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Spiral Dance

Three Essays
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CCII. 3 May 2005, San Leandro, CA

Three Essays Towards a Spiritual Autobiography

I wrote these little essays (in the original sense of the word) recently, prompted by the desire to respond to ideas brought forward by the related experiences of other gay mystics on their own paths. Perhaps these are core segments for a book of teachings I will someday compile. (Not write, but compile from the lessons I have learned in life, most of which are hardly original; ask any mystic.) Regardless, I include them here to remind myself of the same teachings I have been passing on to others. To remind myself, as often as I need it, which is often, that I am neither alone on this path, nor the first to walk it. (Well, mostly not the first to walk it.)

Knight and Hermit and Mystic

The question is asked: What is a mystic?

My life recently has gone from living as a hermit in the desert of northern New Mexico to living in the bustling marketplace of San Francisco. I picked up at a Goodwill, almost immediately after arriving in the City, an old copy of the magazine Parabola, which I highly recommend to any and all seekers. They publish four issues a year, and each issue is themed, approaching myth and the quest for meaning through the lens of that particular theme, from a variety of viewpoints, by writers and spiritual guides from many of world's traditions. One constantly comes away realizing how much more we have in common with each other, rather than emphasizing our differences.

In this old 1987 issue, the theme was The Knight and the Hermit. I was reading it on the train a few mornings ago, on the way to my new job, which has been a big adjustment after the hermitic desert life of sleeping when I was tired and eating when I was hungry, shifting to having to be places on time every day. I felt the magazine was speaking directly to me, since I have been both Warrior and Hermit archetypes in my lifetime, and I continue to follow the Way of the Spiritual Warrior.

One of the articles in the mag was an excerpt from Thomas Merton, 20th century Cistercian mystic and well-known author/monk, from his book The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, a book I've re-read a few times, and which I carried a copy of with me into my desert retreat. There is so much in that book comparable to the Chinese collection of Zen sayings, it's remarkable.

What I'm leading up to in my oblique way here is that the Desert Fathers prefigure a lot of what I see happening among modern mystics again, especially gay mystics. The parallels to what I have experienced and talked about and had conversations about with other Radical Faeries over the past few years at various Sanctuaries during various Gatherings, is likewise remarkable.

Thomas Merton on the Desert Fathers, from his introduction:

The flight of these men to the desert was neither purely negative nor purely individualistic. They were not rebels against society. True, they were in a certain sense "anarchists." and it will do no harm to think of them in that light. They were men who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state, and who believed that there was a way of getting along without slavish dependence on accepted, conventional values. But they did not intend to place themselves above society. They did not reject society with proud contempt, as if they were superior to other men. Pm the contrary, one of the reasons why they fled from the world of men was that in the world men were divided into those who were successful, and imposed their will on others, and those who had to give in and be imposed upon. The Desert Fathers declined to be ruled by men, but had no desire to rule over others themselves. . . .

What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ. And in order to do this, they had to reject completely the false , formal self, fabricated under social conditions in "the world." They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand. They sought a God whom they alone could find, not one who was "given" in a set, stereotyped form by someone else. . . .

With the Desert Fathers you have the characteristic of a clean break with a conventional, accepted social context in order to swim for one's life in an apparently irrational void. . . . They neither courted the approval of their contemporaries nor sought to provoke their disapproval, because the opinions of others had ceased, for them, to be matters of importance. They had no set doctrine about freedom, but they had in fact become free by paying the price of freedom.

Here's a key phrase, and one that I find lies at the heart of Radical faerie sanctuaries: The Desert fathers declined to be ruled by men, but had no desire to rule over others themselves. I see this essential anarchist impulse in many forms these days, in a similar rebellion to that 4th Century one that populated the desert with these contemplative hermits. The decadence of society is similar, for one. And for me, personally, in this life-lesson sequence right now about learning to be on my own, in direct contact with the Divine, without intercession, which is the mystic's path in a nutshell, there is this big reminder for me of the lesson I have been working with for weeks now: "They neither courted the approval of their contemporaries nor sought to provoke their disapproval, because the opinions of others had ceased, for them, to be matters of importance."

I have read and re-read and studied the accounts of mystics and their experiences and beliefs from all ears and all parts of the world for decades now. It was a self-study program that fascinated me since I was a young teenager. Of course, there was a personal element driving it when I was young, in that I needed to learn about myself, a little Lutheran kid who was having visions and experiences that his rational sect of Protestantism could neither explain nor contain. I set out to search for what I framed to myself as "the original religion," the core practice and belief system upon which all the more recent religions were built. I framed all the existing world religions as new and upstart, and mediated, and filtered, and therefore accrued rather than original. They were all upstarts, too, because they were all less than 3000 years old, and built on remnants and wisdoms from older, now no longer dominant wisdom traditions. I intuitively knew that human consciousness and religious practice and techniques of the sacred were at least 40 thousand years old. Look at the cave paintings at Lascaux, look at the tribal shamanic practices still in existence in indigenous cultures wherever they have not been wiped out by proselytizing missionaries in their zeal to convert. I settled on shamanism as being "the oldest religion," though in fact shamanism is not at all a religion, but a set of practices and techniques of ecstasy that amount to a spiritual technology.

In the process, I read Huston Smith's The Religions of the World and a remarkable collection of psychology and mysticism quotes called The Choice is Always Ours. This latter collection has been in print continuously for decades now, and was my first introduction to Jung and Meister Eckhart and Rilke. I was 12 or 13 at the time. The first words of Meister Eckhart's I ever read were The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me. It rang like a bell inside my being, and I knew that I had known this all along, and here was a Master who could put it into words for me. It made perfect sense to me, in a deep and light way that few other things had before. It was a first revelation of my own Unity with the Divine; we are not separate in our beings. God is not "out there" while I am "down here"--we are the same being, co-existing, co-creating, making One Life from this life, on all scales of being, at all times. God is fractal because God is self-similar on all scales of magnification.

What I am getting around to saying in my oblique way this time is this: Mysticism is the direct communication with the Divine, without the need of or desire for mediation, intercession, or translation by existing wisdom traditions.

The Sufi prayer "God, show me Your true Face" and the Christian prayer "Thy Will Be Done" are echoed in every religion in every era. They are dangerous prayers, I constantly remind people, because they give license to the Powers That Be to strip away every illusion from your eyes that mediates your ability to see the Divine directly, for yourself. Your ordinary life could be torn apart, as every distraction that can beep you from Unity with God is stripped away. You might go through the dark night of the soul, in one form or another. You might lose your family, your significant other, your lover, your job, your home, your very self. Your sense of self will be demolished to make way for what is real and true and vivid.

Contemplation and meditation are one strong path to this realization. Going within is key to the practice of revelation, whether one follows Zen, Taoism, shamanism, Jungian depth psychology, or whatever. We meet God face to face first within ourselves, and only later in the world, when the illusions have been stripped away, and we realize that there is nothing of the world that is NOT God, nothing that is not part of the mind of the Divine. Thou art That, and I am That, and alll that is, is That. Tat Tvam Asi.

Welcome to the real world, little Coyote.....

Have you really lost your way or are you just resting?

I want to be clear about some things that are not really a problem. Specifically, I feel like it's important to remember that every creative and spiritual person—really, we are creative/spiritual beings, because they are both rooted in the same experience of eros as life-force—goes through dry spells.

Dry spells are a normal part of the process. (You probably already realize that I am reminding you of something you already know.) Dry spells are really fallow spells, when some part of our system is quietly percolating in the background. They are necessary, periodically, to promote new growth. The thing we have to do is honor the time it takes to go through them and come out the other side.

It's the conscious mind, that old personality-ego again, that tends to get bent out of shape when it feels like things aren't moving. I will say this: there is a profound and important difference between my sense of will, loving, and timing, and SPIRIT's will, loving, and timing. They are not always congruent, or in alignment. Things go better when I align my will and my sense of timing to be in congruence with Spirit's. When my will is in alignment with Spirit's, I feel like I am in the Zone, that place of free flow and movement that athletes and musicians both talk about as being in a place of effortless flow.

How do I get into the Zone? It involves a conscious choice to surrender my will and timing to whatever is needed in the moment. To let go of my expectations, both of myself and of Spirit. To be willing to never be creative again, in the way(s) that I knew before. To be willing to give up everything, and not try to direct my creative career anymore. To be willing symbolically die as an artist, if I must. Scary? You bet. (But then, what have you ever lost by dying?)

Are you willing to take that much of a risk to take that big of a leap of faith, to be willing to give it all up? I guarantee that if you take the leap, the rewards (there is no punishment here, only rewards) will be enormous. You might find yourself going in a whole new creative direction; or not. Again, though, it might take a different amount of time than you think it should.

And you know what? Whenever I give it all over to Spirit, in an act of faith, surrender, and trust, the logjam breaks, and I'm back in the flow. The logjam is created by my own stubborn willfulness in trying to direct the process, and in wanting to be in charge of everything, rather than in alignment with everything. Sometimes the right time to act is not when you think it's supposed to be, so you need to wait for it. Ripeness is all.

If I am not going to make art for a week, I no longer try to force it. I just let it rest, like a fallow field that will be replanted soon. You cannot force it, in fact—it never works. Conversely, if I wake up at 4am and can't get back to sleep, I don't try to force that, either. I don't lie in bed for hours, restless, trying to fall back aslepp. I just get up, boot up the computer and start to make something, Several of the free fonts available for download on my website were made on just these sort of occasions.

Having said all that, I don't normally have creative dry spells per se, because I operate in several artistic media, I view it as the same creative force switching through different channels. I have learned that I rarely write poetry when I am musically satisfied; when I am not playing much music, I write a lot more poems. I also switch quickly between modes. I make art almost every day, or I start to feel a back-pressure in the pipeline, if you will. Since I make visual art in the camera, digital camera, and computer, I suppose this is easier for me than if I were an oil painter. In periods of fallowness for one art channel, when I feel stuck and stale visually, for example, I switch over to music or writing. Or I make a font. Then, having made one little inconsequential thing, sometimes the rest of it comes easily again. To break a logjam, sometimes you only have to move one little log.

The trick to this is to learn to be consciously aware of your own process. If you are in a stuck period, a dark night period, a dry spell, well, this is an ideal time for learning to recognize your own patterns.

Thus, I would say that creative gifts are never lost. You cannot lose them, as long as you continue to respect them, and their care and feeding. You can damage your relationship with them, by dishonoring them, but not destroy them. We do not OWN our creative gifts; they are on loan to us from Spirit, for the duration. I am careful to not let my ego identify itself as the source and master of my creative gifts, but rather it is their steward, required to take care of them in a healthy way.

Now, personally, I find essay writing excruciating. I do it, but for me it's work. Poems, by contrast, are given to me, it feels like. They just come at the oddest times; my job is to be ready for them to come, and to capture them when they arrive. On very rare occasions, I have felt exactly as if I were taking dictation. Essay writing, because it requires my conscious mind to be engaged, logical, and organized, is much more difficult. (Usually what I do is spew forth, then go back to edit it into form and order.) It takes me a lot of time to write like this.

Now, if you have really lost your way, and are feeling not only disassociated from Spirit, but outright alienated and abandoned, then this might be spiritual acedia (dryness) rather than a creative dry spell. Acedia is an important part of the dark night process. It is a fallow period as well.

I'm sorry to report that the mystics agree: the only way out is through. You have to go through it, to get past it. No amount of beating your head against the wall will hurry the process, because the process is under the mastery of Spirit's will, loving, and timing, and not your own. You cannot force it to be over any sooner than it is destined to be.

But there are coping methods, that aid the process, and can help move it along. Many of these amount to going within yourself, and becoming a spelunker of the soul.

The way to learn to swim, when the water is over your head, and you feel like you're drowning, is to become a deep-sea diver. Swim DOWN into those sunless depths, and meet the monsters glowing there. They will turn out to be your allies in your process of rebirthing yourself, if you can meet them and realize that they are your Shadow. The Shadow, remember, is not the enemy; it merely contains those things you have not realized about yourself, the potentials you have not developed, as well as the things you've suppressed.

To delve into the Shadow can be both terrifying and exhilarating. The goal is integrating what you find there back into your whole self, and Self, so that you can in future work together in alignment, instead of in conflict with your own deep self.

You might feel as if you are dying. You might feel like there is nothing to live for. This is a dangerous place to be only if you forget that what is dying is the personality-ego's illusions about its control of your life and your ambitions, and make the mistake of taking it too literally. It is a Symbolic death, not an actual one. Suicide is the mistake we make (and I have approached that edge more than once, believe me) when we think that everything we know is dying or dead. But what has died is only what we think we know, not what our deep self knows, and is only waiting to gift us with.

I urge, recommend and cajole anyone who is going through anything like this to read and re-read Nikos Kazantsakis' Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercise. (trans. by Kimon Friar) He wrote that book in a period of dark blockage that went so far as to manifest as a physical wound, from which he suffered for months. Then, in a rush of breakthrough, after giving up everything, and going into his darkest places where he felt like he was dying, he wrote this small book, and was healed literally overnight. Physical manifestations are often tied to emotional and spiritual states. This is well-known in the history of mysticism. (Saint Teresa, Julian of Norwich, St. John of the Cross, and many others, all suffered physical manifestations of their exalted states.) It can take any form of illness, but if you look at the form it takes (asthma, eczema, leukemia) as Symbolic, there is information there you can use to get through the process. (Fro example: Asthma is of the lungs, which is of the breath, which is of the speech, which is of self-expression, being blocked, unable to get a full breath; all these are tied to the fourth and fifth chakras.)

And physical exercise is a great idea. Even taking a walk and not thinking about it for awhile, can help get it moving again.

Animals and Totems and Dragons, oh my!

I am going to speak on this topic because of my personal experience with the animal powers. They have been a constant, significant presence in my daily life, and are one of the main channels of communication I have with the Powers That Be. I never enter sacred space without some sort of animal presence making itself known to me, immediately and continuously. Some of my earliest significant shamanic/visionary experiences involved animals, so I guess I started out on this path rather early. For whatever that's worth to anyone but me.

An important point to remember is that there are totems and there are Totems and then there are helper spirits. There is a lot of confusion about what totems are, and even though there is overlap and some blurriness of boundaries and definitions in actual practice, I find it useful to make some distinctions between familial or otherwise socially-constructed clan totems and those beings that come to us directly and personally.

A totem is often considered in many native cultures to be a collective identity, even a clan identity or secret society identity, as in "we are descended from and live under the protection of Bear." Traditionally, a "totem" is this kind of identity. In some native cultures, you are even born into a Clan, rather than being given the choice at maturity as to which Society you wish to ally yourself with; there's a wide range of variability here.

When you go off and have a vision quest and meet your animal powers in visionary states, or if they come to you in synchronicities and dreams, this may not be the same totem as your Clan Totem. It is your personal Symbolic connection to the Powers That Be in animal form, and with animal personality and magic. It may be the same as your (social) Clan Totem, but it might not. This is a channel of your direct access to the Divine, and to the Self, manifesting through natural forms and Symbols. (This is how archetypes work, too, in Jungian depth psychology.)

This next bit seems so obvious, I hesitate to even say it, but here goes: Cultural context matters. When you are given an animal spirit, learn everything you can about it, especially from the viewpoint of the cultural context in which the animal came to you, or was given to you. Aesop and other Western animal symbolisms are not really relevant to this at all, in that they were literary inventions devised for the purpose of writing moralizing fables and aphorisms; and these are not traditional symbols, discovered via experience, but largely created by intellect. (This is even more true of Montaigne than of Aesop. Although the Brothers Grimm collected regional folklore rather than inventing it, even where they took literary liberties with a collected tale, they respected the original intent.) For example, if your animal came to you during a Lakota sweat lodge, learn what that animal meant to the Lakota, not just to Western folklore.

(And please forget liberal guilt about cultural appropriation. Learning from and appreciating other cultures' viewpoints and styles of being is not a priori "stealing." Especially if done in a respectful, mindful manner of listening and learning attentiveness. The Powers That Be do not concern themselves with national identities or racial issues (or even gay issues) to the extent that we ourselves do. Maybe I've been lucky, but every time I have approached the Other in a respectful manner, desiring to learn from them, I have been well-received.)

People have asked me why I sign White Dragon and my email is Black Dragon. Well, in the late 80s and early 90s, the Black Dragon came to me several times over the course of a year or so, in visions, in ritual, in Holotropic Breathwork sessions, in poems, on book covers, on TV, and even a little-known but terrific comic book ("Black Dragon" by Chris Claremont and John Bolton, set in Medieval England, amidst the new Christians and the faery folk alike). There were times when I was writhing on the living room floor, wings growing out of my back. It was intense, and those close friends who witnessed part of the process described it as, well, spooky. It was part of my shamanic journey into initiation, in retrospect. So, the Black Dragon appeared to me, in visions and dreams, at first as a cosmic being of enormous size–literally the size of galaxies or solar systems–and then began to integrate itself with me in experience after experience. It was both an awakening of powers from within, and an invasion of powers from without. (There is no difference.) At times I felt possessed, at other times I felt more empowered than ever before, like I was wearing the Dragon body as a suit of clothes or armor. I gained strength from this experience, and more mastery of my gifts and abilities, and more stamina and self-confidence in their use. (At this same period of time, I learned to shield effectively for the first time; I began my Reiki studies; I took up martial arts, specifically Ki Aikido; and for the first time in my adult life I developed the belief that I was not crazy, and that the things I was feeling and sensing that seemingly no one else was, were in fact real, and I was okay. It was a period of initiation and validation.) The Dragon appearing in my life was the foundation experience of everything that I have become, since. So I honored it by taking Black Dragon Productions as the name for my umbrella arts company, and using Black Dragon as my Radical Faerie name. Some of my closest RadFae friends call me Dragon all the time, even though they know my street name; it is a truer name, in some ways.

Now, to be absolutely clear. The Black Dragon is not my totem. I have many animal spirits who are my friends, allies, and helpers. In fact, I theorize that we all have 12 or so animal totems, just as we have 12 sacred contracts, 12 zodiacal signs (in projection on the Wheel), 12 months, and so on. Perhaps we have a few more, or less; but 12 is a sacred number, and seems to match my experience. (Theory follow praxis, always.) Not all of the 12 are of the same importance or significance to you in this lifetime, although you will encounter and deal with all of them at one point or another, as they are the agreements you made about the lessons you chose to learn this lifetime. Not all of them are dramatic, and not all of them are big, huge, life-shattering lessons.

The Dragon is not my totem, it is an identity. The Dragon is who I am. The Dragon rises from my Shadow, and is my power. It is both fierceness and loyalty; strength and endurance; compassion and honor. It represents the creative force that arises from my Shadow, and as it became integrated with me, I integrated many parts of my Shadow into my Self. The Dragon is a symbol to me therefore of my personal wholeness (always still a work in progress, mind you). The Dragon is also a force of nature, not to be trifled with. It can be as playful as a cat, mercurial as weather, dangerous as a tornado, loving as a wolf towards the cubs. I give myself permission to inhabit the Dragon, and be as quick to change my moods.

I am still negotiating how this affects the people around me, in such a way that I can be myself without causing them too much chaos and mayhem to their cherished illusions and dreams of order. But hey, everyone so often you just have to fly out and burn the villagers' fields. Although, lately, I admit I've taken to burning the fields in fractal patterns; that really confuses them.

I am always surrounded by the presence of the Dragon; yes, even at the office doing computer-based print and web stuff. There is the Dragon, and there are also present the Indwellers, the Dragon ancestors, who are the Whispering, the quiet voices that speak more directly in the voice of the Immanence. They get louder at need. They are always present, there in the shadows at the back of my mind, glowing eyes and dark forms moving in the dimly-lit corners, watching and occasionally commenting on stuff.

When I am being the Dragon, I can be fierce. I'm told I can be intense to be around, even intimidating of scary. I tend to cut right through to the bottom line, to be, shall we say, blunt. Honest to a fault. Impatient with bullshit. Cheerfully and lovingly slashing away the chaff to get at the grain; that's what claws and fangs are for, after all. Not everyone likes that, though.

So, also to be clear, I do not “work with Dragon magic.” I embody it. The Dragon is not my totem, nor some energetic tool to be wielded. I am the Dragon. We are One.

About two years ago now, I had another vision, in which the Black Dragon appeared to me seated very much contentedly, like a sunning cat, crossed paws, smiling. And then the Dragon began to glow bright white, gradually becoming too bright to look at. When the glow settled down, the Dragon was the White Dragon, unchanged except that now the black glows white. (I still have some dark days, more Black Dragon than not.) This was significant, and an indication that I was moving in the right direction. No, I do not take it as a symbol of enlightenment or achievement; rather, Symbolic of cleansing, a shifting of energies. The more old karma and biography I continue to clear and release, the more free-flowing and easy to hear becomes the Whispering. It's kind of like shoveling the shit out of the communications room so you can get easier access to the dials and knobs. A sign of progress, not a sign of ultimate achievement. Although a signpost and inspiration towards that ultimate.

And in addition, I have several totems that are very important to me, and come into play when I am teaching, communicating, creating, or just in general walking the Way of the Spiritual Warrior in my daily life. I have Wolf, and Wolf is Teacher. I have sometimes been Coyote, the Trickster. I have Whale, which is my gift of Memory. And there are the others. Some I won't tell you about.

Resources to help you work with your animal totems, as they appear:

1. your dreams, your visionary states, your poems, your journal; don't hesitate to go to the library or online and look at pictures of your animal, and write whatever comes to you about your animal. This is a very direct way they can teach. Most especially, pay attention to those animals that appear to you on a daily basis. Never forget that the City is not divorced from Nature, not separated from it, try as we might. Even in the most urban of environments, you will still encounter birds, mammals, and insects on a continuous basis. Pay attention to who shows up. Nothing is ever random, when you begin to live the Symbolic life; everything is always the Divine talking to you, continuously Whispering to us, if we'd only pay attention and listen. This is a resource you can tap into anytime, anywhere.

2. Animal-Speak by Ted Andrews. Probably the best, most encyclopedic interpretative guide for animal totems currently in print.

3. The Medicine Cards by David Carson and Jamie Sams. Excellent resource for meditation. One of the nice things is their Taoist-like openness to Mystery and growth: they provide blank cards with which to make your own animal cards to add to the deck. (Of course I made a Black Dragon card early on.) I have used these since 1990. They are my personal oracle, the one I go to when I need to ask questions directly, when I feel stuck. I don't actually consult them that often, as they tend to shout. The truth is, I have been focusing on direct intuition, and don't consult the cards that often. I never let other people touch my Medicine Cards, and they will not do readings for other people anymore.

4. The Druid Animal Oracle by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm. A largely Celtic take on the subject, which includes all the animals from Irish/Celtic mythology. Somewhat colored by their origins and intent, and not always fully useful to those of us living on Turtle Island (North America) rather than on Eire, but very good nonetheless. There is a rich collection of animal lore here, to supplement the rest of your totemic research.

5. If your animal appears as one of the Zuni animal fetish totems, find one and carry it around with you for awhile, in your pocket, on a necklace. Call on the animal spirit to empower you in your daily life. Fetishes are meant to be channels, not worshipped in themselves: they connect to, and do not replace. But a fetish can be a physical object that you carry around, that helps you feel connected.

Back to the Road Journal online:


I am now podcasting excerpts from the Road Journal. This is a new project that will grow over time.

The podcast features original music and poetry, and readings of the ongoing Road Journal, by a nomadic visionary creative artist, musician, and writer. Each chapter is recorded in a different acoustic space, and treated with filters, processing, and editing, using chance methods. The process converts the written text into text/sound poetry.


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