The Resurrection of my Normal Sunday

Apparently tomorrow is Easter. I did not realize that until someone told me yesterday. I was actually kind of pleased that it has slipped my consciousness so thoroughly.

Unlike Christmas, Easter has never been a favorite holiday and not one that I’ve been desperate to reclaim after the cult. Underneath all the itchy frilly dresses, white gloves, and hats that my parents would dress me in as a toddler, it was a mildly terrifying holiday.

They said it was a day to celebrate Christ’s victory over the grave…but really it was one more opportunity when visitors would be in the church and they could be scared with the idea that the whole point of Easter was because we were all going to hell if we didn’t repent.

It was a holiday of guilt, when those of us who believed were shamed for the fact that we were so evil that Jesus had to die a horribly painful death in order for us to have a shot at forgiveness.

We celebrated the resurrection while thoroughly blaming ourselves for making it necessary.

How dare we be sinful?

How dare we continue to sin even after salvation?

I was taught that every time I sinned, I was crucifying Jesus all over again—that he felt the pain of dying afresh with each new prideful thought or delay in obedience. And yet, I was also taught it was impossible to be sinless. The very assumption that I hadn’t sinned in a day was a sin itself.

There was no escaping that guilt.

The story of Jesus’ death no longer carries that same weight. I see it as one of several life/death/life stories of gods across different traditions. In fact, the concept of resurrection, on its own, is a beautiful one. It’s the seed of the phoenix symbolism, the hope that even after destruction new life can come.

I have come to appreciate resurrection stories.  In fact, they become my focus at Winter Solstice.

But while the story no longer seems threatening, the day of Easter always has been, up until this year. For the first time, I don’t feel that internal dread as Easter approaches. To me, finally, it’s just another Sunday.

 

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That Time a Cult Survivor Attended a Winter Solstice Ceremony and Survived

I worked up the courage to go to a solstice ceremony this past week. I haven’t been to an actual religious ceremony in years, mostly because I can’t stand being in churches or church-like buildings–but a good portion of that also stems from the distrust I carry.

Since the ceremony was taking place outside, that removed the problem of the setting being an unnecessary trigger.

I have been curious about some of the public sabbat ceremonies held in my area for quite some time, and with the help of a new friend, I finally convinced myself to check it out.

Much of it was familiar enough from reading Starhawk that I could understand what was going on. I think it was good that I had that map because I might otherwise have been too insecure to stick it out.

There was the opening of the circle and calling in the four directions, followed by a short soliloquy about the symbolism of the solstice from who I assume was the High Priestess.

I was jumping out of my skin with apprehension, but I also found it really powerful to be in the company of people who honored nature and who didn’t deny the integration of darkness with light.

It was similar to church in some very small ways, but it was also significantly different from church—more than any other type of ceremony I’ve been to. Even when I checked out a Buddhist meditation, that felt more “churchy” than not. This one felt like the “churchy” feeling was residual for me, not due to the ceremony itself.

After the High Priestess finished her piece, people were invited to bring a stick up to the central fire and burn it with their solstice intention.

My readers who come from the IFB will probably chuckle or cringe to read that. A symbolic stick-burning was a very integral part of the indoctrination experience at the summer camp we would often be sent to. Four days after being separated from everything and everyone familiar, being run around ragged, and listening to sermons on hellfire morning, afternoon, and evening, The Wilds would “invite” us to throw a stick in the fire to represent surrendering our lives.

Summer after summer I would be pressured into showing my submission after being systematically terrified of dying on the drive home if I didn’t, so I fully expected to be freaked out of my mind when I heard the invitation at this ceremony.

But it was, again, different. No one was asking me to give up anything in the process of participating. I was setting my own intention. I could share it or keep it private.

And it was actually beautiful to hear the things that people were wishing for the world—things like peace, love, and healing. Even for a ceremony that acknowledged and embraced darkness, there was none of the “darkness” of the hatred and judgment and othering of the IFB.

Then came the dancing…and that’s when my participation meter maxed out.

I wanted to dance. I loved the idea of dancing as part of a religious ceremony. I was desperately cold by then and would have appreciated the warmth of dancing near the fire.

But I’ve also spent too much time studying the ways that people are influenced by cultic groups. I know that dancing in a group or singing in a group can be a subtle way to create a lack of oxygen, decreasing critical thinking and potentially even stimulating a trance-like state. Group participation increases the conformity and belonging drive. The combination of all of that can be a vulnerable mix.

Not a bad mix, per se. Dancing, singing, chanting, etc. can also be used to stimulate spiritual experiences that are entirely healthy.

However, I couldn’t know what would happen during or after the dance. I was new to this group and needed to keep my wits about me. I needed to know I was safe, that someone else wouldn’t try to make demands or interfere with my process while I was in a vulnerable state.

I simply couldn’t know that about this group the first time.

I felt awkward dropping out to the edge of the circle and watching. Part of me was afraid that it would be considered inappropriate, but I also knew that dropping out would be a good test of the safety of the group. If someone tried to coerce or pressure me into participating, that would tell me that my own limitations weren’t respected and that there may be more toxic elements to this group.

Spoiler alert: that never happened.

I was able to withdraw and stand at the edge, watching, without any interference. Moreover, I was able to observe, with my critical thinking, observing mind, that those who participated in the experience had nothing to fear regarding others trying to influence them during that process. No one tried to recruit new members to join the group. No one tried to pressure attendees to give money.

After the dancing, the dancers regrounded their energy. I was able to rejoin for the closing of the circle and farewell to the directions.

And that was the end.

In some ways, this feels like a huge milestone for me even though all I really did was go to a public place and stand at the fringes of a group, barely participating. What was happening inside was far more significant than it seemed on the surface.

I was healing and teaching myself that I can hold my boundaries in group situations that are unfamiliar.

Ultimately, I was able to face down some of my own fears and participate in something truly lovely while respecting my limitations and enjoying an actual ceremony that didn’t feel at all cultic.

It was a lovely Solstice gift to myself.

 

 

Listening for the Holy Spirit…er, My Spirit

This spring and summer have been a delightful whirlwind of activity. For a number of weeks leading up to the summer solstice, I couldn’t imagine being alone, filling each day and night with fun and friends. There were moments when I wondered if I could even consider myself an introvert anymore.

Then as the summer peaked and entered into the waning half of the year, I felt a shift.

“It’s time,” a small voice seemed to whisper.

I didn’t need to question what it was time for either. I knew instinctively that I was turning inward, beginning a more private part of my journey. Solitude suddenly seemed not only appealing but necessary. Whereas a week before I would have considered it a waste of a weekend to be stuck at home alone, my ideal Friday night was now an evening spent with my journal.

I know, this isn’t a particularly dramatic or interesting story. I went through a cycle. I managed to know when it was time to refocus and change direction. Whoop-di-do.

What stood out to me, though, was that the voice I felt and heard, the compass I looked towards for my “next step,” was the same voice I had listened for my entire life, even when I was in the IFB. It was the voice that I hoped to feel when I prayed and waited for the Holy Spirit’s leading. It was the voice that never led me wrong.

I used to think it was the voice of God.

I think I needed to believe it was the voice of God because realizing that it was coming from myself would have made it too untrustworthy.

Having been raised to distrust my “deceitfully wicked” heart, I couldn’t just trust my own understanding, for that would have surely led me into the devil’s snares. Every thought, every feeling, every desire was suspect, tainted with sinfulness.

But if I prayed earnestly to God in faith and submission, I could at least feel reasonably certain that he wouldn’t lead me wrong. Prayer was my only way of seeking direction outside of my authority figures and spiritual leaders, and ultimately the only way to trump their demands on my life.

So I listened for the still small voice of God that eventually led me out of the IFB and into freedom.

As I lost my religion, I went through a period where I doubted the “answered prayers” that had been such transformative moments in my life. If I didn’t believe in the Christian god, how could my prayers and my experiences have been real?

I still desperately needed to feel that sense of direction, but I couldn’t yet identify it as coming from within me. Tarot replaced prayer as my guidance seeker. It was external and mysterious enough that I could listen for that knowledge of the right direction without consciously looking to my inner wisdom as my guide.

I still love Tarot as my most surefire way of cutting through the bullshit of “should’s” and “must’s” to get to the heart of what I feel, but over time I’ve realized that I can access that inner knowing from within myself as much as from without. And as I’ve practiced listening to my intuition and inner guide, I’ve gotten better at hearing it without any props or tools.

I was afraid when I left Christianity that I would never again experience the magic of feeling “filled with the Holy Ghost” or the assurance of knowing that I would receive the answer I needed in prayer, but my soul has given me a beautiful surprise.

I don’t need anything else to fill me or guide me on what is truly best for my life. I am enough. I’ve been enough all along. Being connected to myself is being connected to God and filled with the Holy Spirit. It was me all along, finding ways of reaching out to myself.

And now that I’m no longer afraid of that connection or of that incredible, beyond-comprehension intuition, I know what it is for God to say, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.”

 

Authentic Movement: A Lesson in Following my Heart

This past weekend, I went to my first herbal conference, though hopefully not my last because it was a ton of fun. While I was there I decided to attend a class about working with plant allies. I’d developed an unusual bond with catnip over the last year, and I wanted to see if I could find a way to understand what made it particularly special to me.

I didn’t pay attention to the class title until I got there: “Authentic movement.”

For those who are equally unfamiliar with this type of movement, the best way I can describe it is movement meditation that involves going into a trance-like state in order to listen to your body’s urges (hence the “authentic part”…you only move when your body wants to). Since this class was focused on plant allies, it started with inviting the plant of your choice to accompany you on this mental journey.

I’m definitely not opposed to meditation or trances, and I’ve had my fair share of “visions” and revelations during meditation. But when I heard what was about to happen, my first thought was, “Oh hell no!”

I couldn’t imagine doing that in front of people, not just because it sounded potentially embarrassing but also because my experience with spiritual vulnerability has taught me to never let my guard down around others. When it came to spiritual groups, I lived by the motto: Never let anyone get you into a state of anything less than guarded.

However, I allowed myself to linger when the teacher explained that we’d all have our eyes closed during the exercise (no one would know I looked like a fool) and that her job was to create and hold safe space for us in our process.

I was still thinking I wouldn’t be comfortable doing anything, but at the very least, I figured I could learn what it was about and take it home with me if I really needed to be alone to feel safe.

To my utter surprise, I didn’t sit in the grass, hugging my knees to my chest the whole time. Not too long after she rang the meditation bells signaling the start of the exercise, I found myself releasing into my traditional meditative safe space. Part of me prowled the perimeter of my mind like a tiger, ready to pounce if I felt even the slightest hint of invasion or danger, but I slowly surrendered the rest of me to the movement.

Since visions are intensely personal, I won’t share what came to light in my soul here. However, I did want to talk about some of the secondary lessons I learned from participating in this class and stepping out of my comfort zone.

The first, and perhaps most obvious lesson, was the importance of listening to my body. As awkward as the idea of authentic movement sounded when I started, I realized later that it was nothing more than an exercise in intuition.

There will always be a cognitive, logical side to decision-making, and we hear about how to strengthen that aspect of our mind all the time. But there is also an intuitive side to decision making that we rarely talk about as a society. How do you know that you just applied for the right job? How do you know that this particular car or house is the one for you? How do you determine when it’s time to re-enter school? Or when it’s time to leave?

Sometimes, the logical side and the intuitive side coincide well, and the decision is easy. Other times, they clash, and what might seem like the best move to outsiders feels like the wrong move to you. Do you listen to your mind or your heart at those times?

Can you even tell the difference between your heart and your mind during those times?

Intuition was distrusted in the IFB. I was taught to fear and suppress it, yet I often found it to be my most accurate guide. Looking back with the awareness that comes not only with time but also with healing and distance from the brainwashing, I can see how my intuition protected me and led me, first in the small ways that informed me when people couldn’t be trusted with my truth, then in bigger ways when it led me out of the IFB even before I fully realized the magnitude of what I had left. Right now, I’m just beginning to grasp the depth of my intuition in protecting myself from my own truth until I could handle it.

However, my skill in listening and recognizing my intuition has been sketchy. I don’t always understand the subtle cues or hear the early warning signs. I can talk myself out of my feelings or deliberately ignore them in the effort to follow another’s expectations.

But the authentic movement showed me what it could be like to practice actually listening to myself. Rather than following someone else’s guided meditation or sitting still trying to empty my mind of useless thoughts, I can block out the outside world and go deep, deep into myself until my own impulse is all I can hear, see, feel, and understand.

The implications of this for my personal practice and life are exciting, to say the least, but I can’t help but also think about the implications for healing within a psychological setting. For anyone who has ever had their autonomy violated or their personhood crushed, I see tremendous possibilities for empowerment and reclamation through authentic movement.

Of course, in order for authentic movement to work, safe space is absolutely essential, but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until next week for that part of my revelation. My body is telling me it needs to repay the sleep debt it acquired over this magical weekend!