Recently a friend of mine wrote two very insightful blogs 'The Line in the Dirt' and 'Deepening the Line'. Both deal with looking at the way the pagan community, in general, approaches magical and ritual practice, the laziness that's rampant among practitioners, and the idea of what happens beyond basics.
I've been thinking a lot since I read them, both because she raises some good questions and because she makes good points. Although we don't often like to admit it many people don't keep up with the basic practices that they learn early on. The things that may be seen as boring or routine tend to slowly erode from daily and then weekly practice until we have long time practitioners who don't know how to do very basic things, not from ignorance but from lack of practice. Like any other skill to be good at witchcraft and ritual requires effort and practice, not once in a while or when a situation calls for it but constantly. You can't be good at anything if you aren't doing it on a regular basis.
The blogs also raised some excellent points about trusting our gut, both to seek genuine experiences and to know when someone is on the level. I think this is something that needs to be emphasized a lot more in the community. Too often we don't trust our gut but let politeness, expectation, or other people's opinions guide us, when it should be our own internal compass that we follow. If something magical or in ritual doesn't feel right, don't do it. If a person is supposed to be a great ritual leader or teacher but what they are doing or saying just doesn't gel with you then don't pretend it does (although you can be nice about it). I don't personally care how well known, well liked, or well respected a teacher is - if what they are saying rings false with me then I trust that feeling. If you are in ritual and you just aren't feeling or experiencing anything numinous then trust your gut about what you are feeling, rather than trying to force an experience you aren't actually having. I have stopped a ritual midway when I felt like absolutely nothing was happening, and I have changed the entire ritual plan during a ritual when the actual energy proved to be much more mellow than anticipated. Trust your gut people. I'll also add that when dealing with spirits and Otherworldly beings your gut is often a lot smarter than your head.
The biggest issue that caught my attention in the blogs though wasn't something explicit but something underlying a lot of the wider points being made. Why do our leaders and teachers let us down? Why are we dissapointed when the people we idolize can't actually do the things they claim they can? Why do we let the basics slip so easily? And I think in the end it comes down to one simple thing that I see as a very widespread occurrence throughout the pagan and witchcraft communities - people want everything handed to them in neat little lesson plans and easy to follow books. And that's fine to a point because we all start somewhere and in the beginning especially those lesson plans and books are our stepping stones and guide posts. We need them to find our way. We need teachers who can show us what to do and how to do it. But the problem is that a time comes when the training wheels have to come off, whatever religion or magical practice you follow, and you have to start doing for your self. The nicely maintained road ends and only the trackless woods remain, and its up to you, by yourself, to forge on anyway. And many people don't like getting sweaty and dirty. They don't like the lack of certainty, the dark unknown, the unanswerable 'what now?' that looms ahead of them. People want a life that is neatly ordered and organized, and especially in witchcraft, at least my witchcraft, there is none of that. I can teach you the rules of safety but I can't promise you'll be safe - in fact I can almost guarantee if you are actually out there doing then you will stumble and fall and get hurt sometimes. I can describe the experiences, but I can't experience it for you, anymore than telling you what dirt under my fingernails feels likes can really make you understand the sensation of it. You have to get out there and get dirty, dig your fingers into the earth, make your own trail, your own experiences. No one else can do that for you.
So go out, my friends, and get your hands dirty. Walk into those woods, where the trail ends, and make your own way. It won't always be easy and it won't always be fun - although you may be surprised how often it is - but it will be worth it.