February 21, 2006

Tips for Disciplined Daily Practice.

I will continue with my three(-or-more)-part series about the modern myths regarding Christianity with the next post, but I thought that I would take a time-out to share some insight I've earned through my experiences the past few days.

Like many of you, since I started practicing my Craft I have been haunted by the ideal of daily practice. When I do imaginative work on building my "magical self," I always imagine a witch with the discipline and commitment to rise bright and early every morning to spend an hour in contemplation and meditation before her altar, starting her day with the energies and love of the Divine Source coursing through her. These energies express themselves in everything about her--the way she moves with poise and balance, the way her smile communicates a joy of life and an unconditionally loving and welcoming heart, the way her skirts and hair seem to melt into the air itself as if she'd stepped quietly out of the elements and could slip back into them at will. I imagine a witch who always has the energy for visualization and the strong will for sacred work. Who has cultivated and embodied this energy through her daily communion with her Divine Sustainer and Lover. And, like most of you, I have in most respects failed miserably to live up to this standard.

I started out simply, promising myself that I would work on grounding and centering each morning just after waking but just before getting in the shower. This was over two years ago, now, and needless to say, I couldn't keep my promise for more than two months. A therapist friend of mine once told me that it takes 21 days in a row for a new or learned behavior to become a routine a habit that can be done with much less effort (though not necessarily with less thought, especially if such a routine is meditative/contemplative). I found myself disappointed when, after more than 40 days, I still struggled to center and ground each morning, often feeling like I was not benefiting from the effort at all, but actually impeding my progress. When the inevitable finally happened and I down with a slight cold, I used it eagerly as an excuse to skip practice for a day or two. Once I'd made that concession, my practice became intermittent at best.

This is not to say that I did not continue to work and to make positive progress in the Craft--the progress just wasn't as steady or daily as I'd hoped. This work of bursts and lags continued until fairly recently when, now with more free time and less stress, I began a serious commitment to another daily task--writing. My daily writing fueled my own growing interests in witchcraft and my increasingly ability to articulate exactly what subjects I was interested in, leading me to add another daily practice--that of reading and extensive note-taking, even in books which I had read through once before. Tackling a book on high ceremonial magic recently, I came across the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, which I had read of before as a helpful daily practice but which, at the time, had seemed far too complicated, overwhelming and unnatural (some parts, such as the chanting of God-names in Hebrew, made little sense to me and even seemed silly). This time, however, the ritual struck me as intriguing. The familiarity with circle-casting and quarter-calls that I had developed through my other studies came to bear on the LBRP in a new way. It now seemed not like the silly, elaborate playacting it had come across as before, but as an all-in-one cleansing and circle opening that had meaningful Christian symbolism supporting it and rendering it more meaningful than many of the example quarter-calls I'd read in other Wiccan books. So I decided to give it a try.

I had been practicing the LBRP (along with some physical yoga-like stretches and exercises) as a morning ritual for over two weeks when the inevitable happened. My work schedule this past week consisted of four midnight shifts in a row, at the end of which I felt completely wiped out and on the verge of getting sick. Having not even secured my 21-days of regular practice, however, I was determined not to give up (after all, I was also enjoying the LBRP practice much more than I had simple centering/grounding). But what could I do? I did not want to push my body too hard and make myself worse, but I also did not want to break my promise or give up too easily. So I got in the shower, and while I washed away some of my exhaustion, I asked my body what it needed, what would be best for it. And in the end, it told me it needed gentleness and discipline together, working in balance.

So I dried myself off, got dressed and sat in front of my altar. But instead of going through all of the motions, physical exercises and visualizations involved in the ritual, I simply centered, grounded, and asked my higher self--the ideal magical self that never tired--to lend me a hand. I watched with my mind's eye as my higher self stood strong and tall, calling the names of God with a powerful voice and invoking the pentagrams with an energetic will. I visualized myself standing as I usually did, in the center of the circle, but instead of performing the ritual, I watched myself perform it as if an observer. The energy was not my own and so I did not feel drained. And when the sphere of light glowed bright and strong, etched with the blue flames of the pentagrams and brimming with the vibrations of the elements and archangels of the quarters, the higher self that I watched turned to me, extended her hand, and invited me into the space to share in the energies.

The result? I kept my promise, I had succeeded in practicing despite my tired body and sleep-strained mind, and though my visualizations weren't as powerful as they are when I perform the actions in physical reality, I benefited from the energies I called upon. Aches and exhaustion lessened in me, though they did not leave completely. And more than this, I felt a surge of self-confidence and gratitude that I had proved to myself my own devotion to my practice.

And so, here are some tips that I have discovered, upon reflection, might be helpful for those of you with similar struggles:

Tip 1: Start Simple, But Not Too Simple. I realize that one of my main problems with my original attempts at daily practice was that, in some ways, they were overly simple, to the point of being boring. They quickly became a chore, rather than a daily pleasure to look forward to. My mind and will, still fairly undisciplined, were like a little child who, when fascinated, can hold still for hours on end, but who grows restless and frustrated at being forced to be still by an imposing external pressure.

Tip 2: Don't Just Pray, Move. Incorporate both mental work and physical work into your daily practice. This way, there is always some aspect of the practice which you can preserve and carry forward into the next day, tying your work together even if your mood or abilities fluctuate from day to day. If you are tired or distracted, you can work with ritual movement even with an unfocused mind; likewise, if your body is exhausted, you can still visualize, meditate or pray. Because these activities will, when you are healthy and energetic, be tied closely together and associated with each other, when you find yourself limited to doing only one or the other, you will often find yourself calling upon stores of strength and focus you did not know you had. You may find that, half way through the unfocused ritual of movement, your concentration suddenly sharpens into real devotion. If not, you have at least done your best and have practiced the movements so that they come more easily next time.

Tip 3: Challenge Yourself. Sometimes the best daily practice is one in which you challenge yourself to perfect a skill or technique to be used later in full or more formal ritual. Such is the case for me with the LBRP (after a while, I will add the Middle Pillar and the Circulation of the Body of Light to my practices, as well). Choosing such a practice inspires you to work at improving each day, keeping track of your progress, your emotional, mental and spiritual reactions and how different variables (like weather, mood, health, etc.) affect you. It teaches you about yourself and your ability to commit to progressing along your spiritual path. After working at perfecting your practice, you will find that it comes much easier to you and will be more enjoyable as a daily routine; furthermore, you will be able to call on it with ease and comfort during more formal rituals, enabling you to keep the flow and spontaneity alive while still incorporating more complex techniques and skills into your work. (For a while I also considered making improvisational flute playing part of my daily practice, so that I could draw out beautiful, free-flowing music at will during ritual--but... I think I need a bit more self-confidence before I try that. ;)

Tip 4: Be Gentle and Kind to Yourself. As my story above hopefully illustrates, it is important that we are kind to ourselves and do not berate ourselves if we are not always perfect in our commitments. When you are not feeling well or are feeling pressed for time, take a moment to ask your body and your heart what you most need. Ask for guidance and compromise--if you feel that no matter what, you just can't get to your daily practice, look for another opportunity or way of demonstrating your daily commitment. Agree to be open to any unlooked-for opportunities that may present themselves during the day. However, do not use this as an excuse day after day not to practice. Do your best, and truly know that it is your best. Often, we underestimate ourselves and our best can surprise us.

Tip 5: Enjoy Your Work. Above all, find something you enjoy, that you look forward to doing every day. For me, the LBRP suddenly captured my attention and I was eager to try it out. There was a time, though, when I thought it was ridiculous and boring. There may come a time when I "outgrow" the LBRP and must find a new daily practice. Find something you enjoy and stick with it. If you find yourself miserable day after day no matter how committed you are, then take the hint and look for something else. This doesn't mean you have failed. You are listening to the needs of your body, heart, mind and soul, and this is important. You are a unique individual. Craft your own practice. Read books--both nonfiction how-to and inspiring fiction--take classes, test things out, see what speaks to you. I know this advice is common in Witchcraft 101 books, but it is the truth. It often sounds trite because many who say it ignores just how much trial-and-error most people have to go through before landing on something that works. Most 101 books seem to talk as though we all know exactly what is right for us and only need permission to do it. This isn't true all the time, so don't be concerned if you find yourself growing bored or frustrated and not knowing why. That's ok. Ask yourself what is frustrating you, take the opportunity to learn. And then, start again, look for something new. But keep in mind your goals and the reasons you are committed to some form of daily devotion. Do not compromise on these goals, but seek out practices that strengthen and reaffirm them for you. It may take years before you find something that "clicks." Or you may find it right away. It all depends on you.


At 24.2.06, Anonymous Irving Karchmar said...

Greetings Dear Ali:
What a wonderful blog :) Good fortune on your journey. As a spiritual writer, may I commend to you my book, Master of the Jinn: A Sufi Novel, a mystical adventure tale on the Sufi path of Love.
You can view the book and read an excerpt at http://www.masterofthejinn.com
In the name of the Merciful, 10% of all profits go to charity.

Peace and Blessings,


At 25.2.06, Blogger Mary E said...

Hi Ali-I needed to read this. When you have kids that need to get ready for bed so they can go to school in the morning, and you have to get up also to work or go to class, things get hectic. I am trying to be happy with whatever I can accomplish as my daily practice. I need to be kind to myself, as you said. And it's in those quicker moments that the revelations come, sometimes, rather than in the carefully crafted ones. I figure ANY progress I make is better than doing nothing at all, and that I will eventually get better at what I am doing. Just like everything else in life. I take my rosary in my pocket wherever I go so that I can say as much of a complete one as I can-I can do one whole rosary on the way to and from my teaching job twice a week. It's a great way to meditate while driving a route I know well. Your tips are very helpful-I will remember them.
Blessings on you
Mary E


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