Ritual, Meditation, and Worship-Mode

Sometimes meditation is as easy as sitting down and deciding to do it. Just a few days ago I had a particularly good session where I got the kind of “worship glow” I used to get during really powerful rituals. Things just clicked into place and I had this sudden sense of understanding, connection to the universe, and complete calm. That was a good one.

And then at other times I can sit or lie there for an hour and have everything just not work. That was today. But a lot of times I have no idea why that’s the case, and it’s just a frustrating situation. Today at least I’m pretty sure I can nail down a few reasons.

There are times when I’m thirsting for a connection to the divine in a general sense or to a particular god or spirit. Those are some of the easy times. The desire and intention are already there, I just have to show up.

Today I didn’t even plan to go into meditation at that time. I was actually just putting away something upstairs, and I guess since I often do that right before I go into meditation or worship time, I kept walking on autopilot and didn’t realize where I was going until I was there. I decided to go for it anyway, because what the heck, I’m trying to get to daily meditation anyway, I’m here, might as well go for it. But my mind was elsewhere, and getting all those other things out of my head was a no-go.

That’s the big reason. I’m not sure there’s really any way around that, but there are some things I could have tried that just didn’t occur to me. If I was going to do it again (and I’ll try to keep it in mind for the next time something similar happens), here’s what I’d do.

1. Light candle and say a prayer.
2. Set up meditation area with stone and yarn (sensory aids), open meditation noise app on my tablet, and settle.
3. State intention.
4. Begin meditation, probably the centering prayer I was doing awhile back, possibly find a line from a comic book or something to focus on instead.

It’s easy to forget the purpose of ritual in entering an altered state of mind, especially when it often happens so easily for me. And when, by contrast, my rituals often don’t have the level of power I’m expecting in that sense, making me wonder if I’m doing something “wrong” since I’ve never been to a group ritual and seen how other people do it.

My high day celebrations have become more spontaneous and less ritualistic over time, because it seems more effective and less false that way. But maybe it’s time to lower my expectations and see ritual instead as something to do every day, to make that switch into worship space easier and more familiar. I’ll be trying that over the next few weeks.

New (to me) Things

I’ve been reading again! Hurray! Not the ADF reading list, though. I still haven’t really been able to get back into Drawing Down the Moon, but reading the first third of it or so was one of several events that made me want to look more thoroughly into “the Craft” (not the movie…although, yes, that too). I never did that, and it seems like I’m in the minority there. Most people I’ve met through ADF started in more general Wicca-based forms of neopaganism and were already familiar with a lot of the history and traditions that I don’t understand.

Unfortunately, I dismissed it as being “fluffy” and make-believe early in my pagan days, and I was more drawn to ancient gods. And then I had ADF, so I learned (or tried to learn) neodruidry instead. But there are parts of it that I just haven’t been able to make sense of after 5 years, and on the other hand things about witchcraft just work for me. And I’ve broadened my viewpoint of myth vs “truth,” so especially with Adler’s perspective on the history and myth of the Craft I am more able to accept the parts that seem flaky at first glance.

I’ll admit, it’s still hard to push that judgmental part of my brain aside. I do just about every time I hear someone speaking or read non-fiction, really. For some reason I look for what’s wrong with things first instead of what’s right. Maybe it’s connected to the total dislike of authority I’ve started realizing is a big problem for me – if I feel like someone is telling me what to think, I rebel against it and look for reasons to reject it. I’m working on it.

So my first thought on reading Spiral Dance was “wow, that’s an interesting view of history you’ve got there.” But the thing is, the author knows that. She specifically addresses the fact that it’s a mythical history, an interpretation with symbols that are meaningful and useful. Maybe I can’t buy into all of it, but that doesn’t mean there has to be a problem with someone else claiming it, or with me learning from someone who does. There’s so much in this book that is exactly what I’ve been looking for and is inspiring me to regular religious practice again, and that’s great. I’m looking forward to learning more.

Centering Prayer + Sensory Input

I mentioned in my last post about centering prayer that I wanted to devote some more time to it, this time adding regular sensory triggers to help me focus. It did help. I don’t think I’ll keep doing this type of prayer every day, there are some other practices I want to try. However, I’ve enjoyed this and will definitely come back to it on a fairly regular basis.

Today I’m mostly going to talk about the things I added and how they helped. There were two in particular, a white noise app and a smooth stone to hold.

I tried a few apps for noises. I knew I would need to use headphones, because without them the noise didn’t compete with the furnace or even cover over the noises of cats playing or trying to get in. First I tried a binaural beats app that bothered me and didn’t seem to do much for focus. I tried a white noise app that worked alright, but then annoyed me because I couldn’t close it and remove the little icon until I completely shut down the phone. It’s a small, silly thing, but it bothered me.

So finally I found this app which has 7 different noise options, the ability to control volume, and no annoying features at all. I’ve been using the engine noise for this prayer, but I like most of the other options as well. I think I might try using others for different types of meditation or prayer, to act as a trigger to adopt the right mental state and focus. The engine noise makes me feel very supported, like I can sense machines all around me and have something to lean against. A lot of times I feel disconnected from my arms and occasionally the rest of my body, this makes me feel solid and grounded.

The stone recalls two things. First, when I was a Hellenic pagan just starting out in ADF, the Tree/Fire/Well triad didn’t work so well. One of the suggestions was to use a stone in place of one of the Hallows. I think it was actually meant to replace Fire, since the gods dwell on a mountain in Greek myth. But I wound up interpreting that differently, coming to the conclusion that the mountain is what connects the gods to the earth. The Fire would still represent the Upper Realm and the gods, the mountain took the place of Tree as the axis that connected the three worlds. So I’ve had a stone on my altar for most of my time in ADF, since even after switching to the Norse hearth culture I haven’t really found a suitable Tree representation. Because of this, the stone represents for me the earth itself, as well as the thing that ties together all of the cosmos.

The second meaning comes from my trip to New Mexico and Arizona. That trip was and remains one of the strongest and most important spiritual experiences of my life, and several items I picked up while on that trip still decorate my home and altars. One of the most memorable moments of the trip for me was looking up at a mountain and seeing a tree leaning off the edge. This is a desert area, not a lot grows in the first place, so it was striking to see all the things that did. But in this particular case, it seemed even more unlikely. Just this bit of rock jutting out of the side of the mountain, roots visibly reaching out around it, no place where we could see any water to collect and feed it. But it was growing!

That image has stuck with me ever since. A tree growing out of a rock, somehow surviving and thriving in a location where it seemed impossible. I bought a rock with an image of a tree carved into it soon after to carry with me, a reminder of the Mother, the source of all life. This is the force that drives us forward and allows us to survive even when it seems impossible. That’s the Goddess to me, and when I hold the stone all of that comes rushing back to mind. No matter how much my mind has wandered during the meditation, this is a sure way to re-focus my thoughts. As a bonus, the texture of the stone helps me to feel my hands and arms as a part of me again, feel totally connected in mind and body. Combined with the white noise, it allows me to feel completely present.

Imbolc, Executive Function, and Housework

I cleaned my living room today. Well, sort of. I started.

My house is a mess. Keeping up with housework isn’t easy for me on the best days, and with work stress and self-doubt sort of eating up my life right now, it’s been especially difficult. Executive functioning has been a problem all my life. In fact, it’s what led to my autism diagnosis, although no one ever talked to me about it in those terms.

I was very smart, but falling behind in classes because of a lack of organization and tendency to forget or have trouble starting my homework. A teacher recommended I be tested, I was diagnosed and assigned therapy, but all my therapy was built around sensory integration. Therapists and doctors talked about my disability in terms of “not knowing where you are in space” and “difficulty processing auditory information.” I never really understood the connection, my homework and organization issues were never discussed in treatment, and so I never got better. I didn’t even know executive function difficulties were associated with autism until 2 years ago!

That’s all beside the point. The important thing is that because it was never really addressed when I was a child/teen and I didn’t understand the problem until recently, this is an area where I’ve made very little progress. A big part of my work with Holda is holding myself accountable and trying to get better at taking care of myself and my home. A lot of what I’ve found in Holda’s folklore involves finishing work by the days honoring her. This makes sense to me for the time – it’s an encouragement to work hard and get things done that needed to be done when activities were more limited by season and climate. You don’t want to only be halfway through making the yarn when winter comes and you need warm clothes!

It’s a little harder to translate to today when most of us don’t do work to prepare for winter and don’t have those season-bound limits. There’s not really anything I need to get done by any sort of high day marker. On the other hand, there’s a lot I need to get in the habit of doing day-to-day, so I’ve started seeing the high days as check-in points. Think about my progress, what needs to change, maybe set a goal for the next one. I didn’t really do any of that for this high day.

I did determine that it would be a day to honor Holda. At the very least, it would be a day to clean up her altar and get rid of the seasonal decorations that have been there since before the winter solstice. And I’m a couple days late, but I did that! And then I was inspired to go further. My partner woke up early this morning and shoveled the sidewalk, which I’d thought I would have to do in the afternoon. So I was able to sleep in, and when I woke up and walked into the living room, my eyes fell on the pile of cables and other electronics/accessories, Magic: the Gathering cards, and whatever else has gotten tangled up in there during the months I’ve ignored it and stumbled around it. And I thought “Huh. I could do that today. It wouldn’t even be hard, and I don’t have any other plans.” So I did.

And I was right, it wasn’t hard. The actual cleaning wasn’t hard. But getting started on it, that just-getting-it-done thing is really hard for me still. It’s not a laziness thing, it’s not that I’m putting it off or not trying, it’s just so hard to maintain the focus. I woke up, tried to find food to eat, wandered into the living room to check my email instead, got distracted by that, felt hungry and went to find something else and decided to soak a pan to wash and make spaghetti. Went back to the living room to check Facebook while it soaked, remembered it an hour later when I suddenly remembered I was hungry. Washed the pan, put boiling water in it, put a movie on for background noise and started cleaning. Again, remembered to eat about half an hour later and went to drop the pasta.

Eventually I actually had food cooked and was able to eat it, about 3 hours after I decided I was hungry and should eat. It’s so hard for me to pay attention to my body and remember basic functions like that. Took a break for that, started laundry, came back and heard a notification on my phone, went to check that. For the most part, my attention is completely focused on what I’m doing. That’s why it’s so easy for things to get messy around me – I literally do not notice them. I can see them, in a technical sense. But I get overwhelmed by a lot of sensory input, and I filter out most of it. So I just don’t actually look at what I’m not doing, don’t process that there’s a mess to clean until I’m given a reason to pay attention to it. I forgot I was cleaning until I heard a noise in the kitchen and saw the candle I’d lit on Holda’s altar. Right! Cleaning project. So I went back and finished it up. And now it’s done and I’m able to take a break to write this.

All together, about 4-5 hours to clear a 3-foot square section of floor space. Maybe not a typical high day celebration. Very low on the ceremony. Not very impressive to outside eyes. But it’s important to me to have finished even just this small project. I feel a lot better about the state of my house and the possibility of getting the whole thing to where I want it. It’s a small step onto what I hope will be a successful journey.

Centering Prayer

For the past two weeks I’ve been doing the centering prayer I mentioned briefly in the last post. The basic concept is to just sit quietly and meditate on the presence of “God” (Goddess, in my case) for at least 15 minutes. This is SO HARD for me. Meditation has never worked very well for me. It was always the part of ADF’s Dedicant Path that tripped me up and made me feel discouraged.

On the other hand, having something specific to draw my focus has helped. And while practicing it, I’ve found a few other things to help me and started understanding why this might have been so difficult in the past.

One of the suggestions from the book was to pick an aspect of the divine, summed up in a word or phrase. When you find your mind wandering, repeat the word or phrase and use it to come back to center. Then when you get in the habit of that, it also becomes something you can say when not in meditation, if you need to return to that state of mind and be reminded of the divine presence throughout the day. Mine is “Mother” It’s taken some time to build up the habit, but I do find that it’s easy to take a couple of deep breaths when I’m stressed or over-tired during the day, think the word, and draw peace and energy from it.

I’m starting to combine it with the Two Powers meditation, which works especially well because I associate the Goddess with Yggdrasil and trees. The focus of my meditation is recognizing the divine in myself and my connection to the rest of the universe. When I take those short breaks during the day, I imagine myself inside the world tree, connected to everything and able to draw strength from above and below.

Another experiment I’ve been trying is doing this meditation in a variety of settings. I was visiting my parents for a few days, and found that this worked very well. In the past, I’ve taken travel altars with images or items relating to whatever god/s have my attention at the moment, but having to keep them secret has been difficult and often I wind up not using them. This time I was able to worship in exactly the same way I had been doing at home recently, and that made a big difference. I felt much more spiritually grounded and I think this might be my best approach for worship while traveling from now on.

I’ve also figured out I need more sensory input to help me focus. Often I have trouble getting into a meditative state for awhile, and then I can get knocked out of it fairly easily. It took awhile to recognize the source, but now I’m fairly certain it’s tied to when the furnace turns on and off. When it’s on, the white noise is enough to cover other noises and stop me from being distracted. As soon as it turns off I feel lost and unfocused. To counteract that I’m going to find some headphones and try the binaural beats app I got awhile back.

For some reason, I default to closing my eyes during meditation. But I’ve noticed that facing my altar and being able to look at Goddess images can also help my mind from wandering (or bring it back if I’ve already wandered). And I used to just keep my hands on my knees, which seems silly in retrospect because I rely so much on tactile stims to get through my day. So I’ve started keeping a stone on the altar and putting it on the floor in front of me before I start this prayer. If I need help focusing, I pick up the stone. That’s probably been the biggest help so far.

Originally the plan was to try this for a couple weeks and then move on, so tomorrow would have been the start of a new practice. But because I decided to incorporate these sensory aspects, I want to give it at least another week and see how that works.

Beginning Spiritual Practices

A few years ago, I was doing my field education volunteering as a student chaplain in a nursing home. I wasn’t very good at it to start. That was also the first semester I finally got around to taking the “boring” practical classes that would have helped me do things like lead groups in prayer, write worship services, even just have spiritual conversations with the residents. So in addition to the classes I was already taking in that area, I picked up some books I thought would help, including one on spiritual disciplines that’s mostly sat unused on my shelf ever since.

It’s a useful book. Lots of different exercises and approaches…okay, mostly small variations on a few overarching methods like prayer or service, but still. Good descriptions of each one, suggested exercises to get started, and all those variations mean just about everyone can probably find something that appeals to them and makes the discipline more accessible. The only problem with it (for me) is that it’s very Christian. A lot more than I realized when I bought it. Every single example is rooted in the Bible and Christian tradition, so I’m reminded on every page that these don’t really belong to me and they all need to be adapted to fit.

But I do want to give it a chance and see what I can get out of it. So I looked through the list and ranked the disciplines in the book. A few that I think can easily and immediately be adapted for my own religious context, a lot more that are going to be trickier but will probably have something to teach me, a few that make me curious to try as a challenge, and then all the others that I just don’t really want to touch. I’ll be approaching them all in that order, giving each one about a week or two before moving onto the next one.

That first group is interesting to me because each one I marked for it seems to be well suited to a different focus in my religious life. I sometimes have trouble merging my different religious interests, and I wonder if this might help me find a good way to fit them all. My first practice is called centering prayer, which I’m using as a way to connect to the Goddess and therefore to start exploring witchcraft as a religion. Later I’ll be doing “scripture study” as a pop culture pagan practice, and then scheduled prayer throughout the day devoted to specific deities from more traditional pantheons.

Daily practice does not come naturally to me. New habits are particularly difficult to start, and I don’t want to overcomplicate things. So I don’t expect that I’ll keep doing all of them, but I’m hoping that just giving them a chance will help me develop better mental discipline and find some methods that work well for me.

Multiple Paths, Multiple Stresses

I keep collecting religious paths and identities, and they don’t play together well. I’m (currently) a Unitarian Universalist (and wannabe minister in that tradition) primarily identifying as pagan, an ADF minister with pop culture pagan leanings and a developing interest in neo-Wicca and witchcraft as well as Western esotericism.

About a year ago, I decided I was going to start working on my UU reading, ADF work, and a Western esoteric coursebook at the same time. I developed a reading schedule and assigned myself essays on the reading every week. It went fairly well before I got a job and had way less time and energy on my hands. I’ve been mostly drained and anxious ever since, so I went from reading and writing on 20-50 pages of 3 books a week to reading almost nothing ever and writing even less. Not a good situation.

Meanwhile I’ve had several people comment on my employment situation and what the hell I’m doing working as a cashier when I have a Master’s degree. *sigh* I don’t know. I mean, I do. I needed to pay the bills and that was the job I was able to get. But it was meant to be a part time thing that would let me still spend a lot of my time working on ordination and getting involved with a church. Instead I’m working most Sundays and have absolutely no headspace left to put towards the reading list and other requirements. And no real plan to make it better and make more time for myself.

It was pretty clear I needed to make some changes. I requested better, more predictable hours at work and was given them. I reached a point where I realized I had to stop stressing over every little detail at work, every bad interaction with a rude customer. Made up some simple spells to free up my mind and let go of my distress over those interactions. Simplified my religious path.

Finally, I came across an article about the importance of choosing one focus, and how if you divide yourself over too many interests you’re less likely to excel at any of them. It was recommended that people choose one focus for three areas of their lives – career, household, and hobbies in my case. So I’ve chosen a goal for each of those and limited my reading to UU ministry certification requirements.

What I haven’t done is made room in my life for spiritual development, and I miss it. I don’t know where it fits into that “focus on one thing!” approach. It doesn’t fit any of those categories. Well, maybe household to an extent, with my worship of Holda. Definitely no room for something like the Dedicant Path, and without it and without a grove anywhere nearby I’m not sure if there’s a reason to stick with ADF.

The things I like best about it are the study programs and the community aspect, the idea that everyone’s doing roughly the same thing you are. Really, I would like a small group that develops its own theology and rituals, even if they don’t match what I’m currently doing. People working closely together to grow in their magical work. Experiment with new ideas and approaches, bounce ideas off each other, share what we’re learning. I don’t get that with ADF, it’s a little too distant for me. For that matter, there aren’t any alternatives nearby.

I sometimes think if I could find a group like that I’d join up for the magical partnership even if nothing in our theology matched. But it’s just not there, and for now ADF is the best I have. Not what I’d choose for myself, no local group, but at least there’s email lists and Facebook groups and I know we’re all on the same page. It helps. I just don’t feel like I’m doing enough with it, I haven’t even followed the COoR in over a year (though I do still at least acknowledge all the high days out of habit). At least I’ve got most of a year left to decide if I want to renew my membership again.

But how do people do this? Where do I fit spirituality into my life, and how do I hold these things in balance, follow up on what I want to do without getting distracted and failing at all of them? Obviously I haven’t been able to figure this out yet, even though I can remember first starting to notice the problem over a decade ago. I hope there’s an answer and that I’m able to find it.