Samhain: Practices + Reflections
Today the world is lost to its own thought. This morning found the last russets of maple leaves scattered beneath the trees and tonight we’re expecting our first killing freeze. It is Samhain, and the consciousness of the earth feels as fluid as the shadowy iridescence of a raven’s wing.
Samhain, the ancient Gaelic holiday of harvest and shadows, marks the time of the year when this veil is at it’s thinnest. In some ancient traditions, humans are said to have entered this world as consciously as a bride, wedding ourselves to a new kind of reality. A time for both reflection and revelation, Samhain delineates a moment as thickly fleeting as fog and as subtle as the edge of a knife. During Samhain, the boundaries between what was and what will be are distinctly blurred. The conversation between the worlds, once murmured, becomes distinct. Divisions die and the veins of fate, de-leafed and bare, reveal their patterns.
Like squash, halved, everything is both open and complete.
Traditionally considered a time of both sanctity and liminality, Samhain encourages us to question the slim thread between arrival and descent, a demarcator as fine as when leaf turns golden and when it finally falls. Historically, the eve of Samhain was celebrated as a time to reconnect with the ancestors, to feed the spirits with our remembrance and interact with the unseen. Samhain was held as an open invitation to commune and come to peace with those we deem “others.” The unseen folk of the ancestral realm, faeries, ghosts, the most outcasted aspects of our own selves. It was an opportunity to take stock of the harvests of our lives— what is ready to be reaped, what is ready to be released— and face the source of our own inner hauntings.
During Samhain we are asked to look into mirror and see new reflections. It’s a time to put the heavy productivity of the garden to rest and turn our gaze inward, blessing the fertility of starkness and singularity. Samhain is a kind of bacchanal of liminality. Having drunk the sweet wine of both endings and beginnings, we find ourselves tipping into a living world that deals intimately with death. The hillsides blush in rust and flame, and life drops like blood from the veins of the leaves, retreating into the roots of the unseen. In Samhain we see death for what it truly is… deep sleep and opalescent dreams.
A holiday that I have cherished and beloved my entire life, I now celebrate this day in a much different way than the halcyon days of kit-kats and princess hats. I still invite in the elements of identity bending, sweetness and play, but I also take intentional time to connect into the power emanating from such an open threshold. In celebration of this tipsy time of turning I wanted to open my altars to share some of my favorite Samhain reflections + practices.
Regardless of how you choose to drink in this day, may your Samhain be blessed. Let magic spring from unexpected places and your heart branch in mystery, as brazen and bare as the hawthorn on hallowed hills.
// Acknowledging the Ancestors //
The thinnest reeds, given breath, create the deepest vibrations. As a time when the distance between the embodied and the un-embodied slims, Samhain is an important opportunity to reflect on and pay homage to your ancestors. Like forming a shape note, initiating such a conversation can create profound resonance, a harmony between all realms. Traditionally, spreads of food and wine were laid out for ones predecessors, which was a way of appeasing as much as entreating the spirits. In this day and age, with so many of us feeling quite disconnected from our cultural heritage, it is more important than ever to embrace a more expanded concept of our ancestory. Your ancestors are not simply those who were born earlier in your genetic bloodline, they are any unembodied forebears who helped define the path you now find yourself on. Ancestors can be found through our spiritual or intellectual lineages, within our wider communities and chosen families at large. Acting as guides, many of our ancestors are connected to us simply because of the way we choose to live our life, what our passion ignites. Ancestors are more than just our genetic predecessors, they are members of a much more fluid soul bloodline.
We, as wider spirits, have lived many lifetimes. Each and every one of us has experienced a diversity of lives in our planet’s historical past. When we look back to embrace these many-faceted aspects of our self, we open the door to interacting with an even deeper diversity of ancestors. In many ways, the seeds of our own selves, those that lived previous lifetimes here on earth, are our closest ancestors and most familiar teachers. You can invite in these personal ancestors to integrate the lessons and learnings you forge through now.
++ Ancestor Altar ++
My favorite way to honor my ancestors is to create an altar. I like to put the altar in a commonly seen, but generally respected, area of my house. Tops of dresser drawers or bookshelves are perfect for this. To begin I spend some time sitting quietly and reflecting on my ancestors, those who I feel close to, or who I would like to draw closer. Then I gather items that hold the ancestor energy to me: quilts, watch fobs, old silver, wooden heirlooms, dried plants, feathers and stones.
After I have gathered my soulful items and place them as I feel guided, I light a candle in the center. I may make some offerings— bits of food, sweet grass or wine. While the candles burns, I agree to be in a place of respectful prayer and adulation. This is a time to ask for any affirmation you might need and to give thanks. Your ancestors surrounded you at all times, and when you sit in such moments of invocation they come closer. You must only be open to the signs.
This time last year I began the ritual of creating my ancestor altar when I received quite a clear message from the other side. Earlier that day I had spent a totally unexpected sum of money. I was in the midst of a challenging health issue that was asking me to face some pretty overwhelming feelings of aloneness and scarcity. On this evening, I tried my best to simply set my worries aside and breathe. I began by reaching up into a worn wooden box for one of my grandmother’s old handkerchiefs, a delicate and lacy swatch of thin cotton. I was shocked when my hand settles upon a softly folded piece of paper. Nestled in the box was an envelope with my name on it, and inside that envelope was almost the exact amount of money I had spent that day. It was such a moment of unseen assurance; I sank to my knees for a few long minutes to weep.
Many months ago I had kept a small stash of bills in this envelope. But I had since spent every penny, I even had a memory of throwing the empty envelope away. But here it was, full again. Had I forgotten a handful of bills? Was it me who left it here? In the end, it didn’t matter one lick. I knew my Grandmother had created this moment. Signs and signals will always have some thread connecting them to our reality. Most of us will never see a randomly burning bush in our lifetime, but we will see many, many subtle (and not so subtle) indicators of the our loved ones presence on the other side. We must only look, and allow ourselves to recognize such signs by feeling. In a place before words I instinctively felt my Grandmother there, cradling me, supporting me, assuring me that I have never, not once, been alone.
// Clearing Ghosts //
Ghosts are a natural part of living, and not as spooky or malicious as Hollywood might have us believe. There are many worlds of movement beneath and within our own. The energy created, and left, by living beings is the farthest thing from supernatural. In fact, ghosts are as natural as can be. In traditional Chinese medicine ghosts are not simply the energetic residue of the formally living, they can also be the entities that result from a resistance to what is, a tear in our resonance with the universe. In this way of thinking ghosts can actually be aspects of ourselves— unresolved grief, unacknowledged loss, regrets, guilt, and the haunting of old hurts. Most of us feel haunted as some point in our lives. During Samhain, as the separations fade, we can do the deeply repairing work of bringing ourselves back into wholeness, and encouraging any energies that do not belong to us to merge with their own light.
There are many ways to clear ghosts, but anything you pour your intention into will be the strongest. Sage and Palo santo are two aromatic smudges that have traditionally been used in North and South America to clear and purify unwanted energies. Stones, as some of the oldest beings on our earth, can also be invaluable allies for clearing such attachments. Lately I have been in deep relationship (and gratitude to) my most recent Earth Alchemy elixir, Ghost Pipe + Carnelian. In traditional Taoist medicine Carnelian was thought to help move (and thus integrate) the ghosts we have accumulated throughout our lives. This fiery stone works an emissary, or torch, helping energies get to where they ultimately belong. Carnelian can help us mend that original split, enabling us to let go of the grief that has caused us to stagnate in dark places for so long.
Whether you use stones, herbs, smudge or just your intention, try to stay acutely connected to your senses during any clearing. As the sense that is most intimately connected to memory, our sense of smell can be one of the finest tools for reckoning and realizing an unseen presence. Recently, after helping a friend smudge a house that had (ahem) distinctly heavy energy, I found myself encountering the stale scent of an ashtray everywhere around me. It took almost a week of having that stench whiff into every room I entered (and many exclamations of “do you smell that?” to my much bewildered roommate), for me to recognize that what I was dealing with might be beyond the realm of the seen. I decided to address this perceived attachment through an ancient Daoist stone treatment with the mother of all stones— Hematite.
++ Hematite Stone Treatment ++
Hematite is what makes up the core of our earth. It is what our entire world is balanced upon. Iron rich and dense, Hematite is the ultimate mother, grounding us in profound and lasting ways. Hematite helps us be present in the here and now, affirming our earthbound selves and releasing any attached energies that would ultimately feel more comfortable in the spirit realm. This specific treatment was handed down to me through my stone teacher Sarah Thomas, who is herself a student of Jeffery Yuen, an 88th generation Daoist priest from the Jade Purity Lineage. This treatment appears in scroll 1 of the Qian Jin Yi Fang. In this ancient Chinese text Hematite was described as being able to clear six generations of ghosts. The recommended practice was to boil the raw stone for one hour and then drink 2 ounces of the decoction for 3-10 days. This practice is particularly powerful when paired with an ancestor altar. When we release, we often release all at once. So, if a healing crisis occurs you can start or stop as needed. Note of warning—decoctions are intense and not all stones are safe to heat. (In fact, some are wildly unsafe to drink at all). Try this intense treatment at your own risk. I found it to be both effective and liberating for myself, but all people (and energies) move differently. Take some time to recognize what clearing practice would be most nourishing for you.
// Invoking the richness of the dark //
Every Samhain I like to do something to honor the darkness. This is, after all, a time of tipping headlong into the longest nights of the year. Darkness doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, darkness is the deepest kind of fertility, known to both seed and human beings. Honoring the darkness is an important aspect of re-membering why we are here, and understanding the full spectrum of the light. However you decide to honor the darkness, be open to whatever feelings come up for you. What sensation does darkness hold for you—fear, excitation, vulnerability or anticipation? Darkness is a kind of beginning. How, in these long nights, would you like to be reborn?
++ The Healing Power of Candlelight++
Candlelight is a vastly important part of my Samhain celebration. Electric light— young, convenient and demanding—blows away the reality of night. Easy and ubiquitous, electric light is graceless in the face of candlelight. In candlelight, the whole world seems to sigh, relieved to be reunited with its shadows. Edges disappear and corners move in-between cascades of shape and shade. In candlelight, we invite in the mystery of the unformed. We are given the space to change and transform.
This Samhain, try invoking the healing power of natural fire-light. Begin by amassing as many candles as you can and turning off every eclectic outlet. With each candle you light allow your perception to open like a flame. Once the room is lit by candles notice what different feelings or sensations might manifest. Let yourself play with both the shadow and the light. Move from room to room with candles in hand, and watch how the house around you changes shape. This is a good time for inward reflection and outward divination. If you want to experiment with some conscious practices of shifting, candlelight provides the best setting for mirror gazing. Illuminating, surprising, sometimes disturbing, mirror gazing is an incredible way to witness how much can shift when you soften your eyes and let in the unknown.
To try this practice, sit yourself (and a candle) in front a mirror and look with an unfocused gaze into your own eyes. Let the details of your outer face fade away and simply concentrate on the windows of both irises. If you relax your eyes with enough softness, you will see your face begin to shift. This can be a bit of an unsettling experience, as I’ve seen my face change into all sorts of incarnations. Brian Weiss, the founder of Past Life Regression Therapy, posits that the different faces we see are often reflections of ourselves embodied in other lifetimes. I admit to feeling similarly ever since I began gazing as a young child.
However you choose to interact with this practice, know that you always have the power to go deeper or to withdraw. You are the magician of your own experience. Embark upon this time with soft curiosity and acknowledgement of the boundaries you would like to hold. Untold mysteries can be revealed when you settle yourself into the embrace of the unknown. Blessed Samhain everyone!
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