Embodied Spirituality: The Sit Spot

The sit spot

An important part of embodiment is experiencing yourself as part of the world. As climate activists have said, “we are not defending nature – we are nature defending itself“.

A really great way of experiencing yourself as part of nature is to incorporate the sit spot into your practice. The sit spot is a place in nature where you can sit comfortably for around fifteen minutes. While there, you slow your breathing, quiet your mind, and listen to the sounds around you: the rustling of the wind in the leaves, water flowing or falling, bird song. You return to the same spot on a regular basis, so as to become attuned to that particular place and its sounds, energies, spirits, seasons, and moods.

Adrian Harris, who writes on embodiment, describes the practice of the sit spot:

Spending time in your sit spot is a meditation that fine-tunes your sensory awareness. Gradually, patterns in nature become apparent and in time you fall into a “deepening sense of place” (Patterson). Such subtle embodied communion with one chosen place can pattern a sacred relationship to the world.

Utiseta

The sit-spot is similar to the ancient Heathen / magical practice of “sitting out”, known as utiseta. This is a practice for communicating with landwights, and should only be used if you specifically need help or answers.

Lydia Helasdottir describes utiseta:

Start with experiencing yourself, and that which is around you. Place your attention on the trees and the rocks, the root that I’m sitting on, the wind in the trees, the smells. We do this whole thing of “I can see one thing, I can hear one thing, I can smell one thing, I can taste one thing, I can feel one thing.” Then you go to two things, then to five things. Getting to the point of smelling five different things is quite difficult, especially if you haven’t moved your position, but it’s a good thing. So the first point is to be really aware of you and the things around you. Do that with your deep breathing.

Then you contract you attention inside yourself. If you’re wearing a cloak, at this point you put the hood over yourself. Contract your attention so that you’re not noticing anything from the outside, and you’re just trying to find the core of the center of your being, all the way down. Really compress it so that it’s just you. It might take ten or fifteen minutes for you to even get there, and then you do that for an hour or so. Then you expand your attention outwards, but you go past the boundary of your body, so now you’re experiencing all that stuff that’s around you, but not as separate from you any more. And at that point, often it’s easier to commune with the wights and the dead people and whatever else. And you do five or six or twelve or so cycles of that during the night.

Pagan Contemplative Prayer

I have been trying sporadically to get into praying to Pagan deities for some time. I started with Ceisiwr Serith’s A Book of Pagan Prayer, which is excellent. I have also occasionally practised lectio divina. Pagan prayer does not assume that we are the passive recipients of favours from the deities; nor that Pagan deities are all-powerful or rulers of the universe. Pagan prayer is about an encounter with deities.

Mount Fuji, Japan

Reflection of Mount Fuji. Pixabay.com [CC0 Public Domain]

Being a fairly lazy person, and not that great at keeping in touch with people (except on Facebook), I am not that great at maintaining a spiritual practice. Therefore, any practice that I engage in has to be simple, with no barriers to engaging in it, no effort to set it up, and of variable length.

However, John Beckett’s recent posts about building connections with deities and deepening your practice have galvanised me to try to do something.

Contemplative prayer is a practice that is fairly simple to understand, but which may take a lifetime to master. The person doing the prayer sits quietly, usually upright on a chair, and often uses a prayer word to focus the mind. When thoughts arise, don’t follow the train of thought, just let it go, and refocus on the prayer word (or your breath, if you are not using a prayer word).

In contemplative prayer, we descend into the depths of the psyche, and encounter the collective unconscious, and thereby the formless depths of the divine realms. Contemplative prayer is not solely an internal experience; it is an encounter with the divine that transcends the individual (note that I am referring to epistemological transcendence, the experience of something greater than oneself, and not ontological transcendence, which is the idea of something existing outside the universe).

I learnt a lot about contemplative prayer from reading two excellent books from the Christian tradition: Into the Silent Land and A Sunlit Absence. The first book (Into the Silent Land) deals with the stages of contemplative prayer and how one can deepen one’s practice. The second book (A Sunlit Absence) deals with the pitfalls and difficulties of contemplative prayer (boredom, distraction, feelings of dryness, lack of a sense of divine presence). Both are written entirely in the context of the Christian tradition, so as a Pagan and a polytheist, I needed to “translate in my head” as I went along. Nevertheless, these are outstanding books which explore the techniques and mental states of contemplative prayer in great detail.

In Pagan contemplative prayer, the focus of the practice might be the name of a virtue that you wish to cultivate; the spirit of a place you wish to connect with; the name of a deity whom you worship; an image or statue of a deity; a rune or a Tarot card; or a mandala. Focusing on an external image may make you reliant on the external image for maintaining your focus, but it can be useful, especially if the image is seen as a gateway or window onto the Otherworld, rather than merely an image. The point of contemplative prayer is not necessarily to ask for anything, but just to enjoy the presence of the deity you are communing with. You can, however, combine it with other forms of prayer if you wish.

My personal practice is to sit quietly, saying the name of the deity I wish to commune with, and maybe adding a few words in praise of their deeds, attributes, or qualities. I then recite their name, saying it once on the in-breath and once on the out-breath. I find I need to spend at least five minutes, preferably ten or fifteen, to really experience the presence of the deity. I usually try to commune with at least two deities (the patron deities of Wicca, and some of the deities with whom I have a personal connection).

Embodied Spirituality: Grounding and Centering

Many rituals begin with this simple practice, especially Pagan circles. It comes from the Taoist tradition originally, I think. There are several different versions of it.

Its purpose is to allow you to feel connected to the Earth (grounded), not floating away into fantasy-world, not obsessing about the past or the future, but being present in the now. The centring part of the practice allows you to feel connected to the cosmos and the four sacred directions, which are associated with the elements.

Tree at dawn, Bucovina, Romania

Tree at dawn, Bucovina, Romania [free image from Pixabay]



Begin by focusing on your breathing. Don’t breathe in any special way, just notice how your breath comes in and out of your nostrils, and how your belly rises and falls.

As you breathe in and out, feel your feet planted firmly on the ground. Relax your hips and your knees and imagine a thread extending from the top of your head to the centre of the sky (this helps to align your spine with the axis of the Earth).

Imagine that your feet are tree roots, and extend your roots deep into the earth. Your roots push down into the earth, through the rich soil, finding their way among rocks, and down deep into the molten core of the Earth. As you breathe out, extend your roots; as you breathe in, draw up energy from deep within the Earth.

As the energy makes its way into your body, draw it up through your legs and feel it gathering and pooling in your solar plexus. Note the colour of the energy.

Now extend a tendril of energy up your spine. Imagine that your spine is the trunk of a tree, and extend your aura at the top of your head, growing branches. Extend your branches up into the sky, beyond the atmosphere, and reach for the energy of the starlight. As you breathe out, extend your branches; as you breathe in, draw the energy down from above. Feel it gathering and pooling in your solar plexus, mingling with the energy from below.

Now draw energy from both above and below at the same time, and let the energies mingle in your solar plexus. As you breathe in, draw in the energy from above and below; as you breathe out, feel it spiralling and swirling.

Now allow the energy to fill your whole body, extending out to your feet, your fingertips, the top of your head. Feel how you are aligned with the cosmic axis.

Now acknowledge the four directions: North for Earth, representing the body, sensation, physicality, and structure; East for Air, representing intellect, thought, inspiration and breath; South for Fire, representing passion, intuition, and spirit; and West for Water, representing emotion, the Moon, dreams, and the blood that flows in your veins.


This post was originally published at UK Spirituality.

 

Embodied Spirituality: Meditative Walking

There are several different types of meditative walking, from various different spiritual traditions.

The theologian St Augustine famously wrote “Solvitur ambulando” (It is solved by walking), by which he presumably meant that as you walk, the problems that were at the forefront of your mind are put on the back burner and there solved. I have experienced this process myself.

Walking is also more environmentally friendly than other means of locomotion.

"Walking" by Henri Bergius from Finland - Walking. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Walking.jpg#/media/File:Walking.jpg

Walking” by Henri Bergius from Finland – Walking. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.


Eastern Orthodox Christians practice the prayer walk, which is a form of processional walking, with stops for prayers at various intervals.

The practice of walking labyrinths is a very ancient practice dating from pre-Christian times, but also used by Christians in labyrinths such as the famous one at Chartres. In a Chartres-style labyrinth, you never know quite how near or far you are from the centre, so as you twist and turn through the labyrinth, walking slowly and meditatively, you are reminded of the twists and turns of life, and sometimes solutions to problems come to mind as you walk.

Buddhists practice the walking meditation, which is where you walk slowly and mindfully, place one foot in front of the other in a slow and deliberate way, silently reciting a mantra as you walk.

Another way of walking mindfully is to walk in a garden, and walk towards the first thing – perhaps a plant, perhaps a stone, or a leaf on the ground – that attracts your attention, and then really look at it. What colour is it? What is its texture? How is it structured? Is it growing or decaying? Smell it, touch it. Does it make a sound? Follow the patterns on its surface. When you have really observed it with all of your senses, thank it and move on to the next thing that attracts your attention. At the end of your walk, you might like to draw what you have seen, or write a poem (perhaps haiku) about the experience.

Embodied Spirituality: Walking The Labyrinth

Walking the labyrinth is a very ancient form of meditation, very relaxing, and it’s well worth giving it a try. It’s very personal and inwardly focussed, and yet shared with your fellow-travellers in a wordless communion.

Each person’s journey into the labyrinth is unique, although the labyrinth has a single pathway to the centre. We all travel on the same pathway, but each person goes at a different speed, travelling in a different way. Rather like life, the path twists and turns, in and out, and you never know how close to the centre you are. When the path appears to take you furthest away from the centre, you are nearer, and when you appear to be closest, you are actually further away.

"Dalby City of Troy turf maze" by User:SiGarb - This is a scan of a transparency which I took in the 1970s, scanned and uploaded 8 May 2005. It has been slightly cleaned-up in Photoshop.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dalby_City_of_Troy_turf_maze.jpg#/media/File:Dalby_City_of_Troy_turf_maze.jpg

Dalby City of Troy turf maze” by User:SiGarb – This is a scan of a transparency which I took in the 1970s, scanned and uploaded 8 May 2005. It has been slightly cleaned-up in Photoshop.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.



The centre – the goal of the journey – can mean different things to different people. For me, it is a metaphor for the Divine: always present, always hidden. In Pagan labyrinths, the centre symbolises the underworld, the inner realm; in Christian labyrinths, it represents the goal of the pilgrim, Jerusalem, with Christ at the centre.

The centre is a place to meditate and reflect on the journey, connect with the Divine, or just look into yourself. The space at the centre is shaped like a flower, or like the rose window of a cathedral. Each of its petals represents one of six kingdoms: mineral, vegetable, animal, human, angelic and the unknown.

The journey back from the centre depicts bringing back the blessing and insight from the other realm to share with your community. As you cross the threshold once more into the outer world, it is a good idea to meditate on the experience, and only gradually ease back into normal conversation.

Pagan labyrinths generally have the path winding through one quadrant at a time, possibly so the walker can meditate on each of the four elements in turn. Christian labyrinths have the path winding back and forth between the quadrants, so that you never know where you are. This is in many ways a more powerful experience, because you never know how close you are to the goal of the journey, so it is a revelation when you reach it. One such labyrinth is the one in Chartres Cathedral, which was constructed around 1200.

The oldest labyrinth design is the Cretan labyrinth, which is a very simple design and can be drawn quite quickly; it is easy to make out of pebbles in your garden or at a camp.

A brief history of mazes and labyrinths

Mazes are recorded in Egypt, Rome, Scandinavia, England, India, and the American Southwest. They are generally believed to symbolise the soul’s journey through life, or the journey of the dead to the underworld. 

There are two types of maze: the unicursal (single path) maze and the puzzle maze. Both of these are referred to as both a labyrinth and a maze. However, in the myth of the Minotaur, the labyrinth in which the Minotaur dwells is clearly a puzzle maze (i.e. having dead ends), as Theseus needs a thread to find his way through to the centre. Apparently the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur refers to the maze-like palace at Knossos, which burned to the ground in the 15th century BCE.

The Classical Maze comes in four types, the Serpentine, Spiral, Simple Meander, and Complex Meander. The Roman ones were usually square, but these designs work as circular mazes too.

The principle of the maze was probably discovered in the Neolithic. The earliest recorded mazes were in Crete, 4000 years ago. In Egypt, there was a huge palace complex on the shores of a lake seven days journey up the Nile from the pyramids in form of a labyrinth. This was built by pharaoh Amenemhet III in the 19th century BCE. It consisted of thousands of rooms and twelve large maze-like courtyards, which were probably intended to keep out unwelcome visitors. Amenemhet also created a maze inside his nearby pyramid to thwart tomb robbers. Most Roman labyrinths, on the other hand, were too small to have been walked, and are typically found on the floor near the entrances to houses and villas; many have small city walls (perhaps indicating the walls of Troy) drawn around them. This suggests they served a protective function, and were perhaps believed to have warded off evil influences or intruders — a common function of the labyrinth in many other cultures as well. The tomb of Lars Porsenna (an Etruscan king) at Chiusi in Italy was said to be surrounded by a labyrinth.

The turf mazes of Britain and Scandinavia may have served a similar purpose, but in the Middle Ages they acquired an additional association with May games; hence the name “Robin Hood’s Race” or “Julian’s Bower”. The Celtic name for a maze was Caer Droia, the place of turning, and this was transliterated into English as Troy Town. It was widely believed that England was founded by Brutus fleeing Troy, and the mazes were believed to represent Troy. Mazes in Finland were often called Jericho, referring to the legend that it was destroyed by the Israelite army marching around it seven times. A maze called ‘the walls of Jericho’ also appears in a Hebrew manuscript.