Impressions of PantheaCon: Saturday

There is a palpable lack of energy at this particular Pantheacon. Everyone seems much more quiet and less enthusiastic; maybe it’s Mercury retrograde or maybe everyone is still reeling from 2013.

We showed up later in the day, mostly because we had such a late Friday night and wanted to sleep in. Diana Paxson’s Divine Relationships was the first session we attended. Diana was her usual entertaining and informative self. She discussed how establishing a relationship with Deity or Spirit is almost exactly like developing a relationship with other humans. You introduce yourself, learn about the other individual, share common experiences and foster common ground. I kept getting distracted by the behaviors of fellow attendees, but I was determined to focus on the presentation.

The irony is that attendance at festivals and conferences such as Pantheacon are intended to stimulate community building, yet participants engage in little discourtesies constantly. Every session I have attended, cell phone sounds have interrupted the speaker. People mutter to themselves, whisper and chat with their companions and endlessly fidget. In one session, the man sitting next to me was texting and shopping on his phone, while punctuating his impatience for a text reply with heavy sighs and sounds akin to a horse. Other people knit while they listen to the presentation – elbowing their neighbors. During Diana Paxson’s session, an attendee went up to the front of the room and completed an entire book-buying transaction with Paxson’s comedic side-kick while the rest of the audience tried to listen to Diana.

Out in the halls of the hotel, people interrupt conversations without so much as an, “Excuse me,” and act as if other people don’t exist. In groups of people, no one makes introductions. While I’m sure that discussing the -isms – sexism, racism, homophobia – are important topics, it seems to me that the reason our communities are fractured are because no one seems capable of engaging in basic social courtesy. If our community needs institutions, perhaps we should begin with a finishing school.

The next phenomenon I observed was in Daily Practice Sucks: Moving Daily Spirituality Forward by Lisa Spiral. The session was popular, I counted almost 100 people in attendance. What was shocking to me was that when asked about a daily practice, only about 5% of the room raised their hand.

Several years ago, I read the results of a Gallup poll on the religious behavior of Americans. The overwhelming majority of the people polled said that they attend church or temple, not necessarily for an experience of the divine, but for the fellowship with their community. Spiritual experience takes a backseat to the potlucks and other social events their religious community offers.

It occurs to me that there is a division of intention in the Pagan community. On one side, you have the Pagans, Witches, Heathens and others who want to develop themselves spiritually, who want to experience communion with the divine, who are excited about coming into relationship with their Gods, ancestors and spirits. On the other side, you have Pagans who are like the majority of church-going Americans – they come to festivals, rituals and other events for the camaraderie with like-minded friends.

If you walk around the hotel at any time, day or night, the tables at the cafe, the restaurants, and the lobby are full with people chatting over food and drink. The vendor room and the reader tables are full of busy social butterflies. Yet, not even ten minutes into the session, people were already getting up and leaving Lisa Spiral’s presentation on daily practice. Ms. Spiral made an amusing comment when she noted the few audience members with a daily practice, “Those of you with a daily practice don’t need to be here, unless you are trying to figure out a way to make your students commit to a daily practice.”

I’m old fashioned I suppose. My community lacked an “institution” so rituals and circles were always in someone’s home or backyard. We were faithful to developing ourselves – our psychic gifts, our magical power, and our relationship with the Powers. We wanted to have an experience of the divine and we wanted consciously create our lives. Basic observations of etiquette and respect were always practiced – especially important when you are practicing in someone’s home which they so generously offered.

But it appears that many Pagans don’t necessarily want those things. I read that many Pagans don’t even want to practice magic. A community center sounds to me like the ideal place for this new breed of Pagan – where they can chat endlessly about all manner of things over coffee, tea and pastry. Where events can resemble a casual cocktail party, rather than a devotional ritual or magical working. Most importantly, casual spaces are needed for Pagans who can’t seem to turn the ringer off on their cell phone.

17 comments… add one
  • Alan Feb 16, 2014 @ 10:29

    This is why I separate (in my head) people who call themselves pagan and just screw around with the idea and their own intellectual self-gratification from those who take their magic seriously.

    • Tonja Feb 17, 2014 @ 16:32

      For myself, the practice of magic is intrinsically bound up with my religious/devotional/spiritual praxis. I understand that one could be Pagan, and not also identify as a Witch (or Magician, magical practitioner, etc.). Just as there are people who practice magic, but have no connection to Deity, there are certainly those who have a devotional or religious life that does not include the practice of magic. I think there are Pagans out there who could be serious about piety and devotional work, and that is their work.

      Then there seems to be this group of people who call themselves Pagan who have no interest in developing a relationship to Deity/Ancestors/Pantheon/Culture, nor do they have the discipline or desire to develop a magical practice. They seem to be around merely for the social aspects of being a part of a community. There is nothing wrong with that – if the Pagan community is attractive to some people, but they have no calling to religious or magical expression, well, rock on! I just fail to see why they would appear in workshops and presentations serving people who are interested in furthering their relationship to Spirit and/or their magical skill.

  • Kallan Kennedy Feb 16, 2014 @ 10:41

    Wow, thank you for this post. As a frequent conference speaker in the business world, I have never encountered such rude behavior, EVER. I can only imagine what the speakers at this conference are going through- much less the attendees who are trying to learn and network. You have my sympathies. Please keep us updated!

    • Tonja Feb 17, 2014 @ 16:22

      Hi Kallan, I will be posting my observations for Day 3 later today. Things did seem to get better – perhaps it was simply a matter of my choice of session topic?

  • Kathleen Feb 16, 2014 @ 10:59

    “A community center sounds to me like the ideal place for this new breed of Pagan – where they can chat endlessly about all manner of things over coffee, tea and pastry.”

    It’s already there. It’s called the Internet (though you have to provide your own tea and pastry). 😉

    In all seriousness, “people” wanted an unoathed, rank-free, hierarchy-free, uber-autonomous and egalitarian-looking Paganism — and now they have it. I imagine the old 101 pre-pre-initiatory etiquette classes are pretty much nonexistent now.

    This seems like a kind of natural cycle for breakaway trads and practices. The vast majority of Pagans are JudeoChristian breakaways. When you redefine yourself in opposition to something, you port that conflicted energy into your new endeavor (also a very 101 concept). And when you have no long-term developmental investment in your spirituality, it becomes just another commodity.

    • Tonja Feb 17, 2014 @ 16:44

      Thank you for writing this, Kathleen. Wonderful points!

      I’ve been to all kinds of presentations at Pantheacon – workshops, discussions, lectures, slide shows, concerts, and rituals. It is in part, the fact that some facilitators have better and more dynamic public speaking skills. It is also in part, I believe, due to this “breakaway cycle” you speak of. I’ve been to the religious services of a few dozen different Christian denominations, and all of them (save the Catholics) merely required their parishioners to sit quietly in the audience and observe the ritual and listen to the pastor/reverend speak. They might do some singing, but in every case, the priest, pastor, or reverend did the heavy lifting while the laypeople were an audience. I’ve noticed that the large, dynamic rituals seldom have the rude behavior and rampant cell phone usage that the classes, discussions, lectures attract. Most of the large rituals require audience participation – singing, dancing, or some other form of active participation. Maybe it’s a holdover from their previous religious practice – they aren’t actively participating or listening, so it’s easy to be distracted by cell phones or their companion(s).

      • Kathleen Feb 18, 2014 @ 8:59

        That’s an excellent point, Tonja. I wonder, though — would they be as distractive and rude if (say) they were attending a lecture at a Buddist temple? A zendo? A yoga retreat? I’ve been to various types of resident training here and abroad (and, just to throw it into the mix, academic conferences as attendee and presenter), and there’s something about Pagan inattentiveness that’s definitely outside the behavioral “norm,” and not in a particularly good way. I can’t help but feel it’s some weird combination of a shopping mentality, a lack of emotional investment, and post-rebellion syndrome. In any event, I’ll continue to give it a pass. Brava for diving in. 😉

        • Tonja Feb 18, 2014 @ 15:13

          I can’t tell if the Pagan-flavor of inattentiveness and general rude behavior is more/worse than the public at large, but it’s not good.

          Upon further reflection, I think the disrespect is greater in the lectures and discussion led by those who are not Big Name Pagans (BNPs).

          To unpack this directly:
          – BNPs are often great public speakers, they are dynamic, engaging, and know how to work the room. Whether this skill at public speaking led them to become BNPs, or their popularity led them to hone their public speaking skills, I cannot say. All I know is that most BNPs are very hard to ignore, and I seldom see cell phone usage, for example, in their sessions.
          – Con attendees seem to be a bit starstruck in the presence of BNPs whose books (and other materials, products, etc.) they have purchased. As a result, they seem to be on their best behavior at events presented by BNPs.
          – Non-BNP presenters are often inexperienced public speakers. They are nervous, and are probably not there to promote anything (new book, class, products, etc.). They are simply there to generously share knowledge, skills, or insights.

          This is a huge bummer, because I have received so many gifts over the years of attending a variety of workshops. So many insights, new ideas, breakthroughs, and inspiration. Since I no longer work with a group, it is possible that I’m just very sensitive to the behaviors of others. I just don’t tune it out as easily anymore.

  • Kathleen Feb 16, 2014 @ 11:38

    P.S. Almost a decade old, but still very current — reads like it was written yesterday.

  • Tree Feb 16, 2014 @ 11:39

    The discourtesy is not specific to the Pagan community. It’s the cell phone generation, the remote clicking on TV shows that is so bad that after each commercial the announcer summarizes what happened last because most viewers have just joined the show while surfing

    People no longer know how to pay attention. And since focus is one of the requirements of magick, what is going to happen to magick?
    At a retreat I attend one requirement is cell phones off except for one person who monitors an emergency line.
    Maybe the presenters should be assertive enough to ask listeners if they can have the courtesy to put away phones for duration of the lecture

    • Tonja Feb 17, 2014 @ 16:20

      Thank you for your response, Tree. I did not mean to suggest that this problem is specific to the Pagan community. Perhaps because I’m accustomed to gathering for ritual in someone’s home that general discourtesy and disrespect in a Pagan context is something I feel much more acutely. Being a loosely-related group of minority religions, there aren’t an array of choices when looking for like-minded individuals. In other words, if things don’t work out with a group, there’s nowhere else to go (in most areas). I would think as a group, Pagans would be much more conscious about respect and etiquette, so that there were more options for group activities.

  • Autumn Pulstar Feb 16, 2014 @ 15:18

    How sad. How very sad. That these immature pagan wannabees are so self centered. Why did they pay money to attend a conference they really have no interest in? I understand the shift in energy…2013 was a disaster…and I had envisioned that there would be a lot of tip toeing on broken glass. But there is no excuse for rude behavior. Grow up or go home.

    • Tonja Feb 17, 2014 @ 16:14

      Thank you for your comment, Autumn. Could you say more about 2013? It’s the one year in almost ten that I did not attend.

      As for the general rudeness, I have no idea why anyone would sit in one of the discussions/workshops if all they wanted to do was surf Amazon or chat via FaceBook. There are plenty of other places in the hotel (that probably get better reception) where people are being social. It does seem like an awful lot of trouble and expense to just zone out on one’s phone.

  • Jennifer Feb 16, 2014 @ 17:09

    Wonderful blog post. Thank you for addressing this issue. It certainly isn’t unique to the Pagan community, though. As Tree stated, we have lost the ability to pay attention and retain focus for any length of time. We are seeing this in the education world, also. Teachers are told they have to “hook” the students. We need to keep them stimulated and wanting to listen to us. We have to act like an amusement park and keep them enthralled or they won’t learn.
    This complete lack of respect and common courtesy is rampant in today’s society. It is extremely disturbing.

    • Tonja Feb 17, 2014 @ 16:51

      Thank you, Jennifer. My husband is a teacher, and he struggles with this very issue. Tardiness, cell phones and laptops in class, short attention spans, homework not completed, etc. It isn’t a problem exclusive to the Pagan community, but we as a group of minority religions have much more at stake. We don’t always have the luxury of cherry picking a group to work with – we can’t just pack up and go to the circle/grove/coven/temple down the street. Often that Kemetic/Druid/Heathen/Hellenic/Sumerian group you work with is the only game in town. The community is small – it is in our best interest to maintain respect and courtesy.

  • Cora Post Feb 17, 2014 @ 15:48

    I was nodding along, happily agreeing to your observations until I got to the very end:

    “But it appears that many Pagans don’t necessarily want those things. I read that many Pagans don’t even want to practice magic. A community center sounds to me like the ideal place for this new breed of Pagan – where they can chat endlessly about all manner of things over coffee, tea and pastry. Where events can resemble a casual cocktail party, rather than a devotional ritual or magical working. Most importantly, casual spaces are needed for Pagans who can’t seem to turn the ringer off on their cell phone.”

    Seriously?! How did you go from talking about people not turning off their cell phones or having social manners anymore to insulting a person’s personal beliefs?

    I am a Pagan. I don’t practice magic. That does not mean that I’m a “social butterfly” just wanting a “casual cocktail hour” at the local community center. And I certainly know when to turn off my cell phone.

    I am not part of a “new” breed of Paganism, but rather I am part of the “old” breed. People in ancient times did not cast circles, “call down the moon”, chant rhyming couplets. They didn’t go to conferences to hone their “psychic powers”. They lived alongside their Gods and their daily lives and religious lives wove together seamlessly.

    Magic does not a Pagan make.

    Honestly, your statement reeks of ignorance and arrogance.

    • Tonja Feb 17, 2014 @ 16:58

      Thank you for your response, Cora. I fail to see where I insulted anyone’s personal beliefs. Other people’s personal beliefs are none of my business. If you turned off your cell phone and refrained from preventing your neighbors’ enjoyment of the various presentations, this criticism was not directed at you.

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