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.
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.