Living Pagan: How to Cultivate “God-Awareness”

Thanks to my recent reading of Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s memoirWhere the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey, I have been thinking back on my time in Japan. I stayed for only four months while I studied at Nanzan University in Nagoya. Regardless, it is a time I treasure dearly as one of the most profound turning points of my life to date, in part because it taught me about the huge cultural differences between the United States and other countries. Something I noticed while living in Japan is just how many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines dot the landscape, both rural and urban. Because the spread of Buddhism from China and Korea did not conflict with the indigenous, polytheistic religion of the native Japanese, both thrive in a harmonious coexistence today despite a long and tumultuous history. One can observe the blend of both religions in the way the Japanese instinctively participate in Buddhist and Shinto traditions — both in small, daily gestures and significant yearly celebrations, all the while claiming to not be a religious people. Christopher Kavanagh explores this concept further in his article, “Religion Without Belief.” It is a very different view of spirituality and our relationship with the divine world that most Western societies have trouble comprehending. I will come back to this idea later.

About a year ago, I found myself in my friend’s car on a chilly night, answering his questions about Paganism. He asked me how one connects with a deity, especially if one has only followed an Abrahamic faith (Christianity, Judaism, or Islam) for most of their life. At this point, I must confess that I pride myself in helping people new to Paganism begin their journeys with it. I keep track of all those whom I’ve helped, checking in with them periodically and doing my best to answer whatever new questions they have. And among the Pagan community, especially online, the standard answer to my friend’s question is this: Set aside a quiet space with an image of the deity you wish to contact (or something representing said deity), light a candle, make some appropriate offering, open your mouth, and talk.

Inevitably, the novice’s questions that come after are many: “What is an appropriate offering? What should I say? How will I know the god or goddess is listening? How long should I sit there? How do I end it? What do I do with the offerings afterward? What if nothing happens? What do I do then?” This is a rather stressful recommendation to people who have had no prior experience with divine-human relationships in the Pagan sense. It produces a lot of anxiety, and then the novice overthinks, coming out of the first contact experience feeling more or less like a fool. I’ve had to tell people outright that yes, they will feel stupid afterward, but they should not give up.

When I answered my friend’s question a year ago, I gave him the standard answer, but I told him something else, too. I told him to start looking for the gods in the small things around him, in the rain, in the sunrise and sunset, in the way the wind whispers. Only through everyday “god-awareness” will one truly begin thinking like a Pagan. It is extremely animistic, a concept that has all but died in the West — but thrives in Japan.

While reading Mockett’s memoir, which takes the reader on a journey to various Buddhist temples throughout Japan, I remembered my own visits to temples and shrines. The first Shinto shrine I visited with my study abroad program was dedicated to Inari Ōkami, a very popular god/goddess of rice, agriculture, and prosperity. (Inari Ōkami is depicted as alternately male and female — another thing Western society appears to have trouble comprehending.) Since my peers and I had never visited a Shinto shrine before, our guide gave us exact instructions on how to purify ourselves and how to approach the shrine. I dutifully purified myself from the well of cool, clean spring water using a long-handled metal ladle, then followed my peers up the steps toward the main shrine building. Our guide explained that the proper way for visitors to pray to a god at a shrine is to offer some money (¥5, the rough equivalent of 5¢, is enough), swing a long rope to ring a bell, clap your hands twice, make a silent prayer, then bow. I practiced this in front of Inari Ōkami, tossing a ¥5 coin into the offertory box, then rejoined the other students to the side of the central aisle.

Throughout my time in Japan, as I traveled through Nagoya and the other cities I visited, I repeated these simple actions at every Shinto shrine I encountered. It didn’t matter if it was large like Inari Ōkami’s or if it was a street corner shrine that had only an offertory box and a tiny statue of whichever god lived there; I would throw in ¥5, clap my hands, and bow. And then I’d go on my way. The Japanese do the same thing, but every day, instinctively and without second thought because they have grown up with it. They have seamlessly integrated their gods, their ancestors, the Buddha, and the bodhisattvas into their daily lives. Even I, an American, easily fell into the habit of praying at shrines as I encountered them.

Therein, I believe, lies the true answer to the novice Pagan’s question of connecting with deity. Making that connection means acknowledging the existence of the divine on an intimate, everyday level; it means becoming “god-aware.” To develop this awareness, here’s what I propose:

  • The novice builds a shrine not in a quiet space set aside for private conversation, but in a location they will pass by at least once per day. They might pass it more than once, but once is all that’s necessary. It could be in the main hallway of the house; it could be on the computer desk in their bedroom.
  • The shrine will have, at minimum, an image of the deity, a candle, and matches or a lighter. An electric candle is an acceptable substitute if a real candle isn’t feasible.
  • Once a day, every single day, when the novice passes the shrine, they must stop, light the candle, put their hands together, and contemplate the deity. They don’t have to pray, and they don’t have to put their hands together in prayer; they can hold their hands behind their back if they so wish. As long as the novice holds the god in their mind for a brief moment, that is sufficient. Then the novice can bow to the deity, extinguish the candle, and go on with the rest of their business.
    • If the novice passes the shrine a second, third, fourth, etc. time in one day, a simple bowed head of acknowledgement toward the image of the deity will do.

These are simple, easy actions to repeat daily. They do not require speaking, praying, complicated offerings, incense that takes 30+ minutes to burn out, or any other contraptions. A novice isn’t necessarily limited to only these actions, but the idea is that the gestures should not grossly interrupt the daily flow of life in any way. Instead, they should be seamlessly integrated over many repetitions. And the purpose of these repetitions is twofold: One, it forms a habit. Two, it leads to meditation.

Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not about emptying one’s mind of all thoughts. It is about mindfulness, which is a sort of hyperfocus. Instead of mindlessly ploughing through the day on our various errands, we stop to contemplate the divine, even just for a moment. We become mindful of the deity. He or She or They becomes more and more present in our thoughts. We start to notice the divine in other things around us. And so, meditation will open up the novice Pagan to connection — the true, deep, intimate connection they have been looking for. Later, when the Pagan feels ready, they can build up the shrine or make a separate, larger one in a private space where they can speak with the deity. They can offer food and drink, light incense, perform divination — everything and anything they wish. And perhaps, if the Pagan community taught people to start out in this way, our beginners would not feel as much like fools when reaching out to the gods for the first time.

Though I work toward a future where the Pagan religions are accepted by society in the same way that other religions are, I realize it will be a long time before Pagan temples and shrines dot the American landscape in the same way Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines do in Japan. It will be a long time before we have enough dedicated priests and priestesses to support a nation, before we can receive adequate funding or space. Until then, the layman Pagan can, at least, make the gods a part of their everyday lives. Until then, mentors like myself can encourage “god-awareness.” Animism, the notion that everything in the world has a divine spirit, existed in America for thousands of years until the colonists demonized it. Just because we are raised with that colonial mindset today does not mean we can’t unlearn it. We can, one day at a time.

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