Category Archives: Spirit

How we manage communion with Spirit as well as community with others. AKA religion.

Dream Incubation: Finding the Way In

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The following is a (long, lightly edited) talk I gave at the International Association for the Study of Dreams Conference in June, 2006. 

Dream Incubation as an Extreme State

A few days ago I realized we would be presenting this panel on the Summer Solstice. Today is Midsummer, the middle point of Summer, the longest day and shortest night of the year. It is one of the two days each year that the earth leans way over on her axis, engaged in a tango with some unseen celestial partner. It is a day of extremes.

I consider this to be good timing for our subject matter, because dream incubation is a very extreme state. It is set apart from the normal routine of waking and sleeping, dreaming and living. It stems from extreme circumstances: we are desperate to know, desperate for change, all our rational options having failed us somehow. We have reached a fork in the road, or have come across an obstacle so great that we are helpless to go on the way we have been.

So we decide to enter the unknown, give over the car keys to a ghost, and ask the dreamworld for help. This is a radical act. It is an impulse which runs counter to what this culture teaches us from our first waking day. Admit we aren’t in control? There are rehab programs for that. We can consult any number of experts whose good advice we may or may not take. But asking a dream for help? That’s going a bit too far.

When I first proposed this paper, my idea was to talk about how dream incubation is a way in to our creative process, and helps us engage with a wisdom greater than our own. But when it came down to actually writing it, I found myself more interested in the ways that incubating dreams bedevils us, throws up roadblocks to understanding, and stymies even the most diligent among us who seek to use it. So if you are looking for something to inspire you to try dream incubation, this might not be it. On the other hand, I hope it will still be entertaining.

Dream incubation, the act of asking for a dream, raises a lot of big questions. Foremost of these, and my own personal favorite, is: When we ask for a dream, to whom or what are we speaking?

First Big Question: How Big is God?

To talk about dreams at this level, we have to talk about cosmology. Dreams have changed a lot since we thought of the universe as an egg sitting on a cosmic nest. In those days, the moon, sun and stars wheeled around the shell of that dome-shaped heaven. Dreams came to us from underground, from the lair of Apollo, the Sun, once he had ridden his blazing chariot across the sky and descended in the evening to the Underworld. The realm of the Gods was almost close enough to touch, and dreams were quite literal and tangible as well. When we asked for a dream, we asked a specific deity and that figure often actually appeared and gave us very specific information on what was to come.

Dream interpretation has changed a lot since those days, too. Nobody that I have read from antiquity ever talked about the different levels of meaning in dreams. Yet today that is practically the gold standard for dream interpretation. Just as there are myriad ways of working with dreams, most Western dreamworkers will tell you that every dream symbol can have multiple interpretations depending on which level of the dream you are looking at. This is a concept borne of a relatively new worldview. It is part of our cosmology, in that it goes hand in hand with the idea that ours is just one solar system among many in this enormous galaxy, one of millions of galaxies in an expanding universe. How could our dreams not hold different levels of meaning, when our minds are in the process of learning to adapt to the enormous consequences of our own knowledge?

Opening ourselves to advice from that kind of life force is a bit daunting. It helps to invoke a power in dreams that is easier to visualize: God. The moon. The Great Spirit. Isis. A dead grandmother. Asking one being for something specific is very reassuring, because while we’re giving up control, we’re giving it up to something whose essence or intentions we generally trust. Yet there is a part of our minds that says, “well, I am asking God, but isn’t God just a form of my Higher Self? Shouldn’t I ask my own psyche, or my intuition, it’s pretty much the same thing. And if I pray to Spirit, am I praying to the creator of heaven and earth, or the creator who made the Milky Way too? How big is God?”

I have a friend, a radical priest, who begins every prayer with the exhortation, “Listen, Multiverse!”

Multiverse! That’s just scary to me. I can’t even comprehend the distances in our own solar system, let alone our galaxy. I can agree to the existence of other galaxies in theory, but there’s no way I can wrap my head around how many galaxies there are in the universe. Then to talk about other universes…well, that’s what chocolate and whiskey are for, when you start thinking in those terms. So for my friend to call in the Multiverse—multiple universes!—as the ultimate intelligent guiding force just puts me into shock. I get numb and uninspired thinking of anything that huge and theoretical. For me, God or Spirit has to get a little more graspable in order for me to ask anything of it in waking or in sleeping.

That is why I think the old Gods will never die, at least for our purposes. All those residents of Olympus and beyond are alive and well because they are so very useful as vessels through which we can comprehend greater universal forces. Most of the time, in dreamwork as in regular life, we walk around trying to put the cap back on that cosmic egg. We want a simple answer in our dreams, something that is readily understood and doesn’t make us work too hard. But it’s too late. Our dreams generally move us toward complexity rather than away from it, which doesn’t mean they don’t also answer our questions. Yet I think they’re very interested in us coming to grips with the enormous universe we’ve found ourselves in, and their often obtuse, non-literal nature reflects that.

Second Big Question: How Do We Know What to Ask?

Of course, many people don’t have the problem of wondering who or what they’re asking, and more power to them. But they may get hung up on the next big question that dream incubation raises: How do we ask for what we want, and how do we know it’s the right thing to ask for? Remember, this is an expanding universe we’re talking to. There is no right way to do things, but there are definitely ways that are more right than others.

For instance, I may want some guidance on my career. Specifically, I may be desperate for a better paying job doing something I love to do. So do I ask the dreamworld for a job? Do I ask it to show me where to find this job? Do I ask if my profession is still right for me? How much do I want to know? How much guidance am I really prepared to accept?

Sometimes we do get very literal, simple, clear instructions in our dreams. In response to my question about finding a great job, I may have a dream that I’m walking down a street I don’t normally walk down, and I meet a friend who shows me into this incredible building which is filled with light. Maybe I take the hint and, following the scent of the dream, I walk down that street today. I might actually meet that friend, and we might go have a cup of coffee. In the course of our conversation it may come up that he knows of a great job opening that I’d be perfect for and he’ll put in a good word for me. So by virtue of acting on that dream suggestion, I find my way into the building filled with light.

This is a nearly literal dream response to a pretty specific question. I would venture to say that it represents the minority of dream responses from incubation, however. More common is the experience of asking for a job and getting a dream about my family, or a troubled relationship. This happened to a friend of mine who incubated a dream on what her next step professionally should be. The dream that came to her referred very strongly to her mother’s recent death, and it was clear from working on the dream that my friend needed to stop worrying about her job and take some time to grieve her mother’s passing. This was a message she was open to hearing, and it was helpful to her that the dream put her professional concerns in the context of everything else that was happening in her life. So if the dream we receive isn’t very clearly referring to our question, one possibility is that there are other things that need our attention before the dream question can be resolved.

Then there are instances where we ask for a dream and the response we get feels a bit like the vending machine just rejected our quarter. We may remember only garbled bits that confound our attempts to describe them. Or the dreams we get may take us on what seem like wild goose chases through strange landscapes, none of which appear related to our initial question. In these instances, it is always useful to work on the dream material even though it is not a simple answer to our question. If we have the patience and commitment, we can gain a lot by reflecting on why we asked the question we did, and which unconscious assumptions or habits the dream might be pointing to as the root of our problem.

Two things are most likely going on here. One is that the dream is placing our concerns in a broader context. The other is that the dream is commenting on the question itself.

As far as I can tell, it is these long, convoluted journeys which have the potential, if we stick with them, for the greatest increase in self-knowledge and personal transformation. Being a very stubborn person, I have of necessity become a fan of these long inner journeys, because sometimes they are the only way to whittle down my resistance to new and/or challenging ideas about who I am and where I’m going. If I keep at it, examining the dreams I get and rethinking my question, posing new questions and recording the results over a period of days or weeks, eventually I will have undergone the internal transformation necessary to solve my problem.

Time in this case is our ally, and our sense of urgency is our greatest stumbling block. Taking more time when time is running out flies in the face of the culture of stress and overwork that we are trying to survive in. But unless the dreams are coming to us as nightmares, which implies some urgency on their part to communicate with us, dreams are basically not in any hurry. They come from a time source that is not concerned with the fact that we have to pay our rent or mortgage by the first of next month. It is more important to the dreams that we figure out what questions are worth asking. They are always looking at the big picture, because they are the big picture.

So if we assume that incubated dreams are responding both to our question and to the nature of our question, we will get a whole lot more out of incubating dreams. Yet it remains a complex process and difficult to accomplish alone, because we’re trying to uncover our own assumptions while being unaware consciously that they exist. It is much easier to work on incubated material with another person or in a group, which brings us to a third problem with incubating dreams: the role of the dreamworker in assisting with dream incubation.

Third Big Question: How Do We Interpret What We Get?

It should be pretty obvious by this point that I am not coming to this subject from a quantitative perspective. Thank heavens I can be anecdotal rather than follow a rigorous methodology. It is not where my strengths or interests lie, but I have immense respect for those who can use the scientific method to learn more about dreams. And frankly, scientific inquiry itself is under fierce attack in this country by forces of fundamentalism, corruption and greed. Talk about wanting to cap that cosmic egg! Therefore, even the most militantly intuitive among us should support our colleagues in the academic and dream research communities.

That being said, being a dreamworker changes how we look at dreams. Our training expands our capacity to view dreams from many angles, so that we can reflect back to the dreamer as many facets of the dream as we can access. Along with training programs, and constantly working on our own and others’ dreams, we also enter a lifelong study led by the dreamworld itself, which sends us the dreams (and dreamers) that we most need to learn from. This continuous cycle of knowledge and reflection is what being a dreamworker is all about.

As dreamworkers, we face a question of alliance that is not always acknowledged, but shows up particularly when dealing with the obtuse, difficult-to-decipher dreams I mentioned earlier. The quandary is: are we on the side of the dream, or the dreamer? Is our goal to get the dreamer to realize certain difficult things presented by the dream, or do we want to focus on levels of meaning that the dreamer can understand?

The problem of alliance arises because of a feature of the human condition: we ask for things without knowing what it is that we are really asking for. There is a difference between what we think we want to know and what we are prepared to learn. In dream incubation, what we ask for is what we think we want to know. But when push comes to shove there are usually some key parts we don’t really want to know or aren’t ready to hear, and our dreams point these out as well.

Of course, central to the excellent IASD Code of Ethics is that each dreamer gets to decide what his or her dream means. Yet there are times when I feel my role is that of a mediator, trying to balance what the dreamer can hear with what I see in the dream. Because dreams come from a greater source than our waking consciousness, eventually they will have their way. But in human terms the changes that dreams demand can be wrenching. In the end, I always err on the side of the dreamer.

To this point, there is one piece of advice I always give to people asking me about dream incubation—and to everyone who uses fervent prayer at all. I suggest they include some sort of caveat in their prayer or question, along the lines of this prayer attributed to Socrates:

All-Knowing Zeus, give me what is best for me. Avert evil from me, though it be the thing I prayed for; and give me the good which from ignorance I do not ask.

What is the Way In? Where Does It Lead?

When I started writing this paper, I assumed that the idea of entering an inner realm through dreams was a generally understood concept. Then I had the good fortune to lead a workshop with a new group of people. We created a collage on the cover of a new dream journal as an aid for remembering dreams, and I led a simple visualization drawing a parallel between this external place where our dreams would be written and the internal space where our dreams come from. One of the women piped up, “what do you mean, ‘internal space’”?

My immediate answer (and thank goodness I had one) was “your heart.” The image of hope and other qualities dwelling in the human heart was immediately understood, and we went on. But for me this was a very important point, and it made me wonder just what I meant by the title for this presentation. What is the way in? Where is “In”, and why would we want to go there?

One of the attractions and paradoxes of dream incubation is that we are taking action in order to be still, and listen. It requires both intention and patience, like the best of all spiritual practices, and its rewards come when we are able to stay in that quiet place, listening, until something—let’s call it a dream—arises from somewhere else. That somewhere else is the “In” I am talking about. At the risk of alienating people who don’t like to view these things in religious terms, that still point is where we experience communion with the Divine. We can also call it the mythic realm, Dreamtime, the collective unconscious.

For me, dream incubation is a process that helps me know myself, and helps me understand and accept what is going on in my waking life. It is a process of putting dreams at the center of our spiritual life, through a ritual with the act of dreaming at its core. So for those of us who have eclectic tastes in ritual and spirituality, it provides a wonderful anchor for our observances.

And yet we don’t have to incubate a single dream to feel the connection and sanctity that a spiritual or creative practice affords. Every night, without any extra effort on our part, our minds dream as a way to funnel material from that inner still point out to our conscious awareness. Whether we pay attention or not, that built-in process of reflecting on and integrating our experience goes on as long as we are alive. We can lead perfectly satisfying, successful lives without worrying for one moment about where our dreams come from or whether that might be a nice place to visit.

So why would anyone bother adding complexity to their life by incubating dreams? The simplest answer is that sometimes our dreams tell us to. There is a very subversive element to dreams, they are always searching for ways to complicate our understanding of who we are and where we’re going. Maybe someday they will even convince me that speaking to the Multiverse might be a useful practice, but I certainly hope not.

In spite of all the difficulties inherent in incubating dreams, I have found it to be an immensely insightful, rewarding practice. I will probably continue incubating dreams and finding new ways of interpreting them for a long time to come. I highly recommend trying it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Bullying, Caretaking and Community

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And there is no peace, no true release
No secret place to crawl
And there is no rest for the ones God blessed
And he blessed you best of all.
—”King of Bohemia,” by Richard Thompson

By happy coincidence, this song lyric allows me to continue from my last post on those among us who are many-skilled, while helping me frame an assortment of thoughts I have been tossing around for a few weeks now.

Last month I wrote, “As a society, we cope uneasily with the fact that gifts and talents are not evenly distributed among the population.” Seeing someone in action who is incredibly talented can be inspiring, and it can also make us feel acutely our comparative lack of that talent or skill.

Because they are so good at some stuff, we often build up as leaders those who are gifted—especially if what they are good at includes speaking, writing or performance. Sometimes they even become spokespeople for entire communities formed around their ideas and aspirations. This is especially true in spiritual communities, where all too often the emotional release of a great performance is mistaken for genuine enlightenment or transformation. In this game, the ones with the most charisma usually win.

And what do they win? Power. We listen to them, we defer to their opinions, we assume they are right until we are forced to disagree with them—often through painful experience. Meanwhile, we trust them to guide us and keep the community’s well-being foremost in their minds as they go about leading things.

But being comfortable with power has very little to do with being a good leader. And sometimes those who like the power we’ve given them feel the most trapped by the responsibilities of actual leadership. One could almost say victimized.

Hearing these Richard Thompson lyrics in the car the other day reminded me how those moments feel. You give it your all, and still you get criticized. Blamed when things go wrong, sneered at by those who used to hang on your every word. Every parent knows this feeling—and if you haven’t felt it yet, just wait. :)

So much depends on exactly how we rise from this spot. Our response at this precise moment determines whether we truly are leaders, or just despots. If we lash out because we are tired, or pissed, or had a bad day, or even if we truly feel that nobody should ever question us, we have set in motion a bullying/caretaking dynamic from which our community may never recover.

Here’s how the bullying/caretaking game goes: Someone realizes that the person at the top isn’t leading well, and says so. The leader retaliates by participating (or in some cases being the instigator) in trashing the person who speaks out. Policy issues are re-framed as personality clashes, with the whistle-blower now characterized as gunning for one of the leader’s favored deputies rather than voicing a legitimate concern. The pile-on continues until the person who originally spoke out is either bullied into silence or driven out.

This is old news to anyone who’s read my book on Reclaiming, a community where I have watched this dynamic play out more than once. I’m kind of tired of thinking about it, and I’m definitely tired of writing about it. But when I heard about the latest kerfuffle, what got me interested enough to write again was the other side of the bullying/caretaking equation: the caretakers.

Caretakers are the peacemakers in the group. They strive to help everyone get along, they tend to avoid conflict, and they are so aligned with the group’s ideals that they will put up with a significant amount of less-than-ideal behavior to get to the good parts again. Usually they do a lot of volunteer work to keep community events running smoothly. They often have great leadership skills but may be more comfortable in a secondary role, so are happy to cede the limelight to the natural performers.

Caretakers find support and friendship in the group, and this benefit usually trumps their periodic misgivings. But caretakers are not completely altruistic. So long as they stay peacekeepers while others get trashed, they do accrue some power without having ultimate responsibility to lead.

And the benefits of the role can be significant. If your livelihood is dependent on the clients or students you gain from the group, why would you risk that income source to speak out? What could possibly compel you to try to change the group dynamic, if failure meant financial struggle or open conflict with your friends?

It is quite possible to be a caretaker until you are financially stable enough, or have a strong enough support network outside the group, to leave. Or, if you live far enough away from the epicenter, it may require only occasional gymnastics to stay out of the fray while building your network at a safe distance.

Changing the DNA of an established community is a daunting task. Because each role is dependent on the other, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to reverse the cycle. Leaders who don’t see the harm in lashing out have to actually listen, and begin the hard inner work of changing their patterned responses. Caretakers have to step out of their comfort zones and use their power to stop the cycle in spite of the personal risks.

Or, nothing can change. Caretakers will keep things running, while a new crop of gifted people sees the model of leadership in place and figures their performance skills are up to the job. Sadly, no one is there to teach them otherwise.

Richard Thompson the Many-Skilled

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Last winter I had the great pleasure of seeing Richard Thompson again in concert. He is one of my favorite musicians and it had been a few years since I saw him last, so I was really happy to have heard about the show in time to get tickets.

What made it Richard Thompson photo by Joe Putrockeven more special is that I brought along two friends who had never heard him play before. These two men are fans of all the great guitarists of our era, but they’d never considered Richard Thompson to be among them. To them, he was a fringe name in a field of much more important players. But I raved about his playing and they (mostly) trust my judgment, so off we went.

All it took was the opening song for both of them to change their minds completely. Thompson was in fine form, electrifying from the first notes, and as the last chord faded one friend leaned over and said, “Too bad he’s having an off night.”

Later, my other friend said that it ws the best live show he’d ever seen. He was raised in a musical family and has been going to concerts since he was a boy, so at first I didn’t know whether he was being serious. But he went on, describing the many things that Richard Thompson does brilliantly: his virtuosic guitar work, with traditional ballads, obscure dance music forms, and hard-driving rock; his songwriting, which spans every emotional tone and genre with biting lyrics and beautiful melodies; his voice, which is completely distinctive and suits his songs perfectly; and most especially, his dynamic stage presence as a performer.

As he rattled off his list, I thought of the story of the Celtic God Lugh. Lugh led the Tuatha De Danaan to victory in the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, and is the father of Cúchulainn, the great Irish hero. But my favorite story is of how he gained entry to the court of Tara before the battle.

Lugh knocked at the door and was challenged by the doorkeeper, who asked him what service he had to offer the king. Lugh declares that he is a skilled wright, to which the doorkeeeper replies that the king already has one of those.

In a highly ritualized exchange, Lugh then goes down the list of things he excels at: he is a smith, a champion, a swordsman, a harpist, a hero, a poet and historian, a sorcer, a craftsman. Every time, the doorkeeper refuses him entry because the king already has someone who excels at each skill.

Finally, Lugh asks if the king has one person who does all of those things. The doorkeeper has to admit that there is no one in Tara who is a master of all skills, and he opens the door for Lugh.

As a society, we cope uneasily with the fact that gifts and talents are not evenly distributed among the population. It is relatively easy to admire those who excel at just one or two things, because we understand where they fit in the social fabric. Among musicians, Jeff Beck is a great guitarist; Yo-Yo Ma is a virtuoso cellist; Leonard Cohen is a great songwriter; Bruce Springsteen is a great performer.

We find it harder to accept those who have developed multiple talents into finely-honed skills, because the combination is so rare. Someone like Richard Thompson, who excels at so many things, may find it hard to achieve the recognition he deserves, because he is not just one thing.

Or at least, that is how I make sense of the fact that Richard Thompson is not more well-known. Being a Son of Lugh is not the easy road to recognition. Incidentally, to my friend’s list of things that Thompson excels at, I would add his gift for bringing myth to life. Fairport Convention was, after all, instrumental in popularizing Celtic folk songs like the Ballad of Tam Lin, reviving them with an electric sound.

You can hear that vein of bringing new life to old material in Thompson’s playing even now. That is, if you have heard him play live. And if you haven’t, what on earth are you waiting for?

Thoughts on Spirituality, Politics and Values

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This post is the happy intersection of something I already wanted to write, combined with this month’s annual Pagan Values blog-fest-o-rama. Joni Mitchell, one of my personal songwriting heroes, has refused more than once to be part of compilations and tours of “women artists” or “women singer-songwriters,” maintaining that she is an artist first, then a woman. I feel the same way about this event, though I understand the reasoning behind it.

I am a big believer in just being good at what you do, whether it is parenting or writing, art or politics. Thinking of the greater good, being able to sacrifice for others but also knowing when to put yourself first—all are valuable and necessary. I value education, clarity, decency, aspiration. To me these are fundamentally human attributes, identifiable (and also lacking) in people of every creed and religion.

But I am not here to quibble. Instead, I want to post the thoughts I shared last month at the Pagan Alliance Festival in Berkeley. The Alliance kindly asked me to speak on the topic of “paradigm shift,” so I decided to talk about an idea I used to value, but don’t anymore. What follows is an edited version of that speech:

This year’s theme is “paradigm shift,” so I thought I would talk about my own recent paradigm shift around spirituality and politics. Reclaiming’s ideal of unifying spirituality and politics is something I lived and breathed starting in the early ’80s. But that has shifted over the past several years, and I want to explain why.

The best place to begin is with James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior from 1981 to 83. James Watt was awful, one of the worst cabinet members in U.S. history. He pursued terrible environmental policies, and he seethed with hatred toward environmentalists. Watt was also an evangelical Christian who believed in the “end times,” and only wanted to assure that the earth’s resources held out till Christ returned. To the end, he was engaged primarily in a religious war.

After his craziness got him kicked out of the Dept. of Interior, someone interviewed James Watt and asked what his biggest fear was about environmentalists. And he said, “that they’re all secretly pagan.” That comment was a huge in-joke for me and all my friends, because of course we WERE secretly (or not so secretly) pagan.

We were environmentalists for many sound economic and political reasons, but at the core we were horrified at the abuse of the earth’s resources, and wanted to restore the spirits of the wild to the land. We wanted to protect the earth, and to do that we had to overthrow the evangelical Christian worldview. James Watt provided an excellent target, and so we built our pagan identity around opposition to him and people like him.

But oppositional identities are tricky things to control once they get started, and recent events give us a timely opportunity to do some course correction of our own before things get out of hand. James Watt was a true believer, and in that sense he is the forerunner of everyone we see on the far right rising to political power in the states and nationally.

We’ve seen blatant efforts to roll back voting rights, women’s health care, fair wages, due process and the right to organize. The fight is on to destroy the separation of church and state in this country. This is horrifying. If we don’t vote and get involved politically, our country could very quickly revert to an oppressive theocracy, just like back in Salem in the 17th century.

But I am grateful that we can now see their goals so clearly, because it is this view down into the abyss that has caused me to change how I feel about mixing spirit and politics. In the religious right, we can see the shadow of what we might become if the shoe were on the other foot.

What do I mean by this? Zealotry begins with a deep sense of frustration at the slow pace of change. That urgency, combined with strong religious beliefs, means that we turn to a sympathetic deity or presiding force to intercede in human affairs. And of course, because our deity is sympathetic it seems to validate even our most extreme views. We have now created a closed loop of influence, within which we feel increasingly justified and self-righteous about our cause.

One thing I didn’t understand when I was young is that broad cultural change happens very, very slowly. Getting involved with charismatic traditions like Reclaiming and Feri felt like having the inside track to change, and a greater collective ability to affect things. But the closed loops I experienced encouraged emotionality and discouraged analysis and debate. The more radical and inspiring the leaders, and the more doe-eyed the sycophants or initiates, the more likely that the group’s tactics will be misguided at best, and at worst potentially destructive to the very people and causes they support.

It is easy to see the shadow of our own actions and beliefs magnified a hundred-fold in the religious right today. I am so very grateful that radical activist pagans have never (yet?) been bankrolled by eccentric billionaires and thus allowed to create more harm than good in a supposedly pluralistic society. It would be hard not to see all that money and influence as confirmation that God/dess was on our side, and that now was our time to strike out against the enemies of Gaia, or any other sympathetic deity of our choice.

Fighting a religious war is no way to maintain a democracy. It’s not even a great way to maintain a religion. The challenge for pagans, today and over the long haul, is to use our spiritual beliefs to galvanize us to action, but to stay focused on the goal: a country in which politics and spirituality are NOT unified. Where the separation of church and state is intact, and everyone’s basic civil rights are valued and protected.

In closing, here is what I now believe about spirit and politics:

Things that matter most require long fights. In those fights the air, fire, water, and earth will support us. Community will ground us. But we need to hold our own center. So check yourself. In your heart, do you carry the flame of the true believer? If so, is there also space there for others to believe differently?

May our hearts be large enough to hold multiple possibilities of connection to Spirit, and let there also be space to listen and speak clearly; to learn from others; to be decent neighbors, citizens, parents, and friends; and through the long struggle, to hold fast to our aspirations of a more just society for all.

Small Brown Seed

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What a Spring it has been! I welcomed in May Day along with many old friends at a lovely handfasting in Tilden Park this past weekend. I’ve known Amie Miller since she was about 13, when I used to go to her parents’ home in San Francisco to work on the Reclaiming Newsletter. Amie was my kids’ first babysitter, and Bowen’s loud proclamations during her coming of age ritual are the stuff of community legend. Seeing Amie and Juliana looking so poised and lovely in their 30s was a real treat, as was singing with Evelie again and enjoying the gorgeous Berkeley hills.

I’ve been playing more music lately—not a lot, but my guitar is now out of its case and I’m starting to get callouses back on my fingers. Along with playing I’ve been thinking about finishing lots of half-written songs, and maybe putting out another album of my own music.

Music just seems to be in the air lately, because this morning George sent me an email asking whether I still had the recording of “Small Brown Seed” I’d made several years ago, for one of the Reclaiming CDs. I did not write “Small Brown Seed,” but contacted its author Maggie Shollenberger several years ago and got her permission to record it.

I first heard this chant at Pantheacon, when I learned it in order to teach it and lead the singing during a ritual. The song was easy for everyone to learn, and built up a beautiful, harmonious energy during the spiral dance. Thanks again to Maggie for her song. It seems the perfect season to share it more widely.

On Turning Fifty

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This is my year of gratitude. Not that I don’t already feel and express gratitude regularly, but this weekend—my 50th birthday weekend—made me realize that I need to focus for a full year on just being grateful.

I made this commitment after waking up too early this morning, a fairly regular occurrence unfortunately. My habit for those pre-dawn hours is to stay lying down, and search for a meditative focus to calm and center myself. Falling back to sleep is not my goal, though it sometimes happens. Rather, I want to make use of the liminal state to soothe any worry or anxiety that has me in its grip.

This morning in meditation I thought about my rich and wonderful birthday celebrations. For days I have been surrounded by humor, warmth, friendship and love, being toasted and fêted in such grand style it has been hard to take it all in. This morning I was able to sort out some of what has been going on for me under the surface. Overwhelmingly, I had the sense of long cycles being completed, and a feeling of grace at their fulfillment.

One cycle began soon after I left home as a teenager. I felt strongly that I wanted to have three children by the time I turned 30, so that by 50 I would be done raising them. This plan had its flaws of course, but it was also a profound sacrifice of my youth and freedom that I was willing to make. I wanted plenty of time to enjoy having grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and felt somehow that I wouldn’t find my vocation till later in life anyway, so spending my early years raising kids seemed to make sense.

As I sat surrounded by old friends yesterday, many of whom have known me since those early days, it slowly dawned on me that I really have completed that huge act of manifesting. My children are grown and pretty much on their own. I have my vocation, and my freedom. At fifty, a whole new life has begun.

The other cycle started more recently, and was marked by a big dream in early October, 2005. This was an extremely difficult time in my life. Just three weeks before, I had left my marriage of 20+ years after months of turmoil, and moved out to the coast. I knew by then what I wanted my career to be, but it was nowhere near developed enough to support me and my teenage daughters. Meanwhile, every day was filled with more painful revelations of just how bad my relationship had become. Everything behind me lay in ruins, and I could not see the road ahead.

Then I had the Bridge Dream:

I am approaching a toll booth at night, and scrounging in my wallet for the two dollar toll. I hand the fee to the attendant, and she hands me back a million dollars change! I hand it back, saying, “But I gave you exact change.” She says, “No, this is your change.” “A million dollars change? This is my lucky day!!!” I think as I drive joyfully off into the darkness.

A dream like this needs little explanation. Its clarity and simplicity meant that I could tell it to anyone and find instant agreement that ending my marriage and moving on was absolutely the best course of action. I told the dream to a group of Jungian friends, asking if they could see a downside to the dream. They were mostly silent, but one pointed out that energetically the distance between $2 and $1,000,000 was so vast that I should guard against exhaustion. Truer words were never spoken.

I have leaned on that dream for reassurance, trusting its truth when I didn’t yet trust my own. Yesterday, as I drove over the bridge on the way home from San Francisco, I felt in my bones that the Bridge Dream’s transformative process in my life is also complete. Perhaps there will be a moment when someone literally hands me a million dollars, but short of that I do feel a million times more alive, and more myself, than I did seven years ago.

The dream has seen me through some very low spots and helped me climb back up, and it has given me the clarity and compassion to guide others through their own dark nights of transformation. For this, I will spend an entire year in gratitude. I have my health, my life, my family, my work, my home, and a wonderful, shimmering circle of friends and loved ones. I feel truly blessed.

An eBook Rises from the Bathwater

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When I started the Blog o’ Gnosis in 2005, I considered it a way to attract a publisher for my post-Circle Round books, the first part of building my “author platform.” Luckily for me this move coincided with the complete downfall of the publishing industry, and none of the three books I pitched over the next three years were picked up by any publisher, large or small.

If I had been able to sell a book proposal in 2005, 2006, or even 2007, chances are that I never would have written the long series of posts about Reclaiming that make up my latest ebook, The Baby and the Bathwater: What I learned about spirituality, magic, community, ecstasy and power from 25 years in Reclaiming. It was from commenters on this blog that I realized that there was a story in these posts that went beyond my efforts to make sense of personal experiences, and that writing about it might help more people than just myself. The ebook is made up of several posts I wrote here about Reclaiming over a period of four years, updated and with a new introduction that gives some backstory and puts them all into context.

If I had gotten a publishing contract for one of those early books, I also would not have followed so closely the rise of ebooks and self-publishing, and most importantly the shift in what is considered publishable material. Back in 2005, no publisher would consider printing anything that had been previously posted on a blog. Blogs were considered okay for marketing, but never for writing actual book content. This month, comedian Steve Martin is publishing a book of his previously tweeted tweets. Or rather, I should say that Steve Martin’s huge publisher Grand Central is releasing his book of tweets, which are no less funny for having been published first on Twitter. It’s a whole new world.

My professional life has become much more focused on publishing, with the new Authors Go Public meetups that my friend Suzanna and I are conjuring up in the Bay Area. On April 10, I will be speaking about my self-publishing journey, and how blogging has changed the power dynamics in Reclaiming and other organizations more than meetings or gatherings ever could.

Meanwhile, The Baby and the Bathwater is available here in pdf format. If you like the book, please help spread the word by telling your friends to buy it, and posting reviews on Amazon, the iBookstore, or the Nook store. (It will be available on Kobo soon.) If you are a blogger or podcaster yourself and would like to interview me about the book, I would be delighted.

Now that this book is launched, I will continue to use the Blog o’ Gnosis to develop material for future books. I definitely want to keep working with the California Cosmology idea, and will be writing more humorous memoir pieces as well. Meanwhile, you can read more of my thoughts on publishing, marketing and social media for authors here, and see all my stuff for sale at the newly revamped Serpentine Music & Media.

One thing that hasn’t changed since 2005 is the amount of effort it takes for authors to sell books. I have been doing this for a while, and I’m still learning how to navigate the landscape, how to engage with readers and sell the old stuff while writing the new stuff and making a living meanwhile. I am more excited than ever about what is possible, and know now from my own experience that it really can work. Here’s to all of us taking our empowered, writing selves, and going public with what we know, and the wisdom we have to share.

An Eye in the Storm: Victor Anderson’s Memorial

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I wrote this piece shortly after Victor Anderson’s death, in October 2001. I am reprinting it here because Victor’s name came up in conversation with a friend this morning, and I realized that I want the story of my experience at his memorial to be available to readers here as well.

Things just hadn’t been smooth ever since September 11th. Schedules were thrown into a whirlwind, individual intentions and goals suddenly disappeared into an abyss as larger issues came into sharp focus. So I wasn’t really surprised when, just as I thought I had a free Monday to start picking up the scattered threads of my work, I got Max’s email announcing plans for Victor’s memorial on my first unencumbered work day.

Though I had only met Victor twice, I knew it was important to pay my respects on his passing. When my circle had gone down to spend afternoons with Victor and Cora I had been captivated by his enigmatic presence, and understood the stature he had achieved as a teacher and a shaman. At the same time, he rubbed me the wrong way, and eventually I found myself getting up to help Cora in the kitchen as Victor went on weaving his sorcerer’s threads of world history, comparative religion, past lives, and magic in the living room. Still, he was too important a figure in the Feri tradition of the Bay Area, and also in the Reclaiming community, which had been my community for nearly 20 years, for me not to go if I was able.

I drove down from Sebastopol, worrying about traffic and whether I’d make it to Hayward on time. Then I reminded myself that the whole day was given over to ritual time, and the only thing to do was relax and let things happen. Macha and Anna Korn helped by coming along for the ride, so I could catch up with friends during the drive. We pulled into the Chapel of the Chimes in good time, as a light rain spattered the windshield.

There is something very magical, and primal, about memorial services. More than anything else the memorial helps us make the transition between thinking of a person as living and thinking of them as dead. But to me the distinction is not as clear cut: there is death in being alive, and a life after death that is longed for like a release from an arduous task. At the same time, the presence of a once living body that is now disintegrating is an unassailable fact that demands from each of us a transformation of our relationship to the person who is no longer there.

Memorials also help the departing soul orient to the spirit world, and make the final break from its body. My experience that day was that Victor was completely conscious and aware of everything that went on at his memorial. I felt a deep sense of rightness when his son bowed before the casket, acknowledging the living presence of his father. Perhaps Victor was so strongly present in the room because even as a man he dwelled in the spirit world more often than not. My heart went out to Cora, who looked so frail and grief-stricken, and for whom the occasion was clearly far more than a time to philosophize.

Victor’s spirit was so powerful, and palpable, that I wondered whether the memorial would actually help him depart in any way. Then Sean Folsom began playing Amazing Grace on the bagpipes, and anyone in the room who was not yet in tears soon got there. The energy in the room shifted, as the sound of the pipes seemed to infuse every molecule with a more intense vibration. Riding the waves of power being generated as the piper walked to the altar and back, Victor’s spirit washed over us as he began to separate from all the material objects in the room—his body, the flowers, the candles, the people—and fly out the open door, into the world beyond.

There is no easy transition between being witness to such an event and finding oneself in a parking lot in Hayward, amongst probably the largest crowd of Feri folk ever peaceably assembled. There were people there I knew and loved, many I didn’t know, and some people I’d only known through email. Conscious of the long ride home through the gathering rush hour, and partly because of the awkwardness of the occasion, I didn’t want to stay long.

It was on the drive north that the storm really got started. An occasional sprinkling gave way to darker clouds and distant rumblings. Heading across the bridge to San Rafael, it was raining steadily, and bolts of lightning crackled from the clouds to the dry earth. In California, the first rain of the season is always an important event, but this was no ordinary storm. We don’t get thunderstorms that often, particularly ones that cover as vast an area as this one did. The clouds were high and dark, and the sky for miles around looked like a giant blackboard. The sun was sinking behind the hills, but here and there it shone through and bathed us in light as the rain came down and lightning struck all around. The bolts were clearly visible streaks like hieroglyphs against the sky, sometimes in rapid succession in the exact same shape, sometimes dancing all across the horizon.

I remembered someone that day mentioning that Victor had been born in a storm. As I drove through Petaluma, thinking about his teachings and my conflicted feelings over them, the setting sun came through under the edge of the clouds, right on the horizon. Sandwiched between dark hills and dark sky, it looked for all the world like an eye in the storm. I thought it was Victor, sight returned on a greater scale, checking to see who was paying attention. Since I apparently was, I started talking to him, acknowledging his prowess in leaving in so strong a storm.

I wished him well on his journey, and also prayed that the days of vengeance and vendetta in the name of religion were passing away just like his life, just like the storm. That is the place where I have to part company with Victor’s teachings, and I told him so. Many at his memorial said that he chose this time to cross over in order to work his influence on the other side. Given the opportunity to speak to him in that final moment, it was important for me to put in a plug for non-violence, which I believe to be the highest spiritual calling. I have no idea how his power will be felt now that he has passed on, but that day I prayed it would be for the greatest good.

Finally, as I climbed out of the Petaluma valley and the horizon receded from my sight, I found myself reciting the Buddhist prayer over and over: may all beings be happy, may all beings be happy. I feel privileged to have known him and Cora, however briefly, and am very glad to have made it to his memorial. I won’t soon forget how that bagpipe gathered Victor’s spirit and all our prayers and hurled them out beyond the veil, nor will I forget meeting him eye to eye, and heart to heart, as he left on the rays of the setting sun.

From Samhain to Solstice

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It feels like it’s time to take down the Day of the Dead altar. I am not aware of any hard and fast rule about this, but just last night as I added more wood to the fire and glanced up at the mantle, I had the distinct impression that things had to change.

The novenas that Deborah made need to be put away, those with pictures of George Carlin and Abbie Hoffman packed side by side with the ones honoring my father and uncle. The ancestor shrine I constructed from bits and pieces of Raven Moonshadow’s belongings will be as well, along with pictures of my beloved nephew Alex, my old boyfriend Steve, my good friend Barbara, and so many others.

Maybe there is no clear dividing line in home decor, when the colors of Samhain pass away and those of Winter Solstice deck the halls. Maybe I am simply reacting against the emotional burden of having my nephew’s picture prominent in the living room, a daily reminder that I will no longer see him change and grow with the seasons. Maybe I need to bring my thoughts back to the living: my niece’s baby who has had a tumultuous year; my daughter the newly-minted college freshman; my ailing mother.

Whatever the reason, I find myself looking forward to decorating with colored lights, bringing in fragrant fir boughs and branches of bright red berries, laying out a runner of rich jewel tones across the dining room table. This will not be a year when I procrastinate and keep the house bare until minutes before the Solstice. I may even get out the colored lights to hang the moment I return from Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow in Oakland.

I have written before about the evocative beauty of the winter sky here on the coast. The night is an echo chamber for the sea, carrying the thundering sound of surf and a fine salty mist over the dunes and into the village. It is a stillness that quivers with moisture, a silence that cradles sound.

For the last six years, this vast hall of night has cradled me as well. I love it here more than anywhere else I have ever lived, particularly in the winter months. I love how we can see the storms swirl in from across the Pacific, and how we are also the first ones in the sun after the storms have passed. I see the light break through low on the horizon well before the rain stops, and hours before those living inland ever feel its rays.

My friends have been taking turns this fall, gingerly asking me how I’m coping with an empty nest. I hope they are surprised rather than alarmed when I break out into a wide grin and tell them I love it. Emptiness does not equal sadness to me but rather spaciousness, clarity, calm. I love my children fiercely, look forward to their visits, and thoroughly enjoy them while they’re here. And then they leave, the house reverts to stillness, and I can see again the headlands to the west, the crisp blue outline of Pt. Reyes to the south, and above and all around me, the endless sky.

Standing in Spirit – Centeredness Through Change

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I love my work as a consultant on digital publishing and social media. It’s fun, I’m good at it, and it allows me time to write and keep up my radio show. Still, I was wondering when I’d get back into teaching, my other love. Now, it seems, is the time.

In 1999 I went back to school for a Doctor of Ministry degree, as a way to step back from all the teaching I’d been doing and reflect on what I’d learned and what I still believed. My dissertation was about women, power and leadership, with insights gleaned from dreamwork, Goddess spirituality, and the principles I’d learned while earning a black belt in aikido. I had seen a lot of examples of how not to hold power, and was convinced that it was possible to do it better, or at least avoid the most egregious errors I’d seen. In my dissertation, I started developing ideas on how to get there.

After graduating in 2003 I wrote a book proposal based on that material, and tried for several years to get it published. (I hope to publish it as an ebook this year.) Meanwhile, a friend asked me if I could teach what I was writing about—namely, how to stay relatively centered while holding authority and working well with others. The outcome was Standing in Spirit, a year-long training and transformative process to deepen personal presence while increasing outward effectiveness.

Leading the Standing in Spirit training for the first time was an amazing experience, and made me feel enthusiastic about teaching again. Then my father died, the economy tanked, and I had to stay focused on other things for a while.

But now it’s a new day, and it feels like a good time to start teaching again. I will be doing dreamwork in Chicago in May, teaching in Portland in July, and in June I am offering a daylong version of Standing in Spirit here in Bodega Bay, for anyone who might be interested. The full day is $50, and will only be open to 10 people.

You can see my full calendar of events here, sign up at the Standing in Spirit Facebook page, and even join my monthly dream group. Getting back into teaching feels great. But having something I’m really excited to teach—that’s the best.