Category Archives: Health and Healing

Ecopsychology and Neopagan Relevance

Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.

Ecopsychology: the psychology of how we relate to the natural environment, and the therapeutic application of the restorative qualities of nature.

When I enrolled in a counseling psychology Master’s degree program in 2008, the single biggest magnet for me was the series of three ecopsychology courses that were offered. I had read Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World, which explained human psychological development in part through one’s relationship with nature.

Through three straight semesters, I learned the basics of ecopsychology and who some of the key figures were; I also explored how to incorporate a client’s relationship to nature in their therapy, along with family history, spirituality, and other important parts of the client’s experience. I even spent four days out in the woods with other students learning hands-on wilderness therapy techniques. (I also gave a presentation on how Alan Moore’s run of the Swamp Thing comic book could be used in ecotherapy, but that’s a story for another time.)

Not surprisingly, I discovered much that enhanced my neopaganism. Furthermore, I saw a wealth of material that could be relevant to neopaganism in general, as well as elements of neopaganism and related paths that could enhance the development and practice of ecopsychology. I wasn’t the first person to make the connection of course; on the contrary, some of the very foundational concept of ecopsychology are quite relevant to nature-based paganisms.

Here are just a few of the salient points:

Ecopsychology helps to explore and understand the development and maintenance of a nature-friendly mindset.

Why do we enjoy being out in the wilderness? What is it that makes us respond better to a tree than a live plasma-screen movie of the same tree?(1) What are the effects of disconnection of nature, both on an individual and systemic basis? Ecopsychologists seek to not only find answers to these questions, but to utilize the information in helping clients achieve better states of mental health. Many pagans are already familiar with the relaxation that can result from a weekend spent camping, or the difference between an indoor and outdoor ritual; ecopsychology provides additional insight as to why we may feel that way.–Ecopsychology sets the individual firmly within the context of the ecosystem they are a part of, human and otherwise.

One of the criticisms that ecopsychologists have of much of modern therapy is that while the average therapy intake form asks clients about their family members, significant others, home life past and present, and other human relationships, it doesn’t ask about the client’s relationship to nature. As psychology, particularly applied in counseling, takes an increasingly systemic view of people and their mental health, research and anecdotal evidence alike deny the (particularly American) ideal of the “rugged individualist”. Rather than an island, each person is part of an interconnected greater system, and the natural world is a part of that. Ecopsychology gently reminds us that our very minds and perceptions are inextricably linked to our environment, something that many neopagans have been living consciously for years.

Ecopsychology meshes well with nature-based religion.

From its inception in the late 20th century, ecopsychology has always been closely entwined with spirituality, especially (though not exclusively) nature-based spiritual and religious paths. Even the anthology Ecopsychology, which came out in 1995 and is considered one of the foundational texts of the subject, included an essay by Leslie Gray entitled “Shamanic Counseling and Ecopsychology”. Whether theistic or not, spirituality is an intrinsic part of the right-brained tendencies of ecopsychology, and paths ranging from neopaganism to Catholicism(2) have been explored within ecopsychological writings.

Ecopsychology lends itself well to ritual practices.

Joanna Macy and John Seed’s Council of All Beings rite, and Mary Gomes’ Altars of Extinction(3), are just two of many examples of how ecopsychology has delved into ritual as a way of healing and processing the profound level of grief many feel at the destruction of the environment. Ecopsychologists recognize ritual as a structured way for clients to process and work through life experiences past and present; additionally, as many neopagan rituals tend to be focused on the bright, celebratory side, an exploration of the processing of grief may be valuable to our spiritual communities.

As you can see, just in these few examples there are plenty of areas of overlap between ecopsychology and neopagan interests and practices. Our relationship to the world, to include that expressed in spirituality, depends heavily on our perceptions and cognitions; we cannot experience and interpret what is around us without the filters of our senses and our thoughts. Ecopsychology is a formal, though often quite organic, exploration of that relationship between personal microcosm and universal macrocosm.

1. There’s a great study done a few years ago that demonstrated just that; you can read the paper that resulted at http://faculty.washington.edu/pkahn/articles/520_kahn.pdf

2. During my first ecopsych course, one of the co-authors of the excellent text, Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth, spoke at one of the classes. Those readers with a particular interest in interfaith dialogue may be interested in the book, though it’s an enlightening read in general.

3. The Altars of Extinction project was featured in issue #96 of Reclaiming Quarterly: http://www.reclaimingquarterly.org/96/96-altarextinct.html

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting my work on Patreon, buying my art and books on Etsy, or tipping me at Ko-fi!

The Invitation of Wild Geese

I feel like not enough people knew of Mary Oliver, who passed away on Friday at the age of 83.

I myself, not being a huge fan of poetry, never heard of her work until just a few years ago. Somehow in my enjoyment of nature writing I had overlooked her work. While the poet herself is gone, her legacy is immortalized in an incredible body of work spanning several decades.

Like so many people, my introduction to Oliver’s work was her poem Wild Geese. I was working on my ecopsychology certificate in graduate school, and encountered her words in a reading. Initially my attraction to it centered on the imagery of nature, the painting in my head of the movement of pebbles and sun and geese over the land. For years I came back to it just for this picture as a source of solace and joy.

But over time it gained a deeper meaning for me. Having been raised Catholic, I was soaked from an early age in the idea of original sin and the idea that humanity is inherently flawed. This, of course, also bred in me a deep sense of guilt and inadequacy, as well as contributing to the anxiety disorder I still deal with today. When I shot forth from these confines as a teenager and landed in the lap of neopaganism, I thought the main thing I wanted was a religion that was centered on nature, rather than seeing it as a set of materials to be exploited.

I got that, of course, but what I also got was a lot of fellow pagans carrying a lot of Christian baggage. (1) The need for a higher power to have control of things and to be petitioned for aid; a tendency to divide things into dichotomies like “light” and “dark” or “white magic” and “black magic”; a desire for some authority (often scriptural) to offer clear lines of What To Do and What Not To Do. And with the crossover of paganism with environmentalism, I often ran into sentiments dripping with the idea of sin, guilt, and flawed humanity, like “humans are just cancer on the earth”, and “Gaea is going to make us all pay for what we’ve done to Her”.

I carried much of my Catholic baggage with me. I especially yearned for structure and ritual and orthopraxy and definitive methods of pleasing the powers that be, or at least that’s what I told myself I needed in order to be a Really Good Pagan. The crescendo of that particular adventure was the few years I tried putting together a formalized path using various bits and pieces of things I had learned and developed over the years. The harder I tried to make that work, though, the more I found myself rebelling all over again.

I went back and re-read Wild Geese. I read the opening lines:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

In that, I broke open. Catholic tirades about how we are all tainted with original sin even from birth, pagan moralizing over how the Threefold Law is gonna get ya or preaching Gaea’s ecological smackdown–these all came flowing out as though from a deep wound lanced. “Love what it loves” wasn’t a call to crass, reactionary hedonism or indifferent amorality, but instead trusting our instincts and deeply-ingrained social bonds that our ancestors evolved over millions of years to thrive together.(2)

And that was the key: the idea that humans are not inherently flawed, that we are just another species of animal in a highly complex world full of many ecosystems. Our actions have evolutionary roots, even if we’ve taken them in some beautiful, strange, or even terrible directions. Our large-scale destruction of the planet has largely coincided with increasing beliefs that we are separate from nature; after all, it’s easier to destroy something you don’t see any responsibility toward. Yet here was a call to return to our place in the natural order of things, where we are one among many.

From that point, the rest of the poem is a joyful invitation to return home. And I suppose that there is a bit of that shared concept of forgiveness in the idea that no matter how badly we’ve screwed up our lives and the planet–if we stop and do our best to turn things around, nature will still be waiting for us.(3) But it’s not a forgiveness gained through penance and punishment, nor is it dangled over our heads as the one and only alternative to an eternity in hellfire and brimstone. There’s no mention of any specific religion one must adhere to in order to be saved, no threat of damnation. We aren’t required to do rituals A, B and C in order to avoid angering the gods.

All it says is that the rest of nature has been there all along, waiting patiently for us to come back into the rhythm of the dance of raindrops and rivers. It will continue on in some form with or without us, but wouldn’t it be glorious if it were with us? There’s a grand, amazing world out there full of wonder and awe. Nature does not dole out sinfulness and punishment, but only natural consequences to actions, which are inherently neutral and not steeped in human ideas about morality.

Since that time, my paganism has evolved into something more naturalistic, and anything but structured and formalized. Instead it pervades every element of my life organically and without pretension. I feel constantly connected to something bigger than myself–the entire Universe–which is a key goal of spirituality anyway. Rituals feel redundant, unless you think of my daily farm chores and my meals and my sleep as rituals, all of which celebrate the world I live in in various ways. And I don’t see myself as being part of some cosmic hierarchy; I am not inherently better or worse than any other being here.

I am still working on returning to the rest of nature, but it is only because I am unpracticed, not because I feel unworthy. I can be concerned about the environmental destruction I am contributing to by my very existence and lifestyle without letting that concern translate into a guilt that continues to keep me separate as something dirty, foul, not deserving of nature’s touch. And the more I feel close to nature, the more responsibility I feel toward it, and vice versa. Nature may not be an entity that can love me; it’s pretty indifferent as a whole. But I can make up for that with the utter joy and astonishment I experience every moment I am aware of my place in nature and what amazement surrounds me.

It’s a cliche to say that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I never told Ms. Oliver how much her work meant to me, and of course now I will never have that opportunity. But I don’t think I realized myself the importance of Wild Geese in particular until the evening after she passed, when I began writing this post. And I sent out my gratitude in these words–too little, too late–but hopefully enough to share that meaning with those who remain.

What is remembered, lives.

  1. 1. Obviously, yes, #NotAllPagans. But after over two decades in this community, I’ve seen these and other leftover Christian patterns frequently. These phenomena do also occur in other religions, and arguably in some pre-Christian paganisms. But it was clear in the instances I saw that the patterns were most closely replicating those many of us were raised with in Christianity, with a thin pagan veneer pulled over them.
  2. 2. I recognize this is a pretty romanticized view of “instincts”, and that hunting and other violent things are also instinctual to a degree. That’s not what this is about, though. Leave those aside for the moment.
  3. 3. Of course, with climate change being what it is, it may not be able to wait for us much longer, at least not in a form that allows us to survive as a species. But leave the doomsaying for some other time and place. All it does is make people less likely to try to improve things, and more likely to just give up, and that is antithetical to what this entire post is about.

A Clarification On My Last Post

Regarding my last post where I speak of my grief, anger, and frustration over the fires in the Columbia River Gorge, first of all I want to thank everyone who read, shared and commented on the post, helping to get that information out there. As of right now the fires are still burning over 30,000 acres and have spread over to the Washington side of the Columbia, but no one has died and the firefighters have done a remarkable job in spite of ongoing heat, wind and lack of rain.

Most people have been able to understand my frustration with all the calls for prayers and rites at a time when these things feel like a band-aid on a bullet wound. I know I took a big risk in writing from a place of deep pain, grief and anger and that doubtless there would be people who, instead of paying attention to the bigger takeaway–do something concrete about the fires and the events leading up to them–got tangled up in my harsh words on prayers and rites.

What I should have clarified was that I am specifically frustrated with those who pray for rain, but then do nothing else helpful to follow it up. I’ve been pagan for twenty-one years. I have seen countless pagans who do “send energy to X” rituals and spells, and then do nothing else to follow it up. We tell people that if you’re going to do a job spell, you can’t then not send out resumes or apply for jobs. In the same way, all the “stop the fire” spells seem to fall flat when what we need even more urgently is everything from funding for firefighting and fire prevention to boots on the ground when the fire stops and the damage is assessed. Even if all you can do is pass on crucial information about evacuations and how to stop this happening in the future, you’re helping.

I know that even though I no longer practice magic of any sort, that it is a big part of paganism for a lot of people. And I know a lot of the people who do workings are also following them up with concrete physical actions. And I really, really appreciate all of those efforts. Even if the rituals only ended up having a purely psychological effect, bringing people together and boosting moods to keep going, that’s valuable.

I wrote my post when I was at an incredibly low point, physically alone and re-traumatized and in deep despair and just about ready to give up. I channeled that into drawing together resources to show people how they could help, both immediately and long-term, and that was part of what started helping me out of that dark place.

So I hope you’ll understand if my post wasn’t the nicest, sweetest, most diplomatic thing I’ve ever written. Yes, I could have been clearer about who, exactly, my frustration was with. But I have no apology for being angry with the hypocrisy of those who do a spell and then do nothing to follow it up when it comes to something this big, destructive, and deeply rooted in long-term human error.

Reclaiming My Adventure

In 2006, I made a terrible mistake. I got married.

Now, marriage itself isn’t a bad idea. But it is when you get married a year after you met the person while on the rebound, and after they pressured you into first taking you with them on what was supposed to be your solo cross-country move and then pressured you into getting married so damned fast. Needless to say, my emotional boundaries used to be a lot mushier than they are now.

And like so many people who made bad decisions, I also got a tattoo on my chest on our honeymoon. Well, we both did. And we hadn’t really thought too much about the designs, other than choosing small symbols that were personally meaningful but didn’t say a whole lot about the relationship. In hindsight, my tattoo of a dragon’s claw tightly clutching a pearl marked with my then-husband’s personal sigil was all too prophetic.

Predictably, the marriage was a slow-burn disaster. I won’t bore you with the details of its three and a half year span. Needless to say, when I finally asked for a divorce it was far later than it ought to have been. It ended amicably enough, and over time we drifted apart; that part certainly could have been a lot worse.

When I moved into my own apartment, I was stuck with the task of trying to figure out where the hell my life was going after that derailment. I’d had dreams of adventure when I moved to the Pacific Northwest twelve years ago, dreams that had been born a decade earlier when I’d first visited family in Seattle. After spending my life in the Midwest, I was ready for oceans, markets, and grand conifer rain forests. And I managed to eke out some of that during my first few married years there, though I was also entangled in career changes and relationship woes.

Now, back in glorious solitude, I could think quietly. And so I spent the next seven years taking adventures. I went to Bend, OR for the first time and introduced myself to Oregon’s desert side. I hiked Dog Mountain in a wind storm, and Elk Mountain in the snow. I got to know the coast better, both on my own and with my now-partner. I went on my first backpacking trip with the help of a friend, and then later did my first solo excursion.

That adventurousness carried over into my creative life, too. Now in full control of my finances again, I was free to make investments in my art without someone else’s worries holding me back. I got a contract with a bigger publisher. I started an annual arts festival. I created and produced a tarot deck and book. I moved my studio to the coast.

Most of all, I flourished emotionally. For the first time since I moved to the Northwest, I felt in control of my life. I could come home and be comfortable in cozy, warm sweats that did nothing for my figure but plenty for my well-being, and not feel guilty about how much time I put toward my creative work. I felt free to explore my spirituality and to discard the last vestiges of supernatural belief that were keeping me from direct immersion in what I found most sacred: nature itself, unfiltered by human mythos and superstition.

And so, seven years after my ill-fated marriage ended, I finally felt that I could cover up the last reminder of it. After much thought, I decided on one of the trees I’ve become most attached to since I moved here: Western red cedar. I seem to have a thing for cedars that aren’t actually cedars; Eastern red cedar, which was one of my childhood loves, is a juniper. Its western counterpart is no cedar, but a cypress.

Through two sessions with Chaz Vitale of Ritual Arts Tattoo, whose natural history-inspired art was a perfect fit, I watched that old ink disappear under a flourish of greens and browns. A sprig of cedar stretched its healing needles and fertile cones across my heart. By the time it was done, I could only see what had been there before if I looked too hard.

I can’t erase my past; no one can. I know that the old tattoo is still under there. But like the rest of my life, I’ve overwritten that patch of skin. It took me seven years* to regenerate the majority of the cells in my body, and it took me seven years to regenerate myself. Now I feel like I am the person I was supposed to become when I first arrived here; my adventure continues as though nothing had disrupted it.

And I can’t wait to see what’s next.

*Yes, I realize that the seven years to regenerate all your cells is a myth. I’m using it poetically. So there.

Self-Care as a Pagan Virtue

The past few weeks have been a rough ride for a lot of people between the election and the start of the holiday season. Tensions are running high, and with all the busy-ness of the season it can be difficult to find time to recuperate.

One of the things I’ve been trying to remind people is that self-care is a thing, and it’s even more crucial to practice it now. Self-care looks different for different people. For some, it’s spending time with friends or other group activities. For others it’s having some alone time, or being with that one person you can sit next to while you both read books in perfect silence. Going outdoors is a popular choice, whether you’re sitting in a quiet park or base jumping off a mountainside. Eating good food, making love, dancing like there’s no tomorrow, playing video games, even turning the thermostat up another degree or two in winter to be a little more cozy–all these and more are valid forms of self-care meant to help decrease stress and restore one’s psychological and physical resiliency.

Yet self-care is one of the most neglected parts of many people’s lives. We get so many messages, at least in the U.S., about “toughing it out”, and “don’t be selfish”. And the underlying streak of quasi-Puritanical asceticism further urges people to feel guilty about indulging the self in any way. I mean, we live in a society where it’s considered a luxury to have more than a week’s worth of paid time off and three sick days in a year. Is it any wonder that the pressure’s on us to avoid anything that could potentially be considered laziness?

And then when we do let loose and unwind, it’s often done to excess. Binge drinking, overeating, buying really expensive things you can’t actually afford–all these end up being more destructive than restorative. We aren’t allowed to have regular outlets in our daily lives. No wonder, then, that so many people end up blowing all their free time on overdoing fun things rather than spreading them out in more manageable quantities. Instead of being able to take some time to chat at the water cooler at work, our need to be social and not be working EVERYSINGLEMINUTE ends up exploding in getting drunk on Friday night. There needs to be some acceptable middle ground between nose-to-grindstone, and weekend bender (complete with hangover.)

Something I really appreciate about the pagan community is that we tend to not only be more skeptical of the Protestant work ethic that pervades American society, but we also know more about how to care for ourselves (even if we aren’t all perfect at it.) Take meditation, for example, one of the basic practices that you find in a lot of pagan paths. Sure, it’s a way to enhance one’s ability to focus on rituals and the like. But it’s also really good for you on a variety of levels. Moreover, it’s an investment in yourself and your well-being. A lot of pagans came to paganism as a way of improving their lives, and putting time toward your spiritual path can increase your happiness and make life feel like it has more meaning.

Sometimes when we engage in self care it feels like we’re stealing time from things that are considered more important like work or school or social obligations, and so we feel guilty for having a little “me time.” A lot of us have spent years deprogramming the tendency toward guilt that many Americans have. Guilt is a nasty thing in the wrong hands; it makes you feel like a bad person for wanting things that are perfectly normal to want–good food, good sex, and–dare I say it?–FUN. No matter what you do to care for yourself, there’s always some killjoy there to tell you there’s something wrong with you because of it. You’re eating an extra cookie? Don’t let anyone see you, because they might judge you for your lack of self control! You’re an adult having mutually consensual sex that doesn’t exactly match “for purposes of procreation within a monogamous, heterosexual marriage”? You’re tearing apart the moral fabric of America! You took three minutes to check Facebook in the middle of the work day? You must be costing the company several cents per year in productivity losses! And so it goes on and on, with any indulgence being immediately suspect and open for criticism. There’s no gray area, either–dare to indulge a little, and you’re met with horror stories of people who ate themselves into an early grave, who were sex addicts who cheated on their significant others, or who were such lazy layabouts at work that they got themselves fired.

Look at all of this guilt that is thrust upon us just for trying to make our lives a little nicer! But when you shake off that guilt, it means that you can be more open in your self-care–and the reasons you need it. Pagans are pretty open and honest, as a general rule, about mental health issues and other chronic issues that can contribute to stress and increase the need for self-care. While our community certainly isn’t immune to discrimination against people with mental illnesses or various disabilities, I’ve found a lot of pockets of pagans in the past twenty years who are more willing to talk about these realities than I’ve found in the population at large. And as a community we’re getting better at addressing areas where we need to improve.

One of the ways we can facilitate this growth as a community is by making self-care a more prominent part of our dialogue. There are a number of ways we can do that, and I’d like to share a few suggestions:

–Be mindful of your own self-care. I know it can be tough to make time for yourself when you’re super-busy, when you’re tired, when you may be wiped out by a chronic illness or other limitations. A lot of self-care suggestions involve spending money, which may not always be possible. Start, instead, by thinking of the little things in life that make you smile and lift your heart a bit. While yes, I love going hiking and spending time hiding in the woods, I also enjoy looking at cute animal videos on YouTube and re-reading favorite books that I’ve had for years. It’s important to put yourself first in this regard; it’s a lot harder to help others if you are not in decent condition. Once you’re feeling more on an even keel, then you can…

–Help others be mindful of their self-care. Post something on Facebook or other social media asking others to do something nice for themselves today–or, for that matter, doing something nice for someone else. Share your own self-care activities with others; we are social apes, and we like to imitate each other, so set a good example. If you’re able, invite others along–yoga in the park, for example, or a weekly potluck. If you know someone who seems like they’re struggling or overburdened and you feel comfortable doing so, check in on them, see if they’ve been able to take time out for themselves at all, and ask if they would like a little help, even if it’s just time to chat about what’s eating them. (Don’t press the issue if they’d rather not speak with you about it, and don’t offer up more assistance than you’re reasonably able to give.)

–Look for the self-care practices that are already woven into various pagan paths and emphasize how they’re good for those practicing them. Rituals (solo and group), meditation, connection with nature or deities or some other Something Bigger Than the Self, “all acts of love and pleasure are mine”, gaining a sense of control through magical workings, creating routine and structure through daily spiritual practices–all these and more can be powerful forms of self-care. If you come out of it feeling better than you did going in, chances are it’s self-care!

–Help dispel the guilt surrounding self-care. If you feel yourself feeling bad about taking a little time to attend to yourself, tell that little voice in your head to go jump in a lake, or fly a kite, or something less polite. If someone else expresses guilt over being kind to themselves, reassure them they’ve done nothing wrong. If someone tries to discourage self-care by bringing up the worst example of excess, remind them that life is not black and white and that most people are capable of moderating their activities.

–Keep questioning the structures that tell us that we need to work harder, deny ourselves more, avoid anything that could even remotely be considered “selfish”. Remember that scale and proportion are important factors, that there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing–but also too little of a good thing, too. Find your balance, and encourage others to do the same.

–Encourage a culture that is accepting not only of self-care, but of being “imperfect.” Support a pagan community in which it’s okay to have a mental illness or other chronic illness that needs to be cared for, and where it’s okay to talk about your experiences (including, and especially, the negative ones) without judgement. Make it okay to talk about being super-stressed even if you’re otherwise in good health, and where there’s no shame in admitting you’ve hit your limit on what you can tolerate physically, psychologically and otherwise. Encourage compassion and active listening rather than judgement and denial. Support the choice to ask for help and to be vulnerable; it should not be shameful to admit that you can’t handle something yourself.

–Share resources when you have the opportunity and when it’s appropriate, even if they’re not resources you personally need. If you know of a pagan-friendly therapist, for example, keep their information on hand in case someone asks for help of that sort. Let people know that you don’t think any less of them for needing these resources, and that you offer the resources up with the hope that they will help them feel better.

–Be honest about your boundaries. You may not be capable of helping someone who’s experiencing acute mental distress, or who needs a great deal of caregiving for a chronic illness. It’s better to say no than to promise support you aren’t capable of giving. It’s not just about not having the training, either. If you’re super-stressed, or having mental health issues yourself, you may not feel able to even be around someone else going through similarly serious experiences. Likewise, if you have a chronic illness that reduces your mobility or energy levels, don’t feel bad for not being able to care for someone who needs constant attention.

–Above all, dispel the myth that self-care is overly indulgent, or that being kind to yourself (or others) is too “white light.” Just because you might follow a deity who is inhumanly strong, it doesn’t mean you have to be inhumanly strong yourself. The world will not fall apart if you take a half an hour to yourself each day to breathe, to read, to draw, to daydream, to eat a tasty snack that you’ve been looking forward to all day, or to do whatever other self-care you choose. You are not a horrible person if you aren’t focused on the Bad, Serious Problems of the World 24/7. It doesn’t make you awful if you take some time to improve your situation instead of always trying to make things better for someone else, especially if it’s at the expense of your own happiness. Again–you’ll be more effective in helping others if you yourself are in a better condition. A strong, well-rested and well-fed person can pull more people out of a pit with a rope than a person who is exhausted and starving and about to fall into that pit themselves.

May I make one more request? Think of one thing you can do each day for self care. It doesn’t have to be the same thing each day. And if you don’t get around to doing it every single day, it’s not the end of the world. Just start with thinking about self-care every day, and if you can follow up with action, so much the better. When you make self-care a part of your awareness, you’re more likely to remember it when you find yourself with an unexpected windfall of time (or just a few minutes to yourself.) Keep a list of self-care activities, too, so if you have the opportunity to engage in self-care but you just can’t think of what to do, you already have some ideas ready to go.

And just remember: You don’t need an excuse to be kind.

Psych Meds, Self-Care and Paganism

Recently my attention was brought to an image making the rounds online. Divided into two halves, the top half shows a forest and the caption “This is an antidepressant.” The bottom half is a stock photo of a bunch of random, unidentified pills and says “This is shit.” The implication is that people with mental illnesses don’t need psychiatric medications; they just need to go outside and play. It wasn’t just completely woo-woo New Agers passing this around with solemn nods, either. Some of my fellow pagans–who really ought to know better–were also sharing it unironically.

Look–as a Masters-level ecopsychologist, I am the first to bang the drum of “Nature is good for you! Look, here’s research saying so! There are tons of people with self-reported improvements!” Here’s a study, and here’s a study, and here’s another study, and oh, hey, look at this whole peer-reviewed journal! You really don’t need to convince me of the healing powers of nature.

The Mental Health Toolkit

Back when I was actively counseling I frequently suggested to my clients (the ones who were able to) to go outside on a regular basis. Here’s the thing, though: going outside was not meant to be a grand cure-all, and it certainly wasn’t meant to replace the psych meds that a lot of my clients were on. This was an inpatient addictions treatment clinic, and many clients were self-medicating with methamphetamine, heroin, alcohol and other street drugs as a way to cope with everything from depression and anxiety disorders to Borderline Personality Disorder, along with frequent trauma histories. These were not clients whose problems could be easily solved with a walk in the park.

So our in-house psychiatrists would work with the clients to find effective combinations of pharmaceuticals (for those who needed them). I and the other counselors would do both group and individual therapy with our clients, and I wove ecopsychology into my treatment a fair bit. The outdoor time clients got during daily walks and weekly field trips helped reduce symptoms and build coping skills to replace the drugs they were abusing, and the medications they took helped them to rebalance their brain chemistry so they were more able to approach and work through what drove them to self-medicate with drugs in the first place. Each client responded to the various parts of treatment–medications (if needed), individual therapy, group therapy, mindfulness work, ecotherapy, etc.–differently. There was no one size fits all treatment regimen.

When a person is dealing with a mental illness–or, hell, just a great amount of stress–they have to find the unique combination of mental health care that’s going to help them improve. There’s a whole suite of things to choose from; the following are just a few examples:

–Individual or group therapy (acute treatment/crisis intervention, coping skill coaching, talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, etc.)

–Medications (over the counter or prescribed)

–Physical self-care (exercise, better food, plenty of sleep and water)

–Mental self-care (good quality self-help books, mindfulness, meditation, “taking a break”)

–Spiritual self-care (engaging in one’s spiritual path, finding meaning in the self and/or the world around you)

–Social self-care (being around people you like and who like you, connecting with a support system online or in person)

As a therapist, I want to have a diverse toolkit available to help my clients. And as someone with a diagnosed mental illness–Generalized Anxiety Disorder–I also personally benefit from that diverse toolkit.

My GAD is not severe enough to where I need to be on medications. I’ve had the better part of three decades (and three years of graduate-level training) to figure out how to manage it day to day. I’ve learned its tricks pretty well, and I’m getting better every day at seeing through them. Being self-employed is one important piece of my mental health care, as the ability to sleep in most days, and the flexible schedule, both help me to stay relaxed and feel in control of my everyday life. I exercise fairly intensively almost every day; I run, I lift weights, I hike, and more recently I’ve joined a local dojo where I train in combat hapkido and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I really like food, and cooking food, so having tasty nourishing meals is something that both helps me manage my brain chemistry and makes me happy. And yes, I get a lot of outdoor time, even moreso now that I spend part of my time each month on the Washington coast, and just being able to look out the window onto wide, open spaces has made major improvements on my mental health.

But I would never in a million years say that what I am doing is better than SSRIs or other medications for someone who uses those as part of their treatment. Sure, maybe if they were in my position and had access to the valuable resources that I do they might respond as well as I have. But maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe they’d need those SSRIs for the rest of their life to help them manage anxiety, or depression, or whatever they were being treated for, and that’s okay.

Mental Health and the Pagan Community

And I want to make damned sure my fellow pagans know it’s okay. As a whole, we’re more aware of mental illness than many others parts of the population. I don’t think we’re necessarily more prone to mental illnesses, but as a community we tend to be more open about taboo things.

Which is not to say we’re without ignorance. Ed Fitch’s “So You Want to Be a Gardnerian” condemns anyone “currently in psychological therapy.” I remember a number of years ago seeing a website from the Coven of the Wild Rose; the website no longer exists, but this writer captured one of their cringe-worthy comments on anyone in therapy or taking psych meds: “if you cannot function as a fully responsible adult individual in the mundane reality then you cannot function effectively in the magical/mystical realities and should not even attempt to do so until you have all your oars in the water and they are working all in proper tandem”. Ugh. Just…..ugh.

Even more recently the backlash against pagans managing their mental illnesses persists. Except the attacks are sneakily leveled at the medications some pagans take rather than the pagans themselves. See? We’re not discriminating against you, we just think you’re being poisoned by Big Pharma! Except it is discriminatory, and ignorant, and patronizing to assume that a person on SSRIs or other medications must just be the pawn of a massive corporate agenda. It’s also a big, glaring example of anti-science attitudes that still plague paganism. The people espousing these attitudes quite frequently have poor understanding of how these medicines work and show a broad mistrust of all pharmaceuticals based on misinformation and deliberate fearmongering. In doing so, they feed the harmful stigmas that are faced by people who use psych meds as part of their treatment and make it more likely that people who could really benefit from them won’t consider them an option because they’re afraid of being seen as a “sell out”, “a pawn to Big Pharma”, or just plain “crazy.”

Of the people I know who do take psych meds, overwhelmingly the thing they say is that these medications are crucial to helping them be able to function more effectively from day to day. Just like someone who takes medications for diabetes or lupus or other predominantly physical chronic illnesses, so someone with more significant depression or anxiety disorders may find medications are effective in alleviating symptoms. It’s not about weakness, and it’s not about being “broken”. It’s about making use of the diverse mental health toolkit that’s available to you.

“But they can’t possibly do spiritual work when they’re on drugs!” Phooey, and double phooey. Never mind shamans and other indigenous practitioners from cultures worldwide who use mind-altering substances as a matter of course. There’s a huge difference between showing up to circle three sheets to the wind, and remembering to take your Lexapro on time. To me, someone who is taking medications that reduce their illness’s symptoms is someone who is more likely to be able to engage in spiritual work. They’re more likely to be able to focus because they’re not as distracted, and they’re showing initiative in caring for themselves on all levels. And even if they’re struggling with symptom management, they shouldn’t be shut out from practicing their spirituality. Maybe they need to avoid active group work for a while until they get themselves settled, and do more intensive personal spiritual work as a part of that–but some pagans find that their spiritual group is able to help them more effectively manage their mental health. Again, case by case situation.

“But I took SSRIs and I was miserable on them and then I stopped taking them and I spent more time in nature and my illness went away!” Good! I’m glad you found something that worked for you and that you’re feeling better! And these other people are finding what works for them, too. Some people having bad experiences with psych meds doesn’t mean those meds are universally bad. Maybe you had the wrong combination of drugs; some people can take years to fine-tune their medication. Or maybe you just don’t do well on them and you found other things that work.

“But you don’t take drugs!” No, I don’t. I’ve been able to make enough lifestyle changes to keep myself on a relatively even keel, and, for pity’s sake, don’t forget I have a graduate-level degree in this stuff! There IS truth to the idea that psych students get into psychology because we’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with ourselves! Don’t hold me up as the gold standard. I’m just one of millions of people dealing with an anxiety disorder; I was just lucky enough to find a combination of tactics that works pretty well, and meds don’t happen to be a part of that.

Both/And, Not Either/Or

You’ll notice that in the graphic at the top of this post I made my own modifications to the original meme. I state that both nature and psych meds are “one of many tools for managing mental illness.” When it comes to living with an illness–any illness–I believe it’s important to make as many options available as possible. That means that I see the nature/meds situation as a both/and one, not either/or.

Come on, pagans. We’ve had experience with both/and. Many of us came out of heavily Christian backgrounds where we were told you were either a member of your church, or you were going to hell. And we figured out that no, it’s a both/and situation–there can be Christians and pagans and the world won’t come to a screeching halt. We’ve even found ways to include many different pagan paths in the same events–even the same rituals–and we made it work.

So we can make this both/and thing work when it comes to supporting pagans with mental illnesses in our community, and in treating our own illnesses (for those who have them.) We don’t need to shame pagans who use psych meds to make their day to day life easier to walk through. And we shouldn’t be ostracizing pagans who, even with meds and other treatment, still show symptoms of their illness. Just as it’s a really shitty thing to exclude pagans with physical disabilities or chronic illnesses, it’s also wrong to not make a place for those with long-term mental health issues.

After all, paganism can be a really effective way to get people more engaged with the healing qualities of nature. And isn’t that what you were trying to get them to do in the first place?

Did you enjoy this post? Help me maintain my self-care through self-employment and consider taking one of my books home!

A Pagan Argument For Organ Donation

I am an organ donor. Or at least a potential one, in the event of my death. I’ve been signed up for over a decade through my various state driver’s licenses. I’m also on the bone marrow donor registry at Be the Match. I haven’t yet been a match for anyone, but I’m there for the call if they need me. (For what it’s worth, they really need people of color to increase potential donors for non-white patients, since white people like me are less likely to be a match for non-white donors thanks to tissue typing. But I encourage anyone who can join to do so, regardless of your race.)

I consider it an important part of my spiritual path to be a potential donor. I’m not especially invested in any particular idea about the afterlife, if there even is one. All I have guaranteed is the here and now, and what I have here and now is a body that I borrowed from the Earth. Every atom in my body came from food I consumed, water I drank, air I breathed. And when I die, I’m going to have to give it all back; I’m a huge proponent of green burial, by the way, and I’d like a spot at Herland Forest.

But not all of me may end up in that ground. If, when I die, my organs are still in good enough condition, I’d like them to go to people who need them. After all, I’m certainly not going to need them. I’ll be dead, and the worms and bacteria and other little critters won’t care that there’s no liver, or I’m missing an eyeball or two. I could selfishly say that since I am against embalming I refuse to allow any part of my body to be embalmed, and therefore refuse to be a donor on the grounds that it’s likely when the recipients die they’ll end up full of embalming fluids–to include my old spare parts. But as I said, that’s selfish, and I’ll sacrifice a few pieces if it means someone else gets to enjoy this world a little longer.

I’m not at all worried about not making it into some possible afterlife because my body wasn’t complete. Do soldiers who lose body parts in combat not get to go to the next life? What about tradespeople who end up losing a finger to machinery, or someone who had their original teeth knocked out in an auto accident? Hell, what about pagans who donate blood and plasma? I mean, really, we’re shedding hair and skin cells all the damned time, and we aren’t able to vacuum them up again, store them in bags and then take them with us to the grave. (Ewww. No, really, ewwww.)

Loss is normal. Other animals run around in the wilderness all the time with missing toes, shortened tails, cropped ears from fights, accidents, frostbite. Our medical technology just allows us to save more damaged bits and parts. The idea that only someone with a “whole” body gets to go to the afterlife just seems antithetical to reality. I mean, I had a large lipoma removed from my hip when I was seventeen. I’m sure it got sent to an incinerator (if it wasn’t plopped into a jar of preservative as a study specimen for students). It left a pretty big scar (which, quite honestly, I think looks really damned cool.) I also had my wisdom teeth removed a few years later. Am I automatically denied an afterlife, if such a thing even exists? Better to bank on what I know I have for sure–this life, and this world–than gamble valuable resources on the idea that there’s something after death and that somehow the integrity of my borrowed, physical body matters there.

I’ve heard arguments that organ donation is against environmental ethics. I am keenly aware of the fact that we have 7 billion humans and counting on this planet; it’s one of the biggest reasons I chose not to have children. Some of the population rise is because people are living longer overall. Organ donation helps facilitate that, though it’s hardly the biggest factor. I don’t think helping organ recipients live a few years longer (or even decades, as we improve post-transplant medicine) is that big an impact compared to how poorly people use natural resources. We could be a lot wiser with our consumption, make birth control and information on how to use it universally available to lower the birth rate, and make room for a few successful organ recipients while we’re at it.

I’ve also seen it said that organ donors are “cheating death”. Well, so what? I cheated death several years ago. I had a nasty case of diverticulitis that turned into peritonitis that put me on 48 hours of IV antibiotics, and I likely would have died had I not gotten that medical attention. Should I have just let nature take its course and died at the age of 31? Taken a chance on some herbs maybe working quickly enough to kill the fast-moving infection in time? Would you prefer I wasn’t here? And would you like to tell organ recipients that they should have died instead? Because that is what I hear people say when they say organ recipients cheat death.

Finally, I feel a responsibility toward other humans to make what resources I am no longer using available to them. It’s a little more complicated than dropping unwanted clothing off at a shelter or taking excess art supplies to SCRAP, but the concept is the same to me. Some people refuse to donate because they think their organs will be wasted on those who in their mind don’t “deserve” them, or who won’t survive long post-transplant. Sure, my heart may go to someone who end up dying six months later because it just didn’t “take”. But it might also go to someone who gets to live another decade, in which they may finish that book they were writing, plant trees for future generations to enjoy, or simply bask in a few more glorious sunsets. My corneas may end up with someone who dies in an auto accident three years later–but then given that over 90% of cornea transplants are successful, they got three years of sight they wouldn’t have had otherwise. No one knows for sure who will get my spare parts, and as I’d be dead I’d have no control over it. But isn’t death the ultimate act of losing control anyway?

As a naturalist pagan, my primary loyalty is to this world and the beings I share it with. And it’s because I feel so deeply for all of this that I want to make the best use of what I have to offer, down to my very mortal remains. You may have very valid reasons for not being a donor, and I respect your reasons, and if applicable your disagreement. But for me, organ donation is just one more part of my spiritual path, one that will continue my journey beyond death itself–even if I’m not around to see it happen.

Go here for information about being an organ and tissue donor in the U.S.

Go here for information on being a bone marrow donor in the U.S.

Did you enjoy this blog post? Want to encourage me to keep writing about various pagan-related topics? Consider buying one of my books, or become my Patron on Patreon for as little as $1/month!

Mine is a Paganism of the Body, Part III: Movement

onthetrailsmall
Over the years I’ve learned that most of the time when someone in the pagan/New Age/etc. world says something about “honoring the sacred body” or something similar it’s a euphemism for sex. I consider myself to be a sex-positive person, but I also believe it’s important to be able to recognize the sacredness of one’s physical form even at times when you aren’t getting it on with someone else (or someones, or yourself…) In fact, the hyper-focus on sex and sexuality as the only connection between body and spirituality often leads to abuses and toxicity.

Let me focus on one particular exploiter of this narrow view of sacred physical: the Sensitive New-Age Guy, or SNAG. Some variations of this creature are relatively benign and passive–nothing wrong with a pacifist! However, I’m sure many of you have run into the more toxic sort, the one who’s using the nice and gentle image of pagan/New Age/etc. communities to get laid. Some of them do end up in true abuser territory, but a lot more that I’ve run into are more just fairly clueless misogynists with no ill intentions (some of them even buy into their own hype!)

This is the guy who wants you to know that he’s better than all those other guys, but instead of peacocking around like some pickup bro, he uses the language of “I’m focused on a woman’s pleasure”. He may have books upon books about everything from erotic massage to the female orgasm. SNAGS particularly like exploiting neo-Tantric perspectives (in the mouth of a SNAG, “Tantra” is a HUGE catch-phrase for “I want to get laid using spirituality as a veneer”). But when you get him into bed, he’s more focused on looking good and getting praise from you than actually paying attention to whether you enjoyed yourself or not. And once you get past the bedroom, you may find that as a person he is controlling and unpleasant, especially if you don’t respond to his pleas for ego-strokes quickly enough. (You can read more about this flavor of gent here.)

The toxic breed of SNAG is just one example of where body and spirit end up melding in unhealthy ways that only provide a surface look at both, though he’s a pernicious one. But he’s just symptomatic of the broken relationships so many of us have with our bodies. The SNAG is able to find victims because there are so many people (not just women) who are so starved for positive attention to their bodies that they swallow his bait without a second thought.

And this is why I feel strongly that our approach to our bodies as spiritual things needs to include but also move outward from sex and sexuality. I choose that word deliberately: movement is one of the most important manifestations of the sacred physical as far as I’m concerned. A body is made for movement–in strict evolutionary terms, the body is the vehicle for DNA to replicate, both within itself (mitosis) and for purposes of combining with another (meiosis). More broadly, a body is always in motion of some sort; even when you are concentrating on keeping yourself completely still during meditation, your heart still beats, blood flows, cells divide, chemicals move throughout the entire system. Upon death, your body continues to move; the molecules fall away more quickly as decay sets in, and everything that was once your physical form dissipates into the world to be recreated as other living beings.

But that’s getting a bit ahead of things, isn’t it? I want to look more at sacred movement outside of the bedroom. Take a moment to look back at the vignettes from my first post in this series. Specifically, read the first one where I’m carefully making my way over a precarious landslide on a narrow mountain trail. It is a pared-down conversation between me and my body, where every muscle fiber and inner sense of balance counts. It is literally breathtaking, and life-saving. That moment woke me up to the sacred processes of my body in ways no sexual act ever did. And it was because I was keenly aware of my movement.

More recently as I’ve returned to the gym for treadmills and weightlifting, my body’s movement has become even more paramount. While I do pay attention to things like weight and shape–and, yes, potential sexiness–I’m more interested in the ways my body moves. How good is my form when I pick up a barbell for arm curls or squats? What does my body look like when I pull against a stationary object to stretch my back and curve myself to increase the effects? What happens if I increase my protein intake for a couple of weeks? How am I affected if I indulge in sweets a bit more? Where are these nutrients moving to, and when I burn them where are they leaving from? These are everyday occurrences, and yet I approach them with a great reverence and awareness.

I see movement as a sacrament now. It is how I act upon the world, and upon myself. Whether it’s the rush of neurotransmitters in my brain and body, or the stretch and contraction of muscles, or the flutter of oxygen molecules into pockets in my lungs, movement is what states “I am here, and I am a force to be reckoned with”. And when I am dead, the molecules of my body will continue to move throughout the universe, tying me to the future as well as the past. What better immortality is there than that?

And once I recognized the power of my body’s movement, it gave me a sense of agency in more immediate ways. I am more aware of my ability to make decisions, even when the possible outcomes are limited. I have become more conscious and deliberate in my choices, drawing on that urgency on the side of the mountain and infusing my entire life with it. I am a more complete being, body, mind and spirit.

See what we miss when we only explore the surface? See what occurs when we limit our sense of sacred physical to sex and sexuality alone? There’s so much context missing from that experience. And movement is just one piece of the puzzle, along with sensation and communication, stress (both positive and negative) and feedback loops, the place of a person’s body in the greater ecosystem and the ecosystem of bodily flora and bacteria that outnumber our very cells.

We are made of starstuff, yes, and natural processes that when we consider them seem almost miraculous. The sacred physical is what invites us to stop taking them for granted and appreciate them in all their simplicity and grandeur. It is the antidote to the SNAG and the puritan, two sides of the same limited coin. And it is a way to appreciate our bodies not as prisons for beings fallen to earth from higher realms, but as the sacred vehicles through which we experience completely unique lifetimes, never to be repeated.

Let us move, then, into the sacred physical more fully. In doing so we ease yearning for something unattainable, and instead make the most of what we know we have for sure–this holy moment, right here, right now.

Mine is a Paganism of the Body, Part I

Mine is a Paganism of the Body, Part II: Body Image

Mine is a Paganism of the Body, Part II: Body Image

skinny1

In my previous post, I shared a few vignettes from my life, focusing in particular on the bodily sensations and experiences I remember from each one. Now I’d like to explore the concept of paganism as being a body-focused spirituality in more detail. I want to add in the caveat that I am generally pretty able-bodied and in good condition (other than asthma and creaky knees that like to remind me I’m nearing 40), and that I have a pretty positive body image and generally fit the mainstream idea of “attractive” (read: thin). So these things are going to make it easier for me to feel good about melding my body and my spirit. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

Religion in general, at least in more recent centuries, has sought goals above and beyond the physical world. That’s an understandable response to the many challenges of being a mammal in this place, where pain, suffering and hardship are a fact of life for many. Religion is often forged in these difficult times, with beliefs serving as a way to keep people motivated and hopeful even when things are worst. It can be easier to weather difficulties in this life if you believe that there’s a better, perfect life waiting for you after death. Unfortunately, this has sometimes led to people trying so hard to distance themselves from anything earthly that they create a good-evil dichotomy between the spiritual and physical (I’m looking at you, more stringent flavors of Christianity!)

One of the things I’ve appreciated about paganism is that there is an interweaving of physical and spirit, regardless of your thoughts on the afterlife (a topic I’m just going to leave alone for now). One of my favorite generic pagan chants is the unattributed “Earth my body, Water my blood, Air my breath and Fire my spirit”. It symbolizes a one-ness with the rest of the world that’s lacking in many other faiths. However, as with many other elements of belief, taking the concept of the sacred physical and putting it into everyday use can be challenging. After all, we’re trying to counteract thousands of advertisements screaming “Feel bad about your body! Buy this product to make it better!”; many of us have also received negative body messages from people more close and personal with us. And many of us are our own worst critics, buying into everything we hear despite our best efforts otherwise. All this means that the sanctity of the flesh often only gets lip service, and once ritual is done we go back to our usual pit of “I don’t like my body”.

A big part of the problem is that we’re focusing heavily on appearance, which is literally just the surface of the matter. Because we’re conditioned to value ourselves and others for our looks so much, we tend to forget that looks really aren’t everything. So we miss out on all the other potentially amazing things our body can show us. We take our bodies for granted; we forget that they are our personal vessels for navigating this great big world we live on. And, discussions of reincarnation aside, there’s a good chance it’s a one-shot deal. Why would we want to miss a single moment in sulking over whether someone else thinks we’re pretty or not?

Well, okay, there are several reasons. Some would argue it’s harder to exist in one’s own body, never mind explore its movement, when that body is plagued by constant pain, fatigue, illness or significant disability. And there are deeply ingrained biological and social reasons for wanting someone else to find us attractive, so sure, most of us end up spending at least a little time sulking about not being pretty enough. But let’s assume for the purposes of the rest of this post that you do want to be more in touch with your body in a more positive way, even with its limitations.

Start looking at your body as a series of processes; some of them may work better than others, but all of them ideally have a purpose. Some nourish; some remove toxins; some rebuild and heal. These processes are carried out by bodily systems. Certain pieces can be removed if they malfunction; others are irreplaceable. But as a whole, they create the body that you have in this lifetime.

Other than the reproductive system and, to an extent, the nervous system, none of these systems especially depends on whether the outer layer is deemed attractive or not. Think about that a moment: your digestive system really doesn’t care whether some jackass in a pickup truck catcalled you or not, but it definitely cares if you stop eating as a way to quickly lose weight. Your body’s ideal systems are designed to keep you alive at all costs, and it is only in the case of malfunctions in DNA or other accidents where they become a danger to you. So your digestive system is trying to make sure you have enough nourishment, your circulatory system is running around like a bevy of border collies herding oxygen and other important packets from place to place, and your nervous system is busily processing all the sensory information inside and outside of the body proper to make sure all’s running well.

It’s really quite remarkable if you think about it long enough. I’ve found that by taking that figurative step back from my own body and getting a more objective look at what it’s doing I can appreciate it a lot more than if I were just looking glumly in the mirror wishing my nose was smaller or that my hair would grow longer or that I could get rid of the last few pounds on my waistline. My focus instead shifts to making those processes work even better–fueling them with better food when possible, exercising to keep them more carefully honed and in practice, getting enough rest so my beloved body can recuperate from all I put it through in a day.

And then when I step back into my body fully, I am in love with it and all it does for me. I’m more able to overlook the limitations my asthma puts on me, and the fact that my knees slow me down, and that I’m still many months away from doing an unassisted pull-up. More importantly I recognize the sacred in it. This is no flawed pile of refuse to be traded in for heavenly grace upon death. It is the product of billions of years of evolution, and if I’m still alive it’s doing at least some things correctly. The molecules in my body have been in numerous places–perhaps Irish elk and dinosaurs and tiny green Cooksonia, all the way back to the first colonies of single-cells organisms in the primordial sea. I am composed of what was once stone and lava, ocean and cloud. Further back, Sagan is vindicated: I am made of starstuff. I carry the history of universe in my flesh and bones.

That is the sort of sacredness I want to move toward–and what I want to look at next is movement.

Mine is a Paganism of the Body, Part I

Star Wars, Despair, and the Future of the World

Over Christmas, I did my nerdly duty and saw the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. I won’t spoil it for you who haven’t seen it yet; suffice it to say that it had more than enough high-speed escapes from TIE Fighters, dramatic twists, and splashes of humor to remind me why I’ve been looking forward to this film. But by the end of it I was feeling despondent, and not just because I have to wait a loooong time to see the next one.

Despite the fact that Star Wars happened “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, 99% of space-based science fiction asks us to imagine forward, not back, so it’s easy to forget that it’s not a futuristic tale. And I found myself thinking when I walked out of the theater, “We don’t have a future”. Although I try to limit my media intake to what’s necessary, and balance it out with things like cute animal pictures and video game breaks, I’m still all too aware of the critical point we’re at with regards to climate change, ocean ecosystem collapse, loss of endangered species, and other environmental disasters. And so when the movie ended, so did my distraction from these overwhelming problems.

Beyond the distraction and the drop, The Force Awakens (and plenty of other movies) presents a massive enemy with potentially planet-destroying capabilities, something we know all too well. But everything works out in the end, the enemy is routed, and the whole story wraps up neatly in less than three hours. What should happen is that I should come out of the theater inspired to go fight the good fight anew. Instead, I found myself in deep despair.

It’s the same thing that happened to me after I went to see Tomorrowland earlier this year. In the same way the Star Wars franchise shows ways to defeat the Enemy (even as it regenerates in many disguises), Tomorrowland asks us to imagine a positive future, the possibility of better things than the current media-driven dystopia we seem to be hurtling toward. I hate that it was a box office flop; a lot of people could have used the messages it conveyed about how we don’t have to give in to the inevitability of an ever-worse world.

Yet even I can’t grab hold of that optimism. I’m not fooled by movies’ promises of simple answers to complex problems. As soon as the credits roll, I feel the weight of the world settle back onto my shoulders, and it hurts. I grieve. I get angry at the idea that all we need is the right heroes to come along and save the day. And I start to drown in perceived helplessness; I have no X-wing starfighter that miraculously avoids getting hit by enemy fire. I have no super powers, or advanced technology funded by Stark Industries or Wayne Enterprises. There no Q or Professor X to hand down much-needed information and wisdom to those who work to save the day.

So each time this happens I turn to my partner, my beloved, who knows my weaknesses and flaws and loves me anyway. He is an eternal optimist, but a realist. He knows the worst humanity can do, and yet believes in us anyway. I lay my sadness on him, and he carefully opens it up to see where it comes from. And then he gives me balance and perspective. Yes, there are horrible people with too much money and power, but there are also those who use their resources for the benefit of others. Yes, cynicism is often well-deserved, but that should not be the end of hope. Yes, our problems can’t be fixed with a well-aimed barrage of lasers and proton torpedoes, but there are people who are trying to enact very real solutions, just at a slower pace and smaller scale.

And then he tells me to go read the stack of publications that the various environmental groups I support send me each month. He says to focus especially on their victories and successes, and how even in the face of a battle lost they never give up the war. And so I immerse myself in the good news, often on conflicts and issues that they’ve been working on for years. I have to remember that sometimes I just have to sit back and enjoy the win, without letting the specter of “But the bad guys will attack again” loom over me. I go back over the positive messages of the movies I watch, and I absorb them, and I let their idealism inspire me.

I still often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges we face. It’s the price I pay for being aware of them, and refusing to spend my entire life in an ongoing search for more distractions. But I’m slowly trying to regain the optimism of my younger days, when I was less tired, and temper it with the experience I’ve had as I get older. There are still no simple solutions to complex problems; I don’t even believe that much in “good guys vs. bad guys” any more, only seven billion humans stumbling around trying to figure out what the hell is happening.

And so as I prepare to step into the new year, I resolve to keep taking care of myself, including in–especially in–my times of despair. I continue to heal the ongoing trauma of the destruction of my world, even as I fight to save it in my own way. I will still have the times when I have to ask for help. But that’s okay. In the movies every hero has support, and in the real world every person fighting to make things better has their allies. I need not carry all the weight of the world on my shoulders; we’re all carrying our own piece of it, and even if we can’t find a way to put it down for good in three hours or less, it doesn’t make us any less strong.