Without a sense of self, it’s very hard to work out what to do with your life, or how to do it. Self knowledge is necessary for personal growth and for any kind of meaningful spiritual life. How do I hold a mirror up to my soul? How do I establish what kind of person I am? How do I discover my true nature?
This is an issue I’ve been wrangling with a lot lately. I have absolutely no idea who I am. Things I had considered true, I’m no longer sure I can trust. Reflections offered back by others, I’m now putting aside. I’ve spent this summer watching myself, trying to figure out who I am.
I don’t think what happens inside any person’s head is a measure of who we are. In our heads, many of us are the heroes of our own stories. We are right, justified, reasonable etc. The trouble is, experience demonstrates that many people are not right, much less actually heroic. So how do we get beyond the inclination to think well of ourselves and get some measure of truth and reality? Or for that matter, how do folks who have been conditioned into thinking the worst of themselves break away from that training and find a new self image?
The answer lies not in what we think, but what we do. Intentions and attitudes are of limited use, really. I seek to know myself through how I live, the choices I make. I can get some sense of what I am like from how others respond to me. (Gently, on the whole, with care, kindness and support, aside from a couple of notable exceptions). What kind of people are we surrounded by? If everyone we encounter seems hostile, selfish and uncooperative, is that misfortune, or is some aspect of who we are being reflected back at us? The best sense we can get of how we seem, is by looking at our relationships and seeing what they tell us.
We can tell a lot about ourselves and how we impact on the world by looking at who our friends are. Do we have longstanding friends? And if not, why? There are lots of reasons why a person may find it hard to make and keep friends – shyness, a nomadic lifestyle, eccentricities that make it hard to connect, or just not being a people person can all be issues. But you can also make friends with creatures, and places, and look at those relationships as points of reference. One or two deep friendships will tell you as much about yourself as dozens of casual connections can. Family, neighbours, people we meet through work and daily life all reflect back something of how we come across to them. Do people avoid us, or seek us out? Are you someone to confide in? Am I a good shoulder to cry on?
Creatures and children are very good points of reference. You can’t bullshit a creature. They judge you based on how you treat them. If you are kind and gentle, animals will respond to you in certain friendly ways, or avoid you, if you are not. Being a parent is perhaps the biggest mirror you can hold up to yourself. The person you raise will reflect back all kinds of things about who you are – especially the nature of their primary care giver. Sure, kids can come out well in spite of bad parenting, or come out badly despite best efforts to nurture them, but they’re a very interesting yardstick to measure ourselves by.
In stillness, isolation and inactivity, who we are is entirely theoretical. Action is real, and relationship one of the best ways of seeing how that action manifests. Who we imagine we could be and what we think we might do if only we had the chance, isn’t worth much in the scheme of things. Judge yourself on what you do, not on wishful thinking, or self critical fear.
The shield-maker’s tree. Tree of old age. Elders, wizards, cunning men.
I am the shield to every head
A major characteristic of the tree, Poplar, is that she is always moving. The slightest whisper of wind set her to rustling, we have two outside out bedroom window and the whisper to each other all the time. To dance, to always be moving, is a way of defence, of shielding, and a way of being invisible. Dancing gods are known all over the world – Shiva, Krishna from the east are quite well known, for instance. This is another form of shielding to consider.
The Latin name of the aspen is Populus tremula, the trembling poplar. Though other poplars have a similar habit of shimmering in the breeze, the aspen’s distinctive canopy of round leaves with serrated edges and pale undersides, mounted on long, laterally flattened stalks gives the tree the unique appearance of shimmering or quivering in the wind. They also make a distinctive rustling, whispering sound “. . . as if they were spattered by rain.” (R. Mabey, Flora Britannica 1996).
Many traditions associate the wind with the voice of Spirit. The moving, rustling whispering of the polar can give you this if you sit still with it and listen. The shadows the ever-moving leaves cast on the ground gives a flickering landscape to stand in, it is like standing between the worlds … at the interface where all worlds meet. The movement of the shadows can be your journey-horse, transporting you to otherworld if you allow it.
Aspen crowns have been found in ancient burial mounds. It may be that this ability to transport is part of ther reason for this, transporting the spirit across the threshold from Thisworld to Otherworld.
The word “aspen” comes from the Greek Aspis meaning shield. The Celts used this light wood for making their shields, combining the physical wood with the spirit properties of the tree to ward off enemies. It is called the “shield tree”.
The Scottish Gaelic name is critheann (pronounced cree-an), the Gaelic verb for tremble is crith. As with Thomas the Rhymer, an aspen leaf placed under the tongue would make the bearer more eloquent, traditionally a gift of the Faerie Queen. Highland folk taboos say the wood must not be used for fishing or agricultural implements, or in house construction, which makes the poplar a faerie tree on a par with the rowan. Unfortunately, Christianity had a go at trees, along with all things Faerie, making them evil. In this case the shimmering aspen tree was said to tremble in shame because its the wood made the crucifixion cross was made. Other Christian tales give the same accusation to holly and oak. All these trees came to suffer fear and loathing because of this.
The Bach Flower Remedies aspen is used to treat fears and apprehensions.
All of these ideas suggest forms of “shielding”. So what is shielding, what is a shield?
This is much more than just a piece of wood between you and your foe’s sword. Perhaps one of the most important concepts here is that of boundary. In order to effect any of the suggested actions there must be a boundary, a distinction between self and not-self. If you do not know what is you and what is not-you, what is your flesh and what is the wooden shield, or the enemy’s sword, then you haven’t a snowball’s chance in hell of escaping being cut down in battle.
So, the goddess’ watch-words for this season, and this vowel-sound, is about knowing self. To know yourself, and to know otherness as the other side of that coin, is to provide a shield for your head.
The poplar, the aspen, trembles and whispers, hearing and speaking with spirit constantly, keeping the channels open, and knowing itself for what it is, where its roots live, and where its branches reach,
Elders, wizards, cunning men
Elder = senior, leader, organizer, guide
The thesaurus offers us these as some possible interpretations of the concept of elder. Some folk think that they can call themselves elders, even that they may get a certificate that calls them such … this is all pie in the sky. You can indeed come to know yourself to be an elder but by that time you won’t have the slightest inclination to talk about it. You know far too well that, although you know a great deal and have much experience there is a great ocean of knowing and wisdom out there – as Isaac Newton (alchemist) put it – that makes your knowing only the size of a tiny pebble on the beach.
Elders are known to their people, or some of them at least. Again, the elder has the supreme confidence of self-knowing that means they do not mind if the whole world is against them. What are the advantages of this?
If no-one and nothing can undermine you then you are not blackmail-able. You cannot be cowed into agreeing with someone/thing when you know it is wrong, you cannot condone wrong actions, you cannot collude. Do you see the advantages of this?
What if no-one could force you to do something that you knew was wrong, they had no hold over you, there was no peer pressure, no need in you to be a part of the group, no fear of being ostracised? Is this not what governments fear? A population that they cannot cow? A population that will say, ‘Oh come off it! Show us your rabbit!’?
Come to that … how much do you fear being left out, being ostracised, excluded? Mmm … more difficult to admit to ??? Then sit under poplar, watch the shadows flicker through the many realities, allow poplar to transport you to worlds where you can be true to yourself. Then … learn how to carry this knowing back across the worlds so that you can BE it here, in Thisworld.
Wizard = wyze-ard, wise one, one who has absorbed wisdom.
The wizard has done this. No, not just the Harry Potter version although he does make a fairly serious attempt to do this. But the real wizards have done this, go and look up the stories about some of them, the most famous British one is, of course, Merlin. Read about him with open eyes. Remember he is only half mortal. Realise that many storytellers dumb down the tales to fit them to the ears of their audience and so collect more pennies in their hat and more kudos for their tellings. Consider too if the storytellers really had much concept of the magnitude of Otherworld … many don’t but try to reduce it all to human-size.
To absorb wisdom is hard work … like eating and surviving the poisoned apples as Merlin does in the Caledon forest. It also means getting a very real picture of yourself and you place in the scheme of things. In general human perceptions seem to go wide of the mark, either to large … we were all Cleopatra or Napoleon in our past lives rather than the slave who emptied the chamber pot! Or too small in that we believe we can’t do anything and are continually saying we must wait until the time is right, the moon in the right quarter, etc … waiting for the eternal “round tooit” and, as we all know, these are in extremely short supply!
The wizard does not wait but gets on with it, gets on with the next job. The Zen adage to eat your rice, then wash your bowl is a good example of this. The tenet of how to gain wisdom is known worldwide but it has little Hollywood appeal so most people don’t go there. Steiner said (rightly) that good spirituality is eminently practical and was always exhorting his followers with, “The deeds, gentlemen, the deeds!’. Deeds, doing and not doing them, and knowing when is appropriate – as the elder does – is wisdom.
Again, in order to be any of these you must know yourself. You cannot work magic if you are muddled as to what you are working it on, where you are working it, what it will effect. Well, you can … but it will end up like Mickey Mouse and the Mops in the film Fantasia! And you will need a skilful, adept wizard to rescue you before you drown!
In the British language the name Cunningham comes from “cunning man”. This picture of a cunning woman from the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft shows such a person. The link, to Wiki, gives a good outline of them. I favour historian Emma Wilby’s description to the (perhaps) better known Ronald Hutton’s – he too often, for me, explains away and also tends to denigrate those who don’t follow his own spiritual path. Emma Wilby identified what she believed were a number of shamanic elements to the magic of many cunning folk. For more about her work look here.
The cunning folk of Britain worked with familiar spirits – the witch trials testify to this where cats were hanged and burned alive along with their mistresses. The natural world was no enemy but a friend and ally … a shield for the head. Nowadays people tend to fear the world, nature, that which is not human – see daft TV programmes called such things as “Dangerous Planet”! There is a specially human sort of arrogance that believes the world is out to get them – as though we were that important, instead of the most junior in age as well as intelligence of all the animal species that in habit Mother Earth.
The ways of nature were and are still open to the cunning folk. It is part of the ability to “work with” rather than the need to control, to defeat, to overcome … all words much more often used in modern society. Again there is that stupid arrogance that we might be able to overcome the planet. Oh yes, we can make her life hell, make her creatures extinct, but in the end we will die and she will recover … possibly having decided not to make the mistake of letting humans aboard her again.
The cunning folk are skilled in many ways but perhaps most in their ability to discern what action is appropriate for the time and place where they are at that moment. They are resourceful and ingenious in being able to change that mode of being, acting, as soon as they perceive that it is no longer appropriate. They are creative and inventive in the ways they find to change, again suiting means to need. They are adroit in being at the right time and place and dextrous in how they handle situations, people and spirits. They have ability. All this comes from that initial knowing of self … which may take a long, long time to learn.
Poplar as AllyPoplar is an ally, a great ally. Allies are those who help and befriend us. Like the cunning folk, you too can discover this and poplar will help.
Today is Peace One Day http://www.peaceoneday.org/en/welcome if you want to explore the history and current projects. It’s a very simple premise – one day focused on peace and raising awareness of peace. This is me doing my small bit.
People respond to Peace One Day in all kinds of ways – with art, poetry, ritual, vigil, meditation, prayer… it doesn’t matter what your religion is, (if any). It doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is, or your political stance. Peace is good for people. Freedom from violence, abuse, oppression and tyranny make the world a better place. Take the time to do something for peace today. Post the Peace One link on your social networking site of preference. Think about your own life and how your inaction, or action might make a difference. Support an anti war campaigning group or charity if you can, or one of those incredibly brave outfits like The Red Cross and Medicine Sans Frontiers who go into war zones saving life and trying to reduce the terrible cost in human suffering.
If you do not want to ever be asked to kill another human being.
If you do not want your sons and daughters recruited into someone’s army.
If you do not want to be bombed.
If you do not want to see any more heartbreaking images of orphaned children on your TV.
If you care about justice and human rights….
Peace One Day. It’s a powerful dream and we should never give up on it.
My youngest step son doesn’t like fiction. It’s made school difficult since most of what he’s been assigned to read, until now, is fiction. Give him a science book or a how-to book and he’ll stay up all night. Give him a novel and he’ll volunteer to clean the litter box.
As an author, I always love to know the reasons why people read what they read. Why do you read the back of the cereal box? Why do you choose non-fiction over fiction? Why do you insist on having an explosion in your fiction? Why do you hate it when people fall in love? Why do you read this blog? Why do you read the morning paper?
So, today, my post is for all of you – why do you read what you read? (And, please, if you read the cereal box, I really want to know what’s so engrossing on there!)
One of the things I’ve realised, writing peace articles lately, is that peace isn’t something you can work for in isolation. In many ways, achieving peace is going to be a consequence of achieving other things first.
On a world scale, we have no scope for establishing peace until we have a lot more equality and justice. While there is exploitation, starvation, abuse of power and a huge gap between the rich and poor, peace is impossible. Faced with injustice and suffering, people will take arms when they feel they need to – and with justification. Peace bought by oppression and hunger is no kind of peace at all.
At more personal levels, peace depends on honour, care, and respect. That’s not something we can achieve as individuals, we have to do it collectively. It’s impossible to live peaceably in an environment where others are cruel, greedy, abusive or otherwise uncooperative.
Peace is a human thing. We can’t and shouldn’t try to avoid the challenges and conflict inherent in living, but we can seek to exist peacefully alongside each other. We can only achieve this through thoughtful, honourable living. Working for peace means working for justice, compassion, tolerance and equal opportunities. It is not an easy path, which is why we are so far from having peace in the world. Being greedy, selfish, violent and unfair is a lot easier and pays good dividends, and that’s why people stick with it. Seeking peace means working against our own immediate interests for the good of all, and that’s not a simple path to walk.
The little pockets of peace we manage to create and hold are intensely beautiful things. Gems in the dark waters of human interaction. We can treat each other well and honourably. It might not bring immediate financial gain, but it rewards us in other, more soulful ways. When we have peace between us, we can also have peace in our hearts. I can’t think of anything more precious or worth striving for.
Without peace in your life, it is difficult to do much. The peace and security that allow a person to sleep well rather than waking at every sound are essential for wellbeing. Without peace, the voice of spirit cannot be heard. Without peace, no work can be done. But what do you do when life does not, for one reason or another, allow you that necessary, essential peace? For a lot of people in all kinds of different circumstances, there are times when you have to choose between needful peace, and all that is familiar.
In the UK (and no doubt other countries too) large towns and cities have refuges for women who flee domestic abuse. There are helplines and centres for abused children who go on the run. Some folks don’t manage to access this support and just end up in the streets. At what point do you decide that the lack of peace in your home, in your life, makes it worth taking your chances and being homeless? There are people making that choice every day.
Across the world there are countless people fleeing war zones and oppression. There are countries that still want to put people to death for being gay, adulterous or witches. There have been so many examples of ‘ethnic cleansing’ where a subset of people are forced out. When does it become too much? When do you run? I can barely imagine what it must be like to give up everything you have known and flee like that. Thinking about how many people do face such trials and hardships puts my own life into a lot of perspective. I have not lost everything.
I wonder about the other side too. For every fleeing person, there is some other person who prompted it. An aggressor, abuser, war-maker, ethnic-cleanser… someone who feels entirely justified (I assume) in their actions. Stories that make the news sometimes, of horrific killings, tortures, massacres, make me wonder what kind of head space you have to be in to justify that to yourself. It’s tempting to believe that the perpetrators are other, somehow, not like us… but how close do any of us come to pushing others to breaking point? Would we even know, necessarily? Could you drive another human being to despair and destitution without even seeing that was what you were doing? Perhaps.
Not everyone runs. There are people dying on a daily basis because they’ve stood their ground, or refused to believe the degree of danger. There are people who don’t run because they can’t imagine anyone would really go so far as to kill them. People who are too afraid to run, or do not believe it could be better elsewhere. People conditioned into believing they deserve it.
How would you know when to keep trying, and when to run for your life, giving up all but the clothes you stand up in? Every day, someone, somewhere will be making that choice, and not all of them make the right call. Every day, people are making smaller decisions about how much to tolerate and excuse, or how hard to push. Is today the day we throw stones as well as verbal abuse? Each small decision pushes us closer to the big ones, in such circumstances. Run or stay, kill or tolerate. Every erosion of peace takes us closer to putting individuals, or whole communities, in danger. The small actions matter. The little cruelties lead to bigger ones. I wish I had answers, but I don’t.
Over the years I’ve been to a few rituals where peace has been a significant focus, and heard about others. With Peace One Day falling on the 21st of September, it makes a lot of sense to incorporate peace elements into autumn equinox rituals.
Whatever the size of the group, it’s important to give everyone the chance to express themselves in ritual. A simple option is to give everyone the opportunity to offer a personal commitment to peace, peaceful action or supporting peace initiatives. Sharing ideas in ritual enables people to inspire each other, and being supported by others makes any planned changes easier to maintain.
Another effective option is to make an extended call for peace. As you turn to each of the four directions, don’t just call for peace, but take the time to consider where, in that direction, peace is needed. Again this gives everyone the opportunity to participate, sharing prayers and ideas.
I was at a ritual many years ago where we were invited to bring water from our part of the world, with peace meditations and a mingling of waters and intentions. As the water sources were unknown we didn’t risk adding chlorine to a stream, and so the collected waters were poured into the drain. It was a poignant moment, and very real. Two years ago Druid Network people across the globe really pulled out the stops for Peace One Day – including a ritual in Parliament Square, London (I wasn’t there, I wish I had been though, awesome thing to do.) At Bards of the Lost Forest, we’d taken inspiration from the London scheme, and made flags – awen prayer flags, slogans etc. “Make tea not war” and hung them around our ritual space for the duration. It need not be all dour seriousness. We can celebrate peace, and play together as well.
Lighting candles is traditional for peace vigils, so is song. The sixties bequeathed us a wealth of anti war protest songs so there’s a lot of material to draw on. Bards amongst us can no doubt add to the mix with original creations. Ritual or solitary meditations on peace are well worth exploring too. Then there’s the option of supporting an organisation who you feel contribute to peace, or do good work in war zones. That may include local community building activities.
Celebrate what peace we have. If you have never been called upon to take arms and kill another human being then take this time to be grateful. Think of those who have been compelled to fight, and those who have sought it. Think of those who will never know peace in their lives – whose circumstances or psyches preclude it. Rejoice in what you have, and dream of ways in which it could be so much better. Let those visions of peace guide you forwards.