It's longer than I care to remember since I first started to study these techniques in detail, and almost ten years since I started to write them up for the web. The Flowing Well is basically done and dusted and I stand by all of it, but in the time since, a lot more relevant neuroscience has reached publications aimed at the lay reader. I've been trying to write this up more explicitly for the Madeleine material, in particular looking at the work of Lewis-Williams, Murphy, Newberg, and Persinger, who have all conducted experiments that go a long way towards explaining why the techniques work on a physiological basis. This piece of work is a fairly light-hearted offshoot from that effort, so there's only enough neuroscience here to make it intelligible, but if you're a glutton for punishment, the detail is in the companion piece, Elfheart
The lovers have driven out to the Bell, convenient for an approach to the glade and its tiny spring. In the well-kept lavatories they have changed into matching sweatshirts and jogging-bottoms. The shirts carry matching lantern transfers and the clothing, reserved solely for ritual work, is freshly laundered and carries the hint of a citrus and frankincense incense that they have used in the preparation for this ritual. Beneath the soft fabrics they are naked. The ritual has begun.
The pair walk to the bar and buy two small glasses of wine, which they sip reflectively, allowing the ritual head of steam, of arousal and of acceptance of arousal, to build up gradually. The sympathetic landlord is aware that something is happening, but doesn't ask: the lovers and their friends have been using the Bell in this way for thirty years or so. He probably wouldn't even be shocked if he knew the details for tonight.
My use of ritual clothing that is 'special' but doesn't look too out of place in public dates back many years. I added the lantern symbol later and used the combination for platonic sex-magic rituals in a couple of special places (the hidden garden from the Flowing Well and the upstairs gallery) that are 'real' but where explicit sex-magic would frighten the horses. It works because the change of clothing, coupled with the knowledge that one's partner is naked underneath generate a sense of ritual time and space even in a busy pub, whereas the lantern symbol can be charged up in explicit sex-magic rituals in private, so that it cuts in in the ritual time and space that I refer to as MirrorSpace. A number of friends and a few strangers have told me they've tried the techniques and found them useful.
Once the MirrorSpace has built up fully in their heads they leave the bar, locking their everyday clothes into the car and walking out through a small gate and across some fields. This will be their first visit to the glade: a friend found the well in an antiquarian document and checked both accessibility and suitability so that the location would be 'fresh', a surprise with no past experiences, good or bad, to distract the couple. Tonight's experiences can then be used to feed back into their work in private and to build on for further visits
Walking companionably together, they visualise each other's divinity, arousal becoming almost unbearable as their clothing slides over their bodies, building the tension that they will tap for the ritual. They have built their imagery of each other over a period of a few weeks, at times simply embracing at the conclusion of the meditation, at others finishing with ritual intercourse, until they can hold the imagery through orgasm before returning the raised power to the cosmos. They reach the glade and stand in the dark for a few moments, listening to the gurgling spring water, before finding a flat area and placing a small battery lantern on the ground. It gives out a gentle green light, emphasising the comfortable enclosure by highlighting leaves and branches. The symbolism is complete.
By this point their surroundings matter very little, but in fact the place is perfect. The clearing is perhaps fifteen feet across, soft grass beneath their feet with the ground rising steeply before them, spring water emerging from the ground and disappearing with soft gurgles through some soft round stones that have obviously been placed there specially. They remove their shoes and walk reverently across the grass, scooping up water for each other to drink before anointing foreheads and feet. Somewhere above the well the branches rustle, almost un-noticed as the pair embrace, slowing and matching their breathing, bodies touching from chest to knee, and after a few minutes they sit close. There is no rush as they prepare for the final act: the lantern will last about an hour.
Experience shows that the technique of consciously using arousal to build a sense of ritual within which to visualise the divinity of one's partner works well, but why? When I started to write 'The Flowing Well', we just accepted that it did, but a better understanding of the neuroscience behind the effect is useful because it allows us to build more reliable rituals. So, taking work by Newberg and D'Aquili and by Todd Murphy together, here's my best layman's guess. It's not the same guess I would have made ten, or twenty years ago, but it fits current neuroscience.
Meditation, whether using a verbal or a symbolic technique, generates changes in brain activity in the temporal and pre-frontal lobes. Amongst other things these have an effect on the self/other model held within the brain, generating a 'one with everything' feeling that's reinforced, when one uses a partner as a meditation symbol, by images from the left hemisphere of the brain becoming available to the more rational and linguistic right hemisphere. This can generate intense spiritual experiences that last a short time, but also feelings of romantic love of much longer duration. Here we're blurring the line between the two, but the fact that the experiences appear to be related may explain the often-repeated advice that such techniques work best for couples in a committed relationship. It may not be a question of moral disapproval after all.
Finally, it is time. The lovers sit, entwined, then slowly, gently, move together, their soft clothing moving easily to accommodate their joining. Embracing comfortably, their breathing slows further, still synchronised. Barely moving, they sense, rather than feel, each other's presence, the divinity within them linking them to the spirit of the earth, the spirit of this place, as the whole world contracts around them until only this place, this time, remains. The maelstrom washes around them as they become one with each other and with the glade. There is no turning back as the power builds within them, almost excruciatingly slowly, building further every time they feel they can hold no more. Again, there is a rustle in the branches but now they have no thought for anything but their oneness an the power building within them. Training and practice allow them to maintain their slow, fully attuned breathing even as the dam finally breaks, controlling the supernova and directing the power to the good of this place and all that surrounds them. Utterly spent, they remain still, joined, as they gradually become aware of each other, of the gentle light, of the glade and of the gurgling spring. Then there is no room for any emotion other than surprise.
Why bother with the ritual clothing when ritual nudity would work equally well? There are three reasons. One is to do with the ritual space, in that the clothing functions as a trigger in the same way as the lantern. For work like this, building triggers in groups is usually the best technique. The other two are practical. Firstly, England in Autumn can be a pretty cold place and sitting still for extended periods doesn't help matters. Given the effect that the ritual has when it works, it would be only too easy to miss the symptoms of onset hypothermia Secondly, no matter how secluded your location, there's always the risk of someone blundering across you, as a couple who are now firm friends discovered when they accidentally featured in one of my ultra-low-light digital photographs. For some rituals, such as Delores Ashcroft-Nowicki's Moon-Cup, the frisson of possible taboo-breaking adds to the effect. In this case it detracts and the added security of being able to cover up quickly is the correct frame of mind. But there's more neuroscience to come, so why not cut to the chase?
As full consciousness returns, the couple become aware of someone watching them, just out of view. Slightly reluctantly, they part and, after arranging their clothing, look around. Another couple are standing by the spring, holding hands. They are naked, one clearly male, the other, though almost androgynous, equally clearly female. Their skin and fair hair have a faint green cast that is not simply the glow from the lantern. They show no shock or embarrassment and the feeling is infectious
They dip their hands into the spring and use dipped hands to hold water for each other to drink before anointing foreheads and feet in a familiar gesture. It is far too late for the Lovers to be worried that they have been observed from the outset. so they watch in faint astonishment as the male kneels and kisses the female's feet, knees, abdomen, breasts and finally lips.
'All who reverence the spring and who return power to the glade are welcome.' says the female, in completely unaccented English. The couple watch as the male stands and the female continues 'I am Ancalime and this is Eaandur. You are welcome to join our celebrations this night. Come, follow'. They turn and it appears that they walk straight into the embankment.
The Lovers shrug and follow, experiencing a momentary disorientation before finding themselves in a moss-lines cave lit with green candles in niches. around the sides of the cave are seated couples, all naked, faintly androgynous and uniformly beautiful. Ancalime leads them across to one of the couples, who disengage from each other and smile.
It transpires that the 'sensed presence' effect, of absolutely knowing that someone else is with you, is closely related to the manipulation of the self/other model and of right/left hemisphere interaction, those elements we were manipulating by projecting an image of divinity onto our partner during meditation. From a related work with entoptics, Lewis-Williams has generated an elaborate theory of three-stage shamanic trance based upon studies of the French painted caves. Most researchers feel that he is running ahead of the evidence, but most agree that the initiation of shamanic trance is signalled by experience of flying, of breathing under water or, most commonly, of passing through a membrane into a hill or rock.
Reducing this type of thing to neuroscience hasn't made me universally popular. Some people find the notion threatening, but I prefer to give due respect to science. Besides, as I've said before, there's no reason why knowing how to make coloured glass should diminish the beauty of a stained glass window.
'Strangers, you arrive welcome and will leave as friends. Come, take mead, take cakes, be seated and join our revels, for soon Tanu will extinguish the lights.' Eaandur takes one of the cakes and breaks it in half, dipping each half into a large bowl of mead before passing them to the Lovers. The mead is honey sweet but strangely refreshing, a perfect accompaniment to the salted shortbread cakes. He dips a smaller bowl into the mead, places some more cakes on a wooden platter and leads the couple to a place, next to Ancalime, that was obviously prepared for them in advance. They feel out of place in their clothes, so they remove them, fold them neatly and sit naked on the soft moss. They hold the mead for each other to drink, feed each other the cakes and, taking their lead from the others, begin to caress each other gently. There is a gentle breeze and the room begins to darken.
'The Lady is here' says Ancalime gently and in the deepening gloom the Lovers can just discern that the embraces next to them have become more intimate. So, they join once more, revelling in each other and feeling the power build. There is no pressure and soon even the knowledge that those around them are also sharing in the experience of total love is banished, the world contracts and now all in the cave are fully divine. All are part of the divine one and She is a part of each of them. The time stretches to eternity and the power of love stirs up like water in the spring, until finally a gentle peal of laughter spills a little over the edge and everything overflows at once. There is a brief sense of the power gurgling like water into the stones, followed by an immense sense of relief.
Several people have reported seeing unbidden companions in working through the Flowing Well, and the experience is even more common if you're open to it rather than, as one, correspondent commented 'telling it to go away, and finding that it did'. To quote Jung, 'Vocatus atque non vocatus, deus aderit'. Or in this case the Goddess. The celebration in the cave may be familiar as the Benevento from Leland's 'Aradia'. The authenticity of 'Aradia' is not an issue here, the symbolism is so well known that it might spring unbidden to anyone familiar with the work.
'Thank you for joining your power with us' says Ancalime, and the lovers bring themselves back to the present. 'We know you must leave now' she continues, 'but now that you know the way, you may return to join in our pleasure at any time'.
The Lovers simply bow. Eaandur leads them towards the cave wall and suddenly out into the glade. He turns, raises a hand in farewell and walks back. It should be dawn, but the lantern is still burning, illuminating their sweatshirts and trousers.
'What...?' but the other mimes silence with a finger to lips.
'There will be time later. For now, I don't know were the power went, but it's certainly gone, so I suggest a final drink before we drive home.' They walk in silence, then retrieve their clothes from the car and walk to the bar. The barman dispenses two more small glasses with a nod as if they had never left. The crisp dryness dispels the lingering taste of mead and they retreat to change back, ending the ritual. Each finds traces of moss on their skin as they change back into their underwear.
Since I've been doing geographic clues in the Madeleine stuff, here goes. The Bell exists, although I've changed its name at the request of the current incumbent, and I'd like to thank both Mike and his predecessors Chris and Jan for their help, sympathy and understanding over about thirty years - you know which Mike, Chris and Jan you are, or will if I point out that one punctuation mark in this paragraph is not an Oxford Comma. The glade and the spring also exist, although I've taken liberties with the route from the pub.
So, are the elves real? Well, one final thought from the neuroscientists is that our experience of the 'real' world is mediated by our brain's interpretation of sensory inputs, that the 'experience' of the world around us is contained within the self/other model of the brain. So, before rushing to conclusions, begin by asking yourself what you mean by the question.