Archive for the ‘spiritual discipline’ Tag

Crisis, and What Next   1 comment

Or we could call this “(Spi)ritual First Aid”.

John Beckett’s excellent recent post “When you have to be a spiritual emergency room” is a good reference for the angle I’d like to take in this post. My focus will be on the self, rather than helping another. Experience your own crises and refine your strategies more than a few times, and the opportunity will come to serve others in need.

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Yesterday at an open discussion on dreams I had an insightful conversation with a person who was walking his path as consciously as he could. At one point, he said he knew what gave him nightmares, but he wasn’t going to forgo hot wings every once in a while, just because of the fallout they caused. They tasted too damn good.

This is being the knowing effect of a cause, a step along the path of spiritual discipline. It’s using consciousness to help shape what we experience.

But I’m not talking about that here, about such a reasoned weighing of pros and cons before choosing, but about those moments of full-on spiritual (and sometimes physical) ambush — moments we know too well. The world is no longer a friendly place.

Experience a form of combustion, shock, blowback, fallout, karma, inner explosion, cause and effect, consequences, results, crisis — and hearing someone tell you that “you create your own universe” just doesn’t help ease the suffering. True, down the road, once you’ve pulled yourself back together, tracking down possible contributing causes can be a wise course of action, one that can lead to averting, or processing, or seeking more wisely — the same experience in the future. But in urgent situations, we need a compassionate — and effective — first response.

Obviously, deal with any immediate emergency conditions. First aid, or even a visit to an urgent care center or emergency room, may go far to restoring a sense of safety and self-care. Treat the burn, stop the bleeding: deal with intoxication or drug use or poisoning of any kind. A panic attack may have physical causes among others. Get away from whatever is toxic — smoke from the fire, the bottle of mead, the bong or cigarette, the hypnotic drumbeat, other people, the ritual circle, the spiritual practice, or the room you’ve been in too long. If necessary, remove any books, pictures, clothing, or other objects associated with the crisis — or remove yourself from the space, if that’s easier.

As a next step, yes, listening’s enormous in its power to ease many kinds of suffering, though sometimes it may simply not be available — no one I’m in contact with understands, no one gets me. (True, this can be mere destructive egotism — “I’m special. Nobody knows me or my inner world. I can’t be helped”.) But if I have a partner or friend or community, a priestly counselor I trust, then I’m blessed, and partway home. Giving shape to my experience in words helps me see into the situation more clearly, and know it for what it is or might be. Getting it down on paper does the same thing, and sometimes more solidly. The Wise in Ancient Egypt knew that if you can name it, you can begin to tame it — or at least not inflame it further.

As John notes, ground and center. Repeat as needed. This can be a matter of a practice I already do regularly, or something I haven’t yet incorporated into my routine.

One common version: Sit upright, or — better — stand. Stretch, feeling the muscles and tendons of your body. Take three slow deep breaths. Feel the body rooted in the earth, the legs going down like tree roots. Release what holds you back. Know the blood flowing in your veins is an echo of the ocean’s tide, the same salt sea. Feel the air around your skin as you breathe in and out, whether there is a breeze or all is still. With the blessings of earth, sea and sky, you are here and now.

Address other physical symptoms. A bath or shower can help wash away emotional extremes, as well as calm the body, slow the heart, ease tensions, etc. We all know this, but often remember it least at crisis points when we need it most. Accompany the bath or shower with visualizations and meditations, prayers, and any other physical aids like incense, bath oils and salts, etc. Music can also soothe, just as it can raise adrenaline and blood pressure: choose what soothes. Sometimes silence is perfect. Other times, there has to be something playing in the background to help calm the inner and outer turmoil, if silence itself is unnerving.

Watch diet. Carnivores can often benefit from eating a meat meal, which effectively closes down the psychic centers because it demands significant energy to digest. If I dig into a steak, I can feel the doors close and the body center. (Fasting has the opposite effect and is pursued for comparable reasons — conserving and then redirecting energy normally used for digestion to other purposes.) Other non-flesh proteins can have a similar though less immediate effect.

Choose surroundings. The familiar may be immensely comforting — a place, a particular room. Or a change may be indicated. Be outdoors if possible, if this feels good, rather than too much. Lying on the earth can help restore a feeling of security and groundedness. Make sure any people and animals nearby are a comfort, not a source of anxiety.

By itself, focusing on slow, steady breathing can induce calm, charge the body with oxygen, and release tension. Its regularity is meditative, and counting the breaths to ten and then starting again can become a basic practice.

John Beckett mentions shielding exercises, good ones. Here are some techniques I also use.

Visualizations to dump negative thoughts or unwanted experiences can help. One of my favorites is the snowball technique: visualize what you want to drop as something you pack into a tight snowball. When you’ve clumped it thick, throw it into a river, which washes it away and dissolves it.

Another similar visualization: sweep your outer and inner spaces with a broom of light. Collect the sweepings and cast them away — again, into the river, or a hole in the earth you fill, or a dump truck/lorry, or somewhere/something else that takes them away and disposes of them. Some find visualizing a friendly monster with an enormous mouth which consumes them and then obligingly runs away with them can help. Others like to imagine a whole team working to do the same thing — friends, or an army of helpers, cleaning the space. Go with what works — use the inner creativity we all possess.

A third technique — the Three Doors. Visualize — or if visualization doesn’t come easily — feel your way toward — a cave or tunnel entrance into an enormous mountain. Once inside, close the first heavy door behind you. You hear it boom and resound as it shuts, the locks banging home. Do this two more times as you pass down the corridor or tunnel — three doors altogether. At last you are within a chamber of light, with the three immense doors protecting you from all harm.

Other living beings like pets can serve as a comfort — we’re seeing the growth of using companion animals for relieving stress and reducing anxiety. A purring cat in the lap, or a dog enjoying a mellow time of dozing or looking adoringly at you, go far to restoring balance and centering.

Physical objects — rosaries, statues, prayer beads, talismans, rings, stones, etc. — can also help. Specially-crafted items, like talismans, can bring more specific kinds of ease and provide a sense of protection. We’ve seen the popular spread of fidget spinners to help deal with restlessness, anxiety, stress and ADHD.

Physical activity can also help — sometimes the nerve centers, chakras, etc., are already too fired up and any focus on them only exacerbates the situation. Physical movement — walking, swimming, physical training equipment — can provide a focus and an easing of inner imbalance.

Just as there are many spiritual techniques for every other kind of experience in the world, so spiritual first aid can accompany solely physical responses to crisis periods.

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Image: free public domain images at Pexels. com

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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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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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