Holy Wild, Prayer & Praxis, Story & Song

Soul Writing: Finding Balance in Group Spiritual Practice

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


Last Wednesday evening found me crowded around a conference room table with a dozen other people, packed so closely together that some of us were literally shoulder to shoulder. Sitting together in concentrated silence.

The writing prompt invited us to imagine our hearts as a swinging door. Who might come in? it asked. And where might you find yourself headed when you go out?

But I was preoccupied instead with another question, different but related, a question of setting boundaries and holding space.

It was my first time co-teaching a class at my UU church, and I was struggling to find a balance between the persona of extroversion I put on in public and the inwardly-focused headspace I make for myself when I settle in to write. Although I write every day as a personal spiritual practice, writing in a group setting was a new experience for me. I’ve attended any number of writing critique groups, and hosted a few myself, and of course there were the open mic nights where folks shared everything from well-rehearsed performance art to raw works-in-progress, with an appreciative audience sitting by ready to applaud.

But this was different. This was much more like praying together. Or sitting together in meditation. This wasn’t about sharing something you’d already written, but being present to each other in-process, witness to the very act of discovery and composition, soul-deep in the chaotic waters of creativity. This is writing as a spiritual practice — a kind of sacred deep listening, what Karen Hering calls in her book Writing to Wake the Soul, “contemplative correspondence” — a correspondence with the self and with one’s gods.

As we sat in silence, pens gliding across blank pages, fingers pecking at keyboards, heads bowed in the flickering candlelight, I found myself pulled back again and again to this question of how to hold open the space. How to balance the inwardness of creative work with the outwardness of sharing and being present to others in their own process of deepening discovery.

write-it-down_daniel-go-sm

In Pagan practice, we have tools and rituals for crafting sacred space — casting the magical circle within which we do our most challenging work. We burn incense to cleanse the space, we bless ourselves with water and scented oils. We breathe deeply, we drum or chant to move ourselves from the uneven, syncopated patterns of distraction and dislocation that dominate our mundane lives, into the steady, sacred rhythms that help us settle more deeply and mindfully into harmony with the Song of the World.

I do this when I write, too, though the habits of setting the space are slightly different. I light some candles, maybe make myself some tea, sometimes I read a poem or a passage from a book chosen at random from the shelves in my study. I settle into my favorite chair, mug of tea nestled on a coaster just within reach. And then I sit for a while in silence, listening to my breathing, letting words rise up, letting phrases coalesce like bright gases in the obscure depths of space, condensing first into stars and from there into constellations of thought.

It takes a long time for me to say anything. I need that sacred space — that quiet emptiness within which I can start to listen for what it is I’m called to write.

So it was a new challenge, to sit in a room with a dozen other people, in silence, and try to find that same inner quiet — aware of other people’s breathing, aware of other people’s inner thoughts spinning from brain to pen to page and back again.

And, at the same time, to try to stay rooted in the outwardly-focused role of “teacher” — measuring my words and expressions for the effect they’d have on others, keeping an attentive eye on the energy of the group, slowing or quickening the pace to hold everyone’s interest. The job of teacher is sort of like the role of priestess, except without the fancy robes and colorful jewelry to lend an air of exotic authority. This is something I still struggle with, trying to balance the warm invitation of welcome with the need to set boundaries and hold open the space. The interplay of extroversion and introversion, the cultivated persona as a work of both art and artifice, self-disclosure and self-composure.

blah-flood-g

So while the writing prompt that night invited us to consider the heart as a swinging door through which love might move in either direction, I was busy worrying about how to manage the swinging door of my mind.

My mind is a messy place. A lot of clutter accumulates, and so writing for me is often much like the practice of a hoarder quietly, delicately sorting through her things, rearranging piles, rediscovering forgotten treasures, listening to the way her collection speaks to her. I write sentence by sentence, image by image, not sure where I might be going or where I’ll end up — just placing one image or idea next to another to see if they resonate, listening for the hum of harmony or tension.

Some objects I come back to again and again. I have a lot of rocks in my head, for instance — mostly the smooth, tumbled stones of riverbeds and ocean shores, some of them balanced or built into cairns, some of them marking animal graves, some of them covered in moss, some of them so tall they cast long shadows at dusk on the solstice. Also, a lot of what birds have left behind — feathers, fluffs of down floating idly on the breeze, the quick trill of a faraway song, a bit of broken eggshell, the contours of flight that great flocks carve through the air.

Also, more than a bit of gore and anxiety, craggy barren landscapes, self-righteous judgment, cynicism, defensiveness, the gross glistening slobber of my wild longings, the pitiable whine of my shame.

None of these necessarily mean much on their own. But they make up the collection of sights, sounds and textures that I reach for when I am crafting a new story on the page, trying to weave sense out of experience. I don’t always know where I’m going when I write, or what will happen to me in the meantime. I just settle down into that quiet space and start arranging and rearranging until something like art emerges.

writing-lidyanne_aquino

This is what Hering means by “contemplative correspondence” — not just as in the letter you write to yourself, but as in the way everything is connected, each thing hitched to another. She says:

The human brain loves to string things together, to connect the dots, to draw upon previous knowledge to make things whole. We long to participate in making or uncovering meaning: it is what we are doing whenever we connect our interior landscape with the external, and the temporal and material with the eternal.

This is correspondence in the Pagan sense: the way east is air is hawk is dawn is youth is curiosity is all yellow-gold. Or how autumn is dusk is death is ancestry is otherworld is mist is change is harvest is gratitude is life renewed.

It reminds me of what the poet Billy Collins wrote:

[T]he trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry…

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world…

But Hering’s words also remind me of another poem, this one by Mark Strand, that begins:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

And ends:

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

I think Hering is right when she says that we love to “make things whole.” But this making is not always a process of speaking and writing, connecting dots and comparing “everything in the world to everything else in the world” until the entire space is filled (as Collins puts it), “more guppies crowding the fish tank, more baby rabbits hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.”

Sometimes, making things whole is an act of withdrawal or withholding, an act of opening up space within which others can discover their own wholeness without us.

Knowing this, suddenly it seemed crazy to me to try to write, here in this group of people who were each trying in their own way to find their own voice, to speak their own truth — it seemed almost irresponsible of me, to open the swinging door of my mind and risk all that mess and noise tumbling out.

But now there were only a few minutes left. And the writing prompt just sitting there, its ellipsis both invitation and challenge… Reminding me that I couldn’t ask others to be brave enough to write if I wasn’t willing to be brave myself. Reminding me of the old trope that UUs spend too much time in their heads already, that it is good to trust in the body’s wisdom, good to trust the heart…

So what if my heart were a swinging door? What would I say to you then? And so I wrote…

backerpacker-journaling_liam-kearney-sm

Through this swinging door…

All things fly out — the cat, the heat of the room, the noise of our laughing loudly at the television — so much escaping out into the world that we can never call back again, so that it seems we might soon be broke with the wild abandon of it all. But no. All things fly in, too — the hummingbird and the scent of the rose as it is jiggled by the frenetic stirring of tiny wings, the leaf litter from last year’s autumn, the tiny stones wedged in the tread of your shoes — your shoes, that always seem to hover on the threshold, neither inside nor out, one foot more loyal than the other (the left one going wandering), so that when it’s time to pull yourself together in the morning you are always scrambling to get ahold of it all, both shoes on, then your coat, your scarf if it is cold — though not so cold once the heat follows you out the door on your way to work — following you like the geese in their migration, like the scent of the rose fading after summer, following like the neighbor’s new puppy who has no use for loyalty when there is so much joy in the world, who follows you all the way down the block to catch the bus and then sits there, wagging its tiny stub of a tail, its whole butt wiggling in the dust until you are out of sight — only to find its way back here to our doorstep again, so that by the time you come home there are, along with the leaves and the hummingbird feathers and the tiny abandoned bits of gravel, now too the tiny pawprints of perfectly outlined mud all over all the furniture, and me — smile and cup of tea in hand and a bit of everything the world has to offer tangled in my hair.


Photo Credit:
• “I wrote you,” by Tekke (CC) [source]
• “Write It Down,” by Daniel Go (CC) [source]
• “Blah,” by Flood G. (CC) [source]
• “Writing,” by Lidyanna Aquino (CC) [source]
• “A German backpacker writing in her journal,” by Liam Kearney (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Featured, Holy Wild, praxis, story

Soul Writing: Finding Balance in Group Spiritual Practice

Last Wednesday evening found me crowded around a conference room table with a dozen other people, packed so closely together that some of us were literally shoulder to shoulder. Sitting together in concentrated silence.

The writing prompt invited us to imagine our hearts as a swinging door. Who might come in? it asked. And where might you find yourself headed when you go out?

But I was preoccupied instead with another question, different but related, a question of setting boundaries and holding space.

It was my first time co-teaching a class at my UU church, and I was struggling to find a balance between the persona of extroversion I put on in public and the inwardly-focused headspace I make for myself when I settle in to write. Although I write every day as a personal spiritual practice, writing in a group setting was a new experience for me. I’ve attended any number of writing critique groups, and hosted a few myself, and of course there were the open mic nights where folks shared everything from well-rehearsed performance art to raw works-in-progress, with an appreciative audience sitting by ready to applaud.

But this was different. This was much more like praying together. Or sitting together in meditation. This wasn’t about sharing something you’d already written, but being present to each other in-process, witness to the very act of discovery and composition, soul-deep in the chaotic waters of creativity. This is writing as a spiritual practice — a kind of sacred deep listening, what Karen Hering calls in her book Writing to Wake the Soul, “contemplative correspondence” — a correspondence with the self and with one’s gods.

As we sat in silence, pens gliding across blank pages, fingers pecking at keyboards, heads bowed in the flickering candlelight, I found myself pulled back again and again to this question of how to hold open the space. How to balance the inwardness of creative work with the outwardness of sharing and being present to others in their own process of deepening discovery.

write-it-down_daniel-go-sm

In Pagan practice, we have tools and rituals for crafting sacred space — casting the magical circle within which we do our most challenging work. We burn incense to cleanse the space, we bless ourselves with water and scented oils. We breathe deeply, we drum or chant to move ourselves from the uneven, syncopated patterns of distraction and dislocation that dominate our mundane lives, into the steady, sacred rhythms that help us settle more deeply and mindfully into harmony with the Song of the World.

I do this when I write, too, though the habits of setting the space are slightly different. I light some candles, maybe make myself some tea, sometimes I read a poem or a passage from a book chosen at random from the shelves in my study. I settle into my favorite chair, mug of tea nestled on a coaster just within reach. And then I sit for a while in silence, listening to my breathing, letting words rise up, letting phrases coalesce like bright gases in the obscure depths of space, condensing first into stars and from there into constellations of thought.

It takes a long time for me to say anything. I need that sacred space — that quiet emptiness within which I can start to listen for what it is I’m called to write.

So it was a new challenge, to sit in a room with a dozen other people, in silence, and try to find that same inner quiet — aware of other people’s breathing, aware of other people’s inner thoughts spinning from brain to pen to page and back again.

And, at the same time, to try to stay rooted in the outwardly-focused role of “teacher” — measuring my words and expressions for the effect they’d have on others, keeping an attentive eye on the energy of the group, slowing or quickening the pace to hold everyone’s interest. The job of teacher is sort of like the role of priestess, except without the fancy robes and colorful jewelry to lend an air of exotic authority. This is something I still struggle with, trying to balance the warm invitation of welcome with the need to set boundaries and hold open the space. The interplay of extroversion and introversion, the cultivated persona as a work of both art and artifice, self-disclosure and self-composure.

blah-flood-g

So while the writing prompt that night invited us to consider the heart as a swinging door through which love might move in either direction, I was busy worrying about how to manage the swinging door of my mind.

My mind is a messy place. A lot of clutter accumulates, and so writing for me is often much like the practice of a hoarder quietly, delicately sorting through her things, rearranging piles, rediscovering forgotten treasures, listening to the way her collection speaks to her. I write sentence by sentence, image by image, not sure where I might be going or where I’ll end up — just placing one image or idea next to another to see if they resonate, listening for the hum of harmony or tension.

Some objects I come back to again and again. I have a lot of rocks in my head, for instance — mostly the smooth, tumbled stones of riverbeds and ocean shores, some of them balanced or built into cairns, some of them marking animal graves, some of them covered in moss, some of them so tall they cast long shadows at dusk on the solstice. Also, a lot of what birds have left behind — feathers, fluffs of down floating idly on the breeze, the quick trill of a faraway song, a bit of broken eggshell, the contours of flight that great flocks carve through the air.

Also, more than a bit of gore and anxiety, craggy barren landscapes, self-righteous judgment, cynicism, defensiveness, the gross glistening slobber of my wild longings, the pitiable whine of my shame.

None of these necessarily mean much on their own. But they make up the collection of sights, sounds and textures that I reach for when I am crafting a new story on the page, trying to weave sense out of experience. I don’t always know where I’m going when I write, or what will happen to me in the meantime. I just settle down into that quiet space and start arranging and rearranging until something like art emerges.

writing-lidyanne_aquino

This is what Hering means by “contemplative correspondence” — not just as in the letter you write to yourself, but as in the way everything is connected, each thing hitched to another. She says:

The human brain loves to string things together, to connect the dots, to draw upon previous knowledge to make things whole. We long to participate in making or uncovering meaning: it is what we are doing whenever we connect our interior landscape with the external, and the temporal and material with the eternal.

This is correspondence in the Pagan sense: the way east is air is hawk is dawn is youth is curiosity is all yellow-gold. Or how autumn is dusk is death is ancestry is otherworld is mist is change is harvest is gratitude is life renewed.

It reminds me of what the poet Billy Collins wrote:

[T]he trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry…

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world…

But Hering’s words also remind me of another poem, this one by Mark Strand, that begins:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

And ends:

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

I think Hering is right when she says that we love to “make things whole.” But this making is not always a process of speaking and writing, connecting dots and comparing “everything in the world to everything else in the world” until the entire space is filled (as Collins puts it), “more guppies crowding the fish tank, more baby rabbits hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.”

Sometimes, making things whole is an act of withdrawal or withholding, an act of opening up space within which others can discover their own wholeness without us.

Knowing this, suddenly it seemed crazy to me to try to write, here in this group of people who were each trying in their own way to find their own voice, to speak their own truth — it seemed almost irresponsible of me, to open the swinging door of my mind and risk all that mess and noise tumbling out.

But now there were only a few minutes left. And the writing prompt just sitting there, its ellipsis both invitation and challenge… Reminding me that I couldn’t ask others to be brave enough to write if I wasn’t willing to be brave myself. Reminding me of the old trope that UUs spend too much time in their heads already, that it is good to trust in the body’s wisdom, good to trust the heart…

So what if my heart were a swinging door? What would I say to you then? And so I wrote…

backerpacker-journaling_liam-kearney-sm

Through this swinging door…

All things fly out — the cat, the heat of the room, the noise of our laughing loudly at the television — so much escaping out into the world that we can never call back again, so that it seems we might soon be broke with the wild abandon of it all. But no. All things fly in, too — the hummingbird and the scent of the rose as it is jiggled by the frenetic stirring of tiny wings, the leaf litter from last year’s autumn, the tiny stones wedged in the tread of your shoes — your shoes, that always seem to hover on the threshold, neither inside nor out, one foot more loyal than the other (the left one going wandering), so that when it’s time to pull yourself together in the morning you are always scrambling to get ahold of it all, both shoes on, then your coat, your scarf if it is cold — though not so cold once the heat follows you out the door on your way to work — following you like the geese in their migration, like the scent of the rose fading after summer, following like the neighbor’s new puppy who has no use for loyalty when there is so much joy in the world, who follows you all the way down the block to catch the bus and then sits there, wagging its tiny stub of a tail, its whole butt wiggling in the dust until you are out of sight — only to find its way back here to our doorstep again, so that by the time you come home there are, along with the leaves and the hummingbird feathers and the tiny abandoned bits of gravel, now too the tiny pawprints of perfectly outlined mud all over all the furniture, and me — smile and cup of tea in hand and a bit of everything the world has to offer tangled in my hair.


Photo Credit:
• “I wrote you,” by Tekke (CC) [source]
• “Write It Down,” by Daniel Go (CC) [source]
• “Blah,” by Flood G. (CC) [source]
• “Writing,” by Lidyanna Aquino (CC) [source]
• “A German backpacker writing in her journal,” by Liam Kearney (CC) [source]

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

Participating in Enchantment: Redefining Magic

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


After the flight two days earlier to Charlotte, NC, I’d learned one thing for certain: I was not a natural flyer. My first time in an airplane in more than fifteen years had left me feeling queazy and disoriented, retreating to the quiet sanctuary of my hotel room for an evening as I attempted to ground myself in a new landscape, a city hundreds of miles from my home in chilly, hilly western Pennsylvania. High-rise buildings, a depressing lack of trees and green park space, people walking around without jackets in early December… Even after that first evening, I’d spent the entire trip feeling out of sorts, cut off from my usual sense of place.

Now, I sat anxiously in the claustrophobic cabin of the plane, preparing for the flight back to Pittsburgh and worrying that I was in for another nauseating, jolting ride.

flysky-ShannonKringen

Susan Greenwood’s latest book, The Anthropology of Magic, was tucked into my carry-on. The text was academic in flavor as well as subject matter. It had clearly been written with the new student of anthropology rather than the lay magical practitioner in mind. A more accurate title for the book might have been “Competing Theories About Magic, And What It Really Is, In Anthropology” …but that would’ve been a bit cramped on the spine.

The text introduced a number of scientists and researchers who’d spent their long, distinguished careers studying the practice of magic and shamanic techniques in tribal cultures throughout history and all over the world. Some of the names I recognized from my college days studying comparative religions, but even still I’d often felt my head swimming as I worked through Greenwood’s arguments. I’d spent the past few days reading her intense (and sometimes convoluted) discussions of the myriad competing theories of consciousness, ritual, reason and myth that have been informing and shaping the field of anthropology for the past several generations.

This book wasn’t your typical Magic 101 how-to that many Pagans enjoy. Still, it held something immensely valuable for those seeking to deepen their understanding of magical work as a spiritual practice. It would take time, and some rigorous intellectual work on the part of the reader, but it would be worth it.

As our plane taxied into place on the runway, I took a deep breath and pulled out the book, flipping through the loose pages of notes I’d taken and thinking once again about the nature of magic…

flying-dowitchers-TJ-Gehling

The central tenet that Greenwood puts forth early in her introductory chapter, and returns to often throughout the text, is that magic is not so much something you do as it is a kind of consciousness. More specifically, magic is participatory consciousness: a consciousness of participation and enchantment.

For much of the book, in fact, Greenwood’s discussion focuses on mapping out the more widely-accepted theories of magic found within the anthropological community, and then illustrating how these traditional theories fail to speak to and reflect the essence of magical consciousness.

As a social science, the field of anthropology has tended to strive for standards of rational analysis and objective observation that have served the physical sciences well and proven invaluable in collecting reliable data from controlled experiments. This approach has led many anthropologists to view magic itself as a kind of failed science, an attempt made in ignorance to control and manipulate the forces of nature, acting on false premises about patterns of relationship and causality. Many anthropologists have therefore concluded that magic is the antithesis of religion (being more concerned with manipulative power than with worship) while at the same time viewing it as merely the embarrassing progenitor of “real” science, with no more to teach and nothing of relevance to contribute to the “civilized” epistemology of more enlightened modern times. Other theorists, such as Evans-Pritchard, have argued that while belief in magic may be ignorant, it is not primitive or inherently irrational. Far from it, such social groups as the Azande function with belief systems that are perfectly rational and internally consistent, albeit founded on a few basic wrong assumptions.

What all of these theorists hold in common, Greenwood argues, is their own fundamental bias towards the objective-rational approach of modern Western science, which renders certain key aspects of magic and magical consciousness practically invisible to study and consideration. Yet the human mind and the socio-cultural community function together in ways that are often subjective, nonrational and mythological in nature. Understanding the role that magic plays for individuals and their communities requires an appreciation of these aspects of human experience that cannot easily be reduced to rational analysis or dismissed as psychological quirks.

Rather than relying solely on the model of objective experimentation and data collection exemplified in the physical sciences, Greenwood suggests that anthropologists hoping to gain insight into the workings of magical consciousness must be willing to approach the processes of magic on its own terms, and to develop epistemological models that can integrate diverse kinds of rational and nonrational, objective and subjective kinds of knowledge in ways that inform and lend perspective to both. Greenwood herself lives up to this rather intimidating demand for a new generation of anthropologists. Her eloquent accounts of her own participation in magical and shamanic rituals as part of her participatory field research are arguably some of the most engaging and intriguing parts of the text, and they serve as indispensable illustrations of theoretical concepts that might otherwise be too abstract for the reader to fully grasp.

heron-taking-flight-Donald-Ogg

As a result of her participatory approach to research, Greenwood has clearly come to appreciate certain aspects of magic and its role in society that many anthropologists have until now largely overlooked. Picking up an old debate between the two anthropologists, Lévy-Bruhl and Evans-Pritchard, she revisits the possibility that magic is indeed a kind of consciousness distinct from that of logos-based reason so celebrated in the West.

At the time Lévy-Bruhl proposed such an argument, his theory was considered implicitly racist, demeaning those of “primitive” cultures as pre-logical and lacking the reasoning faculties of more civilized peoples. In response to this misunderstanding of his idea, Evans-Pritchard took on the task of proving that such peoples as the Azande were fully rational and intelligent human beings who were not somehow lesser than their Western counterparts, but merely different. An on-going correspondence between the two researchers continued to inform and clarify Lévy-Bruhl’s original theory, however, and Greenwood returns to his suggestion that magical consciousness is, though not degenerate, certainly a unique kind of consciousness distinct from and not reducible to reason alone. (Indeed, as her discussion of the experiment in which sugar-water was labeled “poison” illustrates, modern Western academics themselves are not immune to magical consciousness, even when their rational minds insist otherwise.)

What characterizes magical consciousness, according to Greenwood’s revised hypothesis, is a particular kind of participatory awareness. While traditional Western science relies on analogical reasoning in which participation is characterized by repeatable, controllable outcomes of physical reactions in order to predict similar future results, the analogical participation of magical consciousness is subjective and experiential, informed by culturally-shared myths and shaped by a sense of nonphysical interconnection between objects or events that share metaphorical relationships.

In traditional anthropological terms, this describes sympathetic and contagion magical practices — in which the similarity of ritual acts and objects are seen as being in meaningful relationship with those things they symbolize and/or imitate. Objects or people once in contact are understood as maintaining a connection or relationship that can be used to exert influence at a distance. In Greenwood’s understanding, however, the basis for sympathetic and contagion magic is not merely inaccurate assumptions about how the physical world functions.

Instead, she proposes that these conceived patterns of relationship accurately reflect the subjective experiences of the participants in magical work. They are therefore not only valuable and valid in understanding how and why people utilize magic, but they can actually provide us with meaningful knowledge about the world, insofar as they offer us insight into the perceptions and relationships of the world as we experience it, that the normal consciousness of rational analysis cannot always discover.

Pagans and other modern magical practitioners in the West may find in Greenwood’s theory of participatory magical consciousness echoes of some popular definitions of magic among our own communities. One of the most well-known, attributed to Dion Fortune, is that “magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.” The various ritual acts described in classic anthropological texts, as well as in Greenwood’s own field research, are interpreted in her theory as the means by which individuals and social groups intentionally induce this particular altered state of magical consciousness, which renders the participant receptive to and capable of perceiving patterns of relationship and participation that are nonrational and emotional (rather than objective and analytical) in nature.

The modern Pagan approach to magical work, with its emphasis on meditation and creative visualization, is very much in keeping with this interpretation. However, in my own experience, we Pagans can be just as prone to the mistakes of an ingrained rational-scientific bias as the average anthropologists. This is why Greenwood’s work is worthy of study and contemplation not only by those entering the academic world, but for anyone who wants to challenge and deepen their approach to magical work as an integrated part of an authentic spiritual life.

Too often, even Pagans can slip into the habit of mind that approaches magic as merely an occult (i.e. hidden) alternative to mainstream science, with our focus primarily on controlling the forces and energies of nature for particular ends. As I leafed through my pages of notes jostling in my lap, trying to concentrate despite the thrumming engines of the plane as it prepared for take-off, I realized that this was exactly the mistake I had made myself.

At first I’d tried a handful of tricks to help myself adjust to the disorientation of flying, drawing from my years of Druidic practice. On the trip to Charlotte, these techniques had proved beyond useless. I’d experimented with breathing techniques meant to induce relaxation… but the result had been an overpowering, nauseating awareness of the pressurized and recirculated air of the cabin. I’d tried to remain grounded and centered, sensing the edges of my physical body and energetic field, imagining a smooth stone resting in my center as a firm point of stability and connection with the land below… yet the stone turned over and seemed to slosh in my stomach as my small, dense body rattled in my narrow seat with every wave of turbulence or dip of a wing. Magic, it seemed, had failed me.

But now, with the plane taxiing down the tarmac and anxiety slowly tightening its grip in my chest, I recalled what Greenwood had written about participation as the key to magical consciousness. She spoke of the unexpected relationships she’d experienced between far distant memories and the sensations of her immediate landscape. Of the tensions of myth and metaphor that drew these disparate events into patterns of meaning and beauty that wove an experience of interconnection with the world. This was magic, after all.

I thought back to that first evening in the hotel room, remembering the time I’d spent returning to myself and slowly ridding my body of air-sickness. The night had been stormy, and outside my window the rain danced in expanding, overlapping ripples that reflected the fluorescent lights of the city in ever-changing patterns as the water beat out a subtly complicated soft-shoe rhythm on the roofs above and the pavement far below. I’d sat watching and listening, and singing my awen, a Druidic meditative chant, until the vibration of breath in my body had released every twinge of tension.

sunset-airplane-SAM-Cheong

Remembering this experience, I squared my feet on the floor beneath the seat in front of me and did my best to sit upright and relaxed in the uncomfortable airplane. As the plane roared into movement, raging down the runway and lifting off from the ground, I closed my eyes and sang to myself, letting my awen expand and fill my awareness.

This time, I didn’t resist the experience of flight as I had before. I didn’t imagine stones or hard boundaries. I didn’t try to control the experience and the energies rushing through me. Instead, I allowed the chant to open my body up to vibration.

As I did so, I found that my physical body began to vibrate with the thrumming turbulence of the plane. In sympathetic movement, suddenly I could feel the exhilaration of flight not as something wrenching and disorienting, but as comfortable and natural: I was participating in flight with the huge machine around me.

And this experience of participation and interconnection with the world around us is perhaps the most important aspect of Greenwood’s theory. By understanding magic as a kind of consciousness that places participation at its heart, we no longer relegate magic to the realm of anti-religious power-mongering and manipulation. Instead, magic opens us up to relationship. To reverence. To an engagement with an enchanted world that plays a vital role in an earth-centered spirituality that seeks the sacred in the natural forces and landscapes in which we live our everyday lives.

Because of this heightened sense of participation, my experience of the flight north was smooth and almost pleasant. Our descent into the shimmering City of Steel just as the sun was blazing brilliantly in shades of orange and purple on the western horizon infused the journey home with a sense of breathless enchantment I will remember for a long time to come.


susan-greenwood-anthropology-magicNote: An earlier version of this book review originally appeared in Sky Earth Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality (Spring 2010) under the title, “Participating in Enchantment: A Reflection on Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic


Photo Credits:
• “flysky,” by Shannon Kringen (CC) [source]
• “Flying Dowitches,” by TJ Gehling (CC) [source]
• “Water of Leith Heron Taking Flight,” by Donald Ogg (CC) [source]
• “Over the Moon,” by Dagmar Collins (CC) [source]
• Airplane at sunset, by SAM Cheong (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

Participating in Enchantment: Redefining Magic

After the flight two days earlier to Charlotte, NC, I’d learned one thing for certain: I was not a natural flyer. My first time in an airplane in more than fifteen years had left me feeling queazy and disoriented, retreating to the quiet sanctuary of my hotel room for an evening as I attempted to ground myself in a new landscape, a city hundreds of miles from my home in chilly, hilly western Pennsylvania. High-rise buildings, a depressing lack of trees and green park space, people walking around without jackets in early December… Even after that first evening, I’d spent the entire trip feeling out of sorts, cut off from my usual sense of place.

Now, I sat anxiously in the claustrophobic cabin of the plane, preparing for the flight back to Pittsburgh and worrying that I was in for another nauseating, jolting ride.

flysky-ShannonKringen

Susan Greenwood’s latest book, The Anthropology of Magic, was tucked into my carry-on. The text was academic in flavor as well as subject matter. It had clearly been written with the new student of anthropology rather than the lay magical practitioner in mind. A more accurate title for the book might have been “Competing Theories About Magic, And What It Really Is, In Anthropology” …but that would’ve been a bit cramped on the spine.

The text introduced a number of scientists and researchers who’d spent their long, distinguished careers studying the practice of magic and shamanic techniques in tribal cultures throughout history and all over the world. Some of the names I recognized from my college days studying comparative religions, but even still I’d often felt my head swimming as I worked through Greenwood’s arguments. I’d spent the past few days reading her intense (and sometimes convoluted) discussions of the myriad competing theories of consciousness, ritual, reason and myth that have been informing and shaping the field of anthropology for the past several generations.

This book wasn’t your typical Magic 101 how-to that many Pagans enjoy. Still, it held something immensely valuable for those seeking to deepen their understanding of magical work as a spiritual practice. It would take time, and some rigorous intellectual work on the part of the reader, but it would be worth it.

As our plane taxied into place on the runway, I took a deep breath and pulled out the book, flipping through the loose pages of notes I’d taken and thinking once again about the nature of magic…

flying-dowitchers-TJ-Gehling

The central tenet that Greenwood puts forth early in her introductory chapter, and returns to often throughout the text, is that magic is not so much something you do as it is a kind of consciousness. More specifically, magic is participatory consciousness: a consciousness of participation and enchantment.

For much of the book, in fact, Greenwood’s discussion focuses on mapping out the more widely-accepted theories of magic found within the anthropological community, and then illustrating how these traditional theories fail to speak to and reflect the essence of magical consciousness.

As a social science, the field of anthropology has tended to strive for standards of rational analysis and objective observation that have served the physical sciences well and proven invaluable in collecting reliable data from controlled experiments. This approach has led many anthropologists to view magic itself as a kind of failed science, an attempt made in ignorance to control and manipulate the forces of nature, acting on false premises about patterns of relationship and causality. Many anthropologists have therefore concluded that magic is the antithesis of religion (being more concerned with manipulative power than with worship) while at the same time viewing it as merely the embarrassing progenitor of “real” science, with no more to teach and nothing of relevance to contribute to the “civilized” epistemology of more enlightened modern times. Other theorists, such as Evans-Pritchard, have argued that while belief in magic may be ignorant, it is not primitive or inherently irrational. Far from it, such social groups as the Azande function with belief systems that are perfectly rational and internally consistent, albeit founded on a few basic wrong assumptions.

What all of these theorists hold in common, Greenwood argues, is their own fundamental bias towards the objective-rational approach of modern Western science, which renders certain key aspects of magic and magical consciousness practically invisible to study and consideration. Yet the human mind and the socio-cultural community function together in ways that are often subjective, nonrational and mythological in nature. Understanding the role that magic plays for individuals and their communities requires an appreciation of these aspects of human experience that cannot easily be reduced to rational analysis or dismissed as psychological quirks.

Rather than relying solely on the model of objective experimentation and data collection exemplified in the physical sciences, Greenwood suggests that anthropologists hoping to gain insight into the workings of magical consciousness must be willing to approach the processes of magic on its own terms, and to develop epistemological models that can integrate diverse kinds of rational and nonrational, objective and subjective kinds of knowledge in ways that inform and lend perspective to both. Greenwood herself lives up to this rather intimidating demand for a new generation of anthropologists. Her eloquent accounts of her own participation in magical and shamanic rituals as part of her participatory field research are arguably some of the most engaging and intriguing parts of the text, and they serve as indispensable illustrations of theoretical concepts that might otherwise be too abstract for the reader to fully grasp.

heron-taking-flight-Donald-Ogg

As a result of her participatory approach to research, Greenwood has clearly come to appreciate certain aspects of magic and its role in society that many anthropologists have until now largely overlooked. Picking up an old debate between the two anthropologists, Lévy-Bruhl and Evans-Pritchard, she revisits the possibility that magic is indeed a kind of consciousness distinct from that of logos-based reason so celebrated in the West.

At the time Lévy-Bruhl proposed such an argument, his theory was considered implicitly racist, demeaning those of “primitive” cultures as pre-logical and lacking the reasoning faculties of more civilized peoples. In response to this misunderstanding of his idea, Evans-Pritchard took on the task of proving that such peoples as the Azande were fully rational and intelligent human beings who were not somehow lesser than their Western counterparts, but merely different. An on-going correspondence between the two researchers continued to inform and clarify Lévy-Bruhl’s original theory, however, and Greenwood returns to his suggestion that magical consciousness is, though not degenerate, certainly a unique kind of consciousness distinct from and not reducible to reason alone. (Indeed, as her discussion of the experiment in which sugar-water was labeled “poison” illustrates, modern Western academics themselves are not immune to magical consciousness, even when their rational minds insist otherwise.)

What characterizes magical consciousness, according to Greenwood’s revised hypothesis, is a particular kind of participatory awareness. While traditional Western science relies on analogical reasoning in which participation is characterized by repeatable, controllable outcomes of physical reactions in order to predict similar future results, the analogical participation of magical consciousness is subjective and experiential, informed by culturally-shared myths and shaped by a sense of nonphysical interconnection between objects or events that share metaphorical relationships.

In traditional anthropological terms, this describes sympathetic and contagion magical practices — in which the similarity of ritual acts and objects are seen as being in meaningful relationship with those things they symbolize and/or imitate. Objects or people once in contact are understood as maintaining a connection or relationship that can be used to exert influence at a distance. In Greenwood’s understanding, however, the basis for sympathetic and contagion magic is not merely inaccurate assumptions about how the physical world functions.

Instead, she proposes that these conceived patterns of relationship accurately reflect the subjective experiences of the participants in magical work. They are therefore not only valuable and valid in understanding how and why people utilize magic, but they can actually provide us with meaningful knowledge about the world, insofar as they offer us insight into the perceptions and relationships of the world as we experience it, that the normal consciousness of rational analysis cannot always discover.

Pagans and other modern magical practitioners in the West may find in Greenwood’s theory of participatory magical consciousness echoes of some popular definitions of magic among our own communities. One of the most well-known, attributed to Dion Fortune, is that “magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.” The various ritual acts described in classic anthropological texts, as well as in Greenwood’s own field research, are interpreted in her theory as the means by which individuals and social groups intentionally induce this particular altered state of magical consciousness, which renders the participant receptive to and capable of perceiving patterns of relationship and participation that are nonrational and emotional (rather than objective and analytical) in nature.

The modern Pagan approach to magical work, with its emphasis on meditation and creative visualization, is very much in keeping with this interpretation. However, in my own experience, we Pagans can be just as prone to the mistakes of an ingrained rational-scientific bias as the average anthropologists. This is why Greenwood’s work is worthy of study and contemplation not only by those entering the academic world, but for anyone who wants to challenge and deepen their approach to magical work as an integrated part of an authentic spiritual life.

Too often, even Pagans can slip into the habit of mind that approaches magic as merely an occult (i.e. hidden) alternative to mainstream science, with our focus primarily on controlling the forces and energies of nature for particular ends. As I leafed through my pages of notes jostling in my lap, trying to concentrate despite the thrumming engines of the plane as it prepared for take-off, I realized that this was exactly the mistake I had made myself.

At first I’d tried a handful of tricks to help myself adjust to the disorientation of flying, drawing from my years of Druidic practice. On the trip to Charlotte, these techniques had proved beyond useless. I’d experimented with breathing techniques meant to induce relaxation… but the result had been an overpowering, nauseating awareness of the pressurized and recirculated air of the cabin. I’d tried to remain grounded and centered, sensing the edges of my physical body and energetic field, imagining a smooth stone resting in my center as a firm point of stability and connection with the land below… yet the stone turned over and seemed to slosh in my stomach as my small, dense body rattled in my narrow seat with every wave of turbulence or dip of a wing. Magic, it seemed, had failed me.

But now, with the plane taxiing down the tarmac and anxiety slowly tightening its grip in my chest, I recalled what Greenwood had written about participation as the key to magical consciousness. She spoke of the unexpected relationships she’d experienced between far distant memories and the sensations of her immediate landscape. Of the tensions of myth and metaphor that drew these disparate events into patterns of meaning and beauty that wove an experience of interconnection with the world. This was magic, after all.

I thought back to that first evening in the hotel room, remembering the time I’d spent returning to myself and slowly ridding my body of air-sickness. The night had been stormy, and outside my window the rain danced in expanding, overlapping ripples that reflected the fluorescent lights of the city in ever-changing patterns as the water beat out a subtly complicated soft-shoe rhythm on the roofs above and the pavement far below. I’d sat watching and listening, and singing my awen, a Druidic meditative chant, until the vibration of breath in my body had released every twinge of tension.

sunset-airplane-SAM-Cheong

Remembering this experience, I squared my feet on the floor beneath the seat in front of me and did my best to sit upright and relaxed in the uncomfortable airplane. As the plane roared into movement, raging down the runway and lifting off from the ground, I closed my eyes and sang to myself, letting my awen expand and fill my awareness.

This time, I didn’t resist the experience of flight as I had before. I didn’t imagine stones or hard boundaries. I didn’t try to control the experience and the energies rushing through me. Instead, I allowed the chant to open my body up to vibration.

As I did so, I found that my physical body began to vibrate with the thrumming turbulence of the plane. In sympathetic movement, suddenly I could feel the exhilaration of flight not as something wrenching and disorienting, but as comfortable and natural: I was participating in flight with the huge machine around me.

And this experience of participation and interconnection with the world around us is perhaps the most important aspect of Greenwood’s theory. By understanding magic as a kind of consciousness that places participation at its heart, we no longer relegate magic to the realm of anti-religious power-mongering and manipulation. Instead, magic opens us up to relationship. To reverence. To an engagement with an enchanted world that plays a vital role in an earth-centered spirituality that seeks the sacred in the natural forces and landscapes in which we live our everyday lives.

Because of this heightened sense of participation, my experience of the flight north was smooth and almost pleasant. Our descent into the shimmering City of Steel just as the sun was blazing brilliantly in shades of orange and purple on the western horizon infused the journey home with a sense of breathless enchantment I will remember for a long time to come.


susan-greenwood-anthropology-magicNote: An earlier version of this book review originally appeared in Sky Earth Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality (Spring 2010) under the title, “Participating in Enchantment: A Reflection on Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic


Photo Credits:
• “flysky,” by Shannon Kringen (CC) [source]
• “Flying Dowitches,” by TJ Gehling (CC) [source]
• “Water of Leith Heron Taking Flight,” by Donald Ogg (CC) [source]
• “Over the Moon,” by Dagmar Collins (CC) [source]
• Airplane at sunset, by SAM Cheong (CC) [source]

Holy Wild, Science & Civilization, Theology

Landscape In Ink, With Horse

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


“Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized.”
– Graham Harman

I find the strip of gray newsprint wedged between the stacks of old Trapper Keeper folders and reams of torn-edged notebook pages, all of which had been shoved unceremoniously into several cardboard boxes and hidden away in the closet of my old bedroom when I moved out of my parents’ house after college. Now, as I sort through the abandoned relics of my grade school days, the misplaced bookmark strikes me as strangely familiar. At the top, there is an off-color drawing of a lopsided planet earth. Under it, in thick uneven letters of alternating blue and purple crayon, the short verse:

Laugh and the world laughs with you
Cry and you cry alone
For the sad old earth
Must bury its mirth
And has tears enough of its own

When had I first learned this bit of rhyme? I must have written it from memory — the original poem speaks of borrowing mirth, not burying it — how old was I then? Still young enough to write in crayons. Looking at the wobbly, waxy drawing, I find myself imagining a planet utterly tired of weeping, so exhausted that its woes have become almost laughable. As if Mother Earth has decided she’s had enough of all this sadness and turned her attention instead to some old secret, buried away within her, like a belly laugh that must be kept quiet at a funeral.

Thanks to folks like Armstrong and Aldrin and Sagan, I’ve known since childhood that I live on a planet you can see from the outside. It’s easy to think of the Earth as a precious blue marble suspended alone in empty space. It’s easy to be the awed external observer examining this curious little object, picking it up at arm’s length, turning it this way and that to catch the light.

We struggle to see ourselves as wholly and inextricably immersed in a living and responsive natural world. When we speak of “nature,” it’s almost always as if from the outside. It’s hard to get our heads around the concept of this intermingling unity of being that was once second nature to our ancestors. These days, sometimes the best we can do is a bit of personification: The earth’s rainstorms weep. The afternoon sun breaks into smiles. The wind rolls over in the night and tenderly kisses the still sleeping horizon.

In high school, I decided I would be a hippie.

Maybe not a tree hugger in the literal sense, though there were a few trees I was particularly fond of. An evergreen sprig I’d planted on Earth Day in first grade had grown large and leggy in the years since. Decorative pear trees edged the parking lot of the elementary school down the block, bursting with awful-smelling blossoms in the spring and letting loose a cascade of sunset-colored leaves each autumn that the neighborhood kids collected to trade like valentines. A somewhat droopy dogwood grew next to the corner bus stop near the house of the boy I had a secret crush on. He and I would stand under it on warm afternoons after school, talking about how we wished we were popular — or rather, how he wished he were popular so that girls (other, more popular girls) would like him. I had an amiable relationship with plenty of trees, but it never went as far as hugging.

I decided I wanted to be the weird girl, the counterculture kid with the ironic perspective, the artistic distance. Distance enough that my unrequited crushes wouldn’t sting, at least. I bought a bunch of tie-dye shirts, peasant blouses, a pair of birkenstocks. I wore lots of beads and hemp and a necklace of turquoise that a Native American woman had sold my parents on their honeymoon twenty years earlier. As with any self-conscious transformation, I tried very hard to play the part. I acted the way I thought a hippie would act, trying to be “real” and “natural,” as if what was natural was always strange and mysterious, even to oneself.

My parents bought me an acoustic guitar for my birthday that year. I carried a notebook around with me everywhere, filled with hand-scribbled lyrics and poetry. I wrote about flowers and rivers, though I had only a passing interest in what actual flowers and rivers were like. I sprinkled nature imagery liberally throughout my poems, taking advantage of all the usual metaphors for emotion and desire, the convenient icons of sadness, love, humor, anger. I gazed out the window during geometry class and wrote verses from my favorite rock songs in backwards letters so that you had to read them in a mirror.

globe_Teresa-Alexander-Arab

We draw a line around what is sacred, to set it apart as special. We imagine the planet as a precious blue marble floating in space, so small and far away we cannot see the delicate contours of our own faces turned upwards towards the night sky, doing the imagining. We worship the lands that give us life, the earth that sustains us with its salty waters and wild winds, its mud and grit. We encircle the world in the darkness of outer space, and it shimmers all the brighter.

But when we’re not paying attention, the lines we draw around the sacred can cut us right through the middle.

~~~

It was awkward going home that first summer after my freshman year of college. In the daze of late night study sessions and coin-operated washer-dryers, noisy beer-drenched parties down the hall and dormitory showers that always seemed sticky with other people’s sweat — I’d given up the Hippie persona for the more practical comfort of jeans and sweatshirts. The wide-eyed lyrical daydreamer who’d floated easily through high school only half paying attention had been replaced by a young woman who sucked down endless cans of Dr. Pepper to fuel a brain that was finally finding school to be an intellectual challenge. But the hippie poet girl was still what my friends back home expected me to be. And I expected the same, unchanging things of them, too.

One afternoon that first summer, my old high school friend Dana called me up and asked if I wanted to go driving through the countryside. It was only last year I’d known her as the snarky, pampered youngest daughter of her large Catholic family, engaged to marry her long-term high school boyfriend. Now, she was out of the closet as bisexual; she and her girlfriend were radical feminist Pagans who spent their weeks running half a dozen student clubs and spent their weekends drinking. But she was still the same Dana, her various identities sliding around her like landscapes that shifted as she moved from place to place, off to college and back home again.

lost-traveler_martinak15_sm

Driving through the country was a kind of tradition, an inside joke between the two of us. Living in the suburbs of Lancaster, we could get to “The Countryside” in about five minutes. We used to go driving on the back roads, pretending we were out-of-town tourists gawking at the picturesque covered bridges. We’d roll the windows all the way down and let the rich country air come blustering in to tangle our hair, as we listened to Nine Inch Nails or Ani DiFranco or Eve 6, talking or laughing or singing at the top of our lungs. Just trying to escape the dullness of suburbia — our own private version of On The Road.

After a year at college on the outskirts of Philadelphia, nostalgia for the countryside was starting to overwhelm me. When I tried to imagine what the rolling hills and farmlands really looked like, all I found myself picturing was something like an Andrew Wyeth painting. So Dana and I drove out into the familiar scenery, neither of us quite who we had been the last time we were there, both of us settling back into the uneven gaps between shifting identities where friendship still held us together like crumbling mortar.

The sun was high and interrupted by the casual billows of cotton-white cloud. On either side of the one-lane gravel road, fields stretched away, fenced in haphazardly and dotted with cows and occasional copses of trees. Dana gave up looking for songs on the radio — she’d reprogrammed all the buttons for her local college stations. We drove in silence, the car dipping out from under us as we rounded the crests of each low hill. I watched the trail of dust disappearing behind us in the rearview mirror.

“Ah, Goddess! It’s beautiful out today!” she said. I nodded. The breeze whipping in through the window was warm and smelled like a typical summer afternoon in Lancaster — that is, like manure and sweet corn. I’d started studying Paganism at college, too, and I was playing with seeing the old landscapes of home through the eyes of someone whose idea of the Old Craft was shaped by pastoral scenes of wicker fertility idols and sacred harvests. I’d mentioned this new interest once to Dana, but her cold response had suggested she didn’t think much of people who plagiarized other people’s newly minted self-identities.

“You still write poetry, right?” she asked me.

“Yeah.” I said.

“That’s why I like coming out here with you — it’s like that movie, Contact: ‘They should’ve sent a poet.’ The one about the astronaut, and she gets transported billions of lightyears or something, and she can’t find the words to describe how beautiful it is.” Dana had wanted to be an astronaut when she was little, but she’d grown up too short and her eyes were bad. “Sometimes, everything is just — I don’t know. Too beautiful, too perfect… That’s why I like having you along. To be the poet.” I nodded again. I didn’t say anything.

mother-son_bk

Four white birds took sudden flight from among a patch of tall grass. They were not like discarded paper napkins caught up from the sidewalk in the minuette waltz of a city breeze. Rounded valleys of freshly-tilled earth stretched out below us. They were not the body of a sleeping goddess drowsing lazily in the sun. Nor did they have the dark, wet scent of catharsis, of overcoming hardship, of human struggle that gives way to new joy.

Nothing but four white birds gliding off over round valleys. I did not want them to be anything else. When I looked out the car window, I felt the exact opposite of a poet.

I sent up a half-formed prayer to God (or the Goddess, or Whoever Was Listening). More than anything, I wanted words — some phrase or fragment that could capture the afternoon without reducing it to something trite and cliché. Something inspiring and meaningful and true. More than anything, I wanted to be able to write about the countryside on a summer afternoon without having to mediate it through metaphor. For once what I wanted to translate into words was not the exotic or the strange, but the feeling of home that was unrolling all around me. Give me something, anything, I asked, that will break down this aesthetic distance without breaking the whole world.

The car dipped slightly out from under us as we dropped over the top of the next hill. And there by the edge of the road just a few yards away, framed by the cozy hum of the bucolic summer scene — a horse squatted, peeing into the dust.

Dana slammed the brakes, and my head bumped the dash as I bent double with laughter.

horse-tattoo_denis-ciumbrgi_et

I will never write a poem about a real horse.

Some philosophers say this is because there is an aspect of the horse that withdraws from our knowing it; withdrawn from all things, even its own self, there is a secret essence of the horse that can never be exhausted.

Still other philosophers say that, from this secret place in the heart of all things, objects and beings put themselves forward, constantly pushing their way into our awareness uninvited, unexpected, so that the world is always unfolding around us, thick with wakefulness and surprise.

I sit looking at the strange little planet and its strange little poem smudged in familiar crayon handwriting on the old gray bookmark. The child who made it is not exactly me anymore; even the high school hippie poet girl I can remember being was only just beginning to become the person I think of as myself.

Memory changes things.

I remember the horse squatting next to the road on that summer day. But it has lost the immediacy that propelled me, laughing, into the dashboard as the seat belt cut tight across my belly. When I remember it now, I see the golden stream of urine sparkling in the sunlight, the graceful muscles of the horse’s legs tensed and twitching under its skin, and it all seems like a classical Greek statue that you might put in a plaza somewhere, an equestrian Manneken Pis. Time draws a line around memory, sets it aside as special, and transforms it into art.

And the line cuts through the middle of us, our feet dusty with the dirt of the sacred land. The strange becomes familiar, the familiar suddenly turns over into strangeness again, so that we are always walking through layers of otherness and intimacy. We are a part of nature, and then we are apart from it, gazing at the precious blue marble planet of our mind’s eye.

We know ourselves, and then we do not know.

And then a horse pisses in the dust and a snippet of an old song comes through on the radio static, and we are home again.


This piece originally appeared in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 87. (March 2015)


Photo Credits:
• “Globe,” by oh_debby (CC) [source]
• “Globe,” by Teresa Alexander-Arab (CC) [source]
• “The Lost Traveler,” by Martina (CC) [source]
• “Mother & Son,” by b k (CC) [source]
• Horse tattoo, by Denis Ciumbargi (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Holy Wild, Social Justice, Theology

Romancing the Flower Maid: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Anima

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


My husband’s anima has a name like the sun, though these days she only shows herself as a quick-footed, gnome-like creature with black, star-studded owlish eyes. She lingers in the forests of his inner landscape, close to the temple that he has built for her there. During his morning meditations, he visits the temple, sometimes leaving offerings for her: a pearl from his heart, a prayer, a sip of cool water.

My animus has no one name, but goes by many. I call him the angel at the gate.

female-drawing-journal-outdoors

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a scientist. Specifically: a marine biologist. I was mesmerized by everything that lived in those dark, salty waters — from the translucent crystalline forms of microscopic protozoa to the sleek, monstrous bodies of whales. During warm summer afternoons, I would spend hours crouched on the banks of a muddy creek that ran through our neighborhood, practicing my skills as a naturalist. Making observations, taking notes, catching bugs and butterflies to sketch, collecting plant samples to take home with me, pressing them carefully between the pages of our old American Heritage dictionary.

Back then I, too, felt the subtle threat of being flattened out by the weight of definitions and labels. No one ever told me I couldn’t be a scientist because I was a girl. At least, not directly. But in all the subtle ways that society shapes us, opening some doors while discreetly closing others, my love of the natural world was slowly redirected away from the sciences and towards pursuits that were considered more appropriate for my sex. When I asked for a field notebook as a birthday gift, something rugged and sturdy and waterproof, I was given a beautiful diary with a delicately designed cover featuring flowers and kittens, more suited to stanzas of nature poetry than drawings of animal scat. My parents praised me for the creativity of my English homework and art projects, but never seemed to notice the careful, detailed work I put into my diagrams of squids and frogs for science class. My grade school friends could play with Breyer horses for hours, imagining elaborate stories inspired by Black Beauty, but they soon lost interest when I tried to recruit them to join an “endangered species club” and raise money to sponsor a manatee or an ocelot.

Over the years, I gradually lost interest in science as a potential career path. My classes were too easy, and nobody seemed to expect much from me or notice when I did well. In middle school I discovered that bringing my mom’s old college biology textbook to study hall as my “fun reading” quickly earned me a reputation for being a nerd. Factor in my boy’s haircut, thick glasses, clunky braces, and my mom’s unfortunate belief that overalls would make me look adorable… and by the time I got to high school, I had pretty much secured my reputation as an awkward tomboy brainiac.

The mysteries of being feminine presented a far bigger challenge to me than any chemistry set or geometry problem. “Acting like a girl” didn’t come all that naturally, but I earned greater praise when I succeeded, when I was delicate and charming and self-effacing rather than stubborn or out-spoken or willing to get dirt under my fingernails. I was applauded for being a team player, but subtly discouraged from pursuing activities where I would stand out in the spotlight.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that it was my competitiveness and ambition, my desire to prove myself and challenge myself — those very traits that might be considered “masculine” and unbecoming in a woman — that drove me to work so hard to be good at being a girl.

In high school, with the freedom of a new school and a chance to start over, I remade myself into the hippie-artsy-mystic-poet-girl who wore flower-print skirts and dangly earrings. But even as I remade myself, I held onto a certain disdainful defiance, embracing the feminism and social justice of the women’s movement from my mother’s generation. I once prayed to God to give me large breasts and an even larger brain, so that I could be a living challenge to the stereotype of the brainless beauty. I wanted to force the world, once and for all, to take me seriously as a woman.

tree-sketch_Steve-Loya_sm

These days our society is moving further and further from the simple conception of gender as a binary: male or female, man or woman. We are beginning to recognize that gender is complex. In the natural world, scientists continue to discover undeniable examples of how sexuality is multifaceted and fluid, from the parthenogenesis of blacktip sharks to the three distinct sexes of the midshipman toadfish. Our online lives have also freed us from strict gender norms to a certain extent — we can adopt as many different personas as we like, each with its own Facebook page. Through virtual avatars, we can be male, female, plant, animal, or mineral; we can give ourselves fairy wings or stag antlers, or use our profile pictures to make a political statement with icons and slogans. Offline, through marriage equality and LGBTQ rights initiatives, we’re making important strides towards a more open society where people are supported and honored for who they are regardless of gender identity or sexual preferences.

But we’re not there yet. Binaries have kept us trapped for a long time, defining us by what we are not or what we supposedly cannot do, rather than by who we are and what we’re really capable of. No one person was to blame for the kind of pervasive, subconscious sexism that I and many people like me experienced as kids. As an adult, I can see now how much other people’s expectations of me influenced my own beliefs about who I was and what I could become. I’m not resentful of the encouragement and support I received growing up, but I can see more clearly how that encouragement was often one-sided. Those experiences have left me with a lingering sense that certain aspects of life are off-limits; that there are places I must not go and things I must not do.

pointofnoreturn_jinterwas

Carl Jung, one of the founders of modern psychology, explored the interplay of gender in a person’s psyche through his concepts of the anima and animus. Like the shadow, the anima/animus is an aspect of ourselves that we tend to externalize as something separate and distinct from our self-identity. According to Jung, every person holds within the subconscious an archetype of the opposite sex, a symbol or image that represents an amalgamation of all the traits and qualities that we associate with the “other.” For a man, this archetype is the anima, the epitome of womanhood; for a woman, it is the animus.

As a psychologist, Jung was fascinated with how archetypes and mental processes could sometimes help us become whole, healthy individuals, and at other times prevent us from reaching that wholeness. The anima and animus are no different. They can serve as inner guides that put us in touch with the fluidity and complexity of gender within ourselves, allowing us to embody both the masculine and feminine in their myriad expressions and permutations.

But when these archetypes are ignored, repressed or denied, they can become tricksters, sabotaging our relationships with others, looming up at us as projections that we attribute to external people and events instead of seeing them as aspects of our own psyches. If we want to grapple with the cultural legacy of binary gender roles that we’ve inherited, one of our first tasks is to make friends with our inner opposites.

Since childhood, my animus has often appeared to me in dreams and meditations as the angel at the gate. The wielder of the fiery sword, barring the way to a paradise where I need not hide my nakedness. My relationship with him has long been one of forbidden love. Sometimes he is beautiful, with wings of flame and shadow that seem to flicker behind him like an after-image burned into the retina. His face is bright, framed by a tangle of hair that writhes like serpents, or climbing ivy, or tongues of fire. At other times, he appears to me as utterly ordinary. But always, he is distant, loving wisely rather than too well, careful to place duty and professionalism above desire or intimacy. His detachment is seductive in its own way, for it echoes aspects of my own lingering discomfort with my gender.

Before I began to work with my animus consciously through meditation and dreamwork, I often found him in the people I dated — men who were rational and dutiful almost to a fault, who valued my intelligence and confidence but often held me at arm’s length, seeing me as too mature for “girly” things like romance or emotional vulnerability. Yet during arguments, my animus would lock horns with the suppressed anima in my partners: when I most wanted to be taken seriously as an intelligent person, defending my position with my animus’ fiery blade of devastating logic, they would see me as their own projected trickster-anima, the dangerous wild-woman, irrational and unpredictable.

As so often happens when we are taught that who we are isn’t quite acceptable, I came to dislike those parts of myself that identified me too strongly as “female” even while I tried to embody a particular ideal of femininity projected onto me by others. For a long time, my own animus — aping the impersonal disdain I found in the culture around me — prevented me from valuing the complexity of the feminine, both in others and in myself. I resented being seen as unpredictable or irrational, and I despised depictions of idealized women in mythology who behaved in ways that portrayed them as weak-willed and vulnerable to passing whims. Although intellectually I valued the diversity and equality represented in polytheism with its many gods and goddesses, personally I found it hard to imagine a female deity worthy of worship.

No goddess provoked my resentment more than Blodeuwedd, the flower-faced maiden in Welsh mythology, who had been crafted out of blossoms by the magician-god Gwydion to be a wife for his nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Made to suit the desires of men, Blodeuwedd was the ideal woman, perfect in every way and far superior to the flawed human women whom Lleu had been forbidden to marry. She was soft, delicate, beautiful, and completely loyal. That is, until she fell in love with a brawny huntsman who came along during her husband’s absence, and together they plotted to kill Lleu and usurp his place as ruler of the land. I rolled my eyes at how typical this “feminine weakness” seemed to me, how insulting it was that she should be so fickle and easily won over by the first handsome stranger to flex a bit of muscle her way. Far from celebrating her passionate love, or admiring her youth and beauty as a maiden goddess of the spring, I couldn’t help but think of her as “part of the problem.” When Lleu took his revenge for her betrayal, transforming her into an owl and cursing her to haunt the night hated by all other birds, my sympathies were entirely on Lleu’s side. My animus, his sword blazing, stood guard with a watchful eye on the castle turrets, listening to the owl’s eerie cry, satisfied that justice had been done.

I did not come to appreciate Blodeuwedd until I came to see her as an initiator of the Self. According to Jung, when we begin the work of integrating our animus or anima, we will often be confronted by the figure of an old wise one, an elder, whose work it is to initiate us into wholeness. Although I could not connect to the young flower maiden, I found that sometimes I could hear her whispering as the owl-faced old maid of the forest. She moved on silent wings, slipping like a dark knife into the heart of the moonless night.

Young people today are so noisy, she whispered. Young people are cobbled together from bits and pieces of beautiful things. They make themselves a patchwork of expectation and desire.

Listening to this owl-faced goddess, it seemed to me that her transformation had not been a punishment at all, but a triumph.

I came to see the story of Lleu and Blodeuwedd in a new light: as a story of a young woman’s confrontation with her own animus, who was at times a husband of skill and authority, but at other times came to her as a dark and handsome stranger. I came to see how this confrontation transformed Blodeuwedd from a puppet of flower petals into a living, breathing being with a will and a life of her own.

And I saw that this ancient myth was also a story of Lleu’s transformation, with the lovely flower maiden acting, through her betrayal, as an initiator and guide to the depths of wild soul.

bird_woman_ junibears

As we work with our inner archetypes of gender and confront the power of the other as it is expressed in the animus or anima, we often discover that the strict duality of male and female begins to break down.

My husband has been working with his anima for years as a guide to wisdom and wholeness. She shows herself now not as the beautiful young maiden, but as a wizened wild thing familiar with the shadowy ways of the subconscious.

I, on the other hand, still have work to do. My animus still appears sometimes as the handsome man of unrequited longing. But I have also had dreams in which I am the one who bears the flaming sword, and I raise it above my head not as a weapon against my enemies or a defense against the unknown, but as a torch that casts its steady light to dispel the darkness. On the hilt, I can see sometimes the entwining vines of plants and androgynous figures, neither male nor female, whose nakedness speaks of the strength and courage to be found in complexity.


This piece originally appeared in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 84. (August 2013)


Photo Credits:
• Tree sketch in Moleskein, by Steve Loya (CC) [source]
• “The Bird Woman,” by June Yarham (CC) [source]
• “point of no return,” by jinterwas (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild, Theology

New Moon, Forever Maiden: Wild Worship in the Digital Age

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


When I was little, I used to wonder what the poets compared the moon to before there were street lamps and light bulbs. Before electricity buzzed through the netting of wires strung between houses along the suburban street where I grew up, criss-crossing in thin dark lines against the dome of the sky. Evenings in late summer, when the light seemed to linger so long, I would gaze out of my bedroom window watching the horizon blush above the roofs of the neighbors’ houses. And there, just above where that great gold beast of a sun laid down to tuck its head behind the townhouses, there it was — that sliver of moon, impossibly bright, pinned among the clouds. The waxing crescent moon.

raising_moon-Andrea

What had the poets called it? A bow pulled taut. A silver sickle, wet with evening dew. The curving wings of some mighty bird riding high winds. The opening wake of sunset. The lip of a crystal cup, moonlight like a balm poured out over a dusky land. A veil slipping from the round face of a mirror.

In the windowpane, the reflection of my desk lamp hovered like a watery, round reminder of the coming dark and the persistence of the electric, the artificial, as constant as the purr of the air conditioning. As dusk fell and the world past my window grew darker, even the moon would eventually sink below the line of rooftops, and instead of the suburban night all the smudged glass would offer back was the pale reflection of my own face, half in shadow, safe inside the cool, pink sanctuary of my bedroom.

~

We live in a time of amazing opportunities and heart-wrenching tragedies, a time when many of us live daily with the humming tension between wild enthusiasm and deep cynicism. At 29 years old, I am at the upper age limit of the generation that has come to be called the Millennials. The generation that saw the century turn over into the Internet Age, the Age of Information. A generation that grew up with PCs and cell phones, instant messaging and online dating, grassroots journalism, pop-up windows, Twitter trends, lolcat memes and cyber-bullying. GeoCities, LiveJournal, MySpace, Facebook — the endless evolution of virtual space, the constant purr of news feeds and headline crawlers. Technology connects us instantly with people from all over the world, making it possible for us to exchange ideas, share inspiration and express our creativity in ways our great-grandparents could scarcely have imagined. But it can also lay us bare to some of the worst of human behavior: cruelty, ignorance, injustice and, ironically, a lingering sense of isolation amidst all the ringtones and white noise.

Women in particular face challenging contradictions in this brave new age. In a society that celebrates equality, we see before us endless opportunities to pursue our dreams. And yet in many ways, the glass ceiling seems thicker than ever, and the balancing act of gender equality forever remains a perilous one. Young women especially face dismal prospects in a struggling economy, saddled with an equal share of ballooning student debt but still burdened with persistent inequality in pay and employment opportunities. For a generation whose mothers took for granted access to birth control and family planning, we face the real possibility of seeing those options rolled back or revoked completely. Even the technologies that give us a voice — the online blogs, the websites and social media networks that help us forge communities of like-minded friends scattered across the globe — are designed and developed by engineers and computer programmers, professional fields that are still dominated almost exclusively by men despite the qualified success of education reform to close the gender gap in math and the sciences.

Like many women of my generation, I grew up believing I could do and be anything I wanted. And I wanted to write, with all my heart. I breezed through Calculus and AP Physics, bored to tears. It was the practice of poetry, the careful devotion I gave to the work of crafting secret refuges of spirit and song, that got me through my high school teen angst years fairly well intact. I blogged. I used the internet to find resources on how and where to publish, and to connect to other writers online who always had advice to share. One of those online friends introduced me to poets like Rumi and Omar Khayyám and first sparked my fascination with mysticism and the magic of the natural world, an enchantment that quickly grew into a roaring passion. In the midst of my small, conservative suburban world, a whole new universe was unfolding before my eyes.

light_through_murano_bowl-John_Lillis

By the time I graduated college with a degree in comparative religious studies, I was a valedictorian, a published poet, and a Pagan. I was also an intense, neurotic little ball of nerves that quickly spun out in graduate school before completing my degree. I found myself waiting tables on the midnight shift and living alone in the city, skirting below the poverty line and desperately lonely.

So I wrote. I lit candles and incense. I poured my heart into blog posts and half-finished novel manuscripts. I poured libations to the earth in the gravel lot behind my run-down apartment building, watching the water turn the sharp stones dark in erratic rivulets that disappeared into the dust. I oscillated between long bouts of writer’s block and periods of frenetic productivity that petered out into the ether of the huge, anonymous world-wide web. I felt trapped, claustrophobic, wild and free all at once, spinning around a center anchored firmly in devotion. Like Rumi, I was mad with the wandering moon.

I could have settled down, gotten a “real job,” some entry-level position in some office building somewhere. But I didn’t. A fierce idealism burned in me, a stubborn refusal to commit myself to work unless I could throw my soul into it. Waitressing was hard on my body, but the clatter of plates and the smell of coffee and the frantic multitasking of the after-hours rush made a kind of dance, a ritual of hunger and gratitude. I gave myself up to the mercy of the Gods of Good Tips, like a hunter laying offerings before carved images of his prey, that the fates might bring him a kill to last him through the winter. It was romantic, and naive.

That is the burden of the Maiden, the young beloved, the inexperienced youth casting herself out into the wild winds for the first time. To hold her idealism like a torch to light her way. To revel in the longing of her expectation, her potential becoming. And for all her daring, to risk being thought of as immature, foolish, sentimental, and naive. To have her parents fret that she isn’t saving for retirement, or that her tattoos might peek out above the collar of a respectable, office-appropriate blouse. It’s her task to scoff at such worries, too, because after all, cynicism is just the mask that hope wears when it ventures out at night.

ambience-jenny_downing

The Maiden is a goddess in many religious traditions. In the Catholicism of my childhood, the immaculate Mary was both Virgin and Mother. The Sunday school teacher explained to us delicately, as we sat wide-eyed and uncomprehending, that the Holy Spirit had entered into the young girl the way a ray from the sun penetrates a glass of water, without breaking it. I imagined a chalice, the smooth curve of its lip gleaming and its round belly beaded with condensation, suffused with light from within. The teacher told us how Mary had said yes.

Naive Mary. Poor, romantic, idealistic Mary, ready to throw away her social standing and her security, risking shame and ostracism, all to bear a child of God.

I think that this, too, is the burden and blessing of the Maiden: to say yes. The notion of virginity has a perplexing and complicated history. All too often, it is seen as a treasure to be hidden away, jealously safe-guarded — something that, once lost, is lost for good.

I see it differently. The purity and self-possession of the Maiden, the fierce joy that shines in her, cannot be contained, locked away. Stagnant water that does not flow soon grows cloudy and rife with gnats. The challenge that the Maiden presents to us is to remain open, porous and self-giving, willing to wander… and to do this without breaking.

But we live in a new world. The tendrils of the internet wind their way into every nook and cranny of our lives, seeping in through our computers and cell phones, even our television sets and the dashboards of our cars. Surrounded by the constant buzz and noise of the digital age, it can be hard to find a voice of our own. Demands for our time, energy and attention press in from all sides, and the urge to keep up with the pace of conversation can leave us grasping for inadequate language and flimsy metaphors. Like distracted adolescents, we can forgo a soul-felt, full-bodied YES! for the quick, clipped “Yeah. Fine. Whatever.”

To remain open, sometimes we need to craft a sanctuary for ourselves. The Maiden knows this lesson best of all, for her life is not only one of wild freedom but also limitation. She has not yet come into her full potential. She rubs up against the limits of her own self-becoming. She rides the contradiction of a wandering that remains anchored, a wildness held safe within the boundaries of innocence and sacred naivety.

Conjunction Without a Flash

As I write, the waxing crescent of the Claim Song Moon slips ever closer to the horizon in the west, trailing the sun like a little sister eager to follow in her big sister’s wake. Next month’s moon will dance through a new season, different in subtle ways, but always the same dance. I still don’t have a “real job,” one where I have to tuck in my shirt, go into the office and follow someone else’s rules. I make a living through my creative work, still the sharp-eyed, stalking hunter making my offerings to the sometimes fickle gods. I’ve learned to carve out a sacred space in which to do this work safely, using respectable language. I tell people I’m in online media production and web design. It sounds impressive. Many of the people my age I know do the same, cobbling together a resumé full of part-time work and creative side projects.

True, I haven’t lived with my parents for more than a decade. I have a husband now, which also sounds like a mature and grown-up thing to have, and I’m the stepmother to four delightful children (though I’ve always felt more like the crazy aunt). I will, through my own choice, never have children of my own, and to some that means that I will never really count as a “real woman,” either. Just a freewheeling flake who never quite got it together enough to settle down to the hard work of family life. Even in this age of opportunity and equality, there is still a stigma attached to women who choose not to have children, a belief that somehow we’ve failed, that we’ve become stuck. To some, I will forever be the maiden, naive and idealistic.

Yet we all have this Maiden in us, returning season after season like the crescent moon: the dusk-dreamer, the lover, the young creature who defends with fierce hope the belief that she can be anything she wants to be when she grows up.

In our quiet little apartment, I open up the windows and watch the moonset above the city skyline. I speak a prayer of naming, madly in love with all the things the moon might be.


This piece was originally published in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 83. (December 2012)


Photo Credits:
• “Raising Moon,” by Andrea (CC) [source]
• “Light Through Murano Bowl,” by John Lillis (CC) [source]
• “Ambience,” by Jenny Downing (CC) [source]
• “Conjunction Without a Flash,” by Distant Hill Gardens (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com