Friday, April 11, 2008


There is a desire among human beings, particularly among those of us who believe in God and the spiritual realms, to see the cosmos as a smooth and perfectly running system. How could the Deity create anything imperfect? Unthinkable!

One consequence of this perspective is that when things go wrong in some way, the fault can't lie in the system as a whole but in some part of it that isn't doing what it should or integrating properly. It doesn't take a wizard to guess just which part is usually assigned the blame in such instances. Us. Incarnate human beings. You and me.

There's certainly justification for this point of view. We know we make mistakes. We just don't assume that God does. Or that our Souls do.

Maybe we should.

Actually, the term "mistake" is not the proper noun here. This implies that there is one right way to do things, and that it's possible to screw it up (and our usual assumption in such cases is that if it is screwed up, a human being is at fault somewhere!). But what if we see the universe as filled with infinite possibilities ("Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations," as the Vulcan Mr. Spock would say in Star Trek). Some of these possibilities, diversities, and combinations work very well together, and others don't. And when they don't, there are repercussions and consequences to the system as a whole.

And there is learning.

When I was a science student, I learned that experimentation was a way of generating new information, a path of discovery. In that context, there was no such thing as a failed experiment, for even if it was not successful in terms of the hypothesis I was trying to prove, it still generated useful and new information. I learned something either way, and that learning when into future experiments.

I think of the cosmos as an engine for generating new information, a means by which the Generative Mystery (or God, if you prefer) discovers and learns (and everything else in creation discovers and learns as well). I don't believe this process is random, though randomness is part of it. There is a guiding will moving within the cosmos, but also a guiding openness, a willingness to allow infinite diversity in infinite combinations even when that may result in events and processes that simply don't work right or go awry in the context of the cosmos as a whole.In short, creation is an experiment. Not in the sense of "Hey, let me try this out and see what happens, and if it works, I'll keep it," but in the sense of "I wonder what I'll learn or what will unfold if I put this and this together!" Sometimes, the result is "Just what I thought!" Sometimes the result is "Wow! Omigosh! Look at that! That's cool! Who would have expected that?" And sometimes the result is "Oops!"

If I want a metaphor for this, alchemy is not far from the mark. Alchemy is a process of learning, but it's also a process that aims for particular results. I happen to believe the Generative Mystery is interested in particular results, though I doubt I can always understand them from my level of awareness. In other words, the universe, like alchemy, is practical, not merely philosophical. It wants results, and some results really are better than others.

Essential to doing alchemy is the container within which I mix my ingredients and within which the reaction takes place. That's the "alchemical space."

I think of incarnation as an alchemical space. We are retorts or test tubes or pots within which elements are mixed and reactions can take place. It's important to honor and take care of the container, for without it, no alchemy takes place. Incarnation--the creation of a personal alchemical space in which new information can be generated, learning can take place, transformation can occur, and something can be added to the wholeness of creation--is a significant, powerful spiritual process. It's not just for being physical.

In particular, we are an alchemical space in which an experiment of combining the vertical and horizontal worlds can take place.

There's plenty of wisdom, learning, and experience already contained in this experiment. "Lucy," one of our ancestors, lived over three million years ago, and our ancestry goes back much further than that. A lot of incarnating has taken place in that time, even though much of it might not look like what we experience today. But the nature of an experiment is that it generates new information. In that sense, your incarnation and mine are as fresh and emergent and open to new discoveries as when the first slime mold made its way from the ocean onto the land.

And openness to emergence also means openness to "Oops!"

A purely hierarchical view of the cosmos, such as one gets with the Kabbalah or in some esoteric systems in which "levels" or "planes" are stacked on top of each other like a wedding cake, doesn't always convey the richness of this experiment or the participation of all the "players."

In hierarchical systems, the higher levels and beings are often considered to be more perfect or "well-designed" and functioning than the lower levels and beings. "Oops" is considered a lower-level possibility, not a higher one; the whole is not seen as an interactive system in which the possibility of error is part of the whole system itself and not confined just to one of its parts.

An ecological or systems view of the cosmos sees different levels of vertical and horizontal beingness as players and partners, interrelated in a variety of ways within the alchemical space of incarnation. If the resulting mixture produces something sweet and wonderful, all the interacting elements contribute to this, not just the "higher" ones. And if it blows up, then the fault lay in the mixture itself and the dynamics of the relationships within it, not with one particular element (usually the "lower" one).

When I think of incarnation, I think of it in just these terms, as a whole system in which various elements of energy and consciousness and various degrees of "verticality" and "horizontalness" are mixed together in a dynamic space (the oerson or the personality) created and held by the will of the incarnating soul. The nature of our current physical consciousness, shaped by our particular culture and moment of history, is that we don't immediately see or experience the wholeness of this system but only its different parts, such as body, mind, emotions, energy, soul, spirit, and so on. And the way in which we see and interpret these parts can obscure the vision and diminish the alchemical power of the incarnational system as a whole.

That, however, is a different topic to be explored in a later blog. Right now, my point is that all of this is experimental. The vertical and horizontal worlds, meeting in us, don't have it all worked out in perfection and smoothness. Glitches can occur, things don't always mesh or integrate well, parts of the system can overload or clog other parts, and "oops!" can occur.

When that happens and life seems to blow up in our face, it's a chance for learning and picking up the pieces. Reflection is important. What isn't helpful is to blame, nor is it helpful to say, "Oh, well, it's all for the best; everything is always perfect." When an experiment blows up and destroys half the laboratory, it's time to put out the fires, bandage the wounded, pick up the debris, and clean things up to try again. It's not time to wax philosophical and say, "Well, I guess it was all for the best. What's one lab or two anyway?" Something went wrong. The experiment didn't work. It's time to find out why.

An alchemist doesn't look at her sulpher or copper or hydrochloric acid and say, "You evil, rotten, dense thing, you! I'll never use you again in an experiment." An alchemist looks at how things combined or didn't combine, what created a reaction that could not be contained or integrated, and what to do about it. It's too expensive to keep repairing labs or building new ones; we do want to perform our experiments more wisely. We want to learn. And we can't learn by assuming that one element is always at fault while all the others are innately pure and refined. The problem does not lie simply in any one element within us but in the mixing of them and the challenge of integration.

The task of learning to integrate the vertical and horizontal worlds is an ongoing human task. We've been at it for millions of years, and chances are we're going to be at it for millennia to come, not because we can't learn to get it right but because it's a continuing source of new information and learning. Incarnation is experimental in itself, which doesn't mean we can't do it better and more wisely as we go along, only that we're not aiming for a product that will shut the experiment down.

Bottom line: when things go "oops!" or "boom!" in your life, it's time for self-reflection and learning. What didn't integrate? What happened? Was there too much of this or too little of that? But don't begin this process by assuming the fault lies with you as a personality or with you as the horizontal, incarnate person who's simply not as wise and good and pure as your soul or other vertical parts of yourself. It might be the soul that screwed up here, after all. Learn to think of yourself as a whole system and see what happens when you approach your personality--your horizontal self--not with blame but with respect as a partner in that system with your vertical self.

Who knows what new learning and transformation may occur from this perspective?

And if you're not sure about it, think of it as an experiment.


A few years back I was a presenter at a conference on the Western Magical Tradition held at the Findhorn Foundation Community in northern Scotland. Both practitioners and scholars of various forms of magic came from all over Europe and North America to attend. Like so many conferences in which there are more speakers than anyone knows quite what to do with, the afternoons were taken up with panels in which five or six presenters are jammed together and given a few nanoseconds each to present the breadth and depth of their knowledge before being exposed to questions. As you can tell, though I've both been on and seen some very good panels, I'm not fond of the form.

At this conference, one afternoon panel provided a bit of unexpected drama, though I imagine not in a way the organizers appreciated. It was a panel for which the theme was "What is magic?" As I recall, there were four or five panelists, and the first speaker was a man who had written a beginner's book on magic and spirituality. His definition was that magic was very simple, a kind of "playing with energies" that everyone could do. This went uncontested until the last panelist had his turn to speak. He was a well-known and respected author of many books on magic, as well as a competent practitioner. He had been quite visibly restraining himself from saying something until his turn came, but then he practically leaped out of his chair in agitation and said, "Magic most certainly is NOT playing with energies!" Then, shaking his finger at the first panelist, he proceeded to verbally demolish him, stating that magic was anything but simple, and that it was a deep and profound discipline that was not for everyone. He let it be known in no uncertain terms that his fellow panelist had no business speaking in this conference if he was going to spout drivel. This in turn led to a shouting match between the two which eventually led to the organizers' coming on stage and shutting the whole thing down.

I hadn't realized till then how much fun a conference of magicians could be!

I have to admit, though, that even after that, the definition of magic remains elusive to me. The word magic is used loosely in a number of different ways and contexts, from the excitement and wonder of a romantic evening to stage illusions to the profound spiritual disciplines of alchemy and hermeticism. If I say I'm a magician, then just exactly how am I describing myself? What really is magic? Perhaps behind the disciplines and the rituals, the techniques and procedures, it does come down to a play of energies innate in all of us, though now I might think twice before saying so on a panel!

I once had a conversation with a non-physical being to whom I asked this question of the nature of magic. He seemed puzzled and asked me what I was talking about. So I explained to him what I had in mind and he said, "Oh, you mean life!" Another being was more helpful, but only just. "When you pick up a glass of water," he said, "for you it's simply an act of will. You wish the water and your body responds by picking up the glass. It seems instantaneous to you. But at the level of your cells, a great deal more goes on in the form of energy exchanges and molecular alterations, all of which you don't experience. What you call magic, with your rituals and correspondences, is to us equivalent to these molecular activities at a cellular level whereas what we call magic--the magic of the soul, if you wish--is like the direct experience of will and its consequences. We will and it is done."

Nice trick when you can do it.

At the heart of what this being was saying was relationship between two states for which will was a bridge. In his case, the bridge was direct, but in our case, the relationship or connections needed to be built up between ourselves and the object of the magic, hence the use of ritual or correspondences. The image was like the difference between teleporting directly between San Francisco and New York on the one hand and traveling from one city to the other through a series of connecting railway links. His point was that as we were able to form deeper and better connections or relationships, our magic would change. It was a matter of the wholeness in us matching the wholeness of the cosmos.

Thinking of magic as relationship and connection has been helpful to me, more helpful than thinking of it as ritual or alchemical processes on the one hand or playing with energies on the other. More precisely, it gives me a starting point in thinking about magic and the making of magic. I can think of it, for instance, not simply as the use of the will to produce effects in the world but as the forming of relationships or connections co-creatively with the world that have consequences, hopefully desired ones.

Why is this important? Because I believe as human beings we need to move to a partnership model of our relationship with the rest of creation, not simply for moral or spiritual reasons but because it works better. It is closer to the truth of things. If I think of magic as the projection and imposition of my will upon the world, whether through the astral light or the etheric plane or some other intermediate dimension, I am acting as a separate agent. I am not really engaging the world. I am acting upon it but not with it. I am making links through corresondences and rituals, but I am not making wholeness. I am not participating. In the end, whatever the success of my magical operation, the world and I remain separate. We remain strangers to each other.

Whatever magic is or can become, I believe it calls us to be not just in the world, or even less to have power over the world, but to be with the world in spirit and in wholeness. It is a "with-it" magic.


Imagine a world in which prayer works, without fail, all the time. What kind of world might that be?

At first glance we might think it would be a paradise. Who among us hasn't wished at one time or another that a prayer might be reliably answered? We may have prayed for the healing of a loved one--or for our own healing. We may have prayed for help at a time of crisis. When all other resources have been exhausted, how nice to know we had prayer to fall back on to resolve our problems.

But consider this a little more. Suppose some white supremecist living in the hills of Idaho prayed that all people of color turned white, and they did. Or suppose an African-American prayed that all white supremecists would turn black, or in a fit of artistic humor, turned green, or paisley, or purple with orange polkadots and a feathered crest.

Suppose I prayed my kids never grew up and left me. Suppose my parents had prayed that about me, condeming me to eternal life as a ten-year old, always living at home, always following their rules.

Suppose we prayed there was no death. Where would we have room for all the people, all the squirrels, all the mice, all the geese, all the bacteria that never, ever died?

If all prayers were routinely, reliably, perfectly, unquestionably answered, we would be living in hell.

OK, so we may not want a world in which all prayers are answered. What about some prayers? Would it be ok if some prayers were reliably, perfectly, unquestionably answered? But which prayers? Whose prayers? Well, mine, of course... But yours? Can I trust your prayers where I'm concerned? For that matter, can I really trust my own? Am I wise enough, knowledgable enough, loving enough, farseeing enough that I can guarantee that the consequences of my prayers will be reliably, unquestionably good?

I should probably be grateful (and I am!) that God grants some prayers and not others!

But which prayers does God grant? How does God decide? Is there something I can do--a good deed slipped under the table when no one's looking, perhaps--to influence this decision?

A favorite way of thinking about God is that God is omnipotent, the very definition of all-powerful-ness. But in fact, God has boundaries.

At times in my life I have lived in earthquake-prone areas, like Southern California or the Pacific Northwest. I've ridden through a few tremors in my time. It's an odd sensation to feel the earth, ordinarly so stable and placid, suddenly move like the ocean beneath your feet. Even more disconcerting is the realization there is no place to go that will be stable, for in that moment the very thing that normally defines "stable"--the bedrock under you--is dancing and shifting. Unless you could levitate, no place is safe in that moment.

This sense of vulnerability and loss of foundation can affect people in strange ways. I've had friends who long after an earthquake has become memory--and even when it did very little damage--still suffer from stress and fears awakened by that moment when the most stable thing in their lives--the ground on which they lived--became active and unpredictable.

What if the ground of all being were similarly unstable and unpredictable? What if there were Godquakes? What if we didn't know from one moment to the next if we would exist at all or what form we might exist in? What would my life be like if I could be a human now but a minute from now I might turn into a duck or a fish or a parameceum, or if I'm David today but tomorrow I could be Dorothy or Tom or even George Bush? What if at this moment I'm a caring, loving person, but an hour from now I turned into a violent, sadistic killer--or vice versa?

There certainly is change in our lives, and in fact, a loving person can--and sometimes does--fall into rage or fear or insanity and become a monster. But underneath all this is a confidence that our fundamental beingness is secure, held in safety and love by God. In fact, it's testimony to how much the earth is usually seen as the most secure, foundational presence in our physical lives that we use it as a metaphor for the most secure, foundational presence in our spiritual lives: the Ground of all Being.

But unlike the earth, we don't have "Godquakes" in which that foundation is lost. This is not to say we don't go through experiences that can profoundly shake us and upend our most cherished thoughtforms and beliefs, but this is not the same as losing the foundation of our beingness and of our existence itself. I can be shaken and transformed through an experience but even in my transformation, I remain human. I don't become a giraffe.

So God has boundaries. They are the boundaries necessary to provide the ground for our being, for all being. They provide the confidence that I will remain human and the birds outside my window will remain birds. They are boundaries set by the nature of things, by the need of creation for a fundamental stability, coherency and integrity. And God, to be God, cannot abridge or overrule those boundaries (though God can work miracles by acting within the boundaries in ways we might not expect).

I would like my prayers to be answered, but God has to work within boundaries. The latter may prevent the former. There are boundaries I cannot change, but there may well be boundaries I can. And if I change some of the boundaries I have created or participated in creating with others, that may open up possibilities that God can flow through and work what seem to be miracles. My fear or hatred for a person is a boundary to ways we might cooperate and even partner together, for instance. But if I change that boundary to love, who knows what may happen?

That Shiites fear and hate Sunnis or that Arabs fear and hate Americans fuels conflict in the Middle East. Our fears and hates set boundaries for us, and God cannot just remove them without our participation. I can pray for peace all I want, and it will not happen. But if I change that boundary in myself from fear to openness, from hate to love, then a whole new condition exists. Now the boundaries are there to include, not exclude, and in that inclusion, God can indeed work miracles of peace and blessing.

God has boundaries, and more often than not, we are those boundaries. If we want our prayers to be answered, we might begin by exploring the boundaries we can change, which may mean changing ourselves.