A sunny spot of undergrowth surrounded by tall trees.
Inspiration Fanatic

5 Elements: Creative Visual Exploration through Photography

Cross-posted at my SageWoman blog.

For today’s #InspirationFanatic post, I snapped a series of photographs* based on the five elements–earth, air, fire, water and spirit. I’ve been lacking any desire to be creative and needed a way to get plugged back into Nature. I felt connected to Goddess through this experience, especially when I found the “spirit” spot. I encourage you to go to a favorite natural setting and do the same! I’ve included a few prompts for each element in case you need ideas to get started.

Earth

I honed in on decomposition for my photograph–evidence of something returning to the earth. You might also consider finding a place where soil meets growth, or a plant or animal being nourished by the earth. If you feel stuck, ask yourself what around you feels rooted, strong and grounded.A photograph of a tree trunk rotting away into the earth.

Air

I found myself drawn to movement when I contemplated the air element. You could also look for plant or animal material that tends to get carried in the wind, such as leaves or dandelion fluff. Wispy clouds may also reflect this element. To touch this element, ask yourself what in your immediate surroundings is in motion, is breathing or is aloft.

A photograph of a tree with its green leaves in motion.

Fire

I happened upon a fire pit which felt like an apt representation of this element. A spotlight cast by the sun or dry and dusty conditions fit here, as would flames (in a safe setting of course). If you are unsure what to include, ask yourself what around you is marked by sunlight, dry, scorched or alight?

An empty stone fire pit with ashes after the fire has burned out.Water

Any body of water or aspect of rain, mist, fog or dew represents the water element. This is the element with which I connect the most easily and deeply. The forest where I was hiking ended up being a ridge high above the stream below. It was interesting to notice that my sense of immediacy with Goddess was limited when I realized I wasn’t going to be able to get close to water. If you need additional inspiration, ask yourself what around you is wet, moist, hidden or heavy.

A stream surrounded by logs and trees in late summer.

Spirit

Spirit is amorphous and fully open to interpretation. After feeling disappointed regarding how far I was from water, I retraced my steps as I went to leave and happened upon a clearing in the woods through which the sunlight was pouring. I felt my breath slow and my heart open to this scene. For me, that sense of “I’m right here, right now” is always indicative of spirit.

A sunny spot of undergrowth surrounded by tall trees.

Reflection

For this experience, I let myself indulge my visual sense, which is what I perceive first in any situation. I want to conduct this type of walk again, but to focus on finding a connection to each element through my sense of smell or my sense of hearing, etc. I would also like to brainstorm other concepts that can be represented through photographs. I typically allow Nature to speak directly to me when I go for a walk in the forest and proceed without any plans. It was a nice change of pace to feel that I was seeking specific points of connection with Goddess through Nature; She answered my inquiry and showed me Her beauty.

© 2018 All rights reserved, Suzanne Tidewater

*Please forgive all the copyrights labels; I had someone steal an entire blog post including the photograph recently.

Photograph of tree with several trunks and sun shining through.
Naturally Mindful

Return to the Moment

Cross-posted on my SageWoman blog.

I’ve spent a lot of time planning my future lately. Most of it felt very centered and aligned with my Inner Goddess. Then it started to take on a mind of its own—planning for the sake of planning and agony about the disconnects between my present reality and my potentially brighter focus. For today’s #NaturallyMindful Monday, I want to reflect on my experience of present-moment awareness.

Mindfulness was all the rage when I was in my Ph.D. program for psychology. It has since spilled into the pop psychology world and many other venues, promising an escape from living entrenched in the past and beholden to the future. Most of the inner workings of it are rooted in Eastern thought, specifically Vipassana, a Buddhist practice. I spent over a year attending a Buddhist mindful meditation at least once a week, and it did in fact alter my relationship with my thoughts. It increased my awareness of the separation between my direct experience of the world through my senses and the explanations which I give to my direct experience. In order to rejuvenate my experience of mindfulness, I’ve been deliberate about making more time to engage in it on a regular basis.

When I practice present-moment awareness, I allow my mind to momentarily cease its constant churning through possible scenarios that could occur in the future. As a result of my trauma history, I have an inner program that runs a constant loop of hypervigilant scanning and planning. I recently had an interpersonal conflict that I thought would be ongoing the next time I saw the person. I ran scene after scene in my mind of everything I would say and do the next time I saw them. The person then chose to remove themselves from my life, and all of my planning was a complete waste of time. I fight so many more battles in my mind than I will ever face in real life.

By returning again and again to my breath and body sensations, I interfere with the analytical mind’s focus on the future and allow myself to settle down. Even if I need to spend some time determining my next step, it is different do to so from a place of inner connection versus an unsettled state. As I shared in the past, this is one of the biggest stressors in regards to my house, because I do not know for sure if it is going to be quiet enough for me to be able to feel safe in the present. I have only succeeded in truly finding inner awareness in settings in which I feel relatively safe and secure. With my hyperacusis and misophonia, certain noises seem to be too powerful for me to just simply “notice” as mindfulness requires.

Even though it feels like I have limitations on when and where I can achieve a mindful state, I do know that being in one affects not only me but also those around me. When I am presenting ideas to others, they seem significantly more engaged when I am fully present, rather than when I am internally distracted. I’ve also noticed that I find myself drawn toward people who I sense are slowed down enough inside to notice what the different parts of themselves want and need, instead of ignoring the majority of their requirements for physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment because doing so would require noticing and sensing instead of thinking and doing.

In some ways, I view mindfulness as a skill set which can be achieved through practice. At the same time, I also hold it as an internal reality to which nearly everyone has access, but to which very few of us bother to attend. It is not always pleasant and comfortable, rather, it brings into awareness the full spectrum of life, not merely the happy parts. Simply being with our breath, as we are, grounds and re-centers our purpose.

To what extent have you explored the concept of mindfulness? What are your thoughts on the ways it has been appropriated and commodified in modern American society? To what extent is mindfulness integral to healing as a trauma survivor? What might be its drawbacks?

Naturally Mindful

Slow Cooking: A Sustainable and Mindful Food Preparation Ritual

Consider the last meal you ate. What were the ingredients used to prepare it? Where did they come from in the world? How did they make their way to you? To what extent did you engage your senses as you ate the meal? For today’s #NaturallyMindful Monday, we’ll be participating in a cooking ritual together. Some aspects of this practice conjure up for me the scene in the TV show Portlandia where the characters are trying to determine not only the specific farm from which the chicken originated, but also its life story. The point of the ritual, however, is not only to allow us to see where our food comes from, it is also designed to invite us to practice attention and to see the fullness of life behind even a simple behavior such as eating. It is a spiritually-centered practice, not a full-time lifestyle recommendation, as I think it could become yet another way we might begin to restrict and over-regulate our lives.

For this practice, I suggest choosing a simple meal with bold ingredients that can be cooked in 30 minutes or less (my title references the internal practice, not the cook time)! You will be eating the dish very slowly, so either find one that will taste palatable even if it comes closer to room temperature, or one that you can serve yourself from repeatedly in small portions. If it suits you, consider choosing a dish that you’ve “invented” or one that has been passed down to you. You can conduct this ritual on your own or invite others who are willing to participate to cook and/or dine with you.

Supplies

Food items (the first part of the practice includes some internet research, so make a list of every ingredient as well to use while the food is properly stored).

Recipe

Paper or electronic map of the world with pins/tag capacity

Bowl/plate and eating utensils for which you know the origins

Step 1:

Using your list of food items, research the origin of each ingredient. Try to determine not only the place of origin of your food item, but also the journey it had to take to reach you. How long ago was it last in “nature?” In what type of vehicles was it carried from its point of origin to your house? Who grew, picked and processed it? Where and how did you buy it? Take careful notes.

Step 2:

Using your notes, pin each place of origin on your map. How much of the world was involved in creating your dish? What is your reaction to this knowledge? Use your imagination to recreate each item’s travels to your location. Connect with the people, places, smells and sights that existed along the way.

Step 3:

Before you begin to cook the dish, spend some time with the recipe. Where did you get it? If you created it yourself, what inspired you? If it was passed down to you, what is its history? Who were the people that made it for you in the past? In what context did you enjoy it? What memories does it evoke?

Step 4:

Set up your cook station and lay out your ingredients. Prep each ingredient individually—for instance, cut up veggies separately. Focus on your breathing and on the physical experience of interacting with each item. Next, prepare the recipe according to the directions. If there is any sort of a wait time during cooking, use the time to focus your senses—what are you hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching as you prepare the food? Cooking is an incredibly stimulating experience that taps into all of our senses! Breathe into the experience and see how your body reacts to each aspect of cooking the meal.

Step 5:

When the food has been prepared, set a place for yourself and anyone who will be joining you. Take a moment to note the origins of the eating utensils and plates/bowls you’ll be using. Serve yourself whatever portion of food you can eat very slowly without it losing flavor as it cools or warms up to room temperature. When everything is ready, start by closing your eyes and smelling the food. What is the first scent to hit you? What small notes are hiding out, taking their time to make themselves known? Sit in appreciation of the scent-bath the food is providing, noting any reaction your body has to the sensations you are experiencing. Next, move on to hearing. Are there any sounds emanating from the dish? Listen, and listen again. Where in your body do you notice sensation? Now, move on to sight. Open your eyes and drink in the full array of colors, shapes, textures and gradients that present themselves in the dish. Where is it smooth? Where is it rough? What colors stand out? What colors do you see when you look again? Which shapes predominate? Where is the form ill-defined? Where may steam be rising? Liquid pooling? Note each aspect of the dish piece by piece, and then take in the experience as a whole, noting your physical reactions. Move now to taste, preparing one small bite. Before you eat it, take another moment to smell, listen and look at how the food has changed in form now that it is on your utensil. Slowly eat the first bite, pausing to note both the flavors the food imparts as well as the sensation of touch as it enters your mouth and you chew it. Continue to eat the dish, chewing each bit at least 20 times and pausing after each bite to examine how your body is responding to the experience. As you eat the dish, honor your body’s sensation of hunger as well as your possible fullness. When you feel satiated, discontinue your eating and take some time to reflect on the experience as a whole.

bowl free
Banana-oat bowl!

Reflections

I engaged in the mindfulness practice I created with a banana-oat dish I love. This dish brings back memories from my undergraduate experience. Our cafeteria occasionally had visiting chefs, one of whom introduced me to the deliciousness of Bananas Foster. My spinoff is missing the rum and the sugar, but has the buttery sweetness in a wholesome, protein-rich package.

In researching the ingredients, which include Greek yogurt, dates, butter, rolled oats, and bananas, I was surprised to learn that the butter I’d purchased had a longer trip to me than everything else, save the banana. The banana was the only ingredient that originated outside of the U.S.; it was grown in Guatemala. Bananas are Guatemala’s top export. In reading about the history of banana imports to the U.S., I felt sadness at the exploitation that has occurred for the workers who produce the crop. After a cursory search, I was not successful in locating a local place where I could buy fair-trade bananas. This exercise was worth it to me if for no other reason that it caused me to realize the foods I’ve been eating for decades without any sense of concern (e.g., non-animal products), are also susceptible to forces which I’d rather resist. Tropical fruits are my favorite, so I have more work to do to try to find a way to source them as ethically as I can (suggestions welcome!). The oats I used seemed to be at least distributed the closest to me, but the origin of the product itself was a bit murkier; they may be grown in Canada. I was happy to learn that oat production uses less fertilizer and weed killer than other grains and may have less of a negative impact on the soil as well.

When I added all my pins to the map to represent each place from which my ingredients originated, I thought about the many miles traveled and fossil fuel energy it took to get the food to my house. I’ve been frequenting a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm this summer for my vegetables. It takes a while to drive to it, but it is nothing compared to the thousands of collective miles over which my food had to pass in order to unite in my simple dish. The bowl I used to plate my dish is sustainable and is hand-made from coconut in Hawaii.

In cooking the food, I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to remain present with what I was doing. My mind kept racing ahead and on to other topics: I suspect I lose out on a lot of the sensory experience food provides every day by my actions. I observed myself using smell as my primary sense, checking to see if the oats and dates had finished toasting in the butter when they started to hint at burning. I microwaved(!) the banana; when I’ve made this recipe before, I’ve used a frozen banana. A fresh banana in the microwave smells to me like a wet gym sock; the flavor was semi-palatable but I will definitely go with the frozen variety in the future.

Eating the dish was an exercise in centering and re-centering. I sat down and took a bite, completely forgetting my own purpose. As I re-centered on my breath, used my senses to connect to what I was doing, and ate it very slowly, I found myself experiencing texture in a new way. Part of the appeal of this dessert is the chew of the oats in contrast with the silkiness of the dates and yogurt. I also enjoyed the different temperatures—the yogurt was cold, the bananas were steaming, and the oats/dates were closer to room temperature. It had never fully occurred to me that food is more than smell, taste and visual appeal (except for the few textures like sea urchin that I simply cannot bear). I struggle to eat vegetables on a regular basis, so perhaps concentrating on these sensory touch-points will help to widen my palate.

On the whole, my meal sat differently in me as I thought about its origins, travels and the impact each piece of it had on my being. I wondered how the sorrowful path of the banana, at least if its story was untold, would impact my body as compared to one that was sustainably grown and harvested. I was filled with a fuller understanding of myth and story; the beauty of sitting together and hearing one’s elders speak in sacred terms about how the various indigenous plants and animals came to populate our region and make their way to our bellies has been obliterated by modern agricultural practices. The mechanization and digitization of our lives stripped from us first our connection to the land and has now, with convenience foods, taken even our knowledge of how to prepare food for ourselves. In addition, there is privilege today in having the time, money and resources to examine from where our food comes and to prepare it and perhaps grow and harvest it by hand; many people struggle obtain nourishment in the first place. Movements like permaculture and fair trade may assist us to address these concerns as a society; on the small scale, as we adjust our lifestyles to whatever extent possible, we can partake in small, sacred moments of passing a plate around the hearth, recounting the story of each ingredient and mindfully savoring each spoonful.

To what extent do you attend to the origins of the foods you eat? How far or near are their points of origin to you? How fresh are they when they arrive at your home? To what extent are you attentive and mindful during the process of cooking? Eating? Lastly, if you try any part of the ritual, please share your experience!

 

Embodied Heart

Defeated by a Door Handle (And Other Sacred Glimpses)

“…how innocently all of us seek experiences, when either way, it’s the same. It’s the same Source which is love. So right here and now, right where you are, this is holy land, and this the holy moment.” ~Francie Halderman, interviewed by Rita Marie Robinson in her book Ordinary Women Extraordinary Wisdom: The Feminine Face of Awakening. pgs. 160-161

How I’d anticipated my first week-long vacation I was to have in years, spent relaxing at a bed and breakfast tucked into the countryside. They even allowed dogs! I loaded my entire car with books and paints and all manner of supplies and headed off.

Upon my arrival, it was rapidly apparent to me that it was not to be. There were already two significant strikes against it working out by the time I saw my room—the owner’s dogs came bounding up to my car without collars or leashes, scaring my dog (who then barked at them), and the interior of the house smelled ferociously of an undetermined repulsion. We reached the room in the attic in which I was to be staying, and, as we turned to walk back down, I inquired about the key for the door. I was told the door had an antique handle so there was no lock. I knew I would get no sleep and so I cancelled the reservation, forfeiting my deposit.

As I drove away, I burst in sobs which I at first attributed to the frustration of the situation. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with hysterics, barely able to maintain myself on the road. Although I discerned enough to know I was no longer simply upset my vacation had been cancelled, I could not make heads or tails of exactly why I was feeling what I was feeling. I mentally reviewed the events that had just transpired; when I got to the door, I knew.

We’d had antique door handles in the house in which I spent my childhood, most of which failed to lock properly. The memories are jumbled, but there were at least two incidents of sexual abuse that occurred in our attic.  The prospect of being in a similar room with walls narrowed by the half-floor, into which anyone could walk in at any time, was untenable for me.

Unspoken and unprocessed terror, purified as it is, muddles past and present on the tableau of our physicality. I’ve fallen away from actively processing my trauma as directly as I would like to, and I know now that I need to redouble my efforts. I was struck by the fact that my primary reaction was one of sorrow, as this is atypical for me and feels like I was perhaps able to reach a layer deeper than I usually can into my psyche. As soon as I was able, I opened to embrace the little selves that needed comfort.

I am a proud person, and it is hard for me to recognize and admit when I’ve reached the end of myself. A part of me wishes I’d stayed and “fought” through my fear, as I know I’ve only made it harder for myself to travel again. This is the second trip I’ve cancelled this year and I am concerned about the stifling quality my inner protectors seem to have on my life. At the same time, I am glad that I didn’t force myself to endure an unpleasant vacation.

As I reflect further on the experience, I find that shame still underlies my “no.” In determining something did not meet my needs, I feel wrong for having needs at all. I actually apologized to the innkeeper for “inconveniencing” her, when in fact I was also very much inconvenienced. I returned home and set up a tent in my living room, making my own form of a staycation complete with a pile of books in which I found the quote above that struck a chord with me. Perhaps the “holy” moment is happening wherever we are, so long as we consciously perceive it. And, for me as a trauma survivor, conscious perception, meeting the stillness, is a rare and elusive gem, one I seem to have unearthed for a time by honoring my body and my needs.

What has been your experience when you’ve honored your “no”? To what extent does the idea of each moment being sacred connect with you? What happens when you open to your inner needs, and when you greet the day with conscious awareness of the present moment?

Sacred Spiritual Growth

Resourcing Our Spiritual Needs: Unfiltered Inspiration

Cross-posted on my SageWoman blog.

Do you find yourself craving inspiration on a soul level? I believe that external stimulation nourishes us not only physically, emotionally and mentally, but also spiritually, and functions as a vital ingredient for our well-being. For today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I will be investigating how slow and attentive engagement with the world around us can produce this sustenance.

Inspiration comes in at least two varieties: wild and processed. The first, the unfiltered variety, is not simply nature as it also includes human-cultivated materials that have not yet been fully assembled. It allows us to take things sense by sense, and to either simply appreciate each as it stands or to engage our creativity by constructing unique permutations. Processed inspiration sounds less appealing, but in fact has gone through one of the most creative machines there—another human’s mind. Each work of art and scientific finding is a human’s diamond. My mind internalizes and makes its own meaning of this product, but what is presented has been synthesized and layered through another’s concentration and effort. I never saw art or inquiry as vulnerability until I held it in this light. Taken together, wild and processed stimuli offer us an unlimited supply of fodder for creativity and growth. I will be tackling both topics in my #SacredSpiritualGrowth posts; today’s blog will consider the first by contemplating how we can engage our senses directly.

Raw Sensory Indulgence

Rather than an exhaustive list, I’ve included specific examples from my own life with an eye toward highlighting the impact of working with each sense individually.

Sight

The primary place in which I am delighted when I engage my sense of sight is in nature. As I’ve spent more time in outside, one of my favorite practices is to “look again,” by which I mean to take in a scene until I think I’ve captured all the nuances it holds, and then to challenge myself to reset the parameters and find an entirely new set of data coming at me. What was previously a simple glance at a tree or hedge evolves into an eco-sphere of activity from this vantage-point.

Human creations, in their raw form, can also connect with us on a visual level. For instance, as a child, I was drawn to fabric stores. I wasn’t very good at sewing and so I was unsure about why they held such appeal for me. I believe now that it was simply the full glass of colors, patterns and textures I was able to drink in with each visit that appealed to me. In the same vein, a row of paint samples may seem mundane but, through its activation of our visual system, we may perhaps find ourselves dreaming in full color.

Sound

Inspiration does not need to come only from experiences we find pleasing. I’ve written before about my difficulties processing certain sounds. I find the most peace in listening to birdsong and the rush of water in a stream, but I believe mechanical sounds and the babble of humans in motion can also provide fertile ground for the growth of our auditory attunement. Consider finding various places where you can sit for a few moments with your eyes closed, and simply listen.

Smell & Taste

Smell is a visceral sense that I believe worth of indulgence. As I described previously, I can get carried away in places such as spice shops. Each spice offers not just a sensory experience all its own, but can also allow an unfolding of emotions and memories. Displays with essential oils or botanical herbs and, of course, natural areas filled with flora allow for a variety of scents that are easily accessed in one location. Rather than rushing to partake in the next fragrance, try pausing and finding the faint whiffs amongst the strong in each smell.

Taste can be a bit more difficult to indulge in nature unless you have a guide who can tell you which items are edible. With or without this opportunity, another possibility is to taste each ingredient in the next dish you make as you assemble it. I think here about how often I barely perceive the flavors of entire meals I eat, much less each component that goes into it.

Touch

We “see” through more than our eyes. By touching various objects with our fingertips, we come to know reality in a way that is difficult to capture in words. One of my favorite encounters is touching the bark of a tree; I feel that a window into its soul is opened each time I do so. Allowing the sun to alight on our face or the rain to wet our feet speaks to us on a nonverbal level. Walking barefoot instantly grounds and reconnects me to Goddess.

From Inspiration to Creation

After engaging with these and other senses, we need not rush to synthesize them into something “creative.” Mindfully being present and absorbing the experience as it stands may be all that is needed; genuine inspiration cannot be rushed or manufactured. Personally, I feel a small shift inside me whenever something has ripened from its original green into a tasty morsel ready to be digested; when I respond to this intuitively, I am almost always delighted at the result. When I instead try to move on without pausing to meet this sensation, the bitter pulp of unready fruit tends to quickly dissuade me from my desire to get on with it.

Taking the entirety of my list of opportunities into account, I think that most of us have more than enough around us throughout the day from which we can draw inspiration. Rather than a lack of stimuli, I suspect what gets in the way of inspiration is in fact mindlessness—glossing over or rushing through material so quickly that we fail to absorb even a fraction of what is being presented, as well as becoming overstimulated and then detaching by distracting ourselves through screens and thoughts of the future or past. The next time you feel completely overwhelmed, take a look at your surroundings. Are you attempting to attend to multiple layers of stimuli at once? Are you trying to both complete a physical as well as mental task? One activity at a time, in fact, one sense at a time, is a revolutionary way in which we can begin to appreciate nuance, complexity and variety. I invite you to stop at the next green plant you meet and get to know it. My suspicion is that you will walk away with more understanding of the world than hours of electronic scrolling could ever afford.