Sometimes I feel like I’m going around in circles. As part of my day job as a therapist, it feels that part of my raison d’être is witnessing the strange spirals in the lives of other human beings. For those who think that change happens in a straight line, they probably haven’t been paying attention in class. Whether it’s related to addictions work, relationship difficulties or trying to more skilfully manage emotions, most of us have to revisit what the pro’s call “the cycle of change” at least several times before things shift.
The cycle of change (cf. the work of Prochaska and DiClemente) recognises that for most of us, for the act of changing to be sustainable it usually involves contemplation (thinking about how it might be different) and preparation before we actually “do” something behaviourally. Now this is all for the good-most of us know what it feels like to be compelled into choices that we haven’t given birth too, and that generally they are superficial and usually don’t “stick”. Slowing down the pace of change is often good in that it allows a more organic adaptation and considered reprioritising. While the rapid shifts connected to crisis are often unavoidable, if that’s all we have then structurally we end up with a big pile of rubble rather than the lovely extension/expansion we were hoping for.
It’s hardly surprising that spirals feature so significantly within sacred symbology – as a representation of what it feels like to journey inward or outward, in ascent or descent, the spiral reflects that it often seems as though history is repeating itself whilst in reality we are moving closer to the goal (even if it’s not necessarily the one we initially intended!) Whether we use the spatial metaphor of a descent in search of depth or an ascent to gain awakening, we can often feel caught up in a psychological “groundhog day” as we revisit the same issues within ourselves and the same dynamics within the same relationships.
Sometimes it may feel as though we are making little if any progress, and the lure of the shiny and new can feel like an essential life “upgrade” that it’s hard to say no to. Learning anything via repetition: dance, martial arts or playing a musical instrument can feel like hard work as we develop muscle memory or lay down those neural pathways.
In working within the wheel of the year, be it in a Heathen, Druid or other setting, we experience in this turning a sense of this repetition at a macrocosmic level. What seems critical in the midst of these big cycles is the degree of awareness that we bring in noticing the often subtle shifts and differences over time and location. Even if we were to celebrate each festival in exactly the same location, the variance in conditions and our own place in the life cycle bring newness with it.
In working in our “Zen-Hearth”, part of the rationale for integrating Pagan and mindfulness based approaches is to try and wake-up to the subtleties of this spiralling process. Often we can be in danger of over codifying our seasonal rituals and swamping ourselves with pre-existing scripts about how things should be. By paying attention to the process of interaction between self and context, we are seeking a type of deep listening to the relevant Genius Loci or “Spirit of Place” (cf. the excellent Wanton Green for more on this).
The Western Magical tradition often deals in the rather bizarre paradox of minimising difference and local context (“no really Odin and Mercury are virtually the same-look where they are on the Qabalah!”) while at the same time injecting things with sanity challenging “hidden” meaning (Kenneth Grant’s use of Gematria being a case in point). Often we can’t see the wood for the trees! It might be that we need to opt for some cognitive self-limitation, a type of voluntary simplicity in which we seek a mindful sensitivity to the nuances of localised animism. In the development of my own practice this feels vital in my own attempt to escape the excesses of occult consumerism and neophilia.
While the hardcore enlightenment project of Theravarda Buddhism maybe appealing in its thorough engagement with the internal processes of the bodymind, I’m personally more intrigued by the messier adventures of the Buddha’s teaching as it encountered the shamanic traditions of cultures it came to. Whether that be the Bon religion, Taoism or Shinto, the interaction between self and context feels vital. In order to escape the traps of either magickal solipsism (“I am a God!”) or overly romanticised pantheism, the rediscovery of mindfulness as a dialogue of awakening feels important. As we experience this interplay we can begin to realise that for our insights to continue to be meaningful they have to be expressed via engaged activity. Perhaps this slow, open receptivity to context and place within the cycle of change will allow expressions of “right effort” and “right livelihood” to be more skilful and sustainable.