Archive for the ‘Druidry’ Tag

Your Equinox   Leave a comment

[Update 12:47 EST]

Visit Penny Billington’s blogpost Gifts of the Equinox for inspiration and ritual ideas.

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Looking for an Equinox Ritual? Searching for one that fits your experiences and perspectives?

If you’re not a member of a practicing group, it can be a challenge to know where to begin.

Fortunately, I’ve got you covered. That’s why you’re reading this post, right? With some thought and creativity on your part, you’ll be on the way.

If you visit my Ritual page, you’ll find an outline at the bottom of the page for composing your own rituals. I’ll be expanding on that outline here. The advantage of any model or example is that almost immediately you’ll see things you want to change, drop or add. That’s a good thing.

If you’re anything like me, give me something to work with, to push against, and my imagination kicks in, offering its gifts. Vision and desire and dreaming crave form — that’s one of the magical “secrets” we all practice in our own ways, but don’t think about very much. Working with them even a little and good things can spring forth.

The ritual you write and perform has something of you in it. That becomes part of the offering you make, and part of the hallowing the ritual achieves.

1–INTENTION — what do you want in an Equinox ritual, or out of it? The whole ritual follows from this. A clear intention, large or small, leads to effective and enjoyable ritual. You know what you’re doing, and why. You want to celebrate the season, you feel a need to be more grounded, you wish to honour the presence of spirit, in large and small ways, you’re grateful for good things in your life — all excellent reasons to ritualize your experience. There are plenty of additional reasons, too. More than one is fine, but let one be chief.

Write down that intention. Sometimes we resist this simple step. (Why we resist is a fruitful subject for meditation — at some other time!)

my intention occupies space, even before I light in up …

Getting it into words helps a lot. “Oh, you’re celebrating the Equinox?” says a friend, neighbour, relative, passerby. “Why? What’s your ritual for?” Now you have an answer. “I’m grateful for my garden, my pet, neighbours, family, life, the beauty of the season, the promise of renewal, the strength to continue, the conversation with a classmate I hadn’t connected with for years …”

Let gratitude become a ritual habit, and you’ll want to celebrate more often. Ritual can deepen gratitude.

“I come to give thanks for the gifts of this season”.

Where are you? “In this sacred space …” if you’re in a place you’ve held ritual before. Or if in a new space, your attention and anything else you add can help sanctify it, making it sacred for you and your intention. If it’s sacred, why not say so, and do something that signifies that truth.

Sometimes, every space is new and sacred too. You may need more words or deeds, or none at all, to know it as the truth.

2–MATERIALS NEEDED — As soon as you’ve written down your intention, the things you may want to include will start occurring to you. If you’re grateful for something, bring it — or a representation of it — into your ritual. Let it be part of your ritual focus. I love to have a fire, as I mention in many of my posts, if the weather allows it. Otherwise, a candle is an excellent equivalent. Our woodstove in winter is a daily fire, and a heartening meditation-companion all through the cold weather. Who knows how many great things have come from fire-dreaming?

Cycle back to add to your list as you develop your ritual. Remember to include the actual list at the beginning of your script as a reminder, so when the day and hour come for your ritual, you have it on hand and can pack the car, carry the materials to your yard, set up your living room, etc. If you’re doing ritual with a friend or friends over Zoom or Skype, a copy of the list for them helps everyone get read. (Share it on the whiteboard for any who arrives early!) If you’re meeting in person, will you or somebody supply masks for everyone? How can you make social distancing part of your ritual in some way?

“Keep it simple” is a good principle. “Ritual stuff” isn’t the main event, any more than ritual bling. But lacking the one or two things you DO need in the middle of the ritual, once your script grows to include them, is a real downer. That ritual knife, candle, bell, bowl of water, smudge stick now needs to be there. Do you need ritual clothing, body marking, etc.? If you do, make sure it gets on the list.

3–PARTICIPANTS and ROLES — how many does the ritual need? In these Zoom-days, you may find yourself more solitary than usual. Again, cycle back to update your “cast of characters” as your ritual plans develop. In the event of missing participants, how can you double up on roles?

Can you include objects — dolls, dressed figures, symbolic objects — for some of the roles? A tarot card, for instance (enlarged on a photocopier?) may serve as a stand-in for a role. Miniaturized ritual could be another fruitful area for experimentation and discovery. Think of the kinds of spontaneous role-play that children often do, and you’re halfway there already. Quite literally, they talk themselves into it, imagining it unfolding all around them. And it does.

Is there something for guests to do who aren’t speaking or performing major ritual actions? Can there be? Do participants — or visitors — need to prepare in advance in some way? Learn a short chant by heart? A melody? A ritual gesture? Vigils, fasts, prayer, meditation, questing, etc. can help participants bring their full ritual selves to the rite from the beginning. Work with the limits and possibilities of Zoom and Skype to bring some of the experience of ritual online.

4–PLACE and TIME — flexibility is key, especially if weather, others’ reservations, or schedules have other ideas for your ritual. A solitary ritual can happen in a fifteen-minute interval of sun on a rainy day. But group ritual benefits from pre-planned alternative locations, announced in advance. These things keep confusion and disappointment to a minimum. Is accessibility an issue for any participants or visitors? Again, will you provide masks in these Covid times?

5–RITUAL HOUSEKEEPING — “Please turn off your cell phones!” Run through any details guests need to know. “This is what we’ll be doing. Don’t break the circle, or remember cut yourself a door in it, or ask a ritual celebrant to do so for you. Restrooms are at the end of the hall, or 20 miles away; find a tree. That’s north, so this is west.”

Doing ritual online may mean reminding participants to mute themselves if a phone rings, a motorcycle roars past, etc. When each of us takes a portion of responsibility for ritual conditions, ritual works well. Help others, and yourself, avoid NINO — nothing in, nothing out, ritually speaking. What we bring contributes to the rite, so let us bring our best. And this, too, could be a line to add to the script.

6–FORMAL OPENING — you probably want some combination and sequence of purification, grounding, centering, welcoming, proclaiming ritual intent, honouring and inviting Others to be present.

How will this happen? Write it down. It can be simple. But come back to it when and as you need to in order to tweak it, add or take away, include a rhyme or poem or song, etc. Achieving an opening online often calls for something visual, as well as auditory, because Skype and Zoom offer just two senses, and magnify (distort?) their importance.

Bells, singing bowls, incense, water, fire, salt, chant, drums, etc. all can help. Casting a circle, establishing sacred space, erecting or acknowledging altars, redefining the status of participants, the place, objects nearby or some combination of any or all of these may be appropriate. Choose who does these things, and why, and how others can take part. Less talk is usually better. So is simplicity.

“I stand in this sacred place, at this sacred time”.

The small online Equinox celebration via Zoom that I’m hosting tomorrow evening is a little over three printed pages in the OBOD solo version. Half of that is stage directions: “Enter your circle from the West”. On Zoom, or in a solitary ritual, you may opt to focus that inwardly. What is “West” where you are? Trees, a hill, an open field, a neighbouring house? You may have your own associations, or objects to help evoke West.

“Let this bowl be my West, vessel of dream and inspiration”.

Doing these things via Zoom/Skype, etc., often calls for innovation and creativity. Can a swivel chair make do for turning toward each of the directions? Can picking up an object for each of the directions suffice? Private ritual is a chance to work on visualization, to slow down, and take the time, rather than letting the time take us.

7–The MAIN RITE — what you’ve gathered to do. Re-enacting a myth; marking the changed status of a participant through initiation, etc.; celebrating the season, a date, festival, harvest, planting, boat-launch, new home, new family member, etc. Healing, defending, strengthening, commemorating, blessing, gifting. Where you do the stuff specific to your tradition, practice, gods, calendar, and so on.

Equinox is a time of balance, so language, gesture, actions, focus, ritual movement can all focus on images of reciprocity, balance, light and dark, polarity, exchange, mutuality.

“On my right hand, ___. And on my left, ___ .” With intention and love, something as simple as this can serve as part of your rite. Or make it a triad:

If you’re facing East, for instance, “On my right hand, the warmth of the South. On my left, the cool of the North. On the right, I give thanks for gifts of passion and fire. On my left, I give thanks for the gifts of harvest, nourishment and sustenance. On my left, what needs to sleep, may it slumber and awake refreshed and renewed. On my right, what needs to kindle and ignite, may it burn brightly and cleanly”.

8–FEAST, ritual meal, distribution of ritual objects, etc. — a piece of maypole ribbon, a slice of apple (showing the star), a drink, a stave of ritual significance, a card or picture, stone, sea-shell, etc.

We still feast ritually, even if we’ve abandoned other ritual forms. Whether at a restaurant or at home, your chosen or blood family may or may not pray before (or after) eating, but you can include prayer that is meaningful to you in your rites. Silent prayer, a quick blessing, may be something you wish to bring back into your daily round.

Why, if prayer isn’t a part of your repertoire? To explore it as a ritual tool. To allow it to slow us down, closer to the pace of the trees around us, who breathe in and out once a day. To let the focus of its words wash over us in their specific ways. Add your own reasons, so you know.

My wife’s family, coming from diverse experience, belief and practice, often uses this old prayer, which can stand in as an example of something accessible to many who might have difficulty with language specific to any one tradition. Again, modify, add and delete as you need to.

Back of the loaf, the flour.
Back of the flour, the mill.
Back of the mill, the sun and the power,
the love and the Shaper’s will.

9–READINGS, Music, Poetry, Blessings, Prayers — this important portion of a ritual can accompany the Feast, etc. to help sustain the ritual energy, hold focus, minimize side chatter, etc. It also gives everyone present a chance to contribute personal requests, blessings, songs, etc.

Always we’re passing through markers, doorways, portals. What are your Equinox Gates?

In a solitary ritual, your own voice can be a gift, for the simple reason that it’s yours, speaking your gratitude, your celebration. Or a bone flute, a gong, drum, flute, stringed instrument. An empty bottle, blown across its open end, produces a pleasing tone. Pebbles in a jar, can or bottle will — with some experimentation — make an effective rattle.

And sometimes, rather than words, your rite may call for silence.

10–CLOSING — reverse what you did for the opening: thank Others you invited, uncast the circle, return ritual elements to their original places, desanctify what needs desanctifying. Take down the altar. Ring the bell, beat the drum formally, close the ritual. Re-establish the world before the ritual began. Again, simple is good.

Online, a clear visual or a gesture, along with a sound, can help mark the ending. Often on Zoom, with its over-emphasis on just two senses, and especially on the visual, a combination of markers is effective. Let participants SEE an ending, as well as hear it.

11–ANNOUNCEMENTS — upcoming events, requests for help with clean-up, calendars, thanking visitors, etc.

With a solitary rite, you can certainly skip this part. Or make of it an opportunity to announce that you wish to hold future rituals, to come again to celebrate and commemorate, to honour and to thank. It can take the form of a vow, or simple intention, expressed in sacred space. So the Wheel moves, each turn both same and different.

One of the earliest things we teach children is to take turns. That’s how the cosmos flows, so it is a priceless lesson, one we need to keep re-learning as adults, in new and varied forms.

12–CLEAN-UP — leave the ritual space as pristine — or more so — than when you arrived. Make this a ritual act of service and gratitude.

Again, this may seem less or not necessary for a solitary rite, but if you have a fire-circle and hold your rite outdoors, for instance, there’s clean-up to be done. Let it be part of your ritual, giving thanks and visualizing the Others who attended, sending after them your gratitude and goodwill on their journeys.

Conversation following the rite can be an opportunity for formal teaching, Q-and-A, casual discussion, ritual debriefing and a post-mortem “how did it go?”, planning for another event, etc.

13–RECORDING — entering details of your ritual in your journal is another way to grow and discover. Insight may come in the act of sitting to write, or a day or two later, as an addition to that entry. With larger public events, a paper copy of the ritual can serve as a souvenir and also a place for notes and reflections. What did you experience? Anything happen that seems a coincidence at the time, or after, or before? Record it.

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Posted 19 September 2020 by adruidway in Druidry, equinox, intention, ritual

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“What am I doing for Emnight 2020?”   Leave a comment

[Updated 11:51 EST]

John Beckett offers Two Online Equinox Rituals on his blog.

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Ah, Emnight — that word I’ve lifted wholesale from Old English emniht, from *efenniht “even-night, equal night (and day); equinox”. (Hail, Kin Down Under at the start of Spring)!

I don’t know about you, but I like the homely feel of Emnight — literally, the feel of home. It’s a word loved by use, a word with its edges rounded off, that begins to match the age of the celebration, fitting for the interval when we enter the dark half of the year. Not em-day, but em-night.

Always we’re climbing in and out of darkness, in and out of the restoring earth. Hiking with friends at the Putney Stone Chambers.

I’m doing three things around Emnight, since you asked. First, hosting a Zoom workshop with the Druidry and Christianity group I’ve mentioned in previous posts. One of our members has recorded a meditation that will form part of what we do online and in our hearts. We’re also drafting a set of commitments for members’ guidance and practice. Here’s what we’ve got so far, a nice symbolic seven that may shift as we explore and revise:

1. We commit to a daily spiritual practice to help us attune to divine presence.
2. We commit to witnessing and practising an ever-growing path of peace.
3. We commit to becoming more in tune with the natural world and its rhythms.
4. We commit to weighing our thoughts, words and deeds — are they true, kind, and necessary?
5. We commit to not judging others on their paths, but instead to rejoice in those places where our paths cross.
6. We commit to sharing our relevant knowledge and our own faith/spiritual experiences for the purpose of our mutual spiritual development.
7. We commit to sharing the divine love by service to others according to our abilities and circumstances.

Try them out. Sharpen them, adapt them to your path and practice and situation.

Second thing I’m doing: a small Zoom Alban Elfed gathering, with a meditative read-through of the solo OBOD ritual for Autumn Equinox. The advantage of the solo version is that it’s scaled down, maximally flexible for whether three or thirty people join us (and our numbers will hew toward the former, not the latter).

“I stand at the threshold of dark and light”, runs the solo rite. “Though I come to this gateway time after time, never come I to the same Gateway twice. Tonight I shall pass through once more, and enter the dark half of the year”. The center of the ritual asks us to acknowledge the Four Directions and the representative objects we’ve placed there. A time, as the eight yearly rituals all are, each in their own ways, for gratitude, reflection and commitment.

Autumn Equinox, East Coast Gathering 2017

And last thing: a fire with just my wife and me and a few bluejays for company, along with a fall crop of crickets singing counterpoint. “Pray with a good fire” remains one of my standing counsels for those seeking to put their leanings into practice — that ancient advice from the Rig Veda. A fire focuses and clarifies, lifts the heart, and embodies the moving spirit in things.

Posted 18 September 2020 by adruidway in autumnal equinox, Druidry, emnight, OBOD, prayer

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Refounding Our Fundamentals   2 comments

First, a quotation from Dion Fortune, who flourished in the 30s and 40s of the last century, and did much to launch contemporary understandings of spiritual wholeness, vitality and magic:

“When, in order to concentrate exclusively on God, we cut ourselves off from nature, we destroy our own roots. There must be in us a circuit between heaven and earth, not a one-way flow depriving us of all vitality … it is not enough for our mental health and spiritual development that we draw down the Divine Light, we must also draw up the earth forces. Only too often mental health is sacrificed to spiritual development through ignorance of, or denial of, this fact. Nature is God made manifest, and we blaspheme Her at our peril.” — Dion Fortune, Applied Magic.

While several monotheisms exist which offer training in drawing down the divine light, where in the world do we learn how to draw up the earth forces?

Some of us learn precisely here — in the world. Exploring nature as a child can often go far toward linking us with currents which can help sustain us all life long, if we don’t break the circuit ourselves. We find that secret place away from adults — a tree, stone, grove, meadow, pool in a stream. Maybe we share it with a few others our age, or maybe not. Many who feel drawn to Druidry as adults once enjoyed that contact, and come to realize it includes part of what’s missing after they’ve been alive for a few decades and felt the loss keenly.

[Some forms of Christianity have much to teach concerning honoring the earth and drawing on the telluric or earth forces. The current interest in Celtic spirituality, admittedly sometimes a romanticizing of the realities of its ascetic strain, mirrors such an instinctive search for the rebalancing of the telluric and solar forces. And among other contemporary Druid teachers, J M Greer addresses this in his The Druidry Handbook:

“It’s no wonder so many modern people are deluded into thinking of nature as an unnecessary luxury, and fail to notice their glittering artificial world depends, moment by moment, on vast inputs of materials and energy wrenched from their places in the cycles of the living earth …

Psychologists have shown that many kinds of mental illness have a central factor in common. Despite the stereotype, mentally ill people don’t lose the ability to think clearly; psychotic delusions are often masterpieces of internally consistent deductive logic. The trouble comes because this elegant reasoning loses touch with anything outside itself. Deductions become delusions when they stop being tested against the way the world actually works” (pg. 144).

That wordless communion a child enjoys, which it may not be able to verbalize to adults, begins to be restored to us when we again spend time outdoors. While our headspace is fuller and noisier than when we were children, the “green yoga” of opening our senses, listening, and letting thoughts subside, is a vital practice — quite literally: one that grants vitality. A backyard altar, as simple as a low-hanging tree branch or flowerpot or corner of the fenceline, which I visit each day and where I rededicate myself, becomes a source, a well, a font of sanctity.

Those who struggle to blend approaches, who have — for instance — remained devoted to Jesus, even if church has become a trial and even a hindrance, and who long to honor the holiness they also sense in the natural world, might ponder this reflection from Steve Shelton, who has commented here and elsewhere, and whose path as Christian and Druid lets each enrich the other:

“Let the Christian and Druid talk with each other — they seem to have a way of working this out, usually while we are doing something else.”

And Denise comments:

“Nothing new under the sun, as Ecclesiastes says. We can only do what the ancestors did — keep trying. As long as we’re still human we won’t quite get it right, none of us. Some days — most days — the biggest challenge is to remember that I’m as bad as ‘them’ in my own way and do my best not to cause harm”.

Here is humility, a quality often missing from fundamentalism, which too often speaks from an arrogant certainty that closes off possibilities of growth and discovery. We can also flip the words at need: “I’m as good as them in my own way, and do my best to cause good”.

The etymology of humility tells us much — earthed, grounded, in touch with the humus, the dirt which nourishes us through the other bodies we consume, whether plants or animals, and which our own bodies will nourish in their turn.

The Dao De Jing (Ch. 14/Winter Bynner trans.) observes (adjust the gender to present-day standards):

One who knows his lot to be the lot of all other men
Is a safe man to guide them,
One who recognizes all men as members of his own body
Is a sound man to guard them.

And again, in Ch. 27, pointing us towards one of the results of practice — our ability to salvage in each other what we may think we’ve lost:

A sound man is good at salvage,
At seeing that nothing is lost.
Having what is called insight,
A good man, before he can help a bad man,
Finds in himself the matter with the bad man.
And whichever teacher
Discounts the lesson
Is as far off the road as the other,
Whatever else he may know.
That is the heart of it.

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Where else does fundamentalism take root? The plant metaphor is an apt one. It finds fertile soil in our human capacity to navigate through a deluge of complex sensory and mental inputs, filter and sort them, and then to generalize, schematize, summarize, simplify and transmit them to others.

Blessings to the ancestors for passing along to us many rules of thumb. Some concern the natural world. They may be simple, and some even rhyme: “leaves of three, let them be” for identifying poison ivy. Others we seem to pick up from the air around us. It’s no surprise we’re comfortable around PLU, Jane Austen’s name for and means of poking fun at our clannish and tribal tendencies. “People Like Us” reassure us we fit, we belong to a place. Yes, they say, there’s a soft, warm niche among us with your name on it. And anything that threatens that can draw up deep reserves of fear of the Other. Let that threat come from among a member of the tribe, and that member will eventually be ostracized as surely as a complete foreigner and outsider will be.

Part of the vigor of the fundamentalist tendency in all of us rests in our solidarity with a tribe whose members are all “looking in the same direction”.

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Two keys for dealing with the fundamentalist tendency find echoes in the common law of almost every society we know. In simplest form, they’re the promise and the practice of respect. At root, they form the core of common law, of contract and tort law.

In his remarkable book Whatever Happened to Justice (2004), Richard Maybury lays them out like this: “Do all you have agreed to do, and do not encroach on other persons or their property”. If we’re searching for a clear-headed diagnosis of the times, we might consider how well we’ve been applying these in the United States over the last few decades.

Extend the first principle just a little, and we begin to see a spiritual obligation we often lose sight of. What have we agreed to do? The Western version most of us have inherited has been pared down and simplified until it resembles “Do what makes you happy”; “Follow your bliss”, “March to the beat of your own drummer”.

We’ve lost a more comprehensive vision that connects us to every other being and level of existence. The “mass fundamentalisms” of the West have swept us all up, whatever our private beliefs. They have deified the self of the apparent world (the one that Druidry gently tries to draw us beyond from time to time, so we can recover a vision of the greater self), while also delivering us to a point where we don’t know that we’ve agreed to anything else (we often deny that there is anything else to agree to), or that we are also selves beyond the apparent world, so that we can’t see the terms of our agreement coming due, we’ve “blasphemed Nature at our peril”, and we’ve forgotten how to get back on a good track again.

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Fortunately the tools we need are at hand, and a little exploration and experimentation shows us which ones will serve us best in our own unique circumstances and situations.

Despite what you read in the headlines, the most important fixes are never big ones. They begin small, in the self, in each self, where all real change occurs, and then flow outward into the world from there. When a “big fix” occurs, it can only occur because enough selves have “gotten on board”. The group consciousness has to change first, and that’s where it’s most productive and effective to focus.

I make of myself a culture in the biological sense, and I then infect those around me. That is, I cultivate a set of attitudes, perspectives and abilities which will spread and flower and propagate because I have brought them into manifestation in myself. This may sound mysterious or bizarre or even frightening, until we realize we’re all doing this all the time already. The sole difference is whether I do it as consciously and intentionally as possible, or whether I tend to drift and sway in and with the living currents others send out toward me.

Will I be cause, or effect? Will I at least choose?

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“Nothing in my spam queue” as a Guide

Log in to WordPress, check your site, and with luck you read a notice that announces “Nothing in your spam queue”.

Imagine: even spam has been lining up to see you! You’re not as small and insignificant as you thought!

Spam — the stuff that clamors for my attention whether it deserves it or not. First cousin to Fake, Faux, etc. Cut down actual trees, put models of ’em in a Tree Museum*.

A whole Spam world? Sign me up! Take the Blue Pill …

The subtitle of this post could well be: What’s So Bad about the Apparent World, Anyway?

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Finding hollow spaces to celebrate richness. Mt. Ascutney State Park, Vermont.

The “Apparent World”, you’ll recall from previous posts, and as OBOD ritual reminds us, is this one, this world of apparently firm surfaces that consist of little more than the orbital shells of electrons surrounding atoms — nothing “substantial” at all. Spam. This world of matter, energy, space, time, friends, relatives, partners, pets, car, house, job, neighbors, Current Political Crisis #437, aliens, the solar system, all the galaxies beyond it — apparent. Yes, all these things really do “appear”, which is what apparent means. What else, after all, would anybody expect them to do?

“As the Apparent World fades …” says the ritual. Well, maybe I like this Apparent World. After all, I’ve spent 2-3-4-5-6-7 decades acclimating to it, acquiring skills to deal with it, maybe even occasionally thriving in it. I’m invested in it, even if those annoying Others have paved paradise and put up a parking lot*. Yes, I know I have to leave it all too soon. How could I forget that? Reminders all around me every day, even in the best of times, as if I’d forget otherwise! Sometimes ya gotta deny the end just to notice and enjoy everything that comes before it. Smell the flowers, they tell us. Hey, sometimes denial is one of the best and most adaptive survival strategies of all!!! “Some of the happiest people I know …” and so on.

Because just when I think it’s (only) apparent, it shifts on me and becomes fabulously, dangerously, pulse-quickeningly real.

“But wait. There’s more!” Paradoxically, many of the same people reminding us about The End also keep telling us there’s so much beyond it. Huh. What? How’s that work?!

Thoreau has something to say about that. Love him or hate him, he’s on the money often enough to deserve our clear attention:

Time is but a 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. I cannot count one.

“Counting one” can be a ritual. Maybe the ritual I’ve been longing to do, but for any number of reasons I haven’t yet done. Yes, fishing’s also a grand ritual, as any devotee knows. So is drinking, too. And seeing the sandy bottom, detecting its shallowness. Noticing eternity. Daydreaming of fish in the sky, pebbles like whole planets and stars. Longing to drink deeper.

Our Apparent World, for all its richness, is paper-thin, and with eternity banging at the door and peering in through the windows, and always beginning right now, why deprive myself of that glorious abundance, especially when I don’t have to? In another paradox, it turns out that the true Masters of self-denial, the rabid ascetics and flagellants [warning — link to rites of self-crucifixion in the Philippines!] are those who restrict themselves to the Apparent World, never bothering to drink and detect and long and notice and count. But only a few of us are really cut out for the Apparent World, though almost everything’s set up for their convenience. Most of the rest of us run around vainly trying to arrange “something more”. I’m speaking to the latter group. Because if you’re content with apparent, why do anything different? You’ve got what you need, and I don’t need to photobomb your perfect selfie. Delete this blog from your feed immediately. Otherwise, I’m your spam.

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A post appeared this morning on an OBOD Facebook page from a new bard uncertain about where she could find in the published course rituals any kind of entry point for herself. The rituals she’d encountered so far felt too grand, too dramatic. She wasn’t sure where or how she fit, or how they fit her. She also noted she was a Solitary, with no group nearby to experience that form of ritual with.

mantis

Who else is solitary and may have something to teach me? Do I know?

One of the replies to her post took an interesting tack. Yes, ritual can exist to impress others, the commenter noted, taking them to places they might not go on their own. The dramatic gesture, the theatrical staging, often matter more in such cases where people can beneficially be surprised out of skepticism or ironic detachment or a long-established cool by an honest-to-god encounter with a god, or a spirit, or themselves, or another world, or even this one. But ritual can also be for ourselves, and take any size or shape we wish.

We all do ritual every day, all day long, anyway. Why not make these moments work more beautifully and magically for us, rather than spamming our attention with thoughts, opinions, images, emotions, possibilities and so forth that just don’t fit us and who we are and where we want to go?

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*with thanks to Joni Mitchell and her “Big Yellow Taxi”.

 

Three Questions for “Beyonding”

[Related post: Beyond 101]

If I could make just a single change, large or small, what would it be?

A change in what? you ask. Exactly. This question can open up many things, depending on how you ask, how patient you are with an answer to take shape, how clear the need for the next step may be for you, etc. Even asking the question can be a spiritual practice all its own.

Where do I already have space, support, opportunity, inner nudging, etc. to deepen my practice? What’s already in place, just waiting to be activated, brought into my awareness?

I may have a physical space in or at my dwelling where I can set up an altar, add a window box or flower pot on a landing, expand my garden, set up a compost bin, put a bookshelf dedicated to my sacred reading, etc. I may have a group I can meet with online for support, encouragement, brainstorming, ritual, etc. I may have a CD or musical instrument that helps me create sacred space.

Sometimes any inertia or resistance or blocking can issue from already-present space, support, community, resources, etc. waiting to be brought “on stage”, opened up, made use of. Acknowledging these things, recognizing them, bringing them into my conscious attention, can unstick the flow.

boxHere’s a ritual box I was given at Yule. Near it, scenting that corner of the room, is a sprig of yew from Samhain last year. I haven’t yet placed the box in a dedicated space, though I knew as soon as I received it that it belonged in one, that I would need to find-make-discover-dedicate one for it. The smell of yew each evening reminds me, helped the remembering make its way into my attention and this post. Noticing the lag between our recognitions and our actions often provides a key that opens doors.

What would an “ideal experience” feel like? Look like? Sound like? Taste like? (Add any other senses you may have been working with.)

Take your time with these questions. One or more of them may lead to sketches, doodles, chants, poems, tools, found objects or other aids to help the experience manifest here. “Ground and center” also applies to objects in my life. How can I help ground and center them in my attention?

Think of these as ritual “participants” in making the experience happen. Sometimes I know I need to experience a change, or shift, or something new, but I form no clear anticipation of how I’ll recognize it if it comes. This question can start me paying attention to surroundings, events, circumstances, objects, people, opportunities, etc. for signs — and set me making (or inviting) forerunners, precursors, aids to “bringing the experience home”.

celt-cross

cross on north windowsill with screen behind — earthing the guidance

Sometimes different objects help bring different experiences “to earth”, into our worlds and into our consciousness. For my work with the Druidry and Christianity Facebook group, for example, this Celtic Cross has been a useful tool to refine my sensitivity to links and connections. It’s also proven to be a kind of conduit or lightning rod for ancestral experiences with Christianity, too. Whether you think of it as a ritual tool, a stage prop, an icon, a mandala, or some other variation of these, it’s proven its worth through use. It’s also something I can grip in my hand — even more useful in these touch-starved times, when the virus limits tactile experience, unless we pay attention to amplifying the touches we can bring into our lives.

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Beyond 101

lichenrock

moss and lichens claiming my backyard altar stone

What might moving beyond “Paganism 101” or “Druidry 101” look like?

(The number refers to one common identification system at colleges and universities for introductory courses. Higher levels — with their prerequisites of knowledge, experience and ability — come with higher numbers.)

Part of the difficulty stems from our diversity. The Druid and Pagan circle is an apt metaphor. We stand together facing a small piece of turf, both literal and figurative. That’s our common ground. Our group, our grove, our gathering of friends shares a common goal. We’ve come together to celebrate the harvest or a particular phase of the moon, or hold a handfasting or croning or saging. We’ve got “Purposes”. Turn outward from the group circle, though, and start walking, and we grow farther and farther apart.

That’s not a bad thing in itself.

salamander--annaoakflower

eastern newt / eft in pine woods

Jason Mankey also gets at some of the issues of the “beyond” factor in his post “The Trouble with 101 Books“. Partly it’s a consequence of living in a world of time and space — things keep changing, and so do we.

For Druid bloggers and polytheists like John Beckett, moving beyond 101 means deepening your relationships to the deities you connected to, among other things.

For an herbalist or gardener, it may mean developing your craft by studying nutrition and alternative healing, perhaps offering your skills professionally. It may mean getting a certificate in permaculture, or developing a hardier species to thrive where you live, challenging your ability to grow a larger percentage of your own food, teaching others, and so on.

For some of the members of the Druidry and Christianity Facebook group, the challenge is to find ways of being Christian that honor their spiritual discernment, while also acknowledging the powerful call of spiritual realities and opportunities of the natural world which are often ignored or considered actively suspect in the eyes of mainline churches and congregations and pastors.

Painters, sculptors, musicians work to sharpen their skills and develop their individual styles, and with enough talent coupled with a knack for marketing may even generate some income from their abilities. Some, but usually not enough to quit the day job.

If you don’t recognize yourself and your own experiences in this small handful of descriptions, you understand intimately how far you’ve walked from your own circle or community, just as much as if one of these descriptors more or less captures where you are right now and what you’re doing. Praise for the keepers and participants of circles, for the communal centers they offer!

For a mystic and walker of boundaries, it can mean exploring realms others don’t visit very often, including states of consciousness, ritual approaches, and a growing personal vocabulary to talk about such experiences, along with attempts to find parallels in other traditions and in the work that centuries of Bards in so many cultures have gifted us with. If a Bard somewhere seems to know about what I’m experiencing, I take that as a helpful guide to the terrain I’m walking. But if readers aren’t familiar with that particular association or reference, or if it doesn’t resonate for them, it may not help clarify what I’m talking about very much.

Often the work is so idiosyncratic and personal that it’s hard to share. Or when we do, others don’t quite know what to make of it. I found I learn best when I ask questions. As a ready way to minimize spiritual deception, especially self-deception, I find it unsurpassed. But long ago I also learned that the kinds of questions that interest me most often make other people prickly and defensive, or cause them to look at me strangely, or throw things, or turn away and find somebody else to talk to. So to avoid ostracism and rebuffs and a generalized loathing of my presence, I mostly turn my questions on myself and on my experiences and understandings of the world.

It’s true that such preoccupations can lead to a markedly reclusive lifestyle, so I bless my guides and mentors for nudging me into a career in education and teaching, thereby avoiding even greater eccentricity. If twenty-five years of teaching at the secondary and university level has shown me anything, it’s demonstrated that students like to ask questions of their own on occasion, rather than always answering other peoples’. The same holds true for groups and structures. Young adults are always forming their own groups, with structures that make sense to them, rather than answering to or serving the needs of adult administrators trying to justify their salaries.

When I write about my preoccupations here, I realize I’m writing first for myself, and only secondarily for others, because otherwise I wouldn’t know what to say. Your Druidry 201 and or Paganism 450 Honors will not always overlap with mine. That’s as it should be. Thoreau addresses this phenomenon in the first chapter of Walden with characteristic dry humor:

In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.

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Thank you to all my readers for helping this blog reach 100,000 page views. While I write first for myself, I wouldn’t have kept going without knowing you were also reading and thinking about these things.

Gates to the Otherworlds 2

[Part 1 | Part 2]

Putch3-close

One of the Putney, VT stone chambers

Unknowingly, we also shut most of the gates to Otherworlds ourselves. Hence religion — literally, “re-linking”. Both bad and good news here, for the keys (hidden, discovered, at the end of the quest — pick your legend) are in our hands.

As children all of us spent at least some time peering from the gates of an Otherworld into this one. That’s almost a definition of childhood. Imagination came so readily then that we thought nothing of it — it was our native tongue, our common language. We thought nothing of it because our journeys back and forth between the worlds felt completely natural, for the simple reason that they are. How many of us have heard children endlessly repeating a word or phrase, self-enchanting, practicing one form of word-magic to launch themselves into another world, another state of consciousness? Or the youngster who asks for an adult to read the same bedtime story over and over again, never tiring of it, making it part of the before-sleep ritual, that transition to another world, another state of consciousness? Or watching the same children’s movie day after day, delighting in the ritual of sequence, of beginnings and endings, of transport out of one state of awareness and into others? Or childhood games, with their frequent patterns of losing and finding, of repetition and transformation together. Anyone can be “it” — until the next round. (For whatever “it” may be this time, consult your right hemisphere.)

Almost effortlessly we arrive into this life, knowing firsthand, instinctively, how to make such journeys, only slowly letting go of that precious knowledge as we acclimate to this world.

With enough practice and experience here in this life, we’re able to mock up difficulties and obstacles of all kinds for ourselves in the opposite direction. In fact, we get r e a l l y good at it — when I have time, when I’m not so stressed, later, next weekend, when I finally get a break from work, when the kids are asleep, after the virus retreats, when I’m not so strapped for cash — never perceiving that it’s exactly such priorities which too often shut us off from the very wonder, healing and rebalancing we long for and so desperately need. Rather than slipping in and out of worlds with ease, we root ourselves deeply in just one, then struggle to connect to any others. Rather than tapping into sources and fountains of rejuvenation that would make this life easier, less stressful, more magical, we resolutely “put away childish things”, then wonder why we feel empty and unfulfilled. If we want a clear demonstration of elemental earth out of balance, we can look at its grip on us, holding us back from mingling with the other elements and with spirit. Hence the needful work with elemental ritual.

Through ritual we can let this “apparent world” fade, as OBOD rites describe it. And one strategy for doing that, given our busy lives, is to slip into such ritual spaces and places in the middle of whatever else we’re doing. This practice in itself mimics the between-the-worlds quality we seek, so it models what it induces. Make the intervals and practices small enough we can’t not enter them. They can also become components of the larger rituals we practice.

We don’t need robes, candles, incense, banners, deity and elemental figurines, gongs, bells, swords, wands, altars. True, things like these can help, but they’re not necessary. Sometimes a single short prayer-chant, practiced once an hour through the day, or on some other schedule (every 15 minutes, or each time you get up from your chair, or at each break, etc.), can begin to open doors.

With each breath I take I walk between the worlds.

The previous post offered a somewhat longer prayer: I invoke the three gifts of Mon …

And the usually brief triads are another short piece of poetry and singing, of verbal magic to enchant ourselves into other worlds.

200px-InfiniteOr if you’re more kinesthetic, and words don’t do it for you, a ritual gesture or kind of movement, or for other sensory orientations, sound, color, smell, and so forth. The previous post offered the infinity symbol as gesture or sign, a way of signaling the openness that always walks with us, the ability to slip in and out of other worlds in an instant, and then return. Drawing it might help. (Doodling is one way many of us enter daydream, another world, and to shift consciousness, etc.)

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In another few days this blog will hit 100,000 views — one indication that in the nearly nine years of its existence it’s continued to serve those who read and return to ponder the kinds of things I write about here. The international readership it’s acquired heartens me as well — it’s not speaking merely to a North-American base.

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Shardik_cover_1974

cover of 1st edition, Wikipedia/Allen Lane

I do a lot of re-reading (“if it was worth reading once, it deserves at least a second go”), and right now I’ve returned to Richard Adams’ Shardik, his 1974 novel about “the power of God in a bear”. Adams, though better known for Watership Down, felt that in Shardik he had written his best work.

We have echoes of bear-and-human connections in the bear-cults of early Europe, and in the Korean Dangun legends of the bear-ancestors of humans. Jean Auel’s series that began with The Clan of the Cave Bear picks up on this, and there’s more than one Facebook page devoted to the phenomenon.

Some flavours and expressions of Druidry devote attention to the shape-shifting that can open doors, to the more shamanic aspects of our past and our potential, to the animal-human links that can help restore us to balance and fuller experience of humanity. Books can often point us in such directions.

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Porth i’r Byd Arall — Gate(s) to the Otherworld

[Part 1 | Part 2]

So reads a sign at Llyn Cerrig Bach, a small lake on the Welsh isle of Anglesey or Môn.

porthirbydarall

photo courtesy Kristoffer Hughes

Porth “door, gate”, related to portal; i “to”; (y)r “the” byd “world”; arall “other, another”.

(Incidentally, one of the best online Welsh dictionaries is maintained by the Prifysgol Cymru/University of Wales.)

How to find and pass through such a gate?

In addition to the photo above, Welsh Druid chief and author Kristoffer Hughes [Facebook link / Voices of Modern Druidry entry] offers this bilingual triad on his Facebook page:

Dyma dri o roddion Môn,
Traed y Derwyddon ar y Tir,
Cylch tragwyddol y Môr,
Coleuni diderfyn yr Awyr.

The three gifts of Môn,
The feet of the Druids upon the Land,
The eternal circle of the Sea,
The Sky’s unbounded illumination.

Here are the Three Elements of Earth, Sea and Sky — Tir, Môr and Awyr. The Welsh names work very well all by themselves as a chant and prayer: tir [teer], môr [mohr] and awyr [ah-weer].

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In 1942, a hoard of some 150 objects was discovered near the end of the lake, apparently deposited there as votive offerings. Among them is this splendid bronze plaque, now held in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff:

torc-LCD

crescent plaque / Wikipedia

How do we find and pass through portals to the Otherworld?

I invoke the Three Gifts of Môn,
and seek entrance to an Otherworld,
to where it is right and fitting for me to journey.
Feet of Druids, guide my steps.
True return I seek, for I have been there before,
not merely in dream and vision, and in desire,
but fully, born out of it into this life,
in the eternal circle of the Sea,
returning to it after time and times have ended here.

In this air I make the sacred sign
[with the forefinger of your dominant hand,
draw an infinity symbol in the air].

By the power of Earth, Sea and Sky,
assist me to make the journey anew,
and recall what I discover there,
so that I may share it after
for the good of the whole.

Recording the experience, whatever comes, is a valuable tool for making any subsequent journeys, and as a landmark of our practice. By making a record, I learn how I journey, which may be very different from the path others take. It may be that I recall with different senses active. Some see, but others hear, or touch, or return with no distinct impressions until they lift a musical instrument, or write a poem, or paint or draw. The more different kinds of outlets we provide in our lives and practice, the more the Otherworld can touch us here, and we can locate and recognize and draw on its inspiration.

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For more information, and images of other signposts like the “Gate to the Otherworld” mapping the region, visit “Anglesey Visualizations installed” at Monumental UK.

For an 8-minute Youtube interview with Kristoffer Hughes about the history of Druids in Wales, and their shamanic background, go here.

 

Boasts, Toasts, Oaths, and Growth

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

lugh1

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

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

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

lokasenna

The Flyting of Loki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The One True Druidry

[Updated 5 August 2020]

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

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

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

incense

incense / Pexels.com

ONE

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

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

TWO

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

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

THREE

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

BAM Druid Gather

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

FOUR

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

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

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

FIVE

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

Doreen_Valiente

Doreen Valiente / Wikipedia.

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

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

SIX

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

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

SEVEN

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

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Working Your What, Part 3: Sleep and Waking

[Updated 1 August 2020]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dog-sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you sleep and wake again.

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Images: Pexels.com

Working Your What, Part 2: Spirit-ware

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Waxing moon, two evenings ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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sunset two nights ago, from our front yard

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

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

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

One commenter at Druidry and Christianity observed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Working Your What, Part 1: Ancestors

[Updated 26 July 2020]

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

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

A tool for my magic and my connection to ancestors:

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

generations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finding Your What

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New moons for old …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

green trees under blue and orange sky during sunset

Lisa Fotios, Pexels.com

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

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

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

“In truth”, Stewart notes,

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

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

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

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

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

(2) pg. 86.

(3) pg. 84.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid.

(6) pg. 85.

(7) pgs. 84-85.

 

 

Recycled

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

astronomy circle dark eclipse

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

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

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

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

sumsign

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

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

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

cattle skulls

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

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

SF looking up from inside kiva -- BB

Cycle 5 Your game.

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