Saturday, January 19, 2008

Spirit in the Body

Erik, of Executive Pagan, has been thinking about things missing in his spiritual life as a Pagan.

In his last post, he writes, "my paganism is more in the head and heart than in the hands," and I found myself nodding vigorously. I know that, as a new Pagan, in an area of Vermont that back then had even fewer Pagans than it does today, it sometimes seemed just easier to stay home, do my own personal trance journeys, and forget the community piece. I vividly remember the trance journey when the Goddess disabused me of that idea--one very strong message that that was NOT THE WAY. I kept seeking, and I did eventually find a community to connect with, and those connections made my spiritual practice real in ways it could never have been if I had remained a solitary practitioner.

Erik has worshipped in community, too. But his experiences and mine both go to show, one of the frustrating things about Pagan communities is that they are volatile, and even when the friendships survive, the forms of communal worship sometimes evanesce. It's frustrating!

In my own life, two things have been helpful to finding and keeping a Paganism of the hands, not just of the heart and head. One is the satisfaction of time... There is one annual retreat which my husband and I have been a part of for the past 14 years; other groups I regularly connect with I have ties with that go back twenty years. Babies I held in my arms before they were a week old are in high school now, and couples I handfasted have large, happy families. Celebrating with these groups isn't as intensely involving as my earliest Pagan rituals were in some ways, but in others, the slow burn of banked up community warmth is deeply satisfying.

I am enjoying building connections with my Quaker community, too, but I will say, that sense of a warm central hearth is not there in the same way. I suspect Erik, who is active among the local UU church, may have found some of the same things: that those connections are satisfying, but somehow less visceral than the feeling of building a tribe or a village to be had among Pagans, even when we're not as good as sustaining our institutions.

But the Pagan world is getting better at all these things--it's been fun, for instance, listening to Margot Adler, who until recently, had to some extent pulled back from the Pagan community, finding her primary spiritual sustenance among the UUs. But in the last few years, she's been much more involved with Pagans again, and it's fun to hear her list the ways the movement has matured. She's so clearly delighted and enthusiastic with the changes among us.

That makes it easier to see how fast the movement is growing. Some of what we lack just hasn't been built yet. But it's in progress--the foundations poured and the lumber ready.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that patience and hanging in for the long haul have led to some of the missing pieces falling gradually into place. Which is bearable--especially for those of us, like you and like me, who are fortunate enough to have membership in more than one worship community. (There are perils and frustrations that go along with that, too, of course, but, well, whaddaya gonna do?)

The second thing that has helped me to keep my Paganism a thing of the hands as well as the head and the heart is practicing quite literally a hands-on spirituality. In another trance journey, years after the first one I mentioned, the goddess I work with most often appeared to me in the underworld. She was sitting beside a well (or a pool--the imagery was inconsistent) and spinning at an enormous wheel. When I approached her, she set me on her lap, rather the way an adult might set a child on their lap to let them "drive" a car. She put the thread she was drafting into my hands, and had me spin.

I took the hint. When the Mother of the Universe (or one of the Norns or the Fates or the Disir or Lady Frigga) tells you to take up a craft, you're well advised to do so. It took a while to find teachers, materials, and books, but I did eventually teach myself to spin and to knit (a skill that had eluded me since childhood). And, though I'd be hard pressed to explain why, I am in fact able to feel a strong, deep connection with the gods when I'm spinning and knitting. Oh, not all the time--having a wheel spin out of true, or having to take out rows and rows of stitches after a really BIG knitting mistake tends to make me pretty cranky, actually. But often enough, I feel this gentle, warm sense of connection.

Literally warm. I received a Reiki attunement some years back, and, as you may know, one of the hallmarks of that system of energy healing is that the hands of the practitioner become noticeably warm, even hot, while they're using the energy. Usually, it's when laying on hands, but, wierdly enough, I often feel that heat in my hands as I knit or spin.

I feel it in Quaker meeting, too, and have developed the habit of placing my hands over my heart when I'm in worship. It just feels right, and whether the energy of my hands deepens my worship, or my worship heats up my hands, I couldn't tell you. But I find it happening, not always, but a lot.

I also find that, when I have really important spiritual truths I'm trying to say, my hands and my body feel them first, before I have the words. Some spiritual experiences I have only gestures for, not really any words that seem to fit. My spiritual life, in other words, has become grounded into my body. My body--my lumpy, imperfect, middle-aged body, which nevertheless does not know how to lie or boast or or become complacent. I've come to use my body as my barometer of truth and spirit in a way that is very hard to explain, but good to feel.

I honestly don't remember whether it was my Quaker friend, Jan Hoffman, who said it, or whether I thought it because of something she said: that spiritual discernment feels like a plumb line, lining up, straight and perpendicular, inside me. That sense of things being lined up, just so--of heat in my hands, and of hands doing well what my ancestors' hands surely did before me... There's something about embodied spirituality that keeps us from drifting off into silly, self-inflating, faux spirituality.

Embodied spirit--doing what you can feel in your hands (and muscles and spinal column--you know what I mean!) is a great way to go the distance in a religion based on life in the here and now--in the body.

9 comments:

Erik said...

I'm mainly responding to this back on my blog - but I just wanted to say "thanks" here as well, it's helpful.

Riverwolf said...

"my paganism is more in the head and heart than in the hands"---interesting comment because that's almost how I would've described my Christianity not long ago. Lots in the head but, actually, no heart. Lots of "doing" though, but without the heart, what's the point?

Anyway, thanks for the post. You've given me lots to think about as far as how to "feel" being a pagan in my hands.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Thanks, Riverwolf!

And if you haven't discovered it yet, Erik's Executive Pagan blog is another place to explore the feel-not just the ideas--of being Pagan. Stop by if you haven't already; it's one of my favorite Pagan blogs.

Erik said...

Cat,
*blush*
You say the sweetest things... :)

Riverwolf,
It's definitely easy to get caught up in the doing - my problem is that I get caught up in the thinking and feeling, and sometimes the doing falls by the wayside... and in a religion as heavily orthopraxic as Hellenismos (and much of paganism generally, actually), that's somewhat problematic.

You used the past tense, so I am assuming that you moved past your issue? Do you mind if I ask how/what happened? Apologies if the question is too personal...

Riverwolf said...

Erik, I assume you mean this statement: "how I would've described my Christianity not long ago." Hmmm, well, the shortest version is that at one point I described myself as a Christian and knew a lot about the doctrine (head). I was also a devout Christian and was trying to hang onto my faith, which had so often sustained me (heart). However, that slowly changed and it no longer sustained me after ... well, simply living and asking hard questions. Yet I kept "doing," going to church and serving and so on. Gradually my heart just wasn't in it, and I realized I had started on a new path. Saying I'm a pagan sounds sort funny because I don't really know what that means exactly. I mean, I've been thinking these thoughts and having these feelings, but it's all very disorganized it seems. Maybe I'm too eager to put my "hands" to work.

HOpe that answers your question, and thanks for asking. I'm trying to work out some of this on my blog.

"A religion as heavily orthopraxic as Hellenismos"????--ok, I'm rushing to my dictionary!!

Erik said...

Ah, I misunderstood - I read that statement as "I'm a Christian and got through a period of x and am doing better now"... not "I was a Christian and now I'm not." :)

Re: "orthopraxic"... sorry. Means that it's focused more on worship practice than theology.

...pagan sounds sort funny because I don't really know what that means exactly.

If you decide this is your path and stay with it, it will wind up meaning something different to you than it does to me or to Cat, most likely. For instance, my relationships are with the Greek gods, particularly Athena and Hermes, and I'm sure that's a very different experience than Cat's relationship with Cernunnos/Herne. I believe that we are called by the Gods (or God) we are meant to worship, and that as much as anything our task is just to listen.

Cosette said...

Lovely post, Cat. Sometimes I feel like that, like it's more of the head and heart, less of the hands. Lately, I've been feeling more balanced. Two things that has really helped me connect are just taking the time to do it (ritual, active prayer, etc.) and also creating art. That's has been a huge development for me.

Walhydra said...

Cat,

This is so true!

"[When] I have really important spiritual truths I'm trying to say, my hands and my body feel them first, before I have the words.... My spiritual life...has become grounded into my body. My body--my lumpy, imperfect, middle-aged body, which nevertheless does not know how to lie or boast or or become complacent. I've come to use my body as my barometer of truth and spirit in a way that is very hard to explain, but good to feel."

And this:

"...spiritual discernment feels like a plumb line, lining up, straight and perpendicular, inside me. That sense of things being lined up, just so--of heat in my hands.... There's something about embodied spirituality that keeps us from drifting off into silly, self-inflating, faux spirituality."

The tragedy of Christian ideology-- as contrasted with Christian truth-- is its embrace of body-versus-spirit dualism. What a mistake!

If we weren't meant to experience spirituality through the body, we wouldn't have been given bodies.

Bless├Ęd Be,
Michael

Pitch313 said...

The craft/art that I took up is calligraphy. Not only does it play a major role in my overall practice, but it also enables me to act as a sacred scribe in the community.

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