Packing up pinecones

Since the sun came out in force again today, I am more aware than ever of the approach of Imbolc. I’m moved to pack away the pine cones that have been my seasonal decorations since just before Yule.

pinecones

I haven’t decided what, if any, kinds of things I’ll add to my altar next. For the time being, I can’t help but think of it as a blank slate, appropriately open to inspiration as I prepare to honor my beloved Brigid, whose flame and well alike are an outpouring of creativity.

In the meantime, I’ve tried sitting at a cold altar, and the results were interesting. By not having the presence of the Element concentrated in a specific representation – especially for Air and Fire – I was challenged to experience the presence of that Element in other ways. It made me recommit to strengthening my own internal connections with each Element.

I know that for myself I want to work on those connections in part to develop my ability to call the Quarters. Whether in individual work or group ritual, I find it easy to slip into concentrating on the words, and perhaps the actions, of calling, and to neglect the internal aspect of envisioning and connecting with the Element being called. Anybody else have that problem?

I had already thought about committing to a practice of concentrating on each Element for a week’s worth of meditations, and this experience has made me more determined to do so. I’ll start that after Imbolc, I think, in part because my habits for the new year are still settling in right now. One of the ways I’m going to approach that work will be to do concentrated visualization of all the different aspects of the Element that I can think of, hoping to build up a complex, many-layered composite of diverse experiences of air (the physical thing) that then transforms into a visualization of Air, the Element. I’m hoping that if I succeed in this diverse but unified visualization, it will become a sense of the “personality” of Air that I can tap into more easily in the future.

Have others done work like this? What did you find about it?

I did find that because the presence of Earth on my altar was the same as always, my attention was more drawn to it. As I go through these weeks, I’m definitely going to use the process of “highlighting” one Element on my altar as part of building up this visualization and tying it to my practice.

Hopefully I’ll have some interesting things to share as I go through this process. But that’s for after Imbolc. I don’t want to rush the Wheel; right now we’re still in the season of Earth (by my reckoning), and as we turn towards the Sabbat, I’m finding ways that Earth and I are opening and creating space for the newness that will come. Right now, it’s packing up pinecones. What is it for you?

Photo by the blogger; if you use it, please link back.

Sitting at a cold altar

Have you ever tried sitting at a cold altar?

By cold I don’t just mean temperature. My altar where I do my regular devotions has symbols of the Elements on it: a stick of incense, a small candle, a dish of water, a dish of salt. It also has deity figures and sometimes seasonal decorations and other things. Preparing my altar is part of the process of devotions: sweep off the old incense ash, check the candle and wick, refill the water if needed, light the candle and the incense. Then I sit down…

But in this cold season, when the Earth herself is sere and sleeping, perhaps it would be more appropriate not to do some of those things.

What would it be like to chant my devotions to Fire with an unlit candle? To connect with Water in an empty bowl?

In my way of reckoning the seasons, we’ve just passed Midwinter, and this is still the season of Earth. The bowl of salt and a stone, the presence of Earth on my altar, requires minimal tending – so little that it can be easy to pass over. Perhaps letting my altar become sere would help me concentrate better on that quiet, deep Earth in this its season.

I know we’re all excited that the sun is reborn, and I look forward to Imbolc as much as anyone. But the anticipation shouldn’t cause us to live in the future so much that we neglect the present. Winter has a ways to go yet, and around here we’ve barely had a taste of real cold so far. Our landbase needs the cold, and perhaps we need some time to acknowledge the cold, to honor the darkness even as it begins to give way to increasing light.

I’ll try it. As Hecate says, I shan’t be gone long; you come too.

The Omphalos Meditation: an alternative grounding and centering visualization

Grounding and centering is a fundamental part of my practice. It’s often the first thing Pagans and Wiccans learn, and it can be almost deceptively simple: connect yourself with the energy of the world around you in order to come into better balance. It really is that simple, and like many simple things, it really has many layers of complexity hidden within it. I’ve been known to say that it may be the first lesson in Wicca because in some ways it’s the only lesson.

Most of us do this through a visualization exercise, and the most common one is the Tree of Life visualization or something like it. But that visualization is exceptionally difficult for me to do when laying down. When imagining the Tree of Life, the trunk of my body, and especially my spine, become the vertical axis of the tree. I send roots out of my feet and out of my sit bones, and I send branches out of my head and shoulders.

Laying down, when I begin to visualize roots, if I begin to visualize them coming out of my feet (which are not supporting me), those roots make a hard 90 degree turn to go down towards the earth. My branches make a similar abrupt turn out of my shoulders, and the whole result leaves me with the amusing but unfortunately distracting image of a tree trying to get comfortable on a pillow while pulling up its blankets with one leafy branch.

If instead I try to have both roots and branches come out of my center of gravity, I get the unpleasant visualization of having a tree growing through my  middle with only a small area of contact as I am more or less impaled. This does nothing to help me run that energy throughout my whole body; it is frankly counterproductive.

The real problem is that when I’m trying to ground and center while laying down, it’s often because I’m sick. This is a time when I seriously need to ground and center, but also a time when difficult visualization may be beyond my capacities. If I feel so bad that I’m having trouble getting out of bed, then it’s hard for me to hold competing images (I’m laying down, I’m sitting up; my feet (roots) are in the ground, my feet are up on the bed…). It’s also a time that I need to be in my body, to ground and center in my body directly, rather than trying to detach myself and imagine being perfectly healthy and sitting or standing upright. I have to be honest about where I am and what I’m doing if I’m going to ground and center effectively at all.

I’m developing the Omphalos Meditation as an alternative. Omphalos is the Greek for navel (bellybutton), and the idea of there being an omphalos, or navel of the world, which was a sacred site, comes from Greek mythology. Multiple religious artifacts which represented that omphalos have been found, including one which was in the temple of the oracle at Delphi.

The omphalos represents a point of connection. Just as the navel is a point of connection between mother and infant, the omphalos can symbolize the connection between earth and sky, which nurture each other, or between the spirit world which nurtures and sustains life in this world.

As this source and center, the omphalos is also a kind of axis mundi. The concept of the axis mundi as a spiritual center about which the world is organized can be found in multiple mythologies. Whether it’s a pillar or a tree of life, this organizing and connecting vertical axis is a vital symbol. Our Tree of Life meditation is a kind of axis mundi which connects us, orients us, and steadies us.

The omphalos can be kind of axis mundi, marking the center, but instead of insisting on strictly vertical imagery, it is more adaptable. And because it metaphorically echoes the bellybutton, it can easily be used to make a gentle, steadying connection through that part of the body while lying down.

To do the Omphalos Meditation, lean back or lie comfortably so that your center of gravity – which is usually just a few inches down from your navel – is supported. Close your eyes and breathe slowly and steadily.

Draw your attention to your belly, your navel, and its place as the center of your body. Feel it being supported. Imagine it as the top of a pillar which extends down, through your support, becoming wider as it descends. That pillar is formed of your belly, whatever you’re resting on, the ground beneath that, and the ground beneath that. Follow it down as it goes deeper and deeper, becoming wider and wider, until you realize that the foundation of the omphalos is the whole earth itself.

Feel that connection steadying you and supporting you. Draw strength from it as much as you need.

Now see that the pillar below you has a twin, extending upwards from your center and your belly, one made up of air and light, which reaches up from you as far as you can see. The same air that flows through you and moves your belly when you breathe is caressing you from the outside. The earth below you supports you, and the sky above you comes down to meet it, touching gently, meeting in balance at this center point where you are resting.

Draw support from the sky as well, feeling it balance the energy below you. Circulate that energy throughout yourself as you need.

When you are ready, take a final breath, release the images, and open your eyes.

 

Taking visualization further

Wiccans and Pagans often talk about and use visualization. Although I’m not the first person to point out that it’s misnamed, I’d like you to consider Laiima’s excellent musings about how she perceives the world in different ways and how you might enhance or change your visualizations.

If you’re just getting started with visualization, try exercises like the Tree of Life meditation, but don’t just concentrate on the visual. Use your imagination to construct a sensory experience for yourself that uses as many of your senses as you want: touch, taste, scent, and hearing, plus many more – how about balance, temperature, movement, and pressure?

If you have a dominant sense, either in terms of learning or in terms of perceiving the world, you might start with that one, while you learn to let your imagination run free, then add others. Or concentrate on more details than you have before – Laiima’s concentration on touch conveys how much information can be communicated through a very small amount of contact. Try it and see – and feel, too!

Grounding and Centering: The Tree of Life

This is a common visualization exercise; it’s common because it’s a simple and effective way to begin to relax and be present in the moment. Here’s my version of it, which gives you an idea of how you can lead yourself through it any time. While you’re learning it or if you prefer to have external guidance during a visualization, you may want to record yourself reading it aloud and play that back while doing the exercise.

Sit or stand comfortably and close your eyes. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Concentrate your awareness around your center of gravity, in the middle of your body. Visualize a seed or sapling there, ready to take root. Become aware of where your feet or sit-bones are connected to the earth, and imagine yourself as the sapling, taking root through your connection to the earth.

As you breathe in, feel yourself gathering your energy, and as you breathe out, let your roots dig deeper into the soil. They tunnel down and spread out as they grow. Feel yourself connecting with the dirt and stones and even the water table, deep below you. With each breath, push your roots a little bit further, gently, because roots will find their way around and through any obstacles that present themselves. As you get down to the bedrock, feel your roots touch the stones, and connect with the veins in the stones themselves, so that your roots go down into the very bones of the earth.

Pause there for a moment and let that connection strengthen. Let whatever is bothering you flow down and out into the earth and be diffused, and draw up from your roots whatever energy and sustenance you need. Feel the stability that your roots give you, so that you are balanced and steady.

Now, when you take a breath in, draw that flow up into yourself, into your trunk, and as you breathe out, start to put out leaves and branches. Breathe in, and feel the energy of the earth combine with your own to feed those branches,  and as you breathe out, feel them grow, reaching up through the sky. Let them divide and spread, so that some are thick and strong, and others end in delicate twigs that sway as the wind blows through them. Feel your leaves seeking out the sun’s energy, or the moon’s, or both. That energy flows into you, and mingles with what’s already there, strengthening your trunk and feeding you all the way down to your roots, too.

Rest there, letting the energy flow into you and through you, letting it nourish you, heal you, and replenish you.

When you’re ready, gently draw your roots and branches back in. You can do this by visualizing them shrinking back into you as you breathe in. You know they will always be there, and that you can extend them again, and connect with your environment again, at any time. For now, let them retract into you, so that you gradually become aware of the shape of your own body again. When you’re ready, open your eyes. Move gently when getting up after this.

Take a deep breath

This is an easy breathing exercise that is very useful. The goal is to take a deep breath, which sounds simple, but is a powerful way to calm both body and mind.

Put one hand flat on your chest, over your breastbone, and the other hand flat on your belly, over your belly button. Sit or lie comfortably so that your chest is not constricted (don’t hunch forward over a computer, for example). Breathe in, and as you do, notice how your hands move or don’t move. Breathe out slowly. The goal is to breathe deeply and slowly so that the hand on your belly moves more than the hand on your chest.

When you take a full deep breath, your diaphragm, below your lungs, pushes down to move your stomach and other abdominal organs out of the way so your lungs can expand. As a result, your belly goes out just a little bit. If you constrict your breathing and don’t move your belly, you end up breathing into just the upper parts of your lungs, maybe even moving your shoulders more than your belly. This shallow breathing is not as efficient, and causes you to take more rapid breaths. It also makes your whole body get more tense: your heart beats faster, your muscles are likely tighter, your hands are a little cooler and your digestion may slow down.

(Warning: Science!) Biologically, this type of shallow breathing raises the activity level of the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system, in spite of its name, is in charge of the “fight-or-flight” reflex. Most of us have plenty of stress, so the sympathetic nervous system gets plenty of work. We need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to balance it out. Deep breathing does this by not only slowing the respiratory rate but also by activating the vagus nerve where it passes through the diaphragm, which is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system and acts to lower the heart rate and blood pressure. It, along with the rest of the parasympathetic nervous system, signals the body that it can devote more time and energy to rest and repair.

This is why taking a deep breath is always the first step to grounding and centering. It’s the perfect way to calm your body physically, and that makes it possible to calm your mind and spirit, to reconnect with what’s going on inside of you and outside of you. So the next time somebody tells you to take a deep breath, try it!

 

Daily practices: sacralizing the everyday

In one of Slacktivists’s recent posts, he writes about he wishes there were more ceremonies or rituals to acknowledge important turning points in one’s life. He gives the example of a Jewish community creating a community-wide ritual for a young person getting his or her driver’s license. This is one thing the Pagan community has done pretty well: we love creating rituals for all kinds of things. One of my friends wrote an absolutely fantastic transition-to-motherhood ritual, for example. But we don’t talk as much about the little rituals that are part of our daily practice.

These rituals are part of sacralizing the everyday. I believe in deity that is immanent as well as transcendent, so things like eating meals and leaving and returning to my home are interactions with spirit as well as with matter; they deserve to have their own rituals, even tiny ones. Those rituals make my daily practice not something that happens once, but something that is a constant process. Every ritual is a moment, even if just a breath, to ground and center, to adjust my perspective, to remember what’s important, to include the spiritual context of my life.

So I thought I’d share a few of my mini-rituals with you, and ask you about yours. How do you make the mundane magical and the straightforward spiritual?

One of my most important ones is my adaptation of a mezuzah. I have a trinity knot, which has spiritual significance for me, carved from cherry wood hanging just inside the door. When I go out, I touch it and murmur a prayer for myself as I travel and for my home and all who live in it. When I come back in, I touch it again in recognition that I am home and in thanks for the safe return.

I’ve found that this ritual’s meaning deepens over time. A lot of Pagans do some form of house warding or blessing. I visualize that delineation of the home’s space as like a cord looping around the edges of my home, with the ends tied together in a knot that rests in the trinity knot. Every time I murmur my blessing, it is also a way of reinforcing that boundary. It says, this is home, not because the outside is bad or dangerous, but this is home, because this space is ours, and we make it so, and we fill it with love.

I think this is especially important for me, because as a military spouse, I move frequently. Even as a child, I moved frequently; I don’t have a sense that I’m “from” some place in particular. So the place I live now doesn’t have years of familiarity that make it from a house into a home. It won’t be my home for very many more years. So I use rituals to make it my home now, and to acknowledge that on a regular basis, and I’ll use ritual to thank and release the space when we leave. Then I’ll hang my trinity knot in a new home, and continue the cycle.

The trinity knot and its prayer are about how home and family are linked. This is home, for now, because this is where my family lives and loves. When my family moves, we’ll still be family, and we’ll be able to transfer our wholeness in that way into a new space. And since my acknowledgment of that remains the same, the habit and meaning have a chance to accumulate, even if not in the same spot, but in the same time: in the same time of my experience as I go in and out of my home.

Another ritual is a blessing over meals, which is common to many religions, but for me explicitly acknowledges the cycles of life and death that are bound up in the meal. (It’s the whole plant-harvest-replant cycle of the Wheel of the Year in a dish!) I also have an altar that honors my ancestors, my living family, and those whom I consider part of my “chosen family,” my close friends and loved ones. I light a candle and incense there nearly every night, and if I have prayers to say for those folks, that’s when I do it. Journaling can be a ritual. What rituals do you have? What do they do for you, in your life and your practice?

Element Associations: an exercise

I’ve been reading some of Mary K. Greer’s excellent books on Tarot lately. One of my favorite things about Greer’s books is that she includes lots of interactive exercises for the reader. This can make just flipping through the books seem a bit flat and boring, but once I actually engage with the exercises and work through the books, actively reflecting on the concepts being introduced, I find that I’ve gained far more skill than I would have gained just by reading an author’s opinions on a topic. In that spirit, here is an exercise of my own to help you determine how you relate to the four classical Elements:

This can be done on a single sheet of paper, but it’s a little easier if you use four sheets of lined paper, one for each Element. Write the name of one Element (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) at the top of the sheet. Then set a timer for a short period, 30 seconds to a minute, and brainstorm words you associate with that Element. These can be nature words, sensations, sights, sounds, tastes, smells, textures, emotional or psychological qualities, verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs, whatever comes to mind. Whenever you’re stymied, come back to the name of the Element at the top of the page. Write one on each line, and if you finish the page, start a second column. Repeat, with the same amount of time, for each Element.

As you line up your four pieces of paper side-by-side, how do your lists compare? Is one noticeably longer? Shorter? Are they all about the same? Did you become more adept at brainstorming as you got used to it, so that each list is a little longer?

Now go through your lists and note how each item makes you feel: for terms with positive associations, put a plus sign, and for terms with negative associations, a minus sign. Some things will be neutral, but don’t take too long on each one, and don’t worry about how you “ought” to feel about a particular association; go with your gut instinct. If you aren’t a strong swimmer, “waves” might be a negative one, whereas for a surfer who paddled as soon as he could walk, it could be very positive. The point is to get at what you feel with each term.

Now reassess your lists in terms of how many pluses and minuses are on each. Is one of them longer, but full of minuses? Is your longest list mostly positive? What about the shortest? Which list is most nearly equal in terms of pluses and minuses?

Each of us has personal associations with the Elements. These can be informed by theoretical approaches that give us long lists of correspondences based on abstract theory, but our personal experiences can override correspondences, and can particularly give emotional color to how we perceive an element. Personally, I had a hard time getting in touch with Air, because I associated my experiences of it with wind, and especially cold wind, which I find very painful. This aversion to my mental and emotional visualization of Air made it hard for me to appreciate the Element’s positive qualities, and hard to do strong invocations, which led to difficulty balancing my approach to ritual and magic.

Brainstorming or free-associating can be both a tool for approaching a concept and a measure of how comfortable we are with it. When asked to brainstorm on a topic we feel comfortable with, the associations flow freely, giving us long lists, while ideas we have tended to shy away from, even unconsciously, leave us grasping for words just out of reach. True, sometimes we’ll have long lists of reasons we don’t like a particular thing. (I have plenty of associations with, say, spiders, but they’re all emotionally negative!) Rating the emotional appeal of each term can give you insight into why a particular list is shorter or longer, and whether that has to do with your internal filters, preferences, or preconceived notions that push you into greater or lesser affinity with a given Element.

Take a look, also, at how each list is slanted towards internal (emotional or psychological) associations and external (nature words, actions), and which words are abstract and which concrete. An Element with which you are uncomfortable might be one that you relate to mostly in the abstract. This can be either a symptom or a cause; either way, it means you might benefit from some additional interaction with that Element, especially in concrete, experiential ways that can help you form positive associations. For me, remembering a time with positive emotions that I was suddenly struck by the scent of pine resin baked out of the trees around me by a warm spring sun helped me put my relationship with Air on a whole different footing.

If you feel like this exercise shows you areas you could work on, try doing additional brainstorming around the Element that gave you the shortest list, and also the one with the most minuses on it, if those were different. Search your own memories for better associations you can form: as in my example, a good place to start is with an experience in nature that you enjoyed and that is in some way related to the Element. Brainstorm words to describe the experience, both external and internal. If you can’t find a positive experience, see if you can imagine one, or better yet, make it happen. Sensory memories with powerful emotional connections can make lasting impressions, so if you need to, make a date to do something you know you’ll enjoy, and maybe let the Element change your impression of it.

This exercise is one you can repeat, so keep some notes about it in your journal. You and the Elements just might surprise each other as your relationships grow and change.