The name of A Place

Feb 22

One thing that strikes any American traveling abroad is the extensive history the other nations of the earth possess. There may be cathedrals in renowned cities a millennium old, or a bakery in a humble township that had been in continuous operation for centuries. The folk of the old world know which pastures to graze their cattle to make the right milk for the right cheese, what terroir is best suited for a specific wine grape.

Here in America, our history relatively new, we are only now beginning to learn the land in such ways. Only now are appellations becoming apparent: Russian River for Pinot Noir, Colorado for mutton. Thus are the names of a place called out and recognized, as partners with our civilization.

But there are other, deeper names that go beyond practical functions. I’ve stood on the piazza built over a site sacred to Attis and Cybele. I’ve dipped my fingers in water drawn from the well of Niniane. Someday, I plan to walk the Camino Del Santiago and, in one of the great pilgrimages of the West, seek vision.

Once, the hills, forests and streams about me were named. In days gone by they were inhabited by mystical serpents with jewels in their heads, little people with hair down to the ankles, killer witches that croaked like ravens as they cleaved the sky. Not anymore. Only the river, the Long Man, Oconee, keeps the lore of the men and women that preceded me. The First People are gone-taken West long ago, and the names went with them. I make my way amid the  local world and wonder what the name was for the Granite Seats By The River. I wonder what spirit presides over the Stone Spring.  The rituals for the seasons, the trees and the herds held now only by ghosts unrecognized.

Sometimes, I sit on the hill overlooking the river, and wonder when there will be names for them again.

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The River

Feb 15

I grew up near the Oconee River-a brown, langorous southern waterway in Northeastern Georgia. Where I lived, the banks were, for the most part, undeveloped. Oak, hickory and poplar, reaching for the sun from without the other trees, stretch out over the waters, like revered old men leaning as they stand. Closer to the ground, mountain laurel and rhododendron cling to even the most precarious of hill-sides. The water of the river runs shallow, splashing over granite boulders, river stone and mill ruins.

Long hours were spent in these woods with my childhood friends playing Star Wars, catching fire-flies, building forts and dams.  Later, in my adolescence, I took long strolls into solitude. I would sit in a silent communion, amid the trees, seated on stone slabs overlooking the river there was a silence that contained everything.

There are the burial mounds of the Cherokee Nation near the river. Graves dug into the top of a hill, covered with stone. Cedar and holly were sacred to the Cherokee, and still grow among the remains. Part of the funerary rituals of the Cherokee were cleansing in the river, which they called “The Long Man.” I walked among the dead near the river, respectful, my presence to keep memory.

Once, I was in the deep wood near the river, after a visit to the Cherokee graves. Thunder lowed from heaven and warm, heavy rain came down-fat drops that shook hands with the trees. The path was narrow, thick with brown and green that gave some canopy from the down fall. And then, before me, there was a deer-but unlike any I had seen before. It was unhorned, a doe, it was the color of tea, legs like reeds. I saw many deer in my years on the river. They are skittish creatures and bounded away to a safe distance in all my encounters-except this one. The doe regarded me intelligently. It was unafraid and knew I meant no harm. Long moments passed, and then the deer stepped into the brush next to the path and vanished. I went on, through the woods, in rain, by the river.

Many expect spiritual experiences to contain great revelations, explosions that accost and interrupt our lives. But often, the greatest moments of illumination are quiet and personal things.

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Adventures Out of The Body

Feb 10

OOB (Out Of the Body) Experience, more popularly known as astral projection, was something that fascinated me since I was a child. Basically, astral projection meant the ability to send consciousness out of the body in spirit-form (usually invisible to the lay-man), where it could then wander the world at will unfettered by physical obstructions or limitations (walls, gravity, etc.). The astral form was connected to the physical by the Silver Cord-if this band is cut, it was said, death ensues.

I’m not sure when my first exposure to the phenomenon was. I was an avid comic book reader in my youth, and a number of super-heroes possessed the ability to astrally project at will in their arsenal of powers. Most notable among these were Professor X of the X-Men, who could do so due to his extreme-but innate-psychic talents, and Doctor Strange, who earned the ability after rigorous mystical training. I would lay in bed at night and try to force some latent mystical talent into functioning, and imagine myself, clad in the whiteness of the astral form (that’s how they drew it in the comic books, like a ghost coming out of your body) and flying over the world.

My interest wasn’t limited to astral projection. I also wanted to know about (and have) telepathy, precognition, telekinesis, you name it. I had a good friend who shared my interests and we somehow worked out that everyone had these gifts, the trick was we just didn’t know how to use them. My friend’s father (who lived in another city, his parents were divorced) was interested in mysticism and passed down texts to his children-generally, these were the Carlos Castenada books that were popular with the preceding generation. When asked about astral projection, my friend reported the answer had “something to do with lighting spheres up in the body.” Okay, I was good with that. After that piece of advice, I started to imagine spheres of light sparking up within me. Nothing still happened.

My freshman year in High School, I suddenly discovered that the bookstores in town actually had a section with parapsychological texts, along with a sampling of everything from aliens to Wicca; the silly to the nefarious. That said, it wasn’t until I was a junior in High School that I finally picked up a book titled, simply enough, “Astral Projection.” It was the first complete manual I had ever encountered, written by members of the Aurum Solis, an occult secret society with origins in Europe (stretching back, they claim, to the Renaissance).  The key to the program was a sequence of meditations/visualizations that entailed building up and lighting spheres on the body! The exercise was called “Formula One.” It was easy enough-I imagined spheres of light on different centers of the body (genitals, heart, throat, forehead and above the head), and in special colors for each one. From there, you project astral material from your belly-button, shape it into a human-form, project your mind into it and voila! Astral projection.

Unfortunately, teenage indolence got the better of me, and after a few half-hearted attempts, I stopped trying. I was too busy drinking, chasing women, and getting into trouble.

When I was in my early twenties, I took an extended sabaatical from just about everything as I tried to wrap my head around my life. During this time I got serious about my spiritual pursuits and gave the astral projection thing another go. I practiced the meditations, formed the spheres on my body, no clear results. I figured it takes time to master the talent.

Then, one day, I had a lucid dream-a dream where I knew I was dreaming. And something interesting happened. I tried “Formula One” and never got past lighting up the sphere above my head. There was a ringing like a tuning fork sounding, a brilliant flash of light and I shot out of my body. But it wasn’t like the comic books-I couldn’t control where I was going. I went flying outwards, through a bizaare and phantasmagoric landscape (I later learned this was the astral plane, more on that some other time). It wasn’t frightening, so much as disorienting. A lot of time seemed to elapse and I had no idea how to get back to my physical body, which was at 760 Boulevard. I had some pamphlets at home for shamanic week-end workshops, and supposedly, these guys knew about soul-retreival. I resolved that I had to tell a friend to go to my house, get the pamphlet and contact the shamans so I could get back into my body.

Perhaps it was the extreme desire to return that brought me back-I’m not really sure. I made it back to my room, my body was below me. But someone or something else wanted to get back in as much as I did. The two of us tussled for awhile, then, I collected myself and uttered a prayer for help. Whatever it was left, and I went into my body again with no problem. Later that same day, my friend approached me (before I mentioned anything about my experience) to say he thought he saw someone in his house, and then they weren’t there.

Since that time, I’ve seen the same phenomenon happen in drum circles, during plays, at concerts, while I’ve dreamed. I’ve had conversations about it with people who can project at will (I still can’t, by the way). One of them was, in fact, a world-respected head of a Sufi Order. It is plain to me that we are more than just bodies of matter, there are gradations of ourselves, that reside into more and more sublime levels.

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Feb 01

When I was young there was, as today, a lot of concern about the environment. The cause celebre at the time was the wetlands-marshy areas that support a lot of wildlife that were being encroached upon by human development. It was in the weekly reader and there were talks about it. Species were imperiled-at that time the Florida alligator was an endangered species, along with a host of others on an increasingly long list that seemed destined to spiral out of control.

The mass extinction of species due to human irresponsibility weighed heavily on my young mind-the idea that there were creatures that once were and were no more seemed unthinkable. Children have a hard time conceiving of death, the why and way of it. Extinction was death squared, death cubed. It was death of geometric tragedy because, in this instance, it was unnatural. Strangely, most of the adults I knew didn’t seem to care. We were given “Save the Wetlands” stickers at school. The idea was to spread the message by placing the stickers where others might see them. The picture on the sticker was a mother duck on her nest with her young. I don’t remember where I put most of the stickers-but I kept one for my house, and put it on a small, white rocking chair that was kept in my room.

Sometime that year in CCD (that’s Catholic Sunday School if you don’t know) the class centered on creating a “prayer corner” in your room. It was suggested we set aside a place in our room where prayer could be made. I doubt if specifics were really gone into-I was only in first grade-but today I’m amazed that such a sound idea was presented to me at such a young age. No matter what tradition you are in, it’s good metaphysical praxis to have the same  place set aside for daily meditation/contemplation/prayer/ritual what-have-you.

It escapes me why I went and did as told. There were lots of suggestions made that year and in years to come that I never listened to. I can’t even remember what they were-because, like most kids, I thought Sunday School was dumb and Church was boring. I preferred Greek mythology and often wondered why my own religion was so lacking in excitement. At any rate, I did set aside my prayer corner. I assembled the things I thought were appropriate, the sacred things of a child: my rocking chair with the Save the Wetlands sticker, and then, a Children’s Bible Stories coloring book-there was an excellent picture of Mary on the cover. The chair wasn’t for me to sit in as you might think. It served as a make-shift altar, I propped the coloring book up-Mary served as icon and representation of the act of prayer.

Now, people often ask for things when they pray. Certainly, children pray hard and expect fulfillment. I sat in front of the image of Mary, her icon above Save the Wetlands. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t verbalize any need or want. I just kneeled there. I’m not sure how long-and then, I felt something, some brief moment of clarity, some second of the numinous-in a way that a child is ready to receive it. And, like a child, I took the experience for granted-I don’t mean that callously. I accepted the experience for what it was. I didn’t question it, I didn’t tell anyone else about it. But I never forgot it, either. Thirty five years later, I remember that day as well if not better than any that have fallen more recently.  Sometimes, in the act of meditation/contemplation/prayer/ritual whatever-you-call-it, contact is the reward we are given.

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