The Ways We Breathe

“This era of mass consumerism… is imperilling the ways we breathe”

From Lorna Smithers

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

“We need to remember that our very breathing is to drink our mother’s milk – the air – made for us by countless microbial brothers and sisters in the sea and soil, and by the plant beings with whom we share the great land surfaces of our mother’s lustrous sphere.”

Stephen Harding

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Lungs. Two. Right and left. Each enclosed in a pleural sack in the thoracic cavity of the chest. Primary bronchus, secondary bronchi, tertiary bronchi, terminal bronchiole. In the alveoli, ‘little cavities’, across the blood-air barrier, gas exchange takes place.

Breathe in: oxygen 21%, carbon dioxide 0.04%. Breathe out: oxygen 16%, carbon dioxide 4.4%. 6 carbon glucose, oxidised, forms carbon dioxide. Product: ATP (adenosine triphosphate) ‘the molecular unit of currency of intracellular energy transfer’. The spark of all life.

Birds have lungs plus cervical, clavicular, abdominal, and thoracic air sacs. Hollow-boned they are light as balloons, breathing in, breathing out. Then there are the lungless. Through tiny holes in the abdomen called spiracles leading to trachea, insects fill their air sacs, breathing in, breathing out. Earthworms and amphibians breathe in and out through their moist skins. Fish breathe water in through their gulpy mouths then out through their gapey gills.

Plants breathe through their leaves. By daylight they photosynthesise. Stomata breathe carbon dioxide. It mixes with water. The green lions of chlorophyll work their magic by sunlight. Oxygen is released. From glucose the magical hum and buzz of ATP. At night they respire glucose and oxygen back to carbon dioxide and water. 10 times more oxygen is produced than used.

Underground, fungi breathe the air of the soil through thread-like hyphae that mass as mycelia. They respire aerobically (with oxygen) or anaerobically (without oxygen), changing glucose to ATP (it’s all about ATP!), ethanol, carbon dioxide, and water. This old, old, metabolic pathway dates back to the days before oxygen ruled our breath and is also utilised by microbes. The hidden ones of the deep, single-celled, or living colonies, breathe through their single cell walls in ancient ways – acetogenesis, methanogenesis – to gain the blessed ATP.

To live we must not only breathe, but consume. Life lives on death. And this human animal consumes not only to create ATP, but for warmth, light, housing, transport, pleasure. Some say it began with fire, others with farming, others with writing, others with machines, others that it originated deep within human cells in the power plants of mitochondria – the Anthropocene.

The spark of this era of mass consumption has become a funeral pyre fanned by the winds of greed. Its smoke is imperilling the ways we breathe. Fire triangle: oxygen, fuel, heat. Smoke from carbons and hydrocarbons is composed of water, carbon dioxide, countless other fumes.

Smoke inhalation damages the lungs through burning, tissue irritation, oxygen starvation (asphyxiation). In 1952, 4000 people died in the Great Smog of London. Great smogs hang over Delhi, Baghdad, Beijing, Los Angeles, Rome. Asthma, lung cancer, COPD, leukemia, pneumonia, cardiovascular disease, weakening of lung function, difficulties breathing in and out.

Carbon dioxide levels rising, increasing greenhouse effect, raising temperatures. The forests, cut down, cannot help. The peat bogs, drained off, cannot help. The oceans acidifying cannot help. We are choking those who breathe with us, who are dropping like canaries in coal mines.

Who would dare to douse the fires? Throttle the exhausts? Get locked out of the factories for good?

Those who inspire. Those who burn with inspiration, ysbrydoliaeth, rooted in spirit, ysbryd. The breath of the universe, the breath of our human and non-human ancestors, the breath of the gods. Those who not only consume but give and offer those gifted breaths back before expiring.

Inspired ones! Burn with me! Breathe with me! Breathing in, breathing out, with the lunged and lungless creatures with skin, fur, feathers, shells, scales, leaves, hyphae, the single-celled.

All one breath.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

Respiration (from spirare ‘breath’ and re ‘again’) is participation.

Inspire. Expire.
Anadlu i mewn. Anadlu i allan.
Breathe in. Breathe out.


Lorna Smithers

Lorna Smithers profile pic IILorna Smithers is a poet, author, awenydd, and Brythonic polytheist. She is currently exploring how our ancient British myths relate to our environmental and political crises and dreaming new stories. As a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn, she seeks to reweave the ways between the worlds. She has published two books: Enchanting the Shadowlands and The Broken Cauldron, and edited A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.


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“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” Is Revolutionary Agitprop

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Credit: starwars.com

We are the spark that’ll light the fire that’ll burn the First Order down.

Poe Dameron in The Last Jedi

Star Wars has always had a reactionary streak.

George Lucas mythologizes an eternal struggle between Good and Evil, expressed primarily through physical combat. While his protagonists wrestle with temptation, fall from grace, and find redemption, Lucas’s main interest is elite individual heroics from both Good and Evil leaders. He’s fascinated with the sacred Skywalker family bloodline, and while the overarching plot is ostensibly political (will the galaxy be a republic? Will it be an empire?), his battles aren’t decided by armies. They’re won by lightsaber duels and space dogfights between Skywalker family members – and by the refusal of his heroes to succumb to (even righteous) anger.

Lucas’s imaginary history is driven by individuals, not by masses of people. He shows crowds cheering when the Emperor is killed, but they play no part in either his rise to power or his overthrow. Star Wars embraces the conservative “Great Man” theory: history is a series of extraordinary individuals, imposing their will on basically passive populations.

This conservatism finds itself mirrored in the broader social dynamics of the Star Wars fandom. Geek culture self-consciously embraces commercialism, its participants gaining social capital by accumulating games, toys, and collectibles. Star Wars, of course, was always designed for toy merchandising, but its core fans aren’t children. Instead, they’re (largely male) adults who grew up playing with Star Wars toys and want to buy some nostalgia.

When JJ Abrams made The Force Awakens in 2015, he knew his audience. Nearly every scene re-staged something from one of the previous movies, to the point that he literally hired the same actors, 40 years later, to reprise their action-hero roles. As The Force Awakens ends (with Luke Skywalker making his entrance), Abrams sets up the plot to continue in the same vein for as long as the audience is willing to pay.

But that’s not what The Last Jedi delivers.

In every corner of the galaxy, the downtrodden and oppressed know our symbol, and they put their hope in it. We are the spark that will light the fire that will restore the Republic. That spark, this Resistance, must survive.

Vice Admiral Holdo in The Last Jedi

What’s the heart of revolutionary politics?

It isn’t liberalism’s nominal commitment to tolerance (otherwise, every HR manager would call themselves a revolutionary). It isn’t simply hostility towards capitalism, either (after all, plenty of fascists share that attitude).

Instead, to be a revolutionary means to “trust the masses.” Revolutionaries believe that the people make history themselves, without needing “Great Men” (or benevolent warrior-priests!).

The Last Jedi is radical because it uses reactionary source material to say “trust the masses.” Its main plotline follows the outnumbered remnants of the Resistance on a “long march” through space, pursued by their enemy, the First Order. Chafing under what they call a “cowardly” strategy, three characters (Finn and Poe Dameron from The Force Awakens and a new character, a mechanic named Rose) hatch a clandestine plan to sabotage the First Order’s flagship and allow the Resistance to escape. It’s the kind of long-shot heroism that, in another Star Wars movie, would have saved the day. In The Last Jedi, though, it fails – and when it does, it allows the First Order to discover and subvert the Resistance’s patient, unglamorous, and fundamentally sound escape strategy.

In parallel, Rey (from The Force Awakens) persuades a reluctant Luke Skywalker to give her Jedi training as she prepares to confront the main antagonist, Kylo Ren. Communicating telepathically, Ren convinces her that he knows who her long-lost parents are. But when she faces him in person, The Last Jedi gives them an exchange that no other Star Wars film could:

Kylo Ren : Do you know the truth about your parents? Or have you always known? You’ve just hidden it away. Say it.

Rey : [in tears]  They were nobody.

Kylo Ren : They were filthy junk traders. Sold you off for drinking money. They’re dead in a pauper’s grave in the Jakku desert. You come from nothing.

Although Rey has been characterised as Ren’s “equal in the Light,” she isn’t a Skywalker. The Last Jedi repudiates the sacred bloodline. Rey has no aristocratic lineage or ancient prophecy about her birth, but for the first time in a Star Wars film, that doesn’t matter.

The saying, “A single spark can start a prairie fire,” is an apt description of how the current situation will develop. We need only look at the strikes by the workers, the uprisings by the peasants, the mutinies of soldiers and the strikes of students which are developing in many places to see that it cannot be long before a “spark” kindles “a prairie fire.”

Mao Zedong

As a film, The Last Jedi sometimes finds itself in an awkward middle ground. On the one hand, it has to maintain continuity with The Force Awakens (and the franchise in general). On the other, though, it offers an incompatible ethical and political sensibility. Staying true to the source material while turning it on its head doesn’t always lend itself to elegance, and at its weakest The Last Jedi makes unfortunate concessions. While it never reaches the depth of pandering of The Force Awakens, it still wastes too much screentime on “Easter eggs” and sequences rehashed from earlier Star Wars movies. Plus, since JJ Abrams is writing and directing the sequel trilogy’s third installment, The Last Jedi‘s innovations will likely be scrapped. Star Wars 9 seems likely to be another fan-pleasing, boilerplate nostalgia trip.

However, The Last Jedi has still pulled off something special. As the film ends, a group of enslaved children (who had earlier assisted Rose and Finn on their mission) tell each other about the survival of the Resistance. But the hope they draw from that isn’t a passive desire for rescue. The guerrillas of the Resistance depend on them, not the other way around. History belongs to the people.

That’s what The Last Jedi brings to Star Wars. That’s what we should let it teach us.


Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon.

Escaping the Otherworld: The Reenchantment of Paganism

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“There is another world and it is this one.”

attributed to the French surrealist and communist poet, Paul Éluard

A Message from an “Awakened Elf”

Recently, I received a personal message on Facebook from someone I don’t know promoting a book, The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days: The Magical Heritage of Starry People and Their Continuation into the Modern World.  The full message is too long to reproduce here, but I will share a few excerpts from it.

The author describes the book as “a distinctive and comprehensive combination of both scientific and historical research along with also philosophical and esoterical discussions, dedicated to all elves: ancient and modern ones” which includes “the history, scientific origin, psychology, philosophy and life style [sic] of the elves, both in the past and present.”

The truth about elves, says the author, is that they are not just characters of fairy tales and legends, but “real persons who always have existed and never disappeared and continue to live among the common people in our days!”  According to the author, The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days is for those who have only started their acquaintance with elves and those who deny their existence, as well as for “the awakened elf”, among whom he counts himself.

The One Eyed Man is King

Reading about The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days, I was conflicted.  My first reaction–my gut reaction–was that this person had lost touch with reality and was possibly suffering from a mental disorder–being benignly delusional, at least.  This is probably how most non-Pagans would view the book.

But after some reflection, I recognized this possibly as an attempt at re-enchantment[1], or restoration of our sense of connection with the sacred and mysterious.  If The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days is indeed part of the project of re-enchanting a disenchanted world, then it is possible that the “awakened elf”, far from being insane, might actually be among a minority of sane people in an insane world.  This is probably how most Pagans would view the book.

I wonder if perhaps both perspectives might be true.

What if the awakened elf is indeed attempting to re-enchant the world, but has also lost touch with reality?  What if his attempt at re-enchantment is actually contributing to the disenchantment of the world?  What if, as Rhyd Wildermuth has recently written here, our Paganism is not a cure for disenchantment, but a placebo?

This is the question that I keep coming back to.  It’s the question at the root of my ambivalent relationship with the Pagan community.  It’s the question that keeps me walking away from Paganism and walking back again in short order.  Over the years, I have wrestled with this question in various online fora, and my often unskilled (and sometimes ham-handed) attempts to articulate this question has earned me a lot of criticism (often justified and constructive).  But I feel like I am inching closer and closer to being able to say it right …

There is something fundamentally wrong with the world, or at least the way we experience the world through the lens of the overculture[2].   I think most Pagans would recognize that as true.  We call it “disenchantment”.  Existentialists call it “alienation”.  “Soul sick” is a more poetic way to describe it.  Whatever we call it, Pagans know something is deeply wrong with the world.

But the fact that we recognize the problem doesn’t necessarily mean that we know the solution.  In fact, it’s possible that some of the solutions we offer might actually contribute to the problem.  It’s possible that some, or even a lot, of contemporary Paganism might be a manifestation of the illness, rather than its cure.

The Intuition of An “Other World”

There are a lot of theories about how religion got started among homo sapiens–psychological, sociological, and even biological explanations. I think at least part of the explanation has to be that religion is the way that we human beings account for the feeling that there is something wrong with this world and the intuition that there is something more.

Of course, not all human beings have this intuition, but many–perhaps the majority–seem to.  I know I’ve always had it–just this feeling that there is something “off” about the everyday world I inhabit and a sense that there “more” going on that what is readily apparent.

Different religions have different ways of making sense of this intuition.  Many of the dharmic religions, for example, posit that apparent reality is an illusion, and that the otherness that we intuit is in fact the real world.  Transcendental religions (not to be confused with Transcendentalism) posit that there are two realities, the apparent world which is real, but temporary, and the invisible “other world” which is eternal and therefore more real–the two worlds being radically separate.  Both responses–the dharmic and the transcendental–dismiss, or even denigrate, the present world as ontologically inferior to the other world.

I was raised in one such transcendental religion, and I left it behind because I rejected that view of the other world.  In fact, I came to see transcendental religion as dangerous–at least to me personally.  I’ve always had a propensity for escapism, and transcendental religion just seemed to feed that propensity.

But, still, I had this sense of “otherness,” the sense of there being something more.  In Paganism, I found another explanation for this intuition.  Paganism, at least as I came to understand it, rejected the dharmic notion that this world is an illusion, while also rejecting the transcendental notion of a separation of the other world from this one. Paganism posited that there is another world, but it is this one.[3]  The other world is right here, right now …

… only we don’t see it, at least not usually.

In the Land of the Blind

The reason why we don’t see the other-world-that-is-this-one is that we are blinded to it. We are blinded by the trifecta of reductionist positivism, consumer capitalism, and transcendental religion–which collectively are responsible for the disenchantment of the world.

We are blinded by a positivism which makes it impossible for us to recognize anything as real which is not mechanism and which makes it impossible for us to value anything which cannot be measured.  We are blinded by a capitalism which makes it impossible for us to recognize anything as real which is not commodity and which makes it impossible for us to value anything unless it can be bought and sold.  And we are blinded by the myriad diversions which are offered to us by consumer society to fill the gaping hole left in our souls: meaningless work, compulsive shopping, and mindless entertainment.

We are also blinded by religion, by dharmic religions (or their New Age interpretations) and transcendental religions (like most forms of Christianity).  According to these religions, the present world is either unreal or unworthy and the real world is “somewhere else”.  It was to such religions that Marx addressed his critique of religion as the “opium of the people”, as a means of maintaining the political and economic status quo by directing people’s attention away from worldly concerns, thus preventing them from taking action to change it.

Paganism, at least as I discovered it, is not one of those religions.  Like many Pagans, I came to Paganism in reaction to a world-denigrating religion, but also in reaction to a soulless overculture.  As Rhyd Wildermuth has written recently here,

“The search for authentic meaning and ways of being which draws people to Paganism springs from a rejection of what else is on offer, a malaise of what is available to us by mundane, Modern means: 40-hour work weeks, concrete housing blocks, relentlessly mediated life in which too many of us only see breath-taking views of forests or communal celebrations on screens.”

Paganism offered me not escape, but immersion–immersion in this life, in the here and now.  As the Pagan poet Ruby Sara has written, Paganism is “a religion of Right Here This Body This Planet Beautiful Beautiful Right Now, rooted in the Mama, the present, the Real”. Paganism, for me, was a rediscovery of this world, the world of flesh and blood, of taste and touch–and, yes, of something “more”.  But that “otherness” was now very present, sensible, tangible even[4].

George Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”  Paganism offered me techniques for refocusing and seeing what had always been right in front of my nose.  It opened my eyes (and my other senses) to the “other world” that is right here and right now, but which is invisible to an overculture dominated by reductionist positivism, consumer capitalism, and transcendental religion.  This awakening is what we Pagans mean when we talk about the “re-enchantment” of the world, and it’s what I mean when I talk about “magic”.

The Disenchantment of Paganism

But there is another side to Paganism.  Sometimes our Paganism mirrors the disenchanting techniques of the overculture.  When it cuts us off from the earth, our bodies, or other people, our Paganism becomes disenchanted.  When it perpetuates alienated modes of discourse and alienated ways of relating to the world and the other beings who inhabit it, our Paganism becomes disenchanted.

Our Paganism is disenchanted when we revert to scientistic terminology (like spurious analogies to quantum physics or chaos theory) to explain magic. Rather than seeing magic as a way of expanding consciousness, it is described as a kind of technology, yet another way of achieving dominion over nature.  Rather than being a way of celebrating the unpredictable, wildness of life, disenchanted magic[5] becomes another way of reducing our anxiety through the (false) promise of control. As Trudy Frisk has observed in her article “Paganism, Magic, and the Control Of Nature”:

“Paganism’s reluctance to distinguish between symbols and living creatures is not just playful fantasy; it perpetuates the utilitarian view of nature. Expecting natural objects to fulfill human desires leads to disregard for maintaining nature in all its complexity.”

And as Barbara Walker writes in The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols & Sacred Objects, the real aim of disenchanted magic is

“to retreat from a troublesome reality into a world of pure symbol. However difficult, uncontrollable or indifferent the external universe may seem, symbolism is manipulatible and so provides at least the illusion of comfort.”

Our Paganism is disenchanted when our attempts to “connect with nature” actually place obstacles between ourselves and nature, such as Wheel of the Year celebrations which are routinely held indoors and blissfully ignore the reality of the present (albeit sometimes unpleasant) seasonal conditions, invocations of abstract Platonic “elements”, directional invocations which ignore the local landforms, ritual circles which position us–literally and figuratively–with our backs to the world, and worship of idealized Mother Earth goddesses, while never getting our hands dirty, like with actual dirt.

Our Paganism becomes disenchanted when (both theist and atheist) Pagans promulgate facile understandings of deity which perpetuate Western dualisms and alienated and objectified definitions of what is “real”.  Words like “god”, “spirit”, and “fairy”–and yes, even “elf”–can be attempts to (tentatively) name the other-than-human presences which fill the natural world and to which reductionist positivism blinds us.  But they can also refer to the figments of our imagination, which are, in the end, no better than other distractions offered up by the overculture.  Rather than expanding our lifeworld and connecting us with the wider web of life, a disenchanted Paganism shrinks it, leaving us talking to ourselves alone in the dark.

Our Paganism is disenchanted when we create and consume images of pagan deities which reproduce the patriarchal, heteronormative, racist, and imperialistic aspects of the overculture.  Far from disclosing the “other” to us, these images merely reflect our own egos back at us.

Our Paganism is disenchanted when our idolization of individualism and self-expression undermines any form of social organization, rendering it impossible to create sustained solidarity with one another, and when our ethical lives are guided by a libertarian rule of freedom of expression and avoidance of harm, divorced from corresponding ethic of mutual responsibility and care–which are the hallmarks of relationship and reciprocity.

Our Paganism is disenchanted when our rituals routinely culminate in a counter-revolutionary cathartic release of energy, rather than channeling that energy into constructive social action, and when we hermetically seal our Paganism off the rest of our lives, insisting that the spiritual is not political.

Paganism as Escapism

When we fall into these traps, our Paganism becomes disenchanted.  Rather than revealing the “other world” that is here and now–it obscures it.  Disenchanted Paganism does not empower us to change the world–it perpetuates the status quo.  Our Paganism becomes a placebo, yet another form of escapism, a negative enchantment which fascinates us and distracts us from the other-world-that-is-this-one.  As has been observed by Thorn Mooney, our Paganism can become just another way of avoiding our problems, of making ourselves feel special, of alleviating boredom,or  even of justifying leaving mental illness untreated.

There’s nothing wrong with escapism, per se.  A little escapism can even be therapeutic.  But it’s another thing to build an entire religion around it.  As Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ouselves to Death, wrote, “There is nothing wrong with entertainment. As some psychiatrist once put it, we all build castles in the air. The problems come when we try to live in them.”

This is what Starhawk was describing in The Spiral Dance (in a quote that I think gets far too little attention in Pagan discussions):

“Fascination with the psychic–or the psychological–can be a dangerous sidetrack on any spiritual path. When inner visions become a way of escaping contact with others, we are better off simply watching television. When ‘expanded consciousness’ does not deepen our bonds with people and with life, it is worse than useless: It is spiritual self-destruction.

“If Goddess religion is not to become mindless idiocy, we must win clear of the tendency of magic to become superstition. …

“The value of magical metaphors is that through them we identify ourselves and connect with larger forces; we partake of the elements, the cosmic process, the movement of the stars.  But if we use them for glib explanations and cheap categorizations, they narrow the mind instead of expanding it and reduce experience to a set of formulas that separate us from each other and our own power.”

The Co-optation of Paganism

We know something is wrong.  The world is disenchanted.  Or more accurately, the world as it is disclosed by the overculture is disenchanted.  It is disenchanted because it recognizes only one very narrow and objectified definition of the real and only one very narrow and alienated way of relating to that reality.  It is disenchanted because it embraces only one vary narrow definition of what it is to be human–one that is patriarchal, heteronormative, racist, and ethnocentric.  It is disenchanted because of the myriad ways it separates us from contact with wild nature, both the nature within and the nature without.

But in spite of the disenchantment of the overculture, the intuition of another world persists.  Our challenge is to distinguish the genuine “other world” from the myriad counterfeit “other worlds” which a disenchanted overculture offers to us (often for a price).  At its best, Paganism points the way to the other-world-that-is-this one.  Yet, like every other aspect of contemporary culture, Paganism is susceptible to co-optation by the overculture.  Paganism is itself susceptible to disenchantment.

The fact that we Pagans have rejected transcendental religion like Christianity does not insulate us against the gnostic temptation which pervades the overculture.  Nor does it insulate us against the other forces of disenchantment: reductionist positivism and consumer capitalism.  These forces are insidious in the way they mimic genuine re-enchantment. As Patacelsus’ recently observed here, “A corporation doesn’t need to convert anyone to destroy a person’s spirituality, it only needs to hollow out your spirituality and then sell you back the rotten guts.”

We Pagans have a habit of thinking of ourselves as under siege. While there is still discrimination and harassment of Pagans in the public sphere, today many of us are more likely to be dismissed as a joke than to be actively persecuted.  It’s possible that the greatest threat to Paganism today is not from a Christian dominionist attack on our freedom of religious expression, but from something far more subtle, something more likely to come from within than from without.

I think the real danger to Paganism is not so much that our religion will be outlawed, but that there will be no reason to outlaw it.  The danger is not that guardians of the overculture will go to war with Pagans in a second “Burning Times”, but that they will have no reason to go to war with Paganism, because any difference between the two will have become merely superficial.  The danger is not that we will forced to consume some counterfeit experience for the genuine re-enchantment, but that we will no longer be able to tell the difference.

Will the Phony Elf Please Sit Down?

Pagans attach a strong stigma to judging other people’s spirituality, especially other each others’.  And yet, we have to judge.  We have to discriminate.  Should I listen to this teacher or that one?  Should I adopt this practice or that one?  Should I spend my time reading this book or that one?  Is The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days going to reveal the other-world-that-is-this-one or is it going to be a waste of time?  Or worse, might it lead me astray?

There are many counterfeit “other worlds” offered to us by the overculture, and sometimes the Pagan Otherworld is one of them. How to distinguish the real thing is the question.  How do we tell the difference between genuine re-enchantment and what Starhawk calls “mindless idiocy”?

I don’t have a complete answer to that question.  If I did, I would probably be some kind of spiritual guru.  But I have learned some ways not to do it.

I can’t judge it by the surface.

It’s tempting to dismiss as disenchanted any aspect of Paganism that doesn’t immediately resonate with me.  But if my fifteen years of Paganism has taught me anything, it’s that I can’t divine depth from the surface.  As much as I am tempted to, I can’t judge The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days from its cover.

I can’t judge it with my mind only.

And while I can’t judge The Elves from Ancient Times to Our Days from its title, I also probably can’t judge it by just reading it either.  I have to live it or at least try to.  I have to put it into practice and test it for myself.  Because whether it works or not may depend more on me and where I am in my spiritual journey than anything else.  To one person, perhaps it may lead to expanded consciousness and connection with the other-world-that-is-this-one, while for another it may have the opposite effect.

I can’t buy or sell it (at least not reliably).

“Magic, connection to the earth, the experience of the Other—these things the merchants of Paganism™ cannot sell us …” — Rhyd Wildermuth, “Paganism™”

Oh, I can buy the book, of course. And the book may or may not help connect me with the other-world-that-is-this-one. But the amount of money I spend will not increase my chances. In fact, I very well could spend no money and get the same effect. Of course, teachers and artists should be compensated for their services and the work. But the fact that money has changed hands is really irrelevant to whether those services or that work will be conducive of the re-enchantment of the world.

Will the Real Elf Please Stand Up?

Still, we can’t read every book or study under every teacher.  There must be some criteria to separate the wheat from the chaff.  I’m no expert on distinguishing genuine re-enchantment from its myriad imitators.  But I have at various times in my life experienced the real thing, and there have been some common characteristics of those experiences.  I don’t know if they are generalizable to everyone, but I offer them for your consideration:

Genuine re-enchantment gets me out of my head.

“Resistance begins in your body.” — Peter Grey

In my experience, real re-enchantment–or, if you will, real magic–always connects me with my body, with the earth, and ultimately with community.  Disenchantment manifests as a disconnection with these things.  My body is the door that leads me out of the prison of my mind.  That door opens onto the natural world.  And that world is populated by other beings, both human and other-than-human.

Genuine re-enchantment grounds me–literally.

Live a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
–Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet”

The “other world”, as I have said, is right here, right now.  Therefore, one indicia of genuine re-enchantment is a heightened sense of place.  So I strive to, in the words of Wendell Berry, to “live a three-dimensional life” and, in my religious life, to “stay away from anything that obscures the place it is in.”

Genuine re-enchantment connects me with others.

“The danger of mysticism is that it can become an escape from concerns about other people. Entranced by the cosmic oneness of it all, we end up forgetting or ignoring the other people in the room, on our block, or on our globe.” — Roger Gottlieb, “The Transcendence of Justice and the Justice of Transcendence”

Since disenchantment breeds disconnection from one’s body and from the natural world, it leaves us trapped in a kind of mental prison of solipsism.  Disenchanted forms of spirituality perpetuate this, while genuine re-enchantment brings us into intimate contact with others and fosters community.

Genuine re-enchantment is transformative.

Because it can’t be bought and sold, and because it puts us in touch with our bodies, with nature, and with each other, genuine re-enchantment is radical (meaning it goes to the “root” of things), it is transformative, and ultimately it is revolutionary. Genuine re-enchantment fosters profound change, starting with ourselves and moving outward to transform the world through us.

These are my touchstones.  If it gets me out of my head, if it grounds me, if it connects me with others, if it is transformative–then chances are that it will be conducive of genuine re-enchantment … even if it has a picture elves on the cover.

But there come times—perhaps this is one of them –
when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;
when we have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a deeper listening, cleansed
of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static
crowding the wires.
— Adrienne Rich, “Transcendental Etude”

 


Notes:

[1] I have found no better description of re-enchantment than that of Joshua Landy and Michael Saler in The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age:

“If the world is to be re-enchanted, it must accordingly be reimbued not only with mystery and wonder but also with order, perhaps even with purpose; there must be a hierarchy of significance attaching to objects and events encountered; individual lives, and moments within those lives must be susceptible again to redemption; there must be a new, intelligible locus for the infinite; there must be a way of carving out, within the fully profane world, a set of spaces which somehow possess the allure of the sacred; there must be everyday miracles, exceptional events which go against (and perhaps even alter) the accepted order of things; and there must be secular epiphanies, moments of being in which, for a brief instant, the center appears to hold, and the promise is help out of a quasi-mystical union with something larger than oneself.” (emphasis original)

[2] The overculture refers generally to the dominant culture.  Here, it refers to the outcome of a Western cultural paradigm which incorporates reductionist positivism, consumer capitalism, and transcendental religion.  This paradigm exists primarily in the form of implicit or tacitly held assumptions, rather than explicitly held beliefs.  It is, for the most part, culturally invisible and personally unconscious, so it is insulated from critique.  It creates and maintains the political, social, economic, ecological, and even spiritual status quo.

[3] Interestingly, the ambiguous etymology of one of the Welsh names for the Otherwold, Annwfn, lends itself to this interpretation. Two different etymologies of annwfn are given:

an- (intensifying prefix) + dwfn: deep = “The Very-Deep Place”
an- (negating prefix) + dwfn: world = “The Not-World”

Combining these etymologies, we may understand the Otherworld to be in this world, and yet not, manifest not on the surface, but “under” or at the roots of our experience of the world.

[4] This may be what French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray referred to as the “sensible transcendental”.

[5] Religious studies scholar, Wouter Hanegraaff, has argued that magic survived the Enlightenment by becoming itself disenchanted.


John Halstead

halsteadJohn Halstead was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which represents the most successful effort to date to harmonize the diverse voices of the Pagan community in defense of the Earth. John is one of the founding members of 350 Indiana, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry. John is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community.  John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans.  John writes about Paganism, activism, and life at AllergicPagan.com, Huffington Post, and here at Gods & Radicals.


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When is Paganism not Paganism?

From Emma Porter: “what Capitalism tries to hide from the seeker, is that Paganism is free.”

When it’s paganism with a small p, that’s when.

What can that possibly mean? Well, let me try and explain. Recently in a well known pagan fb group (at least well known in good old Blighty), I stumbled upon a discussion on what Paganism means to the individual in terms of deity and beliefs. I was struck by a response that seemed to be quite popular, and it was along the lines of having atheist beliefs but living the pagan lifestyle.

This is when paganism is not Paganism, at least to me. Is this what our spirituality has become? A lifestyle choice? Online debates about the reality of deity? Oh no, hell no!

Surely as Pagans, the Earth, nature herself, is sacred. You can feel it, can’t you, when you’re outside in the wild with the wind in your face, the rain on your skin, the heat of the sun or the cold of the snow. Surely this is the very essence of Paganism, our connection to and our own place in this, the web of life. “A pagan lifestyle” without any of this is empty and meaningless.

I would like to think that the contributor to said Facebook discussion simply meant that her path does not necessarily revolve around the worship of deity. Worship of and to deity is a personal choice, a personal belief, and I do believe that one can truly have a meaningful Pagan practice without deity, literal Gods and Goddesses.

But what if this isn’t what she meant, and indeed she meant what she said? What is a pagan lifestyle without the spiritual side?

I love the idea of a witchcraft shop that sells herbs, parchment, inks and the like;however, most of the shops I have encountered have been massive disappointments, selling the usual array of crystals, candles, synthetic incense and angel ornaments. This is what I think of when I think of paganism as a lifestyle without the spirituality.

And what’s wrong with that? you may well ask. Well nothing….if you just so happen to like the smell of incense, even if it’s just chemicals and perfume, or the shine of crystals, mined from the earth. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you like (well there is, but that’s another article for another day). But it is not Paganism. Do not be fooled.

This is the work of a system that seeks to keep us dulled down, that seeks to keep us busy with mindless, empty, cheap shit that has no practical or spiritual purpose. When mothers and fathers have to work full time jobs and still ends cannot be met, here, have some cheap shit to take your mind off your own slavery, slavery to a system that many within it, even those at the bottom, defend.

We Pagans are not exempt from this lie either, are not exempt from the self delusions that enable this lie. We’ve all fell for it, at the beginning, when we first start out on the Pagan path. It’s a difficult pitfall to avoid, when you’re new and everything seems so beautiful and shiny. But then you take home your crystal, your incense, and display them and burn them, but what then? Nothing, that’s what, and after a while you see that these trinkets, whilst look the part, add nothing at all to your practise.

And so you head back out to the New Age shop or market stall and you buy something else in the hope that it might make you feel more of a Pagan. And so it goes on and on, in a cycle, until you are ready to break that cycle. Some never do, and some don’t want to, they are happy with their illusions.

What the system, what Capitalism tries to hide from the seeker, is that Paganism is free. You do not have to spend a penny. However capitalism serves the lazy pagan. Why go out and connect with the earth when you can buy this or that to make you feel more pagany? It makes the person with the most money, able to buy the biggest pentacle ring or necklace or crystal seem holier than thou, more genuine and authentic. It is everywhere in pagan culture. Look how much fellow seekers charge for their works. The poor are often priced out.

This isn’t to say that Pagans must give up money, or give freely their own works and endeavours – I’m all for a fair wage for a fair day’s work, but as someone for who, especially in the past when my own children were young, has nothing left at the end of every month, thirty pounds for a working or for supplies is unheard of, a luxury to be dreamed about but never realised. What about those in that situation? Are they to be left out, forgotten? Is their belief and spirituality less than someone who can afford all of the trappings? Yes, if the pagan lifestyle is empty of spirituality, another prospect for capitalism to take people’s hard earned cash for things made in China for as cheaply as possible.

Pagans can no longer afford to be lazy if we want our spirituality to mean something. This earth is our home, and so our paganism must be nature-centred. It is simply not enough to say that we are a part of this universe and that the universe returns to us what we send out, as a well known New Age book seems to think. It is not enough to be grateful, not today when this precious earth of our, when our Mother Nature, whom we worship as Pagans, is under constant attack. Untold damage is wreaked on this earth in the name of capitalism, in the quest for newer and more efficient ways to separate the people from their hard earned money.

I too have been guilty of this. It is a relatively new aspect to my craft, environmental activism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m big on recycling and reusing and reducing my waste and carbon footprint and the like, but it isn’t enough. There’s more I need to do, but I’ve started, and that’s the important part, the hard part, finding your voice, your confidence to speak out against injustices perpetrated by the strong against the week.

Part of what prompted me to act is the fracking of local beauty spots and countryside, but that’s not all. I’m tired of feeling helpless as I watch the destruction of the very nature I worship, all for the sake of profit, profit that benefits the few and leaves the many grateful for whatever scraps they are thrown. Everyday, that part of myself grows stronger, more self assured and confident, and it will for you too. Taking the first step, the first real step, is hard, but each successive step becomes easier.

We Pagans must act, and our actions must serve and protect nature. The alternative is paganism as a lifestyle, and that isn’t worth a damn.


Emma Kathryn

My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magick, of course!


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Death and Taxes: Real and Artificial Scarcities from an Eco-Psychological Perspective


“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” — Henry David Thoreau

Revolutionary road-2
“From the time I woke up until I went to bed, there was the fear.” (image credit: publicity still from the 2008 film, “Revolutionary Road”)

From the time I woke up until I went to bed, there was the fear. Sometimes I could give voice to this fear, but mostly it remained unspoken. It threaded through all of my conversation, all of my activities, all of my thoughts. The fear was with me even in my dreams.

It was the fear that there is not enough.

This fear appeared sometime in my childhood, and it has stayed with me as I moved into adulthood. It stayed with me as I graduated from college and law school and got a job. It has stayed with me even as my annual income has doubled and tripled. No matter how much I had, there was always the fear. The fear of going hungry. The fear of not being able to pay bills. The fear of not being able to pay for a doctor. The fear of not being able to pay for my kids’ college. The fear of not being able to support myself in retirement.

I would find myself, in my distracted moments, whispering, “If only I had …” or “All I need is …”.

Does this sound familiar? This fear that there is not enough, that there will never be enough?

This fear even played out in my romantic relationships, which had a desperate, grasping quality to them, my need for someone to “complete” me. It even manifested in my relationship with my God, whose love always seemed conditional, something which could be hoarded by the “righteous” and withheld from “sinners”.

The strange thing was that this fear did not lessen as my life circumstances changes, as the objective measures of my economic security increased. Nor was it lessened by the knowledge that I and those like me enjoy a level of material security unknown in other parts of the world, and undreamt of in the history of the humankind. The fear might seem to go away for a little while when I went shopping, when I bought something I didn’t need. But it always returned.

Why?

Because this fear is not based on anything real — it is manufactured.


“You can’t take it with you” — Alan Parsons Project

supermarket-empty
“This perpetual fear of not having enough is manufactured. It is manufactured by our economic system and those who benefit from it.”

This perpetual fear of not having enough is manufactured. It is manufactured by our economic system and those who benefit from it. An artificial scarcity is created by systemic maldistribution. This artificial scarcity creates the fear. It is fed by advertising. It is perpetuated by our public discourse, the things we say to each other, the hidden assumptions behind statements like: “Raising the minimum wage will increase unemployment.” and “Easy access to health care will create consumers with an insatiable demand for medical services.”

This fear is perpetuated by the cycle of boom and bust, economic “bubbles” followed by economic downturns, which encourages both hoarding and conspicuous consumption. It is encouraged by the government in the name of “patriotism”. The fear encourages compulsive shopping, compulsive eating, compulsive sex — all of which feeds back into the system.

There are real scarcities, of course. Real insecurities. But they are hidden, masked by the artificial scarcities and manufactured insecurities. Artificial scarcities obscure the real scarcities, the absolute scarcities. We live on a planet with finite resources and we are growing without restraint, because of an economic system premised on infinite growth, and because of a belief that unlimited offspring are inalienable right. Clean air, clear water, fertile land, trees, fossil fuels — these are real scarcities, but we consume them like they are inexhaustible. We consume resources that are truly scarce in order to stave off the fear of artificial scarcities: money, jobs, consumer goods. I can’t grow enough food to sustain my family, I can’t make my own clothes, and I can’t build a house: these are real insecurities. But they are not the insecurities that are driving me on a day-to-day basis.

So long as we’re caught up in the system, we can’t tell the difference between the real scarcities and the artificial ones. Not only do we mistake artificial scarcities for real ones, we also mistake real scarcities for artificial ones. And so, believing that the real scarcity of earth’s resources is artificial — i.e., the product of artifice — we put our faith in another kind of artifice, a technological fix that we hope will save us from rising temperatures and rising sea levels. And believing that the earth itself is the artifice of God, we put our faith in a divine savior who will rescue us and carry us away to a similarly artificial paradise. All of which leads to more overconsumption — “make hay while you can” — and more hoarding — storing up against the inevitable “end times”.


“And death shall have no dominion.” — Dylan Thomas

death_and_the_maiden_1
“At the root of these is the fear of death — the fear that there is not enough life, the fear that there is a limited about of ‘me’.” (image credit: “death and the maiden 1” by paperskull )

We need to root out the source of the fear that drives this cycle. Yes, artificial scarcity is created by maldistribution, but the fear of scarcity has a deeper root. Yes, advertising and our collective myths perpetuate this fear, but they just take advantage of something much more primal. Not enough money, not enough possessions, not enough love: At the root of these is the fear of death — the fear that there is not enough life, the fear that there is a limited about of “me”. All fear of scarcity derives from this fear of death.

“To Have or to Be” is how Erich Fromm framed our ontological dilemma. Because we cannot be infinite, we seek to consume infinitely. We hoard wealth as a hedge against death and squander resources as a way of denying our finitude. We strive for dominion over mother nature, not just to end suffering, but hoping thereby to attain dominion over death. But ironically this fear of death drives us to destroy the very material conditions of our lives, to murder the earth of which we are part. Or if we cannot maintain the illusion of control, then we take refuge in a state of dissociation from matter, from our bodies, from the natural world, surrounding ourselves with artificial world of non-biodegradable plastics and the never-ending stream of stimulation from our electronic screens. Here we can be immortal — for a little while at least.


“Our only but wholly adequate significance is as parts of the unimaginable whole.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

l-1crop
“I had an intense feeling of both our infinitesimal insignificance and our inestimable consequence as a species.” (image credit: still from the 2014 movie, “Lucy”)

It should have happened on a mountaintop. Or in a redwood forest. Instead, it happened to me in a movie theater, of all places. It wasn’t even a particularly good movie. I guess we don’t get to choose the time and place of our epiphanies. Of course, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. If I had not been immersing myself in eco-Pagan discourse and practice, I might not have been primed for the experience.

The climax of the movie in question was a montage of images connecting the heroine to her ancestral primate past and to the physical universe as whole. It triggered something in me, and as I walked out of the theater, I had an intense feeling of both our infinitesimal insignificance and our inestimable consequence as a species. I felt both of radical dissociation from the everyday concerns of my life and of deep responsibility to the earth and to universe as a whole.

I didn’t realize it right away, but in the coming days and months, it dawned on me that the ever-present anxiety about my own death was not so ever-present. I’m not saying I was suddenly careless when crossing the street, or that I was unconcerned about what would happen to my kids if I died at a relatively young age. But the end of my life just did not seem to matter that much in the cosmic scheme of things. Yesterday I turned 40, which for many people is an anxiety-ridden transition, but as the day approached, I felt only an increasing lightness of being. It might be an overstatement to say I no longer fear death, but I no longer experience each moment like a stopwatch running backward. And my personal death no longer looms over me like Nemesis with her sword. Instead, I feel that one day I might actually be able embrace it, like an old lover.

I also noticed that the perpetual fear of not having enough was strangely absent. And I started to see how this sense of scarcity which had been my constant companion was an artificial creation of a sick system which actually obscures the real scarcities. Everything seemed different in this new light. I still went to work and paid my bills, but I did this with a new sense of detachment. The anxiety which had previously underlain all of my activities, all of my thoughts, had largely evaporated. There are still days when I lapse back into my old patterns of thought: “If only I had …”. But I can still call back the vision, the sense of being a part of something so vast that my fears are dwarfed by it. And then that fear of not having enough loosens its hold on me.


“For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself?” — The Gospel of Luke

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“We realize that we are a small, but radically interconnected, part of this vast earth — which is itself a part of an even vaster cosmos — a part of the earth that has recently become conscious of itself.”

This shift in consciousness which I experienced is what ecologist Arne Naess calls “Self Realization”, an experience of the shifting of the center of one’s identity from the ego-self to the “eco-self”. We realize that we are not who we thought we were. We are not our minds. Even our bodies are not our own, but are colonized by other living organisms, just as we colonize Gaia. Our skin, the boundary by which we measure where “I” end and “it” begins, is not solid after all, but is permeable, the thinnest of veils. As ecologist David Abram explains, we realize “that we are a part of something so much vaster and more inscrutable than ourselves […] that our own life is entirely continuous with the life of the rivers and forests, that our intelligence is entangled with the wild intelligence of wolves and wetlands, that our breathing bodies are simply a part of the exuberant flesh of the Earth”.

We realize that we are a small, but radically interconnected, part of this vast earth — which is itself a part of an even vaster cosmos — a part of the earth that has recently become conscious of itself, and as such has special responsibilities. Paul Shepard describes this change in this way:

“If nature is not a prison and earth a shoddy way-station, we must find the faith and force to affirm its metabolism as our own—or rather, our own as part of it. To do so means nothing less than a shift in our whole frame of reference and our attitude toward life itself, a wider perception of the landscape as a creative, harmonious being where relationships of things are as real as the things. Without losing our sense of a great human destiny and without intellectual surrender, we must affirm that the world is a being, a part of our own body.”

With this shift in the locus of our identity comes a new perspective on our individual lives and our place in the cosmos. Somewhere along the way, we lose that fear that was our constant companion — the fear of never having enough, and the fear of death. Writing at the end of the 19th century, socialist and nature mystic, Edward Carpenter, described a “cosmic consciousness” in archaic humankind, a sensibility which he hoped to see return in modern times:

“To the early man the notion of his having a separate individuality could only with difficulty occur; hence he troubled himself not with the suicidal questionings concerning the whence and whither which now vex the modern mind. For what causes these questions to be asked is simply the wretched feeling of isolation, actual or prospective, which man necessarily has when he contemplates himself as a separate atom in this immense universe—the gulf which lies below seemingly ready to swallow him, and the anxiety to find some mode of escape. But when he feels once more that he, that he himself, is absolutely indivisibly and indestructibly a part of this great whole—why then there is no gulf into which he can possibly fall.”

With this cosmic consciousness, comes a new perspective on everything. We can see artificial scarcities for what they are and can distinguish them from real scarcities. And we come to see that what matters most is not economic security or personal immortality, but the survival of the human race and of all of life. And so, in loosing ourselves, we gain the whole world.


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