Fail Faster

Due to a very energetic toddler and various other life happenings, this week’s regular post is a short one.

Gordon over at Rune Soup (probably my favorite magic blog) posted this fantastic TED Talk about the benefits of trial and error—of failing faster, as Robert Kiyosaki put it. It’s something I plan on watching several more times, at least.

Enjoy!

—A.V.

 

The Cosmic Compost Heap Theory

To search for perfection is all very well, but to look for heaven is to live here in hell.

—Sting, “Consider Me Gone”

Half of the enormous compost pile in the community garden has been turned, and a good portion of it is ready for use—luscious, brown-black rotting matter, ripe for distribution. I can’t walk over to the pile without thinking, just for a moment, about the role of decay in the cycle of growth, and how this might very well be applicable to my understanding of spirituality as well.

I really like my metaphysical theories to be reflected in principles from the natural world. This is one place where I can get myself in trouble sometimes, particularly as regards common notions of reincarnation. I don’t abide by the idea that our souls are moving up and down some sort of cosmic ladder in a search for perfection. I suppose on the most basic level it violates my American values of equality for all, no matter how insignificant. Hierarchical reincarnation from what I’ve seen also tends to stem from a desire to escape the wheel, to end suffering, or something similar. I don’t believe life is pain, so this version of reincarnation really doesn’t fit my practice.

Still, I don’t think there’s an infinite supply of souls in the universe. At least in this world, there is always a finite amount of material. To borrow a bit from physics and chemistry, things are neither created or destroyed, but they do change forms. The same is true, I believe, of souls. Whatever that elusive substance that makes up the spirit (I’ll call it soul-stuff), I see no reason for it not to follow a cycle like everything else in nature, even if we do not exactly understand how that cycle itself works. I’ve dubbed this the Cosmic Compost Heap Theory, and while it is constantly being adapted as I learn and grow, its basic premise has been serving me quite well for some time.

The workings of the Great Heap can be broken down as follows. When a being dies, just as its corporeal form decomposes, so does its soul. However, just like the body’s various bits break down at different rates, so too does the soul-stuff. Think of it like a compost pile: the leafy greens break down first, but sometimes you’ll come across a banana peel or eggs shells even years later. This is how I account for past life memories, which tend to be moments of strong emotion. The soul-stuff is imprinted with the experience, and because it was so powerful it does not break down readily when re-entered into the Great Heap. Instead, such “marked” soul-stuff is passed on to the next life.

As I mentioned above, I don’t believe that reincarnation is linear, or that we’re working towards and end goal or Nirvana or the Summerlands or Halls of the Ancestors. Perhaps certain parts of our souls may be able to take a vacation there between lives, but that staying there indefinitely is unnatural. I also believe that humans are not the only ones to enjoy this rest, but is applicable to all beings.

What I love about this paradigm is that is turns the common Western “humans are at the top of the spiritual/evolutional food chain” on its head. Now there is room for the lives of grasshoppers and birches to be as sacred as those of mankind. Hopefully by the time our journey is over, we will have made heaven for ourselves and our loved ones through our words and deeds in this life.

Why wait for joy? In the end, we all return to the same basic building blocks.

—A.V.

Beltaine

The east is bright with morning light,
And darkness it is fled;
And the merry horn wakes up the morn
To leave his idle bed.

Behold the skies with golden dyes
Are glowing all around;
The grass is green, and so are the treen,
All laughing with the sound.

The sun is glad to see us clad
All in our lusty green,
And smiles in the sky as he riseth high
To see and to be seen.
William Gray

Oddly enough, I would say Beltaine is right about on time this year in New England—perhaps even a bit early!  All the signs are in place, from flora to fauna to meteorological. It’s a clear day here in central Massachusetts, after some heavy spring rains yesterday. The sun was practically begging for us to come out and play, so I packed up the Boy on my back this morning and we went for a long tour of the conservation land surrounding our community. Everything smelled wet and fresh in the woods, with the acidic tang of decomposing leaves. We had sightings of:

  • a great blue heron
  • a salamander
  • two garter snakes
  • several chipmunks
  • fresh deer droppings (although no deer)
  • first dandelion flowers
  • first skunk cabbage
  • a pair of hooded mergansers
  • peas and spinach are sprouting in the raised beds

Between the activity of the animals and the wide variety of plants popping up, I’d say that high Spring is definitely here!

Beltaine was one of the holidays that I have a harder time wrapping my head around.  In addition to the fact that I wasn’t really into the whole fertility thing back when I started working the Eight-Spoked Wheel, the hotter days are when I begin to have trouble connecting to the Otherworlds.  Beltaine marks the last time when that sort of journey work flows easily—and the last ride of the Wild Hunt as well.  This isn’t to say Otherworldly travel is now impossible, however I rely much more heavily on my guides and allies during the warmer months.

But after having struggled and trod around in circles trying to get excited for May Day, I think I’m finally starting to get it.  I started “getting it” back in college, since my school held a huge May day celebration each year, complete with a Maypole (and a Mayhole, for the feminists), hoop races, plays, music and song.  It was, in fact, the last hurrah before finals.

Now, living in co-housing, I manage to take joy in others’ bustling actives within our community, and I’m able to start losing myself in the work of tending the garden.  There’s compost to be turned and trellises to be repaired.  Beltaine marks the end of the inward times, and welcomes community activity and interaction.

So really it’s time to shed some clothes, put on some sunshine and sink our hands into the soil.

The hunt is up!

—A.V.

Mosquitoes

Let us train our minds to desire what the situation demands.
—Seneca

I do believe that I failed to fulfill this recommendation this past weekend.

Let me explain.  Sunday, my wonderful husband gave me a “Get Out of Child Free” card, and I decided to spend it by engaging in some Ovate work.  One of my favorite places to meditate in on the banks of the Mulpus brook, which is the largest body of moving water in our town.  She is quite friendly as streams go (very unlike the one near our apartment when we lived in Concord)—almost chatty at times.  It’s little wonder that I find her banks a most pleasant place upon which to engage in druidic pondering.

Now, I had been hiking the previous day, and since the warm weather has begun to smother us, I was “blessed” to be feasted upon by a number of blood-sucking insects.  I grew up in New Jersey, where the mosquito is jokingly called either the State Bird or State Air Force.  But that doesn’t make me like the little…darlings…any better.

However, for some reason, my tiny brain made the leap of logic that, “since I’m a tree hugging earth-worshipper here to meditate on the glories of nature, clearly this will make me immune to any acts of aggression from the insect populations of this river.”

Ha.

Even sitting in the sun and surrounded by dragonflies, I was unable to meditate or even write for more than a few seconds before feeling another poison-laden proboscis trying to penetrate my tender flesh.  For about 20 minutes, I repeated Seneca’s advice like a mantra against the mosquitoes.

Twenty-one minutes and seventeen bites later, I ran like a sally, scratching and cussing the whole way back to the car.

So clearly I need some practice “desiring what the situation demands.”  I’m thinking maybe I should start with something a little less irritating than mosquitoes, though–the current heat wave, perhaps?  Then maybe by the time I reach the Druid grade I can brave the Summer Gauntlet with more success.

Or not.

—A.V.

On Stuff

This is my stuff, that’s your stuff, that’ll be his stuff over there. That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.
George Carlin

And now, from the Department of Sleep-Deprived Rants:

Why the hell do pagans need so much goddamned stuff?

I once attended a gathering where there was so much “stuff” for the altar, that it literally took anywhere between thirty to forty minutes to be carried to the site and set up in the appropriate manner.  When I asked about the possibility of someday doing a parred-down ceremony, the ritualist’s eyes nearly fell out of his head.  “But, but, we NEED these things.”

Well, the fact is that we don’t need “things” in order to worship the gods.  What we need is a little imagination and a touch of sensitivity to our surroundings.

My (non-sarcastic) theory is that since most of Neopagan ritual was heavily influenced by the rather 19th century sensibilities of magical groups like the Golden Dawn and OTO, the Victorian penchant for ornate clutter was one of the memes that has been passed down as a “pagan” aesthetic.  Just go into any Witch Shop in Salem, MA, and you’ll see what I mean.

Simplicity was, in fact, one of the challenges I set for myself to complete the OBOD Bardic Grade: perform an entire ceremony using only three man-made things (I actually did it with two, a lighter and a water bowl).  Everything else had to be found at the ritual site.  The first thing this did was allow me to become much more intimately acquainted with the site itself, and to ask the Powers who dwelt there for the loan of the items I needed.

First, I noticed a perfectly flat rock at the base of a huge old tree—presto! Focal point! Then, I found large branches and pieces of bark to outline the circle. I went walking around the area looking for symbols of the elements.  Another lovely rock served in the north; the first dandelion of the season was placed in the east; some dried sage from the garden served as incense in the south; and water from the nearby stream graced the west.  I also happened to find the perfect stick for an impromptu wand.  So with very little effort, I was able to conduct a full ritual with only a couple of items in my pockets.

Now, I’m not saying that every polytheist should completely wipe out their ritual cupboards.  (And of course this would be especially true for those practicing some sort of Ceremonial Magic.)  However, I think it’s possible, especially in personal rituals, to use a more simplistic aesthetic to great effect.  In my own practice, I’ve got through my sacred paraphernalia and gotten rid of anything that’s a duplicate—so now I own only one incense bowl, one libation bowl, etc.  It wasn’t easy as I have pack rat, I mean, collector tendencies.  But the freedom and clarity brought about by not having to decide between five sets of candle holders can’t be underestimated.

So with Spring, and the liberating qualities of the element Air, I encourage you to go through your own “stuff.”  Take stock of what you really need to honor the gods.  Sacrifice the rest.  It’s a scary step, but a worthwhile one, I promise.

—A.V.