shadow work

Warding in Ritual

3303660_xlI’ve been invited to be a panelist on the topic of Warding in Ritual at Pantheacon, which is the largest Pagan conference and takes place in a few weeks in San Jose, California. The folks organizing the panel worked to create an outline of questions and topics, which is very helpful for us panelists! Since I’m thinking about all of these questions, I thought I’d work up my responses as a blog post. In fact, it’s a 2-parter, because (as I tend to) I went into some depth.

Part of why I want to think about these questions a bit is because I’m a bit of the “devil’s advocate” on the panel. Meaning, I don’t really approach warding as a magical act. For me, it’s very pragmatic. In fact, I don’t even really call it warding. And yet, that piece of what I do in a ritual is still incredibly important and is still the foundation of an effective ritual.

Let me back up a bit. I approach religion and spirituality as a pantheist. I’m not a polytheist or an animist. Heck, most days I’m barely a theist at all. It’s not that I haven’t felt the grip of divine communion, of connecting to the greater mystery, it’s just that when that happens to me, even if it’s in the form of working with a specific deity, I look at that deity as a mask, a lens, a part of the greater whole. I see the various deities and archetypes not in a polytheistic sense but as a part of the All That Is.

I’m also not a dualist. Dualism (loosely) means that there is good and evil. Duality is more commonly seen as the idea of transcendance; the idea that the body and earthly concerns are to be “transcended” and that spirit is the ultimate attainment. It implies that spirit (or “up”) is “good,” and earth/body (or “down”) is “bad. Dualism then bleeds into a lot of other dualities–white/black, male/female, etc.

Because, as a pantheist, I believe in the immanent divine–that is, that everything is already divine–I don’t believe that a ritual space needs to be cleared because it’s not impure. I believe that we need purification in the sense of focus. We can’t just go from “driving our car” to “in ritual headspace.”

Being a nondual pantheist, I don’t really work with the idea of bad spirits. In my theology, I don’t need to set up magical protections against evil spirits because I don’t believe there are spirits out there with evil intent.

But that asks the question, what does warding even mean for me?

What does warding mean?
If you’re worried about a bad spirit, I can’t help you with that, it’s not my theology. For me, warding is about the people in the room and their intentions and energies.While I don’t really do much magical warding in ritual, I see the general concept of warding as establishing a boundary of general safety for the ritual work. I’d say that in most rituals, warding serves a few primary functions.

  1. To protect the group from spirits or deities that might cause problems in the ritual.
  2. To protect the group from humans (not present at the ritual) who would harm the ritual working
  3. To protect the group from humans (present) who have ill intent toward one of the ritualists or ritual attendees.
  4. To ensure that the people at the ritual can handle the ritual working, that the ritual won’t harm them, that participants have a reasonable degree of safety within the working of the ritual.

Since, theologically/cosmologically, I don’t really work with 1 or 2, I’ll focus on 3 and 4. Now–I’ll go into this more in a bit, but I hold a paradox about ritual. My job as a ritualist is to make the work as safe as I can for the participants. And, I don’t feel that deep, transformative ritual or any ritual where we’re connecting to the divine is actually ever “safe.”

First, let me talk about my concrete, brass tacks approach to ritual warding:

  1. I tell people ahead of time what the ritual theme is going to be about. If we’re going on a journey to the Underworld to face our shadows, I let people know that in the email or Facebook event invite, and I also address it before the ritual begins. This gives people a chance to opt out if they aren’t prepared for such work. I feel it’s pretty rude to do an intensive ritual and not let people know ahead of time.
  2. I give people some general ground rules. Some are things I don’t generally have to say, like “nobody punch each other.” That one is kind of assumed. I offer a few general agreements such as:
    1. Self responsibilityPeople can leave the ritual space if they need to use the bathroom, get some water, handle a coughing fit, or even just get some space.
    2. They are responsible for themselves and taking care of their needs. I just ask that if they return to the ritual area they do so with respect. That can mean something as simple as opening and closing the door quietly.
    3. Self responsibility also extends to our emotions. Especially if I’m facilitating an intensive ritual, I offer that people are welcome to express emotions. Fear, rage, sadness. That if someone’s on the floor weeping in catharsis, I’m not going to come over and “fix” them, I’m going to trust that they are expressing an emotion and leave them to it. And, if they do need help, that they can ask for it. Or even if they need a hug. I’ll usually have my ritual team raise their hands, and I’ll also have people raise their hands that are happy to give comforting hugs if asked.
  3. I give participatory ground rules. Because I facilitate ecstatic, participatory ritual, I usually need to make clear that people have an obligation to participate, and that can involve speaking, moving, and singing. That participating is important to the ritual, that the ritual won’t work without each person adding their energy. And yet, I also offer choice.
  4. I also address safety. This can range from:
    1. Letting people know where the bathrooms are to letting people know how they can take care of needs like getting warmer, getting water, or sitting down.
    2. I make sure people understand they have a choice in how they participate in a ritual, and that even though I will be inviting them to stand, to dance, to sing, that they can stay seated if they need to, and they can ask for help bringing a chair closer to the center if they like.
    3. On my earlier ritual promotion emails and flyers I used to clarify “no drugs or alcohol” but I have found that it really doesn’t come up in the rituals I offer.
    4. I have also offered words like “all genders welcome at this ritual” which lets trans and genderfluid people know that they, too, are welcome. In essence, I let people know who is welcome and what kind of ritual work can be expected.

In essence, I let people know what behaviors are acceptable in as concise a way as I can. I don’t usually specify, “If you’re here, and that person you hate is here, don’t glare at them,” but I always say something about how I assume that everyone has come to the ritual in the spirit of mutual respect and to do spiritual work.

Ritual Space:
For me, a huge part of warding is the space the ritual is held in. When I facilitate rituals, there are usually three scenarios.

  1. One is I’ve rented an inside venue in Chicago, so the ritual is held in a large room.
  2. Or, I’m offering a ritual at a Pagan festival or conference.
  3. The third is when I’m offering a ritual at a public park venue, such as for a Pagan Pride event.

Where the ritual is located, and how much privacy we have, is core to the concept of warding, safety, and boundaries. There’s an intimacy I can achieve in a group ritual where the doors close that I cannot get in a ritual hosted in a public park where people are standing around watching us. Four walls, or the privacy of a grove of trees at a retreat center, are almost the definition of boundaries. Boundaries are establishing a line, a space. For me, I don’t really cast a circle, it’s more that I acknowledge that the ritual is beginning, that we’ve chosen to be here and do this work, and we are moving into sacred work. Having a good physical space for the ritual where we won’t have interruptions is key.

For instance, the energetic scenario of doing a ritual at a public park for a Pagan Pride and we have people standing around watching us is completely different from an evening ritual after we’ve all been working together for one or two days in a retreat format.

Warding Gone Bad
I can honestly say that the only times I’ve ever had a problem are when I didn’t lay out (or properly uphold) the above group agreements. Typically I facilitate deep, intensive rituals with cathartic, transformative work. I use ecstatic techniques, and there’s often a significant part of the ritual where people are facing shadows or releasing wounds from their past, transforming their pain…really intensive work. In the Reclaiming tradition there’s a phrase for this, “Puking Cauldron” rituals, because sometimes the ritual gets “taken over” by the most overdramatic person who needs a lot of attention.

However, I don’t have this happen in my rituals, largely because I set up pretty clear agreements for behavior.

That being said…there was this one time where I had a guy in my ritual. We’ll call him Anger Management Guy. Without getting into too many details, I was asked to teach some classes on ritual technique and lead an Imbolc ritual for a midwestern Pagan group.

When I arrived, Anger Management Guy was the one who picked me up at the bus station. We had to stop off at his house so he could smoke pot before he took me to the venue where I was going to teach the Friday night class. The guy was very agitated, and he and his very pregnant wife seemed to have a strange dynamic that set off my red flags. But, I was a guest, so I brushed it off. The next day, during the Imbolc ritual, I had three people (including his wife) taking on the role of various Brigids during the ritual. I stood at the altar of Brigid of the Forge.

We were chanting as each ritual participant went to the different Brigid altars. When Anger Management Guy went over to his wife’s altar, he flaked out. He started actually seething, rocking back and forth, shaking, spouting out nonsense.

Now–I was able to manage it in the moment, however, this shouldn’t have ever happened because I should have trusted my instincts about this guy and not allowed him into the ritual. During the car ride from the bus stop, he had told me some things about his life, and he spoke in a way that seriously concerned me.

Warding 101: Before you even look at magical options, just look at logistics. Are you doing an intensive ritual? Is that person really a good fit for the ritual? You’re there to ensure the group’s safety, and each individual’s safety. Trust your instincts, and if you’ve established what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable, and someone crosses that line, that boundary, it’s your job to kick them out.

In fact, I’d offer that one of the most important warding jobs, particularly at a public ritual, is the person managing the door.

Warding and Psychic Attack
I’ll take that a little further and address the aspect of warding that is related to the function of group safety, and in specific, people who are worried about other people sending negative vibes from outside the ritual, or people who are inside of the ritual sending negative vibes at each other. Sometimes when people talk about warding they talk about psychic attack. A quote I often hear is, “Moonpie was at that ritual. He was psychically attacking me,” or, “Featherbottom was throwing off the energy of the whole working.”

In a purely psychic sense, I don’t really think it works like that.

One single person can throw off the energy of the room, but it usually requires action on their part. One person who keeps interrupting the facilitator, or who is sitting there glaring and being rude to people, one participant who is drunk and disorderly…there are a dozen scenarios where one participant can throw off the energy of a ritual, but simply thinking negative things at someone isn’t going to do a whole lot. It’s when people take concrete actions that things get wonky, like Anger Management Guy.

One negative participant can throw the energy off if everyone’s worried about that participant. That collective worry about aberrant behavior will throw things off. For instance, I led a ritual where one participant got more and more agitated until he left. Until he left, everyone kept glancing over at him. They weren’t paying attention to the rest of the ritual, they were worried about the guy because he’d been rude.

If the presence of an ex or someone you had a falling out with is going to throw you off as a facilitator, there’s an easy answer to the problem–that person shouldn’t be in the ritual. For instance, my ex isn’t welcome at any ritual I offer. I’m not worried he’ll send psychic energy at my ritual and throw it off from outside the ritual, because I personally don’t think energy works like that. I don’t need to protect against him because he’s not in the room.

That being said, I have twice now taken supporting ritual roles where my ex also had a ritual role. One time in specific, another ritual participant was the woman he had cheated on me with and a bunch of her friends who hated me. She literally stomped and pouted when I walked by her. If I’d been leading the ritual, she wouldn’t have been welcome, but that wasn’t my call. This basically breaks my cardinal rules of ritual facilitation, because there were enough people in the ritual who knew about the breakup with my ex, and about the cheating, and all the bad blood and drama. That many people who are aware of drama can, absolutely, throw the energy off.

And for certain, she was glaring daggers at me from across the room and wishing me ill.

In my case, I let it roll off of me because 1. I don’t believe her ill will can actually harm me, and 2. my focus was on the larger group and the integrity of the ritual. I was fully invested in helping to heal the rifts in the community that had sourced from the messy breakup, and so I was able to ignore her pouting and stomping. Ok, I admit, I laughed a little, and that helped.

Essentially, to psychically manage that ritual (since I was responsible for getting people chanting and raising energy), I had to completely, authentically, fully invest in the energy of community building and healing. I had to believe that this ritual would help that process, and that allowed me to move past any fears or nervousness I had about facilitating in a hostile environment. Because it mattered.

Part two will be posted tomorrow!

Filed under: Pagan Community, Ritual Tagged: Pagan community, Paganism, pagans, ritual, shadow work, warding, witchcraft

That Festival has an Orgy Cabin!

houseI admit it. The first times I’ve heard about an “orgy cabin” at particular Pagan festivals or gatherings, my hackles went up. “Eeew,” I thought. “That can’t be ethical, can it?”

Yes. I’m actually talking about an orgy cabin. A cabin (or tent, or room) at a Pagan (or other) event where people are free to express various kinds of sexual touch and sexual contact. Yes, these things happen.

No, I’ve never been invited to one. (We can laugh about that part later.)

When hearing about group leaders being participants in the orgy cabin, I thought, “Whoa. No way that can be appropriate for a leader, right?” But then I put on my sex positive hat and think about it. If everyone in there is of age and consenting, is freely expressing sexuality inherently wrong?

I think a key problem comes in with consent. Specifically, with the peer and leader pressuring that can occur–even unintentionally. Just because a group leader doesn’t intend to pressure a newer/younger/more shy person, doesn’t mean they aren’t pressuring them. And, just because that’s happening, doesn’t mean that leader is a bad person or a predator.

To sum up–it’s complicated.

My first question for any event hosting such a thing is, how is it managed? How are minors kept out? And if leaders are involved, what safeguards are in place to ensure that no group member feels coerced to be sexual with a group leader?

I’m also curious how sexual contact is kept safe. Are condoms and dental dams provided? Does everyone there have to previously agree to safer sex or receive any sexual education? Is there any educational process around consent and agreements and ensuring that it’s enthusiastic consent, not “iffy” consent? Is alcohol present, and are there any safeties there to ensure that someone who might be too drunk to consent is taken somewhere to sleep it off?

Sex Positive Vs. Dominant Culture
My gut reaction to an orgy cabin is definitely rooted in the dominant culture, but when I think about it, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it if it’s handled ethically. Of course, handling it ethically is the challenge.

How do you invite people without pressuring them? How is a safe space maintained? What agreements are in place around safe sex and appropriate touch? And of course, who pays for the Crisco? (Kidding, kidding. Crisco is gross.)

I can’t really speak to the specifics of how you might ethically run an orgy cabin, or any other kind of venue where people can freely explore their sexuality in a safe space that isn’t constrained by the dominant culture norms, as this isn’t something I myself have experienced. But, like anything else, there are agreements, there are boundaries.

Someone has to hold those boundaries–free isn’t really free.

What Does Ethical Look Like?
For my part, and I’ve said this in other posts, I generally tend to lean toward the ethic that leaders should not engage in sexual contact with group members and students. Even if that leader isn’t intending it, there’s too much potential for there to be a subtext of a power dynamic where the student/group member feels they have to say yes to things in order to not get kicked out of the group.

I do think that it’s understandable that relationships grow over time between group members and leaders, but it’s important to be on a peer dynamic as friends and to be on equal footing before beginning a romantic or sexual relationship.

There’s just too much potential for one party to feel powerless in a situation and later regret it.

Some groups ban any type of sexual relationship between any group members. While I don’t think this is feasible long-term, because people are going to develop feelings and then you’re just setting them up to betray a promise to the group, I do think that it’s generally useful to employ caution. Sex, relationships, even friendships among group members can cause difficult group dynamics.

And, something that might seem like a really good idea often ends badly. Something that might seem really sexually freeing can end up being an ego-maniacal manipulation.

Normal Group Turns into Sex Cult
Here’s an example I’ve heard of (or witnessed) in different forms. Person A joins a group. She’s older than some of the other group members, more worldly, more experienced. She’s very friendly, takes people out to lunch, eventually starts taking some of the women out to a spa or to get their nails done or for makeovers. She is very generous.

She then begins to flirt with them. It turns out she and her husband are swingers. Eventually (and you can probably see this one coming) she starts bringing some of these women home with her for herself and her husband to play with. Some of the young women are married, so she invites the husbands over too.

The group begins to instantly shift. The young women begin flirting with other group members. There’s more sexual touching at events, enough that it makes the people not involved in the sexual relationship uncomfortable. This continues for months, and some of the group members begin to leave.

The people involved with Person A and her husband feel sexually free, empowered, liberated. That is, until they aren’t the focus of attention any longer. Once Person A begins seducing someone new, they get jealous. Factions form. Person A plays the group like a finely-tuned instrument, pitting people against each other. She has essentially manipulated the group into her becoming the center of attention.

Women who were previously excited and empowered are now angry at each other. Some begin to leave the group after the backstabbing and gossip get to them. Some feel used. A few hang on, loving that feeling of having Person A’s attention–when they can get it.

Once the process has begun, there’s no way to remove Person A without losing at least some group members. The group will eventually blow up, it just depends if there are enough group members left who want to keep going. If the leadership of the group tells Person A to leave earlier on, Person A’s devotees get irate and threaten to leave too. If the leadership lets this continue on, it’ll destroy their group anyways. Most of the people won’t even realize how Person A manipulated them.

And, don’t I wish that it didn’t play out like this. But, it can and it does.

What’s the Answer?
The answer is not being totally prudish and saying “no sex.” That’s what we call, “Setting ourselves up for failure.” But neither is the answer to pressure people into sex all the time.

What About That Orgy Cabin?
Well…I think it’s possible to handle it in a mature, ethical way. I think it would be a lot of work. It would require boundaries, agreements…possibly the most ethical way to handle it would be as part of a weekend-long workshop on sexual intimacy and boundaries. Freedom to express sensuality and sexuality is a beautiful thing, but packaged with that freedom is recognizing that everyone else in the room also is free to choose what touch they want, and don’t want.

If you’re participating in something like this, you might consider all the agreements and boundaries and ethics. You might look at how people might be feeling pressured to participate. Perhaps your Orgy Cabin may need a rehab with some refreshed agreements and education. Or perhaps you have a healthy dynamic going, in which case, good for you.

If not, think about adding in some layers of safety for all the participants there.

It’s true, thinking about things like safe sex, boundaries, agreements, and ethics might take some of the fun out of a more spontaneous Orgy Cabin. And yes–I probably did just manage to take most of the fun and sexiness out of the idea. However, things could be worse. I’d rather have the agreements and safeties than deal with the consequences of a group member who felt pressured into having sex.

What you really don’t ever, ever want is someone who felt empowered by being singled out to join the Orgy Cabin and was nervous but consented, and later feels that Group Leader A pressured them into sex. Or, everyone got really drunk and Group Leader raped them; they said no, but Group Leader A didn’t stop. And I’ve heard of situations like that.

As with anything, you have to look at the long-term sustainability of your group and your community. You have to think beyond the short term, “This would be sexually satisfying and fun and freeing,” into the longer term effects of how this will impact your group. A bunch of people who get trashed and screw around one night might be embarrassed later on and leave the group. However, if this is part of a longer-term commitment of group members to explore sensuality and boundaries with intention, and is coupled with intensive personal work, that could be a very different situation.

For further reading:
I have more thoughts on Sex, Ethics, and Community, as well as an earlier post detailing more on the process of how group members can be groomed and pressured into having sex with group leaders.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: impact, Leaders, leadership, orgy, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, Sex activism, sex positive, sexuality, shadow work

Conflict Resolution Part 6: Red Flags

86155_2332Here are the red flags that I observed about the problematic person I mentioned in Part 5 (and others in similar situations) that allowed me to paint a fairly accurate profile of how they were going to behave. You’ll really want to read at least Part 5 in the Conflict Resolution series, if not the whole set of articles, to get context for the profile of behaviors below.

There’s a difference between offering a different opinion, and whining all the time. And then, when people offer that they are frustrated about the whining, backpedaling and profusely apologizing and making it about yourself. Sometimes there are people with that engineering mindset that challenge a group’s ideas about how to do something, and that doesn’t make them a bad person. Those folks can generally learn how to phrase things in a way that doesn’t come across as “You’re wrong” all the time. A constant whiner, or someone who never likes the group leader’s ideas but who never has any useful ideas to offer of their own. The pattern’s easiest to observe if the person is constantly tearing down the group leader’s ideas. If so, it’s possibly a power play, even if it’s unconscious.

Always Having Problems
The problematic individual in the group is always having problems. Now–it’s not to say that many people don’t go through struggles. However, this person never has gas money, never has time, computer is broken, is always sick. I’m not saying that someone who is broke and sick is always a red flag. Think of this as a mosaic; it’s one piece in the pattern. If the group leader points out, “If you’re sick, you don’t have to attend the meeting,” or “We can have you phone in if you can’t afford to drive,” and their response is either a swift turnaround, “No! Of course I’ll come,” or hostile, “Why do we always have to meet where you want to?” Those are both serious red flags.

It’s All About Them
This individual can make any conversation about them. Usually about their problems. Or, about how nobody listens to them. Or about how the group always goes with someone else’s idea. In particular, they will lay blame and ascribe particular motivations to people. “You guys don’t really care about my opinion, you always go with what ___ says.” They are willing to entertain any notion that it’s someone else’s fault, not that 1. their idea might be bad, or 2. the group decided to do something based upon the needs of the rest of the group without any malice toward this individual.

Victim Mentality
This person also typically approaches everything with a victim mentality. People are out to get them. In fact, they usually come into a group with stories about how they got kicked out of previous groups by jerky leaders. Do yourself a favor and check out their story, even if you don’t know those other group leaders yet. These folks will also frequently be cursed, hexed, under psychic attack, their boss is out to get them, their mother in law hates them, the man is always trying to stick it to them…you get the drift.

Pathetic Underdog
The goal of being pathetic is to get attention. People aren’t stupid, and we learn pretty quickly that there’s different ways to get attention, and one is to be pathetic. People like to caretake an underdog. The problematic individual in a group works to be so pathetic that they get their way. The group may come up with an idea ABC for an event, and the problematic individual hems and haws, and talks about how broke they are and can’t do it, or, about how nobody listens to them, or some other sob story. They work to be so pathetic that they not only get time and attention and cosseting from the codependent caretakers in the group, but, people go with their ideas.

Very Important Magical People
This person may pendulum swing from being the most pathetic person in the group who is always having problems, to a very powerful Witch. Either they know a lot about spellwork and hexing, or, they are desperate to learn powerful magic to control others. Often these are folks who have amazingly gained the skills to harm others with magic, or to psychically attack others. Also, they were powerful people in a past life. Or, they are a reincarnated Babylonian God. They can sink into a trance and get possessed by a deity without any effort, in fact, sometimes it causes them, you know, severe problems because the Gods are always trying to get into them. They aren’t responsible for it, it just happens, and then they aren’t responsible for their actions, of course.

No Therapy
When they are in victim mode talking about all their problems, some well-meaning person might suggest therapy to this person. “My therapist was trying to kill me,” they might say. Or, “My therapist wanted to commit me. I had to get away.” Some version of therapist/psychiatrist conspiracy theory conveniently leads to why this person is no longer on their medication. Now–here’s the challenge on this one. Certainly Pagans, as members of a minority spirituality, face discrimination including discrimination from psychological professionals.

Talking to gods and spirits, casting spells, sounds like a bunch of superstitious nonsense and for a therapist, that can be a red flag for schizophrenia, among other things.So certainly it’s possible, however, these days I don’t really hear many first-hand stories of Pagans who have had issues with therapists. I have heard of medical doctors and therapists trying to scare their patients who had chosen a polyamorous/ethical non-monogamous lifestyle, but no direct discrimination against Pagans.

The actual red flags in this are the paranoia of the psychological professionals being out to get the person, and the big red flag is “I’m not on my meds, I didn’t need them.” Again–none of these on their own are a reason to kick someone out of a group. But taken in concert, they paint a larger picture of someone who is going to consistently cause conflict in your group unless they get help. And–as I’ve pointed out over and over, you can’t fix anyone. You can take them to the door and offer to help, you can’t make them go through it.

Backstabbing and Gossip
This one probably is no surprise; this person is going to feel threatened by anyone in power, and they will either charge at them head on in meetings or online discussions to try and discredit them, but more commonly they will work behind the scenes to gain a coalition of people onto their side. They will trashtalk anyone to make themselves sound better.

This person also is usually the first to volunteer. If they have money, they often put forth money into the group, but it’s a donation with a catch. They donate money, and what they want is power and especially attention. There was one person I worked with who volunteered to bring in an expensive band from out of town for an event, but it had to be a band of her choosing, and she later used the band as a way to take the group hostage and to get people to do things the way she wanted. If the person is not financially abundant, they might take on a lot of volunteering roles.

An experienced group leader will see someone taking on a lot of volunteering not as a positive thing but as a red flag; very often, this is a sign that someone is trying to have attention paid to them. Because, 1. Volunteers are “good.” They are loved. And given that the problematic person has a huge core of self esteem issues, they need all the external love that they can get. 2. Their ideas get used. Nothing feels better to a person with poor self esteem than the illusion that people love them, and seeing their ideas take shape and the group working to make them happen can be a balm onto that gaping wound of self loathing. But it never lasts, because they aren’t healing that wound, just numbing it for a time.

Dropping the Ball
We all have things coming up in our lives, and sometimes we can’t meet the obligations we agreed to, and volunteer tasks usually get trumped by paid work, family, and health. However, someone who consistently drops the ball is a red flag. In fact, the Grandiose Volunteering is so very often followed by Dropping the Ball. It’s a one-two punch.

I should point out that I personally have been guilty of a number of these in my life. I used to volunteer to help out groups as a web designer and graphic designer. People didn’t like me, of course, I knew that. Nobody liked me, I was the outcast, the reject, the unpopular one. But they liked my artwork, they liked my web design. They liked that I helped.

Of course, I had said “yes” to way too many projects and got overwhelmed and dropped the ball. In fact, that’s something I still struggle with. But that’s the core difference here–the problem person we’re talking about is largely unaware that they are doing all of this. I’m here to tell you that some people, when made aware, can work to change their behavior. Relentless personal work and some therapy can go a long way.

Other folks, however, are not going to change. Or, not easily change.

Big Emotions and Oversensitivity
I posted a couple of blogs and links to articles about hypersensitivity. The problem person will typically have emotional reactions that are a few orders of magnitude outside of what is appropriate or reasonable. Again, they are always the victim, so they are always going to see that people are out to get them. So when someone suggests something that opposes what this person wants in the group, they are going to throw a big drama fit about it.

It’s emotional hostage taking, and it works. The codepedent members of the group will want to “fix” the agitated individual by caving to what they want. Codependent folks cannot stand big emotions. And that’s a whole separate set of dysfunctions, but you can begin to see the interplay of group dynamics and how someone as problematic as this type of individual can survive and thrive in a group even when they are causing so many obvious problems. People hate to kick out the underdog.

Sometimes you can catch this red flag early on by watching this person’s Facebook and Twitter posts or their blog entries. I know a few folks that, after reading their LiveJournal, I realized I would never, ever want to work with them, because they laid out enough red flags right there that I was pretty clear that working with them would be impossible.

This person is hypersensitive, defensive, and always has to be right. They can’t cope with being wrong and will either bully people into their point of view, or cry and be pathetic to “win” the argument.

Highly Creative and Disorganized
You are probably asking how this is bad. And–again, like any of these red flags, it’s not the whole picture. However, someone who constantly has big ideas, but is completely disorganized and cannot realize any of them, may not be the influence you want in your group, particularly if your group function is planning a festival or Pride event. This person tends to come up with huge ideas and start them, but not finish them. Their big ideas leave messes in other people’s laps.

Here’s where this flag becomes more obvious. This person gets kicked out of a local group, or gets dissatisfied. So they create their own group. Now–this could be a physical local group, or a Facebook group. Sometimes it’s a grandiose vision to create their own tradition, other times it’s a plan to create their own event. But then they vanish; they get sick, or are dealing with a chronic illness, or their computer broke, or…or….something always comes up.

The person tries to hide under the veneer of pathetic, but they actually come across as pretty spiteful if you watch. They will rarely have anything good to say about people with more power or creativity than them. They betray jealousy and anger in their comments about others. They gossip. They tear others down. Why? Well–let’s remember, these people have terrible self esteem. Tearing down is easier than stepping into responsibility for themselves and becoming the person they dream of being, the person who could lead a group and be successful and manifest their dreams. Instead, it’s easier to blame everyone else.

One-on-One Time
The problematic individual will take more of your time than every other member of your group. They will be hurt or upset by something someone said and need to be talked down a wall. Or they will message you all the time wanting to know what’s up, wanting to connect to you socially even though they don’t hold that role in your life. They will take umbrage at something you said and cry on the phone with you for hours while you comfort them. Or they will want to bounce some ideas off of you and take up still more of your time while they are looking for validation.

Summary, and Personal Growth
I’m going to let you in on a little secret; and, if you regularly read my blog, it probably won’t be much of a surprise. I, personally, have done many of the bad behaviors that I listed above. I’ve been a problem person in groups before, although it wasn’t my intention. I can honestly say that I wasn’t usually belligerent or spiteful, nor was I throwing big drama fits. I was never claiming to be a reincarnated Babylonian god. However, I was often the person who got heard by complaining. I’m the eager volunteer who dropped the ball.

Why? well, I had the worst self esteem you can imagine.

I came out of the public school system a suicidal self-hating mess. I was fat with acne and so stressed out that when I was 12 I pulled out half the hair on my head. It’s called Trichotillomania, and it’s a behavior that emerges as a coping mechanism for extreme stress. It took me years and years of personal growth work to get past a lot of these things. And, the old wounds don’t ever fully heal, in the sense that, I can’t go back in time and undo what happened to me. What I can do is decide that my life is going to be different going forward.

I’m really good at picking up these red flags because that’s how shadow works–we see the dark mirror of ourselves and our own bad behaviors in others. In fact, one of the best lessons (if painful) in personal growth is to observe the people around you and what annoys you about them. And then ask yourself, “Do I do that?”

Often enough, the things that annoy you in others are actually things you do that you secretly fear will annoy others.

Only once you acknowledge these things by looking in the mirror can you even begin to address those shadows. And I cannot encompass the entire process of shadow work here in these articles, though I can offer beginnings. T. Thorn Coyle writes eloquently about working to embrace and integrate our shadows. Or you can find a good Jungian therapist.

I often say that the secret to leadership–and to conflict resolution–is relentless personal work. I’m the poster child for it. I have worked to become a more whole person. Is my work done? Heck no. I have tons of issues. But I have come a long way. So I’m here to say that people who are engaging in the above harmful behaviors can change. It’s not pretty, and it takes a long time.

And many won’t. You can’t fix them. And if someone is engaging in consistent behaviors that is going to harm your group, you may have to ask them to leave, because otherwise, in a year you won’t have a group to build, it’ll implode or explode. And then you can’t help anyone.

More articles coming up in the leadership series, so stay tuned.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work

Conflict Resolution 5: Don’t Bother

HPIM1977.JPGI touched on this a little in the previous 4 articles on Conflict Resolution and the rest of the leadership series. However, it’s worth stating more explicitly. Sometimes, it’s not worth bending over backwards to try and sheepdog people into a conflict resolution. Sometimes, people are just going to keep causing drama.

In fact, the very drama of trying to get them into a mediated session is the drama that they want. Usually these are the egomaniacs and unstable mentally ill people I’ve mentioned before. Typically they have no idea that they are literally bending situations to create even more drama.

Some people crave attention. Going back to the underlying needs addressed in Part 2, their need is for attention, to be seen and valued. However, they aren’t getting that need met, in part because their attempts to get that need met typically involve them being whiny, annoying, irritating, or belligerent.

Here’s a couple of quick examples of “Do not pass go,” followed by a longer profile of behaviors to watch out for.

Stuck In Mythic
So once upon a time, Person A was convinced that Person B hated him. “She came into the room, and when she saw me, she left.” I asked if he’d ever talked to Person B about it. “No, of course not. She hates me.” Despite several hours of working through the Four Levels of Reality tool to get him to Physical Reality, he could not separate his mythic reality. “I just know she hates me.” He wasn’t open to me talking to Person B to find out, he wasn’t open to a mediation session, he was just convinced that Person B hated him. And in fact, suspected that many other people hated him.

In this instance, despite a lot of effort to work with Person A, who was motivated to help and be part of the group, it turned out that Person A had a number of issues. He was diagnosed Bipolar and not in any treatment, he had been abusing his partner (spitting on her, choking her, verbally and emotionally abusing her), and he had been repeatedly hitting on women in the group, or staring at their chests. I also discovered that he’d been kicked out of two previous groups for being belligerent and he had problems with female authority figures.

As I’ve said before, I always want to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but, I also have to be realistic. With treatment for his Bipolar and a few years of therapy, he could be a functioning member of a group, but he’s way past my pay grade. The primary red flag in this situation that led to me understanding all the rest was that you couldn’t talk this guy down off a wall. Once Person A was convinced of his Mythic Reality, no amount of Physical Reality would sway him. If you spend several hours talking to someone and they just can’t wrap their brain around the idea that their version of The Truth isn’t set in stone, that’s a big red flag.

Stuck in Mythic plus Antisocial Personality Disorders
Person A was convinced that Person B was out to get him–same scenario as above. He’d dealt with her before in a previous group and she had betrayed him and others. After spending several hours with Person A trying to get him to articulate what Person B had done in terms of Physical Reality (ie, taking him through the Four Levels of reality and out of Mythic and Emotional space and into Physical Reality) he literally could not articulate what Person B had done. “If Person B is there, bad things happen. Person B will betray people. Person B is a sociopath.”

Now–here’s the rub on this one.

Person A is going to consistently cause group conflicts because they literally cannot get out of their own Mythic Reality. They are stuck in their own story of other people’s motivation. However–in this particular instance–Person B really was a sociopath. You might begin to see why conflict resolution is so difficult. Often times, both parties enmeshed in a conflict are escalating things and making it worse.

In this particular example. Person B had done such a number on me by playing the victim that I allowed her into leadership positions in my group, ultimately giving her the leverage she needed to help build a coalition against me. There were other factors, including my former partner, but this led to the complete implosion of that particular group. If I’d understood the red flags for the Antisocial personality disorders and Person B’s behavior, she’d never have gained a foothold in the group.

Rule of thumb: If someone can’t articulate things in terms of Physical Reality, despite four hours (yes, four hours) of discussion on the matter, this is probably someone who is going to continue causing conflicts because of their paranoia and being stuck in mythic reality.

However, here’s a caveat. Sometimes the inability of Person A to put their finger on what Person B did may actually be a flag for Person B having one of the major personality disorders, like Narcissistic or Borderline Personality Disorder, or being a sociopath. All of those fall into the “Antisocial personality disorders” and you will never regret learning more about those. Once you know some of the flags for them, it can help you keep your group healthier.

If you have someone in your group who has one of the antisocial personality disorders, it may be extremely difficult for other group members to put their finger on exactly what is wrong, what that person did. This is in part because people with any of the major antisocial personality disorders are extremely good at manipulation. They twist people around and if you aren’t familiar with the red flags, you’ll get caught up in it. Heck, even when I do know the red flags, it’s still hard to unravel the knots on what’s happening.

Personality Profile: Problematic Group Member
Below is an extended example of red flags of a problematic individual that many of you may recognize in your own groups. Starhawk would call them the “Power Under” person. This is the person that is repeatedly causing group conflicts. I’m not going to say there is no help for this person, however, the likelihood of any conflict resolution is pretty limited. If someone is on the extreme end of these red flags, I might skip the attempt to do conflict resolution entirely and just skip to the end game and kick them out of my group.

That’s harsh, and it’s something I would only do in extreme situations, but sometimes, the game of the problem-causer is to create further drama by drawing you into a process of conflict resolution. Sometimes, the only way out is to hold a boundary and say “No” and end the cycle of drama.

Some folks I know in a semi-rural area are working to create a coalition of local groups. Sort of a unity council. They all live about 2-3 hours apart, but they’ve seen how hard it is to run events and try to attract people to come to rituals and put things on when there are just so few Pagans in any one area. However, if they band together and go to Town A for one sabbat, Town B, for another, and Town C for the next…you get the picture. They can share resources, not have to run all the rituals themselves, get helpers…it’s a good idea.

Of course, you can also see the challenges organizing over that big of a distance. One of the group members early on started whining a lot. She’d complain on the group page. She didn’t like the logo that one member had designed. She frequently complained that even when this coalition met closer to her side of the state, she still had to drive 45 minutes and she couldn’t afford it. She frequently complained that people weren’t listening to her ideas.

The person who is in the role of the organizer of this merry band has spent hours and hours and hours talking to the group member with the problems. In fact, I spent several hours talking to that group member on the main organizer’s behalf, since I know all the parties involved.

When the group opted to meet at the central town’s location, which was even further from the complainer’s location, the group member (unsurprisingly) complained about that, and how they always had to drive. The main organizer pointed out that people from her town had been doing most of the driving so far, and it was only fair to bring things central. Further, they were still trying to get people involved who were even further away, and that would require driving to that side of the state at times.

Some of you will be unsurprised that ultimately, the complainer left the group in a huff.

Cutting the Cancer
Now, I knew this would happen long before it did. In fact, the group organizer and I spent a fair amount of time discussing how to handle this particular complainer. She, and many other group organizers facing someone like this, want to hear how they can help that person become involved without them being a major pain in the ass. This person meant well! She volunteered for things, she wanted to see better resources for her community.

However, she also was completely the source of her own problems. She was causing the very things that were distancing her from the group, and making her feel less and less heard, making her act out more. Again, it goes back to those needs, and ultimately, to our issues, particularly around self esteem. It’s a vicious cycle.

What I’ve told to many organizers dealing with someone like this is, you’re going to have to kick them out of the group sooner, rather than later, if their behaviors are that disruptive and they are not receptive to any feedback. In this particular case, the small group of leaders was new, and having to kick someone out could have devastated their momentum. When a group is new and unsure, dealing with a major group dynamics issue can be the kiss of death. People get too angry and frustrated and bail after a big conflict.

Delay the Inevitable
You can delay how long it takes for someone like this to throw a big fit by focusing attention on them, praising them frequently, and bending over backwards to give them important-sounding tasks that they enjoy and then praising them for doing that work. And–for that matter–though I might sound dismissive when I say that, as a leader, that’s sometimes the work I have to do with group members who are not that disruptive. Some people have poor self esteem and need a little bit of extra handholding. Some group members can work their way out of the whiny power-under place.

But that’s not the type of person I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the person that no attempts at skillful leadership on your part will help. In my own leadership hubris, I’ve worked with folks like this and though, “But I know all this stuff about leadership. I can ‘fix’ them, I can help them see how they are the source of their own problems.”

With some folks who just have poor self esteem and need to build some confidence, you can. For someone who has way more red flags and is more disruptive, you can’t. It’s above your pay grade, and the sooner you recognize that, the less time you’ll invest into someone who can cause a major blow up in your group.

However–with someone like this, the longer they are in the group, the more likely they are to build a coalition against the primary leader, or anyone whom they perceive as a threat. I liken it to a cancer. You can cut off a finger, or you can cut off a hand, or you can lose a whole limb. When you kick someone out of a group it’s always disruptive and painful, but if you do it sooner rather than later, it’s less disruptive.

Red Flags
Of course–this means you have to understand the differences between someone who can change their behavior, and someone who is way above your pay grade. Ie, someone who is not going to change. I’m not going to tell you this is easy. And as I’ve said so often before–good grief do I wish that I had more capacity to help the people who are acting out in this way. Because, I believe that many of them can be helped with time, patience, pastoral counseling, therapy, and love. And if our group leaders had better training, and infinite time and infinite resources, we could help some of these folks.

But sometimes, my job is to create a stable group so that in 5, 10, 20 years, that group does have the resources and the training to help people like this. A group that is strong and sustainable can actually handle someone more problematic. A newer group with leaders without a lot of training doesn’t have a chance.

Description of the red flags for this particular group member/type got long enough that that will be Part 6.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work

Conflict Resolution Part 4: At the Table

8240974_xxlNow that we’ve talked about a lot of the underlying causes of conflicts and the needs beneath them, lets talk about the actual process of trying to resolve a conflict between two or more people in some kind of mediated session.


By the time a conflict has gotten to the point where people are pissed off and not speaking and it’s a struggle to get them into a room with each other, your chances of positively resolving the conflict are pretty low, which is why the rest of the series of articles focuses on understanding conflict and unraveling it before it gets that far.

Now, there’s lots of different ways of getting people to the table. A mediation is different in some ways from a facilitated session where you, as the group leader, have the power to render a judgment and kick someone out of a group. It helps to understand what type of conflict resolution session you’re engaging in.

First, before there’s ever a conflict, it helps if the group has an agreement for conflict resolution. I’m amazed at how many groups have no behavioral agreements at all, much less an agreement about what behavior would lead to a mediated session. Such as, if 2 people have an issue and can’t resolve it, they must go to one of the 2 mediators established by the group. If this is a conflict between two sovereign group leaders, there’s no such hierarchical commandment that they must follow, but let’s assume for the moment that the agreement exists within a group and that the parties involved must agree to the mediation or resign from the group. Or, that the people in question are reasonable enough to agree to a mediation.

Thus, the first step is, you learn about the conflict. You will have the tendency to “side” with the person you know best, or, the person whose side you heard first. I’ve heard this called Polarizing, and it’s pretty common. It’s why in a community conflict people rush out to tell people their side first; we seem to instinctively know that people believe the first person they hear. We will also tend to “side” with the underdog, or the person who portrays themselves as the underdog. (Keep in mind that the one who comes across as the victim, isn’t always the victim.)

Don’t get mad at yourself for the instinct to take a side. Just acknowledge that yup, there you are falling for the polarizing thing. And then, work to gather more data and understand the whole situation. Just be aware of your instincts and whenever you find yourself taking a side, question it thoroughly. Interview all the parties involved. Try to do this in person, because you can learn a lot from body language, but, sometimes Skype or email are the only way to go for the data gathering, particularly if the parties live far away.

You’ll be doing a lot of listening. And fact checking. You want to understand those underlying needs. And, though your job as a mediator isn’t necessarily to lay blame (or, for that matter, to be someone’s therapist), understanding what happened is crucial. It’s important to understand if one of the parties is blatantly lying, because that impacts the next steps.

If you catch one of the parties in big, blatant, or consistent lies, it’s unlikely the conflict resolution is going to have any kind of positive outcome. I hate to be a Debbie Downer about that, but if one of the parties can’t be truthful, that’s a pretty big red flag. I’ve been in a mediated session (I was one of the two parties, not the mediator) when the other party began lying to gain the sympathy of the mediator. At the time, I didn’t know he was lying; he was talking about how his mother was dying of cancer and he was going to have to leave town in order to be with her.

So sometimes the lies aren’t necessarily easy to suss out; a chronic liar is usually a pretty good liar. Some of us have the instinct to sniff out a lie, some of us don’t. One of the best ways to suss out a liar is to get them to tell you about some things that someone else said, and then actually follow up and talk to that other person. You’d be surprised how many lies become clear when you take the direct approach.

One of my biggest pet peeves in any conflict is the “Well, people told me that they hate what Person B is doing.” “Who is people?” I ask. “Well, I can’t tell you that, they don’t want me to give their names.” In most cases, I ignore this as any kind of useful evidence. Sometimes, a liar will give out names if I pressure them, assuming that nobody would be direct enough to actually contact those people.

And the house of cards falls apart when you do, indeed, contact those folks. That’s why investigation is important, because you need to understand the story beneath the story.

Another red flag is abuse. In so many cases, there isn’t enough evidence, it’s Person A said, Person B said, however, sometimes there were witnesses and there’s a consistent pattern of behavior. In a situation like that, particularly involving physical abuse, your services as a mediator aren’t really what’s required–getting the victim out of the situation is. Oddly enough, it’s often the victim, who is stuck in the codependent spiral, who is trying to make the mediation happen so that they don’t have to acknowledge that it’s time to leave the relationship. The mediation is actually a stalling tactic on the victim’s part.

This is one of those areas that starts to stretch beyond my pay grade, but if I tend to look at my “job” in an instance like this as the same obligation that a therapist has. A therapist holds the things shared with them as confidential, unless they learn of someone’s intent do do themselves or another harm. If I feel that someone is in danger, then it may indeed be my obligation to involve the police, or help the victimized party get out of that situation. This is an extreme situation, and honestly, this is why I wish I had more training.

I’m not going to go into the nuances of what you should do in this situation as that’s a whole post on its own, and in this case, if I stumbled into something like this, I’d probably ask the advice of Selena Fox or someone else who has far more pastoral counseling training than I personally have.

Getting People to the Table
Making the assumptions that while there’s gnashing of teeth, there’s no blatant lying, and there’s no risk of escalating physical abuse, once you have gathered all the info you can, your job is to get the affected parties into a room together. Now–depending on the nature of the conflict, this meeting might involve a larger group, or, just two people. A larger group might be warranted if two members of a coven are fighting, and have been fighting in a way that has been disruptive to the whole group or involved the whole group. Or, if there’s a complicated family dynamic with multiple injured/angry parties.

However, what I’d suggest is that you try to first meet with the core affected parties, and meet with as few of them as possible. Often the primary conflict boils down to just two people. The reason to meet with them alone is pretty simple; people will put on a bigger show with an audience, and will be less likely to be vulnerable, less likely to back down. If you can actually get the two main parties to listen to each other, and communicate, and open up, then they can resolve their issues with each other first without any group shaming going on, or perception of group shame.

Remembering those underlying needs, and shadows, always keep in mind how people’s egos and self identity will drive their actions. The poorer someone’s self esteem, the more they will be driven by wanting people to have a “good” opinion of them. The perception of loss of status is tied into our ego identity and people will dig in their heels, even if they know they are wrong, rather than face the perception of the group shaming them for being wrong.

Example: The Core Components
I was once asked to do a conflict resolution process for a family in a dispute. Once I started gathering information about this particular dispute, I realized what a mess it was, though the dispute followed a fairly logical escalation. The person who asked me to intervene had been subject to the “I’m not speaking to you” end game by the other party and wanted to find a way to keep the communication door open. She wanted me to meet with the whole family in a mediated session to address the issues of the “Black Sheep” family member.

Except…as the information unraveled, the nature of the conflict became clearer to me that it was really a conflict between two primary players, and everyone else was just caught up in the fallout. Neither one of those players was going to back down in front of the rest of the family, so to address anything, I was going to need to get the two of them alone in a room together.

That’s about as far as I got in the info gathering process before one of the parties pulled the plug on the mediation.

Is it Mediation or a Judgment?
Now–I’m using the terms mediation here, and I should clarify that I’m painting with big brush strokes. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that sometimes I’m negotiating a conflict; if I were a true mediator, I would have no stake in the conflict. If I’m a group leader facilitating a session for two other group leaders, I still have a stake in it because I want things to go well.

Similarly, if I’m a group leader facilitating a mediated session for two of my group members, it might be more accurate to call me an arbiter or even a judge, because I will at some point be rendering a decision. A mediator is just there to make a safe space to listen and gets out of the way, letting the two parties come to terms with gentle guidance. If I’m a group leader, it may ultimately come to me to render a decision that one or more of the parties might get asked to leave the group, for instance.

And yes, that can be a wrenching decision particularly in Person A said, Person B said, when you don’t have all the data. In that case, I tend to make my decision based upon how people act within the process of the conflict resolution itself.

However, I am more than happy to render a decision based on people’s behavior during the mediation process itself. How we act when we are under stress tells a lot about us. And if someone turns into a raving jerk, I may realize that that person really wasn’t a good fit for my team in the first place.

Mediators, Arbiters, and Power Dynamics
You should be aware of how the power dynamic shifts depending on your role. If you’re a group leader arbitrating a dispute, then you have a dog in the game. The people involved in the conflict will feel more pressure to be believable, for you to be on their side, since you have power to make a decision about their involvement. So they may feel more pressure to lie, for instance, or fib. Whereas, the idea with a mediator is that this person has no power to render a decision, and thus, is a safe place to vent about what happened.

In many cases a mediation will be between two parties who have a vastly different power dynamic. For instance, and employee and employer, or, a coven member and coven leader, in which case, a neutral mediator is really important, since the person without power has to feel that they will be heard. The mediator also has to have enough respect that the person with power is willing to come to the table and listen and not just brush this off as their group member whining.

In a dynamic like that, your job as the mediator is probably (depending on the situation) to help the powerless person have a voice with someone who may not be willing to listen. On the other hand, part 4 of the conflict resolution series deals with when the underdog is the problem person in the group. More on that later.

Conflict Resolution and Communication
Essentially, your job as a mediator, negotiator, or arbiter, is to unravel the truth as best you can, and to get people to listen to each other. You’re trying to help them hear each other. Sometimes, what one person is saying sounds like “Wa wa, wa wa, wa wa wa” to the other person for various reasons.

It could be that they each have a different primary learning modality, or that they are the exact personality types on the Enneagram that shouldn’t work together.

Here’s a few examples.

Jumping to Conclusions
Let’s say that the conflict in this case is that Person A believes Person B hates them and is out to get them. When you have interviewed the various parties, the best you can understand is that Person B is a little annoyed by Person A, in large part because Person A is so defensive all the time. However, Person B doesn’t hate Person A.

Now, here’s a pickle, because ultimately the conflict is resolved by convincing Person A that Person B doesn’t hate them. However, future conflicts are kept from happening if Person A realizes that their own behavior is exacerbating things and that they are jumping to conclusions. So really, this is Person A’s nightmare; nobody is that defensive without self esteem issues, and to find out that people are irked at them, annoyed by them…major blow to the ego.

The Four Levels of Reality tool that I’ve mentioned before is a big helper here to help Person A to understand that Person B doesn’t hate them. But, a further commitment to personal growth work or therapy is ultimately going to help Person A be a healthy part of the group. And perhaps that’s outside of the scope of a mediated session, but it’s part of the process of longer term conflict resolution in a group.

What Did You Say?
Another example is when people just are failing to communicate. In one instance, I was asked to facilitate a board meeting of a group that just wasn’t on the same page. The group leader was strong, ambitious, a little harsh, definitely a control freak, and motivated by a drive to be a professional. She had been putting in long hours to run events on her land, and she wanted people to step in and help, but her volunteers always seemed to drop the ball. One volunteer in particular wanted to help with things like the newsletter, but she blew deadlines and failed to get things done. She had great ideas and was highly motivated on the idea level, but she had terrible follow through. Basically, the two of them were a personality match made in hell.

When this group leader sent out long emails about her ideas for future events to the board email list, she would hear nothing back from the board, and she would sit there and wonder if anyone cared and fume and get frustrated and sad.

Let’s look at the group’s side. They had volunteered their time to make the event happen, but then the group leader became a task master and was demanding more from them than they felt they agreed to. She wanted regular meetings which they had to fit into their schedule, and she sent out long emails that they didn’t have time or patience to read. Or, the emails seemed like the group leader had things in hand, so they didn’t feel they needed to response.

They had no idea the group leader was looking for a response from them.

So what I said was, “Can you guys hear that Group Leader needs more feedback from you guys, that even if all you have time to type is ‘Yeah, that sounds great,’ that that is what she’s looking for?” And they nodded and understood. They hadn’t realized that was what was needed.

And then I said to the group leader, “Can you hear that your group is a little overwhelmed by all the communication and structure you are throwing at them? That they may not have stepped into the level of volunteering that you are asking of them? Can you work to make more space for what they have time for, and to listen to their needs?”

And she understood that. It hadn’t really occurred to her that she was asking too much, given that for years she had taken on the entire task of putting on the event. I pointed out that she was a driven, motivated individual and this event was her baby, but just because she wanted it and was willing to put in the 80 hour week, didn’t mean that everyone else was, and that she had to downscale what she was expecting of her volunteers.

I also pointed out the obvious tension, that the group members were always on edge, waiting for the group leader to snap at them. That the group members wanted to help, but they were also afraid of how angry the group leader seemed to get. However, I also pointed out that some of the group members were not meeting the obligations they had agreed to, and that this had caused stress for the group leader.

Basically, as a neutral party, I was able to communicate a lot of the subtext messages in a way that took the tension out and helped them look at it not as the two sides in conflict, but as outsiders, so they could see how they got into the spaghetti snarl and how they could find their way out.

If you really want to learn how to mediate disputes, I highly recommend getting training in Nonviolent Communication. Restorative Justice Circles are another method, and many areas offer classes in mediation training, though the rub is you’ll have to pay out of pocket in order to get training that you then won’t be able to charge for. Don’t worry; I have a longer series of posts addressing leadership, fundraising, and money coming up.

When You Shouldn’t Bother
I’ll offer an example of many of the behaviors of a problematic individual who will cause repeated conflict in your group in Conflict Resolution Part 5.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work

Conflict Resolution 3: Is it Resolvable?

12653654_xxlWhen a conflict resolution works it’s a great thing. However, the reason I started out the leadership series by talking about unsolvable conflicts, and in specific, talking about intractably bad leaders who are egomaniacs, jerks, or who have major untreated mental illnesses…is because with anyone in these categories, it doesn’t matter if you are a master at conflict resolution. Nothing is going to heal that conflict. Nothing is going to change someone who isn’t aware and willing to change.

Love, Listening, and Boundaries
There is a power–an extreme power–in listening. In letting someone talk about why they are upset, in hearing them. Sometimes someone who seems like an intractably bad KnowItAll  can come to understand what they did and do, reflect on their behavior, and work to be better.

Some people have literally never had anyone just listen to them. Compassion and love and support can also heal some of those old wounds that lead to behavior. Another toolset that I’m less familiar with, but that I know has had a tremendous positive impact, is the form of the Restorative Justice circle.

Pagan author Crystal Blanton facilitates these when she teaches at festivals, and she uses them in her workplace. You might do a little digging around in your area via Google to see if there are any ways to experience or learn how to facilitate Restorative Justice circles. One of the hallmarks of an “RJ” circle is listening. The idea is to pass the  talking stick/stone/object around and get people to talk, and, to get people to listen.

There is a tremendous power in being heard when you’ve never felt like anyone listened to you or cared what you thought. Sometimes that’s all that someone wants in a conflict–to feel that their voice is heard.

There’s a tremendous power in hearing the pain of the other party. When people yell at each other over a computer screen, or through a third party who’s been triangled into the drama, they aren’t always hearing and sitting with and feeling compassion for what the other party is going through.

If you can actually get people to sit together and speak their pain and be vulnerable, that’s half the work right there, and sometimes just the act of them speaking and listening unravels the conflict.

However, it’s a knife’s edge of balance. I want to listen to what someone’s going through. And I want to give someone the time and space to heal and to do better, but I also need to understand when I’m spinning my wheels with someone and just giving them more opportunities to hurt me and my group. After repeated work with someone showing them compassion and giving them opportunities to make a different choice, sometimes it is time to hold a boundary. Sometimes, the answer is, “No, you can’t be a part of this group/event/community any longer.”

I do wish this historically worked better in the Pagan community. I’ve agreed numerous times to be a mediator for several disputes, and I’ve very, very rarely been taken up on the offer.

As I mentioned in Conflict Resolution Part 1, typically there’s one party interested in mediation, and the other party refuses. To recap, most of the time when someone refuses mediation, that’s a big red flag for me. If they aren’t willing to sit down at the table and talk things out, then there’s probably no resolving the conflict anyways.

The exception to this is if someone has been abused, for instance, and the abuser is trying to use mediation as a method to re-engage the cycle of abuse with their victim. If someone has been abused and refuses mediation because they have cut their abuser out of their life, that’s a different situation.

In almost any other case, the “I’m not speaking to you” tactic is unfortunately a death knell to the possibility of any future healing. No conversations can happen, no agreements can be made, no needs can be explored. At that point there is just stewing and no way to resolve the tension.

It festers like a big boil under the skin with no way to lance it.

Sometimes I have been taken up on my offer to mediate, but sometimes the end result isn’t what the parties had in mind. Sometimes the end result is, “Yup, you guys are really a terrible mix, personality wise, and you probably shouldn’t work together.” What people want is the perfect, pretty result, and that isn’t always possible. Sometimes the result is that some folks are just a bad combination, and the pressure cooker of working together to plan rituals or events or put out a newsletter is going to continually cause a conflict.

But I Heard Mediation Doesn’t Work
The only thing that’s worse than someone refusing mediation, though, is unskillful mediation. There’s a number of situations I’ve heard of where someone was used as a mediator who wasn’t at all skilled, or who was clearly biased, and that situation managed to cause a further rift. What makes this one worse is that then everyone sees that “Oh, mediation didn’t work,” and then they don’t want to employ mediation in the future.

Or, someone who didn’t like the outcome of the mediation, will talk about how mediation is biased. When, it wasn’t biased, it just didn’t go their way.

Like with many things, the story of bad mediations gets more elaborate with every telling. The game of “telephone” can create quite an epic rumor of how terrible mediations are. Not every regional community has had something like this happen, but in some regions, because of past drama, mediation is not even seen as an option.

Trash Talking the Mediator
A bad scenario is when one gets so upset that they begin to trash talk the mediator. And yes, this does happen. The idea of mediation is that the mediator is an outside party without a “dog in the game,” so to speak. In the Pagan community, I often clarify that I am not a true mediator, because we have too much “It’s a small world” syndrome, but that I will try to come in as unbiased as I can. And there’s a benefit to having a mediator who at least understands the local politics without an hours-long history lesson.

However, the disadvantage is that if one of the parties involved gets disgruntled enough–or, if they were genuinely unstable to begin with–they may try personal attacks against the mediator. At that point it usually becomes pretty clear how the original conflict exploded in the first place, but it can cause entirely new rifts. This is why I’ve heard a number of Pagan elders say, “No way am I getting in the middle of that.” Because, they know that one of the “end games” is to try and draw in the mediator.

Too Much of a Soft Touch
Another mediation failure is when the mediator doesn’t ask the hard questions. I know of one mediation where the mediator basically seemed to just listen to the two parties talk to each other.

One party felt aggrieved and took the lead, cowing the second person into apologizing, when the situation was actually far more complicated. The aggressive person used the mediator to make the second person look like the aggressor. It’s grade-A manipulative and abusive behavior, and a mediation is supposed to provide a safe space.

While it’s true that a mediator is in general supposed to help the parties in conflict solve their own problems, there’s also a point where a mediator needs to step in and ensure a safe space for both parties. I’d offer that it’s really tricky some times to suss out abusive and manipulative behavior, particularly with people who play the victim in other to manipulate others. This is why it’s important to gather data ahead of time from multiple different perspectives.

You want to give people space to work out their problems, but you don’t want to let one party steamroll the other. A lot of mediators express that they are afraid to be perceived as taking sides, but bad behavior needs to be called out in a mediation session or you’ve just lost all your safety agreements.

In Part 4, we’ll look at some actual mediation and arbitration processes.

Meanwhile, here’s a short article on projection (ie, projecting our inner landscape onto exterior people/events) from an excellent weekly facilitation newsletter I subscribe to.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work

Conflict Resolution 2: Understanding the Need Beneath the Action

4290805_lNonviolent Communication (or NVC), and other tools I work with, are about understanding the need that underlies the action. If I can understand why someone just did a really mean thing, I can understand why, and we have an opportunity to resolve it.

It’s still not okay to be a jerk to someone, but, without knowing why it happened and why, we can’t even get at a forward momentum for resolution, everything we do will just be rehash.

Nonviolent Communication is a technique that I frequently use. The book by the same name by Marshall Rosenberg is an excellent resource. The tool does have a bit of a learning curve, but it’s especially useful if many people in a local community are working to learn and practice it.

In the Conflict Resolution Part 1, I focused a lot on conflict avoidance. I have found that the simple strategy of “when, not if” helps tremendously. Not looking at it as, if a conflict happens, but when. That tends to lower the stress level around addressing the conflict, because I’m not looking at it from the squeamish perspective of, “Maybe I can get out of addressing this.” It’s more, “When will I choose to address this?”

Because that conflict is not going to go away. What you have to do first is understand the nature of the conflict to determine how to address it.

Person Causing the Drama
The person who’s frustrated and whose needs aren’t being met is likely to consistently keep beating their head against the wall engaging in ineffective strategies to try and meet those needs.

Effective strategies is a keyword here. A lot of the process of therapy is centered around trying to reprogram ourselves to stop engaging in ineffective strategies and harmful coping mechanisms, and move towards actual effective strategies to meet our needs.

But first, we have to understand what our needs are, and acknowledge them. And we have a lot of cultural shame around certain needs. For instance, the need for sex. I probably don’t need to go into the cultural shame around this. A more complicated need is the need to be unique, to be seen and valued, to be special. But we’re told as kids, “Children should be seen and not heard,” we’re told to not want the spotlight, to not be selfish like that. You can see where our genuine needs come into conflict with societal morals and shaming.

Digging Deep: What do we Need?
My mentor Cynthia Jones at Diana’s Grove came up with an astrological model of human needs based on the 12 signs of the zodiac. I took her work as presented in a workshop, and formatted it into a visual graphic. It’s not about “what’s your sign,” it’s that each of us has all 12 signs, all 12 needs, it’s just that we have them in different weights and measures. It’s a useful metaphor to understand different categories of human needs. And these needs are normal.

However, when we learn that a certain need is “bad,” that creates a shadow. We hate the part of ourselves that needs that. And so we hide it, we lock it away. So there’s that basic human need many of us have for sex and for pleasure. Basic human need, right? But how much shame do we have out of wanting pleasure? How many of us blush about talking about sex, or try to hide the fact that we masturbate?

Needing sex isn’t bad…it’s when we end up harming others out of our attempts to get that need met that it’s a problem. Like, lying about your life to pick someone up in a bar, or cheating on a partner, or seducing a student.

Compassion for Needs
Understanding people from the perspective of a whole constellation of needs that we each have becomes a useful tool in groups to identify where a behavior that’s harmful to the group was sourced by someone’s genuine human need.

An example is the woman I mentioned in the last conflict resolution blog post, the one who wanted to be seen as “The Writer.” She had a genuine human need to be seen and valued for work she did well. That wasn’t bad. What was bad was that her attempt to be seen and valued for that was expressed by her attacking me in meetings.

Understanding someone’s need–even if they were a jerk to me–gives me compassion for them. I can then actually work with them to find a better strategy to meet their need.

However, there’s also a point where someone hits what I call the three strikes rule. If someone continues to be a jerk, even if we’ve had a “this isnt’ working” conversation a few times, then I may need to cut my ties and stop working with them, or if they are participants in a group I’m leading, I may need to ask them to leave the group. Some people are beyond my pay grade. Some people are not able to be self reflective and see their behavior and how they are harming others. And others may see it, but be unable (at least at this time) to change that behavior.

I will, in almost instances, give someone the opportunity to shift their behavior. But if they don’t, then my compassion for them trying to meet their needs has a limit. Just because someone’s trying to meet a genuine need doesn’t mean it’s ok for them to harm me, or my group. Again, I have compassion for people who are frustrated trying to meet a need. But, if they are continuing to be a jerk, willfully so, that’s where I hold a boundary.

Realism in Conflicts
This is a bit of a bummer, but it’s really relevant. Not all wounds can be healed. What I mean is, there isn’t always a pat “Kumbaya” moment where the perpetrator of an abusive situation breaks down and realizes how wrong they were, and goes into therapy to change their life, and the people who were harmed smile and forgive them and it all works out.

Life isn’t that clean.

Worse, I think, are the moments when the perpetrator of an abuse breaks down and begs forgiveness, promises to change, and then people accept them back into their lives for another round of eventually declining behavior and future abuse until they end up in the same situation, or worse.

I’ve been the victim in that situation before. I’ve taken a repeat abuser back into my life. It’s really easy to do. Even with all the personal growth work that I’ve done, and the leadership work that I teach, it can be hard to discern if someone is going to actually change their behavior, or if they aren’t.

Self Transformation
I am an optimist, and at first, I will give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and I believe in people’s ability to change themselves, transform themselves. I have transformed myself, and I’ve witnessed others do the same. It’s a beautiful thing, and people are beautiful and deserving of second chances.

Some people are genuinely just going through a rough time in their lives. I know I’ve lashed out in some nasty ways when I was going through a terrible time, or when I was stuck in depression or being emotionally abused. I’ve seen a lot of people go through something and hit bottom and come back.

Alcoholics can get clean. A very good friend of mine was hurting me and others when he got addicted to hard drugs, and he quit and made something of his life.

However, some people aren’t going to change. Maybe it’s brain chemistry, maybe it’s a lifetime of them suffering their own abuses…whatever it is, in this lifetime, they aren’t going to change how they treat people. And you can’t fix them. Let me say it again. You cannot fix them.

When faced with someone like that, I do my due diligence. I give them every opportunity. But at a certain point, I recognize that that person isn’t going to change. They aren’t going to–at least for now–engage in a healthier strategy to meet their needs. And that my staying in any relationship with them–friends, romantic, group/professional, is not healthy for me. And at that point, the only thing I can do is cut them out of my life. In some cases, that means kicking someone out of a group.

I wish I had a magic wand to just “fix” people who are hurting themselves and others. But I don’t have that.

Hamsterwheeling: Trying to Make Sense of Illogical Behaviors
When I was in one particular abusive situation, I just about drove myself nuts trying to make logical sense out of his actions. Wanting him to make sense, wanting him to want healing, wanting to understand how he could do XYZ.

It wasn’t until talking to several psychotherapists that I understood that this particular individual has all the red flags for Borderline Personality Disorder. While they couldn’t diagnose him officially (he wasn’t their client), they explained the pattern of behavior, and further, explained that there wasn’t any “making sense” out of it. That my attempts to rationalize that behavior were fruitless, they were a hamsterwheel. They were me, and my rational mind, trying to make sense of someone’s actions that were not rational.

Without help–and, possibly even with help due to the nature of that mental illness–he was going to keep doing it, there was probably no changing the situation.

In some cases, healing isn’t possible. Sometimes all you can do is cut someone out of your life. And that sucks.

Needs and Resolving Conflict
Sometimes, however, getting to understand someone’s unmet needs is the way to resolve a conflict. However, each party involved in the conflict has to be honest about what they want. And has to be honest about their needs. And that usually requires looking in the mirror and admitting to things that–culturally–we’re taught to be embarrassed about.

Often what people want out of a conflict resolution is for the other person to apologize and vindicate them, prove them to be “right.” If that’s what you want, you have to own that. But, you also need to look deeper at the needs beneath that. Why do you need that? What needs aren’t you getting met?

Often the “need to be right” all the time that is present in people who are KnowItAlls is, deep down, a need to be loved and valued by others because they themselves have very poor self esteem and a poor self image. I know a lot about this one–I used to be very guilty of it. Somehow I equated “being right” with “being good” with “I have value.” Later, I learned that being a KnowItAll was contributing to my status as a social outcast. Amazingly, once I stopped being such a KnowItAll, I had more friends, and my self esteem improved.

This is where the idea of conflict resolution connects to a process of therapy, or at least ,relentless personal growth work. If your behavior in a relationship or group is causing a conflict, you have to look at the needs you are trying to get met and the unhealthy, ineffective strategies that you are employing to meet that need.

First you have to acknowledge you have a need. Next, you need to acknowledge that you’re engaging in a harmful strategy to meet that need.

Maybe you’re being the KnowItAll and you are interrupting meetings to point out how someone else is wrong, or argue over minutia, or even interrupting someone else’s workshop. Maybe you dominate a conversation with the stuff that you know, even if others weren’t talking about your topics of interest and expertise.

Then, you need to actually commit to changing that behavior. A group leader can help you find a way to meet that need in a better way–perhaps establishing you as the person who will write an article on the sabbats, or on myths, or some other area of interest. I’ve worked with people in my groups before, including working out some hand signals or other communication to let them know when they were acting out again in a subtle way that wouldn’t shame them in front of the group.

Needs, Therapy, and Successful Strategies
A process of therapy is often very useful in continuing to explore the unsuccessful strategies you use to meet your needs, and work to establish healthier, successful strategies. Our own Ego–our self identity–is the biggest block in this process. Ego’s job is to make you look good, to make sure you like yourself. So we don’t want to identify ourselves as someone who is “bad.” That might look like, “I’m bad if I’m a KnowItAll.” (Trust me, I’ve been there on that one.)

So we have to circumvent our ego, our identity, and acknowledge, hey, I do this thing, because I’m trying to be seen and valued, and I’m not bad, I’m just going about it in a crappy way, and I can change that behavior.

However–life’s not that clean. the strategies I’m discussing above are tremendously useful for conflict resolution if people actually do them. If people are actually self reflective enough to look at their behaviors and acknowledge that they need to make a change. Most of the time, people engaging in these behaviors will rigorously dig in their heels. They will not admit to being wrong.

Because, being “wrong” is being “bad” and ego can’t take being seen as “bad.” In fact, most egomaniacal and arrogant behavior is typically covering over really, really poor self esteem. If you want a magical exercise to work on this in yourself, I suggest the Iron Pentacle exercised, particularly working with the Rusted and Gilded pentacles. I believe you can do some of this work in T. Thorn Coyle’s Evolutionary Witchcraft book, but there are also various resources for it if you Google it. If you have the opportunity to take an Iron Pentacle class, even better.

Ego, Egotism, and Conflict Resolution
Ego isn’t bad. Ego is just our identity. It’s just that our ego can be a little overzealous in its job.

For a conflict resolution to work, all parties need to understand their own needs and desires. They need to be honest about them. And, all parties need to be willing to explore their own egos, and egotism, and need to be right, and fear of being “bad.”

Again, it’s been my experience that people who are engaging in some of the most unsuccessful–and harmful–coping strategies to get their needs met, are also the folks who have the poorest self-esteem. And thus in response, they have the most overzealous and protective egoes, and that manifests in egotism and arrogance.

Those are the folks least likely to come to the mediation table, and the least likely to back down even when they are clearly in the wrong.

So, do the work to understand your own needs, and the needs of those in your group. Understand the needs beneath the conflict. Try to actually be able to articulate the needs, and the unsuccessful strategies that are harming the group. And if someone isn’t willing to hear it, be prepared to cut ties.

And keep in mind, if you’re going into a conflict resolution because you are dead set on wanting to be “right,” you probably need to do a bit of work on your own shadows around your needs, your identity, your self esteem. If each of us did this rigorous personal work, we would have far healthier groups, and less conflicts.

Stay tuned! Conflict Resolution 3 will come out tomorrow.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work

Herding Cats: Why I Dislike This Phrase

imagesI really, really hate this phrase. Every time I tell people I teach Pagan leadership, they think it’s so funny to bring up the old joke. “Pagan leadership is just like herding cats,” they say with a nod or a smirk.

Like I haven’t heard the joke a thousand times before.

And if you’re one of the folks that has done this–don’t worry, I’m not mad at you. I’m mad that our community in general continues to perpetuate this very unhelpful phrase, this unhelpful story.

This is Part 4 of a series on leadership, so you might want to check those for additional context. I completely reject the “myth” that Pagan leadership is like “herding cats.” Yes, sometime it comes to pass that Pagan leadership is frustrating. Why is it like that? Because we keep saying it is. We make that reality happen. You know–words have power. Words have a lot of power. Words shape reality.

I actively encourage people to not use that particular phrase because it just reinforces the story that Pagans are hard to lead. In fact, it’s more accurate to say, people are hard to lead. Pagans are a subculture with unique difficulties and our leaders don’t have appropriate training in leadership, which exacerbates the problems we face. But this phrase does not serve us in moving forward. Words have power–I’ve written a whole blog post about that on Pagan Activist.

I’m about to publish two books that will include all of my current collected articles and blog posts on leadership, personal growth, and ritual facilitation. I posted on my  Facebook that I was looking for some suggestions for the title of the leadership book.

How many people suggested herding cats? Title suggestions below:

  • Leading Pagans: I did those things so you wouldn’t have to
  • Tales from the pagan pulpit
  • A Herd of Cats is Called a Pride: Transforming Criticism into Leadership
  • Herding Kittens without Losing Your Mind
  • Lightning in a bottle: Leading Nature’s children on a common path
  • A Flame in My Heart and a Target on My Back
  • Wearing Midnight: Leadership Roles in Modern Paganism
  • Acorns to Oaks: Planting the Seeds of the Future
  • The Center of the Circle–Phaedra (plus the Target t-shirt)
  • Heavy Sighs and Facepalms
  • Herding Cats: Planting the Seeds of Pagan Leadership

I think that the “herding cats” myth we tell ourselves does us a disservice, just like shrugging and saying, “Oh, that’s Pagan Standard Time.” It excuses rudeness and poor leadership. And yes, we have a lot of rudeness in the Pagan community. There are a lot of inconsiderate people. And there are also a lot of clueless people too who have no idea that they are being disruptive.

Kenny Klein wrote an article admonishing Pagans for what’s often referred to as “Pagan Standard Time,” however, for me, this could just as well refer to the other choice phrases we use to identify ourselves. Like, “Pagans are broke,” or, “Pagan leadership is like herding cats.” Words have power, words shape reality, and these phrases do not tell the story we want for our future. 

“Get over it! You represent the Pagan community! Pull yourself together! I know, it is a hallmark of our culture in general that people are rude, late, and self-centered. But as Pagans, shouldn’t we be above that? As people who, after considerable thought, gave up the status quo to pursue our true selves, shouldn’t we be the shining example, not the common problem? I think we should.” - Kenny Klein *

*I added the boldface, it’s not in the original article.

If Not Herding Cats…Then What?
Herding cats roughly implies that Pagans are too individualistic to ever follow someone else, and trying to organize and lead such individualistic people is impossible.

However, that hasn’t been my experience at all. Most Pagans I meet are desperate to find a group that is stable and healthy where they can get basic education. Sure, many Pagans are also argumentative and rude. In fact, many Pagans also lack some basic social skills, and I’ve gone on about why I think that is in the past, but I can dig up a link if folks are interested in more depth on that topic. I think the previous posts in this leadership series probably do a decent job of looking at some of the core problems.

What are the Problems?
There are a number of key problems that contribute to the difficulty that Pagans seem to have in achieving healthy groups and healthy leadership. In the world of design–product design, event design, urban planning, etc. –there’s a saying that the solution is within the problem, and that you can’t really solve the problem until you deeply understand the problem.

Here’s a quick list of some of the problems I’ve witnessed:

  • Poor access to leadership training: Most people who end up as leaders didn’t want the job, and never got any training in communication, group dynamics, or psychology. They make honest mistakes that have big impacts.
  • Leaders who are jerks: As discussed in previous articles, grassroots and ad hoc communities are vulnerable in that anyone can step up to be a leader, there’s no “gatekeeper.” And, many of the folks who do step up to be leaders have issues ranging from untreated mental illness to severe egotism, or they may even be sexual predators. Often it seems that the people who are stubborn enough to tough it out as leaders also are motivated by self-centeredness, ego, or other instabilities.
  • Numbers: It’s a numbers game. If Paganism is less than one half of one percent of the population, that means that Chicago should have thousands of Pagans. However, how many come out to Chicago Pagan Pride? Maybe 500. That’s the most well-attended Pagan event in Chicago. Most of those Pagans won’t come out to anything else the rest of the year. There are only so many Pagans in any given area, spread out across geography, and interested in different things. There are only so many people who are actually interested in leadership, or willing to be a do-er and volunteer.
  • Burnout: The lack of motivated volunteers and leaders tends to burn out the leaders we do have.
  • Sins of the past: Many people who used to be heavily involved in the community got burned out by the conflicts of the past. This disproportionately impacts leaders, such as a leader who stepped into a leadership role even though they didn’t really want to, and then another local leader started backstabbing them and badmouthing them. Many people can only undergo stress like that for so long before they give up and go into hiding.
  • Rejecting: Most Pagans are folks who, for whatever reason, did not find a home in another faith community. In fact, Pagans tend to be members of several overlapping subcultures. Renfaires, SCA, BDSM, Polyamory, Hippies, Scifi/Fantasy geeks, liberal activists…it’s not to say all Pagans are these things. However, if you’re talking numbers, there’s frequently a heavy overlap in many of these subcultures. Generally, many Pagans seem to value being unique individuals, but more than that, many Pagans were rejected by the dominant culture, or, rejected themselves from it. I believe that this leads to one result that becomes the kicker–we have a fairly small base population to begin with. And, what I have witnessed anecdotally is that Paganism has a higher-than-average percentage of people who have mental illness, treated or untreated. Thus, you often have a lot of people with a chip on their shoulder about something, making it more difficult for them to get along with each other.

There’s other challenges, but those are a few of the significant ones.

What you end up with is a ridiculously small base population, spread out over distance. You have people who tend to be apathetic. That’s not a Pagan thing, that’s They want people to do things for them, not to be the ones doing it, or a do-er. Do-ers are rare. Most people are more interested in “being,” or Be-ers as I call them. In fact, the drive to be a leader or event planner is fairly rare, as is the drive to step up and volunteer.

What I see in the Pagan community is a high percentage of leaders who are 1. unskilled and untrained, or 2. their drive comes from them being stubborn egomaniacs or from untreated mental illness.

It’s kind of a recipe for disaster.

What’s the Solution?
I have a hunch–no solid evidence, just things I think about when I’m staring at the ceiling trying to get to sleep at night, pondering the nature of life and Pagan community. I’m an insomniac. I do this with some frequency.

My theory is that some of the sociological root of many religions’ admonishment against contraception and the religious direction to procreate and multiply is to solve some of the above “numbers” problem.

As a minority religion that lives spread apart, there’s only so much you can do both in terms of proximity and money. A hundred Pagans that have to drive 1-2 hours to get to a ritual are going to have a hard time making that commitment. However, a hundred Pagans that all live within blocks of a church/temple/community center make that far more viable.

Plus, more people in closer proximity like that have the potential to raise more funds. Many Unitarian Universalist churches have only 100-200 tithing members at a church and they are able to support a building, minister’s salary, and other administrators’ salaries on that. I’ll be doing a whole article series on Pagans and fundraising as part of the leadership series to follow up on my Pagan Activist post on Pagans and money.

Here are some things that are way more helpful than making the joke about herding cats.

Teach our Emerging Leaders Good Leadership Skills
Give them the tools to do the job well. This means–yes–paying for training. We don’t have all the skills we need within the Pagan community. We’re going to need to pay for training for our leaders if we want to build that capacity within the community.

Focus on Mental Health
Let’s all get healthy.
That means me, and that means you. I can’t even articulate how often my own depression and anxiety issues have made me a poorer leader. What has made me a better leader is working on my issues of self esteem; it turned me from a stubborn egomaniac into a reasonably stubborn visionary who can hear the word “no” without throwing a tantrum.

Focus on Physical Health
What does that have to do with leadership? I’ve written about my own process of getting healthy at some length in past blog posts, but the bottom line is, when I figured out some of my food intolerances and cut those foods out of my diet, my own mental health improved. Pagans tend to lean on the “Screw you I’m fat and I don’t care” side of things. But this isn’t about fat, it’s about health. Physical health leads to mental health. I’m 180 pounds, “fat” by the standards of the dominant culture, but healthier than I’ve ever been in my life because I’m eating foods that aren’t poisoning me.

Personal and Spiritual Growth Work
I can teach you all sorts of amazing communication tools, conflict resolution tools, and I can teach you about group dynamics. None of that is going to fix anything for you if you’re just a total jerk. Once upon a time, I had a boss. He was one of those total asshole bosses, a really toxic guy.

One day, he asked for my help and that of the other designers on my team in preparing some design concepts to the executive vice president of our company. I asked him what he’d like for me to do, and he did a poor job of explaining it, I asked him, “Like this?” and he just grabbed the board out of my hands and muttered, “I’ll do it myself.”

I was fuming. I went back to my desk almost in tears. And then I realized.

I. Totally. Do. That.

That was not a good day for me. I realized what a totally shitty leader I was at times. This was in context of the (geek alert) scifi conventions I used to attend where I led a team of Star Wars nerds in creating Star Wars reproduction scenery. I would do a terrible idea of explaining the concept of what we were doing, and when people failed to do what I had in my head, I’d grab their work out of their hands and just do it myself.

Leadership pro tip: Nothing disheartens a volunteer more than this behavior.

However, we’ve reached a key point here. In recognizing that I did that, I was able to confront my shadow and work to shift the behavior. I’m still not the best volunteer manager, but at least I’m not a jerk about it like I used to be. There are so many things that we each do, as leaders, that we probably aren’t aware of. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot all the time. When we explore our shadows and our issues, we can work to become better leaders and better people.

Looking Forward
Trotting out the “herding cats” joke just makes crappy behavior okay. Let’s instead work to be better, to tell the story of what we could do if we worked together. When we hold a vision of the future, when we speak it, that’s an act of magic. Words are magic. Let’s use words that paint the picture of that stunning, shining dream of what we’d like to see, not the poor behavior of the past.

“Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.”
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: clergy, communication, community, community building, impact, Leaders, leadership, Paganism, pagans, Personal growth, shadow work, sustainability

Leadership for Small Groups and Subcultures

7381485_xxlI think about leadership rather a lot, and I have people ask me for leadership advice with some frequency. I’ve been working up a series of posts exploring the deep challenges with leadership in the Pagan community, because I unfortunately get to see a lot of its seedy underbelly.

Though, these aren’t just issues of Pagan communities…those are just the communities I’m most deeply involved in. Other subcultural groups have these same problems through what I’d call “It’s a Small World” syndrome. Any time there are humans, these problems crop up; corporations, politicians, church leaders…any group could have these challenges. They are just exacerbated in grassroots groups without a big overarching structure.

What I see over and over is the problem of people in leadership positions who are absolutely unsuitable to be leaders. What we have are people who are unstable and mentally ill, or egotistical, or jerks…or even people who genuinely mean well but have no training in group leadership.

The question I get asked all the time when I teach leadership is, “So we’re trying to build local community, and we invited local leaders to work together. Except there’s this one leader….” and they pause, they are trying to be polite. They try to be discrete and not name names. But, I keep my ear to the ground, and eventually, I hear about most of the dirt going on in any local community where I travel and teach. I hear about the Seedy Underbelly.

The Profile: Egotistical Leader
That “one leader” is someone who eventually has thrown a total egotistical tantrum.

The trigger: another group is working in “their” area–their turf–and then that leader either verbally abuses the other group leaders and members, or quietly undermines them, spreads rumors about them, tries to keep them out of larger community activities.

Sometimes this is someone who demands the status of “elder,” or who otherwise would fit that status. What I mean is, I see this behavior a lot not in newer, inexperienced leaders, but with people who have been leaders for more than a decade, and who have a host of titles behind their name.

I hear about this problem so commonly, and people ask me, “What can I do about that leader?” What they want to know is, “How can I fix them?” And most of the time, you can’t. But what do you do instead?

Why Are You A Leader?
What I want to know is, how and why do so many people who are unstable, whether that’s untreated bipolar, narcissistic personality disorder,  alcoholism, abusive behavior, or maybe they are just rampant egomaniacs…how and why do these people end up in leadership?

Subcultures are particularly vulnerable to these types of leaders. We don’t have a system of gatekeepers, there’s no hierarchy saying, “Yes, you can be a leader. No, you aren’t suitable.” And there’s a dearth of people who actually are motivated enough to do anything.

Needing to be Seen and Egotism
In our Western culture, the need to be seen and admired is a cultural “sin,” a shadow. It’s not inherently a bad thing to want to be seen, to be valued. It’s human nature. However, when it overpowers good sense, when we ignore that shadow and disown it, that’s usually when it rises up to bite us.

I’ve done my own dance with “Look at me.” I’m not immune to these leadership sins. The times when I was running the most ambitious events were when I desperately wanted to be “seen,” to be valued. In my case, ruthless personal growth work helped me to understand that I didn’t value myself, I had poor self esteem, however, I had always valued what I could “do.” The events I could run, my artwork, etc.

In my head the math worked out to, “If I run this kickass event everyone will think I’m awesome and that’ll give the finger to all the people who abused me in school.”

Of course that isn’t logical, but, the parts of ourselves working on that level aren’t rational. They are the abused kid of our past that is still in the “car” of our self, our personality. We are all the ages we have ever been. We hold our past and our fears within us. And when we’re on autopilot, sometimes it’s a much younger, much more wounded Self driving the car.

Once I realized that I, myself, inherently have value…once I grew my self confidence, I no longer needed to run big showy events to feel “good” about myself. However, it means that I also lost a lot of the drive and motivation I used to have to run events.

And I begin to wonder about that…if there’s some tie between the wounds of our past, and the very few people who step into leadership and event planning, the very few people that actually have the motivation  to actually make that work happen…perhaps many of us who stepped into leadership only had the motivation to do so because of the wounds of our past? Because of our own poor self esteem? I don’t have answers here, only questions.

But what I’ve seen time and again are the people with the most drive, tend to be the most damaged, the most unstable.

I have seen so many leaders who had the drive and the interest–and yeah, there’s so few of us out there with the drive and interest to actually take the time to do this–but how many of us are actually motivated from a really unhealthy place? I’ve tried to come to running events from a more healthy place, but it’s a far slower process. Probably more sustainable in the long term, but it’s still a road I’m new to.

Common Problems: Instability
There are some common leadership problems that cause a nightmare of group dynamics spaghetti in Pagan communities. So often they seem to center on group members and leaders who are unstable and mentally ill, or just egomaniacs. These people cannot handle criticism, cannot handle people “infringing” on their turf, and they will blow up at other group leaders, they will undermine groups and group leaders, they will throw petulant temper tantrums.

These problems are exacerbated by the other group leaders out there who are just trying to do good work, but they have no leadership training. These group leaders may have more stability and maturity, but they make a lot of key mistakes. Honest mistakes, but these mistakes often escalate the problems and can lead to that healthier leader bailing, or to that group imploding. I mean, who wants to keep running a group when someone else is out there trying to undermine you all the time and shooting arrows into your back with gossip? It’s exhausting.

Pagan leadership plagued with group members, and leaders, who are like cranky teenagers wearing grown-up skin suits. I often wonder why I bother teaching leadership, if there’s any hope.

And again, I feel compelled to be transparent. I’m not always a paragon of stability myself. I struggle with depression, I drop the ball on things I’ve agreed to because I say yes to too much, and I’m not a pillar of financial stability. Granted, that last point is because I have donated too much of my time and money to the Pagan community…but if I were perhaps more stable and responsible I wouldn’t have let things get this bad.

I know a lot of my issues and I work on them, but I share some of the core issues of many of the unstable leaders out there.

Institutions and Paganism
I know a lot of Pagans talk about not wanting leaders, not wanting institutions that will take the “wildness” out of Pagans, however, I think that institutions and organizations are the only way we can build a healthy, useful, sustainable infrastructure.

I’m an ecstatic ritualist and mystic who wants institutions. At heart, I’m an anarchist, at least, an optimist, but I’m also a realist. True anarchy means, if I see a pothole, I fix it. I don’t wait for “them” to fix it, there’s no them. There’s only me being radically self-responsible. That’s optimistic…but, people are people. We aren’t there yet. I can’t even convince Pagans that they should make the choice to not use styrofoam at potlucks because it’s being hypocritical, if you say you’re Earth-centered. But I digress.

With Pagan leadership, I wish that Pagans and Pagan leaders were all ethical, self responsible people. I wish that Pagans were as tolerant as they purport to be. But we aren’t. I hear all the time about the deep, dark, stanky underbelly of the ugly crap Pagan leaders have done, particularly because I teach leadership.

So f we’re going to have institutions, then we need to do them well. If we’re going to have leadership and hierarchies, then we need those leaders to be accountable. And even if that leadership is shared–consensus, rotating leadership, voting in officers…whatever it is, we need our leaders to have actual leadership training. To have some method of doing the intense personal work and facing shadows so that we don’t step on ourselves.

Many of the group blow-ups I hear about are leaders who started with positive intent whose own baggage got in their way and they had a massive egotistical kablooey at someone in their group or another leader.

I’m sick of hearing about group leader after group leader who is causing these problems in their own community. Worst case, we’re talking about group leaders seducing minors–which happens. Theft, rape…it happens.

Who Should be a Leader?
I’m not the boss of anyone; we are each our own sovereigns. However, it’s also equally clear to me that there are some people who should simply not ever be in a position of leadership because they are unstable and have untreated mental illness, rampant egotism, or other various problems. I think the key here is unstable–many people with various kinds of mental illness have a regimen of meds and or therapy that they manage very well.

But the folks that don’t, the folks who are unstable, the folks who are completely not self aware, the folks who are completely egotistical…How do these folks end up in leadership?

Often the short answer is, there’s nobody else. There’s nobody else motivated to step in to do the work. It’s often the less stable of us that seem to get the leadership bug. Or maybe it’s that you have to be slightly insane to want to be a leader for a Pagan group, or run events that run the risk of not breaking even.

So many people in my leadership classes admit that they never wanted to be leaders. Here’s my admission–I didn’t want to be one either. I wanted my projects to happen, my dreams to happen. So, I had to become visible, become a leader, to make that happen.

As I’ve pointed out, I’m not always a paragon of sanity and stability myself. And, at times, I’ve stepped back from my role as an event organizer and group leader. I’ve worked on my own issues in order to become a healthier, more stable leader. But so many people I engage with seem to either have no clue how destructive they are in their own community, or, they just don’t care that they are jerks.

What Will Help the Situation?
If we’re going to have leaders, these leaders need training, and they need to be held accountable. But, that takes us back to the larger Pagan Community (or any other subculture). There’s no Pope, no ringmaster, no “this person’s above you” method of accountability.

I think most people I know were raised to be non-confrontational, to be passive aggressive. And a lot of Pagan leaders have learned to sweep the bad stuff under the rug because they are afraid of starting a witch war (which is no such thing, it’s just a personality conflict).

But what do you do?

Leaders who aren’t stable, who are consistently abusive, aren’t going to change. And you can’t make them stop. You can’t “fire” them. You can’t excommunicate them. What I often recommend–and this feels like an impotent, feeble recommendation–is to keep doing the work they are doing, ignore and shun the leader who is being difficult, and hope that you can reduce their relevance and keep up your own good work.

That’s not much of a recommendation.  Ignoring some of them does reduce their relevance to a dull roar…but they are still there. And the regular group leaders out there just trying to do good work get exhausted. Not from any kind of magical psychic attack, but just from dealing with the drama, the gossip, the pot shots, the stress.

Leadership Series
This is actually a series of several blog posts, because it’s a large topic. In a few days I’ll post about some of the problems, and some strategies for dealing with them. I hope you will join me in this mad idealistic crusade on the road to better Pagan leadership.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: communication, community, community building, group dynamics, impact, Leaders, leadership, Pagan community, Paganism, Personal growth, personal transformation, shadow work, sustainability, transformation

The Devil, the Tower, and the Star: Tarot Blog Hop

4585466_xxlI’m going through a Dark Night of the Soul. It’s seasonally appropriate during the dark time of the year, though I find I’m facing the darkness of winter again while  going through a “Tower” moment. If you’re not conversant in Tarot-reader lingo, the “Tower” is generally shorthand for, “life-altering disaster.” The Tower is one of the cards in the Major Arcana.

Before I get too far– this post is part of the “Darkness into Light” Tarot blog hop. The previous blogger is Chloe McCracken and you can check out her post, or there’s a link to all the posts at the bottom.

Tarot and Personal Spiritual Work
I teach workshops on spiritual, esoteric, and personal transformation topics. One workshop I offer is “The Devil, the Tower, and the Star,” which helps participants to work through current/past Tower moments. My work with the Tarot is less about doing readings, and more about working with the archetypes for deep transformative work.

So I definitely have tools when lightning strikes and the Tower is burning down around me. However– having tools to work through an experience doesn’t mean I’m not going through the stress, the impact. I can teach these tools, but I’d be a liar if I didn’t own up to going through my own dark nights where I doubt everything. My self, my work, my spirituality. I wonder, “Why me,” the same as anyone else. I wonder if I can survive it, wonder if I can pull myself up by my bootstraps yet again.

Because…I am very tired of hauling myself up by my bootstraps.

The Devil, the Tower, and the Star
Let’s talk about these three cards. My Tarot mentors at Diana’s Grove referred to the Devil card as contracts we signed, stories that we agreed to. These contracts bind up our identity, our life force.

I looked at those three cards and thought…the Tower falling is supposed to ultimately be a good thing. The Tower is a symbol for structures that keep us safe and insulated but that really doesn’t serve us. I saw the Tower as structures built out of contract after contract, story after story. It becomes a symbol for the old patterns we’ve bound ourselves into that  are more cage than protection.

Then, the Tower is destroyed in lightning and fire. The Star is the waters of starlight pouring down, it is unbound life force, healing, inspiration, and hope.

I think of it as, we’d never have seen that luscious starlight pouring down if we were stuck in that Tower. So while the ashes are burning down behind us, if we look, we can feel those waters, let that starlight pour into our heart and replenish us, and then we can do what we will with that energy. We aren’t bound by the old contracts.

The Tower
A “classic” Tower moment is losing a job. I was laid off once  from a job I hated. But I was stuck in that, “I can’t afford to not have a job, but I hate it,” position. My department getting downsized led me to the work I’m doing now–leadership, writing, artwork. Would I have ever gone down that path without getting laid off?

Other Tower moments are a major breakup or having a group blow up. Tower moments break up old structures–and it’s usually not pretty.

However, if you can look at those terrible life-shaking moments, you may see where this also broke the chains that bound you.

Two years ago my fiance left me without warning after stealing from me and leaving me in an apartment with months of unpaid rent and utilities. I’m still paying off debt incurred from his actions. Days after he left I thought I might to die. Not because I was in love–not after all the cheating, stealing, and emotional abuse.

But because I didn’t know if I could pull myself up by my bootstraps again. The financials were dire, and I thought, why keep fighting?

iStock_000001460525MediumWhy we Require Shock
However costly his leaving was, him being gone unshackled my hands. I tend to think, in for a penny, in for a pound. With him, I felt that I’d covered up his indiscretions so many times, done so much to make our relationship work, that I felt like I couldn’t back out. That would mean that the years I’d put into making it work had been a waste.

If he hadn’t left, I’d have kept trying to fix things. Sometimes the known, comfortable situation feels safer than the unknown–even if it’s hurting us.

I’m so glad I’m not bound by that particular contract any longer, that I’m not stuck in the “story” that I had to make things work. I’ll never thank him–but, I’m glad he’s gone. I didn’t have the strength to end things. Suddenly I was free and could move on.

Starlight Interrupted
It took a while for the light to come back. I was only just starting to feel the glimmer of hope. This summer I published my first book, and I have others coming out. Just when I thought that I was eking past that Dark Night and the wreckage of that Tower from two years ago…

Two weeks ago I was in a car accident. Nobody was seriously hurt, but the accident totaled my car. The other driver took an illegal left, though there may be no way for me to prove it. I’m waiting to hear if I’ll get any financial compensation. If I don’t, I’m stuck without a car and without any way to get one.

It really hasn’t set in yet that I could have died. The police were shocked I walked away from the accident with only a bump on the head. 

Dark Night
Here’s how my panic over this financial gut-punch leads to my current Dark Night of the Soul. The limited amount of income I’ve had in the past years has come from from traveling and teaching and selling my artwork. I had to cancel my teaching engagement this weekend. I currently live in a rural area. I’m really sunk without a car.

On one hand, I’m aware this is a Tower moment that might open the way to something else…but, I’m also still caught in the emotional undertow.

My dark night is about the deeper question–should I keep trying to follow my calling of teaching leadership, ritual facilitation, personal growth work, and writing and painting?

I’ve sacrificed a lot in order to follow my spiritual calling. I‘ve managed to hang on by the edges of my fingernails the past years by living simply, trying to make the work I do to start bringing in more income.

I was already running out of time–my current living situation won’t last forever and I’ll have to start paying for an apartment again. And yet, without a car, I can’t even get a local retail job, much less something that works with my skillsets as a graphic designer, consultant, or even temp secretary work.

Now–you might think, published author = raking in the dough. Did you know 3500 print books are published every day? That doesn’t count eBooks. My books are starting to sell, but it’ll take a while–and having more books out–before I start bringing in actual revenue.

Sacrifice and Fear
I have given up so much in my life, so many conveniences that people think of as basic, in order to live lean so I could do the work that calls to me. In working to make myself affordable for local Pagan groups to hire me for workshops, I’ve ultimately paid more out of pocket to travel and teach than I ever have made back in class stipends.

I just can’t do it any more. I can’t keep on going and wonder, am I ever going to be able to afford going to the doctor again? Can I afford the gas money it would take to be able to go out on a date? Can I afford food?

I’ve started to wonder, is it all worthless? Did I give up years of my life for nothing?

Even worse, I wonder, am I teaching people a bunch of crap? When I teach personal growth classes and lead rituals, I work to help people open up to their desires, to wanting, to reaching for the dreams and hopes they haven’t dared give name to. I work to help people identify what kind of work would bring meaning to their lives.

I’ve done my best to live that, to reach for my own dreams with both hands. And I’ve hung on, I’ve sacrificed a lot to make this work.

4418451_xxlThe Devil’s in the Contracts
The other day my mom’s words that fell on me like a hammerstroke. “You might have to put your dream on hold.” And all I could think was, no. NO. No, I will not put my dream on hold again. No, I will not put myself back into those chains and contracts.

I think of all the people shackled by the contracts they signed in their own blood, putting their dreams on hold. “I’ll just do this for a few years, and then I’ll live my dream.” And five years turned into ten years turned into twenty years.


I reject the chains of shame and “should” and “We’re supposed to.” I want to live in–and I work to build–a world where we get to do work that calls to our souls, where we get to live our dreams.

Yet, getting hit by that car brought reality into my windshield.

I don’t know what’s worse–wondering if I’m going to have to give up my dream, or wondering if I’ve been teaching a lie, a fancy dream that nobody can actually fulfill.

I need that unveiled light of the Star, that healing and life force, the waters of beauty and love. I need to remember why I bothered doing this work at all.  The only thread of hope I’m really holding onto right now is a dream I had about six months ago.

Tarot and Dreams
Dreams and Tarot share similar mythic, archetypal symbolism. I often teach people exploring Tarot to look into their dreams.

I had a dream in June relevant to my current Dark Night.

I’m running late, racing to get to an airplane in New York. I manage to get onto the plane. Then we’re flying over the pitch-black sea over the Atlantic, along the East Coast. Around Georgia, some people throw me off the plane, and I fall from the sky down into the  black waters.

shutterstock_30733696I begin to swim, but the waves keep going over my head, the waves are high, nauseating. I don’t have words for the horror and fear, I’m swimming in the terrifying dark. I don’t know how many hundreds of miles I must swim but I keep going. I wish for someone to help me. Or even just someone to witness what I’m going through. I keep swimming.

It seem that I wake up on a beach in Florida, and I’m found by Pagans who take me to the Pagan conference I’d been traveling to. Though I was swimming for days, I’m only one day late for the conference. Everyone there is glad I’m ok and talks about how I broke the

“Hex.” A notable Pagan leader is running a workshop and mentions that in the weeks I was swimming, several anthologies have come out that have my published works in them. One is an anthology on how I broke the “Hex” of the people who were on the plane who tried to kill me.

Dream Prophecies and Symbolism
On occasion, I have dreams that come true, but usually the symbolism is difficult to discern at best. It’s rare for a dream to just come directly true. In this case, symbol mixed with reality.

Right now, those waves are over my head. However, it has come to pass that several anthologies with my writing plus several standalone books are all coming out at about the same time–right before I’m supposed to be teaching at several Pagan conferences in February. I did teach in New York recently, though I drove. My mom will move to Florida once her house is fixed up; there have been delays but it’s looking like maybe spring.

If I read the dream correctly, late winter/early spring may see things easing up.


Tarot, Dark Nights, and Returning Light
Right now, I’m holding onto just a thin beam of light through the clouds. Just a couple of days ago, my book Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path was released, and you can read the first chapter available as an excerpt.  

My Dark Night is not over, my mind is full of questions. I know that I must renegotiate a “contract” I hadn’t realized I’d made–the contract that I’d sacrifice everything to serve community. That “contract” I chose has helped to place me in this situation. I must find a way to take care of my own needs or I cannot do this work. There are things that I started thinking of as luxuries that are actually basic necessities, and I got into “contract tunnel vision.” I was so focused on my calling that I managed to convince myself that I could live without certain things–like health care. I took that to a dangerous place and thought it was ok.

And it’s not.

I know the light returns. I’ll climb out, though I’m unsure how. For me, it’s less about doing a Tarot reading than understanding the progression of the archetypes. The contracts are broken, and the light–somehow–returns. Until then, I’ll use this dark time of year to seek answers while I slog through dark waters to shore.

Tarot Blog Hop
Next in the Yule Tarot Blog Hop is Christiana Gaudet. You can see the entire lineup of Tarot bloggers at

Filed under: Dreamwork, Leadership, Personal Growth Tagged: community building, dark night, dark night of the soul, leadership, longest night, Major arcana, Personal growth, shadow work, shauna aura knight, Star, Tarot, Tower, winter solstice, Yule

Excerpt: Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path

DreamworkCover My book, Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path, was just released. Below is an excerpt from the first chapter.

About the book: Dreamwork is a core part of the path of seekers and initiates. Learn basic and in-depth techniques to work with your dreams in a concise, easy-to-understand way. This includes: remembering your dreams, exploring dream symbolism, unraveling nightmares, working with spiritual/personal transformation, better understanding prophetic dreams, and exploring your mythic and deeply internal programming.

 Working with our dreams is a potent way to understand and explore ourselves at a deeper level. Our nightmares show us our fears, other dreams show us our power, a glimpse of the future, or bring messages from the divine.

In our dreams, we face many situations that we never would in the waking world. You might achieve the Grail or find yourself terrified, falling from an airplane into a night-dark sea. Dreams are multilayered and difficult to unravel, but they will tell you more about yourself than you might believe.


Dreamwork goes beyond just remembering our dreams, though that is certainly the beginning. This book will begin with foundations in dreamwork moving into deepening your dreamwork practice. I’ll focus on practical ways you can use dreamwork in your personal growth and spiritual practice.

“Dreams make available to us a mine of psychological and spiritual treasures. They provide guidance vital to the journey, and they point to areas of ourselves where we need to work.”

–Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart

Dreaming: One path of the initiate

Dreams are an invaluable tool for transformative personal growth. I can experience entire worlds in my dreams that I could have no access to in the conscious world. In my dreams, I might interact with deities, archetypes, facets of the divine, of mystery. I might pass through a dark night of the soul that transforms me. An abundance of wisdom is available to us through our dreams that we might have no other way of gaining.

Taking on a personal practice of dreamwork is an initiate’s path. It is a discipline. To begin, I must know, “Why would I do this?” I must make the choice to do it. And I must follow it through with a consistent practice.

A Basic Dreamwork Practice :

  1. Formalize your intention
  2. Prepare to dream
  3. Dream
  4. Remember your dream
  5. Interpret your dream

Formalizing your intention
Much like in any magical, spiritual, or psychological work, possibly the single most critical piece is intention. What do you want? Do you want to get better at remembering your dreams? Do you want to use dreams to get to know yourself better, to transform yourself? Do you want insight into a major life decision? Do you want to deepen a connection with a specific deity or archetype?

Once you have an intention, you can make dreamwork a workable part of your personal practice.

Preparing to Dream
This might be as simple as stating aloud, “I will remember my dreams tonight.” It should involve a physical commitment such as keeping a pen and journal or tape recorder by your bedside. It might involve working with an archetype, such as Morpheus, Greek god of dreams. All these are practices that will help you formalize your intent, and should help you remember your dreams.

This is the easy part. Many people say they do not remember their dreams. Enough research assures me that while almost everyone dreams, not everyone remembers them. The exception is that certain sleep disorders prevent dream sleep, but these conditions are fairly rare. If you want to learn more about sleep disorders such as night terrors or sleepwalking, I recommend doing your own research. And of course, if you have some of the symptoms of a sleep disorder you should check in with your physician.

Remembering Your Dream
I find that writing the dreams down is absolutely the most challenging part of the discipline. The most important moments of dreaming are the first few minutes  after waking, when I really want to tuck back under the covers. I can’t stress enough how important it is to begin writing down your dream as soon as you wake up enough to do so. Particularly if you have challenges remembering your dreams, capturing even just a small essence of the dream will help improve your dream recall a little bit at a time. Dreams slip away very quickly sometimes.

When I’ve woken up enough that I can hold the pen, I write down my dream. Sometimes I make a few notes first to capture bullet points of different “phases” of the dream if it was complicated.

If I am having trouble remembering, I will lie in the position in which I slept, as sometimes this will help the dream return. It might sound strange, but it works. If you had an intense dream and had to get right up and go to work or an appointment and couldn’t write it down, sometimes you can get back into the dream and recall it by lying down in your sleeping position when you get home. I’ve tried this numerous times, and it really does help.

It might take a while to really remember your dreams. For me, the key is to write it down as soon as possible. Sometimes this is a brief snippet on waking; sometimes it’s two pages. The dream might keep until I’m on the bus to work. What I have found is that the closer to the time I awaken that I write down my dream, the more details I remember.

There are times in my life where I have diligently written down my dreams every day, and other times when I have gone months without writing down a dream. And, though I have fairly strong dream recall in general, when I haven’t written down a dream in weeks or months, my recall ability for dreams begins to fade. However, once I start writing them down again, my dream recall improves dramatically.

Again, even if your dreams are short, vague, or hard to remember, write down anything you can remember. Maybe it’s a color, a sense, a movement, or a snippet. Over days and weeks, your dreams will most likely become clearer.

It also helps to schedule your sleeping and waking so that you can awaken naturally. It’s very common to awaken naturally after a dream cycle. In fact, I would hazard a guess that one reason I have really good dream recall is because I tend to awaken numerous times during the night to flip over as my arm falls asleep.

I’m not going to go too much into the science of dreams and REM sleep here. However, oversimplified, we sleep in 90-minute increments. The sleep cycles get slightly longer as the night progresses. Whenever I’m taking a short nap, I try to plan for it to be either a 90-minute nap, or a 3 hour nap, so that I’m waking up more naturally after a full dream cycle. You will feel more rested than if you wake up in the middle of deep sleep. Your dream recall is also far better when you wake up right after a dream.

Interpreting Your Dream
Dreamwork is a difficult but rewarding discipline; not only do I need to write down my dreams, but I have to then unravel the mess of symbolism. And, sometimes it really can be a mess; dreams are notorious for not making logical sense. In addition, our dreams often bring out huge, frightening symbols in order to call attention to something that is going on, and it can be a challenge of my own personal fortitude to deal with uncomfortable imagery and feelings.

“… a dream is quite unlike a story told by the conscious mind. In everyday life one thinks out what one wants to say, selects the most telling way of saying it, and tries to make one’s remarks logically coherent. For instance, an educated person will seek to avoid a mixed metaphor because it may give a muddled impression of his point. But dreams have a different texture. Images that seem contradictory and ridiculous crowd in on the dreamer, the normal sense of time is lost, and commonplace things can assume a fascinating or threatening aspect.”
–Carl Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

In my personal dream practice, I am constantly exploring these dream symbols that may or may not make sense. Some dream symbols may not make sense to me for many years. Like any initiate’s path, it can take a long time to become proficient at. I look at the first dreams I wrote down and how it took perhaps two years to get any kind of depth and detail to my dream recall to get enough detail to really start interpreting my dreams.


Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path
by Shauna Aura Knight

On sale for $2.79 at Jupiter Gardens Press, available in all major eBook formats.
Also available at:  Amazon  &  Barnes and Noble

You can also view the Interior Illustrations

Filed under: Dreamwork, Personal Growth Tagged: dreams, Dreamwork, initiates, Leaders, leadership, Personal growth, shadow work, transformation, writing

Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path Image Gallery

DreamworkInteriorIllustrationsHere are the interior illustrations for my Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path book. They give a bit of  a peak into the work of the book. Enjoy!

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Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path
by Shauna Aura Knight

Dreamwork is a core part of the path of seekers and initiates. Learn basic and in-depth techniques to work with your dreams in a concise and easy-to-understand way including: remembering dreams, dream symbolism, nightmares, spiritual/personal transformation, and exploring your own internal programming. Dreams will tell you more about yourself than you might believe.

On sale for $2.79 at Jupiter Gardens Press, available in all major eBook formats.
Also available at:  Amazon  &  Barnes and Noble

First Chapter Excerpt  

Filed under: Dreamwork, Personal Growth Tagged: Dreamwork, initiates, Leaders, leadership, Personal growth, seeker, shadow work, spiritual, spiritual seeker, spirituality, writing

A Winter Knight’s Vigil: Pagans, Leadership, and Romance

WinterKnightsVigilCoverI’m sure that many of you probably don’t read romance. However, for those that do–I have a novella that came out today, A Winter Knight’s Vigil. Unlike most romance novels, this one deals with Pagan characters–and, not witches cursed with ancient powers, or druids who happen to be werewolves. Actual, regular Pagans.

The characters in the story are all members of a coven. The twelve of them are on a Winter Solstice retreat weekend in a woodland cabin. During the weekend, the two main characters, Tristan and Amber, both go through the various rituals and work through their own personal shadows.

Among these shadows are them dealing with their attraction to one another. Their coven has a rule that covenmates can’t get romantically entangled in order to prevent group dynamics and drama. After a hot night together, they have to face the consequences, and figure out if they’re going to hide what they did, or risk one or both of them getting kicked out of the coven.

Pagan Group Dynamics
While the book is not intended to teach in-depth ritual facilitation techniques or leadership for group dynamics, or even a guide to shadow work through Arthurian myth, all of those are components of the book. I hope to show a healthy way that things like that can be handled. Because, if you’ve read any of my blog posts about sex and ethics or other group dynamics, romances within the Pagan community tend to be one of the big problems with groups that go kablooey.

That being said, the book is an erotic romance, which means that there’s no closed doors. It’s rather spicy! So if that’s not your thing, you should know that up front :)

In the novella, Amber and Tristan are going through their own journey through the Longest Night vigil to step into Knighthood. To step into Service. To stand with integrity and make a commitment to their coven.

I think that non-Pagans will certainly enjoy the book–it’s about two people finding love together, it’s not about being Pagan. But, I also think that Pagans will get something special out of this story because it has some of the unique quirks of our community, of the things that we do. There’s Arthurian myth, there’s ritual work, there’s characters who do the Renaissance Faire and SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism), and just for fun, the coven hosts Heather Dale for a house concert.

Word of Mouth
If you like romance, consider checking out the book. And, if you know folks who like romance, consider the book as a Solstice gift or just mentioning it to people that might enjoy the story.

As more and more books are published, it’s sometimes difficult as an author without a massive marketing budget to get the word out about my works. Advertising is expensive. As I work to bring in enough income as an author and artist to fund my work so that I have time to write about Pagan leadership and ritual facilitation, I definitely appreciate any help my readers can offer in spreading the word.

I often say words are powerful magic, but it’s true. Word of mouth is pretty potent, particularly when promoting small and independent writers, artists, musicians, and publishers.

Pagan-Owned Businesses
I also want to give a shout-out here to Pagan Writers Press. All month long, Pagan Writers Press is offering discounts and giveaways to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Buying from PWP supports another Pagan-owned business and Pagan authors. PWP is a small press, and can also use any help you might offer in promoting their books.

What’s the best way you can help Pagan authors and Pagan-owned businesses? Other than buying books that you enjoy, the best way you can help is by sharing the link to the book on your Facebook or Twitter, and even just telling people about books that you like. Writing a nice review–even a short one–is a great way to help a book get more attention and sell more copies.

And, for those of you where Romance novels aren’t your thing, no worries. I have a book on Dreamwork coming out from Jupiter Gardens Press in a couple of weeks. Jupiter Gardens Press is another Pagan-owned business. More on that soon!

A Winter Knight’s Vigil is an erotic romance novella available through Pagan Writers Press.

About the Book:
Sexy, kilt-wearing Tristan has captured Amber’s attention on many occasions. But as members of the Kingsword coven, which has strict rules about intimate relationships inside the circle, dating him is out of the question.

When the coven heads to a secluded woodland cabin to celebrate the Winter Solstice, Amber finds herself closer than ever to Tristan. As the Longest Night approaches and their group’s ritual workings intensify, the pair realizes that they can no longer hide from their feelings.

Just as King Arthur held vigil before being knighted, Tristan and Amber face their shadows—and the realization that one or both of them might have to leave the coven.

Or can they be together without breaking their honor?


Excerpt (PG-13) Amber experiences a trancing and drumming ritual   |  Excerpt (Spicy hot)
Buy the book for $2.99  | Smashwords   | Amazon  |  Barnes & Noble  |  All Romance eBooks

Free Giveaway: 
I’m hosting a giveaway including one hardcopy of the Wild Shifters anthology (with my story Werewolves in the Kitchen in it), one eBook of A Winter Knight’s Vigil, several pieces of hand-made jewelry, 3 gently used Sherrilyn Kenyon books, one set of 4 handmade cards, and one small painting. Click the link to enter by liking my FB page, following me on Twitter, and a host of other ways to gain additional entries.  9 winners will be chosen.

Filed under: Fiction Tagged: A Winter Knight’s Vigil, challenge, community building, Coven, fiction, fiction writing, Heather Dale, hero's journey, Kingsword, M/F, magic, Pagan Writers Press, pagans, paranormal romance, ritual, shadow work, shauna aura knight, teaser, urban fantasy, writing