Tag Archives: magic words

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).

Magic Circle

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

 

 

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

 

Using our Language-Shadows

We are capable of great creative and regenerative actions, as well as destructive and futile ones. Many recognise the increased power of our creativity and destructiveness as stemming from the so-called ‘industrial revolution’, when we began, at an unprecedented rate, burning much of what had previously been the ground we walked upon and the forests whose air we breathe. Yet how we came to be the complex web of human society, technology and machinery we are today has roots in a much more subtle event.

Buckminster Fuller, in his exploration of the history of human culture, mentions the invention of technology as a key component in shaping our societies. Yet he also points out that ‘technology’ refers to any tool which we create for our use, and that the first piece of technology we ever invented was the first word (1).

Power of words

Just because one has a tool, does not necessarily mean one knows how to use it in the most beneficial way. Our words can shape, twist and bend reality; we have created abstract concepts and ideas and with this, extended the reach of our human influence far beyond our own sensing bodies.

From some angles, we can see that all of the destruction, disregard for other species and mismanagement of our own home, the Earth, which we engage in is the result of a single factor: our extraction of ourselves from the natural world around us. Such an idea of separation can only even be conceptualised by the kind of language which many modern cultures use – language which has lost its roots in the surrounding world.

As Abram (1986) comments on, much of animistic, metaphorical culture relies on a deep linguistic connection with the non-human world, whose ties can be seen as having been broken by the advent of phonetic and written language (3). For example, the English language is made up of phonetic sounds which have little or no direct connection to what Abram and others term the more-than-human world, and so we have a much higher tendency of taking literally those symbols which are always only ever meant to point to a deeper truth, rather than being the truth itself.

We can also use words to artificially separate ourselves into ‘nature’ and ‘humans’: a separation which is only possible in abstract thought and which when applied to our sensing bodies and the world around us does not make any sense at all.

Walls of Words

Having identified that our use of phonetic language is a key factor in our disregard for the more-than-human world, should we then stop using this most dangerous and powerful of tools?

Perhaps it would be better for the planet if our method of communication had stayed in total connection with the more-than-human world around us, and therefore we can feel more readily the tearing pain of the mountain being sliced into quarried rocks; the stifling horror of the toxins pouring into the rivers and oceans, or the senseless mutilation of the millions of chickens who are born and die in the same tomb, all too often for their bodies to simply become discarded.

Yet the fact remains that we have invented phonetic language, and with it, abstract thought and the idea that we can harm and kill the other living beings which make up our world without causing detriment to ourselves. As Ursula K LeGuin puts it,

“You cannot take things that exist in the world, and try to drive them back into the Dream—to hold them inside the Dream with walls and pretences.

That is insanity.

What is, is.

There is no use pretending now that we do not know how to kill each other”. (3)

When considering that the more-than-human world, or web of biodiversity, extends to include all, “each other” has a very broad definition. Yet to condemn our actions is to waste energy in trying to will into non-existence what is already here. This is the same whether we are talking about the global ecosystem, the human species, or each individual soul. When applied on a personal level we can see that if we attempt to deny or escape parts of ourselves which we do not like, we usually end up sooner or later being controlled by those same aspects.

Psychologist Jung conceptualised this as the idea of the “shadow self”: that part of us which we may not necessarily be aware of, have fear of, or actively attempt to get rid of (see for example 4). Yet if we are to have healthy relationships with ourselves and others it is beneficial to at least be aware of our shadows, even if we do not exactly make friends with them. For it is from the darkness that we can gain more light; by accepting what we are and what we do we can learn from it and evolve.

Darkness and Light

The conceptualisation of the world as a balanced equilibrium between the two forces which can be roughly divided into dark and light is present in many cultures, from the Yin-Yang of ancient Chinese philosophy to the Incan God Viracocha, whose tears of sadness at the suffering of the world are the very rivers and lakes which provide the nourishment for all life (5). We cannot have one without the other;

“Only in silence the word,

Only in dark the light,

Only in dying life:

Bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.” (7)

Acceptance and Action

In accepting and even embracing those aspects of ourselves and the world which seem repugnant we can reach a new way of perceiving where we regain lost connections. However, this does not mean that there is no point in trying to change what we see for the better. Whatever we feel we can do to improve the quality of life of those around us, both human and more-than-human, if we feel it is right then it should be done. Yet the only really effective way of creating these improvements is from a starting point that allows for all perspectives; or at least as many as you, with your one human body and mind, can cope with.

In this we need to become fully aware of our situation and the brilliant potential power we have to shape our own destiny, and therefore the destiny of the world around us.

Magic words

Much of this power resides in the words we use. Perhaps we have not always used them in a way which is beneficial for us or those around us. The first way to change this is to become aware of how we use language. Are the words you use creating boxes and divisions in your mind, storing up emotions, or derogating yourself or other beings of the universe? If so, maybe we can think about changing the way we use them.

Words are indeed powerful tools; keys, if you like, to open the boxes and release all the power inside you. Words are not the only power. But if we wish to act together with other humans, using words in a conscious and considerate way will certainly be of some use.

Photo by David Ashwanden

References

  1. Fuller, Buckminster R, 1981. Critical Path. St Martin’s Press: New York City
  2. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Random House: New York City
  3. LeGuin, Ursula K, 1976. Hainish Cycle No. 6: The Word for World is Forest. Tor Books: New York City
  4. Jung, C.G, 1938. “Psychology and Religion.” In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131
  5. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library: New York City
  6. LeGuin, Ursula K, 1968. The Earthsea Cycles: A Wizard of Earthsea.

Poem

Here is a poem from an Abundance Garden contributor. Enjoy!

What can I tell you?
So come with me – yes, come on now – down the shaded path
We’ll have a look inside as we stumble through the trees
And some of it’s twisted but it might make you laugh
Well which would you rather – that I’m honest or I tease?

If I tell you I had to fight demons so grey
Their grotesque clouded wings would shade my eyes
So that I couldn’t see anything yet day after day
I engaged in a battle but could barely realise
Or comprehend the extent of their wily ways
Their hungry soulless faces sucking energy
That for years I contended with the same fearsome haze
And it took a lot of fighting before once more I could see

Will you nod, shake my hand, perhaps even smile
Tell me you’ve met them yourself and you guessed
How I felt because you’ve been there awhile
That you’ve faced that grey and dispiriting tempest?

Or will you raise your eyebrows in ironic disdain?
You know demons aren’t real and battles are for the army
Would you prefer if I told of my sleepless nights and my pain
My pain which was real but which no one could see?
The way that to the outside world I was just angry and sad
And my friends backed away so my life was boring, slow
Would you be able to understand me if I had
Just talked of how I kept eating and drinking but had nowhere to go?
That I’d been through heartbreak, suicide attempts, cocaine and alcohol addicton too
By the time I was nineteen and nothing really seemed fun
If I just pour out buzzwords will you think it’s more true
Than if I tell you about the time that I lost the whole sun?

The time I fell into a pit which felt so deep and so wide
So much that I wanted to just lie there in msiery
But the more that I wandered around it inside
The more it started dawning on me
That if I desired it I could just climb right back out
But when I did I found a world horrible and grey
‘There are no more monsters’, I decided to shout
– But nobody wanted to join me and play

I could see not far from their unsmiling eyes
The curtain was shaking on the stage of reality
And behind as I peeked I saw (not to my surprise)
That there’s more to this universe than we’ll ever see
– That there’s more to us than we can ever be
…But we may as well try
since we’re here
living free

And of course, the monsters were hiding there too
They were just waiting with the unicorns and fairies
They told me they live in our world with me and you
That it’s all just one world and it’s nice to care and please
It but if you don’t the hurt will come back to yourself
You don’t have to take my word for it but whenever you’re in pain
You can go and ask the nearest tree-dwelling elf
They’ll probably confirm what I’m sayin’

And if none of this means anything to you
Because it’s too fantastical; false; hyberbole
Just remember that the only things we can do with words is speak true
And if we use them otherwise we twist dimensions horribly
Wrench worlds asunder and watch them forever changed
We can try to pretend we live in a place where we’re of most esteem
But to do so is to walk around thoroughly deranged
And not understand the true beauty of life, it would seem.

– Miss Cherry