Archive for the ‘earth spirituality’ Tag

Beyond 101

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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]

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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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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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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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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Spiritual Practice as Laundry

A mundane laundry triad: It needs doing, you do it regularly, and you see the benefit in practical terms: clean clothes.

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elemental laundry: water, earth, air, fire …

While people have individual laundry rituals — you must fold clothes a certain way, or you can only wash certain items together, or you sort into whites and colors, while somebody else sorts by fabrics, or gentle versus regular machine cycle, or you use specific detergents on specific categories — laundry everywhere needs washing. It’s a deeply human activity.

I talk so much about spiritual practice for several reasons. Those who do it know its profound value, while those who don’t tend more often than not to busy our political landscape and to make headlines of various less-than-positive kinds. By “less-than-positive”, please note, I don’t mean less-than-comfortable. A spiritual practice worth doing should in fact unsettle us if we’re stuck — and that’s a good thing. If I’m entrenched in a rut, I need to be plucked from it, and a good spiritual practice is a rut-plucker.

Do laundry long enough and you begin to discover its seasons and rituals, its smaller and larger gestures. During warm weather, hanging clothes outdoors may be an option (as a rural and stingy Yankee, I get to save several hundred dollars each year drying clothes on a line from early April through late October, and gathering in wonderfully sun-breathed clothes besides. Ah, blessed sweat equity). You may wash more in cold weather because you wear more in cold weather. You may also begin at length to practice economies — better (and less) detergent, or scent-free choices, or more efficient machines, or certain days where doing the laundry just makes better sense. You may struggle against housing ordinances which prohibit clotheslines, or you may frequent laundromats or public laundries with their own rules and practices.

Travel or visit others (before these wry, random and ructious covidious times, and hopefully afterwards, too!) and you face different laundry adventures, washing items in a sink, or in your friends’ or sisters’ machines, or in a hotel laundry room. Leave the ritual you know and you discover how much of a habit it has become. Pack a suitcase, and you’re drawing on accumulated clean laundry to see you at least partway through the journey. A good practice grants you just such a reserve you can draw on.

Some practices will shrink or shred or discolor some of your laundry. Note that nothing in such a practice is “wrong” by itself: only the combining of actions and objects that don’t work well together causes the problem. How far I can extrapolate from that lesson is itself a useful meditation.

female backpacker enjoying waterfall streaming from green hills

Water, air, earth … gifted already. Add the fire of my intention. / Photo by ArtHouse Studio on Pexels.com

And I ponder how the goal of laundry isn’t clean clothes by themselves, exactly. It’s more a person well-clothed in fresh apparel. We want to wear the clean clothes, not merely gaze at them in a pile. I can shower twice a day, but if I have to put on dirty clothes again after a shower, I’m working at cross-purposes with myself. Another reflection for meditation, for the place of a practice.

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At a certain point, laundry can become a spiritual practice, an apparent reversal of the title of this post. But not really: a sound spiritual practice nourishes our capacity to make a practice out of more and more of our lives. If I’ve been doing a practice for a while, and I can detect how it has enlarged me in good ways, that’s a valuable indicator, a signpost along the way that we often do not learn in schools, or from those who by rights should be conveying to us the keys and secrets to making the most of our decades here in this strange and marvelous world. But I will not fault them: it may well be that they in their turn did not ever learn it themselves. If I’ve caught even a glimpse of that possibility, I’m blessed indeed. A ritual of compassion for the ancestors: share with them this gift, let them sense something of its resonance for me, let it flow backward and forward in time.

If we’re fortunate, we can number among our family or friends or teachers someone who makes a spiritual practice out of daily life. Their company is a gift and a pleasure, because whatever they do, they do with love. Children may experience this around a grandparent or other mentor. What we do in the presence of the loving spiritual practitioner matters far less than the doing of it in that presence. The quality of that presence outflows. It’s like a fragrance or vibration we take with us. Begin with something small that you do often, said my teacher one time. If it’s tying your shoelaces, tie them with love. When you’ve made that a practice, then slowly expand it to other things.

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Towards “a More Perfect Union”: Belief & Practice

It’s good to take out our beliefs from time to time and lay ’em side by side with our practice. Good, because a disconnect between them is like dirt in an engine — friction wears things down. I can deal with it only if I know about it. We see it most readily in our relationships, but somehow look past it in our own psyches. We grow closer to another person, or we drift further apart, and we can often trace the causes and turning points, but we discern it less easily in other dimensions of our existence. At least in my own experience, such “grit in the works” burns energy, grows stress, sparks illness, ignites irritability, and seeds confusion over goals. So it’s good to pay attention and apply remedies.

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Our inner worlds are sometimes less “in our faces”. Photo by Luis Quintero / Pexels.com

I say, for instance, that I want to improve dream recall, and I seem to believe it, yet I ignore my pre-sleep routine. Rather than affirmations, dream review, and care for my late-night reading choices, I read for pure entertainment, falling asleep with glasses on and my finger in a book. Many things lie outside my ability to manage and improve, so why not focus on those I can? Then, paradoxically, the number of things I can manage and improve often enlarges, because I’m not wasting energy on internal conflict.

Back in 2016 I outlined my principal beliefs as I could perceive them then, partly in response to a comment from a reader talking about his sense of the need for a Druid theology:

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

If the tools of Druidry are worth anything, they’re up for the task of helping us grow, both in groups and alone. We find ourselves in a universe of ceaseless growth and change, so it makes sense that both our beliefs and practices should mirror this larger world we inhabit, if they’re to be of any use and value. Daily meditation, time outdoors in nature, ritual observance,  ongoing study, and creative expression make up the lives of many Druids who find value in these practices.

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Where’s my attention? (Mt. Ascutney, VT, looking southwest)

The “more perfect union” of the title (from the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution) doesn’t automatically mean that practice must conform to belief (or belief to practice, either), but simply that we attend to the harmony between them. That harmony means they can balance and inform and influence each other.

So here are those beliefs, with today’s notations, observations, etc. following after, indented.

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

Not only is it a chance, but my life experiences seem to push and prod me toward that awareness of a “something larger”. Most of my suffering, if I’m honest, also seems to issue from resisting that direction of growth. If compassion — literally, “feeling or suffering with” — doesn’t enlarge in me, I pay for it with a sense of futility, waste, depression, impatience, boredom. But how I might become part of the “something vastly larger” is as varied as each of us is. My practice is for discovering the “how” and embodying it.

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

Joy doesn’t get talked about much, but it’s at least as infectious as any virus. We’ve all known and experienced those moments of joy and “outlift”. Again, how I “lift out of the small circle of my personal concerns and into a deeper kinship” is my practice. If my practice isn’t currently helping me achieve that, that’s worth attending to, and changing.

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“Stilling the pool of nwyfre is the task of the art of breathing” — J M Greer, The Druidry Handbook.

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

I’ve written before about both the possibilities and limitations of language, out of personal experience and professional training. The “wordless places” we reach and explore don’t necessarily come to us by worry over names and words. Tearing down a Confederate monument, to use a current example, or renaming an airport to drop an association with a politically incorrect person, may apply a dollop of relief to pain, but it won’t address the underlying cause of that pain, which arose, and still arises, from a refusal to do the inner work required.

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

As inhabitants of multiple worlds, we often neglect the claims they make on us, and also forfeit the advantages they confer if we would only attend to those claims. This world is just one among many. Such statements seem either self-evident to people, or completely obscure. I find there’s almost never much middle ground.

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

“Being at home everywhere” is a kind of vairagya, or not putting all my eggs in a basket that isn’t designed for them. It’s a remarkable and deep practice I’ve been exploring for decades, in various forms, and have only begun to understand.

St. Paul talks about something similar, as far as I can tell, in a challenging passage in Philippians 4:11: “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content”. It’s definitely not indifference, or obliviousness to others’ suffering, but something much more profound. In fact it seems to enable me to help more, not less, when I get myself out of the way of what the other person or situation needs. One small example: rather than imposing what I think my hospice client needs, some of my greatest service lies in listening to him. And sometimes that’s very hard, when I want to “fix things”.

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

The sense we have from time to time of being both natives and foreigners in our own lives reflects our varying capacity to work with this human consciousness, recognizing its limitations and also its great virtues for growth and discovery. And Druidry provides tools for working with it, and also discovering other kinds of consciousness, each with its own particular strengths. Why limit myself to just one?!

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Being a tree for a while — Louisiana Live Oak

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Solstice Season 2020

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My friend B’s sauna stove — fire in midwinter, fire of midsummer.

Light balancing north and south, nights and days in their interchange, sleep and waking and the opportunities during each for connection and discovery. May we hear the earth speaking, may the Ancestors alive in us show us the good paths, may each encounter give us space to practice our hard-earned wisdom.

French Visitors

2020-06-10

A burst of over 50 views from France so far today! Bienvenus, mes amis! Que les benedictions soient! A quick comment on any post is helpful — something you’re looking for, or would like to see more about in the posts here? Please let me know!

Winter and Summer Solstices

That time again … The solstices, winter and summer, are just a little over a week away. Our solstices — let’s claim them, not as something we “possess”, but as intervals and energies that embrace and sustain us. Alban Arthan, Alban Hefin [links to short posts on the OBOD Druidry.org site], the names OBOD uses for Winter and Summer Solstices, are often rendered respectively as the “Light of Arthur” and the “Light of the Shore”.

You can find some of my previous posts on Solstice here, for both Winter and Summer seasons. First, a three-part series from last winter, December 2019: Gifts of Solstice 1 | 2 | 3.

Flaming toward Solstice looks at the lead-up to our Vermont Summer 2019 celebration, and then there’s this  post of mostly images from that celebration. 13 Gift Day Flames for Solstice Solitaries offers practices for either Solstice. Days of Solstice can also apply to both seasons. 19 Ways to Celebrate Summer Solstice is pretty self-explanatory. But while focused on summer, it also suggests practices adaptable to winter.

Ritual of Installation of a New Chosen Chief

Solitaries, ritualists, O.B.O.D.-friendly Druids and anyone interested in ritual surrounding a transition of leadership in Druid Orders may find the recent OBOD installation of Eimear Burke worth time spent with this 25-minute Youtube audio-only recording. Close your eyes as the introduction suggests to increase your attention and you may gain additional insight from that focus.

Welcome, Eimear, and blessings to Philip for his 30+ years of service and leadership.

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Binary Prisons and Spiritual Freedom

From the heart of the awen to you, from the love each being manifests simply through existing in its uniqueness, from the possibility the cosmos is always showering forth to this moment in life.

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One of the distinctive dynamics of our world is that it appears to function as a stable system. It continually seeks equilibrium or balance. How can that be, I hear myself mutter, when the last 200 years look like some of the most violent and tumultuous in human experience? After all, one of the foundational understandings of Druidry and some other spiritual paths is that human and natural worlds both unfold according to the same patterns and principles, because both exist as parts of the same dynamic flow. How I talk to and treat my garden plants and how I interact with my neighbors come to resemble each other. Douse my plants with pesticides against all manner of worms and bugs; gas, cuff, asphyxiate and shoot the vile Others — many make a direct equation between these acts.

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In the words of the Dao De Jing, that old Chinese classic that attempts to make useful observations on how energy flows through both natural and human worlds and institutions, “extremes don’t last long”. Not because they’re “good” or “bad”, but because extremes are inherently unstable and unsustainable. Push for one extreme, and the planet’s tendency towards natural equilibrium will reassert itself. The world will rebalance in the opposite direction, often with just as much vigor as our initial push towards one extreme. Attempt to eliminate all bacteria, and superstrains of the pesky little fellows will emerge, literally to plague us. Oust the Foreign Devils, and then it’s the Communists/Nationalists who polarize the land. Throw off the imperial yoke of the British Empire, and in time those evil Party X or Party Y people will break into our new Eden and foul things up. Round up and imprison-exterminate-exile-convert all those evil Others, and a new Other will take shape. In a demonstrable sense, the (binary) door always slams us in the back on our way in or out.

OUR HUMAN GENIUS is MANIFESTATION

That decidedly does not mean we shouldn’t work for changes we desire. After all, we can each point to successes in manifesting at least some of the things we want — manifesting is what we do each day. It does mean that when we enter a binary dynamic and pursue one side too forcefully and unskillfully, the back-and-forth of rebalancing that results may end up strengthening both sides to roughly the same degree. The result is a feedback loop, a self-reinforcing polarization that builds and builds. But a binary isn’t our only choice, just one among a good range of ’em.

As Exhibit A of an active binary, examine media on both ends of the recent U.S. political spectrum, and you soon see how each pole has come to adopt apocalyptic rhetoric and characterize the victory of the other side, whether in November, or tomorrow, or right now, as “the end of America”. Each chooses a side, dons the appropriate Superman-Batman-Jedi Knight-Righteous Warrior-Crusader costume, and sallies forth to do battle. Eventually, regardless of my current score in the game, I stand convinced of my moral superiority, I keep fighting the good fight, and I exhort others to do the same, or shame them for an uncaring heartlessness almost as bad as siding outright with the Opposition.

Long-time readers of this blog know that over the decades I’ve grown to admire J. M. Greer for his useful and test-able insights. One of his more acute set of observations concerns the kind of polarization we now face. His “Getting Beyond the Narratives: An Open Letter to the Activist Community” is well worth studying. It’s a thoughtful response to a specific book, so you can see previous instances of what we’re facing today, but it’s also a good look at our ongoing tendency to entrap ourselves in binaries of Us vs. Them, Good vs. Evil, Civilians vs. Police — and at productive ways out from such binary prisons. Greer writes at one point:

When activists define their role wholly in terms of resistance and refusal, of “articulat[ing] a NO to the system” rather than pursuing a positive ideal, they guarantee that they’ll perpetually be scrambling to counter some new assault by the system, trying to maintain an inadequate status quo against the threat of further losses, rather than making the system and its defenders scramble to counter efforts to change the status quo for the better.

He reminds us of what Buddhists have called upaya, “skillful means” for moving forward. He looks at binaries, or reifications of a situation, but also at the remarkable energies that can be liberated for our use when we sidestep such polarizations. Such binaries, he notes,

are problematic because they can distract [people] from points of access where their actions can make a difference. Consider George Lakey’s fascinating account of the Otpor movement against Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in his article “Strategizing for a Living Revolution” (pp. 135-160). One of the tactics Otpor members used to halt police violence against them was to take photos of their wounded and make sure the family members, neighbors, and children of the police got to see them. This was a brilliant bit of magic. The individual human beings who made up that reified abstraction, “the police,” were stripped of that identity by a spell of unnaming, and turned back into neighbors, husbands, children, parents: people who were part of civil society, and subject to its standards and social pressures. That couldn’t have been achieved if Otpor had reified and protested “police brutality,” since that act would have strengthened the reification of police as something other than ordinary members of society.

A STRATEGY for BOTH LARGE and SMALL

This potent strategy is one I can apply not only to the kinds of events now convulsing many places in the U.S. but also to other stagnated, reified situations where I’ve labeled myself into a dark place.

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irises already flowering — early this year

A similar strategy of depolarization emerges in an NPR segment (link to recording and transcript) broadcast two days ago on 4 June. The segment’s titled “Police Officers, During Protests, Are Resembling Soldiers In War Zones”. In a short 5:02-minute interview, the NPR reporter speaks with Patrick Skinner, a former CIA officer, now a Savannah, Georgia police officer, who has chosen to live in the same neighborhood he polices. Skinner remarks:

But I think that instead of a war … you change it. You have a neighbor mindset. And it sounds really cheesy. (Laughter) It is cheesy. But it’s effective. And that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for whatever is kind and effective. I believe that instead of calling people civilians, call them your neighbor because they are. I live here. I work here. I don’t say that police should have to live where they work. This is a personal choice I made. But it really drives home the fact that the people I’m dealing with every day — it’s not a metaphor — they are my neighbors. And so I have to treat them as such.

So many current problems look intractable and unmanageable because we’ve imagined them in a particular way, pumped them full of our doubts and fears at least as much as our optimism and hope. We’re getting back what we’ve been putting in. Greer suggests:

Make an effort to experience the world around you as though today’s global corporate system isn’t a triumphant monster, but a brittle, ungainly, jerry-rigged contraption whose managers are vainly scrambling to hold it together against a rising tide of crises. See the issues that engage your activism in that light, not as though you’re desperate, but as though the system is. It’s a very different perspective from that of most activists, and reaching it even in imagination might take some work, but give it your best try.

The point I’d like to make, once you’ve tried on both stories of the future, is that both of them — the story of corporate triumph and the story of corporate failure — explain the past and present equally well. The actions of the IMF and the World Bank in the last decade or so, for example, can be explained as a power grab by a doomsday economy in the driver’s seat, but they can equally well be explained as desperation moves by a faltering elite faced with a world situation that’s more unsteady and ungovernable by the day.

Which of these stories is true? Wrong question. The events that define either story haven’t happened yet, and which story people believe could well determine which way the ending turns out …

Yet of course these aren’t the only two choices. Philosophers of science have agonized over the hard realization that any given set of facts can be explained by an infinite number of hypotheses. Mages, by contrast, revel in the freedom this implies. The freedom to reinterpret the world, to abandon a story of desperation for one of possibility and hope, is basic to the worldview of magic. It’s a freedom that today’s progressive community might find it useful to embrace as well.

Finally, Greer shifts gears to a magical alternative of a very practical and particular kind, one that opens up options to us for concrete action, rather than closing them down to the brute oppositions of a dysfunctional binary like some of the ones we’re in:

Toward the beginning of this letter I mentioned that the structures of consciousness are tools of magic. In the system of magic I practice, those structures are identified with the numbers from 1 to 10, understood not as quantities but as abstract relationships. You can experience anything through any number (though numbers above 10 denote relationships too complex for the human nervous system to handle). Each number has its strengths and its weaknesses. If you’re working deliberately with the structures of consciousness — which is to say, if you’re a mage — you choose the structure/number you use based on the effects you want to get. Most of the time, for reasons too complex to get into here, you choose one, two, or three.

Anything seen through the filter of the number one is called a unary. When you see something as a unary, you highlight qualities in it such as wholeness, indivisibility, and isolation. See it through the number two, as a binary, and you’ll highlight different qualities such as division, conflict, balance, and complementarity. See it through the number three and still different qualities such as change and complexity will be highlighted. All these have practical implications. If you want people to cooperate and build community, get them to think of themselves as part of a unary; if you want them to quarrel and resist change, convince them they’re on one side of a binary; if you want them to make change, make them think of their community and their world as a ternary.

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May our practices, whatever they are, wherever we draw inspiration, help us grow and learn and act wisely and lovingly in the coming weeks and months. May we see and hear the wise teachers already in our lives. May we work for the good of the whole.

Solstice 2020 — and a New Moon

The co-occurrence of astronomical events multiplies their psychological effect. Even if the new moon and the coming solstice (winter in the southern hemisphere, summer in the north) on this June 20-21 weekend offer no more than a psychological effect, they would be worth acknowledging and celebrating. But for many they offer much more.

newmoon

As markers of both sacred and secular time, they locate us in the moment. No thanks, you might be saying. Any moment but this. It can help to think of what our ancestors had to bear, but that’s often easier when our own troubles don’t crowd around us and nip our heels. At such times we may not have the leisure or perspective to be grateful our forebears survived long enough to keep the line going, to pass along whatever wisdom they’d garnered, along with their DNA. The advice to “live always in the present moment, because it is the only one that’s real” sounds wonderful — until the present sucks. Then it’s anywhere and anywhen but here and now. So we time-travel with a vengeance, distracting ourselves through whatever means we can lay hands on. Sometimes it can seem like the best prayer we can offer for others is may your distractions bring you comfort. Wine, weed, wool-gathering, to name just a few.

But pursued with intention and love, moon and sun festivals lift us out of ourselves. We’ve all had the experience of playing sports, or gardening, or some other activity where we’re so intent on what we’re doing we don’t notice the cut or scratch or other injury until some time later, or until we spot the blood or bruise. Only then, with the coming of our attention, do we feel the sting or ache. For an interval, something else was more important and more interesting than pain. Celebrating seasonal and planetary cycles can help us focus where we choose to look, not where our circumstances pluck and tug at us to look. Always? No. Often enough to help us reset and recalibrate? Yes.

Sun and moon, they reconnect us. The jarring frequency of fluorescent lights can bother the eyes, and the hum of them overhead can be an irritant. Sunlight and moonlight don’t feel that way. They energize, unfolding us to ourselves and our surroundings. They bathe us in light, in a vibration billions of years old, native to our atoms.

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Antelope Canyon, New Mexico — a play of light and form. Image: Pexels.com

As archetypes with physical analogues, moon and sun help tune us in to other archetypes, if we choose. We can begin with the physical realm, and let experiences accumulate without jettisoning our critical intelligence, taking us step by step more deeply into wonder and joy. Our ancestors painted animals on the walls of caves, danced the hunt, linked with a clan or tribal spirit, saw in animals a brother and sister that could guide and teach, advise and protect. An animal, they long ago discovered, isn’t “just an animal”. One of the large and wonderful lessons of Druidry, as in many other paths, is a simple and profound one: Things are more than they appear.

You might call it the iceberg principle. What’s immediately visible is a key to what’s underneath. We seem to get this with the people in our lives we know reasonably well. We see through a friend’s odd mood or gruffness or silence or manic laughter into a more underlying movement and wait or prod or listen as we’ve learned to do. Moon and sun reward a similar friendship and patience.

The next full moon arrives in just a few days, and I’m revising and tweaking the draft of my recent full moon ritual, and thinking about dark moon and new moon rituals, too. With the clearer skies much of the world is enjoying with the enforced reduction of traffic and travel, this could be an ideal time to deepen acquaintance with the Two Lights in our skies no one needs to plug in, or pay a utility to operate.

And so the voice of a Druid comes, and says to me, even as I say to you:

I bless you in each of your moons,
your fullnesses and your dark nights.
I bless you in your changing faces,
in the pearl shadows of your twilights.

Because who doesn’t need blessing, and to bless ourselves, and to bless others, and to welcome the blessings of others coming our way!

And we can say to ourselves, and to each other:

In between, when we dance or dream,
we trade places with tree,
beast, or spirit of the grove,
and soon or late we uncover
another doorway that opens
for us to walk the sky.

Some of our truest names are written in sun- and moonlight.

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Druiding without (an) Order — 2

[Part 1 | Part 2]

path28In the previous post, I looked at thirteen facets of Doing Druidry that mostly revolve around inquiry and study. You can’t easily be a Druid without engaging in at least some form of one or more of them, because each of them connects you to the worlds where Druidry happens. (If that sounds restrictive or dogmatic or exclusive to you, just go back and look at the list! Got something to add that makes you a Druid? Tell us a little about your journey as you go for it!) The list doesn’t characterize only beginning Druidry, but serves as a rough outline for the kinds of studies that can occupy Druids their entire lives. However, that’s not the only thing happening in the life of a Druid.

In this second post on Doing Druidry without an Order, I want to look at five less tangible aspects of Druidry (and other traditions) that may have occurred to you as you read the previous post. These five are initiation, spiritual formation, community, proficiency and service. From the first glance it should be clear why they’re harder to talk about and describe in terms that people can identify. But that fact in itself makes it worthwhile to try. As you may come to see, these five aspects are closely linked things, almost versions of the same thing.

Initiation

Like other intensely personal experiences, initiation will always be a live issue for many of us. What it is, who can experience it, who can oversee, facilitate or “give” it, what happens when we undergo it, and what we become as a result,  can all provoke passionate discussion and disagreement. Most spiritual traditions have an equivalent of one or more initiations among their practices, and the most non-religious among us still experience “built-in” initiation in human events like birth, death, sex, grief and creative flow. Change characterizes each of them. You’re not the same afterwards. When and how you discover this, however, can range very widely.

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We could claim that one of the things that distinguishes modern Pagan practice from older traditions is the option of self and group initiation. As a comparison, Christians, for instance, can’t usually baptize themselves; to become a Muslim requires two witnesses to hear you recite the shahadah, and so forth.

Like other groups, OBOD succeeds tolerably well in having it both ways: the coursework for the grades of Bard, Ovate and Druid includes self-initiations that members can perform, and as a member of the Order you can request a group initiation with other members, and these two initiations aren’t “the same thing”. The rituals are different, the outcomes can be different, yet paradoxically they are in important ways “the same”.

You don’t need to do both a self and a  group initiation, but it makes little sense to continue unless you do one of them. (Doing both gives you a feel for their interconnections and value.) They’re part of doing Druidry. If you’re doing Druidry without an Order, you’ll come quite naturally to initiation in your own way. Your life will see to that. You can seek out initiation, of course, adapting published rituals to your purposes, or crafting something unique to your own experience. Or you can wait until an experience shapes itself into an initiation, which you may not recognize until after the fact.

For an earlier 3-part series on initiation, go here.

Spiritual Formation

This largely Christian term has no ready Pagan equivalent, though this aspect of practice certainly exists in all spiritual traditions. Christian spiritual formation means molding or conforming one’s life to Christ. In Pagan terms it means moving beyond, diving deeper, maturing in practice and wisdom. You begin to embody more of what your tradition values and holds up as an ideal, of what your deepest spiritual connection opens up to you, and open you up to. Pagans speak of Elders, those with earned authority and sacred connection, in ways similar to how Christians speak of saints, of holy individuals that spirit shines through.

One of the joys of a practicing group is the heightened chances of encountering and knowing such people, learning from their example and growing through associating with them. Being around them can constitute a form of initiation. As a number of the Wise have remarked, spirituality is “caught” rather than “taught”. We’re all in training.

Community

The most obvious difference between the experience of the Solitary and the Order member might seem to revolve around community. Christians acknowledge the priceless gift of others. In Hebrews 12:1, for instance, the sense of a supporting community, many without bodies, pervades the verse: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”. The interior worship spaces of Orthodox churches often have icons on almost every available surface, emphasizing this spiritual presence of a larger community than only those “with skin on”.

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icons at Varlaam Monastery — image courtesy Andrea Kirkby

Pagans may talk of raising power, while Christians acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit. Isaac Bonewits notes:

If the people in a group have bonds of genuine friendship or love between them, their ability to perform ritual will be greatly enhanced. The psychic and psychological barriers that most people keep between themselves will be fewer and more easily breached. This is why Wiccans place so much emphasis on “perfect love and perfect trust” — love and trust, even when imperfect, tend to strengthen each other and increase a group’s psychological and psychic unity (Rites of Worship: A Neopagan Approach, pg. 105).

Of course, one of the discoveries Druids make is that they are never alone. Solitary, but not alone. A whole world of Others surrounds them, and if that is where community lies for that particular Druid, that is the call to answer.

Proficiency

We can become refined in the presence of others. Lifted out of our own concerns by the group energy, we can begin to “see larger” than when we arrived, and to take something of that enlarged perspective home with us like a fragrance or flavor to our hours and days. Elastic beings that we are, the company of other people “facing the same direction” can stretch us more than we can easily stretch ourselves, making us more flexible, adaptable, compassionate and empathetic. Think of the privilege of finding a good listener, someone who can still their own concerns and focus their attention on you and your world. How many of us know the love another can express in hearing and seeing us, even if they say little or nothing else? Our lives have been witnessed, our struggles acknowledged, we can walk from there a little lighter of heart.

By their fruits you shall know them, says Jesus, and a good test of a group or Order in the simplest of terms is the kind of people they produce. Are they enjoyable to be around? Do they lift you up or drag you down? Are they kind to each other?

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Service

I desire to know in order to serve, runs the vow in more than one magical order of repute.

So I was struck when my teacher remarked one day that he serves in order to know. That’s how I grow and learn, he says. Offer yourself in “the unreserved dedication”, as some Orders call it, without qualification or expectation, and you will benefit. I get so tired of hearing about service, remarked one long-time member. Go apart for a while, counseled our teacher. You’ll be eager to return when you see how it’s a gift of love. You may just need to be on the receiving end for a time, for that to happen.

We may first begin to recognize the value of service when others serve us with love. If you’re like me, you may have a favorite restaurant (pre-virus, if necessary) where the food isn’t the main thing that draws you back. Yes, the meals are good. But it’s the ambience, the atmosphere, the attentiveness and welcome of the staff, the mood of other customers treated hospitably, that shapes your total experience. We go back for the service as much as anything, we say, when people ask.

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In every case, Solitaries find ways to fulfill these aspects. It may demand more flexibility and creativity, or it may take the Solitary in directions others do not understand. Service to the non-human world, for instance, can often pass unseen, unacknowledged for an entire lifetime, known only to the “bird and beast, bug and beech” the Solitary serves.

Druiding without (an) Order

[Updated 28 May 2020]

[Part 1 | Part 2]

“Magical Properties and Benefits”, says the incense packet on my desk, and it then lists several qualities like “confidence” and “purification”, along with instructions to keep lit incense away from draperies, other flammable items, children, animals, etc. At the bottom, in small print, appears this brief notice: “Sold as curio only, no magical effects are guaranteed”.

The magic, as always, lies in our hands.

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“Druidry”, says one book blurb, “puts you back in touch with wild wisdom”. It’s “a spiritual path, a philosophy, a way of life, or all three” says another. “It’s free and open to join”, proclaims a third.

Intrigued, you light your incense, meditate on these varied impressions of Druidry, and decide to visit the website of one of the better-known Druid orders. “You must be 18 years of age”, you read. “Basic membership is a one-time fee of $50”. Additional study has additional one-time fees. Startled, you decide to check out the websites of a few other Orders. The next one says “Register for free”. That’s more like it, you think. Nothing about a minimum age requirement, either. You’re interested in Bardic study, and click on the link. Then you see the words “course fee”, and discover it’s £150, (about $US 185 as of today).

On to the next site. This one lists an even higher price of £195 ($US 241). Free and open to join? you mutter to yourself.

One more site to investigate. Basic membership is $30 per year. OK, mostly doable, but definitely not ‘free’, you say to yourself. That includes the beginning training program required of everyone. But additional studies have additional costs. Interesting. So there’s a real range among orders. It’s worth investigating a little further to see what’s included for each of these outlays of your hard-earned money and time. Sometimes no other materials are required; sometimes you’ll need books not included in the Order course of study. Sometimes significant additional publications come your way for that fee.

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It’s possible, of course, to find materials for extensive Druid study for free, or very inexpensively. You can locate remarkable amounts of material online, many introductory titles can be found at larger libraries, or through interlibrary loan, used bookshops can supply many unique and valuable resources no longer in print elsewhere, and you can join online forums and talk with other Druids and ask for their recommendations and reviews. (Ask three Druids, goes the saying, get ten answers.)

One advantage of a well-designed study program is its structure: much of the work described in the preceding paragraph has been done for you. Knowledgeable teachers have developed a meaningful sequence of materials, broken them up into manageable pieces, identified helpful ways to access additional information, explore outer and inner worlds, and advise you on how to avoid dead-ends and get more for the time and effort you put in.

Study programs of the four established Druid orders I name on Books and Links have been developed by experienced teachers, field-tested, used by many, and continue to be updated and refined. None of them are for-profit ventures. Druidry isn’t a cash cow. Printing and mailing and electricity for website servers and even small offices cost money. Travel to events where we want to see and hear speakers and leaders and musicians also costs money. Advertising, permits, minimal secretarial staff to answer phones, field questions, etc. — all additional costs.

Going it alone is cheaper, and you do get what you pay for, in both good and bad senses.

Leaders of all four groups know of each other, and generally speak well of others’ groups. Some of them have studied in more than one of the groups themselves, and can “speak from within”. Choosing membership will link you to exclusive member forums, alerts you to member-only information and events, and affords you just as much community as you would like. Some people make life-long friends. Some prefer to remain solitary. Among other things, shared rituals unite members of an Order; it’s a distinctive flavour, like the u in the British spelling, or cinnamon and cloves and allspice in a pie. It’s a recognizable style. It’s the stone steps along a well-worn path, walked by people you know. It’s never, however, the “only” way to go.

But if cost, or a distaste for group-think or others’ maps of reality, or an eremitic temperament, or physical isolation or some other reason obtrudes itself, no worries. Your study can begin the moment you notice your breathing and pulse, or look out a window.

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Begin where you are. That’s how all knowledge and civilization began. If you should reinvent the wheel on occasion, well, that can teach you things about wheels nothing else will. Your learning and experience will carry the stamp of firsthand engagement. People whose opinions are worth hearing will recognize the authority of any wisdom you accrue.

Thirteen Paths for Self-Directed Druid Study (in no particular order)

1 — Learn the trees and plants, birds and animals of your region. Seek and encounter them where they live, learn to recognize them in every season, observe them, meditate near them, ask them for insight, and keep studying. This by itself can be a lifelong project. Herbalism and healing, natural cycles and ecosystems, knowledge of subtle and less subtle shifts in habitat and non-human populations as climate change makes itself felt are all very worthwhile, and will only become more valuable in the ensuing decades.

2 — Draw up a reading list with the help of online websites, reviews on Amazon, the many free texts at websites like the extensive Internet Sacred Text Archive, and personal recommendations. Any good librarian can help you identify basic titles to explore almost any topic. Set yourself a study calendar that you can follow, read what interests you, check bibliographies of those same books for other titles on specific topics that interest you, and you’re off. Druids, and Pagans generally, are definitely readers, and independent lifelong learners.

3 — Master a musical instrument — this includes the human voice — and if you feel inclined, compose new music that expresses your experiences. Humans enjoy a truly enormous musical heritage, and more and more music (and training in music) is available online for free, or for a reasonable price per song or composition or class.

4 — Learn another language that will help open up cultural communities and wisdom, practices and traditions that intrigue you. Many study a Celtic language, or you may have an ancestral connection to other cultures and languages, and here again the internet can help smooth your path, and aid you in finding resources, chat rooms, and ways to practice even if you live many miles and kilometers from the nearest speaker.

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5 — Study the magic and traditions of another religion or spiritual path besides Druidry. This can be a valuable source of breadth and perspective when studying and understanding your own tradition, and it allows you an independence of thought not easily acquired in any other way. Insofar as you can do this respectfully, take part in the rituals and celebrations of the other tradition, ask questions, get to know the local community, and volunteer your help if it would be welcome.

6 — Seek out a deity whose stories, focus, symbolism, traditions and ritual speak to you. The deity may have called you, or you may be looking for a patron god or goddess. Or you may simply find it worth knowing more about the deity. Your level of engagement is a matter for you and your inner guidance, not a prescription or any kind of requirement. Nor is belief — encounter outweighs dogma.

7 — Study and practice with a set of symbolic elements. The classical four elements of European tradition, earth, air, fire and water (or five, with Spirit), have much to teach, and pervaded culture, myth, religion and science for over a thousand years, and still reverberate; other elemental symbolic systems have exerted similar influence. The four Orders I mentioned above make substantial use of these, and direct students to still other resources.

8 — Study a system of divination. More than one, if you’re so inclined, for the same reasons more than one of almost anything is worth knowing. What do you discover over time with regular practice? What would you teach another person? What remains largely unteachable? Runes, Tarot, ogham are just the beginning. Feeling constrained? Devise your own system of divination! Test it!

9 — Take up the study and practice of a system of sacred geometry. Though it’s fallen largely out of sight in the West, it remains alive and well in other parts of the world, and profound insights remain for the effort of learning and practicing. To name just one sub-study, architecture, especially of older structures across Europe, has much to teach about earth energies, proportion, symmetry, psychological effect, symbolism, etc.

10 — Study and practice ritual. We all do ritual already. Humans are a ritualizing species — so are many animals and birds. It repays richly to make at least some of our rituals more conscious and intentional, to learn and perform life-giving rites, and to develop new ones at need.

11 — Study and practice poetry, or word-awen. As with music, the field of poetry is vast. In spite of the bad experience many of us have with how “poetry” is taught in schools, the art is vital and alive and lives deep in our hearts in songs, sayings, chants, metaphors, idioms in language, and so on. Poetry slam competitions can be eye-opening for the power of spoken performance, and the best performers in most popular music are creative lyricists.

12 — A study and practice of astronomy and cosmology can open up literal and symbolic worlds. With some ingenuity and willingness to search for materials, inexpensive and partially home-made reflector telescopes are with the reach of many, and can help independent observers make useful and significant contributions to planetary and stellar science.

13 — Meditation, contemplation, dream-study and inner exploration complement the spiritual path anyone may take. The physiological benefits are well-established; the spiritual ones become apparent over time as well.

Things I’ve left off the list may be occurring to you even as you read this. But you get the idea. Druidry itself IS open and free. How you explore and what you choose to do with its many facets will involve you in different kinds of exchanges — time, money, study, effort, searching — for what you receive. Everyone can join and belong to DOYO — Druidry On Your Own.

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Images: Pexels.com

 

Review of J. M. Greer’s The Mysteries of Merlin

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image: Amazon.com. Fair use.

Greer, John Michael. The Mysteries of Merlin: Ceremonial Magic for the Druid Path. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2020.

Let me be clear up front that I’m reviewing this book as an interested reader, obviously not as someone who’s tried out over time the specific rituals Greer presents and can speak from that perspective. After all, the book just appeared in print this month. If you’ve already worked with the materials in his Celtic Golden Dawn, you’re well on your way to intuiting and valuing what he is doing here.

That means I’m reading and responding as sensitively as I can out of my own experiences with comparable ritual and magical practices. The best “review” of such a book, of course, is applying the rituals and techniques in the manner Greer recommends, over time, and only then assessing the results for oneself.

A mystery, as I need to remind myself as much as anybody, is something that simultaneously deepens and opens with steady practice. It emphatically does not mean something that remains obscure or inaccessible despite our best efforts. The Mysteries of Merlin as Greer presents them here are a comprehensive and cohesive set of rituals and techniques that point us toward discovery. Mysteries in the older sense of the word, as Greer points out, are “the traditional name for rituals of initiation linked to seasonal cycles and based on the mythic narratives of Pagan gods and goddesses” (pg. 2). Greer’s Mysteries of Merlin are founded on a variety of sources that he names and discusses. Chief among these are Medieval authors like the 12th-century Geoffrey of Monmouth, author of the The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Brittaniae) and of the stranger Life of Merlin (Vita Merlini).

Vortigern-Dragons

15th-century illustration for an edition of Geoffrey’s History. King Vortigern and the dragons. Lambeth Palace Library MS 6. Wikipedia public domain image.

The book, as Greer sets out in the very first sentence, presents what may seem an unusual marriage of practices: “a system of self-initiation that is based on ancient Celtic Pagan spirituality but uses the tools of modern ceremonial magic. That combination, though it has roots going back many centuries, may startle readers familiar with the attitudes of today’s Pagan and occult communities” (pg. 1) about magic. And Druidry, more than most revivals, has aroused suspicion in some quarters for its “awkward” (Greer’s word) position that straddles both worlds, incorporating elements from a variety of sources, magical and Pagan both. Furthermore, self-initiation, which has come under attack as a modern invention and a contradiction in terms, is something Greer reminds us was a valid and established ancient practice as well.

The proof, as always, lies in practice: quite simply, does it work? This is an experimental question, not one which armchair debate can answer. Work through the three grades of material, for Ovate, Bard and Druid (Greer prefers this older sequence) over the course of three years of seasonal practice with the “Great Eight” holy days of the Pagan year, and anyone can answer that question for themselves.

A book like this also necessarily relies on intelligent and wise reconstruction and improvisation. And that leads me to one of the things I’ve come to appreciate about Greer’s writing: how he contextualizes what he writes, while suggesting directions for further study and exploration. Rather than merely springing a new magical system on readers as if full-grown from the brow of Zeus, he clearly acknowledges its origins, and notes where he has “back-engineered” aspects of his material from documents or from intelligent surmise. This is an honesty rare in many modern books on magic. One of the advantages of working with the Merlin material is that interest in Arthur and the Matter of Britain has led to good translations of many original Medieval sources. Greer directs interested readers in many cases toward specific editions of these, as a way to deepen the engagement with and the effects of the rituals he has provided, as well as to build on them.

In this book, more than his earlier ones, Greer also suggests promising avenues of exploration for ways other sets of rituals could be developed. Much of this perspective arises from his earlier work in The Celtic Golden Dawn, which meshes very well with this one. Greer plainly reminds readers about what they are practicing, and in the process answers the criticisms by some Reconstructionists of Revival Druidry:

It’s probably necessary to state in so many words that the rituals, meditations and other practices that will be presented in the chapters that follow are not the same as the ones that were practiced on Bryn Myrddin in the waning years of Roman Britain. The mysteries of that time are lost forever. Even if somehow it became possible to recover the words and ritual actions that once made up the mysteries of the god Moridunos [explained earlier], for that matter, their meanings have passed beyond recovery. Like all meanings, spiritual and otherwise, they unfold from a context in which language, culture, and history all take part. No one alive today can possibly experience the world in the same way as a Roman Briton of the fifth century CE, and for exactly the same reason — even if the ancient mysteries of Moridunos were available in their original form — no one alive today could possibly experience those mysteries in the same way that a Roman Briton would have done in the fifth century CE.

Times change, and so do the mysteries. The Eleusinian mysteries themselves underwent countless changes, major and minor, over the period of more than a thousand years that they were celebrated. The transformations that apparently turned the mysteries of Merlin Caledonius into the Master Mason degree of modern Freemasonry are, as we’ve seen, far from unusual in the history of initiatory rites. What’s more, just as there were many different mysteries in ancient Greece that centered on the myth of Demeter and Persephone, using different rituals to do so, the mysteries of Merlin set out in this book are only one of many possibilities. In the work of initiation, there is no such thing as “only one right way” (pgs. 45-46).

Some specific details of Greer’s book that deserve brief mention:

+ complete rituals for each of the eight yearly holy days, for each of the grades of Ovate, Bard and Druid — pages 103-175.

+ the suggestion that Christian mysteries could be developed along similar lines (and that such a start has indeed already begun, citing John Plummer’s The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement).

+ the development of “The Rite of the Rays”, an awen mini-ritual, using the shape of the three-rayed awen /|\ for gesture and affirmation as part of the larger ritual for each holy day. On a personal note, this informs and confirms work I’ve been doing with the awen and its symbolism, as participants at Gulf Coast Gathering 2017 and MAGUS 2019 will discern.

+ Arthurian-themed visualizations and readings for inclusion in each of the seasonal rituals and for meditation and path-working. These seem to pair up well, I suggest, with Celtic and Arthurian tarot decks.

+ the use of a symbolic octagram throughout the eight seasonal rituals, and at the Druid level, an entire Octagram Ritual, with a detailed correspondence to a Celtic-themed and -named version of the universal Tree of Life.

+ the recognition that different levels of devotion and commitment to engagement and practice will naturally exist among practitioners, that this is a good and normal phenomenon, and that provision and recommendations for each level can help practitioners find what works best for them.

+ the flexibility of the ritual format provided here for both solitary and group practice. The focus is on solitary practice, but the rituals lend themselves to adaptation for group work if desired.

+ the value of continued working after having passed through all three grades. Practitioners can

decide whether to go on to become one of the epoptai, the initiates who continue to participate in the ceremonies after their initiation and gain the deeper dimensions of initiation that come with that experience. If you do, you will find — as the epoptai of the Eleusinian mysteries found in ancient times, and as members of other initiatory orders have found over and over again since that time — that repeated participation in a set of initiatory rites opens up portal after portal. Still, you and you alone can decide whether this choice is right for you (pg. 151).

+ the Appendix — “Other Mysteries, Other Gods”, which though clocking in at just seven pages, deserves careful meditation. Here again are humility and natural authority combined — something I savor! Greer observes,

The same process of revival and reworking I have applied to the legends of Merlin can, in fact, be applied to any suitable body of myth or legend to create a system of seasonal mysteries suited to regular performance by individuals or groups. Whatever deities or sacred figures you revere, whatever tradition of spirituality and magic you happen to practice, you can craft a set of mystery rituals suited to your own needs. If you’re prepared to put in the necessary work, the following steps will bring you to that goal (pg. 189).

+ the closing two sentences, which appear at the end of the Appendix just mentioned. Though Greer obviously completed the book before the virus launched on its current trajectory, the encouragement and value of his words in bolstering our spiritual effort is all the keener for its applicability in a time of choice, despair, distraction and spiritual need:

As you celebrate the mysteries, whether you choose the mysteries of Merlin set out in this book or a set of ceremonies you create yourself, you are participating in one of the great spiritual transformations of history: the rebirth of Pagan spirituality after more than sixteen centuries of violent suppression and persecution. The hard work and flexibility needed to make the mysteries you celebrate as rich and rewarding as they can be is a fitting contribution to that project (pg. 196).

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As Above, So Below: Really?!

[Edited/updated 2 May 2020]

Ye Gods, what does that say about the Above right now?!

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backyard pond, Monday afternoon

The direction of flow, as I’m still learning, is pretty much from Above to Below. What we experience here is a mix of what we’ve been working on for a while and what’s shaping to come through now. We’re quarantined in our physical bodies in RSM — the Realm of Slow Manifestation — even as we sense realms of faster manifestation — RFMs.

Which is why this realm can be so amazingly frustrating, difficult, resistant at times. It’s sluggish, a world of inertia and equilibrium. It takes at least some effort to manifest (though we’ve all had those glorious moments where spirit dances through us and we’re not a separate thing from what’s taking on form). If you’ve ever edited a Wiki article, we’re in the Sandbox. It’s rough draft, workshop, not-yet-beta-version. It’s penciled in, a sketch. We tap into RFM in imagination, dream, vision, hunch, ritual, prayer, inspiration — then run straight back into the denser world of RSM when we work on bringing the vision into form, in a world of time and space. Creativity, like any ritual, asks me to ground and center.

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old newspaper makes great ready-to-plant seed starters

The natural world generously sweeps me up into the possibilities of manifestation. The marvel is that it does this every year, in every season, regardless of whether I’m paying attention.

In the Northern hemisphere, spring’s taking center stage now. Trees put out new leaves, seed becomes sprout — the squash seedlings I started a few weeks ago from some hoarded three-year-old seed are rising to greet the light. Sometimes you can almost hear the nature spirits hovering over each green thing whispering Grow, grow.

Like you, I come back each morning into this world of manifestation, and depending on how the previous day went, what foods I took into my body, what thoughts I cherished, what memories glowed, what emotions I encouraged to spark through me, I may or may not look much more than a day older.

selfportHere I am late last night, a bit zombified and stretched after a long day and too much coffee. We wake up each morning to resume this project of physical existence, so immersed in it that we forget nearly everything else that’s going on.

But even the surprise of coming back every day diminishes and leaves us after a while. (You can still see something of that astonishment in the faces of babies and young children.)

By our early teens, most of us take such arrivals for granted, a foundation we presume and build on, forgetting how astonishing it is that each new day things are pretty much as we left them. We’re only surprised when they aren’t, not when they are.

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dleaves

old year — maple leaves and pine needles

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dandelions in spite of night-time frosts

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lichens on pine stump

Moving my altar stone, even after asking the rock if wanted to move, is a matter of thirty minutes’ labor, counting breaks.

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stages of manifestation 1 — the rock was too heavy to skid on a sheet of metal roofing

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stages of manifestation 2

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stages of manifestation 3

One advantage of this physical realm of weight, inertia, gravity, resistance, and so on is that things (mostly) stay put. I won’t have to re-imagine and re-visualize the rock in place tomorrow. In all likelihood, it will still be where I lugged it. (A magical postulate: car keys and cell phones are apparently exempt from this cosmic law.)

A disadvantage of this physical realm: because of that same weight, inertia, gravity and resistance, I may rush to conclude that things have to stay as they are, that they can only be as they currently manifest. That’s one reason I’m here (I don’t know about you): I’m still learning all the pieces of the art of manifestation, how to do it with grace and love and passion.

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Aladdin — Parts 2 and 3

[Part 1 | Parts 2 and 3]

This post really combines two sections, Parts 2 and 3 of a series, so it’s longer than usual. But I wrote them as a single document, so for now they’re staying together, because they feel closely linked.

Depending on your interest, you might want to focus on one section and skim the other. The first looks at a specific mini Aladdin-ritual I’ve been exploring, as I draft larger rituals. The second examines the remarkable wider cultural context and background of Aladdin.

ONE

https://i0.wp.com/www.robertphoenix.com/content/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/alchemicalmoon.jpgAll magic is polarity magic, intone some Mages who should know better. On the evidence of her novels The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic, Dion Fortune could easily rank among that magical fraternity. (Popularizations of the idea include Berg and Harris’s 2003 Polarity Magic: The Secret History of Western Religion.) It is true that much magic can manifest through working with polarities of many kinds — it resembles electricity in this regard.

The idea of mystical marriage, of two balancing figures, is an ancient and pervasive one. Christians speak of Christ as groom and the Church as bride. Alchemy is replete with images of kings and queens, marriages and dissolutions symbolizing alchemical and spiritual transformations.

Red King and White Queen: the Rosarium PhilosophorumThe 1550 Rosarium Philosophorum “Rosary of the Philosophers” includes images like the one to the right of the Red King and the White Queen, often used to represent sulfur and mercury, energizing and potential forces or modes. But polarities alone can settle into an equilibrium, or stasis. (We experience this in ourselves;  though expressing both forces at least in potential, we may fear or favor one or the other. In some sense, then, we often short-circuit ourselves on our way to manifestation.) The needed third principle, here represented by the dove of Spirit, energizes the alchemical pair. For this reason among others, Druidry develops the principle of the Triad, sometimes represented in ritual as earth, sea and sky, as a reminder that Three are needed for manifestation. (Polarity, by itself, isn’t enough.)

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One pole of a polarity learning to trust the other.

We can see in Aladdin a marriage of such magical currents. The Princess and Aladdin both catalyze each other. Aladdin’s “chance” meeting with Jasmine in the Agrabah market inspires him to pursue the connection they both experienced there. And Jasmine is able to demonstrate full Sultana authority through her association with this other “diamond in the rough” — she activates his potential, helping him become Prince Ali. As some critics have noted, in many ways the story of Aladdin, especially in the 2019 version, has become Princess Jasmine’s story. For she is the real center and heroine of the drama — a further manifestation and unfolding of the archetype.

Each character mirrors for the other the opportunity to transform and manifest who they already are. Aladdin would never have agreed to seek out the lamp for Jafar had the motivation to impress Jasmine not prodded him to act. And Jasmine would never have claimed her rightful identity without the unmasking of Jafar which Aladdin helps her achieve. Aladdin the skillful liar and “street rat” might never be able to tell the real story of himself without Jasmine. And Jasmine might remain “speechless”, without an equal and partner to help her be heard, to speak with the innate authority and force she already possesses.

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The Princess summoning both the movie character and also her Inner Hakim

Check out the double and related meanings of the Arabic word/name hakim: “physician, wise man”; “ruler”. Jasmine summons these forces after the song “Speechless” which confirms she will be heard.

I’ve been exploring a simple mini-ritual that appears to catalyze this on a subtle level. It involves the hands, those magical implements ready to distribute energy, which feature in all manner of social interactions, theater, and human technology, as well as magic. Think of all the idioms in every human language that involve the hands …

Simply put, using the magical understanding of physical polarity in the human body, I can work with the currents of energy that flow through the hands. The right hand is typically charged opposite to the left, so that a circuit of force exists when we take the hands of a person standing opposite us, my right in the other’s left, my left in the other’s right. We can align this way because we mirror each other, irrespective of biological gender.

The mini-ritual I’m practicing involves that link-up with archetypes from the Aladdin story: manifest a connection with those energies through visualization of such a polarity connection. (Versions of this ritual involving another person assuming the identity of another character archetype from the Aladdin story are something I’m still developing.)

I sit, breathing to center and ground myself. Welcoming the particular figure I wish to work with, I hold out my right hand palm downward, imagining the Other’s left hand in mine, palm up. Likewise, I hold out my left hand palm upward, imagining the Other’s right hand in mine, palm down. Together we form a magical circuit, into which I place my intention, spending equal parts of the ritual listening and visualizing. At the close, I offer the “praying hands” gesture of palm to palm as a salute and closing of the ritual. A further visualization and ritual detail: here I join my polarities into a single gesture, acknowledging how I’ve added to my capacity, however subtly, for manifesting the spiritual wholeness that is my true identity.

This mini-ritual has already proven useful in manifesting changes in behavior I have been seeking, including a break with an old habit that no longer serves me as I age. Having “initialized” the gesture as a magical one with a specific intent, I can now make the gesture whenever I find old thought-forms in my awareness, and tap into the magical transformation associated with the gesture to break down the habits of thought and emotion that accompanied the behavior.

TWO

Even as the magical potential of the Aladdin story took hold of my interest and imagination, some obvious questions came with it. Why look outside the Celtic/Northern European world for magical imagery and practices, when that world is so rich and still not fully explored?

Several reasons. First, the Aladdin story is very widely known in the West — its imagery and symbolism are readily available. Beneath the Eastern setting, the story is one already familiar in the West, because it reflects universal elements found worldwide: the Poor Boy Who Makes Good, rising to the level of his inner qualities, the Quest, the Ruler Constrained by Tradition, the Animal Helpers, the Prince-and-Princess love story, the Evil Sorcerer, the Spirit Guide or Teacher, the Magical Object.

In other words, we’re dealing with archetypes.

Second, one of the strengths of Druidry is how we can adapt it to the land where we’re living. Or more accurately, how the Land teaches us to adapt, if we’re listening. This is one of the signal characteristics of Earth Spirituality. British Druidry isn’t the same as American Druidry, which isn’t identical with Australian or New Zealand practice. Names and places change. The seasons often don’t match up from region to region, the land itself has a different history, with different memories, presences, energies, patterns. No reason to keep a practice that doesn’t fit. Good reasons to adapt practices that do.

Building on the previous point, because Aladdin has Middle Eastern and Asian origins, aren’t these posts also instances of cultural appropriation?

In a 2018 Vox.com interview with Susan Scafidi,  who authored Who Owns Culture?, Scafidi notes “there’s a spectrum of cultural appropriation, from harmful misappropriation to creative and often collaborative inspiration”. The interview offers several excellent examples and links, including controversies surrounding pop stars like Beyonce, Madonna and Bruno Mars that, not surprisingly, were sometimes misinterpreted, misreported, sensationalized and politicized.

Scafidi continues: “Source communities themselves are the best arbiters of what is or is not misappropriation … We would never [be able to] taste others’ traditional dishes, buy unfamiliar ingredients, or create fusion cuisines without this kind of permissive exchange”.

And that brings us to a most curious feature of the Aladdin story: the original 1001 Nights didn’t include the most famous stories associated with it — Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad — until the first translation into a European language in 1704 by Frenchman Antoine Galland. Did Galland invent his own stories to add to the collection? Were his claims to hearing additional stories like Aladdin from the Maronite Christian Hanna Diyab truthful?

You can read historian Arafat Razzaque’s 2017 “Who Wrote Aladdin?”, one study of this fascinating history, here. And more generally, the stories that were mostly gathered into The Arabian Nights, or One Thousand and One Nights, have origins, antecedents and versions in Arabic, Chinese, Pali, Sanskrit, Farsi, etc., as well as a history dotted with forgeries, back-translations, reinterpretations, cultural exchanges between Europe and the Mediterranean, and all manner of intrigue, mysterious informants, lost and recovered manuscripts, and so forth.

Razzaque observes:

It is a shameful legacy of authorship that Galland never once bothered to name Hanna Diyab in his publications. In our haste to dismiss Aladdin as an Orientalist construct, we risk further perpetuating this erasure of someone who has been described as “probably the greatest modern storyteller known by name” (Marzolph 2012).

No doubt, it is important to see “the Arabian Nights as an Orientalist text,” as in Rana Kabbani’s classic critique, and to interrogate the ways in which the 1001 Nights has long been used to uphold absurd stereotypes, not least by Disney. Likewise, as even its Arabic printing history suggests, we must remember how the text’s modern production was often tied up in the power dynamics of European colonialism.

But these necessary critiques should not be at the cost of negating the agency and creative imagination of “Orientals” themselves.

For a racier take, here’s Ha-Aretz‘s click-baity titled but still worthwhile “1001 Lies: Everything You Know About Aladdin Is Wrong“.

If you’re interested in still more, consider the soon-to-be-published book cited at the end of this post. (Its price as listed is well beyond my means, but it should be available through interlibrary loans.)

Akel, Ibrahim, and William Grannara. The Thousand and One Nights: Sources and Transformations in Literature, Art, and Science (Studies on Performing Arts & Literature of the Islamicate World). Brill, 2020.

Publisher’s note: “The Thousand and One Nights does not fall into a scholarly canon or into the category of popular literature. It takes its place within a middle literature that circulated widely in medieval times. The Nights gradually entered world literature through the great novels of the day and through music, cinema and other art forms. Material inspired by the Nights has continued to emerge from many different countries, periods, disciplines and languages, and the scope of the Nights has continued to widen, making the collection a universal work from every point of view. The essays in this volume scrutinize the expanse of sources for this monumental work of Arabic literature and follow the trajectory of the Nights’ texts, the creative, scholarly commentaries, artistic encounters and relations to science. Contributors: Ibrahim Akel, Rasoul Aliakbari, Daniel Behar, Aboubakr Chraèibi, Anne E. Duggan, William Granara, Rafika Hammoudi, Dominique Jullien, Abdelfattah Kilito, Magdalena Kubarek, Michael James Lundell, Ulrich Marzolph, Adam Mestyan, Eyup Ozveren, Marina Paino, Daniela Potenza, Arafat Abdur Razzaque, Ahmed Saidy, Johannes Thomann and Ilaria Vitali”.

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Images: Princess Jasmine from Aladdin; fair use for commentary/derived work; copyright Walt Disney Corporation, 2019.

Aladdin as a Source of Magical Practice — Part 1

[Updated 27 April 2020]
[Part 1 | Parts 2 and 3]

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Princess Jasmine as archetype and spiritual guide

In this post, I’ll be looking at the 2019 version of Aladdin as a source for magical images and practices. [WARNING: Spoilers abound!] On the surface, that may seem a strange and doubtful choice as a source for any kind of magical practice. You may well be asking the same question Jasmine asks in the screen capture above, just a few minutes into the film: Where are we, exactly?

After all, both the 1992 cartoon and the 2019 live-action remake issue from what Wikipedia calls an “American diversified multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate headquartered at the Walt Disney Studios complex in Burbank, California”. On the face of it, you can’t get much less Druidic. Trees, introspection, fire circles and reverence for the Land would all seem to fall away before such a commercial and capitalist onslaught.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you start to discover remarkable things.

A–First Level: Questions and contemplation seeds from the script.

Even if you can’t bring yourself to consider a cartoon and then its subsequent commercial remake (what cynics term one instance in a series of blatant cash-grabs as Disney mines its old hits for reboots) as a source of powerful images and prompts for spiritual practice, it still contains some remarkable lines that deserve repeated attention. Here’s an obvious sampling, making up a symbolic initial set of Nine:

1. How do you find (and polish) – a “diamond in the rough”? (The Cave of Wonders during the opening, and later, and also Jafar’s obsession. Of course, he never applies it to himself. Can I?)
2. Where am I, exactly? (Princess Jasmine, on the walk to Aladdin’s ruined tower after they meet in the Market. How would I answer?)
3. Can you be bought? (Aladdin/Prince Ali’s fumbling suggestion in the Palace scene that he can buy the Princess — or her affection — with the gifts the Genie provides.)
4. Have you lost your country? (Jasmine’s provocative challenge to Aladdin/Prince Ali when Ababwa doesn’t show up on her maps. What is my “native land”? Where am I most “at home”?)
5. Are you who you say you are? (Jafar and Aladdin trade versions of this. Is Aladdin’s attempt to be Prince Ali a deception or an inspired piece of self-invention?)
6. Who/what is worthy of your admiration and sacrifice? (From Jasmine’s speech to Jafar and the assembled Court, and her challenge to Hakim.)
7. Where does your loyalty lie? (Jasmine’s direct challenge to Hakim, as Jafar seizes power. A revealing question!)
8. When did you last let your heart decide? (Aladdin’s famous question to Jasmine in the song “A Whole New World”. Can I answer this?)
9. How could I not recognize you? (Jasmine’s vulnerable — and valuable! — question to Aladdin near the end of their carpet ride, when he convinces her he is indeed “Prince Ali”. Is he? A question also to ask of our experiences: do we recognize them for what they actually are? How can we begin to do so? Being able to ask such questions is in itself a wonderful sign of readiness to grow.)

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Princess Jasmine as a figure of transformation

If I take any one of these for a spin, applying it to myself, I have material for rich reflection and insight. These questions can also form hinge-points in a magical rite, offering ritual challenges for participants, opportunities for ritual responses and actions, and thus cues for writing and shaping ritual that leads outward from where I am right now.

B–Second Level: Companions and Doubles

Each of the three principal human characters has an animal familiar — Jasmine and Rajah, Aladdin and Abu, Jafar and Iago. Jasmine and Aladdin each have a further human counterpart or double: Dalia and the Genie, respectively. Their companions, human and animal, mirror their natures. Rajah channels Jasmine’s regal nature, her unexpected capacity for affection (Rajah stalks Aladdin, but then unexpectedly licks his face), and her fierceness. Abu reflects Aladdin’s own capacity for agility, thievery, initiative and improvisation. And Iago is cynical and sneering, as well as clever and observant. As a creature of Air, he goes up against the Carpet, Aladdin’s magical implement granting him the freedom and mobility of Air. The Carpet is torn, then repaired; Jafar-as-Genie sweeps Iago into confinement in his lamp.

Dalia is a servant to the Princess; Jasmine herself is a servant or captive to inflexible tradition, but also aspires to serve her kingdom as its compassionate leader. The Genie expresses (among many other things) the magical nature of imagination, the power of desire, the importance of openness to wonder and the imagination, and the magical riches available when we begin to explore our own diamond-in-the-roughness. He too is a servant, and like Dalia, in the end he is released from servitude — and made human in the bargain.

C–Third Level: Ritual Assumption, Interaction, Pathworking

(For an “auditory overview” of Pathworking, in case you’re not familiar with it, check out Damh the Bard’s current Druidcast episode 157, and the first interview with Peter Jennings.)

With some time spent in contemplation, divination, imaginative practice and experimentation, it’s possible to derive multiple rituals we can name for the principal characters: Agrabah itself, Aladdin, Jasmine, Genie, Jafar and Sultan. What follows are condensed notes on each one of these.

For elemental balance within rituals, Agrabah as a port city representing and invoking Water (or Earth and Water), the stage and setting for a spiritual drama of transformation; the Genie/Jinni as a spirit of Fire; the Carpet as a vehicle and implement of Air; the Cave of Wonders, the markets, and the desert surrounding Agrabah as Earth.

Aladdin: Invoking the element of Air for inspiration, clarity, lightness and improvisation, I work with seeing these things as external to myself, and needing vehicles like lamp, carpet and Genie to manifest what I lack. Then a ritual transition and manifestation, where I can begin to express these things as aspects of myself, no longer props outside me that I need to acquire.

Jasmine: Invoking any one of the elements — perhaps in a series of Jasmine rites — for the stability of Earth against forces that would minimize, discount and dispossess her; Air for the inspiration and imagination to lead, and the vision that leadership asks; Fire for passion and will — things she reveals most powerfully in the staging of the new song written specifically for the 2019 film, “Speechless” (link to official video featuring Naomi Scott), that has earned over 170 million views since its release less than a year ago. (Still think Aladdin is nothing more than a commercial grab? What need does the song respond to?); Water for the port city and country, and for emotional balance and intuition in handling the new power and love that are coming into her life.

Genie: in early versions of the Aladdin story, there is no limit imposed on the number of wishes the Genie grants: own the lamp and the Genie’s magic is yours for the duration. Likewise, in earlier versions the Genie has no desire to escape limits on his existence and action — he doesn’t yearn to no longer be a Genie, or to become human, or to earn his freedom. He simply does what he is. How can I transform my assumptions and expectations and self-imposed limits on my magical nature? What is my Genie ritual? What would my three wishes be? (Or nine, or some other number?)

Jafar: as another figure representing a stage on the spiritual journey, Jafar is also me. Where can I claim power appropriate to my needs and purposes? Alternatively, Jafar could feature in a “Diamond in the Rough” ritual. How does my animal companion mirror to me what I am doing right now? Where am I imprisoned? What are the lamps that now contain me? What is my Shirabad, the city that made me suffer, and where I long to take my revenge? Is my marriage or linking up with other persons, things or attitudes an opportunity to demonstrate something other than the bonds of love (like Jafar’s almost-marriage to Jasmine would have done)?

Sultan: as a figure of maturity and renunciation, the Sultan is an excellent ritual figure for seeing to the heart, for renouncing power that has passed from me but which I may still be clinging to; for recognizing and honoring the emerging feminine forces in my life; for resistance to manipulation, magical or otherwise.

In the next post in this series, I’ll look at some wider issues that touch on magicking something like Aladdin, including cultural appropriation and Orientalism, casting, character names, and additional pieces of the surprising background of the Aladdin story.

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Images: Princess Jasmine from Aladdin; fair use for commentary/derived work; copyright Walt Disney Corporation, 2019.

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