Claiming a Soul-Centered, Contemplative Pagan Practice

John Halstead doesn’t mess around. When he writes, he means business.

Just read his exposition on the most recent explosion of discussion and debate among Pagans and polytheists over superheroes and gods and you’ll know what I mean.

John has a tremendous intellect, and when he writes on Allergic Pagan about the in’s and out’s of theology and praxis he uses that intellect to shed light on the intricacies of what we Pagans, polytheists or non-identified pagan-like-folk do.

When John writes, I listen.

So I took notice when I read the term, “soul-centered” in the list of links at the bottom of his superhero post. I followed the link and found the 3rd of a three-part series from June of 2012 on his evolving sense of Pagan identity entitled, Soul-Centered Paganism.

I read it, and something in me hollered out,



Work with this.

John doesn’t outline a system for what soul-centered Paganism might look like in practice, but he does provide this useful venn diagram. (And don’t we all love those?)

john halstead - 3-centers-revised3


But even without a full breakdown of how soul-centered Paganism might function in practical terms, he does unpack how the term came into existence and how it may be able to connect the earth-centered and Self-centered (or Self-centric) expressions within Paganism:

The writings of Carl Jung, James Hillman, Theodore Roszak (who coined the term “eco-psychology”), and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin, have helped me reconcile these two paths — at least theoretically.  From these authors, I have developed a conception of nature and psyche which tries to overcome the dualism inherent in traditional understandings of these concepts.

Conceptually, I understand nature and psyche (or soul) as two different perspectives on the same thing.  Step one is to propose that “nature” includes not only our physical bodies, but also that thing which we call mind, including consciousness and the unconscious.  That is a proposition, I think, that would be easy for most religious naturalists to accept.

Step two is to reverse the principle: Just as nature extends “within” to include the psyche, so psyche extends “without” to include nature.  James Hillman describes psyche (soul), not as something inside of us, but as something that we are “inside” of.  Psyche extends beyond our individual mind to include other people and all of nature.  Hence, Hillman can speak of “a psyche the size of the earth”.

Bill Plotkin calls this ecopsychological perspective a “soul-centered” approach.  A “soul-centered” Paganism can potentially combine the earth-centric drive to connect to the more-than-human world with the Self-centric search for greater wholeness, the two being facets of the same drive.  From the “soul-centered” perspective, both earth-centered and Self-centered Paganism seek a transcendence of the ego and a transpersonal wholeness.

(emphasis mine)

John, admittedly, doesn’t flush out much of how a deity-centric perspective is factored into it the soul-centered model, but that doesn’t bother me. There’s time for that, I think. What I’m most interested in is the way in which this mediation on perspective (as it relates to the psyche/soul and to nature) brings with it a new, nuanced perspective on the meaning of relationship.

So much of the discussion I’ve seen about “right relationship” with the gods uses the term “relationship” in very much the way that one might speak of a relationship with a human being (or, a being that, while not human, behaves in similar ways that a human might behave). In this way, one “develops relationship,” or “works on their relationship” with the divine. (Some Christians use a similar language when they talk about having a “personal relationship with God.”)

But when you start to wrap your imagination around relationship as something more spacial or dynamic, like the relationship between notes on a scale or frequencies within a spectrum of sound, there is this thing that (at least for me) happens in the mind.

It’s a kind of breaking open.

That and the term, “psyche the size of the earth” — what are the implications of that? Is that not a language of interconnectedness that is worth greater exploration?

John continues that,

Jung wrote that we need to “reconcile ourselves to the mysterious truth that the spirit is the life of the body seen from within, and the body the outward manifestation of the life of the spirit – the two being really one”.  I understand “nature” to be psyche seen from without and “psyche” to be nature seen from within.  Thus, “nature” is everything inside and out of me when viewed from an objective perspective, whereas “psyche” is everything inside and outside of me when viewed from a subjective perspective.

(emphasis mine)

Again, my brain go break.

For anyone who wants to suggest that the application of one’s intellect necessarily leads one away from spiritual awakening or divine knowledge, I’d have them spend some time in meditation with John’s work. His process is thorough, his conclusions are reasonable, and yet he never makes the mistake of asserting that he has uncovered THE truth about a thing.

His practice is, in part, his process.

As I said, John chose not to articulate how deity-centric thought and practice might intersect with these other two categories for the formation of a soul-centered Paganism. He writes in the comments of his post that

As I was writing though, it did occur to me that all three “centers” are seeking a connection to some form of “otherness”: earth-centered types find this otherness in nature; Self-centered types find it in the deep (personal) psyche; and I think deity-centered types seek it in deities which are conceived as literally other. My problem with the deity-centered approach is that, as I understand it, it places that otherness outside of nature, or at least outside of natural phenomena — which is a problem from my naturalistic perspective — and outside of the Self — which is a problem from my post-Christian perspective.

Must the deity-centered approach place the “otherness” with which we may be seeking a connection outside of nature or the Self? Is there a way to understand or unpack the position of deity as a “natural phenomena” that allows an understanding of the divine that is interwoven with our experience of the soul and nature?

I’m not sure I have the answer to those questions. But for now, I’m borrowing this term, soul-centered, as a way of understanding my own Paganism. Add to that my inclination toward contemplation as a spiritual practice, and I think you may have the making of the “what I am” that I was seeking to identify in my last post.


6 responses to “Claiming a Soul-Centered, Contemplative Pagan Practice”

  1. thalassa Avatar

    John mentioned Alison Lilly Leigh’s idea of a nature-based polytheism, which I’ve found is more common than one might think, though people call it by a number of names, and the particulars vary a bit. I worship (and by worship I mean that I celebrate, revere, honor, adore, devote myself to, make offerings to, and regard with awe and deference) nature (and by little-n nature I mean rocks and trees and lakes and ponds and birds and crocodiles and slime mold and slugs) as the physical body of Nature (and by big-N Nature, I mean The Big Mystery, aka The Divine, aka The Universe, etc) through the language and symbolism of deity (and by deity, I mean individual gods like Zeus or Brigid–or in my case, Psamathe, Neptune, Helios, etc). My personal practice (which I call spiritual bioregionalism) overlaps with some of her ideas of natural polytheism, as well as deep ecology, and bioregional animism, etc…and I think fits pretty well in the middle of John’s Venn diagram.

  2. Themon the Bard Avatar

    I’ve been thinking a lot about sustainability, and I’ve been participating over on the archdruid report where the topic has been centered on the mythology of progress for quite a few weeks.

    There’s an old saying in software development: “If it’s too hard, you’re doing something wrong.”

    One of the questions that keeps bothering me in these discussions about polytheism is, why does this all seem so hard? I see a lot of people struggling with ideas and thoughts and definitions and words, struggling earnestly and with all the good will in the world, but it seems like it’s really difficult. Why would the gods be so difficult? The software maxim comes immediately to mind.

    Two things I’d like to point out, not about this discussion, but about our culture and its presuppositions: which, of course, all of us are speaking from, and into.

    The first is that we live with an accepted secular scientific/materialist cosmology that has no room for gods. This runs a lot deeper than just not believing that the world was created in seven days and nights. There’s a deep belief that the universe unfolded “naturally” as a result of physical processes that did not require divine action. This forces us from the outset to say that the gods, if they exist at all, are subtle. This is miles and miles from the Medieval mindset in which, without God, there would be nothing, or the classical Pagan views that held divinity deeply intertwined with the basic metaphors of existence and non-existence.

    To speak of gods in the modern culture is to start with an apology for bringing them up at all. In fact, I’m kind of curious if this coincides with the shift in meaning of the term “apologia” into “apology.”

    “We aren’t superstitious savages any more.” This is way our culture frames thoughts about divinity. It leaves us with a conundrum of somehow talking about, thinking about, and worshipping the gods without becoming “superstitious savages” who talk about, think about, and worship the gods. This is not merely hard, it is impossible.

    The second issue I’d like to raise is our culture of progressive and competitive meritocracy. We are slapped from early in life with a system of progress, through the schools, and this pressure to progress follows us through our civic life. From grading and testing in school, to certification for obtaining various forms of employment, to ongoing certification or performance reviews that require endless evidence of “improvement,” we’re driven to keep doing everything in life bigger-better-faster.

    I see this bleed over into our spiritual practices, as well. Grades of Druidry. Degrees of Wicca. Levels of Reiki. Various certifications in schools of occultism. I’ve seen an emphasis, of sorts, on being able to channel on demand, an almost industrial-efficiency approach to ritual invocation of the gods.

    This drive to increasing spiritual merit is particularly difficult when the spiritual goal is “balance.” Once you’ve reached a point of balance, how can you become “more balanced?” The expression is an oxymoron.

    Both of these issues seem to me to be a cultural adaptation adopted to facilitate an exploitation of natural resources for short-term human gain. They’ve been very effective: abolish the gods so that the rape of the earth is no longer rape, and put people in competition with each other to maximize the exploitation.

    I think worship of the gods — any gods, of any kind, in any number — is incompatible with this cultural model. I think that’s part of what makes this all so hard: trying to worship the gods without becoming “superstitious savages” in the eyes of a world bent on rape.

    In my view, worship of the gods should be easy, as easy as breathing: easy in the sense that any flatworm or mollusk or dog or cat or Down’s Syndrome child or genius polymath could do it. Easy in a sense that it doesn’t interfere with chopping wood or carrying water — any of the day-to-day tasks necessary for health and well-being, any more than a finch’s prayers interfere with building nests or catching bugs. Spiritual practice should promote balance, and when balance is achieved, its job is done, at least until the world shifts under us and we become unbalanced again.


    1. dashifen Avatar

      I think there’s an additional difficulty that polytheist face within the modern context: it’s a framework (in the West) that assumes monotheism until proven otherwise. Perhaps we can call this the monotheist’s privilege? As such, we read articles on the news, see stories on TV, watch movies all of which have a sense of deity in the singular. About the only representation we have of deity in the plural is in fantasy fiction.

      This all creates a framework in which polytheism is seen as something that we’ve moved passed. Obviously, in other areas of the world where polytheist forms are better understood (India and Japan come to mind, though I lack a full understanding of how Hindu and Shinto concepts influence cultural representations in those countries) it’s likely that this framework is far less universal and maybe competes more regularly with alternate frameworks.

      1. Themon the Bard Avatar

        That’s also a problem. But the two problems I mentioned also plague the monotheists.

  3. John H Halstead Avatar
    John H Halstead

    Thanks Teo! You know I’ve (half) joked on my blog about renaming it “What Teo Bishop Said” I admire your insight so much.

    You’re right that I didn’t flesh out the deity-centric perspective so much. At the time I was feeling very far removed from that perspective. Over the last year I have been, not exactly moving in the direction, but reaching in that direction, trying to draw insight from there. (That actually what my most recent post was about: )

    Also, I deliberately wanted to avoid the presumptiveness of placing my own perspective at the center — because, even if that is an ideal, I know it is not a reality for me now.

    As to whether the deity-centered approach must locate its sense of “otherness” outside of nature or the Self? I think the answer to that is definitely “no”, and that is an area that is ripe for exploration. Are you familiar with Alison Lily Leigh’s ecological or “natural polytheism”? She writes about it here:

    and here:

    I think that may be a step in the direction of understanding polytheistic deities as a natural phenomena and interweaving our experience of deity, self, and nature.

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