Monthly Archives: September 2013

Believe it or not

In this post, I wanted to take a brief break from the explorations to touch on a subject that seems to have been hovering in the ether near me lately: the question of belief.

(Is this related to the subject matter of this blog? Absolutely, but I’ll get to that in a while.)

You’ll have noticed by now that the Magpie’s path is not your mama’s old time religion. In this day and age, I often find myself caught – like many spiritually liberal, independent or moderately agnostic folks – between two opposing camps. Watching them fight can have a perverse interest, but can sometimes be perilous, like sitting on the fence between a cheesed-off badger and a farmer with a loaded shotgun; one tries to duck when necessary and not get one’s tail feathers not too ruffled.

The battle is between the more conservative traditional religions (generally Christianity, in the part of the world I live in), and what’s known as the New Atheism. Yeats pointed out back in 1919 that

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…

– though who’s ‘best’ and ‘worst’ in this instance depends which side you’re on.

My take on things is that science is one way of explaining the world, religion is another, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t both have their place. The problem is how some people with these worldviews impose them on others. The minute anyone says ‘This is how the universe works, I and my cronies have the only valid access to Truth, and anyone who says otherwise is deluded and/or evil’ – whether that person says they’re getting their authority from Darwin (no slur on Darwin, I’m sure he was a fine chap) or Jesus (likewise) – that, for me, sets immediate alarm bells ringing.

(And just so you know I do have a sceptical bone in my body, it irks me equally when it comes from less conventional spiritual places. If your high priestess, your yoga teacher or the Ascended Masters (they’re never Ascended Mistresses, which perhaps says something…) claim they’re the gatekeepers of all knowledge and wisdom, and you’re unenlightened for begging to differ, I’ll come join you on the naughty step.)

The whole debate hinges on proving and disproving what may or may not be the facts. It’s as well to point out here that the word belief originally had nothing to do with literal, factual reality. The -lief part is historically related to love, and to trust. Believing is an act of trust, of relating emotionally to the deepest part of yourself and the world, while accepting that it’s not something your limited intellect can ever totally grasp.

Carl Jung, in the course of a BBC interview, was asked if he believed in God. He replied ‘I don’t need to believe; I know.’ He didn’t mean he had factual proof of a deity; he meant he had an inner relationship with the Source as he experienced it. It’s the difference between accepting that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and actually going out and watching the sunrise.

Of course, because inner experience isn’t something you can drag someone up a hill early in the morning to watch beside you, there’s the question: are we making it up? In a sense, yes, and people on the fringes of religion have always been willing to admit this. Peter Redgrove, in his fascinating book, The Black Goddess and the Sixth Sense, notes from an interview with two magical initiates: ‘It was less that their goddess desired worship than that she rejoiced in being imagined.’ And the infamous magician Aleister Crowley made the comment that whether the gods are real, isn’t as important as what happens if you act as if they are.

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Does that mean encounters with the Sacred are ‘just imagination’? Joan of Arc was asked that question about her voices, the angels and saints who guided her. She replied: ‘How else but through our imagination do you think God speaks to us?’ Today, people might dismiss her as mentally ill, even though experiences like hers aren’t actually that uncommon in the sanest of people. (Traditional cultures have always, in fact, drawn a careful distinction between mental afflictions and shamanic experience – while accepting that they can happen to the same person.)

Science has fallen over itself to ‘prove’ that spiritual experience is nothing more than a brain glitch. Neurologists might well be correct to say that it manifests, physically, as activity in the temporal lobe; they’ve even found a specific ‘God spot’. But to say that’s all it is, would be to say that love is ‘just’ a release of oxytocin, adrenalin and other feel-good chemicals. Anyone who’s ever been in love knows that it’s very much more than that.

The important question with any spiritual experience or practice should perhaps be: what are you getting from this? What results does it have in your life, your feelings, the way you act towards other people and the world? If it tends towards love and wholeness, if it helps you to deal with life, if it leads you in a direction that feels balanced and open and empowering, that’s probably as much assurance as you need. If it feels uneasy, gets in the way of your work or relationships or any other life-affirming activity, or leads you to surrender your power to another person or a belief system, you might want a rethink.

It’s like the way I look at homeopathy. I suffer from the world’s worst jetlag, and I’m a British person who loves to visit Seattle, and if you know your geography you’ll know that’s a very bad combination. And homeopathic sleeping tablets are the only things that stop me looking like a survivor of the Zombie Walk two weeks after my return. No, I have no idea how they can possibly work, unless it’s the placebo effect. The point is that they do work.

And Joan of Arc’s voices may have been ‘just her imagination’…but she did save France.

And the spirits encountered by shamans may be imagined, as may the gods invoked by ritual magicians. But shamans do heal. And magicians do accomplish change in themselves and the world.

And if your means of connecting to Spirit work for you in a positive way that doesn’t do harm or impose on anyone’s rights or freedoms, I’m not about to condemn or ridicule them. (Ridiculing your own beliefs, on occasion, isn’t a bad idea, simply because spiritual paths that can’t laugh at themselves tend, historically, to end up doing nasty things. But that’s another story.)

I said I’d come back to this blog, eventually, and here we are. I’ve been asking myself if it’s presumptuous of me to be presenting the creative explorations I’m sharing here without knowing where you, my readers, who might want to try them (and I’m hoping you will, that’s half the point of this thing) are coming from, belief-wise.

You might have a spiritual structure in place that works for you – and if so, that’s great – but be intrigued about how you can use your creativity to deepen and enrich your experience of that path. If you need to adapt the exercises for them to sit comfortably with your existing way of doing things, please feel free to do so. Then again, you might still be looking around for the particular Something you can relate to on an inner level. Or you might be a sceptic as far as all this spiritual stuff goes. That’s OK too.

What I’m saying is, don’t worry too much about whether you believe or not, in the sense of whether something objectively, measurably ‘real’ is going on. Just give it a go and see what happens, how you feel, whether it changes anything. Trust the actual process of creation, and if nothing else, you’ll be learning to trust your own deepest self. Which, whether you believe in the Goddess, gravity or the Great Pumpkin, can’t be a bad thing, can it?

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A journey in collage

Travel, as the good Doctor once said, broadens the mind, or ought to. On the path of Spirit, I think it helps, now and again, to look back at where you’ve come from, how you got here, and what route you took. My road has been a somewhat meandering one with some interesting diversions and the odd dead end (and even dead ends have something to teach you, even if it’s only ‘For Goddess’ sake don’t go down there!’).

This exploration is about making a visual map of your spiritual journey, in collage. This medium is quick enough to bypass the thinky, chattery part of you that loves to get in the way, and is good for those of us who (ahem!) aren’t always confident of our drawing skills. You just need images – cut out of magazines or junk mail, or printed off on a computer – a basic glue stick, and a background (I did mine in my journal).

To choose your images, think back over your life and list things that, one way or another, have influenced your connection to Spirit. Those might include the faith you were raised in; traditions you explored later; personal experiences; stories or myths that resonated for you; and since this is a creative path, examples of art that touched you in some way. Then look through your images or search online for pictures that express or symbolise (they don’t all have to be literal) the items on your list.

How you place the images is up to you; you can go for a linear scheme, a spiral (outwards or inwards from past to present), or any arrangement that makes sense. When you have an arrangement that feels right, stick the images down. You can also, if you like, use paint, pens or stickers to embellish the collage and add relevant bits of text.

When you’re done, let your collage sit for a couple of days, then take another look at it. Can you see connections between the images? Any common themes or interesting juxtapositions? Note them down, and think what they’re telling you about where your path has led you.

My collage took a couple of evenings in total. Here it is:

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In roughly chronological order, these are the influences you’re seeing here.

– The Church of England (the ‘default’ British form of Protestant Christianity I was raised in).
– Mythology, especially (as a kid) Egyptian and Greek.
– Astrology.
– The poetry of W.B. Yeats – and through him, both Celtic mythology and the ritual magic of the Golden Dawn.
– The visionary poetry and art of William Blake.
– Dante’s Divine Comedy.
– Hinduism.
– Buddhism: Nichiren, and, later, Tibetan, especially the goddess Tara.
– The psychological theories of Carl Jung.
– Wicca, paganism in general, and Goddess spirituality.
– Graphic novels (a wide range, here represented by the major series, Sandman by Neil Gaiman and Promethea by Alan Moore)
– The Roman Catholic Church.
– Dante’s Divine Comedy.
– The Irish goddess Brighid.
– Angelology.
– The Gnostic tradition of the early Christian era.
– The Kemetic tradition – the revived religion of ancient Egypt – in particular, the god Djehuty, aka Thoth.
– The Shewings of the medieval mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich.
– Shamanic traditions in various cultures.
– Music (again, a wide range, here represented by The Beatles and Nirvana).
– The study of anatomy.
– The size acceptance movement.
– The beauty of the natural world.
– The weirder fringes of quantum physics.
– The landscape of the Pacific Northwest (the place I now regard as my spiritual home).

Looking at this, what connections can I spot?

First, it’s imagery and mythology that’s drawn me to major traditions. Evangelical Christianity, or the more sparse types of Buddhism, have never had the emotional appeal of the Tibetan wrathful and peaceful deities, shrines of the Virgin Mary, or those wonderfully lurid Hindu goddess posters from the local seaside hippy shop that my art teacher (who collected eighteenth-century Indian miniature paintings) described as ‘a bit tacky, don’t you think’?

I know that Spirit, ultimately, is beyond human description, and that the contemplation of silence and emptiness have their place in spiritual practice. But for me, and for many people, colour and form and ritual are how we connect. Things we can see and touch help to express the things we can’t. People of more austere traditions may frown on the ‘bells and smells’, but I think we need them. (I’ll be coming back to ritual as an art form quite a bit in this blog.)

Then there’s nature: the curve of a spiral shell, mountains (the one in the collage is Mt Rainier, or as local tribes called her, Taqobah, Mother of Waters – see what a difference metaphor makes?), the oddities of how the universe is structured, the complexity and beauty of human bodies and minds, and the (lengthy, alas, as is typical for women in our culture) process of learning to love the particular body I live in, all come under that general heading. Finding Spirit here, immanent, in this world, is the main reason I identify as pagan.

But, I’m also an urban creature at heart, and I think there’s meaning and connection to be found in stuff most people would see as firmly ‘secular’ – pop culture stuff like rock music and comic books, for instance. If it’s all rooted in one Reality, either everything’s holy or nothing is. I agree with Blake on this one – that everything that lives is, in fact, holy.

That said, Blake also knew that what we can see and touch isn’t all there is. Elysium, the Duat, the Land of Turquoise Leaves, the Land of Heart’s Desire, the Summerland, the Dreaming, the Immateria, are all names from some of my influences for the very real Somewhere Else beyond the physical; a place where we encounter what we can’t explain in earthly terms, where we meet the gods, the archetypes, the ancestors, the angels and animal powers. From a creative viewpoint, these are also the realms of the Holy Imagination, the place where the raw stuff of creation takes on form.

I mentioned shamanism – which is all about exploring those alternate realities and bringing back knowledge and healing to our own world. While I’m drawn to cultures that have had actual shamanic traditions of their own, I think we need to find our own ways. And a lot of the influences from within my own culture have connections with that same kind of exploration. Dante went on a tour of the afterlife. Blake spoke with angels and prophets in his room in London. Julian had her healing visions during a life-threatening illness (a classic shamanic motif). Yeats wrote of voyages to the Celtic Otherworlds, and pathworked the magical planes. Jung used imaginative techniques to converse with the inhabitants of the collective unconscious. Methods and names vary, but the experiences echo one another.

It’s no accident that poets and writers seem to make a lot of those journeys. Someone has to, in a culture that hasn’t had its own shamanic tradition as such for a long time. For me, art is both the way into the non-ordinary realms, and the way we express what we find there. I think artists – painters, poets, novelists, musicians, dancers, creators of all kinds – are the shamans of our culture. Some might not identify with the role, but their creations still enable us to celebrate our beauty and connection, help us to metabolise and heal the dark painful stuff, or perhaps just urge us to see the world and ourselves in a different light.

(Yes, I know; in a world where art is often reduced to just one more commodity, that’s hopelessly idealistic. On second thoughts, scratch the ‘hopelessly’; anything that helps us avoid becoming commodities ourselves is the best hope we’ve got.)

There’s possibly a lot more I could see here, but this is more than enough to digest for now. It looks, at first sight (even to me, and I’m biased) like a mishmash of disparate ideas, but zoom in and you can spot the connections. It contains paradoxes – spirit in matter and matter in spirit, the sacred and the secular, the natural and the cultural – which is as it should be; it’s about finding a way to include and reconcile the inevitable contrasts of our existence. (Magpies are only black and white from a distance…look closer and you can see the colours!)

And like all spiritual journeys, it’s a work in progress. If you’re thinking of doing this yourself, it might be as well to keep hold of the collage and try the exercise again in, say, a few years’ time. I’m intrigued to think where my own journey may have taken me by then.

Into the soup: by way of introduction

Hello, and welcome to the blog!

The straightforward thing to do here would be to tell you a little about who I am and where I’m coming from. My history and background as an artist and as a human being; my spiritual path; my struggle with mental health issues; the way back, and my realisation of what path my life wanted to take.

The Magpie, though, isn’t known for being straightforward. Well, not all the time. This blog is about the creative, and the spiritual, and where they meet and dance and intermingle and play with one another. It’s about the way we meet Spirit, the deepest in the universe and ourselves and others, through perhaps our most human attribute – Making Stuff: putting our lives and hearts into paint and collage and words and music and ritual. Those depths don’t speak to us in the daylight language of logic – they speak in symbols and metaphors. So perhaps this would be a good place for a story.

A Tale of Becoming

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Long moons ago, in a seaswept land, lived a shining, singing girlchild, a thing-finder, a rain-listener, a border-walker, born (as all young things are) with wonders in her eyes, and magic on her lips, and colours blooming from her fingertips.

And she wanted to show her colours to the world – to dance along her path, to babble with the tongues of birds – but the Colourless People, their own magic crushed away, said:
Curb your expectations!
Ditch your procrastination!
Tame your imagination!
…and get a proper job!

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So she tried, as she grew, to square her mind into a square hole; took to working in a neat grey box, and wrapped up and tied her heart and gave it wholesale to all takers, and asked:
Do you love me, do you love me now?

There were those that loved her truly; but others loved only her face in their own mirrors – and they had louder voices, and sharper fingers. They herded her mind behind the wires, marching her in time with the clockwork chimes, drilling their reason into her till her brain ached and reeled and she staggered, giddy with their riddles.

Driven half mad, she broke away, and found a gap in the fence of their defences, cut through, cut loose, and ran into the wild night, breathing to be free. But a grey mist gathered round her, strangling and tangling with its sticky fingers, till with her last sight, before the last light left her lost and foundered, she saw a cave’s mouth, and headed in, stumbling for sanctuary.

In the dark about her head swirled, snickering and whispering, the oily remnants of her lost dreams, naming her Pointless, Useless, Hopeless; till, straining to hear her own breath, she tripped and fell, and spiralled down, and down, into the deepest of the dark. Helpless she crashed to the barren bottom of things and lay there, lost.

Her fingers blindly crawling in the dust touched twisted roots: a last tree grew there, blackened and withered. There in the loneliest place, numb with sorrow for the once-live thing and for her once-live self, she clung to its bitter bark; and, giving it her last warmth, froze, and was silent.

Cold ages passed. Then as she lay in the chill dark, she heard a faint music, and a fragile golden light came into her heart, and it spoke to her and said:
Don’t be afraid. You’re stronger than you know, and wilder than you fear, and loved more than you could ever know, and you don’t have to stay in the dark forever.

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Knowing her own worth, she started to weep, and her tears made a trickle, that became a stream, bursting from the base of the blackened tree; and feeling her strength return, she rose.

The light in her heart went before her, guiding her through the dark, and she followed the stream till it grew to a river. Many times in the shallows she would see a shining pebble, and the light would say: Take this. This is yours – and so she picked each one up, and filled her skirts, and went on.

After a long time the dark grew lighter,and the air fresher, and then she saw the glimmer of day, a way ahead. So she hurried towards it – but just as she was almost there, a shape loomed before her: a hissing, whispering beast, formed of dank vapour, each smoggy curl a neck, each head a face of all the ones who’d sneered and jeered at her, scolded and moulded her, and bent her to their will.

Soft and sibilant it challenged her, saying: ‘Where do you think you’re going?

‘Back to the daylight,’ she said.

‘What are you?’ it mocked her. ‘A silly, frilly, simpering girl, weak as paper flowers, that should go home and comb her hair, and paint her nails, and stay quiet?’

‘Not so silly,’ she said, ‘that I can’t see through your lies; nor so weak that I can’t wield my insight against your gaslight.’

‘Then what?’ it asked again. ‘A freak, a mutant, an unnatural thing, that should be slain as soon as born?’

‘If any of those’, she said, ‘that’s honour enough, considering what normal means, what natural means, up in the twisted plastic world.’

‘Then what are you?’ the beast demanded.

Bewildered at a question she’d never been asked before – not with an honest answer in mind – she faltered and fell silent.

Then the light in her heart said: Show it your jewels.

I don’t have any jewels, she said.

The ones you found in the river, the light insisted, warm and calm.

They’re only pebbles, she said.

But they’re yours
, said the light.

At that, she felt a new strength rise within her, and turning back towards the beast, she cried:
‘I am myself, and I can be no other!’

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The beast gave one great roar of pain, and burst in a storm of stinking smoke; but as the air cleared, she saw, not a many-headed monster, but a great black dog, shaggy and friendly, that sidled up to her and licked her hand.

She bent to seek her pebbles, and found them changed. Some glowed with inner fire, amber and rose, sea-green and violet; some flickered and shifted their facets, and showed her words of wisdom and comfort; and some hummed and glittered with music. So carefully she gathered them; and leaving the dog to be guardian now of her dark places, she stepped out into the light.

And as she came, all those who truly loved her came to greet her, on a wide green space, and around them the towers of the great city, and around them the white mountains, and the ocean, all shining in the sun. She lived on there, and gave them her colours and her words and her songs; and every now and again, ventured back into the dark – her black dog standing guard, the light in her heart to guide her – to find more jewels in the hidden stream, and to bring them out as a gift to all, for healing and for joy.

So she became what she truly was – a thing-finder, a rain-listener, a border-walker, a survivor, and a teller of tales.

*******************

A lot of us (haven’t I been there!) end up living someone else’s mythology. It’s easy to become just a character in the narrative of your family or your culture, and way too easy to buy into the fantasies of the media. But we all have our own story.

So here’s my first suggestion for an exercise. Look back at your life – not with a literal biographer’s eye, but through the lens of magic and myth. How did you get here? Are you living the dream in the mansions of the gods, or lost in the dark wood? Where are you going? Who are your companions, and who your enemies? What obstacles have you had to battle? And what are you questing for? (We’re all questing for something.). Tell your story in those terms – in words, or in a drawing or a collage or a cartoon strip – however you want to tell it.

If ‘myth’ sounds too high-falutin’ a word for your seemingly ordinary little existence, think of it as a fairy tale – those often feature ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and trust me, they were never just aimed at kids. And remember that just because it’s a myth doesn’t mean it’s false – just that it’s true on another, deeper level.

The story above, in case you weren’t sure, is my story. What’s yours?

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