Archive for the ‘four elements’ Tag

Prelude: Nine Days of Samhain (Beltane) 2021

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Both fire festivals, so fire can feature prominently in both, if you choose.

Nine Days of Beltane? What’s that? Well, go ahead — create it, if only for yourself! Noon for Beltane, dusk for Samhain. Or some other time that fits you and your season.

Often I try to model these things here on this blog, because so much of Druidry is in the doing. I’ll be starting my own Nine Days tomorrow, Saturday — 23-24-25-26-27-28-29-30-31 — ending on the Holy Evening itself, which is after all what Hallowe’en means. I’m posting today, a day before, in case you want to try it out yourself. Or you could start on the 27th, with Samhain/Beltane as the middle day, and continue for four days after for your count of nine. Or try seven days, or five. The point is to make a shape, and then fill it with a practice, with intention, with doing and experiencing and trying on the shape for size and fit, partly to see how well it actually works.

Much has been written recently about how to deal with toxic ancestors (here’s one example). Do a blog search if you need support in that regard. I’m focusing on a few ancestors I specifically choose to remember. As for inviting their presence, if they’re direct blood ancestors, I carry them in me already, in all their messy humanness. And I can make any invitation to a ritual quite specific: to those who wish me well, whom I respect and love, whose legacy deserves acknowledging, whose imprint helps shape me in ways I benefit from. If I need a further reminder, I can look in a mirror. That I’m here at all, I owe to those who came before me, and built this physical form from their own bodies. If it feels right, include a small mirror for the ritual.

Fire works so well at these times because of the major seasonal shifts occurring — whether into early winter, or early summer. In both cases, fire fits. It signals to the unconscious that something profound is happening, that something elemental is one appropriate response. If I do nothing more each day than light a fire — a candle, a lamp, a blaze in the woodstove or fireplace — and sit in silence for a time with that light, that flame, I am opening a portal for memory and inspiration and deep reflection. As the wisest recipes advise, season to taste.

You might find a star meditation a simple addition. If you’ve investigated ceremonial magic, you’ve likely heard of the rituals of the pentagram, of summoning and banishing forms. Here at these elemental times a full panoply of the Four Elements and Spirit is good to recall, to embody, to honor and enact. With nothing else needed but fire and my own body (“earth my body, water my blood, air my breath and fire my spirit”), I have all I need. Anything I opt to add is a gift, an offering. If I choose, as one part of my simple ritual, I can shape a star in the ethers, the akasha, the astral, drawing it with a forefinger, good as any wand. If I need or choose, I can declare my finger a wand for the purpose of ritual. Or search the day before I start my Days of Samhain for a found object as wand or magical tool. Spirit honors creativity, because we’re doing what It does all the time. We’re awen-izing.

Or I may spend that fire interval of each day’s ritual just journaling. I can mark each entry with a star, or do any other rituals that surround my writing. “Here begins the first day of my fire writing …” and I’m on my way for that day’s entry.

When you start thinking and imagining these things, the ritual also starts taking shape.

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Steps toward Elemental Rebalancing

In the previous post I wrote:

With covid, wildfires, floods and political turmoil, the U.S. exhibits profound imbalances in all four Elements. With air transmission of the virus and a mental haze surrounding our responses, with fire in the west and our over-heated rhetoric, with water leaving its channels in flood and drought, and our emotions swamped, and with stubborn disagreement about whose land this is and how we can best inhabit it together, Druids, we have our work cut out for us.

It was one of those moments when the blindingly obvious actually became visible. We’ve all had those perceptions, and wondered why until now we hadn’t seen them in terms that made their focus clear. And yes, it would be nice to think that a clarified and clarifying perception is all I need to move forward. But as you and I also know, by the time we perceive something clearly, we’ve almost always been working on it for a while already, and we usually stand somewhere around midway on the particular leg of the path we’re walking. The next half of the journey awaits us.

Deborah Lipp writes in her Way of Four Spellbook that Spirit

is what happens when all four elements meet and combine. Spirit is the quintessence, the “fifth essence,” the original elemental whole from which the other elements emerged. Elementals have only their individual qualities. For example, Gnomes will only be Earth, and are incapable of acting in any way but an Earthy way; they won’t feel or be willful. And Salamanders will only and forever be Fire; we cannot ask them to be stable or exercise self-control. But people, and other beings with spirit, have the capacities of all four elements, and the freedom to grow and explore in any direction (pg. 16)

By devoting myself to a particular element, I’ll certainly see results. That’s also how imbalances result: push hard into too much of a good thing and soon I’m no longer in “good thing” territory. We may tend to think that only skilled users of magic obtain results, when almost anyone can and does manifest them — just not especially balanced ones. We’re all magicking ourselves into and out of situations constantly. It just may not be particularly gracefully or intentionally or lovingly.

Lipp notes:

… heavy work in a single element — such as several Earth spells over a period of time unbalanced by other elemental work — might call forth the presence of the appropriate elemental. It is important to pay attention to signs of excessive elemental activity in your life (pg. 19).

We can and should certainly work for elemental balance. Earth, air, fire, water — diet, exercise, staying hydrated, work, routines, “getting enough fresh air”, partners, pastimes, practices — these are almost the definition of the whole ” self-help” genre, the workshops and guides and supplements, the exercises and fixes, the “one-size-fits-all” that almost never does. Balance means something different for each of us.

We’ve all had the experience, too, of a remedy that does work — for a time. Then eventually we need to tinker, adjust, modify, adapt — or yield at last to the need to change, or do a complete overhaul. “People, and other beings with spirit, have the capacities of all four elements, and the freedom to grow and explore in any direction”. We might add that people have the freedom and also the need to grow and explore in any direction.

I’ve found it most helpful to begin with Spirit — because that’s where balance originates. Starting with any other element means I’m guessing that’s where I should work. But it’s different with Spirit. In fact, if I’m looking for a definition of Spirit these days, that works pretty well — “where balance originates”. You can see from that definition that working out its consequences in each of our lives may well take different forms. Your balance isn’t mine, just like your diet isn’t. But your balance is much larger and more encompassing than what you put into your body — than any one element — and we can see common threads and components when we compare our journeys.

What does all of this mean in practical terms?

1. I can take an “elemental inventory”. Where has my attention been recently? Does any particular element seem to dominate my experience, concerns, actions, feelings, thoughts? Is that element one that I need to cultivate and bring into play, or one that’s already present and may need to be scaled back?

2. I can explore a solar and lunar inventory as well. Is there a time in my day that needs attention or love? Are mornings hard to get going? Are evenings lost in fatigue? Has a quick “pick-me-up” started to “put me down” instead? Are there monthly — moon — issues that keep recurring? How can I recognize and address and honor some of the larger cycles in my life? What does my birthday mean to me and bring into awareness? What elemental features does it highlight or emphasize? How about other anniversaries and yearly cycles?

3. What ancestral forces are at work? Ask for insight into ones you might be overlooking. How are you yourself becoming an ancestor as you live your life? We’re all working on it — we hardly waltz into exalted ancestor status just by dropping this physical form in death.

4. What “either-ors” and binaries in your life need a good Druidic ternary or third component to open them up and remove them from a cycle that no longer feels productive? What’s a missing third component? What tensions include an overlooked factor that may clarify and illuminate them? What’s one small thing I can do differently? And what difference does that make?

5. How’s your dream life? Yes, many people think they don’t recall their dreams, and that may well be true, so how is the dream content manifesting in other ways — since it always will? Our hidden lives want to connect with our apparent lives and vice versa, and not be left out or ignored.

6. What numbers or other patterns and dynamics are manifesting in your life? Are you seeing a lot of fives or threes or sixes? These can show up anywhere — odometer reading on your car, dates on the calendar, telephone numbers, billboards, license plates, etc. (I just got a new cell phone number yesterday, and am working out the waking dream of its numeral significance.)

7. What ways and avenues and channels do you have in place in your life for answers to any of these things to reach you? We each develop strategies to cultivate insight and intuition and discovery, and we can each find and explore new ones, too. Maybe you daydream in the shower, or maybe music helps you open up to non-verbal wisdom. Maybe a song lyric or meme reaches you with an insight that resonates. A friend’s casual comment, or a divination your carefully work with. A dream practice, or daily ritual, or fortune cookie. Prayer, meditation, chant. The “chance” detour on your way to somewhere else that brings you a new encounter, road sign, time for reflection, etc.

8. With so much attention on “waking up” and “wake-up calls”, how about some “sleep down” time as well? As one hemisphere of the planet moves deeper into the dark half of the year, even as the other is waking up into spring and summer, how can we use this shifting dynamic that is always taking place in ourselves as well? What parts of us need to make this shift, into rest and restoration, as well as animation and activity? Each hemisphere isn’t one thing only — both these tendencies still manifest. As above, so below; as within, so without.

9. Where (and how, and when) does Spirit manifest in my life? It’s present for everyone, and despite some millennia of bad theology and teaching, Spirit isn’t — or need not be — a matter of “belief”. My stomach digests and my liver purifies my blood without any need for “belief” on my part, thank the gods. Spirit manifests quite as concretely and specifically for each of us, and in ways it pays to seek out and honor and relish.

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A Year in Flags

A year ago in October 2020 I added that flag-counter widget to this site, and it’s been illuminating to me to see where you’re from. Not surprisingly, the majority of you hail from somewhere in the English-speaking (and reading) world. But I deeply thank those of you who make the effort to read in what is a second or third language for you.

A blogger appreciates return visitors, but some of you may have followed a link to a particular article, or the passing comment of a friend, and found what you wanted in a single visit.

Pinnacle Hill Trail, southern Vermont

Beyond where the counter records you, I also know from WordPress analytics which individual posts draw the most visitors. Certainly my blog isn’t “representative of Druidry” in any conscious way, and I write what I darn well please. But in light of those qualities I still try to draw conclusions about how the ideas and inspirations of Druid practice have spread around the planet. So it’s good to see that the countries that would most benefit in making changes in lifestyle and consumption and re-connection to the natural world — challenges Druidry tackles head on — also show up prominently in my readership. And you might extend that further and note that if we “follow the numbers”, the U.S. tops the list and outnumbers any other nation by many times in its need for Druid practice, and the immediate value and applicability and benefit of its ways of living and being in the world.

With covid, wildfires, floods and political turmoil, the U.S. exhibits profound imbalances in all four Elements. With air transmission of the virus and a mental haze surrounding our responses, with fire in the west and our over-heated rhetoric, with water leaving its channels in flood and drought, and our emotions swamped, and with disagreement about whose land this is and how we can best inhabit it together, Druids, we have our work cut out for us.

If we look only at nations with visitors in the triple digits or more, we have in descending order (after the U.S.) the U.K., Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany, Brazil, Netherlands, France, Italy, India, Spain, Russia, New Zealand and Turkey. I particularly appreciate the opportunity to connect with you because I assume many of you are returnees, and so I’m grateful you find value in what I write here.

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One Corner (out of Four)

[Part Two]

In the Analects, Confucius (Kong Zi or Master Kong) is reported to have said:

I never try to make people open up [to the world of learning] unless they already have a pent-up excitement about it. Then if I give them one corner [of a problem or point of study], if they do not come back to me with the other three corners I will not involve myself with them again.

Full moon vision to you.

The first time I encountered this passage, I recall thinking that it sounded arrogant, exclusive, etc. Over time, though — especially after I became a teacher myself — I realized it’s just common sense. Not every student will care or bother about things that may in fact be central to their lives either now or down the line. Teachers themselves may or may not perceive this, but it doesn’t matter. Insist, or try to force the issue, and it’s like pouring water into a cup that’s already full. Until you take a drink, any more just spills over the sides and onto the ground. No one benefits from pushing it, and relationships can go sour through nobody’s fault.

This, I’m finding, makes for a very useful seed for contemplation. What corners have I received that may like seeds now be lying fallow, that I can set into soil and encourage to germinate?

After all, nature wastes nothing, though it can at times look incredibly profligate. Plants produce thousands of seeds for just a handful to find a niche, germinate and grow. Many fish likewise spawn thousands of offspring, and most will die or get eaten. Even with mammals, who take greater care of their young, many will never reach adulthood. Yet each living thing, either by its life or death or both, enriches the whole in countless ways we’ve only begun to explore.

The imagery of four is another useful key key: often a corner [of a problem] pokes up in the form of an elemental “flag”. At first glance the details and circumstances of my life seem isolated, fragmented, singular and disconnected from each other. Like a materialistic view of individuals, whatever concerns this one stops at the borders of the skin, and doesn’t touch that one.

Superficially at least, that may well prove true. But life itself often prods us to dig deeper. By that I mean that I may face a health concern, like the flare-up of a skin condition I’m experiencing right now. On the surface — in this case quite literally — it’s “just” a skin condition. Something skin-deep. But almost never do such things come singly, but rather in a skein or network or cluster. How a deeper situation presents itself elementally can be a significant spiritual diagnostic tool. Earth may be the dominant elemental signature of a deeper situation — the “one corner” that widens to show new connections to the other three.

We’ve slowly been learning as a species how a systems approach not only links seemingly disparate events and circumstances, but opens up new strategies and approaches. Formerly invisible but beautifully appropriate and creative responses become visible and possible, once we broaden our vision, once we experience and consider the whole. My skin, my house, my level of exercise, diet, stress level, outlook, toxins around me, etc., all interplay and correlate and function together as a system of interlocking relationships and influences. Pluck just one string of the cosmic guitar, and the whole instrument starts vibrating.

I’ll look at “The Other Three Corners” in the next post.

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The Ground of Our Center, the Heart of Our Earth

Holding (and returning to) the highest moment I know as a flavor for the day. Hearing the awen in the songs of birds, the rush of wind in the branches, the rumble of trucks passing down the road. Opening the door to Spirit in this moment, to welcome the transformations I long for, and have worked to manifest.

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I don’t know about you, but I need to keep grounding and centering all day long. It’s a way to show myself love, when love can seem in short supply.

calendula

The practice of “ground and center” often finds its way into ritual, as part of the “set-up” for the group, to help bring everyone together, to welcome everyone into the ritual space. It also features as part of many group exercises and workshops. A good group facilitator or group leader will include it up front, and often again at the close, to bring everyone fully back into the moment.

Often it takes the simplest form, a short reminder in words. “Let’s take a moment to ground and center”. The act of recalling the need for it becomes the practice of it — think it and you’re starting to do it.

Maybe there’s a little elaboration to guide you: “Feel your roots going into the earth, your branches rising into the air and sun.” But often we assume everyone knows what “ground and center” means, why we do it, what it’s for. Like all fundamentals and basics, it’s good to take it out and look at it from time to time. Probably our understanding of it has deepened and changed over the months and years.

BAM camp

At BAM Gathering preparation campout, Oct. 2018.

Do it enough, and grounding and centering (“G & C”) begins to broaden and take on new forms. A word, a brief prayer, a gesture made with intention can all help (re-)establish attention on the heart. If a ritual or exercise has taken us out of physical awareness, coming fully back to the body is grounding and centering. Stamping the foot (lightly, if you’re in a group) can help. If you practice a ritual of gesture, the opposite gesture for opening ritual space may serve to close it, and “bring you back”. Recording an experience in your journal, eating and drinking, standing up and walking around the ritual space or the room you’re in, can all serve to ground and center.

Christian worship builds in such moments of “G & C” with prayers and affirmations, songs and recitations that “tell you where you are” in the movement through the ritual of worship. The Latin Mass ends with ite, missa est “Go — (the Congregation) is dismissed”. The Wikipedia entry for mosque, citing the Encyclopedia of Islam, notes that “Any act of worship that follows the Islamic rules of prayer can be said to create a mosque, whether or not it takes place in a special building”. The act of grounding and centering can establish our center if we’ve lost it. It returns us to our “native land”, our spiritual home.

The practice of grounding and centering can open up still more. Out of a daily spiritual practice, new doors open to ways of grounding and centering. The guidance can be so subtle I don’t perceive it as anything separate from myself. It becomes what’s now being called “self-care”. Recognizing I need a break from social media, taking a nap, getting outdoors to encounter the elements, walking in the rain, connecting with a friend — these nourish the heart and guide us to do what’s right for us to do. They’re essential ways to ground and center — in that particular moment. From these elements of practice, more hunches, nudges and intuitions may come. Go here, not there. Try this book, resource, doctor, treatment. Reconnect with this person, spend a little more time with that one. Greet the clerk at the store checkout with my full attention, without rush. Ask how to serve quietly (or noisily!) in this moment, then the next. Listening for such answers is itself grounding and centering.

In a kind of paradox that starts to become familiar to us along any spiritual path, grounding and centering can help us discover when we need to ground and center, when we’ve lost balance, thrown ourselves out of whack. They ease us back “in whack”.

With all the talk of out-of-body experiences, sometimes I need in-body contact with the elements. Touching the cool earth with the palms of my hands, taking three deep breaths and releasing carbon dioxide and tension both, drinking a few sips of water, lighting a candle or passing my hand smoothly through flame, can all ground me. With my physical body composed of the elements, each element assists in the centering I need. As above, so below — yes! But also as below, so above. Full-circuit spirituality.

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In some ways, grounding and centering is the only practice there is. Out of groundedness, out of centeredness, we think and feel, speak and act with integrity, with wholeness. Rather than lamenting what I did badly a moment ago, I can ground and center right now.

In this moment, how can I serve?

“Holy, Wise, Obscene, and Joyous”

Today my adjectives arrive in a four-pack, all waiting, ready as a title. Actually, they sojourned toward me last night, but I was too tired to do more than note them and carry them into sleep. (What more to say with them?)

Not a bad way for a writer to compost.

Let’s start with holy, north, and earth. Each of us has a holy place — a home, city, spiritual retreat, dream, relationship, cause, purpose, goal — a place where we can store our treasures and sacred objects, a place that grounds us. (And if you don’t have one right now, you’re probably on quest to find one, among all the other things you’re doing.)

What’s your Jerusalem, your Mecca, your Well of Brighid? What’s your north star, your soul’s home, your rest and your dreaming?

Each of us is a holy place, a sacred discovery we may have great trouble with, not seeing spirit looking out of eyes looking into our own.

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Spinning, spinning. On to the east and late sunrise, courtesy of these long nights before the Winter Solstice. Wise, the east, realm of thought, of reflection. The hard-earned wisdom of every life, things we’ve learned, things we’ve always known, things we’re still discovering. It was among ferns that I first learned about eternity, sings Robert Bly, because deep-down, the echo, the rhyme, is just as important as the meaning. Ah, bards!

Obscene, the south? Work with me a moment. It’s the fire that gets us into trouble, as often as not. The untamed in us will have its way, in spite of our better judgment. “If I repent of anything”, Thoreau quips in Walden, “it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” (Can we also ask, what angel directed me, that I behaved so badly?)

Fire will have our way with us, in spite of other wills, all clamoring for us to do their bidding. Depending on how repressed (or connected) you are, obscene can be your modus operandi — when the going gets tough, you get bawdy. As if the universe finally is playing your song — backwards. Trickster emerges from his burrow, from her mountain pass — one glance and you see you’re twins. You wear each other’s skin. Chaos — because fighting fire with fire. In our native element …

solstice-dp

And West — joyous, the playfulness of water cascading, the tide unceasing, the crash of the surf calling us. Where will water float me to, this time? Pilot for my boat, old friend, let’s weigh anchor and be off again! River, stream, blood in my veins, in these earliest rhythms I know it again, eternal journey. I emerge out of it, I merge back into it.

It asks nothing, it asks my all: “Labour is blossoming or dancing”, sings W B Yeats, “where

The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Dancer, dance — holy, wise, obscene and joyous.

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I spin a quarter turn to the right, then start the cycle again. Holy is now the east, from where the day’s first light blesses us all. Wise is the south, that animal fire un-quenched in us, kindling life, kindling each other. Obscene is now the west: how wet and juicy everything is! — being born, eating, bleeding, loving, sweating, dying. We swim through lives. And joyous is the earth: to be here at all, snow and sun, leaf and love and loss, every place it’s happening, solid, rooted, here.

(Turn another quarter turn to start, then — when you’ve finished, another. How do the Four line up this time? Two meditations for you, to continue two more quarter turns, to look and listen, to explore.)

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

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Fried Tomatoes and You

“There are different ways to fry tomatoes”, begins one utterly inane piece of spam I opened this morning. But it’s true.

Whatever my tomato is — God, sex, politics — one or more of that original neon trifecta, or something else altogether, different ways abound. More than just two roads diverge in the yellow wood of any moment, Robert. (If I’m gonna argue, let me argue with the best.) Continuing the challenge from the previous post, what limiting duality is my task to work on for today?

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The “solar question” for the day in Caitlin Matthews’ Celtic Devotional reads: “Are you misusing responsibility or power?” Is there a missing third, or fourth, etc., or in fact are those always the sole two options to choose from? “Cash or credit”? Or coffee, tea, milk, juice, water, nothing, etc.?

(Incidentally, I prefer guilt to blame, because at least guilt makes me less of a victim. “Which one have I misused this time?!” Because if I messed up before, I can do it differently. But if it’s somebody else’s fault — the blame game — the job’s a lot harder. I have to get them to accept responsibility or exercise their power. Guilt, often, is for the lazy — my kind of people. “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep” said some wise person. So I’m running with the scissors of responsibility, power, guilt and art. What could possibly go wrong?!)

I haul out my table of correspondences and assign each one — responsibility, power, guilt and art — to one of the four directions. Guilt feels earthy, heavy, rooting us in place, rubbing our noses in thing and fact. North it is. Power we’ll place in the south, all fiery and energetic, especially while the Solstice still pulses so brightly. Responsibility I’ll set in the East, that dawning of awareness of cause and effect, that light on our lives that helps us see a path. Art, then, is West, pooling in the emotions and intuition where it’s always ready to leap forth, salmon-like, into beauty and unlooked-for surprise. (Adjust these to taste.)

Or fashion out of the quartet a Triad, chucking guilt and finding a balance of power, responsibility and creativity manifesting in the art of a life lived richly, felt deeply.

So which am I misusing right now? Responsibility or power? The power to act, to fire up my responsibility so that I’m not the unwitting effect of others’ causes, but in fact I claim my human birthright, I originate from my own self a course of action right for me? Or the responsibility to use my power, not to fear it and tuck it away, because it might hurt me or someone else?

In the West, still, women are often shamed for using their power, and men for not using theirs. So we gender power in an attempt to contain it, ending up not with an honest recognition of its many different expressions, but with bitches and bros, power and responsibility both misused in these two common but by no means only possible ways.

There are different ways to fry tomatoes. We tend to think of a perspective, a culture or civilization — if it’s ours — as the best or in fact the only way to fry tomatoes. Given 7+ billion of us humans, not to mention all our other companion species, it’s faintly possible that’s less than likely.

hanged-man

The Hanged Man of the Tarot has been recently in my awareness a lot. I’ve been fascinated how his legs describe a 4 — an image I take to mean the four elements, directions, etc. in balance or harmony. The elemental forces are written in and on all our bodies, but we don’t always live from this powerful awareness, and our resulting imbalances afflict us in a multitude of ways, individually and civilizationally.

If the Hanged Man represents, among other things, self-sacrifice, it’s a sacrifice of limitation — but one which can only happen when I’ve recovered a balance or recognition of the energies at work and available to me. Smaller and greater moments of casting off limitation, of sacrifice of a limited sense of self occur throughout our lives. But it’s vanishingly rare that I can effect self-sacrifice in another person. For that reason alone I find it’s easier (my favorite theme of laziness again  — or, if you prefer, greatest return on investment of time and energy) to work on myself rather than on the culture. Let change flow from my changed consciousness — indeed, that’s how most changes flow anyway, from what I’ve seen. Enough small changes occur, a critical mass builds, and what appeared insoluble, impossible, even unthinkable, tips an energetic balance in mass consciousness, and becomes commonplace. (A handful of us stand up as heroes and heroines, shove publicly to make it all happen sooner, and as often as not are assassinated for our efforts. “A heroic destiny for you is on sale now!”)

This particular version of the Hanged Man expresses such themes well, to my thinking. He’s hanged, but he holds the power and the responsibility. And what lies just beneath him? A pool of water, of the unconscious, perhaps, but also of intuition, of discovery, of autumn, of fullness of awareness, of completion, of harvest. He is just able to touch it. As an image for the coming seasons of the year, the Hanged Man is a worthy guide. We sacrifice most authentically, powerfully, responsibly and artfully when it is ourselves.

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Images: Hanged Man image on DeviantArt.

Four Rituals for Happiness

The prompt for this post comes from a Feb. ’16 article in The Week — nearly two years ago. The inevitable article or podcast or meme about how depressing the holidays can be merits a judicious counterbalance — it deserves an “on the other hand” in rebuttal. So here’s one contribution toward that goal. It may help to read the article in The Week first. Or not — your call.

Now the pop neuroscience that the article’s based on — “Neuroscience reveals 4 rituals that will make you happy”, the title crows — isn’t actually particularly astonishing in itself. But the “four rituals” are interesting because they’re behaviors every human already practices anyway. That means — to me anyway — I’ve already got something to start with and build on. The magical principle here: What we make conscious gains power from focus.

winter scene

Snow, then ice: 23 December 2017

At this point those who think ritual doesn’t interest or concern them may be tempted to turn away. (There is after all a whole Net out there to click through. Go ahead if you need to!) But as anthropologists and neuro-folk have discovered, to be human is to ritualize our experience. It’s as if we each need to wear t-shirts that say: “What rituals are you practicing today?” You know, just to keep the activity in mind. If we’re ritualizing, what are its effects? Is it a helpful ritual? What are we doing?

As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog,

From small rituals like shaking hands vs. bowing, or saying your culture’s equivalents of “please” and “thank you,” to family traditions at the holidays, and outward to public ceremonies like reunions, annual festivals, weddings, funerals, ship-launchings, inaugurations, dedications, etc., ritual pervades all human cultures.

Some of our most potent and invisible rituals shape our daily experience in profound ways. The trick, I conclude, is to domesticate my rituals, expand on the most effective ones, and put more of them to work on my behalf. (By the law of reversed effort, they may become much wilder as a result.)

In fact, we ritualize such a large portion of our days, that when something breaks our routines (read ritual as “habit” here), it may annoy or even anger us as much as it may pleasantly surprise or intrigue us.  Let me find road work or a detour along a customary route, a power outage, a closed restaurant I was counting on (but hadn’t called ahead for, because it’s “always open”), and I’m thrown out of routine, forced to reshape something I’d previously planned and ritualized. We count on ritual to streamline and organize experience. Maybe that’s why we discount magical rituals. Ritual is so commonplace, after all, that it can feel “nothing special” by itself.

It’s what we do with it that counts.

So here’s a Druidified version of the four rituals, each now associated with an element and a direction. The ritually minded can expand on these “core four”, rearrange the associations, and so on. After all, if ritual or magic can’t deliver even a smidgen of happiness, it ain’t worth much.

Earth/North: Practice gratitude.

Give thanks for good things. Gratitude, as my longtime readers know, is one of my go-to techniques. Pairing it with appropriate action helps intensify it — write it down, etc. Earthy forms of gratitude may loom particularly prominently in your awareness right now — sweaters, wool socks, hot drinks, etc. Go for it. Earth the gratitude. Ground it in awareness and in gesture, in action, etc.

Air/East: Name the negatives.

Turns out our capacity for shame, guilt and worry can be productive, says the article. (Good thing, since so many of us specialize in one or more of these. Collect all Three!) And though labelling often comes in for a bad name in our politically distraught and extreme age, it’s one of the things that language is for, what it excels at. One key is the appropriate label: “Name it and tame it”. And “getting a handle on something” can include naming it accurately. And also knowing when to turn off language altogether for an interval — a magical technique all its own. Trance, music, daydream — we hold the reins in our hands.

Interrogating habits, whether “good” or “bad”, can reveal unsuspected wealth both for themes for meditation, and for material for ritual. What we really want can surprise us: going through the motions of a habit can block us from discovering what actually powers the habit in the first place. Studying the habit, revolving it in clear daylight, returning it to consciousness, can teach us much of value. Ritualizing it empowers us to live its full potential rather than shoving to one side, where it collects dust and rust and small rodents as it putrefies. A purified habit is a happy habit.

As J. M. Greer notes,

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

Fire/South: Make a decision.

Starting with small decisions helps me access the spark that follows this act. After consciously telling myself I will do this after writing this sentence, I rise and go put in a load of laundry. I’m back, and the act of getting up literally and psychologically to carry out, to follow through on a decision, is useful to enact and then to examine critically for its effects. A magical insight here: switch hemispheres frequently!

(Perfectionists may want to aim for “good-enough” decisions. Consciously wallowing in mud, working up a sweat, or making some kind of a mess — your choice! — may help defuse some of the OCD tendencies of perfectionism — short circuit it intentionally. Hey, it’s worked for me! Making a conscious decision about something very small can open up clarity on the decision-making capacity itself, without the distraction of the incidental content of the decision.)

If “ordinary thinking and willing are not enough”, there’s plenty we can do.

Water: Touch living things.

So many … loved ones, pets, plants and trees, the green earth. Touch as the most concrete of the senses can take us out of heads and into our bodies, letting the other elements do their work more directly, without all the wards and barriers and avoidance strategies we deploy whenever we practice unconscious black magic on ourselves. Which we do constantly. Connection drags us out of the solitary hells that the West has come to specialize in helping us to manifest. “Only connect!” goes the magical refrain — “Live in fragments no longer” (E. M. Forster, Howards End).

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Change up the elemental associations, and the rituals will shift subtly if not significantly. Armed with the earth of the body, the air of the breath, the fire of spirit and water of blood, we may ritualize our ways to places of surprise and delight. Happiness can’t be an endpoint anyway — it’s a practice to take up and improve.

Firsts, Followers, Magics

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Pine on our south property line

OBOD’s weekly email “Inspiration for Life” offers good advice here, but frequently my question after reading is this: how exactly do I go about practicing any insight it contains? And of course part of any answer sends me back to digging through what I’ve learned. It prods me to open my spiritual toolkit once again.

Here’s a recent weekly prompt, as I think of it, for a possible focus I might take up during the week:

Don’t feel bad about feeling bad. Don’t be frightened of feeling afraid. Don’t be angry about getting angry. There is no need to give up when we are feeling depressed. Nor should we be dismayed at the grief which often accompanies the outgrowing of anything which needs outgrowing. We can be glad that our soul is speaking to us and pushing us onwards. We frequently need to persevere with a period of inner turmoil before the dust can settle and be swept out the door. — Donna Goddard

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First comes an experience, and then any emotional response to it we may have. Sometimes there isn’t one, though often one comes, just not right away. My wife and I moved out of state for a promising new job, quit within a month, and moved back to Vermont in mid-September. In various ways I’ve been dealing with more fallout from that over the past thirty days than I did in late September, when the event happened, or shortly after we returned.

These delays frequently catch us off guard because of the time gap between initial event and response. Then we react to our reactions, without looking at the cause. Sometimes our secondary reaction takes up our attention and energy far more than the original experience or emotion. So we fill too many waking — and dreaming! — hours grappling with the effects of effects, rather than being cause in our own lives. And if like me you’ve truly mastered this peculiarly modern and dysfunctional art, you now feel guilty for a second, third or even fourth-level reaction: your response to your response at emotions stirred by the initial experience. How craftily we perform these perverse and twisted magics against ourselves!

Fortunately, the same skill we use in tying ourselves in knots can serve to aid us in climbing free. It needs only our fire to turn it to our purposes.

So I summon my magic, starting with the Law of Reversed Effort. Rather than resisting the guilt, inertia and listlessness, I realize they’ve become so heavy they start to drop off me, pulled by their own weight and gravity. They puddle in a mess around my feet. Stepping away, I begin to rise, calling for help if I wish from teacher, friend, familiar or other beneficent spiritual presence as I ascend.

As I rise, I pass through clouds, and then suddenly I’m above them. Here the sun shines with an intense brightness I can feel warming my skin. I continue to ascend, the earth growing smaller and smaller beneath me. It’s now a blue-green ball of coolness beneath me, the solar system around me. Then that too recedes. The whole galaxy swims around me, then clusters of galaxies, shining strands of stars and families of stars. Piercing the sphere of the cosmos like a soap bubble, I rise yet further, into another and larger universe. I slow and pause, absorbing the sense of light and freedom and expansiveness.

When I am ready, I descend back the way I came, through galaxies, back to the solar system, back to earth, and down into my body again. When I feel my physical form sitting on the chair, I savor the sense of lightness and ease, and give thanks. Then I open my eyes, savoring the gift, and record the experience.

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In this world rich with experience, it’s fine that I am not always the cause. But it’s immensely helpful, in such an interconnected world, to remember that things don’t happen to me, as if I’m a stone, but for me, because I’m an integral part of the web. It’s feedback for what we’re all doing. Just this shift in awareness can begin to free me to find useful insights, spiritual tools, and paths forward, right in the middle of circumstances that otherwise may feel like dead-ends. Because choosing to be the effect of thoughts about experiences will return me to remarkably useless perceptions, like “That’s just your imagination!” which of course is perfectly true, but not, however, in the sense that this accusation comes.

Imagination is spiritual sight. It’s never just one thing. In fact, it constantly, unfailingly, eternally (internally!), tries to show us multiple, innumerable other ways to see, to perceive, to understand, to celebrate, to create. It shows us ourselves, and everyone and everything else, as we can be. Not in a Disney, fluff-bunny or Hallmark sense, but in the truer sense of potential buried and awaiting all the transformations that human consciousness is designed to achieve and manifest.  Here, where it’s needed most. In the middle of the sturm and drang, the drama, the doom, the headlines, the media chatter. Yes, right in the middle of it all, a birth, a growth, a flowering.

Imagination at work is nudging the roll of the cosmic dice, when the Dungeon Master sets us to establishing who and what we will be in this iteration of the Great Game. Because we know we’re the dice, the throw that sets them rolling, the twinkle in the eye of the Master, and the numbers that come up which we then agree to play with, as well as the Players themselves.

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Or if that package of metaphors doesn’t work for you, fire is always burning. Honor it. We decide what to use it to ignite, warm, inspire.

Air is always breathing and flowing around us. Respect it. We decide what to breathe on, and endow with careful attention, thought, planning, symbolism, imagery.

Water is always pooling and rippling. We decide what needs nourishing at the roots, where the true dream lives, what we deeply feel, and how our hearts guide us along the paths we instinctively know already. Acknowledge it.

Lastly and most kindly, earth is ready beneath us, supporting us, stage for manifesting all we make of our lives from this moment forward. Love it.

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Peering out the windows of this train at strange new territory passing by, talking with curiously-attired strangers in the car, supping with voices and images of beasts and birds in my ears, dozing off with conversations still echoing. You know, the life of a writer obsessed for a time with characters and story.

At 27,201 words, I’m somewhat under my target word-count for Nanowrimo. The lovely impossible experience of any sustained period of writing means the simultaneous tyranny of daily word-sprints and counts and updates and bemoaning the calendar and days passing, along with a complete, blissful disregard for all these things, as I bathe in a refreshing pool under gentle sunlight, that has appeared in the middle of my story, a moment of solitude surrounded by moss and mists and a distant valley calling me to explore.

2: Druid and Christian — Elemental Sacraments

[Part 1|2|3|4|5]

In the previous post I wrote: “In sacrament rather than creed lies one potent meeting-place for Druid and Christian”. It’s this junction that I’ll continue to explore here.

What’s a sacrament? A means of perceiving the sacred. Though every culture has them, in the West our access points to the holy can feel few and far between, even more precious because of their rarity. Of course we’ve trimmed and peeled many of them away ourselves — some too soon, others well after their expiration dates.

 

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Fire worship among the Yi people in Kunming, China. Xinhua News.

Nonetheless, as a doorway, sacrament itself isn’t holy, except by association. It acquires a secondary patina of holiness that makes up part of the uplift we can experience when we turn its way, if it’s still working. For it can indeed be profaned, though the underlying sacred reality it points to is immune to human tampering. That reality wouldn’t be worth much, after all, if we could trample it in the mud.  (And we do our share of trampling. One of the more startling instances comes from Quebecois French, which intentionally repurposes Catholic vocabulary for profanity — including the word sacrament itself.)

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Hence, when “the barbarians are at the gates”, they (we) can destroy things of beauty, reverence and spiritual power, but the reality that gave them birth remains untouched. It will burst forth again in new forms and guises to open the eyes and the hearts of people yet unborn.

Will it? We certainly say and believe such things. Are they merely a kind of whistling in the dark?

One test lies in sacraments themselves. Many of them may receive scant acknowledgement in a given culture. Yet who among us who has deeply loved another person doubts that there is a sacrament made manifest? We can and do sentimentalize it, in part to avoid its sacramental power.

Other examples abound, instances that many cultures hedge about with rituals of word and action. A meal shared with others, a birth, a death, a “first” in a young life: first love, first kill, first sexual experience, first assumption of other adult roles and responsibilities. The fact that in so-called secular cultures we still institutionalize and legalize such things as drinking alcohol, driving cars, voting, joining the military, merely confirms a spiritual fact — awkwardly, perhaps, and blindly groping for its deeper truth, no doubt. That we confer grades of status by age attests to our discomfort with other criteria — ones that require wisdom, vision, insight. It’s easier to grant status mechanically, by the calendar, than to search a heart.

A sacrament, then, because it’s “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace” as the 5th century St. Augustine perceived, acknowledges something that already exists. We don’t create it, though we allow it to take shape and form, to have an impact, because we make room for it in our lives. (There seems to be a Minimum Sacramental Quotient, an MSQ, in every life: we’re all born, eat, and die, even if we shy away from, and struggle to avoid, every other divine intrusion on our human busy-ness.) We can midwife the sacred, and catalyze and welcome it, then, or resist it, but only up to a point. Grace is gratia, gift — and ample reason for gratitude.

When Druids initiate a new Bard, something happens that allows a sacrament that outward manifestation. When a Christian experiences the presence of God in prayer or Communion, the connection with the sacred moves from inner potential to outer expression. We can sense it, often, with our physical bodies. Or in the words of one of the repeating songs from Beauty and the Beast, “There’s something there that wasn’t there before”. Lacking other means of access, many people experience sacraments, or at least a sacramental flavor, in the “profane” world of Hollywood and the entertainment “industry”. So let’s be more profane, not less: pro-fane, standing near a fane or shrine, rubbing shoulders with gods and spirits outside, if not in the fane, or making a fane of our bodies and lives.

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One common friction-point in midwifing a sacrament is means. “What’s your fane?” Deny another’s access-points to the sacred by discrediting their sacraments, and you attempt to own and control and box in what is not, in the end, wholly subject to human will. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “No salvation outside the Church”, just doesn’t work for many people any more. (Not to mention that sometimes what you’re looking for isn’t salvation but something else entirely.)

There’s a Pagan movement towards what has been critiqued as “inflation”, and a Christian one that has been likewise critiqued as “deflation”, of the human self. Pagans appear to deify, and Christians to abase, the self, Both meta-techniques strive to open the doors to the sacred by removing obstacles to sacraments. And making a proper container for what is holy can be a deal of work. Latter-day solutions like “spiritual-but-not-religious” attempt to bypass the need for containers altogether, but they offer their own problems, and containers tend to creep back in.

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Samhain. Hallowed Evening. Masses, rituals for the Dead-who-live. Calling out their names, those who have passed in the previous year. Hear them named around the evening fire.

“Look in the mirror, Ancestor. The veil is always thin.”

“What we have received, we pass on.”

“What do you bring from the Otherworld? And what can we offer you?”

“Assist me to erect the ancient altar at which in days past all worshipped, the great altar of all things” run the words of one Pagan rite.

Introibo ad altare Dei, intones the Catholic priest, using the words from Psalm 42:4. “I will go into the altar of God”.

“Look at the shape of the altar; it is your own consciousness”, says one of the Wise.

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Can we see here the faint outlines of a shared set of sacraments for Christian Druids and Druid Christians? What links followers of Grail, Cross and Star, who long to extend what each does best, sacramental elements, elemental sacraments in the broader sense of components, basic parts, building materials for the Door that is always open, the “Door without a Key”? Jesus says “I stand at the door and knock”, and Merlin waves and beckons from the other side. Earth and water, air and fire, blood and mistletoe, wine and breath, we bring you to our altars.

In our awkward groping ways, we all stumble on and into sacraments. For those looking to learn from these two neighboring traditions, ones with Trees at their centers, maybe one of the first sacraments to celebrate is humility with each other, humilis, an attitude and approach close to the earth, humus. “Earth my body, fire my spirit …”

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Images: Fire worship; “Living water“.

 

West

Here we are, autumn of the year, gathering the harvest of what we have sown, both bitter and sweet. Hail to the West, place of the setting sun, of evening, of fullness and reflection and maturity.

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ECG ritual banner of the West. Design by Dana Driscoll.

West, traditional place of feeling and intuition, and in this cycle, the moon waxing toward fullness, too. I know: in the associations of many tables of correspondence, West is the waning moon. Why not attune to what will light the sky this evening, rather than a pattern that obviously doesn’t fit the moment? Tonight I’ll sit at my fire-circle for an evening contemplation, open as I can to what comes.

With the full moon can come illumination of what was previously hidden. We move in cycles, nourishing some causes and energies in the unconscious, till they move into awareness and we can assess whether they work to our advantage.

Larger cycles concern nations and planetary systems, whole species and immense and intricate patterns, while smaller ones shape our communities and individuals. Disasters and tragedies will keep coming, whether through deeply-rooted patterns in human psyches, or in natural cycles of change, disruption and rebalancing.

After a hurricane, rather than recriminations, it’s most useful to serve obvious need. Likewise after a human tragedy like a shooting. Let my sympathies rouse me to understand causes better, work for change, or open my compassion in concrete forms of aid. Otherwise, am I doing anything more than muddying the astral waters?

Emotional reaction has its place — we feel what we feel — but it can most lovingly be grounded in prayer, ritual and contemplation, and action, for my own good as well as for the good of others. Look to your own self first. the beginning point of all thought and action, counsel my inner guards and guides.

Here’s a first draft of a ritual meditation I’m still working on:

Earth in my hands, my gaze to the horizon,
I cast fear away, hate away, anger away.
clearing the bodies for health.
Water in my hands, my gaze to the wells of spirit
I wash in love, I bathe in compassion, I cleanse with caring,
clearing the springs of the heart.
Fire in my hands, my gaze to the flame of purification
I burn away limitation, I incinerate obstacles, I ignite useful anger,
clearing the will for further growth.
Air in my hands, my gaze to the way of wisdom
I conceive a change, I know a change, I understand a change,
clearing the mind for action.

I don’t say these things because they’re easy, but because they’ve proven themselves to me to be among the best responses over time, and the best ways to take a pro-active stance as well. They’re a practice, something I find worth doing in itself like any practice worth the name, and for healing needed so plainly and deeply.

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After-ritual Inquiry

map30-7-17“So how did the ritual go?”

Site statistics for the last post drew readers from surprisingly varied lands: Vietnam, South Africa, Argentina, Ukraine and Latvia among them. I highlight these simply because their national languages aren’t English (with the exception of S. Africa). Not only are readers there interested in Druidry, but they’re seeking out English-language media that talk about it.

“Show us applied Druidry and we’ll pay attention”, you’re saying.

Here’s a follow-up, an excerpt from my “post-mortem” journal entry after the ritual. Because “feels” don’t really tell the whole story, as you’ll see. How I think a ritual progressed, and the whole picture with every factor included, can be two different things.

First off is the ritual set. You know: state of mind, weather, time of day, preparation. Alert. Noticing many animal presences, especially ants, flies, aphids, grasshoppers. Slightly edgy, the way I often feel when stuff’s going on I know I don’t otherwise notice. (Material for later meditation there.) Weather sunny and clear, 73 F (23 C). Approximately 2:00 pm. Preparation minimalist, with a few objects I was led to choose in meditation earlier that day. (Barely visible, behind and below the cup to the left/north sits a black Cherokee owl cup, containing objects from my first OBOD initiation, along with a symbol of the wild boar, one of my animal guides. (Yes, in one sense this wasn’t “minimalist” at all; I’d pulled out all the stops for this rite.)

Below is an image with the fire lit, a little more than halfway through the rite. I began with a standard OBOD ritual opening: “By the power of star and stone, by the power of the land within and without …”

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In the picture I’m facing East. Directly in front of me is the blue bowl of water for West. To the right, South, the dragon candle-holder, with a green candle.

“Green for South?” I hear the purists gasp. Yup. Why? As one of my friends might say (and spell) it, that’s the color of “the green fyre” of nature. I’d been nudged to use green at our Midsummer ritual. More than the sun, how the Land flourishes under the sun at the solstice says “summer” to me. Your climate and tools differ? Excellent! We’re both learning to listen to what’s in our faces and under our feet and in our hearts.

On the far side of the circle in the East is a deer-bone whistle from Serpent Mound. Its high pitch matched the cry of birds overhead, the wind in the trees. Finally, to the left and North is my Ovate anchor stone and one of several offerings, a cup of milk and a slice of bread (already offered by the time of this picture), white for the northern snow, for Lugh Lord of Light, and for Thecu Stormbringer*, for fertility and harvest both, how we are all nourished from the time we are born, “the fat of the land”. What is it that fire burns, after all?

Dry wood lay ready, kindling and newspaper, too. I’d just said these words “I ask your aid in consecrating this fire circle and the greater circle, that has its center here, its circumference everywhere.”

Out with the book of matches. One after another. Nothing. The fire wouldn’t light.

So back into the house for wooden matches. “Disaster! Bad omens abound! No fire means no passion, no energy for your work. AND you broke your ritual circle!”

Well, no. Remember the part above about the “greater circle”? I was still in it. I pondered the nudge to include this line as I wrote it earlier in the day. And if such “ritual breakage” distresses you in your own rites, you know what to do: cut yourself a ritual doorway, The circle won’t blow away during the few minutes you’re gone.

Sometimes a break in the ritual points to a specific focus for the ritualist to attend to. I took the need to get better matches as a ritual message: when I tend any fire — energy — passion — heat — will — decision — I need to pay particular attention to beginnings, to my tools, to an extra step that might be necessary to assist with manifestation. Fire spoke: any ritual worth its salt links self-as-home together with the ritual action. Fire comes from within as much as from without. Much more useful and to the point than irrational fear of bad ritual mojo.

“I kindle this fire in honor of all the elements,  earth and form and north the altar, air and breath and east the means, water and cauldron and west the capacity.”

At length, after a meditation I’m still reflecting on, the closing, again adapted from OBOD ritual: “As the outer fire dies down, may it remain a pure flame within. This circle is closed in the apparent world. May its inspiration continue within us all, a gift”.

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*In the next post, an update on my work with Thecu of the Nine Paths of Storm.

Part 2: First Seed, Outward Leaf

[Part 1: Frequency-Matching for Love and Money]

When I wrote earlier this year in May, reviewing the first Mid-Atlantic MAGUS Beltane Gathering, I noted briefly how “the initial inward glimpse of the Gathering came to one of the organizers almost a decade ago.  There’s yet another indication, if I need the reminder, of the possible time-gap between first seed and outward manifestation.”

For this post, let’s substitute “frequent” for “possible”. Life on earth often means adapting to that pace — that’s a large part of “growing up”, working patiently with the gaps between seed and manifestation. Life in the “fast lane” is precisely that — unearthed, out of harmony with the planet, with embodied existence in general. The old tradition of letting the land lie fallow, to restore its fertility as well as to rest, testifies to this ancient understanding. Even as we try to increase the pace of change here for our own benefit, the land, like humans, need breaks from busy-ness. Land unbusied by humans is “wild” going about its own concerns that do not need humans. So much that we find restorative in wilderness stems from its rootedness in its own rhythms, in a pace it sustains through countless ages. Attuning to that pace, as so many traditional cultures show us, is health-giving. Yet all wild landscapes change, too.

throught he mother stone -- Wendy Rose Scheers

photo courtesy Wendy Rose Scheers

Earth following its own nature brings things forth “in season”. There’s a time for everything, and everything in its time — and we say the same thing, even more, about place.  Even at death, that instant of change, we work with liturgies which (re)assign places: we hear “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. Pagans regularly “ground and center”. Humans attempt to earth changes, to ground or integrate or heal them with the sovereign power of physical stability and constancy. Terra firma. The fixed and reliable earth. Back on solid ground.

Many qualities of earth match the same ones we cherish in other people. “You can always count on her”; “He’s solid — you know where you are with him”; “I feel safe and protected around him”; “She’s a total earth-mother”; “She’s a really well-grounded person”; “He’s the salt of the earth”. Earth-home. This old “bone-house”, bānhūs, as the Anglo-Saxons called it, the skeleton of the physical body that mirrors earthiness, that holds the flesh up. Backbone, spine — good things. Courage of earth. Resilience.

If an inner threat encroaches on me, if I need respite and retreat, I open my practical tool-kit and deploy a triple protection exercise. As I turn from what troubles me, I ask for the protection of earth. In vision I approach a golden mountain. Set in the rock are enormous, heavy double doors. I walk through and they close protectively behind me.  I proceed, coming to a second set of doors, even larger and more massive than the first, which also thud shut after I pass. I feel the echo in my bones. On through the final set of doors, greatest of the three, which close with a resounding boom. Safe behind these triple doors, I regroup. Here I can regain balance and poise, seek insight and perspective. I will emerge only when I’m damn good and ready.

And we make games of change because in contrast to earth’s stability, change still does happen. We notice it most clearly against the “background” of the land, of the concrete, the manifest, the dense material world. And so we flirt with change and chance, we attempt to build, or flee from,  a “house of cards”, we enshrine reminders to ourselves in proverbs like the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, we see (or miss) the approach of a “tipping point”,  we witness the point itself in volcanoes, earthquakes, those sudden and massive shifts in previously reliable earth, we lament it in accidents, injuries, illnesses. We gamble, take risks, bet on our intuitions of what will last and what will lurch and abruptly buckle. We “time the market”, watch for that “point of no return”, and so on and on.

In a word or two, then, much of the time we get it. We’re good at earth.

But earth’s just one of the elements. Also breathed on by air, washed by water, flamed with fire, we manifest spirit — we’re that quintessence, those five points of essence, of existence. “Every man and woman”, says Aleister Crowley, “is a star”.

When our “lives rearrange in the winds of change”, as one song goes, when we set sail on the ancient sea within us, when that slow-burning fire flares up and heats everything, when spirit nudges us through all these forms, then change happens. A key: the elements working in concert usher in smoother change than the kinds that shatter the worlds of form. But as a transformer of spirit myself, I may choose to ignore the ebb and flow of energies. When I cast the elements aside, ignore spirit, turn my face from all things around me speaking what I need to know, then I invite more violent change. Nothing, nothing, nothing — WHAM!

But there, in the broken soil of change, a seed germinates, splits open, sends forth its first pale tendrils, and begins again the long game of living. How will it, how will I, manifest this time?

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From an earlier post — “Creating a Goddess Book“: “The physical world, so important for manifestation, by its nature tends to lag behind the swiftness with which vision can appear. But that lag is precisely part of this world’s immense value: its inertia and density allow for greater permanency and resistance to change, so that we can experience the results of vision over time — and fine-tune it if we choose. Unlike in dream, where the subtle stuff of vision or imagination can wisp away so quickly, physical manifestation tries to linger.”

Guide of the West, Part 2

So here’s the task I set myself in the previous post:

… I’ll take up ritual and its close alliance with emotion. Through rite and ritual, powered by where emotion can guide me, I can begin to (1) find out what I need to know (Air), (2) clear the way for the will to act (Fire), (3) empower my imagination (Water), and (4) help myself heal (Earth).

This morning, after fasting from coffee for three days, my wife and I dove back into our joint addiction. That meant, in addition to washing the carafe, cleaning the coffee mill of the remains of a brand that we found irritated our stomachs and left us with weird dreams. In spite of an organic label and a source we trusted, that particular brand goes on our NO list.

Yes, I’ll readily admit it: we’re coffee snobs. I say, if you have a habit, addict responsibly. Why pay a barista to do what we can do at home much more cheaply and satisfyingly.

Thus armed with our indulgence and our insufferably caffeinated arrogance, we perform the daily ritual. First, the banishing, or cleaning. Then the invoking, or grinding and brewing. Finally, the savoring, black or with milk or half-and-half. Or sometimes, if a new brand turns out especially bitter, a spoonful of maple syrup.  This is also known as the sense of ritual well-performed. In other words, as with most cooking — and magic — season to taste. There are recipes to learn, and then there are local variations and individual adjustments. Both prove needful.

Coffee invites assessment and comparison. (My mistyped original read “incites”, which is also true.) So should ritual. We brew coffee almost daily, because we like it enough to find it worth the effort. Anticipation heightens the preparation, the performance. Not all batches are the same, and I can always fine-tune what I do. Feeling can guide me well, but not exclusively.

If it’s to have any benefit, ritual (or magic) needs similar practice, and the doing of it IS the ritual, IS the practice of magic. I should enjoy the experience enough that it’s worth the effort, the outlay of time, material, and energy.

Otherwise, why do it? Can I answer that question sensibly? (A lack of common sense has oft defeated many an evil overlord.) A more modest Druid like me has much to learn from the great and (ig)noble. Success, for evil or good, depends on feet planted on the good earth, first of magics. (After all, Yesod, “Foundation”, is a low, easily-reachable branch on the Tree of Life. It’s “a vehicle allowing movement from one thing or condition to another …” says Wikipedia. Or as Basics in Kabbalah puts it, “The foundation (yesod) of a building is its ‘grounding’, its union with the earth (malchut).” A measure and sounding of our time: you can find such formerly hidden knowledge simply by following an internet link. Do we dismiss such magical familiars because they have made our lives too easy?)

four-elements-tattoo

What will I write onto and into my skin? What will I invite deeper?

So back to the four elements, to the task enumerated at the start of this post. I learn (Air) which coffee to buy — and whether today is even a coffee day — apply the heat (Fire) to water (Water!) and ground the rite (coffee, Earth, pun included) at its conclusion — a pour of hot black nectar into our two waiting mugs. Any excess of thinking or willing gets balanced by this cauldron of feeling, of desire and pleasure and outcome. Hold the mugs in our hands, warmth and aroma as much a part of it all as taste on the tongue. Incidental effects, like the temporary sharpening of attention, the rise of blood pressure (I’m chronically low), the motivational effects to a sluggish intestinal tract, are all side benefits not to be disdained.

OK — I’ve taken the analogy further than it can bear, or perhaps not far enough. We tend to think of ritual and magic in abstract terms, when in fact they’re a series of concrete choices and actions and manifestations. Humans are magical transformers, with time and space our field of play. Whatever we manifest has its causes: as with the universe outside our skin, so with the universe inside. This isn’t just metaphysics but actual physics. If the definition of insanity is to expect different results from doing the same thing, then sanity can begin simply by trying something new.

And “old-new” might be a very good alternative name for our uni-verse, our “one-turning” which offers ritual as one of its keys and clues.

And what of healing? I wrote in March of this year, in the post “Healing From the Past“:

I add to my practice a henge-meditation. We needn’t bother ourselves to make any such claim as “Druids built Stonehenge” in order to make use of the spiritual dynamic it offers as a source of healing. Merlin sets the precedent: Stonehenge-as-symbol, in Geoffrey’s telling is older than its present home in southern England anyway. Not its origin but its power is what we need. Magic thrives when our intent makes the occasion a necessity: our focus is single and sharp not from force of will but from desire, emotion, need, want, hope, imagination, planning and preparation, ritual foundation, and love.

A final note: to make ritual “economical” in terms of any wear and tear on the practitioner, which means us, (1) start small, (2) keep records, (3) experiment to find what works and what doesn’t. As with coffee, check in frequently: how does it feel? Does the brew need tweaking? Make this aspect part of the process — though not its sole determinant. Ritual and magic, done skilfully, are among the most scientific as well as loving things we do.

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Image: Four Elements tattoo

 

Guide of the West

Julie Babin

Coastal Louisiana. Photo courtesy Julie Babin

 

Who knows when odd reading can lead to insight — and material for a blogpost?

Take, for instance, this delicious (to me, anyway) fragment:

“Emotions alert us to specific issues, and they do so without any subterfuge. If we are aware enough … our emotions will be able to contribute the energy we need to move into and out of any situation imaginable, because they contribute the specific energy and information we need to heal ourselves” (Karla McLaren. Emotional Genius: Discovering he Deepest Language of Soul. Laughing Tree Press, 2001).

This kind of statement makes me sit up and pay attention. Partly because any large claim switches on my crap detector, but also because I immediately want to try it out. You know, set up an experiment to test the claim.

In this case, like most of us, I’ve got a running start on just such a test. We can all name stories, movies, songs that grab us and move us. Even — if they reach deep enough, if we’re open and vulnerable to their magic — on the fifth, tenth or thirtieth read, viewing, hearing. Among your top contenders you may count a childhood favorite. The quality of these repeated experiences, at least for me, leaves no doubt: gods are alive, magic is afoot. Magic is alive, gods are afoot. (Leonard Cohen nails it again.)

In fact, so completely may the magic live for you that you guard it zealously and jealously. You watch who you choose to tell about it, because you’ve learned the hard way how another’s misunderstanding or mockery can sting, and even, if it’s carefully targeted, ruin a beloved experience for you.

The number and quality of claims McLaren makes are quite remarkable. Here they are again in list form. Emotions:

— alert us to specific issues.

— don’t lie or mislead — they offer no subterfuge.

— contribute the energy we need to move into and out of any situation imaginable.

— contribute the specific energy and information we need to heal ourselves.

Or, to put it elementally and alchemically, emotions identify what we need to know (Air), clear the way for the will to act (Fire), empower the imagination (Water), and help us heal (Earth).

McLaren also wisely includes a kicker, escape clause, out, safety switch: If we are aware enough … Of course. Isn’t that always the issue at the heart of things?

Stay with me here. (As the Rocky Horror narrator exclaims, “It’s just a jump to the left!”) Working with adolescents in a boarding school for sixteen years let me reflect on my own emotional growth or lack of it, even as I served as an adviser to hundred of students over the years. Because I advised freshman and senior girls, I frequently saw emotion more openly expressed than I might have with boys. How often I’d witness some variation of “I’m so upset/amazed/impressed/in love! Oh my god, I can’t believe X. I was A and now I’m B. I’m so upset/amazed/impressed/in love!”

The lesson here is emotion can be so strong that at first we have no distance from it, no perspective or comparison. We recycle it, loop with it, rehearse it. “All or nothing” is the adolescent’s stereotypical default setting, partly because so many experiences are firsts and really don’t offer any basis for comparison: first love, first significant failure, first challenging success, first death of a close friend or family member, first major social embarrassment, first large moral choice, and so on. Emotions don’t lie, but when the tide sweeps in and then out again, how do you make your way through the wreckage to picking yourself up and drying out and moving forward?

With some progress towards maturity comes that invaluable ability to detach, step back, gain perspective on one’s own situation and experience. (We might say that IS maturity.) Only then can emotion alert us to specific issues. (If you look at the media and the world right now, we see repeated spikes of emotion with far too little detachment, reflection, proportion, perspective. Keep a person, a community or a nation in the first stage of emotion and they’ll never reach the second stage, let alone any of others. That way mature judgment dies.)

While cooler heads may lament the manipulation of whole groups by the technique of constantly lighting new fires, all while stoking the flames of old ones, there’s a useful lesson in the power of emotion. To lift a line from “Storybook Love”, the theme song to The Princess Bride, “it’s as real as the feelings I feel”.*

And it is. Emotion is real. The gifts of emotion, however, come in what we find after strong feeling. Feel the feeling, yes, I’ve learned. (Can’t do much if I’m repressing it. Genii still in a bottle, that trick.) Then work with it — from outside. Return whenever I need to fine-tune my understanding by checking in with the authenticity of the feeling. Just don’t invite it to take up residence and watch as it tracks in dirt and hangs its laundry over my windows.

Anger. Fear. Lust. Self-pity. Doubt. Feel any of these lately? These are among my top five most potent negative emotions. They’re also five of my teachers. I’ve learned more from anger and fear than I could tell you in any reasonable-sized book.

Awe. Curiosity. Amazement. Gratitude. Love. Another five, among the most potent positive emotions. Also fabulous teachers. Alchemized versions of the preceding negatives, shaped by the spiritual work we’re each called to do in our lives.

Emotion, our elemental Guide of the West, serves us best when we respect its proper domain. Its role is not to usurp our sovereignty by taking the throne.

In the next post I’ll take up ritual and its close alliance with emotion. Through rite and ritual, powered by where emotion can guide me, I can begin to (1) find out what I need to know (Air), (2) clear the way for the will to act (Fire), (3) empower my imagination (Water), and (4) help myself heal (Earth).

That is, I can begin to take McLaren at her word, and try out the claims she makes.

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*”it’s as real as the feelings I feel”

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