Beltane is a deeply misunderstood holiday, from the horror of “The Wicker Man” to Jonathan Coulton’s humorous “First of May,” to the sexy pictures of scantily clad humans spinning fire at the festival in Scotland, it would be easy to view Beltane as nothing but random sex with strangers outdoors around a campfire, a holiday dedicated to lust and hedonism and the baser of our human needs and instincts. And that would be a mistake.
It’s hard to miss the fact that the dominant culture in the United States has deeply ingrained contradictions and inconsistencies around reproduction, sex, and love. Women are at once supposed to be sexy and inviting desire, but if we actually give into it or enjoy it with too much relish, we’re sluts. Men are supposed to be strong and virile, but miss out on the opportunity to enjoy real intimacy because they are discouraged from seeking a real understanding of how emotions work. In general we’re supposed to keep sexuality out of polite company. It’s considered too much, too raw, too lewd for regular conversation, and should be treated as dirty. Couples are encouraged to be each others’ everything, even though it is both practically difficult and somewhat unfair to ask any one person to be responsible for meeting all their physical and emotional needs for the rest of their lives. We tell women they should aspire to motherhood, even judge them harshly when they don’t make children their whole lives, but when women do choose to have children, we provide very little in the way of support for mothers in the task of raising their kids. Men are supposed to want to have sex with every woman they can, but if that sex has consequences, or negative repercussions, the woman will be left on her own to manage them. This is the tip of the iceberg — I haven’t even scratched the surface of the messed up opinions that happen when we move past heterosexual relationships between cis-gendered people. We could have a very long discussion about why we’re all so messed up about this, but that’s another topic for another time.
What’s important here and now for our purposes is that if outsiders misunderstand Beltane, it’s in large part because the dominant culture of the United States has a demonstrably difficult relationship with sex, pleasure and reproduction on a more general basis. Our constrained social norms make everything about these topics rife with misunderstandings, lack of authenticity and destructive power games. With all the missing of each other on so many levels in so many ways, it’s a miracle anyone ever manages to get together and have real, loving relationships. And the fact that they do is a testament to the resilience of our humanity.
Fertility, the principle that lies at the heart of Beltane, is about so much more than sex. It is the quickening of the soil, the moment that the ground becomes ripe for planting, and when birds and beasts begin reproducing in earnest. There are more flowers, and pollen begins dropping from the trees, which as everyone knows, is also all about reproduction. As the temperature starts to rise and the days lengthen, there is more sunshine and that warms our hearts and bodies and makes us more of everything. The energy of sex is there in part, to foster the creation of something greater than the sum of its parts.
Fertility in the creative world is that moment when an idea is formed, and creative energy is applied, and the idea starts to come to life. It’s that moment when energy begins to move more easily in a conversation, between two people, and the work begins to happen more quickly. This is sometimes called a “flow state.” Groups that achieve a state of flow are able to achieve better results, faster. There are all kinds of theorists, researchers and consultants who make careers out of helping people and groups in workplaces around the world achieve this storied “flow state.”
I learned about flow state on a 35 foot racing yacht on the Great Lakes during a weekend regatta. One of the basic rules of sailboat racing is that if a boat makes contact with a racecourse marker, they have to do penalty turns equivalent to two full rotations around the mark before they can continue. The maneuver is called a “720” and it’s one of the most difficult feats of boat handling a crew can undertake. It requires a series of very fast tacks that must be executed in quick enough succession to get around the marker twice. The real trick is to do it without losing serious boat speed. On a boat of that size, it requires the sail trimmers and the helmsman to move the jib from one side of the boat to the other smoothly and quickly repeatedly. On this day, the other sail trimmer and I were able to work with flawless timing, losing only a few tenths of boat speed through each tack because we had brilliant flow. The feeling of connectedness, of being in a moment of perfect synchronization, was palpable, and the rush that I felt working in tandem with the other crew member was amazing.
I grew as a sailboat racer that day. It felt good to work that way. This is flow. This is the energy of Beltane.
The reason that the flow energy of Beltane is often associated with sex is because good sex is flow energy. Good sex, meaning not just sex that feels good, but sex that is healthy, and good for us, is marked by that sensation of being perfectly in sync, of being connected, and sharing a physical, mental and emotional experience that brings the participants joy. It’s sex that creates more — more connection, more intimacy, more fun, more pleasure, more confidence, and sometimes even more people. This is the kind of sex that we deeply crave as humans, and all the social constraints around sex and love in American society seem systematically designed to thwart. All good relationships, even ones that don’t have sex as a component, will at times channel flow energy.
One of the most important aspects of flow is that it is completely absorbing. When one is in a state of flow, it takes all of your attention, and you feel yourself inhabiting completely the space and time that you are in. Your body, mind and emotions are not just in sync with the other people you are flowing with, but you yourself are perfectly integrated. People who are in a state of flow often report that everything else seems to disappear except the task at hand and the connection to the people that they are with. It is easy to remain in the present moment — unconcerned with the past and without anticipation of the future. One can give over unselfconsciously to the experience as it unfolds, and the experience becomes richer and more satisfying as a result.
Beltane isn’t Ostara. It’s not the point of germination. Nor is it the height of summer when the crops are high and the sun boldly gleams down upon the land. It’s the beginning of the flow of creative energy, the part of the cycle when it is time to get into the rhythm of things, on with the business of growing, living, and eventually, dying.
Being in the flow of things is a precious state because it is hard to maintain in a modern world that increasingly asks us to multi-task, that deals in perpetual distraction and bids for attention. Achieving flow state requires both time and space that is protected from the vicissitudes of everything else. It’s no wonder then, that it’s a holiday. Because holidays, literally holy days, are there to make that sacred space and time that lends itself to jettisoning the endless mundane stream of doings and allows us to focus on our raw being. And for Beltane, that is in fact the essence of the moment, the “reason for the season” if you will.
So this Beltane, whatever your flavor of celebration, whether it is a moment of sexual intimacy, or a moment around a fire dancing, or a moment where you simply plug into the natural world and feel the ground now pulsing with energy, focus on finding and feeling the flow. Enjoy that precious, heightened state of being when you can really feel the rising energy that comes from being on point and in sync with everything around you.
Feel that rush, and use it to grow.