Archive for 13 May 2020

Off into the Deep End Again

In what follows, among other things I’m setting out elements from my own peculiar spiritual journey. So if what I write irritates or angers you, that’s probably a good signal to stop reading and go do (or eat) something else. When it’s not to your taste, any more than a mayonnaise and peanut butter sandwich, there’s no need to take a second bite. Or even a first one!

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A recent comment on an old post asking “What’s the spiritual meaning of X?” is what launched this post. In some ways, the question asks, “What’s appropriate action in this moment?” Or maybe, “How might I respond to this appeal to my attention?” or “Should I even bother to pay attention?” (Maybe we should start with “What’s the physical meaning of X?”)

The X in the question above isn’t the main point (Yeah it is! shouts the seeker in me), for though it’s what snags my attention and draws a lion’s share of the drama, the meat of the question is about meaning, about how and where my attention is focused, and about what if anything happens as a result of that focus.


One of the discoveries we can slowly make in worlds of time and space is that few things have a single meaning, spiritual or otherwise. At the most literal level, a good dictionary will list several meanings for almost every word. Even deceptively “little” words (“Those? They’re the absolute worst!”) like English a, an, the have numerous meanings, as learners of English discover to their dismay, and writers have attempted to catalog. (Alan Brender’s Three Little Words: A, An, The lists 52 meanings and uses for ’em — one for every week of the year.) What to do with a universe so perverse? says the rationalist in my spleen. Hey, you rhymed! says the bard at my elbow.

Meanings are almost always plural. OK, but does that in turn mean that it’s just “Pick a card, any card”? Well, it’s true that some days, or some whole lifetimes, can feel that way.

Usually if I’m noticing something, it’s communicating to me, and further, I usually already have a hunch or suspicion of some possible meaning(s) of that communication. These two go together, usually so intertwined I can’t separate them. We’re trained to sift and sort all the input from our senses and select only what we need to notice. If something’s already risen to my conscious awareness, the “meaning filter” has let it through. The “Ten Thousand Things” can fade into background. The particular thing or event or person now stands center stage.

My right shoulder and forearm have been bothering me on and off for over a month. Exercise helps some, but I’m still fine-tuning which exercises. As we age, the cartilage in the shoulder and spine, the facet joints, start to deteriorate, says my wife, with her physical therapy training. In fact, the shoulder is often the first to go.

And I can leave it at that. But I can also choose to listen how my experience opens up insight, including insight about the experiences of others.

If something’s already communicating to me, how can I respond?

Meaning-bearer, I greet you. Thank you for arriving in my world with your messages. As they unfold with my intention, may I honor and fulfill them with my life.

“Wait just a minute”, says another of the selves I wear. I can hear the outrage grow in his voice. “Do you mean I should be grateful for shoulder pain?!”

That’s not what I’m saying. Pain sucks. But like the X of the opening question, pain isn’t the final point. “If the world were only pain and logic”, says Mary Oliver in her poem “Singapore”, “who would want it?”

One of our great skills as humans is to bring the hidden into manifestation and to clothe the non-physical with form and shape. We do it throughout our lives, constantly. No surprise, we’re pretty good at it. (Wedding planners, investment bankers, gardeners, contractors, parents, janitors, children, athletes, generals, lovers, daydreamers, cooks, doodlers, singers … OK, you get the idea.) We bring into existence something that wasn’t there before. It’s also how we fall in love.

That spark of attention that events kindle in us also ignites our attempts to put them into words. For this reason many cultures consider speech a holy thing — words as spiritual objects are not to be lightly disrespected or misused. The Queen of Faerie tells Thomas the Rhymer to hold to silence in her realm, “so that his speech might store up power” for his return. In many cultures, songs and stories tell how speech is a divine gift, how creation happens through words, and knowing the right word, the true name for a thing, is a key that opens many doors.

Insofar as I think with words, then, I can hallow thinking through conscious intention. My attention and my intention, my noticing and the shaping of my consciousness in return, can be choices. (They’re also a deal of work, as anybody knows who’s tried.) They can be gifts to myself and to others around me, because they change me. Such holy things are never in vain. Even this much, just the attempt, although the fullness of meanings may not yet have come clear to me, takes me into sacred territory. With the sacred in my heart, I start to become a holy meaning maker with the materials of my attention and intention. These are among my return gifts to the sacred within and around me.

Stranger on earth, thy home is Otherworld. Pilgrim, thou are the guest of gods.

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The Céile Dé, Celtic Christian heirs to older teachings I mentioned in a previous post, offer on their website this article “Advice at the Threshold“, including the questions below, as a gauge to some of the challenges of conscious awareness of the awen:

In the course of what would be a typical week, would you say that you are very likely to experience one or more of the following?

+ hurt feelings
+ feel offended or insulted
+ lose your temper
+ act or react on impulse and regret it soon afterwards
+ complain about your lot
+ blame others for your inward state

If you want a clear account of my recent emotional geography, look no further than the list! (That unfriendly planetary virus that’s currently making the rounds doesn’t help.) But if I move beyond that threshold into realms of awen, I’m no longer a passive recipient of someone or something else’s meaning, floundering and struggling to figure out “what it all means”.

Oh, she meant well, we sometimes say. Or he didn’t mean it, we remark. But we usually offer these as excuses, rather than opportunities. J. M. Greer, citing the Barddas, that 19th century compilation of Druid Revival teachings, notes:

… a unique Awen is said to be present in each soul from the moment it comes into being, and guides it on its long journey up through the Circle of Abred — the realm of incarnate life in all its myriad forms — to the human level of existence. It is at the human level that the individual Awen for the first time may become an object of conscious awareness (Greer, The Gnostic Celtic Church, pg. 12)

As above, so below: we share in our humanity as individuals precisely because awen is present within each of us, but in each of us it’s a unique awen. To be a person is to be “awenized”, but also to be an awenizer. The Welsh call this awenydd, one filled with awen, a poet or bard.

Wait, you say. I’m not a poet or a bard.

Greer continues:

… the individual Awen for the first time may become an object of conscious awareness. Achieving this awareness, and living in accord with it, is according to these Druid teachings the great challenge of human existence.

Another way to approach it: You might say “awen isn’t just for poets anymore”.

When something comes into my awareness, catching my attention and seeming to signify s o m e t h i n g, “does it mean it”? One way to answer: Only if I respond and make meaning along with it.

Things “mean”, and “have meaning” for us, because in some way they are pointing us toward greater awareness of our awen, prodding us to become more conscious of it. Human existence provides a spiritual opportunity to make our awen a mode of consciousness — our prime mode of consciousness.


If I and my life could mean anything right now, in addition to whatever they already mean, what do I want that to be?

One way to grapple with this enormous question is to reply with a question: How and where — because I can’t know it unless I’m already in touch with it — is my awen already emerging and appearing?

For me, oddly enough,  resistance is a key component. (Like so many people with mixed motives, I’m often working against my own destiny — a brutally efficient way to discover what it is when it smacks me in the face.)

“What are you rebelling against?” asks a character in The Wild One.

And Marlon Brando’s character Johnny Strabler replies, “What have you got?”

Johnny’s point underscores how rebellion or resistance is reactive — it takes a mechanical response to meaning-making, rather than a creative one. That is, the event, circumstance, or other person is still in control of what I do.

But once I get even some glimmers of my own awen, I start to know what’s right for me. Of course we can still confuse “what’s right for me” with ego, impulse, reactiveness and so on, but it’s a big step. Yes, I can cherry-pick meanings from the events in my life and miss larger beneficial meanings — we witness each other doing this all the time, while remaining half-blind when we do it ourselves.

But I sometimes think our resistance helps us from capsizing our lives with too much change all at once. The sailor’s strategy in heavy weather of deploying a sea anchor can stabilize a boat, keeping it pointed in the desired direction even as it slows forward movement. A little resistance can be a good thing, a way to try out the meanings I’m making, giving them a test drive.

“Find and follow your own awen” eventually becomes the foundation of each of our individual ways of life. That’s what gives them their integrity, power and beauty. And in the words of that wonderfully ambiguous expression current when I was in secondary school and still heard occasionally today, “It takes one to know one”.

Sometimes it takes one very far indeed.

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Can anyone identify either of the flowers above? The first is from a tree in our front yard that eventually produces a firm reddish-brown berry about the size and shape of a small olive. They remain on the boughs through the winter. Cedar waxwings come through in February and devour them all, usually in a single day.

The second, I’ve been told, is some kind of hyacinth, but I haven’t yet found a variety that matches. (Same color alone isn’t enough for identification!) Any ideas?

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