No-Nonsense Paganism: Daily Spiritual Practice (part 2)

We’re coming up on the New Year, the time when people traditionally recommit to healthy, life-enhancing practices. In the last part, I talked about the concept of spiritual discipline. In this part, I want to talk about how to actually create a daily practice.

Let me start with what not to do. Don’t start by imagining what a daily practice is supposed to look like. Don’t imagine what the daily practices of other Pagans looks like. Don’t default to circles or “elements” or any other format that you learned from someone else.

The goal of daily spiritual practice (for me, at least) is the “re-enchantment” of everyday life. That means we start with everyday life. Your everyday life. Not anyone else’s.

“Re-enchantment” means restoring a sense of sacredness to our experience, which has been stripped away by the desacralizing forces of reductionist positivism, consumer capitalism, and transcendental religion, which reduce everything to object, commodity, and dross.

What this means in practice is the ritualizing ordinary acts.

There’s a great example of this in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (2013). There, she writes about the summers her family spent camping in the Adirondacks and how a seemingly mundane act became a sacred ritual for her family. In the mornings, when they were fixing breakfast, her father would take the steaming coffee pot to the edge of the camp, face the rising sun, and pour a little out onto the ground, while saying, “Here is to the gods of the mountain” (or the river or the forest, depending on where they were). The children learned instinctually that this was a sacred moment during which they should be reverent.

Kimmerer explains that this ritual taught her that the world was bigger than human beings, that it was home to other-than-human beings who are worthy of our respect and our thanks. Years later, Kimmerer asked her father where the coffee ceremony came from. He said that it started in a very mundane way, as just clearing the coffee grounds from the spout, but it became something more, something sacred. He said, eventually, “It was just what we did. It seemed right.” Kimmerer explains:

“That is the power of ceremony. It marries the mundane to the sacred: It turns coffee into a prayer.”

— Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013)

It turns coffee in a prayer. I love that! You can do this with any ordinary action, really. Anything can be transformed from a mundane action into a way of enchanting the everyday. 

When constructing a daily practice, I recommend starting with your most basic or visceral sensory interactions with the world: breathing, eating, drinking, the feeling of warmth, of flowing water, of solid ground, and so on. Figuring out what you want to ritualize is the first step. This requires slowing down and really noticing the world around you and your interactions with it through the day. It requires really listening–to the world around you, to your body, and to your deepest intuitions.


And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing.
To live to see … the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.


— “And I Think Over Again”], a Kitlinuharmiut (Copper Eskimo) song, attributed to The Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, 1921-1924

My own daily practice evolved organically, and did not come to me as a whole. It started with greeting the sun in the morning. There’s something primal about seeing the sun after a dark time, whether it’s the dark of night, the dark of winter, the dark of an extended grey sky, the dark of a storm, or the dark of sleep. The sun is really important to my emotional well-being. The grayness of winter days really impacts my mood.

My bathroom window faces east, and seeing the sunlight coming through my bathroom window in the morning is usually one on the first intense experiences I have after waking up. So, I decided to start my day greeting the sun. If the sun is shining in the morning, I take a few moments to appreciate the light coming through window. As I stand facing the sun, I raise my slowly up as I recite part of a poem.

I chose a poem from the Hindu Rig Veda which tells the story of how the god Indra rose up like the sun to battle the serpent Vritra who had cast darkness over the land. I was familiar with this poem from other work I had done, and it resonated with me. As I was thinking about what words to say when greeting the sun, it came back to me and it felt right.

There’s another part of the poem that talks about the water rushing forth after Indra defeats Vritra. So, I decided to recite that part while I start my shower in the morning. It may seem strange to say a prayer to the the water coming from the shower head. But, like the warmth of the sun, the feeling of water is also very primal. Like the sun, we are dependent on water. Also like the sun, water is an essential part of my feeling of coming alive to the world each day. (I am one of those people who doesn’t feel right if I haven’t had a hot shower in the morning.) So it felt right to sacralize it.

That was my morning practice for a while: greeting the sun and praising the shower water. Eventually, I added a third part. I had to started feeling, very so often, a strong desire just go outside and touch the ground. It was hard to explain. It felt instinctual. And it felt … well, grounding. So I decided to do this on a daily basis.

When I leave the house to go to my car in the morning, I will just bend down and put my fingers in the soil for a few seconds. Whether there’s rain or snow on the ground, I do it. A poem by Mary Oliver (about the dirt and paying attention) came to mind while I was thinking about this practice, so I decided to recite part of that while I’m touching the ground. It’s an effective way to get me to slow down and to notice the world around me.

“The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, 
I lay
on the grass listening
to his dog voice,
frog voice; now,
he said, and now,
and never once mentioned forever.”

Mary Oliver, “One or Two Things”

That’s the Mary Oliver poem above. But what I actually say is this: “The god of dirt came up to me many times and said ‘now’, and ‘now’, and ‘now’, and never once mentioned forever.” The altered version focused on the words that resonated with me. I mention this to illustrate that you can modify any words to fit your needs. There’s no need to maintain any kind of fidelity to the source material. This is just for you.

Then one day after creating this now 3-part ritual, I heard something on a Pagan podcast about how, when we breathe in, the world is breathing out, and when we breathe out, the world is breathing in. It was a passing comment, but I thought it was a really powerful idea. Breath is another one of those primal experiences and something that we are dependent on for life. So I decided to ritualize my first conscious breaths in the morning. When I first wake up, as soon as I am aware enough to do so (or as soon as I remember to do it), I will breathe in and out three times, while saying (in my head): “I breathe in; I breathe out.” And then I do it three more times, while saying (again, in my head): “The world breathes out; the world breathes in.”

I realize that my practice involves sun, water, soil, and breath corresponds, which corresponds to the four traditional Pagan (actually Aristotelian) elements: fire, water, earth, and air. But I didn’t set out to construct a ritual around those four elements. That would be the opposite of the process that I have described in this series.

It just started with greeting the sun and praising the water, and then I added the grounding practice. It wasn’t until that point that I noticed the correspondence to three of the four elements. And then I remembered the comment on the podcast, and the breathing practice just fit right in. It’s a nice fit conceptually, but I would not have constructed it that way if it hadn’t come to me spontaneously, experientially.

I want to emphasize that these are not abstract elements for me. They are some of the most basic, and yet powerful, interactions that I have with the world: the air I breathe, the sun I feel on my face, the water flowing over my body, and the earth I walk on.


You’ll need to find your own “elements”, your own primary interactions with the world. They may or may not have anything to do with the four traditional elements. They are likely to be experiences or actions that you overlook, because they have become routine or mundane for you, but are really essential to your life, vitality, or your physical or emotional health. Maybe it’s actually coffee! Maybe it’s taking your first bite of food. Maybe it’s your morning constitutional. (No, I’m not kidding.) Or maybe it’s something completely unique to you.

Take some time and identify one experience that you want to ritualize. Then apply a simple gesture and a short poetic expression. The gesture might be raising your arms above your head, touching your fingers to your forehead or your heart, pressing your palms or cupping your hands together, or bending down and touching the ground. The poetic expression might be from the lyrics to a song you love, part of a poem, or just something you heard somewhere once that resonated with you and stayed with you over the years. I am unabashedly eclectic. I use words from popular media, classic literature, ancient pagan liturgies, or something my wife said once–anything which resonates deeply with me.

The key is that you feel your way through the process, rather than thinking your way through it. This requires deep listening and a willingness to follow your intuition. Listen to the world around you. Listen to your body. Listen to your gut. Listen to that part where your dreams come from. Listen to that part of your mind that isn’t talking but nonetheless feels pregnant with possibility. And if you feel stuck, stop and listen again.

Keep it simple. If it’s not, it will be harder to maintain. Increases in complexity doesn’t necessarily add proportionally to increased impact.

I recommend just starting with one practice. Don’t multiply the parts too quickly, or it will become cumbersome. Though, you might do the same practice multiple times a day. For example, I will sometimes do the sun greeting in the middle of the day, when I notice the sun coming out from behind the clouds. You can start with a morning practice or a practice at night before you go to bed or a mealtime practice before or after you eat.

When you do the ritual, take your time. Really be present to the gestures and to the words. You may find that repeating certain words or phrases three times increases their impact. I recommend saying the words out loud (unless there are practical reasons not to). Moving your mouth, working your vocal cords, and hearing the sound in your ears, all this moves the words out of your head and into the physical world.

You may also find that you want to change the ritual in the middle of doing it. If so, then great! Do it. Be spontaneous. That’s a sign that you’re really being present and that the ritual actually is an expression of your experience of the world and not something abstract in your mind. Or you may decide you want to change the ritual later, after you’ve done it and had some time to think about how it felt. If so, then do it. Just because we call it a “ritual”, doesn’t mean it’s supposed to be static or unchanging.

In a future post, I will talk more about the execution of a ritual, what it should feel like, and how you know if it’s “working”.


JOHN HALSTEAD

John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism.  John has written for numerous online platforms, including PatheosHuffington PostPrayWithYourFeet.orgGods & Radicals, now A Beautiful Resistance. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.

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