The time feels right to add to my Historical Women Mystics series, and what a joy it has been to research the woman I am profiling this time – Jarena Lee, a pioneering 19th century African American preacher whose powerful conversion experience inspired her to travel the country, overcoming both the gender and racial barriers of the time. She was also the first African American woman to publish an autobiography, an eloquent account of her spiritual and preaching experiences (the picture of Jarena to the left was painted for the cover of her autobiography.)
I came to Jarena in a roundabout way: I knew that I wanted to feature a woman preacher from the Second Great Awakening of the United States. Spanning from about 1790 through the 1830’s, this period was characterized by large Protestant revival gatherings at which many thousands of individuals converted to existing Protestant faiths or joined new ones that were born at this time. These revivals birthed evangelical Christianity in the U.S., and had a wide-ranging impact on our history. For one thing, women converted in much greater numbers then men, and took an active role in religious life in a way they had not done so before, expanding their role for the first time outside of the domestic sphere and into the public domain. In later decades, this would evolve into women’s social action groups, most of which were originally grounded in religion, fueling both the abolitionist and suffragist movements.
There are many interesting things to say about this phase of history, and how the seeds planted then are still at work in the spiritual and social movements of today, but my interest in this series is more personal – how have individual women throughout history and from varying cultural and religious backgrounds, experienced spirit? Jarena’s own words are a goldmine from this perspective. As with the stories of the other women featured in this series, if we pull back from the specific language of the time (common to most conversion narratives of the period) and look at her actual experience, we find so many similarities to the spiritual experiences of other mystics from other times and traditions (and perhaps also to our own experiences.)
Born in New Jersey in 1783, Jarena was not a slave, but was placed in a home as a servant girl at the young age of 7. She had no formal religious instruction from her parents, but learned about religion from her co-workers, and at 21 went with a friend to a Presbyterian meeting, during which she began to feel the ‘weight of her sins.’ In the coming days, she became consumed with the idea that she was a ‘wretched sinner’, eventually becoming suicidal, and walking to a river with the intention to kill herself. She doesn’t go through with it, and feels that spirit played a role in saving her from this fate, but afterwards still does not know how to go about releasing herself from what she still believes to be her essentially sinful state.
This kind of obsession with sin and self-judgment is always difficult for me to read about in historical Christian spiritual narratives, but in the context of the time and tradition, within Jarena’s story it really signals the birth of her self-awareness, and I think it is a phase of the spiritual journey to which many of us can relate. Often we embark upon a deep spiritual quest for one of two reasons: Either we have suffered a great loss or tragedy which has shaken our worldview, or something in our life has triggered an acute self-awareness, in which we are suddenly aware of the self-centeredness and superficiality of our dominant thoughts and emotions, and feel there must be more to life and ourselves. It is the latter really, that seemed to trigger Jarena’s search and subsequent experiences.
Whatever it was, after several months of suffering in this way, Jarena eventually found herself at Richard Allen’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In a sermon there, she felt herself touched in a new way by spirit:
“The text was barely pronounced, which was ‘I perceive thy heart is not right in the sight of God,’ when there appeared to my view, in the centre of the heart, one sin; and this was malice against one particular individual, who had strove deeply to injure me, which I resented. At this discovery I said, Lord I forgive every creature. That instant, it appeared to me as if a garment, which had entirely enveloped my whole person, even to my fingers’ ends, split at the crown of my head, and was stripped away from me, passing like a shadow from my sight – when the glory of God seemed to cover me in its stead.”
Ah, the power of letting go, of forgiveness! This sudden experience catapults her into alternating states of bliss and despair. In the coming weeks, she at times feels a oneness with spirit that transports her, and at other times feels entirely separate and unworthy. She describes weeks of crying spells and prayer, fervently trying to find her way back to this sense of peace and union. She begins to doubt her initial experience, and sees acutely her “pride, anger and self-will.” She vows to devote herself to praying until this feeling returns to her. One day after hours of prayer and contemplation, she is ready to give up when she hears a voice say ‘Ask for sanctification.’ Once she does so, she describes her next experience:
“…spirit said, ‘Bow down for the witness – I received it – thou art sanctified !’ The first I knew of myself after that, I was standing in the yard with my hands spread out, and looking with my face toward heaven…I now ran into the house and told them what had happened to me, when, as it were a new rush of the same exstacy came upon me, and caused me to feel as if I were in an ocean of light and bliss…During this, I stood perfectly still, the tears rolling in a flood from my eyes. So great was the joy, that it is past description.“
From this point forward, her doubts were dispelled, although she acknowledged the need for vigilance throughout her spiritual life (something she preached of often.) Her conversion brought her an amazing fearlessness – fearlessness in the face of the established church hierarchy, who initially told her women could not preach, and fearlessness in the face of danger on the road, once she began traveling to revivals. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that her conversion brought her an amazing level of trust, because her fearlessness was born of a certainty that she would be taken care of no matter what, if she followed spirit.
What spirit eventually asked her to do was preach:
“…to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understood, which said to me, “Go preach the Gospel!” I immediately replied aloud, “No one will believe me.” Again I listened and again the same voice seemed to say “Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth and will turn your enemies to become your friends.“
Initially, Reverend Allen rejected her request to preach. However, eventually the drive for her to do so rose up so strongly that she found herself bursting forth during a service, speaking from her heart words that afterwards she could barely remember. Whatever she said, it was so inspiring to those present, including Allen, that he blessed her efforts, and from that point forward became one of her staunchest supporters.
As an African-American woman preacher, Jarena was defying both the gender and race restrictions of the time. Often traveling alone or with another woman through remote countryside from revival to revival, she faced the very real danger of attack. At revivals, she preached to racially mixed gatherings (another reason the revivals are considered so historically relevant, and why many believed they were an important part of the lead up to the abolitionist movement.) Often there was resistance to her speaking, although always once she spoke, this seemed to dissolve. One can only imagine what a powerful and inspiring presence she must have been for this to have been the case.
In her autobiography, Jarena says she “traveled two thousand three hundred and twenty-five miles, and preached one hundred and seventy-eight sermons” during one period, including in Maryland, a slave state. She describes slaves who walked 20-30 miles to hear her preach, knowing they would have to walk the entire way back before dawn. Jarena was pioneering in the content of her preaching too, making biblical arguments against slavery, and in her own way predicting the Civil War, or at the very least great conflict over this ‘greatest of sins.’
In her personal life, Jarena faced struggles typical of women mystics throughout the ages: She married but her husband did not approve of her preaching and so she stopped for a time, returning to preaching after her husband died six years into their union. She bore a daughter and often had to leave her daughter with friends while she traveled. Although conflicted about this, she felt her work was not about her, and that ultimately this sacrifice was necessary.
In her autobiography, she tells many touching stories of individuals she encountered in her preaching travels, and how they were impacted. Here’s a link to excerpts from her autobiography:
Or for the full version try:
Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century, edited by William L. Andrews
I have not found a history of the Great Awakenings that I can recommend, mostly because the ones available are centered solely on their role in the development of Christianity, but if you are interested in mystic traditions of all types that have shaped the development of spirituality in America (including the three ‘Great Awakening’ periods), try:
Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, by Mitch Horowitz
Many blessings to you, and may Jarena’ story, and the story of other seekers throughout the ages, inspire and empower you to follow your own path with trust and hope.
Reminder: Teleseminar Energy Work for Sexual Trauma begins this Sunday, info here.
Home is where the heart is…
When this little quote is hung on plaques in entryways and kitchens, we usually take it to mean that wherever we are out in the world, a piece of us is always connected to our physical home, and to the family and friends that reside there with us. This is a lovely thought, but I’ve also come to view it in spiritual terms – that wherever we are, if we are grounded in our heart, we are home.
This is the theme and energy behind the recorded meditation I’d like to share with you this week, a guided meditation focused on grounding in the root chakra and centering and opening in the heart. After posting meditations for each of the 12 chakras that I like to work with at Meditate Like a Girl last year (you can find links to all my online chakra meditations here), I thought I would start offering occasional additional chakra meditations here at Mommy Mystic this year, combining the energies of different chakras. Since the chakras are psycho-spiritual energetic centers, one powerful way to work with them is to contemplate the energies and psychological aspects we would like to strengthen and/or explore during a particular time in our life. This is the kind of meditation I offer here – an energetic tool for shifting your awareness and vibration by pulling more root and heart energy through you.
I feel that focusing on our root and heart chakras is the most powerful energetic tool for dealing with the scourge of modern society – stress. Most of us lead extraordinarily busy lives, and stress and the resulting anxiety have become the biggest challenges to our health. What does it really mean to feel stressed or anxious from an energetic standpoint? It means we are off our center (heart) and feeling unsupported (root.) Empowering these two centers can help re-establish a sense of foundation – a solid root chakra helps us feel the earth is still beneath us no matter what else is going on, and a strong heart chakra allows us to let go and allow ourselves to feel part of a flow, rather than separate, isolated, and singularly responsible for the fate of our world.
On a deeper level, our root chakra really IS our home base – it is the chakra associated with our physical connection to our body and this world. When we really connect to our root, we realize we don’t have to be in a particular place to feel at home – if we are grounded and connected here than we ARE home, and can feel that way no matter where our physical body happens to be. And when we center in our heart, we turn on the inner fountain of well-being, the sense that ‘all will be well’ in the long term, and this generates the sense of self-compassion and equilibrium we need to live fully and openly in the meantime. These two energies together really create our energetic ‘heart home’ – our root is the foundation, or bones, of this home and our heart is the light which fills the rooms, bringing them alive with love and luminosity.
There are many kinds of chakra meditations, and this particular one is meant to be soothing, more than energizing. Within it we will first settle into our root chakra and use a tree visualization to ground. Then we will focus on opening our heart and letting go of anything we are gripping emotionally. Finally, we will connect these two and shift into a supported, still center point. It is a little over 12 minutes long.
Or click link below to download (the mp3 will open in another window; give it time to load and then do File->Save Link As or Save Page As to begin download):
May you feel peaceful and grounded as you move through the world.
Don’t let the title of this post scare you off – I’ll keep it simple, promise! I’ve wanted to write a post for awhile on neuroplasticity and epigenetics, two of the hottest scientific topics these days. These two relatively recent fields of study affirm the power of the mind-body connection, and (in my opinion) the possibility of energy healing and chakra work to trigger profound physical change, including in our brains and gene expression. This is the weekend to write about this, because Friday we had a solar eclipse, equinox, and supermoon (new moon at the closest point to the earth) all corresponding in a 24 hour period! It’s a transitional peak, and all about change.
Healing and personal development are in essence about our ability to change. Whether we are trying to restore a bacterial balance in our body, rid ourselves of a harmful virus, reknit a broken bone, or repair a damaged organ, physical healing is about changing our physical body from one state to another. And whether we are trying to let go of anger, become more mindful, manage stress, love more kindly, or find a new inner equilibrium, personal development is about changing our habitual mental and emotional patterns. (I am using the term ‘personal development’, rather than ‘spirituality’ because for me spirituality is not about changing ourselves, but about discovering our true nature, which is always whole, always healthy, always at peace. But this post is not about that, and most of us need to work on the levels of physical healing and personal development as part of our spiritual journey.)
Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, refers to our ability to forge new neural pathways and synapses in our brain due to changes in our thinking, our emotions, our situation, and our environment. For a long time, scientists thought our brains were relatively static after early childhood, and real change at the neural level was not possible. We now know that profound changes can and do occur, and that they continue throughout our lifetime. Here are some examples of neuroplasticity:
- Stroke victims recovering lost functionality due to their brains reorganizing themselves so that new neural pathways take over functions previously performed by the damaged part.
- Deep sea divers seeing hundreds of feet deep underwater because they have learned to control their eye lenses and pupils through brain control the rest of us never develop.
- Professional musicians’ brains developing extra gray matter in the areas of the brain related to playing their instruments – so much so that neuroscientists can often identify a professional musician by looking at a scan of their brain.
- Tibetan monks brains’ emitting increased gamma rays, associated with higher mental activity and heightened awareness, even when they are not meditating, indicating permanent ‘upgrades’ to their brains due to meditation.
- Athletes’ visualizing perfect performance, and brain scans showing this strengthens the same parts of the brain that are activated when they are actually physically performing.
What’s the relevance of all of this in terms of energy work? They are all proof our brain changes in response to our environment, activity, or thoughts. Our thoughts change our brain, our brain doesn’t simply determine our thoughts. This sounds pretty basic to anyone involved in mind-body modalities, but it’s a revolution in neuroscience. And of course it means you can change your brain – and thus your body – through the power of your mind.
Energy work such as chakra work, subtle body visualizations, release techniques etc. take this one step further by recognizing that thoughts and emotions are really energy, or vibration, so if we learn to work directly at that level, at the level of vibration within our subtle body, we can impact physical change. We can overwrite longstanding emotional habits, mental patterns, and triggers, replacing them with healthier, happier ones. Because the subtle body is the link between mind and body – we visualize or focus on a particular chakra or location in our subtle body with our mind, and feel it in our body – this kind of work can be even more powerful than working simply at the level of thought, which engages only the mind, and can become disassociated from our body. (Really there is no separation between mind, body, and subtle body, but each ‘level’ offers different doorways or access points into ourselves for healing and self-development work.)
Epigenetics takes this one step further, by offering up the possibility that when we do manifest this level of change, we may actually change our gene expression, thereby impacting not only ourselves but our descendants. Epigenetics is the study of what factors impact how a given gene in our DNA sequence expresses itself. For example, we may have a genetic propensity for a particular medical problem, but never manifest that problem. What lifestyle, diet, and environmental factors impact whether that genetic tendency does or doesn’t manifest? This, in a nutshell, is the study of epigenetics. Our DNA does not change, but which parts of it manifest during our lifetime is more fluid than we ever thought.
One of the more groundbreaking findings within epigenetics is that some changes may actually be passed down to future generations. There is already research to suggest that trauma in particular alters gene expression, and makes us more prone to health problems later in life. Now there is also research to suggest that this gene expression may in fact be handed down to future generations, i.e. trauma in one generation negatively impacts the health of future generations. On the plus side though, there is the possibility that healing from trauma, reversing the gene expression and manifesting good health and psychological impacts, also flows down to the next generation. In other words, that when we heal, we heal not only ourselves, but future generations.
Mainstream science is a long ways away from connecting the findings of neuroplasticity and epigenetics, and certainly does not acknowledge the power of energy healing and techniques to manifest physical change. But looking at this research it’s hard not to feel that science is on the brink of validating what many spiritual and energy healing traditions have taught for centuries: That we have the power to heal, and to change, at any point in our lives, that how we choose to live and the states of mind (or vibration) that we choose to manifest impacts our body, brain, and even genes, and that this carries forward beyond ourselves, to future generations, and thus the future of our world.
When we add to this the powers that cannot be explained by science – the power of love, of insight, of spiritual connection – we can begin to see hope for the future of this world, a possibility for healing our world and our children from damage done by the massive amounts of violence and suffering happening throughout the world at any given moment.
Of course I have to add disclaimers to this. Personally I believe any kind of energy work always works best in combination with psychological and medical treatment, so that the ‘whole’ being is being addressed – mind, body, and subtle body. And manifesting new neural pathways or gene expressions isn’t simply a matter of visualizing or wishing it so. Even the traditions that speak of such powers – or siddhis – those that speak of the ability to manifest healings we would call ‘miracles’, emphasize the tremendous level of training and (more importantly) spiritual realization such healers cultivated over much time and with great dedication.
On the other hand, each and every one of us has this potential, the seeds of self-healing and personal change, within ourselves. Start with one thought or shift today – one act of kindness or self-care, one activity that shifts you out of a dark state and into a light one, one meditation session – and let it be the start of a change that you gift to all those around you and maybe even your progeny. Believe it is possible, believe in yourself.
Namaste, and Happy Equinox!
Happy International Women’s Day (March 8th!) I will be back soon with a new post, but in honor of this day wanted to reblog an updated version of my Women’s Energetics book list, as there are many great resources here. Feel free to suggest any other books of your own. Also, for any of you working to heal from sexual trauma or abuse, please note that I will be offering my teleseminar on energy work for this again in April, clickthrough to the site and check the sidebar for the link. – Lisa
Originally posted on Mommy Mystic:
This list is of books that include teachings on the chakras or other subtle body mappings specific to women. Many energy body teachings do not reference the differences between men’s and women’s energy bodies, and indeed much of our subtle body mappings are the same. But there are differences in emphasis, flow, and energy interdependence tied to our physical differences, and our specific reproductive life phases. These have wide-ranging implications for both energy medicine, and spiritual paths that utilize energy-based contemplative practices.
In general, this list starts with healing and practice-based books, and then progresses to more metaphysical and spiritually oriented ones. I have tried to make the book descriptions explicit enough that they serve as a kind of overview of women’s energy body teachings on their own.
Energy Medicine for Women, by Donna Eden
Movement, breath, and meditative exercises and healing modalities drawn from both meridian-based traditions and chakra-based…
View original 1,388 more words
Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest being, something that needs our love. – Rainer Maria Rilke
It’s often around this time of January each year that our Solstice intentions or New Year’s Resolutions start to unravel, and we find ourselves plunged into old feelings of letdown, inadequacy, or unworthiness. Discouragement and negative self-talk creep in, with familiar refrains of ‘I knew I couldn’t do it’, ‘It’s always like this’, or ‘Maybe later, it’s too hard right now.’ Winter doldrums don’t help matters; while for those of us in the northern hemisphere the Solstice marked the return of the light, it’s pretty slow in coming, and the cold in most places is in full swing. A heaviness and weight can settle over us, and a sense that we can’t prevail.
Even if you aren’t feeling this way right now, I’m sure you can relate to these feelings, and to the self-doubt and unworthiness that are often at the heart of our deepest emotional wounds. Unworthiness is really at the heart of so much of our pain. If I could grant everyone in the world one thing, it would be an innate sense of their own self-worth – a sense of worthiness as a birthright, not something that has to be earned in the eyes of the world.
But alas, this isn’t the way it is for most of us, and instead our sense of worthiness is linked to so many different things – accomplishments, appearance, relationships, financial status, religion, nationality, race, gender – all of the aspects humans have come to judge others by, and so we come to judge ourselves by. Our sense of lack or failure in any one of these areas is often what causes us pain, or if not lack then the stress and anxiety of attaining or maintaining that which we’ve gained. Either way we are trapped in a constant cycle of up and down, feeling good when that which our own self-worth is based upon is going well for us, and feeling bad when it’s not.
The only way to break this cycle is to unlink our sense of self-worth from the worldly attributes it’s usually linked to. For this, we often turn to personal development and spirituality. We hope to heal that part of ourself that is dependent on these measures of worth. And yet unfortunately, what often happens is that we just adopt a new yardstick to measure ourselves by – now we want to be a ‘good’ person. We want to be more compassionate, more faith-filled, more generous, more patient, more mindful, more aware, more ethical, more disciplined. These are wonderful goals! The world certainly needs more of these qualities manifested. Yet too often what happens is that we simply carry over our old patterns of self-judgement, while changing our goals. We may be judging ourselves against a different standard, but we are still judging, still succeeding and failing, and still linking our sense of self-worth to how we do.
This focus on changing ourselves presupposes there is something wrong with us, something that needs to be fixed or destroyed. It assumes there is a ‘good’ part of us and a ‘bad’ part, and that the good part is fighting the good fight, trying to overcome our worst qualities – whether this is anger, greed, jealousy, laziness, or whatever. When our good part wins, we feel good. When it loses, we feel bad. The battle rages on and on, and our sense of worthiness goes up and down with it.
To really liberate ourselves from feelings of unworthiness, we need to unhook our worthiness from this cycle entirely. We need to recognize our natural worthiness – our essential, innate goodness – and heal from there. This is 100% more powerful than change. When our assumption is that we are naturally good, our entire worldview changes. We see mistakes as mistakes, not as signs that we are failures or terrible people. We see successes as cause for joy, not arrogance, because we don’t need to feel superior to others in order to compensate for insecurity. We can truly be present for our lives, riding the ups and downs of experience, without being consumed by any of it, because we have our solid foundation within.
So whatever change you have been focused on, take a moment right now to truly feel and own your innate goodness. You might try some self-talk along these lines:
I am innately good. In my heart, my intentions are pure, and all the goodness present in the world is also present in me.
This is a pretty seismic shift really. From a cultural and spiritual perspective, the idea of ‘original sin’ is embedded pretty deeply in the Western psyche. We are conditioned to think of spiritual growth as an atoning or overcoming of our naturally sinful nature. Part of the reason I was originally drawn to Eastern spiritual paths is that they are based on the opposite assumption – that we are innately enlightened, that we are all composed of Buddha nature, reflections of the same Source. But in these traditions too, it is easy to be pulled into the self-judgment cycle – “I’m not meditating enough”, “I’m still eating meat (or caffeine, or sugar)”, “I’m still getting angry (or impatient, or jealous, or depressed.)” Our path can become just another internal mechanism for judging ourselves ‘not good enough.’
I was recently reminded of how subtly this can function when at a yoga class, listening to two women talk about the cleanses they were about to embark upon. These were two slender, beautiful, healthy yoginis. Yet their discussions of cleanses were filled with self-criticism – “I ate soooo much sugar over the holidays, it was disgusting”, “I know, I can’t believe how many carbs I absorbed, I completely lost it.” Of course, cleanses can be a wonderful, healing practice, and too much sugar and carbs isn’t good for us. But in this instance what I really felt coming off of these two women was shame. They felt ashamed of having indulged, and their talk about their cleanses was filled with a desire for self-punishment.
Although there are plenty of men walking around struggling with self-worth, women often have an even bigger problem with it, because of the cultural devaluation of girls, and feminine energy. And within all of the world’s dominant spiritual paths (Eastern included) women and their sexual energy have often been portrayed as shameful, or even dangerous. We absorb these cultural messages when growing up, even if we ourselves had a functional childhood. If our childhood was less than functional, if it involved abuse or assault, as it does for so many children, and especially if it involved sexual abuse or assault, we may so deeply internalize shame that it is difficult to feel any sense of self-worth at all. We can never be ‘clean’ enough, or good enough.
It’s for these reasons that working to own our innate goodness, and cultivating a sense of natural self-worth, is the single best thing we can do for ourself, and the single best thing we can do to help us attain our goals too. Having goals and striving to change ourself and our life are good things when we don’t build our sense of self-worth upon them. When we are free of the up and down worthiness cycle, our fear and anxiety naturally subside, and we are able to act with more freedom, more power. We don’t spin into downward spirals of discouragement and despair when we make a mistake. We just move on.
Affirmations such as that above can help, and meditating on your heart chakra too. Gently let go of the habit of judging yourself as good and bad in every moment. Send that part of you you feel is ‘bad’ some love. Send the part of you judging some love! Take a deep breath and send every part of you unconditional love. Let go of the past. Own your goodness – it’s your birthright.
May all beings recognize their essential goodness in 2015.