Purity in action

Purity is a matter of concern to a majority of the traditions that influence my practice(s). It’s a subject approached from a variety of angles – one might consider internal purity, external purity, and behavioral purity. Because I’m a devotee, not an initiate, I concern myself with the basic forms of purity, namely things like honesty, kindness, compassion, non-violence, steadfastness, devotion, and so forth. Cleansing rites are valuable and have important effects but if one doesn’t exhibit the principles that these rites embody, the activities rapidly become empty and meaningless. Although the above-mentioned standards can be regarded as a “basic” approach to purity, they aren’t simple and nor do I succeed in exhibiting them with consistency. But you see that steadfastness bit up there? I am obliged to continue trying.

One would rightly point out that unless interior forms of purity are exhibited, then they’re not much use to anyone, including ourselves. And this is true, of course. The internal stances and the interior sources of appropriate behavior and action are essential but these things must be helpfully communicated in order to achieve their fullest expression.

Purity in action is reflected in how I treat others and how I treat myself. Purity in action is how consistently I enact my values and how consistently I apply them to the decisions facing me. And none of this is easy; every time I reflect on these concepts I’m aware of how far I miss the mark. I am aware of my dishonesty, cruelty, divisiveness, and coldness. I am aware of how frequently I chose options contrary to my standards. But see – I’m reminded that choosing these contrary options I’m enacting harm. I let others down. I let myself down. I open myself up to more self-recrimination and blame. Choosing these contrary options aren’t simply impurity because of some arbitrary set of rules; these contrary options are impure because they lead to harm, a certain set of effects that I’ve chosen to try to minimize in how I live, believe, and practice.

I’ve struggled with this question for a while – why should I bother trying? What is lost or gained by my choices to strive towards my standards or to slide away from them? Why does purity matter at all to me or to my practice? Why does minimizing harm matter to me or to my practice?

A friend reminded me not long ago that compassion requires bravery. Extending a friendly hand – or at least a hand that doesn’t intend harm – requires so much bravery and confidence. Not being an especially brave person, I can recognize that I flee from the implications of my harm-reduction purity standard. But sadhana isn’t supposed to be easy – how else can one grind the mill to dissolve the impediments to clarity and charity? Adopting a purity practice because one likes following rules is…well, not useless but it isn’t exactly very useful perhaps. Adopting a purity practice because one feels challenged by the prospect and perhaps slightly unworthy of the whole endeavor…well, there is fertile ground for meaningful change.

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(I rather hate that I feel obligated to clarify my non-violent stance. My non-violence is based in an unwillingness to see violence as a foregone conclusion to situations, and in a willingness to look for other forms of resolution. I strive to see the ways in which I harm others (and myself) and to find ways of correcting this harm or at least mitigating it somewhat. I chose this value because I feel myself to be fundamentally a violent person capable of considerable harm; I came to see the futility of this personality trait and therefore chose differently. Like all ideals, non-violence cannot fully exist in a non-ideal world but no one could ever accuse me of wisdom in such matters.)

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Diagnosing myself

“Fear of returning to the site of failure.”

There – I’ve named the fear keeping me from my practice, the reason preventing me from approaching the Mother’s altar for several days running.

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Many, many devotional practitioners I’ve spoken to and read over the years express a particular pointed concern – they worry they aren’t doing their practice well. They think there’s something wrong with what they’re doing, they’re worried that they’re not doing enough, they fear that they’re failing to live up to some minimal standard of “being devoted”. It’d be nice if I could assure people that these are fears of early devotional life, but really – they’re not.

Anxiety and fear play a role in devotional practice. They certainly don’t seem to play a major role in everyone’s practice but they are common enough in people’s experience that I feel safe in naming them part of the greater body of lore regarding the devotional path.

(Perhaps there’s an element of personality at work here. Would I describe myself as an anxious person? Honestly, not really. I am, however, plagued with random thoughts of being hit by cars, by falling out of windows, by feeding my cats poison food, by being screamed at by strangers, by being told horrible things by people I love. My days are suffused by unbidden fantasies of disasters of one kind or another. I hate speaking on the phone and must wrestle with the near-debilitating thought that PEOPLE MIGHT SEE ME every time I leave the house. I don’t seem to be anxious about anything in particular but I do experience anxiety about all kinds of random things and most of them are rooted in various common and tedious neuroses. Given that I am anxious about so many things, it seems reasonable that I would also be anxious about my devotional practice and about its execution. Like I always say, we carry the whole of our selves into the practice.)

Given that there is no site of practice outside of the self, it seems reasonable to name anxiety and fear as part of (some people’s) devotional experience. Acknowledging that, I interrogated myself to see if I could find the diagnosis and solution to my concerns regarding my practice.

Problem: I feel like I’m not doing enough, that I’m not doing what the things I am doing to any kind of reasonable standard, that I’m letting someone down, that I’m failing to adhere to even the lowest standard of practice. I feel suffused in failure and despite telling myself that devotional failure is all but impossible, I still feel like I’ve failed. I don’t know how to overcome these feelings or manage them in a way that lets me resume practice.

Reality check: I’ve been doing *something*. I say Hi to Loki all the time, I light His candle. I made a temple video for Her. I like Santa Muerte’s candle and say Hi. I light candles for the other Powers and talk to Them. The things I have not done include daily japa, daily aarti, and Maa’s darshan. Is it accurate to say that I’ve done nothing?

What would I tell someone else in my position? I would remind them that standards are there to lift us up, not tear us down. We have standards to help guide our behavior in an optimal manner, not to punish us for deviation. I would say that addressing anxiety from a mental health direction would certainly help them improve their devotional practice; even though a problem might look like a problem pertaining primarily to devotion, it might actually be a problem related to another realm of life. Therefore, tackling a problem from multiple directions is advisable.

My beloved and honored traditions counsel me that daily practice is best because spiritual progress takes a very long time; however, if progress as such is not part of one’s paradigm then “standards” can and should mean different things. Furthermore, not everyone is interested in “progress” (leaving aside the fact that various progressive outcomes are a natural part of devotional engagement and are likely to happen sooner or later as a natural result). So, I must ask myself once again what my goals are. In this case, my goal is a sustained and meaningful relationship with Maa. What supports this goal? Oh – japa, aarti, darshan. You know. Those things.  But there are other things, too.

All forms are Her forms, all names are Her names; She is all states of consciousness, including anxiety and fear. I must adjust my vision to see that this, too, is Her. I am confronted by the very relationship I’ve spent time trying to flee from.

The outward expressions of yearning for relationship are important. I will never say that daily practice is bad or that striving for high standards is bad but the heart has to be fixed in the correct posture. Remembering one’s yearning is enough. Remembering one’s priorities is enough. From this all actions spring.

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A friend reminded me that I told her that there are no bad devotees. I *feel* like I’m a bad devotee. I feel like I’m a bad practitioner. I feel like I’ve failed in some very fundamental way. Coming back from this stance is difficult but it’s ultimately necessary. I can’t let the practice keep me from the practice – how does that even make sense?

“Doing it wrong” is a specter some of us battle against on a daily, maybe even hourly, basis. “Doing it wrong” is a weapon we use against ourselves perhaps even more than we do others. “Doing it wrong” is a punishment we use to justify our feelings of inadequacy and failure. None of these things have to do with loving the Gods. Therefore, it must be excised from the devotional path – although this is easier said than done.

 

Longing and Spiritual Pain

“Now the thing that gets the gods, spirits, and ancient ones going is emotion. Sheer emotion produces the initial energy burst needed to break down the barriers between the human and the divine. This emotional energy can assume many forms. It can be joy, longing, love, but it can also be the sort of emotional energy that comes from crisis, despair, exhaustion, and madness.” Jan Fries, Kali Kaula

Not long ago I have an exchange with friends about the place of longing in spiritual life. Without speaking for them, my stance was that pointed longing and spiritual loneliness were a feature of devotional life, not a bug, and that these sensations are part of this practice. This isn’t to say that sadness should become pathological (and we should certainly not fetishize depression and other forms of illness); self-pity certainly is more of a burden on spiritual life than a boost and pain exists in such abundance that we don’t need to go looking for more. I agree with them that suffering does not make one a devotee (or a spirit worker, or whatever) and I echo once again some wise words from a wise priestess: Suffering is overrated.

Like I said, I feel that emotional pain and distress is a feature of the devotional path, not a flaw. It is something that most people – perhaps just about everyone – will experience at some point. Coping with this pain isn’t easy and it leaves observers feeling not a little helpless. However, automatically regarding spiritual pain as an aberration, a flaw, or even simply as a problem rather excises the feature of suffering from the devotional path. I think any examination of saints’ lives or devotional poetry will reveal that spiritual suffering is a major theme. I’m not saying we should compare ourselves to saints – and devotional poetry can be written to conform to conventions of style and not necessary to reflect personal experiences. What I’m saying is that we can use this information as an indicator that yes, the experience of separation and other forms of spiritual suffering are real, valid, and not necessarily indicative of self-indulgence, short-sightedness, or some other failing. Acknowledging that pain is a part of the devotional process for countless people is not letting us off the hook to be moody or self-absorbed; it is giving us a certain emotional heritage to know that we are not alone in these sensations.

In my friends’ defense, they have had experiences that are different than mine (and vice versa). We share the view that all things known and unknown, manifest and unmanifest, have their ground in a reality that contains all names and forms and that is beyond all names and forms. There is only one “I”, only one subject of knowing; therefore the experience of separation from one’s Beloved is only real on the most superficial levels – the singular subject of knowing contains everything and so separation is impossible. (Our shared cosmology states that the experience is real because there is no “unreal” within this singular subject of knowing, but that a combination of singular perception and sacred play create the illusion of separation.) Why then am I am so sad?

The most obvious answer is that I suffer from a limit of perception – which of course I do. While I might intellectually accept the cosmological basis of my tradition outlined above, I haven’t have the experiences that might transform my perception to short-cut the experience of separation. But separation was and is experienced by people for whom perceptional shortcomings are hardly relevant. Even saints and holy people who have experienced deeper levels of reality still exhibited the signs of separation. The sensation of separation is thus not limited to people who can’t perceive unifying principles. The experience if separation is also something not limited to paradigms where there is no unifying principle/singular subject field; it’s experienced quite commonly across devotional traditions of all kinds and by devotional practitioners of all sorts. I’d propose a deeper interpretation of this experience, then.

I personally think that the emotional lows experienced by devotional practitioners are matched only by the emotional highs. For as low as we go, we can go just as high. Our ecstasies carve out new emotional territory in which to grow and our depths plunge us into new realms. Our emotional landscape stretches each time and becomes more robust and nuanced. These experiences lead to enhanced self-knowledge – or they have the potential to, anyway. We can get carried away by the sadness as easily as we can the happiness. For as much as I acknowledge that the experience of separation can be a part of anyone’s devotional path, that knowledge is cold comfort. I admit a tendency towards self-pity at times but even in the absence of indulgence there is a lot of pain seeking relief.

Another facet of suffering on the devotional path – or a different interpretation of it, if you like – is touched on in the above quote. Jan Fries points out that engagement with the Powers runs on emotion, and that that emotion has potentially every characteristic. They want it all and so we are led to places where we bring it all.

In some traditions, the wanting is the having. We know we have the gods because of how much we want them. Possessing simply desire without resolution is not really my jam but I understand the point such traditions are trying to make. Desire is the evidence we’re looking for that we have the love of Those we love. Sidestepping back to my Tantric stance, I’d point out that desire, longing, and suffering are as much manifestations of Her as the experience of unity. She is all consciousness and all states of being, including those states that highlight the diversity of manifest reality through the sensation of separation. This too is Her and thus we return to wanting being having.

You’re not alone if you’re feeling sad on this path. You’re not alone if you’re feeling blue or stale or plateau-ed or cold. You’re not alone if you feel lonely. You’re not alone if you feel confused. These are real experiences and they are – potentially! – real features of this path. Self-discipline and careful reflection is required to tell the difference between manufactured distress and distress naturally arising. Often, manufactured distress makes naturally arising distress look larger and hotter and scarier than it actually is. Not everyone will feel these things, perhaps, but enough of us will that their commonality deserves note.

ETA: I want to clarify that I don’t think I’m right and my friends are wrong. Actually, I know that they’re right and that, in a certain sense, I’m wrong. I’m hesitant to attribute too much value to the experience of suffering because I think that this very quickly leads into a weird kind of mournful onedownmanship. Indulging in suffering just for the sake of its experience is, well, I don’t know how useful it is.

I want to give spiritual pain and the experience of separation a context within a greater framework of devotional life. Failing to account for these experiences in any methodological approach to devotional practice leaves a huge gap that people will continue to need answers to. A comprehensive approach to devotional practice must acknowledge the reality of spiritual suffering and, if possible, identify how it might be of value to one’s greater practice. There is an alchemy that can happen as a result of spiritual pain but it’s a mysterious and hidden process. I don’t know what happens as a result of suffering, but it’s clear that something does. People make very grave choices when confronted with the pain of separation or other forms of spiritual suffering and those choices can lead to fruitful or fruitless trajectories. Like I touched on in the initial post, spiritual suffering comes up too frequently to simply be an aberration or even a problem that nondualist sorts ought to be above. A full, valid, and complete devotional existence can – and perhaps even will! – include a measure of spiritual suffering. This simple truth alone should be justification enough for the meaningful exploration of this topic and its implications for the individual practitioner.

Back from Many Gods West

I had the opportunity to present two sessions at Many Gods West 2017 in Olympia, WA. The experience was a memorable and positive one; I got to meet many new people and deepen friendships with people I already knew. I saw lots of return attendees as well as people who were attending for the first time.

I presented Advancing Devotional Practice and Three Tales of Devotion, both of which are sessions I’ve presented before (Three Tales last year and Advancing Devotional Practice at PCon). They were both well-received and I came away with new ideas on how to improve them both. Although I personally had small issues with both (because I always want to improve the work I do), I think people got a lot out of them and so I’m satisfied in that respect.

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If you’re finding my blog for the first time after finding me at MGW, welcome! I don’t blog nearly as often as I’d like – mostly because I never know quite what I want to say and because every time I sit down to write a post I get bored and quit before I’ve finished. Most of the new work I’m doing is found over on Patreon; I’ve just added a divination perk to the $10 level. That’s where I share samples of the new Heartroad manuscript (this is a followup book to Walking the Heartroad) as well as art, downloadables, coupon codes, video previews, and all kinds of other stuff.

Speaking of videos, now that I’m back from MGW I can focus on producing a narrated video of Sri Andal’s story. This is based on my Three Tales of Devotion session; it’ll be a nice long telling of a truly excellent inspirational story. I’d like to post the video by next month (after a Patreon preview, of course) and I’ll make the audio available for download.

So that’s the latest – I have a blog post brewing in my head and I’ll see if I can make another update this week. Thanks again for reading.

Arcane Bullshit Oracle – deck review and walkthrough

It’s live! The video I’ve been teasing my Patreon supporters with for weeks is finally live to the world.

 

This is probably my very favorite deck to use with people. I use it especially frequently when reading for spirit workers because I find the absurdity of the deck is a good fit for the frequently absurd situations we can find ourselves in. As I discuss in the video, the silliness of the deck bypasses traditional symbolic meanings; I end up with intuitive readings with a high degree of relevance and accuracy. It’s sadly not a great quality deck but it’s one I treasure nonetheless.

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Altar practice

My altars are a central part of my life – both my spiritual practice and my not-obviously-spiritual activities. I have fewer altars than you might imagine; there’s 3 – 4 main ones depending on how you count. Each altar receives attention at a different rate; two see daily/near-daily attention while others receive weekly/near-weekly attention.

My ancestral altar has seen very little activity in several months because well, my ancestors have not been home in a long time. They were present for a brief moment a few years ago and I thought, “Ah! My ancestral practice is finally working!” but they faded not long after. There was another minor flare of activity a year or so ago but again, they fade. (I know people might say that I should persist nonetheless, that I should continue giving attention and feel confident that my efforts have effect – but I’ve tried ancestral work for many years and received next-to-no time with them, relative to my investment. And no, I don’t think I’m owed their returning of my attention but I also don’t know why my ancestral practice has been so challenging overall. I need to speak to someone more knowledgeable than myself.)

There are times, like the present moment, when I struggle to do even the most minimal activity at my altars. One of the altars that I give daily attention to has a very formal style of interaction and I just can’t manage to rise to that standard. I’ll drop some incense there, say good morning, and that’ll be it. That’s on the days I manage to do anything at all. And of course, I then use this as evidence that I’m a bad practitioner, that I’m failing at my practice, that I lack any of the discipline that gives structure to my sentiment.

This problem quickly becomes a self-perpetuating pattern; I feel bad for not doing my practice, so I avoid the site of those bad feelings which leads me to stay away from the altar where I do my practice. I know I’m not alone in this experience. I remind myself that devotionalism isn’t intended to be a weapon with which I harm myself, but wow am I good at making it into one.

July’s temple video to Loki Herself

It’s live!

 

I was feeling quiet and contemplative this month and I think this video reflects that. I also finally got the Santa Fe incense to burn nicely. I really love this brand but sometimes I have a hard time keeping the blocks lit.

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My mind has been quite occupied with several projects I have going on here at home (I’m helping out a local temple with some complicated sewing work) in addition to the rapidly-approaching Many Gods West. One session is prepped; the other still needs a bit of tidying up. I’m also preparing to start work at a house reader at a local metaphysical shop, so I’ve been making lots of marketing material for that. Oh, and I’ve been producing the Santa Muerte prayer cards! They’re now in the shop and ready to ship.