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“Spirit is the life that itself cuts life.” This Nietzchean statement puzzles and challenges. What might a spirituality that cuts life -- rather than just skimming over its surface ­-- look like?

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Isa: Breaking the Psychic Ice

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• Isa •

Old English Rune Poem
Is (Ice) is over-cold, extremely slippery;
It glistens glass-clear, most like gems;
It is a floor wrought by frost, fair to look upon

Old Icelandic Rune Poem
Iss (Ice) is a river’s bark
And a wave’s thatch
And doomed men’s downfall

Old Norse Rune Poem
Iss (Ice) is called a bridge broad;
The blind need to be led

~ Rune poem translations by Sweyn Plowright

The rune poems refer to the surface of a frozen river – cold, clear, shining even. Beautiful, but treacherous. The thatch of the waves finds its meaning in its brittle fragility. That is, it finds its meaning in what lies beneath: the still-living waters that rush turbulently below.

By drawing our attention to the surface gleam of our experience, Isa shelters that which lies beneath. It does not directly mention or address the wild dynamism that flows under its static veneer; but this seems almost by design. After all, the hidden, the inner, the secret, the mysterious, does not like to be called out explicitly. It must be coaxed, invited, given succor.

Transparently – pun intended – this suggests a psychological metaphor. The seeming surface, the wild and complex depths. The contrast of conscious and unconscious. The two in a symbiotic interplay of revealed and concealed.

Consider how we see ourselves and how we perceive others. If I observe my inner experience I find it filled with competing voices, differing beliefs, fleeting emotions, intentions in conflict’s embrace. I find chaos, a chaos ordered only by the current of time’s fluid passage. I find a history of beliefs, behaviors, actions, a whole psychic heritage.

Yet when I observe another person, perhaps someone unknown to me, it hard to see their own inner richness, their psychic flux. I do not know their history, which colors the meaning of everything they encounter. I do not know how their actions and beliefs are informed by their experiences, their personal narratives. I do not see the beautiful chaos that typifies human consciousness, because it is almost invisible.

And therefore it is easy for me to judge another. I can find simple explanations for anything that another does. If they confound, anger, bewilder, or frustrate me, it is easy to project whatever arbitrary story I like. Thus the criminal is just a bad egg; the do-gooder is a hypocrite; young people just have no moral fiber; old people just won’t move with the times; people whose politics are different to mine are just ignorant or fanatics. And so on.

We see how easy it is then to draw the treacherous, simple gloss of Isa over the surface of those we encounter. We forget that they are just as complex, rich, and full of life as we are. We forget that there is always, always, more to their stories than we can see at first glance. Or second glance. Or, sometimes, ten-thousandth glance.

And so we must break the ice. We must break the ice and allow our waters to mingle. To be sure, this means: we must embrace the threat of fear, the threat of pain. We must release our tightness and soften. We must become vulnerable. We must melt. In this way only can we learn to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. Some people might call this empathy.

What is to be gained from testing and breaking the ice in this fashion? We are granted access to whole other worlds of experience. To wisdoms we could never have imagined. We loosen the armor of our habitual patterns. We provoke our brains to grow and activate. We are given new life and passion.

All of these comments are, naturally enough, relevant to more than just our human relationships and interactions. I can learn to break the ice with animals, plants, the earth, the sky, the waters, the stars. To recognize my nature as one among many. “No man is an island,” said Mr Donne. I am woven from an infinitely complex tapestry, and even as my individual essence emerges from that tapestry, it simultaneously subsides back into the whole.

This tension is not a paradox, but a dynamic play of forces. It is beautiful and enigmatic and resists the hard-edged definition that shallow consciousness likes to project, the simplistic and the dismissive. Isa points to the roof above the waves, the floor of frost that spans the ordered chaos beneath. It is a metaphor for all sensory experience. When we invite ourselves to look through it, we are restored to a richness of experience that we did not even realize we had been missing.

I mentioned that the oblivious surface of ice shelters the mystery that lies beneath. Our tendency to leap to shallow, lazy conclusions about the world is not, therefore, a curse, but a blessing. For without our ice-blindness, there would be no provocation to go beyond, to feel our way into the depths that lie below. Ice’s treachery is ultimately conspiring to help us.

There is one final twist in this coiling current of ice-sheltered thought. For how often do we treat ourselves as just another simplistic object? Do we write ourselves off in a hail of one-sided negativity? Do we allow ourselves to repeat and believe the barren, icy mischief that others have projected upon us? If Isa impels us to question the habit of objectifying the things we encounter…then its first injunction is that we learn to stop objectifying ourselves.

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I have always been drawn to things mysterious. I am some kind of Heathen, fascinated by the cultures and mythologies of my ancestors ­ (and beyond, too). Deeply in love with the process of healing and its facilitation. A pretender to all manner of thrones, be they runic, music, chaotic, or philosophical. An Antipodean expatriate.

I have a few strings to my well-worn bow. I offer rune readings online via I co-edit Hex Magazine. I play music ­ sometimes folky, sometimes heavy, often times both. I write and dream. I live for traditional cuisine and food-made-from-scratch. I have two goals in life: to think lightly and to do the next right thing. Sometimes I feel the heavy hand of Woden tapping on my shoulder.


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