Why do children believe in magic while adults don’t?

Why do children believe in magic while adults don’t?
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Wayland does magic with the boys

Yesterday Wayland and I did our Mabinogion workshop again, at a rural primary school near Hay in Wales.  We tell the children we have been sent by the Children of Don from our hiding place in the hollow hills to show them what real magic is.  It’s not a lie: Wayland and I share an obsession with a particular story from this collection of old British tales, written down in Welsh in the middle ages.  We do the workshop in English with some Welsh thrown in, especially for spells and charms. The children get to curse and bless, find out about the four magical ‘Hallows’ which the Plant Don brought to Britain and then use them.  They get to participate in an act of magical creation: making a woman of flowers from nothing, to make music, dance, become ‘servants of the invisible’.  They charm the boy-turned-eagle down the tree and turn him back into a human,

Every time we do the workshops, the children (9,10 years old) tell us how much they loved it, and we are always impressed by their understanding of what magic really is, an understanding which disappears in ninety percent of adults.  I always come away feeling inspired and enthused by the kids and their terrific boldness and brio – and puzzled and sorry that most of us lose these qualities as we grow up.

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About 25 years ago I was at a party in London, a party I didn’t really want to be at, and I wandered out into the garden with my glass, to waste some time before I could politely leave.  At the bottom of the garden was a fountain and a boy of about ten, idly kicking a deflated football at it.  United in boredom, we started to chat and the boy poured out his heart to me: his mum and dad were separated and he had just been living for a while with his dad in Germany.  Did he mind?  Not too much, but there was one thing upsetting him: his dad was a scientist while this lad was a lover of magic, magic in all its forms, from stage magic to stories and ‘the real thing’.  His dad had told him he was now of an age when he had to choose: science or magic, he couldn’t have both.  He didn’t know which to choose.

‘Listen, I said, I promise you don’t have to choose!  In fact it’s very important that you don’t, that you become one of those people, like me, who goes on believing in magic when they grow up.  You can still do science if you want, no problem.’ ‘Really?’ he asked.  ‘Yes!’ I said ‘and anyway magic isn’t what your dad thinks it is.  You’ll find out that as you grow up, as long as you don’t let go of it’.

When I think of that boy now, as I often do, a man in his thirties, I wonder whether he did stay loyal to magic, or whether he was sucked into the orthodoxies of our scientistic world.

By now you’re asking: what is ‘real’ magic  then?  This is tricky.  In the workshop we say we can’t put it into words because that would destroy it, that we can only show it.

So…I knew a man once who practised the most refined and subtle forms of magic.  He understood the building blocks of creation.  I think he was ‘enlightened’ if that means anything to you. I spent many hours in his kitchen talking to him and being shown strange models and diagrams.  I need to add that this man was utterly unpretentious and had no wish for power or riches.  He was a man of wisdom and knowledge – and magic.

Here is one of the things which he knew how to do: he could slip things into your being which you neither grasped nor understood at the time, but later on, maybe much later on, they would bob up to the surface and you would suddenly find a vista of new perceptions opening up.  Now that he is some years dead, I find there is a quiet place outside of time where many of the moments he created still live and have their numinous power to shift me onwards and outwards – or inwards.

For me this is the real magic, subtle, infinitely skilful, as precise as any science, based on an understanding that forcefulness is never the way, that creation and expansion happen when this invisible ‘third force’ is seen and allowed to manifest.  What is the ‘third force?’  Some would call it consciousness, some the ‘Holy Spirit’, some wouldn’t want to name it.

When the dancers drop their veils and little Blodeuwedd emerges in her flowered wedding dress; when her betrayed partner Lleu, in his feathered cloak, takes the last step down from the oak tree, to be turned by love into a boy again, when, at the end of the session, the ten years olds are clustering round us wanting to talk in Welsh, the old tongue… then we see what magic is and does.  And how it brings us home to what we really are.

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Lleu, the shining one, in the oak tree

 

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Calling for Dancers for The Dancing Floor

Calling for Dancers for The Dancing Floor

 

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The dancing floor in our projected film

We are about to start working on the special dance which is the climax of The Dancing Floor.  This dance is crucial to the film – it embodies the mysteries which the rest of the film has been hinting at – and yet it will be performed by ordinary people, dance newbies or amateurs, who will help with devising the details, developing it and rehearsing it –on and on – until it works.  Luckily I have found a local choreographer, Gillian Hipp, to partner with on the project.

The dance includes a wild horde of children being the Four Elements, a shamanic animal dance with masks which morphs into a vigorous Morris, then there are the courtly dances of the gods and goddesses as they make the worlds and the poignant dance of the sacred couple, the Owl and the Hawk.  The symbolism is from the fourth branch of the Mabinogion (which is a creation myth).  Each phase of the dance has a completely different quality and should have a specific effect on the audience so that they go on the journey of creation and re-union with the dancers.

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Horn-dancers from a while ago.

This has made me think about what sacred dance really is and does and what sacred dancing I have done in my life.  I found three main strands: Tai Chi, Gurdjieff’s dances and the whirling dances of the Mevlevi dervishes.  In each case,  watching each of these in action, I was aware of a powerful and unusual effect on me.  With Tai Chi it was a sense of weightless flow and ease which was irresistible, like hearing for the first time a language which seems familiar though you cannot speak it.  (A bit like the chattering of the swifts outside today, ‘don’t fly through that door, it is a prison and a fierce orange cat guards it, he will eat you…’)  With a certain Gurdjieff dance it was an upswelling of strong emotion, both  exquisite and painful, which had been long half-buried, and with the whirling it was, simply, a sense of being in the presence of God.  The whirling I saw at the tekke of the Halveti dervishes in Istanbul, when their sheikh was a very holy man, and I will never forget that it was this practice from mystical Islam which literally opened the gates of heaven for me.

Dervdancing

I learnt the whirling myself in a church hall in Manchester, taught by my friend Dick who had learnt it from someone who’d learnt it from the Sufis.  We approached it with proper respect and once we had got over feeling nauseous, were able to whirl together, floating round each other as we moved, for half an hour at a time.  At the end I felt as if I had been drenched in crystal water, and had woken up a different, much enlivened being.  I also noticed, as I sipped my orange juice, that I felt very well disposed towards all present, my heart warmed up and open to the world.

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A Gurdjieff dance based on the enneagram

The Dancing Floor dance also springs out of a long study of sacred geometry and principle. When I first tried to get my head round this metaphysical stuff about the origin of the worlds, I would either fall asleep or get angry.  I just couldn’t get it.  It felt like trying to scale a sheer cliff with no handholds.  Then I saw that there were other ways of scaling cliffs and my mind started to take some short flights, which eventually made me realise that we can understand a lot more than we think we can – just not with the front brain.  The whole being, the whole body needs to get involved.

I realised that movements, gestures and rhythms which map or limn these abstract principles have a kind of subtle power, which tweaks and shifts your normal consciousness, takes you to different places, and this is why sacred dance can have such a strong effect.  You can see traces of these patterns in much folk dancing.  Maybe that’s why we find (some of it) so compelling?

The ‘dancing floor’ pattern we show in the film is a way of  expressing the way something comes out of nothing, which our normal rational minds cannot ‘get’.  But deeper down there is something in us all which does get it and which knows the truth – and I believe dance is one of the best ways to activate this part, whether you perform it or simply watch it.

So, if you live in south Wales or borders (I am between Hay and Brecon) and would like to get involved in working on this dance, please get in touch at dancingfloorfilm@gmail.com.

 

 

Myth, madness and the meaning of life

Myth, madness and the meaning of life

One of the big themes of The Dancing Floor, (which I have half-forgotten in the crowdfunding push) is mental illness. Both Sita, the heroine, and Cathy the young musician who stalks her, have ‘problems’ with it. Sita has had a psychotic breakdown in young adulthood which makes her terrified of exploring uncle Mal’s mysterious old tradition. Cathy is bipolar and treats her condition in a cavalier manner, taking drugs which may make her a better fiddler but push her into wilder highs and more grisly lows.

Sita (Renu Brindle) in the Dancing Floor pilot film
Sita (Renu Brindle) in the Dancing Floor pilot film

I have built these themes on experiences of my own. I have never been called ‘mentally ill’ but I have been in some very scary places – and, and this is the point, in some very illuminating and non-ordinary places – you could call them otherworldly. And this is without drugs, because I have never been able to tolerate drugs, and even had to give up the occasional spliff when I started meditating because it pushed me immediately into a psychotic nightmare place.

So I am pondering the relationship between exploration of non-ordinary reality and mental stability, especially in relation to old native traditions which encourage the taking on of archetypes, of gods, animals and elementals, the contacting of ancestors and a generally bold and imaginative interaction with ‘reality’. Is it actually good for us to do these things, to explore the experience of other beings and other worlds? Or is it too dangerous, in society wedded to ‘safety’ and a rigidly rational view of reality – except for in movies and games sanctioned by the powers that be?

In the film Sita has to travel back to a terrifying and ego-dissolving moment which she has tried to forget, before she can, with Cathy’s help, open up to the extraordinary possibilities offered by the native tradition. I wrote this section of the screenplay remembering my own moment of terror:

My mother had just died, my marriage was in a grim state and I was alone in the house of my beloved but demented dad in the middle of the night. I began to feel that I was guilty of a terrible crime (I was actually only guilty of normal idiocy), that I what I had done was endlessly destructive and unredeemable. I felt as if the core of me was exploding and shooting outwards into the void and very soon there would soon be nothing of me left. This was the inevitable punishment for my wickedness.

This was the most frightening experience of my life, worse than nearly drowning or dying on a snowy mountain. What did I do? I switched the radio on and listened to World Service while forcing myself to read a humorous book, and after a couple of hours it passed. We’d call it a panic attack, I suppose.

Spiral on beach019

On the other hand I have stood on a beach in Orkney at dawn and felt arising in my own body, in my own mind, the knowledge of how something comes from nothing, the kind of knowledge you can never put into words but only treat as a jumping off point for a different view0 of reality, a new kind of exploration. I write much more about this in my book Becoming the Enchanter, but for now I just want to say that I feel it is important, for some of us at least, to know these kinds of things.

I am sure whoever wrote the fourth branch of the Mabinogion did and although there are respectable academics who agree with that, the whole point about this kind of knowledge is that it is not just intellectual – it reaches into the deepest, oldest and newest regions of our being and it changes our neural wiring. Myth is a carrier of it, because it deals in riddles which trick the mind into jumping to a new position. Once we know the ‘new position’, beyond the ratiocinating mind, many other things become possible and meditation is a way to do it safely without succumbing to mental instability or losing contact with our common reality.

In the Dancing Floor film Sita is helped through her crisis by Cathy, who is less afraid of the ‘otherworld’ than she is, and in the end they both find salvation through the re-invention of a sacred dance, that is through creativity.  The ‘Children of Don’, the family of gods who appear in the Mabinogion, were said to be ‘the race who brought magic to these islands’ (See previous post about the Four Hallows)  And magic is the understanding of the rules of creation, how something can come from nothing….which is is one reason that these mythic stories must be told and re-told in modern form. So that we don’t forget.Featured Image -- 646To read more about the projected Dancing Floor feature film click here.

Swept away by an old tale!

Swept away by an old tale!
Wayland Boulanger tells Lleu's tale, accompanied by Gill Stevens  and Dyland Fowler
Wayland Boulanger tells Lleu’s tale, accompanied by Gill Stevens and Dyland Fowler at our film fund launch in Hay Castle

At the launch event for our film funding campaign I told this story, as an illustration of the galvanising power of the tales in the Mabinogion once you start interacting with them.

Years ago I had come to Wales with a group of friends, also researchers into our native tradition. We were staying in North Wales, near the sites where many of the events of the fourth branch tale ‘Math’ are set, and this day we were acting out the moment when Lleu Llaw Gyffes is slain by his rival Gronw, having been betrayed by his wife, Blodeuwedd, the ‘woman of flowers’.  It was December, around the winter solstice, and we’d gone to the actual river Cynfael where, it’s said Lleu stood on the back of a goat, under a makeshift thatch,with one foot on a cauldron and  naked as the dawn, to demonstrate to his wife the obscure conditions under which he could be killed.

Mark, a young actor of daredevil temperament, was playing Lleu and he jumped across the fast-flowing river to a stone in the middle to act out his part.  Mike stood on the bank, as Gronw, with a pretend spear ready to throw.   He threw it and Mark made the required shriek which presages Lleu’s change into an eagle, then threw his arms in the air and was swallowed by the swollen river.  As he was swept downstream I was visualising the newspaper headlines and the ruin of our fascinating project, never mind the drowning of our reckless friend.

A hundred yards downstream, we fished him out and made a fire to dry his clothes.  He was cocky as ever and none the worse for wear. But the lesson was, and I have never forgotten it: these tales are about the Children of Don, the Plant Don, the Tuatha de Danaan, the race who are said to have ‘brought magic to these islands’.  Don’t mess with their tales, they are powerful stuff and they can sweep you away to shores you never dreamed of.

The tale mentioned above is the fourth story in the Mabinogion and is the inspiration behind the Dancing Floor Film.  Have a look at our crowdfunding site and support us if you can.  We want to spread the magic of the Plant Don around the world!

Dancing Floor Update

Dancing Floor Update

Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 18.22.12 The pilot-teaser film has had its first previews, and so far the reception has been warm and enthusiastic. ‘Beautiful’, ‘so intriguing’, ‘fabulous music’, ‘extremely atmospheric’, ‘I can’t wait to see the long version’ are some of the comments I collected along the way. The first preview was for my Samatha Buddhist friends in Manchester. We set the screen up to one side of the big golden Buddha, and the room glowed with anticipation. I was surprised and pleased when I heard the audience make little gasps and snorts of recognition at key moments, such as when Sita, the heroine says ‘it’s the nothingness between the somethingness which holds the key’. There were many meditators there, and since meditators spend a lot of time exploring nothingness, it is not a scary thing for these guys, as it is for some people in our highly over-wrought and distracted world. The second preview was for my Welsh-speaking and learning friends, at Brechfa Chapel where I live.

Brechfa Chapel before conversion into my house.
Brechfa Chapel before conversion into my house.

It was prefaced with a talk in Welsh by me about the Mabinogion (be very impressed) and a chunk of story from the Mabinogion by Marion Oughton (be impressed again), a learner-friend. I watched my audience watching and could see that the spell of the film was working on them. Their attention was steady throughout and did not waver. They responded particularly strongly to the atmosphere and the uncanny beauty of the drone shots of my pool. The mythic resonances from the Mabinogion also appealed.  They liked the actors, and were the first audience to understand the bits in Welsh! The third preview is still to come: if you live near Brecon come to the George Hotel at 7pm on Monday May 18 where I will be giving a talk for Brecon MIND (Exploring the Edge of Reality)

Gethin (Seiriol Tomos)and Sita (Renu Brindle) meet after 20 years in Uncle Mal's house
Gethin (Seiriol Tomos)and Sita (Renu Brindle) meet after 20 years in Uncle Mal’s house
Young Sita (Isha Gurung) returns to the sacred oak
Young Sita (Isha Gurung) returns to the sacred oak

and showing the film, followed by a discussion, I hope, about creativity, meditation and mental balance. All are welcome and this is a great group of people who put on interesting talks every month. Other news is that I have found a couple of people with skills differing and matching mine who may be going to help me with the next phase: financing and producing the feature film. I won’t name them yet because I don’t want to tempt fate, but I hope very soon there will be a showing in Hay on a big screen, maybe with live music to follow. A London screening will follow soon after that one. If you can’t get to a screening, leave me a message here or on FB and I will send you a special secret link. A crowdfunding campaign will be the next stage, plus the filling in of many forms and the canvassing of more serious investors. There’s a way to go!

Gethin and Sita on the Dancing Floor
Gethin and Sita on the Dancing Floor

Bran the Blessed and Jim Gandolfini – gigantic heroes!

Feeding the Cauldron of Regeneration
Feeding the Cauldron of Regeneration

I was not long back from the Mabinogion Festival weekend in Aberystwyth, banjaxed by the depth, richness, emotional power of this sequence of Welsh medieval tales, and knocked out by the courage, skill and brio of the six storytellers. It was an eight hour marathon, presented here in English and Welsh with evolving illustration provided by artists. This time I was particularly affected by the second tale, of royal siblings, Bran and Branwen, here transmitted with passion and precision by a team of three women, Christine Cooper, Cath Little and Fiona Collins. It is a story of about war and the horrors of war. It has all the features we see everyday in our news – revenge killings, valiant efforts at peace-making, the suffering of innocents, bloodbaths, torture and the devastating effects of post-traumatic stress on the survivors of these horrors. It features the giant-king, Bran, or Bendigedfran, who spawned the Welsh saying ‘he who would be king, let him be a bridge’ when he lay down over the river Shannon so that his men could cross it and rescue his sister. It is the head of Bran, cut off at his own instruction, which is buried under the White Tower in London to protect these islands from invasion.  Those ravens are his birds.

I was so flaked out when I got home that I slumped on the settee and watched the end of series five of The Sopranos, which I just received from Lovefilm. No escape from being harrowed here!

Jim Gandolfini
Jim Gandolfini

There he was, Tony Soprano, played by the brilliant late James Gandolfini, stumbling down a story arc remarkably similar to that of Bran. Not only that, but Gandolfini was actually a giant of a man, big with the brooding power of a monster-giant drawn by a child, but also possessing rare sensitivity and subtlety as an actor, and thereby lending mob-boss Tony Soprano the stirrings of a moral sense. Unlike some of his more psychopathic followers.

In the Bran story, Bran’s half-brother, Efnisien, horribly mutilates the king of Ireland’s horses, in a vicious act of revenge. To keep the peace, Bran should kill him, but, because he is is a close relative, he does not, and Efinisien goes on to commit further horrors and destroy all chance of peace between the two countries – the Island of the Mighty and the Island of the Blessed. Meanwhile in the Sopranos, Tony makes the mistake of being soft on his cousin, also called Tony, who has a ‘rage problem’ and has killed outside the rules, including a woman and the son of a fellow mobster. Although Tony Soprano does the necessary in the end, it is not before relatively innocent people have suffered and seeds of future troubles sown.

In the Mabinogion story, Efnisien, having perpetrated heinous acts, is finally smitten by remorse and makes the redemptive act of jumping into the cauldron of regeneration and splitting it into smithereens – so that the Irish can no longer renew their fighting men. This allows seven British men to survive, including Bran. I haven’t seen the end of the Soprano series so I don’t know how Tony’s arc develops, but I do know that both the medieval tale and the contemporary TV drama have something extraordinary and special: an understanding of the grim realities of power.  Although Bran is a good king, he cannot save his kingdom from defeat and ruin – though he can keep hope alive by the burying of his head. Tony Soprano struggles with his good and bad angels to make himself a soul but becomes irretrievably isolated by the responsibilities of his position as a mob leader and trapped in a world where no-one is to be trusted and there is no way to escape into a good and innocent life. He even has to order the death of his nephew’s pathetic girlfriend because she has been embroiled with the FBI. It’s going to haunt him, I know that, because he actually really liked her… I could hardly bear to watch the moment where she realises she is to die.

The two stories are still haunting me.