Archive for the ‘four elements’ Category

Working the Tool-kit: Part 2   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3] Edited/updated 2019-8-6

Earth is in some ways our default setting: we wake again and again to this world each morning, lift the body from bed, feed it, bathe it, put it through its paces, flex its muscles, rub its sorenesses, tend its scrapes and bruises, touch other beings in affection, and send it to bed at last, reasonably confident we’ll do the same tomorrow and next week.

Air has become among other things the elemental energy much schooling expects us to focus on, to the exclusion of other energies and Elements, along with arbitrary rules that regiment the body, keeping Earth at bay: regulated times for things that could occur naturally, like eating and movement and bodily functions; permissible and prohibited interactions with those around us (who sits where? who can speak now? who gets the crayons, chalk, paper? who can move around the classroom or step outside it? who can sing, shout, be silent, dance, sleep? who can opt out of the activities altogether right now?), allowable and discouraged behaviors, as when we daydream with clouds, or birdsong, or the shadows of leaves on the classroom window.

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees. — William Blake, Letter to Rev. John Trusler.

Even specifically Air functions may be permitted or forbidden: we do or don’t talk about certain topics; we may or may not say certain words; we’re required to participate in certain rituals (in the U.S., that peculiarly American patriotic/ propagandistic exercise of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance); we follow a clock, that airiest of Air abstractions; we’re mostly discouraged from asking dangerous meta-questions like “Why do we have to study this?” or “How do you know?” or “What really matters?” or “What do you really think?”

Little wonder, therefore, that many of us learn to actively detest Air functions — we have to be taught not to enjoy or ever master what is called “critical thinking”, or make a lifetime practice of “giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”, as Shakespeare calls it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That is, we don’t attempt to earth our thoughts, put them into forms for others to perceive and learn from, to create and explore thought-worlds as much as we do physical ones. As a consequence, we frequently misunderstand myth and metaphor, confuse symbolic and literal, and generally neglect and abuse the stores of wisdom we’ve inherited from the past, from the Ancestors who strive to leave us with their accumulated wisdom. We forsake the power of thought and Air, and in doing so we abandon a rich heritage and treasure-house that could alleviate much of our present suffering, fear and sense of helplessness, all the while as we flail about and wonder why we feel forsaken, abandoned, victimized by an indifferent universe. We’ve abandoned parts of ourselves — but the deep remedies lie all around us, where we have left them (sometimes buried under mounds of mental, and physical, plastic packaging).

Thought and emotion often blend — the “tricks of strong imagination”, more properly a Water function, but also one of thought, which we clothe in forms we can understand. Many of us think in images; we then feel them strongly, and confuse what we feel with what we think, or see no reason to distinguish the two.

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Explore Air with my preconceptions reined in even a little, though, and I get a sense of vast expanses and possibilities, rather than the indoctrination or thought-bubbles plaguing so much of the planet. Even more difficult is to perceive one’s own thought-bubbles: we all have them, and we may live all our decades without ever seeing our own thought tracks and furrows and ruts, imagining that such things limit and circumscribe everyone around us, but never ourselves.

Our cultures teach us how to think — that’s their purpose, to pass along a traditional means of survival; one way to step outside this teaching and thought-shaping in order to examine its shape and dimension and influence, is to enter another culture and explore it. Such an action is simultaneously freeing and disconcerting: what I thought was “normal” or “natural” turns out to be merely what my culture taught me, an arbitrary though admittedly useful way to organize human behavior, and the humans performing it.

Can I move beyond “Why do they DO that?” to “What does it feel like to do this from inside the culture?” When we meet, we shake hands. No, we bow, the depth of the bow showing the respect we grant the other person. No, we kiss each other on both cheeks. No, we press palms together, saluting the other person. No, we rub noses. These are the merest of surface behaviors, some of the more obvious “proper” ways to behave: these manifestations of thought may indeed begin here, but they go so much deeper than this.

Druids, like other truth-seekers and spiritual explorers, ideally seek out and welcome such opportunities to enter and travel through multiple thought- and culture-worlds. “Pilgrim on earth, thy home is the heavens. Stranger, thou art the guest of gods”.

At least some of the time!

Likewise, one measure of relative freedom from a particular (limiting) thought-bubble is the sense not of self-justification or righteousness of “my” way of thinking (as if any one way is the only or best way), along with criticism of anyone else’s way, but of the hugeness of still-unexplored regions, of the vastness of the elemental world of Air and the quickness of thought towards its targets, like the arrows, lances, javelins and other flashing projectiles we’ve used in metaphorical attempts to describe how speedy thought can be. And to see all of this not with fear, or other rigid conditioning or reaction, but with a child-like excitement and openness at possibilities of discovery, of expanding beyond what one knows now to what one may come to know.

Give a child this chance, and often the body stills naturally, a repose that Earth grants in the presence of engaging Air. Or it may well get up and dance in delight. Either reaction, or still others, are wonderful harmonies of the elements and their blessed conjunctions in hallowed human consciousness and experience. Likewise the asanas of yoga are ideally a harmony of Elements, the Earth of the body following the Air of thought and the guidance of Spirit.

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After I attempt to look at Fire and Water in the next two posts, in the fifth in this series I want to look at the applications and parameters of the spiritual tools I listed in the first post, and how we might begin to mix and match, and try out variations-on-a-theme for as many tools as I can.

Until then, and always, may your Elements blend and uphold and guide you to excellent discoveries and to joy.

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Working the Tool-kit: Part 1   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]

I mention “spiritual tools” a lot here, and since my wife recently organized, according to her own criteria, my basement hand-tools as she searched for the particular item she needed in the disarray that table-top had become, I’m minded to do the same here. Every tool-kit accumulates items seldom-used, well-worn, taking up space, or simply unidentifiable. Even more so, if it’s a spiritual tool-kit. Add to that the spare parts, left-over washers, bolts, rods, screws, assembly wrenches and bent nails, broken drill-bits and reminders-to-replace-by-holding-on-to-the-old-item-until-you-do.

Tool-kits are often idiosyncratic, at least partly inherited, and with at least some overlap and mismatch, similar to metric-imperial conversion. Beliefs about a tool’s suitability, applicability or even legitimacy can dog the tool-kit user. And each of us makes use of some things no one else might consider — or be able to use as — a tool.

What do I mean by, and what do I include among, my “spiritual tools”? Why do they belong in my kit? How do I know which ones to use, and when? Wow, you’re asking some good questions today! (That’s how it can feel, when you’ve been blogging a while.)

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pine slope, Mt. Ascutney State Park

Divination, prayer, fasting, trance and other non-ordinary consciousness work, ritual, magic, chant, sacred names and words, writing/recording/journaling, drumming and rhythmic inputs. Dreamwork, visualization, herbs, yoga and similar practices, meditation and contemplation, dance and sacred movement, mandala and sacred images. But also rehearsal, repetition, expectation, staging, music, group consciousness, affirmations, pilgrimage, non-human allies, earth energies and power sites, crystals and other helpers. Quite an assemblage of items. And probably still a few missing from the list.

Though some tools have gone in and out of fashion over time and in different cultures, and some have been intermittently mocked, proscribed, and even feared as the domain and practice of “evil forces”, however understood, by some religious and spiritual groups, nearly all of them have also been in use at some point in virtually every spiritual tradition on the planet. And rightly so — they’ve proven their value and efficacy countless times over millennia. Some even have “approved” and “non-approved” versions in particular traditions, depending on their perceived origins or source of their energies. It can be useful here to contemplate a powerful question old enough it has an ancient Latin version: cui bono? — who benefits from such official approval, and disapproval? Who may use which tools, when, and why?

Because spiritual tools reflect the complexities and blending of states of human consciousness and awareness — that we shift from one state of consciousness to others all day long, generally without being aware of it, or doing so consciously; that we have often unconscious, preferred states; and that we often confuse states with each other, and insist we’re in one even as we’re in another — it can be helpful to examine spiritual tools according to the part that each of the Elements plays in their make-up and use.

Consider this, then, a first approach to a very large topic!

EARTH

Tools which have an Earth component don’t forget the body. Many of the great world religions attempt to leave the body behind: forms of yoga and prayer which aim at stilling the body so one can attend to inner worlds; ascetic practices to dull or smother physical demands for food, sex and sensual stimulation; social rules to curtail sexual activity outside prescribed forms and relationships in order to maximize closely-defined forms of purity or dedication, and so on.

One of the potential strengths of Pagan practice is its acknowledgment of what the body can contribute to a spiritual path: we’ve barely begun to plumb our instincts, inherited DNA and animal wisdom. Even more, we sometimes resent the physical limitations that this “too too solid flesh” imposes on our lives, forgetting that part of the great magic of Earth is to hold results in one form long enough for us to understand what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Unlike the Astral plane, where things can quickly shift and dissolve again, Earth brings consequences back for us to look at over time — a superlative teacher, when this is the kind of training we need (and it is). Children start with wooden blocks, before they’re given the keys to the family car. As Shakespeare has Hamlet say about the theater, Earth is also vast stage that “holds the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”.

Earth, in short, gives great feedback.

The body-as-Earth can be a wonderful ally, a base of operations, a means of connecting and offering and receiving animal comfort from others when no other connection is open to us. Our senses are exquisitely tuned to the vibrations of this planet, and Earth magic abounds every moment of our lives.

The body also needs care — it’s one of the first places we can learn and show responsibility. The body-as-Earth teaches us both how important and also how transient the physical world is, and through its pains and pleasures, it youth and aging, its limits and its possibilities, helps us distinguish between what the Anglo-Saxons called this “bone-house” (banhus) and the tenant who lives for a time in this bone-house. Lif is læne — earthly life is transitory, on loan. The body isn’t all of what we are by any means, though the apparent world may urge on us that limited perspective — because of the very groundedness of Earth.

But solidity and inertia also make of the body a ready shelter when we haven’t yet mastered the potent energies of emotion and thought. Wake from a nightmare, and it’s deeply comforting to re-enter this safe, solid physical body, feel your pounding heart slowly ease, and sense your adrenalin step down, step down, back to normal. Sleep, rest, relaxation or vigorous exercise can all ground us quite effectively, as does a heavy meal — they give the body its due. That it has a due, that the body makes claims we might wisely acknowledge among other Elemental claims, leads to Part 2 — Air.

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Grail 5: Some Assembly Required   Leave a comment

[Don’t Go Away Just Yet, Grail] [Grail 1 | Grail 2 | Grail 3 | Grail 4 | Grail 5]
[Related: Arthur myghtern a ve hag a vyth — “Arthur king who was and will be”]

ONE

To recap: I rely on sacred sound, on awen, as my first and go-to practice. (Let’s call it East for now, since I need air to sing it.) Without the daily retuning it affords me, I find “all bets are off”. It clears the way, keeps me facing my own best interest more of the time, inspires me, keeps the creative stream flowing, helps me with compassion for others going their ways. In short, I like myself better when a sacred melody is my heartsong. Life flows more smoothly.

Some personal assembly is required for the “spiritual components” I’ve mentioned in this series. I can’t force a flower to open. What I do needs to flow from me gratefully, gracefully, as if I let myself out of a cage I didn’t know barred me from wider, richer experience. I may stand at the door a little dazed at first, but then the world outside the bars invites me. Spirituality offers a series of recipes. I don’t need to make and live on bread alone, or just green curries, but practice means I’ll improve on what I’ve started already. For what it’s worth, consider: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one thing well”. (When you fully understand that, you can explain it to me!)

Or to paraphrase what I remind myself: The awen is already flowing in your life. Find out where!

If you want a poem version of the reminder, try Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”. Yup, awen coming thru: “your imagination calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over announcing your place in the family of things”.

TWO

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Elaine of Corbenic*, King Pelles’ daughter, bearing the Sancgraal/Frederick Sandys, 1861

The Elements, part of my “family of things”. Water, and West. Grail — Cauldron — Feminine Principle — Goddess — Virgin Mary — Yang and Yin together again. Octave, door, spiral key. Working with the Grail bears similarities to a form, like a kata in martial arts. Alone, it may not seem like much. As part of a path, a spiritual choreography, it opens out into unexpected country.

How I assemble, and what parts I choose, that becomes my practice.

I have a lovely blue-green vase given to me by a former student. It sits on a shelf, and needs dusting from time to time, especially after the winter season with ash from the woodstove. I also eat from a commonplace bowl that’s gotten chipped from wear, and lives part of its life submerged in soapy water along with all the other dishes I’m washing. Both are forms of the Grail. One sees daily use. The other looks pretty. Sometimes I feel a Grail in my heart, a divine space of possibility. The Grail is my heart, is everybody’s heart — our hearts together form the Grail.

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Another image of Elaine, by Arthur Rackham, 1917.

Seen from one side (the Grail has no sides), I’m on a Grail Quest. Seen from the other side, the Grail is the first thing I started out with, or that started out with me, as I tagged along childlike. It gave me away to the world (a way to all the worlds), knowing I’d always come back.

[*Elaine of Corbenic, the Grail Maiden of Arthurian legend, is the mother of Galahad with Lancelot.]

THREE

Earth, north. I sit gingerly at the keyboard, easing my back where I pulled a muscle yesterday on our icy driveway, carrying in an armful of firewood and nearly falling, catching myself with a wrench. Boar snorts at my shoulder, saying you know what to do. I reach to touch his bristles, reminding myself to relax, to shift, rock, ease the muscles from sitting too long in one posture. I stand up to look out the window at blue twilight on the snow, and stretch.

Grounding what I experience is key to bringing its use fully into my worlds. I practice this, writing, embodying shapes I’ve seen in vision, drawing (badly) the sword from yesterday. Though sword is east, it’s also undeniably a physical object — north, steel, mined from earth. Holding it, even in imagination, I ground the experience further. Holding a piece of metal or wood in my hand as a ritual equivalent, feeling its solidity and inertia, I ground further. Grail-in-all-things, goddess-in-all-things.

FOUR

Fire, south. Sun each day, moon each month, two great spirals for practice, a daily sun salutation, surya namaskar. A monthly moon meditation. Knight connects a version of this rhythm to polarity working with the Grail, too. Two ritual-contemplation questions arising in meditation today: “What is the sun of the moon? What is the moon of the sun?” I don’t need to understand everything before it becomes part of me. In fact, with much that I value deeply, like my wife, my marriage, understanding happens only after it has become part of me, and I of it, not before.

FIVE

First star tonight in the eastern sky tonight, Grail-star. Quintessence. Yes, earth my body, water my blood, air my breath, fire my spirit — so the old Pagan song instructs me. But spirit-greater-than-fire is here — spirit the essence of all four, and more, pouring inexhaustibly from the Grail across the cosmos.

With my forefinger I trace a pentagram in the twilight sky in the Seven Directions, another form I use: four quarters, zenith above, nadir below and center.

For the good of all beings, for the good of the whole, for the good of each one, may it be so.

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IMAGES: Elaine by Sandys; Elaine by Rackham.

Fried Tomatoes and You   Leave a comment

“There are different ways to fry tomatoes”, begins one utterly inane piece of spam I opened this morning. But it’s true.

Whatever my tomato is — God, sex, politics — one or more of that original neon trifecta, or something else altogether, different ways abound. More than just two roads diverge in the yellow wood of any moment, Robert. (If I’m gonna argue, let me argue with the best.) Continuing the challenge from the previous post, what limiting duality is my task to work on for today?

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The “solar question” for the day in Caitlin Matthews’ Celtic Devotional reads: “Are you misusing responsibility or power?” Is there a missing third, or fourth, etc., or in fact are those always the sole two options to choose from? “Cash or credit”? Or coffee, tea, milk, juice, water, nothing, etc.?

(Incidentally, I prefer guilt to blame, because at least guilt makes me less of a victim. “Which one have I misused this time?!” Because if I messed up before, I can do it differently. But if it’s somebody else’s fault — the blame game — the job’s a lot harder. I have to get them to accept responsibility or exercise their power. Guilt, often, is for the lazy — my kind of people. “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep” said some wise person. So I’m running with the scissors of responsibility, power, guilt and art. What could possibly go wrong?!)

I haul out my table of correspondences and assign each one — responsibility, power, guilt and art — to one of the four directions. Guilt feels earthy, heavy, rooting us in place, rubbing our noses in thing and fact. North it is. Power we’ll place in the south, all fiery and energetic, especially while the Solstice still pulses so brightly. Responsibility I’ll set in the East, that dawning of awareness of cause and effect, that light on our lives that helps us see a path. Art, then, is West, pooling in the emotions and intuition where it’s always ready to leap forth, salmon-like, into beauty and unlooked-for surprise. (Adjust these to taste.)

Or fashion out of the quartet a Triad, chucking guilt and finding a balance of power, responsibility and creativity manifesting in the art of a life lived richly, felt deeply.

So which am I misusing right now? Responsibility or power? The power to act, to fire up my responsibility so that I’m not the unwitting effect of others’ causes, but in fact I claim my human birthright, I originate from my own self a course of action right for me? Or the responsibility to use my power, not to fear it and tuck it away, because it might hurt me or someone else?

In the West, still, women are often shamed for using their power, and men for not using theirs. So we gender power in an attempt to contain it, ending up not with an honest recognition of its many different expressions, but with bitches and bros, power and responsibility both misused in these two common but by no means only possible ways.

There are different ways to fry tomatoes. We tend to think of a perspective, a culture or civilization — if it’s ours — as the best or in fact the only way to fry tomatoes. Given 7+ billion of us humans, not to mention all our other companion species, it’s faintly possible that’s less than likely.

hanged-man

The Hanged Man of the Tarot has been recently in my awareness a lot. I’ve been fascinated how his legs describe a 4 — an image I take to mean the four elements, directions, etc. in balance or harmony. The elemental forces are written in and on all our bodies, but we don’t always live from this powerful awareness, and our resulting imbalances afflict us in a multitude of ways, individually and civilizationally.

If the Hanged Man represents, among other things, self-sacrifice, it’s a sacrifice of limitation — but one which can only happen when I’ve recovered a balance or recognition of the energies at work and available to me. Smaller and greater moments of casting off limitation, of sacrifice of a limited sense of self occur throughout our lives. But it’s vanishingly rare that I can effect self-sacrifice in another person. For that reason alone I find it’s easier (my favorite theme of laziness again  — or, if you prefer, greatest return on investment of time and energy) to work on myself rather than on the culture. Let change flow from my changed consciousness — indeed, that’s how most changes flow anyway, from what I’ve seen. Enough small changes occur, a critical mass builds, and what appeared insoluble, impossible, even unthinkable, tips an energetic balance in mass consciousness, and becomes commonplace. (A handful of us stand up as heroes and heroines, shove publicly to make it all happen sooner, and as often as not are assassinated for our efforts. “A heroic destiny for you is on sale now!”)

This particular version of the Hanged Man expresses such themes well, to my thinking. He’s hanged, but he holds the power and the responsibility. And what lies just beneath him? A pool of water, of the unconscious, perhaps, but also of intuition, of discovery, of autumn, of fullness of awareness, of completion, of harvest. He is just able to touch it. As an image for the coming seasons of the year, the Hanged Man is a worthy guide. We sacrifice most authentically, powerfully, responsibly and artfully when it is ourselves.

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Images: Hanged Man image on DeviantArt.

Four Rituals for Happiness   2 comments

The prompt for this post comes from a Feb. ’16 article in The Week — nearly two years ago. The inevitable article or podcast or meme about how depressing the holidays can be merits a judicious counterbalance — it deserves an “on the other hand” in rebuttal. So here’s one contribution toward that goal. It may help to read the article in The Week first. Or not — your call.

Now the pop neuroscience that the article’s based on — “Neuroscience reveals 4 rituals that will make you happy”, the title crows — isn’t actually particularly astonishing in itself. But the “four rituals” are interesting because they’re behaviors every human already practices anyway. That means — to me anyway — I’ve already got something to start with and build on. The magical principle here: What we make conscious gains power from focus.

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Snow, then ice: 23 December 2017

At this point those who think ritual doesn’t interest or concern them may be tempted to turn away. (There is after all a whole Net out there to click through. Go ahead if you need to!) But as anthropologists and neuro-folk have discovered, to be human is to ritualize our experience. It’s as if we each need to wear t-shirts that say: “What rituals are you practicing today?” You know, just to keep the activity in mind. If we’re ritualizing, what are its effects? Is it a helpful ritual? What are we doing?

As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog,

From small rituals like shaking hands vs. bowing, or saying your culture’s equivalents of “please” and “thank you,” to family traditions at the holidays, and outward to public ceremonies like reunions, annual festivals, weddings, funerals, ship-launchings, inaugurations, dedications, etc., ritual pervades all human cultures.

Some of our most potent and invisible rituals shape our daily experience in profound ways. The trick, I conclude, is to domesticate my rituals, expand on the most effective ones, and put more of them to work on my behalf. (By the law of reversed effort, they may become much wilder as a result.)

In fact, we ritualize such a large portion of our days, that when something breaks our routines (read ritual as “habit” here), it may annoy or even anger us as much as it may pleasantly surprise or intrigue us.  Let me find road work or a detour along a customary route, a power outage, a closed restaurant I was counting on (but hadn’t called ahead for, because it’s “always open”), and I’m thrown out of routine, forced to reshape something I’d previously planned and ritualized. We count on ritual to streamline and organize experience. Maybe that’s why we discount magical rituals. Ritual is so commonplace, after all, that it can feel “nothing special” by itself.

It’s what we do with it that counts.

So here’s a Druidified version of the four rituals, each now associated with an element and a direction. The ritually minded can expand on these “core four”, rearrange the associations, and so on. After all, if ritual or magic can’t deliver even a smidgen of happiness, it ain’t worth much.

Earth/North: Practice gratitude.

Give thanks for good things. Gratitude, as my longtime readers know, is one of my go-to techniques. Pairing it with appropriate action helps intensify it — write it down, etc. Earthy forms of gratitude may loom particularly prominently in your awareness right now — sweaters, wool socks, hot drinks, etc. Go for it. Earth the gratitude. Ground it in awareness and in gesture, in action, etc.

Air/East: Name the negatives.

Turns out our capacity for shame, guilt and worry can be productive, says the article. (Good thing, since so many of us specialize in one or more of these. Collect all Three!) And though labelling often comes in for a bad name in our politically distraught and extreme age, it’s one of the things that language is for, what it excels at. One key is the appropriate label: “Name it and tame it”. And “getting a handle on something” can include naming it accurately. And also knowing when to turn off language altogether for an interval — a magical technique all its own. Trance, music, daydream — we hold the reins in our hands.

Interrogating habits, whether “good” or “bad”, can reveal unsuspected wealth both for themes for meditation, and for material for ritual. What we really want can surprise us: going through the motions of a habit can block us from discovering what actually powers the habit in the first place. Studying the habit, revolving it in clear daylight, returning it to consciousness, can teach us much of value. Ritualizing it empowers us to live its full potential rather than shoving to one side, where it collects dust and rust and small rodents as it putrefies. A purified habit is a happy habit.

As J. M. Greer notes,

[t]he tools of magic are useful because most of the factors that shape human awareness are not immediately accessible to the conscious mind; they operate at levels below the one where our ordinary thinking, feeling, and willing take place. The mystery schools have long taught that consciousness has a surface and a depth. The surface is accessible to each of us, but the depth is not. To cause lasting changes in consciousness that can have magical effects on one’s own life and that of others, the depth must be reached, and to reach down past the surface, ordinary thinking and willing are not enough (J. M. Greer, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, Weiser Books, 2012, pg. 88)

Fire/South: Make a decision.

Starting with small decisions helps me access the spark that follows this act. After consciously telling myself I will do this after writing this sentence, I rise and go put in a load of laundry. I’m back, and the act of getting up literally and psychologically to carry out, to follow through on a decision, is useful to enact and then to examine critically for its effects. A magical insight here: switch hemispheres frequently!

(Perfectionists may want to aim for “good-enough” decisions. Consciously wallowing in mud, working up a sweat, or making some kind of a mess — your choice! — may help defuse some of the OCD tendencies of perfectionism — short circuit it intentionally. Hey, it’s worked for me! Making a conscious decision about something very small can open up clarity on the decision-making capacity itself, without the distraction of the incidental content of the decision.)

If “ordinary thinking and willing are not enough”, there’s plenty we can do.

Water: Touch living things.

So many … loved ones, pets, plants and trees, the green earth. Touch as the most concrete of the senses can take us out of heads and into our bodies, letting the other elements do their work more directly, without all the wards and barriers and avoidance strategies we deploy whenever we practice unconscious black magic on ourselves. Which we do constantly. Connection drags us out of the solitary hells that the West has come to specialize in helping us to manifest. “Only connect!” goes the magical refrain — “Live in fragments no longer” (E. M. Forster, Howards End).

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Change up the elemental associations, and the rituals will shift subtly if not significantly. Armed with the earth of the body, the air of the breath, the fire of spirit and water of blood, we may ritualize our ways to places of surprise and delight. Happiness can’t be an endpoint anyway — it’s a practice to take up and improve.

Firsts, Followers, Magics   Leave a comment

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Pine on our south property line

OBOD’s weekly email “Inspiration for Life” offers good advice here, but frequently my question after reading is this: how exactly do I go about practicing any insight it contains? And of course part of any answer sends me back to digging through what I’ve learned. It prods me to open my spiritual toolkit once again.

Here’s a recent weekly prompt, as I think of it, for a possible focus I might take up during the week:

Don’t feel bad about feeling bad. Don’t be frightened of feeling afraid. Don’t be angry about getting angry. There is no need to give up when we are feeling depressed. Nor should we be dismayed at the grief which often accompanies the outgrowing of anything which needs outgrowing. We can be glad that our soul is speaking to us and pushing us onwards. We frequently need to persevere with a period of inner turmoil before the dust can settle and be swept out the door. — Donna Goddard

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First comes an experience, and then any emotional response to it we may have. Sometimes there isn’t one, though often one comes, just not right away. My wife and I moved out of state for a promising new job, quit within a month, and moved back to Vermont in mid-September. In various ways I’ve been dealing with more fallout from that over the past thirty days than I did in late September, when the event happened, or shortly after we returned.

These delays frequently catch us off guard because of the time gap between initial event and response. Then we react to our reactions, without looking at the cause. Sometimes our secondary reaction takes up our attention and energy far more than the original experience or emotion. So we fill too many waking — and dreaming! — hours grappling with the effects of effects, rather than being cause in our own lives. And if like me you’ve truly mastered this peculiarly modern and dysfunctional art, you now feel guilty for a second, third or even fourth-level reaction: your response to your response at emotions stirred by the initial experience. How craftily we perform these perverse and twisted magics against ourselves!

Fortunately, the same skill we use in tying ourselves in knots can serve to aid us in climbing free. It needs only our fire to turn it to our purposes.

So I summon my magic, starting with the Law of Reversed Effort. Rather than resisting the guilt, inertia and listlessness, I realize they’ve become so heavy they start to drop off me, pulled by their own weight and gravity. They puddle in a mess around my feet. Stepping away, I begin to rise, calling for help if I wish from teacher, friend, familiar or other beneficent spiritual presence as I ascend.

As I rise, I pass through clouds, and then suddenly I’m above them. Here the sun shines with an intense brightness I can feel warming my skin. I continue to ascend, the earth growing smaller and smaller beneath me. It’s now a blue-green ball of coolness beneath me, the solar system around me. Then that too recedes. The whole galaxy swims around me, then clusters of galaxies, shining strands of stars and families of stars. Piercing the sphere of the cosmos like a soap bubble, I rise yet further, into another and larger universe. I slow and pause, absorbing the sense of light and freedom and expansiveness.

When I am ready, I descend back the way I came, through galaxies, back to the solar system, back to earth, and down into my body again. When I feel my physical form sitting on the chair, I savor the sense of lightness and ease, and give thanks. Then I open my eyes, savoring the gift, and record the experience.

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In this world rich with experience, it’s fine that I am not always the cause. But it’s immensely helpful, in such an interconnected world, to remember that things don’t happen to me, as if I’m a stone, but for me, because I’m an integral part of the web. It’s feedback for what we’re all doing. Just this shift in awareness can begin to free me to find useful insights, spiritual tools, and paths forward, right in the middle of circumstances that otherwise may feel like dead-ends. Because choosing to be the effect of thoughts about experiences will return me to remarkably useless perceptions, like “That’s just your imagination!” which of course is perfectly true, but not, however, in the sense that this accusation comes.

Imagination is spiritual sight. It’s never just one thing. In fact, it constantly, unfailingly, eternally (internally!), tries to show us multiple, innumerable other ways to see, to perceive, to understand, to celebrate, to create. It shows us ourselves, and everyone and everything else, as we can be. Not in a Disney, fluff-bunny or Hallmark sense, but in the truer sense of potential buried and awaiting all the transformations that human consciousness is designed to achieve and manifest.  Here, where it’s needed most. In the middle of the sturm and drang, the drama, the doom, the headlines, the media chatter. Yes, right in the middle of it all, a birth, a growth, a flowering.

Imagination at work is nudging the roll of the cosmic dice, when the Dungeon Master sets us to establishing who and what we will be in this iteration of the Great Game. Because we know we’re the dice, the throw that sets them rolling, the twinkle in the eye of the Master, and the numbers that come up which we then agree to play with, as well as the Players themselves.

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Or if that package of metaphors doesn’t work for you, fire is always burning. Honor it. We decide what to use it to ignite, warm, inspire.

Air is always breathing and flowing around us. Respect it. We decide what to breathe on, and endow with careful attention, thought, planning, symbolism, imagery.

Water is always pooling and rippling. We decide what needs nourishing at the roots, where the true dream lives, what we deeply feel, and how our hearts guide us along the paths we instinctively know already. Acknowledge it.

Lastly and most kindly, earth is ready beneath us, supporting us, stage for manifesting all we make of our lives from this moment forward. Love it.

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nano17-2

Peering out the windows of this train at strange new territory passing by, talking with curiously-attired strangers in the car, supping with voices and images of beasts and birds in my ears, dozing off with conversations still echoing. You know, the life of a writer obsessed for a time with characters and story.

At 27,201 words, I’m somewhat under my target word-count for Nanowrimo. The lovely impossible experience of any sustained period of writing means the simultaneous tyranny of daily word-sprints and counts and updates and bemoaning the calendar and days passing, along with a complete, blissful disregard for all these things, as I bathe in a refreshing pool under gentle sunlight, that has appeared in the middle of my story, a moment of solitude surrounded by moss and mists and a distant valley calling me to explore.

2: Druid and Christian — Elemental Sacraments   Leave a comment

[Part 1|2|3|4|5]

In the previous post I wrote: “In sacrament rather than creed lies one potent meeting-place for Druid and Christian”. It’s this junction that I’ll continue to explore here.

What’s a sacrament? A means of perceiving the sacred. Though every culture has them, in the West our access points to the holy can feel few and far between, even more precious because of their rarity. Of course we’ve trimmed and peeled many of them away ourselves — some too soon, others well after their expiration dates.

 

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Fire worship among the Yi people in Kunming, China. Xinhua News.

Nonetheless, as a doorway, sacrament itself isn’t holy, except by association. It acquires a secondary patina of holiness that makes up part of the uplift we can experience when we turn its way, if it’s still working. For it can indeed be profaned, though the underlying sacred reality it points to is immune to human tampering. That reality wouldn’t be worth much, after all, if we could trample it in the mud.  (And we do our share of trampling. One of the more startling instances comes from Quebecois French, which intentionally repurposes Catholic vocabulary for profanity — including the word sacrament itself.)

water-heart

Hence, when “the barbarians are at the gates”, they (we) can destroy things of beauty, reverence and spiritual power, but the reality that gave them birth remains untouched. It will burst forth again in new forms and guises to open the eyes and the hearts of people yet unborn.

Will it? We certainly say and believe such things. Are they merely a kind of whistling in the dark?

One test lies in sacraments themselves. Many of them may receive scant acknowledgement in a given culture. Yet who among us who has deeply loved another person doubts that there is a sacrament made manifest? We can and do sentimentalize it, in part to avoid its sacramental power.

Other examples abound, instances that many cultures hedge about with rituals of word and action. A meal shared with others, a birth, a death, a “first” in a young life: first love, first kill, first sexual experience, first assumption of other adult roles and responsibilities. The fact that in so-called secular cultures we still institutionalize and legalize such things as drinking alcohol, driving cars, voting, joining the military, merely confirms a spiritual fact — awkwardly, perhaps, and blindly groping for its deeper truth, no doubt. That we confer grades of status by age attests to our discomfort with other criteria — ones that require wisdom, vision, insight. It’s easier to grant status mechanically, by the calendar, than to search a heart.

A sacrament, then, because it’s “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace” as the 5th century St. Augustine perceived, acknowledges something that already exists. We don’t create it, though we allow it to take shape and form, to have an impact, because we make room for it in our lives. (There seems to be a Minimum Sacramental Quotient, an MSQ, in every life: we’re all born, eat, and die, even if we shy away from, and struggle to avoid, every other divine intrusion on our human busy-ness.) We can midwife the sacred, and catalyze and welcome it, then, or resist it, but only up to a point. Grace is gratia, gift — and ample reason for gratitude.

When Druids initiate a new Bard, something happens that allows a sacrament that outward manifestation. When a Christian experiences the presence of God in prayer or Communion, the connection with the sacred moves from inner potential to outer expression. We can sense it, often, with our physical bodies. Or in the words of one of the repeating songs from Beauty and the Beast, “There’s something there that wasn’t there before”. Lacking other means of access, many people experience sacraments, or at least a sacramental flavor, in the “profane” world of Hollywood and the entertainment “industry”. So let’s be more profane, not less: pro-fane, standing near a fane or shrine, rubbing shoulders with gods and spirits outside, if not in the fane, or making a fane of our bodies and lives.

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One common friction-point in midwifing a sacrament is means. “What’s your fane?” Deny another’s access-points to the sacred by discrediting their sacraments, and you attempt to own and control and box in what is not, in the end, wholly subject to human will. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “No salvation outside the Church”, just doesn’t work for many people any more. (Not to mention that sometimes what you’re looking for isn’t salvation but something else entirely.)

There’s a Pagan movement towards what has been critiqued as “inflation”, and a Christian one that has been likewise critiqued as “deflation”, of the human self. Pagans appear to deify, and Christians to abase, the self, Both meta-techniques strive to open the doors to the sacred by removing obstacles to sacraments. And making a proper container for what is holy can be a deal of work. Latter-day solutions like “spiritual-but-not-religious” attempt to bypass the need for containers altogether, but they offer their own problems, and containers tend to creep back in.

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Samhain. Hallowed Evening. Masses, rituals for the Dead-who-live. Calling out their names, those who have passed in the previous year. Hear them named around the evening fire.

“Look in the mirror, Ancestor. The veil is always thin.”

“What we have received, we pass on.”

“What do you bring from the Otherworld? And what can we offer you?”

“Assist me to erect the ancient altar at which in days past all worshipped, the great altar of all things” run the words of one Pagan rite.

Introibo ad altare Dei, intones the Catholic priest, using the words from Psalm 42:4. “I will go into the altar of God”.

“Look at the shape of the altar; it is your own consciousness”, says one of the Wise.

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Can we see here the faint outlines of a shared set of sacraments for Christian Druids and Druid Christians? What links followers of Grail, Cross and Star, who long to extend what each does best, sacramental elements, elemental sacraments in the broader sense of components, basic parts, building materials for the Door that is always open, the “Door without a Key”? Jesus says “I stand at the door and knock”, and Merlin waves and beckons from the other side. Earth and water, air and fire, blood and mistletoe, wine and breath, we bring you to our altars.

In our awkward groping ways, we all stumble on and into sacraments. For those looking to learn from these two neighboring traditions, ones with Trees at their centers, maybe one of the first sacraments to celebrate is humility with each other, humilis, an attitude and approach close to the earth, humus. “Earth my body, fire my spirit …”

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Images: Fire worship; “Living water“.

 

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