The Magician and Identity

Since the Fool is numbered zero, the Magician is numbered one. One is the identity element for multiplication. In math, an identity element is the number that doesn’t change other numbers (when multiplied, in this case). This is why it is called the identity element: other numbers keep their identity, their same value, when multiplied by one. Their nature remains unchanged by the operation. So what is it that one is doing when it interacts with other numbers?

At the same time, every number keeps coming back to the identity element. In multiplication, every number except zero has a counterpart, and when you multiply a number times its counterpart (also called its multiplicative inverse) you get 1. So you can always come back to this identity element. In some sense, it contains the seeds of all the other numbers, or the potential to take on the identity of any other number multiplied by it.

I think there’s a resonance between the nature of the identity element and the symbolism of the Magician card. The Magician works with the natural forces represented by the tools shown in the card, but she doesn’t fundamentally change those forces; she uses them as tools to accomplish her own goals. She doesn’t change the nature of Air or Water, or restrict the burning passion of the flame she lights, but by working with them she creates change around herself. Or perhaps she creates the change within herself…

And so we are brought back to the paradoxical heart of magic. We create change by starting that change within ourselves. And yet, somehow, we retain a coherent identity. In fact, for many of us, the kinds of change that we create are a lynchpin of our identities. Think about it this way: our skills and abilities are one of the major components of our identities. What are those skills and abilities besides the ability to create change in particular ways? I go to work, and I change the world. It’s only a tiny bit, but I think it matters. Tomorrow I’ll do it again. The changes we make are something we depend on for our very sense of self.

In this sense the Magician is very much about identity because the Magician is one who makes change possible and thus creates identity, and who really has an independent identity, as opposed to the kind of blank canvas that the Fool represents. The Magician has her tools to hand: she is holding all the aces of the Tarot deck, the potential power of each suit, and beginning to use them to create something new, something that could be almost anything.

At the same time, she must balance the opposites within herself, both the opposites contained in the different qualities of the suits and natural powers and the contrasts between what is and what might be. These inverses keep looping back to her, as the infinity symbol on her card keeps crossing through its own center. Out of that central point, out of her identity as an element of change, comes a realm of nearly infinite possibility, with the potential for so many different outcomes that points to the rest of the deck as an unfolding exploration.

NB: For those who are interested, zero is the additive identity – and zero also “breaks” multiplication by not having a multiplicative inverse. In many ways everything I say here about one is also true about zero under addition, but with much stranger overtones because of the way it behaves under multiplication. I chose to emphasize the properties of the numbers this way because I think it teaches more about the meanings of the cards.

Posted in Tarot | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Gratitude without complacency

I have been struggling with how to write this post since Thanksgiving. I wanted to write something about how beneficial I’ve found the practice of gratitude, but I had trouble with it because I didn’t want it to be just another saccharine annoyance about how you, too, will feel #blessed if you just take the time…you know how those go. Most of all, though, I was confronted with the problem of complacency.

There is a tension that I am only beginning to explore between so many of the practices that are touted these days – mindfulness, gratitude, etc. – and my fundamental orientation to the world, which is part of my Wicca. I fundamentally believe that we can and should change the world; I am concerned about too much acceptance of what is, just because it is, especially for the situations that humans create and thus could change.

In the short term, my answer to the problem of encouraging gratitude without complacency is that my gratitude practice is one of the tools that helps me do my magic. I think this is because I approach it slightly differently from the way I’ve usually heard it presented, some of which has to do with my personal situation, and some of which has to do with a more Pagan perspective. I’m going to share that here in hopes that it may be useful to some others.

My gratitude practice is a simple daily activity: list three things about yesterday that were good. They don’t have to be big, earth-shaking goodnesses; in fact, on a lot of days, they are just simply three things that made me feel good or be happy, even if just for a breath. When I write down “sunrise,” I’m not trying to contemplate the cosmic beauty of sunrises in general. I’m just trying to capture and acknowledge the way that particular sunrise yesterday made me smile, even for a second. When I am grateful for people in ongoing relationships, I try to think of a specific interaction that made my heart glad.

That’s it. I don’t go through some grand exercise of trying or working or pushing myself to feel grateful or thankful or extra happy. I don’t generalize, I don’t contemplate the grandiosity of the universe, I don’t try to make myself believe that this is the best of all possible worlds or that all things are working together for my betterment. I had to leave all those expectations behind for this practice to start being meaningful for me.

In part, this is a valuable practice because of my personal struggles with depression. Simply acknowledging that there were good things yesterday helps me have hope, even in the darkness of depression, that there might be a few sparks of light in my day today. This is when even a split second’s worth of not-hurting can be the most valuable memory to hold on to.

From a Wiccan perspective, though, my gratitude is more than that. This simple act, especially when repeated on a regular basis, helps make me more myself, and deep down it helps me gain the power to do my magic, whether that means shaping myself or shaping the world, or – usually – both at once.

An important point here is that for Wiccans gratitude can be a part of the everyday fabric of life. We don’t need to stop and be grateful to someone outside of the world; we are grateful to the world itself for being, as the reification of divinity. We are not bowing and scraping for the scraps that an all powerful divinity chooses to toss our way, and could revoke at any time; instead we are grateful as part of the web of relationship of beings that we participate in as full and equal partners.

Thus my gratitude helps me remember the intricate web of relationships in which I exist, and on which I depend; like so much else in Wiccan practice, it makes me more myself, it helps me to be myself, as part of my relationships with others, human and nonhuman alike.

Remembering those connections not only makes me more myself, it makes me better able to do my magic because my magic flows from and through those very connections. I gather the tools I use and the very energy I need to do magic from that web of relationships, and I send my empowered intention out through that same network to create change in the world.

For me, my gratitude practice is a another simple-seeming tool, like breath work, or grounding and centering, which when investigated deeply is an opening to much more complex work. I’m only beginning to explore that. As the poet said, I shan’t be gone long; you come too.

Posted in theaology | Tagged ,

Fool and Zero

It is so appropriate that the Fool card in the Tarot is numbered zero: it seems like there is not much there, but what it does is change the shape and meaning of everything that is around it.

Mathematically speaking, the invention (or discovery, if you prefer) of zero is vital for the place value system of numerals. We are so used to the place value system (often called Arabic numerals) that we have trouble imagining how difficult it was to do even simple mathematics with previous systems. Have you ever tried doing division with Roman numerals? (What’s XXXVI divided by IX?) It goes beyond a simple unfamiliarity with Roman numerals: they’re just harder to work with because they encode information differently. Each numeral can require multiple steps simply to understand its value, because the numeral encodes information in a pattern similar to the way we count up or down to a number using lots of different reference numbers. The place value system, by comparison, uses only powers of ten as a reference, and thus goes much more directly to the exact value we want to work with. Additionally, because the information about reference numbers is encoded in a digit’s location within the number, we can do neat tricks like multiplication and division using the very layout of the number itself to guide our work, which is impossible with Roman numerals. The difference is due to zero.

All of the simplicity of the place value system of numerals depends on being able to have empty columns: we have to be able to tell 306 apart from 36, or 400 apart from 4. Zero is what makes that possible, which allows the simplicity of the place-value based system. The necessity of emptiness is counter-intuitive in a counting-based system, because it’s very uncommon to start counting with zero. This is precisely why it’s so fabulous and important that the Tarot begins counting this way – beginning from nothingness, which is a step that is necessary for other kinds of being and order to emerge.

But zero isn’t just about zero – it is connected to infinity, and this made it controversial when it was first introduced to the Western world; we’ll touch on this more when we discuss the World card.

This mathematical background is why I like to think of zero as symbolically holding space for potential to develop. I suggest that when we see the Fool in a Tarot reading we think of it as a similar placeholder – not just a void, but a space open to possibilities and change, a space made gravid by virtue of its emptiness.

Occupying the space of emptiness is something that we do need to do from time to time. Emptiness is when we seek to reset ourselves, or open ourselves to be able to receive something new. Emptiness is the place we start from at the beginning of a journey, which is how the Fool is usually depicted. At times that kind of zeroing out can even be great fun, such as I tried to invoke in the foolish ritual I wrote.

But foolishness has always had deeper implications, especially links to the idea of the sacred fool, or the holy wisdom of foolishness. (Laurie R King has written good fiction exemplifying this idea, for anyone who is interested.) One way to think about it is that the fool is a mirror, reflecting back the world around him, allowing others to see themselves in different ways. But achieving this kind of emptiness can be heartbreakingly difficult and dangerous. Exercising this nature of the fool for any long period of time is not a lighthearted endeavor at all, as Lear’s fool should show you.

Out of the difficulties of attaining Foolishness comes the possible reading of a warning: look out, the dog is trying to pull you back, be careful that you don’t run over a cliff. The danger arises when we mistake illusion for emptiness. There is a wonderful depiction of this in the Mystical Cats Tarot, where the Fool is thinking of herself as seated on a cushion drinking milk, and thus completely unaware of what’s going on around her. This kind of empty-headedness is not true openness but rather a covering-over of her surroundings which leaves her unable to deal with whatever is actually happening in the world around her. The work of emptiness, just like any other work worth doing, is not easy, even if it appears so at first.

From a mathematician’s point of view, the requirements and dangers of zero make it the perfect metaphor for beginning such a challenging sequence of ideas and archetypes as the Major Arcana. The Fool, as card 0, represents a state of emptiness that is the necessary precursor to other kinds of wisdom.

Posted in Tarot | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Prayers for Election Day

Today I pray that as many people as possible make it to the polls to vote. Even in an off year, because this is a key piece of political magic.

I pray that their votes are counted.

I pray that their will – our will – be done.

Tonight I will light a candle and watch the election results come in. Join me?

Posted in civil rights

Samhain – Sacred Grief

Grief is work. If you don’t know that, then your experience of grieving has been very different from mine. Grief is hard work, as hard as lifting a thousand pounds of emptiness, over and over again, with every breath, every moment of every day.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that grieving is a process; you may even have heard of the famous five stages of grief that Kubler-Ross outlined so brilliantly. But many popularizations reduce this to a simple linear structure, as if we can simply chart our movement through the stages and then know that we are finished with each one. That is a laughably silly – or perhaps lamentably silly – oversimplification of one of the deepest things human beings experience.

Yes, grieving is a process, and it is one that we go through many times over. Even simple choices can trigger a bout of grieving for the alternatives now forever closed off. I would be hard-pressed to name a point in my life that was utterly free from the work of grieving, even if those griefs were often of the smaller, everyday variety.

I have been thinking about grief a lot because it has been a big part of my own work this year. Beginning with the loss of my mother, so many transitions came up so quickly that it was almost overwhelming. I was doing fairly well with it all until we moved, and then I fell apart. Even though that last upheaval was for good reasons and with a good outcome, the separation from my familiar places and familiar faces was just one more thing to grieve, and I couldn’t take it.

So I have been acutely aware of the way that grief is hard work this year. At times it has been more than I could bear, and I had to struggle just to endure, to do the simple, horribly difficult work of breathing and eating and sleeping with the weight of loss all around me and within me. Yes, it gradually lessens over time, until it becomes merely as hard as physical labor, merely grueling and exhausting. Now, a year later, it is part of my everyday work, a fact of life, a part of my practice.

This led me to thinking about how we could make this a sacred kind of work instead of a bare necessity? As I said at Mabon, I don’t flee the world or my experiences of it. I am called as a Witch to dive deeper into them, to commit myself fully to this life and this work, as it evolves and changes, both the deep joy and the deep grief that are part of the human experience.

So how does this become part of our practice? One of my thoughts is that maybe we can try practicing grieving in a way similar to that of practicing gratitude. I’m not talking about putting on a false front of grief; if you’re not experiencing grief, then you can give thanks for that, and maybe you can just sit with those who are, being a witness for them. You don’t have to try to experience it yourself – it will come to you in its own time, and then you will know that grief is hard work. And if you are blessed, you will have others willing to witness it and maybe to do it with you.

For the past 30 days on Facebook I have been putting this into practice by basically inviting people to grieve with me, to engage in small moments of remembrance. Some of them have generated deep stories, and I’m sure many more moments of deep reflection have occurred without being shared, as was best for the person experiencing them. After this practice, I am more convinced than ever that this is valuable work because of the way it goes against the grain of the overculture, which doesn’t really know what to do with grief. Someone said to me recently that following a bereavement she grieved “far beyond what was socially acceptable.” That says to me that she needed that grieving and society simply didn’t know what to do with it.

As a result, I ask that we in Wicca and Paganism try to include grieving in our practice, as part of making better ways to work with grief, to make space for it, and to acknowledge the hard work that it is. We have special kinds of awareness to bring to this work, because instead of falling into the simplicity of viewing grief as a linear process, we bring the wisdom of our circles and cycles to bear, and we can make it part of our work at this time of year to grieve again our own losses, as much as we need to, and to grieve with those who are grieving fresh losses – making space, making time, and being willing to dedicate the energy necessary to doing the work of grieving.

Grief is hard work. Let’s do it together. Let’s make it part of our practice.

Posted in Pagan, theaology | Tagged , , ,

Mabon – Element of Water

Continuing the series I started a few years ago, I’d like to spend time this Mabon focusing on the Element of Water. As we continue to travel around the Wheel of the Year, we have come to the season of autumn and the western direction, both of which are associated with Water in my system of correspondences.

Water is represented in the Tarot by the suit of Cups, which is associated with emotions and relationships. Anything having to do with feelings, both internal and external, is in the domain of Water. These cards represent a multiplicity of emotions, from the joy of love to the nostalgia of childhood and also the ennui of depression and the ambivalence of setting out on a new path. In trying to represent such a wide range of emotional states, the Cups are both inviting and challenging cards to work with.

This makes them – and the whole metaphor of Water – a good place for reflection. Water itself is reflective, but not always perfectly so, and it is most reflective when it is still. But at the same time, water, like our emotional state, is seldom still, and that’s a good thing, because motion prevents stagnation with both water and emotions. Reflection is important, but it’s easy to get caught up in that reflection, like Narcissus, and stay caught there. The way to stay healthy is to balance the right amount of movement and stillness together.

At this time of the equinox, we like to think about balance, and it’s easy to get caught up in thinking of that balance as a single point, the perfect moment of equality, as if that were a stable thing. But it’s not; even if that moment of balance happens for a second, it’s because of the motion around it, through that moment, which makes the balancing possible. We see the same thing in yoga, where in even the stillest of balancing postures constant tiny movements are happening to keep the balance going in a dynamic fashion.

Water teaches us that every balance is a dynamic situation, and that we are always in motion, just as water is always moving under the pull of the moon. We are always changing, and that’s essential to us remaining healthy, just as moving water remains a healthy part of a larger system, while still water soon grows stagnant.

Thus our reflections too are constantly changing. Our own self-image has to shift and ripple to absorb the changes that are constantly moving us and our relationships. Similarly, all our relationships have a dynamic component; the relationship itself is a living thing, always changing, in small ways and big ones. This too is part of remaining healthy, because a relationship cut off from changes, isolated from adapting to the living situations of the participants, will soon react as any living thing does without water: it withers and dies.

Seen from another perspective, though, death is just another one of the changes that we encounter, and so it deserves our respect as part of the dynamic balance of life. In this sunset season of the year, we become aware that no matter how much love we pour into the world, the consequence of all things changing is that eventually all things will pass away. Even those things that seem “set in stone” are worn away by the movement of water over time.

This awareness that change is the only constant leads to different kinds of attitudes. Some people embrace that knowledge to such a degree that they become detached from the vicissitudes of everyday life, and they reckon this a great gift, so that pain and joy alike become distant and life as a whole becomes less turbulent. I do not follow that path. I prefer to remain immersed in the ups and downs of life’s white water. The knowledge that the only balance is dynamic helps me cope with both the peaks and the troughs; I savor the sweetness of the good times all the more because I know they will end, and I console myself during the down times with an awareness that they too are fleeting, though perhaps never as quickly as we would wish. Still, the knowledge of variation helps me ride the waves as they come, moving with the flow of life’s waters.

When we get out of balance – because we will, we all will, it will always happen – the knowledge that change is the only constant helps us adapt and move on, flowing with the movement around us to try to find a new dynamic balance, one that we can maintain for a while longer. Still, that sense that things are passing away, even if we know that something new is coming, is one of the most difficult feelings we deal with. We will talk about that more at Samhain.

So I leave you with this idea: water is an apt metaphor not only for our relationships but for so much of our changeable lives and how we have to learn to cope with them. Tears of joy and tears of sorrow have more in common than we like to think. Embrace the moment of equinox, my dears, and we will turn our faces to Samhain soon enough.

Posted in Pagan, theaology | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Finding the value of repetition

Right now my personal work makes it clear that I’m going to have to go back and work through some parts of my past and myself again. When faced with this, one of my first thoughts is that there must be something wrong with me to have to do this work over again, even if it’s a little deeper and a little different each time. I wish I could just do it once and have those “issues” taken care of, have them no longer be issues at all.

But that’s a silly thing to think. Take grounding and centering as an example; I was just recently teaching someone new to Wicca about grounding and centering, and could not encourage her enough to practice it repeatedly. Of course grounding and centering is something that’s never “done” or “finished.” I know we have to practice repeatedly.

In the same way, no one would expect to be finished with practicing yoga; heck, we don’t even expect that a very practiced yogini can instantly bend or twist into any given position without the proper preparatory work in a given session. The value is the practice, even when it seems repetitive and simplistic.

Why should I expect the “big” work to be any different?

I’m actually a fan of repetition in ritual across time; it builds familiarity and power in the words and actions, if you do it mindfully (which is just another example of why mindfulness is a root practice for any kind of spiritual work). There can be a wonderful sense of comfort in knowing that you’re doing something you’ve done before, perhaps that others have done before you, perhaps for years on end. In a relatively young religion like Wicca, that sense of comfort is hard to come by, so perhaps I prize it all the more when it does happen in ritual. I know that I have found similar comfort in familiar yoga routines and comfort in the same practices of grounding and centering as well.

So my full moon work this month is going to be looking at things that I want to think I can “fix” once and for all, and instead giving myself space and grace to value the repetition. I realize now that maybe some parts of my personal work will never be finished, or fixed, or whatever it is I wish they were. Maybe I should see them as part of my ongoing practice, not part of my past. I can savor the small differences each time I repeat them, knowing that my progress is a spiral, not an endless loop, but perhaps I can learn to savor the familiarity as well.

How is repetition or ongoing practice part of your work? How could it be a greater part of your work?

Posted in theaology