Articles by River Devora

River Devora

River Devora is a multi-trad spirit worker, healer, Gydhja, Seidhkona and Santera. She has been an active member of the Bay Area pagan and polytheist communities since the early 1990s, and has led classes, rituals, workshops and other programs locally and nationally. In 2013, she founded South Bay Heathen Shenanigans, a ritual and learning group for folks interested in the spirituality, magic and folkways of pre-Christian Northern Europe. She initiated as a community priestess with Waxing Muse Coven in 1996, initiated as a priest of Ochun in 2011, and has oaths of dedication sworn to Odin, Freyr, Loki, Juksakka, and the Morrigan. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her extended human, animal and spirit family.

Wide as the Night Sky: Mediumship and Collective Identity. Also, Odin.

I was going to write an article about an individual versus collective sense of self, about the importance of becoming proficient at shifting one’s understanding of self/identity from one of a singular identity to one of a collective identity as a tool to help deepen into connection with the Gods and Powers. I got at least 4 wobbly paragraphs into it, struggling to try and figure out what exactly I was trying to say. But then Anomalous Thracian wrote this, and basically said much of what I was shaping up to say, more gracefully and in more depth. And then every time I sat down at the computer in an attempt to write my article anyway, there was Odin staring back at me from the screen. So I am going to stop trying to write something analytical and reasoned and persuasive, and instead I am going to write about why being able to hold both an individual and a collective sense of self helps me do more effective work for and with my beloved Powers. And I’m going to talk about Odin, and I’m going to get a little personal. But to talk about Odin, there are things I need to talk about first.

I am a medium, among other things. I’ve been a medium since I was 18, when I started struggling with involuntary possession by random beings. Some were benign and helpful, and I would hear afterwards that my hands were used to perform healings, my mouth to shape prophesy and to give blessings. Some were awful, would harm me, slamming my body around and screaming in tongues. My mediumship rather abruptly came online when I started attending eclectic Wiccan-style rituals in the California Bay Area (this was what I had the most ready access to in the early 90s), and would either get possessed during these rituals or would find myself possessed afterwards as random spirits followed me home (consider this a very strongly implied plug about the importance of personal and group spiritual hygiene – more on that in a future article). It was an absolutely terrifying and confusing time in my life, made worse by my inability to find mentors or teachers.

Odin was the first god who ever possessed me. I was participating in a rather earnest Dianic-style full moon ritual with my coven. And all of a sudden, I went blind in one eye. A mocking laugh came pouring out of my mouth, and I blacked out. When I came back to consciousness, my coven sister was crying and I still couldn’t see out of my eye. Confused and frightened, I asked her what happened. She said Odin, the Norse god of battle madness, poetry and wisdom had possessed me and talked to her. She had unsettled business with him, and he used me to tell her things that were true and important, but that she did not want to hear. He wasn’t very nice about it. Not being familiar with Norse mythology, I had never even heard his name prior to that evening. I decided at that point, given how things had transpired, that I wanted nothing to do with him. And after that and several other experiences, I found myself in the odd position of believing in all the gods and wanting nothing to do with any of them. They all seemed to be very large and political and complicated, and I figured I would much rather hide in the woods with my plants, rocks, animals, streams and dead people.

Thirteen years later, after a bunch of fighting with and running away (and a handful of other Powers coaxing me back out of the woods and getting me healed and trained and, well, housebroken), I found myself oath sworn to Odin. He brought me to all my other primary oathed Powers, and lovingly bullied me into making Ocha. All the blessings in my life have come, directly or indirectly, through his hands.

In the context of trance possession, every Power comes down in a different way for me. Loki sneaks in behind my eyes. Ochun lands on me like a large bird, flapping and dancing her way inside. Freyr sits in my lap as though I were a throne. And every one of these is ecstatic. Odin… Odin blows me to pieces, expanding my felt sense of self outward in a rush of stars and wind and darkness until I am as broad as the midnight sky, breathless and unfathomably large. Coming back from being possessed by Odin is awkward, as I need to re-figure out how to be bound by a small human frame. How can one fit the entire night sky back into a body? You can’t. The disconcerting confusion of the shape shift helps me to remember myself enough to come back.

For me, trance possession, when I invite or consent to it, is about joining my individual sense of self to a larger consciousness. I become a single cell in the vast body of a god. I expand my sense of self outward to a larger, networked sense of self that is named Odin (or Loki, or Freyr, etc.). And then I am not separate from him. I am a small part of him, and he can speak with my mouth because my mouth is one of his mouths. The key here is submission – consenting to a sublimation of my own small and individual identity into a larger identity. I can do this because I love him, because I trust him to return me to myself when he is done (and we have carefully negotiated our terms, and I have reason to trust that he will keep his end of our bargain).

And I can do this because I am not afraid of feeling and experiencing myself as part of a larger collective identity. I can do this because I have a strong individual sense of self – I know myself, I like myself, and I am comfortable taking responsibility for my own choices and actions. But I also believe that there is strength and blessing in connection, and I trust my Powers. I feel humbled and honored to get to participate, to be part of larger systems – systems that embody gods, systems that embody human communities, my neighborhood, my family, the land on which I live.

Part of how I wrap up my own polytheism is in the context of relationships, of participating in complex systems. And this participation is more than just a whimsical philosophical exercise; it deeply informs how I live my life and perform religious duties and activities. My Powers exist in pantheons – each pantheon is whole and complete, each Power complementing the other Powers in that larger system. My religion includes having access to a whole bunch of Specialists I can approach for blessings and help. And each one works as a necessary and important part of a larger whole that is their pantheon, so if one Power is not the correct one for me to approach, I can be (and have been) directed to others who are better suited to my needs or concerns. And when one pantheon is not the correct system for me to access for whatever reason, I may be directed to another pantheon all together. In return, I offer my devotions as an individual and as part of devotional community, and serve the gods and my communities as clergy, medium and healer.

Odin is a vast deity. Scholars have counted over 200 recorded names for him in the surviving Icelandic and Scandinavian literature. Each name speaks to a specific and different aspect of him: Alfodr (All-Father), Hveðrungr (Weather-Shaper), Valdr galga (Ruler of the Gallows), Uðr (Lover), Vegtam (Wanderer), Saðr (Truth-Teller), Ygg (Terrible One), Bolverk (Evil-Worker), Kjalarr (He who Provides Nourishment) and Goðjaðarr (God of Protection). In the Gylfaginning, the following explanation is given for why he has so many names:

Then said Gangleri: “Exceeding many names have ye given him; and, by my faith, it must indeed be a goodly wit that knows all the lore and the examples of what chances have brought about each of these names.” Then Hárr made answer: “It is truly a vast sum of knowledge to gather together and set forth fittingly. But it is briefest to tell thee that most of his names have been given him by reason of this chance: there being so many branches of tongues in the world, all peoples believed that it was needful for them to turn his name into their own tongue, by which they might the better invoke him and entreat him on their own behalf. But some occasions for these names arose in his wanderings; and that matter is recorded in tales. Nor canst thou ever be called a wise man if thou shalt not be able to tell of those great events.”

(Gylfaginning, XX, Brodeur’s translation.)

While Snorri Sturluson’s writings contain any number of challenges from a theological and mythological perspective, he does record the general thinking of Icelanders about two hundred years after the conversion of Iceland, thus recording some of the surviving beliefs native to that region. While I don’t believe that Odin is found in every pantheon around the world under different names, I do think he is vast enough to be able to make use of 200 names or more.

When dealing with a god of this size, the idea that he can cram himself down into a single human for the purpose of mediumship is absurd. He will never fit inside me. But I can fit inside of him, handing myself over for him to speak through me. And by doing so, I can manifest more of him and in a deeper and richer way. He is not inside of me; I am networked into him. And I maintain an aspect of this understanding of my relationship to him whether I am engaging in trance possession, performing runic divination, acting in a clergy role for my heathen community, or engaging in personal devotional work with him.

And truthfully, all gods are vast in comparison to humans. Expanding our sense of identity outward to join with our gods at the identity level allows us to connect deeper and more ecstatically. When we loosen our tight grip on our own individual identity, even if only for a moment, we open ourselves to the possibility of ecstatic divine connection. And when we come back to a singular, individual sense of self, we may find ourselves expanded, wiser, deeper for the experience.

Relationships are complicated things. To do relationship well, we have to be our own unique selves, fully and unflinchingly, to the best of our ability. We have to be soft and flexible enough to be moved by another, while strong enough to hold our center, keep from being bowled over and lost in another. And we have to be willing to share parts of ourselves, and humbly and graciously receive parts of others.

In relationship, the relationship is greater than the sum of its parts. A relationship takes on its own kind of sentience, where each person in the relationship (whether it is a relationship of two or a relationship of many) functions as a cell or an organ in the larger body of the relationship. So how do we engage in these relationships? Do we fight for control of the center? Do we allow ourselves to be dragged along by the momentum of the larger body? Do we step up and actively participate, sharing in the responsibility of maintaining that larger body?

As my darling Anomalous Thracian says, “Nothing exists independent of anything else, not because of some philosophical monistic sense of collective one-ness, but specifically because of the diverse many-ness of all… intersecting and networking through complex systems of relation.” The key here is networking – we impact and are impacted by the larger systems in which we are networked. Sometimes those larger systems include gods, and it is on us to actively participate in devotional practices, in working harmoniously, possibly in participating in religious structures in partnership with our beloved gods. But sometimes the specific larger system in question IS a god. And for me, this is where my mediumship lands.

When I am participating in relationship with my gods, it is important that I bring as much of my unique individual embodied self to the table as I can. I want to be my all, I want to give my all, and therefore I want to have access to my full self so that I can best participate in the relationship. But I don’t stand alone from my gods. As a medium and priest, sometimes I function in part as one of the faces of my gods. But the only way I can cleanly and appropriately do this is by sometimes letting go of my singular sense of self – I do not talk for the gods but sometimes the gods talk through me. If I insert myself into the conversation, allowing my individuated sense of self, my personal opinions and beliefs to bleed over into the dialogue, I am behaving unethically. There is a subtle but crucial nuance here. So in order to cleanly perform in my duties as a medium, I need to be able to expand outward, allowing my individual identity to be subsumed by the larger identity, and feel myself connected in a cellular way to my gods.

Relationships are personal, intimate. While reason and intellect may play a role in how we choose to engage, participation is what shapes relationships. You don’t need to be clergy, or a scholar, or a medium, or an oracle, or any other kind of spiritual or religious specialist to show up and participate in relationship with the gods, with other polytheists, with our ancestors or with the land. And to me, this is the true heart of the kind of polytheism in which I engage – interconnected, complex and intimate.

Odin was my first breath, and owns my last. He is the wild wind, the insatiable hunger for wisdom and experience. He is beserker rage, instigation and poetry. He is inspiration and strategy, treachery and seduction, generosity and victory. He gathers the glorious dead into armies to fight back the powers of entropy and chaos. He is my love and my darkness, and I am one of his many hands in this world. All hail Odin, who rides the night sky shrieking.

Embodying the Sacred

Each tradition and culture has its own understanding of the relationship between the physical body and the soul: some see the body as vehicle or vessel for the soul; some believe that the body is the physical manifestation of the soul and the source of our human magic; others believe the body houses a soul that is incomplete without the context of family, community or environment. Culture itself is enacted by the physical body through physical acts such as singing, dancing, eating, performing rituals, crafting objects and interacting with others.  Individually, our relationship to our own physical bodies may be complicated due to history of trauma, physical disability, illness or pain, discomfort with some aspect of our size, gender, or appearance or for other reasons.  Our core beliefs about our physical bodies intimately shape the way we connect to and understand the sacred. Spiritual longing, and that deep sense of meaning and purpose that having a spiritual path can bring, are physical as well as emotional and spiritual phenomena.

Body and Soul

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of the human soul. Every tradition (and many individuals) defines this concept differently. How we understand the nature of our soul (or even our sense of “self”) informs the way we relate to spirituality in general, and how (or if) we form relationships to our own blessed Powers (Deities, Oricha, Lwa, ancestors, fae, helpful dead people, animal and plant spirits, angels, and all the others who might walk with us). How we understand our physical bodies directly relates to how we understand our souls.

We can find many narratives with which to understand the relationship between the soul and the physical body. Some of these narratives may include:

  • My body is sinful or dirty and must be purified, subdued, punished or controlled.  My soul (or my sense of the sacred) is pure, but my body is an impure vessel. Without interventions of some sort, my body is unsuitable to house my soul or achieve higher spiritual goals.

  • My body limits me, and must be transcended by my soul if I am to grow.  My soul can or should ascend, leaving my body behind (while I am still living) in the pursuit of more important sacred endeavors.

  • My body is one of several soul parts. My body is the physical manifestation of my soul, and is as sacred as any other soul part.

  • I am a whole, unified being. My body and my soul are both just specific parts of the unity that is “me”.

  • My body/mind/spirit, in community with others, is a small part of a larger tribal or communal soul: individual people are part of larger enspirited living collectives, and the collective itself is the soul rather than any one individual.  My soul is incomplete without the context of the whole (family, community, culture or tradition, natural environment, etc.).

  • My body was given to my soul by a deity as a means of impacting and effecting the material world, and as a means of growing and changing my soul, or doing work on behalf of my deity.

  • My soul is a piece of a larger collective that is the Unity that is the sum of all that is. My body is part of that collective.

  • My body is a dwelling or vehicle that houses my soul.  My body and soul are separate, and my body is lifeless and meaningless without my soul to drive it and give it meaning and purpose. My body only exists to give my soul a place to live and a means to create or interact with the material world and has no value or worth beyond that purpose.

  • My body powers or feeds my soul as long as I am incarnate, and my soul can harvest the energies unique to a mortal existence, thus making my body the source of my current human magical or sacred capacities.

There are endless other ways of nuancing this narrative as well. Additionally, a tradition (or an individual) may believe more than one of these simultaneously (i.e.: the body is indistinguishable from the soul, and we are inherently sinful and must be purified; the body is a limiting dwelling and must be transcended and controlled; all of us make up a collective soul, and the individual physical bodies are vehicles that carry the individual parts of that larger soul; etc.).

Another way to frame this relationship is as follows:

My individual physical body is inherently (pick one or more):

  • Sacred, “good”

  • Sinful, “evil”

  • Incomplete

  • Neutral

AND my physical body is (pick one or more):

  • Me (I am a whole being)

  • Where “I” live (what houses my soul, but is fundamentally separate from my soul)

  • A part of my multi-part soul

AND my individual soul is (pick one or more):

  • A single unit that is the “real” me, complete and separable from my physical existence

  • Made up of a mix of parts, some of which are eternal and some of which are mortal (including my physical body)

  • Just one part of a larger soul (the part of me that engages with or links into the larger collective of relationship, family, community, culture, natural environment, etc.).

Why does this matter? Because this will shape the type of work we do, the type of spiritual practices in which we engage, and how we understand ourselves and others. If I believe that my body is impure, I will probably want to focus on the kind of spiritual practices that involve either purifying my body or working towards separating my soul from my physical body in order to worship, make magic or interact with other beings. If I believe that I am inseparable from my community (and therefore incomplete without my community), I may believe that I need my community in order to be able to perform meaningful rituals, engage in worship, or do other types of spiritual work, or I may dedicate the type of spiritual practices I do to enhance or benefit the larger whole. Our beliefs about ourselves and bodies in general shape what we believe to be possible for ourselves and others.

But this question impacts more than just how we engage in spiritual activities. How we construct the relationship between body and soul also impacts our everyday actions and behaviors, how we treat ourselves and other people. If I believe that bodies are inherently dirty, imagine how this might impact the way I treat my lovers. If I see my body as inseparable from my soul, and my soul as inseparable from the earth, this might impact what type of car I choose to drive, or how I choose to make a living. Our beliefs about soul and body, directly and indirectly, inform every choice we make, every action, every relationship; it informs all of who and what we are individually and collectively.

For myself, I believe that my physical body is one of several parts that make up my multi-part soul, in essence my body is the “mortal” part of my soul. I believe that individual soul parts came together when I was born to shape the unique individual collective entity currently known as “River”. Parts of my soul will continue past my current incarnation, but the unique individual I am at this moment in time (the collection of soul parts that includes my current physical body) is a one-time deal. The bits that make up me will separate at my death, each going its separate way to do things specific to that soul part. I also believe that I am one small part of several collective souls that I share with others in my family, my (human, animal, plant, and landscape) communities, and the earth. I also believe that I can function as a small part of the larger consciousness of several of my Gods and Powers, that in essence I function as a cell in the larger bodies that are the Powers with whom I am oath-bound (though the Powers do not need me in order to continue to exist, any more than I need sloughed off skin cells to continue to exist). What impacts the collective souls in which I am embedded impacts me; I in return impact the collective souls.

Embodying a Mortal Life

Part of what shapes our core lived experience is the simple fact of our mortality. Our souls may be immortal but our bodies carry an expiration date.  And it is with our mortal bodies that we experience, manipulate and change ourselves, one another, and the world around us while we are alive. As we deepen into magical or devotional practices, or begin to explore our spirituality in other ways, the core beliefs and understandings we carry about our physical bodies and physical experiences shape the way we understand and interact with our blessed Powers and our sense of the sacred.

How do we experience sacredness? We know it when we feel it. Staci Haines defines embodiment as “living inside your own skin.”  Embodiment means being able to have a felt sense of self, the ability to experience our physical sensations and emotions. In her book, Healing Sex: A Mind Body Approach to Sexual Healing, she says that, “when we can feel ourselves deeply, we can notice what we authentically love and care about, or what we are called to.” (Haines, 2007, page 3). If we believe that our physical bodies and our souls inform one another, then embodiment (being in our bodies) must be an important component of authentically deepening into spiritual practices.

Embodiment can also be defined as “the process whereby the individual body is connected into larger networks of meaning at a variety of scales; the production of social and cultural relationships through and by the body simultaneously with the ‘make-ing up’ of the body by external forces” (Cresswell, 1999, page 175-192). If we are to be able to work in partnership with others, we must also recognize and, more importantly, step into our full selves as well as our place within a broader context.  Our ability to experience sensations and emotions are the entry into this partnership.

“Embodiment” can be understood as having one of two opposites: dissociation or disembodiment.  In psychology, dissociation is understood as a perceived detachment of the mind from the emotional state or from the body (Medterms Medical Online Dictionary). The term dissociation also refers to the act of separating or the state of being separated (Merriam Webster Online Dictionary). When we dissociate, we separate or shut down sensation, either from parts of ourselves or from our sense of feeling connected to the world around us.  We dissociate through contraction – literally tightening up muscles, creating energy blocks, or numbing out and encapsulating emotions, sensations, or memories.

Dissociation is an incredibly intelligent survival strategy that all of us are born knowing how to do. Dissociation can help us survive emotionally or physically dangerous situations. However, dissociation (over time) is a limiting strategy, preventing us from being able to access our aliveness, our wisdom and our resources. The problem is not whether or not we dissociate (because we all do, and sometimes this is the best option in a challenging situation), the problem is whether we know how to stop dissociating and come back to our sensations and our full selves when we are ready to do so, when the dissociation stops being useful. Because dissociation prevents us from accessing our full selves and our connections, dissociation prevents us from being able to fully access our sense of and connection to our blessed Powers.

Disembodiment, on the other hand, means either to leave the body or simply to not have a body.  I further recognize a difference between “disembodied” and “noncarnate”: a human spirit may be disembodied, having once been part of a living human and not currently being in relationship to that person’s body (due to death or possibly due to wandering or traveling).  Disembodiment may be employed as a profound way to dissociate – if my soul and all parts of my consciousness, leave my body, I can cease to feel pain. A noncarnate being would be an entity that is not currently in relationship to a body, and perhaps never has been and/or never will be.  This type of being might be referred to (depending on your culture or tradition, and depending on the nature of that being) as an angel, fae, Oricha, Lwa, god or deity, land wight or spirit, or by some other term (though traditionally, some of these beings may have once been human and are now “elevated ancestors”). Different traditions have different stories and beliefs about these entities (who they are, their evolution, their role in relation to humans, etc.), but that is another story for another day.

I believe that embodiment is a vital part of engaging with the sacred.  It is harder for us to do anything if we cannot access our full lived experiences; it is harder to make choices and harder to take responsibility for our choices if we don’t have access to our full selves.  Furthermore, if our individual ways of connecting to the sacred is fundamentally informed by our beliefs about ourselves, then in order to be able to begin to know our will, our wants and desires and passions, we must first embody our full self.

Our “will” is that deep sense of knowing what we want and our ability to take responsibility for our part in shaping our world in order to achieve that want. The concept of will is an important one in many spiritual and magical paths – when we engage with the sacred, it is often in part because we are trying to affect change outwardly in our world or inwardly in ourselves. Knowing our will enables us to connect cleanly and meaningfully with our blessed Powers as well, either in a devotional context or a working partnership. When we can fully experience ourselves, we can access our full will, and our full capacity for creating change. Embodiment gives us the means to most deeply know and connect with the contents of our heart, our needs, what we care about most deeply. We cannot access our full will without this knowing.

Being embodied also gives us the opportunity to have the felt sense of actually connecting to something outside (or inside) of ourselves. We know that a spiritual practice is working because somewhere inside ourselves we feel it. Spiritual experiences come through as physical and emotional sensations. When we are dissociated, we are cut off from that internal sensation that lets us know that we have received a message, a blessing, or a true understanding. Dissociation is a contraction, a closing down of receptivity and feeling. Dissociation prevents us from being able to feel ourselves, other people, and the sacred in all its forms. If we cannot pay attention to our feelings and sensations, we simply cannot feel our spiritual experiences.

Embodiment: How do we do it?

Some spiritual practitioners engage with their blessed Powers by “journeying” – allowing their consciousness to disengage (at least in part) from a felt sense of their physical bodies to travel the spirit worlds and work with who or what they find there. Without a solid sense of embodiment, this work can be dangerous and disorienting. How do we know we’ve brought back all parts of ourselves when we return (and haven’t picked up any spare bits by accident) if we don’t know what our personal version of wholeness feels like? How can we tell the difference between having experiences in the spirit worlds change us for the better or for the worse if we don’t know what our baseline feels like? I believe that it is not just possible but important to do these types of practices in embodied ways – to bring some amount of a felt sense of self with us into the spirit worlds, and to be able to get back in touch with our felt sense of physical self when we return. We can more fully experience our time spent in the spirit worlds and, in my experience, we are less likely to feel disconnected when we come back home to a more mundane reality, too.

As living humans, we process all of our experiences through our nervous system. We have specialized nerves in our brains and throughout our bodies to notice temperature, pain, vibration, empathy, color, sounds, textures, tastes, memory, cognitive processes, numbers, music, and many other things. When we travel in the spirit worlds, because we are still alive, we are still running our experiences through our nervous systems. By better accessing these specialized cells (ie: by being more embodied), we can experience journeys, visions, and direct connection with our Powers more powerfully and with more accuracy. And by getting more skilled at the physical discernment of sensory input, we improve our abilities to sense the sacred, receive true messages, connect more deeply, and do better work on behalf of and in partnership with our blessed Powers.

But embodiment is tricky business, and hard work. We are taught (by our families, our culture, our life experiences) not to be (fully) embodied.  Dissociation is, in part, a learned behavior.  I believe our world intentionally teaches us to dissociate in certain ways – if we’re not paying attention, we’re easier to control.  If we’re not fully here, we’re not in our power and someone else gets to be in charge.  That “someone else” may be our families, bosses, leaders, or others. Being dissociated means we are less in touch with what we want, and are therefore more easily manipulated. Dissociation cuts us off from our ability to feel empathy and connect with others as well, serving to keep us separated and unable to access support, care and resources.

I believe sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression can be understood as types of collective dissociation – as a society, when we stop feeling ourselves and one another, we stop being able to access a felt sense of kinship and commonality, we lose our capacity for empathy, and we stop being able to recognize and feel our own and other people’s dignity. When we cannot feel how we are connected to other people, it becomes easier to create us/them dichotomies. Dissociation happens when we feel unsafe – it is an attempt to protect ourselves from pain and harm. When we begin to do this as a culture, we cut off our ability to feel specific members of our society – we are taught that certain types of people are unsafe or unimportant in certain ways, and therefore we collectively dissociate from those types of people. This dissociation is harmful to all of us, regardless of whether we are the type of person that society has labeled unsafe. When we collectively dissociate, we individually stop seeing certain types of people (ourselves included) as equally human, with needs, cares, and concerns. It becomes easier to scapegoat folks – if I can’t feel myself and I can’t feel my connection to you and I can’t feel and recognize your humanity, it becomes easier to blame you for whatever has frightened me enough to cause me to dissociate. We become unable to recognize and therefore act from a place of shared interest and cooperation.

We are all impacted by the cultures in which we live; we shape the culture; we are the culture. If we believe that we are individual members of a tribal or collective soul, this type of collective dissociation negatively impacts our collective soul, keeping us from wholeness and limiting our ability to collectively interact meaningfully with the sacred. If we want to heal our own individual dissociation, we must also look to cultural dissociation and oppression. We cannot be separated from the whole – when we work towards healing the collective, we heal ourselves, and vice versa.

Most of us are not taught to be embodied, to drop into an awareness of our full selves (however we understand our self) and be able to interact with the world from that place. Imagine for a moment what the world would be like if we all were fully aware of our needs, wants and desires and felt empowered to assert those needs. Imagine a world where we could all be respectfully responsive to our own individual needs, the needs of other people and beings, and the collective needs of the world around us simultaneously. Aspects of dissociation are learned behaviors; embodiment can also be learned.

How do we regain a sense of embodiment? How do we (re)learn embodiment? According to Staci Haines, the path to embodiment is a three-fold path, including increasing our awareness of our sensations and feelings, transforming our old “shape” (the way we live in the world, in our bodies, and in our relationships) into a shape that is more in line with what we care about most, and then practicing living and feeling that new shape.

We begin with somatic awareness. Embodiment isn’t always fun or pleasant – we probably dissociated for a good reason. So begin by finding an even better reason for why embodiment is worth it. What do you love most in this world? Where does your passion live? What do your ethics tell you? I believe embodiment is the path to truly connecting to the blessed Powers whom I love and with whom I swore oaths – for me, that’s a compelling reason to work towards becoming more embodied. Find a compelling reason to be embodied, and return to that reason if the act of feeling sensation starts to feel overwhelming. Once you have your reasons in place, begin to notice your sensations and feelings. Do this as often as you can, with your eyes open and while engaging with others, not just while you’re alone or in deep meditation.

Dissociation and related survival strategies cause our bodies and our emotions to close down in specific ways, unique to each individual. This may show up as energy blocks, emotional blocks or numbness, or even literal muscle contractions and physical body symptoms. Our next step is to begin to de-armor, feeling our way into where we’re stuck, numb, or contracted, and finding ways to relax and open those contractions. We begin to bring forth a new way of being in ourselves and in the world. Ask yourself, if every part of me believed that I am loved and connected, that all of me deserves to be here, how would I orient myself in the world? Let your body answer. When we let go of the deeply held armoring that keeps us from feeling, we open our channels to allow sacredness, aliveness, and connection to flow through us. When we begin to open, curiosity about ourselves and others begins to creep into our awareness – we become curious and interested in the world and in ourselves. We are better able to access our sense of the sacred when we are open, better able to feel ourselves, one another, and what we love.

It is important to note here that many of us both cannot and should not do this work in isolation. We may need to engage with spiritual and/or mental health professionals, supportive community, and direct contact with our blessed Powers in order to unwind a lifetime of dissociative patterns and behaviors. Individual dissociative patterns live in our bodies; collective dissociative patterns live in our behaviors and interactions with others.

Third, we consciously take on practices that help us live what we believe in and care for most deeply. Many of us have “practiced” being dissociated for many years, practiced tightening our jaws or pulling in our shoulders while walking in the street, practiced putting other people’s wants ahead of our needs, or shutting out our awareness of other people. We are, in part, defined by the constellation of our daily actions and choices. Do you make choices that would bring honor to your ancestors? Do your daily actions line up with your ethics? Do you live your life in a way that would make you proud to stand before your gods? We need to practice awareness, practice de-armoring, practice connecting authentically with others, practice living aligned with our ethics in order to become proficient at these skills.

Our lives, our personal and collective histories, our cultures, our daily habits and practices, and our beliefs “shape” how we live in our bodies and in the world.  It is possible to change our shape if our shape isn’t working for us. This act of changing shape requires more than just an examination of what our beliefs are. It requires that we consciously practice the new shape. This shaping occurs in the realm of our physical and emotional sensations, what we feel, how we move through space individually and in relation to others. Becoming embodied is the act of showing up and noticing what’s happening. Becoming embodied (in our individual self, in our relationship, in our families or communities, in relation to nature, etc.) requires actively feeling our sensations, both physical and emotional, in order to feel ourselves, our place, and our role. This is a set of physical and emotional actions, not a hypothetical intellectual exercise or statement of belief.

Our bodies are not optional. As long as we still draw breath, we cannot fully leave the part of us that is our bodies behind. If I were to embody the belief that my body is me and that I am sacred, how would that change how I make simple daily choices? Would I remember to eat breakfast? What kinds of relationships would I have? How would that belief inform my career choices and how I perform my job? How would a belief that all parts of me are sacred (and by extension, all parts of all things are sacred) change the kinds of spiritual practices I engage in, or the way I relate to my blessed Powers? How would that belief impact how I treated others, or how I expect others to treat me and one another?

Embodiment takes practice and may require changing regular habits and thought patterns.  This may include evaluating how we talk about ourselves and others, engaging in regular physical exercise or physical disciplines, touching other people more (or less, or differently), noticing and engaging with our natural environment, practicing conscious body awareness by using techniques such as body centered meditation, or evaluating core beliefs about our bodies and bodies in general. Anything we want to learn must be practiced if we want to get more adept at the learning – embodiment must be practiced if it is to be incorporated into our regular daily experience of living.

If we are to step into solid, sacred relationship with the blessed Powers with whom we may engage, I believe that the most effective and powerful way to do this is by expanding to fill our full selves, to step into a greater level of personal and collective embodiment. Practicing embodiment gives us the opportunity to show up, access a deep felt sense of the sacred, and have more meaningful ways of engaging with our blessed Powers and with one another. Being embodied gives us the opportunity to bring something unique to the table, the deep, complex and nuanced perspectives of a lived human experience.


Cresswell, Tim (1999) ‘Embodiment, Power and the Politics of Mobility: The Case of Female Tramps and Hobos’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24.2.

Haines, Staci (2007) Healing Sex: A Mind Body Approach to Sexual Healing, San Francisco, CA. Cleis Press.

Haines, Staci, personal communication, various dates (2008-2009)