Expanded Chakra System

I wrote previously about the seven chakra system, but there are several variations possible. I currently work with an expanded system of nine chakras which includes additional chakras above and below the original seven.

The seven-chakra system is the most common one, and as I understand it, also the most common one in the Hindu roots, but there are many, many different expansions and contractions and other variations. This is complicated by the fact that in Hindu views chakras as energy centers existed in other parts of the body, like major joints (think hips, shoulders, knees) and the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Some systems of explaining or understanding the chakras include some or all of these.

Many of the variations on the chakra system want to adjust the number of chakras in order to match some other important or sacred number besides seven, especially nine or ten. At least a couple of different ways to attribute or associate the chakras with the Kabbalistic system of sephiroth exist, for example. (Creating coherence between two fundamentally different symbol systems from two fundamentally different cultures is a common problem of syncretic or multi-source spiritual and religious work – but I’ll save that conversation for another time.)

Unlike additional chakras found within various locations in the body, the addition of a “transpersonal” chakra (described as floating above the head) is, as far as I know, wholly Western.

Over time I have found it more productive to work with a nine chakra system which I was introduced to by Ivo Dominguez Jr in his book Spirit Speak. This system includes an ancestral chakra below the feet and a transpersonal chakra above the head. (Please note that the descriptions below are my own, and not Ivo’s, though I give thanks for his teaching.)

The Ancestral Chakra

The ancestral chakra, below the root chakra, is lower than the body by about 8 to 12 inches, and thus is anchored firmly in the physical world which supports us. In my experience, this chakra is a place of connection to the immanent spirit, or spirit made manifest in the physical world. This is the location of connection to the land base, to the spirits of place, and to our sources of stability and grounding.

As the name implies, this chakra also has a connection with the past as that which anchors and grounds us in time as well as place. This is a connection to the ancestors, meaning both our direct ancestors, known and unknown, but also the deep unconscious which extends beyond ourselves.

This chakra is associated with the color black, and it is important to understand that nearly all of the work that goes on here will be highly symbolic and instinctive; this is a space that responds well to rhythm and imagery, but doesn’t really make sense of language.

The Transpersonal Chakra

The transpersonal chakra is similarly located outside the body, floating about 8 to 12 inches above the head. I would almost rather describe this chakra as the transcendent, because in counterpoint to the ancestral chakra’s connection to immanent spirit, this uppermost chakra is connected to spirit as it transcends and exists outside of space, time, and matter.

The name transpersonal reflects the fact that since all beings are connected to spirit in this transcendent sense, working with spirit in this way strengthens the connection between oneself and other beings. But as I mentioned above, the ancestral or immanent chakra is also “transpersonal,” meaning that it connects us to others. The big difference is whether we are working with our connections to others as immanent, inside the physical, material world, or outside, in the transcendent sense. I think both are equally important but different ways of working with our connections to spirit and to each other.

This transcendent connection is the realm of the Higher Self or Deep Self, if you work with the Three Selves image. (More on that at another time!) This is the area of the superego, the wisdom that takes into account the individual but also seeks to take into account many individuals, and more than one time and place, in finding what is good or right or best. This is where we usually think of gods and goddesses residing, as opposed to the land spirits or cthonic and immanent manifestations of spirit.

This chakra is associated with clear or white light and can be a source of tremendously energizing feelings.

Benefits

Personally, I like the way this nine chakra system extends outside my physical body and includes explicit connections with the immanent and the transcendent world around me. It reminds me to check how my grounding and my connection to the upper Powers are functioning when I’m assessing my internal state, and gives me additional tools in working with my metaphysical understanding of well-being and healing.

One particular benefit is that a nine chakra system divides neatly into three groups of three. This particularly makes sense with the idea of a tripartite self – the lowest three chakras represent the Younger Self, the middle three chakras are the Talking Self, and the upper three chakras are the Higher Self or Deep Self, to use Starhawk’s terminology. Even if you don’t use that image of the self, the three groups do seem to fall together and it can be helpful to examine how each group of three interacts and balances itself.

Ultimately, whether you want to characterize these connections above and below as additional specific chakras or not, they are natural extensions of the seven chakra system which can help us pay attention to our grounding and centering, to our connection with the divine, and other parts of our metaphysical makeup. Spending time trying out these ideas and deciding whether to incorporate them into your own practice can be very rewarding.

Meditation Moment: Connection and Context

Last month, I talked about letting go of time to be wholly in the present moment. Worrying about a few pieces of the past or future disconnects us from the present moment, and also leads us to ignore the rest of the past and future as well.

Being wholly in the present moment is an experience of mystery and delight; each present moment, taken by itself, connects to all the moments, past and future. The immediacy of the present moment and the eternity of all moments have more in common with each other than they do with our usual ways of understanding and experiencing time.

Meditation can be a way of connecting opposites, both practically and mystically, and can help us see objects, experiences, and even ourselves in a wider context, with a more holistic vision.

Here’s a practical example: beginning drivers often feel overwhelmed with the amount of information coming at them. They feel like they need to be looking in all directions at once, watching every other car, looking for traffic signals and signs, and monitoring the dashboard. Trying to pay attention to everything makes it difficult for them to pay attention to any single thing.

As they learn to drive, they learn to limit their attention to only a few things at a time. They learn where to look to anticipate what’s going to happen, and they learn what parts of their visual field they can ignore. They learn when to check the dashboard and when to keep their eyes up on the road; they know when the rearview mirror is important and when it’s only a distraction.

We all learn ways to filter our attention: we can pay attention to everything, which means we end up not noticing anything, or we can pay attention to some things and ignore others.

Meditation lets us learn to use those filters in different ways. When we narrow our attention to the present moment, we can perceive that moment’s uniqueness. Such perception paradoxically widens our attention; we become more receptive not to the everyday noise that surrounds us but to the broader mystical context of each moment in time.

One meditation technique that I enjoy uses a juxtaposition of opposites and invites contemplation of similarities and differences to both harness the straying nature of the mind and emphasize connections such as this. The first time I did it, I was focusing on an arrangement of stones that consisted of mostly jagged, dark pieces of shale with a few round, clear marbles scattered throughout. Any similar contrast of yin/yang, dark/light, hard/soft, or similar will work.

Start out contemplating one end of the polarity, and when your attention wanders, bring it back to the other end of the polarity. Consider the dark, flat pieces of shale, and then shift to the round, translucent marbles. How do they express polarity? How are they similar? Is there a unity between the differences? As you keep doing this, shifting between the two becomes easier, and eventually the union of the contrasts becomes the main point of contemplation.

This contemplation on contrasts is a way of deliberately shifting what is in the foreground of our vision, what it is we’re paying attention to. When we contemplate one piece of a contrast, the counterpart is in the background; reversing the situation shows us that our attention determines what we perceive as foreground and background.

A beginning drawing exercise is to draw not an object but the shape of the space around it. This is another example of switching one’s focus to the background rather than the foreground. Exploring the contrasts between them, where they meet and interact, lets us understand both better. It leads to a more holistic vision that embraces both.

Starhawk described the difference between this holistic vision and normal awareness as the difference between seeing with a flashlight and seeing by starlight. The starlight vision sees patterns and shapes; it brings out the relationships between things rather than separating the world into foreground (which is attended to) and background (which is ignored).

Cultivating this alternative mode of awareness can give us a different perspective on ourselves as well as on our perception of time. Normally, I have myself in the foreground of my awareness: what am I doing, thinking, feeling? What do I do next?

As Pagans, many of us are familiar with a technique known as “grounding and centering,” and although there are many different ways to do this, most of the ones I’ve encountered are essentially adaptations of this meditation technique to reconnect our selves with our contexts.

Some people prefer to ground and center by getting in touch with the Earth first, usually through visualization, and then to draw on that connection to feel calm, collected, and refreshed within themselves. Others go about it in the opposite order, by sinking into their own consciousness first, and when they’ve touched their own core, then they connect to their surroundings. Either way is valid.

When we ground and center, we recognize how we exist in concert with our surroundings, and being more firmly aware of ourselves helps us connect to our whole world, just as being present in the moment helps us connect to all moments. The extremes, self and all, connect in the same paradoxical way as now and forever. If we widen our attention to our broader context first, we also end up with a better awareness of ourselves as part of that context by shifting our focus of attention away from ourselves.

We are often prompted to “ground and center” when beginning a group working. This instruction is more than a reminder to participants individually; it’s a necessary preface to asking individuals to open up to others. What connects us, after all, is our shared context, and locating ourselves as individuals within that larger situation prepares us to recognize and connect with others in a deeper way than we could if we approached them from only our isolated point of view. Recognizing the shared context lets us see what we already have in common with others, rather than seeing them as totally separate, isolated individuals.

We filter our attention in many ways in everyday life; learning to use those filters for our own purposes gives us valuable tools. Meditation and the specific practice of grounding and centering are ways we can cultivate the holistic vision, the starlight vision, that lets us connect with our context.

TRI cleanup: Personal reflections

I’d like to share a few personal reflections on the Teddy Roosevelt Island cleanup. First, I’m deeply touched that so many people thought this project was worth their time and effort. I respect organizations that require community service or volunteer efforts as part of their membership policies, like The Firefly House, and I am surprised there’s not more of this kind of putting our words and wills into real, direct action going on in the Pagan community. I’m thrilled that OHF is considering starting a volunteer program and I hope that such efforts will spread. I think it is absolutely necessary for such efforts to happen in order to keep our beliefs and practices authentic and meaningful.

I tried to express in my opening prayer how I saw this action as an integral part of what it means to me to be Pagan in general and Wiccan in particular. We recognize the divine in everything around us; it is our Mother Earth, on whose body we stand, in the Horned Lord who watches over the wild animals, in the Green Man, the very spirit of the vegetation beginning to awaken after the long winter sleep, and it is in the very spirits of the river and the island, the spirits of the place.

I asked that we dedicated our work as an offering to the divine, in recognition of the holy trust that has been given to us, when the divine entrusts us with not just our bodies but our environment as well. The work of caring for that environment is part of that relationship: it is a way of creating that relationship, repairing it where it has been damaged, and strengthening it. I asked that the divine blessed and empowered our work for that relationship.

And that work is so badly needed right now. It was in some ways deeply depressing to see so much trash, so much thoughtlessness and carelessness embodied in drifts of styrofoam and plastic water bottles, Starbucks cups and potato chip baggies. And, yes, so much sheer laziness: who scoops their dog’s poop, neatly ties the baggie off, and then leaves it carefully by the side of the trail when there’s a trash can every quarter-mile or less on that island?

There is no such thing as “unspoiled” nature or areas “untouched” by humans; the whole idea is a social construction that romanticizes the present and ignores the past. But the idea that we are embedding plastics in the geological record is deeply disturbing to me. We are making more and more things that are taking resources out of the natural cycles for tens of thousands of years, if not longer. This has never happened before on the planet. And these things, these nearly indestructible remnants, are what we treat so casually that their fragments float down our rivers in the hundreds and thousands.

I also know that my very life depends on parts of our material culture that use plastics and weren’t available fifty or sixty years ago. But when those resources aren’t just being used to make IV tubing and respirators to save lives but to make plastic eating utensils that are just a few cents cheaper than the biodegradable counterparts, I have to ask myself whether that is a good thing or not. And I can’t find a way to understand my relationship with the earth that makes styrofoam carryout containers a worthwhile thing.

The fact that we live in relationship with our environment, whether we acknowledge it or not, and whether we imbue that relationship with spiritual meaning or not, means that both parties affect each other. We have to ask ourselves whether we are treating our partners in that relationship in a way that makes the relationship likely to continue. The cleanup effort on TRI affected me much more deeply than I imagined, and has moved my relationship with the land, and with immanent deity, to a whole new level. I know, viscerally, in a way that I never did before, how and why waste matters, why petroleum-based plastics are a problem, how my individual decisions make a difference.

This kind of awareness can’t be gained through meditation or prayer. This is the kind of awareness that comes from truly and openly engaging with the other parties in a relationship. I can’t get to know my partner better by staring at his photograph, or thinking about him. Those things only reflect back to me what I already know: I’m relating to my ideas of him, not to the real him, the human being I love. The real person does things I could never expect or imagine; interacting with my ideas about him doesn’t give me that challenge, the kind of challenge that makes me grow, and keeps our love alive.

I fear that many Pagans and Wiccans who do not challenge themselves, who do not make a point of offering their work and engaging actively in their relationships with the land and immanent deity, are relating more to their ideas about the environment, and their mental pictures of it, than with the real thing, with the world they want to love. So I challenge you: go on a date with the world. Don’t make it easy for yourself by doing another guided meditation. Get out into the world where something that you could never imagine might happen, where your love will surprise you, maybe in positive ways, maybe in negative ways, because having that real interaction is the only way to sustain your love, to keep your relationship alive and growing.

Element Associations: an exercise

I’ve been reading some of Mary K. Greer’s excellent books on Tarot lately. One of my favorite things about Greer’s books is that she includes lots of interactive exercises for the reader. This can make just flipping through the books seem a bit flat and boring, but once I actually engage with the exercises and work through the books, actively reflecting on the concepts being introduced, I find that I’ve gained far more skill than I would have gained just by reading an author’s opinions on a topic. In that spirit, here is an exercise of my own to help you determine how you relate to the four classical Elements:

This can be done on a single sheet of paper, but it’s a little easier if you use four sheets of lined paper, one for each Element. Write the name of one Element (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) at the top of the sheet. Then set a timer for a short period, 30 seconds to a minute, and brainstorm words you associate with that Element. These can be nature words, sensations, sights, sounds, tastes, smells, textures, emotional or psychological qualities, verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs, whatever comes to mind. Whenever you’re stymied, come back to the name of the Element at the top of the page. Write one on each line, and if you finish the page, start a second column. Repeat, with the same amount of time, for each Element.

As you line up your four pieces of paper side-by-side, how do your lists compare? Is one noticeably longer? Shorter? Are they all about the same? Did you become more adept at brainstorming as you got used to it, so that each list is a little longer?

Now go through your lists and note how each item makes you feel: for terms with positive associations, put a plus sign, and for terms with negative associations, a minus sign. Some things will be neutral, but don’t take too long on each one, and don’t worry about how you “ought” to feel about a particular association; go with your gut instinct. If you aren’t a strong swimmer, “waves” might be a negative one, whereas for a surfer who paddled as soon as he could walk, it could be very positive. The point is to get at what you feel with each term.

Now reassess your lists in terms of how many pluses and minuses are on each. Is one of them longer, but full of minuses? Is your longest list mostly positive? What about the shortest? Which list is most nearly equal in terms of pluses and minuses?

Each of us has personal associations with the Elements. These can be informed by theoretical approaches that give us long lists of correspondences based on abstract theory, but our personal experiences can override correspondences, and can particularly give emotional color to how we perceive an element. Personally, I had a hard time getting in touch with Air, because I associated my experiences of it with wind, and especially cold wind, which I find very painful. This aversion to my mental and emotional visualization of Air made it hard for me to appreciate the Element’s positive qualities, and hard to do strong invocations, which led to difficulty balancing my approach to ritual and magic.

Brainstorming or free-associating can be both a tool for approaching a concept and a measure of how comfortable we are with it. When asked to brainstorm on a topic we feel comfortable with, the associations flow freely, giving us long lists, while ideas we have tended to shy away from, even unconsciously, leave us grasping for words just out of reach. True, sometimes we’ll have long lists of reasons we don’t like a particular thing. (I have plenty of associations with, say, spiders, but they’re all emotionally negative!) Rating the emotional appeal of each term can give you insight into why a particular list is shorter or longer, and whether that has to do with your internal filters, preferences, or preconceived notions that push you into greater or lesser affinity with a given Element.

Take a look, also, at how each list is slanted towards internal (emotional or psychological) associations and external (nature words, actions), and which words are abstract and which concrete. An Element with which you are uncomfortable might be one that you relate to mostly in the abstract. This can be either a symptom or a cause; either way, it means you might benefit from some additional interaction with that Element, especially in concrete, experiential ways that can help you form positive associations. For me, remembering a time with positive emotions that I was suddenly struck by the scent of pine resin baked out of the trees around me by a warm spring sun helped me put my relationship with Air on a whole different footing.

If you feel like this exercise shows you areas you could work on, try doing additional brainstorming around the Element that gave you the shortest list, and also the one with the most minuses on it, if those were different. Search your own memories for better associations you can form: as in my example, a good place to start is with an experience in nature that you enjoyed and that is in some way related to the Element. Brainstorm words to describe the experience, both external and internal. If you can’t find a positive experience, see if you can imagine one, or better yet, make it happen. Sensory memories with powerful emotional connections can make lasting impressions, so if you need to, make a date to do something you know you’ll enjoy, and maybe let the Element change your impression of it.

This exercise is one you can repeat, so keep some notes about it in your journal. You and the Elements just might surprise each other as your relationships grow and change.

Witch wear: Religion as performance art?

What do Witches wear? And why do Wiccan authors devote so much space to this?

In more than one book I’ve reviewed recently, and in even more that I’ve taken a cursory glance at, the question of what Witches wear is given serious discussion, often towards the beginning of the book. One or two instances of this I passed off as the authors’ personal interests, but the more I see this topic treated as a serious issue, the more baffled I am. I’m also inspired by Mary’s recent re-posting of her piece on clothes and geek feminism. Although I won’t examine the geek perspective (although there is intersectionality between geeks and Wiccans/Witches), I’m going to use some of the points in her post as references. Although there are some legitimate questions to be addressed with respect to what Witches wear, I think the final answer is that entirely too many authors and Wiccans alike are approaching their religion as a kind of performance art.

The two obvious reasons to address the question of what Witches wear are that one, Gardnerian Witchcraft conducted most coven work “skyclad” (that means nude), and two, if a contemporary newbie Witch is nervous about going to an open ritual for the first time, “What do I wear?” is one of the ways that nervousness manifests itself. But the attention given to the topic of clothing in these books isn’t really about either of those matters. Yes, some books discuss the issue of skyclad practice; but in today’s general American eclectic Wicca, skyclad practice is the exception, not the rule, and is almost entirely restricted to extremely traditional Gardnerian or other British Traditional Wicca covens. This was legitimate for the Farrars to address when they were trying to explain their practice of Alexandrian Wicca back in the 70s, but it’s hardly a topic that’s relevant for the beginning Wiccan today, and none of these books are aimed at an advanced audience, at an audience of traditional Gardnerians, or at an audience that’s considering practicing in a formal coven structure at all! Indeed, none of these authors were discussing skyclad or coven practice.

They also weren’t motivated primarily by describing how to sew one’s own ceremonial robe, although that may have been mentioned offhand. There are good psychological and magical reasons to have specific clothing for ritual, or even to practice skyclad, but none of that was the major concern addressed by these authors. There was a little bit of discussion that might have been reassurance about what constitutes appropriate dress for an open ritual, but that wasn’t really explicitly addressed either. No, the authors seemed to think that the reader was asking, “If I want to be a Witch, what do I need to wear?” and trying to answer that. I don’t understand why this is a question that needs asking in the first place.

Clothing and grooming do have a major effect of advertising in-group/out-group status, as Mary points out for geek women. Wiccans tend to have in-group/out-group concerns anyway: a lot of Wiccans are people who are already outside the mainstream, either because they choose to put themselves there, they are forced there by “othering,” or they find themselves there and choose to claim and celebrate it for themselves. And, let’s face it, Wicca isn’t a mainstream religion, not yet. So I find some of these concerns very understandable, especially the question of what a new Witch should wear to an unfamiliar open ritual. Additionally, a lot of finding one’s place in Wicca involves creating an almost alternate persona; we take Wiccan names and most rituals of initiation reference the theme of symbolic death and rebirth into a new life. Clothing and self-presentation (what is sometimes called “the theater of the body”) can play a big part in that.

I appreciated that Dugan approached the topic with her trademark common sense: she reassured teens interested in Witchcraft that they should wear reasonable clothing that they were comfortable in. But the other two authors I referenced above gave me a very specific sense that this was a very important question to them, and a major part of Wiccan identity; they both left me with the impression that Witches are cool (“hip” is Fiona Horne’s term) and that it’s important that Witch clothing also be cool. They approach their definitions of cool in different ways, relating to their backgrounds, but the impression I got was that Witches – whether practicing alone or in groups, or simply appearing in public as a Witch – need to be attractive, admirable, edgy – but not too edgy! – and all-around awesome. References to wearing black, what jewelry looks best to advertise one’s Wiccan status, and possibly, just maybe, emphasizing “natural” inclinations in one’s clothing – without being too hippie – were all present.

This really makes me angry. For one thing, it’s encouraging beginning Wiccans to judge themselves, and by extension others, according to what they wear. This is wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong. It’s wrong magically: power comes from within, not from what you wear. It’s wrong psychologically and socially: the authors are likely to give already impressionable young Wiccans, especially young female Wiccans who are already laboring under a tremendous burden of difficult messages about appearance, the idea that adherence to what Naomi Wolf called The Beauty Myth is actually a religious requirement! Most of all, it’s wrong theaologically. It encourages the idea that religion is a sort of performance art. It encourages a perception of life as empty and meaningless without social approval: I have to pay attention to how I present myself, because I don’t know who I am until other people respond to me! If I say a prayer in the forest, and don’t post about it on Facebook, did I actually make a noise?

It’s true that Wicca is about our relationships, but one of the strengths of Wicca is that those relationships aren’t just with other people. Wicca encourages us and challenges us to live in relationship with the land, with nature and deity, and with ourselves. This is why daily practice and living in relationship with the land should be part of the core experience of Wicca. Wicca isn’t just about big dances and feasts at Beltane and Samhain, any more than Christianity is about chocolate at Easter and presents at Christmas. If we truly believe in immanent deity, then how we live our daily lives is part of cultivating our relationship with deity and part of experiencing that immanence.

It’s true that our external presentations of ourselves are a tool for shaping ourselves and our interactions with others. But starting with the tool is the wrong end of things: it’s like starting with a hammer and assuming that therefore everything you encounter is a nail. Start with the immanence of deity, start with a relationship with yourself, start with an awareness of nature. Start with the relationship with others – let the relationship, rather than your engineering of the relationship, be the important part. The proper ways to use the tool will flow naturally from there. If you’re grounded and centered in those, it will hardly matter whether you’re nude, or wearing ten pounds of silver jewelry, or the coolest SCA costume ever, or the jeans and t-shirt you threw on before your afternoon class. Don’t confuse the results with the tool that produces them. And remember that you’re not, ultimately, dependent on your tools. You are the only tool you really need.

Daily practice and being in relationship

Hecate has another great post up about living in relationship with a specific piece of land. When I commented that this, like a relationship with another person, takes effort, Hecate expanded on that and linked it with the importance of daily practice. She says that both are important, but it’s hard to believe that either alone is sufficient. In fact, I think ideally the two grow to be more intertwined over time. I know I’m not the only Wiccan who has fantasized about having my own little garden altar where I can do my devotions (in the good weather) and at least spend some time grounding myself and observing the seasons (in bad weather). I think that’s more than a romantic fantasy; or, more precisely, it is the kind of romantic fantasy that shows I am not just in love with the divine, but that I want to meet my love where he, she, and they are, in nature. And, as Hecate says, I don’t just love an abstraction, but a specific place, a specific spirit, a specific manifestation of the divine.

For now, though, I do my daily practice at home, because I’m sure I can get there every day. I trust that the God and Goddess come to meet me where I am, too. But I work on developing my relationship with them in many ways, and going out to meet them when I can, and doing it regularly, is the natural counterpoint.

One of the benefits of that effort is giving deity a chance to show itself to me in ways I wouldn’t expect or call on, if I were only willing to interact with the divine on my terms, in my usual practice. Yes, we call the quarters and invoke the God and Goddess, but one of the ways you know those invitations are effective is that, just like your human guests, the personalities that show up aren’t solely what you imagine. More importantly, for Wicca to be truly nature-based, we have to recognize that even when we cast our circles, we’re doing so in the midst of a living, breathing, spiritual fabric of being. The immanent wells up to meet us, we’re not just calling the transcendent down. Letting that welling-up happen, creating space and time for it, welcoming it, is one of the benefits of being in relationship with the land.

Drawing down the moon: You’re not alone

The new song “You’re Not Alone” by Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy really expresses to me one of the things that Drawing Down the Moon is all about. These lovely lines capture it:

Open up, this is a raid

I wanna get it through to you

You’re not alone

Wicca’s focus on an immanent deity that all of us are part of, that all of us can have direct experience of, is one of its distinguishing features as a religion. The idea of “drawing down the moon” is hard to get across sometimes; it’s been described as an ecstatic trance state, which doesn’t quite do it justice, and as something akin to the experience that Vodun practitioners have of being “possessed” by the spirits, which is more accurate but tends to bring up all sorts of strange negative connotations in the minds of most monotheists. One of the things that seems strange or scary to those not familiar with it is that drawing down is an overwhelming experience; it’s not destructive, but it so transcends the everyday individual experience we’re used to that it’s amazing, uplifting, awe-full (filled with awe), and overwhelming. This song captures one aspect of that overwhelming for me.

The God and Goddess are so overwhelming in part because they do love us; they love us just as we are, every day, all the time, in all places. We are never alone, never separated from them. But becoming aware of that, truly sharing in the spirit of that, touching the face of the divine, kissing the limitless, however you want to put it, that awareness is overwhelming. It’s so all-encompassing that most of us are afraid of it. We resist it, we bar our doors and straightjacket ourselves within the confines of our one little mind and self and conscious awareness. The amazing thing, though, is that deity never stops calling – never stops being there, knocking at our doors, waiting to overwhelm us with the most amazing love possible. Drawing down the Moon is a way of learning to open up instead. And it’s incredible. So go on – open up to the raid of divine love. I dare you. At the very least, let it fill you enough to know that you’re not alone.

Video and full lyrics below the fold.

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A conversation with the spirit of TRI

The beech leaves have fallen
in thick crunchy drifts.
I see how the forest
ages into winter
from the edges in.
I’m trying to see it all
my head on a swivel
when I realize
I can relax
put myself aside
and let it flow in
instead of pushing my senses out.

I open myself to the spirit
and maybe because
I asked nicely
and maybe because
I do her favors,
picking up trash,
and she accepts the effort
as the offering it is,
she comes,
immanent in the place
welling up
to meet the transcendence
drawing down.

She has a strong sense of humor,
especially placed as she is,
a cultivated wildness
in the midst of urbanity.
I know what a microclimate is now:
it’s warmer in the green alley
thickly walled with close-laced vines
that arch over the roof
clinging to a little warmer air
like an old woman pulling her shawl tight.
But where the leaves have fallen,
I can see her contours more clearly:
a ridge here, a furrow there
and her bones of mica schist
poking through the raggedy edge
of her fallen leaf shawl.

I ask her,
but what about Teddy?
Dear Teddy, bear teddy…
Oh, him, she says.
I don’t worry about him,
she chuckles.
And she doesn’t.
She’s an outsized monument
to an outsized man
but this is no San Juan Hill
and he doesn’t ride so roughly here
as to bother the spirit of the place.
I venture a tiny joke:
If this is your body,
maybe he’s your brazen cock,
jutting up in the middle?
She laughs and says maybe.
Maybe he’s my totem spirit.

I think about that
and see the larch
standing scarlet and alone
in the middle of the marsh
like the flame of a candle
guttering low
waiting for a fresh breath
to make it leap up once again.
She’ll breathe that breath
but not now
now it’s time to sleep
holding Teddy close.

 

[Background that may help you understand: TRI is short for Theodore (he of “teddy bear” fame) Roosevelt Island, my favorite park in the DC area. He’s got a bronze statue in a monument in the middle of the island, but the rest of it is a natural forest.]

Costumes, identity, and love

I’ve been debating about it for a while, but I give up: I’m going to blog about social issues, and maybe even (gasp!) politics. I’m already writing about religion. I might as well include the other untouchable subject. And then mix them, just for fun!

Seriously, though, I believe that my religion affects my everyday life. My awareness of and relationship with Deity, especially my belief that Deity is immanent in every one of us, has serious implications for how I live. I think we, as Pagans and Wiccans, need to be having conversations about that, although far be it from me to exclude or snub someone based on disagreeing with me over politics! I’ll also try, hard, not to let this space get bogged down with too much politics, or rants.

We just passed Samhain, a Sabbat for Wiccans but also a time that the population in general likes to dress up and have fun. One mother wrote about how her young son dressed as Daphne, from Scooby Doo, for Halloween, and how other mothers at his preschool pitched fits over it. First, I have to say that even if you believe crossdressing erodes a person’s moral fiber in a way that can’t be fixed with a few muffins from Trader Joe’s, that’s no excuse for being cruel to children. But more than that, I think the idea of costumes and malleable identity is something that Paganism, especially at Samhain, has to offer to the world.

Masks and costumes let us assume another identity for a while; they also help us understand that how we present ourselves every day is full of choices. There’s some great academic work about how clothing and fashion are a form of theater – the theater of the body. It’s an interface through which we interact with others. And yes, that interface is a place where we perform our gender, where we conform, or not, to the constructed gender norms of our culture. (I’ll skip the intro to the theory of gender as a performance – if anybody wants it, let me know.)

One of the major tasks of childhood ought to be trying on identity in order to find the right fit, and the Goddess knows that many aspects of this continue throughout life. Costume is one of the wonderful ways to explore that precisely because it’s not “real.” It’s assumed by everybody to be outside the realms of normal behavior, so it’s a safer space to experiment. There’s a long history of things like this, including the Feast of Fools and other ways that “unallowable” behavior gets allowed. Renaissance Faires are one of the great examples of this today, I’d argue – but that’s another post. I will say that I agree with some of the Feri practitioners who see it as part of their role to inhabit the boundary spaces, to play with paradox, and to explore those bounds. Not because all boundaries are bad, but because we ought to be using the right ones – and we won’t know what the right ones are, individually or culturally, unless we explore, and examine them.

In particular, we as Wiccans do identity exploration a lot! Taking part in ritual drama, especially one where the power alluded to is invoked into the individual, is a common act in Wicca. We also often engage in trance experiences or other kinds of “possession,” even if it’s usually not as full-fledged as a practitioner of, say, Santeria might experience. (Note I am not saying that this kid was channeling the imaginary spirit of a cartoon character.) The ability to share in or temporarily take on another identity is a common way that we interact with Deity and spirits. This process of being someone else for a while has important social and religious functions, and that’s why it’s gotten carried along in secular Halloween. Understanding that process deeply is one of the things Wicca has to offer to the larger culture.

More than that, though, it’s important ethically. I believe in an immanent Deity, manifest in all of us. You, me, the boy wearing the orange wig, his mom, and yes, the other mothers who were so weirded out by the whole thing that they said unkind things to his mother. If you and I are connected, on some spiritual level, then what happens to you happens, in some sense, to me. Therefore it’s important – no, I’ll go further – it’s vital that I am able to imagine what being you is like, because if what I do hurts you, I am, in a significant sense, hurting myself. An immanent Deity connecting all of us implies that empathy – or at the very, very least a strong sympathy – is at the very heart of ethical thought and action. If I don’t know or can’t imagine even a tiny bit what it’s like to wear a dress, or worse, I don’t care, then my ability to act ethically is going to be impaired. As, obviously, the people who made this kid uncomfortable were impaired.

And for the record, that kid totally rocked the orange wig in a way that I never could. I’m impressed!

Open-ended promises

Like many Wiccans and Pagans, I was raised Christian. Unusually, I was raised Christian by a father who had a doctorate in theology. Although Dad believed that women couldn’t be pastors, he spent a fair amount of my childhood passing on his great love of intellectual engagement with the divine, his one real skill. Since I’m also an intellectual, it has been natural for me to be something of an amateur the(a)ologian. As my engagement with Christianity changed, I explored more liberal theological approaches. Eventually, it just couldn’t stand up to what I was experiencing in my life; maybe I’ll write more about that later. Regardless, I find myself occasionally comparing previous theological approaches from Christianity to what I now believe and live, and one of those ideas came up today: the open-ended promise.

Also like other Wiccans, I’m a Cat Lady. (I have not yet graduated to Crazy Cat Lady status.) I’m just an animal person in general. Violence to animals is almost harder for me to take than violence to humans – even when it’s fictional, or happened long ago. I was reading a murder mystery today where a victim’s cat is found with her body. I almost cried. Never mind that it was the third or fourth dead body of the book, that the victim and the cat were equally fictional – it’s the cat that makes me emotional. I found myself looking at the kitten occupying my lap and petting her, telling her that I would never let anything like that happen to her.

And it’s true: I won’t. I’ll take good care of her. She won’t be exposed to crazy fictional murderers, and probably not to non-fictional ones, either. She won’t face hunger or a life on the streets like her mother did. It is more likely that I will be struck by lightning before finishing this blog post than that my kitties will have anything less than the best possible life for pampered, beloved pets. But a small part of my mind can’t help but whisper: Will you?

Will I be able to take good care of her? What if she lives longer than I do? What if a natural disaster hits, or a fire, or the zombies kill all the humans? (Lord and Lady forbid!) What if, what if, will I…? And I know that it’s an impossible promise. It’s a promise that has a million little exceptions, unspoken, except in that whisper in the back of my mind. I’ll take good care of you, I promise. I won’t let anything bad happen to you…or at least I’ll do my best. I’ll try. The whispers get louder: You can’t expect me to do the impossible; if you get cancer, I might not be able to save you. If I die, my relatives will take care of you…I’ll do my best. I’ll try. But that whisper isn’t what I say to my kitten, because it’s not very reassuring, and it’s not what I want to say to myself, either. I want to say, I’ll do it. I’ll make it all okay. Nothing bad will ever happen. I want to make the open-ended promise.

One of my favorite Christian theologians, Robert Farrar Capon, actually tells the story of the Passion and Resurrection through this lens. (Bear with me – I promise these two threads will come together in the end.) Rather than going for an explanation of Jesus’ death that depends on an idea like “paying the price” for sin – as if God the Father were some sort of super-Shylock in the sky, propitiated only by flesh, and too stupid to notice that it’s his own son who’s getting his blood spilt along the way – Capon offers an interpretation of the Resurrection as the ultimate assurance of Jesus’ promises. All human promises, Capon says, are bounded by death. They all come with the implicit or explicit limiter: till death do us part. But Jesus, Capon writes, Jesus can promise without that limiter because he is also God, a God who cannot die. And the Resurrection is the ultimate proof of that – the down payment that is supposed to let Christians believe that Jesus will keep all his other promises to them, up to and including raising them from the dead and making it all okay in the end.

It’s a lovely exposition, really. It neatly solves many of the problems liberal Christians have with the traditional interpretations of the Passion-Resurrection narrative, the kind of problems that can contribute to some Pagans’ departure from Christianity. But it’s ultimately unsatisfying to me for several reasons. One of the biggest reasons is that it leaves me unable to make sense of the open-ended promises I desperately want to give – and receive! – in my own life. I don’t have the power to raise myself from the dead; by Capon’s reasoning, I can’t make an open-ended promise to my kitten. If I were still Christian, maybe I’d try to make that promise by enlisting God as a sort of co-signer on the bond I’m putting down: I’ll take care of you….and when I can’t, God will step in for me! And he can do anything! Even if I can’t fix everything, you’ll end up in heaven with me, and it’ll be okay. (Yes, Virginia, there are cats in heaven.)

But I always end up back at the problem of evil, and the feeling that Christianity’s transcendent deity really isn’t a lot of help, especially in the kind of things I face in everyday life. There’s the problem that the deity is out there, somewhere, watching what happens – or worse, making it all happen, even the bad things, even the evil. It turns the whispered limitations on my promise into a kind of fending-off the evil eye, every promise accompanied with the silent prayer, please, deity, don’t send something I can’t handle. Don’t make or let something so bad happen that I have to…no, don’t think that. And if it does happen, then at least let me believe that I’ll meet my kitty in heaven, and I’ll apologize to her there, and she’ll forgive me…I hope.

Believing in an immanent deity changes the question entirely. I believe in an immanent deity, one who is present with me and in me, and my cats, and in all things. I believe that the Lord and Lady are with us even in the bad things. Instead of a down payment on a promise to make it all work out all right somehow in the end, the immanent deity of my Paganism gives me the belief that I will face whatever comes, and that I will face it with love. The Lord and Lady aren’t somewhere out there, having gone through death and come out the other side; they’re here, with me, in my living and dying, having done it before and ready to do it again. They haven’t magically escaped the struggle, the joys, the sorrows, the amazing depth and breadth of experience. They are life, in all its cycles. They are the love that makes the wheel keep turning, that brings new life into the world, that makes going forward possible.

I told someone recently that the only act of faith I have to make in Paganism is the belief that love makes life worth living. That the good times are worth it, worth all the fear and uncertainty and even pain we go through as living beings. I don’t have to believe that deity is going to make good on an open-ended promise in some other world. I have the promise, right here. I am the promise. Every time I find the love in my life that makes it worth living, I am experiencing the promise fulfilled. Every time I act in love, I am making it true, making it real, making it happen for others.

And when I make an open-ended promise with all the power of my spirit – which is a part of the same spirit that is the Lord and Lady – to another being who also has a spark of the same animating spirit, we understand each other. And I know that deity is the support for my promise, the same deity that is in me, and my kitten, and all things. Without fear, without limitations, I can make the open-ended promise, because what I am promising is very simple: I love you. And we will face whatever comes with love. Because we, both of us, are in deity, and deity in us, the same deity which is love. Love makes this life worth living, and you and I will face it together.