Archive for the ‘spiritual tools’ Category

Working the Tool-kit: Part 2

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3] Edited/updated 2019-8-6

Earth is in some ways our default setting: we wake again and again to this world each morning, lift the body from bed, feed it, bathe it, put it through its paces, flex its muscles, rub its sorenesses, tend its scrapes and bruises, touch other beings in affection, and send it to bed at last, reasonably confident we’ll do the same tomorrow and next week.

Air has become among other things the elemental energy much schooling expects us to focus on, to the exclusion of other energies and Elements, along with arbitrary rules that regiment the body, keeping Earth at bay: regulated times for things that could occur naturally, like eating and movement and bodily functions; permissible and prohibited interactions with those around us (who sits where? who can speak now? who gets the crayons, chalk, paper? who can move around the classroom or step outside it? who can sing, shout, be silent, dance, sleep? who can opt out of the activities altogether right now?), allowable and discouraged behaviors, as when we daydream with clouds, or birdsong, or the shadows of leaves on the classroom window.

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees. — William Blake, Letter to Rev. John Trusler.

Even specifically Air functions may be permitted or forbidden: we do or don’t talk about certain topics; we may or may not say certain words; we’re required to participate in certain rituals (in the U.S., that peculiarly American patriotic/ propagandistic exercise of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance); we follow a clock, that airiest of Air abstractions; we’re mostly discouraged from asking dangerous meta-questions like “Why do we have to study this?” or “How do you know?” or “What really matters?” or “What do you really think?”

Little wonder, therefore, that many of us learn to actively detest Air functions — we have to be taught not to enjoy or ever master what is called “critical thinking”, or make a lifetime practice of “giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”, as Shakespeare calls it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That is, we don’t attempt to earth our thoughts, put them into forms for others to perceive and learn from, to create and explore thought-worlds as much as we do physical ones. As a consequence, we frequently misunderstand myth and metaphor, confuse symbolic and literal, and generally neglect and abuse the stores of wisdom we’ve inherited from the past, from the Ancestors who strive to leave us with their accumulated wisdom. We forsake the power of thought and Air, and in doing so we abandon a rich heritage and treasure-house that could alleviate much of our present suffering, fear and sense of helplessness, all the while as we flail about and wonder why we feel forsaken, abandoned, victimized by an indifferent universe. We’ve abandoned parts of ourselves — but the deep remedies lie all around us, where we have left them (sometimes buried under mounds of mental, and physical, plastic packaging).

Thought and emotion often blend — the “tricks of strong imagination”, more properly a Water function, but also one of thought, which we clothe in forms we can understand. Many of us think in images; we then feel them strongly, and confuse what we feel with what we think, or see no reason to distinguish the two.

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Explore Air with my preconceptions reined in even a little, though, and I get a sense of vast expanses and possibilities, rather than the indoctrination or thought-bubbles plaguing so much of the planet. Even more difficult is to perceive one’s own thought-bubbles: we all have them, and we may live all our decades without ever seeing our own thought tracks and furrows and ruts, imagining that such things limit and circumscribe everyone around us, but never ourselves.

Our cultures teach us how to think — that’s their purpose, to pass along a traditional means of survival; one way to step outside this teaching and thought-shaping in order to examine its shape and dimension and influence, is to enter another culture and explore it. Such an action is simultaneously freeing and disconcerting: what I thought was “normal” or “natural” turns out to be merely what my culture taught me, an arbitrary though admittedly useful way to organize human behavior, and the humans performing it.

Can I move beyond “Why do they DO that?” to “What does it feel like to do this from inside the culture?” When we meet, we shake hands. No, we bow, the depth of the bow showing the respect we grant the other person. No, we kiss each other on both cheeks. No, we press palms together, saluting the other person. No, we rub noses. These are the merest of surface behaviors, some of the more obvious “proper” ways to behave: these manifestations of thought may indeed begin here, but they go so much deeper than this.

Druids, like other truth-seekers and spiritual explorers, ideally seek out and welcome such opportunities to enter and travel through multiple thought- and culture-worlds. “Pilgrim on earth, thy home is the heavens. Stranger, thou art the guest of gods”.

At least some of the time!

Likewise, one measure of relative freedom from a particular (limiting) thought-bubble is the sense not of self-justification or righteousness of “my” way of thinking (as if any one way is the only or best way), along with criticism of anyone else’s way, but of the hugeness of still-unexplored regions, of the vastness of the elemental world of Air and the quickness of thought towards its targets, like the arrows, lances, javelins and other flashing projectiles we’ve used in metaphorical attempts to describe how speedy thought can be. And to see all of this not with fear, or other rigid conditioning or reaction, but with a child-like excitement and openness at possibilities of discovery, of expanding beyond what one knows now to what one may come to know.

Give a child this chance, and often the body stills naturally, a repose that Earth grants in the presence of engaging Air. Or it may well get up and dance in delight. Either reaction, or still others, are wonderful harmonies of the elements and their blessed conjunctions in hallowed human consciousness and experience. Likewise the asanas of yoga are ideally a harmony of Elements, the Earth of the body following the Air of thought and the guidance of Spirit.

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After I attempt to look at Fire and Water in the next two posts, in the fifth in this series I want to look at the applications and parameters of the spiritual tools I listed in the first post, and how we might begin to mix and match, and try out variations-on-a-theme for as many tools as I can.

Until then, and always, may your Elements blend and uphold and guide you to excellent discoveries and to joy.

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Working the Tool-kit: Part 1

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]

I mention “spiritual tools” a lot here, and since my wife recently organized, according to her own criteria, my basement hand-tools as she searched for the particular item she needed in the disarray that table-top had become, I’m minded to do the same here. Every tool-kit accumulates items seldom-used, well-worn, taking up space, or simply unidentifiable. Even more so, if it’s a spiritual tool-kit. Add to that the spare parts, left-over washers, bolts, rods, screws, assembly wrenches and bent nails, broken drill-bits and reminders-to-replace-by-holding-on-to-the-old-item-until-you-do.

Tool-kits are often idiosyncratic, at least partly inherited, and with at least some overlap and mismatch, similar to metric-imperial conversion. Beliefs about a tool’s suitability, applicability or even legitimacy can dog the tool-kit user. And each of us makes use of some things no one else might consider — or be able to use as — a tool.

What do I mean by, and what do I include among, my “spiritual tools”? Why do they belong in my kit? How do I know which ones to use, and when? Wow, you’re asking some good questions today! (That’s how it can feel, when you’ve been blogging a while.)

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pine slope, Mt. Ascutney State Park

Divination, prayer, fasting, trance and other non-ordinary consciousness work, ritual, magic, chant, sacred names and words, writing/recording/journaling, drumming and rhythmic inputs. Dreamwork, visualization, herbs, yoga and similar practices, meditation and contemplation, dance and sacred movement, mandala and sacred images. But also rehearsal, repetition, expectation, staging, music, group consciousness, affirmations, pilgrimage, non-human allies, earth energies and power sites, crystals and other helpers. Quite an assemblage of items. And probably still a few missing from the list.

Though some tools have gone in and out of fashion over time and in different cultures, and some have been intermittently mocked, proscribed, and even feared as the domain and practice of “evil forces”, however understood, by some religious and spiritual groups, nearly all of them have also been in use at some point in virtually every spiritual tradition on the planet. And rightly so — they’ve proven their value and efficacy countless times over millennia. Some even have “approved” and “non-approved” versions in particular traditions, depending on their perceived origins or source of their energies. It can be useful here to contemplate a powerful question old enough it has an ancient Latin version: cui bono? — who benefits from such official approval, and disapproval? Who may use which tools, when, and why?

Because spiritual tools reflect the complexities and blending of states of human consciousness and awareness — that we shift from one state of consciousness to others all day long, generally without being aware of it, or doing so consciously; that we have often unconscious, preferred states; and that we often confuse states with each other, and insist we’re in one even as we’re in another — it can be helpful to examine spiritual tools according to the part that each of the Elements plays in their make-up and use.

Consider this, then, a first approach to a very large topic!

EARTH

Tools which have an Earth component don’t forget the body. Many of the great world religions attempt to leave the body behind: forms of yoga and prayer which aim at stilling the body so one can attend to inner worlds; ascetic practices to dull or smother physical demands for food, sex and sensual stimulation; social rules to curtail sexual activity outside prescribed forms and relationships in order to maximize closely-defined forms of purity or dedication, and so on.

One of the potential strengths of Pagan practice is its acknowledgment of what the body can contribute to a spiritual path: we’ve barely begun to plumb our instincts, inherited DNA and animal wisdom. Even more, we sometimes resent the physical limitations that this “too too solid flesh” imposes on our lives, forgetting that part of the great magic of Earth is to hold results in one form long enough for us to understand what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Unlike the Astral plane, where things can quickly shift and dissolve again, Earth brings consequences back for us to look at over time — a superlative teacher, when this is the kind of training we need (and it is). Children start with wooden blocks, before they’re given the keys to the family car. As Shakespeare has Hamlet say about the theater, Earth is also vast stage that “holds the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”.

Earth, in short, gives great feedback.

The body-as-Earth can be a wonderful ally, a base of operations, a means of connecting and offering and receiving animal comfort from others when no other connection is open to us. Our senses are exquisitely tuned to the vibrations of this planet, and Earth magic abounds every moment of our lives.

The body also needs care — it’s one of the first places we can learn and show responsibility. The body-as-Earth teaches us both how important and also how transient the physical world is, and through its pains and pleasures, it youth and aging, its limits and its possibilities, helps us distinguish between what the Anglo-Saxons called this “bone-house” (banhus) and the tenant who lives for a time in this bone-house. Lif is læne — earthly life is transitory, on loan. The body isn’t all of what we are by any means, though the apparent world may urge on us that limited perspective — because of the very groundedness of Earth.

But solidity and inertia also make of the body a ready shelter when we haven’t yet mastered the potent energies of emotion and thought. Wake from a nightmare, and it’s deeply comforting to re-enter this safe, solid physical body, feel your pounding heart slowly ease, and sense your adrenalin step down, step down, back to normal. Sleep, rest, relaxation or vigorous exercise can all ground us quite effectively, as does a heavy meal — they give the body its due. That it has a due, that the body makes claims we might wisely acknowledge among other Elemental claims, leads to Part 2 — Air.

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Thirty Days of Druidry 15: Dragon Wisdom 2

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[Here’s the second half of a topic begun in the previous post.]

In the way the universe moves, as soon as I focus on health and healing, results come back from blood-work a few weeks past. The naturopath I consult phones me to share the data, and the numbers aren’t altogether positive. We agree to some diet, exercise and supplement changes, and a follow-up blood-draw in three months to see whether some of the more worrisome numbers are a blip or part of a concerning trend.

I mention this not to garner any sort of sympathy — I’ve been vague enough here I hope that’s clear — but to consider for a moment a couple of things. I use my life as material because I’m in it. I trust it’s part of our common experience, and countless experiences of feedback prove to me that, mostly, it is. (I reserve just a few quirks as my own indulgences.) From my perspective, we’re all in this life-lab together, here to try things out. I understand my own experience better than anyone else’s, and every writer can’t help but mine autobiography for material, however coy or deflective they may be about that fact when you ask.

So here goes. First, you may call it the merest coincidence that in post 14 in this series I examine health, and the next day medical tests come through, and I take it as part of a divination. The pending results were on my mind, you say, and naturally enough they emerged in a post. Nothing mysterious about it. Well, I don’t know about mystery. (That’s why they call it mystery.) But I’ve found that strikingly few things are “mere coincidence.” The dangers of over-reading such circumstances as “signs” or “spirit communications” or “meaningful data” pale in comparison to missing the opportunities for discovery, growth and change that such events offer. As an unreconstructed animist, I know that everything’s alive (especially rocks, and even more especially Vermont rocks!), everything’s affected and influenced by everything else, and everything talks constantly about it all. I like to join that conversation.

Second, I get to try out my spiritual toolkit, as soon as I remember I have one. (You shouldn’t be surprised at our capacity for ignoring resources already in our hands. We love sympathy, until it gets boring or annoying, and then we often swat it away. I loathe self-pity, and have been known to turn away well-intentioned compassion at every turn.)

I take hawk-guise and soar over the problem or challenge. Below, on the field of my life, personalities and forces and energies can stand out more clearly. As the seer of my own life, I can regroup quite literally. Who and what shall I pair or separate? What lies off the horizon that touches on this moment? What offers itself to me? Where I can I offer myself to others? If I want this clue, this cure, this healing, where I can be a part of such a cure and healing and solution for others? How can I take without giving? Yes, of course. But how I can give without taking? What circles and cycles wait for me to complete them, ones that only I can? Not because I am “special” or “gifted” or “unique,” but simply because I am. I exist, in this place, in this time. The stubbornness of the particular is a clue to meaning, as well as much else of value.

Yes, I’ll even concede that “every problem has a spiritual solution,” if we can also agree that “spiritual” may sometimes mean a warm bath, a glass of wine or mead, time and space for reflection. Sometimes it’s a bit longer than that. I turn and see it’s a whole life-project: part of the reason I seem to be here at all, one of a small set of Big Kahunas, a major theme for this incarnation. Druidry reminds me constantly that this physical world is a vital resource and a field for discovery. With all its pain and uncertainty and possibility and simple pleasure, it’s a toolkit all its own, one of astounding quality and diversity and energy. Herbs, totems, power objects, shrines, wise trees and beasts, spirits, fatigue, rest, hot and cold, the seasons, human physical contact and presence. I could devote (I feel I have devoted) many lives just to exploring these things, never mind the array of things on other levels of reality.

Salmon, Dragon, Bee, companions on the Way, I thank you for your wisdom, and through the transmutations of identity and experience, I offer some wisdom of my own.

 

Future as Battery

tomorrowjpgMuch of our human anxiety clusters around an odd mental construct we call “tomorrow,” and sometimes those wacky futurists brought to us by odd institutes with funky acronyms and obscure sources of funding actually have something useful to contribute to earn their keep. Here’s Bruce Sterling on change (link to blog):

… as a futurist I just don’t do “positive” and “negative.” I actively avoid that kind of value judgment. Wishful thinking and fearful thinking gets in the way of an objective understanding of change-drivers. Change occurs from pent-up energies: it’s like asking if a battery’s voltage is “good” or “bad.” All potential change has positive or negative potential: otherwise it isn’t even “potential.”

Res-boarder“Change occurs from pent-up energies.” Without a reservoir of energy, it simply doesn’t happen. Any equilibrium — I’m extrapolating out loud here, to see what the implications look like — any apparent equilibrium or stasis, then, is a kind of wallpaper over pending change and a cloak for accumulating energies. In other words, things don’t change, until they do. Watch the surface and I won’t catch the building forces for change. Equilibrium, rather than a kind of reset to normal, an all-clear, all-systems-go signal, can be seen as a boiler, a reactor, a container for accumulating change-energies. If change is the norm, equilibrium is a pivot, a hinge. It’s not a place to live, but to visit, to stop by, to rest in. It’s the next foothold, the plateau wide enough for a pause, along the ascent.

“All potential change has positive or negative potential …” Both at the same time, in every case? If the energies behind changes are anything like water or electricity, they find the easiest channel to flow. A habit is the smoothest channel — it’s been widened, deepened and swept clean by repeated use, so energies for change often dissipate if they can flow along the channel of a habit. Block the habit, even once, when change is about to happen, and the flow will seek another channel — maybe even a new one, if other habits don’t swallow the energy.

[Personal observation here: the habit I referred to in the previous post has yielded for now to image and sound work, but as part of what I’m seeing as realignment, I’ve been catching myself indulging more in other repetitive/obsessive behaviors. Compensation? The energy will flow. An old computer game, for instance, suddenly seemed irresistibly interesting — I’d play a typical 10-minute session again and again, between other more productive tasks. The “path of least resistance” applies profoundly to working with habit and change. Eliminate one habit and energy will flow into the next easiest channel. A key I’m learning: make a change that’s easy for energy to fill. How to do that is my practice.]

Can I avoid a value judgment, as Sterling claims he does? “Wishful thinking and fearful thinking gets in the way of an objective understanding of change-drivers.” Hmm. Often my wishes are negative: I want to escape/change/get away from/overcome X, and so X draws my attention, rather than the change I say I want to activate. Instead of spending energy on the change, I spend it on X. My attempt at change may actually be strengthening the habit.

Unlike the “get ___ quick/overnight/in just seven days!” promises of those with something to sell us, most permanent changes take longer to settle in. Everything I’ve learned from my habit can be used to build the energies of the changes I desire: visualization, sound, emotion, repetition. No doubt about it: change usually needs practice.

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You might wonder what connection some of these recent posts have with Druidry. Good spiritual practice is good spiritual practice. Why else does “spiritual but not religious” resonate so deeply with so many? When religion gets in the way of spirituality, there’s a problem.

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Ellen Hopman

Druid and author Ellen Evert Hopman offers this excerpt from her forthcoming book Legacy of the Druids.* Here is the voice of one of the many Druids she interviews. The attitude here, rather than the specifics, is what I cherish and practice in my own way. The fact that it assumes a Druidic form simply means you have yet another opportunity to translate good spiritual sense into your own particular tradition or idiosyncratic practice:

“The grandest moment of the year is on Imbolc, when I open up my door to the night and thank her for all that she has given, then pour milk across my threshold to the living world outside, inviting Her in, whoever She is, whatever deep and joyous mystery, whatever unplanned liberation she brings, even if it comes in the guise of loss and fear and death.

I believe in the abundance of life, through the most frightening and toilsome passages. I believe in the essential expansiveness of our souls, and these are encapsulated in Brigit, the patron of poetry, of healing, of smithcraft, the one who guides sailors through dark and turbulent seas, who sets the teats flowing and brings birth to the calves and lambs.

The world we inhabit is hidden in a tangle of veils – fear, rage, misunderstanding of who we are and how we are connected and how we can survive and flourish, human and nonhuman, wild and tame.

Facing our own tangles and emerging filled with that ability to give, to receive, to hope and love: that is how I see Her worship as functioning best. She is the beauty and She is the veils, and She is the freedom and unity I keep my eyes on when I struggle through.

Opening the door to Her on Imbolc, giving Her and Her world the nourishing gift of milk and inviting them more deeply into my heart – these are the most joyous religious acts I can ever commit.”

Mael Brigde
Vancouver, Canada

goldseaIt’s a portion of Druid wisdom to master change in our lives — not to dominate life, which we can never do, but to sail with it onto that endless golden sea that, whenever I pay attention, is sparkling and surging around and within.

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IMAGES: tomorrow; reservoir; Hopmangolden sea.

*Hopman, Ellen Evert. A Legacy of Druids: Conversations With Druid Leaders Of Britain, The USA And Canada, Past And Present. Moon Books, 2016.

Bringing It

welsh-taliesin-picThe Awen I sing,
From the deep I bring it,
A river while it flows,
I know its extent;
I know when it disappears;
I know when it fills;
I know when it overflows;
I know when it shrinks;
I know what base
There is beneath the sea.

(lines 170-179, Book of Taliesin VII, “The Hostile Confederacy“)

Oh, Taliesin, how do you know these things? I say to myself. How is it you enchant yourself into wisdom?

I have been a multitude of shapes,
Before I assumed a consistent form.
I have been a sword, narrow, variegated,
I have been a tear in the air,
I have been in the dullest of stars.
I have been a word among letters,
I have been a book in the origin.

OK, you know it because you’ve been it, I say to myself and the air.

When I sing, I hear a music that both exists and does not exist until I open my mouth. We create in the moment of desire and imagination. “From the deep” we bring things that flow like rivers while we sing. But before the song, or after?

Contrary to what I may think in the moment, so many things are matters of doing rather than believing. Challenges behave much the same as joys. When I’m afraid, I have a chance to show courage. What else does courage mean but to be afraid — and to attempt the brave thing anyway?

And when I sing, that takes a kind of courage too. I mean by this that singing when the sun shines is easy enough. Necessary, too. A gift. But singing in the dark, singing in pain, singing in uncertainty — or singing in joy when joy itself is suspect and the times are bad — there’s a song of power Taliesin would recognize.

The Awen I sing,
From the deep I bring it.

Another tool for my tool-kit. Sing it and you bring it. Make it come true when before, without you, it not only hasn’t yet arrived, it won’t and can’t arrive until you do.

IMAGE: Taliesin.

Trick or Treat: The Mage

tarotmageThe second Tarot card focuses on the discovery of power the Fool makes after taking that first step (off the cliff).

The “trick or treat” of this post’s title refers partly to the use we make of the power of the Mage. The image appears second in the sequence of the Greater Arcana. We can take the hint and profitably pair it with the Fool. Even as we set forth “wide-eyed and bushy-tailed” into the world of experience and polarities, we emerge flush with powers and abilities that we haven’t a clue about.

However we act in our initial steps into manifestation, inevitably we set forces in motion that entangle us in conflict. It’s the nature of whatever equilibrium we find ourselves in that we human beings are potential vehicles for its recalibration and movement to a new set-point. “Not choosing to act” is clearly also another choice, a shift in the energies of the equilibrium that feed its movement. Everything gives feedback.

If we do not trick ourselves with the powers in our hands, we may find out how to treat (in all senses of the word) this dimension of ourselves as well as those around us in magical ways. The Mage image itself is a kind of trick, the suggestion that we are special, set apart, potent with craft and technique, secret knowledge and spell and charm that can blow life wide-open and deliver us the lover, bank account, lifestyle or heaven we always thought we wanted. But after the hundredth spree, orgy, yacht and mansion, the excess palls. Is that all there is? Yes, but only if I accept another’s (i)magery. The challenge here, the trick  and treat both, is to keep on seeking.

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Buffy as Magician

[In 2008 Dark Horse Comics commissioned — and unfortunately subsequently cancelled — a Slayer Tarot inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A few images survive from its initial conception, which was in the capable hands of tarot expert and author Rachel Pollack and Buffy comics artist Paul Lee. To the left is Buffy as Magician. This new-old and potent archetype can be helpful if you’re longing for a change from the masculine cloak of traditional Magician imagery. Try a Google search for female Tarot magician and see what others catch your attention. We all mediate both energies, but we also need and seek rebalancing and recalibration where we can find it. It does not do merely to dismiss it as political correctness. But, as always, don’t take my word on this or bother arguing — test it for yourself.]

You can, if you like, see this early stage in the Fool’s journey as adolescence — that time of exploding awareness of polarity, of self-and-other, of gender and orientation, biochemistry and culture all playing havoc with the delightful androgeny of the Fool. It’s the stormfront approaching that can make you want to warn and shelter kids in their single-digit years, they’re often so appealing, uncomplicated, creative and free. Watch out!

But this necessary initiation equips us for so much to come. It can manifest in the amazing self-involvement of the teen. No surprise, since the peculiar discovery that “I-am-a-person, I’m-me. So-what’s-that? What-do-I-do-with-it? Help! Now what? OK, try this” derives in part from the number of Magician or Mage: 1. “I’m the first, the one and only to feel and do and think and discover all this. Except not. A whole world of us. Oh, sh*t!”

You can also understand the image in terms of what we’re all capable of, each of us an altar of power cascading outward from our choices, our habits, our goals, our fears and desires. Gaze into the eyes of another being long enough and you may catch a glimpse of that lightning in a bottle we all are.

The Mage calls it forth, poised between heaven and earth, a conduit of possibility. The hands of the Mage illustrate the pathway of this divine electricity: right or dominant hand upward, often holding a tool of power toward the heavens, left hand downward, earthing the force, with the Mage square in the middle of the circuit, locus of transformation, fuse that can blow with carelessness.

For the holy energies do change us all: no one gets out unmarked, unscathed. Every face we meet is a map of what power does. In some the frown lines cut deep. In others, there’s a kind of light and joy, and the same lines that furrow the face outline a grin you’ll see if you stick around and make the person’s acquaintance. Time is the only way power can manifest in worlds of matter. All-at-once spells quick incineration, so usually we tamely sip and sample power instead. (Once in a while, though, if we reeeely insist and push too hard, we can find out what it’s like to fry.)

Sometimes life just rips into us, and our anger at our painful powerlessness makes for an even more painful knowledge. Early in her high fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea, author U. K. LeGuin captures this twinned suffering and awakening succinctly as she describes Ged, her young Mage protagonist, when he first confronts his inability to effect change: “he raged at his weakness, for he knew his strength.”

Adolescent rebellion in part can also be a search for something true in the face of cultural limitations and “necessary deceptions,” a way to reconcile our power with the fences, chains and boundaries any culture insists on. Cultures generally do not care about individuals or their happiness, but about stability, about the group identity, about self-perpetuation, and — yes — about punishing anyone who defies their rules too blatantly. And so sometimes we earth our power too soon, knuckling under to the demands of our culture, because we’re unwilling to pay the price of defiance — if we even realize a price exists, or just what it might entail.

tarot-devHarmonics and spirals of the Magician’s power and deeds ripple through the Tarot. We encounter the same gesture the Magician makes in several later cards, most especially with the Devil. The Left Hand Path makes use of the same energies available to everyone — a truth that goes some way to explaining how the mystical “Force” of the Star Wars universe with its light and dark sides has captured the modern imagination, mirroring long-standing traditions of spiritual and magical tutelage. Nothing is ever lost forever, but it may go underground for ages until the time rolls round again for its germination and re-emergence.

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IMAGES: Magician from a public domain source on Wikipedia; Buffy as Magician; Devil from a public domain source on Wikipedia.

Updated 1 January 2016

Learning from the Ancestors, Part 1

mallorybkI’ve mentioned my obsession with Indo-European (IE) in previous posts, and given samples of a conlang I derived from IE and use in ritual. One of the many fascinations of this reconstructed language that’s the ancestral tongue of 3 billion people — half the people on the planet alive today — is the glimpses into the culture we can reconstruct along with the language. (Here’s a visual of the IE “family” and many of its members.) How, you thoughtfully ask, can we really know anything about a culture dating from some 6000 years ago – the very approximate time period when the speakers of the IE proto-language flourished? A good question — I’m glad you asked! – and one hotly contested by some with agendas to push – usually a nationalist or religious agenda intent on serving a worldview that excludes some group, worldview or idea. Hey kids, let’s define our club du jour by those we don’t let in!

But the most reasonable and also plausible answer to the question of IE language and culture is also simpler and less theatrical. Indo-European is the best and most thoroughly reconstructed proto-language on the planet — and it’s true there’s much still to learn. But after over two hundred years of steady increases in knowledge about human origins and of thoroughly debated and patient linguistic reconstruction, the techniques have been endlessly proven to work. And if a series of words that converge on a cultural point or practice can be reconstructed for IE, then the cultural practice or form itself is also pretty likely. Notice I don’t say merely a single word. Yes, to give a modest example, IE has the reconstructed word *snoighwos “snow” (the * indicates a reconstruction from surviving descendants — see footnote 1 below for a sample) – and that possibly suggests a region for an IE “homeland” that is temperate enough to get snow.  After all, why have a word for a thing that’s not part of your world in any way? But wait — there’s more!

Here’s an uncontested (note 2) series of reconstructions – *pater, *mater, *sunu, *dukter, *bhrater and *swesor – all pointing to an immediate family unit roughly similar to our “nuclear family,” with father, mother, son, daughter, brother and sister all in place. It’s fairly safe on the basis of this cluster of reconstructed words – and others, if you still doubt, can be provided in painfully elaborate detail – that with a high degree of probability, an IE family existed all those millennia ago that would also be recognizable in modern times and terms.

[Side note: almost every reconstructed IE word listed in this post has a descendant alive in modern English. Want proof? Post a comment and I’ll be happy to provide a list!]

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - nothing shocks me - I'm a linguistThings understandably get touchier and more contentious when we move on to words and ideas like *deiwos “god”; *nmrtya “immortality”; *dapnos “potlatch, ritual gift-exchange”; *dyeu + *pater “chief of the gods” (and Latin Jupiter); *sepelyo– “perform the burial rites for a corpse”; and a few whole phrases like *wekwom tekson, literally “weaver of words, poet” and *pa- wiro-peku, part of a prayer meaning something like “protect people and cattle.”

What else can we conclude with considerable confidence about the IE peoples? Many lived in small economic-political units governed by a *reg– “king, chieftain” and lived in *dom– “houses.” Women *guna, *esor left their families at marriage and moved to live with their husbands *potis, *ner, *snubhos. A good name *nomen mattered then just as it does today – even with social media both exalting and trashing names with sometimes dizzying speed – though small-town gossip always filled and fills that role quite well, too. Heroes dominated the tales people told round household and ceremonial fires *pur, *ogni in the village *woikos, *koimos at night *nokwti. The most powerful and famous *klewes– heroes succeeded in slaying the serpent or monster of chaos: *oghwim eghwent “he slew the serpent” and thereby earned *klewos ndhghwitom “undying fame” (note 3). Special rites called for an *asa altar and offerings *spond-, because the universe was a place of an ongoing re-balancing of forces where the cosmic harmony *rti, *rta needed human effort to continue.

With Thanksgiving in the wings, it’s a good time for reflection (is it ever not?). Ways of being human have not changed as much as we might think or fear or be led to believe. Family, relationships, good food and drink, a home, meaningful work, self-respect – these still form the core of the good life that remains our ideal, though its surface forms and fashions will continue to shift, ebb and flow. Hand round the *potlom cup and the *dholis, the portion each person shares with others, so that all may live, and we can still do as our ancestors did: give thanks *gwrat– and praise for the gift *donom of life *gwita.

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1. Linguistic reconstruction involves comparing forms in existing and recorded languages to see whether they’re related.  When you gather words that have a strong family resemblance and also share similar or related meanings, they help with reconstructing the ancestral word that stands behind them, like an old oil portrait of great-great-great grandma in the hallway. Some descendant or other probably still walks around with her characteristic nose or brow or eyes, even if other details have shifted with time, marriage — or cosmetic surgery.

For *snoighwos, a sample of the evidence includes English snow, Russian snegu, Latin nix, niv-, Sanskrit sneha-, and so on.  The more numerous the survivals in daughter languages, the more confident the reconstruction usually is. After a while you see that fairly consistent patterns of vowels and consonants begin to repeat from word to word and language to language, and help predict the form a new reconstruction could take.

A handful of reconstructed words have descendants in all twelve (depending on who does the counting) of the main IE family groups like Italic (Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, all the Romance languages, and others), Celtic (Irish, Welsh, Breton, Manx, etc.), Germanic (German, English, Dutch, Icelandic, Norwegian, Frisian, Swedish, Gothic, etc.), Baltic (Latvian, Lithuanian, Prussian), Slavic (Russian, Serbian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovene, Polabian, Old Church Slavonic, etc.), Greek (Doric, Macedonian, Attic, etc.), Tocharian (A and B), and Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit, Pali, Avestan, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Dari, Pashto, Farsi, Baluchi, Gujerati, etc.) and so on, to name roughly half of the families, but nowhere near all the members, which number well over 100, not counting dialects and other variants.

2. “Uncontested” means that words with approximately these forms and meanings are agreed on by the overwhelming majority of scholars. If you dip into Indo-European linguistics journals and textbooks, you’ll often see algebraic-looking reconstructions that include details I exclude here — ones having to do with showing laryngeals, stress, vowel length and quality, etc. indicated by diacritics, superscripts and subscripts.

3. Even without the details mentioned in note 2 above, some reconstructions can still look formidably unpronounceable: I challenge any linguist to give three consecutive oral renderings of the second element in the reconstructed phrase *klewos ndhghwitom! The point to remember is that these are usually cautious reconstructions. They generally “show what we know.” Vowels tend to be much more slippery and fickle than consonants in most languages, and so they’re also less often completely clear for IE than the consonantal skeleton is. Several people, me among them, have worked on versions of “Indo-European for daily use”!

Images: Mallory; Indiana Jones the linguist.

Corrected 18 Dec. 2014

“Here, everything has a container”

artofdreamsemBack from a seminar this weekend on the art of spiritual dreaming, with a series of quirky, honest, challenging speakers and panelists.  “Intimate” was a word I heard more than once to “describe the vibe”: the distance between speaker and audience collapsed in a remarkable way, so that we were all participants. Or as one speaker remarked, talking about his experience with dreaming and comedy and comedic training with the improv group Upright Citizens Brigade, “you show up, listen and tell the truth.” If the truth isn’t yet funny-sad at the same time, you keep showing up, listening, and telling and digging. You bring it with everything you are. ‘Cause otherwise, what’s the point? Except maybe chocolate.

But the statement I heard during the seminar that has stuck with me is the line that provided the title for this post: “Here, in these worlds of duality, everything has a container.” Or to put it another way, “soup needs a pot.” My wife and I riffed on this on the drive home. Relationships, stress,  jobs, life: we’re just having “container issues.” The center around which the storms rage witnesses it all. Uncontained, it doesn’t get slimed or cracked, burnt or broken, stolen, ripped off, bungled, overpaid or underappreciated. Container issues, these. How to shift attention off the containers, even for a moment, is a source of great freedom and possibility. Don’t, say some. Can’t, say others. Shouldn’t, say still others. We listen, and we don’t, can’t — until we discover a “why not?” lying at the bottom of the bag, like a stale fortune cookie, or a light-switch felt for, in a strange house or hotel room, in the dark. And we do.  And so it begins.

Hence the “art” part in the “Art of Spiritual Dreaming.” As an art, it needs practice. Really improves with trying out and adapting and personalizing, missing and picking up and proceeding in fits and starts, in the best human tradition.

The first stages of practice can be squeaky, atonal cries, like the noises from that violin you or your nine-year-old has just picked up and attempted to drag a bow across. Or grunts and groans, as when you move into that yoga posture, and you suddenly can count every damn one of the 206 bones, plus assorted tendons and ligaments, in the human body. Your body, thank you very much. Sometimes the art consists in not crying. Or doing so, with all the tears and sobs the situation calls for. If you’re a puddle, you’re sometimes half-way to “soup without the pot.” Then you climb back in. Repotted.

Your art may be different. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” said a certain wise teacher not so many millennia ago. How your art comes to you is your life, what you’re doing today and tomorrow. And after that, maybe.  But when this art we’re all practicing becomes dogma, the artist — who’s the point of it, after all — gets lost in the bans, inquisitions, burnings, purges, pogroms, reformations, downsizings and re-organizations. (Looked at one way, it’s all church/work.) Let me out, says the Artist. I need to breathe. And when we confuse cop-out with drop-out, we’ve confused what Tolkien called the “the flight of the deserter” with “escape of the prisoner.” One is weakness, though sometimes we need to acknowledge weakness, too, just like with crying.  (Show up and tell the truth.) The other, the escape, is a necessity. The bush may survive in the prison yard, but it blossoms in open air. You and I dream every night (proven, documented, everyone single one of us, every night — remembering is just another art to practice) to escape the container into more open air.

We talked in the seminar about techniques.  They’re not hidden, not anymore. Half a hundred schools and temples and ashrams, synagogues and retreats and workshops teach them, sometimes try to claim them, copyright them even, if they’re reeeeely insecure, or greedy and want your $ or other equivalent metal and paper tokens.

Silence. Chant, kirtan, song. Prayer, mantra, favorite refrigerator-magnet team-building-button go-to verbal icon for centering. Icon, image, idol, focus, mandala. Posture, breathing, zazen, yoga, tai chi, krav maga, judo, karate. Ritual, rite, gesture, mudra. Dream, metaphor, lucidity, shift, imaging, visualization. All of these can rattle the container, making us aware of it if we mistake container for real deal, for the truth of what’s going on right now. Pursued with sufficient discipline and zeal, they begin to open doors. Too many! you may say. I’ve just begun with this one, and you’re dumping a truck-load on me.

All you need is to master just one technique, says the Teacher. Just one, and that will be enough.

Enough for what? Suspicious that someone’s selling you something? For me that enough leads to pure experience. Opinions just not needed till after, if at all. Tolkien describes his sense of new/familiar in one of many instances in The Return of the King, in the chapter “The Houses of Healing”:

… as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.

And if this metaphor, which is simply another technique, happens to work for you, you catch another glimpse that can be strengthened by one of the techniques here. Or if you’ve swallowed long years or lives of dogma and you practice denial as one of your (powerful) techniques for self-defense against liars and their lies, or simply if your spiritual taste is nourished by other food, it may not work, and you need to look elsewhere, and maybe else-how. And like so many things that may have started for you way back in high school, “you’ll know it when you find it.”

All of this is simply a larger over-technique. And because it’s shaped in words in this post, it may trip you up as much as help you. So with that caveat I pass it along for what it’s worth. Sometimes even an echo is enough to keep us going down the hall and out the gate and along the next path.

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nanowidge-mon11-17If you’ve been following my nano-progress in the last few posts, you’ll see by the numbers here (showing up and practicing my telling the truth) that I’m lagging in the numbers game. Words, word-count, Nanowrimo, this novel, writing — all containers.  Necessary, but not the final story. I’ve got plenty to write, but it’s coming slower than usual, because it feels good to get it right.

Like the story’s already out there, Emily’s sitting here in the living room, curled up near the fire on a snowy, rainy, yucky Vermont day. She’s cradling a mug of tea in one hand, reading or sketching or listening to music, waiting for the next segment I’m just finishing up, and I’m trying to tell it accurately so she’ll recognize it. Or I’m transcribing from a dream what she told me in detail, in Dirnive, which she granted me a pass to enter last night, and I have to punch “replay” and re-enter that dream to check the experience one more time against what I’ve got so far.

It’s coming through like a dream, not linear — that’s for later, with editing — and with textures and colors and sounds that will loom up suddenly and ask for space and time I hadn’t anticipated. A scene with her parents and brother, casually shopping in an antiques store. A class at St. Swithins that seems to link to Emily’s absence for about two weeks’ earth time, but nearly a year on Dirnive. To conceive and give birth to a child there. Because if she doesn’t, given the difference in time passage between the two worlds, her love will age and die quite literally before she herself is out of her teens. Which makes her parents grandparents — her mother would adore a grandchild, only not so soon — but grandparents of a baby they will never see. Because Emily can come and go between worlds — her worlds — but no one else can. I think. Emily doesn’t want to risk it, yet. She says. See what a novel can do to you?!

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Image: Art of Spiritual Dreaming — John Pritchard

East Coast Gathering 2014

Camp Netimus path -- photo courtesy of Carolyn Batz

Camp Netimus path — photo courtesy of Carolyn Batz

[Here are reviews of ECG 12 and ECG 13.]

East Coast Gathering (ECG) ’14 just celebrated its fifth Alban Elfed/ autumn equinox in the wooded hills of NE Pennsylvania. Along with this year’s theme of “Connecting to the Goddess,” 114 people reconnected to each other and the land, the lovely land. New participants and old remarked on the kindness of place, the welcoming spirit of Netimus, a flourishing girls’ camp founded in 1930 that now plays host off-season to other groups, too.

[For another perspective on this year’s Gathering, visit and read John Beckett’s excellent blog “Under the Ancient Oaks.”]

After a wet summer in the Northeast, the camp showed richly green — mosses, lichens, leaves and light all caressing the gaze wherever you looked. And keeping to our tradition of inviting guests from the U.K., we welcomed Kristoffer Hughes of the Anglesey Druid Order and returning guests Penny and Arthur Billington, this time accompanied by their daughter Ursula, a mean fiddler with Ushti Baba (Youtube link).

For me what distinguished this year’s Gathering, my fourth, was the pure joy in so many people’s faces. And it just grew over the weekend. Over and around travel fatigue, colds, tricky schedules and stresses and waiting commitments — everything — they didn’t matter: the tribe was together again. To you all (from an interfaith week I participated in): “Thank you for the blessings that you bring. Thank you for the blessings that you are.”

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Dana’s Goddess Shrine in a tent on our ritual field was also a wonderful addition and a focus for many of us.

Goddess Shrine -- photo courtesy of Nadia Chauvet

Goddess Shrine — photo courtesy of Nadia Chauvet

Natural offerings accumulated over the weekend — mosses, lichen-streaked stones, acorns, leaves, a small sun-bleached animal skull — were returned to Netimus, and the other items packed up for next time. A workshop I led, on making a Goddess Book, drew me back to the shrine several times for reflection and inspiration. (Here’s the link I mentioned at Camp to a video on making the “Nine-Fold Star of the Goddess” — seeing the steps in 3D should help make my hand-drawn images on the handout easier to read once you practice a few times. A series of divinations and meditations were to follow which I never got to in the workshop — though over-planning is usually better than under-planning. Material for a subsequent post!)

I continue to meditate on a surprising goddess experience during Penny’s workshop, which I may be able to write about in an upcoming post. One of the potencies of such gatherings of like-minded people is the spiritual crucible that can form and catalyze discoveries in ways not always easily accessible in solitary practice.

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Our fire-keepers outdid themselves this year, building enormous pyres (one with an awen worked in wood) to provide the centerpiece of each evening’s gathering after supper, workshops and initiations had concluded.

Awen bonfire ready -- photo courtesy Nadia Chauvet

Awen bonfire ready — photo courtesy Nadia Chauvet

evening bonfire -- photo courtesy John Beckett

evening bonfire — photo courtesy John Beckett

 

As always it’s people who carry the spirit of Druidry. Here as they tour New York City, just prior to the camp, are Kristoffer, Renu, Ursula, Penny and Arthur.

Renu with our UK guests in NY — photo courtesy Renu Aldritch

Hunter, Hunted: Animal Guides, Denial, Persistence

[A version of this post appeared in my column in the online Druid magazine Amethyst. My thanks to the editors for providing their well-edited forum for OBOD’s East Coast Gathering (ECG) community.]

I offer this post on the chance it may prove useful if you’re grappling with some aspect of animal guides, power animals, personal totems — the usages and terminologies haven’t settled down yet.

Last September, as I sat engrossed in the ECG 2013 workshop on Animal Guides, I simply had to laugh at myself. It had become clear to me over the weekend that sometimes your animal guide pursues you, rather than the other way around. In my case I’ve learned that gods, spirits, and guides often have to shout and do handstands to get me to notice at all. I’m just grateful they think it’s worth Their while.

boarpicWith Boar, my obliviousness ran deeper than usual, and lasted much longer. Maybe (I say, trying to excuse myself in any way I can find) it’s only because I’ve looked at my obtuseness more closely than usual. Maybe following two paths has scrambled the inner circuits. Maybe my inner discipline needs work (whose doesn’t?!). Laughter may be appropriate – and fitting for Boar, who can be a bit of a trickster anyway. As long as laughing isn’t all you do, I hear inwardly. Clues pile up. Here are some I’ve managed to account for so far.

My father, a city boy who grew up in Niagara Falls, NY, became a full-time dairy farmer a few years before I was born. For some reason he could judge pigs well, recognize the outstanding animal, pick out the prize pig. In fact he won several judging competitions when I was still a baby. But the ability perplexed him. He’d mention it from time to time, amused. (Now I ask myself, is Pig or Boar some kind of family or ancestral totem? One more quest to add to my list of quests.)

I was born in the year of the Boar, according to the Eastern 12-year calendar. OK, I thought. Interesting piece of trivia. Entertainment, really. Chinese restaurant lore. Fortune cookie material. My nominally Christian family never paid any attention to such things. And in my adolescent arrogance and ignorance, I considered myself professionally immune to astrology, which I was sure was for wackadoos. It didn’t help that it was part of the national conversation at the time. If you’re old enough to remember the Reagan presidency and the First Lady’s Nancy Reagan’s admitted fascination with astrology, you know what I’m talking about.

wyconyWhen I was in my early teens, and walking the Wyoming County fairgrounds in late August, a show pig at our local county fair lunged at me as I passed – a serious, front-legs-over-the-top-of-the-pen, get-to-you-if-I-could attempt. I was passing by a good ten feet away, one person in a crowd of visitors to the week-long fair in our agricultural county. What set the pig off? Something I was wearing? A scent of sweat or lunch or shampoo? Pitch or timbre of my voice? I never did find out. But I’ll note that I was fascinated around this time by the Greek myth of the Calydonian Boar Hunt, and the relationship between Meleager and Atalanta, a fleet-footed huntress sent by the goddess Artemis, who had also sent the boar. Why? To punish the king of Calydon for his neglect of the rites due to the gods. (You have to understand: goddesses feature in another of my lists of embarrassing interactions with the universe. Sometimes when I get it down on paper it’s just downright embarrassing. But, I can hope, maybe my embarrassment will be useful to others.)

stylboarhelmI reflect, too, on my long* fascination with Old English, Anglo-Saxon society, and the war (and boar) themes in poems like Beowulf. To the left you can see the stylized (and outsized) boars on the warriors’ helms.

To cite just two instances from one poem, at one point the poet equates the warriors directly to the boar and to its symbolic importance as a fighter:  “The armies clashed — boar struck boar” (lines 1327-8).  And some hundred lines later, Beowulf’s own helmet is described in detail: “A smith crafted it, set boar-images around it, so that ever after no sword or war-axe could bite it” (1452-1454).

asakusajinjaFast forward a decade and I’m teaching English in Japan in Musashino, a western suburb of Tokyo. One weekend my wife and I were visiting Asakusa Jinja, a large Shinto shrine in downtown Tokyo. As I was poring over trinkets for a cheap souvenir, a servant of the shrine insisted that I take a small carved wooden boar token. It didn’t appeal to me at the time – I thought some of the other images were more artistic renderings. But I made a small offering and went home with the image.

The Wild Boar serves as the mascot at a private high school where I taught for almost two decades. Every day classes were in session, I entered the campus dining hall passing beneath a stuffed head of a wild boar mounted over the entrance. The animal had been shot decades ago by one of the first headmasters of the school, an avid hunter.

About a dozen years ago, my wife and I took a vacation to Italy and the Tuscan hill country, where not once but twice I ate wild boar, and was sick both times. You’d think at some point it might have dawned on me that I shouldn’t eat my animal guide.

porcellinoIn fact, a few years ago an alum donated to the school a replica of Il Porcellino, a famous boar figure from Florence, Italy by the Renaissance sculptor Pietro Tacca. I now walked past Boar twice a day, outdoors and in. I can’t claim the universe rearranged itself for my benefit (or embarrassment), but the effect was the same.

Why such resistance on my part? I still don’t know entirely. But Boar appeared in a vision during the East Coast Gathering drumming session with Thomas Deerheart and Maya Minwah, and gave me some very specific health advice for a longstanding issue I’m dealing with. Ever since then I’ve been drawn to touch Boar, run my hands over his coarse fur, feel the ridge along his back.

daoracleThe Druid Animal Oracle entry for Torc, the Boar, notes: “… he is a representative of the Goddess—his skin can heal you” (Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, The Druid Animal Oracle, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1994, p. 39). It’s important to note I finally read the Oracle only after I wrote a second draft of this column (yet another resistance – I’ve had the volume on my shelves for over a year).

We say “my guide” or “my power animal,” but I’m finding that for me at least it’s the other way around. I belong to them. Whatever I think I’m looking for, it’s been looking for me even longer. The hunter is hunted. They track me down till I’m cornered and I have to listen, till I can’t ignore them any longer.

Recently Magpie has caught my attention again. I’m trying to listen better this time to whatever this new guide wants to communicate. What with running with Boar, and flying with Magpie, at least I’ve got the opportunity for plenty of inner exercise.

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As I look over these notes, several points stand out.  (I’ll put them in first person and speak only for myself, not to presume too much about who you are, or what your experience may be.)  First, to my mind, is the desire (I don’t know how else to put it) of the Other — Spirit or spirits, guides, deities, totems — to connect with me.  Second I must concede my own obliviousness.  I ask for help, or a “sign,” but even when it lies down in front of me and trips me up, I STILL manage to ignore it.

Next is the likelihood that once I start looking, the coincidences begin stacking up until it’s clear there’s more than coincidence going on.  Common themes emerge.  The animal I seek is also seeking me — in dreams, “accidents,” images, unaccountable emotional reactions to seemingly “unimportant” things– in all the different ways it can reach me, in case one or more channels of communcation are blocked (usually on my end).

Animal images in poems also cry and echo for the nerd-Bard that I am.  We repress the animal guides in and around us, so that like other repressed things, they eventually spring, animal-like, into our psyches elsewhere, in sometimes strange and nightmarish images, in art, dream, eventually, even, in national obsessions and pathologies.  If they pool and accumulate enough cultural energy, they manifest in personal and societal outward circumstances, in political and cultural movements, in wars and other conflicts.   Think of W. B. Yeats’ apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” which famously ends “what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Or consider Philip Levine’s “Animals are Passing from Our Lives” in the voice of a pig approaching its slaughter.  Apocalyptic and angry poems like these, like most art, aren’t “about” only one thing.  Run them to earth and they keep meaning something more.  We use animals (animals use us) to communicate what we sometimes cannot say directly.  Among all the other things they do, animals help us express that deep love, that bitter grief, anger and darkness, comfort and healing, that simply may not be able to manifest in any other way.

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Images: boar; boar-helmed warriorsAsakusa Jinja; Il Porcellino; Druid Animal Oracle.

*Like many English majors, I studied Old English as an undergrad and grad student.  Like some others, my interests in things Tolkien and Old English stimulate and nourish each other.  Since then I’ve kept up my amateur’s interest by attending conferences, writing and presenting papers, shoring up my grasp of the language in discussions and translations on online forums, and in rendering portions of OE poems and prose into modern English, as with the lines above.  I say “amateur,” because with the exception of occasionally teaching the poem in translation to high schoolers, I pursue my interest out of personal obsession rather than professional necessity.

 

Steve Hansen and Galathach

Steve, thanks for visiting and for your comment.  I’d actually visited the site of your worthy Celtic conlang, Galathach, prior to writing my posts on “A Druid Ritual Language.”  I would have included Galathach as well, but then along with other deserving candidates I might have mentioned, the post would have gone MUCH longer.

I know you’ve taken some flack by critics regarding the “authenticity” of your reconstruction and revival.  From my perspective, the proof is in the passion: you’ve actually done the work and you have a well-elaborated language to show for it, while they quibble over details and apply criteria that I suspect never interested you in the first place!   After all, you’re very clear and transparent about your process at the outset.  As you note explicitly in your introduction,

Drawing on the existent available material, and making use of the surviving Brittonic languages, as well as the Gaelic languages, for support and comparative studies of such things as vocabulary, semantics and grammatic structure, a modernised version of the Gaulish language is here presented. Departing from the state in which Gaulish was last attested, that is Late Gaulish, the language of circa the fifth century CE, a series of sound changes, phonetic evolutionary processes and grammatic innovations are postulated. As such, a hypothetical evolution of the language is constructed, the proposed outcome of which is a practically useable modern Celtic language, to be situated in the framework of the modern Celtic languages.

While the process of reconstructing or reassembling a language is challenging, it has been done as conscientiously as possible, starting from the original material and attempting to stay as faithful as possible to it, while applying a set of changes which could have been reasonably expected to have happened to the language had it not ceased to be spoken. These changes are based on evolutionary processes which can be observed in the available authentic material, as well as on related processes which have occurred in the related surviving languages. As much as possible, justification for changes and adaptation is provided by drawing from the original material. Creative imagination, or, to put it differently, making up random stuff , has been kept to a minimum. These various changes, adaptations and processes will be discussed in detail in the various sections dealing with them in the body of this document.

The notable point is that Galathach now exists, when it didn’t before, and as you say, it has a full grammar and a (soon to be) dictionary.  Nicely done!!  Already that puts it in the top 5 or 10% of conlangs, hordes of which rarely get beyond a short wordlist, if that, or a provisional sketch of grammar.  (Incidentally, there’s nothing wrong with that; most conlangers have many sketches and usually — unless you’re David Peterson of Dothraki/Game of Thrones fame — only one or two conlangs elaborated to any degree.) Your reconstruction/modernization of Galathach hAtheviu, “Revived Gaulish,” is documented, reasoned, consistent, and reflective of a devotion to things both Celtic and “conlang-y.”

So I’m happy to commend it and refer others to it (repeating that it IS a conlang rather than one of the six living Celtic tongues, just so everyone is clear).  That said, it certainly is Celtic in blood and bone!  And if a grove or an individual uses it for ritual, it becomes a living language by choice and art, equal to any other.  As conlangers like to say, Fiat Lingua!  Let there be (more) such languages! Humans made languages, so it’s a quibble of a peculiar kind to call one language “natural” and another “artificial.” (Conlanging has always seemed to me a particularly Druidic activity, but then I’m clearly doubly biased myself as both conlanger and Druid.)  May Galathach thrive!

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Serpent Under The Door

With a title like that, you might expect shocking revelations, secret tips, insider advice, or something — anything — designed to titillate or distract a readership.  Or perhaps I could offer some variation on “what people want” — if we try to deduce that incoherent impossibility from reports on Google’s most popular search terms.

Garter SnakeInstead, I’ll start with the literal.  Our west-facing driveway warms up during the day, and on late spring and early fall mornings like yesterday’s and today’s, when we open the overhead garage door, as often as not one or more garter snakes will have curled up on the concrete during the night to warm themselves on the residual heat. Each morning they’re sluggish and need to be coaxed with a toe from their stupor to move and so avoid getting run over by our car.  Thus the “serpent under the door.”

But as with all other things (Druids like to claim), coincidences can be teachers, too.  Take our power outage yesterday afternoon.  I saw a flash of light, heard a popping sound, and our electricity died as I was starting to draft this post.  Green Mountain Power arrived a couple of hours later and promptly fixed the problem.  With an extensible pole, the line workman loosened something small and dark from the overhead transformer which plummeted to our lawn, and then he apparently reset a surge protector or trip device.  Problem solved.  When he came to the door to report success — I was watching all this from our living room window and stepped out to meet him — he said a bird had shorted out the line, tripping the transformer.  The small dark object that had fallen was the burnt corpse of the unfortunate.  Wholly unperturbed, our resident pair of mourning doves resumed their perches nearby on the power line soon after the GMP service truck departed.

Serpents and doves: be shrewd as the former, and gentle as the latter, counsels the Galilean master*.  To put it more bluntly, avoid getting fried, or run over — each grisly fate available, significantly enough, through human agency.  So it’s fitting that any shrewdness and gentleness I can wring from these two instances should issue from the same animal world.

As I write, goldfinches brighten our feeder, squabbling with the jays and an acrobatic chipmunk for seed.  Today’s late morning humidity and temperature already climb toward midsummer highs, just a few days after night-time frost warnings in our area.  The serpent under the door is my instinct, the bird on the power grid my arrogant ignorance.  No, that’s not it.  Something else, something other.  Yes, the danger of allegory is its all-too-easiness, its tendency toward glib preachiness.  A welcome Buddhist and pragmatic strain in some contemporary Druidry reminds me that sometimes a dead bird is just a bird, a sluggish serpent just a snake.  It’s the “and yet” that rears up and insists on making bigger meanings from small ones that is a sometimes annoying blessing.

But why shouldn’t we squeeze every event and experience for all it might be worth?  Equipped with overactive brains and growing out of a world we have tried to name and explicate, it’s a natural tendency, one literally native to us, crafted by nature, by natural selection and chance, by the divine at work with these, their alter ego, their personification, their image.  Tolkien’s elves, the Quendi, named things and tried to wake them.  In this they followed their nature:  Quendi** means “those who speak with voices,” the verbal echoes of their name present in words like bequeath and loquacious, query and quest, inquisitive and require.  Kweh, kwoh, kw-, kw- … Human deeds, human cries, human needs.  The same world that wiggles and flutters in snakes and birds has shaped and turned itself to allow humans to name — and endanger — them.  Because we can do something may not mean we should.  So we look to our animal kin for direct lived insight into how to thrive in this world, their wordless gestures rich as words. In an early poem, Mary Oliver captures Druidic wisdom:

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms
breathing around me, the insects,
and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

At first we might think it’s death she’s talking about, but as she says in other poems, it’s deeper and more significant than just that particular transition, that magnified human fear and obsession.  Death, yes:  but there are many more marvelous things in addition to that. We can imagine ourselves different, “better” — what that may mean. “The world offers itself to your imagination,/calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–/over and over announcing your place/in the family of things.” Gratitude to bird and beast; this, my offering.

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Image: garter snake

*Matthew 10:16.

** encyclopedia of Arda

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

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 5]

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

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

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

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

“It’s good to see you.”

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

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

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

“What happens when they do?” he asks.

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

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

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

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

athlete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I say nothing, waiting for him to continue.

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you explain that?” I say.

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

“You mean both are true?” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But where does it all start?” I say.

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

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

“Is that the price we pay?” I say.

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

toolbox

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

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

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

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

*Proverbs 23:7

**John 9:1-3

Updated 30 Sept. ’14

Three Awens

salar-de-uyuni-boliviaAwen* comes on me no matter, air heavy with summer, my wife at the papers as she sits in the recliner beside the desk where I type this, and awen comes, the great flow pierces me head downward, like a run of honey pain from crown through the heart to the feet.  Sometimes the rush runs so loud I can hear only it and nothing else, a music like thunder roaring in my ears.  Other times it’s spiderweb on the skin, slightest sense of presence, fruit of dreaming, the daring comes.  Aaaaah-ooooo-ennnn.

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The song bodies make moving through times, through spaces is awen.  The note in deep silence, life’s own soundtrack.  What the stars say when no one’s listening, the whispers between the trees as they breathe out oxygen after dusk, the wind in their branches.  The quiet sigh you didn’t know you sighed till someone asks you about it —  these are awen.  Awen trips me forward into fullness, catches me breathless just before great beauty, or after.  And beauty opens more — and more often — the more I listen for awen.

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I sit to write and words must make do for Spirit.  In the interval between one in-rush of awen and the next, I wait. In the trough between expectation and fulfillment, I rest.  On the hilltop between cloud and cloud, blazing with late afternoon sun, full of golden mystery constantly moving, shifting, I stand, watching.  Just before sleep, in the cradle of stillness and warmth, the darkness sweet, I hear it still.

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*”Awen is the wisdom, truth and most of all the inspiration. Awen is Nature, the universal power behind life, yet it is never born and shall never die. Awen is a force or energy forged from an indivisible source that is the power behind the physical and non-physical or spirit forms. Existence, and distinction between the natural and the super-natural becomes meaningless, as both are the personification of Awen. Every link which is a part of nature, be it a man, animal, plant or elemental force, each holds its own little piece and together make up the whole chain which is Awen. Awen is the spirit of Druidry itself, it is knowing, sensing and feeling it in your essence and true being, it is the freedom to accept one’s nature” (“Awen”; minor editing).

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Image:  Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.  At the right moments when no wind disturbs the surface, the very shallow lake can hold a near-perfect reflection of whatever the sky is doing.  The illusion of the human figure walking on water illustrates just how shallow the lake is.

Wadin Tohangu Returns

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

Wadin Tohangu has been in my thoughts these past few days — at first just a tickle of awareness, an overlay to thought. Then stronger, a gesture on his part for me to pay attention, a longing on my part to offer that readiness.

In the past a listening heart usually opened the way for him.  Give my opinions and distractions a rest, and always something more worthwhile would fill the space they occupied.  A poem, an idea for a blog-post, a phone call I needed to make or take, a chance conversation with a homesick student no one else notices, a shaft of sunlight or spectacular cloud at the moment I look out the window.  The attention that draws Wadin is simple but not easy.  Especially not today.  Why not? I ask myself.  I’m out of practice, for one thing.  I mull over the past few weeks.  Money is tight, and old medical bills, though we bring the balance down each month, still require that monthly check.  We’ve just managed to pay municipal property taxes, and now the Ides of April loom, tax day part two, on the 15th.  (We have as little taken out of the paycheck as possible, on the theory that it’s easier to pay later on our terms, rather than to try getting a refund on the government’s.  We’re still, you might say, optimizing the theory.) Add to that some education expenses for my wife, plumbing repairs after basement pipes froze … the list goes on, one version or another all too familiar to many of us.

But through it all, things to celebrate as well.  Yes, there will be balance.   Birds back, singing. A few passing on the way north, offering unfamiliar snatches of melody on their layover.  Daffodils pushing up pale and uncertain, the first wasps and flies buzzing around rather forlornly, that indefinable slant of light and the scent of earth that signal spring, whatever the thermometer shows.  Longer days.  A sky that says forever is still here, starting right beyond my skin.

Wadin Tohangu is companion to my thoughts again.  What will he say to me this time?  What do I need to hear?

/|\ /|\ /|\

Updated 23 April 2015

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