ReBeginner’s Mind, Part 2: Sit!

It’s so funny, and so very human, that the very things that would help us the most during times of crisis are the first things to go when crisis hits. 

When our lives start to merrily unspool in our hands, what do we immediately stop doing?  That’s right – all the self-care, spiritual work, and healthy habits that we started to support us and make our lives better.  We stumble around the underpinning of our lives with a pair of scissors and cut apart our own safety net.

I used to find this infuriating…okay, I used to, and I still do.  But it’s easier to cope with knowing it isn’t just me.  Nearly everyone I know does it at some point.  As we get older and wiser (assuming we do the latter), we figure out ways to get back on the ship faster after jumping it, but we still jump it. 

The idea of “spiritual practice” was a loaded term for me for a really long time because of how much of my teaching and writing career once hinged on the concept.  A pretty huge chunk of my daily life was devoted (pun intended) to my religion, so when the time came to start slowly reclaiming that part of myself, at first I was seriously daunted at the thought of shouldering all that again.

Then it hit me:  As I said in my last post, I am not obligated to do anything I used to do.  Nobody was watching; nobody had to know about it unless I wrote about it (you know, like I am now). I certainly didn’t owe anyone a pantomime of faith.  And since I had no idea what I really wanted out of this new thing, or what it was going to look like, I decided to strip it back to the very, very basic.

I sat the hell down.

The cool thing about meditation is that it doesn’t ask anything in particular of you.  There are all sorts of ways to do it; it can be secular or spiritual and fit in with any established or untrodden path; it takes no special tools and, to begin with, very little time, but you can build on it endlessly, adding any trappings or symbology to which you personally groove. 

And even if you come to realize that there is no religion for you, and that you don’t believe in any sort of Whatever from High Atop the Thing (which I shall henceforth refer to as WHAT), meditation can still be enormously beneficial for your mental and physical health.  

Our entire society is made up of talking balls of barely-contained fear and anxiety wearing shoes.  A little calm and relaxation each day is good brain hygiene for all human creatures regardless of creed.

At first I aimed for five minutes of sitting still and watching my breath, but as happens with many people, my wee squirrel brain wandered off in search of random thought-nuts.  I couldn’t even get ten breaths in without losing track!  

Then I read an amazing book by Sally Kempton called Meditation for the Love of It that proposes meditating not just because of its myriad benefits, but because it feels good.  I devoured the book and made copious notes, then hunted down audio versions of her exercises and some additional guided meds that she’s done.  I adopted several very important techniques that have been tremendously useful in my practice:

1.  Mark the edges.  When you sit down and get ready to meditate, declare to yourself, “Everything that happens for the next fifteen minutes is part of my meditation.”  This means that every distraction, every false start, and every insight is just part of the practice, not a personal failing.  It’s all part of the process, all part of what you’re here to learn.  Nothing is wasted.  Even if you sit there for fifteen minutes (or however long) unable to get your brain away from Jason Momoa’s mighty abs, you sit there, and you mentally mark the beginning and end of the session.

2.  Name your thoughts but don’t run after them.  Whenever you catch yourself meandering, just say to yourself, “Thinking.”  Name what you’re doing and bring your mind gently back to your breath.  Don’t judge yourself; just go back to meditating, every time it happens.  Call it “thinking” and come back to one.

3.  If you need to move something, move it.  Leg asleep?  Move your leg!  Itchy? Scratch it!  Trust me, you’ll waste far more energy and blow your concentration way harder trying to ignore your body than to just gently work with it.  Don’t make a thing of it, just scratch your butt and keep going.

4. Start small.  Five minutes every day is better than an hour once a month.  It’s those little habits done over and over that add up to big changes.  I find that fifteen is a good stretch for me right now; I hope to eventually reach an hour a day, but I’m in no hurry.  There is no hurry.  You’re not in a competition.  There’s no Best Meditator ribbon unless you give it to yourself.  

My usual method is to select a video from my YouTube meditation playlist, sit on my bed, and stay there until the video finishes.  You can search for “10 minute meditation timer” or “meditation music” and you’ll find lots of options; feel free to peruse my playlist as well, though everything there is around 15 minutes. 

Some of the videos have pretty nature footage, some are a still screen, some a black screen; I meditate with my eyes shut so it doesn’t really matter which I use.  There’s chanting, nature sounds, wa-wa-New Age stuff, all sorts of instrumentals, even silence punctuated with a bell.  YouTube is invaluable for meditators.

If I’m feeling particularly agitated when I sit down, I often do a progressive relaxation, which you can also find on YouTube but you don’t really need a guide for.  Just bring your attention to one body part at a time, starting with your feet and moving up.  Name that body part and let it know it can relax.  “My ankles can relax…”  or “My knees are relaxed…”  Or something more mystical, such as, “My toes are at peace.”  Go up through your whole body (be as specific as you want – you don’t have to name internal organs or anything unless it pleases you to do so) and imagine each part releasing pent-up tension, allowing you to relax and your mind to unclench.

I typically don’t attach any particular spiritual decoration to my meditation sessions – I save that for actual altar work, which we’ll talk about next.  I don’t sit at my altar every night, but I try to meditate every night sitting on my bed. 

Do whatever you need to do to make it easy and convenient to meditate, especially at first; start with the most stripped-down version of the practice you can, in the most accessible place and position you can.  Sit in a chair if the floor is a problem.  Sit on your bed before you go to sleep.  Make it part of your winding-down ritual after brushing your teeth.  Sit at your desk, in your recliner in the living room.  Sit in your car before work if that’s the only ten minutes you can find.  Sit in the morning, or at night, or during your lunch break. 

Just sit.

Then the next day do it again.  

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ReBeginner’s Mind, Step One:

The first thing you have to do is show up.

I have an illness that makes me depressed.**  Part of “depressed” is an inability to do things – either an inability to start because I am too tired/too sad/don’t care, or an inability to repeatedly do things because I’m too tired/too sad/why bother.  For people like me, showing up is not only vitally important, it’s often damn near impossible.  A lot of things in my life, from getting my car inspected to doing the dishes, become far more than day to day adulting tasks.  They become a mess of inertia and paralyzation, with all the guilt and embarrassment that come from looking “lazy.”

(I am also lazy.  But that’s beside the point.)

What do I mean by showing up?  I mean doing the thing.  Not just reading ten books on spiritual practice and writing down in your planner “do the thing,” but DOING THE THING.  

You see, not actually showing up for my practice is part of how it all fell apart in the first place.  All the good intentions in the world do you zero good if your actions don’t line up with them.  Like I tell people who insist that someone who acts like a complete asshole is “a good person underneath it all,” who the hell cares what they are underneath?  A “good person” who is okay with treating people badly and also being a giant hypocrite is not, in my view, much of a person.  Our actions are what affect others.  That is the mark we leave on the world, and no “good person” wants that mark to be a bruise.  Or, to misquote my grandmother, have good intentions in one hand and shit in the other, see which hand fills up first.

Don’t get me wrong:  Intention is important, because it’s the first spark that leads you to action.  Remembering why you’re doing something can keep you invested, and reminds you that there is a greater purpose to what may at times be a less than thrilling routine.  However, in and of itself intention doesn’t get you very far in terms of actual real-world results or, hell, even astral results.  You have to do the pathworking.  Cast the spell.  Do the meditation.  Do the yoga.  Chant the mantra.  And more importantly you have to keep doing it.

Just writing all those verbs is exhausting.

The aggravating truth is that one great ritual a month can’t hold a candle (pun intended) to the transformative power of fifteen minutes of spiritual practice done every day for a full month.   

Sure, that one ritual may blow the roof off your chakras, but then you have four weeks of ordinary time, during which mundane life gets in the way and that ritual’s power dims little by little.  By the time you reach the next Full Moon you’re running on empty again.  If, however, you do a little every day, those smaller effects build up – but they also stay with you, because there’s less time between for you to forget what you’ve learned.  

Even better, those everyday acts of reverence that slowly build your practice make the Big Time Rituals even more effective because you’re already primed for them.  If you live your spirituality every day, you’ll be on the lookout for inspiration and ready to receive it.  You’ll be able to absorb those states of grace more fully than if you were just hit with them once in a while with nothing in between.

Trust me, this is something I know about, even if it’s been years since I fully lived it, and to be totally honest I’m not there again yet.  I’m working my way toward the kind of practice I once had, but after so much life and so many experiences that practice does not look like it did back then, nor would I want it to.  Your spiritual practice should grow like a living thing and adapt to who you evolve into.  

Remember this, because it’s very important: The way you show up for yourself and Spirit now will not be the way you showed up ten years ago or even six months ago.   You have to let go of the image of who you were the last time you had a spiritual life or belief system.  You have to release that version of you, because she’s done her job, and so did her practice.  

It’s time to let now be now.  Again, this is a painful thing I’ve learned:  The path I was on once, the Circles I was part of, the work I did then, is over with.  I have work to do now, terrain to wander, and it’s different.  It’s okay that it’s different.  The world is different, my life is different, my needs are different.  Some of the same themes will come up, some of the same people are still with me (thank Goddess!), some have come, some have gone.  I’m older and fatter and tireder and sadder and smarter and have less patience with shitty people and more patience with myself.  The spiritual work I did ten years ago worked for me, then it didn’t.  That’s okay too.  I can take what worked back then and come up with versions and variations that work for me now. 

You don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater but you do have to acknowledge that the baby’s a sullen teenager now and has her own set of needs and desires.  

So show up as you and no one else.  Deity knows what you look like naked.  Show up as nerdy and damaged and clay-footed as you are right at this moment and don’t be afraid.  Show up confused and uncertain or brave and ready.  Whatever you bring to the altar is okay as long as it’s real.

Bathwater tossed?  Lunch packed?  Loins girded?  All right!

On to Step Two.

** – Depression.

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Starting Over on Your Spiritual Path

You may remember that once upon a time, back when I called myself Wiccan, I wrote an entire book on spiritual practice.   

It was pretty well-received, if I do say so myself, and in fact 15 years later I still get emails and messages from people saying they’ve just discovered it (or have had it all this time) and it’s been instrumental in helping them develop their own practices.  

That’s right up there with the folks who tell me that my novels have helped them face and evolve past homophobia in the top ten warm fuzzies I could get as a writer.  Seriously when I hear either of those things, or that The Body Sacred helped someone overcome self-hatred, I get misty ’round the eyeballs.  (The fact that I hear all three fairly often has helped me keep going in more ways than one.)

You may also know, however, that I have to take a “do as I say, not as I do” approach with The Circle Within now, because I haven’t considered myself Wiccan for a long time, and in fact for years I was nothing at all.  I had some deeply negative experiences that drove me away from my path, but even before that, I was already in spiritual distress.  I managed to shed the label and embrace my Spiritual Nomad-hood (again to the positive reception of the outside world), but before long my remaining spiritual enthusiasm drained away and I was left, again, with nothing.

Oops.

Well, that’s what I thought anyway.  Isn’t that what we always think?

I’m not sure exactly what changed, but something impelled me to start reaching out again – slowly at first, dabbling in my Tarot studies, rebuilding my altar last year.  I started doing the shadow work I wrote about several months ago, and I uncovered the roots of a big part of my spiritual crisis.  Once I’d stared that in the face for a while I started doing some meditative pathworking, and wham! some things in my mind came together and I realized that after years and years of longing for a matron Goddess yet feeling unworthy and disconnected, it turned out She had been quite patiently waiting in the pages of my own novels for me to wake the hell up and notice.

Things have been a little different since then.

Right about the same time as all this was happening I finally managed to commit to my vegan practice as well – I did some of my first spellwork in a long time and I’ll be damned if it didn’t work like a…well, you know.  Suddenly not only was I able to keep vegan, it was fun.  There have been plenty of challenges, and I’m sure there will be plenty more, but overall, I’m getting comfortable with this part of my identity in a way I haven’t ever been before.  There’s a deep, wonderful relief in finally living your convictions.  

I am slowly cobbling together a new path for myself, and it’s far from cohesive or even consistent yet, but I want to talk about it here on the blog because I know that for many people it’s a familiar story.  You break down, you spend months or years trying to stand back up, and once you’re on your shaky baby-deer legs again…then what?  How do you start walking?  

When what used to be welcoming, or at least comfortable in its consistency, falls apart, and you’re left with a giant pile of soul-Legos at your feet, how do you decide what to build in its place?  

It’s more straightforward if you have some kind of big epiphany or conversion experience.  Maybe you found Jesus and now you’ve got a faith community to join and all sorts of resources, classes, literature, and affirmation in front of you – great!  Maybe you read a book on Buddhism that grabbed you so hard by the mala you ran down to the local meditation center and took yourself some refuge in the Dharma.  Awesome!   

For a lot of people, including myself, starting over spiritually ends up being less a heavenly angels’ chorus and more of a series of enlightened burps.

The cosmic 2×4 of reawakening is swell, but once the swelling goes down, what do you do?

That’s what I hope to explore in the coming weeks here at CrazyBeautiful.  I want to talk about what’s working for me, and some things I want to try out.  My writing has always been a way of figuring things out as much as conveying them to others; I learned more about spiritual practice writing The Circle Within than I ever had, and I worked out a ton of body issues while working on The Body Sacred.  It’s when I started feeling like I should be some sort of authority that blogging became work instead of exploration.  

Heck that.  Let’s rock some ReBeginner’s Mind.  

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