An Earth-honoring religious path rooted in science

The Dusty Altar

Since I was a small child, I have suffered bouts of depression. Most of the time I muddle through but a few times it has been crippling: the kind where you spend months in bed, looking down at yourself and thinking, “JUST GET UP. JUST DO IT.” But you don’t. Because you can’t.

I’ve been in remission for a couple of years since my last big black hole, and I have a new medication combo that is working very well. I’m working, I’m up and about. By and large, I’m good, even though this past year has thrown more garbage my way than I care to discuss.

Recently, though, I can feel the Black Dog skulking around the edges of my emotions. Meds are keeping me upright, but I’m not finding a lot of joy lately. It worries me.

Particularly, what worries me is that the very first symptom I notice when things are starting to turn south is that my spiritual life dries up. I don’t notice the daily natural occurences that used to bring me happiness. I don’t take time for ritual observances. My Focus (altar) goes untended.

It’s paradoxical, because ritual would do me a lot of good. But when I start hearing the Authoritative Liar say, “what’s the use?”, more often than not—and like it or not—I listen.

For those of you who don’t suffer from depression/anxiety, btw: be grateful. It is a miserable, chronic condition and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

So what brings me to the keyboard today is to try to problem-solve this. How do you make yourself go through the motions of spiritual practice in order to re-prime the pump and get reconnected?

Any of my fellow sufferers have any ideas?

And for the rest of you: do you ever experience Dusty Altar Syndrome? What do YOU do to reengage your practice?


  1. Fellow depression and anxiety sufferer here. My more spiritual side gets very neglected at the drop of the hat. I don’t really have any answers but I will say I try to remember the things that make me happy so they don’t get completely forgotten when I’m able to get back to them.

  2. I certainly identify with what you’re describing, although these days my depression is nothing like what it was a few years ago. Still, one of the ways it manifests itself is a loss of interest in my more formal spiritual practice, including my Altar. Until a few weeks ago, it had sat unchanged for, I would guess, a couple of years, and every time I looked at it I would feel bad and guilty. “Some Pagan I am”, and all that.
    Two things have changed that. First, I decided to really look, non-judgementally, at what was important to me. Clearly, at this time, the “Holy, Sacred” stuff on my Altar wasn’t it. So, okay. What is? No fault. No harm. Just accept what is, and look at it.
    This led to the second thing, my realization that what I most love to do is sit in my back yard and just watch and listen to what’s going on back there. This gets harder, now that the nights come on sooner and darker, but it’s still possible, if I’m warmly dressed. I am in California, after all.
    What I love to do is sit on my back patio, maybe drink a beer, maybe listen to a baseball game on the radio, and just be. I watch the wind move the branches and the bees and humming birds work the flowers. I watch the small changes that happen in the yard, and I’ve gradually realized that what I’m doing is Being In Nature, and if that’s what really moves and involves me, maybe that’s my “spiritual practice”, at this stage of my life.
    So, I guess my point is, maybe at this stage of my life it’s not so necessary to have an Altar as a focus- or, at least, not as the most important one. That’s what’s working for me, right now.

    1. I try to make time to comune with nature as well. It can take me to better inner peace. Being filled with this peace pushes my stress and anxiety out. At least temperaily. I have been medicating for 10 years. Over the last four years I have been using nature’s way to get to a better place inside. It really works for me.

  3. I have never been diagnosed with depression, but I do have times where I move away from formal spirituality, and, as we all do, times of being “in a rut”.

    I would like to echo what johnbrown said, as it has been true for me as well. Lately, I have found myself connecting more sitting peacefully at some quiet spot than conducting a rite at my altar. That being said, small “formalities” are much easier to do if you don’t make them as big a “to do”. Sometimes I just make do with sitting quietly and meditating or actively being grateful (or whatever I think I need to reflect on).

    As for “forcing” yourself to do something regular…I have forced myself to do it, and its worked well, honestly. But it works best when it isn’t too elaborate, it happens at the same time (approximately), and everything I do is meaningful. Sometimes that means being open to the unorthodox. YMMV, though.

    Good luck in your journey. May you stay strong 😀

  4. “But when I start hearing the Authoritative Liar say, “what’s the use?”, more often than not—and like it or not—I listen.”

    Insights like this one are why I like your writing so much. You just “nail it”, every time. I’m sorry to read that you are feeling poorly right now, and I hope you just remember that you are valued. Just breathe, and over time the tides will shift. They always do.

    My salve when the capsaicin of the world is irritating my soul, is to play music.

    “But I don’t don’t know how to play any instruments!”

    Yes, you do: You have one right now, in your body, and you already know how to use it: Your voice.

    So sing!

  5. This is an older post but I am here to add my appreciation of it. I started my Atheopagan practice nearly a year ago, after about 10+ years of just run of the mill, non-ritualistic atheism. It really spoke to me, helped me find meaning and community in my day to day life, and helped fill the voids that leaving evangelical Christianity had left. But, as life does, after about six months it became less of a passion and more of a chore, then I felt guilty about not sticking with it, then I felt silly about feeling guilty and just stopped making myself think about it. Lately, though, I’ve had an increase in anxiety. I’m making a big, cross country move in the next two months to a state I’ve never lived in, leaving my job and family and friends. I realized I’m looking for something constant, something I can hold on to even as everything else changes. Once again my old rituals began to be appealing, but I felt silly just picking up where I left off. I felt guilty having to google, “What sabbath is next?” I felt bad about the time I spent away from them. Reading this, recognizing that ebbs and flow in spiritual practice are normal and that a break can just be a pause, not a failure, helps a lot. I did a “bedtime” ritual last night for the first time in over 6 months and it felt really good.

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