Archive for the ‘spiritual tools’ Tag

Working the Tool-kit: Part 1

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3]

I mention “spiritual tools” a lot here, and since my wife recently organized, according to her own criteria, my basement hand-tools as she searched for the particular item she needed in the disarray that table-top had become, I’m minded to do the same here. Every tool-kit accumulates items seldom-used, well-worn, taking up space, or simply unidentifiable. Even more so, if it’s a spiritual tool-kit. Add to that the spare parts, left-over washers, bolts, rods, screws, assembly wrenches and bent nails, broken drill-bits and reminders-to-replace-by-holding-on-to-the-old-item-until-you-do.

Tool-kits are often idiosyncratic, at least partly inherited, and with at least some overlap and mismatch, similar to metric-imperial conversion. Beliefs about a tool’s suitability, applicability or even legitimacy can dog the tool-kit user. And each of us makes use of some things no one else might consider — or be able to use as — a tool.

What do I mean by, and what do I include among, my “spiritual tools”? Why do they belong in my kit? How do I know which ones to use, and when? Wow, you’re asking some good questions today! (That’s how it can feel, when you’ve been blogging a while.)

asc-slope

pine slope, Mt. Ascutney State Park

Divination, prayer, fasting, trance and other non-ordinary consciousness work, ritual, magic, chant, sacred names and words, writing/recording/journaling, drumming and rhythmic inputs. Dreamwork, visualization, herbs, yoga and similar practices, meditation and contemplation, dance and sacred movement, mandala and sacred images. But also rehearsal, repetition, expectation, staging, music, group consciousness, affirmations, pilgrimage, non-human allies, earth energies and power sites, crystals and other helpers. Quite an assemblage of items. And probably still a few missing from the list.

Though some tools have gone in and out of fashion over time and in different cultures, and some have been intermittently mocked, proscribed, and even feared as the domain and practice of “evil forces”, however understood, by some religious and spiritual groups, nearly all of them have also been in use at some point in virtually every spiritual tradition on the planet. And rightly so — they’ve proven their value and efficacy countless times over millennia. Some even have “approved” and “non-approved” versions in particular traditions, depending on their perceived origins or source of their energies. It can be useful here to contemplate a powerful question old enough it has an ancient Latin version: cui bono? — who benefits from such official approval, and disapproval? Who may use which tools, when, and why?

Because spiritual tools reflect the complexities and blending of states of human consciousness and awareness — that we shift from one state of consciousness to others all day long, generally without being aware of it, or doing so consciously; that we have often unconscious, preferred states; and that we often confuse states with each other, and insist we’re in one even as we’re in another — it can be helpful to examine spiritual tools according to the part that each of the Elements plays in their make-up and use.

Consider this, then, a first approach to a very large topic!

EARTH

Tools which have an Earth component don’t forget the body. Many of the great world religions attempt to leave the body behind: forms of yoga and prayer which aim at stilling the body so one can attend to inner worlds; ascetic practices to dull or smother physical demands for food, sex and sensual stimulation; social rules to curtail sexual activity outside prescribed forms and relationships in order to maximize closely-defined forms of purity or dedication, and so on.

One of the potential strengths of Pagan practice is its acknowledgment of what the body can contribute to a spiritual path: we’ve barely begun to plumb our instincts, inherited DNA and animal wisdom. Even more, we sometimes resent the physical limitations that this “too too solid flesh” imposes on our lives, forgetting that part of the great magic of Earth is to hold results in one form long enough for us to understand what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Unlike the Astral plane, where things can quickly shift and dissolve again, Earth brings consequences back for us to look at over time — a superlative teacher, when this is the kind of training we need (and it is). Children start with wooden blocks, before they’re given the keys to the family car. As Shakespeare has Hamlet say about the theater, Earth is also vast stage that “holds the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”.

Earth, in short, gives great feedback.

The body-as-Earth can be a wonderful ally, a base of operations, a means of connecting and offering and receiving animal comfort from others when no other connection is open to us. Our senses are exquisitely tuned to the vibrations of this planet, and Earth magic abounds every moment of our lives.

The body also needs care — it’s one of the first places we can learn and show responsibility. The body-as-Earth teaches us both how important and also how transient the physical world is, and through its pains and pleasures, it youth and aging, its limits and its possibilities, helps us distinguish between what the Anglo-Saxons called this “bone-house” (banhus) and the tenant who lives for a time in this bone-house. Lif is læne — earthly life is transitory, on loan. The body isn’t all of what we are by any means, though the apparent world may urge on us that limited perspective — because of the very groundedness of Earth.

But solidity and inertia also make of the body a ready shelter when we haven’t yet mastered the potent energies of emotion and thought. Wake from a nightmare, and it’s deeply comforting to re-enter this safe, solid physical body, feel your pounding heart slowly ease, and sense your adrenalin step down, step down, back to normal. Sleep, rest, relaxation or vigorous exercise can all ground us quite effectively, as does a heavy meal — they give the body its due. That it has a due, that the body makes claims we might wisely acknowledge among other Elemental claims, leads to Part 2 — Air.

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“Collapsing Now” and “Inevitable Progress”

[OK, what follows is a rant. Continue for your own discomfort. I say little that’s new here. Just retuning and returning with notes I’ve sounded before. Mostly, as with blogging, I’m talking to myself, but out loud. Say it to see how it sounds. Flavo(u)r to taste. You indulge me by sometimes liking what I write, if it has any merit you can use. And your comments, as always, are welcome.]

“Collapse now”, counsels John Michael Greer, “collapse now and avoid the rush” as industrial civilization devolves and careers along an increasingly wobbly course. Greer, whose words and ideas have intermittently appeared here, is a “talk-walker”, someone who lives what he advises others to practice. An increasingly widely read blogger and master gardener, as well as author and mage and archdruid emeritus of the Druid order AODA, Greer lives largely off the grid. Owning no car, and growing a large portion of his food, Greer and his lived choices make his words carry more weight with me than the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking.

Of course, Greer’s choices are just one possible set, and not even the best for many of us. But they’re his, not manufactured for and sold to him by someone else.

And Stephen Hawking? Just yesterday he wrote in an article in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper that, yes, he’s lived a life of extraordinary privilege; that, yes, elites like him and his circle have long ignored the plight of working-class folks; and that, yes, recent elections and votes in the U.S. and U.K. and elsewhere betoken a cry of anger and anguish. But he can still write in an astonishing stew of ignorance and arrogance that

what matters now, far more than the choices made by these two electorates, is how the elites react. Should we, in turn, reject these votes as outpourings of crude populism that fail to take account of the facts, and attempt to circumvent or circumscribe the choices that they represent? I would argue that this would be a terrible mistake.

No, in fact, the reaction of elites matters far less. It will be quite predictable. We’ve seen it repeated endlessly over the span of millennia. They won’t do what they could do, because it’s really not even theirs to do, though we’ve often abdicated choice to them. But as we always have, we choose day by day to put into action the causes that bring us where we go next.

three-things-cannot-be-long-hiddenThat’s neither good or bad in itself: it’s simply how cause and effect have worked, and will continue to work. But so often it’s not in the self-interest of any elite to do what the “electorate” may want or need. That’s what makes them the elite. Plotting a course of self-interest is how they got to be elite. That’s what “people do” in such circumstances.

And — always — people can do something else. I can, and so can you. I did yesterday, and you did too.

Not according to Hawking, though. Current trends and practices

in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits [Hawking’s link] while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.

Inevitable, progress, socially destructive. There it is, in a nutshell, the reason we’re collapsing. The first two assumptions are just that, assumptions. The third factor looms before and around us, resulting from the first two.

We’ve demonstrated over time, far better than any New Age workshop or guru ever could, how we create our reality. Assumptions are, after all, powerful magical techniques. Hold them strongly enough, inject them with emotion and attention, and they shape consciousness. They make up the outer circumstances, often the inner ones, of life. One life, a billion lives, in high tech or on a factory floor or in a studio or classroom or garden. One life, a billion lives, filled with pain, joy, a mix.

“With resources increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, we are going to have to learn to share far more than at present,” says Hawking. But who will start today? You, privileged physicist Stephen Hawking? Whenever I read or hear “must” and “have to”, I know someone’s avoiding actually doing that “must” or “have to”, or, more likely, is shunting it off onto someone else’s shoulders. I try to minimize that in this blog, but my percentage slips from time to time.

Waiting for “elites” to act is exactly the wrong course of action. We each take steps each day to build whatever balance we have in our own lives. Sharing resources? One way I share is to “consume less”, of course. Will I recycle this bag or box, or throw it in the trash? Will I replace these lightbulbs with higher-efficiency ones, or maybe just not use lights as much? Candles, or darkness. Will I reduce my car-trips, combining tasks and appointments? Will I sell the car, and use public transport? (It may not be available.) Will I unplug appliances that eat energy even when they’re “off”? Will I grow anything at all that I can prepare myself and eat, rather than buy from halfway around the planet? Will I downsize a habit, a car, a house, a hoard of possessions, an attitude, a life?

One and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one make ten. “Suddenly” a lot? Nope. Accumulating every day. We know this. The world now vividly reveals the human psyche. (The fact that it also does many other things needn’t be lost on us either, in our species-centric obsessions. Other lives have their say.) Our Western popular culture now gives us The Hunger Games, Divergent, The 100, Terra Nova, Incorporated, The 3%, and so on.

The beauty of our individuality is that there’s no “single solution” but a multitude of choices, because we’re a multitude of people.

brian-savage-thank-god-a-panel-of-experts-new-yorker-cartoonThe city-dweller in a third-world nation foraging for scraps through piles of refuse exhausts her options and migrates with her family to another region where she can grow a small garden. Or find work. Or mount a protest with others large enough it draws media attention to a problem. Or, sometimes, die trying any of these. Sometimes we can shame ourselves into fixing things. Sometimes we just turn away. Every choice matters, every choice contributes to the pool. Nothing is lost. All that we do returns to us, so we can see our choices more clearly. Why else have worlds like this, where choice is possible and makes such a difference?

Americans, of course, are all elites in their own way. We’ve seen the figures, how we consume a very large percentage of the world’s resources, far larger than our share. Greer counsels “collapsing now” as something prudent, as an act of self-interest, because our two choices are not really choices at all. We can collapse more gradually, with foresight and preparation, or we can collapse painfully, in places violently, resisting change all the way down. Collapsing or not collapsing are no longer the options. How we collapse is.

It’s not some unique event, the collapse of a civilization and economy. History doesn’t so much repeat itself as find endless variations on a small set of themes. The collapse of a petroleum-consumption-empire-supported lifestyle doesn’t mean “the End” but it does mean massive change in a certain set of imbalances.

It’s safe to say large portion of the readership of this blog is blanketed, for now, against the worst sufferings these changes can bring. If you have both the leisure and opportunity to ponder the words of a privileged white blogger, you’re statistically pretty likely to be privileged yourself. Yes, we’ve been “inconvenienced” by changes already. Yes, our “standard of living” may be declining. Most of us aren’t yet starving, in prison, or dead. But our heads and hearts are troubled, our bank accounts are scary-shrinking, our stresses, health, credit-cards, relationships and uncertainties maxed out. We’ve had a foretaste, certainly. Those of us who live more on the fringes in any way will, like canaries in the mine, bear more of the assault of change. We’re already beginning our own forms of collapse, of hopefully creative down-sumption.

The healing, creativity, practical tool-kit, and hope that Druidry offers, like other spiritual paths also do, involve steps we can take now and daily. Whether we actually take any of them, whether we see them as beautiful and wise opportunities to begin to reclaim ourselves and our world, or as RAORPSEMFs, Ridiculous Avoidances Of Real Problems Somebody Else Must Fix, will determine to a great extent how the next minute, month and decade will go for any of us.

Yours along the journey,

A Druid Way.

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Images: Three things; panel of experts.

Thirty Days of Druidry 15: Dragon Wisdom 2

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[Here’s the second half of a topic begun in the previous post.]

In the way the universe moves, as soon as I focus on health and healing, results come back from blood-work a few weeks past. The naturopath I consult phones me to share the data, and the numbers aren’t altogether positive. We agree to some diet, exercise and supplement changes, and a follow-up blood-draw in three months to see whether some of the more worrisome numbers are a blip or part of a concerning trend.

I mention this not to garner any sort of sympathy — I’ve been vague enough here I hope that’s clear — but to consider for a moment a couple of things. I use my life as material because I’m in it. I trust it’s part of our common experience, and countless experiences of feedback prove to me that, mostly, it is. (I reserve just a few quirks as my own indulgences.) From my perspective, we’re all in this life-lab together, here to try things out. I understand my own experience better than anyone else’s, and every writer can’t help but mine autobiography for material, however coy or deflective they may be about that fact when you ask.

So here goes. First, you may call it the merest coincidence that in post 14 in this series I examine health, and the next day medical tests come through, and I take it as part of a divination. The pending results were on my mind, you say, and naturally enough they emerged in a post. Nothing mysterious about it. Well, I don’t know about mystery. (That’s why they call it mystery.) But I’ve found that strikingly few things are “mere coincidence.” The dangers of over-reading such circumstances as “signs” or “spirit communications” or “meaningful data” pale in comparison to missing the opportunities for discovery, growth and change that such events offer. As an unreconstructed animist, I know that everything’s alive (especially rocks, and even more especially Vermont rocks!), everything’s affected and influenced by everything else, and everything talks constantly about it all. I like to join that conversation.

Second, I get to try out my spiritual toolkit, as soon as I remember I have one. (You shouldn’t be surprised at our capacity for ignoring resources already in our hands. We love sympathy, until it gets boring or annoying, and then we often swat it away. I loathe self-pity, and have been known to turn away well-intentioned compassion at every turn.)

I take hawk-guise and soar over the problem or challenge. Below, on the field of my life, personalities and forces and energies can stand out more clearly. As the seer of my own life, I can regroup quite literally. Who and what shall I pair or separate? What lies off the horizon that touches on this moment? What offers itself to me? Where I can I offer myself to others? If I want this clue, this cure, this healing, where I can be a part of such a cure and healing and solution for others? How can I take without giving? Yes, of course. But how I can give without taking? What circles and cycles wait for me to complete them, ones that only I can? Not because I am “special” or “gifted” or “unique,” but simply because I am. I exist, in this place, in this time. The stubbornness of the particular is a clue to meaning, as well as much else of value.

Yes, I’ll even concede that “every problem has a spiritual solution,” if we can also agree that “spiritual” may sometimes mean a warm bath, a glass of wine or mead, time and space for reflection. Sometimes it’s a bit longer than that. I turn and see it’s a whole life-project: part of the reason I seem to be here at all, one of a small set of Big Kahunas, a major theme for this incarnation. Druidry reminds me constantly that this physical world is a vital resource and a field for discovery. With all its pain and uncertainty and possibility and simple pleasure, it’s a toolkit all its own, one of astounding quality and diversity and energy. Herbs, totems, power objects, shrines, wise trees and beasts, spirits, fatigue, rest, hot and cold, the seasons, human physical contact and presence. I could devote (I feel I have devoted) many lives just to exploring these things, never mind the array of things on other levels of reality.

Salmon, Dragon, Bee, companions on the Way, I thank you for your wisdom, and through the transmutations of identity and experience, I offer some wisdom of my own.

 

Future as Battery

tomorrowjpgMuch of our human anxiety clusters around an odd mental construct we call “tomorrow,” and sometimes those wacky futurists brought to us by odd institutes with funky acronyms and obscure sources of funding actually have something useful to contribute to earn their keep. Here’s Bruce Sterling on change (link to blog):

… as a futurist I just don’t do “positive” and “negative.” I actively avoid that kind of value judgment. Wishful thinking and fearful thinking gets in the way of an objective understanding of change-drivers. Change occurs from pent-up energies: it’s like asking if a battery’s voltage is “good” or “bad.” All potential change has positive or negative potential: otherwise it isn’t even “potential.”

Res-boarder“Change occurs from pent-up energies.” Without a reservoir of energy, it simply doesn’t happen. Any equilibrium — I’m extrapolating out loud here, to see what the implications look like — any apparent equilibrium or stasis, then, is a kind of wallpaper over pending change and a cloak for accumulating energies. In other words, things don’t change, until they do. Watch the surface and I won’t catch the building forces for change. Equilibrium, rather than a kind of reset to normal, an all-clear, all-systems-go signal, can be seen as a boiler, a reactor, a container for accumulating change-energies. If change is the norm, equilibrium is a pivot, a hinge. It’s not a place to live, but to visit, to stop by, to rest in. It’s the next foothold, the plateau wide enough for a pause, along the ascent.

“All potential change has positive or negative potential …” Both at the same time, in every case? If the energies behind changes are anything like water or electricity, they find the easiest channel to flow. A habit is the smoothest channel — it’s been widened, deepened and swept clean by repeated use, so energies for change often dissipate if they can flow along the channel of a habit. Block the habit, even once, when change is about to happen, and the flow will seek another channel — maybe even a new one, if other habits don’t swallow the energy.

[Personal observation here: the habit I referred to in the previous post has yielded for now to image and sound work, but as part of what I’m seeing as realignment, I’ve been catching myself indulging more in other repetitive/obsessive behaviors. Compensation? The energy will flow. An old computer game, for instance, suddenly seemed irresistibly interesting — I’d play a typical 10-minute session again and again, between other more productive tasks. The “path of least resistance” applies profoundly to working with habit and change. Eliminate one habit and energy will flow into the next easiest channel. A key I’m learning: make a change that’s easy for energy to fill. How to do that is my practice.]

Can I avoid a value judgment, as Sterling claims he does? “Wishful thinking and fearful thinking gets in the way of an objective understanding of change-drivers.” Hmm. Often my wishes are negative: I want to escape/change/get away from/overcome X, and so X draws my attention, rather than the change I say I want to activate. Instead of spending energy on the change, I spend it on X. My attempt at change may actually be strengthening the habit.

Unlike the “get ___ quick/overnight/in just seven days!” promises of those with something to sell us, most permanent changes take longer to settle in. Everything I’ve learned from my habit can be used to build the energies of the changes I desire: visualization, sound, emotion, repetition. No doubt about it: change usually needs practice.

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You might wonder what connection some of these recent posts have with Druidry. Good spiritual practice is good spiritual practice. Why else does “spiritual but not religious” resonate so deeply with so many? When religion gets in the way of spirituality, there’s a problem.

hopman

Ellen Hopman

Druid and author Ellen Evert Hopman offers this excerpt from her forthcoming book Legacy of the Druids.* Here is the voice of one of the many Druids she interviews. The attitude here, rather than the specifics, is what I cherish and practice in my own way. The fact that it assumes a Druidic form simply means you have yet another opportunity to translate good spiritual sense into your own particular tradition or idiosyncratic practice:

“The grandest moment of the year is on Imbolc, when I open up my door to the night and thank her for all that she has given, then pour milk across my threshold to the living world outside, inviting Her in, whoever She is, whatever deep and joyous mystery, whatever unplanned liberation she brings, even if it comes in the guise of loss and fear and death.

I believe in the abundance of life, through the most frightening and toilsome passages. I believe in the essential expansiveness of our souls, and these are encapsulated in Brigit, the patron of poetry, of healing, of smithcraft, the one who guides sailors through dark and turbulent seas, who sets the teats flowing and brings birth to the calves and lambs.

The world we inhabit is hidden in a tangle of veils – fear, rage, misunderstanding of who we are and how we are connected and how we can survive and flourish, human and nonhuman, wild and tame.

Facing our own tangles and emerging filled with that ability to give, to receive, to hope and love: that is how I see Her worship as functioning best. She is the beauty and She is the veils, and She is the freedom and unity I keep my eyes on when I struggle through.

Opening the door to Her on Imbolc, giving Her and Her world the nourishing gift of milk and inviting them more deeply into my heart – these are the most joyous religious acts I can ever commit.”

Mael Brigde
Vancouver, Canada

goldseaIt’s a portion of Druid wisdom to master change in our lives — not to dominate life, which we can never do, but to sail with it onto that endless golden sea that, whenever I pay attention, is sparkling and surging around and within.

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IMAGES: tomorrow; reservoir; Hopmangolden sea.

*Hopman, Ellen Evert. A Legacy of Druids: Conversations With Druid Leaders Of Britain, The USA And Canada, Past And Present. Moon Books, 2016.

Bringing It

welsh-taliesin-picThe Awen I sing,
From the deep I bring it,
A river while it flows,
I know its extent;
I know when it disappears;
I know when it fills;
I know when it overflows;
I know when it shrinks;
I know what base
There is beneath the sea.

(lines 170-179, Book of Taliesin VII, “The Hostile Confederacy“)

Oh, Taliesin, how do you know these things? I say to myself. How is it you enchant yourself into wisdom?

I have been a multitude of shapes,
Before I assumed a consistent form.
I have been a sword, narrow, variegated,
I have been a tear in the air,
I have been in the dullest of stars.
I have been a word among letters,
I have been a book in the origin.

OK, you know it because you’ve been it, I say to myself and the air.

When I sing, I hear a music that both exists and does not exist until I open my mouth. We create in the moment of desire and imagination. “From the deep” we bring things that flow like rivers while we sing. But before the song, or after?

Contrary to what I may think in the moment, so many things are matters of doing rather than believing. Challenges behave much the same as joys. When I’m afraid, I have a chance to show courage. What else does courage mean but to be afraid — and to attempt the brave thing anyway?

And when I sing, that takes a kind of courage too. I mean by this that singing when the sun shines is easy enough. Necessary, too. A gift. But singing in the dark, singing in pain, singing in uncertainty — or singing in joy when joy itself is suspect and the times are bad — there’s a song of power Taliesin would recognize.

The Awen I sing,
From the deep I bring it.

Another tool for my tool-kit. Sing it and you bring it. Make it come true when before, without you, it not only hasn’t yet arrived, it won’t and can’t arrive until you do.

IMAGE: Taliesin.

Answers and Tools

woodshed

Our lean-to, with wood drying for next winter, ’16-’17.

After a long absence, Wadin Tohangu stopped by again to talk. The old Druid grinned broadly at my surprise in seeing him.  Though I shouldn’t have been so surprised, I know. Usually, if I’ve been thinking about him, he appears sooner or later.

The unseasonably warm November weather in the 70s over the last few days made it a perfect time to be outdoors. I was carrying log lengths of willow to our woodpile after some trimming and pruning work by a tree service company we’d hired a few weeks ago.  Willow is a soft wood and isn’t all that suitable for burning. It doesn’t provide much heat, but it can be useful to work with for other purposes. Some of it might form the edging for a new compost pile, and rot back into the earth itself.

Without any preamble, Wadin got to the point. “You’ve been doing some firming up of your understanding. I can see changes in you.”

“That’s … interesting,” I said, letting an armful of logs fall to stack later. “I feel less certain about a lot of things I thought I knew. Like what love is, and what my purpose or focus should be, for instance. You’re sure you’re not seeing doubt and uncertainty instead?”

He chuckled, and pushed a log into a firmer position between two others. “Part of deepening understanding can mean you rely less on ready verbal formulas and definitions, and in their place you turn more to any wisdom you’ve earned. It may feel less certain, because you can’t summon it in quite such a convenient mental form, or immediately rattle it off if someone asks. Do you do any cooking?”

“Um, yes,” I said, still surprised sometimes by Wadin’s quick shifts as he developed a point. “Mostly baking, actually.” I turned to walk back to the pile of fresh-cut willow lengths. The wheelbarrow I’d normally use to make quicker work of this had a flat tire. But I didn’t mind. The weather was just too splendid to miss.

“Well,” said Wadin, keeping pace beside me, “if you bake bread, for instance, you know at several points that familiarity with the process lets you make decisions about timing that you learn best by practice, not by rule.”

“True,” I said, grabbing an armful of logs. Wadin did the same. “Bread dough that’s going to rise well has a certain feel to it. And up to a point, there are tricks and back-ups you can do with a batch that’s not turning out so well.”

“But,” he said, shifting the logs into a more comfortable position, “that feeling and those tricks aren’t easy to put directly into words, even though you know them well.”

“True,” I said.

“People often treat understanding the same way. They may say, ‘I want answers,’ but they could find that a tool might be more useful to them in the end than any answer.” He dropped the logs and brushed his hands.

“Would you explain that a little more?” I asked him.

“Answers tend to have a compact form,” he replied. “Someone else has done at least part of the thinking, so when we ask a question, the answer arrives with a definite shape and size, and maybe even drags with it some definitions, or some do’s or don’t’s attached to it. It may not fit our needs and awareness. It can be like a key in a lock. Sometimes the key just doesn’t fit. Nothing turns. Even though that key may open plenty of other useful doors, it doesn’t open this one.”

“I guess I understand what you mean. So what about tools?” I picked up three more smaller logs. Wadin grabbed the last couple of strays.

“A tool isn’t meant to provide a final conclusion,” he said. “It simply helps with a particular step, or with a set of steps. It’s part of an open-ended process. A screwdriver applies force, or rather torque, in a way that the human hand unaided cannot. It doesn’t do this by itself — a human hand must wield it. But a screwdriver allows us to open or close things with screws, or do some light prying of covers, perhaps. The screwdriver goes back in its slot (at least in a neat work-area) until you need it again.”

“O.K.” I said, thinking.

“An answer, though, often implies a close, an ending.” He dropped his armful on the pile. “A tool keeps things moving. One helpful strategy is to practice seeing all your answers as tools. There’s nothing final about them, and neither is there anything wrong with that. They’re exactly what they’re supposed to be. They just help move you to the next step you need to take. Put them away when they don’t achieve that, keep them all in good condition, and find another tool that will do what you need at that moment.”

“So you’re talking about a kind of flexibility.” I leaned against a woodshed post.

hammer“Yes,” he said. “The same tools are generally available to everybody, but in the hands of a master craftsman, the right tool saves time, accomplishes the task smoothly, and contributes to the flow of work. The master doesn’t curse his tools, or despair when the tool he insists on using doesn’t do what he wants it to. He knows what each tool can do, just as he knows how each tool feels when he uses it. Part of his mastery is knowing from the feel of the tool in his hand whether it can accomplish what he intends.”

“And part of the joy of mastery is knowing there’s always more to learn. What would it mean, after all, if there was nothing more to aspire to? If you truly knew it all, you’d get bored. What’s the point? The beauty of mastery is its delight in always learning something new, not being discouraged by it, but inspired instead by endless possibility. Sharing what you have learned, communicating that delight simply by doing, and marveling how each person develops an individual style. All right. That’s enough for today.” He smiled and turned toward the afternoon sunlight. I blinked, and he was gone.

If I asked “Is he real?” or “Was he really here?” any answer I received probably wouldn’t be as useful as what I learned. His gift wasn’t some kind of proof that he “existed,” but simply a few more tools he left for me to work with. Answer, tool. A useful distinction. I sent out gratitude, confident it would reach its destination.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Images: hammer; saw.

Three Awens

salar-de-uyuni-boliviaAwen* comes on me no matter, air heavy with summer, my wife at the papers as she sits in the recliner beside the desk where I type this, and awen comes, the great flow pierces me head downward, like a run of honey pain from crown through the heart to the feet.  Sometimes the rush runs so loud I can hear only it and nothing else, a music like thunder roaring in my ears.  Other times it’s spiderweb on the skin, slightest sense of presence, fruit of dreaming, the daring comes.  Aaaaah-ooooo-ennnn.

/|\ /|\ /|\

The song bodies make moving through times, through spaces is awen.  The note in deep silence, life’s own soundtrack.  What the stars say when no one’s listening, the whispers between the trees as they breathe out oxygen after dusk, the wind in their branches.  The quiet sigh you didn’t know you sighed till someone asks you about it —  these are awen.  Awen trips me forward into fullness, catches me breathless just before great beauty, or after.  And beauty opens more — and more often — the more I listen for awen.

/|\ /|\ /|\

I sit to write and words must make do for Spirit.  In the interval between one in-rush of awen and the next, I wait. In the trough between expectation and fulfillment, I rest.  On the hilltop between cloud and cloud, blazing with late afternoon sun, full of golden mystery constantly moving, shifting, I stand, watching.  Just before sleep, in the cradle of stillness and warmth, the darkness sweet, I hear it still.

/|\ /|\ /|\

*”Awen is the wisdom, truth and most of all the inspiration. Awen is Nature, the universal power behind life, yet it is never born and shall never die. Awen is a force or energy forged from an indivisible source that is the power behind the physical and non-physical or spirit forms. Existence, and distinction between the natural and the super-natural becomes meaningless, as both are the personification of Awen. Every link which is a part of nature, be it a man, animal, plant or elemental force, each holds its own little piece and together make up the whole chain which is Awen. Awen is the spirit of Druidry itself, it is knowing, sensing and feeling it in your essence and true being, it is the freedom to accept one’s nature” (“Awen”; minor editing).

/|\ /|\ /|\

Image:  Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.  At the right moments when no wind disturbs the surface, the very shallow lake can hold a near-perfect reflection of whatever the sky is doing.  The illusion of the human figure walking on water illustrates just how shallow the lake is.

The Druid Dialogs: Aithne, Part 3

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9]

In our last conversation, Aithne had said nothing about needing my help.  All this stuff about ancestors and bloodlines, and now I was wondering about that piece.  Had she forgotten?  But even if she did need me in any way, how could I really help?  After several decades of living, I have a pretty clear sense of my talents and abilities.   It wasn’t false modesty that told me both Rosmert and Aithne could certainly handle challenges and obstacles I couldn’t.  Wasn’t that why they were teaching me, and not the other way around?  There’s an innate order to things that we ignore at our own peril but that we can also learn to our advantage — that’s one of the foundations of my worldview.  I guess when I thought about it that I saw helping others along the path is a form of payback, or maybe paying it forward.  It’s a way to show gratitude, a way to keep the heart open.  Gratitude feels good.  Just do it.

So it was when all of this was still spinning through my brain that Aithne appeared again.  It had been more than a few days since  I’d tended to my Sacred Grove.  The excuse doesn’t matter; it’s a poor one.  But shortly after I returned, there she was.   But she certainly was not dressed the same this time.  Biker chick was all I could think:  leather jacket, torn and faded jeans, bandanna, dark glasses, snake tattoo on her neck, even chains.  Again she was gazing off into the distance, and when she turned toward me she took off the sunglasses and winked.

“You ready?” she asked.

“For what?” I replied.  That was Aithne, I was beginning to understand.  Small talk rated low among her priorities.  And it was rubbing off.

“A ride,” she said.  “I’ve got an ’86 Harley Sportster, 1100 cc’s.  Want to try it out?”

And that was how, maybe an hour later, Aithne and I were roaring down a little-traveled country road that arrowed flat and straight toward the western  horizon.  After a series of lessons, practice runs, one spill and a bruised right knee, I felt reasonably confident handling the heavy machine.  I wasn’t ready for a lot of traffic yet, but the basics were coming along nicely.

“We’ve got clear road,” she said.  “Let’s open it up for a couple miles.”

The big bike still ran smooth when we topped 80 mph.  I eased back on the throttle, listening to engine as it lost the high-pitched whine of speed. A few minutes later we were sitting on the side of the road, sipping Gatorade.  Aithne was studying a ladybug on a blade of grass she held in both hands.

“You can help me, you know,” she said.  “We need you healthy for the work, and for your part which only you can do.  That’s your focus for now.  Get healthy, and balanced.”

“I wanted to ask you about that.  What can I do?”

“You can begin again.”

“Begin what?”

“You’ve completed another spiral.  The next months may look familiar, but they aren’t the same thing that’s come before. Pay attention to what they can show you.”

“But what am I supposed to be looking for?” I asked.

Aithne paused and looked at me for a moment.

“You’re thinking about quitting your job after this academic year.  You’re wondering how little you can live on if you do, how much food you can grow for yourself back in Vermont.  Those aren’t bad things by any means, but your principal focus needs to go beyond that.  Those aren’t ultimately pathways to the next two decades.  You’re looking at surviving.  I’m talking about thriving.”

“After the last couple of years, surviving looks pretty good to me.”

“And it is,” she said.  “We had to work with your wife to get you to that surgeon in Baltimore.  You weren’t listening when you most needed to.  Fortunately, she was.  So you survived the shift, you kept this body through the turn.  You’re still here, and the ancestors aren’t finished with you in this life yet. You’re on commission.  Did you know that?”

“Commission for …  for what?”  I stuttered. “Can I have some clarity just once about what I’m supposed to be doing?”

“You’re confusing clarity with looking back on a path you’ve already walked,” she said.  “So often you can know by going.  And for as long as you’re here, you’ll find that’s one of the things time’s for.”

And then I was back in my living room.  The clock said 9:48 pm.  It had been a long day, and I had much to think about.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Updated 23 April 2015

The Druid Dialogs: Aithne, Part 1

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9]

Rosmert returned again today, but only briefly, and only, he explained, to introduce Aithne.  At first I could not see her clearly, except to note she was only slightly shorter than Rosmert.  Then it seemed the space around her sharpened somehow, or — I had the distinct feeling now — she was letting me see her.  She wore the hood of her robe up, and it shadowed her face.  Freckles dotted her nose, and a few tendrils of chestnut hair slipped from her hood. Then all I knew was her eagle gaze.  Two green eyes of startling fierceness regarded me.   She grabbed my half-extended hand, shook it vigorously, then promptly pointed out a problem.

“Greetings.  You do realize you left the gateway open?  Magically careless.  Let’s close it immediately.  I’ll show you how.  But first, let me take a quick look around.”

From her brisk words and tone I could tell that today at least there was no such thing as Druid-business-as-usual.  Or maybe this was usual, for her.  As she studied the trees and stones, she began to describe one way to seal a grove more effectively against unwanted presences and energies.

Then I saw Rosmert winking at me just before he disappeared.  He made a sweeping gesture that seemed to say “You’re in her hands now.” I laughed in spite of myself.

At the sound, Aithne turned from her survey of my grove and regarded me with a frown.  “You have made a beginning, but you need practice at defense,” she said.  “Now expel me from this space.”

When I hesitated, she exclaimed, “Do it!  You did not invite me like you did Rosmert.  I came at his bidding, not yours.  So you can rid this grove of me quite easily.  Do it.  When you are quite satisfied I am gone, you may choose to invite me back, or not.  But secure the gateway first, whatever you do.”

I centered myself in my grove and sang the Word of Protection.  One instant, Aithne stood there, her head tilted to one side, listening.  In the next, she vanished.

I walked the inside perimeter of the grove, singing.  I walked it three times.  I played with the thought of not inviting her back. At length, when I was satisfied with the wards and had formulated the triple seal, I called her by name, just once.  A second later she appeared a few meters away.

“Better,” she said.  “I tested the gateway several times before you called me.  Much better.”

She turned slowly again to take in the trees.  Over the past months it had been a fallow time for me while outer things made their demands, and I needed to do some inner work.  The space certainly reflected this.  It looked, quite frankly, unkempt and overgrown.

“But I did not come to critique your grove or your training,”she said, “or to sight-see.  Whatever you might think.”  She clapped her hands, and sat down on the same tree-stump Rosmert had occupied when he and I talked.  “I need your help.”

Nonplussed, I stuttered, “Well, OK, with wh- … uh, how can I help?”

“It’s a matter of the Blood of Veen.”

“Who — or what — is Veen?  Like it sounds?  V-E-E-N?” I asked, spelling it.  Goddess help me, I thought I could hear capital letters when she said Blood and Veen.  It sounded, well, cheesy.  Like hack sword-and-sorcery writing.

“It’s a town in the Netherlands.  You have an ancestral connection to the region.”

/|\ /|\ /|\ 

Updated 23 April 2015

The Druid Dialogs: Rosmert

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9]

Rosmert had appeared recently during my Inner Grove exercise.  I’d been discouraged about my progress.  So many setbacks.  Autumn had come, and projects I’d set for myself over a year ago remained distant goals.  After I recovered from my surprise at his appearance, I realized I had indeed been asking for help.  Of course, when it comes, I often don’t recognize it.  I nearly snarled at him to go away.  I’m glad I didn’t.  But that showed me how out of balance I was.

My awareness shifted from inner grove to my living room and back again.  Half the time I saw Rosmert sitting on a tree-stump.  Half the time he was perched on the edge of the recliner in the living room, facing the woodstove.  At first I scolded myself for lack of focus.  Then I realized it just didn’t matter.  Grove or living room, he was still here.  So I just went with it.  I told myself I could figure it all out later.  Soon we were in it pretty deep.

“You mean there’s a law behind even the randomness of things?” I asked him.  So many obstacles, it sometimes came near to breaking my spirit.

“Yes,” said Rosmert, stretching out his legs in front of him. “But it’s not only a physical law, even if it accounts for physical things.  Spirit is at work throughout all the worlds, continually keeping everything in balance.”

“That makes it sound like there’s still room for slippage,” I said.  Overhead, heavy storm-clouds and sun competed for equal time.  “Between one interval of growth and inspiration and another, there can be an awful lot of bad weather.”

He nodded.  “In a world of change, the adjustment is continual,” he said after a pause.  “So the tests we face, the people we meet, the problems, excitements, opportunities, setbacks, decisions, challenges, sorrows and joys are expressions of spiritual energy finding whatever opening it can into our consciousness to expand our awareness and our understanding of life.”

“Doesn’t it also sometimes shut down, or diminish?  Or maybe we do that to ourselves?  All I know is that we certainly take a lot of sidesteps, or steps backwards, too.”

Rosmert gazed steadily at me for a moment.  “If we’re trying to get a mile further down the road, a flat tire looks like a delay.  If we’re learning how to travel, it’s just another lesson. Keep a spare.  Have your tools ready.  Change your tires before they wear too thin.  While you’re in the moment,  though, a flat tire can definitely seem like a major setback.”  He grinned and leaned forward.

He was about to continue when I interrupted.  “What if the ‘flat tire’ is your life?  Not just a small setback on the journey, but all-out disaster.”

Unexpectedly, he laughed.  “The human consciousness does love drama at times.  And Spirit creates as it flows.  That’s what it does, what it is.  If we choose to create disasters as it flows in and around us, that’s what we’ll usually get.” He laughed again, this time at my scowl. “Yes, we encounter lesser and greater cycles of spiritual movement and flow.  Some of them involve a whole lifetime.  Some remain small, and fit into the larger cycles.  We each work with spiritual energy in our own way, as it flows into us, and as we give it back to situations and people according to our state of consciousness, through our words, deeds, thoughts, feelings, and imagination.”

He stood up, turned slowly in a complete circle, and then faced me again. “Have you ever gone horse-back riding?”

I shook my head at the sudden shift of topic.  “What?” I said.

“We can move with the horse, or we can bounce on every up and drop an instant late on every down, out of the rhythm all around us.  That makes for one really sore butt at the end of the day.  It’s a choice that solidifies into a pattern and then into a destiny.  For a while.  Then we choose differently, moving from one pattern and trying another, learning, and sometimes crashing and flailing as we go.  For a long time, we’re all slow learners.  Then we begin to notice the patterns, and finally maybe even look at the choices.  What is it you say?  ‘Been there, done that’?”

“So is there a way to increase the flow, or does that kind of pushing also throw us out of balance?  I guess my question is, can we speed up the process?”

Rosmert didn’t answer right away.  He breathed slowly and steadily four or five times.  Then he said, “The goal of the most useful spiritual exercises you’ve been learning is ultimately to invite a greater inflow and permit a greater outflow.  We need both.  We also need balance as we learn to do this more effectively.  Bottle it up without letting it out-flow and the result is the same as if you shut the inflow off completely.  To put it another way, we need to complete the circuit.  As we become more conscious of the movement of Spirit in and around us, we’re able to relax into this current that is always in motion, and live our lives more fully.  This is our own individual spiritual path to greater love of all life.”

“So if we stop resisting the complete flow,” I said ruefully, “we won’t get beat up so badly.”

“Right,” he said, chuckling at the expression on my face.  “It’s a practice.  Who doesn’t have some scars and bruises, and a broken bone or two?! We keep practicing till we get it right.  Let’s stop here and go for a walk.”

/|\ /|\ /|\

Updated 23 April 2015

Circe’s Power: Part 1

OK, be forewarned … this runs long.  If you’re more in the mood for bon-bons than for jerky, come back later.  This ended up pretty chewy.  It’s also provisional, a lot more tentative than it sounds.  Now I’ve told you, so don’t get cranky with me later.  Here goes …

/|\ /|\ /|\

In her poem “Circe’s Power,” Louise Glück speaks in the voice of the sorceress who transforms the crew of Odysseus into swine when they arrive on her island.  Even the great war-leader and trickster Odysseus himself would have fallen under her spell, but for a charm the god Hermes gives him.  (“Some people have all the luck,” “the gods favor them,” etc.) So it’s dueling magics at work, divine and mortal enchantments competing for supremacy.  (Sort of feels like life at times.  Like we’re adrift in a hurricane, or trying to build a house on a battlefield.) Circe speaks to Odysseus, to all of us, in a kind of explanation of life seen from the vantage point of magic. Or not.

I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
look like pigs.
I’m sick of your world
that lets the outside disguise the inside.
Your men weren’t bad men;
undisciplined life
did that to them. As pigs,
under the care of
me and my ladies, they
sweetened right up.
Then I reversed the spell,
showing you my goodness
as well as my power. I saw
we could be happy here,
as men and women are
when their needs are simple. In the same breath,
I foresaw your departure,
your men with my help braving
the crying and pounding sea. You think
a few tears upset me? My friend,
every sorceress is
a pragmatist at heart; nobody sees essence who can’t
face limitation. If I wanted only to hold you
I could hold you prisoner.

Oddly, this poem always cheers me up, with what I take to be its hard realism.  That may sound funny, since part of the time Circe’s talking about magic, and she has a cynic’s view of much of life.  Or maybe a minimalist’s.  How do those two things go together?! But it’s a magic we’re born into, the nature of a world in which the outside does indeed often “disguise the inside.”  Here, almost everything wears a mask.  Even truth hides as illusion, and illusion as truth.  The god of this world, we’re told in the Christian Bible, has the face and name of Liar.  We learn this soon enough, discovering quite young the great power of lying.  It’s a magic of its own, up to a point — a beguiling enchantment.  Some of us never recover.  It’s lies all the way.  But there are other worlds, and other magics as potent, if not more so.  If Circe is “sick of this world,” what can she tell us of others?

Another way of looking at it can come to us in an Emily Dickinson poem.  (What is it with these poets, anyway?!  Liars, magicians, many of them.  Enchant us into the real.)  “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” says the Amherst visionary, and we’re off to the nature of truth seen in a world of illusion:  paradox.  (Maybe truth needs a mask, to exist here at all.)   “The only way out is through,” insists Frost in yet another poem, but in spite of our longing for the Old Straight Path, it’s fallen away from us, and the world is now “bent,” as in the Tolkien mythos.  We can’t get out so easily.

“Success in circuit lies,” Dickinson goes on to say.  In other words, “you can’t get there from here”: the directions are all scrambled, even the best of them.  You travel in a cosmic roundabout and end up somewhere else, not just on a road less traveled, but one apparently never traveled before, until you set foot on it.  Who can help you as you journey there?  No one?  Anyone?  One paradox is that you’re walking the same path everyone else is, too.  Everyone’s having an experience of being on their own.  What we share is what keeps us separate.  Paradox much?  Useful at all?

“Too bright for our infirm Delight/The Truth’s superb surprise,” says Dickinson. OK, so what the hell does that mean?  Well, Circe knows, or seems to.  If every sorceress is indeed a “pragmatist at heart”, then she and all the others who deal in truths and illusions may have something useful to tell us in the end.  Certainly our encounters with truth can have a surprising quality of sudden opening and revelation.  Whether the surprise is “superb” depends in part on you.  But what are we to make of her next assertion?  “Nobody sees essence who can’t face limitation.”   The two negatives “spin your head right round.”  Is it still true if we remove them?  “Everyone sees essence who can face limitation.”

This is without doubt a world of limits, of hard edges, of boundaries we run into all the time, however much we try to ignore them.  Inconvenient truths aren’t the same as illusions.  (We just wish they were.)  Some of the edges cut, some leave scars.  We get away with very little, in the end.  Most of our illusions get stripped away, in this world of illusions.  What’s left?  Emily, Louise, mother-wit, “the sense God gave gravel,” somebody (anybody!), help us out here!!

“As Lightning to the Children eased/With explanation kind/The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind –” Emily concludes.  (Maybe the dash says it all.) Is there any “kindness” in this world of disguises?  Well, if some truth really is, or can be, as potent as the words here suggest, then one kindness is precisely the illusion we complain about.  It’s protection, insulation, a hot-pad between us and the Real, to keep it from scorching our skin, burning our vision.  Mortal eyes cannot behold the infinite.  “No one can see the face of God, and live,”  Moses is told.  Things get scaled down in this world.  The hot turns lukewarm, tepid.  You want scalding?  You were warned.

So what might we take away as a provisional set of guidelines to test and try out, and maybe use, if and when they fit?

1.  Know your worlds.

This ain’t the only one.  Don’t mix ’em, or expect one to work like any of the others.  “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” and all that.  This world in particular revels in concealment.  Spring lies in the lap of winter, and unlikely as it seems, green and warmth will return to this world gone gray and white and cold.  Neither winter nor spring is the whole truth, but each is true in its season.  Time works out truth in a world built of time and space.  “Dazzle gradually,” so you can surprise and startle and reveal intensely … in the end.

2.  Essence and limitation are linked.

“Nobody sees essence who can’t face limitation.”  If we want the truth we seek, and desperately need, and deep-down know already (a particularly maddening truth we reject whenever we can), we find it here in this world, in limits and seeming dead-ends and walls and obstacles and finales.  Death’s a big one.  These are our teachers still, till we’re able to move beyond them.  Really?  That’s the best you can do for us?  Well, got any other world handy? Yes?  Then you know what I mean.  You don’t need this.  No?  Then you’re right where you need to be.  Understand that I’m not speaking from any privileged or superior place.  I know what you know, and vice versa.  Deal.  You’ll notice that I’m here in this right beside you.  As my wife and I remind each other whenever necessary, those too good for this world are adorning another.

3.  Truth ain’t so much obscure or impossible or unavailable or “an empty category,” but it IS often different than we think or want it to be.

We manifest it as we discover it.  We know it when we see it, like pornography or good taste.  Just don’t ask for someone else’s version to guide you, or you’re back to square one.  (As a clue, OK.  As absolute authority over your life?  Don’t even think about it!)

4.  In the end, it’s all Square One.

5.  And that’s a good thing.

6.  To quote The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “Everything will be all right in the end.  If it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.”  Patience is one of the primal and most subtle of magics.

7.  Your version of “all right” will keep changing.

If it hasn’t changed recently, check your brain for clogs.  You may have missed an important message the universe has been trying to tell you.

8. Everything wants to make a gift of itself to you.

The distance between your current reality and that truth is the measure of the Great Work ahead.  This one’s taken me for a couple of l o n g walks indeed.  EverythingGift.  If I resist it, it comes back in an ugly  or terrifying or destructive “un-gift” form.  There are hard gifts.  Each life ends with one.  Still a gift.

9.  Ah, the triple three of nine, a piece of Druid perfection.

The ultimate four-letter word is love.  “A love for all existences,” goes the Druid Prayer.  Get there, and life begins in earnest.  We’ve all been there, briefly.  Time to make it longer than brief.  “Reverse the spell to see the goodness and the power,” to reword Circe only a little.  Still working on these.

In the grove the Druid sits — Part II

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9]

The day was fading into twilight, and I could feel the dew settle around us like a third party at this meeting.  “What is your name, master?” I asked him.  In a grassy spot near us I made a firepit, seeing and touching the rough gray stones, feeling their weight to make it real.  Then I gathered a bundle of sticks and lit a fire, because now there was an evening chill in the air.

“I’ve been given many names.  Some of them I even like,” he said in a wry tone, smiling at me.

Suddenly I knew his name.  “Wadin Tohangu,” I said.  “That’s an African name?”

He nodded.

“You’re an African Druid?  Is there even such a thing?!”

He chuckled at my surprise.  “I travel a lot. And you’re as much a Druid as I am.”

This wasn’t exactly the answer I expected.  And I wondered what he meant.

“Yes, you may call me Wadin Tohangu.  Call on me when you need help,” he said, “or if you wish to talk, as we are doing today.”  He spoke English clearly and very well, but the way he said his name, with the slightest accent, set off echoes in my head.  A familiar name.  I knew it somehow.  How?

“It’s a name you can use,” he said, as if in reply to my thoughts.  He put his hands out toward the heat of the fire.  “It’s as magical as you are.”

“Some days I don’t feel very magical,” I said, and paused.  Time always seemed to pass differently in the grove, both slowly, and faster than I expected.

“That’s one key, of course.  How you choose to feel,” Wadin answered.  “Which things are your choices and which are simply given to you would be helpful to contemplate.  We confuse those two quite often.  And which to be grateful for, we misunderstand even more!”

“How much can we be grateful for?” I asked.

“That’s a question to answer by experimenting,” he replied.  The pile of burning twigs and small branches shifted, settling.  “Gratitude is another key.”

“Choices and gratitude,” I said, half to myself.

The dog started barking again somewhere in the distance.  I swallowed a flash of annoyance.  This was important — I wanted to hear everything Wadin was saying.

“Yes,” he said.  “And a third point is attention, as we’ve seen.”

I looked at him.

“For you that dog is a most useful guide,” he said, laughing at my expression.  “Why not find out his name, too?”

The darkening sky behind him showed several stars.  He stood up.  “Each moment offers what we need, both for itself, and for moving on to the next one.  How else can time pass?”  As I watched the firelight flicker on his face, he said, “Remember these things.”

I looked around at the grove one more time, and when I turned back, Wadin was gone.  I stood up.  Then I moved to touch the altar and said goodbye to the trees.  The fire had died down to glowing embers. I stirred them with a stick, pushing them into the sand of the pit.

The dog was still barking.  So I followed the sound back to my room, where it was coming in through a screened open window.  I heard a car door slam at Jim’s place, and voices.  Then everything was still again, except for crickets chirping in the dark.  I turned on a light, and sat there quietly for  few minutes, thinking about the experience, and writing it down in my journal.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Updated 23 April 2015

Grow Where You’re (Not) Planted

In early June my wife noticed a particularly vigorous shoot rising from an old compost pile beside our woodshed.  The squash plant it eventually revealed itself to be has flourished joyfully, spreading in two directions, while the pitiful growths in one of our new raised beds refuse to be coaxed into thriving.

If life gives you lemons, you could make cleaning supplies, ant repellent, pickles, sore throat medicine, laundry whitener, stain remover, fruit preservative, copper cookware restorative, disinfectant — and if you insist, lemonade, too.  The dead (cliche) comes to life when our attention lies elsewhere.  Practice resurrection, and get used to it.

We hear a lot about growing where you’re planted, but what about everywhere else?  The surprise that is our universe so often arrives with the unexpected, the new pattern, the shift, the change.  Life does a one-off.  It does what it is.  (Isn’t that what you are, too — individual, unique, nothing else quite like you?  The trouble comes when I or somebody else insists you should be like the rest of us.  The universe never “conforms.”  It’s simply itself.  That’s our pattern too.  We are where we come from.)  We stand amazed at the burgeoning of vitality in places we doubted it could exist.  If we have different plans, life may upset them.  A young Christian couple I know, just married, decided they would leave conceiving a child “up to God.”  A friend from their congregation remarked, with considerable glee, “They gave it to the Lord, and he gave it right back to them.”  She got pregnant six weeks after the wedding.

In the mass of asphalt and concrete that is Route 91, like any superhighway, a few weeds have taken root on the meter-high divider between northbound and southbound lanes, a little way north of Hartford, Connecticut.  They’re particularly visible because they happen to be growing just about at eye level as you drive by, and the highway department hasn’t yet set upon them with weedkiller.  I give a silent cheer each time I pass, though I know my tax dollars support their eventual extinction.  Still …  Give them a few years and their roots will begin to split and break down the rigidity of man-made material into the beginnings of something more closely resembling soil.  If there’s an “agenda” at work here, it isn’t always a “human” one, though humans are born into such a world, have grown and evolved within and through its shaping patterns, and have lived in it for millenia before they thought to try permanence on a scale the universe doesn’t really support.

Instead of worrying about “what the financial situation will support,” or what our many and often distinctly weird human institutions “demand,” why not ask what moves in harmony with the patterns of the universe?  The main reason is we wouldn’t always like the answer.  Sometimes we would.  But we might find more balanced and sustainable ways of living that would approach “permanence,” which is just a weak version of natural equilibrium.  Could we devise a “financial permaculture” that might not jolt us from crisis to crisis?  Sure.  Will we?

The Dao De Jing winks at us when it makes its observations:

Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling.
Not collecting treasures prevents stealing.
Not seeing desirable things prevents
confusion of the heart.

The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts
and stuffing bellies, by weakening ambitions
And strengthening bones.
If men lack knowledge and desire, then clever
people will not try to interfere.
If nothing is done, then all will be well.

(Gia-Fu Fen translation)

“Doing nothing” isn’t exactly what Daoism teaches; it’s more along the lines of “unforced action,” or “going with the flow”: wu-wei in Chinese.  And can we expect people to succeed by weakening their ambitions?  I don’t know; have we ever tried it?  In all this there’s a wink and a smile, too.  As if that wise voice is saying, “I don’t always mean this literally, of course, but you get the idea …”  And who knows?! “Emptying hearts (in a good way) and stuffing bellies” might just pay off.  Fill our stomachs, not our heads …

Or take this advice, surely perfect for our U.S. political season:

To talk little is natural.
High winds do not last all morning.

I’ll let Ursula Le Guin’s version of Chap. 27 have the final say here, a kind of diagnosis of how we’ve “gone astray,” that peculiar human thing we can do that the rest of the natural world doesn’t:

Good walkers leave no tracks.
Good talkers don’t stammer.
Good counters don’t use their fingers.
The best door is unlocked and unopened.
The best knot is not in a rope and can’t be untied.

So wise souls are good at caring for people,
never turning their back on anyone.
They’re good at looking after things,
never turning their back on anything.
There’s a light hidden here.

Good people teach people who aren’t good yet;
the less good are the makings of the good.
Anyone who doesn’t respect a teacher or cherish a student
may be clever, but has gone astray.
There’s deep mystery here.

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There are many free versions of the Dao De Jing online; the site from which I drew these few excerpts provides several reasonably reputable versions to sample.  Sustained meditation on the text (get a couple of versions and let them talk across to each other) can ease stress and open up many doorways and paths.  It’s one of my most beloved Druid written resources.  Wikipedia’s entry for Tao Te Ching captures some of its qualities:  “The written style is laconic … and encourages varied, even contradictory interpretations. The ideas are singular; the style poetic. The rhetorical style combines two major strategies: short, declarative statements and intentional contradictions. The first of these strategies creates memorable phrases, while the second forces us to create our own reconciliations of the supposed contradictions.”  If you recall, resolution of supposed contradictions, or finding the tertiary that resolves the binary of “either-or,” is a technique and strategy of wisdom taught in several Druid paths.

Silence and Discovery

My wife has a designated daily mid-afternoon contemplation period at 2:00 pm.  “I made a commitment,” she reminded me again this morning, when we were planning the day and I sweetly noted that her set time conflicted with other tasks that needed doing. While another time would probably serve her better (read “be less inconvenient for the people who live with her”!), I respected her response, because I know how precious an established positive habit is in transforming my own life.

One of the first discoveries almost anyone makes who sets out on a path of spiritual exploration is the apparent initial state of our individual inner worlds.  If you make room for some down-time to relax and grab your recommended minimum daily requirement of silence and commune with yourself, you frequently get brought up short:

After an amazingly short time you will most likely feel bored.  This teaches us one very useful thing.  It gives us insight into the fact that if after ten minutes of being alone with ourselves we feel like that, it is no wonder that others should feel equally bored [with us]! (68)

These words* by Orthodox Christian monk, bishop, writer and spiritual director Anthony Bloom (1914-2003) strike home, for me at least.  While boredom is a particularly American problem, it’s not unique to us.  Others know it, but with our incessant desire for entertainment and stimulation, to be bored is the prime cause that drives us toward whatever is new.  Even information about recent events we don’t yet know about, information which in a different world might actually be more useful to us, is called simply “news.”  “What’s new?” we ask.  Think about what really is “new.”  Are you finding it at 6:00 pm nightly on your media source of choice?

Bloom continues his examination of boredom and the challenges of “inwardness” and stillness:

Why is this so?  It is because we have so little to offer to our own selves as food for thought, for emotion and for life.  If you watch your life carefully you will discover quite soon that we hardly ever live from within outwards; instead we respond to incitement, to excitement.  In other words, we live by reflection, by reaction.  Something happens and we respond, someone speaks and we answer.  But when we are left without anything that stimulates us to think, speak or act, we realize that there is very little in us that will prompt us to action in any direction at all.  This is really a very dramatic discovery.  We are completely empty, we do not act from within ourselves but accept as our life a life which is actually fed in from outside; we are used to things happening which compel us to do other things.  How seldom can we live simply by means of the depth and the richness we assume that there is within ourselves. (68)

Bloom doesn’t exaggerate about that emptiness in us, and yet of course there are indeed wonderful riches inside us all, just as we suspected.  The difficulty I face in accessing them measures out for me how outward-directed I have become.  How much I have to dig to regain one darkly shining edge of those inner worlds shows me where I have work cut out for me.  (And that itself has become one of my spiritual exercises, rather than wasting time feeling guilty or making unlikely resolutions to do better.  When you can’t do anything else, do laundry, or dishes. You’ll get something done that needs doing, ground yourself with a physical act, feel better about how you spent your minutes, and even carve out another space where you realize you can be both meditative and “productive” at the same time.)

As with so many things, balance is priceless.  For everything else there may not necessarily be a spiritual MasterCard at hand, but you get the idea.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (here and here, among others), the challenge of becoming cause in our lives, of living consciously and with intention, is a prime Druid discipline, as it is in almost every spiritual tradition in some form.

Bloom points out an opposite trap we can also fall into.  Now that you’ve given yourself the delicious gift of downtime and reflection or meditation or contemplation, whatever you prefer to name it, “you will not be pulled out of it by the telephone, by a knock on the door, or by a sudden upsurge of energy that prompts you to do at once what you have left undone for the past ten years.”  And you make another find, when “you discover that the world does not falter and that the whole world — if you can imagine it — can wait for five minutes while you are not busy with it.  This is important, because we usually deceive ourselves, saying, ‘Well, I must do it: it is charity, it is duty, I cannot leave it undone.’  You can, because in moments of sheer laziness you will leave it undone for much longer than the five minutes you have chosen” (86-87).

Then at length the gifts of silence and inner discovery begin to open up.  But the less I say about them here, the better.  You already know what they are, from those rare precious moments when they already manifested to you.  What is fleeting can eventually become an atmosphere that accompanies you and cloaks you.  Such deep silence rings with a powerful intensity.  If you’re fortunate, you’ve met someone who radiates this as a living presence.  As the Bhagavad Gita says, “Even a little practice will free you …”

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*Bloom, Anthony.  Beginning to Pray.  Ramsey, NJ:  Paulist Press, 1970.

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Updated 4:31 pm 7/24/12

Earth Mysteries — 1 of 7 — The Law of Wholeness

[Earth Mysteries 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7]

Updated and edited 22 June 2017; 14 Dec 2017

Readers of this blog know I frequently quote John Michael Greer.  As a writer, blogger, and leader of another Druid order, he challenges me to dig deeper into my own order and understanding of Druidry, and examine its teachings more critically, as well as ponder the implications of his cultural criticism.  While his popular blog The Archdruid Report deals primarily with the consequences of Peak Oil, and offers productive strategies for thriving in the coming hard century or more of scarcity and turmoil, as we transition to a post-industrial age, most of his other writing centers on his spiritual journey until now.

As a case in point, his most recent book, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth (Weiser, 2012), is a reimagining of The Kybalion*, published anonymously in 1912.  Greer asserts as his book’s underlying principle that “The laws of nature are the laws of spirit; this is one of the great secrets of the Mysteries.” He reworks the seven principles of the earlier book into insightful observations about spiritual ecology, framed as spiritual law.  Here’s the first one, the Law of Wholeness:

“Everything that exists is part of a whole system and depends on the health of the whole system for its own existence.  It thrives only if the whole system thrives, and it cannot harm the whole system without harming itself.”

The American myth of rugged individualism and self-reliance, part of the cultural story we Yanks have told ourselves over the decades, has served its purpose, and possibly run its course:  it may be more of an obstacle now, in an era when we need cooperation and interdependence more than we need stoic endurance.  We’re interconnected, and what I do affects you. One of my teaching colleagues always used to laugh at the idea of non-smoking sections in restaurants.  “It’s like imagining there’s a non-peeing end of the swimming pool,” he’d exclaim.  “A feel-good label doesn’t make it so.” I cannot harm myself without harming the whole system. But anyone buying wholesale into the myth of individualism doesn’t want to hear that.

Rather than seeing the divine as standing outside nature, here’s a way of perceiving the universe as a single immense feedback loop.  Suddenly the Golden Rule isn’t just a good moral guide, but also blindingly obvious common sense.  What you do comes back to you.  What goes around comes around — not because “God punishes me,” or because of “karma” or “sin” or anything other than what goes in, comes out.   Computer programmers know it as GIGO:  garbage in, garbage out.  Maybe it’s time for LILO:  love in, love out.  As long as we see the world as a collection of separate, discrete individuals rather than an interconnected series of networks, we’ll kill, abuse, pollute, steal, etc.  And likewise, as long as we believe that we should be free to do something that “doesn’t hurt anyone else,” we live in illusion.  Everything that each of us does matters to all the rest of us.  We’re interconnected, linked up to each other in astonishing ways that we’re only beginning to discover.

At first this seems to dump all the guilt for why things suck squarely on our shoulders, and a lot of people today are sick of guilt.  Rightly so:  it doesn’t accomplish anything except to poison the heart and to distract us from moving forward.  It’s only useful if it goads us into constructive action and that’s rarer than it should be.  But guilt isn’t the same thing as responsibility.  Accepting responsibility is the death of victimhood.  If I begin to see that everything I do has an effect, a consequence, then my life matters in a way it may never have seemed to matter before.

To put it another way and quote a Wise One, “If nothing we do matters, then the only thing that matters is what we do.”  In the midst of nihilism and cynicism and hopelessness, each word, thought, deed and feeling carries weight, shapes the universe for good or bad, and leaves a trail, a wake, a ripple, that will flow outward from my life now and also after I am gone.  I matter, and so do you, simply by virtue of being alive and here in this place, now.  To not choose to act, or to act foolishly and blindly is to waste a priceless opportunity to contribute to the commonwealth, the res publica, the Republic, this shared world of ours.

Who among us can deny that even small acts of kindness or cruelty committed by others have an effect on us out of all proportion to their apparent scale?  Can we then imagine for a moment that our own acts don’t set in motion a similar set of ripples?  We don’t have to be “big” to matter.  Love has no size.  Any is much.  Blessed be this life, gift to others and ourselves, chance to act, to love, to participate in the Web, to leave ripples at our passing, to vibrate the strands with our existence and choices, to play on life and pluck its melody, note by note.

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Image of Mystery Teachings:  Amazon.com

You can read the Kybalion online and download a PDF of it.

Image:  ripples.

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