The Power of the Symbolic Act

As I reach my 33rd year, and with this new moon in Aries, I am thinking a lot about new beginnings.

Something shifted this year. An old life ended, and a new one is just beginning. Bhairava https://azphoenix.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/the-terror-of-my-own-universe/ has been my companion for a while. What I feel is akin to falling in love – my heart is ready to float out of my chest into the unknown, but I am terrified. What was before was familiar, but what is coming is unchartered territory. I can’t go back. I’ve been pushed out of a door that shut and bolted itself right behind me, and strangely all I can think of is my hair.

Why do you wear your hair the way you do? It is part of your identity, the person you want to show the world. A good hair day makes you feel good and a bad one can sometimes stop you from stepping out of the house. Women through history have perfumed their hair on special occasions. Even Muslim women who wear the head cover pays attention to her hair, brushing it until it shines. A successful courtesan tends to her hair painstakingly. When a Hasidic Jewish woman gets married she either shaves off all her hair or wears it very short under a wig. When a person completes the Islamic Haj, he or she is required to cut off a bit of hair to signify a new beginning. The power of symbolism is that one simple act can signify a million different things to different people.

Sometimes it’s not about the hair at all. It is an act that signifies something greater.

And there is something romantic, beautiful and strong about this kind of symbolic act.

Symbolism through history has had a strong impact. It is the ring on a finger, the burning of old love letters, the tombstone for a person whose body was lost at sea, the solidarity of standing silently in protest. After intentions are made, a symbolic act gives something just that much more strength. Like Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram instead of his son, a symbolic act can be an act of devotion, of surrender.

The practice of yoga, is amazing for the physical body but it also feeds our souls with posture that signify more than the obvious. There is mountain pose symbolizing the balance of Ardhanaishvara even without perfect symmetry. There is Hanuman Asana, signifying the devotion of the Monkey God as he leaped to Sri Lanka to rescue the beautiful Sita. In Natarajasana, there the peace and balance of Lord Shiva in the face of destruction. Then there is Shavasana, corpse pose, signifying that all things must end. And of course there are the mudras, each a symbol of the intention.

So based on all this, this year, I feel like something symbolic is needed, so I did something terrifying.

I chopped off all my hair.

The process :-)

The process 🙂

The last time I did this I was 19 and fearless. At that age, I fell hard and fast, mourned deeply and then would do it all over again the next week. I didn’t worry if any man would find my short hair attractive and if I didn’t have dates, then I would find something else to do (getting caught smoking by the campus guard and running because we thought it was a ghost perhaps?). We did stupid things, and then we laughed about them. Life was simpler, and so was I.

Without my mane, I feel a bit exposed, vulnerable. A lot more visible are the wrinkles, the dark circles, the freckles that I’ve just recently stopped trying to cover with makeup. More than that, every emotion I feel seen through eyes that can’t be hidden with a flip of the hair. In cutting it all off, I am allowing myself to be vulnerable.

So this is my act of surrender along with an intention to let go of the past and a prayer for the future. This is my goodbye, hello, sacrifice, gratitude, asking for blessing, forgiving and asking for forgiveness, letting go of love and inviting love in, shedding old skin so that a new one can take shape. This is me allowing myself to stop waiting for my father to come home.  This is one book closing so that a new chapter can begin.

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A symbolic act need not be great. It doesn’t have to mean anything to anyone but you. It can be as simple as a new journal or as complicated as a move to a different country. It can be laying your forehead down on the mat in surrender, or holding your hands in a mudra. What matters most is the intention behind it. It is your journey, your choice, your story. Doing something symbolic is, in itself, a form of therapy.

What symbolic acts would you like to bring in to your life, your practice, and perhaps to seal your intentions?

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Everyday Rituals

A couple of weeks ago, I was having breakfast with the lovely Cristina A., and we spoke about rituals, and how important these rituals are in nurturing ourselves.  Cristina is a massage therapist and therefore spends most of the day nurturing other people.  (Side note – if you’re in Sydney, go see her.  The woman is amazing). For her, having a ritual where she spends time nurturing herself is vital so that she can continue giving to other people, so every night she gives herself a massage.

Personally, I too have my own self-nurturing rituals.  In the mornings I treat myself to complete silence while I have my lemon water and boil my chai.  As I slowly sip my chai, I make sure that I am sitting down on the couch with no phone or laptop near me so that I can really savour that bit of my morning. Soon enough, I know my day will be filled with things to do, phone conversations, emails and all my senses will be assaulted in full force.  My rituals don’t stop there.  At night, I often make myself a cup of chamomile tea, light incense, massage myself with lavender oil and spend silent time writing in my journal.  Before the lights go off, I often spend at least an hour without the TV or music on.  In a world where we are over stimulated, this is my way of giving my senses a rest.

 
Last week, I was away at a conference. What this means for me is that I pretty much get up at crazy o’clock and work 12 hour days.   A few years ago, I would have added some alcohol and half a pack of cigarettes to my exhaustion along with the socialising.  This time I could add a bout of food poisoning. The fact that I am living out of a suitcase in a hotel room also means that I don’t have the stuff I need to put me into a lavender infused stupor, and I go to sleep thinking about the conference and wake up to check my email for last minute messages.  My mother goes, “oh how nice, you get to stay in a hotel.”  Sure, hotels are great, and I love being able to go for 6:00am swims in places where it’s warm enough to do so, but my rituals pretty much go out the window.

It was only when I didn’t have these rituals that I realised how much they ground me.  The simple act of feeding the cat, giving her a cuddle and smelling the tea as it boils brings me to the present.  The silence I enjoy in the mornings and evenings just gives me space to just let go and relax.  Watering the plants in the mornings and while they’re in bloom, stopping to smell the jasmine gives me a moment to appreciate things.

We don’t realise this, but we do a lot of shit every day.  Making sure we have the keys, phone, wallet, and yoga/gym/cycling gear packed up as we check the email on the phone and lock up the house to chase the train to get to work on time is a lot of work.  And most of us do it within two hours of getting up.  Our brain processes everything that we see, hear, touch, taste, smell and feel, and in our world where things are going all the time, our brains process a lot.  So for me, taking the time to do these things sometimes allows my brain to slowly warm its engine instead of going from zero to sprint.  Do that to a car every day and see what happens to it.  Allow a car to slowly warm up and see how much longer it takes before wear and tear sets in.

My alarm generally goes off at 5:30, and a lot of people wonder why I wake up so early.  The thing is waking up early gives my senses the time to slowly come alive.  I am not jumping out of bed, into the shower, having breakfast on my feet and rushing to get dressed before running out the door in a frenzy and getting to work 2 minutes late. For me it’s not the length of sleep that matters but the quality of how I fall asleep and how I wake up.  If I wake up rushed, then my whole day will pretty much be screwed, not in any other sense, but just because I wake up right into fight or flight mode. These rituals are what work for me.  They keep me mentally sane and give me the time to keep physically healthy as well.

I used to think that rituals had to be elaborate productions, but they really don’t.  Any act, however small or big that you perform religiously becomes a ritual.  It is the thing that you do every day to keep you grounded and sane, and most of all, it has to be right for you.  I used to say that I didn’t have the time to do things for me as other people needed my attention so much more. I had grown up believing that other people were more fucked up and needed me more than I did.  As it was, the fact that taking care of me made me feel guilty was pretty fucked up in itself.  While others knew that I had their backs when they needed, when push came to shove, they didn’t really have mine.  At one point, the shit hit the fan and I pretty much had a melt down.  Lucky some people actually really do love me so they stuck around, the energy vampires fucked off, and some people still think they have a right to my space, but that’s a different story which we will revisit when I can put it down in a nicer way.

Maybe these rituals already exist but you haven’t been paying attention to them.  This might sound a bit weird, but sometimes taking the time for you is a start in making time.   Just pay attention to yourself and the things you do, because you know what, nobody is worth your own attention more than you are.   As we put prayers in place to celebrate our God, or whatever else we worship, so too should we have these rituals to celebrate ourselves.

So, here are my rituals, what are yours?