If the material world around us arises out of the interacting fields of an invisible world…
And if we can “join with” those fields in an aware fashion…
How might we co-create a future reality in ways that honor the wholeness of Gaia, while also allowing us to appropriately advocate and act for our own human point of view?
This is the most central question I hope we can address, and my thinking is very preliminary.
By way of introduction, here’s something I wrote to my Committee of Elders in 2001.
Belief’s about the magical nature of reality
There is a children’s song I once learned during my high-hippie days with the refrain “Maya, Maya, Maya…” which is sung at full voice while running around in a crowd of other children doing the same thing. “Maya” means “illusion” in Sanskrit, and a jumbled hippie daycare center with pre-schoolers running around yelling “Maya, Maya, Maya” at the top of their lungs is a nice image for the view of the world I have learned from the Indian subcontinent.
I see the world and the cycles of history –of incarnation– as immense beyond human knowing, and ultimately (à la the Buddha) not the point. The story behind the story of incarnation is a series of non-material truths on which humans, at their best, properly focus.
Thus, the assertion that “the world is illusion” is just the start of Indian philosophy. It prepares the way for an explanation of “what is really going on.” I encountered Indian philosophy in my first year in college, and found it a wonderful antidote to the ‘positivist-materialist’ religion of science in which I was raised. My religion of science says, “If it cannot be seen, touched or otherwise apprehended and MEASURED, it probably doesn’t exist. It may be some sort of fictional element that delights the imagination, but it is of little consequence.”
This assertion has never done justice to my sense of metaphor in the world. While I accepted the catechism of materialism as a youth, I simultaneously observed non-material patterns, in nature, in the most intimate details of my life and in the dramas of human relationships. Patterns which I found filled with significance, even if I could not recognize the meaning. My work, in my 30s, with the Kabala gave me a framework for understanding this resonant order, and allowed me to experiment with changing the material world through the non-material agencies of visualization and prayer.
From my understanding of the meaning of English words, and of reality as seen from the European point of view, the prayer which is most common in the churches –intercessory prayer and prayers of petition– are forms of magic, the influencing of material reality through non-material efforts. I personally believe, with the Kabala, that everything is magic, that is, every material form, every set of circumstances we see in the world around us, rises out of non-material origins.
No matter whether we call these non-material precursors ‘natural law’ or ‘God’s will,’ I think we are closer to an accurate understanding of reality than if we just stay focused on the measurable preoccupations of positivist science.
My search for god has been aided by my question, “what then, is the difference between the practice of magic and the practice of intercessory prayer?” I have answered this question to my satisfaction, using common English words, but each of these words has a range of meanings, and my answer relies on only part of the range of meaning. We normally talk like this, relying on our listeners to pick which part of the range of meaning our words must refer to, based on the context in which they are spoken. However, European-American culture is so anxious about issues of non-material reality that communication is very difficult:
“That is what I said, but that’s not what I meant!”
is a common experience in these areas. I know, for instance, that what I want to say next triggers suspicion in some followers of Wicca, because the range of meaning they associate with the word ‘magic’ overlaps with the way I use ‘magic’ but differs at key points.
(I have an abiding affection for Wicca. Starhawk is one of my model human beings. I have taken a workshop from her, read several of her books, and am delighted she and Betsy are on a first-name basis. Yet, despite this favorable orientation on my part, I have seen followers of Wicca bristle at the words I will now use. To you Wiccans I say: I mean no offense.)
How then, do I understand the difference between the practice of magic and intercessory prayer?
Magic, as I use the word, (and here’s the tricky part) ‘magic’ is often used by people self-centeredly (like voodoo, in the limited understanding of European-Americans), or praying to get rich. The way I use the word in my thinking, I usually qualify it, “white magic,” “ceremonial magic,” “high magic.” In my schema, “magic” without a qualifier means “small magic,” magic done without big-picture thinking, magic centered in the moment and in the concerns of the small self.
I said earlier that, for me, everything is magic, that every material manifestation rises out of non-material origins. Magic, visualization, prayer, are some of the languages we use to relate to this non-material world. The arts do culturally-acceptable work in mediating our understanding of this world. Native peoples (including my stereotype of a 1900s Italian peasant) live in awareness of this world, constantly making magical gestures and taking moments of prayer in order to keep the world on a favorable course. So magic, as I want to define it for this conversation, is our human attempt to influence material reality, incarnation, through non-material means, using our hearts especially, and our heads as well.
In the popular culture of European Catholics I have read about in literature, this sort of instinctive prayer life is a natural aspect of one’s relationship with the world. Except this is where I make my distinction in its simplest form: Yes, prayers of this sort are forms of magic, in my understanding, and not much different from the unqualified ‘magic’ which is my basic unit of non-material human influence. With the addition that, for me, ‘prayer’ means ‘magic done in a religious context.’
Which leads me to the crucial importance of this context. As I use the words, ‘prayer’ assumes a religious framework that speaks about a world larger than the individual. Whatever the details of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, whatever may be said about the time after death, all religion puts the life of its practitioner in a larger social and cultural framework. ‘Prayer’ is a reference to that context, even when it is a momentary “Dear God, I hope those shoes are still on sale.” The religious framework provides a context in which the magical thinking takes place. If the person who had the “shoes on sale” prayer were to reflect on it, they might judge it petty, but they likely would not judge it ‘bad.’ If this person prayed, “God, I hope the baby is stillborn,” and then came to reflect on it, they might think that prayer was not a bad one either, but their religious context would mean they evaluated their two wishes very differently. And their religious context would affect how they handled their disappointment if their prayers were not granted. That’s an example of what I mean by the significance of context.
“God” as I understand how the concept is used in western culture, is a way of personalizing this religious context. As we talk to each other about our context of values, as we carry on inner dialogs, western culture has found it helpful to render the thought
“this works against the greater good,”
“God would not like that.”
I want to go very slow here, talking about religious context, about God-talk, and about the underlying reality which it attempts to map.
To recap the ground we have been over so far:
- I believe the incarnate world rises out of a more subtle world of patterned energy.
- We have some effect on the way in which material reality manifests through our magical acts of prayer, heartfelt wishes, visualization, etc.
- I believe this power is a given, active even when we are unaware.
- Thus, the context in which we understand our acts is worth our attention.
- Magical influence exercised unawarely or selfishly is different from magic done in the humility of understanding there is a context larger than we can know.
- Religions offer a larger context within which we can understand our acts and their consequences, or lack of them. All human cultural groups have learned this, each in their own way.
- The Judeo-Christian tradition has provided a world-view that personalizes the context. It answers the child’s question “How am I to understand my relationship with this world?” by saying, “Reality is best understood as being guided by a being, an entity like yourself, but with vastly greater powers.”
I like the Judeo-Christian explanation a lot.
And I think of each religion’s story of the world as an attempt to map the underlying realities of the world. I am reassured to discover the fundamental similarities from one map to the next. I note the dangerous world-wide human tendency to think “my map is THE map.” I think one of the many benefits of globalization is to erode these provincial certainties.
And what do I think about God? My ‘religion’ springs out of my spiritual life, my direct experiences with transcendent power. Early in my ‘hermit period’ I discovered the concept of numinous, as it is used by Carl Jung. I explain it by saying ‘numinous’ rhymes with ‘luminous’, and is similar in other respects. A numinous experience is one that is surrounded with a ‘glow’ of extra meaning, like love.
In my early thirties, I discovered I had been having numinous experiences all my life, but I had never paid them any mind, because my religious upbringing had taught me to ignore things that were not tangible and measurable. I now believe that my sense of what brings me ‘bliss’ is hugely valuable information, to be ignored at my peril.
Of course, understanding how to interpret numinous meaning is often a challenge. I believe having numinous experience points to a bigger truth for the person affected, and “bigger- than- who- I- am- now” is essentially an opportunity to grow.
And humans grow by trying things and making mistakes, so I rather expect that loyalty to a numinous experience will lead me into situations I don’t understand, areas where I have growing to do, where I will make mistakes.
I believe that following the glow of numinous meaning is one of the most wonderful, valuable things we can do. To follow that glow leads us into new understandings of reality. Our new picture of reality influences the form reality takes, especially when we act out of that understanding, creating new realities by our choices. I respond to that challenge of numinous meaning as best I can, looking to co-create a reality which honors the truth of my experience, but also honors the reality of others, still mostly unknown to me.
This is the framework of understanding I bring to my dreams of a Quaker Community Forest.
Many of us find being in nature to be a numinous experience. I believe that as a culture, industrial society has ignored this glow to our peril. We have allowed ourselves to become almost completely unaware of the living entity in which we live and move and have our being– Mother Earth. I think this lostness is at its root a spiritual problem. How can we find our way back to a better relationship? Well, we can open ourselves to the glow we feel when we are on the land. We can recognize and cultivate the love that god is sending us in these experiences.
And then, rather than being a tourist, dazzled by a view and then moving on, we can follow that love into a real relationship with the place. Learn to understand its charms. Open ourselves to it beguilements, listen to –understand– its needs. And then in prayer and openness to learning from our mistakes, make choices and take actions that seem to be for our mutual benefit. I believe that, in the course of these co-creations, we grow in our understanding of the Divine.
Of course, we can only partially guess at the long-term consequences of our choices and our actions as we enter into forest care. This is one place where prayer comes in.
I believe, if we open our hearts and link ourselves with a particular part of the ecosystem,
If we discuss pros and cons of various actions and then re-enter worship…
If we pray that the gipsy moth infestation will remain a small one…
If we open ourselves to “thy will be done” as the fire rages…
If we bond with a portion of Mother Gaia in this heartfelt way…
Then it is appropriate to act, to make life and death choices about the organisms under our sway, humble because we recognize that in some crucial aspect we may “know not what we do.”
For even with our best efforts, we have to accept there are things beyond our knowing. Judeo-Christians would say, “God sees. God knows, even when we don’t.” I think this is a very good way of speaking. I think there are unseen consequences to our human acts, and religion properly teaches us to understand that. Whether we have been trained to think we are building up good karma or whether we have been taught to believe ‘God sees what we do,’ religious thought trains us to live in awareness of the non-material context, the patterns of energy we create, and the inevitable consequences of our ‘stance’ on other beings.