Celebrating Beltane down under

Gundestrup Cauldron, showing Celtic horned god Cernunnos with torc, Denmark, c100 BC. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Gundestrup Cauldron, showing Celtic horned god Cernunnos with torc, Denmark, c100 BC. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

It is Beltane here in the Southern Hemisphere and sometimes it is hard to see how Australians celebrate this wild time of exploding fertility and the fullness of spring, but we do. You won’t see may poles in many places (unless it is a re-enactment group), and you won’t see Beltane mentioned openly or officially, but we celebrate it. You can’t help but feel the sap rise inside you at this time of year, the urge to connect, renew and (if you still have it in you) ‘fertilise your fields’. Yes, I’m being a little coy about sex there, you’ll see why in a little bit.

Beltane is a sexy time of year. We don’t really go in for dancing naked around a fire – we’re a bit too “occupational safety” minded for that kind of thing, plus we’re touchy about setting off fires, but the partying and fertility rites are here to stay and well out in the open.

Increasingly Australians are deciding to celebrate Halloween. It can be confusing to those of us who honour the wheel of the year and downright frustrating too. However, I’ve realised that there’s a nuance that I’ve been missing. Aussies don’t have many shared rituals – as a multicultural nation of people with diverse and or largely (officially) secular backgrounds, we have a magpie habit of comfortably picking only what we like from things and using it to suit our needs. I think the reason we’re appropriating Halloween is simply because it is a well timed excuse for a dress-up party, right at that time of year when we feel like getting sexy. It is also popular because it is suitable for kids to participate, unlike our major, national event, The Melbourne Cup.

That’s right, “The race that stops a nation” is confusing as a national ritual until you realise that it a default, secular, authorised outlet for Beltane celebrations and energy. All around the country, on a single day, all the normal rules are off. You’re expected to gamble, you’re allowed/ encouraged to drink booze (even at work!), you’re expected to leave your normal inhibitions at home in a box for the day. Punters and partiers dress up and then get really drunk on enormous amounts of alcohol. They have a great time. Loads of people have fun. The horses, not so much. There’s plenty of passed out people, or staggering, puking people and (here’s why I was being coy earlier) eyewitness reports of couples ‘fertilising their fields’ on the track and in the car park by the end of the day. Of course, none of this is mandatory. Some people are able just to enjoy a special lunch. My point is not *gasp* people getting messy, it is that this is a normal working day. A Tuesday.

There is nothing special about this race compared to any of the other major race days throughout the spring carnival. Over time, it was this race that grew, that got a little momentum and here we are with something to hang our Beltane on. Don’t go in for horse racing? No worries, hook into the “Halloween” excuse for a party. Don’t like monsters? Have a BBQ, celebrate your wedding anniversary or one of your friend’s birthdays (November is so conveniently located months after the Australia Day and Valentine’s Day rituals to supply an endless number of birthdays to enjoy.

How ever you prefer it, enjoy your Beltane this weekend.

I love and hate a sunburnt country

Dorothea MacKellarI have been lucky enough to travel to the other side of the world and visit the ‘home country’ (as it was still being called when I was little). I’d always aspired to this cultural ‘homecoming’  in an unconscious way due to a steady childhood diet of English culture, books, stories, myths, music and television. Badges, foxes and the Queen imbued the world that was valued, but not the world that I inhabited. The world I lived in had bushfires, snakes and Christmas in summers so hot you could burst your skin if you got badly sunburnt. It was confusing.
So I went to England to see the Queen, her Tower, and the Thames. I went to Bath and Stonehenge too as well as Stratford on Avon. It was gorgeous and charming. Every day I was excited to see visit and touch another sacred idea of home. The more I saw, the more I wanted to consume. Tintagel, Cornwall, the Lakes District, Portsmouth, Sussex, Sherwood Forrest all the places and names and stories, I wanted to bring them all to life inside of me, and yet … I was homesick.

I didn’t understand the food, the humour, even the greetings. Oak trees were a revelation to me, but the colours all looked too bright and even soft. It was only in England that I began to truly understand what it is to be Australian, to yearn for a big sky. As is so often the case, a writer had been there before me, and put my feelings so well into their own words.

The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes.
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins,
Strong love of grey-blue distance
Brown streams and soft dim skies
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

Those are the words of Dorothea Mackellar OBE, the opening stanza of her famous poem. Like me, she was a third generation Australian, grown up with stories of the “home countries” and indeed she wrote this poem while visiting England and feeling homesick (source).

I didn’t know this stanza at the time, but I have often reflected on it since. There are in fact six stunning stanzas to this beautiful poem, which it is not currently in vogue to love, as I unashamedly do. But I also hate it, as I sometimes hate the way our country is so very hard to live with. I’m watching the footage on the television of the State of Victoria burning, and I’m feeling terror flood my body. I can hear the popping of the oils in the gums and smell the heavy smoke rushing ahead of the roaring fire front. I feel for the people fleeing their houses, with pets and livestock if they have the time, treasured photos and documents, or just their lives if the wind makes an unexpected push. Next week it could be our neighbours, or Queensland. People wonder at our humour when the farmers of the west can say, “Not much here to burn since the four years of drought.”

I can’t laugh. Grief overtakes me. Floods may come soon after, or the rains may not come for years yet, as El Nino grows in strength here and sends La Nina to Argentina.

Sometimes I hear city people say “Why do they live there if they know it is a bushfire zone?” and it is a reasonable question for all those millions of Australians who’ve always lived in suburbs or the cities. But not for those who love those ‘far horizons’ that you get in the bush. If you’ve lived in the country, then the odds are that the country lives on in you. We’ve made these nests of humans along the coasts where cyclones and storms might be the seasonal threats and when they pass through the locals shrug and say “It is just part of life, part of living here.” They would never leave either. They love the ‘jewel-sea’. Why does this love hurt? It is love, we all chose to stay – far though we may roam.

Sunburnt and happy

Australians like to travel, we all have stories to flesh out and names to bring to life in the far distant lands. We are the long-haul hard-core travellers. It is long hours to even our nearest neighbours. Nearly all of us come back here, gratefully, to this place with the contradictions that form us and the skies we miss and the beaches for endless holidays. We boast of our sunburn and deadly animals, much as we work hard to avoid them all at any cost. Sometimes I think the bush ballads are too honest now for our desire to be sophisticated and urbane. I am torn between the unendurable summers and their suffering and the longing I have when I’m gone. I envy Dorothea the clarity of her vision, and the resilience of her spirit in facing a lifetime without air-conditioning!

I’m a long way from resolving my passionate confusion over this country and even my relationship with this poem. I will grieve for our brothers and sisters in Victoria who face such hardship this week, and support them when the times comes to rebuild as we all know and trust that we will do for each other here. Because one thing is always true in Australia, this is not a land tamed by humans, it is not domesticated. Slowly, every generation, it seeps into our souls ever further and we are trained to live with it, we are the ones who must learn her long and secret ways. We are stubborn, but she is eternal. I may well spend many years trying to hear that gum-soft whisperof her love. For now we shall leave the last words to Dorothea (listen to her recite the poem).

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land –
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand –
Though earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.
Image source.

Rough seas leave me stormwrecked

stormwreckedEvans used to say “Rough seas make for seasoned sailors” and give a little whistle when the new crew went that grey-green and ran for the head. He was forever telling others to look on the bright side of scurvy, no rum and being stormwrecked a long way out to sea. I almost wish he’d made it through just so I  could see how he’d whistle now.

But Evans is long gone, he went in the first days, back when our world became stillness. Those weeks of glazed water and silent sails that weakened us all. Nothing has gone right since we took on the new cargo. Clouds hang low on the horizon even now that we’re on our knees, clinging onto what’s left of the mast and muttering a prayer to anyone we think will listen.

Once we cheered when the first breeze returned. By the time we realised the breeze was a wind sent from the depths of never and would build into a storm beyond reckoning it was too late to attempt reason. My map was torn away in the very beginnings of that tempest two, was it three days ago? We’ve since drifted, flung, catapulted far from any course even an albatross might remember. The cargo moans. Low in the water we hang, and slosh in the heavy weather and low in bowels of each us we feel rough water coming, rough water churning.

Even my first mate, ever stalwart and steady, this week deserted his post and wouldn’t meet my eye. Dry rations, silence where there should be warmth and nothing but the cold cold comforts of frail hope in long dark.

Then came the depths of the storm and even our shadows fled.

All was elemental. Screams and silence merged. The promise of the sun was a myth to tortured, stormwrecked souls. Was it eternal, that storm? Are we in it, even now, as a feeble sunrise denies the horror? Is it death and we will live forever in the tides of destruction and despair visited upon us by the impersonal wrath of an unleashed ocean? The cargo is reclaimed.

The depths have their own harmony that cannot be gainsaid by any Queen or Emperor yet they insist on the hubristic attempts, leaving ants like soaking in rough seas stormwrecked, broken and lost. Remember me, if you can, I am lost at sea.

(image credit)

Winter solstice – waiting on a sign

waiting-for-a-signHave you been waiting for a sign about what is coming next? The solstice is around the corner and it is a great reminder that what you’re asking for is being answered. The earth has turned in a circle of the year and we spiral through the rhythms of our lives. Here in the south the sun is about to be reborn – it is a time of renewal. The sign you’re waiting for is already up and all you need to do now is see it.

Not as easy as it sounds

What we can get stuck in is a rut of things being literal. We expect the world to put up a billboard for us and to advertise directly in a way we can’t miss. After all we’re busy! We’ve got a lot of emails to read and stuff to do. It is not like we’re sitting around with time on our hands, no way, we’re multitasking our way to the end of every week trying to keep a dozen things on the go. As people say these days “Aint nobody got time for that!”.

But wait – there’s less

You have all the time there is – a lifetime – but how easy is it to get that confused with jobs and roles and the expectations of the world. House prices and debt repayments and whoa Christmas is on the way! It all rushes up and around us. Take a moment here. The sun comes up every day. Let it be your sign. Let the sun’s tides be a cue to do a little less, take a little time, wait a little longer. There’s a time later on for blazing away. Now is a time for looking around and taking in what is waiting for you.

Is there something you’re asking for? Look and listen now for the answers that are being suggested. This is it. Life is here now.

Our water bodies

Let’s bridge over from the esoteric hand-wavy stuff we’ve been doing with the quincunx in the mind (here, here and here) to the body. Sorry, not “the” body but to our individual bodies. The ‘meat-suit’ we wander around in where our lives and emotions and accidents and sensations all happen. That mysterious and sometimes troublesome thing that each of us must deal with.

Christ surrounded by symbols of the four elementsSo thankfully today you can’t see the curry stain down the front of my new shirt or the shredded chocolate wrapper that I’ve hidden in the bin (as though by doing that I will be able to deny eating it) because that gives me the space to create the illusion that I don’t have any problems with my body and we can have this wonderfully pure and calm discussion about bodies without any emotional triggers.

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAAAA.

Oh man, I couldn’t even type that and keep a straight face.

<wipes eyes, loosens belt> Ok, where were we? Oh Yeah, pure mind. Hehehehee. Back on track now.

One of the fascinating and miraculous things about our home, the Earth, is that it sustains water in three distinct physical states – solid (ice), liquid and gas (water vapour is clouds and humidity). In case you’re used to taking that for granted, it is very awesome, and something that no other planet in our universe (or any other universe) is so far proven able to do. I don’t want to harp on it, but that makes the Earth VERY SPECIAL. If you like, take a minute to be grateful for that. If we’re going to use the Quincunx as a model for helping solve problems – how can we read it in the context of our real life?

The first step is to see how our bodies can relate to the model. So in the earth circle, visualise your largest organ – your skin – that connects you directly with the sensations of being here on the Earth. For Air, see and feel your amazing lungs (also large – enough to cover a tennis court if all stretched out). For Fire, feel and see your blood, that iron-rich, salty liquid so precious to every cell in your whole body. In the center, well the center is the heart isn’t it? Not just that pump that gives us our rhythm to live to but the other heart too, where we feel things so strongly, the curled ribbons of grey folds that make up our brain and our gut (they’re the same tissues at the beginning and echo each other as we grow. I didn’t even make that up, it is science ) but we’ve missed one. What would be Water in our bodies? Think about it.

It is Water.

No association at all – just a direct step – more than half of our bodies are water.

We think of ourselves as solid, but in a lot of ways we’re very fluid, jelly-like at best. Our skin and skeleton work hard to put boundaries around us and give us physical structure. Water helps us understand our bodies. We think of fire and earth as being almost enemies, but without a specific band of heat, humans can’t survive. Without the minerals and elements of the earth, our bodies can’t form properly. No traces of iodine or zinc? Stunted growth. No iron in your diet? Blood doesn’t work very well. Our bodies, no matter what shape or colour, are utterly miraculous and exist as a dance between so many parts.

A lot of reader questions last year were about dealing with physical difficulties and we’ll start to look at those over the next few weeks. Each discussion will refer to these ways of reading the quincunx. None of us are ‘perfect’ and yet all of us are individually unique and miracles in our own right. Our challenge is to value the divine more and learn how to disregard curry stains down the front of a shirt.

A spiritual tool for personal growth

Don't PanicWe’re on the third part of our exploration of the quincunx (here is part one and part two) as a spiritual tool for personal growth. Of course you will have noticed that there are some drawbacks to this model. For example, the lines can give an unrealistic sense of solidness (which we all know to be a tricksy illusion); we don’t easily see how these circles change size over time in response to the efforts of our will or our habits; and it might look like we’re all individually in little boxes – a perception with particularly negative connotations in our culture besides which we know ourselves to be interconnected. The purpose of the model is to give a framework for reference that can help us to grow. It gives us a new set of choices, not simply an answer.

Don’t panic

It might feel challenging at first, but imagine that you can see your own actions in each of these circles sometimes strong in one and less active in another, see how over time you’ve made a set of spirals and they reach from your past to where you are right now. This can be challenging and uncomfortable because life is often not how we wish it would be. From here you can see the whisper of their trajectory – the next steps you’re likely to take in each of those realms (potentially also an unpleasant vista as we see ourselves perpetuating unwelcome or unhelpful patterns despite our intentions. If you can hold on through this discomfort, it is more than possible for you to visualise these paths, because you’re already living it now, and you are, at least, unconsciously aware of them.

Sometimes to bring that picture to the conscious mind just takes finding the most comfortable image or story that will help you translate this idea into your life. The quincunx itself might have done the trick, or it might have just nudged a door ajar and you need something else to follow on. It is worth the effort because when you have a conscious connection to the patterns of your life you are in a position of choice rather than reaction.

What you’re looking for is a map or a guiding idea that contextualises the dynamic balance of holding the awareness of these five states at once. Possibly there’s one in the faith that you already prefer. Buddhists refer to the four noble truths and the eight-fold path. In Kabbalah this model would connect to the tree of life (which gives a more detailed breakdown of the archetypal actions likely within each of the realms). Christian’s can turn to a Christological reading of the crucifixion (theological significance)  and indeed the symbol of the crucified Christ is a powerful and globally recognised symbol. These examples are given in the spirit of sharing major, existing models not directing us into a theological comparison! There are lots that aren’t religious too. Surfers have their own language for dynamic balance in the moment, and that complete physical and mental commitment often creates a space or an experience in which the higher consciousness’s presence can be felt directly. Some American Shaman teachings refer to the ‘spiral dance’ and to me that idea made sense – hearing the music, feeling the rhythm, interacting with the ground, the sky, the other dancers.

How this is helpful in normal life

When we are stuck in a pattern of behaviour that seems solid, the story or map that we’ve chosen to use can help us to interrupt the habit.

By the way, you might not believe this, but you’ve already made the first step in getting help where you want it. By asking, you’ve found this concept. Just as importantly now is to accept what comes to you as help. (That’s just one of those obvious things that is worth saying out-loud now and then.)

A real example

Let’s say you’re worried about money. Specifically you’re worried that you’re not making enough savings or the right investments right now for when you’re older. I worry about how I will cope with my chronic illness, how I will survive in a hostile economy if I can’t work. In my version of the model, I understand money primarily as Earth (well-being in the physical world) and as Air (a shared concept in our culture). When I’m worrying, and maybe you do this too, I’m often taking a Water perspective (of emotional values) on the situation. That is to say the issue is that I feel weak and vulnerable rather than the rational odds of the likelihood of the situation that I fear or an evaluation of the other mitigating factors that I could use my intelligence to deal with. Notice there is no Fire in this example. Here’s where the model can point out a new perspective. What might the lack of a Fire perspective illustrate? It shows that I feel that I have no grasp of the mechanics of wealth, of how money as a technology functions.

Instead I look around at what I can see others have (Earth again) and measure myself against their possessions or investments. I read articles (Air) about what people in my demographic ‘should’ have or own. Sometimes I witness myself feeling (Water) that I deserve better or more. All of these behaviours perpetuate the habits I’m stuck in.

Even by trying to describe what a fire perspective might be, I had to interrupt my patterned reactions to the issue and go into a perspective that was new and in this case diametrically opposed to the main realm in which the worry holds power. That action of interruption marks a powerful choice. Actions that interrupt our thoughtless reaction mark a point of self-rearrangement. You may also have noticed the use of the word witness in there – that’s another healthy separation that allows us to put what’s going on back into the circle or corner it belongs in and remind ourselves that we’re more than just that reaction.

Even so, there’s one more angle we haven’t used yet to look at this worry. You can see it now can’t you? That’s right – from the centre. What might the soul perspective be on money, debt or poverty?

What does your soul tell you? Did you get a flash of feeling or a picture from your past come to mind?

What perspectives have opened up for you out of this discussion? Please feel welcome to share them in the comments or to think them over in the days ahead. It sounds so simple, but actually doing this can be confronting, can be a challenge, and it can leave you feeling woozy or even a bit lost. Drink some water and be forgiving. Ask for help, we’re all in this together.

Beginning with the quincunx

quincunx

There’s another way to look at the wheel of life and we’re going to try it on this week. Meet the quincunx. It’s a big-sounding word but a very simple tool.

That sounds like hard work!

There are so many big topics for us to talk about, it was hard to find a beginning. I thought it might be honesty, as that was a theme that came up in the issues people shared at the end of last year. Our relationship with honesty is so important to our wellbeing and it connects into the base of many other issues in the world.

Think of all the times that you’ve wanted to tell the real truth – you know when you be diplomatic instead of telling it how it is. Bosses acting like petulant children, when friends expect you to validate decisions or opinions you disagree with, when you’re volunteered for a task that no one can meet your eye over. Equally there are times when you’ll do any kind of contortion necessary to avoid telling even the vaguest of truths and I’m talking here about things like the real reasons I’m overweight, or not exercising enough, or in debt or lonely or frustrated (feel welcome to insert your demon here). There are other types or shades of honesty too, integrity, trustworthiness, self-respect and so on. There are also the socially acceptable elements of being untruthful that we all have to balance too. Imagine that politicians or advertisements only told the bare truth. Can you imagine a world without white lies? I can’t imagine even an hour at work without them.

But white lies that we use to paper-over the cracks in the social contract are an uncomfortable topic, as is honesty in ourselves. Nonetheless, we must talk about it, we must face it or our other efforts at introspection of self-knowledge are in vain. Why is this, because lies are the servants of our ego. Our ego is possibly the biggest barrier to us finding our centre and so finding lasting peace and perspective. We all have one, but like a pet dog, it isn’t a good idea to let them run the show. So how do we start talking about our world and our concerns without the ego getting in the way all the time? By putting it in place, giving it a job to do.

So that’s too big to start with, so let’s come at it sideways, nice and easy, via some sacred geometry and our friend here the quincunx.

In this picture (if you can’t see it, it is a square with a small circle in each corner and then a big circle in the middle)you see a simple representation of us in the world. For today, we’re just interested in the circles. Take a moment to look at it.

It is probably already familiar to you. Many cultures and religions have a take on this shape. It is used explicitly in temples, churches (here is a well-known Christian example) and architecture but for today we’re just going to look at the simple elements of the shape. It is pretty obvious that the circle in the middle is the biggest part and so probably the most important. You can draw this diagram without the sizing, and then it looks like the number 5 does on playing dice. The four little circles represent the four corners of the physical world or the four elements (etc).

Most of the time our consciousness is caught up wholly in these realms. These four anchor points (named according to the paradigm you’re currently thinking in) are what frame the space in which we really exist. The place from whence we look out and engage with the manifested world, that space in the middle is where our own divine manifests. This represents our spirit centre, our soul or the ‘fifth element’.

What’s important here in all this symbolism is the idea of the separation of your higher self (however you label that) from the physical world. Yes it exists and yes it is found in more than just the physical world. It might not seem like it at first pass, but this is a source of infinite freedom. There’s a lot more than unfolds from this idea, I hope you get a lot out of exploring it.

Celebrating Summer Solstice

This weekend is solstice time. For us in the southern hemisphere it is midsummer. The solstice is an astronomical fact, an outcome of the tilt of our planet as we circle our sun. It exists outside of every human culture and nearly all mark it in some way. The millennia of geological pattern that we evolved within doesn’t fade. This will happen for eons to come until the sun or the earth get tired of the dance and one of them retires. I find that deeply comforting. The wheel of the year is a graceful beat inside a larger tempo. I sometimes wonder what it sounds like or feels like to the planets as they swirl and swing and shift along, each feeling the echo of each other’s weight and subtly reflecting all those forces back to each other.

So very beautiful.
Our fleeting human lives can connect into that larger grace and feel that flow. Each season from slumber, to renewal, through completion to fall. Here, this weekend, we find ourselves contemplating completion, fullness, mature power. Count your many blessings my friends and celebrate the harmony of this time. From this point our sun wanes in our sky back towards slumber and the year will begin again next midwinter. But that is then. Now is now.
This time of celebration is for all of us. For everyone under the sun.
line drawing of the sun with a face

Good housekeeping

A woman empties a pail of bathwater and a baby into a stream

We’re caretakers here. We get to enjoy our time and we leave everything behind when it is time to go.

Every human child from today onward that will ever be born, will be born right here on this single planet, Earth. What they will have for their lives and their children, is partly up to us, from what we build, and partly from what we consume that can never be replenished.

What should they expect from us?

Do good housekeepers use everything until it breaks? Is it really ok that we allow our leaders to exist on a three-year re-election cycle that doesn’t respond well to polling on any issue where short term extravagance needed to be weighed against long term (generational).

You get to make a choice on how much you care about what kind of an ecosphere we’re bequeathing to future generations. It is one of the core aspects of what sustainability actually means (remember that the next time you hear a public figure using the word and you’ll immediately be able to fine-tune your bullshit meter) and also one of the basic skills (delaying gratification) needed in order to mature into adulthood.

So what’s in it for you?

Great question.

Answer: Nothing.

No gold star, no pat on the head, no special tax breaks. Nothing.

This is part of our duty if we want to be citizens of this world. The world, and our species, stretch in time both behind us and ahead of us. We are part of a bigger body of life. All the future of our species (and many others who live here too) are asking of those of us alive right now, is that we keep good house. Don’t trash the place, be considerate of the neighbours, enjoy what we can while leaving plenty for others to share. Any reasonable person would consider it common sense.

Our duty exists whether or not there is a brighter future in it for us personally. We may or may not accept it or like it, but that’s how it is. We can stay as children and wait for someone else to clean up for us, or put our shoulders into the task ourselves. Take a breath or two before you react to that idea. Human life isn’t all about progress and sharing doesn’t mean going without completely.

Later on we’ll get into more of what sustainability might mean day to day, but for right now, while we’re thinking about the values and meaningful lives we yearn for, it is timely to remember that liberty is always bonded to responsibility.

Someone who had a very concrete experience of freedom was Victor Frankl. If you’ve not yet read his famous book (Man’s search for meaning) please consider doing so (it is both short and non-academic). Despite the situation it discusses, I can almost guarantee that it will make you feel more positive and think about life’s challenges with a deeper sense of personal resilience. let’s give him the last word today.

Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.

Image credit.