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Devotional Mindfulness

I’m mulling over this post from over at Gangleri’s Grove. I didn’t directly reblog the piece because this is only tangentially related, but it’s excellent food for thought and i do recommend you go read it.

When i was practicing something-like-Hinduism, a mantra was a major part of my practice. I used to mentally repeat my mantra when i woke up in the morning and went to bathe, during the beginning of meditation (sometimes throughout my entire meditation; it depended on what i was doing), while i cooked or cleaned or folded clothes or brushed my teeth or dried my hair, while i exercised, while i did archery… I also made an effort to mentally repeat my mantra as i went to sleep at night. In short, i structured my day around my mantra. Any moment i could, i brought my attention back to those words.

The only time i specifically didn’t use my mantra was when i was supposed to be giving something my full attention—in a conversation with another person, for example. Part of honouring the Divine is honouring the Divine in other living beings, so that seemed like an appropriate circumstance to set down the mantra.

After doing this for several years, that mantra—that short series of words—became deeply embedded in my brain. It became the background music of my mind, running in a constant loop. Every moment my mind-chatter went quiet, i heard that. It was my go-to internal monologue whenever i felt angry or sad or frightened (or peaceful or joyful, for that matter). I centred myself on those words.

But then i stopped being something-like-Hindu. I stopped devoting myself to one Power to the exclusion of all others. And more than that, i’d completely changed pantheons: A mantra dedicated to a Hindu deva no longer seemed to fit, now that i found myself predominantly devoted to Powers in the Norse pantheon. The mantra—my mantra—no longer fit my practice. After dithering for a while, i decided it was best that i set the mantra aside.

It’s left a hole in my practice, though. It hasn’t entirely gone away, for starters: In moments of intense emotion, my old mantra still sometimes drifts to the forefront of my mind, ill-fitting though it now is. And it’s become something like a drug that’s lost its potency, no longer offering the comfort and anchoring feeling it once did. It’s just…words, words connected to memories that, while the pain of them is softening, they feel ever more distant.

Some Pagans i know like to recite the various bynames of their Beloveds as a kind of mantra; there’s also the possibility of something like lectio divina, or Eknath Easwaran’s method of passage meditation. I do make a habit every day of reciting my own adaptation of Sigdrifa’s prayer, and i’ve dabbled a little bit in writing short prayers of my own that could be suited to mantra practice and/or repetitive prayer. But so far nothing has felt quite “right” in the same way.


The Rider

In the halls of my heart there comes a Rider to the door.
I thirst, says He. What would you give Me to drink?

They say He eats no food, but only drinks
I would encourage you not to take that too literally
If you’re not careful, He will gladly gulp you down

I’m not necessarily saying you should be careful

If you part your lips with words of thanksgiving
He will drink His name from the cup of your mouth
He will swallow your sighs and supplications
And breathe Himself into the hollows left behind

If you open your flesh to Him in ecstasy
He will sink His teeth into you and drink you dry
Swilling down the sweet and fiery heat of you
And licking His lips in feral satisfaction

If you bare it to Him in ardent offering
He will gently lap the honey from your heart
Like a babe at his mother’s breast
Love made liquid, self-emptying reverence

Be mindful how you pour yourself out
Before offering up the stirrup-cup
For what the Hunter takes into Himself, He keeps
Twining you into His breath and blood and bone


Original Nature

Edit: Sorry this post disappeared after i initially posted it. Something had gone rather spectacularly wrong with the formatting, and i needed a couple minutes to sort it out. Yay technology!

I went to the Rune-Finder to ask for guidance. I’d become stuck in a mire, and unsure how to get out.

“Why isn’t this working? Where should i be looking? What should i be doing?”

He shows me a rune. (I suppose i shouldn’t be surprised)

“Uruz. ‘Strength’? I need more strength?”

He shakes his head, long dark hair streaked with silver swaying.

Ur, He corrects.

“I don’t understand.”

His gaze is twice as sharp, for having only one eye.

What is your original nature?

(This is why i never took jukai in Zen. Koans make me want to pull my lower lip up over the top of my head and then swallow.)

“I don’t understand what You’re asking.”

There is a braid in His hair; he twines it between two fingers, His head tilted thoughtfully to one side.

Before you began listening to the voices of others telling you who you ‘should’ be, who were you? Before family and friends and society began to heap high the burden of expectation that bends you now, when you could still stand straight-backed and look in the mirror and see—not everyone else’s hopes and fears, their desires for achievement by proxy and vicarious worth—just your own fledgeling self, with all its abundant promise. Just you. Who were you then?

I don’t cry in front of many people. It was taught to me very early that tears are a shame and a weakness, a failing, a flaw that if it cannot be destroyed should at the very least be hidden. But i’ve never hidden tears from Him; even if it were possible, it’s never occurred to me to try. His gaze softens only slightly.

I will not tell you who to be; you’ve had far too much of that already. But I will ask, who do you think you are?

“We are our deeds, aren’t we? But if i haven’t done anything worthwhile with my life, then that makes me nobody. I’ve wasted—”

He says nothing, and the look He gives me isn’t even remotely angry. It doesn’t need to be.

The words die and i fall to my knees because in this moment something shifts in Him, and i am resoundingly reminded that my Gods are many, but He is my King.

I do not ask who you want to be, who you would choose to be. You no longer know how to answer that question honestly; your wishes for yourself are so entwined with the internalised desires and expectations of others that you cannot separate them now. This is not necessarily bad—but, He adds with an almost-smile, it has become too much noise. You can no longer hear your own voice over the din inside your head.

“But how can i know what to do when i don’t even know what i want?”

Who you want to be is not the right question, yet. Who are you, right now?

Before i can even begin to go through the litany of identities in my head—who my parents are, who my spouse is, what i studied, where i’ve lived, where i’ve worked, and so on—He waves it all away.

Before all that; beneath all that. Who are you when there are no voices telling you who to be, when no one is watching? What is your first thought when you wake? What is your first feeling, before your mind remembers what you ‘should’ feel? What are you like when you are unafraid? Who are you when you don’t mean to be? What do you do when you cannot help it?

I am brought back to my feet, a weathered hand so large it makes me feel small pressed to the back of my neck, a heavy brow bending down to touch my own. He breathes; i breathe.

Begin there.


Breath and Blood

Greetings intrepid readers! Apologies for the very long hiatus; my husband and i recently moved from the US to the UK, and it’s taken me a little while to get settled in. I’m woefully behind on everyone’s blogs, but i promise to start catching up quickly. I wanted to come back to my Internet kindred with a gift in hand, so i thought i’d share a meditation I’ve been toying with lately.

A few years ago, i came across a meditation taught by a Hindu from the bhakti tradition (i.e., the branch of Hinduism that focuses on cultivating a devotional relationship with one’s ishta-devata). I’ve since expanded and adapted this meditation to suit my own practice. Give it a try, and see if it’s something that resonates with you.


Consider for a moment the creation of Ask and Embla from Völuspá:

Önd þau né átto,
óð þau né höfðo,
lá né læti
né lito góða;
önd gaf Óðinn,
óð gaf Hœnir,
lá gaf Lóðurr
oc lito góða.

Breath had they not,
Feeling had they not,
Nor flowing blood,
Nor comely hues.
Breath gave Óðinn,
Feeling gave Hœnir,
Blood gave Lóðurr
And comely hues.

(I know my translation’s a little loose, but i think it’s defensible)

Many cultures see the soul as being intertwined with the physical breath (önd, like Greek pneuma and Latin anima, carries a primary meaning of breath, and a secondary meaning of spirit/soul), with the soul entering the body on the first breath and leaving on the last. It’s no mistake that the word inspiration etymologically stems from the act of drawing a breath: Those things (or Powers) which inspire us literally breathe into us. It is the gift of Their breath which enlivens us, impassions us, compels us.

We know humans didn’t start as two chunks of wood on the seaside that three Gods felt compelled to turn into sentient hominids—anymore than the sky is the skull of a slain giant being held up by four Dwarfs. As modern Pagans, it’s sometimes hard to know what to do with the myths, these “just-so stories” that just ain’t so; we cast them aside, relegate them to something vague we call “the Mythic Past”, and with a bit of uncomfortable throat-clearing we move on.

Don’t.

The stories are true, and they are not-true. They are untruths that tell the truth about the Powers, about the world, and about ourselves. You breathe because the interstitial muscles tug at your ribs and pull the mostly-nitrogen of the atmosphere inside of you; you breathe because your ancient ancestors evolved the ability to convert poisonous oxygen into cell-fuel, and now the animal life of modern Earth reaps the benefits of that bizarre mutation; you breathe because you were born, because today you are alive. And you breathe because you have been given breath, because it is a gift from the Gods to you.

Don’t leave the story of Ask and Embla gathering dust on a mental shelf, filed away as an illuminating bit of old fiction without effect on your own life. It is your life. It isn’t only that Odin gave the first breath to the first humans; it isn’t even that He gave you your first breath upon entering this life and this world. It is every breath, from first to last.

Sit and feel the air moving in and out of your lungs—this breath, right now—as a gift, freely given, from the Divine. And don’t think of “breath” as some vague abstraction. Odin didn’t give the gift of önd by chanting some runes or waving a magic wand (though those images might be more comfortable, terrified as we often are by intimacy): He gave breath to those first humans by putting His mouth to theirs and breathing into them.

Some cultures and languages refer to kissing poetically as “sharing breath”; that’s exactly what it is. Try to sit with that image, try to experience it that way: It is not you breathing in; it is the Beloved breathing into you. Try to conceive of the simple act of breathing as such an act of intimacy shared between lover and Beloved. Every breath.


The Hindu meditation i originally learned taught to begin by focusing on the sensation of one’s heart—the physical heart, the tireless organ thumping away in your chest. We know how the physical heart actually works, the interplay of muscles and nerves and neurotransmitters and so on. This meditation comes from a time when we didn’t know—but, just as with the true-and-not-true nature of myths and lore, that doesn’t really matter.

Sit for a moment and simply attend to the feeling of your own heartbeat inside your chest. (If you can’t feel it easily, you can lay a hand on your chest, or feel for a pulse-point in your wrist or neck) Many people find just the act of attending to their own heart makes it change, speeding up or slowing down. For some it’s calming; for others it feels uncomfortably vulnerable. Some don’t really have a response; it just is. However you personally react is fine.

Excluding the occasional, very exceptional individual, the vast majority of people experience their physical heart as being beyond their control. Your body “remembers” to breathe without you when you’re busy attending to other things, but you can choose to exert conscious control over your breathing when you want to—this is what makes speaking and singing possible (potential content for a lengthy meditation on Odin, but that’s an aside we’ll have to save for another time…).

But the heart is something different. Even if you focus the entirety of your mind and will upon it, that will not enable you to control it. You can sometimes influence it indirectly, by virtue of what you choose to think or do or say (making yourself more calm or more agitated, for example); but ultimately your heart is beyond the reach of your will. It does as it does, obeying its own inexorable laws with or without your consent. It’s not surprising, then, that we sometimes feel as though our hearts are being compelled by a force outside ourselves: We often speak of intense emotions seeming to squeeze it, pierce it, break it. We speak of experiences that make it tremble, hammer, or race. There is a feeling that our own hearts are not really our own.

Take a moment and come back to the physical sensation of your heart. Feel it expanding and contracting, pushing the blood through your body. Our ancestors must have marvelled at that sensation: laying a hand over it, feeling the ebb and flow of their own life-force rolling on without either their understanding or control. How strange it feels to have something be so intimately yours and yet not, utterly indifferent to your own will, driven by some unseen and unnamed force.

To some Hindus, that force was conceived of as Divine. The heart was understood to be a muscle; but unlike every other muscle in the body, no act of human will could compel it. So then it was reasoned it must be the Divine Will that drives it. But again, like the gift of Odin’s breath, this was not thought of in an abstract way. Rather, it was envisioned as a  pair of Divine hands wrapped around every heart, carefully guiding its every movement from birth to death. Every beat of every heart guided by careful and loving, unseen hands, willed by an incomprehensible Power—both infinitely above and beyond the physical world, and yet also entangled in it with an intimacy beyond words.

This meditation originally comes from a monistic theology, but there is no reason it cannot be adapted by those of us in a more polytheistic frame of mind. Odin needn’t be the Power you conceive of as Breath-Giver. The Beloved, however you personally understand that term, is the Breath-Giver and Blood-Mover. The Beloved can be one, or many, or all.

The lore—whichever lore you hold—is true-and-not-true. You breathe because your ribs move and your chest expands and your lungs fill with air, and you breathe because the Beloved breathes into you. Your heart beats because a complex dance of nerves and muscles and neurotransmitters drives it, and your heart beats because the Beloved has it carefully in hand. Every moment of every day, awake or asleep, the Beloved is mouth-to-mouth with you, buried up to the wrist in you. You live because it is willed that you should live; because the Beloved ardently desires it be so. That is both true and not-true.

St. Augustine is often quoted as saying, “God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves”. But the original Latin, i think, suggests something a bit stronger, a bit more (frighteningly, thrillingly) intimate: Deus intimior intimo meo. I think a good paraphrase for our purposes might be, “the Beloved is more intimate with us than we are with ourselves”.


So the goal of this meditation is to see your life through this lens: that the Beloved moves your breath and your blood. That the Beloved is the source and sustenance of every moment of your life.  Now here’s the part where it gets interesting:

You are the same to Them.

Consider what Divine lips hang on yours, waiting for the next breath to be given. Consider what Divine heart rests trustingly laid in the palms of your hands, unable to move except by your leave.

To paraphrase from the Christian tradition, we live through, and with, and in the Gods. But likewise They live through, and with, and in us. They are our Elder Kin, bound as much to us as we are to Them. W/we sustain each other; W/we inspire each other. We are the breath and blood of the Gods, as They are to us.

From the Gods to the earth to us
From us to the earth to the Gods
A gift for a gift.


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