As summer wanes and autumn emerges, the Celtic shamanic tradition tells us that we are entering into the mythic west—the direction associated with dusk, the horizon where the sun vanishes, with the element water, with grieving and letting go, and with the theological ideas of destiny, faith, fate – and with the Great Mystery of what lies beyond the horizon.
Where goes the sun at dusk?
Where go the stars at dawn?
Where go I when the west wind blows
From the land beyond, from the land beyond?
Religion is often framed as the path to inner peace. Priests of all kinds make a promise that if you adopt their mythic structure, you will know peace. In this world of struggle, peace is acquired if you opt to jump in the boat with Jesus, or Kwan-Yin, or the Tao or the Rosary, or downward facing dog, or the shamans. On and on the promises go.
In the Celtic shamanic tradition, the Gaelic phrase An Sith (pronounced Ahn-Shee) means to be "at peace." The literal translation is "with Spirit." However, Sith has a wide variety of meanings. It is the "land of peace" that we go to when the west wind blows us from our bodies and into the otherworld. It is a land of constant feasting, music and sexual pleasure. But sith is also the people of the otherworld – the spirits and the faeries.
But in Celtic tradition the Faeries are far more feared than admired or loved. One central thing Faeries are known for is coming to steal the life force out of things. They come to steal the essence of a newborn baby, leaving only a limp shell that grows up deformed. They steal the life force from mothers who have just given birth, and they die or never recover their vitality. This is why, in tradition, a group of women would stay with the new mother and baby for three days - to ward off faery attacks. Faeries do the same to cattle and crops – take the essence, leaving the useless shell.
To be a little fair, the Faeries seem to most often choose the farmer whose field is bountiful and beauteous, but who nonetheless complains. There is - sometimes - an ethical code for the Faeries that we do very well to learn and live by: gratitude and generosity are the keys for keeping on their good side.
To be "taken by the Faeries" means that, here in this world, your shell sits on the couch and stares into space. You may be funkifying, feasting and fornicating in the other world, and it may seem like an hour to you. But when you do inevitably plead to be returned to this world in which you belong - if they allow you to leave - you find everyone you know has been dead for centuries and when you get off your horse, you explode into a cloud of dust. This mythic idea makes me think about a life spent watching TV every night, and how it's very much like "being away" with the faeries.
So, what are we to do with this?
In every time and every place, to be alive is to struggle. It does not matter who you are or what advantages you were born with or what has been held back or stolen from you. Every one of us struggles through this life, each in our own way. One of my favorite phrases, attributed to various wonderful people from Richer Niebuhr to Mark Twain to Aristotle (ah, internet...) goes: "Be kind to everyone you meet, because each person is carrying a heavy burden."
Yesterday on the driveway I looked down to see two tiny black ants dragging some kind of moss-green-winged bug across the crack in the sidewalk. The winged thing wriggled frantically. The unflustered ants bore it over what, to them, were huge boulders, down into that deep cavern and up again, over the mammoth dried leaf, the winged thing writhing the entire way. Maybe the ants were asking “why must we struggle so merely to attain a meal for our family?” And the winged thing: “Was I born merely to struggle and become food for these moronic goons?” And into the west, beyond the horizon, they dragged him.
I was in the Boundary Waters once and, at dawn, saw an eagle splash into the mirror-smooth water a few feet away and extract a wriggling fish. I swear the eagle had a glorious smile of satisfaction on its face and the fish's face was filled with shocked dismay. In that gentle dawn light, the droplets of water flew up like diamonds around them both. Pleasure and horror were equally decorated in jewels. Off to the west they flew.
Every religion tries to answer the question of why we struggle, and then tries to provide a framework to soothe the suffering we all carry. All religions are full of stories of humans struggling with the unseen and the Holy, for all sorts of reasons, and with all sorts of outcomes. But I believe there is a common thread through the stories of humans struggling with the divine: the struggle refines and matures the relationship between the humans and the Holy, between the seen and the unseen. And perhaps it is only through struggle that the relationship between humans and Holy can evolve. Perhaps the Holy recognizes this about us, and therefore regularly delivers new struggle to us.
In the Celtic tradition, the heart center is a cooking pot into which both joy and sorrow must be poured. Both ingredients are necessary, both must be fully cooked, together, for us to make the mature decisions for ourselves. And when the two ingredients are cooked, the pot itself transforms into the cauldron of wisdom. Only cooking both sorrow and joy can open wisdom in us.
I believe the entire human race is at a point of transformation in our relationship with the Holy. There was a time when we did not bury our dead, and then we did. There was a time when many began to believe the Holy is Male. This was a major evolution of the relationship between us and the Kosmos. That time has passed, though it lingers on like a scab. I believe you and I are alive at a major evolution of human consciousness. We are going to learn – or re-learn in new ways – to live in right negotiation with the earth and its creatures. We can only do this through the cooking of both sorrow and joy in our hear cauldron. According to some of my teachers, this coking will be complete within the next 50 years and new world will open before us. I like believing that.
The human mind and spirit is on fire right now, cooking the ingredients. Seeing this, believing this, helps me move through the day, as I wonder why everything feels so screwy, why it feels like I'm being dragged into the chasm by ants.
My main prayer these days, each morning, is "make me ready to participate fully in this evolution." In other words, teach me to cook.
I'll be gone for most of September, but in October I am excited to head into working with the ancestors, and then onto working with Reindeer for the winter solstice. If any of that interests you, click here.Classes, Retreats, workshops and events
Here is a link to an 11-minute audio called "navigating doubt." It has some ideas and a healing song at the end that I hope can be of help.