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The Celtic Way of Seeing
Meditations on the Irish Spirit Wheel
By Frank MacEowen
New World LibraryCopyright © 2007 Frank MacEowen
All rights reserved.
MYTHIC MEMORY AND REMEMBERING THE FUTURE
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The mythic present is continually reshaping events, whereas history alone merely chronicles the tides of time. History deprived of its mythic context becomes petrified into sound bites of the timeline; but when myth inspirits history, we hear the voices of the past with our own ears, see the images with our own eyes.
— CAITLI'N MATTHEWS
The Celtic traditions are deeply rooted in the power of myth and memory. Indeed, for many Celts — homeland, postdiaspora, urban, and rural alike — myth and memory are inextricably intertwined. This truth does not have to translate into blind or naive literalism for those who practice the traditions deeply. It does mean, however, that at every turn a symbolic quest or important spiritual lesson awaits us when we give ourselves over to the Celtic spiritual vision.
Mythic memory is like a muscle. Exercised, it can become a vital gateway of perception, inspiration, healing, and spiritual connection. Yet it can also become atrophied. When this occurs — as it has in the modern world — it takes dedication, practice, and focus to recover the élan vital of mythic memory. When we do, we regain the sacred senses and way of seeing of the ancestors.
To reconnect with the spiritual guidance of the mythic past — what we might think of as "mythic memory rehabilitation" — we must enter into the heart of the myths themselves to feel, once again, their sacred pulse, there by also awakening something in the ancient blood coursing through our veins.
Whether or not you are Irish, whether or not you are of Celtic descent, when you encounter, in the next chapter, the core story that inspires this book, I invite you to read it a few times. Read it once as you would read anything. Then read it again and see if you can visualize more deeply in your mind's eye the events depicted in the story, even placing yourself somewhere within the tale, perhaps as someone standing there observing. Finally, practicing the Celtic way of seeing, soak in the story again and allow your heart to open to its mystery, and see if you gain any deeper sensations or insight about the tale.
Mythic memory is an invisible thread that stitches those of us in the present day to the "deep time" of the ancestors — whatever our ancestry or ancestries may be. A myth, or a mythic story, is not just a quaint tale or a form of entertainment (though many Celtic stories can be quite entertaining!). A myth as sacred story is a gift from the past providing an empowered path into the future for us to journey along. Exercising mythic memory stokes a very ancient and intuitive way of knowing — a potent, symbolic, and integrative way of seeing that was known to all our ancestors.
Sacred story can speak to us of timeless lessons (many of them painfully relevant to us in our present age) and offer us different ways of looking at our innermost being. In this way, the mythic past (which we can encounter through mythic memory) is not "dead and gone" but is, rather, a living energy, a functional reference point, what Celtic spiritual teacher Caitlín Matthews refers to as the "mythic present."
From ancient songs and epic poems to accounts of battles and various wonder tales, the Celtic traditions have always emphasized spiritual continuity. Celtic spirituality, in addition to being a path of honoring nature, is an enduring process of orienting to the invisible thread of memory as a means of enriching life. This spiritual dispensation still exists, as evidenced by lore that has been passed down for thousands of years, as well as by the variety of ongoing innovations that clearly reflect a thriving Celtic spirit today.
An Irish friend of mine put it most succinctly when he said, "We are still here," a sentiment shared by another friend from Celtic Wales, who shares her sentiment that "the ancestors live through us. Their stories are our stories. Their way of seeing can be our way of seeing." With the story you will encounter in the next chapter, as well as with any myths or tales you investigate from other cultures, the task becomes to "enter" the story, to make it your own, to have it live and breathe through and within you.
Indeed, it is precisely because of the power of story that we have a surviving Celtic tradition at all. Story is stitched to memory. Story is woven to breath. Story is laced within blood and bone. Story pulses within dream and vision. In Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Brittany, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, and innumerable postdiaspora Celtic enclaves around the world, even today one can hear the stillvibrant stories of brave chieftains and warriorpoets, great feasts and battles, druids and warrior queens, Otherworld voyages and encounters with various spiritual beings.
Despite this living thread of Celtic storytelling, at times the stories, wisdom, sacred knowledge, and intent of the traditions have been misplaced or seemingly forgotten, leading to a state of mythic crisis. When we become disconnected from the mythic roots of who we are, this often translates into a loss of our spiritual way of seeing and being.
In the Irish epic known as The Tain (The Tain Bo Cuailgne, or Battle Raid of Cooley), for example, we learn that all the great poets and storytellers of Ireland were once called together in a council by the Chief Poet of the island. All the lore keepers were summoned, because it was discovered that a particular story of a famous cattle raid was no longer intact. Different poets knew different sections of the tale, but none of them knew the full story. The Chief Poet of Ireland — known as an ollamh (o'lav) — hoped that by gathering all the most learned bards of the island they could piece back together the ancient story. They could not.
The full story was not fully recollected until a young poet named Muirgen sat down at the graveside of a once great poet named Fergus Mac Roich. After offering a small praise poem in honor of the ancient bard, Muirgen suddenly found himself enveloped in a mist. Standing before him, deep inside the mist, was none other than the spirit of Fergus Mac Roich. For three days and nights, Mac Roich transmitted The Tain in its entirety to the young poet. I guess we could say this was the first meeting of the "Dead Poet's Society."
Though no one knows for sure why we "forget" sacred knowledge of the past or how we lose our connection to a spiritual way of seeing and living, it is clear that we have done just that. Perhaps knowledge and wisdom slip away because we take for granted those things in which we are or were deeply steeped; as Irish poet John O'Donohue suggests, we can become so familiar with something that we cease to truly see it. And as we cease to see something we gradually forget it. Songs, stories, lore, customs, and sacred orientations — all these can fade from memory, and when they do we must recollect them to reestablish the proper order of things.
The following abbreviated story from ancient Ireland portrays the forgetfulness that can lead to a state of mythic crisis. Hailing from the time of Diarmid mac Cerball (545 — 565), this tale — known in its more voluminous version as "The Settling of the Manor of Tara" — portrays a time of confusion and disagreement, when some of the nobles of Ireland had to turn to the mythic memory of an old lore keeper to regain an important part of the Irish tradition: the sacred orientations of the island itself.CHAPTER 2
THE KNOWLEDGE IS IN THE DIRECTIONS
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An Abbreviated Telling of "The Settling of the Manor of Tara"
Have you ever lost your car keys? Better yet, have you ever been on your way to somewhere familiar, suddenly realizing — that for one reason or another — you have become lost? Perhaps you keep something in a particular place in your home and have grown accustomed to finding that object there whenever you need it. And yet one day you suddenly forget where you have put it.
Even a tiny detail, such as a forgotten email password, can throw life into chaos. We forget our phone number, an important date (hopefully not our wedding anniversary!), a banking PIN, or the name of someone we know and have bumped into in a setting that is out of context. We can't remember the combination to a lock. We forgot an important meeting with a client. The particular order of facts and information that we rely on to maintain balance has become temporarily inaccessible; that is, until something comes to our aid and reminds us.
In the following story, the characters have become forgetful of certain important principles that ensure a harmonious relationship with other human beings and with the land. As they comprehend their forgetfulness, fear takes over, and suddenly they find themselves caught up in conflict. Some characters are ruled by an unchecked ego, a greedy energy that worries only about itself. For others, chaos and tension ensue. As a collective they find that they must invoke a holder of wisdom, one whose mythic memory and insight can guide them back to understanding and balance.
The Proper Order of Things: A Reflection
Imagine living in a society that had been oriented to a particular code, ethic, or set of principles that ordered the flow of life — both internally, forming each person's spirituality, and externally, governing the people and the lands. Then imagine that, rather suddenly, for one reason or another, no one could recall what those governing principles were and thus they were unable to invoke them.
This is the difficulty at hand in this ancient story. At first glance, we might assume that the story is antiquated and thus irrelevant to our times. However, how would you experience the story if you were to reread the previous section and each time you encountered the words the proper order of things you replaced them with other words, such as democracy, civil liberties, civil rights, or human rights?
We are also living in a time — collectively — when some of the more enlightened principles of our common humanity, the basic and assumed "proper order of things," are being ignored or forgotten. We must slow down and invoke the deep insight of mythic memory so that we can return our lives, families, communities, nations, and the global village to a state of harmony.
As we return to our story, you will see that the nobles and the High King do just that — they invoke the guiding memory of one who can return all to a state of harmony.CHAPTER 3
SACRED DIRECTIONS, LIFE DIRECTIONS
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Do not forget to pay your respect to the four directions each day.
— MORIHEI UESHIBA, FOUNDER OF AIKIDO
In the story recounted in the last chapter, "The Settling of the Manor of Tara," we are taught an ancient map. We learn that West is associated with knowledge, North with battle, East with prosperity, South with music, and Center with sovereignty. In this chapter I would like to delve more deeply into the associations of the different directions to give you an even more tangible sense of how these energies are perceived in the primal Irish tradition.
These simple associations can be misleading if we take them too literally. For example, Dublin (in Irish, Dubh Linn, or Black Pool) — originally a Viking trading post and now a thriving epicenter of international commerce, trade, and technological development — is one expression of Irish prosperity. Yet just because Dublin is in eastern Ireland, that does not mean it is the only example of prosperity in all Ireland.
Along the same lines, certainly Northern Ireland — also known as Ulster — has been host to sectarian violence stemming from the British occupation and the ongoing conflict surrounding Orangemen marches and unfair representation in government, but are we to assume that all conflicts have been limited to the North simply because "the Troubles," as they are known, exist in this part of the island?
Although these are compelling examples of specific locations and events expressing some of the themes of the four airts, we should not let our view of the directions become too narrow; Irish history and culture tell us that there have been multiple expressions of battle, prosperity, music, and knowledge in every part of the island. Seeking such hard-and-fast applications of the directional associations causes us to overlook something very important: the inner teachings connected to the four airts and the Center. By relaxing our habitual need to seek concrete interpretations, we can surrender to the more intuitive process of contemplative living and poetic seeing engendered by the Celtic spirit.
This process is hinted at by the spirit-man when he suggests to Fintan that each of the directions possesses various tiers of meaning, association, power, and gnosis. (My brief telling of the tale included only a partial list of the associations from the original story.) Trefuilngid Tre-eochair — the mysterious visitor who comes to Ireland, encounters the initial gathering, and shares his knowledge with Fintan — shares that in the West one will find learning, vision, stories, histories, counsel, beauty; in the North, battle, warriorship, rough places, tempering, boldness, pride, hardiness; in the East, prosperity, abundance, hospitality, householding; in the South, music, inspiration, poetic art, fate, melody, advocacy, waterfalls, wisdom; and in the Center, sovereignty, enlightened warriorship, dignity, primacy, mastery, destiny, stability, high-kingship, principality. We will discuss the deeper energies of the wheel in more detail below.
Taking into account these layers of images and associations, including how they are held together in an integrated mandalic whole, it becomes easy to see why the primal Irish view of the four airts (and the Center) is not just a map of an island but also of the human being, a map of the soul-in-process, and — when we consciously journey through the teachings of the wheel — a path of experience and gradually deepening insight that unveils itself to us.
By establishing a conscious practice of consulting each of the directions, in time we find that a storehouse of energy connected to the wheel becomes accessible to us. Our life becomes the wheel; the wheel becomes a living, interactive energy symbolizing different aspects of our psyche, our soul. When we spend time with the deeper aspects of the wheel, we are cultivating the deeper aspects of ourselves.
This Irish mandala is a sacred way of seeing, an ongoing journey — moment to moment, day by day, and over a lifetime — of awareness, mythic memory, inspired living, and inner tempering. It also embodies enlightened warriorship, a term used in the Shambhala teachings of the late Tibetan lama — warrior-poet, Chögyam Trungpa, who coined the concept to refer to the universal expressions of disciplined bravery. The Shambhala teachings are a concentrated body of ancient lore that Trungpa achieved access to and articulated in contemporary language.1
An important emphasis of the Celtic tradition — and therefore of this book — is on working with the Irish Spirit Wheel from more than just an intellectual point of view. Whether we are referring to the tempering energies of "battle" found in the North or the process of seeking vision and knowledge in the West, these aspects do not remain quarantined to the conceptual domain; they are integrated into the body, worked with within the psyche, even explored within the Dreamtime — that domain of nonordinary experience often accessed through dreams, meditation, or shamanic journeys.
In the Celtic way of seeing, a direct link between the eye and the heart is made, and this linkage can connect us to powers, energies, and knowledge that exist beyond us. Indeed, those Irish people who work with the wheel shamanistically (that is, who enter into nonordinary states of consciousness to connect with wisdom and healing energy of invisible realities) often perceive the different directions as spirits, guides, and protectors; for them, the spirits of the four airts are tangible presences, and dwelling at the very center of the wheel is the Goddess (more on Her in chapter 4). But whether we use it as a shamanic process of communication, a contemplative path, or a tool of transpersonal psychology, the Irish Spirit Wheel helps us wake up to our true nature.
Let us now turn to fuller discussion of these deeper teachings and reflections of the Irish Spirit Wheel.
Journeying the Irish Spirit Wheel
One of the central teachings of the Irish mandala has something in common with the teachings of any other mandala one might find across cultures; it concerns cultivating a life of awareness and balance.
The different qualities of a mandala represent different qualities within us — our highest, most enlightened expressions, as well as those parts of us that need transformation and refinement. This process of transformation and refinement is what enlightened warriorship is all about, and any good mandala represents the full spectrum of who we are and contains the steps to take us toward realizing all the points of that spectrum.
Excerpted from The Celtic Way of Seeing by Frank MacEowen. Copyright © 2007 Frank MacEowen. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Tom Cowan,
Part 1. The Celtic Way of Seeing: Orienting to the Spirit of the Wheel,
Chapter 1. Mythic Memory and Remembering the Future,
Chapter 2. The Knowledge Is in the Directions: An Abbreviated Telling of "The Settling of the Manor of Tara",
Chapter 3. Sacred Directions, Life Directions,
Part 2. The Irish Spirit Wheel: Reflections And Meditation,
Chapter 4. Center,
Chapter 5. East,
Chapter 6. South,
Chapter 7. West,
Chapter 8. North,
Conclusion: Back to Center,
About the Author,