The Cresting Wave
“We’re all in a building that’s on fire, and most of us are wearing blindfolds. Spiritual practice helps us take the blindfold off. We’re still in the building, but if we can see, there’s more we can do.”
From Anthony Rella
My sitting practice had gone slack. I mean, I did it. I physically sat there. For twenty minutes, most days. But “I” wasn’t there. I’d be entranced with the fantasies and thoughts of my mind for much of the time. Each thought approached with its own urgency, its own need to be resolved NOW! None of which is new, it is the same tendency that has always needed tending. Yet I was not engaging with the practice of returning to presence as vigorously.
I’d withdrawn. I hadn’t fully realized it. First it was simply not watching the president speak. Then it was being selective about what articles I read. It was picking my battles, picking the causes I supported, and then noticing I’d not picked any in a few months. The eases of my privilege softened the urgency of it.
I was at a party of upper-middle class white people, culturally and demographically the same kind of people I’d grown up with in my adolescence, but most of who I’d never met before. We watched a slideshow presentation of the host’s recent trip to Dachau. She told us about all the different patches the incarcerated wore—including the Pink Triangle for homosexuals.
“There were gays back then?” asked an upper-middle class heterosexually married white woman. “I mean, people were openly gay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “There were transgender people too, but they were suppressed. Back then, there were openly queer people in the United States, too. But after an economic downturn there was a reactionary rightward turn, just like what’s happening today. They suppressed those people and erased our memories of them.”
She didn’t respond to that. This same weekend, the United States president’s administration sent instructions to the Center for Disease Control to not use seven terms. One of the words to be forbidden—people to be erased from memory—was “transgender.” “Fetus” was another, to erode sexual freedom and women’s autonomy.
It was a party. I was terrified. I felt another wave of this same historical movement cresting and these folks didn’t seem terrified and they didn’t know their history. They didn’t know the pattern to recognize it. Or maybe they knew it would break over someone else’s bodies.
The terror had been a slow heartbeat all year, coming into sharp focus and then fading into the background. After the election, the gods told me war was coming. I had dreams of violence and guns. Being fully unready to learn to use a gun myself, I decided to do some self-defense training. When I touched the tender edge of that terror, I would take a courageous leap forward and then back slowly into safety. A safety that isn’t really safe. A safety that is numbness and disengagement. But the party woke me up again. I wasn’t safe. People I love aren’t safe.
In my early days of taking up the Pagan path, so many of the books I read expressed an urgency with hope. Our modern lives were steering humanity toward destruction, they often said, but we have an opportunity to pull back, and these tools can help. Today, I almost feel a nostalgia for the moment when I still believed that. I don’t think humanity is doomed, but in my heart I feel we’ve passed the point when we could draw back. The fire has begun.
Now I think the work of humanity is to pass through the destruction and see if we can allow it to burn away what is sick and toxic and make room for that which is worth saving. Now my mind turns toward the descendants who will inherit the time of The Star, after the Tower has collapsed, where open space and fertile soil await. Those children will need much, and have great promise.
45’s presidency has definitely been an economic boon to psychotherapists. More than the president, however, the entire country’s political climate has woken up childhood defenses with a vengeance. It is absolutely about the people and events in charge, and you can also see the ways the client as a young person learned to deal with uncertainty, conflict, or problems in the family.
My own is that terror, reaching back to a childhood fear that if I didn’t “hold it together” and act as the emotional “rock” for my family, “everything would fall apart.” I wouldn’t be cared for, I’d be unloved. Being this “rock” meant being in some ways invisible, making sure others felt comfortable and at ease, especially at the expense of my own wants and needs. When there was a problem, I learned how to contort and bend myself rather than risk confronting the other people. This matured into a pattern of emotional self-denial, guilt, putting other peoples’ needs and comfort ahead of my own, feeling like nothing I ever did was “enough,” and then working myself until I felt total resentment.
This year I’ve been actively working to unravel that. Allowing this to run unchecked set me up for burnout and cynical withdrawal, which helps no one. Yet to unravel means reacquainting myself with the terror, facing it squarely, and not trying to “fix it.”
I need presence. I need practice to keep me returning to the world as it is. I picked up an old practice—counting my breaths, noticing the thoughts that rose between breaths, but staying with the count. Starting over if I got so caught up in a thought that I lost the count.
It is excruciating. And as I sit, bringing my focus to center and counting the breath, it occurs to me that when I practice, I must practice as though this is the most important thing in the world. More important than the thoughts that clamor for attention is this practice, making my awareness one with my breath.
After the election, an old friend and I had a conversation about her spiritual path. She had returned after a hiatus, experiencing profound and exciting openings while processing painful family trauma. We wondered about the value of spiritual practice in a time of political upheaval.
At the time, what I thought and said was: “We’re all in a building that’s on fire, and most of us are wearing blindfolds. Spiritual practice helps us take the blindfold off. We’re still in the building, but if we can see, there’s more we can do.”
There were gays back then?
For every god I worship, there is at least one person from every political orientation who will tell me why I shouldn’t worship them. The gods I worship are contested. People who care nothing about cultural appropriation, who would gladly extinguish all nonwhite people and strip their cultures for parts, also court these gods. I do not live in a world of clean rules and simple answers. I mistrust anyone who does. The gods come to me, and I give them offerings and praise, and we grow closer to each other. My service to them includes supporting the people of their lands of origin, in whatever ways I can.
The Rider-Waite-Smith Five of Pentacles used to trouble me. The art of this card often contrasts opulent religiosity with violent poverty. Having grown up learning the history of the Catholic Church, I associated this card with religious plutocracy, exploiting the religiosity of the people to gild their lavish churches.
Having read the work of Dr. Bones and Sophia Burns, I have come to sense another facet. The Five of Pentacles is the relationship between philosophical belief and material practice. If that church is worth a damn, those people in the snow should know they can find warmth and shelter inside of it. It’s the Black Panthers serving free breakfast for children.
What material result does my spiritual practice offer? When is it about bypassing, and when is it about service?
I was marching with a group of Black Lives Matter activists. Hearing the call-and-response chants, I thought about ritual artistry. The march needed people willing to take the lead in the calls. Anyone could respond, and most people did, but only a few loud voices started the next call, ideally people who were leading the march. Without those callers, the energy of the group would grow slack. If the callers weren’t listening to each other, the chants fell out of sync, or different chants competed.
No one called in my little cluster, so I took a risk. I discovered, to my surprise, that I had a big voice. Knowing I was a white male taking up space in a Black Lives Matter march, I listened to what the other callers were doing and decided my service would be to amplify what they did. When my voice got tired, someone else took up the role. When their voice got tired, I took up the role.
We marched in front of the police station. The cops were a few yards away, watching. All of my childhood defenses and middle class, Midwestern cultural training came to the fore. Don’t make them uncomfortable. Don’t draw attention to yourself. And that clearly conflicted with the role I’d taken on in support, to shout out “No justice!” and “No racist police!”
That was a moment when I had my practices to keep me in service. What we were doing was larger and more important than my individual comfort, and if I was unwilling to let the cops be uncomfortable I might as well stop marching altogether. I’d spent years developing my skills in setting aside the reactions of the moment and keep to the task.
In the early days of my meditation practice, a Christian acquaintance challenged me. “So, what, if your grandmother was dying you would just sit there and meditate and it would all be okay?”
“Well, I mean, if my grandmother was dying I would probably sit and talk to her. I might meditate on my own, but the whole point is so I can be there for her.”
Spiritual bypassing would be sitting in meditation while my grandmother dies. It would be taking off my blindfold and leaving the enflamed building while others burn, or saying, “The flames are all illusion!”
I love the gods, and I desire access to a deeper wisdom than the collective mind that created our dilemma. I need the tools that calm nervous systems, that build and sustain the bonds of beloved community. I crave the rituals that align us with the powers of the earth and nature. I want us to have the skills and powers that can’t be bought or sold.
As a child, the ocean was a place of play and relaxation. In my early days of Paganism, the ocean became a symbol of the powers of Water, Daring, Passion, and Emotion. Lately, it has become once again simply the ocean. Its ongoing cresting, breaking, and receding is the manifestation of the deep cycles that govern many things, including the spiral of history. I feel the mystery of the waves in my body.
My practice immerses me in the living world, in the time I have been given. To be here more fully than I ever knew I could be. To not shy away from the flames or the terror. To know deeply that there is something in me that will not be burnt.
Anthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School and a member of the Fellowship of the Phoenix. Anthony has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. More on his work is available at his website.