January 2023: Happy, Calm Things

One of the things I appreciate about this time of year is how neon-navy the sky is when I leave work. The sky coaxes itself lighter every day, and soon the sun will still be up when I leave my basement office. One day late in the month, I caught a glimpse of the young-crescent moon in the few seconds before clouds rolled in. It felt like such a precious theophany. And to think the cosmos is filled with worlds.

I titled this post “Happy, Calm Things” because I want to highlight the positive. While I’ve definitely had some angry moments and some challenges this month, it’s also a month that marks me hitting a half-year streak in the Calm meditation app. I have really narrowed down the number of apps I use for self-care, and I am using Calm for pranyama timing, mood check-ins, gratitude, guided meditations, and unguided timed meditations. It has (a) narrowed down the number of notifications on my phone, always a plus; and (b) having a focal point for my self-care practices is really nice. I migrated from Headspace to Calm — although I still sometimes use Headspace for focus music and sleep wind-downs because those are very good and I have access to the app through work — because the way Calm structures its meditations aligns better with what I need while meditating. Inspirational talks before the meditation are distracting. I also enjoy the variety of Daily Calm techniques — if I were left to my own devices, I would never do body scans.

I started doing diligent mood tracking in the app earlier this month after reading happiness research about how important these check-ins are for being realistic about one’s feelings. We remember the intensity of our negative emotions due to our cognitive biases. I had a week-and-a-half long period in which I was filled with intense anger earlier this month, primarily directed at myself, but when I looked back at the app, I realized that it didn’t show me the full picture. There was definitely emotional storminess, but just as with environmental weather, there were many more sunny days than bad ones. Managing anger made me think of my mother when she was only slightly older than me (I was born when she was 32, and I’m now 35) and the ways that I’ve bottled up anger too much because I remember her blustery temperament when she was in her 40s and 50s, and I never want my own anger to be unbridled, no matter how justified my mom was in being angry or how valid a response my own anger is. Being hyperaware (and, honestly, afraid) of that danger increased my own suffering and made the problem worse.

Reflecting on over 180 days of a solid meditation practice — and a few weeks of steady mood tracking, and about a month of using the pranayama timers that I didn’t know were there — does make me see the progress that I have made and how the techniques I’m training are translating into my everyday life. What supports this even more is that I’m not on social media, so I’m no longer doing that thing where I’m trying to bail water out of my boat before plugging the hole. Today, for example, was the first time in over a month that I’ve had the kairos right for a specific prayer practice, one that involves a lot of recitation/chanting, and I realized that the focus techniques are helping me to quickly note extraneous thoughts and recenter on the prayer. This is something that used to be a lot harder even while I was doing meditation regularly.

Self-care often gets a bad rap because meditation and similar wellness practices are often pitched to us the same way that coffee and matcha are — do this thing so you can be more productive, so the prevailing circumstances can suck more and more out of you. However, we don’t need to listen to them. Meditate, and continue to leave work at 5 PM, not 7. Drink your delicious caffeinated beverage, and continue to spend your breaks reading something you love, not sacrificing them to an employer that doesn’t actually care about your well-being. What matters is aligning one’s self-care to one’s actual life goals. Here’s an interesting piece I read about preparing for death and reflecting on what in life can prepare you for a peaceful end. You could also read the Phaedo. While I’m happy to give my time and energy during my 9-5 to my institution’s mission and to student success, my actual goals are to do what is best and most pious for my soul and to do what I can to help others do the same. Honors and accolades are worthless if they lead to division, and we are all equal before the Gods. Moreover, we all die. Very few of us are ever remembered, and even for those who are, you will likely reincarnate not knowing that you were that person. Meditating on Apollon, the Lord of Abiding Compassion, and tacitly dedicating my compassion meditation practice to him, I’m starting to grasp at a lot of things that have been difficult to conceptualize and overwhelming to think about how to tackle. We need to work hard to build the world that we want to be born into.

Towards the beginning of the month, I accomplished one of my Q1 2023 goals and went to a full moon yoga class. It started with a nondenominational circle. We did a cleansing, and we symbolically released things we wanted to let go of, before we did a short yoga flow. There was an altar in the corner of one room where people had brought things — both us, I think, and staff over the course of time. It had everything from a statue of Ganesh to the Helm of Awe to an icon of a Goddess. It was fun and relaxing and beautiful to be in community with others. I’ve missed that a lot. When it finished, I went back home and did full moon offerings and rested in that beautiful, full silence afterward. This was during the peak period of anger that I mentioned above, and much of my energy was directed at trying to resolve what was causing me distress.

That night, after the letting-go cleansing and the shrine prayers, I had an exceptionally vivid dream, something that got to the core of what I had asked in the cleansing and some general things that have been on my mind since finishing up that second read-through of Simplicius. It’s private, and definitely something more for my journal and to discuss with friends, but I am half expecting to receive a therapy bill from my daimon in the mail.

I finished doing the proofreading for the print version of The Soul’s Inner Statues, and it will be released on February 27, the seventh day of the lunar month. It is important to me that it be released on Apollon’s day. The ISBN is 9781735740621. It’s an at-cost book, meaning the price will be set to whatever generates no royalties — so only the printer and distributor get a cut of the cost.

The Soul’s Inner Statues is designed to communicate things that would have been obvious to all of us had the past been different. None of it is groundbreaking. It breaks down quotidian devotional practice accessibly, and I’ve received comments that it’s very helpful for people who are prone to overwhelm. Librarians think about “information overload” a lot, and perhaps the unique contribution is that I approached the topic from that standpoint — it’s not constructive at all to tell people “if you were pious you’d have no problem with this” or to ignore that step-by-step breakdowns are what most people need. Crafting a household worship practice is all about creating a harmonious unity from what may be scattered for many of us. It involves the physical act of setting up a space, the logistical act of figuring out timings, and the conceptual act of learning pious frames of mind for what one is doing. I’m fairly sure that someone who works through it will be in a solid position to read works from religious specialists. I’m a bit worried that I went a bit heavy-handed in the section about groups, but I am admittedly very concerned about the allure of Influencers and cultish group dynamics. I’ve read so many horror stories about abuse in spiritual communities that I can’t not say something.

Lateral reading — reading widely — is very important, and I do this a lot. I finished reading a book I hated, Natural Religion by Neal Ferris, at the beginning of January. It wasn’t meaty enough. Ferris isn’t precise in his terminology, and he cherry-picks statements to support his thesis. I wrote a very long review on Goodreads. I’m listening to Jeremy Lent’s The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe and have already rage-quit the book once only to go back into listening to it, self-disciplining myself to see it through. Both Ferris and Lent say very incorrect things about Platonism because they believe that the mangled misuse of Plato in our prevailing circumstances is actual Platonism. For example, Lent says that Plato couldn’t have anticipated something that is apparently discussed in Taoism and some Buddhist sects — the soul emerging as a harmony of its components, in Lent’s case brain processes and nerve feedback — but Plato already covered this in the Phaedo, so Lent is creating antagonism among these schools just to be dramatic. There are actual differences among these schools of thought, yes, but it’s important to be correct when we identify what those differences are. It’s also that people don’t really … read the Phaedo, do they, nowadays? I don’t know if I can handle many more decades of reading takes like that. Sooner or later, I’m going to end up passing out Proclus’ Elements of Theology on street corners and college campus intersections.

Still, it’s important to read things we disagree with every now and then. It helps me reflect on my own views and reassess what can be improved — after all, Plotinus told us to never stop working on our statue. This is a growth mindset approach to becoming a better person. It’s definitely a bigger haul to listen to a 16-hour audiobook (but I did pick it back up! I will be strong!) than it is to tackle something shorter. After all, it is time and energy, and each of our lifetimes is limited. But broadening one’s perspective matters, especially in this age of polarization and hyper-fragmentation, where we are cut apart like Dionysos — and I know I’ll be back to listening to other things soon, and it’s not like I am neglecting my own practices in favor of poking my head out of my bubble. Moreover, I’m confident about what my values are and why I make the decisions I do. And I also have confidence that the Gods will lead me to the things that are good for me because they care about all of us. As I pray to them every day, May you guide me to accept whatever comes as teachings and grant me the resourcefulness I need to succeed, guiding me to whatever is most good.

I made a big investment of energy earlier this month in reading through Tibetan Buddhist discussions about health and toxicity in spiritual relationships, primarily the one between student and teacher. I’m planning to integrate some of that into a post about these dynamics. There’s a lot to learn from the mistakes of others, and I’m confident that some of the takeaways they have had after their own roller coasters of scandals could be reflected on within the pagan and polytheistic movements. I’ve already learned to think about polytheistic hagiography in a different way, and I’m using the guru meditation advice given in one set of pieces to broaden my compassion for imperfect spiritual teachers and elders. The framework of recognizing all of someone’s flaws while being compassionate about all of the good things they have done is helping to pull me back from that polarized thinking, too. I’m constantly discovering ways in which being too online damaged my fight-flight-freeze-appease response, and even some situations in which it impacted my reasoning. I know that this practice is good for my soul.

Finally, I read a book called Astronomical Mindfulness. It is so good! It’s about getting acquainted with the sky where you live, and each chapter is buffered by interludes about the history of astronomy — short vignettes with a nonwestern, indigenous science focus. Some of the meditation exercises suggested in the book are actually very similar to things I do for the Gods while in sacred space.

There’s a sentence in Simplicius that a friend mentioned would make a good chant. Chanting is one of my favorite ritual activities, so I’ve actually started using this in prayers — I say it after my prayer to all of the Gods and also during my prayer to underworld Gods. I find that it’s added a nice unity and focus — the fact that I am saying it for both modes of prayer emphasizes the core message of the passage in a behavioral, devotional way.

Μία ἠ ὄλη ζωὴ καὶ εἷς βίος, τῇδε κἀκεισε μεταβαλλὀμενος.
All of life is one, and the life you live is one, alternating between here and there.

Simplicius, On Epictetus volume 2, 135,30

I’ve also been doing more extensive weekday evening practices as of late, routing some of the time I’d ordinarily be spending in the morning in that direction. This is in part because I’ve realized that journaling after I wake up is very calming, so I’ve been spending about 10-15 minutes doing that. I feed my cat, take my vitamins, make tea, praise the sun/rising light, and watch the sky pale while writing. It’s nice to have that evening time to linger and to have that restful, cozy prayer feeling. After I finished the nine nights of prayer to Nantosuelta, I simply started doing the day-themed prayers at that time.

I’ve also been reflecting on a piece I read a long time ago from another blogger. I have no idea who said this (please comment with a link if it’s you or if you know who it was), but the person was reflecting on taking images of one’s shrine and how sharing them seemed to necessitate changes. The same thing has sort of happened with me with shrine practices. I shared a lot in The Soul’s Inner Statues because I believe in speaking from what I know, and after finishing it, some of my practices shifted and changed (while still following the core elements that were under discussion). I think this is very natural to household worship because it’s meant to be between one’s household/self and the Gods, daimons, and ancestors. Friends and close acquaintances and other family members are really the only ones who are meant to see it. The blogger’s piece also had me reflecting on sharing shrine photos in general and my own efforts to contribute less to hyper-consumerism. Examples of shrines are nice, and they can definitely inspire someone, but they often lead to consumerist impulses and the problem of approaching worship as fandom (with merch and accessories) rather than as an important component of one’s life. I’m no stranger to this impulse. This is the quote I think of whenever I go on Etsy:

Tell Yasmah-Addu: thus (speaks) Samsî-Addu, your father. The works concerning the gods that you have undertaken […]. You have had six gods made. The six gods you have had made, goodness, that amounts to ten! Your servants out of fear don’t talk to you, in heaven’s name, about your works. I want you to think about your protection, but what’s the sense in these gods that you have had made? Where does your silver come from, where does your gold come from, from which you count on having these gods made? … Are you a baby? Why make so many gods … Heavens, where will the cattle and sheep come from that you’ll have to offer to these gods every time on occasion of the monthly festival? Already you send me letter after letter, about sheep and lambs, telling me ‘I don’t have any!’ And now you’ve filled the town with gods, when all the sheep that there are aren’t sufficient for their sacrifices. The town of Mari is (already) full of gods and there’s none as full as it.

Footnote translation of a Mesopotamian letter. Parker, Robert (2017). Greek Gods Abroad, Oakland, CA: University of California Press, p. 82

Such a good letter. 😂 Anyway. That’s why I’m not doing much shrine photo sharing anymore. It now has to be something very specific for me to rationalize doing it.

The prayers for Nantosuelta ended over the weekend, and on Monday when my Discover Weekly refreshed, I found this song in the mix. It has a Nantosuelta and/or Persephone vibe about it.

As is evident from this post, I have a few planned posts for this blog that will be tackled — the one on compassion that I’ve promised for a bit of time; the one about the dynamics of teachers, students, and community; another on sameness, difference, and how we use intelligibility as a proxy for actual empathy, which will probably involve looking at Porphyry’s De Abstentia and EPB’s “Animal and Paradigm in Plato” and a few other things that the book Natural Religion cited that seem to get at some of the questions I have. (So that’ll be a haul some months from now, and I’m not sure why I’m doing it, but I really want to do it. This is also totally related to my lifelong anxiety about trees.) I want to do a down-to-earth explain piece about “paying the penalty” because I think it’s very easy to interpret what that means in a way that will do more harm than good, especially for those who struggle with toxic shame. The other things I put up here, apart from the monthly updates, are not premeditated.

It goes without saying that all of these moments of harmony and synthesis are done out of a pressing necessity to order my thoughts in the hopes that someone else finds them useful. What I say here definitely doesn’t substitute for things written by qualified, credentialed specialists — I’m just a 35-year-old woman who happens to pray and read a lot and who is prone to enthusiasm.

May you all have a wonderful February.

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