Knowing the Live Oaks: Finding the Balance Between Historicity and Inspiration in Neopaganism and Goddess Spirituality

… Less important in the greater scheme of injustice but still pinching my heart was the realization that my trees – my breathtaking, “natural,” inspiring live oaks – weren’t part of the ancient beauty of this stunning landscape, but rather were substitutes for that ancient beauty, stand-ins chosen for their aesthetic splendor after the complete destruction of what had been. As someone whose path is largely Pagan, this provided a parallel for some of my own experiences within the Pagan and Goddess spirituality movements…

Read more at Feminism and Religion.

 

I’ll Go With You: On Bathrooms and Theocracy

The window of the Switzerland Cafe in Little Switzerland, NC, where we ate lunch one day.
The window of the Switzerland Cafe in Little Switzerland, NC, where we ate lunch one day.

Last month, I took a dear friend on a trip to the North Carolina mountains. Throughout the trip we were sharply aware that we were no longer in the progressive enclave where we both lived – the tiny area whose deep blue always stands out in votes-by-county maps after elections and whose responses to discriminatory legislation like HB2 – the controversial “bathroom bill” that prevented trans people from using the restrooms that correspond to their identities – has always been resistance.

Even in our progressive bubble, though, transphobic people found themselves empowered by legislative support to speak louder and more harshly to gender nonconforming people. Leaving that bubble for two days of rural travel with a trans friend meant a thread of tension that followed us throughout much of our trip, as every glance, every bathroom break and every interaction with strangers had the potential to become upsetting or frightening…

Read more at Feminism and Religion.

Leaving the Bubble, Privilege, and Safety

mountainview

Last month, I took a dear friend on a trip to the North Carolina mountains. For months, I’d been telling him about the spiritual impact the Appalachian landscape has on me – about how my heart opens when the skyline first comes into view, with its arches pushing skyward from the horizon, sculpted curves rising up from streams that wash through valleys. He’d heard me talk about my favorite spaces – the river whose water wraps me in tiny galaxies of dazzling mica on brisk, soul-awakening swims, the rock by the river where I sit to meditate, and the wooded paths and bamboo forests who’ve been watered by my tears when my heart was heavy. He confessed that while he’d visited the mountains a few times, he’d never had the opportunity to dive into the lush beauty of North Carolina’s mountain forests and stunning views, and we planned a quick trip for before his mid-July move to Canada.

The county where we live is a tiny area of North Carolina whose deep blue always stands out in votes-by-county maps after elections. We voted strongly against NC’s marriage amendment a few years ago, and have numerous churches – even Baptist churches – that are welcoming congregations. After HB2 was passed in March – the controversial “bathroom bill” that prevented trans people from using the restrooms that correspond to their identities – dozens of new restrooms showed up in online databases of safe bathrooms, and after the Pulse nightclub massacre, our city governments put up rainbow flags, as well as trans, agender, asexual, and bisexual flags. Even in our progressive bubble, though, transphobic people found themselves empowered by legislative support to speak louder and more harshly to gender nonconforming people – not just in the context of protests and counter-protests, but as they were going about their everyday lives.

My trans friends have told me of being mocked while out around town and misgendered intentionally in the workplace, in addition to experiencing the kinds of abuses I won’t break confidence to divulge, and these abuses being on top of the ever-present stresses of being unintentionally misgendered, asked intrusive questions by acquaintances and coworkers, and frustrated at the kinds of support sometimes received from well-meaning friends and family. Even in a reasonably well-protected bubble, things are not ideal. Leaving that bubble for two days of rural travel with a trans friend provided a thread of tension that followed us throughout much of our trip, as every glance, every bathroom break, every interaction with strangers, and every meal stop had the potential to become upsetting at a minimum, and possibly frightening.

linvillefallsOur trip turned out to be lovely – we swam through the sparkle-clouds of the Swannanoa River, discovered dens of garter snakes along parkway overlooks with awe-inspiring views, and hiked trails by waterfalls. As relaxing as so much of the trip was, throughout it all we were sharply aware that the predominant culture in those parts of our state made rural NC a not entirely safe place for my friend. Restroom choices varied over the course of the trip based on where we were, and glares from strangers reminded me that HB2 has made trans people more visible, more acknowledged (for better or worse) than they were before. When we arrived at the motel near Linville for the night, my friend sized up the look of the place and the people heading in and out, and told me he’d let me do the talking. Disappearing into a display of rocks in the lobby gift shop, he watched as I transformed into a hardcore southerner with a thick country accent, trash-talking with the innkeeper as he teased and joked. While I live in one of the more progressive areas of the Southeast, am college-educated, and hold some intensely leftist political and social views, I come from a long line of poor Southern farmers and that accent was my natural one until I was a teenager and realized the stigma in academic circles against Southern accents. I still slip into it unintentionally when talking to my family who live in rural areas, and had slipped into it without conscious thought in my interactions with the innkeeper.

Whether we’ll admit it or not, there’s a certain prejudice in the South against anyone perceived to be an outsider. “You ain’t from around these parts” is not usually considered high praise, and those of us who are from “these parts” but live a little differently know that rule number one of avoiding conflict in deeply Southern, rural areas is not to stand out. This is where my privilege becomes obvious – as a white, Southern, cis woman, I can easily blend in if I choose to. I’ve never really thought about the ways in which I code-switch when around other Southerners; for the most part, it just happens around my family thoughtlessly and without pretense. On this trip, however, I became more aware of the ways in which I do it as a protective measure around other Southerners with whom I am attempting to establish rapport, smooth out awkwardness, or defuse conflict. The underlying intent, subconscious though it may be, is to be accepted as “one of the crowd” so as not to be on the receiving end of any of white Southern culture’s negative tendencies. And when it comes to passing as “one of us,” I can usually succeed, because as long as nobody pays attention to the bumper stickers on my car, I visibly look like a white, cis woman and can readily sound like a Southerner.

The window of the Switzerland Cafe in Little Switzerland, NC, where we ate lunch one day.
The window of the Switzerland Cafe in Little Switzerland, NC, where we ate lunch one day.

Not everybody has that option. Not every person who does chooses to take it in every circumstance, and I can guarantee that had anyone been aggressive, unkind, or violent to my sweet friend while we were on this trip, I would easily have thrown out any chance of passing for mountain folk in order to stand by, support, and defend him. Any obstacle he encountered on this trip, he wouldn’t have encountered alone, and while my role isn’t to speak or fight for him, I definitely call out transphobic bullshit when I see it and would have encouraged people to respect and listen to him. I’d speak and fight with him against those who would harm him. I don’t have any idea what it is like to be trans. I’m an ally, a friend. But I’m a friend who tries to listen carefully when people tell me about their experiences. I’m a friend who knows what it’s like to see an interaction unfold from several meters away, listening to hushed tones of voice for frustration or stress, narrowed eyes watching body language and facial expressions. I’ve done it enough times with different people in different situations – friends and family who are vulnerable for one reason or another – that I can feel my energy transform when I go from relaxed to alert, can feel the way my eyelids tighten and eyebrows shift. My way of looking changes as I try to assess any need for me to step up, to stand behind my loved ones, or to put myself between them and harm. On this trip, I spent a lot of time alert. I spent a lot of time paying attention.

And I spent a lot of time learning.

illgowithyouAnyone who’s read an article or seen memes about privilege knows that one of the key concepts is that just because something isn’t a problem for you personally doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. Just because bathroom bills don’t affect you personally doesn’t mean they don’t harm people – good people, wonderful people, loving people who have already experienced too much discrimination, abuse, and violence. Just because they don’t make you feel unsafe doesn’t mean they don’t make others far less safe than they would be otherwise. Just because you can travel your state feeling relatively safe in its small towns and rural areas doesn’t mean others feel safe in the midst of conservative, evangelical, Christian culture, or that they feel welcome, or that they feel loved. Hospitality extended to those we think are like us is easy; hospitality extended to all people – hospitality that includes compassion, acceptance of differences, and genuine respect – that’s harder. We have a lot of work to do. Let’s join with those who are already doing it for their own communities, adding our voices, our strength, and our power to theirs.

 

Living Out the Tension: Spirituality, Self-Care, & Activism in Action

“Great art is not a matter of presenting one side or another,
but presenting a picture so full of the contradictions, tragedies, [and] insights of the period
that the impact is at once disturbing and satisfying.” – Pauli Murray

240547_10150241483328792_7992682_oMy spirituality is inherently creative. Deep in the creative process, I open more fully to awareness of what is flowing around and in and through me. When I can get there – to that place of fully giving myself over to Spirit as a channel, vessel, and embodiment – creation itself becomes an act of prayer, of devotion, of intense ecstatic ritual to honor, grieve with, or celebrate the Ground of Being behind all expression. I craft, dig, carve, build, dance, drum, and sing. Mostly, my art involves words – spoken and written – to create moments, spark feelings, paint pictures, or shape ideas. Words carry tremendous meaning, unconsciously as well as when we use them consciously, with intention…

Read more at Feminism and Religion.

Poets, Christians, and Not Wanting to Be a Poser

OSH crossLately, I’ve been pretty deep into words. Having been writing for years – essays, academic writing, and technical writing – I’ve always longed to write words of beauty and powerful metaphor, rather than direct explanations and carefully constructed arguments. In high school, some of the more brilliant kids I hung out with wrote poetry, and I always read their words with a sense of wonder. If only I could write the things on my heart, I thought, it would be so healing, so transformative. I was a musician and dancer, so I’ve always had the mind and soul of an artist, but longed to put to the page the images of beauty, pain, and awe that regularly danced across my understanding.

I read poetry – loved reading poetry – but when I would pick up a pen and start to write, it all came out wrong… Too corny. Cheesy. Trite. I’d get two lines in, scribble out what I’d started, crumple the page, and give up. So, I kept dancing, played flute, and channeled my artistic pursuits into performance, while continuing to write the kinds of academic papers that dazzled teachers and floated my GPA. I was not a poet, not a creative writer.

Over the past few years, though, the urge to find words that convey the nebulous and numinous has grown louder and more persistent, and I’ve longed for coaching and teaching to help me break through the structures of academic writing and tap into a more fluid, imagery-laden, and heartfelt style of writing that more closely matches the insights and experiences of my heart. Through a series of near-magical coincidences, I ended up attending the Into the Fire writer’s retreat in late-May, sponsored by The Sun Magazine, an event intended to serve as instruction and inspiration for those seeking to improve their skill at creative personal writing. From Joe Wilkins, I learned about writing evocative prose, and from Frances Lefkowitz I learned how to allow my distinct, personal voice to flow into my writing style.

My favorite workshop of the weekend was on “hovering,” in which the amazing poet Chris Bursk led activities to teach us to linger over moments, allowing our words to circle round, ambulate, and drink deep from each feeling, each experience, before moving on to the next scene. While I didn’t write any poetry in his workshop, I wrote phrases, sentences, and brief pieces that used words to paint in ways I’d never done before. I came back from the workshop to discover that when something would be bearing on my heart, I immediately wanted to write, and to my surprise, what landed on the page in those moments of urgency were lines of poetry rather than prose.

And yet still I have a hard time calling myself a poet. I’m not sure if what I’m writing is any good. I don’t know what makes good poetry or bad. I know what I like to read, and I know what comes off my fingertips when I sit to put my heart into words, but feel a bit of a fraud to say I’m a poet, or that what I write is poetry. I’m finally comfortable calling myself a writer, but a poet? Isn’t there some external validation you must pass before adopting that word for yourself? Some confirmation that what you’ve written passes muster, meets the standards?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my spiritual journey. Over the years, there have been a handful of key traditions that have played a bigger part in my journey than others. While my current practice is greatly informed by an adoration of nature and penchant for digging deep into the scientific workings of the universe to find metaphorical, spiritual meaning, one of the greatest influences on who I have become and how I worship rests in the years spent deep in the mystical, liturgical, compassionate, and progressive Christianity I experienced through the Convent of Saint Helena and a handful of small, Episcopal churches. Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church has found itself subject to great tension and difference of opinion about what constitutes the Episcopal tradition and what practices and beliefs can rightly be called Christian.

With those voices added to many conservative, rigid, and intolerant voices organizing in their efforts to dominate discussions about “true” Christians and Christianity, there simply came a point where I didn’t feel like I could lay claim to the label any more. No matter how compassionate, gentle, and progressive my Christ is, if all the other voices seem to be saying I’m not a Christian, that I’m wrong, there simply came a point where I was okay with that. I don’t need a label to practice my connection; I’m not attached to being called, considered, or seen as a Christian, particularly when some of the more vehement and bigoted Christian voices today rest firmly on the centuries of violence and oppression that have stained the institution of the Church for much of its history.

Do I still find power in the chant, liturgy, and community of the organic, progressive, feminist Christian church? Definitely. Attending Eucharist or any one of the daily prayers – even listening to them online – opens up channels in my spirit that aren’t tapped into by any of my other practices. Do I still yearn for deeper knowledge and understanding of the socially progressive radical Jesus – the one who dined with the marginalized and loved without bigotry? Yes, definitely. These questions are easy. The harder ones, more complex and unresolved, are these: Could I be in community with Christians, even progressive ones doing the work as I understand it, when “Christian” is a word that in my mind has become so powerfully associated with bigotry, patriarchy, and rigid, unforgiving morality? If I decided that I’d like to pursue participation in that community, can I stand firm in the face of rejection by the more conservative elements of Christianity, authentically claiming the interfaith nature of my practice and its deep, ecological roots as well as progressive Christian practice as I know and understand it? At what point do you accept someone else’s interpretation of the tradition as normative, and to what extent can we (feminists, progressives, radicals, and social justice activists) redefine, reinterpret, and represent a new, more open Church? When we do, who is listening?

I don’t really need to think of myself as a Christian, any more than I need to call myself a poet. They’re labels, useful only to the extent that they describe the goings-on of my heart, my practice, and my expression. For now, I’ll keep doing me. I’ll write prose when it flows and lines of (maybe?) poetry when that’s what pours forth. I’ll dig in the dirt, burn incense, swim in rivers, dig my toes into the sand of the oceans, write love poems for mountains, and pour out offerings onto the sacred earth of the forests. And I’ll read scripture, chant Psalter, pray, read writings of medieval mystics, and be bold to say the things that I might not be able to say in a community of like-minded people – not anymore, not yet. And I’ll try – really try – not to get hung up on the labels that I hesitate to adopt, and focus instead on living, learning, and growing in my own connection to Spirit.

For now, I welcome reading recommendations. Who are the feminist theologians within the Christian tradition you feel are doing powerful work? Who is tying in ecological awareness in a meaningful, powerful way? Who is doing interesting work reconciling their other interfaith practices with their Christian backgrounds?

I See You: Can You Feel how Loved You Are?

Source
Source

(Published at Rebelle Society)

I see you.

You may not realize it, but I do.

I see you with eyes shaped by tides and waves, hills and trenches. When your joy explodes into the ether, and when the implosion of sorrow damn near pulls my heart out of my chest and straight into yours, I see you.

I notice you.

The way you reach for words when answers born from old fears rise up against a tentatively opening heart, or when you spin the rings on your fingers as you pretend the surge of decision isn’t rolling heavily across your face and shoulders. You carry all that is life so well, with such grace; do you even know?

Do you realize how beautiful you are when you meet fear with tender strength, or uncertainty with the next step, no matter how tentative? Do you know how you inspire me? Even while fumbling, you’re exquisite. When bliss bursts through your every pore, you are breathtaking…

Read the full post at Rebelle Society

The Tension of Opposites: Love, Chaos, & the Wild Vortex

“Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a high tolerance for ambiguity, ambivalence, and a tendency to think in opposites are characteristics researchers have found common among creative people in many different fields. But professional creators… come to understand that in order to be creative, they need to give themselves to sensations of ‘knowing but not knowing,’ inadequacy, uncertainty, awkwardness, awe, joy, horror, being out of control, and appreciating the nonlinear, metamorphosing features of reality and their own thought processes — the many faces of creative chaos.”

– John Briggs and F. David Peat, Seven Life Lessons of ChaosNYIntensive201404

As someone whose interfaith, nature-based spirituality regularly draws inspiration from science, I experienced my recent read ofthe book Seven Life Lessons of Chaos as both an affirmation and a challenge.Throughout the book, one theme emerged over and over, each time in a different context: the creative impulse – that which generates nature and space, planets and stars, love and rage – emerges from within the tension of opposites….

Read more at the Feminism and Religion blog.

First View

She lounges back on the horizon
arched curves pushing up from the heart
and invites me,
lures and calls me,
closer
into the mystery.
Like magic

I feel my body surge
spirit hurling headfirst
over the highways,
past time,
and into the crease
where one rise meets the other.
There, a river

slinks through lushness,
smooth and wet;
the air tastes
earthy, silty pleasure heaving
deep in my chest –
a sense of place.

(c) C. Croft, 2015

mountains

A Personal Face to the Refugee Crisis

I can’t help but notice how hard it is for us to connect with news stories when we don’t have a personal face — someone we know, or a memory, or some simple way of helping us feel personally impacted by stories we read about.

My closest friend from college, about whom I care more than almost anyone except my family (and who has been like family to me for the past 20+ years), is an American (born in Cleveland) who also happens to be a Syrian-American and a Muslim. I got to catch up with him tonight, hear all about his new baby, and what he’s been doing with his life.

I asked about his family abroad, knowing that most of his parents’ (and his wife’s parents’) families had still been in Syria. His elderly grandma is still in Damascus, not wanting to leave her home. Some of his uncles, aunts, and cousins were able to go to stay with family in other parts of the Middle East. One cousin left after learning he was about to be drafted into the Syrian army. One cousin took his chances, and is now in Europe – one of the everyday people in the Europe’s “Syrian Refugee Crisis.” His wife’s mother and sisters stayed in their home in a suburb of Damascus – partly because they didn’t want to leave the home they’ve known, but they also weren’t sure that life as a refugee would be an improvement, given what they’ve seen of how the refugees have been received so far. Thinking on that hurts my heart. I cannot imagine making these decisions.

This same friend lives in one of the areas of the south that was devastated by storm damage and flooding that followed Hurricane Joaquin. He and his wife took their newborn to stay with their parents a half-hour away, but since he lives in a neighborhood with lots of retirees and elderly people, he drove up periodically to check in on his neighbors and see if they needed anything. You know, because that’s what good Muslims do. The neighbors would tell him how they’d been without clean water and had to boil water before drinking, or how the power had been out most of the past week, or how they couldn’t leave the house to go anywhere. This is what life is like in parts of Syria every day. Imagine if that were your everyday life, and you didn’t know that things would get better over the coming weeks, as utilities were restored and your life got back to normal. Imagine if this was life every day, with no hope on your horizon of it ever changing, at all. No normal. What if this were your only normal?

I’m reminded that people don’t flee their homelands for an unknown life as a refugee unless home is untenable. I’m reminded that these people fleeing their countries — these people in refugee camps or trying to find a new country that might welcome them with compassionate kindness and offer safe haven – these are real people, with families, many of whom had regular, everyday, normal, middle and upper-middle class lives back home. These are people who don’t love the Syrian government any more than we do, and who despise Daesh/ISIL in ways us non-Muslim Westerners can barely comprehend, because they aren’t claiming to represent us. They aren’t parading our religion in front of the world as their reason for murder, kidnapping, rape, and destruction. They aren’t going after our cousins, sisters, and extended family. They aren’t turning countries we’ve visited and loved – countries our grandmothers still love too much to leave – into rubble. If you think you hate what is happening in Syria, you should ask a Syrian how they feel about it. Believe me when I say that your grief, your rage, and your heartbreak, however huge they are – they’re pebbles beside the boulders of crushing grief and fear these refugees and the people who love them are carrying on their backs.

I have no answers. I know that these issues are complicated, and that they are made more so by the ridiculous level of misinformation and fear that spreads unchecked through biased news and social media frenzies. I share this with you not to preach, but only because it touched my heart and gave this crisis a personal face in a much more concrete way for me, and I think that’s what it’s going to take for us to act with integrity in the face of xenophobic calls to fear and intolerance. So, if you’re one of my FB pals who doesn’t know a Muslim in real life, or a Syrian, or an Arab, feel free to let my friend be your friend. He’s a stand-up guy – the best of the best. I can vouch for him. Let his family touch your heart like they’ve touched mine. And then let that be the lens through which you evaluate what you’re reading, saying, and sharing.

Love, C

“Grounding” without “grounding”

1427012953_3e807e32c7_z
“Tree” by Flickr user @wili

My mind is full of ideas. At its best it swims with the flow of information, insight, and creativity, deftly navigating challenges and the unexpected at top speeds. At its worst, the torrent is overwhelming, filling my mind with anxieties or offering more data than I can process. Typically, I’m somewhere in the middle – keeping up with many scraps of paper on which my ideas are scribbled, making order (and sometimes spreadsheets) out of my notes, researching, writing, do-it-yourself-ing, studying, learning foreign languages, tending my herb garden, caring for my family, and working my “day job.”

Throughout most of my many years working with a highly creative brain, I’ve managed this juggling act with varying degrees of success. In high school, I was blessed with a teacher who taught relaxation techniques to the champion cross country team he coached; he also taught some of those techniques to interested students in our French classes. So, from the time I was 16, I began a lifelong journey of practicing techniques to help me center, ground, and manage the flow that is always coming into manifestation through me. It’s still a work-in-progress, but one thing I have learned is that there is a difference between healthy centering and limiting yourself.

GroundedFlickrJIXXER
“Grounded” by Flickr user @jixxer

It’s odd, this word, “grounding.” On the one hand, it evokes images of roots reaching down into the earth, staying connected to the source of life while drawing in nutrients and cooling moisture. It reminds us to stay centered amidst the swings, to remain rooted as we sway through storms, and to live fully in our bodies, in harmony with and aware of the world around us. On the other hand, we probably have all heard young friends complain about being grounded, not allowed to do what they’re wanting or needing to do. When we hear that our flight is grounded, we feel annoyed that our plans have been spoiled rather than thankful for the centering presence of airline mishaps.

So for the creative thinker, artist, writer, or multipotentialite, one of the trickiest skills to develop is staying grounded without getting grounded. I want to maintain a healthy connection with the reality in which I find myself. I want to create in a way that works with the mechanics of the material world, gently stretching the boundaries of what they say can be done while challenging myself to reach new levels of creativity, fulfillment, and success. At the same time, I don’t want to find myself constrained by external limits that stifle my creativity or smother my spark. I have a light that wants to shine into the world through me, just as you have a light wanting to shine into the world through you. We each have something that we are able to show our communities in ways that others cannot; how can we stay grounded enough to shine that light effectively without becoming so grounded as to fear shining the light, or worse – snuff it out? How can we be grounding forces for each other – supporting each other with intelligence, power, and detail-awareness – without bringing the heavy weight of discouragement, disbelief, and doubt into our interactions with friends who are currently on fire with the spark of creative energy or whose ideas or intuition are flowing freely?

"Scuba diver" by Flickr user @mysticgringo
“Scuba diver” by Flickr user @mysticgringo

A basic exploration of elemental energetics from the Western esoteric tradition suggests one answer. After all, grounding is simply the centering of earth energy, helping us maintain connection, focus, and direction as we interact with the energetic of the land. Not all work is primarily focused on earth-energy, and while sometimes our work can benefit from the introduction of different energies to balance out a dominant or overpowering element, frequently what’s needed is a centering focus for the energy with which we’re currently working. If we’re doing an intuitive, sensitive, watery work that requires movement through and with intense currents, we don’t need the grounding force of an anchor to hold us in place while the currents batter us – we need support riding the currents, streamlined and sleek, with the occasional deep breath to take us through the next wave. If we’re doing a creative, starry, fiery work that requires us to immerse ourselves in the divine spark to bring new things into fruition, we don’t need the grounding force of dirt dumped on us, smothering the fire and stifling our brilliance – we need fireproofing support, and time set aside each day to reconnect with soothing waters, cool earth, and gentle breezes. If we’re soaring with an intellectual work of research or writing that requires us to go to new heights of thought and belief, we don’t need the grounding force of a stiff tether limiting our heights and yanking us back to earth each time we start to get good lift – we need wings with rudders, and controls to help us navigate the heights with intention and focus.

Ultimately, grounding has its place and is a healthy part of balanced living, but every place is not its place. Every time is not its time. It is not always the primary energetic we need, or need to bring to others, to center important work and maintain steady forward movement. I like to begin most important work with some grounding activity to check-in physically, focus my mind, and assess where I am and where I want to go. Once the work starts, though, I want to be receptive to the work itself, and the kind of energetic it needs to continue flowing freely with focus and clarity. Sometimes I need to come to the surface for air; other times I just need to swim a little deeper. Sometimes I need climb back down to earth; other times I am inches from grasping a new concept or goal. Sometimes I need to smoor the fire for the night so I can try again tomorrow with a fresh perspective; other times the heat is almost intense enough to burn away the impurities and falsehoods. May I continue to grow in my awareness of these nuances in my work, and in the ways I support others in their work.

On the need for interfaith worship

dukebelltowerRecently, I was catching up on past episodes of Interfaith Voices and heard their discussion about the Muslim call to prayer that was planned, and then canceled, by Duke University. Many of the speakers shared thoughtful dialogue about the value of interfaith acceptance, ways in which we interpret calls to prayer from various faith traditions, and why the situation at Duke University unfolded as it did. Speakers clarified that the call to prayer was initiated by the Duke Chapel staff, who (in the wake of anti-Muslim sentiment following a high-profile terrorist act) wanted to make sure that Duke’s Muslim student population felt welcomed and safe. They clarified that the “amplification” would be minimal, enough so that you likely wouldn’t even hear it if you were walking right by while wearing headphones. They clarified that the decision wasn’t requested or demanded by Muslim students, that the vast majority of the student body supported it, and that the primary pressures to reverse the decision came from outsiders, not from the current Duke community.

Amidst the voices that seemed comfortable with a pluralist society, there was one voice advocating against having the call to prayer at Duke’s bell tower. Repeatedly, she affirmed that Christians do not share worship space with non-Christians, that Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians, and that the call to prayer should not be done from the bell tower of Duke Chapel due to its Christian nature, even though it was the staff of Duke Chapel who initiated the public call to prayer in the first place.

There are many good points to be made that either add complexity to or refute some of the claims against a public Muslim call to prayer in a large campus with a pluralist community, and I won’t repeat them here, because many of them were addressed in this episode of Interfaith Voices (link). I will simply say that many Christians do share worship space with those of other religions (one local example being a time when the Chapel Hill-based Episcopal Church of the Advocate leased worship space from Kehillah Synagogue while searching for a permanent home).  “Allah” is simply the Arabic name for God, therefore “There is not God but Allah” simply means that believers in God give their worship to God. If it is offensive or contradictory to other traditions, it might be so to polytheistic or atheist philosophies, but does not contradict any monotheist stances. As for the adhan being performed from the bell tower, it is good to remember that Duke Chapel is there to minister and serve as a welcoming presence for the students of Duke University. If Duke wants to serve a student body that includes non-Christians, then it is wise for the university to be truly pluralist in its structure.

These discussions make me reflect on the need for interfaith worship, the purpose of interfaith worship, and the factors underlying resistance to interfaith worship. I don’t at all claim to have the answers, but I hope to explore these issues in more detail over the coming months. Given that three of our community’s brightest young people were murdered in an apparent act of anti-Muslim rage just weeks after Duke caved to public pressure to cancel the call to prayer, this is a discussion that bears having.

For now, I found a peripherally relevant quote from Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy that I wanted to share. I believe it has profound significance for understanding both resistance to pluralism as well as a desire to create structures to publicly legitimize pluralism.

“The problem [of legitimizing human-created structures] would best be solved by applying the following recipe: Let the institutional order be so interpreted as to hide, as much as possible, its constructed character. Let that which has been stamped out of the ground ex nihilo appear as the manifestation of something that has been existent from the beginning of time, or at least from the beginning of this group. Let the people forget that this order was established by [people] and continues to be dependent upon the consent of [people]. Let them believe that, in acting out the institutional programs that have been imposed upon them, they are but realizing the deepest aspirations of their own being and putting themselves in harmony with the fundamental order of the universe.”

Let them believe that they cannot share worship space with each other, ever, not even under specified parameters, and that to do so – to engage in interfaith worship or allow interfaith use of worship spaces – would sully the souls of those who participate, or profane the holy nature of the space for one group in its use by another. These rules are not set in stone; they are cultural, and culture is ever-growing, ever-shifting, and ever in the hands of those who are members of a particular community. I hope the Duke community maintains safe space for its own, all of them. I also hope that over time, awareness will grow about interfaith worship, what it means, and how it can benefit those who enter into it with an open mind. There is too much that could be gained by those who are willing.

Five benefits to working with established forms

Early in 1999, I was arguably at the peak of my conversion energy, a few months into my formal involvement in New Thought churches. I was so enamored of the mind-power philosophies — all I had to do is focus my mind, and I could manifest changes to improve my life. Medicine, ritual, prayer, and such were outer rituals, and while they were practiced by some of the people in my spiritual circles they were frequently presented (derided?) as crutches that you could use while you honed your mental powers. They were sort of the processed food of energy work — good enough if that’s what it took to keep you and your family from starving, but not as ideal as farm-to-table goodness.

During that time period, I lived next door to a wonderful New Age woman and her teenage Pagan daughter. They were great neighbors and good friends, and I enjoyed having people close by with whom I could talk alternative spirituality. One day, I was on the front porch chatting with my neighbor’s daughter and her boyfriend — a teenage boy solidly glowing with the enthusiasm of his own Pagan conversion energy. We noticed a big, beautiful spider web splashed across the walkway and stopped talking to admire it. The boyfriend spoke up.

“Hey, did you know I know a spell to make a dreamcatcher out of a spiderweb?”

Gently teasing, I replied. “Oh yeah? Well, I could make a dreamcatcher out of my underwear.”

At the time, I was focused almost entirely on the power of the mind and the lack of need for established forms in spiritual and religious expression. And in many ways, I was right. We don’t need to use an established form or ritual to focus the power of our minds. We don’t need a specific material object to invoke its energy, any more than we need the physical presence of a loving grandma to feel the warmth we hold in our hearts for her. We don’t need the established forms to practice a meaningful spirituality any more than we need electricity, cars, or indoor plumbing. That doesn’t make them any less nice to have when you want them, though, and nobody should ever apologize or feel badly about their mental practice if it incorporates physical forms, established and spontaneous, as focal points.

Following are five ways that using established forms can sometimes be beneficial. As always, take what works, and leave the rest.

1) Established forms build on collective energy. One of the things I love about attending services at an Episcopal church is how little the liturgy has changed over many hundreds of years. There have been tweaks to the service and wording to reflect a modern understanding of Church, and for these I am thankful. But overall, there is a direct connection between what I do in service and what millions of people have been doing since the earliest days of the church. In my nature-based practice, when I perform a simple ritual to honor the turning of the seasons, a small bluestone from a site near an ancient cairn (dated somewhere between the 17th and 14th centuries BCE) sits on my altar, calling up in me a connection to my distant ancestors who celebrated the seasonal transitions with song, dance, and offerings. When I draw upon the imagery of spiderwebs and spiders I do so with the certainty that I’m working with imagery that has been used in spiritual and storytelling imagery for a good, long time, whether it’s the imagery of a dreamcatcher, or simply a reminder to be “Some Pig.”

2) Established forms frequently transcend religious divisions. Speaking of religious experiences, Carl Jung said, “The fact is that certain ideas exist almost everywhere and at all times and they can even spontaneously create themselves quite apart from migration and tradition. They are not made by the individual, but they rather happen — they even force themselves upon the individual’s consciousness.” (Psychology and Religion) When I light a candle to acknowledge that I’m entering into sacred space, the fire that burns before me triggers an ancestral connection with the power of fire. Long-standing traditions from the monotheistic religions, Eastern religions, and ancient Pagan practices use fire as a marker of sacred space, as do several modern, even secular, practices. While some established forms are clearly the work of one specific tradition, as someone whose path is interfaith my practice is enhanced when I draw upon those that span traditions.

3) Established forms can help you venture into new territory. Sometimes, I read up on an archetype, philosophy, or tradition that I’d like to explore in more detail. As I’m unfamiliar with the new element, it can be helpful for me to have an established form to facilitate the introduction. For example, if I’m wanting to learn to use guided imagery to heal past trauma, I might benefit from using pre-written (and possibly pre-recorded) visualizations designed for that purpose. While I might eventually be comfortable with a go-with-the-flow approach, allowing spontaneous imagery to flow with and through me, prepared visualizations could provide a safe place to begin and test out the experience.

4) Established forms (at the elemental level) can provide ingredients you can mix to customize your practice. With as much diversity as there is in the expression of humanity (personality, background, race, nationality, gender, age, etc.), it is only natural that different people will experience similar rituals and traditions differently. What is meaningful to one may be less so to another; what is perfect as is for one might create a stronger impact on another with a few slight variations. In exploring established forms, I can learn how I react to different stimuli, approaches, and types of connection. As I learn more about myself and what works best for me, I can begin to craft a custom practice that is meaningful and beneficial for me, that inspires my greatest connection to The Divine, and that allows me the greatest number of opportunities to grow, learn, and manifest my potential. While my practice is always evolving and uniquely my own, it incorporates elements I’ve learned and modified to make my own as I’ve experimented with established forms.

5) Sometimes established forms are simply a more efficient way of going about your spiritual work. Let’s be honest here. Sometimes there is great value and personal fulfillment in the DIY approach. Sometimes it is simply more fun to wear the scarf you knitted yourself, or to eat the veggies you grew yourself in your own garden. Other times you want a scarf that looks or feels different, or you want pizza, or you have other things going on in your life that make it hard to maintain as full of a garden. There are times when I’m serious about an intention, so much so that I spend weeks (or more) planning out the words of the ritual, focusing on a goal, or exploring the concept. There are other times when life gets the better of me and I find myself searching the web the night before a full moon to find a prayer for a certain kind of celebration. Sometimes my long-planned rituals turn out to be far less fulfilling than I had hoped, and other times my copied and adapted prayers turn out to be powerful and insightful in a way I never expected. The universe works that way sometimes. Things happen, and as they do, they teach us and we grow. If using the established form feels right, or gets you to honor a transition that you might not have the time or motivation to honor otherwise, go ahead and use it, and without shame.

There will be times when the work takes on no elaborate form at all — you sit, you focus or open your mind. There will be times when the work takes on a form you have designed and created for yourself. And there will be times when you use an established form that has been developed and honed by others. I choose not to put any one above the other, but to keep an open mind to the possibilities along my path.

Activism, compassion, and healing — finding balance

“Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet.” -Alice Walker

This is a concept that has guided my life for many years now. I’ve volunteered with church groups, youth initiatives, hurricane relief efforts, LGBTQ advocacy groups, and programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities. I’ve also answered suicide hotlines, rape crisis hotlines, and facilitated support groups for survivors of rape and childhood sexual abuse. Wherever someone is, that’s where I’m willing to meet them, and I feel that my own life (and own understanding of the world) are enriched by connecting authentically with people in the darkness as well as the light.

Everyone has their limits, though, and my ability to dive into the depths with those who reach out to me does not mean I am without limits. In order to willingly go there with others, I need to make sure I’m doing the emotional and spiritual work on myself to keep myself healthy so I don’t absorb the problems of others. In order to recover from vicarious exposure to traumatic experiences, I need to carve out time for self-care, which for me includes reading, bubble baths, meditation, exercise, and leisure time with my family. In order to maintain the motivation and passion to continue with activist and advocacy work, I need to limit unnecessary exposure to upsetting or painful stories. It’s one thing — an ideal for me, even — to be able to walk through the darkness with another person in pain with the purpose of being a catalyst for or companion along their healing. It’s something altogether different to turn resistance to trauma into an art form without reason, or make suffering (vicarious or personal) into an ideal. I was first introduced to this concept in my early twenties by a neighbor who was a lightworker and Reiki master. When she told me she never watched television or read the newspaper “to keep from bringing negativity into [her] home,” I was surprised. How do you know what’s going on in the world if you don’t read the news? What if there are things going on that you won’t know about? What if there are things you just won’t know? For someone as addicted to information and knowledge as I’ve always been, it was hard for me to understand why someone would intentionally choose not to know what is happening in the world. How can you do something to help change the world if you do not first learn what issues need attention?

Here’s the thing, though. If I am traveling on a long journey in my car, I can’t just jump in and go. I’m going to have to stop every now and then to refuel, to change the oil, for a tune-up or tire rotation. I’m going to have to give myself time to rest now and then so I’ll be an alert and responsive driver, and I’m probably going to have to occasionally tag-team and let another driver take the wheel for shifts so that I can regroup, refocus, and rest. Long journeys like those toward social change and cultural healing take time, and long-term dedication requires long-term planning. Most of us don’t have the stamina and focus to stick with a passionate issue for years on end without breaks, and the few that do have likely worked significant elements of self-care and self-healing into their daily lives.

In her 2011 TED talk, Joan Halifax mentioned moral outrage as an enemy of compassion. And truly, there are situations that are morally reprehensible, that harm children and innocents, that corrupt the meaning of love, that impede healing, and that cause deep wounds and scars upon the souls of individuals and peoples. For me, the truth of Halifax’s assertion is in the word outrage. When I acknowledge the deep suffering and violence in the world, I accept its existence in a way that allows me to choose how I will direct my healing energy. When I am outraged by suffering and violence, I have already spent energy in my emotional reaction to an event even before I have considered any role I may have in healing and effecting change.

Having come across this TED talk during a time when I was already pondering the balance between activism and inner peace, I was grateful when a friend suggested I also listen to Halifax’s recent interview with Krista Tippett for the On Being radio show. In this interview, Halifax discusses moral distress as experiencing deep empathy for those things we can’t do anything about. Interestingly, Halifax referred to studies in which Tibetan meditators were able to feel empathy for others much more deeply and sorrowfully than the average individual but were also able to let go of it more easily. She attributes this to an enhanced ability to distinguish self from other — those with the grounding of meditation and enhanced feeling of deep compassion still feel the resonance of vicarious suffering, but have a keen awareness that they are not a part of the other person’s suffering.

All of these reflections bring up two insights for me:

1) Activism, though essential to effecting social and cultural change, is only one form of paying your “rent” on the planet. Healing practice and prayer work (provided you aren’t using them as excuses to avoid the realities of the world) can be contributions to the greater good. Working on yourself and maintaining a personal growth program can contribute to the greater good, and are particularly essential when you need to rebuild yourself for another round of activism or healing. Everyday steps to change how you live — recycling, for example, or gardening, cycling to work, or speaking out one-on-one against bullying or bigotry — can be important factors in cultural shifts, both practically and symbolically.

The truth about how we as individuals effect environmental, cultural, and social change may be best illustrated with the concept of cycle. Each of us has different gifts, strengths, and challenges at different times in our lives. Someone who has worked directly with survivors of sexual assault might need to shift to a more theoretical area of advocacy for a time after a personal, triggering experience. Someone who has had a public role in activism and advocacy may choose to take a more private role after going through a rough personal challenge. Sometimes we may burn out on one area of activism and advocacy, but find new energy to give in a different area. Sometimes our work is focused more on the outer, and other times more on the inner. Shifting from a more outer role to focus on inner healing doesn’t make you a bad activist; it makes you a human experiencing and embracing cycle. Shifting from a more political approach to social activism to a more prayer and healing based approach doesn’t make you a bad activist; it makes you a human experiencing and embracing cycle, and using the gifts you find in abundance at any one point in time. Likewise, shifting from a more prayer and healing based approach to a more political approach doesn’t make you less spiritual as a person; it makes you a human experiencing and embracing cycle, working with the gifts you now find in abundance in your life.

2) Discomfort experienced with purpose (or finding meaning in past traumas) can be a part of compassionate change; we don’t need to intentionally expose ourselves to meaningless negativity, pain, and heartache to be compassionate. Sometimes we will experience sadness and pain that is out of our control, and when that happens we need to allow ourselves space to feel what we feel, to grieve, to rage, and to be real. When it comes to intentional exposure to pain, we must evaluate our choices against a few simple principles. First of all, do we currently have the capacity to work through this pain? No matter how well-intentioned we may be, we do ourselves and others no favors when we willingly walk into pain we cannot currently handle. If we’re feeling sickly or temporarily run down, emotionally overwhelmed, distracted by personal problems, or otherwise not emotionally balanced, we run the risk of hurting ourselves and giving bad advice or establishing unhealthy dependencies with others when we dive into their pain. There’s no shame in acknowledging that now is not the time for us to advocate in the darkness, or in waiting until we’re in a better headspace to do our activism and healing. This isn’t a sign of inadequacy or failure as a healer; it’s a sign of maturity and strength.

Second, is our experiencing this pain going to help us someone else avoid trauma or heal from pain? If we know that reading a tragic news article will do nothing to effect change, but will certainly leave us weepy and troubled for a period of time, we can choose not to read it. If we know that someone is only telling us their traumas to create drama or get a shocked reaction, we can politely bow out of the conversation. If, however, we have an opportunity to grow our awareness of an issue, learn so that we can better advocate, or help another process trauma and heal from it, then we can choose to enter into that relationship knowingly, and with the specified intent of helping to make the world (and the lives of those in it) better. In choosing to stop giving our emotional energy to those situations that would sap our reserves, we build a better supply of healthy emotional energy that we can later use for our chosen purposes, whether they are personal growth and self help, lightwork for the healing of the earth and her people, or political activism for social and cultural change.

Ultimately, how we choose to direct our energies is a personal decision. If you find that you derive some benefit from reading tragic news stories, listening to sorrowful people, or feeling angry about injustice, carry on. If what you’re currently doing is working for you, keep doing it! But if you have found your efforts at healing and activism sabotaged by burnout, moral distress, or “compassion fatigue,” it might be time to start exploring the role of balance in spiritual, personal, and advocacy practice. For me, I choose balance. I welcome the different phases in the cycle of my journey with life.

The blessings of cycle — managing the depths

Early in 2012, I had the good fortune to go to a weekend workshop led by Matthew Fox, focusing on ecospirituality, social justice, and environmental awareness as a catalyst for spiritual growth. It was an amazing weekend, and I was impressed not only by Matthew’s vibrance, sense of humor, and energy, but also by the depth of his spiritual wisdom. He was not only clearly inspired by and well-versed in a variety of religious traditions other than his own Christian mysticism, but woven throughout his interfaith spirituality were inspiration and spiritual truths drawn from observation of nature.

This is a fundamental premise underlying my own approach to spirituality: whatever the basic physics principles of the universe, whatever biological principles underlie the ecological realities around us, and whatever chemical reactions create destruction, transformation, or buildup — I am a part of that great ecosystem, subject to its laws and consequences, and with the ability to learn more about myself through learning more about my universe. When I read about the mysteries of the pooping habits of sloths, I am fascinated by the sloths themselves, but also wonder which of my otherwise unexplainable behaviors might be influenced by my interdependence with others. When I read about the proposition of the Higgs field and the discovery decades later of its constituent particle, I’m inspired by the imagination and tenacity of some of our world’s greatest scientists and a bit mind-blown at scientific evidence for a field connecting everything, filling all space. I’m also led to wonder what that field might mean to how I interact with others and shape my life, and (metaphorically) what other invisible forces may be changing the trajectory of my life and how I can uncover and explore them. When I think about seasons, I think about how my life cycles through parallel seasons based on the lunar, solar, and human life cycles, and how business, politics, and cultural trends reflect similar overlapping cycles in their expressions.

For Fox’s Creation Spirituality, the cycle follows these four basic elements of our journey: the Via Positiva (“awe, delight, and amazement”), the Via Negativa (“uncertainty, darkness, suffering, letting go”), the Via Creativa (“birthing, creativity, and passion”), and the Via Transformativa (“justice, healing, celebration”). Many parallels to everyday life, as well as to nature, can be found in this cyclical understanding of spirituality, and all four elements are given space and expression in Fox’s “Cosmic Mass.” Even in more traditional liturgical settings, these four elements can combine to foster self-exploration and healing.

Well before I was familiar with Matthew Fox’s fourfold spiritual journey, I was already following a similar cycle of spiritual development. While cyclical models of spiritual growth, inspired by the earth’s seasons, are a common element of many nature-inspired traditions, the model that spoke to me personally (and has brought about tremendous change and growth in my life) is laid out by Jhenah Telyndru in her book Avalon Within. The cycle begins with the Station of Descent, corresponding to the transition from fall to winter, from evening to night, from third quarter to new moon. This is a time of discerning what shadow issues are in greatest need of attention, and choosing a focus for the coming cycle. Descent is followed by the Station of Confrontation, corresponding to the transition from winter to spring, from midnight to dawn, from new moon to first quarter. This is a time in which the key shadow issues are addressed through meditation, art, prayer, activities, and journaling, to achieve a greater understanding of how they subtly influence your life with the goal of reducing unconscious influences on our thoughts, words, and behavior.

Confrontation is followed by the Station of Emergence, which corresponds to the transition from spring to summer, from dawn to day, and from first quarter to full moon. This is the time when you take what you’ve learned about cycle, life, and yourself during the preceding two stations and begin to put reclaimed energy — energy that had previously been tied up in preserving the status quo and hiding the shadow — to new use manifesting your good and your goals. Emergence is followed by the Station of Resolution, which corresponds to the transition from summer to fall, from day to evening, and from full moon to third quarter. It’s a time to rest in the bountiful harvest of your spiritual work, enjoying the benefits you’ve reaped and joys you’ve manifested even as you begin to look ahead to the return of Descent. Throughout the cycle, and specifically at the transitional times between Stations you enter the Station of Integration, during which you integrate each aspect of the cycle into how you’re living and understanding your spiritual life. (This explanation of cycle is my retelling of how I’m using Telyndru’s model in my own life, not official teaching; for more information on her specific teachings, check out this helpful article, or learn more about the Sisterhood of Avalon.)

So, if we take these two models of cycle spirituality and match them up, we find some similarities:

viasstations

 

Part of the beauty of this kind of intentional cycle is that you can choose to practice it in whatever way works for you. Some people follow an annual cycle that parallels the seasons; others base their cycle spirituality on the transits of the moon, completing one cycle per month. Some follow both — for example working the cycle on a personal growth level on a monthly basis, but on a career or outward goal level on a yearly basis, or vice versa. Some incorporate all elements of cycle into one ritual or liturgy. There’s not a right or wrong way to work the cycle; it’s simply important to realize that it can be worked intentionally.

This is the point in this post where I remind you that if what you’re doing is working perfectly, keep doing it. If you’re focusing only on the ups of cycle — the Via Positiva — and are finding that to be fulfilling and effective, stick with it! For me, however, I found that the aspects of me that would be worked on during an intentional cycle came up over and over again whether I made space for them or not. Each winter, I dealt with what felt like seasonal affective disorder, feeling somewhat powerless over the feelings and past traumas that were working their way into my consciousness. I used affirmations, positive visualization, and meditation, and while I found that they helped, they ultimately provided more diversion than healing. While spring and summer brought relief from intrusive thoughts and depression, I was more aware of their absence than their resolution, and never enjoyed a full sense of peace. And each time that the negative feelings and memories of past trauma would return, it was frequently the same issues that had not been dealt with or resolved in the past (not new issues, or a sense of forward movement). Counseling helped me to explore some of those darker parts of my deep self, but counseling alone did not bridge the space between psychological trauma and spiritual despondency.

Carl Jung, in Psychology and Religion, says:

[M]an is, as a whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is steadily subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. It is, moreover, liable to burst forth in a moment of unawareness. At all events, it forms an unconscious snag, blocking the most well-meaning attempts. (Emphasis added. Read more by Jung on the shadow.)

There have been times in my journey when I have avoided intentionally exploring and encountering my shadow self. First of all, there’s a huge amount of shame, guilt, trauma, and fright trapped in there, and it’s a normal human fear that opening those gates will let it all out, and it might be more than you can manage.* Secondly, when I’d had enough of this shadow popping up unexpectedly and uninvited, I dove head-on into positive thinking spirituality, only allowing myself to explore and focus on thoughts I felt produced happiness, peace, wellness, and plenty. I loved it when one of my mentors at the time would say, “When you turn on the light, you don’t have to go chase the darkness out with a broom!” What I didn’t realize at the time was how much furniture and clutter had been building up in my soul over the course of my life. Yes, I could turn on the lights, but there were still going to be parts of the room that I couldn’t fully illuminate until I removed the junk that was cluttering up the flow of the light. The darkness might be gone, in general, but the shadows were still there, underneath all my crap.

Did this mean I abandoned positive thinking altogether and decided it was nonsense? For a time, I kind of did. I knew there were great healings I’d experienced and insights I’d gained in building up my positive thinking knowledge, skill, and muscle. At the time, though, the shadow became a more pressing issue for me, demanding my attention and acting out when it wasn’t addressed. Furthermore, some of the hardline positive thinking methodologies seem to explicitly discourage shadow exploration, and I felt like I was stuck in an either-or situation. It took a few more years of fumbling through shadow explorations (occasionally bouncing back around through a positive thinking phase) to find cycle spirituality so clearly expressed in Avalon Within and realize that it provided a solution for finding balance between shadow work and light work. What it boils down to for me is this: I am drawn to light work by natural inclination. desire, and gifts; shadow work is what clears up the energy I need to sustain a solid light work and positive thinking practice.

The beauty of intentional cycle spirituality is that the shadow is not approached as a wild beast to fear, whose presence you may never be able to manage, but as another part of yourself, in need of love, attention, and focus. It’s not a powerful negative spirit or bully; it’s a sad and angry toddler, saying “NO!” and holding your energy hostage until you at least listen to it’s pains and hurts, and agree to “kiss the boo-boos.” You can ignore it while it screams; you can even wait it out, refusing to listen until it becomes a wounded old part of you that no longer cooperates with your intentions or believes in your dreams. Or you can pick it up, start to listen bit by bit as you’re able, and see what you can do to comfort and heal that angry little one. When you enter the cycle, planning to identify a shadow area to work on during this go-round, you aren’t handing control of your life over to the shadow. You are engaging it in dialogue, intentionally and in a structured way that keeps you focused on your spiritual growth. You are exploring this element of your shadow self with the specific intent of removing its secret influence on your attempts at success. You are giving it a finite, contained time period to air its grievances, with the understanding that when the next stage in the cycle arrives, you will be moving on to the next process. You are not drowning in the depths of your shadow self; you’re learning to manage them.

This is where mind-power philosophies come in: You aren’t focusing on the shadow to manifest more of it. You’re setting the intention to explore the shadow for a limited period of time per cycle with the goal to integrate that aspect of cycle into your healthy, whole self — the self that will manifest success, happiness, health, and plenty, and is (personal) self-aware and (Divine) Self-directing.  When you leave the “winter” aspect of cycle, in which you’ve been working with and confronting shadow aspects of yourself, the shadow no longer needs to scream, kick, and holler throughout the year, interrupting your joy and interfering with your success. It knows that after a time, when the season rolls back around, it’ll have another chance to show you what work remains. And with each cycle, your spiral grows wider, with more lessons learned, more challenges overcome, and more clutter removed, allowing even more light to flood into your being.

*Regarding fears that entering into the shadow will release too much of it, visualization can often help allay this fear. For example, imagine that an atmospheric bubble layer of protection surrounds you and is between your conscious self and your shadow elements, and that this special protective substance will only allow things through one at a time, only bringing up those elements that are most essential to your current needs. Of course, if your wounds are profound or you have a mental health diagnosis, you may want to get the help of a professional counselor or minister to help you work through them. Be gentle with yourself, and only do what you are ready to do.

Conversion experiences, long-term love, and spiritual community

Although I’d been a student of metaphysics and the mind-body connection off and on since the early nineties, I didn’t discover New Thought as an organizational or historical movement until 1998. In that year, I returned to university studies two and a half years after my first attempt at college found me booted from the Honors College, losing all my scholarship funding, deep in the grips of major depression, reeling from attempts to self-medicate, and ultimately, pregnant by a much-older man who benefited greatly from my lack of self-esteem and boundaries. Those 28 months since dropping out of college had been some of the most transformative of my life — I gave up the guy, gave up the drugs and heavy drinking, read self-help and positive thinking manuals, and got counseling and treatment for my depression (and other issues stemming from a consistently traumatic childhood). I got involved in a progressive Episcopal church, feeling too uncomfortable with the idea of getting formally involved with non-Christian spiritual groups given my father’s conservative Christianity. Over time, though, I found my feminist mysticism (and sense of self-worth) deepening through my close connections with the Order of Saint Helena. I moved two states away with my infant son in 1997 to help start a non-profit organization, and just over a year later felt ready to give college another chance.

At the time, I was working in behavioral programs for children with autism, and planned to finish a degree in psychology. I was nervous about getting back into school, though, and chose two classes for my first semester that I knew would be interesting. I dropped out of one after the first meeting proved painfully boring. The other class — a religious studies class — was amazing, and the teacher was one of the most vibrant, brilliant, funny, and kind people I’d ever encountered. Within a year, I’d changed my major to religious studies, and continued to take classes from that instructor as often as possible. He was clearly ON FIRE, and I wanted to know more about what gave him that fire. He never talked about his personal beliefs in class, so I searched for him online, and found his name associated peripherally with the Unity movement and with an academic society that studied New Thought and other metaphysical movements. I read up on Unity, and had an “aha moment,” seeing in it a system of spiritual thought that embodied many of the beliefs I already held. To say that I had a “conversion experience” might even be understatement; I was now ON FIRE, read everything I could get my hands on, and attended every meeting, service, and healing circle that was offered, all the while ignoring the cognitive dissonance I was seeing and experiencing. After all, I was still bubbling forth with the energy of the conversion experience, and the benefits were far outweighing my need for logical consistency.

girlatsunset

 

 

Kind of like being in love.

Because that’s ultimately what conversion experiences are, when you get down to it. It’s like falling for a new partner, when life just feels different, and you can’t imagine what it was like before them, and you don’t want it to end, and you see their flaws as quirks, and life is just completely wrapped up in them, day and night. And truthfully, there’s a chance you may have found The One — the tradition in which you’ll want to spend the rest of your life, even after the buzz wears off and you see it with realistic eyes. There’s also a chance, depending on how comfortable you feel stepping outside your familial and cultural norms, that you’ll stay “married” to your tradition long after the buzz wears off, continuing to practice “for the children” (or your parents) even when you know you don’t believe much of what is being taught. And then there are others who give it a fair shot even after the rose-colored glasses begin to fade, looking to see if making it work is really going to be mutually beneficial but ultimately deciding it’s time to move on. All of these are valid responses to complex realities, and people don’t need to regret or feel shame about their choices of where, how, and with whom to practice your spirituality.

This discussion is further muddied by the way we talk about religious participation. When someone asks, “What is your religion?” we frequently respond with “I am” statements. Not “I attend a Catholic church,” but “I’m Catholic.” Not “I attend the local Friends meeting,” but “I’m a Quaker.” Not “I attend the local Reclaiming group,” but “I’m Pagan” or “I’m a Witch.” This conflation of religious affiliation with identity, of belief systems with self, may not be a bad thing; it does, however, create a dynamic of religious identity in which movement between spiritual traditions may necessarily need to be accompanied by some degree of identity crisis. After all, when one tradition has served as our identity for so long, we can’t help but question if we’re the same person when we move from one tradition to the next. Am I disloyal for wanting a change? Will my change seem like a betrayal to those who have mentored, ministered to, and walked alongside me? Was I wrong or confused when I expressed my loyalty to this tradition or community, even though it felt so real at the time? 

These are the kinds of questions that can keep people hanging onto a spiritual community months, or even years, beyond its period of practical usefulness and positive influence in their lives.

On top of that, humans tend to like community. We like regular opportunities to meet and make friends, and to feel supported in our spiritual journeys by a circle of like-minded people. We like when our children come home from Sunday School and tell us how they’re learning to be kinder, more compassionate, and connected. We like potlucks and study groups, prayer circles and the sense of camaraderie that comes from shared intentions. We worry that leaving an organized spiritual tradition or community means we’ll miss out on that, but it doesn’t have to — not exactly! Even atheists are starting to organize their own opportunities for inspirational community gathering. You can find mindfulness-based stress reduction groups, social circles for intentional living, and organized activities for your kids to learn and grow. You can even take the DIY approach: from 2009-2011, I hosted a monthly circle in my home for a small group of like-minded friends. Among the regular attendees: an art therapist, a Reiki healer, a PhD student studying ancient Celtic religion, 2 yoga instructors (one who has since become a licensed mental health counselor, and one who is now a licensed social worker), and a life-coach-in-training who now has a successful practice as a coach and group facilitator. I hosted each week, providing space, decaf, hot tea, fresh-baked bread, and other treats. Each person brought a potluck snack, and we rotated through who planned and led the activities each week. We were, in essence, ministering to each other, without the need for an organized spiritual tradition or church-based community.

Spiritual community is present and available when we set out to find or create it, and can take many forms.

Only you can decide where you need to be at this moment in time, and at this point in your journey. If where you are is working for you, stay there without apology or regret, and know that you are walking the path that is right for you. If what you’re doing isn’t working, don’t feel obligated to stay where you feel stuck, ignored, dismissed, or simply like an outsider. Go where you can let your light shine fully, and where you will be fed spiritually, even if it means striking out on your own for a bit. Almost all spiritual traditions have many truths in them, but none hold the entire truth, and you don’t have to feel guilt for seeking out a new realm of truths. If you can, leave while things are still reasonably healthy and you can make a positive transition; often the universe senses our desire to leave long before we feel strong enough to act on it, and might provide catalysts for change that may or may not be peaceful.

A few years before meeting my now-spouse, I was engaged to an amazing man who had been my closest friend for years. We were madly in love with each other, and also loved each other very deeply. For reasons that were out of our control, it didn’t work out, and the breakup of our engagement was one of the worst heartbreaks I’d experienced. For a while, it hurt to see him even though I missed our friendship (which had preceded our dating by a good four years). I didn’t want to dwell on thoughts of him too much, and preferred to move on with my life. It took a few years, during which I met and married my husband, to feel like I could talk to my old friend again. There were a few awkward meetings at first, but in no time our old friendship had been reestablished. I’ve now been with my husband for almost 15 years, and I have no doubt that he’s the right partner for me. But I am still thankful for the presence of my old friend in my life, and for the way in which his friendship provides a healthy connection to many parts of my past that would otherwise be lost or dismissed.

I’m no longer involved in any formal way with the Unity movement, or with any other organized tradition within New Thought. I have, however, come to a place where they are like old friends — not my life partner, but still holding a tenderness of memory that is precious to me as well as a host of teachings that I still find powerful and transformative (even if it took me a few years to get to a place where I can be friends again)I tell this story to say, in closing, that if for some reason you end up stepping away from a spiritual tradition or community in way that is painful, uncomfortable, or triggering, perhaps because you stayed well beyond when you knew you were Done, give yourself the space you need to heal, lick your wounds, and grow:

Premature or willed forgiveness can be damaging in itself. Here is an alternate method: Healing. To give a crude, literal example: if you stab me, I don’t have to say (through clenched teeth) “I forgive you” as I stand there bleeding. I must turn my attention to myself: tend the wound, wash it, bandage it, keep it free of infection till the wound heals. When the literal (or figurative) wound heals, the harm is undone, and I am free to hold you harmless. That is what I think of as an unforced, organic form of forgiveness. – Elizabeth Cunningham

Don’t feel obligated to forgive before you are ready, or to jump back in and welcome old teachings (or people, or communities) with open arms when you’ve been hurt. Take your time, give yourself the space you need, and when the time is right and you are more fully healed, you may be surprised by your ability to be gracious to those who (intentionally or unintentionally) hurt you, to find meaning in teachings from your past that are no longer your primary source of inspiration, and to forge a new path for yourself, using bits and pieces of what you’ve found meaningful to create a new beginning, and maybe even a new you.

 

Past, present, future

Much of the advice I’ve found in my 20 years exploring the metaphysical movement and its positive thinking branches has been focused on the future. After all, a movement that claims to offer a practical method for improving one’s circumstances will naturally attract people who want their circumstances to improve, and teachers are responding to real human need and desire. For some seekers, it might be simply the result of being naturally forward-thinking and optimistic. For others, it might be because their current circumstances have become unbearable, perhaps affected by financial, spiritual, relationship, health, or psychological problems. For the former group, forward thinking brings the thrill of new successes; for the latter, it brings the hope of a better tomorrow (worldly or heavenly), and the promise of hearts healed, illnesses overcome, and bills paid. This isn’t a bad thing. Hope keeps us going through rough times and frequently brings about our commitment to lifestyle changes that can transform our realities.

Sometimes, though, this can leave many of who consider ourselves to be positive thinkers, optimists, and spiritual seekers unsure of what to do with the past and present. Does our hope for a better tomorrow impede our ability to enjoy a better today? And what about the past? While I’ve seen many self-help authors explore past issues with intent to heal and resolve them, I’ve also seen many teachers of a strict thoughts-become-realities worldview discourage exploration of the past, cautioning that significant exploration of past wounds and hurts will bring more of the same in your life, keep you stuck, or bind you to past patterns.

I would never dream of telling anyone to change something that is working for them, so if you’ve been exclusively focusing on the future in your personal growth program and find that it’s working for you, keep doing it! Do what works for you. I’m comfortable with a reality big enough to allow for different things to work for different people, and have no need to believe that approaches that work for me will necessarily work for you. This is the beauty and complexity of the human experience.

If, however, you are seeking models for positive thinking that incorporates past, present, and future, know that they exist!

For me, it looks a little like this:

Honor and heal the past
Respect and appreciate the present
Prepare for and welcome the future

I honor the past for having helped me become the person that I am. I work to heal my past wounds without becoming bound to them. I don’t have to love every thing I’ve ever experienced to honor the past, and I don’t have to “fix” or make right the wrongs that I’ve done or experienced to heal my past. By “honor and heal,” I simply mean that I learn from it, and give thanks for the growth that it brought me (even if I could never give thanks for the pains that led to that growth).

I respect and appreciate my present, even as I expect a better future. I am learning to see and appreciate the areas of my life that bring me joy and in which I feel successful. At my day job, I bring joy to others and help create a pleasant space for them to enjoy. In my family, I nurture and play with my children, and try to foster a sense of wonder and exploration. With my partner, I am encouraging and tender, devoted and loyal. In all these areas, I also receive joy, admiration, a playful spirit, and love.

Are there elements of my present life that I’d like to change? Sure! But even in those aspects of my life I find to be challenging, I can find hidden blessings. During times when money has been tight, we’ve become masterful meal planners, making magic out of limited resources to create delicious, home-cooked, healthy meals on a tight budget! When someone in our family loses their temper, we end up opening up about, bonding over, and healing from things we hadn’t felt led to share before. When a friendship that had been rewarding goes south or ceases to be healthy, it opens up the opportunity to grow and further develop my understanding of human relationships and how to help them stay healthy. Would I love to have plenty of money, a family that’s always peaceful and kind, and friendships that never falter or hurt? Sure would! I’m just not going to postpone finding joy in my life until it fits some definition of perfect. Positive thinking, to me, doesn’t just mean thinking your way to a better life in the future; it means finding joy and thinking positively in the now as well. Sometimes that means blowing away the dark clouds; other times it means finding the silver lining.

And as for the future? I’m optimistic! I’m hopeful! I have every belief that the universe is good, that blessings are flowing my way, and that all my dreams will continue to manifest, in perfect timing and perfect order. I also believe that my future will be even better than it would be otherwise because I continually work on honoring and healing my past, and respecting and appreciating my present. To me, all of the cycle is connected and the threads of the tapestry woven by my life extend far behind and beyond my now. Work done on healing my past extends into my future; work done fully experiencing and respecting my present reaches back and adds meaning and depth to my past. It all is connected and layered in the flow of time — no one part truly separate from another, none greater than the others.

 

Welcoming the new year — an intention tradition!

It’s a new year, and while I don’t tend to get swept up in the cultural to-do list that often surrounds a new year (resolutions, anyone?), I do like to mark the passing of one year into another.

It started in 2009. We had just moved to a new town with a much more spiritually open-minded culture, and I saw a set of prayer flags in a local bookstore while out doing my Yule/Christmas shopping. I picked them up, thinking of all the times I’d admired them in the past but stopped short of buying them. Now, living in a free-spirited, interfaith community, I felt a deep freedom in scooping up this little gift to hang over our front door!

They were opened on Christmas morning, but somehow got left behind in the shuffle of the next few days as we played with new toys, watched new movies, and returned to the flow of work and chores. Then, realizing I’d already waited until the 28th to unwrap them, we made the choice to wait until New Year’s Day to hang them.

2009 had been a big year for my family in many ways. It was a year in which we made a conscious decision to move out of a town that held the security and safety of family nearby (but lacked religious, political, and ideological diversity) and into a small, progressive haven of the southeast. We’d made a choice to move to an area where the prevailing culture would support our intentions to raise our children to be compassionate, aware of social justice issues, attentive to the environment, and encouraged to explore within their hearts and souls for guidance and wisdom. It wasn’t easy to make that move, but it freed our hearts in so many ways!

And so on January 1, 2010, we gathered our children (then ages three through fourteen) into the living room. We sipped some hot cocoa while talking about the past year — its triumphs and heartaches, what worked and what didn’t. Then we passed the prayer flags around the room. Each person took their turn sharing their hopes and dreams for the coming year while holding the prayer flags in their hands. I hoped for more patience as a mother, and to make more time for family; one of my three-year-olds hoped for puppies and rainbows. We each took at least one turn, and after we’d all poured our intentions into the family as well as the flags, we hung them over our main entrance, where they’d fly every day, carrying our hopes out on the wind and serving as a daily reminder of our intentions.

When New Year’s Eve rolled around almost a year later, we had the new set of flags ready to hang the next day! One thing… What to do with the prior year’s flags? It didn’t seem right to leave them hanging, but it also felt odd to just put them in the trash. So, that evening, we passed the old flags around while talking about the prior year. We laughed at funny memories. We shared sentimental feelings about memories from the prior year that had tugged at our hearts. We talked about what we liked, and what we didn’t. And then we started a fire, and burned the old, faded, worn flags. The next morning, we again focused on the coming year as we passed around the new flags before hanging them.

This is a tradition that has stuck with our family over the past several years, and this year we even made our own flags, with most of them hand-dyed.

dyeflagsdrying-1200x551
Dyed fabric drying

After making a string of flags to hang over our door, we had a TON of extra dyed fabric, so we even made a string of “Joy Flags” to hang out in the yard. We don’t expect to replace those annually with the same intention as our prayer flags, and we filled them with all sorts of things that we like, each member of the family contributing a dozen or so flags to the cause. Our little ones drew pictures of our pets, stick-figure drawings of our family, hearts, and “I Love You.” Our big kids drew symbols and art they find inspiring along with fandom references and funny quotes. Mom and Dad wrote affirmations, drew symbols, and single-word reminders. As they fly in our yard in the years to come (until they become too tattered to leave up), may they remind us of the joy we find in each other, in our family, and in our home and surrounding area.

You don’t have to ring in the new year with “resolutions,” promises, and new pressures on yourself to ring it in with tradition and intention. Heartfelt expressions of joy and gratitude; focusing on a new year filled with love, light, and laughter; and sacred time with simple family rituals — these have the power to change our lives for the better, from our attitudes to our realities, from our families out into the world. May 2014 be a beautiful and blessed year for you and yours.

2014 prayer flags hanging over our door!

IMG_56781-1200x900
2014 Prayer Flags!

 

 

 

My intention matters, but it isn’t everything

Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Mitch Horowitz while he was researching and writing his book, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life when he contacted me about a paper from which I’d had an excerpt published over a decade ago. I was able to get him a full copy of my paper (although I’m not quite sure how helpful it was), but then in a series of emails and a meeting when he was visiting near my hometown, solid, good, real discussion happened. I shared some of my thoughts about trauma, disability, and how I worried that the shortcomings of the Law of Attraction, universally applied, could compound trauma. It isn’t that I don’t believe that we attract what we expect and believe in; it’s that I have a hard time understanding how that belief can be presented as universally helpful, true, or transformative when applied as an after-the-fact diagnostic for someone who has experienced a trauma or illness such as rape or disability. Mitch shared with me an idea so simple and helpful, I was surprised that I hadn’t read it, explicitly stated, in any of the LOA-based positive thinking books I’d been reading. Simply put: he believes that the LOA is one out of many laws that shape our experiences.

The idea that the LOA is only one influence out of many, the more I thought about it, began to heal the years-long inner conflict I’d experienced with the ideals of positive thinking. These conflicts began when I was working toward ministry in a New Thought church, and had been teased apart and highlighted by my work in rape crisis, where I was a hotline volunteer and support group facilitator for a few years. In my crisis support and intervention role, I had seen survivors successfully use positive thinking as a way to heal their traumas, had used Belleruth Naparstek’s Healing Trauma visualization in a group setting, and had even written and presented a healing, affirming visualization for one of my groups. I had also seen survivors bury themselves under feelings of responsibility for their assaults, worrying what they could have done differently — feelings and worries that are already compounded by a culture of victim-blaming in the media, in our court systems, and in our everyday lives. Even if LOA proponents never say anything other than supportive sentiments directly to survivors of sexual assault and other crimes, promoting thought-creates-reality as an individualistic, uncompromising, and unswayable law of reality sets up a view of reality in which sexual assault victims must have attracted their assault into their lives. This, to me, is unacceptable on a moral and ethical level, as well as on a factual and theoretical level.

If sexual assault is caused by wrong thinking, it is caused by the wrong thinking of the rapist. If child abuse is caused by wrong thinking, it is caused by the wrong thinking of the abuser. If murder is caused by wrong thinking, it is caused by the wrong thinking of the murderer. That isn’t to say that the collective attitudes and beliefs of our culture aren’t a part of the problem; it’s simply to say that for a single survivor of any kind of assault to believe they caused their assault through their expectations and thoughts misses the mark, and misunderstands both reality and trauma. But in order to allow for this complexity of reality, we have to accept (as Mitch suggested) that our thoughts and beliefs, while they are powerful carriers of our desires and intentions, can have their effects changed and moderated by outside forces — by other laws that also act upon our lives, our physical environments, and our spiritual realities.

While I have a full-time job in a non-spirituality environment, I’m blessed to work on a regular basis with some of the most interesting, thoughtful, kind, and insightful people I’ve ever met. Frequently, you’ll find us hard at work, but still discussing spirituality, social justice, and how to make the world kinder. Earlier this week, while discussing these thoughts with a coworker, I found myself using the following illustration.

I believe, fully and wholeheartedly in the law of gravity. If I want to drop a ball and have it land in a certain spot, I know I can lean out of the second-floor window of a building, reach my hand out, and drop the ball. Knowing about gravity and it’s associated formulas, I can tell where the ball will land, and I can even calculate about how long it will take to land. This might lead me to feel successful, as if I have a pretty good grasp of gravity and how it influences my ball-dropping. If, however, I go to a window above a ledge, when I drop my ball at the same angle, with the same distance from the window, and with the same method, it will bounce off the ledge and out from the wall, landing at a different distance and angle from the wall than I expected. This isn’t because gravity failed; it’s because other laws, theories, and formulas explain the bounce, the new trajectory of the ball, and where it will land. If it’s a windy day, the ball might land somewhere other than where I intended. In neither case would the result be because I don’t understand gravity or its proper application.

If I go to another clear window without a ledge and drop my ball again, I’d expect it to land in the designated spot, directly below where I dropped it. But what happens if as I drop the ball, someone runs up below me and uses a baseball bat to knock the ball out of the park, so to speak? Does that mean gravity failed? Does it mean I didn’t use the law right, or that I brought the situation on myself? Does it mean I need to rethink my ball-dropping technique, hold my hand differently, or believe more in gravity while dropping it the next time?

This illustrates the challenge I’ve had with a universal and unchangeable application of the Law of Attraction in all situations and at all times. I simply cannot believe that a child who develops a rare form of brain cancer, as a friend’s daughter did a few years back, is experiencing the results of her own or a parent’s thoughts sent into the universe, returned in kind. I don’t believe that survivors of rape or other assaults and crime attracted the experiences to themselves because of faulty beliefs, not being positive enough, or simply because they were attracting “exactly what they needed” to learn and grow. I don’t believe a stroke survivor who doesn’t regain full use of his body failed in any way, or is any less powerful or positive than someone who did recover, or who never had a stroke in the first place. In all of these cases, the human spirit is awe-inspiring in how it overcomes challenges. The child can be in that 12% who recover. The survivor, even as she acknowledges the pain, unfairness, randomness, and trauma of the assault, can make meaning out of it, chart her own healing, and grow through the experience of recovery and self-exploration. The stroke survivor may be challenged to explore formerly held ideals and (as a result) experience a profound emotional healing that may never have been triggered without the stroke. Does that make the stroke, the assault, the cancer a GOOD thing? It doesn’t have to. Humans are amazing. We can rebuild in beauty after the most tragic experiences of destruction and heartache.

So, to the extent that Law of Attraction can help you put your life back together, feel strong, be empowered, and grow in compassion after a trauma, use it! Focus on your strengths and successes, and on the ways you can use your gifts to make our shared world beautiful. Do things that nurture your soul and heal your spirit. Just remember that LOA is far more effective as a method of rebuilding than it is as a diagnostic tool. Responsibility for what is truly yours to own is a healthy thing; self-blame, self-doubt, and self-abuse are not. Be gentle with yourself; you deserve good things and kind treatment.