Tag Archives: more-than-human

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

 

 

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.

Kosmicare: Cosmic Care at Festivals helping to create positive societal change – Part 2

When we have clear ideas of what the symbols which appear to us – whether in folk myth, dream or chemically-induced vision – can represent, we are better equipped to understand our own role in the great narrative of our life. However, if we have not had such training as that given to a tribe which values shared metaphors and symbols, we can be

“left alone with our unpredictable emotions and the sometimes terrifying visions of the collective unconscious” (1); in what is termed by some as a ‘bad trip’.

Tripping through the Dark…

If we have not been brought up with a conscious defining mythology such as that of the Wixaritari (see for example 2), that is not to say that we are in any disadvantage. As Campbell (1959) (3) puts it, we have to be aware of what our own stories mean, and can even be a part of creating our own new symbols which are unique to us.

Such symbols may be all the more potent if we have undergone some kind of journey in order to discover them. An important part of Kosmicare UK’s work is the recognition that whatever is happening in someone’s mind, there is probably a good reason for it, even if the person is not having the most comfortable time. As it says on their website,

“We think that if someone is having a “bad trip” it is because he/she is really in need of it.  They may be confronting their own fears, and there is potential to benefit from it. Therefore, we do not work with denial or try to make people come back to “normal” but, embracing the moment, we provide support for the individual to come through the ordeal more wholesome and wise.” (1)

Into the Light

For Kosmicare,

“An important step to take is to acknowledge that in gatherings and festivals people are pushing boundaries, and it is here that we need to give support.” (1)

One inspirational aspect of being part of the Kosmicare UK team at Goa Cream, a festival designed to promote Kosmicare, was to see so many festival-goers who are already prepared to give support to each other, and who recognise the benefits of their work even if they have not been personally cared for at the Kosmicare area. Such support is also inspirational in terms of considering the wider reach which Kosmicare, or similar initiatives, could have.

As well as one-to-one support for those already in drug-related experiences, Kosmicare provides non-judgmental information on, and in some cases testing facilities for, all kinds of mind-altering substances. When pushing boundaries by using these, one can be catapulted through a psychological exploration which, though it may feel like a number of millennia, lasts on our timescale only around 6-12 hours. This is why it is so important for Kosmicare to be present at festivals and parties, as such experiences can give you little or no preparation for what could be in store, and the mental effects are so quick and strong that occasionally they can be a handful.

However, people are having more sustained psychological explorations all the time, which have been variously described as ‘voice hearing’, ‘schizophrenia’, ‘psychosis’, or a host of other labels, for which British and other “Western” societies do not necessarily provide adequate facilities.

It could be argued that someone who is experiencing what modern Western medicine could term as psychosis, delusions, schizoid or paranoid behaviour is going through a similar kind of ‘bad trip’ as that which can be induced by entheogenic substances, though the trip generally takes a lot longer than 12 hours. The general response in “Western” society is to place such individuals in the mental healthcare system where medical staff attempt to make them “better” or fit in with society again. While such a response may have benefits for some individuals, it could be important to note that “mental illness” as defined in “Western” society is seen by most shamanic cultures as “the birth of a healer” and those experiencing it are seen as undergoing a necessary stage in their journey towards becoming, if they wish to accept the role, an important community facilitator and healer (4) (5).

Healing Options

If such perceptions of mental illness can help individuals in ways in which the western system falls short, such as with the case of Franklin Russell, hospitalised at 17 as a “schizophrenic” in the USA but hailed as one of the “mediums bringing messages to the community from the spirit world” in West Africa (6), then perhaps we need options other than mental hospitals in which to support them. One such option could be an extended version of Kosmicare; where the spaces are in one fixed place within the community and where support can be found not only for a few days at a time, but all year round, and with a much longer time limit on how long one can be in the space.

Such a static healing space should not replace Kosmicare, but rather work alongside it, as the focus is on slightly differing, though interlinked, psychological experiences. The space, I feel, would have to be centred in a natural environment; even if set up to serve a city community it should be on the outskirts of said city, in a place where there is less psychic noise than can be found among the busy city streets.

As such, it can be seen as a kind of ‘Healing Forest’, or whatever natural phenomena is seen as important by a particular community. So those who dwell near a river may prefer to go to a ‘Healing Valley’ whilst those who live in high altitudes may prefer a ‘Healing Mountain’. It is important to connect the landscape to the community as then those going there to undergo their difficult experiences will be able to relate more to it. Sacred space appears to be a key part of all human culture, whether we have a religion or not, as I explore in my ‘Sacred Spaces’ article (7).

Another important reason for having the space in nature is that those who live there permanently as supporters for people in need of care will have to be grounded in non-human nature as well as deeply understanding of human psychology; as David Abram eloquently puts it,

“the primary role of the indigenous shaman [is] a role that cannot be fulfilled without long and sustained exposure to wild nature, to its patterns and vicissitudes.” (8)

Modern Shamans?

Those who work in such a place as may be created as the Healing Forest, Valley, Mountain or others may have some professional similarities with shamans of traditional societies, though they perhaps prefer not to be called shamans themselves. For although this idea of a static Kosmicare available in every town and community is not so different from the traditional role of shamans in indigenous tribal cultures, the fact that we have our own, literate, abstracted, diversified, flexible and, to a huge extent, highly individualised cultures means that such an endeavour will be not simply an emulation of older societies but the creation of a new cultural paradigm.

Grand words, perhaps; though in reality the adventure will be quite simple. All that is needed is a few willing people, a corner of land and some imagination.

In the meantime, Kosmicare UK will continue creating spaces at festivals throughout the country, beginning in the spring of 2016. Even if you are not experiencing psychological or drug-related difficulties, look out for us! You may well find some positive surprises.

References

  1. Kosmicare UK, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.kosmicareuk.org/about-us/
  2. Alfredo López Austin : Tamoanchan, Tlalocan. U Pr of Co, 1997.
  3. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon: New York City
  4. Halifax, J, 1988. Shaman: The Wounded Healer. Thames & Hudson: London
  5. Marohn, S and Somé, M.P, 2014. ‘What a Shaman sees in a Mental Hospital’. Waking Times, 22/8/2014. http://www.wakingtimes.com/2014/08/22/shaman-sees-mental-hospital/
  6. Russell, D, 2014. ‘How a West African Shaman Helped my Schizophrenic Son in a way Western Medicine Couldn’t’. Washington Post, 24/3/14. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/03/24/how-a-west-african-shaman-helped-my-schizophrenic-son-in-a-way-western-medicine-couldnt/
  7. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Sacred Spaces’. Abundance Garden, 3/3/15. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/03/sacred-spaces/
  8. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage Books: New York City

Kosmicare: Cosmic Care at Festivals helping to create positive societal change – Part 1

Last weekend we witnessed a highly significant event as the shadow of our planet passed over the Moon. This as a visible phenomenon is impressive enough without having any idea what it could mean; but theories also abound about the significance of the Lunar Eclipse with regards to human psychology. One such theory (1) is that it is evocative of psychologist Carl Jung’s idea of the “shadow self” (2). Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that last weekend also saw the manifestation of Goa Cream Festival, the first event held to raise funds entirely for Kosmicare UK (3), a voluntary organisation devoted to helping people at festivals who are experiencing psychological difficulties. As may be imagined, this involves a huge diversity of activity, much of which can arguably be applied not only in the context of a festival but in society at large as well.

What is Kosmicare?

Kosmicare UK is a group providing welfare for those at festivals who may be experiencing psychological difficulties, or who are feeling lost, uncomfortable or unhappy. The group is specifically set up to “focus on support for people having difficult drug related experiences and work alongside traditional first aid providers to relieve strain by providing specialised care” (3); as there are a huge range of situations involving drugs where the user may require care and attention, yet to only give them medical attention may miss out on treating their true need, as well as placing unnecessary work on medically trained professionals who are better equipped to deal with physical or straightforward mental symptoms. Modelled on Kosmicare, the pioneer project set up at Boom Festival in 2002 (4), the organisation works closely with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Substances (MAPS) (5) as well as many other individuals from medical, artistic and academic backgrounds (3).

Psychedelic First Aid

The type of help provided by Kosmicare is difficult to put into words, as the welfare comes not only from the volunteers but from the spaces which Kosmicare create at festivals, and from the atmosphere encouraged. There is usually a large bell tent, decorated in a peaceful manner, full of cushions, duvets and blankets and kept as a quiet and contemplative space for those in need of it. As well as this there is a less quiet but just as comfortable space for more conversational relaxation. Then there is the fire encircled with seats, which is kept burning throughout the hours of darkness, every night of the festival. This last space was especially important at Goa Cream, held as it was in the last week of September in the Worcestershire hills.

Space
The spaces created by Kosmicare are important not only as physical places but as components of the atmosphere engendered by them. Kosmicare is at its heart a “tribe”; the volunteers generally sleep close to or in the Kosmicare area, cook and eat together, and provide support for each other as well as the personal support given to each visitor to Kosmicare. Festivals are designed for people to have fun and all Kosmicare volunteers I have met understand that we are here to have a good time; though we have allocated shifts, caring never feels like work, and carers who are not on shift regularly hang around the area as the atmosphere is so friendly.

This tribal, familiar attitude is reflected in the open-minded and welcoming nature of the volunteers and in the acceptance that whatever substance someone has ingested, and whatever kind of time they may be having, there can still be an opportunity for personal growth and positivity. This can be seen as especially important with any kind of entheogens, which as the Kosmicare website puts it,
“have played a pivotal role in the spiritual practices of ancient cultures for millennia, and historically were taken in a tribal context with the support of the tribe and a shaman.” (3)

Though such experiences may be terrifying at times, the support element means that whatever happens during the ritual or trip, there are experienced people around who can help to some extent.

Symbols and Symptons

Ritual tribal practises have what could be seen as an added safety element in that they generally involve metaphors and significant stories which are familiar to all in the tribe and whose meanings have both been thoroughly explored and are not taken literally. For example, the peyote rituals of the Wixaritari people involve a carefully ritualised pilgrimage to the place where the peyote cactus grows, during which the participants take on roles of specific significant deities and pass a number of sacred spaces (6).

Such attention to and sacralising of the natural non-human environment, as well as metaphors to explain or narrate human events, are common throughout human history and have been remarked upon by many scholars as involving the same symbols regardless of where or when the culture may be creating them – for more on this see for example Campbell (1949) (7) and Abram (1986) (8). The interesting thing about this similarity in themes and metaphors is that even if individuals in a culture do not have defining metaphors of their own, their psychology will spontaneously produce them (7); prompting Jung to term our shared ideas of symbols as the “collective unconscious” (9).

How can we deal with such symbols in as useful and mutually beneficial a way as possible? For some ideas, keep checking this blog for Part 2!

References
1.    Astrostyle, 2015. ‘Solar and Lunar Eclipses’. http://astrostyle.com/learn-astrology/solar-and-lunar-eclipses/
2.   Jung, C.G. (1938). “Psychology and Religion.” In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131
3.  Kosmicare UK, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.kosmicareuk.org/about-us/
4.  Boom Festival, 2014. ‘Kosmicare’. http://www.boomfestival.org/boom2014/boomguide/kosmicare/
5.  MAPS, 2015. ‘Mission’. https://www.maps.org/about/mission
6.  Alfredo López Austin : Tamoanchan, Tlalocan. U Pr of Co, 1997.
7.    Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon: New York City
8.    Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage Books: New York City
9.   Jung, C, 1953. Collected Works vol. 7, “The Structure of the Unconscious” (1916), 437–507. (pp. 263–292).