Guru Purnima

Today is the full moon and this moon marks Guru Purnima, a day to honor our gurus, or teachers.

As someone who has valued learning and been successful at school, I’ve had pretty good relationships with most of my academic teachers along the way. I am also a self-motivated, independent learner, some one who is confident in my ability to find out what I need to know. I also hate being told what to do. I tend to learn best through brutal experience. I care more about the knowledge than the A grade. These qualities can make having a mentor rather tricky for me.

Today I’d like to honor the many teachers who have left their mark on me. There are many people whose names I don’t remember any more (I’ve got depression related issues with my memory from my 20s), so they will be remembered in spirit when I light my candle and list the following names.

First, there is my academic life and all the teachers I’ve had along the way. I am grateful to most of them. Mr Len Peterson, my 10th grade geometry teacher, immediately comes to mind. He was always available for assistance. Thanks to him I got my first A in math. I am grateful for Sarah Boss, my PhD adviser, for her encouragement and enthusiasm for my ideas.

I spent 20 years studying classical voice. Along the way I’ve had some good teachers, some awful teachers, and some great teachers. I am especially grateful for John D’Armand and Byron McGilvray, who early on gave me good technique and believed that I could do something big with my voice. More recently, I am grateful to Ann Moss who restored fun to my lessons and explored my voice with me when I was pregnant with my first child.

I am grateful for Carolyn Brown, yogini extraordinaire. I am grateful to Mike Miller (may he rest in peace), my swimming coach, for being like a second father to me.

Spiritually, I am grateful to my uncle Jon for sending me my very first Bible of my own, to Fr. Mark Koczak for showing me the beauty of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, to T Thorn Coyle for being perhaps my first Official teacher, and most especially to my present teachers, W & N, who are the teachers I’ve always wanted.

The list could not be complete without mentioning my ever loving husband, Adam, and our two children. Nothing has been more character building and more educational to me than the commitment to life long relationship, and all three of my immediate family members teach me this every single day.

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

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Dedication

Tomorrow I am driving north to Seattle for a dedication. My dedication.

For the last year I’ve been driving 70 miles every third Saturday of the month to study with two amazing Feri/Faery initiates, NG and W. I haven’t written about it; it’s been something close to my heart and I wanted to keep it to myself. My teachers are private and don’t have much of an online presence. I only learned about their location and openness to teaching through word of mouth: one initiate introduced to me another initiate who mentioned NG and W and passed along their contact info. This seems to be my experience with mystery traditions.

A year and a half ago I wrote about being my own guru. At that time stepping into my own spiritual authority was a really important step for me. It was not something chosen to flout teachers or the wisdom and/or grace accumulated by others further down their paths than me; it was me accepting that I had to make choices and then act on those choices and learn from my own experience. I’ve had teachers in the past: some formal and several less formal. Some direct spiritual mentors, and some in an academic setting. I am grateful to all of them. But now I’m at a point where I am ready to walk more deeply with a teacher.

The ecstatic, mystery and more Left Hand Path traditions (both Feri/Faery witchcraft and Tantric Hinduism fall into these categories) all stress having a teacher. One has to learn and practice and experience on one’s own, but a guide is needed, indeed necessary, not only to avoid certain pitfalls, but also because much of the knowledge is not online, not written in books. Beyond oral knowledge there lies the Current that is passed at initiations.

What’s interesting to me is that many people don’t realize that even Christianity was once a mystery tradition. There is a part in the Orthodox liturgy where the catechumens are instructed to leave – only baptized Christians were supposed to witness, much less participate in,  the Eucharist, that mystery of bread and wine becoming flesh and blood.

Tomorrow I will stand before my teachers and …… I have no idea. I have no idea what the dedication consists of! I was told that I could wear ritual clothes (I have none, so I am wearing a black dress that I’ve only ever worn to sing in – a sort of ritual in itself) and that I could use a magical name or choose a name to use at this time (fodder for another post!). In Feri/Faery there is but one initiation, considered a marriage to the gods, where the Current is passed and lore is told. This is a formal dedication to my teachers and this path. No oath-bound material is passed, but more lore is given – a token of deepening trust. This is in a way a ‘going steady’ ritual. I let my teachers and other initiates know that I am serious and my teachers say, “Hey, I like what I see in you, let’s take this to the next level.”

I’m still interested in finding a Hindu guru. There is nothing in Feri/Faery or Tantra that I understand contradicts each other. In fact, the deeper I go, the  more compatible I find them. With due diligence on the seeker’s part, ‘when the student is ready, the teacher will find them.’ I am trusting in this right now.

And here I can’t really say more. Silence and discretion are important here, but I don’t write now because of that, I write because I don’t know anything about tomorrow! It’s a mystery……

Beginning Thoughts from Cornwall

The 21st has come and gone. A new quarter begins.

I stood at the sink washing the dishes, looking out at the stump and bush from which the Horned One was staring at me. I apologized that I would be neglecting him. He continues to peek out at me. My instincts tell me to greet the land and offer milk and mince pies, but that just doesn’t….. seem Christian.

So I sit and stew about this conflict. My sensibilities have changed since last I practiced Christianity exclusively. I tried, I really tried, but my deepest religious and spiritual experiences were almost always of a different nature. I tried to fit my experiences into a Christian context and then I gave up. So do I try to mingle them together now? Do I ignore my sensibilities and what I’ve come to experience – my allies and gods? That seems rude and unwise. But Christianity is quite clear about several things – not having any other Gods besides Yahweh and Jesus being one of those things. (I know – they’re the same, but see? My sensibilities are different.)

Standing at the sink I decided to talk to Jesus. I was always told to do that, to talk to Jesus like a friend and develop a personal relationship with him. I never once experienced that, despite years of trying and seeking. On the 21st I said, again, that I’d like to meet Jesus and get to know him. We’ll see what happens this time around.

I’m still unsure of how I want to practice this quarter. I’ve decided to start praying the Lord’s prayer, the Hail Mary and two prayers I learned from my time worshipping in Eastern Orthodox churches, the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner) and ‘Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy.’ This seems like a fair and honest beginning.

I don’t have any set Christmas traditions. No one thing that I’ve done every single year. In fact, I realized during our move that my son has spent each of his four Christmases in four different places, with different people: Australia with my family, two different houses in Wales, one with my in-laws and one just with us, and now Cornwall with good friends. Outside of the quite secular Christmas tree, presents, and the carols that I sing this time of year, I don’t have any set Thing That I Do at this time of year.

So it’s a delight to have my friends here share their tradition. M, is half-Jewish and was raised as a Baba Lover. She and her husband, C, follow Meher Baba. M honors her Jewish heritage by observing Hanukkah; she light candles each night at sundown. She honors the spiritual tradition of her heart by reciting three specific prayers given by Baba. The prayers are simple and beautiful.

The first one lists attributes of the One who is without attributes; is an apophatic prayer. I’m fond of apophatism. While there is some language I personally find problematic (‘Lord of Lords’) I happily join in the spirit of honoring the monotheistic Non-Dual.

The second prayer is one of repentance. Repentance – even using the word itself – is something that I’ve quite let go of. I certainly believe in accepting responsibility for my faults and the ways I’ve hurt others, and I work to get ‘right’ with myself and others. But the word ‘repentance’ is so entwined with language of worth/unworthy, right/wrong, your will/my will dualisms, that I struggle to remember the helpful aspects of repentance. This prayer also uses much of these ideas of repentance. But I dive into its meaning. These concepts of worthiness, repentance and sin are a non-negotiable part of Christianity so I accept them and pray them with a sincere heart. My I be forgiven every insincere word, malicious thought and wish, every false gesture, and all my hypocrisy. May I be worthy of union with You.

The third prayer is a short prayer to Baba to love him ‘more and more, and more and more, and yet more.’ Avatar Meher Baba kaji. I start my mornings with my private litany of Christian prayers and end my day with communal candles and Baba prayers. It’s peaceful and a gentle introduction to my monotheistic, avatar-based quarter.

I may not get back to this internet cafe before Christmas – or even before I leave for the US. I wish you all every happiness this holiday season.

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.

Who’s your guru?

In my last post I wrote that nothing is all that different about life as a Hindu. But that’s not entirely true. Yes, I have early morning devotions (I read some where that devotions at sunrise were customary). At their core they are not all that different from what I’ve done in the past. There a few other minor things that are different. My altar is different. I don’t let my son touch anything on the altar if he hasn’t washed his face and hands (low level purification standards, but very taxing for a three year old).

One outward thing that has changed is my diet. I’ve been wrestling with whether or not to adopt a vegetarian diet while practicing Hinduism. I have given up eating beef, as the cow is sacred. The cow is a giver of life, providing milk for its young and for humans. As a nursing mother, I can relate! I feel like honoring the cow is honoring the work I am currently doing as a mother of an infant. But what of other forms of meat? And what about other dietary restrictions?

I’ve read that vegetarianism varies in India depending on location and culture. But all the literature I’ve read insists that a yogi/ni or serious spiritual practitioner cannot eat meat and expect to progress on the path to enlightenment. Various Ayurvedic sites suggest giving up this or that (like garlic and onions) according to whether a person is one dosha type or another (vatta, kapha, pitha). Alcohol is often considered a no-no. Some sources for tantra yoga say that meat and wine are acceptable in ritual meals. What’s more confusing is that some gurus expect this and other don’t. But I don’t have a guru. After all, as a friend pointed out last week, this is my own ashram. Therefore, I am my own guru.

That’s an interesting point. Many years ago I used to joke that I was going to baptize myself. Now I’m building my own ashram. Oh Niki, forever doing it on your own! And yet – if I am not my own guru, if I don’t internalize and take ownership of my own spiritual core, no external guru’s wisdom will ever take root within.

But how do I find a guru? In Wales? There is a Hare Krishna community nearby, and while I hope to check it out in the next few months, I have no desire to be dedicated to Krishna. I’m more of a Shakta I’m discovering. Do I really need a guru?

Until recently I didn’t realize that yoga, and many paths of Hinduism, was an initiatory tradition. The guru passes his or her ‘spiritual energy’ to the practitioner through touch, a glance, a word, and sometimes even via distance. This is known as shaktipat. I think most Western yoga enthusiasts just think we follow our favorite yoga teacher to retreats and that’s that. Without the ‘activation’ of a guru, mantras, even Om, are worthless. Reading online I found a couple of discussion boards with people suggesting that we just need to cultivate the guru within. I have several thoughts about this.

Firstly, I think this is true. We do need to cultivate our inner guru. Off the top of my head I can think of many qualities that I would like a guru to have: discernment, brutal honesty, patience, humor, skill, knowledge, wisdom, love and that…. that intangible something that when you meet a wise person you walk away thinking ‘Wow! I want what they’ve got!’ Those are all qualities I’d like to develop in myself.

Secondly, I think a guru is important for beginners. Being our own guru is advanced work. I liken it to writing music: you can’t break the tonal rules if you don’t know what they are! If ‘rules’ is too much of an authoritarian word for you (it is for me), then thinking of the guru as a trusted, honored guide may help. We want some one who has traveled the path, can alert us to possible pitfalls and obstacles, help us through those troubling spots and share the wisdom of the journey.

Thirdly, gurus are a big part of the greater Hindu tradition. This highlights my previous questions: do I need a guru (yes) and where do I find one (I have no idea). Since I’m only doing this for three months it seems a little silly to hunt one down. Many traditions, yoga included, have some form of the aphorism ‘when the student is ready the teacher will appear.’ Perhaps I shall find a guide for my journey this summer. Perhaps I won’t. But I do know that one would be welcome and helpful.

For the time being I shall continue to develop my own inner guru. And I’ll also go vegetarian. I think to fall back on the ‘some gurus don’t require it’ is lazy, and I’m already struggling with laziness in other ways. I admit I don’t want to be vegetarian. I’ve been veggie before, but I don’t wanna be one now, I pout. So until a guru tells me otherwise vegetarian I will be.