a bad Pagan leader.

Fixing Them
As for “fixing” someone, there are really two basic scenarios, and it ties into mediation. Either the leader who is engaging in harmful behavior is doing so out of ignorance and, when they are confronted and they internalize the feedback, they voluntarily will work to shift their behavior. Or, the leader who is engaging in harmful behavior has some way deeper issues going on and they will never be able to change. Sadly, the latter type of leader will also have the tendency to engage the Jekyll/Hyde pattern common to abusers. That is to say, they may profusely apologize after they’ve done something harmful. And they may even mean it. But, they’ll continue returning to their default behavior.

Sometimes, you have to give someone the benefit of the doubt that they’ll work to change. However, knowing the pattern of abuse and the Jekyll/Hyde pattern, you can observe to see if things really are changing, or if they are just going back to their old patterns. Three strikes is generally a good rule of thumb.

For some of the leaders people have shared stories with me about, we’re talking 15, 30, 50 strikes. And that’s just the stories I’ve heard.

Red Flags
I have a whole series of posts on red flags here on this blog. Those posts are offered in a more logical order in my Leader Within book. But, it’s always worth talking about more to build awareness. Some red flags for me are how those leaders behave online. While I’m not in a position to diagnose a personality disorder, when I see a number of red flags of narcissistic behavior, that’s something I take note of.

It’s also worthy of note to me when I teach in a particular area and hear a lot of complaints about Group Leader B, and then out of the blue, Group Leader B contacts me (unsolicited) and starts complaining about Group Leader A, or a number of other members of their community. It’s also worthy of note when Group Leader B contacts me like that out of the blue and is suddenly very interested in talking to me only after I did a workshop for their “rival” group, and they have in the past ignored my attempts to reach out to them and talk.

Another thing that is worthy of note is when the people complaining about Group Leader B are doing so with compassion. They don’t want to harm Group Leader B, they just want to “fix” them. Or, if they’ve been around the block a few more times and have been harmed by the actions of Group Leader B, they just want the abuse to stop. They ask me,  “How do we stop them from abusing people?”

Observing Patterns
Again, none of these are things I can do a whole lot about other than observe and take note of the pattern. In some cases, the sheer volume of complaints about a particular leader does concern me. I tend to find that the truth points to itself, meaning, the folks that are doing unethical stuff tend to keep doing it and it creates a pattern over time.

But, I’m also not willing to speak out against someone by name without significant evidence.

For that matter, I have to hold an awareness of the difficulty when I’ve gotten to know the people on one “side” of an issue and I don’t know Group Leader B as well. However, when I get to know a group of people, I get a sense of their behavior. Actually, it can tell me a lot when a group of people complaining about Group Leader B are not, themselves, engaging in “red flag” behaviors.

There Are Two Sides To Every Story!
Well, yes, that’s true. And in many conflicts, both parties have made things worse. However, in situations where we have a Group Leader B who has engaged in a long-term pattern of abusive and narcissistic behavior, while Group Leader A may have reacted in ways that aren’t helpful and potentially exacerbated the situation, there’s no amount of “good” behavior on Group Leader A’s part that is going to fix the problem. Group Leader A coming to the mediation table with an open heart isn’t going to fix an abuser or a narcissist.

I have mediated/negotiated conflicts before where there was no “bad guy.” Where both “sides” were engaging in a downward spiral of behavior that just kept getting worse. Sometimes just as it helps in a relationship to go to a marriage counselor to get outside of the conflict and see how both sides are contributing to the problem, sometimes a mediator or negotiator can help point out those patterns from outside. Often the pattern is happening in all innocence. Nobody is Sauron/Voldemort/Darth Vader. It’s just a misunderstanding, layers of frustration and baggage, and anger resulting from that.

However…sometimes one side is, in fact, a repeat abuser. They may have also been abused, they may have baggage, they may have tons of reasons why they are doing what they are doing, but that doesn’t make it ok for them to continue to engage in the behavior.

Complain to Their Superior!
As Paganism grows more populous traditions, there are in fact groups that belong to larger traditions where, theoretically, there is a hierarchy that can censure group leaders under their banner. Here’s the problem. I’m aware of at least two big traditions that regularly fail to address problematic leaders. One tradition I know of likes to have a soft touch; they have eventually dealt with some of their leadership acting badly, but they let it go on for a really long time.

The other tradition that I am thinking of has had several direct complaints about some of their clergy, and they have refused to hear the complaints. I’ve heard of them berating complainers essentially saying that the complainer deserves the abuse for defying their HP/HPS, or that the complainer deserves the abuse, that the gods must have wanted them to suffer, things along those lines. I’m not currently willing to name those traditions as I’m still trying to gather more data. (If you have a story like that about a tradition you’ve worked with, shoot me an email please at ShaunaAura (at) gmail (dot) com. )

In many other cases, I’ve essentially heard from tradition heads that once a person is made HP/HPS or the equivalent, that title can never be taken from them. In my mind, that seems irresponsible…but, that’s how some traditions are run. I have heard on one occasion of a midwestern Pagan leader who was acting so poorly her HPS stripped her of her title and took on her students so that they could finish up their degrees. However, that is really pretty rare to hear of that happening.

But, Mediation!
I recommend mediation a lot, and people rarely actually do it. And–when it works, it’s a great thing. But here’s one problem that a lot of people fail to take into account. Mediation is not at all appropriate in situations of abuse. A mediation gives the abuser access to the victim. One of the hallmarks of abuse–whether physical abuse or emotional abuse–is confusion. The abuse victim is groomed and programmed by their abuser to behave in a certain way. The Jekyll/Hyde pattern of lashing out and then apologizing creates a triggered response.

I’ve fallen for this myself. In fact, it was after a mediation with my ex fiance that I got back together with him for round 2 of abusive relationship Bingo. I later found out that he lied at our mediation session to gain sympathy. It’s worth pointing out that, while mediation is ordered by the court in a number of divorce proceedings, mediation is not allowed in cases where there are allegations of abuse, because it just allows the abuser to suck the victim back into the cycle.

Don’t get me wrong. Mediation is a great tool…when it works. But mediation isn’t going to work with:

  • A repeat abuser
  • Someone with one of the major personality disorders or another untreated mental illness, alcoholism, or other addictions
  • Someone who is just a real jerk and unwilling or unable to look at their behavior

Victim Blaming
So here we come to the problem. When abuse victims speak up about Group Leader B, people who are sucked into Group Leader B’s charisma are going to defend Group Leader B. There are tons of reasons for this, and that’s a whole separate blog post.

However, people who are theoretically neutral are often going to dig into Group Leader A, or anyone else who speaks up about Group Leader B.

Here are some victim-blaming comments that are so common it’s like they come off a script. The sentiment isn’t always wrong–and often folks mean well–but in cases of abusive behavior, you can see where this becomes problematic.

  • “You’re just stirring up trouble.”
  • “If you’d only engage in mediation with them.”
  • “You’ve already made your decision, you aren’t coming into this with an open heart.”
  • “Stop tearing other leaders down! You are destroying our community!”
  • “There are two sides to every story.”
  • “You have responsibility in this too. Stop blaming everything on them.”
  • “I can see you’re not willing to give mediation a chance.”
  • “Why can’t you just get over the past?”
  • “Let bygones be bygones.”
  • “It’s time to move forward and stop blaming them.”
  • “You’re just engaging in a power play. You sicken me.”

As you can see, those sentiments on their own aren’t necessarily bad–and most of us say these things on autopilot. But, put yourself in the abuse victim’s hot seat. You know about the abusive behavior of Group Leader B, and you’ve just spoken up about it publicly because you feel you cannot hold your silence, and you don’t want Group Leader B to hurt anyone else.

Try reading these things out loud from that mindset and see how they feel to you personally.

But What Actually Happened?
So often, the problem boils down to the old “He said/She Said.” We can’t know what Group Leader B did…until we can. When we see a repeatable pattern of behavior, I believe it’s our responsibility as a community to bring scrutiny onto that person. To check it out, to see what we can find out about it. While Paganism isn’t a hierarchy, we deserve better than the justice of the bully/mob and a popularity contest. Our victims don’t deserve to be blamed. That’s not what I want to see in the broader culture, and it’s not what I want to see in my own Pagan back yard.

How do we get past this? Well…right now, all we have is accountability. And what I mean by that is, not looking away. Not saying, “It’s not my problem.”

When a group leader, teacher, or author has done something that is really blatantly reprehensible, like Christian Day, a reasonable response is to cut ties with them. To stop supporting them by buying things or teaching for that person. To stop putting money into that person’s hands.

When a local leader has continued to engage in some questionable behavior, it is worthwhile to try and find out more about what has gone on. Try to find out from multiple sources. I find that the best data comes from people who have nothing to gain; when it’s not “Rival Leader A” making the complaint, but group member C, D, E, and F, none of whom are going to gain any special benefit from telling their story. In fact, they’ll probably be victim-blamed if they speak up and yet are still willing to do so. It’s worth keeping an eye out for Group Leader B and watching them, watching the pattern of their behavior.

Don’t follow the mob, the court of the popularity contest, in either direction. Watch with discernment. Learn if you’re susceptible to the Jekyll/Hyde pattern of abusive behavior and apology. If you find yourself willing to keep making excuses for a group leader because of “all the work they’ve done” or just because they apologized, think about that for a moment. Does the positive work they’ve done diminish the harm they continue to engage in?

There aren’t easy answers for these questions. But, if we continue to talk about it, solutions will begin to emerge. I think right now what is most important is that Pagans become aware that there are these problems, and that no, there aren’t easy fixes. Mediation isn’t always the solution–even though I wish it were.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community

Pagan Elders and Abusive Dynamics

Posted by on Sep 12, 2014 in Leadership, Pagan Community | No Comments

shutterstock_34345969Ironically, just hours after I sent in my quote to the Wild Hunt for their “Elders” post, I found myself in a position where I could either tacitly ignore a Pagan elder’s behavior, or I could confront it. I hadn’t quite scheduled a big confrontation into my day, but I found myself ethically obliged after someone messaged me to ask whether or not I supported that elder based upon that elder’s stance on something.

The words I had sent to the Wild Hunt in an email just hours before ended up being almost prophetic for at least four situations that hit my inbox and news feed, including “Big Name Pagans” like Z Budapest and Christian Day, or local Pagan community leaders behaving badly.

Let me see if I can sum up one situation I faced in a way that keeps names out of it, and yet describes a situation that you may have personally experienced.

There is a Pagan org that is fundraising for a good cause. However, their leader has a real temper. Now, I had initially made excuses for this leader because this leader–like me–is an activist. And I definitely understand that when you’ve been an activist for a long time, it can begin to feel like nobody listens to you unless you’re screaming.

This particular group (via this leader) has one particular stance on a community-related issue. I disagree with that stance, however, it’s in a gray area where I feel it’s a little beyond my pay grade. It’s part of a larger question of that gray area between inclusivity, civil rights, and a religious group’s sovereignty to decide who can join. I understand both sides of the issue from outside–meaning, it doesn’t personally affect me. My stance is different than this elder’s, and I had made that clear with this leader in the past. I believe that I had made my perspective clear in a polite way.

In retrospect, I realize that I had dropped the subject because this leader’s temper was getting riled up and I was a guest in their home, and I didn’t want to deal with a big fight.

What’s Stubborn and What’s Bullying?
Since that time, I had also come into private knowledge of more than one example of this particular leader engaging in a dynamic that could only be called bullying and abusive. The leader threw a temper tantrum, the leader used the excuse of past abuses they had suffered, the leader’s close followers soothed the leader, and the leader got their way. I’ve found that people walk on eggshells around this person.

I also had knowledge about an initiative that this leader had been involved in. Basically, this was a worthy initiative, and this leader had asked a separate Pagan group for assistance. What actually happened at that point is confusing. I’ve tried to gather information on both sides of the story but some of the information I have is vague. It sounds like the Pagan group did not offer assistance, possibly because of the temper/reputation of the Pagan leader I’ve been discussing.

(It’s worth mentioning that the other Pagan group also seems to have failed to effectively communicate at all, or apologize for failing to communicate, and that’s on them, not on this leader I’m speaking about.)

This leader claims to have asked several other notable Pagans for help and believes they were brushed off. I’m not clear on those details.

That particular situation was years ago, but the Pagan elder I mention has been going on and on and on about it–sometimes vaguebooking, sometimes directly attacking that other Pagan group. And it’s pertinent to their fundraising effort.

When Respect Gets Complicated
I had worked with this Pagan elder in the past; we haven’t known each other long but I respect the work they are doing and I’ve worked to find some ways to help them. Since we met in person, this leader and I have engaged in some really good conversations.

However, I’ve also witnessed this leader engaging in conversations on Facebook that get pretty tense/shouty when people disagreed with that leader.

Recently, the leader in question had posted something about their fundraising efforts and their anger at the Pagans/Pagan groups who had failed to support them or who had badmouthed them. Making a long story shorter, I have been asked by several people about the specifics of the ethical stance I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Now, I don’t feel comfortable lying and saying I agree with them, because I don’t. So I offered the information that I had and where I disagreed with them, but that I supported their fundraising. And then, because I value clarity and due diligence, I posted a polite comment on the referenced Facebook thread asking for clarification on their stance.

Lashing Out
The answer I got back was vague but angry at me for daring to question them. I reclarified that I was asking on behalf of others, and, I pointed out how I understood both sides. Specifically, I tried to point out how the “other side” on this issue might feel hurt and angry by this particular stance, and not be in the wrong about that.

More angry responses followed that were also rants to the point of being vague and unclear. Despite my having supported the org in the past and having a generally good relationship with the leader, I got the full temper tantrum.

The second in command of this group immediately private-messaged me to apologize for their leader’s actions.

I’m going to hit pause on the story here for a moment.

That right there is a significant red flag. If you are feeling the need to consistently apologize for the temper of your friend/lover/spouse/boss/leader, that’s a pretty good indicator of an abusive/codependent pattern.

Speaking Up About Abuse
Thus, to the second in command, I pointed out that everyone dancing around the leader and apologizing for them was 1. codependent and enabling abuse and 2. that their leader’s actions and temper were likely a significant cause of their inability to fundraise for the worthy cause. The second in command agreed especially with the latter, and said that they’d tried to talk to the leader about it and planned to again.

Moments later, the leader began messaging me. The writing was in an angry rant and talking about all the abuse they had personally suffered and essentially implied that that excused their stance on this particular issue. I took a breath, and realized that I’d already probably blown up my relationship with this elder, despite respecting their work.

I know that in a situation like this, confronting the person whose temper has gotten abusive isn’t likely to change anything. But, there’s that darned integrity thing, and I also at the core am an optimist. I always hold out that people might be able to recognize how their own actions are harming themselves and their group.

So I confronted the leader and pointed out that I was fine disagreeing with them and still supporting their org/worthy cause, but the temper tantrum and attack was something I had a real problem with. I went on to say that there were people who were afraid to speak up to the leader, and that the leader’s temper had caused them specific problems (I outlined those and the specific scenarios) and that I found their temper and behavior pattern to be abusive.

I pointed out that I had apologized for their behavior in the past, and others I knew had apologized for their behavior, and that this was not ok.

As you can imagine, that didn’t really go over well, though I did have a good conversation with the second in command of the organization.

Pagan Leader Shenanigans
I can’t often post about it when I go through something like this. I have rather a lot of days where I’m dealing with either someone coming to me with a story of abuse by a Pagan leader, or someone coming to me asking for help with how to deal with a group leader who is causing problems, or where I see a Pagan leader or elder acting in a way that is (I believe) harmful.

As I posted in my Whistleblowing article on Pagan Activist, people come to me with some heavy stuff. And, not having witnessed either side of what went on, it’s not like I can do much about it. It’s a rare circumstance where I feel that I can ethically post about a particular Pagan leader or group and something they’ve done that is harmful.

Even in this case, you’ll notice I’m not naming the organization or the elder in question.

Given that I have some direct experience of the poor behavior, wouldn’t it make sense to speak out about this leader? Honestly, I really ethically struggle with this one because I want this org’s fundraising to be successful as it’s for something important, but the leader tipped the scale into acting in a way that I absolutely can’t ethically support.

The sad thing is, many of the strong Pagan orgs out there have leaders with at least some emotionally abusive tendencies.

Strong Visionary Leaders are Stubborn
I have my theories on why this is. For some reason, only the strong or even bullying types seem to have a strong enough personality to create a lasting Pagan group. I think you have to be that strong to last through all the Pagan naysayers and people who will attack you for your success. But it sure isn’t the behavior we want to reward, and it’s not what I think any of us want in the long term.

I endured a situation like this for years when I was doing my training at Diana’s Grove. And I don’t really want to get into that in depth now, other than to say, I have experienced first hand a group that defers to the leader, and the leader is a charismatic visionary who is just dysfunctional enough that every once in a while they do something like throw a temper tantrum, fail to meet a crucial deadline, or engage in some emotionally abusive behavior.

And everyone on the leadership team would work to cover it up, to make it ok, to keep her on an even keel so she wouldn’t lash out.

Because, everyone on the leadership team knows the secret:
If we don’t make excuses for the leader, if we don’t calm everyone down and keep the peace, if we don’t keep the leader from blowing up in a temper, then we don’t get to have the group. Ultimately, Diana’s Grove sold their land and ceased to exist, and that leader’s dysfunction was a significant contributor to that.

Why Leadership is Important
Which leads me to why I write about these things with such passion. Because within myself I have the seeds of the ills of these leaders. I am the visionary who’s a bully enough to make the thing happen. I struggle with depression and I’m, at best, a moody artist. I have the long-term issues of self esteem that, when my ego gets poked, cause me to get defensive and lash out.

In short–I write about these things because I am petrified that this is what I will become. That I will continue that cycle of abusive behavior.

So when I write about these problems in our leadership, it’s not from my high horse. It’s not even from my soap box. It’s from a terrified place inside me. It’s from the part of me that has looked into my own dark mirror and seen what I could do, what I could become, if I don’t do ruthless personal growth work. If I don’t mitigate those behaviors.

Our communities deserve better than bully leaders. But, I don’t know what that model actually looks like, or how we get there. I get angry and frustrated that so many Pagan leaders doing good work also carry these seeds of egomaniacal, narcissistic, bullying, and abusive behavior.

And we reward it with our silence.

Consequences of Speaking Up
But, if we aren’t silent…if we speak up…there’s a consequence. Yes, we might stand in our integrity. Yes, we might stop one leader from abusing their group members. But–we also lose the asset of that group. And with so few Pagan community assets, most of us are unwilling to rock that boat.

And I have compassion for that. We’re in a precarious time with our first solid organizations that can really help Pagans.

Going a little further, we (Pagans) actually have no mechanism to remove a bad leader from power, except for the limited circumstances of Pagan leaders that are part of a hierarchical tradition where a leader above them can strip them of their title. And most of the hierarchical Pagan traditions take a hands off approach. Once a HP/HPS is initiated, they are on their own and their initiators/superiors will not take a hand in correcting their behavior.

There are really only a few mechanisms we have for removing a bad leader from power. One is if they’ve done something illegal that you can prove. That, too, is rare.

The rest of our options are pretty crummy and are based in mob justice. We can ignore the leader and shun them, and hope that they eventually give up. This usually becomes a popularity contest vs. any actual meting of justice.

In one scenario, it means that the other Pagan groups and group members in an area have to suffer through various ambient abuse from that abusive Pagan leader. And it’s a whole separate blog post to discuss the kinds of abuse that a Pagan leader–even one not involved in your group–can dish out to you and your group members. In short, that creates long-term trauma and that scenario alone can be the death of a group because they just can’t cope with the stress.

The other option that has been attempted at times but usually backfires is the full-frontal assault, wherein those who have been harmed by a particular group leader try to speak up. Except, usually there’s only one victim brave enough or angry enough to speak out, and they usually are shot down by an arsenal of victim blaming.

Because, the victim speaking up must be trying to stir the pot, right?

I’ll write an entirely separate post on mediation. Many people raise up the banner of, “Oh, but mediation, mediation!” And, when it works it’s beautiful. But, it typically doesn’t work with a leader who’s engaging in a repeat pattern of abuse.

Pagan Elders and Big Name Pagans

The connection between Christian Day, and Z Budapest, and the Frosts, and a few other situations of Pagan elders and leaders is that abusive behavior gets tolerated. Harassment gets tolerated. Bad things are said and it’s tolerated.Cognitive dissonance is the first line, it creates denial. “Oh, but ___ is a great teacher, they couldn’t have ____.” Or, “I’m sure they were just out of sorts.”It’s the same thing as the pattern of grooming. Nobody starts out being ok with being punched in the face. They keep making the verbal abuse “ok,” and then the light slap is excused, and then the punch.While this article specifically deals with abusive dynamics in relationships between men and women, try reading it from the perspective of the abuser as the coven or group leader. And you’ll start to get a sense of why people stay in an abusive group.

Perfection and Excellence
Here’s the thing–nobody’s perfect; gods know I’ve hurt people and made mistakes in my life. I try my hardest to learn from it, to do better. And I’ve worked with others who have made mistakes. I’m not saying, “Oh, you made a mistake, you are banished for life.” But–the consistent pattern of abuse, and the lack of intent to change that pattern, is a problem.

And when that’s happening, most people are still stuck in cognitive dissonance/denial/enabling land. I spent three years doing what I call the codependent shuffle with my own mentor at Diana’s Grove. Was she evil? Nope. She was brilliant, actually. And hardworking. And she built something beautiful. But, her dysfunction also led to the destruction of Diana’s Grove.

The economy was the trigger, but she laid the rotten foundation.

I watched a skilled, educated group of leaders dance around my mentor and make her dysfunction and dry-alcoholic abusive behavior “ok” for years. I stuck through it because I wanted the training. I knew the training was good, even if my mentor couldn’t live what she taught. And I’ve spent the years since that time trying to adapt the leadership training to make it actually viable.

We don’t need perfect leaders, but we do need leaders and elders who are working on their shit. We need leaders and elders who have ethics and integrity and are coming at things from a place of service. Not from a place of deep wounding and soothing their egos. Not from a place of severe and untreated mental illness. Not from a place of bullying to get the job done.

And that’s a tall order, but I’m an optimist.

Going Forward
As for the Pagan elder I mentioned at the beginning of this post, where am I at? Truthfully, I’m sad. I’d like to blow the trumpet and support their initiative, but given the way that elder is behaving, I have serious ethical qualms about it. I hope to sustain a good relationship with that organization, but I realize that in speaking up to the leader about their behavior I may not get to have that option.

I’ll be transparent. There are times that I will support a Pagan group or organization despite my ethical qualms about a leader’s behavior because I believe in what that organization can be and what it offers to the community

But, I also hold out hope that we can be better. That we one day won’t have to make those ethical compromises. That the Pagans out there joining groups will have the discernment to see their leaders not as being perfect, not as being up on a pedestal, but as real people. I want to see a community where we can forgive our leaders for their mistakes, but where our leaders are also held to a higher standard of responsibility and service. I want to see Pagan communities where we can speak up about abuse and be heard and not victim-blamed.

And–putting my big-time optimism hat on–I want to see Pagan leaders who can break through the cycle of their own bad behaviors to become more excellent leaders. After all, I believe that I can be better than I am…and so I believe each person out there can as well.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community

Call for Submissions: Masks of the High One — a Devotional Anthology for Odin

Posted by on Sep 2, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments

Shauna Aura Knight:

Call for submissions for an Odin devotional. Feel free to forward and boost the signal!

Originally posted on Wytch of the North:

A little more than a year ago, I put out a call for submissions for Prayers to the Allfather, a book of prayers and rituals for Odin. Well, despite a number of people being kind enough to share my CFS across the internet, I received exactly three submissions. Due to various factors in my life at the time, I just wasn’t feeling equal to writing the bulk of a book of prayers on my own (since when I think prayers, I think poetry, and I am not primarily a poet), so I reluctantly shelved the project for a while.

Then I got to thinking: maybe a prayer book is too limiting. Maybe most other pagans, witches and polytheists out there also shy away from writing prayers for public consumption, either because they feel too personal, or because (like me) they associate them with poetry and feel unequal to the task…

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Filed under: Uncategorized