Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Celebrating alone

I have been functionally solitary for my entire path.  While I have, and definitely enjoyed, working with others, the majority of what I do is done alone.  I firmly believe that you can have a full and complete practice while solitary, but many rituals, especially life transitions and Sabbats are portrayed as group celebrations.  It can sometimes feel like you are missing something by celebrating alone.

There is a definitely difference to participating in a group ritual, and even a difference between a small, intimate group ritual and a large ritual with many people.  Rituals with close friends feel different than rituals with strangers.  While I haven't been to any huge rituals (I would say that the largest I have attended was just around twenty people), I have been to a decent variety over the years.

I have always felt that one of the best things about being a solitary practitioner is that you can do whatever works best for you!  You don't have to worry about catering to everyone's needs, making rituals that work for people of different paths or practices, or even about doing things in front of other people.  You can dress how you like, speak in whatever way is comfortable and use tools that may be too private for use with others.

But you can still create a celebratory atmosphere!  And if you desire, you can blur some of the lines between solitary practice and group work, using technology, if you are unable to physically be with others but still want to ritual together.

It can be sort of tempting to go simpler, when you are working by yourself.  Pulling out the stops is definitely work!  It's sort of like eating alone....if I am the only one in the house, I am more likely to grab whatever food is handy and eat while doing something else, than to actually sit down and take time out for a meal...and I am highly unlikely to pull out candles and set a nice table for myself.  Which, when you stop and think about it, is sort of a shame.  You may not make a big deal out of things every time you do them alone, but it is definitely worth taking time for special rituals over the course of a year, even if you only do ritual alone.

When I am planning a full ritual for myself, the first thing I think about is the theme:  what is the ritual about.  I honor the Sabbats, and to me they are a great time for celebratory ritual.  I don't always do work at a Sabbat ritual.  It is more about honoring the time of the year and the energy I associate with that particular festival.  If I have work that aligns with it, I can definitely add it in, but I may just take some time to enjoy the ritual process.

The theme will dictate all the other facets of the ritual you plan.  Beltane has a completely different energy and theme than Samhain.  If you aren't sure, read up on the ritual you want to create!  I love reading other people's rituals, though I don't often use them exactly as they are.  But by reading a ritual someone else has put together, you can get a feel for not only the theme of the ritual but also the flow of it, which can be helpful if you are just starting out.

Once I have a feel for the theme of the ritual I want to do, I think about space:  where am I going to do my ritual.  I often have constraints on my ritual space.  When hubby is sleeping, I don't have access to the bedroom.  If hubby and/or son are home and awake, I prefer not to use the living room...I like my privacy and to be able to create the atmosphere I like.  We don't have an outdoor space that is private, so ritual outdoors is not really an option.

What I can do is alter a space to create an atmosphere.  I like doing rituals in the bedroom, as we have a large dresser that I can use as a working space.  But I also have a couple of large cloths (tablecloth's and blankets with different patterns) that I can lay out on the living room floor to create atmosphere.  I have quite a collection of candles in different colors, so I will pick ones that match.  I have also been collecting candle holders and decorative bowls/plates for ritual use (I love looking at second hand stores for holiday/seasonal themed items...or shopping the post holiday sales!)

If you, like me, are doing your ritual indoors, it can be lovely to have flowers or other natural elements inside.  You can have them in a vase, or lay them out on your altar space, or create the boundary of your circle with them!  When you are done with your indoor ritual, you could also take the flowers outside and create a mandala offering with them!

Music is another great tool to creating a festive atmosphere.  There are some very beautiful Pagan singers and amazing chant tracks that can add a lot of power to your ritual.  But you aren't limited to purely Pagan sounds!  You can go with nature sounds, from rain to animals to thunderstorms.  Or, you could pick songs that remind you of the seasons (great for Yule), or songs that remind you of your theme (there is nothing wrong with using pop music in ritual).  You may find that you are drawn to a particular mood with your music.  Some rituals may call for more somber or mellow music, while others are perfectly suited for upbeat dancing songs!

One feature that is common at a lot of group rituals is the feast.  This may be a part of the actual ritual, in the form of offerings or the sharing of 'cakes and ale' (which doesn't actually have to be cake and alcohol, but is typically some kind of bread-stuff and some kind of drink) or the feast may be part of the social aspect and take place after the ritual is over.  Either way, there is no reason not to include food and drink in your solitary rituals.

If you like baking, there are many recipes that can be used for a ritual offering.  Both cookies and breads have so many varieties, you can easily find one that matches your theme.  You can also go for more of a full feast, and cook a meal to honor the theme of the ritual.  And don't forget the drink!  If you do drink alcohol, that is a very traditional offering, but if you don't, then consider juice or tea...or just pick your favorite, indulgent drink!  The main thing for me, with ritual food, is that it needs to either be something that is significant to the ritual I am doing, the deities invoked, or a special food for me.  I don't just pick whatever is in my cabinet or whatever leftovers in the fridge need eaten up (unless that seems ritually significant!)

And don't forget to dress!  When I was starting out, the idea of skyclad was very prevalent.  It was mentioned in about every book, especially for group work.  But it is something that many people aren't comfortable with, especially in a group with people you don't know well.  On your own, it can take on a whole new meaning.  Many of us (myself included) aren't always accepting of our own bodies, and spending time unclothed in sacred space can help bring that feeling of sacredness into our own body. 

You absolutely don't have to go that route if you don't want to though!  You could also dress up:  put on your favorite outfit, or create a look to go with your theme.  Add jewelry, do makeup if you are so inclined, a dab of your favorite scent.  Treat it like the special occasion it is!  I love dressing up for ritual, even if I am by myself.  It helps me step out of my ordinary life and really mark it as an occasion (particularly as I don't 'dress up' that often in my regular life).

You can even add symbols, designs or words drawn on your body.  Use makeup pencils or liquid eyeliner to do fine lines.  You can do larger areas with bold face paint (like the kind that is all over at Halloween).  You can do a full mask or just small areas.  There are no limits!  Decorating the body can be both deeply spiritual and great fun.

And, you don't have to be fully alone!  There are many ways to connect electronically, and share ritual space that way.  You can connect with one or more people over the phone and share your ritual through sound.  Or you can set up a camera or use video on your phone to connect visually as well.  Even rituals done through text, in a chat room or messenger, can be quite moving, especially if everyone has created their own ritual space ahead of time and follows along with actions as you go.

For me, many rituals are meant to be celebrations, and just because we walk our path alone, doesn't mean we can't celebrate!  Find ways that speak to you, do things that make ritual special, pull out all the stops and create amazing ritual space JUST for yourself! 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Surrender

By my nature I'm a fighter.  When things get tough, my first reaction is to dig in my heels and tough it out.  But I am learning that there is strength in surrender, and that sometimes giving in is exactly what you need to move forward.  And surrendering isn't always the easy way out!

Surrender comes in many forms.  It could be as simple as acceptance of what is.  It could be allowing your sense of self to step back for a minute, surrendering to the flow.  It can be trusting in other people, and allowing them to do things that you would normally do.  It can be faith...your belief that there is something out there greater than you that will guide you if you only let it.

One of the most obvious ways I see the power of surrender is physically.  I just started a new workout challenge, and my legs are pretty tight today.  I was doing some stretching (which I love, and for me is one way in which I access a deep breathing meditative state), and my leg muscles were fighting the stretch.  My first response was to tighten everything up and muscle my way into the stretch.  But then I made the conscious effort to do the opposite.  To relax the muscles of my leg, to breath into the stretch and to continue to focus on keeping the muscles loose and relaxed.  It feels like a step backwards at first, but then with each breath I end up moving slightly further into my stretch.

I think this is very representative of what happens when we fight other aspects of our growth.  When we are breaking through a new boundary, we are working ourselves in new ways.  We might end up over-extended and need to settle into our new perspective.  It can be scary and feel uncomfortable, so we want to struggle against it.  This might mean we are resisting the new experience or we are trying to force our way deeper into it.  Either way, this creates a lot of unnecessary tension in our self. 


This is where trust comes in.  We trust in our own path, in our own progress, and we trust that we have laid in the proper foundations to let us climb to where we want to be.  When you are climbing up a ladder, you keep your eyes focused on the top, on where you want to go.  You don't look down at the base of the ladder, to make sure it's secure.  You set that up ahead of time!  You just keep your eyes on the prize and put one foot after another on the rungs of the ladder and climb.

Surrender is also a key skill when we are getting swept away.  Life has this way of putting you in the middle of the storm sometimes.  We all have those days where everything you do seems to go wrong.  Murphy days, where everything that can go wrong will...in the worst possible way!  We get frustrated and angry and start to snap at everything.  Our actions get less focused and refined and we may start slamming doors or using way more force than is necessary, because we just want things to turn our right!

It's much like getting caught in a current.  The water is dragging you somewhere you don't want to go, and the natural reaction is to turn around and start swimming in the opposite direction.  But fighting the current will only tire you out, and depending on how fast the water is moving, you might not be able to make any progress at all!  What you need to do is try to guide yourself instead, swim across the current, or look to see where the current is taking you and if there is a safe place you can shelter from it.

What this equates to is taking a step out of the situation.  When I start to feel this kind of situation brewing, I will close my eyes (to cut out as much stimuli as I can) and take a deep breath (or ten!) and try to bring myself into a state of calm and then project that calm outward.  Even if the world around me is still crazy, just trying to remain calm helps me to remain afloat and to not continue to feed into that destructive energy.

Trusting other people to do things for you can be very challenging for some of us, especially if you are very particular about how you like things done.  But sometimes we all need a little help, and you have to surrender and place yourself in someone else's hands.  This may mean letting go of having things exactly as you might like them.  My husband and I have very different ways of looking at some things.  I like to plan things out ahead of time, while he tends to play things more by ear.  We both compromise a little and meet in the middle.

This can be especially difficult when we are unable to do something for ourselves, for whatever reason.  Then, we have no choice but to trust someone else, and that can make us fight the help, even if the only way we can struggle against it is verbally.  Society has sort of trained us to pretend everything is okay, when it isn't, to be strong and to push through when we are ill, or injured or exhausted.  Asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness, and it really isn't!  There is nothing wrong with turning to other people and getting assistance. 

Recognizing how hard this is can be part of the process of allowing other people in.  Acknowledge that letting people help you is hard for you, even if you only admit it to yourself.  Perhaps consider journaling about why you feel getting help diminishes you as a person.  Or why you don't want to let other people do things for you (even just nice things like giving you a gift or a compliment).  It can also be helpful (and really nice!) to ask other people why they want to do things for you....realizing that they are acting out of love or caring and not pity may help you be more open to accepting.

And finally, I think that we can sometimes struggle with great anxiety about our choices.  Whether they are big or little, life changing or superficial, we may have times where we find ourselves unsure of which way to go.  In these times, we can tap into that divine spark within, to the part of us that is something more than our thoughts and our sense of self.  You may think of this as God, a particular deity, your higher self, instincts, guardian angel...however you comprehend it, you can ask for guidance.  You are stepping out of your self in a way, and allowing this other energy to influence your choice.  For me, it's like creating a space within myself.  I don't do anything besides create this space, almost like stepping out of my own mind for a minute.  But when I do I am always filled with a sense of peace.  I may not know for certain what choice is right, but I am reassured that whatever choice I make, I will be okay.

Surrender is hard, it isn't just rolling over and letting other people trample all over you.  It is about trust and faith and acceptance.  It is about knowing when to fight and when to go with the flow.  Practicing surrender will create peace in your life and allow you to face difficult situations with a clear mind and confidence!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Trusting your Gut

While I am a huge fan of both research and of hearing how other people do things, I ultimately believe that we each need to find our own way.  We all have a unique perspective, and this means we will have a personal expression of all aspects of our path, from how we relate to the divine to how we practice in our daily life.

And one skill that I have found vital to this (and just handy in general) is intuition.  Learning how to feel into a situation instead of only relying on your logical brain helps you sort out what works for you from what other people tell you works for them.

Like many other people, I started out my practice by reading books.  I didn't know what to do or how to do it, so I read about how other people do it.  I am quite lucky that I learn well from books, but still I found things that just didn't click with me...but that was how all the books said to do it so I figured I was doing it wrong.  It wasn't until many years later that I started to really trust my instincts and go with my gut and figure out how to do things on my own.

Intuition is a deeper sense of knowing.  I equate it a lot to clairsentience, or psychic knowing.  This is how a lot of my visualizations come to me, not always through sight or sound or touch, but through just knowing.  I think this is why a lot of people discount it, because it is a sort of strange sensation.  We aren't used to grasping the essence of a thing without a lot of our sensory descriptors or verbal qualifications.

When it comes to intuition, we often know things without understanding why, or have an impulse to do something that comes out of the blue.  We are taught, from when we are a little child, to question the why of things, to think things through and to have reasons for doing things.  Intuition sort of flies in the face of this.

But it is exactly those signs you want to look for, when learning to trust your intuition.  When you get an impulse, as long as it's not dangerous, go for it!  We don't always need to know why we want to do a thing, just wanting it is enough.  The more you start to trust your intuition and do things without having a logical justification, the more you will notice these impulses.

There are a lot of other tips for tapping into that intuition when it's not jumping in front of your face and waving it's arms.  The simplest is to think about what your options are, and to focus on how each one makes you feel.  Ignore, for a moment, all the logical thoughts and comparisons.  If you are trying to figure out what job to go after, don't think about the money (beyond making sure that they all will pay your bills!) or what other people may think, but imagine yourself doing the job and see how it makes you feel.  Sometimes, what is best for us is not what comes out best on paper, but what makes our life better!

Sometimes it can be hard to recognize the difference between what your brain is saying and what your gut is saying.  I have always separated head and gut along the conscious and subconscious mind lines....my brain thinks things while my gut feels them.  If I can easily explain something with words, then it is probably coming from my brain, my logic, my thinking self.  However, if I struggle to explain something or if I relate to it more with an emotion or sensation in my body, then I feel it is more instinctual.

Some people will get very different sensations when their intuition is kicking in.  They may feel a warmth in their body, or an electric tingling in certain areas.  If their intuition is drawing them to something, it may feel comforting or like 'home'.  On the other hand, if they are being led away from something dangerous, they may feel an uncomfortable prickling or just a general sense of malaise. 

Now, this is one place where it gets tricky for me.  I get anxious about things, especially choices and new experience.  So sometimes, I will get negative body reactions when I am faced with something that pushes me out of my comfort zone.  These can be very similar to the things I feel when my intuition is pointing me away from something.  But it's not actually my intuition saying that the thing I am contemplating is bad, just my own fears trying to hold me back.

Two things really work for me to sort out if it is fear or intuition.  Firstly, I think about what the worst that could happen would be.  Most of the time, this highlights whether or not it is fear (when I get anxious about silly little things, or about how other people may react to me).  The interesting thing is that by walking myself mentally down this worst case road, the anxious feelings will start to decrease when it is just fear.  The second thing I do is take a deep breath.  Just that breath, while thinking about doing the thing I am worried abut, will get rid of most of my anxious feelings (sometimes it takes several breaths).  If I do both of those things and still have a bad feeling about something, then I trust my intuition and start looking for other options.

There is a neat body trick to try for checking in with your intuition.  This can be done solo or with someone else.  If you are working with someone else, you can hold one arm straight out to your side.  You will try to hold it up, and the other person will try to push it down.  Each time you do it, think about a different option.  Your body will respond with more strength to the option that your intuition feels is best for you.  If you are alone, you can touch the tip of your pinky and thumb of your non-dominant hand together, then using your other hand, try to push the fingers apart with your thumb and pointer.  Try to use the same amount of pressure to push your fingers apart while thinking about your different choices.  The one that you are most intuitively aligned to will keep your fingers together, while other choices it will be easy to separate them.


So how does all this apply to walking your own path?  I think that we are often faced with the situation where we read or hear something that seems to be common knowledge or generally accepted, and it just doesn't sit well with us.  Sometimes this is because we are breaking free from old patterns (like the associations with the words 'witch' or 'heathen'), but sometimes it is because our intuition is trying to tell us that we need to look elsewhere. 

I think it is of great use to ask other people for their opinions.  Often this can be a form of insight, and it helps our intuition have lots of place to point us!  But it can also be limiting if we feel that we can not trust what our gut is saying.  We may find ourselves trying to walk in someone else's shoes and being constantly frustrated because it is so hard to walk the path!

When something feels wrong or uncomfortable to you, look into that feeling!  The feeling is a message, you just have to figure out what it is trying to say to you.  Sometimes it is fear trying to keep you in your old, small box.  Sometimes it is a sign of danger.  Sometimes it is just that the fit isn't quite right for you.  Learning to know how your intuition speaks to you and to trust it helps you figure out which message you are receiving and how to move forward!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Magic for the Memory impaired

I have a kind of funny memory.  I am absolutely horrible with dates and names, but I can remember songs and chants that I haven't heard in months or years.  I talk a lot about internalizing information, because for me, that is the moment when something is well known enough for me that I remember it.  Sure, if I don't access that information for a long time it can get lost, but it normally only takes a little refresher for me to be able to recall it.

There is a definite stigma attached to memory.  It is a pretty common attitude that if you 'really knew your stuff' then you would have it memorized.  This is partially true for a lot of people.  The more you study something, the more you have practiced it, the more familiar you are with the information.  You may find that you don't have to look stuff up if you work with it every day or over the course of years.

But not everyone works this way.  Some people will never have that kind of recall, even if they work with something every day for years.  They may not need much prompting to recall lots of details, but they do need a little boost.

I was lucky enough to go to a high school that took a bit of a different approach to learning.  We didn't have to memorize a lot of things.  Sure, we had the odd project here or there that would require reciting a poem, or some very common math or science formulas that we would have to know by heart, but most of our classes focused on comprehension instead of memorization.  We would have access to reference materials and as long as we knew how to apply them, we got good grades.

This has definitely shaped how I approach life today.  My books are my reference materials, and I use them often.  Sometimes I still find myself judging myself poorly because I don't remember things.  I couldn't tell you someone's sign if they told me their birthday, and even things like Sabbats that I have been honoring for decades now, I can't reliably rattle off the dates.

Instead, I make extensive use of calendars....almost to a crazy level!  I have several paper calendars (for different areas of my life), as well as digital calendars.  My computer calendar tracks things that I may need to remember to do months down the line.  I can set it to make a little window pop-up as a reminder, which is very handy and means I don't actually have to go look at it everyday.  I have a dateless date book (sounds contradictory I know, but it's one of those that lists every day of the year, but not for a specific year) that I use to keep track of birthdays, holidays, festivals and other things that happen on a specific day.  The great thing about this kind of datebook is that you can decide what you want to remember and what is important for you.  And every month you can look to see what is coming up.

Because I don't have a lot of things memorized, I have developed better organization skills.  I tend to know where I can find the information that I want.  My books, especially my BOS and journals are highly organized and labeled for this reason.  If I want to look up something on moon phases, I know which books to look in and where in them to look.

Journaling, or some other form or writing, is a huge part of how I learn.  By thinking about a subject and sorting those thoughts into words, even if they are just sort of stream of thought words in a private journal, that serves to help me organize my thoughts and really ask deeper questions.  It is doubly beneficial for me to write about a subject, then let the writing sit for a while...until I can't remember it all exactly.  Then I can come back and read what I have written and often I will have new thoughts on the matter.  It can become quite the never-ending cycle, but I always walk away with new insight which is great!

I have also learned the ways that help my brain to link information together.  It's not just about writing stuff down, but how you write it down.  For me, art is a powerful tool for memory.  Drawing a stick figure and adding a bit of color will help me remember something much better than just writing the word.  I use this all the time for remembering symbols.  I'll take the symbol, think about the meaning and then draw a little sketch that uses the symbol to illustrate the meaning. 

Rhyme is also a big tool for me.  If I can make a little chant for a thing, I can practice that and it helps me remember things much easier.  I can add in key words that will remind me of other stuff and end up with a fair amount of information in a few lines.  I could never remember which way the moon changed until I learned the phrase, "Light, right, getting bright," which reminds me if it is the right side of the moon that is illuminated, then the moon is waxing (wax on...so getting brighter and more full).

One of the other areas where it is common to expect memorization is with divination.  Especially with rune sets and cards.  While many cards are based off of a fixed set of symbolism, there are so many decks now that break the mold.  I am mostly an intuitive reader, but I am fascinated by divination systems that use numerology, the fools journey, and other sets of correspondences for each of the cards.  I can not remember them!  I actually just started a divination spread journal because I always see these lovely and interesting card spreads, but when I sit down to read I either end up going with the basic Celtic cross (because it was the first one I learned and the one I have done the most...so I remember it) or I sort of free-form and just ask questions and turn over cards.

I was part of a discussion about divination and reading methods recently where someone really opened up my eyes about tarot and memorization.  For them, the way they read cards was to lay out a reading, and then refer to the book.  They use the little booklet that comes with most decks, that lists like 20 words for each card.  I always hated those books, because for me, that list of words has no context and is just sort of a jumble.  But they saw it as a second layer of divination!  They looked at the words for the card, and some of them would jump out to them.  It was different every time they read cards, so it was another way for them to tap into what the cards were saying, much like in forms of book divination where you flip to a page and read a sentence and then use that as your guidance.

There are so many ways in which our minds can retain and process information.  Memorization is only one!  So whether you are someone who remembers things easily, someone who never remembers anything, or someone like me who remembers some things well and some things not at all, never fear!  Find a system for keeping information on hand that works for you, and don't let anyone make you feel like less because you can't rattle off every association for the color blue when asked.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Practice when you just don't feel like it

I think we all have days where we are tired, drained, out of sorts, sick or for whatever reason just can't find the energy to do the things we may want to.  And especially when it comes to our spiritual path, we want to be able to commit ourselves to our actions, to really be present and fully centered in our actions, but sometimes we just don't feel up to it.

We each have our own rhythms and some people may have more up days while others may have fewer.  You may have these great and wonderful ideas in your head about how you would like things to be, but when you think about actually doing them, you can't seem to get yourself moving.

I have my fair share of days that I just want to sit around, toss something meaningless on the tv and do absolutely nothing.  Sometimes it's a physical thing, I'm under the weather, didn't get enough sleep or am run down for some other reason.  Sometimes it's an emotional thing and I'm just sort of in a dark place where nothing seems worth it.

I don't think there is anything wrong with taking days off, even with forgoing your regular daily practice, whatever it may be.  I have skipped days of my regular routine.  Sometimes it's because life got in the way...if I need to be out the door at 6:15, I am not likely to do my regular stretching and meditation when I wake up (because boy would I be cranky to have to get up early enough to do it!).  Sometimes it's because I just can't drag up the desire to do it. 

I do know that almost always, if I do manage to get myself motivated and do something, even if it wasn't the full thing I had planned on doing, I'll feel better and more balanced.  The trick is finding the things that you CAN do, the things that work for you, and letting your practice build from there.

One of the things that hasn't always been a formal part of my practice is Sabbats.  Being a solitary practitioner who has had a family for the bulk of my personal practice, as much as I would love to have big, fancy rituals every month and a half, with a full circle cast, themed feast and drink and seasonal personal work.....realistically it just doesn't happen.  I do try to keep my altar refreshed for each Sabbat (though I am still working on collecting items for all the Sabbats), even if all I do is give it a thorough clean and change out my altar cloth to a more seasonally appropriate color.

I love candles and lighting them.  There is something intrinsically magical to me about candles, and flame has always been a beautiful thing to me.  I also adore the smell of a candle that has just been blown out (one more reason why I love to light a candle for prayers right before bed).  But I have cats, who aren't very smart about candles.  I used to leave them burning while I went about my day, but popped out one day to check the mail, and came back to the smell of burning fur and one of my cats standing with her back to the candle....and her tail hovering close enough over it to be singing!  She didn't seem to notice....I was very relieved to see that she only lost a little fur and didn't get hurt, but that was the end of me burning candles when I wasn't sitting right in the room with them.

I also don't like burning candles too close to my computer...which is where I spend most of my day.  I am sometimes quite clumsy, and the last thing I need is to smack a candle and spatter hot wax all over my keyboard.

So what does all this have to do with practicing when you are down?  The act of burning a candle might lift me up, but having to manage the candle while it is burning (so that I make sure it's not dangerous) isn't always something I want to be bothered with.  It has changed what kind of candles I tend to stock up on.  While I still have lots of pillar and tea candles, I prefer to light them when I know I'm going to have them burn for at least half an hour...otherwise they just burn a hole down in the middle by the wick.

Instead, I like taper candles for my prayer candles...I can burn them for short periods and blow them out and they burn down just fine.  When I am worn out and not able to do full prayers, I can still light a candle, bow my head and sit in silence for a breath or two.  Or even just talk about how I am not feeling right (my prayers are highly informal, conversational style).

I also always have birthday candles on hand for quick spellwork.  Plus, they are small enough that I can easily burn one in a small bowl and keep them contained!

I run into a similar issue with incense.  I have a ton of incense sticks, both full sized and the little mini size, as well as cones and loose incense.  Incense can be a double whammy for me.  Sometimes, it is too strong inside, especially as our apartment isn't huge and is not open.  While I feel less concerned about the safety of the burning incense, I still prefer to be nearby as it is burning.

I've come to love burning bay leaves as incense.  The smell reminds me of some of the Asian temple incense that I love.  They flare up and crackle and burn up about a half inch of the leaf before the flame dies, then you can watch the little embers consume the burnt part.  Even with a large leaf, having to relight it about five times to burn the whole thing, it still only takes a minute or two, and it is a sort of entrancing practice.  I light a candle (so I don't have to hold a lighter or match to burn it), and use a metal spoon rest to catch the ash (and so if I need to drop the burning leaf, it's not going to scorch my table...)

I also love the very simple practice of lighting a match.  Much like I love the smell of candles that have just been extinguished, I also like the smell of a match being lit.  I like matches for quick banishing.  You can write a single word on the stick, or just hold it in your hand and think about what you are releasing.  Then light it up and watch it burn!  (I think I just like burning stuff, but this always makes me feel slightly better)

I love to meditate, but this is definitely something that if I am in an off mood I can't always do.  Or at least I can't do in my normal way.  Some days, I'll just lay on the floor...often on my back, with my arms stretched out, but sometimes on my stomach with my arms folded and my head resting on them.  I don't actually DO anything...I just let myself lay there.  It's a grounding and meditative practice, but it's entirely passive. 

Another thing I do is listen to music.  I'll find a song that fits my mood and let myself just listen to it.  Normally I'll close my eyes, I may or may not sing (sometimes I mouth or whisper the words....that often feels more tuned in to me for some reason).  If I had wanted to do a larger ritual but wasn't up to it, I might pick a few chants that fit what I wanted to do and play them. 

Ultimately, I don't feel that there is any shame in not doing full ritual or regular practice when you aren't up for it.  I have never felt that spirit is disappointed when I am in a low place and don't do something (even if it was something that I had made a previous commitment to doing).  Some days, just thinking to myself, "Well, I had wanted to do a ritual today, but there is no way I can, I'm sorry," makes me feel better and reassures me that I am okay.  For me, showing up and doing anything, even just acknowledging that I can't do something, is better than beating myself up for not doing a bigger thing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Familiars and totems and guides, Oh My!

Whether you have a pet or not, animals feature quite prominently in many people's paths.  Almost everyone feels some connection to certain animals, and many of us have animal companions that share our daily lives.


When you speak of a witch, you often also think of a witch's familiar.  According to legend, a familiar is an animal or spirit which serves as an aid to the witch.  Depending on the legend this spirit can be demonic or even a humanoid shape, but most of the time it is an animal.  Often the animal is depicted as having human-like intelligence.  Sometimes there was something 'off' or unusual about the animal.  Some legends suggest that the familiar must feed from the witch in order to sustain itself.

While many of these concepts have faded with time, the idea of a familiar is still something more than your regular adoring pet.  Many people feel that a familiar should take some kind of active role in your practice, either joining you in circle or meditation or otherwise participating in your magical workings.

There are a lot of varying theories about animals and magic.  It is a common belief that animals can see things that we typically can not (like:  fae, ghosts, energy).  Some people find that their animals will not cross the edge of a cast circle while others feel their pets slip in and out of the circle without breaking the circle.

I have had several cats over the years, and while I have been close with them all, one definitely stood out.  None of my cats have shown much interest in most of my practice, they don't care about the circles I cast and they are more likely to want to sleep on my tarot cards or bat at my runes than they are to be helpful.  One of my cats does like to sit in my lap in the mornings when I meditate (that is the only time she comes up and wants to be on me when I'm sitting on the floor....which is quite often). 

I do consider my cats familiars, even if they don't fit the traditional concepts.  They are my companions in life, are with me all day long when I am in the house alone.  They follow me into whatever room I am in and get upset when I go somewhere they can't go (like the bathroom).  I talk to them, and they meow back at me.  When I am upset, they will come and snuggle with me.  All of them sleep in the bed around me (one up right next to my pillow, where I can tuck one hand against her while I sleep).  The one that I formed the closest connection to passed over this year, but I still feel her around from time to time.

Some people think that you shouldn't call your pet a familiar unless they 'do' familiar things.  I am not in that camp.  My cats make my life better, which makes me happy and content.  They bring joy and peace to my house and my family.  They raise the energy of our home.  I don't need them to fetch me bits and bobs or pick cards from my deck for me. 

Another way many people connect with animals is through the concept of totems.  This is a controversial topic with some people.  It is a well known enough concept that it is one of those buzz phrases that often gets asked (along with:  what's your sign and what element are you).  Some feel that it is a misused term, though the concept of an animal that you are connected to (either personally or through a group you belong to) is one that is found around the world and throughout history.

Totems often befall the same fate as Past Lives:  everyone wants the glamour.  If you ask people about their Past Lives, you will find many famous people or important people....rarely do you find farmers or common people.  With totems, you will find way more people who identify with the big ones (for example:  wolf, bear, eagle) than with less powerful or beautiful animals (like:  mouse, cockroach, sea cucumber).

Totems encompass both the idea of teacher and of guardian.  Some might consider them to be your own spirit in animal form.  This is how I personally think of the term totem:  it is a reflection of your inner self.  Your totem might represent qualities about yourself that you love or ones you hide from the world.  Understanding and connecting with your totem helps you notice patterns in how you interact with the world around you.  Many animals will approach the same situation in completely different ways, just like people do.  Turning to your totem for advice and help you see the best way to do things for you.

Now I know what I just said about people tending toward the powerful and beautiful totems, so bear with me a moment here.  I have felt Wolf has been my totem since grade school.  I have always been an animal lover, and predators in particular, but Wolf has been with me since I can remember.  I am a huge reader, so I saw more than just the image that is popular in media.  Wolf is a predator, but Wolf is also a pack animal (and sometimes a loner).  Social structure is important to Wolf, and the pack works together to hunt and survive.

Ultimately, when you feel you have found your totem, it doesn't matter what animal it is.  But be prepared to accept both the good and the bad, to look at the whole animal and not just the face it shows to the world.  Wolf is territorial and wide ranging.  Dominance and submission plays a big part in their social structuring.  While they can exist without a pack, the survival rate is much lower.  I see both the good and the bad of Wolf in me.

The other thing about a totem is that it typically doesn't change.  Your totem is with you for life.  A group that has a totem has it as long as the group is formed.  A family that has a totem will carry that animal throughout generations. 

When we have animals that pop into our lives for shorter periods, they are often functioning as guides.  Animal guides can act as teachers or warnings.  They have messages for us, and can stick around as long as needed, but may depart once their voice has been heard.

Pay attention to things you see in the world around you.  Not every animal is an animal guide, but if you notice a particular animal popping up a lot, it might be wise to pay attention and to really listen to what it is trying to tell you.  And animals don't have to show up in person.  You might start seeing penguins everywhere:  stuffed animals in a store, in advertisements on tv, as icons on webpages. 

I also think that animal guides can be any animal:  real, fantastical or domestic.  I think that they all have different messages to teach us, and sometimes those messages might not be what we expect.  Much like totems, when you are working out what an animal guide is trying to tell you, look at all their aspects, not just the good and dominant ones.  Dragon might be telling you to be fierce and face down all your opponents....or it might be telling you to stop hoarding your gold.  Cat may be saying you are self contained and independent or that you need to take more naps.  Horse may be telling you to run free and wild or to accept your blinders and pull the cart where you are directed to.

We can also call upon animal guides when we need to learn a particular lesson.  Deliberately connecting to an animal can be considered a form of shape shifting:  we are trying to take on the characteristics of behaviors of the animal.  This can be a very powerful tool!  And like many practices, it is something that becomes easier and stronger the more you do it....and the more you connect to a particular animal, the more solid your connection will be.  

We share this world with animals, and they can share our path as well.  Whether you want to invite them into your home or just into your practice energetically, animals bring a wealth of knowledge that is outside of our normal realm.  Animals can teach us all kinds of things, from serious life lessons to the value of play and the pure joy of existence.  We just have to let them in.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Getting started with chanting!

I love chanting....but I really didn't know much about it until my friends at Wyld Garden introduced me to chants around five years ago.  I have always loved songs and poetry...and I enjoy singing, so it's a perfect mix for me.

But I also know it can be very intimidating for a lot of people!  Especially if you don't feel comfortable singing or are worried about messing up the words.

That first night, I knew no chants.  I don't think I'd even heard "We all come from the Goddess."  And there I was, with my friends, but there were only four of us (or possibly 6, I can't remember exactly who was there, but it was a very small group, I know that).  I knew none of the words, I just had to jump in and follow along.


In the time since then, I have chanted in small groups and larger groups.  I have chanted as part of big rituals, in small social gatherings...and of course in the shower (which totally confused my hubby one day, because I was doing the high and low parts of a chant and he couldn't figure out how I had gotten a radio in the bathroom)! 

And let me reassure you....in all that time, no one has EVER commented when I flubbed words, did the wrong line or cracked my voice trying to hit notes I probably shouldn't.  Even when there were only a couple of us, and I was sharing a new chant...and completely forgot the words!  We just looked them up and started over.

It is actually easier in a larger group, because the more people you have the less one voice stands out. 
And even better if you have someone on a drum or other musical instrument....or have a recording of the chant to play and sing along with.

There are a ton of beautiful chants out there that are really easy to learn.  The majority of the chants I know are in a voice range that is accessible to most people...whether you think you are a good singer or not!  There is a huge selection of chants that are between 4-6 lines, so not a lot to remember.

I also keep a chant book...it has pretty much every chant that I've come across that I like or want to learn.  I often take it with me to rituals or to gatherings where I think there might be chanting.  If I feel rusty on a chant, I can pull out my book and follow along until I am comfortable.  I can also share my book with people who might not know a chant at all!

I learned a lot of my first chants from people....we would do a chant, and I'd jot it down to practice on my own.  But I have also looked up a lot of chants online.  While many chant sites list the words, I like to find ones that also have audio clips so I can hear the tune.  Here are a couple links to sites I really like.

Ky's Pagan Chant Library   (the name is coincidental!)  This has a lot of the more common chants, with both lyrics and audio for most.  It also includes additional notes and info on some of them, which can be neat to read.

Panpipe's Pagan Chants  This one has a lot of unique chants, with both lyrics and audio.  I really enjoy a lot of these chants, they range from very simple to more complex.

The Singing Witches  I just found this one recently, but it has some lovely chants, with lyrics and audio.

I have also just browsed on YouTube.  I often do this for chants that I have lyrics but no audio for.  Often you can find a chant by typing in part of the first line (or I Google it first to see if the chant has a name)

I think chanting is an amazing tool, both for personal use and for group work.  It is really fun to chant with a group, and adds a lot to rituals.  We've used chanting as part of the meat of a ritual, to raise power or otherwise direct the energy.  We've also used chanting to create appropriate ambiance...chanting while we entered circle or while other things were going on to create atmosphere.  We also often chant after ritual or when just hanging out!

So how do you get started?  Well of course, you can always learn chants on your own.  I have playlists of chants on my computer to listen to.  When I am first learning a chant, I like to put it on loop for a while (especially while I'm doing stuff like housecleaning...then I can chant along and practice).  Writing it out not only helps me learn the chant (copying stuff by hand helps your brain retain the information better), but as I keep my chants all in a nice little book, it makes it handy to brush up on chants when I need a reminder. 

You can also suggest chanting as a group project!  If you have a group that meets regularly, everyone can find one chant they really like, and teach it to the group (you can spread them out too, adding just one new chant each time you meet to help people feel more comfortable with it).  For a group, it can be helpful to share the chant ahead of time, that way everyone can hear it and write out the lyrics if they want.  Or, if you don't know ahead of time who will be there, print out copies of the words and have a recording of the chant to play. 

I would definitely recommend learning 'We all come from the Goddess'.  Not only is it probably one of the most well known chants, it also has several verse variants, though the basic verse is the most often used.  And it's basic rhythm and tune are shared by a lot of other chants.  So once you are familiar with this one chant, it makes it easier to learn a lot of other chants as well.

And never be afraid to create your own chants!  You can pick a chant you like the tune to and make new words.  Or you can find a bit of song that you like and that fits your need and use it as a chant.  You can adapt poems or bits of poems as a chant.

I highly recommend giving chanting a go!  Try it on your own, and try it in a group (really not trying to go all Seuss on you here...lol).  There is a different feel to chanting by yourself in different environments.  If I am outside, chanting by myself, I feel very connected to nature.  If I am in the shower, chanting by myself, it feels more divinity oriented.  If I am chanting as part of my prayers or personal rituals it brings different flavors of power.  Chanting in a group can be haunting or celebratory, depending on the chant!  The same chant, done in different places or with different people can feel completely different, which is sort of amazing!