Archive for the ‘R J Stewart’ Tag

Expanding — and Focusing — Our Magic   Leave a comment

[Part One | Part Two]

In a recent comment, Steve writes:

A broader definition of magic sounds interesting, especially when compared with some of the ideas about it I have encountered over the years.

Do you have a working definition you could share or is this something you have developed in your blog?

I do have a working definition of magic, and I’ve also written about it in various forms fairly frequently, though not always under that label. But it’s good to regularly take out opinions and understandings, dust them off, rattle them, note what shakes free, scrape off the rust, and buff and polish the rest. So with the spur that Steve’s comment provides, that’s what I’ll do in this post.

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Yevgeny Zamyatin / Wikipedia / public domain

Our definitions come, mostly, after experiences. Before that, we don’t have much to attach them to, and if anyone who’s reading this is anything like me, your definitions at that point may not match things that you later DO experience. So then we get mired in the mismatch, rather than referring back to the original experience. Or — even better than looking backward — experiencing more, other, wilder. So I open up once again a page where I can re-read irascible old revolutionary Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), whose essay “On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters” reminds me: “Dealing with answered questions is the privilege of brains constructed like a cow’s stomach, which, as we know, is built to digest cud”.

“Privilege”? Tired of a too-steady diet of cud, I aim to forage more widely.

So I’ll begin by asserting we all practice magic, and work outward from there, using this as a core assumption and seeing how it holds up. We do much of our magic half-consciously, so that we often don’t perceive the patterns, causes and effects of what we set in motion as clearly as we might. After all, like most of us, I insist on who I am: in my case, straight, white, male, employed, married, healthy, intelligent, rational. But when even one of these breaks down, as every one of them has for at least some of us over a lifetime, my world trembles violently, even if it doesn’t collapse outright, and I scurry and latch on to explanations for what’s going on.

Isn’t such an interval about the least likely time for any of us to notice the patterns, causes and effects of what we’ve set in motion? And even if and when we do, we tend to account for them only with naturalistic explanations (Pagans may add supernatural but not necessarily more accurate ones), including blaming other people, fatigue, stress, illness, the government, conspiracies, the Man, our reptilian overlords, a loveless marriage, plain bad luck, and so on, forgetting how much even of our conscious experience at the very moment of our explaining has been programmed by education, habit, expectation, culture, practice, a “reasonable explanation”, and a simple, overriding human desire not … to … be … weird.

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But … magic?!

At the heart of this often-inaccurate accounting is a precept that disturbs and offends Westerners in particular, taught as we are that we are free and independent beings, with wills and choices subject to our conscious attention. We are not so free after all, but if we can’t even examine this assertion in the first place, what are we to do? If we all practice magic, as I claim, we all need to, because as musician and mage R. J. Stewart observes:

With each phase of culture in history, the locks upon our consciousness have changed their form or expression, but in essence remain the same. Certain locks are contrived from willed patterns of suppression, control, propaganda, sexual stereotyping, religious dogma; these combine with and reinforce the old familiar locks restraining individual awareness; laziness, greed, self-interest, and, most pernicious of all, willful ignorance. This last negative quality is the most difficult of all to transform into a positive; if we truly will ourselves to be ignorant, and most of us do in ways ranging from the most trivial to the most appallingly irresponsible and culpable, then the transformation comes only through bitter experience. It may seem to be hardship imposed from without, almost at random, but magical tradition suggests that it flows from our own deepest levels of energy, which, denied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness, find an outlet through exterior cause and effect (Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 20-21).

“[D]enied valid expression by the locks upon our consciousness”: we might think such a “locked-up” person simply needs re-education, or better training, maybe positive reinforcement, a decent opportunity. (I note here that it’s almost always some other person who’s the problem, or needs the help — never me. After all, I’m awake and in charge of my life.) This is also where we get much of the American program of self-improvement, “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps”, as it used to be called. Those who can afford it try therapy, or weekend retreats and workshops. Those who can’t may rely on pharmaceuticals or liquor or increasingly available weed. As the evidence mounts, as the growing dysfunction, suffering, addiction, unhappiness and all-around misery attest, something’s not working.

So why magic, of all things? Surely any number of other options would be preferable to something so half-baked, superstitious, irrational, etc., etc. — the list of slanders, some of them justified by pernicious snake-oil salesmen, is long.

J. M. Greer, ecologist, blogger, conservationist and mage, puts it this way:

[t]he tools of magic 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).

To put it another way, in what is not a particularly poetic magical Druid triad: Magic stems from an experiential fact, an experimental goal, and an endlessly adaptable technique.

The fact is that each day we all experience many differing states of consciousness, moving from deep sleep to REM sleep to dream to waking, to daydream, to focused awareness and back again.  We make these transitions naturally and usually effortlessly. They serve different purposes, and what we cannot do in one state, we can often do easily in another.  The flying dream is not the focus on making a hole in one, nor is it the light trance of daydream, nor the careful math calculation. What we do mechanically and often without awareness, we can learn to do consciously.

The goal of magic is transformation – to enter focused states of awareness at will and through them to achieve insight and change. Often, for me anyway, this is nothing more mysterious than moving out of a negative, depressed or angry headspace at will into a more free, imaginative one, where I can problem-solve much more effectively, and also be much more pleasant to be around. Or so my wife tells me.

“The major premise of magic,” says R. J. Stewart, “is that there are many worlds, and that the transformations which occur within the magician enable him or her to gain access to these worlds” (R. J. Stewart, Living Magical Arts, pg. 7).

The technique — a cluster, really, of practices and techniques — is the training and work of the imagination.  This work typically involves the use of one or more of the following: ritual, meditation, chant, visualization, concentration, props, images and group dynamics to catalyze transformations in awareness. “… [O]ur imagination is our powerhouse …” says Stewart. “… certain images tap into the deeper levels of imaginative force within us; when these are combined with archetypal patterns they may have a permanent transformative effect”.

Ouroboros-benzene.svgEven mundanely, golfers visualize a hole in one, carpenters see the finished design long before it emerges from the blueprint, chemists rely as much on inspiration as any artist for discoveries like that of August Kekule, who dreamt of the structure of the benzene ring via the archetypical image of a snake swallowing its tail.

Furnish the imagination with the food it needs, and it can be a powerful tool and guide. Abandon it to others who do not know us, nor have our best interests at heart, and we cast away our birthright.

PART TWO — Applications — coming soon.

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Strawberry Moon   2 comments

The June full moon, often aptly named the Strawberry Moon, actually reaches its fullest tomorrow (Friday) morning, but most North Americans will see it at its peak tonight.

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wild strawberries, north yard — perfect reason not to mow

 

Tonight I’ll offer my full moon ritual for the health of the hemlocks that line the north border of our property, as well as other beings, “quando la luna è crescente” — while the moon’s still waxing. As the full moon nearest the summer solstice less than two weeks away, Strawberry Moon plays counterpoint to the shortest night and longest day of the year, and governs the first of the true summer months here in New England. I’ll be posting a follow-up in the next weeks.

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“queen” hemlock, 50 ft. tall, visible from where I write

As Dana has so passionately documented on her Druid Garden site, including a powerful ogham/galdr healing ritual, the eastern hemlock battles against the hemlock woolly adelgid, widespread enough that it’s gained its own acronym — HWA. The adelgid, an aphid-like insect, is just one of several pests that afflict the trees, but one not native to North America and a factor in near-complete mortality in infested areas. As a commenter on Dana’s blog notes, natural biological agents offer the best and least toxic means of control and containment. The United States Dept of Agriculture site summarizes the situation well.

And if you ask why, Our true self and the land are one, says R. J. Stewart. As always, test and try it out for yourself. That ways lies deep conviction, replacing casual opinion with earth loved, spirit manifest, life full.

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Regenerating the Old Ways   Leave a comment

boe-coverYears ago “in my other life”, while I was studying Old English, I found myself returning repeatedly to a dialog about 40 pages into our class text.

We were learning from Bright’s Old English Grammar and Reader, one of those standard hardcover textbooks you really can’t afford to buy new without a trust fund, the kind of book that generations of students dutifully underlined and annotated and highlighted and struggled through in one or another of its many editions and revisions. (My used copy has at least two previous owners, and the annotations and exclamation points to show for it.) Open to the copyright page and you see the first edition appeared in 1891, 125 years ago. The book itself is now part of a tradition.

Much of the text consists of tables of declensions and conjugations to memorize, alternating with Old English readings, both heavily footnoted. Fortunately, our teacher knew from experience that as long as you sought only to read, you could dispense with a good deal of that memorization. Learn a few core patterns and a high percentage of the time you could understand the grammar of the rest of what you read, recognizing a great deal by analogy and context.

But what about speaking? For “dead” languages — and what language is really dead if we still study it? — conversational examples are generally pretty thin on the ground. Language learning techniques have improved over the decades, especially for living languages. But many of those same strategies work just as well for tongues whose last speakers lived with horsecarts and cobblestones, hearthfires, oil lamps and emperors. So while you won’t necessarily be chatting right away (at least until you devise the needed vocabulary) about rap and drones and global warming, you can still access the living spirit of a language through conversation. So what amounted to a conversational fragment, really, still set my imagination turning.

Here’s that dialog in my translation, somewhat condensed. The tone of the original is just as heavy-handed and more than a little pedantic.

Teacher: Today we’re going to speak the language of the West Saxons. Are you ready? Tell me, students, what is that language?

Female Student: It’s the speech of our ancestors.

Teacher: That’s right. Our ancestors spoke it a thousand years ago.

Male Student: A thousand years ago? Those ancestors have been dead a thousand years? [Did he just wake up in class, halfway through the term?!]

Teacher: That’s right. Their bodies are dead.

Male Student: They don’t speak any longer. So then their language is just as dead as they are. What need is there for us to learn it?

You have to admit that this literal and clueless male student (in Old English, leorningcniht — in bad translation, “learning knight”) has a point. And if you’re thinking that Druidry, like any other human creation that once flourished and underwent a sea change over time, once faced a similar challenge, you’re not wrong. (History repeats itself to get our attention.)

If you’re wakeful enough this time of year, in spite of the tendency to drowsy half-hibernation that besets many of us in northern climes (or southern ones six months out from now), you may also be thinking that the problem is circular. I mean: As long as we see and treat something as dead, it has no life. We can always find someone or more than one asking plaintively, “What need is there for X?” But perceive it and use it as a living thing, and it revives in the doing. Our attention brings to it a very real and living fire.

That Old English dialog concludes in the next chapter:

Teacher: Well, young man, tell me now: everything that’s new, is it all good?

Male Student: No, sir. It’s not.

Teacher: And it’s also the same: not everything which is old is bad.

Male Student: Still, we can’t hear our ancestors.

Teacher: Miss, what do you say about this?

Female Student: I say that though we can’t hear their voices, nevertheless we can read their words.

Teacher: (Summarizes the deeds of the West Saxons). Now we are their heirs. If we don’t want to be foolish, let’s learn the speech of the West Saxons.

Now we are their heirs.

The ancient Hebrew people in exile in Babylon faced a similar problem: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” When the landmarks of your practice, whether cultural, geographical, psychic or some combination of all of these, are no longer present to support and sustain you along your path, the disorientation can be profound. What can you do?

“Still, we can’t hear our ancestors.” But it’s a choice to insist on being so literal.

sakuramcOne of the weaknesses of modern practice, observes R J Stewart in his magisterial Living Magical Arts,

“is the literary emphasis on superficial technique; the right words, the correct authority, the proper way to extinguish a candle; such details are given quite spurious weight without recourse to the traditions in which they may have originated. Much of this nonsense is cut through cleanly by a simple magical law: seek to understand the tradition, and the techniques will regenerate within your imagination” (pg. 69).

In the case of a living tradition, the solution is self-evident: study the tradition. But what about traditions that have no living point of contact?

I take comfort from Stewart here: seek to understand the tradition. The effort itself can help lead us to sacred sites and other contact points, links, resources, people, spirits (and in the case of “dead” languages, texts and practices and those first faltering attempts to spell out our life in a new tongue).

Our attention is a living and revivifying fire. “The techniques will regenerate within your imagination.”

A gift of Yule. (And since I’ve been doing Old English: Glæd Ġeol! Glad Yule!)

The next post will examine how well this works in practice — for me, anyway — the only person I can understand from the vantage point of inside knowledge.

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IMAGES: Bright’s grammar; magic circle.

Evil, Goals, Stacking Wood   Leave a comment

California-NestleBut what of activism? readers may rightly ask, especially after my last post.

One of the most evil perspectives — I use the word evil intentionally; a great peril of our times is that the force of the word has weakened to something almost laughable, even as the thing it names continues to spread, infect and damage our world in forms both subtle and painfully blatant, a truly demonic state of affairs — one of the most evil perspectives we cherish is that ecological awareness is somehow a luxury, or a liberal fantasy, just one option among other better and more profitable choices, or an idea whose time is past because it hasn’t produced “results.”

R. J. Stewart succinctly sums up the matter: our true selves and the land are one.

nestleceoCause and effect really do still operate, however inconvenient we find them. But merely fighting polarized symptoms lines up more adversaries for us to attack, without ending the war.

For corporate greed like Nestle’s is just a symptom our modern world makes possible — other eras had and will have their own symptoms.

Yes, we can spend ourselves in noble battle, whatever our position, and if we push far enough, we can “prove” ourselves “right” — and bleed out in the process, kissing this incarnation goodbye. The particular forms that evil takes in this era conform to the lessons we need to learn at this stage of our consciousness.

In a sense, we create the lessons through our weaknesses and imbalances. How painful that continues to be for me to learn! So I want to uncover how to reduce such weakness, rather than spend a life lining up future adversaries that I create out of my ignorance and resistance to a set of lessons I refuse to learn. If indeed the world is a spiritual vessel that cannot be “improved” then what can be “done” with it? Do we even know yet? And how far are we willing to go to find out?

These questions seem to me far more vital than almost any others I’ve encountered. And I know that stance is luxury itself. I’ll admit right here: if I’m the one of those dying of thirst stemming from drought mixed with corporate greed, you who fight to put water back in my hands are my friends in ways a self-named Druid blogger sitting in hydrated Western comfort simply cannot be. So I readily accuse myself on that front, should you turn the focus that way.

But beyond mere easy outrage and less easy symptom-combat and triage, what can I learn and grow from and share? That seems more and more my dharma, the task I find keeps landing on my doorstep unsought.

I want to stare down the hardest questions, because I learn the most from them. But by this I don’t mean to set up tents and squat there in some new “Occupy Existence” movement. The existential is a starting point, not a garden to grow food in. I look at hard questions out of selfishness: I want the biggest bang for my buck out of this lifetime. No guarantees I get more than one (though available signs are promising). As John Beckett notes in a recent blogpost, who among us will lie on our deathbeds and lament most of all that we didn’t sign up for extended cable?!

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Yesterday the second of three cords of firewood arrived. To get from this …

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even to this modest beginning

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always seems a daunting task. But each year, piece by piece, we eventually get it done. Daily, daily, daily, a practice builds. When I find the right pace, the task itself becomes a kind of pleasure. if I listen, the task itself teaches me. I alternate which arm carries a bundle, and which arm steadies it. I feel each side getting a good workout. I stop when sunburn threatens or aching muscles bring me to the point of diminishing returns. The fatigue of needful effort feels good.

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Images: Nestle water; Nestle chair.

Revisiting Old Magic(ian)s   Leave a comment

rjstewartIn this post I enthuse about an early and continuing inspiration in my practice, and inevitably drag in other more idiosyncratic but hopefully still relevant associations along the way.  So first, the “old magician” of the title.  Scottish-born R. J. Stewart (b. 1949), a composer and author, is among the handful of contemporary practicing magicians whose work has done much to clear away accumulated Medieval and Victorian superstition and obscurity from magic.  Why, for instance, should I intone or vibrate a particular name during a ritual, unless I know what it is and what it’s meant to accomplish?

Inspired by Celtic tradition and the teachings of his mentor Ronald Heaver (1900-1980), Stewart has developed practices designed to heal both magician and environment, among other reasons Druids may be interested in him.  (His website deserves a visit if you want to learn more about him and his magic.)  Along the way, with his Inner Convocations and Inner Traditions practices, he’s also helped to articulate a comprehensible theory of how magic works and can be effectively practiced, reflected in workshops, audio projects, and books like Living Magical Arts (hereafter LMA).  That book was my first deep introduction to magic more than two decades ago, and I sit with my dog-eared copy in front of me now.

I value LMA in part because in it Stewart states basic truths succinctly and clearly — truths I find I need to come back to again and again. His work derives from personal experience.  That means that unlike too many texts on “magic,” it is no pastiche of the work of others, or a mere catalog of magical correspondences that do little by themselves to advance actual magical practice.  On the page, correspondences may look  nice (or scary, depending on your own personal fear factor) and decorative for the armchair magician — and who isn’t one of those, with all the books on magic you could read and leave lying around to impress or intimidate guests?!  But anyone half-way into a serious first-year study of magic can (re)create from experience their own list of equally effective correspondences.  That doesn’t render them somehow invalid or useless, but shows that they’re dependent variables rather than constants.  I wanted the constants, “unrealist” that I can sometimes be.

The fact that magical traditions worldwide share much common ground in things like tables of correspondences, while annoyingly refusing to agree on some presumed “basics,” like which direction is associated with which element, should of course give us a clue about what “matters,” what’s convention, and what the difference is.  (For more on this, see Mike Nichols’ wonderful “13 Reasons Why Air Should Be North,” now promoted to the status of a “Sacred Text” at ISTA, the Internet Sacred Text Archive, which if you don’t know, you should know, if only to “waste” large amounts of time exploring.)

spiralimgIn LMA, Stewart offers overviews, rationales, and a coherent and profound magical philosophy for what he presents. As he defines it, “magic is a set of methods for arranging awareness according to patterns.”  Worked with consciously, these patterns can help catalyze a transformation: “the purpose of magical arts is to enable changes within the individual by which he or she may apprehend further methods [of magic and transformation] inwardly.”  This transformation can come about because “magic attempts to relate human consciousness to divine consciousness through patterns inherent in each.”

One reason for the magical dimension of human reality is simply that, as biologists have been discovering, we’re pattern-seekers and pattern-makers in profound ways. That’s how we make sense of the world, the “one great bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion” of things*.  Find the pattern — or impose one, if nothing helpfully steps forward as a clue to whatever’s going on in front of our noses.  Note that this predilection towards pattern-making is neither “good” or “bad” by itself — though it makes sense to assume, as at least a provisional view of reality, that if pattern-recognition is so successful as a survival strategy across so many species, it may actually have something to say about what “reality” is like, or how it comes across to consciousnesses still evolving to “grok” it.

fmofhrFor we share this “blueprint of consciousness” with other mammals, which is why I suspect we were ever able to domesticate animals like dogs, cats, sheep, geese, ducks, chickens, cows, horses, and pigs that have contributed so hugely to human civilization.  They’ve served us as sources of food, clothing, transportation, power for machines, defense, pest control, and companionship.  (Growing up, I remember a picture my dad displayed prominently in our house of five cows, each one representing a different breed of dairy cattle, with the caption “Foster Mothers of the Human Race.”   We kept a herd of the familiar black and white Holsteins, the most common breed in the U.S., the breed most people think of when they think “cow,” but the other four breeds were still important enough to our farm family that as a child I also knew Brown Swiss, Jersey, Ayrshire and Guernsey cattle on sight.)  If domestication isn’t a marvelous and far-reaching act of magic, what is?

So pattern-making is a “keeper” in our toolkit of magical strategies and techniques.  I sense the shades of my born-again and otherwise Christian ancestors flinching and cringing and flagellating themselves.  But magic is not a religion, and is certainly not anti-religion, but rather “a coherent set of traditions regarding human potential.” Or it’s becoming one, in the hands of competent modern magicians like Stewart.  And he goes on to assert that the god and goddess images of religion are imaginative images “engineered to a high standard of performance.” What that means is that magicians, without ever denying the power or value of such images, work through and beyond them because they want to experience and work with the reality which lies behind images and which energizes them.

Stewart’s style both in LMA and later books is educated and not a breezy, colloquial one.  If you’re hearing worship in my words, try again.  I don’t expect everyone will (or should) agree with Stewart. I don’t always. But his common-sense, grounded, characteristically practical outlook is refreshing and unusual when you look at the sometimes careless, unscholarly, irresponsible and misleading books on the market which promise a lot and don’t deliver. Use your reason and intelligence fully, as Stewart would urge, because they’re tools too. He remarks late in the book, “if the intellect can be turned to prove to itself that conditioned life patterns are false, it becomes a useful tool towards liberation.” No quick fixes here (I’m usually suspicious of books which promise those anyway), but a path worthy of prolonged dedication.

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Stewart, R. J.  Living Magical Arts.  Blandford Press, U.K.  1987.

*attributed to author and psychologist William James (1842-1910)

Images: R J Stewart; magicHoard’s Dairyman “foster mothers”

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