Ethics & Spirit Work Part 1: Consent

Consent is, I would say, the foundation for the majority, if not all, ethical issues in spirit work. Frankly speaking, consent is incredibly complicated in spirit work, more so than it is in the physical world (and that is saying something). I will not be able to cover every issue of consent that may come up in spirit work. I honestly don’t think that would even be possible. Expect some broad strokes as a result. I am also going to try to keep this post written from the perspective of a human spirit worker in various situations. Some issues that are based in consent and permissions will have there own posts later down the line. Part 2 is one such post and will be dealing specifically with permissions and boundaries such as interacting with realms and spirits that other spirit workers interact with that are more niche or explicitly private to that worker’s practice.

When are you giving consent? 

It is not always clear when you are giving consent in spirit work. Not everything is going to operate by having you sign a contract or even tell you the details of what you are giving your consent to do.

A classic example of this is the Fae. The Fae often work on a system of favors. Owing a favor can be viewed as something unbreakable, that you are absolutely held to. However, it is very easy to accidentally get into a situation where you owe Fae favors. Saying something as simple as “thank you” can demonstrate to them that you would like to repay them for their help via a favor. The Fae also tend to be very aware of their cultural concept of favors and know how to use humans’ tendency  to be grateful, which  can often times be a habitual response more than anything else, to put humans in this position.

The Fae, therefore, are the textbook example of how consent is not always clearly worded but is still binding.  In other cases, even something as simple as not clearly refusing something can be viewed as giving consent by certain spirits.

Folklore and mythology are good starting points to understand how a spirit will approach wording. Obviously though, not every spirit is going to be in mythology. Therefore, as a general rule, neutral wording and clear intentions are a good idea. That doesn’t mean that you can never show spirits gratitude, but rather that you should be transparent with them about how you will show it and what your gratitude means. You should also assume that your wording in conversations may be used against you and plan accordingly.

Conditional and Temporary Consent

Spirit work can be a very situational practice. Spirit workers tend to meet and interact with a wide variety of spirits. These encounters can be frequent, seasonal, or even just one time affairs. Frequently changing conditions in the astral itself, political situations and alliances, and the company that the spirit worker is with can all affect whether or not a spirit will give consent in any given situation.

Universal consent is not something that is frequently given in spirit work. Spirits often have conditions that need to be met in order to agree to work with someone. These can vary in both complexity and transparency. Here are a few examples of conditional consent in spirit work.

1) Your friend, who is also a spirit worker, introduces you to a spirit that they have a partnership/agreement with. The spirit, because they are with your friend, agrees to work with you as an extension of their partnership with your friend. You would not be interacting with this spirit had your friend not acted as a middleman. You do not interact with this spirit unless your friend is around and if you do ask for the spirit’s help on your own, you get no response from them. This is an example of conditional consent. Here the friend is the condition because they are giving consent as well as their spirit partner. The spirit is primarily concerned with the partnership they have with your friend and working with you was doing something for the friend rather than just for you. This is a very common situation in spirit work, yet many people do not understand this boundary.

2) A few months ago you worked with a race of spirits. They allowed you to come to their realm and learn from their healers. You visited their realm rather frequently for a few weeks but your mundane life became very busy and you haven’t visited that realm in about two months. Last month however, you made a contract with another race of spirits. You feel a strong connection to them and were invited to become an honorary member of their society. You accepted and went through a small ritual. There is now a marking on your astral form’s hand indicating that you are a member. Later that week you decide to go back and learn from the healers. You are stopped before you can enter the realm’s city. They tell you that because of your alliance with the other society, that you are no longer welcome to learn this society’s techniques. This is a very simplified version of how alliances can affect consent. Alliances are not limited to being on opposing sides of a war. You might not even be aware of a conflict or contention existing. Ultimately though, especially in cases of learning something valuable and unique to a society, you need to respect their wishes regarding your access to the society.

3) You are in a difficult situation. None of your normal techniques or spirits you work with are able to help and you have become desperate to take care of this problem. You read in passing about a spirit that you think can help you. Not wanting to risk being rejected at this point, you prepare a very elaborate offering and evocation of the spirit.The spirit comes and helps you and then leaves without a second word. You were amazed by how effortlessly the spirit took care of the problem. You try to contact them again with less of an offering and do not get a response. You try again with a grander offering. The spirit appears and said that it only helped you the first time because it was bored and your offering looked appealing. However, if you want its help in the future it will demand an intense commitment from you, akin to strict worship otherwise it has no interest in you. This is an example of consent being in the form of self interest, consent being a one time deal, and consent being used to set up a much larger deal between the spirit and the human that may not have the best intentions.

These were only a few of many, many different situations a spirit worker can find themself in regarding consent. Conditions apply to nearly every agreement that is made in spirit work. Understanding what the conditions are, if you are able to know, helps you understand why spirits hold certain positions as well as how your own actions as a spirit work can affect spirits. Our actions do not exist in a vacuum and neither do the actions of spirits. We need to be aware of these ever changing conditions and be able to think critically about consequences. We also have conditions to our own consent and need to make sure that they are demonstrated.

Oaths, Bindings, and Promises

The last issue that I would like to touch on are serious promises made to spirits, occasionally known as oaths. I am talking about situations where a spirit worker has become bound in some way to a spirit, either through a promise or an oath that has now created a contractual binding between the two individuals.

Possibly the worst way (and also the easiest way) that a spirit worker may become bound to a spirit comes from language (similar to what happens with the Fae). The phrases will likely sound familiar: “I will do anything so long as…” “I don’t care what you want just do…” “Whatever I need to do for this I will, please…” Phrases like this normally come from moments of desperation. However, spirits might not always care about how your emotional state is affecting your vocabulary. To many of the types of spirits that look to make deals with people in desperate situations, anything means everything. They will take you at your word to give them whatever they want to help you and spirits can have long memories and creative minds. Your consent can very easily be manipulated and place you in a terrible situation that may be none to easy to get out of. Bindings like these are none too easy to get out of either and often take significant negotiation, banishing and magical work to break the binding, or making a deal with someone else to get rid of the first deal to remove them.

Oaths are another situation where consent becomes rather binding. Oaths are a much more conscious effort (usually) than the “anything promise” discussed above. Oaths also traditionally fall in the realm of deities and other deity-like beings who, even if not explicitly religious, spirit workers have a decent chance of rubbing shoulders with at some point in their practice. Oaths are much more contractual and ritualistic promises. (Worth noting again that I am painting broad strokes from my own experience) Oaths are something that need to be well researched and well thought out. They aren’t something that are intended to be broken or even have an explicit “out” if things go south (usually). They also have a good chance of not expiring, even after the spirit worker dies. Thus, it is best to take extreme care when considering an oath that has been offered or even collaborated on. It is a situation where your consent is tying you to another being in a very intimate way. Although this is only a very, very brief discussion of oaths, it is a reminder of how serious a situation we can willingly put ourselves in by giving consent.

In Summary

Consent is rather hard thing to pin down in spirit work. You might not be aware that you are giving your consent in a way that may bring about some hefty consequences. The conditions behind spirits giving you their consent might not always be obvious. There are ways that your consent can tie you to other beings.

In terms of ethics, awareness is the best policy when it comes to consent. This is in regards to both what you are asking of spirits and what they are asking of you. You also need to be able to respect the choice that spirits have to revoke their consent as well as your own choice to walk away from situations and not consent to things. Everything is going to be case by case. Consent is not that hard of a subject to grasp. However, the lessons established through consent based issues are the foundation for much more complex ethical situations that arise in spirit work.

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Paganism, Service Work, and Activism (Part 1 of ?)

Part 1: Where is there a place for service work and activism in paganism?

It’s no secret that I am a huge advocate for interfaith work. It has really worked to define my life as an undergrad. Service work and activism play essential roles in interfaith for me. When I first started doing interfaith work, my own religious foundation was shaky at best. I was the most general type of pagan out there, not following any gods or claiming to be a part of any specific group and not having a “real” practice of my own yet. So my own motivation towards service work and activism was honestly only based in following the herd. My group was planning an event and I was going to participate. There wasn’t anything religious motivating me. It has been a few years since then and I am a much more established person in a lot of areas, including my faith.

What got me thinking about paganism’s relationship to service work and activism was a combination of a few things. The first was, again, a more solid foundation in my own practice and better knowledge of other practices. The second was being aware of what was going on in the world. I lived in a bubble in high school and college made sure to pop it. The past few years, and certainly this past summer have forced me to look at issues that are normally not in my social spheres or things I concern myself with. The last thing, and what really put all of the pieces together was reading Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith. It was on my reading list for the summer and really served to inspire me to look into my own faith and find faith based reasons for service work and activism.

Now we come to the heart of the matter. Where is there a place for service work and activism in paganism? The answer is actually….a lot of places. Paganism does not have as direct a call to service work that other faiths have, at least to my admittedly imperfect knowledge. However, looking through our myths provides plenty stories that push us in that direction. The most prominent call to service work that I’ve found in paganism, broadly speaking, is hospitality.

Hospitality is a pretty common theme in mythology. Many people are familiar with stories of gods disguising themselves as beggars or travelers and going door to door to test their worshipers’ hospitality. The people that do accept the disguised gods are considered to be incredibly devout and in many stories are rewarded for giving the gods room and board. Conversely, those that refuse the gods are in many instances punished severely. Translating hospitality into a modern context is well…service work, at least in my mind. Modern hospitality to me goes beyond opening a single home, but rather opening the community. Food justice and housing (to name a few causes out of many) are the modern equivalent of giving a beggar some supper and a roof over there head. Hospitality, as I see it, should not be given because we fear that the person in need is one of our gods in disguise, who will punish us if we ignore them. Rather, we should understand  that hospitality is something that the gods want us to give by default. However, it is something so often forgotten that they are forced to ingrain the lesson into us.

Offerings and sacrifice are also widely accepted practices in modern paganism. Service work can be a staple offering for people. You can be specific to your deity’s sphere of influence, such as working with veterans as an offering to deity’s associated with war. Again, however, community is such a core value in paganism that I have yet to meet a god that will not accept service work as an offering.

I have brought up community many times. I believe that a community should be welcoming to all people. That includes my local community, my state’s community, and my nation’s community. However, I know very well that my communities are not a welcoming place for everyone. Activism, for me, has been my way of trying to change that. Raising awareness and causing people to look at inequalities is how I, at this stage of my life, can do something. I draw upon the stories of deities and outcasts as well as the many people under sphere’s of influence that are not being treated equally in my community.

Philosophical concepts in paganism also lead towards service work and activism. Ma’at comes to mind. (Something I hope to eventually write an entire post on). Service work and activism seek to balance the world and keep Ma’at. The Wiccan Rule of Three, reads to me like a ripple effect. Service projects and activism can be a place that serves to inspire others. Or that what a person has, should in some way be given back to the community. Those are only two examples and I am sure there are more that could easily be applied to these topics.

This is getting long and preachy but here’s what I am saying. Service work and activism do have places in paganism. Faith can be a motivation for helping the community and does have textual support for it in mythology. I have only scratched the surface of this issue from my own theistic pagan background. I hope to delve further into my own motivations for service work and activism in later posts.

Ethics & Spirit Work: Introduction

Spirit work, regardless of whether it is done on the astral, in the physical, or in that strange in-between, tends to bring with it many ethical conundrums. If you have been doing spirit work for any significant amount of time, you should have some understanding that human rules, customs, and ethics don’t exactly apply neatly into spirit work all of the time or even most of the time. (Though the idea that there are universal human ethics is a conversation topic in and of itself.) Quite a lot of ethical topics have come up in my practice lately, both in situations I have been placed in, my friends have shared with me, or that I have just casually read about in passing. So, I thought it was high time that I write about these issues both for myself and for others to have an archived well-articulated response to the issues.

Obviously, when I am writing about these topics, I am writing from my perspective and my own ethical stance. I am not claiming that what I write is the absolute law of the land (though on some issues I cannot in any way see the other side’s perspective and will freely admit that). I am also not going to be able to cover every instance and variation of the topics I am discussing. In some instances my statements will likely sound harsh and cold. I assure you that there is a reason behind my positions, many of them difficult lessons. It is also worth noting that I am an anthropology major and as a result my discipline is going to come through in this series rather strongly. That will often mean siding with the spirit, the local culture, and its customs rather than the side of the human, the outsider. Spirit work requires research and caution, a lesson that the majority of spirit workers learn the hard way but is an essential one nonetheless.

Because I cannot cover any of these topics in full, I am also open to conversations about all of them. Ethics & Spirit Work conversations have been some of the most philosophical and enjoyable conversations that I’ve had with people.