Archive for the ‘intentionality’ Category

Living Like Snow

The first exercise or technique in my workshop and booklet for Gulf Coast Gathering this Saturday is “Forming an Intention.”

There’s a lot of talk these days about “being intentional”. And I wonder: Did past generations somehow do it better? Did they set about what they were doing with more awareness than we do? Or is that the point: we can do better today because we somehow “get” the importance of intention? Really, I doubt both of these things. You or I? Yes, you or I can do better. “We” meaning large numbers of people? Not so much, then or now. Where to place and focus effort?

I love that when I google “intention” the first two definitions that appear are “a thing intended” (classic dictionary-ese!) and “the healing process of a wound”. I click on the link and that specialized medical usage comes well down on the list of meanings. Can intention, handled well, help with healing? Is that what intention is, one way to understand it? Healing?

What if I approach each action as an opportunity for healing? Some intentions heal, some don’t, or hurt more than they help. Would this change how I intend?

This last weekend I attended a regular “second Saturday” spirituality study group that’s been ongoing now for several years. The book we read is less important than the group, the intentionality of a monthly meeting, the ongoing flowering of awareness that comes from it, and from practice of a set of spiritual exercises together and individually that open the doors of insight. One of the group members, Bill, said something last Saturday I knew I had to include, giving credit where it’s due, in the final draft of the Gathering booklet:

Intention is a description of the limits of manifestation.

This is a fruitful theme for contemplation. If you choose to use it that way, I’d recommend you stop reading now and come back later, after you’ve gained your own insights into its reach. What follows below are some of mine.

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Outdoors, the nor’easter that’s been named Stella (the “star” of the show, that’s for sure), has begun to blanket New England and the mid-Atlantic region with a classic March snow. Right now, at 9:00 am or so, the snowfall is still gentle and steady. Later it will strengthen, and rising winds will transform the world into a snowglobe both shaken and stirred. Meanwhile, the indomitable chickadees flit back and forth between the front yard feeder and the branches of the mountain ash.

Intention doesn’t guarantee any kind of “success”. That’s not its purpose. (Why do it then? I hear myself and some of you asking.)

But intention does invite a flow, form a mold, shape a potential, and let us exercise our sacred gift as transformers of Spirit. “Spirit must express itself in the world of matter,” writes John Michael Greer, “or it accomplishes nothing. Insights of meditation and ceremony gain their full power and meaning when reflected in the details of everyday life” (Greer. The Druidry Handbook, pg. 138).

For me, even more importantly, intention sets up a precedent of balance. It’s a handshake with Spirit, a gesture of welcome. Spirit needs our individuality to express itself. It’s what we are. But we also need Spirit to work through us, or “nothing happens”.

I set the intention of flying out to the Gathering and a nor’easter may intervene, changing an intention, cancelling flights, closing an airport, disrupting human routine. Part of the skill of setting intentions is releasing them, and then navigating through what comes. (Insisting on a particular intention can sometimes and temporarily shift all the factors in one’s favor, but the juice usually isn’t worth the squeeze. Doubt me? Don’t waste time arguing. Try it out for yourself. And as the universe sets about kicking you down the road, use your black and blues as a now-personalized theme for reflection.)

If you’re still wondering what value an intention has, look again at the situation, but this time without the particular intention. The nor’easter comes anyway, and whatever else I’m doing — intentions there, too — the storm still impacts them.

So one point I draw from this? I want to be intentional about my intentions. I’m constantly creating them anyway, manifesting constantly. I get up from bed. I make coffee. I build up the fire. I may “plan my day” or “wing it” as things unfold around me. That’s what it means to “have a life”. I just may be more or less conscious as I do, and have, and am.

But intention isn’t something that only I have, or set in motion all alone onstage. In a world of multitudinous beings, intentions constantly line up or come in conflict all around us.

“The intelligent universe longs for an equal partner” (Gary Lindorf. 13 Seeds. Northshire Press, pg. 21). I can ignore the marvelous energy of intention and still live. But not as richly, as full of love, or as magically. What does it mean to be an “intelligent partner” to life? Partner: not servant, not master.

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“Intention is the description of the limits of manifestation”. Each of us has a set of experiences and talents and insights that give us a personal key to being intentional. As with most things, being intentional isn’t a matter of “either-or” but a matter of “less-more”. What are the limits of manifestation? Do I, does anyone, actually know? We make intention experimental — something to be explored.

stellaIn the last 40 minutes — it’s now 9:43 — the snow has intensified. An-inch-an-hour is nothing new for much of the northern U.S., but each time I “have time” or “make time” to watch, it never gets old. Like watching the tide, waves endlessly arriving on the shore. Repetition builds a universe. On one scale of things, you might call Stella a very “minor” event. Take a large enough view and almost everything turns small. The weather image of the continental U.S. shows the small portion affected. What does such a view offer? On a small enough scale, it’s all-encompassing. Here in southern Vermont, a cloud moving white in every direction.

It may seem strange to speak of “non-personal” events like weather in terms of intention, but then I think that the existence of anything forms or reveals its intention. After all, do I ever see snow except when it falls, or has fallen? That’s what snow is. And I imagine — intend — living more intentionally, living like snow, being an intention of Spirit, with the added and priceless human gift of witnessing as I do.

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Image: stella.

 

“Not responsible for spontaneous descent of Awen”

treesun-smNot responsible for spontaneous descent of Awen or manifestation of the Goddess. Unavailable for use by forces not acting in the best interests of life. Emboldened for battle against the succubi of self-doubt, the demons of despair, the phantoms of failure. Ripe for awakening to possibilities unforeseen, situations energizing and people empowering.

Catapulted into a kick-ass cosmos, marked for missions of soul-satisfying solutions, grown in gratitude, aimed towards awe, mellowed in the mead of marvels. Optimized for joy, upgraded to delight, enhanced for happiness.  Witness to the Sidhe shining, the gods gathering, the Old Ways widening to welcome.

logmoss-smPrimed for passionate engagement, armed for awe-spreading, synchronized for ceremonies of sky-kissed celebration. Weaned on wonder, nourished by the numinous, fashioned for fabulousness. Polished for Spirit’s purposes, dedicated to divine deliciousness, washed in the waters of the West, energized in Eastern airs, earthed in North’s left hand, fired in South’s right. Head in the heavens, heart with the holy, feet in flowers, gift of the Goddess, hands at work with humanity. Camped among the captives of love, stirred to wisdom in starlight, favored with a seat among the Fae, born for beauty, robed in the world’s rejoicing, a voice in the vastness of days.

leaflanesm

Knowing, seeing, sensing, being all this, you can never hear the same way again these two words together: “only human”!

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Images: three from a sequence taken yesterday, 3 Oct 14, on a blessed autumn day in southern Vermont two miles from my house.

 

Opening the Gates: A Review of McCarthy’s Magic of the North Gate

jmccarthy(Special thanks to Amethyst, where a version of this review first appeared in the November issue.)

Magic of the North Gate is an intriguing book for those like me who have studied McCarthy’s previous works and might have expected another in the same vein. An inviting departure from her involvement in more temple-oriented magic, this book reflects a change of lifestyle as well for its author. A teacher, ritual magician and Hermeticist, McCarthy now resides in Dartmoor National Park in the southwest of the U.K. Think of a Golden Dawn mage taking up residence in Yellowstone or Yosemite. The book remains characteristically humble, wise, unexpectedly funny, and profound – qualities too often lacking in books on magic. Add to these its emphasis on being of service to the land, and it is altogether a valuable resource.

Throughout the book’s nine chapters, McCarthy recounts her rich experiences over the years of working with land spirits and nature magic. A resident for a time in the western U.S., she passes along many helpful observations in her stories and suggestions applicable both for the typically more settled inner and outer terrain of the United Kingdom, and the wilder landscapes of North America. To put it another way, her book often prompts a reader to meditate, reflect and then adapt her many ideas to the reader’s own landscape, circumstances, abilities and experience. No mere recipe book, this.

Nevertheless, along the way you discover that you’ve gained valuable insights on how to approach gardening and building outdoor shrines, advice on honoring the fairies and welcoming local deities, or strategies to deal with approaching storms and “death alleys” on infamous stretches of highways. She discusses ways of honoring old bones you may unearth, effecting a “deity transfer” to a statue, and interacting with Native American peoples, sanctuaries and spirits who will respect your heritage and ancestors if you own them outright, in keeping with how you respect theirs. The eighth chapter, “The Dead, the Living and the Living Dead,” offers much material for exploration and contemplation. As McCarthy observes, “A major skill to learn in life that has major bearing on the death of a magician is discipline of controlling wants and needs … it is a major tool” in making the transition through death (230).

The final chapter, “Weaving Power into Form,” likewise provides ample material to explore in one’s own practice. McCarthy’s Hermeticist training and experience re-emerge, particularly in her emphases and terminology in later chapters, to good effect, since she has contextualized what she says there by establishing a foundation in preceding chapters for her particular flavor of earth magic. Her insights into ways of working with the energies of the temples of the directions and elements are also helpful.

McCarthy’s writing style is both conversational and reflective. Her book reads in part like a journal and follows its own organic and occasionally circular order, though her nine chapters do deliver what their titles promise. Often, though not always, the points she makes are less a “how-to” – though she offers much advice clearly grounded in experience – than a “what-happens-when.” To give just a few for-instances across the chapters, here are some excerpts:

“Magic in its depth creates boundaries of energetic opposition and tension. This is part and parcel of how power works – it also protects the integrity of the inner worlds as well as beefing up the magician … It can also act as an idiot filter …” (17-18).

“If I had known about [the impact on the physical body] beforehand, I would still have explored, but would have looked after my body better and would have made a point of reaching for inner contacts to help teach me about how to handle my body through this work. Hence this part of the chapter” (39).

“Land spirits don’t do ‘sorry’; if you break a promise then the deal is off” (130).

“You may notice that your home or building does not appear upon the land, which is normal if it is a modern building. Buildings, unless they are consecrated spaces or temples, tend to take hundreds of years to fully appear in the inner landscape of the land” (133).

I will return to this book to re-consider and annotate the portions I’ve highlighted and queried in a different way than I will her other books, The Work of the Hierophant, and the Magical Knowledge trilogy (Foundations, The Initiate, and Adepts). The latter texts help fill in gaps in my more intellectual understanding of kinds of work I will very likely not pursue in this life, though there, too, McCarthy’s earned wisdom transfers to other kinds of practice. But Magic of the North Gate is a more immediate companion and touchstone for what I am exploring already, in my own way, on my handful of acres on the New England hilltop where I live and anywhere else I set foot.

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McCarthy, Josephine. Magic of the North Gate. Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford, 2013.

Image: Josephine McCarthy.

Special thanks to Amethyst, where a version of this review first appeared.

The Four Powers: Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent–Part 5: Silence and Self-Transformation

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]

Butterfly-TransformationOne of the great benefits of silence, at least about one’s inner work or “self-work,” is that no one will dump their opinions and energies onto what you are doing, and distract you, or load you with their attitudes and claims, weaknesses and dreams, if you limit their access to your work of changes.  (Let them see the results instead.) Choose your audience wisely if you feel you must talk about such experiences and insights.  American culture in particular suffers at this time from a compulsive confessional mode.  Purge, share, spill, vent! it says.  But keep silent by default, at least at first, and you will have many fewer obstacles to deal with.  Ignore this ancient counsel to keep silent, and you’ll find out from experience why it’s an integral part of magical training, and one of the four powers.

That said, the magical journal is a fine outlet for a “space to talk.”  Not surprisingly, many who keep a journal find it useful to write at least some entries in a code or cipher, in another language, etc., to maintain the veil of privacy necessary to maximizing effort and energy put into the work.  As with most paradoxes, “guard the mysteries; constantly reveal them”* illustrates valuable teaching.  Say nothing; get it down in words.  More about the journal later.

Sometimes the strain  of inner work can lead to imbalances; we choose means and modes of change and growth that cost us more than they deliver.  The French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) records his struggles for insight and inspiration and poetic fire through a program of conscious “derangement of the senses” through means both culturally acceptable and unacceptable (his life bears study!). I quote here from his youthful letters**:

I am lousing myself up as much as I can these days.  Why?  I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself a seer … the point is, to arrive at the unknown by the disordering of all the senses.  The sufferings are enormous, but one has to be strong, to be born a poet, and I have discovered that I am a poet.  It is not my fault at all.  It is a mistake to say: I think.  One ought to say:  I am thought.

I is for somebody else.  So much the worse for the wood if it find itself a violin.

I witness the unfolding of my own thought: I watch it, I listen to it:  I make the stroke of the bow: the symphony begins to stir in the depths, or springs onto the stage …

I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer.

The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses.  Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences.  This is unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed — and the great learned one! — among men — For he arrives at the unknown!  Because he has cultivated his own soul — which was rich to begin with — more than any other man.  He reaches the unknown; and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them.  Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!

So, then, the poet is the thief of fire …

Rimbaud wrote this in 1871, when he was just 16.

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Much to note here — more than I will address in this post.  First, his age:  in fact he composed all of his poetry before he was twenty, when he abandoned further creative work, though he was to live almost two more decades after that.  Some of his furious intensity, drive — and imbalance — stem from the energies loosed in adolescence, which most of us deal with to varying degrees of success as we mature.  The Victorian magician, poet, mountaineer, addict and occultist Aleister Crowley engaged in similar practices, perhaps surviving them better in the short run, and gaining more from them, while still suffering from partly self-cultivated imbalances and excesses along his chosen path.  Many Westerners crave intensity — we struggle with a deep desire to feel powerfully, and sometimes, to feel anything at all — and the broken lives that result from our excesses, binges, addictions and self-destructive choices testify painfully and graphically to that desire, and to a yawning lack in our cultures that cannot answer or satisfy it.  Hence our compulsion to seek such nourishment elsewhere, in productive and unproductive ways.

Rimbaud’s last line quoted above — “the poet is the thief of fire” — also echoes adolescent rebellion, defiance and fascination with one’s own seemingly Promethean forces and capacities that can make teenagers so self-involved and oblivious of others.  The thrill-seeking, the experimentation, the moodiness all mirror tremendous inner changes as the foundations for adult life are laid.  To plumb our inner darkness — we can see it exteriorized in film after film of violence, sex, death and the depths of traumatic emotion — is to encounter the threshold of the unconscious, the lower astral plane, the scraps and debris left over from that initial self-making that we mistake for all of what we “really” are, when it is simply a part, but not the whole.  Why let any one thing define us?  Yes, a certain wisdom can indeed issue from intense and “heavy” experience.  But — and again, how many of us can speak from experience! — it is not conducive to enduring happiness or balance or a capacity to grow and experience as much as possible.  We cannot kick out the walls of our world and then expect any sort of roof to remain preternaturally suspended over our heads (unless we’ve put in the time to build it).  Better to walk out the door and at least for a time to wander in the woods, with just sky above us.

Silence in some cases can of course be destructive.  After every gun-related “incident” in the U.S., the shooter is subjected to endless scrutiny for “signs” of imbalance, paranoia, anomie, psychopathic tendencies, and so on.  Our cultural sense of disconnect repeatedly festers and spawns terrible destruction and suffering.  Or as novelist E. M Forster says in Howard’s End:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
Only connect…

In every culture individuals arise who both confront its darkness and lose their way, as well as see a way through.

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The magical journal is a priceless aid in the work of transformation.  Think of it as an alter ego, a second self or at least a second memory.  Occultist Paul Foster Case illustrates its value in the following passage***.  He speaks about learning the significance of the first ten numbers, 0 – 9, but his words apply much more widely:

I have been instructed by a teacher who could not speak my language, wholly by means of numeral and pictorial symbols.  In a few hours I received enough material from that man to last me for years.  Indeed, I don’t suppose I shall ever exhaust the significance of what I learnt from him in a few summer afternoons.  Thus, were there no other reasons, the fact that number symbols are so useful a time-saving device should recommend them to you in this busy age.  When you have fixed the fundamental ideas in memory, you will soon learn that none are arbitrary.  Then you will begin to see the connection between these ideas …

Get a notebook.  Divide it into ten sections.  Head the first page of each section with one of the ten numeral signs.  Then copy the attributions … into your book.  This is important.  To copy anything is to make it more surely yours than if you merely read it.  The act of copying increases the number of remembered sensations connected with that particular item of knowledge … Once you begin the notebook, you will be surprised at the amount of material that will begin to flow in your direction.  It will seem that a mysterious power has begun to send you information about numbers from all sorts of sources.  You will also discover that as soon as you provide a means for recording them, many ideas about numbers which you will recognize as coming from a higher, yet interior, source will enter your field of consciousness.  After a year, the notebook will be an index of your progress … and by that time you will have learned to regard it as one of the most useful works of reference in your library.

As with so many pairs of opposites, balancing silence with its useful counterpart of keeping a written record will reward the effort made.  Duality is an energetic system that can work like a spiritual generator.

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The first post in this series looks at kinds of knowledge.  The second shows how wanting to know leads to discoveries about our real selves.  The third looks at daring and how it is a kind of freedom.  The fourth focuses on the importance and potency of imagination.

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Images: butterfly;

*Beat and Pagan poet Lew Welch: “Theology,” 1969.

The True Rebel never advertises it,
He prefers his joy to Missionary Work.

Church is Bureaucracy,
no more interesting than any Post Office.

Religion is Revelation:
all the Wonder of all the Planets striking
all your Only Mind

Guard the Mysteries!
Constantly reveal Them!

**Arthur Rimbaud, Collected Poems.  (trans. Oliver Bernard). Penguin Classics, 1986, pp. 6-12.

***Paul Foster Case, Occult Fundamentals and Spiritual Unfoldment, Vol. 1: Early Writings. Fraternity of the Hidden Light, 2008.  p. 72.

Notes on Magic

sunset

What follows are brief notes from a short talk I recently gave on magic.

Dion Fortune’s definition of magic: “the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will.”

“… most of us, most of the time, are content to use the imaginations of others to define the world around us, however poorly these may fit our own experiences and needs; most of us, most of the time, spend our lives reacting to feelings, whims and biological cravings rather than acting on the basis of conscious choice; most of us, most of the time, remember things so poorly that entire industries have come into existence to make up for the failures and inaccuracies of memory” (J. M. Greer, Circles of Power, 52).

We can, however, choose to imagine – & remember – ourselves differently. When we do so with focused attention, changes happen, both subjectively & objectively.

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Magic stems from an experiential fact, an experimental goal, & an endlessly adaptable technique.

The fact is that each day we all experience many differing states of consciousness, moving from deep sleep to REM sleep to dream to waking, to daydream, to focused awareness & back again.  We make these transitions naturally & usually effortlessly.  They serve different purposes, & what we cannot do in one state, we can often do easily in another.  The flying dream is not the focus on making a hole in one, nor is it the light trance of daydream, nor the careful math calculation.

The goal of magic is transformation – to enter focused states of awareness at will & through them to achieve insight & change.

The technique is the training & work of the imagination.  This work typically involves the use of ritual, meditation, chant, visualization, concentration, props, images & group dynamics to catalyze transformations in awareness.

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Magic is also “a set of methods for arranging awareness according to patterns.”

We live our lives according to patterns.  Some patterns are limiting & may be unmasked as restrictive.  Other patterns can help bring about transformation.  “[T]he purpose of magical arts is to enable changes within the individual by which he or she may apprehend further methods [of magic & transformation] inwardly.”

“… [O]ur imagination is our powerhouse … certain images tap into the deeper levels of imaginative force within us; when these are combined with archetypal patterns they may have a permanent transformative effect.”

– R. J. Stewart, Living Magical Arts

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Image source:  sunset.

Circe’s Power: Part 1

OK, be forewarned … this runs long.  If you’re more in the mood for bon-bons than for jerky, come back later.  This ended up pretty chewy.  It’s also provisional, a lot more tentative than it sounds.  Now I’ve told you, so don’t get cranky with me later.  Here goes …

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In her poem “Circe’s Power,” Louise Glück speaks in the voice of the sorceress who transforms the crew of Odysseus into swine when they arrive on her island.  Even the great war-leader and trickster Odysseus himself would have fallen under her spell, but for a charm the god Hermes gives him.  (“Some people have all the luck,” “the gods favor them,” etc.) So it’s dueling magics at work, divine and mortal enchantments competing for supremacy.  (Sort of feels like life at times.  Like we’re adrift in a hurricane, or trying to build a house on a battlefield.) Circe speaks to Odysseus, to all of us, in a kind of explanation of life seen from the vantage point of magic. Or not.

I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
look like pigs.
I’m sick of your world
that lets the outside disguise the inside.
Your men weren’t bad men;
undisciplined life
did that to them. As pigs,
under the care of
me and my ladies, they
sweetened right up.
Then I reversed the spell,
showing you my goodness
as well as my power. I saw
we could be happy here,
as men and women are
when their needs are simple. In the same breath,
I foresaw your departure,
your men with my help braving
the crying and pounding sea. You think
a few tears upset me? My friend,
every sorceress is
a pragmatist at heart; nobody sees essence who can’t
face limitation. If I wanted only to hold you
I could hold you prisoner.

Oddly, this poem always cheers me up, with what I take to be its hard realism.  That may sound funny, since part of the time Circe’s talking about magic, and she has a cynic’s view of much of life.  Or maybe a minimalist’s.  How do those two things go together?! But it’s a magic we’re born into, the nature of a world in which the outside does indeed often “disguise the inside.”  Here, almost everything wears a mask.  Even truth hides as illusion, and illusion as truth.  The god of this world, we’re told in the Christian Bible, has the face and name of Liar.  We learn this soon enough, discovering quite young the great power of lying.  It’s a magic of its own, up to a point — a beguiling enchantment.  Some of us never recover.  It’s lies all the way.  But there are other worlds, and other magics as potent, if not more so.  If Circe is “sick of this world,” what can she tell us of others?

Another way of looking at it can come to us in an Emily Dickinson poem.  (What is it with these poets, anyway?!  Liars, magicians, many of them.  Enchant us into the real.)  “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” says the Amherst visionary, and we’re off to the nature of truth seen in a world of illusion:  paradox.  (Maybe truth needs a mask, to exist here at all.)   “The only way out is through,” insists Frost in yet another poem, but in spite of our longing for the Old Straight Path, it’s fallen away from us, and the world is now “bent,” as in the Tolkien mythos.  We can’t get out so easily.

“Success in circuit lies,” Dickinson goes on to say.  In other words, “you can’t get there from here”: the directions are all scrambled, even the best of them.  You travel in a cosmic roundabout and end up somewhere else, not just on a road less traveled, but one apparently never traveled before, until you set foot on it.  Who can help you as you journey there?  No one?  Anyone?  One paradox is that you’re walking the same path everyone else is, too.  Everyone’s having an experience of being on their own.  What we share is what keeps us separate.  Paradox much?  Useful at all?

“Too bright for our infirm Delight/The Truth’s superb surprise,” says Dickinson. OK, so what the hell does that mean?  Well, Circe knows, or seems to.  If every sorceress is indeed a “pragmatist at heart”, then she and all the others who deal in truths and illusions may have something useful to tell us in the end.  Certainly our encounters with truth can have a surprising quality of sudden opening and revelation.  Whether the surprise is “superb” depends in part on you.  But what are we to make of her next assertion?  “Nobody sees essence who can’t face limitation.”   The two negatives “spin your head right round.”  Is it still true if we remove them?  “Everyone sees essence who can face limitation.”

This is without doubt a world of limits, of hard edges, of boundaries we run into all the time, however much we try to ignore them.  Inconvenient truths aren’t the same as illusions.  (We just wish they were.)  Some of the edges cut, some leave scars.  We get away with very little, in the end.  Most of our illusions get stripped away, in this world of illusions.  What’s left?  Emily, Louise, mother-wit, “the sense God gave gravel,” somebody (anybody!), help us out here!!

“As Lightning to the Children eased/With explanation kind/The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind –” Emily concludes.  (Maybe the dash says it all.) Is there any “kindness” in this world of disguises?  Well, if some truth really is, or can be, as potent as the words here suggest, then one kindness is precisely the illusion we complain about.  It’s protection, insulation, a hot-pad between us and the Real, to keep it from scorching our skin, burning our vision.  Mortal eyes cannot behold the infinite.  “No one can see the face of God, and live,”  Moses is told.  Things get scaled down in this world.  The hot turns lukewarm, tepid.  You want scalding?  You were warned.

So what might we take away as a provisional set of guidelines to test and try out, and maybe use, if and when they fit?

1.  Know your worlds.

This ain’t the only one.  Don’t mix ’em, or expect one to work like any of the others.  “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” and all that.  This world in particular revels in concealment.  Spring lies in the lap of winter, and unlikely as it seems, green and warmth will return to this world gone gray and white and cold.  Neither winter nor spring is the whole truth, but each is true in its season.  Time works out truth in a world built of time and space.  “Dazzle gradually,” so you can surprise and startle and reveal intensely … in the end.

2.  Essence and limitation are linked.

“Nobody sees essence who can’t face limitation.”  If we want the truth we seek, and desperately need, and deep-down know already (a particularly maddening truth we reject whenever we can), we find it here in this world, in limits and seeming dead-ends and walls and obstacles and finales.  Death’s a big one.  These are our teachers still, till we’re able to move beyond them.  Really?  That’s the best you can do for us?  Well, got any other world handy? Yes?  Then you know what I mean.  You don’t need this.  No?  Then you’re right where you need to be.  Understand that I’m not speaking from any privileged or superior place.  I know what you know, and vice versa.  Deal.  You’ll notice that I’m here in this right beside you.  As my wife and I remind each other whenever necessary, those too good for this world are adorning another.

3.  Truth ain’t so much obscure or impossible or unavailable or “an empty category,” but it IS often different than we think or want it to be.

We manifest it as we discover it.  We know it when we see it, like pornography or good taste.  Just don’t ask for someone else’s version to guide you, or you’re back to square one.  (As a clue, OK.  As absolute authority over your life?  Don’t even think about it!)

4.  In the end, it’s all Square One.

5.  And that’s a good thing.

6.  To quote The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “Everything will be all right in the end.  If it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.”  Patience is one of the primal and most subtle of magics.

7.  Your version of “all right” will keep changing.

If it hasn’t changed recently, check your brain for clogs.  You may have missed an important message the universe has been trying to tell you.

8. Everything wants to make a gift of itself to you.

The distance between your current reality and that truth is the measure of the Great Work ahead.  This one’s taken me for a couple of l o n g walks indeed.  EverythingGift.  If I resist it, it comes back in an ugly  or terrifying or destructive “un-gift” form.  There are hard gifts.  Each life ends with one.  Still a gift.

9.  Ah, the triple three of nine, a piece of Druid perfection.

The ultimate four-letter word is love.  “A love for all existences,” goes the Druid Prayer.  Get there, and life begins in earnest.  We’ve all been there, briefly.  Time to make it longer than brief.  “Reverse the spell to see the goodness and the power,” to reword Circe only a little.  Still working on these.

A Time of Rebalanced Energies

The Equinox is upon us.  Still the Druid Prayer of the Revival echoes from last weekend at the East Coast Gathering:

Grant, O God/dess, thy protection,
And in protection, strength,
And in strength, understanding,
And in understanding, knowledge,
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice,
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it,
And in that love, the love of all existences,
And in the love of all existences, the love of God/dess and all goodness.

The lake in the picture (photo credit Sara Corry) is at the base of Camp Netimus, where the East Coast Gathering assembled for its third year this last weekend.  In the presence of such moments, it’s easier to perceive that the physical world is one face of the holy, or as Jung expressed it, “Spirit is the living body seen from within, and the body the outer manifestation of the living spirit—the two being really one” (253).  Humans respond to beauty and to such transparent intervals as this, often in spite of what they may consciously believe or claim about reality.  We cannot help but be moved because we are part of what we witness.  We may witness a score of hierophanies, visions of the divine, each day.  Whatever our beliefs, these openings to the sacred nourish and help sustain us.

The rebalancing we hope to accomplish depends on our state of consciousness, on our ability to accept a gift given.  And so in a workshop last weekend, “The Once and Future Druid:  Working with the Cauldron of Rebirth,” we repeatedly turned to another seed-passage, this time from Neville’s The Power of Awareness: “The ideal you hope to achieve is always ready for an incarnation, but unless you yourself offer it human parentage, it is incapable of birth.”  I carried that with me for several days, marveling at its ability to focus the attention.  Whenever I found myself falling into old patterns of thought, I return to its simple truth. The power of such meditations and seed-exercises reaches beyond their apparent simplicity or even simplisticness.

In one sense we are consciously meme-planting, even if it’s on a personal level.  Why not plant our own, rather than be subject to others’ constructs, which may not suit us?  Yes, these seed-thoughts and heart-songs may remain lifeless if we do not ignite them with our attention and desire.  But properly sustained, like a campfire (sorry … the camp images stick with me!), fed and banked and tended, it can pour out a healing and transformative warmth all out of scale to its visible size.

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Jung, Carl.  Modern Man in Search of a Soul. London:  Routledge and Kegan Paul/Ark Paperbacks, 1984.

Updated 9/28/12

Return

After my father passed away in the winter of 2008, I wasn’t able to scatter his ashes the following spring as I’d planned.   A cancer diagnosis laid me low soon after his final decline, and his childhood home in Niagara Falls in western NY state, as well as the farms he had owned and worked for decades, and where I grew up, were 450 miles from my wife’s and my home and jobs in CT. During my medical journey, we’d also bought a house in VT, and with follow-up radiation and a personal leave from our work, along with numerous loose ends to tie up, there’d simply been no good time.  And the task and my intention, if not my father’s, deserved good time.

My dad had always been indifferent about the whole thing.  Beyond asking to be cremated, he seemed to feel, perhaps from the many animal deaths and births that inevitably accrue in a lifetime of farming, that one more dead body was something to dispose of, but nothing worth much fuss.  “Throw me on the manure spreader when you go out next, and toss me at the back of the cornfield,” he’d  always say in his wry way, whenever I asked him one more time about his wishes. That was what we did with the occasional calf that died of pneumonia or scours.   In six months, crows and time would eventually leave just whitening bones. But at the time of my dad’s death, we no longer owned the farm, and in any case, beyond a certain undeniable fitness to his request, a desire to make that one last gesture for the good of the land, as human fertilizer, there was the small matter of legality.)

This summer a family reunion in Pittsburgh provided the opportunity to attend to this final matter.  My wife and I drove there and back, and on the way out last Friday afternoon, after a slow cruise along Lakeshore Drive that hugs the south shore of Lake Ontario, we made our way to downtown Niagara Falls and then over the  bridge onto Goat Island.  So around 2:00 pm or so, you could have seen me squatting at the edge of the Niagara River, a few hundred yards above the Falls, on the second of the Three Sisters islands that cling to rocky outcrops in the rapids. The day was overcast but pleasant — typical of western NY, with its delightfully mellow lake-effect summers.  Between my feet rested the heavy plastic bag of dad’s ashes, in the plain box the funeral home had provided.

I had nothing to say — no particular ceremony in mind.  Words earlier, words around and after his death, words a week or so ago in a dream, but nothing now.  This was for experiencing, not talking. Six years before, I’d returned my mother’s ashes to the Shellrock River in the small Iowa town of her childhood.  That day, the easy meander of the river, the June sun on my back, the midday stillness, and the intermittent buzz of dragonflies skimming the water lent the moment a meditative calm.  As my wife and two of my mother’s cousins watched, I slowly poured the powdery ashes into the river, and the water eddied and swirled as it bore them downstream.  Watching the ash disperse downstream, I felt peace. Thus we can go home.

This day was different.  A steady damp breeze rustled the leaves of the trees.  On another treeless outcrop a short way upriver, the harsh voices of the flock of gulls were only intermittently inaudible over the tumble of water and the dull roar of the falls downriver.

I sat, heels in mud, watching the current on its endless course past and away.  When I opened the bag of ashes, a sudden gust of wind caught some and dusted my left arm, which startled me, then made me smile.  It was as if my father approved — that behind his gruffness, the elemental beauty of the spot, a family favorite, might matter after all.  I brushed off my arm, and then poured the chalky ash into the spinning waters and watched it spread and then, eventually, the water cleared as it washed away.

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Druid of the Day (1)

New York Times columnist Dana Jennings wins the first “Druid of the Day” award particularly for this portion of his column in yesterday’s (7/10/12) Times:

Scenes From the Meadowlandscape

Monet had his haystacks, Degas had his dancers, and I have the New Jersey Meadowlands from the window of my Midtown Direct train as I travel to and from Manhattan.

But what, it’s fair to ask, does squinting out at the Meadowlands each day have to do with art, with culture? Well, as a novelist and memoirist for more than 20 years, I like to think that if I stare hard enough — even from a speeding train — I can freeze and inhabit the suddenly roomy moment. Through the frame that is my train window I’m able to discern and delight in any number of hangable still lifes.

And the Meadowlands never disappoints, no matter what exhibition is up.

Its shifting weave of light, color and texture hone and enchant the eye. The sure and subtle muscle of the Hackensack River is sometimes just a blue mirror, but when riled and roiled by wind and rain it becomes home to slate-gray runes. The scruff, scrub and brush are prickly and persistent, just like certain denizens of New Jersey. And the brontosaurus bridges, their concrete stumps thumped into the swamp, idly look down on it all.

For his focus, intentionality and the requisite quietness to see, and then — just as important — turn the results of that seeing into a window, an access point for others who read his column to do the same “noticing” in their own lives, Jennings earns my commendation as “Druid of the Day.”  This seemed like a good series to launch, to help remind myself as well as my readers of ways we can be more attentive to beauty around us, particularly unexpected instances — free, a gift if we only notice them — and receive their transformative power.

City or country, it doesn’t matter: we can be witnesses of natural power and beauty, and learn what they may have to teach us, anywhere — including Manhattan, and from the window of the Midtown Direct train.  These are no less — or more — “Druidic” than any other spots on the planet.

Know others who deserve recognition as “D of the D”? Please send them along to me and I’ll write them up and include an acknowledgement to you in the citation.  Thanks in advance.

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Dirty Words, Green Thoughts

Compromises.  They get bad press. In this time of American public life, compromise is among the worst of bad words.  It’s true that we often seem weakest where we make one.  That’s OK, as long as we aren’t blindsided by them, as long as our compromises aren’t destructive to us, as long as we can make them and live with them as conscious acts.  But any one of those challenges can pierce us to the core.

As a case in point, I want to address a “local” issue that echoes everywhere.  Last December, over a thousand residents in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts gathered to protest the continued operation of the Vermont Yankee (VY) Nuclear Plant beyond its original 40-year licensing period. There were over 130 arrests, though the protest remained orderly — both protesters and police had prepared months in advance.

As Vermont transplants rather than natives, my wife and I inherited the controversy when we settled here over a decade ago.   So first, some details — as unbiased as I can make them, from sources on both sides. A Druid tries to find the multiple tertiaries or neglected alternatives between two opposed binaries, so bear with me here.

First, the pros:  VY has been through $400 million of upgrades since it was first commissioned in 1972.  These include a 2006 retrofit that allows the reactor to generate approximately 20% more energy than its original design specifies, obviating the need to build other plants or increase fossil fuel use.  Vermont relies on the plant for about 30% of its current energy use, and when VY is down for refueling, increased consumption of gas and oil must make up the difference.  Decommissioning the plant would require finding other (and mostly more expensive) energy sources to make up the shortfall.  Published estimates put the pollution savings over the past four decades  of operation at 50 million tons of carbon that VY’s nuclear capacity has avoided dumping into our atmosphere.  That clean operation contributes heavily to keeping our famously pristine Vermont air famously pristine. Employment statistics put the number of jobs directly connected with the plant and its operation at around 650 people, and the impact on the state economy in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  Obviously, shutting down the plant isn’t just a matter of pulling the plug.

Second, the cons:  VY’s design closely resembles the Fukushima reactor in Japan that failed in the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.   The 2006 upgrade that allows VY to generate approximately 20% more energy beyond its original design specs imposes unknown and unstudied stresses on a reactor structure deteriorating in spite of repairs — uncertainties the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) admits.  The plant stores its spent fuel in containment tanks that are now already at 95% capacity, yet the scheduled recommissioning is for another 20 years.   VY sits on the Connecticut River, whose waters ultimately empty into Long Island Sound.  An accident to either the reactor or fuel containment pools would not only affect the immediate area of mostly small towns, but carry radiation and waste downstream directly into the middle of  major centers of population like Springfield and Hartford, and numerous smaller towns like Greenfield, Deerfield, Northampton and Holyoke, MA, and Enfield, Middletown and Old Saybrook, CT.  It would then spread into the Long Island Sound and quickly impact eastern Long Island.  Tucking the spent rods and other waste away in “remote locations” like Yucca Mountain is no real solution, only a poor stop-gap measure.

Critics cite a string of mostly minor incidents at the plant over the years — small leaks, structural failures, and accidental discharges, as well as cover-ups, lies, bribery and arrogance in responses by the parent company Entergy, which runs eleven other nuclear plants around the country. Vermont governor Peter Shumlin openly says he wants VY shut down.  Entergy’s own website for VY (at www.safecleanreliable.com) addresses safety, somewhat obliquely, with a list of emergency contact numbers and the statement:  “The area approximately 10 miles around the Vermont Yankee is called the Emergency Planning Zone. Plans have been developed for warning and protecting people within this 10-mile area.”  Within this 10 mile radius live approximately 35,000 people. Yet after the Fukushima reactor meltdown in Japan, the NRC recommended that Japan extend its emergency safety zone radius to 50 miles.   The number of people within a 50 mile radius of VY is 1,500,000.

Here’s an aerial view of VY, courtesy of Entergy:

VY may well be shut down in some future election cycle, or it may face a spate of incidents that call into question its safety.  It may even run safely (for a nuclear plant) until its all of its operating extensions expire.  Until then, unless I and everyone else who benefits from the plant volunteer to cut our energy usage by that 30% that VY generates, and help subsidize a transfer to alternate sources of energy, can we justify our self-righteous claims to “shut it down” with no further personal sacrifice?  What are we willing to give in order to get what we want?

Though some people deride our Druid rituals and mock our perspectives about the earth, what we do to the world we do to ourselves in very real ways.  The facts can be disputed — the principle operates in full force as it always has.  What goes around comes around: we know this, which is why such sayings have penetrated the common language and consciousness.  We alive today are part of the world’s karma — our karma, the choices we make and actions we take every day.  I turned on the oven to heat my lunch earlier today.  Would I be willing to make do with a solar oven, or eat my meal cold, or … any of a number of alternatives?

A Wise One observed that in the last decade the entire world had the opportunity to accept a major initiation — a step forward in consciousness, based in large part on our accepting greater responsibility for our actions and their consequences.  As a single aware corporate entity, the world consciousness refused this opportunity.  (Was it majority vote?!) Individually we still all grow at our own paces, but we also take part in a world shaped by planetary consciousness as a whole, to which we each contribute a part.  We can plainly see the results all around us right now, and whatever we may think of the ultimate causes, they began in human choices. As Gandalf observes (and why shouldn’t a decent movie Druid get his share of press?), if we regret the choices we see and the consequences of those choices which we know many will suffer, “so do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”  And that is enough for any film character, or four-dimensional beings like ourselves.  Each life improved is a life improved, and within our circles we can accomplish much of value before we leave this world.  It is not our task to redeem the planet.  World-saviors appear in flesh and myth to do such tasks.  (Unless you’re signing up for the job, in which case you should have been told where to go and what to do.  Just don’t ask me.)  The time that is given to us is enough to fill with the best that is in us right now — not in some imagined future “when we — or our people — have the power.”  To leave the last words again to Gandalf:  “[I]t is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

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About Initiation, Part 3

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

The circle of a dozen or so Druids in the grove ahead wait in silence as I approach with my guide.  Half are dressed in ceremonial garb, and the chief Druid, in addition to her white robe, wears a circlet on her brow.  Just below it, three streaks of white descend and splay outward — the three rays of awen*, spiritual illumination and inspiration.  They stand out on her tanned skin.  In that instant, other faces flash in my awareness — followers of Vishnu and Shiva, who wear similar ritual tilak, facial markings that identify them as devotees of their god.  I know from prior experiences that I have lived past lives in India.  Initiation often links us to previous openings of consciousness, a reminder of this long path we walk.

In the same instant, my awareness shifts again.  What we do here feels immemorially ancient — the grove, the gathered initiates, the ritual challenge, the spiritual power invoked to seal the rite, the sense of kinship with these people.  The circle also feels larger than the number I can see — many who are present come “without their skins on.”  The form of the rite is endlessly variable, and yet always the same at heart: Will I accept this opportunity to grow?  Even as awe runs its cat-feet up and down my spine, I think how many times I have no doubt answered with my life:  “No.  I am afraid.  Other things matter more.  Doing nothing is easier.  I don’t like change.”  But from these half-beginnings and false starts, and from the times I did inch forward, I have built up a reservoir of spiritual momentum that serves me now.  I have grown since those times, willingly and unwillingly.  I can do more now, because of what I did then. How much still remains to be seen.  But I am newly initiate. I have begun … again.

We cannot readily live in this consciousness all the time without training and discipline.  But it serves as a foretaste of what is possible.  This is, after all, initiation — a beginning, an open door.  How and whether I move forward depends on me.

“You are the best you’ve ever been,” a Wise One tells the disciples gathered to listen and question.  I measure this against a nagging sense of having lost much of what I once knew, and could do.  Is this an echo of wisdom and achievement I threw away sometime in the past, or an inkling of what lies ahead?  If I’m the best now, with the crap I know I have hanging off me, what kind of schmuck was I, oh, say a thousand years ago, or ten lives into the past?!  And so we introvert and let our weaknesses decide who we are, rather than knowing they are merely guidelines for where to bring the light, where to put conscious intention rather than unthinking reaction.  If I can perceive them, I’m part-way to no longer letting them rule.

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

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*Awen (ah-wehn), a Welsh word meaning “inspiration, illumination,” also serves in OBOD some of the same purposes that OM does for meditators in other traditions.  As an echo of primordial sound, it is chanted in ceremonies and in private.

The three rays of awen are sometime represented thus:  /|\  (I use a triple awen as a text divider and as part of this site’s design.) OBOD uses a three-rayed awen, topped with three dots, as a logo and symbol of the Order.

Image:  tilak.

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 — 4 of 7 — the Law of Limits

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

“Everything that exists is subject to limits arising from its own nature, the nature of the whole system of which it is a part, and the nature of existence itself.  These limits are as necessary as they are inescapable, and they provide the foundation for all the beauty and power each existing thing is capable of manifesting.”*

Though it’s not good New Age gospel to admit it, we’re faced with limits and boundaries all the time, and more to the point, that’s a good thing, for the reason Greer points out, and for others.  Limits are the counterweight, the resistance for our training, the sparring partner to keep us in fighting trim.  Rules change on other planes of existence, but to manifest power and beauty here, limits are absolutely essential.  They’re the valve that allows us to build up pressure in the boiler, the enclosure that intensifies the heat of the fire, the focus for the laser — or the conscious, persistent human intention that manifests a goal.

Physical limits allow us to give shape to things, and to have a reasonable expectation they’ll stay in that shape, usefully, predictably.  These rules don’t apply in the same way elsewhere.  All of us have had experience on, and of, at least one other plane, the astral, where most dreams occur.  You know how fluid and changeable the forms and shapes are there.  The dog chasing you morphs into a car you’re riding in with the person who bullied you in high school.  You look closely and that person’s hands aren’t holding the steering wheel any longer, but clutching a bouquet of flowers instead, two of which turn into ropes that winch you so tight you can’t breathe.  You struggle, wake up gasping, and — thank God! — you’re in your bed. It’s the same bed as last night, last week, last month, the bed which someone made years ago, and it stays put, reassuringly solid and unchanging beneath you, obeying the laws of this physical world.  You slowly come back from the feeling-sensation of your dream on the astral plane, welcoming the heaviness of your physical body around you, touching a few of the things here, pillows and sheets, your partner, a pet curled against your thigh or your face, the nightstand or wall beside your bed.  Familiar, stubbornly solid objects and beings, responding to gravity and inertia.  Yes, things mostly stay put here, in this world.  Though we all have stories about the car keys …

The image at the top comes from a site with its own take on freedom and limits.  What I find interesting is the image of flight presented as one of limitless freedom.  Yet flight depends on air, resistance, lift, momentum, wing span and area, an appropriate center of gravity, and so on.  Not everything stays aloft after you fling it into the air, and flight in a vacuum like in space follows different rules than flight in an atmosphere.  It can seem paradoxical that freedom increases the better we understand and work within limits.

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

Image:  glider.

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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The Fertile Virgin

“Only what is virgin can be fertile.”  OK, Gods, now that you’ve dropped this lovely little impossibility in my lap this morning, what am I supposed to do with it?  Yeah, I get that I write about these things, but where do I begin? “Each time coming to the screen, the keyboard, can be an opportunity” — I know that, too.  But it doesn’t make it easier.   Why don’t you try it for a change?  Stop being all god-dy and stuff and try it from down here.  Then you’ll see what it’s like.

OK, done?  Fit of pique over now?

I never had much use for prayer.  Too often it seems to consist either of telling God or the Gods what to do and how to do it (if you’re arrogant) or begging them for scraps (if they’ve got you afraid of them, on your knees for the worst reasons).  But prayer as struggle, as communication, as connecting any way you can with what matters most — that I comprehend.  Make of this desire to link an intention.  A daily one, then hourly.  Let if fill, if if needs to, with everything in the way of desire, and hand that back to the universe.  Don’t worry about Who is listening.  Your job is to tune in to the conversation each time, to pick it up again.  And the funny thing is that once you stop worrying about who is listening, everything seems to be listening (and talking).  Then the listening rubs off on you as well.  And you finally shut up.

That’s the second half, often, of the prayer.  To listen.  Once the cycle starts, once the pump gets primed, it’s easier.  You just have to invite and welcome who you want to talk with.  Forget that little detail, and there can be lots of other conversations on the line.  The fears and dreams of the whole culture.  Advertisers get in your head, through repetition.  (That’s why it’s best to limit TV viewing, or dispense with it altogether, if you can.  Talk about prayer out of control.  They start praying you.)  They’ve got their product jingle and it’s not going away.  Sometimes all you’ve got in turn is a divine product jingle.  It may be a song, a poem, a cry of the heart.  The three Orthodox Christian hermits of the great Russian novelist Tolstoy have their simple prayer to God:  “We are three.  You are three.  Have mercy on us!”  Over time, it fills them, empowers them.  They become nothing other than the prayer.  They’ve arrived at communion.

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Equi-nox.  Equal night and day.  The year hanging, if only briefly, in the balance of energies.  Spring, a coil of energy, poised.  The earth dark and heavy, waiting, listening.  The change in everything, the swell of the heart, the light growing.  Thaw.  The last of the ice on our pond finally yields to the steady warmth of the past weeks, to the 70-degree heat of Tuesday.  The next day, Wednesday, my wife sees  salamanders bobbing at the surface.  Walk closer, and they scatter and dive, rippling the water.

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I once heard a Protestant clergywoman say to an ecumenical assembly, “We all know there was no Virgin Birth.  Mary was just an unwed, pregnant teenager, and God told her it was okay.  That’ s the message we need to give girls today, that God loves them, and forget all this nonsense about a Virgin birth.”  …  I sat in a room full of Christians and thought, My God, they’re still at it, still trying to leach every bit of mystery out of this religion, still substituting the most trite language imaginable …

The job of any preacher, it seems to me, is not to dismiss the Annunciation because it doesn’t appeal to modern prejudices, but to remind congregations of why it might still be an important story (72-73).

So Kathleen Norris writes in her book Amazing Grace:  A Vocabulary of Faith.  She goes on to quote the Trappist monk, poet and writer Thomas Merton, who

describes the identity he seeks in contemplative prayer as a  point vierge [a virgin point] at the center of his being, “a point untouched by illusion, a point of pure truth … which belongs entirely to God, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.  This little point … of absolute poverty,” he wrote, “is the pure glory of God in us” (74-5).

So if I need to, I pull away the God-language of another tradition and listen carefully “why it might still be an important story.”  Not “Is it true or not?” or “How can anybody believe that?”  But instead, why or how it still has something to tell me.  Another kind of listening, this time to stories, to myths, our greatest stories, for what they still hold for us.

One of the purest pieces of wisdom I’ve heard concerns truth and lies.  There are no lies, in one sense, because we all are telling the truth of our lives every minute.  It may be a different truth than we asked for, or than others are expecting, but it’s pouring out of us nonetheless.  Ask someone for the truth, and if they “lie,” their truth is that they’re afraid.  That knowledge, that insight, may well be more important than the “truth” you thought you were looking for.  “Perfect love casteth out fear,” says the Galilean.  So it’s an opportunity for me to practice love, and take down a little bit of the pervasive fear that seems to spill out of lives today.

Norris arrives at her key insight in the chapter:

But it is in adolescence that the fully formed adult self begins to emerge, and if a person has been fortunate, allowed to develop at his or her own pace, this self is a liberating force, and it is virgin.  That is, it is one-in-itself, better able to cope with peer pressure, as it can more readily measure what is true to one’s self, and what would violate it.  Even adolescent self-absorption recedes as one’s capacity for the mystery of hospitality grows:  it is only as one is at home in oneself that one may be truly hospitable to others–welcoming, but not overbearing, affably pliant but not subject to crass manipulation.  This difficult balance is maintained only as one remains [or returns to being] virgin, cognizant of oneself as valuable, unique, and undiminishable at core (75).

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This isn’t where I planned to go.  Not sure whether it’s better.  But the test for me is the sense of discovery, of arrival at something I didn’t know, didn’t understand in quite this way, until I finished writing.  Writing as prayer.  But to say this is a “prayer blog” doesn’t convey what I try to do here, or at least not to me, and I suspect not to many readers.  A Druid prayer comes closer, it doesn’t carry as much of the baggage as the word “prayer” may carry for some readers, and for me.  “I’m praying for you,” friends said when I went into surgery three years ago.  And I bit my tongue to keep from replying, “Just shut up and listen.  That will help both us a lot more.”  So another way of understanding my blog:  this is me, trying to shut up and listen.  I talk too much in the process, but maybe the most important part of each post is the silence after it’s finished, the empty space after the words end.

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Norris, Kathleen.  Amazing Grace:  A Vocabulary of Faith.  New York:  Riverhead Books, 1998.

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