Archive for the ‘creativity’ Category

Earth Mysteries — 6 of 7 — The Law of Planes

[Earth Mysteries 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7]

“Everything in existence exists and functions on one of several planes of being or is composed of things from more than one plane acting together as a whole system.  These planes are discrete, not continuous, and the passage of influence from one plane to another can take place only under conditions defined by the relationship of the planes involved.”*

One “map” of the planes I’ve found useful also features in many other spiritual teachings (mystical Christianity, Neo-Platonism, and some forms of Hinduism among them), including one I’ve followed for over thirty years, and identifies the physical universe as just one of several other planes.  Besides the physical plane which we experience with our physical bodies, we experience the astral (see the third paragraph of Earth Mysteries — 4 of 7) or emotional plane (also sometimes called the etheric plane), the causal plane of memory, and the mental plane of thought.  These last two also sometimes have different names — not surprising, considering they can seem more removed from immediate physical sensation and experience — and thus, understanding.  Yet we exist in and experience these planes all the time.

Who’s doing the experiencing here?  According to this way of perceiving things, that’s the real you, soul or spirit who wears these other bodies like clothes appropriate to different seasons and climates.  So if we say “my soul,” who is talking?  The experiencer or consciousness is soul, using the mind to think, the causal body to remember, the astral body to feel and imagine, and the physical body to experience physical reality.

While we can’t directly experience the astral world with our physical bodies, given the close proximity of the two planes, we certainly can feel the effects of strong emotions with our physical bodies and the “atmospheres” of places likewise charged with feeling.  We’ve all walked into a room where there’s just been an argument, where religious observance has been performed over a sustained period of time, etc.  We may pick up the vibe of such places — vibrating at a characteristic frequency, physics tells us, is what everything is doing already anyway — and if we’re inattentive we may internalize it, harmonize with it, and then not understand why we ourselves may feel tired, energized, angry, calm, etc. after spending some time there.

But our astral body is fully capable of experiencing the astral plane, and doing neat things like flying, changing form, and generally responding rapidly to thought, as it does in dreams. (Our physical bodies also respond to thought, but being of a slower vibrational rate, they more often take years or decades to show the effect.  You’ve heard the expression “to worry yourself sick,” and that’s one of the more negative uses of focused and intense emotion — a kind of magic turned against ourselves.)  The astral is the plane of imagination, where we may see things in “the mind’s eye,” or with “rose-colored glasses,” if we’re particularly optimistic, because pink or rose is one of the dominant colors there, just as green is characteristic (though by no means ubiquitous) in the physical world with its plants and chlorophyll.

The astral plane, according to many traditions, is where most of us transfer our consciousness after the death of our physical bodies.  It is certainly possible to open our astral awareness (often without much control, which can make it dangerous without proper guides) with alcohol or drugs.  Safer techniques include drumming and trance work, dance (like certain Dervish orders do, for instance), chant, mantra, ritual, physical exhaustion, daydreaming, meditation, creative visualization, and so on.

The causal plane of memory, like the astral plane, has its own rules and qualities, as does the mental plane.  We say “that rings a bell” when we’re reminded of something, and each plane has characteristic sounds associated with it as well as colors. When we focus attention on these other planes while physically awake, we tend to tune out the physical world and its body, and are “lost in thought,” or “in another world.”  In these and other instances, our languages preserve fragments of ancient wisdom our modern world tends to ignore, though we often intuitively know something of its truth in spite of the habitual skepticism of our current age.

Our contemporary default position of disbelief is no better than the habitual credulity of previous ages, when people believed all sorts of things which, while they may have been true of some other plane, weren’t usually true of this one.   And in our turn toward the currently widespread religion of science, we’ve adopted its characteristic blind spots just as wholeheartedly.  Ask scientists why the universe exists, for instance, and you can usually reduce them to speechlessness.  It’s simply not a question science is equipped to answer.

The ability to manifest consciously the realities of one plane in another — and since we’re focused heavily on the physical world, for the sake of this discussion that usually means bringing something into physical form — is a supremely human accomplishment.  Yes, animals are wired with instinct to reproduce their own kind, and in the case of birds and mammals, care for their young, but in addition to such instinctive drives, humans create cultures, with their languages, arts, crafts, technologies, rules, perspectives, and ways of living in the world.

In each of these posts on the seven Laws, I’ve barely scratched the surface.  Each Law deserves repeated meditation, and in his book Greer makes several suggestions for experiencing the creative force of each Law and some of its far-reaching implications. Alone, the Laws can seem rather abstract, hard to apply to daily concerns and problems, too generalized to match the specifics of our individual situations.  This itself is a powerful realization:  to bring things into manifestation, we need the individual, the distinct and unique set of qualities, experiences, memories, talents, perspectives and strengths, in order to achieve what makes and keeps us human.

If it seems that the Laws swallow up individuality in statements about general tendencies, groups and patterns larger than one human life, it’s important to remember that it was humans who first noticed these principles, and humans can choose either to disregard them or to work consciously with them.  Conscious and creative cooperation with the spiritual principles of existence is the fulfillment of humanity.  Through such means, we can manifest what has not yet been seen or experienced or even imagined, in forms of power and beauty and usefulness, for others as well as for ourselves.  That’s one way to repay the gifts we’ve been given.

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*Greer, John Michael.  Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth. Weiser, 2012.

Earth Mysteries — 2 of 7 — The Law of Flow

[Earth Mysteries 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7]

The second principle or law Greer examines is the Law of Flow.  Before I get to it, a word about spiritual or natural laws.  In my experience, we tend to think of laws, if we think of them at all, in their human variety.  I break a law every time I drive over the speed limit, and most of us have broken this or some other human law more than once in our lives.  We may or may not get caught and penalized by the human institutions we’ve set up to enforce the laws we’ve established, though the majority of human laws also have some common sense built in.  Driving too fast, for example, can lead to its own inherent penalties, like accidents, and besides, it wastes gas.

But spiritual or natural law can’t be “broken,” any more than the law of gravity or inertia can be “broken.” Other higher laws may come into play which subsume lower ones, and essentially transform them, but that’s a different thing.  A spiritual law exists as an observation of how reality tends to work, not as an arbitrary human agreement or compromise like the legal drinking age, or monogamy, or sales tax.  Another way to say it:  real laws or natural patterns are what make existence possible.  We can’t veto the Law of Flow, or vote it down, or amend it, just because it’s inconvenient or annoying or makes anyone’s life easier or more difficult.  There are, thank God, no high-powered lawyers or special-interest groups lobbying to change reality — not that they’d succeed.  Properly understood, spiritual or natural law provides a guide for how to live harmoniously with life, rather than in stress, conflict or tension with it.  How do I know this?  The way any of us do:  I’ve learned it the hard way, and seen it work the easy way — and both of these in my life and in others’ lives.  Once it clicks and I “get” it, it’s more and more a no-brainer.  Until then, my life seems to conspire to make everything as tough and painful as possible.  Afterwards, it’s remarkable how much more smoothly things can go.  Funny how that works.

OK, so on to the Law of Flow:

“Everything that exists is created and sustained by flows of matter, energy and information that come from the whole system to which it belongs and return to that whole system.  Participating in these flows, without interfering with them, brings health and wholeness; blocking them, in an attempt to turn flows into accumulations, brings suffering and disruption to the whole system and its parts.”*

“Participating in these flows, without interfering with them,” can be a life-long quest.  Lots of folks have pieces of this principle, and some of the more easily-marketed ones are available at slickly-designed websites and at New Age workshops happening near you.  But note that the goal is not to accumulate wealth beyond the wildest dreams of avarice.  (As Greer points out, if the so-called “Law of Attraction” really worked as advertized, the whole planet would be a single immense palace of pleasure and ease.  Though who would wait on us hand and foot, wash our clothes, make our high-priced toys, or grow and cook our food, remains unclear.)  Flow means drawing from system, contributing to it, and passing along its energy.  “Pay it forward” wouldn’t be out of place here.

If all this sounds faintly Socialist, well, remember that as Stephen Colbert remarked, “Reality has well-known liberal bias.” It means sharing, like most of us were taught as toddlers — probably shortly after we first discovered the power and seduction of “mine!”  But it could just as easily and accurately be claimed that reality has a conservative bias.  After all, these are not new principles, but age-old patterns and tendencies and natural dynamics, firmly in place for eons before humans happened on the scene.  To know them, and cooperate with them, is in a certain sense the ultimate conservative act.  The natural world moves toward equilibrium.  Anything out of balance, anything extreme, is moved back into harmony with the larger system.  The flows that sustain us also shape us and link us to the system.  The system is self-repairing, like the human body, and ultimately fixes itself, or attempts to, unless too much damage has occurred.

Ignorance of this law lies behind various fatuous political and economic proposals now afloat in Europe and America.  Of course, what’s necessary and what’s politically possible are running further and further apart these days, and will bring their own correction and rebalancing.  We just may not like it very much, until we change course and “go with the flow.”  That doesn’t mean passivity, or doing it because “everybody else is doing it.”  Going with the flow in the stupid sense means ignoring the current and letting ourselves be swept over the waterfall.  Going with the flow in the smart sense means watching and learning from the flow, using the current to generate electricity, or mill our grain, while relying on the nature of water to buoy us up, using the flow to help carry us toward our destination.  Flow is not static but dynamic, the same force that not only sustains the system, but always find the easier, quicker, optimum path:  if one is not available, flow carves a new one.  The Grand Canyon is flow at work over time, as are the shapes of our bodies, the curve of a bird’s wing, the curl of waves, the whorls of a seashell, the spiral arms of galaxies, the pulse of the blood in our veins.  Flow is the “zone” most of us have experienced at some point, that energy state where we are balanced and in tune, able to create more easily and smoothly than at other times.  Hours pass, and they seem like minutes. Praised be flow forever!

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Images:  river.

*Greer, John Michael.  Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth. Weiser, 2012.

Transmute! says Earth

One of the great gifts of Druidry is that when I feel like crap, and inclined to self-pity, Druid teaching reminds me it’s really not all about me.  Not to say that I don’t matter, but that so many other things also do, and so I can gladly get lost in the immensity of worlds of other beings, and often enough regain perspective just from watching till the ego subsides again to some reasonable scale.  Feel like crap?  OK, then really feel like crap, do crap, be crap as only you can, then get it out of your system, the way you do with crap.  Excrete!  Crap isn’t forever.  Even (or especially) recycled, it turns into something else, becomes nourishment and sustenance for beauty and glory and life.  Give away your crap, gift that it can be, and let earth transmute it to feed something hungry precisely for what you can’t use, don’t want, can’t wait to get rid of.  This is the gift of Earth, the alchemy this element offers.  Blessed, fearful change.

Right now the neighbor’s dog, chained for an hour’s air to the railing on the front steps next door, is barking himself hoarse at something no doubt beyond his reach, but in between volleys, through the open living room window, I can also hear goldfinches calling near our niger-seed feeder.  I look up to see five of them clustered on and around the tube of seed swaying from a tree-branch.  It’s one of their favorite seeds, and my wife finally found a way to rig a feeder that keeps off our resident chipmunk family while still drawing birds.

Further in the distance, our neighbor up the hill has paused his Harley, which thrums and rumbles as it sits at the bottom of the hill drive on the far side of our yard.  He’s doing his ritual last-minute check of gauges and gear before he heads out for an evening run.  After he leaves, beyond that, the sound of a lawn mower fades in and out.  And in the gaps of silence, wind in the trees.  The true silence of dawn and late evening can feel like a cat curled up on itself, listening for its own purring.  Then the downy woodpecker assaults the corrugated tin roof of our woodshed in quest of grubs.  It sounds like gunfire, beak on metal, still startles us, though we’ve heard it maybe a dozen times over the last few months.  Sometimes I think he does it for the pure rousing hell of it.   I would.

I’ve just finished a one-week intensive at Hartford Seminary, Understanding and Engaging Religious Diversity.  The class ran six day-long sessions broken only by buffet meals on-site that simply continued the discussions in a slightly different mode.  Remarkable group.  This last Friday morning, our final meeting, one of our classmates exclaimed seriously and humorously at the same time, “Damn you, people, you just keep changing me!”  In the greenhouse of close proximity, intense engagement and curiosity, we managed to go very deep.  How far are we willing to go in encounter and challenge to what we think we know and believe?  What, as our instructor asked us, really is our core conviction, which — if we yielded to another’s truth, or gave ours up — would leave us different people?  Can we touch that and walk away unchanged?  What happens if we try to come as near as possible to that boundary?  What was almost equally fascinating was where people were going right after the class ended.  Some to another summer workshop, two to different destinies in India, some to new chaplaincy assignments, a couple of us on to more summer classes elsewhere, a few back to work, and I to days of recovering from a nasty bout of bronchitis, time to process it all, and to write this post.  Time, the pause that earth can give. Sickness and healing, its punctuation.

Muslims, a Jain, Buddhists, Pagans, Christians, several of us of multiple faiths in one person, Jew-and-Hindu, a Buddhist-Wiccan-Sikh, and so on.  And the simple and lovely ritual we spoke to each other, going round in a circle that closed out our time together:  “Thank you for the blessing that you bring; thank you for the blessing that you are.”  Vortex that has sanctified.

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Sick nasty: On being ill

Urban Dictionary (check it out if you haven’t yet visited it) obliges with this definition of “sick nasty”:  “This word is to be used when no other word can be used to describe the cool factor, greatness, or overwhelming emotion of something. However, the something is neither sick, nor nasty. The combination of the words sick and nasty provide a higher connotation of coolness then even the words tight or wicked can provide. It is kind of ghetto.”

Since I’m going for the literal rather than the metaphoric, I’ll bypass the ghetto, and the slang meanings of “ill,” too, and head straight for “body in misery.”  (It’s worth considering what connection coolness has with physical sickness, because when you’re in it, it’s distinctly not cool at all.)

Food poisoning can leave you half alive, no longer trusting your organs and bones.  My wife and I had been out of state to attend our niece’s high school graduation, and bad food choices dropped me into my own private third level of hell (that’s for the gluttons, which seems appropriate).  I won’t gross you out with gastrointestinal details: enough to say that the aftermath left me with aching joints, residual fever and chills, a nasty headache, and no desire ever to eat again.  To add insult to injury, we’d scheduled medical check-ups back home the next day.  Sometimes you feel rotten enough that a doctor is the last person you want to see.  And on top of that, he insisted it was time I had another digital rectal exam, part of the follow-through since my prostate surgery.  Necessary, maybe, but oh so evil.

OK, enough self-pity.  You get the idea.  This is a blog, after all, that’s supposed to provide plenty of buck (see the 5/18/12 entry).  No time to slack off now.

What illness can offer, besides a physical cleansing and rebalancing (we get sick when something’s out of whack, off kilter, messed up), is clarity, humility and gratitude.  At least that’s what I often get (when the worst of the symptoms have subsided), if I’m lucky.

Clarity first.  Flat on your back, you’ve got time to reflect.  If you’re not unconscious or delirious, reasonably free of pain, and cable is unavailable, you’re thrown back on yourself.  Time to make friends with the body, to coax it back to health if you can.  This marvelous machine of flesh now sits in the garage, lies in drydock, has gone off-line.  Time to adjust the timing belt, scrape off the barnacles, repair the hull, and reboot.  You get all kinds of ideas, some of which might even be useful.  You get to watch your thoughts spin like a Tibetan prayer wheel, only more gooey.  And through and above and below and within it all, you realize there are limits.  You get reacquainted with the fact that you will die.  Your time here is limited.  You can’t have it all, do it all, own it all.  You get your turn, and then it’s the next person’s.  What you do with your life is your gift to yourself.

And yes — I can get didactic and preachy, kinda.  Bear with me.

The humility part is good.  You have to rely on others.  When your body’s in meltdown, somebody else has to bring the drugs and the drinks, or you don’t get them.  You can’t get up without the world playing spin the bottle with your brain, or chills racking you, or legs turning to water.  That backrub to ease the crying vertebrae, the cool washcloth so welcome on hot skin, the light turned off because it hurts your eyes, the curtains drawn for the same reason, the soup that’s the only thing you can keep down — all of these are gifts that either others give you, or you don’t get them.  They’re out of your control.  Your minute-to-minute life is discomfort, interrupted by the kindness of someone caring for you.

Which brings you to gratitude.  You certainly have time for it. If you have to be sick, at least there’s some good that comes of it — later, if not right away.  As you start to feel better, you recall how you took so much for granted.  You resolve to try to do better.  Maybe the first stirrings of belief in immortality begin here, with recovery from illness.  You’re aren’t dying after all.  This too shall pass.  You rise again.  You will live to enjoy life again.

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prayer wheel

Secrets, Part Three

Yes, secrets can be dangerous.  But live long enough and you notice that most things which may be dangerous under certain conditions are often for that very reason also potential sources of valuable insight and energy.  Poisons can kill, but also cure.  Light can disinfect, and also burn.  Different societies almost instinctively identify and isolate their favorite different sources of energy as destructive or at the least unsettling, just as the physical body isolates a pathogen, and for much the same reason:  self-preservation.

For many Americans and for our culture in general, sex is one great “unsettler.”  We need only look at our history.  Problems with appropriate sexual morality have dogged our culture for centuries, and show no signs of letting up, if the current gusts of contention around contraception, abortion, homosexuality and abstinence education mean anything at all.  Wall up sexuality and let it out only on a short leash, if at all, our culture seems to say.  Release it solely within the bonds of heterosexual monogamy.  Then you may escape the worst of its dangerous, unsettling, even diabolical power.  You can identify this particular cultural fixation by the attention that even minor sexual miss-steps command, surpassing murder and other far more actually destructive crimes. Let but part of a breast accidentally escape its covering on TV or in a video, even for a moment, and you’d think the end of the world had truly arrived.

a Mikvah -- ritual bath

Other cultures diagnose the situation differently and thus choose different energy sources to obsess about and wall up, or shroud in ritual and doctrine and taboo.  For some, it’s ritual purity.  At least some flavors of Judaism focus on this, with the mikvah or ritual bath, various prohibitions and restrictions around menstruation, skin diseases and other forms of impurity, and the importance of continuing the family along carefully recorded bloodlines.  The first five Biblical books, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, list such practices and taboos in often minute detail.

The Bible also testifies, in some of its more well-known stories, to the fate of individuals like Jacob’s brother Esau, who married outside the family, and thus forfeited God’s blessings and promises that came with blood descent from their grandfather Abraham.  And one need only consider Ishmael, son of Abraham but not of an approved female, who is driven out into the wilderness with his mother Hagar, a slave and not a Hebrew.  This Jewish Biblical story accounts for the origins of the Muslims, descendants of Ishmael or Ismail.  (The Qur’an, not surprisingly, preserves a different account.)  The flare-ups of animosity and sometimes visceral hatred between Jews and Muslims thus originate quite literally in a family inheritance squabble, if we take these stories at their word.

If secrets have at their heart a source of potent energy and culture-shattering power, no wonder Americans in particular suspect them.  We like to think we can domesticate everything and turn it to our purposes: name it, own it, market it, even cage it and sell tickets for tourists to see it in captivity, properly chastened by our mastery.  But the numinosity of existence defies taming.

Such an oppositional stance of course almost guarantees conflict and misunderstanding and ongoing lack of harmony.  But the experience of some human cultures tells us that we can learn to discern, respect and work with primordial forces that do not bow to human will and cleverness.  (Likewise, Western and American culture have demonstrated that fatalism and passivity are not the only possible responses to disease, natural disasters, and so on.)  Master and servant are not the only relations possible.  For a culture that prizes equality, we are curiously indifferent to according respect to sex, divinity, mortality and change, consciousness and dream, creativity and intuition as forces beyond our control, but wonderfully amenable to cooperation and mutual benefit.

So how do secrets fit in here?  The ultimate goals of both magical and spiritual work converge.  As J. M. Greer characterizes it,

… the work that must be done is much the same–the aspirant has to wake up out of the obsession with purely material experience that blocks awareness of the inner life, resolve the inner conflicts and imbalances that split the self into fragments, and come into contact with the root of the self in the transcendent realms of being (Greer, John Michael.  Inside a Magical Lodge, 98).

Of course, much magical and spiritual practice does not (and need not) habitually operate at this level — but it could.  “By the simple fact of its secrecy, a secret forms a link between its keeper and the realities that the web does not include; a bridge to a space between worlds,” Greer notes.  This space makes room for inner freedom, and so the effort of maintaining secrecy can pay surprising psychological dividends.

Keeping a secret requires keeping a continual watch over what one is saying and how one is saying it, but the process of keeping such a watch has effects that reach far beyond that of simply keeping something secret.  Through this kind of constant background attention certain kinds of self-knowledge become not only possible but, in certain situations, inevitable.  Furthermore, this same kind of attention can be directed to other areas of one’s life, extending the reach of conscious awareness into fields that are too often left to the more automatic levels of our minds … Used in this way, secrecy is a method of reshaping the self … (Greer, 116-117).

Thus, the actual content of the secret may be quite insignificant, a fact that baffles those who “uncover” secrets and then wonder what the fuss was all about.  Is that all there is? they ask, usually missing another aspect of secrecy:  “things can be made important–not simply made to look important, but actually made important–by being kept secret” (Greer, 118).  The effort of maintaining secrecy and the discoveries that effort allows can mean that the supposed secrets themselves are often next to meaningless without that effort and discovery.

In this case, the danger of secrecy lies in what it reveals rather than what it conceals.  Once we discover the often arbitrary and always incomplete nature of the web of communication (and the cultural standards based on that web), we perceive their limitations and ways to step beyond them.  Here secrecy has

a protective function on several different levels.  To challenge the core elements of the way a culture defines the world is to play with dynamite, after all.  There’s almost always a risk that those who benefit from the status quo will respond to too forceful a challenge with ridicule, condemnation or violence.  Secrecy helps prevent this from becoming a problem, partly by makng both the challenge and the challengers hard to locate, but also by making the threat look far smaller than it may actually be (Greer, 127).

Secrecy forms part of the “cauldron of transformation”* available to us all.  Most of us balk at true freedom and change.  We may have to relinquish comforting illusions — about ourselves and our lives and the priorities we have set for ourselves.  So like a mouse I take the cheese from the trap and get caught by the head — I yield up the possibility of growth in consciousness in return for some comfort that seems — and is — easier, less demanding.  All it costs is my life.

Guard the mysteries; constantly reveal them, goes an old saying of the Wise.  The deepest secrets we already know.  That is why awakening confers the sensation of coming home, of return, of reclaiming a birthright, of dying to an old self, of extinction of something small that held us back — so many metaphors that different traditions and cultures and religious and spiritual paths hold out to us, to suggest something of the profound, marvelous and most human experience we can have.

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Images: cartoon; mikvah; cauldron;

* See John Beckett’s excellent blog post on this topic here.

A Portable Altar, a Handful of Stones

An altar is an important element of very many spiritualities around the world.  It gives a structure to space, and orients the practitioner, the worshipper, the participant (and any observers) to objects, symbols and energies.  It’s a spiritual signpost, a landmark for identifying and entering sacred space. It accomplishes this without words, simply by existing.  The red color of the Taoist altar below immediately alerts the eye to its importance and energy.

As a center of ritual action and visual attention, an altar is positioned to draw the eye as much as any other sense.   In Christian churches like the one below, everything is subordinated to the Cross and the altar immediately below it.  Church architecture typically highlights this focus through symmetry and lighting.  But in every case, enter the sacred space which an altar delineates, and it tells you what matters by how it is shaped and ordered and organized.

Part of OBOD* training is the establishment and maintenance of a personal altar as part of regular spiritual practice.  Here’s a Druid altar spread on a tabletop.  Nothing “mundane” or arbitrary occupies the space — everything has ritual or spiritual purpose and significance to its creator.

Such obviously physical objects and actions and their appeal to the senses as aids in spiritual practice all spring from human necessity.  We need the grounding of our practices in the physical world of words, acts and sensations in order to “bring them home to us,” and make them real or “thingly,” which is what “real” (from Latin res “thing”) means.

Religions and spiritual teachings accomplish this in rich and diverse ways.  We have only to think of Christian baptism, communion and the imposition of ashes at Easter; Hindu prasad and tilak; Jewish bris/brit (circumcision) and tallit (prayer shawl) and so on.

Atheists who focus exclusively on belief in their critiques and debates thus forget the very real, concrete and physical aspects of religious and spiritual practice which invest actions, objects and words with spiritual meaning that cannot be dismissed merely by pointing out any logical or rational cracks in a set of beliefs.  Though you may present “evidence that God doesn’t exist” that seems irrefutable to you, you haven’t even begun to touch the beauty of an altar or spiritual structure, the warmth of a religious community of people you know and worship with, the power of a liturgy, the smell of incense, the tastes of ritual meals, the sounds of ritual music and song.

Just as we hear people describe themselves as “spiritual without being religious” as they struggle to sift forms of religion from the supposed “heart” of spirituality, plenty of so-called “believers” are “religious without being spiritual.”  The forms of their spiritual and religious practice are rich with association, memory and community, and can be as important as — or more so than — a particular creed or set of beliefs.

Having said all of this, I’ve had a set of experiences that incline me away from erecting a physical altar for my Druid practice.  So I’m working toward a solution to the spiritual “problem” this presents.  Let me approach it indirectly.  Once again, and hardly surprising to anyone who’s followed this blog or is as bookish as I am, the trail runs through books.

Damiano, the first volume in a fabulous (and sadly under-known) trilogy by R. A. MacAvoy, and recently reissued as part of an omnibus edition called Trio for Lute, supplies an image for today’s post.  Damiano Delstrego is a young Renaissance Italian who happens to be both witch and aspiring musician.  His magic depends for its focus on a staff, and we see both the strengths and limitations of such magical tools in various episodes in the novel, and most particularly when he encounters a Finnish woman who practices a singing magic.

When I read the trilogy at its first publication in the 80s, the Finnish magic sans tools seemed to me much superior to “staff-based” power.  (Partly in the wake of Harry Potter and the prevalence of wands and wand-wielders in the books and films, there’s a resurgence of interest in this aspect of the art, and an interesting new book just published reflecting that “tool-based” bias, titled Wandlore: the Art of Crafting the Ultimate Magical Tool).

So when I then read news of church burnings, desecrated holy  sites, quests for lost spiritual objects (like the Holy Grail) and so on, the wisdom of reposing such power in a physical object seemed to me dubious at best.  For whatever your own beliefs, magic energy — whether imbued by intention, Spirit, habit, the Devil, long practice, belief in a bogus or real power — keeps proving perilously vulnerable to misplacement, loss or wholesale destruction.  Add to this Jesus’ observation that we are each the temple of Spirit, and my growing sense of the potential of that inner temple of contemplation — also a feature of OBOD practice — and you get my perspective.

Carrying this admitted bias with me over the years, when I came last year to the lesson in the OBOD Bardic series that introduced the personal altar, I realized I would need both contemplation and creativity to find my way.

My solution so far is a work in progress, an alpha or possibly a beta version.  My altar is portable, consisting of just five small stones, one for each of the classic European five elements — four plus Spirit.  Of course I have other associations, visualizations and a more elaborate (and still evolving) practice I do not share here. But you get the idea.  (If you engage in a more Native-American nourished practice, you might choose seven instead: the four horizontal directions, above [the zenith], below [the nadir] and the center.)

I can pocket my altar in a flash, and re-deploy it on a minimal flat space (or — in a pinch — right on the palm of my hand).  One indulgence I’ve permitted myself: the stones originate from a  ritual gift, so they do in fact have personal symbolic — or magical, if you will — significance for me.  But each altar ritual I do includes both an invitation for descent and re-ascent of power or imagery or magic to and away from the particular stones that represent my altar.  Lose them, and others can take their place for me with minimal ritual “loss” or disruption.  Time and practice will reveal whether this is a serviceable solution.

This post is already long enough, so I’ll defer till later any discussion of the fitness of elemental earth/stone standing in for the other elements.

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*OBOD — the particular “flavor” of Druidry I’m studying and practicing.

Images: Singapore Taoist altar; Christian altar; Druid altar; Amazon/Trio for Lute.

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Updated: 27 July 2013

Ten Thousand Things

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.

Stranger than Fiction

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.

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.

Nano Finale

Did it! Amazing experience, helped by the online Nanowrimo forum, with 200,000 other people doing the same thing all around the world.  Dutch high-schoolers and Malaysian retirees and New Zealand farmers, Singapore lawyers and Hong Kong engineers.  Everyone talking about it as they’re doing it. Egging each other on.  Telling funny stories.  Making and soliciting suggestions.  Cries for help.  Competitions.  Excerpts for critiquing.  How-to’s for people writing about medieval French history, chameleons, murder by deuterium, dragon mating, the proper warping and beaming of looms, the spices in chicken tikka, etc.  Writing Buddies.  The online support videos and posts from published authors. The sense of an immense online community engaged in huge set of magical creative hopeful acts against the naysayers and wannabes and critics, and our own doubts and inner censors and resistance and procrastination and  sloth.

Word by word.  And now, 50,260 words of the first draft of a fantasy novel.  Or 106 pages in a Word document.  A month of writing.  Virtually no editing whatsover, beyond what spell-check does in true robot fashion.

Haven’t looked back at it.  Not sure I want to.  In any case I need to spend some time away from it.  Catch up on this blog, on laundry, dishes.

Free at last!  No, not free at all:  finished with the first step.  Let down a bit, to tell the truth.  Adrenaline and all.  Time to rest up, pull back from writing for a week, so the first symptoms of carpal tunnel subside (mostly my left arm).

Most productive day — over 5000 words. Had about five of those during the month.  Nice to know I can do it.  Wow.  OK, onward.  Get a fire built later (it’s sunny and in the 40s outside), shave, take a shower, write a letter, pay bills. Take a walk.  Breathe.

Thank you, Powers of the Worlds, human and incorporeal. Wife, friends, the earth, the gods.  And you, my readers, for all good thoughts. (It feels good to thank, to be grateful.  An annual holiday for it isn’t often enough, of course.  Daily.)

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Posted 30 November 2011 by adruidway in blessing, creativity, Druidry, fiction, nanowrimo, writing

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Nano Home Stretch

With just under two thousand words to get down tomorrow, I can finally see the finish line and the completion of a month of Nano writing.  I started with a character-driven story, knowing that with a vivid enough character, things would start to happen, and she was strong enough to make things happen herself.  Now plot detail has been flowing in abundance, complexities I hadn’t foreseen or imagined, backstory and unusual motivations and sacred mathematics and a dream sequence that foreshadows all hell about to break loose.

Posted 29 November 2011 by adruidway in creativity, fiction, nanowrimo, writing

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Goddess and Human

As editor of a collection of essays, The Rebirth of Druidry, OBOD‘s Chosen Chief Philip Carr-Gomm attempts to characterize something of the appeal of the spirit of Druidry in human terms.  I quote his article at length because in its effect it is all of a piece, and because it provides a suitable introduction to some things I want to say about the Goddess:

Druidry is the perfect lover. You fall in love with her so easily because she is so romantic.  She whispers to you of the magic and mystery of the turning stars and seasons.  She loves trees and Nature above all things, and you yearn for these too.  She tells you stories of Gods and Goddesses, the Otherworld and fairies, dragons and giants.  She promises secret lore — of sacred trees and animals, of herbs and plants.  She points deep into the past, and ahead towards a future which is lived in harmony with the natural world.   But just when you are convinced you will marry her, because she is so beautiful, so tantalizing, so romantic, she turns around and there she is, with rotten teeth and hideous face, cackling and shrieking at your naivety.  And she disappears, leaving you with just her tattered cloak, made up of a few strands:  some lines from the classical authors, whose accounts are probably inaccurate anyway, a few inferences drawn from linguistic and archaeological research, which could be wrong, with the rest of the cloth woven from material written from the eighteenth century onwards, replete with speculation, forgery and fantasy.

You feel a fool.  You don’t tell your friends about your lover.  You feel tricked and defrauded, and decide to follow something more authentic, more established, more substantial — like Buddhism, or Christianity, or Sufism, or Taoism — something serious.  But then you go out walking.  You follow the old trackways, you come to the old places.  You see the chalk gods and stone circles.  You pause and open yourself to the Land, and there She is again.  But this time she is even more enchanting because you can see that she is not just a beautiful woman, full of romance and seduction, you can see that she is also a wise woman, who will provoke as well as seduce you, who will make you think as well as make you feel.  And then you suddenly know why she has been the object of fascination for so many through the ages.  She is the Muse, the Goddess behind Druidry, the bestower of Awen, of inspiration.

Obviously the imagery here from a male author conveys part of how a man may first encounter the “Goddess behind Druidry”; it may not appeal to women, who find their own powerful ways of connecting with Her.  In mythic terms, however, this account very much reflects the changeability of the Goddess — what has inaccurately been called her fickleness, and which has caused many accustomed to meeting deity in a single, invariant form to confuse variety with unreliability or untrustworthiness.  Westerners in particular have largely been cut off from experience with aspectual deity, which the Goddess so clearly manifests.  Rather than manifesting a loving and compassionate presence, “[t]he deity may appear in wrathful or challenging forms, but these should not be considered hostile.  She is the kernel of truth at the heart of everything, and if she appears in challenging forms to you, look more deeply, considering why this may be so,” suggests Caitlin Matthews in her slim but potent book, The Elements of the Goddess.  “Many of those who venerate the Goddess are unhappy with her supposedly dark aspects because they associate ‘dark’ with ‘evil.’  In order to save her child about to do something dangerous or silly, a mother will get angry, shout or scream, but this doesn’t mean to say she loves her child any less.”

My first encounter with the Goddess came unbidden, unsought, when I was 25.  (You need to know: I’m not especially sensitive  or psychic.  Friends who are say anyone who wants to reach me has to raise quite a ruckus to get my attention. If you’d asked me then I’d say — still would probably, even today — that half of what people experience in such situations is imagination.  But now by “imagination” I mean something considerably larger and more potent than I did then.  More about that later.) It was a frosty autumn day, and I was wandering the fields and scattered woods of a farm my father had recently bought in western New York, south of Rochester.  I paused in a swampy grove of trees, with several fallen and decaying trunks to sit on.  A mood or atmosphere of autumn pervaded the place, almost palpable.  The air lay perfectly still.  The musty-sweet smell of dried dead leaves filled the air, along with a tang of rot and manure from a nearby field, and a hint of woodsmoke.  Over the hills from a distance came the faint roar of some town maintenance vehicle — they were always patching roads in the area.  But distant sounds simply deepened the stillness by contrast.  As this meditative silence spread and enveloped me, I became aware of a presence that filled the grove and towered over me, fifty, sixty feet tall.  Immense.  One face of the Goddess. Conscious encounter.  Her.

She didn’t knock me on my ass, though that might have been useful too, given how dense I can be.  But though I describe it here in mild enough terms, the experience was unforgettable, not for any one detail, but for its undeniable — and familiar — quality.  This was someone I knew.  Not someone or something alien, or to be feared, or a matter of belief, any more than I need to believe in the tree-trunk I sat on.  It was like finding a limb which, when you found it, you knew had always been a part of you all along.  You just hadn’t been aware of it.  As if it had been asleep, but for its waking you finally twitched a muscle in it, and in feeling it respond you felt it.

So what’s the big deal, you say?  “He met the Goddess, in some ways it was an anticlimax though also somehow memorable, he got over it, it was years ago.  So?”

A year later I was in the throes of my first love affair (can anyone say “late bloomer”?), a tumultuous relationship in which I did get knocked on my ass.  Among all the other things this Goddess encounter was, it was preparation, or warning.  I needed greater emotional experience, insight, maturity.  I was about to get it.

In between the divine and human realms is an archetypal one — a place, often, of dream and vision, and the idealized images of Others for men and women which “haunt our imagination and often make our love-lives incredibly tortuous until we realize that these daimons will never become physical realities.  They are messengers between the divine realms and the human levels of our experience” (Matthews, 13).  This was part of what I needed to learn firsthand. No book knowledge this time.  It was an initiation of its own.

So this fall at OBOD’s East Coast Gathering, in a meditation involving an encounter with the Goddess in her guise as Cerridwen, I felt a surge of panic — again.  “Cerridwen is bad. She tricked Gwion Bach in the old Welsh tale.” But it was old programming.  Incomplete knowledge.  Fear of that “fickleness”  I mentioned earlier.  “The old, outworn, dualistic concept of the Goddess as cruel and capricious must be viewed for what it is:  a reflection of our shadow-side, a terrible polarization of social responsibility with which women have been burdened as a sex” (Matthews, 24).   But now I had more tools to begin to deal with it.  At Samhain I did specific work with the Goddess.  I needed to.  Is it any wonder I also spent 15 years working in a freshman girls dorm as a house parent?  Training up close and personal.  “The Goddess stands at the heart of life, death and further existence and she will assume the forms which are most appropriate in her dealings with our world” (Matthews, 24).  Or as a teacher in the other path I follow related, when he talked about his own experiences with inner and outer realities, “They had to get me to stop bowing every time they appeared, so they could actually work with me and get some work out of me.”

Matthews continues, in ways particularly useful for a male bard like me.  “Men experience the Goddess through their creative side.  She makes manifest their ideas by animating their dormant creativity.  There is a strong sense of ebb and flow about these energies which give men an experience of the cyclical nature of the feminine menstrual cycle.   This kind of relationship is rarely recognized for what it is, yet all men can discover and welcome this experience.  Although the effect of a Goddess upon a man is less immediately physical than in a woman, it is nonetheless potent” (15).

There is much misunderstanding of gender and sexuality, and what constitutes the self and its connection to the world, perhaps nowhere more so than in the West, with its addiction to pornography, its fear of homosexuality, its violence against women, and its frequent indifference to children.  I’ll let Matthews have her last word here.  “Every human being is a child of the Goddess … The way of the Goddess is one of natural law and natural wisdom … It is primarily the people of the West who are orphans of the Goddess.  The social and political reasons for this desolation have been documented in many books … Both women and men need to find their Mother, relating to her and her creation in fresh and balanced ways, for every one of us needs to drink of her wisdom and realign ourselves with her natural laws.”  This is not a matter of belief but of incarnation — our own — to live fully, gratefully and passionately in this world, until we leave it.

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Nano update time.  Is it any wonder, in light of this post, that I’m writing about a succubus?!  And sympathetically — as a main character?!  Must be some sort of assignment from the Goddess.  Further training.  God knows if it’s publishable.  (Goddess may know, but if she does, she ain’t tellin’.)  Reached 17,804 words:  over 1/3 of the way there.  Need to hit 20,000 today to be fully caught up, including today’s work.  Should be able to do it.  Major scene yesterday, in which Alza connected with the man she needs for her magical work, showed him her nature in a brief feed and reversal of energies to restore him, bypassing the mental level altogether, where the idea of a succubus would have completely flipped him, and left him with a medallion magically linked to her — ongoing physical contact to reinforce the dynamic.  The resulting reactions when he deals mentally and emotionally with what he already knows will be interesting to capture, but the heavy lifting for that scene is done.

I’d been including more fire imagery in description and action, since Alza’s succubus nature seemed increasingly to resemble that of a fire demon.  And then, as a break yesterday, doing some research on demons and succubi in other cultures, I happened on this quotation from the Qur’an:  “And the jinn, We created aforetime from the smokeless flame of fire” (Al-Hijr, 15:27).  And in an email yesterday from the university where I’m taking a seminar, advertising a weekend workshop for men:  “FRIDAY, 11/11/11 – SUNDAY, 11/13/11 – ON THE EDGE OF FIRE:  A MEN’S SPIRITUALITY RETREAT.” Right between the eyes — the kind of serendipity and synchronicity and happy accident one hopes for in writing.  So I’m on some kind of track.  I’m just still discovering what it is.  And that’s much of the deep pleasure of this verbal marathon.

Essential

“We are many sets of eyes staring out at each other from the same living body” — Freeman House, Totem Salmon

We are many sets of eyes, staring out
at each other from the same living body.
We are ears listening to each other
across valleys of skin.
Heat of the other’s blood
warming the air we breathe,
air that filled the other’s lungs
not long before, and will again,
ruffling our hair, rippling this field
of frost-gray grass.

We touch earth that touches each other,
life-print curling at our fingertips and lips,
world (a piece of it) digesting in our bellies,
swept along in blood and spit,
spice of it in our marrow,
essential you in everything
I eat and love and do,
essential me in you.

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So there’s a poem provoked (I say “provoked” rather than “inspired” because that’s the sensation — I encounter a piece of language not my own that becomes the grain around which oyster tries to form a pearl.  It won’t let go until I respond, and try to shape the sensation into something in words.)

Nano update: I’m catching up at 13,527 words and counting, but still a little more behind than I’d like. We’ll see what 2 and 1/2 cups of coffee this morning helps me accomplish. I don’t usually drink it, since I’m hypersensitive to caffeine and it keeps me up most of the night following the day I drink it, but I was cold this morning, and the smell! … well, anyway, I’m caffeinated and writing.

Found an interesting passage in a medieval author yesterday, Walter de Mapis.  (If you’re gonna procrastinate, I say, why not procrastinate tangentially? I researched historical refs to succubi.) So now I know something about rumors surrounding Pope Silvester.  The pontiff flourished around the year 1000, and his legacy includes the story of a certain succubus, who was said to give him advice, and who was reputed to be his lover.  Supposedly he repented on his deathbed.  Traitor.  I’m expecting my succubus main character Alza will have something to say about that.  Who knows — maybe she was there. Maybe she was the succubus …

Just discovered she has a mantra or prayer or verbal talisman she recites frequently.  Maria, one of her worshippers (from her “cult” phase), overheard her this morning talking quietly to herself, and asked about it.  Here are the words Alza said (part of the charm is to speak about oneself in third person):

Alzakh ne utayal gashem muk dafa.
May Alzakh grow in this surrounding fire,
may Fire know her for its own,
may Fire fill her in all she does,
burning away what blocks her,
burning toward what is native to her,
what is or will become or has been Fire,
time the Fire that moves all things into being.

Always fun to get a piece of the original in Harhanu.  You need to know:  among my other odd hobbies is conlanging.  So I hear bits of languages, like I imagine musicians and songwriters hear snatches of songs and musical phrases.  Here are the italicized words phonetically, as I heard them from Alza’s mouth:  ahl-zahkh NEH oo-tah-YAHL gah-SHEM mook dah-FAH.  [Literally, Alza this surrounding fire-in grow-imperative.]

Alza’s name in Harhanu is actually Alzakh, with the kh the raspy sound in loch and Bach — a voiceless velar fricative, to be all linguistic-y and precise about it.  Alza’s name got truncated over the years, to match what people thought they heard, or thought it should be. Much as men around Alza imagine the woman they want, which she can then use to seduce them.  Most men are, frankly, pretty seducible, she learns.  So that part’s easy.

You want Druidry? Find it here, or go bother somebody else. (Now maybe you have some idea why I don’t overdo the caffeine. It makes me all cranky-creative and snarky and stuff.)

Living in Real Worlds

“Don’t get me wrong, I like your reality; it’s way more interesting than mine. It’s just that mine seems to be the one everyone else is in.” Courtesy of ivebecomemyparents.com

When I was in my teens, conversations with my mother about the future usually ended with her saying, “You have to live in the real world.”  This usually amused me, and sometimes annoyed me.  How little I knew at the time that her statement was loaded, that stuff was hanging off it and dripping into the reality overflow collection vat at the bottom of the psychic stairs.

1) She never once claimed that she lived in a real world.  But I had to.  Why was this?  The question isn’t as naive as it sounds.  And how could she tell I wasn’t already in the — or a — real world?  “It takes one to know one,” as we used to say. What was the give-away, I wonder?

2) Where did the compulsion to live in a real world come from?  Only from parents?  “You have to live there.”  Funny — if I hadn’t been living there, then I’d already disproved such a claim.  I didn’t have to live there, which was clear because I’d been living someplace else.  But she wanted me too.  Probably “for my own good,” which is along the lines of “this hurts me more than it hurts you.” (To their credit, my parents never said that to me.)

3) What is a real world?  How do you tell the difference between a real and an unreal world?  Is there more than one world, as this statement implies?  Sure seems like it. Then what’s the other world like?  How did she know?  And how did she decide or discover that this one is more real?  Simple majority vote?  “We live in this world, you — a single person — live in that one.  We win.”

4) Is it a whole world?  (Sometimes life seems like jumping from one to another of a subset of all possible worlds.)  There could be and probably are worlds far better, worse, uglier, stranger and more comfortable than this one.  Then again, maybe not.

It feels like we do live in several worlds, all of them real on their own terms.  Like we shift worlds all day long, moving from one to another with such ease we forget, we don’t notice, we assume reality is unitive and discrete, rather than a series of interpenetrating planes and grades and places.  Waking.  Fully awake.  Deeply focused.  Spacing in front of a video.  Lost in music.  Making love.  Eating.  Daydreaming.  Sleeping.  Dreaming. Tell me those are all identical states of consciousness, identical worlds!  I’ve had flying dreams, felt the wind rushing by around me.  Last I looked, trying to fly in this world lands you six feet under, or heavily medicated.

Judy Cannato in her book Radical Amazement observes that it’s always time for transformation.  To delay just makes the need for change more imperative and harder to ignore (though we’re pretty good at that).  Our widespread sense of dis-ease and general “stuckness” and malaise and dis-spiritedness arise from discernible causes and have discernible solutions:

Our attitudes and behaviors are rooted in a way of thinking that is no longer reflective of the real.  So much of the time we are stuck in the dualistic, hierarchical, either-or thinking that has created the very problems that threaten us.  We are not mechanisms with separate parts, but interconnected holons that are mutually dependent.  Yet far too often we cling to the individualism and dysfunctional systems that have “parented” us, molding obedient offspring carrying on the “family” tradition in a way that continues to devastate all life, others’ as well as our own.  Shifting to a new paradigm takes commitment and hard work.  It requires gut-wrenching honesty and the willingness to give up fear-filled control.  We al know what a difficult undertaking this is, but we are capable of the challenge and perhaps more ready than we think. (14)

For me one key here is that this is inner work as much as anything else.  I can start it, and I can start working on myself.  In fact, that’s the only place any of us will find a lasting and satisfying solution.  “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is not wishful thinking or unrealistic.  It’s in the copy of Life: An Owner’s Manual that was tied to my umbilical cord when I dropped in, a little over five decades ago.  Have you checked your copy recently?

/|\ /|\ /|\

Nanorimo update!  Speaking of real and unreal:  I’ve cleared 11,000 words — over one fifth of the way there!  With 2800 words today, I’m catching up, but today’s goal is 13336, so I need to get another thousand down by day’s end to be in the ballpark and be able to catch up in another day or so.  I now find myself writing some semi-detached scenes — backstory for my FMC — Nano-speak, I learned, for “female main character.”

Her name is Alza, and she’s a Harhanu — a succubus.  Why a succubus?  I’m finding out as I write, and I’ll let you know if I arrive at a definitive answer.  Right now, though, it seems to have something to do with desire and empathy and our capacity for both deluding ourselves into disaster and enchanting ourselves into freedom and discovery. Oh, and she’s 947 years old.  But she can be really hot when she chooses.  Like when she’s hungry.  Her most recent feed was from a German tourist named Konstant.  He’s one of two humans who know her real nature.  Their relationship is reciprocal.  Sort of.  Do I believe in succubi?  I do when I’m writing Alza’s voice, when she’s draining a victim, when she searches like we all do for meaning and purpose.  In some ways she’s the most human of my characters.  Which may be a problem I’ll need to work on.

That number (of people who know her) is about to change.  She’s made an entirely accidental (hah! so she thinks!) connection with a younger man (everyone is younger when you’re 947) named Nick who she’s discovering is crucial to her plans for living. And dying. Both of which she’s seriously considering.  She’s also seduced a priest or two in her long life, and once allowed a cult to form around her.  Now she’s more interested in laughing at Cosmo and Playboy and figuring out why one human should so dominate her thoughts when she’s used to doing the dominating.  Or at least getting what she wants.  Which is what men think they’re getting from her.  OK, some of this is pretty self-indulgent.  It’s also indicative of the space you get into when you’ve been writing all day!

So how does this connect with Druidry?  Who knows?!  I started writing on Nov. 1 with the small cluster of ideas that came to me, about three days before Nanowrimo began.  You go with what you get.  Years ago I started a historical novel set in Pre-Roman Etruria.  But that’s not what came calling this time, saying “write me!”  Hence, my current work.

Look long enough

Sunlit November trees.
A scarf of woodsmoke curls between the mountains.

Look long enough at beauty, someone says.
You’ll begin to see more things as they are.

/|\  /|\  /|\

So, Nano writing update:  was out of town at a conference yesterday, and got no writing done.  That means today’s a triple push:  tomorrow I have a class, a car appointment, and a (late) Samhain celebration with a friend, so there’ll be less time to write.  And catch up from yesterday, along with today’s 1667 words.

I’m grateful they keep coming.  You know a story is launched — and this says nothing about its quality, only about whether it’s alive for the author, at least — when characters invade your dreams and begin telling you stuff about themselves.  And while exercising this morning on our secondhand treadmill in our breezeway (45 degrees, but warmer than outside), I got another piece of plot.  Rather, more a set of questions to ask (and answer), and a couple of flashes of image-ideas.  By the end of today, I should be at least at the 10,000 word mark if I’m to stay on track.

My main character has retreated to her house in Santa Fe to take stock.  (Why Santa Fe?  I’ve no idea.  Never been there.  Would like to, yes.  Have to do some research, to see how I might use the locale.)  Now to avoid merely lengthy exposition and instead make things happen.  I might be able to get away with some flashback, dramatize bits of the past that are now relevant.  I keep picking up the stray question here and there that won’t let go, and it generates backstory — in some cases, gobs of backstory.  But no stopping to worry about whether the story should begin somewhere else.  That’s for a revision. Right now the point is to keep going, keep seeing new pieces I wouldn’t encounter any other way.  In that way it’s like any creative process.  The road rises to meet your feet as you keep walking.

Maybe you’ve had the dream version:  you’re dreaming, you come to a cliff, you’re aware enough to say, “It’s a dream — I can jump and nothing will happen!  Woo-hoo!”  So you toss yourself in complete abandon, enjoying the thrill of that reckless plunge you would never take awake, but  just as the cliff edge spins away above and behind you, you terrify yourself by asking:  what if it’s NOT a dream?!

With luck, at this point, you don’t wake yourself up, heart pounding, breathing hard.  Instead, you watch to see how you will land, and where, whether you will sprout wings and fly someplace else, etc.  In other words, you’re hungry to know what will happen next?!  Don’t let me wake up yet!

Curiosity’s one of the best tools I know.

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