Archive for the ‘wisdom’ Category

Jesus and Druidry, Part 2   3 comments

[Part 1 | Part 2Part 3]

But what of the Galilean Rabbi himself?  Enough about trends, which I said last time I wasn’t really interested in. We may forget that Jesus is a common enough religious name of the time — a version of Joshua — “God saves.”  (It’s a name still popular today among Hispanics.) Thirty, and he’s still not married.  A disappointment to his culture, his family.  After all, both count immortality at least in part through heirs and bloodlines.  His mother tries to understand, received a sign when she conceived him, has her suspicions and hopes.

Reconstruction of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem

Reconstruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem

An itinerant teacher and preacher, one of many, traveling the countryside.  On festival days, when he can, like many of his countrymen, he visits the great Temple in Jerusalem.  A short career: just a few years.  A group of followers who scatter at his death, denying him repeatedly.  A promising life, cut short by an ill-timed visit to the capital. The one who betrays him comes from among his own followers.  Roman overlords, touchy at the major festival of Passover, the city bulging with visitors and pilgrims, a powder-keg, awaiting a spark to flame into chaos.  A summary arrest and trial for the young Rabbi, followed by an ignominious and agonizing death.

Except unlike so many other such preachers, after his death Jesus is not forgotten, is eventually deified, gets elevated to membership in the theologically-problematic Trinity that Christians insist isn’t polytheistic. (If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck …)  What was it about him that came across as godlike? Sadducee

As with other spiritual teachers, we can see his divine intoxication ebbing and flowing, peaking and falling away again, a common enough human phenomenon. Most of us have known a peak experience at least once; we’ve also sadly  watched it slip away.

At times Jesus is a poor Rabbi working for justice and compassion, firmly ensconced in the tangle that is 1st century Judea, with its liberal agnostic Sadducees, conservative legalistic Pharisees and radical Zealots.  Israel, a stand-out nation, with its peculiar and demanding monotheism, an island of faith and practice in a sea of surrounding nations with their many gods. A politically contentious region, one the Romans occupy, “pacifying” it in typically straightforward Roman style, with local career politicians like Pilate. The Romans crucify troublemakers, tax the province for whatever they can squeeze out of it, and garrison it as a staging point for patrolling other legs of an Empire increasingly wobbly and quarrelsome and groping towards revolt.

More and more, this Rabbi draws a crowd when he stops to preach.  He’s a vivid speaker, his rural Galilean-accented Aramaic familiar to his audience.  He’s one of us, Joseph’s son.  Did you hear what he said earlier today, last night, a week ago? Almost always something memorable.

tribute-penny

Show me a coin, he asks those gathered around him one day.  A natural teacher, using whatever’s on hand to make a point.

Whose image appears on it? he asks them now.

It’s Caesar’s, they answer.

Exactly so, he says.  Distinguish rightly what goes where.  The coin, the tax, that goes to Caesar.  The divine , however, requires something different.  

Like what? his listeners wonder.

Good master, somebody else asks him, intent on his own issues. What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?

Don’t call me “good,” the Rabbi replies, after a pause.  I’m not. Call nobody good, except God.  And that’s not me, not me, not me the silence echoes, in case anyone was wondering.

The fig tree, when he reaches it, has no figs.  Of course not — it’s not the season for them. Jesus, hungry, tired and discouraged, curses it anyway, goes to bed with an empty belly.  Real son of God material.  Not likely.  Word of it gets written down, too.

I’ve been with you this long and you still don’t get it? he scolds his closest followers one day.  How long must I endure you?  Almost losing it. In public.  Another low point.  Another note that rings humanly true.

Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee

That’s “this-world” Jesus.  He sweats in the Mediterranean summers, shivers in the damp, rainy winters.  Cries when his friend Lazarus dies. Bellows at the merchants and money-changers in the Temple.

Sheep and goats wander the roads as he walks from town to town.  It’s hot and dusty, it’s raining, it’s stormy.  The Sea of Galilee can turn to whitecaps in a minute, threatening the small fishing boats that work its coves and depths.  Workmen hail him, stop and question him, ponder his words.  His own people.  Fishermen, slaves, tax collectors, soldiers, prostitutes, farmers, widows, children. The sick, the street people, the lepers and beggars, the homeless.  His message first of all must reach them, before anybody else.  They need it so badly.

wfieldBut at times we hear a different voice, sense a very different presence.  The Otherworld vivid, all around. (“Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees, takes off his shoes …” writes Elizabeth Barrett Browning, nineteen centuries later.) The Kingdom, here, now. This Jesus, so drenched with the divine that the rocks sing to him with it.  He can be wrapped in a shining cloud and commune with the ex-carnate Moses. Perceive the spiritual temptations of worldly power, available to anyone who begins to walk into the heart of the Great Mystery.  He can say, Satan! but he’s really talking to his own human capacity to choose for good or bad. The power that goes with deep awareness and choice.

This Jesus says The divine and I are one.  I came to testify to the truth. If you see me, you see the face of the divine.  I came so that people can have more abundant lives.  I came for you all.  And you are all my sisters and brothers. All children of God, all walking the fields and forests of the Kingdom.

This Jesus knows the divine is all-present, that the flow of Spirit sustains everything, that there’s always enough.

How to capture this inner truth in stories? A huge crowd, fed, with left-overs.  A leper healed.  A poor woman looking for love or a livelihood, taken in adultery or prostitution, forgiven — and no one to say “But wait!” or argue the letter of the law with the Rabbi with the shining eyes.  The accusing crowd, unsettled, disperses.

The hick Rabbi, dying a criminal’s death on the cross, thieves and murderers on both sides pf him, gasping as he asks God to forgive those who nailed him up to die a slow death.  The palpable sense of his presence after his death.

His consciousness rising and falling in its breadth of awareness of its own divine potential, its union with all things, its kinship with mustard seeds, with the birds of heaven and the foxes of earth and trees that clap their hands. What could be more human?  What could be more Druidic?

wstevehThe world has three levels: heaven, earth and hell. The leaven is divided into three portions and hidden for a time.  All things will be revealed. The divine is both different and the same, yesterday, today and forever.  Ask, seek, knock.  Druidic triads everywhere, once we start looking.  No, the carpenter’s son wasn’t necessarily a Druid. No, Jesus maybe didn’t “in ancient time walk upon on England’s mountains green,” as Blake imagines it in his poem “Jerusalem.”  Another story to convey the sense of the divine, here.  No reason to claim kinship where it doesn’t exist. But every reason to celebrate links and commonalities and similar wisdom, wherever, whenever they appear.

A man who touches the divine and tries to express it in a culture steeped in a monotheistic tradition of necessity will draw on monotheist images and tropes.  How else to express his sense of profound communion, except by an image of a family, father and children? How else to communicate the sense of despair and agony of being cut off from every hope and healing, except by images of lasting hell?  How else to convey the divine promise rich inside every breathing moment, except by saying something like It’s the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom?

water into wineThe gift, already given, given every day, dawn, noon and sunset. The divine never offers less than all.  We strain to catch and carry the ocean in a coffee mug. We gaze at dawn and can never hold all that light.  We go for water, and it changes to wine, intoxicatingly alive.  Each spring, the world practices resurrection.  And yes, even the rocks are singing.

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Images: TempleSadduceesAugustus pennyGalilee; Van Gogh: Wheatfields; W Stevens quotewaterdrop.

Updated/edited 2 February 2014

OGRELD Redux: Spoofing Our Way to Wisdom   Leave a comment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI mentioned OGRELD in an earlier post — acronym for that “One Genuine Real Live Druidry” that never existed. But for a non-existent thing, it’s proven surprisingly lively in my thoughts. Every time I scratch my head and say about somebody else, “How can you do that?” when they do or believe or say something that doesn’t match my quirky and partial understanding of the universe, OGRELD raises its fictitious head, pretty frisky for something that isn’t.

But then “existent” and “non-existent” together comprise a pretty useless category anyway, from what I can see. Hit a paradox, seek for a unifying truth behind it: basic tool in my toolkit. Do I really think that what became my mother and my father flashed into existence from nothing some eight decades ago, mucked around, made a life, made me (thank you!!), and disappeared again forever? That’s far less likely, far harder to believe — a major mismatch with my and others’ experience of the universe — than an alternative take on things: that what manifested as my parents, as me, as all the birds and animals and plants and everything here and there and everywhere, the Ten Thousand Things, is something the universe excels at doing.

capy2

Rodent of Unusual Size

Why? Because, first of all, it just keeps doing it. Blessedly, bountifully, provocatively, right under our noses, before our eyes, in our ears, right on hand, at the tips of our tongues. And that, more than anything, spells out my sense of any immortality that may be: this wonderful energy keeps changing form, so don’t get too attached to forms. Roll with it. Dance with it. See where it wants to go next, and follow. Get sufficiently intoxicated in the flow, and its apparent ending is just a wave against a rock, a splash in the endless current. Real? Definitely. Splashy and messy? Yup. But not the whole story by any means. The story goes on with the current. The form (the previous chapter, where we left our hero/ine dangling from a rope above the rapid or the ‘gators or the Rodents Of Unusual Size*) gets left behind. Life 101. What do they teach in schools nowadays?! Move along, move along. These aren’t the Druids you’re looking for.*

But our sneaking suspicion of a truth underlying things also brings with it an annoying tendency for us to think that anything out here, in the manifest world, equals that underlying truth completely, finally, once and for all. That’s a mistake in categories — doesn’t work that way. Instead, it arrives provisionally. Approximately. We encounter any “underlying truth” through time, not all at once. You get your piece, I get mine. For today. Tomorrow we need to reconnect, re-source, re-build. Not “two steps forward, one back,” but instead, keep moving or stagnate, bleed and breathe or fossilize, innovate or institutionalize. Where we are today is always somewhere on that continuum (and almost never at either pole, however much the shrillness of current headlines wants us to believe otherwise. Exhibit A: Anti-Christ Obama / Exhibit B: A New Hope).

So OGRELD can seduce us along every one of its points. “One”? Unity is a tough one for human beings. We see it as a goal, but it usually happens intermittently, then we retreat to our local tribes.

“Genuine” and “Real”? Think of the money in both advertising and purchasing for whatever is “authentic, genuine, real.” But in spite of how those qualities have gotten cheapened, or rather because of it, we long for them more than ever. (The Velveteen Rabbit became real because he was loved. Could be we’ve been looking in the wrong places. “Genuine” and “Real” aren’t in other things, but in ourselves, or nowhere. Whether that’s an improvement, a miracle, a discovery, a revelation, Good News, depends on where you’ve been spending your time and energy.)

Even “Live” can be problematic. (That’s one sign of human genius: we can make problems out of everything.) It’s a game — as long as we remember we agreed to play, and as long as we know that the solution or the victory or the endgame is a solution for today. Tomorrow the games reboot. We’re back with the starting pieces and our own ingenuity and creativity. If we know it’s a game, it’s delightful. If we take it too seriously, it’s pure and absolute Hell for everybody. Oh, we know these things. OGRELD (fill in your preferred means of deliverance here: god, sex, liquor, drugs, the Singularity, Progress, Apocalypse), lead us into your truth!

And “Druidry,” the final component?  It’s just as problematic as the rest. It’s not for everyone — not because it excludes, tolerant** little sucker that it is — but because, as with most “solutions” we pose to the problems we created, we exclude ourselves from it. We’re better at no than at yes. If you’re looking for an idol to worship (and we all have one or more already), make sure it’s the best damn idol money can’t buy.

So make a list: what do you want in your job/mate/religion/diet/life? Then interrogate that list. If you actually had X, what would that let you do or be? Keep going through a few more cycles of interrogation: if you then had Y, what would that let you do or be? Stop when exhausted, or when you’ve arrived that the truth that underlies the “truth.” (If you don’t know what that is, there’s a project/problem for you. Have at it!)

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*There are times when an excess of pop-culture movie references can mar an otherwise perfectly decent blog post.

**Some brands of Druidry are more tolerant than others. In some forms of Druidry, you’re encouraged to invest your time and energy exploring almost any tradition and practice EXCEPT Christianity — shamanism, Egyptian polytheism, Reiki, permaculture, Hinduism, Voudon, veganism, Asatru, Wicca, Buddhism and onward to the ends of the earth. But not Christianity. (If you think Jesus didn’t also teach good Druid principles, you’ve missed substantial insights from both Druidry AND Christianity.) Not true for all flavors of Druidry by any means, but Christian Druids tend to hang out together, or practice solitary, or stay closeted, or drift away, from what I’ve seen. But see OBOD’s page on Christianity and Druidry.

Images:  labyrinth — a fine instance of Druid (Pagan) and Christian imagery working synergistically; “Rodents Of Unusual Size”: photos and accompanying article at The Huffington Post, from an article from June ’13.

Updated 7 April 2015

Facing a Critique   2 comments

capitalism_logo“Druidry is a middle-class phenomenon.  What with your workshops, books, weekends and camps, and especially the pricey study materials for groups like OBOD, who else but somebody middle-class could afford it?  It’s like so much of the New Age:  take away the cash cow that supplies the milk and it’ll collapse.  Your ‘nature spirituality’ or ‘green religion’ is just middle-class consumption of good marketing.  It’s not the real thing.  Where’s the outreach to all levels of society?”

capitalism-300x199OK, let’s listen to this mostly economic critique.  On the face of it, it may seem pretty damning.  If Druidry is simple good marketing and money-driven, it’s like so many other trends and fashions:  it depends on a manufactured need, or at least a market-boosted one.  Take away the marketing and it fades away.

Outdoors the October sky is gray.  I gaze out the window, sending a brief acknowledgement to the directions, thanking Spirit for the gift of this life, breathing and being aware of my breath, centering my attention before proceeding with this blog post.

If we look at ancient Druidry, through the filter of its classical recorders who did not always have its best interests at heart, it appears to be a distinct caste.  Druids had status and power, and were definitely not the mass of society.   They were an elite, with all the pluses and minuses that go with it.  There was little we would call “middle-class” about Celtic society.  Slaves, warriors, traders, farmers, craftspeople … but no one with that strange combination of material luxury, education, and political clout that looks remotely like what we mean by “middle class” today or for the last 100 years.  By our standards or even by Medieval ones when something like a middle class began to emerge, most ancient Celts were wretchedly poor.

As for the over-marketing of the New Age and spirituality and all our current hopes and dreams and fears, that’s one of the creeping plagues of capitalism.  If it can be packaged to make money, someone will package it.  The retreats and workshops and therapists and healers and “sacred” this and “spiritual” that fill a need, or they wouldn’t exist.  But they don’t touch the heart of knowing yourself for part of the world, feeling your body and the earth and trees, birds and insects and fish and animals, sun and clouds and stars all as kindred.  The awen that is always streaming out of silence and calling us to sing back does not go away when the money stops clinking and whispering at the cash register.  It only becomes more profound.  There we can find the heart of Druidry.

Let’s look at the cost of study materials like those of OBOD right up front.  If you decide to enroll in the Bardic course, you receive monthly course mailings, access to a tutor, online forums, a subscription to the OBOD magazine Touchstone, and supplemental materials throughout the year.  Many people take more than a year — sometimes several years — to complete the work of the grade, but there’s no additional cost.  The text-based Bardic study materials cost £215 — at the current exchange rate, that works out to $344 — a little less than a dollar a day.  Many people spend more on cigarettes and alcohol.  That’s the cost of joining one specific teaching and initiatic order.  Printing and mailing cost money.  But it is admittedly beyond the reach of many on tight budgets.

autumn imageOf course, you can be a Druid for free, starting at this moment.  You live on this earth, and you can follow your intuition and common sense and spiritual need and shape your own way throughout your own life, paying no one for any teaching, and bowing to no one and nothing except those you feel deserve it.  Yes, the support and encouragement of what others have discovered and thought and written is invaluable along the way.  Many valuable books and other materials are free online, or available at libraries.  But if you want to receive and study OBOD’s Druid teachings, they cost money to reproduce and ship.  If you want to study with ADF, or AODA, or the British Druid Order, there are fees because there are administrative costs and physical materials you receive.  If you think Druidry is the next big way to make money, form your own order, market your One Genuine Real Live Druidry, and have at it.

One of the joys of living Druidry is a sense in the West at least that we’re recapturing something lost, something beautiful and profound, but also something utterly vital and practical.  Many tribal peoples have preserved their traditional wisdom for living on earth without destroying it.  Such wisdom is hard won.  Tribes that practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, for instance, often found their land damaged after a few cycles and needed to move.  Poor farming practices meant not just environmental degradation but often starvation and death.

As one flavor of Druidry, OBOD offers itself as “a spiritual way and practice that speaks to three of our greatest yearnings: to be fully creative in our lives, to commune deeply with the world of Nature, and to gain access to a source of profound wisdom.”*  That may on occasion be good marketing, but it’s also uncommonly good sense to live in a way that makes our decades here all they can be, to walk lightly on the earth.

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Images:  enjoy capitalism; capitalism isn’t working; autumn.

*From the OBOD Website page “What is Druidry?

Updated 15 October 2013 22:30

Serpent Under The Door   2 comments

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 2   Leave a comment

[Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5]

This is the second in a series of posts about magic.  The first looked at two kinds of knowledge, one of which we often discount in a world where knowledge of a thing counts for more:  “Just the facts, ma’am.  Just the facts.”  Other kinds of knowing exist beyond these two, but we build on these.

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In the past, for almost anyone who sought out magical training, a teacher offered the surest guidance.  Few people were literate, so other than learning through trial and error, a guide or mentor was immensely useful.  Little was committed to writing anyway — too risky, impractical, wasteful of materials for a minuscule readership — pointless really.  Shaman, witch, hoodoo man or woman, conjurer, curandera, priestess, mystic, sorcerer, mage, wizard, druid — a panoply of names to call what a seeker might be looking for.

magicbookNowadays, as an aspiring mage, I can locate and open a beginning magic textbook — one that actually sets out a course of training for new magicians, as opposed to one that assuages the ego by offering vague reassurances and “instant magic.” When I do, I run head-long into the hidden first lesson:  my undisciplined attention needs training and focus. But I skim the chapter, or look ahead at one that seems to promise more.  Soon the first excitement of a promising title or author — or, gods help us, a flashy cover with a robed figure — begins to wane.  I want The Big Secret; instead, the first chapter sets me to doing a couple of modest-seeming exercises I am to practice for a month and record the results.  Too much like work.  Where are the glowing runes and mysterious passwords to infinite realms of gold and shadow and silver?  Where are the guardians with amethyst crowns and rings of adamant?  I want the symphony, and this book has me practicing scales.

More than anything else it does, magic even half-practiced bring me face to face with myself.  “Gnothi seauton,” said Socrates. “Know yourself.”  We aren’t altogether what we think we are — both more and less, we discover the prime tool of magic: the self.  All other powers pale in comparison to what we already are, what we bring right now to the art of magic.  We are marvelous beings, with dimensions, capacities and talents unexplored.  Discovering the truth of this firsthand ideally will not puff up the ego, but engage the curiosity, another tool the mage never stops using.  I will need that curiosity to help me through the first month.  By the end of the first week or so, if I’ve actually stuck with the exercises that long, the first aura of wonder has dimmed.  But in its place, a glimmer, usually no more, of things I didn’t know I knew, of aspects of consciousness, of a window opening where before there was only a wall, of passage through, where before was only cul-de-sac.  It’s faint, that sense of expansion, and if I don’t write it down, it dwindles to nothing.  Gone.  Easy to forget, easy to minimize, discount, ignore altogether.  Hence the advice to record it.  The hard evidence of pages of experience accumulates into a consistent realm of action and reaction and consequence that the mind cannot so easily argue away any longer.  A house divided against itself cannot stand.  I need to unify my forces if I am to accomplish anything worth doing.

doglisteningThe first lessons of magic use and highlight abilities we possess in the service of clarifying the task ahead.  Knowledge, memory, discipline, attention, imagination.  And persistence.  I discover both more — and less — than I’d hoped for.  I learn what a slippery, supple and potent thing consciousness is.  I learn in spite of myself and in spite of the biases of many current cultures that consciousness isn’t all I am, and it may not even be the most valuable or striking aspect of my identity.  Or rather I learn that day-to-day consciousness is to the full spectrum of possible consciousness what the visible wavelengths of light are to the full electromagnetic spectrum — a small slice out of an enormous bandwidth.  I learn that other beings may prefer and reside in other portions of the spectrum, the way insects can see ultraviolet and infrared beyond the human range, the way dogs hear pitches of sound and smell an olfactory melange  we never register, the way countless worlds are stuffed with possibilities we never notice at all.

Some knowing is remembering, is recollection.  Where did I encounter this before? And who was with me when I did?

Read about any of this too soon, however, and instead of learning it, I’m convinced I already “know” it.  Next cool thing, please, says the mind.  Next one.  As if magic, somehow different from eating or love-making or listening to music, were a matter of hurrying to the end, rather than practicing the delight of being present in the moment, noticing all we can, taking it in, marveling.

So I begin to know differently, more broadly.  Go slow, says the Master.  What’s the rush?

castaneda1962Don Juan, the Yaqui shaman or brujo made famous in Carlos Castaneda‘s controversial book series*, remarks of the magical journey, “For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length–and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly.”

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*Castaneda, Carlos. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968; 1998 (30th edition).

images:  book; dog; Castaneda.

Updated 8 May 2013

The Four Powers–Know, Dare, Will, Keep Silent–Part 1   4 comments

[Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5]

This is the first of a series on the powers of magic.

heaney“All I know is a door into the dark,” says Seamus Heaney in the first line of his poem “The Forge.”  In some way that’s where we all begin.  At three, four, five years old, some things come into our world already bright, illuminated, shining, on fire even.  The day is aflame with sun, the golden hours pass until nightfall, and then come darkness and sleep and dreaming.  We wander through our early days, learning this world, so familiar-strange all at once.  We grow inwardly too, discovering trust, betrayal, lying, love, fear, the pleasure of imagination, the difference between visible and invisible worlds.  Which ones do people talk about, admit to themselves?  Which ones do people around us ignore, or tell us don’t matter?

Much of our knowing is experiential during those years.  We learn about the physical laws of our planet, the bumps and bruises and sometimes breaks of childhood a testament to the hard edges of this world.  We learn some of its softnesses too: favorite foods, the touch of loved ones, the warm fur of pets, a dog’s nose meeting ours, the new air on the skin that spring and summer bring, the delight of rain and puddles and baths and fresh-laundered clothes.

child-at-shoreThen in some parts of the world comes another learning, one that typically fills much of our days for the next decade or so:  a knowing about, the accumulation in school of facts and statistics and words and ideas, math and languages and art,  science and history.  Still some experiential learning comes through as a matter of course — Bunsen burners glowing, magnesium and potassium in chemistry doing their flaming and bubbling tricks mixed with other elements.  The practice of basketball, baseball, volleyball, football and soccer, the sprints and catches and throws and spins and tricks, the correct forms and personal styles.  Wrestling, dance, music, track and field, teaching the body to know beyond thought, to form and shape habits useful precisely when they become habit and no longer demand our full attention.

And other knowledge of the body, too:  the awakening of sexuality, the chemical prods and prompts of hormones to stir the body into further change, the powers of attraction and desire, the experimentation with consciousness-altering that seems a universally human practice, whether “naturally” through exercise and pushing one’s physical limits, through chant, prayer, meditation, dance, song, music, or through “assisted alteration” with certain herbs, drugs, alcohol.  Even into adulthood much of this knowledge rumbles and whispers just below the level of conscious thought much of the time.  Without socially-approved times and places to discuss many of these experiences, we withhold them from daily conversation, we “fit in” and accommodate, we commit to being just like everyone around us, and the nudge of what feels like difference becomes part of the background hum of living, an itch we scratch haphazardly, or learn to tune out.

We forget how valuable this kind of knowing is, how it persists throughout our lives.  This used to be wisdom of a kind we valued precisely because it took lived experience to acquire.   You couldn’t rush it, couldn’t buy it or fake it, at least not without so much practice you almost recreated for yourself the original source experience anyway.

In a previous post on this blog, I noted:

Some kinds of knowledge are experiential and therefore in a different sense hidden or secret from anyone who hasn’t had the experience.  Consider sex:  there is no way to share such “carnal knowledge” – you simply have to experience it to know it.  And thus Adam and Eve “know” each other in the Garden of Eden in order to conceive their children.  Many languages routinely distinguish “knowing about” and “knowing” with different words, as for instance German kennen and wissen, French savoir and connaitre, Welsh gwybod and adnabod, Chinese hui/neng/zhidao. The kinds of experiential knowledge humans encounter in a typical lifetime are substantial and significant:  first love, first death, first serious illness and so on.

Back to the poem I mentioned in the first line of this post.  Reading it can be, in a small way, a re-initiation back into some experiences and kinds of knowing we may have forgotten or waylaid.  It’s “just words,” but also — potentially — more.

The Forge
by Seamus Heaney

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

forgeHere’s one opportunity of our human life (there are others) — a door into darkness, a world inside us that is a forge, a place of shaping and molding, of hammering material into a desired form, a place of work and energy and transformation.  The door leads to a place where we can find an altar, where we can “expend ourselves in shape and music” and “beat real iron out.”  Sometimes it appears others stand there before us; at times, we stand alone, tools scattered about, not always sure of how to proceed, dimly aware, or not at all, of anything like an altar or metal or tools.  But here lies a chance at the magnum opus, the “great work” many of us seek, that task finally worthy of all that we are and can do and dream of, a labor that is pleasure and work and art, all at once or at different times.

Even to know this in some small way, to imagine it or suspect it, is a start.  The door into the dark may not stand open, but we discern the outlines of something like a door, and maybe grope towards a handle, a yielding to an inner call, something that answers to a hand on the doorknob, or shifts like a latch, clicks open.  To know this much is a priceless beginning.

How magic can build on this beginning, and assist in self-making, will be the subject of the next post.

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Images: Seamus Heaney; child at shore; forge.

Updated 3 July 2014

Inconvenient Courage   Leave a comment

CourageI’m still learning courage, just as we all are.  Tests along the way, but no endpoint, no “I’m as brave now as I can be.”  Courage is a practice.  And I’ve learned that I miss opportunities for bravery where I need to, and can, practice it daily — in the face of my lazinesses and indulgences.  These opportunities don’t look particularly heroic or brave, but that’s because I’m still learning what courage is. Too often I think it’s something somebody else has, or needs to have.  Or I bewail its lack in others to whom I give power over my life, giving away the courage I already have.  I slip into fear, and then into denial as soon as someone points it out, makes me aware, that I’m acting out of fear.

These are not words of self-blame.  They’re words of clearing away, of washing the dishes, polishing the silver, emptying the ash from the woodstove. They are words of working the soil, turning the compost, preparing the growing space for the season to come.  Actions that make room for courage to happen.  As I prepare for health reasons to leave this teaching career of almost two decades at a private boarding high school, I look for new work.  Some of it, some of what I know I need to do, doesn’t offer a paycheck.  Some asks me for payment instead, and of a different kind.

Sometimes courage is just inconvenient.  I’ll do it, whatever has to be done.  If I’m the penguin next off the ice floe, I know that water’s cold.  I’m not looking forward to it, but I know it’s necessary.  I bring the best heart to it I can, if not for my own sake at this moment, then for others, as I move forward. Plunge.  Afterward, I discover — maybe — that was courage.  At the time I thought it was “just living my life.”  “Guess what,” my life says back at me.  “No difference.”

In the end, curiosity is stronger than fear. If I can imagine something different, I’m halfway there.  Just catch a hint of it, a flavor, a whisper of something new yet also oddly familiar.  There it is again …

Teacher, counselor and author Stephen Jenkinson has become a voice I listen to (“Yes, I hear voices”), to see what I can learn from him.  He speaks, among many other things, about our need for elders — for people who have done the work and learned and earned wisdom.  He talks about cultural death and the need for witness:

There is a lot of work to be done now, right now, in our time. Some of it is ecological, some political and economic, but all of it is cultural. Work I think is best understood as ‘the thing you’re least inclined to do’, and so we have our work cut out for us. The dominant culture, as near as I can tell, is in the beginnings of a terminal swoon. I don’t think it can be avoided. It’s end can only be prolonged or prompted, veiled or midwifed; those are our choices. The dominant culture was not built as if the last five hundred years on these shores had happened; it was built in spite of those years. It was built with a shrug to the past, and with the view that the past is gone. That is the principal reason for its ending. A culture unwilling to know its ragged, arbitrary origins is fated to a kind of perpetual, uninitiated adolescence, and it is by this adolescent spirit of privilege and entitlement and dangerous amnesia that our culture is known in the world.

We have to be in the culture making business, and soon. Real culture is not built on bad myths of superiority or inevitability or victory. It is built by people willing to learn and remember the stories that slipped from view, the rest of the truth that the empire won’t authorize. That learning and remembering costs people dearly. The work of building culture is learning and remembering how things have come to be as they are, without recourse to premature, temporary fixes, or to depression and despair. The way things are now, despair is a laziness no one can afford.*

That’s useful:  knowing what I can afford.  Fear leaves, despair leaves, when I know I can’t afford them any longer.  Not a matter of will, or often even of anything other than a realization one day.  A judgment, wisdom coming at last.  Something taking its place — the place of fear — but also something taking its own place, its rightful position all along.  Something bigger, more important.  Fear turns out to be just a temporary place-holder, a filler, padding, a zero that ultimately let me count how many spaces have room for something more, native from the beginning.  Return.

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*From “There’s grief in coming home“.

Thanks to Philip Carr-Gomm for sending me a link to Griefwalker, a moving and provocative video about some of Stephen’s work.  You can watch a trailer here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=xLQWM2j3AVg

You can watch the whole film, approximately 70 minutes long, here:

http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/7728/GRIEFWALKER

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