Ali asks:

What are your experiences in groups (Pagan and otherwise)? What were some of their rewards, things that kept you coming back or really helped to shape your spiritual path? What were some things you wished were different, that you found distracting or frustrating or detrimental? What, in your experience and understanding, is the role a group should play in the spiritual life, and how does it relate to the idea of spiritual community, and to solitary practice?

I always need to be a member of a spiritual group. Without one, I feel like something is missing in my life. I think part of that is simply the loneliness of this path – most people I encounter in everyday life know nothing about my spirituality and would be deeply uncomfortable if they did. That’s OK, because I feel pretty much the same way right back. It’s not something that ought to be talked about around the coffee machine at work. But it is something that needs to be talked about, and not just with my closest friends and family. And I love group ritual – I love the dynamics and currents and eddies and flows of energy passing in and amongst and around people in ritual. I love being part of that flow. A really well-done group ritual is one of my favorite things in the world. I love it for reasons that are aesthetic as well as spiritual. The best way to get to really beautiful ritual in the Pagan context is to be part of an ongoing, long-running group that has become attuned to one another and knows and loves each other.

If that was all there was to it that would be good enough for me, as I think both of these factors – social and aesthetic – are important enough to keep me getting on the bus and going to these things. It’s the same thing that makes people join bird watching clubs  – there’s this thing we like to do, and we like to do it together. But of course there is also an overt spiritual dimension here that is lacking in bird watching. One does not go bird watching in order to get into deeper understanding of the fundamental nature of reality and the relationship of the Self to the All (though if you do go bird watching for those reasons, let me know, because that sounds fantastic.) And so a Pagan group also needs to help, in whatever way, to get to those deeper questions.

There are a couple of ways to go about this. Right now I’m thinking of it as “the Druid way” and “the Wiccan way” because I am thinking about two different groups lately, my Druid grove and the Wiccan coven I just found. (These may or may not be representative of how Druidry or Wicca in general operates – I have certainly seen other groups with those labels that don’t work the way I describe. But it’s my experience for now.)

My Druids have a sort of core set of rituals that get changed around, refreshed and refurbished each time with a rotating cast – there is, for instance, a Herald in the ritual, but there is no one person who is Herald, just whoever feels like doing Herald that time. Even though we work from a script there is a certain improvisational, seat-of-the-pants feel to it, as we never know exactly who will show up and what they will bring with them. There is no official leadership; while there are a few people who can be generally counted on to make things happen in a leaderly sort of way, none of them would be comfortable taking the title of Boss Druid, nor is that needed or wanted. We meet outdoors, regardless of weather, and the weather is always a supporting cast member in the ritual. The Imbolc when it was ten degrees out was very different from the Imbolc when it was forty degrees; the Lughnasadh when it hailed and poured… well, actually, we always get storms at Lughnasadh. But that becomes part of it, part of the ongoing and developing relationship we have with each other and with the space where we meet. We take what comes and we meet it, and each other, with joy. I love this. I love those people and that park and that weather and those rituals. We do not confront the Big Questions in any kind of a head-on way; our group discussions tend to lean towards the silly rather than the profound (though we can be profoundly silly at times); there is no teacher besides the forest and the weather and the interactions we have with each other. We come from different backgrounds and we come for different reasons, and I think any attempts to channel that into a structure meant to address the big questions would be a miserable failure. We’re not that sort of group. We each get it, in our own way, and we all get something valuable from the experience, but the wisdom comes in its own way as we open up to it, not because we go off hunting for it. We stand there and put ourselves where it can fall on our heads like rain.

My impression of the coven of which I am not a member is necessarily less expansive as I’ve only been to one ritual. It’s quite different, though. There is a hierarchy of leadership, there is an order and a tradition behind it, there is structure and sense to it. There is instructional time. The High Priestess is not just playing a role for the purposes of ritual; she is a priestess who has studied for years to be what she is. We meet indoors in a controlled environment. There are reading lists. There is homework, at least for the members. There is a process to go through before one is considered a member and work to accomplish to advance through degrees. By the end of the evening we got around to being silly, but at first the conversation was “what’s this Mabon thing all about?” And we talked about it and had ideas together and had a directed and focused discussion. It was nice. I find this very appealing. It’s like school! I love school!

I’m not saying that I think my Druid grove ought to do or be these things – that’s not what it is nor what it needs to be for any of us who show up and make it anew each time. But there seems to be room in my life for both things and a need for both things.

The biggest distractions in group work, I’ve found, have to do with dealing with dishonesty. By dishonesty I don’t mean lying about yourself or your accomplishments, although that can be part of it – I mean dealing with the person (or myself) who can’t or won’t engage honestly with the group because they are so caught up in what they think the group ought to be or what they perceive themselves to be doing there. There is a whole lot of this in Paganism. People come in with all this baggage around “witch” or “druid” or “Pagan” and look around for a place to put it. It turns into role-playing rather than honest spiritual exploration. It’s hard because there’s nothing wrong with being tuned in to a particular aesthetic, and sometimes that can help people get where they need to go – dressing up in certain ways, taking on a certain persona. But it can also be a way to hide from the self, to be dishonest both with yourself and others. There’s a mystique to this path that leads a lot of people astray – if you get caught up in the labels and the mystique and hey-cool-I’m-a-witch! part of the experience then there is a lot to miss, and frankly it can be a complete pain in the ass to deal with someone who is only there to shore up their funky self-image when everyone else just wants to get down to business.

I think the last part of the question, about the relationship of group work to your own solitary work, is one that can only be answered on an individual basis. I think that solitary work without a group can become unbalanced and ungrounded, and group work without a personal practice can become shallow playacting. This is something I have observed in myself and in other people I’ve worked with, but I don’t know if there’s anything universal about it. I think it’s probably a lot easier to create a worthwhile personal practice without a group than it is to  work with a  group in a worthwhile way without a personal daily practice. For myself, I need both and they have to feed each other.