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The Ways of the Life Force
Max Weber, in his famous 1904 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, gave a startling name to one of the realities of modern life: "the disenchantment of the world." Weber was a sociologist who studied the impact of industrial society on human thought. Before scientific materialism seized the imagination of Western culture, he pointed out, people saw the world around them as a place full of magic, where trees and stones could speak, birds traced out the shape of the future in their flight, and those who knew the secret could sense and shape the flow of enchantment in the world around them. This living, breathing, magical world was one of the first casualties of the Industrial Revolution. As materialist beliefs spread, magic trickled out of the world, transforming it—at least in most people's minds—into a mass of lifeless matter relevant only as a source of raw materials or a place to dump waste.
Like most educated people of his time, Weber did not believe in magic. He meant the word disenchantment as a metaphor, and he saw the banishing of magic and meaning from the world as a necessary part of progress and the end of an ancient illusion. Still, he recognized that the psychological and spiritual price of progress weighed heavily on the modern world—heavily enough, perhaps, to outweigh its material benefits. In a disenchanted world, he showed, even the most basic human values lose their anchor, and the only things left are the mechanical values of profit and efficiency, the basis for what passes for rational thought in a modern industrial society.
The irony of the phrase is that Weber spoke more truth than he realized. Neither he nor most of his readers saw disenchantment as anything but a metaphor. Still, those who know the living power of magic know that Weber's phrase points to a crucial reality. Our world is literally disenchanted. It suffers from a shortage of enchantment that cuts people off from magical realities and makes their lives less meaningful and magical than they could be.
Enchantment is the art of awakening spiritual presences in material things. The word literally means "putting a song in something"—en-chant-ment—a turn of phrase that reflects the living experience of a world in which every part of the landscape and every turn of the seasonal cycle sings its meaning to the awakened mind. In traditional societies around the world and throughout history, enchantment has had a vital role in bringing people into harmony with their gods, their environment, and their communities. Magic provided the toolkit for creating and maintaining enchantment. Using magic, the priestesses and wizards of the past wove nature and humanity into a single fabric that kept both balanced and whole.
As far as anyone knows, the Industrial Revolution marks the first time in human history that a civilization tried to banish enchantment from the world. When Weber assessed the results of this experiment in 1904, cracks were already showing in the bright facade of progress. Now, more than a century later, the collapse of communities and collective spiritual life across the Western world has been joined by the specter of catastrophic environmental change. Dwindling fossil fuel reserves, massive ecological changes, and wild swings in the world's climate announce the coming of an age of payback in which the survival of industrial civilization itself stands at risk.
A little more than forty years have passed now since the environmental crisis first forced itself onto newspaper headlines around the world. During that time, a great many historians have traced the roots of our civilization's dysfunctional relationship with nature, and an even larger number of activists have proposed solutions. Magic has rarely seen mention in either context. A handful of perceptive writers have followed Weber's lead and traced out the connections between a way of thinking about the Earth that strips it of enchantment and a way of acting toward it that strips it of everything else. In The Reenchantment of the World, one of the best books of this kind, Morris Berman comments:
For more than 99 percent of human history, the world was enchanted and man saw himself as an integral part of it. The complete reversal of this perception in a mere four hundred years or so has destroyed the continuity of the human experience and the integrity of the human psyche. It has very nearly wrecked the planet as well. The only hope, or so it seems to me, lies in a reenchantment of the world. (Berman, 1981, p. 10)
Yet neither Berman nor the handful of other writers who have pursued these themes have considered the possibility that the best way to reenchant the world is to use the same magical methods that enchanted it in the first place. Berman himself claims that "we cannot go back to alchemy or animism" (ibid.). Behind this argument stands the immense emotional force of the modern faith in progress, with its conviction that "going back" is the one unforgivable sin. Yet if a traveler on unfamiliar roads finds that he has gone down a blind alley, the only option that will get him out of it is to go back the way he came.
From the perspective of Druidry, a return to magic is simple common sense. Modern Druidry itself was born alongside the Industrial Revolution, crafted by a handful of British visionaries in the early eighteenth century, who saw the first stirrings of today's ecological crises and recognized that the gap between humanity and nature opened by industrial society had to be healed if Western civilization were to survive. The founders of the Druid Revival took the radical step of embracing the name and legacy of the ancient Celtic Druids at a time when "going back" in religious matters was as unthinkable as doing the same thing scientifically and technologically is today. They recognized that what matters about ideas is not how new they are, or for that matter how old they are, but whether they reflect truth in a way that meets the needs of humanity and nature in a particular age.
The revival of magic in recent decades thus speaks to one of the most critical needs of our time. While magic cannot solve today's ecological crisis by itself, it offers crucial tools for healing the gap between humanity and nature. To understand how magic can accomplish this, and to begin making sense of magic itself, we need to pay attention to a part of human experience that has dropped entirely out of modern awareness.
The Mind-Body Problem
For the past four hundred years, one of the major intellectual puzzles in the Western world has been what philosophers call "the mind-body problem." Like most of the really tough conundrums of philosophy, the problem can be stated simply enough. In Western cultures, most people experience themselves as two very different things—a material body, on the one hand, and an apparently nonmaterial mind, self, personality, or soul on the other. The problem is how to explain the connection between them.
Theories about the relationship between mind and body nearly all fall into two camps. The first approach, called dualism, claims that there are two completely separate realms of existence, one mental, one material, that somehow come into contact inside each human being and nowhere else in the cosmos. The other, called reductionism, claims that only one of them is real, and then finds some way to explain away the other.
Arguments over the mind-body problem have swung like a pendulum from dualist to reductionist viewpoints and back again. Nowadays reductionist approaches are in vogue, and most scientists and many laypeople accept the reductionist claim that mind is a side effect of the physical body's nervous system. This latter notion is quite often presented these days as simple common sense. Like most things labeled "common sense," however, it relies on a whole series of assumptions that may not bear close examination.
The pendulum keeps swinging because dualism and reductionism both have serious problems. Entire books have been written about these problems, and since they don't bear directly on the subject of magic, they can be left to students of the history of ideas. What makes the wild swings of this intellectual pendulum relevant here is that they started abruptly with the birth of materialist science in the seventeenth century.
Before then, people understood the relationship between mind and body in a very different way. They experienced themselves as three things, not two. A third factor—the life force—existed between mind and body and linked them together. In the magical traditions of the Renaissance, this force was called "spirit," from the Latin word spiritus, "breath." To this older way of thinking, spirit is the source of life, energy, and vitality, enlivening the dense matter of the body and connecting it with the mind. In the Renaissance view, spirit surrounds and penetrates all material things, uniting them and weaving the universe into a whole.
If this description sounds like something from a very famous movie, there's good reason for that. George Lucas borrowed the concept of "the Force," the power used by the Jedi Knights of his Star Wars movies, from teachings about the life force in the Japanese martial arts, where it is called ki and has exactly the same properties Renaissance mages assigned to spirit.
The Druid name for the life force is nwyfre (pronounced "NOO-iv-ruh"). Nearly every other language on Earth has a word for it, too. The only languages that don't are the ones spoken in the industrial nations of the modern West.
The banishing of the life force from the worldview of industrial society is no accident. The founders of modern materialist science fought hard to keep their newborn ideology free of any trace of the life force, and you can still reduce most scientists to spluttering indignation by mentioning it. Anything that strays too close to vitalism, as modern philosophers call the idea of a life force, comes in for unrelenting criticism. A great part of the prejudice against alternative healing arts in the modern Western world comes from the fact that most of them, unlike the current medical mainstream, treat the life force as a reality and use it to heal.
Thus there's a deep irony in the past four centuries of debate over the mind-body problem. The relationship between mind and body poses no problem at all outside the modern industrial worldview, because anywhere people recognize the existence of the life force, its role in connecting mind and body is obvious. The relationship only became a problem in the Western world when materialist science threw out the connecting link. It's as though the first modern scientists decided that their chests didn't exist, and then spent four centuries arguing about what could possibly connect their heads with their bellies.
What makes this all the more fascinating is that the life force is not just a theory or a belief. It's something we experience in the same way that we experience our minds and bodies. Outside the industrial West, the life force is just as much a part of life as bodies and minds are. In modern Japan, for example, people still talk about the state of their ki on an everyday basis. The word for courage in Japanese is yuki, literally "active ki"; depression is fukeiki, "sluggish ki"; a strong personality is described by the words kisho ga tsuyoi, "the quality of his ki is strong"; and illness is byoki, "disturbed ki."
The same sort of talk was every bit as common in medieval and Renaissance Europe, and it's just as common in most other traditional societies. This same way of experiencing the world also has intensely practical consequences. Asian martial arts, for example, treat the life force as an essential factor and use special training methods to strengthen and direct it. When a martial artist breaks a pine board with a punch or shatters a stack of bricks with a palm strike, the life force flowing into the striking hand does the job. A way of looking at the world that enables flesh and bone to shatter wood and brick is clearly something more than a primitive superstition.
People who experience the life force as an everyday reality have no special "sixth sense" lacking in those of us who live in industrial societies. We dwell in the same world and have the same potentials for awareness that they do. The difference is that their vision of reality makes room for the life force, and ours does not. Children in traditional societies learn to pay attention to the life force in themselves and the world because the people around them notice it, talk about it, and treat it as a reality. Children in industrial societies learn not to pay attention to it in exactly the same way. Even so, when people in the modern industrial world talk about gut feelings and hunches, or the "vibes" or "feel" of a person or a place, most of the time they are talking about their own perceptions of flow and pattern in the life force.
The life force is close enough to the surface of awareness that various simple exercises can make most people conscious of it in a few minutes. Here is an example. Read through the following paragraph, and then do the exercise before you read any further.
Start by standing comfortably with your feet parallel or a little toed out, your heels a foot or so apart, and your knees slightly bent. Let your hands hang at your sides, and shake them for a full minute, making them as loose and floppy as possible. Then rub them together for another full minute, keeping them relaxed as you rub. Then hold them in front of you, palms facing one another, as if you were holding a basketball in front of your chest. Breathe slowly and deeply, keep your hands and arms relaxed, and concentrate on your palms. After a full minute of this, begin moving your hands toward and away from each other a short distance, no more than an inch. This is the final step. Keep doing it for a little while, and see what you notice.
What did you experience? Most people, when they do the exercise the first time, as they move their hands back and forth, feel a gentle pressure against their palms, as though their hands were magnets repelling each other. The longer the back-and-forth motion continues, the stronger the sensation of pressure becomes, and if you do the same exercise daily for a week or more, the sensation becomes as firm as if you held a physical object between your palms.
What you feel pressing against your hands, according to the magical view of the world, is the field of life force between energy centers in your palms. Shaking, rubbing, and relaxation, the basis of the exercise, release muscular tensions that block the flow of life force through your body, so that the fields around your hands become strong enough that you notice them. Those fields are always there, whether you notice them or not, and so are similar fields that radiate out from other centers in your body, filling a roughly egg-shaped space that extends a few feet out from you in all directions. Every living thing has a similar field, and so do many of the things people in the industrial world consider nonliving.
As the bridge between mind and matter, the life force can be influenced in many ways using mind, matter, or the two in combination. The exercise you just performed uses body movements to shape the flow of nwyfre. This is a traditional and powerful way of working with the life force. Martial arts and Eastern systems of spiritual practice such as yoga and qigong rely on this and also on breathing exercises, another classic method. Other spiritual and magical systems rely on physical substances that concentrate certain qualities in nwyfre, or on a knowledge of the times and places where nwyfre flows most strongly.
Ritual magic approaches the life force from a different way—the way of imagination. This is another aspect of reality that has come in for more than its fair share of neglect by modern thinkers; to call something "imaginary" nowadays, after all, is to say that it's unreal. Yet imagination is a potent reality.
Imagination, in fact, is the human mind's way of experiencing patterns in the life force. When you imagine something, that image takes shape in the life force around you. The more powerfully you imagine it, the more strongly the image shapes the life force. This equation works the other way as well. When an unexpected thought or feeling drifts into your mind, most of the time what has happened is that you picked up a pattern in the life force created by some other mind. The movement of patterns in life force from mind to mind explains most psychic phenomena, as well as less controversial experiences such as the spread of fads and fashions and the behavior of crowds. It also explains the workings of ritual magic.
You can begin to see how this works by repeating the same exercise you just did with a slight difference. When you move your hands to face each other, imagine that an actual ball appears between your palms. See it, but also imagine the feeling of it pressing against your palms, and notice the texture of the ball's surface. Concentrate on the imaginary ball as intensely as you can for a full minute, and then start moving your hands toward and away from each other slightly, as before. Do this now, before you read any further.
Excerpted from The DRUID MAGIC Handbook by JOHN MICHAEL GREER. Copyright © 2007 John Michael Greer. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Foreword by David Spangler
Part One The Foundations of Druid Magic
Chapter 1 The Ways of the Life Force
Chapter 2 The Alphabet of Magic
Chapter 3 The Essentials of Practice
Part Two The Practice of Druid Magic
Chapter 4 The Gates of the Elements
Chapter 5 The Grove of the Druids
Chapter 6 The Art of Enchantment
Chapter 7 The Secret of the Grail
Part Three The Way of Druid Magic
Chapter 8 The Reenchantment of the World
Appendix: Deities in Welsh Druid Traditions
Posted July 9, 2012
I purchased this book about two weeks ago. The formatting is strange ... words are split up randomly,to a degree that makes the book unpleasant to read. I spent a lunch hour at B&N with customer service, they confirmed that there is a problem with this title. They gave me two options: wait for the publisher to fix it, or burn my one no-questions-asked return on the nook. I have waited the two weeks they suggested would be long enough for the publisher to act, but no change. I am a fan of J.M. Greer and want to read this, but feel trapped by B&N ... to get a refund for a product they admit is defective, i lose my one allotted return. Is that good customer service? I dont think so!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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