Ways to explore Pagan, ritual and spiritual practice for non-believers
Ritual and reflection is useful for everyone, and non-believers can partake of that too.
I’m an Atheist.
I do not believe in Gods, or ghosts, or magic.
Despite this, I consider myself a very spiritual person, and I use some Pagan practices to enhance my day to day life, as well as celebrating their festivals with my friends and family. It’s important to understand that Paganism is a sort of umbrella term for lots of different belief systems dating back centuries (including Wicca, Druidism, Shamanism, and hundreds of lesser-known faiths.) It is up to modern day followers to find their own path amongst these, often adopting rituals and Gods from a multitude of older religions based on what they represent and what feels right for them.
For me, Pagan practice means taking time to respect and celebrate the natural world, other people, and myself.
I didn’t have much of a religious upbringing but when I was a teenager, I became fascinated by Romany Gypsy fortune telling techniques. I picked up some tarot cards and learned to read them in my spare time, mostly so that I could impress my friends at school. Even then, I’m not convinced I believed it was controlled by magic, but I found the process entirely therapeutic and quite useful.
Here’s how it works; each card in the tarot deck represents something or someone. In a reading, you shuffle the cards, concentrating on a specific question or transferring your energy into them, then lay them out and read them. This hopefully provides an answer to your question, or at least a better general understanding of your life. Some believe that spirits guide your hands to place the right cards. Others, that your energy is transferred into the deck so that you naturally pick the cards that will help.
I personally believe that every single card in the deck can be related, in one way or another, to my life, so when I draw the cards it is completely random, but each card helps me look at my problem a different way. It is like talking to a stranger with no agenda about my problems. I even think that taking the time to concentrate on what you are hoping to discover whilst shuffling the cards is as helpful as an exercise in mindfulness.
The idea that “it isn’t mystical, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful” is something I use a lot in my practice, and it can be applied to many things, including scrying, palmistry and astrology.
Keep a Commonplace Book
Keeping a journal to record your personal spiritual journey is a sacred practice for Wiccans, and the name for this is a Book of Shadows. The manner in which these records are kept varies from Witch to Witch; For some, a Book of Shadows is purely a report of the rituals and spells practiced. For others, it becomes more akin with a diary, a recipe book, a dream journal – or all three.
If you’re not Wiccan, you might want to call a book like this a Commonplace Book. The great thing about a Commonplace Book is that you can keep it in any way that you wish. It is a space to collect your thoughts, ideas and observations – though it is usually less narrative than a traditional diary. Your book may contain lists, quotes, or even newspaper clippings. Keeping a note book with you at all times to record your thoughts in this manner is great practice for anybody. It means you will always be able to recall and develop your ideas. It may also help increase your creative focus.
Practice Mindfulness (or Yoga, or Meditation)
Mindfulness is defined as:
“a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations”
Taking the time to really experience yourself and the things around you is a good way to find calmness, ease stress and be good to yourself; How does it feel to breathe? How does the air taste?
If you are mindful in your everyday tasks, you may find that you are being good not only to yourself, but to others and to the world. Mindful shopping means choosing ethical products where possible. Having mindful conversations means really listening to your friends and considering your input. Mindful eating means choosing foods which will be good for your body which do not have a negative effect on the environment.
Some people use meditation or yoga as self-care to improve their health and to help them concentrate or remain calm. These are equally valid options. In the past, I have used a combination of the three to help when I have found myself in a dark place.
Celebrate Pagan Holidays
There are about as many different Holy days in the Pagan calendar as there are different faiths. I’m just going to talk about the eight fire festivals as they are the ones I celebrate with family. Feel free to research your own and celebrate any way you see fit!
Imbolc (2nd February)
This is the time to celebrate the fact that Winter is almost over and Spring is coming! Traditionally it was when people took down their Winter decorations to release the nature spirits back into the world. This is the time to get excited about the future.
For me, Imbolc means spring cleaning – both my home and my mind. Imbolc is a good time for making dedications to yourself or others. You can view these dedications as belated New Year’s Resolutions, if you like.
Spring Equinox (21st/22nd March)
This is the first day of Spring. A good time to get outdoors and appreciate nature. Go to the park and have a picnic by yourself, and maybe meditate. See if you can spot the first daffodils. If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, plant some seeds. If not, you could try some guerrilla gardening. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it makes you remember how good fresh air feels.
Beltane (1st May)
Beltane is a fertility festival. The flowers are blooming, the baby animals are frolicking, and although you might like to use May Day as an excuse for some hanky panky, it is also a great time to get productive, get creative, and get outside.
The word Beltane is a combination of the Gaelic “Bel” meaning Bright One, and “Taine” meaning Fire. As you would expect, fire is central to most of the traditional Pagan celebrations. Families, friends and lovers may jump over the fire to celebrate their fruitful relationships. This is the time to ponder and discuss hopes and plans for the future with the ones you love most. This is also the time for indulging in the absolute pleasures of Spring, so feast on fresh local produce, pick flowers for your home, and dance deep into the night.
You can also join in with Mookychick’s annual May Day Magic ritual, wherever you are in the world and whatever your beliefs are.
Summer Solstice (21st/22nd June)
The summer Solstice is the longest day of the year, and one of the most exciting celebrations in the Pagan community. Go camping. Light a camp fire, watch the sun set, and then – seemingly only moments later – watch it rise again. This is a moment for reflection. Remember that this is the beginning of Summer’s end. From here on out, the nights will get shorter and shorter until Winter returns.
Lammas – Also known as Lughnasadh (1st August)
This is the first of the three Harvest Festivals. A fantastic way to celebrate this is taking the time to consider the things you are grateful for. Your money, your home, your loved ones, and your food. The word ‘Lammas’ means Loaf Mass, so it is a great time to bake bread and cakes to share with friends and family. It also celebrates the first fruits of the year, so get down to your local farmer’s market and see what you can find.
One Lammas ritual I especially like involves feeding each other! As one person chews, the other one wishes nice things for them such as “I hope you get that job you applied for.”, or “I hope we’ll always be friends.” At the end, you toast the passing summer.
Autumn Equinox (21st/22nd September)
Like the Spring Equinox, there is an equal amount of light to darkness on this day. It is a time of balance, a time to be grateful for the abundance of summer and to prepare for the colder months ahead. It might be nice to invite your friends round for a plentiful meal, but also invite them to bring dried, canned, or other non-perishable foods to donate to a food bank or homeless shelter. You might want to go for a walk in the darkness and embrace it re-entering the world.
Samhain (31st October)
Samhain is the festival of the dead, and for many it is also the beginning of the new spiritual year. There’s no reason you can’t celebrate Samhain spiritually through the day and then engage in the usual Halloween frivolities in the evening.
Take some time to remember those who you have lost. Ask your family for stories about your ancestors or visit an old cemetery and lay a flower on the graves that are too old to have people to remember them, honouring ancestors other than your own. One of my favourite Samhain rituals is to lay a place at the dinner table for each person who is close to you that has died. Prepare a beautiful meal and eat it in silence, taking that time to remember your lost. You can also hold a formal Day of the Dead dinner.
Winter Solstice (21st/22nd December)
The longest night of the year is one of my favourites. Winter solstice is a time to reflect on your life over the last year and look forward to the days slowly becoming warmer and lighter again. It is also a time to let go of any negativity you have been feeling, and put an end to bad habits.
If you want to do something to symbolise this you can light a fire, write the things you want to let go of on paper, and let them burn. I did this with my family last year (mostly non-pagans,) and they all agreed it was very cathartic. We also woke up early to see the sun rise and welcome the longer days arriving.
Build an Altar
In most pagan faiths, people build an altar to use as a workbench for a ritual, or as a focus for a spell or meditation. An altar is usually decorated with very specific religious objects and symbols that may be seasonal, or else represent Deities, offerings or magical elements.
You may wish to create a calming space in your own home that you reserve for relaxation and self-care. You could build an altar as a focus in this area. You can make your altar as individual as you are. Use a grand ornate table or a small wooden box, and adorn it with objects that are special and personal to you. There could be photographs of the people you love, trinkets from your childhood, souvenirs from special times and places- candles also help to create a soothing atmosphere. Collecting these objects together might feel very therapeutic. You can use them as a focus for meditation, or else just as a sacred collection of memories for you to peruse at your leisure.
Make Meat a Treat
Being pagan means having respect for animals and the environment. For many people, going all out vegan, vegetarian, or even pescetarian isn’t practical or beyond that, it simply doesn’t seem like a pleasurable lifestyle choice. However, with the amount of information available on the treatment of animals and the effect that meat consumption has on the environment, it sometimes feels like the choice to eat meat is willfully ignoring your moral compass.
On top of that, we are often eating meat and dairy mindlessly without really enjoying it (thrown together ham sandwich anyone? How about frozen chicken with a jar of curry sauce thrown on top for quickness?)
If you eat meat and dairy, I challenge you to not to stop eating meat and dairy altogether if you’d rather not do that, but to start eating it mindfully. Any time you choose to not eat meat, you are choosing to decrease your carbon footprint and reduce animal suffering. A great way I have seen this done is through the idea of “making meat a treat.”
Ways to make meat a treat
For normal every day meals at home, eat vegan. If you need to grab a sandwich when you’re out, pick a vegetarian option. Decide to only eat meat at special occasions. That could means birthdays and Christmas to you, or your idea of special occasions may be more frequent, like when you are at a friend’s house or restaurant.
When you do eat meat, try to choose something that has been ethically raised and take some time to consider the animal you are eating and be grateful for it. Make sure you focus on really enjoying every bite. You can have your steak, and eat it too!
Approach ritual and practice in a way that is relevant and suited to you.
Coming to a point where I am comfortable, both with my religious beliefs (or lack of them ), and my spirituality has been a long road. However, I find these small rituals helpful, and I hope you can enjoy them too.