The ‘last’ garment and the most difficult to cast off is, on the appetitive level, ambition, and on the cognitive level, imagination.§111, Damascius I, On Plato Phaedo
On January 1, 2021, when I did my annual 12-card divination draw, it was a very dismaying experience because almost all of it was bad. It pointed to challenges to my sense of self, in addition to all of the quirks and flaws of my personality that I intensely dislike and that other people sometimes tell me about without realizing that one of the reasons I was in therapy years ago is that I have a naked view of my own mind and personality, and like being too close to a star, such a thing is difficult to manage without getting burned. Thankfully, I manage now.
The most dismaying thing had nothing to do with the tendencies that I already knew about, but with Card 10: Social status, ambition, honor. It was the inverted Tower, indicating social ruin and the destruction of ambitions. Breakdowns, things that cannot be repaired. Trials of transformation. The things that I most avoid facing, as someone who craves security — who, to be honest, flinches like an abused dog every time I think someone is about to socially strike me because I grew up expecting and accepting those hits with nowhere to run.
I had planned to go on hiatus for 2021 because I was burned out by Twitter. The fact that I was on hiatus came as a relief because my first reaction to that card, to be frank, was unmitigated panic.
[The body] fills us with wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions and much nonsense, so that, as it is said, in truth and in fact no thought of any kind ever comes to us from the body. Only the body and its desires cause war, civil discord and battles, for all wars are due to the desire to acquire wealth, and it is the body and the care of it, to which we are enslaved, which compel us to acquire wealth, and all this makes us too busy to practice philosophy. Worst of all, if we do get some respite from it and turn to some investigation, everywhere in our investigations the body is present and makes for confusion and fear, so that it prevents us from seeing the truth.Plato, Phaedo 66c-d
Eventually, I realized that avoiding Twitter was just shutting myself away from society — one of the other cards told me that I had a fear of reality that was ruling my life and an inertial malaise, the inverted Hermit. I thought this indicated spiritual difficulties ahead, or perhaps a mental health flare-up. It was actually about my avoidant coping, and once I realized that, I decided to end my hiatus.
The annual draw I do after praying to Apollon is not proscriptive, but it’s meant as guidance. I usually consult what I wrote down during the draw whenever I’m about to make a difficult and irrevocable decision. It often helps me put things, positive and negative, into perspective so I don’t make rash decisions that I will regret later. This year, consulting it often involved anxiety because I would have to confront the inverted Tower every time I pulled out the piece of paper and navigated through the headings.
When I went back to Twitter, I decided that I was going to play it safe, avoid upsetting anyone, and participate in the general social expectation that everyone will walk carefully, as if we were navigating a plain of broken glass. I hid my flinches every time I saw something that didn’t seem right, avoided accounts that bothered me, and tried to please people and stick to topics that I felt contributed to the conversation without challenging anyone’s beliefs or sense of identity because people aren’t looking for that. They’re looking for things they can classify as useful, not things that are difficult, because the other part of the land of broken glass is that we must all pretend that we’re walking on a meadow.
This involved a lot of anxiety, of hoping tweets went over well while I sat at my computer feeling sick because I had knots in my stomach. Then I started re-reading the Phaedo and the commentaries, specifically engaging with the sections on things like appetitive desires.
The passage on ambition cut me. It was like looking down at the broken glass, slipping once I saw it for what it was, and drawing blood. In the month or two since I reread it, it haunted me every time I didn’t say things, every time I let things slide. I thought about truth and what it means to follow a rocky path as opposed to an easy one. Eventually, thinking about these issues brought me to Chögyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and Amanda Montell’s Cultish.
I’m first going to present several passages, in list form, of things that Chögyam Trungpa said that cut into me.
- “Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit.”
- “We do not actually want to identify with or become the teachings.”
- “When you receive spiritual instruction from the hands of another, you do not take it uncritically, but you burn it, you hammer it, you beat it, until the bright, dignified color of gold appears.”
- “We would like to get drunk, intoxicated, absorbed into the entire universe, but somehow it does not happen. We are still here, which is always the first thing to bring us down.”
- “It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego. This means stepping out of ego’s constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort, or whatever it is that the particular ego is seeking. One must step out of spiritual materialism. If we do not step out of spiritual materialism, if we in fact practice it, then we may eventually find ourselves possessed of a huge collection of spiritual paths.”
The reason the above passages cut like glass is that reading them made me aware of the times I’ve been encouraged to be uncritical since my early 20s, to defend things that are not actually essential to worshipping the Gods in the name of identity rather than functional identification. There’s another passage where Chögyam Trungpa talks about collecting books (collecting citations?) and teachings until one creates a junk shop when in fact all one needed was the room itself and a few steady anchors.
We avoid the commitments that actually matter by distracting ourselves with these things. I considered the commitment I made to Platonism — which, admittedly, is at doctrinal odds with some of the anecdotes that Chögyam Trungpa appends to the advice. For example, the hubbub of books itself isn’t the problem; it’s uncritical reading and a tendency, especially among people who don’t come from a religious background, to just read Plato rather than commit to developing contemplative practices or worshipping Gods, and to read Plato uncritically because one doesn’t know oneself well enough to question each and every one of one’s assumptions while engaging with the text. We don’t take what we have been handed by teachers — in the written word, separated from us by centuries, or living — and breathe our own life into it. We let things stagnate and use a Xerox. We let ourselves get caught up in confirmation bias. And, yes, ambition.
At some point, you need to become the teachings without resistance.
There’s another set of passages I want to draw attention to that focus on teachers and evaluation, the unwillingness to think about things that are uncomfortable or to truly take in the teachings and learn to wrestle with the conflict rather than just let it pass.
- “There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.”
- “Whenever we begin to feel any discrepancy or conflict between our actions and the teachings, we immediately interpret the situation in such a way that the conflict is smoothed over. The interpreter is ego in the role of spiritual adviser.”
- “Self-evaluation and self-criticism are, basically, neurotic tendencies which derive from our not having enough confidence in ourselves, confidence in the sense of seeing what we are, knowing what we are, knowing that we can afford to open. We can afford to surrender that raw and rugged neurotic quality of self and step out of fascination, step out of preconceived ideas.”
- “We must approach spirituality with a hard kind of intelligence. If we go to hear a teacher speak, we should not allow ourselves to be carried away by his reputation and charisma, but we should properly experience each word of his lecture or each aspect of the meditation technique being taught. We must make a clear and intelligent relationship with the teachings and the man teaching. Such intelligence has nothing to do with emotionalism or romanticizing the guru. It has nothing to do with gullibly accepting impressive credentials, nor is it a matter of joining a club that we might be enriched.”
For me, part of it was realizing that some of the people I knew online were probably lying or distorting truth or puffing themselves up to look better just to seem less ego-driven and more spiritual. It was looking at the ways in which people signal that their affiliation is transactional, that you matter only insofar as you can benefit them, that your social efforts to get to know people are one-sided.
It’s realizing that you are on a plain of broken glass. It’s seeing that things cannot continue as they are, that you’re allowed to be one of us as long as you don’t point out how broken the entire situation is, or how f—ed up other elements are, because your community is somehow beyond critique. If anyone offers critique, it has to be because you’re an enemy who 100% agrees with the people who are abusing others online, not someone who has carefully thought about justice and injustice and wants something to be left when the storm blows through, as this rickety building won’t be. There is blood, you are tired, and you are in pain, and you cannot do it anymore. You’re thinking of yourself when you were sixteen and someone was trying to groom you into a cult, when you were seventeen and too afraid to intervene in a friend’s delusion to speak up and call it what it was (full disclosure, I knew an Otherkin who thought Stargate was real and they read one of my stories and believed they were the people from their fantasy and it was the most terrifying situation, I do not wish it on any minor), when you heard about the woman self-immolating for a God, when you saw people ignore individuals with mental health issues because it was taboo to say that someone might need help. And you get stung when it becomes obvious that nobody believes that you are standing on glass. You hold the tears in, but barely. Your mind synthesizes and inventories everything you’ve been reading about other polytheistic religions and their organizational structures, and you realize that the American pagan and polytheist revival are the only ones where many people seem to value a lack of accountability to a teacher, the lack of link to protocols designed to keep the metaphysical integrity and sanity of everyone in the system. And we are saying we don’t need them, that it’s fine to be alone when human society is meant to be communal, not isolated.
It was at about that time that I opened the small leather folder where I keep my annual divination. I looked at it and realized that this was probably what it was, that it was futile to draw things out longer — if a tower will collapse, let it collapse. So I told myself to stay civil and engage in a way that would communicate what was wrong. I told myself that if I did that, people would pay attention to my arguments, not things other people had said, and that I could use the power of logic to make things right.
And then I remembered a book that had come up in a system earlier in the week, Cultish — not referring to a cult-y thing, but to Cultish in a linguistic sense, like English. And the first chapters put a lot of things into perspective.
It’s really no coincidence that “cults” are having such a proverbial moment. The twenty-first century has produced a climate of sociopolitical unrest and mistrust of long-established institutions, like church, government, Big Pharma, and big business. It’s the perfect societal recipe for making new and unconventional groups—everything from Reddit incels to woo-woo wellness influencers—who promise to provide answers that the conventional ones couldn’t supply seem freshly appealing. Add the development of social media and declining marriage rates, and culture-wide feelings of isolation are at an all-time high. Civic engagement is at a record-breaking low. In 2019, Forbes labeled loneliness an “epidemic.”
Human beings are really bad at loneliness. We’re not built for it. People have been attracted to tribes of like-minded others ever since the time of ancient humans, who communed in close-knit groups for survival. But beyond the evolutionary advantage, community also makes us feel a mysterious thing called happiness.Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Chapter III, Montell
Combined with what was happening online, it was too much. I would be lying if I said I didn’t cry, and not minor crying, but that awful, dramatic-yet-quiet crying that leaves you knowing that you probably cannot functionally talk to other people because the crying has hijacked your breathing. I told my girlfriend I was crying when she messaged me that she was getting Twitter alerts about the argument and that people were being awful to me and she wanted to call. I told her no because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get words out, and she insisted on calling. There was one point in the conversation — the part when I started asking if this spiritual bypassing and materialism and strife and escapism was what we’d like to leave to vulnerable young people in our religious communities who need mature adults to care about them — where I choked up and struggled to speak over the tears to even say that I was still on the call and that it hadn’t cut off. For me, these conflicts have never been about specific people or specific incidents, but about this toxic system we have built around ourselves, this Amanita phalloides that bears beautiful, deadly fruit, manifestations of the underlying organism. I had been holding in tears for over a year and could not make them stop.
The pagan community matters to me on a visceral level because I was raised in it and it is home. I don’t know how to describe this feeling of love and heartbreak and misery to people who came here as adults. When I’m frustrated or angry or upset, I cry. It’s what my body does, a physiological response I have always felt powerless to control. It’s difficult to convince others that I just have to wait for my body to finish. I was bullied for crying too much in school and dismissed for it by my parents. I have read every online article about strategies for holding tears in because crying is dangerous and maladaptive in most cases that don’t involve mourning. Still, the physiological reaction is here, and I deal with it.
Compared to other developed nations, the US boasts a particularly consistent relationship with “cults,” which speaks to our brand of distinctly American tumult. Across the world, levels of religiosity tend to be lowest in countries with the highest standards of living (strong education levels, long life expectancies), but the US is exceptional in that it’s both highly developed and full of believers—even with all our “Nones” and “Remixed.” This inconsistency can be explained in part because while citizens of other advanced nations, like Japan and Sweden, enjoy a bevy of top-down resources, including universal healthcare and all sorts of social safety nets, the US is more of a free-for-all. “The Japanese and the Europeans know their governments will come to their aid in their hour of need,” wrote Dr. David Ludden, a language psychologist at Georgia Gwinnett College, for Psychology Today. But America’s laissez-faire atmosphere makes people feel all on their own. Generation after generation, this lack of institutional support paves the way for alternative, supernaturally minded groups to surge.
This pattern of American unrest was also responsible for the rise of cultish movements throughout the 1960s and ’70s, when the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and both Kennedy assassinations knocked US citizens unsteady. At the time, spiritual practice was spiking, but the overt reign of traditional Protestantism was declining, so new movements arose to quench that cultural thirst. These included everything from Christian offshoots like Jews for Jesus and the Children of God to Eastern-derived fellowships like 3HO and Shambhala Buddhism to pagan groups like the Covenant of the Goddess and the Church of Aphrodite to sci-fi-esque ones like Scientology and Heaven’s Gate. Some scholars now refer to this era as the Fourth Great Awakening. (The first three were a string of zealous evangelical revivals that whirred through the American Northeast during the 1700s and 1800s.)
Different from the earlier Protestant awakenings, the fourth was populated by seekers looking toward the East and the occult to inspire individualistic quests for enlightenment. Just like twenty-first-century “cult followers,” these seekers were mostly young, countercultural, politically divergent types who felt the powers that be had failed them.Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Chapter III, Montell
Since we’re all strangers online, it’s impossible in most situations to tell if someone is being truthful. It’s not possible to have high levels of accountability. This is one part of our systemic problem. You only have that when you know someone, when you trust a person enough that you’d let them babysit a niece, that you’d let them know you were in a hospital and trust that they wouldn’t PGM you out of malice that they’ve bottled up out-of-sight. There are people who, while I might not trust them a lot yet, could reasonably come that close, mostly people I’ve been in Plato Zooms with. There are others who, with a level of exploratory caution and guardedness, might eventually measure up, too. I am so jaded by real-life cult horror stories in America that it would take a lot of trust for me to fully relax and identify with an ingroup beyond the vague categories of Friends of the Forms and people who love the Gods. I need to work on unpacking that.
There are other people who, while I tried to convince myself we were collegial and either close acquaintances or cautious friends, I have cataloged warning signs about for years, and I’ve known deep down that they would cut me loose (dramatically or not) if they judged it to be more advantageous to popularity and ambition. I knew it was all transactional and that I was probably a line item assigned a value to some people, easily deleted — but I ignored the warning bells. I allowed them to compliment me while knowing that if I disobeyed the party line, these same people praising things like my intelligence or acumen or calmness would say to others that they’ve thought for years I was just d–mb, or they always thought there was something off about me, or that I was irrational and hysterical. The flattery had always only been love-bombing. Sometimes you’re just so lonely for people to talk to or to feel included that you rationalize away real warning signs as hypervigilance.
I’ve only spoken about the topic vaguely as inconvenient truths that people would rather not stare in the face. The storm was about things like appropriation, pagan supersessionism, and our desperate need to move beyond those putrid frames of thought and behavior. We’re not Hellenes. We’re not part of Hellenic culture. We’re Americans (or whatever proper adjective) who worship those Gods in the context of the culture we’re in. We can’t downplay genocides or dismiss modern Greeks, and we can’t dismiss arguments whole cloth just because the delivery is polemical and abrasive — which, yes, usually only makes the conflict worse, but is it my job to tone police that? — instead of welcoming. We definitely can’t twist statements with a clear limited scope into, “they want to keep you from the Gods of their ancient culture, but good news, I’m here to save you, you matter,” as if that person didn’t already matter, as if they couldn’t light a candle and pray to Themis any time they wanted. The Gods do not discriminate against anyone — race, disability status, gender, age, social class. All you need to worship them is to be open to worshipping them and to know some basic fundamentals of prayer.
At the Polytheist Leadership Conference in the middle of last decade, I remember that some people from YSEE were there. I remember the feeling I had when I met them, a sense of shame inside, of embarrassment, because a part of me knew that what was happening with American orgs and the American conversation wasn’t right. I remember convincing myself that that was just nerves or social anxiety. I remember 2019 and the Twitter arguments that we had then, when I was confused and hurt until we had a breakthrough in communication because I asked about Americans worshipping the Erinyes in conjunction with addressing anti-indigenous blood crimes and genocide, and I was told that was an Americanization, and that it would have to be what it is, not something it isn’t. I remember the way everyone in Hellenion acted whenever I brought up our lack of interaction with Greeks and how some of them talked down to me as if I were a child. There were so many conversations all over the Internet where people kept being dismissive because, again, we’re not allowed to critique ourselves without being cast out. It was exhausting and fruitless.
The criticism of us (mostly American) polytheists wasn’t about worshipping the Gods at all. It was about words, language, and their power. It was about cultures in collision and the ugly history of artifact pilfering and white supremacist coopting of Greek history and everything else in the Pandora’s box of colonialist expansion and how these impact us today. We need to hold ourselves accountable and be honest about that. This is the truth.
Sometimes the truth is an easy thing. At other times, it’s a person realizing the sharpness of the glass underfoot and the callousness of the people around her. It is heavy, and it is troubling, and it is emptiness and calamity. It is the Tower inverted — crashing down and unleashing the potentiality of what happens when we allow things to slide for too long because we worry about our own safety and status, not about the truth we claim to love. We tense up when we know what’s coming as if that does anything but make the impact more painful.
When I referred to the divination, I realized I had to put the situation out of its misery and stop mincing words simply because I knew it would be socially ruinous to me. I would lose everything, but if I didn’t do something, I would have to live with the knowledge that I was being a sycophant and coward, that I was willing to sacrifice my values to appease people. I toppled the tower after looking at a video that callously downplayed genocide and another that painted all Greeks who didn’t like what Americans are doing as folkists and nationalists (and the video forgot to mention POC when defining who is harmed by folkism both times it was defined). I watched the rumble of stones and the release of energy, and I bound my cut feet. I centered myself. I am not Atlas holding up the sky for you.
What remains is to brush the glass from the path I’m walking, to trust the Gods in the way praised by the philosophers, where faith, truth, and love lead to the Good, knowledge, and beauty respectively. I will wash the body of what was, lay it out, and mourn for it in a decorous way. I will look ahead to the future and focus on what I can do that I judge to be productive and effective, including the difficult parts. And I will do it online for free.