Archive for the ‘RJ Stewart’ Category

Evil, Goals, Stacking Wood   Leave a comment

California-NestleBut what of activism? readers may rightly ask, especially after my last post.

One of the most evil perspectives — I use the word evil intentionally; a great peril of our times is that the force of the word has weakened to something almost laughable, even as the thing it names continues to spread, infect and damage our world in forms both subtle and painfully blatant, a truly demonic state of affairs — one of the most evil perspectives we cherish is that ecological awareness is somehow a luxury, or a liberal fantasy, just one option among other better and more profitable choices, or an idea whose time is past because it hasn’t produced “results.”

R. J. Stewart succinctly sums up the matter: our true selves and the land are one.

nestleceoCause and effect really do still operate, however inconvenient we find them. But merely fighting polarized symptoms lines up more adversaries for us to attack, without ending the war.

For corporate greed like Nestle’s is just a symptom our modern world makes possible — other eras had and will have their own symptoms.

Yes, we can spend ourselves in noble battle, whatever our position, and if we push far enough, we can “prove” ourselves “right” — and bleed out in the process, kissing this incarnation goodbye. The particular forms that evil takes in this era conform to the lessons we need to learn at this stage of our consciousness.

In a sense, we create the lessons through our weaknesses and imbalances. How painful that continues to be for me to learn! So I want to uncover how to reduce such weakness, rather than spend a life lining up future adversaries that I create out of my ignorance and resistance to a set of lessons I refuse to learn. If indeed the world is a spiritual vessel that cannot be “improved” then what can be “done” with it? Do we even know yet? And how far are we willing to go to find out?

These questions seem to me far more vital than almost any others I’ve encountered. And I know that stance is luxury itself. I’ll admit right here: if I’m the one of those dying of thirst stemming from drought mixed with corporate greed, you who fight to put water back in my hands are my friends in ways a self-named Druid blogger sitting in hydrated Western comfort simply cannot be. So I readily accuse myself on that front, should you turn the focus that way.

But beyond mere easy outrage and less easy symptom-combat and triage, what can I learn and grow from and share? That seems more and more my dharma, the task I find keeps landing on my doorstep unsought.

I want to stare down the hardest questions, because I learn the most from them. But by this I don’t mean to set up tents and squat there in some new “Occupy Existence” movement. The existential is a starting point, not a garden to grow food in. I look at hard questions out of selfishness: I want the biggest bang for my buck out of this lifetime. No guarantees I get more than one (though available signs are promising). As John Beckett notes in a recent blogpost, who among us will lie on our deathbeds and lament most of all that we didn’t sign up for extended cable?!

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Yesterday the second of three cords of firewood arrived. To get from this …


even to this modest beginning


always seems a daunting task. But each year, piece by piece, we eventually get it done. Daily, daily, daily, a practice builds. When I find the right pace, the task itself becomes a kind of pleasure. if I listen, the task itself teaches me. I alternate which arm carries a bundle, and which arm steadies it. I feel each side getting a good workout. I stop when sunburn threatens or aching muscles bring me to the point of diminishing returns. The fatigue of needful effort feels good.

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Images: Nestle water; Nestle chair.


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

[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.

Revisiting Old Magic(ian)s   Leave a comment

rjstewartIn this post I enthuse about an early and continuing inspiration in my practice, and inevitably drag in other more idiosyncratic but hopefully still relevant associations along the way.  So first, the “old magician” of the title.  Scottish-born R. J. Stewart (b. 1949), a composer and author, is among the handful of contemporary practicing magicians whose work has done much to clear away accumulated Medieval and Victorian superstition and obscurity from magic.  Why, for instance, should I intone or vibrate a particular name during a ritual, unless I know what it is and what it’s meant to accomplish?

Inspired by Celtic tradition and the teachings of his mentor Ronald Heaver (1900-1980), Stewart has developed practices designed to heal both magician and environment, among other reasons Druids may be interested in him.  (His website deserves a visit if you want to learn more about him and his magic.)  Along the way, with his Inner Convocations and Inner Traditions practices, he’s also helped to articulate a comprehensible theory of how magic works and can be effectively practiced, reflected in workshops, audio projects, and books like Living Magical Arts (hereafter LMA).  That book was my first deep introduction to magic more than two decades ago, and I sit with my dog-eared copy in front of me now.

I value LMA in part because in it Stewart states basic truths succinctly and clearly — truths I find I need to come back to again and again. His work derives from personal experience.  That means that unlike too many texts on “magic,” it is no pastiche of the work of others, or a mere catalog of magical correspondences that do little by themselves to advance actual magical practice.  On the page, correspondences may look  nice (or scary, depending on your own personal fear factor) and decorative for the armchair magician — and who isn’t one of those, with all the books on magic you could read and leave lying around to impress or intimidate guests?!  But anyone half-way into a serious first-year study of magic can (re)create from experience their own list of equally effective correspondences.  That doesn’t render them somehow invalid or useless, but shows that they’re dependent variables rather than constants.  I wanted the constants, “unrealist” that I can sometimes be.

The fact that magical traditions worldwide share much common ground in things like tables of correspondences, while annoyingly refusing to agree on some presumed “basics,” like which direction is associated with which element, should of course give us a clue about what “matters,” what’s convention, and what the difference is.  (For more on this, see Mike Nichols’ wonderful “13 Reasons Why Air Should Be North,” now promoted to the status of a “Sacred Text” at ISTA, the Internet Sacred Text Archive, which if you don’t know, you should know, if only to “waste” large amounts of time exploring.)

spiralimgIn LMA, Stewart offers overviews, rationales, and a coherent and profound magical philosophy for what he presents. As he defines it, “magic is a set of methods for arranging awareness according to patterns.”  Worked with consciously, these patterns can help catalyze a transformation: “the purpose of magical arts is to enable changes within the individual by which he or she may apprehend further methods [of magic and transformation] inwardly.”  This transformation can come about because “magic attempts to relate human consciousness to divine consciousness through patterns inherent in each.”

One reason for the magical dimension of human reality is simply that, as biologists have been discovering, we’re pattern-seekers and pattern-makers in profound ways. That’s how we make sense of the world, the “one great bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion” of things*.  Find the pattern — or impose one, if nothing helpfully steps forward as a clue to whatever’s going on in front of our noses.  Note that this predilection towards pattern-making is neither “good” or “bad” by itself — though it makes sense to assume, as at least a provisional view of reality, that if pattern-recognition is so successful as a survival strategy across so many species, it may actually have something to say about what “reality” is like, or how it comes across to consciousnesses still evolving to “grok” it.

fmofhrFor we share this “blueprint of consciousness” with other mammals, which is why I suspect we were ever able to domesticate animals like dogs, cats, sheep, geese, ducks, chickens, cows, horses, and pigs that have contributed so hugely to human civilization.  They’ve served us as sources of food, clothing, transportation, power for machines, defense, pest control, and companionship.  (Growing up, I remember a picture my dad displayed prominently in our house of five cows, each one representing a different breed of dairy cattle, with the caption “Foster Mothers of the Human Race.”   We kept a herd of the familiar black and white Holsteins, the most common breed in the U.S., the breed most people think of when they think “cow,” but the other four breeds were still important enough to our farm family that as a child I also knew Brown Swiss, Jersey, Ayrshire and Guernsey cattle on sight.)  If domestication isn’t a marvelous and far-reaching act of magic, what is?

So pattern-making is a “keeper” in our toolkit of magical strategies and techniques.  I sense the shades of my born-again and otherwise Christian ancestors flinching and cringing and flagellating themselves.  But magic is not a religion, and is certainly not anti-religion, but rather “a coherent set of traditions regarding human potential.” Or it’s becoming one, in the hands of competent modern magicians like Stewart.  And he goes on to assert that the god and goddess images of religion are imaginative images “engineered to a high standard of performance.” What that means is that magicians, without ever denying the power or value of such images, work through and beyond them because they want to experience and work with the reality which lies behind images and which energizes them.

Stewart’s style both in LMA and later books is educated and not a breezy, colloquial one.  If you’re hearing worship in my words, try again.  I don’t expect everyone will (or should) agree with Stewart. I don’t always. But his common-sense, grounded, characteristically practical outlook is refreshing and unusual when you look at the sometimes careless, unscholarly, irresponsible and misleading books on the market which promise a lot and don’t deliver. Use your reason and intelligence fully, as Stewart would urge, because they’re tools too. He remarks late in the book, “if the intellect can be turned to prove to itself that conditioned life patterns are false, it becomes a useful tool towards liberation.” No quick fixes here (I’m usually suspicious of books which promise those anyway), but a path worthy of prolonged dedication.

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Stewart, R. J.  Living Magical Arts.  Blandford Press, U.K.  1987.

*attributed to author and psychologist William James (1842-1910)

Images: R J Stewart; magicHoard’s Dairyman “foster mothers”

Notes on Magic   Leave a comment


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– R. J. Stewart, Living Magical Arts

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Image source:  sunset.

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