Lunasa – Sacred Work

The name of this festival is often written as Lughnasadh, but from now on I’m going to use the modernized Irish spelling: Lunasa. This rendering gives a better impression of how to pronounce it and is easier to remember and write.

Lunasa represents the beginning of the harvest season. It is often described as the grain harvest, but local experiences will vary based on ecology, climate, and weather. Whatever the precise agricultural situation is, Lunasa marks the turning of the year towards autumn. We’re still in the heat, but we know the season will change, and it’s time to think about how to deal with that future and the coming winter.

Harvest festivals have a long history in a huge variety of cultures. Having enough food is a good thing to celebrate, and it’s downright fun. Having enough to get through the next season and be able to make both beer and bread is even better, and definitely deserves a party. But in this day and age few of us harvest any kind of food with our own hands, and although gardens are growing in popularity, only a tiny proportion of us harvest the kind of bounty that provides security through the cold months. I think one result is that we tend to focus on the mystical meanings of bread and life while ignoring the seemingly mundane but fundamentally necessary part of the harvest: work.

Harvesting historically has been hard, sustained physical labor which was utterly vital to the survival of not just the laborers themselves but also everyone they knew and maybe more. Yes, harvest festivals are a way to celebrate the results of that work, but the more I think about it, the more I think that those festivals were originally meant to honor the work itself as well. The amount of work accomplished – how much of the grain was brought in before the onset of the ever-uncertain autumn rains – made a discernable difference to everyone’s lives. Getting that work done, and done quickly and well, was vitally important. The more I think about it, I think festivals weren’t just honoring the person of John Barleycorn but the people who brought him in.

After all, work doesn’t exist without workers. In a harvest festival, the community comes together to celebrate; maybe they were celebrating each other as much as the goodness on the table. Since we do talk about the mysteries of life, death, and rebirth, including how they are seen in food, it’s easy to imagine – and to romanticize – harvesting as a kind of sacred work, especially because most of us don’t have to do it.

We need to face the facts, though: in the US, a tremendous amount of food is harvested by workers who have little to no legal protection and suffer despicable labor abuses as a result. Such a high proportion of them are undocumented immigrants that when some southern states implemented harsh anti-immigrant laws, farmers were unable to find enough workers and food literally rotted in the fields. Workers who do find jobs are subject to being paid a pittance for work performed in totally unsupervised conditions. Clearly, we are not treating this harvesting work as sacred.
If we want to honor a sacred understanding of Lunasa, it is imperative that we acknowledge this problem and begin to engage with it. I’m not going to begin to attempt to speak to the experiences of farm workers; they are an extremely diverse group of people with equally diverse experiences and opinions. But we can and should think about how to treat their work as sacred – and I mean a lot more than simply murmuring a prayer before eating.

In experiences closer to my own, I know that even without outright abuses, there are plenty of problems. Today’s complex economy creates the opportunity for abusing farm workers because their work is technically “unskilled,” while the diversified, stratified, post-industrial service economy tends to reserve more pay for things that take more skill or education, drawing all but the very least privileged away from physical labor. Even though it’s more lucrative, though, I venture that many of us would not instinctively describe the work of a department store sales associate or cellular billing data analyst as sacred.

Perhaps that’s why we like to romanticize the work of the harvest; it gives us a role, even if only a supporting one, in the myth of John Barleycorn. It lets us know where we belong in the sacred story at a time when we crave meaningful work done for its own sake. But even in the most basic subsistence farming, not everyone in a community goes out to reap and bind grain in the fields. A truly communal festival should include everyone.

All of this leads me to ask: what is work?

When I want to talk about sacred work, it’s not acceptable to define work purely by economics; it’s not just something we do that makes money. There is work that leaves us utterly numb but puts food on the table – and harvesting can fall into that category – and there is work that invigorates us, that aligns with our most important goals and does real good in the world, but pays no money at all. With millions of people searching for jobs that don’t exist, many more millions working at jobs that undervalue their efforts, we cannot rely on a dysfunctional economy rife with inequality to indicate what is or is not valuable work.

So what is it that we can honor as sacred which reflects the values of Wicca and Paganism being acted out in the world?

More than anything else, my understanding of Wicca means living in relationship. We are doing sacred work when we honor our relationships with our work, when we reaffirm and renew relationships with our work.

This includes even actions that aren’t done directly for another person. I was mulling over this topic while going about some of the domestic tasks of everyday life. Scooping the litterbox seems like the very definition of what is not sacred. But when I reflected on it, I found that my understanding of the task makes a difference. When I do chores because I “have to,” or because I feel guilty about not doing them, they seem utterly mundane, and they even feel like something that takes up time I wish I could use to do this mythical sacred work.

My mind kept returning to a line from the Charge of the Goddess that I focused on for Beltane:

All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.

I can’t say that scooping the litterbox becomes an act of pleasure, but it can be an act of love: love for my cats, yes, but also love for my spouse and myself so that we can enjoy the pleasure of the cats’ companionship in a clean and pleasant environment.

If I can find a nugget – however small – of love and pleasure in a piece of drudgery, how much more can be found in the work of an artist whose relationships with his medium, with his muse, with the world in general, are manifested in a creative way? Although she may not seem to be relating to another person, she can be living in relationship and honoring those relationships as part of her sacred work.

This shifting of awareness or intent is not going to heal our fractured world of work with the wave of an imaginary magic wand. It’s not going to redeem the drudgery of a job done solely for economic reasons, and it certainly won’t repair the harm done by inequality and abuse. But it might point the way towards how we can change the world and ourselves, teaching us to honor workers and their work, in their myriad forms.

Paganism today is often thought of as an “alternative” form of spirituality, and this label has some truth to it. I hope that Paganism isn’t just an alternative but that it helps us create alternatives. For people whose practice is earth-centered but live in an urban environment, Paganism can help them recognize the coexistence of the “natural” and the human environements and also encourage them to move their lives in more sustainable directions. Perhaps there are alternatives to be found here as well.

Perhaps we can create an alternative vision of work that doesn’t deny the realities of post-industrial capitalism and consumerism in the “First World” today, but helps us create meaningful actions, responses, and relationships. We can examine our experiences to find and make more opportunities for meaningful, even sacred, work for ourselves. And we should certainly work to change our society to one where everyone has those opportunities: where no one is hungry, or homeless, or marginalized. Especially the people who do the sacred work of harvesting.

Finally, this alternative vision calls on us to do a particular kind of sacred work: sharing. This is, deep down, one of the fundamental ways to work in relationship. If we are looking for sacred work, then sharing is the act of grace that blesses what we have done by confirming its value for and with others. It makes the work sacred – and that is the real meaning of sacrifice.

Samhain – Learning to Listen

I am continuing to republish a series of articles originally written in 2011. I wrote this piece only a few months before my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and it is especially poignant in light of her recent passing.

May you be blessed with communication with all you love this Samhain.

I see Wicca as a religion of relationship. Samhain is the Sabbat that teaches us about the challenges and ineffable fulfillment of living in relationship.

Samhain has its roots in an ancient Celtic festival marking the beginning of winter. It is also the festival of the dead – not of death, although it does acknowledge that we live our lives in the midst of cycles that include death – but of the dead, especially those close to us who have died.

At this time of transition, as he days and nights transform themselves into the darker, cooler times of winter, folklore tells us that the Veil between our everyday world and the Otherworlds begins to thin. At liminal times like Samhain, as we move from the world of summer to the world of winter, it becomes easier for the Otherworlds, lands of enchantment and imagination, to make themselves felt in our normally real world. The Otherworlds are home to the spirits of our beloved dead as well as potentially many other kinds of beings, depending on the stories and traditions you know follow; they may include the Good Folk, the puca and the bean-sidhe, the kelpie of the well and the hinkypunk of the marsh, and other kinds of creatures as well.

These creatures and their tales inspired many of the traditions of Halloween which play on the possible relationships between humans and spirits. For those of us who have lost loved ones, though, it is the thinning of the Veil between us and our beloved dead that is the most important feature of Samhain. It makes this the time that we pay special attention to our relationships with those who have passed over.

During one conversation someone asked me how I could have a relationship with someone who isn’t alive anymore; how would that work, without the other person responding to me? Relationships with our beloved dead are certainly different from relationships with those who are alive, and more challenging to maintain, but the effort that goes into them teaches me more about what it means to live in relationship with others. Most of all, it helps me learn to listen.

The lack of active communication with my beloved dead does not represent, to me, an insuperable barrier to being in relationship. After all, we maintain what we think of as ongoing relationships with living people with whom we communicate infrequently; just because I haven’t spoken or written to someone in months doesn’t necessarily mean I have stopped relating to her. If my partner and I were separated by circumstances, no matter how infrequent communication was, the intensity of my relationship with him would not be dissolved simply by time and space. The ways we related during that time would be changed but not totally removed. When I think about, remember, hope and wish and pray for those I love, I am in some way relating to them. The challenge is to stay open to who those people actually are, not just who I might wish them to be. This is the importance of listening.

When I interact directly with people who I haven’t seen in some time, I am often struck by how their presence is more vivid than my memories or imagination of them. I may remember the prejudices, the follies, the foibles, as well as the charm, the wit, and the mannerisms, but distance often dulls those recollections, like a reproduction of a vibrant oil painting sketched in misty watercolors. When the impact and essence of the original impose themselves on me, it can be a shock to realize how much I downplayed or disregarded an aspect. This happens for both good traits and bad; seeing a relative in person reminds me that she is both kinder than I think about sometimes and more nauseatingly guilt-inducing than I would like to recall.

This, then, is the challenge of trying to be in relationship with someone without active input from the other side. We run the risk of wearing down the memory to just the parts that are comfortable for us, evening out all the sharp edges and unexpected valleys of the other’s personality into a featureless, indistinguishable lump. But it is worth noting that we can also do this wearing-down process perfectly well with people who we relate to on a regular basis: a relationship between people who see each other every day can eventually break down when one person says “You’re not who I thought you were.” Even for those who are alive, it’s easy for us to choose to relate to our image or caricature of a person rather than the person herself.

This is why learning to listen is at the heart of living in relationship. It’s a challenge to seek out the unexpected, the uncomfortable, the unusual, the unknown. We have to make the effort to acknowledge that someone with whom we’re in relationship is really an other – someone separate, distinct, different from ourselves and our ideas, images, and imaginings. This process of learning to listen, learning to be open and aware beyond ourselves calls us to be more than just ourselves as isolated individuals.

One of the traditional ways to relate to the deceased at this time of year is the dumb feast, where places are set for those who have passed over and the meal is held in silence. It combines a fundamental human kind of connection through shared food and drink with an explicit example of listening, of recognizing that for such a connection to be shared, we have to make space and time – and silence – for others. This form of contemplation is especially appropriate as we begin to move into winter, a time when the world as a whole becomes more quiet, more still. Trading speech, perhaps the most-used form of communication between people, for silence encourages us to engage in other forms of communication, forms which may be more amenable to other kinds of awareness and relationship.

Striving to be in relationship with people who are not immediately present is also a way to learn to be in relationship with others whose voices are hard to hear. In Wicca, I am in relationship with the land and water, with plants and animals, all of whom communicate with me in non-verbal ways. Like with an absent person, it is easy for me to hear only what I want to, to disregard the reality of these parts of my world in favor of the more comfortable constructs inside my own mind. But if I take time to listen, especially in non-verbal ways, they do speak to me, confronting me with the reality of their situation, more vivid and amazing than any imagination of my own.

Opening to this awareness also teaches me about how to be in relationship with those whose voices are too often silenced: people who are not like me, people who are underprivileged, people who are far away. When I challenge myself to remember the complexity of the people I love who have passed over, it makes me better prepared to acknowledge the complexities that someone else’s life may hold. It teaches me to seek out their voices, to be open to hearing from them in ways I might not otherwise expect, and even to be open to hearing things that make me uncomfortable, because I realize that is an essential part of an ongoing relationship.

Learning to listen pushes us to cultivate empathy and to cultivate a kind of joint awareness of ourselves and others that may even begin to blur the boundaries of what is self and what is other. This is where listening is not just the absence of talking. This is how listening becomes an act of awareness, of being present with and in the relationships that surround us.

To work with reality, as a good Witch must strive to do, I must first be aware of that reality. And that reality is a reality of relationships, the reality that our stories are all told together. We may try to shout more loudly, to assert complete control over our own narrative, or we may try to stop our ears entirely so that no one else’s story can interfere with our own. But either way, we deny ourselves the ability to live fully, because our lives are stories of relationship, stories told in dialogue.

An essential part of dialogue is listening. This listening is not an absence, but a fullness, a presence that participates in being together, in relating to the others in the dialogue. Like the not-so-empty space between things that is full of potential and interaction, and the silence between words that makes meaning possible, listening between beings is is what makes relationships possible. And that is the basis of life, for beings, like words, interenanimate each other. This is why I try to listen – to my beloved dead and to all the beings I live with in relationship.

Earth Day – Romancing the Landbase

In honor of Earth Day, Tuesday April 22nd, consider romancing your landbase.

Romancing? Well, yes. Deepen your relationship, or if you like, begin to develop your relationship with your landbase. If you would rather see yourself as a friend of your landbase, you can. Friendship is a wonderful, beautiful kind of relationship. But for me, the more I work with my landbase, the more I fall in love.

It’s easy to see Earth Day as an intellectual observance – the environment is important, so we should plant a tree or use less electricity or protest a pipeline. Yes, we should absolutely do all those things, to the best of our abilities. Tomorrow, I think, is a time to acknowledge those things but also to experience the ways I am drawn to live in relationship with my landbase which is not solely intellectual; this relationship is emotional and spiritual as well.

Developing a relationship with one’s landbase is a powerful part of recognizing and working with spirit as it exists in the physical world, and thus a fundamental part of my work as a Witch. “Landbase” is a word I use to describe the convocation of all the beings who participate in my physical environment, especially my local environment. It could be called my local ecology, my watershed, my bioregion, except that I am also including and invoking the spirits of place, the spirits of the land and water, plants and animals. All of these together, the physical and immanent, make up my landbase.

These are the ones I relate to. As in other relationships, I set aside special times to honor and enjoy that relationship; tomorrow is one of those times, and the anniversary of me moving to this place is another. Use the idea of relationship to shape what you do tomorrow. If you’re working on developing a relationship with your landbase, think of how you would develop a relationship with someone you’re just getting to know: enjoy a beverage, spend some time, talk with them. If you’re especially kind, you provide the beverage. So take some water out to your landbase, pour it out with intention, and spend time introducing yourself and listening to your land.

Making offerings is one of the simplest and most profound parts of relationship. It says: “I acknowledge you. You exist, and I value you.” If you are just beginning, this basic opening is a gentle and effective introduction that paves the way for deeper work. Whether it is with a deity or any other kind of spirit, making an offering is always a wise place to begin.

If you already have a deeper relationship with your landbase, then just as with an existing relationship, you might have some idea what the other party (and oh, isn’t the landbase a party at this time of year!) would enjoy as a gift. If you do, great; if you don’t, then it is still a truism that the value of a gift in a relationship has more to do with the attention and intention imbued in the gift and its giving than any physical value. We cannot put a price on quality time that deepens relationship with our human friends and lovers; in the same way, what the landbase desires above all is you.

Ourselves are a gift we always have available. The gift of our attention and awareness is one we can give on a regular basis, wherever we are, just as people who live in the same space acknowledge each other. A simple good morning to my partner is a tiny gift of myself and a vital piece of acknowledging, maintaining, and even deepening our relationship over time.

This ability to maintain relationship is one good reason to work with one’s landbase close to home. It is not as effective to find a gorgeous national park within your bioregion and visit it once a year to acknowledge the grandeur of “pristine” nature as it is to greet the tree outside your window in all seasons. It is incredibly difficult to maintain a long-distance relationship; thankfully, “nature,” in the landbase, is all around us (and within us), so that kind of effort is not necessary. Don’t spend time introducing yourself to a place you’ll only visit once a year; say hello to the plants you pass every day.

In this spirit, romance your landbase tomorrow. Give water, or corn meal, or whatever you are called to give, but above all, give yourself. If you can plant a tree, wonderful; if you can’t, but you can find time and energy to work on the relationship, you may find that the land answers you back, and that when it does, you are filled with more than you gave, as happens in the best relationships. When the land fills you, you will have more to give in turn: to give to yourself, to give to your loves, and to give to the land, especially in caring for the environment on all the days of the year.

On the other hand: a handshake

As I said before, my (relatively light) encounters with anti-Pagan and anti-Wiccan prejudice really make me want to take action. Sometimes I can, and sometimes it even goes well, even if it’s just a small thing. This was one of those times.

After one of the recent mass shootings, I was in the lobby of our apartment building picking up mail. Someone else was talking with the person at the front desk and I half-heard some mournful laments about the lack of “traditional values” and how that contributed to these kinds of shootings. (I’m not sure whether I actually heard the person say “kids these days” or my mind supplied that as part of the same trope, but you get the idea.)

I have to admit that made me a little uncomfortable; nearly anyone who talks about being sorry to see the departure of “traditional values” defines those values as excluding me, and is probably more than willing to identify things like Wicca – or whatever they think is associated with Wicca – as examples of the problem, or even the root of the moral decay.

But some impulse caused me to think of this as an opening; while I didn’t want to try to engage a total stranger in conversation, I knew the person who was working the front desk, and he had always been kind and considerate to me.

When I passed the desk again after getting my mail, I stopped to say hello to him. I commented that I’d heard just a bit of the previous conversation, and we exchanged laments about the tragedy of the shooting. Then I said something along the following lines:

I don’t know if traditional values or their lack had anything to do with the shooting, but that phrase always makes me nervous. Most people who use it don’t think very much of me. You see, I’m a member of a minority religion; I follow an earth-based path, and some people don’t like that. But you’ve always treated me just the same as anyone else, and always been kind to me, and I want to thank you for that.

I don’t know if he’d ever heard of earth-based religion before, and I don’t know if he knew what I was talking about. He realized, though, that I sometimes felt excluded, and that sometimes I was afraid, or had been treated badly, and that it meant a lot to me that he didn’t do that.

When I shook his hand, he knew I was thankful for him and how he treated me. That was one of the best handshakes I’ve ever had.

I didn’t make a big deal about “coming out,” and I didn’t try to do any Paganism 101. But somehow, I hope things like this might make a difference. This is one of the ways that people who are “out” can help forge a path towards acceptance. It’s not about making a big deal of being Publicly Pagan everywhere I go; on the contrary, I only mentioned it to this person because we were already acquainted. He knows I’m not an axe murderer or a wild-eyed fanatic; and if someone so, well, normal can be a member of a minority religion…maybe we’re not so bad after all.

This isn’t going to change the Bad Jackies of the world. Indeed, making this move runs a serious risk that the person I out myself to will turn out to be a Bad Jackie. There’s a risk she’ll refuse to reevaluate her beliefs about my religion in light of what she knows about me and will instead reevaluate me in light of what she thinks she knows about my religion.

But this time, it worked, and I hope it did just a tiny bit of good. I certainly wasn’t left with the gnawing feeling of being marginalized in space that should have been safe for me that I had after my experience of friendly fire. And I think that gentleman appreciated being thanked for his kindness. He certainly deserves it.

Taken together, these are just a tiny slice of what it’s like to be Wiccan. It’s not just about the question of whether to out oneself, or doing 101 education, or the black and white of absolute hatred or acceptance. It’s full of dangerous pitfalls and surprisingly uplifting moments of hope; it’s full of uncertainty and paradox whether one is around friends or strangers; and it’s always, always about trying to live in relationship in the midst of a culture that may or may not allow for the possibility.

Shout-outs via the Humane Society

The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association awarded Dr. Lori Pasternak  its Direct Practitioner of the Year award. Dr. Pasternak works at the Helping Hands clinic in Richmond, VA, a low-cost surgical and dental clinic. I’ve taken animals to Helping Hands before, and I can’t say enough good things about the clinic and about Dr. Pasternak. I’m delighted to see her getting the recognition she deserves. From the article:

“Surgery happens to be my talent. We should all use our talents to make the world a better place,” said Dr. Pasternak.

Well said!

Second, this month’s All Animals magazine has an excellent feature story on how humans and bears can coexist safely and peacefully. As the tag line reads, these strategies and examples prove “we can live in and with the wild without destroying it.”

Among other things, this article and the ideas behind it are a great example of framing. We don’t, for example, have to accept Bryan Fischer’s framing and metaphors that it’s “humans v. bears.” Environmentalists who accept that framing can potentially end up seeming like they support the bears more than the humans. By reframing the question as one of coexistence – even a potentially difficult coexistence at times – instead of unremitting aggression, a whole slew of different approaches become possible.

Finally, the article also provides some good perspective:

[Fatal bear attacks] average fewer than two per year. More people are killed by bees. By spiders. By dogs. By lightning.

“More people are killed in vending machine accidents,” says Andrew Page, senior director of The HSUS’s Wildlife Abuse Campaign.

These are interesting counter-examples of what fringe Christians don’t tend to interpret when they try to divine their god’s will. As far as I know, Fischer hasn’t yet claimed that a vending machine falling over was a sign of God’s wrath. I really loved C&L’s suggestion of a “wall of separation between church and weather.” Could we extend that to other extremely unlikely imputations of divine wrath such as earthquakes, bird deaths, and bear attacks?

Recognition

I saw a deer and a great blue heron on Teddy Roosevelt Island yesterday, and both encounters felt like a form of recognition.

I hadn’t visited the island for several days, and really needed to refresh my spirit with some time in nature. I went to my favorite spot, and even before I got there, I was really angry to see a couple of plastic drink bottles and some other trash littering the rocks. These weren’t things that had been washed up by the river; they had to have been accidentally dropped or carelessly left on the trails.

I was angry. I thought, I don’t want to deal with this. I came out here to be in some tiny corner of nature where I could, for just a few minutes, be a little more alone, a little away from the urban density, or even just pretend.

But people littering my favorite spot to connect with nature mean that even there, I can’t just sit down and look at the river without having bright orange reminders that a lot of people don’t seem to care about nature. The cleanup I helped do this spring was to try to fix some of that, to make up for other people’s lack of care and concern. But no matter how much effort I put in trying to help, to heal, those unconcerned people will keep making it worse, and I can’t keep up. I felt exhausted and even a tiny bit hopeless.

Those feelings were so similar to the ones I came to the island to get away from that I simply had to let them go. I picked up the bottles and stuff, put them by the trail I’d be taking out, and went to greet the particular spots I know best, marveling at how they seethed with life, noting how the river level has changed and that Arachne’s daughters are busy in the forest. Slowly, gently, I felt my soul relax.

As I continued down the trail with my hands full, I pondered my emotions. I had managed to let go of the anger; I wondered if I could replace it with something else. Compassion? Yes, I could feel compassion, for the island and its life forms, and focus on that compassion as the reason for my actions. I could even, after I contemplated it, feel compassion for people who drop plastic bottles in one of the most wild refuges to be found in our urban sprawl; people who do that probably never get to experience the deep refreshment and reconnection that I had just felt, and that makes me sad for them.

What about gratitude? And suddenly it blazed up in my heart: yes, I could feel gratitude. Not that people were so stupid as to give me the necessity of cleaning up after them – again and again – but if not for them, then at least for the place, for the circumstance. As I walked, the uncomfortable plastic seams cutting into my fingers became an occasion for gratitude, because I had the opportunity to reaffirm my commitment to TRI, my relationship with it and its ecosystem in a tangible, meaningful way. I relaxed further and widened my gaze beyond the irritating bottles.

As I did, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, and froze. A heron was wading in the swampy wetland off to one side, and I’d almost missed it. If I had stayed angry, with my shoulders hunched and eyes narrowed, staring at the bottles and muttering about stupidity and laziness and petroleum, I would have walked right by the bird, only 15 meters away, much closer than I’d ever had the chance to see one before. The heron and I regarded each other, and as I walked away quietly, I gave thanks for the reminder.

After I reached a trash can and threw away the bottles, I walked a little more quietly, and it was not long before saw a family on the path ahead of me staring intently to one side. A shaft of sunlight caught the golden-brown gleam and just the edge of the white patch of a white-tailed deer, who was otherwise well-concealed in the vegetation. The deer didn’t seem to be nervous, so I cautiously came up to the family’s vantage point, and was able to make out the deer’s head and face. They said that several other deer had just crossed the path; they were probably heading uphill for a place to sleep during the day, in a more thickly forested space further from the perimeter trail. I’ve seen deer on the island a few times before, but it was still a magical experience, especially since the deer didn’t seem to be startled.

As I left, I couldn’t help but feel that the encounters were almost a form of recognition. Not exactly a reward, but the result of the time and effort I’ve spent building a relationship with the island and its life. I probably would have seen the animals if I hadn’t picked up the trash, but the fact that I have a relationship with the island was why I was there in the first place, and was why I did pick up the bottles. If I hadn’t gone, even on that hot and sticky day, I wouldn’t have had the chance to be in the right place at the right time to have those encounters.

It’s glorious to feel that my effort and actions have been recognized, even – especially – by Nature herself.

Meditation Moment: Bringing the Outdoors In

Last month I wrote about how being deeply present in a single moment helps us relate to all moments; this month, I want to extend that approach to thinking about space as well as time. As Pagans, we tend to cultivate our connections to the world around us, especially the natural world. Meditation can help us deepen that connection.

Many of us practice in urban areas, but still want to connect to the rhythm of the seasons and natural cycles. It can be ideal to find a location outdoors in which to meditate, but few of us have the luxury of doing that every day. So we need to find ways of bringing the outdoors in for us to connect with during meditation.

The goal here is to be present in a particular place, just as last month we talked about being present in the particular moment. We want to be present with this individual stone, or shell, or flower, or twig; not with all stones, or all flowers, but this one, in particular, in all of its uniqueness. It is an example of the place it came from, a connection to that one spot. But just as being present in each unique moment helps us connect to all moments, narrowing our focus to a deeper contemplation of this one location can paradoxically help us appreciate the totality of the world we live in.

Meditation’s connection between the minuscule and the majestic – now and all time, here and everywhere, myself and all living things – makes this contemplation of nature much more than a decoration, more than a superficial acknowledgement, and into a deep act of awareness. When we want to have a more meaningful relationship with the web of life and the natural cycles that support it, we can start small. Recognizing the uniqueness of one thing and the richness in one small corner of reality helps us appreciate that each corner is similarly rich and full.

If you can make meditating outdoors in a particular spot an occasional addition to your regular practice, that can help you establish a relationship with a specific place. Then taking a small reminder – a stone, a leaf – back to your usual meditation space is part of an ongoing process of connection anchored in that location, not just a scattershot series of one-off connections with a multitude of places. Even if there’s no special place where you can go and meditate, maintaining a connection with a particular spot is a better way to anchor yourself in the rhythms of nature; connect to one tree or one group of living things in your area, and use reminders of them as your focus for meditation.

If you really want to connect to the seasons in that place, make sure to change your focus on a regular basis. Take your reminder back to the place you got it, and return it to nature with your thanks, then find something else, something new, to focus on, to help you experience the constant change and wonderful variety found in your particular location. Especially at this time of year, when flowers are blooming and trees are unfurling their leaves as fast as possible, don’t let your focus get fixed on a single object to the extent that you ignore the changes taking place in your little corner of the world.

Get physical about your experience of place, too! The physical world engages our senses in ways that an abstraction like time can’t. Feel the texture of trees’ bark with your fingers, taste the tart sweetness of blackberries later on, listen to the birds and the wind in the leaves and the patter of the rain. And yes, stop and smell the roses – and the honeysuckle and lilacs and everything else, too.

I mentioned that a connection to place can serve as a kind of anchor. Just as the ability to draw one’s attention to the present moment can be a part of grounding and centering, the deep awareness of a particular place can also be a form of grounding – the literal meaning behind the metaphor. That familiarity with a location can be a touchstone, a reminder of the relationship that we hearken back to every time we pause over a meal or give thanks for coming home safely after a trip.

And since you know that by connecting to your one place, you are also connecting to all places, even when you are in unfamiliar surroundings you know you have the ability to ground yourself there as well, to tap into the connection to the same deeper reality, and if you need to, to become familiar with this new place as well.

The beginning of this month is the celebration of Beltane; it’s time to fall in love again. One of love’s amazing qualities is that it takes us outside of ourselves. By engaging with someone else, we gain a whole new perspective on the world, and on ourselves, and we gain the opportunity to change and grow in ways we could hardly have imagined alone. This Beltane, consider falling in love with the land. When we do, when we bring the outdoors in, if we fully engage with it and start to develop a relationship, it too, like all good loves, will take us outside of ourselves.

Daily practice and relationship for your health

Going outdoors is good for you. Not just because it gets you active, either, although any activity is better than none, but because being in a natural environment promotes positive anti-stress changes in the body as well as the mind.

Similarly, deep breathing and yoga-type activities can have tremendous positive impacts. They’re not going to cure cancer, but they might help you manage your blood pressure with less medication.

If you needed another reason, or a purely practical reason, to interact with nature and develop some kind of meditation practice, there you go.

Daily practice and being in relationship

Hecate has another great post up about living in relationship with a specific piece of land. When I commented that this, like a relationship with another person, takes effort, Hecate expanded on that and linked it with the importance of daily practice. She says that both are important, but it’s hard to believe that either alone is sufficient. In fact, I think ideally the two grow to be more intertwined over time. I know I’m not the only Wiccan who has fantasized about having my own little garden altar where I can do my devotions (in the good weather) and at least spend some time grounding myself and observing the seasons (in bad weather). I think that’s more than a romantic fantasy; or, more precisely, it is the kind of romantic fantasy that shows I am not just in love with the divine, but that I want to meet my love where he, she, and they are, in nature. And, as Hecate says, I don’t just love an abstraction, but a specific place, a specific spirit, a specific manifestation of the divine.

For now, though, I do my daily practice at home, because I’m sure I can get there every day. I trust that the God and Goddess come to meet me where I am, too. But I work on developing my relationship with them in many ways, and going out to meet them when I can, and doing it regularly, is the natural counterpoint.

One of the benefits of that effort is giving deity a chance to show itself to me in ways I wouldn’t expect or call on, if I were only willing to interact with the divine on my terms, in my usual practice. Yes, we call the quarters and invoke the God and Goddess, but one of the ways you know those invitations are effective is that, just like your human guests, the personalities that show up aren’t solely what you imagine. More importantly, for Wicca to be truly nature-based, we have to recognize that even when we cast our circles, we’re doing so in the midst of a living, breathing, spiritual fabric of being. The immanent wells up to meet us, we’re not just calling the transcendent down. Letting that welling-up happen, creating space and time for it, welcoming it, is one of the benefits of being in relationship with the land.