Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Japan, after the news

Last week it was Japan, this week it seems Libya has largely come to dominate the news agenda. Yet even as the camera crews set off for North Africa chasing the latest catastrophe, the death toll in Japan continues to rise - to now more than 21,000 while 180 technicians take huge risks to fight a nuclear melt down.

Rev Sam Trumbore has published the following prayer:

Let our thoughts, prayers and good wishes
move half way around the world to the people of Japan.
To those shivering in makeshift camps
sifting through the debris
for the shards of their shattered lives
wiped away by a wall of sea water.
To those grieving lost family members and friends
lost sources of livelihood and sustenance and
lost accumulated wealth and comfort.
To those stricken with terror,
re-traumatized with each aftershock and
frightened by each fire and release of radioactive steam
at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.
May the world rally to their aid
as they begin to pick up the pieces.
May efforts to stabilize the Fukushima plant be successful.
May each community rally for mutual support
as they begin to rebuild their lives,
and make peace with their losses.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Spring Equinox

Spring Equinox is a festival of balance, as day and night are equal (but after this the days get longer). It’s also the time when the coming of Spring is really becoming apparent.

According to Bede, the ancient Germanic pagans honoured a goddess called Eostre or Ostara who was associated with hares and the Moon and eggs; however there is no reference to this goddess in any other text.

Although Spring Equinox is about the balance between darkness and light, with the light in the ascendancy, an important point about Pagan symbolism is that darkness is not seen as negative, but as a time of rest and renewal and refreshment before the return of daylight. Some people use darkness as a metaphor for ignorance and evil. That symbolism has no place in Pagan ritual.

In Wicca, darkness does not symbolise evil. The darkness is necessary for rest, growth, and regeneration. Death is not evil, but a necessary adjunct to life. If there was no death and dissolution, there could be no change or growth. The cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth is part of the interaction of the polarities. Suffering is also part of the process of growth; just as a tree is shaped by the wind, we are shaped by our experiences. It is only by experiencing suffering that we acquire sufficient depth to know the fullness of joy. It is then that the full light of consciousness dawns in us, and we achieve mystical communion with the divine.

Spring Equinox can be celebrated by a tug-of-war between two teams representing the darkness and the light, or by Easter-egg hunts, or by painting eggs.

Friday, 18 March 2011


Visualisation is a practice used by many Pagans to explore and transform the inner self. It is derived from the Kabbalistic practice of pathworking (visualising the pathways on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life). Visualising can develop the imagination and be relaxing and gently energising.

Here's an example of a visualisation:

The sea shell (by Yvonne Aburrow)
Start from a high tower in an upper room. Descend ten steps. Walk down the hill on which the tower stands, along a track down to a round cove, where rocky outcrops enclose a calm stretch of water and a smooth slope of sand, and a stream runs down the beach to the sea. Walk to the edge of the sea (you can paddle or dive in, whatever you like) and find something which is meant for you under the water (could be a shell or a pebble, or whatever). When you are ready, return to the shore.

Now it is time to return back up the slope, through the fields to the door by which you entered. Retrace your steps up to the door, open it and close it behind you. You can lock it if you want. Then climb back up the steps, and return to the space in which you are sitting.

(This visualisation is good for preceding a story-in-the-round or other storytelling activity, as it symbolises accessing the subconscious.)

Other ideas for visualisations

  • Some of the meditations and prayers available from the Unitarian Universalist Worship Web
  • Pagan themes: the eight festivals, the four elements, stories from mythology
  • Stories and poems from other spiritual traditions, especially Sufism and Taoism
  • Some of the parables of Jesus would make excellent visualisations (e.g. the pearl of great price, the mustard seed, the parable of the seeds)
  • Themes from Jungian psychology – e.g. different archetypes

Safe visualisation practice
  • Create sacred space – light a chalice, say a prayer, create a sacred circle, or whatever you feel is appropriate
  • Do not visualise yourself leaving your body
  • If you do any inner work with the emotions, have a trusted friend or group who can pick up the pieces if it becomes distressing
  • Eat afterwards in order to ground yourself
  • If you open your chakras, close them again (all except for the crown and base)
  • It’s best to use simple visualisations that can be memorised, rather than using a tape. If you buy tapes, first listen to them all the way through without visualising to check you are happy with them.
  • Work out what the purpose of your visualisation is before you start.
  • Don’t take part if you feel uncomfortable with the person leading the visualisation – your instinct is probably correct.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Centring prayer

Many people do not believe in a personal God or in miraculous interventions, so we find it difficult to pray. But prayer is not just about asking for things. It can be contemplative. It can be about communing silently with the universe, or self-examination, or holding loved ones in your thoughts, or increasing mindfulness.

Centring prayer is a spiritual practice that was developed by Christians in response to interfaith dialogue with Buddhists.

The practice involves choosing a word that expresses a positive quality of the Divine (whatever you conceive that to be), such as love, peace, joy, silence, creativity.

Take a moment to decide what this quality means for you; now hold the word, or an image that represents it for you, in your mind and in your heart. Just focus on that concept; don’t worry if your mind drifts off – don’t follow the train of thought, just bring your mind gently back to the concept.

As you breathe in and out, you can say the word silently to yourself, trying to experience the quality it describes.

Ideally, the prayer will reach the point where you are not engaged in their thoughts as they arrive on your stream of consciousness.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Loving kindness meditation

Many Buddhist traditions practice Metta Bhavana, or loving kindness meditation. (Metta means loving-kindness.)

The way I do it is as follows.

The meditation is in several stages (the classic version has five). At each stage I silently recite a mantra, linked to the breath. The first line is said on the inbreath, the second on the outbreath, and so on.

May you be happy
May you be well
May you be safe
  and free from injury
May you be filled
  with loving kindness.

This is a shortened version of the full mantra, and therefore easier to remember.

The first stage of the meditation is to wish yourself loving kindness (so the mantra is "May I be be happy, may I be well..." etc).

The second stage is to wish loving kindness to someone you love.

The third stage is to wish it for someone you like.

The third stage is to wish it to someone you are neutral towards.

The fourth stage is to wish it to someone you dislike, or who has hurt you. (Don't start this one by trying the most difficult person in your life, as it can be quite painful - start small and work upwards.)

The fifth stage is to wish loving kindness to a small group such as your immediate circle of friends (or you can imagine the previous four people together in a group).

The sixth stage is to wish loving kindness to your immediate community (place of work, spiritual community or neighbourhood). At this stage I send loving kindness to Wiccans and Unitarians everywhere.

The seventh stage is to wish loving kindness to everyone on the planet.

The eighth stage is to wish it to all sentient beings.

The benefits of this meditation are manifold. It is very calming and soothing; it allows you to focus on your breath, and relax into feelings of loving kindness and safety; it helps you to feel connected to all beings, and to expand your imaginative sympathy to encompass them; and it helps you to overcome negative feelings towards people you dislike, which can really improve your relationship with them, and help you to forgive them. It also has beneficial effects on the brain, as it has been shown to reduce the "fight or flight" instinct in situations where it is not needed.