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Posts Tagged ‘practice’

On Practice and Pentacles

Sometimes, having a daily practice can be difficult. And when I say “difficult” I mean fucking hard. And on days like today, when I have the I-don’t-wannas getting in the way, I know it’s because I need my practice more than ever.

Things have been in flux in every area of my life, including my personal space. So it’s easy to look at my altar and think that it’s not exactly where I want it to be, it’s not set with the things I’ll need, there are clothes I left on the floor where I’d like to put my cushion. It’s easy to turn away and find some distraction to substitute for the calming effects of the breathing work, the centering effects of grounding practice, the deepening effects of sitting meditation. But, whatever I might find, they are poor substitutes. And they don’t last long.

And this morning, I felt that, in addition to the I-don’t-wannas, I just could face the sheer effort involved. Because let’s be honest – the physical and mental actions required of a daily practice are very simple and usually very easy, but the actual practice is anything but. What could be easier than placing a few things on a table? Or filling a glass of water? Or lighting a candle? How hard is it, really, to say a prayer? To sit still for a several minutes? To imagine a few lights and colors?

All of those things are easy, taken individually. But it’s the combination that is a challenge. Because when arranging things on a table is really setting an altar, you have to question what you want to bring to your life today. When pouring a glass of water is really a spell of internal cleansing and alchemy, you have to confront those things you’ve allowed to hold you back. And when lighting a candle is really inviting in the Gods…

But as I attempted to seek out hollow distractions, something in me was craving spiritual practice. I had a brief yet potent vision. It was a simple image, but one that means so much to me it could not be ignored. The image was a pentacle.Pentacle

In my Elemental Tools class, I like to say that the pentacle asks us: “Where do you stand? Are you willing to start from here?”

The altar isn’t set. Can I set it? There are clothes on the floor. Can’t they be picked up? I just don’t want to practice. Can I bring that to my practice with me?

I can, and I will. Because the difficulty of practice, when it is difficult, makes choosing practice that much more powerful.

(And sometimes… practice is easy!)

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Recent events in my life have left me altered. There have been shifts within me, and changes thrust upon me. These shifts are coming from my teachers, my Gods, my friends, my place of employment, my ever-deepening spiritual practice, my own body… everywhere. Everything. Everyone. Because, as my teacher, Thorn, recently pointed out through a quote from Thomas Merton’s book Thoughts in Solitude, there is no division between the “mundane” and the “spiritual.” It’s all unified.

I put a lot of stock in the power of the traditional tools of the Craft to encode and – with time, effort, and meditation – reveal sacred mysteries. Mostly I’m referring to the Elemental Tools: the Wand, Athame, Cup, and Pentacle. Of course there are more, varying by tradition, but these are the four I resonate with most and they are quite common. There is a fifth, extremely common magical tool – shared by most (if not all) Craft traditions, and, indeed, world religions – which is sometimes taken for granted: the Altar.

It’s at the altar where these life changes occur. The altar is where I can bring these changes to examine them and frame them within my spiritual landscape, along with those things that feel stuck, steady, strong, weak, out of control, too big, or too small. The altar is where I can pray for guidance around any of these things. Because the altar is the place where I have access to my center, the Gods, and all the powers of creation.

At the very least, an altar can be seen as a place to do spiritual work. I’d venture a guess that most religious people (consciously or not) view it as a sort of interface point between humanity and divinity. I see it as the hub of the universe – the place where the four elements meet with the active and passive polarities of spirit. A sacred place, indeed.

But there’s another mystery in the altar – an individual mystery for each of us to contemplate. And that is: what you put on your altar, you put on your life. By placing anything on an altar, by any of the above definitions, you are affording it sacred attention. Divine attention.

Yesterday I asked myself a question that I try to revisit every now and again. It’s a question I invite you to ask of yourself, if you find you are brave enough.

What is on the altar of my life?

Considering the magnitude of my last month in this life, that question seems far weightier than usual to me. What IS on the altar of my life? What am I giving that divine attention to? What am I spending my energy on? And does that align with what I profess to hold sacred and important? Does that expended energy propel me towards my goals, or is it spent holding me back?

  • How many times did I look at my phone yesterday to check Twitter or Facebook? And how many times did I check in with spirit?
  • How many hours a week do I spend watching television? Not that many, really, but am I more devoted to catching my favorite shows than doing The Work of This God?
  • How much “entertainment” do I consume? How much art do I create?
  • How many silly wants do I chase after? How many true needs of the world do I rise up to meet?
  • How often do I give fear the honored place on the altar? How often do I instead put courage there and take real action?

There is nothing wrong with putting fear on the altar. Sometimes fear needs divine attention. But do I pray to the fear, or do I pray to face and overcome it? Do I use social networking to build connections and relationships, or to feel social while distancing myself from anything real? Do I use entertainment to relax and rejuvenate, or to deaden and forget? Sometimes the answer to each of these questions is “Yes.”

The great thing about an altar is that, really, it’s a table. It’s a special table, sure, but it’s a table, nonetheless. It can be cleared. It can be cleaned. It can be set anew. And in the same way, we can each clear off the altars of our lives and choose what goes back on them. What do I want to give my attention to? What do I need to give my attention to? And what drains to my energy and attention can I sacrifice to make more room for those things that really matter to me?

Blessed be.

P.S. I’ll be recording a guided meditation from my Elemental Tools class soon, hopefully within the next week or so, around this topic. I will post it on this blog when it’s ready, so check back for it.

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Guilt and Spiritual Practice

Perhaps it’s a product of our results-oriented society that people have a tendency to feel guilty about their spiritual practice. Or maybe it’s left over, for some of us, from our childhood religions which admonished us to live in a certain way for fear of not achieving salvation. I mean, wow, there’s an excuse for some self-loathing! Not only am I not living up to my spiritual commitments, but now I’m damned for it! What excuse could I possibly have for being *so* lame?

The thing is, in the Craft, that’s not so much of an issue. I’m sure there are differing views on this, but, as I understand it, there is no judgment day at the end of life or at the end of the world.* There’s just another bend on the cycle. And whether the other side of that bend finds me still being “me” or not is of little consequence.

So, then, what is spiritual practice for? Specifically in the Witch’s worldview, but also more generally – from wherever you are standing. Many people would agree that the point is to be “a better person,” whatever we mean by that. My understanding is that the point is to help us become more authentic, more centered, more able, more effective. What good is my practice if it doesn’t help to align me with my True Will, my divine nature – that part of me which knows why I am here and what I want to accomplish – so that I can do what I am here to do in the most effective way possible. Whether you believe that what you are here to do is an assignment from God or just the whim of your particular bag of flesh, why would you want to be anything less than successful at it?

Witchcraft is about relationship. Who am I? Who are the Gods? Who makes up my communities in location, family, friends, peer groups, religion, ancestry, ecology, economy, spirit, and so on? I don’t know about you, but I do my work to better understand myself and where I fit into the many (many) groups to which I belong, by choice or by circumstance. It’s about making allies, being cooperative, and coming together in ways that produce mutual benefit instead of mutual harm.

And at this, you might say I’ve failed again and again. You might say we all have. I know that I’ve picked stupid fights with people I love. I’ve sought revenge over something petty. I’ve neglected to call people. I’ve offered lame excuses to get out of obligations. And again and again, I’ve let my practice slide, allowed myself to tilt off balance, let the internal grime build up until I couldn’t see through my clogged-up filters.

What to do when we suddenly wake up and say, “Oh, man. How’d I let myself get here?”

It’s so easy to slip into guilt. Because we have this “goal” and it’s off in the distance and if we don’t stick to the path we’ll never “get there.” Because we know we’ll never be “perfect” but gods damn it, I could have been better! Bring on the guilt! Let’s beat ourselves up for not trying hard enough! Let’s look at all of our tools lying on the floor in disarray, collecting dust, and instead of picking them up and cleaning them off and putting them back to use, we can lament over all of the work we haven’t done yet!

Yes! Guilt! Woo hoo! It’s so much FUN! But let’s be honest… guilt is just one more way to put things off. It’s one more way for us to disconnect. It’s one more excuse to not even try.

It’s likely that if you feel guilty about “failing” at your spiritual practice you are also baiting yourself with some unrealistic goal that simply doesn’t exist. Even if you are working towards attaining a specific skill, you haven’t failed because you can always start again. Are you imposing a phantom timeline on your work? There’s probably no quarterly earnings report that you have to worry about here. Is it really appropriate to be so upset that you made a choice to better your life and then didn’t get very far? Why not make the choice again, instead. Why not evaluate where you are today and take the next step from there. Sometimes this means starting over, and even that is nothing to feel ashamed of. There’s a reason we call it “practice.”

Even if you really can’t start again, for whatever reason, you are still presented with the opportunity to live in full authenticity, in dynamic balance, and in right relationship to the people, spirits, animals, and things around you. Because the big secret is: your goal is right here. There is no journey that leads anywhere but deeper into yourself. Your aim isn’t to be a “better person” someday. It’s to define what being a better person is for you, and to be that now. It’s a challenge to remember that and to be present enough in each moment to make the effort. But the challenge is not insurmountable. Each breath can be your reminder.

Breathe in:    I am here.
Breathe out:    I change the world.
Breathe in:    I take what I need.
Breathe out:    I give it back.
Breathe in:    I am alive.
Breathe out:    I am connected.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t take our practice seriously, or that we should let ourselves off the hook by saying “well, I can just start again tomorrow.” No. Instead, we can let each moment house our practice. We can let each breath bring us back to presence. And with each exhalation, we can let go of any guilt for having not tried harder, for having not done our best, for having slipped into complacency.

* There are, of course, myths that speak of a judgment at the end of life. One I am definitely familiar with, as a devotee of Thoth. Perhaps I will revisit this topic someday. For now, I’ll just say that my suspicion is that these myths – like all myths – can be interpreted at face value, or they can be keys to a deeper understanding of mystery.

Next time: Letting Practice Do You

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