Post Frequency

One of the problems I have traditionally seen in sites like this one, that tread the border between blogs and essay sites is a matter of post frequency. Frequently we will see things such as a burst of activity followed by nothing for weeks or even months, especially if it is around a busy season for the individual author(s). There are myriad reasons for this occurring, but unfortunately it leaves the readers with no idea whether the blog is dead, whether the authors are coming back, or when/if they might expect normal posting to resume.

I am using this blog as an opportunity to break that cycle, at least for me personally. This is part of why I asked a few other authors who I shared a reader-base with to join me in this endeavor. With more authors in one place, we can even out the post counts slightly so that there is less of a gap between posts. It also gives us more room to play off of one another in our replies, and more room to solicit guest articles from other authors in the future. It also means that people who are interested in the topic can find us more easily, and that people who were following our individual (and less frequently updated) blogs only had one site to check instead of three.

Another piece that I am going to be working on is that there will always be at least one on-topic non-administrative post a week. We may have hiatuses in the future, which will be announced in advance to the degree possible, but barring unusual circumstances we should always have at least one post a week. That way, when we do have a burst of activity, we’ll always return to a baseline of a post-a-week instead of to zero posts.

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30 Days, Day 6: Beliefs — Reason, Science, and Spirituality

There are a large body of people out there who seem to think of Religion™ and Science™ at eternal odds with each other. Some of them seem to believe equivalents of that in 2012 all of Science™ will fade and will be replaced by magic, other seem to think that everything in spirituality can be explained through scientific means and thus loses its meaning. There are gradations between these, but functionally there is a view that these two are at odds, and that you either fall into one camp or the other.

There are multiple problems with these perspectives for both groups, and basically that problem tends to boil down to a lack of understanding of what the other is trying to do or what it is, possibly along with a rejection that such could possibly be important.

Anti-Science

First, for the anti-science group, I’ve noticed that they tend to approach science not understanding what it is or what it attempts to do. Science is about understanding the natural world and has given us a lot of useful tools and–let’s be frank–downright cool stuff. The more and deeper we understand it, the more we realize how little we actually understand.

To quote Lupa’s article on Science and Spirituality, which really captures the heart of the problem:

Of course, when these people I speak of try to contrast magic and science, their general understanding of what pure magic is would violate the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and just about every other science out there–if it could actually do what they claim it can do. They point to situations where magical practice has apparently done the impossible, by creating changes in physical reality that aren’t supposed to happen. Confirmation bias aside, I’m guessing that all of these can be explained ultimately through science. The explanations may not be to the satisfaction of the imaginations (and wishful thinking) of some folks, but IMO, that doesn’t make those explanations any less important for being explained through boring science. After all, if you get the result you wanted, what does it matter?

This is just it: Science is perceived as being several things:

  • Unified and Static
  • Dismissive
  • Boring

None of these three things is ultimately true, but it is easy to see how people come to these conclusions, especially when they see such spokespeople for Science™ as Richard Dawkins or the debunking organization that originally started as CSICOP. They think of it as something that they studied in school in a designated classroom, taught in the driest and most boring way: the rote memorization of facts.

Science is about the process by which the world around us works. Science is filled with new ideas and discoveries, and saying that something may ultimately be explainable through science does not lessen or demean it in any way.

The Dismissive piece has less to do with science as a whole and more to do with individual scientists or–even more often–those self-appointed internet crusaders who firmly belong in the next section. Even scientists are not, to quote Marcello Truzzi, the paragons of rationality, objectivity, openmindedness and humility that many of them might like others to believe, let alone the media or the other groups that will carelessly cite science for conclusions that are wholly unsupported or in areas where science in its current form can claim no domain.

Anti-Spiritual

The second group denies not just the potential reality of the spiritual world, but goes on to deny its importance. There are two basic problems with this approach.

The first is that it may flat-out be wrong. What if, as Edith Turner wrote in her article The Reality of Spirits:

Then I knew the Africans were right. There is spirit stuff. There is spirit affliction; it is not a matter of metaphor and symbol, or even psychology.

What if it is there and just has not been discovered yet? What if scientists’ own arrogance has prevented them from seeing what is in front of their faces, or if when dealing with intelligent entities we currently lack good tests to fully comprehend what we are dealing with (people who study animal intelligence frequently seem to find themselves in agreement with this point, if the accounts of Jane Goodall and Irene Pepperberg are any indication).

By dismissing without evidence, the attitude is functionally unscientific, so here again the problem is not going to be with science but with its individual defenders and practitioners.

The second problem is that even if it isn’t real it may still be good for something. When I journey I interact with other spirits and realms, but if these realms can be proven to not be objectively real it won’t bother me in the slightest, since what I bring back tends to be so useful to me.

Spirituality and Religion tend to address separate questions than science can. Questions of the soul and what am I doing with my life are not questions where science can give us satisfying–or even interesting–answers without leaning heavily on a philosophy not derived from science. Functionally, many of the really important questions, such as questions of morality, gods, or the existence of things that–by definition–would not leave much of a mark in the physical realm. To quote Stephen J. Gould describing his position of Nonoverlapping Magisteria:

[F]or whatever my private beliefs about souls, science cannot touch such a subject and therefore cannot be threatened by any theological position on such a legitimately and intrinsically religious issue.

Just because an individual does not see the value in it, does not mean that it is not valuable to someone else for entirely legitimate reasons. What’s more, it is perfectly acceptable for two people with widely different experiences to believe widely different things based on those experiences.

Conclusion

Essentially: there are areas where both science and spirituality shouldn’t be lecturing the other.

The problem with this sort of divide is that it forces people to take sides and recognize that both sides might have something valuable to contribute. That they operate in largely different domains, and that where they overlap we tend to get good results by having them work together.

The real question that I ask–borrowed from a friend of mine–is do the beliefs help or hinder functioning. Not, are they demonstrably true, but strictly as a matter of how one functions relative to a baseline.

To quote Lupa again:

And that’s the thing: science augments my spirituality. Knowing how photosynthesis works just makes knowing plant spirits that much better. Being aware of how stress affects physiological processes of the body adds value to meditation. Understanding the natural history of physical animals helps me know their totems even better.

The only thing that I would add to that is that spirituality enhances my understanding of the scientific world as well. Not directly by telling me what to believe, but by inspiring me to search, to understand, and to learn.

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30 Days, Day 5: Beliefs — Core Values

This is a slightly edited repost of my previous essay on this subject that I wrote for the International Pagan Values Blogging Month. I considered making a different post on the subject, but this one still feels right.

Part of the problem with talking about values is that it can quickly get overly specific. One virtue frequently depends on another, and to quote Michael Murphy (as quoted by Walsh in The World of Shamanism), Every virtue requires other virtues to complete it. While we all agree in living ethically we don’t all agree what those ethics entail.

A little over a year ago in a job interview I was asked what core values I clung to: what values that were deeply personal to me. What were, in essence, my core values by which I lived my life. It is one of the more unusual questions I’ve been asked, and my answer really ahd more to do with meta-values. Values from which everything else is subordinate to. The three I gave were:

  • All Knowledge is Worth Having
  • Self-Honesty
  • Kaizen

All Knowledge is Worth Having

This is the famous quote of Anafiel Delaunay in Jacqueline Carey’s excellent Kushiel’s Legacy series. Basically it comes down to this: There is no piece of knowledge that is so obscure and so arcane that it is not worth knowing. This isn’t to say that there aren’t opportunity costs involved, but what turns out to be of interest and of use later on is never clear when the knowledge becomes available.

This goes beyond the base memorization of facts. Facts are but one form of knowledge: there is also knowledge of the self and knowledge of skills. As the character of Russell learns in the movie Up: The wilderness, no matter how much you think you know about it, can be rather wild and will exceed your expectations. Yet this counts as knowledge as well.

It is also true that the important thing is knowing how to think, how to analyze, and how–ultimately–to learn. This is also part of knowledge and part of the process of acquiring it.

Every few months I see comments about how some group of engineering students (frequently Software Engineering) take too much math in school, when in truth those math classes are some of the most valuable they will ever take. They say that they will never use those classes in the real world and–in a very narrow view–they are right. The trick is that–as the saying goes–I advise my students to listen carefully when they take their last mathematics class, they may be able to hear the sound of closing doors. Not because knowing how to take a line integral in a complex plane comes up so frequently in my day-to-day job, but because the thought process and skill set that were acquired by taking such classes goes well beyond the base subject matter that was covered.

The same is true of Philosophy and is found in many other fields of study: the thought process and skills you gain while learning is more important than the material you cover.

This isn’t to say that the material can’t also be important: my first professional job out of college involved some of those areas of knowledge that people said I would never have a use for.

So we can say with some certainty that knowledge is a lifelong process and not a set of concise products that can be memorized and regurgitated. It doesn’t come down to the classes you take, or the field you are in, or a table of numbers (though all of these can be useful and help you on the way), but in how you seek and gather and what you learn while on the path.

It is important to seek, it is important to learn, and it is important not to dismiss some tidbit of information or some skill just because you cannot presently see the use for it.

Self-Honesty

Loki is one of many teachers that tell us that if there is one person in all of the Nine Worlds that you cannot afford to lie to, it is yourself.

Honesty is a funny concept. On the one hand, when you lie to others, the question is why do you feel that it is necessary to lie to them? This is part of what Ayn Rand was saying when she commented that:

People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked… The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on… There are no white lies, there is only the blackest of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all.

The so-called white lie is told to keep the peace but serves instead to distort reality, because reality is not palatable a false, illusory reality is set up instead. In telling this white lie you are saying that peace of mind is more important than what has actually true.

Besides, it is a pain to keep it all straight.

On the other hand, it is easy to pretend to being honest while in truth infringing on the boundaries of others. It is easy to fall into the trap of saying that one is just being honest when in truth it is simply a mechanism for making the other person uncomfortable (e.g., by sharing too much information), or talking instead of listening.

It can also, when poorly phrased or when not combined with mindfulness, be used as an inadvertent (or worse, deliberate) weapon in the worst possible ways. It can lead to what are called you statements instead of I statements, said in the name of being honest.

There is also power in deliberately lying. A lie–told mindfully–can be used to illustrate the truth or protect oneself from harm. A lie by omission (especially of the form of simply stopping short or not bringing something up) can be used to give yourself time to work things out within yourself before telling the truth, to play nice in a social setting for the benefit of a third party, or temporarily avoid hitting people’s triggers. Lying can be used as a tool by spies in order to gain information which is vital to saving lives, and denial and deception techniques have a long history in warfare.

The sagas are similarly filled with examples of people or gods being dishonest or–at a minimum–deflecting the truth slightly for a greater gain. These range from Odin lying about his identity when traveling to Egil pretending to be more drunk than he was, presumably in part to flush out an enemy. We also see in history everything from women lying about their sex in order to serve on the battlefield, or lying about their marital status to help avoid being raped, to being used to protect innocent lives in the Underground Railroad.

The difference here is in what the lie is used for, and whether it is told mindfully. While having a greater end is frequently important, we don’t want to get in to a question of ends justifying means and what really matters here is whether the lie is mindfully said, or whether it is said unconsciously. Whether it is said because I am denying reality, or while fully cognizant of the actuality of the situation.

Thus while honesty may be a virtue, it isn’t an absolute one and is one that must be balanced with other virtues when dealing with others. But self-honesty, being mindful of yourself and refusing to tell even the slightest lie to yourself to make yourself feel better, is another matter entirely. This is one area that I believe we cannot afford to skimp in, and one area whether the word radical is not merely warranted, but something to encourage.

There are reasons that might justify lying to others, but lies to yourself will always come back to haunt you in the end.

Kaizen

Kaizen (改善, literally “improvement”) is something I have talked about before. It means continuous improvement in all areas of your life. In Walsh’s The World of Shamanism he comments that in Western Philosophy we frequently make the mistake of believing that attention cannot be continuously sustained and he points out how in contemplative disciplines attention must be sustained.

Even if we cannot achieve the ultimate goal of perfectly sustained concentration, we can work toward it. We can build skills and slowly improve ourselves, so that even if we don’t–or even can’t–get there, we can improve ourselves and our abilities dramatically while working toward that as a goal.

This is part of the point of kaizen: It isn’t in being something great, it is in the process of continually improving ourselves in small ways. So I can’t be the person I want to be tomorrow, but can I be a better person tomorrow than I am today? That is, in the end, what matters and–after thousands of days–maybe I will become that person, or the person I wanted to be turns out not to be that great after all, but regardless of what happened to my goal, I will be a much better person for the journey.

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30 Days, Day 4: Beliefs — Birth, death, and rebirth

My answer here is largely going to be I do not know.

When we get right down to it: I am not a psychopomp. I do not see into the mind of the Norns and their designs, while I may occasionally talk with Hel I don’t spend a lot of time in her realm and don’t get a back stage tour into the mechanics of what is going on.

So the long and short of it is my theory tends to be I do not know, will find out soon enough, and so I don’t worry about it. I also believe that many people place such a huge emphasis on what happens in the after, they lose sight of what is happening around them and what is important now.

That said, there are a few touchpoints that I use when discussing this. I have seen enough to convince me that there are past lives, at least for some people in some fashion, and that there is some reason that most don’t generally have clear memory of what came before.

Beyond that, I don’t know about the mechanics. I know you can talk to manifestations of the dead, but I don’t know what their exact nature is. But as with many things here: All models are wrong, but some are useful.

So I will interact with the spirits of the dead, visit Hel’s realm, or assist souls in crossing if I am called to do it. I see what are supposed to be souls of the dead in Valhalla and Helheim, but ultimately I don’t know that such is what they are and it doesn’t bother me that they might be a manifestation of something different.

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30 Days, Day 3: Beliefs — Deities

What is a deity?

That, functionally, is the fundamental question. The Heathen gods do not work in the same way as the Christian God is supposed to work. They are not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent. They are not immortal. They were not around at the creation of the universe. While some of the principles are there in other parts of the mythology (quite possibly Ginnungagap, for example), the gods themselves bear no resemblance to such concepts as Ein Sof or Brahman.

This raises the important question: Is belief in the Gods even necessary to be Heathen?

I would generally say “no.” There is no reason we all have to be the same, and what defines us as Heathens is (or should be) the practices we engage in, not the specific beliefs we have about the nature of gods and wights. The original religions of our gods also tended to be more orthopraxic rather than orthodoxic, so the practice is more important than the specific beliefs underlying them.

I believe in the gods because I have interacted with them. I admit the possibility that there are other explanations for my interactions, but regardless of the specifics of how my interactions work, it presents a useful model for understanding. But this leads us back to the question: what makes them gods?

When we have so few touchpoints with the most common religions in the US for what we call a god vs. what they call a god, what forms the basis for our understanding?

Essentially, I use a a fairly broad definition, based on Kaldera’s definition that he uses in his books. Loosely stated: If something is orders of magnitude bigger, older, more powerful, and wiser than I will ever be I call it a god and give it the appropriate respect.

This means I don’t make a distinction between gods and demons in a Northern Tradition Pagan context. Rarely are things personifications of good or evil–even Fenris-wolf has his moments–and there are plenty of examples of the good guys working with the bad guys to get things done in the surviving myths we have, and the line between groups of gods can get a little fuzzy.

So unless I have another equally-appropriate term, I will tend to err on the side of calling something a god. It just needs to be understood that when is say Odin is a God I don’t mean it in the way a Christian might talk about Jehova, let alone Ein Sof.

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What We Do

I don’t really have a name for what our group does.

We practice seidhr, as well as incorporating other shamanic techniques in our practice. Most of us have some Wiccan training, a couple have ceremonial magician backgrounds, and we have one former Druid.

We study the Nordic worldview, the beliefs and practices of the ancient and medieval Germanic people as well as other Northern European people, and we adapt them to modern life.

We are Reconstructionists, but we are not fanatically about it. UPG(unproven personal gnosis) plays a big part in what we do.

We are modern mystics, most of us have one foot in the mundane and one foot in the other realms.

But we are not Heathens, in the Asatru sense, nor are we Wiccans.

This is my opinion based on my experience. This does not apply to every person I have ever met; rather it illustrates a general trend I see in practice.

Mainstream Heathenry is a Reconstructionist religion whose practitioners either dismiss mysticism altogether or perhaps consider themselves mystics but only within certain paradigms. They are often conditionally comfortable with oracular seidhr, and either dismiss magic altogether or see only things such as rune work to be valid within a Heathen practice.

Most feel Loki and his kin are evil and to be avoided at best, reviled at worst.

Invested in the idea that if it wasn’t written down in the lore, it didn’t exist, these practitioners think that anything outside those practices and beliefs is a way to play pretend at best. At worst, anything with a shamanic bend is ahistorical, fuzzy thinking, or the ultimate insult from their perspective, Wiccatru.

And in a way, they are right. We don’t have Old Norse historical documentation for what we do. We reconstruct based on the sagas and UPG. That can be a very tricky thing; especially if my UPG doesn’t match someone else’s UPG (which I have had happen).

However, there is a fantastic rise of practitioners that are interested in seidr and other shamanic practice. One of our guidebooks is Diana Paxson, one of the major founding members of modern Asatru’s book “Trance-Portation”.

Wicca is a modern religion influenced by a variety of pre-Christian beliefs. It views the spiritual and material worlds as overlapping. It stresses personal experience with both divinity and the larger world. Their rede is “Do as you will but harm none”

And we have no restriction on doing harm, other than “You pay for what you get.” Curse someone, do harm with what you know and learn, and you will pay the consequences. Are the consequences worth it to you?

Wiccans find Asatru frightening or racist or sexist (I had a Wiccan high priest illustrate his opinion of Heathens to me as a faith for bikers). While their system for magic is useful, many of the beliefs that surround it are not.

Establishing a group that works with aspects of the Aesir, Vanir and Jotnar (and we have people that have affinities and blood ties to all three of those tribes of the Nine Worlds), as well as a pantheist and a Celtic Reconstructionist, has been challenging, not only from a getting along with one another inside the group, but playing well with others outside the group.

Basically, we do what works. We’ve been doing it for 3 years now in Heimdrifandu.

Your mileage will most certainly vary.

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30 Days, Day 2: Beliefs — Cosmology

As I’ll discuss later, my views on the cosmological layout of the universe are a working model rather than something that I set firmly in stone. So when I say “it is this way” it should be interpreted as “I have found this to be a useful model for what I have seen/experienced.”

I work predominantly a 9-world cosmological model arranged in the spiral pattern that Kaldera uses in his Pathwalker’s Guide to the Nine World.

I have seen attempts to map these to the three-worlds system employed but a lot of shamans and shamanic practitioners, but have not found a clean 9-3 mapping that I like for that.

Connecting all realms is what we term the astral plane. There may be other astral planes, but there is one that I frequently know that I work with.

The worlds are:

  • Asgard
  • Ljossalfheim
  • Vanaheim
  • Jotunheim
  • Midgard
  • Muspelheim
  • Svartalfheim
  • Niflheim
  • Helheim

There are also other realms that are connected to these or to the astral plane which I visit regularly, such as the Fay Lands.

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30 Days, Day 1: Beliefs — Why NT Paganism?

The short answer is a bit of a cop-out here: I have been called to it.

The longer answer that is less of a cop-out requires a little background.

When I was around 8 years old, I asked my parents why there was a + symbol on top of a building. I had never had any training in religion up to that point, had never been inside of a Church, and knew virtually nothing of Christianity. While I had grown up on the stories of C. S. Lewis, the depth of his theology did not become apparent until much later in my life and at the time they were very much just stories.

My parents decided then it was high time that they start introducing me to Christianity, and–after visiting a variety of local churches and schools–they started attending a liberal Episcopalian Church in New Orleans. I was baptized there, and looking back I realize that what that represents is very similar to what initiatory traditions attempt to wrestle with. It is a way of cleansing your past in recognition of your future, and a way of initiating new members into the Church and bears a superficial similarity to practices by initiatory traditions.

Later, after I started attending a Roman Catholic High School, I realized that many people who had been raised Catholic knew very little about their own religion. I believed in challenging beliefs for logical consistency and in reasoning and analysis and in asking the question why.

Why is this right or wrong? Why should I believe this to be true? I accept that you believe a certain way, but why? Why do you exclude people from taking mass, even though they are Christian and even Catholic, just not Roman Catholic?

The Principal of the school was one of my strongest defenders and made several comments to me and my parents that showed that he understood. He wanted me to not forget emotional balance in my reasoning, and much later in my life I realized what he was saying and that he was right, but I digress.

What became blazingly apparent in all of this was that I was not looking for the same thing as others in my religion classes.

My senior year we were required to do a study, in groups, on a non-Christian religion. The suggested religions were things like Buddhism, Hinduism, and such and the analysis tended to be fairly superficial, but there you have it. After talking with my group, I borrowed a copy of my sister’s book– Cunningham’s Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. My group had settled on doing Wicca.

There I found a lot of descriptions of things that were far outside my understanding or experience, but I found a lot of things that appealed to me. I thought it was the religion, but looking back what I was really drawn to were the occult aspects of it. Working with energy, raising power, shaping that energy. Interacting with other realms and entities.

In college I met another person who had been a practicing solitary for a few years and we did some ritual work together. Through all of this, however, I treated it as a matter of psychology. Potent psychology, just because it is in your mind doesn’t mean it isn’t real, but psychology nonetheless.

Then one day I was home and I saw a hovering light in my room. Just a hovering ball of light, not doing anything but hanging out there. Any way I looked at it, it was there, just hanging out.

I was terrified and slept in another room.

The next day I contacted a friend of mine who dealt with such matters and asked her what it was. She named what it probably was from a distance, investigated to make sure it wasn’t anything else, and after seeing that calm confidence in talking about this unknown glowing ball I knew I needed training. I asked for training in the Celtic Tradition.

That is what clearly started me down this path. That moment of clarity, the turning of the unknown into the known. I needed to Know.

After that I interacted with gods and spirits of a variety of different traditions, and have subsequently moved from it is psychology to it is real and then to it doesn’t matter.

What I found in all of this is that I needed a lot of customization in my path and that it needed to at least be tolerant of occultist/mystical practices, and that pagan religions tended to be more open to that kind of work. I also found that the gods I had the best fit with were and who claimed me were, overall, gods of the Northern Tradition. Especially Odin in his wanderer and magician aspects. I found that path called to me in a very tangible way, but that the reason it called to me is an accumulation of all of what you see above and what you will see through the course of this 30 days.

I seek knowledge in all its forms and locations, sometimes at seemingly ridiculous prices. I observe the world around me and learn all that I can from what I observe. I believe in challenge and I have a strong wanderlust that leads me to interesting locations and meeting interesting people. Odin fits with all of that, and has an affinity to ravens to boot (which is always a plus in my book). I’ll talk more about my specific relationship with Odin and why that’s a good fit later when I talk specifically about patrons, however.

So that is a somewhat rambling account of Why I am a Northern Tradition Pagan. We certainly aren’t done yet, but that should be enough to get us started on the journey.

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Livejournal/Dreamwidth Syndication

For those who are going to follow us through some of the more common journaling systems, we now have feeds for both Livejournal and Dreamwidth. We also still have our RSS feed for your favorite readers. You can also see the links in the Syndication area on the right hand side. Enjoy!

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Finding Time: Prayer and Meditation

One of the challenges in today’s world is finding the time to meditate, finding the time to pray, finding the time to focus. In a world where we are increasingly connected to the world around us by our phones, connected to the internet and the constant threat of distraction from email, in busy jobs that eat our focus and time, it can seem difficult to set aside time to actually practice.

Some of the resources on dealing with this problem indicate this is a matter of priority. That it isn’t a matter of not having time it is more of a matter of not having prioritized it. This is useful advice in a lot of areas, but I do not believe it applies specifically to these topics, since they are the sort of thing that it is generally doable to integrate into your daily routine as part of what you are already doing.

(Structured) Prayer

Saying a structured prayer generally take less than thirty seconds, sometimes a lot less (my most common regular prayer takes a little under 15 seconds). The key is not making time for it, but placing set markers in your day that remind you to pray. That, essentially, trigger the reminder. Some examples:

  • Praying before a meal
  • Praying before brushing one’s teeth (for a morning/evening prayer)
  • Praying after sitting down at your computer at work (for a morning prayer)
  • Praying when turning on your alarm (for an evening prayer)

Basically just set a trigger in your life that you always recognize as a trigger to pray and come up with a short, easily-remembered prayer for that time. Then just clear your mind, set yourself in a prayerful state, and recite the prayer at the appropriate time before continuing with what you are doing.

After you have picked a trigger, it is just a matter of conditioning yourself so that when the trigger happens you know to pray.

This isn’t a massive undertaking: we aren’t talking about a rosary or a 40 bead set of prayer beads, but it is something simple, basic, and, in terms of disciplining the mind and taking advantage of structured prayer, very powerful.

Meditation

A lot of people seem to think of meditation as something you set aside time for–generally at least half an hour–and that it involves intense focus in either shutting down your thoughts or focusing in minute detail on one object or mantra. Really, meditation does not need to be that much of an ordeal: mindfulness techniques such as those employed by the Buddhist vipassana practices are just about being aware. As the koan goes on how one meditates when it is very hot or very cold: Hot Buddha, Cold Buddha: if you are hot and sweaty, you meditate by experiencing what it is like to be hot and sweaty. If you are cold and shivering, you meditate on what it is like to be cold and shivering. The distraction is part of the meditation, because you observe what your mind and body do.

Rather than setting aside time, it is better to set aside an activity. If you walk a few blocks to get lunch, meditate while walking. If you eat your lunch alone, meditate while eating. You can practice mindfulness while driving, you could also practice it while you brush your teeth. Even less so than before: this is less about setting aside time, and more about integrating it into the activities you already engage in. I like to spend a few minutes on the light rail just sitting there experiencing what it is like to sit there.

It doesn’t need to be long: Every little bit counts. The book Zen Heart recommends that when your emotions well up or you throw yourself into a coping mechanism you spend just three breaths just experiencing whatever it is you are feeling before getting back to what you were doing. Just three breaths, and then you get back to it.

Conclusion

In today’s increasingly busy world it is easy to tell ourselves that we don’t have time and, in truth, many things may simply not be priorities for us at this point in our lives. Yet even at our busiest there always are some things we can do to keep up our spiritual practice. In these cases, it isn’t a matter of priority or of not having time, it is simply a matter of using the time we have productively.

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