Utiseta and Faring Forth: The Path of Meditation
excerpt from Wightridden: Paths of Northern-Tradition Shamanism
The night is quiet, and the woods are full of the smell of leaf-mold and pine as she makes her way to her favorite tree. It's the great-grandfather oak a good way off of the path - empty at this time of night, all travelers sleeping - with a trunk so huge that she can't fit her arms halfway around it. Her staff leans up against the tree; cut from one of its branches, it is like coming home. On one side, she leaves an offering for the landvaettir; on the other side, she seats herself. She settles down in the hollow between its two largest roots, composes herself, pulls the hood of her cloak down over her head, says a prayer to her patron under her breath, and then begins to Breathe.
First, the Breath, in and out, no more than that. With each in-breath, notice the sounds and scents of the forest - the leaves, the pines surrounding this old oak, the stillness and rustling, the rough bark at her back - and breathe them in. Then hold them for the same count, savor them. Then with each out-breath, let them go. Let them all go, breathe out all the way to the bottom, to nothing. Let go of the senses, the day's work, the buzzing thoughts that swarm in her mind. All gone. Empty. Well, not quite empty, not on the first out-breath, but with each breathing cycle she grows emptier. Sense the outside, then no-sensing. Eventually all that she breathes in is the forest; her ordinary life is fallen away entirely. This forest is all that is, and beyond that, nothingness. She does not know how long it takes to get to that point, how many breaths. It doesn't matter. What matters is that she knows the way, and her breaths are the footprints on that now-familiar road.
Next, the Landvaettir. As her awareness of herself fades and only the surroundings matter, and even they only matter on the in-breath, she slowly becomes aware of its presence, there to greet her. It knows her; they go this dance of touch-and-greeting, of offering and hospitality, at least once a week. Its touch is friendly, but somewhat impersonal; she is not bonded to this land, but it is her old friend. It is pleased with the offering, and with her unfailing courtesy towards it. The bargain - you feed me, you hold my Thread, I feed you, I hold your memory - is reaffirmed with that swift touch, and it is enough.
Then she sinks deeper into darkness, and begins to shut off the outside stimuli. Her breathing slows, and the in-breaths no longer breathe in the forest, but only the night - and then not even that, simply darkness. She floats in darkness, in trance, and then extends herself Beyond. It is a slow process for her, and perhaps it always will be. Some can tear themselves Out with only a few minutes of breathing, but she needs to walk all the way there and back, one Breath at a time. And, perhaps, the slowest way might also be the surest. There is no need to hurry. She has all night. Sometimes the breathing alone is not enough, and then she sings or chants for a time, giving her breath-steps power of voice and ond, pushing them further, holding the notes until there is nothing left in her but vibration.
There is green light above and to the west, or to the direction that she thinks of as West. That is her destination. It is springtime in Vanaheim, and the Lady that she serves will be there, flowers uncurling in Her footsteps. During the day she is clad in pale green, awakening the fields to their springtime glory, coaxing the shoots from the ground. At night, she will hold court in a hall with no name save Hers, where the women gather to sing and chant magic. It is there that her breath-steps will take her, to Freya's secret hall of seidhr, where the golden Lady wears her witchiest face. There is a question that must be asked, people with worried faces wondering what will be...and there is training that she must have, teachings she has oathed herself to go through. The green light grows stronger as she moves forward, staff in hand...for the staff too has a soul that fares forth with her. Springtime in Vanaheim, and the grass feels soft beneath her feet, the torchlight of the hall ahead of her. They know her there, and will welcome her in yet again.
The first road of the Eightfold Path, and the one that is the simplest, the most popular, and the mainstay of nearly every spirit-worker is the Path of Meditation. It is traditionally also called the Path of Breath, as breathing and oxygen control are important elements in mastering this path. In the northern tradition, we call it Utiseta, which literally means "sitting-out". This gives us the traditional image of the spirit-worker going to a quiet and lonely place, usually far from habitation, and meditating in order to commune with Gods and wights, or do magical work on a nonphysical plane.
Utiseta can, in some cases, become "faring forth", or "journeying", which are both northern-tradition terms for what is modernly referred to as "astral projection". This occurs when a specific part of the soul leaves the body and travels to Otherworlds (or to other places in this world) while still being connected to the physical form. Journeying, and how to do it, is covered fairly thoroughly in Pathwalker's Guide To The Nine Worlds, the second book in the Northern-Tradition Shamanism series, so it's wise for the would-be journeyer to pick that one up.
Breath is the source of life. In Old Norse, the word ond, meaning breath, stood for a concept that we can recognize in the eastern terms of ki, ch'i, prana, etc. In myth, Odin breathed the life into Ask and Embla, the first people of Midgard, and thus gave them the gift of ond. When there is no more breath, there is no more life force. When you control the breath, you affect the life force. Controlling your breathing can change your mood, reduce anxieties, clear your mind of annoying spinning thoughts, and make you more aware or less aware of your body, depending on how you do it.
The Northern Tradition does not have specific breathing exercises, such as the Yoga practices of India, or even Buddhist chanting meditation. In my youth, I did learn Pranayama breathing (the basic technique of which is simply a rather intense and lengthened version of the four-fold breath in Lydia's piece above) largely from living in a houseful of hippie roommates, but I didn't relate it to my magical or spiritual practices until I found myself combining controlled breathing with another skill I'd been trained in - singing. Somewhere along the line I discovered that the breathing techniques learned for voice training and the breathing techniques taught by yogic practitioners were not all that different, and could be combined with a form of magic that I later learned was a form of galdr - singing your intent out with your breath. While simple breathing is the tool of the mystic, singing is the breath-tool of the shaman. Remember again the difference between the shaman and the mystic? If you've ever heard any recordings of shamans around the world singing, you'll know that it's not that their voices are so wonderful. It's that something about their singing is so very powerful...and that is a technique well-known in the northern tradition.
Even if your voice is as croaky as a frog, it might be worth it to take lessons in voice training, if only to get the breathing part right. The usefulness of the four-fold breath, as described by the yogis, is to put someone into a state of mild trance, largely from the extra-long periods between the inhalations and exhalations. In general, when people breathe, they don't spend a very long time with the lungs full or the lungs completely empty, and it's this concentration on the "liminal states" of breathing, expanding them to the same length as the inhalation and exhalation, that creates the trance state. If you look at singing-breath in this way, the first thing to do would be to find - or create - a song that allowed the breathing to proceed in a way that mimicked the four-fold breath, or perhaps some other pattern of breathing that you figure out on your own. Putting yourself in that state with song makes it easier to gather, aim, and fire the energy of the song/spell. The power song is one fork in the Path of Breath, the controlling of ond in order to create something and move it out of you. Life force rides on the breath; remember that. If you need help loosening that up, drawing Ansuz on your throat chakra may help with that.
Another fork in the path is journeying, which is usually done silently. Here we're back to utiseta again. Once you've managed to put yourself into trance through breath and concentration, it's a matter of knowing where to go. My first suggestion to the beginning spirit-worker is to go inside yourself, because knowing yourself and all your secrets, and not having anything hiding in there that you've denied or locked in a mental oubliette to forget about, will be one of the most important ongoing jobs that you can do. Everything in your psyche that you're not aware of is a weakness when it comes to journeying. Every part of yourself that you deny is a potential saboteur to your spirit-work, an Achilles heel to leap out when you least expect it, a possible back door for nasty entities to get in. Besides, if you're frightened by the dark alleys and passageways in your own head, you're never going to make it through the worlds outside of this one. So start with You, your Self, and your Breath.
One possible meditation is simply to visualize a series of doors in a hallway, in your inner house. Some open onto rooms, some stairways. Every night, open one door and see what's in it. Don't try to control the meditation; let it flow. If there are stairs upward or downward, follow them and see what doors you come upon, but stick to one door a night unless you've put aside a whole day just to wander through your inner self. If you get a feeling of apprehension or straight-out fear, or even a feeling of "Oh, this isn't a good idea, I think I'll go back now," or keep getting distracted or popping out of trance while approaching a particular door, you've hit something important that your mind is trying to keep from you. Don't let it happen; pursue it. Even horrid memories that you hate to look at should be dealt with; better you deal with them now in safety than deal with them when they sabotage you during future work.
The other part, which is discussed in detail in Pathwalker's Guide, is that you need to be able to ground, center, and shield. You should be able to create shields that will go with your hame when it leaves your body. You should also have a good relationship with a land-wight, if possible, because they're good for holding your thread when you go out. While spirits that go with you and guide you are great, there's nothing like a spirit that will bring you back home safely.
Once you've spent enough time working on your inner mind - and "enough" is a variable time that can only be guessed at - you will want to attempt to move outward instead of inward, and journey out of the body to another place. Some folks create an astral safe spot, sort of your own personal equivalent of the Disney ride, to use as a starting point in beginning work. There is also a general agreement that the first ride out of the body should ideally be done with another spirit-worker present, monitoring you, and able to step in should there be an emergency. The problem is that for most beginning spirit-workers, especially in this tradition - there are still so few of us - there isn't anyone around to help when you begin this. I started alone, as did most of the northern-tradition shamans and spirit-workers that I know.
So I will say up front that you are taking your life and sanity into your own hands, and the best thing to do is to wait until A) your patron deity tells you to do it, or B) you can get a deity or major wight to motor you through it, or C) you can get another spirit-worker to come out and help you do it. Start out with the spirits that will come to you, and graduate (with their help) to the ones that will guide you outward. If no spirits are coming to you, pray to the Gods to send you some, or to come themselves. If no one comes at all, perhaps you're not meant to do this work. (We'll assume in that case that you haven't actually been chosen by any Gods or wights, but are just hoping that you will be.) In that case, you have my sympathies, but there's not much that you can do. Try again in a few years and see if the situation has changed.
In a breath-trance, you can be better aware of the voices of the wights, and your signal clarity is stronger. If you practice enough, you should eventually be able to achieve a light trance with only a few breaths...and then you should be able to go deeper. While journeying is a tricky and dangerous thing, the simpler forms of the Path of Breath are the easiest parts of the Eightfold Path, and are much more difficult to harm one's self with. You only need your body, your mind, your breath, and your will, and you have the first three in abundance and the fourth can be honed and trained. That's why this path is also called the Path of Will.