Autumn is a good time to cultivate imaginal capabilities. The earth is turning inward, the extroverted character of the summer is fading away, and what felt in September like a loss of vitality is becoming a reminder of how delicious it is to cook up warm things on a cold day – and how lively and rich the interior life is as the exterior starts to become simpler.
In my personal tree calendar, the tree for the period between the autumn equinox and November 1 is the mountain ash, also known as the rowan tree. While it’s not native to the Pacific Northwest, there are number of fine specimens in my neighborhood. Their bright red berries appear in mid-summer and stay on the trees for a long, long time.
The rowan is a magical tree in Western European tradition (you can read more about that here). Unlike a lot of the trees on my list, my relationship with the tree itself is colored by these overtones of human invention, and the workings of imaginations other than mine. I’m probably too suspicious of that, but it’s getting clearer that I much prefer crazy ideas that I come up with on my own.
Here’s one crazy idea that I got from another web source: cut a single rowan berry in quarters and steep it in hot water to “greatly increase second sight”. Although I normally use a drum to go into trance and do shamanic journeying, and stay away from psychoactive drugs, I concluded that ingesting a cup of water in which I had soaked a single berry from a plant that can be used to make marmalade would be pretty safe. I’ve done this little experiment a couple of times, and both times I must say that my visionary experiences while drumming (which is often fairly colorful and memorable) seemed a tick more vivid and meaningful than usual.
Based in part on these experiences, the chant I use with Rowan is:
O Rowan of the autumn
Teach me to see your visions
I have my own way of seeking visions, intimately bound up with the shamanic practice that has become my spiritual home. Visions are important for everyone, though they take many different forms. The Good Book reminds us of this: Proverbs 29:18 says “without a vision the people perish.”
It’s worth taking a pause here: Zen Buddhism is skeptical of visionary experience, since it is all about clarity of insight, waking up to the truth right here and now. The workings of the imagination are a little suspect in that context. But it is my conviction that when one approaches trance states (or any other vivid application of the imagination) with clear and positive intention, supported by a solid ethical framework, then the content that emerges serves to reinforce and support just such clear insight. The figures of Tibetan Buddhist deity yoga are considered to be embodiments of the paramitas (qualities like generosity, discipline, and patience). When one encounters them through the power of imagination the fruit of the experience is a deepening of one’s connection with these qualities. In the end it’s just a different way to get to the radiance of insight.
I’m very grateful that my shamanic training – both in formal workshops and the mentorship I’ve received since then – are keeping me quite focused about this. Though I often find myself traversing worlds of wonder, clear intentions and an ethical framework don’t allow me to get too confused.
During this season of the year, as darkness comes and we move toward All Hallows, I am calling on Rowan for help, not to provide me with entertaining and colorful fantasies, but rather memorable and lasting visions that lead to clarity of insight and ultimately to spiritual benefit for myself and others. That’s a pretty good use for the sacredness of imagination.