Ritual for problem-solving using the Seven of Swords

The Motherpeace drawing of the Seven of Swords card reminds me of a problem-solving exercise. The fox, an animal known for her cunning, uses the swords as tools to overcome a difficult obstacle in pursuit of her goal. (See the Motherpeace image of this card by selecting 7 of Swords from the drop-down menu.)

In this ritual, I suggest that you choose a situation where you need to overcome an obstacle. Think carefully about the steps you can take to make progress. The intention here is not to have the obstacle magically disappear, it’s to empower you to find your way over it with ingenuity. That may involve using some unexpected tools – like repurposing swords to make steps!

We will use the power of Air to invoke ingenuity for the steps you need to take. This ritual incorporates the nature of Air as words that we used for the Ace of Swords and the power of breath that we explored in the Two of Swords. You also have the option to incorporate another tool of Air such as incense or a feather if you like.

Ritual:

Set up your altar with paper and a pen, the Seven of Swords image, and incense or a feather if you want.

Cast the circle using your pen as a wand. Take a deep, even breath and ground and center.

Call the Quarters using these words or your own:

Air, fill my breath and words with the ingenuity I need to shape my intention. Hail and welcome, Air!

Fire, ignite my ideas with the energy I need to carry them out. Hail and welcome, Fire!

Water, flow through my intentions with the understanding I need to find my solutions. Hail and welcome, Water!

Earth, ground my intention with the strength I need to see it through. Hail and welcome, Earth!

Optionally, invoke Athena who grants inspiration and ingenuity to human beings, or another goddess who watches over Air and problem-solving:

Athena, the help of the crafty, I invoke you! Athena, you have ever been the advisor and mentor of those who solve problems using ingenuity and inventiveness. Athena, lend your aid to me at this time, in this place, with this work I undertake. Hail and welcome, Athena!

Use your pen and paper to describe the steps you will take to overcome the obstacle or solve the situation you have chosen. You may need to meditate on your intention for a little while, or it could come to you immediately. Your description could be a sketch depicting your next action, or a list of things you will do, or any kind of representation. Don’t concentrate on the obstacle or issue; keep your visualization focused on how you will solve the problem.

When you are satisfied with your visualization of your next steps, take a few deep breaths. If you will be using a tool (pen, feather, or incense) pick it up, and breathe over it. As you breathe in, gather the power of Air within you; as you breathe out, feel that power combine with Athena’s blessings.

Breathe in, pass your tool or your hand over your depiction, and breathe out, visualizing your problem-solving and saying “By the breath of one, so mote it be.

Repeat: By the breath of two, etc., to “By the breath of seven, so mote it be!

Thank Athena using these words or your own:

Athena, with breath and mind you inspire my ingenuity and empower my solutions, and for that I thank you. Wise goddess, go if you must, but stay if you will. Hail and farewell, Athena!

Thank and dismiss the quarters using these words or your own:

Earth, thank you for the strength to ground my intention. Hail and farewell, Earth!

Water, thank you for the understanding to create my solutions. Hail and farewell, Water!

Fire, thank you for the energy to put my intention into action. Hail and farewell, Fire!

Air, thank you for the ingenuity to craft my own solutions. Hail and farewell, Air!

Open the circle using your pen as a wand.

Ground yourself again. Start putting your intention into action as soon as possible.

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Introduction to chakras

The chakra system is a useful tool which one can build upon with several other methodologies; this is a basic introduction that I’ll elaborate upon in future posts.

The system of chakras that I’ve studied is what I would describe as Pagan/New Age standard. It is loosely based on the Hindu understanding as taught in basic (Westernized) yoga classes. Basically, the chakras are metaphysical locations that are where certain types of “energy” or “power” are centered in the body.

They are usually described from bottom to top:

  • The root or base chakra is located near the perineum or at the base of the spine. Its color is red, and it symbolizes connection to the earth, the fundamental and physical nature, our most basic needs like security and stability, and also the ability to eliminate (return to earth) that which is no longer helpful.
  • The second chakra is located in the low belly, within the bowl of the pelvis, near the reproductive organs. Its color is orange, and it symbolizes creativity and fertility, and is involved in sexual matters.
  • The third or solar plexus chakra is located at the solar plexus. Its color is yellow, and it is associated with the sun and with personal power, will, drive, and effort.
  • The fourth or heart chakra is located at the heart or behind the breastbone at the level of the heart. Its color is green, and it represents emotions, relationships, generosity, and love.
  • The fifth or throat chakra is located in the throat at the Adam’s apple or voicebox. Its color is blue, and it symbolizes thought, speech, and communication, especially speaking or writing.
  • The sixth or third eye chakra is located in the center of the forehead or between the eyebrows. Here the color schemes can vary; some people say this one is indigo and the next one violet, while some say this one is purple and the next one is white or clear. Either way, this chakra represents inner vision and connection to things metaphysical, especially one’s intuition and wisdom.
  • The crown chakra is located at the top of the head. (Remember how a baby has a “soft spot” called a fontanelle at the top of the head? That’s where the crown chakra is.) Its color is violet or clear, and it symbolizes connection to the divine and transcendence.

 

In general, a “healthy” chakra is translucent, round, and has a vibrant, pure color. Chakras are places where the relevant energy is centered, but they are not just a static well of energy; chakras are interconnected, especially with each other, but also with the body and spirit as a whole. At their best, chakras are able to absorb and send out energy as part of a complex interplay in the metaphysical body.

Nearly all of us have some difficulties in our chakras which reflect or represent other concerns we are dealing with. A chakra with difficulties can appear as a muddy color, mixed with brown or some other inappropriate hue; it can be an unusual size or shape, or simply not be able to let energy flow clearly.

The chakras are such a useful basis for work because they cover a wide range of mind and body issues. Concentrating on each one in turn gives me automatic cues to address different areas of my life:

  • Am I grounded?
  • Am I creative?
  • Am I empowered?
  • Am I loving?
  • Am I speaking my truth?
  • Am I honoring my insight?
  • Am I connecting to the divine?

 

We can build on these to develop meditations, healing techniques, and to engage our mind and body fully with magic.

Deep down, the chakras are really another system of classifications and correspondences, where each chakra represents a whole category of symbolically interrelated things. We’ll see how this has applications for working with stones, minerals, and crystals in a future entry.

A note about the origins of the chakra system:

There are Sanskrit names and a whole host of Hindu associations for each chakra, including descriptions of each one as a lotus flower with a specific number of petals and so forth. I don’t typically work with those as part of my healing practice. Part of the compromise I have with myself about not veering into cultural appropriation is that I don’t pretend to know about the specifically culturally rooted parts of systems like this without much more significant study.

I see the Westernized chakra system as something that might have originally been cultural appropriation, but in its stripped-down form I think it is now a primarily Western approach which is somewhat separate from its Hindu roots.

Being honest about the difference between those is part of not veering over the line into cultural appropriation for me. It’s a lot like knowing the difference between Westernized yoga-as-primarily-exercise and yoga-as-complete-spiritual-system. Some people who are interested in the offshoot go and study the roots more, and they recontextualize the modern development within the deep philosophical understandings of the past. That’s respectful; so is working with the modern offshoot on its own merits, in most ways; what’s not respectful is claiming that because I do downward-facing dog pose on weekends, I have a deep understanding of Vedic philosophy. The origins and the modern offshoot interact, but being honest about what I don’t know is part of being respectful of the difference.

I also think that when we try to borrow the Hindu roots too much, there’s a certain sense that our work today will gain authenticity or validity or dignity by being associated with the antiquity or the foreignness or whatever of the Hindu usage of chakras. That is appropriation and it also implicitly devalues the work that we are doing today to develop and extend our own practices. My work stands on its own.

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How many reversed cards in a Tarot reading?

How many reversed cards should we expect? Many Tarot readers read reversed cards with slightly different meanings; we know that reversals have a lot of nuance in them, and don’t just mean “bad” things, but it can still be disconcerting to see seven or eight cards out of ten upside-down. Actually, people who work with reversed cards should be accustomed to seeing quite a few reversals in any spread, but it’s still hard to quantify whether any given number of reversals is unusual. It turns out that the binomial probability distribution can help us refine our expectations of how many reversed cards are usual in a typical spread.

While we know to expect “about” five reversed cards out of ten, the binomial probability distribution tells us that really anywhere from two to eight cards is not surprising.

The binomial probability distribution applies to situations where we have a number of independent events, each of which has two possible outcomes. In a Tarot spread, each card is an event, and its outcomes can be either upright or reversed. I’m going to assume that each card will be reversed about half the time, for a probability of 0.5. This assumes your method of reversing cards is truly random, but it will be a reasonable approximation for most methods.

The average number of reversals in a given spread will be the number of cards in the spread times the probability of a single card being reversed. For a ten card spread, the expected number of reversed cards is five. This intuitively makes sense; it’s when we get more or fewer that we start to wonder whether it happened by chance.

The number that helps us understand how much things differ from the expected is the standard deviation. For a probability distribution, the standard deviation is a measure of how wide the distribution is. This means it tells us how normal or weird a particular difference (deviation) from the expected value (standard) really is.

For a binomial probability distribution, we find the standard deviation by taking the expected value times the probability of the opposite outcome (which is also one half, or 0.5), and then taking the square root. For a spread of ten Tarot cards, the standard deviation works out to about 1.6.

Almost 70% of the time, when we deal ten cards, the number of reversed cards will be the average (five) plus or minus one standard deviation (1.6). Therefore most of the time, we should expect four to six reversed cards.

For 95% of readings, we’ll be within plus or minus two standard deviations, which means anywhere from two to eight cards reversed. This is important; it’s easy for us to look at six reversed cards and say that that’s close to five, so it’s normal, but when the reversals start creeping up towards eight, a significant majority of the reading, we can get nervous. Don’t!

Understanding that eight reversed cards is normal is an example of how math helps us refine our intuition. 95% of the time is a lot – this is nineteen times out of twenty. In only one out of twenty readings would you expect to get something outside of these bounds. How long does it take you to do twenty full Celtic Cross readings? Only once out of those twenty times would you see a reading with all reversed cards or all upright cards, or even a reading with just a single card upright or a single card reversed.

Of course, this kind of understanding is only a starting place for the real work of a Tarot reading. The specific meanings of the cards which are reversed, the patterns revealed in the layout, and most importantly the meanings that the client reads as applicable to her or his life, are much more important for the interpretation of a given Tarot reading, and they give each reading its unique qualities.

Still, the simple numerical understanding indicates that we should expect to work with what seems like a lot of reversed cards. Hopefully, knowing this means that the presence of these cards won’t necessarily make you disturbed or uncomfortable; they are a way for Tarot to give you a wider range of nuance and information, so engaging with them can lead to even more insight and understanding.

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Clearing stones

Clearing or cleansing crystals and minerals for magical purposes is an important part of working with stones. The details of timing and methods depend on the stones being used and your intent.

Personally I try to use the more general term “stones” instead of “crystals” because plenty of the things I work with are not crystals (such as mica-bearing schist from my local land base) and some are not even minerals (notably amber and jet). “Crystal” sounds pretty but leads to confusion; I’d rather be earthy and accurate.

The techniques I use to work with stones are determined by my understanding that everything in the world has spirit. Particular stones have particular spirits, more or less personalities, if you will, and I work with those spirits on a metaphysical level. The unique qualities of a stone, based on both its type and the particulars of this specimen, interact with my intentions for particular purposes.

Timing

Because I work with stones through intent, I think they need to be cleared regularly. Some sources disagree and say that there are certain stones which never need to be cleaned. From my perspective, it’s not necessarily the stone which needs to be cleared, it’s my intention and the way I used the stone the last time.

As a result, I clear stones when I first get them and after every time I use them. Then when I go to use them again, I’ve cleared the last working from my own mind as well, so I’m not still thinking about the last use and getting my intentions muddled up.

The only stones I can think of that I haven’t cleared are the stones which I collected from a particular land base and which I use to connect me to that land base.

Methods

I’m going to discuss multiple ways for cleansing and clearing stones, including which ones should NOT be used for particular stones. Please also do your own research to avoid damaging a specimen about which you care deeply.

Smudging

Probably the easiest and safest way to clear a stone is to waft incense smoke (or fan clean air) over it. Personally, smudging stones just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me; Air and Fire are such mutable, even flighty Elements that it seems hard to put them to work on Earth, especially parts of Earth that are as fixed and stable as minerals and crystals. That said, if this works for you, or you need something to do quickly, or for a particularly fragile item, go for it.

Washing

Washing with water can damage a surprising number of stones, including (but not limited to!) salt crystals (obviously), selenite (including its form as gypsum rose or desert rose), and to a lesser extent calcite, aragonite, and angelite. Even stones that don’t dissolve can be damaged by contaminants in your water or start to have a chemical reaction with the materials of the container you put them in. In particular, if you are going to ‘wash’ stones, do NOT soak them in salt water in a reactive (metal) basin. All three parts of that – soaking, salt, and metal – have their own risks of damaging stones.

Space and time

My preferred method of cleansing stones is to use location and time. I have a designated place where I put things to be cleared for at least 24 hours. For me, this is my windowsill, so it functions as a place away from my usual work spaces and closer to the outside environment, where stones are exposed to at least one sun and moon cycle. I think of this as almost returning them to the the outdoors to ‘rest,’ or at least be separated from the specific intents that I had for them. When I interact with them again, I find that all I sense is the material’s innate qualities.

Exposing stones to direct sunlight does have its own risks. Some stones can fade in the sun, especially colored quartz varieties (such as amethyst and citrine), and also celestite, fluorite, and some topaz, among others. Personally, I don’t worry about this for short periods of time, and I make sure that my long-term storage of stones is out of direct sunlight. It’s also worth mentioning that some high-quality quartz crystals or crystal balls can act as lenses to focus sunlight, and could theoretically create enough heat to start a fire just as a magnifying glass would. Position these crystals out of direct light.

Stones that are exposed to the weather (and my windows are not particularly well insulated) can be damaged by being heated or cooled. Again, this is less of a concern over the short periods I’m talking about, but be mindful not to take a stone from right next to your Yule fire and put it outside in the snow to clear.

Another suggestion I have heard is placing stones on a bed of salt crystals to be cleansed. That makes good sense to me – it’s using Earth to clear Earth – as long as you are gentle enough not to create scratches on your softer minerals, such as selenite. If I had the right space, I might consider making a dedicated place outside where I could put my stones and leave them for a little while. I’d want them to be safe while being symbolically returned to the Earth in this way, so maybe something like a little covered space in the north corner of a yard would work, but it would depend on the details.

Obviously every method has its benefits and risks, and your preferences will depend on your personal understanding of how you work with your stones. These are my methods – what are yours?

Posted in materia magica, stones minerals crystals, tools & techniques | Tagged , , , , ,

Columbia and Justice for women’s choices

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in cases that have to do with the Affordable Care Act’s requirement for insurance plans to cover contraception. I renew my prayers to Justice and to Columbia:

Justice, be not blind, but look into our hearts with piercing gaze and discern the ill intent of those who would rule over others with theocratic mandates full of hate.

Let their will be weighed as naught when you lift your scales that judgment be not swayed but find the rightful balance to help us live together in pluralistic peace.

Columbia, matron goddess of your district and our government, stand firm atop the wall of separation between church and state, to ensure that women have control over our own bodies.

So mote it be!

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Ostara – Seeds of Love

I’m going to start posting a sequence of articles about the Sabbats that I wrote for another website. This entry has been lightly edited to bring it up to date. Please note that this entry in particular was meant to focus on inter-religious connections between Wicca and Christianity for an audience that was not very familiar with Wicca.

In my yoga classes, one of my teachers has been emphasizing the metaphor of resting at the end of a practice as a time of germination. In his words, we choose the seed by setting an intention, then we prepare the soil – the body – by doing our practice, and then we rest and reaffirm the intention, planting it within the body and spirit. After planting it, we have to give it time to germinate, to begin to grow. That waiting period can be difficult, and that’s the way I’m experiencing it this year.

Ostara, the name of the Wiccan celebration of the vernal equinox, comes from an old Anglo-Saxon goddess of the springtime or of the dawn named Eostre. The Anglo-Saxon monk Bede noted that during the process of Christianization in England, the people had transferred the goddess’ name to the new Christian celebration of Easter, which occurred at about the same time as the older spring festival.

The Christian celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred at this time of spring because it was immediately after Passover, the Jewish celebration of the exodus from Egypt. The date of Passover is based on the Hebrew lunisolar calendar, and as a result, Christians celebrate Easter on approximately the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox.

The equinox itself is the time when day and night are of equal length, in perfect balance. Days have been getting longer ever since the winter solstice, of course, but now they finally catch up with and overtake the nights. But the celebrations around this time of year aren’t very much about the sun and moon; they’re actually very earthy, with all the imagery of bunnies and eggs and things growing and bursting forth.

The celebrations are much more about agricultural concerns and very human needs and desires than about where the sun is.  (Of course, this is all from a Northern Hemisphere perspective; in the Southern Hemisphere, this is the autumn equinox, celebrated in Wicca as the harvest festival of Mabon. With such earthy, personal matters, though, I’m going to write from my own perspective.)

Depending on your latitude and climate, Ostara might be the time of preparing the fields, doing the planting, or the time that the first shoots start to show the promise of later bounty. In Wicca’s mythological cycle, these processes are all celebrated at Ostara, along with the cheerfully reappropriated bunnies and eggs.

Wiccan mythology places a lot of emphasis on fertility, both literal and metaphorical, after all, and most Wiccans aren’t shy about the bunnies and eggs being blatant fertility symbols, nor about celebrating the feeling that like the ground and the plants and the animals, our bodies too are waking up after a long winter’s sleep. The larger metaphorical theme of life’s renewal makes the Jewish celebration of being freed from slavery and the Christian celebration of Jesus coming forth from the tomb a natural fit with the seasonal imagery of budding and germination and hatching.

Of course, everybody’s so excited about this – and it is exciting! – but in the flurry of jelly beans and chocolate bunnies and pastel eggs, even nature-oriented Wiccans often miss how much dramatic change is going on. Chicks have to break the shell of their eggs to hatch, and seeds that germinate don’t just break rocks – they have to split their own hull first.

We’re all happy about the increasing sunshine, but sometimes the accompanying changes are harder for us to accept. Sometimes it feels like we’re not just the chick that’s hatching – we’re the eggshell. Or, at least, the shell is a part of our life or our mindset being pecked at and cracked apart, and even if we want the result, the process isn’t easy and it isn’t comfortable.

This is how love works. Love transforms us from the inside out. It makes something inside you swell and move and never give up until it cracks open the old you and something new and full of life emerges.

It’s like when you’ve been having an awful, furious argument, and then the other person finally gets through to you that your comfort comes at the price of afflicting him. The new realization blossoms inside you and splits open your prejudice, your stereotyping, your assumptions, until they fall away like the chaff they are. Your understanding and your empathy and ultimately your love change you, from the inside out.

My teacher is right about the importance of the rest phase, though: usually this process of germination happens much more slowly. There’s another Christian celebration, a less well-known one, that’s actually tied directly to the vernal equinox: the Annunciation, which was a life-changing piece of news for Mary if ever there was one. The process of pregnancy isn’t just about birth: it lasts nine months, and likewise, although germination happens quickly, the growing wheat also takes more than that glorious moment of the hull splitting open to get all the way through to the harvest. But now, at Ostara, we celebrate because we know that process is starting again, and that’s what matters. We know, too, that change in our lives isn’t easy and is rarely instantaneous, but we know that it happens, and maybe we can feel it starting again right now.

The occurrence of the Annunciation in the middle of Lent is one of the few times that the Christian liturgical calendar really seems like a cycle. It’s a reminder that Easter and Christmas are deeply, intimately related. Wicca, on the other hand, characterizes sacred time as explicitly cyclical: the Sabbats make up the Wheel of the Year, after all, and it is constantly turning and constantly coming back to the same points.

We know that the days will become shorter than the nights again at Mabon, but we know that after the Mabon there is also another Ostara coming. That knowledge gives me hope that even when the transformation of love seems to have stalled halfway, when it seems like the shell is too thick to crack, that even then I can believe in the process continuing, and I can work for it and with it.

Ostara is a celebration of the victory of light over darkness, of life over death, of that which is moving and growing over that which covers it up and holds it down. Ostara challenges us to believe that love can make huge transformations and even new life possible. It isn’t easy to believe that. Sometimes it’s hard not to reinforce the shell and ignore the chick, and it’s hard to go down deep into yourself and plant the seeds and nurture them rather than staying on the surface and making more mud bricks to build the Pharaoh’s walls. And it’s even harder to do that for others.

As Mavis Staples sings, “Isolated and afraid / Open up, this is a raid. / I want to get it through to you: / You’re not alone.” We know that germination and hatching have destruction as the necessary accompaniment to change, even positive and amazing change like new growth and new life. We resist that change, often times, even when it comes from people who want to help us. And when we’re struggling through those changes ourselves, and trying to offer help to others, and we keep getting rebuffed, it’s easy to become jaded and give up.

But Ostara teaches me another response: planting seeds. My worship is a way of planting the seed of deity, and deity’s love, within myself. I want deity to grow within me, to transform me from the inside out. And then I want to go out into the world and be a seed myself, a seed of deity’s love that will transform the world from the inside out.

I want to be a chick making a change. Ostara teaches me that even when the shells of intolerance and cruelty and fear seem too tough for me to crack, deity is within me, and within the world, and that deity’s radical, transformative love is how I work in the world, pecking away at that shell, a little bit at a time. And the more that I celebrate deity in myself, and in everyone as I do at Ostara, the more I grow, the stronger I get, to peck a little bit more.

So for now, I’m planting seeds, in myself and in the world, that will grow, with each Ostara, even though there are winters in between. I believe in the chick, and I believe in the seed, and I believe in the love I’m trying to embody. Ostara reminds me that even when it’s scary and transformative, that love is the beginning of new life, of something beautiful and wonderful and worth every bit of effort.

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Ostara Ritual To Find the Sun

Eggs are strongly associated with Ostara and its images of fertility and growth, and dyeing hardboiled eggs is a wonderful tradition to use for this Sabbat. This ritual uses the egg in a slightly different way to symbolize the release of restraints in order to promote growth and development.

Personally, I am so very, very tired of winter here this year that I am going to use this ritual to break away the snow and cold and ick in order to usher in a reasonable, gentle summer.

Materials:

  • Hardboiled egg. Whether you dye it or not is entirely up to you. If you do, you can spend time while the egg is submerged to meditate on the way that snow melts and begins to reveal the colors of springtime.
  • Plate or bowl and knife to cut the egg. (Be careful when handling knives, especially if there are kids involved.)

Ritual:

Cast the circle as you chant

The earth, the air, the fire the water
return, return, return, return

Call the Quarters with words like these or your own:

East, Powers of Air, blow through me with the winds of a fresh start! Hail and welcome!

South, Powers of Fire, burn in me with the energy to grow and change! Hail and welcome!

West, Powers of Water, flow through me with the courage to ride the waves! Hail and welcome!

North, Powers of Earth, ground me with the strength to break free! Hail and welcome!

Pick up your egg, and visualize its shell as the constraints that have been holding you back, especially anything that has been restraining you this past winter. Put all of your feelings about those situations into the shell (just the shell, not the egg!). Visualize your new energy as the egg itself, ready to be set free from that shell.

When you are ready, crack the shell with a sharp rap against the plate, and visualize your the constraints breaking. Peel the egg, and visualize all that has held you back falling away, allowing you to break free and emerge into a period of new growth and development.

Cut the egg in half. See the golden yolk inside as the sun, which is returning to its strength and bringing energy to fuel the growth and change of spring. Say, “The sun returns!” and celebrate!

Eat the egg to take that energy into yourself.

Thank the Quarters for their presence and blessings.

Open the circle.

PS – if you’re looking for something different, there’s also a more meditative ritual that uses seeds as a metaphor that I wrote a while ago, or a salt scrub.

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