Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Focusing on Sacred Space

How do you mark the sacred space when you're about to enter into meditation, perform a spell or enact a ritual? Yes, all space is sacred, but I've never known anyone who can focus on all of (possibly infinite) space at once. We need to narrow it down to the particular area we're in at the time in order to have a finite, defined chunk of All-That-Is to focus on.

Many ancient spiritual traditions involved permanent sacred locations: temples, groves, stone circles and the like. In these cases, the setting defines the sacred space. Sure, you can purify it and bless it and all that, but it's already there, already marked and waiting for you.

Castlerigg Stone Circle

What if you don't have a permanent building or space? Maybe you're going to have a ritual in a public park, or do a meditation in your back yard, or cast a spell in your living room. You need to mark out - physically or in your mind - the limits of the space in which you'll be 'doing your thing.'

You might walk around the perimeter of the area, or carry a broom and sweep around it, or use a ritual blade to mark a circle in the air or on the ground. You could sprinkle salt or some other substance (I use flour or white sand outdoors since salt will damage plants) to mark the edge of your sacred space. You could carry incense around the edge of the area to simultaneously define and purify/bless it. Or you could simply sit still and visualize a circle/sphere or other shape building around you in the ether.

In addition to the physical marking of the sacred space, I like to use a bit of poetry or chant to help me focus on the act, especially when I'm doing ritual with a number of people. Over the years I've used a wide variety of verses in the public rituals I've performed. Here's a bit of rhyme I used with a small group that I ran for a while, when we held rituals at the full moon:

Dragons and trees circle 'round
As we call the old moon down.
Brother, sister, family, friends,
A rolling hoop that never ends.

You could substitute other Powers and energies for the dragons and trees, depending on the purpose of your ritual. I've called on the Land Wights, the Fae and the Ancestors at various times when that was appropriate to the event. When I run rituals that focus on guided visualizations or shamanic journeying, I often say these words as I'm marking out the working space:

We journey tonight within and beyond.  I mark the beginning of our journey.  I mark the sacred circle of ritual and of life.

Over the years I've done a lot of work with goddesses from different pantheons. When a female deity is involved in the working, I like to use a circle-casting verse I wrote that invokes Her energy and protection:

Between the worlds we gather now
From time and space and mind
A journey safe in goddess’ womb
Till out we once more climb

Here's a poetic choice for goddess-centered ceremonies; I wrote this one for the New Moon Ritual included in Ariadne's Thread:

I cast about with ancient Art
The Temple of the Goddess true
Whose essence lives within my heart
Whose presence lets me start anew

One of my favorite ways of marking sacred space involves all the participants working together. This is especially suitable for events involving children. Everyone stands in a circle, fairly close together. The first person reaches their left hand out and takes hold of the right hand of the person next to them (the second person). As they do so, they say, "Hand to hand the circle is cast." The second person then reaches out to hold hands with the third person, repeating the words, and so on around the circle. When all hands are linked, the leader then declares, "The circle is cast" and everyone lets go. This is an excellent way not only to generate the division between sacred and mundane space, but also to develop a sense of community and intimacy among the participants in the ritual. You would think it would be unsuitable for large groups since it would take a long time to complete, but I've seen it used effectively with up to fifty people. All the participants watch the connection form around the circle. They see it with their own eyes, and their perception of the circle growing around the group increases the intensity of the connection. It can be quite moving.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Always Check Their Baggage

Always check their baggage. No, I'm not training you to be a TSA agent. This is much more important than that.

Old luggage - source: Wikimedia Commons

I regularly see online memes exhorting me to get rid of the negative people in my life so I'll be happier or at least less stressed and annoyed. Yes, that's good advice, but it's not always easy to pick out which people to distance yourself from. Some are obvious - the ones who bully you, who take advantage of your good will, who take without ever giving. Others are not so easy to identify. Step one: check their baggage.

Everyone (you and me included) has two types of baggage, metaphorically speaking: the stuff we carry around inside ourselves and the people we accumulate around us. Yes, people can be a kind of baggage as well. Stay with me here and I'll explain.

First, the 'interior baggage.' No, you can't make everyone take a personality test before you befriend them. But as you get to know someone, you can look for signs that they are seeking more from you than just friendship. Do they give you gifts or lend you items over and over, keeping themselves in your good graces, as if they were eventually expecting something from you? A romantic interest who brings you flowers is one thing; a casual friend who brings you an item to add to your favorite collection or a new book to borrow every time they see you is another. This is one that caught me by surprise, not once but twice (since then, I've learned to pay attention). It's actually a marketing technique, though the people doing it may not be using it that consciously.

The point of enlightenment, for me, was realizing that these people were expecting me to 'pay back' their generosity in ways I wasn't comfortable with. I'm not saying you should automatically drop anyone who gives you gifts; just pay attention to the implications of the situation. The other person might be expecting you to enter into a relationship with them in some form - be their student, or teacher, or lover - or pay them back with a job opportunity or other beneficial situation. This is underhanded manipulation, whether the person doing it realizes it or not (it's amazing how much we do that we don't even admit to ourselves). Best to back off and let them find another target for their 'generosity.'

Gift box - Source: Wikimedia Commons

Then there are the people who want you to 'save' them. You may not realize it until you have invested a great deal of time and energy in the relationship, and often these folks don't even know they're doing it. What do I mean by someone wanting you to save them?

We all go through rough times in life, times when we need a shoulder to lean on. That's what friends are for. But some people never manage to lift themselves up out of the hole, so to speak, and expect someone else to do it for them. Someone who can't let go of grief after years and years, or whose life regularly falls apart socially or financially (or both), or who is so wounded they can't manage a relationship - these people may seek a savior. Yes, we all need help sometimes, and friends can be as valuable as trained professionals in many cases, but a person you must continually bail out emotionally or financially, who needs constant support and encouragement and can never seem to get ahead for themselves, is a problem.

I have a friend who calls this sort of person a 'project,' in other words, someone you need to work on so they can improve. If you have the emotional wherewithal and the time and energy for them, then that's all right. But most of us don't. And here's the thing: many of these people have no intention of actually moving forward in their lives. They are stuck, for whatever reason, and go from person to person seeking a savior to fix their lives for them. And in the process, they drain us. They use up our time, our energy, our goodwill and our emotional (and sometimes financial) reserves.

Sometimes it's hard to identify people like this, and it's even harder to step away from them because we feel sorry for them. They are experts at attracting sympathy and pity. It's not unusual to feel like you're a bad person for dropping someone like this from your life. But believe me, you're better off in the long run if you do.

Now for the exterior baggage: the other people each friend brings into your life.

Open air crowd - Source: Wikimedia Commons

We don't often consider our friends' wider circles of acquaintances as baggage, but in a way they are. The other people they bring into your life affect you and may change your quality of life. Here's a simple example: You add a friend on Facebook, maybe someone you've recently met in real life. They seem perfectly nice in person, though you haven't spent much time with them yet. But their posts in your News Feed are full of their friends having inflammatory arguments. If you comment on any of it, you become the target of the ire. Maybe you can't even ask a question without someone suggesting you have a lower-than-average intelligence. Not a good situation. You have a fresh headache before you've even finished your morning coffee.

In this case, you could simply delete this person's Facebook posts from your News Feed. And if you only see them, and not their friends, in social situations, it might work out all right. But consider this: your new friend thinks this kind of behavior is acceptable. They may even enjoy the drama and the flame wars. How are you going to interact with them over time, especially if there's a chance you may meet some of their extended circle of friends in person? Will you be able to relax around them and be friendly or will you always be on your guard, concerned that you'll become the center of a firestorm simply for making a casual comment? Maybe it's best to back off and find friends who don't collect such drama-prone people in their lives. They're out there, I promise.

Ultimately, it's not as easy to clean up your circle of friends as a Facebook meme would have you believe. But it's possible, and the process will help you clarify what you really want out of the people you know, and what you're willing to give them. There's a lot of pressure on us (women in particular) to be friends with anyone who asks and help them whenever they need it, but we need to value ourselves enough to know where to draw the line. That way, when our friends need our shoulder to lean on, we'll have the strength to hold them up.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

I Would Eat My Yard

I would eat my yard. Yes, I have really said that, in answer to the question, “What would you do if the world fell in and there were no more grocery stores?” Of course, I have a vegetable garden to rely on as well, but I choose not to have a fine English lawn for a reason. Weeds are good food!

Around my house, we enjoy something called ‘yard salad.’ In cooler weather it contains some traditional lettuce from the vegetable garden, but it also includes many of the plants people work hard to remove from their lawns. They are very high in vitamins and minerals, taste good and look pretty in a salad bowl. I like to joke that if the zombie apocalypse ever comes, the people with the well-kept lawns will be the first to starve!

Here are some of my favorites. They’re in their prime right now, at the height of spring here in the Northern Hemisphere.


Violets in bloom

These beautiful little plants are a prime source of Vitamin C. The flowers are beautiful, with a delicate flavor. They also have an anti-depressant effect for many people. They go as well in fruit salads as they do in salads of mixed greens The leaves have a surprisingly mild, gently tart flavor and mix well with lettuce and other mild greens. I like them on sandwiches as well. The leaves have the helpful property of getting your lymph system flowing, which is great in the spring after a long winter of staying indoors. Violets prefer cold weather and will begin to wither as the heat of summer comes on, but they do well in containers, so it’s quite feasible to dig up a couple and keep them in pots in the house over the summer. Do be aware that the African violet plants you find in garden centers are NOT the same as the lovely Viola odorata. They are not edible. So stick with the lovely ‘weeds’ and enjoy a delightful taste of spring!


Chickweed - Stellaria media

I’ll admit, I’ve been known to pick this stuff by the handful and eat it while I’m working in the garden. It has a thirst-quenching property that feels very refreshing. Like the violet, chickweed (Stellaria media) is a cool weather plant, providing me with delicious greens before much of anything else is sprouting in the garden. I like to base a tossed salad in chickweed (it’s really plentiful here) and pile it high on sandwiches. It also makes a delicious pesto if you substitute it for all or part of the basil in your favorite recipe. The leaves have a texture similar to spinach, so I like to substitute it in any recipe that calls for raw spinach. It’s especially tasty chopped coarsely and tossed with hot pasta.


Common plantain - Plantago major

You’ve probably seen this ‘lowly weed’ growing along footpaths and other places where people walk. It’s surprisingly sturdy and also…tasty. The older leaves can be a bit tough, so choose the younger ones. The flavor is mild, not at all bitter, and the flat leaves stack nicely on a sandwich or toss easily in a salad. Plantain is also my favorite bug bite treatment. A plantain poultice quickly relieves the discomfort of mosquito bites and bee or wasp stings. The fast way to make a poultice if you’re out hiking: pick a leaf, chew it up well and spit the wad out on the bug bite. Yes, I can hear you saying “Ew!!” But it works, I promise. If you’re at home, you can toss a few leaves in the small jar of a food processor for the same result with less ‘ew factor.’ A plantain poultice also works a treat to draw out splinters from the skin.


Dandelion - Taraxacum officinale

This may be my favorite summertime weed. I love to lie in a patch of dandelions and watch the sun shine through the golden petals as the wind whisks the fuzzy seeds away. Summer isn’t the best time to eat dandelion greens raw in a salad, however. They develop some serious bitterness as they mature. The young leaves that are just beginning to grow in the spring are another story – tender and delicious. The flowers make a tasty addition to a salad as well. If you’re still craving dandelions later in the year and they’re not putting on fresh, new leaves, you can cook the mature leaves as a wild vegetable. I like to put them in water to cover, bring it to a boil, boil it for just a minute then pour off the water. If the greens are very dark and old, I do the same thing again, then simmer them in fresh water until they’re tender. They have the consistency of other hard greens like collards and kale, and are great tossed hot with some Italian salad dressing (weird, I know, but delicious), hot pepper sauce or vinegar.

What weeds will you add to your dinner table this year?