Archive for January 2012

Ten Thousand Things   Leave a comment

One of the more useful skills I’m practicing with Druidry (we all learn our lessons from many sources, in different guises and from different teachers, throughout our lives) concerns binary thinking.  It’s easier to recognize when we’re not practicing it ourselves.  You’re with us or you’re against us.  It’s good or it’s bad.  You’re young or you’re old.  Hot or cold.  1% or 99%.  And so on.  Next door in New Hampshire, the state license plates famously read “Live free or die.”

We can get distinctly uncomfortable around ambiguity that doesn’t fall into one or the other of two neat categories. Advertisers after all market to categories, and spend time labeling both products and consumers so they can target their products.  WordPress asks for tags and categories.  If you have something to sell that doesn’t fit under a label, you can have a devil of a time getting it on the shelves or in front of people’s noses.  Likewise, if you want to locate something that doesn’t fit a category, it can sometimes be a long challenge to track it down.

Of course, we can see plenty of this dualistic patterning in action now on a large scale in the States, and without needing to look any further than our presidential primaries.  Just tune in, and you’re sure to hear some variant of the following, especially across party lines:  one candidate’s or party’s ideas and proposals constitute all Goodness and Light and Upright Living, while the other threatens our very way of life.  Filled with greed, selfishness, and all signs of true evil, that Evil Other will — if we make the mistake of listening to/believing in/voting for them,  deliver us individually and as a nation into the hands of utter darkness, despair and destruction.

  Of course the drift into binary or polar thinking doesn’t originate or end with politics.  As author, blogger and Druid J. M. Greer notes, “Binaries exert a curious magnetism on the human mind.  Once we get caught up in thoughts of yes or no, right or wrong, love or hate, truth or falsehood, or any other binary, it can be hard to realize that the two poles of the binary don’t contain all of reality … Druid philosophy offers a useful tactic in situations of this kind.  When you encounter a binary, you simply look for a third factor that is not simply a midpoint between the two poles.  Find the third factor and you convert the binary into a ternary, a balanced threefold relationship that allows freedom and flexibility.”*

We all know numerous proverbs and images of three-ness.  “Third time’s the charm”; the three parts of a syllogism (thesis, antithesis and synthesis); beginning, middle and end;  the Three Blind Mice; Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; Father, Son and Holy Ghost; the examples are nearly endless.  What they amount to is a widespread recognition of the liberating and creative power of Three.  As the Tao Te Ching says (Ch. 42), “From the One comes Two, from the Two Three, and from the Three the Ten Thousand Things” of existence in this world.  The key is not to stop at two if we want to create.  Move on to three.

Greer amplifies the discussion of binary thinking in a post on his weekly blog.  He notes that

… the hardwired habit of snap judgments in binary form is always right below the surface. In most cases all it takes is a certain amount of stress to trigger it. Any kind of stress will do, and over the years, practitioners of mass thaumaturgy have gotten very good at finding ways to make people feel stressed so that the binary reaction kicks in and can be manipulated to order.

That’s when thinking in binaries goes haywire, the middle ground becomes invisible, and people think, say, and do resoundingly stupid things because they can only see two extreme alternatives, one of which is charged to the bursting point with desire … or fear … Watch the way that many people on the American right these days insist that anybody to the left of George W. Bush is a socialist, or tfor that matter the way that some people on the American left insist that anybody to the right of Hillary Clinton is a fascist. Equally, and more to the point in our present context, think of the way the peak oil debate was stuck for so long in a binary that insisted that the extremes of continued progress and sudden catastrophic collapse were the only possible shapes of the postpetroleum future.

Binary thinking is evolutionarily useful, Greer notes, because it allows us to make snap judgments that can save our lives in crises.  But in situations where more careful thinking is not only possible but necessary, our ancient wiring and programming can leave us stranded at one pole or another, in stalemate, with no sense of the way forward.

Greer continues, observing that (in various kinds of Druid and magical training) “Back in the day, beginning students used to be assigned the homework of picking up the morning paper each day, writing down the first nine binaries they encountered, and finding a third option to each binary.”  This bit of training can offer a salutary unlocking and rebalancing of the debates of the day — or of any complex problem handicapped and hampered by sharply polarized thinking.

This useful little exercise [of identifying and expanding binaries] has at least three effects. First of all, it very quickly becomes apparent to the student just how much binary thinking goes on in the average human society. Second, it very quickly becomes at least as apparent to the student how much of an effort it takes, at least at first, to snap out of binary thinking. Third and most crucial is the discovery, which usually comes in short order, that once you find a third option, it’s very easy to find more—a fourth, a ninety-fourth, and so on—and they don’t have to fit between the two ends of the binary, as most beginners assume.

Ternary thinking isn’t just a liberating technique for the person who practices it.  It carries with it a desirable ripple effect, for

… when a discussion is mired in reactive binary thinking, it only takes one person resolutely bringing up a third option over and over again, to pop at least some of the participants out of the binary trap, and get them thinking about other options. They may end up staying with the option they originally supported, but they’re more likely to do it in a reasoned way rather than an automatic, unthinking way. They’re also more likely to be able to recognize that the other sides of the debate also have their points, and to be able to find grounds for mutual cooperation, because they aren’t stuck in a mental automatism that loads a torrent of positive emotions onto their side of the balance and an equal and opposite torrent of negative emotions onto the other side.

Given how shrill our political dialog has become, and how intransigent and loath to compromise the principal players remain, we could use a healthy dose of such thinking.  As one of the Wise has said, “God is what opposites have in common.” For me that means that the “truth” of a matter is less than likely to lie at either extreme of a binary, but somewhere else — not “in the middle” necessarily, as though God were a moderate or centrist deity.  The Tao Te Ching also notes (somewhat wryly, I’ve often felt) that “Extremes do not last long.”

But beyond the political sphere, the ternary in other settings leads us directly to the Ten Thousand Things, the world of possibility and options and freedom.  To give just one personal example, after my cancer surgery and the follow-up radiation  months later, I was weak and suffering from uncomfortable and chronic internal radiation burns in the lower colon.  “I’ve got to get better or I’ll have to quit my job,” I thought.  “I can’t work like this,” when almost every bathroom visit brought blood and pain.  Binary alert!  I was able to arrange a medical leave, during which a change of diet, specific exercise, rest, an inspiring class I audited, and several new activities and spiritual practices have helped with healing.

One of the latter is the subtly powerful principle of “both-and.”  Rather than stalling in a binary, embrace the whole.  So often I hear people saying, “I’m so upset!” or “I can’t believe it!” or some other incantation.  The more often they repeat it, the more forceful their mental and emotional state seems to become for them.  (Our most common targets of “black magic” are typically ourselves.)

“Both-and” works like this.  “I’m upset and I can also be calm.” Both are true.  Rather than denying what may be a very real state or situation, include it and move outward to include more.  This avoids the resistance or denial that often plagues affirmations or stubbornness or exertions of the will, as if we could force the universe to do what we’re simultaneously insisting it must not to!  (I want to be calm, but “I’m so upset!”)

Whitman, our old American proto-Druid, gets it.  “I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best.” Both-and, alive and well.  And as he also and famously said in “Song of Myself,” “Do I contradict myself?  Very well then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The Ten Thousand Things all are moving about on their many and beautiful ways.  Come walk with me, and with them.

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*J. M. Greer, The Druid Magic Handbook, 19.

Images: NH license; Obama; Gingrich; Whitman.

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Stranger than Fiction   Leave a comment

If you’ve read previous posts here, you’ve heard about my Nanowrimo experience.  One of the perks of such an online endeavor — beyond the solace of knowing that thousands are struggling right along with you, engaged in the same mad attempt, maybe chewing the end of a pencil like a trapped animal gnaws off its own leg to escape, or staring blindly at a computer screen, in either case despairing of ever writing another readable word — is the series of pep talks by published novelists.

Towards the end of the Nano-month, author Janet Fitch posted one such talk which I’ve copied and saved — both for my own benefit and for the writing classes I teach.  As I was re-reading it recently, it struck me as peculiarly applicable to our own lives.  You probably suspected we’re all just characters in somebody’s novel — it’s not a new idea.  But this should be no surprise in any case — we tell stories constantly.  Why shouldn’t storytelling advice also bear some connection to living IRL?

Here’s Fitch writing about “getting stuck” with a character, and what to do about it:

So you have these options, but which one to go for? When in doubt, make trouble for your character. Don’t let her stand on the edge of the pool, dipping her toe. Come up behind her and give her a good hard shove. That’s my advice to you now. Make trouble for your character. In life we try to avoid trouble. We chew on our choices endlessly. We go to shrinks, we talk to our friends. In fiction, this is deadly. Protagonists need to screw up, act impulsively, have enemies, get into TROUBLE.

The difficulty is that we create protagonists we love. And we love them like our children. We want to protect them from harm, keep them safe, make sure they won’t get hurt, or not so bad. Maybe a skinned knee. Certainly not a car wreck. But the essence of fiction writing is creating a character you love and, frankly, torturing him. You are both sadist and savior. Find the thing he loves most and take it away from him. Find the thing he fears and shove him shoulder deep into it. Find the person who is absolutely worst for him and have him delivered into that character’s hands. Having him make a choice which is absolutely wrong.

You’ll find the story will take on an energy of its own, like a wound-up spring, and then you’ll just have to follow it, like a fox hunt, over hill, over dale.

Imagine this as the rule of thumb that God (fill in your favorite entity to blame — corporations aren’t exempt, now that they’re people too) follows with us, and our lives may start to make a lot more sense.  If it’s true that all the growth is in the hassle, maybe we should seek out a moderate degree of hassle from time to time, rather than letting it back up and accumulate and swell until it spills over and clobbers us when we’re least expecting it.  Instead, take it on in smaller doses.  But whatever we do, you’ll have noticed that we end up in relationships with people who manage to uncover our weaknesses with uncanny accuracy and poke and prod them in their most sensitive spots, as well as with people who will love us regardless — quirks, warts, fetishes and all.  And we provide the same service to others.

As we become more fully conscious, and assume at least some of the responsibility for the characters we play, we even get to revise them.  Meanwhile, when you think your life’s a disaster, it may just be going through some heavy rewriting behind the scenes.  Whole chapters get chucked.  Motivations get rearranged.  You’re on your way to a normal daily ordinary even humdrum lunch, and something changes in your life forever.  Or, on the other hand, if nothing is happening and nothing just keeps on happening in your life, maybe the show is on a commercial break, or mid-season hiatus.  Don’t change the channel yet — stay tuned for the next episode.

Writer and AODA Archdruid John Michael Greer observes in a 1/11/12 blog post:

As human beings, we think with stories as inevitably as we eat with mouths and walk with feet; the stories we tell ourselves about the world define the way we make sense of the “blooming, buzzing confusion,” in William James’ phrase,  that the world out there throws at our sense organs. In what we are pleased to call “primitive societies,” a rich body of mythology and legend provides each person with a range of narratives that can be applied to any given situation and make sense of it. Learning the stories, and learning how to apply them to life’s events, is the core of a child’s education in these societies, and a learned person is very often distinguished, more than anything else, by the number of traditional stories he or she knows by heart.

In one very real sense, then, Druidry is “merely” a rich source of stories that provide alternative ways of understanding our existence and experience.  The important thing is to have, ready at hand and from a tried and wise source, an ample supply of story alternatives that teach us and help us and entertain us as they do so.  The “single story” of much modern life just isn’t enough.  I’ll be talking more about this in a coming post.

Imbolc and “First Sight”   Leave a comment

On first sight (or much later, depending on the particular script we’re following), the world can be a forbidding place.  We all go through emotional and psychological winters at times.  Nothing seems to provide warmth or comfort, so we hunker down and endure. And we can get so good at this kind of half-life that we mistake merely surviving for full-hearted thriving. Well-meaning friends or family who try to console us with various messages of hope or endurance (“This too shall pass”) can’t budge us from our heaviness.

The hidden changes implicit in the imminent shift of energy and consciousness which Druids symbolize and celebrate in Imbolc also find expression in the starkly beautiful lines of “First Sight” by British poet Philip Larkin.

First Sight

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.

For that is how at least some changes arrive — immeasurable, ungraspable, unlike anything that went before, so that we can’t even anticipate or recognize them ahead of time.  Nothing of the past prepares us.  The new comes on us “utterly unlike” the present.  Only long memory serves to recognize them sometimes, and hail and welcome them — memory often consciously denied to us in one human lifetime, but accessible through dream and intuition and the “far memory” that we may call “past lives” or the “collective unconscious” or  the “knower behind the thoughts” or “gut instinct.”  This is memory as trees know it, the rings of years that grow into the wood, the cell memory we humans also carry with us, the salts of ancient oceans that pulse in the same proportions in our blood.

This is the promise of light renewed, that miracle we often cynically dismiss but deeply long for, the story we are always telling ourselves:  maybe this time, maybe next week, one more year.  This marriage, that job, this new chance, here, now, finally, at last.

It’s important to note that this event is not “supernatural” or “religious” in the commonly understood sense of “coming from outside our world” or depending on a deity.  We don’t need to look that far, though we’re welcome to if we wish.  It is earth’s immeasurable surprise, after all, issuing from this world, this land, dirt under our feet, air that surrounds us, sun on our skin. Put another way, the whole world is telling us “Pay attention!”

Another Irish name for Imbolc is Oimelc — “ewe’s milk.”  In the agrarian societies all our ancestors came from, the pregnant ewes have been preparing for the lambs to come, their udders swelling with milk.  There are signs of change and renewal all around us, but in our rush towards “anywhere but here,” we’ve often lost sight of and contact with the markers that would center and align us with the natural order of balance and harmony we crave.

In North America, the equivalent “secular” holiday is Groundhog’s Day, which one way or another says winter will in fact eventually end.  Punxsutawney Phil emerges from the earth and his plump hibernation sleepiness to prophesy renewal, either seeing his shadow on a sunny day, or huddling under February clouds as secular augurs read the omens and declare them to the assembled faithful.  (We don’t so much abandon ritual and religion as slip it past the censor of the modern and supposedly irreligious mind, clothing it in other guises less objectionable.  If you doubt it, take a look at the grand mythologizing that surrounds Phil on sites like this one.)

Happy Groundcandleimbolcmasshogday!

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Images:  lamb; tree ring; Punxsutawney Phil.

Imbolc/Candlemas   2 comments

My wife and I returned late yesterday afternoon to a cold house — we heat only with wood — back from an overnight to Boston where we visited my wife’s cousin Sue in the hospital.  She’s due to go home soon after stem-cell replacement therapy and chemo for lymphoma.  So far the treatment’s working, and her toughness and optimism are heartening.

Our indoor thermometer read 49 degrees, and as we shivered in the last afternoon light and I rekindled a fire in our woodstove, I caught myself glancing a couple of times at a calendar, the way you do after a trip, to reorient yourself to times and days. Late January.  The last glimmer of sun over our front yard showed a typical Vermont winter scene — new snow, bare trees, and that deceptive bright calm that makes you believe you really don’t need to bundle yourself up and protect every extremity against single-digit New England winter days.  A single step outside offers a brisk corrective to that particular illusion.

Yes, frostbite lurks for the unwary, but there’s a subtle shift nonetheless.  Birds know it, plumped against the cold, heads cocked and alert for anyone else finding food, and so does the ivy drowsing beside my wife’s loom.  It’s perked up recently, as if waking from its own vegetative hibernation.

Sue’s bright spirits, beyond her own brand of courage, are in keeping with the changing season.  Imbolc approaches, the holiday also celebrated variously as Candlemas or St. Brigid’s Day on Feb. 1/2.  The northeastern U.S. lies in the grip of winter, and yet the holiday looks forward to spring.  The Irish word imbolc means “in the belly” — the fetal lambs growing and approaching the time of their birth into a larger world, full of darkness and light. Brigid draws devotees who keep shrines lit with light and fire.  The Wikipedia entry nicely sums up her importance:  “Saint Brigid is one of the few saints who stands on the boundary between pagan mythology, Druidism and Christian spirituality.”

Verses in her honor abound:

Fire in the forge that
shapes and tempers.

Fire of the hearth that
nourishes and heals.

Fire in the head that
incites and inspires.

You can feel the change with your eyes, on your skin, in your bones — a slightly different angle of light, longer days, a listening quality, if you go quiet enough to hear it.  A reason to celebrate with light and flame.

There’s an old Japanese saying I encountered while living and working in Tokyo two decades ago that often comes to my mind this time of year.  “What is the bravest of living things?  The plum tree, because it puts forth its blossoms in the snow.”  There’s a bravery in certitude, a trust that, as Genesis 8 declares, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”

There’s deep comfort in homely things — things of home — the soapstone stove, the hearth stones that accumulate wood-ash and need sweeping a few times a day, the armfuls of oak logs I bring to feed our fire.

Late this morning as I finish the final draft of this post, the stove still ticking and pinging softly as it heats and cools with each charge of wood, the wall thermometer finally reads 67.  My wife reads in bed, the sky lowers gray, and a fine snow clouds the air as it descends.

Light and blessings of the season to you.

The Arboreal Long View   Leave a comment

The world’s oldest trees make a fit subject for a short post today. Check out that link. Spend a few minutes with images of ten trees alive for millennia.

Wikipedia went dark today in protest, political partisans continue to trade insults on the media stage, the global economy lumbers and stutters along, and humans are born, grow, discover, love, kill, invent, sing, go to war, paint, hate, create, die and come back to life. Ever had a sense of lifetime deja-vu?  As one of the Wise observed, “We keep coming back till we get it right.”

The trees are witnesses to so much of our mortal drama, and yet live lives almost unimaginably long in comparison with our few decades here.

Here’s a video link to a short (4-minute) link about some marvelous research into networks of trees which support and nourish each other:

Mother trees connect the forest

Religious Operating System (ROS) — Part 4: “Things of Earth”   Leave a comment

Historical novelist Mary Stewart writes vividly of 500 C.E. Britain in her “Merlin Trilogy,” which begins with The Crystal Cave and the childhood and youth of Merlin the enchanter, who will become Arthur’s chief adviser.  Here (1970 edition, pp. 174-5)  are Merlin and his father Ambrosius discussing the Druids.  At this time, in Stewart’s conception, laws are already in place banning Druid gatherings and practices.  Merlin has recently discovered that the tutor his father has arranged for him is a Druid.

* * *

I looked up, then nodded.  “You know about him.”  It was a conclusion, not a question.

“I know he is a priest of the old religion. Yes.”

“You don’t mind this?”

“I cannot yet afford to throw aside valuable tools because I don’t like their design,” he said.  “He is useful, so I use him.  You will do the same, if you are wise.”

“He wants to take me to the next meeting.”

He raised his brows but said nothing.

“Will you forbid this?” I asked.

“No.  Will you go?”

“Yes.”  I said slowly, and very seriously, searching for the words:  “My lord, when you are looking for … what I am looking for, you have to look in strange places.  Men can never look at the sun, except downwards, at his reflection in things of earth.  If he is reflected in a dirty puddle, he is still the sun.  There is nowhere I will not look, to find him.”

Of course, anyone who followed this noble-sounding principle to even reasonable lengths would have a very interesting and possibly very exhausting time of it.  As I mentioned in my post about Open Source religion, when virtually every human practice with any numinous quality about it can be  and has been pressed into service as a vehicle for religious encounter and a means to experience a god or God, then sacred sex won’t even top the list of things a person might do “to find him.”

Yet Merlin (and Stewart) have a point.  Spiritual inquiry and practice require a kind of courage, if they are to remain fresh and not decline into dead forms and mere gestures of religion. It is these things that the media quite rightly criticize.  When I’m in the grip of a quest, I only hope I can continue to be brave enough to follow out conclusions and — if need be — “look in strange places.”  It looks like courage to an observer, but I find that ultimately it’s a kind of honesty with oneself.  I want to keep looking.  Anything less feels suffocating and aggressively pointless, like painting garbage or eating styrofoam.  Any self-disgust we feel almost always arises from living a lie, which poisons our hours and toils and pleasures.

“Things of earth” cannot ultimately satisfy the inner hunger we feel, but they are valuable pointers, sacraments in the full sense, vehicles of the sacred.  To return to everyone’s favorite numinous topic, pursue sex of any variety, sacred or otherwise, and you’ll prove again for yourself one of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell:  “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”  Of course, along the way, as a witty recent post on Yahoo Answers has it, it may often happen that “The road of excess leads to the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet of Gluttony, which leads to the Bordello of Lust, which then leads to the Courthouse of Divorce, the Turnpike of Bankruptcy, the Freeway of Despair, and finally, the Road to Perdition.”  Blake did after all call these the Proverbs of Hell.

We just don’t discuss what comes after Hell.  Blake says it’s wisdom.  Hard-earned, yes.  And there are easier ways, which is one good thing that the Wise are here for.  Rather than following any prescription (or Prescriber) blindly, I hope to ask why, and when, and under what conditions the strictures or recommendations apply.

So we return and begin (again) with the things of earth, these sacred objects and substances.  As sacraments, earth, air, fire and water can show us the holy, the numinous.  Their daily embodiments in food and drink and alcohol, precious metals and gems and sex, pleasure and learning and science, music and literature and theater, sports and war and craft, are our earliest teachers.  They are part of the democracy of incarnate living, the access points to the divine that all of us meet and know in our own ways.

Drink deep, fellow traveler, and let us trade tales over the fire.  And when you depart, here’s an elemental chant by Libana, well-known in Pagan circles, to accompany you on your going.

 


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Images:  The Crystal Cave; The Proverbs of Hell.

Sacred Language, Part 1: Love   Leave a comment

What makes a language “sacred”?  I find that it’s in sacred language that we most clearly hear echoes of the love we are and the love we seek.  Much that I write here is an exploration through the channel or “ray” of wisdom and my search for it.  But the channel or ray of love is at least as potent, and for many people more accessible.

Here’s an adaptation of a prose-poem by 17th century Anglican writer Thomas Traherne, who lived only to age 38.  In his writing he captures something of this love.

The whole world is the theater for our love.
We are made to love, both to satisfy this necessity within us
and also to answer the love of creation around us.
By love our souls are joined and married to the world around us.
If we focus upon only one part of creation,
we are not loving it too much, but the other parts too little.
Never was anything in this world loved too much.
What a treasure is a grain of sand when it is truly understood!
All infinite goodness and wisdom and power are in it.
What a world this would be if everything were loved as it should be.*

This then is one noble and worthwhile task, if we choose to accept it:  to love everything in the world as it should be loved.  We hear of those who “love too much,” or those who, like Othello, loved “not wisely but too well.”  We may recollect, too, those who love their abusers and do not flee them:  here’s a needed perspective on their situation.  A complete and powerful guide to living, summed up in ten lines.

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*Sections 65-67, “Second Century,” from Centuries of Meditation by 17th century writer and Anglican priest Thomas Traherne, adapted by Higginbotham, Paganism, 149-150.  You can find Traherne’s complete original here.

The image is of a stained glass window “by Tom Denny, reflecting the thinking of Traherne, in Audley Chapel, off Lady Chapel, Hereford Cathedral, dedicated in March 2007.”

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