Archive for the ‘Walt Whitman’ Category

Refreshing “Home”   Leave a comment

Keep refreshing “home” and your browser gives you different results, your Facebook feed changes, etc., my wife said the other day.

If I’m paying attention, an inner bell goes off for me at such moments, an aha! of illumination. Spiritual practice is my way of refreshing home, of choosing — or asking for — something else than what the apparent or obvious may be telling or showing me. Some animals and insects excel in mimicry as a defense, or to lure prey. So too the human world, with its heartfelt truths and its cons, its bullshit and its profound beauties, its “characters” and “originals” and its gold standard friends.

Refreshing home is a kind of alertness that many animals retain, honed senses not dulled by noise from talking self. Don’t get me wrong — human speech is indeed a gift. But like many powerful gifts, it’s double-edged. It’s true, peace to Walt Whitman, that animals “do not make me sick discussing their duty to God … Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago”*

So when I write, as in the previous post, about things like devotion to Brighid, and you’re feeling particularly agnostic about, maybe, absolutely everything, consider J M Greer’s observations about egregor(e)s, the energy of group consciousness that forms around any regular gathering and gives it a distinct character, and especially around magical groups that work intentionally with charging and exploring its potentials. Is Brighid an egregor? Does your local parent-teacher association or book club or university class differ from other groups in any way? Of course. But is Brighid “merely” an egregor?

Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and other atheists miss a very large point here. I won’t spell it out — you already know it, or else you’re not interested in knowing it.

Greer says, writing about magical lodges:

… egregors capable of carrying the highest levels of power can only be built up on the basis of the living patterns of the realm of meaning, outside space and time. These patterns are what some religions call gods, and what others call aspects of God. They have a reality and a power that have nothing to do with the egregors built up around them, but they use the egregors the way people use clothing or the way actors in many traditional societies use masks. Skillful, intelligent, ethical, and dedicated work with these egregors, according to tradition, can bring lodge members into a state of participation with the primal living powers of existence itself — a state that is the goal of most religions, and as well as the highest summit of the art of magic (Greer, Inside a Magical Lodge, Llywellyn Books, 1998, pgs. 109-110).

It’s the part of those willing to work with and within a tradition not to stop at the level of belief in it, but to test and explore its possibilities. We’re worlds away from credal faith here. But you may, if you’re around a devotee of Brighid, especially this time of year, overhear or encounter a song or poem or prayer of dedication, service, and love.


/|\ /|\ /|\

*”I think I could turn and live with the animals“; Song of Myself.


Grace for Lunasa Season   2 comments

Irish poet Dennis King opens his poem “Altú” “Grace” like this: “I láthair mo mhuintire …” “In the presence of my people …”, finding reason in human existence itself for thanks. So often we need gratitude most when we feel it least. But on to the poem:

In the presence of my
back to the beginning of
In the witness of the gods
and the ungods,
In homage to the
generosity of the universe,
I give thanks
before my portion.

I’m going to do the English teacher thing you and I both have learned to detest: take a perfectly good piece of writing and analyze its parts. My goal, however, is not some obscure symbol-hunt or post-Modern Deconstructionist manipulation, but the pursuit of wisdom. What can this poem teach me?

First, King acknowledges witnesses. I live in the presence of my people, whether I belong to an extended family of the living, by blood or choice, or to the default tribe each of us can claim, one among a host of ancestors. All we do and are takes place in their presence. We don’t need to summon, invoke, or invite them, though it’s a courtesy in ritual, and it serves to remind us we’re companioned always.

Look in the mirror and you see the ancestors in eyes, nose, hair, line of jaw and length of limb. Consider what goes deeper than skin, and you can find them in your temper, your tastes, native tongue, social class and assorted beliefs and prejudices. Yes, you’ve added your own variations on these themes, and many of these you can shift to some degree through chance and choice and effort.

Send off for the increasingly popular DNA check, and you may find, depending on the accuracy of the particular test, that your tribe includes ancestors from unexpected places, that you can claim roots in many lands — that you even have something like a choice of tribes, if you’re looking to trade labels or identities.


Hellenic ritual

If the genetic test runs true that my father’s cousin ran a few years ago, I have some Greek ancestors, though family trees I’ve received and researched back ten generations or more on both sides offer no hint to explain an “8% Hellenic background”. But what does that mean, anyway? Wanderers, all of us, with ancestors as human, amorous, deceitful and restless as any of our relatives alive today. If because of all this I opt to worship Zeus, Athena, Hermes or Dionysos, they may or may not deign to notice. It’s an option for me, of course, and there are Reconstructionist Hellenists today who are reviving the old ways, Olympian style. But is that my call, or calling?

“Back to the beginning of life”, King continues. Whoever played a part in launching this whole enterprise of living, “gods or ungods” or lightning zapping the primordial chemical stew of a young Earth, we’re here and thinking (and drinking) about these things. And so these possible witnesses deserve acknowledgement, too. Why?! Because whether or not they exist, to remember and honor them even for a moment does me good. It enlarges my sympathies, and sets my life in a field much larger than what my social security number and bank PIN code and town tax ID and physical address suggest I am. We’re more, I hope we keep remembering, than the boxes we check on the endless forms we fill out. No single identity can define me, so why insist on just one? Pagan, white, childless, married, cancer survivor, writer, heterosexual, teacher, male: any one of these, and many more, could be a life-project to explore. Does one contradict or deny another? Does a census or a faction or political party or church begin to define me? Yes, you say?

Who are the true “authorities” in my life? Ancestors of scores of millennia, or a few political office-holders of the current arrangement, fulfilling one piece of their own lives by holding up one political system among how many possibilities? “I am large”, says Walt Whitman. “I contain multitudes”. (Easy to say, Walt, if no one insists on you being small, single, unitary, one thing only. Box checked, census complete, status once-and-for-always. But how large a claim about me, this thing I was born into, am I willing to assert?)

To exist at all is gift. “In homage to the immense generosity of the universe”: what would my life look like if I lived it daily in such homage? Can I begin to imagine it? Could I begin today, in small ways that could build over time?

“I give thanks before my portion”. Physically before: there it is, on plates and in bowls and cups. And temporally: before I take any of it into my body, I thank. Not after. Gratitude, how many doors can you open?

My portion: each of us has a part, a piece, a portion. If you’re a Christian, and you take Communion, the bread and wine or grape juice represent, or become, the inexhaustible blood and body of God. We eat and drink god-stuff, ungod-stuff. Our portion is endlessly refilling, and replenishing. To find and know and cherish my true portion: another project worthy of a life, of living.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Image: Hellenismos ritual;

“Doing the True”   2 comments

Truth’s subject to leakage at any time. Mostly, though, when that happens — when truth does manage, against the odds, to seep in — we strive vigorously to plug the hole any time more than a little discomfort spills out into our lives.

Praise then such discomforts, for what they can, even occasionally, reveal to us.

/|\ /|\ /|\

A burst of activity from Canadian viewers has been showing up on the page stats — one of a few places more wintry than here. A shout-out to Canadians trying to feel spring in February. It’s there — just under the snow, and behind the patience that, with this most recent bout of storms, is wearing thin for all but the most ardent lovers of winter.

/|\ /|\ /|\

“The world is a spiritual vessel. It cannot be improved,” says the Tao Te Ching, ch. 29. Of all the books based on wise and penetrating observation of the world and its dynamics, for me the “TTC” holds a singular position. So I’ve pondered this verse ever since I encountered it as a teen-ager.

To speak to this assertion (which, if you follow the above link, can be read many ways), and unpack and qualify it for myself and my readers, here are two of John Michael Greer’s responses to comments on his recent Feb. 1, 2017 blogpost “Perched on the Wheel of Time“:

The notion that one person can transform the world is very deeply rooted in our culture, and it’s not entirely untrue; like most damaging beliefs, it’s a half-truth. Each of us can change the world, but how we can change it is determined by our cultural and historical context — and of course it’s also true that in a world in which everyone can change the world, no one person gets to change everything! It can be a real struggle, though, to break through the binary between “you can change everything” and “no one can change anything,” and grasp the many ways in which we all, to use a New Age term, help co-create the future.

It can be a valuable Druid practice to break through binaries, finding at least a third position between two poles. And discovering and walking the line revealed by repeated blundering into a damaging belief/half-truth — there’s another name for life, for the modest wisdom a person can accrue over several decades. How much can I co-create? Where are my energies best spent in trying? Can I co-operate with even one other person around me  — like a friend or partner, for starters — to maximize our co-creative acts?

And if this world can’t be “improved”? Well, certainly local conditions improve and deteriorate all the time, shaped in considerable part by the actions of individuals. Any overall equilibrium, though? I must ruefully admit that does seem to remain the same. But that’s not a reason to disengage. Greer expands on his perspective in a later comment on the same post, which I find persuasive as well:

…the Druid teachings I follow hold that this world, the world of human beings experiencing greed and hunger and a distinct lack of the brotherhood of man, is a necessary stage or mode of consciousness through which every soul must pass in due time. When we outgrow it, we move to a different stage or mode of consciousness, and the world stays the way it is so that it can provide the same experience to those who need it. Thus there’s only so much change you can make in the world — though there’s some, and making such changes are an important part of grappling with this mode of being. The changes that matter are those you make to yourself.

If a succinct statement of my bias is possible, Greer captures it in his last sentence here. “The changes that matter (most) to me are those I make to myself.”

First, because in the grand scheme of things I find change difficult. I’m assuming you do, too.

Second, because the changes I actually pull off, ones I make to myself, usually affect my immediate environment, where they’re more visible than they would be elsewhere. That means I get more feedback from them on what I’ve done, and whether it’s what I actually wanted. You know: life as laboratory.

Third, because I continue to learn the hard way that my understanding is often so imperfect in so many domains that I’d rather improve it and share what I’ve learned than botch my immediate environment out of ignorance or stupidity — and more likely, both. Humility is a really useful tool in my kit. Almost always I’ve ignored it at my peril.

And as for matters of scale, I’ve also met wise individuals in my life. Not many, but a few, human and non-human. But very, very few wise local governments, and even fewer wise nations. And that gives me guidance for where my energies are best spent — at least for me, in this cycle.

/|\ /|\ /|\

So when anyone — whether Jesus or Donald Trump — offers up a version of “I alone can save you”, I need a lot of proof and demonstration before I’m willing to divert my energies to them from working in my own life.

Whitman sings in Song of Myself 32:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
    owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of
    years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

/|\ /|\ /|\


It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. — Henry David Thoreau/OBOD’s weekly “Inspiration for Life”.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Images: snow on moss in Westminster, VT.


What We Do Is Us   Leave a comment

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same”, sings Gerald Manley Hopkins, that wonderful bard who observed his world so loving-wisely. You can read the poem I’m reflecting on here at this site, which includes a bite-sized biography, along with short, helpful observations.

“One thing and the same”, Hopkins says, sounding confident, like he really knows.

What? you ask. The thing we all are, a self that “[d]eals out that being indoors each one dwells”: the “indoors” we each inhabit, the self we look out from onto everything around us. Deal it out, pay it out like divination, rope or money or time.

Hopkins gets it. He goes on: “Selves – goes itself, myself it speaks and spells”. Each self does this, it goes as itself, it “selves”, as if we are all verbs now, and everything we do speaks us and conjures us both out of and into the cosmos. To live at all is a magical act, “to be alive twice” as another poet calls it. From time to time we hear the echo of both lives, the two halves of us we can’t ignore, that kindle in us a human restlessness we can never extinguish. It’s also what we are, what we do as selves.

I’m born and I come upon myself, I gradually become self-aware, the self simply a larger and more engaging preoccupation among all the other things I do. Each of us sits in a self like we sit on benches. The bench of the self weathers in place, this place, the world of heights and depths, times and places.


And what is the “speech” and “spell” it utters? Bard-like, Hopkins says it like he hears it: all these selves “Crying What I do is me: for that I came“.

I’m doing it right now, and it also will take me my entire life to do it completely. When my heart stops and my last breath goes out, I’ll have finished this particular doing, one turn on the spiral, whether I become the lichen near the bench or the shadow of tree-trunks or a tree or a human again, or something else “different”, says Whitman in another poem, bard singing to bard and to all of us, “different from what any one supposed, and luckier”.

Have you felt it, luck in the sunlight, possibility on your skin? There’s Druid-luck just in living, which I can know if I heed the reminders, or ignore them and suffer.  Either way, it hurts, says therapist Rollo May. I’ll suffer anyway. OK, on to do something through and around and even, if I have to, with my suffering. What I do is me: for that I came.

“Don’t you know yet?” scolds Rilke. (Damn these bards! The conversation hasn’t stopped since awen first stirred in us. One thing and the same. We recognize it in others, in the voice of the Bards, because we’re doing it too.

What? I ask again. Rilke answers, part of the Song singing all of us here, the voice at the center of things that makes music out of us all, the voice we hear in dreams and silence and sound, laughter and tears and the spaces inside us.


Fling the emptiness out of your arms into the spaces we breathe;
perhaps the birds will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.


Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,

to give up customs one barely had time to learn,
not to see roses and other promising Things in terms of a human future;
no longer to be what one was in infinitely anxious hands;
to leave even one’s own first name behind, forgetting it as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.
Strange to no longer desire one’s desires.
Strange to see meanings that clung together once, floating away in every direction.
And being dead is hard work and full of retrieval before one can gradually feel a trace of eternity.

Retrieval. Of course we fear death, if we’ve done it so many times before. A healthy fear of death, something I know, rather than terror of what I don’t know. I’ve done this death thing countless times already. What’s one more?

Well, a great deal. How many years to retrieve this time around, to begin to recall things I’ve never forgotten, maybe, but misplaced, thrown out, ripped up and shredded even, for decades, centuries. A self that emerges out of nothing, returns to it, and also manages a retrieval, with the help of crazy bards and singers on the edges, reminding us. Pointing us back to song that’s still singing us, notes on the wind.

What I do is me: for that I came.

/|\ /|\ /|\




Druid Theology, Druid Practice   5 comments

“Some people don’t understand when I say these are the things I believe.”

So Damh the Bard sings in his lovely song “The Hills They Are Hollow.” But his song begins, “As I walk upon this green land, this land that I love …”

For me, that’s where Druidry starts, not in belief, but in love and experience of the natural world and the land we live on.

Belief may or may not come later, when doors that will not open to intellect alone open to love. And if you feel the land is sacred, then quite naturally you feel like singing about it: “Let’s sing of the mystery of Sacred Land …”

Recently a visitor to this blog pm’d me to comment on what he perceives as the need for a Druid theology. It’s easy enough to feel that way, surrounded as most Pagans and Druids are by a larger culture still shaped by a religion where creeds matter much more than they do in Druidry.

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

Yet one of the benefits of experiencing group practice is the reminder of the energies we all encounter and work with (or ignore). Yes, we can experience them all in solitary practice, sometimes more personally, vitally and intensely than in a group. Alone, I can move at my own pace, honor and learn from and serve the beings who speak to me, focus on what is meaningful and what lives within and around me.

But attend a Druid group event and you’ll find one of the hallmarks of Druidry is a wide diversity of belief arising out of that practice and experience. Such belief is almost always secondary — important certainly, coloring experience and shaping behavior, influencing interactions with others, nourishing opinions, and clarifying decisions about future practice. Standing together in a circle with your Tribe, belief matters much less. No one asks for a recital of your beliefs as part of any ticket of admission, or denies you because you don’t “believe in” the Morrigan, or you believe that the universe is a berry carried in the mouth of a trout swimming in a much larger ocean. After all, there are days I don’t believe in myself.

We face the altar, feel the sun and wind on our faces, acknowledge the always-turning year, hear the ritual words, and encounter through all our senses the reality of a marvelous cosmos alive with presences, forces and powers anyone can experience.

Walt Whitman says in his Leaves of Grass,

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Polytheists, animists, atheists, duotheists, monotheists, henotheists, eclectics, chaos magicians consciously selecting beliefs appropriate to their goals at the time — in the face of such variety, what can a Druidic theology say about belief in deity, the core of most credal religions — which Druidry clearly isn’t? What would such a theology achieve that Druidry doesn’t already have?

Yes, in the OBOD Alban Elfed ritual, we say the ritual words and recite the Druid’s prayer “which unites all Druids.” But from everything I’ve seen, the unity isn’t one of belief but of willingness to try out ritual for what it is and can be, to honor the sacred moment, and to hear the awen singing in its many forms. “Grant, O Spirit/Goddess/God/Holy Ones, your protection …”

“Why do we use the same ritual each year?” ask some of the regular attendees at the East Coast Gathering. Well, we do and we don’t. One common and shared autumn ritual during a weekend filled with name ceremonies, grade initiations, peace rituals, workshops, songs and the ritual of eating together with new and familiar people isn’t too much to ask.

Because it’s a ground form, a common experience for everyone, nothing too daunting for a first-time attendee, whether OBOD member or visitor, familiar to the experienced ritualist who can fine-tune the ritual pacing, catch the moment when a squadron of hawks soars above the Gathering, or a cloud of dragonflies visits the circle, or owls hoot in the woods. The wind lifts from the east at exactly the moment East is invoked, and everyone can share the connection.

My correspondent says, “Until we have a theology, I fear druidism will not be taken seriously by those outside of our thought … I do believe our fantasy perceptions need crushing and only a theological work can place [our Druidry] alongside other faiths on a level of reality.”

But is reality in fact one thing? Is an insistence on one reality — always somebody else’s, I notice, never mine — what we need now, or have ever needed? Do “the Fae dance on Midsummer’s Eve”? Perhaps we need more, not fewer, “fantasy perceptions” in a world where a large portion of people routinely cannot see the stars at night because of light pollution, where a Guardian columnist notes that our language mirrors our declining ability to notice and name the natural world:

The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose-poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.

“One of the most striking characteristics of Druidism,” writes Philip Carr-Gomm, “is the degree to which it is free of dogma and any fixed set of beliefs or practices” (What Do Druids Believe? Granta Publications, 2006, pg. 25). “It honours the uniqueness of each individual’s spiritual needs. In this way it manages to offer a spiritual path and a way of being in the world that avoids many of the problems of intolerance and sectarianism that the established religions have encountered.”

And so I submit that it’s always good to know what you believe, as a way of doing what Carr-Gomm describes: honoring the unique form of your spirituality. Get it down in writing for yourself, grapple with it — and keep it on hand so you can revise it as your life takes you in unseen and unforeseeable directions. But never suppose it can serve you as a club to beat others “for not doing it my way” unless you want others to beat you with theirs.

Why let a belief-reaction, a secondary response to the primacy of experience, dominate my consciousness? No, thanks. Beliefs change. Any religion which rests on a credal foundation will always be rocked by a world that shifts beneath it, by words that will forever need updating as understanding changes, by a nagging sense that reality stubbornly persists in not conforming to belief. Rather than blaming Satan or some evil Other, Druidry looks at the world and strives to learn from it. Imperfectly, humbly, joyfully.

Are there beliefs that most Druids share? Sure. But more interesting to me are my own experiences and the conclusions I draw from them. Below I offer part of a previous post from some eight months ago as an approximation of my own theology, always subject to change without notice, as any honest theology should be. Here are six things I believe:

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

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

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

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

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

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

/|\ /|\ /|\


Ten Thousand Things   Leave a comment

One of the more useful skills I’m practicing with Druidry (we all learn our lessons from many sources, in different guises and from different teachers, throughout our lives) concerns binary thinking.  It’s easier to recognize when we’re not practicing it ourselves.  You’re with us or you’re against us.  It’s good or it’s bad.  You’re young or you’re old.  Hot or cold.  1% or 99%.  And so on.  Next door in New Hampshire, the state license plates famously read “Live free or die.”

We can get distinctly uncomfortable around ambiguity that doesn’t fall into one or the other of two neat categories. Advertisers after all market to categories, and spend time labeling both products and consumers so they can target their products.  WordPress asks for tags and categories.  If you have something to sell that doesn’t fit under a label, you can have a devil of a time getting it on the shelves or in front of people’s noses.  Likewise, if you want to locate something that doesn’t fit a category, it can sometimes be a long challenge to track it down.

Of course, we can see plenty of this dualistic patterning in action now on a large scale in the States, and without needing to look any further than our presidential primaries.  Just tune in, and you’re sure to hear some variant of the following, especially across party lines:  one candidate’s or party’s ideas and proposals constitute all Goodness and Light and Upright Living, while the other threatens our very way of life.  Filled with greed, selfishness, and all signs of true evil, that Evil Other will — if we make the mistake of listening to/believing in/voting for them,  deliver us individually and as a nation into the hands of utter darkness, despair and destruction.

  Of course the drift into binary or polar thinking doesn’t originate or end with politics.  As author, blogger and Druid J. M. Greer notes, “Binaries exert a curious magnetism on the human mind.  Once we get caught up in thoughts of yes or no, right or wrong, love or hate, truth or falsehood, or any other binary, it can be hard to realize that the two poles of the binary don’t contain all of reality … Druid philosophy offers a useful tactic in situations of this kind.  When you encounter a binary, you simply look for a third factor that is not simply a midpoint between the two poles.  Find the third factor and you convert the binary into a ternary, a balanced threefold relationship that allows freedom and flexibility.”*

We all know numerous proverbs and images of three-ness.  “Third time’s the charm”; the three parts of a syllogism (thesis, antithesis and synthesis); beginning, middle and end;  the Three Blind Mice; Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; Father, Son and Holy Ghost; the examples are nearly endless.  What they amount to is a widespread recognition of the liberating and creative power of Three.  As the Tao Te Ching says (Ch. 42), “From the One comes Two, from the Two Three, and from the Three the Ten Thousand Things” of existence in this world.  The key is not to stop at two if we want to create.  Move on to three.

Greer amplifies the discussion of binary thinking in a post on his weekly blog.  He notes that

… the hardwired habit of snap judgments in binary form is always right below the surface. In most cases all it takes is a certain amount of stress to trigger it. Any kind of stress will do, and over the years, practitioners of mass thaumaturgy have gotten very good at finding ways to make people feel stressed so that the binary reaction kicks in and can be manipulated to order.

That’s when thinking in binaries goes haywire, the middle ground becomes invisible, and people think, say, and do resoundingly stupid things because they can only see two extreme alternatives, one of which is charged to the bursting point with desire … or fear … Watch the way that many people on the American right these days insist that anybody to the left of George W. Bush is a socialist, or tfor that matter the way that some people on the American left insist that anybody to the right of Hillary Clinton is a fascist. Equally, and more to the point in our present context, think of the way the peak oil debate was stuck for so long in a binary that insisted that the extremes of continued progress and sudden catastrophic collapse were the only possible shapes of the postpetroleum future.

Binary thinking is evolutionarily useful, Greer notes, because it allows us to make snap judgments that can save our lives in crises.  But in situations where more careful thinking is not only possible but necessary, our ancient wiring and programming can leave us stranded at one pole or another, in stalemate, with no sense of the way forward.

Greer continues, observing that (in various kinds of Druid and magical training) “Back in the day, beginning students used to be assigned the homework of picking up the morning paper each day, writing down the first nine binaries they encountered, and finding a third option to each binary.”  This bit of training can offer a salutary unlocking and rebalancing of the debates of the day — or of any complex problem handicapped and hampered by sharply polarized thinking.

This useful little exercise [of identifying and expanding binaries] has at least three effects. First of all, it very quickly becomes apparent to the student just how much binary thinking goes on in the average human society. Second, it very quickly becomes at least as apparent to the student how much of an effort it takes, at least at first, to snap out of binary thinking. Third and most crucial is the discovery, which usually comes in short order, that once you find a third option, it’s very easy to find more—a fourth, a ninety-fourth, and so on—and they don’t have to fit between the two ends of the binary, as most beginners assume.

Ternary thinking isn’t just a liberating technique for the person who practices it.  It carries with it a desirable ripple effect, for

… when a discussion is mired in reactive binary thinking, it only takes one person resolutely bringing up a third option over and over again, to pop at least some of the participants out of the binary trap, and get them thinking about other options. They may end up staying with the option they originally supported, but they’re more likely to do it in a reasoned way rather than an automatic, unthinking way. They’re also more likely to be able to recognize that the other sides of the debate also have their points, and to be able to find grounds for mutual cooperation, because they aren’t stuck in a mental automatism that loads a torrent of positive emotions onto their side of the balance and an equal and opposite torrent of negative emotions onto the other side.

Given how shrill our political dialog has become, and how intransigent and loath to compromise the principal players remain, we could use a healthy dose of such thinking.  As one of the Wise has said, “God is what opposites have in common.” For me that means that the “truth” of a matter is less than likely to lie at either extreme of a binary, but somewhere else — not “in the middle” necessarily, as though God were a moderate or centrist deity.  The Tao Te Ching also notes (somewhat wryly, I’ve often felt) that “Extremes do not last long.”

But beyond the political sphere, the ternary in other settings leads us directly to the Ten Thousand Things, the world of possibility and options and freedom.  To give just one personal example, after my cancer surgery and the follow-up radiation  months later, I was weak and suffering from uncomfortable and chronic internal radiation burns in the lower colon.  “I’ve got to get better or I’ll have to quit my job,” I thought.  “I can’t work like this,” when almost every bathroom visit brought blood and pain.  Binary alert!  I was able to arrange a medical leave, during which a change of diet, specific exercise, rest, an inspiring class I audited, and several new activities and spiritual practices have helped with healing.

One of the latter is the subtly powerful principle of “both-and.”  Rather than stalling in a binary, embrace the whole.  So often I hear people saying, “I’m so upset!” or “I can’t believe it!” or some other incantation.  The more often they repeat it, the more forceful their mental and emotional state seems to become for them.  (Our most common targets of “black magic” are typically ourselves.)

“Both-and” works like this.  “I’m upset and I can also be calm.” Both are true.  Rather than denying what may be a very real state or situation, include it and move outward to include more.  This avoids the resistance or denial that often plagues affirmations or stubbornness or exertions of the will, as if we could force the universe to do what we’re simultaneously insisting it must not to!  (I want to be calm, but “I’m so upset!”)

Whitman, our old American proto-Druid, gets it.  “I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best.” Both-and, alive and well.  And as he also and famously said in “Song of Myself,” “Do I contradict myself?  Very well then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The Ten Thousand Things all are moving about on their many and beautiful ways.  Come walk with me, and with them.

/|\ /|\ /|\

*J. M. Greer, The Druid Magic Handbook, 19.

Images: NH license; Obama; Gingrich; Whitman.

%d bloggers like this: