New quarter, new altar

Simple Feri altar

This quarter’s altar is really a three-in-one. I’m limited for altar space around here. While this doesn’t look cluttered, there’s a lot going on. From left to right:

First, there’s my Israeli stoneware cup, or chalice, which I find I don’t really use very much. The blue votive holder is back. It’s really my Holy Mother candle votive. It was made by a friend as a going away present when we moved from the Bay Area. Flanking it are two peacock feathers (hard to see against the black heater top). Peacocks are sacred Feri symbols. Behind the votive is a carved, Black Mother figurine.

In the middle is the wooden star. A red candle with twin dragons carved around it. Three horse chestnuts, also known as conckers, decorate the altar as symbols of autumn They are everywhere here. I put them on a sign of the season and as an offering. The incense holder is here, also for offerings. I have a beautiful blue glass sugar bowl that I’ve turned into a censer that I use for cone incense and for censing my house. But it’s too big to keep out.

Beginning the right hand side, which is the Ancestor portion of my altar, is a beautiful blue ceramic pitcher. In it I place libations of water. Right now it’s got water in it from St Non’s Well in Pembrokeshire, a very potent place. There is the framed picture of my namesake, my late maternal grandmother. There are also pictures of my (living) mother as an infant. It may not be wise to have pictures of the living on an ancestor altar, but I feel it’s appropriate in this case; these pictures want to go together. There is my black glass votive I light for the Ancestors in the evening. Tucked in the back and hard to see is a little picture of Victor and Cora Anderson, the ‘founders’ of Feri. Ancestors are not just those to whom you are blood related. I believe it is important to honor Victor and Cora, not just for their legacy, but also in hopes that they might bless the work I do within the Feri tradition.

Ganesha's new spot

As I was dismantling the last altar Ganesh made it abundantly clear to me that he did not want to be put away, or even moved upstairs where the other murtis are being kept. Oh no.  So he remains in the dining room, on top of the freezer, which also functions as the storage portion of my desk. He gets greeted every morning and I wave the incense at him when I light it.

This all feels cozy and just right! Onward!

Navratri, as seen through Feri eyes

Navratri is a major Hindu celebration of the Shakti, or feminine, aspect of the Divine, celebrated over nine nights. I don’t understand Hindu astrology or calendar systems, but I’m sure it is no coincidence that it occurs close to the autumnal equinox and starts at the dark of the moon. Navratri celebrates Durga, who I see as the Dark Mother. The first three nights celebrate her fierce qualities, and focus on purification. The second three nights focus on her aspect as Lakshmi, goddess of abundance, wealth, and beauty. These are not merely physical qualities, though there’s nothing wrong with wanting more beauty or wealth, because these things relate to the spiritual nature as well. The last three nights concentrate on Saraswati, goddess of wisdom. Ultimately this is a form of abundance and is the goal of all good things.

You might be wondering why I’m talking about a Hindu festival. Isn’t this quarter about Feri? As you’ll find, Feri is very fluid. I think this is an auspicious hinge for my quarters. How could I possibly ignore such a perfect and beautiful festival, one that celebrates the Holy Mother? Let’s look at Navratri from more of a Feri perspective. I hope my Hindu readers will indulge me.

Without delving into the Feri cosmogony or pantheon (I’ll save that for another post) I’ll share with you a little bit about the Star Goddess, the ‘source deity’, as I see Her. Like Durga in many traditions, the Star Goddess is the Holy Mother, the source of all other divine expressions. Like the Hindu tradition, this doesn’t negate the personal integrity of other gods, but rather acknowledges the common Source of all things. She is the Beginning, the Ground of Being in whom we live, move, and have our being; from her all things emerge, and unto her all things return – as the prayer goes.*

She is black – like the night, like darkness, like our fears, the ultimate Black Heart of Innocence, the totality of colors and all things. Black is not a frightening nor evil color. It’s intensity and wholeness. Pure, unsullied, virgin. Many people equate these things with white, but I prefer black – because it’s all those ‘good’ things, without forgetting the ‘bad’ or ‘scary’ things that are part of us or our world as well.

If one wanted to look at the goddess in Navratri from a more Wiccan point of view, we can see aspects of the triple goddess. Durga, or Kali, can be seen as the crone figure, associating death with old age and darkness (sometimes known as Ana in the Feri tradition). Laskhmi might be the maiden figure, associated with youth and beauty and the more ‘frivolous’ things (possibly connected to Nimue in Feri). Saraswati in her mature, fullness of authority, might be linked to the mother figure (or Mari in Feri). I’m not a big fan of linking goddesses to phases of life or to fertility as these don’t necessarily reflect the universality of experience. I’m not saying they can’t, but it doesn’t speak deeply to me. All of these concepts, and thus goddesses, are ageless and independent of anything ‘fertile.’ And yet, they have much to teach us.

During Navratri all pujas are performed by women, since this festival is the pinnacle of Shakti worship. While the Star Goddess is termed Goddess and refered to as She and Her, the mystic in us knows that She is neither male nor female Рshe both, and then some! Shakti is the creative energy  of life force. She is the face we put on something so big, so vast, that we can scarcely comprehend it. In our day and age focusing this energy on the female side of things can be a liberating and restorative practice, particularly for those who have felt overwhelmed by the dominant masculinity of the mainstream world. Men and women look to the Holy Mother, perhaps not because She is a she, but because the change in language can snap us out of old ways of thinking and get us to see the Divine in a fresh way. Our hearts might be slightly more open. I know it was for me.

So how am I observing this festival now that I’m not practicing as a Hindu? I wake up and wash and meditate. I say good morning to Ganesh (he did NOT want to be put away). I light a candle honoring Durga. I say the Holy Mother prayer and I ask Kali to purify me, to slay the fears that limit me. I’ll do the same in the evening. In two days time I’ll switch to thinking about Lakshmi, praying for good things and offering her my gratitude for all I have been given. Prayer and offerings. Simple but joyful.

Jai Ma!

and

Blessed be!

 

*There’s more to the prayer. This first part might be familiar to many people, from many traditions. I learned it from T. Thorn Coyle.

 

A note on re/sources

This weekend I spent my time recovering from jet lag and getting things sorted for the next quarter: changing out the altar, getting my daily practice sorted, etc. It would have been nice to seamlessly transition from tradition to tradition, but international travel and children will complicate things. And that’s ok! I’m realizing that there is no rush. Even though I’m devoting a mere three months to each tradition, I can always come back later. There is no perfection.

With that last thought in mind I want to comment on the resources I pulled together for this quarter (listed under Feri and Paganism/s). Firstly, I say ‘Paganism/s’ because while many traditions are lumped together as pagan, there is no monolithic Paganism. The term seems to refer to anything that isn’t monotheistic, has a nature based core, a fertility core, involves magic of the ‘dark’ variety, and/or worships a goddess. This is problematic at best. And yet, it’s a convenient catch-all term. But I think Paganisms, emphasis on plural, is a better way to describe things. There are many types of paganism. Feri isn’t fertility based, and while it has a plurality of gods, a strong case for it being monotheistic could be made. This section will likely grow. I haven’t added any books to the list yet!

My listing under Feri is deliberately modest. There is a ton of material available online – initiates’ websites offering teaching, lore, communities on various social media, art, and more. Much of this information is contested by various people. Some initiates dislike that any part of Feri is made public at all. In January of 2010 there was what seems to be an irreparable rift within the community, based on a disagreement of ethics and attitudes around public teaching. That’s all I will say about that as I was not personally involved nor affected by it. But I recognize that my writing publicly about a mystery tradition, and Feri specifically, might be problematic. I want to repeat that I am not an initiate, so what you read here is my own experience and what I’ve learned thus far. Please take what I say with a grain of salt, using your own judgment, experience and research to find out more if you’re interested.

Like the left-hand path of Tantra, many people believe that a mystery tradition should not be publicly discussed at all. Basic techniques alone could open up a person to powerful currents they are not prepared for! But some believe that these traditions are more important now than ever and must be carefully disseminated to those who would devote themselves to diligent practice, and how might people learn about these traditions if no one speaks of them? While I have no problems with money changing hands for basic teaching, I believe that initiation should never, ever cost anything and should be carefully considered, because it links the initiator and initiated in an intimate way and joins the initiates into a family.

I am going to be as open as I can be, while at the same time respecting the mystery part of this mystery tradition. Can I have it both ways? I think I can. But we’ll see.

The Left Hand Path

Today is all about change. This evening I leave the US to fly back to my current home in the UK. I said goodbye to Hinduism last night (bittersweet) and this morning I woke up enthusiastically embracing the Feri tradition.* A discussion of the ‘left hand paths’ is an appropriate segue between these two traditions. They might appear radically different, but you might be surprised. I was!

Like all dualities, the split between left and right hand paths is a bit of a false dichotomy. Each side has elements of the other, but the designations are somewhat useful. Mostly, the left hand paths are associated with the occult and right hand paths with othordoxy. As I read more deeply about Tantra, which is often considered a left hand path within Hinduism, I read that it too has its own left and right hand paths. Right hand Tantra is more dualist, more Vedic, and less concerned with the siddhis, paranormal powers. In the witchcraft world, Feri is often seen as left hand, with is emphasis on the personal, ecstatic tradition, its relationship with deities often considered (in a Judeo-Christian mindset) diabolical, and its perceived lack of morality. What’s interesting to me is that much of what I read about Tantra sounds like things I’ve encountered in Feri. The two are FAR more in tune with one another than I ever expected.

Both Tantra and Feri are highly mystical, relying on one’s personal experience with Gods/God/Deity (pick your term). Trance, entheogens, meditation, chanting, these are some of the ways used to obtain connection with the Spirits. While the ultimate goal of Tantra is divine union, Feri embraces an autonomy of personal space and power, while also acknowledging that all comes from the ultimate Source, the Star Goddess, and eventually returns to Her as well. Both traditions embrace the body. Our physical existence is not something from which to flee or ‘ascend’ but a gift on our journey; it is a tool. Immanence is taken seriously.

The concept of guru or teacher, as well as lineage, is important to both traditions. Both consider themselves conduits of a powerful current, which is passed through physical transmission upon initiation. While anyone may prepare themselves for the current by practicing certain techniques and opening oneself up to the Gods, if one’s physical and psychic containers are not strong, great harm can come to the dabbler – but also to the initiate who isn’t fully prepared (I have seen this to be true). This is why initiations are not frequent or easy. Concepts of rigorous purification and radical transformation are foundational to both traditions, although their methods and reasoning are often very different. Because of these things, having a trusted guide is crucial.

Both traditions prefer to be secretive. Partially this is because they perceive their work as not for the many, but for the few, given their demanding qualities and the possible risks. However, both traditions struggle with remaining private and growing more publicly. On one hand they have much to offer, on the other hand there are risks – not just to would be practitioners, but to the intimate nature of the traditions themselves. Secrecy is also important because within their wider traditions – Hinduism and Neo-paganism – Tantra and Feri stand on the margins. And within a Judeo-Christian milieu, the Hindu and Neo-pagan are already on the fringes. Personal safety can be a legitimate concern.

Because of this last point of secrecy, I harbor some qualms about speaking publicly about Feri. However, because I am not an initiate I will not be revealing anything that isn’t already publicly available in some capacity. I ask the Feri ‘elders’ to give me a heads up if I stray into problematic areas.

I anticipate some bleeding over of Tantric practices into my work with Feri. It seems fitting and structurally sound.

On a personal note, I amused with my fascination with left hand paths. It’s about as ‘rock star’ as I get. The occult, the gothic, the left hand – I love these things at their philosophical and applied best. Occasionally I love their aesthetics too, but that unfortunately seems tipped more toward the Hot Topic side of things, and well…. I’m a jeans and t-shirt kinda gal. On the surface I’m pretty heteronormative, middle class, average – not a bad thing! Just not particularly ‘freaky.’ But dig deeper and you’ll find a blackening heart beating in my chest.

*A note about my use of Wikipedia sources. I intend these as an easy place for more information. Wikipedia is never the full story, but rather a good place to get the information one needs for further learning.

The end is nigh

My blessed time with Hinduism is coming to a close. On Wednesday I begin with a new tradition, as well as fly back to the United Kingdom after a frustrated month on a vacation that wasn’t much of one. This month isn’t how I wanted to close out my time with Hinduism. Hinduism is beautiful, rich, lovely, and challenging in ways I never expected. There were several things I wanted to do and experience that just didn’t happen: draw yantra, visit a temple, attend yoga classes, settle into meditation, to name a few. This last month has been out of my control and I’ve had to let those things go.

Instead of focusing on what didn’t occur, let me write about what I’ve learned and gained from my time with Hinduism.

I feel my perspective of the spiritual life has been cracked open. I feel hungrier than ever before for the Tantric path (more on this in my next post). I am more compassionate, more at peace with myself and my life, and I feel I can balance tradition and duty in ways that have resonance with my life as it is.

I have welcomed more beauty into my life. Hinduism seems to place a high value on beauty. I find western culture to be in great conflict with beauty. It is considered either shallow and worshiped as an end in itself, or it is considered superfluous and at worst a temptation from Serious Spiritual Business. But Hinduism seems to enjoy beauty for its own sake. While I was never a slob before, I now find myself taking slightly more effort with my dress. I have worn shiny colorful jewelry and chosen brighter colors to add some pizzazz to my usual dour black. Hinduism also values cleanliness as a spiritual discipline and I have taken that to heart. I wash my hands more. Before we were staying in other people’s homes I made an added effort to my own house (which, honestly was pretty clean to begin with).

As far as deep, profound Mystical Experiences go, I haven’t had any. But I don’t feel like this is a failure or due to a lack of anything. I feel like I have gained so much just from opening myself to this new(ish) perspective. More than anything, I feel like I found a spiritual home. Hinduism is so big I feel like there is room for all, which is something I’ve rarely felt before.

I feel like it’s a great tradition for children too. Its colorful images capture their eyes, the incense and other aspects of puja capture their senses and desire to do and move. Breathing exercises are helpful for little ones learning to manage the world of thoughts, emotions, and energy. Dharma, family, devotion, these concepts seem to make sense to children – or at least, to my 3-year-old. And what kid can resist Ganesh?

I don’t feel nearly ready to let Hinduism go. But it’s a joyous parting and I will be back. Oh yes, I will. We shall see what I’ve learned at the end of the year, but I feel that Hinduism in some way or shape or form will be in my life. Thankfully, it’s a 5,000 year old tradition that’s not going anywhere. I don’t feel like we are done with one another, not by a long shot!

Jai Ganesh! Om namah Shivaya! Om Kalikayai namah! Jai Ma!

More of the same

My vacation stopped feeling like a vacation and has felt more like a holding pattern for at least the last week. My spiritual practice has suffered tremendously. As it goes, so do I. While I recognize in myself the fruits of my previous efforts -I am slower to anger, more compassionate, and more patient with the unexpected and the waiting – I am far more in thrall to my whims and moods. Oh what an inconsistent creature I am! I rise and fall according to the chemical dance of my blood sugar, I sway with the soundness of sleep from the night before.

I remember to observe Mondays and Fridays in honor of Shiva and Kali. I wear white, I abstain from alcohol. I remember to chant ever so briefly. But I am failing at avoiding social media. I still read a few sections from the Living Siva e-book. I have started the Bhagavad Gita. The lack of personal space and scheduling forces me to offer up my lack of devotions as a devotion itself.

This blog has surely suffered for this interruption. I try not to beat myself up but instead take this all as information. I notice my reactions to the inert food, to my lack of sleep, to the heat, etc and try and use that noticing as a meditation. But it’s hard and all I feel like doing is whining. This isn’t how I wanted to wind up my time with Hinduism. But it is what it is, and I let go of results of my efforts.

Tomorrow I get five days of actual vacation: we head up to the San Francisco Bay Area to see friends and Do Things. I hope this rejuvenates my spirit, even though I know my soul is perfect as it always has been and always will be, I still hope the other parts of me can perk up and catch on.

“On this path effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure. Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear.” The Bhagavad Gita 2:40

Letting go

My time with Hinduism is winding down. I feel a variety of emotions as I think of the quarters to come. Sad: Hinduism is so beautiful, so rich, and so surprisingly fulfilling that I am loath to move on. Grateful: I’ve learned so much. I feel joyfully changed from my experience so far. I feel like I am a better person, a more complete me. Excited: Feri is next and I look forward to getting back to that. Plus, there are many similarities between tantra and Feri. I had no idea. It’s an exciting discovery and I think exploring those intersections will be rich – and scary! But scary in the good way. Dread: Christianity is one section closer.

Which leads to me think that I may change-up the plan for this blog. As I listen to my heart and take seriously what I’ve learned, I do not believe that I can practice as a Christian in any sincere capacity. I have a love of that tradition, particularly the Eastern Orthodox tradition. But every time I think about attending church, reading the bible, and just flat-out trying to think and act like a Christian, I get knots in my gut. I am not a Christian and I do not want to be one. To attempt to practice as one would be spiritual tourism and disrespectful to sincere believers and the tradition itself.

Writing publicly about one’s spiritual practices and experiences has its own host of problems and challenges. One pitfall I want to avoid is spiritual tourism. I am not practicing these traditions out of a desire to pick and choose what I like, as if I am shopping the world’s religions to find a great African-inspired belt to go with my sari, platform boots, and push-up bra. That’s just a recipe for a hot mess. I am genuinely exploring these traditions to find out how I might practice them, in my life as a woman, mother, student, wife, daughter, sister, friend, and white American.

I give thanks to Christianity and Christian culture for teaching me so much. I am grateful for my theological studies – I am a better thinker and a smarter human for having read the thoughts of great Christian thinkers. But I feel it is right to let it go for good. For now I will continue on with Feri as planned and listen for what is appropriate and necessary come late December.