A video in which I read an excerpt from my book, The Night Journey: Witchcraft as Transformation. I was particularly pleased with this chapter, as I think it’s very poetic and has some powerful imagery in it.
A video in which I read an excerpt from my book Dark Mirror: the Inner Work of Witchcraft, all about the inner work and why I think it’s important.
I thought regular readers of Dowsing for Divinity might like to know that I now have a public Instagram account, @birdberrybooks, where I will be posting videos, talks, photos, book reviews, and news of upcoming events and workshops.
Dark Mirror: the inner work of witchcraft
Inner work is a name commonly given to the inner processes that happen in ritual. It can also mean the transformation of the psyche that comes about through engaging in religious ritual. However, the best kind of inner work also has an effect outside the individual and outside the circle. When rituals are focused only on self-development, they tend to be a bit too introspective. Ritual is about creating and maintaining relationships and connections – between body, mind, and spirit; with the Earth, Nature, the land, the spirit world, the community, and friends. It is about making meaning, weaving a web of symbolism, story, mythology, meaning, community, and love. Creating a community that welcomes and celebrates diversity. Creating strong and authentic identity to resist the pressures of consumerism and commercialism and capitalism. Weaving relationship with other beings: humans, animals, birds, spirits, deities.
I am a lucky woman, and much gifted. Four gifts in particular I received this year:
a perfect July peach
a knife that fits my hand
a heartmeant compliment from a teenage son
and an argument for which I did not apologize
These things exist in our world, but they are exceeding rare. I know their value and will wear them forged and braided as adornment and strength. I am a lucky woman.
A woman grown so quiet here, in this space where just a year or two ago I was all enthusiasm. For a while my silence worried me. A theologian, I’ve had to learn trust over the months as my thought moves down, into the body. Into my body. A poet, I’ve had to face the fact that language flattens and distorts when tossed about too quickly. A woman, I’ve had to find a way to understand my silences as active and alive, rather than passive and inert.
All the myths and stories tell us the gift exists to be transformed and passed on, or it loses its power.
A Poem for Women with Birthdays
It has taken me decades to learn to love
the way I pour each night into bed like a Midwestern river,
soft and insistent and ripe, effulgent with summer rain,
here and there paused and pooled
with minnows, with trout. Then too I am the voracious,
toothy carp jumping into the next boat that passes.
I was taught to play my breath out with care,
To run it over and through the knotted cords of my throat
like wind through a young grove of aspen,
to sing and laugh like the spring breeze that flirts
and lifts the hair playfully on a hopeful morning.
It’s a gift, that grace, but there are other gifts too.
By now I know we are equal parts joke and broken,
luscious bluster and blister, so very unspoken,
so very real. Silver and gilt. Sisters, tell me
how will you exult
in your gristle, the meat and fat of your flesh,
how will you rest in the mud of your marrow,
where important and ephemeral things go to be born?
Nameless and slippery, crunched and wiggling,
dark in the sockets of bone,
against all odds and cultural narratives,
we have time yet to locate each element and ore, here,
and here, and here again. Come closer.
The common idea of “grounding” literally and figuratively sends us earthward. To the very real dirt we walk upon. Spirit is in the compost and in the leaf mulch, in the decay in the gutters and the dust under the couch. In the way things fall apart. To make new life, DNA breaks down and recombines. To make new families, households break up and recombine. It’s painful and messy and necessary.
This is not what most of us are taught. Re-visioning (human) nature as dynamic and always-changing helps us re-vision our own spirituality. Charles Eisenstein says in The Ascent of Humanity:
When we recognize that nature is itself dynamic, creative, and growing, then we need no longer transcend it, but simply participate in it more fully.
Participation takes a little precaution, however. Ground and shield. The advice is almost always applicable.
It’s difficult to remember to ground and shield when lives are busy and pressure is high, when people are shouting. When we are shouting. And that is also possibly when it is most important. Here is a simple technique that anyone can practice. (Go ahead. I’ll wait.)
Find a comfortable position. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply for a bit. Feel the rhythm of your breathing.
Feel the breath of your body circulating. Feel the blood circulating.
Identify where the energy centers of your body are, at this moment. Where the tension is. Identify the emotions, the kinds of energy you are feeling. Exist there, still breathing deeply and regularly.
Feel those tensions slowly begin to stretch. Feel the energy begin to circulate with the breath, the blood. Let the energy of your body root itself, streaming down through your feet, into the ground. Let it sink and reach down deeper into the earth under you. Feel the roots of your being stretch downward. You are connected to the earth by this stream of energy. You are secure.
Take a moment to breathe in that space of security and sure knowledge.
Then, when you are ready, draw the healing and protective energy of earth up, even as your energy continues to descend. Visualize that energy shimmering around you, a shield. Does it take the form of water? Pellets of ice? Braids of fire? Woven flowers or pure light? Whatever elemental or visual image feels personally right for you, allow your shield to grow and strengthen around you.
Know that within that shield you are safe from others’ negativity.
Breathe, feel the flow of energies down into the earth and up into the shield.
With gratitude, still feeling your shield around you, slowly rise into the day, centered, focused, rooted and protected.
There are many ways to do it of course. The need to ground and shield has been brought home to me recently in various contexts, everywhere from Facebook threads that disintegrate, to my son’s slammed door over my head. It’s a loud and reactive world these days, with an unending stream of stimulation at our fingertips. We lose track of ourselves.
All this energy–which could be put towards our work–expended in arguing and memes and othering. We have a long way to go. There are as many ways to go about the work as there are people going about it. Look around at where you are, figure what you can do from here. Then ground. Spend some time with the grasses and mosses. The roots of dilemmas and the roots of trees. This season, bend close to the ground, focusing on the local, the small, the neighbors you can directly affect (and I mean neighbors in the most generous sense of the term: peoples and species and rocks in your immediate vicinity). The work is humble. Revolution starts where you are, with whatever size canvas you work with.
Creativity is by its nature radical (revolution and roots): poetry, justice advocacy, meal preparation, the crucial conversation with your high school son about how to get caught up on English homework—all of these have value, and dignity, and real worth in the world. Grounding and shielding helps us protect ourselves when the work gets messy, gets dangerous. And it will. As the poet Robert Frost said, creativity is “play for mortal stakes.”
The work looks different for each of us, but we each have work to do. Let’s try to honor each other as best we can, remembering the world needs our many diversities–and even our disagreements–to thrive.
Language holds clues.
When my son was very small, he used to spontaneously burst into tears and tantrums at random moments. It took us a long time to figure out what set him off. When we had simply been talking over our day, or reading a book together, or planning dinner, why was he so triggered? After some months, I finally had a breakthrough—or at least, I think I did. To this day I don’t know if I was right (but the crying did get better, so something helped).
It turns out he was upset by the words “up” and “down.”
They’re such slippery little words. We use them in so many figurative ways. Try making a list sometime of all the common phrases that use either of those words. For my literal minded son, at age two, it was simply overwhelming and confusing, to hear these directional words used in contexts where they became nonsensical. (Look something up in a book? Write it down? What do those things mean?)
For those of us who have managed to reconcile ourselves to the idiom-soaked nature of English, language holds clues. And the phrase “slowing down” is the one I want to focus on here.
I already wrote about the downward motion that is (to me) inherent in endarkenment. But there is also a slowing, almost to stillness. One cannot seek endarkenment with the clock ticking or the timer going off. And the very phrase, “slow down” suggests there is a relation between the movement downward and the loss of velocity. We come to rest. We land (we ground). The earth offers enough resistance that we pause for a bit before burrowing under the surface of things.
In the dark one feels one’s way forward, fingers splayed out, sensing. It’s necessary to move slowly. We are learning to trust new senses.
It may be necessary. But it isn’t comfortable. I am restless, impatient with myself, always frustrated at my own lack of progress, whatever the work at hand. There is so much to do, so far to go—and I am not nearly where I ought to be, say the voices in my head. Hurry. Push it. The end of the school year push brings a breathlessness and exhaustion with it.
I recently heard this bit of wisdom: We overestimate how much we can get done in a day, but always underestimate how much we can get done in a year. Thinking about this, I know it is true. At the end of any given day, my to-do list is mostly only half crossed off—but if I think back to where I was one year ago, I’m astonished.
Even when we feel stalled or stuck…we are actually moving. Things are happening at levels we can’t consciously navigate.
To engage creatively, we have to learn to trust ourselves.
This is true in writing poetry, as Yvonne and I wrote about. It’s true in any writing, including this blog entry. (I had to start four times before I found my way with this one. I had to walk away and come back, after days.) But more than that, too. I have friends who are grieving. Friends who are fighting. Friends who are searching their lives for what comes next. In all of these cases, creativity, and slow living, are called for to avoid flammable reactions or settling into the easiest, but not best, solution.
Living well, living fully, listening into the dark is an ongoing creative process that takes courage. For some of us, art is one byproduct of a life deeply dared and lived. (This is one of my ongoing arguments with Yeats, who claimed in “The Choice” that we must choose “perfection of the life, or of the work.” I see no choice to be made.)
And, importantly, we need to find strength enough to slow the pace of our lives down and let those deeper processes have the time they need to do their work on us. Growing, healing, changing takes energy. The temptation (culturally reinforced) to keep busy, to pack in more to every hour, to multitask, to squeeze in an extra errand, to fit one more thing into our already overly crowded schedule—this temptation must be fought off. With our claws. With our teeth. Because more often than not, not only is it antithetical to our growth as individuals, it is one way we actively build up walls to keep ourselves from facing the mess.
It is healthy, and necessary, to occasionally sit and look out the window on a rainy day. To stroll, rather than jog. To read a novel, rather than a blog post. To graze on fresh picked berries and herbs, rather than throw something in the microwave. Even just to sit in the sun and soak up the spring warmth and the scent of flowering trees. Above all, to put away the screens and turn the phones off for a while.
Something happens to time when we choose the slower path. It becomes more fluid. The minutes no longer tick second by second, rather they pour into each other, flowing and ebbing as our breathing shifts, as our thoughts slide and skitter and slide. We become a little more fluid, opening to change in ways we can hardly articulate. In such moments, it may feel to our restless, sensing brains as though nothing is happening. We certainly can’t point to evidence of being productive. And yet, a year of this, or even a month, or maybe even a good rich weekend of retreat, I can’t help but believe, would be life-altering.
This sort of slow motion living is how the deeper wells of being get stirred.
Are you ready? On your marks…get set…slow.
Effort lay in us
at pond bottom
All things move toward
that freely work down
to oceans’ black depths
In us an impulse tests
(Click on the link and read the whole poem, with correct formatting. Seriously, I keep losing the formatting when I type it in here and it is wounding my poet soul.)
When we discussed changing the name of our blog to “Dowsing for Divinity,” that word “dowsing” resonated for all of us immediately. As Christine put it,
When the three of us started brainstorming a new name together, once someone tossed out the word “dowsing,” we kept circling back to it.
And Yvonne added,
…we kept coming back to dowsing imagery, with its connotations of looking for hidden currents, connections with the unseen, hidden waters, and hidden patterns.
Tonight, I keep coming back to the physical feel of the dowsing stick, held loosely in the hands, and how it tugs the attention…I’m arrested by the simple motion. Downward. We are dowsing, and that means we seek to be pulled, downward.
The opposite of light is dark…but another opposite, in our language, is heavy.
In Wallace Stevens’s poem “Sunday Morning,” he ends with an image of birds at sunset, flocking “Downward to darkness on extended wings.” Darkness brings a sense of release, of letting go, of drift, the ceasing of struggle…eventually: death. There is a falling and fallen quality to endarkenment. We sigh, and let our guard and our defenses down. We can loosen the ties of the day. We can be a little more vulnerable.
But the wisdom of the dowsing stick isn’t a relaxing and drifting and letting go. Stay out here long enough in the dark, and there comes a time when we feel the tug in our gut, the impulse to nose our way down a little further into the murk.
Something in us wants to descend.
“In us an impulse tests/ the unknown” Niedecker writes. Moving our awareness down into the body takes us to the soft messy areas: to gut, to sex, to the muscled thighs. Our largest muscle groups. Our deepest instincts. To all that stuff we want to pretend we’re above. Camille Maureen, in Meditation Secrets for Women, agrees and builds on the idea:
“There are times…when the call downward is a transformative journey, a summons to the depths of the soul. People tend to think of spirituality as rising upward into the sky. In the traditional (male) teachings, enlightenment is often described as a flight from the lower centers of the body, the instinctive and sexual places, to the upper centers in the head and then out. …Everyone fears this descent, this sinking down. Yet sinking down connects us with the earth, with our personal ground, with our foundation.”
There are many journeys we’re called on, through our lives. The concept of “enlightenment” (and the hero’s story) encourage us to venture “up and out”…might it also be true that there are times to adventure down and in? The concept of endarkenment takes us not only into the dark but also down, towards (and into) the body, and the earth.
The rhubarb pushes its nubbly red thumbs up through the leaf litter. Lawns turn squishy with melt, worms once again emerge. There’s water everywhere suddenly, and with it, the muck of life, stirring, down at the roots.
Acquainted with the Night
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
Lately, thanks in part to my colleague Yvonne’s excellent writing around embodied spirituality, I’ve been thinking a lot about embodiment, endarkenment, and creativity, and how intertwined all these concepts are. I’ve even (finally) invented a phrase for how I ground my own work in the world: creative endarkenment. After all, creativity roots itself in the dark, no matter how small or large the idea…but before anyone can explore that truth, we have to get comfortable with the idea of darkness.
I belong squarely in Generation X, which means when I was in college many of us gathered and marched and
shouted and sang songs by the Indigo Girls in order to Take Back the Night. We petitioned and argued to install emergency phones and more lighting around the darkest spaces on campus. Back then, we thought if we lit up the shadows, rape culture would suffer a serious blow. And I remember wondering at the time if I was strange, in that darkness felt so much safer to me than being pinned and spotlit by the newly installed lights. Their glare made me so obviously single and alone as I walked back to my room through the Minnesota dark.
Maybe we were safer from some kinds of violence, I don’t know. But I do know we blamed the wrong thing. Darkness was never the root cause. Social media has proved convincingly that rape culture is all too happy to go public with acts of abusive power and violence.
And yet it isn’t any surprise we feared and blamed the dark. We grow up in a culture that assigns so many negative qualities to “darkness”—labels so many bad things “dark” and blames “darkness” for them: ignorance, fear, anger, violence, to name only the first few that spring to mind. And this has inevitable repercussions in a society that labels and separates people as “white” “black” and “brown.”
Now we wheel past the spring equinox into the season of light. We rake off our garden beds, poke seeds, pile on mulch and remember darkness can be kind, can be nurturing, and is certainly crucial. As Molly Meade (Remer) writes, “In darkness, things germinate and grow. The dark is a calm, holding, safe, welcoming place—we come from darkness and that is where we return.”
Light pushes always out against the dark…and yet any light source is eternally nestled within that deep embrace, no matter how bright it shines. We can feel this truth as threatening, if we are scared of the dark, of what lives in the shadows.
On the other hand, without darkness, we are left with the glare of brutal interrogation and too rigid certainty. There remains no mystery to seek. It is impossible to imagine a fluid dreaming without darkness. And what would we be without dreams? What would it mean if our shapes could never shift?
Of course, dreams are not only happy cuddly things. The phrase “the dark night of the soul” resonates in the bone because it feels true. Frost’s poem “Acquainted with the Night” knows that just as there is room for light within the embrace of darkness, there is room for much else too. Our deep depressions, our sorrows, our angers, can take us to places that are psychically quite dark. As Carl Jung knew (and as our therapists tell us on a regular basis and we pay them for it), it is at times necessary to rest in the presence of such discomfort. To stop pushing the dark away long enough to listen to what lives there.
Fortunately, there are people to help us on the path. I had the pleasure and good fortune to interview Danica Swanson recently for a class assignment. You can find the entire interview posted at her blog, but today these words are in my mind:
Sacred endarkenment, to me, is a concept and a way of being that provides a necessary counterbalance to our culture’s over-emphasis on enlightenment, transcendence, “rising above,” and so on. … Despite popular belief, darkness doesn’t necessarily mean evil or negativity – in fact, dark places can be sources of great richness, alchemy, and incubation…
I was raised in a New Age family, and had experienced first-hand the failures of empathy and errors in perception that could result from a heavy emphasis on “positive thinking” and other forms of saccharine sweetness in spiritual work. In a way, you could say my New Age upbringing primed me for a darker, more chthonic path. Dogma can be just as oppressive when it’s presented as “love and light” as it can be when it shows up in less culturally sanctioned ways.
Swanson gets it right: too much positivity results in “failures of empathy” and “errors in perception” and that my friends gets us into a mess. Welcoming the dark with all its unknowns and locating the tender spots is necessary for any fruitful germination, including our own. In our fearful, angry moment of history I can’t help thinking that it’s as good a time as any for us to face our own personal and cultural shadows, to begin to sit with our histories of violence, oppression, guilt, fear, resentment. To learn stillness.
That’s a big ask. And more than I can take on this morning. A good place to start might be just getting a little more comfortable sitting together, here in the dark. Over the next few days and weeks, I want to explore the idea of endarkenment, to think about how and why we might want to wander out once in a while past the fire’s light and peer into the shadows. I hope you’ll join me.
In 2014, I was able to get to an archery club to practice archery. Sadly I only got one opportunity for archery in 2015, but I love it.
When I am doing archery, I am totally in the moment, totally focussed on hitting the target, and how my body fits with the bow (though probably insufficiently focussed on the latter). I am not thinking of anything else. For me, archery is embodied spirituality in action. This probably applies to any skilled physical activity, such as martial arts, dance, massage, woodworking, crafts, and so on.The interesting thing about archery, for me, is that it involves stillness and focus as well as action. You have to get your body to learn the correct posture, until it becomes instinctive to get your arms at the right angle, your legs in the correct position, and so on. It is also true that letting go of the outcome and focusing on the activity can bring success. At one point, I was given a Mongolian bow, with the aim of hitting a balloon. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to hit it, so I relaxed, and I did hit it.
Like Thorn Mooney, I hated sports at school, as I have terrible hand-eye co-ordination and am usually overweight, but I have always liked martial arts. Archery gets around those issues, and puts you in touch with your body. It also comes with a side order of historical geekiness, and a really interesting group of people to hang out with. As Thorn writes:
Becoming an archer was the realization of a childhood fantasy. What Tolkien-obsessed kid wouldn’t love to shoot a bow and arrow? … Realizing—at 30—that I could finally have that bow I always wanted was surreal and exciting. I taught myself out of a book and dove right in, joining an archery club the same month.
Longsword resulted from lots of time spent with traditional archers, who often double as history enthusiasts. And where archery helped me in developing a relationship with Herne the Hunter, I’m really curious to see where fencing will take me.
The classic work Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel describes how learning is initially a conscious process, but eventually the practice becomes something unconscious:
The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art …
In the medieval world, archery was not considered knightly, because you hit your target at a distance. But it could be used for hunting, and of course was used to devastating effect in the battle of Agincourt.
Robin Hood is one of the most famous archers in legend, and there are many stories of his accuracy. My favourite is the one where his opponent fired his arrow right into the centre of the target, but Robin split his opponent’s arrow in two.
Artemis and Diana, the virgin huntresses, are also associated with the bow. The crescent moon is often depicted as Diana’s bow.
Shen-I the Excellent Archer is a character in Chinese mythology. Once upon a time, all ten suns rose together in the sky. Shen feared that the Earth was in danger of drying up, so he took his bow and shot down nine of the suns.