Archive for the ‘magic’ Category

Working Your What, Part 3: Sleep and Waking

[Updated 1 August 2020]

It’s Lunasa, or Lughnasadh, the Assembly of Lugh, god of many skills, a harvest festival, and also a time of funeral games, as Lugh mourns and commemorates his foster-mother Tailtiu. Even as the southern hemisphere eases through winter, into not-quite-yet spring, the north gazes into the darkening half of the year, the light of summer still burning brightly. As with each of the great eight festivals, Lunasa includes its own shape and interval of balance and opportunity for reflection.

The Denton Texas CUUPS (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) will hold an online Lunasa ritual. Copying/pasting from John Beckett’s blog:

The complete ritual will be presented as a YouTube Premiere this Saturday, August 1, at 8:00 PM Central Time. That’s 7:00 PM on the West Coast, 9:00 PM on the East Coast, and 2:00 AM on Sunday in Britain, Ireland, and Portugal.

Here’s the link: https://youtu.be/FaeYgEXU7hg

The Youtube link will remain up in case you’d like to view it later.

Its paired festival is Imbolc, and meditation on the linkages between them can bring useful insight.

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One of the more astonishing behaviors that so many living things do, including humans, is to sleep and wake again. (Why not write your own journal entry to explore connections between waking and sleep, birth and death.) If sleep and waking for yourself seems utterly commonplace and not worth thinking about, try watching your child, or partner, or dog or cat or bird or other pet, transition through these states of consciousness. If the cat or child falls asleep in your arms, you may find yourself consenting to cramp and stiffness just to avoid moving and waking them. Something of the magic has rubbed off on you, in spite of everything.

dog-sleep

You may begin to sense what a strange or even uncanny thing this shift of consciousness really is. We do it every day all our lives and usually think nothing of it. It comes with the operating system we’re running. It’s part of our software, hardware, wetware and spiritware. Only when the sleep mechanism doesn’t work do we often start to notice.

Anyone curious about what sort of thing a self is might well wonder what’s going on. Judging simply on the basis of sleep — where does the “I” go, and how does it “come back” again? — a self starts to seem far more malleable, changeable, supple and fluid than we’ve been led to believe. And that, as many of us can attest, may feel both terrifying and liberating, as brushes with reality often do.

We know from daily experience that sleep performs a number of resets. It can deliver a changed perspective on a problem or challenge, and also toss us into a landscape where the laws of earth-physics no longer apply, or run in the opposite direction and convince us we already are awake, until we actually do wake up, much to our surprise.

From such a triad of qualities — insight, alternative reality, convincing similarity to waking — many have deduced profound truths about human consciousness and cosmic order. But we don’t even need to extrapolate quite so far to work with those three as they come. Sleep on it, we say. We might well say, let go of it until it assumes a new form, rather than clutching it so tightly it can’t change. And often the thing I’m clutching most tightly is my sense of self, refusing to let it “slip into something more comfortable”.

wood-child

Rather than being tougher than my problems, battering them into submission through my superior will and skill, I can learn to be more flexible with them, working with my charm and finesse. But how can I? A song, a poem, a charm, a prayer, a supple turn and bend, rather a full-on frontal assault. Problem-solving, also known as living, starts to look like a form of martial art, a study of forms, flow and approaches. It can become a practice toward mastery, an affirmation of the value of being alive. It can even, on occasion — though it can be heresy to say it — be an experience of joy. And one of a further set of contemplation-questions may take the stage: What else can I wake up from? Or what can’t I wake from, or fall asleep to? Do I even know?

The verisimilitude to waking experience of some dreams can easily lead us to conclude that waking experience itself is similar in kind — one among a number of options, rather than the only “real” or final one.  Maybe one from which we can awaken further, one step of a larger stairway. From there it’s often only a turn or two to playing intentionally with awareness and consciousness, testing how solid the boundaries are between states of consciousness, and where the hinge-points and doorways might lie. And among the tools to activate those kinds of testing and play, ritual pattern-making, meditation, visualization and other means can prove highly effective, and safer than some pharmaceutical options pushed on us by both licensed and unlicensed pushers.

Mat Auryn’s Psychic Witch (Llewellyn, 2020) offers an excellent and fresh set of exercises for exploring adjacent and transformed states of consciousness. With a text centered on a series of 93 exercises, any summary I attempt will fail to do it justice, but in Auryn’s hands this book is the next best thing to taking a workshop with the author, in these pandemic times. John Beckett posts a useful review here.

If he has an over-arching theme, Auryn captures it early on:

Whatever you touch will touch you back. The simplest way that I can try to explain it is that when you spend time touching the core of the earth, soaking in the stars, communing with the moon, aligning with the elements, working with the gods and spirits, it changes a person (4).

How we respond to such contact says much about what our life experiences will be and where they will take us. Such contact is already taking place. We’ve already touched and been touched by a lot in the years we’ve been alive. It’s not a matter of if but of when, how, how much and to what effect, and sorting out what those mean for us, if we’re inclined to take that on as a project, one of the most worthwhile ones we can, whether as challenge or opportunity, as art or science or faith or some giddy mix of all three.

I’ll close with a personal observation from my own idiosyncratic practice:

Every day, like everyone else, I experience many differing states of consciousness, moving from deep sleep to REM sleep to dream to waking, to daydream, to focused awareness and back again. We make these transitions naturally and usually effortlessly — so effortlessly we usually don’t even notice or comment on them. But they serve different purposes: what we can’t do in one state, we can often do easily in another. The flying dream isn’t the focus on making a hole in one, nor is it the light trance of daydream, nor the careful math calculation. And further, what we ordinarily do quite mechanically and often without awareness, we can learn to do consciously.

May you sleep and wake again.

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Images: Pexels.com

Working Your What, Part 1: Ancestors

[Updated 26 July 2020]

Part of my what is ancestor magic. And — no surprise — it’s not a fully-worked-out thing by any means. It doesn’t need to be, because unlike fully-worked-out and therefore dead things, my magic is alive. Sometimes like all living things it changes and shifts where I don’t expect it. Yes, my mind can still run circles around my practice, with arguments like But the ancestors have already reincarnated and they’re off on new adventures. They’re not just waiting around on the off-chance that maybe you’ll finally notice them and pay attention to them!

To which another part of me answers You’re thinking from a limited vantage-point. There’s no time in the place where we meet with the ancestors. Or rather, all of time opens up, if we allow it, for ancestors and descendants alike. What I did yesterday and will do today ripples back and forth through time, just like the actions of everyone else flow and eddy and wash across other lives. Yes, in some of what I do, I fulfill an ancestral goal or vision in my life today, and also launch my own projects, and sow my own dreams. I may work to rebalance excesses and extremes set in motion long ago, and extend long-term projects and plans, even as I add my own energies to the stream which others in their turn live and work in. And some of those others may be the ancestors themselves, returned to take up the Great Work.

A tool for my magic and my connection to ancestors:

Below is a picture from nearly a century ago in 1922, of three generations on my mother’s side. In the small-town Iowa living room, she’s the youngest, the dark-haired three-year-old near the center, looking down at the doll in her arms. Everyone’s standing in front of the fireplace — though all you can see are the bricks and the mantle above. On either side of my mother are my aunt and uncle, ten and five respectively. The young woman on the arm of the chair to the right is my grandmother Lila, with her father, my great-grandfather, ensconced in the wicker chair, the bald patriarch of the clan, calmly reading. Facing him is my great-grandmother in a dark dress, her laced boots mirroring her husband’s. It’s all carefully posed, an image of the white middle-class domestic ideal of the time.

generations

What magical uses here? you ask. So many. What is remembered lives, runs the Pagan proverb. Another is the magic of images themselves — this image, both frozen and alive in time, potent to evoke. (Remember that image is any sense impression: yours may be a song, or a recipe, the taste of family. Or an heirloom, cherished family object whose touch rouses memory.)

Another piece of magic: I know everyone’s names here, and the lives of everyone but my great-grandparents overlapped with mine. But I don’t need names to evoke anyone, because any evocation is built-in to my bones and blood. With each heartbeat I evoke them. They are each already a presence for me, quite literal pieces of my DNA, as well as the stories and impressions I carry. Put a finger on my pulse and I have a practice: with each heartbeat I say the Names — I live because you lived, you live through me. You stand by the family hearth, the fire that still lights and kindles in me, that I pass on.

In any situation, they are a council of elders to consult, a family gathering both in and outside time. One key is to ritualize this, or it will most likely remain a vague impression at best. How to ritualize it matters less: the act of holding them in my attention vividly, aided by gesture, words, objects, and a commitment simply to do the ritual, matter more. I can’t do it “wrong”.

Put a question in meditation, for example, being sure to write it down as well, and watch for dreams and subsequent meditations to round out the query. So much wisdom to draw on, if I can begin to listen to hear it. Each of my ancestors lived out a life with its sorrows and joys. My aunt who never married, in a time when single-dom was much rarer, but built a quiet and modest career as an editor, keeping her sexuality under wraps for most of her life. My uncle, who at 12 years old drove my great-grandmother along country roads in the family car, while she literally “rode shot-gun”, bagging pheasants for Sunday dinner. My grandmother, widowed young, who raised three children. My great-grandfather, who hunted and fished and homesteaded in Sun Valley, Idaho in the late 19th century, before settling down to farm life “back east” in Iowa.

With all this richness of human experience to draw on, I can draw on it to amplify my own, make better choices, honor their lives by living mine more fully, paying forward the investment in family that each made, just by being alive. In such a family gathering, they shift and move from their places in the photo, and turn to take up their lives, before and after the brief flash of the camera that captures their forms in two dimensions. (Oh, let me supply the third dimension of time!)

Another key: I can make of their strengths several charms to strengthen and clarify my path, holding their images and memory as I say the words and lay the spell on myself most of all:

Aim of the hunter is mine, to hit my target. Singleness of purpose is mine, to achieve my goal. Sureness of place is mine, to flourish where I find myself …

Part of my honoring and my magic both is to recognize and embody their strengths. It may reach concrete magical form as a bind-rune or ogham lettering of their names.

Now this is a fragment of my mother’s side of my family. My father’s side, from my perspective, is less easy and comfortable. My relationships with those ancestors are more troubled. Love doesn’t flow as easily or readily. But magic rests there, too, more potent for any difficulty — because they also survived. A great-great uncle and great-grandmother who immigrated to the U.S. in their teens, just the two of them, brother and sister making their way as family servants where they boarded, learning English and acclimating to a strange new country. Survivors of wars and their traumas. My grandmother with the weak heart, knowing a widow’s struggle to keep going through the Great Depression. Illnesses and early deaths. Both common stories, and also utterly personal. We each inherit a full roster of them, and are adding our own right now. Their lives, and my life, are utterly our own, and also glyphs to read for insight and prophecy. Stomach issues on my father’s side, cancer and ulcers: a challenge quite literally to learn better how to stomach the ups and downs of life. Heart issues — what challenges my heart today?

Far more often than I imagine, such signs and wisdom are plain, not hidden at all. Through the concrete details of their lives, the ancestors can provide personalized “prescriptions for living” for their descendants, like this one: find ways to drop stress to clear the path for yourself. Otherwise blockages and barriers will eat you up inside. You eventually arrive at a point where you can see that your inheritance is neither weakness nor strength, but an insight into a long project you’re an integral part of, one that comes with certain parameters you’re working with, whether you choose to recognize them or not, work with them or ignore them.

Practicing ancestral magic means family relationships don’t end just because of death, any more than they do because of birth. Travel to a different era along the time-track, to their time, and I’m the one not yet real, as yet unborn, simply one possibility among many, a descendant whisper they may not hear as they live their lives under clouds and sun, shadow and brightness as vivid as ours today. Yet my birth and subsequent life did happen, and I’m here in my own time, even as I visit theirs, and they visit mine.

I take up the photo again, and in the magic of images and numbers, I’m the seventh element, the six in the photograph complete in themselves, yet also waiting for a missing factor. This is a paradox to work with and explore, how and where (and when) we fit in the cycles and spirals. And it’s a chance, to listen and discover where we find a place, and how we contribute. It comes with work and listening, with knowing all that family means.

Any number of sacred writings have wisdom to offer here: “Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars” (Proverbs 9:1). “The math and myth of seven”, notes Michael Schneider in his A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe, “the Heptad, are intimately related to those of twelve, the Dodekad. Both have in common the interplay of Triad and Tetrad, triangle and square. That is, 3 + 4 = 7, while 3 x 4 = 12” (pg. 233). Use your triangle of manifestation (1 | 2), find your triads, use your four elements, build your own 7 and 12.

But what about those perhaps harsh and bent branches of a family tree? Robert Frost, no stranger to difficult families or to the keenness of multiple personal losses, provides a key to a door that may seem shut and locked. Lest we think ancestral magic is closed to us because of breaking and broken families, he writes in one poem, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in”.

Not necessarily outwardly — that can indeed sometimes be too much to ask of anyone — but inwardly, where all magic is worked. Because Frost’s poem is a conversation between husband and wife about a hired man, someone who both does and doesn’t belong to the family, an increasingly common position many of us may find ourselves in. For the wife replies about home: “I should have called it/Something you somehow haven’t to deserve”.

Ancestral magic finds us where we are, if we care to let it in. It’s then that we may discover how we’ve been practicing it all along in some form, and can build on that practice more consciously, in ways uniquely fitted to our lives and circumstances. I hope that I’ve supplied some hints and suggestions for how to go about recognizing practices we already have, and where we might amplify them, turning up the volume to hear what family, or just one wise member of it, has to tell us that may be useful in these challenging days.

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Finding Your What

newmoon

New moons for old …

You can find any number of blogs that offer you a Druid or general Pagan what: what to do on Lunasa, what to include in a ritual for the full moon, what herbs can help with skin conditions, what to say to family members uncertain or fearful of your non-mainstream interests and practices, what medieval manuscripts tell us about older beliefs and practices, what a recently-published author gets wrong or right, what the presumed origins are for X, Y or Z. Regular readers here know I’ve written a fair number of posts like that myself. Yet I suspect the reason you visit this blog, or keep coming back, is not to track down a reliable source of practical what — others do that better and more regularly — but to see what this crazy old Druid is on about now. Maybe something here will be peculiarly useful this time …

With luck and persistence and the blessings of earth, sea and sky (and in many cases, a band of inward mentors that keep tabs on us in spite of our best efforts to ignore or discount them), you keep practicing and reading and dreaming till you learn how to suss out the kind of what you’re looking for. Through regular practice, you learn that practice itself will guide you to more of your own what, because it hones your inner senses, it magnetizes your inner compass, it locks-and-loads your crap-detector, it re-enchants the mundane taking out the trash and sweeping the floors. You’re doing magic, whether you know it or not, because magic is what humans do. You learn to sort wheat from chaff, gold from garbage. You gain inner confidence. You are, in sum, guided to what works for you. “The purpose of magical arts is to enable the changes within the individual by which he or she may apprehend these further methods inwardly” (1), notes musician and mage R. J. Stewart.

And a special blessing on those of you who do persist, who recognize firsthand the challenges of practice, but who manage to move beyond the “eternal beginner” stage, who do the work, who aspire to wisdom yourselves, to trust your own inner guidance and not always expect someone else to tell you what to do. Your struggle is itself service. Our world needs more Wise Ones like you, today more than yesterday, and tomorrow even more than today. You help hold the soil against the inevitable storms, so there’s something left to plant in, next season, so the next generation can not merely scrounge to survive, but can feast.

Anyone who reads — and even more, follows — this blog knows that the why and the how interest me at least as much as the what, and often far more. Or if you want to think of these as just another kind of what, then it’s the what that lies underneath and behind all the whats of practice. Because if you practice for any length of time, the experience of a practice starts to run thin and turn hollow, if you don’t have things of spiritual substance underlying it.

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Pillar at Four Quarters Sanctuary, Artemas, PA, U.S.A.

So when I read R. J. Stewart’s assertion that “it is not the ritual that confers initiation, but initiation that generates the ritual” (2), I sit up and pay attention. We’ve all had the experience of the “right book at the right time”, or its equivalent — of situations, “chance” encounters, circumstances lining up and smoothly ushering us to growth, change, transformation, love, opportunity. That inner sensibility of ours, sharpened by practice, resonates with what the eyes or ears take in, and we find a new direction, an opening, a doorway.

If we’re alive at all, if we haven’t given up on our own lives as sources of renewal and creativity and possibility, if we still draw on the well-springs of this incarnation, we come to count on initiations. Anyone alive today has been through one already by being born, and most of us have been through several. We may still be sorting out the immediate consequences and long-term effects of ones we’ve passed or are now passing through, and though we may not always welcome the more challenging ones at first, we may well gain perspective that brings us to a point where we can view them as “difficult gifts”. A diagnosis of cancer, as a common example, though it brings suffering and fear and inevitable change, and sometimes a shorter life, can grow our compassion and bring us priceless experiences we would not know in any other way. Equal parts “gift” and “difficult”.

But what of the easier gifts, the initiations that don’t have to devastate us, that don’t drop us squarely into a Dark Night, or shred much of our lives just to get us to look at and live things differently? After all, love and joy, a new friendship, the birth of a child or grandchild, a fulfilling job, a true gift received, a profound insight unfolding, a period of intense creativity — these are initiations, because we’re not the same afterwards. “Initiation emphatically does not consist of powers mysteriously conferred on us during vague quasi-religious ceremonies” (3) — in spite of what New Age gurus suggest.

The what that I’m looking for here are practices that make initiations easier. Let’s look at an obvious big one: I’m going to die, so how can I make that transition smoother? Yes, another art we’ve lost: ars moriendi, the art of dying, was a serious study and practice, not so many centuries ago. And if that sounds too morbid for you, consider it an essential piece of ars vivendi, of living well. Not to garden as if the cherished spot just keeps producing forever, but what to do to take the garden through the autumn and winter, so it’s ready for next spring.

And that’s just one specific initiation. One of my teachers once remarked we’d have a hard time if we knew in advance only the good things coming our way. And though if you’re like me, there are times you’d welcome a chance to prove that teacher wrong, think of all the changes “just the good things” have made in your life. After all, can you really separate out the “bad” from the “good” in any meaningful way?

green trees under blue and orange sky during sunset

Lisa Fotios, Pexels.com

Stewart has a fix on our usual states of consciousness. “The normal flow of our life-energies is wasteful, vague, disorientated, and devoid of intent” (4). Often, it’s “Netflix-and-chill”, or “vegging on social media”. Nothing at all wrong with “letting off steam” — we all do it and need to do it — except that initiation itself flows in the opposite direction. Or as Stewart characterizes it, “a door is opened, or a gate created, both within the individual psyche and in imaginal (but not imaginary or false) worlds, through which the pressurised or shaped energies of the initiate are channeled” (5). Initiation changes us through either the willed or unintended discharge of accumulated energies, which is why “unplanned-for” initiations can so disrupt our lives. I get fired, my marriage ends, my lab test comes back positive, my brakes fail at the intersection. In some sense, then, a part of a sustained spiritual practice is “practice for disruption”. What can fall away, what do I no longer need, what holds me back? Asking for insight on these things, working with what comes, prepares me for smoother initiations that needn’t devastate my whole consciousness, that allow me to find my footing more quickly, and work with rather than against the energies released.

That this isn’t a pipe dream or unrealistic goal meets with confirmation in world-wide myth and legend. In Europe we  see it in “the quest for the Grail, which is a vessel of perpetual regeneration, guarded by terrors and wonders that can and often do destroy the seeker. But the destruction is that of the false personality; the Grail then regenerates the initiate, brings him or her back from the dead” (6).

So any tools that make both needful and “optional” initiations more clearly defined, that help me work with rather than against them, are an increasing part of the what that I want to find, and that I write about here. When Stewart says that “initiation generates the ritual”, at least a piece of that means, for me at least, that I’ll recognize how to tweak my practice because I’ve been practicing along the way. The new directions, the additions and modifications I’m led to make, will arise from what I’ve been doing already. When in meditation some of my friends dedicate their session to sit by the bedside of those dying alone from covid, they serve powerfully and lovingly. We’ve been on the receiving end of such service countless times ourselves, though we may not always recognize it, and what a joy it can be to return the gift as part of a practice.

“In truth”, Stewart notes,

there is only one initiation, and if we were able to relate to it entirely at our first experience all subsequent art of magic would be unnecessary. In practice, however, we unfold and encounter the various harmonics of initiation through what appear to be a series of encounters and inner changes (7).

And often in the middle of such deep transformations we know a profound sense of recognition. We touch our lives stripped of illusions, and what we thought mattered no longer stands between us and the core of life. This sacred encounter, though I may make it accompanied by grief or pain or despair, is real like nothing else I know.

Part of my spiritual apprenticeship, then, is to minimize, around my own life-initiations, the unnecessary grief, shock, pain and despair — not to zero, because that’s almost always unrealistic, but to levels where the sacred encounter itself matters more, and shines through, becomes the dominant and most powerful aspect of the transformation. The next step is a turn toward gratitude for growth. Why waste any initiation, planned or unplanned?

This is a form of spiritual service, because if the changes of initiation throw me off balance, that will ripple to those around me. The first part of the service is to reduce the negative effects of my growth on others, and eventually learn how to help them do the same. And a portion of that service may take place inwardly, just as my friends sit by the bedsides of the dying in contemplation. For all of us are dying daily to the little selves we no longer need, in order to walk another spiral on the magnum opus, the Great Work of our lives.

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(1) Stewart, R. J. Living Magical Arts. London: Blandford, 1987, pg. 3. (More recent reprints and editions available. Avoid ridiculous Amazon used prices. Just checked: Thoth Publications has the best price.)

(2) pg. 86.

(3) pg. 84.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid.

(6) pg. 85.

(7) pgs. 84-85.

 

 

Binary Prisons and Spiritual Freedom

From the heart of the awen to you, from the love each being manifests simply through existing in its uniqueness, from the possibility the cosmos is always showering forth to this moment in life.

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One of the distinctive dynamics of our world is that it appears to function as a stable system. It continually seeks equilibrium or balance. How can that be, I hear myself mutter, when the last 200 years look like some of the most violent and tumultuous in human experience? After all, one of the foundational understandings of Druidry and some other spiritual paths is that human and natural worlds both unfold according to the same patterns and principles, because both exist as parts of the same dynamic flow. How I talk to and treat my garden plants and how I interact with my neighbors come to resemble each other. Douse my plants with pesticides against all manner of worms and bugs; gas, cuff, asphyxiate and shoot the vile Others — many make a direct equation between these acts.

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In the words of the Dao De Jing, that old Chinese classic that attempts to make useful observations on how energy flows through both natural and human worlds and institutions, “extremes don’t last long”. Not because they’re “good” or “bad”, but because extremes are inherently unstable and unsustainable. Push for one extreme, and the planet’s tendency towards natural equilibrium will reassert itself. The world will rebalance in the opposite direction, often with just as much vigor as our initial push towards one extreme. Attempt to eliminate all bacteria, and superstrains of the pesky little fellows will emerge, literally to plague us. Oust the Foreign Devils, and then it’s the Communists/Nationalists who polarize the land. Throw off the imperial yoke of the British Empire, and in time those evil Party X or Party Y people will break into our new Eden and foul things up. Round up and imprison-exterminate-exile-convert all those evil Others, and a new Other will take shape. In a demonstrable sense, the (binary) door always slams us in the back on our way in or out.

OUR HUMAN GENIUS is MANIFESTATION

That decidedly does not mean we shouldn’t work for changes we desire. After all, we can each point to successes in manifesting at least some of the things we want — manifesting is what we do each day. It does mean that when we enter a binary dynamic and pursue one side too forcefully and unskillfully, the back-and-forth of rebalancing that results may end up strengthening both sides to roughly the same degree. The result is a feedback loop, a self-reinforcing polarization that builds and builds. But a binary isn’t our only choice, just one among a good range of ’em.

As Exhibit A of an active binary, examine media on both ends of the recent U.S. political spectrum, and you soon see how each pole has come to adopt apocalyptic rhetoric and characterize the victory of the other side, whether in November, or tomorrow, or right now, as “the end of America”. Each chooses a side, dons the appropriate Superman-Batman-Jedi Knight-Righteous Warrior-Crusader costume, and sallies forth to do battle. Eventually, regardless of my current score in the game, I stand convinced of my moral superiority, I keep fighting the good fight, and I exhort others to do the same, or shame them for an uncaring heartlessness almost as bad as siding outright with the Opposition.

Long-time readers of this blog know that over the decades I’ve grown to admire J. M. Greer for his useful and test-able insights. One of his more acute set of observations concerns the kind of polarization we now face. His “Getting Beyond the Narratives: An Open Letter to the Activist Community” is well worth studying. It’s a thoughtful response to a specific book, so you can see previous instances of what we’re facing today, but it’s also a good look at our ongoing tendency to entrap ourselves in binaries of Us vs. Them, Good vs. Evil, Civilians vs. Police — and at productive ways out from such binary prisons. Greer writes at one point:

When activists define their role wholly in terms of resistance and refusal, of “articulat[ing] a NO to the system” rather than pursuing a positive ideal, they guarantee that they’ll perpetually be scrambling to counter some new assault by the system, trying to maintain an inadequate status quo against the threat of further losses, rather than making the system and its defenders scramble to counter efforts to change the status quo for the better.

He reminds us of what Buddhists have called upaya, “skillful means” for moving forward. He looks at binaries, or reifications of a situation, but also at the remarkable energies that can be liberated for our use when we sidestep such polarizations. Such binaries, he notes,

are problematic because they can distract [people] from points of access where their actions can make a difference. Consider George Lakey’s fascinating account of the Otpor movement against Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in his article “Strategizing for a Living Revolution” (pp. 135-160). One of the tactics Otpor members used to halt police violence against them was to take photos of their wounded and make sure the family members, neighbors, and children of the police got to see them. This was a brilliant bit of magic. The individual human beings who made up that reified abstraction, “the police,” were stripped of that identity by a spell of unnaming, and turned back into neighbors, husbands, children, parents: people who were part of civil society, and subject to its standards and social pressures. That couldn’t have been achieved if Otpor had reified and protested “police brutality,” since that act would have strengthened the reification of police as something other than ordinary members of society.

A STRATEGY for BOTH LARGE and SMALL

This potent strategy is one I can apply not only to the kinds of events now convulsing many places in the U.S. but also to other stagnated, reified situations where I’ve labeled myself into a dark place.

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irises already flowering — early this year

A similar strategy of depolarization emerges in an NPR segment (link to recording and transcript) broadcast two days ago on 4 June. The segment’s titled “Police Officers, During Protests, Are Resembling Soldiers In War Zones”. In a short 5:02-minute interview, the NPR reporter speaks with Patrick Skinner, a former CIA officer, now a Savannah, Georgia police officer, who has chosen to live in the same neighborhood he polices. Skinner remarks:

But I think that instead of a war … you change it. You have a neighbor mindset. And it sounds really cheesy. (Laughter) It is cheesy. But it’s effective. And that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for whatever is kind and effective. I believe that instead of calling people civilians, call them your neighbor because they are. I live here. I work here. I don’t say that police should have to live where they work. This is a personal choice I made. But it really drives home the fact that the people I’m dealing with every day — it’s not a metaphor — they are my neighbors. And so I have to treat them as such.

So many current problems look intractable and unmanageable because we’ve imagined them in a particular way, pumped them full of our doubts and fears at least as much as our optimism and hope. We’re getting back what we’ve been putting in. Greer suggests:

Make an effort to experience the world around you as though today’s global corporate system isn’t a triumphant monster, but a brittle, ungainly, jerry-rigged contraption whose managers are vainly scrambling to hold it together against a rising tide of crises. See the issues that engage your activism in that light, not as though you’re desperate, but as though the system is. It’s a very different perspective from that of most activists, and reaching it even in imagination might take some work, but give it your best try.

The point I’d like to make, once you’ve tried on both stories of the future, is that both of them — the story of corporate triumph and the story of corporate failure — explain the past and present equally well. The actions of the IMF and the World Bank in the last decade or so, for example, can be explained as a power grab by a doomsday economy in the driver’s seat, but they can equally well be explained as desperation moves by a faltering elite faced with a world situation that’s more unsteady and ungovernable by the day.

Which of these stories is true? Wrong question. The events that define either story haven’t happened yet, and which story people believe could well determine which way the ending turns out …

Yet of course these aren’t the only two choices. Philosophers of science have agonized over the hard realization that any given set of facts can be explained by an infinite number of hypotheses. Mages, by contrast, revel in the freedom this implies. The freedom to reinterpret the world, to abandon a story of desperation for one of possibility and hope, is basic to the worldview of magic. It’s a freedom that today’s progressive community might find it useful to embrace as well.

Finally, Greer shifts gears to a magical alternative of a very practical and particular kind, one that opens up options to us for concrete action, rather than closing them down to the brute oppositions of a dysfunctional binary like some of the ones we’re in:

Toward the beginning of this letter I mentioned that the structures of consciousness are tools of magic. In the system of magic I practice, those structures are identified with the numbers from 1 to 10, understood not as quantities but as abstract relationships. You can experience anything through any number (though numbers above 10 denote relationships too complex for the human nervous system to handle). Each number has its strengths and its weaknesses. If you’re working deliberately with the structures of consciousness — which is to say, if you’re a mage — you choose the structure/number you use based on the effects you want to get. Most of the time, for reasons too complex to get into here, you choose one, two, or three.

Anything seen through the filter of the number one is called a unary. When you see something as a unary, you highlight qualities in it such as wholeness, indivisibility, and isolation. See it through the number two, as a binary, and you’ll highlight different qualities such as division, conflict, balance, and complementarity. See it through the number three and still different qualities such as change and complexity will be highlighted. All these have practical implications. If you want people to cooperate and build community, get them to think of themselves as part of a unary; if you want them to quarrel and resist change, convince them they’re on one side of a binary; if you want them to make change, make them think of their community and their world as a ternary.

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May our practices, whatever they are, wherever we draw inspiration, help us grow and learn and act wisely and lovingly in the coming weeks and months. May we see and hear the wise teachers already in our lives. May we work for the good of the whole.

Review of J. M. Greer’s The Mysteries of Merlin

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image: Amazon.com. Fair use.

Greer, John Michael. The Mysteries of Merlin: Ceremonial Magic for the Druid Path. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2020.

Let me be clear up front that I’m reviewing this book as an interested reader, obviously not as someone who’s tried out over time the specific rituals Greer presents and can speak from that perspective. After all, the book just appeared in print this month. If you’ve already worked with the materials in his Celtic Golden Dawn, you’re well on your way to intuiting and valuing what he is doing here.

That means I’m reading and responding as sensitively as I can out of my own experiences with comparable ritual and magical practices. The best “review” of such a book, of course, is applying the rituals and techniques in the manner Greer recommends, over time, and only then assessing the results for oneself.

A mystery, as I need to remind myself as much as anybody, is something that simultaneously deepens and opens with steady practice. It emphatically does not mean something that remains obscure or inaccessible despite our best efforts. The Mysteries of Merlin as Greer presents them here are a comprehensive and cohesive set of rituals and techniques that point us toward discovery. Mysteries in the older sense of the word, as Greer points out, are “the traditional name for rituals of initiation linked to seasonal cycles and based on the mythic narratives of Pagan gods and goddesses” (pg. 2). Greer’s Mysteries of Merlin are founded on a variety of sources that he names and discusses. Chief among these are Medieval authors like the 12th-century Geoffrey of Monmouth, author of the The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Brittaniae) and of the stranger Life of Merlin (Vita Merlini).

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15th-century illustration for an edition of Geoffrey’s History. King Vortigern and the dragons. Lambeth Palace Library MS 6. Wikipedia public domain image.

The book, as Greer sets out in the very first sentence, presents what may seem an unusual marriage of practices: “a system of self-initiation that is based on ancient Celtic Pagan spirituality but uses the tools of modern ceremonial magic. That combination, though it has roots going back many centuries, may startle readers familiar with the attitudes of today’s Pagan and occult communities” (pg. 1) about magic. And Druidry, more than most revivals, has aroused suspicion in some quarters for its “awkward” (Greer’s word) position that straddles both worlds, incorporating elements from a variety of sources, magical and Pagan both. Furthermore, self-initiation, which has come under attack as a modern invention and a contradiction in terms, is something Greer reminds us was a valid and established ancient practice as well.

The proof, as always, lies in practice: quite simply, does it work? This is an experimental question, not one which armchair debate can answer. Work through the three grades of material, for Ovate, Bard and Druid (Greer prefers this older sequence) over the course of three years of seasonal practice with the “Great Eight” holy days of the Pagan year, and anyone can answer that question for themselves.

A book like this also necessarily relies on intelligent and wise reconstruction and improvisation. And that leads me to one of the things I’ve come to appreciate about Greer’s writing: how he contextualizes what he writes, while suggesting directions for further study and exploration. Rather than merely springing a new magical system on readers as if full-grown from the brow of Zeus, he clearly acknowledges its origins, and notes where he has “back-engineered” aspects of his material from documents or from intelligent surmise. This is an honesty rare in many modern books on magic. One of the advantages of working with the Merlin material is that interest in Arthur and the Matter of Britain has led to good translations of many original Medieval sources. Greer directs interested readers in many cases toward specific editions of these, as a way to deepen the engagement with and the effects of the rituals he has provided, as well as to build on them.

In this book, more than his earlier ones, Greer also suggests promising avenues of exploration for ways other sets of rituals could be developed. Much of this perspective arises from his earlier work in The Celtic Golden Dawn, which meshes very well with this one. Greer plainly reminds readers about what they are practicing, and in the process answers the criticisms by some Reconstructionists of Revival Druidry:

It’s probably necessary to state in so many words that the rituals, meditations and other practices that will be presented in the chapters that follow are not the same as the ones that were practiced on Bryn Myrddin in the waning years of Roman Britain. The mysteries of that time are lost forever. Even if somehow it became possible to recover the words and ritual actions that once made up the mysteries of the god Moridunos [explained earlier], for that matter, their meanings have passed beyond recovery. Like all meanings, spiritual and otherwise, they unfold from a context in which language, culture, and history all take part. No one alive today can possibly experience the world in the same way as a Roman Briton of the fifth century CE, and for exactly the same reason — even if the ancient mysteries of Moridunos were available in their original form — no one alive today could possibly experience those mysteries in the same way that a Roman Briton would have done in the fifth century CE.

Times change, and so do the mysteries. The Eleusinian mysteries themselves underwent countless changes, major and minor, over the period of more than a thousand years that they were celebrated. The transformations that apparently turned the mysteries of Merlin Caledonius into the Master Mason degree of modern Freemasonry are, as we’ve seen, far from unusual in the history of initiatory rites. What’s more, just as there were many different mysteries in ancient Greece that centered on the myth of Demeter and Persephone, using different rituals to do so, the mysteries of Merlin set out in this book are only one of many possibilities. In the work of initiation, there is no such thing as “only one right way” (pgs. 45-46).

Some specific details of Greer’s book that deserve brief mention:

+ complete rituals for each of the eight yearly holy days, for each of the grades of Ovate, Bard and Druid — pages 103-175.

+ the suggestion that Christian mysteries could be developed along similar lines (and that such a start has indeed already begun, citing John Plummer’s The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement).

+ the development of “The Rite of the Rays”, an awen mini-ritual, using the shape of the three-rayed awen /|\ for gesture and affirmation as part of the larger ritual for each holy day. On a personal note, this informs and confirms work I’ve been doing with the awen and its symbolism, as participants at Gulf Coast Gathering 2017 and MAGUS 2019 will discern.

+ Arthurian-themed visualizations and readings for inclusion in each of the seasonal rituals and for meditation and path-working. These seem to pair up well, I suggest, with Celtic and Arthurian tarot decks.

+ the use of a symbolic octagram throughout the eight seasonal rituals, and at the Druid level, an entire Octagram Ritual, with a detailed correspondence to a Celtic-themed and -named version of the universal Tree of Life.

+ the recognition that different levels of devotion and commitment to engagement and practice will naturally exist among practitioners, that this is a good and normal phenomenon, and that provision and recommendations for each level can help practitioners find what works best for them.

+ the flexibility of the ritual format provided here for both solitary and group practice. The focus is on solitary practice, but the rituals lend themselves to adaptation for group work if desired.

+ the value of continued working after having passed through all three grades. Practitioners can

decide whether to go on to become one of the epoptai, the initiates who continue to participate in the ceremonies after their initiation and gain the deeper dimensions of initiation that come with that experience. If you do, you will find — as the epoptai of the Eleusinian mysteries found in ancient times, and as members of other initiatory orders have found over and over again since that time — that repeated participation in a set of initiatory rites opens up portal after portal. Still, you and you alone can decide whether this choice is right for you (pg. 151).

+ the Appendix — “Other Mysteries, Other Gods”, which though clocking in at just seven pages, deserves careful meditation. Here again are humility and natural authority combined — something I savor! Greer observes,

The same process of revival and reworking I have applied to the legends of Merlin can, in fact, be applied to any suitable body of myth or legend to create a system of seasonal mysteries suited to regular performance by individuals or groups. Whatever deities or sacred figures you revere, whatever tradition of spirituality and magic you happen to practice, you can craft a set of mystery rituals suited to your own needs. If you’re prepared to put in the necessary work, the following steps will bring you to that goal (pg. 189).

+ the closing two sentences, which appear at the end of the Appendix just mentioned. Though Greer obviously completed the book before the virus launched on its current trajectory, the encouragement and value of his words in bolstering our spiritual effort is all the keener for its applicability in a time of choice, despair, distraction and spiritual need:

As you celebrate the mysteries, whether you choose the mysteries of Merlin set out in this book or a set of ceremonies you create yourself, you are participating in one of the great spiritual transformations of history: the rebirth of Pagan spirituality after more than sixteen centuries of violent suppression and persecution. The hard work and flexibility needed to make the mysteries you celebrate as rich and rewarding as they can be is a fitting contribution to that project (pg. 196).

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As Above, So Below: Really?!

[Edited/updated 2 May 2020]

Ye Gods, what does that say about the Above right now?!

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backyard pond, Monday afternoon

The direction of flow, as I’m still learning, is pretty much from Above to Below. What we experience here is a mix of what we’ve been working on for a while and what’s shaping to come through now. We’re quarantined in our physical bodies in RSM — the Realm of Slow Manifestation — even as we sense realms of faster manifestation — RFMs.

Which is why this realm can be so amazingly frustrating, difficult, resistant at times. It’s sluggish, a world of inertia and equilibrium. It takes at least some effort to manifest (though we’ve all had those glorious moments where spirit dances through us and we’re not a separate thing from what’s taking on form). If you’ve ever edited a Wiki article, we’re in the Sandbox. It’s rough draft, workshop, not-yet-beta-version. It’s penciled in, a sketch. We tap into RFM in imagination, dream, vision, hunch, ritual, prayer, inspiration — then run straight back into the denser world of RSM when we work on bringing the vision into form, in a world of time and space. Creativity, like any ritual, asks me to ground and center.

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old newspaper makes great ready-to-plant seed starters

The natural world generously sweeps me up into the possibilities of manifestation. The marvel is that it does this every year, in every season, regardless of whether I’m paying attention.

In the Northern hemisphere, spring’s taking center stage now. Trees put out new leaves, seed becomes sprout — the squash seedlings I started a few weeks ago from some hoarded three-year-old seed are rising to greet the light. Sometimes you can almost hear the nature spirits hovering over each green thing whispering Grow, grow.

Like you, I come back each morning into this world of manifestation, and depending on how the previous day went, what foods I took into my body, what thoughts I cherished, what memories glowed, what emotions I encouraged to spark through me, I may or may not look much more than a day older.

selfportHere I am late last night, a bit zombified and stretched after a long day and too much coffee. We wake up each morning to resume this project of physical existence, so immersed in it that we forget nearly everything else that’s going on.

But even the surprise of coming back every day diminishes and leaves us after a while. (You can still see something of that astonishment in the faces of babies and young children.)

By our early teens, most of us take such arrivals for granted, a foundation we presume and build on, forgetting how astonishing it is that each new day things are pretty much as we left them. We’re only surprised when they aren’t, not when they are.

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old year — maple leaves and pine needles

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dandelions in spite of night-time frosts

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lichens on pine stump

Moving my altar stone, even after asking the rock if wanted to move, is a matter of thirty minutes’ labor, counting breaks.

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stages of manifestation 1 — the rock was too heavy to skid on a sheet of metal roofing

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stages of manifestation 2

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stages of manifestation 3

One advantage of this physical realm of weight, inertia, gravity, resistance, and so on is that things (mostly) stay put. I won’t have to re-imagine and re-visualize the rock in place tomorrow. In all likelihood, it will still be where I lugged it. (A magical postulate: car keys and cell phones are apparently exempt from this cosmic law.)

A disadvantage of this physical realm: because of that same weight, inertia, gravity and resistance, I may rush to conclude that things have to stay as they are, that they can only be as they currently manifest. That’s one reason I’m here (I don’t know about you): I’m still learning all the pieces of the art of manifestation, how to do it with grace and love and passion.

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Aladdin — Parts 2 and 3

[Part 1 | Parts 2 and 3]

This post really combines two sections, Parts 2 and 3 of a series, so it’s longer than usual. But I wrote them as a single document, so for now they’re staying together, because they feel closely linked.

Depending on your interest, you might want to focus on one section and skim the other. The first looks at a specific mini Aladdin-ritual I’ve been exploring, as I draft larger rituals. The second examines the remarkable wider cultural context and background of Aladdin.

ONE

https://i0.wp.com/www.robertphoenix.com/content/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/alchemicalmoon.jpgAll magic is polarity magic, intone some Mages who should know better. On the evidence of her novels The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic, Dion Fortune could easily rank among that magical fraternity. (Popularizations of the idea include Berg and Harris’s 2003 Polarity Magic: The Secret History of Western Religion.) It is true that much magic can manifest through working with polarities of many kinds — it resembles electricity in this regard.

The idea of mystical marriage, of two balancing figures, is an ancient and pervasive one. Christians speak of Christ as groom and the Church as bride. Alchemy is replete with images of kings and queens, marriages and dissolutions symbolizing alchemical and spiritual transformations.

Red King and White Queen: the Rosarium PhilosophorumThe 1550 Rosarium Philosophorum “Rosary of the Philosophers” includes images like the one to the right of the Red King and the White Queen, often used to represent sulfur and mercury, energizing and potential forces or modes. But polarities alone can settle into an equilibrium, or stasis. (We experience this in ourselves;  though expressing both forces at least in potential, we may fear or favor one or the other. In some sense, then, we often short-circuit ourselves on our way to manifestation.) The needed third principle, here represented by the dove of Spirit, energizes the alchemical pair. For this reason among others, Druidry develops the principle of the Triad, sometimes represented in ritual as earth, sea and sky, as a reminder that Three are needed for manifestation. (Polarity, by itself, isn’t enough.)

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One pole of a polarity learning to trust the other.

We can see in Aladdin a marriage of such magical currents. The Princess and Aladdin both catalyze each other. Aladdin’s “chance” meeting with Jasmine in the Agrabah market inspires him to pursue the connection they both experienced there. And Jasmine is able to demonstrate full Sultana authority through her association with this other “diamond in the rough” — she activates his potential, helping him become Prince Ali. As some critics have noted, in many ways the story of Aladdin, especially in the 2019 version, has become Princess Jasmine’s story. For she is the real center and heroine of the drama — a further manifestation and unfolding of the archetype.

Each character mirrors for the other the opportunity to transform and manifest who they already are. Aladdin would never have agreed to seek out the lamp for Jafar had the motivation to impress Jasmine not prodded him to act. And Jasmine would never have claimed her rightful identity without the unmasking of Jafar which Aladdin helps her achieve. Aladdin the skillful liar and “street rat” might never be able to tell the real story of himself without Jasmine. And Jasmine might remain “speechless”, without an equal and partner to help her be heard, to speak with the innate authority and force she already possesses.

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The Princess summoning both the movie character and also her Inner Hakim

Check out the double and related meanings of the Arabic word/name hakim: “physician, wise man”; “ruler”. Jasmine summons these forces after the song “Speechless” which confirms she will be heard.

I’ve been exploring a simple mini-ritual that appears to catalyze this on a subtle level. It involves the hands, those magical implements ready to distribute energy, which feature in all manner of social interactions, theater, and human technology, as well as magic. Think of all the idioms in every human language that involve the hands …

Simply put, using the magical understanding of physical polarity in the human body, I can work with the currents of energy that flow through the hands. The right hand is typically charged opposite to the left, so that a circuit of force exists when we take the hands of a person standing opposite us, my right in the other’s left, my left in the other’s right. We can align this way because we mirror each other, irrespective of biological gender.

The mini-ritual I’m practicing involves that link-up with archetypes from the Aladdin story: manifest a connection with those energies through visualization of such a polarity connection. (Versions of this ritual involving another person assuming the identity of another character archetype from the Aladdin story are something I’m still developing.)

I sit, breathing to center and ground myself. Welcoming the particular figure I wish to work with, I hold out my right hand palm downward, imagining the Other’s left hand in mine, palm up. Likewise, I hold out my left hand palm upward, imagining the Other’s right hand in mine, palm down. Together we form a magical circuit, into which I place my intention, spending equal parts of the ritual listening and visualizing. At the close, I offer the “praying hands” gesture of palm to palm as a salute and closing of the ritual. A further visualization and ritual detail: here I join my polarities into a single gesture, acknowledging how I’ve added to my capacity, however subtly, for manifesting the spiritual wholeness that is my true identity.

This mini-ritual has already proven useful in manifesting changes in behavior I have been seeking, including a break with an old habit that no longer serves me as I age. Having “initialized” the gesture as a magical one with a specific intent, I can now make the gesture whenever I find old thought-forms in my awareness, and tap into the magical transformation associated with the gesture to break down the habits of thought and emotion that accompanied the behavior.

TWO

Even as the magical potential of the Aladdin story took hold of my interest and imagination, some obvious questions came with it. Why look outside the Celtic/Northern European world for magical imagery and practices, when that world is so rich and still not fully explored?

Several reasons. First, the Aladdin story is very widely known in the West — its imagery and symbolism are readily available. Beneath the Eastern setting, the story is one already familiar in the West, because it reflects universal elements found worldwide: the Poor Boy Who Makes Good, rising to the level of his inner qualities, the Quest, the Ruler Constrained by Tradition, the Animal Helpers, the Prince-and-Princess love story, the Evil Sorcerer, the Spirit Guide or Teacher, the Magical Object.

In other words, we’re dealing with archetypes.

Second, one of the strengths of Druidry is how we can adapt it to the land where we’re living. Or more accurately, how the Land teaches us to adapt, if we’re listening. This is one of the signal characteristics of Earth Spirituality. British Druidry isn’t the same as American Druidry, which isn’t identical with Australian or New Zealand practice. Names and places change. The seasons often don’t match up from region to region, the land itself has a different history, with different memories, presences, energies, patterns. No reason to keep a practice that doesn’t fit. Good reasons to adapt practices that do.

Building on the previous point, because Aladdin has Middle Eastern and Asian origins, aren’t these posts also instances of cultural appropriation?

In a 2018 Vox.com interview with Susan Scafidi,  who authored Who Owns Culture?, Scafidi notes “there’s a spectrum of cultural appropriation, from harmful misappropriation to creative and often collaborative inspiration”. The interview offers several excellent examples and links, including controversies surrounding pop stars like Beyonce, Madonna and Bruno Mars that, not surprisingly, were sometimes misinterpreted, misreported, sensationalized and politicized.

Scafidi continues: “Source communities themselves are the best arbiters of what is or is not misappropriation … We would never [be able to] taste others’ traditional dishes, buy unfamiliar ingredients, or create fusion cuisines without this kind of permissive exchange”.

And that brings us to a most curious feature of the Aladdin story: the original 1001 Nights didn’t include the most famous stories associated with it — Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad — until the first translation into a European language in 1704 by Frenchman Antoine Galland. Did Galland invent his own stories to add to the collection? Were his claims to hearing additional stories like Aladdin from the Maronite Christian Hanna Diyab truthful?

You can read historian Arafat Razzaque’s 2017 “Who Wrote Aladdin?”, one study of this fascinating history, here. And more generally, the stories that were mostly gathered into The Arabian Nights, or One Thousand and One Nights, have origins, antecedents and versions in Arabic, Chinese, Pali, Sanskrit, Farsi, etc., as well as a history dotted with forgeries, back-translations, reinterpretations, cultural exchanges between Europe and the Mediterranean, and all manner of intrigue, mysterious informants, lost and recovered manuscripts, and so forth.

Razzaque observes:

It is a shameful legacy of authorship that Galland never once bothered to name Hanna Diyab in his publications. In our haste to dismiss Aladdin as an Orientalist construct, we risk further perpetuating this erasure of someone who has been described as “probably the greatest modern storyteller known by name” (Marzolph 2012).

No doubt, it is important to see “the Arabian Nights as an Orientalist text,” as in Rana Kabbani’s classic critique, and to interrogate the ways in which the 1001 Nights has long been used to uphold absurd stereotypes, not least by Disney. Likewise, as even its Arabic printing history suggests, we must remember how the text’s modern production was often tied up in the power dynamics of European colonialism.

But these necessary critiques should not be at the cost of negating the agency and creative imagination of “Orientals” themselves.

For a racier take, here’s Ha-Aretz‘s click-baity titled but still worthwhile “1001 Lies: Everything You Know About Aladdin Is Wrong“.

If you’re interested in still more, consider the soon-to-be-published book cited at the end of this post. (Its price as listed is well beyond my means, but it should be available through interlibrary loans.)

Akel, Ibrahim, and William Grannara. The Thousand and One Nights: Sources and Transformations in Literature, Art, and Science (Studies on Performing Arts & Literature of the Islamicate World). Brill, 2020.

Publisher’s note: “The Thousand and One Nights does not fall into a scholarly canon or into the category of popular literature. It takes its place within a middle literature that circulated widely in medieval times. The Nights gradually entered world literature through the great novels of the day and through music, cinema and other art forms. Material inspired by the Nights has continued to emerge from many different countries, periods, disciplines and languages, and the scope of the Nights has continued to widen, making the collection a universal work from every point of view. The essays in this volume scrutinize the expanse of sources for this monumental work of Arabic literature and follow the trajectory of the Nights’ texts, the creative, scholarly commentaries, artistic encounters and relations to science. Contributors: Ibrahim Akel, Rasoul Aliakbari, Daniel Behar, Aboubakr Chraèibi, Anne E. Duggan, William Granara, Rafika Hammoudi, Dominique Jullien, Abdelfattah Kilito, Magdalena Kubarek, Michael James Lundell, Ulrich Marzolph, Adam Mestyan, Eyup Ozveren, Marina Paino, Daniela Potenza, Arafat Abdur Razzaque, Ahmed Saidy, Johannes Thomann and Ilaria Vitali”.

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Images: Princess Jasmine from Aladdin; fair use for commentary/derived work; copyright Walt Disney Corporation, 2019.

Aladdin as a Source of Magical Practice — Part 1

[Updated 27 April 2020]
[Part 1 | Parts 2 and 3]

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Princess Jasmine as archetype and spiritual guide

In this post, I’ll be looking at the 2019 version of Aladdin as a source for magical images and practices. [WARNING: Spoilers abound!] On the surface, that may seem a strange and doubtful choice as a source for any kind of magical practice. You may well be asking the same question Jasmine asks in the screen capture above, just a few minutes into the film: Where are we, exactly?

After all, both the 1992 cartoon and the 2019 live-action remake issue from what Wikipedia calls an “American diversified multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate headquartered at the Walt Disney Studios complex in Burbank, California”. On the face of it, you can’t get much less Druidic. Trees, introspection, fire circles and reverence for the Land would all seem to fall away before such a commercial and capitalist onslaught.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you start to discover remarkable things.

A–First Level: Questions and contemplation seeds from the script.

Even if you can’t bring yourself to consider a cartoon and then its subsequent commercial remake (what cynics term one instance in a series of blatant cash-grabs as Disney mines its old hits for reboots) as a source of powerful images and prompts for spiritual practice, it still contains some remarkable lines that deserve repeated attention. Here’s an obvious sampling, making up a symbolic initial set of Nine:

1. How do you find (and polish) – a “diamond in the rough”? (The Cave of Wonders during the opening, and later, and also Jafar’s obsession. Of course, he never applies it to himself. Can I?)
2. Where am I, exactly? (Princess Jasmine, on the walk to Aladdin’s ruined tower after they meet in the Market. How would I answer?)
3. Can you be bought? (Aladdin/Prince Ali’s fumbling suggestion in the Palace scene that he can buy the Princess — or her affection — with the gifts the Genie provides.)
4. Have you lost your country? (Jasmine’s provocative challenge to Aladdin/Prince Ali when Ababwa doesn’t show up on her maps. What is my “native land”? Where am I most “at home”?)
5. Are you who you say you are? (Jafar and Aladdin trade versions of this. Is Aladdin’s attempt to be Prince Ali a deception or an inspired piece of self-invention?)
6. Who/what is worthy of your admiration and sacrifice? (From Jasmine’s speech to Jafar and the assembled Court, and her challenge to Hakim.)
7. Where does your loyalty lie? (Jasmine’s direct challenge to Hakim, as Jafar seizes power. A revealing question!)
8. When did you last let your heart decide? (Aladdin’s famous question to Jasmine in the song “A Whole New World”. Can I answer this?)
9. How could I not recognize you? (Jasmine’s vulnerable — and valuable! — question to Aladdin near the end of their carpet ride, when he convinces her he is indeed “Prince Ali”. Is he? A question also to ask of our experiences: do we recognize them for what they actually are? How can we begin to do so? Being able to ask such questions is in itself a wonderful sign of readiness to grow.)

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Princess Jasmine as a figure of transformation

If I take any one of these for a spin, applying it to myself, I have material for rich reflection and insight. These questions can also form hinge-points in a magical rite, offering ritual challenges for participants, opportunities for ritual responses and actions, and thus cues for writing and shaping ritual that leads outward from where I am right now.

B–Second Level: Companions and Doubles

Each of the three principal human characters has an animal familiar — Jasmine and Rajah, Aladdin and Abu, Jafar and Iago. Jasmine and Aladdin each have a further human counterpart or double: Dalia and the Genie, respectively. Their companions, human and animal, mirror their natures. Rajah channels Jasmine’s regal nature, her unexpected capacity for affection (Rajah stalks Aladdin, but then unexpectedly licks his face), and her fierceness. Abu reflects Aladdin’s own capacity for agility, thievery, initiative and improvisation. And Iago is cynical and sneering, as well as clever and observant. As a creature of Air, he goes up against the Carpet, Aladdin’s magical implement granting him the freedom and mobility of Air. The Carpet is torn, then repaired; Jafar-as-Genie sweeps Iago into confinement in his lamp.

Dalia is a servant to the Princess; Jasmine herself is a servant or captive to inflexible tradition, but also aspires to serve her kingdom as its compassionate leader. The Genie expresses (among many other things) the magical nature of imagination, the power of desire, the importance of openness to wonder and the imagination, and the magical riches available when we begin to explore our own diamond-in-the-roughness. He too is a servant, and like Dalia, in the end he is released from servitude — and made human in the bargain.

C–Third Level: Ritual Assumption, Interaction, Pathworking

(For an “auditory overview” of Pathworking, in case you’re not familiar with it, check out Damh the Bard’s current Druidcast episode 157, and the first interview with Peter Jennings.)

With some time spent in contemplation, divination, imaginative practice and experimentation, it’s possible to derive multiple rituals we can name for the principal characters: Agrabah itself, Aladdin, Jasmine, Genie, Jafar and Sultan. What follows are condensed notes on each one of these.

For elemental balance within rituals, Agrabah as a port city representing and invoking Water (or Earth and Water), the stage and setting for a spiritual drama of transformation; the Genie/Jinni as a spirit of Fire; the Carpet as a vehicle and implement of Air; the Cave of Wonders, the markets, and the desert surrounding Agrabah as Earth.

Aladdin: Invoking the element of Air for inspiration, clarity, lightness and improvisation, I work with seeing these things as external to myself, and needing vehicles like lamp, carpet and Genie to manifest what I lack. Then a ritual transition and manifestation, where I can begin to express these things as aspects of myself, no longer props outside me that I need to acquire.

Jasmine: Invoking any one of the elements — perhaps in a series of Jasmine rites — for the stability of Earth against forces that would minimize, discount and dispossess her; Air for the inspiration and imagination to lead, and the vision that leadership asks; Fire for passion and will — things she reveals most powerfully in the staging of the new song written specifically for the 2019 film, “Speechless” (link to official video featuring Naomi Scott), that has earned over 170 million views since its release less than a year ago. (Still think Aladdin is nothing more than a commercial grab? What need does the song respond to?); Water for the port city and country, and for emotional balance and intuition in handling the new power and love that are coming into her life.

Genie: in early versions of the Aladdin story, there is no limit imposed on the number of wishes the Genie grants: own the lamp and the Genie’s magic is yours for the duration. Likewise, in earlier versions the Genie has no desire to escape limits on his existence and action — he doesn’t yearn to no longer be a Genie, or to become human, or to earn his freedom. He simply does what he is. How can I transform my assumptions and expectations and self-imposed limits on my magical nature? What is my Genie ritual? What would my three wishes be? (Or nine, or some other number?)

Jafar: as another figure representing a stage on the spiritual journey, Jafar is also me. Where can I claim power appropriate to my needs and purposes? Alternatively, Jafar could feature in a “Diamond in the Rough” ritual. How does my animal companion mirror to me what I am doing right now? Where am I imprisoned? What are the lamps that now contain me? What is my Shirabad, the city that made me suffer, and where I long to take my revenge? Is my marriage or linking up with other persons, things or attitudes an opportunity to demonstrate something other than the bonds of love (like Jafar’s almost-marriage to Jasmine would have done)?

Sultan: as a figure of maturity and renunciation, the Sultan is an excellent ritual figure for seeing to the heart, for renouncing power that has passed from me but which I may still be clinging to; for recognizing and honoring the emerging feminine forces in my life; for resistance to manipulation, magical or otherwise.

In the next post in this series, I’ll look at some wider issues that touch on magicking something like Aladdin, including cultural appropriation and Orientalism, casting, character names, and additional pieces of the surprising background of the Aladdin story.

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Images: Princess Jasmine from Aladdin; fair use for commentary/derived work; copyright Walt Disney Corporation, 2019.

The Name’s the Thing — 3

[Part 1 | Part 2| Part 3]

If you think about it, of course, you soon realize that words and names in every day use very often don’t have a single or “true” meaning. In that case, what becomes of the “right” or “true” name of a thing?

Bards reply with at least one answer to that: they show us how the sound of a name is a chief component of its fit or rightness. Almost all of us have had the experience of encountering a name that just doesn’t fit the person or thing it names.

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In that sense, a rose by any other name obviously isn’t a rose — it can’t be — because the sound of the word rose is an essential part of the name of the thing. That’s where the magic comes in. Through the use of word, sound, song and chant, a magical space and state of consciousness transforms our experience of “the everyday”.

Everything She touches changes, sing the Goddess-worshippers. Jesus is Lord, and at his name every knee shall bow, celebrate the Christians. Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō, recite the Shingon Buddhists. Lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh, proclaims the voice of the muezzin. Om mani padme hum, chant the Tibetans. Four score and seven years ago, writes Lincoln, on his way to the Gettsyburg Address. I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way, choruses Lady Gaga, assuring herself and us. We both seek out special language to express what we’re experiencing, and we rely on such heightened language to help us move into states of awareness that match the experiences we seek. (In what ways are these sets of words “the same”? What would — or could — we do with an answer to that question?)

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Though the rose, or more specifically the word/sound that is approximately rosa, roh-sah, is a widely-shared name in many European languages, in part because of its rich cultural associations over hundreds of years in European religion, literature, painting and music, we also have many other names on the planet for the flower, including Chinese méiguī, Turkish gül, Arabic warda, Swahili ilipanda, and many more. Are these still “roses”? Are any of them more “rose-like” than “rose”? And what do any answers to those questions like “yes” or “no” even mean?

You’ll have your own and better answers to that question after you chant warda or ilipanda or gül or méiguī for ten minutes. Does it make sense to ask whether an ilipandais” a warda or a méiguī?

In that case, what happens to a question like “Who am I?”

Especially in the presence of trees, Spirit, whatever god(s) we look to, and our own wonder, this can be a powerful theme for meditation, if held lightly in the attention, and turned like a gem or a flower in the sunlight, or a candle-flame in the dark.

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Animals live in a largely pre-verbal world, and get along quite well without formal language. True, the more intelligent animals can interact with human symbol systems like language, because they have finite sets of symbols themselves, with calls, cries and intentional patterned behaviors. From time to time we read about apes able to manipulate quite complex symbol systems of hundreds of elements. And studies of bird intelligence suggest impressive equivalent capacities among the smartest birds. Perhaps the best current understanding sees animal communication existing along an evolutionary continuum, sharing some but not all of the key features of human language.

With the Druid love of threes, we can ask, if there’s a pre-verbal world and a verbal world, then is there a post-verbal realm? Intelligence, literally the ability to pick out or select (Latin legere) from between (Latin inter) things, to notice and make distinctions, is closely linked to language and awareness. Among other spiritual practices, Zen attempts to point to realms beyond words with its koans like this one: “What’s your original face, the one you had before you were born?” (You might find this insight productive if you attempt to draw, paint, etc., one or more responses to this question. That is, get out of your verbal head-space and try a different mode.)

For we know of other kinds of intelligence besides verbal intelligence, and these point to some of the possibilities of a post-verbal world. If, in some worlds, we don’t have physical bodies subject to time and space and the laws of physics, analogues of human language — and naming — may work quite differently, or not be needed at all.

All of us have had intuitions and hunches enter brain consciousness and only then arrive into some kind of language, even if it’s “I’m not sure, but I have a feeling that …” or “I don’t know why, but …”. In such cases, the non-verbal perception comes first, and only afterwards makes its way into words. Simultaneously such experiences point to the profound value of naming as a way of understanding and clarifying our choices and best directions, but also the impossibility of discussing things we cannot name. (For a related link, see apophatic thought — the idea that some things can only be hinted at in terms of what they are not — in the world’s major spiritual traditions.)

On a related theme, if you haven’t watched brain researcher and neuro-anatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s marvelous TED talk about her experiences during and after a massive stroke, take a look at My Stroke of Insight. Here’s the 20-minute video:

 

 

Many spiritual practices are intended to open up consciousness to experience some of what Taylor talks about in her video — without the unwanted side-effects!

In the next post, as a way of illustrating some of what I’ve talked about in these posts, I’ll look at deriving magical and spiritual practices from a popular film from last year.

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Image: rose — pexels.com

That Fire Festival

There it is again, the nudge of an approaching Festival. Like the light of a full moon, it engenders a subtle wakefulness. The gods are stirring the embers, raking the coals, adding kindling and blowing across the hearth their living breath. Who wouldn’t spark into flame?

May, Beltane month, reminds us how every time is a liminal time. (Samhain certainly stands equal to the task of reminding us, if instead of Beltane, you’re Down Under.) Liminal, from Latin limen “threshold”. E-liminate something and you take it across a threshold and outdoors, and presumably leave it there. In that sense, Druids are always trying to eliminate themselves, crossing over and coming back, seeking expanse and connection with whatever is without, in the older sense of “outside, not within”. Several churches across Christendom have as part of their names “without the walls” — outside, e-liminated. If you’re outside, you make your own threshold.

Of course, once you’re outside, it’s the Within that may suddenly become attractive again. By a kind of spiritual gravity, what goes out comes back inside, and vice versa. Like a cat or dog that can’t decide which is better, and meows or barks to be let in and out and back in again, we look longingly at wherever we aren’t. Jesus gets it, knowing Self is the Gate: “They shall go in and out and find pasture” — on either side.

The grass is, in fact, always greenest wherever I am right now. “As above, so below; as within, so without”. It just often takes ritual to know it. We say the words, often without hearing ourselves, but do we mean them? Not to say that everything’s the same on both sides of the limen, but that they constantly talk to each other. And the limen is so often more interesting than the sides.

In some sense, festivals and ritual generally are opportunities and attempts to have it both ways. We get to make an inside and an outside wherever we are, out of the Möbius strip of reality, which has only the one side, though consciousness insists on two. And we get to be the boundary, the place of transformation, our native place. Practice it enough, and we get good at it. Become the exchange point, the crossing-over, the hinge. Then when a big event comes along like death or birth, disaster or first love, we don’t get thrown quite as hard. (Or maybe, we get better at throwing ourselves, so the cosmos doesn’t have to.)

By the power of star and stone, says the Herald at the opening of the standard OBOD ritual format. By the power of the land within and without, by all that is fair and free, be welcome! E-liminated at birth from the Land within, I emerge onto the Land without and stay awhile. At death I get re-liminated from the Land without, and turn back within. So it goes, till I can stand at the Hinge and look across births and deaths, springs and autumns, to What’s Really Going On, whatever that turns out to be. I aspire to be a hinge-Druid, bending rather than breaking.

Ritual is hinge-work. You and I write the ritual of our lives.

At Beltane, the hinges heat up in the growing sun. We long to touch, to connect, to be in communion. Virus or no, we still nurse at the breast of the cosmos. “Where the bee sucks, there suck I”, says Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oh, who wouldn’t?!

Or take the case of Job in the Hebrew Bible. God dresses him down, and challenges him. The old King James/Authorized Version catches the flavor well, for all its increasing linguistic distance from us:

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?
Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?
Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?
Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?
Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?

The ritual answer to these insistent questions is “Yes!” That’s one of the things ritual does: it lets us answer “yes” to a cosmos whose very strangeness and majesty and terror otherwise impel us to answer “no”. Who, me? Of course not! No!

Stand at the hinge, and we come into our own as Children of the Most High. For Christians, Jesus is that Hinge, that Gate. The advantage of Person-as-Hinge isn’t exclusive to any one religion or spiritual practice, of course. Talk to the cosmos and it talks back. Persons everywhere, spirit incarnating, doing its thing. We’ve just fallen out of the habit. Ritual is one way that re-awakens us to possibility. But so many us are un-hinged, lost, disconnected.

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the “Mother Stone”, Four Quarters Sanctuary, Pennsylvania

Through the windows and doorways of ritual, we can see again what we lost sight of.

ancestor altar in circle -- W Flaherty

Four Quarters Sanctuary stone circle and altar

Sometimes the Face that Cosmos wears to reach us is familiar, sometimes not. Sometimes an Ancestor, sometimes an Other. We’re particularly bothered by things that speak to us that don’t have faces. Ritual can give a face to Things without them.

Ritual also opens an opportunity to organize my altars. Yours may look like this shelf of mine, all hodgepodge. Stones, peach pits, coins, figures, feathers.

shelf

Yes, the Wiccan chant reminds us, One thing becomes another, in the Mother, in the Mother. But not every thing, not all at once. Ritual says go with one thing, watch it change, celebrate the transformation. Be the hinge.

So we’ll gather (Zoom-Beltane, May 2 for us here in VT), and say the words: By the Power of Star and Stone …

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The Name’s the Thing — 2

[Part 1 | Part 2| Part 3]

An understanding of the power of naming is ancient and world-wide. During his lifetime, the Chinese sage Confucius was asked what he would do if he were a ruler, and he replied that he would “rectify the names” (Chinese zheng ming). He explained that words need to correspond to reality.

Damage that alignment, destroy the match-up between word and thing, he continued, and social order collapses. Or to jump ahead millennia and borrow from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, “enterprises of great pitch and moment,/With this regard their currents turn awry,/And lose the name of action”. In other words, to jump still further ahead in time to almost our century and to the much-quoted words of W. B. Yeats, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …”. Bards get these things, and warn us sometimes centuries in advance of when we’ll need them.

Or to put it in the unpoetic jargon of our times, things suck cuz our names for them are wrong.

It’s not always wholly that simple, but it’s also not so far off.

camellia

“A rose by any other name
Would get the blame
For being what it is–
The colour of a kiss,
The shadow of a flame.
A rose may earn another name,
So call it love;
So call it love I will,
And love is like the sea,
Which changes constantly,
And yet is still
The same” — Tanith Lee
A test for each of us: does this poem clarify, or obscure?

Likewise in ancient Egypt, where knowing the true names of people and things gave you power over them. U. K. LeGuin develops this idea in her Earthsea books. There her characters have “use names”, and hold their true names secret. For mages as persons of power, this practice is even more essential. And aren’t we all “persons of power”, however unclaimed? (Disempowerment is the magic too many wield today, against themselves as much as against anyone else.)

Sparrowhawk, the use-name of the wizard hero of the Earthsea books, goes through a naming ceremony on the cusp of adolescence. The mage Ogion “reached out his hand and clasping the boy’s arm whispered to him his true name: Ged. Thus was he given his name by one very wise in the uses of power” (A Wizard of Earthsea).

Egyptians in the times of the Pharaohs as well as Native Americans and many other peoples took on new names after defining events or achievements. To cite just one example from contemporary culture, Lily Collins’ anorexic character in the 2017 film To the Bone is given a new name by her therapist to help her imagine and discover her identity as someone other than a sick young woman.

Some of us pick up nicknames from others (including ones we may loathe), as well as give them to beings that matter in our lives. Dog and cat owners know this well. We give our loved ones “pet names”. And again, among the Egyptians, if you can name someone or something accurately, write its name on a pottery shard or piece of parchment, and then destroy the object that bears the name, you lessen the power of the person or thing.

A common rationalist view (an egregore at work there, too, one claiming that reason alone is exempt from all bias) calls this the rankest superstition. But insofar as words and names matter — and you need only scan current headlines to see a myriad of examples that names do matter, and deeply — that’s exactly where we’re living, whether we think we participate or not. “Superstition” literally stands (Latin sta-, stit-) over (Latin super) us. Are government stay-at-home orders “safety precautions” or “tyranny”? What we call them matters in concrete, “real-world” ways.

Next door in New Hampshire, protesters against the virus lockdown rally in the state capital. An added poignancy or irony: the NH state motto is “Live free or die”. People are hurting, both from the virus directly, and from restrictions around it. Does the binary of “live free or die” offer a good path forward, or might the Druid practice of transforming a binary into a ternary prove beneficial?

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Breitbart News, 18 April 2020

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In the previous post in this series, I asked these questions:

What is your best name? (Do you have more than one?) How can you invite it into your awareness most beneficially? What reminders of it can you build into your days?

With some time spent in meditation, you can answer the first question for yourself. Make a name-giving ritual that’s meaningful to you — an opportunity to manifest your creativity. Consider both the power of writing down your name, or wearing it, perhaps in a locket or pouch around your neck, and also of keeping it secret, guarding its energy even as you build it, and never committing it to writing.

Maybe you take on a different name for each day of the week. More elaborately, you dedicate yourself to a month of name work. A different name for each day of the month. Watch for names you are taking into your awareness. What names are you giving to things? What names do you have for the events and circumstances and people you encounter during the day, week, or month? What power do you give them (or take from them) as a result of your naming?

If your birthday or another significant day is near, how can you consecrate that day and the names you’ve given it? “Oh, that’s the day that I ___ “. So what difference does that name make in your memory and experience? Try it out, with serious and also silly names.

Sticking with these practices, even if only for an hour at first, and then a whole day — or week — can demonstrate their efficacy and value better than anything I can write here.

What prayers can you create for your (new) name? Does that sound strange at first? Maybe a simple triad: “I shine the power of today’s sunlight on my name. I give the love of my ancestors to my name. I feed my name with the pungency of nutmeg” and so on. Work with this name, and spend time using it in contemplation. “By the power of my name, I ____ ”

May you find names of beauty, wisdom and freedom, and welcome them into your lives.

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Images: Breitbart photo of NH protest;

From My Archive: “Opening Ritual”

I’ve been clearing out old papers, pictures, magazines, clippings, etc. from over a decade ago. Partly it’s self-quarantine work. Among the items I’m saving are these three, which deserve a post — partly because I have so little recollection of them that it’s like coming on them as new things. So I can be more objective, and maybe even say something useful about them. And also because it’s clear they retain value and efficacy.

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First is a symbol, a quick and then a more elaborated version, to follow up on my post about sigils. It shows one way to work with a symbol, help it come into focus. There’s a definite change and clarification of energy in the second version.

I don’t recall for sure what I was aiming for — the word aksi under the second symbol is the Sanskrit word for “eye” and a good hint. So a stylized eye, a symbol for magical awareness and perception? Was I still working with my group at the time on symbols and logos?

I know I was using a homemade journal personalized with individual pages portraying my own sigil. Building associations with an image, as with a mantra or chant, helps “trigger” us — in a positive way. Doing this work with intention in a group, creating an egregore, grounds such chosen triggers much more powerfully. (For more info on egregores, see Mark Stavish’s Egregores: The Occult Entities That Watch Over Human Destiny. Inner Traditions, 2018.) Using more of the human psychological apparatus to our advantage like this is one further way to live more fully and consciously and richly, rather than at the whim of what Google and Amazon and “influencers”, the stock market or the Party or any Current Government want us to think and do and feel.

Hamlet confronts his former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Act 3, scene ii) after he discovers they have been informing against him to the King. By way of comparison he asks Guildenstern to play on a recorder he has obtained from the musicians who have just performed. “I have not the skill”, replies Guildenstern. And Hamlet nails them both to the floor with his next words:

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you
make of me! You would play upon me. You
would seem to know my stops. You would pluck
out the heart of my mystery. You would sound
me from my lowest note to the top of my
compass. And there is much music, excellent
voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it
speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be
played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument
you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot
play upon me.

Let this be our reply to those who would use us, squeezing from us whatever they can for their own benefit, then abandoning us when we have nothing more to give.

For the difference between your own will and another’s starts small, but soon enough with practice you can wedge your foot in doors you weren’t even aware of before. And then you can open them wider, and walk through. And you can shut other doors that do not lead to your best life.

What kind of doors? The email below details some of what was on my mind that January (email shows American order of month-date-year).

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Finally, this “Opening Ritual” — who was this for? Besides being my practice that spring, I don’t recall. Did I do it as well with my magic group at the time?

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I offer this to you as a short practice for this time. If as you try it out you find it helpful, adapt it to your use. It can help clear the way for prayer, for ritual, as well as serving as forms of these things on its own.

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I’ve added a page of books and links on Druidry, as a stable reference I’ll revise over time. With more material appearing all the time, it’s helpful to refer inquirers to titles and websites I’ve found helpful and to update the document over time.

Sigil Vigil

Heartfelt thank-yous to you, my readers, for bringing page views to 90,000. I’m making a point of posting more regularly during these difficult times.

While this blog seems to be passing through a prolonged dry-spell with few comments, I draw encouragement from a steady international readership that averages about 50 visits a day. If what I write helps, encourages or just entertains you, please leave even a brief comment so I know I should keep doing what I’m doing. Your reaching out really matters and makes a difference!

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Watching for seals. No, not the sea-going mammals this time — the marks, glyphs, signs and symbols that we both make ourselves and also perceive in the natural world.

Tabloids regale us endlessly with pop-culture versions of this — for example, the face of Jesus burnt onto a piece of toast. Equivalent perceptions occur in other cultures with equivalent cultural icons (e.g., Buddha in the sky). Even normally restrained scientists have been known to join in: a 2019 article in Popular Mechanics gushes about the “real face” of Jesus, with this tagline “Advances in forensic science reveal the most famous face in history”. Feel the tug of that headline?

We ask “But is it real?” all the time, of a great number of things, many of which can’t (or shouldn’t) answer.

magus banner -- W Flaherty

MAGUS banner featuring the Gathering logo

Psychology explains these phenomena as instances of pareidolia — if you see the word “idol” within the word, that’s not a mistake. Pareidolia is, to borrow a rhyme, “seeing faces in unusual places”. You might find this article on the topic from LiveScience interesting. Our human tendency to detect patterns in seemingly random visual inputs is what makes the Rorschach inkplot test possible. It’s also part of a complex human survival skill with multiple consequences.

The ability to attend to a pattern, to give it a meaning, empowers signs and sigils, but of course also makes written language possible. The shapes of the 26 squiggles of the English alphabet have little to no inherent meaning (you might argue that the S is vaguely snake-like, and snakes hiss — hence, the s-sound), but humans can detect and assign meanings to a wide variety of phenomena.

An effective sigil or seal can be created as a doorway to memory, to specific states of awareness, to understandings that may not stay with us while we’re dusting the shelves, changing a diaper, emailing the boss, or cooking a meal. But we can shift consciousness at will with the aid of a seal or sigil and know and do things otherwise beyond our capacity. Our schoolteachers know the value of holding a student’s focus and attention — these make all the difference!

druchr1

doodles for Druidry and Christianity logo — cross and grail

Christians wear crosses, Jews the Star of David, and followers of other traditions their own meaningful symbols. We also doodle both new and repeated shapes and signs, and we can expand on this human tendency and engage with a whole symbolic language if we choose.

tolklog

Tolkien’s initials as logo

Books on sigil making and sigil magic — the conscious seeking, design and use of signs and shapes to change consciousness — can of course assist. But the ability already lies in each of us — a birthright.

Tolkien invented a sigil from the initials of his name (JRRT) that now appears on his books and has become a trademark of the Tolkien Estate. Companies and organizations know that a distinctive and readily recognizable logo is often a key component to visibility and reputation and success.

To point to just one immediate use of sigils anyone can put into practice today, in these times of distraction and seduction by social media, and by fear and anxiety, our corresponding ability to attend to what we choose, rather than an advertising campaign or a news outlet or political party, is a priceless human gift.

bkshlf

publisher logos on book spines — Pagans know the Llewellyn moon!

Place a meaningful sigil where I can see it during my day, write, paint or carve it on objects I use regularly, or sit with it in meditation, and I have a ready tool for shaping consciousness, guiding it toward my own purposes and desires, and focusing the energies that come through it into channels and actions that help, uplift and empower me.

And Josephine McCarthy, to choose just one author whose books are on my shelves, knows the value of a sigil as a distinctive cover for a book.

northgate

May signs point to good things for you!

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Images: Magic of the North Gate cover; Wikipedia for JRRT logo.

A Druid, “The Virus”, and Long Fixes

The virus, let me say it up front, isn’t Covid-19 or coronavirus or “the thing that’s swamping nearly every media outlet right now”. The virus is fear, rumor, mis- and dis-information, mental constructs, habits of thought, knee-jerk reaction, path of least (conscious) resistance. Any spiritual path worth its weight in chocolate should offer practices to rein in such human behaviors and put better alternatives — also human behaviors! — in their place. In other words, give us back our power of choice. Teach us ways to disinfect both our hands and our psyches, build resilience and good humor, and be of use to others.

moon-hand

Of course, the great thing about a habit is its efficiency: it’s a shortcut, a “nervous system macro”, so I don’t need to waste energy each time more or less the same choice faces me. The habit says “Just do this — it’s the same as the last time” and I can move on to the next thing. A habit turns off thinking and hands over control to that part of us which is really good at simply reacting. It’s a great help — when simply reacting is appropriate.

The less-than-great thing about a habit is the same thing: its automatic patterns rule parts of our behavior, rather than conscious choice.

Among the gifts of Druidry are the powers of reframing, of conscious thought, of magical choice — because all choices made consciously are magical in that they liberate us from mechanical behavior and open up possibilities for change and growth.

The video below isn’t directly about “dealing with a virus”, but the reframing and reclaiming of automatic behavior it looks at are innately Druidic acts.

No, not “quick fixes” — l o n g fixes instead, gifts to ourselves that keep on giving as long as we practice them. And because most of us have faced the kinds of things that the speaker discusses and knows intimately herself, these long fixes are human skills we can all learn and develop and deploy when life is challenging. When isn’t it?!

 

 

 

Another resource: this excellent Guardian article from yesterday, 7 March, with concrete data, and suggestions for where go to look for yourself at the many scientific studies, resources, suggestions and advice already available for dealing with the coronavirus.

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Image: Pexels.com

What It’s All For, Part 157

“Why am I dealing with these things now, at 71?” a dear older friend asked recently. “Couldn’t I have tackled it earlier along the way?” After a pause, he answered his own question: “But I didn’t have the necessary perspective any sooner than this to handle what I discovered about myself, and about the work I needed to do”. I spiral like we all do, when I think I’m merely circling. Last year, this year, next year. More of the same old thing, or something new, unexpected, challenging. Often both together. Arms of the spiral.

byard-snow

Silver-white back yard, 11:42 am EST, 10 Feb 2020

Anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time knows my focus rests primarily on the inner texture and quality of my journey. Among other things, I’m a Druid, and sometimes I’ll post about a more outer-facing “Druid” subject — a sacred grove, an altar, images from a group ritual I took part in. But mostly I write about aspects of my own spiritual growth, or lack of it; about my questions, doubts, strategies, techniques, discoveries — things I hope are also useful in some degree to anyone who practices a spiritual path over time. Especially after the initial gloss has worn off, the honeymoon is past, the foothills are behind you, and the first outlines of your life’s work present themselves. And usually not in a form you expect, or even recognize right away.

This is the point when I find it’s often fitting to laugh helplessly, laugh so hard you end up gasping for breath. Or maybe it’s not fitting, but I do it anyway. Because you can’t take yourself too seriously. (Well, of course you can, and we all know those who do, but they’re often not the easiest people to be around. By the grace of forbearing friends and family, may I learn to grow out of my own vanity. If you’ve been with this blog long enough, you know most of what we work on falls into two categories, ego project or container issue.)

Enough of you recognize something of your own experience in what I write here that you keep coming back. Or at least you find the spectacle of my journey entertaining, because in fact it’s nothing like yours at all. You’re crafting a wand, planting a sustainable garden, protesting inert government officials to get off their asses, raising children to honour the earth and each other, or you’re single, widowed, newly launched into a different life than you foresaw, but living your path as best you can, in all its singular beauty and strangeness, in churches, temples, bedroom shrines, backyard altars, cathedrals of trees, holy places of the heart. You belong to a god or gods, or you’re non-theistic, you know the signs and songs and pass-words of your beliefs and practices and community, even if they no longer describe you fully, or maybe especially if they do.

Or you’re undergoing your own inner apprenticeship, something near-impossible to talk about, even with dear friends, and especially with family, who are often the last to know, or to come to grips with how dear Sue or Bill or Jimmie has “changed” and grown into something exotic and possibly uncomfortable and maybe more than a little threatening to an old dynamic that no longer works for all the people it used to link and to explain to each other. Or you’re bound firmly, as far as you can tell, in a circle that for whatever reason you need to stay in for now, in order to survive at all.

All you know, to quote that Victorian or maybe Edwardian novel, is that for your family, you are no longer PLU — “People Like Us”. Elvis has left the building. The horses have broken through the fence and gallop, heedless of human cries, across the plain and away.

Or you’re not changing. Everything and everyone else has changed. You’re becoming more of who you’ve always been. Why can’t they see that?!

Right in the midst of such tumult, it can feel like the very last thing that’s happening is “what it’s all for”. Instead it feels the exact opposite of that. Let the dust settle and the rubble stop bouncing, though, and a different outline can begin to emerge.

(Try to map spiritual geography most people will recognize and you miss the mark 50% of the time. Still, in baseball, that’s a mightily impressive record.)

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I know now that what it’s really all about is the white rabbit.

hare2

My mother’s elder sister gave me this porcelain hare when I was seven. We’d visit her just once a year, for a long weekend — my mother and I traveled to Iowa most springs to stay with that side of the family. I remember thinking some seven-year-old boy version of “But I can’t play with it — it’s too delicate”. It was a “shelf-sitter” for sure, but even then it carried a charm it’s never lost for me. Its pinkness never bothered me as “girly” or wrong for a boy (I shot the image above on a pink towel to emphasize the painted highlights). For all I know the figure was a commonplace object several decades ago — some of you may have one just like it sitting on a mantle. But all I knew then was that someone had entrusted me with a delicate object, one valuable for its own sake, not for what I could do with it. It arrived, as such gifts sometimes can, at a moment when I could appreciate it.

In all the many moves of my life — at last count, 22, including to and from China, Japan, Korea, and six states in the U.S. — it’s traveled without damage. I thought of it for a long time as an Easter rabbit — not THE Easter Rabbit, but a rabbit associated with springtime. Now it’s an Imbolc hare as well.

Blessings of Imbolc
hare to you, warmth of white fur
soft as dream, close as the dreaming sky
against your skin. Grace of paws
in the snow to you, delicate toes,
each touching with its own print.

Blessings of animal presences to you.
Alertness of hare to you, ears pointed
towards the awen, that whisper
each of us hears, time’s changes tumbling
round us. Fleet foot of the hare
to you, the answering dance of hare,
a dive into a burrow, or a mad dash
(dash of the Mad March hare, a month early)
for the nearby hedge and through,
through to all the bright fields opening beyond.

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Posted 10 February 2020 by adruidway in Druidry, hare, Imbolc, magic, spiral

Tagged with , , ,

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