Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Practicing the Daily Simple, Part II

In my last post about practice, I discussed some of the simplest daily ways in which I keep myself grounded and centered. These techniques--with the exception of the most formal form of meditation--can be practiced anywhere, at any time. Over the past year and a half, I've learned to weave them into the fabric of my everyday life, like a thread of silver that every once in a while catches the light and imbues the most ordinary of situations with a bit of enchantment.

These next few practices are more specific. They are less like the daily work of an artist in her craft, than they are like works of art themselves, moments of performance and movement that might be pre-planned or even rehearsed, but which constellate and emerge with intention as particular experiences of creative spiritual activity.

Teahouse Practice

I recently had an article published on WitchVox about this concept of "teahouse practice." This Buddhist concept gets its name from the story of a simple old woman who runs a teahouse on the edge of town. Though she never preaches a word about Buddhism, she embodies the traits of mindfulness and loving-kindness, and townsfolk come regularly to sit her in quiet presence and sip tea, even if they don't realize why, opening themselves to the inspiration of the dharma.

Working as a waitress, I've tried to incorporate this kind of teahouse practice into my interactions. I begin every shift down in the breakroom, taking a few minutes to change into uniform and wash my hands while cleansing and preparing myself mentally for the day. I leave behind whatever anxieties I've been carrying with me, or I find reasons to laugh about them and turn them into amusing stories to share with my coworkers. Cultivating peace and cheerfulness within my own self, I engage customers with intention, performing the somewhat ritualized greeting and serving acts with sincerity and presence. When I wish customers a "nice day" and flash them a smile, I make sure I mean it, always seeking that place within me where I really do wish for happiness for even the rudest of strangers.

The effect this practice has had on my work experience is palpable, with customers as well as coworkers. The diner/family-restaurant where I work is, admittedly, not the most classy or well-managed. Since starting there two years ago, I've climbed my way up to being among the top ten in seniority, simply because so many others have quit out of frustration or financial need. Yet I honestly do look forward to my job most days, I've managed to dance nimbly around melodrama and office politics time after time, and my own sense of inner well-being remains preserved. In the end, I feel grateful to have a job that allows me to interact so directly with people, working in a position of service to provide them with two of their basic needs--food, and company. Teahouse practice transforms the repetitive acts of an industry so often taken for granted, into ever-renewing moments of ritual spiritual work.


This is the first form of regular spiritual practice that I do entirely for religious purposes, without any "daily grind" aspect--but only because I don't have a dog. If I had a dog, then our daily walks would be the perfect time to practice this particular spiritual work. Instead, I've had to find my own reasons and justifications to go traipsing through the local wooded park, while joggers and dog-walkers pass me on the paths with purpose and necessity in their eyes. The truth is, I am not fulfilling any physical need or family duty in going for long walks in the woods. Sure, it keeps me in shape (though I'm on my feet all day at work, anyway). But really, I go hillwalking because I long to be with nature, to be in nature, and to remember my own nature, before it is too easily usurped and suppressed by television and the internet.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What exactly is "hillwalking"? It's a practice I first came across in Druidry, particularly in the works of Frank MacEowen, Philip Carr-Gomm and Emma Restall-Orr, although I think over in the UK it's also considered a secular pastime (like hiking, hunting or rock-climbing in the U.S.). In Druidry, hillwalking becomes a kind of movement meditation, in which a person travels through and explores the natural landscape with engaged presence. To hillwalk is to allow the body to interact intuitively and directly with the surrounding natural world, to follow whims and currents within the landscape. To move through the external, physical landscape of the woods, fields and hills as an interactive and revelatory form of exploring the internal landscape of the soul. Like the stillness of traditional meditation, the on-going movement of breath and body in hillwalking helps to blur the boundaries between form, spirit and space, transforming the perception of what was once opaque and solid into that which is fluid, interwoven and sacred.

Some people recommend utilizing this heightened, engaged consciousness to deal with particular problems, both spiritual and mundane. Formulating a question or problem before setting out, a person can "read" various aspects of landscape that they encounter along their path--animals, plants, bodies of water and earth formations, for instance--in the same way they would interpret dream imagery and experiences. Someone struggling with writer's block, for example, might find herself noticing the song of a mockingbird perched above a small pond, and begin to reflect on the relevance this might have for her current situation. I usually forgo this particular method, preferring instead to allow insights to develop organically through an intuitive experience of landscape, allowing whatever emotional or intellectual issues I have to resolve themselves naturally while I concern myself with the physical processes of my moving body.

Occasional Formal Ritual

This form of spiritual practice is probably what most people think of when they hear labels like "witch," "druid" and "pagan" these days--it's the most widely recognized, and yet also the most intimidating and misunderstood aspect of these paths. In my experience, there are a few main ways in which people approach the idea of "ritual" in the modern Pagan tradition. Some enjoy the sensationalized Hollywood versions of spell-casting and Black Masses, the exotic flavor of robes, candles and chanting in a strange tongue. Others are wholly turned off by how "weird" it all seems, confused as to why anyone would need or want such ridiculous and unfamiliar activities to be part of the religious life. For most people in this culture, religion is something passive, a worldview that you hold in the back of your mind and that colors your daily attitudes and behaviors, but which does not manifest overtly in anything more unusual than, perhaps, a weekly social gathering at one's local church. But then, there are those of us who look past the sensationalism and bizarreness of personal ritual, and understand the artistic evocation of beauty and the cultivation of spiritual connection and growth that can occur, and we understand the enchantment and the magic.

When I first started exploring modern witchcraft as a practitioner rather than as a scholar (the change occurred in early 2004, though it seems a lot longer ago!), its main draw for me was not so much its feminism or respect for nature (both of which were included in my liberal Catholic up-bringing) but much more: the chance to incorporate creative, personal ritual into my spiritual practice. Up until that point, my poetry and journal writing were the only forms of active self-expression that my religion included, and even those were frowned upon if they skirted too close to controversy. There have always been those in the Christian tradition who would prefer to keep "religious art" safe and doctrinally correct; but of course, I knew even in high school that trying to put such limits on artistic expression could kill it off quite effectively. Meanwhile, what little ritual that was left within Catholicism was communal and rote, both of which often kept me--a natural bewildered introvert at heart--from entering fully into the work. I longed for the enchantment of quiet solitary moments, lighting candles, burning incense, speaking words of poetry and crafting performances that were beautiful and inspiring (perhaps moreso because no one else was around to watch with critical or bemused eyes). Modern witchcraft seemed to offer this possibility.

I soon discovered, however, that modern witchcraft often has an unfortunate preoccupation with "magick" and spell-casting. Most discussions of ritual focused largely on setting up a sacred space or circle, inside of which the "real work" was done, seeking whatever magickal aims the practitioners desired. Monthly esbats, held on the full and/or new moon, were times to perform divination and various mundane bits of "magick," while the eight festival sabbats of the year were times of communal celebration, with a heavy emphasis on agriculture and often the impressive invocation of nature deities. For someone like myself, less interested in the agricultural than the ecstatic-philosophical spiritual life and with very few insecurities or desires that needed spell-work in order to satisfy, these types of ritual seemed redundant and sometimes even manipulative or selfish. For a long time, I didn't bother about the Craft, I dropped the provocative 'k' from "magick" and contented myself with meditation and simple visualization techniques.

Over the past year and a half, as I've studied the AODA first degree curriculum and worked through the gwersu of the OBOD bardic grade, I've begun to include more and more ritual work into my spiritual practice, though they remain scattered and often spontaneous. I've explored shamanic astral journeying and ritual within my personal "inner grove"; I've practiced techniques such as the AODA Elemental Cross and Sphere of Protection (based on more formal ceremonial magic traditions), as well as nwyfre (life-force) exercises, particularly during seasonal rituals. Most of the time, my personal rituals are simple, minimal and quiet. They're far from the impressive and complicated workings that most people picture when they think of "witchcraft," but they are active and creative nonetheless. Maybe one of these days, I'll go into more detail about the specifics--but for now, this post has gotten long enough, and the cold I'm fighting has suddenly decided to insist I go lay down and suck on a cough drop. When my body objects, I try to listen... Until next time.

1 comment:

  1. I like your "teahouse practice"! I also do a version of hillwalking, albeit not nearly as often as I'd like, in the woods and by river behind our house... and I'm looking forward to my first attempt at another spiritual practice, misogi. My aikido dojo is having a special extra-long New Year's training session called o-shogatsu in early January (meditation, followed by 1000 sword cuts, followed by regular training) to prepare for the rigors of the year ahead; and I plan to add misogi to my personal routine by rising at dawn, bathing and then purifying myself in the river.

    Wish me luck!