Cedric's Pagan Thoughts

The spiritual meanderings of a NeoPagan shaman, an eclectic Wiccan, a Celtic musician, a world traveler, a bard, and an uncompromising cat-loving Bast-worshipper

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Tower of Babel, Standing on its Head

Sometimes I have what I call a “whoah!” experience—a moment in which two disparate thought structures in my mind suddenly become connected and collapse into one another in a way that is extremely difficult to put into words. It sets off a chain reaction, and thought-form after thought-form collapses into one another, all across my psychic landscape. If any words do come out, they rush from me in a rapid babble—which, believe it or not, is not the reason I chose to call this entry “The Tower of Babel.”

Last night I went to my bookshelf and took down a book I read some years ago, which I had found mildly disappointing at the time. It is called Where Science and Magic Meet by Serena Roney-Dougal. When I first read it, I expected a work of science: cold hard data about investigations into the “magical” or parapsychological realm. I wanted evidence.

Instead, the book comes from a more lyrical, imaginative standpoint, though admittedly it is the imagination of a parapsychologist and does contain some of those cold hard facts I sought back then. Perhaps I read it too early—or perhaps I needed to read it then so that I could become who I am and get more out of it now.

Alas, babble on . . . I’m still stuck in a lyrical moment, trying to trap symphonies in words.

In any case, Roney-Dougal writes of the subliminal mind (called by some the subconscious), which operates in a pre-literate mode, not unlike my Cosmic Cabdriver from an earlier post. That is, it thinks and communicates in images, in a world of symbols and sensory stimuli, not in the world of speech. Roney-Dougal writes:

In fact, the verbal is only one of the many ways of thinking, and its prominence in our minds is an aspect of our present society and culture. Our minds are far more intricate, and the language of symbolism, dream-type scenarios and archetypes are in fact far more true of our primary aspect of mind. As I have mentioned, this primary-process thought appears to be a common method of thought across all cultures. The Tower of Babel that separates us is language, the verbal thought-form. The symbolic, imaginal, pictorial dream thought-from joins us all into one race. (p.21)

Upon reading that, I had a whoah moment. The story of the Tower of Babel was suddenly stood on its head. In its Biblical form, the story is a cautionary tale about hubris: God curses the human race with linguistic division because humans are building a tower to heaven. The story warns us not to seek the Divine through physical, external means; indeed, it even warns us not to get “too big for our britches,” thinking that our achievements can equal Heaven’s.

Re-examined as a mystical parable, the story takes on a new tenor and new meaning. In the “symbolic, imaginal, pictorial, dream thought-form”—that is, in the trance state, in the magical mode of perception and thought, the pre-logical state, the Dreamworld—we may gain access to and union with the Divine. In other words, we may build a “tower” to God. (Ascending the tower is analogous to the Eastern concept of Kundalini, the energy-serpent that ascends through the chakras at the moment of enlightenment.)

As Roney-Dougal points out, the Dreamworld is universal. All humans, regardless of language and nationality, have access to it and experience it. It is the repository of Jung’s archetypes. Thus, like music, it is a universal “language.”

Now, in the Biblical account, an angry and jealous God prevents the us from achieving Heaven by fracturing language; unable to speak a common tongue, the workers lose their common purpose. In my experience, it is not the Divine which prevents our union with it, but ourselves. The barrier to union that we have introduced is not many languages—it is language itself. The spoken word is the hallmark of the conscious mind, the Ego (in Freud’s terms), the logical faculty.

Logic is based on analysis, which is a process of breaking things down into their component parts. In order to discuss these components, we name them. (As C.S. Lewis points out in The Discarded Image, it is impossible to say anything about everything.) Thus the logical faculty is represented by the sword (or if you prefer, the scalpel)—logic begins with cutting the world into many small pieces and putting each piece into its carefully labeled box. (Remember how nothing in Eden had names until Adam named them—The Divine exists before and beyond names.)

Mind you, the logical mode of perceiving the world has many uses that I’m not going to rehash now. But as Roney-Dougal points out, it’s only one mode of thought. My argument is that it often bars our way to union with the Divine.

The Divine knows no boundaries, no categories, no limitations; it knows all and is all; it encompasses everything in unified wholeness. But in order to exist in our reality, in order to perceive itself, the Divine has fractured into many pieces, each defined by its artificial divisions from all the other Divine slices. Thus, the Divine is genderless; we, its incarnations, are gendered. The Divine is timeless; we experience night and day. The Divine is all; we imagine separation.

When we enter that universal, pre-literate Dreamworld, we are like humans building the Tower; our mortal separation falls away, and we experience the Divine Wholeness. When we introduce speech/logic/analysis, we introduce separation, and our experience of Divine Wholeness is gone.

The poet Garrison Martt once told me that there is no point describing a religious experience to another person. In order to do so, he said, you must put it into words, which are vessels too weak for a brew so strong.

That’s what I feel like I have been trying to do in this rambling discourse; and I fear that, like a construction worker in Babel, I’m trying in my own incomprehensible words to describe a blueprint too strong for this medium. If I could capture the whole of truth in these words, the fire in them would burn the page to cinders.

Perhaps, perhaps, that’s why early mythmakers gave us the story of the Tower of Babel in the first place . . .

Webmasters/Ezine Publishers: Free professional content - pre-licensed to you. You are invited to use any or all of the Pagan thoughts articles by Cedric in your publication or website. The only requirement is that you include the by-line of the author, including the name and website of the article.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Cereal Box Enlightenment

Cereal-Box Enlightenment
How I Became a Pinball Wizard
by Cedric

In the movies, whenever someone achieves enlightenment or acquires magickal power, the event usually involves climbing to a Tibetan mountaintop, participating in candlelit rituals conducted by mysterious mystics in matching robes, or studying in a cave with a wise but ancient teacher of a forgotten tradition. But my path to power was even stranger than the well-produced scenes Hollywood can conjure.

I once studied with the High Priest of an ancient tradition. Well, okay, actually, he and his wife started their tradition, so it wasn’t very ancient. And I didn’t study with him so much as exchange a number of deep, meaningful email messages with him. However, something he said to me is far more pertinent to this article than how he said it. It sticks with me to this day. He said, “If you’re in the right frame of mind, you can find enlightenment reading a cereal box.”

For me, it wasn’t a cereal box. It was a pinball machine.

The refitted machine sat in the corner of the breakroom in the small publishing company where I worked at the time. It flashed and hummed in all its refurbished glory, and best of all, it was set for unlimited free play.

I attacked the game like a surgeon, carefully analyzing each channel and bumper, noting the relative location of ramps and flippers, determining which targets to hit in which order for the highest possible score. Each time the ball moved, my eyes fixed its location, and I strove to hit the flipper with the exact timing needed to propel the silver sphere to precisely the right location. I quickly determined that I could hit the left ramp by slapping the button just before the ball rolled off the right flipper. The left channel required an earlier shot, when the ball was at the right-hand flipper’s midpoint. The ramp at the top right was tougher, requiring a very forceful shot from the perfect spot on the left flipper. “Too soon” or “too slow” or “too hard,” I would mutter in self-critique, swearing to estimate the physics better next time.

My analysis and care paid off. Each day, I saw my score climb. My eyes never wavered from the ball as my aim improved. Then after a month, I realized that my scores had stopped climbing. My game was no longer improving. I had gone as far as logic could take me.

Some people say that the beginning of slavery is the fear of death. Well, in my case, slavish attention to estimating trajectories had begun with my fear of losing. But as I stared at my static high score, watching it refuse to budge any higher, I realized that I didn’t need to fear losing: The game was free, and loss could be erased with the press of a button.

So I stopped watching the ball. I stopped even looking at the playing field, the maze of bumpers and lights beneath the glass; instead, I stared forward at the machine’s backstop, trying with all my might not to look at the ball.

The results? Disastrous. At times, I activated the flippers only to realize the ball was nowhere near them. On way too many occasions, I glanced down just in time to see the ball roll right off the flipper. My intuition had let me down. And as you can guess by now, I couldn’t keep myself from sneaking peeks to monitor the location of the ball.

Just when I was ready to resign myself to failure, a curious thing happened. My left hand hit the flipper button, and I caught a glimpse of the ball careening up the right-hand ramp, the one that I could rarely hit even with all my attention focused on the game.

As the ball danced around the bumpers of the loft, I wondered how I could repeat such a shot. I hadn’t even seen the ball’s location when I hit the flipper; all I saw was the ball going up the ramp. So when the ball eventually rolled back down toward my left flipper, I took a deep breath, stared straight ahead, and pictured the ball gliding up the right-hand ramp.

And that’s exactly what it did.

Oh, sure, I hit the flipper somewhere in there; this isn’t a tale of spontaneously manifesting telekinesis. But where my logic had failed, visualization and intuition had triumphed.

Over the next weeks, I explored the technique further, refining my visualizations. I found that simply wishing for a high score didn’t do the trick; that was apparently too vague. Likewise, I found it was more useful to focus on a specific goal—such as hitting the left-hand ramp—than it was to worry about which target was the easiest to hit from the ball’s current position. And one day, while I was refining my visualization technique like a man in a white lab coat, the Universe decided to expand my reality a little further.

You see, when I’d analyzed the game, I had seen that the right ramp could only be hit from the left flipper. There was simply no way I could concieve of shooting the ball up that right-hand ramp from the right-hand flipper. It was impossible, utterly impossible.

And then I did it.

I wasn’t trying to do it. I wasn’t estimating or calculating or trying to visualize myself doing something I thought impossible. I had simply pictured my goal being reached, and whatever was driving my hands didn’t stop to ask how I thought it could be done.

It was around this time that I started trying to find a metaphor to help me understand what was happening. Now, I know that metaphysical metaphors should be mysterious and profound, like the sound of one finger snapping, but I didn’t come up with a metaphor like that: Instead I came up with the metaphor of the foreign cabbie.

You see, I realized that I was like a passenger in a taxi-cab. I had the job of deciding where to go, but the cabbie—the part of my subconscious or superconscious or whatever that was driving my hands when I made the impossible pinball shot—had the job of getting me there. A good thing that was, too, for while I was not very good at driving, the cabbie could pull off maneuvers I didn’t think were possible. Through careful observation and trial-and-error, I devised a set of guidelines for interacting effectively with the cabbie, which I will share with you now.

Guideline 1: The cabbie understands pictures better than he understands words. Apparently, he doesn’t speak English very well. He gets confused by metaphors and negatives. He doesn’t always catch sarcasm. So if you want to go to the Capitol Building, you should show him a postcard of it instead of saying the words “Capitol Building, please.”

Guideline 2: The cabbie wants to be told where to go, but not how to get there. No one likes a backseat driver, and the cosmic cabbie is no exception. So after you show him a picture of the Capitol Building, you need to let him pick the route. (The one modification to this rule is that you may need to break the trip down into smaller segments. For instance, you might need to show him a picture of the Congress Street Bridge and then whip out your postcard of the Capitol once you’re at the bridge.)

Guideline 3: The cabbie wants you to trust his driving abilities. He doesn’t want to hear your opinions about whether it’s possible to make a left turn during rush hour; he wants you to relax and let him do it. Furthermore, he’s like the drivers in my hometown, where automotive ettiquette requires the passenger to appear perfectly calm no matter what sort of insane maneuver the driver attempts. If you panic, scream, thrash around, or point out how close the concrete barriers are, you’ll distract the cabbie, and he’ll crash.

Guideline 4: The cabbie doesn’t want to be thanked or told what a great driver he is. He doesn’t think there’s anything particularly amazing about what he’s doing, and making a big deal out of it just distracts him. So don’t cheer (or gasp with relief) when he successfully zooms between those two looming Mack trucks with only inches to spare; just smile and visualize the next location you want to reach.

As you can guess, the metaphor of the cabbie and the lessons I learned about interacting with him apply to far more in life than pinball. Several years after my experience with the arcade game, when I’d moved onto a different job and other pursuits, I was diagnosed with diabetes. In addition to learning to radically change my lifestyle, I also had to come to terms with needles and bloodletting. This was tough for me; I had a history of passing out any time doctors drew my blood. Indeed, it was my running joke that my body just didn’t want to turn loose of the stuff. The diagnosis changed that. Suddenly I had to draw my own blood four times a day and follow up each bloodletting with an insulin injection.

A few months after the diagnosis, I agreed to accompany my covenmates on a trip to the blood bank; we were all to donate together. For me, it was a chance to prove that I’d licked my needle-phobia. After I’d gone through three technicians and five punctures, I was still conscious, but not a drop of my blood had flowed. All along I tried to stay jovial, repeating my joke that my body just didn’t want to give up any blood.

The technician was having me try different arm positions when the realization hit me. I was the one keeping my blood from flowing, and it would be up to me to make it flow. Taking a deep breath and remembering what I’d learned playing pinball, I visualized my blood oozing through the tube and into the bag; in my mind, the entire scene had the flavor of two-color cartoon.

At precisely the moment that I began to visualize, the technician called out, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. Your blood’s reached the bag!”

So I didn’t gain access to magickal powers by climbing a mountain or meditating for forty years, and I didn’t gain it by being initiated into an ancient tradition of mystics. I didn’t even gain it by reading a cereal box. Instead, I can thank a refitted second-hand arcade game for teaching me the secrets of magick.

Since that summer, I’ve found that I can do all sorts of things I never thought possible: scramble onto a rock in the middle of a stream without getting wet, jump confidently over a Beltaine fire, survive quitting my day job.

And I sure play some mean pinball.
Note: The preceding article first appeared in The Rising Wind, an online Pagan magazine.
Webmasters/Ezine Publishers: Free professional content - pre-licensed to you. You are invited to use any or all of the Pagan thoughts articles by Cedric in your publication or website. The only requirement is that you include the by-line of the author, including the name and website of the article.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Cedric's Wiccan Reading List

People periodically ask me if I can recommend a few good books on Wicca, NeoPaganism, and Spirituality in general. Oddly enough, I get some of those requests even through my band's fan club--I seem to be the only actual Wiccan some people know.

My journey into Wicca (and away from Wicca, and around Wicca) started with books. There was one in particular that kept me out of Wicca for a number of years, though I understand it has had the opposite effect on many readers. It was Buckland's big blue book. I enjoyed the chapters on philosophy and ritual, got slightly weirded out by the chapters on reincarnation, and laughed my ass off at the chapter on numerology. You see, it contained a method (supposedly passed down from ancient times) for deriving some numerological meaning out of your given name. Well, I was a student of medieval linguistics, so I instantly wanted to know why J and I were given separate numerical values. That kind of superstition turned me away from the whole religion. (That was before I learned that I didn't have to swallow all that hooey in order to be a Wiccan. It's a buffet of beliefs, not a nine-course meal.)

In any case, realizing how important it is to get off on the right foot with a religion, I compiled a reading list that I periodically update. Here is its current form:

Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham (Possibly the best Wicca 101 book out there, at least by reputation. I was kind of past the Wicca 101 stage when I finally got a copy.)

Philosophy of Wicca by Amber Lane Fisher (Written by one of my classmates! It's very well written and deals with philosophy rather than "point this way, say that.")

Wicca Covens by Judy Harrow (It's specifically about how to be in a coven, but it's got lots of great stuff, including the genesis of the morning blessing I often use.)

The Witches' Goddess and The Witches' God by Janet and Stewart Farrar (Good books about the deity archetypes we commonly work with.)

The Pagan Path by Janet and Stewar Farrar with Gavin Bone (This book is a survey of some of the different paths present within NeoPaganism.)

Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler (A history book about the development of the NeoPagan movement.)

The Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton (A history of British Wicca written by a non-Pagan. It ruffled alot of feathers amongst those who believe in the unbroken chain, but I thought it was excellent.)

Wicca Demystified by Bryan Lankford (Once again, this was written long after I was past the Intro to Wicca phase, but I've heard a lot of great things about it. It's said to be especially good for explaining Wicca to family and friends.)

Not specifically Wiccan, but very important books:

Urban Shaman by Serge Kahili King (Theoretically a book on Hawaiian shamanism, it introduces a number of interesting ideas. The section on the seven principles alone is worth the price of the whole book, and I find that I reread this text every few years.)

Real Magic by Isaac Bonewits (P.E.I. Bonewits is the only person in modern times to have a college degree in magic. *grin* Sometimes he says things that are a little out there, but it's a good book over all. His Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evalution Frame, or ABCDEF, is worth the price of the book alone, though I think it's available online for free, also. The tool helps you to judge whether a religious group is safe and healthy to join.)

Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson (This is probably the one book that has most affected my life. Having said that, I have to warn you that R.A.Wilson says some pretty out there things that I have to laugh at. But deep down, he makes a strong point. If you want to ease into Wilsonian philosophy, start with The New Inquisition and then read Prometheus Rising.)

If you are interested in shamanic practices, read TheWay of the Shaman by Michael Harner.

The Kybalion (This is a treatise on magic that was published anonymously about 100 years ago. It is fairly dense reading, but it can be worthwhile. Fortunately, you can download it online for free, as it is in the public domain.)

Raidho: the Runic Journey by Jennifer Smith. (If you are thinking about getting a book on runes, I recommend this one. Do a search on the net and you can find Jennifer Smith's website, where she sells the book. I think it is www.tarahill.com, but don't quote me on that.)

You'll also want some books on mythology. I would advise *against* books written with a NeoPagan slant--instead I'd go for books that look at mythology from a scholarly or cultural standpoint. Or find translations of the original texts. (The Golden Ass by Apuleius contains ancient Greek accounts of witchcraft, plus myths, descriptions of religious practices, and the most stirring description of the Goddess I've ever read. And it's an adventure story!)

Some books to avoid:

The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara Walker. (This book is widely quoted by supporters of the feminist view of history. Unfortunately, anyone with even the slightest scholarly objectivity can see that it's a load of revisionist nonsense. Indeed, I'm told that you can take it to virtually any respected academic, ask the scholar to look up a subject in his or her area of expertise, and then watch the scholar collapse in paroxysms of laughter and gasping.)

The Idiot's Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft (I actually gave this book a scathing review on Amazon--it's got some good information and a bunch of *glaring* errors. In all fairness, many of the errors I mentioned in my review were corrected in the second edition; it makes me wonder if the editors read my opinions.)

Witta: an Irish Pagan Tradition (It's another Wicca 101 book, except that it claims to be presenting something historically Irish. Sprinkled amongst its lackluster writing are some real whoppers, such as "female druids were called Dryads." Since Dryad is a Greek term, I thought that was pretty damn funny.)

If you're thinking about a book on runes, avoid Ralph Blum and anything that talks about the "Uthark" rather than the "Futhark." There's a webpage out there that actually has a checklist on how to avoid bad runebooks--check it out if you are considering studying runes.

Books by D.J. Conway--they're not bad, but they are just kind of blah. I really don't believe that she is expert enough to write well about all of the subjects she's tackled. Instead, I think she's just writing for a paycheck . . .

Personally, I avoid anything that labels Wicca as"women's spirituality," for obvious reasons.

Good luck, and good reading! Remember that if you do not find what you seek within, you will never find it without.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

sorry to have to do this

I've had to add a word- verification step to the commenting process, so if you decide to comment, you'll have to type in one of those funky-looking words that proves you're not a machine, or an alien, or something.

I had to add this step because people (or perhaps machines) were spamming my comment box. Can you believe it? Some people (or perhaps machines made by people) have no class at all.

A Few Thoughts About Destruction

I'm writing this entry from Robert, Louisiana, about an hour's drive north of New Orleans. I'm here because my band, the Bedlam Bards (www.BedlamBards.com), is performing at the Louisiana Renaissance Festival. In any case, coming to a place that has faced a great deal of destruction in the last few months has made me think about destruction in a spiritual sense.

As Westerners, we recoil from destruction--it is the work of the Devil. Destruction of our crops means famine, destruction of our homes means exposure, destruction of our property means poverty, and destruction of our bodies means death--the one thing we fear most of all.

I remember when I first encountered a view counter to this one. I was learning about Hinduism, at the insistence of my parents, who had decided that an education in comparative religion might shock me out of Christianity and foment a healthy disdain for all religion. (They were half-right, but that has been covered in other posts.)

In any case, I was interested to learn that Hinduism had a divine trinity, just like Christianity; and already being in the habit of drawing one-to-one correspondences between traditions, I quickly recognized the comparison:

Brahma, the Creator = Father
Vishnu, the Preserver = Son (saviour)
Shiva, the Destroyer =

What the heck? The Destroyer is part of their trinity? But the Destroyer must equal the Devil, who is >evil<, right?

That was the beginning of my awakening, the first taste of what was to come.

Over time, I came to realize that those of us in the non-Abrahmaic religions (in other words, we Pagans) have a much more Eastern view of destruction. It's there in our divinatory systems--the Tower in the Tarot and Hail in the Futhark--to show us that destruction must be accepted, even celebrated.

(I think it's fascinating that the greatest "Tower Event" in recent American history literally involved the destruction of a tower. That Tarot card became ever so much more meaningful in that moment. Likewise, the Norse rune for the same concept represents a destructive storm--and the South has had plenty of those in the last few months. I can look out the window now and see the downed trees. Reality becomes myth becomes reality.)

Looking at the figure of Loki in Norse mythology helps us understand the difference between Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religion. Loki is the God of Fire. If we were looking for a Christian parallel, the Devil quickly comes to mind. But rather than being exiled from the Kingdom, as the Christian Devil is, Loki is kept close to Odin, in the very heart of Asgard. Fire's destructive power is recognized as necessary for survival.

Likewise, when we Westerners think of God, we seek comforting images. Today, many Westerners have lost touch with the image of the gargoyle--the terrifying guardian, the force of beneficial destruction. The Tibetan and Hindu gods often appear monstrous to us--even demonic.

Many a Westerner has characterized Kali, the Hindu Goddess of Death and Destruction, as a demon. In fact, Hindu myth makes it clear that Kali was brought forth to combat demons. Indeed, Kali's name means simply "Time"--her worship is a recognition that time will kill us all. However, those who know that it is merely the body that dies have no fear of Kali, embracing her as a liberator. Indeed, in the myth of her generation and initial rampage, she turns her destructive might against the gods until Shiva (remember Shiva? The Destroyer?) lies down in front of her. She recognizes him as her husband and becomes his lover. By accepting destruction, Shiva transcends it. By accepting death, we transcend it.

Last year, Loki--or perhaps Kali--came to visit my own stretch of forest in central Texas. My neighbor's trash fire got out of hand, and an acre or so of forest became black with soot before the volunteer fire department contained the blaze. (Other neighbors spent hours making sure it did not flare up again.) The stretch between my forest and the road looked like a smoking ash tray.

Now, one year later, the same stretch is covered in goldenrod blossoms, which start and stop exactly where the fire did. Where one thing was destroyed, another was brought forth.

Here in Louisiana, the renfaire was struggling. I feared that Katrina would sound its death knell. Yet amazingly, very little of the faire site suffered damage. Still, I feared that the devastated population of this state would stay away.

Instead, we have found that the local population has doubled, and the newcomers are in desperate need of diversion. Furthermore, they have relief money to spend on that much-needed entertainment. In short, Katrina may have saved the festival, not killed it.

As I have listened to stories of people who have lost everything, I hear few tales of sadness. I have no doubt that they exist, but instead, I hear stories like this one: A New Orleanian woman was trapped in a loveless marriage and a dead-end job, but she lacked the courage to leave either. When Katrina washed away her home, she found the courage to leave her deadbeat husband and relocate to the Virgin Islands, where she got a great job managing a hotel. That is the essence of the Tower card.

Despite the lessons taught us by the Tarot, by the runes, the myths of so many lands, I still find Pagans who have an Abrahamic gut reaction to destruction. I knew one who, upon finding out that the pretty Shiva statue he bought at an import shop represented the Hindu Destroyer, instantly flinched and sought to remove the statue from his home. He feared the storm.

But the essence of a mystic, I believe, and especially of a witch, is a human who does not fear the storm. Destruction may come for us. It may wipe away our property, our homes, our loved ones, and our bodies--but if we have learned anything, it is that there is no destruction for our soul. So the storm brings only change, and a witch is one who does not fear change.