Book Review -The Enchanted Life by Sharon Blackie

Some thirty years ago I was someone very different to the person I am today; mind you, that probably applies to most of the population, so I’d better elaborate a little.  I was in a pretty high-powered job in retail, working as the Retail Operations Director for a well known high street chain. It paid pretty well, gave me a rather snazzy company car, all my fuel paid for (both for business use and private use) and more than enough fringe benefits to allow me to think I was secure for life.  What more could I possibly ask for?

The truth is I was stressed out virtually all the time, I was on constant call for all sorts of issues and problems – modern retail is a seven day a week business, and senior management is expected to be available at any time of day, any day of the week.  Even at night the rumble of the fax machine (how quaint is that!) would wake me up as it spewed out reams of paper with the overnight sales results. A good night’s sleep was a real rarity. Even going on holiday meant bringing along the omnipresent pager – not much later to be replaced by the mobile phone.

I was unhappy and needed out, and I thought a change of job would do the trick; it didn’t. I simply swapped one bunch of stress for another identical set, the only difference being the name over the door of the business I worked for.

It took me ten years to escape to a certain degree, finding a less stressful job with less pay and benefits, but giving me a little more ‘spare time’. It was another 5 years before I finally found a place of contentment, free to explore what really gave my soul and spirit joy and fulfilment.

Why this trip down memory lane? Well, in Sharon Blackie’s latest book and follow up to her ‘If Women Rose Rooted’ all those old symptoms that I went through back then are talked about, explore, unravelled and exposed for what they are.

Now, I was never lucky enough – or should that be brave enough – to simply walk away from everything I had been working for and start completely afresh, but Sharon Blackie was. This makes her eminently qualified to set off on an exploration of enchantment, what it is, why it is so difficult to find in our modern stress-filled workaholic treadmill world and how, with some self-exploration and honesty, we can find that lost enchantment for ourselves once again. I say once again because, as pointed out in the book we are born with an innate sense of enchantment of life; as children we are filled with wonder and live a life filled with enchantment until society and well-meaning parents insist we conform to the rules of modern western society.

This is a book that gives us some tools to break free, to see through the illusions of today’s false rules and live our lives as if it matters – which, interestingly is the title of the penultimate chapter in the book. The tools offered though deceptively simply aren’t always easy; they will involve some deep soul searching and scrupulous honesty with ourselves if they are to be of use, but on this a little later.

The book itself is broken down in to four sections of varying length, beginning with a chapter on why enchantment matters; and of for this reviewer it matters a great deal. I imagine if you’ve read this far, it matters to you too. Blackie follows the opening with a review of how we reached this point in western society, offering insights of the philosophy that resulted in our current western world view, taking us right back to dear old Plato and his view that what we perceive with our own senses isn’t real but simply a product of our intellect. I’ll not bore you with the details and how they influenced later philosophical thought and religion, but as a starting point it is important to recognise that we as a species didn’t always see nature the way we do now – as a resource to be used remorselessly with no intrinsic value other than how much money it can make.

The second section of the book offers us some perspectives on what ‘enchantment’ is.  It’s a complex idea and I’m sure there are many who have tied themselves up in knots attempting to pin it down. Blackie does an admirable job, and it was particularly gratifying for me to see my old friend, French philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl crop up. I first came across him when undertaking a course on Magical Consciousness at the University of Sussex led by Dr Susan Greenwood, and his theory of ‘magical participation’ underpins my understanding of my belief in animism – that everything has a spirit and consciousness.  If I’ve read the book correct, Sharon Blackie doesn’t go quite that far, and surmises that it may be the case, though she tells us of how she speaks to rocks and stones and places that hold a magic for her. Animism is a thorny and often controversial subject, so I’ll simply say that it is part of my own personal belief system and leave it at that.

There are some beautiful examples of how we can begin to re-enchant ourselves together with some wonderful stories to help us on our way. The questions asked of us and the suggestions offered at the end of each section are deep and practical in opening ourselves up to changing our perspectives about the world around us.

In the section entitled ‘The Magic of the Everyday’ we meet some people who have found their own way of living an enchanted life, offering inspiring examples of it *is* possible to break free. It also introduces us to working with the places we live, the stories that are connected to where we find ourselves, the land itself, the plants, the trees, and the wildlife we can find there; all of nature. Here too is where the book introduces us to the importance of ritual and ceremony in our everyday lives – a sadly neglected area for most of us in today’s helter-skelter busy world.

Of course, not all of us are able to find ourselves living in the far western reaches of the British Isles, as Sharon Blackie does; and nor would some us want to, so in this section we are also asked to find places in or own environment that can nourish us, no matter where that may be; finding the stories, listening to the land, recognising our own place in the landscape we find ourselves living are. My own experiences tell me that this isn’t necessarily easy – I have experienced living in places where I felt extremely uncomfortable, yet even then I was able to find places which gave me a sense of belonging and of sharing. Out on the wilds of Dartmoor, standing on the cliffs of the Jurassic Coast of Dorset, or on windswept Penwith, it’s easy (for me, at least) to find that connection; in the centre of a vast city, or in a town built on the foundations of military activity and conflict it’s not so easy; but my experiences tell me it can be done. Once again, the practical and useful examples and exercises Sharon Blackie offers us may well help in that process. I think it all comes down to relationship, and this book allows us to explore how to build that relationship with our environment.

By now the book has covered a vast amount of ground and my brief description hardly does it justice. To cover so much, so eloquently and accessibly is a wonderful achievement, so the short final section, ‘The Enchanted Life’, asks us questions about how us changing as individuals can effect change in society, and what that change would look like.

As someone who believes that myth and stories, the land and all of nature has so much to teach us; and as someone who believes that small steps and small changes can (and must) bring about changes to how we live and how society operates, this is a wonderful and important book. I don’t agree with everything that is written in the book, and some of the questions Sharon Blackie asks of us in the book may lead you to different conclusions to me and to Sharon – it would be a boring world if we agreed with everything. Nonetheless this is thought provoking, beautifully written, and well researched book (I love the fact there are references throughout the whole book – so many authors don’t bother or can’t back up hoer work in this way) and one I would highly recommend.

The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday Paperback – 27 Feb 2018
by Sharon Blackie
Publisher: September Publishing

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Book review – Last of the Shor Shamans

shorshamanI have long had a deep interest in the practices of indigenous shamans, especially those of Siberia and Mongolia.  Sadly I’ve never been lucky enough to learn from one, and so my understanding has always come from the books that are available.  The most well known are the sections within MIrcea Eliade’s classic ‘Shamanism’, and those of Sangarel, with her books being very much tailored towards the practice of Buryat Shamanism more than an anthropological study of the subject.

So, to find this book, ‘The Last of the Shor Shamans’, is a gift indeed. It is an exquisite book, just 96 pages long, but packed with information on the dying traditions of the shamans of the Shor Mountain region of South Central Siberia. Translated into English for the first time, this book deserves to be considered a classic of shamanic studies.

The book begins with an introduction by Lynn Roberts, explaining how she came to meet some of the Shortsi peoples when she took a group of North American and Europeans to this remote part of the world to learn from the native shamans who still practiced there. The authors, Alexander & Luba Arbachakov, bring us details of the Shor world view followed by a wonderfully detailed description of the ‘kam’ (the Shor word for shaman), how they are chosen, what they do, how the do it, how they live, how they dress, what tools they use and more. We are given some details on Shor shamanic rituals, before we are then introduced to the lives of seven shamans.  Each one was interviewed and recorded, and the insights gained are remarkable. We are told their stories and given elements of each of their individual practices, even down to the details of some of the words they use in their ceremonies.

We are then treated to the text of sound recordings made by the authors of the kamlanie verses of two of the kam themselves – shamanic verses that have never been published in English before.

To be able to read and study the traditions of this shamanic society is a wonderful privilege, and brings me a deeper understanding of my own shamanic practices and how they relate to those of these ancient people.

Whilst the book is written from an anthropological point of view it is incredibly useful to the serious student of indigenous shamanic practice. It is a wonderful contribution to those of us who treasure such insights.

http://moon-books.net/blogs/moonbooks/the-last-of-the-shor-shamans/

Book review – Natural Born Shamans

naturalbornshamansLLast November I attended the Gatekeepers Trust Conference that’s held in Pewsey annually. As always there were wonderful speakers over the two days, including Peter Knight, my geomancy teacher Patrick MacManawey, authors of ‘The Spine of Albion’ Gary Biltcliffe, poet Jay Ramsey, traditional traveller folk-song collector Sam Lee and others. One of the others was the shamanic practitioner Imelda Almqvist, who I knew from social media and publicity and advance notice of book releases sent to me by the publisher Moon Books.

Imelda’s subject was “Gods of Portals, Life Transitions and Liminal Spaces”, where she explored (quoting from the Gatekeeper Trust website):

‘Liminal places are where ancient gods await and human beings are touched by the Divine. What is the function of such places in the landscape and how can we open sacred space intentionally to facilitate healing, rites of passage and to breathe new life into the teachings of the ancient mystery schools.’

The talk was wonderful and was accompanied by samples of her spellbinding and amazing artwork. It was without doubt one of the highlights of the entire weekend.

By coincidence, later that day I found myself sitting next to Imelda and we spoke for a while, including a short discussion about her recent book ‘Natural Born Shamans – A Spiritual Toolkit for Life: Using shamanism creatively with young people of all ages.’ I had to confess I hadn’t read the book as it seemed that it wasn’t something that I would find useful. After having listened to her talk and  our later conversation I was inspired to go out and buy a copy to see what wisdom there was within.

The book is written from the point of view of a shamanic practitioner and a mother of three boys, whose experiences in bringing them up led her to insightful practices that resulted in her forming the group called ‘Time Travellers’. She writes:

‘The notion of teaching shamanism to young children and teenagers seemed overwhelming (where to start?!), but I created The Time Travellers programme in London, UK, and it is still running four years later.’

Eventually, with much prodding from her own spirit guides, as well as other parents and shamanic practitioners working in the same field, Imelda came to realisation that there was a need to share her work, and so allow others to benefit from her experiences in working with her own group. Again, to quote from the book:

‘I have received many emails from colleagues asking about my shamanic work with children and teenagers. They have referred many people based all over the world to me: parents, grandparents, teachers and professionals in other fields. People tell me that they need pointers, ideas, tried and tested session plans. I gradually realised that I perhaps I was sitting on material and experiences that could be helpful for others.’

The book is set out in three distinct parts; the first covers the foundations of the work she is covering – subjects such as:

  • what is shamanic parenting
  • shamanic basics
  • working with children – fears and prejudices
  • parental consent

and so on.  Here there is much wisdom to be found, and the wealth of Imelda’s experiences shines through, giving those who may enter this area of teaching some confidence that they are learning from someone who has ‘been there and done it’. Refreshingly there are parts where she lets us know where the best laid plans can go wrong, and so we learn from those mistakes without having to discover the pitfalls ourselves.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a section which will teach you to be a shamanic practitioner – it assumes some considerable depth of understanding, knowledge and training in the practice of shamanism, so if you are looking for a book covering those aspects, this isn’t the one for you.

In part two we are offered a detailed array of practical session plans that can be used and adapted for use once you set up your own group work with children and teenagers. It defines each session in some detail, giving guidance on from and structure, what to say, where to hold the work and how to follow up each session. There is an introduction to the subject of each session, followed by teaching notes, preparation guidelines, the session itself, and where appropriate further notes that may be useful.  The topics are wide and varied, covering from the playful to deeper work around subjects such as bullying and death. While these sessions are aimed at a range of ages, from the relatively young to those in transition between childhood to adulthood, they are a wonderful inspiration for those who may hold regular shamanic sessions with older individuals, and with a little adaptation could well be used to bring out the childlike innocence that many adults have lost. Play and laughter and plain and simple fun are wonderful tonic to the soul and spirit whatever our age!

Part three is entitled ‘Rites of Passage’ and gives a detailed and experiential view of the way ritual and ceremony can be incorporated into the lives of children and teenagers. It covers just about any aspect of transition that we are likely to come across, and doesn’t shy away from the ‘difficult’ areas which modern society attempts to hide away in the shadows. As a ceremonialist as well as a shamanic practitioner, I found this section really enlightening and useful and once again, with a little work, everything here could be adapted for other age groups. We as a culture ignore ceremony too often, and to re-awaken the need for ceremony within our own communities can be a wonderful gift of service; for that alone this book is worth buying.

My understanding of working with others, especially with children and teenagers, would have been the poorer had I not been inspired to buy and read this book, and I am deeply grateful that synchronicity brought me to that Conference and to find myself sitting next to Imelda. This is a wonderful book or anyone who regularly works with others in their shamanic practice, and particularly good for those who find themselves working with young people. I highly recommend it.

Almqvist, Imelda. Natural Born Shamans – A Spiritual Toolkit for Life: Using Shamanism Creatively with Young People of All Ages – John Hunt Publishing 2016

 

Book review: If Women Rose Rooted

I read blogs; I read lots of blogs. The ones I follow are those where the writers have something meaningful to share, something worthwhile to explore. Otherwise, why bother! Some of the authors I know personally, some I’ve never met; they are a diverse group of folk. Many of the blogs I come across are discovered by following random links from blog to blog, website to website, picking up nuggets of wisdom and deep insights that I would probably never have found otherwise.

That’s how I first came across the work of Sharon Blackie, through her blog, singingoverthebones.org – though the tangled path that led me to her I couldn’t possibly relate now, lost as it is in the mists and mysteries of serendipity. I don’t know Sharon personally, though I’d like to! And after reading her blog for some time, working through the archive of her writings, I have a good idea of who she is. And now having read If Women Rose Rooted I think I have an even clearer idea of her.

If Women Rose Rooted is a brave, wonderful, insightful and highly important work. It defies simple definitions – it is part biography, part storytelling, part poetry, part myth, part metaphor , part commentary on the ecological, environmental and social state of the world we live in. But more than all of that it is a desperately needed call for women to stand in their own strength to reimagine their relationship with the land and to act, to take up the path of the Heroine’s Journey.

Taking us on a journey through her life experiences of working in modern big business – which she describes as our modern Wasteland – with soul deep honesty, relating her story to both Celtic myth and landscape, recognising always that one is inseparable from the other, I found myself recognising so much of her story, and was particularly moved by that fact that she doesn’t gloss over her mistakes. Too often in books we can read about how to resolve our problems and work through our existential difficulties in some sort of formulaic way. Not so here. Mistakes are acknowledged and recognised for the life lessons they can teach us. Life isn’t linear, it’s a spiral, and sometimes that spiral leads us back to exactly where we started with lessons not yet learned. I recognised this deeply within my own experiences, just as I recognised that point where, just as Blackie does, I became sick and tired of being sick and tired – tired of the need to earn a big salary, competitive and to be part of the machine of modern life, of the Wasteland. 

Reading this book reminded me of my own deep roots in the Celtic world, of Ireland and long forgotten ancestors and their stories, and of how far I’ve come on my own journey and far I’ve how yet to go. It reminded me that our lives can and should be about reclaiming the wild spirit of nature within us, that we must nurture and care for the landscape wherever we may live, and that it is through relationship and community, one small step at a time, we can make a difference. Our stories, the stories of our ancestors and our land, are deeply relevant, and can still shape and inspire us. 

If Women Rose Rooted isn’t an easy read in places, and profoundly beautiful in others. There were moments when I gasped in recognition and found myself moved to tears by the beauty of her words; it is a book that I found deeply moving; reading it has taught me that we don’t need to follow the Heroes path, wielding a sword and shield while clad in shining steel; it showed me there is another path and reminded me that there is no time to lose in living full and authentic lives. 

If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie.

This Ancient Heart – The Threefold Relationship Between Landscape, Ancestor and Self

This Ancient Heart is a collection of essays by well known Pagan and spiritual authors on our relationships with and connections to landscape and the ancestors.

In the Forward by Graham Harvey the scene is set where he says “Much of the curious, unexpected and fascinating is revealed in the book you are now reading” and then asks us to begin to think about our own perspectives on the subject by reminding us that “It is, as with any book, important that readers begin with some reflections about their own expectations and anticipations.”

The Introduction by Paul Davies sets the scene more firmly where he talks of the ancestors, stating “Their bodies are part of this earth and this earth is equally part of us – in flesh, in DNA as much as in spirit. In this way, we are the ancestors reborn. I like that thought…..”

He mentions the reburial issues and debates that were raised at Avebury and Stonehenge, but makes the point that the book “extends these ideas about ancestry beyond reburial and goes some way to describing and addressing the eternal quest for spiritual identity in a fundamentally secular world.”

And indeed they do.

Of course with any anthology of writings by different authors with differing perspectives some of the essays will resonate more than others. The book begins with a beautiful and powerful piece by Emma Restall Orr, asking questions that provoke the reader look deeply into my own beliefs about what happens when we die and how we perceive and treat those who have died. Her arguments are not without critics but for me they are highly persuasive and offer a deeper explanation of the beliefs that led to her founding the Honouring the Ancient Dead initiative.

In the next essay, Philip Shallcrass (Greywolf) continues the theme of ancestral spirits influencing who we are today, this time through the spirit of animal ancestors. His deeply personal experiences and stories are beautifully evocative in showing how such ongoing relationship with the landscape and nature can affect and enrich our lives.

In addition to the two essays by Emma and Philip mentioned above I particularly enjoyed:

  • Jenny Blain’s wonderful explanation of her relationship with Seidr (a shamanic technique that has always fascinated me) in her essay “Ancestors and Place: Seidr and Other Ways of Knowing”, where we learn that in Heathenry “Ancestors, though, do matter, very greatly, but can be understood as people in the land and the stories of place – that is, not only physical ‘ancestors’ but those who have been related to where we are now, and those who have given us the knowledge,tools, ways of being that we now use in both mundane andspiritual lives.”
  • Caitlin Matthews words on Healing the Ancestral Communion: Pilgrimage Beyond Time and Space where she makes the point that “in traditional animist cultures throughout the world, from North America to Australia, ancestors are understood as everything that is, whether we would regard it as a sentient being, such as an animal or a tree, or as something we don’t think of as alive, like a rock or the land we walk upon, or indeed, whether it would be regarded as having existence at all, such as a faery, a spirit, the presence of a deceased forebear, or a divinity.”
  • Penny Billington on Heart of the Land: The Druidic Connection, where with exquisite romantic vision she tells us that “To access earth wisdom we start not by journeying to mysterious landscapes, but through exploring nature in our locality,where in a long gone and simpler world the buzzing of the bees sang the story of the honey that would be eaten on homemade bread.”

From words taking a deeply spiritual and religious perspective through to ones affirming a more scientific perspective, every essay in this collection is equally thought provoking and well written. For anyone seeking to understand and deepen their relationship with landscape and the ancestors (and who amongst us shouldn’t be doing that!) it is essential reading.

This Ancient Heart: Landscape, Ancestor, Self

Published by Moon Books

Edited by Paul Davies and Caitlín Matthews it contains contributions from Penny Billington (Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids); Dr. Jenny Blain (Former Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Sheffield Hallam); Paul Davies (Quaker, Independent Druid) Introduction and Editor; Prof. Camelia Elias. (Roskilde University); Prof. Graham Harvey (Reader in Religious Studies OU) Foreword; Sarah Hollingham MSc res. (Geographer, Quaker & Mother); Prof. Ronald Hutton (University of Bristol) Afterword; David Loxley (Chief of Ancient Druid Order); Caitlin Matthews (Teacher and author) Joint Editor; Emma Restall Orr (Author); Philip Shallcrass (Chief of British Druid Order); Prof. Robert Wallis (University of Richmond, London); Dr. Luzie U. Wingen (Quantitative Geneticist at the John Innes Centre)