Ted had had enough of living, and planned to shut off his defibrillator, so I was surprised when he emailed the other day to tell me that instead, he was having it (like the Affordable Care Act) repealed and replaced. It seems he’d started getting blisters around it, then it just emerged like the thing in Alien. So they took it out, and explained to me that they’d gotten every last wire, a thing it would not have occurred to me to ask. Doctors do magic. That’s all I need to know. They couldn’t close the wound because it might trap an infection, so he’s going home Friday in a life vest to await the next surgical adventures, namely getting a new defibrillator put in, and having his bladder removed.
The bladder operation is related to problems with what Ted calls his “wee-wee,” and this depresses him, because he still yearns for true love. It sometimes seems tantalizingly close, as when guys from abroad send him pictures over the internet of what they claim is their buff, shirtless, well-coifed selves. They and Ted discover in a vertiginously short time that they are soul mates, and then they ask Ted for money for a ticket to the states– which he would send, if he had it.
Finding partners has been rough, always. Being obviously gay in rural Indiana would have been no picnic in any case, but his mother’s conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses when he was nine complicated things. He has lived in a demon-filled world. People in his congregation saw possession everywhere. Once his family had to burn their couch when they could not succeed in exorcising it. This is not a life into which love can easily descend, though sex occasionally enlivens an otherwise harrowing meander to the grave.
Ted’s mother, gruesomely misnamed Joy, once wrote a poem of which I can remember only the first verse:
Who is that yonder standing there
Who beckons me with bony hand
And sweetly softly calls my name
And bids me not to be afraid
Death would naturally be her familiar ally, with a husband whose beatings barely stopped short of killing her. And when Ted looks in his bathroom mirror and sees the skeletal hand caress his shoulder, and the shrouded figure of Miss Death materialize behind him, her head is bent at a motherly, questioning angle.
Besides, Ted has already been at his own funeral. When a JW comes out as gay, or an open sinner of some other kind, there follows a dis-fellowshipping ceremonly, essentially a funeral at which the corpse mingles instead of posing in a casket. After accepting the goodbyes of every JW you have ever known and loved, you are dead to them. They can no longer contact you. There’s some fudging on that– once in a rare while a sibling will send Ted some money, but even if they speak to him briedly by phone, they aren’t allowed to “greet” him (so no saying “hello” or “goodbye”). His mother, who could be faithful to the extent of having o Christmas trees and to banishing the last demonic futon or ottoman from their home, blew off the rules in this instance. His psychopathic brother was an unregenerate sinner in any case, so the three of them shared a trailer until the car crash that left Ted as the sole survivor. Ted can still see their trailer from his apartment window.
So Ted faces surgery having already “died.” But there’s more. There’s also the question of how many, and which, are going to die.
Ted tells me he believes he was multiple in the womb. I don’t actually think that makes sense, but at any rate he feels there was never a time when he was a single person, alone in his own skin, and neither he nor the rest of the Community wants to integrate. Being friends is a tad confusing, since he doesn’t always remember conversations we’ve had. Also, we can go along cheerily enough, and then it can turn out that somebody inside has been pissed at me for a long time about something I said years ago, and is ready to duke it out. There’s not much point in being pissed off later, because he might not remember, or the ones who are still mad at me may go underground for a long, long time. So it’s hard to know how to take an apology. One wants to be completely open to it, knowing that it’s not something he does often or easily. He’s more inclined to tell you off and sweep out of the room (figuratively speaking), slamming the door behind him.
Because he does this kind of thing a LOT, he’s down to a very few people who will deal with him at all, and only three of these (including me) are not abusive and/or psychotic. Which is not what you want if you might die soon.
“We’re all in this together” is a tough concept for someone who experiences themselves as many people. How can you believe that you will die right along with your host’s body, when all you see in the mirror is a five year old boy called Jimmy? Or a thirty year old Lothario called Bill? Or a yogurt-eating Yoga-practicing peacemaking young woman named Dharma.
Let’s be clear about DID– Dissociative Identity Disorder, which used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder, until folks realized that calling it that made people think of some sort of alien invation, with different people running around inside your brain. Actually, it means you’ve been hurt so bad, someone has taken a sledgehammer to your very self, and the pieces have taken on lives of their own. Anger, fear, love, shame, confidence, these things just don’t fit anymore into one person, so you experience yourself as many.
The first literary instance of it I know is the young man in the Gospels who is thought by his neighbors to be possessed. Jesus asks his name. He replies, “I am called Legion, for there are many of us.” And Jesus finds out what a trauma therapist could have told him, that you can’t get rid of the split off parts of a whole person. They have to go somewhere. The story says that Jesus sends them into some pigs, and those pigs plunge to their deaths. It doesn’t really work that way. The parts of a Legion, like Ted’s “Community,” live and die together.
Which leaves “Jimmy” the problem of accepting his mortality when he feels he hasn’t had the chance to grow up. Jimmy once created for me a virtual trip to the cellar in his old house, seeing it so vividly that I did, too. Down to the furnace. Down to the fire where something may have happened, or may not, and if anyone inside knows more about it than Jimmy, they aren’t telling. As far as Jimmy is concerned, he’s never grown older since that moment. He doesn’t feel fifty-seven. I don’t always feel fifty-seven. Do you feel that you’ve had the chance to grow up? Enough for death to be okay now?
And “Bill” has to wrap his head around dying when there are so many lovers to enjoy, so much new flesh to discover. Do you feel you’ve been loved enough to die satisfied? Or even fucked enough?
Then there’s the question of how to settle on one among the array of things that death can mean– or life, for that matter. One member of the Community is JW. Another is Mormon. Several are Wiccan. Of course, from my “singleton” point of view, that just means Ted is very conflicted about religion, and there’s nothing like the prospect of death to bring that conflict to the fore.
Or to inspire an answer, in the form of an image from a single heart binding many personas. The only thing they seem to agree on is mother. She is high on a ladder. She has been waiting for them. She is calling them up– like Death, who sweetly softly called her name.
Dharma wants to live the time she has left as a woman. I hope she can do it without so-called friends coming by to try to “father” Jimmy or seduce Bill, so they can crash for the night and steal his meds.
Meanwhile, since Ted left for the hospital with no specific plans for his cats or his pirranha, my assignment for teday is to get his keys and go make sure all God’s creatures are fed.
It would be hard to trace where it started, so I’m going to pick it up in the middle, with Travis. I first saw Travis at an open mic, a pale millennial beatnik seething Ginsberg-esque poems out of a marbled black-and-white composition book– outraged, images tumbling over each other in their rush to call out America in decay.
And I guess I’d also have to start with Marc, who is my FB friend, though I’ve never met him, and I can’t even tell you how I first heard of him. But I woke up one morning to a furious FB argument, featuring him and Travis, about nonviolence. Travis was 100% for it (nonviolence), and Marc, being black and gay and not up for being preached into masochistic civil rights sainthood by Travis, was somewhere less than 100%. I’d been reading all about being a White Ally, so I decided that here was my very first assignment. The argument continued most of the day, with many participants, lots of whitesplaining and lots of the verbal equivalent of tearing out of hair from sheer frustration, but in the end Travis apologized and dissolved into a puddle of guilt. Drying white tears is part of the ally job, so I messaged to see if he was okay and we chatted.
Then on one of my many nights of insomnia, he turned up on Messenger again. He was also awake, in spite of determined efforts to self-soothe by whacking off, so we talked about how that was working for him. I did mention that the last time I’d had such a chat, it turned out the caller was whacking off during the conversation, and I just wanted to clarify the nature of this exchange, but that being cleared up, we continued these late night talks, mostly about masturbation, but other things, too.
It turned out that Travis was hosting his own poetry event, and I thought I would go.
Well, the theme of the evening was anti-Trump poetry, generated by coupling American iconic imagery with porn and potty talk. Now I’ve been to a lot of open mics recently, and felt more than a little bummed that my own deeply introspective, wicca-feminist-tend-your-garden-love-the-earth-listen-to-the-goddess imitation-celtic rhymy-rhymy material lacked, oh, vitality?, compared to spoken word, but I don’t talk the way those poets talk, and I’m not going to try to fake it. But now as I’m listening to these young white guy protest poets, I’m thinking, shit, I can do this– maybe something like this for the next event:
her engorged tits taped shut
by the Appropriations Committee–
no milk for the tired and wretched,
and her green copper thighs closed
to the huddled masses surging for entry,
still whores for guns,
pees on the presidential mattress
and wears on her face the cum of a thousand paeons
of the Military Industrial Complex ….
It’s a start.
Travis’s open mic was my second all-white political small group event, the first being the fledgling local MoveOn.org house group, led by two guys who impressed upon us how much danger we were all in by the mere fact of being in their subversive Rocky Ripple lair. Angela Davis, move over. They wanted our consent before they took any pictures, just in case our identities might get out, and we were given the option of only using our first names—options taken by women attendees who feared for their jobs. These social justice warriors had already achieved such notoriety for their activist risk taking that they might at any time be under surveillance (good thing they told us, because I’d never heard of either one). The rest of the group, all women, served tea and sat at the feet of the masters.
Well persecution has its excitement, but no-one-gives-a-shit-what-we-do seemed to me the likeliest outcome of the meeting. And when one woman said we should elect more women to office, and Mr. Activist said that was sexist, I was done.
The third event was an ally training, all women except for two guys with the telltale chinstrap beard of the formerly misgendered, and all but one white– a way of putting it that, as I reread it, makes the lone black woman there an absence rather than a presence; the non-white. Well, – “well” being, I guess, her one-word ticket back to the place of absence so I can get back to being the center of the story– I think I made myself annoying by talking too much (which happens if I talk at all), and probably too stridently, since I’ve noticed that everyone says women should be confident and assertive, but no one seems much to like it when they are– or at least when I am. Maybe it’s all in how you do it.
At any rate, discussing the pros and cons of social media, I opined that in one way, seeing so many FB exchanges had helped me to realize that some people were not going to change; did not want to change; and did not want to hear evidence that might threaten them with change– this recognition being the fruit of weary years of being mansplained to, having to marshall my evidence, keep a cool head and a civil tongue, while striving to convert the enemy becomes the substitute for living my life.
They were so nice. Their comments were so gentle. And so directed anywhere but to me. Soft-voiced, silky haired, beret-ed and long skirted young things, reviving in me an old pain that maybe connects to why Marcus (remember my FB friend Marcus?) didn’t want to rule out violence. Finally, a truth solid as concrete, no, as steel, something to build on– that I don’t have to persuade people who have no stake in my freedom– disappeared, enveloped in cotton candy. We need, these ladies agreed, to listen respectfully to all points of view; maybe a few extreme people, like white supremacists, were beyond reach, but if you approached most people with love– if your stance was “I’m educating you because I love you”– that was the way to have an impact.
Which left me thinking maybe, as a preliminary hypothesis, I could say liberal white privilege means that if you’re male, you think you can change the world by being really pissed off, and if you’re female, you believe that if you’re just nice enough, you can bring anyone around.
I’m all about the Woman Power, and never more so than the year I left my marriage (temporarily) and the Catholic Church (permanently). Someone invited me to join a local production of The Vagina Monologues, and from the heart of a howling storm of “woke,” I said “FUCK yeah!”
The idea behind the Vagina Monologues is that women have been discouraged from defining themselves and their own sexuality. In the world of my youth, at least, it was not proper for us to look at ourselves, talk about ourselves, touch ourselves, so we have been defined by male doctors, movie producers, porn makers, and all the men who are allowed to name our bodies among themselves when we can’t even name them to ourselves. Guys like the male acquaintance who watches the James Bond movies with “Pussy Galore,” but is scandalized by the title “Vagina Monologues.”
We reclaim our agency in the show by talking about our vaginas as if they were persons with tastes, convictions, preferences. What would your vagina wear? What would it say? What song would it listen to? And it is empowering for the women involved to be as overtly sexual as they like, to celebrate their bodies and feel safe doing so.
It’s also a place where residual assumptions about women and sex still surface.
One evening, the director calls us in for an extra rehearsal. We show up to find poster board, magazines and art supplies, and we’re told to spend the next three hours making our own special “vagina collages,” to share how our vaginas feel about life. My vagina is massively annoyed, but I try to cooperate.
“Can we include toys?” asks one of my table mates.
“Oh, you’ve GOT to have toys” purrs another.
I’m struggling to get the glue out of the tube, as the competition begins.
“I’m into variety ….”
“Every size, every color ….”
“It’s the combination that counts …. ”
“Just ask my partner …”
“Ask my partNERS …”
“Fuck,” I mutter, as the glue finally sees the light of day in an impulsive, gooey spurt across my artwork.
“You can say that out loud!” one of my companions assures me.
“Oh, don’t be afraid to say ‘Fuck!’” the other one chirps.
“You should really learn to say ‘Fuck!’”
“I’m going to make sure you say ‘Fuck’ from now on!” they promise.
Have you met me?, I wonder.
I notice, as I get older, that some young women want to take me under their wing. They like the idea of creating a scandalous older woman, though apparently they haven’t done the math, and don’t realize I was nine when Woodstock happened, and don’t need to be taught how to talk dirty.
The bringing-out process includes makeovers. I’ve never understood why some women are thrilled to be surprised on national TV with a makeover from loved ones who bring in “before” pictures to demonstrate the sad ruin that is their friend. If it ever happened to me, I would politely decline, saying I like the way I look– and see if they have the balls to argue that I shouldn’t.
The cast’s notion of what is “sexy” is, to my mind, surprisingly conventional. This is the land of black and red bustiers, leather, fishnets, and spike heels, posing and innuendo. I’m not much of a cosmetics person, so before opening night I allow a young thing to do my make up. I end up with Madonna eyebrows and flaming red lips. I feel as though someone has just gone up to a wild, gray, craggy cliff’s side and painted it pink.
Trina– a stunningly beautiful and fiercely affectionate castmember– invites me to an outing to Lovers Lane, which I assume is a restaurant where we’ll chat. Instead, we go vibrator shopping, and Trina is loving her role as teacher and guide. She crams my silver hair under a blonde wig and wraps my puffy face and excess chin in a neon pink boa, like a three year old putting junk jewelry on her grandmother. She thinks I look beautiful now, and takes my picture leaning against the dressing room door like a film noir hooker against a lamp post. And what’s funny is that Trina thinks she’s liberating me.
There’s something oddly familiar in all of this. It feels related, somehow, to the racy remarks of the boys of my youth, who would make a show of keeping all explanations to themselves, as though the girls needed to know that they were the target, but also that they were excluded. What did that show of a sexual secret society do for those boys, and why do these young women need to feel they’re expanding my world? It seems that whether they aim to shock or patronize me, my sexuality, hot or cold, vanilla or kinky, must be a stationary object for use in their performance. I must not run ahead of your expectation, of your projection. You want to be a funny or scary or liberating mystery to me, but you can’t comfortably imagine me being an unknown to you. You can’t see me as having a sense of myself that makes the category “hot” not shocking, not dirty, not enviable, but at this point, not relevant.
I’ll be honest. I not only don’t try to stay young, I cultivate cronehood. I feel I was born to be old, and if anything I play it up, largely because it saves me the whole world of confusion that is sexual signaling. Granted, this freedom rests on the “ageist” assumption that old women are past all that, which is stupid. But it’s honestly a relief to me that no one ever thinks I’m hitting on them, or that I want them to hit on me. I can be affectionate and not raise any wrong ideas.
I’m a child of the sixties and seventies, when the sexual revolution created a demand for “yes” before feminism had plowed out a space for “no.” For many men of my father’s generation, the relevant question about a woman is the one asked in a Clairol commercial of the time– “does she or doesn’t she?” If she “doesn’t,” she’s the girl to marry– or to condemn as frigid, a gold digger, or a ball buster. And if she “does,” it has nothing to do with her agency, her preferences: she does it, so she owes it, to whoever wants it.
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the fun of flirting, seduction and all the rest in its time, but passion went with expectation, adulation, temptation, frustration, manipulation, and of course gestation.
In the seventies, there were two strains of expectation. One was a holdover from a world that was passing away. I was supposed to want to be attractive, but this was to appeal to hormone ridden boys who would lustfully plot against me (they didn’t). (Corollary: I should need to be plotted against, because I shouldn’t particularly want sex– much less make the first move). And resisting them was the key to ultimately getting one of these shallow and manipulative jerks to marry me.
And on the other hand, there was the Cosmopolitan expectation that I should be turned on by anything at anytime– middle school involved a lot of lying on magazine quizzes to make ourselves sound hot (like we were REALLY turned on by the prospect of “doing it” in a laundry room or the back of a pickup truck).
So I would say that I wasn’t someone who learned mutual touch and mutual respect early on. Sex was a thing I was supposed to perform, and sexual feeling was part of the performance. I never was “a natural woman.”
In addition: I don’t know how many of you have small children, but there is a reason mothers of babies and toddlers have a reputation for disinterest in sex– I mean a reason other than vaginal wear and tear (I recall hearing my hospital roommate telling a friend on the phone, [southern accent ] “I think I’ve changed my mind about sex”). It’s that physical demands are being made all day long, so that at the end of the day, I was like, “ok, I’ve fed you, changed you, read to you, and had sex with you— is everyone OK NOW? Can I go read, or something?”
Then I spent over ten years as a therapist listening to stories of sexual abuse. Without going into detail, it’s a libido killer.
So when they asked me what song my vagina would sing, I answered “I Got Plenty o’Nuthin’, and Nuthin’s Plenty for Me.” They didn’t get the joke, I guess, and damned if it didn’t turn up on the cast mix tape.
When I shared the title of this piece with a male friend, he started trying to console me, as though by calling myself “asexual” I meant “unattractive”– as though I needed his reassurance that I was alright in his eyes. We are that far away from escaping definition by the male gaze.
We celebrate “hot, happy vaginas” in the Monologues, but I want to make room for cool, rested, happily retired ones, too. I wish orgasms deep and mellow, sharp and piercing and radiant to everyone who has the energy of desire. My vagina power comes from being allowed not to want, from being able to say “I’m full now,” and leave the table.
Today I was giving my usual spiel to a DID* client, about how the things “Ed” and “Frank” were doing were actually the products of the same brain, albeit along different neural pathways. The thousand yard stare ensued.
“What’s happening?” I asked him.
“I’m having trouble hanging on to what you just said.”
This is a common reaction among people who dissociate, to information or views which throw their sense of reality out of kilter. It was not surprising, since my suggestion that this young man’s many states of mind were actually just different phases of a single person’s ongoing experience flew in the face of his daily experience of being, like Legion in the Gospel, “many.”
“Ed,” the host personality**, shares with his alters, and myself, a taste for metaphysics which gave a new twist to the familiar conversation about alters.
I repeated what I’d said, and now a look that could be anger or merely cunning possessed his twenty-something features. He said he felt like “Aiden,” and apart from his having dropped his former characteristic pose, with the fingertips lightly touching like a B-movie evil genius, he looked like “Aiden.”
“I find what you just said intellectually stimulating,” he began, all bemused smile and crisp diction. “I have never thought of this as connected with the brain before. The soul as like a machine,” he pondered, “working by wiring. I think we all see the spirit as somehow descended into the body.”
This was my cue to furrow the brow. I have been dismissive of what I would call “the client’s magical thinking,” and thought we had reached an agreement that this was merely delusional on his part. Last session, however, they (the “others”) informed me that they’ve been humoring me. Ed is simply far more literal about the world of magic than I can be; but unless (for the sake of conversation) I suspend disbelief a bit and immerse myself in his world, I will be of no use to him.
Go to your bosom; / Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know / That’s like my brother’s fault, urges Isabella in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. She is trying to evoke a judge’s empathy for her brother, who has been condemned to die for fornication. Unfortunately, her plea puts the judge in touch with his own lust, and mayhem follows– empathy is two-edged. Who wants to understand too deeply the feelings of a Ted Bundy? But we’re just talking a philosophical difference here … so I start rooting around inside like a badger for long since discarded thoughts that bear a resemblance to Ed’s.
“I know there’s a big divide between, say, Plato or Augustine, who see the realm of the spiritual as superior to the physical and so necessarily acting on it, whereas Aristotle and Aquinas would see the human soul as something that relies on the body for input ….”
“Yes,” says Aiden, “I’ve– at least some of us– have always seen the soul and the spiritual world as something greater than the physical, though it can take on the physical in order to manifest itself. It’s sort of Hindu or Buddhist, I guess …. Like with reincarnation, a soul could live in lots of bodies, until it’s learned something, or achieved something….”
“See, that’s the problem I have with reincarnation– how can you be the same self with a different brain?” I round off my comments by indulging myself in a couple of lines’ performance of the Indigo Girls’ Galileo.
“Yeah, I see the spirit as coming into the body…”
“… whereas I see it arising from the physical processes.”
The Aiden-esque detachment has receded now, replaced by eagerness, and now poignancy.
“I think…. I think I even have a memory of coming into the body …. Like a stream of light.”
Pause on both sides. “I can see how, if you see the soul that way, it affects how you would view being multiple …”
“Right”– learning forward– “there could be more than one soul in here. That’s why we see Angel as real, not just a part of us. She’s my literal …. She’s what Alister Crowley would call a ‘Guiding Guardian Angel.’ And I think … I know that other people have seen her, too. She’s physical to us, but mostly invisible … my invisible friend.”
“Who has seen her, besides you?”
“Well, my mother … of course, that was in the days when she was seeing rocking chairs move on their own, and seeing her dead grandmother.”
“But what happened,” he adds, “to shatter us into many? …. Trauma, I guess ….”
“Then you do feel, in some way, shattered …?”
“You could see being multiple as something involving ‘neural pathways’ (with a roll of the eyes), or early trauma, or just more than one person coming into the same body– and different ones of us believe all three.”
“It makes me wonder if the question of one self or many is tied to the question of one God versus many ….”
“… oh, it is …!”
And our hour was up.
I remember my own dismay when, in a Christian seminary (where I got my counseling degree), a teacher said something to the effect that we don’t need a “metaphysical something-or-other” to explain the workings of the mind. I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that my materialist philosophy of mind has troubling corollaries for Ed. It’s just that few other clients make the connection between my clinical statements and any particular worldview, so I haven’t, as they say, had to “go there.”
I don’t think like Ed. I believe he is a single organism unable to experience himself as a single person, because of developmental and traumatic obstacles to consolidating a sense of self. And if I want to skirt the whole subject, it’s easy enough to write off a chaos magician’s thinking as delusional. But then what do I say to the conventional (but Augustinian) Christian who believes that the soul is placed in the body at conception? How do I counter the notion that their multiplicity is intentional and God given, rather than a derailment– something to be repaired?
And is it my business to do so?
I’ve tended to take the view that psychological “symptoms” (or in other words, inconvenient defenses) are only worth going after if they really are causing problems. I don’t quarrel with hallucinations that are benign or supportive (as long as they don‘t urge harm to anyone else). And in fact, the DSM is behind me on this, since most mental diagnoses require “clinically significant distress or impairment.” You can’t, for instance, diagnose someone as dissociative if they go into shamanic trances as part of their cultural practice (and yes, that opens a can of worms in itself– what of the shamanic trance practiced by a solitary in a community that thinks it’s crazy?).
There is no conclusion coming at the end of this essay. I need to understand better what it feels like to be Ed, and that will be a work of time. And the madwoman within notes, with satisfaction, that a fox greeted us in the inside-world of post-colonial, amateur-shamanic journeying, indicating that I will need to be able to shapeshift– to wear Ed’s mind for awhile.
* DID is what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder, now called Dissociative Identity Disorder.
** The “host” is the term we use for the alter personality who bears the legal name. This alter is usually depressed, and may or may not be aware of the “others,” or of the traumas that led to his or her fragmentation.
Over the many years I’ve practiced Catholic contemplation, the few years I’ve practiced Zen, and now the year or so I’ve tried Wiccan meditation, I find several common threads. Common practices, and common outlooks on what I want meditation to be.
First, the mechanics:
1) I no longer adopt positions that are physically uncomfortable, even on the assurance that I’ll limber up in time.
That means, for starters, no praying on the knees. This is something I did mostly early on in Catholic practice– first, as a child, trying somehow to “suffer back” for Jesus, after what he’d gone through on the cross; then, as a young twenty-something, emulating things I remembered from the pre-Vatican II saint stories of my youth. Whatever an apologist can say about the truest Catholic doctrine involving the goodness of the material world, there is no question that contempt of the body and even outright masochism have often crept into Catholic practice, and permeated Catholic thought. It’s one of the things I mean to unlearn.
I also no longer adopt the hand position I was taught in Zen– the right hand supporting the left, palms upward in front of the belly, the thumbs touching. I am a big woman with big breasts and belly, and it hurts my shoulders to hold this pose. You have the option, at some Zen retreats, of getting a couple of ceremonial blows with a stick on the upper back (one just to the inside of each shoulder blade), mostly as a way of helping you stay awake. I expect that many of us requested these whacks just to get the kinks out of our shoulders. Last time I did this, he hit too damned hard, and I decided that however wrapped in ceremony this was and whatever the current pretext for it, I was still asking to be hit as a distraction from the pain caused by doing what these people instructed me to do. It’s really a good metaphor for masochistic spiritual practices in general– hold the pose they tell you to hold, and when it’s unbearable, hurt yourself (or have someone hurt you) even more so you can stand to do what they tell you a bit longer.
Now, I make sure that whatever pose I adopt can be held for a very long time with no major muscle aches or joint pain. And I don’t worry if I have to scratch my nose.
2) That being said, I still find some basic postural guidelines are helpful. First of all, I keep my body roughly symmetrical. Equal pressure on both buttocks; legs and arms in matching positions. Sprawling is a great way to relax, but there is something about the asymmetry which leaves me feeling ungrounded and out of balance when I want to meditate.
Second, the Zen “tripod” approach seems fruitful to me. They aim to keep the butt and two knees (either the side of the knees, as in the lotus, half-lotus, or Burmese positions, or the knees themselves as in the Seiza position) on the floor. This is not doable for someone with my arthritic knees, but to sit with my butt and two feet forming a tripod is deeply stabilizing, both physically and mentally. I don’t find that keeping my hands on the arms of my chair hurts my meditation in any way.
3) I don’t do anything that involves counting, because I get compulsive about numbers. Instead, I either fix my gaze on an object and clear my thoughts; visualize (as in the wiccan practices of drawing imagined pentagrams in blue flame); or, most commonly, listen attentively to the sounds around me. Gazing and listening are good for letting go of ordinary thought patterns, and learning simply to be attentive. Visualizing is good practice for shamanic work, in which imagery and spontaneous narrative carry you beyond your more consciously directed forms of thought, into the kinds of insights that emerge in dream or reverie.
Next, the aims, or guiding principles:
1) Meditation, for me, is not about producing “cool” experiences. It’s about fostering the capacity to let go of yourself enough to connect more deeply with others as they are. It’s about becoming appreciative instead of grasping, content with your limitations instead of self-aggrandizing or self-punishing, gentle instead of brusque. Any practice that brings about this shift is, in my view, sound spiritual practice; anything that involves pyrotechnics (visions, ecstatic states, out of body stuff, whatever) without producing these changes is worthless.
Here, I probably show a Catholic bias. One of Paul’s more famous letters (2 Corinthians) says that if we can speak in tongues, work miracles, etc, but don’t have love, we’re just empty noise (I’m paraphrasing here). Carmelite authors* from the sixteenth century to the present are very clear that the warm fuzzies, the rush of feelings, even the visions you can summon up in prayer are not the goal.
Zen, too, is more or less designed to take down the part of you that wants to achieve or impress yourself or others with your spiritual prowess. When the Emperor of China asked Bodhidarma how much merit he had accumulated by building temples, Bodhidarma answered, “none.” The point of meditating and encouraging meditation was not to achieve some kind of hero status! Buddha said that if you meet Buddha on the road, you should kill him: i.e., if think you’ve “arrived,” that you’ve found “IT,” spiritually, you are under a harmful illusion.
Or, to quote a modern master, Yoda: “Excitement … adventure … A Jedi craves not these things!”
Now, Wiccans do seem to value states of high emotion. The “cone of power,” if I understand it, is an exercise in self-induced group ecstasy, as is shamanic drumming. On the individual level, I certainly experience peace when I cast a circle, and there is something quasi-hypnotic about the shamanic journey. There is certainly a skill involved, as any good performer or orator knows, in inducing strong feelings in oneself or others. Moreover, it’s clear to me that liturgies of all kinds aim at inducing states of mind, from the hypnotic calm and attentiveness that I feel when I hear Gregorian chant, to the depths of joy and of comfort experience by many when they hear Gospel music in their churches. Is it a “good thing,” or a “distraction”?
The Carmelite saints distrusted storms of emotion in prayer because they believed that God transcends our experience, and God is the goal. We can easily mistake the state of our feelings for “the presence of God,” and end up worshipping our own nervous systems. Just as in Zen, attachment to anything (including one’s own enlightenment) is an illusion and a distraction, for many contemplatives, the wish to feel “spiritual” in some way can become an idol, displacing God.
On the other hand, there is a troubling elitism, in my view, to privileging forms of spirituality which downplay the emotions. My preference for silence or chant over gospel music as a spiritual vehicle could easily slide over into eurocentrism and even racism, when in fact, it’s a function of my particular neural wiring and of my culture than of special spiritual aptitude on my part.
2) On the other hand, I’m a skeptic. I don’t look to a particular religious body for what I should believe, but neither do I place unqualified trust in my own feelings, and the fact that a practice raises them tells me nothing about its soundness. After all, faith healing hucksters can also induce “changes of consciousness” in others. There are many ways to understand any given emotional state, and strong feeling doesn’t mean you’ve found the truth.
I suppose that in wiccan terms, one could say that dedication to the Goddess is dedication to all-that-is; for this reason, fostering illusion is never healthy spirituality (my goddess of preference, Kali, is said to be the destroyer of illusion). I have occasionally seen my psychotherapy clients encourage their own psychotic tendencies because delusion seemed more romantic and exciting than the real-life stresses they faced. It’s understandable. But if we really believe we are all connected, and therefore accept responsibility for how we engage with the whole, we can’t use psychological tricks to insulate ourselves from shared reality.
On the other hand, we can use whatever means we find to refresh ourselves for better engagement. So if the cone of power empowers, or the shamanic journey heals– well, to be biblical once more, we know them by their fruits.
I love reading tarot cards, but I am aware that whatever the layout, I am the one putting the story together, and I can’t help noticing that often my readings say more or less what I was thinking anyway– the cards simply draw my attention to more aspects of the situation I’m pondering. My shamanic journeys often surprise me, not by their content, but by the sense of peace and of being understood that they bring me. But they don’t, as far as I’m concerned, bring me supernaturally or paranormally endorsed answers to anything.
So while I feel enriched and helped by the witchier forms of meditation I’m learning, they still (as I’m sure most witches would agree) need to be integrated into a lifetime of efforts to learn, to understand, and to let go of misconceptions. If my meditation makes me more alive to science and history, more attuned to nature and to current events, and better able to listen to others, then it’s healthy meditation.
If not– then it’s time for Kali to do her stuff!
3) For all we need to cultivate the capacity for critical thinking, it is still the case that our brain does a great deal of unconscious processing– and does it faster than our conscious mind can. We notice subtle cues in our environment that signal danger or safety, for instance. This is an important adaptive feature of our brains, since if we had to rely on consciously observed cues all the time we could not react quickly enough when we are in danger.
Moreover, for all our emotions can deceive us, ours (or others’) reasoning can, too. Anyone who has suffered emotional abuse knows that the abuser’s veneer of logic is often used to disarm and confuse the healthy instincts of the victim. For this reason, the frequent practice of opening ourselves to subconscious awareness is an important survival tool. Often, the feelings we discover put us in the way of better reasoning– reasoning which takes into account more of the data. After all, emotions are real data when it comes to making decisions. What could it mean to make the “best choice” apart from what we actually value and want?
Women, in particular, have been taught to distrust their feelings for millenia, and been labeled as hysterical for reacting to provocations that the dominant culture refused to recognize. For this reason, meditations which teach us to take our feelings seriously and hear them out, are critical to women’s ongoing empowerment– just as the empathy we cultivate in good meditation will help us to collaborate better, and become more effective in the world.
* It’s a Catholic religious order, dedicated to contemplative prayer and service. Carmelite saints do, of course, report religious ecstasies; St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross are famous for their poetic expressions of these experiences. They are clear, however, that the goal of their contemplation is not to produce them, and that the darker, more barren times are often more productive of real spiritual growth.
Quite a few years back– “when I was still quite naive” (thank you, Carly Simon)– I took a course on marriage and divorce. A woman in the class expressed concern that so many women marry before they have the means of supporting themselves. And I — I am embarrassed to say– blathered on about building trust, so that it was safe, to what–? Put yourself into a potential hostage situation?
A decade or so later, I get it. Women, PLEASE, get a pre-nup. Hold half the assets. Have things in your own name. Know how you would make a living if you had to, and if you choose to stay home with the kids (I did), get a legally binding agreement about what this is worth, so if you have to leave, you know what you’re entitled to.
In short, fuck romance. Any guy who wouldn’t agree to this is not to be trusted.
As a former Catholic raised in the whole religious-poverty, solidarity-with-the-poor tradition, I’d be the first to say that your financial assets are not a barometer of your worth, and that money doesn’t buy happiness. HOWEVER: it does make a certain baseline of independence possible, and while if you’ve read my stuff, you know that I don’t think herbs and rocks actually draw money, I will say that money spells at least take the shame out of admitting that you need resources.
If you think that a magical roll-on oil (yes, I’ve seen them) will draw money, you’re as naive as if you think you can be rescued from hardship by the right marriage. But you should think about where the money will come from when you plan your life, and especially motherhood.
It’s not petty to think about money when you hook up with someone. You should have figured out how to take care of yourself financially before you commit to anyone, and if you make career sacrifices for the sake of children, you should have in writing whatever you need to protect yourself. To do so is real magick: using the resources you have to shape your world.
A lifelong atheist once asked me, a former Catholic, what “Eucharistic Adoration” was. I said it was the practice of praying in the presence of the Eucharist. It was a way to tune into everything the Eucharist means: God wishing to be one with us, wishing us to be family to each other. She returned, “In other words, you were praying to a cracker.”
At the time, I felt far more bitter to my former Church than I do now, but I was still annoyed and offended. When I prayed in front of the Eucharist, I was committing myself to what I believed to be the greatest good. I was worshipping a love that wants to embrace everyone, a love that wants to heal all wounds and repair all injury. Yes, I believed that that love was specially present in the sacrament. That is not the same thing as “praying to a cracker.”
Plenty of people have noted the Catholic affinity with paganism, whether in the seasonal holidays it adopted from northern European pagans, or the gods and goddesses it repackaged as saints or demons. Roman Catholicism is a religion with semitic roots planted in European-pagan soil, and this shows up in the continuity between “sympathetic magic,” and Catholic sacramental thinking.
Sympathetic magic is a form of magic practiced in many cultures, in which an object or action takes place in imitation of what the practitioner would like to have happen. An enemy is harmed in effigy, as in voodoo; a loved one is protected by protecting something belonging to him, or representing him. An animal’s strength is absorbed by eating it, or wearing a symbol of it. Sympathetic magic thus lies in a space between unsymbolized action, where everything is literal, and a purely symbolic world (as in the world of language), where we can speak of killing without anyone’s being literally harmed, or speak of building without anything’s being actually put in place.
In the realm of Catholic belief, a sacrament such as baptism or the Eucharist both means and is– and morever, effects some change. Baptism means being washed clean, died and reborn, and it imitates these actions, while believing that on some level they actually are effected. Eucharist is about being nourished by Christ, being joined body and spirit to him and to all believers, and it is in fact effected by eating. Catholicism seeks to prevent this approach to the world from degenerating into pure superstition by tying these actions to the faith of the believer, and the will of God. Your faith and God’s love are what saves you, not just having water poured over your head and saying certain words. Sacraments are also distinguished from “sacramentals” (holy water, medals, statues, etc) which are seen as purely symbolic, effective only in the sense that they inspire the believer or express her intentions.
Of course, popular practice sometimes does collapse into superstition, with some people actually believing that burying a St. Joseph statue in the yard will help them sell their house, or that wearing a particular medal or saying a particular prayer will deliver a result as automatically as a coin in the vending machine.
Witchcraft has the same potential for superstition. It also has deep roots in pre-scientific magic. Psychologists use the term “magical thinking” to describe a groundless belief that you can make something happen just by wishing it. This common meaning of “magic” has led many witches to use the spelling “magick” to distinguish a more grounded practice. The “k” allows us to say (without sounding crazy) that we believe in magick, NOT, of course in magic!
The difference is huge. It’s what allows me, as a non-theist, still to assert that I was not praying to a cracker. The wafer had been imbued with a symbolism that did, in fact, affect the way I engaged the world. Meditating in the presence of this symbol made me more honest with myself, more open to change, more compassionate towards myself and others. This was not the only way it could have played out; I have no doubt that some Catholics who sat in front of the Eucharist reinforced their own narrowness, bigotry, and zealousness against nonbelievers. After all, the wafer was not “magic.”
When I use sympathetic magic now, I am aware that I am seeking to make a small change in myself, by enacting a truth or a commitment. The value of the exercise is in its power to solidify a good insight or intention. Its danger is in its power to solidify something not so good.
If I were to do a “love spell” to make someone fall for me, I am sure it would have no effect at all on the other. But it would solidify a wish in me to interfere with someone else’s freedom, and this would corrupt everything I mean by “love.” If I were to do a “money spell” in the belief that it was a winning lottery ticket, and that this guarantee of success would also bring happiness, I would only reinforce a very skewed sense of priorities.
I recently cast a circle and did an impromptu protection spell. In my office, using toys, I would have called it play therapy; in the circle, “spell” will do just fine. I was at a loss for how to work with a client. She had been emotionally abusive for years to a younger sister, and now that the sister had cut off contact, felt the girl had a duty to try to reconcile with her. I could hardly contain my outrage when I listened to this victim-blaming. I couldn’t find a way to be firm about the sister’s right to be left alone, without enjoying my stance as “punisher.”
Once within the circle, I felt a certain freedom to think and feel, without the pressure to be right, to have the answer. I could accept the circle as a place where my thoughts would not harm this client. Neither, though, were all my thoughts and feelings helpful.
I set out three stones, one for the “victim,” one for the “abuser” and one for the “rescuer” (those who work with abuse will recognize this triangle: the roles we get pulled into when we do therapy for abuse). I had, in front of me, the dilemma. The client saw herself as the victim. I saw her as the abuser, and in turn, wanted to rescue her sister and punish her– in other words, I became the abuser. There seemed no alternative to these roles, and simply to empathize with her felt like joining her against the victim.
Then I found myself reaching for a new stone, to represent the sister. It occurred to me that she was no longer in actual emotional danger from this woman. She had cut off contact. She had protected herself. I placed her far away from the triangle, and with my wand, circled her three times to reinforce my awareness that she was safe. I placed her near the goddess.
And now, I found myself outside of the triangle, looking at it. I no longer felt confined to the roles it presented. It dawned on me that I can be angry with my client, yet not act; not until I’m ready, not until I have something to offer besides anger.
I placed a sprig of heather, for peace, in the middle of the stones. I circled each with the wand three times, on the third time letting the wand drift outside the circle, to free them from their roles. Then I was ready to open the circle.
I do feel the change in myself, since doing this spell. I still struggle with difficult feelings, but I’m better able to help myself and my client reflect on what we’re doing, instead of just mindlessly acting out. The representation of the situation allowed me to work with it symbolically, but in a way that reached me deeply– that effected change. This is what I mean by magick.