Thursday, April 17, 2008

Root and branch

Every so often I get email from someone asking if I'll teach them about filidecht. I do teach, so this isn't an unreasonable request. Most of the time, though, people drift away after a few weeks or a couple of months. There seem to be several reasons for this that fit into general categories.
Usually folks that wouldn't get along well with me don't make it past the first exchange of emails. I don't want to promise people anything I can't deliver, and I don't want to work with people who would grate on me and leave me frustrated and angry. I don't want to work with someone I would annoy and upset rather than inform. I don't see this as an issue. Sometimes people just don't fit together and there's no shame in that.
Sometimes it's a case of our beliefs being incompatible. I can't see teaching someone who wants to learn Celtic Wicca when that's not what I'm offering. I'm pretty up front about the actual existence of deities and spirits and don't really blend well as a teacher with folks who see deity as a higher self or an archetype. Some of the practices and exercises that I assign work from the assumption of the reality of spiritual beings and don't make much sense outside of that paradigm.
Time is a reason given by some. I understand that people are busy with their lives. We all need to put food on the table, keep a roof over our heads, and take care of any children we might have. We have responsibilities and needs that must be met. Yet one thing that, more than anything else, strengthens a person's spiritual life is a daily practice. Finding room for that might be a challenge, but it's not usually impossible. Foregoing a few minutes of television, getting up a little earlier, going to bed a little later -- these are things that can carve out more than sufficient time in a day for a regular spiritual practice. Twenty minutes or half an hour a day really isn't that much time to spend developing a relationship with your spiritual life and your deities and spirits, even for a busy person.
Others are looking for a place where they feel at home. This is a legitimate and healthy desire. However what some folks are actually looking for is a spiritual "love at first sight" experience. They want a feeling of instant belonging and while some people do find that in the spiritual paths they practice, for most people it doesn't happen that way. I know people describe finding Paganism as a sense of "coming home" but after that there's often a long search for the type of Paganism that feels like the best fit. A few weeks isn't really enough time to decide whether or not a practice is right for you, though it's certainly enough to let you know if it's desperately wrong for your life and your worldview. Instead of sticking with something for a year or so to see if it will grow on them, they head off for the next thing along the road to see if that will give them the instant feeling they're looking for. I might feel they'd benefit by giving it more time, but I'm not going to tell people they have to stay if they don't want to. That's not my task.
There are people who are enthusiastic about the idea of practice but who aren't willing to read suggested books or articles or to do research that doesn't involve a google search. Filidecht has a strong scholastic component to it and it always has. In order to practice poetry, one must read both poetry and prose to understand the context of the practice and build up a strong style of writing and speaking for personal and spiritual development. Sometimes this goes back to the time factor but in other cases it seems to be rooted in a distrust of scholarship and intellect. Our society has a very strong anti-intellectual streak in it and this often seems even stronger within Paganism, even though, as a rule, Pagans read more books than most other Americans. It's hard, though, if the only books being read are flawed sources and elaborations on yet another Wicca 101 text. Discernment is important, as is intellectual development. Being in print is no guarantee of a source's veracity and telling the wheat from the chaff takes practice.
Some folks want a fully developed path with prescribed rituals and activities that they can fall right into. Filidecht isn't at that stage of development. At this point everything is experimental, and the path demands a lot of creativity, self-motivation, and the ability to develop ritual and extrapolate from discussion, practices and reading. It's certainly not wrong to want a fully developed path. Traditional Wicca is one form of Paganism that offers exactly that. But those of us reconstructing filidecht haven't been at it long enough to have everything laid out that can then be handed to the student in bite-sized packages once a month at the full moon ritual. People who are interested in filidecht are going to have to be willing to put forth the effort to help develop the path so that some day we'll be able to offer something more complete to a new generation of students. The right people will find that an exciting adventure and be interested in helping to build toward that future.
A lot of people want a safe, comforting path. Filidecht, especially where it touches on the geilt phenomenon, is not safe. This is a path that will break you down into your component parts and reassemble you. This means that a student has to either be in a place where they have no choice but to push through it, or be willing to go through some radical transformations with no guarantee of results. Sacred madness isn't safe. Satire that calls attention to social and political folly isn't safe. There are no guarantees that you're going to come through the process whole, or even recognizable. Madness isn't a pretty thing, so generally only those of us who are already there are willing to do the work to get through it. You don't invoke it casually. Letting go of control is frightening. What are you willing to let go of?
If you're interested in filidecht, before you write to me, think about these things. Decide what it is that you want spiritually: where you are and where you want to go. What are you willing to risk? How are you willing to change? Can you be articulate in discussing your spiritual life? Are you willing to study? Are creativity and innovation important to you? Can you live with uncertainty?
I do a lot of my teaching not through set curricula but through conversation. There are some standard exercises and practices that I ask my students to do, and I need to get feedback about how those exercises and practices are progressing. I'm not condemnatory if people miss a day or are having trouble. We're all human, after all. I miss days sometimes too. That's why this is called "practice" and not "perfection." I'm certainly willing to go to great lengths for people who are genuinely working on the path. I've spent hours in instant messaging answering questions and engaging in dialogue with students. I've driven hundreds of miles to facilitate important personal rituals. I've answered the phone at obscene hours during emergencies. I demand a lot of myself as a teacher, just as I demand a lot of a student. It's a reciprocal relationship.
Some of the things I ask of students are willingness, open-mindedness, diligence, intelligence, discernment, honesty, vulnerability, courage, adaptability, and patience. While filidecht is a path of poetic nature mysticism, it is also a path of rigorous scholarship. It's a path that demands focus and attention as well as kindness and self-nurturing. We have to be willing to go down into the dark before we can let ourselves burst with bright poetry. We have to be willing to set down roots in our practice before our branches can bear fruit.