Celtic Tree Divination

apple tree card
Some years ago, I was given a gift of a book and card set about the Celtic tree oracle and the ancient beliefs about certain trees which could be used to see into the future.

In the Celtic Ogham, also known as the tree alphabet, each letter embodies the spirit of a tree or plant.

I don’t profess any consistent ability to do divination (the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means), but I have been known to use runes or cards. I have found that their “answers” offer an opportunity to consider possibilities – often ones that I would not have considered on my own.

Ogham (in Modern Irish or in Old Irish: ogam) is an Early Medieval alphabet used primarily to write the early Irish language dating back to the 4th to 6th centuries AD) and later into Old Irish language. Ogam alphabet is the Celtic equivalent of the runes and seen as a way to teach, rather than tell, us about our future. You do a cast of the cards/runes and their order and position tells a story.

It possible that the Irish scholars or druids who created the alphabet might have done so a way to pass on political, military or religious communications secretly. At the time we believe it was created, the Roman Empire ruled over southern Britain, and was a threat to Ireland.

Druidic mythology contains this 1,500-year-old oracle which uses the symbolism of the “tree letters” and their “magical” properties, characteristics and folklore.

As a boy, I felt a connection to a big apple tree that was in our backyard. I climbed it, sat in its shade to read, and ate the apples that came from it. It didn’t surprise me that the apple tree has many associations in different belief systems. I wrote about that earlier.

The apple represents the light half of the year, from May 2 until the end of October. My birthday is in late October.

Drawing the Quert (apple) card signals a choice that you need to make and commit to following. The Major Arcana card in tarot, The Lovers, correlates with Quert in divination and it is also about struggling with choices. Our immediate association with The Lovers is romantic and the choice might be romantic but not necessarily so.


When I used the tree cards recently, the holly card caught my attention. There is a large holly right outside my window. Holly is considered the male counterpart to the female Ivy. The evergreen holly tree, or “holy tree,” has thorny, prickly leaves and red berries that represent suffering, but taken with the other cards I cast, the holly can predict a fresh start, or time of renewal. A reunion also lies ahead. This almost post-pandemic time suggests a number of reunions and I also have a big high school one ahead of me.

I remember that when we planted it, it came with a little booklet that said that as a protective herb, it was believed to guard against lightning, poison, and evil spirits.

This “Tree of Sacrifice,” called Ilex as the eighth month of the Celtic Tree calendar (July 8 – August 4) is the eighth consonant of the Ogham alphabet (Tinne).

Three of the beliefs associated with holly relate to dreams – another topic I pay a lot of attention to. Dreaming of holly means you should be mindful of what is troubling you, and picking holly in your dreams means you will have a long life. If you want your dreams to come true (which can be a dangerous wish), you are supposed to silently collect nine holly leaves after midnight, on a Friday, and wrap them in a white cloth using nine knots to tie the ends together. Place this beneath your pillow and your dreams will come true.

If you want to learn more and try some divination yourself, a second book on my shelf is Ogam: The Celtic Oracle of the Trees: Understanding, Casting, and Interpreting the Ancient Druidic Alphabet which is a practical (not scholarly) guide to the ancient oracle.

There Is No Objective Reality

quantum leve
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I came across an article online while I was reading in bed last night. It’s not the kind of thing you want to be thinking about as you fall asleep. The headline was that “a quantum experiment suggests there’s no such thing as objective reality.”

The physics of this is far beyond me but it doesn’t mean there is no reality. Despite all the silly questions I was asked to consider i undergraduate philosophy classes, reality is right in front of your face. Just look up from this screen. See it?

Physicists have been considering the idea of objective reality since quantum mechanics became a big deal. They are not as concerned with what you see before you as they are with things at a quantum level. They have supposed that two observers can experience different, conflicting realities at the same time.

Of course, you observe a different reality from other observers all the time. Just watch the news or look at your Facebook feed. But scientists have just performed the first experiment that proves it. Or proves something.

A keyword in that headline is “suggests.” They say that the experiment produces an “unambiguous result.” There are a number of assumptions at play here: universal facts actually exist and that observers can agree on them; observers have the freedom to make whatever observations they want; choices one observer makes do not influence the choices other observers make. Those three assumptions are valid IF there is an objective reality that everyone can agree on,

This new experiment suggests that objective reality does not exist which would mean that at least one of those assumptions is not valid. Which one(s) might it be?

I don’t know that I believe that there is a reality we can all agree on, and I don’t have a lot of faith in our freedom of choice. The third assumption (which physicists call locality) is something I also question. Therefore, I don’t seem to believe in objective reality.  That can keep you up at night.

Occam’s and Other Razors

William of Ockham.png
William of Ockham CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

I was explaining recently to someone a reference in the program The Undoing to Occam’s razor. It’s a pretty well-known problem-solving principle, sometimes called the principle or law of parsimony. It states that simpler explanations are more likely to be correct and that you should avoid unnecessary or improbable assumptions.

But why a “razor”?  The principle is attributed to William of Ockham (or Occam), an English Franciscan friar, scholastic philosopher, and theologian, who is believed to have been born in Ockham. But the principle had nothing to do with his shaving habits.

In philosophy, a razor is a principle or rule of thumb that allows one to eliminate (“shave off”) unlikely explanations for a phenomenon, or avoid unnecessary actions.

There are several other razors or razor-like principles that you hear referenced or applied less often.

Paul Grice, a philosopher of language, also has a razor principle of parsimony. Parsimony refers to the quality of economy or frugality in the use of resources. For linguistic explanations, conversational implications are to be preferred over semantic context. This gets more complicated than Occam’s Razor. Grice worked in pragmatics, a subfield of linguistics and semiotics that studies how context contributes to meaning.

I am a fan of the simpler Hanlon’s razor: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Hitchens’s razor seems appropriate to much in the news the past decade: What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Hume’s Guillotine is a larger and more complex razor: What ought to be cannot be deduced from what is. “If the cause, assigned for any effect, be not sufficient to produce it, we must either reject that cause or add to it such qualities as will give it a just proportion to the effect.” Hume’s law or Hume’s guillotine is the thesis that, if a reasoner only has access to non-moral and non-evaluative factual premises, the reasoner cannot logically infer the truth of moral statements.  This is also less-interestingly called the is-ought problem.

The Sagan Standard is a neologism abbreviating the aphorism that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” It is named after Carl Sagan who used that exact phrase on his television program Cosmos, though he was not the first to state it. It illustrates a core principle of the scientific method and of skepticism.

Karl Popper’s falsifiability principle: comes from the philosophy of science. For a theory to be considered scientific, it must be falsifiable. For example, the statement “All swans are white” is falsifiable because “Here is a black swan” contradicts it. That seems clear. But what about “All men are mortal”? It is not falsifiable because, unlike a swan being black, a man being immortal is not an inter-subjective property—there is no shared procedure to systematically conclude to immortality. You can think about that one for a bit.

The exciting Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword (I’m not making up these names.), states that “If something cannot be settled by experiment or observation, then it is not worthy of debate.” It is also known by the less exciting name of Alder’s Razor.


The Christopher Marlowe Murder Mystery

Two things I learned about the playwright Christopher Marlowe in school that I remember was that he might have written some (or all?) of Shakespeare’s plays and that he was killed in a tavern brawl.
He died on May 30, 1593. There was a fight in a London tavern and Marlowe was stabbed in the eye after a dispute over the bill. That I will never forget. He was 29 years old. He is best known for the plays Hero and Leander, Tamburlaine the Great, Edward the Second and especially The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.
There are plenty of mysteries about authors of that time, especially Mr. Shakespeare. The records just don’t exist. tab, no less. I don’t think it is really a mystery about the authorship of Will’s plays, though much has been written and conjectured about their authorship. I am of the belief that he wrote them but that he may have collaborated with other writers on some, but his name on them guaranteed an audience. If Will was alive in this or the last century, I’m sure he would have gotten into writing for movies and TV and attached his name to projects or adaptations.
It turns out that there is some mystery about the circumstances of Marlowe’s death. One theory is that he was assassinated under orders from Queen Elizabeth I because he was a very public atheist. Marlowe was out on bail when he was killed and if he had gone through an inquisition there was a good chance he would have been executed. You may have learned that Shakespeare was careful about writing or saying if he was a Protestant or Catholic in order to not offend, to get his plays approved by the court, and to protect his life.  The Queen gave orders to silence Marlowe and “prosecute it to the full,” and she pardoned Marlowe’s murderer, Ingram Frizer, a month later.
Young, handsome Christopher “Kit” Marlowe had his enemies. Friend of Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, was supposedly worried about being implicated if there was an inquisition of Marlowe, so he would have liked to have him out of way before that time.
Marlowe’s former roommate was Thomas Kyd. Kyd was also a playwright, the author of The Spanish Tragedy, and an important name in Elizabethan drama. Like Marlowe, Kyd’s plays were overshadowed by Shakespeare’s works. Kyd is sometimes credited with a play titled Hamlet that was written and performed before Shakespeare’s version. About a month before Marlowe’s death, Kyd had been arrested and tortured for his connection with Marlowe. Kyd died a year later at the age of 35 unknown and in debt.
But if I ever write my Marlowe murder mystery for the page or screen, I might use that theory, but the more interesting plot is that Marlowe actually faked his own death.
There are some who believe(d) that Kit faked his death and fled the country to avoid his impending inquisition. Once he was safe outside London or out of England, Marlowe would have continued writing and sending his works back to England to be performed. They would need to be attributed to someone else.
Two weeks after Marlowe’s inquest, the first piece of writing to appear under the name William Shakespeare was published. Shakespeare was very likely influenced by Marlowe’s plays as he was the popular writer of the time and Will’s early plays seem more like Marlowe’s writing. Was Will the name on the script while he was learning to write on his own?
I once pitched my story idea to a Shakespeare professor and he said there was a book out there that also followed that idea. I did some digging and found The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber. She points out that Shakespeare was rather fascinated with characters who were thought to be dead.
There are 33 characters who appear in 18 of his plays that are mistakenly believed to be dead for some part of the story, including some deliberately staged deaths and three faked deaths done to avoid real death.
I guess I’ll have to collaborate with Ros… or I might just work on my other literary murder mystery about the death of Edgar Allen Poe. We are still not certain what happened to him on those final days – and Poe had such an interesting life before that. I’m surprised no one has made a bio film on him already.

This post originally appeared on my Poets Online blog

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There. That is a great title. And good advice. It is the title of a non-fiction book about conducting your own mindfulness retreat.

It is difficult to define a mindfulness retreat because different people and groups define it differently. You’ll see the term meditation retreat or even yoga retreat used interchangeably.

A search online will turn up retreats at various centers that are very different from what Sylvia Boorstein’s book is suggesting. One web post on the “best retreats” at well-known retreat centers offers mindfulness retreats where you can experience anything from Pranayama breathing lessons along with stress-management classes, facials, massages, and private yoga sessions. The center nearest to me offers two-night single cabin room accommodation packages with three meals a day, an arctic plunge pool, mud lounge, Scotch hoses (huh?), infinity pool, and services such as acupuncture and life coaching. The menu is not Spartan and includes fresh, raw, organic foods, juices, and smoothies as well as Mediterranean cuisine but also hamburgers and tater tots. Most of these “best” retreats are around $1000 for a weekend. That alone would cause me stress.

Sylvia Boorstein’s approach is a much more down-to-earth guide. The book guides you through a three-day retreat plan and also includes lessons on how to achieve through meditation practices some serenity and focus.

An important caveat is that you need a 3-5 day stretch where it will be possible to step away from your life. You need the time and a place, but the time is more important and possibly harder to obtain.

This rainy Memorial Day 3-day time would have been a good choice for some people, but it takes planning. For me, I had a variety of things on the calendar. None of those things were recreational or meditative. There were scheduled good things (meeting friends; an art gallery talk), obligations (dealing with my older sister in a nursing home), and the unexpected (a burned-out condensate pump on our air conditioner that flooded the basement). Life intrudes on Life.

Boorstein says that any place will do, but I think most of us would like something out in nature – the mountain cabin or the ocean beach – but a backyard works too. Solitude is important. Being distracted by people, including a partner who is not retreating or kids, will not work.

Other than that, you don’t need much besides the book. Maybe a mat or blanket and a chair or bench. Even those are optional if you’re good with sitting on the ground. You need to eat and drink but maybe this is the time to go with water and wise, minimal, healthy food too.

I was attracted to Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There by that unexpected title. It also reminded me of the first time I did some serious meditation days. My wife asked me what I was supposed to do. I said, “Just sit and empty my mind.” She replied, sarcastically, “You should be great at that.”

Of course, it is not easy. What seems to most people to be “not doing anything” is actually doing something quite difficult. Try to stop thinking. It is probably impossible, but you can get closer with practice.

This kind of practice and retreat doesn’t have to be attached to philosophy or programs, though it often is associated with one. I began my mediation practices in college because I met a girl who said she was a “Zen Buddhist” and I wanted to get closer to her. I became more attached to the practice than her. I drifted away from regular practice and being in a group after college. I reentered it in a more serious way when I met a man who is an American Jesuit priest, professor of theology, psychoanalyst, and Zen rĹŤshi in the White Plum lineage.

Retreats, even if labeled Buddhist, are usually open to persons of all religious and non-religious affiliations. Weejend or weeklong retreats I have attended usually mix zazen (seated meditation in half-hour plus periods), kinhin (walking meditation, my favorite), chanting, dharma talks, and daisan (one on one interviews with a teacher), and beginners instruction. Sometimes they are silent. Sometimes they involve work at the center.

Though religion and philosophy do not have to be part of the retreat or your intention, my second serious reentry into meditation and mindfulness came when I went to talk by Robert Kennedy. His talk was, and his book Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit is, about the intersection of Zen Buddhism and Christianity.  Kennedy says that “What I looked for in Zen was not a new faith, but a new way of being Catholic that grew out of my own lived experience and would not be blown away by authority or by changing theological fashion.” He would say that God is in the Zendo.

For a time I attended his zendo sessions as they were not far from my home. But I have never been a good group member and organizations, membership, facilities, and fees all feel wrong to me.

And so, Sylvia Boorstein‘s book seemed right for me. In some ways, she is like Roshi Kennedy. Boorstein is a respected teacher of Buddhist Insight Meditation and has also remained an observant Jew.  One of her other books is That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist where she writes about how she resolved these two aspects of her life in a complementary way.

The lesson from both of these teachers is that mindfulness and even Buddhism do not replace your religious beliefs or is it a way to convert you. I haven’t come across any atheist retreat centers but they probably exist. Certainly, completely non-denominational retreats are available.

In Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There, she writes:

"I've noticed license plate frames that say "I'd rather be sailing" or "I'd rather be bowling." Sometimes I think it's fun to see the rather-be-doing frames because they are a hint about the driver. Other times I start reflecting about the fact that preferring to be doing something else always diminishes the present moment. I imagine starting a business that produces license plate frames that read "I'm totally content right now."

I attempted Boorstein’s retreat once before when my wife was away for a few days. I did it at home and I was too distracted. If I do it again, I really do need to “get away.” The basic schedule is to arrive, sit, walk, sit, tea, sleep, etc.

The book is intended to be read in sections with some time taken to reflect. My first reading of it was a sit-down-in-a-chair with my tea reading, not a retreat. Of course, armchair mindfulness is not the intention., but you could also do that.

Mindfulness cultivates the habit of being able to deal with life when things aren’t happening in the way we’d like. Mindfulness instruction is deceptively simple: pay attention. That is attentive sitting and alert walking. You can be in the moment when you’re weeding the garden or shoveling the snow. The practice becomes a part of your everyday life – not unconsciously, but consciously.

I doubt that he was a Buddhist or meditator, but Paul Revere had the words “Live Contented” inscribed on the wedding ring he gave to his spouse.

I took some ideas from the book that seem like little lessons, aphorisms, or koans.

Feel all of your body.
Slow is not better than fast, it’s just different.
Nothing is worth thinking about does not mean that Nothing is worth thinking about
There are no in-between times. 
Eat slowly. Taste it fully
Consider the interconnectedness of all things.
Discomfort comes from clinging to an experience that can’t continue. Discomfort also comes from wanting an experience to end before it is over. When clinging and aversion are absent, you experience freedom.

Morning Star Zendo (Robert Kennedy)

Don’t Acquire a Crab in a Bucket Mentality

If you catch one crab and put it in a bucket, it will keep trying to crawl out of the bucket. If there are several crabs in the bucket, their behavior changes. You can leave a bunch of crabs in a bucket unattended and they won’t escape. Any crab that tries to escape will be dragged back down by the others.

This sounds counterintuitive and certainly self-sabotaging. The behavior is known as crab mentality.

Shore crabs in a bucket

Why does this crabs in a bucket mentality exist? It is thought that since the bucket is not the crabs’ natural environment, they are responding as they would in shallow ocean pools and on slippery rocks where they cling to each other in order to survive waves and tides and not be washed out to sea.

So, while any one of the crabs could escape the bucket, the others will undermine its efforts as a survival response, but thereby ensure the group’s collective demise.

The reason this odd behavior has been studied and written about is often that it is compared to human behavior. It’s not that humans end up in buckets but there are instances when members of a group attempt to reduce the self-confidence of any member who achieves success beyond the others. In that case, it is not a survival instinct but envy, resentment, spite, conspiracy, or competitive feelings that makes the group keep the one down.

I find the crab behavior interesting. I find the human version annoying.