Archive for the ‘spiritual responsibility’ Tag

True News, A Birthright   Leave a comment

“Our task”, says Rilke, “is to listen to the news that is always arriving out of silence”.

I usually avoid the political on this blog, and I’ll touch on it here only tangentially, because my purposes aren’t usually aligned with politics anyway. It’s simply not an arena where I work most effectively, having honed other skills for other goals. And by the time you’ve finished this post, you may be annoyed enough that you know as well as I do why I don’t “go political” any more often than I do. I usually irritate people on all sides.

It seems the job of our human ingenuity to rebel against absolutes, and against such tasks as others impose on us, even if they’re poets. Maybe especially if they’re poets. We turn away from our birthright, like a nursing infant fussing and refusing breast or bottle. Even the word “birthright” has gone out of fashion. (“Birthright? What’s that?”) And the cosmos spots us plenty of slack at first to rebel, to defy the augury, to “do it my way”. (After all, they say, “it takes all kinds to make a world”.)

True news a birthright?

So much of what passes for news isn’t even other people’s, but a kind of noise we make to fill up the silence, the same noise that rises up when we try to meditate or discover some silence in ourselves. And while it’s important to keep track of the world, up to a point, I often spin well past that point, leaving it far behind in the dust. When I return, I can’t even see it anymore, just my own footprints. On the trail of everything else but what and where I am, what else can I encounter but fake news?!

But “the news that’s always arriving out of silence” doesn’t originate from a partisan source, unless you feel the cosmos has recently turned partisan. I hear myself in it, my own deepest concerns, as much as anyone else’s. It doesn’t strive to convince me of anything. Like sun and rain, it exists, indifferent to whether I care or pay attention at all.

I don’t know about you, but my ancestors within my living memory talked of “inner resources”, and silence often was chief among them.

I note that Rilke doesn’t say we have to do anything beyond listening. (Did he know from experience that the initial choice and challenge to listen already demanded enough of us? And was it really any easier then, during his lifetime, to listen?) In listening, each person may hear something slightly or very different. But listening’s a place to begin.  It’s a practice. Listen, and we apprentice ourselves to true news.

We also hear a lot about rights these days, with nearly everyone insisting on them, like children squabbling over cookies. We hear much less about responsibilities, about the tasks and practices Rilke and others among the Wise have set before us. As with prayer in the previous post, if we’re all saying “give” and holding out for gifts, who’s doing anything else? Who’s taking up the task of embodying rather than merely asking? There’s a place for petition. But if I first take up my responsibility, I find that rights begin to fall into place more readily. In fact, I submit that’s the only way it can happen. Responsibilities first, rights second. We can’t have one without the other. If I have to wait until “someone else gives me the right to …”, I must also wait until that someone else picks up the responsibility that underlies it.

The sequence of responsibility first and rights second can help sidestep obsessions with privilege and race and identity and all the other noises we’re distracting ourselves with these days. Insofar as Druidry is political, it says that what we need most deeply has always been with us. We don’t need to go looking elsewhere. The Wiccan Charge of the Goddess, subversive still, echoes this:  “… if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without. For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am that which is attained at the end of desire”. (The wisdom may have originated with Rumi: “If you find me not within you, you will never find me. For I have been with you from the beginning”.)

We may despise such wisdom and call it privilege or some other distracting name, without ever noticing it’s still true, and acting on it to find out how it might transform us.

We also don’t like prophets who tell us “The poor you will always have with you”. It seems an admission of defeat, or an acknowledgement of hopelessness. But it doesn’t mean that we ignore the issue. It can mean rather that we see it as characteristic of a predicament rather than a situation admitting a solution. There’s no “fix”, but there are stances, perspectives, approaches that work better than our present strategies. “There are no lakes till eternity”, Rilke says elsewhere.

We are not permitted to linger, even with what is most intimate. From images that are full, the spirit plunges on to others that suddenly must be filled; there are no lakes till eternity.

We face climate change and climate deniers, right and left, public and private, ecological and economic, old and young, male and female. We face fear in equal parts with love. Problems we thought solved haven’t gone away but instead sprout new thorns. We may wish these weren’t our challenges. “So”, says Gandalf, “do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”. Or refuse to. Native peoples in the Americas tried to make choices with the next seven generations in mind. We’re often choosing for just the next election cycle, let alone a single generation. In the end, diagnosis isn’t what we need. Prognosis would help. A course of treatment would help more. “Our task”, says Rilke …

And, peace to the pop Wizards among us, we do keep deciding. And deciding. Those decisions, not some imagined ideal, but what we actually do, are what shape our days. But this isn’t bad news. It can be liberating: we can choose, and do, differently if we will. It lies with us. We make, and break, and some live through it to remake again. Slow learners all. I’ve got snow to shovel.

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Initiation: To Serve in Order to Know (2) — What About Power?   Leave a comment

woe-leg[Part One]

[For a previous series on this topic, go here.]

What I want to talk about here, others say well and beautifully, so this post will invoke quotation for these two potent magics. And in anticipation of what’s to come, if you haven’t given yourself the wise pleasure of reading Ursula LeGuin’s fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea, promise yourself you will soon — your library may well have its own copy or can get you one through interlibrary loan — a “magical familiar” as powerful as any in the pages of medieval grimoires.

A “young adult” fantasy, Wizard has as much to say about magical power as any book I know. If you haven’t read it, I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, and I feel I succeeded. And if you know of a book that teaches more than Wizard about these things, please send me the title!

Here’s more from J H Brennan as he continues to recount his first steps in magical training:

What actually attracted me to magic was not service but power. Nothing grandiose, of course. I had no burning ambition to rule the world or enslave hordes of beautiful women. (Well, maybe just one or two beautiful women…) But I was undoubtedly a prey to a disease which is becoming even more prevalent with the increasing complexity of modern society: a feeling of helplessness.

There are many reactions to such a feeling. Some people embrace political credos. Others get religion. A few (usually male) take to beating their spouses. I turned to magic, which seemed to me to be the ultimate antidote: for what is magic if not a secret system which promises control of damn near everything?

You will be desolate to learn it did not work. Although I spent some nine years in daily Qabalistic training and learned a great deal in the process, I remained Clark Kent: no amount of magical leaps into ritual phone boxes could turn me into Superman.

(J. H. Brennan, Foreword, The Ritual Magic Workbook, p. 4.)

If you’re honest, your first reaction to Brennan’s admission may well be, “Then why bother with magic?!”

In fact it’s a deeply legitimate response, tangled with helplessness. In so many peoples’ lives today — I’m thinking only of our own time — so much anger, pain, suffering, despair, all because we sense a deep truth about ourselves, but one that the world does much to discount, deny and distract us from: our spiritual selves are strong. LeGuin captures this wisdom at the outset, in the first chapter of A Wizard of Earthsea. Her mage hero Ged is still young, but even untrained, in a moment of crisis he draws on a profound truth about himself: “He … raged at his weakness, for he knew his strength” (A Wizard of Earthsea, Bantam Edition, 1975, p. 8).

Our detestable weakness never quite overwhelms that inner knowing, though we may well go under without a lifeline, without support, without confirmation, without some practice that sustains us, whether it has the label “spirituality” or not. Despair at not being able to get at our strength has destroyed many lives. It’s cruel, that despair. In our search for a door to the power in us that we dimly recognize, but which seems to elude us day after wretched day, we may clutch at a cause, as Brennan notes — politics, or religion, or magic — or, if we’re half-under already, at abusive behaviors that may not target others in our lives, but ourselves, though all abuse brings “collateral damage.” Which is double-talk for karma.

The appeal, the draw of power, is clear.

Ged’s teacher, a wizard named Ogion, tries to show Ged the realities he faces in a world where power can be used well or badly. After Ged encounters one who uses her power in a questionable way, and has had his own terrifying encounter with a dark spirit just before this conversation, Ogion admonishes him:

The powers she serves are not the powers I serve. I do not know her will, but I know she does not will me well. Ged, listen to me now. Have you never thought how danger must surround power as shadow does light? This sorcery is not a game we play for pleasure or for praise.  Think of this: that every word, every act of our Art is said and is done either for good, or for evil. Before you speak or do, you must know the price that is to pay!

When we hear this, it’s too much.  More evasion, more powerlessness! We’ve apprenticed ourselves to those who claim to know, and instead of — at last! — affording us even a little taste of power, they scold us for not knowing anything, and set us instead to memorizing, or visualizing, or some other repetitive task that smacks of elementary school drills. (For of course that’s where we are — in school, at a beginner’s level. Again. How long this time?!)

Predictably, Ged rebels. Note what motivates his response:

Driven by his shame, Ged cried, “How am I to know these things when you teach me nothing? Since I have lived with you I have done nothing, seen nothing–”

“Now you have seen something,” said the mage. “By the door, in the darkness, when I came in.”

We seek power, yet once we commit to a magical or spiritual path, often the first thing we meet is darkness. In ourselves. Distinctly not fun.

Ged was silent.

Ogion knelt down and built the fire on the hearth and lit it, for the house was cold.

There it is in plain words — Ogion demonstrates literally the “Path of the Hearth Fire” that is one of the magical and occult paths we can take.  And he does it not in words but in actions LeGuin describes — the daily tasks of an “ordinary life” that can be done with magical awareness of their place and purpose, a responsibility that we can serve while we learn — a way that actually leads to our ideal “inner Hogwarts” without fleeing from the obligations of our “mundane” world which have far more to teach us than we know.

Then still kneeling [Ogion] said in his quiet voice, “Ged, my young falcon, you are not bound to me or to my service. You did not come to me but I to you. You are very young to make this choice, but I cannot make it for you. If you wish, I will send you to Roke Island, where all high arts are taught. Any craft you undertake to learn you will learn, for your power is great. Greater even than your pride, I hope. I would keep you here with me, for what I have is what you lack, but I will not keep you against your will. Now choose …”

(A Wizard of Earthsea, Bantam Edition 1975, pgs. 23-24.)

Power greater than pride: Ogion nails the issue. As J. H. Brennan notes, implicating many of us:

The problem with arrogance is that it is a quality for which I have a sneaking admiration. Consequently it plays a greater part in my character than it really should.

(J. H. Brennan, Foreword, The Ritual Magic Workbook, p. 4.)

There’s a whole book of wisdom to be unpacked from Ogion’s words, which deserve extended meditation. I’ll zero in on the last two: “Now choose.” How can we choose before we understand the consequences of choice? As Tolkien says (in talking about translation*), “We constantly need to know more than we do.”

Choice? That’s another post …

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Images: A Wizard of Earthsea — cover.

*translating Beowulf. In J R R Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien). Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, pg. 191.  For much more on this that you probably could EVER want to know, come to the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, MI this May 2015, where I and many others will be delivering papers on Tolkien’s translation — and in my case, on his peculiar theories of “correct style” and how this intersects with his whole legendarium and the power of imagination.

“The Land is a Chief …”: Maui   1 comment

mauibay

Over a year ago, my wife’s aunt and uncle decided to celebrate their 50th anniversary by gathering family on Maui in Hawai’i, and very generously footing the bill for lodging as extra inducement, so we planned our car trip this summer to bring us to the west coast of the U.S., where airfares were — barely — doable on our rapidly-shrinking budget.  Imagine seventeen of us — five families, with ages from 5 to 81 — piled into three rental condos.

I suspect the more green-minded among you are already saying, “But air travel’s so polluting.” And I’ll respond outright: it is.  No argument there.  So I’ll try to make up for such extravagance and excessive consumption through my witness, and through an attempt at some range in my reporting.

Yes, of course the islands are lovely.  Even the sun-blessed sprawl of Honolulu can’t conceal the emerald hills that overlook the high-rises.  Here’s a slightly blurry view to the north from Waikiki from our hotel room …

honoview

And, yes, you really can find the heart-stopping beauty you’ve heard about, often without stepping away from right where you are. Overhead, in a tree in full blossom, or in a striking run of notes of an unfamiliar bird-call, around a corner, or in one of the splendid national parks.

[BELOW: My wife’s photo of a Hau flower, Wai’anapanapa State Park, Hana Highway, Maui]

mauiflower

But what delights me the most — neither my wife nor I are “sun and beach” people, though the steady crash of surf and the breeze off the water lull even the two of us into “aloha” mode most effectively — is the growing presence and importance of traditional Hawai’ian culture and language.  Without a sense of where I am, mere newness or charm quickly turns flat and lifeless.  It becomes plastic.  It’s easy to fall into one-dimensional tourist mode, paying for flat and plastic experiences with plastic.  We’ve all heard this, probably done it ourselves, so we know what we’re talking about.

But the handful of long-time residents we’ve encountered, along with tour-guides and wait staff, all seem to agree on a healthy cultural trend.  Much was lost during the last two hundred years of Western influence and interference — that sadly all-too-common story in so many places — but much has been preserved.  There’s a pride in the native Hawai’ian heritage that may be one of the best predictors for the future survival of old crafts and stories, language and custom. One more place to cheer, however tentatively.  If tourist dollars provide one motivation in holding onto surface charm and, gods willing, deeper cultural uniqueness, well, let’s utilize whatever works.

[Along with cultural ferment, it’s important to add, the island is striving in fits and starts to go green ecologically.  Aging and polluting diesel-powered electricity generation is being supplemented (and eventually will be taken off-line) — by three hilltop banks of wind-power stations.  And Larry Ellison (of Oracle software fame) has purchased 98% of the neighboring island of Lana’i (the former Dole pineapple island), with plans to make it eventually self-sufficient in food and power, and generate revenues by selling excess solar/wind power to other islands.]

New-ish road-signs featuring the traditional ali’i or chief, like this one marking a church, say a lot. Native traditions and images, disparaged in colonial times, or made downright illegal like speaking Hawai’ian was, start to regain something of their original stature and significance, however incomplete, through their use as symbols and icons.

aliisign

Since we’ve arrived we’ve frequently heard the Hawai’ian saying “Maui nō ka ʻoi” — “Maui’s the best”* — and without shamelessly trying to fake a non-existent familiarity with the archipelago (we’re here on Maui just 6 days, after all), we’re still inclined to think this particular island deserves its status: small enough to escape much of the busy-ness and hype of Oahu where we spent two days, and dramatically varied enough to provide rain-forest, tropical, upland, mountain and desert landscapes, all within a day’s drive on the “ring road” around east Maui.

In the end, though, for me as a brief visitor and interloper, it’s not the beaches but the mountains that call with the clearest voice of the spirits of place. He ali’i ka’aina, goes another local proverb: the land is a chief. He kauwa ke kanaka — we are its servants.  To belong to a land …

Maui’s chief mountain is Haleakala, “House of the Sun,” though clouds often skirt the slopes.  How instinctively we realize: mountains earn and deserve our attention as vivid gestures of our planet, and as ancient and powerful spiritual tools. Viewing them, meditating in their presence, ascending them, whether on a clear day or through a cloud cover that may cloak them in mystery, can mirror and induce a spiritual ascent.

Here we are part-way up and facing west, overlooking west Maui.  You can see the ocean on the left, arching inward to central Maui.

slope3

cloudslope2

Vegetation thins as you climb above the clouds, till bare volcanic rock dominates. This is no longer the beach and sun of tourist brochures, but land still being born, raw from creation.

peak1

Hikers can make the climb on foot; if you haven’t already noticed your car’s temperature gauge, the sign announces how far you have come above the sea.

haleakalaviscntr

When you enter Haleakala National Park at either the coastal or mountain visitor center, you can pick up a bilingual pamphlet (Hawai’ian appearing first, too!) that clearly attests to the re-emerging potency of native Hawai’ian culture. Yes, you can not pick it up, or pick it up and not read it, or read and forget it.  But … After a short paragraph explaining the principle of kuleana, responsibility to the land, “passed on to us from our kupuna (ancestors),” the visitor is admonished: “Therefore, as you enter this sacred place, this kuleana is now placed upon you.”

Here is the otherworldly crater at the peak.

crater

Imagine such words in every park, every public place across the land! “Therefore, as you enter this sacred place, this responsibility is now placed upon you.” Then imagine people respecting and heeding such words. Here is a start, a seed.  Let there be many such seed-places around the world. May we plant them. May they grow from here, from every such place. We need them so desperately.  And may beauty help lead us where we need to go.  This for me has been a gift of Maui.

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*Maui Nō Ka ʻOi is also the name of a local island magazine, full of touristy articles and images.

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