Archive for the ‘Thoreau’ Tag

Ice and Fire   Leave a comment

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[Out our front window. Standing in place and turning 180 degrees, adjusting the camera for contrast, the window of our stove.]

The Atlantic online recently posted an article titled “Awesomeness is Everything” asserting that the experience of awe makes people kinder, tunes them in spiritually, and generally adjusts our overly-human world by clueing it in to larger ones all around it.

As vastness expands our worldview, it shrinks our ego. Awe makes spiritual and religious people feel a greater sense of oneness with others. And this oneness can make us nicer: Researchers found that inducing awe—say, by having people stand in a grove of tall trees—increased generosity, in part by stoking “feelings of a small self.” Awe also shapes our sense of time. One series of studies found that awe made time feel more plentiful, which increased life satisfaction, willingness to donate time to charity,and preferences for experiences over material products.

In winter, my physical world contracts significantly. True, a car could take me to other places, but unless I have the time and resources to drive south for most of a day, the climate will stay much the same. Ice and fire predominate, returning this human life more closely to proper proportions.

Posted 20 December 2016 by adruidway in awe, Druidry, fire, ice, Thoreau, wood and water

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Becoming an Ancestor, Part 2   2 comments

So this topic, it appears, is not done with me yet.

spong‘The task of religion’, writes retired Bishop John Shelby Spong,

is not to turn us into proper believers; it is to deepen the personal within us, to embrace the power of life, to expand our consciousness, in order that we might see things that eyes do not normally see. It is to seek a humanity that is not governed by the need for security, but is expressed in the ability to give ourselves away. It is to live not frightened by death, but rather called by the reality of death to go into our humanity so deeply and so passionately that even death is transcended.

I admire Spong because so often he points toward values Pagans have long espoused and appreciated in other spiritual paths. (Whether Spong is in fact still Christian in any widely understood sense is for others to determine who concern themselves with such labels.)

Lorna Smithers comments on Part One:

A question this raises for me is what makes one a ‘good’ ancestor as opposed to a ‘bad’ one. Is being ‘good’ not a Christian concept? What would it mean a Druid/Pagan context? Something that springs to mind is Emma Restall-Orr’s phrase and book title ‘Living With Honour’.

Spot on. I’ve been a fan of Restall-Orr’s work since I first ran across it. For me, and I suspect many other Druids and Pagans generally, a ‘good’ person is indeed one who aspires to a life of honor.

I’ll return to Restall-Orr near the end, as a springboard, because that’s what I do with her writings generally. But here I want to look at what Spong offers as an outline for just such a life, to see what I can glean from this passage, from the thought of a ‘friendly outsider’ to Druid and Pagan thinking, and where I can go with those insights. Sit with me a little?

1–‘deepen the personal within us’: We’ve met and known people who keep growing throughout their lives, and one measure of this growth is that over time they become ever more deeply themselves. You can’t reduce this to a pat formula or recipe, though it is a quality we recognize in others when we see it. Those who listen to their depths gain a source of direction and clarity that strengthens their identity as a human being. We can detect it when it spills over into their daily actions and their treatment of others.

Call it spirit, conscience, listening to your guides or gods, Thoreau’s oft-cited ‘different drummer’, there’s integrity to such a life. Here’s the Thoreau’s passage from Walden — adjust for gender as needed:

‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple-tree or oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality’.

Indeed, ‘vain reality’ strikes altogether too close to home for much we can find around us. We know from personal experience that it’s easy enough to get shipwrecked there. ‘Step to the music we hear’, then, is another way to put it. No OSFA — ‘one size fits all’. Such individuals stand out as all the more admirable because we have fewer models nowadays for such a life. Or perhaps they’re always in short supply.

A few words on the How of it: I’ve found these practices helpful in my own experience, and felt the lack of them the more keenly the longer I let them slide: daily contemplation, time spent in the natural world, listening and silence, a craft or skill practiced purely out of love, community service, doing one thing each day without thought of ‘what’s in it for me’, dream study, ritual observance, humor. Joining the Tortoise Order of Druidry — (very) slow and (reasonably) steady.

2–’embrace the power of life, to expand our consciousness, in order that we might see things that eyes do not normally see’: OK, I’ll bite. What is the ‘power of life’? Most Druids and Pagans would assent to this advice. I know I do, but I want to interrogate it as well. My crap-detector just went on high alert. Does merely being born qualify — does it present us with the ‘power of life’? Or what distinguishes this ’embrace’ from me just being a complete asshat and take-take-taking? Quite clearly, it’s the expansion of consciousness that enables a more penetrating vision. For if I go deeply within, I can begin to see more deeply around me. I touch what is most universal in what is most personal. If I’m not doing that, I’m not embracing the power of life. But what does that look like from outside? Vitality paired with vision.

What do the Wise among us perceive? What they’ve always perceived: the wellsprings of life lie in cause and effect, pattern, equilibrium, spiral, departure and eternal return — a movement and an order to things that contemporary life has largely abandoned, and yet which contemporary discoveries have also begun to confirm about a very old worldview indeed.

A few words on the How of it: By keeping up practices like the ones I mentioned above, I find I can more easily distinguish ‘me at my better’ and ‘me at my less than better’. Then my four-part strategy (one for each of the Quarters!): noticing the difference, assessing its cause, accepting responsibility and asking for help go very far towards maximizing what contributes to growth and widening of consciousness and compassion.

3–‘seek a humanity that is not governed by the need for security, but is expressed in the ability to give ourselves away’. Right, then — in place of fear or self-preservation, generosity and boldness. A kind of ebullience in the face of difficulty. We know it’s often those with little who will share most readily what they have. Every culture I know of cherishes hospitality among its values, and takes pride in the welcome of guests. But what does it mean to ‘give ourselves away’?

I’ll hazard a guess that it’s what Hinduism and Buddhism call dharma, which often gets awkwardly under-translated as ‘duty’ or ‘righteousness’ — better, perhaps, is living in accord with that ‘deep reach into the personal’ and that ’embrace of living’ which Spong’s already mentioned.

The U.S. Army makes it into the macho-meme catchphrase ‘Be all you can be’, but it’s not merely military testosterone lockstep cloaked as self-fulfillment. Scholar of Hinduism J. A. B Van Buitenen characterizes it as ‘neither act nor result, but the natural laws that guide the act and create the result to prevent chaos in the world. It is the innate characteristic that makes the being what it is … the pursuit and execution of one’s nature and true calling … it is the dharma of the bee to make honey, of cow to give milk, of sun to radiate sunshine, of river to flow.’

We can refuse our dharma. For humans, it is, after all, a choice. What moves a person seeking honor to follow such a dharma or cosmic principle of inner and outer harmony?

A few words on the How of it: here’s a quotation I used to carry around in my wallet. ‘One who counts his talents and volunteers from a position of strength does not know what service and the sacred are all about’. That may sound judgmental to you, but it helped remind me I never have to be perfect to serve. No one is. Just willing.

4–‘live not frightened by death, but rather called by the reality of death to go into our humanity so deeply and so passionately that even death is transcended’: the fourth value, as I understand Spong here, is a passionate courage that grows out of the previous three values. Look deeply into the self, and I will witness our common bond, the power of life that links all things, that joins me to other people and beings. From this I will long to give back, because that is what this life energy does constantly — to share what I have, knowing death brings no ending to this surge of cosmic energy flowing everywhere around me. To serve life in ways consistent with the previous three principles.

(Wait a bit longer for my fourth entry of ‘words on the How of it’.)

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Doreen Valiente’s ‘Charge of the Goddess’ offers eight virtues that have appeared in statements of values among Wiccans and Witches: ‘And therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you’. You can find a helpful discussion of these at Witchvox here. And Asatru has its ‘Nine Noble Virtues’, which you can explore at Sacred Texts here.

restall-orrHere are the words of Emma Restall Orr, whom Lorna mentioned earlier: ‘As a spiritual tradition based on reverence for and connection with the powers of nature, more than anything else Druidry teaches us to honour life … Druid ethics are built upon the release of ignorance and the respectful creation of deep and sacred relationships’ — Emma Restall Orr, Druidry and Ethical Choice. ‘Release of ignorance, creation of sacred relationship’ captures it beautifully. These twin principles follow each other in a potent circle, one leading to the other.

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A final personal note. I’ve started working with a teacher placement agency to find a position, and one of the supporting documents we’re strongly encouraged to include in our online files for schools to access is a ‘personal statement’ — something beyond the letters of reference, school transcripts and mostly colorless standard application details.

A personal statement is a reflection of your philosophy of education, your belief system in terms of pedagogy, and/or your ideas about teaching and/or administration.  It is a way for your voice to shine through  your file and reach out to potential schools … In sum, the personal statement is a way for you to add personality and depth to your candidacy and to convey how your background and accomplishments have prepared you for your next professional opportunity.

A few words on the How of it: My statement became ‘Eleven Strands of Philosophy’. The last ‘strand’ quotes and comments on the final lines from Dante’s Paradiso, because they succinctly capture at this point in my life where I hope to arrive, like Dante’s pilgrim self, having traversed three worlds and returned to this middle earth we love: ‘… by now my desire and will were turned,/Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,/By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’.

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Images: John Spong; Emma Restall-Orr.

Note: this post is punctuated (but not spelled) following British or ‘logical’ conventions because they really do make more sense than American ones.

Jedediah Purdy’s “New Nature”   2 comments

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Jedediah Purdy

In “The New Nature” (Boston Review, Jan 11, 2016), author Jedediah Purdy opens provocatively when he asserts that the current age “adds nature to the list of things we can no longer regard as natural.” His essay’s not easy going, but it definitely rewards close reading — and re-reading. Purdy’s ultimate argument is that with the profound impact of our human presence on the planet, “nature is now a political question.”

How he pushes beyond this seeming truism is significant. Those of us alive today “confront the absence of political institutions, movements, or even widely shared sentiments of solidarity and shared challenges that operate on the scale of the problems concerning resource use and distribution we now face.”

ostrichesOf course, the challenges that humans have faced throughout our history frequently outpace our existing institutions, wisdom and capacity to take effective action. That’s one workable definition of “crisis,” after all. And the compulsions and sufferings of a crisis often catalyze the formation of just those institutions, wisdoms and capacities. (They also fail to do this painfully often, as we’ve learned to our cost.)

But Purdy’s contention goes beyond apparent truism or the obvious. Our current ecological predicament takes its shape as part of the third of three “revolutions of denaturalization.” The first of these is the realization that any political order is a human choice. The “divine right of kings” is out; flawed human agency is in. Whatever is “natural” about “the way things are” is what we’ve made and accepted. It decidedly does not inhere in the universe. It is not the will of any deity. (The caliph of Daesh/ISIL has no more claim to legitimacy than a local mayor. Humans put both of them in power. Humans can take them out.)

The second revolution, not surprisingly, concerns economics. Like politics, the “natural order of things” in a given economy is anything but natural. People aren’t destined by some cosmic law to be laborers, leaders, warriors, wealth-bearers, priests, etc. Humans choose how to feed and house themselves, what things have value, and who can gain access to them. Though nowadays we define prosperity in narrow terms, as one of my favorite political writers C. Douglas Lummis points out, “How and when a people prospers depends on what they hope, and prosperity becomes a strictly economic term only when we abandon all hopes but the economic one.”* Hope for more than a paycheck means a life based on more than money.

The third revolution hinges on nature. Purdy notes, “Both politics and the economy remain subject to persistent re-naturalization campaigns, whether from religious fundamentalists in politics or from market fundamentalists in economics. But in both politics and economics, the balance of intellectual forces has shifted to artificiality.” So too is “nature” subject to deification and renaturalization, and here the implications for modern Paganism and Druidry hit home.

Given the modern reflex abhorrence in many “organic” quarters towards anything “artificial,” it may take you a moment, as it did me, to move past such associations and hear what Purdy is actually claiming. To put it another way, keep doing what we’re doing, and we’ll keep getting what we’re getting. No god or demon (or magical elemental, set of “market forces” or cosmos) orders things this way — we do. Gaia, the clear implication is, won’t come to our (or Her) aid.

A religious re-naturalization of nature is therefore insufficient, whether it’s the RDNA (Reformed Druids of North America) gospel of “Nature is good” or Pope Francis’s emphasis on a divinely-ordered world of which we ought to be more compassionate stewards. Insofar as such a renaturalization or resacralization is part of any Druid program or agenda, it’s insufficient and perhaps even an obstacle. Only a political response, Purdy maintains, can begin to be adequate to the challenges of the Anthropocene Epoch– the human era we’re now in.

inwild-thorThus, Purdy points out, “Even wilderness, once the very definition of naturalness, is now a statutory category in U.S. public-lands law.” The Sierra Club still markets this (outdated, in Purdy’s perspective) view as one of its touchstones: “In wilderness is the salvation of the world.” (By way of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, paraphrasing Thoreau’s Walden; Thoreau actually wrote preservation.)

We often uncritically hold to a romantic (and Romantic) notion of the natural world as pure or unspoiled, a realm or order which is, at least in a few surviving locations, uncontaminated by human agency. But, Purdy continues, “as a practical matter, ‘nature’ no longer exists independent of human activity. From now on, the world we inhabit will be one that we have helped to make, and in ever-intensifying ways.”

Purdy is not anti-nature by any means, as a cursory reading of his essay might at first suggest. He’s not a foe to demonize or take down on Twitter, if you’re a radical Pagan/environmentalist. But the challenges he depicts are real. As a Druid I need to pay attention when he writes things like this:

To invoke nature’s self-evident meaning for human projects is to engage in a kind of politics that tries, like certain openly religious arguments, to lift itself above politics, to deny its political character while using that denial as a form of persuasion. It is akin in its paradox to partisan mobilization in favor of constitutional originalism, which legitimates solutions to political problems by recourse to extra-political criteria—in the present case, what nature was created to be, or self-evidently is.

Such arguments succeed by enabling their advocates to make the impossible claim that only their opponents’ positions are political, while their own reflect a profound comprehension of the world either as it is or was intended to be.

Is nature (or Nature) “self-evidently” anything? If so, what? Do Druids and Pagans generally have any special insight to share that can respond to views like Purdy’s with any kind of authority or credibility? Can we demonstrate a “profound comprehension of the world” in terms that matter and more importantly will shape policy? For environmentalists (and for Pagans, though Purdy doesn’t name them), “inspiration and epiphany in wild nature became both a shared activity and a marker of identity. They worked to preserve landscapes where these defining experiences were possible.”

Install-DemBut throughout human history, Purdy notes, various and successively changing ideals of nature have underpinned diverse economic and political arrangements that always consistently disenfranchise a designated fraction of humans. Whether slaves, minorities, women, aboriginal peoples, immigrants, certain racial or ethnic groups, someone always gets the short end of the stick from these idealizations of “nature.” To hold the natural world to anything but a democratic politics, Purdy says, is to exclude, to perpetuate injustice, and to oppress.

However, Purdy goes on, if we abandon an idealized nature,

if we embrace not just the Anthropocene condition but also the insight—if we accept that there is no boundary between nature and human action and that nature therefore cannot provide a boundary around contestation—we may have the basis of a democratic future. It will be democratic in the double sense of thoroughly politicizing nature’s future and recognizing the imperative of political equality among the people who will together create that future.

Whether a thoroughly politicized nature can aid us in creating a just future is an experiential question. We’ll prove or disprove it by political action rather than by theologizing about nature. (Yet every time we’ve attempted to discount a religious or theological view, it has returned in surprising force. Should we abandon theology for activism?)

In attempting to outline what a future democratic politics of nature might look like, Purdy offers the Food Movement as a kind of Exhibit A. Though the movement can be reduced to or parodied as privileged (mostly white) humans indulging in artisanal cheeses and wines at prices no one outside the 10% can afford, it marks the beginnings of much more, and

includes a number of elements that might be generalized to help shape the politics of the Anthropocene. First, it recognizes that the aesthetically and culturally significant aspects of environmental politics are not restricted to romantic nature but are also implicated in economic and policy areas long regarded as purely utilitarian. For example, a beautiful landscape worth preserving so that people can encounter it need not be pristine: it could be an agricultural landscape—preserved under easements or helped along by a network of farmers markets and farm-to-table organizations—whose cultural contribution is that people can work on it.

One problem with past policy is a fragmentation that separates and de-couples landscape from economy. The land is not merely a neutral resource. “The most credible food politics would combine an aesthetic attention to landscape with a concern for power and justice in the work of food production … [and] “ask what kinds of landscapes agriculture should make and what kinds of human lives should be possible there, so that the food movement’s interest in landscape and work is not restricted to showpiece enclaves for the wealthy.”

This blog and many of its concerns come under critique when Purdy remarks

It is too easy to say that, in the Anthropocene, we have to get used to change—a bromide that comes most readily to those with some control over the changes they confront—when the real problem is precisely how to build politics that can make the next set of changes more nearly a product of democratic intent than they currently seem destined to be.

addpostI write from a decided position of privilege. So, of course, does Purdy. He and I both belong to that tiny minority on the planet “with some control over the changes they confront.” And if you’re literate and have time to read blogs and access to the technology where they appear, so do you. Though some days it may not feel like it, we have the luxury to question why and imagine how and even manifest what next.

Here on this blog I contemplate and explore a minority practice and belief, and try to make sense of my experience and the historical period I find myself in. To blog at all is to write from time left after making a living. How many of us have that? Besides, if everyone talks, who listens? Blogs ideally create dialog. But often a blogger like me can be guilty of doing more talking and less listening. (It’s ideally a balance rather than a binary opposition.)

Purdy notes in that last excerpt that he spies a definite trend or direction. He hopes “the next set of changes [will be] more nearly a product of democratic intent than they currently seem destined to be.” And he ends with a curious bow that seems to evoke much he has taken pains to empty of force.

Even that thought, however, is a reminder that this is only a fighting chance, part of a fighting future. The politics of the Anthropocene will be either democratic or horrible. That alternative is no guarantee that a democratic Anthropocene would be decorous, pleasant, or admirable, but only that it would be a shared effort to shape our more-than-human future with human hands.

Is there no alternative between democratic or horrible? Isn’t our own era an example of both? And what is that “more-than-human” future he says that we will shape with our own less than godlike human hands?!

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IMAGES: Purdy; ostriches; “in wilderness” quotationinstalling democracy; add new post.

*Lummis, C Douglas. Radical Democracy. Cornell University Press, 1997.

[I happened on Lummis years ago and have been grateful ever since. A professor of cultural studies at Tsuda University in Japan, Lummis, who has spent much of life overseas, ably critiques Western trends and politics from the vantage point of an inside-outsider. Most of his work has been published in Japan, and often in Japanese — and hence he’s not as widely known in the West as he deserves.]

 

Boku no Shinto: My Shinto, Part 2   Leave a comment

[Shinto & Shrine Druidry 1 | 2 | 3] [Shinto — Way of the Gods ]
[Renewing the Shrine 1 | 2] [My Shinto 1 | 2]

PYogananda

Paramahamsa Yogananda

“Its technique will be your guru.” With these words (ch. 11 of his famous Autobiography, online here), a young Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), founder of Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) and a principal exponent of Kriya Yoga in the West, counsels a peer he has just initiated into the tradition he follows himself. With these words he also points toward a kind of spiritual path that Westerners, rightly wary of super-sized personalities and god-realized con-men, can approach and walk.  A flexible and potent technique can be a trustworthy, profound and endlessly patient guide.

Technique as guru:  as a practitioner of OBOD Druidry and Eckankar, I know firsthand that a technique responds to practice and devotion as much as any teacher.  Religious and spiritual practice will always be as much art as science, because they welcome (and can profoundly benefit from) our subjectivity, even as they also point to their scientific aspect — definite and repeatable results we can achieve from dedication and regular practice.  My emotions, my commitment, my ambition and drive, my struggles and dreams can all contribute to my practice — leaven it and enrich it and make it “mine.”

my double -- b/c we were both angry at each other

“other” as double: both of us angry at each other

My anger at the driver who cut me off in traffic last week, on my way back from dropping my wife off to stay with her cousin, can help me uncover other unexplored pools of anger I can work to identify, learn from, and transform.  Anger by itself need not be bad, only unconscious anger, anger I act from unthinkingly, little different from a live wire I brush against in the dark, unintentionally — or attach to a light fixture and illuminate another step along the way.  Without the experience of anger, I might well miss the wire altogether, and forfeit a chance at illumination.

I can, if I listen, come to see that my whole life is laboratory — not only what I close the door on at 4:00 or 5:00 pm each weekday and return home from.  The individualistic-narcissistic-tending “MY spirituality” gets whittled down to more beneficial size through ongoing spiritual practice. And paradoxically reveals a personalized curriculum tailored to me, right now and here.  Anger?  Yup — that’s on my curriculum, though it may not be on yours.  And my life is ideally set up to help me work with precisely that curriculum point, just as yours is for your distinct points.  Yes — we share a “common core,” too.

compost is transition

compost: just another point along a transition

A practice like Druidry that places me in the natural world immediately begins to slim down ego in concrete ways and immediately accessible ways:  merely walk out the door, and at once it’s clear I’m not the center, nor even the “most important” thing in the universe.  I constantly meet the “spirit other”: animals, birds, trees, and beings without skin on — or bark, or fur, or scales.  I am a paragraph in a chapter, not the whole story. And that’s a good thing, because the world is guru, too. Hard limits of some kind are the only way a world can work (try seriously to imagine one without them), but if I engage them wisely, they build spiritual strength rather than frustration, nihilism and despair.  This physical body is eventual compost, like everything else: but not yet.  And this interval is all.  (Whether it is also “only” is an experiential question, one which only experience can accurately answer, not some dogma to be believed or rejected.)

“My Shinto,” my Way of the Spiritual Order of Things — let’s call it WOTSOOT — begins with the circumstances of my life today.  Here I am, a 55 year-old white male, a teacher, a cancer survivor, married, nearsighted, in fair health.   The initial details of your personal WOTSOOT naturally vary less or more from mine.  They’re also often quite superficial — party chitchat, gossip in my cul-de-sac. Because I am also a point and vector of conscious energy situated in widening networks of energy exchange.  I breathe, and chlorophyll all around me gets inputs it needs.  Bacteria on my skin and in my gut flourish, and help me flourish too, if I stay alert to their balance. I sweat and crap and piss, and nutrients move where other beings can begin to use them.  I consume some of these other beings — not too many, if the system is to remain in equilibrium — just as some them will consume me.  New networks arise, as older ones shift or die.  And part of my practice is: all praise* to the WOTSOOT!

Such processes of the physical realm are both fairly well understood and all too rarely incorporated into larger networks that spiritual teachings of all kinds tell us glow and ripple and transform and pervade the universe.  Scientific insight begins to catch up here and there with spiritual wisdom.  Not dogma, not theology, not creeds — that’s merely paparazzi spirituality — but insights into living networks — the shin-to, the “spirit-way.”  As I write and you eventually read this, we use an electronic network we’ve crafted that simulates in surprising ways organically occurring ones, and we can acknowledge the remarkable power and potential of such interactive patterns of energy and information flow as analogs to the ones we are born into.
calhobresolution

One valuable key to working with the WOTSOOT that I keep reminding myself of is “small steps. ” This works both as a starting point and a successful process, too. Any attempt at change, on any level, meets what we experience as resistance, because of inertia and equilibrium implicit in networks. (Otherwise, without inertia or resistance, they’d never have a chance to grow and develop at all, shifting and falling apart at the least push or pull from outside.  They wouldn’t become “things,” which are semi-lasting whorls and eddies in the flow of WOTSOOT.)

We all have heard that “If it works, don’t fix it,” which is fine, except that a corresponding inherent tendency toward change means that even as it’s working, it’s also changing, or accumulating energy toward change.  Often the changes are small, and if we model ourselves on this larger pattern, our small changes will accord with the flow around us.  (Small ongoing changes help us avoid really disabling larger ones, that can manage to accumulate a staggering wallop of energy if we don’t make those smaller changes.)

“Change your life,” counsels your friendly neighborhood deity of choice.  Okay: but do it in manageable chunks, unless a cataclysm conveniently presents itself to you, ready-made. I have a profoundly messy office right now: too much for a single day of cleaning, without a herculean effort.  Sometimes I can muster one.  But one box today, one shelf tomorrow? That I can manage most days.  Thus both my spiritual paths exhort me to daily practice. (With two paths, as long as I get in at one least set of practices, I’m usually ahead of the game.   I double my options — and find overlaps and interweave and insight from such doubled options — the paths are no longer nearly so separate, but feed each other and me.)

gmplogo

our local VT electrical utility

In concrete terms of just one network, in one person’s life? — Let’s choose the physical for convenience, since we’ve established and can understand a set of fairly common labels like physical measures.  My wife and I have reduced our “garbage” to an average of 8 pounds a week — mostly non-biodegradable packaging and other non-compostables at this point — and I’m working to bring it down from there.  (Why? Throw it “away”?  Nothing goes “away” — it always ends up somewhere, and the nastier it is, the deeper it usually sinks its fangs in my butt when it returns.  Part of my practice, then, is shrinking my “away” — out of pure self-interest, mind you!)  Everything else we’re able to compost or recycle, thanks to recycling options in our region of southern Vermont. We continue to tweak our car and woodstove emissions by wise use, insulation, consolidation of trips, carpooling, etc.  Infrastructure shifts will eventually impact these, as mass transit improves and efficiencies increase, or whole modes (like petroleum-sourced energy) eventually fall out of use.  Only this February 2014, out of the past 24 months, did we use more electricity than our solar panels generated, so we’re in the black there.  But a chunk of that comes from liberal surplus buy-back subsidies from GMP, our local electrical utility company.

Cap'n Henry T.

Cap’n Henry T.

All told, apart from property taxes, our annual shelter costs run roughly $600 — for firewood.  I mention all this as evidence for one person’s start at working with one network among many — by no means an endpoint, nor a claim for any kind of praise or desire for virtue** or self-satisfaction.  It’s part of practice, a point along a continuum, remembering my practice is both a “what to live for,” and also a “how to live” at all.  And again I repeat: your practice, because you are you, necessarily differs.  As H. D. Thoreau observes, “I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father’s or his mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.”

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Images:  Paramahansa Yoganandathat “other” drivercompostCalvin and Hobbes resolution;  Green Mountain Power;  Thoreau.

*I don’t know about you, but I can feel gratitude without needing a target, a recipient or respondent:  a magnificent cloudy sky or bright flash of plumage or swirling blizzard evokes awe and gratitude I love to express.  Do I need to say I’m grateful to Anyone?  Can’t I simply be grateful for? Of course! Gratitude feels good.  Why deny myself such pleasure?  There’s a motivation if you need it: practice gratitude out of selfishness, because it makes you feel good, if for no other reason!  Or if I choose to thank a spirit or Spirit, that in no way detracts from my gratitude.  A target for it is another kind of pleasure I choose not to deny myself.

**Except for virtue in the older sense of “strength” or “power.”  This kind of “original virtue” is literally “manliness” — what a vir “man” ideally accomplishes that makes him worthy to be called vir — to de-gender it, “what humans do at their best.”  And what’s “best”?  That which accords with the Way, the Tao or pattern of the universe.

Updated: 7 July 2014

DRL — a Druid Ritual Language, Part 1   Leave a comment

[Part 2 | Part 3]

Ritual Language and the Case of Latin

Many spiritual and religious traditions feature a special language used for ritual purposes.  The most visible example in the West is Latin.  The Latin Mass remains popular, and though the mid-1960s reforms of Vatican II allowed the use of local vernacular languages for worship, they never prohibited Latin.  For some Catholics, the use of vernacular reduced the mystery, the beauty and ultimately, in some sense, the sacredness of the rites.  If you visit an Orthodox Christian or Jewish service, you may encounter other languages.  Within an hour’s drive of my house in southern Vermont, you can encounter Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic and Tibetan used in prayer and ritual.

tridmass

Language as Sacrament

The heightened language characteristic of ritual, such as prayer and chant, can be a powerful shaper of consciousness.  The 5-minute Vedic Sanskrit video below can begin to approximate for one watching it a worship experience of sound and image and sensory engagement that transcends mere linguistic meaning.  The rhythmic chanting, the ritual fire, the sacrificial gathering, the flowers and other sacred offerings, the memory of past rituals, the complex network of many kinds of meaning all join to form a potentially powerful ritual experience.  What the ritual “means” is only partly mediated by the significance of the words.  Language used in ritual in such ways transcends verbal meaning and becomes Word — sacrament as language, language as sacrament — a way of manifesting, expressing, reaching, participating in the holy.

chantcoverAnd depending on your age and attention at the time, you may recall the renewed popularity of Gregorian chant starting two decades ago in 1994, starting with the simply-titled Chant, a collection by a group of Benedictines.

Issues with Ritual Language

One great challenge is to keep ritual and worship accessible.  Does the experience of mystery and holiness need, or benefit from, the aid of a special ritual language?  Do mystery and holiness deserve such language as one sign of respect we can offer?  Should we expect to learn a new language, or special form of our own language, as part of our dedication and worship?  Is hearing and being sacramentally influenced by the language enough, even if we don’t “understand” it? These aren’t always easy questions to answer.

“The King’s English”

kjvcoverFor English-speaking Christians and for educated speakers of English in general, the King James Bible* continues to exert remarkable influence more than 400 years after its publication in 1611.  What is now the early modern English grammar and vocabulary of Elizabethan England, in the minds of many, contribute to the “majesty of the language,” setting it apart from daily speech in powerful and useful ways.  Think of the Lord’s Prayer, with its “thy” and “thine” and “lead us not”: the rhythms of liturgical — in this case, older — English are part of modern Christian worship for many, though more recent translations have also made their way into common use.  A surprising number of people make decisions on which religious community to join on the basis of what language(s) are, or aren’t, used in worship.

Druid and Pagan Practice

When it comes to Druid practice (and Pagan practice more generally), attitudes toward special language, like attitudes towards much else, vary considerably.  Some find anything that excludes full participation in ritual to be an unnecessary obstacle to be avoided.  Of course, the same argument can be made for almost any aspect of Druid practice, or spiritual practice in general.  Does the form of any rite inevitably exclude, if it doesn’t speak to all potential participants?  If I consider my individual practice, it thrives in part because of improvisation, personal preference and spontaneity.  It’s tailor-made for me, open to inspiration at the moment, though still shaped by group experience and the forms of OBOD ritual I have both studied and participated in. Is that exclusionary?

druidrite

Ritual Primers

Unless they’re Catholic or particularly “high”-church Anglican/Episcopalian, many Westerners, including aspiring Druids, are often unacquainted with ritual. What is it? Why do it? How should or can you do it? What options are there? ADF offers some helpful guidance about ritual more generally in their Druid Ritual Primer page.  The observations there are well worth reflecting on, if only to clarify your own sensibility and ideas.  To sum up the first part all too quickly: Anyone can worship without clergy.  That said, clergy often are the ones who show up! In a world of time and space, ritual has basic limits, like size and start time.  Ignore them and the ritual fails, at least for you.  Change, even or especially in ritual, is good and healthy. However, “With all this change everyone must still be on the same sheet of music.”  As with so much else, what you get from ritual depends on what you give.  And finally, people can and will make mistakes.  In other words, there’s no “perfect” ritual — or perfect ritualists, either.

(Re)Inventing Ritual Wheels

Let me cite another specific example for illustration, to get at some of these issues in a slightly different way.  In the recent Druidcast 82 interview, host Damh the Bard interviews OBOD’s Chosen Chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, who notes that some OBOD-trained Druids seem compelled to write their own liturgies rather than use OBOD rites and language.  While he notes that “hiving off” from an existing group is natural and healthy, he asks why we shouldn’t retain beautiful language where it already exists.  He also observes that Druidry appeals to many because it coincides with a widespread human tendency in this present period to seek out simplicity.  This quest for simplicity has ritual consequences, one of which is that such Druidry can also help to heal the Pagan and Non-Pagan divide by not excluding the Christian Druid or Buddhist Druid, who can join rituals and rub shoulders with their “hard polytheist” and atheist brothers and sisters.  (Yes, more exclusionary forms of Druidry do exist, as they do in any human endeavor, but thankfully they aren’t the mainstream.)

About this attitude towards what in other posts I’ve termed OGRELD, a belief in “One Genuine Real Live Druidry,” Carr-Gomm notes, “The idea that you can’t mix practices from different sources or traditions comes from an erroneous idea of purity.”  Yes, we should be mindful of cultural appropriation.  Of course, as he continues, “Every path is a mixture already … To quote Ronald Hutton, mention purity and ‘you can hear the sound of jackboots and smell the disinfectant.'”  An obsession with that elusive One Genuine Real Live Whatever often misses present possibilities for some mythical, fundamentalist Other-time Neverland and Perfect Practice Pleasing to The Powers-That-Be.  That said, “there are certain combinations that don’t work.”  But these are better found out in practice than prescribed (or proscribed) up front, out of dogma rather than experience.  In Druidry there’s a “recognition that there is an essence that we share,” which includes a common core of practices and values.

As a result, to give another instance, Carr-Gomm says, “If you take Druidry and Wicca, some people love to combine them and find they fit rather well together,” resulting in practices like Druidcraft.  After all, boxes are for things, not people.  Damh the Bard concurs at that point in the interview, asserting that, “To say you can’t [mix or combine elements] is a fake boundary.”

Yet facing this openness and Universalist tendency in much modern Druidry is the challenge of particularity.  When I practice Druidry, it’s my experience last week, yesterday and tomorrow of the smell of sage smoke, the taste of mead, wine or apple juice, the sounds of drums, song, chant, the feel of wind or sun or rain on my face, the presence of others or Others, Spirit, awen, the god(s) in the rite.  The Druid order ADF, after all, is named Ár nDraíocht Féin — the three initials often rendered in English as “A Druid Fellowship” but literally meaning “Our Own Druidry” in Gaelic.

A Human Undersong

Where to go from here?  Carr-Gomm notes what Henry David Thoreau called an “undersong” inside all of us, underlying experience.  “We sense intuitively that there’s this undersong,” says Carr-Gomm.  “It’s your song, inside you. The Order and the course and the trainings [of groups like OBOD] — it’s all about helping you to find that song.  It’s universal.”  As humans we usually strive to increase such access-points to the universal whenever historical, political and cultural conditions are favorable, as they have been for the last several decades in the West.

Paradoxes of Particularity

Yet the point remains that each of us finds such access in the particulars of our experience.  (Christians call it the “scandal of particularity”; in their case, the difficulty of their doctrine that one being, Jesus, is the  sole saviour for all people — the single manifestation of the divine available to us.**)  And the use of heightened ritual language can be one of those “particulars,” a doorway that can also admittedly exclude, an especially powerful access point, because even ordinary language mediates so much human reality.  We quite literally say who and what we are.  The stroke victim who cannot speak or speaks only with difficulty, the aphasic, the abused and isolated child who never acquires language beyond rudimentary words or gestures, the foreigner who never learns the local tongue — all demonstrate the degree to which the presence or absence of language enfolds us in or excludes us from human community and culture.  And that includes spirituality, where — side by side with art and music — we are at our most human in every sense.

In the second post in this series, I’ll shift modes, moving from the context I’ve begun to outline here, and look at some specific candidates for a DRL — a Druidic Ritual Language.

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Images: Tridentine Mass; OBOD Star and Stone Fellowship rite.

*Go here for a higher-resolution image of the title page of the first King James Bible pictured above.

**In a 2012 post, Patheos blogger Tim Suttle quotes Franciscan friar and Father Richard Rohr at length on the force of particularity in a Christian context.  If Christian imagery and language still work for you at all, you may find his words useful and inspiring.  Wonder is at the heart of it.  Here Rohr talks about Christmas, incarnation and access to the divine in Christian terms, but pointing to an encounter with the holy — the transforming experience behind why people seek out the holy in the first place:

A human woman is the mother of God, and God is the son of a human mother!

Do we have any idea what this sentence means, or what it might imply? Is it really true?  If it is, then we are living in an entirely different universe than we imagine, or even can imagine. If the major division between Creator and creature can be overcome, then all others can be overcome too. To paraphrase Oswald Chambers “this is a truth that dumbly struggles in us for utterance!” It is too much to be true and too good to be true. So we can only resort to metaphors, images, poets, music, and artists of every stripe.

I have long felt that Christmas is a feast which is largely celebrating humanity’s unconscious desire and goal. Its meaning is too much for the rational mind to process, so God graciously puts this Big Truth on a small stage so that we can wrap our mind and heart around it over time. No philosopher would dare to imagine “the materialization of God,” so we are just presented with a very human image of a poor woman and her husband with a newly born child. (I am told that the Madonna is by far the most painted image in Western civilization. It heals all mothers and all children of mothers, if we can only look deeply and softly.)

Pope Benedict, who addressed 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo’s half-naked and often grotesque images, said quite brilliantly, “An essential function of genuine beauty is that it gives humanity a healthy shock!” And then he went on to quote Simone Weil who said that “Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is in fact possible.” Today is our beautiful feast of a possible and even probable Incarnation!

If there is one moment of beauty, then beauty can indeed exist on this earth. If there is one true moment of full Incarnation, then why not Incarnation everywhere? The beauty of this day is enough healthy shock for a lifetime, which leaves us all dumbly struggling for utterance.

Updated (minor editing) 1 April 2014

On Not Straightening a Bent Genius   Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updated 2 Jan 13

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