Chakra meditation class

I’ll be leading a guided meditation through the chakras at Mind Your Body Oasis in Arlington, VA on Friday, May 23rd at 6:30 pm.

We’ll go into a state of relaxation and encounter each of the chakras in turn, giving participants an opportunity to experience each chakra and work to clear out any existing issues and balance the way their personal energy is working in each of these areas.

Come by to relax and enjoy!

Ostara salt scrub

Happy Ostara!

I haven’t developed this into a full ritual yet, but here’s an idea you might try: an Ostara salt scrub. Why not try a little “spring cleaning” on your body as well as around the house?

Seriously, though, when I look at the imagery of Ostara, all those eggs and seeds, there’s a piece of the story that is seldom told. The first thing a chick does is break out of its shell. The first thing a seed does in order to sprout is split open. My beloved cherry blossoms start as buds that burst open to unfurl their tender petals.

And for all that vigorous language – breaking and bursting – it’s often made possible by a softening. We see this in the plant life. With many seeds, with many kinds of buds and blooms, the prerequisite is a change in the surrounding tissues, which become thinner and softer, so that the opening is more gradual and gentle.

A salt scrub is a simple way to experience this in your own body. Take relatively coarse-grained salt, like kosher salt, and mix it with a little oil, just enough to make a paste. When you start your shower or bath, before you turn on the water, rub the paste gently across areas of your skin that you want to exfoliate and soften. The coarser the grain, the stronger the scrub will be, and you can scratch yourself with this, so go slowly. When you’re done, wash with soap and water, and the skin should be refreshed – it might even be tender.

That tenderness has something to teach us. Think about how the new buds feel when their coverings are peeled away for the first time – they are tender and delicate, easily hurt. The transformation of Ostara isn’t just a process of scrubbing away or breaking through, it’s a process of softening into the change, and continuing that softness, that gentleness, afterwards as part of nurturing the new things that are coming into being.

If you want to make this into a ritual, I suggest you do it for your hands and feet. You might want to soak your feet to soften the calluses, then dry them off and do the scrub. Think about what you’re scrubbing away, but also think about how you can soften, how you can open to new possibilities in gentle ways. Take care of your softened, renewed skin by putting a little moisturizer on it, and think about how you’ll need to care for whatever this new thing in your life is.

When you’re done, ground and center – and if possible, go outside and put your scrubbed feet on the ground to do it. Feel how the refreshed, softened skin is much more sensitive. Maybe you’ll feel a new ability to root down into the ground, growing a few more tentative tendrils like the new shoots of springtime seeds.

Feel the new sensitivity in your hands, too. Think about the new possibilities available there. What are you aware of when you touch the world around you that you couldn’t feel before? Maybe you will put your hand to a new task. Maybe you can reach out in a new way. Whatever you do, be gentle with it. Remember the tenderness you feel; remember that other kinds of new life, new possibilities, new alternatives, feel just as tender and tentative in their own way.

Ground, gently, and renew yourself. Reach out, gently, and nurture the newness around you. Blessed Ostara!

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.

 

Mabon: Jewels and Fruit

Grounding and centering.

I breathe in, and out. I sink my roots down, deeper, deeper. Breathe. Sink. Breathe. Sink.

When I am grounded, deep in the dark, I find the Mother. I spread my hands before her, and my tears spill through, becoming jewels that tumble into the soil.

I know instinctively that they are not for me. These are what I need to leave behind. They are fixed in form, and they need to be returned to her. I look to her to ask what I should take to nurture my soul.

She points to the dirt. And then I see the tiny, hairlike fibers of my roots that quest between the crumbs of the soil, finding the minuscule fragments of nutrients, the miniature droplets of moisture. The fragmentary crystals of minerals and elements that are what I can absorb and turn into something else, something of myself, something living. There are droplets of compassion, particles of patience, fragments that will feed me.

I draw deep; each one is small, but my roots are questing wide and deep, and they quench my thirst and feed my hunger quickly, richly. I draw myself up, pressing upwards, unraveling shoots and branches.

The Father shines down on me. I turn my green face to the sun, asking implicitly what I am to do; I cannot reach so high so quickly. Don’t worry, he reassures me: I am here to help draw you up. He is right, and my branches grow and spread into a gorgeous canopy.

I grow, breathing in air and basking in fire from above and pushing it down to feed even my deepest roots, drinking in water and drawing in nutrients from below and sending them pulsing skyward to provide the raw materials to my highest branches.

In between appear apples, dangling from my branches like drops of fire, like the most precious jewels on gossamer threads, but more beautiful, so much more beautiful as living things that carry within themselves the promise of life.

This is the dynamic balance of Mabon.

Landbases and moving over time

I wanted to let that last post stand on its own, but also provide some background.

I’ve been spending some time, both earlier this winter/spring and just in the last few days, in the part of the country where I did most of my growing up. (We moved around a lot; this is the longest I lived in one place for the first 2-3 decades of my life.) It’s not “home” for me anymore, but I’ve realized that I do, actually, have a deep relationship to the landbase here.

Living in the area I do now and knowing that I’ll probably move again in the next few years can make it feel like I’m not allowed or not supposed to “put down roots” in the local landbase. This visit has made me realize that’s nonsense in a couple of different ways.

Roots are funny things – they grow when you’re not looking. I didn’t realize how much I had internalized of this area, so much that when I go on trance journeys, one of my favorite places to visit is a forest that looks like my idealization of the area across the street. And roots will sometimes hibernate – I can renew my relationship with this landbase easily.

In particular, I went outside to do devotions this morning, and I realized that a lot of my relationship with and awareness of this landbase was formed in those early morning hours of waiting for the school bus because that was one of the few times that I was outside, regularly, and being quiet and even, occasionally, observant. I didn’t know what I was doing, but in some ways, those times were when I first learned to meditate.

This gives me hope that the work I do with my current landbase will bear similar fruit: I will learn a bit more, grow a bit more, and will build a relationship that will never really leave me, even if I leave the land and mostly visit it internally. And it will help me learn how to build a relationship with whatever landbase I am in in the future.

I have to thank Hecate for putting into words the realization that pollen is the trees’ way of doing the Great Rite. (This can lead to some interesting and deeply bawdy reflections on pine cones that I will leave as an exercise for the reader.) Tis the season!

Visualizations: Wind, Wheel of the Year, Desire

After all that heavy stuff this morning, I wanted to leave you with some visualizations my friend Grafton pointed out to me which I find absolutely amazingly beautiful and also spiritually meaningful to me. All of these come from HINT.FM, which is the collaboration of a couple of people very talented in both art and digital graphics. They’re doing some really amazing stuff, so if you like creative images, or you’ve read anything by Edward Tufte, you should check them out.

First up is a map of wind. You can look at the current wind patterns across the continental US, and you can also look back at different patterns that have occurred. I can’t say enough about how incredible this is. In one simple, lightly animated image, I can see the Rocky Mountains, I can feel the differential temperatures from Canada to Texas, I can grasp, in a totally nonverbal, visceral way, what not just wind but Wind, the Element of Air in action, is doing right now. I can see how my landbase fits into it, and also other places I’ve lived or loved.

Second is something called Flickr Flow, which actually tells us a lot about the Wheel of the Year. You’ve probably seen some of the representations that use icons to represent the way nature changes around the Wheel – a tree in four phases, or pumpkins at Samhain, snowflakes at Yule, lambs at Imbolc, etc. Well, this is sort of like that, except that it shows the Wheel emerging naturally from the random accumulation of photos on Flickr. The colors in photos change throughout the year: Winter is full of grays and blues, Spring has brilliant splashes of color, Summer is predominantly green, and Autumn’s leaf palette is more subdued. It’s a great example of how we all experience the tides of the Wheel, even if not in exactly the same ways, at the same times, or the same from year to year.

Finally, check out this image. When I first saw it, I thought it was a heat map, or an infrared image, where parts of the body that have lots of blood vessels close to the surface look brighter. Turns out it’s something like a map of desire: the “heat” is based loosely on how desirable people found certain areas of the human body. A lot of details are not explained on that page, and there’s probably a lot of interesting social construction of gender, women, desire, and so on wrapped up in it, but it’s still interesting to me how the results came out.

I think the creators made it look a bit like an infrared image deliberately, playing on the common metaphorical equation of desire with heat. I started to realize it’s not an infrared image when I started checking off major areas of the body with blood close to the surface: the face, lips and ears, are surprisingly dark, although they do get more attention than areas like, say, the forehead. The fingers, too, are almost wholly neglected, which I find odd: the spark of desire leaps between the gap of lovers’ fingers faster than a breath. Fingers and lips are instruments of desire and receivers of the same; perhaps that’s part of the difference between thinking about a person, a body, and an image on a screen. Regardless, as we approach the heat of Beltane fires, I encourage you to take a look at this image and reflect on it, and your own experiences of desire, whether sexual or other.

Meditation Moment: Progressive Muscle Relaxation

As the Wheel of the Year turns to winter, it is natural for us to turn inward as well, using the increasing darkness to help us concentrate on internal matters and to work with trance states and meditative journeys. Progressive muscle relaxation is a simple but useful technique for quieting the body so that the spirit can engage in these experiences without being distracted by external influences. It can also be used as part of a larger meditative practice to help us recognize where we tend to experience stress physically and learn to release that tension.

Describing stress as a feeling of pressure or tension isn’t just a figure of speech; most of us have particular muscles that we tend to tense up unconsciously when we’re worried about something. Some people “store” stress like this in their neck or back; others in the legs or abdomen. After too long, a muscle kept tense will feel achy and stiff. That feeling is annoying in and of itself, and can be tremendously distracting while you’re trying to engage in inner work.

It would be easy to say that if we just removed stress from our lives, we wouldn’t get tense, stiff, and sore muscles as a result! Since totally eliminating the cares and concerns of a normal life isn’t likely to happen anytime soon for most of us, progressive muscle relaxation is a way to work backwards from the effects to the cause. By relaxing, calming, and stilling the body, we make it possible to do the same in the mind and spirit.

Being able to relax the body to a comfortable, neutral state is also essential for doing trance work or guided meditations that involve a lot of detailed visualization or action. In these experiences, you want to be able to “leave your body behind,” and it’s much more difficult to do that when achy muscles are clamoring for your attention and intruding on your awareness.

To do progressive muscle relaxation, you first tense and then relax each group of muscles in your body. You’re using pairs or groups of muscles because you want to keep your body mostly still while you’re doing this. Where there’s a pair of muscles that have opposite functions, like your biceps and triceps in your upper arm, or your quads and hamstrings in your thigh, you tense both of them at the same time so that your limb doesn’t actually move at all. For areas like your feet and hands, you’ll be using whole groups of muscles.

Starting at your feet, first try to point your toes or to curl them inward, and while you take a slow breath in tense all the muscles there at once, then relax as you exhale. Now imagine that you’re pressing hard on a pedal with the ball of your foot, and tense and relax in sync with your breath. As you relax, that part of your body may feel heavy or warm; go with that feeling and let yourself sink into it, bit by bit.

It can actually be hard for us to identify tension or to know what really loosening up particular muscles feels like. By tensing the muscles first, we kick-start the relaxation process: if it can’t get any tenser, there’s nowhere else to go. Once that starts, we can go with the flow and let it keep going to relax out the initial tension we were storing there. As you become more familiar with what it feels like to be truly relaxed in certain parts of your body, you’ll be better able to identify tension and start the process of relaxing.

Do not hold your breath while tensing your muscles! That will raise your blood pressure and actually create more stress in your body; let the timing of your breathing determine how long you are tight, and then feel the strain and tension flowing out as you exhale.

As you progress from your feet up your legs and through your core, you will know when you get to the muscles where you tend to store stress because there will be less difference between the starting feeling of the muscle and the really tensed state – it will feel already tight when you get to it. As you let it relax, the looser state will feel even better than where you started out.

Keep going up through your core, to your arms and hands. Tense your hands in two different ways, like you did your feet – once in a fist, and once with your fingers spread out as wide as you can move them, pressing your palm down. Then work through your shoulders, neck, and face. Yes, even your facial muscles can feel tense and benefit from some relaxation!

When you finish, go back to your feet and slowly check on each group of muscles. If any of them have tensed up again, squeeze and relax them, slowly, until your whole body feels open and calm. If you want to do a trance exercise, do this while laying or sitting down, and as your muscles feel warm and heavy, imagine that they are sinking down into closer contact with the floor or chair. When you’re ready, you can let your attention drift up and away, gently moving out of your body to begiin your trance.

Calm the body and the mind will follow; still the body so the mind can roam.

Meditation Moment – Staying in the Feeling

As October rolls around, many Pagans begin preparing for Samhain, the Celtic festival of summer’s end, when the veil between the worlds of living and dead is especially thin. For Pagans today, this is often a time for acknowledging those who have died in the previous year and telling myths about death and rebirth. For all who may be grieving or remembering grief at Samhain, I would like to offer some suggestions about how meditative techniques can help you experience and move through those feelings.

Concentrating on these emotions, especially the ones we usually seek to avoid, may seem like the very opposite of the calm peace and even detachment cultivated through meditation. I have often written that when other thoughts or concerns arise during meditation, you should acknowledge them and then return your attention to whatever you’ve chosen to focus on. It’s true that this is the best course to take when your distractions are relatively simple, everyday sorts of matters. But deep emotions, like grief, cannot be dismissed as easily, and forcing ourselves to do so can become an unhealthy form of repressing our feelings.

If deep emotional issues are a concern for you as this Samhain draws near, instead of treating the emotional experience as a failure in your mediative practice, you might try embracing the emotion and allowing yourself to feel it fully as a necessary part of letting it go. This is tricky; you don’t want to be overwhelmed by the feelings or reinforce their presence in your life. As a result, the rest of the suggestions I give in this article will be fairly general ones that you have to adapt to your own situation. I strongly suggest trying these kinds of techniques as part of a steady meditative practice, and taking other actions to work through your grief at the same time, especially talking with people you can trust. Above all, be compassionate with yourself.

Grieving is a long and complex experience, and every situation is different. In the process of coming to terms with a death, many different emotions can play a part, including fear, anger, remorse, and resentment. Allow yourself to acknowledge any and all of these in turn, even if they seem paradoxical or difficult to explain to others. What you are feeling does not make you a bad person – it’s how you handle the feeling that matters. You may want to read about the stages of grieving; these are not a simple linear sequence, but they may help you understand that you are not alone in going through a lot of different, difficult feelings while grieving.

Facing these feelings, acknowledging them, is the first step to beginning to move through them towards acceptance of what has happened. Accepting the current sitation does not mean that you have to like it, but it enables you to turn your attention to the future again.

As you go into your feelings and begin to acknowledge them, the same meditative techniques of self-monitoring that you use to direct your attention can help you stay in the feeling, rather than turning away to some more desirable topic. You might use these while doing an activity you’ve chosen to help you express the emotion, such as a creating a piece of art. Meditatively centering yourself on the emotion can keep you engaged with the purpose so that you fully explore the emotion and can release it into the activity as much as possible.

On the other hand, if you feel like you’re drowning in the emotional current, you can use that same approach of self-awareness to help you identify when you’re getting in over your head, so you can take steps to turn your attention elsewhere. Again, these two approaches complement each other: you don’t want to repress your feelings during the grieving process, but you don’t want to stay stuck in them forever, either. Use your best judgment and ask those around you or a trained counselor for help in striking the right balance as you move through the process of grieving.

I have found that the best time to engage with, experience, and begin to release an emotion is when I can move my attention back and forth between the emotion and the calm, compassionate self-awareness that I usually occupy during meditation. This usually happens only after some time has passed since the event that caused the emotion. As needed, I switch my focus in a way similar to the technique I suggested for meditating using opposites.

If this is too difficult for you, another approach is to visualize an interaction between different aspects of your self. Let one part of yourself give voice to the emotions and struggle you’re experiencing while another part of you listens as attentively and compassionately as you would for your closest friend. If you are familiar with the way Starhawk talks about different parts of the self, you might consider these to be your Younger Self and Talking Self, respectively. Or they might be the person you were before and the person you are coming to be in the present. Regardless, the goal is not to increase the separation between parts of yourself but to make healing and wholeness more possible by allowing yourself to go through the emotions to be able to return to your center.

Ultimately, as the immediacy of a feeling diminishes, you will be better able to apply these techniques and to come to terms with your emotions. Remember, above all, that these emotions are not a failure of your meditative practice or an impenetrable barrier. They are not separate from you; they are part of you. Using meditation to help yourself cope with and reconcile them can be a valuable part of returning, again, as always, to your center.