Here is the substance of a talk I gave for the Lewes WellBeing Festival last Sunday. Although it is about Sussex, the ideas discussed could apply to anywhere in the world:
It’s so easy to experience life as humdrum, ‘ordinary’, dull, routine. You know the thoughts that can play through your mind on a grey day in our modern urbanised and driven world: “If only I was in a tropical paradise. If only there weren’t so many cars and it wasn’t so wet and cold!”
But there are moments of beauty, of magic, when something seems to break through, to touch us, to awaken us to the magic of being alive. It can happen when we meet someone, when we read a book, or watch an inspiring play or film, and of course this is one of the purposes of art and drama: to touch our souls, to reawaken us to the awareness that we are living in an extraordinary universe, hurtling through a world of stars at 67,000 mph.
When we really tune into the awesomeness of being alive on the planet we can experience a level of joy and awareness that gives rise to moments called ‘peak experiences’ by psychologists. Abraham Maslow, the psychologist who came up with the term, defined peak experiences as “sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, possibly the awareness of an “ultimate truth” and the unity of all things … the experience fills the individual with wonder and awe… he feels at one with the world, and is pleased with it.”
One of the goals of a spiritual path is to help you to have such experiences, and to show you that they can be actively encouraged to manifest rather than simply being passively awaited. But in addition to that, spiritual teachings encourage us to cultivate this sense of joy and appreciation as an ongoing state of being – not as an intense peak experience, which by definition does not last long – but instead as a ‘steady-state’ which nevertheless carries the same qualities of happiness, wonder and a feeling of being ‘at one’ with the world rather than separate or alienated from it.
One of the key ways of maintaining this awareness as an ongoing state lies in adopting a particular point of view: a magical or mystical worldview. Big deal! You might think, but of course the way in which we see life governs to an enormous degree the way in which we experience it, which is why philosophy as a subject is so valuable, and why Marcel Proust said “The real magic lies not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” This is an idea that lies at the basis of much psychological and New Age thinking: that you ‘create your reality’. Expressed in that way the idea can sound ridiculously solipsistic. Try telling that to someone in Haiti after its recent earthquake. It is an idea that represents only one half of an equation, and it is only useful if we also take into account the objective reality of the world around us. In other words, there is the point of view and there is the landscape viewed.
One half of the job is to get the right point of view, to climb the right hill to get the best view as the sun spills over the horizon at dawn. So we thank those thinkers who have urged us to see life with magical eyes, and we thank all spiritual teachers who have encouraged us to adopt a spiritual perspective. But let’s now look, from this perspective, at what surrounds us.
Let me put it another way: there is You and Everything Else. Deep down there’s no difference (so mystical experience tells us) but to you hurtling towards your next incarnation that isn’t helpful. Because the You that is You is about to be born and WHOOOSH here you are – a soul that exists outside of linear time and space – born into the world of matter and time in a certain place, at a certain moment. And so it is until the day you die: you are in a certain place at a certain time. Today you are in Lewes in Sussex on the afternoon of January 17th 2010. What follows now is:
A Briefing For a Soul that Finds Itself in Sussex in 2010
Orientation: You are in England – a country which has become the most important repository and breeding-ground of the magical arts in all the world (see The Book of English Magic for the details). So of all the places in the world to be, here you are in a country of ley-lines, old pilgrimage routes, stone circles, chalk horses and giants, barrows, tumps, tumuli, sacred groves, holy wells, Romano-British temples and ancient churches. If all these form a matrix of sacred sites connected by lines of power, you’ve ended up in one of the most complex areas of the Matrix, of Indra’s Web.
Zoom in closer. You are in Sussex – the last refuge of Paganism before Christianity triumphed over all of England. Even in the 18th century so poor were its roads and so much did its pagan past linger in the air that Horace Walpole wrote: “We thought ourselves in the northwest part of England. The whole county has a Saxon air and the inhabitants are savage.” (1749) (“They still are!” Shouted out a member of the audience when I gave this talk!)
If the Matrix also includes traces of past events that leave their mark like recordings on a magnetic tape, then here there are traces in abundance: a great wove of them, with prehistoric, megalith-building, then Saxon and Romano-British layers coming before the Christian layers.
How can we navigate these layers, use them, clothe ourselves with them, come to feel at home in them, feed on them even? One answer lies in the way of the Bard, the storyteller. When we feel our lives are a story that is embedded within wider stories then we feel at home, and feel that life has meaning. But where to begin? There are so many colours and strands in this particular corner of the matrix!
Here’s a way. A central dictum of magic is that the universal can be found in the particular, the macrocosm within the microcosm. In spiritual practice this means that you can reach your goal of illumination through just one practice, and whatever it is, it contains the key. Everything, everyone, every place, has the potential for becoming a doorway, a medium through which you can be inspired, find illumination, deepen your experience of consciousness.
Suddenly you realize the field is wide open: take any place, any moment and dive in! Start tracking, start following the scent of the magical. Make your life a little easy by not starting with a crisp packet or a bus stop, but by choosing something a little easier to feel inspired by! Survey the field and feel drawn to a spot. Then what do I do?!! There are the aesthetic and energetic dimensions of the experience – take going to a high spot like Mount Caburn. You can revel in the aesthetic experience of the views, and if you feel you are sensitive to these things you can explore the sensation, the feelings, what one can call the energy or energetic dimension of the spot. Perhaps you can dowse or are psychic. Perhaps you are inspired by the idea of chakra systems in the landscape, or the vision of lines of energy linking site to site.
But there’s an enormous trap here. It is easy to fall into a pseudo-scientific position: a strange sort of spiritual materialism, which is really a kind of sensationalism in both senses of the word. Have you ever been with friends to a sacred site and they go around ‘feeling energies’: “It feels powerful here,” “I can feel a vortex there,” “There’s a line of energy going that way,” and so on? This is all perfectly well, but unless you go further with this discourse it gets stuck at the level of sensation (ie sensing) and yet it is dressed up as being sensational (Wow! Can you feel it here?!). One way to go beyond mere sensationalism is the ‘analytic’ which starts to dowse and allocate frequencies, numbers and so on, to the phenomena being experienced. The other way, which is the artistic, lies in experiencing Place as part of Story. This allows the human to interact with the material, ie the landscape and the sensations and feelings it evokes in you.
Some people might feel more at home when they see series, ratios, patterns, frequencies, but I think for a lot of us we only start to feel at home in a place when we feel we know its story, and feel a part of that story, and can even add to it – in however small a way. So rather than going on a power trip or a number trip, let’s engage in some Bardistry: let’s roll up our sleeves and engage with this issue creatively.
Getting Down and Dirty
Here’s a suggestion for how you could do this. To be creative you need to assemble your materials before engaging in the messy process of producing something. Don’t concern yourself yet as to what that might be. I’ll use the analogy of painting just because it’s graphic:
Take first the canvas: our lives and the life of the land and people around us. Now the paint: choose an assortment of people, places and incidents that you have gleaned from your local knowledge (I’ll suggest sources for this at the end). Choose these with as much abandon and as little logic as possible. For this example I’m just going to take ingredients from my recent reading – the notes and books on my desk. To start let’s have three interesting and remarkable women, then a few villages, some mandrake, some malaria, and lets throw in some dying wizards.
Now, without trying to get connections between them I’m going to do some research on each component. This part in itself is such fun and an education in itself. I won’t go into details here, just offer you snippets so you see what I mean. The women: Doreen Valiente, a Sussex witch who lived in Brighton, played a key role in the promotion of Wicca last century and whose version of the Charge of the Goddess is the most popular. A collection of her poems includes ones on the Long Man of Wilmington and Sussex Witches. Vera Pragnell, whose Utopian community at Storrington in the 1920s attracted mystical Christians, nudists and alchemists and one of Crowley’s lovers, Victor Neuberg, who ended up running a private press in nearby Steyning, home to two extraordinary churches, St.Andrews with its rune stone that some say encourages astral projection, and Coombes Church with its frescoes. And the third woman: the Sussex cunning woman Grandmother Huggett, whose recipes have been recorded. The dying wizards are Aleister Crowley and Alex Sanders, who both were drawn by some strange magnetism to Hastings to end their days. Mandrake was being sold as late as 1929 in some parts of Sussex, and one source has a verbatim description of the sales pitch given for it by a Sussex ‘mandrake man’ (we had snake oil salesmen too, catching adders up on the Downs). Malaria: everyone living in or near the marshes, which once covered more than a quarter of Sussex, suffered from malaria. By 1900 it had mostly disappeared thanks to drainage systems, but it still lingered in places until the 1920s.
Ok – that should be more than enough ingredients for our brew. The next step: resist trying to create something too quickly. Instead simmer it for a long time. Stir it occasionally. In other words allow the Unconscious to make something of it. In the depths the ingredients start to interact with each other, allowing the potential for something new to be born.
What might come of this? A story, a poem, a painting, a play? It’s up to you – this particular combination may not be right for you. It’s just an example to show you how the richness of our heritage or the place we find ourselves in doesn’t have to be simply consumed or appreciated passively. Even if the result is not something concrete it can still be creative – helping us to gain that state of happiness, wonder and a feeling of being ‘at one’ with the world rather than separate or alienated from it that I mentioned at the beginning of the talk.
A few weeks ago, at the height of the snows, Stephanie and I made our way through deserted streets with the snow four or five inches thick, not a single car moving as it fell. We got to the bus station (near a suspected site of the Holy Grail, but that – as they say – is another story) and joined the audience of twenty or so for a run-through of a play local poet John Agard has recently written. Inspired by all the tales of giants in this region (and the Long Man him or herself) John had cooked up something really special. It made us feel very happy to be living in this little corner of the world, and it illustrated perfectly the idea I’ve suggested: the fertilising power of Place.
I’m giving a one-day workshop on this theme: ‘Living in a Magical Landscape’ a one-day workshop at Beechwood Hall, Cooksbridge, near Lewes on Saturday 27th February 2010. Details here.
An article that examines the significance of Lewes in particular: ‘A Glimpse into the Magic of Lewes’.
(Also use ‘Lewes’ as a search term on my blog to find related entries)
A Dictionary of Sussex Folk Medicine by Andrew Allen, Countryside Books, 1995 for a wealth of information on cunning folk remedies, malaria, etc. in Sussex.
The Book of English Magic, by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate, John Murray 2009 for the wider context and for more on cunning folk like Grandmother Huggett, Steyning and the dying wizards.
Charge of the Goddess by Doreen Valiente, Hexagon Hoopix 2000, a collection of Valiente’s poems.
Sussex by Desmond Seward, Pimlico 1995 for a guide to Sussex history and folklore
The Druid Way by Philip Carr-Gomm, Thoth, 2006 for an exploration of the landscape around Lewes and Wilmington.
See the website of the Snake River Press, who produce beautiful books on Sussex.
See the article ‘Plot to seek Sanctuary ’till good life went bad’ from the archive of the Argus, 26th Sep 2000 for information on Vera Pragnell.
The Story of the Sanctuary by Vera Pragnall 1928 Vine Press Steyning (a limited edition of 600 printed so difficult to track down.)