All posts by riverdevora

On Healing Ancestral Trauma

I wanted to write some about healing ancestral and collective trauma. And the way I know how to do that is by showing by example, so I’m gonna talk very personally about some stuff I’ve had going on lately. We are our ancestors, and we are impacted by their historical trauma. The coping strategies they created to deal with the hard stuff they had to manage in their lifetimes are what get passed down to us and inform how we handle our own hard stuff. Sometimes that collective ancestral wisdom is wise and helpful and productive. Sometimes it’s horrible, harmful to us and others, ineffective, or impactful in ways that make our lives and the lives of others harder. And the harder our own individual lives get, the more those inherited coping strategies come into play. So how do we filter and sort? How do we pull out the parts that are helpful and wise and get rid of the parts that aren’t benefiting us or others? While modern psychology has lots of thoughts about this and very effective strategies for addressing some of this, religion and spirituality have some powerful tools as well.

I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but I’m exhausted. I’ve been really struggling with… how to hold my own center in the midst of all of the “State of the World” stuff happening right now, watching the eroding freedoms and protections I thought we could rest into here in the US, actively currently scared for my more vulnerable friends, feeling protective and scared for my family and myself (my currently very very pregnant self). Tangled up in all the current reality is my personal and family history – I’m the grandchild of holocaust survivors; my grandmother was separated from her family at a young age and that was a big trauma for her and her sister; after years in concentration camps, my family were in refugee camps for another 5 years before being begrugdingly approved for US visas… and there are some specific ways the trauma my grandparents lived through as genocide survivors and refugees was passed down through my family and passed trauma through my generation, informed how we were treated and how we treated one another, all kinds of stuff.  It would be an understatement to say that… my personal and ancestral shit has been up lately.

One of the traditions I actively practice is Espiritismo, as informed by Cuban Santeria, as I was taught by my elders in that tradition. Some of the core tenets of Espiritismo includes this idea that the dead continue to walk with us, that some dead folks need extra help and support from the living and from other beings in order to be able to transition into whatever it is that dead folks do once they’ve died. That sometimes the dead get “stuck” here, tangled in trauma or grief or the concerns of the lives they led but are no longer leading, and are unable to “elevate” and move on. Some of them may not be able to disconnect from this world and go on to rest into being ancestors or doing whatever else dead folks might do on the other side of death. And when those un-elevated, still traumatized, still entangled dead linger here in this world, there is the risk of them getting tangled up with those of us who are still living, because they’re attracted to the places where our trauma or concerns match theirs, or because they love us, or are angry, or a whole host of other reasons. When they do that, they can cause trouble for the living, or they’re simply stuck and miserable, which compassion and decency says isn’t a good place to leave someone.

Much of the “ritual technologies” of Espiritismo are designed to help support those dead folks in being able to transition. We may sing, pray, cleanse, light candles, burn incense, or do other kinds of ritual work to help elevate those dead. Some of this is for them and some of this is for us – sometimes we may find ourselves in a bad way in part because, since the dead may be attracted to the places where we are traumatized, angry, grieving, or struggling, their unresolved feelings may exacerbate and magnify our own. This is one of the places where we may get tangled in collective and ancestral grief and trauma. We *are* our ancestors, and not just our blood ancestors either. We are part of lineages, we are the living faces of those who have come before. We are the descendants of many different lines of dead folks – those who we understand as family (in all the ways, blood, adoption, choosing and being chosen), those who shared aspects of our identity (like our gender or sexual identities, our hobbies and passions, our professions), those who came before in our religions or who carried similar initiations or oaths as we carry, those who taught us or inspired us, and many others. When any of those places of identity are where we’re being currently oppressed, targeted, or harmed, especially when there is a history of oppression against that whole lineage, identity, or community, the lineage itself may collectively cry out, and that cry reverberates through us, exacerbating and magnifying individual feelings of anger, fear, frustration or trauma.

Last weekend I had a misa for my spirits. A misa is basically a seance – groups of practitioners sit down together in a cleansed and contained space and enter into dialogue with the dead. We “dialogue” both with our prayers and songs and with our focused attention. Each misa is different, as we have a structured way of entering into a fluid dialogue and allow whatever is real in that moment for both the living and the dead to be what shapes the space. And there is both space for helping un-elevated dead to find their peace and resolution so they can move on, and space for those dead who have already done that elevation and disconnect and healing work to come back and give us advice and guidance if they so choose. The elevated ones are vital to the process of helping the un-elevated find their elevation and healing as well, so they are called on and fed in very specific ways to partner in the work.

I’ve been in a pretty spun out way emotionally lately, and it wasn’t til the misa this weekend that I finally got the message that a chunk of my current massive trigger/spin out stuff is because of my own recent traumatized ancestors – in my case, those who died in the Holocaust as well as the ones who made it to the US and died here, the ones who are screaming because it was supposed to be better in this country than where we came here from. Even though it never truly was,  was it? Not for enslaved African folks, not for those indigenous to these lands, not for a whole host of others, not even for my people when we started immigrating here. Their collective, ancestral grief and rage has been making it hard for me to have clarity about accurately assessing and acting on much of anything in my life right now.

During the misa it became really clear to me that some of my rage and frustration and paralysis has been exacerbated by how closely the traumatized recent dead have been standing. The feelings themselves have been mine, but the overwhelming volume of the feelings has been impacted by their/our collective and historic grief and rage and trauma. During the misa, I sat with the feelings, allowing them to rise up so I could see and acknowledge what was happening inside me. I gave all the anger and fear and pessimism and paralysis a voice in that space. And I found that by just sitting with their/our feelings, letting the dead themselves voice those feelings through me as our shared feelings (because I am my ancestors, I am part of the lineage, I am the lineage), we could all get some clarity on what was going on. We/I spoke of the terror we’re struggling with, the disappointment that this is happening here and now, in this country that we came to in the hopes that things would be better here. We spoke of the shame of being a “defeated” people, the shame of having “lost”, of having been victimized. We spoke of the shame and humiliation of victimhood, and named the survivors guilt that lingered in those who survived. We’ve already been victimized; so many of us have already died, how can we help support and protect those who are in the cross-hairs in this country today when we couldn’t do that for our own people not that many years ago?

The other participants in the room and I said a whole pile of prayers, including the Jewish prayers that my own ancestors recognize as how we venerate our dead, which helped to calm and soothe my ancestral dead. We called on psychopomps to help elevate and lift and hold and heal those who were in the space with us. I even sang a modern Hebrew folk song that is all about remembering how to hold hope, that things get better, that there’s beauty in the world that is always with us (http://www.ahbjewishcenter.org/shabbat046.htm – it’s a song written by a Jewish woman of my grandparents’ generation, and it’s a bit of an anthem for my people). And at some point, I could feel the elevated ancestors, ancient voices, those who came before the more recent traumas, those who had actually worked through their trauma, show up and hold all of us.

And then the healed and elevated ones began speaking through me. And they said despite all of it, we have survived. We keep surviving. We are not a conquered people and we are not to blame for the things done to us by others. There are still Jewish folks in the world. There are still queer folks and revolutionary folks and all the different ethnicities and identities and lineages of folks who live here… we are still here. If we can still name ourselves, if we can still recognize one another, if we can still draw breath, we haven’t been defeated. There is still a chance. I have a baby inside me right now; there is still hope. There is always hope, if we know where to look for it.

After that, things got… quieter in my head and in the room. The heaviness in the air dispersed and my heart felt lighter.

I don’t think there’s one single right way to do ancestral trauma healing work, or helping to hold space for the traumatized dead. But I do think sometimes the dead stand so close to us that they ricochet off our matching pain and exacerbate whatever it is that’s already present for us personally. So sometimes I think the best way to do that kind of healing work for ourselves and for our dead is by stepping into the collective pain, all in, and then calling on ancestors and other healing beings (gods, elevated dead, whomever makes sense to you in your own practice) to support our collective movement through the grief and pain and anger in real-time. Letting it be real, letting it be messy, letting it emerge and unfold in the moment, and letting it unfold inside of us, personally and intimately.

Because by stepping into collective trauma, we individually become the locus of healing that trauma if we can stay on top of it and keep it moving through, instead of just drowning underneath it. This is a very vulnerable and intimate way to do collective trauma healing work, and really is best done in community when possible. But is one of the most effective ways I personally know to actually be successful in the work. There is a lot to be angry about these days, and a lot of work to do to try and keep one another safe, hold those in power accountable, turn the tides of violence and fear and separation and oppression. And we will have more resilience to do the work if we can tap into collective ancestral wisdom and strategy without succumbing to the crushing weight of ancestral fear and pain. Ancestral trauma healing work is so important right now. We are the current faces of those who have come before. By standing strong in our places of ancestral wisdom and resilience, we are more able to bring clarity and effectiveness to our resistance work. But if we are drowning in our own ancestral trauma, it is much harder to fight and support and protect and care for ourselves and our communities.

Hail to the ancestors, those strong and wise ones who have come before. Teach us, support us, dance with us, guide us, it is your shoulders on which we now stand. May we benefit from your healthy influence, be guided by your wisdom and experience. May we learn from your mistakes, so we do not repeat them. May we have the strength and clarity we need to heal the harm you did in your lifetimes and the compassion and resources we need to heal the harm done to you in your lifetimes. May your strength shine through us, and our collective pain be transformed. May it be so now.

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Confessions of a Polytheist who Engages in Animal Sacrifice

Hey all. This is a reprint of an article I wrote back in 2014. It seems this conversation is circling back around in the broader pagan etc community, so now seemed as good a time as any to repeat what I’ve already said on this subject.

I am a part of three separate traditions that practice some form of animal sacrifice, one of which is an ancestral tradition in which I was born and raised. I must admit, I have gone back and forth about whether or not to write this article, and I have reservations about having this published. But it occurred to me that most of the conversations about animal sacrifice that I’ve been privy to have been very theoretical, lacking in actual explanations of what these practices entail. And I have heard incredibly problematic statements made about who is engaging in these practices, and what kinds of threats we pose to the larger community. While I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this, it has been pointed out to me that, as a person who was raised within some of these traditions and who actively participates in these traditions, I may have some unique perspective to bring to this conversation by talking about my own personal experiences. Basically, when you are talking about “those evil/misguided/clinically psychotic/wannabe edgy hipsters” who practice traditions that include animal sacrifice, you are talking about me.

I want to start by discussing the tradition in which I was born and raised: Judaism. You may not know this, but Jews still practice animal sacrifice. I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. I need this piece of information to be voiced first. My grandparents came to the US in 1950, after a number of years in concentration camps and several more years living in refuge camps, where they met and were married. I was raised with the very real spectre of anti-Semitism – my entire family bears the spiritual and emotional scars of the Holocaust; my still-living grandmother bears the physical scars as well. I need to voice this because I need you, the reader, to understand that I am not angry at the possibility that you might judge me and my people for engaging in these practices, I am not insulted or offended at the ways you might judge me. I am terrified of your judgment, afraid of what your judgment of my people and our practices may mean for what you might feel justified in doing to me, or what you would allow to be done to me and my people. And I feel justifiedin this fear. (Update, as these links are all from several years ago: since the last presidential election, there has been a dramatic increase in antisemitic hate crimes. A simple web search on antisemitism in the US and abroad will more than support my point here: it has gotten dramatically worse for my people in the last few years). I am afraid to talk about this because I am afraid of the possibility of being subjected to violence, threats, loss of job, loss of protections. There are things that my Jewish community generally does not discuss with outsiders, for fear of violence or persecution: animal sacrifice is one of those things.

Animal sacrifice is an important part of Judaism; it always has been and it still is. As I understand it having grown up in this culture, our laws of Kashrut are based in part on the idea that meat from an animal that was not properly offered to G-d first is an abomination and not fit for consumption by Jewish people. Blood and life force are properties that are reserved for G-d alone; humans eat the meat once it’s been properly blessed and prepared. To kill an animal without first sanctifying it is to commit a violent and senseless act, to waste a life. Life is precious, and the taking of a life, even for the purpose of nourishment, is something to be done with the utmost respect, reverence and care. For those Jews who keep kosher, this puts us at odds with mainstream American dietary sensibilities – we see your commercially produced meat (even your ethically raised organic grass fed meat) as ritually unclean, because the animal was not properly sanctified and blessed. It’s not because we culturally think blood is gross, it’s because we culturally believe life is sacred, blood contains the life force, and blood and life force are to be consumed by G-d alone.

But kosher animal slaughter is not the only type of animal sacrifice done in Judaism. We also have spiritual cleansing rituals done annually prior to Yom Kippur among some of the more religious Jews that involve the slaughter of a chicken as part of the ritual. Many Jews do not participate in this ritual (heck, many secular Jews don’t even know that these rituals exist and are available in the US), but this ritual is still done. The men in my family try and attend this ritual annually, when timing allows.

You may be wondering why I am starting with my experiences of Judaism, when Judaism is not a polytheistic nor pagan tradition. The reason I start here is because some of the arguments I have heard against animal sacrifice seem to imply that those who engage in animal sacrifice are somehow psychotic, dangerous, mentally ill, or savage and backwards. Again, these types of arguments against sacrifice are precisely why many Jews are afraid to talk about our practices to outsiders. World War II didn’t exactly inspire confidence for us as a people in our fellow non-Jewish neighbors, and accusations of savagery and barbarism have been used to justify violence against us quite a lot in our history. When you levy these kinds of accusations against folks who practice religious animal sacrifice, you are making, in part, an anti-Semitic argument.

But the other reason I start with my tradition of origin is because it was in part due to my upbringing that parts of Heathenry felt familiar and comfortable for me. I found the fact that some Heathens were experimenting with bringing back humane and ethical animal sacrifice into reconstructed ritual practices to be familiar and comfortable. I felt this familiarity even more so when I found my way into Santeria, a tradition that has maintained an unbroken tradition of animal sacrifice. In my experience, those traditions which engage in sacrificial practices tend to have overall a greater respect for animals, a greater respect for the dignity and sacredness of life, of the taking of life, and of the process of eating.

I initiated as a priest of Ochun in July 2011. Santeros are notoriously private and secretive about our religious practices. Much of this is because our tradition includes both animal sacrifice and trance possession, two spiritual practices that are often harshly judged by outsiders to our tradition. Animal sacrifice is judged by outsiders as savage, cruel and backwards, while trance possession is seen as playacting or hysteria at best and the sign of dangerous psychosis at worst. And to be very blunt, part of why I can talk about these practices (part of why I can write this article) is due to my own skin privilege. Most of the other folks in my House are first or second generation American citizens, legal and illegal immigrants; many of them are monolingual Spanish-speakers. Out of respect and protectiveness, I will not name any of my co-religionists – I would not want to put any of their safety at risk for being publicly identified as Santeros. You see, we are also judged by the same disgust and disdain currently being thrown at those Polytheists who choose to include animal sacrifice in their practices. And when I say “judged”, I mean folks risk losing jobs, housing, custody of their children, or having immigration called on them for practicing our religion. I am a third generation American citizen (second generation born on US soil), I am a native English speaker and I have light skin privilege; I am not as vulnerable to these risks as some of my friends are. But due in part to these very real fears, most Santeros will not publicly identify themselves as Santeros, and most will not associate themselves with the broader Pagan and Polytheist communities. Why would we, when these communities disapprove of our practices, and when that disapproval puts some of us at risk for being at the receiving end of significant negative consequences?

I have heard the argument made that reconstructionist Polytheists who engage in ritual animal sacrifice are problematic, while those who are part of African Diasporic or Derived Traditions and African Traditional Religions get a “pass”, as though somehow letting us “off the hook” for our practice of animal sacrifice makes the speaker “enlightened” or more “understanding” of traditional religions. These kinds of arguments are racist and offensive. It is as though you are saying to us, “European traditions, and the (mostly) white people who practice them, should know better – Europeans are supposed to be more enlightened. Traditions primarily being practiced by African, African American, and Latino folks can get a pass because we already know those folks are unenlightened savages”. This is far more offensive than if you simply condemned the practice of animal sacrifice across the board. This may not be what you mean, but this is what we hear when you say it.

I have heard the argument made that animal sacrifice is some kind of “slippery slope” to human sacrifice. This is as absurd as claiming that eating bacon is a slippery slope to cannibalism, and speaks more to the way the speaker has framed the world than those who engage in these practices. In all of the traditions in which I participate, animal sacrifice is an occasional practice, done for very specific religious reasons and done according to very specific rules and procedures. In Judaism, animal sacrifice is an integrated part of how we religiously and respectfully prepare our food, and is done for spiritual cleansing. In Santeria, there are very strict rules for how and when sacrifices happen – even the size, color, age and gender of an animal are factors in which animals are selected for which religious purposes. There are strict rules for how animals are handled before, during and after the sacrifice. And only someone who has been specially trained and sanctioned is permitted to perform these sacrifices. And in those parts of devotional polytheism where some individuals and groups are experimenting with bringing some of these practices back, these are livestock animals who are humanely and respectfully slaughtered by folks who have experience with such slaughter, then prepared as food for the community.

Of the three traditions in which I participate, modern polytheism is the only one which does not have an unbroken tradition of animal sacrifice (though there is no shortage of both written and archaeological evidence of animal sacrifice being an important component of worship to folks across Europe). In polytheist circles, I have seen animal sacrifice happen in one of three ways. Some worship groups will sometimes pool their money together and pay a local rancher in advance for part or all of a pig or steer (there are a number of small family farms that will let groups of folks do this). Either when the money is collected, or when the animal is due for slaughter, the group does a dedication to a god or gods, designating the animal as a sacrifice. Sometimes some or all of the group may go to the ranch and witness or participate in the slaughter; sometimes this is all done from a distance. The group receives the meat, which is then used as part of a feast to honor that deity or holiday. The second way I have seen this process happen is by polytheists who are living on farms and who slaughter their own livestock – when an animal is to be slaughtered to feed their families or community, they say prayers over the animal before slaughtering it, dedicating its blood and its death to their gods. The third way I have seen this process happen is when individuals or groups commission an expert to perform the sacrifice for them. When those sacrifices are performed, again generally the sacrificed animals are butchered and used for food, or parts of the animal may be taxidermied or tanned and used for ritual items (such as a rooster wing or a goat skin). In all three of these scenarios, the animals in question are livestock animals who are blessed and respected, humanely slaughtered, and used for food, leather or parts.

I want to talk more about the importance of recognizing what personal narrative you bring to the animal sacrifice conversation. Especially in pagan circles, I find most folks tend to think that whatever they and their friends believe and do is what they consider to be “normal” for all pagans to believe and do. This personal narrative becomes problematic when we remember that the “pagan” community is actually a very large umbrella that includes folks of a multitude of beliefs, traditions and practices, including atheists who work with archetypes for personal elevation, folks who have a reverence for “nature” without necessarily identifying individual entities, folks who believe in the existence of or worship gods and/or spirits, folks who engage in magical practices, folks who believe all gods and goddesses can be categorized by gender and worshipped as aspects of a great God and a great Goddess, and folks who like to hang out with other folks who are scantily clad and getting drunk in the woods, as well as many other permutations of belief and practice. All of these individuals and more are doing valid and legitimate paths, however one absolutely cannot assume any of these folks share a common narrative or set of practices.

Here’s where this narrative/framing conversation becomes important. If you, for example, are coming from an ideology that says the gods and spirits are symbols and metaphors to inspire humans to reach their highest potential, of course animal sacrifice makes no sense in your ideology. The gods and spirits are stories – you wouldn’t perform this kind of devotional act to feed a story. You might perform symbolic acts to feed a story, but animal sacrifice wouldn’t make any sense in this frame. Another example of this might be if your spiritual path includes strict veganism, and you endeavor to neither eat food derived from animals nor wear clothing or use other animal derived items. For this person, animal sacrifice would be exactly as nonsensical as eating hamburgers, using lanolin-based hand cream, or wearing leather shoes.

However, when a person’s frame is a religious one, where sacrifice is done as a means of honoring deities and gifting blood and life force to a power that exists outside of oneself (and who, traditionally, was or is honored that way), there are checks and balances already built into this frame. In my Jewish frame, for my people to slaughter an animal without blessing and sanctifying it first is an abomination and a violent, wasted death, deeply disrespectful to both the animal who is being slaughtered and to the G-d of my people. In my Santeria frame, these are old ritual technologies that have been passed down through generations, intended for specific ritual purposes, and the animals are treated more respectfully and more humanely than animals thoughtlessly slaughtered for food or products. In my modern polytheist frame, especially for those polytheists who are living in rural settings anyway, ritually slaughtering their livestock is a more honorable and respectful way to procure their food than simply slaughtering without sanctifying first. And for those of us who are not living in rural settings, animal sacrifice is a way for us to honor our gods in traditional and meaningful ways, reconnecting the act of procuring, preparing and eating food to honoring our gods and blessing our communities. How could any of these scenarios be seen as criminal, violent, savage, backwards, or clinically insane?

I understand that animal sacrifice is a charged topic for many people. I hope that perhaps by talking more openly about what my own practices and experiences have been, folks have an opportunity to peek into my world and see that those of us who engage in these practices are not all crazy violent primitive savages. If we are to move forward as a multi-faith community of pagans and polytheists, we need to find ways to support one another’s traditions, whether we agree with them or not. We do not need to all practice the same way, we do not need to all believe the same things, we don’t even necessarily need to understand what others are doing entirely. But racist, ethnocentric, close-minded attacks and accusations of savagery, insanity and violence levied against those of us who engage in these practices are not ways to facilitate multi-faith community cohesion. Much of mainstream US society already doesn’t trust pagan and polytheist folks. Attacking members of our own communities because of differences in practices and beliefs only serves to further divide us, and does not make us more “palatable” or “acceptable” to mainstream monotheistic or atheistic sensibilities. I look forward to the day when we can all find some common ground in our multi-faith community identity, and get one another’s backs in a culture that would vilify us for our beliefs and practices. Perhaps if we put faces and descriptions of actual practices to the boogey man of animal sacrifice, the idea of animal sacrifice will seem less horrifying to those of you who don’t have any lived experience with these traditions

Embodying the Sacred

This is an updated and expanded re-post of an article I wrote several years ago. Earlier and differently nuanced versions of this article can be found in this anthology and on this website.

 

Embodying the Sacred

Each tradition and culture has its own understanding of the relationship between the physical body and the soul: some see the body as vehicle or vessel for the soul; some believe that the body is the physical manifestation of the soul and the source of our human magic; others believe the body houses a soul that is incomplete without the context of family, community or environment.  Culture itself is enacted by the physical body through physical acts such as singing, dancing, eating, performing rituals, crafting objects and interacting with others.  Individually, our relationship to our own physical bodies may be complicated due to history of trauma, physical disability, illness or pain, discomfort with some aspect of our size, gender, or appearance, or for other reasons.  Our core beliefs about our physical bodies intimately shape the way we connect to and understand the sacred.  Spiritual longing, and that deep sense of meaning and purpose that having a spiritual path can bring, are physical as well as emotional and spiritual phenomena.

Body and Soul

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of the human soul.  Every tradition (and many individuals) defines this concept differently.  How we understand the nature of our soul (or even our sense of “self”) informs the way we relate to spirituality in general, and how (or if) we form relationships to our own blessed Powers (Deities, Oricha, Lwa, ancestors, fae, helpful dead people, animal and plant spirits, angels, and all the others who might walk with us).  How we understand our physical bodies directly relates to how we understand our souls.

We can find many narratives with which to understand the relationship between the soul and the physical body. Some of these narratives may include:

  • My body is sinful or dirty and must be purified, subdued, punished or controlled.   My soul (or my sense of the sacred) is pure, but my body is an impure vessel.  Without interventions of some sort, my body is unsuitable to house my soul or achieve higher spiritual goals.
  • My body limits me, and must be transcended by my soul if I am to grow.  My soul can or should ascend, leaving my body behind (while I am still living) in the pursuit of more important sacred endeavors.
  • My body is one of several soul parts. My body is the physical manifestation of my soul, and is as sacred as any other soul part.
  • I am a whole, unified being. My body and my soul are both just specific parts of the unity that is “me”.
  • My body/mind/spirit, in community with others, is a small part of a larger tribal or communal soul: individual people are part of larger enspirited living collectives, and the collective itself is the soul rather than any one individual.  My soul is incomplete without the context of the whole (family, community, culture or tradition, natural environment, etc.).
  • My body was given to my soul by a deity as a means of impacting and effecting the material world, and as a means of growing and changing my soul, or doing work on behalf of my deity.
  • My soul is a piece of a larger collective that is the Unity that is the sum of all that is. My body is part of that collective.
  • My body is a dwelling or vehicle that houses my soul.  My body and soul are separate, and my body is lifeless and meaningless without my soul to drive it and give it meaning and purpose.  My body only exists to give my soul a place to live and a means to create or interact with the material world and has no value or worth beyond that purpose.
  • My body powers or feeds my soul as long as I am incarnate, and my soul can harvest the energies unique to a mortal existence, thus making my body the source of my current human magical or sacred capacities.

There are endless other ways of nuancing this narrative as well.  Additionally, a tradition (or an individual) may believe more than one of these simultaneously (i.e.: the body is indistinguishable from the soul, and we are inherently sinful and must be purified; the body is a limiting dwelling and must be transcended and controlled; all of us make up a collective soul, and the individual physical bodies are vehicles that carry the individual parts of that larger soul; etc.).

Another way to frame this relationship is as follows:

My individual physical body is inherently (pick one or more):

  • Sacred, “good”
  • Sinful, “evil”
  • Incomplete
  • Neutral

AND my physical body is (pick one or more):

  • Me (I am a whole being)
  • Where “I” live (what houses my soul, but is fundamentally separate from my soul)
  • A part of my multi-part soul

AND my individual soul is (pick one or more):

  • A single unit that is the “real” me, complete and separable from my physical existence
  • Made up of a mix of parts, some of which are eternal and some of which are mortal (including my physical body)
  • Just one part of a larger soul (the part of me that engages with or links into the larger collective of relationship, family, community, culture, natural environment, etc.).

Why does this matter?  Because this will shape the type of work we do, the type of spiritual practices in which we engage, and how we understand ourselves and others.  If I believe that my body is impure, I will probably want to focus on the kind of spiritual practices that involve either purifying my body or working towards separating my soul from my physical body in order to worship, make magic or interact with other beings.  If I believe that I am inseparable from my community (and therefore incomplete without my community), I may believe that I need my community in order to be able to perform meaningful rituals, engage in worship, or do other types of spiritual work, or I may dedicate the type of spiritual practices I do to enhance or benefit the larger whole.  Our beliefs about ourselves and bodies in general shape what we believe to be possible for ourselves and others.

But this question impacts more than just how we engage in spiritual activities.  How we construct the relationship between body and soul also impacts our everyday actions and behaviors, how we treat ourselves and other people.  If I believe that bodies are inherently dirty, imagine how this might impact the way I treat my lovers.  If I see my body as inseparable from my soul, and my soul as inseparable from the earth, this might impact what type of car I choose to drive, or how I choose to make a living.   Our beliefs about soul and body, directly and indirectly, inform every choice we make, every action, every relationship; it informs all of who and what we are individually and collectively.

For myself, I believe that my physical body is one of several parts that make up my multi-part soul, in essence my body is the “mortal” part of my soul. I believe that individual soul parts came together when I was born to shape the unique individual collective entity currently known as “River”.  Parts of my soul will continue past my current incarnation, but the unique individual I am at this moment in time (the collection of soul parts that includes my current physical body) is a one-time deal. The bits that make up me will separate at my death, each going its separate way to do things specific to that soul part.  I also believe that I am one small part of several collective souls that I share with others in my family, my (human, animal, plant, and landscape) communities, and the earth.  I also believe that I can function as a small part of the larger consciousness of several of my Gods and Powers, that in essence I function as a cell in the larger bodies that are the Powers with whom I am oath-bound (though the Powers do not need me in order to continue to exist, any more than I need sloughed off skin cells to continue to exist).  What impacts the collective souls and selves in which I am embedded impacts me; I in return impact the collective souls and selves.

Embodying a Mortal Life

Part of what shapes our core lived experience is the simple fact of our mortality.  Our souls may be immortal but our bodies carry an expiration date.  And it is with our mortal bodies that we experience, manipulate and change ourselves, one another, and the world around us while we are alive.  As we deepen into magical or devotional practices, or begin to explore our spirituality in other ways, the core beliefs and understandings we carry about our physical bodies and physical experiences shape the way we understand and interact with our blessed Powers and our sense of the sacred.

How do we experience sacredness?  We know it when we feel it.  Staci Haines defines embodiment as “living inside your own skin.”  Embodiment means being able to have a felt sense of self, the ability to experience our physical sensations and emotions.  In her book Healing Sex: A Mind Body Approach to Sexual Healing, she says that, “when we can feel ourselves deeply, we can notice what we authentically love and care about, or what we are called to.” (Haines, 2007, page 3).   If we believe that our physical bodies and our souls inform one another, then embodiment (being in our bodies, conscious and present in our felt sense of self) must be an important component of authentically deepening into spiritual practices.

Embodiment can also be defined as “the process whereby the individual body is connected into larger networks of meaning at a variety of scales; the production of social and cultural relationships through and by the body simultaneously with the ‘make-ing up’ of the body by external forces” (Cresswell, 1999, page 175-192). If we are to be able to work in partnership with others, we must also recognize and, more importantly, step into our full selves as well as our place within a broader context.  Our ability to experience sensations and emotions are the entry into this partnership.

“Embodiment” can be understood as having one of two opposites: dissociation or disembodiment.  In psychology, dissociation is understood as a perceived detachment of the mind from the emotional state or from the body (Medterms Medical Online Dictionary)  The term dissociation also refers to the act of separating or the state of being separated  (Merriam Webster Online Dictionary).  When we dissociate, we separate or shut down sensation, either from parts of ourselves or from our sense of feeling connected to the world around us.  We dissociate through contraction – literally tightening up muscles, creating energy blocks, or numbing out and encapsulating emotions, sensations, or memories.  Dissociation is an incredibly intelligent survival strategy that all of us are born knowing how to do.  Dissociation helps us survive emotionally or physically dangerous situations, and is a piece of our deep, ancestral body wisdom, and most vertebrates appear to be able to do this to some degree or another.  However, dissociation (over time) is a limiting strategy, preventing us from being able to access our aliveness, our wisdom and our resources.  The problem is not whether or not we dissociate (because we all do, and sometimes this is the best option in a challenging situation), the problem is whether we know how to stop dissociating and come back to our sensations and our full selves when we are ready to do so, when the dissociation stops being useful.  The problem is whether or not we can choose how dissociated we get, how temporary or permanent that state of being becomes. Because dissociation prevents us from accessing our full selves and our connections, dissociation prevents us from being able to fully access our sense of and connection to our blessed Powers.

Disembodiment, on the other hand, means either to leave the body or simply to not have a body.  I further recognize a difference between “disembodied” and “noncarnate”: a human spirit may be disembodied, having once been part of a living human and not currently being in relationship to that person’s body (due to death or possibly due to wandering or traveling).  Disembodiment may be employed as a profound way to dissociate – if my soul and all parts of my consciousness, leave my body, I can cease to feel pain. This may be, literally, death.  A noncarnate being would be an entity that is not currently in relationship to a body, and perhaps never has been and/or never will be.  This class of beings have many names, and might be referred to (depending on your culture or tradition, and depending on the nature of that being) as an angel, fae, Oricha, Lwa, god or deity, land wight or spirit, or by some other term (though in some traditions and in specific situations, some of these beings may have once been human and are now “elevated ancestors”).  Different traditions have different stories and beliefs about these entities (who they are, their evolution, their role in relation to humans, etc.), but that is another story for another day.

I believe that embodiment is a vital part of engaging with the sacred.  It is harder for us to do anything if we cannot access our full lived experiences; it is harder to make choices and harder to take responsibility for our choices if we don’t have access to our full selves.  Furthermore, if our individual ways of connecting to the sacred is fundamentally informed by our beliefs about ourselves, then in order to be able to begin to know our will, our wants and desires and passions, we must first begin by deepening into our own embodiment, asking the collective wholeness of our Selves what it is we desire.  Our “will” is that deep sense of knowing what we want and our ability to take responsibility for our part in shaping our world in order to achieve that want.  The concept of will is an important one in many spiritual and magical paths – when we engage with the sacred, it is often in part because we are trying to affect change outwardly in our world or inwardly in ourselves. Knowing our will enables us to connect cleanly and meaningfully with our blessed Powers as well, either in a devotional context or a working partnership. When we can fully experience ourselves, we can access our full will, and our full capacity for creating change.  Embodiment gives us the means to most deeply know and connect with the contents of our heart, our needs, what we care about most deeply.  We cannot access our full will without this knowing.

Being embodied also gives us the opportunity to have the felt sense of actually connecting to something outside (or inside) of ourselves.  We know that a spiritual practice is working because somewhere inside ourselves we feel it.  Spiritual experiences come through as physical and emotional sensations.  When we are dissociated, we are cut off from that internal sensation that lets us know that we have received a message, a blessing, or a true understanding.  Dissociation is a contraction, a closing down of receptivity and feeling.  Dissociation prevents us from being able to feel ourselves, other people, and the sacred in all its forms.  If we cannot pay attention to our feelings and sensations, we simply cannot feel our spiritual experiences.

Who am I? Concepts of Self

It is our own self that we dissociate from, and it is our self that we embody. When we talk about having (or lacking) a felt sense of self, what is this “self” to which we are referring? There are different ways to define the concept self, which can also be called “identity”. Who are you? Where does your felt sense of self rest? Concepts of self are deeply contextual and cultural, though it can be hard to see past our own cultural assumptions and biases to recognize that these are cultural based concepts. For many folks who were raised in the US or other Western countries,  the culture itself tends to preference and privilege an individual sense of self – I am my own person, I shape my own destiny and I will rise by my own skill or fall by my own failings. Even when we know or suspect that these ideas are flawed at best, for many folks it may be easy to default into those assumptions of self-as-individual. But this is not the only way to understand the self, nor is it necessarily always the best way.

In some cultures and communities, a felt sense of self may center in one’s family – I know who I am by knowing who my family is, my felt sense of self rests in my family.  From that place of centering, you may make a point of introducing yourself by referring to your last name or by naming other family members. Your successes reflect upon the whole family, as do your failings, and you feel it when another family member succeeds or fails, thrives or suffers. Consequences or accountability for individual actions may fall upon the entire household if one family member does something undesirable by the community’s standards.  In some cultures, this collective sense of self may extend beyond the immediate family into the tribe, neighborhood, or community at large as well. In some cultures, one’s felt sense of self may tie directly to the land where one lives. In some cultures, one’s sense of self may center in one’s lineage, ancestors to descendants across time.

I believe it to be valuable to both recognize where your default sense of self centers, as well as to learn to consciously and intentionally shift that felt sense at will, moving from an individual orientation to varying levels of collective orientation as is applicable and appropriate to your situation. We do exist at these collective levels, whether or not we hold an awareness of that – what we do impacts others, and what others do impacts us. If structural oppression is a manifestation of collective dissociation, we have to intentionally join with and feel into those collectives in order to begin changing collective strategy and bringing greater dignity and the recognition of humanity into all of the parts of our collective selves.

But even when looking at a collective sense of self, it is still important that we find our way into a place of individual wholeness. A collective is only as strong, skilled, and vibrant as the strength and individuality of its individual members, and a diverse collective has more skill, more strength, more capacity, and more potential than a uniform one. While it may be easier to reach consensus when everyone thinks and does the same things, little creativity will rise out of that sameness. Sometimes the places of friction and difference are where the greatest fruitfulness and creativity can arise.

So what individual parts comprise the self?  Many philosophers have approached this very question, and many have come up with variations of similar ideas; these ideas are not original. But for my own purposes, I identify seven aspects of the Self:

  1. The physical body – all of our individual cells, organs, systems; our health condition and health history, all that has befallen or impacted our physical bodies over our lifetime, our genes and genetic predispositions. It is worth noting that even the individual physical body is a collective of trillions of cells, including cells that don’t share the DNA you received from the egg and sperm that joined to bring you into this world – we are also comprised of yeast, mold, bacteria, all manner of single celled organisms, even living cells from children we may have birthed or the parents that birthed us or raised us, lovers, or others with whom we have shared body fluids and close contact.
  2. The intellect, the mind, or the thinking self- the part of us that uses intellect, assessment, reasoning, and learning to understand ourselves and the world and to make decisions or judgments.
  3. The heart, or emotional self – the part of us that feels, that loves, hates, cares or doesn’t care. This is not rational and not necessarily subject to the influence of the thinking self.
  4. The relational self – this is the roles we take on in relation to others – parent, sibling, teacher, co worker, friend, enemy. Who we are in relation to others. This part of our self may shift depending on our context and who we are interacting with at any given moment.
  5. The Community, tribal, or family self – this is the part of us that understand who we are by identifying who our “people” are, and this may actually be an umbrella way to discuss many different selves, as we are complex beings with complex networks of relationships. I am my blood family, my oath-bound hearth community, my queer community, my neighborhood, my household, etc.
  6. The spiritual self or the soul – even the most fundamental and basic understandings of this part of self is going to be deeply impacted by your personal understanding of religion and theology, but some folks believe the soul may be the immortal part of ourselves, the part that can be reborn, the part that holds some core aspects of our identity that stays consistent across lifetimes. And this “self” may also be understood as a collective of souls or soul parts.
  7. The unified or universal self – this can be understood as who we are when we combine all of the above. This may even be the Greatest Self that is the sum of all things, the vastness and totality of the Great Web, and us as just one of an infinite number of strands in that Web.

Every single part named above impacts every other part. Imagine you broke your leg – the problem would center in your physical body. However, you may find your intellect impacted by the pain; your emotions may be impacted by the injury or the circumstances around the injury; perhaps the roles you normally play with regard to others will need to shift while you heal; perhaps your broader community is impacted at least slightly by your injury. And any blessing or benefit we receive in any single part of our Self will bless and benefit all the other parts – if your local community receives a grant to improve the local school system, depending on how personally and strongly you stand with regard to that school, you may find at least subtly that your mood is better, your sleep improves, your relationships with other community members may be impacted.

When we talk about embodiment, what part of our Self are we embodying? When we dissociate, what are we dissociating from? Which specific part(s)? When we begin to feel into (embody) the varying layers and levels of self, we can begin to assess and diagnose where we may benefit from doing some work. By recognizing that we do exist at all of these levels, we can choose which levels to pay attention to, where to center interaction and perspective. And when we begin to feel into connecting to our Gods, Ancestors, Land, or other beings, that place of connection will be deeply informed by where we are resting our felt sense of self.

Embodiment: How do we do it?

Some spiritual practitioners engage with their blessed Powers by “journeying” – allowing their consciousness to disengage (at least in part) from a felt sense of their physical bodies, loosening the tethers that tie them to waking physical conscious life  to travel the spirit worlds and work with who or what they find there.  Without a solid sense of embodiment, and a firm sense of individuated identity, this work can be dangerous and disorienting.  How do we know we’ve brought back all parts of ourselves when we return (and haven’t picked up any spare bits by accident) if we don’t know what our personal version of wholeness feels like?  How can we tell the difference between having experiences in the spirit worlds change us for the better or for the worse if we don’t know what our baseline feels like?  I believe that it is not just possible but important to do these types of practices in embodied ways – to bring some amount of a felt sense of self with us into the spirit worlds, and to be able to get back in touch with our felt sense of self when we return.  We can more fully experience our time spent in the spirit worlds and, in my experience, we are less likely to feel disconnected when we come back home to a more mundane reality, too.

As living humans, we process all of our experiences through our nervous system.  We have specialized nerves in our brains and throughout our bodies to notice temperature, pain, vibration, empathy, color, sounds, textures, tastes, memory, cognitive processes, numbers, music, and many other things.  When we travel in the spirit worlds, because we are still alive, we are still running our experiences through our nervous systems.  By better accessing these specialized cells (ie: by being more embodied), we can experience journeys, visions, and direct connection with our Powers more powerfully and with more accuracy.  We bring more of our full lived experience into the conversation, and have more to offer in relationship with non-embodied beings. And by getting more skilled at the physical discernment of sensory input, we improve our abilities to sense the sacred, receive true messages, connect more deeply, and do better work on behalf of and in partnership with our blessed Powers.

But embodiment is tricky business, and hard work.  We are taught (by our families, our culture, our life experiences) not to be (fully) embodied.  Dissociation is, in part, a learned behavior.  I believe our world intentionally teaches us to dissociate in certain ways – if we’re not paying attention, we’re easier to control.  If we’re not fully here, we’re not in our power and someone else gets to be in charge.  That “someone else” may be our families, bosses, leaders, ad agencies, or others.  Being dissociated means we are less in touch with what we want, and are therefore more easily manipulated.  Dissociation cuts us off from our ability to feel empathy and connect with others as well, serving to keep us separated and unable to access support, care and resources.

I believe sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression can be understood as types of collective dissociation – as a society, when we stop feeling ourselves and one another, we stop being able to access a felt sense of kinship and commonality, we lose our capacity for empathy, and we stop being able to recognize and feel our own and other people’s dignity.  When we cannot feel how we are connected to other people, it becomes easier to create us/them dichotomies.  Dissociation happens when we feel unsafe – it is an attempt to protect ourselves from pain and harm and a felt sense of powerlessness. When discussing structural oppression as a type of dissociation, however, it is crucial to name that the fear that drives this dissociation is the fear of loss of power by those who have power (or by those who have some small portion of power, or the promise of power), also known as “privilege”.   When we begin to dissociate in this way as a society, we cut off our ability to feel specific members of our society – we are taught that certain types of people are unsafe or unimportant in certain ways, and therefore we collectively dissociate from those types of people.  Or we begin to view these people as objects rather than as human, subject to the will and control of those who see themselves as being more human. Conversely, we may understand our own selves as being the type of people that are comparatively less safe, important, worthy of dignity and that others deserve respect and care more than we do. This dissociation is harmful to all of us, regardless of whether we are the type of person that society has labeled less-than-human.  When we collectively dissociate, we individually stop seeing certain types of people (ourselves included) as equally human, with needs, cares, and concerns.  It becomes easier to scapegoat folks – if I can’t feel myself and I can’t feel my connection to you and I can’t feel and recognize your humanity, it becomes easier to objectify and blame you for whatever has frightened me enough to cause me to dissociate.  We become unable to recognize and therefore act from a place of shared interest and cooperation, from a place of collective embodied self.

We are all impacted by the cultures in which we live; we shape the culture; we are the culture.  If we believe that we are individual members of a tribal or collective self, this type of collective dissociation negatively impacts our collective self, keeping us from wholeness and limiting our ability to collectively interact meaningfully with the sacred. This type of dissociation cuts us off from whole important swathes of collective wisdom. Again, it is diverse collectives containing a variety of skills and experiences that have the greatest potential and capacity, not uniform ones.  If we want to heal our own individual dissociation, we must also look to cultural dissociation and oppression.  We cannot be separated from the whole – when we work towards healing the collective, we heal ourselves, and vice versa.

Most of us are not taught to be embodied, to drop into an awareness of our full selves (however we are currently centering our understanding of self) and be able to interact with the world from that place.  Imagine for a moment what the world would be like if we all were fully aware of our needs, wants and desires and felt empowered to assert those needs.  Imagine a world where we could all be respectfully responsive to our own individual needs, the needs of other people and beings, and the collective needs of the world around us simultaneously.  Aspects of dissociation are learned behaviors; embodiment can also be learned.

How do we regain a sense of embodiment?  How do we (re)learn embodiment? According to Staci Haines, the path to embodiment is a three-fold path, including increasing our awareness of our sensations and feelings, transforming our old “shape” (the way we live in the world, in our bodies, and in our relationships) into a shape that is more in line with what we care about most, and then practicing living and feeling that new shape.[1]

For individual embodiment, we begin with somatic awareness.  Embodiment isn’t always fun or pleasant – we probably dissociated for a good reason.  So begin by finding an even better reason for why stepping into your own personal, individual wholeness is worth it.  What do you love most in this world?  Where does your passion live? What do your ethics tell you? What are your core values? I believe embodiment is the path to truly connecting to the blessed Powers whom I love and with whom I swore oaths – for me, that’s a compelling reason to work towards becoming more embodied. I love my community and I want to make sure my community is strong, whole, and thriving, and I can better do that if I myself can show up more fully. These are my reasons. Find a compelling reason to be embodied, and return to that reason if the act of feeling sensation starts to feel overwhelming.  Once you have your reasons in place, begin to pay attention to and notice your sensations and feelings.  Do this as often as you can, with your eyes open, while moving, and while actively engaging with others, not just while you’re alone or in deep meditation.

Dissociation and related survival strategies cause our bodies and our emotions to close down in specific ways, unique to each individual.  This may show up as energy blocks, emotional blocks or numbness, or even literal muscle contractions and physical body symptoms.  Our next step is to begin to de-armor, feeling our way into where we’re stuck, numb, or contracted, and finding ways to relax and open those contractions.  We begin to bring forth a new way of being in ourselves and in the world.  Ask yourself, if every part of me believed that I am loved and connected, that all of me deserves to be here, how would I orient myself in the world?  Let your body answer.  When we let go of the deeply held armoring that keeps us from feeling, we open our channels to allow sacredness, aliveness, and connection to flow through us.  We can move towards or into these places of stuckness and begin to ask the contraction: who are you? Why are you? How are you helping? Thank you for helping, you saved my life. Are there other ways we might be able to keep the wholeness of my Self safe other than in this way? When we begin to open, curiosity about ourselves and others begins to creep into our awareness – we become curious and interested in the world and in ourselves.  We are better able to access our sense of the sacred when we are open, better able to feel ourselves, one another, and what we love.

We can also begin to open to where we are participating in collective dissociation. Feel into where you knee-jerk pull away from folks, when the desire to argue comes up, when we start acting from a place of believing we are better (or worse) than someone else and assess where that may be coming from. Sometimes that comes from very real and present self-preserving assessment of the current situation. But sometimes that comes from older stories or experiences, or comes from someone else having handed us a narrative. These are great opportunities to evaluate based on our present current moment reality if the knee jerk is effective and helpful or contributing towards disconnect or even towards oppression. Try the same litany from above – thank you for helping, but are there other ways to keep me/my community safe? What am I trying to protect? Is that a thing worth protecting?

It is important to note here that many of us both cannot and should not do this work in isolation. We may need to engage with spiritual and/or mental health professionals, supportive community, and direct contact with our blessed Powers in order to unwind a lifetime of dissociative patterns and behaviors. Individual dissociative patterns live in our bodies; collective dissociative patterns live in our behaviors and interactions with others (as well as in our laws and societal level structures and biases).

Third, we consciously take on practices that help us live what we believe in and care for most deeply.  Many of us have “practiced” being dissociated for many years, practiced tightening our jaws or pulling in our shoulders while walking in the street, practiced putting other people’s wants ahead of our needs, or shutting out our awareness of other people.  We are, in part, defined by the constellation of our daily actions and choices. Do you make choices that would bring honor to your ancestors? Do your daily actions line up with your ethics? Do you live your life in a way that would make you proud to stand before your gods?  We need to practice awareness, practice de-armoring, practice connecting authentically with others, practice living aligned with our ethics in order to become proficient at these skills. So we look at what our core values are currently, we look to what we want our values to be, then we begin to find small daily practices as a way of beginning to move into actually living these newer beliefs.

If you want to know what core values you are currently living by, begin to track how you spend your time, money, attention, and energies. Where we put our tangible and intangible resources is what we are feeding, what we are enacting as values. Are those enacted values in alignment with what you would name as your ideal values? It is also vital that we bring to that exploration the recognition that we individually don’t always have as much freedom and choice around where our time, money, and resources go. It may be that we spend the bulk of our time at work, for example. Capitalism can be a very powerful factor in how our time and attention get spent. But do we do that in service to being able to have the money we need to take care of our families, communities, have additional resources to put towards the other things we love? We are caught in the web of the economic structures of our societies, and this will impact our ability to live by our values. But even taking that into account, there are ways to align more deeply and to intentionally and consciously place more of our available resources towards what we value most, or work towards making more of our resources (individually and collectively) available to put towards those values.

Remember that part of what we’re discussing with regard to dissociative tendencies are survival strategies. Dissociation is a type of survival strategy, and a very effective one. So when approaching the possibility of shifting these, we must approach this work carefully, kindly, compassionately, and slowly. So we begin by evaluating our current survival strategies. Ask: are you helping me? How? Are you harming me? How? When does the strategy rise up, under which circumstances? What is the actual thing this strategy is helping me take care of? Once you’ve asked these questions (often easier to do after the fact rather than while we’re in the midst of it), then we begin to brainstorm what might work better, what might we experiment with to take care of the need rising up? Because a need is a thing that must be addressed, though admitting the need may feel challenging.

In order to implement the new strategy (staying present, trying something more helpful and less harmful), we start by acknowledging the urge to fall into the old strategy, noticing when the desire rises up in the moment. Even simply noticing that you did indeed enact the strategy a few days later, recognizing it for what it was, is a success, as one of my recent class members pointed out! We then start to ask the question, what need is rising up in this moment? And we honor that the need is real, and deserves being addressed. We send gratitude to the wisdom and effectiveness of the old strategy, saying thank you for having saved my life before – these strategies are evidence of your core self love and attempt at self care, even if it doesn’t feel like it. We then acknowledge that the old strategy has both helped but also has caused harm, harm that we don’t want to continue. Then we try the new strategies, respecting that the old strategy is still there and we could use it if we chose to, if the new strategies aren’t working well enough. We practice until the new strategies begin to feel normal and effective.

Our lives, our personal and collective histories, our cultures, our daily habits and practices, and our beliefs “shape” how we live in our bodies and in the world.  It is possible to change our shape if our shape isn’t working for us.  This act of changing shape requires more than just an examination of what our beliefs are.  It requires that we consciously practice the new shape.  This shaping occurs in the realm of our physical and emotional sensations, what we feel, how we move through space individually and in relation to others.  Becoming embodied is the act of showing up and noticing what’s happening.  Becoming embodied (in our individual self, in our relationship, in our families or communities, in relation to nature, etc.) requires actively feeling our sensations, both physical and emotional, in order to feel ourselves, our place, and our role.  This is a set of physical and emotional actions, not a hypothetical intellectual exercise or statement of belief.

Our bodies are not optional.  As long as we still draw breath, we cannot fully leave the part of us that is our bodies behind.  If I were to embody the belief that my body is me and that I am sacred, how would that change how I make simple daily choices?  Would I remember to eat breakfast?  What kinds of relationships would I have?  How would that belief inform my career choices and how I perform my job? How would a belief that all parts of me are sacred (and by extension, all parts of all things are sacred) change the kinds of spiritual practices I engage in, or the way I relate to my blessed Powers?   How would that belief impact how I treated others, or how I expect others to treat me and one another?   Embodiment takes practice and may require changing regular habits and thought patterns.  This may include evaluating how we talk about ourselves and others, engaging in regular physical exercise or physical disciplines, touching other people more (or less, or differently), noticing and engaging with our natural environment, evaluating how we engage with “political” issues, practicing conscious body awareness by using techniques such as body centered meditation, or evaluating core beliefs about our bodies and bodies in general.  Anything we want to learn must be practiced if we want to get more adept at the learning – embodiment must be practiced if it is to be incorporated into our regular daily experience of living.

If we are to step into solid, sacred relationship with the blessed Powers with whom we may engage, I believe that the most effective and powerful way to do this is by expanding to fill our full selves, to step into a greater level of personal and collective embodiment. Practicing embodiment gives us the opportunity to show up, access a deep felt sense of the sacred, and have more meaningful ways of engaging with our blessed Powers and with one another.  Being embodied gives us the opportunity to bring something unique to the table, the deep, complex and nuanced perspectives of a lived human experience.

 

 

References:

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dissociation

http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=38857

Cresswell, Tim (1999) ‘Embodiment, Power and the Politics of Mobility: The Case of Female Tramps and Hobos’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24.2.

Haines, Staci (2007) Healing Sex: A Mind Body Approach to Sexual Healing, San Francisco, CA. Cleis Press.

Haines, Staci, personal communication, various dates 2008-2009

 

 

 

 

[1] Staci Haines, personal communication, various dates 2008-2009.

Snippet of Cosmogony Myth

In the beginning, there was a world of fire, and a world of ice. And in between them, a great and empty chasm. The two worlds drew closer together, and in the places where they touched, great billowing clouds of steam rose up, great floods of water poured forth, and in those margins the ice melted and the fire was quenched. Out of this steam and water poured a vast ocean. Out of this ocean arose a goose, large and beautiful. She spread her wings and embraced the night sky, who embraced her back. They danced and made love until her body was filled with stars, until the sky was dancing with feathers.

She returned to her watery home and began to weave threads to build herself a nest. She wove her thread out of fire, water, ice, steam, stars, night sky, feathers from her own breast, all the un-ordered fluff that all things are made from. She sat upon this great nest for nine days and nine nights and laid a great golden egg. She sat upon that egg for another nine days and nine nights, and she sang to the egg, she told it stories about who and what she was, who and what its father was, and asked it questions about what and who it wanted to become.

After nine days and nine nights of sitting, the egg began to crack. And the egg began to shake. And the egg began to move. And another nine days and nine nights passed as the egg broke itself to pieces, bits of golden egg shell shattering to dust, scattering across the sky to join the stars. Out of that egg rose a mountain, the first land. It spread itself out across the water and began to grow and grow and grow. It grew so large it began to break itself into pieces, and those pieces floated upon the surface of the water until they found a comfortable place to settle.

The goose mother looked upon her child and saw its nakedness, and was concerned that it would be cold and lonely. She began to spin more thread, using the vibrancy of the waters and the light of the new moon and sun, and her two sisters joined her in the work. They took up the thread together and they wove a vast, colorful, and beautiful tapestry. And they snipped the spare threads and tucked the ends into place. And together the three of them took this beautiful colorful tapestry and spread it across the land. Wherever the tapestry touched, every manner of life sprang up. And so the world as we know it was born.

 

(Geese and cosmic eggs show up in a number of myths from different cultures and religions around the world. This one is my own version, from some trance work I did recently.)

 

The Revolutionary Art of Hearth-Keeping

hearth fire

We are living in terrible times. Every passing day brings more violent racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-Semitic, xenophobic and classist attacks and incidents at every level of society, from local street violence to “Alt-Right” rallies to State and Federal governmental attempts to (and occasional successes in) passing oppressive legislation to the stripping away of protections for vulnerable communities. The regime we are currently living under is one that attempts to strip us of both individual and group identity, shames us for interdependence, and seeks to destroy our connection to ancestors and descendants, and to the land upon which we live (as complex as these relationships can be). The dominant paradigm is one that endorses survival of the most privileged, at the expense of nondominant communities and vulnerable people. And we are handed the lie that we can rise above the oppression of our people by disavowing ourselves of our cultures, that by leaving behind our community identities, ancestors, and folk ways we can have a shot at achieving privilege through individuated assimilation. But without the support, direction, and accountability of our communities and cultural identities, we have no center, we have no soul. That fire that burns in the center of collective identity and lineage and culture is the mythic hearth, and those who protect, embody, and maintain that center for the community are our hearth-keepers.

Hearth-keeping is the heart of my spiritual practice. It is part of my priest dedication to the Matronae, and a major part of my oaths to and daily practices with the goddess Hreda. Hearth-keeping is the foundation of how I perform my duties as clergy and community leader as well, because of the essential role hearth plays in community. My personal communities include a large number of folks who identify as warriors, people who have committed to protecting our communities and who fight for a more inclusive, accessible, egalitarian, and safe world for our community members. Due in part to the number of warrior-oriented folks in my personal circles, I’ve witnessed and participated in fantastic and empowering discussions of how to make warriorship and warrior status accessible to folks of all genders and how to recognize different ways of standing in warriorship, and  I have seen ongoing dialogue around the true nature of warriorship and warrior deities. I love that the Morrigan and other female warrior deities have gotten so much deserved love and attention in the broader Polytheist community as well, and the Morrigan herself is a deity to whom I carry a deep and personal oath. And yet I continue to notice that, even as the ideals of warriorship and warrior status have come a long way in breaking gender and other barriers, deities and practices related to the tending of hearth and home, community building and caretaking, and those who perform these functions continue to be ignored, disrespected, and taken for granted. Which is a shame, because the magic, the love, the wisdom, and all the precious resources that I understand as being under the domain of the hearth, hearth-keepers, and hearth deities are required for the maintenance of individual, community, and ancestral identity and connection. We simply wouldn’t have a sense of identity or belonging without the essential work of hearth-keepers, the essential mysteries of the hearth itself, and the love and oversight of those deities whose central mysteries are the hearth.

In order to understand hearth deities, we need to first look to the nature of the hearth, the nature of the home, and the hearth fire itself.  The Home, as an idealized or mythic concept, is where you find the heart and soul and center of a family, a lineage, a tribe, a tradition. The individual family or personal hearth is the heart of the home, and the collective, mythic hearth of a community is the heart of a people. Many different types of homes are and were organized around a central fire.  The fire pit or fireplace or stove contains the fire, and the heat and light and safety offered by that contained fire are held within the walls of the home. The presence of safely contained fire means the home can provide a warm safe place to sleep; a central place for family or community members to gather; a place to store, consume, and share food; a bounded and protected space to take care of your individual, family, and community needs; a place to heal, relax, replenish, regroup and rejuvenate. A home can provide us a place to store our valuables, whether those valuables are sentimentally valuable or economically valuable or both. Home used to be (and still is in many places) the place where people primarily conceived and birthed babies, took care of the injured, tended the sick and dying, and prepared bodies for funerary rites.

During times of chosen or forced displacement due to traveling, invasion, colonization, governmental policies, natural disasters, or other reasons why individuals or groups may find themselves needing to move, or for those communities and tribes that are nomadic, it is the traveling campfire that provides many of the same essential functions as the hearth fire found inside the home: it is the same fire, just found in a temporary dwelling or outside rather than contained within a permanent structure. That same fire still holds the central heart of the family, tribe or community. Even if we lose or are driven out of our physical homes, we can light a fire and our people can gather around it for warmth, food, kinship and safety. As my wise friend Jackie says, as long as we have a fire around which we can gather (or even the idea of a fire), we are still a people with a shared identity and a place to gather together. We can still rest into a sense of home and belonging, even if it is temporary, even if we are physically alone. We can light this fire anywhere in the world, however far away from our home and community, and know that this fire is the Hearth fire, the same fire that warms our people. We can warm ourselves by this fire no matter where we are.

Those who tend the hearth fire (literally or metaphorically) are the ones who make sure the community has a maintained identity and take care of the continuity of the tribe. Hearth-keepers feed their families, light and maintain the fires, and keep the house itself clean, stocked with supplies, and in good repair. The hearth-keepers are the ones who take care of the physical and emotional needs of the family and tribe, remember the old stories and the old ways, hold the community knowledge and wisdom, and teach those stories and lessons. The hearth-keepers tend to the injured and the sick, maintain the boundaries of the home, and permit or deny access to visitors and outsiders.

Hearth mysteries are the heart of hospitality, and hearth-keepers are the ones responsible for setting, maintaining, and enforcing both guesting and hosting rules. For what is hospitality than the extension of temporary hearth benefits to visitors? The work of the hearth-keepers is often unglamorous, unpopular, taken for granted, looked down on as being less important, and therefore so are the hearth-keepers themselves. It is often but not always women, folks assigned female, and those who take on historically female-categorized roles that hold the job of hearth-keeper, and this disrespect is entirely entangled in and upheld by patriarchy. It is often poor people of color who do many of the jobs needed for the maintenance of the home and family, working unpaid for their own families and communities as well as providing low-waged domestic labor for more privileged or affluent folks in the form of house cleaning, cooking, home and yard maintenance childcare and other domestic labor. And in the US historically a portion of hearth maintenance in wealthy homes was done by enslaved people of color. While slavery in the US was officially abolished in 1865 (only a little over 150 years ago), the legacy of slavery remains in both the racial breakdown of domestic laborers, and in the disrespect shown to those workers and to the work itself. The disrespect of hearth keeping and hearth maintenance is also entangled in and upheld by white supremacy.

Hearth-keepers maintain the identity of the family, tribe, and culture. They remember the stories, they teach children and new community members about the rules and structures and community norms and culture. They remember the songs and the dances of the community and when those songs and dances should be performed.  They monitor food and food preparation, remembering the dietary needs of the family. They remember both the holiday and the daily recipes, the flow and progression of how to serve a meal, how to set a table, and who sits where – historically, this was a subtle but important way hearth-keepers shaped and reinforced social hierarchy. They enact, enforce enactment of, and teach others how to enact the culture, and in doing so they preserve and maintain living cultural identity.

Hearth-keepers maintain lineage. They honor and remember the wisdom and cultural ways of the ancestors and they pass that wisdom on to the descendants so that the line continues. They birth babies or welcome and integrate (and sometimes initiate) new community members, and they tend the dead. They pray for those who have passed so the dead can elevate to being organized ancestors, strong and unified and present with the community, guiding their descendants. Hearth-keepers stand at the nexus between past and future; they are the crossroads where ancestors and descendants meet, and they are the heart of living lineage.

Hearth-keepers hold space for initiation mysteries, so an initiate has a stable place from which to fare forth and a warm and welcoming place in which to return. The hearth provides a place to step into post-initiation responsibilities, and a place to be held accountable in a new status and roles. Initiation requires a destruction and rebirth of self; a hearth helps provide a reason to move through the pain of initiation and provides a soft place to land, be cared for, celebrated, and recognized afterwards. Initiation may be required to step into certain types of community level responsibilities and roles. And initiation is required in certain specific communities or traditions in order to be recognized as a member of that group and be counted among the lineage. Sometimes it is the hearth-keepers themselves who are the initiators, and hearth-keepers take care of both initiators and initiates through the process of initiation. If the hearth is the heart of a shared sense of identity, initiation in many cases is the way into that heart.

Hearth-keepers are revolutionary. Hearth-keepers create and maintain community, including for those of us who may have been barred or expelled from more mainstream communities or from our own families of origin. Hearth-keepers weave together and lovingly maintain identity, around all manner of axes. There are mythic (and sometimes literal) hearths at the heart of queer communities, punk communities, pagan and polytheist communities, and all manner of communities of fringe and outcast folks – wherever there is a strong and maintained felt sense of shared identity and belonging, there is a hearth. And hearth-keepers are at the front lines of keeping our people alive. Hearth-keepers check in on friends going through rough times, provide crash space for at-risk community members, organize fundraisers for needed services, and do the emotional labor of a community. Hearth-keepers provide physical, emotional, and spiritual healing for the wounds of living in a world that isn’t always safe for “our kind of folks.” Hearth-keepers keep our loved ones from losing hope; hearth-keepers hold hope for our communities. In pooling resources and holding hope, we keep one another alive.

Without a hearth, there would be no tribal, community, or cultural identity; there would be no group identity around which to rally, nothing for warriors to defend, nothing for seekers to join. Ancestors themselves, songs and stories, and all manner of cultural ways and wisdom are forgotten, and descendants have no lineage from which to learn and find support and guidance. Without a hearth and hearth-keepers to maintain it, descendants have nothing to be descended from. The old ways are forgotten, knowledge is lost. There is no tribe, no culture, no group: what is a cultural or tribal identity but the collective wisdom of a people over generations, and the deep felt-sense certainty that you are part of that collective that extends backwards and forwards across time?

What differentiates a warrior from a mercenary, a sociopath, or a dictator is that the warrior is accountable, that a warrior is fighting for some greater good or greater ideal and protecting that which they value at the community level. But who determines what those ideals should be?  How do you decide what is worth fighting for? Who are you accountable to? Do you answer to a god? To a community? To your own conscience? Who acts as your checks and balances? Who do you come home to after the fight? Who tends to your wounds? Who will remember you if you fall, sing your soul to the ancestors, tell your stories to your descendants? Who benefits from your fighting, and who will celebrate with you when you win?

Warriors are accountable to their hearths. When your answer to the above questions is, “I only answer to myself,” you are simply a person who likes fighting. You are not a warrior. If your answer is, “I know Truth and I am prepared to uphold it,” in the absence of community accountability, this belief can be used to justify dictatorial decision-making and enforcing your will over the will of others. There is incredible hubris and real danger in not having anyone you need to answer to, in thinking you are smarter and wiser and simply “right,” and I would argue that many of the problems we find in modern Western society rise from a belief that each of us shouldn’t have to be accountable to anyone and that we somehow know better than others. This core belief fuels patriarchal, Enlightenment-based Western thinking, and justifies colonization and the disrespect and destruction of other people’s cultural ways.

Simply being accountable to other warriors isn’t necessarily any better either, as a warrior mindset is by necessity a very specific thing and warriors may have a very different perspective than non-combatants around what they think is right and necessary. The skills and perspectives that allow for survival and good decision-making on the battlefield are often neither appropriate nor healthy in civilian society. History has shown us many examples of rule by might, and it doesn’t tend to end well for anyone..

Sometimes the answer to the above questions, if we’re to be honest about it, is, “I haven’t really thought too hard about these questions.” And usually that’s because you assume someone will take care of you, someone will benefit from your fighting, someone will help you relax when you come home from war, someone will hold your center for you while you’re fighting. That someone is probably related to your literal or mythic hearth in some way or another. It may not be a single person, it may be a community or even a concept. But these are all questions for which warriors should have answers.

In order for a warrior to do what needs doing in times of war, a warrior needs to be able to temporarily suspend the usual rules of civil society. The rules that govern fighting are very different than the rules that govern being a civilian, being in the home as member or family or guest. In older societies there were rituals to strip a warrior of their civilian status and the rules that bound them to peace-time society, and rituals to reinstate those rules, boundaries and structures when they returned home from war. Do our modern warriors, folks who have chosen that status, hold to that? Part of the job of the hearth-keepers is to prepare warriors for war, help them transition out of the structures of society, and help them transition back when they return home. Historically the hearth helped to determine whether or not someone needed to go forth and fight, as well. The warriors protected the home and tribe from enemy invasion, or went out to procure needed resources for the home and tribe. The hearth-keepers could also decide not to permit a warrior to come home, to close the doors and forbid entrance if a warrior acted against the well-being of the hearth or behaved in a way that brought shame to the tribe. A warrior is beholden to their hearth, and needs to answer to their people.

The hearth, the mythic fire at the center of the home and tribe is what burns in the heart of a warrior. The hearth is what the warrior fights for, what keeps the warrior fighting. We fight for our land, for our people, for our way of life. This is the core of hearth mysteries. The hearth holds the center, so when we have to leave home we have somewhere to return, the certainty that someone will remember us, will take care of us when we return, welcome us home.

Sometimes the hearth-keeper is a single person. Far more often many of us share those responsibilities, including those who may sometimes also hold warrior and other community functions as needed. The memory of home, family, tribe, and community is what drives a warrior to fight, and is what provides the resilience needed to survive a fight. It is the spirit of hearth fire lit in our own heart that warms us through hard times, when we can’t be home, when we’re far from our tribes, our families and communities, when we have work to do. Often it is assumed the hearth-keepers will be female, as many of the responsibilities of maintaining a home have historically been assigned to women, but hearth mysteries are not gendered and folks of any gender can and do hold hearth functions. As long as there are folks to maintain the ways of a people, to care for children and newcomers, to care for community members in need, to remember the ancestors and guide the descendants, there are hearth-keepers. As long as the hearth fire is lit in our hearts, as long as we remember who we are, we cannot be conquered.

The guiding spirit of home, of place, of family and tribe and community, the protector and unifying force of a people, is the tutelary deity. It is she is who sends her warriors off to war and opens her arms to welcome them home again. She is the heart of a people. She holds the lineage itself, nurturing, shaping and protecting the line. She is the personification of the culture, the banner of identity and belonging under which folks gather.  Sometimes we call her by a name, sometimes we don’t know her name. Often we don’t know she’s a deity, and often we disrespect and ignore her, take her for granted, assume she’ll be there keeping the hearth fires burning while we go out and win fame and glory. Tutelary deities are those deities who provide a central heart around which to shape a community identity, and it is the hearth-keepers who tend her deepest mysteries. She stretches her wings across a people and says These people are my people, they belong to me and they belong to one another. She receives their dead, she guides the souls of those waiting to be born towards waiting wombs, she guides seekers looking for a home to the community to be embraced and integrated there.

Tutelary deities live in the heart of the hearth fire. Often we assume her to be soft and mothering, like our own stories of the fantasy mother, and like many actual mothers, she is often undervalued and unnoticed. She is the spirit that inspires those who cook our food, her radiance warms our homes, we gather in her living room and don’t bother to notice the work she’s done to make the place comfortable and inviting. But never forget that a hearth fire is still fire, a hearth deity is still a fire deity. And fire is what it is; inherently volatile and dangerous when ignored, taken for granted, or left untended. Hearth fire is fire that has chosen to allow herself to sit peacefully inside a bit of brick or rocks inside your home, but don’t ever forget that she is, at her core essence, still fire. When the fire goes out, we best figure out how to re-light it or we lose the safety, security, stability, and comfort of home. We risk losing our sense of shared identity, forgetting who we are, forgetting who we are accountable to, forgetting our folk ways and wisdom. When fire jumps the hearth, the whole town burns down.  Modern homes are no exception; our hearth fires now are often electric or gas ovens, heating systems, the electricity that powers our homes, the light switches we can turn on or off, and all the rest of our modern appliances, wiring, plumbing, and clever bits of architecture. But the essence hasn’t changed. We take our hearths and our tutelary deities for granted at our peril.

I am so very glad so many folks are finding the empowerment to step into warrior identities, especially those to whom that job was historically barred. We are living in terrible times, and we need our warriors. But we also need our warriors to be accountable to their people, their families and tribes and communities, in all the ways we’ve renegotiated and reimagined those webs of consensual and (hopefully) enthusiastically chosen connections to others. Family, tribe, community, culture, we get to decide who we want to be intimately networked with and what descriptive words we’ll use to encapsulate that web of love and connection. But who maintains the norms, rules, and ways of that group? Who remembers the songs, the order of things, the rituals? Who passes that culture along, and to whom is it passed? How is the soul of our family/tribe/community protected and maintained and enacted and embodied by us who are the members?  It is the warriors who defend this, but it is the hearth-keepers who preserve, hold, nurture, and teach. And that work is hard and constant work, and is worthy of respect too.  Warriors will help us tear broken systems down and will protect us from those who would destroy our homes and lives and ways of being in the world; it is the hearth-keepers that are responsible for maintaining and creating the societies and homes and communities we actually want to live in, who will set and maintain and enforce and teach those ways of being.  Hearth-keeping is revolutionary: it is how we will rebuild the world.

Warriors, thank you for fighting for us. I honor and am grateful for your sacrifices and your work. As for me, I’ll be home tending my wounded, feeding my kid, teaching and taking care of my students, venerating my ancestors and tending the hearth. I’ll help make sure you have somewhere to come home to, something to fight for, someone to take care of you when you’re wounded in battle and someone to sing you to the ancestors if you fall, to tell your stories to those who will come later.  If you need me I’ll be in the kitchen, singing praise songs to my Lady.

Song: Sweeter than Apples

Honor and respect, profound blessings and thanks to Jackie Chuculate for lots of discussion about hearth and camp fire, and fire tending, and blessings to Jackie’s ancestors for holding her in their wisdom. Blessings and love to my own hearth community, especially Jesse, Marjorie, Antheus, Starwitch, Heathen Chinese, Rianorix and Kristil for ideas, edits, support, and love on every level. You are the community for which I tend hearth and who holds hearth with me, and this article exists because of you.

Erigone

“The Constellation Virgo – The Virgin”, Photo by Bill and Sally Fletcher  http://www.scienceandart.com/photovirgo.htm

Erigone

Beautiful Erigone with stars in your eyes
You are the delight of the god of delight
For the softness of your thighs, the softness of your sighs
Your soul tangled with vines, your blood rich with wine, your starry eyes gazed into his, tender and mad
In love and in thanks
Father Liber gave your father the secret of wine making
Your father, a generous man, shared his bounty, your bride price, the delight of grapes gone magic with time and prayer
And was torn to pieces and stuffed down a well for his troubles
Your dog, ever loyal, took you to find his watery grave
And you, in your despair, dangled like a spider from your silken filament, from your sturdy branch
As your eyes filled with stars
Your blood coursed with wine
Your dog sang his lamentations to the skies
And your vine tangled lover
Lifted you up
And with tender hands
Placed you among the stars

Ariadne

labyrinth_02

I scent beauty and I fall, fumbling, grasp the thread

I clumsy trip winding along the spiraling paths, following beauty, desperate, hungry

To the heart of the labyrinth I dance

Twirling, tangling, winding myself in you

Your threads entangle me

Tangled, tangled

I am trapped, a fly in your web, wrapped and trapped and wound and wound

We dance round, we dance round

Until I am nothing, until I am dissolved, cradled in your arms

I have forgotten my name

Or maybe I never had one

I dance in starlight

And you drink me down, consuming me

Your tongue chases my last gasping breaths

Inside, I am inside, I am inside you and you reweave me in starlight and silken threads

Dancing, dancing

You dance me into existence

I laugh a new laugh

I have a new name

That name is this moment

That name is laughter

That name is madness

And the return from madness

My hands clasp yours, my hands clasp the dancing maenads and we shriek and howl and rend and tear

Tearing around your twisting paths

Dancing

We are your monsters

Your blood and lymph

And we are drunk on screams and starlight

Spinning, spinning, forever encircling

Your pulsing heart.