Friend Zoned by God

Sometimes life hurts. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we dive deeply into darkness. Sometimes we fall.

Sometimes our lives line up so perfectly we can’t help but sense the hand of the divine helping us clear our paths and point us toward wonder. Other times we plan and work, make vision boards, bullet journal, dream journal, gratitude journal, think positive, dream big, and repeat affirmations until we finally take in the joyful chest-inflating breath of a goal welcomed.

Sometimes we can’t help but see the roles we’ve played our experiences, how we’ve drawn certain experiences into our own lives. We see how those experiences have impacted our lives for pleasure or pain, but almost always (if we are willing and able to work with them) for our growth.

Sometimes we do everything “right” and end up disappointed. Sometimes we float along without intention and land in the “right” places.

But at no point is the divine obligated to “put out” in the specific ways we expect because of our efforts, prayers, or intentions.

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Present in Our Bodies: Sensuality, Movement, Feelings, and Joy

people dancing ecstatically, arms in the air

Christmas morning. I don’t usually have Sundays free and our family holiday celebrations lean nontraditional, so I’d come to a special ecstatic dance celebration and brought my 9-year-old daughter with me. As the music started and people all around us began to flow and move, I reached out to touch her hand. As if she’d been doing it for years, she shifted into a beautiful contact improv flow with me, rolling her arm down and across mine as she beamed love and radiance right into my heart.

This child brings up so many feelings in me as I watch her grow.

people dancing ecstatically, arms in the air
Photo by Flickr user dannysoar

On many occasions at ecstatic dance, I’ve looked around the room and been overwhelmed by the beauty of the dancers and their joyful embodiment. When delight, peace, and ease are conditioned out of many of our bodily relationships through past traumas, body issues, or simply living in a disembodied or misembodied culture, feeling comfortable in our own skins is simultaneously an intentional act of cultural resistance and a profound act of self-care and self-love. Being present in the ecstatic dance space with lovely people moving confidently in fluid, sensual, emphatic, and silly ways fills my heart to overflowing on any given dance day.

Being present in that space with my daughter, looking around the room and imagining what it must look like through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl, gave it a whole new hue of meaning…

Read more at Feminism and Religion.

Positive Presence in Tiring Times

Part of my 2011 vision board. Says "Speak Love, Write the Future, Heal, Witch"

I am tired.

I’m tired in that way that happens when mind-overload, followed incautiously into concrete corners, limits the ability to conceive of solutions and dig up hope. I’m tired of reading commentary and I’m tired of thinking about the seeming impossibility of resolution, though I seem to be doing both compulsively. I read the news and it is overwhelming. I read theory and it is immobilizing: the more I learn, the more I realize how every possible choice of action is complicated by its impact on some person or power structure.

I’m tired in that way that happens to people who take in the world just as fully through their bodies – through touch, sound, breath, feeling, and movement – as they do through their minds. I’m tired in the way of those whose hearts well love and grief that flow up in gentle washes or powerful surges until they must escape in sighs and sometimes tears.

We live in tiring times.

We love in tiring times.

Part of my 2011 vision board. Says "Speak Love, Write the Future, Heal, Witch"
Part of my 2011 vision board

For several years, I was a leader in New Thought churches that held strict adherence to the “Law of Mind-Action” – that we change the blueprint of the universe to manifest according to our thoughts and beliefs – and the “Law of Attraction” – that we attract all experiences into our lives based on our thoughts and beliefs, whether conscious or unconscious. Under both of these principles, the material world, and thus the body, are subject to the will of the mind – subservient, docile, and reactive – just as women (traditionally associated in many cultures with the land and processes of the body) were considered inferior to and expected to remain subservient to men…

Read more at Feminism and Religion.

Flow Arts as Spiritual Community

Several years ago, my disillusionment with the spiritual communities available locally bubbled over. Nothing felt like a good fit for me theologically or culturally, and yet I yearned for intentional connection with similarly seeking and passionate people. I needed a community.

My embodied understanding of divinity and search for a non-theological, non-hierarchical, quasi-spiritual community eventually led me to the discovery of flow arts after seeing Beth Lavinder hooping at a public event, recognizing that there was something powerfully transformative happening in her in her hoop practice, and talking to her about how she learned to hoop and what it meant to her. That year, in 2009, I began to take hoop classes with Ann Humphreys, now of Line and Circle. Over time, I worked in a few classes with Baxter from Hoop Path. I became friends with people who spun poi and did aerial silks and worked with fire and felt out the boundaries of the body —  how it moves through its connections with other objects and through space.

What I found in the flow arts community was a shared sense of meaning. The meaning itself wasn’t shared, exactly; just the shared and passionate realization that each of our lives had meaning beyond the minutiae of everyday living, and that this meaning could be explored through the metaphors of how we move through and interact with our tools, how we discipline our bodies to respond to our tools, and how they become extensions of our body once we reach a state called “flow.” In the act of community-based hooping, I found acceptance (of each of us with all our varying levels, ages, and bodies) and cheering of our current skills and encouragement as we learned new, more difficult skills. In the hooping itself, I found new ways of understanding my body, greater patience for myself as I made mistakes on the path of learning, and those cherished moments of bliss in which my body disappeared into the hoop and it into me.

In the hooping community, I found a model for seeking out and creating heart-based community in which people are invited to bring their authentic, whole selves to their work as well as their play. There were hoop classes and hoop jams, but there were also fire festivals and potlucks and social events at which people were able to share who they were, how they were facing challenges, and what they were learning about themselves and their lives. The social was spiritual, in the sense of acknowledging a deep sense of purpose and offering fertile soil for meaning to be sowed and co-nurtured among similarly-impassioned (if not like-minded) people.

While my schedule left me in the periphery of the hooping world for a few years, I returned to a similar community in early 2016 when I finally started attending ecstatic dance. What initially drew me to it was feeling tired of being out of community and anxious socially, and wanting a place in my life in which I could explore interpersonal relationships and communication in a safe space, with safe people. Ecstatic dance, at least in our community, is a 90 minute “dance wave” of music that starts with slow, meditative sounds, works its way up to a high-energy, upbeat middle, and then gradually expands back into a mellow close. Some people come and dance alone for the entire dance each week; others prefer partner dancing. Many make plenty of time for both solo and partner dance. There is no talking on the dance floor; consent is essential, emphasized, and negotiated nonverbally, though just like in everyday friendships, a comfort level emerges with those who dance together regularly and consent becomes less mechanical. Anyone can decline any offer to partner dance gracefully, with no hurt feelings. Gender becomes part of the play, and many who attend consciously break up gender norms in their dress, behavior, and approach – men dance with men, women with women, women with men, and a host of gender-nonconforming folks with everyone, with no expectation that one will lead and the other will follow. Instead, the focus is on paying close attention to your partner’s nonverbal communication and allowing your bodies to match movements, falling into a dance that is comfortable and fun for both of you.

Sometimes this means partner dances are quite intimate – I’ve danced with my body entwined with another, have been part of the swirling 20-person multi-partner dances that sometimes spontaneously occur (I call this phenomenon “the amoeba”), and have ended more than one ecstatic dance wave lying on the floor in the pile of people we like to call the “cuddle puddle,” eyes closed, absorbed in shared bliss, unsure who was holding my hand or whose limb was thrown over my shoulder (or whether it was an arm or a leg). I once spent an entire song with a partner/friend and I holding each other, barely moving except to match the rhythm of our breaths. (The number of people with whom I share this level of intimacy on the dance floor, remains small and controlled – all within my comfort zone.)

Ecstatic Dance at The Flowjo
Ecstatic Dance at The Flowjo

Other times, partner dances are silly and fun, interspersed with childlike humor, games of peek-a-boo, laughter, and make believe. Sometimes, someone does something playful – starts marching around, or honks like a goose, or takes a friend’s hand and begins a chain of people that weaves in on itself – and others join in, welcoming the chance to play. In our ecstatic dance community, there are performers, singers, voice teachers, artists, and dancers. There are counselors, therapists, psychiatrists, and yoga teachers. There are accountants, architects, teachers, developers, researchers, and web designers. There are people in their early twenties, “senior citizens,” and people of all sizes and body types. Each dance flow feels like a lesson — a classroom in which social anxiety, interpersonal skills, jealousy, fear, friendship, and love can all be examined through the lens of dance metaphor.

In this community and the open, safe space it has provided, I have found much of what I had been missing in terms of spiritual community, even as much of my personal theology expresses as solitary activity and I’ve only in recent weeks even attempted to begin to articulate some of my personal beliefs to others. There are no dogmatic rules in ecstatic dance, although non-judgment, freedom of expression, and consent are key ideals. We don’t discuss theology or religious worldviews at dance as a routine, though a sense of gratitude and wonder about the universe, the shared ecstatic bliss of the dance space, and universal and personal growth patterns are regularly discussed as part of our closing circle. In social events outside of official dance spaces, we take opportunities to discuss how we are working these ideals into our larger communities and how they affect our lives. For those who aren’t huggers, none are expected. For those who enjoy touch, long hugs and leaning on friends are the norm.

There’s a lot of crossover between the hooping, ecstatic dance, and other flow arts communities, and many of the friends I’ve made in one of those circles are also involved in others. Talking to them, I know that they also see the connection between flow arts, dance, and the embodied spiritual traditions. If Spirit expresses into the world through us, our words, and our bodies, then conscious exploration of movement and sound, of mindful focus and unthinking ecstasy, and of where self and other meet in communion become ritual acts of growth and devotion to a manifest Love and embodied Divine. Shared in a community without dogma or hierarchy? Just what I needed.

“Grounding” without “grounding”

“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.

“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.

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:



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.

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.

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!

2014 Prayer Flags!