Archive for December 2011

Resolutions — New Year’s and Others

It’s no accident that this time of year turns us toward thoughts of resolutions.  After the family gatherings and excess of the holidays — and let’s be honest, some excess and abandon can be fun, or would be, if our Puritan strain didn’t kick in, and kick us — we can feel slack and listless.  We’ve crested the peak of seemingly endless sugar and fat in our holiday diet — unless New Year’s Eve is the bigger holiday for you, in which case you’re just getting in training.  In the shadow of the sugar low, just combine these things with cloudy days, at least here in the northeast U.S., and you face a perfect storm of sloth and dejection and mild to severe loathing.  At some point our usually inevitable American self-improvement gene then steps forward, and it’s off to fix ourselves.

Whenever we push happiness or improvement into the future, we can be in trouble.  If it’s in the form of satisfaction with ourselves, twice the trouble.  How many times have we started and quit some scheme of fix-up?  Lose weight, get in shape, hold your temper with the left- or right-wing relative who always gets under your skin, forgive your neighbor, keep a diary, save more money each month, clean the basement or garage — paper for all the lists of vows and resolutions could keep Staples in business all by itself.  And if you truly enjoy flogging yourself, you key in your list to your favorite electronic device, so you can torture yourself with it several times a day.

You should know I tend not to make many resolutions.  Partly, my personal standards are lower, I’ll admit — and that makes things easier.  I confess to a startling capacity for indolence.  Both my wife and I have had years where we’re either flat out — busy, or flat out — in sloth.  Partly as a result of that, I’m a pragmatist.  No use flailing and contorting to begin something I won’t finish.  Shorten the list, I tell myself.  Throw it out altogether.  Delete the to-do’s accumulating on your virtual or actual desktop.  Be realistic.  You’ll be happier not making yourself miserable with what you fail to accomplish.  Or just keep it off the list in the first place.  Guilt may be a Catholic specialty, but most Americans, regardless of religious ancestry or affiliation, have managed to add it to their personal repertoire of masochism and psychological waterboarding.  Thus do I lower expectations.  And I’m only exaggerating slightly.  Low expectations let me rejoice in walking down a hallway and back — once — after my cancer surgery. Then twice.  And so on.  In three months I was jogging three miles a day.  Which was not my intention, and would have seemed daunting at the outset.  I just increased my distance a little each day.  The gifts of fresh air and daily sunrise were more than half of my success.

Which brings me to magic.

Not a transition you saw coming, I imagine.  Enough for at least a couple of readers to stop in disgust.  We’ll ignore the fact that what gets called “magical thinking” is exactly what propels many of our resolutions to change.  Such thinking is indeed unrealistic, because — to use the physical metaphor — we try to do the equivalent of the Boston Marathon without first taking up merely a short daily walk.  Too often we simply crash and burn.

So let’s define magic as most actual practitioners do:  the art of creating changes in consciousness in conformity with the will.

This isn’t the “will” of willpower, as if we could compel the universe to do anything it isn’t already inclined to do.  That kind of will is the popular image of the witch or magician, however, muttering arcane mantras and spells, and perhaps waving a wand.  It’s Harry Potter magic, which is why many practicing magicians found the Evangelical Christian hysteria (here’s a more balanced overview) over the book series and its supposed promotion of “Satanism” and “witchcraft” to be hysterical, as in funny.  See how far you get waving a wand and shouting “Expelliarmus” or “Avada Kedavra.”  (“Expecto Patronum”* might get you incrementally closer to achieving something, if only because it may lead you to focus on a positive.)

Actual — as opposed to Hollywood or popular — magic is a matter of discerning the patterns and tendencies of the natural world and its powers and forces, and then aligning oneself with them.  Quite simply, any other approach is highly unlikely to succeed.  As Druid and occult author J. M. Greer observes, if it “ignores the momentum and flow of natural patterns, it’s clumsy and wasteful of energy.  It’s much like trying to cross a lake on a rowboat without paying attention to the winds and the currents.  If you ignore these, you can put plenty of effort into rowing and make very little headway, or even end up further away from your goal than you started” (The Druid Magic Handbook, 18).  Blindly asserting the will is rowing while oblivious to movements and energies of the larger world.  Far from being supernatural, magic is thus deeply involved with the natural world.

The will involved in magic is much better identified as intentionality, and it’s intentionality that helps our New Year’s resolutions actually succeed.  Greer continues:  “Real will is effortless.  It corresponds, not to struggle and strain, but to what philosophers call ‘intentionality,’ the orientation of the mind that locates meaning in objects of experience” (20).  He gives the example of choosing to look at a window, or through a window at something on the other side.  The well-known image of faces or a vase offers a similar instance.  It’s by intention that we shift our perception.  Strain has nothing to do with it.  You perceive the two dark faces in profile looking at each other, or you perceive a white vase on a black background.   It’s hard to see both simultaneously.  But intentionality lets you shift between them.  It’s a choice.

One technique, therefore, for training the will or the intentionality, is to do something simple and comparatively effortless.  Set yourself a ridiculously easy task, follow through on it, and record your results.  The purpose of this training is to reveal and separate all our defeatist and negative self-sabotaging attitudes from an actual act of intentionality.  For instance, five times during the day, stand up, turn three times in a circle and sit back down again.  Record the date and time on each instance that you do this.

Now presumably nothing interfered with your success, except perhaps a mild feeling of embarrassment.  But you set up an intention, and manifested it without strain.  You simply did it.  Yoda’s words are apropos here:  “Do, or do not.  There is no try.”  The “trying” is the strain, the effort of will to do something you actually don’t want to do.  Intentionality bypasses that.  You simply do it because you decided to.  This is a form of preliminary magical training:  doing small, effortless, things you know you can achieve without strain, in order to gain confidence in intention.

Because intentionality is a choice, not a struggle, many aspects of our lives can come under its influence.  Greer continues,

If you face a challenge with confidence, for example, you chances of success are much better than if you face the same challenge full of doubts and worries.  Intentionality is the reason why.  What the confident person sees as potential opportunities, the worried person sees as potential obstacles, and they are both right, because whether something is an opportunity or an obstacle usually depends on how you choose to approach it (Greer, 21)

— that is, on your intentionality.

We use a form of magic whenever we make a resolution — in this sense, we’re all magicians at work.

The difference between intentionality and ordinary ideas of willpower explains many of the failures that bedevil beginners.  When you try to use magic to will the world into obedience [in the case of a resolution, you will yourself to change your own behaviors and habits — ADW],  you set up an intentionality of conflict between yourself and the world … The harder you try to make the world obey, the more it fights back, because all your efforts reinforce the intentionality and amplify the conflict.  Change your intentionality to one of moving in harmony with the world, and the conflict disappears (Greer, 21).

This is not unfamiliar territory to Christians, either, or shouldn’t be.  Jesus says, “Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him.”  “Turn the other cheek,” and so on.  In other words, don’t make additional and entirely unnecessary trouble for yourself.  Don’t stand in your own way.

Because we often practice “black magic” on ourselves, sabotaging and short-circuiting our own best intentions with negative thinking and self-limiting behavior, and setting up conflicting, opposing intentionalities, we waste time and energy “rowing against the current.”  Many beginning magicians

try to use magic to achieve financial prosperity, and it’s common for their efforts to backfire and leave them poorer than they started.  Why?  In many cases, their magic focuses on wanting what they don’t have.  This sets up an intentionality of wanting and not having, and so they end up wanting money and not having it.  As with so many things in life, the more energy they put into chasing something, the faster it runs away (Greer, 22).

Because Greer has such insightful and useful things to say about intentionality — and thus resolutions — I want to let him have (almost) the final word:

If you want to use magic to become prosperous, your intentionality has to focus on being prosperous, not on wanting to be prosperous.  One effective approach starts with noticing the prosperity already in your life — if you have a roof over your head, three meals a day, and the leisure to read this book, after all, you have more prosperity than half the people on this planet — and letting the change in focus from wanting to having gently redefine your intentionality toward wealth.  Another useful strategy focuses on seeing opportunities for abundance around you.  This redefines your surroundings as a source of opportunity, and as [our life energy] follows intentionality, and shapes experience, opportunities appear (Greer, 22).

So to sum up, practice intentionality with actions that don’t haul negative habits of thinking along with them.  Focus on having and being, rather than on wanting and lacking.  Experiment.  Use the power of choice to shift consciousness — to see the vase, the faces, or whatever your intentionality is.  Repeat as needed.

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Images: resolutions and faces/vase

Postscript: when I was searching for the first image, a list of resolutions, I came across pictures of computer screens, too — another meaning of resolution — the pixel resolution or clarity of image that a screen possesses.  Likewise, my clarity in visualizing the goal — of having or being what I desire — is key to “keeping” my resolutions.  Imagining what it is like being and having what I desire is halfway to my manifesting it.  I already know something of what it feels like to succeed. (I’m using this strategy as I revise my nanowrimo draft.)

*”Expecto patronum” — (Latin, literally, “I await a patron/protector”) summons a familiar or symbolic representation of the self to protect one against negative energies, such as Dementors in the HP series.  Harry’s patronus is a stag, as was his father’s.  Of the three spells I cite above, this one is good defensive magic and actually works well against nightmares. The following is part of the entry from the Harry Potter wiki on the Patronum spell:

A Patronus is a kind of positive force, and for the wizard who can conjure one, it works something like a shield, with the Dementor feeding on it, rather than him. In order for it to work, you need to think of a memory. Not just any memory, a very happy memory, a very powerful memory… Allow it to fill you up… lose yourself in it… then speak the incantation “Expecto Patronum”.

Remus Lupin teaching Harry Potter the Patronus Charm

About Initiation, Part 1

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

With energies flowing around us from so many end-of-year holidays and celebrations, it seemed fitting to think and write about initiation.  It’s one more piece of a Religious Operating System (ROS), it’s an important key to Druidry and — most importantly — it’s something we all experience.  For good reason, then, the subject cuts a large swath through spiritual, religious and magical thought and practice.  As author Isaac Bashevis Singer opens his book The Chosen, “Beginnings are difficult times.”  That’s one reason New Year’s resolutions often end up on the cutting room floor of the film version of our lives.  (Some ways to keep them alive and well and not merely part of the special extended version of our lives that may not see wide release into the “real” world will be the subject of a post upcoming in the next few days.)

Some opportunities for initiation recur each year, and are built into our cultures.  Right now the festival holidays of Hanukkah, Christmas, Diwali, Kwanzaa and so on are opportunities for annual initiation — if we let their celebrations reach into us and change us.  As breaks from “profane” or ordinary time, holidays take us into altered if not sacred space, and then return us to our lives somehow — ideally, anyway — changed.  Of course, specific religions and spiritual paths each offer their own initiations.  For Christians, it’s baptism (and for Catholics and some other denominations, confirmation as well).  A Jew passes through a bar or bat mitzvah, and so on.

But we needn’t look so far or so formally.  First kiss, first love, first sexual experience, first drink (consider the particular sequence of these in your own life).  Driver’s license, prom, graduation, military draft.  Each transforms as a rite of passage.  We “pass through” and come out on the other side, different, in ways others may or may not notice.  We ourselves may not fully absorb the changes until much later.

As with the kinds of freedom I considered in a previous post, there seem to be both “transitive” and “intransitive” initiations — initiations which enable or empower the initiate to do something — typically in the future — and initiations which recognize a standard or awareness already attained, and put a “seal of approval” on it.  Of course these need not be separate.  Both kinds can occur simultaneously.  Initiation is a “beginning” (from Latin initio “start, beginning”) both a path or direction that another agency, power or person starts us on, and also something one does or experiences oneself.

Some big initiations are inclusive.  Like annual holidays, we all experience them.  Though we may not often think of it, death — our own, or that of a loved one, or of a public figure with symbolic power, like a John F. Kennedy or a Princess Diana — can be a powerful, transformative initiation.  Through the grief and the inevitable breaks in familiar routine that come with the first shock, the family gatherings, the arrangements and the funeral itself, we’re brought to face loss, change, mortality, and endings and beginnings in ways.  We may take on new, unfamiliar roles, like caretaker, mourner, survivor, with all the challenge and growth they can bring.  The first death we encounter (apart from pets), given the usual number of years between generations, comes almost like clockwork sometime in our teens, with the passing of a grandparent.  In the freshman dorm at the boarding school where I teach and serve as adviser, there are four or five deaths of grandparents each year, and all the myriad changes they carry with them for those involved.  It’s a close study in family dynamics (and our capacity as advisers to provide support) to witness how kids and their families deal with it all.

Marriage often seems to occupy a sort of middle ground as far as these categories operate.  On the one hand, no one is married in the eyes of either the law or a religious organization until they pass through the requisite ceremony.  Yet we all know couples who are already “so married” that the ceremony confers nothing that they don’t already manifest in abundance.  In this case, the initiation of marriage simply recognizes and formalizes a connection and a state of relationship that already exists and — if the ritual or ceremony still carries any power — blesses and charges the thing consecrated.  My wife and I have two anniversaries, ten days apart, and each conveyed to us different energies.  First was a spiritual ceremony by a cleric in our tradition, and second came the state ceremony, performed by a justice of the peace.  Interesting, too, who we see as performing or undergoing the initiation.  Ideally, to my mind, the one experiencing the initiation should play at least some part, if not an active role, in its enactment.  For initiation takes place both outwardly, where it is often witnessed by the state if not also by family, and  more importantly inwardly, on the subtle planes (which deserve their own post or series of posts).

“Where is wisdom to be found?” goes the old query.  Initiation is one major source.  Not all initiations “show” right away, or even ever.  What we begin may never end.  It can take a lifetime to sort out the effect of even “lesser” initiations, to say nothing of the big ones.  Those “long” words, never and always, very much belong with initiations.

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

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Image credits:  Knighthood — “The Accolade” by Edmund Blair Leighton

Sex and love

Oriya Indian wedding

Solstice 2011

One of the appeals of earth-centered religions and spiritualities is their celebration of a world we can see and touch, smell and taste and hear right now.  No membership in the right in-group, no attainment of a prerequisite spiritual state, no promised future to wait for.  Instead, democratic access to the sacramental gifts of this life:  the pleasures of simply being alive, of breathing air (assuming you have decent air to breathe), of eating and touching and loving the things of this world, of caressing the people you cherish, of hearing their voices and enjoying their physical presence.  Transient, fragile, time-bound, brief — and all the more dear for that.

At the winter solstice our ancestors knew from studying the sky and watching the sunlight on markers of wood and stone that “when the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen.”  My father, a dairy farmer, used to repeat the old saying around this time of year with a kind of grim satisfaction.  More frozen pipes in the barn, more days the tractors would start only with difficulty, more days to chip away ice and plow snow.  But when I talk with my students, mostly dwellers of suburbia and “urbia,” and learn they don’t know this or many other pieces of earth-wisdom, I realize again that I stand as a member of a transitional generation.  My parents and grandparents inherited much of the lore and skill of our agricultural past, and have passed a portion of it on to me.  But so many of the rising generation have lost most of it.

Anyone can have that curious sensation of “secondary memory” that outreaches one’s own lifetime, grafted on through relatives and ancestors.  The only grandmother I knew well was born in 1894, and so I can recall experiences that did not actually happen to me, but which — through her retelling, and with accompanying photos or other artifacts — have assumed the guise of shadowy half-memory, as if they indeed left their imprint directly on my own life and thought and perception, rather than through telling alone.  But in the case of hard-earned knowledge of how to live and anticipate change and thrive on earth, they are not the incidents peculiar to one life only, but part of the lore of the tribe.

Solstice feels something like that to me. It’s the oldest pan-human holiday we can discern, predating those of particular cultures and religions by thousands of years.  There’s nothing “pagan” about it — it’s a matter of observable fact, rather than belief, as are the equinoxes.  Neolithic monuments and markers attest to the reach of such knowledge around the planet.  An essay by scientist and author Arthur C. Clarke, the title of which has drifted out of reach of immediate recall, begins like this:  “Behind every person now alive stand one hundred ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.”  The first time I read that, I felt a delicious shiver of mortality and awe.  Yes, the ratio may have shifted (though I hope never to live on a world where that proportion favors the living over the dead — imagine for an instant the conditions that implies), but the image endures.  And of those assembled dead, perhaps half or more knew and celebrated the solstice.  For five hundred or a thousand or more generations, people acknowledged the shift of the planet in its relation to the sun.  The southern hemisphere of course complements the northern in its seasons — their summer is well-launched, and now the days begin to shorten.  The body knows these shifts, while the mind may take its own interval to catch up.  We feel such changes in our bones, on our skin.  In a couple of weeks, by mid-January, the change shows more clearly.  Morning and evening commuters will enjoy more light, and the year turns.

Another of the keys, then, to connect to my previous post on a Religious Operating System, is lore itself:  the knowledge of cycles and patterns we can measure and demonstrate for ourselves.  No need for the fascination and hysteria surrounding 2012 and the supposed End of the World “predicted” by the Mayan calendars.  Does no one remember Y2K?!  Or any of half a hundred “prophecies” of the end over the last few millenia?  The Maya were simply engrossed in the measure of time, and by their reckoning one major cycle ends and another begins.  Their obsession made for precise astronomical reckoning.  Changes are coming, certainly.  Have they ever not come?

Lore includes some dross and superstition, which can almost always be dispatched by dint of careful observation and experiment.  And while some generations may forsake the wisdom which their ancestors long thought worthy of preservation, it is — eventually — recoverable. If the peak- and post-oil folks are right, we face a sharp decline in material wealth and technology powered by a rapidly diminishing supply of cheap energy, and not enough people now know how, or are prepared, to flourish as people did for most of human history:  wood fires, gardens and food animals, home remedies, animal and human labor, solar and wind power on a modest scale.  But little or no electricity, or any of the hundreds of devices it powers, or petroleum products and technologies.  We live with a false sense of security, as if the entire West were one large gated community.  All it takes is a power outage of a day or two, as happened with Hurricane Irene for so many, to cast us out of our ease and return us to the human experience of all generations until the last few.  We could see the real “99%” as all those who lived before the last century and its admittedly artificial standards of material luxury and abundance for a portion of the planet.  But the solstice includes those hundred ghosts and the living, all witnesses of the day that signals the return of light and hope to the world.  May it bring those things to you.

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The solstice for the U.S. actually takes place at 12:30 am Eastern Standard Time on Thursday 12/22.  So calendars favor the majority — for all but the east coast, the Solstice is indeed today rather than early tomorrow morning.

Henge image.

Posted 21 December 2011 by adruidway in Druidry, lore, nature, solstice, spirituality, wisdom

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Persistence, and its twin patience, may be our greatest magic.  Sacred writings around the globe praise its powers and practitioners. So it’s hardly surprising, here in the too-often unmagical West, with its suspicion of the imagination, and its demand for the instantaneous, or at least the immediate, that we are impatient, restless, insecure, harried, stressed, whiny, dissatisfied and ungrateful.  We bustle from one “experience” to the next, collecting them like beads on a necklace.  The ubiquitous verb “have” leaves it mark in our speech, on our tongues:  we “have” dinner, we “have” class or a good time, we even “have” another person sexually, and one of the worst sensations is “being had.”  We do not know self-possession, so other things and people possess us instead.

The “slow food” movement, the pace appropriate for savoring, craftsmanship, care, reflection, meditation and rumination (slow digestion!) all run counter to the ethos of speed, promptness, acceleration that drive us to a rush to orgasm, speeding tickets, the rat race, stress-related illness, and so on.  None of these problems or the observations about them are new, of course.  But we remain half-hearted in our efforts or understanding of how to “pursue” their remedy.  We chase salvation as much as anything else, as a thing to collect or gather or purchase so we can be about our “real” business, whatever we think that is.  Spirituality gets marketed along with orange juice.  For a sum, you can be whisked off to a more exotic locale than where you live your life, spend time with a retreat leader or guru or master or guide, and “have” (or “take”) a seminar or class or workshop.

Anyone who has adopted a spiritual practice and stuck with it has seen benefits.  Like regular exercise, it grants a resilience and stamina I can acquire in no other way.  I sit in contemplation and nothing much happens.  A week or a month goes by, and my temper might have subtly improved.  Fortunate coincidences increase.  My dream life, or a chance conversation, or a newspaper article, nudges me toward choices and options I might not have otherwise considered.  But usually these things arrive so naturally that unless I look for them and document them, I perceive no connection between spiritual practice and the increased smoothness of my life.  From a slog, it becomes more of a glide.  But the very smoothness of the transition makes it too subtle for my dulled perceptions at first.  It arrives naturally, like the grass greening in the spring, or that gentle all-day snow that mantles everything.

I abandoned a particular daily practice after many years, for complicated reasons deserving a separate post, and I needed only to read the notebooks I kept from that earlier time to recall vividly what I had lost, if my own life wasn’t enough to show me.  My internal climate faced its own El Nino.  I was more often short with my wife, mildly depressed, more often sick with colds, less inspired to write, less likely to laugh, more tired and more critical of setbacks and annoyances.  Set down in writing this way, the changes sound more dramatic — didn’t I notice them at the time? — but as a gradual shift, they were hardly noticeable at any one point.  I still had my share of good days (though  I didn’t seem to value them as much), and my life was tolerable and rewarding enough.  “But I was making good money!” may be the excuse or apology or justification we make to ourselves, and for a time it was true enough of me.  Then came the cancer, the near-breakdown, the stretch of several years where I seemed to move from doctor to doctor, test to test, treatment to treatment.  If you or anyone you know has endured this, you get what I’m talking about.  It’s distinctly unfun.  And while I won’t say lack of practice caused this, it’s an accompanying factor, a “leading indicator,” a constituent factor.  Doctors might very profitably begin their diagnoses with the question, “So how’s your spiritual practice?”  Our spiritual pulse keeps time with our physical lives.  They’re hardly separate things, after all.  Why should they be?

In the story of Taliesin I mentioned in my last post, the boy Gwion, so far from the future Taliesin he will become, is set by the goddess Cerridwen to watch a cauldron as it cooks a magical broth meant to transform her son Afagddu, a mother’s gift to her child.  A year and a day is the fairy-story time Gwion spends at it.  A full cycle.  The dailiness of effort and persistence.  The “same-old,” much of the time.  Gwion’s a servant.  The cauldron sits there each morning.  The fire beneath it smoulders.  Feed the fire, stir the liquid.  It cooks, and Gwion “cooks” along with it, the invisible energy of persistence accumulating as surely as the magical liquor boils down and grows in potency.  Through the spring and summer, insects and sweat.  Through autumn and winter, frost and chill and ice.  The cauldron has not changed.  Still at it?  Yes.  The broth slowly thickens as it bubbles and spatters.

One day a few drops (in some versions, three drops) fly out onto one of Gwion’s hands, burning.  Instinctively he lifts the hand to his mouth, to lick and soothe it with his tongue.  Immediately the magic “meant for another” is now his.  He did, after all, put in the time.  He sat there daily, through the seasons, tending the cauldron, stirring and keeping up the fire, swatting insects, breathing the smoke, batting sparks away, eyes reddened.  Yes, the “accident” of the spattered drops was at least partly the result of “being at the right time in the right place.”  It is “luck” as well as “grace,” both operative in his life.  Part, too, was the simple animal instinct to lick a burn.  And the greater portion was the effort, which catalyzed all the rest into a unified whole.  Effort, timing, luck, chance, grace:  the “package deal” of spirituality.

And the consequence? For Gwion, his growth has just begun.  It is his initiation, his beginning.   In his case it distinctly does NOT mean an easier path ahead for him.  In fact, just the opposite — more on that in a coming post.

The Hopi of the American Southwest call their ritual ceremonial pipe natwanpi, “instrument of preparing.”  The -pi suffix means a vehicle, a means, a tool.  Tales like this story of Gwion can become a natwanpi for us, if we choose — part of our preparation and practice, a tool, a way forward.

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Fast food


Hopi blanket

Keys to Druidry in Story

Those inclined to criticize contemporary Druidry have made much about how the specific practices and beliefs of ancient Druids are forever lost to us simply because they left no written records, and because the references to Druids in the works of classical Greek and Roman authors are mostly based on secondhand accounts and sometimes markedly biased. Without such historical continuity, they claim, it is impossible to be a “real” Druid today, and thus all contemporary Druidry is a kind of whistling in the wind, at best a version of dress-up for adults.  But what such writers and speakers often forget is the surviving body of legend, myth, teaching and wisdom in Celtic literature.  Here is Druidry in compact and literary form, meant to be preserved as story, a link-up with the perennial wisdom that never dies.

To pick just one example, the stories from the Mabinogion, the Welsh collection of myth, legend and teaching have wonderful relevance and serve as a storehouse of much Druid teaching. Sustained meditation on these stories will reveal much of use and value to the aspirant after a Druidry that is authentic simply because it is grounded in knowledge and practice.  As a pragmatist more than a reconstructionist, I’m much more interested in what works than in what may be historically accurate.  The former leads one to inner discoveries.  The latter is engaging as a worthwhile scholarly endeavor first, and only as a possible source of spiritual insight second.  And that is as it should be.  History is not spirituality, though it can inform it.  But even if we can accurately deduce from an always incomplete archaeological record what a Bronze Age Druid may have done, it’s still not automatically fit and appropriate for a contemporary 21st century person to adopt.  That’s a decision we must make apart from the reconstruction, which cannot guide us by itself.  Stories, however, though formed in a particular culture, often reach toward universals far better than physical objects and actions.

The story of Taliesin (this link is to a public domain text — more modern and well annotated versions are available) in the Mabinogion moves us into a world of myth and initiation.  In the tale, the boy Gwion passes through ordeals and transformations, becoming at length the poet and sage Taliesin, whose name means “shining brow” — one who has a “fire in the head” and is alive with wisdom and poetic inspiration.  As with figures from other traditions whose heads are encircled with halos, or shining with an otherworldly brightness, Taliesin belongs to the company of the “twice-born,” who have fulfilled their humanity by making the most of it.  In my next post, I’ll talk about the first key in the story — persistence.

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First image is a triskele or triskelion, a pan-European symbol associated with the Celts.

Second image is of Taliesin from Caitlin and John Matthews’ Arthurian Tarot.

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Updated 9 September 2013

A Religious Operating System: ROS beta (Part 1)

“Whenever I get bored or depressed, I do laundry,” said an acquaintance.  “Afterwards I may still be bored or depressed, but at least I’ve done something that needed doing.  And often enough I feel better.”  As a treatment, the success rate of this strategy may or may not equal that of therapy or medication, but as far as clean clothes production goes, it’s got the other two beat hands down.  At least I can be depressed and dressed.

How different the quiet of depression and the quiet of peace! (I’m writing about peace and using exclamation points.  Hm.)  One deadens and stifles, the other ripples outward and invites attention, a kind of relaxed wakefulness.  We say we want peace, and the holiday season bombards us with prayers and songs and sermons and wishes for it.  There are prayers for peace in the ceremonies of many religious teachings and spiritual practices, Druidry included.  But rather than asking somebody else for it, I can begin differently.  Peace starts in the center, and that’s where I am — or where I can put myself, with the help of recollection and intent.  “Come back to yourself,” my life keeps saying, “and remember who you are and what it is you want.”  If I start peace (or anything else) within myself, however small, however tentative, it spreads from there outward.  After all, it works for every other state I create, whether positive or negative — and I know this from sometimes painful experience!  “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is still some of the best advice ever given.  If I want change, who else do I expect to bring it about?  And if someone else did, how in the world would such changes be right for me?  Gandhi knew the secret lies in the approach.

In my early twenties, Lou Gramm and Foreigner were singing “I want to know what love is.  I want you to show me.”  It’s a lovely ballad — I’ve got it playing on Youtube the second time through as I write this paragraph, nostalgia back in full force — but it’s precisely backward in the end.  As loveless as I can sometimes feel, if I start the flow, jumpstart it if necessary, I prime the pump, and it will launch within me from that point.  Do that, and I become more loveable in a human sense, because in the divine sense I’ve made myself another center for love to happen in, and from which it can spread.

But neither love nor peace are things I can hold on to as things.  “We are not permitted to linger, even with what is most intimate,” says the German poet Rilke in his poem “To Holderin” (Stephen Mitchell, trans.)  “From images that are full, the spirit plunges on to others that suddenly must be filled; there are no lakes till eternity.  Here, falling is best.  To fall from the mastered emotion into the guessed-at, and onward.”  Whatever I long for in a world of time and space needs to be re-won every day, though in that process of re-winning, not always successful, it begins to gather around me like a fragrance, a habit.  Both the customary behavior, and the clothing a monk or nun wears, have the same name.  The connection’s not accidental.

The American “farmer-poet” Wendell Berry captures it in these lines:

Geese appear high over us
pass, and the sky closes.  Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith:  what we need
is here.  And we pray, not
for a new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear.  What we need is here.

So if we’re looking for a “religious operating system,” a ROS, we’ve got some design parameters that poets and others tell us are already in place.  “What we need is here.”  But try telling that to an unemployed person, or someone dying of a particularly nasty disease.  And of course, if I tell someone else these things, I’ve missed the point.  What they need is indeed here, but my  work is to find out this truth for myself.  I can’t do others’ work for them, and it wouldn’t be a good world if I could (though that doesn’t stop me sometimes from trying).  I don’t know how their discoveries will change their lives.  I only know, after I do the work, how my discoveries will change mine.

A recent article in the New York Times about the rise of the Nones, people who aren’t affiliated with any religion, but who aren’t necessarily atheists, offers this observation, from which I drew the title for this blog entry:

“We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system…

I’ll be examining this further in upcoming posts.

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Laundry, Foreigner album cover, and Rilke.

Jesus the Druid, Part 3: One Word


In this single command, Jesus is profoundly Druidic.  Catch the moment, he says.  Watch the divine as it swirls around and in you.  You can witness the marvelous if you simply pay attention.  Listen!  Look!  Seeing and hearing are a good start.  Now do more.  Put yourself into your attention. Make it purposeful.  Don’t just hear — listen. Don’t just see — look.

“If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light” (Matthew 6:22).  A wonderful assertion– one to test, to try out, to prove to oneself, not merely to accept passively.  A promise.  Singleness of vision, the devotion and dedication to witnessing what is really there, as opposed to what we assume or fear, wish or ignore.  Some have seen this passage as a reference to the yogic “third eye” chakra, the Hindu Shiv Netra or Sufi Tisra Til.  Why not both, and something else besides?

In the second half of her poem “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver says:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Shouldn’t all attention bring to light more and better questions?  Wouldn’t we be bored to tears with a life of all things answered?  Give me bigger and deeper questions, give me earth whole again, give me all I already have.  Give me birth in this moment.  We are constantly being born, arriving at ourselves, a remembering, a finding out of the utter strangeness of being alive, and being human in this moment, our eternity, the only time there is.  The past is only memory, and changing.  The future is hopes and fears.  Take the now with both hands.

Jesus the Druid, Part 2: Animal Models

“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”  (Matthew 10:16)

A regular menagerie of a sentence!  Sheep, wolves, serpents and doves. If inanimate things like stones can testify to divinity (see previous post) and proclaim truth in the face of human delusion, then certainly birds and beasts can do the job, too.

Here Jesus is admonishing his followers, as he commissions them to spread his teaching, that the world is full of wolves.  His disciples won’t appear on the scene with an army at their beck and call.  They don’t carry letters of introduction, or a case of free product samples to tempt the potential client.  No email blast or flurry of tweets precedes their arrival.  No, if they’re to succeed, they’ll need specific attributes which he characterizes as the wisdom of serpents and the harmlessness of doves.  And note that you can’t transpose those qualities; who would welcome a person “wise as a dove” or “harmless as a serpent”?!  Bad advertizing.  It’s a recipe for disaster. But more importantly, would serpent-wisdom and dove-harmlessness actually work?  Hold that thought.

A persistent tradition in the UK at least eight centuries old has Jesus spending some of the “lost” years — between his appearance in the temple at 12 and the start of his public ministry around age 30 — in Britain, studying with Druids.  William Blake, associated with revival Druidry during his lifetime in the 19th century, penned the famous hymn “Jerusalem” (this version hails from the last night of the ’09 Proms, a popular annual summer music series in the U.K.).  The lyrics were put to music about a century later, and the piece has become a perennial favorite, a kind of unofficial British national anthem:

And did those feet in ancient times
walk upon England’s mountains green?
and was the holy lamb of God
on England’s pleasant pastures seen?

These lines of the opening stanza seem innocuous enough, if fanciful.   A Middle-Easterner would surely have it rough during a British winter — it isn’t always “green.”  The tradition continues from there, claiming that after Christ’s death, Joseph of Arimathea (who provided a tomb for the body) either sent part of the Grail to England, or made the journey himself and founded a church in Glastonbury, or planted there a thorn tree long venerated as holy.* Whatever the truth of these events, it makes for a striking symbol and image.

But Blake continues, and this is when his poem turns odd:

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

As a proto-Druid, Blake gets his ecological digs in here:  the “dark Satanic mills” of the early industrial revolution are already at work spewing smoke and ash over London.  While most Druids today have no intention of attempting to “build Jerusalem in England’s green & pleasant land,” the song brings divinity one step closer.  Who complains if some versions of our ancient history bring with them a delicious shiver of magic or imaginative religious reconstruction?  But is the way to achieve divinity on our shores through “mental fight” and metaphorical battle?  The sudden shift to the quadruple imperative of “Bring … bring … bring … bring” summons up images of a bronze-age charioteer.  But what of the “arrows of desire”?  Here the image is of Eros, Cupid, the piercing quality of sudden strong feeling.  Is it the poet speaking as “I” in the last stanzas?  Or as someone else?  Is it Blake’s idea of Jesus?

You may not remember, but I asked you a few paragraphs back to hold the thought of serpent-wisdom and dove-harmlessness.  Some of the “wisdom” accrues from the belief that serpents are uncanny beasts, for they are able to shed their skin and achieve a kind of rebirth or immortality.  And the serpent in the Garden that haunts the Western pysche tempted Eve not to the Tree of Life (Eve!  EVE!! The other tree!  Eat from the OTHER tree!!) but the Tree of Knowledge.  As I tease my students, “Major mistake.  Become immortal first, and then get the knowledge of good and evil.”  The harmlessness of doves is less problematic.  Though city dwellers may have their foremost associations with pigeons as flocking beggars in parks, or as producers of statue-staining and public-building-defacing birdshit.

But consider again.  If you know something — I mean really know something of life-changing power — you need to come across as seriously harmless.  Otherwise people have this nasty tendency to string you up, burn you at the stake, remove the supreme discomfort of your ideas and presence at all costs.  Your wisdom puts you in mortal danger.  So reassure people first, and work your changes quietly, harmlessly.  A major piece of strategy!  Some devious or disgusting trick you’d expect to discover about that other political party — the one you don‘t belong to and affect to despise as the epitome of all things vile and loathsome.  Is that why this year’s political reality-show contestants (I mean presidential candidates) come across as less than competent?  (Repeat after me:  “All candidates vile and and loathsome, all con-men big or small, all morons foul and putrid, Democrats/Republicans have them all!”**)

So  animals embody a divinely-commissioned strategy for survival.  The wisdom of the serpent, long despised, is not dead, but sleeps in each of us, waiting the touch of the divine longing to rouse and waken it in the service of life.  The son of God (we are all children of the divine) summons it forth from us.  It lives, tree of knowledge and tree of life united, identical, twining its way around our hearts, which know — when our heads deny it — which way to go, what we need, where to find answers others say are “forbidden” or “not for mortals to know.”  On the contrary — they’re specifically intended for mortals to realize.

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*The Glastonbury thorn has lately made headlines.  It (there are actually several in the area, believed to spring from a single parent) was hacked down two years ago this month (with some historical precedent, if you read the article) and then recovered enough by March of 2011 to put forth a new shoot.  Another demonstration, as if we needed it, that old things do not just disappear because we hack at them or find them out of place or inconvenient.  They have a habit of return, of springing back to life.  Another habit from the natural world for us to imitate …

**This uncharacteristically acerbic side-note is not part of the actual blog.

Jesus the Druid, Part 1: “The stone witness”

“And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples. And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.”   (Luke 19:39-40)

What shall we do till the stones start to speak,
or whom can we turn to and trust in these days?
Can we hear even echoes of truths that we seek,
catch mere flickers of fire to illumine our ways?

The stones broadcast secrets we now scarcely hear —
the earth bears true witness, though leaders stay mute,
to remind us of love that is stronger than fear.
Goal and path rise within us — there’s no other route.

The animals know much — in each neighboring eye
is the ghost of the knowledge hard-won from their days:
make the most of each moment, for this body will die —
tomorrow’s new compost, though it shouldn’t amaze

us when walls turn to doors: we walk through them to find
the doors of our hearts were more narrow by far.
Trust the paint-box you’re given, though your dear ones are blind,
though your culture berates you, fear sets up a bar.

We must watch as we journey, be mindful of stones
that mumble or shout, rousing sleepers to wake.
Learn to feel the right path in the set of our bones,
trust the deep self to know the next step to take.

What’s Freedom For? (Part III)

[Updated 1 July 2020]

[Part 1 | 2 | 3 ]

More freedom – can I handle it?  Can there be too much freedom?  I don’t mean lack of restraint – I mean freedom. Is there a difference?  What is it?

In his baccalaureate address at Earlham College from about a quarter-century ago (1987), philosophy professor Peter Suber distinguishes among several freedoms:

There are many kinds of freedom. I do not wish to speak about all of them, or to give the impression that all of them reduce to one type. There is political liberty, or the freedom from coercion by public power. There is the political freedom of enfranchisement, or the distribution of public power through the vote. There is freedom as independence, or freedom from the power and opinions of others, which tends to reinforce and isolate individuality. There is freedom from pain, hunger, cold, illness, violence, and ignorance: a freedom that can only be purchased by institutions that limit independence and liberty. There is the freedom to enjoy one’s time or friends in peace, which requires cooperation more than independence for, as James Branch Cabell said, you can live at peace only as long as your neighbor chooses. There are freedoms, then, that individuals claim against communities and freedoms that only communities can create for their members.

These are freedoms of the body, and they’re vital.  Without them, our lives reduce to an animal struggle, below the level of anything one calls civilization.  Think of films like The Road or any of a growing number of post-apocalypse films and novels over the past century.  Without some basic physical freedoms, it’s true, we’re too occupied with survival to accomplish much else.  They’re some version of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  But they’re also necessary without being sufficient.  There are further freedoms we eventually learn we need with an almost instinctive bodily hunger.  Without them we’re malnourished.

A neighborhood elm — free in autumn

Suber goes on to make an important observation about kinds of freedom from a different perspective, one sometimes downplayed or ignored in current discussion of rights and freedoms.

“A distinction first made explicit by Kant is that between positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom is freedom from —from coercion, constraint, compulsion. Positive freedom is freedom to —to guide oneself from within without taking one’s rule from outside, to be one’s own master and legislator.”

Negative freedom is the kind of freedom many people seem to mean, if they talk about freedom at all.  It’s the kind of freedom that libertarians typically build their platforms around.  However, one kind doesn’t automatically guarantee the other will arrive with the burgers and the beer, so we can all party.  As Suber notes,

“Kierkegaard seems to have been the first to notice that one can attain negative without positive freedom. One can cut oneself loose from enslaving influences and yet have developed no internal or home-grown sources of guidance at all. Kierkegaard in fact finds this state, beyond negative freedom and short of positive freedom, to be a recurring predicament for human beings in the modern world. He calls it hovering, to be free from everything, hence to have no basis for the choices one is then free to make; to be independent but empty.”

“A basis for the choices one is free to make.”  Now we’re getting a little closer to what freedom is for.  And I’m setting the stage for one kind of freedom we’ve neglected so far and Suber at first seems to leave out.  This is spiritual freedom.  The word “spiritual” gets bitch-slapped around a lot, so let me explain what I mean here.  When people are centered on “a path with heart,” they can endure remarkable physical setbacks and obstacles and still achieve their goals, or die trying without feeling they have failed.  Throw them in jail, torture them, exile them, they just keep rolling and rising back up, like the old 70s “weebles wobble but they won’t fall down” ads.  Think Gandhi, think Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, think any number of freedom fighters, rebels (whether we like their politics or not), ornery patriots, and similar cussedly independent folks.  There’s an integrity to their choices we can admire, even if the choices themselves happen to be abhorrent to us.

Yes, we can call to mind great spiritual heroes — some of them end up as founders of religions – but we have examples closer to home.  Most of us know, or know about, people who are “survivors.”  They get ill, they go broke, their families desert them, business goes bad, marriages fail, kids land in jail — but they bounce back.  They have what an older generation called “inner resources.”  We don’t hear about those kinds of resources much, maybe because we don’t have them much in evidence.  But the seeds of them are still in us (and seem to emerge most often in hardship).  The rest of the time they just make us restless, usually because we’re often living less than authentically.  Face it, I get lazy when my life is easy.  I want things to stay the same, which they almost always resolutely, infuriatingly, refuse to do.  Like they’re refusing to do right now in the West, not to mention many other parts of the world.

What is needed, then, is the judgment to decide what to do with the freedoms we already have, and Suber proceeds to examine what that kind of judgment looks like.

A surprising test for freedom of judgment, in fact, is whether complexity overpowers, intimidates, and defeats us, or challenges, arouses, and incites us to comprehend it. In our spiritual apprenticeship complexity prevents us from feeling our power or wanting to control our own fate. We are happy to learn more first. Freedom before this point is merely self-assertion without the foundation of judgment needed for making choices. But as Hobbes said, if he spent his life reading books by other people, he’d never know more than they did. When we emerge from this dependency into our own freedom it is because we are ready to direct ourselves and make the decisions that this requires.

Bald Eagle — flight as freedom

So are we really free in the U.S. right now?  Ignore for a moment whatever your local conspiracy theorist or naysayer or grumpy partisan has to say.  The vast majority of Americans have food and shelter.  Most of us have a car, won’t get stopped at state borders, and so have freedom of movement (if we can afford the gas).  We have freedom from pain and suffering to a larger degree than any other time in history, with all the painkillers and routine buffers from the hard corners of reality that our heated and air-conditioned and work-saving-device-crammed houses and cars and buses and planes can provide.  Most Americans live better and longer than medieval kings and queens, with a vast array of entertainments at our command.

Are we free?  Material things are enjoyable — you don’t see me volunteering to give mine up just yet — but they can’t help us “emerge from this dependency into our own freedom … because we are ready to direct ourselves and make the decisions that this requires.”  When our things get threatened, we complain out of a supposed “freedom” that is “merely self-assertion without the foundation of judgment needed for making choices.”  We have the freedom to complain and criticize.  But where is the judgment for the choices and changes we need to make?

There is one more factor I want to consider.  I mentioned Aung San Suu Kyi earlier, the Myanmar freedom fighter and legally elected official confined to house arrest for years.  One of her most famous speeches is her “Freedom From Fear” speech, which begins: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”  This is one of the last great “unfreedoms” we face.  Think how much fear there is in headlines, on talk shows, in the news, in people’s faces.  Suber observes:

The larger kinds of unfreedom abroad in the world and within … are not affected in the slightest until people who recognize them as unfreedom rouse themselves to challenge them.

Religions aren’t always up to the job of helping people wake up and “recognize unfreedoms,” either.  I’m including Druidry here along with the rest.  One problem with Christianity (to pick on a religion I know and which has had longer to make an impact) is that it has defined freedom theologically and thus very narrowly.  That is, until I am saved, I am a slave to sin and subject to its penalties of wasted chances and dissatisfaction and emptiness, and ultimately to damnation.  After I am saved by the substitutionary atonement of Christ, who died in my place and paid the price for sin that otherwise I would have had to pay myself, I am free from the penalties of sin, and therefore able to go to heaven at death.  But I am no more free immediately after salvation than I was before from the responsibility of judgment, and the consequences of my own and others’ bad and good judgments.  My dissatisfaction with Christianity isn’t that it doesn’t save people; it’s that it seems to transform too few of them into better versions of themselves.  Where’s the “new creature” promised in the New Testament?  A saved jackass or a damned jackass is still a jackass.  Salvation may get you to heaven, but we have to live with you till then.

To offer you any kind of definitive “answer” to what freedom is for is to promote an unfreedom.  I’m working closer to my own answers, but you need to find your own.  Suber acknowledges this:

To take one’s judgments from others is exactly the unfreedom to be avoided. To negate the judgments of others, without more, takes one just as directly to dependency and enslavement, though by a path that is one step longer. To judge by standards that one finds inescapable is still bad faith, for one has chosen to adhere to them, and is not taking responsibility for that choice. To recognize that we are responsible for all our judgments, including our standards of judgment, is the beginning of positive freedom and self-direction. Then we will recognize that all the noisy certitudes of the world are not primarily candidates for truth but appeals to our judgment.

That is, all these supposed “certitudes” are jumping up and down, waving flags, cheering and whistling and shouting and saying to us, “Here I am.  What do you think?” rather than “Here I am. Do what I tell you.”

For me, more and more I find as the years pass, freedom is for loving more.  Nothing else matches up, noting else offers the challenge and delight and fulfillment.  It’s life-long.  I’m most loving of myself and others when I’m free, and — paradoxically? — I’m most free when I’m loving.  What’s freedom for in your life?

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Eagle image credit

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