Inner Work

Mindful Amid the Snowfall

Cross-posted at my SageWoman blog.

For today’s #InnerWork Wednesday, I’m borrowing from my previous practice of mindfully observing a leaf and applying this concept to winter, specifically, to snow. If you live in a climate where it does not snow, most of the practice could easily be adapted using crushed ice.

Sensory Exploration

Begin by using four or five of your senses to observe the snow.

Sight

What colors are reflected by the snow? How might the depth of the snow affects its hue? What patterns and shapes does it contain? As the snow falls, how does it change in shape, texture or form, and to what do you attribute the changes? Where is it ordered, and where do you see disorder? What happens where the snow meets other objects? How do the edges of where the snow has landed differ from deep areas?

Sound

What is the sound of snow falling? What noises do you hear as it affects various objects and structures? What sounds emanate as you walk or travel over it? Drop the snow to the ground. What sounds does it make? Pack some snow together. What noises are created?

Texture

Cradle a bit of snow in the palm of your hand. What does it feel like? What energies do you find emanating from it? Pack some snow together again. How does the texture change when it is held lightly versus being crushed? How does the sensation of temperature alter as you hold the snow? How does your body respond to holding it?

Smell

Sniff the snow and notice any hints of smell that emerge from it. To what extent is it affected by its surroundings, and to what extent is its scent, if it has any, its own? What scent does snowfall lend to the overall environment around you?

Taste

Depending upon where you live and the pattern of snowfall, experts have some recommendations regarding tasting snow. Crushed ice may be a good alternative here. If you choose to eat a small amount, note the taste, smell and texture as you first eat some versus when it dissolves in your mouth. How does the temperature of your mouth change the form?

Mindful Transformation

If the energy feels right, collect four samples of snow, perhaps from different places around you. You’ll be connecting each sample to a different element and experience.

Earth

If you have a potted plant or another indoor source of dirt, bring some snow inside and bury it in the soil. What is it like to flip the order—snow under earth? How is the energy affected by the introduction of this cold form of water? Alternatively, you can spend time observing snow melt into the soil on a warming day.

Air

Wait until there is a breeze, and release some snow into the air. What trajectory does it take? What are the characteristics of its flight? Where and how does it land?

Fire

Expose some snow to candlelight or sunlight. How does its characteristics change in the light? What happens as it is transformed into liquid water by the heat?

Water and Spirit

Snow is the water element in crystallized form. It differs from ice mainly in density—a snow-pile will be comprised of both air and water while a block of ice is mainly water. The shape of each snowflake is in part dictated by the temperature at which it forms. Snow can also contain bits of dust. In this way, it is truly an intertwining of each of the four elements.

Enshrine the remaining sample of snow in a jar on your personal altar or in another sacred space. Notice any thoughts and emotions that arise from doing so. Continue to use your senses as you incorporate it into your altar space and ritual practice. When the winter season ends, you may return it to the water element in the spring rains, or you may choose to keep it as a permanent part of your altar.

Naturally Mindful

Elemental Meditation-Air

Within Paganism, the Air Element is linked with aspects of creativity, self-expression and mental engagement. For today’s #NaturallyMindful reflection, I will be exploring the connection between the physical properties of air and the spiritual implications of our relationship with it in this second installment of my series on the elements (see Earth). I’ll also be examining some of the psychological effects our relationship with air can have on us.

Lines and Swirls

The movement of air is intimately related to the fire element of the sun; wind is forged when air is heated by the sun’s rays and expands. We often describe human growth and development in the language of both light and air. Beginnings are “enlighted.” Change is “in the wind.” Wind not only originates with the fire element, it can in turn fan the flames of infernos. Contemplate for a moment the ways in which empowerment and inspiration are inter-played in your own life with aspects of movement and evolution. What can we learn from the dance of wind and fire?

Wind moves in three dimensions at once by flowing in straight lines or swirling in spinning vortexes. How often we as humans desire linearity—for things to progress forward—with no strange angles or curves! There is a beauty, though, I think in the undulations of a field of wheat or the rocking of branches to and fro in a storm. The trajectory of our lives is likewise uneven and flitting; accepting the unpredictability and possibility of what is to come can be exhilarating in the way it frees us from expectation.

Air is ever-present yet the quality of its movement is inherently transient. We feel its force and then it’s gone. Our mental processes are likewise temporary. Mindfulness meditation practices sometimes make use of imagery related to air to help individuals with anxiety loosen their grip on the need to obsess over fear-provoking thoughts. For instance, the person may be encouraged to imagine the thought as a balloon, which can be released into the air and watched as it floats away.

In Breath and Out Breath

The air we inhale is not made primarily of oxygen. Our lungs are responsible for selectively filtering the oxygen out of the mixture of gasses, moving it to our blood. Humans require a constant supply of oxygen in order to produce energy to “run” the cells of our body. Without it, our brain quickly dies. It amazes me to think that every human in existence relies on an “invisible” gaseous substance every moment of their life. Each in-breath feels like a tiny miracle within this framework.

We exhale air in which the oxygen content has been transferred to carbon dioxide. Trees and other plant life absorb this carbon dioxide and transform it back to oxygen. This symbiotic relationship extends to other aspects of our breath, as trees also block harmful particles in air.

Breathing exercises that focus on regulating the pace of our inhalations and exhalations can reduce stress. Individuals who suffer from the effects of traumatic events may find attuning to breath to be a grounding experience. The next time you engage in this mindfulness practice, extend your awareness to the sources of the in-breath and the gifting of the out-breath to nearby vegetation.

A Voice to the Void

We harness the power of air each time we speak. Consider that each time you say something aloud, your body, through an intricate balancing act, is constricting and releasing air just so in order to pronounce each syllabus. It takes us years as children to master this choreography; there are plenty of individuals for whom, due to physical conditions, a precisely-timed pirouette of sounds proves elusive even in adulthood.

The space between objects within our galaxy is filled with the Interstellar Medium, a near-vacuum compromised only of very tiny particles made of substances like “crystals” as well as thin gases such as hydrogen. Our voices do not directly reach this void as far as I understand physics, but it is fascinating to me to consider how much “hot air” many of us generate on a regular basis in speaking without genuine need or purpose. Ritual chanting in Pagan practice becomes elevated to a sacred act for me when I consider collective voices calling into the night.

Air is ethereal, there but unseen. We need it and we shudder to think what it means for our existence when breath ceases. It give life to our innermost thoughts as we render them to spoken word. What has the air element meant for you in your life? In what ways do you connect its physical characteristics to your psychological and spiritual life? How might you alter your relationship with it, for instance through awareness of your breath?

Surviving n Thriving

“Just Stay Positive” and Other Fallacies

If only keeping an optimistic mindset was the answer to all of life’s ills. Few things are more invalidating then telling people about a difficulty or struggle, only to have their first response be “well, you just need to look on the bright side.” For today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday, I will be focusing on thinking patterns that frequently occur for individuals who have dealt with trauma. I desire to hold space for this discussion within a context that provides validation and support. My intention here to is examine language and concepts that may be useful in better understanding ourselves, and to discuss ideas at the intersection of spirituality and our inner thoughts. This is not an exhaustive study; I’m focusing specifically on aspects of thoughts to which I can relate in order to provide both a topical discussion and a personal reflection.

Cognitive Distortions

1. Depressive Rumination

Rumination is but one of many facets of depressed thinking. For me, it is a return, again and again, to a situation that I just can’t leave mentally. I perseverate on it. I mull it over, reminding myself repeatedly of what the other person did that was hurtful, or the specific ways in which I failed. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness pervade. This wasn’t just a one-off; this is how it always goes for me and how it will always be, no matter what I do.

My certainty at the failure of myself and of others may not be the driver of this type of thinking. Rather, I go back to the place and time mentally as though watching a movie, believing in some irrational space that I can find the key warning, the ominous glance or sigh, the misunderstood intention, either so that in doing so I can rewrite history, or so that I can prevent this type of situation from ever occurring again. Ultimately, I refuse to accept that I failed, that the other person failed me and/or that failure may occur in the future. Perhaps the situation was truly unpredictable and unavoidable. It may be easier for my depressed mind to live in a state of half-truths, not quite aware of the real and not quite aware of the fantasy.

2. Anxious Obsessions

As a self-styled worry-wart, my mind is filled with anxious thoughts on a non-stop radio bandwidth only I can hear. I’ve lived a million possible futures and all of them end badly. If our thoughts really do become projections in an alternate universe, I’d like to take a moment to apologize to the troubled selves I’ve created. I can’t adjust the noise or tune it out; what I can manage on good days is brief moments of static during which another frequency can also play.

The best is when something unexpected happens. I go into “matrix mode.” Every potential outcome and its consequences are immediately weighed and balanced until a solution is found. On those special occasions where the most likely courses of actions are deemed too risky, the machine of my mind keeps running and running, hoping something more enticing will “compute.” Goddess forbid anyone attempt to give me a suggestion about how to solve my problem; literally within minutes of a stressor happening I have already measured out and rejected whatever the other person eventually ends up telling me to do. The whole enterprise is exhausting and isolating, but, short of substance abuse, I’ve found little to tame it.

Anxious thoughts have a natural antidote—compulsive behaviors. Worried about a relationship? Ask the other person if everything is okay. When the person says it is, my anxiety decreases. Nervous about paying for bills? I’ll check my bank account one more time to remind myself I have sufficient funds. These behaviors unfortunately do nothing more than maintain the anxiety, but I find them very difficult to avoid.

3. Hostile Intent

Anger and anxiety are cousins; we fight what we cannot flee and flee what we perceive ourselves unable to fight. In terms of thinking, psychologists have conceptualized “hostile attribution bias” as an explanation for aggressive behavior. In ambiguous situations, the angry mind may interpret potentially benign behaviors as threats. Even something as subtle as a facial expression can be a dig, an affront to our respect.

I’ve trained myself again and again to question the automatic assumptions my mind forms, and to directly discuss the issue in a non-attacking way with the other person. I try to describe the behavior I observed literally, and then lay out possible innocent and hostile interpretations for why the other person may have taken the action. Basically, I state “I saw you doing X, and I’m not sure if you meant Y or Z. Please help me understand.” In dealing with people I do not know well, I am almost always wrong in my assumption of hostility.

A red flag needs to be waived here though to caution regarding those individuals who are manipulative or abusive. They will seize on your openness to multiple interpretations as a way to disarm and gaslight you. If I’ve called someone on something and the person repeats a similar behavior or steps it up a notch, I disengage any attempt at “understanding” and focus on safety and maintaining boundaries in the situation.

4. Invalidation

Thoughts of invalidation can be initiated by another person or they can originate in our own mind. They are only able to affect us to the extent to which we accept them as truth. These types of thoughts delegitimize our experience behaviorally or emotionally. “That didn’t really happen that way.” “I don’t feel this.” “I’m fine.” “The other person didn’t do this, say this, or mean this.” Thoughts of this nature often function to temporarily decrease our uncomfortable or awkward feelings. If we use denial and discounting on a regular basis, our reality begins to warp. In our distancing of ourselves from our feelings or experiences, we can inadvertently undermine our sense of self and our connection to others.

I believe an insistence on “higher vibrations” and “positive thoughts only” frequently serve as sources of internal invalidation. It is neither reasonable nor healthy to deny anything that isn’t sugar-coated and syrupy. Terrible things happen every day to people who do not deserve them; I think we all need to wrestle with this reality if we want to live authentic and deep spiritual lives. It is completely acceptable to have periods of time where we are unable to do so because of our own situation, but to judge and discount those who point out this truth as “negative” exemplifies the spiritual bypass route of denial in my opinion.

Goddessing Our Thoughts

Psychological assistance is often needed to deal with past trauma. Many therapies directly target thought distortions and work to help individuals reinterpret and reclaim their experiences. The first step is almost always noticing our thoughts; recognizing when we are denying our feelings or misinterpreting others gives us an opportunity to see things from another vantage-point. I will leave it to you to determine the mental health care you may need related to these issues; I want to focus instead on spiritual aspects of our thinking. In other words, my suggestions are not prescriptive ways to “fix” thinking problems, instead, they are ways to gently support yourself while you do the hard work of trauma recovery.

1. Remind Yourself of the Bigger Picture

A wider perspective often serves to help us gain a foothold when we feel overwhelmed by anxious, depressed or angry thoughts. Perhaps there is someone you trust to give an honest appraisal of your situation. Engaging in actions like journaling may open your mind to another way to view your experience. If possible, taking a break to clear your mind may help you to re-center and re-engage with a new mindset.

It can also be useful to practice specific calming statements. The ones I use are not always particularly positive, but they are effective for me. I frequently remind myself of how short and unpredictable life can be, as a way to let go of minor irritations into which I could otherwise become entwined. When people get under my skin, I tell myself that they are going to have to spend the rest of their lives with their sorry selves, and I am lucky to only have to play a bit role in interacting with them. My anxiety and anger flare significantly when I am under time pressure, so I actively return to the idea that I have enough time and that a catastrophe is not going to result based on being a little short on time.

2. Connect Your Struggles to Those of the Divine

I have only begun to take full advantage of this way of supporting myself. A multitude of myths, legends and stories exist of Goddesses and other Divine figures, each of whom faced Her own trials and tribulations. By familiarizing myself with these tales, as well as experiencing the Presence of the Divine directly, we can diminish our sense of otherness and the isolation that negative thoughts may bring. I think we often find Source in others as well.

3. Include Positivity Alongside the Difficult

Psychological research shows us that those who are resilient do not necessarily think only positive thoughts. Instead, when faced with difficulties, they are able to find light moments. The easiest way I have found to ensure this happens is to make a regular practice of gratitude. I passionately detest any notion that we should feel better simply because someone somewhere else has it worse than us. Suffering in one form does not negate suffering in another form; it’s just more suffering. What I mean by gratitude is that there are always moments, even on my worst days, of beauty, gentleness, unexpected good fortune and hope. Allowing these experiences to exist alongside my misery, instead of as a counterweight to it, lets me breathe and take in both the good and the bad at the same time.

4. Use Ritual and Routine as Behavioral Aids

Waiting for the right mood to strike before taking action can be excellent fodder for procrastination and can act as an impediment to progress. Sometimes the action has to proceed the internal motivation. I’ve noticed that my routines and my spiritual practices tend to set the stage for me to feel connected and centered, especially if I stick to them with regularity no matter what my internal thoughts want me to do. A depressed mindset can easily twist a failure to follow through into one more reason we should feel guilty and unworthy. I simply notice when I’ve gotten off my routine and do my best to steer myself back on track.

5. Practice Awareness of Body, Mind and Heart

Our thoughts do not occur in isolation. They interplay with our emotions and our physical states. Simply gaining an internal awareness of the interconnected relationship between these internal experiences may assist us in better understanding who we are and how we function. We get to decide what we want to do with this knowledge. Practices like mindfulness can assist in this inner work.

Because I view our physical existence as a core component of spirituality, I see the insight we can gain about ourselves as having spiritual implications. We are each a unique expression of the Divine. As such, we reflect a specific core of energy. The more we are able to see the colors, shapes and shifts of who we are, the more our place in the cosmic web can become solidified and strengthened, and the more we can use this place of power to affect positive change in the world.

I think that’s it. I’ve spent so much money, time and effort in therapy and on my own trying to fix myself, trying to change myself, and the question is always to what end. Why does it matter what I think? Who cares how much I’m incorporating the positive or practicing my rituals? In my view, I see now that ultimately I am not putting in this effort solely to reduce my own suffering, but rather because the extent to which I gain awareness my own sacredness, my own connection to Source, the rawness and realness of who I am, the greater good I can achieve. I believe the same is true for each of us.

Sacred Spiritual Growth

What’s the Lesson In This For Me?

Throughout human history, many people have tried to make sense of why negative events occur in our lives. One idea that is sometimes proffered and with which I take issue is that we should “learn a lesson” from these kind of experiences and that they will invariably serve as a source of strength for us. On this #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I’ll elaborate on our ability and cause to seek insight through difficult trials. I do think there is some truth to the concept that we can learn and growth through, rather than despite, minor unpleasant life events.

To me, experiences that rise to the level of trauma are not necessarily or inherently good for us nor do they always make us stronger. I would give back much of what happened to me in my childhood in a heartbeat; I don’t think I’m a better person because of it. If you’d made sense of your own trauma in a different way, I completely support you in this as I think there are multiple valid perspectives we can hold towards suffering.

Traumatic Experiences

Traumatic experiences are those events that threaten our life or our sense of safety in a major way. They may leave us feeling betrayed, broken, lost and without hope. They shake the core of how we see the world and our sense of right and wrong. Life may seem unfair and unjust as a result, and we may feel alienated from “other people” who we perceive to wear rose-colored glasses in their assessment of how life tends to go.

These kinds of experiences can lead to a sense of spiritual growth; in fact, there is an entire body of research on “post-traumatic growth.” One moderating factor in enhancing development after trauma is social support. In other words, my take is that people are most able to grow after a tragedy when they feel supported by others during and after the trauma. For example, if a natural disaster strikes and causes issues with housing and employment, people may gain strength in their faith if lots of people are there to assist them and to lend aid during recovery.

Where trauma is especially likely to cut a ragged wound is when we go through it alone, and when we experience others as turning against, not towards us, as we try to recover from it. The individual who is rejected from every possible place of refuge, and whose life begins a downward spiral after a natural disaster is less likely to emerge from it, at least for a long time, with a sense of a deeper spiritual connection. On some level, I think the Divine becomes conflated with other people for most of us, so that to the extent that we feel distant from people, we are likely to experience a breach between ourselves and the Divine.

Everyday Obstacles

I think there are minor inconveniences and everyday types of problems that come our way through fate that we can use as a catalyst for spiritual growth. There is no clear dividing line between traumatic experiences and everyday obstacles. What one person finds minor may be a major trigger for another individual. I am not concerned with deciding for others the types of life experiences that fall into this category of “growth fodder.”  Discern for yourself the bumps along the way that you can use to make meaning and to draw out the character traits you seek to display.

I believe life unfolding in a way that runs counter to our plans invites us to contemplate certain questions. These include:

  • What do I really need in my life, and what just takes up space? What builds me spiritually?
  • What are my priorities for finding meaning in my life when my goals are thwarted? Do they align with my actions?
  • To what extent do I turn to Divinity and/or to my spiritual home when I am overwhelmed?
  • To what extent do I allow others to connect with me and offer spiritual balm to the raw and vulnerable places in me which negative situations provoke?
  • What are the spiritual rituals and practices that are particularly nourishing to me during difficult moments? To what extent do I follow through on them when they are really needed?

Signs of Spiritual Growth

How do we know if the lessons we are learning from everyday obstacles are spurring spiritual growth? I’ve listed a few signs below. They are not prescriptive or definitive! I found myself feeling like I was coming up short on every single one of them. I urge you to give yourself permission to view even a very small step in the direction they suggest as a sign you are reaching another layer of the spiritual dimension.

  • The first reaction to a negative minor setback is less and less to simply react. We are able to more fully engage the “deep thinking” part of our brain and/or to respond with a wider range of emotions than we used to be able to access. This emotional maturity is intertwined with spiritual growth in my view as it is a necessary first step before we evolve to a place of having our natural response be spiritually-centered.
  • We can more fully stay on track with our spiritual focus even when things aren’t going our way. We continue our daily rituals and meditation. We engage in deep conversations with others.
  • We are more able to own our own role in situations that occur to us. For example, if I act in a hostile, abrupt manner towards others, and then do not get the help I need from them, they are not simply incompetent. I’ve increased their inability to help me by treating them rudely. This place of personal responsibility can then empower us to make more viable choices as to how we handle moments of challenge.
  • We increase our ability to display the values and beliefs to which we ascribe in terms of how we face obstacles. For instance, if we believe being in nature provides an opportunity to connect with the Divine, we seek outdoor spaces as a respite during difficult situations.
  • We expand our focus to include giving attention to the things for which we are grateful and to the hopes to which we hold fast, even when other areas of our life are experiences in suffering.

In examining these concepts, I’ve written only in reference to the impact of external events on us. We are also buffeted by the winds of our internal thoughts and feelings. I suspect there may be a similar division in regards to inner experiences. As someone who struggles with the symptoms of multiple mental disorders, I find these akin to traumatic experiences in that the best I can currently do with them spiritually is to accept them. Some individuals encapsulate their mental health conditions as a part of their identity and see themselves as incomplete without them. As for me, I do not think they have improved who I am and I’m not pleased to have them in my life.

At the same time, the inner shifts in mood and thought that we all experience, such as a fleeting bad mood or a temporary anxious thought, can perhaps lead us to deepen our spiritual walk as we dig in to what it means to be human. We can sit with the negative moment and examine what it has to offer us. I would not want to be perfectly happy and stress-free all the time, because I think life would lose nuance and color in a mono-state.

As I mentioned several times, I have but one perspective on the idea of life teaching us lessons, and I hope to start a conversation about what your view on this is. I am very interested in seeing how the division I’ve made squares with your experience of your spiritual journey, and the extent to which the signs of spiritual growth I’ve shared fit how things have gone for you. Perhaps together we can hone in on some tried-and-true ideas for those moments when things don’t go our way.

Inner Work

Mindfully Leafy

For today’s #InnerWork Wednesday, I wanted to share a short practice I developed for mindfully observing a leaf as it relates to inner work. Fall is my favorite time of year, and leaves work even better than pumpkin spice to connect me to the season. To complete this practice, you’ll need a leaf that has recently fallen from a tree.

Sensory Exploration

Begin by using four of your senses to observe the leaf.

Sight

What colors are captured in the leaf? What patterns and shapes does it contain? Where is it ordered, and where do you see disorder? What happens where the stem and leaf meet? How do the edges differ from the center?

Sound and Texture

Hold the leaf in the palm of your hand. Can you feel its weight? What does its energy feel like to you? Move the leaf through the air. What sounds does it make? Crinkle a bit of it between your fingers. What does it feel like? What noises does it produce?

Smell

Sniff the leaf and notice any hints of smell that emerge from it. What scents do the decay it is undergoing release?

Mindful Transformation

If the energy feels right, break the leaf into five pieces. You’ll be connecting each piece to a different element and experience. Alternatively, use five leaves total if you don’t want to break one apart.

Earth

Bury a piece of the leaf in the earth. What is the experience of digging in the dirt and covering up the leaf like for you? What do you notice about your surroundings as you bury it?

Air

Wait until there is a breeze, and release a piece of the leaf into the air. What trajectory does it take? What are the characteristics of its flight? Where and how does it land?

Fire

It would be most interesting to light the leaf on fire and watch how it transforms while burning. Given the rampant wildfires in many places, a safer practice may be to expose the leaf to sunlight, noticing how its characteristics change in the light, and, slowly, how it decomposes.

Water

Place the leaf in a puddle or another natural body of water. Observe its movement. How does the water change the way the leaf holds its shape? How much of it is above water, floating? How does it interact with obstacles such as the edge of the puddle, or other objects in the water?

Spirit

Place the remaining piece of the leaf on your personal altar or in another sacred space. Notice any thoughts and emotions that arise from doing so. Continue to use your senses as you incorporate it into your altar space and ritual practice. Samhain may be a good time to return it to one of the elements from your altar. Or, you can let it dry out and keep it as a permanent piece of your altar decorations.