The Sober Pagan

November, 2018

“H.A.L.T.”! Before You Continue Into The Holiday Season!

One of the discussions lately in the rooms of AA – at least here locally – is how to get through the holiday season without relapsing. As someone who has been around recovery for a while, I find my best bet is to stay home and enjoy my own company. This year, my son’s father – Mr. AA himself – is spending the Yuletide season with us, so it’ll be lots of recovery talk and talk about Buddhism and other spiritual paths. Plus lots of good food to eat! I admit, I am looking forward to this!

When people ask me my strategies for navigating holiday parties, I generally say, “Arrive late and leave early.” But of course – you can do this as a drunk, too. I used to do it all the time. I was always on my way somewhere else from some other place and I only had a minute to spare. But the way you lived as a drunk can help you out as a sober person. You just leave out the drinking part.

Lately I’ve been using the acronym “H.A.L.T.” when I discuss dealing with the holidays. Because the holidays – what I term the time between Canadian Thanksgiving (first Monday in October) to New Year’s Eve – and depending on where you live – all the way to Super Bowl Sunday – is a giant stretch of time involving endless office parties, family get-togethers, religious rituals, community celebrations and constant reminders that we are supposed to be having a great time!

H.A.L.T. Just stop. Think. What are you doing and why are you doing it?

Sometimes it’s not even about relapsing. It’s about running ourselves ragged trying to make everything perfect – to make up for all those years when we were perfect fuck-ups.

As you probably already know, “H.A.L.T.” stands for “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired”. Whenever something is going wrong in our lives – it doesn’t even have to be a relapse – usually we are in the grip of one of those things.

I remember when I first got sober in my early thirties. Everyday, around three o’clock, I would get wicked hungry. I would have to get up from my desk and go to the break room and buy a candy bar or get a Pepsi. I started making myself an extra sandwich to get myself through the three o’clock hour. Then one day, I passed a bar with the sign “Happy Hour” in the window and it clicked. I was used to having a drink at 3:00 – I was used to drinking until the dinner hour. I wasn’t hungry – I wanted a drink. Once I understood that, my 3 p.m. munchies largely disappeared.

Anger is one of those issues where I disagree with AA in which I think that there are times that we should be angry and that anger can save our lives. That said, the thing is to use your anger wisely and of course, once you add alcohol into that equation, wisdom usually is not the outcome. Quite honestly, anything I can do sober I can fuck up beautifully when I’m drinking. So it stands to reason that if I’m angry about anything at all, taking a drink is not going to help the situation. Especially if I’m at a holiday party!

Loneliness is a killer but going out drinking seldom helps that. And if you’re with your family and feeling like you’re the outsider, having a drink probably isn’t going to help that situation. The only thing that cures loneliness is learning to love your solitude. And there’s always a meeting somewhere – AA, NA, Smart Recovery, WFS, SOS – find one and find your tribe.

The last letter is “T” and of course, that stands for “Tired”. It is so easy to give up when we are tired. So easy to take that drink that a friend is offering us at a party – so easy to justify it – just one, right? When we are tired, our brain doesn’t make good decisions. I know my brain doesn’t. I’m not sure what’s worse – being hungry or being tired. My brain doesn’t seem to be able to deal with either of them very well. So I always make sure that I am in a safe place when it’s late.

My “Happy Hour” is now spent in my own home – sipping tea and eating my home-baked cookies.

So “H.A.L.T.” – and enjoy the season!

Until next month – Brightest Blessings and Happy Holidays!


About the Author:

Polly MacDavid lives in Buffalo, New York at the moment but that could easily change, since she is a gypsy at heart. Like a gypsy, she is attracted to the divinatory arts, as well as camp fires and dancing barefoot. She has three cats who all help her with her magic.

Her philosophy about religion and magic is that it must be thoroughly based in science and logic. She is Dianic Wiccan and she is solitary.

She blogs at She writes about general life, politics and poetry. She is writing a novel about sex, drugs and recovery.

Death as a Teacher

December, 2017

Death is a life teacher because it is unavoidable.  It makes life that much more precious to know that your death is around the corner.  It can teach you about what is important and what is not.  It can jolt you into an understanding of how each moment is fleeting.  It destroys the illusion that things remain the same forever.  Death is also present in every experience of change that you have because there are always losses associated with it.  Whether the change is good or bad, self initiated or a surprise, it creates a hole in the reality you have constructed.

-Hyemeyohsts Storm? from “Lightningbolt” 

Death is considered one of the “20 Great Teachers of Life” in indigenous teachings shared by Hyemeyohsts Storm. Most shamanic practitioners believe that our spirits are everlasting; they remain in energy form when we die and we are reincarnated into a new life. In traditions that connect with past lives for healing purposes, it is imperative to see life, death, and rebirth on a circular continuum that has no beginning or end. I believe we come to earth with a mission each time we are reborn. It is our job as humans to remember what the mission is and learn and grow while we are here. Though death is a natural part of life, most of us in North American society are taught from a very young age to fear and even fight death–as if such a thing were possible!  At some point in all our journeys, our illusion that we are immortal starts to crumble. But what if we raised children from the very beginning to see death as an ally?  

In my experience working with children, they are natural psychopomps in a lot of ways.  Psychopomps have been present in all shamanic traditions since ancient times. These people know how to guide departed souls through the spirit world to merge back into the Great Mystery we all originally came from. I am not necessarily suggesting that children be encouraged do this work without guidance from knowledgeable adults, but in a world that is so death phobic, many children with the ability to commune with spirits are unfortunately left to figure this out on their own. This need not be so: There are many shamanic practitioners that can train children properly if parents remain open-minded and are willing to seek these people out.

In my work with children and families, I openly explore death and dying most commonly from three different angles: moving through grief and loss of a loved one, moving through transitions and changes in life with more grace and acceptance, and helping the spirits of departed souls move on to the great round.  Children often speak to me of seeing spirits because they know I will take them seriously.  Other times, children are naturals at creating rituals to support grieving and loss. I notice that healthy, well-adjusted children often move through life transitions with ease.  Many children are curious about death–even if they are afraid to talk to most adults about the topic. One of the reasons we created grieving ceremonies in our book, “The Magic Circle,” was to address this gap in guidance that is out there for children.  In the book, we introduce the topic in simple terms children can understand and then we offer a ceremony that involves building a descansos.  This excerpt is from that book:

We all experience loss in life. Sometimes a pet or a loved human dies. It is often hard to lose someone we love and with his/her death can come many feelings that are maybe new and hard to go through. Emotions such as: sadness, anger, loneliness, confusion, denial, fear and anxiety are all normal during the grieving process.  Grief is a word that describes the emotion of deep sorrow someone feels at the loss of something or someone. Those feelings of missing the person are natural. Grief sometimes feels like it will go on forever when we are in it. Grieving is important because it helps us to transition into the next phase of life without the person we love. People grieve in different ways; there is no one right way.  Although it is healthy to go through the grieving process, holding onto grief long-term is not good for us.  Many people don’t allow themselves to grieve because they are afraid of all the feelings that come with it.  Some people are uncomfortable with death.  Other people feel that ending their grief means they will forget the person they love.


It can be helpful to remember that letting go of someone or something that is important to us is not the same as forgetting; we can still keep their memory our hearts even as we carry on living. Letting go bit by bit in an honouring way as a part of our grieving process can bring peace.


This ceremony may help you to answer some of these questions as you work with your descansos.  A descansos is a memorial put up by mourners when someone dies.  In Mexico, it is common to see ones like this by the side of the road with objects that remind mourners of the person they love.

Thankfully, society is now beginning to see the need to discuss death and dying practices.  Death Cafés are cropping up in cities all over the world and people want to know how to live, die, and grieve well; in fact, people are often surprised to learn that the three are all interconnected.  Unsatisfied with the big business of pharmaceutical and funeral companies and what they have to offer, more people are looking to cross over in ways that are reflective of the way they lived.  They want to be able to talk about death and dying in intimate, meaningful ways.

A lot of shamanic practitioners (myself included) are working in the realm of death midwifery. Reach out for support. If death makes you feel uncomfortable, I recommend reflecting on the following questions for some time to work through these issues:

Do you fear or embrace death and death as change? How come?

Have you ever held onto something that actually causes you pain because of this fear? If so, what is the cost of this in your life?

What has death shown you to be of greatest importance in life?

Have you learned to trust death? Why? Why not?

If you knew you were going to die in a year, what would you do now that you are not currently doing?

How does the natural world embrace death and change?  How is it a part of natural cycles?

What has grieving losses fully taught you about moving through transitions in life?



About the Author:



Jennifer Engrácio has been a student of shamanism since 2005. Jennifer is a certified teacher who has worked with children in many different education settings since 2001. She is a certified shamanic practitioner, reiki master, and lomilomi practitioner; in addition, she runs Spiral Dance Shamanics. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, she now lives in Calgary, Canada with her life partner.

Engrácio participated in self-publishing three books that are now available:

The Magic Circle: Shamanic Ceremonies for the Child and the Child Within”
“Women’s Power Stories: Honouring the Feminine Principle of Life”
“Dreaming of Cupcakes: A Food Addict’s Shamanic Journey into Healing”

For Amazon information, click image below.

For more information go to:

Pagan Theology

January, 2009

Experiencing The Work:  How You Deal With the World

With the past few columns I’ve been talking about some things that happen to us when we have a transformative experience with the divine.  Wiccans might refer to this transformative experience as “Drawing Down the Moon”.   I personally would say that this is our interaction with our Gods and Goddesses.  Any of these experiences should make us different either in our soul or within ourselves.   Just how different will depend on what we see, how we interact with the Gods and Goddesses, and, ultimately (and for some unfortunately) who we are, as no two people are alike or are as open to what they are envisioning.

We’ve talking in previous columns about how this experience changes who we are and what we will become, as well as how we deal with others.  But it may also challenge us in the way we live in this world.  How do we live our lives as Pagans?  What is important in this life, how do determine that and what should we do about it?

This is of course all tied up in the baggage and flotsam that we carry with us from the book religions.  To generalize, the book religions [1] are very concerned with prescriptions, telling you what you should do, and proscriptions, telling you what you shouldn’t do.  This may come from their origin in societies, which developed, in marginal environments, where adherences to strict precepts were important for survival (i.e. the early Middle East).  Telling people what to do, how to integrate well into society or the “tribe” is a very important component of these religions (amongst others).

Paganism as it is constructed in today’s world is very focused on individual freedom and responsibility (“if it harms none”).  Pagans naturally get very grumpy and nervous when anyone starts telling them what to do or not to do.  That smacks too much of the religions of the book.  And many Pagans who come from those traditions have arrived at Pagan faiths as a negative reaction to their social strictures [2].

Unfortunately, the lack of guidelines does not mean that no guidelines will be there, only that the user is left up to come up with their own.   Humanism, I believe, provides one path through which Paganism can justify and construct a valid set of ethical and behavioral guidelines [3].  But that is not what I want to talk about here.  Here I want to talk about how the experience of the Gods and Goddesses might inform our relationship with the world.  Humanism will have to wait for later.

First an aside: what do I mean by “how we should act in the world?”  How is it different from how you relate to other people or yourself?  In particular I’m talking about how we behave in a group social situation.  This could range from a dinner party to a global thermonuclear war.  How do you behave in society?  What behaviors do you owe those closest to you?  What responsibility do you have for those you are not directly connected to, except by your shared humanity?   Does everyone share the same consideration of relationship?

There are a few key principles that I think can inform the relationships we’re talking about.  First, there is the principle of immanence.  I know it sounds like a broken record, “the Gods and Goddesses are in the world, blah blah, blah, ha”, but that is a fundamental aspect of any Pagan consideration of divinity.  It matters.  And it matters for how we relate to the world.  Second is the principle of diversity.  Because the Gods and Goddesses are diverse to the point of accepting deities that are flawed or “not very nice”, we are confronted with how to incorporate diversity into the divine construct and into our daily actions.

There are many more things we could do to relate to how we behave in the world.  Among them magic and connection, but the first requires that we develop a theory of magic independent from what most current ceremonial traditions put forward as magic, and the second requires some explaining be done.  This is a subject which requires a column all of its own another time.   Instead lets take on the two big principles, immanence and diversity.


Because the Gods and Goddesses are in the world, the world itself is divine.  That is sort of a tautology, and can open us up to the naive criticism that we worship the world (the “earth” as some might put it).  Remember, however, that I make the argument that the Gods and Goddesses exist as independent conscious actors, which sort of slams the “you worship the world” criticism out of the park.  However the tautology part is important.  It is self-evident that the world within which the Gods and Goddesses are contained, in itself, are in some ways divine.  And we, as conscious actors in the world, contain within us the spark of that same divinity.  Perhaps that spark is less developed than in the Gods and Goddesses (some more than others) and perhaps less magical, but divine nonetheless.

Now, lets suppose, the Morrigan manifested right in front of you.  In your kitchen as you were preparing your Christmas pudding.  In addition to being embarrassed that you were making Christmas pudding instead of Yule pudding, how would you react?  Would you treat the Morrigan with respect, perhaps tinged with fear?  Would you be nice to her?  Would you try and treat her as you would someone who was very important to you?  Or would you treat her harshly, not give her something she needed, not be charitable and kind to her.  Why would you treat her as you do?  Would it be through fear?  Or respect for her depth of soul and divinity?  What would be the most honest, and right, way to treat her?

If the same spark of divinity is within your relatives as is in the Morrigan, then how should you treat them?  Should you treat them with kindness and charity, or with meanness and derision?  What about strangers?

The argument for me is a simple one.  Divine world means divine people, divine world and divine people provide us with ways to show how we would treat the Gods and Goddesses when they manifest.  Since we have had that experience, that calling, that drew us to them in the first place, we know they exist.  By all logic then we should be treating others in some ways as if they are manifestations of the divine.  We should behave as if the world is divine.  And that includes our families, and perhaps even the dog.

Now, as any Christian will quickly inform you, we don’t always do what is right.  But instead of rules and regulations to tell us what to do, we can simply ask, “have you seen the Gods and Goddesses?”  If the answer to that question is “yes” then some level of behavior that treats others, and the earth, in a way that shows respect and love for the divine should be expected.   If we don’t have that impulse toward charity and love for the world, perhaps we have not seen as much as we think we have.

Now lets examine “if it harm none, do what you will” in the light of this train of argument.  First of all “do what you will” is not much of a problem.  If your will can support the actions you are to take, there is no inherent proscription against it.  However the proscription “if it harm none” can now be expanded on, or removed completely.  Instead we can substitute the more complex argument that “in accordance with the divinity that is within you, within others, and within the world, do what you will.”  In other worlds, acknowledging that the world is divine, do what you will.

This forces us to confront what our will seeks in a divine world.  Will it seek selfishness, or will it seek to help others less fortunate, work to protect the weak, and to lift up every aspect of the divine world in order that the magical divinity that is within it be recognized and felt?

This is not a call to be passive; it is a call to action.  It is a call to be a force in the world that expands on its divine nature, not limits it.  This could mean helping others come to a place where their own divine natures can be fulfilled, through kindness, understanding, or charity.  Or it could mean that we behave as responsible members of the world.  Not taking resources that the world cannot afford, or destroying other life in ways that are cruel or harsh.  At a minimum it means that we need to recognize the divine within ourselves.  Which means that we, ourselves, have the responsibility to walk and act in the world in ways in accord with divinity.  We are called to have the same responsibility, freedom, and self image as the Gods and Goddesses.  We can change the world in the same way they can, only on a more limited scale.  We can re-imagine the world through a divine and magical lens.  That is a challenge that requires us to be more than simple Pagans; it is a call to a way to live in the world.


Within the Pagan concept of divinity there is great room for diversity.  We can accept, not tolerate but accept [4], many different approaches toward deity.  For Pagans the existence of many different Gods and Goddesses implies that everyone’s God or Goddess is welcome.  This diversity can take many different forms.  First, it can represent a diversity of Gods and Goddesses themselves.  In other words, a lot of different individual Gods and Goddesses can be accepted into the concept of deity.  This would include monotheistic deities, as long as they did not imply exclusion of other deities.  Something like “I worship only Mithras, you go and worship all the rest” instead of “I worship only Mithras, you are totally wrong for worshiping all those other impostors”.  The first sentiment is a Pagan one, the second a “book” of religious reaction.

Diversity in Gods and Goddesses can also mean that the Gods and Goddesses are divided in other ways.  One of the most common ways of dividing them is by geography.  Each region, town, or even well traveled crossroads, has its own particular set of deities.  Likewise, tribes can divide them with different groups having different deities according to birth or other affiliation.

Another type of diversity is diversity of function.  When you only have one god you pretty much are forced to be a “one store town.”  Anything or action or activity you require comes from that one source.  With a whole diversity of Gods and Goddesses this changes. Gods and Goddesses specialize, they have different functions, and sometimes those functions are obscure.  For example, given that the Gods and Goddesses we are drawn to originated in early agrarian societies we have lots of ones for fertility, hunting, and the woods.   Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) we have few Gods and Goddesses for technology or other modern activities.

For me a much more profound type of diversity, and one that has significant theological implications on the order of the problem of good and evil for Christian theologians [5], is the problem of Gods and Goddesses who do not necessarily behave the way we having lived in a Christian dominated society have grown accustom to Gods and Goddesses behaving.  Essentially, they may do bad things.  They may demand sacrifice of one form or another; they may also punish, treat harshly, or be capricious.  At their worst they may manifest a truly dark side of life, such as war, famine, disease, or death.  They can do this without the corresponding balance of peace, fullness, life, or love.  Instead the particular Gods and Goddesses divide up these traits, or, more commonly or likely, have many different ones assigned to them according to either their function or location (or mood).

Hopefully, having listed all these various ways the Gods and Goddesses embody the spectrum of divine attributes, it is pretty obvious where I’m going:  for Pagans the divine is not only part of the world, it brings into itself the same failings and beauties that we encounter in the world.  Look across at the diversity of personality, function, location, tribe, and whatnot of the Gods and Goddesses and we see the same sort of traits that we see in the people and animals we encounter in our day-to-day lives.

This seems to me to be a fundamental challenge to the way in which Pagans interact with the world.  The incorporation of the world into deity through deity’s existence in the world demands that we find acceptance in those who we live with and alongside.   Now there is a difference between a mature acceptance and a trivial one.  A trivial one, which would easily be discounted by an opponent, would say that we must accept everyone and everything no matter how much we object to it.  A mature acceptance would say that, just like the Goddess has many aspects (OK sometimes only three), others have many different aspects.   Some aspects gain ascendance, and others die out.  We are free to resist those aspects, which we find objectionable, but we must do so knowing that change is possible, and that change [6] may be initiated by our interactions with both those we seek to change as well as the deities’.

What we are coming to here is a Pagan version of what the Christians would refer to as grace, forgiveness, or charity.  The world is inherently the house of the divine, therefore is should be treated gently and with deep reverence.  Others are in fact lesser versions of the Gods and Goddesses, and they are deserving of the same respect and love that we devote to the Gods and Goddesses.  Indeed, we ourselves are merely lesser aspects of the divine, and we are worthy of the love and respect that we might give to the Gods and Goddesses.

This leads not only to a deeper sense of “do no harm” but it also leads to a desire for action.  Because the world is divine, we have the responsibility to protect, heal, and treat it with respect.  When others or ourselves are disrespecting the world, we need to work to change those aspects that are causing the hurt.  We realize that others manifest many different aspects, just as do the Gods and Goddesses.  We realize that we can change those aspects in others, and that sometimes ourselves can be important in order to ensure that the world is treated, as it deserves.

Does this mean non-violence?  Does it imply Pacific’s, or a radical approach toward the environment?  I don’t necessarily think so.  At its deepest level I believe it says that people behave in hurtful and harmful ways because something is wrong.  They are scared, hurt, or humiliated.  It asks that we take that into account in our interactions with the selfish, mean, or hurtful.  It doesn’t necessarily ask that is all we do.  Sometimes, like the Gods and Goddesses with their warlike and wrathful aspects, a good crack on the head is what is really required.

There is also a general call to do right works embedded in this concept.  If others are manifest of the Gods and Goddesses, don’t they deserve to be treated as such?  If there are many aspects to the Gods and Goddesses, why shouldn’t we value the many aspects of those who we live with? How would you treat the Gods and Goddesses, would you feed, clothe, and free them from suffering?  Shouldn’t you do the same for those whom you see every day?  The imprecation to “do no harm” is a negative one.  The rule should be “treat everyone as if they are the Gods or Goddesses, because you never know when they might actually be one.”

[1] As you can probably see if you’ve read more than one column I have a hard time talking about the set of religions that falls into the category of “not Pagan.”  Monotheism simply doesn’t work, as many Pagan religions are monotheistic.   Book religions are not very helpful either, as one of the key precepts of the Sikh religion is the holy book Guru Granth Sahib.  Abrahamic religions is probably the most accurate but here I want to emphasize the focus that these religions have on the “law,” so here I’ll stick to “book” religions as a handle meaning Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

[2] I actually don’t come from that tradition at all.  Thus I have to work hard to remember that many Pagans have a strong negative reaction that smacks of the book religions.  Probably because those religions have been used in one form or another to limit, hurt, or oppress them.

[3] Though I think that the basic structure of humanistic ethics needs to be jiggered to account for divinity, as well as the equal place that divinity and the natural world hold in claims for ethical behavior in comparison to humans.

[4] I am reminded of Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sara Palin where she says she “tolerates gays” she “tolerates them with all my heart.”  There is a huge difference between acceptance, and tolerance.  Many religions seek tolerance, but Pagan religions are accepting.  In face we accepted our way right out of power back in the 100’s when we allowed the little Christian sect to keep preaching and gaining converts.  The main beef the empire had with the Christians was not theological, they were just one of many monotheistic sects rambling around at the time, but it was political.  They needed to accept the divinity of the empire.

[5] I’m not attempting to construct a theodicy for Paganism here.  But I think we have it a lot easier than the other religions.  Evil?  Problem?  What problem?  Done.

[6] Ok, by “change” here I mean something more profound than just trying to get your daughter to pick up her room.  What I mean is more aligned with the Christian concepts of charity and forgiveness.   We can condemn and resist specific behaviors which violate our reasoned understanding of how we should behave in the world, but at the same time we need to keep in mind that we need to view the essential aspects of the individual we are condemning as the same as those of the Gods and Goddesses, and worthy of respect despite that which we condemn.