The Druid's Garden

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

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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Awaiting the Sunrise: Holding an Outdoor Winter Solstice Vigil December 17, 2016

Winter Solstice Fire Vigil

Winter Solstice Fire Vigil

A group of people make music and merriment near a roaring fire during the longest night of the year. Their mission: to await the sunrise and hold vigil through the darkness with feasting, celebration, and the burning of the sacred yule log. The winter solstice vigil–lasting upwards of 15 hours in the darkness can be one of the most intensive, challenging, and rewarding experiences.  I’ve succeeded at one all-night vigil and failed at one all-night vigil (due to underpreparedness, see later in the post) and yet both have been moving experiences.  This year, on the 21st, a group of us is going to attempt an outdoor all night vigil.  At this point, the weather looks good (not dipping below 30 degrees and clear) which is about the best Winter Solstice Vigil weather you can ask for!

 

In preparation for next week’s vigil, I thought I’d take the opportunity today to reflect on the art of preparing for vigil, doing the vigil, and offering some contextualization for this kind of initiatory work. For one, I’m going to do vigil with some folks who haven’t done it before (and I started writing this for them and realized how useful it would be for others). Its a good idea to know what you are really in for with the Winter Solstice Vigil! But for two, I think its good information for anyone wanting to attempt such a vigil. I’ll cover the history of such a vigil, how to prepare physically and spiritually, what to do during your vigil, and offer simple rituals for both the setting and rising sun.  While this post is primarily focused on outdoor vigils, I’ll also include some tidbits about alterations if you aren’t able to be outside for the all night vigil.

 

Understanding and Defining “Vigil”

The term “vigil” itself gives us some understanding of the nature of this work.  The term vigil derives from Latin vigilia, which means “wakefulness.” When we look at a few dictionary definitions of “vigil” we get the following kinds of phrases: “a devotional watching, or keeping awake, during the customary hours of sleep“; “a purposeful wakefulness”; or “a period of keeping awake during the time usually spent asleep, especially to keep watch or pray.” All of these definitions offer us useful understanding and insight into the nature of a vigil and why one would take it on.  The Winter Solstice vigil is certainly a vigil–not usually so much of a solemn one, but one of wakefulness, watching, and sacredness where we work to tend our fires and eventually, welcome the sun back over the land.

 

The Winter Solstice: A Bit of History

Ceremony at the Winter Solstice reaches back, in some parts of the world, to pre-history.  The basic premise is simple: before the days of modern electric lighting, humans lived more closely with the seasons.  The days of darkness, where the earth seemed to stand still, needed humans’ help to bring the light back into the world.  And so, much of the celebrations and feasting at the time was focused on light and life.

 

Fires that burn against the darkness...

Fires that burn against the darkness…

For example, Sí an Bhrú (New Grange), is a neolithic monument in Ireland that is at least 5,000 years old.  New Grange is a large, circular earth chamber with a long stone entrance that is illuminated with the rays of the sunrise on the Winter Solstice. In other parts of the world, especially throughout Europe, the Winter Solstice was often celebrated with feasting and bonfires.  Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival of feasting, gift giving, and revelry in honor of Saturn, was originally on Dec 17th, but later expanded to Dec 17th – Dec 23rd.  Many Celtic peoples celebrated the “birth of the sun” or the “return of the sun” around the Solstice  (and it is no surprise that evergreen boughs were used to celebrate these events, given evergreen’s connection to life and longevity). A yule log was burned, sometimes with feasting lasting days or weeks.

 

With the rise of Christianity in the 4th century, the Catholic Church proclaimed that the “Birth of Christ” was on Dec 25th to tie to older feasting and merriment traditions.  So even today’s modern celebrations of “Christmas” hearken back to much older Winter Solstice traditions. Even today, we have houses lit up with lights, evergreen trees surrounded with lights and colorfully wrapped packages–all magical ways of raising up the sun.

 

All of this background is useful when thinking about the framing of a druid winter solstice ritual and vigil.  The mood is not solemn here, although solemn work and initiatory work can certainly happen. Rather, this is a patient wait–through celebration and feasting–for the rising of the Solstice sun.  Let’s now turn to some practical considerations before undertaking such a vigil.

 

Inner and Outer Preparation for the Solstice Vigil

Preparing for a winter solstice vigil requires both inner and outer preparation, which I’ll now describe.  Without both considerations, an all-night vigil can be dangerous and/or unsuccessful.  Such was the result of my first attempt at a winter solstice vigil. This was very early in my druid path, and I had really no idea what I was doing. I went to my sacred circle with my hat, gloves, and coat; a big pile of wood; a blanket; a tarp; and a thermos of hot tea; thinking that I would last the night and wait for the rising of the sun. For one, I had no idea how long this night was, nor how hard it was to hold vigil on my own. I quickly ran out of tea and wood, and a dwindling fire was not enough to keep the darkness and cold at bay.  Sometime deep in the quiet night, I grew too cold and the fire grew too dim and I and went back inside to my warm bed.  Better physical preparation could have substantially made this first attempt at a vigil more comfortable!

 

The general rule of thumb for these kinds of vigils is to over-prepare. That is, bring more warm clothes than you need, more food than you need, and more of any other supplies (like wood) than you think you’ll need.

 

Outer preparation: Common sense. The weather can be very variable in December and I ask that you please use common sense.  A night when it is 35 and the sky is dumping freezing rain down on you is a good way to get hypothermia, not enjoy a winter solstice vigil.  Tend to the weather carefully and only attempt this if you are sure you will be safe, warm, and dry.  This is my take on it–some years are not good for vigil.  I’ll still celebrate, but maybe I’ll light a candle in my window, or hold vigil in my house by the fire.  There are other ways of celebrating this–and what I offer here is one of many approaches.

 

Outer Preparation: Clothing. If you have never spent a cold night outside before, you may not realize how difficult it is to stay in a single place and hold vigil when it is less than 30 degrees Fahrenheit (which is fairly common for the places I’ve lived).  What this means, for you, realistically are several things: first, you need a lot of warm clothing, preferably of natural fibers like wool or fur. Second, you need to make sure you stay covered throughout the night, including the part of you that is not going to be near the fire (read, extra wool blankets).  Bring more than you think you will need, including a warm sleeping bag.  All of these things can help you get through the cold night.  Having another warm body (a dog, a snuggle partner) is also very helpful.

Friend Building a simple fireplace to reflect heat

Friend Building a simple fireplace to reflect heat

 

Outer Preparation: A Good Fire.  There are a lot of ways of making fire, and making a blazing bonfire is not, actually, a good way to stay warm throughout the night.  Big fires require a lot of wood, and a 14 or more hour fire will consume huge amounts of it, blasting heat in all directions.  If there are enough folks to go the whole way around the fire, this is OK.  But more commonly, there aren’t that many people willing to stay up all night in the darkness!  If there are only a few of you, the better approach is to use bricks or stones and build up a reflective surface, then building the fire against that surface (see photo above).  The photo shows is a simple fire setup that is small but that will reflect much more heat due to the fire bricks piled up behind.  This would also stay lit in the rain and snow for much longer.  If I had had this kind of setup during my first  vigil, I likely would have made it longer into the night!

 

Outer Preparation: Hot Rocks: One of the strategies I learned about holding vigil has to do with hot rocks or hot bricks.  The strategy is simple: have some old towels and stones or bricks available.  I especially like a large flat stone that I can sit on. Putting the bricks/stones close to the fire to warm them, then wrapping them with a towel and sitting with them, really helps keep the cold at bay.  A largish one makes an amazing seat at 2am in the cold!

 

Outer Preparation: Hot food and Drinks:Warm food and feasting are a necessary part of a Winter Solstice vigil, in the tradition of so many millennia of feasting and celebration around this time of year.  I have a smallish iron cauldron to hang over the fire and a 12 quart dutch oven for the fire that I will be bringing to our ceremony to keep the hot liquids and foods flowing all evening for participants. Warm drinks of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety are necessary for a vigil. I don’t drink, I prefer warming herbal teas or cider mulled with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and orange peels.

 

Outer Preparation: First Aid. Its not a bad idea to have some general first aid materials available, especially if you are going to be doing your Winter Solstice vigil somewhere far away from civilization.  Preferably, also it is a good idea to have someone along who knows how to administer basic first aid.

 

Outer Preparation: Seating.  If you are using a chair sitting up, you will need to somehow wrap or protect your body against the chilly air from behind.  Sitting on blankets or wrapping yourself in a sleeping bag can work well for this, especially for the back parts of you away from the fire. I prefer to sit on the ground, but that presents its own unique challenges as the ground obviously gets frozen and really cold this time of year.  To sit on the ground for a period of hours successfully requires you to protect from cold and damp.  I use a tarp as my base layer to protect from the damp.  Then, I usually start with a sheep skin (which I have used for many ceremonies) and a few layers of blankets on top.

 

Inner/Outer Preparation: A Yule Log: The Yule Log tradition has many variations, but I like to use one for the Winter Solstice Fire Vigil.  A Yule log should ideally come from someone’s property or be found, never bought.  It is usually a tree or part of a tree, like a large stump.  The large stump will burn through the night, and that’s part of the tradition.  Usually, the log is somehow specially prepared and magically prepared; one older tradition has it wrapped in evergreen and doused in cider.  In my grove events, we’ve painted it with natural dyes, wood burned the log, added springs of cedar, and have done many other things to honor the log before it is added to the Winter Solstice fire.  The ashes of this log, and fire, are distributed to participants and are excellent for land blessings and tree planting ceremonies, among other things.

 

Inner Preparation: The Mindset:  In advance, it is a good idea to set some mental limits to the event and understand when you shouldn’t or should end the vigil: if you can’t feel your fingers and toes, maybe its time to end the vigil.  If you fall asleep, is that ok?  What about if everyone else wants to go home and off to sleep? Give some thought to what you will or will not do, given certain circumstances, in advance, to help your preparation.

 

Inner Preparation: Facing the Darkness. The other part of this ceremony, as with fasting and many other kinds of initiatory work, is that you really do push your body and spirits in ways to its limits.   Physically, the body may not be used to staying up all night, nor used to being in the cold for so long, or sitting by the fire for that many hours.  Understanding, going into this, that this is a sacred ceremony is important.  Also, you will be in the darkness for a long time.  You may, deep in the night, have to face your own darkness.  The darkness is darkest, and scariest, just before dawn.  I will never forget the end of a vigil evening I spent in the woods by myself–I had never been so happy to see the sun rise, and I was so proud that I stuck it out till that moment.  My own preparation for this kind of deep work involves sitting in darkness for some time for 30 min or so in the days leading up to the ceremony and doing other things to embrace the darkness this time of the year (you might look at my post from last Winter Solstice on embracing the darkness for many suggestions).

 

Opening the Vigil: A Ceremony

Serenading the setting sun....

Serenading the setting sun….

So if you are still reading, then we are ready for the Solstice eve to come and for the ceremony to begin! I have found that the vigil evening is essentially composed of three pieces: the vigil opening ceremony (which may be attended by more folks than those who are doing the all night vigil), the vigil itself, which involves feasting, merriment, as well as quiet times, and the vigil closing ceremony, which honors the rising sun.  I’ll take these each in turn, starting with the opening ceremony.

 

We will do our vigil opening ceremony just as the sun is setting, which for us, is about 5pm on the night of the Solstice.  Because we will have a larger group for this and for the first part of the vigil, but only some staying for the entire vigil, we keep this in mind as part of the ceremony. Note that we do not yet have our fire lit at the beginning of the ceremony (it is lit during the ceremony itself); this is so that we can spend some time in the darkness and the setting sun.

  1.  Opening up a sacred space: As the darkness settles, we open a sacred space.  In the druid tradition, this includes proclaiming the intent of the ceremony, declaring peace in the quarters, cleansing the space with the elements, making an offering to the spirits of the land, and casting the circle around the entire space where we will be.
  2. The Vigil Opening Ceremony.  There are lots of things that you can do for this–here is what we are planning:
    1. We will begin by speaking of the Winter Solstice and, the history of how humans have celebrated this time with light and fire, and of the darkness and wheel of the year.
    2. We will all sit for a time in meditation, in the growing darkness, honoring silently the setting sun and preparing for the vigil of the evening.
    3. We will light our fire, honoring the light of this season and welcoming the sun to return after his long sleep.
    4. Once the fire is going, we ceremoniously add the yule log.
    5. In the spirit of the AODA tradition, we invoke the three currents (solar, telluric, and lunar) radiating a blessing out to the land.
    6. We begin the vigil, which starts with a feast and merriment.

It is sometimes the case that folks will want to join you for the opening (or for sunset and sunrise) but do not want to join you for the entire vigil for any number of reasons.  These choices should be honored.  Those who wish to stay will stay, and still, be supported by those who will not stay for the whole night.  There should never be any pressure to stay, or not to stay, during such an intensive ceremony.  A magical space (circle) should be prepared in such a way as people can pass in and out of it with ease, if this is to be the case.  This will certainly be the case for our group this upcoming week.

 

The Vigil: Continued Ceremony

In my experience, there  are really two ways you can go about your vigil: the time-honored tradition of fesating and merriment, using food, song, dance, and celebration to push back the cold and dark.  The second is a time for powerful initiation into the deeper mysteries of the winter months, the darkness, and the time of cold and rest.  I have found that both of these often happen in the same night during a winter solstice vigil. At some point, the feasting and merriment subsides and the darkness sets in, visions and waking dreams begin. Both are useful and powerful, and like the ebb and flow of the tide, both often happen in the course of the ewvening.  Recognizing this, and honoring this, is part of the process.

 

Here are a few suggestions for how to keep awake and the vigil going:

 

Ritual feast: Holding a feast as part of the ritual is a wonderful way to keep everyone warm and happy.  Ask folks to bring food that can either be heated up or that is kept warm.  Our site doesn’t have electricity, so people will use blankets and such to keep food warm. 

 

Eisteddfod festival: Holding a bardic Eisteddfod is a wonderful way to pass some of the night.  The Eisteddfod includes any of the bardic arts: storytelling, music, dancing, and song.  People take turns and, if you have enough people, a bardic competition can also take place.

 

Sharing your Life Story: Because you have 14+ hours, you have an opportunity for the deepest kinds of meaningful conversations with others around the fire. During my successful past vigil, one of the ways we managed the time was having each of us take an hour or so to tell the important parts of our life stories, the things that shaped us as human beings and put us on our spiritual paths.  As the sun rose, after hearing the stories of everyone around the fire, and sharing my own story, I felt an extremely close connection to those.

 

Darkness walks. One of the other things I really like to do, especially if there is some moonlight, is to take a break from the fire and to simply walk the land, seeing what things look like in the darkness, and feeling its power fully.

 

Sleeping area. The alternative to flat out leaving the area is to have a “sleeping area” (for us, a hayloft with warm sleeping bags) for those who need a few hours of sleep.  One variant on the vigil tradition is that its more like a watch: as long as someone is holding the space and tending the fire, that practice can be rotated.  So some people may go off to sleep for a few hours and then spell off others.  This is another good way to get through the evening and the vigil becomes a group effort.

 

The Ceremony of Welcoming Back the Sun

Sunrise - bliss!

Sunrise – bliss!

After the longest night, it is a blessing beyond all blessings to see the light rising again into the world.  There are so many ways to welcome back the sun, and I will share a few of those here.

  1. A Norse tradition that I rather like for welcoming back the sun is ringing bells right as the sun rises over the hills/land.  They ring clearly and brightly, welcoming the sun back.
  2. Drumming up the sun or playing music (if neighbors aren’t too close by)
  3. Letting the fire burn down as the sun rises–the fire was holding space for the sun, and as the sun rises, letting the sun regain that fire is a good way of ending the ceremony.
  4. Silent observation, observing the ever-changing landscape as the sun returns.  Once the sun is up, you can then do any other ceremonial work.
  5. Honoring the sun with singing, dancing, and merriment – if you have anything left in you, this is also a wonderful idea.
  6. Making offerings to the sun and to bless the land.  I have bottles of dandelion wine that I made for several years and like to offer the sun, the giver of life, some of this wine.

Now, you don’t have to do the whole vigil to wake up and honor the sun. There is nothing that says you can’t do the ritual at night, still get a decent night sleep, and then wake up before the sun to welcome it back to the land.  So these can work regardless of whether or not you are doing the vigil.

 

Once you’ve honored the sun and observed its rising, you can thank the elements and close the sacred space.  Likely, then, it is a good idea to go and get some sleep. Many solstice blessings to my readers–and may your dark nights be filled with merriment, inspiration, and joy!

 

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing, Part VIII: Rainbow Workings and other Palliative Care Strategies for Damaged Lands April 16, 2016

I had the most amazing thing happen to me about a month ago, and it involved the direct (palliative) healing of an active strip mine site.  I was heading to teach an herbalism course at a friend’s business about 15 minutes away from where I live.  My drive this requires me to cross a divided highway and do a u-turn at a site that is a very new active strip mine.  They aren’t fully removing the mountain, but they are certainly cutting into it quite a bit, and ripping up the entire surface of the land in the process. For a while, I’ve been driving past this spot, and energetically, it just feels bad, like in the pit of your belly bad. I knew something was to be done, but I wasn’t sure what. So I kept visiting, listening, and being told “wait” (using the same strategies I’ve shared with you earlier in this series). And so, wait I did.

 

Rainbow Working!

Rainbow Working!

That particular day when I was going to teach my class, we had both sunshine and storms. Rain would pour for five minutes and then it would be sunny again.  These are such fun days to enjoy, and usually rainbows abound.  I hadn’t yet seen one, but I had anticipated it, and sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed.  Just I was turning around, I saw a rainbow–it was right in front of me, on the road ahead. I decided to follow it slowly with my car, and suddenly, it jumped. When it jumped, I looked to my left, and there it was, coming down right in the center of the whole strip mine operation. Now, for anyone who has studied the old Celtic, underworld, and fairy lore, a jumping rainbow is described as an old trick to lead you somewhere–and that’s definitely what happened in this case.

 

Now, every day, as part of my AODA practice, I connect with the three currents (a strategy I’d suggest in preparation for this kind of work; I’ll talk more about this later in this post). I’m pretty adept, at this point, in channeling down the solar current. I connected with that rainbow, with the sun’s rays reflecting off of those droplets of water and pulled it down, deep down, into the darkness and suffering of that strip mine. I sat for quite a while and channeled down that energy, and as I did, the rainbow grew brighter, and more brilliant.  At some point, the work felt done.  The land felt cleaner.  More at peace with what was happening.  The worst of the bad energy was gone. Each time since I’ve visited that spot, the effects of the rainbow remain.

 

Now, obviously, a rainbow working is not really something you can plan!  But, I did want to share this as a potent land healing strategy to open up today’s post. And I think what I can share is that even if you don’t have the blessing of a rainbow over the spot you want to help heal, you do have the energy of the sun frequently, and it can be used in various ways–as we’ll explore today, along with other strategies for palliative care.

 

Why Palliative Care?

When I started this land healing series, I started with descriptions of the different kinds of healing work you can do: physical and energetic land healing for sites that need active regeneration and healing (which is where things like permaculture fit) and palliative care (for sites that cannot yet be healed and are underging active harm).  Today’s post is going to explore specific land healing strategies for palliative care that you can engage in–these are specific strategies for sites that are just like the rainbow working above: these sites have ongoing active destruction or are far from what nature intended. As before, if you haven’t read the earlier parts in this series, I would strongly suggest that you do so, as the series builds from the previous posts: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI and Part VII.

 

I think that Palliative Care for sites that are currently experiencing destruction and suffering is just as hard to deal with as the impending destruction of a natural site (which I talked about two weeks ago); both of these give you a sense of powerlessness that is difficult to deal with. You want to look away.  You want to disengage.  But instead, I suggest you try to engage, to help, to heal.  Because I can tell you this–nobody else is doing this work on our landscapes. If we, as druids and those who love the land and hold her sacred can’t do it, then who can?  Even when looking at that strip mine, that logged landscape, that fracking well, that acidic river (the ones I deal with here most often), know that that what I am looking at is still the living earth and it is still sacred land.  This kind of stuff is not one a druid meandering through the woods wants to find, but it is unfortunately a common reality that we face in the age of 21st century industrialism.

 

I believe that every age has its own spiritual challenges, and that our spiritual practices are often born from what we experience; I certainly see responding to this kind of experience as necessary for a druid living in such times. And to me, we are in a unique position to do something, and I believe, even for sites that are actively being destroyed and harmed, that something can have very long-term implications.  Consider palliative care like the first stage in the healing process–you are setting the stage for what is to come.

 

Palliative Care and Energetic Changes

I want to start by saying that nearly all of the strategies I outlined two weeks ago for sites that are going to be destroyed also work for palliative care. These include: working with the stones, working with Indian Ghost Pipe as a plant ally, putting the land in hibernation, and saving seeds. These are strategies that can do tremendous good for sites that are undergoing active harm.

 

At the same time, there is a large energetic difference between these two kinds of sites: namely,  a site that is not yet destroyed doesn’t have this energetic darkness and active suffering that a site that is destroyed carries.  Its that energetic darkness that is the focus of some of my work in palliative care, and so, I generally find myself doing a lot more energetic cleansing work on actively destroyed sites, and hence, that’s what today’s post will mainly focus on.

 

I’d also like to share that the energetic nature of active destruction changes over time, and I think, is due in part to where in the process things are occurring.  If a site has been actively destroyed for a long period of time, you often encounter this energetic deadness or a complete lack of vitality. A lot of the rivers around here are like that–they have been acidic and poisonous to life for half a century or more–this means that they are largely “dead” feeling, where the active strip mine site (a new operation less than a year old) is energetically very dark and intense.

 

What I do depends on a number of factors. I generally don’t do much with the dead sites unless I know active healing can happen–I think that the deadness is better than most other things, in that there is no active suffering, and the land has figured out how to numb itself and the spirits have retreated.  So for these, I might say a small prayer or blessing, but otherwise, leave them be. I am certainly not going to do anything to “wake” that site back up or call those spirits back until it is time and active healing work can begin. When it is time for real healing to take place though, the “deadened” land then needs you to come in and give it a burst of light and life (see upcoming post!)

 

Most sites actively under siege, instead, have this really dark intensity to them and feel really “wrong” and “awful” just being near them.  For example, when I was visiting a friend in West Virginia not too long ago, I was driving and was struck with this horribly awful feeling as I rounded the bend.  Turned out, just around the next bend was a huge gravel/sand pit, cutting into the mountainside–and that was the source of the suffering.  This is exactly the kind of site that could benefit from palliative care. And so, my real focus today, is on active suffering and sites that have that energetic darkness, sickness, feeling of absolute wrongness, that pervades them.

 

Solar Blessings and Getting Rid of the Worst of the Energetic Darkness

A sacred pool uniting heaven and earth, the solar and the telluric

A sacred pool uniting heaven and earth, the solar and the telluric (see below)

So about 5 posts ago in this series, I shared information on the three currents and how ancient peoples, and modern ones, can use the currents to help heal and bless the land.  In the case of palliative care, nearly all of the problems we have are with the currents of energy in the earth, the telluric currents. The telluric currents govern what is on the land and of the land, what is on and of the earth, and that’s where the bulk of the problems for industrialized cultures, great and small, arise.  It is the uncontrolled fossil fuel use, an earthly treasure, that has our world’s climate in chaos; it is the pillaging of earthly resources that are really causing so many palliative situations to occur. These telluric currents become easily corrupted by the many earthly activities that pervade industrialized society: gravel pits, strip mines, regular mining operations, pesticides and industrialized farming, fracking, tar sands, logging, typical lawn care, and more. And so, I have found that attending to the telluric currents, by way of ancient knowledge, can tremendously help in palliative care.

 

I have found that you can effectively use the solar currents to clear away, or purify, the worst of the energetic darkness of sites under active destruction.  There are lots of ways to do this, and one of them was how I opened this post: a rainbow working! There are many, many ways to channel the solar currents down into the telluric, and this is an excellent way to get rid of the energetic crud, the worst of the suffering, and provide some respite.  I kind of see this work like providing a healing balm to soothe the energetic effects of active destruction.  You aren’t solving the problem by any means, but you are certainly doing something that really helps.

 

Most of my strategies for channeling the solar (sun) down into the telluric currents (the energy of the earth) for purification and blessing involve using specific rituals within the AODA framework.  These include the AODA’s sphere of protection (which I use most often), our seasonal grove rituals (found in the Druid Grove Handbook) or the communion ceremony from the Gnostic Celtic Church (found in the Gnostic Celtic Church Handbook).  Each of these rituals establish the space and then, as the core work of the ritual, connect to the energy of the sun, the earth, and awaken the telluric current.  I’ll share one simple derivations here, but I wanted you to understand where a lot of what I do comes from and where you can get more extended versions.  I’ve been working in this tradition for over a decade, and I think, in its own way, maybe it led me to this work by putting the perfect tools in my hands!

 

So a simple way to channel the solar down into the telluric is through AODA’s Sphere of Protection working as a basic framework.  I’m giving a simplified version of it here, and you can add and adapt as necessary.   I would begin by going to an area that needed some palliative care, and, as I mentioned before in earlier posts, ascertain the nature of the work at hand.  If I felt led, I would do the following:

  • Grounding and centering myself for the work at hand.  Part of this is opening myself up for the flow of energies, breathing deeply, and feeling rooted in the living earth. As part of the grounding and centering, I would open up some kind of protective space (even if its as simple as drawing a circle on the ground, or in the air as white light).
  • I would next go to the east, and call in the positive qualities of the east to aid the land and me in the working.  Then I would banish in the east, driving away any harmful or disturbing energies. I’d then go to the south, west, and north, doing the same thing: calling upon the positive qualities of the element and banishing the negative ones.  As you get used to doing this, you’ll find you can banish the negative qualities in larger and larger regions and areas–and this is super helpful for clearing work.
  • At each of the quarters, I would use my senses to experience that element in the world around me, identifying the influence of those four elements on the landscape: in the east I might look at the movement of the air, pay attention to the smell of the air, the birds in the sky, seeds blowing in the wind, and so on.
  • Then, I would invoke the three currents:  I would first draw a circle on the ground and invoke the telluric current, envisioning it rising through the circle as a greenish-gold light.  I would assess its purity and flow.  Then I would trace a circle in the air and pull down the solar current, envisioning it as a yellow flame coming down from the sun and the celestial heavens.
  • I would intone the “Awen” and then draw upon everything I had called: the four elements and the currents to unify the currents, awakening the lunar current and sending the solar deep within the telluric.   I would envision energy coming from each of the four directions, from the sky, and down, into the telluric.
  • I would envision this work as long as necessary, sometimes for several minutes, sometimes for a half hour or more.  Usually it doesn’t take too long, but it depends on the area.  When I felt the work was done, I would close the space (but would not send away what I had called).

That’s it in a nutshell–there’s more to it than that, but I think that’s enough for you to work with, and adapt, as you see fit.  I would say that there are more elaborate rituals and workings using these energies, but doing something basic, to start, is a good way to begin.  Some of you, who are new to ritual work, might say, “yes, but does it work?” The truth is, I cannot believe the potency and usefulness of the Sphere of Protection alone in much of this work.  I find its an extremely versatile for a lot of different kinds of land healing (and other healing) work.

 

Standing Stones

As I wrote about in my third post of the series (which helps set up today’s post) as well as my recent post on sacred gardening, humans have long been using standing stones, temples, trees, ceremonies, and more to channel the solar energies into the land for healing and abundance–but I have found these work fantastically for palliative care.  The reason is simple–setting a standing stone or using some other key marker to help channel down the solar current is a working that takes time and space to achieve.  Unlike a ritual, which radically alter a space and its energetic profile quite quickly, a standing stone is slow work, over time, over potentially a lot of time.  This lends itself well to palliative care, because its like a slow-releasing healing agent.  I’m having difficulty putting into words exactly what I mean here, but I hope you get my meaning.

 

Setting the standing stone in the pool!

Hermes is setting the standing stone in the pool!

So just this past week, two druids snuck into the woods into the park north of town and worked to set a standing stone in the forest; the same forest where many gas wells are present. We did this because here is a place, in the heart of fracking country, where the waters and forests and lands are under active duress. We had come across a natural spring earlier in the week on a hike, a tiny spring that pops up only in the springtime of the year or after heavy rains.  It was barely noticeable, but eventually flowed into a small stream with moss-covered stones. We carefully cleared away the leaves and sticks to see what we could find, and were excited with the discovery of three trickles of water welling up from the earth, almost in the shape of an awen.  The next day, we came back better prepared and set some rocks below the spring to created a small gazing pool.  Then we went off in search of a standing stone–and sure enough, within about 10 minutes, we were delighted to find a perfect standing stone for the pool.  We set that stone as a long-term healing presence, to bless these waters, those that flow past so many of those gas wells, and later, one fracking well.  To help bless all these waters that are under duress from the many fracking activities here, to cleanse and nurture the telluric currents, the spirits of these lands, and the physical forest during this difficult time.  The interesting thing about this particular spot is that its right along a fairly well-used path, so if passerby are looking in the right direction at the right time, the pool and standing stone will be quite evident!  Now, we didn’t do any ritual work at the spot–we just wanted to set the stone and let it do its good work for  a while.  However, we could come back at a later point, when we felt it was time, and do that work.

 

Land Shrines

Even if you can’t set a standing stone, I have found that a small shrine, carefully placed and tended, can work wonders over a period of time. Perhaps you create a simple stone cairn and pour blessed waters (see below) over it every season.  Perhaps you plant a rare native plant and surround it with stones.  The actual shrine, and what goes into it, can be intuitive.  But these small places are healing, they are like a light in the dark. For land that is suffering, what your shrine does is give it a focal point, something to hang onto, something to direct its attention and let the spirits of that land know that someone is thinking about them, wishing them well, and saying that we are here in support.  I have made many such shrines over the years–small places, hidden places, that I quietly go and visit.  You will get a sense, from the land itself, about how often you need to come and what you can do while you are there.

 

Music and Song

Playing the panflute for the land

Me playing the panflute for the land

I’ve mentioned before on this blog about the wonderful (and often subversive) nature of music and singing for any land healing work. This is healing work, of any variety, that can be done publicly and openly. I have found that certain songs, especially old folk songs, work particularly well for soothing the land, and allowing it to prepare for what is to come, and putting it to sleep.

If you use this technique, you will develop your own songs that that have meaning and may even be given songs to use with the land–but I would start with the melodies of old folk songs, songs that have been sung in your lands for several generations at least–and use those. I found a book once, at a local cave that was open to the public, called “Back Porch Melodies” and it had almost 50 folk songs–many of these I found useful and adapted them to my practices. I may change the lyrics or play them on my panflute, but the songs resonate deeply and the music can soothe and help pave the way.

 

Blessed Waters for Damaged Rivers

Another thing that I have done over a period of time is to collect and bless sacred waters (see this post for a ritual to create them).  I usually do this work at Imbolc or the Spring equinox each year–when the waters are flowing and the spring is returning. I began working with blessed waters many years ago,as part of my work with water over a period of years.  Now, I have this sacred water, used for countless ceremonies over the years, and from countless places all over the world, that I use as part of my land healing work.  Because the rivers, the lakes, and the oceans are one of the things tremendously under distress, a little bit of healing water goes a long way.  I have placed a few drops of my water into the headwaters of various rivers, so that as they go and become more polluted, the healing waters are still there, flowing. I also place them into the polluted rivers themselves, dropping a single drop or two in with prayers (think homeopathic doses, here!).  I use the sacred waters to drip on the roots of trees and plants, to lathe stones, to pour over healing altars and standing stones, and much more.  I have found that carrying a little bit of this water with me anywhere I am means that I am always ready and able to do some healing work. And I can give it away to others, and then they can do good work as well!

 

I replenish the sacred waters, adding to them, by visiting springs and other local healing wells.  These have an abundance of good telluric energy and you can multiply the sacred waters you create as much as you need to.

 

Moving Earth

This last strategy I’m going to share today for palliative care is one that I’ve used only once, but I think its an important one,  and some of you may find yourself also as needing to do this work.  When I first moved to MI, there was this big shopping mall area–it had a stadium, all these highways, buildings, even a big giant garbage mountain that they were doing as a dump.  But the area just felt sacred to me, in ways it normally wouldn’t have.  Every time I was there (I had to drive past it on my way to campus each day), I would see the most amazing things: spirals of birds, the light of the sun peeking through the clouds, interesting cloud formations, etc.  It was just slightly more magical, more sacred, than everywhere else around it.  So one day, I went to the site, climbed up on a big hill near a big box home improvement store, and lay among the weeds, listening with my inner and outer senses, and observing.  I saw a vision of the site, what it had been (indeed, a sacred place for peoples before), and how much it was suffering now–it was very much awake and alive, and being used in a very unsacred manner.  I was asked, very clearly, to gather up a small handful of soil from the site for a year period–at each of the solstices and equinoxes.  I did this and then, had the bowl of soil at my house for some time on one of my altars.  Finally, I was led to move the soil to a very sacred place, an old growth forest.  When I next drove by the shopping mall area, it wasn’t sacred any longer.  I had somehow…transferred…what was sacred there to a place it could reside.  This was certainly a kind of palliative care, but in this case, it was literally transferring something sacred to somewhere else.

 

Closing

I hope that this set of strategies proves useful to you in your ongoing land healing work–and please comment and share your own strategies, thoughts, and experiences.  I’m especially interested in hearing from you about my last two weeks of posts–and the many specific strategies that I’m sharing.  I believe I have 1-2 more posts to write to complete this series, at least at this time. Blessings to all!

 

Druid Tree Workings: Holding Space and Helping Tree Spirits Pass August 24, 2015

In the last year, I’ve written much about druid tree workings, or the spiritual work one can do with trees and other plants. For more on this series, see these posts: the face of the tree, connecting with trees on the inner planes, connecting with trees on the outer planes. And there comes a time when one of your tree friends–or many–face cruel reality of the chainsaw. What then, does one do when one hears the cry of the forest? This, dear readers, is a very different kind of tree working, and one that I’ve been compelled to share.

 

The sound of the chainsaw and the cry of the forest…

I recently moved into a new rented house in the small town in Western PA where I’ll spend the next phase of my life.  In my tiny backyard and on the side of the house are several beautiful sugar maples. I met the new owners of the house next door (they also just moved in), and they mentioned to me how they were having a tree cut that was growing sort of close to the house. Deeply saddened, I told them it was a sugar maple, an if they just trimmed it back, it was no danger to their house, and if they’d like, I could show them how to tap it for maple sugar and make syrup in the late winter. They seemed interested, and I had hoped I had hoped that I’d convinced them that this life was worth saving…but alas, it was to no avail. Less than a week later, the tree men arrived. At first, it appeared that they were just carefully trimming it back, and I was joyous because I felt like I had saved the tree. But then, on the tree cutters’ break, I spoke with them, and they told me that they were bringing it down. They were sad to cut it too, cause they thought they could have just trimmed it and it was no danger to the house.

 

A few weeks after that, for whatever reason, my town decided to cut down a number of very old trees lining the sidewalks. Again the sound of the chainsaw reverberates through town.  I’ve always dreaded the sound of fossil fuel powered equipment–its the sound of humanity cutting back nature, and it brings tears to my eyes. From the lawnmower cutting back ecological succession and compressing the soil to the weed whacker cutting down (nearly always) medicinal herbs, to my least favorite, the buzz of the chainsaw.

 

And so, with unnerving frequency, I’ve had the sound of chainsaw reverberating in my small house, and I have watched as several beautiful beautiful beings have been taken down one limb at a time. It is such a heartbreaking thing, to be so powerless, to simply watch a life being ended, knowing there is nothing you can do to stop it. What a strange world we live in. To most people, they see a tree being cut. To me, I see a living and beautiful being, with a soul and a spirit. I see that being crying out in pain, I hear its sorrow, I feel its pain. I feel the mourning of the fellow sugar maples and others around–they have grown here as a community for years. And now, their friend is no more, removed unjustly and unnecessarily, the wood unused and carted away.

 

A way of seeing and feeling…

Peaceful co-existence - a path through the woods.

Peaceful co-existence – a path through the woods.

Of course, my druidic lens is not that of typical people these days living in an instrumental and disenchanted world. Plants and trees feel pain? The arguments I see against this idea is that plants have no central nervous system or brain, so they can’t feel pain, they can’t communicate, they aren’t intelligent. However, just because plants don’t have the same systems as humans doesn’t mean they can’t feel or communicate those feelings, in fact, plants have analogous systems that work differently from ours.

 

 

This instrumentalist thinking, that plants or trees are mere objects, and that nobody should care or object to having them taken down, closely aligns with a disenchanted, instrumental view of the world. As I’ve shared on this blog before, one of the great losses to the western world came as our worldview was “disenchanted” through the rise of industrialization, materialism and rationalist science (and oh the irony, that is now science that shows that the world is really more enchanted than we can imagine!) Looking to some of the newest science to help us understand, since that’s what convinces people when other ways of experiencing the world can’t, we see that plants are intelligent–they learn, much as humans do. Plants communicate, sometimes over great distances. And yes, they feel pain and know if they are being eaten.

 

And so, we use the knowledge of science to explain what millennia of humans instinctively knew: that our world is living, breathing, intelligent and alive and that trees and plants and animals are feeling, breathing, alive beings deserving of respect.Of course, spiritual traditions and cultures spanning back across most of time have known that plants are more than a collection of living cells.  Its not new knowledge–its simply misplaced knowledge, lost to time and greed. And perhaps its time that we find that knowledge again.

 

Holding Space & Remembering

The powerlessness over something like a tree in a neighbor’s yard being cut down can be crushing. In a situation where humans are logging or engaging in other destruction and its done legally or within privately owned lands, what’s one to do?

 

One of the best things you can do for a being–of any kind–who is suffering or passing on is to hold space for them. Whether or not you have a spiritual calling for deeper work in this area, I believe all of us can at least hold space for what is happening, see it for what it is, and energetically support those whose lives are being taken before our eyes. You might do this by treating the tree or forest no different than a friend who is passing on. The same powerlessness exists in that situation as well. You can’t do much except be there, listen, witness, and hold the space.

 

A hawthorn tree...

A hawthorn tree…

I could speak about this at length, but each person’s methods for doing this work are, in some ways, their own. They are methods that develop as the need arises, intuitive things that each person does that is to the best of his or her abilities and gifts.

 

I can share a few strategies that are within my abilities and gifts.  Its not so much important what you do but that you do something if you feel led to–but here are a few ideas. First, I play music, and I have particular songs (folk songs) that are quite effective at easing suffering and allowing a more peaceful passing. The music is really effective for another reason–it can be used almost anywhere, especially when more overt magical work cannot take place.  Second, I take the time to simply sit, witness, and watch what is happening unfold. This is important–bearing witness. Third, I raise positive energy for the tree’s passing (and there are many ways to do this, depending on one’s tradition). Fourth, I do positive energy work for the others who have passed in the coming weeks and months–many are still there, they may have witnessed the loss, and they need support. Fifth, I apologize to the tree as it is cut, especially when a tree appears to be cut down for no good reason (as in the case of my new neighbors). An apology does much in the way of healing, and as a species, there is much healing to be done between ourselves and the land.

 

And finally, I remember. There are so many ways that one can remember. As I am an artist, I often paint trees that have been cut as a way of remembering them and their lives. Some stumps I pass quite often, and, each time I pass, I say a little prayer, make a small offering of water, or leave a flower or stone to honor the tree. Or simply walk by and touch the stump, pausing and acknowledging the life that was once there. If I can, I like to save some of the tree’s seeds or nuts and plant them in a field somewhere–this is a wonderful thing to honor a tree who has passed. This isn’t always possible, but if nothing else, I take a few leaves or branches and leave them in a nearby forest so that at least some of that tree can go back to the land and enter the nutrient cycles once again–this too is important. If nothing else, I burn a candle and honor the life that was that tree or that forest.

 

Sometimes you come after the trees or trees have been cut, but an area is freshly logged. Nearly all of my suggestions above will still work well. I like to keep a small flute in my car and if I see such an area and feel compelled to stop, I will stop, play a tune, and then continue on my way. I find myself doing this often now that I’ve returned to Penn’s Woods, especially given the amount of logging that takes place here.

 

There is much more that I could write at this point, but I feel that, for now, this is enough. I hope you find it helpful. I will close by warning you that this work is not taken on lightly–and it can be very draining, even with proper preparation and protection. Even so, its important work, and work that some are called to do, just as I’m now called to write and share.

 

Awen and the Spark of Creativity: The Value of Creative People July 5, 2012

A key principle in druidry is Awen, which means poetic/divine inspiration–the inspiration to bring forth creative efforts into the world. Many artists seek their inspiration in the natural world, through which Awen flows.  It is Awen that gives us poetry, music, theater, dance, art, and other forms of creative expression.  It is this creative expression that we celebrate as druids–but this is often at odds with much of American society.

In our society, the term “Starving Artist’ is an unfortunate reality. Those who are driven–to dance, to paint, to sing, to play instruments, or to put their creative pursuits out for others to enjoy–are often met with apathy, misunderstanding, or a general lack of value in their work.  Most artists cannot afford to support themselves with their talents; this is especially true of the innovators, those who try to break out of the box and really do something unique.  Many of my artist friends who are professional artists lament the fact that people just won’t pay for a nice painting (yet they’ll go to Target or Walmart and pay nearly as much for some reproduced print), they won’t go to local shows, and they generally don’t understand the value of original one-of-a-kind work.  People seem to find their entertainment in mass-produced forms, not forms created by individual artists.  So while Hollywood is alive and well and producing movies, independent filmmakers can’t even get 10 people to come to a showing.  Art has become just another commodity in our consumerist culture.

Awen flows in this Wedding Gift painting for a friend!

Awen flows in this Wedding Gift painting for a friend!

Or even worse, we have others through which much Awen flows, but whom have been stifled their whole life–the boy who wants to dance, but is forced not to by a machismo father; the girl who wants to paint but her parents know that she can’t make a living doing so; the man who learns to play his guitar in front of others but works three jobs and has no time to do so; or the woman who writes beautifully but continues to suffer rejection after rejection at the hands of publishers. Our culture doesn’t support creativity; and we certainly don’t value it.  Even in my own university writing classes, when I encourage creativity using open-ended projects, my students are often flabbergasted about choosing their own topic, doing their own research, in whatever media they think is appropriate.  They are more concerned with pleasing me, as their professor, than they are with genuinely producing something creative, interesting, and fulfilling. Of course, throughout their lives, they are punished for being “different,” taught only to understand and value what is on a test, and any creativity they have is squashed long before they enter higher education.

This all changes if we take away modern forms of entertainment.  When you go to a druid retreat in the mountains, where there is no phone, no TV, no smartphones or  internet….suddenly the creatives become the cornerstone of the community. All gather around the circle to hear storytellers weave their tales, musicians play their songs, and others share their creative pursuits.

Awen and those creative people through which Awen flows are the people who bring life and culture to our world–for what is living without music, art, crafts, theater, dance, creative writing and other forms of creative work? I truly believe that creativity is the most important gift that we, as humans, have to share with the world.