On Good Spiritual Hygiene

What methods does your tradition employ for protection and the warding off of malign influences?

Good boundaries, regular bathing, moderate exercise, and not reading comments most places on the internet. That last one is important, trust me.

This one would be easier to answer in detail if I were actually practicing a solid tradition, instead of groping my way towards one. As it is, my “tradition” is myself and, defined generously, a handful of folks who are regulars at my Dionysian celebrations. We haven’t sat down to hammer out the details of technique.

That said, the list above is a good one. Each of those applies to spirituality as well as to other areas of life, though the details of application may differ.

Good boundaries, for instance, are key to keeping drama out of your life as much as possible. Most of us have that one friend with whom we do not discuss politics–they’re a good sort, mostly, but they just can’t avoid turning any mention of politics into a screeching rant. That’s a boundary, set in place to preserve the connection with that person and also to keep oneself from flying into murderous rage. When that one friend looks to be gathering steam for a good rant, one interrupts, gently but firmly, and reminds them that we don’t discuss politics lest the discussion produce hurt feelings and bruised noses. That’s holding the boundary, and though it might not be pleasant, it’s much better than the alternative.

Spiritually, the various things often called “wards” are pretty much the same thing. They’re boundary markers. They say, “these forces are welcome, those are not,” in firm but gentle terms. Those terms may be visualized as circles of light, flaming pentagrams, astral watch towers, whatever fits the idiom of your own practice. The point is that one is clear where the boundary is, and that one respects the boundary. This is why some people don’t like to leave a cast circle without being formally “cut out” and the circle re-sealed behind them. It’s not like they’d be physically incapable of ducking out of the circle to go to the bathroom, but the integrity of the boundary relies on not poking holes in it from the inside. If you don’t respect it, demonstrating that you’re serious about it, why should anyone (anything) else?

There are various techniques for setting this boundary. Personally, I’ve used pentagram rituals, chanted spells, waving cutlery about, and tracing the boundary in the dirt with a stick. Consult your local experts to find out which method is best for you. Lately, I’ve been using a technique that isn’t based on tossing out the forces I don’t want, but filling the space with the influences I do want. Invocations of the spirits of the land, of the ancestors, and of the gods set the tone and hold the space. This is at my house, where I have standing wards and try to keep the place spiritually presentable, so some basic boundary keeping is in play, just not overtly.

The spiritual equivalent of regular bathing is, often, bathing. But bathing with intent, consciously visualizing whatever undesirable influences as dirt on your skin, and rinsing it off with the bath water. There are equivalents for non-human-body-things, like houses and cars and such, but the idea is pretty much the same. For this, I’ve used salt water and incense smoke, chanted spells, more waving cutlery (be careful, though, you’re not trying to ward off blood or fingertips), and just wiping visualized ick off with my (presumably clean) hands. There are various things that can be added to a bath, like certain herbs (hyssop is a favorite, as is sage), coconut milk, and salts.

Word of warning, though–before you go using herbs for this (or anything, really), especially if you’re going to bring them into contact with someone’s insides (via smoke or ingestion) check to make sure that the stuff isn’t toxic and that your subject isn’t allergic. I know someone who is lethally allergic to sage smoke, for instance, and a good smudging would send her straight to the hospital.

Moderate exercise of the soul includes, for me, prayer and altar work. Visualizations and meditations, sometimes, and (when I can manage the discipline) a regular, daily routine of aligning and balancing the forces inside myself. The best set of these I’ve had I learned from my Feri teacher, and amounts to a set of chants and visualizations that focus awareness on all the major parts of the body and soul, seeing what condition my condition is in. Making adjustments usually just meant spending more time on whatever I was adjusting, poking at it until it felt better.

No, spiritual exercise isn’t any easier to do than physical. Oh, it’s less work for your muscles and joints (unless you’re using Yoga for this), but it’s just as difficult as it would be to establish a habit of going to the gym for a regular workout. Trust me, I’ve failed to establish both of these kinds of routines often enough to know.

And, yes, there’s a spiritual equivalent to not reading the comments. Don’t invoke anything you don’t want influencing your life! When you read the comments, you’re inviting random denizens of the internet into your head, at least temporarily. You’re going to react to them, whether it’s to rage at their idiocy, laugh at their folly, or nod sagely in agreement. This affects your mood, which affects your perception of events, which affects your decisions, which affects your actions…

Same thing with Mysterious Unseen Forces. As it says in the Necronomicon, Do not call up what you cannot put down. This would seem like unnecessary advice, but in my time as both a practicing occultist and working at an occult shop, it’s a common enough mistake for beginners and old hands alike. It extends to people, too–if you don’t like the magic they’re doing or the gods they’re worshiping, don’t practice with them.

While it’s true that the worst most people will get from messing around with things they can’t handle is a solid case of the spooks and some bad dreams, it is possible to get stuck with the astral equivalent of lice, a streak of serious bad luck, or even (rarely) undesired possession. Most of the time, this is easily dealt with via some spiritual cleansing and re-focusing on the powers that support and protect. A good salt water bath and prayers to one’s guardian spirits are the funny kitten videos of the spiritual world. Sometimes, though, you have to get out the anti-malware programs. Yep, I’m talking about banishing and exorcism.

They’re essentially the same thing, except that banishing is usually used on a place or a thing, and exorcism is used on a person. It’s really the spiritual version of tossing a rowdy, unwanted guest out of the party. There may be chanting or incense or waving of cutlery (I don’t recommend that last one if you’re dealing with someone who is possessed or otherwise seriously freaked out–you don’t want to try explaining to the paramedics that you accidentally stabbed your buddy while trying to rid him of demons), but it’s essentially the same as establishing and enforcing good boundaries, after the fact.

The subject of the banishing is an ally in this. Get them focused, and get them to help you. With possessed people, I’ve started with getting them re-grounded in their bodies, and in the current location and time. After that, we just repeated boundary exercises until all the spookiness and bad thoughts went away. These exercises involved asserting the person’s own personality and bodily sovereignty, and calling on their gods and spirits.

It doesn’t have to be all mystical in its trappings. A good scrubbing-out can banish unwanted influences from a room as well as any smudging, and a teacher of mine once conducted an exorcism by feeding the person a cheeseburger and having a calm, quiet conversation with them.

Mind you, just because it’s simple in concept doesn’t mean it’s easy. One of the hardest parts is taking it seriously enough to do the work but not buying into whatever claims the unwanted entity is making. It’s a tricky balance. The other really hard part can be getting the focused attention of the person. If they’re so freaked out by the presence of an unwanted entity that they can’t listen to you, there’s a good deal of calming down and soothing to do.

Oh, and if you’re of a sufficiently animistic bent, places and things have their own spirits, too, and you should definitely invoke thier aid.

I didn’t realize I had so much to say on this one. It makes sense, though, as a lot of my work in Paganism and the occult has been either keeping people from messing up or cleaning up after them.

My lover Ember and I have decided to go through Galina Krasskova’s Devotional Polytheist Meme questions together, over the next several months. We encourage our friends to follow along, and welcome links to other people’s answers in our comments, as well as your thoughts on our answers. Ember’s answer can be found at her blog, Embervoices.


About Lon Sarver

Lon Sarver is a polytheist priest of Dionysos, living in the San Francisco Bay Area and contemplating (with a healthy amount of dread) making a second attempt at a career in Marriage and Family Therapy. View all posts by Lon Sarver

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