The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Taking up the Path of the Bard III: Practice makes Perfect February 4, 2018

“You have so much talent” or “I’m not talented enough” are powerful statements, statements I hear on a regular basis from those who long for a creative practice. The idea of talent can cause an incredible amount of inaction, of people not feeling they are “good enough” to even try.  I see this, in particular, with the visual arts. But the first time you put pen to paper, if you aren’t Picasso or Monet, you might as well forget about it. This larger cultural ideal, of course, seems at odds with the druid tradition where Eisteddfod and the channeling of Awen are central to our spiritual life. In the druid tradition, creativity isn’t about producing something of commercial value or high quality, its about the channeling of creativity for spiritual purposes. But for those coming out of mainstream Western culture with all of the cultural baggage, this can be difficult to institute such a mindset shift.

 

As I mentioned in my post last week, the reason I took the last few weeks off of blogging was so that I could turn my attention to another project–doing the analysis and writing the paper for the OBOD’s 19th Mt. Haemus lecture. My work in the mundane world is as a professor and a learning researcher; I study how people learn, develop over time, and transfer/adapt that learning to a wide variety of circumstances.  And so, understanding bardic development as a learning process is tied to some of that broader research I’ve been doing for a long time. Over the last five months, I conducted an empirical study of the bardic arts in the druid tradition, surveying 266 druids from 9 countries as well doing in-depth interviews 14 participants at different points in their bardic development. I talked to people about their bardic arts, their successes, their struggles, and gained a deep understanding of what the bardic arts do–and can do–for us as a spiritual practice.  The results were heartening, uplifting, and amazing.  The study itself will be published by OBOD on Beltane 2018 (and I’ll share a link on the blog when it is posted) so I’m not going to talk too much about it here.  However, I did want to share a specific piece of the study, almost a prequel if you will, and talk more about the bardic arts from a developmental perspective.

 

You’ve Got Talent!

In the process of doing this research and just over time in in sharing my own visual art, it seems clear that words alone are not enough to encourage people to break through the “talent” barrier and create, even for those who long for such a creative/bardic practice. In the last few weeks, I have had conversations with people about the study, and multiple conversations go something like this:

 

Friend: Dana, you are so talented! You should sell your work!

Me: Actually, I practice a lot.  I spend at least 10-15 hours in my art studio most weeks, and have done that for over 12 years.

Friend: I wish I had your talent!

Me: If you set your mind to it and devoted effort, you could make great strides and produce things you are happy with.

Friend: No, I’m not good at it.  I just couldn’t. I don’t know where to begin. 

Me: No, really, you could.  You just have to start somewhere and keep practicing. Take a class.  Come here, we can do art together.

Friend: It’s easy for you to say that because you are talented.

Me.: I haven’t always been this way. I have to work hard. 

Friend: I’ll never be talented like you.

Me: …

 

The problem with this conversation is at least twofold: first, the person assumes that because they aren’t “good” at something the first time they try it, they shouldn’t try at all. Yet, if we know one thing in educational research and human history, it is that humans have an incredible capacity to learn and adapt over time.  Denying oneself the opportunity to learn something new, grow, and learn a new skill is almost like denying that innovative and creative part of yourself that longs for expression. In fact, studies of human development in a variety of contexts (including some of my own exploring writers’ development over long periods of time) show that even people who aren’t “good” at all when they start can gain incredible amounts of proficiency and skill in the long run.  The key is taking the first steps on that path. The second challenge with this conversation, from my perspective, is that anything I say doesn’t make a difference because I am “talented.”  After several frustrating conversations just like this, and in seeing where some of my study participants struggled,  I realize that maybe the best way to address this issue isn’t in conversation, but rather, with actual physical evidence of an artist’s development over a period of time. And so, in the remainder of this post, I wanted to share a bit of my own bardic development.  I use myself as a model for a few reasons.  First, I am finding myself more and more often in a place where people talk about how I’m “very talented” and it “comes naturally” (incredibly ironic, given the rest of this post!)  Second, I think the only way for people to understand how real learning happens is to have good models, models not just of success, but also of how people worked through failure, so I’m hoping to provide one. The truth is, regardless of how much I love doing  art and the spiritual benefits it offers, I still have to work hard at it, and have worked hard at it for 12 years, and that counts for a lot more than any innate “talent” I may have had when I first picked up a paintbrush.  And I still have plenty of times where it doesn’t work out well, lots of “failures” and attempts that don’t pan out.

 

 

A Story of Bardic Development

When I was a child, I grew up in a family of artists; my parents were graphic designers, and that’s how they made their living. I made a lot of art as a child, but as a teenager starting to consider options for my future, I distanced myself from it.  To me, art was associated with not having enough, and I watched my parents struggle to make ends meet in a rust belt economy that was quickly seeing all of their clients leave the area.  Art, to me, was a thing I couldn’t do, something forbidden, some that would somehow pull me into that world of economic struggle.  Becuase I loved art so much, I felt I would get sucked into it, and end up loving it so much that I wouldn’t want to do anything else.  Circular logic, to be sure, but it prevented me from doing any art from about the age 15 to the age 25. When I decided to attend college and was trying to select a major, my parents asked me to do anything but be an artist. After one year as a miserable computer science student, I settled on Writing instead (which was another love of mine). But all through this time, I wouldn’t let myself near art supplies, I wouldn’t create, and I certainly wouldn’t think about art.

 

When I was 25, so many things in my world shifted.  I lost a dear friend to cancer, I found my spiritual path of druidry, and congruently, as part of my own bardic/spiritual practice, I began to seriously take up visual arts again: painting, primarily, but also a range of other art forms (jewelry, mixed media, bookbinding, etc).  Of course, I hadn’t practiced artwork in over a decade.  I didn’t have a style, I didn’t have a theme, I just knew that in my pain and sorrow, I wanted to do something creative.  I wanted to visualize it, to paint out the pain, so to speak, and so I bought some supplies and started painting.  I hadn’t practiced much, I wasn’t very good, and I had no idea what I was doing.

 

Example #1: Artist Trading Cards

Fairly quickly, I stumbled upon something called Artist Trading Cards (ATCs) which were great for my graduate student budget and time–they were little 2.5 x 3.5″ pieces of artwork that artists made and traded all over the world through various websites. I wasn’t very good at these and my first attempts were lackluster, but the community was super supportive (with no judgement) and I quickly realized how much I enjoyed creating these small works of art. After may failed attempts (which I didn’t photograph, unfortunately), I started trading them with people.  So in 2006-2008 or so, my mini works of art I was willing to trade and photograph looked a lot like this:

Attempt at Abstract art

Attempt at Abstract art, Circa 2006

Watercolor Tree 1 (Circa 2006)

Watercolor Tree 1, 2006

Watercolor Bonsai tree (Circa 2006)

Watercolor Bonsai tree, 2006

As I continued to paint hundreds of these cards, and challenge myself outside of my normal media, I started getting better. A lot better.  I took classes, I explored different media, I focused on the technical aspects of the craft. I watched a lot of YouTube to see how other artists went about their process. I took on challenges that I knew were too hard so that I’d get better even if I failed in the attempt.  I kept trying to hone my craft as an artist.  I started a “reject” box for all the art that I wasn’t happy with and didn’t want to trade; I saw that box as my “improvement” and “practice” box. As I improved, I developed a style, found tools and media that I really liked (a particular kind of paper, a particular brush, a particular paint) that I could rely on for effect.  And I improved:

Whimsical Tree, Circa 2010

Whimsical Tree, Circa 2010

Wintry Trees, Circa 2011

Wintry Trees, Circa 2011

Three trees, watercolor and ink, 2010

Three trees, watercolor and ink, 2010

I did these little pieces of art seriously for about 7 years.  In that time, I painted literally thousands of them.  I know this because each one I painted, I traded to another artist and I have a shelf of binders full of the pieces I received in return still in my art studio to this day.  Thousands and thousands of mini paintings on variety of subjects (but about half of them trees) will certainly help you improve.  Just recently, at the start of 2018, I completed some more ATCs as gifts for my interview participants in the Bardic Study.  My style and complexity have continued to improve, so here’s where I’m at with this same size  (and same paints/media/paper that I like):

 

Watercolor Awen Tree #1, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #1, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Watercolor Awen Tree #2, 2018

Practice and dedication to one’s art, over a period of time, produces results.  Is there something to be said for vision, for inspiration, and for “talent”?  Perhaps, but I don’t think any of that is what has gotten me to where I am today.  What got me here was a willingness to make mistakes, a willingness to try and attempt, a dedication to improving my skill, and a lot of hard work and determination.  What keeps me going are the intrinsic and spiritual benefits I gain from such a practice.

 

Example #2: Tarot of Trees and new Healing Plant Spirit Oracle

As a second example, which in some ways is much more drastic because it is at a larger size, we might look at the comparison between my self-published tarot deck, the Tarot of Trees and a new project I’m currently working on. The Tarot of Trees reflects my skill level between 2008-2009 after I had been painting a few years; my new project, the Healing Plant Spirit Oracle reflects my style in 2016-2018.  The Tarot of Trees really pushed my skills at the time and also helped me really establish not only my own artistic style, but also, the synthesis of the creative arts with my spirituality–a true bardic art.  I did these as sacred artwork, completing them in a sacred grove, painting, channeling the Awen.  And like any of my other paintings and projects, I had a few that didn’t end up in the deck and didn’t pan out, but that’s part of the process.  Here are two of my favorite cards from the Tarot of Trees:

The Empress, Tarot of Trees (2008)

The Empress, Tarot of Trees (2008)

The fool from the Tarot of Trees (2008)

The fool from the Tarot of Trees (2008)

My newest oracle project got underway in 2016–a series of plant spirit paintings, reflecting the spirit of healing plants.  I’ve been really, again, working on the synthesis between my technical skill and spiritual practices. To deepen my technical skill, particularly my drawing skill, I’ve been doing individualized drawing study and studying the work of other artists. I’ve also gotten regular expert feedback from artists on these pieces.  These plant spirit paintings are, once again, pushing me out of my comfort zone.  Here are a few of my favorite pieces from the series (which I hope to have complete by 2020):

Spirit of Goldenrod, 2016

Spirit of Goldenrod, 2016

Spirit of Poison Ivy, 2017

Spirit of Poison Ivy, 2017

Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016

Spirit of Blackberry/Bramble, 2016

Certainly there is magic here, but it lies not raw talent, but rather, the careful application of the skills I’ve honed to bring forth a particular vision combined with channeling the Awen that is flowing. Paintings like these don’t happen without considerable effort and work–I do a lot of meditation, journeying, sketching, and more to manifest them in the world. As evidence of this, here is a page from my sketchbook that shows just this for poison ivy (I worked on the sketches for this for several sittings before doing a larger sketch that led to the painting):

Poison Ivy sketch

Poison Ivy sketch

 

Concluding Thoughts

I think its easy to look at, see, or hear something beautiful and feel that the piece must have emerged out of the ether and is the result of some mystical talent. And yet, I’m a druid who channels Awen and even I don’t believe that. For every person I know who has considerable skill and expertise (notice how I’m avoiding the word “talent” here), I know that their work is a product of years of dedication to their craft. In fact,  think the most ironic thing about the whole “talent” challenge in modern society is that by ascribing to this idea of talent, it undermines the hard work that people who are dedicated to an art or craft take to hone their skill. By telling someone that they are talented, we reinforce the idea that it magically happens and you either have it or you don’t–and in my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  It disempowers the speaker, it disregards the effort of the person who has practiced, and it makes the bardic arts unattainable for many.  In truth, we all can improve, we all can become highly skilled, if we put the time into it.

 

So how do we do this?  My earlier pieces in this series, Taking up the Path of the Bard part I and Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part II, offered details and discussion of how we can begin to develop creative and spiritual practice in our own lives. I’ve talked about the bardic arts as a spiritual practice, the historical idea of honing skill, channeling the flow of Awen, and other kinds of rituals to help empower us as bards.  Hopefully, among all of these blog posts, you’ll find something of value!

 

Blessings upon your bardic journey and may the Awen flow within!

 

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An Ancestor Oracle Deck October 31, 2017

A part of my completed Ancestor Oracle (currently with 20+ cards)

A part of my completed Ancestor Oracle (currently with 20+ cards)

Samhain is here, and with it comes a time of reflection, casting away, and working with our ancestors. In my post several weeks ago, I discussed in great depth the ways of working with various kinds of ancestors–in this post, we’ll explore a bardic art  project project that you can make to work with your ancestors: an Ancestor Oracle. This was an idea birthed by a friend of mine and I on the drive back from the OBOD East Coast Gathering this year.  We spent hours in the car talking through all kinds of things, and one of the things that came up was a conversation about working with the ancestors–by the end of the conversation, we had both decided to construct an Ancestor Oracle in time for Samhain this year.  I thought others might also like to construct one of their own, and so, this post will tell you what this is about and how you might create one.

 

The basic concept of the Ancestor Oracle is simple: you generate a list of your ancestors (however you conceive of them): ancestors of blood, land, and tradition, those others whom you have loved and lost, human or otherwise.  Then, you either create a deck of cards (which this post describes), get printable blank cards or purchase a blank deck of cards.  Each ancestor or group of ancestors that you want to represent is giving their own card.  Each person’s ancestor oracle would, of course, be unique to that person.  The Oracle itself can be used in a number of different ways including divination, honoring ancestors, celebrating Samhain, and grieving lost loved ones.

 

Selecting Ancestors

Before you construct your deck, you will want to spend some time making a list of the ancestors you want to acknowledge.  Samhain is a particularly good time for this kind of work. For me, I included ancestors of blood, tradition, and land all within my deck. Some of them ended up as a group, like “The Ancient Druids” (because I don’t know their names) while others (like Iolo Morganwg, Ross Nichols, and Juliet Ashley–three important figures in my own druid heritage) were named specifically. I also included, of course, a range of loved ones and family members who have passed on. I found that this work took time–I had to compile my list, come back to it over a period of days and spend some time meditating upon it.

 

Doing this in advance is important to know: do you have 100 different ancestors you want to represent or just 20?  That will help you get a sense of what kind of supplies you need and how many cards you want to create. The Ancestor Oracle is, by definition, an evolving project (as I’ll discuss in the next section), so you’ll want more cards than you need at present.

 

Using your Ancestor Oracle

Once you’ve made your Ancestor Oracle, you can use it in a variety of ways. For one, an oracle is like any other divination system: you can seek wisdom and guidance from it as you would with the Tarot, Geomancy, and so forth. You might ask a question and draw a card, connecting with that ancestor and the advice or wisdom that they/he/she shared. If facing a difficult situation, you could draw a card and think about the kind of wisdom that particular ancestor might embody.

 

You can also use it for longer-term ancestor work. What I have been doing since creating mine two months ago is drawing a card each week to place on my altar–this shows me which ancestors I can attend to this week and what wisdom they share.  Given that this is the period of time where ancestor work is done, I think I will make this a yearly part of my own celebrations of this time: for the months of August, September and October, I draw a weekly card and work with that ancestor, leaving the card on my altar for the week.

 

A third way you can use the Ancestor Oracle is for an ancestor alter.  Now that we are at Samhain, I have laid out all of my cards on my main altar to honor my ancestors.  I will probably leave them there till Alban Arthan (Yule).  This altar the place where I do my daily meditations, Sphere of Protection, prayers, etc, so they are there and present with me.  Seeing the cards there, each day, has been a very profound experience and has really helped me to better connect with my various ancestors.  Especially the ones of my tradition, whose words and work I embody as a druid each day.

 

Front and back of my ancestor oracle

Front and back of my ancestor oracle

A final way I plan to use the ancestor oracle is with grief and remembrance. When I constructed my deck, I made many more cards than I currently have ancestors. The truth is that I have been looking for some additional ritualized way of grieving a lost relative or friend, and the ancestor oracle offers me this way.  When someone I know and love crosses over the veil and joins my other ancestors, as I go through the grieving process and come to a place of acceptance, I will add them to the ancestor oracle and honor them in a ritual way.  I feel very good about this use of the deck, and know it will be a powerful healing tool. I suspect that there are a lot of other possibilities for using an Ancestor Oracle–if you have any, please share!

Some Options for Creating Your Oracle

Now that we have some sense of what an Ancestor Oracle is and how you might use it, let’s get down to how you can create it. I recognize, of course, that not everyone has cultivated visual art skills, and so, some of you might be looking for a route that you can manage.  That said, there are a few routes you could go to make this deck.  Here are four such options:

 

Option 1:   The route I took and will describe in this post, is to break out the art supplies and make some kind of artistic deck.  Since I am a visual artist, I made a watercolor deck.  I’m going to show you how to do this method (instructions in the 2nd half of this post), and even if you have very little practice or skill at present, you can still make a deck that speaks to you using basic watercolor wash techniques that anyone can do.

 

Option 2: My friend ordered a set of ready made blank tarot cards and wrote the names of each of her ancestors on them–this is a wonderful idea.  You can write in a normal script or try something fancy.  You could also paint them with acrylics.  Even a chisel point pen, like that used for calligraphy, would give a nice touch.

 

Option 3: Another way you could make this deck is by printing out pictures or using a photo editor to actually visually represent the different ancestors.  Taking it to a local print shop and having it printed and cut wouldn’t be too expensive (or you can order blank printable cards to do at home). I would talk to the print shop about what they are capable of before you went this route. Or you could get the photos themselves and even cut them to size and adhere them to a playing card deck. The possibilities for using photos to make your oracle deck are numerous.

 

Option 4: You don’t have to make an oracle with cards; you could make it with objects.  Find one small object that represents each ancestor, put them in a nice cloth bag, and your oracle is born!

 

Option 5: You also could make your oracle out of something  other than cards: you could woodburn wooden rounds, you could carve wooden rounds, you could paint on rocks, create polymer disks, and so forth.  The sky is the limit!

Instructions to Create a Watercolor-Based Oracle

Now that I’ve covered the ways you might use this deck and what its overall purpose is, I’m going to walk you through a simple way that you can make your own beautiful ancestor oracle deck using watercolors.  No painting skill is required to create this deck (I promise!), but you will need some supplies.

Supplies

You should be able to get all of these supplies for under $30 or so of  at a local craft/art store or borrow from an artist friend:

  • 140 lb watercolor paper. The weight is important here–you want a weight to your finished cards.  Weight of less than 120 isn’t going to be thick enough.  Often, art supply stores sell single sheets of watercolor paper that are 22″ x 30″ in size for $3-$7–this is a great idea and is what I used for my deck. Otherwise, a watercolor pad will be fine.  Watercolor papers have different “tooth” or roughage; a more rough paper will give you more interesting textures than a smoother one.
  • Watercolors. Any watercolors, even a pan of children’s watercolors, will work for this. Having a variety of colors is helpful but even a few colors will work.  The colors will, of course, determine the final product.
  • Brushes. You will need a 1″ or larger brush as well as a smaller brush for lettering and splattering paint. Here’s a tip: professional artist paintbrushes can be kind of pricey–but if you go to where they sell house paint (like a home improvement store) they sell really nice brushes there for half the price.
  • Scissors, a box cutter, paper cutter, or X-acto blade to cut your cards out.
  • Pencil
  • Ruler
  • Paper towels or newspaper for your surface.  This is a messy project!
  • Jar of clean water for wetting your paints and cleaning your brush
  • Plate for mixing watercolor colors (optional but useful)
  • Chisel point/Calligrapher’s pen for writing names

 

Creating your Card Background

Now that you have your supplies, we are going to do this project in two steps. The first step is to create the background of the cards.  The background should be somewhat uniform.

 

First: Lay down some newspaper or paper towels on your surface.  For one, this is messy and for two, you don’t want too much paint getting on the other side of your paper.  I didn’t do this, but I was working on dedicated art studio space. Get your supplies ready to use.

Ready to paint

Ready to paint

Second: Now, you will need to decide a color combination for your deck.  I went with colors of the harvest–browns, oranges, yellows–the colors of fall leaves.  Because Samhain is a time of the ancestors, I wanted to embody the colors of this season here in my part of the world.

 

Third: Now, get your paints wet (assuming  you have dry pans of paint). If you are working with tubes, understand that wet watercolor in tubes is *super potent* and you will need only a little bit.

 

Fourth: Now, wet your full paper with water; getting it fairly saturated is a good idea.  Its OK if its a bit drippy.

 

Fifth: Layer a few colors onto the page, giving it a good amount of color (depending on how you want it to look).  The colors will likely run, and this is a good thing.  The paper may also bunch or curl a bit–this is ok (we didn’t stretch it).

First layers of color with Acorn Cat supervising

First layers of color with Acorn Cat supervising

Sixth: Now, here’s where time and chance come in.  Watercolors have a mind of their own, and they change and spread as they dry.  To make this background, you can take advantage of this. While the original base layer is still wet, get your smaller brush full of color, and hold it about 3-6″ over your paper.  Hit the brush to your other hand and the color will splatter nicely.  Splatter the second color all over.

Layers and splatters

Layers and splatters

Seventh: Repeat this with several other colors. Then, give it 5 min to dry, come back and do it again, and repeat that process. I layered about 8 or so slightly different color layers onto my page as the base layer slowly dried.

Ready for salt!

Ready for salt!

Eighth: You can also use plain table salt or sea salt to add a wonderful effect to your card back.  The salt should be the last thing you add to the page–it makes something that looks like snowflakes on your page by sending away the pigment from where the salt grain fell.  I really like the effect.  Before you add your salt.  check to see if there are any particularly large pools of water–you might want to sop them up with your brush (we are going for a consistent background look, and pools of water can make things less consistent).

Sea salt ready to be sprinkled

Sea salt ready to be sprinkled

Just sprinkle a little bit, on the pages, like you are salting your meal.  Then, give it time to completely dry.

Beautiful salt effect once dry!

Beautiful salt effect once dry!

 

Finally: Let the sheets fully dry (you can use a hair dryer to speed things up if you really want) and proceed to the next step.

Creating the Card Fronts

For the card fronts, I am going to suggest that you do a simple watercolor wash (1-2 mixed colors, using steps 1-5 above).  You can choose to do the same color on the entire front for consistency of cards, or, if you’d like, you can cut them and then do a different color wash on each card. In other words, if you want them all to be uniform, you can do the watercolor wash, let it dry, and then cut it up.  If you want the cards to have different colors, cut them up first.

Watercolor wash on the front is much simpler - just using one to two colors on a wet sheet of paper.  Supervising cat is no longer paying much attention.

Watercolor wash on the front is much simpler – just using one to two colors on a wet sheet of paper. Supervising cat is no longer paying much attention.

The easiest way to cut them up is to measure and draw lines in pencil to whatever size you want.  There are certainly common sizes for tarot cards (like 3.5″ x. 5.5″) but since this is your deck, you can make it whatever size you want–even round! The other option is to make one card as a template and then use it to trace out all of the other cards. If you want them round, just get a cup of the right size and trace the cup onto the sheet and cut them out. Or you can use a paper cutter, like I did.

Paper cutter

Paper cutter

Finished cut cards

Finished cut cards

Once you have your cards cut and have done a watercolor wash on the card fronts, you might want to snip the edges to keep the card nice (or if you are a scrapbooker, you might have one of those fancy card rounders!)

Snipping corners

Snipping corners

You can finish the cards by adding the names of your ancestors, one per card.  If you get a nice chisel point pen (like the kind calligraphers use) it will make your writing look really nice, which is an added touch.

 

If you’d like, a nice technique to finish the edges of the cards is to darken them.  To do this, take a black ink pad and a makeup sponge.  Dab the sponge onto the ink pad, and then rub it gently over the edge of the card on both sides (If you haven’t done this before, consider practicing it before you go ahead and do it!).  You’ll have a darker edge and a border, which gives the cards a nice complete look.

Edging cards

Edging cards

 

I also chose to paint a symbol for each of my ancestors like freshly baked bread, a rocking chair, etc.  That was my way of connecting to the ancestor not only verbally but also symbolically. If you are uncertain of your drawing ability, you can also print and cut out a picture or other graphic that can be glued to the card.  If you are going to glue anything, I strongly suggest using a bookbinder’s glue, like Yes! Paste or even one of those little kids paste pots or glue sticks.  A lot of glue (like Elmers) has too much water in it and will make a lot of wrinkles as it saturates the paper of whatever you are gluing.

Edged cards ready for names!

Edged cards (Front and Back) ready for names!

 

I hope you found these instructions helpful.  May the ancestors be with you this Samhain and blessings upon you during this sacred time.

 

Art and Spirit: The Bardic Arts as Self Development and Spiritual Practice July 30, 2017

“The way to see what looks good and understand the reasons it looks good, and to be at one with this goodness as the work proceeds, is to cultivate an inner quietness, a peace of mind so that goodness can shine through.”

–Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values.

 

In the last two months, through various angles, we have explored ways of taking up the path of the bard, one of the three paths of the druid tradition. Topics have included the cultivation and flow of awen, cultural challenges surrounding taking up the path of the bard, and tips for how to cultivate the bardic arts. In my last post, we also explored some of what industralization had us lose in terms of the bardic arts–both to those who create them and those who use them and how we might regain some of those things individually and in our communities. Today, we delve deeply into what I believe is the deeper wisdom in studying the bardic arts: using the bardic arts one means to of self enfoldment, self-betterment, and self discovery.

 

Shifting from Product to Process

Worlds within Worlds, or the Unfoldment of the Self

Worlds within Worlds, or the Unfoldment of the Self

A few posts back in this series, I talked about the commodification and commercialization of the bardic arts in our age of hyper consumerism. In this age, if you are good enough to sell your work, you should be doing so, and if you aren’t good enough to sell it, you shouldn’t be making it. This belief, of course, suggests that the point of the bardic arts is producing a product that has a commercial value: a story that people will pay to listen to, a song that people will download on Itunes, a painting or wooden bowl that people will buy, and so on.  And our culture makes it hard to be a bard if something else is your goal–the pressure to do this, as your work improves, is really intense at times. The problem with this mentality is that it focuses on the end product: that the bardic art has produced a particular thing that has some kind of value to other people such that people would pay to see it/hear it/own it. Of course, in a society that is oriented to consume products of all kinds (including non-physical ones), the privileging of this mentality makes a lot of sense.  But in emphasizing this product, we lose the value of the bardic arts as a process–a process of deepening, of unfolding, of development.

 

The point of pursuing the bardic arts, as part of a spiritual path, is the same reason we pursue the spiritual path itself: because we want to go on a journey. Not because we want to achieve enlightenment or achieve any other worldly accomplishment–rather, it is to develop, to grow, to unfold.  In this view, then, it doesn’t matter how talented or skilled you are in your bardic art(s) of choice because the point is to gain a deeper understanding of self, of craft, of spirit and of the connections between those things.  The real “work” of the piece from a spiritual perspective is unfolded in the act of creation. If the point is to express yourself and learn more about yourself as part of the journey, the end product is almost like a bonus. The bardic art journey is its own kind of journey, an incredible one, and one well worth pursuing.

 

The Bardic Arts and the Cultivation of the Self

“Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristic of quality.”– Robert Pirsig

 

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Robert Pirsig describes how the main character, Phaedrus, has an older motorcycle that he has learned to service himself and throughout the story, he “listens” to the engine and fine tunes it to his great satisfaction and joy–to him, this work on his motorcycle is an art in and of itself. Another character, John Sutherland, prefers to allow experts to fix his motorcycle, and often gets frustrated and is forced to hire professional mechanics. This interplay between Phaedrus and Sutherland offers a rich exploration of what constitutes craft, quality, and value. For Phaedrus, the point isn’t to fix the motorcycle, rather, fixing the motorcycle helps him better understand himself.  It is in the interplay between the honing of his own craft, addressing challenges, and the focus and dedication of that work that he grows to deeply understand himself and his own life.

 

The bardic arts have a way of doing this kind work on the self like few other things do.  This comes through embodiment, cultivating a richer identity and self-love, being in relationship, connecting to spirit, and striving for excellence.

 

For one, many bardic arts require intensive focus, where we simply are present with our own bodies in ways that we are rarely present at other times. The bardic arts demand our hand-eye coordination, our voices, our vision, our sense of touch and smell, and many of our other physical faculties. Westernized culture is largely a disembodied one–our minds are the focus, and much of the pastimess of modern humans have us going off into various fantasy worlds (through games, television, movies) rather than being present and centered in our bodies. This embodiment, then, helps us recognize what our physical bodies are capable of and helps us re-orient ourselves back into our bodies. This has the benefit of grounding us back into the here and now, slowing us down, and helping us be fully present, among many other things.

 

Second, the bardic arts help us cultivate a deeper sense of identity and of self. Engaging in a bardic art, and the practice of that art, often requires you to work solitary–spending time with the self. Even if you do some kind of performance or collaborative art that requires a group (like playing an instrument in a band or acting), practice by one’s self is still a regular part of that experience.  This time spent with yourself strengthens your own self love and bonds with yourself because you are taking inherent time to simply be with yourself and enjoy that time. We often don’t take much time for ourselves–but I believe we need to get to know ourselves and develop relationships with ourselves in the same way we might develop relationships with any other friend.  This time, then, helps us better understand ourselves.

 

Three, interacting with the instruments of the bardic art (your voice, the media, an instrument, even for dancers, the earth itself), creates an interplay between you and your tools/environment. It ultimately teaches us about relationship and how to be in relationship to some other thing.  My words, as I write them, shape me and hone my thinking in ways that without writing them, I wouldn’t experience.  My watercolors, likewise, help paint my soul with color and joy as I use them to paint the page in front of me.  This interplay, this interaction, becomes part of the self-unfoldment of the bardic arts.  When you carve wood–are you carving the wood or is the wood carving you? The answer is simply, “yes.”

 

Finally, creation of the bardic arts connects us with some of the most important aspects of humanity: when we think about what gets preserved in most museums, what remains of a culture, it is rarely their businesses, their stock market, their tallies of grain or ore.  It is their arts: plays, music, literature, statues, architecture, jewelry, stories, songs.  In fact, the study of the things that humans create is called the humanities, where literature, art, philosophy, music, theater, dance, and so on have their place. These are human things, things we create with our hands, our hearts, and our minds.  The oldest things that survive ancient pre-humans are cave paintings. Creating is something that humans do, and have done even before we were human.  The bardic arts, then, allow us to reconnect with our own humanity, our humanness.

 

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

A love of the land and nurturing of spirit

Arete and the Strive for Excellence

As the opening quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance suggested, learning how to work on something with care, precision, and a sense of wanting to do “good work” helps you cultivate that care in other aspects of your life.  If you develop a sense of wanting to produce quality work, that gives you an inherent sense of care.  That same care can be cultivated into other aspects of life–and part of that cultivation is learning how to do it well in one area.  The Ancient Greeks had a concept of “arete” (Greek: ἀρετή) which has a few translations: excellence of all kinds and in all things, living up to one’s potential in life, or having a high quality. It was synonymous with the idea of “moral virtue” suggesting that excellence was tied to morality and potential. The Greeks believed that people and the things people created could both have arete. 

 

I don’t see arete as an external quality, something to be judged against the “experts” or “professionals” who make a living doing a certain thing.  Arete is also inherently different than perfectionism. Arete is about personal potential and fulfillment–my personal best may not be someone else’s, based on my own skill, tools available, mindset towards the work, where I’m creating it, and any innate talent I may bring to the situation. The Greeks understood this, and maybe, in the druid tradition, we understand it too.  More, arete is in line with doing the best work you can, engaging in your bardic art to the best of your ability, and in doing so, becoming a more virtuous and fulfilled self.

 

I think cultivating Arete through the bardic arts this is particularly important as we are being subjected to a wide range of cultural values that suggest that cheaper, quicker, and easier is always better.   In many cases, it is not, and learning how to do the best work we can, so that we can strive for excellence is a worthy goal.  It is through this striving for excellence in one thing that excellence comes in many other areas of life as well.

 

Embracing the Flow and the Unconscious

I had a dear friend and mentor visit me some years ago. A few months prior to his visit, I had moved my art studio to a different room in the house; the old studio space became a spare bedroom. My friend, who was very much dedicated to his own druid practices each day, was staying in that room.  After spending a day or two there, he asked me if that room was where I had done my daily spiritual work, because the room had a focused energy. I said no, that was where I painted. And that one interchange has had me thinking, and reflecting, since–noting the similarities between my painting and my other kinds of spiritual work, particularly, meditation of all kinds (movement, stillness, discursive, etc).

 

In speaking to many who pursue the bardic arts with regularity and dedication, there seems to be this moment when the intensity of modern living sheds from us and we enter into a place of focus, quietude, and flow. Many very much see it as a meditation, a chance to go deeper and connect. After immersing oneself for some time within that bardic art, one comes out of the experience more relaxed, calm, and grounded. This is not any different, for me at least, than spending time in ritual or quiet meditation: the effect is the same.  A calmness, a sense of fulfillment, and of serenity come over me after time working on my bardic arts, whether that is fine arts, crafts, or writing. I will say though, it takes a level of skill and practice to get to the point where the flow comes–it is after some period of practice.

 

Above, I talked about the unfoldment that happens in the self. I think a lot of that work is semi-conscious or even unconscious. Our rational minds lose their vice grip and things can flow to the surface as the bardic arts flow. I often find that when I paint, carve, or engage in other work with my hands, by the end of that session, I’ll have come to an understanding of an issue that I didn’t have clarity on when I started. This experience is a powerful reminder that there are many levels to consciousness, and tapping into the bardic arts, when you are at that point of flow, allows you to tap into deeper ones than before.

 

Conclusion

“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.” – Persig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The bardic arts can also give us a sense of joy that is hard to find in other ways.  We can engage in the bardic arts because they make our souls sing–and finding how to use them to cultivate happiness is an important part of this spiritual work.  For many, part of this comes in sharing your work with others (one of the reasons that the Eisteddfod, or Bardic Circle) is so critically important.  But for others, it simply means tackling a difficult piece and feeling a sense of accomplishment, or learning an important skill through repeated practice.

 

Making things is personally empowering and gets us into a creative, skilled mode where we function best as humans.  There is nothing like a happy group of people learning how to carve spoons, make their own tools, raise a barn, build a rocket stove, or grow their own food.  There is a radiant joy that emerges when we learn how to make our own things.

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Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part II June 25, 2017

Creativity is the singing of the soul.  When we create, we draw from the deepest parts of who we are and express ourselves to the world.  The act of creation, the drawing forth and connecting to our inner selves, is the joy involved in creativity.  Having something nice in the end, to me, seems like a bonus! I believe this act of channeling the awen is not only inherently spiritual, it is also part of what it means to be human.  But to allow our souls to really sing, we have to grow comfortable with what we create, we have to set aside our judgement, and and to grow our skills as bards.

 

Last week, I explored what the bardic arts are, the cultural challenges associated with the bardic arts, and some ways community groups circumvent said challenges.   We looked at the creative spirit of children, and how that spirit gets repressed by cultural challenges and the langauge of disempowerment.  We looked at the ways that we think about “talent” and “creativity” serve to severely disempower us from pursuing the joy that is the bardic arts. Now that we have some sense of what has prevented more people from engaging in their creative and human gifts, we can now turn towards answering the two questions I posed last week:

 

  • How can we make the bardic arts accessible to every person?
  • How can you begin to take up a bardic art yourself, regardless of skill level?

 

Last week, I also established four broad categories of bardic arts, which we’ll be returning to in this post:

  • Performing arts: including music, theater, dance, movement, storytelling, singing, acting, and so on.
  • Fine arts: including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, printmaking, and so on.
  • Literary arts: including writing poetry, songwriting, writing prose, and any kind of writing that requires craft and skill
  • Fine crafts: including fiber arts, metalwork/smithing, pottery, glasswork, woodwork, bookbinding, papermaking, and so on.

And with that background, let’s begin to answer the two questions above and move into a place of empowerment, creativity, and the flowing of awen!

 

The Triad of Bardic Development: Exposure, Technique, and Practice

In the same way that the ancient bards were dedicated to their craft and in the same way that children devote countless hours to their own creative expressions, so, too, do we need to carefully cultivate our modern bardic arts if we are to grow our gifts. I’ll use myself as an example here of how we might cultivate the bardic arts.

 

Spirit of St. John's Wort (painting inspired by nature)

Spirit of St. John’s Wort (painting inspired by nature, part of my plant spirit series)

I have been a visual artist focusing on the theme of trees and whimsical nature art and have been seriously pursuing this work for over a decade. As part of my own development as an artist, I often go to the natural world for inspiration and observation: studying the patterns of leaves, sketching in the woods, taking photographs, and bringing that inspiration back into my art studio. I also regularly expose myself to the work of others who are using different artistic techniques (talking with them, viewing artwork, reading books on techniques).  I go to museums and study, in detail, various watercolor paintings.  I talk to watercolor artsits about their own style and process and inspiration.  We share work with each other and ask about techniques.  Regardless of how “good” I have become, I regularly take classes, read books, watch youtube tutorials, which helps me gain the theories and techniques of a visual artist.  Often, as part of these classes, I get expert feedback on how to improve my work. Finally, I practice my art as often as possible, several times a week (often for several hours), in a space dedicated for this purpose. Practice doesn’t just mean do the same artwork over and over, but rather, I regularly take on new challenging subjects and new media so that I can continue to grow as an artist.  This might mean that I don’t always succeed, but there is much value in the practice.

 

In fact, the way that I develop my skill as a visual artist is no different than the Jazz musician who practices his scales each day, or the aspiring poet who memorizes large chunks of others’ poetry, or woodworker who hones her skills. And this is important: there are things that you can do, regardless of what skill level you begin at, that will help you make good progress on whatever bardic art you choose to undertake.  Further, from my example above, we can see that there are at least three essential paths towards developing bardic skills:

 

The first path of the aspiring bard is immersing yourself  in the thing you wish to master. You have to expose yourself in the world of that particular bardic art and begin to understand how others are already working on that bardic art. How this path manifests depends on the broad genre of bardic arts:

  1. Visual: Visual artists cultivate keen observation skills (of the subject matter) and also expose themselves to others’ artwork.
  2. Literary: Literary artists read copious amounts of others’ work; for poets this may include memorization of others’ poetry and forms.
  3. Performance: A performer would attend many performances and observe other performers practicing their art.
  4. Craft: A craftsperson would study as much of the craft of others as possible.  For example, a leatherworker would study other people’s leather working techniques and finished products, and so on.

 

The second path of the aspiring bard is to learn and practice the techniques of your art/craft. Each bardic art has a set of theories and techniques that you need to understand in order to develop proficiency and eventual mastery. Studying these theories and techniques (on your own and/or through others’ instruction) can greatly assist you as an aspiring bard. Specific bardic arts have their own techniques and their own tools, some of which are listed here:

  1. Visual: Techniques using particular artistic tools, understanding perspective and distance, understanding light/shading, understanding color theory, understanding how paint blends on a page, etc.
  2. Literary: Understanding the structure of a story; studying rhyme, studying different forms of poetry, building vocabulary, studying syntax
  3. Performance: The technical aspects of dance (how to safely perform different moves), how to engage an audience, the technical aspects of acting, singing, vibrato, positioning, lighting a space, etc.
  4. Craft: Technical aspects of the craft, for example, in leatherworking it would be cutting leather, using leather tools, dying and staining leather, finishing, putting pieces together, designing patterns, knowing which kinds of leathers to use for which projects.  Each craft has its own techniques.

Some techniques may transfer from bardic art to bardic art, while others need to be learned anew. For example, drawing skill helps me not only as a painter, but also as a leatherworker when I’m designing and creating leather tooled pieces. But that drawing skill is not so helpful when I’m trying to tell stories around the fire!

Pracitcing the technqiues for some bardic arts also require the tools: for example, as a watercolor artist, I need, at minimum, high quality brushes of various sizes, watercolor paper of a good quality, and a nice set of watercolor paints. Working with sub-par tools leads to a sub-par experience. Having better tools offers me a better “starting point” and eliminates certain kinds of struggles.

 

The AODA's Sphere of Protection in a Tree

The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree (from the AODA New Candidate Guide)

The third path of the aspiring bard is dedication and regular practice. Each bardic art requires dedication and practice, at minimum, on weekly level. Remember that practice often includes many things that are never seen by an audience (sketches, practicing the tale in front of the mirror, practice scraps of leather discarded, scales upon scales on an instrument, etc.). And because these things are hidden, we forget that they are ever done. However, dedication and practice are the only way we can achieve any form of proficiency, much less mastery. We don’t get good at something by thinking about it–we get good at it through practice (people seem to understand this with musical instruments but with little else!)

 

A second critical aspect of practice is that different kinds of practices are necessary to achieve proficiency. Sometimes, practicing the same thing over and over gives you a lot of skill doing that particular thing, so that you achieve mastery. So, if you make 100 leather bags, your 100th one will be much better than your first. But at some point, there is a diminishing return to continuing to practice the same thing–you’ll get to a certain point and not be able to go any further. It is for this reason that we also need challenges and exposure to more difficult kinds of practice.

 

A challenging piece/performance requires you to gain new skills, to push your skills a bit beyond what you can handle, and encourages new growth. With challenge is the possibility of failure, but failure is not something to fear.  Failure is a regular and consistent part of the learning process, and all proficient people practicing any bardic art have had their share of failure.  How we handle failure here is key–letting failure be an opportunit to learn, rather than an opportunity to shut down, is critical to our own development (for more info, see Carol Dweck’s TED talk and research on mindsets.  Dweck’s work explores two mindsets for approaching failure–when we can learn and grow, we gain much.  But when we shut down and fear/avoid failure, developmentally, little growth happens). A common saying is that the master has failed more times than the novice has even tried, and this is a very true of the bardic arts.  In this view, as we cultivate our bardic art, we must also cultivate the understanding and openness that is required for long-term growth and success. Embrace failures as part of learning and for the value that they offer. Of course it is frustrating to make a mistake, but mistakes are a sign of growth because you are pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone.

 

My father and mother offered powerful lessons to me concerning mistakes and failure when I was a small child learning painting.  I remember working on a piece very hard, only to have a huge paint drip go into the middle of the sky.  I was ready to cry.  My father stopped what he was doing, and came over to me, and showed me how to turn that paint drip into a colorful cloud.  He told me that mistakes were an opportunity to try something unplanned, something different, and that some of his best work had been a result of such a mistake.  When this happened again, my mother reinforced the lesson several weeks later. As I continue to learn new things, I am always appriciative of that lesson and what it taught me.

 

And so, is through the triad of exposure, technique, and practice that we can develop proficiency, an eventual mastery, in the bardic arts. Notice that “talent” is not on this list. Anyone, given enough of the triad above, can develop at least a basic proficiency in a bardic art of their choice.  Talent might help speed things along, but it is is not necessary.  If the purpose of the bardic art is the process, the journey, the ability to connect with our hearts and spirits, then the end result seems but a secondary consideraiton.

Developing a Community and Culture of Bardic Arts

What may not be immediately obvious to the aspiring bard is that the triad above is embedded in a broader culture of bardic arts and also embedded in a specific community of practice. Bards need a community to share their work, talk to others about their work, to receive feedback, and to share their bardic gifts. Each community of bards has their specific techniques and tools, practices that are unique to that community. Further, a bard is often incomplete without an audience of some kind, whether that is the reader of a text, the audience of a performance, the viewer of an artistic creation, or the user/receiver of a craft.

 

In the same way that bards need communities in order to develop effectively, so, too do communities need bards. We cannot rebuild the bardic arts on an individual level without also rebuilding the communities in which these bardic arts are shared. Those engaged in the bardic arts need to feel needed; as though their work is important and it matters. Because it does. And so, we have to recognize that our communities are richer and better with our bards present and being bards. Imagine sitting around a fire at night with a dozen or so people—the more of those people engaging and sharing their bardic arts, the more interesting of an evening is shared by all. If nobody has a bardic art to share, the community suffers (and the evening is dull). This, too, is supported by learning research: we know that when people join communities of practice (see, for example, the work of Wegner and colleagues), those communities strongly support overall devleopment in a particular skill.

 

And so, the questions that remain to us now are: How do we build communities without inhibitions against the bardic arts? How do we nature and support people in those communities?

 

Children. As mentioned in last week’s post, children are natural bards, and the first thing we can do in terms of cultivating communities of bardic arts in the long term is to let children be children and to help them retain and cultivate their creative gifts. Children should be free to create, explore, make messes, make music, and collaborate with friends. As parents and loved ones, finding ways of supporting, reinforcing, and cultivating their creative gifts should be encouraged, especially to help provide a balance to mass education systems which discourage creative expression and creative thinking. As children grow up, they should be encouraged to continue to pursue whatever bardic arts inspire them.  They should also be encouraged to view mistakes as an opportunity for growth (which, according to some of the resaerch I included above, is a very teachable thing). These children, then, can grow up to help lead bardic communities of the future.

 

Adolescents and Adults. In terms of the adolescents and adults, some remediation likely needs to be in order, based on the cultural and educational disempowerment so prevalent today. The overall goal is to help adolescents and adults take down their barriers and inhibitions and reconnect to their creativity in the spirit of the freedom children have but tempered by the focus and ability of an older generation.

 

Many trees make a forest; many people make a community!

Many trees make a forest; many people make a community!

First, adults/adolsecents must have opportunities in their material and social contexts for practicing their bardic arts, in the same way that children have. For example, storytelling is a common thing that can be practiced daily. Children are constantly telling stories to each other and to their families. Adults could cultivate the same opportunity. For example, perhaps each member of the family around the dinner table tells the story of their day as part of that meal. This simple family ritual allows for the building of a storytelling culture within a family and gives each opportunity to learn to be a storyteller. The same can be true of many other bardic arts: creating social opportunities for bardic arts to be shared and practiced is an important part of cultivating them. Another option here is the Druid’s Eisteddfod, a circle of bardic arts around the fire.

 

The second thing, also tied to children and creativity, is the fostering of “play time”, that is, unstructured leisure time in which to explore and engage in the bardic arts. As with children’s play, at least some time should not be dedicated to accomplishing a particular task, but simply exploring materials, techniques, and enjoying the process of figuring things out. (This, of course, means we have to reconsider our own relationship with time and make time for these things, which ties directly to my earlier series on “Slowing down the Druid Way.”)

 

The third thing adults/adolsecents need are the tools to engage in the bardic art and access to expertise. Tools can be procured usually fairly directly (a materialist culture lends itself well to such a thing), but expertise might be much harder to come by. Given that, I encourage those interested in a particular art to seek out a local community, or, online community if no local one is present. These things can be learned on one’s own, but it is often more effective to learn from another.  Chances are, anyone who has developed mastery in a bardic art has had plenty of mishaps and mistakes along the way, and its useful to talk about those mistakes as much as it is to talk about the successes!

 

The fourth thing is to reframe our language within that community of practice.  Aspiring bards need both support as well as constructive feedback, and the challenge in a community is finding methods of doing both in ways that nutrure the overall development.  Some communities offer competitions or critique days that allow people to seek feedback to improve their work. These structured forms of critique and feedback are generally a safe space for those who want that kind of feedback.

For Aspiring Bards

And so, now we’ve come to it–how do I begin to take up the path of the bard?  Here are two questions to get you started:

 

Which of the many bardic arts (visual, performance, literary, or craft) seem interesting to you? 

Select something that appeals to you, that is interesting to you and that inspires you.  Find one that sings to your soul. Don’t worry about whether or not you can or can’t do this thing or if you know anyone else who does it—all bardic arts take dedication and work. Try it out for a bit making sure that you have given the practice enough time to get past the very beginning difficult beginner parts. I’d suggest spending a minimum of 20 hours on it over a period of time to see if it fits you well (this is the practice we use in the AODA curriculum and it works tremendously well).  Twenty hours is enough to know if you will enjoy it, it is enough time to have some small successes, and it is enough time to get past the 10 or so frustrating hours (or more) of learning where not much is accomplished. If this bardic art turns out not to be a good fit for you, try something else until you find your right fit. In this process of exploration, you might borrow the necessary tools/equipment for practicing the art rather than buy them to minimize financial investment until you are sure you will pursue this particular bardic art.

 

Where is there a community with whom you can connect?

Seek out a community that is engaging in the same bardic art that you have interest in.  Once you find that community, show up. I strongly advocate for finding a physical community of people who are engaged in your bardic art (or a range of bardic arts) that you can share with. This community should meet regularly (1/month, at minimum). If you can’t find a community, consider starting one (ask friends to come over once a week and play music or share stories by the fire, etc.). Online communities are a way to supplement local communities, but we encourage you to not stop at online communities. Online communities that have some physical component (e.g. art that is traded through the mail, performances that are given, in-person conferences that are present) are much more effective.

 

The Flow of Awen

The Ancient Druids understood that the flow of awen, the divine spark of creativity or inspiration, was a magical thing (and a topic I talked about in depth several weeks ago). And the Ancient Druids weren’t the only ones to recognize this sensation: many cultures recognize a muse or deity that is associated with creativity (the Greek Muses; Sarasvati, Hindu Goddess of the Arts; Hi’aika, Hawaiian Goddess of Dance/Chant; and so on).  Whether you see the awen as a kind of abstract power or something that comes from a diety, the idea is that this creativity flows through a person when he or she is engaged in her bardic art.  Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself: it is a powerful sensation.

 

Personally, I see awen a lot like the flow of a river.  If you are opening up those channels for the first time, it is like water pouring into an area: the river will need to make work to flow effectively; there might be obstructions to work through, and so on.  But the longer the water flows in that spot, the more effectively it can flow and the more channels the water makes. Expressing creativity and channeling the flow of awen is a lot like using a muscle—it can atrophy if it is not used. And yet, any muscle can be brought back into health with enough practice; you might see this like a kind of “bardic therapy.”

 

This is where everything in this post comes in: we need tools, practice, and skill to allow the awen to flow through our lives and inspire us.  And when we are in a place with our own skills and abilities as a bard, the awen can flow strong and we can create incredible works.  We need the basic skills and approaches so that we can forget about the technical details and instead just let the awen flow.  It is once we’ve achieved a certain level that we can really let loose, let our subconsious and muscle memory take over, and just flow with the awen.  The things outlined in this post can help the awen flow into your life permancently and powerfully.

 

May the awen flow within you in your pursuit of the bardic path!

 

(PS: Thanks to David N. for long discussions on this topic and working out many of the details that appear in these two last posts!)
(PPS: I have this set to auto-post while I’m on some camping and hiking adventures in rural Maine.  Please comment, but know that I won’t be responding to comments for another week or so! )

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Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part I June 18, 2017

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!  (This is part of a tree piece I collaborated on at Strawbale Studio in Michigan)

A group of people sharing stories and songs by the fire. A fine pair of leather shoes. A beautiful woven garment. A tale full of twists and mystery. Finely wrought iron doors. An amazing wood carving on a stump. A marble sculpture. A wildly painted mural on a wall. A cob structure with whimsical trees and forms. A song that reaches deep within you when you hear it.  A rousing speech. Each of these, and so many others, represent the natural creative expressions of humanity. Taking up the path of the bard is one of three paths in the druid tradition (along with the work of the Ovate and the Druid). Yet, many people aren’t sure how to take up the path of the bard because they don’t think they are “creative” or “talented” enough.  However, the bardic arts are part of our human heritage and birthright, and each of us has that possibility. I believe it is essential that we have an opportunity to cultivate them and to embrace the flow of awen in our lives. This post, part my longer series on the bardic arts, explores the nature of the bardic arts, how to take them up, and how to become proficient at them. The goal of this two-part post is to answer the two basic questions:

 

  • How can we make the bardic arts accessible to every person?
  • How can you begin to take up a bardic art yourself, regardless of skill level?

 

To explore our two questions, in this week’s post we’ll begin by examining some definitions of the bardic arts.  Then, we’ll explore common challenges people face with taking up the bardic path and the roots of some of these challenges.  Next week, we’ll discuss how, regardless of “talent” or starting point, you can become proficient at a bardic art and offer you tools to get started or continue that process.

 

What are the bardic arts?

For the druid path, the bardic arts, or a wide variety of creative expressions, are central to the practice of druidry.  The ancient bards invoked the “Awen”; the awen is  the inspiration, the muse of inspiration, or the spark of creativity that flows. Likewise, modern druids intone and invoke the Awen in our practices often and draw upon the flow of awen for creative works. I talked more about the awen in last week’s post and more about this centrality of connecting to the creative arts in my recent post on connection as the core philosophy of the druid tradition. 

 

By “bardic arts,” I refer to a wide variety of creative and skilled expressions that can fall into four broad categories:

 

  • Performing arts: including music, theater, dance, movement, storytelling, singing, acting, and so on.
  • Fine arts: including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, printmaking, and so on.
  • Literary arts: including writing poetry, songwriting, writing prose, and any kind of writing that requires craft and skill
  • Fine crafts: including fiber arts, metalwork/smithing, pottery, glasswork, woodwork, bookbinding, papermaking, and so on.

 

I recognize that many of these categories overlap, and all are inherently performative in nature and allow a bard to engage in some form of self-expression.  One possibility to add to this list might also include “digital arts” of various kinds (film, 3d design and printing, etc) although I’m sticking here to comments on more traditional bardic arts. A second possibility might be culinary arts or other kinds of creations.

           

Challenging Social Structures and Creative Expression

So now that we have some idea of what the bardic arts are, we can begin to dig into the challenging social structures and cultural inhibitions against creating that prevent more people from taking up the path of the bard. Because it isn’t until we understand the problems we face in cultivating the bardic arts that we can find ways of addressing those issues.

 

Growing Up and the Langauge of Disempowerment

Children are the most natural bards of all. Young children do not have the cultural inhibitions against creating that many adolescents and adults later develop.  In fact, young children instead create constantly: a group of children with crayons and paper will quickly create numerous colorful drawings, sharing them with each other. Another day, children might create complex sandcastles or fingerpaint on the wall or draw pictures in the soil outside.  They are happy to sing, dance, and create anything. No one has to teach these children to be creative; they might need to be taught how to use the markers, but a healthy child will create, often to excess, without hesitation or judgment.  Further, children aren’t judgemental of their creative work: they create becuase it brings them joy, not necessarily, because they are creating masterpieces.

By the time that that bardic-arts loving child goes through mass education, however, his or her willingness to pick up a crayon again is often greatly diminished. By the time that child is a teenager, their creative spirit is often replaced with narratives of disempowerment.  They might now say, “I’m not creative” or, when experiencing another’s bardic expressions say, “I could never do that” or “I’m not talented* like you.” They say, “I could never be a [musician/artist/etc.].”

 

How many of you have heard statements like these or said them yourself?  I have heard hundreds of people over the years say these things. Our words have power,  and the kind of statements above is the language of disempowerment. This kind of language prevents us from taking up the path of the bard, and it stifles any chance of creativity. The more we say these things, the more we reinfoce the idea that we are not creative, not talented, and not capable of creative work.

 

(*The etymology of the term “talent” is also worth exploring here. The original term “talent” is a unit of Roman currency. The “Parable of the Talents” within the Christian tradition tells a story of a master who gives three servants different numbers of coins. Two of the servants invest their coins and gain additional talents. The third servant buries it in the earth to prevent losing it; this servant is punished by his master. The moral here is that if we invest in our talents, we gain.)

 

Cultural Sources of Creative Disempowerment

Playing music from the 1750's

Playing music from the 1750’s

What exactly happens in western culture to turn happy and creative children into disempowered teens and adults? I hold that it has at least six sources of disempowerment, each of which is worth considering to help us begin to remove the cultural blocks on the creative spirit and the flow of Awen.

 

Celebration of the Exceptional. Because western culture celebrates and elevates that which is exceptional, it makes average people believe that the bardic arts are only worth pursuing if they are highly “talented.”  Mass media constantly parades exceptional skill/talent in our screens and in our faces, making any of our own efforts appear less than satisfactory. For example, the culture of celebrity prevalent in Westernized media elevates professional entertainers, craftspeople, and artists. It is their work that we consume and their work fills our homes and our lives, stifling our own. The phenomenon of television shows celebrating exceptional “talent” (The Voice, America’s Got Talent, American Idol, etc.) is a telling example here. Tens of thousands of people come out to compete for a chance to win what is, essentially, a highly publicized talent show. Those who aren’t exceptional are literally mocked on national television, and as the show goes on, in the end one or two are elevated to celebrity status. Their music or other creative talents are consumed by millions across the land.

 

Active and Passive Entertainment. The above example directly leads us to the second cultural challenge: the everyday people are discouraged from actively providing their own entertainment. The proliferation of mass media being broadcast into every home ensures that one is so immersed in the creations of others that one has little time, or desire, to create for themselves. One of the things the modern druid movement does is bring back the Eisteddfod, the bardic circle, and celebrates the telling of stories, singing of songs, playing of music, and encourages each person (regardless of ability) to share, actively taking entertainment back into our own hands.

 

Deferring to the Experts. The culture of celebrity also encourages us to “defer” to the experts—those professional entertainers, artists, musicians, and so on who hold exceptional talent are the only ones who hold power. In the Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry cautions against trusting a “specialist” for everything: we have specialists who are in charge of our health, specialists who are in charge of growing our food, and specialists who are in charge of our entertainment (among many other things). An adult living in western society has, literally, decades of practice being conditioned to defer to experts for his/her basic needs, and unfortunately, the creative arts are no exception.  This is disempowering and doesn’t encourage one to take up the bardic arts.

 

Remote Creative Expressions. A fourth challenge present that the celebrity/expert culture puts creative expression in the hands of distant strangers rather than local people in the community. You don’t personally know the celebrities that are providing your entertainment or arts; they are remote, distanced strangers who aren’t accessible to you in any other way. This reduces the chance for you to learn, to ask questions, and to see that any person can cultivate a bardic art.

 

Belief in Innate Talent. Fifth, we have a powerful and prevailing cultural belief in innate talent. This has two sides. First, there is the belief that only those with innate or extraordinary talents should take up creative expressions (because those are the only people who could make money at doing it, see next challenge below). Schools–and individuals–work to elevate those rare individuals with “gifted” or extraordinary people while serving to disempower those who don’t immediately display such gifts. Secondly, there is the idea that a person must already be good at something in order to pursue it. Often, others seek to disempower you if you aren’t as good or are just learning–and this can be stifling.  There is no room for practice or someone who is just “good enough.” Over a lifetime, these beliefs severely disempower those who may have an interest in learning a new bardic art but aren’t immediately masters when they begin (and really, who is?). This leads to disempowerment and people not even trying a new bardic art becuase they aren’t immediatel good at it.

 

Creative Gifts tied to Material Wealth. A final source of disempowerment comes in the form of the expectation and assumption of financial gain. In a materialistic culture, every serious pursuit is expected to be of some financial benefit. This discourages both those who want to enjoy creative gifts for their own sake in a position of constantly explaining “I don’t sell my work” and those who are interested in taking up a bardic art in a disempowered position.  This also leads to the idea that if your work isn’t good enough to sell, you shouldn’t be doing it.  If it can’t be monitized, it has no real value and isn’t worth your time.  Obviously, this is false, but it is still pervasive.

 

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I did with the help of the flow of Awen

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I finished with the help of the flow of Awen

To demonstrate some of these cultural challenges, I’ll use myself as an example. I have a panflute, which I play occasionally. Although I have a good ear for music, I’m not that good at my panflute because I don’t practice enough. This is because I choose to devote most of my time to my writing and visual arts.  So when I play my panflute,  I usually mess up a bit – it is a challenging instrument to play. I don’t care if I make a few mistakes, and neither do the trees I am playing for. But people do–they expect flawless, expert performances. I have had people tell me, “don’t quit your day job” after hearing me play. My singing is even worse–I have not taken voice lessons nor do I have a very strong voice, but I like to sing anyways.  If I sing or play the flute and others hear me, it is not seen as a positive thing, but rather, I experience a lot of discouragement.

 

On the other hand, I am a highly skilled artist.  This is becuase I grew up in a house with two parents who were professional artists and because I have dedicated myself to my art and practice it at least several times a week for over decade.  If I share my work, I often will hear the “you are so talented, I could never do that” statements.  These statements both disempower the speaker and disregard the thousands of hours that I have put into my artwork to be able to get to the level where I am. I also hear, “you should sell your work” as if commercializing it is the ultimate compliment.  My art is part of my spiritual path and making money from it isn’t the point of it. But the only models we have, culturally, suggest to be successful as a bard is to be *really* good at it and to make a profit.

 

Breaking Away from Cultural Challenges: Local Bardic Communities

Despite the above cultural challenges, a good number of everyday people break out of these narratives and engage in the bardic arts, often developing local communities of bards. You see these endeavors through initiatives such as community theaters, community orchestras, local wood carving guilds, artist associations, local art shows, local singing groups, local craft guilds, and more. These groups not only support those engaged in the bardic arts in further developing their talents but offer places for everyday community members to be exposed to artists who are ordinary people and who are engaged in the creative works. In other words, these local community groups serve as counter-narratives to the above problems in at least four ways:

 

  1. They demonstrate that everyday people (neighbors, friends, family members) can engage in creative expressions
  2. They demonstrate active role in one’s own entertainment/creative expression rather than handing this over to specialists
  3. They accept the idea that being “good” at something is good enough*
  4. And, they demonstrate that bardic arts don’t have to be done only for profit, but simply, for pleasure

 

Here, I point to a scene in John Michael Greer’s Retrotopia, where the main character goes to see a theater performance and comments that the singing and acting were “good” and an enjoyable time was had by all. The point being made here is that entertainment doesn’t need to be done by only the exceptional—being “good enough” still leads to enjoyment.

 

Despite serious cultural challenges, the creative flow of awen hasn’t completely been lost from the common folk! So hopefully at this point, we can see the roots of some of these common cultural challenges and through this illustration, we can begin to break out of the challenges and embrace our creativity. Next week, we turn to a discussion of how to cultivate your creative gifts as a bard and cultivate and join communities of bards. In the meantime, perhaps this week, take some time for whatever bardic pursuit you enjoy (or are thinking about taking up!)

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On Keeping a Spiritual Journal April 30, 2017

Stack of some of my journals....

Stack of some of my journals….

Recently, I took some time to go back through the many spiritual journals I have kept on my journey deeper into the mysteries of the druid tradition and my relationship with nature. These journals spanned over a decade. They included a bit of everything: garden interactions, meditations, nature observations, events in my life of deep spiritual significance, recipes, notes from gatherings and visits, stories, experiences with rituals, and much more. I am so grateful to have kept these journals and re-reading them allowed me to rediscover so many pieces about that journey. They allowed me to see not only my own growth over time, but reminded me of important events and encouraged me further on my path.

 

Journaling and writing down one’s journey doesn’t come easy for many, and I, too, have to work at it!  Further, in working with those new to the druid path through my work as an Archdruid with the AODA, I’ve come to realize that many folks don’t know how to keep a spiritual journal nor what it can be used for or why they should do it. In my professional work as a writing professor, I know how difficult it is for some people to write anything because they lack the tools, motivation, or inspiration to do so. So, given this, I thought I’d take the time today to write about spiritual journals, why we keep them, and tips and strategies for keeping them (and keeping them well).

 

Why keep a spiritual journal?

When you are engaging in a spiritual practice of any kind, it is really helpful to document that practice. So let’s start by exploring the reasons why you would want to keep a spiritual journal.

 

The difference between sacred spaces and mundane spaces. One of the aspects of spiritual practices is that we are in a different head space for the duration of those practices than we are in the regular world. This is true not only of meditation and rituals but also of visits to natural places. We may gain deep insights or have moments of clarity and awakening and retaining those insights are critical for our development. If we don’t write them down, we are very apt to lose them.

 

I have found that in order to “not lose anything,” I have to write down my experiences in ritual or meditation immediately after they happen (often, I will write in my journal before I even close a sacred grove in ritual or before I leave the forest). This allows me to write about these experiences while they are fresh and in the forefront of my head. If I put off writing down my experiences, the longer that time goes by, the less I will remember and remember accurately–especially because visits to wild places and rituals alter our consciousness.

 

Inaccuracy of memory. Our memories are imperfect instruments and we can forget many things. If we write our experiences and understandings down (or use one of the other methods I share here), we offer our future selves a record of those experiences, which is a powerful spiritual tool. Trying to keep everything in our heads is a sure way to lose some of the critically important details or insights we gain as part of our spiritual practices.

 

Some journals that are mixed media/collage with spiritual themes...

Some journals that are mixed media/collage with spiritual themes…

To illustrate this, I’ll share a story here. I was out foraging for the day by myself, and I ended up in a really brushy area that required me to slog my way through about a two-acre bramble and brush patch. During this experience, I was in a deep meditative space. I had a critical number of keen insights about nature–all in a row (it must have been the stars aligning). The problem is, I had too many at once! (One of those keen insights about nature became my earlier discussion of weedtending, weedwalking, and weedcrafting while a second became my discussion of first-aid responder plants). I had recently lost my small journal I usually carried in my crane bag (to a river–it carried it away!), so I didn’t have anything to write down my insights on that particular day. And so, lacking any other means, I tried to commit as many as I could to memory. When I finally got back later that evening, all had escaped except the insights on the two posts I included above. Try and meditate as I might, I could not find the other insights anywhere in my brain–they were left in the bramble patch!

 

Keeping a Record. Documenting your practices and experiences through journals offers your future self a record about what you are feeling, experiencing, and the things you are engaging with at that particular point in time. This is a wonderful tool for tracking and understanding your own spiritual development. I love going back and reading my old journals and seeing just how far I have come! It’s also helpful to look at the journals and get a sense of what I was struggling with then, what I’m still struggling with, and what new things have come up.

 

Focusing, Expanding, and Reflection on Your Thoughts.  Journaling is not just a process of writing down exactly what happened or what the insights were, but it’s also a powerful tool and opportunity to ponder or sit with those experiences further.  And so, we gain a double benefit from this work. Reflecting on experiences that just happened allows you another way, which I see as another form of meditation, into those experiences. First, I have found often that after I finish a physical journey, spiritual journey, meditation, ritual, or whatever, writing down what has happened and my thoughts and insights about what has happened allows me to further shape and expand those thoughts (and actually, this is why I got into blogging!)  Part of it is that you are not just getting the initial insight, but taking the time to think about it deeper and focus on it through the journaling experience. This helps the insights and experiences come into sharper focus. Second, reflection also allows us to slow down and think about what we experienced, synth sizing our experiences and our own understandings. We can pick things apart, turn them around, wonder about them, and really gain the ability to see them from multiple angles there in our journal.  It might be that this kind of work needs to happen over a longer period of time than one entry, and that is perfectly acceptable as well.  I’ll also mention here that research in writing studies strongly supports both of the above–we learn through writing and we gain much from reflection!

 

Content of the Journals: What to Write

The question of what should go into a journal is obviously a very personal one.  Here are some possibilities for you to consider:

 

Documenting regular practices. In many of the esoteric traditions, keeping a “magical journal” is a required practice. It’s very helpful to document regular practices and their effects, especially over time. For example, each day I do the AODA’s Sphere of Protection ritual. In the years I was really learning it, I wrote down daily what happened. Now that my practice has stabilized, I no longer find it necessary to write down each day’s sphere unless something out of the ordinary happens during the sphere; but I still find myself writing about it regularly. I do write about my regular meditations, and that’s part of my habitual journal practice.

 

Some more spiritually-themed journals with colorful watercolor pages...

Some more spiritually-themed journals with colorful watercolor pages…

Salient, important things. I once spoke with a woman who told me she was spending more time writing in her journals than in her spiritual practices and was frustrated with the length of time it took to journal. I inquired further and discovered that she was writing down literally everything she was doing. While this certainly is an approach that you can take to spiritual journaling, I’m not sure its one I’d advocate. You’d spend more time, as she did, writing than actually engaging in your spiritual practices! Instead, what I advocate is writing down things of meaning, of salience, and of significance. In other words, I don’t write down every little thing (“I drove to the park”) but I do generally document what I did, what happened, and what I thought about it (“in my walk in the woods, this struck me because of…”).

 

Ideas, Plans, and Goals. I have found it useful to write about goals, ideas, and plans. If you write goals, check in on them regularly and see how you are progressing with them (a simple goal might be to develop a regular daily protective practice, or to spend more time in nature, or to observe the full and new moons in some way).

 

Nature observations. I have found it particularly helpful to document my observations and interactions with nature, given that I’m on a path of nature-based spirituality. For this reason, I almost always take a journal when I’m going out and about (even a small one I can carry with me, although I have a propensity for small journals getting eaten by bodies of water!)

 

Some nice leather journals (both filled!)

Some nice leather journals (both filled!)

Reflections over time. At the end of the journal, when I have only 10-20 or so pages left, I find it really useful to go back through the journal and record any patterns in my thinking, any changes, anything that sticks out of significance to me. It may take me a year or more to fill a journal, but is a very good practice and then helps me “launch” the next journal with a vision and goals in mind.

 

Photos, drawings, plant matter, and memorabilia. You don’t have to be limited to words alone–consider adding drawings, photos, plant matter, and other memorabilia.

 

The Look and Feel of Your Journal

Especially when you are starting out, the finding or making the right journal is really important. There’s something about opening up a fine journal, one that you are attracted to, and writing in it. It’s nice to see it sitting on our shelf, nice to hold and cherish. Your journal might be something you make or something you buy. (I can write a post on bookbinding and spiritual journal making if there is interest. Let me know!) You may also find that you may develop certain preferences (thickness of paper, lined or unlined, etc).

 

I think that there is something special about keeping a physical journal and I would strongly recommend you keep your journal physically. For one, if you are taking it into nature and into sacred spaces with you, the last thing you want is an electronic device in those spaces. The screens have a way of pulling you away and into them rather into the space. If the purpose of the journal is to record words, I would suggest using old-fashioned methods.

 

On the outside: If you are going to go with a purchased journal, You want a journal that lays flat, that is enjoyable to write in, and that is well constructed.  One place to look is on Etsy and similar places and seeing if you can purchase a nice journal that was handmade with care and love.  You’ll support an artist and also have a wonderful journal.   Some journal makers (especially those working in leather) can make a journal cover that you can then replace the insides. This means that you could buy one journal + cover, and then when you are done, put the cover on a new journal and keep going, placing the old journal on your shelf. This is a nice option and represents a limited investment.

 

On the Inside: One of my very early spiritual journals was a simple affair, but homemade. I began by purchasing some hot press, low quality watercolor paper and folding them in half, making signatures. I bound the journal using a Coptic stitch technique with two boards. Then, in each of the pages, I did a simple watercolor wash. The watercolor pages dried and then, when I opened the journal, I had a variety of colorful surfaces on which to write.

My first dedicated spiritual journal (made when I joined the AODA)

My first dedicated spiritual journal (made when I joined the AODA)

You can do the same thing with cheap watercolors and any journal designed for multiple media or mixed media (these are readily available in arts and craft stores). These kinds of journals will be thicker and contain less pages, but will be sturdy and wonderful for colorful washes and bold printing.

 

Mixed media is anothe option.  Mixed media refers to any two media that are not traditionally put together (so photographs and drawing), and this is a wonderful way of expressing more than just words. For example, perhaps you want to sketch, find an image, imprint a leaf, take a photo, and so on. Any of these can be readily incorporated into your journal. Sometimes, a picture helps capture the event or experience in ways that words cannot.

 

Keeping Different Journals

One thing that I have found works well for me as a more avid journaler is to keep different journals for different activities. For example, I have a journal that I use to record important dreams. That’s a separate journal from my everyday/meditation journal, and also separate from my nature journal. At other points in my life, I have found too many journals burdensome and only kept one that held everything within it.  Here are some of the different kinds of journals you might keep:

  1.  Meditation journal. For regular meditation practices (especially if you are using discursive meditation and/or spirit journeying as meditation).
  2.  Nature journal. For experiences in observing outdoors (taken when you go outdoors, do nature observations, hike, etc). This journal can be small (a small Moleskine (SP)) journal works well for this purpose. You might want to keep it in a small plastic bag to protect it from the elements.
  3.  Gardening journal. Keep track of your gardening adventures!
  4.  Seasonal celebration journal. A journal that documents your seasonal celebrations and merriment.
  5.  Work with spirits journal. A journal that documents inner journeys and connections to the spirit realm.

Or you might keep just one journal and use it for everything! There is no right or wrong way to journal.

 

The inside of my "Garden Journal" that detailed both knowledge about gardening and farming I was learning as well as my early attempts at homesteading

The inside of my “Garden Journal” that detailed both knowledge about gardening and farming I was learning as well as my early attempts at homesteading

Getting in the Habit of Journaling

One of the most tricky things for people starting out is to get in the habit of journaling. Here are a few tips and suggestions.

 

Perfectionism doesn’t matter. You do not need to have proper grammar, full sentences, correct punctuation, or even really legible handwriting in your journal. This journal is for you and you alone, so as long as you can read it, that is what matters.

 

Stream of consciousness writing can work. Many people write journals in long paragraphs or entries that are in the style of “stream of consciousness”; that is, they write what immediately comes up in their minds. You might see this similar to how some forms of meditation work—thinking about an idea and seeing where it goes. In the case of your journal, I think the most important thing is to get the information down that you want to get down, and it doesn’t have to be a literary masterpiece.

 

If writing doesn’t work, audio record (and transcribe).  Some people find that when they sit down to write they have difficulty putting any words down on paper. They stare at blank page. If you fall into this category, one suggestion I have is to use a small recorder and record your thoughts in audio format (like you are talking to a friend or to yourself) and then, later, transcribe those words into your journal. This adds a step, but it might be good to help you get going.

 

Keeping a journal is about habituating practice. One of the other challenging things to do for new journal keepers is just to get in the habit of regular writing. Above, I suggested writing as soon as you are finished with a practice or experience that you want to document. I also would suggest that if you aren’t doing anything else, setting aside a time to journal once a week is a good way to start. Once you have gotten in the habit of journaling, it will become easier to do.  Start taking your journal with you anywhere you go–on a trip, out into the woods, into your sacred space–and then work to use it!

 

Concluding Thoughts

I hope this post was helpful to those who are interested in starting a spiritual journal or in kicking their own journaling into a higher gear.  After a period of years, I can say with certainty that this practice has really helped me deepen my own awareness, my focus, and helped me progress along my spiritual path.

 

As an aside, I will be taking a few weeks off from blogging while I do some travel and get our big garden in for the year! I’ll return in late May with additional posts on my permaculture for druids series, information on the bardic arts, and so much more!  Blessings on this Beltaine!

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Observe, Interact, and Intuit: The Personal Niche Analysis October 23, 2016

In my last two posts in this series, we explored permaculture design principles from the perspective of our outer and inner landscapes. We now move into a series of posts exploring different aspects of these specific principles.  Today, we start with the inner work of the principle observe, interact, and intuit (I will also note my post from last year on “Mushroom eyes” which is part of the outer work of this principle and explores nature observation).   Today’s post explores the personal niche analysis.  The Niche Analysis also connects with many other principles, such as layered purposes and can be useful both for designing spaces as well as inner work.

 

The Niche Analysis

A niche analysis is a tool that we use as permaculture designers to understand the many aspects and connections of a single element has within a larger system. We are using “niche” in the ecological sense here, which is defined “a position or role taken by a kind of organism within its community.”  (I’ll also note that the word “niche” comes into English by way of French, originating in Latin (nidus or “nest”; this etymology also teaches us a deeper meaning of the word).  In permaculture design, we see each element having its own “niche” in an ecosystem, a number of things that element does well.  We design intentionally, placing elements in the system that fill the multiple roles.

 

A typical niche analyses can include yields, needs, and behaviors.  I also add predators and allies to my niche analysis (see below for more details on each of these things).

 

Let’s take a look at my rooster, Anasazi, who lived at my homestead in Michigan.  I considered Anasazi one of the critical components of my land there.  Here’s Anasazi’s niche analysis:

Anasazi the Roo Niche Analysis

Anasazi the Roo Niche Analysis

What this does is help me understand how Anasazi functions in the system–what he offers, what he needs to be protected from, and who his allies are. I see his behaviors, and I’m able to use them for the greatest good and see his role. This is a really useful way to think about any element. (As an aside, if you want to know about specific trees and plants and how they function in the broader system, and you live anywhere in the Midwest or East Coast of the USA  you can check out John Eastman’s books, Book of Forest and Thicket; Book of Field and Stream; Book of Swamp and Bog.  They are delightful books and really describe these “niche” relationships quite well!)

 

The Personal Niche Analysis

We often learn to do a personal niche analysis as part of a permaculture design course, and I think its a useful activity for everyone to consider as a part of our own growth and inner work. In this context, I present it as part of the “knowing ourselves” piece of observe, interact, and intuit: the work of understanding our own role (that we determine), what we need, and what we offer.

 

The standard niche analysis asks you to start with your name in the center of the map, and then map three things: Yields, Needs, and Behaviors.  One I learned this summer offers two more choices: Predators and Allies.  I’ll cover each of these below and then show you a sample map that I created as part of my recent Permaculture Teacher Training course.

Yields: That which you produce. Remember that, just like in an ecosystem or garden, each element often has many different kinds of yields.  Yields for a human being can certainly be physical things like producing food or earning an income, but they can also be much less tangible, like offering love and support or bringing joy.

 

Articulating our yields is a critical part of self care and self empowerment. I think that many of us, especially those who are nurturers and healers, do not own our gifts and don’t have self-acknowledgement of the good work we do in the world.  Further, because our culture generally does not hold gratitude as a value, we often spend our time doing important work that is often under or unacknowledged or thanked. Describing our yields, then, allows us to be empowered–to realize what it is that we can and do produce in the world that is of benefit to life: whether that is a dedication to picking up trash in the forest, to being friendly to people at your job, or to simply being a person others can talk to in times of need.  These yields don’t have to be something that is “measurable” by society’s standards, but rather, something that you feel you bring.

 

Needs: This is what you need in order to be stable, functioning, and happy.  Again, these can be physical things but also emotional or spiritual things. Again, articulating our actual needs is something that we often don’t do, and there are at least two challenges and reasons for this work.  The first is cultural: commercials and advertising work very hard to make us believes we have needs that we don’t–needs of products and services–rather than needs that help support and fulfill us.  Many of us, as part of our own spiritual paths, are shedding the layers of consumerism, and re-articulating what are actual needs in our own lives, rather than manufactured needs, is an important part of this process. The second is the intersection of personal and cultural reasons: many of us have a hard time voicing our needs in our immediate relationships (work, family, friend, intimate) or even to ourselves. Part of spiritual growth is recognizing that we have needs, and those needs are valuable.  This involves acknowledgment of the need of others in our lives but also the acknowledgment of our own ability to provide for our needs.

 

Behaviors: Behaviors are those things that you engage in in order to produce your yields.  You should write these as verbsWhat I like about adding behaviors to a personal niche analysis is that it allows us to think about our actions out in the world and what are meaningful to us.  Ultimately, behaviors lead to yields, and if we aren’t engaging in the behaviors we want to be engaging in (or we have behaviors that are detrimental to our goals) we end up not being able to produce the yields.

 

Allies (Optional): You can add two additional categories to your niche analysis (which I think really helps create a fuller niche analysis).  Allies are those things that help you produce yields and facilitate the behaviors that you want to engage in. These, again can be anything from free time to supportive partners, to, in my case, rivers and chickens. Think about your support system external to you: these are your allies.  Those that help you move forward with whatever it is you want to accomplish. We often draw strength by surrounding us with allies, and they are critical to acknowledge and to honor.

 

Predators (Optional): Finally, we come to predators.  In this niche analysis, they are defined as they things that harm or otherwise take away your ability to produce the yields you want to produce in the world.  Predators again can be anything at all: from problematic thinking to certain people to things happening in the world that drain you.  These are “predators” in the pejorative sense, not in the nature-oriented sense (which I discussed in a blog post earlier this year).  Identifying predators in our lives helps us better avoid them or find ways of managing them.

Creating your Personal Niche Analysis

You can create your personal niche analysis any way you like. I will give you some suggestions here that I have found are useful and helpful in creating it.

 

Get a large sheet of paper and markers. I find it is useful to do it on a large sheet of paper with colored markers, each color can represent a different element of the Personal Niche Analysis.  A large sheet of paper gives you more space to be thorough and really explore those different aspects of yourself. You can embrace the inner bard within to get visually creative with markers, paints, etc.   I’ve seen other nice niche analyses that people have done digitally, but that’s not quite my thing!

 

Open up a sacred space. The personal niche analysis is a wonderful spiritual activity: open up a sacred space/grove, say a small prayer, clear your mind with some meditation or color breathing, and then allow the niche analysis to flow from you.

 

Create Time for reflection.  As our first permaculture principle suggests, the personal niche analysis requires time for us just to interact, observe, and intuit our own gifts. Spend time really considering the different things that you bring.

 

Repeat this practice. We are always growing and evolving as people and the niche analysis can help us see that.  You can do a new personal niche analysis every year or few years to see how things have changed (revising the predators and allies, for example, is a really useful activity).

 

Use it to spur change and growth in your life!  Use the Personal Niche analysis as a reflective tool that will help you understand where you are now.  You can use goal setting, journaling, and other kinds of meditative work to help you move closer to your personal, spiritual, physical, social, family, or other goals.

 

Here is my sample personal niche analysis from my permaculture teacher training course this summer:

Dana's Personal Niche Analysis

Dana’s Personal Niche Analysis

In terms of how I used this niche analysis; after doing it, I spent some time meditating on it and thinking about it.  Are there needs I’m not currently having fulfilled?  Are there behaviors that are negative (that I chose not to represent?)  How often am I producing the yields I want to be producing?  This niche analysis can help us engage in deep reflection on ourselves and create a richer understanding of who and what we are!

 

I’d love to hear how this works for you as a spiritual exercise–please share if you end up using this as part of your spiritual work. This doesn’t have to take long, and it is a really useful first step for the inner work of permaculture. In the next post on this series, we’ll explore the same principle from the outer world.