Why We Do What We Do
Article ID: 8418
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 4,945
Times Read: 4,271
Author: RuneWolf [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: April 10th. 2004
Times Viewed: 4,271
Within the past few months, I have seen several Internet and hardcopy authors criticize certain Wiccan practitioners for using the statement "Because that's the way it's always been done," or some such, when asked to justify a particular practice or belief. The general complaint is that this shows a lack of individual thought and demonstrates a blind adherence to doctrine, whether that doctrine is the work of a published author or the practices of a particular group or coven. It is held by the critics that this is somehow antithetical to the adventurous spirit of Modern Wicca.
In point of fact, I agree with the spirit behind this criticism - to paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined faith is not worth practicing, and I am no fan of lemming-ism. However - and this is, in my mind at least, an important "however" - there is a time and a place for "doing it like it's always been done."
My experience has been that spontaneity takes a lot of practice. That is to say, one's ability to improvise and extemporize - comfortably and to one's personal satisfaction - is proportionate to one's actual and perceived competence in the skills, abilities and attributes being called on in the course of that improvisation or extemporization. Of these two, perceived competence is probably more important, on the whole, than actual. I have witnessed people with no "real" ability at something winging it with phenomenal results, simply because they believed, in that moment, that they were capable of doing it. Conversely, I have seen people who I knew were technically competent to a high degree blow it badly, because for some reason, their confidence in that moment was not what it should have been. But, everything else being equal, it is axiomatic that confidence increases with practice and proficiency. The more I practice, the better I believe myself to be, if only by an infinitesimal degree, so the more confidence I have, if only by that same infinitesimal degree.
On the whole, people learn "fastest and bestest" within a framework. The framework is, hopefully, provided by people who have "done the research," tested the theories and practices that make up the framework, made the mistakes inherent in the framework, and learned how to predict and/or avoid them. The framework, however, by its very nature, cannot be tailor-made to each and every student. It must focus on generalities in order to be of use to more than one student. Even if it is not explicitly stated within the framework, what is being taught to or required of the student is what has been found to be the "bestest for the mostest," over the history of the framework. In other words, what has been found to work most of the time for most of the practitioners is what normally composes a healthy system.
What separates a "Traditional" from an "Eclectic" system is the acceptability within the framework of adjusting the components when certain of those components no longer work most of the time for most of the practitioners. A "Traditional" framework will resist and discourage adaptation, while an "Eclectic" framework will embrace and encourage it. This is true not only in the Craft but in many other disciplines, notably - in my experience - the martial arts. (Yeah, yeah - stop groaning...)
When the martial arts first became popular in America, a tremendous amount of emphasis was placed on the traditional forms of whatever style was being taught and practiced. Nowadays, the emphasis has shifted to free-style, mixed-system practice where slavish adherence to traditional style is frowned upon, because it is seen to limit the survival options of a combatant.
What we must remember is that this current, free-style trend actually grew out of the earlier, hide-bound traditional practices. The man usually credited with unleashing the mixed martial arts movement, Bruce Lee, was himself the product of a rigorous foundation practice in Wing Chun, an undeniably traditional and traditionalist style. Lee in fact took a lot of flak from his elders and contemporaries for his heretical and unorthodox ideas and practices, but in the long run, it seems to have been his way that emerged as the most popular and successful.
The point here is that it was from a traditional, stylistic foundation that Lee launched himself into the stratosphere of experimentation and improvisation. Undoubtedly, a tremendous natural talent helped significantly, but much of his success in the creation of Jeet Kune Do was due to diligent and repetitive practice of the basics of other styles; what other people had "always done."
I am currently studying a hybrid self-defense system that is a perfect case in point. It is the distillation of traditional martial arts into a lean, mean, compact system that is designed for one purpose only. But in order to distill those older, more traditional arts, the founder of this system had to have had more than a passing familiarity with the traditional systems - at some point, he had to do it "the way it had always been done." Having gained some measure of proficiency and understanding from that, he was able to adapt those elements that he thought useful, and leave behind the rest. But the understanding that allowed him to do this successfully required initial work within the given framework.
The interesting thing is that this hybrid, highly eclectic system now has its own doctrine of training and insistence upon practicing in a prescribed manner, so the circle has come round again, it seems, and the non-traditional has become its own tradition. But again, the reason for this is simple: this has been found to be the framework that works best for the majority of practitioners over the course of time.
(A related observation, which is important in my analogy to the Pagan community, is that the majority of the students in my current school do not participate in elective free-style sparring. The reasons for this are doubtless manifold, but I suspect that one of the major reasons is that most people feel safer and more comfortable in the predictable repetition of the normal training sessions, and are uncomfortable in the spontaneous environment of sparring. Just as many Pagans may feel safer and more comfortable in the predictable repetition of a "traditional" practice, as opposed to the spontaneity of eclectic practice and experimentation.)
One extremely important thing, and one that may be close to the heart of this whole issue, is the necessity of a provision within the framework of explaining WHY things are done/taught the way they are, and I suspect that the root criticism of the authors I mentioned at the beginning is that people are either working within a framework that doesn't provide such explanations, or the practitioners themselves did not absorb that information.
I personally feel that this is one of the most heinous crimes a student can commit. Part of the whole matrix that one is absorbing when one studies a system is not just the how but the WHY - which is usually what determines the how, anyway! If the framework within which you are studying anything, particularly religion and spirituality, does not provide the why behind the how, there can only be two reasons: 1) Part of your responsibility as a student is to try and figure out the why, or 2) the system is effed up and you need to bail. Requiring - even forcing - a student to stretch beyond current capability and understanding is mandatory in a teaching framework; it wouldn't be teaching if the student wasn't required to expand some facet of their life or self. Sometimes this occurs easily, and sometimes the framework has to force it to a degree, i.e. the "just one more rep!" that is so popular - and so dreaded - in workout classes. No one really wants the pain and discomfort of that "one more rep," but most of us wouldn't be in that class if we didn't want the results.
But I digress...
No system is worthwhile if it never explains the why, or if it perpetually holds out the promise of that explanation to tantalize and manipulate the student. By the same token, the framework cannot constantly adjust and modify itself to fit the wants and desires of each student - that would result in chaos, and all the students would suffer. In the best scenario, a framework/teacher says, "We do it this way because yada yada yada, so we want you to try it this way until you're comfortable with it. Then we think you will see why we do it this way." After diligent practice, the student either becomes comfortable with the technique, or modifies and personalizes it in such a way as to remain compatible with the overall framework. Such minor adaptations are usually overlooked by the framework/teacher as long as the student's overall progress is satisfactory and within the framework. More importantly, during this process, the student comes to understand why that system does that thing in that way. But the real leap - and learning - comes when the student understands why their adaptation works for them, as opposed to the traditional way. Understanding the why behind the traditional way and the corresponding why behind the individual's way is terribly important, but it is often a difficult thing to articulate.
What I have observed in both the Craft and the martial arts is that people will offhandedly say something that can be interpreted as saying "I do it because so-and- so says so," or "I do it because it's always been done that way," when that is not what is actually meant. Most - but, unfortunately, not all - people don't want to launch into long, involved, technical dissertations on why they choose to do things a certain way. It is assumed, I think, that by providing a bona fide for a practice, one is stipulating that one agrees with the particular why behind that particular how, which one assumes is conveyed by that bona fide. When I say "I place Air in the East because my Trad does it that way," I really mean, "I place Air in the East because I agree with all the reasons my Trad teaches for placing Air in the East - and then some - but they are far too numerous to go into right now." By the same token, I think it is PERFECTLY all right to simply mean, "I place Air in the East because the Trad I am studying now does it that way. I don't know all the reasons, but I am going to put Air in the East until I have a good reason not to, because I trust my teachers and coven-mates." We make a big deal about intuition in the Craft, but when someone says, "What Scott Cunningham says sounds good to me, and I'm going to work with that until something better comes along," it seems to fill some of us with eclectic outrage.
As those of us who are parents know, "Because!" is never the best answer to "Why?" but sometimes it's a good answer at the time. While it fills some Pagans with all kinds of apprehension, "I can't tell you why right now" is sometimes a valid answer, provided it is clear that the student simply hasn't absorbed enough of the matrix yet for an involved and technical explanation to be of any real use. The real point is that, "I can't tell you right now" is the improper statement of the case; what is really meant is, "I can attempt to explain this to you right now, but my experience as a teacher leads me to believe that at your present level of advancement you will either 1) misinterpret the explanation, 2) not comprehend it at all or 3) be unduly confused by it, so it is my judgment as your teacher that I should not attempt the explanation at this time." Again, we often resort to verbal shorthand that does a disservice both to the student and the teacher. It behooves those of us who teach to take the time to be more explicit in these types of situations, and it behooves those of us who are students - in whatever sense - to have the courage and grace to simply say, "I'm doing it this way because I trust my teachers," whomever and whatever those teachers may be at the time.
As a teacher in the Craft I have to find a balance between providing information to my student and overloading that person, between giving everything to that individual on a silver platter and challenging them with puzzling out the answers on their own. It is a dicey proposition, most times. And sometimes I find myself saying, "Because I want you to do it this way for right now." Sometimes I say that because, like a tired parent, I've had all the "Whys?" I can take for one day. But most times it's because I believe that, if they do it that way - like I did, and my teacher before me did - the reason will make itself clear, and having found that answer themselves, they will cherish it all the more.
When I come across someone who is doing things "just because," it is not my responsibility to take that person to task for what appears to me to be a lack of understanding and motivation. That person is not required to justify to me why they do anything the way they do, and if they do it "just because," that is a perfectly valid answer, regardless of my feelings to the contrary. I have no patience whatsoever for dilettantes, dabblers, posers and "fluffy bunnies" - and I do realize that some of these hide behind the screen of rote and tradition - but I must find patience for those who come to our religion not as a subject for scholarly dissection, but simply as a source of spiritual fulfillment. For those who are lost, wounded, saddened and yearning, the why is not so important - what is important is belonging. If putting Air in the East - no questions asked - promotes that belonging, isn't that enough? Is it, in the long run, really that important? Isn't the important thing that we follow our Goddesses and Gods, wherever They may lead?
When the Goddess calls - I mean really calls - do you ask Her why?
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