Conflict

My lunch today was amazing. Like, really, really delicious. But the conversation was good too. Husband and kids and I sat around the table talking about the day thus far. ‘Oh I’m going to yoga tonight,’ I said, ‘but I’m undecided if I’ll stay on for the yoga sutras study group.’ After explaining myself, my husband just looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you write about this?’ Good point.

So, here’s what I told him. After yoga class tonight – asana, physical practice – I’ve been invited to stay for a monthly study group of the yoga sutras, the philosophical and spiritual foundational text of classical yoga. It’s kind of like bible study, for yogis. Neat! But it doesn’t fit in with my Christian quarter.

Of course, I’m not really practicing much Christianity this quarter, am I? I’m practicing by not practicing the other things that make up my personal spiritual practice. Before, I used to get on my case about not practicing enough. I felt like I didn’t have a very dedicated practice at all, not compared to before I had kids, where I’d do forty minutes of yoga asana and thirty minutes of meditation every morning! But now that I’m not practicing other things I see just how much practice I had going, and how integrated into my entire day it was. As I’ve said before, that’s good information. I might never have discovered that were it not for this quarter!

My husband said, ‘What kind of Christianity are you trying to practice? It never would have bothered you five years ago when you still thought of yourself as Christian.’ He has a very good point. Except that five years ago I wouldn’t have viewed or approached the yoga sutras as they are: spiritual, foundational texts. I now see and embrace yoga as part of the greater Hindu tradition.

I could not stay tonight and attend next month, after my quarters shift again. That’s what I’m tempted to do. I want to stay true the aims of this blog project, on the other hand, maybe I’m making to big a deal over nothing?

What do you think? Should I attend tonight, or not? Why?

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Fifteen Years in the Wrong Shoes – part four

This part of my testimony is all about graduate school, and it brings us up to the present. When we left off I had just moved to Berkeley, started work on my master’s degree, and broken up with my girlfriend. You can read parts one, two, and three by clicking the links.

I think I always knew I was going to end up in Berkeley at the Graduate Theological Union. It had been on my radar for years. I liked the small school consortium and the ecumenical and interfaith make up of the place. It had a small Orthodox seminary with a chapel, and also had some of the most liberal Christian seminaries in the country. Liberal, but also academically respected. Rosemary Radford Ruether, pioneering feminist theologian, also taught there. I was very excited to dive deep into feminist theology.

And dive I did. I explored so many things. I bought my first tarot deck, something I’d been wanting to do for years but had been dissuaded by my ex-girlfriend. I read all kinds of new theologies. I started studying Latin. I loved most of my classes and, honestly? I could stay taking classes like those for the rest of my life. Nerd Niki was in heaven.

Emotionally and spiritually things were more complicated.

I still considered myself a Christian, although I recognized how ill-fitting the label was. I spent a year considering converting, officially, to Orthodoxy. I spent Tuesday evenings at the Orthodox Institute, attending services and fellowship (dinner and conversation). I was able to participate in readings and chanting (my first and only visit to the area Greek Orthodox church reminded me how rare it is to be able to participate like that). I felt welcomed despite my lack of ‘official’ status.

One of the things that I love about Orthodoxy is the lack of questions around ‘being saved.’ While most of the students attending services were ‘cradle Orthodox’, those born into the faith, many were also converts, and baptism is the act that yokes you to the Church. I’ve never been baptized, but I pondered it in my heart.

I felt more attached than ever to the Christian tradition. Attending services on Tuesday evenings at the Orthodox Institute, taking advanced theological classes, spending my days with other seminarians who were there to become priests and pastors, community organizers and activists, scholars and professors. Of course the more I found a potential fit, the more confused I was in general. One of the few times I went to chapel I had a vision of Athena standing at the altar, filling the entire vaulted space.

I was incredibly – and privately – judgmental about many of the people who arrived at school to be pastors. It seemed to me that those who sought to lead, inspire and heal others were the most in need of guidance, wisdom and healing themselves. Of course, only now do I recognize that perhaps those of there to study and perhaps someday contribute to the greater discourse might have been searching for wisdom and knowledge in an equally hungry and dysfunctional way. I know I was.

Still, I had a hard time feeling like I was on the same page with most of the Christians at seminary. I think I was so used to feeling like the odd one out and used to clinging to what I found liberating in the tradition that I never considered just walking away. Even after finding T Thorn Coyle’s book Evolutionary Witchcraft.

I was working part-time at a neighborhood bookstore. One day while tidying the shelves, I noticed a new book with an intriguing title. I pulled it off the shelf and read the flaps, the back, the table of contents, looked through the notes and index, and skimmed the introduction (isn’t that how you check out a new book? no?). I bought the book and took it home with me. I read the whole thing, then went back and worked through the exercises. Here was an approach to witchcraft that I could relate to. There was no polarity or gender essentialism. I liked that while ritual was part of the work, the way magic was described was not as some mystical gift that you discovered on your 13th birthday, but as a tool that one could hone and use. My queer, feminist, practical heart was pleased, as was my mystery loving, devout soul. After I discovered that Thorn lived in San Francisco, I emailed her and asked if she spoke or taught in the area. Yes, but not right now, was the reply; she’d put me on her mailing list.

And so I continued on with my work. I wrote my master’s thesis, mainly a literature review of white,* contemporary, feminist writing on the Virgin Mary. That process was a struggle, a dark night of the soul. I remember little of the three months I spent writing: 16 hour days in front of my laptop, double and triple checking my notes and sources, freaking out, fearing I had nothing to say, and what did any of this matter anyway? In the end, my thesis isn’t that great, but I passed and got my degree and moved on, with one eye to possibly going back to school to work on a PhD.

I found a job with a Bay Area adult Jewish education non-profit. I loved it. To someone raised secular and in what feels like at times, a rather tradition-less, white-bread non-culture, the rich tapestry of the Jewish world was inviting. I grew up with several Jewish friends and have long loved much about Jewish culture. At one point I asked myself ‘why not Judaism?’ There are so many things to love about Judaism. I particularly like its long tradition of questioning – questioning scripture, tradition and God Himself. But that last piece is part of my inability to embrace Judaism: I’m not a fan of Yahweh (or YHWH or G-d). I also realized that the narrative of Judaism is not my story. I remain a committed and loving friend of the Jewish tradition (and according to my former boss – and totally tongue-in-cheek here – an honorary Jew).

Realizing that piece about one’s narrative tradition was an eye opener for me. It’s helped me also see that while much of my own personal journey has followed along the Christian path, often times right along with it, the Christian narrative isn’t mine either. But I still didn’t see that clearly then.

About two years after reading Thorn’s book, I finally got an email saying that she would be teaching a two-year class on Feri witchcraft, using her book as a basis for the structure. I, and my then-fiance (now husband), signed up. I think there were 32 people initially, whittling down to about 23 or so by the end. This was my first ‘real’ forray into formal paganism of any kind – I still identified as a Christian! My love of the Virgin Mary was the only thing keeping me there, but still I clung to the claim. While many participants came to Feri and/or Paganism from a Christian background, now long rejected, no one ever dismissed my claims or experience. No one ever outwardly judged me. I felt very welcome.

What I struggled with was ritual. The theory, the personal work, the strong emphasis on personal practice – all that was welcome. But group ritual? I was profoundly uncomfortable. Chanting? Singing? Trance work? In ‘public’? I was freaked out. I look back and I realize that there were a few personalities and ‘performance styles’ that clashed intensely with mine. These days those things would be less of a problem, but starting out, with my issues of personal spiritual expression and performance anxiety…. it was a hot mess for me. I didn’t get much out of the rituals and mostly thought that they were psychological exercises.

After the two years were up, I felt changed. More open. More confident. Part of a larger, if amorphous, community. I felt I had connected with something – even if I was just touching the fringe on a great train of a cloak, like the woman being healed by touching the hem of Jesus’s tunic…. Early on in the training I remember thinking ‘This is great, but Feri isn’t for me.’ At the end of it, I wanted more. Feri was for me. But I wasn’t sure quite how. I was pregnant with my first child during the second half of the Feri training. He arrived just 8 weeks before the final gathering. Juggling new motherhood, work and a new degree program took up a lot of my energy.

During this time I was also getting more and more involved in yoga. I’d had my first yoga class when I was living in Seattle. It was mainly Iyengar style. I liked it a lot, and I incorporated a lot of what I’d learned into my own daily stretching and workouts. When I moved to Oakland after grad school the neighborhood studio had a woman teaching Anusara** style yoga and I loved it. In fact, much of the metaphysics sounded a lot like Feri to me.

Yoga and Feri were more and more the realities of my spiritual practice and informed how I viewed the world. Still, I did not take them on as identities. I clung to the last remaining shreds of a Christian identity. When our son was 7 months old my husband and I went on our first ever vacation together. We were in Australia visiting my family (my mother is Australian). My parents and sister had my son for the weekend. Husband and I were driving off to Daylesford in Victoria, talking about life and what to do next. We couldn’t stay in the Bay Area and raise kids – too expensive, not enough trees. I had recently started a PhD program through a university in Wales. My adviser was one of the few feminist theologians specializing in Mary and she was the only one I wanted to study with. What to do? Where to go?

In the midst of the discussion about what things we needed in a community, my husband turned to me and said, ‘Let’s move to Wales.’ It was like a bolt of inspiration from gods. We both recognized the sheer insanity of it, but also the odd ‘rightness’ of it. While in Daylesford we both got tarot readings – separately and by different people. Both readers commented on our up coming move abroad. Neither of us had said anything to anyone about this decision. Nine months later, almost to the day, we arrived in Wales. We’d sold or given away almost everything we owned. We’d scraped together the $10,000 for moving costs, plane tickets, and visas. And there we were. In rural Wales. We’d followed the voice of God and …… it led us into the verdant wilderness. Which will be the subject of part five.

Holy cow, five parts. Thanks for reading!

*White, because I am not fluent in Spanish, and so much of Latin America’s writing on Mary is inaccessible to me, and because there is little written about her in the African-American Christian tradition or in other cultures. Most of the writing on Mary comes from white European or white American writers (or if they’re not white, they are not writing in a racially intersectional way, which defaults to white, at this point). To include other cultures and a wider discussion on race within the theological discussion of Mary would have made my masters thesis unruly and way too long.

**Anusara is in the middle of a huge ‘scandal’ and upheaval. You can google it for yourself. I still think the system has much to offer and I continue to practice in this style, while also being deeply disappointed by what has unfolded.

Wishbird

Last night I went to yoga for the first time in over a month. It wasn’t a difficult practice, but after being sick for so many weeks it challenged my body. I still think of myself as an ‘advanced beginner’ or ‘intermediate’ level yoga practitioner – even now, after years away from a regular practice! Sessions like last night’s are humbling, but also excellent opportunities to practice ‘beginner’s mind’ and return to basics. What is the most basic thing of all? The breath.

In between postures and on my walk to and from the class I focused on my breath. In and out, in and out. This simple refocusing – away from thoughts of being awesome or strong or fast – raised a lot of energy and grounded me simultaneously. One of the things I love about yoga is the semi-high feeling I get afterward. I feel at least two inches taller, rooted in each footstep, more fully present and connected to my Godsoul. It’s like I’m a spiritual ninja for about twenty minutes afterward! I attribute it all to focusing on breathing.

This type of breathing is a vital part of making magic. Getting grounded, being present, and raising lots of energy are core parts of making magic. So what did I do when I got home? Instead of going straight into the house, I went into the back garden to cast a little spell. I knew that if I went inside first I’d be distracted by children and dinner and needs and who knows if I’d have a few minutes, let alone the energy, to start all over again.

My family is moving in three weeks time. When I started this project I had assumed we’d be in Wales until at least next summer. That is not to be. We are leaving Wales on the 21st of December and leaving the UK a week later. (Yes, it coincides with the shift in spiritual quarters for me.) We are moving to Olympia, Washington, and we need a house, so I used my extra energy to send a wishbird to find one for us.

The wishbird is an exercise I learned from T Thorn Coyle. It involves raising energy, focusing on one’s need or desire, then blowing the energy into one’s hands while imagining a bird taking form. With specifics and intent firmly established you let fly the bird and it goes ahead to help. There are some other details to this, but this is a good, simple description of a good, simple spell. It has worked for my family before, and I hope it will do so again. I sent the bird off in a west by southwest direction. Hopefully, we’ll soon find a home – more than a house!

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Here is a link to a short post on spell work by a Feri friend of mine. I think she says far better what I’ve been trying to say about magic and spells.

A Review of Eat Pray Love – the movie

I had one surprisingly quiet evening to myself over the weekend. My husband was up in Edinburgh to see his good friend perform a one man show at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest. The children went down easily, so I made a little dessert for myself (hand-whipped cream with a dash of vanilla, some banana, and a spoonful of honey – divine) and put on a movie. I decided to watch Eat Pray Love – a pretty film, not requiring deep thought, and with a loosely Hindu theme. Also, Julia Roberts is easy on the eyes.

Years ago I stumbled across the book at a restaurant. It had been left at the table, with someone’s pay check inside! I decided to track down the person and mail them the book.┬áI had heard about the book, but had written it off as ‘chick lit’. I’m not a fan of the memoir genre in general – ironic, since I blog. But I read the first few pages and got sucked in. I read the book in two days, then ran out and bought five copies, giving them to friends and keeping one for myself. I did send the book back to its owner.

The book struck a chord with me. I related to Elizabeth Gilbert‘s spiritual search, her love of food and the world, and her heart ache over her failed relationships. It had some problematic bits. Perhaps I wasn’t as put off by the obvious privilege, since much of her privilege is also my privilege (white, educated, relatively well-traveled). Bitch Magazine tackled many of the issues with this narrative – issues of class and race – in an article from 2010. Reading the criticism I could see the problems. Man, it would be so great if my spiritual quest was bankrolled! If I could just run off to Italy and India and Bali! Wouldn’t it be great to find fame and fortune AND spiritual peace! And also save an Indonesian single mother from homelessness, for good measure.

While these criticisms are good ones, I sort of think they miss the beauty of the book. Gilbert’s very human sadness and struggle comes through in her beautiful writing. I think her search for peace is genuine. However, in the movie, all the criticisms come screaming to the forefront.

The movie is really nothing more than a series glossy postcards. The photography is very beautiful. But it’s all a little ridiculous. Gilbert comes across as fickle and indulgent. The wisdom of the people she meets along the way sounds like trite ‘chicken soup for the soul’ soundbites. The film left me wistful and longing – but not for deeper spiritual connection or a more passionate engagement with life or more loving relationships. No, I felt wistful for a life less complicated – and by that I mean, no kids. But I don’t really want to live my life without my kids.

One particularly annoying moment early on in the film captures its identity crisis: Julia Roberts/Elizabeth Gilbert has decided to surrender to her love of food while in Rome. The scene focuses on her eating a bowl of spaghetti. The musical choice is opera, of course. Except, it’s the Queen of the Night Aria from Mozart’s Die Zauberfl├Âte, which is in German. Please click on the link if you are unfamiliar with this tremendous aria; you’ll likely find it is familiar. The video also shows the context of the aria (furious and vicious anger), which is completely inappropriate for a scene in which our main character happily eats a bowl of pasta.

I will give the film credit for inspiring me to think about the ways in which I let vanity rule my life. Mostly I was left with two thoughts: I need to look into saris and salwar kameez, and the movie is not as good as the book.

Karma-yoga and the struggle as a woman

Karma-yoga is the yoga of action. It is the main form of yoga advocated in the Bhagavad Gita. There is no such thing as inaction, as everything is in process. Even when we choose not to act, we are acting; even when we sit still and meditate our bodies are continuing to act by breathing, digesting, blood flowing, etc. Until recently I never had any interest in this form of yoga, but I’m finding this to be the key to my reconciling my new life as a stay-at-home-mother. It also raises some issues as seen through a feminist lens.

Karma-yoga feels a little Buddhist to me – its thrust is non-attachment, performing one’s duties without hoping for egoic rewards, regardless of the outcome. This seems like the perfect yoga for the householder, soldier or businessperson. I have little time or space for extensive meditation or asana or deep philosophical study, but I can approach my duties with love and non-attachment. It’s about being present in the moment, accepting where I’m at right now at this stage in life or in my day and doing each task the best I can without expectations. I can see the mundane task of doing dishes as an offering to my family and to the Gods, as an act of love. I can set aside my grand desires of Holiness and deep meditation for the time being and focus – actually focus – on my children and my family.

You may be able to see the possible problems here.

As a woman, I am already expected to put my desires second, to put my family’s needs before mine. The culture surrounding stay-at-home-mothers (SAHMs) is already full of self-sacrifice and putting lives/careers/hobbies/etc on hold. How is karma-yoga not just another way to tell oppressed people* that their oppression is holy? I worry about this. As a woman who was modeled self-sacrifice as a bitter, depressing and inevitable part of being female, am I even able to recognize positive self-sacrifice when I see it? Can I discern between the false, self-abnegating form of duty and the positive, life-giving form of selfless duty? I’m not entirely sure I can, to be honest.

But I know that I chose to have these babies and I choose to stay home and parent the way my partner and I parent. Of course, one can debate the level to which I even have a choice, but that’s just way too meta for my purposes here. To follow through on the parenting values that my husband and I have chosen requires a burden that only I can take up at this time. It is both a burden and a joy. The joy most often diminishes the burdens, but it is not either/or, it is both/and.

So, for the foreseeable future, karma-yoga seems to be a good form of yoga to practice. Alright, enough pontificating – I’ve got to go snuggle my baby.

*Is it fair to jump from discussing SAHMs straight into oppression? Am I oppressed? On the surface, most definitely not. I am choosing to be a SAHM, my partner makes enough that I don’t have to work, I am white and highly educated – these are all forms of privilege I hold. But I am a woman and if we dig deeper it is not a big leap to say that the patriarchy, which most definitely runs this world, hates women. Not a topic for this blog – other blogs tackle this subject much better than I could.

On finding my yoga

One of the things I love about yoga and Hinduism is that there is an ‘in’ for just about everyone. Are you a monotheist? There is point of entry. Are you a non-dualist? Try Advaita Vedanta. Do you see the God as male? Perhaps being a Vaishnava is for you. Do you see God as female? Say hello to Durga. Want to be less religious and more philosophical? Perhaps the dualist, non-divinity believing Samkhya path is for you. Love yoga but aren’t very accomplished at the poses? Well, there are many branches of yoga to try.

My original point of entry came from hatha yoga classes, the physical exercise that most Westerners are familiar with. I had already moved away from a hard and fast understanding of God as male. The more I sought the Divine and explored feminist and liberation theologies in my academic work the less and less satisfied I was with the generic monotheistic understanding of God. I don’t believe God is female, although I prefer to use female images and pronouns to counter the millenia of androcentric language. I believe that the Divine is beyond gender and certainly isn’t sexed, containing all of our experiences of self and then some. I believe in a Great Ground of Being as the ultimate Divine. But I also believe that most of us need something a bit more friendly and anthropomorphic on which to grasp hold. We make our gods like us, but we are embodied beings, not separate from the divine, and so it is appropriate that our gods look like us. We look to the highest examples of our best aspects as if to lighthouses from the open sea. (There is a great saying to sum this up in the Feri tradition, but I’ll save that for next quarter.)

I guess you could say I am a non-dual, panentheistic polytheist. This seems best to express my experience in the world, as well as captures what I long for. Ultimately, labels aren’t that important to me anymore. I often feel like one label suits me best one day, another label better on another day. I don’t think this is wishy-washy anymore; rather it reflects the slippery, changeable experience of living and thinking and evolving.

As I was saying, hatha yoga was my gateway drug. The postures of yoga are not intended to be a fitness system, although they are mighty effective for gaining strength, flexibility and general vitality; hatha yoga developed to bring ease to the body and to prepare us for long sessions of sitting meditation. I began to see and feel the effects of daily yoga in my life: more equanimity, greater physical health, peace, and I credit meditation and yoga with helping manage my anxiety issues. I very much miss doing hatha yoga and sitting meditation daily. But wasn’t that what part of this quarter was supposed to be about? Getting back to those things?

I thought I would be up with the sun every day. I would be disciplined! Hard core! An actual yogini! Go me! But I’m beginning to realize that right now, other forms of yoga need to be my base line.

The most common understanding of the system of yoga is that of raja-yoga, associated with Patanjali and his eight limbs, also known as kriya-yoga, the path of transformative action.* This limb contains the yamas, niyamas, asana, and pranayama (breath control), along with different levels of meditation: pratyahara, dharana and dhyana, and finally samadhi (ecstasy). Jnana-yoga, is the yoga of wisdom, a form of Self-realization through discerning the real from the unreal. Bhakti-yoga, is the yoga of devotion. Instead of transcending the world to find the Divine, one sees the Other as the Divine. For example a person might have a deep devotion to a particular god or goddess and thus seek union with that deity. Karma-yoga is the path of action and/or work. This is the form of yoga that is highlighted in the holy text, the Bhagavad-Gita. In a way this path is about service; we transcend our ego and our attachment to outcomes through selfless action. Lastly, there is tantra-yoga, a much more ecstatic form of yoga.

I’m finding that right now in my life, as a stay-at-home mother of a toddler and an infant, my main forms of yoga are karma-yoga and bhakti-yoga. I serve my family in a very mama-specific way: no one else can nurse my daughter for me, for example. Since my daughter was born I have been struggling with my identity as a stay-at-home mother. This was never my plan! And yet… it’s worked out as best for me, for my kids, for my family.** Some mornings I am just not rested enough to get up with the dawn. But every day I care for my family and as a parent I have to love and care for my kids without attachment to the outcome. Parenting is a spiritual practice! This is my karma-yoga. It is also a form of devotion, even as a cultivate relationships with the gods.

All the forms of yoga complement one another. I can do parts of each and some forms now and come back to other forms later. This is one of the things that I love about yoga and Hinduism in general. There is an ‘in’ wherever you are in life, whatever your disposition. It is not a hard and fast system, an all or nothing religion. While there is a place for the devoted goddess worshiper, the avatar follower, the philosopher, the ascetic monk, the ecstatic dancer, and even the atheist, it is not a formless mash of ideas with no core. Hinduism seems more like a web to me – a cohesive whole, with a core that welcomes all from many ends, flexible but strong.

*Unless otherwise stated or indicated by a link, most of my facts come from Georg Feuerstein’s essay ‘The Tree of Hindu Yoga’ in his book The Deeper Dimension of Yoga.

**Your mileage may vary. The dynamics and details of my family are not the same as yours and so my expression of what is best for my family is in no way a statement of what would be best for your family.

In which I trust that my confusion is actually a good thing

I’m discovering that the realities of my life don’t mesh so well with the ambitions of my project. This is not a surprise. When I began my own ashram project I knew there would be difficulties, I just wasn’t entirely sure what they would be. For example, having guests – a very needed interruption in my and my family’s life – means that doing morning yoga is out of the question due to the way space gets configured. I’ve already written about some of the challenges on my path so far. What I’m feeling now is more along the lines of ‘you’re doing it wrong.’ Wrong may be too harsh a word, but I’ll be honest: I don’t know what I’m doing.

As a scholar and life long student of religions I have a basic grasp of Hinduism. I could teach a basic college level class on the topic. But doing Hinduism is light years away from talking about it. What does the ‘average’ Hindu’s daily practice look like? How important is it to stick to one ‘denomination’? Is a personal relationship with the gods important, or even relevant? Or is that question something only a person steeped in Christian culture would ask? Where is the line between Hindu culture and Hindu religion? Somehow I’m still confused about these things.

This is where community would be helpful. I do not have any Hindus in my life. That may not be true. There is the Hare Krishna community in Swansea, but I’m wary of them, for reasons which may or may not be good ones. There is Skanda Vale nearby, but I don’t drive in the UK, and getting the whole family out there hasn’t worked out yet. I know there are some people who meditate together, followers of Guru Mayi. I think it’s time I sought them out.

What makes a Hindu? Particularly a white, Western one? There are some websites by Westerners who’ve adopted Hinduism that I’ve bookmarked for perusal. Hopefully there will be some wisdom in them for me, and maybe even some community. I also think it’s time I started talking to people in my tiny little town and see what opens up. I love my solitary life and I’m also finding it a little lonely and isolating. The yogic path seems to work best internally and alone, but my gut says Hinduism works better with others.

At the core of things, I know none of these labels and trappings of practice matter. What matters is liberation. What matters is devotion, compassion, joy. If what I am doing is furthering these things then I am on the right path. So far, so good.