I've always loved the idea of a fresh start. A clean slate. I think most of us do. The chance to cleanse past mistakes, to right old wrongs, to move forward in life without the burden of bad memories or unhealthy habits. It's why we make New Year's resolutions. We use that time, that "stroke of midnight" click of the second-hand, to hit the reset button on our lives. It's a little bit of magic.
For many people, the reset button ushers in lifestyle changes like diet and exercise that they hope will improve their body. Any gym or health store will tell you that the new year is big business as people re-commit to their health. December 31, 2014, at 11:57 p.m.: I'm gorging myself on cheese puffs. Three minutes later, January 1, 2015, at 12:00 a.m.: Yay, I get a do-over! his will be a healthy, fit, cheese-puff-free year. I know it.
As a couples mediator, January is always an extra-busy month for my practice as well. There is always a wave of clients seeking to improve their relationships and family lives so that the new year is a happier one than the old year was.
They want to stop fighting, stop arguing, stop sexting their secretary or gym buddy, stop nagging, stop being ungrateful or unappreciative or just plain bored. They want to stop ignoring their spouse and kids to stare at their damn smartphone. They want to start being happy. They want to keep their family together. They want to renew their love, their attraction, their devotion, their joy, their vows.
They want to hit the reset button in their lives.
But if there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that change has to come from within. There is no diet plan that will work unless the spirit is eager for health. There is no relationship strategy that will work unless the spirit is ready to change. Before we can renew the relationships we have with our spouse and children, we need to renew our own spirit.
Now for someone who identifies as "spiritual but not religious," this all sounds a little fluffy. I get that. Having spent most of my life as an atheist, I have a natural aversion to flakiness. My husband feels the same way. After a childhood spent in hardcore Pentecostal churches -- faith healings, talking in tongues, End Times countdowns -- he won't touch organized religion with a 10-foot pole.
But there is a middle ground. There is a way for those who are spiritual but not religious to renew the spirit without intellectually checking-out or compromising our common sense or humanist values. To do that, we need to go back, way back, to reignite an ancient practice that is increasingly lighting up modern marriages and homes.
A few blogs back, I wrote about Why Modern Paganism is Good For Today's Families (click to read Part I and Part II). In that blog, I talked about New Vesta, the ancient home-based spirituality that is spreading like wildfire into 21st century lives and homes.
Whether or not you want to try this tradition -- I've heard it called "religion for the thinking person" -- it offers simple rituals that might help you renew your spirit so that lifestyle changes, particularly the way you interact with your spouse and kids, can take root in your life.
As a fire-based spirituality, New Vesta is particularly suited to fresh starts. Why? Because fire is strongly associated with purification and renewal. In fact, some forms of growth -- vegetation, trees -- cannot even occur until the cleansing, searing heat of fire has swept through.
It's a painful process and our instinct is to try to stop it, but sometimes it's for the best. Sometimes it's necessary. And that kind of letting go, of letting nature takes its course, can at times be a wise way to approach life's challenges. Plus, most of us have experienced the profound sense of well-being that comes from a campfire or fireplace: the mesmerizing flame, the heat, the crackling wood. Our instinct is that it is somehow...sacred. It won't surprise you, then, to learn that fire worship is the oldest, most natural form of spiritual expression known to humankind.
All of this culminates in a no-frills ritual called light reflection. At its simplest, this involves burning a candle in a dark, silent room and focusing only on the light of the flame. Vestal adherents typically burn a pure beeswax candle with a wooden wick that produces a distinct crackle when it burns, so that they can focus on the sound as well as the visual.
Among other things, the purpose of this ritual is to enhance clarity and tranquility, while focusing on being grateful for what and who we have in our lives. It is a hybrid of meditation and self-therapy, a mental and emotional "time out" that allows us to disconnect from our problems and power-down. Some people will write down negative memories or bad habits and burn them in the flame in a symbolic gesture of letting go and moving ahead.
It's a private everyday practice that lets us experience that warmth of well-being that naturally comes from fire. On a more practical level, it helps us stay focused -- spiritually, mentally, emotionally -- on the changes we want to make in our lives and homes. It renews our commitment to these changes on a daily basis. That's important, since it's all too easy to fall back into old habits, especially when it comes to marriage, family life and cheese puffs.
If you find this fiery practice helps soothe and recharge the spirit, try another one. Place a candle on the table and, at meal-time, have each family member sprinkle a bit of flour or olive oil into the flame of a candle to symbolically "nourish" family love and solidarity.
This ritual renews and reinforces -- again, on a daily basis -- marital and familial devotion. It was practiced in households for well over a thousand years before the cult of Christianity adapted it and called it "saying grace."
As a bonus, this particular practice is especially fun for children -- what kid doesn't like to see something go whoosh in a flame? And anything that gets the family to sit at the same table during dinner is a good thing.
So if you like the idea of hitting the reset button in your life and home but you're not into churches or garden fairies, try these time-tested "reset" rituals. They were practiced by millions of our ancestors for thousands of years in the ancient world, and they are increasingly being reignited in the modern world to the immense benefit of marriages and families, including my own.
And if an entire spirituality can have a fresh start, your spirit can, too.