Samhain: Feast of the Dead

Tonight is the Pagan festival of Samhain, more commonly celebrated as Halloween. At Samhain Pagans celebrate our ancestors & beloved dead. It also offers an opportunity to meditate on our mortality, a fundamental aspect of embodiment which arguably makes life worth living. We work hard to keep thoughts of death out of our minds and the care of the dead – once a final act of love – is now professionalized.

As usual, people dressed up as ghosts and ghouls roam my local high street. But there’s an edge to the celebrations this year as the reality of death feels closer. I suspect the glowing plastic skulls and scary/comic make-up are an attempt to manage our anxiety about the last taboo – death. I wonder what Heidegger would make of it all? He urged us to acknowledge death to avoid the fall into a meaningless life (Heidegger, 1962).

A couple of years ago I was wandering along Brighton beach just before Samhain. Thoughts of death were with me then, as now: I remembered some of my own beloved dead and pondered my mortality. As if in reply, I came across a swathe of feathers, strewn like a shroud on the stony beach.

This is all that remains of some seabird, probably killed by a predator not long before. I sat on the stones and watched as the feathers blew away in the wind, one by one

‘Sacred Ecology’ Revisited

Over a quarter of a century ago I presented a paper called ‘Sacred Ecology’ at a Newcastle University conference (1994), and it’s still my most widely read article. Should I be dismayed that I haven’t come up with anything more popular or pleased that it’s remained relevant?

Sacred Ecology was published in 1996 (Harvey and Hardman) and has been republished several times since, both in books and on the internet. When ‘Humanistic Paganism’ re-posted Sacred Ecology in 2015 I added a short introduction to put it into context. I commented that my emphasis on ritual missed something: “While ritual can be very powerful, there are many ways to access the wisdom of the body and some – like Focusing – are arguably more reliable”. Five years on, I’m increasingly curious about a whole range of embodied pathways to the wisdom of the body and what fundamental principles might underpin them. I’ve already discussed several of these pathways in this blog: Focusing, mindfulness and the wilderness effect, but there are many more.

St. Catherine’s Hill
St. Catherine’s Hill

Since writing Sacred Ecology I’ve gained a better understanding of ritual. Back in the ‘90’s I was heavily involved with Paganism. While that gave me a profound personal experience of the power of ritual, it was in a very specific context. I’ve since explored ritual in other contexts, notably ecopsychology and dance therapy.

Ritual is fundamental to the practical ecopsychology of Bill Plotkin and Joanna Macy. While Plotkin has a more Pagan orientation, Macy’s ‘Work that Reconnects’ is grounded in Buddhism. Both are valuable and widely influential.

Psychotherapy can be a kind of ritual: I’ve argued elsewhere that ritual theory can help us understand the healing process in outdoor therapy (Harris, 2014) and that’s probably true of psychotherapy in general. Moreover, ritual is used explicitly in Family Therapy (Hecker & Schindler), dramatherapy and the dance therapy developed by Anna and Daria Halprin.

Does all this shed light on why Sacred Ecology is still relevant? I wrote Sacred Ecology to illustrate the importance of EcoPagan ritual, but if that’s all it was about I doubt that anyone would bother to read it today. Sacred Ecology hints at something more fundamental: A profound re-connection with the other-than-human revealed thorough the wisdom of the body.

The power of place: Protest site pagans

Research has established that spending time in the wilderness can have profound effects on people. This “wilderness effect” (Greenway, 1995) usually occurs in truly wild places like the Grand Canyon, but my research shows that it can work its magic in more urban environments.

Home comforts

I describe this process in my article on ‘The power of place: Protest site pagans’, which has been published in the European Journal of Ecopsychology. The article expands on several themes I’ve explored here, notably Eco-Paganism, the spirit of place and the cognitive iceberg. It’s based on my research with protest camps activists and describes how spending extended periods of time in nature can catalyse profound personal change.

The article also explains the model of embodied situated cognition that I’ve described as ‘the cognitive iceberg’ in several posts. In the last section I use the cognitive iceberg model to provide a partial explanation for how the wilderness effect works. I think it works really well as a companion piece to my chapter in The Wanton Green, which was published in 2012.

Sitting at the threshold brook

I’ve realised that what Barry Patterson calls “listening to the threshold brook” is the Sit Spot by another name. I’ve already outlined the principles of the Sit Spot: Find a place outdoors and sit there everyday for at least 15 minutes.

Sit Spot practice is both simple and profound. It lay at the heart of the mentoring Jon Young received from Tom Brown Jr. and is the primary Core Routine of the Art of Mentoring (Young, Hass and McGown, 2010). It’s no surprise, then, that many Eco-Pagans have the same practice, but that realisation took me a while!

My Ph.D. research identified listening to the threshold brook as one of a number of ways that Eco-Pagans connect to the animate world of nature. I concluded that it works – in part at least- by shifting awareness down the cognitive iceberg and thus enhancing our sense of connection. If I’m right, then the Sit Spot works the same way. The next question is, can the cognitive iceberg model help us understand how other Core Routines work their magic?

Liminal space

I found myself at my sit spot at dusk yesterday evening. The sun had already pretty much set; the sky was a deep, almost purple, blue and the Park was slowly sliding into shadow.

A few birds were still singing when I first arrived. As time passed, a few became two and then fell to a single song high in the tree opposite. It was a complex and beautiful song. Perhaps birdsong always is like that but becomes revealed when framed by silence. And then the song stopped.

That silence felt powerful, but I couldn’t work out why. Was the end of the song a metaphor for the end of the Summer or even of death? Both have been in my consciousness recently. Somehow I knew it wasn’t simply a resonant metaphor, but I still couldn’t understand why that place at that moment felt so significant.

I was back there at dusk today and again heard the last bird song. This time I got it; it was a moment of transition that a created a liminal space.

Cave mouths and mountain tops are liminal spaces, as is the seashore, especially where the waves claim the land and then recede. The Celts call them ‘thin places’, places where boundaries meet. Permaculture emphasises the importance of places where two eco-systems meet. Such boundaries,which it calls ‘edges’ are especially abundant and diverse.

Liminal space emerges from time too. The Pagan wheel of the year is marked by festivals that celebrate liminal moments: Samhain, Winter Solstice and Beltane to name a few. What is it about liminal space that is so powerful? That question remains vitally alive: Although Victor Turner discussed the role of the the liminal in ritual he didn’t explain it. I have a feeling it’s related to the uncanny, but that simply makes it all the more mysterious!

Imbolc: The Pulse of the Seasons

February 2nd is the Pagan festival of Imbolc, and to celebrate I went for a long walk in the countryside. Imbolc is the time of ‘the quickening of the year’ when the first signs of the coming Spring appear, & many Pagans honour Brigid, the great Celtic Mother Goddess. Some Pagans are quite particular about the date that they celebrate the festivals, but many, including me, go with the day that feels right. It was UK Shaman Gordon MacLellan that really got me thinking about this. Rather than following the traditional dates of the Pagan Wheel of the Year, Gordon senses the “changing pulse” of the seasons (Harris, 2008). Gordon seems to be using a “bodily sensed knowledge” which Gendlin calls a “felt sense” (Gendlin, 1981) and it’s that same felt sense of change that guides me to the time to celebrate.

I’ve done this same walk at various times of the year, but this particular Imbolc there was something in the woods and fields that felt particularly powerful. I was walking across a barren muddy field patterned with the stubble of dead stalks. A cold wind was blowing and the Sun sat low in the sky.

Trees at dawn

Suddenly I felt a tingling as a wave of energy flowed up my body from the land. As I looked at the dark earth, I had a mental image of the virile stems of the growing crop I’d seen in that very spot last Summer. In fact it was much more than an mental image; it was a powerful felt sense of the fecundity of the land. The fullness of the ripe crop in Summer and the dark quietude of the sleeping land in Winter were simultaneously present the quickening of Imbolc : it was if I could sense the whole cycle of the seasons in one moment.