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Spiritual Practices for Samhain

As October turns into November we reach the peak of autumn. In the Celtic Wheel of the Year we celebrate the cross quarter festival of Samhain (pronounced saah-win), which is understood as the end and beginning of the year. It’s a moment of transition where autumn gives way to winter. The harvest is complete. The beautiful autumn leaves are now composting into the earth. The days are becoming darker. The frosts have started to come. And much of the natural world is slipping into dormancy.

We’re often taught that darkness is something to fear, but the natural world teaches us that darkness is simply part of the ongoing cycle of life. Death and darkness create space for new life to arise.

The annual season of darkness invites us into introspection. It’s a time to dive deep into Mystery. It’s a time for meditation and dreaming. It’s a time for study and assimilation. For rest and sleep. For quiet and stillness. This is a time for inward listening. It’s a time to root more deeply in our intuition and connect with the voice of our inner wisdom.

The ancients claimed that at Samhain the veil between worlds is thin… I imagine that as they watched the death of the natural world around them they felt a connection to the loved ones who’d crossed the threshold of death. So they visited graveyards, set a place at the table for deceased family members, and created altars in honor of their ancestors. The ancient traditions of Samhain lie underneath modern celebrations like All Hallows Eve, Halloween, All Souls Day, and the Day of the Dead.

I invite you to pause and mark this moment in time with awareness and ritual.

Through the practice of intentional season keeping we can let our souls rest in our intrinsic relationship with Nature. We can reconnect with the rhythm of the earth and the festivals our ancestors celebrated. We can follow the natural cycle of balance-activity-balance-rest and find healing from the stress, depression, anxiety, and general spiritual malaise that affects so many of us. 

Here are some ideas to help you mark the occasion of Samhain:

Samhain is considered the end and beginning of the wheel of the year, so this is a good time to reflect on what’s ending and set intentions for what’s beginning. And remember that we begin in darkness. We don’t rush out of the gate with action. But with gestation…

*** Listen to Nature

As the days turn colder, don’t hide away in heated buildings. Be sure to find time to go outside and feel natural air on your skin. If you can, choose one tree or a particular patch of earth and notice the subtle shifts that happen every day. What happens as we move from autumn to winter? Give thanks for your senses that allow you to experience the seasons. What do you learn as you smell, taste, see, touch, and listen to the world around you?

*** Listen to your ancestors

Create an altar for your ancestors. This can be as simple as placing a single photo on display. Or it can be quite elaborate! (You can include offerings from each member of the household, photos and written words, objects to represent the 5-elements, and on and on. Use your imagination.) Feel free to interpret “ancestors” in whatever way is useful for you. Maybe it’s your blood relatives, maybe it’s a well-known person from the past with whom you feel an affinity, maybe it’s people from your spiritual lineage, maybe it’s a general idea of your heritage…)

Tend this altar for several days. Allow your heart to open to the past. Pray for the peace of your ancestors and listen for the wisdom they can offer you in the present moment.

*** Listen to your community

Anytime in the next few weeks gather some friends for a dinner party, a bon fire, a visit to a graveyard, or a hike. Ask everyone to bring something for a shared ancestor altar. Gather in a circle around the altar and share stories of your loved ones who’ve passed on. What did you learn from them? How did they shape the person you are today?

*** Listen to your inner voice

Be brave and meditate on death. Life as we understand it is impermanent. One day, death will come to us all.

  • Have a conversation with yourself—what would your dying self want your present self to know?
  • Write your own obituary: If you were to die today, how would you be remembered? What relationships have you cultivated? What work have you accomplished? How did your life contribute to the community?

From these exercises, what can you learn? What changes would you like to make? How would you like to reorganize your priorities and goals?


MORE REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  • Take a moment to revisit the intentions you set at the fall equinox… How are they showing up in your daily life and actions? If they’re not, do they need to be adjusted? Or refocused?
  • How do you feel about darkness and cold? What will you do to bring warmth and light into your life over the coming months?
  • Are you holding on to anything that needs to be released? British author Glennie Kindred writes that “Many illnesses are rooted in stuck energy patterns, emotional congestion and hanging on to the past.” Taking the bare branches of the deciduous trees as your teacher, can you find the courage to release anything that’s holding you back from health and vibrancy?
  • Is rest a part of your life? The dark half of the year models the importance of hibernation, gestation, dormancy, and lying fallow. What winter time habits can you cultivate for your own recuperation and renewal?

COMMUNITY COMMENTS

We all benefit from the wisdom of spiritual community. And community means more than one voice, so please add yours to the conversation.