It has been six lunar months since I did my final evaluation as part of my yoga teacher training. It was the full moon at the height of spring, and all of the songs on my playlist had to do with things in full bloom, especially roses. This even included such tonally disparate selections as Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose”, and A Perfect Circle’s “Rose”. [I turned the volume way down, after realizing that I am not my teacher who stitches together all manner of soundscapes until I feel like I’m in a Baz Luhrmann film, as shifting emotional tones overtake the room and pass over my face like masks, until I become acquainted with the awareness that underlies all transitory states of thought and feeling. I turned down the volume because it feels more comfortable for me to teach yoga or anything else when I can take a lot of cues for pacing, pausing, and minor adjustments to the curricular plan from the students – their energetic vibe, areas of curiosity, level of engagement/disengagement].
Back in May I themed my 25-minute evaluation class on the full moon in Scorpio, which can serve as a reminder during the height of the spring season, when all is in bloom and the earth is verdant and colorful, that many underground, unseen processes of decay, death, and regeneration have resulted in the visible beauty of springtime. I translated this into a meditation on the body, on all the hidden rituals of dissolution and reconstitution of resources our organs perform every day, in each moment, by their own will, to sustain our lives. I didn’t have time for it, but was tempted to weave in a mythological theme: each spring the maiden Persephone returns to the home of her mother Demeter, the goddess of growing things, after spending three months, or half the year with her husband Hades, Lord of the Underworld.
And each fall she dies, and her mother takes away the light.
Today the full moon is in Taurus, and for the past couple of days in the fullness of the season when the light is waning, I chose to honor the visible and the readily available. I chose to hearten myself, to nourish my body, to appreciate those who surround me, in the following ways:
Sitting in the foggy morning quiet and foregoing the normal vigorous movement routine.
Baking rich autumnal foods: a stilton tart, and spiced butternut squash loaf.
Taking the time to appreciate my colleagues for their craft.
Eating delicious Sichuan food with old friends and speaking about all manner of trivial and consequential topics.
Watching Joni Mitchell performances on Youtube with my dad and talking and laughing about the peculiarities of the artists we know and love.
Hanging out with the cat.
Writing a poem.
What’s your way of honoring that which is visible and present for you, including perhaps some difficult, previously hidden things which circumstances have dredged up and dragged out into the light?
Here’s to spiced butternut squash loaf!
Here’s to Stitlon, butternut squash, and quince paste tart!
Here’s to Sichuan food, especially Dan Dan Noodles (top right)!
A poem for the full moon, for the body: In Situ
And finally I’ll share what I wrote today, inspired by exploration of relationships between the body’s outer and inner forms. Because we also have a retrograde Mercury in Scorpio, the inner forms ought to be remembered too…
in tired steps to fill the invisible scaffolding
of a slim and pointed spire
so that all her cells stand
to emulate the reach of her fingertips
clamoring silently for skies ready
On her knees
in fragile angularity, like brittle bones
of deer’s knees
meeting wretched ground
forgets its feet
when she tries to make it smaller
and folds herself in half
and avoids looking downward
but anyway, her eyes shift there.
Her pupils twist themselves around and pierce
flesh beneath her navel
swelling like heady summer air
that fills the empty nights
with floating lightning bugs and
She folds herself up and eats half
And drinks half
And nourishes the half that has been good today,
while the other beckons like the waiting night,
the deep forest beyond the
guardrails edging the road.
And still she looks, until her probing pupils widen
Why not rise early, when it is still dark, to read a few lines of something that cradles, calms, delights, or even perturbs you? Why not write a few lines of your own, and regale yourself with contemplative musings, the beginnings of tales that flicker like firelight in the dark cold potential of the day unbirthed, a potential that seethes unseen, like magma, a day waiting to be born under the waning light of a sun in Scorpio?
These are the questions I ask myself when I want to stay in bed a few more minutes, but know that it will be ultimately more fulfilling to begin the day with some form of movement, contemplation, shifting things around in the shadows.
Scorpio is the purveyor of things hidden, and secret, and clandestine. The wielder of latent powers that churn the depths of the earth and generate new life out of the husks of old.
Here are some recent reflections on how this theme has expressed itself to me of late.
Astrology’s Scorpionic Renaissance
Despite my record of astrologically themed blog posts, my interest in astrology is something I’ve been ambivalent about sharing since I first began to study it when I was about ten years old, around the same time as I discovered Greco-Roman mythology, my great love and medicine. Astrology was one of those pursuits to study in the pre-sunrise, late night, hidden hours, because I received early messages that it was at worst creepy and demonic, and at best silly and small-minded.
My friends’ mothers, my teachers’ wives, those were the ones whom I was often told were interested in astrology when I was young; all the women about whom I could say, “I know of her, but I do not know her”. Those whose names rang like reference points in my mind well before I met them, after such a long time of mutual friends ensuring that our shared, secret interests would result in an enviable intimacy.
I did meet some of these rare, astrologically-inclined people in passing. Many of them had other primary, but still complementary pursuits: tarot, metalworking, psychoanalysis, painting. And similarly for me, astrology was a longstanding interest I kept close at hand wherever I went. I studied psychological astrology in California, then moved to the UK for graduate school and took a foundational course at the London School of Astrology, a course that combined the more popular techniques of birth chart reading and forecasting with branches as old and esoteric as horary astrology (the one that allows you to find that pair of keys you lost under the floorboards of your ex-wife’s house) and as nascent as astrocartography, which casts a new birth chart for you wherever you find yourself in the world. I have studied, I have read charts for others, and very recently I published my first astrological article, a piece on the astrological evolution of MTV as a network and a cultural entity in a volume, The Book of Music Horoscopes, edited by Frank Clifford, a great mentor of mine.
One of the first astrology books I worked with as a pre-teen…
And now things have evolved, and among young people especially there seems to be a certain expectation of a base level of astrological literacy that stretches from personality profiling to behavioral adaptation on the basis of New Moons and Mercury retrogrades. Popular attitudes toward these two elements in particular expose the very human vacillation between the belief in the capacity of the individual to harness the power of the cosmos and “find the flow” with mere intentionality (expressed by making a vision board, journaling, or shouting into the void “It will be so!”), and the belief that there is nothing to do but surrender to cosmic forces which are more powerful than we are.
A recent New York Times article acknowledged the shift toward astrology, and other pursuits in self-awareness, self-development, and self-actualization (such as various practices associated with the psychedelic renaissance) used as language to communicate human experience, and modes of self-healing. The article centers on the pressures therapists are currently encountering to become fluent in this parlance in order to witness their clients’ experiences, rather than to voice encouragement or discouragement.
The shop where I bought my first astrology books, which used to be minded by older women dressed in voluminous earth-toned draperies is now run by young people, with no apparent predominance of gender expression, whose wardrobe does not clearly read “New-Age”.
So perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, but it seems, at least in mainstream Californian culture, astrology no longer inhabits the dubious realm of the “occult”, and voicing one’s impressions of astrological phenomena is not perceived as a sinister deed, or, at its most benign, a wishy-washy practice for gullible and inconsequential minds.
Astrology seems to be doing the true Scorpionic thing of emerging, refortified and reformed out of the shadows.
Astrology is like folklore, an old, non-linear language for understanding humanness that goes in and out of fashion, but always manages to survive social pressures to go into hiding. The archetypal metaphors astrology uses offer (like folklore again) interpretations and aetiologies, points of origin for those goading questions of why, when each subsequent generation is just a bit more knowledgeable of compassion, moral behavior, environmentalism, diversity appreciation, kindness, hospitality, ingenuity, grace, and the arts of living honorably, generously, and conscientiously, we individually and collectively struggle to enact these lessons, and still manage to do ourselves and others harm sometimes.
Scorpio is in the sign of katabasis, the journey to the Underworld for a meeting with a departed mentor, a requisite part of the heroic journey. Scorpio reminds us that the greatest stories bury wisdom in the shadow realms, which for us might look like the painful recognition of shame and guilt and anger and limb-slackening grief and self-betrayal and irrationality and fear of our own irrationality.
But these aspects also help us to contextualize the gifts, the triumphs, the strengths, the redemptive potential that lies beyond the mistakes we are bound to make. The bond into which we entered when our consciousness took human form.
Adventures in Scorpionic healing with (what else?) crystal singing bowls
I went to a yoga class on the night of the New Moon in Scorpio. The class featured a sound bath of crystal singing bowls played by a teacher who invited meditations on death, grief, and regeneration of the decayed in new forms. I do not know whether it was this conceptual set-up that resulted in the following experience, or if it was the singing bowls themselves.
Prior to the sound bath our teacher led us through a slow movement practice. She spoke with a measure of conviction and spiritedness that I somehow found reminiscent of a sea captain leading an exploratory voyage. Yet, for me, there was something disturbingly opaque about where we were headed, the lessons I was supposed to be learning. The greying twilight pressing in on the windows and the rapidly cooling air had me feeling as if we were sailing through a thick fog, with only our breath and our teacher’s clear, bright voice to signal any forward movement.
Near the end of the class, after the light had faded completely, she wound her mallet around the rims of the crystal bowls, and their dull ringing struck eerie, creeping waves in the air that sought my organs and plied them with searching sonic fingers. People in the class started coughing. I could hear doors slamming in the neighboring businesses as the proprietors left. All of the sounds rang violent, far too loud and sudden, a dissonant, erratic jarring against the consistent thrumming of the bowls, whose wavelike intonations I did not quite trust.
Until my teacher sang along, in a low, rich, humming. And then my throat rapidly swelled and threatened to burst and tears filled my eyes. Suddenly I envisioned a lonely, sinuous throbbing thing, a conscious entity without eyes or nose or ears, but keenly sensate, encased in weblike, glistening strands and suspended in the dark, and it might have been my heart. It might have been my life, unseen by anyone but me. Life, simply felt, so intimately and in such solitude that it seems ugly, grotesque, and shameful, but unapologetically so.
She sang, and the beauty of her voice, blended with her crystalline companions in that preternatural harmony, struck me deeply. I found myself clinging to life, to the splendour of hearing, and feeling the sound waves seep into the subdermal parts of myself that felt as distant and as essential as the core of the earth.
I thought crystal bowl sound baths were supposed to be relaxing. But in the foggy, uncharted currents of consciousness which we sailed, our captain had asked us (in words other than the following, by which I am taxing this metaphor beyond its reasonable limits) to scatter to the grey waves the burned-out aspects of ourselves and our external circumstances we could acknowledge had died for us this year, signalling our readiness to release them into the hands of Nature, Venus Genetrix, the resourceful mistress of reformulating the dead into the living.
Crystal bowls are apparently taking the place of Tibetan metal singing bowls in yoga classes. I found a recent Yoga Journal article, wherein makers of crystal bowls claim that these bowls more effectively facilitate the penetration (a word used more than once in this article) of our bodies with sound waves because our bones have a crystalline, as opposed to a metallic structure. Thus, crystal bowls made in Colorado are more healing, more attuned to the human body, than Tibetan prayer bowls. I suspect a case of cultural supersessionism. But maybe this is merely because I could not handle the penetrative healing of the crystal bowls.
Scorpio season: Learning the art of living
Indeed, Scorpio season is a good time to pause in our onward striving, all our work toward future manifestation, to acknowledge the opacity of loss, in terms of the unknown changes it will bring, and the questions, grief, and anxieties it conjures and will never satisfy. The uncanny ways in which loss points to life, goads us with a kind of urgency to live, to attend the wake after the burial.
A year ago I went to a women’s ceremony in celebration of Samhain, the new year in the Celtic tradition, also the time when (as in many other traditions) the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest, when we pause to consider the fragility, but the insistent vigor of life as we light candles in the darkness for Samhain, for Día de los Muertos, for Diwali. In a meditation exercise in this ceremony we were invited to consider how we would live if we knew we only has six months. One month. One week.
When the dead leaves seek the earth, it is natural, I suppose, to contemplate these things, to find a space to sit with them in community, to honor their weight without bearing it alone, to find compassion for the uncomfortable, inconsolable depths within us all, to tell stories in the dark that can be cauldrons for all the stewing passions, griefs, and wiles that are big and timeless, and paradoxically, can reside in one body, in one heart.
And to speak in the language of astrology, which continues to rise out of the depths of the “occult”…
At this time of year, I have been rising early, when it is still dark, to move, to feel my muscles stretch and strive and ache, to feel my lungs expand, my toes flatten themselves against the floor, in honor of those who cannot rise in their bodies anymore. To read and to write a little, to delight in my ability to experience thought, mere consciousness, abilities that we have for such precious time as we live.
But in the interest of emotional equilibrium maybe I’ll give the crystal bowls a decent berth…
Good questions for Scorpio season:
What inner processes of transformation am I undergoing?
This year, what has come to a natural, or an unnatural close? Can I bear compassionate witness to my experience of this loss, in my body, and in my heart?
What sources of wisdom have I encountered in the midst of the toughest challenges I have faced in the past year?
Where does my way feel constricted, my view occluded? Can I wait out the uncertainty until the shadows start to shift and some truth, previously unnoticed, is revealed?
How can I honor my ancestors? What qualities do I see in them, and in their stories that inspire me deeply?
How might I conduct myself differently when I envision myself as an ancestor, a forerunner of future lives?
And on a slightly lighter level…
What are my favorite folktales, myths, or scary stories to tell in the autumnal season? What aspects of them speak to my experience?
One of my favorites was always The Ghost-Eye Tree, by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault, a children’s book whose premise involves a brother and a sister traveling on a last-minute errand to fetch milk for their mother. They must walk to the dairy farmer after dark, and halfway along the road they must pass an old, said-to-be-haunted oak tree, called the Ghost-Eye Tree. The boy narrator of the book tells his reader,
“One dark and windy autumn night when the sun had long gone down, Mama asked my sister and me to take the road to the end of the town to get a bucket of milk. Oooo . . . I dreaded to go . . . I dreaded the tree . . . Why does Mama always choose me when the night is so dark and the mind runs free?”
I love the story because the tree must be suffered, halfway along the path to light and safety, on the way there and back. The boy has a talisman, a hat, which he wears to make him look tough (to himself, really), until the wind takes it and his sister has to run back to find it on the “haunted ground” at the foot of the Ghost Eye Tree. She survives the solo trip for the hat, and chastises her brother for his fearfulness.
When the night is so dark and the mind runs free…
Reminds me of when I was a kid and feared the darkness. I would fall asleep listening to the radio, my talisman of sorts, because I felt comforted by the live broadcast, the knowledge that a DJ was awake and at work, and whose presence over the radio waves could somehow ward off the absorption of the darkness that scared me so much.
I love tales that draw attention to the fearsome stories our minds fashion, stories that illuminate the fragility of the monsters as well as the talismans that ward them off.
Lots to harvest and to steep in contemplative silence this time of year.
I had said that I would blog my experiences of my first 200-hour yoga teacher training in California throughout, that I would chronicle in glorious detail the dance with the Dionysian, serpentine parts of myself in real time, as they made themselves known to me during the inevitable threshold-crossings, revelations and openings of the heart that occurred in the course of the training.
And now, six months after that initial promise, I am back in the UK, writing my first little series of reflections on this blog.
Perhaps this is not surprising. The wealth of teachings, conversations, movement workshops, musical rhapsodies, ecstatic silences, beatitudes, and agonies I would encounter every week of the training were a lived experience, my impressions of which often resisted immediate recording in words, or when recorded, felt too fragile to be revealed on a public platform.
The integration of some practices encountered in the training will take considerable time.
Overall, I derived an excellent foundation of the nuts-and-bolts knowledge of alignment, anatomy, sequencing of a yoga class, and the major philosophical schools and history of the practice. Every week I taught fellow trainees, friends, and family members. I took lots of notes, in the teacher training sessions and in yoga classes I would attend outside of those sessions. Minutes after a class I would plant myself in the café around the corner and record as much of the sequence as I could remember, including cues and thematic talking points. Then I would write a report of what worked well, as far as I was concerned, in terms of pacing, sequencing, safety, music, and theme. Some days this process would take hours.
Many of the things I learned constitute a personal curriculum of lessons I fancied sharing here. The following, in haphazard order, are the essentials I have derived from the many teaching techniques, stories, songs, wise one-liners, challenges, and other sources of comforting and confronting lessons I absorbed during the training. These will no doubt change as my practice evolves, and I am certain that even my recollections of the insights gained in the training will shift as life continues to inform them…
A forearm balance is called pincha mayurasana in Sanskrit, and shortly after the training ended I managed, with kick after hesitant kick up to the elusive wall in front of me, to integrate that inversion into my practice after thinking of it as a posture “off-limits” to me for my fear of falling on my face.
Proprioception, the perception of the body’s movement in space, is a key area of development in a yoga practice, in addition to strength and flexibility. For instance, sure, you can bring yourself into wheel pose, but can you work the adductors of your pinky toe without moving your other toes? So many adventures in fine motor skills to be had!
The physical and subtle bodies store memories, traumas, remedies, stories, images, and quiet spaciousness, and the practice of yoga joins the practitioner in compassionate relationship with the experience of embodied centers of wisdom.
I can accept that visceral insight and instinctual wisdom will not always satisfy my mind’s definition of what is rational or comprehensible.
The mind, like Hesiod’s Muse he invokes at the beginning of the Theogony, is a brilliant, time-honored teller of truths and untruths. It can be loved and accepted as a part of a person, even with its fabrication of illusions and areas of ignorance and misperception (avidyas).
A commitment to a personal daily yoga practice is essential for a committed teacher to uphold, for continuous work on oneself through a regular process of svadhyaya (self-study) experienced through postural practice, meditation, and breathing exercises will inform one’s teaching holistically.
7. A good teacher will use intelligent sequencing (with modifications and alternative poses for injuries and differently abled bodies), to forge a sequencing path that is sustainable and focuses on specific muscle groups/areas of connective tissue (hip/shoulder/chest/hamstrings) to prepare students for a “peak pose” that succeeds the final preparatory pose in a natural step, not a giant leap, of challenge and focused attention.
8. Though sometimes a good leap of faith – for instance, the momentum for the transition from a high lunge to a warrior 3 – is well-cued in a yoga class.
9. Music (or silence) can be a powerful way to support students’ development of embodied awareness and self-inquiry. But music also consequentially influences mood, and can inhibit students’ organic connection with their emotions and bodily sensations, so care must be taken in compiling a playlist that supports, rather than defines the students’ practice.
10. I love teaching because I love supporting people in their practice, and allowing time for students to explore intuitive movement within postures and make the practice their own.
11. When I become nervous in my yoga teaching, my instinct is to ground myself, and to read the room. I can readily work off-script (away from the written sequence). I can prioritize maintaining a safe container for students in my class to foster their unique experiences of the practice.
12. My fellow trainees, in their courage, integrity, kindness, support, humility, and inspiring consistency in showing up every week for all the challenges with which the training presented us, taught me time and time again that each person’s yoga is his/her/their yoga. Their work. Their struggle. Their experience of union. Their peace.
13. Guru is often translated as “the one who removes darkness”. I find it useful to understand that the guru can come in many forms: a friend; a teacher; a sunset; a painting; an article of clothing discarded on the sidewalk that alerts you to the literal and behavioral costumes you assume and discard from situation to situation, and makes you curious about what is being adorned; the tree branches, the blades of grass, and the strands of your hair that weave themselves into the fabric of the wind and remind you of interconnectedness at the times when you feel the greatest loneliness and separation; when you catch a stranger’s eye and notice the engage of the simple, consequential message “I see you”; the act of grace that sets things in motion just when you were about to give up.
14. The teachers/authors encountered in the training who inspired me include Lal Ded, T.K.V. Desikachar, Ramana Maharshi, Sally Kempton, Byron Katie, Adyashanti, and Neem Karoli Baba (as transmitted by Ram Dass). The ones who got under my skin are Michael Singer and Jed McKenna/whoever he really is (for the paternalistic tone and contempt for the mind I found prominent in their writing, and for the latter’s anonymity, which I know has a spiritual basis but also conveniently releases him from engaging in critical dialogue about his ideas with students, who take to Reddit to make heads, tails, and innumerable other appendages of his writings…).
15. The ethical principles of yoga, the yamas and the niyamas, are rarely introduced comprehensively in contemporary vinyasa flow classes, yet they comprise the first two of the eight limbs of yoga, found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the foundational texts of yoga philosophy. My teacher Luca taught me by her example the grace of weaving these principles mindfully, humbly, and lovingly into a yoga class, and into the fabric of community.
16. Physical posture (asana) is only one of the eight limbs of yoga in the Yoga Sutras. Posture work, and the outward appearance of postures we often see on Insta and other repositories of “ideal” – and idolized – “yoga bodies”, is by itself not necessarily an accurate representation of a person’s yoga practice. My anatomy teacher Kendall inspired me to appreciate and respect the diversity of bodies in a yoga class, and my own body. From her I learned that my spine’s flexibility is not “something I need to work on”, but is determined by the inherent positioning of my spinous processes, and can be welcomed and accepted with joy in asana practice and in life.
17. The decision to acknowledge another person’s humanity, and the choice to perceive the luminosity of being that rests in the other person and reflects my own, is called namaste.
18. The unifying practice of namaste is only reinforced by creating clear, mutually understood boundaries in relationship that affirm each person’s safety and psychospiritual integrity.
19. The more of another’s joys, sufferings, grievances, loves, and fears I learn, the less defensive I become, and the more willing I am to surrender my judgements and open my heart to another person.
20. The facilitators and trainees who surrounded me in the teacher training over that four-month period were the very teachers I needed, the ones who could show me how to unbind the parts of myself I had held hostage and starved of value, and how to meet them when they raged.
21. I can accept the periods of loneliness and fellowship, community and isolation that add texture to a practice, to a life.
22. I have a sense of humor, a resourcefulness, an intellect, and a strength of character that are ready to make themselves of service to the world when I choose to value them.
23. In my experience, resistance stretching exercises (contracting the muscle as you stretch it) can do a world of good for relieving sticky connective tissue, excessive mental rumination, and emotional quagmires, and are a delightful gift to share with yourself, or a friend or two.
24. It is a good idea to breathe in the sweet scent of fresh jasmine, or good essential oil blends and let the fragrance open windows in the mind.
25. It is a good idea to breathe and move, in that order.
26. Do “play your edge” in asana (postural) practice, i.e. find the limits of your comfort zone and consciously open yourself to the opportunity for expanding them. This requires staying present amidst boredom, the desire to check out/dissociate, and perhaps intense sensation, but coming out of the posture if there is pain in order to avoid physical injury.
27. Do NOT play your edge in pranayama (breath control) practice. Forcing the breath (especially in breath retention exercises) when there is discomfort can cause physical and psychological injury and trauma. If there is any anxiety or discomfort met in pranayama practice, drop the practice and pick it up again from a relaxed and grounded space. Do right by yourself, if that means releasing the breath when the teacher instructs you to hold it, or abstaining from kapalabhati or other vigorous breathing practices if it feels taxing and unsustainable.
28. Each day, and each shape and breath we take brings the occasion for acknowledging the roses, thorns, buds, and withered petals: the gifts, the wounds, the burgeoning adventures, the bygone things that fall in their natural way. Do not stop the petals from falling, for that is an affront to death; nor cut away the growth before it has had a good chance to thrive, for that is an affront to life.
29. Why do we twist? As my teacher Eddie demonstrated for us, props and all, with his accustomed ebullience in our final session with him, it is easier to drain water from a saturated sponge by wringing it out rather than pressing it in between the hands. Hence, we twist. We move laterally, frontwards, backwards, upside down. We stay still. We harness the breath, we play loud music, we pound the floor with our feet and our fists, we trampoline, we slide across floors and up walls. We draw and journal. We scream. We cry. We ask for help when we need it. We teach in the way we know how. We give the knowledge and resources that are ours to give. We feed each other. We give hugs when they are welcome. We deepen the twist. It is from this place where we can ask the difficult questions of ourselves, and prepare to make the tough decisions, to have the tough conversations. All to wring out what keeps us feeling paralyzed and powerless to connect authentically with ourselves and others. So many associated lessons stemmed from that symbol that we each received a sponge in addition to our training certificate, a talisman for the road ahead.
30. Savasana, corpse pose, is “the ultimate peak pose”, as my teacher Cynthia once elucidated with resonant conviction. Indeed, it is the end and the beginning, the pose that teaches yoga in the oldest way, through total relaxation of muscular tension, mental attachments, and conscious control over the breath. Yoga in the oldest way, in the practice of dying to everything that keeps us from resting in the essence of ourselves. In total awareness. In noticing what we notice, as Cynthia would say. In expanding the awareness to claim all the complex, contradictory human pieces that lie within us, that we use to navigate our world until the moment when we don’t. In appreciating the fact that awareness pervades the pose of death, and is thus a celebration of, and a union with life.
Savasana teaches yoga in the oldest way, for, if we take as a reference point the boon of yogic knowledge given to the boy Nachiketa by Yama, Lord of Death in the Katha Upanishad, an early textual treatment of yoga that far predates the Sutras, the first yoga teacher was Death.
The first time I travelled to the UK, as a 16-year-old in 2004, it was the 4th of July. Tickets were cheap for that date, as many travellers anticipated another attack, a follow-up to 9/11 on a date significant to Americans, and generally avoided flying to or from the US on Independence Day. I do not remember harboring a tremendous amount of anxiety about this; rather, a secret amusement surrounding the irony that I was spending the anniversary of American independence travelling to the nation from which our ancestors had fought so hard to secure autonomous statehood.
Little did I know that in fewer than ten years following this initial trip I would come to the UK for graduate school and call this country my home for 7+ years.
The New Moon in Cancer is born out of the womb of itself, as the Moon is Cancer’s ruling planet. This year, if you happened to be in the South Pacific or parts of South America, you might have seen the New Moon, usually invisible at this stage in its cycle due to its proximity to the sun from our vantage point, directly pass over the sun in a solar eclipse.
This New Moon in eclipse will not be invisible. It will not be ignored. It calls you home, to revisit that place, that community, or that internal set of circumstances that allow you to feel safe, nurtured, valued, rejuvenated, and connected to the ancestors, the roots of your being. To honor the wisdom of your body, the most immediate physical home that contains you.
Whenever I am not feeling very much at home in my external circumstances, I come back to my yoga practice, my mindfulness practice, the practices of dance and song and braiding my hair and walking outside to feel the grass underfoot, the mindful practices of inhabiting my body.
I went back to my hometown in California to do my first 200-hour yoga teacher training, around the time when the New Moon was in Capricorn and it was time for conscious goal-setting, for dedicating myself to the climb, placing myself at the mercy of the rocky wilderness to achieve a goal, the procurement of a qualification of teaching in yoga, in movement that I can use in my working life. And boy, was the trail rocky at times. I found splendour and calm. I found the wickedest parts of myself. I found the teachers I needed. I trusted and mistrusted them and trusted and mistrusted myself time and time again, and vacillated between meekness and assertiveness, and defended some of my crude, uncharitable ways of perceiving myself and others with brutal, unpitying rationality. And then I would release these convictions and breathe into parts of my body from which I had dissociated, and I allowed the problems in my mind, all the contradictions in myself and in the teachings I had been trying to resolve to unstick themselves.
By the end of the training I felt a burgeoning strength within myself, a vigor that I had not felt in years. I felt like I had a place in the community, both at the studio and among friends and family old and new, a place as an adult in the city of my birth. I did home improvement work on the house I grew up in. I resumed my lectureship at the university where I had completed my undergraduate degree, working alongside my former teachers as a colleague. I taught yoga to the graduate students in the department. I supported my mom’s recovery from major surgery. I felt like I was of service from start to finish, within and beyond the training. It felt right and providential.
It felt Hesiodic, like the life of the proverbial farmer in the 8th/7th-century BCE Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days, the farmer who knows the people with whom he shares his village and knows his place within it. It felt like the full spectrum of my humanity could find itself reflected in the experiences of that city and the people and the ocean and the hillsides that I had seen in the past year undergo death and devastation, literal fires and floods, and emerge resilient and self-sustaining. This is the place where I could live and die and decompose and come back as wild mustard.
Bindweed: The roots of ourselves, the roots of our stories
When I returned to the UK, my affect shifted into uncertainty and rootlessness, as the voice of self-talk that I had just taught to draw its material from a deep well of insight began to stammer, and a psychic fog settled in.
But when I do embodied meditations, and when I write, it begins to clear.
This is the place where I have lived, loved, learned, tried and tested myself, met rejection upon rejection and still struck gold, until I didn’t, and then I decided to write a book on women in Greek tragedy, and found that in their company I could no longer hold myself in the combined shape of measured cleverness, poise, and the caricature of Californian hippie sensibilities I had learned to manifest because it was wishy-washy, non-threatening, and cute.
But the tales of tragic women, all their transgressive, violent acts of desperation to reclaim their agency in their lives fly with leathery, infernal wings in the face of cuteness. They demand our awakening to the diminished parts of ourselves that need to be witnessed and integrated, given a voice early enough so that they can use their powers for healing rather than destruction. The tragic women demand you look at the things hiding in the shadows you cast over them. All the stuff that looms bigger the longer it’s left alone.
In the yoga teacher training, it was taken for granted that we had all been relegating tender parts of ourselves to the shadows, had created a hulking repository of psychic stuff. My stuff just intermingled with everyone else’s stuff, and we could grieve and laugh, or do a movement practice and jostle these awkward pieces around inside our bodies that were gracious enough to hold them without judgement. I felt that I could begin to illuminate this stuff, untangle it, make friends with it. I started to talk about this process, and how the tragic women for me, and perhaps for others are the knowers and the keepers of the stuff, and people listened.
Then I went back to the UK, and I stopped talking, because I felt for the container and couldn’t find it. Instead I got caught up with visions of stunted growing things, exposed roots with remnants of dark earth beginning to dry up around them. The day after I returned to Oxford, I was walking into Christ Church Meadows and several people passing commented on the state of an old willow tree. “That willow makes me so sad. Why did they do that to it?” “I know, couldn’t they have left it alone?” And another, wielding typical British sarcasm, “Well, one of the College dons has a better view now – that’s what’s important”.
I looked around to view the willow, a quiet witness of those passing from the street into the Meadows. Its upper branches had been cut. I cried, as I did later when my husband began to uproot the ivy in the back garden. I asked him what he wanted to grow instead, and he said, “Wildflowers”. I stayed my mind that chomped at the bit to weave interpretations of the prospect of replacing Dionysus’ plant with those the maiden Persephone was picking before the earth opened up and Death abducted her to be his bride.
We live in a world of meanings and projections, some of which are helpful and some not-so-helpful.
The willow may well have needed cutting due to disease, or circumstances other than the dons’ wishes for a wider view of the meadows. And as my googling has revealed, my husband’s instincts were in keeping with most gardeners’ approaches to what grows in our back garden: not ivy, but bindweed, a form of morning glory that according to the Royal Horticulture Society (“Inspiring everyone to grow”), “Twine[s] around other plant stems, smothering them in the process…These weeds are difficult to eradicate by cultural methods as their roots can extend deep into the soil”. Although the website says that the society does not endorse chemical methods of weed-killing, they tell you exactly how to use chemical weed-killers to get rid of bindweed. Not inspiring everyone to grow, then…
Those like me who have a tendency to see the world as a kind of Joseph Campbellesque jungle of story themes and archetypal encounters can catch ourselves in the bindweed of one interpretation that smothers all other readings of a situation. Yet sometimes we receive the guidance, the message we need to hear from these old stories, which have an eerie way of foretelling the cycles of behavior, relationship, and belief we hurtle through over and over again, often unconsciously. We can find truth and liberation in the telling, as well as falsity, just as our friend Hesiod insinuated at the beginning of his Theogony, his account of the genealogy of the gods.
The Muses can tell lies as well as the truth.
So, if we can avoid determinism and look to the New Moon in Cancer as a general thematic inspiration for contemplation of home and what it means for us, we can unleash innumerable, often contradictory associations, all of which strike us hard in the breast. They strike hard and close because they remind us of how we have lived the seasons of our lives and tended to the physical and emotional ground that sustains us.
Twin Homes: My associations with the New Moon
Before I left California to study at Oxford, back in 2011, I attended a seminar on world astrology with the great Rick Tarnas, and was experiencing the intensity of Pluto in Capricorn crossing over my Saturn/Uranus conjunction, a “vice-grip” (in Rick’s words) of urgent necessity to craft new institutional and cultural structures out of the remains of old, obsolete ones – something everyone born within a couple of years of me was undergoing. I told Rick of the feeling of scarcity (and its reflection in the wake of the Great Recession) that attended this transit through Capricorn, the sign that teaches us the art of resourcefulness, and that it reminded me of Hesiod’s insistence in his Works and Days that the resourcelessness, the amechanie (ἀμηχανίη) (WD, 496) be the farmer’s great teacher in the winter season, the season that is the proof of the efficacy of planning, sowing the seeds, harvesting the crops, storing them away, and shoring up one’s house against the elements.
And now Pluto, still in Capricorn, has passed in opposition over my Moon in Cancer, and propelled me into an arena of self-discovery and reconciliation of internal opposites, inconsistencies, and divisions that fostered me to draw from my well of emotional resources rather than rely on outside influences. And Saturn, the ruler of Capricorn is now opposing the Moon for the remainder of 2019. A call for buttoning down the hatches and waiting out the winter. A call for taking inventory of what I have stored away. A wintry chill in the heat of summer. A need for reckoning, acknowledgement of the consequences of my tendency to plant the seeds on one side of the ocean, and not come back in time to harvest them. The fruit ripened, dropped, and rotted away on the ground, and if I was lucky I could pluck the late ones. The consequences of splitting my energy between continents, of shadow side of the privilege of two beautiful, fulfilling places to call home.
Twin homes, two lives in two places. You can’t ride two horses with one hiny, as my mother would say.
And now for your example…
New Moon in Cancer: An exercise
So what is calling you home? How can you be fed and nurtured? How can you feed and nurture others? If your mind (thinking brain, pre-frontal cortex) is the first one to catapult ideas and stories into your consciousness, see if you can let that run its course before asking for other embodied perspectives in the following meditation.
One of the most valuable tools I learned in the teacher training was that significant wisdom lies in the solar-plexus, the “gut-brain”, containing over 100 million nerve cells. Known widely in popular culture as the seat of intuition and willpower, the scientific community (at Johns Hopkins medicine at least) acknowledges the gut’s significant capacity for intelligence, although the types of intelligence and mechanisms for delivering them are largely unknown and unstudied.
But in meditation practices working with the chakras (energy centers, associated with the Tantric branch of yogic philosophy) that are linked to areas of the body, and certainly in disciplines such as craniosacral therapy, you can look to your gut as well as other body parts, including the heart space, pelvis, throat, hip creases, and bones as places of knowing, and they have their own stories to tell.
But for this exercise I invite you to look to the gut and the heart space, parts of the body close to those associated with the sign of Cancer in the western zodiac, as places of insight into the question, What is calling me home?
Find a quiet space and a comfortable seat, where you can settle your sitting bones into the ground or a chair and you can extend your spine and the crown of your head toward the sky, stacking each vertebra on top of the one below.
Observe the natural flow of your breath, without altering it, just to arrive. Observe your mental and emotional landscape, as you would observe clouds crossing over the sky, without trying to change them. Maintain this gentle observation for 10 breaths.
Breathe into your belly, from the lower abdomen through the solar plexus. You can place your hands on your belly, side ribs, or lower back and feel the breath travel freely through these areas, drawing your awareness further inwards so that you can begin to hear the whispers of this wisdom region. What is calling me home? How can I be fed and nurtured? How can I feed and nurture others?
Now breathe into your heart space, your upper chest, placing your fingers at your collarbones and feeling your hands rise and fall with the breath. What is calling me home? How can I be fed and nurtured? How can I feed and nurture others?
Be patient and receptive, keep breathing, and wait for the answers to come. Be gentle with yourself, and drop the practice if it feels physically or emotionally untenable or overwhelming.
Write down the responses you get. Compare them. Be amazed, grateful, curious, underwhelmed, sad, anxious, inspired, angry – can you allow whatever emotions attend this exercise to be?
Then put what you have written aside, take a walk, feel the ground under your feet, listen to the soundscape that surrounds you, to integrate the knowledge gained. And thank all of yourself for navigating some of these hidden, labyrinthine paths to inner guidance.
Remember that this exercise in itself is a form of homecoming.
Or, a suspension of the gripping of the bindweed of interpretations in which we might find ourselves caught through reliance on one knowledge center for guidance.
Or even (pardon the tenuous link here) a “declaration of independence” from the influence of narratives that no longer serve.
Wherever you are called home, near or far, let the knowledge of it serve you well today and this month!
 The breasts, pectoral muscles, stomach, and womb are associated with Cancer.
As a result of conscious goal-setting processes I outlined in my previous post, I have arrived back in California to do my first yoga teacher training (!) at the studio that helped catalyze the deepening of my practice while I was teaching undergraduate courses in Classics.
Many other yoga practitioners use vocabulary similar to this – deepening the practice, finding Being, the natural state, self-awareness, making the inner journey, softening your edges, transforming – and personally if I hear enough of it, or even speak enough of it myself, I find it can sometimes sound hollow. But representations in language do not necessarily equal the majesty or the extraordinary subtleties of the thing itself.
I have been studying ancient Mediterranean languages for a long time, and have encountered a number of challenges, delights, and mysteries in the process of translation from one language (and the window on the world represented therein) to another. But nowhere have I found a more difficult puzzle than my attempts to explain to my loved ones what I have experienced during postural or breath practices recently, and how this is profoundly different from the relationship to yoga I had cultivated over the preceding years. The more I share, the more confused I become, and eventually I just stop talking and listen.
It is a listening down, into my body, which communicates clearly, in its own, animalistic way, with which I am becoming increasingly more comfortable and of which I am increasingly less frightened. And the more I listen, the more content I become, and the less I feel the need to persuade others of the existence of my growing relationship with this unnameable thing.
My best attempt at an analogy for what the practice is doing for me currently is shining a flashlight (or a torch, if you are of the British persuasion) onto the parts of myself that have been lurking in the shadows of shame, anger, fear, doubt, trauma, or even just plain ignorance.
But when those parts are illuminated, when I can look at them without fear and listen to them without judgement, I can see that they really aren’t as scary or as worth confining to darkness as I had originally thought. And that’s when love starts to blossom.
Anticipating the Journey: Resistance and Acceptance
I feel as if it’s something deeper than my sometimes anxious, self-critical, wary mind, that has signed me up for this training. Yet, I am still feeling some resistance, coming from a variety of beliefs/arbitrary limitations: I am not advanced enough in asana practice because I do not have handstand, headstand, forearm balance, side crow in my practice yet; it’s mad to travel so far away from where I’m based in the UK; they don’t do yoga in California like they do it in the UK, and I will be hopelessly behind the accustomed Californian yogis.
But when I go into the studio to practice, and when I do my home practice, I feel calmer, and moreover I am affirmed that this is right. That I am courageous enough, after a good seven months of living this deeper connection to the practice and not shying away, to keep shining that torch into the abyss, and loving what I find. That, if I am open, the possibilities for insight, awareness, learning about myself as a student, and as a teacher (in yoga and beyond) are boundless.
Dionysus as My Yogic Companion (Because I’m a Classicist)
I am working on a book about women in Greek tragedy, one of the realms of influence of the god Dionysus, and boy, have I learned a lot about his effect on women.
Oddly enough, though, he is becoming a kind of metaphor for that deep, subdermal thing I have been encountering in the practice. Something that, when I am at my least fearful and most open-hearted, I can dance with inside myself.
Your image of this thing may be a divine model, a teacher, an ancestor, an animal, or a force of nature.
For now, (this conception will change, like everything) mine is Dionysus. Bromios. Bacchus. The god of theater, ecstasy, wine, mysteries; the dancer in the in-between spaces. He is the god of surrender to the inner nature that lies beneath the social codes (taboos included) that normally define what we can/cannot, should/shouldn’t be or do. He is the god of losing the self and finding Self.
Still, I find him, in his gentler guise, an appropriate model for my yoga practice. Dionysus is the smiling mask (as we learn from Euripides’ Bacchae), an amused witness to the permutations of mortal lives. He is also the face underlying the masks that define our social roles, and the innumerable ‘selves’ through which we cycle in relationship to others, self-image, profession, etc.
He is mere presence that underlies, and can, when we listen closely enough, inform our changing ideas of the ‘self’, which we symbolically translate into a series of yoga postures. When we find, accept, and surrender ourselves to the flow of the postures, the breath that holds us in each posture and transitions us between them, we surrender ourselves to that thing. The witness. Self. Nature. Dionysus. That thing words cannot touch.
Dancing with Snakes
I sat in front of this painting in London’s National Gallery for a long time the Monday before I left for California. In high school I often used Guy Lee’s translation of Catullus’ poems with this painting on the cover, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-1523), capturing the moment when Bacchus (Dionysus) finds Ariadne after she has been unceremoniously ditched by Theseus, left to die on the island of Naxos. Though some say that Bacchus frightened Theseus away so that Ariadne would be left alone…
This painting is all too familiar to me because of my intimate acquaintance with Guy Lee’s edition, but, especially when I see the original painting I find new and interesting aspects to it. For instance, the affectionate glance between the panthers pulling the chariot, or the passed out, ruddy man in the background being supported by revellers. Ariadne looks as if she was caught in the midst of picking a wedgie (sorry…). But the character I find most fascinating here is the naked man, a satyr by the looks of the horns very discreetly poking out of his hair, seemingly entranced by the snakes that are winding their way over his limbs and torso.
A dance with the chthonic creature of the snake that, like Dionysus, occupies the line between earth and underworld, living and dead. The man is naked, having shed his clothing, the trappings of society, just as the snake sheds its skin.
Perhaps this is another appropriate metaphor for my yoga practice as it stands: the shedding of layers of ‘self’, the emergence of new layers of selfhood that somehow feel more honest, more integral to my essence. Until they don’t, and then comes a new process of self-inquiry which can lead to more shedding. It is a cycle of discernment, discovery, release, and transformation.
Sometimes it feels like getting flayed from toe to scalp. Sometimes it feels like dancing. Like clearing the threshing floor before the harvest. Like making love.
And (especially for the classicists) if you think it’s a bit mad to lump Dionysus in with yoga, I’m not the only one who has proposed this link. In fact, I myself wasn’t quite convinced of my concept before running across Richard Schechner’s (the director of the watershed production, Dionysus in 69, and a pioneer in the academic discipline of performance studies) work on ritual and performance (Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance, 1995). Schechner associates Dionysiac ritual dance with the Greek theater (not a huge step there) and compares the trance states (as far as we know) of devotees of Dionysian mystery cult to the ritual trance states in various shamanistic traditions and in yoga (the raising of the kundalini, for instance).
Dionysus is enigmatic, channelling male and female, nature and culture, life and death, pain and ecstasy. He is the face behind the masks, and the masks themselves. He is the potential for experiencing life in the present moment. He teaches us to dance, when we encounter ourselves beneath social coding and self-diminishment.
On an individual level, Euripides’ Bacchae teaches us the consequences of denying our instinctive wisdom (again, if we look at Dionysus as a metaphor for this). We will not dance with him, so we turn away and are driven mad, or into excessive hedonistic behaviors or taboo behaviors (for the sake of being taboo) that only satisfy for a little while, and that can run the risk of overwhelming our daily functioning, despite our attempts to compartmentalize them.
We can consciously honor Dionysus, Nature, or whichever symbol of Self we seek to return to, in the space between the breath, in the silence between the om or the chant. This is the quiet, the in-between, the boundary on which this beloved part of ourselves dances, moves, shakes our souls.
And maybe this part leads us to draw mandalas, or to practice yoga, or to play Dungeons and Dragons. Pursuits that are characteristically YOU, flowing from the font of self-understanding and self-acceptance, gained from joining with the nameless, are beautiful.
And with those musings, I commence with my yoga teacher training this very evening. Preparing to dance with snakes, so to speak.
Friday is the winter solstice, when the light begins to grow out of the darkness, and the Sun passes out of Sagittarius and into Capricorn (around 10PM UK time) as the New Year nears its dawn.
For those whose custom it is to set intentions and goals for the coming year, I wanted to share some thoughts about how we can use the Sun in Capricorn to forge a clear, substantial path through our Sagittarian dreamscape.
Sagittarius, the archer with visionary capaciousness, is great metaphor for the initial, motivational stages of goal-setting. What is the aim, the grand purpose, the area of wisdom and experience I am eager to explore?
After the Sagittarian vision comes Capricorn’s need to test the pragmatics: how water-tight is this goal? Is the impetus worth the work it will take to get there?
Sagittarius as goal-setting / Capricorn as follow-through
Sagittarius reminds us of the virtues of expanding vision to shoot the arrow of intention to THAT PLACE where you want to end up. This is the exciting part.
Then, one needs to cultivate the endurance (reflected in the following sign of Capricorn) to recover the thing you shot with the arrow, and hope no one else has come upon it in the meantime. There is a bit of a scarcity complex in Capricorn that reacts against Sagittarius’ insistence that there is ‘something for everyone’. Capricorn asks, ‘Oh yeah? What’s your evidence for that?’. That journey as the arrow flies might seem straightforward, but the topography of the landscape may contain numerous mountains and valleys, and trolls under bridges. The Sagittarian optimism and wanderlust calls us to adventure, motivates us to travel, discover new vistas of opportunities, new cultures, new parts of ourselves, but the arduous trek of Capricorn, of manifesting the stages of that journey, still lies ahead.
This year more than any other I have noticed a shift from wanting to know about the world at large toward wanting to take the journey inwards, to know myself. And thanks to a regular yoga practice and life’s various permutations I find myself revisiting questions about the value of self-inquiry, questions I first encountered in 2009-2010, when I started reading Byron Katie, Joel Goldsmith, Eckhart Tolle, and other writers alongside the ancient Stoics, whose ideas about mental equanimity and other positive results of self-examination I found alarmingly applicable to my own life.
This instinctive desire to look within continues to be the backdrop for many of the choices I make on a daily basis, and the goals I am setting for the coming months. This is not escapism, not is it a desire to be wilfully ignorant. Rather, it is the interest in discovering within myself the best things I can offer the world.
From my own experience, I have come to understand that the former (rather Sagittarian) desire to turn my attention outside myself, to learn about different worlds, to learn from people with different life experiences, to learn by traveling, to expand my capacity for movement intellectually and socially, ultimately led me back to this place of treasured introspection.
A personal example from the Ivory Tower
When I left my hometown in California and went to Oxford for graduate school in 2011, I embraced wholeheartedly the new and peculiar world I had entered and all of the lessons it had to bear. I enthusiastically took on all the roles I hadn’t had a chance to assume before. I could be a gregarious, nimble navigator of social settings crowded with members of the intellectual and social ‘elite’; I could be blessed by the head of the Anglican Church at my College’s chapel; I could compete in College rowing; I could go to formal hall any night of the week except Saturday and pay £3.80 for a three-course meal with white-gloved service, looking splendiferous in my academic gown; I could go to High Table with the Fellows of the College on guest night and meet a Mankiewicz; I could throw some good parties.
As would be expected, the Master’s program was tough, not only because the material we were learning was difficult, but also because we often had to be our own teachers (as compared to American pedagogical norms). We had to compile our own reading lists and make a weekly schedule for essay submissions to our supervisors, some of whom were more hands-on than others. We had to have the discipline to adhere to said essay schedules even though these essays did not count toward our final grades. I could have worked harder, but I struggled to balance the academic material with the other types of experiential learning I was doing just by virtue of living in a new place, learning that yielded great, though not necessarily quantifiable, value (a Sagittarius-Capricorn tension of sorts).
For instance, I made dear and lasting friendships with people from all over the world, and came to appreciate the diversity of life experiences, hardships, passions, and happy accidents that had brought us all together to this special place that none of us took for granted.
But all this learning had its downsides, for in some fundamental ways I had strayed from true self-love and self-acceptance. Rather, I had constructed a new, ostensibly self-assured, intellectually vigorous, socially adept image of ‘success’, an idea of myself to which I would grow increasingly attached over the months. I learned just how attached I had become when I channelled my fear of losing this into a rather fitful decision to apply for a PhD at Oxford without having all my Capricorn ducks in a row.
When ultimately I could not proceed with the Oxford PhD, I felt absolutely devastated. I could have been more accepting of the circumstances. I could have used the (very applicable) principles I had picked up from the Stoic texts I had read for my Master’s dissertation to relax and embrace reality, to assure myself that this was for my best good, that this closed door would lead me to find a more appropriate open one. But at that time and for some time afterwards, all I could perceive was tremendous LOSS of the potential to manifest the ideal vision of myself flourishing within Oxford’s academic and social community.
Undoubtedly this was one of the best things that has ever happened to me, for it resulted in my finding in London a rigorous PhD program, expert supervisors in my chosen subfield, and an immensely supportive departmental community. I found a topic that allowed my love of interdisciplinary methods to flourish, and that let fly (like a Sagittarian arrow) my curiosity about how modern cultures interpret ancient ones. I got to do some really fascinating archival research. I found my voice as a researcher and a writer and cared deeply about the work I was doing, often more than I cared that I was the one doing it. I had a goal that was worth the painstaking effort. And it brings me much joy to remember this.
Some questions for goal-setting
So how does this all relate to the understanding of the Sagittarian-Capricorn impulses and tensions within us?
I like to read the above anecdote as the difference between conscious and semi-conscious decision-making. I had signed up for a PhD project at Oxford that was intellectually stimulating in terms of the overall idea, but realistically would not have been very much fun to do. I did not really know the supervisor I would be working with. The idea, founded in Sagittarian optimism and expansiveness, was not fully baked, and the universe luckily conspired to steer me away from what would have been a very unpleasant collision with the rocky outcroppings of the Capricornian challenges I was not actually prepared to undergo.
And in finding a PhD project for which I was willing to go the distance, remain accountable, work hard for the sake of the project and not only for the peripheral benefits it offered, I was able to find a greater level of self-respect.
And amidst the academic rigors of this PhD project, my research and conference presentations brought me the Sagittarian opportunity to share my work around the world, from Los Angeles to Ghent to Tel Aviv. And I met a whole new cohort of beautiful souls and dear friends with whom I could share the journey.
This was an excellent series of lessons to have learned at 24, and now, some years later, I can truly appreciate their lasting relevance.
With all that said, my intention for this month (and beyond!) is to sustain a healthy level of introspection, particularly in evaluating the decisions and goals I am making for the New Year:
Am I deciding consciously? What set of factors/rules/’truths’ am I using to make my decision?
Am I acting on the basis of fear and attachment, or on the intrinsic motivations of curiosity, passionate inquiry, and self-love?
Are these directions taking me closer to or further away from my instinctive needs/values?
If my plans do not work out, how will I feel (i.e. how attached am I to this)?
Will I regret NOT pursuing this goal?
Am I making this decision in order to avoid something or to gain something?
What kinds of terrain will I have to cross in order to pursue this vision? What are the stakes? Do I have what I need, and if not, where can I find it?
There is a wonderful moment from the film version of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), when the dwarf Gimli complains to the de facto leader Aragorn about the perils of the remaining path to Mordor: ‘Oh, yes?! It’s just a simple matter of finding our way through Emyn Muil? An impassable labyrinth of razor sharp rocks! And after that, it gets even better! Festering, stinking marshlands, far as the eye can see!’
Aragorn replies, ‘That is our road. I suggest you take some rest and recover your strength, Master Dwarf.’
I’ve always found this a helpful inner dialogue, to give myself some Aragorn-style, straightforward, get-on-with-it motivation when I linger too long in self-doubt, or the mental paralysis that can set in upon prolonged meditation of ‘WOW, that’s a long way I have to travel…I don’t know if I can/should do this anymore’.
I suppose contingency planning (part of the Capricorn toolkit) ought to be mentioned here as well, given that the Fellowship breaks down shortly after this scene and the journey changes drastically…
A mythological allegory
Way back when, at my sixth-grade graduation, our myth teacher told us the story of the Judgement of Paris. Paris, the Trojan shepherd-turned-prince had in his hands a golden apple inscribed with the words ‘for the most beautiful’, and was tasked with the decision of offering it to one of these goddesses: Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite. Hera promised wealth and kingship in return; Athena promised military victory and wisdom; Aphrodite promised Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world (‘she’s married to the brother of the most powerful man in Greece, but we’ll work out the kinks later’). Paris chose Aphrodite, and the Trojan War ensued after Paris abducted Helen from her husband Menelaus (with or without her consent? The jury is still out).
Our teacher used this story to demonstrate the importance of conscious decision-making (closely related to goal-setting in my book). He urged us to make choices knowing to the best of our ability all of the options available, and the rewards and consequences of each. He encouraged us to understand what we were giving up in one direction by choosing the other, and what impact our decisions would make on those around us and the environment.
Euripides (Helen, 36-41) among others tells us that the Trojan War was engineered by Zeus for population control. So, regardless of whomever Paris awarded with the apple, there would have been a war. Gods and goddesses are vengeful – the other two would have been keen to rile up enemies against Paris because he had refused them. If Zeus wanted fewer humans on the planet, war was inevitable. That is at least how I’m tempted to anticipate the outcome, should Paris have chosen Hera or Athena.
So, Paris may have acted more consciously than many give him credit for. Perhaps he was thinking, ‘Hey, if the world has to burn, I may as well get what I want’.
Not to suggest that Paris is the model decision-maker. For there may have been other options available to him (see below).
If you have been feeling that Sagittarian goad – the optimism, the expansive vision, the impassioned enthusiasm, perhaps a bit of foolhardiness – about something, send forth your arrow to the place you feel called AND the place you are willing to make the journey with its peaks and valleys. But BE CONSCIOUS in knowing what you are signing up for, what you might be losing, and what the stakes are. And there will be stakes; these are unavoidable. Stakes are what makes a good story.
Ask yourself the above questions, if they help.
And try as best you can to come from a place of self-love, and love for your fellow humans, for your planet: several leaps further in altruism than Paris was willing to go.
By the way, Paris could have swallowed the apple. Gold is malleable and probably chewable. Just saying.
‘To be the keepers of the creative fires, and to have intimate knowing about the Life/Death/Life cycles of all nature – that is an initiated woman.’
-Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run with the Wolves
The fall deepens and the sky darkens earlier and earlier. The temperature drops. But the leaves blanket the ground in warm colors, bright oranges and yellows, that direct our eyes to the earth and our minds inward. I am writing this at the New Moon in Scorpio, which instructs us to take stock of our ‘harvest’ of physical and emotional resources; to let die and fall away the old conditions, habits, patterns of thinking that are no longer serving our most fundamental, instinctual needs; and to remember those who have passed beyond the mortal realm, and find ways of communing with them, in the knowledge that someday our mortal selves too will re-join the earth.
This year, I felt a strong desire to meet others in ceremony and in contemplation of the theme of transformation, cyclical change, and in particular the balance and the tension between remembrance and letting go that nature models for us so well at this time.
In the past week I attended a Samhain Women’s Ceremony, hosted by the lovely Elise of Scarlett-Moon and Amanda of Goddess Liberation, and I went to the All Souls’ Requiem service at the chapel of my beloved Merton College in Oxford. Yes, this is spiritual eclecticism at its finest, but what made an enormous impact on me were the commonalities between these two experiences:
the central importance of devotional songs/chants,
the use of movement through communal procession/dance
invocation of ancestors by name
the collective intention to find spiritual comfort during times of darkness, to surrender fears, resentments, and grievances to a force greater than ourselves that can guide us in living soulfully – in short, God(dess).
Below are some notes on my experiences of the Women’s Ceremony, as it relates more closely to my current work on women in Greek myth. But fundamentally, I found that these events both carried a powerful alignment with and a moving interpretation of the lessons Nature makes available to us now.
The Samhain Women’s Ceremony
This took place on the night of Samhain, October 31st, which, as Elise and Amanda explained, in the Celtic tradition signifies the end of the harvest, the beginning of the New Year, and an opportunity to commune with the ancestors.
Around 12 of us gathered outside a cabin in a community garden. We had tea and seriously delicious chocolate cookies, and talked among ourselves for awhile before we were invited inside for the ceremony.
The cabin was cozy, with a wood stove, and lit by candlelight. We removed our shoes and sat on cushions in a circle around an altar, where we placed photographs of departed loved ones.
My photograph was not of a person, but my mother’s loom. At the end of next week, at the Being Human Festival in London I will be performing a prose piece I wrote on my mother’s memories of this loom, beginning when she was 28 and ending almost 10 years ago, when my family lost our house in a wildfire. This loom, its loss, and the implications of this for my relationship with my mother (as she taught me weaving on the loom when I was young) have been on my mind lately.
So, when we lit candles and said the names of those whose photographs stood at the altar, I invoked all the women weavers who ever learned and taught the craft, who have ever woven life lessons, pains, loves, and secrets into the weft.
We then turned away from the circle and Amanda led us in ‘calling out’ the ancestors, by making any sound. We sounded the call several times, and in each instance our voices found harmony, as if we had rehearsed it. My entire body was shivering with goosebumps. It was perceptible, the shared intention we brought to the space, which expressed itself not in unison, but in a harmonious diversity of tones, voices, experiences, feelings.
Next, we sang two chants, the second of which we performed while processing in a circle around the altar. Both emphasize the life cycle, and the inevitable return to the earth, the source of our origin as individual manifestations of the feminine:
‘We all come from the goddess / And to her we shall return / Like a drop of rain / Flowing to the ocean’ (text by Moving Breath)
I found that the melodies of these chants had a somber strength in them – there was neither sentimentality, nor coldness. Rather, a matter-of-fact statement: these are the stages of womanhood; death is waiting for us all. I experienced neither comfort nor fear, but an entrancing realism, and an awe of the impartiality of Mother Nature. Her lack of discrimination. Her lack of attachment. Her consistency. The comfort came from joining with the other women in the circle in this recognition.
And then we danced.
We danced intuitively, with Elise and Amanda guiding us to contemplate a connection with the earth, to dance for those who cannot dance anymore. We danced and celebrated our embodied existence and dedicated this to the departed.
And lastly, we sat back onto our cushions. Elise led us in meditation on our breath, on the physical contact between our bodies and the ground, on the smell of wood, dirt from the garden, the smell of the ‘composting leaves’, a fate which our bodies will someday share.
At the end of the meditation we were asked to contemplate our limited mortality: what would we do if we had 6 months? 1 month? 2 weeks left?
These questions confronted me with an uncomfortable exposure of the things I value fundamentally, some of which I tend to fear and judge and deny myself for reasons of ego and security. But as Nature reminds us at this time of year, these trappings of self and stability are not reliably consistent. They can fall away, and yield new, exciting changes. They can restore life. Once we get over that old fear of the unknown, of loss. Once we get out of our own way.
We shared the results of our meditation in a final talking circle. I felt an incredible sense of safety and acceptance, of affirmation – for there is power in things spoken. It was inspiring to hear the wisdom others had received in that moment. I felt very honored.
My research has recently taken me to readings of myth and ritual. Lillian E. Doherty in Chapter Four of her book, Gender and the Interpretation of Classical Myth (2001) mentions contemporary ‘Goddess’ rituals (like the Samhain Women’s Ceremony) drawing from pre-Christian, matrilineal cultic origins as belonging to the ‘feminist spirituality movement’. This movement is defined in part by celebration of the ‘Goddess’ as the primordial manifestation of female ‘essentialism’ – or the qualities that make up womanhood in all its guises, qualities that all who identify as women have access to.
This idea of female ‘essentialism’ is problematic for some feminist thinkers who see it as diminishing, or complicit in repressive patriarchal discourse. But for me, this ceremony helped relieve some of my own concerns about ‘essentialism’. The experience helped me feel deeply connected to women I had never met before on the level of an enduring, instinctive ‘it is known’ among those who identify as women.
The ceremony made me appreciate the wisdom, the stories, the codes of speech that women have passed down, learned from each other, initiated each other into through an immeasurable range of experiences that encompass the ‘feminine’, a range that is joyfully expanding as time passes. It made me think of the importance of inter-generational connection, of connection to nature.
So, what did I learn?
Dance for those who cannot dance anymore.
Sing out and listen for the harmonies that resonate joy in strength and comfort in woundedness.
Touch the earth, which one day will enfold us and call us to create new life. Thank it for sustaining us in this life.
And the difficult knowledge I took from that meditation? I brought it with me to the All Souls’ Requiem service at Merton and poured it out, as the truly fabulous choir and orchestra gave voice to my feelings and helped me find comfort and compassion, especially when it came to transcending my own anxieties and sending love to those in the congregation who had lost close family and friends, whose names the Chaplain read out.
Both experiences left me astounded by the way we mortals can create such beauty, as unadorned as a chant to the Goddess or as elaborate and emotionally incisive as Mozart’s Requiem, in order to know God and Nature through cycles of Life-Death-Rebirth.
Today many are sharing their takes on the Full Moon in Taurus as a time to set intentions for becoming more grounded, steeping ourselves in self-care, enriching our physical environment, taking time for gratitude (stopping to smell the roses, as it were) in our work, relationships, spiritual practice, physical vitality, etc.
I echo all of the above, and add the caveat: the Full Moon (in whatever sign) is additionally, and quite importantly, a time of revelation.
No one can hide under a Full Moon – her light reveals the hunter, and the hunted.
Psychologically (if you would accompany me into this marshy landscape) she reveals the things we have been working hard to keep in the shadows – the fears, the grievances, the resentments, the perceived inadequacies. We are forced to stare down these hard truths, to ask ourselves why we are afraid to look at them. In many cases, they are not as ugly or scary as we thought they were, and if we look at them with compassion, we can learn more about ourselves and unravel the stories we have woven to limit our travels, honest and empathic communications, creative self-expression, and ultimate potential.
As some of you know, I am studying women in Greek tragedy and the range of lessons they have to teach us today (speaking of hard truths). Recently at the Catweazle Club, my beloved weekly haunt for poetry and music in Oxford, I mentioned my project to a woman who had come to see that night’s show. She volunteered that her favorite tragic woman is the one I find the scariest, the one I have been avoiding for weeks now, the one revealed to me under this Full Moon: Medea.
The daughter who betrayed her father by helping the hero Jason capture the Golden Fleece through her witchcraft. The sister who dismembered her brother and scattered the pieces of him over the waves to block her father’s pursuit of her and Jason as they fled. The mother who killed Jason’s royal fiancée and her father, and then her own children, after Jason abandoned her. The immigrant spouse who became a ‘barbarian’ in the Greek city-state of Corinth, where her marriage to a Greek hero had no legal or social recognition, but, from her own perspective, had become the basis of her identity.
I asked this woman why Medea is her favorite, and she responded, ‘I appreciate her aggression…she uses the last ounce of power she has left, she kills her children, to punish Jason and free herself. Of course, the children don’t need to be read literally as children’. I asked her what she meant by the last statement, and she affirmed, ‘Well, she teaches us that you have to kill your darlings sometimes’.
This was puzzling for me, to say the least, as generally I wouldn’t imagine Medea to be an archetype of (female) empowerment – except for her speech to the chorus early on in Euripides’ play (which all should read!), a speech which comes across as quite contemporary in its clear and unapologetic definition of women’s experiences from the intersectional vantage point of woman/immigrant/single mother.
I will keep this woman’s emphasis on Medea’s ‘killing of the darlings’ (a necessary stage in her liberation?) close to my re-reading of Euripides’ and Seneca’s tragedies, especially Seneca’s, where her supernatural powers are weighed much more heavily as a factor in her wickedness, than in the Euripides version, where her general ‘cleverness’ (with just a hint of witchiness) is her formidable aspect.
Medea was the one revealed to me under the Full Moon. She is characterized by the opposite of Taurean grounding, and in fact manifests the shadow side of its opposing sign, Scorpio: hidden motives, ruthlessness, the sublimation of the soul as a result of holding grudges, and acting on these in unspeakable ways. And what scared me the most is what prompted this development in her character: a loss of self, as a result of her new identity of ‘barbarian spouse’ that the Corinthians used to marginalize her and that she herself used to go to such great lengths to punish the man who had taken away her previous, ancestral identity: Colchian princess; powerful, magical woman.
She could have used her powers for good, for healing. She could have sought to make a life in Greece on her own terms in addition to the terms of her marriage. Though I may be lending too much sympathy to her, a character who may be beyond moral rehabilitation. Does she need to be rehabilitated?
So, why am I staring into her preternaturally glowing eyes while she laughs at me under the Full Moon? Perhaps because I have an irrational fear of losing myself, since my ‘official’ purpose for being here in the UK on my immigration documents is no longer as a student but as a spouse. Did I mention this, like many fears, is irrational?
People who don’t know me often ask, ‘What are you doing here?’ when they find out I am from California. My default answer was recently, ‘Well, my husband is here working, so I’m doing some writing’ – somehow this felt diminishing, for me, even though this would be perfectly acceptable for others in my place. It felt like stuffing something away into the shadows. That thing I am afraid of.
I don’t want to give the Full Moon complete credit for this realization, but it is an apt time to understand the power of stories, the power of the paradigms of identity we carry around with us and project, even in casual conversation. It’s worth checking in with oneself, when making affirmations of ‘I do ___’/ ‘I am ___’. And if it feels diminishing for whatever reason (however irrational), go ahead and change the story – change the archetype you are identifying within yourself. Instead of being a ‘helper’ you can be a ‘dragon-slayer’ or a ‘scout’ or a ‘sage’. And a helper too, why not?
My story now for those who ask? ‘I am writing, working on a project that needs doing, that will make a sound contribution, that will resonate in the right places, with the people who need/want it. I am practicing self-inquiry. I am doing lots of yoga – who knows, maybe a teacher training someday. And my husband and I happen to live here right now.’
We all have an alchemy in us, forces ready to be set loose in the world in accordance with the story we tell. Stories, and the archetypes therein, can be powerful, revelatory medicine. They can be balms. They can offer us containers like Medea, the moral floor we can’t fall below, to receive and process our worst anxieties and fears. Stories can remind us that we are journeying, and that we will meet magical people, gods in disguise, teachers, sometimes dangerous foes wherever we go. And, whether we fall in love with, learn from, ignore, or run like hell away from them, in these forces we always meet ourselves again. Ideally, with compassion and gratitude for the never-ending lessons.