The Meditating Pagan

The Meditating Pagan May 22, 2015

Photo credit: AlicePopkorn / Foter / CC BY
Photo credit: AlicePopkorn / Foter / CC BY

Almost fifteen years ago I took up the practice of meditation. I no longer remember what prompted me to do so, although I have a feeling that it had more than a little something to do with the fact that I was a stay-at-home mom in a new city with a newborn and a seventeen-month-old, and a husband who was on a night shift schedule which he maintained seven days a week. I’m sure the day that I walked into the bookstore and picked up a discounted copy of Jack Kornfield’s cassette tape series entitled “The Inner Art of Meditation,” I was frantically shopping for some affordable sanity. Luckily, I found it. Soon after I bought the tapes, I also purchased Lama Surya Das’ book, “Awakening the Buddha Within,” and it changed my life. My Buddhist practice has slowly grown over the years.

The type of meditation Kornfield’s tapes taught, and that I still practice, is Buddhist Vipassana. It is more commonly called Insight Meditation here in the West. The focus of this type of meditation is on the breath, with non-judgmental attention paid to the physical and mental sensations of the body. If a thought arises, which is almost a constant occurrence unless I’m able to achieve a deep sense of calm awareness, the goal is to notice it with kindness and then to immediately let it go and not dwell on it. As you can imagine, this is a difficult skill to master. Not that I’ve mastered it.

When I learned that I was a pagan, I paused to consider how I was going to integrate my Vipassana practice with this newly discovered portion of my identity. The answer turned out to be quite simple, as I discovered during subsequent meditation sessions. As with all other areas of my life, meditation is the foundation of my paganism – the tool that helps me be the best pagan I can be.

A few years earlier, I had turned my sitting room (formerly the storage area for all the boxes I couldn’t bring myself to unpack in our new home) into a meditation room. It faces a nature preserve and I set a low table in front of the windows so I’d have an unhindered view of the forest from my mediation cushions. I also filled the room with bookshelves housing my eclectic collection of spiritual and philosophical texts, like a good UU. Then over the years I added house plants and decorative trinkets until the space felt like a small jungle, complete with golden stars strung from the ceiling and a wall tapestry of lotus blossoms set on a calm blue background. This is the perfect place for me to meditate.

It also turned out to be the perfect place for me to pagan. Now, in addition to holding my incense holder, the low table at the window has become my altar. On it, I place the candles and tools of my personal rituals, as the seasons and my life require. The bookshelves that hold my texts now also house the stones and candles I use to cast my circles as well as the tarot cards I sometimes consult to draw insight from the depths of my own subconscious. The CD player that plays quiet meditative music has been supplemented with a little blue tooth device that lets me stream the pagan ritual music I’ve located online. Sometimes I relocate to a warmer or sunnier area of the house to meditate or conduct a ritual, and it’s easy to grab the essential items I want and carry them to the new space. But these are all merely the external connections between my meditation and pagan practices.

My Practice

When I sit in insight meditation and attain a sense of focus on my body I am frequently also aware of my alignment with the cardinal directions I recognize during my pagan ceremonies, as well as with the earth beneath me and the sky above me. Also, a common practice in many types of Buddhist meditation is to end with a “Loving Kindness” reflection. This easily overlaps with my pagan celebration of nature. Basically, I begin with myself and slowly work outward personally and geographically, considering those I love, neighbors, acquaintances, all humans, and then all beings. At the same time I also consider their corresponding environments – home, local ecosystem, larger ecosystem, mother earth, and finally the universe in its staggering entirety. As I do this, I am mindful of my own position and relation to these concentric circles of existence and I bless each of them with the following phrase, substituting “I” for “my loved ones,” “my neighbors,” “my acquaintances,” “all Americans,” “all earthlings,” and “all organisms”:

May I be filled with loving-kindness.

May I be well.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

May I be happy.

If this isn’t also a beautiful pagan blessing, I don’t know what is. In this way, the end of my meditation sessions are fully Vipassana and fully pagan.

Lastly, meditation plays an important part in my pagan practices as well. I frequently take advantage of rare moments when I have the house to myself to cast a circle without being interrupted, and I have learned that in my rush to complete a ritual before my family returns I tend to lack the focus I need in order to do this work. So after I have everything in place, I begin with a brief session of meditation until I find the calm that I require. This is no different from my regular meditation because it’s usually in the same space and involves the same cardinal directions and even some of the same tools. After I have completed this segment of my ritual, I find it much, much easier to raise energy and focus on the task at hand without any more concern about being interrupted. And the experience is almost always more enjoyable and satisfying as a result.

So if you aren’t a practitioner of meditation, I encourage you to ask yourself if there’s room for it in your pagan exercises. There are many books and resources online to help you get started with the basics, including videos and podcasts with guided meditations for beginners. Search until you find a style that works for you and see how much it can improve your pagan rituals and life in general.

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