Chapter 7: Know yourself, revisited -- developing criteria for weighing seekers

Up to now, we've been talking about methods for gathering information about seekers. But knowing a lot about the person is not enough. Each of us will also need some sort of criteria for evaluating all this data we have gathered.

We are not actually proposing any sort of common, community-wide standard. Whether or not we ever should consider developing such a standard is another argument to bracket for later consideration. The fact is that, right now, because we have no such standard, it becomes even more imperative for each of us to be clear about our own criteria for accepting students in our own group. Sharing our experiences and ideas can help each of us sort through the issues involved. The process is collaborative, not coercive, a healthy middle path since each reader or workshop participant can use whatever they find useful and ignore the rest.

As we see it, entering a coven is not the same thing as joining a church or synagogue. It's much more like entering a monastery or a convent. Witchcraft is an intense, demanding spiritual and magical Path. Before entering upon this Path in any manner, a person should be mature, stable, strong enough to work through the process of becoming a priest/ess and eventually to serve the Gods, the people and the Earth in that capacity. Beyond that, each individual coven has its own local customs, chosen specialities, group atmosphere, etc.

Sometimes we say that a person may be right for the Craft, but not right for a particular coven. If so, we may refer a worthy person to another group for reasons deeper than size constraints. Accordingly, the following discussion will consider "right for the Path" and "right for this group" as two separate sets of things to think about.

Right for the Path?

Clichés can encode a great deal of wisdom. In fact that's how they become clichés. In deciding whether a person should start something new and major in their life, it's useful to consider whether that person is - to draw on an old cliché - "ready, willing and able." What does these three attributes mean for us?
 

Attribute 1 -- Ready…

What we do in our small, intense groups is not for everybody. It is not even for everybody who holds Pagan beliefs, who sincerely wishes to worship the Old Gods in the Old Ways.

Advanced spiritual development begins with deep self-confrontation, as we work through our own old "stuff" to provide a clear channel for the wisdom of the Gods. Not everyone is strong enough to face their own demons, the true "guardians at the gateway." Magical development provides a sorcerer with powerful tools for intervening in the world, tools which should be available only to those who will use them with compassion, wisdom, respect and restraint. High energy workings can destabilize a fragile personality. Navigating altered states of consciousness is a danger to people who are not securely enough anchored in ordinary reality to return and function there most of the time.

In short, a person needs to be a sane, stable, adult with a good sense of their own identity, beliefs and ethics before they explore the esoteric aspects of this or any other religion.

"Sane" is the operative word here. So we asked our dear friend and colleague, Susan, to contribute her thoughts. Susan is an experienced coven leader, a community activist, and a licensed and practising clinical psychologist. We are grateful for her contribution.

Psychological issues in assessing a prospective student

Susan says:

I find myself highly ambivalent on this subject, because it's such an individual and subjective thing. There is no substitute for your own judgement, and my remarks are in no way intended to replace your own instincts and determinations. But I hope that my thoughts will prove useful in conjunction with your own Priest/ess wisdom.

The issue at hand

We've all seen them in our communities, maybe even had them in our covens. These are the people who we get to know, or hear about, and wonder how they ever got into a coven, or why anyone would accept them. Sometimes all it takes is meeting a person once to know that they squick you: their aura is off, or somehow they are just not right. These people are the ones your instincts tell you not to train, usually loud and clear. But they are the very extreme end of the spectrum. More often, a student seems fine in the beginning, but later was hurt, or caused harm, in the group.

Some things to consider:

There are several different questions to ask, when evaluating whether to accept a student (in addition to the obvious ones  about their religious beliefs or spiritual practices):
  • Will their personality and energy mesh well enough with the coven members?
  • Will the coven members be able to tolerate this person, or is there some trait or behavior that makes them undesirable?
Those two questions, probably along with others which I have missed, comprise: can I/we love this person? Having answered this question, you may wish to also consider:
  • Is this person trustworthy in terms of her or his intentional, voluntary behaviour?

  • This is the corollary, can I/we trust this person? But this level of trust, though necessary, is not sufficient, and it is here that we begin to get into clinical questions.
  • Is this person trustworthy in terms of having a level of self-control?
  • Are they capable of keeping their sacred oaths and more ordinary promises?

  • In other words, someone might be completely trustworthy, but unable to do what we require. For instance, if I promise to participate in the March of Dimes and then break my leg, I'm not going to be able to keep my word. A more pertinent example might be that of a covener who promises to lead the next ritual, but then has a serious family crisis. That person will not be able to lead the ritual, because she or he is taking care of a more pressing obligation. These sort of situational issues arise for everyone, and each of us probably already has guidelines, stated or not, for handling them.
    Breaking promises inconveniences others. An ongoing pattern of unjustified unreliability may result in a person being asked to leave a group, which is distressing to all concerned. But making something a matter of oath means that we consider it essential. Oathbreaking is not just inconvenient; it is a disaster.
  • What about the seeker, who says she or he dissociates, or is a 'multiple'?

  • If one part of that person's consciousness gives an oath, will the other fragmented parts keep it?
  • What about the disturbed seeker, who is angry and hurting, and does not always seem in control of his or her rage?

  • Do we bring such a person into Circle and deal with a member who lashes out magically or emotionally without any conscious intention of harming anyone?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. For my own part, I would accept a "multiple's" oath, and hold her or him to it, after explaining that this was the case and having the student agree. But that's just me, and I've been wrong before.

Sometimes Craft training might be harmful to the seeker

I've been told that in Jewish tradition you were not allowed to study mysticism seriously unless you were 40 years old, married, and well-grounded in the Talmud and other exoteric religious and ethical teachings of that faith. The point is, that a level of maturity and life experience were considered necessary before someone could safely begin to explore Jewish mysticism. I am not suggesting this for the Craft, but we do need to examine the reasons for those restrictions and work out our own answers.

We all have our own crap--pain, fear, anger, desire, jealousy, memory; things we prefer not to dredge up, or try to compensate for in different ways. We build mechanisms, psychological tricks, to manage these demons. The Craft can strengthen the psyche and shore up magical defences, but it can also weaken psychological ones. I think sometimes that it has to.

What we bring to the Circle is who we are, in toto. When we move energy, raise power or cast a spell, it's colored with our feelings and our will. If I'm asked to do magic for someone that I resent, or am angry at, it will be harder for me to do. I'll have to cope somehow with those feelings before I try to do anything else, even if all that happens is my acknowledgement that I am pissed off, but still care about this person. If I'm doing more general magic (casting the Circle, invoking, raising power), I use all of myself to do it. All of me, not just the acceptable stuff on top. I go down through the layers, because that's who I am, and where my power is. I can be a possessive, selfish and angry person, I can be insecure, nurturing, lustful, egotistical, loving.

The potential for all those, and more, exists within all of us. The Craft reveals the parts of ourselves we have hidden away. Most of us are empowered by the process. Craft training can heal and strengthen us. But for someone who is already vulnerable, who is very uncentered and whose defences are fragile and overwhelmed, it can be damaging.

Do you remember your first skyclad ritual? Were you nervous? Imagine that anxiety superimposed on the issues of someone who's been taught to be rigidly sexually repressed, or someone who's been molested. It can bring up some pretty uncomfortable feelings. Depending on how the situation is handled, it can be either a good or a bad experience, but it will be a powerful one.

There is no clear way to know who will be hurt, who will cause harm to the group, and who will be a fine Witch. Often there's no good way to know until after things have gone bad. I have thrown together some warning signs that all is not well. Please don't take these to mean that a student is inappropriate. They do not. They mean only that there is a problem which must be addressed. Most seekers are honest with us and with themselves, and they will know more clearly than anyone whether they should remain in the Craft or leave.

Warning signs

Here are some of the warning signs to look for:

  • If the seeker has trouble living in the world of form, or mundane reality, as it is more routinely called.

  • Someone who can't tell her or his own fantasies from reality, and who tells you that he or she is actually an elfen knight/princess trapped here away from another dimension, will have trouble integrating the experiences received during Craft training and may well end up getting lost in his or her own head. After all, it is a lot more comfortable to fight a mysterious demon from the sixth astral level who turns your friends and family against you then it is to realise that the demon is a part of you and you are pushing them away.
  • If Craft training raises some issues for the seeker that are too painful or difficult to cope with now.

  • My earlier example about working skyclad fits in here. Signs that someone is having difficulty handling what's being raised include: becoming emotionally fragile (easily upset or angered) on an ongoing basis, or missing a lot of circles. Signs that there is a serious problem of some sort include becoming self-abusive (taking physical actions that directly and immediately cause harm to self) or talking about suicide.
  • If the seeker has a fragmented self, or poor sense of who he or she is.

  • People who are searching desperately for something outside of themselves to make them feel better, or who have no strong identity, can be carried away by magical experiences, especially divine possession.

On the other hand...

Just to be fair, I'm now going to go over things that do not necessarily indicate a problem:
  • disagreeing/arguing with the coven leader/teacher,
  • becoming upset, sad or angry from time to time, missing a ritual, or
  • having a personal crisis.
Don't forget, too, that the rest of our lives away from the coven or Craft can be hurtful and stressful, and the distress we see in a student may be due to that, or even something as basic as ill health.

We all have things to face, and to cope with, and it is never easy. If Craft training weren't a powerful thing, it couldn't hurt, heal, transform and empower us as it does. As Judy says, "it necessarily will raise painful and difficult issues. Part of a teacher's job is to help people extend their comfort level."

Hopefully the signs I've listed above will help identify when a student may be have gone from painful learning to being harmed.

Things to try when someone is troubled

We don't have to throw someone out of a coven because they are having a hard time, especially if you aren't sure that their problems are caused by Craft training.

You can begin by asking the person about what you see. Tell him or her what you have noticed, and ask for their opinion. There may be something going on that you don't know about. Or this could be a chance to bring something to your student's attention that they need to address.

You can help the person as a friend, by offering assistance and support.

You can help the person as a Priest/ess, by including work on issues arising from personal magical work, doing magic for her or him, or providing a magical/religious frame, or explanation, for what's happening. It is absurdly wonderful how much putting a problem in a different light can help.

If the problems are serious enough to affect the coven, or that you have serious concerns for the student's safety, then you have the option of confronting the person about the problematic behaviour and insisting that the problem stop, or that the person get professional help, or that the person leave the group.
 
 

Some questions for discussion

  • What do you do with a member who comes to Circle intoxicated?
  • How do you handle a member who discovers in the course of training that she or he has sexual feelings for coveners of the same sex and is surprised and overwhelmed by this discovery?
  • What do you do with a member who is needy and emotional, takes up a lot of the coven's time with their crises, and threatens suicide when upset?
  • Would you accept a member who slept his or her way through Lady J's outer court, with a lot of dissension and the departure of several members resulting?
  • What do you do with an abuse survivor who is afraid of having flashbacks during ritual and is scared of meeting skyclad? What about if she or he actually had flashbacks in Circle?

Religious maturity

Mental and emotional stability is the absolute minimum, necessary but not sufficient. Also under the heading of "ready" comes a topic that Judy has been mulling over for some years: religious maturity.

If a Witch is a priest or priestess of the Old Ways, and that is what we claim to be, then a person who undertakes training toward that goal should first be a mature Pagan lay-person. But what does that mean? There are studies that indicate that mature lay members of other faiths have somewhat different characteristics, and that these differences seem closely related to the different values and theologies of those faiths. These people are shaped by their respective religions, and we can reasonably expect the same for ourselves. So, it's worthwhile asking exactly what kinds of attitudes and behaviours should we expect to observe from a mature Pagan lay person before we accept them into an advanced program of spiritual, magical and priestly development?

Again, we have no right to impose our ideas on one another, but we may find value in taking counsel together. Here are some of Judy's tentative notions, put out only in the hope of stimulating discussion among a variety of Pagan elders. A religiously mature Pagan lay person might be someone who:

  • Loves and cares for Mother Earth
  • Knows that Sacred Wisdom is to be found within him or her self, and is willing to work to make that channel increasingly clear. Actively seeks personal development through meditation, ritual and the nurturance of their own creative talents.
  • Tries to live in accordance with their best understanding of what Tradition and current inspiration teach. "Walks their talk."
  • Respects others, since all of us have equal access to Sacred Wisdom. Recognises that others may express Sacred Wisdom in different metaphors. Honors diversity. Can recognise those who are also working to clarify this inner access.
  • Is open-minded and curious. Recognises that there is always more room for learning and growth. Is willing to respectfully test and challenge received wisdom.

Attribute 2 -- Willing …

We recognise will as an important component of our magic and of our growth. Understanding something about a seeker's will - both its strength and its nature or direction - is a correspondingly important part of evaluating that seeker's potential as a student. 

Are they motivated enough to really do all the work involved? This will be easy to tell as time goes on. More subtle and far more important: are their motivations appropriate? Do they want to go to the places we feel willing to guide them? What do we consider to be the "right reasons" to seek training anyhow?

Some of these issues are illustrated by the examples in the card sort exercise, given in Chapter 2 of this book. The grossly-inappropriate motivations are easier to see: the person drawn by a crush on the teacher, the person who is looking for magical power to control the behaviour of others. If your group meets skyclad, you may sometimes attract a voyeur or an exhibitionist.

From time to time, people will be drawn to our groups by needs and desires with which we can easily sympathize. Perhaps they have some psychic talent, which was ridiculed and ignored in the secular world, and are hoping for acceptance and perhaps a little help in understanding and managing their weird experiences. Perhaps their sexual needs are unconventional, and they've heard that our community better tolerates sexual diversity. Maybe they're just looking for a second-chance family; many covens function well that way. Particularly if you have a need to be needed, a tendency to co-dependency that so often drives "helpers," it can be very tempting to accept needy seekers out of charity.

Some people come because they find a community that espouses and practices values they already hold. This is the classic "homecoming" experience, so often and so movingly described. Some come because they love Nature, feel the need for feminine (or multiple) models of the Sacred, find in ritual a source of nurturance and an outlet for creative self-expression. Those are the motivations that sound good to Judy.

But consider: the motivations that sound best to you are likely to be those that drew you in your own time. Maybe that's as it should be. Similar motivations go a long way toward establishing the compatibility that allows us to work well together, in a student-teacher relationship or as coven mates.

So, again, we cannot and should not impose some consensus standard of adequate and appropriate willingness. But we can all recognise the critical importance of will and we can take counsel together as we each develop our own notion of will that is both strong and good.

Attribute 3 -- Able …

When we reach the question of abilities, we are asking what gifts this seeker brings to our Path and to our group. People are not interchangeable parts. Each of us comes with a different combination of inborn talents and temperaments and with the experiences, knowledge and skills developed throughout our lives.

In our view, those inborn talents and temperaments, gifts of the Gods, are also callings, potentials to be developed and placed at the service of the Gods, the people and the Earth. Again, each Pagan teacher must decide which temperaments and talents are essential, desirable or irrelevant to what goes on in their group. Some temperaments, such as aggression or competitiveness, may even be actively undesirable. (It's hard to imagine an undesirable talent, though some may be irrelevant.) Here are some possibilities of desirable traits, just to start your own thought process. These lists can easily lengthen.

Temperaments:

  • Discretion
  • Respect for others
  • Honesty
  • Reliability
  • Generosity

Talents:

  • Imagination and creativity
  • Psychic or empathic sensitivity
  • Analytic, synthetic and critical thinking
  • Verbal or other self-expression
  • Ritual performance abilities, e.g. in music
Again, these "desirables" lists are very personal. There is no community consensus. We cannot and should not impose our preferences on each other. Thanks be to the Many Gods, we have no central authority figure or bureaucracy to tell us what is good. But taking counsel together can help each of us to develop our own thinking.

There's another aspect to ability: life circumstances. Is the seeker realistically able to commit to your training program at this point in her or his life? What are the competing demands of school or work? What are the family responsibilities? If s/he is a parent, what are the child care arrangements? If s/he is married or otherwise in a committed relationship, how does the mate feel about the time and energy demands of magical training? Does s/he have a way of getting to group meetings? Does s/he have any health problems that would consistently interfere with full participation? …

The practical questions can also go on and on. It isn't that we're limiting ourselves to students who have no life problems or impediments. There would be no active Pagan renaissance if we all waited for that. Instead, check that any difficulties are being addressed, managed, resolved, that the seeker is indeed free to become an active and enthusiastic student.
 

Right for this group?

It's easy to imagine a seeker who is right for the Path. A sane, stable, religiously mature Pagan who is discrete, reliable, caring and co- operative, and also richly gifted with ritual and magical talent. We all know more than one person much like that.

Admirable though they are, the virtues that make a person right for the Path are not rare. They are both widespread and fairly abstract. It's relatively easy to determine whether a seeker is, in general, right for the Path.

In contrast, each individual group is different, even from those in the same Tradition or lineage. Each has its own emphasis, viewpoints, style, local customs, in-jokes and quirks. And seekers also have their personal quirks. So finding a good match between seeker and group can be a lot more complicated - in fact, quirky.

(Judy has written an essay called "On Choosing a Coven." Although it was primarily written for seekers, it may be useful for screeners as well.)

At the heart of the matching process lie two big questions:

  1. What can or will this seeker bring to our group? (specific talents, skills, knowledge)
  2. How will this seeker benefit from studying and working with us?
After that, there are a whole bunch of nitty-gritty issues. A perfect fit is highly improbable. But the more compatible you are on these details, the more comfortably you will work together:
  1. Learning/teaching style: does the seeker prefer a highly structured curriculum, laid out by the teacher, or are they a self-directed learner? Is your teaching style directive or student-centred? If you have a structured curriculum, will it be covering those areas the seeker would like to learn more about?
  2. Ritual style: does your worship tend to be relatively more shamanic or ceremonial? Do you work from an inherited script or create your own? If you use scripts, are people expected to memorise or read? Or do you work extemporaneously? Again, how does this mesh with the seeker's background and preferences? Also, do you tend to stay within a particular ethnic pantheon. If you do, does this seeker also feel drawn to that pantheon?
  3. What is your group's decision making style: authoritarian, democratic, or consensus-based? How does this fit with the seeker's preference?
  4. What kinds of demands do you make of your students? How often do you meet, and for how long? How much "homework" do you require of your students? In your group, do members typically spend a lot of "extracurricular" time together? Can this seeker participate fully while also maintaining other responsibilities and a well-balanced life?
  5. If your group has a group project or task? If you do, how time-consuming is that? Is this seeker interested in the kinds of projects or tasks your group tends to undertake?
  6. Is your group single-gender or mixed gender? Do you work robed, street-clad, or skyclad?
These are just some examples of the kinds of questions involved in matching seekers with groups. It's good to gather as much information as you can. Maybe you'll want to summarise your findings on a sheet of paper, an outline of the seeker's salient characteristics. Include the results of any structured divination that you do about this seeker.

But then, when you are comfortable that the outline is complete, set it aside. Meditate, daydream and sleep on this seeker. See what comes up. It is these internal responses, which perhaps carry the Sacred Wisdom within them, that should govern your tentative decision to accept, defer, refer or reject any particular seeker.

Obviously, acceptance is what is sometimes called an "and gate." All the time you were checking out this seeker, they were checking you and your group out. They may have also been conducting this exploratory process with several other groups at the same time.

  • Just as you may choose to refer them, they may choose to enter some other group.
  • Just as you may choose to defer them, they may decide to postpone study until the finish graduate school or their baby is older or whatever they feel needs to get resolved first.
  • Just as you may choose to reject them, they may decide they don't want to pursue this Path at all, or that they certainly do, but no way in your group.
If you are tending towards acceptance, some preliminary group meetings will help both you and the seeker come to a firmer decision.

The only way they will enter your group is if the "yes" comes from both sides. Even at that, the yes is still tentative. On some level, it will stay tentative for the next year or more. The situation of a Dedicated student preparing for Initiation more closely resembles betrothal than marriage.


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    Last revision: February 4, 2002