Monday, 23 March 2009

Rituals On Wards

Performing ritual with patients has a number of purposes. Here’re a few of them:

1. to develop or maintain a Pagan rhythm to their lives
2. to begin to develop or to maintain a Pagan identity

and for patients who have had no prior experience of Paganism

3. to begin to teach Pagan norms which they can take with them when they leave.
4. to begin to teach the importance of inner and outer work.

Religious people have long discussed the importance of not confusing the symbol for that being symbolised. At heart I’m a kitchen witch and content that we use whatever we can: if there’s nothing available then we simply use our will and imagination, the foundation of my training. That said we do need symbols to move us beyond words and thought. We do need to explicitly acknowledge the difference between the mundane and the numinous from time to time and make a ritual meeting different from a non-ritual one.

Much of this can be achieved by embodying a different way of being, of behaving differently. In my practice we normally meet in a relaxed manner, sitting face to face and no one is under any pressure to do anything. Although we begin in this way on days when ritual is to be done, at the moment before the ceremony begins we stand. The act of standing and remaining on our feet symbolises that we are meeting in a different manner for a different purpose and is the first and most important ritual act of changing consciousness at will.

We work from rituals laid out on the page in very short paragraphs, often just a sentence long. We don’t take any time deciding who’s going to ‘do’ East and so on, one of us just starts and at the end of a paragraph the other person speaks. Where there’re severe literacy problems I speak their part quietly and they repeat my words half a beat behind. Inviting the quarters and casting the circle are achieved through an understanding of what we’re actually doing and an altered awareness, and since psychiatrically ill people have a great deal of experience in altered awareness I’ve not experienced any problems in the mutual creation of sacred space.

This way of working achieves several intentions: we work as equitably as we can, which may be the patients first experience of being trusted to behave as if they can achieve what a person in authority can achieve. The creation of sacred space is demonstrated and shared so that they can create their own in their own time, something that can be phenomenally useful since every ill person is (with good reason) frightened. We specifically address ethical problems of power, fear, control and loss of control, responsibility and so on. My responsibility, since I am the person with the power, is to monitor the feelings within the circle, to be aware as I can be of what seems to be happening, what may actually be happening and, perhaps most importantly, to keep everything earthed as well as out in the open. Secrets, in this environment, are poison, and the antidote to secrets is trust.

In a non-psychiatric environment the chaplain has to adapt ritual behaviour to circumstances, perhaps taking full responsibility for all the ritual or conversely being silent while the patient takes full responsibility for it all. I’ve heard so very much about how Paganism rejects hierarchy, spoken or written by people who hold every ounce of power in the ritual situation; as Chaplains we need to get over it. We’re taking responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of a vulnerable person in an alien environment because we have a particular talent and some self-confidence. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to think about, discuss and experiment with the basics of what we believe, and why, and how we can express that succinctly and with great meaning.

Symbol and Symbolised

Where do consciousness-altering symbolism and twee fluffiness meet? When does restrained representation become unnecessarily frugal? And just how much stuff can one person carry? Being a visiting chaplain means thinking hard about the purpose of ritual accoutrements, not least because they have to be contained within something you can carry without hiring a mule. I’ve spent long, happy hours browsing church supplies websites for inspiration

or search ‘church supplies travel sets.’

O how I would love to walk into the ward with an small chic black handbag which would ping open to reveal a deep blue velvet lining, popup pentagram, a delicate chalice, four tiny beeswax candles, a cut glass cruet filled with mead, and a minute organic loaf. As it is, I have a tiny rather naff basket, some blue glass bottles, a chalice and a white damask napkin. A bread roll fits into the bag alongside the bottles. It’s good enough. The obvious omission is candles.

I can’t decide if these battery-operated candles are hideous or not.

They’re not candles and yet they offer that moment of attention as each quarter is called, and if the symbolism of the lit candle is that a presence has joined us then does it matter how light is produced? A flame is problematic in any institutional setting; oxygen and other gasses, plastic tubing, flammable linen and ill people – emotionally or otherwise - all being a fire risk. I’ve never worked with candles as a chaplain and personally don’t feel the lack. But patients do. At the very least they’ve read about lighting candles for various purposes and many will have done so. They know that naked flames aren’t allowed and so don’t ask for one, but they’d like one in some cases particularly because it’s not possible.

To date, I’ve not talked about it but just got on with explaining what calling each quarter means, the quarter gets called and later thanked and that’s been fine. Christian chaplains told me about these battery candles and I’ve bought some. When next we do ritual in hospital I’ll suggest we use them and see what people think. You can tell I’m not enthused.

There is no crime of which I do not deem myself capable.

Everyone is disgusted by the pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib, somehow we’re surprised that men and women who had been trained to kill might get around to abusing their power. I’ve just finished reading an article by a therapist about her visit to Rwanda that has an editorial tag of ‘Thinking the Unthinkable.’

Neighbours killed neighbours, friends killed former friends and their children, and trusted authority figures like priests and teachers turned on the people who looked to them for safety.
Laurie Leitch Therapy Today, Feb 2009


And of course it’s not unthinkable. Unless we believe that a great many Hutus/Nazi’s/Serbians/Sudanese/Cambodians/Bangladeshis/ Americans/Angolans/Ethiopians/Iraqis/British/French and people from every other nation are fundamentally different from us in some way, then we are all pretty much capable of acts of vicious violence. These acts, whether they’re Josef Fritzl raping his daughter for 24 years or the bombardment of Gaza, become headline news because we want to know all the details

I was rounding the bread aisle in Sainsbury when I came across three young women in mid-conversation. “He ripped off his fingernails,” said the first. “And nearly pulled off his ear,” added a second. “Who could do such a thing?” said the third, and they all shook their heads in what's-the-world-coming-to despair. But their eyes were lit by other emotions: excitement, titillation, glee.

Baby P and the pornography of child violence Janice Turner Times. November 15 2008

I’d suggest that when we are confronted with the accounts of such violence what we feel is excitement, anxiety and ultimately fear, and that this fear is the knowledge that you and I are capable of terrible acts.

Everyone is capable of everything, according to Goethe and I tend to agree. We all have within us the capacity if not the ability to behave horrifically, and only in understanding and accepting this do we have a chance of looking carefully to the uses and abuses of our own power. If we believe that we’re not capable of behaving horrifically then we will see all our acts through the warped pink lens of silliness, egotism, and pompous pseudo-benevolence. Through this lens looked Jeremy Bentham, a Quaker philanthropist, whose prisons drove prisoners insane; looked people who tortured and burned heretics to save them; looked Harold Shipman, the doctor who euthanized scores of elderly women.

Pagans, knowing that we do not come from Atlantis or the Pleiades have the opportunity to look through a clear lens to the natural world for inspiration in our understanding of our own natures. It means that when we meet people who have done shocking things we know that they too are human rather than some weird aberration. We don’t have to like them, absolution is not part of our theology, but there is a part of us that can meet a part of them, and perhaps, from that part, help bring them closer to the world that the rest of us live in.

Magic on Wards

‘Will you do spells for me?” is the first question most patients ask me and the answer is always no, for two reasons.

1. Doing spells for the purpose of exerting power over someone or something else on behalf of someone who’s mentally ill has obvious ethical problems.

2. Simply satisfying the superficial desire to exert power doesn’t engage with the feelings that give rise to the desire. Exploring those feelings, though a long and perhaps difficult process, will be more fruitful than waving wands about.

Another good reason, perhaps the best, is that if magic is about changing consciousness at will, and if mentally ill people have trouble with their consciousness in the first place, then we need to be alert to the potential for making life much worse for already distressed people. Moral principles aside, this is dreadful PR for ourselves as individuals and as representatives of a minority religion.

To leave a distressed person with nothing from a visit can also be harmful and it’s almost always possible to offer small ritualised acts that can satisfy their need for ‘magic’ without turning the volume up on their distress. Many patients feel that they’re at risk somehow, from another patient, from a member of staff, from an unknown source and while paranoia may be a manifestation of their illness it’s also very real for them. What’s lacking in many health care environments is empathy, of attempting to acknowledge and understand someone else’s experience,

The classic definition of pain is "what the patient says it is, and it's as bad as the patient says it is." (Margo McCaffery 1968) and this is not a bad place to begin when considering empathy as a Chaplain. If the patient says that someone is trying to kill him never mind if it’s a delusion or manipulation or psychosis or any other diagnosis, whether the patient is ‘testing’ you or whatever phrase is used to distance ‘us’ from ‘them’. The patient wants you to hear something about them. I’ve found that the more I authentically hear a patient the better relationship we have, and since all the psychotherapeutic research demonstrates that the model a psychotherapist or counsellor or psychiatrist uses is of far less importance than the relationship between them and the person they’re working with, that seems a good place to start. Take the experience of the patient seriously. Do not dismiss it.

This is not to say that you have to run to the police to say that a nurse is slowly poisoning a patient or to believe that the ward turns into a Bruegal vision as soon as you leave. But we do need to understand that this is the experience of the person who is telling us about it, and to consider how this must be for them.

So what can be done to help this person feel safer, to satisfy their need for help from you, without doing anything that will feed their illness?

Simply listening and taking a person seriously is a spectacularly good first move. Being any patient in a hospital you become your diagnosis. Being a mentally ill patient you are obviously not to be taken seriously: the fact that you believe what you believe is why you’re mentally ill in the first place. As a chaplain, never mind all that. Be With this distressed person. Take them at face value. Start your relationship from a place of mutual respect.

If the patient feels under threat offer a Lorica invocation, a prayer that acts as protection, named after Roman armour. Here’s the Babylonian original

Shamash before me
Behind me Sin
Nergal at my right,
Ninil at my left.

St Patrick’s breastplate was just one of many early Celtic protection prayers. The simple act of listening may be enough to allay the patient’s fears, they may simply feel less mad and therefore less in danger. If being heard isn’t enough suggest that you can perform a protection invocation for them. Hold your hand above their head, then at their feet, then to their left and right, in front of and behind them and say something along the lines of

Let there be peace above you,
Peace below you,
Peace to your right
And peace to your left.
Let there be peace in front of you
And peace behind you.
Peace surrounds you,
So mote it be.

Depending on the patient and how much they genuinely know about Paganism it may be worth describing a pentagram above their head and so on but bear in mind that the pentagram is a widely misunderstood symbol, and it may be offering them something they don’t want or understand.

That’s about the sum of magic I’ve done for patients, and even then only a small minority.

Ritual is another matter and I’ll address that later.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Speaking Truth To Power

Paganism doesn’t really discuss power any more. It used to be a basic teaching for people who wanted to learn to change consciousness at will or work with love under will. In the last decade or so that’s all been perceived with a hint of revulsion: we shouldn’t want to exert our will over anything, we should all be striving to be One, whatever that means, and filled with Love and so on and so on until it has become a deafening fascistic blare. Debate is absolutely not welcome, it shatters our fragile self-image, and frankly, many Pagans’ understanding of themselves and of the world is very fragile indeed, coming down to a kind of addiction to pseudo-peak experiences and awful psychobabble.

Starhawk defined three types of power:

"power-over," referring to domination and control; "power-from-within," meaning personal ability and spiritual integrity; and "power-with," pertaining to social power or influence among equals.

If you’re a Pagan and you haven’t read Truth or Dare then you should. If you’re a chaplain and you haven’t read Truth or Dare you need to stop practicing as a chaplain until you do, and have discussed it with an equal or someone more skilled, and have formed a different opinion to the one you hold now. I make no apology for being directive: if you identify as Pagan but haven’t read the basic text for the Pagan understanding of power then you are not, no matter what your coven or grove or teacher or anyone else soothes you with, ready to work in a position of power.

Many Pagans will be outraged at that assertion. It is not popular because it is not soothing. It is directive and questions a persons skill and goodness me, Pagans must never do that! Many Pagans dislike Starhawk because she’s quite overwhelming and it’s not nice to make people uncomfortable. When did witchcraft, asatru, shamanism or druidry ever give a hoot about popularity? Of course we’ve needed to educate non-Pagans that we don’t sacrifice babies or drink blood, and we’ve needed to avoid publicly discussing the complexity of what we do, but we’ve stopping discussing it at all. It used to be that we did neither black nor white magic, but grey. Now we do Green magic, whatever that is, or better still no magic at all. We’ve come to believe our own PR.

Cure and curse is an ancient philosophy going back at least to Thoth and his pharmakon. It’s what surgeons do when they cut into the healthy skin and tissue of a human being to get to the internal, hidden problem. It’s what everyone does when they take antibiotics, and our Ancestors weep when we get sanctimonious about medicines they died from the lack of. Witches don’t politely request that things change, we make it happen. Druids were highly skilled specialists with decades of training under their belt. Shaman are liminal people, unsettling, often suffering, often what we would call very seriously mentally ill. People who do magic are not very concerned about being popular.

The paradox is that people who get things changed for the better are seldom pleasant to be around. Most people were quite content with slavery. Those people who felt slavery was wrong either shut up in order not to rock the boat or got angry and made a great deal of noise about it. Suffragettes set fires and bombs and broke windows. Chartists carried guns and Nelson Mandela was the co-founder and leader of the armed struggle against apartheid. They were all profoundly unpopular, enough to be killed or imprisoned or tortured, and now we all believe slavery to be evil, everyone having a vote and resistance to fascism very fine principals.

A renaissance in the culture of Paganism seems to be gently under way. “Is that all there is?” has changed from a disappointed sigh to an angry demand. Those Pagans who, either by nature or philosophy, haven’t been comfortable with Christianized or Buddha-natured Paganism are getting a hearing once again. Chaplaincy has always been an underground activity, functioning in the liminal, grey places where people are put when they disturb the rest of society. We have knowledge and understanding that can serve that society when it gets sick of itself.

Power and Reality

First, read this

This is the classic demonstration of how people – you and I – behave in groups. 15 ‘healthy, intelligent, middle-class males’ who had passed rigorous psychological tests turned into sadists and victims within a matter of hours. That last sentence is worth re-reading.

Further, relatives and friends who came for ‘visiting hours’ absolutely accepted their role and the treatment which their loved ones were experiencing. Yet further, the study staff – highly respectable Ivy League psychologists and professional university researchers – were swallowed up by their own scenario. So was an independent lawyer. And so was a prison chaplain brought in to give his opinion on the realism of the environment. Instead of which he simply recreated his own institutionalized personality.

Each one of the researchers, the lawyer and the chaplain would have considered themselves well versed in ethics, having passed extensive training in them.

Only one person involved in the experiment actually managed to be aware of reality:

Filled with outrage, she said, "It's terrible what you are doing to these boys!" Out of 50 or more outsiders who had seen our prison, she was the only one who ever questioned its morality. Once she countered the power of the situation, however, it became clear that the study should be ended.

I would suggest that any discussion of power also requires the discussion of what reality is and is not and that this far from being simple and straightforward. The majority of the time it is so complex that most of us don’t bother thinking about it at all.