Growing Devotions (Pt. 6) – Returning to the Center

This is the last of a 6-post series on beginning devotional work. Here are links to the other posts in the series: one, two, three, four, and five.

Through this series on devotions we’ve gone from our Center down to talk to the Land Spirits, out to talk to the Ancestors, and up to talk to the Gods. That’s a lot of new voices! But who’s really saying what? To figure that out we return to our Centers and practice discernment.

What is discernment?

Discernment, in this context, is the skill/talent/art of determining what comes from our own psyche and what comes from the Powers. It helps us know, recognize, and understand what the Powers are trying to tell us.

Knowing our Centers becomes invaluable for this process, and the more we understand our Centers the easier discernment becomes. When we know our core self we know the tone and tenor of our inner dialogue. We know our strengths and flaws on an intimate and very aware level. Everything we perceive from the Powers must be weighed against this inner knowledge before we act on it.

This is huge. Most of us, me certainly included, are an internal mess of “I wish I was/I could be/I am/I’m becoming/I’m no longer”, and when something comes to us we have to know if it was created from the primordial soup of weirdness in our own heads or came from outside of ourselves before we can even begin to proceed with it.

Sounds important. How do I do it?

The more we know our Centers the easier this process is. However, I’ve been doing this for two decades and I still kick off my discernment process with two basic questions.

1) Will whatever this is harm me or anyone else?

Here’s where we have to be really honest with ourselves. What the Powers may ask of us may not be comfortable or convenient. Short term things may dredge up issues we’d thought/hoped were buried if we even knew they existed at all. When it comes to the long term I know people who are unable to accept money for services, who have various careers or relationships closed to them, who are told where to live and what they can eat and how they can dress. Sometimes we’re even asked to do things that are explicitly painful, that can cause physical injury.

All of that, frankly, sucks. It’s not happy, it’s not comfortable, and there are times I’ve felt overburdened and overwhelmed.

Here’s the kicker, though – none of that was “harm”.

For me, “harm” means “irrevocably compromised”. Am I being told to do anything that will land me or anyone else  in the hospital, break anyone’s brain or heart beyond repair, or go so against anyone’s Center that it’s lost? If ever I perceive something that fails this test it’s my “get out of jail free” card. It’s a hard limit. Anything that compromises my ability to serve the Powers and fulfill my potential, or anyone else’s ability to do the same, is not something I would ever be asked to do. Period. Anything else? That has to pass the next question.

2) Does this – or will this eventually – help me fulfill my Purpose and support my Center?

This one is harder, and takes a leap of faith. This is where those relationships we form with the Powers become key. When we accept that the Powers are distinct and individual entities outside of our own heads, we accept that They have Their own desires and agendas that may not mesh with ours. Think about the Greek mythology many of us studied in school. I read about how Athena turned a woman into a spider, and how Aphrodite’s need to prove She was the prettiest kick-started a war. That kind of thing is certainly not limited to the Greeks, either! The Powers are not all sweetness and light, and the faster we understand that the better off we’ll be.

But that’s Them as a group. I will walk through fire if my Lady asks it of me (although I’ll damn straight double and triple check that I heard it correctly), because She has earned my absolute trust over the years. I have been branded for Her. I do not have that same faith and trust in every Power out there.

And regardless of everything else I’m still responsible for the actions I take, which means I’m responsible for not only figuring out what I’m being asked but whether or not I’m willing to accept all the consequences. “A God told me to” doesn’t hold much water when faced with unamused cops or me sobbing out my despair quietly in a corner.

So here’s how I manage this question.

I’ve worked with my Lady for so long that Her voice is incredibly distinct. I know the tenor of it, even if sometimes what She’s saying is garbled. I usually recognize what’s coming from Her right off and do whatever She asks without question (beyond clarifying what it is She wants, of course).

She has asked me to do some things that have caused me to hold up and question Her, though. Some She’s asked me to trust Her for and told me to do anyway. But some She rescinded once She got my perspective. She’s sees more broadly than I, but sometimes She forgets I’m only human. And to be honest, sometimes I think She asks me for ridiculous things just to see if I’m paying attention and am fully engaging with Her!

For anyone not Her, I think about it. Is what I’m being asked to do going to be bad for me? If so it’s “thanks but no thanks”. If I can see where it could be helpful, and it won’t harm anyone, then why not? I’m always up for trying a new approach, and I appreciate new perspectives. If I can’t tell either way I’ll either go with it for a bit to try it out and make a determination at a later date, ask for clarification, or check in with divination or the like.

All that sounds cool. But I’m not understanding what They want enough to answer these questions!

That happens too. A lot. The shorthand term for understanding what They say when They communicate with us is “signal clarity”. If we’ve got good signal clarity we can hear Them. But sometimes it’s like there’s static on the line – we know we’re talking to Someone, but either what we’re hearing is garbled or we can’t really hear anything at all.

This is when some of the stuff we discussed back in Finding Your Center again shows its value. Journaling. Tracking dreams. Practicing awareness. Meditating. Sometimes those things will clear everything up, and then you’ll know.

If that doesn’t help, or you want clarity a bit faster, use a divination method (Tarot, runes, I Ching, tea leaf reading, whatever) to check in. Don’t know a method you’re comfortable using yet? This is a great time to check out your options and start learning one!

Don’t forget other resources too. If you know someone else who divines, ask them for a reading (and compensate them for their services). Talk it over with a close friend and get their take on it – simply saying it out loud to someone else might help clarify it for you. Ask the other Powers with whom you work if They have any idea about what’s going on – I’ve found that Ancestors can be especially good for this.

Otherwise just be patient. They have ways of letting you know when necessary. As long as you’re trying to understand Them, They’re trying to be understood. And clarity will come in time.

Keep practicing what we’ve gone over so far. If you get overwhelmed anywhere, go back to your Center and make sure it’s steady. Gradually add the Powers back, one by one, until everything is balanced and secure. Once you’ve got that stable, you’ll find that discernment and clarity both become easier as you go – and that they both deepen as your devotional practice grows.

Growing Devotions (Pt. 5) – Knowing the Gods

This is number five in the series (and the next-to-last!). Please read posts one, two, three, and four first if you want this post to sound remotely coherent. Thanks!

By now we’ve looked inward to find our Centers, down to connect with the Land, and out to embrace our Ancestors. Now it’s time to look up and begin knowing the Gods.

Who – or what – are the Gods?

Isn’t that a question? *laugh* I don’t think there’s a right answer here. I’ll provide what answers I’ve come to, but YMMV – go with whatever works for you.

In the third part of this series I defined gods as “entities that nurture and are sustained by cultural groups”. These are the entities that led and were honored, on a relatively wide-scale basis, by different cultures throughout our history. We typically find Them in family-linked groups called “pantheons” – the Greek pantheon, the Celtic pantheon, the Chinese pantheon, the Egyptian pantheon, the Mayan pantheon, etc.

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One version of the Norse pantheon.

Land Spirits are limited by being bound to specific places, and Ancestors are limited in many ways by the humanity They retain after death. Gods, however, are bound by more ephemeral things – alliances with other Gods, loyalty to Their people, the general laws of the universe. And just as a Land Spirit is sustained by the land and Ancestors are sustained by Their line, so too are Gods sustained by Their followers.

I think that’s why we’re seeing polytheism as a whole grow like it has been. Before the modern Pagan and later polytheist movement sparked things many of the Gods followed today had vanished into obscurity. As we’ve struggled to relearn and restore a balanced relationship with the Powers the Gods have responded to our call. It’s like They’ve been sleeping, waiting for us to again welcome Them to our homes and our hearths. The more we honor Them, the more influence They have in the world. We’re at the beginning of a polytheistic renaissance, and it’s because we are regaining the relationships with Them that we should always have had.

There are thousands of Gods out there. How do I figure out which One(s) I want to work with, or which One(s) want to work with me?

There are lots of ways to approach this. I’ll list a few here, but to be honest it’s kinda academic for me. My Lady came to me before I even knew to look, and every God I’ve worked with since has been at Her direction. Before you start looking, maybe see if Anyone is already knocking at your inner doors.

Like this cute little guy. Except, you know, inside. Not your house. That could be a bit odd.

Like this cute little guy. Except, you know, inside. Not the actual doors of your house. That could be a bit odd.

Sometimes this is easy to figure out. My Lady hit me in the head with a clue-bat on more than one occasion as I groped my way over to Her. Other Gods use other methods. I’ve heard stories of people having recurring dreams about a God, suddenly feeling a sense of homecoming when first seeing Their image or reading Their name, and strange happenstances that could only be laid at the feet of a God trying to get our attention. Some Gods speak to us more subtly, in our heads and hearts, with words or pictures or maybe just feelings we have to trace. If we quiet ourselves through meditation and awareness we can sometimes hear those quiet voices inside, and then we know.

If no God seems to be trying to get your attention yet, that’s fine. Relationships can begin on either side, and sometimes all you have to do is make your interest known. Here are a few approaches you might try.

1)      Ask. Sometimes it really is that easy. Enter a meditative space, clear your mind, and clearly state that you’re looking to grow and learn through a connection with a god, and does Anyone out there want to maybe see if They want to work with you? Think of it as sending out resumes to companies who haven’t posted an opening, or cold-calling possible customers. Just because They’ve not indicated interest before doesn’t mean They won’t take advantage of it once it’s offered.

2)      Gods and cultures are linked together, so if you can’t find one look for the other. Do you identify with a particular culture? If not, is there one you’re drawn to? What exactly draws you could be anything: history, music, art, language, region, food, literature, dance, etc. Look at the Gods associated with that culture, and specifically with what draws you, to see if there’s a deeper reason than “that’s cool!” behind your interest. (And, as always, beware of cultural appropriation!)

3)      Consider your Center, and what you’ve found there. Do any Gods seem to exemplify who you are at your core, or who you’d like to become? Make a list of qualities and research Gods who seem to exemplify them. That could lead you in some interesting directions!

4)      What do you feel most passionate about? Saving kittens? Skiing? Travel? Maintaining a house and home? Check for Gods associated with those things and see if any bells ring.

5)      What scares you? Things that scare us often indicate deep feelings we’re still examining. Look for a God associated with the scary thing, either as a representative of it or as Someone who fights it. Perhaps you’ll get some insight there.

I’m just scratching the surface here. Look around, look within, and do your research. Eventually Someone will indicate a willingness to get to know you better!

Also, realize that the first (or second, or tenth) God you work with is not necessarily “the one and only” God with Whom you’ll spend the rest of your life, if there’s ever a relationship like that for you at all. You don’t marry the first person you date, right? Take the time to really get to know the God in question. Relationships take all kinds of different forms, and trying to control where the relationship goes limits it before you even get started. Open yourself to possibilities for the best experience.

So what does a relationship with a God look like?

Relationships with Gods are as varied as the Gods themselves. Just as my relationship can be different with every person I know, so too can gods have different relationships. That’s one of most interesting things resulting from Gods being distinct individuals who are independent of our own psyches. My relationship with my Lady is more feudal than anything else, although there are of course variances. I’ve met those who have master/servant relationships with their Gods, familial relationships, spousal relationships, friendships, master/apprentice setups, and anything else you can dream up. It depends on the I/individuals involved.

No matter the setup, however, one of the key things to note is that all of these relationships are reciprocal. And, as usual, these reciprocal relationships begin and are strengthened by Hospitality.

Reaching Up to the Gods

At this stage the points of the Hospitality process should be old hat, but here are some specific ways to apply them to Gods.

1)      Be Ready to Entertain

Like the Ancestors, the Gods often appreciate a shrine in Their honor. This is usually a fantastic place to start.

Luckily, Gods tend to have so many things associated with Them (colors, plants, animals, etc) that figuring out what to put on a shrine is usually fairly easy. Draw inspiration from both the God and the culture They’re associated with. I’ve found that once I have a centralized starting point shrines tend to come together quickly.

When most of us think of “shrines” we tend to think of lavishly decorated areas awash in gilt and silk and expensive perfumes. And if you can do that go for it. However, the bare minimum you need is something to represent the God (and yes, that can be as simple as a picture you print off the internet and put in a dollar store frame) and things to put offerings on (a plate, a cup, and perhaps an incense burner). To assist with meditation many people include a candle on their shrines too. It doesn’t have to be any more complex than that. Can’t find a picture you like? The center piece can be a vase full of flowers associated with Them, a statuette of an animal linked to Them, a book containing stories about Them, a candle you’ve carved in Their honor, etc. When in doubt, ask Them if They like something – They’ll eventually let you know.

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A gorgeous shrine honoring the Egyptian goddess Wenut.

2)    Offer Food and Drink

Again, Gods having so many associations tends to make this easy to figure out. If They are associated with a specific food, go with that. For instance, eggs, rabbits, and chocolate bunnies are associated with the German goddess Eostre. That’s always useful to know.

If They don’t seem to have a food associated with Them consider Their culture. Working with a God from the Greek or Roman pantheon? I tend to offer things like foccacia bread, olive oil, and wine until I’m told differently. A Meso-American God? I go straight to some high quality chocolate and tequila. Check out cookbooks, ethnic restaurants, and tourism sites for ideas.

If all else fails go with seasonal foods, heavy on the fresh fruits and berries, perhaps worked into baked muffins or something. And as always, if in doubt ask Them. Wander through the grocery store in a more meditative state (when you’re not hungry) and see what catches your attention.

Yes, these offerings will likely require some research. And no, there’s really no other option. The internet is your friend.

Once you’ve decided on what to offer, offer it. Arrange a dish of whatever on the shrine and fill the cup. (I typically don’t share what I’ve made for a God with Them at the shrine. If I get any at all it’s usually after I’ve made the offering, and I enjoy it in another location. YMMV, of course, so go with what They say.)

Then take a moment to find your Center. Anchor yourself in the here-and-now by connecting your Center to the land (saying “hi” to any Land Spirits you might “feel” along the way but not focusing on Them). Once you feel stable, visualize a transparent sphere expanding from your Center to surround you and the shrine you’ve made, giving you the support of the Ancestors and connecting you to a time when all people honored the Gods. If any Ancestors ping your awareness, greet Them but don’t focus on Them. When that’s all steady, cast your awareness up. I usually visualize this as a spiral of energy going from the top my head into the sky, and I don’t anchor it in anything – it’s like the first half of a handshake. I then say the God’s name like a mantra, repeating it over and over, while waiting for my energy handshake to be “grasped”. Once that happens I welcome the God to the shrine I’ve made and invite Them to enjoy the food and drink I’ve prepared while W/we get to know each other.

If the handshake is not accepted don’t be discouraged! Sometimes They want to see you make a real effort before They’ll visit. That’s ok. Simply keep trying. If multiple attempts are made with no response, meditate on it and see if this is a God you need to be contacting after all.

3)      Show Respect

Share your offering with them in a meditative silence, listening for Them. Feel free to share some information about yourself, like why you picked Them to talk to out of all the other Gods and what you hope to offer/gain in a relationship with Them. Just make sure you leave Them time to communicate with you too.

If this is the first time you’ve sought Them out, don’t presume on the association. You’re there to meet Someone new, not add a quarter to a Cosmic Gumball Machine and get stuff. Don’t be that guy, ok? The Gods  get that all the time, and it’s insulting. Get to know Them because They’re awesome to know, not because you have a laundry list of favors you just know They’re dying to do for you.

When the visit is over, sincerely thank Them for sharing with you, and leave it open for a repeat later. If They prompt you with “I’m done” go ahead and dispose of the food and drink outside. If not, leave out on the shrine overnight, and dispose of the food and drink outside the next morning.

Continuing the Association

So you’ve had your first “date”. Sure you can continue to meet at the shrine for food and drink, but there are tons of ways to bring your relationship out into the rest of your life. Here are a few ideas.

1) Do They have a dedicated feast day? Many do. Others are associated with various celestial phenomena like eclipses, solstices, or the rise of Venus over the horizon. Whichever it is, host an event in Their honor. It can be a formal sit-down meal, a potluck, a ritual, whatever. Honor the God at Their traditional time of honoring.

2) Do They have a sacred activity or skill? Artemis is known for Her archery, for instance, and Apollo for playing the lyre. Engage in Their sacred activity, and do it in Their name. It’s another way to grow closer.

3) All cultures have specific types of dress. Create an outfit as close as possible to what Their followers would have worn and use it as ritual dress.

4) Start learning Their language. Fluency is a great goal, but so is being able to do basic greetings and farewells. Any effort you make in this direction is likely to be appreciated.

5) Are you craftsy or creative? Make Them something. Sculpt something, draw something, write epic poetry or a song. Do whatever you do, but do it for Them.

There are a ton of other options here, so open yourself to possibility and see what presents itself!

Add working with the gods to the routine established with finding your Center, connecting with the Land, and embracing the Ancestors. If you start feeling overwhelmed, go back to your Center and make sure that’s steady, then add back in your work with the Land Spirits. When you’re totally stable with those add working with the Ancestors back into your practice. Once you’ve got all three of those elements balanced add the Gods back in. I find that once I’ve got all of these elements balanced out that they tend to help balance each other, so it becomes much easier when all are working together. Hopefully it works the same for you.

The next post – the final in this series – will provide tips and tricks for tying all of this together into a coherent practice as we return to the Center.

Growing Devotions (Pt. 4) – Embracing the Ancestors

This is the fourth in the series, and this post won’t make much sense without the context of the first, second, and third posts. Please read before proceeding.

Good? Yay! Onwards!

The Land connects us to where we are physically located in the here-and-now. Once we’re solidly grounded and anchored there we can move on to the next stage of devotional work – the Ancestors all around us.

Ok, why do I want to connect to dead people?

Let’s be real here. For those with no tradition around Ancestor work this has to be the first question asked and answered. It was certainly mine!

See, we in the West are very fond of black and white thinking in a lot of cases, and especially in regards to spiritual topics. For instance, “dead”. When we hear “dead”, we think “dead and gone”. When we’re alive we’re able to affect the world, and when we die we go away to a different place that rarely if ever interacts with this one. We don’t expect to maintain relationships with the departed, because they’re, well, departed. Or so we think.

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Because any day I can reference The Princess Bride is a good day.

The idea that the dead are gone from us is fairly new, and is far from universally accepted even now. In many cultures it’s simply known that not only are the Ancestors still devoted to nurturing their descendants, but that it is our job as descendants to take care of Them. And since They were human at one time, it’s commonly held that They are better able to understand human wants and needs than other types of entities out there.

And honestly, there are people in our lives who are/were literally willing to charge grizzlies with baseball bats to keep us safe. Who would we trust more to go to bat for us in the spiritual realm? Death is really a minor hurdle for that level of love and concern.

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If Mulan’s ancestors could help her from beyond the grave, so can ours.

The practices around honoring and caring for the ancestors are usually grouped together as “ancestor veneration or reverence”. And to be clear, it’s not a worship deal – people don’t suddenly get holier when they die. They simply change forms, and the way we interact with Them has to change to accommodate that form change.

The most familiar-to-the-West approaches to this are probably the Catholic practices of praying for the souls of the dead and petitioning saints (super-holy dead people) to carry prayers from the worshiper to God. The most visible examples of ancestor veneration, on the other hand, are probably the Egyptian pyramids.

Beliefs around the dead vary widely, of course. For Catholics, when someone dies they’re assigned to an afterlife (Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and anything Dante might have missed) and help from there. Egyptians thought the soul continued to live, just in a different place – and that the foods and materials provided Them in our world help sustain Them in the afterlife. One idea I’ve heard for those who go with reincarnation is that the dead stick around for as long as They want to/as long as They’re remembered, after which They move on to the next life and perhaps even choose to be reincarnated in the same bloodline.

However you look at it, ancestor veneration has been a core religious practice around the world for much of human history. Today it can be found in societies around the world, and it can be revived in our lives too. We can reclaim our Ancestors, take care of Them, and They can help take care of us.

Who are my Ancestors, then?

You were not created from nothing. The very DNA of your body came from combining the DNA of your parents, right? And they got their DNA from their parents. When you trace your lineage backwards you find that you are the product of generations upon generations of other people.

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As this somewhat sentimental image tells us.

It’s not just physical, either. We have language and art, climate control and internet, cities and nations and societies because we inherited the ideas that led to all of it from our ancestors. The debt we owe to those who came before is staggering.

And it’s even more than that. Humans are much more interrelated than you might think. Because of the way genetics and family trees work, every single human alive on the planet today can trace their family lines back to one common ancestor, one who lived from 8,000-2,000 years ago.

As observed in a 2004 paper on the Most Recent Common Ancestor:

“No matter the languages we speak or the color of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who labored to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu.”

Isn’t that amazing?  Ancestors connect us not just to our parents and grandparents, but to every single person on the whole planet. No matter who we are or where we go, every random person we meet is family. Calling everyone out there “brother” or “sister” isn’t exactly accurate, but only on a technicality.

I don’t know about you, but that idea changed a lot for me. Honoring the Ancestors led me towards greater compassion for others by connecting me to everyone else in the world. There is no more “us vs. them” – we really are all in this together, united by the very blood in our veins. That’s had a huge impact on how I think about everything from faith and politics to how I regard my coworkers. I think that’s pretty damn significant, personally.

Wow. So that’s, um, a lot of people.

It is. So in practice, we have to narrow down the Ancestors that we choose to honor. Just like we can acknowledge all the Land Spirits out there but only work directly with those at home and work, so too can we acknowledge all of our Ancestors while working with only a few. The fun (fun?) is deciding how we want to narrow things down.

Some people strictly honor those on their family trees, or even only their direct line, for as far back as they can trace but no further. A common thing I’ve seen is focusing on the family tree while “adopting” close friends and influential people.

Another technique is to supplement the honoring of blood-line lineage (or replace it altogether) with a focus on professional or lifestyle connections. Soldiers often claim brotherhood with those they’ve served with, for instance – the relationship is based on shared experiences rather than family trees. For those profoundly affected by their service those shared experiences may trump bloodlines for relationship importance.

Those identifying primarily by minority affiliations, like polytheists and members of the LGBTQAI+ community, might find a greater sense of family and understanding from Ancestors with Whom they can share those types of experiences.

There’s also a growing idea of “families of choice” – people are making their own families and clans, and those too can guide our honorings.

Others don’t identify individuals at all, and just go with “Ancestors” as “Anyone of helpful intent who wants to claim me”.

Note that in this area, like anything else touching on family, opinions can get very heated. There are lots of people who will try to tell you exactly how to do your Ancestor work, and critique the holy hell out of you if you decide to do something differently than they “suggest”. Frankly, that’s all bullshit (unless you’re working within a specific tradition, of course – those rules are different). You can certainly pick up perspectives and techniques from all those people, and I highly encourage you to do so, but remember that the only ones who can really tell you how to proceed are yourself and the entities with whom you work.

I don’t have the strongest family lineage. I can trace parts of my mother’s side of the family back to before the Revolutionary War, but I don’t really know more than a handful beyond my grandmother’s children and their descendants. There are two Ancestors I work with on that line, and that’s it. And I know nothing about my father’s family at all – seriously, I’ve tried to trace them and it’s like my grandparents were born on another planet or something.

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How my paternal grandparents reached the United States.

That’s perfectly fine. I have all of human history to draw from should I choose to do so. So I chose.

The bulk of my practice honors individuals who have left me a legacy, regardless of bloodline or historical period. This includes maternal ancestors, but also historical figures and inspirational people from all walks of life. I have a separate honoring for monastics of all faiths whose dedication has inspired and guided me along my path. I have also made it my personal mission to honor the Forgotten Ones. Human history is as tragic as it is beautiful, and there are many who have been lost along the way. My life has been blessed by so many people that it is my honor to honor Them.

And the converse is true. By choosing who I honor, I also choose who I don’t honor. Because we can do that. We do not have to honor a single damn Ancestor we don’t want to. Not one. My mother passed, and I do not want her in my life at all. It’s not even that I’m lashing out or want her to suffer. I simply want her to reincarnate as soon as possible. Maybe she’ll get it right next time. *shrug* I drink a shot in her memory at Mabon – because like it or not she helped make me who I am today – and that’s all I can bring myself to do. And that’s ok. Just having options was incredibly healing for me. If you suffered abuse at someone’s hand, or otherwise find an Ancestor to be an all-around repugnant person, then feel free to avoid honoring Them. Death doesn’t suddenly forgive all sins, and sometimes our family trees need to be pruned. However, alternative perspectives and wisdom often come from those we disagree with, so be careful when deciding to drop Someone from your work.

So how do we honor the Ancestors?

With Hospitality, of course! Here’s how I approach it when it comes to Ancestors.

1) Be Ready to Entertain

In my personal experience I find that the Ancestors aren’t as concerned with the whole house being spotless as They are with Their area being neat and tidy. Because yes, They (at least in my experience) want an area. Time to build a shrine to the Ancestors!

Assemble objects that bring your Ancestors to mind in one location, and arrange them so they’re visually appealing. Photographs are fabulous for this – and if you don’t have a photograph of someone you honor but can get a picture of their tombstone that works well too. Family Bibles, grandma’s favorite knitting needles, a toy dog passed down for generations. The items don’t have to be particularly valuable to work – I have a rock on my altar from Wales, where the maternal ancestors I work with are from. A print-out of a family tree works, too. If honoring historical figures, portraits and/or examples of their work are absolutely appropriate here. Really, whatever works. Just make sure to include space for a plate and a cup. I almost always offer incense too, as this is traditional in many cultures when honoring the dead, so if that’s something you want to do incorporate an incense burner into your arrangement. Another similar idea here is offering fresh bouquets of nicely scented herbs/flowers.

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A simple, and beautiful, ancestor altar complete with offerings. It doesn’t have to be lavish to work.

2) Offer Food and Drink

This can get fun with the Ancestors! There are lots of stories around about eating and drinking with the dead for inspiration, but I like to keep it simple.

Liquid offerings often include coffee, tea, and water. Alcohol is common too, especially if the Ancestor liked it in life. Food offerings run the gamut from cakes and breads to treasured family recipes. If the deceased had a special favorite dish, making it in Their memory would certainly be appropriate.

Food – both scent and taste – resonates with people on levels we often don’t consider, and I like playing with that type of sense memory. My favorite thing here is making food I’ve never had that was common in other times and places. For the Aunts I honor in my maternal line I’ve experimented with all kinds of traditional Welsh cuisine. I’ve also made good old-fashioned American food like meatloaf and fried chicken when honoring American soldiers who died overseas (because I figure They must have missed that), French desserts to honor Antoine de Saint-Exupery, homemade mac ‘n cheese for abused kids I honor at Samhain (what kid doesn’t like mac ‘n cheese?), Indian curries when honoring wandering monks, etc. While I’m making these foods I also learn a lot about the cultures, lives, and times of people in different places, which is always fascinating and brings me closer to Them.

It might seem a bit silly, but I always keep the food for the Ancestors and anything I plan to eat separate as soon as it leaves the stove, and the dishes the Ancestors use are strictly Theirs – they don’t go back in my cabinets for general use. Ever. There are too many stories about Bad Things happening when the two get mixed up. YMMV, of course, but I thought I’d mention it.

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Lest we unwittingly wind up like the Greek Persephone.

Once you’ve decided what to offer, offer it. Make up all the plates and cups and whatnot, and arrange them in the available space. Then find your Center. Anchor yourself in the here-and-now by connecting your energy to the land (saying “hi” to any Land Spirits you might “feel” along the way but not focusing on Them). Once you feel stable, cast your awareness “out” to the Ancestors. I usually visualize this as a transparent sphere that emerges from my Center and expands to surround me and my Ancestor altar, a sphere that lets in Ancestors who wish me well and blocks out everything else. (If your visualization skills aren’t the best, work on that. And in the meantime feel free to write a casting if that helps you.) Once that sphere is stable I verbally invite in Whoever I’d like to share food and drink with. *shrug* I’ve seen some lovely ritual poetry to do this, and if you feel it necessary go with it, but this is family. I tend to speak from the heart and let the chips fall where they may.

3) Show Respect

Share your offering with Them in a meditative silence, listening for Them. I usually take this time to catch the visitor up with whatever’s going on at the time, focusing especially on family gossip and on how what’s happening in my life is affecting me. I’ll ask for advice only if I’m stuck (and accept it gracefully if They offer it regardless). Their perspectives are usually different enough from mine that I get interesting insights into the issues I might not have had before. Just make sure to leave Them time to communicate too.

And just like with the Land Spirits, don’t presume on the association. They’re family, not slaves, and getting demanding with family is a really fast way to find everyone talking about how ungrateful you are and refusing to talk to you. It’s best to just avoid that whole scene.

When the visit is over, sincerely thank Them for sharing with you, and leave it open for a repeat later. If They prompt you with “I’m done” go ahead and dispose of the food and drink outside. If not, leave out on the altar overnight, then dispose of the food and drink outside the next morning.

Continuing the Association

Ancestors are people, and as people there’s more you can do with Them than just say hi over an altar. This is especially true since They are in symbiotic relationships with Their descendants (which, as we’ve covered, includes everyone on Earth). Anything you do to help out your fellow humans helps the Ancestors too. Here are a few ideas.

1) Explore your family tree. Guides on how to do this are all over genealogy websites, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but you can learn all kinds of cool things. I found the Ancestry website to be a great resource for this. Genealogy is also a wonderful way to invite the living members of your family to contribute to your work. My Christian family doesn’t get a lot of what I do, but my super-conservative grandmother was eager to help with this project. I got personal accounts of the people in the genealogy I’d never met, which is something no amount of research could give me. Other sources include letters, diaries, service records, etc.

2) Visit a cemetery where your Ancestors are buried. If you can track locations down this can be a really interesting pilgrimage. The coolest one I did was from New Jersey to middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania awhile back, as I had some family buried at a tiny cemetery there. Standing at the grave of a direct ancestor who died three hundred years ago was thrilling (yes, I have issues). Can’t find a location? Try Find A Grave, which is a database listing millions of cemeteries with information available from the tombstones. I found relatives scattered all over the US! A bonus here is that occasionally the tombstones will fill in holes in the genealogy you didn’t know you had.

3) Speaking of, volunteer with Find A Grave. Figure out, say, the three cemeteries in your area that are easiest for you to get to, register on the site, and volunteer to be a contact person for those cemeteries. People who would like a picture of the headstone but can’t physically get one themselves request a picture. Volunteers then go out to the cemetery, track down the grave, and snap a picture to send to the person requesting it. This helps reunite ancestors with their descendants, which is an amazing offering to make! It’s not very time or labor intensive, either, if that’s a concern.

4) Adopt a local cemetery. There are a sad number of cemeteries across the US that are pretty much ignored. This can be especially true in areas with high population turnovers. So adopt one. Take one day a month to tend the graves, leave flowers or other offerings for the deceased, and read the names of the dead out loud. I don’t get to do this often, but when I do there’s usually one or two graves that for whatever reason catch my attention. I’ll spend extra time there, chatting and communing, and I always feel that the effort to connect is appreciated. As an added note, I know one person who literally adopted a whole cemetery into her ancestral line. The cemetery was incredibly small and overgrown, and she felt that all the people there had been forgotten. So she offered all of Them space on her ancestor altar, and now Those who wanted it are in her line too.

5) Attend funerals for people without families. There are more and more people these days dying with no one – or at least very few people – to attend their funerals. So read the obituaries, and if you can show up and offer respect. If nothing else they lived a life, and that’s not exactly the easiest thing to do. If this becomes something of a calling for you contact local funeral homes – they might be willing to work with you if you explain your purpose, and let you know when a service might be planned that won’t have many attendees. If you can’t make the funeral you can make it a point to visit the grave afterwards and leave flowers.

6) Honor the Ancestors with the community. Unlike many polytheists I tend to honor my Dead at Mabon (often called “the Pagan Thanksgiving”), because that’s a time I associate with honoring my family. It’s not like people cease to be family when they die, so separating the two doesn’t makes sense to me. (I go into more detail about that here.) This can be done at Samhain too, if that makes you more comfy. Simply invite a bunch of people to a potluck to honor the Ancestors. It doesn’t even have to be a ritual, exactly – just sharing food and drink with Them and each other is enough to make it a memorable occasion, as long as They are included. Give Them an area for food and drink offerings, play songs that call specific Ancestors to mind (people can bring CDs or mp3 files they’d like played in memory), and have a good time. Death doesn’t have to be all sad, so having a party works too.

7) Volunteer as an offering. For instance, if Aunt Flora was an English teacher, then volunteering to teach adult literacy classes could easily work as an offering. Think about things like that and see what comes up. Don’t limit yourself, though. ANYTHING that helps out any other person can work as an Ancestor offering, because strengthening the living strengthens the Dead (as long as we remember to include Them). So do it as an offering, and let Them know it’s an offering, and see how much of a difference you can really make out in the world.

Add working with the Ancestors to the routine established with finding your Center and connecting with the Land. If you start feeling overwhelmed, go back to your Center and make sure that’s steady, then add back in your work with the land spirits. When you’re totally stable with those add working with the Ancestors back into your practice. Once you’ve got all three of those elements balanced it’s time to begin working with the Gods – the next-to-last post in this series!

Growing Devotions (Pt 3) – Connecting with the Land

This is the third post in this series. They build on each other, so if you haven’t read them yet here are Part One and Part Two. Don’t worry – I’ll wait for you to catch up.

*waits patiently*

All good? Excellent then! Moving on.

Once we get to know our Selves a bit better, and firm up our internal foundations a bit more, we can start connecting with other entities.

What kinds of entities can we connect with?

Categorizing all the other entities out there – even loosely – is a challenge, and I’ve yet to see a perfect method. I tend to go for more functional definitions, so here are the three basic categories I use when discussing devotional work:

Land Spirits: These are entities in symbiotic relationships with a given place. They nurture and are sustained by locations ranging from a single flower to an entire continent, depending on the entity in question.

Ancestors: These are entities in symbiotic relationships with a bloodline or tribe. They’re also usually dead, but I throw tribal spirits and some totems in here too. These are spirits who nurture and are sustained by a given family lineage, certain families of choice (often grouped by profession or experience, like “cop” or “rejected by family for X reason”), and/or specific clans/tribes within larger cultural groups. Adoption into a line is definitely possible, both before and after death, so the lines aren’t quite as clear-cut as they might seem.

Deities: These are entities in symbiotic relationships with larger cultural groups. They nurture and are sustained by a whole people. Those of us not born into a specific cultural group can almost always “seek citizenship” (although how that happens varies by deity and culture), allowing us to join with a people in a way similar to how individuals get adopted into family lineages.

This classification system is incredibly general, and leaves a lot out, but it’s enough to get us started.

One thing I want to emphasize with these definitions is the symbiotic relationship between each type of Power and Their realm of influence. It’s a critically important idea because that symbiosis is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of a given Power.

If a Land Spirit’s land is tainted or drained or razed for shopping malls the Spirit can fade, which means the land is no longer tended and so energetically fades faster. If a family line forgets to honor their dead the Ancestors can be lost, and the family loses the guidance of and traditional knowledge held by their loved ones. If a people cease to honor their Gods, then those Gods begin losing influence in the world.

With these relationships being symbiotic, we as people also lose out when those relationships weaken.

On the other hand, every act of devotion we do helps anchor and fuel the Powers. This strengthens the land, our families, and humanity as a whole. The devotional work we do literally enriches the world.

That’s a very very big deal.

Over time, as we connect with the entities listed above, we may find ourselves interacting with Powers that don’t easily fit these categories. And that’s ok. This series of posts is a beginning step, not a final word, so feel free to alter things as circumstances change.

Also, notice those definitions don’t mention things like “power” or “strength”. I frankly think that’s a silly reference point. It’s totally subjective, for one, and not really useful besides. (For more detail on why I feel that way check out this post.)

Where should I start?

The foundation of all devotional work is Hospitality. That still holds true. And we really need to pay attention to that, because no matter where we may be it’s time to reciprocate.

Look around. There were Land Spirits living here before our current locations were built, and hopefully there will still be Land Spirits there when we leave. No matter how long we may have been somewhere, we’re the newcomers to Their established places. The resident Spirits are sadly used to being ignored, so They tend to go with a live-and-let-live approach to newcomers, but They know we’re here whether we’ve reached out to Them or not.

If we want to form relationships with Them it’s up to us to get the ball rolling. Time to bake some cakes and visit the neighbors.

Visiting the Land Spirits

For the most part we spend the majority of our time at home and work, so those are the two places I recommend we start connecting with the Land Spirits. We’re already in Their spaces for substantial amounts of time anyway, so it just makes sense.

Improving our relationships with Them can help with everything from keeping the emotional environment calm to always being able to find our keys, and They can help protect us and our spaces too. Eventually, Those most familiar with us can vouch for us when you travel or move (what, you didn’t think They spoke with each other?), which helps things start out on a much friendlier note at the new place.

land spirit

A Domovoi, or household spirit, found in the folklore of Eastern Europe.

The techniques used to meet with Them are fairly similar regardless of location. If you read the post on Hospitality linked above you might find the entries here familiar.

1)      Be Ready to Entertain

If you’re inviting a land spirit to visit you at home, clean your house. The whole house, with a special emphasis on the kitchen and, if you have one, the hearth. Seriously. This has to be your first step. I hope you have a clean house anyway, but house spirits generally cannot abide mess. If They’re bound specifically to your house, and you’re a slob, They will do things like hide your keys and pop light bulbs to try to make you either clean or GTFO. Consequences only get worse from there. If the Land Spirit has enough range to avoid your place, They won’t step foot inside if it’s messy unless it’s to try to screw with you. Make it the kind of place you’d feel comfortable visiting yourself.

If you’re trying to meet Them at work, seek out a good location. If you’ve got a private office you’re golden – simply follow the house rules. Most of us don’t have that option, though, and our work environments range from retail stores to cube farms. If this is your situation hunt around outside for a quiet place, one that would be suitable for a picnic. I always find a fountain or other water source to be a huge plus. If there’s nowhere like that around consider a local park instead.

2)    Offer Food and Drink

I wasn’t joking about baking cakes! Offerings for land spirits can vary, but I recommend home-made if possible, minimally processed, and traditional. Response has been neutral-to-negative when I’ve offered meat of any kind so I avoid it, but dairy seems to be just fine. And it’s hard to go wrong with honey and beer!

Best offerings in my experience? Fresh-baked biscuits with locally-sourced butter, honey, and jam. Fruit cakes. Local wines and ciders. Milk. Every Beltane I hit up Whole Foods and buy a ton of cheeses and breads from around the world, along with juices and wines, as part of a full honoring ritual for Them – that tends to go over beautifully. Hot teas are appreciated, especially herbal ones, but iced teas not so much. I’ve found that a full formal English-style tea is fabulous, too.

Once you’ve decided on what to offer, offer it. I tend to make offerings to Them in my kitchen or dining area at home. If you have a yard, patio, or balcony, consider setting a spot there aside for the Land Spirits. If at work go to wherever you previously picked.

Set out a plate for yourself and a plate full of yummies for Them. Take a moment to find your Center, and from that center send out a spiral of energy into the earth as an invitation. Think of it like a handshake – I like to leave it kind of “hanging” until it’s “grasped”. Once you know They’re present, simply invite Them to share treats and spend some time with you. No need for poetry or whatever – speaking from the heart with sincerity is better.

Outdoor shrine

This is an offering spot set up at the roots of a tree.

3)      Show Respect

Share your offering with them in a meditative silence, listening for Them. Feel free to share some information about yourself that the Spirit may not have, like what you most love about where you currently are. If you love the land you’re on you already have something in common with the entities who live there. Land Spirits are very interested in the “now”, so focus on what’s current when sharing perspectives and news. Just make sure you leave Them time to communicate with you too.

If this is the first time you’ve sought Them out, don’t presume on the association. You’re there to gain friends and allies, not subordinates. Don’t disrespect Them by assuming They’ve been waiting with bated breath for you to give Them permission to adore you and give you things. (Heads up – They haven’t.)

When the visit is over, sincerely thank Them for sharing with you, and leave it open for a repeat later. If They prompt you with “I’m done” go ahead and dispose of the food and drink outside. If not, leave out in a sheltered location overnight, then dispose of the food and drink outside the next morning.

Continuing the Association

Once the ice is broken you’ll want to continue building a rapport. You can of course continue with the offerings above. However, since They are in symbiotic relationships with the land your available offerings are many. Here are a few ideas (in no particular order):

1)      Leave a space in your yard untouched, as a wild space. Another option here is to set up a permanent shrine to the land spirits.

2)      Grow something. Anything. If you’ve got the space you can garden. Growing kitchen herbs you’ll eat is particularly awesome, but an orchid or fern will do. Just get something green. If you don’t get enough light in your place to grow anything, consider aquarium gardens or hydroponic setups. There are even setups specifically designed to grow herbs on counter tops.

3)      Try music. Land spirits in particular seem to love it – think of all the fauns from Greece with pipes! Drumming is good, and I’ve had great results with a penny whistle. I don’t exactly rock at it, but the effort for Their enjoyment is noted and appreciated. A penny whistle is also less than $10, so we’re not breaking the bank either.

faun

This is a faun – with pipes! – at Hillwood in Washington DC. Originally the estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post, Hillwood is now a museum surrounded by extensive gardens. The faun above is on the terrace wall.

4)      Art is another great offering. Perhaps the happiest place land-spirit-wise I’ve ever been was a sculpture garden in New Jersey. Outdoor sculpture works well, but be creative! Variations include land/neighborhood focused graffiti/murals (should you live in an area for it), landscaping, nicely-designed pavers, etc. Even beyond that craft-work in general pleases Them, especially metal working.

5)      Put out feeders for birds and squirrels in the winter. In rural areas consider salt licks for deer. In more urban areas you can put out shelters for stray cats.

6)      If you don’t already recycle, start. Consider composting too. Vermiculture is doable in apartments, so if you’ve an interest there’s a way.

7)      Walk instead of drive when you can. Try carpooling or the local park and ride as eco-friendly alternatives.

8)      Throw a picnic! This is a great way to meet new Land Spirits outside of your home and work zones. Pack a basket of yummies, haul it out to the park, and spend a day communing with the land. This is a great time to break out the drum or penny whistle, too, and works well as an honoring day with other people.

9)      Volunteer at animal rescue organizations, for conservation efforts, at community gardens, for road/neighborhood cleanups, etc. Just keep it local.

10)   Consider where your food comes from. Do what you can to eat locally produced foods, with an emphasis on organics. Move as far away from processed foods as you can, too.

If you get indications that something else is desired as an offering go with it. There were Land Spirits here before people came, and with each wave of immigrants we got a few hardy spirits that traveled with them to establish new ranges. In settled areas there’s no way to tell at the beginning what culture your local Land Spirit might come from, if They are associated with any human culture at all, so you might have to experiment a bit to see what works. The less settled the area, the more likely that the local Spirit is native. And don’t forget that They have personal preferences, too.

Add working with the Land Spirits to the routine established with finding your Center. If you start feeling overwhelmed, go back to your Center and make sure that’s stable, then venture out to the Land Spirits again. When you’re totally stable with this addition to your practice, move on to working with the Ancestors – the next post in this series.

Devotion

This is a different perspective on some of the devotional stuff I’ve been blogging lately, so I thought I’d share!

Spiral Visions

100_4239I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of devotion.  My blogging buddy Caer over at Not All Who Wander Are Lost has just finished a little series on developing a devotional practice.  The work she’s done is deep and useful, but my own explorations of this concept take me in a very different direction.

Caer acknowledges that devotion and worship are closely related words.  I’d add to that list: discipline, commitment, dedication, daily practice, reverence, piety, allegiance and loyalty.  All of these words have clear definitions and what I think of as fuzzy meanings.  They all come charged with our personal relationship with them in our daily lives, in our culture, and in our Spiritual practices.

I read a while back someone speaking about daily practice.  She said that the reason we give for not being successful is that we don’t have discipline.  She didn’t like that because…

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Growing Devotions (Pt 2) – Finding Your Center

Sometimes my Lady yells in my head and is very clear, and at other times She likes to watch me flail around blindly as I find the answer myself. One of the hardest things She’s had me figure out was the whole concept of the Center.

This particular lesson started not long after my formal commitment to Her. For months afterwards I saw these images of wheels within wheels in my head, with me in the middle watching them all turn around me. It was all sci-fi-ish and pretty cool to look at, but I had no idea what it could possibly mean. The closest anything I could find to what I was seeing was an armillary sphere, a device used to represent things like celestial longitude and latitude. Aside from thinking it also resembled atomic structure from high school chemistry classes I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it.

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In my mental pictures, I was where that ball is. And may I just say that moving from “wheel” to “armillary spheres” via Google image search terms took like 3 weeks I’ll never get back.

Wheels are common images in pagan and polytheistic iconography. Most of us are familiar with the 8-spoked Wheel of the Year, the common visual used for the holidays. Anything cyclical is usually visualized as a wheel, and that’s true across many historical periods and cultures.

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This is a Buddhist Wheel of Dharma. Notice anything familiar about it? Yeah, me too.

I turned this over and over and over in my head, trying to make the pieces fit together into something comprehensible. Finally, I realized it wasn’t an answer but a question: with all this talk about wheels, why does no one seem to focus on the hubs?

My Lady laughed at me – seriously, She laughed at me! ABUSE! – and my approach to, well, everything changed.

What is the Center?

Energetically, “centering” means collecting our personal energy into one place to facilitate its use. In a broader sense, it refers to collecting the pieces of our Self into one place, learning to understand how those pieces fit together, and then learning how all that relates to the world.

This is not a new concept. I’ve seen similar ideas mentioned in everything from popular self-help literature to ancient Greek philosophy. The most applicable version I’ve found is the philosophical definition of Authenticity: “the attempt to live one’s life according to the needs of one’s inner being, rather than the demands of society or one’s early conditioning”.

This is all UPG, so it subject to change and clarification. However, from what I’ve gathered our “authentic Self” was perfect and unblemished at birth. However, as we’ve grown our Self has been shattered by external pressures: parental expectations, social structures, emotional pain and loss, self-hatred and self-doubt, etc. This prevents us from reaching our full potential, from growing through this life the way we were meant to. To get ourselves back on track we have to reconstruct our Self by finding all the pieces and fitting them together again, and then using that Self to interact with the world. That Self, that core on which we build our lives, is our Center.

How does finding my Center help me?

Our Center is the core of who we are. By understanding that core we attain a level of internal clarity that makes everything easier. Our lives start falling into place.

I think the biggest reason for that is that our priorities are more obvious, so a lot of decisions kind of make themselves.

I’m really not a quick thinker. I like to plan and prepare, and I turn ideas over in my head before I form opinions. However, I can come across as incredibly decisive. I know what works for me and what doesn’t and I live my life accordingly. Things I used to agonize over are now “meh” because my Center gives me an internal scale with which to evaluate new opportunities or circumstances.

The scale is simple: Does this serve my Center or nurture and fulfill my Self? The more it serves, nurtures, and fulfills me the better it is for me, even if it is the harder path.

With a solid Center we can tell exactly how things in our lives affect us. It’s a lot easier to leave a toxic relationship when we can pinpoint precisely how bad it is for us, and exactly what parts of ourselves we’re starving to maintain it. It’s much easier to seek out fulfilling employment when we understand what parts of us are nurtured by it. All kinds of decisions become simple when living authentically, in alignment with our Centers, because anything against our authentic Self is automatically discarded as a viable option.

Finding our Center also steadies us, like an anchor. Even having the vaguest notion of where our Center might be helps. Without a Center we just drift along in our lives, and the smallest thing can be more than we can handle sometimes. With a Center, though, those things go from overwhelming to manageable. I’m not saying that there will be no more pain and loss – those are just as necessary as joy – but that dealing with them and moving on becomes a much simpler process.

And a bonus, for the more Ceremonially trained out there: we as humans are just as cyclic as everything else in the world. Think about the implications of that in terms of sympathetic magic. Once we find our Center we can learn to step from that Center to the center of any other Wheel out there. And once we step we can affect.

Isn’t THAT an intriguing thought?

How does all of this connect to the Powers?

Finding the Center is good for anyone, but especially when establishing and maintaining relationships to the Powers. It’s only when we find our Centers that we can truly reach out beyond ourselves and offer something with meaning. *shrug* Which I know sounds a bit sappy, but there it is nonetheless.

Before we reassemble our Centers we’re more like Frankenstein than we’d like to think. Our Selves are cobbled together, a patchwork we’ve created from all the external pressures that broke our sense of Self in the first place. There’s very little of our authentic Self in that.

Devotions are all about connection, right? Well, if we don’t have much “us” to connect with, a connection is harder to forge.

Think of the Center as a radio. It both emits a frequency the Powers can hear and hears a frequency They send out. Every piece of Self that we uncover and work with increases our radio’s range and signal clarity. Since we want to connect with Them, it’s in our own best interests to use the strongest radio available.

Ok, I’m convinced. So how do I do it?

Finding our Center, reassembling those shattered pieces of Self, takes regular, dedicated, hard, and slow work. It requires self-reflection, introspection, and an often brutal honesty with ourselves. And there are so MANY pieces to find!

I’ve listed a few of my favorite techniques below. I’m not going to go into detail with them because there is already a ton of information out there on the listed topics, but if you have any specific questions feel free to ask in the comments.

Practice Self-Awareness

Instead of blindly accepting how we feel about something, how we think about a given topic, or our reasons for doing something, we need to check in with ourselves and ask why. Why do we cry watching Lilo and Stitch? Why do we think anyone who likes classic rock is a fascist? Why are we so utterly bored that we’re counting the number of dried beans in a bag just for something to do?

“Because” is not an acceptable answer. Neither is “that’s how the world works”. We have to hold ourselves accountable for our answers. If the answer that immediately springs to mind seems like a lame cop-out it probably is. Dig deeper.

I used to get furious when someone was late, especially if they were picking me up from somewhere. I’ve never been the type to “do” anger, so it was quite a shock. Then I started asking myself why. Why did I get so mad at that, and nothing else? My first answer – “because I deserve basic respect, dammit!” – was true as far as it went but felt hollow, so I continued to dig. Then I realized that I was angry to hide being scared, and I was scared because I had abandonment issues stemming from childhood trauma. That answer felt real, felt solid. Once I recognized those abandonment issues I realized they pushed me off my Center. So I set about ditching them. It took awhile, and I still appreciate punctuality, but now I no longer froth at the mouth if someone is 10 minutes late and hasn’t called me yet.

Practicing self-awareness starts with paying attention to what goes on in our own heads. This is something to do all day, every day. If remembering to check in with yourself is a problem, set an alarm for a random time. When it goes off, stop whatever you’re doing and ask yourself: “what am I feeling/thinking/doing, and why am I feeling/thinking/doing that?”

Establish a Meditation Practice

Practicing self-awareness helps us catch the issues that come up during the day. Meditation helps us catch issues that come up when our minds are calm and focused, and gives us a chance to really analyze issues we might find troubling. A common visualization for meditation is a still and silent pool – meditation gives us a chance to see what might surface from the deep.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here, because there’s a lot out there on this topic, but establish a meditation practice. It takes about 20 minutes a day, and the results are more than worth it. Meditation practice now will also go a long way with helping connect to the Powers later.

Track Your Dreams

I’m vastly simplifying here, but for our current purposes dreams are where your mind plays with the things that came up throughout the day and works on sorting it all out, often through symbolism. Noting dreams can help us notice recurring trends, common imagery, and significant concepts in our lives. This is nothing but helpful.

Keep a notebook by the bed (or do what I do and use the memo feature on your phone). Upon waking up in the morning write down whatever you dreamed. Note anything that sticks out – colors, numbers, emotions, whatever. Every few weeks flip through your records and see if you notice any trends. Then meditate on them to figure out why they’re present.

Journal

Write everything down. Write down what you figured out from your self-awareness exercises. Write down what came up during meditation. Write down what you dream about. Set aside time every day to write down whatever comes to you as you journal. After a few weeks or months go back through your journal and see if you can find common threads. Journal, journal, journal.

Some people separate these journals out, some put them in different sections of a tabbed binder, and some use a blank book and just go to town. Use whatever works for you.

Are we ever done?

Not really. Growth is change, and the more we ditch that what’s unhealthy for us the more pieces of our Selves we find.

Here’s a litmus test to determine whether or not you’re on the correct path though, via my Lady:

Is your external life all chaos and drama, while inside you’re either totally numb or feeding on the drama? Then you’re not where you need to be. Figure out what the problem is using the techniques above and fix it.

Is your external life manageable and your inner life vibrantly alive and engaged with what’s going on? Then you are where you need to be, so maintain where you’re at for as long as you can.

Ask this every day as you meditate – it’s surprisingly helpful!

Feeling pretty Centered? Ready to reach out as well as in? Time to add some Land Spirits to the mix!

Growing Devotions (Pt 1) – Understanding Devotions

Establishing a regular devotional practice is one of the most important – and definitely most basic – things a polytheist can do to honor their faith and the Powers with which they engage. It can also be one of the most challenging things to wrap our heads around. Those of us who have any experience with devotional traditions are usually more familiar with seeing that work handled by specialists if we ever see it done at all, and those of us with no devotional tradition to draw on are completely lost.

Sometimes it’s not that we don’t want to do the work, we simply don’t know what work to do.

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Ok, I’ve made this gorgeous altar – NOW what?

That’s actually ok. Not knowing where to start offers a fabulous opportunity to build a practice from the ground up that meets our needs.

Often we just need to get a handle on something to figure out our approach. Consider this series of posts your handle on devotions. I’m not claiming to be an expert, and my approach is in no way Trad/pantheon/culture/deity specific (outside of a little Celtic cosmology). However, it will get you started on a set of basic devotions that can be easily modified as needed or desired.

Before we talk about how to do them, though, we need to understand what they are.

What are Devotions?

“Devotion” is defined as “a feeling of strong love or loyalty”. “Devotions”, plural, are defined as “prayer, worship, or other religious activities done in private, rather than in a religious service”.

The words are related. After all, if we’re engaging in religious activities of  our own volition in the privacy of our own homes then obviously we feel strong love or loyalty to some aspect of our practice.

And yet it goes beyond that. Do you remember the movie Dogma? In one scene Bethany talks to a coworker about going to church:

Coworker: “Does [going to church] do anything for you?”
Bethany: “It gives me time to balance my checkbook every week.”
Coworker: “That’s what I’m saying. People don’t go to church to feel spiritual anymore.”
Bethany: “They go to church and feel bored.”

What Bethany’s missing is a sense of engagement. The types of traditional religious services most of us are familiar with don’t really have one. The priest lectures the crowd, maybe a choir sings, and attendees either pay attention to the guy at the front or fall asleep.

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This is not the face of a woman enthralled with what she’s doing.

Devotions are more personal, more one-and-one, and more engaging than the typical church model, and that’s a profound change is perspective.

As a hard polytheist I accept that the Powers with Whom I work are distinct individuals outside of me and that I can interact with Them. That’s fundamental – it’s what separates a hard polytheist from the other types of theists out there.

I know that if I listen, They will speak and I will eventually understand. That as long as I reach out, They will grasp my hand. That if I make time for Them, clear space in my day for Them, that They will fill up the empty places.

That’s what devotions do – they make space for the Powers to fill.

Why Should I Care?

Prioritizing a relationship with the Powers, nurturing a connection with Them, simply makes our lives better. To take it even further, by connecting with the Powers we connect with ourselves, each other, and our world in a deeper and more meaningful way.

So let’s break that down.

Connecting with the Powers Makes Our Lives Better

When I started out on this path 20 years ago damn near every book I found aimed at newbies assumed that most people were kind of lost and miserable. They were essentially magickal cookbooks – complete with lists upon lists of necessary tools and ingredients – with a veneer of faith kind of tacked on at the end. People would do the magick, notice an improvement in whatever area the magick addressed, and then have to keep doing the magick to keep the momentum going. It was a never-ending circle of “magick magick everything!”.

All this magick had to be constantly redone because it never dealt with the actual problem. Because the reason all these people were unhappy and unfulfilled? They were living out of balance with the Powers, and had spiritually advanced just enough to realize it but not enough to know what it meant or how to fix it. They were using magick to impose balance from the outside, and that never holds for long.

It’s been said that all blessings flow from Them. I don’t know if I’ll go quite that far – people have agency too, and sometimes good things randomly happen. However, I will say that the more balanced my relationships with Them become, and the more I trust where They lead me, the less magick I do. There’s no reason for me to go through a whole rigamarole when I just have to accept the multitude of gifts They offer. Nowadays the most I do is charge water with healing when I’m sick and do shielding work.

That’s not just me, either. As I’ve helped my students develop a more devotional relationship with the Powers I’ve watched their use of magick drop steadily too.

I sincerely believe – and have seen demonstrated – that a life lived in balance with the Powers is a life that works. Who doesn’t want that?

Connecting with the Powers Connects Us to Everything Else

I think many of us wrestle with feeling disconnected from the world around us. As a society we’re often closer to the people we watch on TV than we are to our neighbors, we check our phones for the weather instead of opening a window, and phone/computer interfacing often substitutes for face-to-face interaction. Polytheists have an extra disadvantage here, because our community is so scattered that getting together with like-minded people who share our worldview can be very rare indeed. Feeling disconnected and adrift is totally understandable, but can be harmful to us long-term. Fostering a connection with the Powers anchors us.

Through our connections with the Land Spirits we connect to the present moment, to our bodies, to the environment, to the wind and the rain and the dirt under our feet. By connecting with the Ancestors we connect to a sense of history, to the realization that humanity really is interdependent, to every heartbeat of every person who has ever lived. Connecting with the Gods connects us to possibility and growth and change, to the joy and price of knowledge, to hopes and visions and futures.

And every single devotional act we do deepens those connections.

Even better, the more individuals find their personal balance with the Powers, the closer humanity as a whole gets to balancing with the Powers. That improves things for everyone.

Really, I think the question here is not why should we care about doing devotions, but how can we not?

Approaching Devotions

The most common approach I’ve seen beginners take to developing a devotional practice seems to be going at it piece-meal, a little of this from over here and a bit of that from over there. A collage is created from different sources – even different cultures – that is in no way cohesive. The practices may even conflict, and trying to make them all fit together, and then fit into our modern life, often robs them of the very things we found appealing about them in the first place.

The biggest issue with the collage approach is that rarely do we have a cultural frame for what we use. Traditional devotional practices mirror cultural aspects even the traditional practitioners may have consciously forgotten. When we adopt a practice without understanding it, we also risk cultural appropriation. That’s never a good thing, but it’s especially bad when applied to our devotional work.

Luckily we have alternatives. Instead of acting like magpies and stealing anything shiny we can instead approach this in one of two ways.

1)      We can do our very best to reconstruct ancient practices from a specific culture, relying on all the hard data available and judiciously filling in gaps with culturally-similar practices as appropriate, even if we don’t fully understand why a specific practice was significant.

2)      We can learn the underlying philosophies of a specific culture as best we can and then develop a devotional practice based on those ideas, even if the specific practices themselves are historically incorrect.

For me it basically comes down to a decision between practice leading to understanding or understanding leading to practice. Both approaches have their issues and neither is inherently better than the other. I tend to go more with the second because that’s how my head works. I recommend going whichever way works with your head.

My Approach

I work within a mostly Celtic cosmology of Land/Sea/Sky. My symbol for that is the triquetra:

Apologies for my basic usage of Paint.

Apologies for my basic usage of Paint.

Here we see Land, Sea, and Sky – for devotional purposes Land Spirits, Ancestors, and Gods – all balanced out in this lovely flower shape. The circle on the outside further connecting the Three Realms symbolizes movement, the energy flowing between them.

And that red splotch in the center? That’s each individual person around whom the Realms spin. (That is not to say that humans are the center of everything, because they’re not. But for now we’re focusing on one individual human perspective.)

Think of each person as the hub of their own Wheel. They are the center point around which everything in their life turns. That center needs to be steady and strong to get everything spinning correctly.

So the first step of my approach to devotions focuses on helping us find a solid place within themselves on which to balance everything else. We have to find and maintain their Centers. This is key. Because each Center is in a different place, the balance we find with each of the Realms will be different too. My approach is all about striking an individual balance, as opposed to some sort of one-size-fits-all practice.

Once we sort out our Centers, we can then establish connections to the entities already sharing our physical space – the Land Spirits – and get comfortable with maintaining those relationships. When that’s stable we can add in a connection to our Ancestors, and learn how to keep all of those relationships stable simultaneously. When the Center and established connections are strong, then we can establish connections with the Gods and balance everything together.

Achieving balance between and within the Three Realms is imperative. It takes real dedication, and this work is ever really finished. It’s not a “done once, done forever” kind of deal. Our Centers can change, requiring rebalancing. Things from the outside can make us bobble somewhere, which means we have to fine-tune the whole system again. Things with which we balance ourselves – jobs and relationships and and health, for instance – can change with our without our consent and result in a system overhaul.

Thankfully balance is, in some ways, a self-regulating system. The more balanced everything is, the harder it is to lose the balance. What once sent our whole world into a tailspin can become something more easily juggled, because it’s just one thing as opposed to everything. We’re no longer establishing the balance, we’re simply maintaining it. And practicing that balance every day gives us the skills we need to cope with variables that bobble the system.

It might sound complicated. I promise, it’s really not. I’ll take us through each one of these steps, one by one, with lots of detail. Each will get their own post, giving me space to really go into detail for each. A final post will tie it all neatly together and provide tips on establishing a regular practice that works when time, money, and energy are all limited. I’ll also provide my perspective on how to tweak these basics to suit whatever devotions will best support your personal practice.

Good here? Time to move on to finding your Center!