23 March 2012

Sacred Space Helps My Novel.

From the 2012 program. (c) Sacred Space
Hello, all. Here's a recap of my many adventures at Sacred Space, and as expected, this will be another HUGE write-up.

As I mentioned before in an earlier post, Sacred Space is an interfaith, esoteric conference. It was the first con I ever attended whose focus was on spirituality, healing, and all things of arcane, mystic goodness. To give you an idea of what kind of conference this is, this year's theme was "Metaphysics, Mysticism, Magick."

I didn't really approach my attendance of the conference as a practitioner of these things, but more like a student. Although I think the expectation existed that many attendees are practitioners and intermediary students of these subjects, so the panels went into some pretty heavy stuff and a lot of my peers seemed to have no problem keeping up.

Me--again, total noob. Anything I didn't understand I let wholeheartedly fly over my head, and only took notes on the things I thought would help me.

Yes, I had ulterior, authorial motives for the conference!  Let me explain via an older post:

I write fantasy... And as any reader of fantasy knows, magic is an integral part of the genre. There's certainly magic in my novel, and there's a lot of influence from Buddhism, Daoism, Hermeticism, Roma folklore and folk-life, and alchemy... these are real things. As in, things that exist in history, and things that are still practiced by a living population to this day. It's my burden as an author to understand these things, and to "get it right," even if I make my own alterations to them to suit the purpose of my story. Since Sacred Space addresses both history and current practice of esoteric beliefs, I'll get a lot of great information I hope will make my novel feel true to my readers.

I was pretty excited about all of the fun things I had to learn, and kept hoping for inspiration and an epiphany of some kind to shoot my brain into overdrive so suddenly I would be able to pump out a good chunk of my novel, The Name and the Key, in record time.

Yeah, right.

I actually had a novel deadline occur during the convention, and although I diligently locked myself in the hotel room every night to work on it, my brain was too overloaded and slipped out of my ears. Everything I wrote was disjointed, distracted, and kind of...bad. I ended up asking for an extension the day it was due and my benevolent mentor allowed it, thank goodness, because...

I came down with the dreaded Con Crud. Being stressed didn't help so much, either.

I wanted to attend about seven different events at Sacred Space 2012 but with my energy depleted I didn't see as much as I'd liked. I also worked a few volunteer shifts at the Author's Desk and Registration Desk to knock the price of my admission down, which cut out some opportunities for attending panels; but really, that wasn't that big of a deal. It was the first time I worked a Con as a volunteer, and not only did it save me money, but it really was easy work and a great way to help out and meet other people, including published authors and scholars. I highly recommend volunteering at Cons when you can; it proved to be a worthwhile endeavor and I'll keep doing it when I have the chance to.

OK, so aside from a slew of things derailing my Con plans (and homework plans), I did go to some good panels, bought some pretty shiny things, and gathered a lot of info that will help me with my book... 


First official day of the Con--got to meet special guest John Michael Greer and his lovely wife Sara one-on-one because we picked them up from the train station. Both are very charismatic, fun, intelligent and witty people and it was neat to ride with them to the conference.

After unpacking and getting settled in the hotel, I took the first of many naps and then was able to witness the last few seconds of the Opening Ritual/Ceremony, which had migrated into the front hallway, and consisted of a healthy-sized group of attendees walking up and down it, singing. Got a nice and overwhelmingly positive vibe from all of it, even though it was the first time I'd seen something exactly like it. Although, it kind of reminded me of church when I was little, when in the summertime we'd have the Lutheran service up on Mt. Jeez once a year as a special event. A very natural, free type of spiritual moment.

As the attendees paraded down the hall,  Caroline Kenner popped up and sprayed me and Lonely Coyote with some drops of water shaken from a fan--I can only assume this was a playful, drive-by blessing. :) Anyhow, as soon as they finished I followed Lonely Coyote and Caroline into the Howard Conference room to observe a Shamanic Healing Ceremony. 

There had to have been at least twenty or more of us in this room, and we all sat in a big circle of chairs lined up against the walls. Caroline and Lonely Coyote performed the ceremony themselves, which was pretty impressive between the two of them. Everyone who attended got a healing; no one was turned away.

This was actually my second shamanic healing ever, and it always fascinates me whenever I attend. I was introduced to this practice through a couple family members who study it and whose belief systems lean more towards Paganism and similar hermetic/esoteric faiths. So I've attended these events not only out of sheer curiosity and interest but also in support of my family who have dedicated themselves to these beliefs.

Both of my shamanic healings have been performed by Caroline Kenner, who really is a leader in the field (and founder of Gryphon's Grove School of Shamanism). A major component to shamanic healing is calling on a spiritual helper, which often assumes the form of an animal.

Shamans also train themselves to picture things a certain way (or at least be open to visions), and often something will manifest visually to indicate an issue or an area on which the shaman should focus when they work on healing someone. But the whole process is very personal and individual to each healer, which means each shaman can see things very differently. The "helper" that appears can manifest as an animal, but the "problem" can also visually manifest in this way as well. Or not be an animal at all, but a color, or a texture, or....pretty much anything goes.

So it was really interesting not only learning about what Caroline saw during my healing (a sea anemone stabbing me near my heart--kinda freaky!), but to watch and observe everybody else's healing to see what animals appeared and how the shamans interpreted their ailments and issues.

And of course I took lots of notes on this. I've mentioned before that my book, The Name and the Key, is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, so I was very interested in observing the interpretations and explanations for what specific animals symbolize. I'm still trying to figure out what animalistic qualities to attribute to my character Andresh, who is in fact demonically possessed by a creature that is a physical manifestation of Desire itself. Whoa.

Historically, the Beast was often depicted with qualities of a Boar, a Gargoyle, or just a plain-old demon-looking thing, and then at some point, probably when fairy tales started getting tweaked for children, the Beast started getting more commonly depicted as a Lion-like creature. Lions are fierce and equated with nobility, which very clearly speaks to the idea that the human cursed to be the beast is a Prince. Though the lion is a wild animal, the fact that it's so noble, regal, and king-like kind of diminishes the uncontrollable, unpredictable ferociousness that represents the beastly side.

A boar is more closely aligned to ferocity, strength, sexual power...very much primal, innate characteristics. The Boar is a closer representative of what a beastly nature is (versus what human nature is).
Beauty & the Beast by Walter Crane, 1874.

The fun thing about Beauty and the Beast is that the Beast himself is never wholly one animal, but an amalgamation of animals with a specific one dominating the others visually. So I could play around with a ton of different animals and their symbolism to create something that points solidly towards what I think most represents unadulterated desire. It's a fun yet somewhat scary task I have before me, so I thought taking notes on animals that came up during the healing would help me generate ideas for what Andresh's beast-demon will look like. I'm still working on it.


Started the day with the educational panel I wanted to attend it the most: "The Alchemical Self," presented by Lyratah Barrett of New Seed Sanctuary.
I've been curious about alchemy for a very long time, and always wanted to incorporate it into my writing. One of my first novel attempts, The Clockwork Prince, had alchemy as its magic system. Then, after falling in love with the Fullmetal Alchemist franchise, my interest in alchemy was renewed. Since I halted work on The Clockwork Prince to begin my thesis, that same love of alchemy trickled into The Name and the Key.
The system of magic that my leaf character Andresh performs, which I call Shadow, is based on aspects of psychological and laboratory alchemy. Also, The Twelve Paths of Prince Aravind, a sub-story in The Name and the Key, is inspired by alchemy (the process itself, and the Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine and The Twelve Gates of George Ripley). 
Azoth by alchemist Basil Valentine, 1659.
Everything you need to know about alchemy is in this picture. 
Have fun with that.
Lyratah's panel focused a lot on how you can use concepts of alchemy to improve yourself...you are your own Great Work, you know! But it still served as a solid introduction to alchemy on the whole, and although some of the topic was familiar to me, I still learned some things I didn't know before.

Afterward I was introduced to someone who asked me if I was familiar with alchemy, and I did a quick one-two punch summary of some of the stuff I knew. I didn't run into this person again for the rest of the conference, which was a bummer because I'm sure we would've had a neat conversation, but, he felt inclined to give me a present: CINNABAR! As in, a nice-sized hulk of a rock with several cinnabar crystals embedded in the dolomite. He'd given it to Lonely Coyote to pass onto me, and in the study of alchemy, Cinnabar is a HUGE DEAL (it's actually referred to as the Alchemist's Stone), so it was really awesome that he just randomly gave it to me.

Cinnabar is a purplish-blood-red stone, and historically in the East, was thought to be a stone that could single-handedly be transmuted into gold. Hmm... a blood-red stone that could transmute into gold...sounds an awful lot like the... PHILOSOPHER'S STONE! 

A stranger gave me Cinnabar!
Yep. Total stranger gave me a rock that was historically interpreted for a very long time to be one of many representations of the coveted stone, the object of the Magnum Opus itself.

Cinnabar is actually mercury sulphide, and those who possessed Cinnabar believed it could be transmuted to gold  because mercury was one of the three substances, or Tria Prima, that composed all matter. Alchemists (specifically Paracelsus) believed matter was salt, sulfur, and mercury, and therefore the building blocks of all things (they also represented body, soul, and spirit).

Sometimes these substances were also treated as the Prima Materia, or "the first matter," the building blocks of the universe. Because mercury was a sacred substance, it was believed that sacred substances could be transformed into gold, the purest substance of all. But, alchemy never gave anybody a straight answer ever, and definitions and interpretations of these things still vary widely even today.

What I do know about Cinnabar is that although it can be interpreted as representing a Philosopher's Stone, technically it wouldn't be the Philosopher's Stone because that stone transmutes ANY metal into gold, while Cinnabar only (supposedly) transmutes mercury into gold. Also, Cinnabar was rumored to grant long life, but not immortality, which was the ultimate purpose of the Philosopher's Stone.

Ironically, because Cinnabar contains mercury, it is actually a toxic substance. So the many who consumed the mercury from Cinnabar, believing it would grant long life, killed themselves in the process.

In alchemy, lessons are learned the hardest of ways.


...After lunch I attended my second and final panel of the conference, called "The Triple Shadow: The Shadow of the Lower, Middle, and Higher Self," presented by Ivo Dominguez, Jr. My primary reason for attending was to understand Shadow and all its related concepts, because in my novel, Andresh utilizes the magic of Shadow to try and elude the Beast that chases him.

This is how I interpret Shadow for my novel:

Ink in Water 
Visually, any person who uses Shadow Magic becomes very inky, smoky, transparent--essentially a shade, or almost like a ghost. During the process, the body blackens before shifting into its white, vaporous form. This visual transformation is inspired by the sublimation phase in laboratory alchemy as described in Ripley's Eighth Gate. The substance being treated for transmutation into the philosopher's stone will turn black before it changes to white.

Physically, when Shadow Magic is "activated", the body is performing sublimation, which in chemistry, is a phase transition that skips a step...the solid passes into the gaseous stage, bypassing the liquid stage entirely.

In alchemy, sublimation is the process of "making the body spiritual," and then "the spirit corporeal" (from the Twelve Gates of George Ripley, The Compound of Alchymy, 1591; translated for modern readers by Adam McLean). Essentially sublimation is an act of deconstruction and reconstruction. Therefore the performer of Shadow Magic is deconstructing his physical form, reconstructing it as a gaseous/vaporous form, and then, if he continues the process literally and alchemically, deconstructs the vaporous form to return it to a corporeal, physical stage once again.  This third stage, according to Ripley, is a cleansing stage--a better, refined version of the "filthy original."

Shadow magic is risky business. In order to "walk worlds" and traverse various realms, you must be in Shadow to do so. And the process of deconstructing and reconstructing--transmuting yourself from solid to vapor--is extremely painful. I observed footage of dry ice undergoing sublimation phase transition and tried to visualize what it would be like if a human body was capable of undergoing the same process, and I imagined Andresh using his magic to absorb the heat of all things within his physical vicinity to start the transformation (because sublimation is an endothermic phase transition).

Think of it this way...he's burning his own body before he can even deconstruct it. So the process itself is horrible. What's even scarier is that the third stage, where Andresh reconstructs himself back from the spirit into the body, is supposed to leave him in a "purer" stage than what he was when he first started the magic. When you purify something, you are in truth removing something. What does Andresh lose every time he's forced to use this magic?

Psychologically, if we look at theories by Carl Jung (who, by the way, studied alchemy),  Shadow represents part of the psyche. It's the unconscious mind, and represents the more primal, innate parts of our beings. Shadow represents the things about us that we simply are incapable of describing--these would be the abstract parts of ourselves, the inherent knowledge we possess, our instincts. Jung would argue that it's the part of ourselves that we continually repress.

Because of these descriptions, and basically our common perceptions and connotations, Shadow is almost always perceived as bad, and Shadow is always represented as a force of evil.

In The Name and the Key, the Beast that pursues Andresh and later possesses him, comes from the Realm of Shadow. The Beast represents an aspect of the shadow parts of ourselves. It is made of pure unadulterated desire, and it is a primal, innate piece of each of us.

The Beast is the Guardian of the Black Gate, which represents the stage of alchemy called Nigredo ("the blackening"). Nigredo is decomposition, and decomposition can also be viewed, in a way, as deconstruction. It is the first step in the creation of the philosopher's stone (therefore the first step to achieving immortality). What's interesting about alchemy is that steps repeat themselves in the process, so similarities with the First Step (decomposition) exist within the Eighth Step (sublimation), which also has its own blackening stage. The First and Eighth steps are almost the same.

Psychologically, Nigredo is the stage known as "The Long Dark Night of the Soul." It is the crisis and point in which an individual confronts his own Shadow.

So...when Andresh comes to the Black Gate for the first time, he sees the Beast for the first time and is terrified of it. He refuses payment to cross the Black Gate, which is to feed the Beast his own desires. But when you enter the shadow realm in order to cross the Gates, there's no turning back. You can't retreat, and you can't stay still, you can only move forward. But Andresh doesn't understand the nature of the Beast, and therefore the nature of his desire, which dwells in his own Shadow. Andresh interprets (as many people do) the Shadow to be primitive, dark, evil, and frightening.

In the Triple Shadow panel at Sacred Space, Ivo definitely had some things to say about the common perceptions of Shadow (paraphrased from the notes I took in his class):

Nosferatu has a scary shadow!
"Shadow is profound and indescribable [...] it is motivated by outcome [...] and often Shadow is portrayed as frightening instead of beautiful, but what is frightening to you may be exactly the thing you need.

"You cannot transform Shadow into something else--it's the worst thing you can do. And if you don't allow your Shadow to get what it needs, it will manifest in unpleasant ways in order to achieve its outcome."

So far, this describes my Beast and Andresh's plight down to the letter. But I got some additional epiphanies as well from Ivo that really made me analyze what I'm trying to say to my readers when dealing with things like the Shadow self, and beauty, and the nature of desire.

When I think of what Andresh does to his body when he uses Shadow magic, I can also think of it metaphorically...Andresh deconstructs, transmutes, and reconstructs. Andresh breaks himself down, builds himself as something else, returns himself to his original state, minus the parts of himself that got siphoned off in the process--his third state, by alchemical definition would be a "purer" state, but what does that mean, really?

Alchemy may be the art of deconstruction, reconstruction, and transmutation, but alchemy is really all about purification--the ultimate goal is perfection. Who is perfect? God. What is the nature of God? Immortality, Knowledge, Sight, Truth.

But should perfection be the real goal? Should it be anyone's goal?

What's so lovingly confusing about alchemy is that God can be interpreted as The One. But in alchemy, the One and the All are the same. As above, so below...so...we are all made of the same things, we all are of the same materials, we are all the universe, and matter, and Man, and God, simultaneously.

If we are already contain God within us, would we in fact already be perfect beings?

Ivo did bring up alchemy in his discussion of the Triple Shadow, and mentioned that although alchemy is a fantastic, complex, and wonderful art with many truths within it, he questioned its pursuit of perfection, especially in matters of rectifying the Light and Dark parts of ourselves:

"The goal is not perfection, but reunion with the Source. You must find all of your pieces and reintegrate them in order to reunite with the Source. Reintegration requires you to be in communion with every part of yourself."

What's the Source? If I were an alchemist, I'd say it's the One and All. Maybe it would be easier to call the Source God. Or, the Universe.

Or a vague, faceless outline composed of both SHADOW and LIGHT.  ...Nice job, Fullmetal Alchemist!!!

This is the TRUTH, and when you meet it at the Gate (aka God's Domain), it happily tells you: 
"I am God. I am the World. The Universe. The One. The All. And I'm also...YOU."

The reintegration of the self that is required to reunite with the Source would be reconciliation between Light and Dark parts of the selves...not separation or transmutation.
Ivo ended the class on this very important note: "Purity is not the goal. It is WHOLENESS."

This really got my brain working on the "moral of my story." In my novel, Andresh Camomescro pursues purity and perfection. That is the goal of his Long Walk. But Andresh misses the point in every way you can possibly imagine. He flees the Beast, he flees his shadow. Every time he sublimates (and therefore "purifies"), he loses part of himself in the process.  The only way for him to succeed is to reintegrate, to become whole; to embrace the Beast.

Lily's own story crosses over Andresh's several times. She doesn't pursue perfection and purity, but in order for her to overcome her demons, she has to confront her own desires as well--not just her feelings for Andresh, but her desire for closure over her mother's tragic death. In order to help Andresh actualize his Shadow (the Beast) and reintegrate, Lily needs to understand her own Shadow. And meet the Shadow head-on in its own realm, face-to-face. She must become whole and reintegrate as well, but it means something very different for her than what it means for Andresh.

Wow. Epiphany reached. Moral of story solidified! And honestly, I think some of this stuff is what my friends (like, ahem,  Drew!) have been trying to tell me anyway, in their own special little ways.

Anyhow, after Ivo's "Triple Shadow" class ended, I headed back to the hotel room to do some work. I came up for air to help set up the ballroom for the evening's "New Orleans Conjure Dance," but as soon as I was done with setup, I headed back upstairs and skipped out on the festivities to decompress and try to do more work.


I don't remember much of Saturday except that this was the day I got ridiculously sick. Nausea, vomiting, cramps, weakness, exhaustion...you name it and I had it. I luckily was able to get some of my volunteer shifts rescheduled so I could lay down, and Lonely Coyote was sweet enough to handle some of my shifts. When I came downstairs to work later, everybody told me essentially that I looked like shit. One of the vendor tables told me that I looked gray. So Lonely Coyote said, "I will watch your shift some more, get thee to the healing room!" Everybody who saw how craptastic I was told me to go to Niall Sheehan and get acupuncture done, and that it would help me relax and feel better.

I'd never had acupuncture done before. I was nervous, but more about getting sick while there or being unable to relax...I wasn't worried about being stabbed with needles because as a perpetually ill and medicated person, I get my blood drawn all the time so I was used to it.

The whole thing was really fascinating. I couldn't calm down and relax because my brain kept hopping around observing everything and trying to analyze a lot of it...and I tried to figure out how to assimilate some of my experience into parts of my novel (which did in fact happen).

There's a lot of naysayers about alternative medicine, but conveniently, articles validating acupuncture have been popping up all over as a legitimate healthcare treatment. Just a couple days ago I found a write-up about how acupuncture is not full of crap and Huffington Post shared an article about acupuncture and its real benefits. Acupuncture's existed for thousands of years, and even though it may intertwine the metaphysical and physical, it's been proven as a beneficial health treatment. To directly pull from Huffington Post:

We know it works, we just don't know why," Dr. Leena Mathew, an attending physician in Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center told [The Atlantic]. "It's very hard to translate into Western language.

I'm gonna try it anyway. This is what I know...we all posses qi (pronounced "chee") which can be interpreted as life and energy; its force and flow. Acupuncture seeks to regulate qi by providing balance in the body through pathways called "meridians," and acupuncture needles are placed at specific locations (corresponding to different areas and organs in the body) to reapportion qi via these pathways.

What was really interesting was that Niall, who performed my acupuncture, observed that  a lot of my qi had congregated to my head, which depleted qi from other areas of my body. He gestured towards my heart, which happened to be exactly where Caroline spotted issues during my shamanic healing. Nice coincidence, huh?

Niall's observation has some logic to it. My qi flowed to my head because that's where I need the energy, as a graduate student but more importantly as a writer. I essentially live in my head all the time to do the work I need to do, but this time it just wiped me out. So Niall set about appropriating my qi so I wouldn't feel so depleted.
Diagram of acupuncture points
and meridians from the Ming Dynasty.

I had needles placed at my wrists, near my ankles, on my chest, but many of them were placed inside and on my ears. Oh, and one where my "Third Eye" would be.  I'm still looking up what a lot of this means, so no answers here, sorry. Anyway, none of the needles hurt, and when the needles were removed the only thing that bled a lot was inside my left ear. Bleeding isn't really a common occurrence during acupuncture, but if it happens, it usually means that it's just another way to help regulate the flow of qi through the bloodstream.

The point is, I felt better. When I came back to work the rest of my shift, everyone said I looked much, much better. And I was feeling good enough to slap on my kimono to attend the dance with Lonely Coyote and a very special guest, Jennifer Della Zanna, a fellow writer, SHUmate, and Troublemaker. She happened to live like 20 minutes away from the conference, and I almost cancelled on her but I was well enough to see her for a while and she attended the "dance" with me. She was the only person who could tie my Obi for me...and the moral of the story is No, in fact, you cannot slap on a kimono.

It was a great way to end the evening. Jen and I hung out for a bit. But not for too long because we both had writing to do, but it was really refreshing to see her and to be honest, out of all the Troublemakers, I feel like she and I run into a lot of similar things during our writing process because we also have similar writing styles. We're both pretty sure we won't be graduating on time 'cause our books are taking us forever to write. But when they're done, WATCH OUT!

Overall I had a great time during Sacred Space. Lots of lessons learned on this trip; and I'm glad I could share them with you.

Now back to school, and back to writing.


  1. This post makes me stupidly excited about your book. Hey, maybe you and Jen will graduate with me! :D

  2. Yay and yay!

    It sounds like you ironed out some of the big wrinkles behind the book, and that's always a great help in the writing, I find. And that one quote about reintegrating the parts of yourself? TOTALLY applies to my novel, too, in two different but overlapping ways, and it blew my mind a little. So thank you!

    About the crystal: I used to do a lot of crystal work, and one of the first things you learn is that crystals have weird little minds of their owns, and sometimes with a total stranger is where that crystal wants to be. You just received crystal-knowledge! Yay!


  3. JENN: HOORAY for excitement! Now I just need to get my act together and get the thing done.

    SAMI: Hooray that you got a mind-blowing moment. As for crystals--my sister works with them and said something very similar, that the crystal wanted to be with me. Preeeetty cool!


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