Archive for the ‘spiritual practice’ Category

Boasts, Toasts, Oaths, and Growth   Leave a comment

I wrote a few years back about toasts, boasts and oaths as part of a Lúnasa ritual at Mystic River Grove in Massachusetts, and I’m revisiting the topic here, because it’s a rich one to explore further. Anyone interested in Lugh, his Welsh counterpart Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and associations with Lunasa need only Google for more info than any ritualist could use in 50 rituals. Use the search box on this site for my other posts on the subject.

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This triad of ritual actions is especially fitting now, because Lugh is the god whose nasadh “assembly” gives us the name of our current seasonal festival Lughnasadh, or Lúnasa in reformed Irish spelling. Lugh is described as samildánach — “equally skilled in many arts” — certainly reason enough for boasts, toasts and oaths as components of Lunasa ritual. Emulate the god and celebrate the pluses in our lives. His festival includes games of skill, a kind of Celtic Olympics.

Without much squeezing or distortion, we can also see each action as associated with a specific time: past, present and future.

Boasting generally looks to the past, to something already accomplished. “I’ve done it before (and so I’ll do it again)”. We could even see the modern job resume as a kind of contemporary and restrained boast — it highlights our relevant employment history, our training and experience. Likewise, a good job interview is a delicate balance between touting our accomplishments and demonstrating our self-awareness, an understanding of our weaknesses — cleverly transformed, of course, into opportunities for growth in the service of our next employer.

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The Flyting of Loki

A boast naturally seeks recognition and praise, or acknowledgement at the very least. (A suspicion of pride and an awareness of its dangers pervade the Judeo-Christian moral heritage of the West, so a Pagan restoration of justified pride is long overdue. The point, after all, is to do something praiseworthy, something that fully deserves boasting about.) As a result, it can also be an occasion that calls for responses from others that tease the boaster, as much as for compliments on an achievement done well. A roast, another rhyming theme that fits well here, is an invitation for just such teasing and carefully-tuned mockery. Through it we test the self-confidence of the boaster, their ability to “take it”, and check their anger, and sometimes to respond in kind. African-American playing the dozens and the Norse, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon flyting each ritualize an exchange of insults. The Norse Lokasenna, sometimes called the Flyting of Loki, is just one historical and literary example. In one form or another, the “rap battle” has long been alive and well.

Toasts are often expressions of gratitude or celebration for something that’s happening now in the present. We salute and celebrate another, whether person or object, event or location. In some way it’s a form of blessing. We toast a newly-married couple, we christen and launch a boat, we hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a completed factory or auditorium or museum. As with boasts, toasts often ask for toasts in response, and some cultures formalize such exchanges. Further highlighting the link between boasts and toasts, it’s often considered “good form” to lightly tease a person or couple we’re toasting, as a way of showing affection.

Oaths usually look toward the future, to something we intend to achieve. As a promise or vow, an oath can be an acknowledgement of a debt we’ve garnered in the past, but oriented towards a general time to come. Or it can be more like a promissory note, specifying terms of repayment, the conditions for fulfillment, etc. In the oral cultures where they mostly originate, oaths are a matter of public memory. We make them publicly so that others witness them. A sense of a commitment made with others’ knowledge often helps the oath-maker to fulfill the oath. It’s a way to utilize any shame, any fear of loss of face if we fail, to motivate us, just like we imagine the praise if we succeed, the enhanced reputation and public standing.

This triad of ritual behaviors can feel somewhat contrived in the West, because each is a ritual action less common today than in the past. As an opportunity to revive ceremonial forms and a chance to explore a triad of potent group ritual gestures, boasts, toasts and oaths deserve to be incorporated in our rites and celebrations.

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These ritual acts are also chances for growth. Part of the cultural change we’ve undergone in the West over the past several centuries has been a shift toward internalizing these three rites. Rather than boasting publicly, we read books on motivation and struggle to deal with self-esteem issues. We take workshops on resume-building and interview skills and networking. We internalize our weaknesses and strengths, though we now hand over to social media an increasing share of our once-private lives, in a curious reversion to the older cultural patterns of turning towards a community for much of our identity.

chickensThe pecking order of birds, the ranking among herd animals, a usually stylized aggression to establish social position, can shade into bullying among humans, a specific form of cruelty. Animals generally stop once one of them establishes dominance over the other. We see animal rituals in the submissive gestures of wolves, stags, chimps, etc. who yield to a stronger opponent. A human bully doesn’t stop, and equivalent gestures of submission may simply encourage greater cruelty. The point of bullying is not merely to establish dominance, which is the goal of most alphas, both female and male, but to cause pain.

Specifically Druidic responses to bullying are often rooted in community. We look for our values to nature and to what we have in common, and a response to a bully is often a communal one. Isolation, banning, shunning, communal expressions of disgust and repulsion, all can have their effect in awakening shame and regret, or at the minimum ending the behavior and any opportunities for it to continue.

Just as important, however, are opportunities for clearing one’s name, for redemption, for forgiveness, for reparations and restoration. Ritual has a place in this as well. The fear and anger that often underlie bullying behavior can be dis-empowered. Elemental re-balancing can play its part — earth can eat the heaviness and sense of blockage and obstruction that comes from wrong-doing acknowledged. Water can cleanse and purify, air can lift and lighten, and fire can purge and burn away.

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The One True Druidry   Leave a comment

[Updated 5 August 2020]

is the one you’re actually practicing, as opposed to any ideal in your head. Or least so it looks from where I’m walking through the woods, or sitting at the kitchen table.

From new Druids on one of the OBOD Facebook sites introducing themselves, asking questions, sharing their sense of discovery on this new journey, to battle-scarred Christians on the Druidry and Christianity site, recounting their journeys out of toxic groups and towards a Jesus who’s always been praying in the forest, as well as blessing the tidal basins along the seashore and listening in the desert sands, or standing there in the next room, gazing at the statue of his brother Lugh, or his sister Brighid, we’re walking any number of possible and imagined paths to see what the next steps reveal.

Can we map out some of the characteristics of what “true Druidry” might look like?

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incense / Pexels.com

ONE

For a start, we can lay claim to the sense of the Hippocratic oath (NIH website). Though the oath doesn’t include the explicit words “First, do no harm” that are often attributed to it, the sense behind those words is clearly present. One of the signal advantages to walking a solitary path is that no dysfunctional group will muck up your journey. Add to that the reassurances in the study materials of responsible Orders to do what feels right, and simply to set aside any exercises or materials that don’t. Most people connect with a group, if at all, through a friend or acquaintance, and that’s as good a way as most. Likewise, the practice of Druidry should be the practice of non-harming.

Of course, Druidry like any other valid path can be an instrument to help unstick us if we’re stuck. It tends to do this gently, pointing us toward sources of balance and healing. More vigorous and rigorous forms and practices are also available. As we come into healthier balance, we often are drawn to find ways to lighten any undesirable impact of our words, actions, thoughts and feelings. Just as taking up the study of Druidry should do no harm to us, our practice of Druidry should do no harm to Others.

TWO

Good teaching supplies options to students: you can find ways to adapt the course of instruction to your interests, circumstances, and so on. A water-loving tree mentioned in your reading, for instance, may not grow anywhere near you in your home climate, a dry one unlike the British isles, but another tree in your yard or town piques your interest and attention, and can teach you much. Your local tree becomes your teacher for the month (and beyond) as much as your formal written study materials. Knowing this, authors of good materials generally point you toward such teachers, who constitute a central part of earth spirituality. “The Land is your greatest teacher”.

A Druid proverb here might be “Do not overlook teachers you may not expect, or who don’t match your preconceived notions of what a teacher should look like. For these include some of the best teachers you will meet”. Or more succinctly: “Expect the best teachers, whatever forms they may take”.

THREE

Many people recount experiences of synchronicity in their study: the lesson on animal guides arrives when you’ve encountered or been dreaming of an animal, perhaps the animal mentioned in the lesson. A book reaches your hand that opens up a topic you’ve just been thinking about. A conversation with a friend touches on an issue you’ve been struggling with, and that brings its own comfort. Any focus maintained over time tends to provoke such experiences. Are we simply more alert to things already present in our lives? Does our study “cause” them to arrive when we need them? Is the green world listening in some sense to our spoken and unspoken wishes and thoughts? Pondering such questions is also part of Druidry, and helps to shape our response to the synchronicities.

BAM Druid Gather

“It takes night to see fire best”. Full moon at BAM gathering, Sept. 2019.

FOUR

Ritual observances as the tides and seasons change, something as simple as a blessing over a harvest, or a libation to the full or new moon in recognition of its beauty and mystery as a door to spirit, deepen our experience of living in time, and also afford us glimpses of timelessness. “The apparent world fades”, says OBOD ritual. (Don’t worry, whisper the flowers on the altar. It hasn’t gone away. It’ll still be there when you return.)

Ritual both intensifies our awareness of the “ordinary” and opens us to the non-ordinary. Often ordinary and non-ordinary share qualities, or merge and blend and shift in ways we hadn’t noticed before. (Are they the “same”? Both no and yes seem true or accurate answers. Compare Tolkien’s proverb: “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes” — The Fellowship of the Ring.)

At Lunasa or Imbolc, Brighid may have something to say to Lugh, and vice-versa, and via ritual we find we can listen in to their conversation. Or we turn our words, gestures and ritual elements to one of them and it seems that the other answers. As the Wise have reminded us, just because Brighid or Lugh may not exist, that doesn’t mean they have nothing valuable to say to us. Such categories of things get re-arranged. We start to realize how large and multi-form and marvelous the cosmos can be — a blessing of freedom and possibility in itself.

FIVE

“Guard the mysteries! Constantly reveal them!” wrote Beat poet Lew Welch some 51 years ago now, in 1969, in his poem “Theology”. In one sense, that’s what the experience of doing Druidry feels like. The really profound things can’t be conveyed to other people anyway, but only experienced. Any mystery we “guard” is also something we’re trying to reveal to anybody interested, through our rituals and actions, our stories and our own practices, our urging to others to practice for themselves so they can have the experiences, too.

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Doreen Valiente / Wikipedia.

The act of revealing often takes the form of a kind of guarding. With both mirth and reverence, as Doreen Valiente puts it in her Charge of the Goddess, we approach the sacred at the heart of the world, in ourselves and in other things. We model this as best we can because of our own repeated experiences.

Our approach is a participation and honoring; our participation is an approach. The guarding itself is an invitation — apart from initiations, our Circles are typically open to respectful visitors, and we do what we do “in the eye of the sun” unless the event runs into evening hours, as feels right for Samhain.

SIX

Curiosity seems a common trait many Druids share. Almost always there’s something that sparks their interest. Often it’s an avocation, something done as an amateur in the original sense of the word — out of love. There are many remarkably accomplished and educated people among Druids I know. They take up new studies and practices, pursue training through more formal diploma-ed and certificate programs, as well as less formally, through reading, apprenticing, experimenting, returning to and building on a hobby, study, or passion of their youth or acquiring a new one.

“So many things worth knowing” could serve as a motto for many. Like Gandalf, they often enjoy digging, learning things in the process not yet generally known or accepted. “Among the Wise I am the only one that goes in for hobbit-lore”, remarks Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. The wizard’s specialty proves to be “an obscure branch of knowledge, but full of surprises. Soft as butter as they can be, and yet sometimes as tough as old tree-roots. I think it likely that some would resist the Rings far longer than most of the Wise would believe”.

SEVEN

Transformation and spiraling seem to characterize living teachings. We change, the teachings themselves seem to morph and change and shift, what we thought we were and knew transforms, and we spiral to see the same old things in new ways, encountering higher harmonics of the no longer “same old thing”, so that our experience and wisdom deepen as a result. Another common proverb expresses this well: One thing becomes another in the Mother …

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Working Your What, Part 3: Sleep and Waking   Leave a comment

[Updated 1 August 2020]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dog-sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you sleep and wake again.

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Images: Pexels.com

Working Your What, Part 2: Spirit-ware   Leave a comment

We hear about computer software and hardware, and the humorously-named wetware, that pink and sloshy stuff inside our skulls.

I propose the term spirit-ware for all the applications that run without physical forms. Just as you don’t need to believe in Apple or Linux or Google or Microsoft to use their applications and other products, you can get along fine without belief in spiritware and yet still try it out. In fact, we all do that every day. Belief is just one technique among many.

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Walpole-Westminster Bridge over the CT River, Bridgehunter.com/Library of Congress

Experience of the four elements can often provide a bridge for those seeking to understand both lowercase and uppercase spirit/Spirit. Ritual can help us focus in on how North feels different from East, bringing it home with earth and air as ritual experiences, and also with the enlarged awareness of presence that ritual can facilitate.

Or to give a local geographical and political example, does anyone believe that “Vermont” and “New Hampshire” are anything more than very powerful symbols and metaphors that we agree on for the sake of convenience? (When I cross the bridge at Westminster, VT and drive east to Walpole, NH, what’s much more “real” than any change of state boundaries, to me anyway, is my encounter with the Connecticut River that defines most of the eastern Vermont border and western New Hampshire border.)

Go back a few hundred years and pieces of what are now two New England states belonged to Canada, France, New York, and so on. Go back a few more centuries, and the whole region is Wabanahkik, the Dawn Land of the Abenaki people. “So which is it?” Any answer depends on time and place.

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Over on the Druidry and Christianity Facebook site, a member posted a question about “false gods” in connection with those who worship Brighid and similar figures. How do we know what they are?

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Waxing moon, two evenings ago

For better and worse, I tend towards a pragmatic approach towards Others, especially Others without their skins on.

I understand that such an approach may not work for everyone, particularly for those who’ve committed to a specific creed and worldview. The longer I live, though, the less I believe I know what “false god” even means any more. Yes, I know how such expressions get used, but often that seems like finger-pointing and competitiveness between different religious factions. There are so many kinds of beings, some with skin and some without. And from what I’ve seen, they’re a real mix of good, bad and in-between, so that my criterion tends to be Jesus’s wise standard: “by their fruits you shall know (i.e., distinguish) them”. Which is how I also tend to discriminate between a good and a bad used-car salesperson, plumber, restaurant, potential life-partner, etc.

I also don’t think I really “worship” anyone or anything. Some people do — it’s an important part of their spiritual and religious life. But what I do know is that some beings earn my respect and attention, and others don’t. I find I’m more interested in relationships than worship, and as with any worthwhile relationship, I need to listen, be available to do what’s needful, pay attention, show my gratitude, go with the flow, and live my commitment in my actions.

And I find that demands more from me than most of my beliefs do, which my life keeps revising on me anyway, often when I least expect it.

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The early Church made a distinction between three kinds of reverence/worship: the Greek terms doulia, hyperdoulia, and latria, or reverence, great reverence and worship (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latria). Latria is for God alone, while saints may receive lesser devotion. Well and good.

But I don’t know how to apply such labels realistically to what I do each day, no matter what it may look like on paper. If a dear friend helps me out when I’m down, spends time with me, listens, checks in to follow up on me, takes me out to dinner, etc., the ways I’d show my deep gratitude in response, at least to someone watching from the outside, would probably look an awful lot like latria, or worship/sacrifice. Yet I’m not “worshiping” my friend (or at least not any more than I worship any close friends) when I give a gift in return, or write them a poem or song in gratitude.

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sunset two nights ago, from our front yard

Is writing and singing a love song to someone else a form of worship, or simply expressing love? Does it have to be one or the other? We can attempt to define and prescribe which actions fall in which category, but the person’s intent seems far more important to me, and that’s often where doctrine has least to say, since its purpose, often, is to direct behavior, something visible and measurable, so that we may begin to achieve a glimpse of the result of holy intentions and actions. It can be an indirect way to catalyze a spiritual practice, but for some it’s a useful one.

One of the loveliest modern songs of devotion to Brighid is by Damh the Bard. It’s a favorite of mine and of many. Listening to it, I’m not concerned with doctrine but with the love he expresses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMxeYEhUxYw

Granted, Damh isn’t a Christian Druid. The distinction between human and god matters less in both song and the experience of many Pagans. You’ll note if you listen that Brighid is both “old woman” and “goddess”. (Maybe if we let go that distinction our care and treatment of the elderly might improve.)

One commenter at Druidry and Christianity observed:

But when it comes to pagan gods (let’s assume for the moment that there was a goddess Bridget and a Saint Bridget and that it’s possible not to conflate the two), I think it’s not so much a question of what constitutes “worship,” as it is a question of who/what pagan gods actually are. Are they spiritually beings set up against God? Are they under God? Are they unaligned? Is it even possible to have an unaligned spirit?

There are different kinds of answers to such questions, and which ones satisfy anyone asking the questions seem to depend in turn on the intention, expectation, experience, belief and individuality of those asking. Ultimately, one goes with what accords with one’s inmost sense of truth. No one else can supply that, but only influence how much we trust it.

Prayer may supply an answer individually, though we’ve always seen different and sometimes diametrically opposite answers to apparently the “same” prayer. In response to prayer guidance, some join one church that others condemn — also as a response to guidance received in prayer.

The experience of God’s sovereignty for others means that Biblical verses like Romans 8:28 “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” are sufficient answer. God’s creation is good, and his Word is fulfilled.

Medieval European angelology suggests a whole range of spiritual beings — evil, unaligned and good. Much Christian magic of that time involves cooperation with the good ones against the evil ones. Or sometimes evoking and extorting from the more dubious ones as much occult knowledge as you can, before banishing them back to their respective realms. You just had to make sure your magic circle was as secure as possible, so you wouldn’t get eaten. (For a contemporary fantasy take on various ways you can get eaten, among many other things, see Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, set among Yale University’s secret societies, featuring an anti-heroine named Alex, who’s able to see spirits — much to her dismay.)

Divination can help as well, though from a Christian perspective it can be just as suspect as the subject of potentially evil or non-aligned spiritual beings themselves.

Ultimately, I find, it seems to come down to a paraphrase of C. S. Lewis’s observation: “You can’t really study people [or gods]; you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing …”

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Working Your What, Part 1: Ancestors   Leave a comment

[Updated 26 July 2020]

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

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

A tool for my magic and my connection to ancestors:

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

generations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finding Your What   Leave a comment

newmoon

New moons for old …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

green trees under blue and orange sky during sunset

Lisa Fotios, Pexels.com

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

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

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

“In truth”, Stewart notes,

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

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

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

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

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

(2) pg. 86.

(3) pg. 84.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid.

(6) pg. 85.

(7) pgs. 84-85.

 

 

Recycled   Leave a comment

Cycle 1 This is the next life, said a friend.

astronomy circle dark eclipse

“It takes night to see fire best”. / Photo by Drew Rae on Pexels.com

You want to know if there’s reincarnation? Well, here it is. This. Yep. You don’t have to believe it. You’re in it. And look: the real question isn’t ‘Is there life after death?’ The real question is ‘What are you gonna do with this life?’ If this one can’t engage you and fulfill you and challenge you, why should any future one do any better? Maybe you’ll bring all that you are right now along with you to the next life (along with a similar forgetting, like what happened this time around) or you’ll be so different in it, that it won’t be “you” in any real sense any longer, so it won’t “matter” either way. Sort of like how it feels when you’re born and start to grow up. Everything’s a mix of brand new and familiar at the same time. And everyone and everything else around us, if we can make a wild guess from the look of things, looks like it’s experiencing something pretty similar, that same strange, fascinating blend.

Cycle 2 “Recycling” isn’t even the right name for it. Nothing’s ever removed from the cycle. It just takes longer or shorter periods of time in its movement through the cycles it’s in, depending on what humans and other forces do with it. We don’t “choose” to recycle or not recycle. We just move things (or try to move them) from one kind of cycle to another for our convenience. Cut and dry wood for a fire. Garden and grow vegetables. Build an aquaduct, a fighter jet, a coffee-maker. Form a political party. Assassinate a rival. Cure a disease. Compose a song. Raise a family. Lick our wounds and hate and love and figure out how to manage another cycle or two. Just like how other things and people are trying to move us from one cycle to another for their benefit. Cycles within cycles.

So you might say the “bestest” thing, the wisest thing to do, is learn about the cycles, and which things move other things in and out of cycles, and how they do that, and how we (can) play a part in that. Sometimes that gets called science, and sometimes religion, and sometimes politics, and all three are pretty much hamstrung by leaving the other ones out. Each plays ‘king of the hill’ and ignores any of the other hills. Kind of like a kid’s version of the real work and play we’re engaged in. Wasn’t it some ancient Greek or Roman who said “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one thing well”? And neither one is (usually) held up as the example of how to tackle this thing called living.

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For here or to go? Paper or plastic? Slab or slot? Trail marker on Mt. Ascutney, Vermont.

Cycle 3 Don’t get trapped in a single cycle. Well, unless you want to. You’ll tend to mirror and match the smaller cycles within that cycle if you do, and spin around several times in it, because it’s mostly a closed loop. People tend to do that, at least till they catch the trick of cycles, and it starts to feel like BTDT — been there done that. The more accurate movement and description of what we usually experience seems to be a spiral — cycle-jumping. Of course, you can spiral down just as easily as up (often more easily), but the usually movement is up. No, the arc of the cosmos doesn’t appear to ‘bend toward justice’. It bends towards equilibrium. It resets, or recalibrates, at the end of a cycle, but it doesn’t “advance” in any consistent way. Of course, it may shift or change. It usually does, just not in a way that we could call meaningful. Only individuals seem to advance or regress (or more often than we think, stay the same). Sorting out the significant and the random changes is a deal of work.

What does a cycle do? It cycles. Life and death, I notice, just keep on cycling, for example. The things in the cycle, they change, not the cycle. Or not much. Cycles cycle, and things “thing”. They’re not usually the same processes, though they move in similar ways. Because things thing by moving through cycles. After a while they can even start to look like cycles because of that. But they seem to hold on to their thing-ness pretty closely over small cycles. Only the bigger cycles show the changes, even make the changes possible. “Rolling with the changes” means using the shape and energy-form of a cycle to change more easily. If you don’t know how a cycle moves, how can you roll with it? Rolling just makes it easier than bumping and banging and thudding, or getting tarred and feathered, or just dragged along. Fewer broken bones and broken lives that way.

cattle skulls

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

Cycle 4 You can think of a cycle like a song. It begins and ends, you can play or sing it several times, and the pleasure is usually in the movement of the cycle, not in finally “getting to the end”. (Unless you’re finishing a very long run of cycles, and finally leaving, and glad to get out.) Learn a few songs and a larger cycle often opens up. We jump to that cycle — we spiral. The smaller cycles often keep going though, sometimes for us and sometimes they just don’t include us any longer, though they may be alive and engaging for others. It’s not always our choice, either, because other choosers are at play in the cycles — other beings in this being-crammed cosmos. One way to think of it is that every thing is a collection of cycles, a working set of them, a larger cycle collecting and relinquishing smaller ones, something like a card player picking up and putting down cards in the game. A “winning” hand is a set of cards (cycles) that work well together. A set of well-chosen and harmonizing cycles that let the larger cycle spiral for the cycling being.

SF looking up from inside kiva -- BB

Cycle 5 Your game.

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Spiritual Practice as Laundry

A mundane laundry triad: It needs doing, you do it regularly, and you see the benefit in practical terms: clean clothes.

laundry

elemental laundry: water, earth, air, fire …

While people have individual laundry rituals — you must fold clothes a certain way, or you can only wash certain items together, or you sort into whites and colors, while somebody else sorts by fabrics, or gentle versus regular machine cycle, or you use specific detergents on specific categories — laundry everywhere needs washing. It’s a deeply human activity.

I talk so much about spiritual practice for several reasons. Those who do it know its profound value, while those who don’t tend more often than not to busy our political landscape and to make headlines of various less-than-positive kinds. By “less-than-positive”, please note, I don’t mean less-than-comfortable. A spiritual practice worth doing should in fact unsettle us if we’re stuck — and that’s a good thing. If I’m entrenched in a rut, I need to be plucked from it, and a good spiritual practice is a rut-plucker.

Do laundry long enough and you begin to discover its seasons and rituals, its smaller and larger gestures. During warm weather, hanging clothes outdoors may be an option (as a rural and stingy Yankee, I get to save several hundred dollars each year drying clothes on a line from early April through late October, and gathering in wonderfully sun-breathed clothes besides. Ah, blessed sweat equity). You may wash more in cold weather because you wear more in cold weather. You may also begin at length to practice economies — better (and less) detergent, or scent-free choices, or more efficient machines, or certain days where doing the laundry just makes better sense. You may struggle against housing ordinances which prohibit clotheslines, or you may frequent laundromats or public laundries with their own rules and practices.

Travel or visit others (before these wry, random and ructious covidious times, and hopefully afterwards, too!) and you face different laundry adventures, washing items in a sink, or in your friends’ or sisters’ machines, or in a hotel laundry room. Leave the ritual you know and you discover how much of a habit it has become. Pack a suitcase, and you’re drawing on accumulated clean laundry to see you at least partway through the journey. A good practice grants you just such a reserve you can draw on.

Some practices will shrink or shred or discolor some of your laundry. Note that nothing in such a practice is “wrong” by itself: only the combining of actions and objects that don’t work well together causes the problem. How far I can extrapolate from that lesson is itself a useful meditation.

female backpacker enjoying waterfall streaming from green hills

Water, air, earth … gifted already. Add the fire of my intention. / Photo by ArtHouse Studio on Pexels.com

And I ponder how the goal of laundry isn’t clean clothes by themselves, exactly. It’s more a person well-clothed in fresh apparel. We want to wear the clean clothes, not merely gaze at them in a pile. I can shower twice a day, but if I have to put on dirty clothes again after a shower, I’m working at cross-purposes with myself. Another reflection for meditation, for the place of a practice.

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At a certain point, laundry can become a spiritual practice, an apparent reversal of the title of this post. But not really: a sound spiritual practice nourishes our capacity to make a practice out of more and more of our lives. If I’ve been doing a practice for a while, and I can detect how it has enlarged me in good ways, that’s a valuable indicator, a signpost along the way that we often do not learn in schools, or from those who by rights should be conveying to us the keys and secrets to making the most of our decades here in this strange and marvelous world. But I will not fault them: it may well be that they in their turn did not ever learn it themselves. If I’ve caught even a glimpse of that possibility, I’m blessed indeed. A ritual of compassion for the ancestors: share with them this gift, let them sense something of its resonance for me, let it flow backward and forward in time.

If we’re fortunate, we can number among our family or friends or teachers someone who makes a spiritual practice out of daily life. Their company is a gift and a pleasure, because whatever they do, they do with love. Children may experience this around a grandparent or other mentor. What we do in the presence of the loving spiritual practitioner matters far less than the doing of it in that presence. The quality of that presence outflows. It’s like a fragrance or vibration we take with us. Begin with something small that you do often, said my teacher one time. If it’s tying your shoelaces, tie them with love. When you’ve made that a practice, then slowly expand it to other things.

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Towards “a More Perfect Union”: Belief & Practice

It’s good to take out our beliefs from time to time and lay ’em side by side with our practice. Good, because a disconnect between them is like dirt in an engine — friction wears things down. I can deal with it only if I know about it. We see it most readily in our relationships, but somehow look past it in our own psyches. We grow closer to another person, or we drift further apart, and we can often trace the causes and turning points, but we discern it less easily in other dimensions of our existence. At least in my own experience, such “grit in the works” burns energy, grows stress, sparks illness, ignites irritability, and seeds confusion over goals. So it’s good to pay attention and apply remedies.

pink clouds

Our inner worlds are sometimes less “in our faces”. Photo by Luis Quintero / Pexels.com

I say, for instance, that I want to improve dream recall, and I seem to believe it, yet I ignore my pre-sleep routine. Rather than affirmations, dream review, and care for my late-night reading choices, I read for pure entertainment, falling asleep with glasses on and my finger in a book. Many things lie outside my ability to manage and improve, so why not focus on those I can? Then, paradoxically, the number of things I can manage and improve often enlarges, because I’m not wasting energy on internal conflict.

Back in 2016 I outlined my principal beliefs as I could perceive them then, partly in response to a comment from a reader talking about his sense of the need for a Druid theology:

My correspondent acknowledges he’s a solitary, and such a path can indeed be lonely at times. Alone, I may confront myself more directly and disconcertingly. Alone, I face truths that can be uncomfortable, inconvenient — and profoundly useful to discovery, creativity and growth. Groups can conceal and divert us from the necessary work of the self.

If the tools of Druidry are worth anything, they’re up for the task of helping us grow, both in groups and alone. We find ourselves in a universe of ceaseless growth and change, so it makes sense that both our beliefs and practices should mirror this larger world we inhabit, if they’re to be of any use and value. Daily meditation, time outdoors in nature, ritual observance,  ongoing study, and creative expression make up the lives of many Druids who find value in these practices.

asc-south

Where’s my attention? (Mt. Ascutney, VT, looking southwest)

The “more perfect union” of the title (from the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution) doesn’t automatically mean that practice must conform to belief (or belief to practice, either), but simply that we attend to the harmony between them. That harmony means they can balance and inform and influence each other.

So here are those beliefs, with today’s notations, observations, etc. following after, indented.

/|\ I believe that to be alive is a chance, if I take it, to be part of something vastly larger than my own body, emotions, and thoughts (or if I’ve learned any empathy, the bodies, emotions and thoughts of people I care about). These things have their place, but they are not all.

Not only is it a chance, but my life experiences seem to push and prod me toward that awareness of a “something larger”. Most of my suffering, if I’m honest, also seems to issue from resisting that direction of growth. If compassion — literally, “feeling or suffering with” — doesn’t enlarge in me, I pay for it with a sense of futility, waste, depression, impatience, boredom. But how I might become part of the “something vastly larger” is as varied as each of us is. My practice is for discovering the “how” and embodying it.

/|\ I believe this because when I pay attention to the plants and animals, air, sky, water and the whole wordless living environment in and around me, I am lifted out of the small circle of my personal concerns and into a deeper kinship I want to celebrate. I discover this sense of connection and relationship is itself celebration. Because of these experiences, I believe further that if I focus only on my own body, emotions, and thoughts, I’ve missed most of my life and its possibilities. Ecstasy is ec-stasis, “standing outside.” Ecstatic experiences lift us out of the narrowness of the life that advertisers tell us should be our sole focus and into a world of beauty and harmony and wisdom.

Joy doesn’t get talked about much, but it’s at least as infectious as any virus. We’ve all known and experienced those moments of joy and “outlift”. Again, how I “lift out of the small circle of my personal concerns and into a deeper kinship” is my practice. If my practice isn’t currently helping me achieve that, that’s worth attending to, and changing.

pond

“Stilling the pool of nwyfre is the task of the art of breathing” — J M Greer, The Druidry Handbook.

/|\ I believe likewise that the physicality of this world is something to learn deeply from. The most physical experiences we know, eating and hurting, being ill and making love, dying and being born, all root us in our bodies and focus our attention on now. They take us to wordless places where we know beyond language. Even to witness these things can be a great teacher.

I’ve written before about both the possibilities and limitations of language, out of personal experience and professional training. The “wordless places” we reach and explore don’t necessarily come to us by worry over names and words. Tearing down a Confederate monument, to use a current example, or renaming an airport to drop an association with a politically incorrect person, may apply a dollop of relief to pain, but it won’t address the underlying cause of that pain, which arose, and still arises, from a refusal to do the inner work required.

/|\ I believe in other worlds than this one because, like all of us, I’ve been in them, in dream, reverie, imagination and memory, to name only a few altered states. I believe that our ability to live and love and die and return to many worlds is what keeps us sane, and that the truly insane are those who insist this world is the only one, that imagination is dangerous, metaphor is diabolical, dream is delusion, memory is mistaken, and love? — love, they tell us, is merely a matter of chemical responses.

As inhabitants of multiple worlds, we often neglect the claims they make on us, and also forfeit the advantages they confer if we would only attend to those claims. This world is just one among many. Such statements seem either self-evident to people, or completely obscure. I find there’s almost never much middle ground.

/|\ I believe that humans, like all things, are souls and have bodies, not the other way around — that the whole universe is animate, that all things vibrate and pulse with energy, as science is just beginning to discover, and that we are (or can be) at home everywhere because we are a part of all that is.

“Being at home everywhere” is a kind of vairagya, or not putting all my eggs in a basket that isn’t designed for them. It’s a remarkable and deep practice I’ve been exploring for decades, in various forms, and have only begun to understand.

St. Paul talks about something similar, as far as I can tell, in a challenging passage in Philippians 4:11: “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content”. It’s definitely not indifference, or obliviousness to others’ suffering, but something much more profound. In fact it seems to enable me to help more, not less, when I get myself out of the way of what the other person or situation needs. One small example: rather than imposing what I think my hospice client needs, some of my greatest service lies in listening to him. And sometimes that’s very hard, when I want to “fix things”.

/|\ I believe these things because human consciousness, like the human body, is marvelously equipped for living in this universe, because of all its amazing capacities that we can see working themselves out for bad and good in headlines and history. In art and music and literature, in the deceptions and clarities, cruelties and compassions we practice on ourselves and each other, we test and try out our power.

The sense we have from time to time of being both natives and foreigners in our own lives reflects our varying capacity to work with this human consciousness, recognizing its limitations and also its great virtues for growth and discovery. And Druidry provides tools for working with it, and also discovering other kinds of consciousness, each with its own particular strengths. Why limit myself to just one?!

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Being a tree for a while — Louisiana Live Oak

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June Heptad

ONE

Solstice season, say the wights and spirits. Not just one day.

Ozoliņi, ozoliņi, sings the Latvian ensemble below. “Oaks, oaks …” A fine summer song, celebrating Jāņi, the Latvian summer solstice, June 23 and 24, and the strength of the oak.

TWO

I weave the cincture of protection, sings Caitlin Matthews in her Celtic Devotional for Wednesdays in the Summer, and for Winter Wednesdays, this:

I kindle my soul at the hearth-fires of Winter,
warmth of welcome,
warmth of working,
warmth of nurture,
be upon my lips, my hands, my being,
this Winter’s day,
till Winter’s night.

THREE

As distributors and sharers of the holy energies of the world, we forget to bless and offer them daily. I know I do. Just the recollection, the recall to do this, can become an essential part of a spiritual practice. Bless this day and those I serve, goes one succinct version. A helpful mantra in the middle of a tense situation, or one where I’m tired, stressed, irritable, and otherwise my tendency might be to snap, be short with another person. Instead — and how many “insteads” I find I need! — this recollection-habit can turn me at my less-than-best into a spiritual vehicle and an opportunity for blessing to happen. A space opens that wasn’t there before.

FOUR

WordPress obliges its bloggers with statistics and charts. Here’s one overview of the 9-year life of this blog as of this morning.

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With 540 followers, and over 6000 visitors so far this year, I assume many find value in this blog. But how many of you have taken a few minutes to say it matters to you, in response to my recent request? Three. A lovely triad of supporters. But are there more of you?

This is, after all, a version of the ancient ritual wording whose Latin version runs like this: do ut des; da ut dem. “I give, so that you may give. Give, so that I will give (again)”. And so the exchange we agree to establish can continue.

For an explanation of this in Hellenic culture, as an example of ksenia, sacred hospitality, this article is excellent.

FIVE

Each of the four solar festivals in the ritual year, the solstices and equinoxes, is also a form of initiation. We can forget that planetary initiations come every year, releasing energy, subtly altering our spaces and awareness, whether we participate in them consciously or not. Spend any time out of doors and you can sense the shifts as they flow through us, and we through them, each year.

The same holds true with other initiations, sought and unsought, in the life of the cosmos. It’s through initiation that growth comes. From caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, one form is not the same as the previous or next one. Changes and movement occur in steps and grades.

Rather than accept such statements as some kind of wisdom for the ages, it’s a good idea to question them. Test them, try them out. If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it? goes the quotation attributed to Einstein. Except a spate of research can neither confirm or reject that attribution. Sometimes we don’t yet know. Turn the words a little, and rather than worrying who said it, what value does it have of itself, for me, today? Time to keep trying out this amazing life for what it might offer next.

SIX

Follow a spiritual path for any length of time, and you’ll pick up pieces of things that may not always “fit” (now, or quite yet, or ever). What you do with those things, how you assess which have value and which you can wisely let go, will change as you move through your life. A friend traveling a theistic path has stationery with a heading that reads “What does this have to do with God-realization?” In a form that fits what we each do, in language that resonates fo us, it’s a good question to ask from time to time. Like the stack of pizza boxes and pyramid of soda cans after a party, it may be time to clear away, just to see that table again.

Here’s the nine-pointed star of Thecu I’m incising on a sheet of metal for one of my altars. It may rest on the north face of an outside altar for at least part of the year — that’s not yet clear.

thecu-star

What does my study of this portion of my path, of a possible goddess from the past, and her symbolism, have to do with the rest of it? Is it a piece of Druidry? Exploring that question is itself part of my experience of it. Or in the slang of the past decade, is the juice worth the squeeze? Creating the star is part of my working with possible answers. A capacity for following through is such a large component of so many things — relationships, jobs, creativity, awareness, self-esteem — that I sometimes think it should be a graduation requirement, and a prerequisite for bringing children into the world.

SEVEN

“Seven”, observes Michael Schneider is his marvelous A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe,

is perhaps the most venerated number of the Dekad, the number par excellence of the ancient world … A group of seven comprises a complete unit, a whole event. But a group of seven is different from other wholes we’ve encountered, particularly the Monad, Triad and Hexad. The Heptad expresses a complete event having a beginning, middle and end through seven stages, which keeps repeating. Seven represents a complete yet ongoing process, a periodic rhythm of internal relationships.

It’s well known that the regular heptagon is the smallest polygon that cannot be constructed using only the three tools of the geometer, the compass, straightedge and pencil, the tools that mirror the methods of the cosmic creating process. In other words, an exact heptagon is not (and cannot be) “born” like the other shapes through the “womb” of the vesica piscis

Use a calculator to divide each number one through ten by seven. They each yield the same result: the sequence of digits 1-4-2-8-5-7 cycling endlessly, although they each begin with a different digit. Six digits, like the six days of the week, are set in endless motion around the unseen Sabbath.

The common saying “at sixes and sevens with each other” refers to seven’s aloofness … (pgs. 222-226).

As a book of lore, a wise guide to numerological insight, a companion to the Tarot, a counsel for ritual patterning and form, a practice, a set of stories and images, Schneider’s book is a Druidic feast for those attuned to number.

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Solstices Before Us

ignition

May we find what kindles …

With just a few changes, you can readily adapt my recent Beltane Solitary rite for the Solstices tomorrow, winter or summer.

Earth below me and in my bones,
Sky above me and in my breath,
Seas around me and in my blood,
by the Power of these holy Three,
I proclaim this to be sacred time and space …

A Solitary has the advantage of spontaneity. With the skeleton framework of a ritual as a guide, you’re free to improvise, to slow or quicken your pacing, to substitute words, drop or expand a section to fit the moment’s need. Just like with poetry and song-writing, you need just enough structure as a form to create with, and enough freedom not to feel boxed in. You find wings of a definite shape and size — they’re real, after all — and with them you can fly.

As with ritual, so with ritual politics: unlike the blood-curdling threats accompanying initiations in days not so long ago, the wiser rituals (and their ritual-writers) remind the initiate that no bindings are laid upon you, and should ever you, your guides or spirit wisdom counsel you to depart (or change the ritual, or strike out on your own path), do so with blessings. Anything else smacks of power-over.

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The June Solstice here in central New England means our local snakes are finally active both day and night. Although we’ve seen the more aggressive cottonmouth in the area, it’s the common and docile garter snakes (thamnophis sirtalis) that usually hunt our lawns for bugs and frogs and the occasional mole, which have come to sun themselves on our driveway each morning. This supple fellow from yesterday was about 18 in/46 cm.

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The Carr-Gomms write in their Druid Animal Oracle:

Although some legendary dragons are strongly linked with only one of the four elements, many of them happily partake of the characteristics of all the elements: sleeping in water holes, curling their bodies around hills by day, and flying through the air or breathing flames whenever they wish. Quintessentially alchemical, they speak of the energies and powers that exist both within our own selves and within the landscape around us (pg. 135).

A good reminder for the Solstices — the alchemy for transformation is always on hand, in encounters possible everywhere. After all, earth, sea and sky are all in me, too. We be of one kindred, o serpent.

And so when Jesus says wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I also, can you feel it? Spirit with us, around and inside us. May we gather in that awareness, wherever we are, by twos and threes, bird and beast, ancestor and neighbor.

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Greetings to visitors from Brazil, whose numbers are up today! Muito obrigado!

111 Hertz — Our Ancient Song of Healing and Attunement

Looking for a practice flexible enough for anyone to try at your upcoming Solstice event, Winter or Summer? Feeling the need to ground and center? Looking for guidance and access to your own inner wisdom?

Newgrange-Meath

The famous spiral stone entrance to Newgrange, Meath, Ireland/ image Wikipedia

The single most useful spiritual practice I’ve tried (and stuck with over four plus decades) is singing, chanting, whispering, etc. a sound known in many cultures. On this blog I’ve sometimes called it the “Cauldron Sound”, because it’s the central or middle sound of the awen. It’s long been known to the Sufis as hu, and religions of the inner sound current like Eckankar also give it a prominent place [link to a short description] in their practice and teachings. You can even download a free 5-minute mp3 of the sound to use in meditation [right-click and save] or just to listen to.

Knowledge of this sound, and more particularly of a specific pitch — 111 hertz — existed thousands of years ago, as evidenced by neolithic structures all across Europe that are tuned quite precisely to it, from Ireland to Malta and beyond.

Below is a Youtube video recorded on the Autumn Equinox in Cairn T [link to many detailed pics and descriptions of things shown only briefly in the video below], a neolithic monument from circa 3500 BCE, located in County Meath, Ireland.

 

A 1996 joint project with Cambridge and Princeton Universities measured the acoustic properties of numerous stone age chambers like Cairn T. You can read more about the project here. The article notes that

… the results fell within a very narrow band of acoustic wavelengths, between 95 Hertz and 120 Hertz, with the main proliferation between 110 Hertz and 112 Hertz. The average resonant frequency of the acoustically tested chambers was found to be 111 Hertz. Once this frequency is emitted in the chamber, the effect is to immerse the listener in sound, in this instance the sole frequency of 111 Hertz is amplified by the architecture, as it filters out other frequencies, creating an acoustic standing wave … 111 Hertz is lower male baritone in the human vocal range and can be comfortably hummed, sung or spoken.

(If the pitch is still a little too low for your voice, take it up an octave.) The benefits of immersing oneself in this sound are numerous:

This audible frequency … directly stimulates the right-hand prefrontal cortex of the brain, a problem area for autism and other emotional and development disorders such as anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This specific frequency is also associated with endorphin release, a potential non-addictive panacea for pain relief.

It has been observed that within a few minutes of exposure to 111Hertz, Alpha state trance is induced in the listener, as neuronal activity moves within the brain from the left hand frontal lobe to the right. At that point the language centers are ‘quietened’ along with increased Theta wave activity normally associated with sleep and cell regeneration, produced solely in the right hand prefrontal cortex. The overall effect is a subtle, altered state of consciousness, with the potential to train the brain to stimulate longer-term neuronal activity in the right hand hemisphere of the brain.

As a prescription for what so many of us are experiencing today, this looks spot on. Another article, this time from 2019, “Embracing the Benefits of 111 Hertz Frequency“, adduces MRI data indicating the frequency enhances “intuition, creativity, holistic processing” — all things we need and rely on to navigate the challenges of contemporary life.

111 Hertz, as noted above, is pitched to the human voice. It also approximates within about an octave the pitch of the average didgeridoo [link to David Hudson’s excellent 9:14 demo and teaching] | Jeremy Donovan’s shorter 1:40 demonstration, another cultural source of this ancient wisdom about sound.

I invite anyone who explores these sound techniques to post a brief comment about your experiences!

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Solstice Season 2020

sauna1

My friend B’s sauna stove — fire in midwinter, fire of midsummer.

Light balancing north and south, nights and days in their interchange, sleep and waking and the opportunities during each for connection and discovery. May we hear the earth speaking, may the Ancestors alive in us show us the good paths, may each encounter give us space to practice our hard-earned wisdom.

French Visitors

2020-06-10

A burst of over 50 views from France so far today! Bienvenus, mes amis! Que les benedictions soient! A quick comment on any post is helpful — something you’re looking for, or would like to see more about in the posts here? Please let me know!

Winter and Summer Solstices

That time again … The solstices, winter and summer, are just a little over a week away. Our solstices — let’s claim them, not as something we “possess”, but as intervals and energies that embrace and sustain us. Alban Arthan, Alban Hefin [links to short posts on the OBOD Druidry.org site], the names OBOD uses for Winter and Summer Solstices, are often rendered respectively as the “Light of Arthur” and the “Light of the Shore”.

You can find some of my previous posts on Solstice here, for both Winter and Summer seasons. First, a three-part series from last winter, December 2019: Gifts of Solstice 1 | 2 | 3.

Flaming toward Solstice looks at the lead-up to our Vermont Summer 2019 celebration, and then there’s this  post of mostly images from that celebration. 13 Gift Day Flames for Solstice Solitaries offers practices for either Solstice. Days of Solstice can also apply to both seasons. 19 Ways to Celebrate Summer Solstice is pretty self-explanatory. But while focused on summer, it also suggests practices adaptable to winter.

Ritual of Installation of a New Chosen Chief

Solitaries, ritualists, O.B.O.D.-friendly Druids and anyone interested in ritual surrounding a transition of leadership in Druid Orders may find the recent OBOD installation of Eimear Burke worth time spent with this 25-minute Youtube audio-only recording. Close your eyes as the introduction suggests to increase your attention and you may gain additional insight from that focus.

Welcome, Eimear, and blessings to Philip for his 30+ years of service and leadership.

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The Ground of Our Center, the Heart of Our Earth

Holding (and returning to) the highest moment I know as a flavor for the day. Hearing the awen in the songs of birds, the rush of wind in the branches, the rumble of trucks passing down the road. Opening the door to Spirit in this moment, to welcome the transformations I long for, and have worked to manifest.

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I don’t know about you, but I need to keep grounding and centering all day long. It’s a way to show myself love, when love can seem in short supply.

calendula

The practice of “ground and center” often finds its way into ritual, as part of the “set-up” for the group, to help bring everyone together, to welcome everyone into the ritual space. It also features as part of many group exercises and workshops. A good group facilitator or group leader will include it up front, and often again at the close, to bring everyone fully back into the moment.

Often it takes the simplest form, a short reminder in words. “Let’s take a moment to ground and center”. The act of recalling the need for it becomes the practice of it — think it and you’re starting to do it.

Maybe there’s a little elaboration to guide you: “Feel your roots going into the earth, your branches rising into the air and sun.” But often we assume everyone knows what “ground and center” means, why we do it, what it’s for. Like all fundamentals and basics, it’s good to take it out and look at it from time to time. Probably our understanding of it has deepened and changed over the months and years.

BAM camp

At BAM Gathering preparation campout, Oct. 2018.

Do it enough, and grounding and centering (“G & C”) begins to broaden and take on new forms. A word, a brief prayer, a gesture made with intention can all help (re-)establish attention on the heart. If a ritual or exercise has taken us out of physical awareness, coming fully back to the body is grounding and centering. Stamping the foot (lightly, if you’re in a group) can help. If you practice a ritual of gesture, the opposite gesture for opening ritual space may serve to close it, and “bring you back”. Recording an experience in your journal, eating and drinking, standing up and walking around the ritual space or the room you’re in, can all serve to ground and center.

Christian worship builds in such moments of “G & C” with prayers and affirmations, songs and recitations that “tell you where you are” in the movement through the ritual of worship. The Latin Mass ends with ite, missa est “Go — (the Congregation) is dismissed”. The Wikipedia entry for mosque, citing the Encyclopedia of Islam, notes that “Any act of worship that follows the Islamic rules of prayer can be said to create a mosque, whether or not it takes place in a special building”. The act of grounding and centering can establish our center if we’ve lost it. It returns us to our “native land”, our spiritual home.

The practice of grounding and centering can open up still more. Out of a daily spiritual practice, new doors open to ways of grounding and centering. The guidance can be so subtle I don’t perceive it as anything separate from myself. It becomes what’s now being called “self-care”. Recognizing I need a break from social media, taking a nap, getting outdoors to encounter the elements, walking in the rain, connecting with a friend — these nourish the heart and guide us to do what’s right for us to do. They’re essential ways to ground and center — in that particular moment. From these elements of practice, more hunches, nudges and intuitions may come. Go here, not there. Try this book, resource, doctor, treatment. Reconnect with this person, spend a little more time with that one. Greet the clerk at the store checkout with my full attention, without rush. Ask how to serve quietly (or noisily!) in this moment, then the next. Listening for such answers is itself grounding and centering.

In a kind of paradox that starts to become familiar to us along any spiritual path, grounding and centering can help us discover when we need to ground and center, when we’ve lost balance, thrown ourselves out of whack. They ease us back “in whack”.

With all the talk of out-of-body experiences, sometimes I need in-body contact with the elements. Touching the cool earth with the palms of my hands, taking three deep breaths and releasing carbon dioxide and tension both, drinking a few sips of water, lighting a candle or passing my hand smoothly through flame, can all ground me. With my physical body composed of the elements, each element assists in the centering I need. As above, so below — yes! But also as below, so above. Full-circuit spirituality.

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In some ways, grounding and centering is the only practice there is. Out of groundedness, out of centeredness, we think and feel, speak and act with integrity, with wholeness. Rather than lamenting what I did badly a moment ago, I can ground and center right now.

In this moment, how can I serve?

Binary Prisons and Spiritual Freedom

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

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

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

OUR HUMAN GENIUS is MANIFESTATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

A STRATEGY for BOTH LARGE and SMALL

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

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irises already flowering — early this year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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