This is the second in a series of posts about magic. The first looked at two kinds of knowledge, one of which we often discount in a world where knowledge of a thing counts for more: ”Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.” Other kinds of knowing exist beyond these two, but we build on these.
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In the past, for almost anyone who sought out magical training, a teacher offered the surest guidance. Few people were literate, so other than learning through trial and error, a guide or mentor was immensely useful. Little was committed to writing anyway — too risky, impractical, wasteful of materials for a minuscule readership — pointless really. Shaman, witch, hoodoo man or woman, conjurer, curandera, priestess, mystic, sorcerer, mage, wizard, druid — a panoply of names to call what a seeker might be looking for.
Nowadays, as an aspiring mage, I can locate and open a beginning magic textbook — one that actually sets out a course of training for new magicians, as opposed to one that assuages the ego by offering vague reassurances and “instant magic.” When I do, I run head-long into the hidden first lesson: my undisciplined attention needs training and focus. But I skim the chapter, or look ahead at one that seems to promise more. Soon the first excitement of a promising title or author — or, gods help us, a flashy cover with a robed figure — begins to wane. I want The Big Secret; instead, the first chapter sets me to doing a couple of modest-seeming exercises I am to practice for a month and record the results. Too much like work. Where are the glowing runes and mysterious passwords to infinite realms of gold and shadow and silver? Where are the guardians with amethyst crowns and rings of adamant? I want the symphony, and this book has me practicing scales.
More than anything else it does, magic even half-practiced bring me face to face with myself. ”Gnothi seauton,” said Socrates. “Know yourself.” We aren’t altogether what we think we are — both more and less, we discover the prime tool of magic: the self. All other powers pale in comparison to what we already are, what we bring right now to the art of magic. We are marvelous beings, with dimensions, capacities and talents unexplored. Discovering the truth of this firsthand ideally will not puff up the ego, but engage the curiosity, another tool the mage never stops using. I will need that curiosity to help me through the first month. By the end of the first week or so, if I’ve actually stuck with the exercises that long, the first aura of wonder has dimmed. But in its place, a glimmer, usually no more, of things I didn’t know I knew, of aspects of consciousness, of a window opening where before there was only a wall, of passage through, where before was only cul-de-sac. It’s faint, that sense of expansion, and if I don’t write it down, it dwindles to nothing. Gone. Easy to forget, easy to minimize, discount, ignore altogether. Hence the advice to record it. The hard evidence of pages of experience accumulates into a consistent realm of action and reaction and consequence that the mind cannot so easily argue away any longer. A house divided against itself cannot stand. I need to unify my forces if I am to accomplish anything worth doing.
The first lessons of magic use and highlight abilities we possess in the service of clarifying the task ahead. Knowledge, memory, discipline, attention, imagination. And persistence. I discover both more — and less — than I’d hoped for. I learn what a slippery, supple and potent thing consciousness is. I learn in spite of myself and in spite of the biases of many current cultures that consciousness isn’t all I am, and it may not even be the most valuable or striking aspect of my identity. Or rather I learn that day-to-day consciousness is to the full spectrum of possible consciousness what the visible wavelengths of light are to the full electromagnetic spectrum — a small slice out of an enormous bandwidth. I learn that other beings may prefer and reside in other portions of the spectrum, the way insects can see ultraviolet and infrared beyond the human range, the way dogs hear pitches of sound and smell an olfactory melange we never register, the way countless worlds are stuffed with possibilities we never notice at all.
Some knowing is remembering, is recollection. Where did I encounter this before? And who was with me when I did?
Read about any of this too soon, instead of learning it, and I’m convinced I already “know” it. Next cool thing, please, says the mind. Next one. As if magic, like eating or love-making or listening to music, were a matter of hurrying to the end, rather than practicing the delight of being present in the moment, noticing all we can, taking it in, marveling.
So I begin to know differently, more broadly. Go slow, says the Master. What’s the rush?
Don Juan, the Yaqui shaman or brujo made famous in Carlos Castaneda‘s controversial book series*, remarks of the magical journey, “For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length–and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly.”
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*Castaneda, Carlos. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968; 1998 (30th edition).
images: book; dog; Castaneda.
Updated 8 May 2013
This is the first of a series on four powers of magic.
“All I know is a door into the dark,” says Seamus Heaney in the first line of his poem “The Forge.” In some way that’s where we all begin. At three, four, five years old, some things come into our world already bright, illuminated, shining, on fire even. The day is aflame with sun, the golden hours pass until nightfall, and then come darkness and sleep and dreaming. We wander through our early days, learning this world, so familiar-strange all at once. We grow inwardly too, discovering trust, betrayal, lying, love, fear, the pleasure of imagination, the difference between visible and invisible worlds. Which ones do people talk about, admit to themselves? Which ones do people around us ignore, or tell us don’t matter?
Much of our knowing is experiential during those years. We learn about the physical laws of our planet, the bumps and bruises and sometimes breaks of childhood a testament to the hard edges of this world. We learn some of its softnesses too: favorite foods, the touch of loved ones, the warm fur of pets, a dog’s nose meeting ours, the new air on the skin that spring and summer bring, the delight of rain and puddles and baths and fresh-laundered clothes.
Then in some parts of the world comes another learning, one that typically fills much of our days for the next decade or so: a knowing about, the accumulation in school of facts and statistics and words and ideas, math and languages and art, science and history. Still some experiential learning comes through as a matter of course — Bunsen burners glowing, magnesium and potassium in chemistry doing their flaming and bubbling tricks mixed with other elements. The practice of basketball, baseball, volleyball, football and soccer, the sprints and catches and throws and spins and tricks, the correct forms and personal styles. Wrestling, dance, music, track and field, teaching the body to know beyond thought, to form and shape habits useful precisely when they become habit and no longer demand our full attention. And other knowledge of the body, too: the awakening of sexuality, the chemical prods and prompts of hormones to stir the body into further change, the powers of attraction and desire, the experimentation with consciousness-altering that seems a universally human practice, whether “naturally” through exercise and pushing one’s physical limits, through chant, prayer, meditation, dance, song, music, or through “assisted alteration” with certain herbs, drugs, alcohol. Even into adulthood much of this knowledge rumbles and whispers just below the level of conscious thought much of the time. Without socially-approved times and places to discuss many of these experiences, we withhold them from daily conversation, we “fit in” and accommodate, we commit to being just like everyone around us, and the nudge of what feels like difference becomes part of the background hum of living, an itch we scratch haphazardly, or learn to tune out.
We forget how valuable this kind of knowing is, how it persists throughout our lives. This used to be wisdom of a kind we valued precisely because it took lived experience to acquire. You couldn’t rush it, couldn’t buy it or fake it, at least not without so much practice you almost recreated for yourself the original source experience anyway.
In a previous post on this blog, I noted:
Some kinds of knowledge are experiential and therefore in a different sense hidden or secret from anyone who hasn’t had the experience. Consider sex: there is no way to share such “carnal knowledge” – you simply have to experience it to know it. And thus Adam and Eve “know” each other in the Garden of Eden in order to conceive their children. Many languages routinely distinguish “knowing about” and “knowing” with different words, as for instance German kennen and wissen, French savoir and connaitre, Welsh gwybod and adnabod, Chinese hui/neng/zhidao. The kinds of experiential knowledge humans encounter in a typical lifetime are substantial and significant: first love, first death, first serious illness and so on.
Back to the poem I mentioned in the first line of this post. Reading it can be, in a small way, a re-initiation back into some experiences and kinds of knowing we may have forgotten or waylaid. It’s “just words,” but also — potentially — more.
by Seamus Heaney
All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.
Here’s one opportunity of our human life (there are others) — a door into darkness, a world inside us that is a forge, a place of shaping and molding, of hammering material into a desired form, a place of work and energy and transformation. The door leads to a place where we can find an altar, where we can “expend ourselves in shape and music” and “beat real iron out.” Sometimes it appears others stand there before us; at times, we stand alone, tools scattered about, not always sure of how to proceed, dimly aware, or not at all, of anything like an altar or metal or tools. But here lies a chance at the magnum opus, the “great work” many of us seek, that task finally worthy of all that we are and can do and dream of, a labor that is pleasure and work and art, all at once or at different times.
Even to know this in some small way, to imagine it or suspect it, is a start. The door into the dark may not stand open, but we discern the outlines of something like a door, and maybe grope towards a handle, a yielding to an inner call, something that answers to a hand on the doorknob, or shifts like a latch, clicks open. To know this much is a priceless beginning.
How magic can build on this beginning, and assist in self-making, will be the subject of the next post.
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Images: Seamus Heaney; child at shore; forge.
A couple weeks ago I read a blog post I’ve been carrying around with me ever since — it pops up at odd moments, because it touches on a profound experience of the divine familiar to many Druids and other Pagans. But it goes deeper than that, too, in its perception of the nature of divinity. You can find it over at Banshee Arts, courtesy of blogger Morpheus Ravenna. She reflects on her patron deity, the war goddess Morrigan, and receives wisdom from her that we need to hear and contemplate.
Here’s Morpheus’ post for March 22, 2013, “Voice of the Sacrificed,” which I cite verbatim in its entirety, so you can read it all here. The italics are original with her post:
This week brought my 37th birthday, and with it the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.
Yes, it was my good fortune ten years ago, to watch as my country preemptively invaded another and lit its skies on fire with “shock and awe”, on my birthday. I remember it vividly. Though I knew the war wasn’t launched on my birthday for any reasons to do with me, somehow that coinciding still did make it more personal and even more unsettling to me than it already was. My oldest friend had recently joined the army and I knew she would soon be deployed there; I’d been worrying about that all winter as the war loomed inevitably closer. And then it launched on my birthday.
That war felt terribly intimate, as though it had attached itself to me; as though by inaugurating on my name-day it had taken my name and was ruthlessly marching its destructive way in my name. Well, it was. Not just me, of course. It was destruction in all our names, all American citizens.
And I suppose it also felt intimate because I was eyeballs deep in a personal moral struggle over my devotion to a war Goddess. As the country stomped its bombastic way toward war, I had been engaging in a series of deep meditations communicating with the Morrígan. I was confused, scared, disturbed. I had always felt some unease about my devotional relationship with a war Goddess – had wondered if on some level I was condoning the brutality of war by worshiping Her. Now those questions haunted me irrepressibly as the war began. I went to my altar and prayed, chanted, begged for answers. She spoke.
I recorded my memories of those conversations in my journal (to the extent that direct nonverbal communications with a divinity can be translated into words). Here are a few fragments:
Why have I been chosen to have this connection with you? You know I am ill at ease with your warlike aspect.
It is in your blood. You are descended from invaders, violent warring Celts. Warfare and violence are part of who you are. You cannot run from this. You must understand it, and it is through me that you can understand this part of your being.
I am troubled about this war, about the justice of it. How can we tell a just war from an unjust war?
There are no just wars. For each individual who experiences it, war is an injustice. It is an injustice to those who suffer and die when they should have lived; it is an injustice to those who find themselves doing violence to their human kin in the service of war. War is always an injustice. The Gods cannot tell you whether your war is right or wrong by the standards of your justice; you must count the cost and choose, though you are blind. And sometimes it will come on you without your choosing, and that too is an injustice. Your task, when you do choose to make war, is to pursue it swiftly and strike with certainty. You must recognize that every life destroyed is in your hands and it is up to you to make that sacrifice worth something.
The reason your ancestors revered their enemies so much is this: when you slay your opponent in battle, the spilling of their blood is a sacrifice to your sword. It is required that you honor their sacrifice by dedicating it to a worthy purpose.
The law of human life is that you are only capable of solving your problems within the set of ways your culture contains. I arose in the form you know me among the old Celts. Their culture was shaped and defined by tribal warfare. You, and your culture, are the inheritors of this in many ways. When you alter your culture to contain a different set of possible actions, then you may be able to solve your problems without bloodshed. Until then, I will always be present. My role in war is to make it swift and terrible, and effective; to carry for you the knowledge that you could learn from your actions if you choose to listen; and to mourn the cost.
Unlike most gods of monotheism, the Pagan gods specialize (though often enough Jehovah gets his war on, so we can be excused for thinking he’s principally a war god, too). But what wisdom Morpheus (and the Morrigan) offers here: ”The law of human life is that you are only capable of solving your problems within the set of ways your culture contains.”
Or to paraphrase so apparently unrelated a thinker as Muslim reformer Irshad Manji, “There is nothing wrong with a culture that cannot be corrected from what has been historically right with the culture.”* Or to go to the Qur’anic source that inspires Manji: ”Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (Qur’an 13:11). But I would add that the change may alter the culture sufficiently so that many feel uprooted, or even perceive that their culture has “died.” All things are subject to change, and human creations like cultures don’t stand exempt. Certainly we walk today in the midst of deep change in many of the world’s cultures. This is a time rife with change, and also ripe for change and possibility.
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*Check out a half-hour interview with Manji by Canadian talk show host and Conservative pundit Allan Gregg on Youtube — the line cited above is paraphrased from Manji’s comment around 13:00 in the video.
Wadin Tohangu has been in my thoughts these past few days — at first just a tickle of awareness, an overlay to thought. Then stronger, a gesture on his part for me to pay attention, a longing on my part to offer that readiness.
In the past a listening heart usually opened the way for him. Give my opinions and distractions a rest, and always something more worthwhile would fill the space they occupied. A poem, an idea for a blog-post, a phone call I needed to make or take, a chance conversation with a homesick student no one else notices, a shaft of sunlight or spectacular cloud at the moment I look out the window. The attention that draws Wadin is simple but not easy. Especially not today. Why not? I ask myself. I’m out of practice, for one thing. I mull over the past few weeks. Money is tight, and old medical bills, though we bring the balance down each month, still require that monthly check. We’ve just managed to pay municipal property taxes, and now the Ides of April loom, tax day part two, on the 15th. (We have as little taken out of the paycheck as possible, on the theory that it’s easier to pay later on our terms, rather than to try getting a refund on the government’s. We’re still, you might say, optimizing the theory.) Add to that some education expenses for my wife, plumbing repairs after basement pipes froze … the list goes on, one version or another all too familiar to many of us.
But through it all, things to celebrate as well. Yes, there will be balance. Birds back, singing. A few passing on the way north, offering unfamiliar snatches of melody on their layover. Daffodils pushing up pale and uncertain, the first wasps and flies buzzing around rather forlornly, that indefinable slant of light and the scent of earth that signal spring, whatever the thermometer shows. Longer days. A sky that says forever is still here, starting right beyond my skin.
Wadin Tohangu is companion to my thoughts again. What will he say to me this time? What do I need to hear?
[To be continued]
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Three sparks that require kindling to flame: spark in the heart, spark in the head, and spark in the spirit.
If we long for transformation and seek initiation, we’re looking for it in a culture which, at least in North America, seems short of ready options. One alternative, however, remains open for most people, and that is pilgrimage. Spring stirs it in us. Feel it?
Start small: weekend out of town, morning walk to work, afternoon run around the block. I jog my neighborhood, making it by intention and action a ritual as well as exercise. I greet the morning sun with a line from the Odyssey that resonates for me: “All one brightening for gods and men.” As I round the first corner, I move from brisk walk to jog. Down the hill towards woods and swamp the town must have set aside as unbuildable or protected — no one has tried, at any rate. A blessing on the spirits there, blessings in return back at me.
Past the front yard garden of a lovely retired couple, a plot no more than 60 or 70 square feet, that will bloom in another month or so with all manner of flowers, then grow into a climbing, sprawling wonder of vines and stalks and pods, with sunflowers towering golden above the rest. Past the small trim house of the Latino family who has done fine stonework on a retaining wall out front, though they still face snowmelt every winter from neighbors with lots uphill from them, so now I leap puddles gathered in the cracked sidewalk. Each one lush with billions of invisible lives, even in the coolness of early spring, paramecia and bacilli and rotifers.
Past juniper and ash and aspen, past the 150-year-old copper beech the school has, thanks be to the Powers who helped, chosen to save and build around rather than over. Here are battles epic and acts heroic, if I only look. Across the main campus intersection, which at this hour is mostly empty, the students still on break. Hundreds making plans to return, my colleagues emerging to photocopy and staple, recharge iPad, dust off class text, take down old classroom posters and put up new ones. The lacrosse fields and baseball diamonds still spotted with nubbly snow. A car passes, the driver waving. I wave back, not recognizing either vehicle or person, but glance at the bumper to see if it’s stickered and marked as a school vehicle. This is my community, my tribe of work.
Past the chapel, pines spindly and lopped from a hundred years of pruning and thinning, but still there in spite of a campaign to “open up” the campus. But the cut trees once shaded buildings in summer, and cooling bills rose after that. There is my myth, ogre in the far land, troll at the bridge, orc to dodge and trick and slay. Each time I run I tell myself another story, and the landscape holds up each one briefly, then settles it in, saying, “This too belongs, that one also seeks its home.”
After about a mile, a turn and a steep hill, the houses shouldering each in miniature plateaus up the incline. I drop to a walk at top — I haven’t run this for a couple of weeks, since the last heavy snowfall, and my loss of wind and tone shows. The next mile flat, past the downtown, the post office and diner and banks. Thousands of lives, feet, hands, eyes seeing much of what I now see, ears hearing earlier sounds of horse and buggy, wagon and cart, and sounds that never change: children, wind, voices we hear from two worlds that are also one.
Want bigger myths? Find larger stories to tell, meanings that invest your landscape. I start small, for practice, then turn my thoughts toward Derby, VT, home of my father’s ancestors, s mall town north of here by some five hours. I’ve never been; I’m visiting this summer, to walk the graveyard where some of my ancestors are buried. Because at a “cabin-fever” dinner in southern Vermont last weekend, I chanced to hear (there are no chances; everything is chance) a story set in Derby that I took to heart, from Joan who taught there, years ago. Everything, they say, is connected. Not so much a matter of believing as finding out how it’s true. Now the name of the town has been kindled for me. I will visit. Pilgrim, says my life, look around.
Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
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Images: Saint Helier, isle of Jersey; Fo Guang Shan; 2009 spring pilgrimage
Three welcomes I know: babe to breast, body to earth, and spirit to cosmos.