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March, 2009

The Moon & Lunar Cycles

Last month I explored the function of the sabbats in attuning oneself with the rhythms of nature with the solar cycle.  This month I will turn to the moon and the significance of its phases.  This luminous body both mystifies and haunts us in the inky darkness of the night sky.  When full it gleams as a brilliant silvery-white orb which dwarfs even the brightest star to seeming insignificance.  Month after month it comes and goes from our perspective, growing to full and once again waning back to darkness.  Yet it always returns as does the sun, and for that reason becomes another powerful symbol of immortality and rebirth.  The sun is vital to life and makes sustenance possible, but it cannot be there to light the way for us in the night and the darkest of times.  That is when we call to our closest companion of all the celestial bodies – the moon.

The moon orbits our planet hundreds of thousands of kilometers away.  It is sometimes mistakenly said to be about a quarter of the size of earth when in fact its diameter is about a quarter that of earth’s.  In terms of comparing two spheres the moon is much smaller than our planet.  We can usually only see it during the night when the sun isn’t overwhelming our view.  The moon does not produce its own light, but instead reflects the sunlight it receives.  The relative positions of the sun, moon and earth are what determine the amount of the moon’s surface that is visible to us, thus creating what we refer to as the “phases” of the moon.  For instance, when the bodies are aligned in the order sun-moon-earth we experience the new or dark moon.  This is because at night we are facing away from the sun and the moon does not appear anywhere in our sky.  When the alignment is sun-earth-moon we likewise see the full moon.  Waxing and waning phases are the transitions between these alignments as the moon rotates around the earth.  Sometimes when the alignment is just right we get what is called an eclipse, when one of the bodies blocks the light from the sun in a temporary but awe-inspiring phenomenon of nature.

Those in the Craft honor the cycles of the moon in several ways.  Just as the eight sabbats mark the solar year and aid us in attuning with the sun, the celebration of what is termed the esbat brings us into alignment with lunar forces.  Esbat traditions vary from group to group and even from individual to individual.  In a lot of ways it is mostly what you make of it.  Many witches choose to do magical workings, spells, and matters of practical concern.  Others hold a special ritual to mark the occasion.  Most select the full moon as the point of the esbat but there is no rule that says it can’t be held at the new moon or even multiple moon phases instead.  Whether focused on magic or simple observance, the purpose of the esbat is attunement with natural cycles via the moon.

The moon completes a full revolution every 29.5 days and therefore esbats are typically monthly affairs.  This is a natural connection for women whose own monthly cycles mimic this pattern.  Indeed, women in particular are frequently able to harness lunar energy and use it to great effect.  The period from new moon to full is referred to as the waxing phase, and is associated with increase and growth.  The waning phase is from full to new and is used for decrease or banishing of negative influences.  Both the full and new moon are times of great power and are culminations of the energies leading up to them.  To be in tune with the moon is to know at any one moment what the current phase and energies are.  Observing and learning the moon’s phases is one of the easiest and most immediate ways to connect with nature.  It is also interesting to note that when trying to begin a new habit or replace an old one people frequently recommend maintaining the activity for about one full moon cycle for the habit to take root.  Lunar cycles and humanity share an intimate connection with deep roots in our psyche.  As the tides rise and fall from the pull of the moon’s gravity, so do our spirits feel the allure of our silent companion, and sit enchanted beneath its pale light.

Journal for the Month of February:

As I write this the new moon has arrived, and it’s time for me to commit to new goals and eliminate useless clutter and stress.  I personally love observing the moon; maybe it’s leftover from picking out constellations in the night sky as a child.  There is something absolutely mesmerizing about it, and for me it has been much easier to connect with lunar cycles than solar ones.  I think that’s partially also because a year is so much longer and a day is just too quick.  A moon cycle is the perfect length of time to plan things, work on them, and bring positive change to any area of life.  For me this month it’s going to be getting on that pre-spring cleaning that so desperately needs to be done!

In this column and the last you may notice that I haven’t really delved into God or Goddess associations with the sun and moon in much depth (or at all).  Deity is such a broad and personal subject that I would rather save that for its own separate entry to give it justice.  These past couple of months I have been giving so much thought and meditation to what God/dess means to me.  I expect it will take me a lifetime to come up with any true answers, but I refuse to take it at face value and leave it at that.  The symbols and correspondences we work with point to deeper meanings that cannot be understood by grazing the surface.  Nor can they be understood using only the intellect.  I think that all of us who began a spiritual journey started it in order to come to more than just book knowledge – we want to experience deity.  We want to awaken the deepest levels of our consciousness and feel something.  Union with the divine.  Realizing our higher selves.  God.  Goddess.  What that something is we find hard to define in words, but we seek it nonetheless.  I am only taking the first steps in that journey, but I hope that one day it will come together.  And I hope that we may all find that which we seek.

Until next month, blessed be! )O(

New To The Craft

December, 2008


In the Realm of Magic

For many of us who enjoy a good Harry Potter book or the fairy tales of childhood, there is a special word that draws us to the study of Wicca: magic.  That one mysterious word conjures up a euphoria of wonder and excitement that feels alien in comparison to our daily lives.  Suddenly, anything is possible, and we become more than mere mortals bracing against the tides of fate.  These are certainly the types of emotions the idea of magic can inspire, but daily we are told to keep such notions in the realm of fiction where they belong.  There is the world of reality and the world of the imagination, through which a clear and distinct boundary is drawn.  But is this division as clear as some say?  Is there really a division at all?  These are some of the questions Wiccans open themselves to and ask, allowing for a faith which embraces what others may not even consider possible.

One way to begin to explore these questions is to establish: what do we mean by “reality?”  Many would name the physical world around us as the foundation of the real world.  This is the area accessible to our senses, and we experience it everyday in a reliable manner that gives us little reason to doubt its existence.  Not every aspect of this world can be sensed, which we know through scientific instruments that go beyond our human limitations.  This is the only way we know of ultraviolet light, microwaves, or dark matter for instance.  Even though we cannot see these things ourselves we know they are real when we observe their effects.  Before each of these things was discovered by scientists they most certainly existed, we simply did not have technology suitable to view them.  It is therefore wise to have a healthy dose of open-mindedness alongside skepticism when deciding whether magic may or may not be “real,” as today’s unknowns can always become tomorrows discoveries.

Now let us go back to the separation between reality and imagination.  We have established that reality in common thought corresponds to the material world, both seen and unseen.  Imagination is something altogether distinct.  It is the collection of our thoughts, dreams, and hopes as to what reality should or might be.  I can see a horse and imagine a unicorn.  I can see a problem and imagine its solution.  Our thoughts and mind are our primary way of creating change in the physical world by envisioning what can be instead of what is.  A thought may not be a material object in the way that a chair is, but its effects on the world around us are real and profound in the form of our actions.  This blurs the definition a bit on what constitutes reality.  Is a thought only real if I create it in the material world?  Or is it real because of its affect on my decisions and actions?  A hopeful person may in reality have nothing to look forward to based on the way events play out, but the effect the hope has on the person changes what they do and how they act regardless of the physical reality around them.  Imagination is separate from reality only in that it does not have to conform to the physical world to be real or have an effect, and this is the key to understanding what magic is.

Someone who practices magic in our world does not have lightning bolts shooting from their fingertips and may or may not wear a pointy hat.  There is a certain aspect of romanticism in modern witchcraft that plays to the fantastical and whimsical natures of many of its practitioners.  What all magic shares, regardless of the outer forms, is a disciplined focus of the mind and thoughts aimed to produce an effect.  To believe in magic is merely to believe that thoughts can affect reality, and to practice and hone the craft of doing so.  To a skeptic this may only go so far as to acknowledge that if a person focuses their thoughts with great intensity towards a goal, it would at the very least affect the actions of that person.  If my goal is to find love and I wish to use magic, all of my concentration and focus on that goal would undoubtedly affect what I do and move my actions in line with it.  Most practitioners take it a step further and say that the thoughts you put out affect the energy around you, and that true magic is when that energy is affected enough to bring about your intentions.  That is a harder gap to bridge for those new or foreign to the Craft, but as with all of its aspects Wicca values experience over belief.  It does not require you to believe in magic but rather invites you to experience it and judge for yourself.  As with hope, there is nothing to lose, and everything to gain by choosing to suspend one’s disbelief.  And that is when the boundaries to the realms of reality and imagination blur, uniting to create a truly magical whole.

Journal for the Month of November:

I cannot say that I have yet had a successful experience with a spell.  On the other hand I have had a direct experience with another form of energy work known as Reiki.  A few months back I attended a Reiki attunement for levels I and II.  During this process the student is said to be opened to the flow of universal energy in order to channel it for healing.  I went into the experience very skeptical, but with an open mind.  During one of the guided meditations I experienced a strange sensation, almost as if energy were coursing through my spine at a rapid pace.  The sensation heightened and intensified to the point where I felt as if some torrential waterfall were coursing through me unhindered.  After a time the feeling faded, and as I came back into my regular awareness I learned that our instructor had been focusing on opening our chakras during those moments before.  There was no way I had imagined the experience, and I could not explain it away in rational terms.

Why do I mention this experience here?  For me, it was pivotal in giving the concept of magic a chance.  I firmly believe in the power of the mind and that amazing things can be accomplished through its discipline, but I had a hard time accepting the idea of energy work and its implications.  Magic and Reiki are two very different things, most especially because in Reiki the practitioner never tries to control the flow the energy, and instead focuses on being a clear and open channel for it.  But I can now say that I have literally felt energy working within me, and it has opened my mind to a vast sea of possibilities I may never before have considered.  To anyone else I would say, don’t just believe in something, know it from your experience.  And at the same time you can take the knowledge from others that such things are possible, as long as we are willing to open ourselves to them.

Until next month, blessed be! )O(

New To The Craft

November, 2008

A Green Religion

One of the main aspects that drew me to learning about Wicca is that is an earth-based spiritual practice.  Honor and respect for our planet is now more important than ever as we hurtle ever faster towards a worldwide environmental crisis.  Though of course it is not impossible to both care for the environment and follow a traditional Western religion or other path, earth-based practices differ in that they shift the focus of what constitutes the sacred.  Wicca does not view the earth as a mere residence or a set of resources.  To many she is the very Goddess herself: Gaia.  Her green limbs extend upward to mingle with the light of the God as sun.  Together their forces combine to produce and support all forms of life as we know them.  Within the kingdoms of life are the plants and animals.  As Starhawk details beautifully in her book The Earth Path, “the green things give off oxygen, which the breathers use in burning food. Gaia [begins] to breathe, passing her breath back and forth from red to green….”  In the interdependent dance of our planet Wiccans see the revealing of the divine.

This alignment of the sacred with nature has a number of repercussions for our place in the world.  When you see the environment as sacred it becomes impossible to rationalize earth-destructive behaviors.  The question changes from “why should I recycle?” to “why wouldn’t I recycle?”  It also relieves the feeling of alienation that comes from seeing the world around us as a collection of inanimate objects.  We suddenly realize that the earth speaks to us constantly if we have the ears to listen.  We do not have to be separate; our very bodies cry to us that we are as much a part of nature as the trees and the birds.  The illusion that we are somehow separate or above our physical being is part of the teachings of mainstream Western religion and Platonic philosophy.  Wicca instead embraces the idea that mind, body and soul are united, and as such our spiritual self is no higher than our physical self.  Physicality is celebrated and sex held as sacred.  It ends the war between our rational minds and our sometimes irrational bodies that can refuse to conform to our wills.  Following the lessons of the elements health is achieved through balance, without stigma for allowing our natural needs their place.

Tied into this sacredness of the earth is a core idea that distinguishes Wicca from many other paths: immanence.  Many of us grew up with the idea that God is a being above common existence and separate from it.  This is the definition of a transcendent deity.  At first this makes sense since we usually distinguish between things we hold sacred versus the common everyday.  Yet immanence does not conflict with what is sacred, it implies that what is here and present in the physical world is the sacred.  This is radically different from more traditional conceptions of what God may be.  This re-thinking of the world around us allows us to care about and show reverence towards our planet and all forms of life.  We are never alone; rather we are a part of a world much larger than ourselves, where we play out our lives and affect all of those around us as cells in a greater organism.  Earth-centered paths allow us to embrace what makes us part of this world, and hold that world up as something worthy of our devotion.

Journal for the Month of October:

When I sat down to write an article on nature the first thing that struck me was the realization that I hardly ever get outside.  I mean yes I go outside to get into my car to drive to work in the morning.  I’m outside on the walk in to the building.  I reverse that at the end of the day, and you know what?  I am sad to say that is pretty much it!  I have a nice view of local trees from my office window, but stale recycled air is no competition for a fresh breeze.  I realized I hardly even open my car windows when I’m driving.  It’s like living in a strange, artificial world with glimpses of a beautiful, green natural landscape on the other side.

So in keeping with the theme of the environment, I took the opportunity to go on a guided nature walk at a local park.  It was a lot of fun and I highly recommend tours by Wild Man Steve Brill (for those in the North East U.S.).  He teaches basic foraging skills and knowledge of local plants and their uses.  Being outside for a lengthy period of time for the first time in years I was ecstatic.  I was also pooped by the end of it.  Yet I would do it again in a heartbeat, and I relish the time I spent re-learning to enjoy being in nature.  Eating raspberries fresh off the stem, and finding that wood sorrel tastes like lemonade…  Not to mention learning to distinguish one green plant from another, or enjoying lunch in a field under a clear blue sky…  Such simple pleasures really, but ones that if we only took the time we could enjoy freely.

Caring about the planet and the environment is an important first step, but it is also important to re-engage with the natural world many of us left behind in childhood.  To truly value and fight for something it helps to know it in more than an intellectual way.  This month taught me to remember to get myself back outside when I can, and connect with the God and Goddess in the natural world.

Until next month, blessed be! )O(

New To The Craft

October, 2008

Earth-Air-Fire-Water

To some outside the Craft the idea of the four classical elements can seem quaint – an outdated theory constructed before the advent of modern science.  We now have the periodic table to explain the “true” elements that compose matter, so what use are the concepts of the ancients?  It can be easy to dismiss older beliefs and practices if one takes the point of view that we have since replaced them with newer and better discoveries.  But that is awfully presumptuous as well.  So let us take a closer look at what wisdom may lay behind the elements of earth, air, fire and water to explain why they form one of the basic cornerstones of Wiccan thought and practice today.

In ancient Greece philosophers debated over what the things in the universe were composed of and if everything could be reduced to one essential element from which all else was constructed.  Some thought that basic essence was fire, others water or air.  What arose out of their debates eventually became the theory of the four classical elements, sometimes featuring a fifth as well (quintessence).  All could be explained by seeing the world as composed of a mixture of these substances in various quantities.  Without microscopes and our other modern technologies they obviously could not know much of what we have since learned about the composition of matter.  Yet it was not the literal correctness of what they proposed that was important.  Characterizing objects in the world as a combination of earth and water, or fire and air, was a description of the qualities of those objects.  Therein lies the key to understanding the wisdom of these ideas, and why it would be foolish to throw out the baby with the bathwater by dismissing them.

Earth to us represents solidity, stability and grounding, as well as things associated with our planet such as fertility, wealth, etc.  It is our body or our physical being.  Air symbolizes the intellect and the mind, or intangible thoughts that have are formless in the material world.  It is also literally the air we breathe to live.  Fire is change, transformation, passion, and our will or drive.  Some also associate fire with the spirit.  And finally, water is associated with those tidal aspects of our nature, such as our emotions and subconscious mind.  The blood that flows through our veins is the most obvious instance of water within us.  There is an infinite list of further associations for each element, and Wiccans make great use of these correspondences in their rituals and magical workings.  One may ask, why?  Understanding the elements as metaphor for the qualities of things is all well and good, but why the emphasis on them across so much of Wiccan practices?  As someone who is still trying to learn my correspondences I can appreciate the desire to figure out why we put so much effort into learning these things.

What I believe is that learning the elements teaches a very basic and very important concept: balance.  We all strive to be in balance for our own peace of mind.  Justice itself is represented by scales because it is balance in the world that brings us this peace and a sense that all is well.  When we see the world as composed of elements what we are trying to say is that this is the framework through which we choose to see a particular area of our lives so that we can bring it into balance.   For instance, when I am not in balance with regards to taking care of myself I frame it in terms of the elements.  To be healthy I need to eat properly and exercise (earth), continue to learn and expand my mind (air), socialize and maintain my relationships (water), and make time for my spiritual practice (fire).  Those correspondences are my own, and the point is that any individual can create such a structure to put areas of their life into perspective and achieve the balance they need.  When I neglect any of those areas I feel the repercussions, but when I remember to include each one I am more happy and whole.  As a religion that takes its lessons from the natural world, Wicca recognizes that to emphasize the harmony of the elements teaches us how to live better lives more in tune with our natural functioning.  We represent all on the altar without exclusion; and in so doing imprint upon ourselves the wisdom of equilibrium.

Journal for the Month of September:

You know how when you first start learning a new subject you can get carried away and read all day and all night in your excitement trying to absorb as much as possible like a sponge?  It’s kind of like a new crush you can’t stop obsessing over and you spend all of your spare time on it.  Then after a while you are still studying all the time but it’s a little more like work and you stop and say to yourself hey where’d the fire go?

Well, I kind of hit that wall this month.

I had my first major gut-check where I had to honestly ask myself if I was still interested now that the honeymoon fever had worn off.  The good news is for myself and for those reading this column, I am!  Something can’t feel “new” forever I suppose, but now that I am past that I have a feeling that it’s not a bad thing.  Just as with a relationship it may not be fresh but that only expands the opportunities for making my explorations deeper and more meaningful.  If finding one’s spiritual path were easy and involved only flirtation with the externals it certainly would not be rewarding.  So this month I can say I found my commitment to continue on, and in a way I’m more excited than ever to see what the coming months will bring.  I hope you will continue to follow this journey with me as well.  Until next month, blessed be! )O(

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