Monday, August 30, 2010

Peace and the Celtic Spirit: Excerpts from a Journal (1)

In August 2010, just past the waxing quarter moon, a bunch of strangers met for the first time in Rostrevor, a small town in County Down, Northern Ireland, nestled below the Mourne Mountains on the edge of Carlingford Lough that opens out into the sea. From all over the world — from Portland to Hong Kong, from Glasgow to Nashville — they gathered together to learn about peacemaking rooted in the Celtic sense of sacred hospitality and the holiness of the land.

It was my first time traveling alone, and my first journey ever beyond the borders of the United States. For me, the week-long retreat became a kind of pilgrimage, back to the land of my ancestors, and beyond the ninth wave into a place of conversation, connection and new friendships forged.

The hosts of the retreat asked us to respect the safe and sacred space created by the community, and refrain from attributing direct quotes to any of the attendants or speakers. With that in mind, the following are excerpts from the journal I kept.

Day One — The Airport

On the drive out, Jeff and I talked about the distinction between superstition and faith. Decontextualization, it would seem. Faith assumes a certain articulated worldview, a complete or at least coherent theology. Superstition, on the other hand, seems without any larger context — people do things without knowing why or how it works. What does this imply about the anti-theology, anti-intellectualism of the modern Pagan community? Can practice without theology be much more than superstition?

And to what extent do we have the larger mainstream to blame? So many activities require our participation without explanation or contextualization. Moving through airport security, certain objects must be removed or displayed, subject to search. Others can be tucked away safely inside bags. What makes the difference? The explanations offered do not seem to satisfy, to offer enough context. So much of our society asks us to act "on faith," but is this really faith, or something else? Faith in the government and its ability to act on our behalf and serve our best interests as citizens — but is this really a coherent worldview?

I suppose it is — just not one that matches up well with reality.


So many strangers. Yet I feel nervous and somehow embarrassed to be here alone, on my own. It seems everyone has at least one other person with them, to watch their bags when they need to go to the bathroom or get a drink from the shop. Like hiking in the woods — you should not travel alone. And like a spiderweb, casting your fate out into the world, hoping to make that connection. Relying on a tenuous communication that stretches hundreds of miles, across an ocean — I trust G. will be there on the other side. Of course he will be — but I have to trust. All the friendly flight attendants in the world won't help me if I arrive in Belfast with no one on the other end. All these connections — everyone here has made arrangements — for foreign travel, for going home — an airport is always a nexus, a meeting of threads in the web — but everyone is moving on, hoping their connections hold. If you look out at all the strangers, you get a sense of vertigo. As though you could fall, become just another stranger, a stranger to everyone, a stranger to yourself.


We are only able to do the things we do because we are treated like children.

Guided every step of the way, watched over, instructed — and we follow. This is the only thing that makes flying bearable, the very fact that it has been rendered for us humdrum, ordinary, predictable, even boring. Pratchett is right — the human race is amazing, for it has invented boredom. It could not have succeeded in accomplishing much else if it had not first invented the exquisite haughty dullness of being bored. The girl next to me is dozing as we wait to take off. In a small metal contraption that will rocket us hundreds of miles, across an ocean. This is amazing. If we were in our right minds, we would be screaming in horror and awe; instead, we yawn and doze in our uncomfortable seats. I am not nervous. Even after my limited experience I have learned well the lessons of the cute, inane cartoon instructional videos — this is all so very dull. Routine.

How amazing and terrible we are.



  1. The faith/superstition conversation is well worth exploring. Just as the difference between "magic" and "sacrament" may, sociologically speaking, amount to little more than a matter of perspective, it seems to me that both faith and superstition entail a willful suspension of disbelief. What always goes through my mind is that airport security is a game of catching up; e.g., the liquids were never an issue until someone tried bringing combustible fluids on board. So I wonder, what will be the next trick that will get through security? And then, mainly to keep my blood pressure manageable, I forget about it. And board the plane on faith.

    But while it is gut-level scary to climb aboard a plane (I know people who fly all the time but have never erased their fear of doing so), how often do we consider that it is actually, statistically speaking, more dangerous to get into a car? Our faith in driving and our fear of flying are complementary; presumably it would be more rational to either fear both forms of transportation, or, having determined that the risk is worth the benefit, to trust both forms equally. But few of us seem to do either of these, so it seems we are all engaged in the flight from reason (pardon the pun) on one level or another. Perhaps in this we might find a clue to how to proceed to untangle the faith/superstition knot...

  2. Carl, Thanks for your response!

    I definitely agree about the insider/outsider question in defining things like faith and superstition, or sacrament and magic. It's interesting that while I think most Pagans would still reject the notion that their religious tradition is "superstition" (though most also tend to shy away from the concept of faith, I think), plenty have embraced the idea of magic as an alternative to "sacrament." Perhaps because the latter has such Christian overtones? I wonder if this choice in word use has some kind of unnoticed effect on the Pagan approach to ritual.... Hmm... food for thought...

    For me, safety is really only one aspect of my reaction to flying. Another is the high environmental cost, which (maybe simply because I am overly sensitive or have an active imagination) I experience as a kind of visceral disruption or disorientation. I get this to a mild degree in cars, like I mentioned, but in airplanes it's profound. Being simply bored by the humdum nature of ripping away from the ground and rocketing thousands of feet up into the atmosphere doesn't do much to mitigate the sensation of visceral repulsion or discomfort... In some ways, actually, I wonder if my (or our) boredom is a defense mechanism, a way of shutting down to the otherwise quite overwhelming physical sensations of pressurized, recycled air and the constant low-frequency rumbling of jet engines. (I can only imagine what it must be like for folks who, due to work, have to travel this way on a regular basis - the kind of numbing and disorientation they must live with all the time...) There are ways to reduce or escape this in a car... but the only thing that makes a plane ride bearable for me is taking refuge in sensation-numbing television or sleep.

    It's funny that whenever I bring up my dislike of flying, almost everyone cites the issue of safety compared to cars (that's all I heard during the week leading up to the trip ;). Even this response seems a bit like a prepared answer, though, a mantra we can turn to instead of listening to what our bodies are telling us. It provides us with a context for our discomfort and explains it away as merely irrational fear. But I am not afraid of crashing.... I'm disconcerted by flying. To me, there's a difference... and safety issues don't really address that difference adequately.

    All that said, sometimes undergoing physical distress of this nature is worth it. I couldn't have come to the retreat otherwise, and in some ways the strain of the flight was a kind of preparation for me, breaking down and disorienting me in a way that better opened me up for the work of the retreat. (Still, next time, I think I'll take a boat. ;)

  3. ....and now my mind is rolling around these questions of "rational" and "irrational" and "nonrational"....

    When is fear, as a visceral sensation, merely irrational, and when is it a nonrational response of the body that's worth listening to? How do we make this distinction? What role does the rational mind play in approaching nonrational experiences (whether physical or emotional, or even spiritual)? If we approach the body as sacred, does that mean that fear - insofar as it's a physical sensation or response in the body - is also something sacred? How do we approach fear as a sacred experience?

    See! This is why I miss you guys! You're not even in the same state as me, and you're stimulating all sorts of deep philosophical ponderings. :)

  4. The environment issue is certainly a factor, although consider this: it's a factor because of your knowledge and your values, and not because of anything intrinsic to the flying experience itself. I know environmental activists who travel to speak, and so donate part of their speaking fees to reforestation programs. It's a way of acknowledging that it is human nature to consume; the question is, how do we mitigate the impact of that consumption?

    My dad was a pilot, and so I inherited his love of flying -- that's not to say it doesn't scare me, but my experience is that the fear easily morphs into excitement -- I always get a rush when the plane takes off. I suppose we could argue that it isn't "natural," but that takes us back to the question of peacemaking and evolution, doesn't it?

  5. I realize belatedly, bear of little brain that I am, that my last comment could easily be seen as dismissive of your fear/experience of flying. Please forgive me for this. My point was not to poo-poo your experience but rather to simply highlight that we (the big, human race "we") do have radically different experiences and ways of thinking about / responding to similar events. Context is important, as in the case of my pilot-father. But so are values, and beliefs. I think physiologically, the experience of fear and the experience of excitement are often virtually indistinguishable: elevated heartrate, heightened sense of alertness, sweaty palms... why is one so pleasurable, and the other so icky?

  6. "I think physiologically, the experience of fear and the experience of excitement are often virtually indistinguishable: elevated heartrate, heightened sense of alertness, sweaty palms... why is one so pleasurable, and the other so icky?"

    You took the words right out of my mouth! (Or.. fingers?) This was what I was pondering, actually, reading your last comment (which didn't come across as dismissive at all - in fact, I was contemplating how to respond without myself coming across as dismissive, and you've gone and beat me to it!)

    This issue has brought up many questions for me. One is the undeniable fact that certain experiences - like flying, f'ex - are ambiguous or ambivalent in nature, either exhilarating or terrifying, thrilling or discomforting, or even both at once. I definitely had those moments as well (watching the sunset within the clouds, seeing the ocean far below as a shimmering wasteland, etc.).

    I think I read somewhere once that this is a good description of "sublimity," that which is both awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time, something that breaks down or shatters or transcends easy categorization. (I think Rilke writes of angels this way?) And of course, it's applicable to discussions of the Divine or Spirit (or God).

    It also really highlights the importance, like you pointed out, of context. It's funny that my journaling for that day started out by mulling over issues of context in a completely different area... But again, how we relate to, listen to and interpret our bodily experiences as physical beings depends a great deal on the context of our "faith." To what extent should we listen to and/or trust the experiences of the body? (To me, this is a philosophical question that goes back to the whole issue of phenomenology as a school of philosophical thought - though I don't know as much about it as I wish I did.) What, again, is this relationship between physical experience and mental/emotional/spiritual context?

    How does this tie into contemplative prayer and sacred practices of silence and quieting the mind? Is this a way of "transcending" the body, or is it a way of actually allowing the more ambiguous/sublime/subliminal experiences of the body-as-physical to come into the foreground to shape our experiences of the Divine "decontextualized"? (Is such a thing even possible?) Do these questions have relevance for other forms of ritual, especially (for me) in a Pagan/Druidic ritual context? What is the relationship between ritual as a physical act, and the mental constructs or contexts that arise? Are all experiences of sublimity or extreme physical sensations inherently ambiguous, or do some very explicitly shape our context in one way or another? (All of this, of course, compounded by the issue of how individuals experience these things differently, and how we experience such things as individuals-in-community as well...)

    I'm not really expecting any answers, so much as rolling around the questions and trying to articulate them for myself. :) Though I'd be interested to hear if you have any thoughts on the question of contemplative/silent prayer... :)

    (If all my journal excerpts spark such interesting comment threads, I fear I might have to spend the rest of my life unpacking all of the ideas and experiences that have resulted from this trip!! ...Here's hoping!)

  7. What a great read! Thank you Ali and Carl for sharing your thoughts. You both always give me much to consider.

  8. Here is a model of cognition that I think a lot of people implicitly buy into.  I'm not proposing it as an answer, but maybe it's a useful framework to impose on these issues...

    At the most basic level, for both humans and animals (perhaps for all life) you have raw experience.  No reaction, no emotion, no thinking, just experience.  For example, "spicy food."

    Then there is an automatic, subconscious or non-conscious reaction to the experience.  It could be a recoil, a burning sensation, etc.

    And then you may have reactions to that reaction and so on, continuing at the subconscious or non-conscious level:  desire for water, desire for more, etc.

    But one of the possible reactions is a conscious reaction:  one which includes some sense of a self being impinged by raw experience (or, indeed, by one of the subconscious reactions).  This conscious reaction takes the raw experience and sort of bundles it up, perhaps puts a label on it, and says "this stuff is not-me, but it's affecting me."  An example would be "I'm eating spicy food."

    Certainly humans do this; animals almost certainly do this (perhaps without the labeling); maybe plants do it.

    But then -- probably only at the human level -- you can have another conscious reaction to the conscious reaction:  the self says, "Look!  I'm having a reaction to the experience!"  The conscious reaction -- which includes both self and non-self -- is itself bundled up and labeled.  An example would be, "I don't usually like spicy food."  An observation has been made about the self's reactions.

    Or you could go up another layer:  "I tend to think about what foods I like."

    Or, instead of acknowledging the experience, the self can bundle up the experience and dispose of it, or relabel it as something else.  "Actually, I DO like spicy food."

    And theoretically one could go on, recursively bundling up reactions and labeling them.

    Perhaps this seems extremely obvious, and it's a common way of thinking about this, but I'm not sure it's wholly accurate.  Anyway...

    My point is that both the conscious and subconscious / non-conscious reactions are perfectly natural reactions to have.  To separate the self from its experiences, to label them, to reason about them -- this is a wholly natural thing to do.

    It is also, I think, natural to cast judgement on these reactions and labelings.  "I should like spicy food more than I do."  "People who like spicy food are tough."  "Spicy food is exciting to me."  "You call this spicy?"

    Where things can get tangled, I think, is in the judgements.  While the act of judgement itself is natural, it necessarily takes place within a belief structure; and errors in that belief structure give rise to errors in judgement.

    ... (continued in next comment)

  9. ... (continued from previous comment)

    One belief structure, for example, says that certain experiences of the body are bad.  As experiences and reactions arise, the conscious self should evaluate them, and repress or ignore them if they fall into certain categories.  Other belief structures advise searching for the causes of these reactions and rooting them out, to prevent them from happening again.  Other belief structures may deny that certain kinds of experience are even possible, and throw out the sensations or memories entirely.  In this way, belief shapes your perception of reality.

    But the beliefs, too, must be evaluated.  An inaccurate belief structure can indeed distort your perceptions, and leave you deaf to what your body is telling you about the world.  

    It is natural for humans to have this sort of layered of perception of the self.  And it is natural for us to evaluate these layers, and fit them into our belief structures.  But if we allow those beliefs to distort or deny our reactions and experiences, then we get into "unnatural" territory.

    The division between "natural" and "unnatural" is a crucial one for pagans in particular, I think.  The natural world is held up as an exemplar of divinity, but it's important to remember that humanity is natural, too.


    My own belief about the exhilaration / fear relationship is that both reactions are caused by the sense of imminent potential loss of self.  Maybe you're riding a galloping horse, or participating in an exhilarating discussion or debate, or standing at the edge of a precipice...  In all these cases, the body is getting signals that the self is, in some sense, endangered.  The difference, I think, between fear and exhilaration is a reflection of the extent to which you feel like you have willingly chosen this situation, and are in control of it.

    What's fascinating here is that it shows how there's a feedback loop going from the beliefs back into the body.  If fear is a sensation arising from the potential loss of self, then it crucially relies on a belief system that labels things as "self" and "not-self".

    So it's natural that experiences of the divine should lead to fear or exhilaration. Almost by definition, these experiences are dangerous to our sense of self, at least as we've previously known it.

    Ok, I've spent way too much time rambling.  If you've read this far, my sincere apologies for leading you down the garden path and dumping you in the swamp.  :)

  10. I have nothing clever or enlightening to say at the moment, but just wanted to say that I really enjoy reading the blog. You put words together beautifully...

    Nellie x