Monthly Archives: September 2007

Things I Never Thought I’d See

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Do you remember Ronald Reagan‘s first Secretary of the Interior, James Watt? The guy was a real piece of work, a fundamentalist Christian (oh, how we have become inured to religious extremists in public office since then!) who shocked the nation by his crass attitude toward the environment, and also to other people.

My favorite quote by him (and he is eminently quotable) comes from a source I can’t remember, but it was an interview somewhere, I believe after he left office. Someone asked him what his biggest fear was about environmentalists, and he said he feared that all of them were secretly Pagan.

I thought of the old geezer the other day, when I came upon this sign in a local park. Can youLabyrinth sign guess what the picture indicates? Take your time now, there’s no need to rush. What would send James Watt to an early grave if he weren’t so old already? Okay, I’ll tell you. The sign indicates that there is a labyrinth ahead. On public property. Available for use by all the citizens of fair Sebastopol. Ready to steer your son or daughter into godless communism, or worse, dreadlocks, nose rings and treesitting.

When it comes right down to it, I love living in an area that is so environmentally Pagan it would set James Watt’s hair on fire. I guess I’m just petty that way.

Anyway, I am curious what other signs of progress/moral disintegration are out there that would also cheer me up, if I only knew about them. All you bloggers, I’m looking at you! What improbable cultural artifacts give you a chuckle every time you see them? If you post about them, send me a link so I don’t miss your post. And meanwhile, I hope this lovely sign made your day like it made mine.

Where Fire Meets Water

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This seems like an auspicious time to take up the thread of my previous post, On Fire. I was walking the dog Tuesday as the sun set, gradually lowering itself into a brilliant orange field which bathed the horizon. Going up a slight hill with the sun’s long rays warming my back, I noticed a pale eye of moon just rising over the eastern hills, climbing as I climbed.

At the top of the hill I had walked into that perfect configuration: directly between sun and moon, both hovering just over the horizon. It is a form of human eclipse, I think. Extending one arm to the source of fire, and the other to the cool mirror of the moon, I felt as though I were strung on a necklace between amber and pearl. It was a rarefied moment, and not a drawing-down of anything. Rather it was a drawing across, the human body as mediator between two of the great alchemical forces.

To have fire travel horizontally is an unusual configuration. Normally I regard fire as a vertical force, and carrying fire as an act which calls us into a stronger upright alignment. To carry our fire means we stand up straight.

This would be a relatively easy task if that was all there was to it, but of course it’s a bit more complicated than that. Living a creative life, or following a spiritual path, is partly about finding our fire and letting that express itself through us. But if that is not contained or balanced by some equally strong force, we run the risk of frying our circuits and having the fire consume us. At the very least, we become hell to live with.

One of my first teachers in aikido, Betsy Hill sensei (no relation), often talks about the “floating bridge of heaven” as the point of balance aikidoists strive to embody in our movements. This is symbolized as the meeting point of the vertical axis, fire, and the horizontal axis, water. O’Sensei, the founder of aikido, referred to the floating bridge quite a lot in his teaching, yet not many of his students had the background in Shinto mythology to understand his meaning.

The floating bridge was the pathway between heaven and earth that the two primordial Divine beings, Izanagi and Izanami, descended on when they came down to create land amidst the chaos of a watery world. While standing on the bridge they dipped a jewel-encrusted sword into the sea, and when they raised it, the drops of water which fell on the ocean’s surface turned into the islands of Japan, and they could safely descend to land. This bridge between heaven and earth was always there, but somewhere along the way it was forgotten and the Gods could no longer visit Earth.

O’Sensei was insistent that the true purpose of aikido was to be in the center of creation at every moment, thus re-creating that floating bridge in our movements and in doing so bringing peace to the world. A tall order, especially for a post-war Japanese martial artist. The martial arts were in disgrace at the time, and the people who did come were mostly there to learn his unique blend of techniques from different martial disciplines, while ignoring his more esoteric ramblings.

And yet the theme of creation happening anew in every moment is echoed in many other mystical traditions. Most recently we have the revelation of astrophysics that as the universe expands evenly from all points, any point can be considered the center of creation. Or something like that; read Brian Swimme for the lovely poetic version.

For a long time I would watch Betsy sensei move around the mat demonstrating what she meant by being the floating bridge, and did not have a clue what she was doing. I understood the idea of extending energy vertically through my body to the earth and sky, but I did not know how to visualize, let alone embody, the aspect of water as a horizontal plane through which we move.

I guess this is where I will stop for this evening, with an invitation to try it yourself. Imagine carrying your fire along and through water, with the center of creation resting in your belly the whole time. Quite recently I have figured out a way to work with this on the mat, which has led to more insights about applying the principles in other aspects of life and spirituality in particular. These are all still in early formation for me, but my next post in this series will present them anyway. Happy full moon in Aries, everyone.

Wild Roses Have the Sweetest Hips

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Another early morning walk, this time along a trail in theThe Laguna, Autumn Morning Laguna de Santa Rosa. The trail meanders through the remnants of one of California’s major freshwater wetlands, with wide paths strewn with fallen grasses and dust. In the morning it is all tamped down with a light coating of dew, so the dust stays low and the air fresh.

One long stretch follows a series of ponds and waterways, the edge of the water choked with willow and briar, poison oak and Himalayan blackberry. The berries have been ripening steadily for the last few weeks, and these bushes so close to the trail have all been picked clean by a constant stream of visitors. I love a luscious, ripe blackberry as much as anybody, but I don’t even try to find one in this stand.

My eye is drawn instead to the opposite side of the trail, where out of the jumbled grasses rises a tangle of wild rose canes. The blooms are long gone, pink as I recall, small and lightly fragrant. Even the leaves are turning and falling, and what remains are thin clusters of tiny red rose hips scattered among the briars.

Not a one has been picked. Not the larger ones, which are scarlet on top Wild rose hipsbut pale orange underneath, needing a few more days to sun-ripen; not even the smaller ones that are so red their color does not yet have a name. Long past ruby and deeper than scarlet all the way around, these broadcast their ripeness with an almost velvet glow.

This is a find that makes me stop and linger, as there is no need to hurry about a treasure that no one else sees. I know just what this rose hip will taste like, and I take my time finding the one that emits the darkest light, that hangs the lowest, that is so ripe it has intoxicated itself in the making.

There is only one way to eat a wild rose hip: slowly, with all senses engaged. First you must pick it carefully, so the soft skin does not split from the pressure of your fingers. Then raise it to your mouth and gently guide it so that it is cushioned by lips and tongue, resting gingerly between upper and lower teeth. Breathe in, and let the aroma of the unbroken rose hip travel down your throat.

Then slowly let your teeth sink into its flesh, letting loose all the coarse, furry seeds within. Do not allow the seeds to escape, don’t try to separate the sweet from the bitter. Hold it all there in the front of your mouth, and with each slow bite compress your lips and tongue so that the sweet juice trickles out. Coat your tongue with it, let each bite fill your mouth with juice until the sweetness crowds out your breath and you are forced to swallow.

As you swallow, let that compression squeeze the last bit of juice from the rose hip until all that is left is a dry mash between your teeth. Find a worthy spot along the trail and blow the seeds out all in a rush, letting them scatter. They will fall to the earth and burrow through the dark of the year, while you can go back to the briar patch and seek out another heavy-lidded fruit. Repeat until sated, or until the dew rises with the sun.

That is how you eat a wild rose hip. Any questions?

All This Vastness and Nowhere to Go

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One morning last week I drove out to Bodega Head for a hike. The day had dawned clear and still, another instance where sweltering heat inland gives rise to a spectacular day on this wild coast. Though it was not particularly early, the parking lot was empty save for two elderly beachcombers. I had the headlands to myself, and took the south trail toward the very tip of the land.

To walk along the head is to traverse a slice of Los Angeles that has migrated north over a long stretch of time, thanks to the San Andreas Fault. The cliffs are ribbon striped in long diagonals of rock that heave skyward as though the promontory itself were craning its neck to see what lies farther north.

Instantly I wished I had brought my camera to capture the foliage. From the flaming tips of ice plant hanging over the cliff’s edge to the subtly feathered lichens circling each rock, the trail meandered through a stunning display of contrasts that also managed to look like nothing at all. Transfixed by the drama of crashing breakers below, one could easily miss the understated beauty of autumn at the coast.

To the west, the surf rode in like great sound waves from across the drum of the Pacific. I felt as though if I just had a tin can held to my ear, I could make out some fabulous conversations across the taut string of the ocean’s quivering surface.

Rising and falling with the waves were beds of kelp and other thriving sea plants, and each cloud of salt spray from below brought a fresh tang that made my mouth water for a good seaweed salad. Sea lions rose and fell through the water, leaping across the breaker’s edge only to dive deep and reappear in another spot entirely.

I struggle with astronomy, with distance and space. When I look up toward the center of the Milky Way on a clear night, I try to imagine in any way I can that I am looking at something roughly 30,000 light years away. Sometimes I get close, and when that happens I try adding to it the sensation of our whole solar system circling that center point of the galaxy at a speed of 180 miles per second. That’s usually when my mental construct breaks down. I simply cannot imagine that much space to go hurtling through, nor the degree of raw power held in all those ineffable orbits.

At the ocean I can approach vastness and be awed but not annihilated. All this water, sitting in a bowl of earth thousands of miles across, with all sorts of things on the bottom: tunnels, heat vents, lava flows, amazing creatures no one has ever seen. The tides, pulled and released by the motion of our moon; the currents which circle the globe; the extremes of heat and cold; the minutiae and multitude of life in the sea. I have a sense of how very little I know, and simultaneously how very, very much there is to know about everything.

That is the proper human perspective when it comes to this life we are given, I believe. We need to know how much we don’t know, and understand that this will always be true, while at the same time cultivating our curiosity to keep learning. If we can come away from these moments of touching infinity feeling revivified, then our link with Source is working for us. If not, then there are some adjustments to be made. All religion begins in awe, but so does just about everything good and precious in life.

That morning I found a spot I will be returning to again. It is a small seat formed by a depression in the rock, overlooking the ocean but surrounded by low-growing grasses, with a view both south and north along the coast. It is a spot where I can sit and fade into the background as life goes on all around me. On a beautiful morning with no one else around, it is easy to imagine that there is nowhere else to be, nothing else nearly as important as feeling the vastness of space, and how marvellous it is that we are inhabiting this very, very small spot in the grand scheme of things.

On Fire

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Anyone involved in the creative arts, or with an active spiritual practice, probably has some strong positive associations with the symbol of fire. It is passion, inspiration, faith, hope, transformation, courage, resurrection, rebirth, purification, healing, creativity, the heart’s desire, the soul’s purpose. Being “on fire” is the highest compliment: we are tapped into the life force, joining our personal creativity to a greater force and doing some of our best work.

Finding one’s fire is an epic journey, and central to the human condition. From Prometheus to Maui, the creation stories which feature heroes, gods, and animals assisting humans in their quest for fire are legion. In mystery traditions, these tales are often read as initiatory journeys, and the mastery of various skill levels is spoken of as the ability to carry fire, or walk through the fire.

In my experience, there are three stages of working with fire personally and symbolically. The first is finding one’s passion or calling. This entails going down into the darkness, hunting for who we truly are, learning to recognize the pure fire of spirit amidst all other distractions, and gaining the strength to follow it. This journey takes years. Some people come to it early in life, some much later, but whenever it presents itself, it requires of the seeker great courage and persistence.

The second stage is the long work of tempering the blade. Once we claim that inner fire it claims us, and will send us through every experience imaginable to purify and transform us into an instrument which can contain and direct it. If we have not chosen the right path for us, we will likewise be sent through all the situations we need in order to understand that we need to choose again, or revise our understanding of what our calling truly is.

Being an artist, or following a spiritual path, is met with more than a little skepticism in mainstream society, and rightly so. People have all different reasons for following a creative muse, but in the end I think that such a life ought to nourish or contribute to the larger culture in some way.

Prometheus didn’t go through all those centuries of torture just so that some of us could sit around collecting Grammy awards for awful music. If you have talent and no discipline, or ambition but no depth, the work you produce will be flimsy and will only contribute to the public impression of art as frivolous, spirituality as vapid. It happens all the time, and is a lure that is easy to succumb to, but it’s not the best we can do. And if we’re not going to bring our best to our art or calling, why bother?

The third stage, and the one that interests me the most, is what happens when we have a reasonably tempered blade, and have achieved a modicum of mastery in whatever work we have chosen. The easy path at this point would be to rest on one’s laurels and stop practicing, relying on our past work to sustain our celebrity. Or we can insulate ourselves from the rest of the world and focus only on what we are already good at, sticking with what works.

I don’t think either of these options are necessarily wise, because it seems to me that the work of this stage is integration. All of us who were specialists are now in an excellent position to become generalists, to take the principles of what we know and have learned and apply them to a wider range of questions and concerns. I think this works on a lot of different levels. There is the obvious level of teaching others, and cultivating other interests aside from our specialties. But the more subtle level is bringing all of who we are to everything we do, in a way that is both impactful and transparent.

There is a Shinto myth I have been working with for a while which for me captures this most beautifully, but I will have to wait for the next post to really go into it. Most books on spirituality or creativity concentrate on developing one’s practice, learning new techniques and gaining more knowledge and experience. It is the transformation of mastery into wisdom that is most neglected, in part I think because it is difficult to talk about. But I’ll give it my best shot.