The Sea in the Skull

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Theologians and scientists agree: ritual is good for the human soul. But I don’t like ritual much. It’s probably my Zen upbringing. If ritual is poetry in the realm of acts, then perhaps my poetic-action aesthetic is too used to the haiku or koan: short, unrehearsed, improvised, intentionally subversive.

But one thing I do like about ritual is the creation of a sacred space. Rituals tend to start by casting a circle or otherwise setting a boundary in space around the participants — or else they take place within a sacred space that has already been established (like a stone circle or a cathedral). Within that boundary, the normal world and normal time is suspended, set aside; and the cosmos is re-created in miniature, resized to fit the human imagination. Its edges are marked by the four elements, the guardians of the four directions, or great glass visages of saints and Biblical stories; and in its center is the axis of the human spirit: the altar with offerings, the cross and the Book, the gentle smiling Buddha.

Sometimes I do this, but usually I don’t have the patience for it, honestly. Instead I create a sacred space in my skull.

Ritual for People Who Don’t Like Ritual: Poetry in the Realm of Soul

I do visualization meditation. It’s a simple process: you relax, close your eyes, and draw a sacred circle in your mind, suspending the normal world and normal time, setting aside everything but your breath. Then pick something to imagine — a stone, a tree, a blade of grass. Imagine it as clearly as you can, perhaps in your palm, perhaps at your fingertips. And then cast your inner vision up, around, and see where you are. You’ll find the cosmos created in miniature around you. Perhaps you’re on a beach; perhaps in a forest; perhaps by a stream running through a meadow. Its boundaries are marked by your mind and heart, but you can stand up, pick a direction, and walk forever; you’ll be greeted by mile after mile of mountains, forests, fields, cities, chasms, oceans — all plucked from your own soul — and never reach its end.

(I said it’s simple, and it is; but that doesn’t mean it’s easy! It can take years of consistent practice to visualize effectively. I’ve been doing this for about twenty years, off and on.)

The things you see as you wander in your skull are not random. Everything around you is as meaningful as the sacred offerings on an altar. This tree, here — what kind is it? An oak? A beech? Are its leaves green with summer, blazing with autumn, or fallen and brown at its feet? And — is that a face in its bark? Whose face? Why here? Why now? The answers are messages from your soul and from Spirit.

The boundaries of the inner cosmos are marked by your mind and heart, but you can stand up, pick a direction, and walk forever. [Tweet this]

Finding the Healing Waters

Water looms large in my imagination, as it does for all people, and as I walk my landscape I frequently meet it. It is a force of relationship, interconnection, and healing.

There are streams running from the forest down to a Faerie Pool, and in its depths, the mud and weeds dissolve into a vast emptiness filled only with stars.

There is an Abyss of Fear, where it is always night; its rocky sides are lit with an unholy blue light, and at its bottom runs a fast, ice-cold stream, rushing with a sound like the wailing of souls. Where it empties into the sea, there is a great white statue of the Savior, the beacon to all who are trapped in the Abyss.

The sea is wide and choppy, sometimes blown by gray storms, sometimes cast into glittering shards of diamond by the rising sun. There is a long rocky jetty, and at its end you can climb into a rowboat.

Row one way, and you will come to a low sandy island of pines, rocks, and sea birds, where you can make burnt offerings and watch the smoke of your prayers rise to meet the sky.

Head another way, and you will meet a chain of islands, each topped by a crumbling castle, long-abandoned; and beyond them, a forest of vast trees rising from the ocean like the pillars of a flooded cathedral.

But point your boat directly out to sea, into the very heart of the waters, and it will become choppier and stormier until your small boat is tossed and thrown on the great waves, forcing you to cling tight to its wooden sides or be hurled overboard. At last, when your arms ache and your fingers are splintered, you are cast onto a strange shore, as hard and smooth as a nautilus shell — as if the storm has grown so violent, the water so powerful, that the very waves have been compressed into glass. Your boat is shattered; perhaps some of your bones are as well. But keep going, struggle forward, over the obsidian rise, and look down into a valley.

It is perfectly circular, its sand perfectly black, the sky utterly night; and in its center is a vast still pool, unrippled and sheer as a mirror; and poised over it, reflected perfectly in it, larger than any earthly eyes have seen it, is the Moon.

It is the Moon as it is in your microcosmos, the Moon of your dreams. It is also the Moon of my dreams, and everyone’s dreams — for here, in the deepest, most private areas of our psyches, is where we touch and merge with the psyches of all other spirits.

Stand here a while by the waters, contemplating the pool reflecting the Moon’s light, the Moon reflecting the Sun’s light, your heart reflecting both the light and the darkness. And as you stand, let the waters heal you.


Jeff Lilly is a druid, linguist, and author. He writes about meditation, relationship with Spirit, soulful fulfillment in scholarship and art, reconnecting the ancient with the modern, creating beauty, and healing the world.

Professionally, he is a computational linguist, with a focus on socio-linguistics, historical linguistics, lexical semantics, and lexicography. He has a keen interest not only in the minutiae of the working of the human mind and its manipulation of symbols, but also the broader patterns of social change and development. He has published papers on conversational implicature, dialect analysis, lexical semantics, and syntactic universals.

Spiritually, he was raised Zen Buddhist in the culturally conservative South, and is now a revivalist druid. He has worked in the fields of internet search, text-to-speech processing, and the defense industry, and is the father of four children. He lives in Seattle, WA, with his wife Ali and black cat, Cu Gwyn.


Photo Credit: (CC) Brandon Christopher Warren (source)


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One Response to “The Sea in the Skull”

  1. [...] Theologians and scientists agree: ritual is good for the human soul. But I don’t like ritual much. It’s probably my Zen upbringing. If ritual is poetry in the realm of acts, then perhaps my poetic-action aesthetic is too used to the haiku or koan: short, unrehearsed, improvised, intentionally subversive. But one thing I do like about ritual is the creation of a sacred space. This is about how I create a sacred space without ritual. [...]

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