Blessed be thy knees, that kneel at the sacred altar.

-from the Five Fold Blessing

Frequently, when I read Pagan writing, I find an aversion to practices like kneeling before altars or bowing to deities. The desire not to engage in submissive gestures is often tied to a dislike of the word "worship," and with good reason--many of us come from religions in which we're expected to give up our free will for the benefit of a distant, invisible god, and many Pagan traditions emphasize fostering the divinity within practitioners, rather than grasping for it without. (Hey, someone should write that into some kind of Charge or something.)

So why, then, is kneeling and bowing such an integral part of my own practice?

The short answer is that it feels viscerally good. There's something archetypal in kneeling before my altar each night; when I perform that physical action--when my practice is deeply embodied--I feel like I'm truly stepping into the role of a priestess. It connects me, if not to literal spiritual ancestors, to an image that's solidly embedded within our cultural psyche.

If I had to explain the practice rationally, though, I might talk about my experiences within Buddhism. Before I moved to LA, I belonged to a wonderful Vipassana meditation group that held occasional retreats. It was standard for the teacher and students to bow to each other at the end of weekly sits, but the first time I went to a retreat, the teacher gave us an interesting instruction: we were to bow to the meditation hall upon leaving and entering. Funny--there was no deity in the hall. There was a little Buddha statue on the altar, but no one ever called much attention to it. When there were people in the hall, we seemed to be bowing to our fellow meditators, and when there weren't, we seemed to be bowing to an empty room.

And that was the point, the teacher said. You're not bowing to prostrate yourself before the Buddha. You're bowing to your own practice. You're bowing to the sacred space where meditation happens. You're bowing to your fellow spiritual seekers. You're bowing not to foster self-effacement and submission, but to nurture reverence and gratitude and love.

When he said that, I thought back to the semester I'd spent in Japan back in college. Bowing was a mutual act. Hello! a bow said. You're here, I see you, and I respect you. (At least, that was my outsider's understanding of the custom.)

So at both of the retreats I attended, I dutifully bowed to the meditation hall. And I found that the action stirred something deep and joyful in me. Hello! You're here, I see you, and I respect you.

Nowadays, I still end all of my silent meditation sessions with a bow, no matter happens to be in front of me. And when I bow to my deities and allies and magical tools, I feel that same reciprocity--a feeling of two sparks of the divine recognizing each other.

When I kneel and bow to the Divine, the Divine kneels and bows back.

But bowing and kneeling aren't for everyone, of course. And it's nice to mix things up! My practice takes on different flavors when I kneel or stand, bow or blow a kiss.

Reader, consider this post my virtual bow to you. Hello! You're here, I see you, and I love you.

Hey! Follow my Facebook page and my beautiful writing will show up in your feed! Super neato.


Image credit: "Shintō prayer" by Kalandrakas (カランドラカス) from Kanagawa, Japan - Cropped from http://www.flickr.com/photos/86251769@N00/508977152. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shint%C5%8D_prayer.jpg#/media/File:Shint%C5%8D_prayer.jpg