Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hawthorn and the Third Road

The Harvest Moon shines brightly as you wander through the mist to the Hawthorn on the ridge above the river bank.

In May her flowers seduced you with an otherworldly perfume, heavy with the scent of sex -- and death.

Now, in the last days of summer, she is heavy with fruit that bends toward the earth where it will break open and decay, leaving the seed to wait in darkness for sun and rain to return in spring.

The old stories tell us that when the world became overrun by men who wielded swords and cut the earth with iron ploughs, the people who taught our ancestors to sing the songs that called the fruit trees to blossom disappeared beneath the hills. At the gateways to their world they planted Hawthorns to tangle and repel the brutish and unwary, but nourish the hearts of those who grieved for lost worlds.

Thomas the Rhymer fell asleep beneath such a tree and woke to find the Queen of Elfland who showed him three roads he might travel -- each road corresponding to another way of being in the world:

"O see ye not that narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires."

The road to righteousness is the road laid out by the rules and laws of civilization -- rules that bind instinct with tangled thorns and briers that threaten to cut all who would deviate from the path. It is marked by the logical consciousness that is centered in the brain -- the consciousness that divides the world into categories that mark clear lines between what is right and true and acceptable and what is "beyond the pale." Its origins lie in the construction of the first walls that separated the city from the "wilderness" -- the name people gave to the living world around them when they began to forget they drew their life from it.

"And see not ye that braid braid road,
That lies across that lily leven?

That is the path to wickedness, Tho some call it the road to heaven."

The road of wickedness is the road of instinct uncoupled from any sense of consequence -- a sense that arose organically when people experienced themselves as inextricably woven into webs of human and ecological connection. With disconnection came alienation, and with alienation came unassuageable hunger and insatiable lust that rip and tear at the fabric of being. The road appears broad and easy because all sense of limitation is lost, it appears to lead to heaven because its the path of following unchecked desire, but it leads further and further from the source of being and life that offers the only true fulfillment of those desires.

Rather than bringing satiety, this path that disconnects us from the heart, brings agitation that can grow into panic as people desperately seek pleasure to take the edge off their feeling of emptiness, and as each moment of pleasure fades find themselves feeling the emptiness more acutely, more frantically seeking to stave off the gnawing feeling inside them. The true destination of this path is the realm of the hungry ghosts who have mouths but no stomachs and so eat and eat but are never full.

"And see not ye that bonny road,
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae."

The third road -- leading from the Hawthorn -- is the path of the heart. Its a path that leads to a wilder place, a place outside all ideas and judgements of right and wrong, good and evil, a place beyond and beneath and before the stories of guilt, fear, and shame we all carry. A place of wild innocence, where you can re-member your connection to the world around you, and your desires arise from your response to its unspeakable beauty.

The Chinese traditionally taught that the heart is an earthen vessel that holds the Shen -- the individual spirit.

When the heart becomes agitated, the Shen becomes disturbed -- leading to restlessness, anxiety, and insomnia.

Hawthorn nourishes and calms the heart, helping to settle the Shen. At the same time, her thorns offer protection from those who would harm you. Calm and protected, you can breathe into the center of your chest, opening to the core of your being.

Standing in that stillness and openness, the third road opens to you -- leading you deep within where you come into contact with the part of you that remains connected with All Things and experience pure ecstasy.

Thomas followed that road and disappeared from civilization for seven years. He returned with the blessing and the curse of the "tongue that could not lie." He was no longer able to participate in the lies of politics and commerce that are necessary to operate within he framework of society. But he was also no longer able to lie to himself, no longer able to deny his own beauty and power. The luminosity of the other world shone from his eyes. Its music flowed from his lips.

Tonight the Queen of Elfland stands again beneath the Hawthorn. She points to three roads.

Which one will you choose?


Deep gratitude to Paul Bergner, Stephen Harrod Buhner, and Karina B. Heart for their teachings about the heart, which inform and infuse these words.

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