Archive for the ‘spiritual discipline’ Category

Druidry 201, and Spiritual Dryness   Leave a comment

So you’ve made your way as a solitary practitioner, to the point where you know your land, the compass directions you salute, the spirits you greet and work with, the seasons, sun and moon, and the local weather-signs that signal storm or heat or simply change. You may well hold to an idiosyncratic practice that nevertheless works for you, drawn from dream, instinct, wide reading, the place you find yourself, discoveries that have proven to work, chance, ancestral memory, trial and error, divination, or direct instruction from a tree, guide, spirit, the land, another person.

If none of the foregoing sounds like you or your path — if you’re not a Druid, but Druid-friendly, or Druid-curious — nevertheless you can describe your path (and might benefit from putting such an overview into words, if only for yourself, as a record, a milestone, a signpost, a witness).

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Spring, says Kipling in The Jungle Book … “the time of New Talk”

Or you’ve joined an order or grove or ritual group, you meet intermittently or regularly, you’ve settled on a basic ritual format that you spin variations on, you have your favorite festivals and ritual locations, and after a time you may start leading or writing your group’s rituals, or holding informal talks, or teaching divination, healing, permaculture, magic, and so on.

In either case, how many things can a Druid study or practice? Yes, you get the idea: the reach of it all widens far beyond the circle of the horizon.

In other words, you’re no longer a beginner at this stuff. You’re at least a “201-er” (following the numbering of university courses in many places, with 100-level classes signalling no prior knowledge or prerequisite coursework, and 200-level and above indicating intermediate and more advanced levels). You may not (ever) feel ready to write a book on what you know (though you could do so, nonetheless). You may never be approached by students eager to learn what you’ve painstakingly put together on your own (though that could happen, too). But you know enough, have learned enough, that when you act (or refrain from acting), things ripple from that choice, and you know it.

What’s next? Or what work lies ahead? And how do you figure that out?

The challenge of naming such next steps partly explains why there are so few non-beginner books and guides.

If you’ve stayed with any path long enough, and kept growing, you’ve learned how to begin taking those next steps, or — if they haven’t yet come into view — at least how to look and listen for them. You’ve also probably experienced “spiritual dryness” as well, those periods of inner drought where nothing’s kicking, and you just go through the motions like a wind-up toy. Patience is our greatest discipline and practice, says more than one spiritual teaching. Like trees and mountains, sometimes we need to weather for a while. And that can be the hardest work we do.

From the outside, even to close friends or family, it may look like we’re doing precisely nothing, when in fact we’re holding on and letting go all at once, questing for doors, gates, guides, signs, hints and clues, treading water, running in place, flexing all our limbs to stay as supple as possible, or — sometimes — dissolving into a complete funk and thinking we may just chuck it all. Heave a lifetime into the garbage bin and start fresh. Or abandon the whole project of having a project in the first place. Go fishing. Get and stay drunk, maybe for a few years. Have a midlife (or late-life) crisis. You’d run away, if it didn’t take so much energy. (Find a quiet corner and huddle there for a while, muttering to yourself. Yes, you’ve become one of those people now.)

201 is a point, or interval, where diverse spiritual traditions find considerable overlap, and the insights from one tradition can aid people in another. The most dogmatic and inflexible practitioners of any tradition usually haven’t wandered away from the home fires of their own hearths to the edges of the Forest, or into it. (You know what the capital letter stands for.) Or if they have, what they experienced there so terrified them that they fled and returned, hearts thumping wildly in their chests, determined to erect barriers, rules, ideologies, locks, guardians, gatekeepers to prevent others from enduring the same.

201 takes us into myth, archetype, confronting the self. 201, to borrow from Tolkien for a minute, drops us between the worlds of Man and Elf:

The real theme for me [in my fiction] is about something much more permanent and difficult; Death and Immortality: the mystery of the  love of the world in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ to leave and seemingly lose it [Men]; the anguish in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ not to leave it [the Elves]. — Letters, no. 86.

To paraphrase and summarize a conversation between Elf and Man I can’t locate right now (probably from the Silmarillion, or from Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, the Discussion between the Elven King Finrod and the Mortal woman Andreth), “Which of us should therefore envy the other?”

Meanwhile, the Renewers of the cosmos, whoever they are, send us challenges to sweep us beyond such dichotomies. What does Life or Death have to do with the Song of Awen endlessly pouring forth through everything? To one stifling in spiritual dryness, the endless streaming of Awen all around can form part of the suffering that may accompany us during such periods. “Why is so much happening and flowing and flourishing all around me, while I sit here, a husk, waiting, endlessly, for something — anything?”

But write such things in a 201 book, and most readers would burn the damn thing, if they read it at all. Sometimes it can seem our patience and persistence have merely enlarged our capacity for suffering. And that’s really not what you want to share with anyone who casually inquires “So how’s it goin’?”!

Ubi sapientia invenitur? goes the old query. Where can wisdom be found?

If you know Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” (and if you don’t, go read it right now — it’s very short, a matter of just a few minutes rather than an hour — so that the very next few phrases and sentences aren’t spoilers for you), you know that the main character, with a weakened heart, faces freedom and dies.

We’re called to live, instead.

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New growth at the tips will be the most tender and sensitive, counsels the Green World.

Often the best cure is service. Not unwilling drudgery. But something worth doing. Find some way to give back, to unblock the flow of awen, of deep spirit, that has steadily been growing, pooling and accumulating, and now is a torment, because we can no longer give enough of it away, fast enough. (The cauldron is full to bursting. The weight of water in the reservoir builds and builds. Give more away, for the love of the sweet green earth!)

Instead of following a scripted plan for service (unless that appeals to you), ask for how you can serve. (Our talents can be used in ways we enjoy.) Then trust what comes, even as you test it step by step.

That, I’m still learning, turns out to be one of the bargains the universe, or the Gods, like best.

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Toggling Our Spirituality   Leave a comment

One of the often ironic tests of a spiritual path is that it doesn’t comfortably “turn off” just because we may want it to. Many have “left” Christianity or another religion, only to find it still tugs at them, especially at vulnerable moments when our hearts stand unguarded, or broken open by events most of us face in simply living. A death, a love lost, a talent explored and trampled, a friendship severed, a dream deferred too long. The heart’s desire. J. K. Rowlings’ Mirror of Erised — desire, reflected back to us.

This is high on most lists of inconvenient human truths: a god or gods don’t release me from commitments I’ve made, just because I tire of them; the discipline I began that over time has shaped my awareness, habits, and life choices isn’t something I can smoothly abandon at whim, or even in the face of deep and ongoing challenges; the realm “outside the box” that I poured time and energy into doesn’t vanish just because bugs and snakes start to creep in from across the border.

If a path “has heart” (to use words from that curious 60’s classic series, which author Carlos Castaneda gave to his Yaqui teacher Don Juan), that heart beats with or without me, and asserts its own claims regardless of my feelings about the matter. (Of course, if the path doesn’t have heart, I’m riding a long con, and have an equivalent set of painful lessons to learn.)

And yet. To look deeply and honestly into this matter, I need to set these next words of Castaneda side by side with what I’ve said above:

Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition. I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary.

For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length — and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly (The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge).

And in the best style of answering one quotation with another, here is Gildor Inglorion counseling Frodo in the The Fellowship of the Ring. To set the scene for those not versed in the “secular scripture” that is Tolkien, Frodo is leaving the Shire with Sam, and has encountered dark intimations of the path he has set himself to walk:

Gildor was silent for a moment. ‘I do not like this news,’ he said at last. ‘That Gandalf should be late, does not bode well. But it is said: Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger. The choice is yours: to go or wait.’

‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo: ‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’

‘Is it indeed?’ laughed Gildor. ‘Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; and how then shall I choose better than you? But if you demand advice, I will for friendship’s sake give it.’

Well, what did I expect? A one-sided and definitive answer will never spur me to use my own understanding, or kick me out of the spiritual immaturity where I’ve been lounging, waiting for someone else to make my big decisions. Even if another “knows all concerning myself”, how then can that person choose better than I can? Don’t most of my troubles issue from allowing another to do just that? I’m not talking about childhood, but about assuming the mantle of adulthood which modern society conspires to discourage us from ever doing, if we can avoid it with the pretty toys it serves up to distract us.

Instead, wise counsel generally arrives in harmony with what we already know in our marrow, and may be resisting — it confirms what we suspected all along. “To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life”, Don Juan notes. When I yearn deeply enough for what is my birthright, a way opens. Often that’s our first taste of a kind of discipline not much talked-about: the kind we earn by living, and suffering when necessary to clear the crap away. Clarity has arrived, usually at some cost. Nothing, finally, can keep it from me. “When the student is ready, the master appears”, goes the ancient proverb. That master may be partner, friend, the stray who takes up residence and opens my heart, the neighbor whose children cross into my yard, fall from my fruit trees, and teach me compassion for others. It may be a stubborn refusal to give up, give in, give out. Whatever guise you take, Mystery, may I know and welcome you again.

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Doing the Work   Leave a comment

I don’t talk directly about the other path I follow, and that’s principally for my own benefit, so I can keep clear about where I am and what I’m doing at the moment. Obviously I can’t keep them separate, and there’s no reason to try. They feed each other constantly anyway, and often unexpectedly, too. Like when a teacher from the other path shows up as a Druid guide in a dream or meditation. Or an exercise originating in OBOD does nothing Druidy, but opens a door I thought was locked tight, or didn’t realize was a door in the first place, and shows me a new landscape I couldn’t even have imagined in my understanding of the other path. And that’s the short version of why I keep practicing both. Do the work, say both paths.

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Louisiana Live Oak near Gulf Coast Gathering, 1200+ years old

One of the practices of the other path, nothing particularly unique or esoteric in itself, is writing a monthly letter to one’s teacher surveying the past 30 days, noting discoveries and setbacks, places for focus, requests for help, dreams, encounters, insights from reading and study, and so on. It doesn’t have to get (e)mailed (though that can be its own practice), because the value is in the doing. No surprise, we receive in direct measure as we give.

I talk often here about the value of a daily practice, whatever form it may take. Certainly weekly and monthly cycles grow and build on that daily rhythm, whatever it is. (Start small, and with what feels appropriate.) Lapse in my daily discipline, and I see the larger cycles become more challenging. They have to pick up my slack. The weekly fast, physical or mental, that can be so cleansing, simply has more to clear away, and that can make it harder to move through. If it’s physical, food calls with an imperative clamor you would not believe unless you’ve tried it. If mental, every weakness seems to arrive and bid for attention. Or they take turns. And sitting to begin that monthly letter, which you might think would welcome such experiences as ready-made material to incorporate, instead throws up formidable writer’s block. I am called to do the work. Otherwise I sit still, and stagnate. No fun there.

Along with the letter, of immense value is working with a personal word or mantra. Many know and use traditional words and phrases — OM, amen, nam myoho renge kyo, allah hu akbar, and so on. And these practices prove their own worth, in groups and alone. But the personal word is a spiritual key, and it can unlock many doors, simply because it is tuned to my present consciousness. It echoes where I am today. And that means that if my current word wears down, as they do over time, asking for a new one is part of the practice.

Watching and listening for the new word is an exercise in itself. Sometimes it will present itself in contemplation, as if dropped in place like a stone in a pond. It may be an existing English word, or a non-English syllable or two or three. I try it out, the vibration engages, and I’m off. Testing it is an important part of using it. If I feel a habit loosen, a mood lift, an energy or pulse that shifts things usefully, I know it’s working. Other times, it appears in a newspaper headline, or on a billboard, or in casual conversation. A small inward chime goes off, and I recognize it. Or it comes calling multiple times, till I catch on and at last wake up to its persistent knocking.

These are just two of what we might call foundational practices, the kinds of things that can sustain a spiritual life, that less commonly examined flooring for ritual and ceremony, the underpinnings of magic for whatever is the next in the round of seasonal festivals, in this case Yule or the Alban Arthan rite at winter solstice, now less than a month away. Take on a daily practice and it usually will come to consist of a set of such foundations and supports, mini-rites or prayers or practices, recitations or visualizations, exercises or devotions that may range from lighting incense to offerings made to the four directions, to presenting oneself as a ready servant to a patron god or goddess, to community service, volunteer work, and so on.

A living practice evolves and shifts over time. This is a good thing. For some years because of my cancer, I couldn’t prudently practice a physical fast, so the mental one taught me something of what it has to teach. And teaching adolescents in a boarding school, while it was a job, also allowed me chances to serve, to listen, rather than fill other heads with my chatter all the time.

Doing the work each of us is called to do readies us for working together. (Is it any wonder we face such division and partisanship in the U.S. these days? How many of us if we’re filled with anger and distrust and fear are doing the work?) A wise OBOD Druid recently remarked, “When we commune together in song and revelry, we become friends. When we rise together in ritual, we become allies. When we take time and heart to initiate members into the order together, we become family”. Slowly I’m seeing more and more how friends, allies, family all depend on each of us doing the work.

I’m getting closer, though, to a place where fewer boundaries exist between my two paths.  It used to be that tempera paint, egg-based, stayed separate from oil painting, till someone with sufficient mastery thought to combine them. I can see such a point in what one might call the future, though if I can see it at all, the future in some sense has already arrived. I just have to catch up to what is inwardly waiting. Isn’t that the story of our lives, the ongoing possibility of manifesting what already dances across the River, on the other side of the moonlight?

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Thirty Days of Druidry 18: Order of the Black Awen   Leave a comment

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“Now, my daughters and sons,” said the old woman, “because all things in this world dance with their opposites, and the Bright is the left hand of the Dark, it is meet that I, who am old and may not live to see the end of the next winter, should be the one who tells you of the Order of the Black Awen, Urdd Awen Ddu.”

She paused, and seeing her shiver I drew the blanket more closely around her. There was just a handful of us still gathered round the fire. Her words might have seemed overblown or contrived at any other time. But the fire and the evening and the mead had each done their work. We were ready to hear almost anything. The dew had descended a couple of hours ago, but the night chill only now was lapping at our skin. Dragon built up the fire again, and raked the coals together so the new logs would kindle sooner. The old woman smiled at us and continued.

“I give the Order its Welsh name, too, because it offers a valuable lesson. Taken apart from its meaning, the sound of it is lovely: oorth ah-wen thoo.* And so too its birth. All things carry in their breasts a spark of the Imperishable Flame at the heart of the world, the breath of the Formless. Anciently the Wise of the East knew this, and the Sage of the Way wrote in his book, ‘From the One comes Two; from the Two, Three; and from the Three the Ten Thousand Things.’ Without that balance, chaos follows. We might even welcome the appearance of the counterpart, the opposite, in a way, without doubting it will cost us dearly when we face it, as we eventually must. But it is the third of the Three that issue from the One which we will turn to for our way forward.”

She spoke now quite deliberately, not expecting questions as she had earlier, when a lot of good-natured banter enlivened the fire circle, and anyone who held forth and pontificated, never mind the subject, soon had to give it up and relearn if necessary the arts of true conversation, of actual give and take, rather than expecting a reverent silence from the rest of us. That earlier hour also saw the old woman depart for a nap after a brief appearance, so that she would be fresh for later. Which was now. And now we wanted her to hold forth, because she had something of considerable value to share with us, and because what she said was new to us. The singing and drinking carried us here, where we needed to listen. Night had shaped this place and space. So we were quite content mostly to listen and ponder her words.

Questions, however, bothered her not at all, and she sat at her ease when we occasionally asked them. Earlier she asked a good few of her own, though her hearing sometimes played tricks on her. Someone inquired where she had first encountered this Order, and this led to a sad but funny story that must keep for another time. Though she must have been in her late nineties and stooped, and the age-spotted skin of her hands slid loosely over her bones, her thought darted swift and sure, and her gaze out of eyes filmy with cataracts was nonetheless keen.

“Now this Order, dedicated as it is to things we must oppose who cherish the balance, comes into existence because we exist. Each thing calls forth its companion, its counterpart, and Dark is ever the companion and counterpart of Bright. It is a peculiar and perilous folly of these days to suppose we can all ‘just get along.’ We cannot. The world simmers always, and sometimes, as it must, it spills over into open conflict. When a Dark Order forms, the action of the Light has made some advance, yes, but it also stands in peril for that reason. The cause of the Light (or the Dark, for all that) is no mere cliche or child’s fantasy, and such a challenge from the Dark, one that claims and divides the awen, is one that we must answer.”

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*the th of this respelling of the sound dd in Welsh urdd and ddu is voiced, as in English this, them, not as in thick, thin.

Thirty Days of Druidry 16: Gods in the Mist   1 comment

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Lorna comments on Day 11:

As someone who has been pretty lost traveling off the map and will be lost again, I feel it’s a personal obligation to leave signposts, even if they’re only helpful to a small few people.

As an outsider to the major druid orders I do get a wee bit angry by those in the know only sharing to those who are paid up or part of a clique when perhaps their words could have helped us lost ones.

But perhaps if I’d had their guidance I wouldn’t have found my god in the mist…

As often happens, I’m indebted to a reader for an idea, and sometimes — like this time — a title, too. Thanks, Lorna.

I must say at the outset that I don’t know Lorna’s experience. And, partly, our ignorance of others’ experiences is what this post starts to address. I’m merely thinking with the words and impressions her comment gives me.

The courage to travel off what maps there are comes hard-won. Sometimes we may get dropped there seemingly by chance. Other times we manage to end up there all by our ourselves, out of sheer defiance of the boundary-keepers, or at the bidding of a deity, or through a kind of blessed carelessness that makes us miss the signs that might have saved us a wrong turn off the trail and the adventure before us. The familiar falls away, and like those medieval maps casually warn, the terrain (physical is spiritual, and vice versa) fairly shouts that “here be dragons.” No one returns unchanged, though it can cost a deal of trouble to convey to another person a glimpse of what happened or what the change consists of. We may not yet know ourselves.

Lorna notes she takes it as a personal obligation to leave signposts. Her sense that she’ll be “lost again” may have something to do with it. In a truly trackless realm, one starts to understand how even a little guidance can hearten a traveler more than stumbling on a cache of food, or a chance companion welcoming you to sit by a cheery fire. No, it’s not madness or a curse or some private doom that closes in on you, its breath on your skin, its claws at your neck, though it can feel like it. But traveling where no other has set foot can teach and toughen you, though it may never allow you to take your ease on such journeys.

I wonder, too, whether someone who’s walked off the path more than once has all that much to learn from “those in the know only sharing to those who are paid up or part of a clique when perhaps their words could have helped us lost ones.” Is that sharing over-rated? Does it amount to more than what we ourselves gain by going our own way? We return with the authority of our own experiences, along with perhaps a few more cuts and gashes and scars to show for our boldness. The greater wisdom may well lie with the sojourner in the wilderness, rather than with the elder at the evening circle, the author of a classic holding forth at a reading, the Chief Druid disclosing supposedly advanced teachings in a members-only workshop. Can the most valuable teachings be shared in words?

I suspect each of us encounters such tracklessness in our own ways, and some of the most welcome aid we can offer is the simple encouragement of knowing we’re not alone in being alone. Compassionate travelers signpost as they can. But I’ll quickly concede I may never have been as lost and found as others who journey there, survive and return to recount their hardships and discoveries. In the end, perhaps we can’t know such things secondhand, only experience them firsthand. Or to speak personally, perhaps I forfeit knowing as long as I keep to the well-lit trail, the easier ascent, the way clear-cut and signposted by hardy forerunners. But for just such a reason, I can strive to honor all fellow travelers. Then, when I do turn aside from the way where the grass lies flattened from many feet passing, when I enter the cave alone, swim the cold swift river, find foot- and hand-holds on the sheer face of the mountain, I may meet without intermediary what calls to me most deeply. Initiation tracks us when we think we’re tracking something else.

As Lorna concludes, “perhaps if I’d had their guidance I wouldn’t have found my god in the mist.”

Earth Work: Illness, Fasting, and Samhain   3 comments

[Edited 20 June 2018]

Ah, Samhain, you’re here again. This solemn time to honor our dead and acknowledge the things that have passed from our lives. This joyous time to celebrate the harvest and the warmth of friends and loved ones to carry us through the dark half of the year. This reminder of the balance inherent in all transient things. Our work, if we choose, with the earth.

Halloween-time, to carve a pumpkin, set out the candy for the trick-or-treaters, remember to put the car in the garage the previous evening so next morning the windows aren’t all frosted over. Time for mulled cider, fallen leaves, bonfires, the possible gift of a few more mild, bright days before the snow comes. As a friend remarked yesterday, Halloween is the true start of our winter, here in the Northeastern U.S. where I live. The earth doing its thing. Earth-work.

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Ushtogaysky Square, Kazakhstan — immense millennia-old earthworks make headlines …

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NASA photo at the New York Times link above

X marks the spot of a different kind of earth-work. (We’re always at the center.) I jump from this macrocosmic image to the microcosm of my personal work on earth. After you’ve finished groaning, come with me, to see whether whatever I can mine from it has any value for you, for this blog. Here goes …

Over the past several days a virus has been racking my joints and muscles and leaving me achy, feverish, weak. In other words, no gift to take along with me to an early Samhain celebration an OBOD friend was hosting last night. He lives “across the water” in New Hampshire, and the dozen or so folks he expected to join him included out-of-towners bringing kids and planning to sleep over. (The Samhain ritual took place later in the evening, after a typical Halloween party for the younger set).

forty-day-word-fastSo I stayed home instead, built up the fire, hydrated myself with tea and soups, and slept. Sometimes what we leave behind gets pried from us through mild (or great) suffering. Sometimes, of course, we can leave it more willingly. And we can try to make something of it, if there’s anything left of us in the moment, and turn to old spiritual technologies like fasting that may have slipped out of fashion but have never lost their worth.

We already fast when we refuse to accept the memes of fear and despair and business-as-usual of too much modern life. We purge. We deny some negative shard a foothold, most effectively by replacing it with a positive alternative. If you’re interested in anything, why not start where it’s actually already a part of your life? In my life, if I look around, this seems to be true of many more things than I’d ever believed possible. How many access-points and footholds and innate spiritual “flux-capacitors” (courtesy of the Back to the Future wiki) we have for almost anything we can imagine. Transform, transform, whispers the cosmos.

muslim-fastMany people think fasting belongs to Christianity. No meat — fish is fine! — on Fridays. Look Medieval, and maybe skeletal monks and nuns come to mind. Ascetics whipping themselves with a cat of nine tails.

There’s the Yom Kippur fast. Or, if you have a Muslim co-worker or friend, you’ve possibly heard them talk about keeping the fast for the month of Ramadan. Not to pick on Muslims, as the ubiquitous Gene Wilder memes like the one to the left would wrongly imply: anyone can be obnoxious and obvious about such practices, which is one reason they go through cycles and fall out of favor for a while. Mirror, mirror on the wall.

For about a decade I fasted once a week. This was a significant practice of the other spiritual path I follow. Like many disciplines, fasting’s less daunting after you actually do it a few times. You learn how your body reacts, how to ease into it the day before, how to come off a fast, what food and drink work best for your own particular circumstances and body chemistry and goal. Partial fast, water or juice fast, complete fast. (Ooh, you’re hardcore.)

Headaches from dehydration? Sure. Greater susceptibility to cold, since you’re not stoking the furnace several times during the day? Yep. Bad breath? Perfectly possible. Absolute joy at breaking a fast — how delicious almost any decent (or indecent) food tastes, how much the fast may have subtly reset some of your programming, how your dream recall can be improved, how an old habit may loosen its hold, how you have more faith in and less fear of your own body? Check, check, check.

come-at-meA fast can be difficult, sure. But not, I usually found, because of hunger. That comes and goes, and it’s often the least challenging aspect of fasting. No, to many others besides just me, one of the truly interesting parts of a fast is what it may reveal about attitudes, attachments and mindsets that deserve a careful look. And it’s just the scrutiny they don’t usually get in the scramble to ingest the daily three squares, plus the obligatory snacking an overfed Westerner like me makes sure to practice as faithfully as any religious devotee. Food Yoga, anyone? Follow the Calorie Sutra? Junk-food Gita? The venerable Maha-salsa-and-chips? Down with that.

A physical fast also begins to open up unforeseen and potential valuable energies for other things than preparing, consuming and digesting food. Plenty of books and other resources address those advantages.

And for clarity and vision-questing around Samhain, a fast can offer one more valuable tool to those who want to look beyond the usual boundaries and curtains over our awareness.

As I’ve aged, and as accumulated physical issues make a food-fast a cause of more problems than benefits, I’ve turned more to mental fasts. (This could be one alternative to people struggling with food issues like bulimia and anorexia.) In addition to its purpose as a ritual offering, a devotion which deserves its own post, keeping the attention on a chosen object, image, mantra, deity, etc., for a twenty-four hour period drops all kinds of issues front and center stage. Lacking things to work on? Feeling like I fully qualify for Ancient Honorable Thrice-Sanctified Adeptus XI? Nothing quite like a fast to reveal my crap-of-the-day and put me in my place.

So I take inventory every hour and return, return, return the attention to its focus. Technology helps. (Got the latest fast-app?! A simple e-timer can help a lot. Try a “tasteful chime,” as one friend calls it.)

How good is my concentration? Is my chosen focus for the day even worthwhile? What is devotion, anyhow? What distracts me the most? What claims to be more important, or insists it’s a valid priority? How do I respond to others who ask why I may seem a little absent-minded or distracted today? Do I listen carefully enough to perceive who really wants to know, and who — if I tell them — may mock what they don’t understand? How much of this particular fast is just an exercise of ego or will-power, and how much is meaningful devotion?

OK, you get the idea. Illness can provide a natural push toward a mental fast. You can’t jump into your normal routine, you may find yourself in bed, and rather than relying on cable, Netflix, Hulu, net-surfing or some other drug of choice to fill every single minute you’re not moaning for sympathy, soaking in warm water to soothe your unhappy bone-house*, tossing and turning because you can’t sleep, or downing pills, extracts, roots, powders, potions or elixirs, why not use even a fraction of the time to experiment … on yourself? Best laboratory ever! No? Still not convinced?

I’m a sucker for squeezing every experience for what I can gain from it. (At least that’s what I tell myself. Some future fast will without a doubt show me where that’s no longer true, or never was.)

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to a holiday fest this evening with some friends and neighbors. Just the four of us.  A mostly veggie potluck meal, because that’s what’s come from our gardens. A short blessing (probably the one that opens my About page) in lieu of a longer ritual. And the fasting I did yesterday, imperfect, illness-prodded, leaves me grateful to today to be feeling better. No small thing.

Here for your delectation is a short Youtube clip from the 2014 Edinburgh Samhuinn Fire Festival:

Happy Samhain/Halloween to you all!

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Images: 40-day word fast; Gene Wilder fast-meme picCome at me, bro!;

*Old English bán-hús: body, chest; literally, “bone-house.”

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