Monday, 16 January 2017

The Spirituality of Self-Hatred

candles in a dark room

Traveling in neo-pagan circles years ago, I noticed several different "types" among my fellow travelers.

Some of them yearned only to worship deities: granted, multiple deities. But others wanted to be deities: at least, as performed in the practice known as "drawing down the moon," inviting gods and goddesses to inhabit their bodies, use their voices and their limbs.

Whether or not one believed this was possible, the presumption and pomp and confidence were real. For these people, spirituality meant power, danger, transformation and adventure, of becoming bigger, stronger, wilder, greater than their usual workaday selves.

Not all those who preferred only to worship were alike. Some turned their devotion into display—composing complex rites ranging from operatic to alchemical; assembling lavish altars with exotic implements from distant lands and trendy shops; wearing the biggest, brightest and most pentagrams, crystals and crescent moons. Spirituality was a channel for their passion, creativity, and competitive edge, providing a sense of accomplishment.

Some worshipers were in it for the fellowship. Spirituality for them was shared experience, the  mesmeric joy of voices in unison, rooms full of dancing feet. For them, shared glances—Do you feel it too?!—granted the grace of not-being-alone.

But other worshipers were visibly abashed, almost invisible among their gleaming, grapevine-stepping, bodhrán-beating, blurting-syllables-they-said-were-Sanskrit-and-Gaelic sisters and brothers. These silent types used dollar-store paring-knives as athames and burned birthday candles in flowerpots if they allowed themselves altars at all.

For them—OK, for us—spirituality was not a place for power, pleasure or proving ourselves. Rather it was a kind of otherworldly homeless shelter: crowded, certainly not ours and almost certainly impermanent, at whose door we queued humbly, half-expecting nobody to let us in. Allowed to join—by some mistake or miracle, we thought—rather than give ourselves fully to faith, we hovered always on the outskirts, waiting not for confirmation or community but for correction, criticism and exile.

This is the spirituality of self-hatred. I know it all too well. We appear and/or attempt to embrace a faith, but many of its joys and wonders remain off-limits to us because we cannot bring ourselves to believe that we deserve those joys and wonders.

We who struggle with low self-esteem believe not just in original sin but, as regards ourselves, permanent sin. If we cannot forgive ourselves for being (as we see it) ugly, stupid, unsuccessful, addicted and/or whatever else we hate ourselves for, why (we ask ourselves) would anyone or anything else—even deities—forgive us? Sure, we hear of death-row criminals claiming that they have been forgiven on another plane. But us?

We who believe no earthly beings could ever befriend or love us if they saw our true selves, if we did not put on deliberate acts to fool them and hide our horribleness, dare not expect friendship or love from omnipotent entities—who can't be fooled.

We who cut ourselves off mid-sentence, sure that no one wants to hear another word from us, cannot imagine ethereal presences, compassionate and patient and reachable instantly at any hour of day or night: the ultimate Good Listeners.

We who seldom dare ask anyone for anything or express our desires—because long ago we were punished for doing so?—find the very concept of prayer incomprehensible. Why would anyone ever give me what I want? Our prayers, when we manage them, are not hopeful requests but fearful pleas: to be less loathed, to pass for normal, for permission to exist.

Another way in which we sabotage our own ability to heal—and let those tormentors who did this to us win—the spirituality of self-hatred applies to paths with and without deities. Some of us hide even from the best benefits of meditation, mindfulness and other practices because we think ourselves unworthy of those benefits, and/or that we will "do it wrong" and fail and look like fools.

How might our lives change if we had faith in ... well, faith? What would it take to set aside certain assumptions about who we are and what we might deserve, and let those deities, practices and paths do their jobs? What would it take to stop being our own Angels of Death, wielding curses and fiery rods? What would it take to let ourselves be blessed?

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