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The Ecology of Magic - Re-weaving the Tapestry of Culture

Presented at the Scottish Pagan Federation conference, 2003

When John asked me to speak at this event, I thought - Ah! Great! I'll talk about the ecology of magic. But when I sat down to think about it, I realised that though I know in my bones what the ecology of magic is about, I couldn't put it into words.

What brought it into focus was a recent environmental conference at Oxford University, where we tried to explore the relationship between Humans and Nature.

I worked with a discussion group on 'Changing the Myth' - changing the destructive Western myth of consumerism to something more ecological.

And during that discussion I realised that the ecology of our magic always exists in the context of a specific myth.

How many times have you been told that magic is nonsense, and you should learn to 'live in the real world?'

What that means of course is that you should learn to live in their 'real world', rather than your own. And my point is that there are many 'real worlds', many different ways of making sense of our existence - and they are all in competition.

I call these different worldviews 'myths', in the sense that they are complex ways of telling the story of who we are and who we can be. In this sense Christianity and Paganism are myths, and so is Marxism or Western Capitalism.

Many of us would go along with Dion Fortune's definition of magic as 'the art of changing consciousness at will'.

That's a good description, but we need to be aware of how much our consciousness is caught up in a much broader context and influenced by a very powerful myth.

So what is the Western Myth that I'm talking about?

We spent hours at the Oxford meeting trying to agree on this, but despite all the talking, we didn't really make much progress.

At the end of the session there was a few of us who felt frustrated by it all, and felt that somehow we were missing the point.

I think that part of the reason for our failure was that most academics spend all their time stuck in their heads. One confided in me over dinner that he tends to forget he has a body at all!

And that is a key part of my understanding of what the Western Myth is about. The problem was that there was a bunch of academics sitting in a college in Oxford talking at each other - No wonder we couldn’t agree!

But this is all very much part of our culture. The psychotherapist Marion Woodman describes the modern Westerner as a person who walks around with his head suspended two feet above the rest of his body.

And that really is the nub of it. We've split the world.

Western culture uses a very simple, yet powerful strategy for making sense of a complex reality. Instead of a confusing & disturbing Universe of infinite shades, we simplify everything into black & white.

Reality is divided into Good & Evil, Us & Them, Culture & Nature.

The psychologist Melanie Klein believes that these opposites emerge from the moment that we realise we are individuals.

So the very first thing we become aware of is that we are separate, individual - me, and not you. We then projected this division onto the world.

In every case one half of the pair is mapped to the self, & treated as superior, while the other half is just that – the 'other', & therefore inferior, unknown & somehow suspect.

When we split the world into Culture & Nature, Mind & Body, Reason & Intuition, it is the natural, physical & intuitive world that is downgraded, rejected as other, as 'not me'.

There are some things that don't fit into this dualistic pattern. These are the transitional creatures are nether fish nor fowl, edge dwellers that don't fit. Frogs, snakes, mistletoe, dew, and of course, witches.

Such beings are often considered as uncanny, Sacred or taboo.

What cannot be classified into the cultural system is uncanny, and scary. It doesn’t fit. It doesn’t make sense.

Body fluids - like semen and blood - are uncanny too. When I bleed, that which was me is now outside - is it still part of me?

Witches spell recipes often include uncanny ingredients like 'cocks eggs' and newt's eyes - as well as semen and blood of course!

Places and times can be transitional too: seashore, twilight and dawn. And it's no coincidence that such places and times were especially sacred to the Celts.

I work closely with Hekate, who I understand as the Goddess of Transitions - Life and death especially, but also mystical initiation.

This is a central to the reason why Hekate is feared in modern culture – Transitions are uncanny, and the uncanny is frightening.

Perhaps what is sacred, and what is uncanny, frightening or taboo are the same, differing only in how humans relate to them. It all depends on which myth you use.

So what does this western belief system of dualities tell us about our world? Well, for a start, if someone just has an intuition about something, they aren't being reasonable!

My reason is in my head, and that's what makes me who I am, so my body must be something else. And of course the physical world isn't really worth much, so the sacred is somewhere else too. Earth is just dirt after all.

At root Western culture worships reason and lives in the head. It distrusts the body and sensuality, and by extension, the Natural world in general. Instinct and nature become defined as a threatening 'otherness', which must be tamed.

All this is very apparent in certain religious traditions, especially those that are based on a holy book.

But in a sense our entire worldview is written in the book. The philosopher David Abram calls ours "the culture of the alphabet", and points out that writing is a very potent form of magic.

When we open a book and look at the patterns of ink on the page, we hear voices and see visions from other places and times.

That isn't really very different from the Hopi elder who focuses her eyes on a stone and hears it speak. Except of course that one is 'reasonable' and the other isn't. The Hopi elder lives in a different myth that is dismissed by the Western one.

Perhaps Western myth wields a stronger magic, for it's no coincidence that the word "spell" has a double meaning. When we spell a word we cast a spell. And our cultural spelling has come to exercise a new form of power in the world.

David Abram claims that:

"No culture with the written word seems to experience the natural landscape as animate and alive…. Yet every culture without writing experiences the whole of the earth as alive and intelligent."

It seems that writing and reason have cast glamour over us, a forgetfulness of other ways of knowing that means we can no longer feel the deep wonder of the natural world.

I'm not advocating we adopt wholesale irrationality. I'm not suggesting that we’d all be better off running round chattering gibberish all day! Reason is a very powerful tool, and used wisely it can enhance our lives and serve the ecology of our planet.

But we have come to rely on reason to understand everything. We tend to filter all our experiences thorough the screen of reason, and what doesn't pass is just second class.

Reason is a tool. I wouldn't use the same tool for every job around the house, but we often apply reason in that way.

You can put in a screw with a hammer, but you'd be much better off with a screwdriver!

Psychologist Charles Tart believes our culture is caught in what he calls a 'consensus trance'. A culture defines which perceptions should be admitted to awareness, and then trains everyone to see the world in that way - and only in that way.

We project this fixed perspective onto the natural world and that distortion creates many of the problems we are trying to address.

This powerful myth has influences in the most unexpected places.
Many environmental magazines, like those published by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace hardly ever mention the beauty of the natural world. The articles concentrate on the facts of global crisis rather than encouraging people to go out and sit under a tree, smell the leaves and touch the mud! Hey, that's kids stuff! It's not nearly serious enough.
The Western myth has had a big influence on Paganism too. When S.L. Mathers defined magic as “the science of the control of the secret forces of nature” he was speaking on behalf of a long tradition. This tradition of Western magic evolved out of a worldview that was obsessed with dominating the natural world and controlling human emotion.
Many of our magical traditions are influenced by the thinking of people like Francis Bacon, who notoriously wrote "We must put Nature on the rack.... to determine her secrets.
This tradition is profoundly cerebral and is rests on the notion that we are separate entities defined by individual egos.
This is an ideology of control that Raine Eisler calls the ‘dominator’ mode. In magical terms it teaches us that humans are superior to nature and spirits are there to serve.

Some techniques of Western magic tend to strengthen the ego and thereby emphasise the distinction between the self and the cosmos. As a result the magician can become increasingly alienated from nature and less able to sense the flow of Spirit.

So maybe it's not so odd that when Margot Adler surveyed American Paganism she found that there are un-ecological pagans.

And that's not to say they aren't 'proper Pagans'! Thankfully there is no 'one-true-way' for us. But it does mean that Paganism doesn't automatically connect you to Nature. And it reinforces my belief that Paganism still carries a deep current of thinking that distrusts the earthy and the sensual.

I found an interesting definition in the Thelemic tradition of magic as the "control over meaning:"

[Thelema Lodge Calendar -]

That's an evocative phrase that nicely encapsulates this whole history of analytic magic philosophy: Whoever controls meaning has power.

That notion leads me on to look at another very powerful magic that wields enormous influence in our world today. This magic weaves a kind of glamour and creates an illusion that binds the will.
It’s a kind of techno-magic that combines ancient techniques with the latest technology. It creates and manipulates thought forms to make the mundane appear desirable and the astonishing seem dull.
Like the magic Dion Fortune describes, this is about changing consciousness, but not in accordance with the individual will. For this is a manipulative magic which binds the individual will to that of the magicians.
This is the magic of consumerism, which creates the illusion that we can satisfy our deep need for meaning and fulfilment by buying the latest product. The satisfaction never lasts of course, for many products are like fairy gold. Once we've got them, they loose their sparkle.

I believe the myths of consumerism feed off our relationship to pleasure bliss and Spirit. And this is the key connection that needs to be broken.

Vine Deloria, a Native American writer, quotes the chief of the Osage tribe, who rejoices in the name of Big Soldier. The chief was commenting on the Western way of life:

"I see and admire your manner of living" He said. "You can do almost what you choose. You whites possess the power of subduing almost every animal to your use. You are surrounded by slaves. Everything about you is in chains, and you are slaves yourselves. I fear that if I should exchange my pursuits for yours, I, too, should become a slave."

So how do we break the chains? How do we change the myth? How do we wake up from the consensus trance?

By a strange irony, some answers are emerging from deep within the heady academia of cognitive psychology.

According to some scientists, we make sense of our world using metaphors. They claim that metaphor isn't just a matter of poetic language, but is basic to thought and reason.

This is obviously very relevant from a magical point of view. Starhawk says, “When political action moves into the realm of symbols it becomes magical”.

[Dreaming the Dark. P. 169].

Magic is deliberately using the power of symbols, and metaphors are just linguistic symbols based on our physical experience.

The psychologists have also concluded that 95% of the metaphorical knowledge that we use to make sense of our experience is unconscious.

What is even more interesting is their suggestion that these metaphors - which are woven into what I've called our myths - are held in our bodies.

"What our bodies are like and how they function in the world…structure the very concepts we can use to think."
[Philosophy in the Flesh']

So our bodies structure how we make sense of our experience. They order our reason, concepts and understanding. In effect, they underpin our myths. And it nearly all happens outside our conscious awareness.

Now most of this won't come as a huge surprise to Pagans. Isn't nice when the scientists catch up with the rest of us?

Those of you who've heard me speak before will know I tend to bang on about the wisdom of the body. This deeper way of knowing is held in the tissue of our bodies. It's the knowledge of faith, of emotion, of the gut feeling.

And now it seems that this embodied knowledge underpins all the ways we reason about the world.

So the body gets the last laugh! Well, in time perhaps…

But first we need to feed cultural attitudes that honour the body, the sensual world and Nature. We need a culture of sensuality that knows the sacred through the physical.

We need to shift our culture from one that seeks joy in consumption to one that finds joy in self-realisation through connection.

The New Myth (Gaia Myth)
So what might the new myth look like? Or maybe I should say, what might it taste like!

The philosopher Mary Midgley is backing Gaia as the Next Big Idea. She sees Gaia as a powerful tool of understanding that can unite science and philosophy. Well, that's a step in the right direction, though what we need is a bloody great big leap!

But the Gaia idea has potential as the core of a new myth of sensually embodied connection.

Put simply, Gaia Theory suggests that the whole Earth is a living organism that is the sum of all the beings and processes upon it.

That sum includes human beings, so in Gaia Theory we are not just living on Earth, but we are Earth.

This approach opens up the vision of radical interconnectedness that underpins the Deep Ecology movement - and of course - eco-magic!

For Kabbalists the purpose of human life is to enable the Divine to come to know itself. That notion isn't so far from the Gaia idea if we think of human beings as the Earth's awareness of itself.

So perhaps the threads of this new tapestry are beginning to weave together.

We're moving away from the myth of division that keeps Nature and Culture separate, and in its place we're developing an ecologically magical worldview blurs the distinction between Nature and Culture. Our reason and our intuition work in partnership. Our bodies are truly sacred - They are made of the stuff of Stars and we are part of Gaia.

David Abram believes that we are human only in convivial contact with what is not human. Without that connection we are cut off from vital sources of nourishment.

But our existing culture filters nature for us, providing a diluted version for easy consumption. Those of you who watch The Sopranos will most appreciate my illustration. Tony Soprano, a modern day Mafia godfather, visits the zoo. And he has a pretty good time there, and smugly tells a friend:

"You know, I went to the zoo the other day.... Its good to be in nature."

But to really be in Nature - to be Nature - we must honour and value our direct sensory experience: the tastes and smells in the air, the feel of the wind as it caresses the skin, the feel of the ground under our feet as we walk upon it.

A magical culture is instinctively in tune with the earth underfoot and the air that swirls around us. Instead of a strict boundary between myself & the rest of the world, we can embrace a shifting awareness across a kaleidoscope of being.

And this new awareness encourages a right relationship with nature, which means we're back with ecology again.

So when we say that the Earth is Sacred, perhaps what we actually mean is that our relationship with the Earth is Sacred.

This is where the ecology of magic can become a magic for ecology.

While he was studying magicians in Indonesia, David Abram saw that their primary work had to do with acting as intermediaries between the human village and the more-than-human community - the animals, plants, and trees that they know to be living, intelligent forces.

Most anthropologists emphasise the role of magicians as healers in the tribe. But Abram's points out that any sickness within the village is usually traced to an imbalance between the community and the living landscape surrounding it. So when the Shaman or magician heals an individual, they are actually re-balancing the relationship between culture and nature.

The traditional magician cultivates an ability to shift out of his or her common state of consciousness in order to make contact with other species on their own terms.

The magicians Abram studied lived on the edge of the village on the borders between the human and the more-than-human world.

Witches, Shamans and magician are often fringe dwellers too, living at the boundary between the world of human culture and animal nature. And like the Indonesian magicians, we have a key role in restoring balance between the worlds.

Most of us use techniques to shift our consciousness. We trance journey, use shamanic plants, ritual or divination. These methods allow us to meld with and lose ourselves in Nature to reach a deeper understanding from within.

These are tools that allow us to wake up from the trance, to break the cultural spell. And then we might begin to see the sickness of our culture, and perhaps how that sickness touches us.

So our magical practice means we can step back in and testifying to what we see, and begin the process of healing.

Ways Forward

How should we move forward? I'd like to end by exploring a few ideas.

I've recently learned a new set of techniques for using endorphins to work with energy on both physical and spiritual levels.

Endorphins are the hormones that the body uses to relieve pain, reduce stress and promote healing. The body produces endorphins whenever we experience pleasure, so good memories, sex and laughter all increase our levels of endorphins.

That sounds pretty good so far, but what has it got to do with spirituality and re-connection?

Willhelm Reich, who developed the theory of Orgone energy, believed that our patterns of physical behaviour, past traumas and stress become locked in the tissue of our bodies. This creates what he called 'body armour'. This armour restricts the flow of energy around our bodies and leads to psychological and physical dis-ease.

William Bloom believes that endorphins can melt this body armour and release the natural flow of energy.

Body armour not only blocks the energy flow within the body, but also prevents benevolent spiritual energy from inspiring us from the living landscape that is all around.

So, when you stimulate endorphins you encourage the flow of energy around the body and allow the vitality that flows through nature to flood the body.

Williams ideas sit well with Pagan practice, and from my experience over the last few months, work beautifully.

This kind of bodywork is very much what I understand as eco-magic. Eco-magic is in constant flux and resists any fixed definition. It is more an attitude than a set of practices, and constantly evolves through the input of myriad magical traditions.

But central to Eco-magic practice is working in tune with nature rather than trying to gain control over it. When we recognise ourselves as Nature we work with it at many different levels - rationally, instinctively, and intuitively.

Traditional paganism in these islands - the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon - was very much concerned with the Land and I think we need to keep that close in our practice today.

In my experience some of the most effective eco-magic involves working with the Genius Loci of the place, the Devas or Faery Folk.

It's said in some traditions that the most powerful shamans are those who have been taught by the Land, by the place they have chosen to belong to.

As Alastair McIntosh says, "Being taught by the “spirit of place” (which may be the whole Earth) is maybe a slower but much more trustworthy teacher than any guru."

When we open ourselves to connection with Nature, we need to engage with the energy of the spirits on their own terms. This means disengaging the ego and using your sensual body.

Using physical movement and sound in your ritual rather than rote learned blank verse helps us connect with the body and opens up our awareness to the subtle energies of Spirit.

In my preparation for this talk, I sat and opened awareness to my yew wand. I sat at my altar and held the wand, merging my consciousness with the spirit within the wood. And it asked that I tell you it's story, as an example of how the two myths I've described collide.

This wand comes from a magnificent & very ancient yew tree that was destroyed by the vandals who helped build the M11 Link Road in London.

Dragon and other local campaigners had fought long and hard to save this tree and its neighbours. People were camped on the land to physically protect it and we had woven what magic we could.

But very early one morning a gang came in with chainsaws and axes. They set on the camp and the trees, smashing and destroying all they could.

I arrived to see the aftermath. The torn tents and a broken guitar, the trees slashed and people weeping.

The yew tree was very badly damaged. It had been attacked with a chain saw. One branch hung off the tree, not quite severed clean but limp and broken.

The tree spoke to me, & said that it was important that I take this piece of wood away. 'Or they will burn everything, and it won't be saved'.

It was only later that I knew it was to become a magic wand with a particular talent for eco-magic work.

The yew is connected with that dark earth energy we call the 'chthonic'. It's a power that the culture of division fears & misunderstands. It is Hekate's power, a dark sexual Underworld energy. It's the power of the body, of the Earth, of blood.

And the culture of Domination tried to destroy the tree, and the protest, and all it stood for. But they failed. Because the Spirit of that tree lives on, as does the power of protest.

What feeds and inspires this work are Sex, death & Spirit, the three most powerful forces in our lives. They are part of the same tide & our tragedy lies in forgetting how that can be.

I’m asking some fundamental questions here. What is Paganism about? What does it serve? I believe that Paganism can most authentically serve the new, Gaia myth, and as such is in opposition to the current divisive, consumerist one. If I’m correct, then our Spirituality is bound up with an immense and profound shift in consciousness, a shift from a fundamentally unsustainable Myth to a deeply ecological one. And that shift requires a magical change in way we relate to the world.
And now I have to own-up that I've had a difficulty throughout this talk.
I'm telling you that we should all be more in touch with our bodies and immerse ourselves in sensual delight.
And you're sat there, indoors, with me talking at you with lots of words and quotes from 'clever' people!
I have enormous respect for a man called Alastair McIntosh, who I've mentioned today. And one of the things I love about him is his characteristic style of presenting his ideas. He'll do all this wordy stuff, and then stop, pick up his penny whistle, and play the theme of what he wants to express. Now that's walking your talk!

Sadly, due to inbred laziness and impatience, I've never learnt to play an instrument, so I'm going to try to express my theme in a sensual way with two short poems. The first is from Rilke:

"Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.

The inner -- what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming."

This is by the Sufi mystic, Rumi:

"There is some kiss we want with our whole lives
The touch of spirit on the body.

Seawater begs the pearl to break its shell
And the lily, how passionately it needs some wild darling.

At night, I open the window and ask the moon to come and press its face against mine.

Breathe into me
Close the language door
And open the love window.

The moon won't use the door
Only the window"



David Abram - 'The Spell of the Sensuous'
William Bloom - 'The Endorphin Effect'
Raine Eisler - 'The Chalice and the Blade'
Adrian Harris - 'Sacred Ecology' (published in 'Paganism Today' (Ed. Harvey and Hardman). Available on 'The Green Fuse' website.
Lakoff and Johnson: 'Philosophy In the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought'
Willhelm Reich - 'The Function of the Orgasm'
Starhawk - 'Dreaming the Dark'

Web resources:

The Green Fuse environmental philosophy website:
Where the buffalo go: How science ignores the living world.
An interview with Vine Deloria

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