Sacred Spiritual Growth

Decay and Rot: The Spiritual Life Cycle

“…Dreaming is nature naturing through us. Just as a tree bears fruit or a plant expresses itself in flowers, dreams are fruiting from us.” Toko-Pa Turner, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home, pg. 18

I’ve dipped my toes into paying more attention to my dreams and trying to understand what they represent for me. Buildings in the form of large complexes, giant Victorian houses, and opulent developments have pervaded my dreams for years. Most of them, though, are not in pristine condition. Instead, the walls are peeling, the roof is cracked open and the moldy floor creaks loudly. The destructive force is nearly always time and water; the structures have sat abandoned and flooded.

After dealing with actual water intrusion years ago, I took the dreams to be a near-flashback of those events. However, the persistence of the theme has caused me to take a deeper look at it. My therapist shared with me that water represents emotions. I’ve read elsewhere that buildings can represent the body or one’s inner life. It may be representative of my fear that my feelings roil me inwardly and threaten to bring things crashing down.

Rather than fixating on a conceptualization of my dream as symbolic of inner demons or self-neglect of my corporal state, I find myself opening instead to a desire to accept the decrepit state of the houses of my mind as a potentially necessary, vital aspect of life on a physical, emotional and spiritual plane. My early fundamentalist training would have rebelled at any mention that something which was not pure, clean and sturdy could be good, so that makes the examination more desirable to me as an act of defiance.

In current American society, we wield destruction as a battle axe. Want to construct a new building? Tear up the earth, hammer in dead trees, slap on some plastic and you’re done. There is little room for decay in this model as there is a pervasive focus on the new, best, fastest and strongest as the goal. My introduction to permaculture has lent me another model of planning, one which has at least elements of the slow and gentle.

These threads of dream and design have woven themselves together in my mind to create a tapestry of a spiritual life cycle. It holds a focus on ecology in that it allows for dissolution—things falling apart and losing integrity—as a key component. Our current cultural life cycle diagram is simply an arrow pointing straight up; we are pressed with the need to maintain the vigor, looks and future-promise mindedness of youth for our entire lives. We can always try harder. We can always look better. Things will always improve; negativity has no place in a mature spiritual life. These statements are false. One of the greatest takeaways I had from Toko-pa’s book is that I finally understand “feminine energy;” the perspective she offered is reconfiguring everything I thought would save me. Instead of striving, there are times where we can open. Instead of force, there are times where we can yield. Instead of progress, perhaps there is room for degeneration as a path to renewal.

The frayed, soiled and ripped edge of the spiritual life cycle fabric my Inner Being’s woven, when closely examined, appears as follows:

  • Sometimes it is okay to cease effort and to instead receive, open and listen for Source. We can rest, physically, emotionally and spiritually, without any expectation of the next step or where we are headed, in the bosom of Goddess.
  • There are times when things are going to completely fall apart. When resting isn’t enough because the water we drink springs right back out of us. Grief is a well into which we pour and from which we long to escape. If we instead allow ourselves to be there, and to be witnessed there, what initially rises to us tinged in sulfurous odors from which we recoil may eventually become a healing aroma.
  • Nature takes back what is Her’s through rot, mold and the curling of green after fall’s last warmth. She takes back to renew and reuse. We can become so concerned with maintaining our façade in clean lines and polished surfaces, refusing to acknowledge that something stinks in us. If we finally notice it, we snap into action and desire to cut it out at its root. The tree, though, when it sustains a wound, does not immediately start carving itself apart. Instead, it calluses off the infection, leaving the bugs and the water and the sun to soften and loosen the contagion from its core. What if we took the same approach to our “sins” by acting in acceptance of our humanity, our flaws, and our eventual collapse as a being? Perhaps we could respond by tenderly acknowledging where we lack, compassionately setting inner boundaries and then waiting in expectation for the ways in which life is going slowly tear from us whatever nails we think necessary to hold together the covering of our innermost needs in order to enlighten and fade the shadows we know we have.
  • We die. I came across a book titled “How Not to Die” and contemplated purchasing it until I realized the basic premise was flawed. We meet our end, at least physically. All our effort and determination to prevent it from happening are useless. I so deeply and desperately want, when that moment arrives, to say “welcome.” Because what else is there to say? If all the energy we’ve put into perfecting ourselves culminates in us ending, why not conserve some of it for facing the task of aging and diminishing? If we live a full life, we almost always stand to lose our independence, our vocation, possibly our wits and must grapple with the recognition of the unfairness of life. Some trees land as seeds in the sun near a river; they want for nothing. Others fall in the shade or dry spots and half-starve their whole lives. Even if our early life is filled with resources, eventually we decay and then we die. What a challenge to our bravery, to stop resisting what will be or is being taken from us with the passage of time, to stop viewing it as a theft or an obstacle we can overcome with bargaining and to instead hold open the door for it, noticing perhaps that the pallor of its shadow leaves us wiser and bolder.
  • What is spiritual decline and death? I assume we must face it, probably multiple times our lives. How can we allow for Goddess/Deity to work it out in us without striving for order before its time? I suspect that often, by the moment we notice what is happening, the roots of it are already interwoven through everything we hold onto and hold up as “the best way;” we set ourselves up for a painful displacement when we believe our current identities are perennial.
  • Spiritual decline can be gradual or fast, partial or total but is always a movement towards disorder and entropy. What once seemed righted and straight is now sloping and cracked. The luster has worn off; our practices show signs of use. We are no longer comforted by the beliefs and rituals that were once soothing. I’ve experienced this at least once on a significant level in my life when I abdicated my previous religion. What I’ve concluded is that my prior devotion was real and deep and that the unmaking of it was a necessity. We needn’t reinvent ourselves at a whim; life will let us know when it is time to shuffle the deck. Courage to me is the willingness to accept that we can outgrow the paradigm under which we’ve ordered ourselves and the tenacity to then step out into the unknown, untethered and uncertain as to which way is up.

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you’ve seen that the majority of the images I use are nature photographs I’ve taken. The long winter has been a struggle for me as I found myself judging possible photos as “ugly” because they were pictures of dead or dying vegetation. I believe that these plants are unattractive to us, and, in contrast, that full blooms of flowers can lead us to weep because of the evolutionary importance of living floras to sustain us. After contemplating the nature of the low point on the spiritual life cycle, I want to advance beyond this biological bias to hone in on at least a type of loveliness in bent, brown stalks. From where else does new life arise but from the crumble of the formerly green?

Returning to my dreams, I am also struck by the fact that the buildings I create are being retaken not by inert and inorganic machinations but through a destruction spread by natural forces. The edifices of my life that I’ve so extravagantly decorated, are, despite their complexity, vulnerable. But what seeks to invade them is not a conquering force, instead, it comes for its own. We are natural beings and, to me, Nature is a spiritual entity. The tar, plastic and webbing of “information” we’ve constructed, as well as the facades of our bodies and spirits in perpetual youth that we’ve designed, form the infection. We can either allow Her to decay us as we need to be decayed, or we can continue to build what we see as impenetrable barricades—how not to die—all the while dying and dying again to future growth.

Pagan Practice

Samhain Reflection: Leaves Changing, Falling, Decomposing

Cross-posted at my SageWoman blog.

For this season’s #PaganPractice blog, I decided to share a reflection on leaves and how, in the ending of their life cycle, they can embody aspects of Samhain.

The Colors of Autumn

The orange hue of leaves is there throughout the summer! It is only revealed when the energy-generating process in the leaves stops. Something thrills in me to know that some leaves hold what we perceive as their aged color their whole existence, but it is masked for a bit by the green of the chlorophyll. What if each of us has who we will become already with us, but youth and immaturity keeps us from seeing certain truths until we are ready to do so? Other colors like purples are created once the leaf begins to decay, reminding us that some things take time to come into being.

Releasing and Remembrance

Once the temperature has cooled, trees begin to release their leaves. The leaves have exhausted their purpose and are not longer nourishing the tree through the action of chlorophyll. They fall, one by one or in a heap on a windy day. Unless tidied up by human hands, they surround the tree at its base in a vestige of past glory.

Samhain is a time to honor one’s ancestors, holding vigil for those who have passed before us. As a person who’s cut off from her family of origin, making meaning during this time has been difficult for me. Certainly I plan honor those who have served as spiritual ancestors to me, but they are either still with me or so removed in terms of time and place I don’t feel that the spiritual connection is strong enough for this practice. I love the idea of creating a shrine to acknowledge each of those who have brought meaning into our life, and spending time with it communing with them and sharing offerings of their favorite items. I did this for my cat (who I had cremated after he passed several years ago).

The image of a tree surrounded by its leaves left me with another impression. Perhaps we can also spend time during Samhain recognizing everything we have released over the course of the past year. All that has served its purpose and then fallen away. I’ve met people who are still in mourning, not for a loved one who’s died, but for a dream that was unrealized or a love that went unrequited. Decades have passed and they still cling to a paper-thin husk, devoid of energy. If I was a tree, I’d shed my leaves randomly, sometimes in the full bloom of summer, so determined am I to rid myself of anyone and anything which threatens my sense of integrity. Maybe as humans, whether we reject things quickly or hold on too long, we need at least one rite a year in which we sit and grieve for the people and situations that weren’t ever quite ours, but for which we still yearn.

I created a ritual related to the remembrance of empty shells, the haunting of losses I want to just brush past but which keep staring up at me in their fading colors and shapes. I need my practice to be tangible, so I gathered several leaves and then wrote on each of them. I then burned them one by one, letting the smoky haze muddle my eyes and my thoughts, sinking into what it felt like to remember each situation and then let it go. I spread the ashes under the oldest trees on my property, honoring their wisdom and taking comfort in the fact that they are more rooted than I.

Disintegration and Decay

It can be beneficial to allow leaves to remain where they drop; the nutrients they release as they break down provide sustenance for the tree. Eventually the leaf becomes a part of the soil, indistinguishable from its former neighbors and mingled into other materials. The leaf spends its time above ground in a symbiotic relationship with the trunk and branches of the tree, but the rest of the tree gets to keep on unfurling its existence while the leaf is consumed.

How I resist the decaying process! It is inevitable. The horizon of my life draws ever so slightly closer, even as a part of me searches for a road that will lead over the looming mountain. Our culture doesn’t even dignify our decaying by allowing us to remain where we are rooted, instead, the circumstances of our life are akin to a leaf who happens to take the plunge during a strong gale. We fling about, buffeted not only by the decisions of our past but also by the whims of whomever finds us in their charge.

We face disintegration as well as decay; the careful gathering and piles we’ve made of our life are only under our control for so long. We may not get to nurture the limbs and bark and being to which we’ve dedicated our life with our passing. Instead, we can find ourselves facing the process alone in unfamiliar terrain. But we are still who we are, and Goddess goes with us no matter where we go.

I am not afraid especially afraid of dying or of shaking out the last drops of youth that remain in the cup. But I am terrified of becoming old-old, of aging to the point where I lose my independence and self-determination. I know myself enough to know I will fight the wind, fight the cold, fight to end up under the same damn tree on which I’ve settled as my spiritual and literal home. If and when the forces of nature demand more of me, I pray to Goddess She grants me grace and patience to view the last journey as an adventure, as a final trek up that mountain. Perhaps the leaf of my existence can find a quiet place to break apart and fertile soil to join. Perhaps it doesn’t matter where we end up after all; it’s all the same forest, with each tree a world unto itself.

So for Samhain, I reflect on death and decay. Dying and decomposition. Instead of dreaming of a world beyond death, I sit in a world where death is a near-constant presence, often through violent and abrupt means. I take a bit of ash from the leaves I burned, and rub it on my feet. This way, each step I take holds that connection to dreams that end, relationships that end, life that ends. There will be time for contemplating renewal and reincarnation; the cycle of death that inevitability leads to new life. But for today, I hold space for loss and pain and sorrow and finality, knowing that in doing so, I’m letting myself look wide-eyed at what I often try to ignore, welcoming it as a part of who I am and what we all face. Blessings on Samhain as you remember and reflect.

Inner Work

Rites of Death: Requiem for a Squirrel

Content warning—description of animal death

For today’s #InnerWork Wednesday, I wanted to share the ritual I enacted after witnessing a violent squirrel death. This is the second dead animal I’ve come across in the last month; I also found a robin outside of my door which had likely passed from West Nile virus. Just as I try to drastically reduce my consumption of animal products, my access to their suffering has increased.

Witnessing Wildness

As I walked with my dog, I hear a ruckus in a neighbor’s tree. My pup and I stopped to see what was causing all the commotion. Unexpectedly, three squirrels came hurdling at least ten feet from a nest in the tree and plopped on the ground. One landed with a smacking sound. My brain tried to sanitize what I’d just seen by telling me it was like a mother bird pushing her offspring out of the nest, even as I stood there covering my mouth with my hand, eyes bugging out. A single squirrel that remained in the tree squawked in victory.

I kept walking, believing everything was alright. As I passed the house on my way back, two neighbors came out, staring at the tree. I went over and explained what I’d seen. One of the men remarked that a squirrel, the one that landed with a thud, seemed like it might be dead. Before I could react, the other man started kicking and stomping on it. He kicked it into the bush where I could now see it. Its body laid there, still and silent. I felt sickened to my core and helpless. I was confused by the ambiguity of his actions—unsure if he was trying to “put it out of its misery” or if it was merely stunned and could have recovered. I left the scene but what I’d observed bothered me the rest of the day.

Words of Mourning

I decided to hold a small ritual to mourn the squirrel. Its manner of death was so abrupt and violent that I intuited on a visceral level the fear people have of ghosts and spirits who linger, unable to move on to their next destination. I’ve always conceptualized funerals as events designed to help the living grieve, but now I’m not so certain that they are the only ones in attendance. I burned some palo santo, lit a candle, and recited the following chant:

May Earth cradle.

May Air free.

May Fire guide.

May Water heal.

May your essence, emanating from Source, spiral its home in the cosmic web.

I also lit a candle outdoors the next day to finalize my actions. It flickered on and off like a heartbeat. Each time I thought it had been blown out by the wind, its flame started anew.

When I walked by the place of passing, the squirrel was gone.That is, its body had been removed or resurrected; I didn’t have a strong sense of its spirit either, but the tree, now empty, felt closed-in and shadowed to me.

We pass every day near places where violence has occurred, often on a much grander scale than what I saw. We can do all we are able to stop these types of events. When they do happen, how do we integrate them into our experience? How do we heal them and ourselves of our participation in them? How do we remember and honor those who have passed?