Archive for the ‘Thoreau’ Category

Liminal Spaces and Paths   Leave a comment

[Updated 18:31 EST 11 May 2020]

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a threshold has a psychic texture

Does anyone here have experience with liminal spaces? someone asked recently on one of the online Druid forums I frequent.

Potentially, we all do: at dawn and twilight — during ritual — waking and falling asleep — walking on a foggy or snowy day alone — in meditation, prayer, etc. And sometimes during illness, or extreme exhaustion, as well. Liminal, threshold — neither word particularly common, though our experience of them is. (We hear about the sub-liminal more than the liminal.) Cultures vary in how they help or discourage us from seeking and navigating liminal spaces. Or even talking about them.

One of the purposes of ritual is to help us enter them and begin to explore their potentials.

In many older cultures at least some kinds of limen or threshold are places to watch and to guard: you may hang a charm at the doorway to your home or work. Your culture helps establish who is or isn’t allowed to touch your skin — the threshold of your body — and when. Shrines and temples have liminal areas in the form of sacred precincts, which you try to avoid profaning — literally, standing near the fane or holy place at the wrong time, or in the wrong state, unprepared. And if you think you have no fanes in your life to profane, think again — we all run into restricted or no-access areas — playing fields, stages, “authorized personnel only” zones, member-only forums and groups, relationships that allow you to say and do things with, to and for each other that no one else can.

What about seeking out and crossing into a liminal space consciously?

In many traditions, fasting from sex, or certain foods, or all food and drink for a designated period, are all time-honored ways to prepare to cross a threshold. Almost anything that shifts our habits — our “everyday-ness” — and that we can pursue with single-mindedness, can serve as a means of preparation, because the single-mindedness is the larger goal. Focus helps manifest the liminal.

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Wikipedia calls the liminal the “boundary of perception”

Medieval knights-to-be kept nightlong vigil with their weapons in preparation for receiving knighthood. Holy days, as thresholds of sacred time, often acquire their own rites of preparation. Even in supposedly “secular” settings, we have ritualized requirements for behavior, dress, speech, etc., that accompany threshold events, especially changes of status. The job interview, wedding, graduation, birthday or retirement party, all signal the crossing of a threshold, each with its appropriate ritual accompaniment.

You can imagine a t-shirt with the words “Tame the Liminal!” except of course that’s the one thing we never do. The liminal says “possibility!” The liminal sweeps us to the brink of change. The poet Rilke gives us the experience of falling into the liminal “merely” by studying a famous statue in his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, a figure that is missing its head:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rilke struggles in similes with how to express this consciousness: “eyes like ripening fruit … torso with brilliance like a lamp … skin like a wild beast’s fur … stone’s borders bursting like a star”. In other and theistic traditions, it’s said you can experience God-realization by looking into the heart of a flower. The point is the same. Or in fact the point is often different for each of us. What does remain the same is preparation. (The Hopi call one of their ritual tools natwanpi — “instrument of preparation”.) Take that step with intention, and anything can draw us into such awareness.

And so “our mission, should we choose to accept it”, is to interrogate the borders, our own most of all, to investigate just where our cultures draw their lines, and what lies across them. Not to rebel against those lines mindlessly, but to understand any limen is there for a purpose, and to determine how far that purpose applies to us — and when it might stop applying. So if I quote that famous Socratic proverb, “The unexamined life is not worth living”, I also need to cite the corollary of script-writer and brilliant teacher Robert McKee, “The unlived life is not worth examining”. Ouch!

Lighting the woodstove this morning after the past nights’ cold moved through New England (8″ of snow in northern Vermont!), I encounter the liminal in a way everyone can experience. A fire, a candle, brings us into contact with that most liminal of physical things. But any of the four elements can: a waterfall or lake or stream; clouds or the sound of wind in the trees. Earth, too — a mountain or valley or meadow, or an unusual large stone, a piece of quartz or shale held in the hand.

And I also jump-start my awen from Bards, as frequent readers here know well. Here’s my man Thoreau, who closes Walden with a series of four potent and linked meditations that can serve as Druidic natwanpi, as preparation for the liminal:

The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

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Omen Days 4: Marmota Monax   2 comments

[Updated 30-Dec 2019]

Omen Days [ 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5-6 | 7-9 | 10-11 | 12-13 ]

Groundhog, whistle-pig, moonack (derived from a Native American name), or French Canadian siffleux (“whistler”) — as I take more firewood from the stack, I’ve found our backyard woodchuck has again taken shelter for the winter in a burrow between our woodpile rows. It makes good animal sense: until I started taking the wood away for fires, the burrow mouth was protected, and tin sheets still partially shield both wood and burrow from snow and rain.

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woodchuck — marmota monax — Wikipedia

The woodchuck enjoys a regional claim-to-fame in the U.S. as “Punxsatawney Phil” and indeed has a brief cameo in the ’93 Bill Murray/Andie MacDowell comedy, Groundhog Day.

(We can detect in the February 2 Groundhog Day — no surprise — echoes of older celebrations like Imbolc. The harsher winters in North America merely postpone the coming of spring that the European holiday anticipates, until late March at the earliest, at least in New England. Animal divination!! The groundhog’s “prediction” of early spring or more winter depends, after all, on sunlight: if it’s sunny and he sees his shadow — only his “priests” know for sure — that means, paradoxically, six more weeks of winter.)

When our next-door neighbor dug a new in-ground septic tank over a year ago, things reached a tipping point that made “his” marmota monax leave home in search of a better life. The journey didn’t demand much — no long treks for the plucky immigrant who would ultimately set down roots in a strange new land. Instead, just a quick run under the property line fence, and voila! Our handy clover patch no doubt also played a savory role — we saw him — them? — off and on this past summer in the thick of it, grazing quite contentedly, bees humming all around in the clover flowers.

Last winter I discovered him burrowed in under the first row of the woodpile. By the time spring came, and I’d cleared away the logs and knew he was out, I drove a log firmly into the mouth of the burrow. (I absolutely refuse to use the smoke bombs that poison both animal and soil. Have-a-heart traps may be the next option.) Sure enough, un-dissuaded, he dug a new hole in June, this time right along the east-facing foundation of our house. When I stuffed a log into the mouth of that hole, he dug around it. I added another log. Then when I didn’t see him for a while, I thought my harassment campaign had paid off, and maybe he’d finally crossed the road, where there’s some prime woodchuck real estate that could be his for the taking. A neighboring farmer mows the open, level 5-acre meadow bordered by woods just once a summer, and otherwise it lies fallow, undisturbed.

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Hard to see, but dirt between the log rows comes from the enlarged burrow

But there’s the roof of his winter burrow, with its mouth one row deeper into the woodpile. Part of me rejoices at his resilience, even as I plan anew how to see him off, once warmer weather arrives. All this, of course, while another part of me ponders whether this is indeed the unsubtle arrival of a new animal guide, upping his campaign to grab the attention of this torpid and obtuse human.

In the guise of a woodchuck, a delightful link exists between Frost and Thoreau, those two quintessential New England bards. A wry Colby Quarterly article, “Two Woodchucks, or Frost and Thoreau and the Art of the Burrow” , exhibits good Druidic sensibility in exploring that link. Regardless of whether the article author actually follows through on his own insights, they remain for readers. To make a cellar for his cabin at Walden Pond, Thoreau enlarged a woodchuck’s burrow, trusting the beast had dug deep enough, beneath the frost line. Here the “Two Woodchucks” author cites Thoreau’s sense of the need to dig down both literally and metaphorically to find out the truth of things:

In order to find this reality, we must first “settle ourselves,” establish a sense of place, a living connection with the landscape. Then we must “work and wedge our feet downward,” in woodchuck fashion, “through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion [alluvium] which covers the globe”.

I read as I draft this post that the woodchuck can nearly double its weight as it gorges each autumn to store up fat for hibernation. The average burrow, with between two and eight mouths, requires the removal of 500 lbs / 225 kilos of dirt. Sure enough, it often digs a separate winter burrow, much deeper than its summer quarters. Though at need the woodchuck can climb trees to escape predators, and typically retreats to its burrow rather than fight, when cornered, the sturdy beast has claws and sharp incisors to defend itself. Their range spans from Georgia to Minnesota and New England, north as far as Newfoundland, and west across the Canadian plains into Alaska. Study almost any creature, and you begin to see its adaptations to its specific life-path emerging as something quite remarkable.

Boar, pillbug, woodchuck — the teachings of animal encounters to guide this Druid, if he only listens, through his days.

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Gifts of Solstice, Part 3   Leave a comment

Much of what I write here is inward-facing. Writing’s a core component of my spiritual practice. For me it’s a vital means of discovery, of turning over an experience or perspective until — often enough to keep me going — it falls into place, takes on a new aspect once it gets put in words, gains a solidity or heft that lets me examine it more clearly, or links up with daily events, the weather, the experience of wearing skin, conversations, dreams, things Others are communicating as they go about their varied lives. Words through these short days and long nights, words that at least sometimes prove useful to you as well, a solstice gift.

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to the west, across the road from our living room window

Tonight my wife and I included among our celebrations of Solstice one event we’ve attended for several years running. A local church hosts ‘Into the Silence’, inviting a duo called Coracle to play Celtic-themed music and recorded natural soundscapes like whale-calls, birdsong, coyotes, or — like tonight — “owls with sleet falling”. The music alternates with periods of silence. There’s no introduction or closing, no announcements, in fact no human voices at all, beyond a few whispers, and some creaks from the wooden pews, velcro fasteners and zippers opening as participants settle in. The only illumination comes from a score of candles on the altar that a congregant lights at the beginning, and from a solitary Christmas tree trimmed with tiny white bulbs. In some ways it’s ideal “Druid Church”. The possibility of spiritual encounter feels larger without words.

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Now that my wife has finally recovered from a bout of food poisoning, she’s back in her weaving studio. This morning when I went out to start a fire there, the thermometer on the wall read 29 F / -2 C. Considering the last few nights have been below 0 F / -18 C, that’s heartening. It also turned out to be a sunny day, which helped the stove to get indoor temps up to a more comfortable range, so she could work for some hours on her warp.

The pleasure of kindling a fire in the house each day all winter, with a second one in the studio some days, sweeping ash, chopping wood, never diminishes for me. Yes, some mornings like this one, I’m shivering as I begin it, and sometimes the wood takes a while longer than usual to lift the stoves into the most efficient zone where they can burn hot and clean, but the work itself answers the effort.  (If you only let her, Brighid blesses it.) As Thoreau quips in Walden,

Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection. I love to have mine before my window, and the more chips the better to remind me of my pleasing work. I had an old axe which nobody claimed, with which by spells in winter days, on the sunny side of the house, I played about the stumps which I had got out of my bean-field. As my driver prophesied when I was plowing, they warmed me twice—once while I was splitting them, and again when they were on the fire, so that no fuel could give out more heat.

Warmth, a direct connection between labor and result, recovery from illness, sunlight, outside air and snow both cold and dry enough that the coverlet of white powders off when I bang each log against the pile. Pleasures of solstice — gifts, all of them. And when we returned an hour ago from the solstice celebration of music and silence, a sky dotted with the distant fires of stars.

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“Holy, Wise, Obscene, and Joyous”   Leave a comment

Today my adjectives arrive in a four-pack, all waiting, ready as a title. Actually, they sojourned toward me last night, but I was too tired to do more than note them and carry them into sleep. (What more to say with them?)

Not a bad way for a writer to compost.

Let’s start with holy, north, and earth. Each of us has a holy place — a home, city, spiritual retreat, dream, relationship, cause, purpose, goal — a place where we can store our treasures and sacred objects, a place that grounds us. (And if you don’t have one right now, you’re probably on quest to find one, among all the other things you’re doing.)

What’s your Jerusalem, your Mecca, your Well of Brighid? What’s your north star, your soul’s home, your rest and your dreaming?

Each of us is a holy place, a sacred discovery we may have great trouble with, not seeing spirit looking out of eyes looking into our own.

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Spinning, spinning. On to the east and late sunrise, courtesy of these long nights before the Winter Solstice. Wise, the east, realm of thought, of reflection. The hard-earned wisdom of every life, things we’ve learned, things we’ve always known, things we’re still discovering. It was among ferns that I first learned about eternity, sings Robert Bly, because deep-down, the echo, the rhyme, is just as important as the meaning. Ah, bards!

Obscene, the south? Work with me a moment. It’s the fire that gets us into trouble, as often as not. The untamed in us will have its way, in spite of our better judgment. “If I repent of anything”, Thoreau quips in Walden, “it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” (Can we also ask, what angel directed me, that I behaved so badly?)

Fire will have our way with us, in spite of other wills, all clamoring for us to do their bidding. Depending on how repressed (or connected) you are, obscene can be your modus operandi — when the going gets tough, you get bawdy. As if the universe finally is playing your song — backwards. Trickster emerges from his burrow, from her mountain pass — one glance and you see you’re twins. You wear each other’s skin. Chaos — because fighting fire with fire. In our native element …

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And West — joyous, the playfulness of water cascading, the tide unceasing, the crash of the surf calling us. Where will water float me to, this time? Pilot for my boat, old friend, let’s weigh anchor and be off again! River, stream, blood in my veins, in these earliest rhythms I know it again, eternal journey. I emerge out of it, I merge back into it.

It asks nothing, it asks my all: “Labour is blossoming or dancing”, sings W B Yeats, “where

The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Dancer, dance — holy, wise, obscene and joyous.

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I spin a quarter turn to the right, then start the cycle again. Holy is now the east, from where the day’s first light blesses us all. Wise is the south, that animal fire un-quenched in us, kindling life, kindling each other. Obscene is now the west: how wet and juicy everything is! — being born, eating, bleeding, loving, sweating, dying. We swim through lives. And joyous is the earth: to be here at all, snow and sun, leaf and love and loss, every place it’s happening, solid, rooted, here.

(Turn another quarter turn to start, then — when you’ve finished, another. How do the Four line up this time? Two meditations for you, to continue two more quarter turns, to look and listen, to explore.)

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

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Genius   Leave a comment

[Edited 20:30 12 Nov 2019]

So much of the genius of Druidry grounds itself in the here and now. Its metaphors concern growing things, the seasons, the changes and encounters and opportunities shaped by living in time and space. (The physical world is the ultimate spiritual metaphor.) Our communion is with life lived with other beings, including some without their skins on. But no one asks me to believe in them, or at least no more than I ask them to believe in me. Which can be lots, or not at all.

And so it is that the awen isn’t something to pray to (though I could), but to say and sing and listen to, in a group or alone. The crowded sapling I replanted last autumn doesn’t require my belief (though I’m free to believe my belief will help) but rather the space to grow, and regular watering until its root system re-establishes itself. The birds or beasts I share my life with need food and shelter and care. I may consider them dear companions, or manifestations of deity, but when they wake me asking for a meal, or to nudge me for a caress, no incense is required.

Some may choose to explore further, to part the veils that exist everywhere, that make physical things more and more transparent for Spirit, or that also can preserve a reassuring earthly solidity a little longer, if we need it. Face-to-face with a local part of the world I encounter just a few paces from here, a part I can paint and ponder, photograph and feel, I know enough of divinity to take another step, if I choose.

I’ve had trouble for a few years now with a frequent sense of constriction just before waking. Traditional medicine points to things like sleep apnea, poor diet, sleep paralysis, and similar physical causes. But I’ve eliminated these things as primary, though some may be effects of a more underlying cause. If ever I doubted that I leave my body every night, here’s proof, when proof’s no longer needed: I’m definitely outside, and frequently reluctant to return. Often in near-to-waking dreams I’m entering a tunnel, climbing a narrowing stairway, pushing myself into a corner, sliding into a tight, confining and claustrophobic space. Ah, said a friend proficient at getting out of the body, when I shared some details of this experience, I know that feeling. I came to realize a part of me was too large to fit comfortably inside a human form. Sometimes you need to make inner adjustments with what you try to bring back with you. Hmm.

“I was more independent than any farmer in Concord,” remarks Henry David Thoreau, in the “Economy” chapter of Walden, “for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment. Beside being better off than they already, if my house had been burned or my crops had failed, I should have been nearly as well off as before”. Unlike Henry, I have a house, but my genius is as bent as any, and perhaps the curvature makes following it into a bone-house, if not back out again, more difficult than it need be. I hear the word shapeshift echo behind my hearing, like something spoken in the next room, though no one else is home — and I ponder new ways to explore this dream-waking challenge. What shape might better fit, if a human one proves too narrow? A new practice to explore.

Grounded in the here and now, I have a center from which to explore. Maybe that’s both aid and obstacle. Hermes Trismegistus, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, is said to have remarked, “God is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” So I reflect that creation as deity sees it is happening wherever the center is, and finishes at the circumference. Whatever that means, it may mean that it begins where I sense a center. I needn’t go looking for it anywhere else.

Hermes Thrice-Greatest, in Latin Mercurius ter Maximus — MtM for someone like me in love with acronyms — is simply another doorway, a mask spirit wears, as we all are to each other, another chance to ponder all the ways and plays of spirit peeking out from everything. The more closely I explore this blessed physical world of metaphorical and very real earth, air, fire and water, the more carefully it explores me. Thoreau knows what I’m sensing; a few lines of his became one of my mantras, long ago:

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars — Walden.

The Wikipedia entry for genius offers a useful etymology for extended meditation:

In ancient Rome, the genius (plural in Latin genii) was the guiding spirit or tutelary deity of a person, family (gens) or place (genius loci). The noun is related to the Latin verbs “gignere” (to beget, to give birth to) and “generare” (to beget, to generate, to procreate), and derives directly from the Indo-European stem thereof: “ǵenh” (to produce, to beget, to give birth). Because the achievements of exceptional individuals seemed to indicate the presence of a particularly powerful genius, by the time of [Caesar] Augustus, the word began to acquire its secondary meaning of “inspiration, talent”. The term genius acquired its modern sense in the eighteenth century, and is a conflation of two Latin terms: genius, as above, and ingenium [cf. ingenious], a related noun referring to our innate dispositions, talents, and inborn nature. Beginning to blend the concepts of the divine and the talented, the Encyclopédie [an 18th-century French encyclopedia]article on genius (génie) describes such a person as “he whose soul is more expansive and struck by the feelings of all others; interested by all that is in nature never to receive an idea unless it evokes a feeling; everything excites him and on which nothing is lost”.

Again and again I return to earth, to the physical, this first and last mystery, vessel for otherwise intangible spirit, which still looks at me even as I gaze at it. And I consider a genius of my locus, a spirit of place — an altar, if I see it so — the stone in our front yard, mantled with snow and lichen on this November day.

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May all that you meet talk to you, teach you, comfort you, challenge you, guide you, prepare you.

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Year 7 at A Druid Way   Leave a comment

At the close of my seventh year with this blog, I’m devoting a post to taking stock.

First, thank-yous to everyone — nearly 10,000 of you this past year — who keep coming back to read, to ruminate, and to comment.  As I note on my About page, quoting Philip Carr-Gomm:

Just as the spiritual path can be characterised as the ongoing attempt to both remember yourself and forget yourself, so blogging can be seen as a challenge to both be more personal, more open, more sharing of the riches of a life and at the same time to take yourself less seriously, to let go of the concern about what other people might think about you, and to reveal rather than conceal your curiosity and amazement at the often crazy world you find yourself in.

As a spiritual practice, writing here keeps me turning over my experiences and perspectives — a good thing, I’ve found, for both consciousness and compost. This coming February 2019 I’ll join a panel of speakers with the rich topic of “Spiritual Lessons from Everyday Life”, and my time with this blog will definitely contribute. Human experiences have no “size” that I can determine, despite any labels we apply to them. Seemingly “small” ones deliver impacts that may not fully mature for years, while the splashier ones often fade quickly as dreams. You keep turning them over, turning them over, and good stuff emerges, which you know in retrospect mostly because it nourishes what will grow in the future. If I neglect this, soon all I have is a midden that smells, attracts pests, and I learn I’ve forfeited an opportunity for work that is real. Fortunately I can pick up the pitchfork and shovel at any moment and begin.

What other people bring to say, and how they respond to what I share here, seems to work much the same way. You learn it’s often not about you at all, whatever you thought. Each of us makes individual journeys so idiosyncratic and often difficult to get into words that what amazes me is we’re able to share anything at all. Or as I have occasion to exclaim to my wife, I’ve slowly learned that two things are simultaneously true, in the best traditions of paradox: that I’m nothing like other people, and that I’m exactly like other people — I’m an alien, or I’m your twin. This blog usually lands somewhere along that continuum.

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Three of the most popular posts this past year originate not from this year but from my 2017 “Druid and Christian Themes” series. This intersection of traditions still lights up for me, as it apparently does for a sizable proportion of readers. Otherwise, the only excuse I can offer for my choice of topics is also Thoreau’s: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” But beyond Transcendentalist Yankee Smart-assery, he makes a subtler point: go deep enough inside yourself and you will find things to say that resonate for others at least some of the time. The odds of this happening are about the same as for baseball, so an average of .300 is respectable indeed.

Looking a little further at the Druid-Christian intersection I recall how Philip Carr-Gomm notes in his book Druid Mysteries:

Although Christianity ostensibly superseded Druidry, in reality it contributed to its survival, and ultimately to its revival after more than a millennium of obscurity.  It did this in at least four ways:  it continued to make use of certain old sacred sites, such as holy wells; it adopted the festivals and the associated folklore of the pagan calendar; it recorded the tales of the Bards, which encoded the oral teachings of the Druids; and it allowed some of the old gods to live in the memory of the people by co-opting them into the Church as saints (p. 31).

Since I find I’m citing Carr-Gomm a lot in this post, I’ll end with one more observation by him that I find still most topical today, the 30th of December 2018:

One of the most important tasks that face us today is one of reconciliation, whether that be between differing political or religious positions … the Christian community, far from taking fright at a perceived regression to a pagan past, can ally itself with [Druidry] which is complementary, and not antagonistic to Christian ideals and ethics …

St. Columba said “Christ is my Druid” and I believe that if we take Druidry to represent that ancient wisdom which lies deep within us, and that can connect us once again to the Earth and her wonders, we can understand how we can be Christian Druids, Buddhist Druids or Druids of whatever hue or depth is needed for us at our present stage of development.

May we each find and recognize “whatever hue or depth is needed for us at our present stage of development”. Blessings of the coming New Year to you all.

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Testing the True   Leave a comment

real_fakeA lot of talk these days about truth or reality and fakeness, almost as if our era was the only one ever so burdened, so challenged, so troubled by discerning the difference. So I cheer when I find a key to help me along the way, one I can hold up to the light and turn in my hands and consider, one I can offer to you and see whether it serves your need, too.

Es ist alles wahr wodurch du besser wirst, runs a German proverb Thoreau quotes in his journal entry for October, 1837 — “Everything is true through which we become better.”

I love this as a test for truth. No abstraction here, but rather a laboratory prompt, a calibration on our internal alethiometers, to use the example of Philip Pullman’s delicate device for measuring truth.

alethiometerIn the first volume of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, Pullman describes the alethiometer like this:

It was very like a clock, or a compass, for there were hands pointing to places around the dial, but instead of the hours or the points of the compass there were several little pictures, each of them painted with the finest and slenderest sable brush (Northern Lights, 1995).

(Do you have your own alethiometer already? You do? Is it in good working order? Or are you looking for one?)

And that in turn should tell me something. As much as it is anything else, truth is an image, a whole set of images, that I carry around. From childhood onward, from experience, from stories, movies and the examples of others, from my culture and the era I was born and grew up in, I gather up and walk with a museum of images. Does what I see and experience right now match those pictures? If not, can it be true? How can it be true?

Everything is true through which we become better. Should I walk around asking, “Have you become better yet?” Well, no: unless I start first with myself. You know this is my principal strategy for avoiding insufferable arrogance, spiritual myopia and self-righteousness. Turn the edge on myself first, before urging the blade on others. A better question is “How did you do it? And can I generalize a principle, extract a technique from your answer, so that I can pull it off, too?”

What am I doing, what have I done, and has it helped? Have I become better? If so, can I do more of it? How Druidic! Rather than an eternal and external standard to which I must somehow conform but which is native, apparently, to nobody, instead I practice one dependent on my life and my experience. Yet we can recognize a shared quality in both our experiences, even though they’re different. What can that tell us? What are we perceiving? Part of an answer seems to lie in the relationship between honoring my own experience even as I honor another’s.

To give a specific example, echinacea consistently upsets my system, but my wife finds it a wonderful aid. My truth doesn’t trump hers, but neither does hers negate mine. One principle does for both: if it helps, if through it I become better, it’s true for me. As with freedom, so with truth: yours ends where mine begins, and vice versa. Force either on me and they cease being what they are, but become their own opposites. (We still endlessly practice this negative magic on ourselves and each other.)

I do ritual alone, or with others, and stand together in a circle with the Visible and the Invisible to welcome the sacred. My wife and I work at our marriage, and it has its good and better years, like anything planted and cultivated, watered and weeded. I fell out of touch with a college friend, and we’ve drifted apart. I remember others regularly, and our relationship still holds true.

I find truth in the quality of such relationships. Improving a relationship is one way I become better.

Oh, uniformity or conformity has its place. Build a house and you want dimensions as close as you can measure and cut them. We also speak of angles, materials and directions as true. True north. We’re dismayed, or gratified, when potentials and promises come true. In a ritual it’s helpful if we work together. The chant grows stronger when we say or sing the words in unison, like any chorus. Unity can be … fun.

alanwatts

Alan Watts (1915-1973)

The principle remains, whatever the design of the structure you build, house or ritual, song or life. As Alan Watts quipped decades ago — I can’t locate the source offhand — most creatures on the planet are endless variations on a single design: tubes with various attachments. (We’re improvisations, like jazz, like the unrepeatable concert version your favorite band performs of its signature song.) What wonderful diversity elaborating and playing with that unitary principle!

But what’s diversity for? I remember my first years at the school where I taught, serving as international student adviser. “Students from 38 countries!” the school brochures and website crowed at the time. “OK,” I said at one faculty meeting, feeling out the parameters of my new position. “We’ve got diversity. Now what do we do with it?” I genuinely wanted to know. No one answered. But I wasn’t being rhetorical. Was “having” diversity enough? Was that the goal, now achieved, box checked, on to the next item on some larger list? Was the school, were we, with our vaunted diversity, somehow now better? If so, how?! Could we measure it? Could we be or do something, anything, better as a result?

“I desire”, says Thoreau in Walden,

that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.

If we respect ourselves in all our quirky uniqueness and individuality, how can we not respect everything else? Your difference affirms mine. The world and all its creatures, the Chinese wan wu, “Ten Thousand Things”, announce this principle every moment. How can we not glory in such diversity?!

Apparently, to judge by what’s happening in so many places, we often can’t. Is it because we don’t trust our own uniqueness? Do we fear ourselves as distinct and free beings, and therefore fear everyone else who is also a unique self, different from us?

Does your difference help me become better? No, it must be said, not if I run from it in fear, or if I feel I must attack you to protect myself, or deny you any way to live your difference, so that it leaves mine alone. Shortsightedly, I could even claim your difference makes me worse, not better, because I don’t like it, or because you remind me of my own freedom and uniqueness. Because all difference urges me to the responsibility to live from that knowledge. No, I don’t want to become better. Save me from any such transformations! I want to be, not become.

I find truth in the quality of relationship. I want to connect to others who help me become, just as I want to help them become more of who they are.

Selfishly, I readily admit, they’re more fun to be around when they’re becoming than when they’re locked in fear and desperately trying to remain who they are. And paradoxically, they become more of who they are when they keep changing and growing. And so, they tell me, do I.

Yes, the Great Self of the Cosmos first says Be! But then its continues, saying Become! I want to hear those Words and live them. Because what else is there? Serving something larger than the self, another paradox here, fulfills the self. All the many species around me live and flourish and die and return because they and I are what the cosmos does.

And ritual, song, art, creativity in solving problems, joy, relationships with other unique beings, are all ways to express and take part in and complete that doing.

eplurunYes, to be national for a moment, the motto on our U.S. currency proclaims E pluribus unum — “Out of many, one”. When you start with states that are nearly independent nations, unity can hold great allure.

In other contexts, too, of course, we seek that uni-verse, that “one-turning”, of one-ness. But if we seek a more whole truth, a “single turning” through which we might become better, we also recognize and acknowledge and begin to live from its other half, too — its complement, which we’ve often overlooked: Ex uno plures — “Out of One, many”. As the old song goes, echo of a cosmic melody, you can’t have one without the other.

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Images: real/fake; alethiometerAlan Watts;

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