I’m Bridget Owens and you're listening to the Waxing Soul podcast where we're adventuring into the world of mindful modern magic and authentic spiritual practice. It's May 12, 2022, and today's topic is the importance of community in our spiritual lives and how modern life might be damaging our connections. Are you ready to grow your soul?
Thank’s for joining me today on the podcast, witchy friends.
If you’ve been a listener for a while you might have caught some of the seven-episode series that I’ve done in the past. I did several in year one, starting with one on emotions in spirituality, and then I did one on the basics of magic, one on tarot and self growth, and then I haven’t really done one in a while. But after the episodes and the direction that my thoughts have been going recently as well as current events in general, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of community and the way that we kind of have forgotten what it means, what it’s for, how it works, and how important it is right now.
Which is… Actually I already anticipate that my next big book project after I’m done with Deep Self Magic and all the spinoff projects from it, the next one will have to do with spiritual community and the roots of spirituality in human community. But rather than wait until I get to doing that project, because, I mean… I really just feel like this is super important to put out there right now and have some important discussions about it over the next seven weeks.
Now, as long as I’ve been part of the pagan community, the magical community, the vast majority of people I’ve encountered have been solitary practitioners. And on one hand that is kind of a really great thing. There… For a very long time in human history, our common spiritual practices grew from shared identity, shared culture, and it was something a person had in common with their family and extended circles. And even early organized forms of spirituality and religion were more like that than what we have today in the sense that the understanding of the underlying worldview and concept of the workings of the universe was shared. Humans weren’t caught up in a thing where, like, reality and religion had wholesale uncoupled from each other and religion was something subject to personal choice like it is now. There was a stronger link between culture and identity, and a stronger link between culture and spiritual beliefs.
So these days when so many of us in the US are cut off from a real connection to our cultural roots, science and spirituality and religion have been pitted against each other, and Christianity specifically has become the imposed default rather than the natural extension of lived experience as a culture, with all of that it is kind of a radical idea that a person can define their own practice for themselves without having to find and join and work with an established group. It’s… You know that I’m all about this idea that on a spiritual level, each of us needs something a bit different from spirituality and that it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. This is a kind of new way of looking at spirituality because for so long it was very much a community, culture thing. Things have changed, though, and there’s absolutely a need for people to be able to, especially when we’re able to, like, look at the impact of organized religion and, of course, primarily Christianity, and see the harm it causes and be able to opt out of that, choose our own beliefs and practices, there’s a need for us to be able to do that for our own wellbeing and our own agency and all of that.
But before we go any further on this discussion, this one or the general one of individual, authentic spirituality, there are some things to clear up. Potential misconceptions. And those are going to lay the groundwork for what comes next in this series.
Starting with the fact that there’s a huge difference between spiritual individualism and individualized spirituality. Seeking the path that fits us each best, which supports us in our individual growth, doesn’t equate to making spirituality into a solitary and competitive pursuit. I’ve talked about this in various approaches during the run of this podcast, but it’s maybe one of the most important differentiations to make here. One of the things that is not just harmful within the spiritual community as a whole these days but is also really detrimental to authentic and nurturing spiritual practice for each of us is this individualistic approach to practice where instead of acknowledging our spiritual links to others, the context in which we exist, the ways in which we are impacted by others but also by which others are impacted by us, all of that.
There’s… I want everyone to just sit with this for a bit at some point, okay? But individualism in spirituality and in life in general elevates a worldview where it doesn’t matter who else suffers as long as we get what we need. How well does that describe what our practices look like? Because I think we’re all guilty of it, and not just in spirituality. But that’s the impact of individualism. My life is okay, so life in general is okay. The universe as I perceive it is my universe, and it’s the only one that matters to me. Right?
What that does is isolate us from community in many, many forms. The only community it leaves space for is homogenous, isolationist communities. Us vs them communities. Because it allows us to expand our definition of who is important. It can become not just I, myself, am okay so I’m not going to worry about anything else. Humans are social creatures. So it can feel good to go, like, I, myself, and people who are important to me and who are similar to me, the ones I have those close ties to, if we have what we need and are okay, then I don’t worry about anyone outside this circle.
Which is very different from healthy community ties, which is something we don’t have a lot of and have a hard time finding these days. I know we do in the pagan and witchy and spiritual community. We can all see that. Which is why this is important. I want to help us find and build community again in a way that is more supportive of us as individuals than a lot of human communities used to be but which gives us the benefits of community, collectively and individually, that we’re sorely missing.
So hang with me for more on how we get there.
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Now back to the episode!
Even the most introverted, socially anxious, neurodivergent of us want and need community. Just as humans, we need community. That doesn’t mean we need to be around people all the damn time, it doesn’t mean we need to be, like, leaders or have responsibility for managing other people or whatever, it doesn’t mean we have a need to fit ourselves into some kind of groupthink hivemind kind of thing. But we need connection on something more than an individual level.
And we can see this if we look at the types of communities we belong to as humans and what benefits we get from being in those communities. And this is kind of a preview of where the rest of this series is going, too. But just thinking about…
For instance, a lot of the communities we belong to both in a spiritual sense and just in general are communities where we share a common interest with other people. When we’re interested in doing or learning certain things, when we have those special interests which light us up, we want to find others who share that enthusiasm. And it’s not just so that we don’t feel alone in our interests, which is definitely part of it, but we also want to find others so that we have an outlet for the… You know, that enthusiasm, that feeling of being really into something, being drawn to learn and do and experience whatever it is, that’s a form of energy. It’s spiritual energy. And it needs an outlet. Not just that, existing in community with others who share that interest gives us access to a… a pool of spirit, if that’s… that’s maybe a good way to describe it. The knowledge and experience and energy from others is something we get to tap into within that community. When any one person shares what they know, what they’ve experienced, their enthusiasm, it contributes to the energy of the whole community.
What individualism gives us instead is competitive engagement in interests. Instead of existing in community with others who share our enthusiasm, we exist side by side in a sort of, like, “I know this, I’ve experienced this, I’ve been in this for x amount of time, that makes me a higher level participant in this interest” sort of thing. It’s a jostling for expertise, and it robs us of the exchange of spirit. Not that competition in itself is always bad, but it’s not a substitute for community.
A second type of community are those that we share common practice with, sometimes in a spiritual sense but also in, like… this can be communities around, like, veganism or other kinds of lifestyle practices like that, even certain professions. We’re joined by not just interest but through day to day experience. We seek out those who share our routines and choices and actions because often those practices are easier to uphold when we have the support of others who share them. Our practices can be isolating if we’re not physically in community with others who share them – and remember, back in human history we did share practices with people we were physically in community with. These types of communities had a lot more overlap. So today, it can be isolating to participate in a practice no one else around you shares, so seeking out that community so you have that support and can share tips and concerns and all of that is even more important.
What individualism gives us instead is commodification of that support. Instead of just finding community, often we end up being sold expertise or accountability or mentorship or coaching. It’s… there’s some of the competitiveness in there too because this often links to interest, but it’s… We get a pressure to master these practices, to be perfect and somewhat performative at them.
A third type of community are those where we’re joined in common purpose. We have motivating beliefs and values which drive our choices and define our purpose, and we seek out others with the same motivations. And this is one of the most crucial types of community on a spiritual level because it puts us in an environment that supports us on a really deep level. So this is stuff like communities centered around service or groups focused on certain sets of standards or whatever. We need these communities in order to be able to contribute and expand our abilities to live authentically.
Individualism instead pushes us to again be performative in our individual expression of beliefs, to kind of competitively show everyone what kind of person we are in the face of opposition, judging others rather than existing in collaborative community with them.
There are communities in which we are joined just by virtue of living in the same place, having to share resources and space and managing interaction due to proximity. This is where individualism fails us most, because modern society often causes us to be in close proximity to people with whom we share very little else, and this idea that our own needs and experiences and whatever are what should guide us puts us in direct opposition to those that we don’t share much with. Instead of fostering some kind of community identity around shared proximity, realizing that physical proximity puts us in very literal, material, physical dependence on the success of group dynamics… And by that I mean, you know, there are lots of communities where we choose to be in them and it’s more of an emotional, social, spiritual benefit we get from being part of those communities. The people we live near? We physically share things like access and opportunity and material resources and economic whatever and if we don’t choose paths which benefit the whole community, we automatically harm ourselves as well.
But individualism puts us in a situation where in order to avoid having to compromise our own success, we try to manipulate who we share proximity with to try and keep out, keep distance from those who might have different needs or ideas. It’s… putting ourselves in proximity with those who we see as “okay” is part of individual success.
A fifth type of community are those bound by common history or common roots, like tracing our lineages or sharing cultures, including our family group as a community. And this is… Part of the benefit of community in general is that it helps us find meaning and identity, and this is one of the most powerful sources of that feeling of belonging, of identity, of some kind of context to who we are and where we came from. This is, like… Talking about times when human community had a lot more overlap, this is the root of that. It used to be that our cultural, familial group was also who we lived near, who we shared practices and lifestyle with, who we shared interests with, who we worked alongside to accomplish shared goals, this all largely was one thing.
That’s not so much true anymore, and what individualism gives us as a substitute for this real sense of belonging and security, because part of the whole needing community thing is evolutionary, right? We need others so we have a better chance of surviving and thriving and being protected from threats. So what individualism gives us instead is a version of lineage and history which is broken down into bits which we kind of wear like costume. Like a uniform. Like, um… Like an identity we can put on when it has some kind of power we can use. Or if it’s something we can’t really take off, that’s how we leverage it. It’s… It’s not just competitive, in a lot of ways individualism has made cultural or family identity something we use in confrontational ways. Lacking a tie to that kind of group identity doesn’t just leave a person feeling disconnected or lonely, it leaves us vulnerable and like outsiders, so we seek out some kind of tie to a history that makes us feel like there’s some power we can hold.
And the last kind of community I’m going to talk about in the series is the community held together by common circumstance. These tend to be somewhat temporary forms of community in a lot of ways. So, like, those who have gone through or are going through hardships or tragedies together, those we share some kind of memory with, those who want to accomplish something or change something about the world in the same way we do. And we are bonded into community like this because our experiences and circumstances have a lot to do with how we change and evolve over time. Like… We know that on a mental, emotional, spiritual level, it’s our experiences which shape our deep self. They shape our individual identity. But they do so in kind of predictable ways, right? People who share trauma share the aftereffects of trauma. People who share positive memories can only really talk about those experiences with the people who also know what that’s like. People who care about a goal can only really commiserate about the process with others who are in it. We have… Every experience we have produces spiritual energies that have to have an outlet, just like our interests, right? And we find that outlet and get that support of being able to, like… there’s a flow of spirit, a flow of emotional and mental energy that we only experience through community, through relationship.
But individualism asks us to turn that energy into something on our own. To internalize it and somehow grow and change and make ourselves better. To be an example for others, to be a guide for how to deal with it. It’s… It turns circumstance into a trial that we either succeed at utilizing for our own profit and advancement or that we fail at and suffer with. Individualism denies us that community and makes us treat our circumstances as a test of our worth and worthiness.
So we need community. We need all these forms of community because there’s a lot we’re missing out on otherwise, and we can’t just make up for that as individuals. And in a minute I want to get a bit… I know that was a long list, but I want to talk next about the price we’re paying for going the individualist route rather than seeking and building community.
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The things which have really been top of mind lately that made me want to get into this whole topic really have to do with the price of not having real community as part of our accepted, common way of relating to and connecting with each other anymore. Because if we pay attention it becomes pretty obvious. Starting with the way that, like the witchcraft and magical communities have a sort of disconnected way of dealing with things like cultural spiritual traditions, folk magic.
There are so many people looking for some kind of connection to their roots, some authentic way of moving forward in a relevant spiritual path, but struggling to find real community around those roots because there’s so much commodified, appropriated, out of context, competitive and confrontational dynamics in the way. I know so many of us are deeply impacted by events in the world from the ongoing war in Ukraine to the loss of reproductive rights here in the US and because we don’t have proper community bonds, there’s a profound feeling of helplessness and desperation which comes directly from us only knowing how to take action in an individual and competitive way.
We’ve existed in this state of, like, if it’s too big for me to change then I’ll just put some distance there and focus on what I can change, which might be workable for a while as long as those issues don’t feel like a threat, but now we are faced with things we can’t change by ourselves, no real connection to the support and collaboration we need to be able to make change or even just be supported in the struggle, and when we do try all we know how to do is push our ideas and get upset when we can’t get people to follow those ideas. We’re disconnected from the communities which DO have strategies and support each other because we’ve either just not sought out those bonds or even actively avoided them, and therefore a lot of those communities that do exist in the real sense of community are small and don’t have the resources and strength they need to be impactful.
I was recently at dinner with some friends from college that I hadn’t, for some of them, hadn’t seen in years and years, and we talked a bit about how in a lot of ways adult life, especially after lockdowns and stuff, is really lonely and how we lack community. We lack connection. In fact, for a lot of adults we lack ways to find connection because our lives isolate us. Our culture isolates us. We spend so much time with our coworkers and our families that for so many people that’s all the community we really have, and if you work from home or don’t like your coworkers, it’s hard to go out and find or make friends. We use social media to stand in for that, we have parasocial relationships and digital communities – which are totally legitimate, by the way – but those connections aren’t… We still operate within those relationships and groups in individualistic ways.
When we need the things that community is supposed to provide for us – spiritual flow, a support system which uplifts everyone together, belonging, identity – what we get is often damaging and hurtful instead – rejection and manipulation, unequal power dynamics, competition, exclusion, erasure. Plus just the ramifications of so many people handling life in that whole as-soon-as-my-own-existence-is-stable-everything-is-fine kind of way which totally ignores and simultaneously compounds the struggles of those on the outer reaches of the bell curve.
So what do we do about it? How do we find and build community when it’s so lacking in society?
The good news is that communities don’t need to be huge, and we don’t have to (and shouldn’t, really) try to become the leader of our communities in order to build them. And what I’m going to do for the next seven weeks is go through the types of community and break down how we can find, create, and contribute to each type, what we get out of that, the patterns we probably have to unlearn along the way, and how we can make that unlearning part of our spiritual journey. So I do hope that you’ll all stick with me on this journey and if you get something out of these episodes, share them with others. I really honestly think that community building, nurturing an understanding of the need for and meaning of community, and learning to support and preserve and perpetuate community is going to be what society in general needs as we go through whatever this point in history is about to bring us.
Thank you so much for listening. New episodes of the Waxing Soul drop every Thursday. All materials and resources except the music are copyright Bridget Owens. Many thanks to my readers, listeners, friends, mentors, inspirations, and my framily for riding with me into season two. Until next week, blessed be and be good to yourself.