Book Review: “Soul Vows”, by Janet Conner

I occasionally peruse my bookshelves and look for “new” old books that I haven’t thought about in a while. “Soul Vows,” by Jannet Conner is a gem of a book that I did a lot of work with about six or seven years ago, and it’s struck me recently that this is a great book to read if you’re doing shadow work even though it’s technically not about shadow work at all.

Subtitled “Gathering the Presence of the Divine In You, Through You, and As You,” it comes across as a thoroughly spiritual book, not one with a psychological bent. The back of the book says “If you long to know your soul’s purpose, Soul Vows is an ideal place to begin. Your soul vows describe how you choose to walk this earth, in every moment of every day. They are how you receive and spread grace. As you live your soul vows, you become a fertile container in which your purpose can take root and prosper.”

The way that this relates to shadow work is that one of the first steps is to “recognize the false unconscious vows that have kept you fragmented.” We all have stories in our shadows that we don’t even know we live by, and the goal is to understand these and transmute them into gold.

I loved this book so much, and I still have the card I made with my own soul vows taped up behind my desk so I can look at it every day. While the book talks about the divine, I didn’t find it troublesome or restrictive in case you’re not the religious type (I still enjoyed it as a pagany type, or more precisely a postmodern shamanic hermeticist).

Five Tips for Successful Journaling

Have you been intending to journal, but haven’t managed to do it? Do you wonder why something that seems so easy can be so hard? Here’s five tips for creating a successful journaling practice.

Pick the Right Journal

There’s so many journals out there that it’s hard to know which journal to pick. There’s leather ones, hand-bound ones, refillable journal covers, and even aside from that there’s the question of lined vs. unlined, or maybe graph paper or dot lined. It’s so complicated! What’s the right journal? The one you’ll use.

Fancy, gorgeous notebooks sometimes can be too intimidating to write in, and result in either you not using it or not being authentic in your writing because you want something that looks like it’s worthy of your journal. Big leather journals might be too weighty if you find you end up writing in bed in the evening. You might end up feeling silly using high-quality paper If you always end up grabbing a cheap ball-point pen to write with. Give yourself permission to use whatever is approachable, convenient, and simple. If it’s easier to write in a cheap wire-bound cat notebook from the drug store, then do it!

Decide What Kind of Journaling You Want to Do and When

Make a plan and stick to it. If you just tell yourself you’d like to journal, that’s all it will ever be — a vague desire. Make sure you have some accountability, even if you give yourself some wiggle room like writing thee times a week, or every day but it doesn’t matter when or how long.

The type of journaling you want to do may affect how and when you do it. Some people like to do morning pages, which is a well-known practice created by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. You can watch her describing that process live here:

If you find that it’s easier for you to write in the evening when you can reflect on the events of your day, that’s fine too as long as you make sure it somehow fits into your routine so you don’t decide you’re too tired to bother. Many people enjoy keeping a gratitude journal and find that the regular practice of expressing gratitude cultivates a positive mindset and appreciation for the small details of their lives. You can read about how to keep a gratitude journal in this article:

Whether you decide you’re going to write in the morning or the evening,  for three minutes, or three pages, set some goal that means you won’t just sit there staring at a blank page. If you’ve decided ahead of time on a duration or a page count then you’re less likely to be derailed by worrying about quality or whether your penmanship looks good.

Avoid the Blank Page

Most people find that it’s really hard to start by staring at a blank page. It’s overwhelming, but also an additional hindrance to our ordinary levels of resistance–often we very much don’t feel like writing about what’s on our mind even if we have the strongest intention to do so. You’ll be more likely to start and keep journaling if you make it easy for yourself.

One thing you can do is get hold of some journal prompts and write them on the top of some spaced-apart pages in your journal. That way, you can pick one and just get going, trusting that what you need to write that day will come out onto the page somehow. It can also be fun to bop around the pages of a journal instead of starting from the first new page each time. This is also a good way to make it less obvious if you haven’t journaled in a while, since it won’t be really obvious what your last entry was. Yay, no guilt!

Use More Than One Journal

It’s tempting to have one special journal for everything, but you may end up finding that you use it for nothing because it’s never in the right place. If you’re wanting to do morning pages, keep a diary, and write in a gratitude journal, you’re going to spend more time looking for your journal than writing in it if you try to use one for all these things! Or, you might develop a passive aggressive attitude toward your journal because it seems unfocused.

You can avoid all of these problems by keeping a separate journal for each focus, and leaving where you’re going to use it.  Make it easy for yourself, and keep your journal for morning pages by the breakfast table, your diary in your purse, and your gratitude journal by your bedside. The added bonus of this is when you pick up your journal your brain will know what to expect and it will be easier to get down to business.

Don’t Let the Best be the Enemy of the Good

We’ve all done it — started out with the greatest of intentions and wrote pages and pages for a few days, then got busy and stopped, and felt guilty every time we looked at our journal. It’s like when you keep thinking you need to call your friend or your mom and you keep putting it off and it gets harder and harder to ever do it because you feel really lame and guilty. Don’t do that to yourself.

It’s ok if all you’ve written one day is “Mondays Suck” for one full page, or if you think that what you wrote isn’t any good. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you show up and write something on a regular basis. You can even draw pictures, or draw pictures with your eyes closed with your non-dominant hand. You can give your cat a pen and help them write. As long as you’re showing up and not giving up on yourself, it’s a win.

Book Review: Living in Flow

Living in Flow, by Sky Nelson-Isaacs, is one of those books that’s a real page-turner; both because its message is so powerful and interesting and also because you’ll find yourself checking back to what you’ve already read because you’re not sure whether you still understand it or not. Subtitled “The Science of Synchronicity and How Your Choices Shape Your World,” it’s a mix of quantum physics, psychology, and metaphysics. It combines information you’ve probably already read about on “flow” with the idea that the universe is responsive to our actions.

“In a responsive cosmos, when we enter flow different circumstances occur than would have occurred otherwise. The choices we make are reflected in the external situations that appear. Flow is not only a matter of our interpretation of life (i.e. a positive outlook) but a state of being that can influence events outside of ourselves.”

While I still don’t quite get what that means or how that works (and it’s one of those books where you think you get it but then it eludes you), the takeaway from the book is how powerful our desire and choices are in affecting the probability of getting what we want.  By keeping in mind what we desire and how it will feel, we navigate along a probability tree toward our goal, effectively pruning the tree of branches that do not lead in the right direction. Where my brain breaks is trying to understand whether he’s saying that the synchronicities that happen do so, then, just because those are the ones that happen on the branch of the tree we’ve taken or because the universe actually responds to our choice of action by providing those synchronicities instead of others. I think it has something to do with the field of possibility and the speed of light, but I’d need to reread the book with more coffee to fully understand that. And I’m not sure it matters.

Anyways, it’s a highly readable book although difficult in places. It doesn’t shy away from some serious science and probability theory, but doesn’t go too far in terms of it being too dense. It’s a good read, just hard to get your head around sometimes.

How to Build Self-love When You’re Down on Yourself

Cards about self love

Self-Love is such a common term these days; it’s like the american cheese of self-help. But it’s way easier said than done. Do you find yourself self-sabotaging or not doing things that are good for you because you don’t think you’re worth it? Do you feel uncomfortable every time you try to say an affirmation about yourself? Here are five tips for learning how to build self-love and change your relationship with yourself.

1. Know that you don’t need to like yourself to love yourself. 

You love your dog even if it pees on the carpet. You love your family even if they’re insane and make you want to flee to another planet. Love isn’t worship or approval or appreciation; it’s something you extend to someone else because you hold space for the feeling for them despite their shortcomings. Often when we love people we don’t even notice things about them that would drive us crazy otherwise.

So let yourself fall in love with yourself. Don’t worry about whether there are things about yourself you don’t like, or even if you just don’t like you. Give yourself the same benefit of the doubt you give to other people. If you hate people, then pretend you’re one of your favorite plants. See how you grow with the nourishment of any amount of affection you can shower on yourself.

2. Embrace your imperfections.

So much of the time we want to be perfect, or think that we’d love ourself if only we weren’t something or other. But we all have parts that embarrass us, that got shoved under the carpet when we were little so we could make ourselves look more lovable to others. These are parts of us, though, and just as deserving of love as the “good” parts. You need to integrate all your parts in order to be whole, not pretend they don’t exist.

Regardless of what you do or don’t like about yourself, you’re you! There’s no one else like you. Give yourself credit for being here on this planet in your awesome imperfection. Don’t hold yourself to a standard you wouldn’t even hold your appliances to. Did you ever get a car recall notice saying something like “Don’t park your car in or near a building because it might explode?” I bet you still did, and you still loved your car. Give yourself a break.

3. Look yourself in the eye.

Like, in a mirror. For real. And don’t give yourself any shit or start listing what you don’t like. We all like to be seen and acknowledged by others, and this is just as true when it comes to seeing ourselves. It makes a huge difference to stand in front of a mirror and look yourself in the eye.  There’s no reason you can’t do this daily, unless you brush your teeth in a closet or you don’t have any mirrors because you’re a vampire.

Ideally, instead of just staring at yourself, say some affirmations. Don’t worry about how cheesy it sounds or if anyone will hear. You can always whisper, or sign “I love you.” Find one of two things that you like about yourself, and if you want to go the mile write them down. If you can’t do that, just say “Hello, me! I hope you have a good day.”

4. Court yourself.

When we talk about self-love, it’s often in terms of the end-feeling, not the action. But how does anyone believe you love them unless you treat them that way, whatever “that way” is? We tend to amp up the loving action when we’re dating someone, because we want them to know we think they’re special. Why not treat yourself that way? Buy yourself flowers. Dress up for yourself. Go on a date 🙂

You’ve heard the phrase “Fake it till you make it?” You don’t need to pretend that you love yourself. Just act like you would if you did. Maybe you haven’t had anyone else do this for you, so why not start yourself? The better you treat yourself, the more likely you are to feel loved. It’s also quite possible that if no one’s gone through this effort for you that that’s why you don’t feel lovable. Love is a language, not just a feeling.

5. Identify and terminate limiting beliefs.

Many of the reasons we don’t love ourselves sometimes aren’t even ours! They’re beliefs about ourselves we’ve carried with us since childhood or from judgements we’ve accumulated over the course of our lives. If you can find those beliefs and chip away at them, you may find a nice lovable core in the center. Examples of limiting beliefs are “I’m not good enough,” “I’m just like (x disfunctional relative),” “I’m ugly,” “I’m fat,” “I don’t deserve anything good.”

This is the kind of work that it’s easier to do with some form of accountability and help, such as with a coach, because they’re often buried or insistently clingy. It’s hard to go against a lifetime of conditioning, never mind all by yourself. On the other hand, it can be really amazing how quickly you can feel better when you realize that you’re being hard on yourself because of something that’s total bullshit.

How to Relax Your Mind: Using Mala Beads for Meditation


Why is it so hard to be still? One of the best things we can do for ourselves as far as calming our nerves, identifying limiting beliefs, or quieting the inner critic is sitting down and meditating. When you meditate, you learn that you’re the quiet observer, not the pack of rabid squirrels mud-wrestling in your frontal lobe and producing enough craziness to make you want to just give up and get a lobotomy. Many people find this difficult, however, and using a set of mala beads for meditation is a great way to help yourself focus on quieting your mind.

Instead of just trying to sit and NOT THINK OF ANYTHING, you gently and slowly pull the beads between your finger and thumb, bead by bead, starting with the big focus bead (called the guru bead). As you do this, you’re repeating a mantra, which is a short phrase, over and over. You can use a hindu or a buddhist mantra if that’s your thing, or just repeat a word or phrase over and over, like “flow and ease.” This will help quiet your monkey mind for at least a few minutes — and that feels really, really good.

You can find mala beads anywhere these days, though the price will vary depending on the quality of the stones and whether there’s a knot between each stone. Making a knot in between each of the 108 stones takes a long time. I’ve done it, and it’s an annoyingly long but meditative process. It usually takes me at least two hours to knot the mala, plus time to make the tassel and fasten it on with the guru bead.

Of course, you can make your own, and save yourself the labor cost. This is also a cool thing to do, because you can put your own intentions into the mala with each knot, and have it be highly personal to you. There’s kits you can get online, or you can go to a bead store and buy some nylon cord on Amazon (it’s stronger than the silk cord you get at the bead store). You can skip the knotting, if you want, and just put a small metal spacer in between each bead to make it easier for your fingers to move between them. Of course, the knotted ones feel really nice, and if the mala breaks then you don’t lose all the beads under the couch.

But if you’re not into the DIY thing, there’s nothing wrong with buying one to save yourself the trouble; I sell them on our Etsy store (raveninaworldtree), and you can also find them on there from seedofintention or merakalpamalas (if you want a kit). You can buy them on Amazon, but considering that you are going to use this for your spiritual progress it’s worth making sure you’re paying a fair wage for it and that the stones are of decent quality.

Learning How to Play With Coyote Energy


February in Massachusetts is peak coyote breeding season. I know, because I can hear it, and it sounds like a lot of fun. There’s a gajillion of them out in our fields, whooping it up and driving our dog crazy, even though she’s neutered. Coyote energy is wild and loud.

Even though the noise is really freaky, it’s pretty cool to hear the presence of creatures, since there really doesn’t seem to be much going on around here in Winter. I’m sure everything’s still here, biding their time just like we are, but if you’re looking for any meaningful contact with animals in the wild the pickings are kind of slim.

Coyotes are wild and scrappy, and usually look a little rough around the edges when you do get a look at them. They’re not beautiful, they’re not perfect, and they’re not majestic — but they will steal your chickens, lure your dog into the woods, and probably nick your wallet while they’re at it. 

I’ve always been fond of Coyote. There are many stories of trickster coyote, who frequently gets the better of others but sometimes tanks catastrophically, a la Wile E. But this is perfect; yes, his energy is often about laughing at other people, but he does know how to laugh at himself and not take things too seriously. 

Coyote reminds me that often we learn best through play, or by indirect measures. Learning anything is easier precisely if you can laugh and have a good time instead of being horribly self conscious. We can all use a heck of a lot more of that. And, frankly, there’s a part of me that just loves doing stuff like hiding under my kids’ desks and grabbing their ankles, or getting into other minor mischief. A good laugh can clear the energy of a room quicker than just about anything else. 

So what if you ride the rocket off the cliff and the bird gets the best of you? Just brush yourself off and try again. And who knows — maybe you’ll get that darned roadrunner one of these days!

Living in the Moment With Chicken Energy

As you meander about your immediate surroundings, you will find yourself encountering many other entities from which there is much to learn. Here in New England in Winter though, the pickings are slim. We’ve got coyotes, squirrels, and the occasional hungry hawk, but somehow it seems more appropriate to start with a beloved creature in the domestic arena who’s close enough to visit in slippers: the not-so-wild chicken. Chickens have a lot to teach you about living in the moment.

What, you ask, can you learn from the chicken? 

1. Love is everywhere. Have you ever hugged a chicken? No? What’s wrong with you? Even though they’re basically feathered little dinosaurs, chickens are incredibly cuddly. Even an aggressive little asshole of a bantam rooster, if you pick him up, will settle down and snuggle. Ok, maybe he’s just pissed off and mildly worried, but so what–love is complicated.

2. Cheerios are freaking awesome. Put a bowl of cereal out for your chickens, and they’ll go wild. Sometimes the simple things are the best.

3. Everything has a soul. The next time you meet a chicken, get down on the ground and HAVE A MOMENT with it. In fact, FIND A CHICKEN RIGHT NOW.  It may try to eat your face, but don’t let that stop you; it’s just curious. It’s very easy to underestimate the basic chicken, but if you look in their eyes you’ll find a remarkable intelligence and personality. Every chicken is different, and they’re all lovely.

4. Everything is transitory. Or, as someone who may not want to be credited for his contribution puts it, “they taste really good deep-fried.” Over the years, I’ve had many rounds of chickens who have perished from varied causes including, occasionally, old age. I have given a chicken a sitz bath, have hand-fed a dying rooster, and put one chicken, fed on by a small hawk, out of its misery (just after eating KFC. That was not fun). I have loved them all, even Louis MF, who used to attack me mercilessly. No matter how much you get attached to them, they always die eventually, and it’s always the kids’ “favorite one” who goes first.

5. Attitude is everything. Have you ever had every unit of mulch in your yard destroyed by a roaming band of marauding free-range chickens? Have you ever had a bantam rooster the size of a roll of toilet paper attack your ankles? Have you ever seen a chicken make your husband really angry by discovering the fence he just put up and doing an end-run around it just to see what’s there? Chickens appear to be mild-mannered, but they know to make the most of what they’ve got.

Using the Tarot to Help Navigate Family Challenges

This is a continuation of the series in which we use the tarot to help our stuffed friend, Teddy, navigate his life challenges.

Teddy was really nervous about going to visit his family this year, because this is the first time he'd be bringing Anatra home to meet them. He has a big family and, even without the potential drama of introducing his girlfriend, has always felt overwhelmed by the personalities of his relatives.

"It's just stressful," he said. "I'm the baby of the family, but I'm not a baby anymore. I keep telling myself each year that if I could get any emotional distance, I wouldn't feel like everyone was telling me what to do or judging me or acting like they know better."

"Are they really all acting that way?" I asked.

"Well, it could just be me," he replied, "if that's what you're hinting at. But I get it, I know it's my own insecurity talking. But I don't know how to get past that. It's so depressing."

I thought for a minute. "How about if we try and take the focus off of you? What if we try and make a bit of a game out of it?"


"So let's look at the court cards," I said. "In tarot, each suit has a page, a knight, a queen, and a king. Generally, they represent people or the qualities of types of people. Oddly, they correspond to the Myers Brigg categorizations, but in a more, or less, confusing way depending on how you think about it. What I think might be fun for you is to go into your family gathering seeing if you can match your family members to the court cards. That'll keep your brain from eating you alive, and it can also help you remember that just how each card can have a reversed meaning, each personality type can have ways in which they're wonderful, and ways in which they're not."

I explained to him how people often have trouble with the court cards, but that they're easier to pin down if you realize they're categorized fairly simply:

by maturity:

  • page - a young person, a teen.
  • ​knight - a young adult, maybe in their 20's.
  • ​queen - a mature feminine person
  • king - a mature masculine person

by what they do:

  • page - innocent, full of energy and trying to make big changes.
  • ​knight - on a quest, full of motion, searching or advancing.
  • ​queen - provides a nurturing space or environment.
  • king - master of their domain.

by their element:

  • cups - emotions and relationships.
  • ​wands - passions, creativity, desires.
  • ​swords - the mind and communication.
  • pentacles - the physical body and material things.

So, a young cousin who's always looking for "Mr. Right" could be the knight of cups. Your sister who just applied to art school is the page of pentacles. Roles don't always have to be assigned by gender -- your father who cooked everything and wants the whole dinner to go well might be the queen of pentacles, where your mother, who tells everyone where to sit and mediates the conversations could be the king of swords.

Anyway you cut it, it makes for a lot of fun, and probably beats wishing you could just choke on your turkey.



The Hanged Man

The Hanged Man is the twelfth card in the Major Arcana of the tarot, and it's a card that often gives people trouble. In the Rider Waite card it shows a man hanging upside down by his leg on a weird, crossed tree-like structure. He has a halo and looks pretty peaceful. But really?

Traditionally, the meaning of this card is surrender, and sacrifice to the greater good. These are both terms that try and put a positive spin on what's pretty much a bad situation. Even if you *need* the change in perspective, it's usually always uncomfortable, to say the least. Being upside down sucks big monkey ass, no matter how you look at it.

So the questions then are -- Why am I here? What do I need to learn? How can I make the most of this situation, and by the way, when the heck is it going to end?

The answers are, in that order, "No clue, No clue, No clue, and No clue." Surrender is a bitch. If you're in a situation of upheaval, where everything you know has changed, it's entirely possible that before you can make any progress or see any change you need to just accept that you are where you are. Perspective is tricky; unless you really and truly give up your old perspective, you won't see anything new. Most of us won't give up our old ideas and limiting thoughts until we have no choice--until everything breaks or we suffer some kind of breakdown or crisis, or really and truly just give up.

The lesson of this card though, is that it doesn't have to get to that point. Stuff happens, but you don't have to torment yourself on top of it or drive yourself crazy trying to hold on to the past. Relax into the discomfort, the chaos, the confusion, and just observe for a while.

You may discover something new.

How to be Strong

I've done martial arts for many years now, specifically Uechi Ryu karate, and sometimes it feels hard to take myself seriously, because I'm short and a lot of people are taller and stronger than me. Usually I only get to work with someone my own size when I go to the teen class and get one of the youngest kids to work with.

Sometimes, watching people do their kata (a specific pattern of movements which is a fundamental item of practice), you can see their muscles trembling and see the sheer power of their arms as they strike out.

Interestingly, though, what seems like great strength is not really good form and ultimately not even the most effective use of power. And if you consider strength to be using what you've got to the best of your ability, then you begin to see the potential in even a much smaller human.

The chinese pictogram for "strength" is not muscle -- it's tendon. Your muscle is the sheer bulk of fibers in the tools you use to hit--your arms of legs. Tendons are the fibers holding those muscles to your bones, the most crucial element in your power of locomotion. They move you, and deliver the brute strength to where it needs to go.

When you're standing ready to fight, the only thing that should be tense is your tendons. That way, they're ready to shoot your libs out in any direction or bring you back quickly to defense if they're moved out of place. If your arms are quivering and your muscles are trembling, you're working against yourself and tiring yourself out. They provide the force when you hit, but if you're tensing them when you're striking, you're just slowing yourself down.

It's useful to think of strength not just as brute muscle, but as the ability to know what you've got and get it where it needs to go. The point of a fingertip can be mighty painful in a rib or the groin no matter how big the arm behind it.

So don't underestimate yourself. You can do a lot with whatever you have and when it comes down to it, that's the real definition of strength.