Archive for the ‘R J Stewart’ Category

Finding Your What


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.


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,

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.



Creativity’s Messy–2: Druid & Christian

No surprise (though I’m often slow on the uptake), after the period of inner work I detailed in the recent “Listening to Inwardness” series, that creativity should be the theme of these posts. The awen, like water, seems to follow the paths of least resistance in our lives, so for me it manifests in language creation, and in returns to themes I’ve looked at already but need to spiral with. And in physical reminders, too, as this body ages, to exercise, to eat healthy, to stretch, to listen.

And that means a challenge I’m noting for myself, even as I record it here for you: creativity left unmanifest, ignored for too long, can out itself through my weaknesses, too, amplifying them, doing a full-on “mercury retrograde” to my daily life on the spot, when a hundred little things that might go wrong will absolutely find a way to do so, if they can. If that divine energy that is creative always has got nowhere else to go, I’ll have a right royal row with my wife, stub my toe on the woodstove base, get splinters in my palm while chopping wood, break a clean plate while emptying the dishrack — all in the same morning. Like electricity, creativity will ground itself along the most direct path to earth.


Another instance of the messiness of creativity rests in our spiritual encounters and how we respond to their challenges and opportunities — to those places and moments where something rattles our cages, and with any grace induces us to sort out what’s habit and inertia and no longer helpful to our lives, and what remains valid on a new round of the spiral of our journey. Person, place or thing, it doesn’t matter: each asks us to bring the fire in us to bear on problem solving, on spiritual creativity at work in daily life — in a word, at finding joy. But ignore the lesson-opportunity-blessing, and just as with the smaller moments, so the bigger ones, as R. J. Stewart observes:

It may seem to be hardship imposed from without, almost at random, but magical tradition suggests that it flows from our own deepest levels of energy, which, denied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness, find an outlet through exterior cause and effect (Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 20-21)

Creativity is one of the most enjoyable ways to “unlock” that I’ve experienced. But it’s almost guaranteed to be messy!

I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog my own attempts to plumb some of the numinous encounters and intersections of Druidry and Christianity, a deep and rich vein to explore, as writers and teachers like John Philip Newell have done in several books.

Here’s Newell in his 2012 book A New Harmony* on the “sound of the beginning” — a pretty close description for the awen, at least as some Druids experience it:

New science speaks of being able to detect the sound of the beginning in the universe. It vibrates within the matter of everything that has being. New science is echoing the ancient wisdom of spiritual insight. In the twelfth century Hildegard of Bingen taught that the sound of God resonates ‘in every creature’. It is ‘the holy sound’, she says, ‘which echoes through the whole creation.’ If we are to listen for the One from whom we have come, it is not away from creation that we are to turn our ears, it is not away from the true depths of our being that we are to listen. It is rather to the very heart of all life that we are to turn our inner attention. For then we will hear that the deepest sound within us is the deepest sound within one another and within everything that has being. We will hear that the true harmony of our being belongs to the universe and that the true harmony of the universe belongs to us. … Everything arises from that sacred sound.

So far, so Druid. But in the same book, Newell then turns toward issues that often receive less insightful treatment in too much of Druidry. Spend time in Druid communities and you encounter firsthand what they struggle with, too: addiction, abuse, imbalance, illness, spiritual immaturity and blindness, ignorance, superstition, fear, anger. In other words, with the human weaknesses that beset every other human community.

Newell observes:

Knowing and naming brokenness is essential in the journey towards wholeness. We will not be well by denying the wrongs that we carry within us as nations and religions and communities. Nor will we be well by downplaying them or projecting them onto others. The path to wholeness will take us not around such awareness but through it, confronting the depths of our brokenness before being able to move forward towards healing. As Hildegard of Bingen says, we need two wings with which to fly. One is the ‘knowledge of good’ and the other is the ‘knowledge of evil’. If we lack one or the other we will be like an eagle with only one wing. We will fall to the ground instead of rising to the heights of unitary vision. We will live in half-consciousness instead of whole-consciousness.

Both Druidry and Christianity still tend to be “one-winged”, and in opposite ways. (That’s partly why each could learn much from the other.) To grossly over-generalize, Druids celebrate the good, and glory in images of that old Garden and those ancient Trees, while underplaying the human evils that beset Druids and their communities as much as anyone, and forestall them from entering more fully. Christians may understand and even fixate more on the evils, and have much indeed to say about sin, but underplay and even distrust the gifts and capacities, lessons and potentials of a world that can catalyze the spiritual growth and maturity they often refuse.

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Part of this particular creativity lies in the practice of listening across traditions. John Beckett writes in a recent blogpost apropos of traditions, DNA, supposed bloodlines, and their dubious guidance for “choosing your religion”:

We dream of finding a heritage that’s mine, that provides connection and meaning.

Too many of us, though, fail to understand that mine means “where I belong” and not “what belongs to me.”

Rather than looking for roots in DNA, put down roots with the land where you are: observe it, touch it, eat it. Honor the spirits and other persons who share it with you.

Or to paraphrase a certain Galilean: Why do you seek the living among the dead?


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Awen a ganaf — o dwfyn ys dygaf, says Taliesin, in his poem Angar Kyfandawt. “(It’s) the awen that I sing — (it’s) from the deep that I bring it”. (Or in my flowering Celtic ritual language, Bod an awen a canu mi, o’n duven a tenna mi.) But the bard continues (rendering by K. Hughes, From the Cauldron Born):

It’s a river that flows; I know its might,
I know how it ebbs, and I know how it flows,
I know when it overflows, I know when it shrinks …

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*Newell, John Philip. A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul. Jossey-Bass, 2012. Republished as A New Ancient Harmony: A Celtic Vision for the Journey Into Wholeness. Material Media, 2019.

Expanding — and Focusing — Our Magic

[Part One | Part Two]

In a recent comment, Steve writes:

A broader definition of magic sounds interesting, especially when compared with some of the ideas about it I have encountered over the years.

Do you have a working definition you could share or is this something you have developed in your blog?

I do have a working definition of magic, and I’ve also written about it in various forms fairly frequently, though not always under that label. But it’s good to regularly take out opinions and understandings, dust them off, rattle them, note what shakes free, scrape off the rust, and buff and polish the rest. So with the spur that Steve’s comment provides, that’s what I’ll do in this post.


Yevgeny Zamyatin / Wikipedia / public domain

Our definitions come, mostly, after experiences. Before that, we don’t have much to attach them to, and if anyone who’s reading this is anything like me, your definitions at that point may not match things that you later DO experience. So then we get mired in the mismatch, rather than referring back to the original experience. Or — even better than looking backward — experiencing more, other, wilder. So I open up once again a page where I can re-read irascible old revolutionary Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), whose essay “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters” reminds me: “Dealing with answered questions is the privilege of brains constructed like a cow’s stomach, which, as we know, is built to digest cud”.

“Privilege”? Tired of a too-steady diet of cud, I aim to forage more widely.

So I’ll begin by asserting we all practice magic, and work outward from there, using this as a core assumption and seeing how it holds up. We do much of our magic half-consciously, so that we often don’t perceive the patterns, causes and effects of what we set in motion as clearly as we might. After all, like most of us, I insist on who I am: in my case, straight, white, male, employed, married, healthy, intelligent, rational. But when even one of these breaks down, as every one of them has for at least some of us over a lifetime, my world trembles violently, even if it doesn’t collapse outright, and I scurry and latch on to explanations for what’s going on.

Isn’t such an interval about the least likely time for any of us to notice the patterns, causes and effects of what we’ve set in motion? And even if and when we do, we tend to account for them only with naturalistic explanations (Pagans may add supernatural but not necessarily more accurate ones), including blaming other people, fatigue, stress, illness, the government, conspiracies, the Man, our reptilian overlords, a loveless marriage, plain bad luck, and so on, forgetting how much even of our conscious experience at the very moment of our explaining has been programmed by education, habit, expectation, culture, practice, a “reasonable explanation”, and a simple, overriding human desire not … to … be … weird.


But … magic?!

At the heart of this often-inaccurate accounting is a precept that disturbs and offends Westerners in particular, taught as we are that we are free and independent beings, with wills and choices subject to our conscious attention. We are not so free after all, but if we can’t even examine this assertion in the first place, what are we to do? If we all practice magic, as I claim, we all need to, because as musician and mage R. J. Stewart observes:

With each phase of culture in history, the locks upon our consciousness have changed their form or expression, but in essence remain the same. Certain locks are contrived from willed patterns of suppression, control, propaganda, sexual stereotyping, religious dogma; these combine with and reinforce the old familiar locks restraining individual awareness; laziness, greed, self-interest, and, most pernicious of all, willful ignorance. This last negative quality is the most difficult of all to transform into a positive; if we truly will ourselves to be ignorant, and most of us do in ways ranging from the most trivial to the most appallingly irresponsible and culpable, then the transformation comes only through bitter experience. It may seem to be hardship imposed from without, almost at random, but magical tradition suggests that it flows from our own deepest levels of energy, which, denied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness, find an outlet through exterior cause and effect (Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 20-21).

“[D]enied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness”: we might think such a “locked-up” person simply needs re-education, or better training, maybe positive reinforcement, a decent opportunity. (I note here that it’s almost always some other person who’s the problem, or needs the help — never me. After all, I’m awake and in charge of my life.) This is also where we get much of the American program of self-improvement, “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps”, as it used to be called. Those who can afford it try therapy, or weekend retreats and workshops. Those who can’t may rely on pharmaceuticals or liquor or increasingly available weed. As the evidence mounts, as the growing dysfunction, suffering, addiction, unhappiness and all-around misery attest, something’s not working.

So why magic, of all things? Surely any number of other options would be preferable to something so half-baked, superstitious, irrational, etc., etc. — the list of slanders, some of them justified by pernicious snake-oil salesmen, is long.

J. M. Greer, ecologist, blogger, conservationist and mage, puts it this way:

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

To put it another way, in what is not a particularly poetic magical Druid triad: Magic stems from an experiential fact, an experimental goal, and an endlessly adaptable technique.

The fact is that each day we all experience many differing states of consciousness, moving from deep sleep to REM sleep to dream to waking, to daydream, to focused awareness and back again.  We make these transitions naturally and usually effortlessly. They serve different purposes, and what we cannot do in one state, we can often do easily in another.  The flying dream is not the focus on making a hole in one, nor is it the light trance of daydream, nor the careful math calculation. What we do mechanically and often without awareness, we can learn to do consciously.

The goal of magic is transformation – to enter focused states of awareness at will and through them to achieve insight and change. Often, for me anyway, this is nothing more mysterious than moving out of a negative, depressed or angry headspace at will into a more free, imaginative one, where I can problem-solve much more effectively, and also be much more pleasant to be around. Or so my wife tells me.

“The major premise of magic,” says R. J. Stewart, “is that there are many worlds, and that the transformations which occur within the magician enable him or her to gain access to these worlds” (R. J. Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 7).

The technique — a cluster, really, of practices and techniques — is the training and work of the imagination.  This work typically involves the use of one or more of the following: ritual, meditation, chant, visualization, concentration, props, images and group dynamics to catalyze transformations in awareness. “… [O]ur imagination is our powerhouse …” says Stewart. “… certain images tap into the deeper levels of imaginative force within us; when these are combined with archetypal patterns they may have a permanent transformative effect”.

Ouroboros-benzene.svgEven mundanely, golfers visualize a hole in one, carpenters see the finished design long before it emerges from the blueprint, chemists rely as much on inspiration as any artist for discoveries like that of August Kekule, who dreamt of the structure of the benzene ring via the archetypical image of a snake swallowing its tail.

Furnish the imagination with the food it needs, and it can be a powerful tool and guide. Abandon it to others who do not know us, nor have our best interests at heart, and we cast away our birthright.

PART TWO — Applications — coming soon.

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Surfaces and Depths

[Note: The first section was drafted when the temperatures were 10-20 degrees warmer than the arctic front the northern U.S. is experiencing now.]

Winter offers subtle lessons about surfaces and depths. Test the skim of ice on the pond, and see how thick it is. Will it bear the weight of the roof-shovel I just used to clear last night’s snowfall off the solar panels? It looks so solid already, though daytime temps have risen well above freezing every day for the past several weeks. Has the overnight cold pierced deeply enough that I can step out onto the surface? Not yet, not yet. This weekend, though, with two days of forecast highs of 19 F (-7 C) and lows of -2 F (-19 C) might just do the trick. Then we Vermonters can begin to walk on water, too.

We count on surfaces, when they’re strong enough, to make the depths irrelevant. Easier, quicker, reckless. Wise fools, all of us.

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Got a New Year’s resolution or two? Has willpower helped you keep them in the past?

The tools of magic, observes author, magician and Archdruid emeritus of AODA (Ancient Order of Druids in America) J. M. Greer,

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

Many moderns looking for changes opt for therapy instead. It can be a “safer” alternative. One advantage the latter can provide, if we want to call it that, is its generally less abrupt change. Magic can, after all, raise a ruckus. A cursory study of the history of magical orders bears this out — they blow themselves up with impressive regularity, because almost always one or more members haven’t successfully integrated the changes their own practice brings about. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is almost the textbook case, exhibit A. The parties involved in the Order’s implosion “should have known better”, certainly — incidentally proving that knowledge, one of our most popular current gods, isn’t enough. The problem isn’t that magic is powerless, but the opposite: it’s altogether dynamic, beyond the expectations of dabbler and seasoned practitioner alike.

For one thing, that means the charges, oaths, warnings, exhortations and gateways hedging many traditional magical texts, charms, rituals and practices, while sometimes glammed up and all showy and theatrical to make the point even more obvious (as well as sell books and movie tickets), do indeed conceal real teeth and spiritual gravity.


woodpile yesterday afternoon — surfaces and depths, partly visible

Cause and effect aren’t fake news. The physics of this world starts to establish itself quite viscerally in all our psyches around the time we first burn a finger on a stove, fall on ice, or mash a finger with a hammer. We merely lie to ourselves when we think we can “get away” with things less physical, as if analogous laws don’t also come into play. What has a beginning has an end. Apply force and a reaction follows, and so on. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a most painful illustration of just such laws.

It’s a perfectly exact measure of my immaturity whenever I think such rules don’t apply to me.

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My application to conduct a workshop at the 2018 Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S. (MAGUS) was  recently declined. A minor detail, except for the fine irony that my workshop proposal centered on the magical use of symbols to empower ritual — point, line, triangle/awen, square, pentagram and even the MAGUS symbol itself, a unicursal hexagon.


“One of the essential lessons every magician must learn”, Greer notes (with what feels like the edge of a small smile creeping into his words), “is that magic sometimes fails”. Do your best, but this time the yeast just doesn’t rise. Make plans to get together with friends, and a flat tire or dead car battery sidetracks them. We know these things intimately in daily life, yet somehow expect magic always to smooth the way with its effortless power. Side by side with this image, of course, lies the contrasting image of the magician as master of willpower, all clenched muscles and scowls and fiery will burning through obstacles at any cost. Will is on many people’s minds right now, with all those New Year’s resolutions still radiant and full of promise.

Surface will is the kind we invoke to tip the ball into the basket or the net if we’re spectators cheering for our team. We try to “push” with our thoughts. Will-at-depth feels much different. We’ve all “been in the zone”, felt ourselves a part of a larger flow, when whatever we’re doing wholly absorbs our attention, time collapses as hours feel like minutes, and consciousness shifts to what we could aptly call “magic time”. Hold an intention clearly, without conflict, and action lines up to follow it. I don’t so much “will” something to happen as I open a way for energy to flow as effectively as possible, without distraction or second guessing. When actions flow from the center of who we are, they come smoothly, what the Dao De Jing call wu-wei or “no strain”, almost as if there is no barrier — we and the action are simply parts of the same thing in motion.

(“Almost as if there is no barrier” is my consciousness before and after being “in the zone”. It can’t account for what happens, because it’s the rational consciousness, not the magical creative one that actually makes things happen.)

Or as R. J. Stewart clarifies, “magical arts are not employed to ‘get whatever you want’, but to unlock whatever you are not, thus revealing or releasing whatever you may be” (Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 20).

May you find, if you will, surprising and heartening depths beneath your surfaces.

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Strawberry Moon

The June full moon, often aptly named the Strawberry Moon, actually reaches its fullest tomorrow (Friday) morning, but most North Americans will see it at its peak tonight.


wild strawberries, north yard — perfect reason not to mow


Tonight I’ll offer my full moon ritual for the health of the hemlocks that line the north border of our property, as well as other beings, “quando la luna è crescente” — while the moon’s still waxing. As the full moon nearest the summer solstice less than two weeks away, Strawberry Moon plays counterpoint to the shortest night and longest day of the year, and governs the first of the true summer months here in New England. I’ll be posting a follow-up in the next weeks.


“queen” hemlock, 50 ft. tall, visible from where I write

As Dana has so passionately documented on her Druid Garden site, including a powerful ogham/galdr healing ritual, the eastern hemlock battles against the hemlock woolly adelgid, widespread enough that it’s gained its own acronym — HWA. The adelgid, an aphid-like insect, is just one of several pests that afflict the trees, but one not native to North America and a factor in near-complete mortality in infested areas. As a commenter on Dana’s blog notes, natural biological agents offer the best and least toxic means of control and containment. The United States Dept of Agriculture site summarizes the situation well.

And if you ask why, Our true self and the land are one, says R. J. Stewart. As always, test and try it out for yourself. That ways lies deep conviction, replacing casual opinion with earth loved, spirit manifest, life full.

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Regenerating the Old Ways

boe-coverYears ago “in my other life”, while I was studying Old English, I found myself returning repeatedly to a dialog about 40 pages into our class text.

We were learning from Bright’s Old English Grammar and Reader, one of those standard hardcover textbooks you really can’t afford to buy new without a trust fund, the kind of book that generations of students dutifully underlined and annotated and highlighted and struggled through in one or another of its many editions and revisions. (My used copy has at least two previous owners, and the annotations and exclamation points to show for it.) Open to the copyright page and you see the first edition appeared in 1891, 125 years ago. The book itself is now part of a tradition.

Much of the text consists of tables of declensions and conjugations to memorize, alternating with Old English readings, both heavily footnoted. Fortunately, our teacher knew from experience that as long as you sought only to read, you could dispense with a good deal of that memorization. Learn a few core patterns and a high percentage of the time you could understand the grammar of the rest of what you read, recognizing a great deal by analogy and context.

But what about speaking? For “dead” languages — and what language is really dead if we still study it? — conversational examples are generally pretty thin on the ground. Language learning techniques have improved over the decades, especially for living languages. But many of those same strategies work just as well for tongues whose last speakers lived with horsecarts and cobblestones, hearthfires, oil lamps and emperors. So while you won’t necessarily be chatting right away (at least until you devise the needed vocabulary) about rap and drones and global warming, you can still access the living spirit of a language through conversation. So what amounted to a conversational fragment, really, still set my imagination turning.

Here’s that dialog in my translation, somewhat condensed. The tone of the original is just as heavy-handed and more than a little pedantic.

Teacher: Today we’re going to speak the language of the West Saxons. Are you ready? Tell me, students, what is that language?

Female Student: It’s the speech of our ancestors.

Teacher: That’s right. Our ancestors spoke it a thousand years ago.

Male Student: A thousand years ago? Those ancestors have been dead a thousand years? [Did he just wake up in class, halfway through the term?!]

Teacher: That’s right. Their bodies are dead.

Male Student: They don’t speak any longer. So then their language is just as dead as they are. What need is there for us to learn it?

You have to admit that this literal and clueless male student (in Old English, leorningcniht — in bad translation, “learning knight”) has a point. And if you’re thinking that Druidry, like any other human creation that once flourished and underwent a sea change over time, once faced a similar challenge, you’re not wrong. (History repeats itself to get our attention.)

If you’re wakeful enough this time of year, in spite of the tendency to drowsy half-hibernation that besets many of us in northern climes (or southern ones six months out from now), you may also be thinking that the problem is circular. I mean: As long as we see and treat something as dead, it has no life. We can always find someone or more than one asking plaintively, “What need is there for X?” But perceive it and use it as a living thing, and it revives in the doing. Our attention brings to it a very real and living fire.

That Old English dialog concludes in the next chapter:

Teacher: Well, young man, tell me now: everything that’s new, is it all good?

Male Student: No, sir. It’s not.

Teacher: And it’s also the same: not everything which is old is bad.

Male Student: Still, we can’t hear our ancestors.

Teacher: Miss, what do you say about this?

Female Student: I say that though we can’t hear their voices, nevertheless we can read their words.

Teacher: (Summarizes the deeds of the West Saxons). Now we are their heirs. If we don’t want to be foolish, let’s learn the speech of the West Saxons.

Now we are their heirs.

The ancient Hebrew people in exile in Babylon faced a similar problem: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” When the landmarks of your practice, whether cultural, geographical, psychic or some combination of all of these, are no longer present to support and sustain you along your path, the disorientation can be profound. What can you do?

“Still, we can’t hear our ancestors.” But it’s a choice to insist on being so literal.

sakuramcOne of the weaknesses of modern practice, observes R J Stewart in his magisterial Living Magical Arts,

“is the literary emphasis on superficial technique; the right words, the correct authority, the proper way to extinguish a candle; such details are given quite spurious weight without recourse to the traditions in which they may have originated. Much of this nonsense is cut through cleanly by a simple magical law: seek to understand the tradition, and the techniques will regenerate within your imagination” (pg. 69).

In the case of a living tradition, the solution is self-evident: study the tradition. But what about traditions that have no living point of contact?

I take comfort from Stewart here: seek to understand the tradition. The effort itself can help lead us to sacred sites and other contact points, links, resources, people, spirits (and in the case of “dead” languages, texts and practices and those first faltering attempts to spell out our life in a new tongue).

Our attention is a living and revivifying fire. “The techniques will regenerate within your imagination.”

A gift of Yule. (And since I’ve been doing Old English: Glæd Ġeol! Glad Yule!)

The next post will examine how well this works in practice — for me, anyway — the only person I can understand from the vantage point of inside knowledge.

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IMAGES: Bright’s grammar; magic circle.

Deeper than Yin and Yang, Part 1: “The Darkness Also Had Spoken”

[Part 2]

So your spiritual practice – i.e., your life – is going well, and moments of insight come to you like the god-kissed gifts they can be. The afternoon light slants a certain way, bees hum in late-summer flowers, the sweet air itself intoxicates you, and the golden pollen of August dusts your eyesight. It’s what the SBNRs, the spiritual-but-not-religious, count among the “treasures outside the walls” of a church or temple. Walk but a little deeper into such moments, hone that attention ever so finely, and you may more fully participate in what the Lakota call Great Mystery:

A bird sings in a nearby tree, and “in that moment you understand the singing of the bird … the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirs the leaves … it may even seem to you that you yourself are a word spoken by the sunlight” (A Wizard of Earthsea, pg. 35).

woe-legThese words are slightly adapted from Ursula Le Guin’s classic fantasy, a source of wisdom I count among my teachers in book form. Such a charged sensibility as Le Guin describes glimmers at the edges of our awareness all the time.

Of course as we age, we learn how to turn it off, shut it down, dull its sheen into an occasional daydream, because in full spate it can remind us painfully of what we have forgone in our quest for other things we thought mattered more. Often I abandon the greater magic for the lesser – and the spell I cast, the one we cast together – works all too well.  Exhibit A: just look around, or check out the shrieking headlines.

Or it’s nothing, as far as I can tell, that I’ve done, or left undone.

Nevertheless I search my thoughts and actions for a clue, plumb my mood and my intent, skim my spiritual journal (if I’ve been keeping it up to date, if I keep one at all).

And sometimes, as over this past six weeks, I know precisely where the imbalance lurks. I’ve just finished a teaching intensive, working with international high school students in a residential summer program, doing evening dorm duty, teaching classes, chaperoning day excursions – the kind of all-encompassing, immensely rewarding and exhausting work I’d already done for sixteen years, and which I’d consciously left two years ago. So I knew exactly what I was getting into.

And I could see how out of balance I was getting day by day, postponing regular and vital “inner time” till after the meeting about a troubled boy in the dorm, after I’ve had breakfast — I’m starving!, after teaching three straight classes, after grading this stack of papers I’d promised my kids for yesterday, after a nap I’ve got to have now, or I’ll fall over. After, after, after. Because after all, these things are i m p o r t a n t ! I’m serving, giving, helping, connecting, making a difference! (Best seduction ever.)

In the middle of all this supposed selflessness, my wife and I found our arguments escalating and cutting deeper. I shirked tasks and cut corners, pleading fatigue. And when I didn’t step forward quickly enough to deal with a cluster of dorm incidents — including sexual hazing, secret videotaping, and two fights, all within a 24-hour span, and the deans took over and dismissed my complaints that I was cut out of the solution they had to impose in my absence — I took refuge in ugly self-pity.

Of course, nothing new. As magician and poet R. J. Stewart characterizes it,

lma-cover-rjstewartWith each phase of culture in history, the locks upon our consciousness have changed their form or expression, but in essence remain the same. Certain locks are contrived from willed patterns of suppression, control, propaganda, sexual stereotyping, religious dogma; these combine with and reinforce the old familiar locks restraining individual awareness; laziness, greed, self-interest, and, most pernicious of all, willful ignorance. This last negative quality is the most difficult of all to transform into a positive; if we truly will ourselves to be ignorant, and most of us do in ways ranging from the most trivial to the most appallingly irresponsible and culpable, then the transformation comes only through bitter experience. It may seem to be hardship imposed from without, almost at random, but magical tradition suggests that it flows from our own deepest levels of energy, which, denied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness, find an outlet through exterior cause and effect (Living Magical Arts, pgs. 20-21).

We respond to stories, to myth, because they are our own lives writ large. My little drama, echoed in epic. It does not pay for me to ignore the second teaching, after the pleasant mysticism of sunlight and glorious connection. “Once … he had felt himself to be a word spoken by the sunlight. Now the darkness also had spoken: a word that could not be unsaid” (A Wizard of Earthsea, 66).

O, shut up, says my severest critic. Can you contemplate getting over yourself for a moment?! The story’s a cool story, and your human pettiness is no different than most other people’s. There’s no cosmic link. Stop your posturing, make your point and be done with it already. So I will assay nothing better than to close, once more with Le Guin’s words — the epigram that opens her book.

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.

[Part 2 looks further at dark, light, and the field they appear on.]

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Le Guin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantam/Parnassus Press, 1984. Stewart, R. J. Living Magical Arts. Living Magical Arts: Imagination and Magic for the 21st Century. London: Blandford, 1987. Images: A Wizard of EarthseaLiving Magical Arts.

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