Recently I reactivated my interest in Jan Fries-style seidr – namely the induction of shaking, swaying, and trembling as a healing tool. I’d like here to discuss the background to this technique, draw some parallels with the findings of trauma psychology, and discuss my recent initial foray back into the practice.
First of all, Fries has been criticized by many Heathens for his apparently bogus connection of seidr to “seething,” and thereby to trembling as the basis of Northern trance work. Fries has actually addressed a lot of these criticisms and even pointed out that his ideas were only ever presented as playfully speculative.
I have always maintained that there is nothing wrong with speculative innovation so long as one is transparent that this is what one is doing, so that others can make their own informed choices. Fries, I do not think, has tried to pass off speculation as historical fact. For me, Fries’s notion of seething makes absolutely perfect sense. I do not believe that anyone can really claim to practice “authentic” seidr in this day and age, but seething seems to fill that function for me just marvelously. So there.
More importantly, Fries’ research on traditions of magical trembling seems to indicate that such experiences are common in a vast array of cultures, and symbolically speaking they make sense in a Heathen context too, even if the specific technology of seidr (whatever it even was exactly!) makes no reference to trembling experiences. That said, there are boiling cauldrons and ecstatic furies aplenty, and the magical power of ergi seems very nicely compatible with the flowing vulnerable liminality that trembling can produce – states of healing and sorcery.
As such, I feel confident that in going back to the testimony of my own bodymind, and connecting that to my Heathen practice, I cannot really go too far wrong. I trust the flesh to tell me what is best for it (at least if I know how to listen!). That doesn’t mean I have to sacrifice my keen interest in reconstructionism, it just means I have healthy senses of irony and humor.
In Fries’ book Seidways the theme of healing recurs in his accounts of different seething-type practices from around the world, be they San magic rituals or Mesmerism. My own experience of trembling, shaking, and swaying practices align with his accounts most marvelously; in fact, reading that book was like coming home for me, spiritually speaking. Finally someone had put words to the deep, wordless experiences that I knew and craved.
Indeed, long before I consciously realized the significance of trembling, I had already undergone several powerful healing experiences in which I spontaneously trembled, shook, swayed, or even several such behaviors at once. These movements were automatic, unguided by conscious intention. Since I started consciously seething I found out that these behaviors could move from consciously willed into automatic modes, and that the more this involuntariness suffused them, the deeper the magical effect.
Imagine, therefore, my surprise on reading research on the psychophysiology of trauma. It appears that when a mammal experiences trauma (e.g. almost getting killed by a predator) it first experiences the potent neurophysiological event of the fight-flight-freeze reaction. After the danger has passed, the animal will then tremble and shake. And this behavior releases the body of the traumatic damage done to the nervous system and organs, so that the creature can shortly return to normal life without any chronic harm from its harrowing experience.
Humans, on the other hand, do not listen to our bodies (this comment applies mostly to modern Westernized humans) and so by and large have forgotten how to allow ourselves to tremble after experiencing trauma. This in turn is the root of many chronic problems that can be caused by trauma. It is not necessarily the traumatic event itself that causes the depression or the anxiety; the culprit can also be that the body’s natural mechanism for correcting systemic imbalances (imbalances that are adaptive in the moment of danger but not long term) has been suppressed.
The parallel with seething is significant: what Fries documented in Seidways is nothing less than a catalog of the ways different cultures have sought to ensure that cultural praxis serves the biological and psychological necessity of trembling. More than this! Such practices also marshal the tremendous psychic potency of trembling and, aligned with conscious intent, make it into a powerful engine for the working of magic.
Seething, therefore, is a particularly primal kind of magic, one which activates every layer of the nervous system’s evolutionary strata and brings all that power to bear on the seether’s intent. Yet this is not something that can be mastered overnight. First much self-healing through trembling must be accomplished (meditation, particularly in the Vipassana tradition, which emphasizes the experience of the sensate body, is a valuable adjunct).
This is where I am up to – this process of self healing. It is funny that, even though I have understood the significance of seething for years, I am only now finally taking it to my deepest heart. Well, we each have our journey, our voyage onto the sea of irony and mystery.
Recently I undertook a session of seething for the first time in many years. Since that session I have been astounded at the loosening of certain very persistent and difficult psychological fetters. I find myself more able to become conscious of the ways in which unconscious, emotional forces hiddenly direct conscious thought into flights of justification, attempts to pass off as rational what are really courses of action that have been shaped by unresolved trauma in the bodymind. Deep shifts are occurring in the tectonics of my psyche. I can intuit that if I keep up with this practice, then this profound shifting will get progressively more potent.
So what does my seething practice look like? I run from Jan Fries’ directions in Seidways pretty much as written (admittedly he allows plenty of latitude for individual preference). I find low light with candles to be helpful; I put a randomized iTunes playlist of Dead Can Dance on softly in the background, and I open the rite with the invocation of runes for protection.
But most importantly – and this is a detail that in earlier years I neglected to my cost – I am sure to ask, rather than tell, the deep mind/spirits/gods/whatever for what I would like to experience. I am humble and respectful and invite its/their instruction, rather than thinking I have to be the “master magician” in control at all times. No, such an ego-centered attitude runs utterly contrary to the sympathetic and autonomic spirit of seething, which loves to undermine the illusion of the ego’s supremacy.
As I shake, sway, tremble, and seeth, I sometimes chant, moan, sing, and laugh. My mind wanders and then returns. I am sometimes vigorous in my movements, sometimes subtle. There is little about this that is intellectual, formalized, or precise. I turn again and again to accepting what the body wishes to share, seeking to cultivate trust in that deep self from which all spontaneity and magic flows.
I call out to Odin and Loki mostly, and they are helpful, though each embodies seething in a different way. My recent Loki-themed articles reflect the building unconscious anticipation that was leading me to return to seething; if Loki is the body, then seething is worshipping Loki. It is restoring to the body recognition of its innate beauty, just as it is.
I have never loved my body. I have never trusted it. I have hated it, circumscribed it, battered it, despised it, treated it with contempt. I have been learning in recent years to nourish it, to be kind to it, to embrace it. Ill health and emotional struggles forced me to do so. Now I wonder if this whole journey were not a prelude to my decision to reintroduce seething into my life.
I am ready for this now as I never have been before. I am grounded in a vigorous meditation practice, and this seems crucial. I encourage anyone reading this article to stop now, and instead get stuck into active, practical magic, in whatever way you see fit. Magic is meaningless if it is not actively practiced. Perhaps I’ll see you in one of the worlds that only the trembling seethers may enter…