Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ecology, mythology, and psychology

This week I finished reading a manuscript that was sent to me for a cover blurb. The book is about Celtic (and specifically Irish) myth seen through an ecopsychological lens. Jason Kirkey, the author, does a fine job of separating and respecting the varying strands of Celtic spirituality and making clear that the essence of his book is about creating a new, ecopsychological interpretation of Irish myth as a potential antidote to some of the poisons of modern techno-obsessed and eco-destructive society. I was very excited to read this book, due out sometime around Samhain from Jason's new press, Hiraeth, based out of San Francisco.

The book, The Salmon in the Spring: The Ecology of Celtic Spirituality, doesn't fall into the traps that so many other modern books on Celtic spirituality tend to. There is a recognition for and a respect of the native traditions as they were historically and as they are expressed in folk practice today. Jason's account of Celtic spirituality is not overlaid on a Wiccan blueprint but acknowledges the views of cosmology and holiness that are expressed in the texts and the tales themselves. He has spent time actually living in Ireland and has come to know the landscape and the people there, having had some profound experiences that he carried home to the US with him.

As an ecopsych author, he is familiar with the leading names in the field, from Theodore Roszak to Gary Snyder and beyond, and has a deft touch with both his quotes and his interpretations. His goal is not to go back to the iron age or to (re)create a Celtic spirituality, but to reinterpret Irish myth, primarily the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, with a modern ecological eye. My personal feeling is that he gives a little too much attention to 2MT as a seasonal myth, but it is in line with his contention that more things should be interpreted with a view to helping us understand once more that we are part of the world rather than separate from it. He offers exercises at the end of several chapters that are based in his understanding of Buddhist practice but phrased in ways that will resonate and be understandable to those of us working with a Gaelic paradigm.

Jason doesn't talk down to his readers but invites them into his worldview, opening doors and offering views from unusual perspectives. His understanding is spiritual at its heart without losing sight of scientific, social, and ecological realities. His treatment of CR, modern druidism, and the living folk traditions is consistent and even-handed and he makes it clear throughout the text where he is speaking of the tradition and where he is coming to his own conclusions and offering his own interpretations. Most of the "Celtic" spirituality authors out there today could take some serious lessons from Jason's honesty and openness.

When I originally printed out the manuscript for a read, I was a bit concerned at the abundant references to Frank MacEowen Owen and Tom Cowan, both of whom in my opinion tend to push their own modern views of Celtic spirituality as historic truth. I tend to avoid their books for this reason. Jason studied with both of them but manages to move beyond them in separating opinion from historical fact and for this I applaud him and have a great deal of respect for the work he's done here.

When this book comes out, I can definitely recommend adding it to your list, particularly if ecopsychology and a spirituality of place are important in your own practice. Five hazels out of five.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Why write about entheogens?

In my earlier post about ritual failure, an anonymous person took it upon hirself to suggest that "you don't need" entheogens and that I should look to the work of RJ Stewart and John and Caitlin Matthews for all the techniques of "the old bards" that I would ever need. Anonymous isn't opposed to entheogens per se and I don't disagree with this. Yet there are reasons one might experiment with such things.

Kenneth talks in the comments about working with the spirit of the entheogenic plant or fungus as a part of the ritual. This is absolutely one good reason why someone might work with entheogens. It is, in fact, one of the reasons that I do so as well. Touching the living spirit of such a powerful being is an profound experience when it works. And yes, once you've got to that state, you may or may not ever need to actually use the entheogen again to re-experience it or to have a good, solid contact with that spirit.

This, though, was immaterial to the point I was trying to make in that post. My point there was that failure of ritual can help us learn a lot of different and useful lessons. Failing means retooling the work and trying again, or repeating the experiment to see if something about the set and setting were problematic. Failing means reevaluating where you are and where you're headed. Failing means dealing with disappointment and losing the sense of being a special snowflake whose every action is fraught with spiritual significance. Failing means recognizing we're human and that we make mistakes, or that even if we haven't made a mistake, sometimes things just don't work the way we expect them to. Failure offers us chances to grow and mature.

What really rather gripes me, though, is anonymous's assumption that I've never read either anything by Stewart or the Matthews' (I have a great deal of their stuff on my foo-Celtic shelf) or anything from the original Gaelic and Welsh source material. I've read a lot of sources on Gaelic pre-Christian religion and culture. I've read a lot of the medieval manuscripts in translation. I've even done translations of materials from Old Irish myself, for my own understanding. Hell, I've had my translation of the Cauldron of Poesy published at least twice. A lot of my work has been translated into other languages.

Much of what the Matthews' reprint is 19th century scholarship, outdated in the mid- to late-20th century. While there are occasional useful nuggets in their reprints, I've already read the vast majority of what they're offering. And I disagree with a lot of their interpretations and uses of the material. I don't find RJ Stewart's ceremonial magic approach to the materials very useful for my own work either. While the Matthews' do a somewhat better job of dealing with Celtic spiritual material than, say, DJ Conway, Edain McCoy, or Douglas Monroe, it doesn't mean they are presenting the source material without their own particular filter -- in their case, usually, Celtic "shamanism", which is a rant in and of itself.

Certainly neither the Matthews' nor Stewart talk about deity in any polytheistic fashion. The Matthews', in their Western Mystery Tradition books, refer to the Celtic deities as "unregenerate godforms," whatever the hell that's supposed to mean, and warn against working with them. Perhaps this is their way of saying the deities are dangerous. If that's the case, so is fire. So is the sea. So is walking out your door every morning to go to work. Should we stop heating our houses, cooking our food, and going outside because it might be dangerous? People are dangerous, too. Even our closest friends and the people we love might hurt us from time to time. Do we stop having friends and family because of this, or do we learn to deal with their rough edges and accept them for who they are?

Ultimately, I write about entheogens because I find them useful in some ritual circumstances. I write about them to show that there are many ways to define and practice rituals. I discuss my experiences, both successful and failed, in order to demonstrate that effects vary and that not everything is going to work every time. In modern US culture it's hard to find people openly discussing that kind of work. Discussions go on in closed fora and between friends in private. There are books out there but the good ones can be hard to find. And to neglect such an ancient source of access to ritual states of consciousness and such powerful potential spiritual allies is to cut oneself off from the potential for powerful learning and spiritual experiences.

Yes, there are dangers inherent in the path. People have averse reactions to entheogens just as they do to any other substance they may put in their bodies. For some people, being in the vicinity of onions is a life-threatening experience. Strawberries have killed people.

Important things to remember are to research thoroughly, to exercise due caution, and to understand that these things will not always work as advertised. Sure, you don't "need" to use entheogens in a spiritual practice. One doesn't "need" a lot of things that are or can be useful. It doesn't mean they should never be used by responsible adults. And it doesn't mean that non-entheogenic practices can't get you where you want to go as well, depending on your goals. Humans are curious creatures. We are interested in new experiences and are prone to experimentation in all fields of life. Ritual is like sex, in the end analysis. Different things work for different people and my kink may not be your cuppa. The important thing is that we all try to get to our goal, by whatever pathway pleases us best.