Monday, May 30, 2011

practice: buddhism

I do a form of meditation called "Insight," derived from the Vipassana tradition of Buddhism. It basically entails sitting with the spine straight and watching the breath, in and out. While not getting caught up in your thoughts or other sensations. You let them float in and out of your mind without holding on to them. Simple enough, yet not so easy to do. The mind likes to wander.
But practicing this day after day gives great insight into how the mind works, especially the impermanence of thoughts. Meditation teaches how not to identify with one’s thoughts so much. They are not a part of you, they just come and go. Experiencing this realization diminishes their power and clears the mind in a beautiful, expansive way. 
It’s quite freeing to have some control over the mind. Things don’t bother me as much, and if I find myself starting to obsess over something, or get into negative thinking, I can often stop it.
Meditation is helpful on so many levels, from the spiritual to the physical and psychological. I can’t speak for everyone’s experience, but I’ve personally derived the following benefits:
Psychologically, meditation has helped me decrease anxiety and depression. After my father died of cancer, sitting (as it’s called) helped me work through grief in a healthy way, without holding on to it or denying it.  
On a more mundane level, a sitting practice helps decrease stress because you learn to just not let things bother you so much. It’s incredibly relaxing. I’m halfway through a very grueling and hectic nursing program, and my daily meditation practice has been so crucial in helping me stay calm throughout, and keeping me from resorting to negative stress management techniques like eating crap food. 
When everyone else was freaking out over the latest test or whatever, I would go into the woods behind school and do a walking meditation, then come back to class all chilled out.
And if I’m feeling hostile towards people, I do what’s called a “lovingkindess meditation” -- also from the Buddhist tradition --  where you learn to send out good vibes (in a structured way)  to whomever you don’t like or is getting on your nerves. So I would say that meditating makes me less pissed-off in general. 
Physically, maintaining a daily meditation practice has helped me manage chronic insomnia, which I first developed when my son was a baby years ago. Basically, when I meditate I sleep well, and when I can be up for hours at night, exhausted the next day. So it’s worth it just for that alone.
It’s also good for defusing tension headaches. If I feel one coming on, I go sit for 20 minutes and just breathe. By the time I’m done, the headache is gone.
Spiritually, meditation gets me out of my everyday ego self and connects me to a wider, more transcendent reality. Sometimes on the cushion I get to that sweet spot where me and my breath are at one and my mind is perfectly clear. Other times I just get a feeling of well-being. Not so earth-shattering, but very beneficial. One time I had a very profound ecstatic experience, where I completely left my body and all boundaries between myself and other living beings were erased. 
Other times I’m just sitting there feeling all distracted, unable to stop the constant chatter of thoughts in my head, and it gets frustrating. But that’s a part of the experience too. You learn to let go of the frustration. The benefits come from being consistent, doing it every day, no matter what your personal experience of it.
I first learned to meditate when I took a workshop at the National Black Theatre, back in the late 80s, right out of college. That was really the first time I had ever encountered artsy, bohemian black folks en masse, most of them older than me, and I learned a lot from them. 
We did all sorts of body work and acting exercises. It was a great experience. We would sit in a circle, stare at a candle and breathe. Right away I could see that regular meditation could yield very many benefits, yet even so it took me years to be able to sustain a practice on a regular basis. 
I would meditate daily for a few months, then get sidetracked and stop for a year. Life, a busy schedule, or just plain laziness would get in the way. So I’d start up again, stop, rinse and repeat. For about twenty years. Though I thought of myself as a pretty disciplined person, I couldn’t figure out why I had such a hard time sticking with it.  
And then about two, three years ago, after the aforementioned death of my father -- along with some other personal trauma which happened around the same time -- I was suddenly able to keep it going. After all those years, I had somehow managed to learn to just sit, every day. 
And I have been meditating pretty much daily ever since. I’m sure that deep in my psyche there was a definite cause and effect between those experiences and my newfound ability to be consistent in my sitting practice, but I’m not quite sure what it was. 
As far as Buddhist philosophy, there’s a lot I really vibe with, in particular the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path. Not sure about reincarnation and karma. Sometimes the universe seems too random for something like karma to be an actual. For sure everything is impermanent. From time to time I will read some of the ancient texts (the Dhammapada is my favorite). But mostly though, I just meditate.

Friday, May 27, 2011

practice: wicca

Sorry for the missing post earlier this week. I was visiting my mom, and her computer was down due to a virus. So I had no internet access for several days.
This week’s post is about my personal practice. I don’t fit into any particular category like “Wiccan,” I just do a variety of practices and hold beliefs that I’ve picked up over the years. So I guess I’m officially eclectic. My spirituality is a work in practice, as is life, as are we all. 
Here’re the core components of what I call, with tongue-in-cheek, the 'lynnish tradition' (‘cause my name is lynn):
Wicca
Buddhism
Christianity
nature reverence
miscellaneous
This week I’ll discuss the Wiccan aspects, and I’ll periodically go through the other elements of the list until I reach the end. 
WICCA: I live in the Northeast, so the wheel of the year -- which is based on the European pagan traditions as they evolved in response to living in a temperate climate -- really resonates with me. I adore the four seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall; the cycle of cold, darkness and rest followed by warmth and light. All these elements of the mama (mother nature) weave themselves into and form the framework of my life.
Even before I was pagan, I used to get excited over the solstices and equinoxes. I didn’t mark them formally or anything, I would just keep track of them and the changing seasons. I remember people thinking this was kind of weird. :-)
Later on in life when I got into alternative healing I would do a juice fast or a cleanse in the weeks leading up to the spring equinox. These days I mark the sabbats (including the ‘cross quarter’ days which lie between the equinoxes and the solstices) in various ways. Sometimes I follow tradition and sometimes I make up up my own stuff.
Like for the winter solstice my husband and I (who is also pagan, although his practice differs from mine), throw a 2-3 day long party. So far we’re the only people we've invited. We drink mead and cook a big feast, make an altar, light a bonfire out back, say our prayers under the sky and watch all three Lord of the Rings movies.
For Beltane (May Day) we go to a local pagan gathering which is held in a big field in the rural area where I live. There’s live music and other performances, lots of people dressed up in Renaissance faire type clothing (which is really fun to look at), a maypole, Wiccan ritual, vendors, food and a huge bonfire/drum circle when the sun goes down. 
I think that dancing around a fire was probably one of the earliest forms of religious expression; I know it hits me on a very primal level. And you gotta have drums to set that rhythm and raise the energy. This in my opinion is one of Africa’s true gifts to the world, West African percussion music. One of the things that leaves me cold about a lot of contemporary pagan ritual music is that it lacks a good, soulful groove. 
The first drum circle I ever went to was at a nyabinghi (Rastafarian celebration of Haile Selassie’s birthday) in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in the mid-90s. A Rasta friend took me. This was the days before Brooklyn was super-gentrified, but even then I couldn’t believe that the cops would allow that big fire, and all that weed smoking, all out in a public park during those very uptight days when Giuliani was mayor of New York City. I remember walking out of the park that night feeling so fed, on every level. Just lighter than air. But I digress.
Back to the Wiccan influence, I also like to observe the esbats, meaning the full and new moons. The new moon -- which I call the dark moon -- is a private time for me, during which I basically cast a circle, light candles and call out to the gods (as I conceive them) and the four elements.
I also do some type of body cleanse at this time (like raw foods or juicing). I start the night before the dark moon, through the day of, and then I start eating normally again the evening of the next day, when that first sliver of the waxing moon can be seen peeking in the western sky at twilight. Comes out to about 48 hours. I very much like setting myself to the lunar cycle.  
Fasting has always been a time of introspection for me, and doing it monthly helps keeps me focused on what’s important. It keeps the ego in check, as going a little while without satisfying my every appetite definitely gives me perspective on the bigger picture.
So if my life has started to get crazy, or I’ve gotten unfocused and distracted, or if I find myself being pulled in some undesirable emotional direction, ‘dark moon fasting’ always gets me back to feeling connected and grounded.
From the time I was a little girl, I always felt a special connection to the moon. I can remember staying up late at night as a little girl just staring out the window at it. For hours. Bathing in the light. When I hit my teen years, I can remember being very angry that astronauts had walked on her and defiled her with the American flag. I wanted no one to touch her.
I lost that deep connection with the moon as I grew up. A lot of it was due to city living, where the sky is covered all the time by buildings. Then when I consciously got into paganism two years ago, it was like: 
‘oh yes, I remember you, moon. well hello again.’ 
Now it’s gotten to the point where I can tell what time it is by looking at the sky. (This includes awareness of the sun’s path as well.) Living in the country now, I can watch the moon come up and go down pretty much every day, barring the clouds.
The full moons are a time of high energy for me. I get so charged. I’ve tried doing my solitary casting a circle thing at this time but I’m just not feeling it, usually. It has an incompleteness about it. 
Full moons feel more to me like a time of getting together with other people and uniting energies. In April -- that was the Wind Moon -- my honey and I lit candles and made long, slow love by the window under the light of the moon blazing in, the cool air flowing  in as well, and it was positively ecstatic. 
Last fall around the equinox I got together with some people and we had a big fire, out in a field. It was also the night of a big brilliant harvest moon. We played guitar and sang all night. This is the kind of thing I’d like to do more regularly.
I also keep what is known as a ‘book of shadows.’ When I first started walking this path, trying to sort out my spirituality, I put together a notebook of things I wanted to remember, explore and incorporate into my practice. 

I made sections for spells, rituals, gods and goddesses, sabbat ideas, beliefs, Tarot, etc. I am currently working my way through Christopher Penczak’s workbook ‘The Inner Temple of Witchcraft,’ so I keep a journal in my book of shadows of my experiences with that as well. 
My book of shadows -- I just use a plain binder from Staples -- has really been crucial in helping me to forge my own spiritual path ‘from the heart outwards,’ as I like to describe this ongoing process. I go through it every so often and throw out stuff I no longer use. 
Like in the beginning, when I first became pagan, I saw a lot of people online talking all about Brigid and Yemaya and Kali etc. So I collected a lot of info on the various gods and goddesses I had heard about, to check them out. 

I learned a lot, but then when I thought about it I realized that I have never, ever been able to relate to personified concepts of deity, so why would that change now just because I was pagan?
Like for instance when I was Christian I never really considered “Jesus as my personal Savior.” Just didn’t seem real. Instead I used to just pray to God as an abstract, all-pervasive consciousness type of entity.
So it didn’t take me long to realize that I couldn’t relate to any of those pagan deities either. I was still the same person who can never put a face or a name to the divine, much less any concrete personality type stuff. I’m still all about that abstract consciousness, which I conceive of as containing at times various energies. Energies experienced by some of us as individual deities. But they aren’t really separate beings. They’re just aspects. In my mind anyway.
And that’s about it for the Wiccan stuff. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Pagan or pagan?

What do we alternative spirituality types call ourselves? When people ask me, I say I'm "sort of pagan" or "eclectic" or "lynnish" (because my name is Lynn. . . so that's kind of a joke). If I don't think they'll be hip to any of that, and I don't feel like getting into some big long conversation, I'll just say "I have my own spirituality" and smile.

I'm aware that the written standard is to now capitalize “Pagan” in the same way we do the names of other religions. I do not follow this practice myself because I personally don’t relate to what I call “Paganism with a capital P.” 

Capitalization seems mighty formal to me, and in my mind it cements the codification of paganism as a “collection of spiritualities based on European pre-Christian traditions.” If you ask most (white) Pagans about their practice, they'll go into the ancestral piece right away. So me calling myself a “Pagan” feels very inaccurate. Yet since the framework of my practice is rooted in the wheel of the year, I don't want to reject the term altogether.

I know, I know, it seems like a small thing. But there it is. I don't relate to that capital P. Not just a tiny bit.
Whereas paganism with lower-case “p” is more in keeping with the more ancient tradition of describing the overall state of being ‘non-Christian.' Not that I feel any particular need to define myself in opposition to Christians, but "pagan" seems more inclusive of those of us whose practice is non-Eurocentric. And rolling off my keyboard, “paganism” feels more fluid than “Paganism”. . . something an eclectic like me can definitely relate to.  Formal religion after all is something I gave up when I stopped going to church. 
As an aside I will add that it’s too bad the Northern folk have already claimed the word “heathen” for themselves as I’ve always been very partial to that one. As a child growing up in a secular household, “heathen” always sounded exciting and vaguely naughty, like extras in a Mad Max movie. Involving practices, no doubt, more flavorful than listening to sermons. 

Along with “savages,” heathen was the word Anglophone Europeans very often used to describe the brown people they came into contact with when they colonized the world. Like the younger black generations who morphed “nigger” into “nigga,” “heathen” was co-opted by those it was used against -- meaning non-Christians -- and turned into a term of endearment. So props to the Northern types for grabbing that one first.
So until someone -- myself maybe -- can come up with something better than “pagan” to describe us non-Euro-oriented pagans, well, then pagan it is. But hey we black people are used to name changes, right? I was born a Negro in the ‘60s, grew up black and now folks are insisting I’m African-American. :-)
Not that there’s anything wrong with black folks who do identify as Wiccan, or Celtic or what have you; it’s just not my thing. My spirituality is a masala of Wicca, Buddhism, black American Christianity, nature worship and dibs and dabs of other things as I see fit. And it goes without saying that pagans of any flavor are welcome here. I’m also aware of the issue of cultural appropriation and will address that in an upcoming post. Would love to hear others’ thoughts on nomenclature as well.

NOTE: blackpagan.com (meaning me) is looking for people to interview about their spirituality. How do we practice, what gods do we worship, if any? What rituals do we observe? What are our sacred days? Are you group or solitary? How did you get to where you are now? Let a sista know at theblackpagan@gmail.com as I would love to feature you in an upcoming post.

Friday, May 13, 2011

first!

Hello and welcome to my blog, a continuous meditation on my perspective on things as a black American who is also pagan.  I don’t claim to be an expert and can’t speak for anybody but myself, but I do feel that the “black pagan community” (hard to type that without laughing) is sorely underrepresented here in cyberspace, so I’m just doing my bit to remedy that situation somehow. 
I’ve only encountered a handful of other black pagans in real life, but I know there are more of “us” out there. Probably scattered about in a sea of white if we circle/practice with others, maybe in the closet to our families who may not understand. I’m sure that many of us are solitaries, as I am. 

We network and get a lot of our information on the net, so if this site should perchance turn into one of those places “we” gather to hear about and see and speak with other black pagans, that would be very cool with me.
In this blog I plan to talk a bit about myself and my own eclectic practice, review pagan-oriented books and movies, publish interviews with other black folks who identify as pagans and relate my (probable futile) experiences at forging some kind of real-world pagan community in the rural area I live in. I’m a former journalist accustomed to blathering, but since life is very busy these days I’m going to really only commit to updating once a week, on Mondays. So stop by sometime.