Phoenix Burning. Photo by David Ashwanden.

Rising Phoenix: Magic and Art at Europe’s largest Fire Festival

All photos by David Ashwanden – for more see his Phoenix flickr album here

Last week I had the pleasure of joining the volunteer team at what is probably Europe’s largest gathering of fire performers, the Phoenix Fire Convention in Germany (1). Having worked as a fire performer and been involved in the circus community for the past few years I thought I kind of knew what I was getting into. Yet nothing could have prepared me for what I found at the Phoenix festival – magic, deep connection and lots of amazing skills.

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Setting up The Fire Space

What does fire mean?

It is all around us nowadays – from the man walking by you in the street lighting his cigarette to the somewhat tamed flames of the circuits sparking inside the machine on which you are reading these words – and sometimes it can be easy to forget the raw vitality of this most elementary power. Yet fire is today as dangerous to touch as it was for our Promethean ancestors, and though we may feel we have trained it to do our will, a visit to any dry country in the summertime could swiftly show you that we are by no means always in control.

 

What does Phoenix mean?

The legend of the phoenix originates in Ancient Greece, though as a mythological symbol it has counterparts in many cultures (2), as do many of our most profound societal symbols (3). It is generally described as a large, beautiful bird with lustrous red or purple feathers (etymologically, ‘phoenix’ stems from the Greek word for ‘purple’, a colour associated with fire and the sunrise) (4), which burns on the fire and dies but is re-born from the ashes of the same fire. As a symbol of a fire festival, then, it is pretty apt.  However, the fire-bird is more than a symbol – it is actually an integral part of the festival. Every night at dusk the Phoenix, a large metal sculpture, was ceremonially set alight. Only when it had burned completely did the fire space of the festival, a large carpeted area which at its capacity could safely host around 30 fire performers at a time, open.

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Setting the Phoenix Alight

The ritual nature of this helped to set a tone of respect and mutual appreciation. Many of us play with fire on a weekly or even daily basis and from watching some of the people in the fire space it was clear that more than a few feel totally at home when surrounded by flames.  This familiarity, however, perhaps makes it all the more important to remember what we are playing with and to accord it the respect it deserves.  The phoenix-burning ceremony was a beautiful way to represent this.

Sacred Space

Preparation of sacred space to show the importance of an activity is something which can help a lot in directing focus and attention on one’s actions, on the present moment and on appreciating what the world is giving to us. This by no means needs to be religious; but there are many aspects of modern Western culture which can be seen to be lacking this appreciation and sared-isation. Luckily, this lack means there is space for the creation of new ceremonies and placement of new importance on places and events. As a volunteer helping to set up the fire space at the Phoenix, I was part of a team of people who helped to turn a piece of dusty, stony ground into a smooth, carpeted dance-space. The care and attention going into this was emphasised by the fact that the festival hired a group dedicated to fire-space preparation to organise it, who are named very aptly The Fire Space (5).

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Setting up the Fire Space.

This is something I have actually done before though not on such a grand scale, and though not everyone may use the word ‘sacred’ to describe the activity, it was done with such care, attention and love that there doesn’t appear, to me, to be a difference (for more on my definitions of ‘sacred’ and on the importance of sacred space see my article here) (5).

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Feel like you don’t have your own ‘sacred space’? Maybe you can create one…Photo by David Ashwanden

What does convention mean?

Altogether there ended up being around 800 attendees at the convention: jugglers, spinners, sculptors, whippers, people who could move their bodies in ways I’d not dreamed possible before and of course, people bringing many many examples of fire-toys, from places as diverse as Denmark, Costa Rica, Canada, Australia, Spain and many others, even Wales.

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Fire swords in the pre-dawn light.

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LED toys in the ‘Blacklight Space’.

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Spinning with the gigantically impressive ‘Triplengs’.

Each day of the convention was filled with workshops so that we could learn more about the skills we already have or pick up an entirely new skill if we wanted. More importantly than these learnings, however, seems to be the gathering together of people who share the same passions, which seems to accelerate learning even if there is no formal teaching.

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The magic of gathering together.

The location of the festival was in the beautiful Thuringia hills, and it seems indicative of the friendliness and welcoming attitude of the conventioners that on the Saturday night, hundreds of local villagers came to see the Gala show and join in a little bit themselves.

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One of the Gala Show comperes: Pete the Witch Doctor.

Even the weather was appropriate, with burning hot sun every day of the festival, which finally broke into an awesome lightning storm on the evening of the final day, as the Phoenix was carefully cleared away.

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Even the sky was playing with fire.

Flames of Earth

Our human society is full of fire, you can even say it is built on fire. There are many aspects of the way in which we use fire which can be seen as massively destructive, even if they do seem to provide us with convenient things such as means of travel or communication. One reason why we may be causing so much self-destruction, as explored by Abram (7) and others, is our lack of connection to the beauty and power of fire and its symbolic equivalence within the burning of our own spirits. With this in mind it seems clear that a step towards responsible use of the earth’s resources is recognition of the sacred art which we can create with it, and which it always possible to create with it. That is not to say that fire performers are not using the Earth’s resources, but we are tapping into the raw energy of the fire in a way in which you may not consider when you, for example, take a ride on a bus. Is this recognition and love part of creating a re-considered use of resources? Perhaps.

One final tradition of the festival was that everyone who attended was given a tiny corked bottle on a string. Into this we put a small amount of the ashes from the burned phoenix. Next year, the phoenix can only rise again with the help of the returning festival-goers, who can contribute the ash it needs for the rebirth.

As if we needed another incentive to come back…

Do you enjoy these photos? For many more from the convention, check out David Ashwanden’s flickr album here.

References

  1. Phoenix Convention, 2016. ‘Homepage’. http://phoenix-convention.de/
  2. Garry, Jane; El-Shamy, Hasan, 2005. Archetypes and Motifs in Folklore and Literature. ME Sharpe: New York City.
  3. Van der Broek, R, 1972. The Myth of the Phoenix. Seeger I trans. EJ Brill: Leidon/Boston/Tokyo.
  4. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero With a Thousand Faces.  Pantheon: New York City
  5. Fire Space, 2016. ‘Fire Space Project’. https://www.facebook.com/FireSpaceProject/?pnref=lhc
  6. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Sacred Spaces’. Abundance Garden, 3/3/2015. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/sacred-spaces/
  7. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City

 

 

Kosmicare Bell Tent. Photo by Stephanie Amazonas

How to Care for your Garden: Kosmicare UK at the Secret Garden Party

Some people go to festivals as a king of mini-holiday; others because they want to see the bands and music. Some go because they love the atmosphere, and some go simply because it’s the closest thing we can find to the way we live our lives anyway which also resonates with the so-called normal world. Festivals are places to party, but much more than that; traditionally (and this goes back to the first tribal ceremonial gatherings) (1) they are a place to experiment, where boundaries dissolve and where you could find yourself going on journeys which you never expected to before…

Journey Help

Sometimes this boundary dissolution could be a little confusing, especially if the festival is a big one, which is why I was so pleased to be working with Kosmicare UK (1) last weekend at Secret Garden Party (2), which has many areas, from labyrinths and mazes to space-hopper games zones, and from natural (though very muddy) swimming pools in the forest to giant hot tubs with views of animal sculptures. Somehow the overall effect seems to be to encourage party-goers to don as much glitter as they can possibly get their hands on, sometimes with no other garments at all. All of this creates an atmosphere of fun and intrigue, perhaps encouraging experimentation, although with around 20,000 other party-goers around (the festival capacity’s normally 40,000, but apparently numbers were down this year) such experimentation can go along with a slight risk element.

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So much glitter it was even falling from the sky! Photo by Stephanie Amazonas.

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Inside the ‘Sanctuary’ space at Kosmicare UK. Photo by Stephanie Amazonas.

Coming into The Loop

In our non-judgmental acceptance of anyone, regardless of which substances they may have taken, and our understanding of how psychedelics can affect behaviour and mood and how to respond to this, Kosmicare UK is part of the recognition of so-called ‘drug’ culture (though perhaps we need a new word for this – see my article here for more thoughts on the matter). Through this it was very exciting to be present at Secret Garden Party alongside The Loop (4), an organisation who use state-of-the-art spectroscopy scanning to anonymously test whichever chemicals you bring them and tell you what they are. In non-science speak, festival-goers could go to The Loop tent, throughout the festival, and have their pills and powders tested using a laser which can tell them, within a matter of minutes, which chemicals they are made up of, so you could find out how pure your drugs were, or if they were even what they had been sold to you as. The organisation managed to get an agreement with on-site police that there would be no police presence anywhere near the drugs-testing tent.

This was the first time The Loop have been present at any UK festival, though given their success and positive feedback (see 5, 6) it will probably not be the last. Neither The Loop or Kosmicare UK encourage taking of illegal substances, but the fact that both areas were busy throughout the festival shows that people are doing it anyway, and if they can test their substances so they know what they are taking, and have a safe and welcoming space to go to once they have taken them, the risks of such activity are significantly lower and everyone can do what they probably came to the festival for in the first place – to have a good time.

How environment can affect our mood?

Sometimes when people are deeply lost in their psyches they may be unaware of their surroundings, or if people are around they may project onto those people whatever nightmares are in their heads and potentially lash out at them. At Kosmicare UK we are prepared for this and always ensure that our visitors are kept from harming themselves and others around them, though we do not restrain them in an uncomfortable or confrontational way. In this the Kosmicare UK methods seem to differ radically from those I witnessed being used by some of the on-site security and police, and by the Welfare tent. Though we were trying as much as possible to co-ordinate with the other welfare teams and with the security guards and police, at such a large event there were occasionally communication gaps. This could sometimes be frustrating, however, it is probably mainly due to the lack of understanding of what Kosmicare UK is actually providing, and the more we can publicise this the better prepared the other festival staff can be.

As with all the festivals we go to Kosmicare UK was there providing a safe and caring space for anyone who happens to have taken their experimentation in a direction which they are no longer sure how to handle. As such we are usually available for those experiencing drug-related difficulties, though all are welcome at the Kosmic-area, whether they are experiencing psychological problems of any kind or are simply feeling a little lost or lonely. We were busy all weekend with all kinds of visitors; some of the main ones which I experienced being from people who had ingested some kind of psychedelic substance such as LSD who were going through some complicated mental acrobatics. Such cases are relatively easy to deal with in Kosmicare UK because of the way in which we work; using set and setting, which has been proven to affect one’s experience (see for example 6), and by accepting that whatever the person is going through, it is first of all valid and second of all will become less intense as the drug wears off, so there is no point in fighting it. We do this in a number of ways, one of which is by purposefully wearing our own clothes rather than any kind of uniform, to show those coming to Kosmicare UK that we are on the same level as them and therefore create more of a trusting, co-operative atmosphere.

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Working with set and setting: the ‘party’ tent at the Kosmicare area, for those feeling sociable or loud. Photo by Stephanie Amazonas.

 

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Working with set and setting: the ‘Shrine’ inside the bell tent, which includes amy things to look at and play with including things to connect us to the elements such as the fire of candles, air of incense, a shell filled with water and rose petals, and a live plant connecting us to the natural world and the earth element, and as a reminder of the living, breathing ecosystem around us. Such things can be sufficient to engender calm in an uptight or anxious individual. Photo by Stephanie Amazonas.

We do not have the facilities to provide first aid assistance to those needing physical medical attention. Nor are we particularly interested in sorting out fights between festival goers. All of this can be taken care of by the security, welfare and first aiders and if necessary the police. What we have expertise in and a specially prepared area for is those who are having any kind of difficulties on drugs. Thanks to Secret Garden Party’s open-minded and forward-thinking attitude, we could do this easily and in co-operation with The Loop at the festival.

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Some of the Kosmic Garden Party Team. Photo by Ilaria Foo.

The Secret Garden Party was a refreshing and thought-provoking experience. Hopefully more festivals in the UK will take the lead and become more open to providing not just welfare, but also different kinds of psychological care and attention for people who are exploring, without judgement of the methods they have chosen for their explorations.

Kosmicare UK will next be around at Illusive Festival (7) in September so come and look out for us!

References

  1. Kosmicare UK, 2016. ‘About Us’. http://www.kosmicareuk.org/about-us/
  2. Secret Garden Party, 2016. ‘Secret Garden Party’. http://www.secretgardenparty.com/
  3. The Loop, 2016. ‘Mission Statement’. http://wearetheloop.co.uk/missionstatement
  4. Brooks, L, 2016. Secret Garden Party pioneers drugs testing service for festival-goers’. The Guardian, 24/7/16. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jul/24/secret-garden-party-pioneers-drugs-testing-for-festival-goers?CMP=fb_gu
  5. Fisher, H, 2016. ‘I spent my weekend testing drugs at a festival’. The Independent, 25/7/16. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/secret-garden-party-drugs-service-i-tested-drugs-at-festival-service-for-everyone-a7155376.html
  6. Hartogsohn, I, 2013. ‘The American Trip: Set, Setting and Psychedelics in 20th Century Psychology’. MAPS, Spring 2013. Available as a PDF here: http://www.maps.org/news-letters/v23n1/v23n1_p6-9.pdf
  7. Illusive Festival, 2016. ‘Illusive Festival’. http://illusive-festival.co.uk/
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The EU Referendum: Towards a Global Citizenship?

On Thursday (23 June 2016) the citizens of the United Kingdom voted on whether or not they wish to be part of the European Union in a referendum (1). The results of the referendum, as well as the media portrayal of events leading up to and following it, have thrown up some interesting questions of identity and what it means to be united. Though much analysis of these questions focuses on the political aspects of the EU and the UK as a state, it could also be important to consider the wider implications when it comes to travelling in general, and what it actually means to be a citizen in today’s world.

United!….Are We?

Geographically, the referendum results have thrown into clear contrast the idea of the United Kingdom being one nation-state. Though most of England voted to leave the EU (1), the majority of Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to stay in (1), suggesting a lack of unity within the ‘United’ Kingdom. However, if Scotland and Northern Ireland become their own nation-states, independent of English law, the major English cities will probably wish to follow, having all voted to stay in the EU, so we could end up with six or seven new EU member states, including the country of London (which may raise some logistical questions of how the politics of England would function without the Houses of Parliament and all of the bureaucratic institutions which are based in London, but surely just a little re-organisation is needed).

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Photo by David Ashwanden

Considering our movements

One issue which seems to have been central to the referendum is the idea of ‘immigrants’ coming into the EU (see for example 2). Those voting to leave the EU may well have been doing so in order to stop more people entering Britain as an immigrant. However, there are an estimated 1.2 million British-born people currently living in other EU states (3) whose right to reside in such countries could potentially be compromised by the referendum results. If those who voted ‘remain’ were hoping to limit the number of people entering the UK, they may wish to consider these 1.2 million.

The right to travel 

It is difficult to tell what effect the referendum will have on a practical level for people who live in Britain or who have been officially designated British. However, in many ways the results seem to be throwing into clear relief the irrelevance of such official designations. How can we identify with England if we live in Italy or Spain, and England wishes to close its borders to these countries? Furthermore, in today’s increasingly connected and multicultural, multi-perspective world, what does it mean to identify with a nation-state? It is perhaps easier to feel an identity, for example, with a person who was born in a country on the other side of the globe, but who likes the same bands as you, than to your next-door neighbour who bangs on the wall every time you play their music too loud. Then there is the more holistic idea that we are all related and that a deep respect for the world around us- the trees, the mountains, the flowers, and all our fellow animals- is resonant wherever we are in the globe and whichever side of a political line we happen to be on.

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Mountains – the same, whichever nation they have been designated a part of. Photo by David Ashwanden.

The flowers, after all, do not need a passport to travel. As someone who has lived for extended periods in the mountains I was refreshingly amazed to find, on my first ever visit to the mountains of Abruzzo in central Italy, many of the same plant species as I experienced in the Sierra Nevada, thousands of kilometres away in a different so-called nation, as well as in my own native land. The plants flourish in an environment which is conducive to biodiversity, creating a resilient network of abundant life. Different from plants as we may be, it does not take too much of a leap of imagination to analogise this to humans.

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Mountain Flowers. Photo by Charlotte Haworth.

International imports but no freedom to leave?

The idea that we have the right to roam and flourish on the earth while respecting it is an ancient one, and as an increasingly global society one which it may well be important to recognise. Many people are upset, angry or scared about the outcome of the referendum – which emotions do seem to be being encouraged by media outlets – but what the referendum perhaps is really showing is that it doesn’t matter which nation or group of nations you supposedly belong to. From this perspective it is not so important to join one or other identifying group but to identify yourself as a global citizen, someone who has every right to live in the world and to freely move around it. This is what I believe we are moving towards as an international society, whatever the so-called ruling governments may say.

Official recognition and doing it anyway

Yet how can we apply this holistic citizenship on a practical level? Maybe it is easier than you think. In Britain there already exist laws enshrining the rights of so-called ‘travellers’ (4), although not many of them are followed in practise. For example, the fact that ‘travellers’ are recognised as a distinct section of society is shown in the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960, under which councils can provide special traveller’s sites for caravans and mobile homes, although “not many public authorities do so” (4).

What appears to be clear is that if a group of people really believe that they have the right to do something, then this right exists, regardless of the law.  This can be shown in many examples; one clear one of the law catching up to what the people had decided was right is with many indigenous tribes in what is now known as the USA, who have a deep cultural relationship to the ingestion of peyote cactus which has been developing over thousands of years, and whose right to use this sacred plant was recognised in 1965 by 28 different Federal governments even though they still currently ban all other people from eating peyote (5).

What does it mean for me?

What does this have to do with being a British or other citizen? Simply that it illustrates that if you really think something should be a certain way then it can be. If taking peyote in sacred rituals is recognised as an act of religious freedom, then why shouldn’t travelling around the world and finding a home wherever you feel comfortable, regardless of the lines on the map? The indigenous American tribes are respectful of the sacred nature of the peyote and this respect can extend out to the entire world. This is how we could approach the new global citizenship: we are not simply travellers but conscious movers; every step we take is careful and everywhere we go we can recognise the beauty and the goodness present, even in cultural gestures or landscapes which may at first appear ugly. We accept that everyone’s ideas are valid, which includes all the border games and everything they entail, just in the way that indigenous tribes may well respect the laws banning other people from using their sacred plant in disrespectful ways, though as citizens of a unified and sacred planet we are exempt from such games.

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All of our ways can be beautiful. Photo by David Ashwanden.

The previous statements are simply ideas; seeds which can be taken and planted if you have the right conditions to nurture them. Whatever effects the EU referendum ends up having, we can use it as a starting point for moving beyond mere simple ideas of nationalism or groups of nations. Wherever you travel, either virtually using your computer screen or physically sensing this wonderful planet around you, remember that the “lovers of ultimate beauty” (6) can be found everywhere. The more we realise this the more we can move forwards towards a recognition of travelling as a sacred right….

…Well it is, right?

References

  1. The Guardian, 2016. ‘EU Referendum: Results and Analysis’. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/ng-interactive/2016/jun/23/eu-referendum-live-results-and-analysis
  2. Asthana, A, 2016. ‘Immigration and the EU referendum: the angry, frustrated voice of the British public’. The Guardian, 20/6/16. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/20/seven-towns-one-story-referendum-voters-say-too-many-foreigners
  3. Migration Watch UK, 2016. ‘The British in Europe – and vice versa’. http://www.migrationwatchuk.org/briefing-paper/354
  4. Law on the Web, 2016. ‘Rights of Travellers’. https://www.lawontheweb.co.uk/legal-help/rights-of-travellers
  5. Legal Information Institute, 2016. ’42 U.S. Code § 1996a – Traditional Indian religious use of peyote’. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/1996a
  6. Gogol Bordello, 2007. ‘Wonderlust King’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3SUPPeuRdU
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Intoxicating Words: Ideas for changes in language to promote positive evolution of humanity

With thanks to David Ashwanden

As explored elsewhere in this blog (1, 2), words are very powerful things. There are some which ignite such emotions and polarise opinions so greatly that it can be dangerous to use them in certain company. One example of this is the word ‘drug’. Such a small word, yet one which has been massively controversial for many decades. There are many so-called ‘drugs’ which have been deemed as inappropriate for general societal use by the lawmakers and which have subsequently gained huge amounts of support for legalisation. In particular, entheogenic or psychoactive substances such as, but not limited to, LSD, psilocybin and cannabis have been the subject of much debate.

Turn on, tune in…?

Right now, it could be argued, there has never been more reason to be interested in how things affect our minds, and how we can utilise them in a beneficial way. Although so-called ‘psychedelic’ or ‘mind-manifesting’ plant and fungi-based materials have been used by humans for thousands if not tens of thousands of years in order to enhance our human experience and connection to the world around us (see for example 3, 4), and it has been almost a century since LSD-25 was first isolated by Albert Hoffman (5), research into how LSD and similarly acting substances can affect the human mind was stifled for many decades (6) and has only recently gained a resurgence (7).

Much evidence suggests that as long as humans have had culture we have also had a deep and often sacred relationship with plants and fungi which can affect our minds in powerful ways (see for example 3, 4); yet today we are also actually gathering more and more scientific evidence on why this is so, and why such substances play a key part in our lives. This includes the latest studies at Imperial College London which show, using state-of-the-art scanning technology, what our brains look like when we ingest LSD (8), and also this past weekend saw the third edition of the Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research in the Netherlands (9).

Many groups involved with the psychedelic resurgence are strongly advocating partial or total legalisation of such psychoactive substances as LSD and psilocybin (see for example 10). However, while such things are considered ‘drugs’ it does not seem particularly helpful for them to be legal or illegal. To keep calling them such, regardless of what the so-called decision-makers say, is to do a disservice to valuable allies to our health, and to the thousands of years of human culture when, by many accounts, our relationship to such substances was not as either a commodity to consume or as contraband to fear, but as a tool which could help to guide us through our own psyches and thus create better cultures for ourselves and those around us.

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But what is a ‘Substance’ anyway?

On Friday (26 May 2016), a new law came into force in the UK, which seems to be worded very strangely indeed. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016

makes it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, possess on custodial premises, import or export psychoactive substances” which are defined as “any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect” (UK government, 2016) (11)

“Psychoactive” simply means affecting the mind, so any “substance…capable of producing a psychoactive effect” includes all food and drink which we as humans consume. But don’t worry – you will not be arrested for eating a salad for dinner because the lettuce you’re eating has mildly narcotic, hypnotic and sedative effects (12); the Act covers the government’s back with this one by excluding from it “legitimate substances”, such as “food, alcohol, tobacco, nicotine, caffeine and medical products” (11).

Language and Medicine

Advocates of freedom of choice have argued that there are many things which one can ingest which have a medical effect, and which therefore we have the right to consume freely and without molestation from law enforcers, which could be one reason how marijuana has been classified as a medical substance in many states (13). This has probably helped thousands if not millions of people to peacefully ingest cannabis to aid them a a huge variety of ways. However, it also does not seem to address the root of the linguistic category in which our culture puts such substances.

Either they are ‘controlled’ and therefore, to speak in practical terms for a moment, if you buy them you have no idea of what you are getting, the only person’s word for what is inside the substance you will ingest is the person you buy it from, and availability is unreliable; or they are ‘products’, which seems to imply that they are a commodity to buy, sell and consume, to advertise and which has a stock market value tied to the world economy.

Does this really make any sense? Even if somehow the Psychoactive Substances Act was changed and pscychoactive substances were to receive legal blessings, for them to be treated as a ‘product’ seems to be missing the point almost as much as for them to be prohibited. Drugs, it seems, can either be condoned, sold in supermarkets, pharmacies and bars, enjoyed by the people and taxed by the state, or can be a complicated and wearisome world of underground dealings; yet the substances hinted at by the Act do not seem to me to fit into either of these categories. We have begun a resurgence of psychedelic research but it is important to remember that our heritage in such substances does not stem from the laboratory.

Which is more Psychoactive? The word or the substance?

That is not to say that such substances should not be treated with care. On the contrary, we probably need to be thinking more about what we are ingesting than ever before. But perhaps one reason why our modern society, so intent on categorising everything, has such trouble with psychoactive substances is that they can, when taken in a conducive context and with care, respect and love, encourage going beyond all categories and achieving perspectives which are higher, deeper, or altogether more novel than those usually prescribed.

As such, perhaps we need a totally new set of words to describe our relationship to these substances. This may seem like a small point, yet when we consider that much of our current society is built on words, we can begin to see how changing the definition can change our entire relationship. Indeed, as things which with nothing more than an expiration of breath and a small sounding of the vocal chords, or a couple of taps on a computer keyboard, have the power to alter the human mind radically, it seems that words are some of the most psychoactive things which we use, and it may be wise to consider how we use them.

Perhaps a more beneficial term to describe psychoactives would be ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’; for these terms imply a deep respect for what the substances can do and do not necessarily imply religion.  It could also be helpful to extend this definition to ourselves. If we consider our own beings with a deep respect and think about the effect of everything we are ingesting, as well as the word which we give out to the world, we can create a beautiful healthy ecosystem within our own bodies which goes far beyond simple consuming. The same idea can be extended outwards to the whole universe if you like.  

I am in no way condoning ingestion of any psychoactive substances – not even lettuce leaves – if you do not want to. But the power of the way in which we speak about the things which we ingest is deep and strong, and it seems that we can harness this power to help to create a better world; not simply an extension of an old paradigm but a reflection of all of the potential which we have inside us and a recognition of all of the tools which can help us to fulfill it.

References

  1. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Using Our Language-Shadows.’ Abundance Garden, 1/11/15. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/11/01/using-our-language-shadows/  
  2. Haworth, c, 2015. ‘Sacred Spaces’. Abundance Garden, 03/03/2015. – retrieved 7/6/16 https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/sacred-spaces/  
  3. Campbell, J, 1988. The Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Volume II, Part 3. HarperCollins: New York City.
  4. McKenna, T, 1993. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge (A Radical History of Plants, Drugs and Human Evolution). Bantam: New York City
  5. Hoffman, Dr A, 1996. ‘LSD: Completely Personal’ – translated from the original German (LSD Ganz Persönlich) by J. Ott. from the Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) – Volume 6, Number 3, Summer 1996. Available online here: http://www.maps.org/news-letters/v06n3/06346hof.html  – retrieved 7/6/16
  6. University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science, 2007. ‘The Medical History of Psychedelic Drugs’. Available online as part of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS): http://www.maps.org/images/pdf/history_of_psychedelics.pdf – retrieved 7/6/16
  7. Schiavenza, M, 2015. ‘Seeing Opportunity in Psychedelic Drugs’. The Atlantic, 8/3/15. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/03/a-psychedelic-revival/387193/ – retrieved 7/6/16
  8. Imperial College London, 2016. ‘Brain on LSD revealed: First scans show how the drug affects the brain’. Science Daily, 11/4/16. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160411153006.htm
  9. ICPR 2016, 2016. ‘About’. http://www.icpr2016.nl/about-icpr-2016/ – retrieved 7/6/16
  10. Psychedelic Society, 2016. ‘Arguments for Legislation’. http://www.psychedelicsociety.org.uk/arguments-for-legalisation – retrieved 7/6/16
  11. UK Government, 2016. ‘Psychoactive Substances Act 2016’. http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2015-16/psychoactivesubstances.html
  12. Plants for a Future, 2016. ‘Lactuca Sativa Garden Lettuce – Medicinal Properties’. http://www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Lactuca+sativa
  13. Lethco, CW, 2006. ‘Worldwide laws on cannabis possession for medical purposes or cannabis-based medicene’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_and_medical_status_of_cannabis#/media/File:Legality_of_cannabis_for_medical_purposes_new.png

 

Feel like you don't have your own 'sacred space'? Maybe you can create one...Photo by David Ashwanden

Tuning Into Nature

It seems increasingly clear that much our action as humans is detrimental to the world around as, not to mention to our own species. News reports abound in tales of lack of earth care with companies ripping out the soil to extract minerals and oil (see for example 1), lack of people care with those fleeing from disaster or conflict are met with guard towers, barbed wire fences and a demand for the right papers (see for example 2), and lack of equal distribution of resources when we see how much food we produce in the world, and how much of that is thrown away (see for example 3).

 

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Our human-made creations are beautiful, but only as part of a whole which includes non-humans as well. Photo by David Ashwanden

 

Oh No!?

All of these lacks seem indicative of a number of trends within our human culture. The first one to note and which it is useful to be keenly aware of is what could be called the ‘oh no!’ phenomenon. This is the tendency of people, from the level of global media down to individuals you may meet on the street, to focus on the negative side of whatever is going on. The reasons for the ‘oh no!’ phenomenon are many, varied and have been developing for a number of years.

What seems important now is to realise that, though there may be things going on in the world which are creating unbalance, upset and disharmony, there are also many things which are helping to create positive, balanced and harmonious situations. If we always focus on the negative side we are giving energy to it and therefore helping to manifest more of whatever it is we supposedly do not want.

…OK…

It is perhaps not as simple as if we see a problem we should just ignore it and it goes away. What exists, exists, so there is not really any point in denying it. If we want to truly live, we must also accept dying and the idea of death around us. This idea is explored in many works of art, and indeed it has been noted that the job of the artist is to show how close we are to death in order to appreciate life (see for example 4).

Firmly rooted in this acceptance we can look at the lack of harmony and balance in the world, accept it, and move towards a more positive-seeming future. What appears to be key to assisting this movement is our own attitudes, as human beings, towards the other beings which inhabit this planet along with us. David Abram (5) suggests that we can trace back our lack of care for the world around us exactly to the time when we first developed phonetic language and with it the ability to construct abstract ideas and concepts. Abram and others have pointed out that with this ability we can create the illusion of being ‘abstracted’ from the rest of the world, as we can separate ourselves in our minds from other animals, plants, rocks, indeed all the living, breathing, more-than-human world (5). The problem with this is that it is a false idea, since we are still connected in a very fundamental way to this world, regardless of how many abstract ideas and virtual realities we bring into it.

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Animals – connected to us through the physical realm, however disconnected we may seem. Photo by David Ashwanden

How can we then bring back our understanding of ourselves in line with our physical connection to the rest of the world? One way is to be aware that there is more than one type of language. You may be able to speak English, Italian, Spanish, French, German – you may even think in a number of different human languages, and your mind be open to new perspectives from the subtle differences of thought which exist between them. Yet you can be as polylingual as any UN translator and still miss the languages which are perhaps more important to learn, especially now. These are the older, half-forgotten languages of the earth and sky, of the plants as they grow and as they die, and even the rocks and minerals underground. Opening ourselves up to sense these languages is maybe one of the most fundamental steps we can take towards creating positive change in our world.

I use the term ‘language’ to describe this way in which we can communicate with the more-than-human world around us, though you can interpret it how you like. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, one of the first phenomenologists, calls the process of being alive ‘reciprocal participation’ (5) as we are constantly not only perceiving the things around us but also being perceived by them, in an interaction which we in our modern cultures are perhaps forgetting.

…Oh Yes!

Re-connecting with these languages is surprisingly simple, and you have probably already experienced it in life. The process is a constant communication, what could be called a ‘tuning in’ to nature and to all of the life which is surrounding you.

You may not necessarily agree with the way in which I am framing this connection; it may not fit with your world view to think of rocks as alive, or to see the way in which the trees whisper in the first rising wind of a summer storm as anything to do with a communication to you. What is important is not the words which I am using but what lies beyond them; deeper than the words is the blood which links all of us, the steady beat of your heart which drums in rhythm with all the world, if only you can tune into it.

 

Many cultures place music and dancing as highly important aspects not only as enjoyment but as physical connection to the music of the environment. Tuning into nature is about becoming aware of your own body and how you dance as much as it is about becoming aware of the rest of the world. Dance is a powerful and very immediate way of communicating, where words are both unnecessary and superfluous.

So if you’ve read this far, forget the words. Words are useful to convey ideas, but unless we also connect to the deep and fundamental family of all the living beings of the world the words are empty, useless, and potentially dangerous in their false promises of separation. So forget these words. Forget all the words which may be rolling around in your head, demanding your attention and your time, and for just a moment, give time to your breath instead. Try following your feelings. Go outside under the full moon; stand in a field and watch a lightning storm; jump into the sea without resisting her cold, welcoming touch; run around in the rain and listen to the changes in sound, in scent, in texture of the world becoming wet; sit still in the forest and come to that place where words no longer matter.

However your rhythm goes you can connect it to the greater rhythm of life around you. Give it a try; you never know…It may even be a joyous experience.

References

  1. Good, K, 2015. ‘How Drilling the Earth for Natural Gas is Fracking up Human Lives Across America’. One Green Planet, 27/2/2015. http://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/impact-of-fracking-on-human-health/
  2. Tomlinson, C, 2016. 5000 Migrants Turned Away As Macedonia No Longer Recognises Afghans As ‘Refugees’. Breitbart, 23/2/2016. http://www.breitbart.com/london/2016/02/23/5000-migrants-turned-away-as-macedonia-no-longer-recognises-afghans-as-refugees/
  3. Institution of Mechanical Engineers. ‘Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not’. Imeche: London. Available as a PDF here: https://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/default-document-library/global-food—waste-not-want-not.pdf?sfvrsn=0
  4. Campbell, J, quoted in ‘Mythos: Vol III, Episode 3.5 Into the Well of Myth.’ PBS: Arlington, Virginia.
  5. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage: New York City
It's amazing what you can find that is special. Photo by David Ashwanden

Garden Poem

Come Into the Garden

 

Come into the garden – come into the garden now

You can come, if you want to

It’s easy you don’t need to know how

All that you thought before was ok

The sugar-coated Disney lies

Why did you think that was the right way

To put veiled violence in bright animations before children’s eyes?

To fill them over and over again

With fears of silence and songs with no sense

With tales of bad boys and stifled exploration

It’s ok, you just thought there was no other way

It’s ok now, in the garden even you can play

 

We can give them new gifts of sweet excitation

When you run around in the garden you sometimes get dirty

When you leave your sterile house you sometimes feel the wind, free

It may seem unnerving but if you give in to the sensation

Behind all our strange cages of culture you can sense the ecstasy

And maybe you can find your own way

Maybe your way is the way of sugar-coated lies and lines between dreams and reality

In the garden you can see there are many ways

The children are choosing theirs every day

And you can choose for yourself nobody else

Nobody else but me can choose and I can choose for nobody but me

 

 

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Celebrations of Spring and the Sacred

This weekend marks an important festival in many traditions, called by various names and celebrated in different ways. The exact method of celebration varies depending on where you are; however, it seems clear to me that many celebrations have a similar resonance and perhaps even stem from the same archetypal ideas (see for example 1) – that now, in the Northern Hemisphere, is the beginning of Spring, the revolution of the seasons when the world begins to come to life anew.

Here in Italy the celebration is known to the majority Catholic population as ‘Pascua’ – a word which stems from the same root as the word for ‘Passover’ (see for example 2), showing the  links between the different Abrahamic faiths. The traditions of Passover differ from those of Pascua and the celebrations are different depending where you are. Here in Salento one tradition is of the ‘sepolcro’ or ‘tomb’. Following the story of Jesus Christ and his death, on Good Friday, the day every year when Jesus ‘dies’, every church dedicates one section as the ‘tomb’ and is open all night for people to visit to meditate on the death. The tombs vary in imagery but all have flowers and many which I visited had not a human being in the centre but a golden sunshine.

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To me this suggests the recognition of the metaphor which Jesus Christ represents as the sunshine returning to the earth after the ‘death’ of winter. In English, ‘Pascua’ is known as ‘Easter’, a word which stems from the ancient Germano-British Goddess of the spring, Ostara or Eostre (3). Every year, she brings the sunshine back after the death of winter, and life can continue another round. In many myths it is said that Ostara’s gifts of the golden lights of dawn are carried by bounding rabbits or hares (see for example 4), which could otherwise be known as Ostara bunnies (Easter bunnies?)

Ostara is a very old Goddess who has been compared to as the equivalent of Persephone, who in the Ancient Greek tradition descends into the underworld every winter to be reborn in Spring (see for example 5, 6). Many modern practising pagans celebrate her return to the Earth as part of the Wiccan calendar (7), placing the time of celebration around the time of the Spring Equinox.

Another notable celebration which happens at the time of the Equinox is the Feast of San Giuseppe. In Salento and possibly elsewhere in South Italy there is a legend that San Giuseppe once averted a famine (as far as I can tell the legend stems from Sicily) (8). This could be the roots of the Feast. Whatever the reason for it, it is clear that the people of Salento know how to celebrate this important time. In churches and community centres all over the region, offerings are made for San Giuseppe and other saints (I suppose he’s a generous guy and wants to share) in sumptuous arrangements which are quite breathtaking to regard.

 

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The Feast is not only for the Saints, however. Huge amounts of food are cooked and served to all who come to visit the offerings, regardless of faith or of anything else. The important thing is sharing the meal. Such recognition of the importance and sacredness of this often overlooked substance – the food that we eat – is quite moving.

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The Equinox is the day when, for the first time since before the winter, the hours of darkness and light are of equal length and the world begins tipping towards one or the other. Whatever your faith or beliefs, this changing of the light is directly observable with the senses. In the Northern Hemisphere it means the return of light and life to the Earth. You may not believe in Jesus, Ostara, Perspehone or anyone else, but if you believe in yourself you could use the evidence of your senses to celebrate the coming warmth and life.

As Joseph Campbell has said, “People ask me sometimes ‘what rituals can we have?’ You’ve got the rituals only you’re not meditating on them. When you eat a meal that’s a ritual, just realise what you’re doing. When you consort with your friends that’s a ritual, just think what you’re doing. When you beget a child or give birth to a child – what more do you want?!” (6)

We have opportunities to celebrate the abundance of life all the time. The coming of spring can be seen as a fantastic reason to gather together, eat, drink and be merry. So happy sacred spring time, wherever you are and whatever you prefer to do!

References

  1. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books: New York City
  2.  Living Language, 2014. ‘Easter and Passover: Different holidays with a shared etymology’. Living Language, 15/4/14. http://www.livinglanguage.com/blog/2014/04/15/easter-and-passover-different-holidays-with-a-shared-etymology/
  3. Watkins 2006 [2000]: 2021.
  4. Elton (1882:408)
  5. Theoi Project, 2016. ‘Persephone’. http://www.theoi.com/Khthonios/Persephone.html
  6. Joseph Campbell, 1996, quoted in ‘The Mystical Life’. Mythos Series, Episode 5. Athena Studios: San Francisco, USA.
  7. Cusack, Carole M. (2008). “The Return of the Goddess: Mythology, Witchcraft and Feminist Spirituality” as published in Pizza, Murphy. Lewis, James R. (Editors). Handbook of Contemporary Paganism. Brill Publishers: Netherlands
  8.  Caffety, K, 2003. St Joseph Altars. Pelican: Louisiana, USA.