Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Moving Towards Loving-kindness

Seven years ago, at a pagan festival, I attended a series of workshops that would significantly alter the course of my life. At my emotional core, I was full of pain and sadness. I did not know how to let go or forgive. New to my spiritual path, I didn’t yet understand the nature of faith. It is a thing that no religion has claims to. Faith exists without the need for religious construct, but religion cannot exist without it.
I spent four workshops with a woman named Whispering Deer, who walked us through the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness, also known as Metta. I was looking for that inner Zen, that place of peace inside me that hippies and yogis discovered by sitting cross-legged with their hands on their knees and repeatedly humming to themselves. That was the only cultural visual I had to represent what I was looking for.
It’s amazing the stereotypes we create about things we simply don’t understand. They act as resistance-barriers standing between us and the things we desire most. I wanted peace and compassion and yet I did not believe I deserved it. So I made fun of that idea of tranquility, as if to say, why would I want something so silly? Thus insuring I wouldn’t try for it… and fail. Again.
That weekend, listening to Whispering Deer’s story of transformation and seeing the person she had become before me, I suddenly believed that goal was possible for myself. And I wanted it more than I had wanted anything else in my life. I determined that if I could not find it inside myself, I would create it.
A new path bloomed before me.

The loving-kindness work I embarked on was a series of meditations to teach myself to have compassion. The side effect of the repetitive practice was the alteration in how I perceived events that happened around me. I had been stuck inside my own experience, and saw everything that happened as happening to me. It’s a nuanced line, and a change in inflection changes the meaning, but when you experience everything as happening to you, you cease to be in control of your world. You give that power up to the universe and put yourself at the mercy of its whims, like a ship adrift at sea. You become a victim of the world around you.
What I wanted was to be a part of the world with my hands firmly on the wheel. I wanted to be part of what was happening, of creating my own experiences. I dove into the lessons on compassion, spending 20 minutes in meditation every night, at the end of my day, just before bed. One of the things Whispering Deer told us was that the simplest Buddhist level of having compassion for oneself, was the hardest one for Westerners to master. She wasn’t wrong.
Embracing loving-kindness as a philosophy, requires you to build an awareness of how you respond to the events that occur in your life, and then to push into that awareness to understand those reactions. It’s a way of unlearning the way you have been taught to respond and discover your own intuitive way of walking through the world- which also requires that you be open to how different a path that might be.
If I step back and observe the world around me as a larger web, removing any personal attachments I have to how things work, I can see the pattern of emotional dialogue that plays out. We feel an emotion in our bodies and we react to it, at other people, without understanding where it came from or why we felt it in the first place. As a culture we lack awareness of our emotional bodies. How many times have you heard someone say, I don’t know why I feel the way I feel, I just do?
When we lash out against others because we feel a strong emotion, and we do it without seeking clarification, we commit acts of violence. Being angry/ frustrated/ irritated/ mad at anyone else is like sending out a tidal wave whiplash of your bad attitude. Others will feel it. Others will be hurt by it. I’m guilty of it. Whether you intended that hurt or not, you still have to own the responsibility for the effects of it. It’s why this path became so important to me. It’s why being a better version of myself became necessary.

This is a hard world we live in and it’s easy to be overwhelmed with the traumas, hurts, losses and failures we collect on our journeys. It’s no excuse for being careless with the people around us. Our world moves so fast and so quickly that, often, we feel like all we can do is tread water to keep from getting swept away or left behind.
Even our news headlines are sensationalized to best catch our attention and we’ve had to learn to accept exaggerations and misleading implications as truth. No wonder we get depressed by the world around us. This is a hard world, when everyone is only thinking of themselves. But it is a beautiful world, too, where people do work together and help each other out. In order to experience that, you have to be part of it. You have to participate in it.
We all have to be gentle with each other. We can afford to. We need to remember that we are not just individuals having a personal experience in this world. We need to remember that the face we put out into the world is how the world perceives us. We have to treat people the way we want to be treated. When faced with hard times and hard people, patience, compassion and gentleness are a better choice for the health of your own heart.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Perspective & Gratitude: A Creative Meditation

I am sitting at my desk, in my rented apartment, thinking about the world and my place in its vastness. If I reach out I can feel the other minds, other lives, other heartbeats creating the low percussive pulse of life on this planet. Somewhere else in my town, at this moment, a child is trying not to see the monsters in the shadows of their bedroom. It is all they know of the world, still so small, that exists within the walls of their home. In Buffalo some young man whose world is expanding with possibilities that might take him beyond the borders of the city he grew up in is about to learn that he’s going to be a father. It’s true and it’s happening right now.
In Ohio, a man who raises bison is watching the herd while bartering for feed from another farmer. A high school student in Wyoming just unzipped his backpack to discover that he left his homework in his locker. A woman in California, who has rented all her life, is closing on her first home and opening a bottle of champagne saved from her last office party in celebration. It’s all happening right now.
In Hawaii, a mother is recovering from surgery to remove her breast cancer in a pink hospital. Her family is worried, waiting for news from her doctor. Waiting to hear whether the margins are clear. A man in Florida woke up and went to work, like he does every day, seven days a week, so that he can feed his family and pay the bills. If he can pick up a third job, he might be able to set some money aside for college for his eldest son.
A family in Peru is celebrating their father’s eighty-sixth birthday with candles and music, good food and company. A man in Moscow burned the egg he was cooking and is leaning into the fridge for another. So many heartbeats, dancing together, criss-crossing and entwining, right now. Reach out and become part of the web of life.

As I sit at my desk
I have gratitude for my clothes and garden,
for family and a full belly,
for hands flitting across computer keys-
for the someone preparing to rise and go to work
where their hands will harvest flax which will be beaten down,
the fibers spun into thread and woven into lengths of cloth
to be dyed in various and multiple hues
and sold by the bolt to another factory,
where it will be cut into pattern pieces,
sewn and assembled as a shirt,
packaged in a box with hundreds of duplicates
to be sold to a company who will distribute it to a store,
delivered by a truck driver
and unpacked by a stockperson,
hung on a rack by a clerk
and bought by my hands,
brought to my house by so many hands
so I might wear it, sitting at my desk,
creating words.

I am grateful for the food in my belly and the clothes on my flesh.
May it be so.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

May the Force Be With You

Playing with Princess Leia circa 1979.
Good versus evil. Light versus dark. Princes versus magicians and blind tyrant kings. Princesses versus sorceresses and evil step-mother queens. Youth versus age. Wisdom versus ignorance. Compassion versus greed.  White against black and right against wrong.
The Rebellion versus the Empire. Luke Skywalker versus Dark Vader.
My earliest memories of magic are wrapped up in fairy tale stories and animated princess adventures. Only witches, wizards and sorcerers could do magic and it was to cast curses and wield evil spells. I learned from fairy tales that anything unknown was scary and dangerous, that strangers brought death and that in dire situations, a handsome prince would appear from nowhere and save the day. Sometimes I think George Lucas’ fictional Star Wars universe was an integral lesson for my very gullible and naive child 's mind. I was very young the first time I saw the movie but I have been told I sat in rapt attention. To a child it was perfectly understandable. The bad guys were black and white and led by an evil sorcerer who captured a cheeky princess. The prince’s task was to rescue the damsel in distress and save the universe. I understood the pattern.
In fairy tales witches were good or bad. You were born that way, not became that way. Yet in Lucas’ world everyone walked a line between the two and a temptation towards corruption lived around every corner. People helped the prince, people with questionable backgrounds who changed their stars for the sake of what they felt was right. There were other magicians, good ones who let themselves be killed rather than lash out in anger. And they believed in a world bigger than the human and alien ones they saw. They respected all living things, whether they understood the life form or not. The Jedi believed in an interconnectedness I had only heard whispered among Native American stories.
As a child of six, I remember initiating a block-wide re-enactment of Star Wars: A New Hope. I only cared that I was the princess and that the boy I liked from across the street got to play Luke Skywalker. If I had to kiss a boy for luck, it was going to be one I liked. The detention center came to life behind a neighbor’s garage. How I longed to be part of that world… and eagerly waited for Leia to get her own light saber.
Yes, it’s a science-fiction movie. But cultural truth runs deeper than pop culture’s slipstream. There’s a reason the story still resonates. In creating his world, George Lucas studied writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell’s work, the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell specialized in comparative mythology and comparative religion, drawn into the pattern of mythological threads he discovered existing in disparate human cultures. Lucas took Campbell’s academic, global distillation of the heroes journey and delivered it to the world in a space-age visual mythology.
I was aware as a child that fairy tales were stories written to tell a lesson. I took from them what I liked, princesses put under curses because of an evil witch or wizard, who would be saved by an unknown-to-them prince. I wasn’t aware that the larger lesson I was taking from those childhood tales was that I would spend my adult life waiting for someone else to save me. I was independent and functional, but the undercurrent of my unhappiness was waiting, always waiting for someone like Obi-Wan to find me and tell me what was wrong with me. Why was I different? What was my destiny? Where did I belong?
I was almost content to wait. It’s a life I could have easily slipped into and I might have been happy for a while. But I would have resented it. As if the universe understood that, circumstances and events of my life made sure the hardest lesson I would ever learn was that if I didn’t save myself, no one else would. The day-to-day-what-do-I-do-now of life is also part of the heroes journey, just as the period of isolation and aloneness I experienced was a necessary step. It was, you might say, a necessary evil I had to experience so that when I came back to the same people offering me help, again, it would mean something more, as if the one thing that had always been there appeared before me for the first time.
Star Wars was right all along. I often call Luke Skywalker the “everyman” character. He’s the one everyone dislikes the most because he’s flawed, he whines and he mirrors the way we humans most often respond to situations where we don’t know how to proceed. We fight, we resist, and we throw out the all-too-familiar clichés of “It’s not fair!” or “That’s impossible!”
And that is why we fail. Luke wanted to be a Jedi, he just didn’t want to have to work so hard at it. He was getting everything he wanted- a destiny, a grand adventure, to be special, to matter as something more than a moisture farmer- and complaining every step of the way once it fell on him. The moment that he stopped whining about what was expected of him, accepted what was happening, and made steps to best become the person he wanted to be, his path shifted, altering his personality. That was a similar realization that was paramount to my own growth. My life would not change unless I took charge and made a change. My path would not alter unless I moved heavens to change the stars above it.
We must each be the hero of our own journey (while simultaneously making guest appearances as sidekicks and mentors in the stories of those around us). That is the crux of my practice and journey. I had to be my own heroine, whether princess or peasant, and fashion my own source of light to make my way through the darkness.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Lunabelle's Bowl

Grief and loss are shadows that do not fade beneath the baking light of the summer sun. We move slowly through the aloof chill inside, trying to learn how to feel again. The tools that work differ from griever to griever. How do we transform that cold within us into heat and fire that can be a source reminder of the love and happiness we had, given to us by those who have passed on? How do we create light from darkness?
Last Summer Solstice, three months after the loss of our beloved family friend and cat, a friend of ours drove my partner and I to the home of one of our best friends, a potter, in Michigan. Among our bags were the ashes of our beloved cat Luna, who we had to put to sleep very suddenly that winter. Our friend Shelly had offered us the unique opportunity to make a bowl while we were visiting, adding some of Luna’s ashes to the clay.
It’s not for everyone. I have a couple of friends who can’t bear to touch anything that used to be alive. I think that’s common, as if touching death might call it to you. Humans are superstitious creatures when it comes to what we don’t understand. Holding the body of your loved one at the moment of death can be a life-altering experience if you are open to it. I would never say prepared. You’re never prepared. Death can be expected, but it hits hard when it comes all the same.
The loss of Luna was unexpected and cut deep. What could we do with that grief to transform it into something new? What my friend was offering us was something a gift we could not pass up.
We sat on the porch in the sunshine of the countryside. We sat and we sang and we poured bits of Luna’s bone and ash into clay. We burned sage and we held the space sacred. We took turns kneading it, hands in grey clay, returning bone to earth while the songbirds filled the air around us. We shared stories and remembrances tentatively, dancing to the edge of sadness without jumping in. We pushed our memories of her, the bone of her, back into earth.
I can recall the feel of her skin beneath my fingers at will, even against the slip of smooth clay beneath them. She was not silky like Bella or smooth like Zami, her hair was soft, like rabbit fur and she loved the way I scratched the underside of her jaw. She followed me from room to room every day, curling up to sleep until I moved again. At night, when I got into bed she would bat at my face until I lifted the covers and she would climb down, curling up in the space behind my knees. She would sleep there through the night, and coax me to stay in bed longer come morning by being cute and adorable. She was my everyday friend and we loved her. I loved her even as I held her head and looked her in the eyes while she died. I didn’t want her to be alone.
We held space in the kitchen, while Shelly pulled out her kick wheel and began the process of shaping and opening and pulling and shifting clay into something that resembled a hole in stone and then slowly, entrancingly, a bowl. Artisan work holds so much potent magic that watching it feels much like opening to a universal mystery. Earth and water and hands and vision and fire. Combine them and you get pottery.
The kick wheel turned and the wheel rotated and the room grew warm with the intention and wonder of what we were creating. My partner put her hands on the bowl, pulling up the sides and slimming them down, delicate fingers changing the shape of the clay as it spun beneath them. Then my turn, smoothing the outside walls with my hands. The pads of my fingers sang a lullaby into the earth-clay, littered with her bones, wishing for peace for both her spirit and ours. When the bowl was finished, I etched a small crescent moon onto an outside edge for Luna, for Lunabelle the Jackalope cat.
A year later, at this last Summer Solstice, my friend fired Luna’s bowl in her kiln during the energy of the longest day of the year, the day we carry with us through the winter to hold up against the cold of the longest night. Our grief had moved full-circle, from Luna’s body in our hands, into the fire and turned to ash, to Michigan, poured into clay with transformation solidified in more fire, and then returned to New York, to our home.
Taking pictures of the bowl in the sunlight of our garden, the warmth of it rests easy in my hands, like silk against flesh. My hand traces the subtle spiral in the bottom of the bowl. Like a phonographic recording, the memories of creating this piece of pottery, of art, of love rise above the sorrow. When I look at Luna’s bowl against the marigolds, as the small butterflies and moths alight upon it, my smile is warmer than the sun above me.


Relevant Posts
Ritual for Luna (posted March 2, 2011)
The Body After Death (posted April 20, 2011)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Spaces In-Between

At the height of summer the land around us is dense and thick with green leaves, blossoms, and ripening fruits and vegetables. Multiple scents swirl through the air vying for dominance as their pheromones call out to the animal world, which is active and in motion around us whether we choose to take notice of it or not. This season becomes a cycle of long hot days followed by brief cool nights. But even as the length of day changes, the constant remains that in-between night and day comes dawn and between day and night comes dusk.
In my spirituality I do a lot of work that some would call dark, concerning edgewalking, shadow work and shapeshifting. It involves exploring energetic boundaries and manipulating them, reshaping them as well as walking between worlds. It is dark work, in the sense that magic is both light and dark and I embrace both sides of it, not just the ones that feel safe. In order to do this kind of otherworld work you have to believe 100%- not 99.9%- that it’s possible. It requires faith and an acceptance in more than what you can see.
The labyrinth is a good metaphor for how I seem my work. You go inward, into the unknown and into the darkness to learn what lies at the center, at the core. And then you return from the darkness into the light, filled with the wisdom, illuminated. You have to go inward before you can go outward. What happens in between in and out? What happens at the center? This is where the magic lies.
In the physical labyrinth, we walk the spaces between the walls. To walk the labyrinth is to find yourself in-between. To shift edges, you find the space that lies between cells and expand or shrink it. To do healing, you find the space between the edge of the trauma and the edge of the healthy tissue/organ/thought. To reach trance you find the silence between the drum beats and you dive into it. You peer into it and you push.
My spirituality is how I worked towards changing the way I thought about myself and the world. First I had to dismember all of the reasons I felt I was not a good person and heal my core. You have to walk into the darkness to do this work. Then once I could stand firmly in my body, I looked at how the world was, how I related to it and then how it related to me.
Like Malidoma Patrice Somé, a spiritual teacher of the Dagara people of Africa, I had to unlearn the structure of my Western teachings in order to expand the way my brain was able to see the world. I would say that my work is about facing my fears as a means of healing to become a more solid version of myself, so that I may guide others on their paths of growth and evolution.

One of the tools I use to accomplish this work is a trance which can be done at dawn or dusk, at the in-between times of the day. These periods are of the transition, the shifting of light into darkness and occur during the point of grey haze of mid-time. This happens when the landscape seems to lose the intensity of color and everything begins to fuzz and blur. This is the magic time that connects the sun and moon, the day and night. As light and shadow can shift, something we can see, so can and does energy, though it is something we can’t see.
I do this gloaming trance as a means of connecting more deeply to nature, specifically the land around me. In the beginning, like with anything you don’t know how to do, it was more an exercise in sitting still and not letting the buzzing bugs pull me from meditation than it was in exploration. I could have given up when I decided it wasn’t working for me, but I thought of the Buddhist monks and the Catholic Nuns and their repetitive devotion and I pressed onward. Four years later, I can slip easily into and out of that space.
You have to practice anything you want to be good at.
I find a place at an edge of water, of woods, of fire. Somewhere visible the landscape changes. As the daylight fades (I prefer dusk trance), I let my eyes soften their focus until I can see everything, but no one thing is clear. And then I find another in-between space, like the shadow between two distant tree trunks. I find that shadow and I peer into it, deepening it. And then I follow the journey to where it takes me, not allowing anything to pull my focus from the exploration.
I came to myself from trance, this last holiday, under a dark moon in a field surrounded by woods and water. I felt myself become more part of the forest until I was no longer me, the human, visiting the trees. Rather, I became a creature of the woods. My energetic body stretched like roots and all at once I could feel the breeze brush against bark and the skitter of small critter paws scurrying across earth. Everything was glowing slightly luminescent.
When I began the trance, I was a woman sitting in a field. When I returned I was a human animal living on the earth with glowing fireflies, mosquito-eating bats, bat-evading gnats, hooting barred owls, fluttering dragonflies and damselflies, beautiful red-spotted purple butterflies, persistent hickory tussock moth caterpillars, the croaking frogs and cheeping peepers.
In that small space of land we have seen the large murder of crows that roost nearby dive-bombing hunters shooting at them, beavers building dams, scuttling skunks scavenging, baby raccoons kitten-walking into the elder bush, coy dogs hunting, catfish swimming, hummingbirds feeding and a great blue heron nesting and fishing. Every time I trance I am reminded of the surety of my humble place in this world. Each time it is a more comfortable truth.
I listened to the sounds of the crows conversing and calling and laughing as they roosted at dusk and roused their brethren at dawn. I listened to the sounds of the world waking and sleeping and waited for the moment between, as the crow cawed. I slipped in, knowing I would come out renewed.

Relevant Posts:
Malidoma Patrice Somé: Supernatural and Science (posted July 20, 2011)
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