Stranger than Fiction: Imbolc and lessons from winter

Today the Wiccan community celebrates Imbolc. Though we’re still in the midst of winter, with the potential for Nor’easters and cold days ahead, and though Punxsutawney Phil hasn’t emerged to peek at his shadow yet, we can still catch a glimpse of spring.

The cold days teach us to be grateful for the warm ones. The long nights teach us to be grateful for the sunrise. The days are steadily getting longer, preparing us once more for the equinox, with its equal day and equal night.

I’ve had one of those stranger-than-fiction weeks, a series of strange occurrences that I never could’ve imagined. As a journalist, I also call these moments “man bites dog.” (Because, when a dog bites a man, that is not news. But when a man bites a dog, that is news.)

Failure can be the foundation for success, and pain, the foundation for growth. In fact, as most of us know, we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. As Jane Hirschfield writes in her poem “Waking the Morning Dreamless After Long Sleep”:

“But with the sentence: ‘Use your failures for paper.’ Meaning, I understood, the backs of failed poems, but also my life.”

Sometimes the winter seems too cold to bear. One lesson I’ve learned from the past week is that, as we walk through our days, we are often blind to how much pain the people around us are holding in. No one can carry that pain for them. No one can bear the winter’s cold but the person outside in the snow. But the flowers emerge following the spring’s thaw. Hirschfield goes on to say:

“I do not know where the words come from, what the millstones, where the turning may lead. I, a woman forty-five, beginning to gray at the temples, putting pages of ruined paper into a basket, pulling them out again.”

If we didn’t know winter, would we celebrate the spring? The best we can do with our failures is to learn from them, to build a better version of ourselves, to work toward recognizing that, despite pain, loss, and mistakes, we are still whole. I don’t believe we need to become whole. I think we need to realize we already are. The best we can do with the bad weather is to understand its place in the cycle of things and to smile when the sun rises. May your Imbolc hint of spring days to come, a reminder of light, healing, and the cycle of the seasons.

Life is a crazy journey. And you can quote me on that.

How to Evoke the 5 Senses and Create a Meditation Space

Meditation can take our lives from drowning in deadlines to sailing on a sea of tranquility. Carving out a special space for the practice, which can take the shape of anything from a simple yoga sequence to guided imagery to reflection on a religious passage, means we’re more likely to take a few minutes each day to ground ourselves and reflect. The practice allows us to cultivate relaxation, gratitude, and awareness.

I take my own life as the perfect example: I’ve spent this week on a tight deadline for an article for work. I know as soon as I finish this story, several more will emerge from the sidelines to take its place. Between dog-walking, doctor’s appointments, paying the cell phone bill, and cooking dinner, how do we find time to focus on nurturing our deeper selves? Between jobs and hobbies, friends and family members, eating and exercising, how do we make a space to reflect?

The first step can be a small one. We simply make a place for that reflection. What better way to ensure we meditate than to create a space in our home–whether it’s a small corner or an entire room–especially for this practice? Here’s a guide to creating a meditation space, one sense at a time.

Floor pillows, available at www.westelm.com.

Floor pillows, available at http://www.westelm.com.

1.)  Touch: For meditation, comfort is key. Few of us can meditate while seated in an uncomfortable high-backed dining chair. Meditation requires a mix of focus and relaxation. Touch means comfortable surroundings. A floor cushion, folded blanket, or yoga mat provides the necessary foundation for good practice. Add comfy clothes (my go-to is yoga pants and a tank top) and just say “om.”

2.)  Smell: Scent is powerful. It can ignite the first spark of attraction or trigger a memory. Lightly scented candles can set the scene for a meditation, though overwhelming smells or chemical fragrances can trigger migraines or asthma attacks for some. If the smoke of incense isn’t your thing, consider a much more subtle alternative: an aroma diffuser, such as these, sold at Mountain Rose Herbs, which also offers an assortment of essential oils. Add a few drops of the essential oil of your choice–anything from eucalyptus to bergamot to lavender–and allow the scent to waft through the room. Electric diffusers that use a light bulb instead of a tea-light candle are also available from other retailers.

3.)  Sound: Few things are as personal as our taste in music or the sounds that produce a sense of relaxation. This can be a Tibetan singing bowl or a gong, so that you’re in charge of the sound; a podcast of nature sounds, anything from bird songs to ocean waves; the soft strains of Vivaldi; or complete and utter silence. Even if you’re in a space that’s normally full of the hustle and bustle of the household, try to make it as quiet and serene as possible. Not even the most disciplined of us can truly focus on a meditation exercise when surrounded by a cacophony of car horns and crying children. Having music or nature sounds also gives us something to focus on. That way, if our minds wander, we have something to draw us back into our practice.

4.)  Sight: Don’t forget to set the stage for tranquility. Anything from the art on the walls–whether you fancy the pastel hues of Claude Monet or the black-and-white nature photos of Ansel Adams–to the statues and knickknacks we surround ourselves with helps us relax into a receptive state of mind. A small, low table can become a makeshift altar when we add a few meaningful items. Houseplants or fresh-cut flowers, statues of deities, inspiring artwork, and relaxing colors can all play a role in finding our inner zen. If you can paint the walls, bright red probably isn’t the way to go. Cool tones like blues or greens, earth tones like adobe or khaki, or a middle-of-the-road hue like purple whisper (not shout) zen.

5.)  Taste: Taste doesn’t typically come into play when creating a space for tranquility. But consider brewing yourself a pot of green tea to have nearby. At the very least, pour yourself a glass of filtered tap water. (Bottled water consumes more natural resources than water straight from the tap.)

Whether you have an entire floor or a small nook, an hour each morning or a few minutes each evening, setting aside a time and a place for meditation can benefit body, mind, and soul. Creating a space for meditation practice encourages us to carve out that time in our busy lives. The practice can rejuvenate our creativity, alleviate stress and anxiety, and help us head off stress-sensitive conditions like high blood pressure, migraines, and depression. Create your space one breath, one object, and one sense at a time. Then relax and enjoy.