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The Four Powers: Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent–Part 4: Will and Imagination   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 5]

waitomo-dawnDaily you call me to pray — not the prayer of asking, of importunity, but the prayer of communion, of celebrating blood flowing through veins, of life moving in lungs and belly.  In the cool of dawn this morning I slip outdoors for air plush with oxygen, newly breathed out from the green lungs of the trees.  I gaze on the mist-shrouded pines and maples and scrub oaks, hear the neighbor’s rooster break into the sheared metal cry that is his morning’s call.  The other birds are already about, the jay chicks now big as their parents, and noisier, in their cries to be fed.  A fox bitch slinks back into the woods, cat-footed and deft as she threads her way through tall grass and brambles.  Dampness clings to my skin.  Life-prayer, what the birds and wind and water and morning light are saying.

I say “you” call me to pray: there’s a presence I address, though it’s not a person.  I could call it the echo of listening, the ambit of my attention, some kind of answer or reverberation to the pressure of a human walking the land and caressing the world with hominid consciousness that wants to talk, to name, to engage, to encounter as a person, to bring down to size a world that resolutely will not yield to whim, or whimsy.  But that’s not quite it, either.  “You” is the best I can do, to honor and salute the world I encounter, particularly when it glows or sparkles or hums or burns.  Others have called it god or gods, Spirit or numina.  We know a little better, in some places at least, how names can trip us up.  But names can be good talk. It is awen, too: that Welsh word for “inspiration” that is also the presence of Spirit.

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Wadin Tohangu comes unbidden, unless it’s a prayer to the universe which alerts him as well that I’m actually paying attention again.  Fallow time has “done it,” though merely “going fallow” as I mentioned in the previous entry doesn’t cause a change to happen, but it often accompanies it.  Something about the will is involved.  Sometimes the greatest magic is to set aside the will and be open to change.  I don’t like surrender because I can’t claim credit when the change comes.  I want it to be under my control.  Stereotypically to surrender is a male difficulty and a female strength, but there are plenty of strong-willed women who find surrender difficult, and weak-willed men who need to work on self-assertion.  So that’s not it altogether either.

“Are you finished talking to yourself about this?” Wadin asks, his mouth crinkled in a smile.  I realize he has been sitting there for some time now as I swam and splashed in my thoughts.  I smile back, unable to respond right away — or rather, my mind spins over a thousand responses, none of them particularly graceful or useful or true.  But I do know I’m glad he has come.   That’s something I hold onto in gratitude, and the whirling of thought slows enough that I can say it.

“It’s good to see you.”

His smile widens — he seems perfectly at ease in the moment, as if he came expressly to do nothing else than sit and listen to me think. Not in an obtrusive way, not eavesdropping, but simply how he is, awake to what goes on around him.

“You’re struggling,” he says, “with how to talk about the will, and that’s also been a focus for you for some time.”

“That’s definitely true,” I answer.  “I guess inner and outer worlds do line up from time to time.”

“What happens when they do?” he asks.

“I’m freed up to write about it, for one thing,” I say. “I get unstuck.”

“The stuckness often comes from pushing with the will,” he says.  He leans forward a little, resting his elbows on his knees.  “It’s a common confusion to think that will involves strain.”

“Sometimes we push through, and we can accomplish a lot.  And athletes push against fatigue all the time,” I say.

He nods. “That’s true for the physical body, of course.  Muscular effort moves objects.” He pauses before continuing.

athlete

“We feel pain and can push through it with the will.  Sometimes that means we ‘win.’  And of course sometimes that means we end up with a sprain or torn ligament or some other injury, too.”

He gazes at me.  “So what causes the difference?” he asks.

“I’d say, listening to the body. Not fighting it, but working with it.”

“Good,” he says. “Certainly listening can spare you injury or tension or strain.”  He runs a sandaled toe over a design on the carpet, and I realize we’re sitting in my living room.  I write “sitting in my living room,” and look up from the keyboard, and of course there’s “no one there.”

“Come back to our conversation,” he says, reaching to prod me with a forefinger.  “There’s more to talk about.”  He looks at me with interest.  “What did that feel like just now, when you returned from ‘no one there’ to our meeting?”

“I could feel an energy shift,” say. “I got interested again.  And I wanted to keep going.”

“All of these are important,” he says.  “The shift is something you ‘do,’ but it’s not a strain or a push of what we normally call the ‘will.’  And your interest and curiosity also matter.  They draw you in, rather than you pushing against resistance.”

I say nothing, waiting for him to continue.

“Imagination is effortless.  You can ‘try to imagine,’ of course.  Or you can simply imagine.  This is the difference between will or imagination, and strain, which is what most people mean by ‘will’ or ‘willpower.'”

“What about people who say they ‘can’t’ imagine?” I ask.

“They’re usually telling the truth. Fear blocks them, or their straining against their habit or desire keeps them from accomplishing what they ‘try’ to do.  That’s what they’re imagining instead. Imagination runs ahead of ‘will’ in that sense. It’s already ‘there,’ at work in the ‘future,’ long before ‘will’ arrives.  While ‘will’ is still waking up, imagination has already constructed a palace or dungeon for you to inhabit, according to your focus.  Not everyone imagines in pictures, of course.  For many it’s often feeling instead.  We already feel a certain way about something, and that ‘colors our experience,’ as we say.”

“But where’s the element of choice in that?” I ask.  “It sounds like will or imagination is just a reaction to circumstances, rather than a conscious decision to focus on what we choose.  Isn’t that the will?  What we choose, rather than what we simply let happen?”

“Discipline of the imagination is the key to life,” he says, looking at me steadily.  “What you attend to, what you look at or focus on, and how you look at it, determine your experience to a great extent.  That’s the actual ‘will,’ not the strain to do something against our intention.”

“Would you explain that?” I say.

“Remember your own experience a short time ago,” he answers. “As you looked where I was sitting, you ‘realized’ that I ‘wasn’t there.’  Then your attention shifted, and our conversation continued.  I’m ‘here,’ though I’m not ‘here.’  Which do you focus on, my presence or my absence?”

“You mean both are true?” I say.

“Yes.  Though ‘true’ is a distracting word.  You activate one or the other with your attention.  That’s will, or intention.”

“But what about human suffering?” I say. “We don’t choose to suffer or experience hardship or disasters or …”

He was smiling at me again.  “The challenge is that our habitual attention gives lasting reality to our imagination.  ‘As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he,”* goes one way of expressing it.  ‘What you do comes back to you.'”

“But what about people born into horrendous circumstances?  You can’t say they imagined them into being!” I could hear the hint of outrage creeping into my voice.  “The circumstances happened to them.  They certainly didn’t choose them.  Who would choose pain and suffering?”

“That’s an important question,” he says. “Do you know anyone who keeps making ‘bad choices,’ as they are called?  And keeps getting painful results?   That’s a fairly severe example of such choices at work.  Of course we often face the accumulated consequences of long imagining.  Lifetimes of imagination can solidify into exceptionally firm and unyielding circumstances.  In such cases, an hour or day or even a year of change  and effort may bring only surface alteration.  Deeper transformation can take longer.”

“Aren’t we blaming the victim in such cases?” I say.

“You see, there is no blame here.  We are talking about growth.  You may know the story of the Galilean master who is questioned about the man born blind.  “Who sinned?” his followers asked him.  ‘The man himself, or his parents — what caused him to be born blind?’  And the Master answers them and says, ‘Neither one.   All this happened so that the work of God might be shown in his life.’**  A circumstance can be destiny, and we can lament limitation, or it can be opportunity, and we can move and build from there.  It depends on which direction you look.  One way to understand it is that a disciplined imagination is one that is ready to accomplish the ‘work of God.’  Imagination is a powerful tool of Spirit.”

“But where does it all start?” I say.

“Often the fledgling falls from the nest and learns to fly the ‘hard way,'” he says. then pauses at my expression.

“But gravity is not ‘evil,” he continues, “though it may hurt, if the chick tumbles onto a branch or onto the ground.  But when the eagle has mastered using gravity to move through the air, it can soar.”

“Is that the price we pay?” I say.

“You hoped it would be painless, I see,” he says, smiling again.  “Pain does get the attention in a way nothing else can.  Maybe that’s why it’s still useful as a spiritual tool.”

toolbox

“Pain as a tool?  I’ll have to think about that some more.”

“You think a lot.  Everything can be a tool,” he says. “You just need to decide how to use it, rather than getting stopped by it.”

/|\ /|\ /|\

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

/|\ /|\ /|\

Images: Waitomo Dawn by Richard Tulloch; athlete; toolbox.

*Proverbs 23:7

**John 9:1-3

Updated 30 Sept. ’14

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The Four Powers–Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent–Part 1   4 comments

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

This is the first of a series on the powers of magic.

heaney“All I know is a door into the dark,” says Seamus Heaney in the first line of his poem “The Forge.”  In some way that’s where we all begin.  At three, four, five years old, some things come into our world already bright, illuminated, shining, on fire even.  The day is aflame with sun, the golden hours pass until nightfall, and then come darkness and sleep and dreaming.  We wander through our early days, learning this world, so familiar-strange all at once.  We grow inwardly too, discovering trust, betrayal, lying, love, fear, the pleasure of imagination, the difference between visible and invisible worlds.  Which ones do people talk about, admit to themselves?  Which ones do people around us ignore, or tell us don’t matter?

Much of our knowing is experiential during those years.  We learn about the physical laws of our planet, the bumps and bruises and sometimes breaks of childhood a testament to the hard edges of this world.  We learn some of its softnesses too: favorite foods, the touch of loved ones, the warm fur of pets, a dog’s nose meeting ours, the new air on the skin that spring and summer bring, the delight of rain and puddles and baths and fresh-laundered clothes.

child-at-shoreThen in some parts of the world comes another learning, one that typically fills much of our days for the next decade or so:  a knowing about, the accumulation in school of facts and statistics and words and ideas, math and languages and art,  science and history.  Still some experiential learning comes through as a matter of course — Bunsen burners glowing, magnesium and potassium in chemistry doing their flaming and bubbling tricks mixed with other elements.  The practice of basketball, baseball, volleyball, football and soccer, the sprints and catches and throws and spins and tricks, the correct forms and personal styles.  Wrestling, dance, music, track and field, teaching the body to know beyond thought, to form and shape habits useful precisely when they become habit and no longer demand our full attention.

And other knowledge of the body, too:  the awakening of sexuality, the chemical prods and prompts of hormones to stir the body into further change, the powers of attraction and desire, the experimentation with consciousness-altering that seems a universally human practice, whether “naturally” through exercise and pushing one’s physical limits, through chant, prayer, meditation, dance, song, music, or through “assisted alteration” with certain herbs, drugs, alcohol.  Even into adulthood much of this knowledge rumbles and whispers just below the level of conscious thought much of the time.  Without socially-approved times and places to discuss many of these experiences, we withhold them from daily conversation, we “fit in” and accommodate, we commit to being just like everyone around us, and the nudge of what feels like difference becomes part of the background hum of living, an itch we scratch haphazardly, or learn to tune out.

We forget how valuable this kind of knowing is, how it persists throughout our lives.  This used to be wisdom of a kind we valued precisely because it took lived experience to acquire.   You couldn’t rush it, couldn’t buy it or fake it, at least not without so much practice you almost recreated for yourself the original source experience anyway.

In a previous post on this blog, I noted:

Some kinds of knowledge are experiential and therefore in a different sense hidden or secret from anyone who hasn’t had the experience.  Consider sex:  there is no way to share such “carnal knowledge” – you simply have to experience it to know it.  And thus Adam and Eve “know” each other in the Garden of Eden in order to conceive their children.  Many languages routinely distinguish “knowing about” and “knowing” with different words, as for instance German kennen and wissen, French savoir and connaitre, Welsh gwybod and adnabod, Chinese hui/neng/zhidao. The kinds of experiential knowledge humans encounter in a typical lifetime are substantial and significant:  first love, first death, first serious illness and so on.

Back to the poem I mentioned in the first line of this post.  Reading it can be, in a small way, a re-initiation back into some experiences and kinds of knowing we may have forgotten or waylaid.  It’s “just words,” but also — potentially — more.

The Forge
by Seamus Heaney

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

forgeHere’s one opportunity of our human life (there are others) — a door into darkness, a world inside us that is a forge, a place of shaping and molding, of hammering material into a desired form, a place of work and energy and transformation.  The door leads to a place where we can find an altar, where we can “expend ourselves in shape and music” and “beat real iron out.”  Sometimes it appears others stand there before us; at times, we stand alone, tools scattered about, not always sure of how to proceed, dimly aware, or not at all, of anything like an altar or metal or tools.  But here lies a chance at the magnum opus, the “great work” many of us seek, that task finally worthy of all that we are and can do and dream of, a labor that is pleasure and work and art, all at once or at different times.

Even to know this in some small way, to imagine it or suspect it, is a start.  The door into the dark may not stand open, but we discern the outlines of something like a door, and maybe grope towards a handle, a yielding to an inner call, something that answers to a hand on the doorknob, or shifts like a latch, clicks open.  To know this much is a priceless beginning.

How magic can build on this beginning, and assist in self-making, will be the subject of the next post.

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Images: Seamus Heaney; child at shore; forge.

Updated 3 July 2014

The Druid Dialogs: Aithne, Part 2   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9]

“The  Blood of Veen is a key to new insights for you,” said Aithne.  “Your ancestors reach you through the body — your body.  You carry them with you wherever you go, in your cell memory, your DNA, your genetic coding, and the energy signatures scientists are just on the edges of discovering, which are part of the bonds that link the physical body to the other worlds.”

“So how does the Blood of Veen connect with me personally?”

“If you visit a place where your ancestors lived, you may have a dream or vision that teaches you something you need to know.”  Aithne stood gazing a little above my left shoulder, or head, as if she was watching something move there.  “Veen is in the province of Brabant.”  She paused, apparently studying empty air.  “And some of your mother’s ancestors came from that region,” she added.  Aithne’s knowledge startled me.  One of my mother’s aunts had traced much of the family line back to medieval France and Belgium.  Some of her ancestors came from Brabant, including a noble named Joscelyn de Louvain, when Brabant was a Duchy.  (Don’t get the wrong idea here. I have my full share of black sheep in the family, too!)  And Louvain is a city in Brabant — its capital, in fact.

“But I can’t just pick up and visit Brabant or anywhere else in the world at the drop of a hat! Most people don’t have the time or money to track down their ancestors in other countries or take some sort of reincarnation tour.”

“You don’t need to,” said Aithne, ignoring my flash of irritation.  “Pictures can help.  And there are online forums where you can ask questions and find out detailed information about almost anything you want to know.  Let your curiosity work for you. After all, how much time do you waste online as it is?!”  Her sudden smile was teasing.  “Make the first move, and the ancestors will respond.  You’ll have a dream, find a book, ‘happen’ to meet someone, make a connection.  They will guide you.”

Somehow it surprised me that Aithne knew these things.  While I’ve come to expect my inner experiences to bring me general insights and hints and nudges on occasion, whenever I receive specific information it still surprises me.  A few years ago in a dream I got the name of a small British town in Devon where some of my father’s family originated.  I’d never heard of it before, and it no longer exists today.  For that reason I know that no one in my family had ever mentioned it.  But there are archaeological records and mentions of the town in chronicles and censuses of the period showing that it once did exist.

That was the outer confirmation of an inner experience.  Such validation doesn’t always come, but when it does, I feel a shiver of awe and wonder.   These things are real.  The worlds link however briefly, and lives change as a result.  I know this, I’ve experienced it before enough time to silence any doubt, but my inner doubter doesn’t care.  He’s achieved pro status by this point, and just goes about pointing out sly new possibilities of self-deception.  I guess my ancestors have to be pretty patient with me to get through at all.  I often think they must find other descendants more worth their time.  Then I remember they’re working outside of time — at least outside of my time.  They can afford a little patience with the stubborn and half-deaf ones like me.

Aithne seemed to be following my thought.   She was nodding slightly, and then she said,  “Sometimes the act of inquiring leads you to new people and experiences that are beneficial for everyone involved.  You know this,” she said.

“I’ll return one more time,” she said.  “We have a few more things to discuss.”

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Updated 23 April 2015

The Druid Dialogs: Aithne, Part 1   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9]

Rosmert returned again today, but only briefly, and only, he explained, to introduce Aithne.  At first I could not see her clearly, except to note she was only slightly shorter than Rosmert.  Then it seemed the space around her sharpened somehow, or — I had the distinct feeling now — she was letting me see her.  She wore the hood of her robe up, and it shadowed her face.  Freckles dotted her nose, and a few tendrils of chestnut hair slipped from her hood. Then all I knew was her eagle gaze.  Two green eyes of startling fierceness regarded me.   She grabbed my half-extended hand, shook it vigorously, then promptly pointed out a problem.

“Greetings.  You do realize you left the gateway open?  Magically careless.  Let’s close it immediately.  I’ll show you how.  But first, let me take a quick look around.”

From her brisk words and tone I could tell that today at least there was no such thing as Druid-business-as-usual.  Or maybe this was usual, for her.  As she studied the trees and stones, she began to describe one way to seal a grove more effectively against unwanted presences and energies.

Then I saw Rosmert winking at me just before he disappeared.  He made a sweeping gesture that seemed to say “You’re in her hands now.” I laughed in spite of myself.

At the sound, Aithne turned from her survey of my grove and regarded me with a frown.  “You have made a beginning, but you need practice at defense,” she said.  “Now expel me from this space.”

When I hesitated, she exclaimed, “Do it!  You did not invite me like you did Rosmert.  I came at his bidding, not yours.  So you can rid this grove of me quite easily.  Do it.  When you are quite satisfied I am gone, you may choose to invite me back, or not.  But secure the gateway first, whatever you do.”

I centered myself in my grove and sang the Word of Protection.  One instant, Aithne stood there, her head tilted to one side, listening.  In the next, she vanished.

I walked the inside perimeter of the grove, singing.  I walked it three times.  I played with the thought of not inviting her back. At length, when I was satisfied with the wards and had formulated the triple seal, I called her by name, just once.  A second later she appeared a few meters away.

“Better,” she said.  “I tested the gateway several times before you called me.  Much better.”

She turned slowly again to take in the trees.  Over the past months it had been a fallow time for me while outer things made their demands, and I needed to do some inner work.  The space certainly reflected this.  It looked, quite frankly, unkempt and overgrown.

“But I did not come to critique your grove or your training,”she said, “or to sight-see.  Whatever you might think.”  She clapped her hands, and sat down on the same tree-stump Rosmert had occupied when he and I talked.  “I need your help.”

Nonplussed, I stuttered, “Well, OK, with wh- … uh, how can I help?”

“It’s a matter of the Blood of Veen.”

“Who — or what — is Veen?  Like it sounds?  V-E-E-N?” I asked, spelling it.  Goddess help me, I thought I could hear capital letters when she said Blood and Veen.  It sounded, well, cheesy.  Like hack sword-and-sorcery writing.

“It’s a town in the Netherlands.  You have an ancestral connection to the region.”

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Updated 23 April 2015

The Druid Dialogs: Rosmert   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9]

Rosmert had appeared recently during my Inner Grove exercise.  I’d been discouraged about my progress.  So many setbacks.  Autumn had come, and projects I’d set for myself over a year ago remained distant goals.  After I recovered from my surprise at his appearance, I realized I had indeed been asking for help.  Of course, when it comes, I often don’t recognize it.  I nearly snarled at him to go away.  I’m glad I didn’t.  But that showed me how out of balance I was.

My awareness shifted from inner grove to my living room and back again.  Half the time I saw Rosmert sitting on a tree-stump.  Half the time he was perched on the edge of the recliner in the living room, facing the woodstove.  At first I scolded myself for lack of focus.  Then I realized it just didn’t matter.  Grove or living room, he was still here.  So I just went with it.  I told myself I could figure it all out later.  Soon we were in it pretty deep.

“You mean there’s a law behind even the randomness of things?” I asked him.  So many obstacles, it sometimes came near to breaking my spirit.

“Yes,” said Rosmert, stretching out his legs in front of him. “But it’s not only a physical law, even if it accounts for physical things.  Spirit is at work throughout all the worlds, continually keeping everything in balance.”

“That makes it sound like there’s still room for slippage,” I said.  Overhead, heavy storm-clouds and sun competed for equal time.  “Between one interval of growth and inspiration and another, there can be an awful lot of bad weather.”

He nodded.  “In a world of change, the adjustment is continual,” he said after a pause.  “So the tests we face, the people we meet, the problems, excitements, opportunities, setbacks, decisions, challenges, sorrows and joys are expressions of spiritual energy finding whatever opening it can into our consciousness to expand our awareness and our understanding of life.”

“Doesn’t it also sometimes shut down, or diminish?  Or maybe we do that to ourselves?  All I know is that we certainly take a lot of sidesteps, or steps backwards, too.”

Rosmert gazed steadily at me for a moment.  “If we’re trying to get a mile further down the road, a flat tire looks like a delay.  If we’re learning how to travel, it’s just another lesson. Keep a spare.  Have your tools ready.  Change your tires before they wear too thin.  While you’re in the moment,  though, a flat tire can definitely seem like a major setback.”  He grinned and leaned forward.

He was about to continue when I interrupted.  “What if the ‘flat tire’ is your life?  Not just a small setback on the journey, but all-out disaster.”

Unexpectedly, he laughed.  “The human consciousness does love drama at times.  And Spirit creates as it flows.  That’s what it does, what it is.  If we choose to create disasters as it flows in and around us, that’s what we’ll usually get.” He laughed again, this time at my scowl. “Yes, we encounter lesser and greater cycles of spiritual movement and flow.  Some of them involve a whole lifetime.  Some remain small, and fit into the larger cycles.  We each work with spiritual energy in our own way, as it flows into us, and as we give it back to situations and people according to our state of consciousness, through our words, deeds, thoughts, feelings, and imagination.”

He stood up, turned slowly in a complete circle, and then faced me again. “Have you ever gone horse-back riding?”

I shook my head at the sudden shift of topic.  “What?” I said.

“We can move with the horse, or we can bounce on every up and drop an instant late on every down, out of the rhythm all around us.  That makes for one really sore butt at the end of the day.  It’s a choice that solidifies into a pattern and then into a destiny.  For a while.  Then we choose differently, moving from one pattern and trying another, learning, and sometimes crashing and flailing as we go.  For a long time, we’re all slow learners.  Then we begin to notice the patterns, and finally maybe even look at the choices.  What is it you say?  ‘Been there, done that’?”

“So is there a way to increase the flow, or does that kind of pushing also throw us out of balance?  I guess my question is, can we speed up the process?”

Rosmert didn’t answer right away.  He breathed slowly and steadily four or five times.  Then he said, “The goal of the most useful spiritual exercises you’ve been learning is ultimately to invite a greater inflow and permit a greater outflow.  We need both.  We also need balance as we learn to do this more effectively.  Bottle it up without letting it out-flow and the result is the same as if you shut the inflow off completely.  To put it another way, we need to complete the circuit.  As we become more conscious of the movement of Spirit in and around us, we’re able to relax into this current that is always in motion, and live our lives more fully.  This is our own individual spiritual path to greater love of all life.”

“So if we stop resisting the complete flow,” I said ruefully, “we won’t get beat up so badly.”

“Right,” he said, chuckling at the expression on my face.  “It’s a practice.  Who doesn’t have some scars and bruises, and a broken bone or two?! We keep practicing till we get it right.  Let’s stop here and go for a walk.”

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Updated 23 April 2015

Circe’s Power: Part 1   Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.  Know your worlds.

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

2.  Essence and limitation are linked.

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

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

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

4.  In the end, it’s all Square One.

5.  And that’s a good thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grow Where You’re (Not) Planted   Leave a comment

In early June my wife noticed a particularly vigorous shoot rising from an old compost pile beside our woodshed.  The squash plant it eventually revealed itself to be has flourished joyfully, spreading in two directions, while the pitiful growths in one of our new raised beds refuse to be coaxed into thriving.

If life gives you lemons, you could make cleaning supplies, ant repellent, pickles, sore throat medicine, laundry whitener, stain remover, fruit preservative, copper cookware restorative, disinfectant — and if you insist, lemonade, too.  The dead (cliche) comes to life when our attention lies elsewhere.  Practice resurrection, and get used to it.

We hear a lot about growing where you’re planted, but what about everywhere else?  The surprise that is our universe so often arrives with the unexpected, the new pattern, the shift, the change.  Life does a one-off.  It does what it is.  (Isn’t that what you are, too — individual, unique, nothing else quite like you?  The trouble comes when I or somebody else insists you should be like the rest of us.  The universe never “conforms.”  It’s simply itself.  That’s our pattern too.  We are where we come from.)  We stand amazed at the burgeoning of vitality in places we doubted it could exist.  If we have different plans, life may upset them.  A young Christian couple I know, just married, decided they would leave conceiving a child “up to God.”  A friend from their congregation remarked, with considerable glee, “They gave it to the Lord, and he gave it right back to them.”  She got pregnant six weeks after the wedding.

In the mass of asphalt and concrete that is Route 91, like any superhighway, a few weeds have taken root on the meter-high divider between northbound and southbound lanes, a little way north of Hartford, Connecticut.  They’re particularly visible because they happen to be growing just about at eye level as you drive by, and the highway department hasn’t yet set upon them with weedkiller.  I give a silent cheer each time I pass, though I know my tax dollars support their eventual extinction.  Still …  Give them a few years and their roots will begin to split and break down the rigidity of man-made material into the beginnings of something more closely resembling soil.  If there’s an “agenda” at work here, it isn’t always a “human” one, though humans are born into such a world, have grown and evolved within and through its shaping patterns, and have lived in it for millenia before they thought to try permanence on a scale the universe doesn’t really support.

Instead of worrying about “what the financial situation will support,” or what our many and often distinctly weird human institutions “demand,” why not ask what moves in harmony with the patterns of the universe?  The main reason is we wouldn’t always like the answer.  Sometimes we would.  But we might find more balanced and sustainable ways of living that would approach “permanence,” which is just a weak version of natural equilibrium.  Could we devise a “financial permaculture” that might not jolt us from crisis to crisis?  Sure.  Will we?

The Dao De Jing winks at us when it makes its observations:

Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling.
Not collecting treasures prevents stealing.
Not seeing desirable things prevents
confusion of the heart.

The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts
and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions
And strengthening bones.
If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever
people will not try to interfere.
If nothing is done, then all will be well.

(Gia-Fu Fen translation)

“Doing nothing” isn’t exactly what Daoism teaches; it’s more along the lines of “unforced action,” or “going with the flow”: wu-wei in Chinese.  And can we expect people to succeed by weakening their ambitions?  I don’t know; have we ever tried it?  In all this there’s a wink and a smile, too.  As if that wise voice is saying, “I don’t always mean this literally, of course, but you get the idea …”  And who knows?! “Emptying hearts (in a good way) and stuffing bellies” might just pay off.  Fill our stomachs, not our heads …

Or take this advice, surely perfect for our U.S. political season:

To talk little is natural.
High winds do not last all morning.

I’ll let Ursula Le Guin’s version of Chap. 27 have the final say here, a kind of diagnosis of how we’ve “gone astray,” that peculiar human thing we can do that the rest of the natural world doesn’t:

Good walkers leave no tracks.
Good talkers don’t stammer.
Good counters don’t use their fingers.
The best door is unlocked and unopened.
The best knot is not in a rope and can’t be untied.

So wise souls are good at caring for people,
never turning their back on anyone.
They’re good at looking after things,
never turning their back on anything.
There’s a light hidden here.

Good people teach people who aren’t good yet;
the less good are the makings of the good.
Anyone who doesn’t respect a teacher or cherish a student
may be clever, but has gone astray.
There’s deep mystery here.

/|\ /|\ /|\

There are many free versions of the Dao De Jing online; the site from which I drew these few excerpts provides several reasonably reputable versions to sample.  Sustained meditation on the text (get a couple of versions and let them talk across to each other) can ease stress and open up many doorways and paths.  It’s one of my most beloved Druid written resources.  Wikipedia’s entry for Tao Te Ching captures some of its qualities:  “The written style is laconic … and encourages varied, even contradictory interpretations. The ideas are singular; the style poetic. The rhetorical style combines two major strategies: short, declarative statements and intentional contradictions. The first of these strategies creates memorable phrases, while the second forces us to create our own reconciliations of the supposed contradictions.”  If you recall, resolution of supposed contradictions, or finding the tertiary that resolves the binary of “either-or,” is a technique and strategy of wisdom taught in several Druid paths.

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