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Skeptical Meditation

Over the many years I’ve practiced Catholic contemplation, the few years I’ve practiced Zen, and now the year or so I’ve tried Wiccan meditation, I find several common threads. Common practices, and common outlooks on what I want meditation to be.

First, the mechanics:

1) I no longer adopt positions that are physically uncomfortable, even on the assurance that I’ll limber up in time.

That means, for starters, no praying on the knees. This is something I did mostly early on in Catholic practice– first, as a child, trying somehow to “suffer back” for Jesus, after what he’d gone through on the cross; then, as a young twenty-something, emulating things I remembered from the pre-Vatican II saint stories of my youth. Whatever an apologist can say about the truest Catholic doctrine involving the goodness of the material world, there is no question that contempt of the body and even outright masochism have often crept into Catholic practice, and permeated Catholic thought. It’s one of the things I mean to unlearn.

I also no longer adopt the hand position I was taught in Zen– the right hand supporting the left, palms upward in front of the belly, the thumbs touching. I am a big woman with big breasts and belly, and it hurts my shoulders to hold this pose. You have the option, at some Zen retreats, of getting a couple of ceremonial blows with a stick on the upper back (one just to the inside of each shoulder blade), mostly as a way of helping you stay awake. I expect that many of us requested these whacks just to get the kinks out of our shoulders. Last time I did this, he hit too damned hard, and I decided that however wrapped in ceremony this was and whatever the current pretext for it, I was still asking to be hit as a distraction from the pain caused by doing what these people instructed me to do. It’s really a good metaphor for masochistic spiritual practices in general– hold the pose they tell you to hold, and when it’s unbearable, hurt yourself (or have someone hurt you) even more so you can stand to do what they tell you a bit longer.

Now, I make sure that whatever pose I adopt can be held for a very long time with no major muscle aches or joint pain. And I don’t worry if I have to scratch my nose.

2) That being said, I still find some basic postural guidelines are helpful. First of all, I keep my body roughly symmetrical. Equal pressure on both buttocks; legs and arms in matching positions. Sprawling is a great way to relax, but there is something about the asymmetry which leaves me feeling ungrounded and out of balance when I want to meditate.

Second, the Zen “tripod” approach seems fruitful to me. They aim to keep the butt and two knees (either the side of the knees, as in the lotus, half-lotus, or Burmese positions, or the knees themselves as in the Seiza position) on the floor. This is not doable for someone with my arthritic knees, but to sit with my butt and two feet forming a tripod is deeply stabilizing, both physically and mentally. I don’t find that keeping my hands on the arms of my chair hurts my meditation in any way.

3) I don’t do anything that involves counting, because I get compulsive about numbers. Instead, I either fix my gaze on an object and clear my thoughts; visualize (as in the wiccan practices of drawing imagined pentagrams in blue flame); or, most commonly, listen attentively to the sounds around me. Gazing and listening are good for letting go of ordinary thought patterns, and learning simply to be attentive. Visualizing is good practice for shamanic work, in which imagery and spontaneous narrative carry you beyond your more consciously directed forms of thought, into the kinds of insights that emerge in dream or reverie.

Next, the aims, or guiding principles:

1) Meditation, for me, is not about producing “cool” experiences. It’s about fostering the capacity to let go of yourself enough to connect more deeply with others as they are. It’s about becoming appreciative instead of grasping, content with your limitations instead of self-aggrandizing or self-punishing, gentle instead of brusque. Any practice that brings about this shift is, in my view, sound spiritual practice; anything that involves pyrotechnics (visions, ecstatic states, out of body stuff, whatever) without producing these changes is worthless.

Here, I probably show a Catholic bias. One of Paul’s more famous letters (2 Corinthians) says that if we can speak in tongues, work miracles, etc, but don’t have love, we’re just empty noise (I’m paraphrasing here). Carmelite authors* from the sixteenth century to the present are very clear that the warm fuzzies, the rush of feelings, even the visions you can summon up in prayer are not the goal.
Zen, too, is more or less designed to take down the part of you that wants to achieve or impress yourself or others with your spiritual prowess. When the Emperor of China asked Bodhidarma how much merit he had accumulated by building temples, Bodhidarma answered, “none.” The point of meditating and encouraging meditation was not to achieve some kind of hero status! Buddha said that if you meet Buddha on the road, you should kill him: i.e., if think you’ve “arrived,” that you’ve found “IT,” spiritually, you are under a harmful illusion.

Or, to quote a modern master, Yoda: “Excitement … adventure … A Jedi craves not these things!”

Now, Wiccans do seem to value states of high emotion. The “cone of power,” if I understand it, is an exercise in self-induced group ecstasy, as is shamanic drumming. On the individual level, I certainly experience peace when I cast a circle, and there is something quasi-hypnotic about the shamanic journey. There is certainly a skill involved, as any good performer or orator knows, in inducing strong feelings in oneself or others. Moreover, it’s clear to me that liturgies of all kinds aim at inducing states of mind, from the hypnotic calm and attentiveness that I feel when I hear Gregorian chant, to the depths of joy and of comfort experience by many when they hear Gospel music in their churches. Is it a “good thing,” or a “distraction”?

The Carmelite saints distrusted storms of emotion in prayer because they believed that God transcends our experience, and God is the goal. We can easily mistake the state of our feelings for “the presence of God,” and end up worshipping our own nervous systems. Just as in Zen, attachment to anything (including one’s own enlightenment) is an illusion and a distraction, for many contemplatives, the wish to feel “spiritual” in some way can become an idol, displacing God.

On the other hand, there is a troubling elitism, in my view, to privileging forms of spirituality which downplay the emotions. My preference for silence or chant over gospel music as a spiritual vehicle could easily slide over into eurocentrism and even racism, when in fact, it’s a function of my particular neural wiring and of my culture than of special spiritual aptitude on my part.

2) On the other hand, I’m a skeptic. I don’t look to a particular religious body for what I should believe, but neither do I place unqualified trust in my own feelings, and the fact that a practice raises them tells me nothing about its soundness. After all, faith healing hucksters can also induce “changes of consciousness” in others. There are many ways to understand any given emotional state, and strong feeling doesn’t mean you’ve found the truth.

I suppose that in wiccan terms, one could say that dedication to the Goddess is dedication to all-that-is; for this reason, fostering illusion is never healthy spirituality (my goddess of preference, Kali, is said to be the destroyer of illusion). I have occasionally seen my psychotherapy clients encourage their own psychotic tendencies because delusion seemed more romantic and exciting than the real-life stresses they faced. It’s understandable. But if we really believe we are all connected, and therefore accept responsibility for how we engage with the whole, we can’t use psychological tricks to insulate ourselves from shared reality.

On the other hand, we can use whatever means we find to refresh ourselves for better engagement. So if the cone of power empowers, or the shamanic journey heals– well, to be biblical once more, we know them by their fruits.

I love reading tarot cards, but I am aware that whatever the layout, I am the one putting the story together, and I can’t help noticing that often my readings say more or less what I was thinking anyway– the cards simply draw my attention to more aspects of the situation I’m pondering. My shamanic journeys often surprise me, not by their content, but by the sense of peace and of being understood that they bring me. But they don’t, as far as I’m concerned, bring me supernaturally or paranormally endorsed answers to anything.

So while I feel enriched and helped by the witchier forms of meditation I’m learning, they still (as I’m sure most witches would agree) need to be integrated into a lifetime of efforts to learn, to understand, and to let go of misconceptions. If my meditation makes me more alive to science and history, more attuned to nature and to current events, and better able to listen to others, then it’s healthy meditation.

If not– then it’s time for Kali to do her stuff!

3) For all we need to cultivate the capacity for critical thinking, it is still the case that our brain does a great deal of unconscious processing– and does it faster than our conscious mind can. We notice subtle cues in our environment that signal danger or safety, for instance. This is an important adaptive feature of our brains, since if we had to rely on consciously observed cues all the time we could not react quickly enough when we are in danger.

Moreover, for all our emotions can deceive us, ours (or others’) reasoning can, too. Anyone who has suffered emotional abuse knows that the abuser’s veneer of logic is often used to disarm and confuse the healthy instincts of the victim. For this reason, the frequent practice of opening ourselves to subconscious awareness is an important survival tool. Often, the feelings we discover put us in the way of better reasoning– reasoning which takes into account more of the data. After all, emotions are real data when it comes to making decisions. What could it mean to make the “best choice” apart from what we actually value and want?

Women, in particular, have been taught to distrust their feelings for millenia, and been labeled as hysterical for reacting to provocations that the dominant culture refused to recognize. For this reason, meditations which teach us to take our feelings seriously and hear them out, are critical to women’s ongoing empowerment– just as the empathy we cultivate in good meditation will help us to collaborate better, and become more effective in the world.


* It’s a Catholic religious order, dedicated to contemplative prayer and service. Carmelite saints do, of course, report religious ecstasies; St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross are famous for their poetic expressions of these experiences. They are clear, however, that the goal of their contemplation is not to produce them, and that the darker, more barren times are often more productive of real spiritual growth.

Of Money and Magick

Quite a few years back– “when I was still quite naive” (thank you, Carly Simon)– I took a course on marriage and divorce.  A woman in the class expressed concern that so many women marry before they have the means of supporting themselves.  And I — I am embarrassed to say– blathered on about building trust, so that it was safe, to what–?  Put yourself into a potential hostage situation?

A decade or so later, I get it.  Women, PLEASE, get a pre-nup.  Hold half the assets.  Have things in your own name.  Know how you would make a living if you had to, and if you choose to stay home with the kids (I did), get a legally binding agreement about what this is worth, so if you have to leave, you know what you’re entitled to.

In short, fuck romance.  Any guy who wouldn’t agree to this is not to be trusted.

As a former Catholic raised in the whole religious-poverty, solidarity-with-the-poor tradition, I’d be the first to say that your financial assets are not a barometer of your worth, and that money doesn’t buy happiness.  HOWEVER:  it does make a certain baseline of independence possible, and while if you’ve read my stuff, you know that I don’t think herbs and rocks actually draw money, I will say that money spells at least take the shame out of admitting that you need resources.

If you think that a magical roll-on oil (yes, I’ve seen them) will draw money, you’re as naive as if you think you can be rescued from hardship by the right marriage.  But you should think about where the money will come from when you plan your life, and especially motherhood.

It’s not petty to think about money when you hook up with someone.  You should have figured out how to take care of yourself financially before you commit to anyone, and if you make career sacrifices for the sake of children, you should have in writing whatever you need to protect yourself.  To do so is real magick:  using the resources you have to shape your world.

Action and Symbol: Sympathetic Magic

A lifelong atheist once asked me, a former Catholic, what “Eucharistic Adoration” was. I said it was the practice of praying in the presence of the Eucharist. It was a way to tune into everything the Eucharist means: God wishing to be one with us, wishing us to be family to each other. She returned, “In other words, you were praying to a cracker.”

At the time, I felt far more bitter to my former Church than I do now, but I was still annoyed and offended. When I prayed in front of the Eucharist, I was committing myself to what I believed to be the greatest good. I was worshipping a love that wants to embrace everyone, a love that wants to heal all wounds and repair all injury. Yes, I believed that that love was specially present in the sacrament. That is not the same thing as “praying to a cracker.”

Plenty of people have noted the Catholic affinity with paganism, whether in the seasonal holidays it adopted from northern European pagans, or the gods and goddesses it repackaged as saints or demons. Roman Catholicism is a religion with semitic roots planted in European-pagan soil, and this shows up in the continuity between “sympathetic magic,” and Catholic sacramental thinking.

Sympathetic magic is a form of magic practiced in many cultures, in which an object or action takes place in imitation of what the practitioner would like to have happen. An enemy is harmed in effigy, as in voodoo; a loved one is protected by protecting something belonging to him, or representing him. An animal’s strength is absorbed by eating it, or wearing a symbol of it. Sympathetic magic thus lies in a space between unsymbolized action, where everything is literal, and a purely symbolic world (as in the world of language), where we can speak of killing without anyone’s being literally harmed, or speak of building without anything’s being actually put in place.

In the realm of Catholic belief, a sacrament such as baptism or the Eucharist both means and is– and morever, effects some change. Baptism means being washed clean, died and reborn, and it imitates these actions, while believing that on some level they actually are effected. Eucharist is about being nourished by Christ, being joined body and spirit to him and to all believers, and it is in fact effected by eating. Catholicism seeks to prevent this approach to the world from degenerating into pure superstition by tying these actions to the faith of the believer, and the will of God. Your faith and God’s love are what saves you, not just having water poured over your head and saying certain words. Sacraments are also distinguished from “sacramentals” (holy water, medals, statues, etc) which are seen as purely symbolic, effective only in the sense that they inspire the believer or express her intentions.

Of course, popular practice sometimes does collapse into superstition, with some people actually believing that burying a St. Joseph statue in the yard will help them sell their house, or that wearing a particular medal or saying a particular prayer will deliver a result as automatically as a coin in the vending machine.

Witchcraft has the same potential for superstition. It also has deep roots in pre-scientific magic. Psychologists use the term “magical thinking” to describe a groundless belief that you can make something happen just by wishing it. This common meaning of “magic” has led many witches to use the spelling “magick” to distinguish a more grounded practice. The “k” allows us to say (without sounding crazy) that we believe in magick, NOT, of course in magic!

The difference is huge. It’s what allows me, as a non-theist, still to assert that I was not praying to a cracker. The wafer had been imbued with a symbolism that did, in fact, affect the way I engaged the world. Meditating in the presence of this symbol made me more honest with myself, more open to change, more compassionate towards myself and others. This was not the only way it could have played out; I have no doubt that some Catholics who sat in front of the Eucharist reinforced their own narrowness, bigotry, and zealousness against nonbelievers. After all, the wafer was not “magic.”

When I use sympathetic magic now, I am aware that I am seeking to make a small change in myself, by enacting a truth or a commitment. The value of the exercise is in its power to solidify a good insight or intention. Its danger is in its power to solidify something not so good.

If I were to do a “love spell” to make someone fall for me, I am sure it would have no effect at all on the other. But it would solidify a wish in me to interfere with someone else’s freedom, and this would corrupt everything I mean by “love.” If I were to do a “money spell” in the belief that it was a winning lottery ticket, and that this guarantee of success would also bring happiness, I would only reinforce a very skewed sense of priorities.

I recently cast a circle and did an impromptu protection spell. In my office, using toys, I would have called it play therapy; in the circle, “spell” will do just fine. I was at a loss for how to work with a client. She had been emotionally abusive for years to a younger sister, and now that the sister had cut off contact, felt the girl had a duty to try to reconcile with her. I could hardly contain my outrage when I listened to this victim-blaming. I couldn’t find a way to be firm about the sister’s right to be left alone, without enjoying my stance as “punisher.”

Once within the circle, I felt a certain freedom to think and feel, without the pressure to be right, to have the answer. I could accept the circle as a place where my thoughts would not harm this client. Neither, though, were all my thoughts and feelings helpful.

I set out three stones, one for the “victim,” one for the “abuser” and one for the “rescuer” (those who work with abuse will recognize this triangle: the roles we get pulled into when we do therapy for abuse). I had, in front of me, the dilemma. The client saw herself as the victim. I saw her as the abuser, and in turn, wanted to rescue her sister and punish her– in other words, I became the abuser. There seemed no alternative to these roles, and simply to empathize with her felt like joining her against the victim.

Then I found myself reaching for a new stone, to represent the sister. It occurred to me that she was no longer in actual emotional danger from this woman. She had cut off contact. She had protected herself. I placed her far away from the triangle, and with my wand, circled her three times to reinforce my awareness that she was safe. I placed her near the goddess.

And now, I found myself outside of the triangle, looking at it. I no longer felt confined to the roles it presented. It dawned on me that I can be angry with my client, yet not act; not until I’m ready, not until I have something to offer besides anger.

I placed a sprig of heather, for peace, in the middle of the stones. I circled each with the wand three times, on the third time letting the wand drift outside the circle, to free them from their roles. Then I was ready to open the circle.

I do feel the change in myself, since doing this spell. I still struggle with difficult feelings, but I’m better able to help myself and my client reflect on what we’re doing, instead of just mindlessly acting out. The representation of the situation allowed me to work with it symbolically, but in a way that reached me deeply– that effected change. This is what I mean by magick.


Theology Matters

Theology Matters

I am, as you know, an atheist.  I’m also a believer in the importance of theology.

Hard line atheists sometimes parody religious disagreements as arguments about “who has the better imaginary friend”.  This trivializes what is in fact a profound factor in structuring the psyche, because what we can imagine gives us the model for how we engage ourselves and others.  If you believe in a god/ess, you will live according to the type of imaginary friend you carry in your heart   I offer the insights of object relations theory as one way of articulating why this is so.

The object relations school of psychotherapy evolved out of psychoanalysis.  But whereas Freud believed the primary human motivation was the pleasure principle—we seek to “reduce tension,” by, say, eating, having sex, etc—object relations analyst Douglas Fairbairn argued that even more fundamental is the drive to relate.  (The “object” in object relations comes from the grammatical term.  In the sentences “I love you,” or “I hate you,” “you” is the object—the “other” we relate to).

Fairbairn noticed that children who were abused by their parents didn’t seek to escape them, as you would expect if we are mostly about maximizing our pleasure and minimizing our pain.  Instead, they seemed more tightly bound to the abusive parent.  He theorized that since children are hard-wired to attach to a caregiver, like baby geese who are imprinted by the first moving object they see, a caregiver who is dangerous creates an unresolvable problem, and the child works even harder to maintain the attachment.

Object relations theory pictures us internalizing templates for how relationship works, based on our early experience.  If we are abused, the template is abuser-victim, or abuser-victim-rescuer.  If we are loved and empowered, the template is good parent- good me.  Our later experiences can modify these templates, so we are not doomed to live out a toxic script.

A person’s god/ess-image is one of the templates she carries.  Variations on this internalized relationship range from punisher-punished, or judge-condemned, to lover-beloved, or liberator-empowered.

Any parent knows there are, in fact, better and worse imaginary friends.  If your child begins to be haunted by an imaginary tormentor, you know that something is very wrong.  If he nurtures and guides an imaginary friend (Winnie the Pooh), or feels protected by one, you allow it as a developmental necessity.  In my therapy practice, I encounter the most appalling gods, along with some who are a genuine resource.  Gods who shame the believer without mercy, and gods who egg them on to shame others.  Gods who are blind to the believer’s sins against compassion, but utterly condemning of others who have struggled and failed.  Gods who seem mostly concerned that believers not yield an inch to a poor or traumatized relative who is trying to rebuild a life.  But also—gods who put kindness and fairness first; gods who believe that no woman should be oppressed, no matter what biblical evidence misogynistic preachers can adduce; gods who are unalterably opposed to harming a child.

If you think of my “god” as what I’ve concluded about the world, it’s an important starting point for revising an abusive script, and I have to say that good theology – theology which is rooted in a true understanding of the other, which doesn’t gloss over real life experience and aim at bogus comfort– reaches people.  Therapy clients who know I don’t believe in a literal god are nevertheless helped by what I can show them in the Bible and Judeo-Christian tradition that helps them out of their theological prisons.  For some, this means ceasing to believe in the god of this tradition.  For others, it means a revision.

I don’t, myself, believe in an actual divine other, but I can’t get worked up about people who imagine themselves loved, protected and held accountable.  I do get worked up about people imposing the “object relation” that works for them on others who find it unhelpful, or even harmful.   I would argue that the critical divide is not between believers and skeptics, but between the will to dominate and the will to liberate—or as Starhawk says, the practice of “power over” vs “power with.”  And the imposition of your beliefs on anyone else is, like it or not, about domination; about protecting your comfort zone from the reality of others’ experience.

You can worship power and self-aggrandisement, you can worship willful and smug ignorance, or your own security– or you can give your heart to honesty and compassion, and accept the risks entailed by living these principles.  Your “god” is what you give your heart to, what you base your life on, and that makes the question of what is an idol and what is worthy of your commitment the most important of your life—even if you don’t believe in the personification of your choice.

Theology, at its best, holds the god/ess image accountable to the best ethical perceptions we have at this time in ours and our culture’s lives.  It matters.

More on Placebos ….

I wrote recently on the way we craft rituals to invest objects with meanings that can provide us with psychological support.  It’s no more weird to collect crystals to improve your mood than it is build cathedrals out of beautiful stone and colored glass.

Now I want to reemphasize that this support often really is due to suggestion, or to aesthetic resonance– not to the interaction of the object’s molecular structure with some sort of aura or higher self.

First, some links to authors who make the point with reference to crystals:  You can use their references to find the original research.

And why– if pretty rocks do in fact help some people feel good– does this kind of research matter?

I like to pay the witches and folk healers of former times the compliment of believing that they were (many of them) actually serious about their craft, trying to find out actual remedies based on accumulated wisdom and experience– they did notice certain healing or analgesic properties of particular plants, for instance.  Many of their practices and researches were blind alleys, just as the male pseudoscience of alchemy proved to be; but these efforts, even when initially based on wrong premises or information, did eventually lead us to the biological, chemical, and physical knowledge we now have.

To the extent that patriarchal culture made a point of forbidding women formal education, and of suppressing folk practices as “devilry,” it prevented people from developing folk remedies into formal sciences.  A result is that women’s folk practices became relegated to the realm of superstition, and opposed to science, which was in the hands of men.  The phrase “old wives’ tale” makes this vividly clear.  The power dynamics involved conveyed to everyone that no knowledge is valid which hasn’t won the approval of educated men– when the real point should have been that any knowledge is underdeveloped unless it is tested and refined in an ongoing way.

If you doubt that much harm has been done, much knowledge lost, by the imperialistic defeat of other cultures’ accumulated folk wisdom, have a look at Anne Cameron’s classic, The Daughters of Copper Woman.  She describes a powerful blend of spiritual impulse and technological know-how in the folk practices of the Native Americans on Vancouver Island, and conveys powerfully the loss of generations of ingenuity that follows, as European colonizers bring with them their assumption that they know best how life should be lived.

It’s more than understandable to me that many women, in reclaiming their own insights, should feel wary of the scientific establishment.  Germaine Greer pointed out decades ago that women distrust men’s appeals to “reason,” because they know that these conceal a foundation of “realpolitik.”  The men of reason have, in the past, concluded that women are inferior, less intelligent, penis envying beings, given to levels of hormonal hysteria that preclude their participation in the public realm.  The men of reason suppressed midwifery, kept women’s health in their own hands, and largely restricted themselves to telling women what to do, not helping them learn how their own bodies worked.  The shock over productions of “The Vagina Monologues” reveals the extent to which the world feels threatened even by women’s being able to name and talk about their own bodies.

But the enemy we fight shouldn’t be critical thinking.  In fact, critical thinking is on our side in the long run, if we accept the task of using it for ourselves.  The enemy is the contempt for women’s experience that leads us to ignore or suppress what we know, rather than trying to understand and build on it.

It’s really okay if the proximity of a certain stone helps you feel more peaceful.  That this is the effect of “suggestion” doesn’t make it bad, or useless, or unworthy of study.  Hypnotic suggestion can relieve stress and pain, and there is a science to understanding how that works.  Colors, sounds, scents, all affect us emotionally, and this is a reality we can develop and use to our benefit.  Looking at waves on the beach is soothing to me, and if the practice saves me the need for an anti-anxiety medicine, so much the better.  If not, it’s good that tested medicines are there, too.

What’s not okay is to invoke science by talking about the electric properties of minerals, and then shift gears into the nonverifiable (and sometimes nonsensical) language of “spiritual energy”  in order to bolster shaky claims about a product you’re selling.   Never mind what male scientists will think of us; what will we think of ourselves if we base whole belief systems on sloppy thinking?  As a friend of mine asked, why pull the wool over our own eyes?

Patriarchy has tended to set intuition and feeling against reason.  It’s up to the modern witches and scientists to heal the split– as, for instance, when we respect what we feel when we hold a stone, then use the tools of reason to understand what is happening.

Crafting New Practices

(last post was about what was involved in authorizing myself to do this, this post is about what I’ve come up with)

Minus a five year apostasy, roughly ages 16 to 21, I was Catholic for 47 years.  And I was no “cultural Catholic.”  By age 10, I was invested enough to be doing the Stations in the Cross in lieu of recess during Lent.  Not that this was a huge sacrifice; recess was no picnic, and the cool, dark and quiet of the church suited me, and Jesus-the-victim resonated strongly with a kid who couldn’t fit in.

Consider, then, the effect on the nervous system of decades of Catholic devotional practices.  I don’t mean this ironically.  I am used to a liturgical calendar that matches the seasons of nature to the events of salvation history to the various moods of an individual life.  Seasons for birth, for repentance, for suffering, for dying, for transformation and renewal.  And good old “ordinary time.”  I’m used to the Stations of the Cross, a cycle of (among other things) deep empathy with oppressed and suffering humanity.  I’m used to the rosary, a cycle of celebration, mourning, wonder.  I’m used to “set” prayers which form the backdrop to something far too deep for words; rote recital which acts like ripples on the water, while I sink farther into the depths, and find renewal there.

I have prayed the rosary so often, that the mere feel of beads in my hand has a quieting, grounding effect– so much so that when I left the Church, I bought some Buddhist prayer beads (for mantras, though I mostly use them now to practice naming the chemical elements).

When I lost my faith, as the saying goes– or rather, pursued my faith in truth, in compassion, in integrity to the point that the old beliefs were no longer sustainable– I felt as though these practices had simply to be discarded.  Even if I tried to revert to them, I couldn’t believe the things that gave them life, so they no longer lived.  An assortment of magick practices began to speak to me, but these sometimes stood my Catholic beliefs on their head, so that I felt alienated from my own spiritual past.  The new rituals held great promise, but there was still an awkwardness.  I would cast a circle, and then not know quite what to do inside it.

As I’ve used (among other things) this blog to work through my cognitive dissonance, I’ve opened a space where I can build a bridge between what I had then and what I have now.  Here’s the best I’ve got, so far (and for me, it’s really, really good):

A rosary has 50 beads of “Hail Marys,” divided by 5 beads of “Our Fathers” and “Glory Be”s.  It has, outside the circle, an “Our Father” bead, three “Hail Mary” beads, and a final “Glory Be.”  The end of this short, 5 bead chain is a cross.

I couldn’t use the beads while the cross was on them.  I don’t mean any disrespect to Jesus, but I couldn’t wrap my fingers around the symbol of the instrument of his torture, a torture deemed necessary by the supposedly loving “Father,” couldn’t use that as the starting point for reclaiming my dignity as a woman.  So I cut the cross off my rosary, and put it away.

Now the problem was what to say.  I don’t say “what to pray,” because since I see the goddess as a symbol, I don’t actually believe my words are being received by someone– and that makes “prayer” the wrong word.  A practice.  A meditation.  Not a prayer.

Well, what was the central point of witchcraft, for me?  That nature is what there is, and nature is a whole, even though nature organizes itself into discrete dynamic structures, and some of these are sentient, and even have the experience of “self.”  This is not, as Buddhism would have it, an illusion, pure and simple; there is a reason that certain biological processes produce such a subjective experience.  But the experience is not the last word on reality, and is destined to give way, in death.  We stop being “selves,” and everything we are composed of is redistributed into new, temporary structures.

So how do I express this, meditate on this?

Ok, laugh all you want at this, but I’m not too proud to get my inspiration from wherever I find it.  There is, in season four of Buffy (it’s ok, laugh away), a spell performed by Willow and Tara, with these words:  “The inward eye, the sightless sea / Ayala flows through the river in me.”  This couplet had haunted me for years.  But who the hell is “Ayala?”  I looked into it; there’s no such goddess legend, at least not that I can find.  It appears to be a Joss Whedon invention, like the demon M’Fashnik.

Alright, then, what do I use in place of Ayala?  “The inward eye, the sightless sea / the goddess flows through the river in me.”  If the goddess is the metaphor for all that is, that works; we are, as Joni Mitchell says, stardust– the atoms that live and recombine in us have been around since the Big Bang.  “The inward eye, the sightless sea / All things flow through the river in me.”  Either of these couplets makes a perfect substitute for the “Our Father” beads.

So what goes in between?  What came to me was this:  “Wind and wave / Star and tree / Earth and stone”– then what?  “Tree” is easy to rhyme, so you could go lots of ways:  “Live in me;” “Carry me;” “Speak to me;” “Blessed be!”  Well, the last line could be adapted to what you feel.  For that matter, you could rewrite the first three lines — if, say, you feel more affinity to animals:  “Snake and bird / Whale and bee / Fish and lion ….” etc.

And what about the three “Hail Mary” beads that go outside the circle?  I had already found myself drawn to two particular manifestations of the goddess, Kali, and Quan Yin.  What moved me about Kali was the notion of a primordial creator-destroyer, who somehow had become more compassionate, more human.  The story I knew about Kali was that she was married to Shiva, who loved her, in all her raw scariness, above all goddesses (as I read it: preferred to face reality, rather than clinging to a pretty illusion).   When the world was besieged by a multiplying demon, she went on a rampage, and even after she killed it and its spawn, could not distinguish demon from other living things, and kept killing indiscriminately.  Only Shiva was able to stop her, by throwing himself under her feet.  She saw him, recognized him, was shocked and ashamed at what she was doing.  From then on, she became the destroyer of illusion.  Yet all things will eventually die, so Kali remains the dark, primordial mother and grave of all that is.

Quan Yin, by contrast, is all goodness and light.  She is the epitome of what we can strive to be as humans.  She is the Bodhisattva, the one who chooses to forego even enlightenment, if it helps her to redeem even one sentient being.  Quan Yin is, to me, the summit of what we have achieved, or at least imagined, as human beings evolved out of Kali.  She is our commitment to create a place of safety, of kindness, and beauty, before we die.

Well, that’s two goddesses.  And my old rosary has three “Hail Mary” beads outside the circle.  Plus, I was taught to think in terms of Trinity– and the law of three certainly precedes Christianity, as the triple goddess shows us.  Who would be my third?

Cerridwen.  If Kali and Quan Yin are the extremes of the evolving-primordial, and the summit of evolved compassion, Cerridwen is the process.  She gave birth the a beautiful daughter, and a hideous son.  She wanted to help her son, and so crafted a potion that would give him knowledge and insight to compensate for his ugliness.  But on the day the potion would have matured, she fell asleep, and the boy who was tending the brew was in the line of fire when it spattered, and when he sucked the potion off his skin, he acquired the gifts that were meant for Cerridwen’s son.  When she found out she pursued him, through a series of shape shifts, hoping to kill him.  She was greyhound to his rabbit, otter to his fish, and finally the hen who ate the grain of corn he became.  But the corn made her pregnant, and in the end, she gave birth to the great legendary Welsh poet, Taliessen.

Cerridwen is, for me, life as it is lived between the extremes.  We have instinctual passions, and we make loving plans, but when the latter go awry, we sometimes set ourselves to destroy what disappoints us, rather than accepting the new good.  Cerridwen seemed to me the best third for my new trinity.

I will summarize the new “rosary” below, but my point is not that anyone should adopt it.  Rather, this is an example of how anyone might take the spiritual resources they have, and adapt them to a new, woman-centered symbolic world.    Don’t ask permission, don’t feel you have to adopt anyone else’s ritual just because it’s in a book– just start with what you have, and what you want to express.  Let it simmer; and it will turn into something you can use.

My Witch’s Rosary:

(B= “Our Father” or “Glory Be” bead; b = “Hail Mary” bead; alt = alternate words for this bead; a “decade” equals B plus 10 b)

(beads outside the circle):

B:  “The inward eye, the sightless sea / The Goddess flows through the river in me” 2x   (alt:  “All things flow ….”; OR use the names of people who have helped you, as in “My mother flows through the river in me ….”)

b:   “The inward eye, the sightless sea / Kali flows through the river in me”

b:  “The inward eye, the sightless sea / Quan Yin flows through the river in me”

b:  “The inward eye, the sightless sea / Cerridwen flows through the river in me”   (alt: any goddess names that are important to you)

B:  “The inward eye, the sightless sea / The Goddess flows through the river in me ” 2 x  (alt:  “All things flow ….”)

(beads inside the circle):

B:  “The inward eye, the sightless sea / The Goddess (alt All things) flow through the river in me”

b:  “Wind and wave / Star and tree / Earth and stone / Live in me”  (alt: Speak to me, Carry me, Blessed be)– repeat for 10 beads

Repeat this pattern for all five decades, then repeat the pattern for beads outside the circle.

Of Crafting and Placebos

Stage one of my life as a witch:  I’m looking up spells and rituals furtively, as though I were googling porn.  What would people think of me?  Had I lost my mind?  But I’m so excited by what I’m seeing.  I’m hanging around New Age People, pretending to be above all that stuff, and just interested in the “serious” (read, traditional Asian religious) statues.

Stage two:  My curiosity and interest get the better of me.  I observe Samhain.  This entails buying some equipment and writing out a spell, so it’s hard to pretend I haven’t begun to take the plunge.  I’ve got a wand, two dishes for salt and water, four candle holders and candles for the points of the compass, a goddess statue, and a little selenite tower-thing.  And some floral and herbal decorations.  I rewrite the ritual I found online to omit references to gods and goddesses, and proceed.

Stage three:  I’m finding the practice so rewarding, I start keeping a Book of Shadows.  I do the rhymey thing with spells, come up with more and more meaningful objects, spend more and more money at New Age People (thanks, guys!).  And then kind of peter out.

So what’s the problem, at that point?  Well, I can cast a good circle, but then I’m not quite sure what to do with myself.  I meditate zen-style for awhile, but I haven’t found any routine practice I can do without written instructions.  And it begins to hit me that there is an art to crafting a really good prayer or image or sacred object, and maybe I’m just not that talented.

Stage four:  I’m making an awful lot of wands.  That seems weird; sort of a material-girl, acquisitive approach to witchcraft.  But there is something deeply fulfilling in it, albeit it entails still more expenditure (all those crystals).  And I feel like a loon buying stones that are supposed to “bring” me anything.  To paraphrase Mole in The Wind in the Willows, stones just aren’t that sort.  They know their place.  And anyway, the whole notion of special kinds of energy coming off of rocks in a powerful enough way to influence human events –?  No.

So why do I keep buying them, and attaching them to wands?  And why do I feel such an excitement when I pick up certain stones, and nothing at all when I pick up others?

Stage five:  I start thinking about placebos.  Because magick– what Starhawk defines as “the power to change consciousness at will”– now seems to me like a system of crafting placebos.

Now that may sound dismissive, or trivializing, but I don’t see it that way.  There are better and worse placebos.  If placebo pills affect people in our culture, it is because we’ve learned to associate pills with relief of some kind, which would not have happened if medicine were a sham.  Likewise, religious placebos only take effect because of people’s long standing associations, and I believe they only become effective in the first place because they carry a deep emotional resonance for the cultures that adopt them.  Catholicism had to adopt some of the pagan practices of Northern Europe, because northern Europeans experience the seasons in their very bone marrow.  Nothing could make a deep spiritual appeal to these people that didn’t touch that part of their being.

Ann Moura, in Green Witchcraft, writes of the way our knowledge affects which magick practices “work” for us, and which don’t:

Although there are many people who feel Ceremonial magic is a valid approach to magic, anyone who studies history and understands the derivation for the rituals of Ceremonialism is unlikely to be able to continue to use the system with any degree of success because knowledge, which is the gift of the Goddess, alters the perception.  Joseph Campbell was unable to remain a Catholic after his study of world mythological patterns, and numerous historians set aside religion after discovering the origins of various faiths, so it should not be considered unusual for a person who rejects mainstream religions to also reject a magical system that has connection to those beliefs.    

Okay, so me trying to root my use of stones in Deepak-Chopra-style pseudo-science won’t be effective for me.  What kind of placebo is this, then?

The colors matter to me.  The textures.  The sheen.  Color speaks to my heart at such a depth, to repaint a room feels life-changing.  Not everyone is that attuned to color, I suppose, but there are certainly color affects that most people experience — red as stimulating, blue as tranquilizing, etc.   That you prefer one or the other probably speaks to a biological / psychological need of yours.  And I notice that the books on crystals do not work by means of a rigid dogmatism about what-means-what.  Always, the recommendation is that if a stone is “calling” you, it’s the stone for you, no matter what the books say.

On the other hand, if the effect on my nervous system is “real,” is the stone a “placebo?”  Or is it, rather, that human beings are affected as subjects who live in worlds of meaning, and not merely as objects, via direct biological intervention?  Cathedrals are powerful in their evocation of a sense of the sacred, and they do it by means of stone, wood and colored glass.  The simple arrangement of stones on my altar, or the crude attachment of meaningful stones to a meaningful stick– these are acquiring the same power for me.

Stage six (present stage):  Bringing a new energy to finding practices that “work”– and finding that I do this best by starting with what I have, not by starting with other people’s rituals (though I read about those, too).   More on that in another post.



Peeling Away the Patriarchy

“She has changed the way I think of Africa,” Fanny said.  “She’s changed the way I think about a lot of things!”

     “Good writers do that,” he murmured, distracted.

     But he did not want to change the way he thought of Africa.  Besides, when he wanted insight into Africa, he’d read a man. 


     But why should he try to read all the books that changed her life.  She had time for those kinds of books.  She taught literature!   He had to read the books required by his profession.  The teaching of American history ….

     …..He wanted American history, the stuff he taught, to forever be the center of everyone’s attention.  What a few white men wanted, thought, and did.  For he liked the way he could sneak in some black men’s faces later on down the line.  And then trace those backward until they appeared even before Columbus.  It was like a backstitch in knitting, he imagined, the kind of history teaching that he did, knitting all the pieces, parts and colors that had been omitted from the original design.  But now to have to consider African women writers and Kalahari bushmen!  It seemed a bit much.

Both excerpts from Alice Walker (1989), The Temple of My Familiar.  New York:  Pocket Books.


     It’s kind of a comfort to me to know that the only people on earth regularly following this blog are two of my four kids, and (I think) one sister.  It takes the pressure off when I stall out for awhile.  And I’ve stalled out recently, partly because the whole premise of this blog has become problematic to me.

     I presented the blog in my “intro” as a contribution to the witch world, and that contribution was supposed to be intellectual rigor.  I’m beginning to feel ashamed of the arrogance in this, as I read the works of witches (Starhawk, Ann Moura, and others) who show historical, scientific and psychological sophistication– and who are in any case better writers.   But more troubling to me is the way I find myself, when I write, trying to justify myself to an internal tribunal of male academics.  And the members of the tribunal all share the sense that a subject that only women write about can’t be serious.

     I am the daughter of an academic, and grew up around his male colleagues.  When I was very young, I simply didn’t see female professors, and when I began to meet female intellectuals, they rubbed me the wrong way.  They seemed so competitive, so defensive; what was missing, I see now, was the easy air of authority that comes with knowing you’re the lawful inheritor of the world of the intellect.  Women had to fight their way in, while the men could just assume the mantle.

    I was a loud advocate for women’s rights in middle and high school, but somewhere in the course of college life, I drank the koolaid.  The problem, I think, is that since my life was in disarray, I was vulnerable to the spoken and unspoken view that I had brought these on myself by being rebellious, non-believing, and non-compliant.  I saw sexism and misogyny all around me, but could not carry these awarenesses gracefully– and why should I have?  To carry them at all took considerable strength and courage; to be the kind of person who effects change around them (rather than being written off as a nut) was beyond my teenaged abilities.  There was very little help to integrate my perspective into an adult identity; the pressure was to give it up.

     So I found a way to persuade myself back into conventional belief.  I became a “scholar,” studied the classics and pooh-poohed feminist readings of them.  The point was to master “the canon,” which left little time for books by women, books by non-European authors, books by contemporaries.  One had to climb the mountain and sit at the feet of the masters, and I put phenomenal energy and patience into doing just that.

     I feel silly, at 53, finally coming back to what I knew at 17, and part of the process involves not blaming myself for being human, then and now.  I struggle with a load of shame for having turned on myself the way I did, just the way abused children or oppressed people feel ashamed for having been powerless, or for having used their strengths to adapt to oppression.  I feel the same shame they feel to find themselves repeating their own victimization as adults– as though they should have been, somehow, above carrying lasting hurt.  I know what it’s like to feel that you have somehow morphed into the oppressor you hated.  I cringe when I remember using my hard-won learning to defend the indefensible in my church and in western culture– to try to exonerate it from the clear reality of its determination to suppress women, then and now.   I feel deep shame for having minimized or argued with women who were laboring to see through the bullshit.

    Yet here I am, trying to show The Man that my interest in witchcraft is not just some silly chick thing.

    Whatever intellectual rigor means to me, it can’t be allowed to become the code word for the male academic stamp of approval.  It’s time to dismiss the tribunal.

Why a Witch?

Because ….

I’m done trying to persuade anyone of what I’m not.

No being extra gentle to persuade you I’m not a bitch.

No doing all the work so you don’t think I’m a nag.

No keeping my concerns to myself so you don’t think I’m a scold.

No being sexual when I don’t feel like it so you don’t think I’m frigid.

No being nonsexual so you don’t think I’m a slut.

No softpedaling equal rights so you don’t think I’m the “wrong sort of feminist.”

In fact, you know what?  Just assume I’m your worst nightmare.  You go right ahead and see me as demanding, aggressive, strident, humorless, sexually rejecting, sexually demanding– even godless, if you like.

The hell with it.  I’m a WITCH!

Goddess Worship … ?

I just can’t.

It’s partly that I’m an atheist, and I don’t “worship” symbols.  But also, if the Goddess is a way of personifying the whole of nature– everything that is— than I can’t really say that it’s worthy of worship.  Nature is beautiful, but also cruel to the myriad sentient beings it generates.

Besides, when I worshiped a God, I felt the need to submit; I assumed He (I thought in traditional terms) knew best about everything.  I don’t think that about nature– at least I don’t think it always knows what’s best for the individual beings that come and go.  I don’t feel I have to obey some sort of mandate from nature– biology is not destiny.

What I do believe is that, being wholly bound up in the interconnected whole that is nature, I will function best, and exercise the most constructive “power,” by understanding the connections and working with them.  I do set boundaries on “nature” sometimes, be weeding my lawn, taking anti-inflammatories, and getting my dogs vaccinated.  To that extent, I assert myself within the whole system, rather than simply complying with some imagined “will.”  This, to me, is not an attitude of worship, though it is compatible with reverence.

I honor the Goddess; I love the Goddess, in the way we love others with whom we nevertheless negotiate and set boundaries.  I know the Goddess is a personification, and I can’t count on “Nature” to keep any sort of contract I make with it.  It follows its own rules, though, and I can count on that, so the better I understand it, the less time I waste trying to shape it in ways it simply won’t go.

I try to write my prayers to avoid the cognitive dissonance that arises in me reading goddess-worshiping prayers.  I’ve found that I’m drawn to two goddess figures in particular– Kali, the creator and destroyer of Hindu myth, and Quan Yin, the Buddhist Boddhisatva of compassion.   These are the figures that keep cropping up in my shamanic journeys (more on that in another post), the figures I bought statues of for my room because they resonated somehow.  So here’s my first attempt at prayer to them:

Kali Ma, you are the energy that drives the worlds, the Maker and the Destroyer.  All that is good is born in you, as well as all harm; but when Shiva, who loves you above all goddesses, lay beneath your feet and looked into your eyes, you learned discernment.  Now you are the destroyer of illusion. 

Quan Yin, you arise, graceful, from the flames of Kali’s fire, the storms of Kali’s seas.  You are all that is gentle, all that is compassionate.  Resting in the great arms of Kali, you hold us little ones to your breast, and teach us to make places of safety, beauty and love, until Kali calls us back to her dark heart.  

Honor, reverence and love to Quan Yin!  Honor, reverence and love to Kali Ma! 

–Understand, the prayer precedes any explication I make of it now; but as a former Catholic I can say lex orandi, lex credendi— roughly, what we pray reveals and guides what we believe.  So what do I make of this prayer?

Kali retains the ambivalence of nature, both nurturing and harsh– yet it’s in her womb that life forms begin to cooperate, that mammals begin to develop empathy, that human beings begin to strive toward ideals.  And so Quan Yin depends on, and is enfolded by Kali.  Quan Yin, you might say, has the luxury of being gentle while Kali is gentle with her, and in the end, all living things will die.  But the reality that Quan Yin is an artifact of a certain level of biological evolution, and that she is temporary in the grand scheme of things (the universe will one day “go out”), doesn’t make her not-real, or not important.

This prayer certainly reverses what I believed as a Catholic– that a force of absolute goodness made the world, and that world declined from what it should have been.  That myth has the deep appeal of an abused child’s belief that her abuser is good, and she is at fault.  But I’m turning toward this new myth as closer to the way the world actually looks to me, and therefore more liberating.