Embodied Spirituality: Archery

In 2014, I was able to get to an archery club to practice archery. Sadly I only got one opportunity for archery in 2015, but I love it.

When I am doing archery, I am totally in the moment, totally focussed on hitting the target, and how my body fits with the bow (though probably insufficiently focussed on the latter). I am not thinking of anything else. For me, archery is embodied spirituality in action. This probably applies to any skilled physical activity, such as martial arts, dance, massage, woodworking, crafts, and so on.

The interesting thing about archery, for me, is that it involves stillness and focus as well as action. You have to get your body to learn the correct posture, until it becomes instinctive to get your arms at the right angle, your legs in the correct position, and so on. It is also true that letting go of the outcome and focusing on the activity can bring success. At one point, I was given a Mongolian bow, with the aim of hitting a balloon. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to hit it, so I relaxed, and I did hit it.

Like Thorn Mooney, I hated sports at school, as I have terrible hand-eye co-ordination and am usually overweight, but I have always liked martial arts. Archery gets around those issues, and puts you in touch with your body. It also comes with a side order of historical geekiness, and a really interesting group of people to hang out with. As Thorn writes:

Becoming an archer was the realization of a childhood fantasy. What Tolkien-obsessed kid wouldn’t love to shoot a bow and arrow? … Realizing—at 30—that I could finally have that bow I always wanted was surreal and exciting. I taught myself out of a book and dove right in, joining an archery club the same month.

Longsword resulted from lots of time spent with traditional archers, who often double as history enthusiasts. And where archery helped me in developing a relationship with Herne the Hunter, I’m really curious to see where fencing will take me.

The classic work Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel describes how learning is initially a conscious process, but eventually the practice becomes something unconscious:

The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art …

In the medieval world, archery was not considered knightly, because you hit your target at a distance. But it could be used for hunting, and of course was used to devastating effect in the battle of Agincourt.

Robin Hood is one of the most famous archers in legend, and there are many stories of his accuracy. My favourite is the one where his opponent fired his arrow right into the centre of the target, but Robin split his opponent’s arrow in two.

Artemis and Diana, the virgin huntresses, are also associated with the bow. The crescent moon is often depicted as Diana’s bow.

Shen-I the Excellent Archer is a character in Chinese mythology. Once upon a time, all ten suns rose together in the sky. Shen feared that the Earth was in danger of drying up, so he took his bow and shot down nine of the suns.

Embodied Spirituality: The Hearth

The hearth is the heart of the home. A home without a hearth lacks focus (or perhaps the focal point of the living room becomes the television). This is interesting because the word focus is Latin for hearth.

focus (n.)
1640s, “point of convergence,” from Latin focus “hearth, fireplace” (also, figuratively, “home, family”), which is of unknown origin. Used in post-classical times for “fire” itself; taken by Kepler (1604) in a mathematical sense for “point of convergence,” perhaps on analogy of the burning point of a lens (the purely optical sense of the word may have existed before Kepler, but it is not recorded). Introduced into English 1650s by Hobbes. Sense transfer to “center of activity or energy” is first recorded 1796.

Online Etymology Dictionary

So the concepts of hearth and home were linked in Roman thought too. In ancient times, the hearth, as the sole source of heat in the home, would have been massively important. Now that we have radiators and central heating, we tend to forget about the importance of the hearth. But in ancient cultures, the hearth was the place where you made offerings to the family gods and spirits, the lares and penates (household spirits in Roman religion). The notion of ‘familiar spirits’ originally meant the deities and spirits honoured by your family. In Vedic culture, the making of the sacred fire was a very important ritual.

The hearth - photo by Yvonne Aburrow

The hearth – photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 3.0

Several cultures have domestic spirits, often associated with ancestors, such as the Cofgodas (cove-gods) of Anglo-Saxon paganism. The English and Scots believed in house Brownies, also known as urisk in Lowland Scots.  Slavic cultures believed in Domovoi, which were originally ancestral spirits in Slavic paganism. There are also Aitvaras (Lithuania), Dimstipatis (Lithuania), Ev iyesi (Turkey – known as  Sahab or Kimsene in Anatolia), Hob (North and Midlands of England), Kikimora, aka Shishimora (Russia), Kobold (Germany – possibly related to the Anglo-Saxon cofgod), Olys’ (a hearth spirit of the Komi people of northern Russia), Lares (Ancient Rome), Pūkis (Latvia), Pukys (Lithuania), Tomte (Scandinavia), and Zashiki-warashi (Japan).

In cultures that use stoves, they have also acquired resident spirits and folklore as well. Domovoi live in stoves. In Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll novels, there is an ancestor who lives in the stove. In Swedish, he is called Förfadern, similar to the English word forefather.

So, from this brief survey of the folklore, we can see that the hearth is traditionally the place where you honour your ancestors and household gods and spirits, usually by making offerings to them. The fire would have been kept burning all the time, so it would be a good place to make offerings.

hearth (n.)
Old English heorð “hearth, fireplace, part of a floor on which a fire is made,” also in transferred use “house, home, fireside,” from West Germanic *hertho “burning place” (cognates: Old Saxon and Old Frisian herth, Middle Dutch hert, Dutch haard, German Herd “floor, ground, fireplace”), from PIE *kerta-, from root *ker- (4) “heat, fire” (see carbon). Hearth-rug is from 1824. Hearth-stone is from early 14c.

Online Etymology Dictionary

The hearth was the heart of the home, and the spirits that were honoured at the hearth were at the heart of the family’s ritual observance. For example, the Lares and Penates were very important in ancient Roman culture:

Lares (/ˈlɑːrz/LatinLarēs[ˈɫa.reːs], archaic Lases, singular Lar), were guardian deities in ancient Roman religion. Their origin is uncertain; they may have been hero-ancestors, guardians of the hearth, fields, boundaries or fruitfulness, or an amalgam of these.

Lares were believed to observe, protect and influence all that happened within the boundaries of their location or function. The statues of domestic Lares were placed at the table during family meals; their presence, cult and blessing seem to have been required at all important family events. Roman writers sometimes identify or conflate them with ancestor-deities, domestic Penates and the hearth. Because of these associations, Lares are sometimes categorised as household gods but some had much broader domains. Roadways, seaways, agriculture, livestock, towns, cities, the state and its military were all under the protection of their particular Lar or Lares. Those who protected local neighbourhoods (vici) were housed in the crossroad shrines (Compitales) which served as a focus for the religious, social and political life of their local, overwhelmingly plebeian communities.  (Wikipedia)

The offerings made to these spirits were usually a part of whatever food was being prepared. In Ancient Rome, both Lares and Penates were associated with the hearth, and were offered food. These customs continted long into the Christian era, and in some places, were never eradicated.   In 1703, John Brand wrote about the people of Shetland making offerings to the house brownie:

 when they churned their milk, they took a part thereof, and sprinkled every corner of the house with it, for Brownie’s use; likewise, when they brewed, they had a stone which they called “Brownie’s stane”, wherein there was a little hole into which they poured some wort for a sacrifice to Brownie.  (Wikipedia)

So, if you want to recreate these customs but you don’t have a hearth, you could have a chimenea or a firepit in your garden, or a shrine with candles in your house. If you do have a fireplace with a real fire, or perhaps a wood-burning stove, then you could have a bowl for offerings on the hearth, and set aside food from your meals for the ancestors. You can also make offerings in the fire itself.

The poem To Lar, by Robert Herrick, gives a glimpse of the variety of offerings that may be made to hearth spirits:

NO more shall I, since I am driven hence,
Devote to thee my grains of frankincense ;
No more shall I from mantle-trees hang down,
To honour thee, my little parsley crown ;
No more shall I (I fear me) to thee bring
My chives of garlic for an offering ;
No more shall I from henceforth hear a choir
Of merry crickets by my country fire.
Go where I will, thou lucky Lar stay here,
Warm by a glitt’ring chimney all the year.

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.

Combinations of Difficult Questions #PinkOut

What if Planned Parenthood is defunded and shut down– where should women and men go for the other 97% of funded services PP currently provides?

What if we notice a dropped stitch? What if we don’t?

What if Persephone eats that pomegranate on purpose?

What if we’re all more genderfluid than we admit?

What if sexuality isn’t a wound?

What if the nuclear family is not the only available model? What if it isn’t the best?

What if Black lives matter?

What if a question mark is a fish hook?

What if abortion is allowed to be an ambivalent and uneasy act, safe and legal?

What if women live into their sexualities as a source of power with, not power over?

What if men do that too?

What if you could say how unhappy you are?

What if a woman’s voice is the tree falling in the forest?

 

What if women’s voices weave another forest?

 

Epistemology of Mother, A Cloud of Permeable or #PinkOut

Wendy Vardaman and Sarah Sadie

 

Few topics have stirred as much passionate response

now there is a plank in the platform of the Republican party denying any place

in the short time I’ve belonged to this listserv as the one that exploded over the seemingly innocuous color pink, and

for abortion even in cases of rape or incest. This feels like the final thundering chord (although I know

although I didn’t join the discussion, I, too, feel strongly about the subject. Reading the posts on the color

it’s not—there is so much more they could try to do, try to take from us) of their grand crescendo,

and its associations—Cinderella, Barbies, stickers,

building for a year now. A year when

I was surprised by the emotional and political

terms such as “birth control”

connotations it carries

“sluts” “vaginal ultrasounds” “vaginas” have been bandied about

for so many of us and disturbed by the way

we debate the difference between “legitimate” and “forcible” as applied to

pink got tossed back and forth as if it were some uniform monolith

the act of rape.

when a moment’s reflection serves to demonstrate this obvious fact: pink is not one color.

What other qualifiers shall we hear?

My pinks are mostly dark, vivid, intense, like the other hues that fill the house of a recovering depressive

At last now we have it out: all abortion, any abortion, is never to be condoned, never to be pardoned,

avoiding medication. Color like exercise gives me a lift, so I have it everywhere and in unlikely combinations

never to be considered and never to be allowed. All of this has me walking in a cloud of permeable

that would probably overwhelm many people. Pink in multiple manifestations happens to be a favorite,

sadness, like a mist. It plunges me back to a time a few years ago

although I don’t like the pale variety by  itself, any more than large doses of other pastels. I do feel nostalgic

when these questions were live for me on a very personal level. One summer evening, blue sky endless,

looking at 1960s’ hot pink—my mother wouldn’t paint my bedroom that color decades ago,

my husband and I were out for a neighborhood walk. It was

attempting to satisfy me with a bright pink velvet pillow for my orange bedspread. Years later I painted

the sort of weather, the sort of evening, that draws people out of their homes and out into their yards

my dining room an intense sockeye-salmon swirled with orange, a nod to the years my husband and I lived

and the streets and sidewalks. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but

in Seattle, and saved my favorite deep pink for the kitchen,

for a number of days I had been wrestling with

patterning walls and cabinets with combinations of

difficult questions. Finally, I turned to him in the middle of the

fuchsia, yellow, lavender and deep red-violet. Dabbling in textiles I’ve paired pink with navy and turquoise, and

sidewalk, stopped for a moment, and said “I have come to a decision. If I ever were to get

lavender, blue, and red in hand-woven table-runners. I’ve sewn curtains, pillow covers, and clothes that include its different shades and echo those

pregnant again, I would abort the baby.” And then I broke down crying, there on the street.

in my great-grandmothers’ quilts hanging on the living room walls.

 

This piece was written in collaboration with my colleague and friend, Wendy Vardaman. I am so grateful for her ideas, her example and her friendship.Busse and Vardaman 2012 - 1

 

 

 

Spirituality – let the buyer beware

At its best, “spirituality” (whatever that term actually means) is a spur to greater compassion, engagement with social justice, and trying to make the world a better place. This used to be called mysticism, which actually meant something and sought to wrestle and engage with the wider tradition in which it was situated. Many times, organised religion sought to crush the mystics, with their call to genuine compassion, and their speaking truth to power, and their direct engagement with the divine other (or others).

At its worst, “spirituality” is a mess of cultural appropriation, exploitation of the vulnerable, silencing of dissent, sweeping justified anger under the carpet, and offering a pabulum of spurious advice, airy-fairy sayings, and consumer offerings of easily-digested “wisdom” and manufactured artefacts to make you feel “spiritual” and get in touch with your inner wossnames. Many ‘spiritual directors’, ‘life coaches’, and other self-styled spiritual leaders – most of whom are not even qualified therapists – prey on the vulnerable to make them feel that they cannot have self-worth without succumbing to a rigorous programme of self-help, self-examination, and generally beating themselves up for not being spiritual enough. They keep their ‘followers’ as perpetual neophytes, never empowering them to lead the group themselves.

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him

Every time I have an encounter with someone who has an interest in spirituality, and also possesses power over others, I find that they want to silence my anger at injustice because it is “not spiritual” to be angry. I find myself bruised and diminished by their criticism of my way of being in the world. Any engagement with the intellectual or theological or historical context of an issue is also silenced by these people, because that is “not spiritual” either. These people are so convincing with their “peaceful” mien and unfurrowed brows, untroubled by actual social injustice or the suffering of others. These are the type of people who silence those who complain of racism, sexism, and homophobia, claiming that they are “obsessed” with race, gender, and sexuality.

Some of them do engage with the suffering of others, but in my view, they only exacerbate it by placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the sufferer, convincing them that they must “work on themselves” and buy whatever the latest self-help book, video, course, life-coaching, etc happens to be. Some of them even say that the first step to being more spiritual or loving or whatever is to accept oneself. The natural response of many people to this is to feel guilty for not loving themselves. However, the lack of self-love and self-esteem that many people suffer from is caused by alienation from other people, from nature, and from life. It will not be solved by increased introspection, but by going out and doing what you love. If you are an introvert, that might be different from what extroverts love to do, and that is just fine. The first step to accepting yourself is to stop worrying about yourself so much.

The blame for social ills is constantly shifted from the collective to the individual in many contexts. Instead of preventing bullying in the workplace, employers hire stress and time-management consultants to ‘fix’ individuals who haven’t ‘adapted’ to the workplace.  The same applies to dieting, where the fact that it is difficult to avoid eating fattening food, and difficult to get enough exercise to burn it off, is laid squarely at the door of the overweight individual, and hardly anyone bothers to look for social or societal factors that  might contribute to obesity.

Whenever you see a self-help book, or a person who sets themselves up as an authority on spiritual matters, ask yourself what qualifies them to be such an authority. I am not saying their life has to be totally organised (whose life is not subject to misfortune and the vagaries of circumstance?) – but rather, how do they respond to disaster? Do they curl up in a welter of self-pity, or do they actually get out and do something, perhaps getting involved with trying to right the social injustice that caused their misfortune (if applicable)? As the wonderful saying has it, “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. Anyone claiming to be a Buddha is not a Buddha. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. Indeed, it was Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha himself, who said that if the things he said did not make sense to his hearers, they should ignore him:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

Subjecting advice to scrutiny and reflection about whether it applies to your own life is of course a principle that you should apply to anything that I write as well. Nothing is exempt from this principle. My perspective is also limited to my own experience, as is that of every other writer.

Do without doing, and everything gets done

If all the money and energy that was expended on trying to become more spiritual was expended on trying to make the world a better place for everyone, think how much better the world would be. I am not saying that people should not indulge themselves in a bit of pampering like a massage and a bath with some nice candles and a bit of tinkly music, but do it unashamedly because it makes you feel good, not because you think you ought to, or because you think it will make you a more spiritual person.

As the great Viktor Frankl once said:

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”

― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Personally, I derive more benefit from going for a nice walk in the woods, or going on a demonstration about a social justice issue, or having a nice evening with friends, than I ever have from any attempt to “be more spiritual”. I am not a naturally introspective person in any case. You can derive a great amount of self-worth and connecting with others by going to take part in conservation work, or feeding the homeless, or helping animals, or doing something creative – you don’t need to sit about worrying about whether you are spiritual enough. I also derived a great deal of benefit from being a trades union caseworker, because I learnt to speak truth to power, but I became a caseworker because it was the thing in front of me that needed doing, and I knew it was the right thing to do, not because I particularly hoped to gain anything from it.

The other day, I saw a brilliant and hilarious video by J P Sears, How to be ultra-spiritual, which sends up the “spiritualler-than-thou” types (as I call them): the people who speak ultra-softly and go about dispensing unsolicited “wisdom”. It is a merciless send-up of the “ultra-spiritual”, and a critique that needed to be out there.

And then I saw a post by a “life-coach” giving women contradictory advice about how to be irresistible to men, where one of the pieces of advice was a blatant piece of slut-shaming. Fortunately, a bunch of people had posted hilarious comments on the piece, sending it up mercilessly.

I vividly remember my first encounter with a “life-coach” and I remember thinking it was a load of pretentious tosh and quite possibly a sugar-coated version of “how to be a capitalist bastard and succeed in the rat-race”.

I feel much the same about most so-called “self-help” books, which again locate the source of suffering in the individual, and fail to offer any remedy that we might all undertake as a society. There are a few excellent exceptions, such as Families and how to survive them by Robin Skinner and John Cleese, Taking care by David Smail, and Women who run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (brilliantly satirised by Women who run with the Poodles, however).

This is why I have been trying to eliminate any talk of “spirituality” from my speech and writing, and instead talk about embodiment, and connecting with the body. This too might become problematic if we assume that there is only one right way to be embodied, but at least it is more earthy, and takes actual physical and emotional needs into account and makes a connection between them. Writers on embodiment that I have seen do actually seem to engage with the world around them.

Spirituality as a commodity

Nevertheless, it strikes me that the elephant in the room, and what really ails us, is the commodification and marketisation of everything – also known as capitalism. Value is no longer seen as intrinsic to an experience or a thing, but only as a marketable commodity. “Spirituality” has become yet another marketable commodity – a thing that should be our birth-right, that should be as natural as breathing, has been packaged and marketed back to us as something that can only be mediated by experts.

They say “the best things in life are free” and actually, it’s true. Having a consensual hug or a massage with someone you love, or a stimulating conversation with a friend, or a lovely walk in the woods, or some other experience of shared beauty, is much more effective than hours of “spirituality”-related activities.

One of the things that has made me a more empathetic person, and possibly a nicer person to be around, is reading novels, because novels teach you about the nuances of feeling and allow you to empathise with someone else’s pain in a safe space (the privacy of your own mind) before going out and practising compassion in the real world. The trick is to make the connection between the character in the novel and real people, of course.

Look outwards, not inwards

Many people have emphasised the idea that you need to love something greater than yourself, and/or other than yourself, in order to find happiness. Of course, many people who aspire to be spiritual do love God, or Nature, or something beyond themselves; but then they spend a lot of time worrying about how to be more spiritual, and fall back into introspection and self-doubt.

Viktor Frankl explains that the only way to find meaning and peace is to look beyond the self:

“By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

So, all this relentless self-examination is actually counter-productive. The Muslims say that “Allah is closer to me than my jugular vein”; Buddhists say that enlightenment is only a heartbeat away. The great mystery of life is always available, always present, always pouring itself into reality at every moment, waiting to be experienced and enjoyed.

For me, the central mystery of my religion is love. The word religion comes from the Latin word, religio, to reconnect. Love is about connection, connecting fully and deeply with another human being. There are many types of love involving different types and depths of connection (eros, filia, storge, and agape are some that have been named).

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Our culture has also sought to commodify love, and reduce it only to romantic love, but it is much broader and deeper than that. In Hebrew, one of the words for love is Ahava, meaning ‘I will give’. The Tanakh (Jewish Bible) contains an extended meditation on the meaning of Ahava in the story told in the Book of Ruth. Another is Chesed, meaning steadfast love, loving-kindness. This term is often translated into Greek as eleos. Eleos is the personification of compassion in Greek mythology. Her Roman counterpart was Clementia. Ancient paganism had thought about love, compassion, and forgiveness, and these were among the virtues they cultivated.

Photo of Robert Indiana's 1977 Love sculpture spelling ahava. "Ahava" by עברית: רוברט אידניאנה, נולד ב-1928 - Talmoryair. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of Robert Indiana’s 1977 Love sculpture spelling ahava. “Ahava” by עברית: רוברט אידניאנה, נולד ב-1928Talmoryair. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

All the best writing seeks to broaden our humanity by encouraging us to connect, to have compassion, to love (both ourselves and others). If we cannot be compassionate to ourselves, how can we have compassion for others?

Love is a fierce and joyful thing

Love does not mean complete negation of the self. I am a human being with needs and desires, and I deserve love and compassion as much as the next person. Transcending the ego is not the same thing as erasing or negating the ego. All that happens is that one becomes aware of a reality beyond the ego, and seeks to connect with that greater reality.

Love is not a mealy-mouthed, weak thing that allows others to walk all over one. Love is a fierce and joyful thing that seeks the greatest well-being for all – bearing in mind that another person’s well-being may look quite different from yours. As many sages have said, “love thy neighbour as thyself” – in other words, love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.

Buddhism talks about ‘foolish compassion’ – the type of compassion that fails to involve the mind as well as the heart, to try and assess what would really help the suffering other. Love is not afraid to speak truth to power, or to tell the schlemiel that he is a fool.

Love is out on the front line telling the world that Black lives matter, standing up for the rights of LGBT people, indigenous peoples, immigrants, asylum seekers, and the marginalised. Love may be gentle and kind, but it is also fierce and joyous, and angry and sad, and embracing diversity.

Woman with the Pen: Five Moments On My Way Back to Patheos

I suppose, if I want to be orderly about this, I should outline the reasons I took an extended leave first.

But I don’t want to be orderly…
I’m sure I don’t remember them all…
Maybe I wasn’t even there at the time…

So I’m skipping ahead to what brought me back to this space. We’ll fill in the backstory another time.

 

One…

A nice thing happened this week—Junoesq, an online magazine from Singapore, published this interview with me, along withself portrait in five lines a handful of
new poems (one of which, “Small But Real,” was inspired by conversation with Niki Whiting of Witch’s Ashram). The compliment was welcome. This year I’ve wondered deeply about the worth of my own voice—others speak so much more immediately and profoundly to current events and crises.

But…Junoesq’s editor, Grace Chia, reached out to me for the interview after I sent her a few poems out of the blue. They struck an immediate chord with her, as another writer trying to balance motherhood, profession, the nature of a literary calling, and public vs. private persona. Halfway around the world, and yet…same old, same old story. Sigh.

 

Two…

And then, checking out the 1988 book Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience, edited by Elizabeth Dodson Gray, I’m struck by how many things have not changed. Women (and men) still struggle to place value on domesticity. We still struggle to love our bodies as they age, thicken, change. We still struggle to insist that our lives have worth, as individuals, as women, no matter our work, our size, our appearance, our voice, or the money we make (or do not make).

So—yes, there are many radical and beloved and ferocious warriors whose voices I treasure above my own. And that doesn’t absolve me from writing my truth. Both. And.

 

Three…

Then, too, I’m writing a novel. Trying to. Daring myself. This is a new adventure and it has me thinking about different kinds of writing, what they are useful for, how they work. Poetry vs. prose. Fiction vs. nonfiction. Where are the fissures and faultlines between “fact” and “truth.” As I work along on my fictional endeavor, it brings me back to this blog. Blogging is even another form of writing, after all, which I have only begun to explore. Writing in here offers its own strengths, its own opportunities.

 

 

Four…

Did I mention I’m working on a novel? At least partly because of one book: The Priestess and the Pen. “Give me blood and magic,” author Sonja Sadovsky writes in the opening pages. I have to agree. In this space, I don’t have to pretend the blood isn’t real. I don’t have to apologize for the term “magic.” No animals will be harmed in the writing of this column, I promise—although I make a special exception for mosquitoes. (Bonus: Jason Mankey interviews Sadovsky at Raise the Horns!)

 

Five…

A fox showed up in our backyard the other day. I want to find a place once again among people who know 1) the fox doesn’t care about my work and 2) the fox is telling me to get cracking.

 

So here I am, returned. As Sadovsky writes:

Ultimately, the woman with the sword is the woman with the pen; the one who wields it creates her reality.

I took the time I needed. And I remembered that for me, the answer is almost always both/and. Yes.

The question is courage.

office 2015

 

Embodiment and Woundedness: Owning Up to Being an Animal

 

It’s my birthday month, and I’m sorry to say I got a crown.

Not a sparkly one from some kid-friendly chain restaurant. Not a crown of branches or horns from a Neo-Pagan ceremony. No, I won one of those plastic, temporary tops for a cracked tooth that will soon enough be replaced by porcelain.

Happy Birthday. Feeling older, much?

 I should have taken a page out of your book, Wayland, lord, and asked
if the dentist would carve me a tooth out of bone.

***

So I’m feeling a little vulnerable, tonight. Aware of my body, more than I usually am, and its tender places, its wounds and scars. This is probably doubly true because I just started a shapeshifting class at Cherry Hill Seminary. Here are the very first sentences of the very first reading assignment:

Owning up to being an animal, a creature of earth. Tuning our animal senses to the sensible terrain: blending our skin with the rain-rippled surface of rivers, mingling our ears with the thunder and the thrumming of frogs, and our eyes with the molten sky. Feeling the polyrhythmic pulse of this place—this huge windswept body of water and stone. This vexed being in whose flesh we’re entangled.

From Becoming Animal, David Abram

What does that mean? What is “shapeshifting” anyway? my friends ask me. For me, the concept of shapeshifting offers (I hope) a way to enter the experience(s) of world more deeply, more fluidly. I’ve been looking forward to the start of class for weeks. But after the first Google+ chat session, I feel more trepidation than anything. The teacher emphasized what a personal journey this is going to be for us.

It’s clear that in order to learn how to move even an inch or a minute away from the usual mundane experience, I’ll have to become a little (or a lot) vulnerable. The adult layers of defense and protection I worked so hard to create? Peeled away.

Shields down, friends. It’s about to get real.

***

For years, no matter what term/s I called myself—poet, theologian, at-home-parent-trying-to-survive, polytheist, or (as I used to say in a whisper) just a vague-ish pagan-ish sort—my practice has been pretty much the same: a shifting triangulation between historical source/text, poetry, and myth. With this class, it looks like NATURE may be about to assert itself as the fourth leg of that practice. That includes (especially) my own human animal nature, bag of skin and muscle and bone, hair and bacteria. I welcome that. And I fear it too, a little. Abram knows this:

Corporeal life is indeed difficult. To identify with the sheer physicality of one’s flesh may well seem lunatic. The body is an imperfect and breakable entity vulnerable to a thousand and one insults…Small wonder then that we prefer to abstract ourselves whenever we can, imagining ourselves into theoretical spaces less fraught with insecurity, conjuring dimensions more amenable to calculation and control…

It’s completely appropriate and serendipitous that we’re also just back from our annual camping trip up on Madeline Island, in Lake Superior. I have some coastal friends who scoff at the idea of the Great Lakes—it’s not the ocean, they say with a shrug of a shoulder. Of course not. The ocean is endless, absolute.

The Great Lakes are something else again—interior seas. And so they fit differently into the psyche. There have been a couple of blog posts I’ve seen, here and here, in which the authors map out their spiritual geographies. I find the idea fascinating—and I tried it one night with my crayons and sketchpad. It’s not finished yet, but already off to one side, there’s a lake. A large one. When I stepped into the waters of Lake Superior, I recognized the sensation exactly. I’ve swum here before.

Remember when we pitched our tents,
young as we were, above Superior’s gray shore,
and discovered there a steep path to the back
we hadn’t seen before?

On my own map, it’s labeled the Lake of Sorrows, and there have been times when I have had to swim it, ready or no. Maybe someday I’ll write about that. About the temptation to stay there, in the water. Under the water. It was one chapter of a longer journey. Maybe someday I’ll write the rest.

credit: Yinan Chen via Wikimedia CommonsIt was a journey of healing, after a wounding of my own that was a little more serious than a cracked molar. And it’s important to tell our stories, to ourselves and others. But today I wonder—when I move in this essay from Lake Superior itself to my Lake of Sorrows, am I merely imagining myself into one of Abram’s “theoretical spaces less fraught with insecurity”? I’m willing to consider the possibility, although admittedly nothing about swimming that interior Lake feels “more amenable to calculation and control.” Not at all.

Here there be dragons.

You aren’t kidding.

***

Shapeshifting is partly about knowing yourself intimately, and all your wounds and weaknesses. In the Northern pantheon that I am learning about, woundedness is a common theme. These gods are for the most part not young and beautiful—they have their scars. I’m far from an expert in the lore but off the top of my head: Tyr gives up a hand to bind Fenrir, the wolf that represents Chaos. Sif’s beautiful hair is hacked off (and we all know what that represents, right?). Both Frigga and Sigyn lose their children. Sigyn is burned, scarred by the poison she protects her husband Loki from. Odin the Allfather sacrifices an eye for wisdom, hangs himself for nine days in order to win the runes. And Wayland the Smith is hobbled, and held captive for years. 

He looks at the pictures of Lake Superior on my computer screen.
We call it the Quench.

 Lake Superior?

 Shaking his head. Water. We use water to quench
the hot blade. That is the moment of testing, to see
if what we made will be true, or if it will torque, twist, corrupt.

***

Any blessing carries its shadow, sometimes for years,
folded like the wings of a bat at noon.
How grateful I am, friends, for that shared memory,
now that I have reached another interior shore,
this time alone, and again to strip down…

We all have our scars and wounds, not all of them visible. Not even remembered, some of them, maybe, until that sudden plunge into a new element. Wish me luck.

 Don’t trust to luck.

 

**

 

Notes and References

The whole poem, “Youth Was Armor Enough” can be found here.

Abram, D. (2010). Becoming Animal. New York, NY: Random House (Vintage)

“That Which You Hate and Try to Destroy is Sacred”

In a time when hate towards women seems at a fever pitch, do we not need to answer with: that which you hate and try to destroy is sacred. That which you try to control is beyond your control. That which you try to define and shame is beyond your definition or judgement.


–Jason Pitzl-Waters, from “Goddess in Times of Horror,”
The Wild Hunt

What could be less sexy than
a woman writing down plain truth
about her body and her marriage?

Putting this poem before you is more revolutionary than it should be.

This body is stretchmarked
from my shoulders to my knees,
as though a thousand pearl-eyed fish
had shivered kisses as I surfaced
through time’s suck and whinge. …

People who hate women—the culture(s) that hate women—insist that we smooth ourselves into a sort of plastic perfection, or hide our imperfect selves in shame and embarrassment, enduring ridicule, taunt, insult, oppression.

 

Rucks and pockets and sprouted hair,
brought on by pregnancies and arguments
and weird hormonal shifts…

But the Goddesses are not merely  Arthur Rackham or Dante Gabriel Rossetti pasty-face dames trailing their robes in the water, nor are they only the scantily clad, t and a flaunting fantasies of (too many) comic books–and I’m certainly a far cry from those ladies fair. I insist upon myself: female, full, rounded and loud, complicated, desirous, furious, silly or thoughtful, confused or effusive or sexy as hell by turns. I insist on finding language to embody that woman. Me.

 

…now my skin
looks like the skin of a lake
when a chilly breeze ripples across…

Embodiment. Radical love for oneself as a way of loving world, loving creation. Pagan religions insist on immanence: finding god(s) in the world–in science, in nature, among people, and by embracing our own bodies. Deity as manifest, infusing our daily lives. Woman hating, body hating (and many, many women also hate the female body) goes directly against the idea of immanence. This is an old argument, an old duality, played out today through social media, movies, omnipresent advertising images and in the languages we inherit.

Some people claim that writing about oneself in a poem is narcissistic and/or tacky. Never mind that for now. If women don’t write ourselves, who will write us? How will we be portrayed? We know the answers to those questions. We know the language others will find.

I want every woman to insist on herself—and to be free and able to do so— whoever she is, intensely and immediately and forever and get to the work she must do in the world, without fear. To be in her body without having to wade a river and breathe an atmosphere of sludge and hate and violence. And we should look twice, and three times, even, at how female deities are portrayed in our own traditions.

We love and embrace sensual, sensory experiences as part of worship. What images do we find on our altars, in our gatherings, posted on our pages?

…Or skin of ocean.
(I have come to believe
life and love are questions of dilation.)

It shouldn’t be so crazy to want women to be able to laugh loud and move free. To be loved and admired and celebrated for who we are, as we are. But it still is, damn it, so here I am.

Against the shiny minor goddesses
I set moles, gray hair,
and crows feet…

Lots of people have written lots of good words about this—here, and here, and here and many places more–and how we cannot continue to live in and with such hate. How our daughters and our mothers and our sisters and our wives and we ourselves ourselves– deserve better. I’m thankful for all the good words. I’m thankful for all the anger and the love and the people working for change.

…signs of good humor,
of pain endured and pain’s release.

Meanwhile I try to stand tall, walk straight, laugh outright when I feel joy, shout from my belly when I feel anger, and weep on the ground when I feel sorrow. To live life fully and unafraid, to live embodied, jiggly and giggly and wiping up the jam spilled in the kitchen, and to help others do the same. Because I insist on you, and your wildness, too.

This is more revolutionary than it should be.

Drugs: it’s all about the context

Drugs and other mind-altering substances have been used in a sacred context for millennia. These include wine, tobacco, hallucinogens, soma, haoma, hashish, and many others. Indigenous Americans used tobacco as a sacred and medicinal plant. According to Wikipedia:

[R]eligious use of tobacco is still common among many indigenous peoples, particularly in the Americas. Among the Cree and Ojibway of Canada and the north-central United States, it is offered to the Creator, with prayers, and is used in sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies, smudging, and is presented as a gift. A gift of tobacco is tradition when asking an Ojibway elder a question of a spiritual nature. Because of its sacred nature, tobacco abuse (thoughtlessly and addictively chain smoking) is seriously frowned upon by the Algonquian tribes of Canada, as it is believed that if one so abuses the plant, it will abuse that person in return, causing sickness. The proper and traditional native way of offering the smoke is said to involve directing it toward the four cardinal points (north, south, east, and west), rather than holding it deeply within the lungs for prolonged periods.

It is only when drug use is taken out of this sacramental and communal context that it becomes a vice. If a drug is taken to alter one’s consciousness for a sacred purpose – to obtain information or abilities inaccessible to normal consciousness – then it is a rare occurrence, and for a good reason: in the service of one’s community. I have a friend who is studying to be a curandera using ayahuasca, and she is learning from a traditional South American curandero. All the consumption of ayahuasca is in a safe and sacred context, supervised by experts, and assisted by the spirits of ayahuasca. In Hinduism there is a sacred plant known as Soma, of which it was said “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.” (Rigveda, 8.48.3)  The Zoroastrians have a similar substance known as Haoma, which also has a deity associated with it. The two substances are probably the same, as they are derived from the same Indo-European root word. A substance that is used in a sacred context is called an entheogen:

An entheogen (“generating the divine within”) is a psychoactive substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context. Entheogens can supplement many diverse practices for transcendence and revelation, including meditation, psychonautics, psychedelic and visionary art, psychedelic therapy, and magic.

As Nimue Brown points out, the reason drugs work is because they mimic existing brain chemistry. That is how drugs like anti-depressants work, and it is also how hallucinogens work. This means that similar (though often much less intense) effects can be achieved by using other ecstatic techniques. Sometimes, however, entheogens can alter brain chemistry and create new pathways for perception. So, my take on drug use is that we should always ask ourselves why we are taking it, and if there are better alternatives. If I have a bad headache, I will take a painkiller (aspirin is derived from willow trees, after all), but I will also try to ascertain the cause of the headache (e.g. dehydration, lack of sleep, poor posture, lack of exercise). If I have an infection, I will think twice before taking antibiotics, because over-use and mis-use of antibiotics can lead to the bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, and therefore more virulent. I will also take steps to restore the natural mix of flora and fauna that should be in residence in my intestinal tract, by taking probiotics. If I needed to perform a powerful ritual, I might consider the use of entheogens, but I would also consider other options. I have never tried ayahuasca because one of its side effects is vomiting, and I dislike vomiting intensely. If I was going to use any other entheogen, I would try to find out the correct rituals to get in contact with the spirit associated with the plant, and ingest the substance in a sacred context. I would also find out all the side effects of the substance in question, and make sure that it was safe to use. One of the things that has always struck me about the recreational use of cannabis is that a certain amount of ritual has developed around its use. People don’t tend to smoke it own their own; they tend to share it with others. There is an art to rolling up, and the joint is always passed around in a circle. People make sure that no-one who wants to partake misses out. It is a very social activity. I also think we should consider the ethical consequences of taking illegal drugs. Just as with Prohibition in the 1920s, when illicit alcohol was supplied by criminal gangs, illegal drugs are supplied by criminal gangs who also supply guns and harder drugs. If such drugs were legalised and controlled in the same way as alcohol, the criminal involvement would cease, or at least be massively reduced. The reason I don’t partake of illegal drugs is because they are not fair trade, and buying them means you are giving money to gun-runners and other criminals. We need, as a society, to have a serious conversation about our use of all drugs – medicinal, recreational, stimulant, and entheogenic. Sadly, when drugs are being discussed, their use as entheogens doesn’t tend to even enter into the conversation. But traditional, shamanic, and Pagan religions have always used mind-altering substances for sacred purposes. If this is done in a sacred manner, with appropriate safety precautions, relatively infrequently, for genuine purposes, then there is nothing wrong with it, and it is part of the panoply of ritual techniques available to magical and shamanic practitioners.


The ethics of personal drug use is an ongoing topic at the Patheos Public Square. Click through to read responses from Pagan writers Nimue Brown, Peg Aloi, and John Beckett, as well as from writers of other traditions.

Building Pagan Intellectual Culture Face to Face

For years, I’ve said that one of my goals in life is to help build a contemporary Pagan intellectual culture. That desire has led me to teach at Cherry Hill Seminary, to write general-audience and academic books on Pagan theology, and of course, to manage writers and blog here at Patheos Pagan. And yet, one of the more powerful methods I know of building Pagan intellectual culture was something I stumbled upon, rather than something I actively sought out.

I’m an initiate of a non-Wiccan religious witchcraft tradition. There are relatively few other initiates of that tradition in my local area, however, so a couple of years ago, I sought out a local Wiccan family of covens. I wanted others to work with spiritually, an existing structure I could join (rather than having to create one myself), and support for the challenging process of having my first child. Happily, I’ve found all of that and more.

Although I didn’t know about it when I first approached my coven, there’s a second group that runs alongside it, often drawing in members from other covens, friends, and guests: a philosophical and literature discussion group facilitated by one of my covenmates. This covenmate was educated at a small liberal arts college with a “Great Books” program, and he designed the structure of the discussion group in the style of a forma liberal arts seminar (while also keeping a bit of ritual theory in mind).

Here’s how it works.

Each month, we read a book: popular fiction (dystopian and utopian novels are a favorite genre); literary fiction, like Candide; modern social or historical commentary, like Neil Postman’s Technopoly; or classics of philosophy, like The Symposium (which we actually repeat once a year). Next, we gather in person with a set start and end time – no Pagan Standard Time here. Once gathered, we sit around a table so everyone can see each other, books in hand, pitchers of water in the center, and glasses for each of us. Alcohol consumption and snacks are put off until the formal discussion is finished. To open the seminar, a participant offers an opening question (usually a different person each meeting). And then we’re off!

Although the subject matter is always different, our discussions often circle around the recurring question of “What is a good life?” or, more simply, “What is the good?” (No doubt this is partially due to the fact that the group spent its entire first year reading Plato – although there are few questions more fundamental.) We debate; we play out thought experiments; at times we apply the books to our lives and communities, and at others we explore pure abstraction (like the time we read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and then worked through a number of the proofs in Euclid’s Elements – yes, seriously!).

For me, this group is a bit like being in college again, when I was thirsty to know everything, and my close friends and I would come home from class with heads full of new ideas and talk for hours—about beauty and what it means to be human, about society and what we wanted from our future. We are all a little older now, and probably more practical. But the discussions with my covenmates and our friends are juicy, and more importantly, they inform the choices we make: How do we use our resources? What is the purpose of education, or religious practice? What values do we teach our children? These discussions work their way into our writing, nonprofit mission statements, classroom curricula, art, and the way they approach patients or clients.

Notably, this discussion group is relatively devoid of the kind of vicious contentiousness we often see in the Pagan blogosphere. I don’t think we are significantly more like-minded than I am with those I carry on conversations with online; in some ways, we may be less so. But here’s the real difference: we do ritual together. We eat and drink together. We take care of each others’ pets and babies. And, perhaps most simply, we sit down around a table together and talk while looking each other in the eye.

Of course, it’s hardly the case that no one loses their temper while debating philosophy in personquite the contrary. But it helps us greatly, I think, that the table is a ritual space every bit as much as our temple. The table is a place where we temporarily set our personal investments aside. It is a place where we play and experiment together, not so much a place to argue or persuade (although, argument can be a kind of play, as anyone who has ever argued something they didn’t actually believe knows!). At the table, we respect each other, but not necessarily each other’s ideasthe ideas are all open to question. And, perhaps more importantly, the table is a place where we are clear that we have thoughts, but that we are not defined by our thoughts. We do not come to the table with ideological labels: a Marxist, a classical liberal, a secular humanist, a theist, a nihilist. All these ideas are the objects we put in the center of the table to play with together, perhaps to reclaim ownership of in the end. The ritual space makes it possible to explore, defend, or attack ideas without attacking people—instead, we come to the table as friends and intellectual playmates.

I’ve come to love the culture that the combination of coven and philosophical discussion group creates: the intuitive and the rational all tangled up together in community with the bonds of ritual. It’s also made me realize that not everyone knows how to participate in a seminar-style discussion, where we lay aside our ideological commitments for a specific purpose. I would love to see more Pagan groups learn to create and nurture spaces for intellectual exploration and play, held in a container of bodies, voices, and breath. To be growthful, our debates need to take place in the context of relationship, where the goal is not to persuade or win, but to seek understanding, train limber minds, and gain valuable colleagues.

Of course, not all of us are fortunate enough to have local groups to practice and learn with. I suggest the next best thing—to take some of our conversations out of the realm of text alone and add sight and sound. If we can’t be bodily in the same room with each other, video chat software at least lets us see each other’s body language and hear the intonation of each other’s voices. It is vitally important, if we want to build Pagan intellectual culture, that we know one another in a way more profound than mere words on a screen.

So here’s my proposition: during the month of February, if you write online, make a date to have a cup of tea (or food or drink of your choice) with another writer or commenter. Even better, be daring, and make it someone you’ve argued with. Those of you who are attending PantheaCon will have numerous opportunities to eat and drink and talk together in person, and I hope you will take them! But for those who won’t be there, I invite you to take a risk: e-mail someone (or more than one!) whose voice you’ve never heard before and ask them for an hour of their time via video chat (or failing that, phone). Get a glimpse of their pets or babies or partners. Show off your altar or your book collection or the way the sunlight slants into your kitchen. Put away your debates for a while and take the time to talk. Debates can come later.

How do I grow Pagan intellectual culture?

I form relationships. Won’t you join me this February?

P.S. Feel free to grab the graphic above for your blog or site! And if you participate, I hope you’ll write something about it online (respecting your chat partners’ privacy, of course!).