January 2, 2016

Walking the labyrinth is a very ancient form of meditation, very relaxing, and it’s well worth giving it a try. It’s very personal and inwardly focussed, and yet shared with your fellow-travellers in a wordless communion.

Each person’s journey into the labyrinth is unique, although the labyrinth has a single pathway to the centre. We all travel on the same pathway, but each person goes at a different speed, travelling in a different way. Rather like life, the path twists and turns, in and out, and you never know how close to the centre you are. When the path appears to take you furthest away from the centre, you are nearer, and when you appear to be closest, you are actually further away.

"Dalby City of Troy turf maze" by User:SiGarb - This is a scan of a transparency which I took in the 1970s, scanned and uploaded 8 May 2005. It has been slightly cleaned-up in Photoshop.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dalby_City_of_Troy_turf_maze.jpg#/media/File:Dalby_City_of_Troy_turf_maze.jpg
Dalby City of Troy turf maze” by User:SiGarb – This is a scan of a transparency which I took in the 1970s, scanned and uploaded 8 May 2005. It has been slightly cleaned-up in Photoshop.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.



The centre – the goal of the journey – can mean different things to different people. For me, it is a metaphor for the Divine: always present, always hidden. In Pagan labyrinths, the centre symbolises the underworld, the inner realm; in Christian labyrinths, it represents the goal of the pilgrim, Jerusalem, with Christ at the centre.

The centre is a place to meditate and reflect on the journey, connect with the Divine, or just look into yourself. The space at the centre is shaped like a flower, or like the rose window of a cathedral. Each of its petals represents one of six kingdoms: mineral, vegetable, animal, human, angelic and the unknown.

The journey back from the centre depicts bringing back the blessing and insight from the other realm to share with your community. As you cross the threshold once more into the outer world, it is a good idea to meditate on the experience, and only gradually ease back into normal conversation.

Pagan labyrinths generally have the path winding through one quadrant at a time, possibly so the walker can meditate on each of the four elements in turn. Christian labyrinths have the path winding back and forth between the quadrants, so that you never know where you are. This is in many ways a more powerful experience, because you never know how close you are to the goal of the journey, so it is a revelation when you reach it. One such labyrinth is the one in Chartres Cathedral, which was constructed around 1200.

The oldest labyrinth design is the Cretan labyrinth, which is a very simple design and can be drawn quite quickly; it is easy to make out of pebbles in your garden or at a camp.

A brief history of mazes and labyrinths


Mazes are recorded in Egypt, Rome, Scandinavia, England, India, and the American Southwest. They are generally believed to symbolise the soul’s journey through life, or the journey of the dead to the underworld. 

There are two types of maze: the unicursal (single path) maze and the puzzle maze. Both of these are referred to as both a labyrinth and a maze. However, in the myth of the Minotaur, the labyrinth in which the Minotaur dwells is clearly a puzzle maze (i.e. having dead ends), as Theseus needs a thread to find his way through to the centre. Apparently the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur refers to the maze-like palace at Knossos, which burned to the ground in the 15th century BCE.

The Classical Maze comes in four types, the Serpentine, Spiral, Simple Meander, and Complex Meander. The Roman ones were usually square, but these designs work as circular mazes too.

The principle of the maze was probably discovered in the Neolithic. The earliest recorded mazes were in Crete, 4000 years ago. In Egypt, there was a huge palace complex on the shores of a lake seven days journey up the Nile from the pyramids in form of a labyrinth. This was built by pharaoh Amenemhet III in the 19th century BCE. It consisted of thousands of rooms and twelve large maze-like courtyards, which were probably intended to keep out unwelcome visitors. Amenemhet also created a maze inside his nearby pyramid to thwart tomb robbers. Most Roman labyrinths, on the other hand, were too small to have been walked, and are typically found on the floor near the entrances to houses and villas; many have small city walls (perhaps indicating the walls of Troy) drawn around them. This suggests they served a protective function, and were perhaps believed to have warded off evil influences or intruders — a common function of the labyrinth in many other cultures as well. The tomb of Lars Porsenna (an Etruscan king) at Chiusi in Italy was said to be surrounded by a labyrinth.

The turf mazes of Britain and Scandinavia may have served a similar purpose, but in the Middle Ages they acquired an additional association with May games; hence the name “Robin Hood’s Race” or “Julian’s Bower”. The Celtic name for a maze was Caer Droia, the place of turning, and this was transliterated into English as Troy Town. It was widely believed that England was founded by Brutus fleeing Troy, and the mazes were believed to represent Troy. Mazes in Finland were often called Jericho, referring to the legend that it was destroyed by the Israelite army marching around it seven times. A maze called ‘the walls of Jericho’ also appears in a Hebrew manuscript.

December 30, 2015

The haiku is a Japanese form of poetry which evolved out of the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Traditional Japanese haiku have 17 syllables, but it has been suggested that English haiku should have more syllables, because English is a more long-winded language than Japanese, and you can pack a lot more concepts into 17 Japanese syllables than you can into 17 English syllables. However, I tend to stick to the 17 syllable structure, divided into 3 lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. Haiku also traditionally include a kireji, a ‘cutting word’. The cutting word divides the poem into two contrasting sections with imagery that adds a surprising twist or contrast to each other. It’s difficult to find ‘cutting words’ in English, so haiku writers in English use a dash to separate the two sections of the poem.

"Basho in Ogaki" by Kichiverde - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Basho_in_Ogaki.JPG#/media/File:Basho_in_Ogaki.JPG
Basho in Ogaki” by KichiverdeOwn work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.


Haiku are essentially poems about Nature, so Japanese haiku also have a season word, to indicate in what season the action of the poem takes place. The season word does not have to be the name of the season; it can be something that is obviously associated with that season – for example, plum blossom would indicate that the poem was describing spring. The imagery of a haiku is simple and unpretentious, and generally does not use similes to achieve its effects. The natural phenomena described may very well be metaphors for something else, but the haiku may also be enjoyed for the images of natural beauty, and the human response to it, that it conjures up.

Haiku poets would often gather together to compose haiku on the spot. One poet would begin, and then another poet would respond with a haiku of their own, and in this way a series of linked haiku (known as haikai-renga) would be composed by the group.

Sometimes haiku would be combined with travel writing or other prose. The most famous example of this form is The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho, which describes Basho’s travels to the far north of Japan. The combined haiku and prose form is known as haibun.

Writing haiku teaches one to strip things back to the bare essentials, to distil experience into its pure form, and to observe Nature closely. It is a very satisfying process, because haiku are so short, and so complete in themselves.

 

December 28, 2015

Gardening is well known to be therapeutic, but it is also deeply spiritual. It is a process of fostering life, of working with the land and Nature to create beauty – what could be more spiritual than that?

Embodied spirituality is about responding to the world with wonder, creativity and joy; it is not some abstract process – it is about connecting the inner with the outer.

The planting of the seeds in the ground teaches us hope and care for small growing things. Watching the seeds come up is an experience of hope rewarded. Then we must care for the tender seedlings, watering them, planting them out, protecting them from being eaten. We create patterns in the garden – arrangements of plants that flower and fruit in their season. The plants might be herbs that heal, or flowers with scent and colour, or leafy trees, or fruit and vegetables. Plants have symbolism and mythology and folklore associated with them.

"Saihouji-kokedera01" by Ivanoff~commonswiki - Self-photographed. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saihouji-kokedera01.jpg#/media/File:Saihouji-kokedera01.jpg
Saihouji-kokedera01” by Ivanoff~commonswikiSelf-photographed. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

The word paradise means an enclosed garden; the earliest gardens were oases of fertility in the desert, such as the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which must have required considerable watering. The fabled Garden of Eden was the mythological model for such gardens. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ uncle Zovár said that the Garden of Eden was really the whole Earth, because everywhere on Earth is capable of flowering like a garden, and is full of the divine presence if you know how to be aware of it.

Composting (an essential aspect of gardening) is a wonderful metaphor for the process of change and transformation. We compost our dead matter (past experience) and it helps to fertilise new growth (the wisdom that comes from experience).

December 26, 2015

The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids suggest building a meditation hut. The idea of the hut is to have a secluded place in Nature, where simplicity and quiet are available.

The actual process of building the hut could be a mindful and meditative process, using recycled and sustainable materials. The Order’s founder, Ross Nichols, got the idea of his hut from the poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Butler Yeats. 

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Yeats was inspired to write the poem by Henry David Thoreau’s account of how he retired to a hut beside Walden Pond, there to contemplate the wilderness, be self-sufficient and find himself. 

"Replica of Thoreau's cabin near Walden Pond and his statue" by RhythmicQuietude at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Replica_of_Thoreau%27s_cabin_near_Walden_Pond_and_his_statue.jpg#/media/File:Replica_of_Thoreau%27s_cabin_near_Walden_Pond_and_his_statue.jpg
Replica of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond and his statue” by RhythmicQuietude at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.


Ross Nichols suggests that one of the benefits of living in a hut is that there are fewer distractions there; no electricity, no running water, only yourself and the wilderness (or your garden) for company. It was important to Nichols that the hut should be a semi-permanent structure, so it felt safe and secluded.


This post was originally published at UK Spirituality.

 

December 24, 2015

An altar is a focus for devotion, prayer or meditation. It can be simple or complex, small or large. It can have no images, a single image, or multiple images. It can be themed around a particular idea, deity, inspiring person, or festival.

You can have more than one altar or shrine around your home.

"India - Family altar - 7090" by © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:India_-_Family_altar_-_7090.jpg#/media/File:India_-_Family_altar_-_7090.jpg
India – Family altar – 7090” by © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

If your altar is for meditation or prayer, choose a spot in your home that is quiet and peaceful. Consider how you will use your altar. If you are going to place flowers on it, or use it in ritual, make sure there is space for everything you need, and that the altar is easy to keep clean. Some people like to light a candle or ring a bell before they start their ritual, meditation or prayer.

The typical altar might have a bell or singing bowl, some sacred pictures or statues, some natural objects such as pebbles, shells, feathers or wood to make a connection with Nature, a candle, prayer beads, and perhaps a sacred book. It may be a shrine to a particular deity, saint, Buddha or bodhisattva, or to multiple sacred foci.

In Orthodox Christianity, the shrine at which the family prays is known as the Beautiful Corner, and is decorated with icons of favourite saints. Icons are seen as windows into Heaven, and depict the transfigured face of the saint. Before praying, people will light a candle and cross themselves.

In some traditions, people build altars or shrines at particular times of year. In Mexico, people build shrines for El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) to commemorate their loved ones who have died. There might be photos of the loved one, together with their favourite foods, and flowers. Many Pagans around the world have borrowed this idea.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her classic book Women who run with the wolves, describes how women built altars to commemorate losses in their lives, and how this helped them to grieve properly and to recover from the trauma. You could also build altars for particular rites of passage, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood, or for marriage or divorce. The altar might include symbols of the phase that is coming to an end, and symbols of the new phase to be embarked on. You could even build one altar for each phase, and then have a ritual progression from one phase to the next.Another way of making an altar is to find a special tree or rock, and decorate around it with found (but biodegradable) objects arranged in a pattern, such as twigs, leaves, berries and feathers.

There is no right or wrong way to make an altar. Each altar is personal and special. If you are following a particular spiritual tradition, it may have particular ways of making altars, but even within that, there is plenty of scope for creativity.


 

Further reading: Sabina Magliocco, Neo-Pagan Sacred Art and Altars: Making Things Whole. University Press of Mississippi

This post was originally published at UK Spirituality

December 22, 2015

The sharing of food and drink is one of the most ancient and basic rituals of hospitality and reciprocity. It is surrounded by symbolism and ceremony.

A nice cup of tea and a sit down

The Japanese tea ceremony is the ultimate form of this spiritual practice; in it each movement is choreographed, and the tea is prepared and served mindfully and gracefully. The ritual has deep meaning and resonance for the participants.However, the preparation and drinking of tea has a restorative effect on many people. The fragrance of the tea, the effect of drinking it, and the relaxation of sitting and being focused on the pleasure of tea, is all good for you. It’s even better if it is accompanied by conversation with a friend.The title of this section is taken from the excellent website entitled “A nice cup of tea and a sit down” which extols the pleasures of this activity, or should I say inactivity?

"Bain-marie" by grongar - originally posted to Flickr as Bain-marie - full. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bain-marie.jpg#/media/File:Bain-marie.jpg
Bain-marie” by grongar – originally posted to Flickr as Bain-marie – full. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Shared meals

Many religious traditions have shared meals as part of their practice. Jewish tradition has the Seder or Passover meal, in which specific symbolic foods are eaten, representing different aspects of the Passover story. The youngest person present must ask, “Why is this night more special than all other nights?” and various other symbolic actions are performed, such as leaving the door open for Elijah, and raising a toast to the idea that one’s next Seder will take place in Jerusalem.Christianity has the Eucharist, which commemorates both the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples, and also the meal he is said to have shared with them at Emmaus after his Resurrection. The meal consists of bread and wine consumed in a sacred manner. There has been much conflict throughout Christian history about what the Eucharist means, who is allowed to partake of it, and what its effects are. Nevertheless it is a powerful ritual. Stephen Lingwood, a Unitarian minister, suggests that communion represents Jesus’ radical hospitality – his willingness to eat with people marginalised by society, such as prostitutes, tax collectors and publicans.

In Wicca, the shared meal is known as cakes and wine, and is usually consecrated by a woman and a man (but it can be a same-sex couple), and then shared among the participants in the ritual. A portion is kept for offering to the deities as a libation.

In some Hindu traditions, a portion of the food is offered to the deities while it is being cooked, and blessed food is known as prasadam.

The ancient Greeks had a ritual of sharing bread, which is where we get our word symposium, which literally means ‘together bread’. In ancient Rome, there were dining clubs devoted to the god Bacchus (god of wine), which presumably had a ritual or spiritual aspect.

Many religious traditions (including Buddhism, Christianity and Paganism) give thanks for their food before eating. Typically, the meal blessing might include thanks to all the beings and processes that went into creating the food, and a wish that everyone in the world might have enough to eat.

Cooking can also be a spiritual practice. It is in many ways akin to alchemy (the transformation of one thing into another); indeed, a cooking vessel invented by a medieval female alchemist – the bain-marie – founds its way from the laboratory to the kitchen. In Jewish tradition, the preparation of food has special rituals associated with it. The magic of a lovingly prepared meal is powerful stuff, restoring both body and mind.


This blogpost was originally published at UK Spirituality.

December 19, 2015

"Amazing sand mandala" by Mai Le from San Francisco, CA, USA - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Amazing_sand_mandala.jpg#/media/File:Amazing_sand_mandala.jpg
Amazing sand mandala” by Mai Le from San Francisco, CA, USAFlickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

A mandala is a twofold meditation tool. The process of creating it is meditative, and it can be used as a focus for meditation once it has been created.

The idea of the mandala comes from Hindu and Buddhist tradition. The mandala is a diagram of the sacred cosmos. Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas depict temples and palaces where particular Buddhas dwell, and pathways between them. A sand mandala is carefully and painstakingly constructed by pouring sand through special pointy tubes onto a surface, and after a certain amount of time, the sand is swept up and poured out as a blessing into a river, or given away to pilgrims.

Mandalas can also be drawn or painted. Carl Gustav Jung (the psychoanalyst) drew mandalas representing his inner states, and encouraged his clients to do the same. Other Jungians also did this. Drawing a mandala can be a very satisfying experience – it doesn’t have to be great art; it’s the process of creating a picture of your inner world that is important. You can also make mandalas from seeds, pebbles or shells. 

Once you have created your mandala, you can use it as a focus for meditation, following the patterns you have created, or meditating on the meaning of the symbols within the mandala. In Buddhism, sand mandalas are deliberately made to be impermanent, and the sand is swept up and offered to a nearby river.


 

(This post was originally published on UK Spirituality.)


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