6 Signs Your Spiritual Advisor Might Be Full of It

Once, I mentioned to someone that I was interested in visiting a Reiki massage therapist. Immediately after I said it, I received a very baffling piece of advice: “Don’t join a cult.”

I say baffling, because:

  1. What do either of those things have to do with each other?
  2. Cults have a very definite set of characteristics that make them destructive to the people they trap. People don’t join a cult because they’re foolish or don’t know any better. They join them because they are desperate, and cults have a highly evolved set of strategies for preying on this desperation. Saying “don’t join a cult” is an extremely reductive treatment of a set of very complex psychological and social problems.
  3. Cults work because people don’t realize they’re about to join one. Saying “don’t join a cult” is a bit like saying “don’t choke to death on a potato” or “don’t get malaria.”

In Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America, Margot Adler points out that Pagan groups don’t share the characteristics of cults. I can’t reasonably say that no Pagan group leader has ever used their influence the way a cult leader does, but the motivations for being Pagan, or even being a secular witch, are not rooted in the desperation and desire to belong that are the hallmarks of someone vulnerable to a cult. (Given the number of solitary Pagans and witches, it would really odd way to go about obtaining a sense of belonging.)

A fangy-toothed cat sleeping upside down.

I have no idea what image would be appropriate for this sort of post, but all of the blogging guides say I need to have one. So, here’s Pye’s enormous, doofy face, because the rest of this post is heavy.

That said, sometimes spiritual advisors and Pagan group leaders take a hard left into toxicity. I mean, there’s a whole range of behavior between garden-variety low functioning manipulators and Shoko Asahara (and none of it is good).

So, how do you tell if your spiritual advisor may not have your best interests at heart?

1. “You’re cursed, but I can save you.”

I can’t tell you how many horror stories I’ve heard from people who went to a psychic or other advisor only to be told that they were suffering from a terrible curse, and only the advisor could help them.

By the way, that help will run you into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Dealing with curse-breaking, like other forms of witchcraft, requires practice, learning, and dedication, but there is nothing so special about it that only one person in the world can help you… and it definitely shouldn’t cost you four easy payments of $10k each. But, while most people know to get a second opinion if their doctor delivers some bad news, they often don’t necessarily feel the same about spiritual advisors.

I hate to be all “not all psychics,” but it’s true. Just like with any other bad news, get a second (or third) opinion, and learn what you can do to help yourself first. Curses also aren’t nearly as common as many people think, so the odds of you actually having a curse that needs removing are not very high.

2. Nudity is not optional.

“Going skyclad” is a thing that I think a lot of people have weird ideas about. It’s a way to remove the trappings of rank from people, to place all of the participants on equal footing. It’s also a way to delineate the ritual setting, since most people don’t go about their daily lives in the nude, and to celebrate the body without shame — if you’re uninhibited enough to be in the buff, you’re uninhibited enough to fully give yourself over to the emotions and feelings of the ritual.

That said, nobody has any place to tell someone that they must be skyclad. Nobody.

There have been instances where gross perverts have maneuvered themselves into leadership positions in part to preside over a space full of naked people. Anyone who insists that you absolutely have to be naked in front of them (and isn’t, like, a literal emergency room trauma surgeon) is not anyone who should be trusted.

3. Something something root chakra.

There’s a lot of crossover between Western new age spirituality and the concept of chakras in Hindu tantrism (something which both Hindu people and members of new age movements often feel several ways about). Part of this is the appropriation of the idea of chakra opening.

The root chakra is part of a complex physical and spiritual energy system. I can’t speak for Hindu tantrism in particular, but, in Westernised practices, this chakra is associated with sexuality, survival, security, and all of the other lower Maslow-type business. A blockage of the root chakra also impacts all of those above it. This makes sense — if you don’t feel safe and have your basic needs met, you probably aren’t going to really open up to much else in life.

The weird part is the number of people who want to personally unblock your chakras. Preferably with their junk.

As with going skyclad, there is no reason to allow someone to do anything to you that you are not comfortable with, even a guru. This isn’t like overcoming fear through skydiving or bungee jumping — this is a predator who wants to take advantage of someone in a vulnerable position. Cloaking it in a veneer of spirituality doesn’t legitimize it.

4. “You’re special!”

Here is where things cross over into cult recruitment tactics. One of the things cults are known for is love bombing. Love bombing is sometimes used toward positive ends. More often, it’s manipulation.

Love bombing takes a vulnerable person and makes them feel wanted and special. It can also take a person who just thrives on praise and make them feel elevated and unique. Once that “loved” status is obtained, most people don’t want to let go of it — so they put up with a lot to keep the love coming.

For a very brief time, I was involved in a small coven led by someone I trusted. All of the people involved in it were friends, and we all knew each other pretty well. I didn’t stay long, because my gut feeling pulled me away — I could tell something in the milk wasn’t clean, even if I didn’t know what. In the short time I was there, though, I could see the leader love bombing one of the members. This member got endless compliments, elevated to a higher rank, and the leader insisted that a kiss was part of the ritual structure.

Long story short, some rumors of sexual misconduct and a broken marriage later, that coven isn’t a thing anymore.

5. “The world doesn’t understand.”

Here’s another crossover into cult territory. One of the signs of a cult is isolation — the cult can only function if its members have a complete reliance on it. So, it shuts down critical thought and fosters the sense that the rest of the world is at fault, and it’s good and right to be at odds with it.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to be against a lot of the things society accepts as normal. Being anti-capitalist, anti-overconsumption, or anti-patriarchal doesn’t make someone weird or wrong — far from it.

It does become toxic when that feeling extends to being unable to associate with anyone outside of a given belief system. When a trusted advisor tells you that you should alienate anyone who questions what you’re doing, that’s bad news.

Weirdly, it’s something that shows up in multi-level marketing schemes, too. Amway even has a name for these outsiders: dream stealers. This name is a way to “other” people who are suspicious of their activities. If a person doesn’t want to join your downline, buy Amway products, or otherwise go whole-hog into the Amway lifestyle? “Why, they’re just a loser who doesn’t want to see you succeed! They want to take away your dream!”

If your advisor tries to control the narrative by shutting down critical thought, that’s bad news.

6. “Your doctor is holding you back.”

It used to be an oft-repeated refrain that you simply couldn’t practice witchcraft if you were under the influence of anything. While this is understandably interpreted as a caution not to drink your weight in sacramental beer or rip a fat rail off of the back of a toilet immediately before entering the circle, you can still find people who take a dangerous, hard line approach.

As in, you shouldn’t be on anything. The medication you need for anxiety? Nope. The mood stabilizers that help you function? Nah. Antipsychotics? No way.

I think this happens when the importance of practicing with a clear head gets crossed with a kind of orthorexia — the idea that you must adhere to a contrived standard of internal “purity” in order to be worthy, and relying on outside help to function somehow makes you lesser. From my observation, this doesn’t seem to arise out of a desire for control (trust me, I’m much less tractable when I’m anxious), but telling someone to stop taking medication that they need is still destructive.

 

I’ve had some great experiences with spiritual advisors and group leaders, and some not-so-great ones. When spiritual advisors are good at what they do, they can help foster tremendous growth and creativity. “Help” and “foster” are the key words, though — they are there to advise, while the actual growth comes from within. If someone tries to make you dependent on them by claiming to be the only one who can save you, forces you into a vulnerable position, love bombs you, urges you to isolate yourself from anyone else who might see them for who they are, or tells you to stop taking your medication, it’s time to drop them.

 

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Spring is Springing!

Not everyone celebrates the spring equinox. I do, because you can never have too many reasons to eat food and party about stuff.

Spring weather has had a lot of false starts around here — we’d go from days in the 60s, to days in the 30s, from warm sun, to snow. My plants are all confused. But soon, with the sun passing over the equator next week, it will finally, officially be spring.

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(Also officially time for me to start up my antihistamines again, but that’s neither here nor there.)

It’s been interesting to see how the color and shape of spring has changed as I’ve moved around the country. In New York, I was young enough that it was basically the year’s equivalent to Wednesday — a hump season on the way to summer vacation (and pow-wow season). In Delaware, I met it with dread, knowing I probably had about three weeks before my doctor put me back on Prednisone. In California, I watched the landscape change as the farmers tilled and planted. Now, I mostly experience the season through trips to the arboretum or aquatic gardens to see the trees with their buds and new, green leaves, still bright and fresh and soft as silk.

I like to perform a ritual on the spring equinox. It generally isn’t a long or complicated one, just a bit of giving thanks that the long, cold winter is at an end, and sowing the metaphorical seeds of all of the things I want to reap in the upcoming months. This year, I have a ton to set up. There are creative projects I want to see come to fruition, we’re planning a move, there’re a lot of professional growth opportunities… All of them need hard work to make happen, but a little magical help never hurt anything.

The rituals I do all follow the ADF structure, but there are a couple of things I do that are specific to the season, like:

  • Put fresh flowers and ferns on my altar.
  • Create a list of all of the “seeds” that need planting, charging it, and releasing it to be fulfilled.
  • Light green and yellow candles, for growth and creativity.
  • Make seed bombs for a neglected spot. (Local wildflowers only!)
  • Open all of the windows and doors, to let the air blow through.

Also, there’s food. Back when I was vegan, I used to make lemon cake pretty often. It was easy — substitute soy milk for dairy milk, and use lemon juice, baking soda, and baking powder to make it rise. Many varieties of lemons are in season now, so these lemon cupcakes are a perfect addition to a spring equinox menu.

I also love mixing up a salad of spring greens, soft goat cheese, strawberries, and a splash of balsamic vinegar. The sweetness of the berries, tartness of the vinegar, and smooth creaminess of the goat cheese are really nice together, and it’s a great, light side dish.

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A green salad with a little goat cheese and fruit: good stuff.

Also, since I would eat my weight in goat cheese if science would let me, I like to make lemon, asparagus, and goat cheese pasta. I usually wing it (it’s really simple!), but this recipe from Smitten Kitchen outlines exactly what to do. I prefer to omit the tarragon, use lots of black pepper, and sometimes add some white beans for protein, but this recipe is very easy to remix according to your preferences.

Even if you don’t perform a ritual to mark the equinox, get outside, if weather and circumstances let you. Chow down on the fruits and vegetables coming into season. Bring the outdoors into your space, and let yourself experience the warmth and promise of a new season.🌹

 

 

Blessing Rite + S.J. Tucker Solo Show

This week was a busy one — fortunately, I didn’t actually have to leave my apartment for most of it!

Tuesday, I got to enjoy a solo show by S.J. Tucker. It was a pay-what-you-want online concert, and honestly a lot of fun. I don’t often get to go to concerts myself (IH is murder on my desire to hear things), so it was awesome to be able to support an artist I enjoy and experience their work in a place where I knew I’d be comfortable. There’s another concert coming up on the 19th, check out S.J. Tucker’s page on Concert Window for more details.

Wednesday, I took part in a streamed blessing ritual. As a solitary practitioner, I’ve had to build my rituals around the outline given by ADF without really having a live example to draw from. I’ve developed a ritual pattern and wording that’s comfortable to me (though I would like to re-write some to make it more poetic and give it some more “flow”), but I’m still curious about how other people do their thing. The blessing ritual was a great opportunity to interact with other Pagans in a warm, friendly atmosphere — again, without having to actually go anywhere.

The ritual structure itself was familiar, aside from a few things. The person who hosted the ritual silvers their well differently from me (I use the same, purpose-dedicated silver Mercury dime each time, as opposed to using a new silver bead each time), and draws three omens instead of one.

One thing I’ve noticed about performing rituals is that I always end up very emotionally affected by the omen drawing phase. There are only a few occasions where I’ve ever gotten “bad” omens, and I could almost immediately trace them back to their causes. I talked to my S.O. about it afterward, describing how I invariably get misty-eyed when it comes time to draw the omen and see what blessings are offered.

Really, I think it amounts to the feeling of being seen.

I use the Animalis os Fortuna tarot deck for my ritual divination. It functions like a standard tarot deck, but the artwork and symbolism on the cards themselves make them open to interpretations that, to me, seem to mesh better with ritual divination than most other decks. I’m not fluent enough in runes or Ogham staves to use those yet, so, tarot it is. Since I use tarot, there are a lot of cards, and, therefore, a lot of opportunities to draw something seemingly irrelevant to my situation. This never happens.

I don’t mean in an interpretive way, either. I don’t end up with ambiguous cards that I can sort of apply to my situation if I really think about them. Whatever cards I draw are always a giant, glowing beacon pointing to whatever is on my mind, or whatever I need most. It’s a very, very validating feeling.

In the streamed ritual, the first omen drawn was kenaz. Now, kenaz and I go back about a year — to the Imbolc before this past one, actually. I hadn’t joined ADF yet, but I did decide to do a small ritual to honor Brighid. A lot of my rituals involve a trance state (something that has informed a lot of my artwork) and, during this particular one, I was shown a symbol drawn in a slab of wet clay. I didn’t recognize it, but I was intensely curious and did a lot of searching. As it turns out, it was the rune Cēn from the Anglo-Saxon futhorc: ᚳ.

Cēn (or kaunan, or kaun, or kenaz) is a torch. It’s the healing fire, and the fire of the blacksmith’s forge. It is passion, desire, vitality, and creativity. It’s one I’ve meditated on a lot in the year since, and having it come up again now was a very good feeling.

I don’t know if I’ll find a local grove with the same ritual structure and overall guiding principles as ADF, but I’m glad to have found an avenue to at least take part in rituals with others.

(Speaking of creativity, there’s a new post on my art blog about some stuff I’ve been working on!)

 

Honoring Your Blood Ancestors (even if you probably would’ve hated most of them)

Awhile ago, I had a DNA test. The results contained a couple of surprises, though the fact that there were surprises wasn’t, in itself, surprising.

Let me back up.

Years ago, when I was recently diagnosed with IIH, drugged to the gills, recovering from a spinal tap, and bored out of my mind, I decided genealogy would be more fun than staring at the ceiling and trying not to throw up. There was only one problem.
We’ll call him Albert.

Albert was my great-grandfather. He was my maternal grandmother’s father and, by all accounts, an absolute chemical toilet fire of a man. My grandmother wasn’t really raised by her parents — her mother died in a sanitarium at age 22, and her father, well…

Let’s just say I didn’t have much to go on other than that side of my family was French-Canadian, and their name was spelled wrong. It was extremely difficult to get more information about them, because every search result for my great-grandfather only turned up his many, many, many appeals from Attica. (Also, he was the one who changed the spelling of his last name, and was the only one in his entire family who spelled it that way. It’s like he went out of his way to make this impossible.)

I probably would not have liked great-grandpa Albert if I had known him in life. I have two toxic relatives who are both much closer to me and still living, and I don’t even talk to them. Neither of them have even been in and out of maximum security prison (as far as I know. It’s been awhile).

(more…)

Winter Things Yule Love

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(Also, that Yule pun was terrible and I’m not even a little sorry about it.)

Now that November’s almost through, I feel like I can talk about Yule. I confess, Yule isn’t my favorite holiday — like a lot of other witches, Samhain’s more my jam. Still, there’s a lot to love about winter, from bundling up with my partner, my cats, a cup of star anise tea, and a fuzzy blanket, to visiting the National Arboretum and Rock Creek Park to take in all of the things nature hides under the greens of spring and summer. (I’m a sucker for watching fluffy little titmice puffing themselves up in red-berried hawthorn boughs. They’re so freaking cute, they’re basically alive Pokémon.)

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As a Pagan, it can be tricky to find ways to make Yule feel special when so much of U.S. culture revolves around Christmas this time of year. So, I put together a short list of things that, to me, help make this season a little extra sweet.

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… And this is why I shouldn’t rush.

I celebrated Mabon the other day. Like most of my celebrations, it was small, short, and simple — lighting candles at my altar, sitting quietly, giving thanks, remembering the meaning of the season.

All of which are actually super difficult to do if I’m feeling anxious.

I have a tendency to try to push through things when I’m not feeling well. (Let’s be real, though. If I waited until I felt well, I’d never get anything done.) I’ve long held that rituals are not necessarily for me — true piety is observing them even when I’m not personally getting anything out of it. Prayer does not always have to be a refreshing, uplifting experience to have value. Sometimes even meditation is difficult work, but it’s work that I have to do.

The thing is, the ritual structure I follow has a kind of built-in way to tell if I’ve completely effed it or not. Tripped over my words too badly? I’ll get told. Unacceptable offering? Oh, I’ll hear about it. This isn’t something that’s been a problem before, luckily — even when my offerings have been small and simple, I’ve always been given signs that they were good enough.

It doesn’t help that it’s a structure I’m not entirely familiar with yet. It’s a bit more complex than what I used for most of my life (read: winging it), and the formality of it trips me up on occasion. To be honest, if you had come to me a little over a year ago and said I’d be doing things this way, I probably would have asked what you were smoking.
I digress, though. That’s a story for another time.

Anyway, for this ritual, I was confident! I had these fancy little cakes, I placed them in the offering bowls, I sat and said the words… and I rushed through them because holy butts anxiety sucks super hard and I felt like I was about to die.

And then came the divination.

I use tarot cards for the divination portion of my rituals. The particular deck I use (the Animalis Os Fortuna deck) is pretty helpful here. In addition to standard tarot meanings, the animal imagery of this deck gives it extra layers of meaning that allow the cards to be interpreted in a way that’s more conducive to this particular type of ritual divination.So I shuffled, drew, and…

Not only did I get called out, I got called out with The Moon. The warning, anxiety-indicating Moon, of all things. Like a big, black-and-white finger pointing right at my clenched hands and racing heart and going, “WTF?”

Crap.

I concluded the ritual, now wondering what I’d done. Sure, I had tripped over my words, but corrected myself. I’d said the wrong words at some points, but corrected that, too. But, while I’d been willing to offer fancy cakes, there were two things an impending anxiety attack kept me from offering — my attention, and my time.

I ate something, drank a little water, and waited for the feeling to pass, resigned now to having to repeat the ritual. I had no cakes to offer this time, just clean water and some sweet oil. But I took my time, I spoke well, and I let the anxious feelings dissipate.

And this time, even with my offerings as simple as they were, it was accepted.

There is no physical offering valuable enough to make up for an unwillingness to give my time and attention.