Renewal and Returning Light

I noticed the change in the light for the first time last week. There’s a subtle difference in the tint of the sunlight as the sun moves north on its way to crossing the equator at the vernal equinox in March. I’m the daughter of an artist and costume designer, so I suspect I notice shade and tint a little more than is normal. In my perception, the sunlight becomes a little less gold and a little more white as we shift toward spring. Everything looks just a bit brighter as a result. Along the same lines, it’s been wonderful to sit down to dinner with a little light still in the sky lately and my dogs have definitely been enjoying some longer evening walks. The seed catalogs are here, the big box stores are putting out their packets and planting supplies, and even as we still bundle up against the colder days, swimsuits are on display at a few department stores. Spring is definitely coming. 

One of the threads that makes up my tapestry of philosophies and ideas about life is yoga. I became a yoga teacher in 2013 and the training I went through was strongly grounded in Ayurveda, a system of traditional medicine with historical roots in India. Within Ayurveda, seasons of the year have prevailing energies that influence how we experience our lives during those seasons. The energy of winter is called Kapha and it is an earthy, slower-moving energy. Any yogi who’s spent some time learning about Ayurveda quickly comes to detest New Year’s Resolutions. Trying to make a change in the depths of winter, when it’s cold, dark and we’re naturally craving heavier foods and slower movement is an uphill fight. Change is already difficult. We don’t need to add a 50 pound pack of seasonal resistance to our efforts toward transformation. 

But spring? Spring is when Kapha changes – the liquid qualities associated with it become those of elimination and rinsing away what is stagnant. The increasing light and warming temperatures inspire us to start moving again and those of us who wrestle with seasonal depression begin to experience a reduction in symptoms. The world feels like it’s opening up again, and it’s a much better time to make changes than in the dead of winter. In an ideal world, we would make Spring Resolutions rather than New Year Resolutions. 

My primary faith is Paganism. As a spiritual path, Paganism encourages a closer relationship with and connection to the natural cycles of our world. We seek to integrate practices and approaches that help us participate in the changing of seasons. Right now, the Pagan world as a whole is preparing for our spring celebrations: Ostara, Eostreblot, Alban Eilir, and more. Along with rituals featuring spring flowers, the planting of seeds, and the honoring of deities associated with the growing season, many Pagans begin a spring reset of their homes, schedules, and spirituality as well. As we turn toward the light and the outward spiral, it’s a wonderful time to breathe some of that fresh spring energy into our lives. 

One useful lens that I look through when it comes to spiritual practice is that of the primal elements. The primal elements within many if not most Pagan traditions are Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. There are variations, of course, but those four are usually present in some form. Along with a physical component – literal earth or flame – there are areas of life associated with each element. 

When we’re thinking about making changes, it can feel overwhelming. Trying to transform too much at the same time is frequently unsustainable. So, approaching spring renewal by choosing one or two elements to concentrate on is a good way to connect without falling off the wagon. It also helps us identify areas where change would help us the most. 

As an element, Earth is the literal stone and soil, but it also governs our physical world in general: our homes, the food we eat, the objects and colors we surround ourselves with, and where we find stability. When we think about the phrase “spring cleaning,” earth is the primal element we’re working with. Spring cleaning of a home can be a lot more than simply tidying up. For Pagans, much of our spiritual practice occurs within our homes. They are both living spaces and temple spaces. The upshot of this is homes that are intentionally designed to support our spiritual goals and emotional needs. If you feel that your physical surroundings are where you’d like to focus your renewal, consider what environment truly suits you best. When our homes are truly safe and sacred spaces, we’re able to relax and recharge more effectively. We haven’t always had the opportunity to consciously design a living space to support us. So, think about it: What does your ideal home look like? Is it warm and cozy, full of books, cats and knicknacks? Is it open and airy? Is it clean or cluttered? Calm or stimulating? What colors are present? The answers are different for everyone, and there is no wrong answer. You have an alignment here whether you realize it or not. 

And, if you decide to take a deep dive into spring cleaning or designing, remember to create an opening for the stuck energy of winter to exit. I like to crack a window a little bit when I’m cleaning, organizing, or redecorating in order to encourage that which no longer serves to be on its way. Many Pagans follow a physical spring cleaning with some purification techniques. We carry incense through the house, wafting the smoke into every nook and cranny. Or we ring pure bells in each room, allowing the uplifting tone to harmonize the energy there. Some of us sprinkle sacred water, or shake rattles or chimes. There are many possibilities for getting more out of an earth element-based spring reset. 

The earth element is not the only area on which we can focus in spring, though. For many people, cleaning is an overwhelming investment of time and can result in more stress and anxiety than its worth. This is where approaching spring through the other elements can be so helpful. 

Elemental air is the literal air we breathe and the winds that blow, of course. The area of life it governs in Paganism is that of the mind. Air influences our thoughts and how we communicate them. Sometimes the best change we can make is to our own mental health. If you’re feeling stuck or stagnant, a spring renewal of thought and creativity might be the best fit. Consider how you’d like your thought patterns to behave. Think about your current common mental states. You can even use an online tracker here for mood. There are some good apps that help identify regular mindsets. Once you’ve noticed your thought patterns, consider what you would change. How would you adjust your self-talk? How do you want to nurture your mind? It might be a good time to try out a new therapist, pick up a workbook on managing anxiety, or add some self-care techniques that benefit the mind and mood. Will you have a meditation practice? A movement practice? Again, there are no right or wrong answers. There’s just what works for you. 

Consider what activities naturally boost your mood or help you think more clearly. For example, my mindset is always better and less anxious after a walk along the C&O Canal trail. A good spring reset for me would be dedicating myself to walking outside three to four times per week. 

Our schedule impacts the mind as well. I am a writer, and my best creative hours are between 7 and 11 AM. One of my friends and mentors is the polar opposite – his best creative hours are 11 PM and 3 in the morning. Notice when your mind is sharpest, and consider making some schedule changes that allow you to be your best and brightest self in the area of your choosing. 

Play is another area where elemental air rules, and play gets short shrift in this culture, especially for adults. That said, it really is vital for health across the board. Engaging in play stimulates creativity, reduces stress, increases our sense of well-being, and more. Play also helps us connect to our inner child – one of the deepest layers of identity. For many people, childhood was fraught with difficulty. Allowing our inner child to have healthy moments of play is a powerful way to heal some of our oldest wounds. So, maybe this spring you introduce more play. What hobbies interest you? What do you always wish you had more time for? 

Elemental fire is literal flame, of course, and within Paganism it is also the animating spark of life. It is our vitality and passion, and the energy we bring to our lives. For those of us who are feeling run down, a fire focused renewal might be perfect for springtime. One of the most useful techniques for resetting the fire area of your life is to figure out how different activities impact your energy levels. We can generally identify the ones that are draining. But in order to make real change, we also need to know what activities are replenishing and what activities are numbing. Many times, we reach for numbing activities when a replenishing activity would be better. Replenishing activities result in greater energy immediately afterwards, but also longer term – that evening, or even the next day. Numbing activities pause whatever we were feeling but when we stop doing them, we’re right back where we started. 

For me, numbing activities are playing games on my phone or scrolling social media. Replenishing activities tend to be body-based for me – taking a bath or shower, going for a long walk, getting a massage, dancing or doing a yoga practice. This is another area where using an app to track how you’re feeling can help. Imagine that you have a tank of energy and as you go through your day, notice how full the tank is at various points in time. Give those check-ins a percentage value: 50% full, 70% full, etc. When you check in, consider what contributed to the current level of energy. Once we know what drains us and what replenishes us, we can begin to do more of the replenishing stuff and less of the draining and numbing stuff. 

Lastly, we can approach a spring renewal through elemental water. Along with the rain, oceans, and flowing streams, elemental water governs our spiritual connection. In my own experience, many of us go through peaks, valleys, and plateaus along our spiritual journey. If you feel like your spiritual growth has stalled out, it  may be time to dive deep into your more watery connections. 

One of my favorite ways to break a spiritual plateau is to create a challenge for myself. Challenges – in this case meaning a specific window of time to cultivate an area of focus – can be a wonderful way to restart a dormant practice, connect more deeply, or simply follow through on things we’re already trying to do. To create one, choose the length of time first. Challenges work best as shorter windows – a couple weeks to a couple months. I love 30 day challenges personally. Then, visualize your goal for your spirituality: what do you want your connection to be like? Then work backwards from there in terms of creating simple steps. Maybe you start a morning meditation practice, or light candles every night on your altar. Maybe you start praying again or choose one thing every day to be grateful for and record it in a journal. Think about the small action that can shift you in the direction you’d like to go and plant that action as a seed for spring. 

There’s a restlessness that many of us experience as the temperature warms and the days lengthen. It’s so deeply rooted that many of the oldest systems of philosophy in the world have special terms for it and ways to support it. I’m a big fan of going with the prevailing energy rather than fighting it. So, if you also find yourself ready to make changes this spring, remember that you have many options available to you. Yes, you can spring clean your home and purify it. But you can also turn that focus in other directions – you can air out your thoughts, breathe new light into the fire of life within you, or swim in the deep waters of spirit. The outward spiral of the growing season stretches out before us. The question now is where are you ready to grow? 

This sermon was first offered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hagerstown on Sunday, March 3rd.

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