Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Reflections on Lughnasadh

Our altar at Lughnasadh, 2015.
I recall the dim, romantic light of the candles as my Circle and I gathered just the other day in my dining room, which often doubles as a ritual space, to honor the rites of Lughnasadh.  The altar was dressed with traditional symbols of the first harvest; fresh fruit and vegetables, ears of corn, apples, pears, figs, grapes, stalks of wheat, and flowers.  An offering of cornbread and mead was prepared and made during the ritual.  We sang, we chanted, we honored the three realms; Land, Sea, and Sky; and called the quarters.  We shared what blessings in our lives we were grateful for, and what bounties we hoped to reap in the coming Harvest.  Our Circle was filled with spirit and light.  And when we unwound the Circle, we, each of us, felt uplifted and full of magick.
It is a wonderful thing to be able to set aside our fears and inhibitions, our worries, and our stresses as we gather in the Circle together.  For the magick we create there permeates us on every level, and reminds us that the Gods have not only blessed our lives, but that They continue to watch over us, protect us, and provide a light for us in the darkest of times.
Being Pagan is a truly a blessed thing.  Notwithstanding the arguments over which tradition comes closest to that which the ancients’ practiced, we are all of us heir to a noble lineage – which lineage in the case I am describing is passed on spiritually – and keepers of a folklife that stands even today as the best chance the Earth has to be protected from irreparable harm, if the mainstream could but embrace just a few of its basic principles.
But being Pagan, practicing magick, and having the sense of control over our destiny that comes with it, does not protect us completely from calamity.  I speak with many folk who do not understand why bad things happen to them even though they are devout Pagans; they worship, pray, and meditate daily, they attend every festival and event they can get their hands on, and they study and read voraciously.  Why then, they seem to wonder, do bad things still happen to them?  I have wondered this myself.  You see, I have heard it posited that, because we practice a magickal tradition, we ought to be able to exercise enough control over our lives to ward off calamity.  As if, because we’re Pagans, we should suffer less than any other group of people on Earth.
Then reality shows up, and we are visited by hardship, disaster, or tragedy.  It is at those times that it seems a lot of Pagans’ first instinct is to blame Karma.  “Oh I must be suffering some Karma for something I did in the past,” and such.  To me, this seems wholly unfair – I mean, unless you truly were an asshole in some past phase of your life.  It is also an audacious notion; that your Karma could be responsible for events which, more often than not, affect more than just yourself alone.
It seems better to embrace that hardship is as much a part of life as happiness.  Without darkness, how could we appreciate the light?  Without tragedy, how can we cultivate compassion and empathy?  Without failure, how could we recognize success?  What makes the revelation of our spiritual path so meaningful to us?  Why is it so much like “coming home” when we discover our Pagan selves?  It is because we have wandered, and because we have suffered, and because these things have cultivated in us a higher perspective; a willingness and even a yearning to be enlightened; to serve others and to serve the Gods.
Lughnasadh is named for the Celtic God Lugh, often ascribed as representing the sun, ergo the light which fertilizes the Earth.  It is also richly associated with Lugh's foster mother, Tailtiu, who is credited with the introduction of agriculture in Ireland.  It is easy to see, then, why the holiday is so much associated with the land and the Harvest.  In each of our lives we reap a “harvest” of blessings.  This harvest relies on the seeds we plant earlier in our lives, and how steadfastly we tend the soil.  Our labors, in this respect, include dealing with hardship and tragedy; for when we overcome these things, we till them under and make them part of the soil which fertilizes the bounty of our character and understanding; the very foundation of our being.  It is this which the Gods reward, not blind expectation.  And the reward is not to be shielded from tragedy or hardship touching our lives.  Rather, it is to be made better for it.
When I thank the Gods for the blessings in my life, as I did during our ritual at Lughnasadh, I am also moved to thank Them for the dark times, the hardships, and the tragedies; for these things have made me the steward that I am.  I pray every day that I may be a worthy steward; that I have cultivated and tended the soil with care, and that in all that I do, I reflect the grace and glory of the Gods, and the love of my spiritual family.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

My Evenings With Inion: Druidry Illuminated

I was never so rich as when I was surrounded by like-minded people I loved and who loved me back.  In early August of 2003 my mentor and friend Inion had made the trip to West Virginia and brought me, my familiar, and my belongings back with her to upstate New York.  She and her family lived in a century-old farm house in a rural village near Cossayuna Lake.  There she invited me to live with her, and her family warmly embraced me as one of their own, as did the small fellowship of Druids she had brought together and nurtured in the years since I’d known her.
Immediately upon my arrival in New York I felt a sense of relief and belonging.  Finally, for the first time in a long time I felt like I was … home.
Inion was a homesteader, every bit devoted to a traditional style and old-world-inspired existence.  The kitchen in her home featured a long, hand-made harvest-style table and a genuine antique wood-fire stove.  Pre-packaged or processed foods were never served in her home.  Rather, the family enjoyed a rich diet of homemade foods made from scratch and seasoned with herbs from Inion’s own garden.  The breads were always homemade from scratch – being every bit Irish, she had a penchant for soda bread – and the teapot, it seemed, never left the stove.  The tea served in her home was often made from herbs she’d wildcrafted herself.  Bundles and bundles of herbs and flowers hung drying in the kitchen and sunroom windows.  But for the presence of a few modern conveniences – like the internet and cell phones – it was a true homestead; a richly Pagan home.  I was enchanted by it.  Who wouldn’t be?
She taught me what real traditional Paganism looked like; what it meant to not just perform the occasional ritual, but to actually live one’s spirituality.  She taught me what it meant to bring the magick and mystery of being Pagan into everyday life.
Photo credit: Comtesse du Chocolat
Our conversations around the harvest table were rich and enlightening, deeply exploring subjects like history, metaphysics, spirituality and the cosmology of the universe.  We spent hours waxing philosophical as we sipped tea on a candle-lit porch looking out over a hill where the sunsets were as if the Gods Themselves painted the sky in brilliant colors every night just for the two of us.  It was a magickal time in my life – truly.
Those evenings on the porch provided me with some of the most valuable insights I’ve ever had, expanding my thinking in ways I’d never imagined before.  Inion’s inborn natural wisdom flowed like the Nine Waves of Blessing across my mind and my heart.  She helped me, in no small way, achieve a much greater understanding of my own self and who I was meant to be.
During one of those idyllic nights, Inion once asked me, “What would the world be like if seen through a Druid’s eyes?”  I had to set my teacup down for this one!  I can remember thinking as leaned back in my rocking chair and folded my hands up under my chin, that the measure of wisdom doesn’t so much rely on the answer as it does on the mere contemplation of the question.  … Oh and she had just given me a lot to contemplate!
“I imagine nature would be elevated,” I began, “into a position of noble equality. It would be revered and protected as a sentient living and Divine presence. It would no longer be seen as something to simply dominate and exploit for wealth, entertainment or power. The mystery and magick of nature would reemerge after centuries of slumber and we – humankind – would suddenly be filled with wonder.”
At this, Inion simply sipped her tea and looked out over the bucolic view in front of us.  In that moment her eyes seemed to show the very sense of wonder I was describing.  “Within the wonder and mystery of nature is the flame of hope for mankind,” she said.
I would later write in an essay on the subject that, “Druids kindle and tend that flame with great care, full in the knowledge that what good is performed today, shall forever be felt in the years and generations to come. Humankind must not remain alienated from the very home of our spirit, but return to it, love it and celebrate that union.”

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Grateful Poet: A Meditation on the Inner Song of the Soul

Before I knew who I was, I knew the poetry inside me.  It was the universe that breathed this life into
me when my spirit was given its song, and all my soul to the ancient Bards’ vision owes a debt.  A debt I pay with a grateful heart when I am able to gaze across a landscape and be inspired by its simple beauty, juxtaposed with a complex grace, and I am gifted with the passion to write about it.  Where is a person’s sacrifice who cannot celebrate the song inside of them, the song formed from the very Divine breath of life that is its’ muse and music?  And do we not all of us owe to the Gods who made us, an always present sacrifice of some simple part of ourselves?  That part of us that might else be occupied by something other than gratefulness for the life we’re given?
So life is given by Divine hands, and by its touch we are made whole; that is to awaken to our interconnection with everything and everyone in all creation.  For all things that pass from the memory of man are retained forever in the memory of the universe.  And so we none of us truly pass from this existence; we only pass instead from the sight of it.  And there, in that sometimes-intangible truth, we are all a part of each other, and all akin to every spirit who has ever come before us, and ever will follow after us.  Is it not one of the deeper gifts of our existence that we are capable of such a thing as a dream?  In particular, a hopeful vision of a world where every person could be inspired by the simplest expressions of life, and find in that inspiration the capacity to treat all living things as their kin?  Where we find our spirit’s inner song, its own natural rhythm, is a matter of where we find that truth; that we are not alone, and we are none of us orphans, that the very Earth herself is not only the cradle of our existence, but is mother to us all.
Such was the purpose of the ancient Bard, and so is the continuing quest of the modern sage and poet, to keenly characterize the triumph of a spirit when it is awakened to the truth of its existence, or finds the passion to lend its song to the choir of the tribe of Earth.  It is the ability of the poet to find expression for the natural and endless current of emotional momentum inside us, which I call the ‘inner song’ of the human spirit.  And because not all of us can find that expression, the very idea of it, the content of it where that expression becomes real and tangible, even when it is not our own, can renew and enrich us.
So by this notion, what is poetry?  Poetry is both song and sonnet; it is creativity and reactivity; it is the wisdom of the sage, and the artistry of the student whose mind is shaped by it.  It is the inner fire of the Sun and the music of the rain, the whisper of the mountains and the grace of the wild Earth; it is the song of the soul who observes Nature and sees divinity there; the expressions of those who observe all things in heaven and earth and look with wonder upon them.
It must be understood that poetry is not merely the effect of tasking one’s mind with the expression of lyrical thought.  It is not so simple a thing as can be written, read, memorized or experienced in any other way by such outward means.  Not all poetry is words on a page.
A great counselor—in actual fact, my own mother—once said to me, “Within the soul of man is the poetry of the universe; if one could jus reach out and grasp it.”
So it stands to reason then that every creature is, in effect, a poet; by means of expressing the consciousness of the universe—its poetry—through every breath, every heartbeat, every thought and every deed.  We express through our very existence, and all at once intentionally, unintentionally, rationally and irrationally, creatively and reactively, the rhythm of the infinite and expanding universe.  Our very life force is the poetry of the universe.  Its consciousness and eternal memory are a part of us, and our lives are its expression.  Indeed our lives are the very expression of divine creativity.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Banishing Negativity: Finding Joy Through Willed Change

It is natural in stressful times, when darkness encroaches, when everything in our life seems to be falling apart, that we lose sight of our spirituality; the very thing that ought to keep us from such despair.
Our spirituality is supposed to be our light in the darkest of times, the guidepost that keeps us on the right path, ever struggling against the tide and which, with enough effort, brings us to some kind of peace with our circumstances.  It shapes and refines us.  It helps us to remain focused on the positive, on solutions, rather than on the negative.  But sometimes problems come at you so fast, and with such abundance, that we fall into the trap of not having time to take out of our day to re-center ourselves; to do the things we need to do to keep our spiritual devotion at the forefront of our minds and hearts.  And it is at these times that we suffer the most, because we suffer from not only the problems we face in life, but from the feeling of being disconnected from that which is our most inherent and built-in comfort; the spark of the Divine inside of us.  It is at those times when we are most alone … or at least, when we feel most alone.  But it is an illusion.  It is an illusion of our own making.  Fear, stress, loneliness and depression, like what I was suffering through, these things become self-perpetuating because we are under this illusion.
There were times when I little realized how easy it might have been to break this cycle, freeing myself of that illusion.  My heart and my mind were so preoccupied with the negative in my life.  It is important to note here that negativity is a self-perpetuating cycle.  Not to be cliché but, like really does attract like … probably one of the most repeated concepts in self-help books and other treatises meant to inspire positive thinking.
Finding moments of pure, ecstatic joy is a funny and amazing thing.  They don’t happen even half as often as they should, and we spend our whole lives in pursuit of them.
Ironically, it is the one pursuit in our lives that we most easily fail to keep faith with.  For so many of us, marginalized by our circumstance and the stresses of everyday life, the drama of dysfunctional family and self-serving personalities all around us, it is so easy to find ourselves in a self-perpetuating cycle of negativity, which is fueled, principally, by focusing on that negativity rather than on the blessings in our lives.
Having a negative outlook perpetuates negative outcomes, while focusing on the positive brings blessings into our lives.  If you’re reading this, no doubt you’ve read others treatises that were built around this thesis.  You may be wondering, why is it every author seems to push this?  Don’t they understand how hard life is?  Don’t they know it’s impossible to have a positive attitude all the time, when you consider how much drama and negativity there is in the world?
I assure you, there isn’t a single person that has ever written about this concept that isn’t aware of how difficult life is; who doesn’t struggle with their own demons and negative thinking.  Being positive and actively seeking moments of joy is not easy.  I don’t think any author who’s written on this subject aims to suggest that it is.
What I see most in people when I speak on this subject is that the pressures and stresses in their life leave them feeling powerless to affect any kind of positive change, and that ecstatic joy is so alien a concept that it might as well be a nebulous fantasy.
But being Pagan means so much more than worshiping according to ancient, pre-Christian tradition; it means that we have embraced a path in which the Old Gods speak directly to our souls and give us the power within ourselves to affect the circumstances without.  Paganism is all about self-empowerment.  It is also about simplicity.  The ancient Celts believed that making a change manifest was so simple a thing as to only require applying thought.  Celtic scholar, poet and author John O’Donohue suggested this in his book, Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom:
“If you send out goodness from yourself, or if you share that which is happy or good within you, it will all come back to you multiplied ten thousand times. In the kingdom of love there is no competition; there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.”
This concept, of course, is not exclusive to the Celtic way of thinking.  Rather, it is found in many spiritual traditions around the world.
“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”  — Proverbs 17:22
It is remarkable to me the number of people I meet who follow a spiritual path but who are not happy; who focus persistently on the negative influences around them.  And let me be clear that I do not mean to suggest I don’t struggle with this myself.  I struggle with it every day, in fact.  Wiccan cosmology concerns itself greatly with the idea of “willed change”.  And that speaks to the heart of matter; that what you want, you must will; and what you will, you must be.  This brings to mind another famous expression most of us have heard somewhat often; “Be the change you want to see in this world.”  Mahatma Gandhi is most often credited with this quote, but that attribution is arguable.  It is most likely a paraphrase of any number of thoughts and ideas on the subject.  Still, its meaning is important.
Certainly the phrase doesn’t mean to suggest that through positive thinking or personal transformation alone you can change the whole world.  We know that is a bit of an over-reach.  But it absolutely can transform your little part of the world; the sphere of influences around you.  By changing your own attitude toward life, you will change other people’s attitude toward you.  This thought is reflected in something we know Gandhi actually did say:
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”
So how do we transform our everyday thinking?  How do we transform ourselves from being a persistently negative person to a positive person by nature?
The first step is to begin to identify the positive things we do have in our life, and to both inwardly and outwardly express gratitude for them.  Make it a point to begin every day with a devotional practice – it need not be any elaborate ritual or long-winded prayer, merely make a small commitment to take a few moments each morning to say out-loud what you are grateful for in your life, and genuinely feel grateful.  Include a prayer in which you thank the Gods for revealing Their blessings, sprinkle in a few moments of transcendental meditation and ... *POOF* ... you’re on your way to transforming your life!  Doing just this alone, with no other effort whatsoever, I have found will transform my entire day.  Do it every day and you will transform your week, month, year … you get the picture.
Is it really that simple?  Yes.  Yes it is.  Is there more you can do?  Of course!  The rest involves changing our daily primary focus, and actively seeking those moments of total abandon and ecstatic joy.  As we seek them, we find that they are not so elusive, when we combine our search with a daily devotional practice and a shift in our way of thinking.  The last step is actively and willfully transforming negative into positive.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

"Fluffy Bunnies": On Disparaging Fellow Pagans

Some of my favorite conversations have been spent waxing anecdotal about some of the more colorful practitioners I have come across in the Pagan community.  I am reminded of how some of those characters have, over the years, inspired terms like “fluffy bunny”, “insta-witches”, “McWiccans”, “One-Book Witches”, “Wicclets”, and “Whitelighters”.
On this topic I find myself conflicted.  It is not in me to tell someone that what they practice or believe is wrong, especially if they find fulfillment in it.
Having said that, “fluffy bunnies” do present something of a problem to the rest of the Pagan community.  Broadly defined, these are the sort of people who give “serious” Pagans a bad name.  Generally, these folk read maybe one or part of one book on the subject and decide they’re Witches (or Druids, or whatever), and do little or no research beyond that.  Many are often delusional on some level, pretentious, and largely misinformed about what they “know”.  In my personal experience, I have seen that a significant number of these types of people also identify as living with one or a number of the modern designer personality disorders, such as ADD, ADHD, OCD, bi-polar disorder, anxiety / panic disorder, or major depressive disorder.
…That’s probably all I need to say on that subject … apart from the fact that I have often thought this correlation would make for an excellent research topic.
In any case, for my part I do not spend a lot of time condemning people as “fluffy bunnies”.  Those who fit that description are well intentioned enough, most of the time, and those that aren’t, well, let karma be their judge.  I believe it is rather more productive to focus on setting an example that we all should aspire to as Pagans, and count among our virtues those of seriousness tempered with humor, good scholarship, and the application of spirituality to overcome personal limitations.  It is precisely this that will help us to become worthy servants of the Gods and of each other, and worthy stewards of the Earth, our Mother.