Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ritual Resources: Lingam Puja

The social advances in acceptance of sexual diversity over the last ten years  have been staggering. But they don 't cancel out the virulent homophobia of many parts of the world: think of Russia, think of Uganda. Think about the brutally violent acts that continue to claim the lives of queer people even in  places where legal protections are in place. (If you haven't seen the film Clapham Junction, look for it--it's a brilliant and wrenching story of the intolerance and repression still endemic in "enlightened" places like middle-class London.) Think about the spiritual abuse inflicted on queer people by erotophobic religious communities. Think about the wedge driven between eros and spirit through the souls of many men by sexual abuse at the hands of religious authority figures.

Homphobia is alive and well. Sexual shame is alive and well. Erotic injustice is alive and well. We're kidding ourselves if we think our work is over--the work of civil rights, the work of social acceptance, the work of self-acceptance, the work of intergrating our spiritual with our sexual lives, the work of expanding our own compassion. We need ritual that affirms our queer male bodies, with all their erotic capacities, as sacred participants in the universal Mystery. And we need to see our own spiritual healing not as an endpoint, but as preparation to offer ourselves in service to the healing of the world.
We need ritual that declares at the same time the holiness of the feminine and its presence in our lives. We need ritual that doesn't exclude or marginalize trans people.
One resource for the creation of ritual that helps us bring all this into our lives is Hinduism's veneration of the yoni lingam--of Lord Shiva's erect cock (lingam) enclosed by the vulva (yoni) of his consort, the Divine Mother. The stylized image of the yoni lingam is a primary feature of every Shiva temple. If you're not clued into its significance, you might never figure it out from its abstract, stylized shape in most temples.
Hinduism does better than many religious traditions in explicitly acknowledging both male and female sexuality as sacred forces. Sadly, this doesn't necessarily translate into the empowerment of women or the acceptance of gay men or lesbians in South Asian cultures. But we can work the magic of queer culture on the resources it offers, like spiritual drag that we appropriate from our mothers' closets to our own ends. We take what we need. Sometimes we outrage those from whom we borrow it. At our best, we take it anyway, but in the spirit of the Trickster, not in rancor or bitterness or a spirit of appropriation.
In the paragraphs below, I describe a puja (a ritual act of devotion) for a group of queer men. You can perform it with as few as two or as many as a hundred. It's designed to be a shared practice to start the day in community, but you can adapt it to different times of the day and different social circumstances. It works best as a group continues to gather repeatedly, so that the various elements start to feel more familiar, and participants begin to take community ownership. With repetition, many participants will find that the significance of the ritual "opens out" for them into new associations with the issues they're confronting within themselves.

To create the ritual space, you need to delineate a circle on the earth (or indoors, or on a rooftop), large enough for your whole group to walk comfortably in a clockwise direction around the center.  You establish a fixed entrance path to the circle. You can do this with stones, or colored powder, or fabric, or cord, or other suitable materials. This circle and its entryway together form a yoni  honoring the holiness of female sexuality. We stand in this circle acknowledging gratefully the source from which we've come, and upon which the ongoing generation of the world depends.There is space here to honor as well the receptive erotic capacity of our butts, and the manginas of trans men.
You might consider placing a representation of an animal guardian figure at the entrance, whose purpose is to banish from the circle all that obstructs the spiritual development of queer men: forces like homphobia, misogyny, transphobia, racialized and class-based exclusion, sexual and spiritual abuse.
At the centre of this circle stands the lingam  honoring the holiness of male sexuality. Since a  central purpose of this ritual is to reclaim the connection between the sexual and the spiritual in our own bodies, it's preferable (in contrast to Hindu ritual usage) to use a realistic sculpture of cock and balls. Ideally it will be big enough to "read" clearly as a ritual object, rather than as a really ambitious dildo. It might be virtually as tall as an adult man; a smaller sculpture can be placed on a support narrow enough to allow for direct contact and embrace.
Place an altar before the lingam with a bowl to receive offerings of flowers to the Goddess, an incense burner, and a receptacle for open flame. Cut lengths of string in a color that seems appropriate, long enough to wrap two or three times around your wrist and tie in a knot.
Someone needs to assume the role of an officiant who will hold ritual space, improvising the necessary formulas of introduction and explanation to guide the assembly through the details of the ritual.
There are several stages to the ritual. The details are less important than is making the shape of the ritual your own: experiment with variations of content and language until it feels right.
You begin with a Greeting and Entrance into the sacred space of the yoni. The officiant prepares the space ahead of time by lighting a flame, burning incense, and centering himself in his own devotion. He greets every man as he enters the circle, marking his forehead with a tilak (the smudge of colored powder that signifies a god's devotee). He could, for instance, say, "Welcome, my brother. I mark you with the sign of One who abides in this place." He invites each man to offer his flower and to ring a bell announcing his presence, as congregants continue to gather.
You then proceed with an Invocation of the Goddess and the God.  The officiant  or another member of the gathering might read out the names of Goddess and God from a previously constructed list, or might invite all present to call out the names of God as they're moved. Including divine names from many traditions opens the ritual to affirm more powerfully the connection between sex and spirit in our lives. The officiant can improvise ritual language around this litany of the divine names.
The officiant invites each man to declare aloud his Intention in the ritual: his aspirations for the hours and days ahead. Men in the circle declare intentions one at a time in turn. A thread is tied around each man's  wrist after he has spoken, to visibly bind his intention to him. The officiant performs this service for the first man to speak. Then each man in the circle, after he has spoken, performs this service for the man who speaks next. The circle is completed when the officiant speaks his intention last of all.
A clockwise Circumambulation of the lingam is the central act of the puja. The officiant invites the men present to walk in meditation and prayer around the lingam, silently or speaking aloud as they're moved.  This continues for as long as it feels right. Congregants walk at any pace that's comfortable, at whatever distance from the lingam they wish. They may feel moved to come forward to embrace the lingam, kneel before it, lay a hand on it. If the lingam is draped in a ritual garment like a stole or a set of prayer beads, a devotee may wear these during his devotion and then replace them as he returns to the walking circle.
The Circumambulation of the lingam ends at the discretion of the officiant, who rings a bell three times and invites congregants to gather around the lingam in physical contact with it and with one another and to tone together until the chant subsides.

A Dismissal follows that may include the recitation of a short verse, a blessing, and an invitation to exchange an embrace of peace before departing the circle.
Photographs courtesy of Gerry Fortuna: http://gerry-fortuna.artistwebsites.com

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Danger of Violent Thunderstorms

A big chunk of the Northeast has been under a static dome of high pressure for over a week.  The humidity's through the roof. The sun beats down like a schoolyard bully. Our cat stalks lethargically from her water dish in the living room to the relative coolness of the shade under a bush, and then back again half an hour later, sounding as cranky as I feel.

For the last two days, the forecasts in the New York Times have promised relief sometime today. A powerful cold front is lumbering toward us from the northwest, pushing more hot air in front of it, but promising rain behind that. I keep looking at the sky for the first harbingers of all this, wondering if each toss of a branch is the beginning of the weather system, grateful for the prospect of relief, and apprehensive of what the "thunderstorms, sometimes violent" of the Times report portend for my train trip up the Hudson Valley this afternoon to assist at a weeklong retreat. Two years ago, I was headed for Easton Mountain on the same route when a deluge brought down trees across the tracks and delayed us for eight hours.
Checking the web for alternative, perhaps more up-to-the-hour reports of what to expect is an exercise in self-perpetuating anxiety. The weather websites stoke their hit counters on hype, and so instead of "thunderstorms, sometimes violent," weather.com offers "danger of violent thunderstorms," with additional links, in case you're not yet anxious enough, to features on how best to prepare for the contingency. The weather is a threat, and the response to our lack of control is to pretend that we have some.
Part of the powerful mythology of my mother's family was my maternal grandmother's deep connection to nature and the earth. She planted trees at the house she moved into as a young wife and mother, the house where she would live nearly the rest of her life, the way most young couples place furniture. She raised foundling birds the way she invited stray human children as well to her already overextended kitchen table in the midst of the Depression. My mother habitually rehearsed a description of the rest of the family cowering in the house, in the midst of Indiana summer storms, while my grandmother stood at the back door, looking up into the wind and lightning and laughing in delight. I never saw my grandmother do this. Though I was blessed to know her for a few precious years, she was elderly, disabled, and sliding steadily into dementia from the early years of my childhood. But I'm grateful to my mother for passing this memory on, vividly enough that it's become my own.
I don't imagine my grandmother being foolhardy about the danger. I think she just didn't really give a shit about it--that she'd  decided  the possibility of getting hit by a falling limb, or electrocuted, was the acceptable price of seeing a wonder she wouldn't miss for the world.
This wild abandon seems to me all the more miraculous when I think about how she started her life. The abused stepdaughter of a woman who broke my grandmother's hip when she was nine, she fled the house four years later and dropped out of school to work in a greenhouse and live with the family who owned it. I think she was about twenty when she became pregnant by my grandfather, and they married, to the disapproval of his lace-curtain German immigrant family. That first child died in infancy. I imagine going through all that in your first twenty-one years might make you hold on to safety even more tightly. But my grandmother went the other way. She would never have used such language, but I imagine her thinking, fuck it, death by lightning strike would be a glorious romp next to what I've already been through.
I bless the memory of this woman. I breathe in gratitude that her blood runs in my veins, and I pray that I may have inherited some small portion of her spirit. I pray I'll be ready to look up into high winds exploding with ineffable sound and light the next time I have the chance, instead of cowering against a perceived threat.
 I think of the two dozen amazingly adventurous and spirited souls with whom I'm about to spend a week  at the Body Electric School's Erotic Temple retreat. I think of the journeys that have brought us all to this improbable rendezvous. I think of the courage it takes to bring our wounded histories, our longing to heal the rift between the sexual and the spiritual in our lives as queer men, our anxieties about being fully seen, our fears about what we can't quite yet face down in ourselves. I think of how easy it would be to scan the horizon for thunderstorms, sometimes violent, and seize up in an effort to brace against their danger.
And I pray that my grandmother will send her spirit upon us all.