Month: January 2012

Ngetal: the wound-charm

Wounded we come into the world
And wounded we leave it.
The light’s white glare. The forceps.
The mother’s sweat. The screaming.

Wounded we lurch to gawky height
and learn our numbers, our words
and our ways. Wounded we love
and wounded, receive love.

And wounded our Mother, the ground
of mountains eroding, swept by
the white caps, fed by the torrent
that tears from the heavy gray sky.

Wounded the hand that grasps the nettle
and wounded the nettle torn
from the dirt, the flap of skin
held together by thorns.

Wounded we love, and wounded
receive love. Wounded, we heal
others, ourselves, with the nettle
that stings and yet nourishes.

They heal, those wounds, into patterns
and maps, scars rising mountains
and charting the seas, the currents,
the stars, a choreography

etched on the face, on skin, parchment —
a book of wounds, of healing,
of failures, renewals. Wounded
we give forth, and wounded receive.

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Vision: at the table

the woman next to me
at the vast table turns.

Young, robed in blue of night
and her hair: corkscrewed night

Her eyes: hour before dawn.
Hooked nose, smile bent upwards.

And then: a ringing slap
a hand darting from a sleeve

to leave a red imprint
on the cheek of my dream.

A laugh, warm as starfall
a kiss to my red cheek.

“Wisdom comes with a slap
and a kiss,” she whispers.

And then I find my feet
back in the dusky sand

coarse grains wearing my soles
pale foam crashing, darkness

The different flavors of meditation

When I signed up for Yoga Journal's 21-Day Yoga Challenge, I joked with my husband about how long it would take me to end up in traction — or, as a friend calls it, "assisted yoga."

I've been doing yoga — a personalized hybrid of Sivananda and vinyasa — on and off since graduate school, when I took a weekend class at the local YMCA with my mom. Through the years, I've taken sporadic classes in Svaroopa and Vinyasa Flow, among others. Some years I've done more than others. I've been doing it more consistently since 2007, a year after my thoracic outlet problems started; giving up yoga for nearly a year worsened the condition rather than made it better. (I wasn't formally diagnosed until a few years later.)

So these days, I do a long practice — long meaning anywhere from 75 to 83 minutes, these days mostly in the latter range, and that's asana  alone — twice a week. Since the Yoga Challenge began, I've done some long practices, but mostly added a half-hour of asana (postural practice) daily to my gym workouts. It's been a learning experience: working with my body rather than forcing it. But that's not the part of the challenge I want to ramble about. This is a Druid blog, after all.

The other important YC component: meditate 15 minutes a day. 

What is meditation? It comes from a Latin root meaning "thinking over" and often refers to a practice of contemplation and reflection, especially of a religious nature.

The definition reminds me of what John Michael Greer terms "discursive meditation" in The Art and Practice of Geomancy Traditional Western meditation involves not the banishing of thought, but focusing thought like a laser on a particular concept: in Greer, the geomantic figures, although you can do the same with any symbol system or a name or aspect of a god. This was the form of meditation used in the Christian world, although it's largely fallen out of favor.

The type most commonly used is Eastern meditation, which involves withdrawal from both the senses and thought, achieving a greater oneness through the absence of objects. This is the type you commonly see in yoga, in which people focus on their breath, a mantra or a candle-flame; the focus provides a retreat from thought. In this way, I find yoga asana itself a meditation; I count my breath throughout the practice to know how long to hold a pose, which leaves little room for thinking. (Thoughts do try to squeeze in there anyway.) Weirdly enough, I find counting to calm the mind — one to ten, over and over and over.

Overall, meditation is a shift in thought process from the secular to the sacred — the "set apart." It's the setting apart that makes something sacred, according to definition; there are no distractions, no other obligations in that moment, no multitasking, no ruminating.

Asana, running, weight-lifting, ecstatic dancing, washing dishes: all these can be meditation, if done in the right spirit. Trance-journeying, contemplating a prayer or concept, counting your breath. Religious rituals and prayers. If you're setting that time apart, using it for something other than distraction, ruminating or mechanical action, then it's meditation.

So, if chanting "om" doesn't do it for you, don't give up on meditation as a concept. I'd heartily recommend "Meditation: The Complete Guide" from Patricia Monaghan and Eleanor G. Diereck, which introduces the reader to a wide range of meditative practices from multiple traditions. Check it out.

Yoga, Wicca and the myth of origins

Every week — at least several times and often 80 minutes at a stretch — I make shapes in the basement. At least, that’s how the amused basement cat, Schnoogie, must view my yoga practice, an intensive hybrid of Sivananda and Vinyasa styles honed to my own particular needs. Schnoogie enjoys our yoga time, in which I spontaneously turn myself into the perfect cat jungle gym.

What annoys me about yoga: the competitive aspect of many classes, which is why I do my best practices by myself — listening to my own body, although I have taken classes in the past. The second: the whole notion of yoga as “ancient wisdom” that’s “5,000 years old.” To which I say: Put down the almond milk carob latte and listen up.

The problem, in my view, is a conflation of terms and concepts. Folks who say yoga has millennium-old roots tend to conflate it with the practice of Hinduism. Indeed, classical yoga — whose root means “to yoke,” similar to the meaning of the Latin “religio” — is quite old: it’s seated meditation. The precepts of meditation are included in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and even the Upanishads. But even those texts don’t bring us to 3000 B.C.E.

Those who make the millennial claims conflate yoga with the Vedas, without truly knowing what the Vedas are. Yes, they are the oldest texts in Hinduism, memorized by every Brahmin. But they aren’t meditation instructions: they are hymns to the Gods, many of which are no longer worshiped in modern Hinduism, having evolved through the press of time. Other texts are ritual instructions and invocations to be recited by particular kinds of priests, not by the layman or even the mystic, so to speak. Religion was different back then, including practices such as animal sacrifice that would be abhorrent to Hindus today but which were standard in the ancient world — even among the ancient Israelites.

In other words, it was in no way recognizable as “yoga,” at least how that practice is viewed and defined today. In fact, even in modern history, “yogis” were regarded as charlatans and miracle-workers of ill repute, using manipulation to twist bystanders out of their well-earned ruppees.

There is ancient art from the Indus valley civilization that shows a god or man sitting in what appears to be a “meditation posture,” but that’s about it for postural yoga in ancient times. The Gundestrop Cauldron depicts a horned God sitting cross-legged; does that mean the Druids practiced yoga, or an equivalent? Or is it only that sitting cross-legged is the easiest way to situate yourself on the ground sans chairs?

Mark Singleton has written a truly excellent book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, that details the actual origin of what we consider the heart of yoga. In short, asanas come from body-building practices and the harmonial gymnastics traditions of the 1930s, which were embraced by Indians as well as Europeans. The meditation practices were older — they were around in the 1800s — but completely severed from postural practice, which was considered disreputable at the time. The first modern yogis included body-builders, not mystics; it was a strictly physical practice that only became married to meditation later on.

It’s not as fun as claiming yoga as ancient wisdom, true. But accepting it as a relatively modern practice also allows you to think critically about it, and not take it as immutable. This is important because any physical practice — or mental one, for that matter — can harm you if done without listening to your body and spirit. By accepting something as “ancient truth,” you give up the agency to adapt the practice. Adapting is important, too. For example, while some gurus claim headstand is good for all ills, I’ve stopped doing it because it aggravates my thoracic outlet syndrome. Headstand is probably great for a lot of people; heck, even elderly yogis do it. It’s just not suitable for my particular body formation.

All of this, however, reminds me of Wicca and its myth of origins. Thankfully, we’re largely past the point where people are claiming that it’s an unbroken spiritual tradition dating from the Neolithic. While it may be inspired by ancient Pagan cultures as well as Renaissance magic, modern Wicca — with its duotheistic structure and ceremonial circle — has its origins in the 1930s with Gerald Gardner. It has since evolved into many different traditions, much as yoga has evolved since the 1960s. Obviously, Wicca is more than just Gardner; the Romantics and feminist movement have influenced its various strains, for example.

Witchcraft before Wicca is a different entity, often Christian in its imagery and focused on charms, spells and other ways to achieve desired results. In other words, it was magic and not religion. I’ve always thought that the marriage between magic and religion tilted toward the former even in modern Wicca, but then again, I’m a pesky religious Druid.

My recommendation: any time a tradition claims to be ancient, disregard the claim. Few things are truly millennia-old. Age doesn’t necessarily equate with value, either. Modern Wicca is a vibrant religion, just as modern yoga is a vibrant form of exercise, regardless of ancient “pedigree.” The ancients weren’t necessarily wiser, healthier or more spiritual than we are today; they were simply people — human beings with human bodies, needs and desires. For that matter, teachers and tradition-leaders aren’t necessarily wiser, healthier or more spiritual, although they can be (and if they’re not, claim to be even more so). Don’t give up your right to question and, if need be, adapt for your own truths, realities and physical necessities.

On secular new year

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The secular new year comes in a rush of wind and sleet, rattling branches and fat flakes amid the gray light. I partake of my rather small annual ritual: updating my calendar with Brighid’s vigils, solstices and equinoxes, the four great holidays and the phases of the moon.

I don’t celebrate the secular new year. We go to bed our usual time, with our usual weekend revelry. I don’t foretell the future, although I may divine the answers to mundane, immediate queries, such as what I need to do to overcome my running injuries. We clean the house, visit relatives, do laundry.

Secular time means little to me, other than a need to change my calendar and update it with the missing annual events. Our secular calendar and its just-past-midwinter new year comes by way of Julius Caesar, a political invention to tie an empire together. The new year comes with no natural analog: not the falling into darkness that is Samhain, the Celtic new year; not the start of spring that is the new year in other parts of the world. No hero was born on this day and the solstice has passed us, the day already lengthening.

It is a calendar for political realities,  new year to bind us across traditions. But like most of our civic holidays, it feels arbitrary, disconnected from the natural round. And so I let it go.

I follow the Celtic sacred calendar, which means my year begins as the leaves fall and the frost comes, and my day begins as the sun sets. Get the worst over with, perhaps! Where do you find it meaningful to mark the start of sacred time?