Archive for the ‘New Year’s resolutions’ Tag

Surfaces and Depths   Leave a comment

[Note: The first section was drafted when the temperatures were 10-20 degrees warmer than the arctic front the northern U.S. is experiencing now.]

Winter offers subtle lessons about surfaces and depths. Test the skim of ice on the pond, and see how thick it is. Will it bear the weight of the roof-shovel I just used to clear last night’s snowfall off the solar panels? It looks so solid already, though daytime temps have risen well above freezing every day for the past several weeks. Has the overnight cold pierced deeply enough that I can step out onto the surface? Not yet, not yet. This weekend, though, with two days of forecast highs of 19 F (-7 C) and lows of -2 F (-19 C) might just do the trick. Then we Vermonters can begin to walk on water, too.

We count on surfaces, when they’re strong enough, to make the depths irrelevant. Easier, quicker, reckless. Wise fools, all of us.

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Got a New Year’s resolution or two? Has willpower helped you keep them in the past?

The tools of magic, observes author, magician and Archdruid emeritus of AODA (Ancient Order of Druids in America) J. M. Greer,

are useful because most of the factors that shape human awareness are not immediately accessible to the conscious mind; they operate at levels below the one where our ordinary thinking, feeling, and willing take place. The mystery schools have long taught that consciousness has a surface and a depth. The surface is accessible to each of us, but the depth is not. To cause lasting changes in consciousness that can have magical effects on one’s own life and that of others, the depth must be reached, and to reach down past the surface, ordinary thinking and willing are not enough (J. M. Greer, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, Weiser Books, 2012, pg. 88).

Many moderns looking for changes opt for therapy instead. It can be a “safer” alternative. One advantage the latter can provide, if we want to call it that, is its generally less abrupt change. Magic can, after all, raise a ruckus. A cursory study of the history of magical orders bears this out — they blow themselves up with impressive regularity, because almost always one or more members haven’t successfully integrated the changes their own practice brings about. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is almost the textbook case, exhibit A. The parties involved in the Order’s implosion “should have known better”, certainly — incidentally proving that knowledge, one of our most popular current gods, isn’t enough. The problem isn’t that magic is powerless, but the opposite: it’s altogether dynamic, beyond the expectations of dabbler and seasoned practitioner alike.

For one thing, that means the charges, oaths, warnings, exhortations and gateways hedging many traditional magical texts, charms, rituals and practices, while sometimes glammed up and all showy and theatrical to make the point even more obvious (as well as sell books and movie tickets), do indeed conceal real teeth and spiritual gravity.


woodpile yesterday afternoon — surfaces and depths, partly visible

Cause and effect aren’t fake news. The physics of this world starts to establish itself quite viscerally in all our psyches around the time we first burn a finger on a stove, fall on ice, or mash a finger with a hammer. We merely lie to ourselves when we think we can “get away” with things less physical, as if analogous laws don’t also come into play. What has a beginning has an end. Apply force and a reaction follows, and so on. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a most painful illustration of just such laws.

It’s a perfectly exact measure of my immaturity whenever I think such rules don’t apply to me.

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My application to conduct a workshop at the 2018 Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S. (MAGUS) was  recently declined. A minor detail, except for the fine irony that my workshop proposal centered on the magical use of symbols to empower ritual — point, line, triangle/awen, square, pentagram and even the MAGUS symbol itself, a unicursal hexagon.


“One of the essential lessons every magician must learn”, Greer notes (with what feels like the edge of a small smile creeping into his words), “is that magic sometimes fails”. Do your best, but this time the yeast just doesn’t rise. Make plans to get together with friends, and a flat tire or dead car battery sidetracks them. We know these things intimately in daily life, yet somehow expect magic always to smooth the way with its effortless power. Side by side with this image, of course, lies the contrasting image of the magician as master of willpower, all clenched muscles and scowls and fiery will burning through obstacles at any cost. Will is on many people’s minds right now, with all those New Year’s resolutions still radiant and full of promise.

Surface will is the kind we invoke to tip the ball into the basket or the net if we’re spectators cheering for our team. We try to “push” with our thoughts. Will-at-depth feels much different. We’ve all “been in the zone”, felt ourselves a part of a larger flow, when whatever we’re doing wholly absorbs our attention, time collapses as hours feel like minutes, and consciousness shifts to what we could aptly call “magic time”. Hold an intention clearly, without conflict, and action lines up to follow it. I don’t so much “will” something to happen as I open a way for energy to flow as effectively as possible, without distraction or second guessing. When actions flow from the center of who we are, they come smoothly, what the Dao De Jing call wu-wei or “no strain”, almost as if there is no barrier — we and the action are simply parts of the same thing in motion.

(“Almost as if there is no barrier” is my consciousness before and after being “in the zone”. It can’t account for what happens, because it’s the rational consciousness, not the magical creative one that actually makes things happen.)

Or as R. J. Stewart clarifies, “magical arts are not employed to ‘get whatever you want’, but to unlock whatever you are not, thus revealing or releasing whatever you may be” (Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 20).

May you find, if you will, surprising and heartening depths beneath your surfaces.

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On Not Straightening a Bent Genius   Leave a comment

Henry David Thoreau wrote in his manifesto, Walden, that he wished to follow “the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment.”  Let’s suspend belief about the “every moment” part for now.  Most of us slack off; we’re not up to full time bent-ness.  But I suspect every genius is “bent” by the time it emerges, after the intense discoveries and trials of childhood and adolescence.  It is, after all, a time when we each face a personal apocalypse which — apart from recent 2012 apocalypse kerfluffle (a profoundly scientific and precise term), itself only the most recent instance of a few millenia’s worth of end-times hysterias* — is at root not a disaster per se, but an unveiling, a revealing.

That’s why the Biblical apocalypsis, a Greek word, gets translated “Revelations.”**  A revelation needn’t be a disaster.  We may seek from many sources for revelation or insight into our lives and situations.  But as far as adolescence goes, whether it’s some profound additional shock, or the more routine experience of our physical bodies running mad with hormones, hair, smells, urges and general mayhem, it can be a real humdinger of a decade.

Among other things, we begin to come to terms with the full measure of shadow and light we each carry around with us, a personal atmosphere with its own storms and sun, its seasons of gloom and glory.  As Hamlet exclaims to Ophelia (Act 3, scene 1):  “I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.”

Quite a catalog of self-condemnation.  But on our “crawl between earth and heaven,” we can choose to do more than indulge in self-loathing.  It’s not a competitive sport, after all.  No prizes for “arrant-ness,” to use Shakespeare’s word.  This being human is a mixed bag, a potluck.  We work out our own answers to the question of what to do crawling between earth and heaven.  It’s an apt description: we truly are suspended at times, halfway to both realms, too rarely at home in either.

And so, rather than New Year’s resolutions, I prefer to look at themes and nudges.  If I take my own advice, courtesy of Yoda, and tell myself “do or do not, there is no try,” then “small moves” becomes the game.  Nudge a little here, prod a little there.  Few life trajectories change overnight.  If yours does, then all bets are off.  You’re probably in full-on apocalypse mode right now — and that’s apocalypse in the 2012 “all-hell-about-to-break-loose” sense.  It’s time to rewrite the manual, reboot, do over.  But the rest of the time, the smallest change can eventually lead to big consequences.  Lower expectations. Make it almost impossible for yourself not to follow through.

Now you’re not trying to change; you’re playing with change — which has a very different feel. If you want to commit to half an hour of exercise a day, for instance, make it five minutes instead.  Psych yourself out or in, your choice.  Small moves.  Make it foolishly easy, like using a credit card.  It’s just a piece of plastic, just a small thing you’re doing.  A game really.  I’ve been surprised how I can make changes, as long as I make them small enough, rather than big enough. Seduce yourself into change so small you can’t resist, like those bite-sized pieces of your current favorite snack addiction.  “Nobody can eat just one.”  And so on.

We think too much of ourselves.  I’ll think less, on alternate days, to see how it feels.  This is real trying — not an attempt that focuses on probable failure, but the testing, the probing, the experimenting, as in “trying the cookie dough,” or “trying a kiss on the first date,” or “trying on a new set of clothes.” There’s self-forgetfulness available in the fascination of the game-like quality life takes on when we cease to take ourselves quite so seriously.  Instead, we may come to revere some other thing than the self.  Because one of her insights is apropos of what I’m getting at, I’ll close here with Barbara Brown Taylor, from her 2009 book An Altar in the World:

According to the classical philosopher Paul Woodruff, reverence is the virtue that keeps people from trying to act like gods.  ‘To forget that you are only human,’ he says, ‘to think you can act like a god — that is the opposite of reverence.’ While most of us live in a culture that reveres money, reveres power, reveres education and religion, Woodruff argues that true reverence cannot be for anything that human beings can make or manage by ourselves.

By definition, he says, reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self–something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding. God certainly meets those criteria, but so do birth, death, sex, nature, justice, and wisdom.  A Native American elder I know says that he begins teaching people reverence by steering them over to the nearest tree.

‘Do you know that you didn’t make this tree?’ he asks them.  If they say yes, then he knows that they are on their way (20).

So maybe I’ve seduced you into trying or tasting your life and its possibilities instead of getting hung over changing it.  May you find yourself on your way, may you celebrate what you discover there, may you delight in reverence.***

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*See John Michael Greer’s Apocalypse Not (Viva Editions, 2011) for an amusing take on our enduring fetish for cataclysm and disaster.  You’d think that after Katrina, the Gulf oil spill, the Japanese tsunami and nuclear disaster, hurricane Sandy, and the yearly shootings we endure, we’d be fed up with real actually-documentable apocalypses.  But no …

**The name of the Greek sea-nymph Kalypso means “Concealer.”  Undo or take off the concealment and you have apo-kalypse, unconcealing: revelation.

***Once my attention is off myself, I find that change often happens with less wear and tear.  Reverence can seduce us into other ways of being that don’t involve the stressors we were “trying to change.”  We may not even notice until later.  I get so busy watching the moon rise I forget what I was angry about.  Anger fades.  Moon takes it.  Reverence, o gift of gods I may not know or worship, I thank you nonetheless …

Updated 2 Jan 13

Resolutions — New Year’s and Others   Leave a comment

It’s no accident that this time of year turns us toward thoughts of resolutions.  After the family gatherings and excess of the holidays — and let’s be honest, some excess and abandon can be fun, or would be, if our Puritan strain didn’t kick in, and kick us — we can feel slack and listless.  We’ve crested the peak of seemingly endless sugar and fat in our holiday diet — unless New Year’s Eve is the bigger holiday for you, in which case you’re just getting in training.  In the shadow of the sugar low, just combine these things with cloudy days, at least here in the northeast U.S., and you face a perfect storm of sloth and dejection and mild to severe loathing.  At some point our usually inevitable American self-improvement gene then steps forward, and it’s off to fix ourselves.

Whenever we push happiness or improvement into the future, we can be in trouble.  If it’s in the form of satisfaction with ourselves, twice the trouble.  How many times have we started and quit some scheme of fix-up?  Lose weight, get in shape, hold your temper with the left- or right-wing relative who always gets under your skin, forgive your neighbor, keep a diary, save more money each month, clean the basement or garage — paper for all the lists of vows and resolutions could keep Staples in business all by itself.  And if you truly enjoy flogging yourself, you key in your list to your favorite electronic device, so you can torture yourself with it several times a day.

You should know I tend not to make many resolutions.  Partly, my personal standards are lower, I’ll admit — and that makes things easier.  I confess to a startling capacity for indolence.  Both my wife and I have had years where we’re either flat out — busy, or flat out — in sloth.  Partly as a result of that, I’m a pragmatist.  No use flailing and contorting to begin something I won’t finish.  Shorten the list, I tell myself.  Throw it out altogether.  Delete the to-do’s accumulating on your virtual or actual desktop.  Be realistic.  You’ll be happier not making yourself miserable with what you fail to accomplish.  Or just keep it off the list in the first place.  Guilt may be a Catholic specialty, but most Americans, regardless of religious ancestry or affiliation, have managed to add it to their personal repertoire of masochism and psychological waterboarding.  Thus do I lower expectations.  And I’m only exaggerating slightly.  Low expectations let me rejoice in walking down a hallway and back — once — after my cancer surgery. Then twice.  And so on.  In three months I was jogging three miles a day.  Which was not my intention, and would have seemed daunting at the outset.  I just increased my distance a little each day.  The gifts of fresh air and daily sunrise were more than half of my success.

Which brings me to magic.

Not a transition you saw coming, I imagine.  Enough for at least a couple of readers to stop in disgust.  We’ll ignore the fact that what gets called “magical thinking” is exactly what propels many of our resolutions to change.  Such thinking is indeed unrealistic, because — to use the physical metaphor — we try to do the equivalent of the Boston Marathon without first taking up merely a short daily walk.  Too often we simply crash and burn.

So let’s define magic as most actual practitioners do:  the art of creating changes in consciousness in conformity with the will.

This isn’t the “will” of willpower, as if we could compel the universe to do anything it isn’t already inclined to do.  That kind of will is the popular image of the witch or magician, however, muttering arcane mantras and spells, and perhaps waving a wand.  It’s Harry Potter magic, which is why many practicing magicians found the Evangelical Christian hysteria (here’s a more balanced overview) over the book series and its supposed promotion of “Satanism” and “witchcraft” to be hysterical, as in funny.  See how far you get waving a wand and shouting “Expelliarmus” or “Avada Kedavra.”  (“Expecto Patronum”* might get you incrementally closer to achieving something, if only because it may lead you to focus on a positive.)

Actual — as opposed to Hollywood or popular — magic is a matter of discerning the patterns and tendencies of the natural world and its powers and forces, and then aligning oneself with them.  Quite simply, any other approach is highly unlikely to succeed.  As Druid and occult author J. M. Greer observes, if it “ignores the momentum and flow of natural patterns, it’s clumsy and wasteful of energy.  It’s much like trying to cross a lake on a rowboat without paying attention to the winds and the currents.  If you ignore these, you can put plenty of effort into rowing and make very little headway, or even end up further away from your goal than you started” (The Druid Magic Handbook, 18).  Blindly asserting the will is rowing while oblivious to movements and energies of the larger world.  Far from being supernatural, magic is thus deeply involved with the natural world.

The will involved in magic is much better identified as intentionality, and it’s intentionality that helps our New Year’s resolutions actually succeed.  Greer continues:  “Real will is effortless.  It corresponds, not to struggle and strain, but to what philosophers call ‘intentionality,’ the orientation of the mind that locates meaning in objects of experience” (20).  He gives the example of choosing to look at a window, or through a window at something on the other side.  The well-known image of faces or a vase offers a similar instance.  It’s by intention that we shift our perception.  Strain has nothing to do with it.  You perceive the two dark faces in profile looking at each other, or you perceive a white vase on a black background.   It’s hard to see both simultaneously.  But intentionality lets you shift between them.  It’s a choice.

One technique, therefore, for training the will or the intentionality, is to do something simple and comparatively effortless.  Set yourself a ridiculously easy task, follow through on it, and record your results.  The purpose of this training is to reveal and separate all our defeatist and negative self-sabotaging attitudes from an actual act of intentionality.  For instance, five times during the day, stand up, turn three times in a circle and sit back down again.  Record the date and time on each instance that you do this.

Now presumably nothing interfered with your success, except perhaps a mild feeling of embarrassment.  But you set up an intention, and manifested it without strain.  You simply did it.  Yoda’s words are apropos here:  “Do, or do not.  There is no try.”  The “trying” is the strain, the effort of will to do something you actually don’t want to do.  Intentionality bypasses that.  You simply do it because you decided to.  This is a form of preliminary magical training:  doing small, effortless, things you know you can achieve without strain, in order to gain confidence in intention.

Because intentionality is a choice, not a struggle, many aspects of our lives can come under its influence.  Greer continues,

If you face a challenge with confidence, for example, you chances of success are much better than if you face the same challenge full of doubts and worries.  Intentionality is the reason why.  What the confident person sees as potential opportunities, the worried person sees as potential obstacles, and they are both right, because whether something is an opportunity or an obstacle usually depends on how you choose to approach it (Greer, 21)

— that is, on your intentionality.

We use a form of magic whenever we make a resolution — in this sense, we’re all magicians at work.

The difference between intentionality and ordinary ideas of willpower explains many of the failures that bedevil beginners.  When you try to use magic to will the world into obedience [in the case of a resolution, you will yourself to change your own behaviors and habits — ADW],  you set up an intentionality of conflict between yourself and the world … The harder you try to make the world obey, the more it fights back, because all your efforts reinforce the intentionality and amplify the conflict.  Change your intentionality to one of moving in harmony with the world, and the conflict disappears (Greer, 21).

This is not unfamiliar territory to Christians, either, or shouldn’t be.  Jesus says, “Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him.”  “Turn the other cheek,” and so on.  In other words, don’t make additional and entirely unnecessary trouble for yourself.  Don’t stand in your own way.

Because we often practice “black magic” on ourselves, sabotaging and short-circuiting our own best intentions with negative thinking and self-limiting behavior, and setting up conflicting, opposing intentionalities, we waste time and energy “rowing against the current.”  Many beginning magicians

try to use magic to achieve financial prosperity, and it’s common for their efforts to backfire and leave them poorer than they started.  Why?  In many cases, their magic focuses on wanting what they don’t have.  This sets up an intentionality of wanting and not having, and so they end up wanting money and not having it.  As with so many things in life, the more energy they put into chasing something, the faster it runs away (Greer, 22).

Because Greer has such insightful and useful things to say about intentionality — and thus resolutions — I want to let him have (almost) the final word:

If you want to use magic to become prosperous, your intentionality has to focus on being prosperous, not on wanting to be prosperous.  One effective approach starts with noticing the prosperity already in your life — if you have a roof over your head, three meals a day, and the leisure to read this book, after all, you have more prosperity than half the people on this planet — and letting the change in focus from wanting to having gently redefine your intentionality toward wealth.  Another useful strategy focuses on seeing opportunities for abundance around you.  This redefines your surroundings as a source of opportunity, and as [our life energy] follows intentionality, and shapes experience, opportunities appear (Greer, 22).

So to sum up, practice intentionality with actions that don’t haul negative habits of thinking along with them.  Focus on having and being, rather than on wanting and lacking.  Experiment.  Use the power of choice to shift consciousness — to see the vase, the faces, or whatever your intentionality is.  Repeat as needed.

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Images: resolutions and faces/vase

Postscript: when I was searching for the first image, a list of resolutions, I came across pictures of computer screens, too — another meaning of resolution — the pixel resolution or clarity of image that a screen possesses.  Likewise, my clarity in visualizing the goal — of having or being what I desire — is key to “keeping” my resolutions.  Imagining what it is like being and having what I desire is halfway to my manifesting it.  I already know something of what it feels like to succeed. (I’m using this strategy as I revise my nanowrimo draft.)

*”Expecto patronum” — (Latin, literally, “I await a patron/protector”) summons a familiar or symbolic representation of the self to protect one against negative energies, such as Dementors in the HP series.  Harry’s patronus is a stag, as was his father’s.  Of the three spells I cite above, this one is good defensive magic and actually works well against nightmares. The following is part of the entry from the Harry Potter wiki on the Patronum spell:

A Patronus is a kind of positive force, and for the wizard who can conjure one, it works something like a shield, with the Dementor feeding on it, rather than him. In order for it to work, you need to think of a memory. Not just any memory, a very happy memory, a very powerful memory… Allow it to fill you up… lose yourself in it… then speak the incantation “Expecto Patronum”.

Remus Lupin teaching Harry Potter the Patronus Charm

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