I wanted to talk about gratitude today and the impact it has had on my spiritual practice. There are many established benefits of practicing gratitude for mental health, which is why I started my gratitude practice. One thing I wasn’t expecting to receive from my practice was an increased willingness to engage in acts of spiritual devotion – something I’ve felt reluctant and even phobic towards until recently.
For years I’ve been scared of engaging in acts of spiritual devotion such as: chanting to specific entities or deities, having statues or imagery of deities in my home (especially on my altar), praying to deities, and especially doing any type of ritual work involving entities or deities. The idea of doing any of this used to terrify me. How do I know entities/deities are real? What if I am deceived and become cursed with some kind of paranormal affliction? What if deities are just trying to use me and will hurt me later down the road? Why should I trust them?
There are a lot of ways to conceptualize deities that elicit big, insoluble philosophical questions I don’t care to explore in this article. For me, I eventually came to a point where it became beneficial for me to explore ways to feel connected and supported by something greater than myself. Some people accomplish this through engaging with community causes, and I turned to spirituality. In order to do that, I knew I needed to understand why I was afraid of connecting to Spirit.
One thing that stood out to me was a fear that I was just going to be projecting unfulfilled desires for loving and supportive parents onto Spirit, and that this would leave me in a state of arrested development. I thought I should be trying to figure out how to depend on myself without any external sources of support or validation. I eventually came to understand this as an attachment issue. That is to say, because I have an insecure attachment style, being in a state of dependence on anyone feels uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing. People with a secure attachment style generally feel safer in the world – they trust that others have their best interests at heart and they experience less challenges related to setting boundaries and resolving conflict in relationships, which promotes a sense of safety and agency. When I thought about my fear of Spirit in this way, it became clear that what I needed were corrective experiences.
Another thing I came to realize was that projection is not an inherently bad or unhealthy phenomenon – on the contrary, it is automatic, unconscious, and happens to everyone. Projection is the psychological mechanism by which the contents of the unconscious become known to us. So, even if I did end up acting out unconscious desires for the parental relationships I didn’t experience as a child, these could become corrective experiences for me and help bring me in touch with the loving and supportive Inner Parent that exists in me.
With that being said, it becomes irrelevant whether or not entities/deities are “real” or imagined, as the spiritual practice itself is therapeutic. So, I found myself taking baby steps to develop a greater relationship to Spirit. One of the first things I did was purchase a small statue of an unnamed, generalized “compassion goddess” who lives on my desk. The fact that she was not any one particular goddess is what helped me take this small step outside my comfort zone. I am particularly wary of any practice resembling “worship” or subordinating oneself to a deity or entity. I did not want to develop any kind of relationship that came with strings attached or ritual obligations. What I wanted at this point was to manifest greater compassion for myself. I had hit a wall, struggling to learn something that I did not have much prior experience with. I called out to something beyond my conscious understanding to assist me in my endeavor.
And you know what? In a few short months I began noticing huge shifts in the way I talked to myself and observed myself. I found it helpful to look at my compassion goddess whenever I felt troubled or dysregulated. During my journaling sessions I found myself experiencing breakthrough insights into my emotional state, effortlessly acknowledging my suffering and feeling…loving towards myself. It felt like the way I feel a strong desire to comfort my dog or a child when they are hurt. In time this kind of way of regarding myself became natural. Can I prove that it was Goddess at work? Of course not, but I keenly feel that it was so. This was my first taste of the kind of corrective experiences I was after. I allowed an effigy of compassion in the shape of a goddess into my life and I did not develop psychosis or become totally disempowered by my relationship to it. Actually, my life began improving and I began to feel greater peace and support. My comfort zone now became a bit more inclusive than it was before; I was willing to take my next small step beyond it.
It didn’t take long for another opportunity to cultivate a corrective experience to show up. I received an offering to participate in a multi-week chanting experience. Each week we learned a new mantra – some were not in service to any particular deity, like the medicine Buddha mantra, but many others were mantras devoted to Hindu deities like Shiva and Ganesha. I was comfortable with this because of my ongoing interest in Vedic astrology and philosophy. Hindu mythology in particular has appealed to me since childhood. I signed up and began participating in my new spiritual community.
I did not expect to love chanting as much as I do. It is now my primary method of meditation that I practice multiple times a week. It feels good to use my voice and rock from side to side while I focus on my mantra. Through weeks of learning different chants, I got to experience that I could connect with spiritual entities without losing my mind or becoming destabilized. In fact, it felt good and brought me deep security and inner peace to practice the chants. Often without knowing the exact meaning of the mantras, I would find them pop into my head during times of stress or emotional turbulence – such as feeling angry and resentful – only to later find out that those specific mantras are used to ameliorate the exact conditions I was suffering from. I felt the most comfortable chanting to Ganesha, especially as I began taking Vedic astrology more seriously and learning about Ganesha’s gentle approachability. I soon found myself searching for a small statue of Ganesha to invite into my home.
When he arrived in the mail I was nervous. This was an especially big step for me – bringing a named deity into my home. I spent a lot of time researching the specific qualities and symbols to look for in a Ganesha statue and where to best place him. I chose an area by my plants, where he looks upon my living room and dwells in his preferred compass direction. Around this time I also crafted my very own mala out of crystal beads and knotting cord. I began to make it a regular ritual to sit in front of my Ganesha statue and chant to him with my mala. Over time I began to include chants to Shiva, Durga, Saraswati, Hanuman, Lakshmi, and the powerful Gayatri. This practice has become very important for keeping me centered and grounded. It has been about a year since I started this practice and I’ve noticed big changes in that time.
One such change was a general overall peacefulness and ability to accept the way things are. I also experienced external events that have brought me to greater opportunities and balance in my life. Whenever I began to feel unsettled or overwhelmed by these shifts, I noticed myself turning to my chanting practice. I also began practicing sincere gratitude for my spiritual team: I started leaving regular offerings of tea on my altar and giving thanks every few days. I’ve had an altar for a handful of years prior to this shift, but it was a general altar for my own growth and acknowledging my ancestors. It’s only in this past year that I have explicitly began using the space on my altar to make offerings and give thanks to Spirit. A small angel figure that was a relic of my late friend’s faith has now become a reminder of the presence of my angels in my life, even archangels such as Michael and Raphael. The lotus charm gifted by a friend is now a symbol of Lakshmi, as well as my owls. One owl in particular – an empty beauty container I picked up at a thrift store – now serves as my God Box where I submit worries and surrender things that are beyond my control. Recently, a small card depicting Ganesha has taken roost beside my angel. These are radical changes from how I was two years ago.
It’s taken a lot for me to be able to trust that something bigger than myself will not hurt or punish me for making mistakes; is understanding, supportive, and ready to reflect to me the love I practice. Over time those little offerings and gratitude prayers have accumulated into a paradigm shift within me in how I relate to Spirit. One day something clicked for me: I felt such sincerely deep gratitude for the presence of Spirit in my life that I wanted to do something nice in return. I wanted to keep leaving offerings and using my chanting practice to put my focus on Spirit of my own volition, the way I tend to and care for the people in my life who have shown me kindness and fidelity. I suddenly understood how people can feel deep love for the guides and deities in their life. I also understood this in reference to my astrological studies – the 5th house, the house of children, devotion, and one’s heart desire, is also the house of spiritual practice and mantra. In the 5th house we freely devote ourselves to our children, loving them immensely, and that same relationship is reflected in how we relate to Spirit.
Yes, this reinforced my previous notions about the relationship between attachment, projection, parents, and Spirit – but it also gave it new meaning. As I keep learning in my astrological studies, when one has been separated or forsaken by their biological parents this creates an opportunity for one to connect with a transpersonal parent. One who can embody the traits we needed from our parents, who were limited by their humanity. A transpersonal parent need not be Spirit, but connecting with Spirit is absolutely a respectable, tried-and-true tradition of doing so. Through this relationship one can internalize a new parental figure and reparent themselves, bringing healing to old traumas and attachment wounds. It takes courage to do it and have faith in the process, but the outcome is so worth it.