Category Archives: Primer on Druidry

Druidry for the 21st Century: Setting and Co-Creating Intentions with Nature

Colorful tree with spiral roots into the earth

Nature has so much magic, it benefits us always to work with her!

Intentions are powerful things. They allow us to shape our force of will and set a path forward.  They help us figure out what our own goals are. And I think because of that, we often see them as very personal. This is something that we do for our own purposes. In many western occult traditions, and even in druidry, intentions are often framed as highly internal things: things we set, things we want to manifest, things that help us shape our vision.  You’ll see this very frequently in any ritual work–set your intentions for a ritual, a creation, a space, a new piece of land, and so forth. I think a lot of this is influenced by western occultism, which unfortunately puts the practitioner in a place of power and at the center of a working. I also think a lot of this is culturally influenced–westerners are inherently individualistic and self-focused, and this individual focus is both subconscious and conscious. This self-focus is an enormous problem when it comes to building reciprocal relationships with nature.  Westerners also have a view of the land that implies ownership–ownership of lands gives full rights to do anything you want with it. Thus, it’s hard to say you are respecting the agency of the land and her spirits when you pretty much go in and do whatever you want to the land at any time.

I wanted to share an alternative approach that I’ve done with our land here, a way of moving me out of the center of my own intentions and instead considering intentions as a mutual and shared thing that I create in relationship with the living earth (for more on reciprocity and nature, see this post). If we open up our intentions and let the spirits of nature be co-creators in shaping intention, it can lead to some amazing results and allow us to cultivate reciprocal relationships with nature.

Reciprocation and Intention

I’ve been arguing that reciprocation should be a core value that we build into nature-based spiritual traditions. It is through reciprocation that we can build a stronger nature-based spiritual tradition, that we can work to repair the wrongs of previous generations (particularly those in relation to lands and indigenous peoples), that we can work to reverse colonialization, and that we can build a better future for all life on earth.  It is through reciprocation that we can begin to understand that humans are not above nature but are part of nature.  Reciprocation is also built into the Ancient Order of Druids in America (see our vision statement, here), the order where I am currently serving as Grand Archdruid.

I think that reframing intentions as something that can be reciprocal can move us a few steps in the right direction, both through our magical practices and our intentions for the living earth.

Intentions are the spark of an idea; they are an early commitment to moving in a particular direction, and they are often the beginning of a magical, spiritual, and/or physical practice (or something of all three).  So now let’s look at two ways we might shift intentions to a more reciprocal relationship.

Preliminaries: Nature Communication

In order to do any of the work I’m suggesting below, you will need ways of communicating with the spirits of nature and the land around you.  If you’ve been on a nature-based spiritual path or practice any kind of deep nature awareness, you probably don’t need anything I’m going to say and can skip this.  But if you are newer to this or unsure, I wanted to give you some options and resources.

  • Gut feelings and intuition. A lot of nature communication is based in feeling and understanding the signals that our body tells us.  In other words, when you walk into a forest, how do you feel? Do you feel welcome? Do you feel unwelcome and like the forest doesn’t want you there? Those initial gut feelings are a critical part of communicating with nature–particularly in listening.
  • Divination. Divination tools such as ogham, tarot, pendulum, geomancy, etc. are great ways of communicating with the spirits of nature and are particularly useful for those who are still developing other methods of spirit communication.  For setting intentions, I recommend that you use something very simple that has a yes/no function, thus, a pendulum is most appropriate (things like tarot or ogham get more complicated in their interpretation, where a pendulum will be very direct).   To use a pendulum in this way, I would suggest creating one with something from nature (a stone from the land around you and a string).  Then simply ask it to “show me yes” and “show me no” and now you know how to interpret it.
  • Spirit communication. More advanced practitioners can develop more direct ways of communicating with spirit through their inner vision: visuals, conversation, sensing energy, etc.  This method is what you will want to work up to–being able to converse with a tree, for example, allows things to be quite clear.  I have a series on how to cultivate plant spirit communication, so please check out these posts for more information: part I, part II, part III, and part IV.

The only other preliminary thing I suggest you do is to prepare some kind of offering for your work with the spirits of the land.  I’ve written more on offerings here, here, and here.

Setting Intentions for a Space or Project

The earth oven project

The earth oven project

Let’s say you have land and you want to create a new project on that land.  It might be a sacred grove, a druid’s anchor spot, or a sacred garden.  Here’s another great opportunity to set intentions collaboratively.  As one of the first things you do, reach out to the land

I would suggest that this should not be a one-time practice but rather a practice that is done on a regular basis.  The practice is simple: go to the spot and simply say, “I’d like to set shared intentions for [this space, the project, etc].” Then have a conversation, use divination, or any other means to set those intentions.  It may take some time as nature often works on a different timeline than we do.  But this work will unfold and you’ll see how rich the collaborative intention setting can be.

Intentions in my druid’s anchor spot. In one example, I’ve found that my druid’s anchor spot likes to set new intentions with each season, so I make it a point to do that work at the solstices and equinoxes.  Usually, at the Winter Solstice, the intention is simply “rest” but in the other seasons, we set intentions together for the work to come.  These intentions can vary pretty widely: last year in the fall, the shared intention was to share a story of the day, and as it grew dark, each of us would tell a story and listen to each other’s story.  The year before, the land was very intent on having some of the biodiversity returned, so we worked together on various approaches to bringing in biodiversity (specifically through cleaning up certain areas that had garbage, bringing in new soil, and planting new trees, understory, and woodland medicinal species).  I am excited to see what this season’s intentions will be!

Intentions for the earth oven project. In a second example, I’ll share how to set intentions for a project.  The Druids Garden homestead is a 5-acre homestead in Western Pennsylvania, run by two druids.  We spend a lot of time prior to engaging in any project setting intentions with the land in collaborative ways.  On a larger scale, this includes figuring out what parts of the land want to be wild, which want cultivation, and where we can create gardens and more human-tended spaces (in permauclture terms, this is about setting up our zones of use, among other things).

Thus, when I decided to build the earth oven, I sat with the land over a period of months and asked, where can I build this oven?  Once both my partner and I had a clear sense of where to build, I began to narrow down the spot to the specific work at hand.  I was given permission to create a small path about 15′ into the brush and to create my oven there.  I was also shown a clear space for a shrine that would sit on the path to the oven.  I explained to the land that this would require me to move/cut some plants and remove the topsoil, and the land told me that I could ask each individual plant what to do (compost, replant, pot up and give away) as well as any stones in the area.  So I began that work–it took me a few sessions, but it was very rewarding. Some of the plants wanted to be harvested and made into medicine (blackberry roots).  Others were rhizomatic (like mayapple), and wanted to simply be composted.  The small cherry tree (also abundant) wanted to be made into pendants and gifts.  The wild yams wanted to be replanted and showed me where.  Spicebush wanted to be potted up and given to a specific person. The fledgling sassafras made it clear that she was the boundary and that I needed to situate the oven in a way that did not disturb her growth.  By the time I had “cleared” the land, every specific plant and tree that was there had the opportunity to state their intentions, and those intentions were honored.  After that, I could begin building the earth oven knowing that the land was fully honored and included in the intention of that space, and because of it, we would be able to work deep magic with the oven in the years to come.

Now imagine the difference in this experience if I had just come into the land, started pulling up plants, piling them up, and then clearing the land. The end result–a physical space for an earth oven would have been the same.  But my own relationship with the land would have suffered; the land being a victim at my hands.  Thus, when I talk about reciprocation, this is exactly what I mean.  We include the land, we not only as permission but we ask what we should do, how we should do it.  I think that its important to recognize that the land loves us, and wants to help us meet our goals.  This reciprocation puts nature in equal partnership with us, and the blessings flow from that relationship.

Setting Intentions for a Magical Working, Ceremony or Ritual

Water element from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Perhaps the most common means through which people set intentions are at the start of magical working, ceremony, or ritual.  I would say that co-setting intentions for rituals really depends on what the ritual is for–for yourself, for the living earth, for something else?  Whoever is involved should be involved in setting the intentions for the ceremony.

If it is a ritual that is primarily focused on you and on something tied to yourself, I would still suggest connecting with the spirits of nature for their guidance and wisdom.  Here’s a simple approach: anytime before you begin the ritual, take a short walk in nature.  Find a place to sit (such as your druid’s anchor spot), and describe to the spirits of nature what you are planning on doing.  After you share, make an offering and see if they have any guidance.

If the ritual is on behalf of the living earth or tied to the land in any way, you need to take whatever time you need to set intentions in a collaborative way with the living earth.  This is not always a simple process and may take quite a bit of time. Begin this with a conversation that is open to the spirits of nature.  Rather than saying, “I want to do this ritual,” instead, go to nature and simply say, “What do you need?”  “How can I support you?”  and see what comes from that conversation.  Don’t assume you know what the spirits of the land want and need, but rather, allow the spirits of nature to collaborate with you to co-create the ritual.  You can also reach out and say, “I’d like to offer a healing ritual for the land.  Do you think that would be a good idea?”  The point here is that if you go in telling the land what you are already planning on doing, that’s not very reciprocal.  Rather, create space for a conversation and a shared vision to come forth.

You can do this essentially on any level–individual, group, or even with a larger group. Here’s a recent example of a larger group practice that we recently completed. A few years ago, AODA had released our Vision Statement, and it became clear to some of us n leadership that we wanted to do something order-wide that was reciprocal with the land.  Individual members already do a lot in our curriculum in terms of tree planting, earth path lifestyle changes, and so forth.  But we wanted something that was community-based.  And so, a few of us began speaking with the lands around us.  What could AODA do, on an order-wide level, that would support the living earth where we lived? What would the land need?  Through our own work over the next six months, a very clear picture emerged of what we, as an order could do–a summer solstice land blessing and a winter solstice waterway blessing using AODA’s frameworks (here they are if you are interested!)  These rituals were not just created by humans in AODA, but rather, in conjunction with meditations and collaboration with the lands around us. I’m really excited that these rituals will be starting this year in 2022, and you are most welcome to join us in this endeavor!

In these examples, we can again see how setting intentions–magical and mundane–in conjunction with the living earth allows us to reciprocate and collaborate in ways that we cannot do if we only set intentions within ourselves.  I hope you found this post useful and inspiring.  I would also love to hear from readers about how you may already set intentions in co-created ways with the living earth!

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Resilience at the Spring Equinox

Japanese Knotweed as Guardian of the Waterways (from the Plant Spirit Oracle)

One of the most resilient and enduring plants in the world at present is the Japanese Knotweed.  Japanese Knotweed is also the number one maligned plant in the world, as it is able to adapt to a variety of ecosystems and thrive in terrible conditions and will continue to grow despite the best efforts at humans to remove her.  Japanese Knotweed can withstand multiple direct applications of weed killer and it can handle a wide variety of growing conditions (high and low soil PH, drought, high heat, extreme negative temperatures, flooding, chemical pollution and more).  I would argue that the Japanese knotweed is probably one of the world’s most resilient plants, able to resist almost anything that is thrown at it, and despite interaction and engagement with humans, it can thrive.  I think it’s interesting that Japanese Knotweed also is an outstanding source of food and medicine, as well as nectar for bees and insects.  But if we look to Japanese Knotweed, we see a powerful plant spirit teacher that can offer us a number of qualities that I believe are important for the 21st century, right now, and certainly, into the future. What Japanese Knotweed and many other so-called “invasive” plants teach us is the lesson of resilience.

Another example of an incredibly resilient species is the raccoon, an intelligent omnivorous mammal native to North America. Anyone who has lived in a region with raccoons gets to know them quickly–they are extremely wily, able to break into all sorts of things (like your shed full of chicken food or your chicken coop itself), they can unlock latches, solve puzzles, and have fine motor control. They are quite strong and can break into all sorts of places.  Raccoons are now quite effectively adapting to city life, over cities all over the world; even in a place as inhospitable as a city, the raccoon thrives.  A raccoon is a being that embodies resiliency–a creature that is cunning, intelligent, persistent, and resourceful. Japanese Knotweed and Raccoons offer us powerful lessons in resiliency–and by studying them and other resilient beings in nature, we can start to consider how ew might cultivate and strengthen our own resiliency in these difficult times.

Resiliency is the capacity to adapt, to endure, to quickly recover if damaged, and to dig in and deal with a set of adverse conditions.  I would argue that it is probably the single most important concept that we can explore as humans living in the world today because we face a rapidly changing world with shifting challenges, a changing climate, and increasingly unstable social institutions that no longer offer stability.  Thus, as we consider the Spring Equinox as the other “balance point” in the year, our theme today is cultivating resiliency as a spiritual and physical practice.

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year

In this ongoing series, I am offering an alternative set of themes and practices for the 21st century–considering the traditional neopagan wheel of the year in light of some of what we need in order to transition to a new way of living and being so that we can co-exist peacefully with other life on our beautiful earth.

Previous posts have included receptivity at the Fall Equinox; release at Samhain; restoration at the Winter Solstice, and Reskilling at Imbolc.  If we think about this alternative wheel I’m proposing, it is taking us on a powerful journey to strengthen our spirits and improve our physical and emotional skills to move forward. Thus, as we enter the dark half of the year at the Fall Equinox, we start by being open to change and accepting what comes. We release pain, sadness, anger, and other negative emotions surrounding our predicament at Samhain, follow up with restorative and renewal activities at the Winter Solstice, and then at Imbolc, start to move into the action at Imbolc with reskilling. You can see through this wheel how it is a journey–of releasing expectations, dealing with our own emotions and trauma, restoring and healing ourselves, and then moving into activities that help us prepare for what is to come.  As we move into the balance point at the Spring Equinox, we tackle one of the most critical themes yet–resiliency.

Features of Resilience

Dandelion from the Plant Spirit Oracle

One of the tragedies of modern civilization is that it has created generations of people who are inflexible,  vulnerable, and fragile–humans who have a hard time adapting to change and who are incapable of living without modern conveniences. Our modern way of life has cultivated a deep dependency on the current systems we have in place to feed us, clothe us, provide food for us, and offer us a host of other comforts. The system has been engineered for modern humans to depend fully upon it for their every need. And yet, if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that the very systems we depend on are more fragile and unpredictable than we thought, and this problem will only grow so as time passes. The solution to this problem is in reskilling and resiliency.  It is in finding ways to depend less upon the problematic systems and instead look to nature directly for our needs.

As Wendell Berry notes in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, one of the things our civilization has demanded are increasing degrees of specialization–and with the rise of super-specialists, we lose our ability to take care of our basic human needs.  He advocates a return to the ways of the generalist, where we cultivate a wide range of skills–and in so doing, develop more powerful methods of being resilient.   If you think about it, it makes –throughout human history, nearly all humans had a basic set of skills that allowed them to clothe themselves, feed themselves, provide shelter, find clean water, perform healing, and a host of other basic needs.  It is only with the rise of industrialization and the modern era that these have been forgotten.  But if we are going to be more resilient, its useful to think about how we can return to some of these ancestral ways.

Resiliency is a combination of having the right mindsets and being able to solve problems (drawing upon skills, knowledge, and resources).  It is about having a positive mindset, cultivating a creative and adaptable way of thinking, along with having a toolbox of skills, techniques, and knowledge that you can draw upon as needed.  Since we’ve already covered the skills in discussing reskilling and Imbolc, today, I want to focus on cultivating resilient mindsets, which involve a host of factors.

  • Recovery. Perhaps the defining feature of resilience is the ability to recover after a serious setback, challenge, or trauma.  Rather than giving up in defeat or accepting your setback, when you cultivate recovery, you cultivate an ability to find a way forward.
  • Being adaptable  Tied directly to recovery is adaptability, or being able to pivot quickly in the event of adversity or difficulty. Being adaptable allows us to face challenges and changes quickly and effectively.
  • Accepting Change and accepting what we cannot change. A necessary part of recovery and adaptability is being willing to accept change. It seems like a simple thing, but it is truly a difficult thing to do for humans to do, particularly those in modern cultures.
  • Seizing Opportunity.  Capitalizing on opportunity is another key feature of resilience.  be like the dandelion that grows out o the crack in the sidewalk–see where changes have created new opportunities, and anticipate those.
  • Applying Creativity. A lot of resiliency is about creative problem-solving.  How can you do something in a new way? How can you meet a need when what you used to use to meet it is no longer available?

Just as the Japanese Knotweed and raccoon can offer us powerful lessons of resilience, we can begin cultivating resilience in our own lives by observing the lessons of nature. Even in a stable climate, all of nature requires resourcefulness to survive, thrive, and adapt. When you spend time in the natural world, you are reminded of these powerful lessons.

I actually went into great detail about physical and mental resiliency in my post last year, so I’m going to direct you there for more on physical residency.  For the rest of today’s post, I’ll focus on a specific ritual and spiritual journey you can do at the Spring Equinox that can help you cultivate a more resilient mindset.

A Spring Equinox Resilience Ritual and Journey

Of course, mindsets determine actions.  If we can cultivate resiliency within, then when times get tough on a physical level, we are drawing upon that well of inner resiliency.  What I describe is a practice that I’ve been doing for a number of years that helps me learn deep lessons from nature from my local ecosystem.  You can start this journey at the Spring Equinox, but it does have the option to lead you to deeper work throughout the year.

Step 1: Seeking a Resilient Plant or Animal Teacher

One of my teachers literally tried to come in the house!

One of my teachers literally tried to come in the house!

The first step of the journey is going out into the world and deeply observing and interacting.  Your goal is to find a plant, animal, or even insect that offers resiliency.  This animal or plant should be something that you can directly observe or see the effects of that animal (e.g. if you are looking for a raccoon, you might not be able to see them directly but can see their tracks and/or put up a trail cam to learn more about their activities). Plants are obviously a little easier, you may just find them growing and can observe. I’ve given two examples at the start of this post of those I’ve worked with: the Japanese Knotweed and the Raccoon.

Thus, start by going out and setting your intentions for this work.  Go outside to a quiet place, and speak directly to the world around you.  Ask, in your own words, for nature to send you a messenger or teacher that will teach you about resiliency.  Then observe, interact, see what you find and who comes to you.  Use your intuition here–see where you are led and drawn.  Accept whoever comes to you (it is so much better for this work if we set aside preconceived notions or expectations).

This kind of approach can be done anywhere: urban, rural, wild places, etc.  It is as effective in an urban environment as in a wild one–for example, I once did this while I was in New York City, and I spent three lovely days observing and learning from the city’s pigeon population–they were amazing to see how adaptable and cunning they were.

Step 2: Outer Observations

Once you’ve found a resilient natural teacher who you are drawn to, spend time observing and interacting with your animal or plant teacher.  Learn what you can about them.  Observe them in the world in whatever ways you can.  Consider how they offer lessons in resilience.

For example, if you decide to focus on dandelion (a perfect choice this time of year), you might spend time seeking out dandelions in your town, looking at how and where they grow. You might draw upon what you already know about the dandelion.

Step 3: Spirit Journey for Deep Teachings

Any physical connexion is going to help you open up a spiritual connection. In the druid tradition, many of us work with the idea of an “inner grove” or a space that we have on the astral that is safe and that we visit often (different traditions teach this differently, but it seems to be a common feature)*. This journey uses the inner grove as a starting point for a journey with your chosen plant or animal teacher.  If you are new to spirit journeying, you might check out this post.

Begin by opening up a sacred space (I use AODA’s solitary grove opening).  Once your sacred grove is open, you will want to put yourself into a quiet, focused place.  For this, I suggest getting into a comfortable position and doing some of the four-fold breath: breathe in for four counts; gently hold for four counts; breathe out for counts; gently hold for four counts, and repeat.  After a few minutes of this, you should have quieted your mind and prepared yourself for the journey.

Now, speak your intentions about the journey in your own words.  For example, “Dandelion, I seek your continued teachings to help me cultivate resilience in my life.  Will you come and offer me your spirit teachings?”

Now, enter your inner sacred grove.  If this is a new activity for you, most people first envision themselves on a path into the forest.  Work to build your inner senses, noting the colors, shapes, smell, sounds, as you walk. As you enter your grove, your animal or plant teacher will be there to guide you on a journey.

Once your journey is finished, offer gratitude and respect to your plant or animal teacher.

Step 4: Gratitude and Offerings

At the end of this process, I strongly suggest making some kind of meaningful offering to the plant or animal teacher on the physical world.  Leave food offerings out for the raccoon, help spread the seeds of the dandelion, create positive artwork about the Japanese Knotweed, or whatever other gifts of your time and energy you can.

You might find that this plant or animal will continue to be a teacher for you, offering lessons.  Or it may be that you will need to seek them out again. Whatever your longer-term relationship is, know that you can always continue to meet with them physically and metaphysically to learn more and grow.

Conclusion

The above is a great way to start thinking about resilience as a spiritual practice and how we can begin to cultivate and integrate a mindset of resilience.  I think that when we can do the work of spirit, then it becomes easier to manifest that into our physical existence.  I’m also grateful of the many lessons of Japanese Knotweed, Dandelion, and Raccoon–what they have taught me has helped me to learn to be adaptable, resilient, and strong in the face of so much.

 

UPG and Me: On Gnosis, Personal Gnosis, and Unverifiable Personal Gnosis in NeoPagan Practices

As with any spiritual path, the question of how we build knowledge, what we believe, and where that knowledge comes from is important.  I think it is particularly important to druids as we have so few fragments of the Ancient Druid tradition.  We are constantly asking ourselves–where can we gain knowledge from? How do we build knowledge, and from what sources?

What is Gnosis?

Entering the Dreaming (Hawthorn card from the Plant Spirit Oracle Deck)

Gnosis refers to “knowledge of spiritual mysteries.” Gnostic traditions are those rooted in the idea that knowledge can be gained through esoteric (inner) practices, such as communion with a deity, prayer, meditation, repetitive activity, dreams, and so forth, and that that knowledge is important and valued. Throughout history and in many different spiritual traditions, Gnosis was an important part of any spirituality.  Seeking the mysteries on the deepest level often requires contemplation, silence, and communion with the living earth–as we have seen in monastic traditions throughout the ages. In the Gnostic traditions, this gnosis was said to be the most important knowledge one could hold and this belief transcends anything that might be provided by external sources. In other words, a Gnostic gets their messages and truths from spirit/deity above all else.

Gnosis is important to those on the druid path for several reasons.  First, druidry (at least the kind of druidry I practice through OBOD and AODA) is non-dogmatic and focused on individuals’ spiritual development.  This means, in AODA, for example, that druids work to hone their own personal spiritual development, spiritual expression, channel Awen, and wildcraft their druidry.  These practices, which form the core of those practicing druidry (especially AODA druidry) require you to localize and personalize your understanding; and thus, are enriched by your own personal gnosis.

Most people who practice druidry use a combination of personal gnosis (inner knowing) with external knowledge seeking (outer sources). A good of this is through working with sacred plants: if you wanted to work with maple trees, it would benefit to you to read some books about maples: their ecology, their function in the ecosystem, how humans may have used them for food or medicine (such as tapping trees for syrup), and also traditional folk uses.  But the key part of this is that you balance that outside knowing with your own direct experiences in nature: observation, meditation, and spirit communication.  It is through these different inputs you can develop a personal spiritual path rooted in nature that also supports the development of personal gnosis.

Cultivating Personal Gnosis

Personal Gnosis can come in many forms as you travel along the druid path. These methods are fairly varied but many of them end up with similar results.

The first is our intuitive “knowing” or gut feelings. The reason they are called “gut feelings” is because we often experienced these in embodied ways–a sensation we get within the body, a knowing we have that cannot be shaken. Intuition/gut feelings are very important to those practicing spiritual paths and can be very useful to cultivate on your journey.

Another form of personal gnosis is Direct contact with spirits/deity who offer messages or teachings. This contact may be in many forms: voices, songs, feelings, visions, messages on the inner planes, teachings from spirits, etc. There’s an enormous amount to learn and navigate on the “inner” planes, and much of this is connected to the spirits you connect with and what they have to teach you.

Bardic arts is another area where personal gnosis may come to be. As you create, the awen, which druids see as a spiritual or divine force of creativity, will flow through you, inspiring you and deepening your understanding of the world.  As Jung noted, creative expressions help you connect with your subconscious, and there is much wisdom to be gained in such a connection.

Dreams may be yet another area that you can connect both with your subconscious and with the larger sense of dreaming of the world.  You can cultivate a dreaming practice where you delve deeper into the world of your dreams and work to understand the messages they provide you. (I highly recommend the teachings of Sarah MacLean Bicknell for more on a systematic, intuitive, and highly engaging dream-based practice).

Meditation is another area where you can develop a deep understanding of yourself, your life, and your spiritual path.  Meditation quiets the mind and/or focuses the mind, allowing it to move in particular directions, connect with spirit and with the subconscious.  Jung noted that dreams, creative practices, and meditation were powerful ways of getting in touch with our subconscious.

As you continue your studies, personal gnosis may come infrequently or regularly to you. It is a frequent occurrence for many more experienced practitioners but varies considerably by an individual.  Some practitioners see gnosis and their interactions with the inner worlds/spirit/deity as the most central part of their practice. If you aren’t yet experiencing these things, continuing to quiet your mind, seek the sacred in nature, and engage in regular meditation is a sure path to receiving personal gnosis from nature and spirit.  Keep at it and it will come!

Verification: Outer Plane Checks and Confirming Insights

Those new to these practices may question what they experience/hear/learn and question if these experiences are “real” or if they are all “making it up in their heads.”  This is a critically important question to consider–even with trusted spirit teachers or deep gut knowing, it is always wise to test your insights.

The first question towards unpacking this is: where do the messages come from? There are two parts to this question to consider.  The first is tied to what you believe–and thus, you will want to think about how your own experience fits in with your belief.  If you are in the woods and are in prayer/meditation and receive a message, a Christian druid may believe that message came from God, while an Atheist druid may believe the message to originating from their subconscious.  So understanding the “source” of personal gnosis as it fits your belief is important.  The second part of the question is also tied to the source and your level of trust.  Did you receive this message from a trusted inner contact, one you have experience with, or was this a random spirit or entity?  If you’ve developed a longstanding relationship with a spirit/deity and that connection is healthy, there is probably little reason to question what you received.  But if you aren’t sure of the source or if this is a new spirit, there is great cause to be wary.

Further, there are numerous questions beyond questioning the source of the message.  What does the message say? What would acting on the message do, if anything?  Does that action make sense?  Is that message asking you to behave in a way that is your best self or not?  These kinds of questions are important to ask, particularly as you are starting out–we tend to be very trusting early on our journeys, and that can get us in some trouble.

Outer Plane Checks and Confirming insights. One of the ways to “verify” personal gnosis is by asking spirit/deity for what is known as an “outer plane check.” This is some kind of external message or verification from spirit/deity and it can vary quite widely but it is somehow rooted in our physical reality.  Part of what you will receive as verification again goes back to your own personal belief system and how much skepticism you have.  Here are some examples:

A great example of a message from nature--the awen symbol literally over the sacred grove after our ritual--the messages we received have an additional verification

A great example of a message from nature–the awen symbol literally over the sacred grove after our ritual–the messages we received have an additional verification

Some druids would consider an outer plane check confirmed if they were in nature, received a clear message, asked for an outer plane check, and then had a very clear sign from nature–such as a flock of wild turkeys walking through the center of their grove, a large eagle flying overhead, or a ray of sunlight shining through the clouds.  This kind of confirmation may not occur immediately but should be obvious when it happens.  For example, I was making a very serious life choice some time ago, a choice that had a significant impact on the future of my life.  After hearing guidance from the spirits and making a tentative choice, I asked spirits for confirmation that it would be the right one.  A bad storm blew through and dropped a  big tree away from my house–a clear message confirmed.  They aren’t always that drastic, of course.

Having a human (friend, mentor, even stranger) confirm a message is another path.  Some druids would consider it confirmation if a friend or mentor shared a similar experience; that allows them to confirm and understand their own experience/message  Some druids would consider it confirmation if a similar message came through to them by another means (friend, mentor, someone sending them a link, etc).  For example, after receiving a message upon which you might act, going to a friend for divination (without revealing any details) could be a useful way to confirm. Some druids would want physical confirmation, such as being able to read or see something that confirms what was shared (not always possible, but useful for things like past life regression).

Sometimes the best way to verify a message is simply time.  Wait to see what happens, seeing if the insights or understanding gained comes to be.

Gnosis without verification: Some Personal Gnosis may not be able to be verified with an outer plane check, but there are still other ways you might think about this in more depth. Here are some useful ways of thinking about the information you receive:

  • Do you trust the source?  If this is a deity or spirit that you have a deep relationship to, it is probably much more trustworthy than from someone you have no relationship to
  • Does the message/insight/information make sense? If the information is outlandish or uncharacteristic, it is a good idea to question it.
  • How strong was the message? How did you feel after you received it?
  • Were you protected when you received it?  E.g. did you do a daily protective working (such as the AODA’s Sphere of Protection) or were you in a sacred grove/sacred circle? This also makes a difference.

Sometimes personal gnosis cannot be verified and must be taken on faith.  More interactions over time with the world of spirit are certain to deepen this knowledge.

Unverified/Unverifiable/Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis (UPG)

While personal gnosis is a critically important part of our own spiritual experiences, it can lead to some trouble, especially when people begin to pass off their own personal gnosis as fact.  In the broader neopagan community, the term is usually “unverified” or “unsubstantiated” personal gnosis, which refers to matters of spirit that cannot accurately be verified using physical means.  It is often, but not always, used in a negative way for at least two reasons.

The first is that UPG can be dangerous when used in groups and can be used as a means of control of individuals and groups.  If one leader or small group claims a direct connection with a deity or set of spirits, and only that leader has a connection and receives messages, then anyone who follows that leader can be led deeply astray.  They can become enthralled by the leader’s visions and there is no way of verifying the visions.  This happens in all sorts of spiritual traditions (think about your typical “cult” here), and unfortunately, does occur within neopaganism.  Thus, it is really important that when you are listening to the words of others, you pay attention to where they are getting their information–is it UPG? What does your own gut tell you?  It is good to take someone else’s personal gnosis with a very heavy dose of skepticism, particularly if they are using it as a means to control.  Ask them where the information comes from, and distance yourself if necessary.

The second place that you often hear about UPG being a negative thing is particularly tied to movements like Celtic Reconstructivism or other reconstructivist movements.  Reconstrutivist movements focus on historical accuracy and recreating/resurrecting lost traditions, and thus, UPG is rarely welcome in such communities because the emphasis is on recreating ancient traditions. In this case, the community’s values are focused on historical sources, not UPG.  Druid revival orders, such as AODA or OBOD, don’t worry as much about this issue as we don’t have less than 9 pages total of preserved works from the ancient druids, but it is very important to understand that different traditions value different things–and to respect those differences.

Sharing Personal Gnosis

Given the above, one of the things that gets tricky in the broader druid community  (and where the negative spin on UPG comes from) is when individuals intentionally or unintentionally pass off personal gnosis as truth, fact, or historical fact. This is something you will want to watch out for in your own interactions.

In sharing your own personal gnosis, I recommend that you make it clear that this is your own gnosis/understanding that comes from spirit. It is easy enough to signal this when you are sharing with phrases like, “in my experience” or “In my interactions with spirit/deity” and simply clarify that this is coming from your personal gnosis. That way, when you are sharing, it is very obvious where your information comes from.  This makes you a more trustworthy person and allows you to have positive, healthy interactions with your broader spiritual community.

Getting to know trees is a great way to develop personal gnosis

Getting to know trees is a great way to develop personal gnosis

Some personal gnosis is specifically given to you to share. Our world is in a tipping point, and spirits are eager to help humanity transition away from our destructive path.  Thus, you may start getting messages with the idea that they need to get out there.  I point to my Plant Spirit Oracle as a good example of this.  It was very clear to me from the beginning that this project and set of journeys were meant to be shared.  In my book, I made it very clear that this project–the images, meanings, divination system–was my personal gnosis.  I shared exactly how I came to the meanings and images, and with that, I feel like my ethical obligation is complete.  People can choose to use it or not, and they know where it came from because I’ve been upfront about it.

On the other hand, not all personal gnosis is meant to be shared. You will usually have an intuitive sense (if not a direct message from spirit/deity) about what can and should not be shared. Some may be shared with those who are mentors or friends, while other personal gnosis may be appropriate for more public sharing.  There is such a thing as “talking the magic out” of something, meaning that if you had a very deep personal experience and you begin sharing it widely without taking the time yourself to work with it and unpack it, you may never reap the full benefits of the experience or message.  Thus, I recommend always sitting with insights and messages for some time, and then if you are going to share, share carefully.

In reading and responding to others’ personal gnosis, you can ask the simple question–where did this information come from? Are they indicating that they had a personal experience, they were taught this, this is part of a family tradition, part of some larger tradition, or so on?  If they aren’t sharing where it came from, you can gently ask (but be kind, a person is choosing to share a personal thing and we want to always honor that sharing). Part of the reason it is good to recognize when someone is sharing UPG is for reasons I outlined above–someone may claim or use UPG (or claims of UPG) for personal gain. Thus a “grain of salt” approach is useful–again, think about who is sharing and if they are trustworthy.

Personal Gnosis is Personal

One of the most important issues with sharing is to understand that personal gnosis is personal. Your relationship with that plant/spirit/deity may be very unique.  It may not align with what others are sharing–and that’s totally ok.

Think about it this way–you are a different person in your professional workplace, with your parents or siblings, with your childhood friends, or with your druid grove.  In essence, you are many sides of the same person.  This happens in the spirit world as well.  The spirits will work with you as an individual, and the insights you receive may be different than what others experience. Your interaction with spirits is based on a host of factors:  how long have you been doing this? What is your relationship? How deep is it? How much do you walk your talk?  What have you done on behalf of these spirits/land? and so on.

Thus, if your own personal gnosis differs from someone else’s, it doesn’t mean that either of you is wrong, but rather that you are both experiencing different aspects.  I see this a lot with plants and trees.  Trees like Hawthorn or Elder, for example, have a wide range of personalities and magic, and what side of those trees you see may be very much based on who you are and what relationship you cultivate.  You may read one thing in a book about Elder being a certain way, and experience a very different thing.  This doesn’t mean you are wrong; it just means that Elder, to you, appears and offers a different set of teachings. All of this is part of why it’s really important to understand when others are offering their own UPG.

Personal to Community Gnosis

Poison Ivy from the Plant Spirit Oracle – teaching new ways of interacting with nature.

In some cases, personal gnosis transitions to community-based gnosis or even cultural gnosis if enough people receive the same kind of messages. For example, there are a number of people in the druid, herbalism, and bushcraft communities that have been individually receiving messages and teachings from the Poison ivy plant. After sharing notes and experiences in smaller groups, these teachings are starting to be transmitted via classes and events and a new name for the plant (Sister Ivy) is being used pretty widely.  All of us who have worked closely with her, over a period of time, have recognized the need for her teachings in this particular age, and have spread the new name for her, more fitting of the role she wants to assume.  At this point, after almost 30 conversations with different people about their individual experiences, it seems pretty clear to me that Sister Ivy has a message and set of teachings she wants in the world right now.  Thus, what was personal gnosis to some individuals is now being shared more widely–because that gnosis was consistent among individuals that received it and the information shared makes sense. The key here is that this same Personal Gnosis has been experienced by a number of different people independently, and, most importantly, nobody is using that personal gnosis to control others.  It is something that is simply being shared, understood, and valued.

Conclusion

A spiritual path is so much richer when we are able to work effectively with our own personal gnosis as part of our path.  By using the practices I’ve outlined here, you can develop your personal gnosis, avoid some of the pitfalls, and learn when it is appropriate to share.

A Druid’s Guide to Dealing with Climate Change: Addressing Deep Emotions and Grief

Fear. Anxiety. Grief.  Helplessness. Despair. Feeling overwhelmed. Hopelessness. Powerlessness. Anger. Numbness. Displacement. Disconnection. Sadness.  These feelings are some of the common ones that people experience today with the pressing and growing concerns about climate change, the age of the Anthropocene, mass extinctions, and the loss of life on our planet. And it seems like every day, with every report or first-hand experience or another failed climate summit, these feelings are reinforced.  These kinds of feelings are now termed “climate grief” and are being experienced by people all over the world including young people around the globe, adults in the US, and those who are choosing to be childless due to climate change, among many others.

This really came to a head for me a few weeks ago. I was on a call with a number of AODA members about a month ago, and before the call started, we had been talking about the unseasonable and extreme weather that people were experiencing all over North America. The conversation then shifted into talking about our fears about climate change, how it is pretty scary to think about our future from a climate perspective. It helped to talk about it, to bring it into the open, and people were relieved just so share in that small space. It struck me that we don’t create enough space for these kinds of discussions within our tradition–and they are critical for us to have. I also realized how many of us are feeling this way, but maybe not have appropriate times and places to share.

Listen to the music of the world: a climate change response

Listen to the music of the world: a climate change response

I think it’s important to talk about this issue of mental health openly and as one part of the spiritual and physical responses, I share on this blog for a few reasons. As the head of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, I really see this coming up for more and more people each year and it is becoming a serious concern for many who walk paths of nature spirituality. First, on the most basic level, we are all on the front lines of climate change right now, whether or not we want to be.  It doesn’t matter where we live, we are impacted and there is no escaping it.  And things are getting more serious with each passing year, and for most of us, they will not improve in our lifetimes. Second, for those practicing nature-based spiritual paths, we are seeing nature–the thing we hold most sacred–under serious threat from human-driven activity.  It adds an additional layer, an additional burden, to the pain–knowing that there is a spiritual side, that the spirits of the land suffer along with their physical counterparts.  And third, certain kinds of typical druid activities–like deep observation, druid’s anchor spot practices, and others, can cause difficulty when we continue to observe natural patterns well out of the norm.  I’ve had new druids tell me they resist too much careful observation because they are afraid to see what is happening. Thus, what was meant to be a comforting spiritual practice can cause anxiety. And of course, it is further exasperated by the fact that global leaders appear incapable and unwilling to engage in serious action on climate change. In fact, humanity’s leaders and those in power seem intent on pursuing the relentless profit-and greed-driven paradigms that are literally endangering all life on this planet.

The question in all of this is–what do we do? How might nature-based spirituality help us through this?  How can we find a way of balance through this chaos? What kinds of tools can we develop so that we can process our own emotions, come to a place of emotional resiliency, and–most importantly–be ready to take action? The first thing, and what some climate specialists argue is the most important, is attending to the emotional aspects of climate change.  As I’ll describe in this post, the emotional issues are often what prevent people from action, what create what appears to be apathy, and what ultimately can help us move forward into action.

Emotions and Climate Change

Our emotions about climate change are real, valid, and are a deep part of our own humanity.  To talk about this, I’m going to be drawing from the work of Renée Lertzman, who is a leading climate psychologist and whose work has influenced how I approach climate change from an emotional perspective.   She outlines three psychological points that can help us understand climate change and how to address our emotions:

Window of Tolerance: Originally developed by Dan Siegel, the window of tolerance refers to a our mental and emotional state being such that we can stay connected, integrated, and in touch with our feelings enough to be fully functional and able to accomplish what we want to accomplish in the world.

Each of us has a threshold for stress–the amount of stress that we can tolerate at a given time.  Each of our thresholds is different, and we may be more or less resilient to stress based on previous recent stressors.  For example, for many people, the global pandemic introduced a host of new stressors, and many are reporting that they are less able to cope with new stress now compared to two years ago.  When we experience more stress than we are able to tolerate, thus pushes us to the edges or even out of our window of tolerance and leads to one of two responses: a rigid response like anger or denial or a shutting down kind of response like depression or apathy.  Either of these two states makes us less able to be whole, resilient, adaptable and functioning within our window of tolerance. Now, if you think about most people’s response to climate change: apathy and anger/denial are two extremely common responses.  This is in part because the problem is so enormous and appears so insurmountable that psychologically, we shut down.  In addition, this is not a single stressor, but rather one that continues to build over time. Thus, we are experiencing nearly a constant stream of information that works to push us out of our window of tolerance and either makes us rigid or apathetic.  Thus, it takes work for us to integrate and attune to these emotions.

The Double Bind.  The second issue that comes into play with our emotions surrounding climate change is the “double bind.”  The basic idea of a double bind is that we feel trapped regardless of what we do–if we do something, we are trapped and if we do nothing, we are trapped. The “rock and a hard place” metaphor for describing this goes back at least to the Odyssey, where Odysseus has to choose between the monster Charybdis, who creates a whirlpool that would consume the entire ship and crew, and Scylla, whose many heads grab sailors off the deck and eat them.  This “rock and a hard place” metaphor is extremely apt for what is happening with climate change. It doesn’t matter what we do, we believe the message that we are trapped and that no amount of action or inaction will make a difference.  Or, in the case of others, they work hard to make changes, but recognize that laws, culture, and things like taxes and money require us down a path we’d rather not take.

Our human psychological response to this situation is to push these feelings away, to avoid looking at the problem too long.  So we bury our care and concern and avoid the whole thing.  This looks like apathy.

How do we get out of the double bind, so that we can fully function within our window of tolerance?  The key is what Lertzman calls Attunement, which is extremely close conceptually to what Jung would call Individuation.

Attunement is when we are in a relationship with the world that makes sense, where we are accepted, understood, and in connection with our own emotions and emotional states.  We do not face shame or judgment about our actions (or refuse to tolerate judgment/shame from others). You might think about this like tuning an instrument–it may be very out of tune or only a little, but as we play our great instrument of life, we need to be regularly tuning ourselves. Part of the work of attunement is personal and part is communal and collective.  The goal with attunement is to understand our window of tolerance and work to be within it–because if we are within it, we are much more able to solve problems, face challenges, and be resilient.

Emotional and Ritual Work for Healing

Attunement works on an “as within, so without” principle: we start with ourselves, then our loved ones and friends, and then, if we feel ready, being out in the broader world. The first thing is to do a lot of deep meditation on the issues of our own emotions and create space to feel whatever we feel without judgment (mindfulness practice is really useful here).  So you might start by saying;

1. What are my feelings about climate change?  (Sit with this question a while, let it roll over you for a period of days or weeks, and really dig deep into your feelings).

2. How can I offer compassion to myself about these feelings?  I think it’s important to recognize that these things are incredibly hard.  It is a very hard time to be both a human and a druid!

3.  Ask questions and try to cultivate curiosity surrounding the experience.

These three steps can help you work through your feelings. You may also choose to work through some of these through bardic arts (e.g. journaling your feelings about climate change, creating climate change-related art, and so forth).

Ritual work can also be appropriate here. f you have feelings that are debilitating you and preventing you from moving forward, a releasing ritual of some kind may be appropriate.  For example, this kind of ritual could be very appropriate for extreme anxiety, fear, or releasing numbness or apathy.  Really sit with this for a while before you choose to do a ritual though. A lot of these emotions we are feeling about climate change do need to be directly addressed and integrated, and they will continue to reoccur, and sometimes ritual work is another way of burying them or saying they are released and therefore don’t bother us any longer.   Another kind of ritual work that can help this process is spiritual journeying to understand the depths of your emotions and working with helpful spirits to heal.

An example of healing art about climate change

An example of healing art about climate change

I use bardic arts quite a bit for this work, where I focus on channeling some of that energy into my artwork for a better vision of the future.  The bardic arts have a tremendous ability to heal and ground us.

Beyond ourselves, the second step is to find friends and a community surrounding these issues. Find people with whom you can share your feelings and who can share with you openly and without judgment. Give people in your life permission to simply feel what they feel and share what they feel like sharing.  Being heard and understood is an important part of our own healing and growth.

The third step is to practice attunement in the broader world and in your interactions with others. Recognize that there is deep strength in showing up as a human being, talking about your emotions, and recognizing that we all have them. This can be as simple as a statement saying, “Yeah, I’m really angry too and I don’t have all the answers.  But let’s see what we can accomplish together.”

Action in the World

Many people have found that part of the process of dealing with deep emotions, beyond the meditative and psychological effects above, is to “do something.”  That something will be specific to you, and you can really take it as far as you want to go.  In AODA, we ask people who are working through our curriculum to make three lifestyle changes–these changes can be anything they choose, as long as they are direct actions in their lives.  My book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice began in just that way–I wanted to feel like I was aligning with my own principles as a druid, that I was living my life in a way that was honoring the living earth and healing the land.  As I worked to learn so many things, those actions spiraled into an entire wheel of the year practice, and I finally had enough to share. That book is full of ideas to help you live more sustainably and regeneratively–direct action in the world.

I use this as a core way of dealing with these issues.  When I feel the weight of the world coming down, I work to channel it into something positive–go dig a new garden bed, go write a new blog post, go scatter some seeds.  I have found that this approach is a particularly valuable way of channeling some of that stress and pain and transforming it into something I can feel good about.

The other part is some level of acceptance about the things that are out of our power to change. In permaculture design, we think about “the problem is the solution” Here, we can do nothing but experience climate change, observe it, and maybe even take advantage of it.  I look at it this way–with warmer weather and more rain, how do I take advantage of that in terms of my food forest?  What can be a benefit to these conditions?

Conclusion

I don’t have all the answers, but I will say that the above has really helped me learn how to be a druid in the age of climate change, in the age of the Anthropocene.  Do I still have these feelings and get overwhelmed?  Yes, absolutely.  But I also think that by cultivating a set of tools, I am more resilient and prepared for whatever may come.

I’m very interested in hearing what others have experienced with regards to addressing feelings, emotions, and pain surrounding climate change.  What approaches have you used? What has worked for you?

Nature Connection, Wildcrafting, and the Wheel of the Year

One interpretation of the wheel in terms of our own activity

One interpretation of the wheel in terms of our own activity

The Wheel of the Year is obviously a powerful symbol, both in nature spiritual practices like druidry as well as more general neopagan practices.  It resonates with something that is ancestral and connected–living by the cycles and honoring the seasons. A host of different traditions use some form of a yearly wheel, and when you join many traditions, the wheel of the year is a critical part of the practice. But what do these holidays mean? How do they actually connect to our lives?  How do they connect to our local ecosystems, and how do the wheel holidays help us connect with nature?  I consider these questions and argue for a wildcrafted wheel of the year rooted in your own observation, connection, and daily life in connection with nature.

As a druid for the last 16 years, I feel like this is a question I continue to return to over and over again.  I even wrote a book on sustainable living practices as sacred action using a wheel of the year framework (see Sacred Actions) trying to explore these issues from yet another perspective.  I’ve celebrated these in all sorts of ways–by myself and in various groves and groups, formally and less formally, with other people’s rituals and my own.  And yet, I feel like almost every year, I get another piece of what it means to really live this wheel but also what complications and changes I have to make.

When I first took up the path of druidry when I was still in college, I began celebrating the wheel by looking at rituals in books and enacting them. There was nothing wrong with this approach, but I was essentially bringing in other people’s visions and classical interpretations of the wheel from an ecosystem in which I didn’t live.  It was a good foundation and gave me a connection to a tradition I was still attempting to understand.  However, it wasn’t until I really started delving deeply into wildcrafting my own druidry and developing an eco-regional approach that I really started to understand these practices.

I had an epiphany this week about Imbolc and the real power of this holiday. We had a pretty warm December and then January plunged us into very cold and dark times.  January was exhausting after weeks of sub-zero temperatures where we were trying to keep our animals warm, bringing hot buckets of water out to them several times a day, learning how to live with chickens in a tent in our spare bedroom–the chickens can’t handle the bitter cold we had.  Thus, the handsome Pythagoras, our roo, woke us up crowing up the sun every day!  Each morning, I’d face the bitter cold to tend to the animals, coming in like an icicle to warm by the fire (which I had to stoke and tend before venturing out). We spent our days making sure we had enough wood, and one of us was always up tending the fires throughout the night and wee morning hours.  It was pretty intense. This was deep winter, cold winter, dark winter, where the sun hardly even came out of the sky. And then, on January 31st, the weather broke.  We moved out of the teens and had a 30-degree day (I’m speaking Fahrenheit here!). The chickens got to leave their house tent purgatory, and the ducks and geese had their pools filled with water for the first time in weeks.  As the geese and ducks joyfully swam in their pool, you could see the joy and relief on their faces.  They knew the weather had shifted. And then  February 1st came and with it the flowing of the maple trees. The wheel had just turned from dark winter into late winter, and we celebrated Imbolc and tapped our maple trees.

I tell this story because, if I hadn’t lived on a homestead where we are required to go outside many times a day to tend our animals, the importance of this day would have likely been lost. I remember when I lived in an apartment, dorms, or a townhouse–I didn’t really pay attention much. I would have probably turned up the heat, ran the water a little extra to prevent the pipes from freezing, and then thought nothing of it on the way to the car or into a building.  Because that’s how it is in modern life is–everything is designed to make you a cog in the machine that never changes.  Regardless of what is happening in the ecosystem, you just keep on going.  But that’s not really what creates a deeply connected and wildcrafted wheel of the year.  Crafting our own wheel requires us to pay attention.

One interpretation of the wheel at Lughnasadh...with a portal into the unknown

One interpretation of the wheel at Lughnasadh…with a portal into the unknown

It was the experience of having to be out there in the cold for weeks on end, seeing the animals enduring the cold and suffering, and then after all of that, experiencing that powerful break in the weather and the first thaw.  As soon as the thaw happened, local wildlife changed activities, our flocks grew much more active and happy, our own spirits lifted as the temperatures rose.  When I think about the historical origins of Imbolc, how it was a holiday originally surrounding the lactating of ewes, I say yes–this must have been such a relief to those farmers and peasants who had just suffered through a difficult January.  Maybe the food stores were running a bit scarce.  Maybe they woke up for the 30th day in a row and froze each morning like I did while taking care of the animals and think…will this ever end?  And then, suddenly, it does. That was the power of Imbolc.  The breaking of the cold and dark times.  The promise that spring will return.  The flow of milk–of nutrients, of life.

I write all of this to illustrate a simple point: these holidays make more sense when we are deeply embedded in our landscape.  When we are deeply connected with nature, when we are out in it every day, when we–through our own life choices or commitments–are required to endure it along with the rest of nature, then we can learn the lessons the wheel really offers us.  Living the wheel of the year–not just celebrating it–teaches us the important lessons of that moment.  When we spend time in nature and commit to being out there, then we are forced to contend with whatever nature throws at us.  When we are understanding the holidays not only in terms of history or lore but based on our actual experience, then the wheel of the year unfolds for us.

And this is critical–in order to make the wheel of the year yours, a wildcrafted wheel that you build yourself, one of the best approaches is to find seasonal markers that make sense for you (I shared a lot more about this approach earlier in this post).  Maybe it’s the flow of the maples or the return of the robin, maybe it’s the hawthorn blossoming.  To me, these moments in our own landscapes are much more important than dates we may have from traditions that are far removed from us.  These kinds of key observational markers also will make sense in the age of the Anthropocene, when climate change is throwing off traditional seasons.

And here’s the other thing I learned through this process–not everyone has an eightfold wheel of the year.  Your wheel might be threefold, binary (rainy and dry), or even more.  In fact, I worked up a 12-fold wheel of the year for my region that actually works better than the eight (I shared that philosophy on the link above).  The idea being that there are distinct phases of each of the four seasons (and 4×3 = 12).  My 12-fold wheel allows me to understand my ecosystem in much more detail and allows me to see each season as waxing and waning.  What I found in creating these wildcrafted seasonal markers is that I start to anticipate them, look forward to them, and honor them as they occur.  So rather than having arbitrary dates and times that are disconnected, I do what my ancient ancestors did–I observe, make meaning of the observations, and build that into my spiritual practice.  And, I learn to honor and appreciate holidays like Imbolc at a deeper level.

What I’m suggesting takes time and effort.  You don’t have to do it all at once.  I suggest taking some time, a year and a day, maybe even longer, and simply observing what is right outside your door.  Ideally, your seasonal markers for the wheel will be happening in your everyday life–and if you are in an urban setting, they may also be dictated by the patterns of people as well as nature.  E.g. perhaps the early part of summer is when the local public pool opens.  The built and human-based environment is still part of our environment; we are all part of nature.

PS: This is part of my Ancient Order of Druids in America-themed posts.  AODA as a druid order is extremely committed to helping druids “wildcraft” their druidries and create local practices.  I am currently the Grand Archdruid in AODA, and have been a member for the last 16 years.  For more information on AODA, please visit www.aoda.org.

An Approach to Spiritual Retreat and Rejuvenation: Going Dark Week

Perhaps now more than ever, the idea of taking regular retreats is a critical one. Last week, in my post on the Winter Solstice, I shared the deep need for restorative activities that allow us to heal, process, and deepen our practice–particularly in today’s age and as we move further into the age of the Anthropocene. Finding restoration activities are particularly critical because so many of us are languishing, dealing with the real effects of deepening climate change, dealing with the long-term upheaval and separation due to the pandemic, among a host of other issues. Thus, this week, I want to share one practice that I’ve developed over the years that is particularly helpful–I call it “going dark” or “inner life retreat.”

What is a Going Dark Spiritual Retreat?

Going dark to explore the world of the subconscious and dreams

Going dark to explore the world of the subconscious and dreams

The principle of going dark is very simple–rather than being always on, always available, and always connected–you step off the grid for a bit. You set aside time for a retreat, where you withdraw, physically and virtually from all of your external obligations and instead focus instead on your own spiritual life, your own thoughts, your own healing, and your own creations.  The reason I call it “going dark” is because you literally power down your devices.  The screen goes dark and stays dark.  The quiet is present.  You are off, free from all of it, to focus on your inner spiritual life and connection with the living earth.

Going dark basically is a way to create a very intentional space for yourself, allowing you to withdraw from the world, and eliminate any external inputs from the dominant culture, and be with your own thoughts and mind. You replace these typical inputs with as much time as possible in nature and with your own thoughts.

The other reason I call it “going dark” is that I usually take this a step further–and do some candlelight evenings.  By reducing my dependency on electronics in general, and living by candlelight or firelight for a few days, I find that it is extraordinarily rejuvenating.

Why Go Dark?

Our modern technology creates a series of situations that severely hamper our inner life and create constant demands on our time and attention. First, where we are always expected to be on, 24/7, where many of us are tied to a technological device that is literally always within a few feet of us.  It creates a societal or workplace obligation where we are always available. Many have noted that this has grown immensely worse during the pandemic, where boundaries between work and life have blurred beyond recognition. This creates a situation where our obligations–facilitated by increasing technology–become constant and where we are able to comfortably step away.

Watercolor Awen Tree #1, 2018

Connecting to the awen!

The second issue is apparent anywhere you go in public: the culture of screens, voices, and talking heads. This is abundantly clear in doctor’s offices, airports, restaurants, etc., where there is a constant chatter of screens. Screens are everywhere people congregate, wait, or travel.  This creates a situation where other people’s thoughts, ideas, and perspectives constantly fill our eyes and our minds. For example, I recently went to the dentist’s office and not only did they have a loud TV in the lounge, I was also expected to watch TV while in the dentist chair (I asked them politely to turn it off).  We become so used to this constant input that we don’t realize how much it fills our minds, preventing us from developing a quality inner life. If we spend all of our time with other people’s thoughts in our heads, we have no space for our own. Without access to those thoughts and space, we lose our rich connection to the subconscious, our dreams, and our creative selves.

The problem is, the stuff above is hard to avoid if you live any kind of typical life or work a typical job.  I work to limit it in my daily life, but I still find that it creeps in more than I’d like–a lot of it has to do with the obligations that I have to work and my other long-term commitments. So creating a regular “detox” and “downtime” from it can really help.  Hence: going dark.

Going Dark: Suggestions and Ideas

When you go dark, you power down the devices and intentionally create quiet space for your own thoughts, creativity, and subconscious to flow.  You realize that technology is not an extension of you, but a tool that can be replaced with other things.  You get into the spirit of nature.

If you want to try this practice, I suggest setting some goals and supports upfront for your spiritual retreat.  They are:

  • Decide how long you would like to go dark and what guidelines you will put in place.  Once you have a sense of it, stick to your plan if at all possible.
  • Let others know as appropriate.  I’ve been doing this for about a decade, but the first time I did it, I didn’t let anyone know. Suddenly, by about day 4, I had multiple people showing up at my house checking on me cause they thought something happened to me.  So…let your family and friends or other people to whom you are obligated to know that you are doing a retreat.  Put an away message on your email, social media, or whatever else so people leave you in peace.
  • Consider setting intentions for your going dark. Spend some time considering how you will spend your time–now that you’ll have more of it.
    • Do you want to stay home or go somewhere different?
    • Do you want to cook or have prepared foods so that you can focus on other things?
    • What kinds of things might you do in the absence of screens?  Meditation, journey work, reading printed books, creative/bardic practices, hiking, being in nature, etc, are just some possibilities.
    • Do you have some goals for the retreat (healing, rest, working on a creative project)? Even if you have some goals, its also really useful to create a lot of open and unstructured time to be led by the voices of spirit, the creative flow of nature, and your own whimsy.
  • Time of year matters. I like to go dark twice a year.  I always go dark in late December and early January because I’m off from work then.  This is usually when I do my best spiritual work and deep dives of the year, allowing creative and spiritual practices to flow.  I also usually go dark in the summer for a week or so, but usually, this involves some outdoor solo trip.

If you want to try going dark, even for a day or two, I do have one other thing to point out. At first, some people can literally experience technology withdrawal with this practice.  That’s because things like social media are addicting and can literally harm us and change our brain chemistry.  If we suddenly remove ourselves from the devices we’ve grown so used to, it can be a shock. Stick with it for a day or two, or even a week, and see how you feel at the end of it.  Too much screen time can lead to a host of chronic conditions in both adults and children, so it’s worth doing this practice.

I believe this kind of practice is particularly important right now. The more tools that we can create to help us navigate these difficult times with sanity and care, the better. Being able to take a break from the many things that weigh us down and just the stressors of everyday life, and really create quiet time for ourselves, is an important part of how we can navigate these challenging times.

Finally, in honor of my own spiritual retreat, I’ll be going dark for the first two weeks or so of January and will be refraining from blogging again until mid to late January.  I’ll see you in 2022–may it be more joyous, healthful, sane, and kind than the last two years.  Blessings!

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Restoration at the Winter Solstice

The time of the greatest darkness is upon us at the winter solstice. Each morning, the sun seems to struggle to rise and hangs low in the sky. The world is covered in frost, cold, and snow, and the darkness of winter sets in. This is a hard time for many, perhaps more so now than before, given the cultural darkness and challenges that so many of us are facing globally and locally. So facing the darkness, in this very challenging time, takes something extra.

Winter Solstice Snow

Winter Solstice Snow

In my first post on this series (Receptivity at the Fall Equinox), I made the case that the traditional Wheel of the Year was developed and enacted under very different conditions than our present age. We now live in the Anthropocene, a period of human-driven climate change and cultural unrest which is very different than the Holocene, the period of relatively stable climate where the Wheel of the Year was developed. I argue that it will take a different kind of approach to celebrating the wheel of the year if we are to thrive in this age. Thus, I am offering a series of eight posts this coming year that focus on each of the traditional wheel of the year holidays and how they might be adapted to these darker and less stable times. I believe we need new approaches to celebrating our traditional wheel that emphasize the skills and vision that will help us not only navigate the continuing crisis but also help us bring forth a better future for our descendants and all life.

Previous posts in this series include the Fall Equinox (Receptivity) and Samhain (Release).  So if we think about how the wheel turns, after release–letting go, getting rid of all that holds you to former structures that are, frankly, crumbling around us.  So what comes next in our wheel of the year?  I argue at the time of deepest darkness, we should pay attention to our own needs and healing with the theme of restoration – for, without this, no work can proceed as we move forward back into the light and tackle some really hard stuff to come, stuff that is more externally focused!  In other words, we have to get our own house and mental health in order (the sequence of Fall Equinox- Samhain -Winter Solstice) so we can look externally in the year to come.

The Need for Restoration: Languishing and Solastalgia

A new term is popping up on news feeds as of late: “languishing.”  Languishing is somewhere in between well-functioning and deep depression. It is a state of feeling apathy, restlessness, feeling like the things that once brought you joy no longer do, feeling unsettled, and not interested in life. According to this article, research demonstrated that a good number of people are languishing, particularly in younger generations.  This term describes well what many people are facing.  What do we do about languishing rather than thriving?

Ice in the Winter Months

Ice in the Winter Months

The other piece that is coming into play with climate change is the concept of solastalgia.  Coined in 2007 by Albreiht et. al., they define it as follows “solastalgia is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment.”  If we think about all of the increasing changes we face–from wildfires to droughts to continued extraction activities, this concept grows more pressing and real.  How many of us have watched a forest that we loved get cut or burned, a pipeline come through our favorite swamp, or even a mountaintop get removed? How does that affect our mental well-being?

The real crux of the issue that I see is that things aren’t going to get any better globally.  Climate change is going to grow increasingly worse, and with it, a lot of other things are also on the decline.  Sure, things may stabilize for a bit, but we are in the ‘slow crash’ and things are going to keep tumbling down. Thus, we have to figure out ways to support ourselves and our communities–and to be strong enough to face our present age. I’m not mincing my words here.  I don’t think at this point anyone can ignore the crisis of our age or its severe impact on our mental or physical health. And if we are going to thrive in the coming age, we need to be in the strongest place possible: mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Understanding Restorative Activities

Restoration can be defined in a few different ways. It includes returning to health, bringing back to a former position or condition, or improving the condition of someone or something.  Part of restorative work is understanding our needs: what needs are being met, what needs remain unfulfilled, what we have the power to change and control, and what we have to learn to accept.

Restoration Meditation: Uncovering what Works

Understanding your own needs for restoration and rejuvenation is really central to this work.  I think that sometimes we buy into the hype of various products and “self-care” gimmicks, as though they can provide us the healing and restoration that we need. Or we listen to what other people think is a good idea rather than our own intuition.  So take a moment to set all of that aside and start thinking about your own needs and how you can be restored.  Thus, starting with this meditation can help you work through what is possible and create a game plan.

  • Think about the times that brought you the most rest.  What were they? When were they? What conditions did they come under?
  • Think about the time that you feel you were in the best mental health.  When was that? What conditions were present?
  • What is your perfect restful day look like?  Is it away from home or at home? What are the conditions that allow you to have this perfect restful day?
  • Do you ever prevent yourself from practicing self-care? Think about the deep emotions or issues that might be present in this issue.
  • Does anyone else ever prevent you from rest and healing? Is there a way to mitigate this problem?
  • How can you create or replicate the conditions that allow you to rest? What limitations or issues might you need to address?
  • What basic needs do you have that are unfulfilled? Is there anything you can dot work to fulfill them?
  • How do you support your physical body?  What can you do differently (food, exercise, rest, etc.)?
  • How do you support your emotions and mental health? What can you do differently?

First, understanding your own needs is central.  Nobody can define for you what rejuvenates you and how you can find your own healing–you must do that for yourself.  And your needs for restoration are not necessarily the needs of other people. For example, for me, the most restful thing I can do is stay home and be in my gardens and art studio, have a lot of unstructured time where I have no obligations to anyone, stay off of social media, and not answer texts or my phone.  Those things can create a deep sense of peace, the flow of awen, and the ability for me to dig into some really cool projects uninterrupted. This is really different than, say, someone who wants to travel far from home and spend a week on the beach. The point here is to know yourself and how you work.

The second part of this, getting at bullet point four, is self-sabotage or sabotage by other family members or close friends.  Sometimes we actively or subconsciously prevent ourselves from getting the rest and restoration we need.  Deeply examine any of these issues and where they may come from as part of this work. And sometimes, we have people in our lives who actively try to thwart self-care activities–and its important to recognize both of these so that we can heal.

Restoration Activities

White Pine Forest Bathing and White Pine Healing Steams, Baths, and Teas

White pine in winter

White pine in winter

Turning to evergreens, particularly the pine family and white pine, is an excellent idea as a restorative activity. Since the white pine is an evergreen tree, it reminds us of the green of summer and holds back the darkness.  White pine, both physically and energetically, draws things out.  Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal, describes how, in the days of early America, people would simply walk through White Pine woods to help heal their consumption and tuberculosis. Even today, herbalists use White Pine steam treatments and tinctures for people who have problems with breathing.  The connection to the breath is important–as we go about our lives in this very difficult age, it feels like many of us are holding our breath.

As a restorative activity, visit a white pine forest or spend time with a white pine tree.  Make sure you ask the tree’s permission to spend time and leave an appropriate offering. Simply be with the tree or in the forest, breathing in and out, sitting near the trunk, wandering and looking for messages, and allowing the energy of the white pine to soothe you.  Release the tension in your body, mind, and spirit.

Additional activities surrounding the white pine include doing a white pine bath (gather up needles with permission and an offering, add them to a bath and soak), a healing white pine tea (brew needles for 3 minutes, add honey), or a white pine herbal steam (instructions here).  All of these can be combined with other winter solstice activities or

If you don’t have white pine in your ecosystem, you can find an equivalent conifer–a dominant evergreen conifer tree, tall, majestic, with medicinal qualities ideally connected with the lungs.

Slowing Down

The holidays around the Winter Solstice, at least here in the US, feel like an insanely busy time.  Making a commitment to yourself to take some quiet moments and/or embrace slowness really matters.  Our culture glorifies busyness and the constant ticking off of to-do lists and this can contribute substantially to feeling over-worked, over-committed, and exhausted.  The following suggestions are ways to “slow down” and embrace a slower approach–which itself can be very rejuvenating.

  • Candlelight evenings and embracing the darkness. Living by candlelight is another restorative activity that can have substantial restorative benefits.  Electronic devices emit a blue light which can inhibit the production of melatonin, which can prevent you from falling asleep.  Shift your lighting to any kind of natural light, even for an evening or two.  Pick up a real book (not an e-reader or phone) and enjoy the quiet, slowness, and stillness of the winter. Embrace the extra sleep that this kind of practice allows.
  • Technology detox. Allow yourself to have a serious break from your electronic devices and the many obligations they bring.  Disconnect–for a few days, a week, whatever you want to do–and go technology-free.  To do this successfully, let friends or family know what you are doing and make a commitment in advance.  Often when people do this, at first there is a bit of panic or even withdrawal–we are so used to constantly picking up our phones, etc.  But after a day or two when the initial shock wears off, you realize how much better you feel without the constant technological tether.  This can create more meaningful opportunities to engage in a spiritual practice, explore one’s own understanding of the world, or embrace bardic arts.  Consider how you might fill the time normally spent interacting with technology with restorative activities.
  • Embracing a “slow” philosophy. The slow movement has been gaining traction for many years.  The philosophy has many components, slow food, slow spirituality, slow work, and slow time to name a few.  The principle is simple and yet very difficult to enact: we slow down.  We take our time to cook healthy food that came from local sources or that we grew, we reframe our relationship and time commitments to work, we create unstructured leisure time, and we reject the many cultural demands that say we must work harder, faster, and always be on the go.  This is an incredibly restorative activity!

The Druid’s Retreat

Another restorative that can be done is for you to have a retreat. A retreat is a fantastic way to set aside time for spiritual growth and rejuvenation. A retreat can restore you in ways that few other things can. I have two posts that go into detail about how to set up your retreat and how to go about your retreat.  Winter is a lovely time to do a retreat–rent a cabin, find a way to do a home retreat, etc.  I always do a winter retreat–usually in late Dec and early January, when I’m off from my job, when the rush of the holidays has ended, and it simply allows me time to rest and dig deeply into my own spiritual practices.

Conclusion

My suggestions above hopefully will get your own creative ideas flowing for how to embrace rejuvenation and restoration at this darkest time of the year.  This is such important work to do–for if the healer is herself not healed, how can she heal others?  As we begin to move forward from the Winter Solstice and back into the time of light, our bodies, spirits, and minds are restored and we can consider the powerful and meaningful work that is to come. Blessings of the winter solstice to you, dear readers!

Announcements:

Article on Druidry 101: Finally, I wanted to share my article on Druidry 101 that was published this week in Spirituality and Health magazine.  Please check it out!

 

A 21st Century Wheel of the Year: Cultivating Receptivity at the Fall Equinox

Nature Mandala

The Fall Equinox is traditionally about harvest, harvesting the fruits of your labor and the fruits of the land in preparation for the coming of winter. This model of the wheel of the year focuses on earned outcomes: you’ve planted your crops, you’ve tended them all season, you’ve invested the time, and now, you are able to receive the rewards of your efforts. And a lot of our own understanding of the celebration of these seasons works on that narrative: planning, planting, tending, harvesting, and the cycle of the seasons. This same cycle is expected, perhaps, anticipated, in our everyday lives. For example, if you put the effort into getting degrees and starting a career, or if you put in a ton of hard effort at your workplace, you will eventually be rewarded with a harvest, a payoff, and a sense of stability. There’s this large sense that if you put your time in, then your harvest and rewards will come.

For weeks now, I tried to write a different post, a one celebrating the harvest and using the traditional themes of the Fall Equinox in the druid tradition. Yet, it turned out to be very difficult to write. There’s been so much change and challenge in the last two years.  While our garden is certainly bountiful and we are bringing in the harvest on our homestead, I found these narratives of “putting in your work and getting a harvest” really problematic to dwell on because for myself and so many others, that whole idea has crumbled in workplaces and cultures. In talking with friends in a variety of fields and contexts, I think that’s perhaps the thing that’s been most difficult for everyone during the last year and a half–the loss of that narrative, of that stability, of that dependable way forward. A lot of those expected cycles and seasons were disrupted, and it appears that most of us are never going back to “before.”  This led to my own thinking and meditations about the new skills that getting such a harvest in today’s age requires–resilience, like I shared a few weeks ago, but also other themes I’ve touched on, such as flow. In other words, just like our traditional wheel, this new set of skills and themes may help us find balance, grounding, and stability in an increasingly unstable world.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the traditional wheel or the themes of harvest or balance at the Fall Equinox, because these themes are still very much present on our landscape and in many aspects of our lives. But, I do think we need to build into our traditional wheel and celebrations a broader set of thinking, visioning, and ideas that might help us live, adapt to, and thrive in this new and less predictable age. In other words, if the stability of the Holocene allowed agrarian societies to develop elaborate spiritual traditions surrounding planting and harvest, what does the instability of the Anthropocene require of our spiritual traditions? What themes or concepts can those practicing nature-based spirituality embrace now so that we can offer a better vision for the future?  It is this question that I will consider today for the Fall Equinox, and I will return to this question for the next seven holidays as we move froward through the next eight seasonal holidays–creating an wheel of the year that offers us tools for visioning and resiliency.

So with all of that written as a way of introduction to why I’m deviating from the traditional theme for the Fall Equinox (and subsequent holidays for the wheel of the year in the coming seasons), I’m going to present some themes that I think are powerful lessons for us to incorporate into spiritual practices and seasonal celebrations.  So let’s turn to one of these themes: receptivity!

Receptivity as a theme for the Fall Equinox

Hickory, Maple, Aster, Hawthorn, and Poke mandala on moss

Receptivity has a lot of dimensions and definitions. In its most simple form, it is about openness: openness to new ideas, to change, and new experiences or patterns of life.  Its about accepting what comes rather than trying to force things in a specific direction. Receptivity is about us simply allowing things to flow in, rather than trying to force things in a specific way. When you dig into it, receptivity is a very good theme for the “harvest” narrative, because with receptivity, rather than cultivating an expectation of what we want and expect to come, we are open to what is and what comes our way.

One of the reasons that Receptivity is such a good theme is that it is a counter balance to the effort-reward cultural narrative that is tied to the Fall Equinox and themes of harvest. There is one enormous problem with the effort/reward theme on a larger cultural level: it belongs to a different age. It belongs to the Holocene, an 8000-11,000 year period of stable climate that allowed humans to develop agriculture, allowed humans to have some predictability about their surroundings, and allowed us to develop symbolic understandings like those drawn upon for the modern wheel of the year. It also belongs to the 20th century, when stable careers were common and people would retire from blue collar jobs with pensions. But we are not in the Holocene any longer, both climate-wise and culturally, we’ve moved onto the Anthropocene (or, as Stephen Pyne recently called it, the Pyrocene, the age of fires). The Anthropocene is characterized by human-driven planetary changes which destabilize every aspect of our lives. These changes are increasing in intensity and will continue throughout the course of our lives and into the lives of our descendants. Many now point to 1950 as the time when the Anthropocene officially began, with humanity’s “great acceleration” of consumption and capitalism. But like any age, it takes time to ramp up, and it is now in the 21st century, seventy years later, we are really starting to see the accelerating effects of the Anthropocene.  In thinking about these changes, both culturally in the last 18 months with the pandemic, and in the wake of the UN’s release of the IPPC 2021 climate change report, we need some new themes.

While we have traditionally based the wheel of the year on more recent agrarian human ancestors as part of the Holocene,  we no longer live in that age. Agrarian societies depend on very limited numbers crops for sustenance and survival. For a culture that depends on a small number of crops, getting a harvest from those crops becomes absolutely critical for life, and it makes sense that a huge amount of their spiritual tradition was focused on the harvest. If you think about many of the harvest traditions–they was (and still were) focused on staple crops like apples, wheat, and barley without which our agrarian ancestors would not have survived.  This is also of why situations like the failure of one crop were so devastating; for example, the Irish Potato Famine in the 1850’s killed over 1,000,000 Irish and sent many of them (including my own ancestors) in search of new places to put down roots.

However, if we go back further to the time of our more distant hunter-gatherer ancestors, we know that they lived and thrived through multiple destabilized climates and planetary ages.  If we examine their experiences with obtaining a harvest–the picture emerges quite differently. Most hunter-gatherer societies still had a few foods that were central to their diets (like acorn eating cultures, specific animals that were hunted and revered, etc) but most lived off of an incredible variety of different foods, in some cases 1000 or more (as you can learn from ethnobotanical guides like M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wilds or Charlotte Ericssen-Brown’s Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants).  These foods vary considerably from season to season–hardwood nut crops, for example, have a “mast year” every 3-5 years.  That is, while there was always food to harvest, the kinds of food, amounts of food, and timing of it was pretty variable and required us to simply accept what was, capitalize on what was, and move forward.  (As an aside, hunter-gatherer societies did also not suffer from what some scientists would call “diseases of civilization” like heart disease or diabetes; see more about this at this article).

So let’s focus for on gathering and how it is tied to receptivity. I do a lot of wild food foraging and wild food education in addition to tending a 5-acre homestead and growing a lot of food.  The mindsets for gathering vs. farming are really different. Both are based on innate wisdom and knowledge of the land, but there are expectations in homesteading/gardening that are simply not present in wild food foraging. With foraging, you never really know what you might encounter or how abundant things might be. You can only use your knowledge to go to places where you’ve found food before and use your knowledge of the timing of the season to help you see what is out there. One year, the wild berry crop is massive while the next there’s practically no berries to speak of because of a late frost.  One year you could harvest hundreds of pounds of chestnuts and in the next, they are full of worms but there are incredible amounts of lamb’s quarters to make flour.  That’s how it is when you are foraging for wild foods–you just put yourself out there to look and see what you can find.  Hence, receptivity and gratitude for the harvest.

Receptivity: Bardic, Ovate, and Druid Practices

A ritual altar at the fall equinox

Receptivity is a pretty challenging concept for many of us who grew up in Western cultures, and I think its grown a lot more difficult in recent years.  Here in the US, for example, an extremely polarized cultural and political climate encourages us to shut down, to not even be willing to hear voices that are different than our own, and to spend time only with people who think and act like we do.  US culture also maintains the effort-reward faulty narrative that suggests that if you simply work hard you will be successful.  Obviously, that’s a lot different from cultivating receptivity.  Thus, I think it is useful to work to cultivate spiritual practices that cultivate receptivity.  And yes–I keep using the term “cultivate” very specifically–this is something we can bring into our lives, like a new skill we are learning. Here are a few methods to practice receptivity through the lens of bardic, ovate, and druid practice.

Receptivity and Wild Foods: An Ovate Practice

One way of cultivating receptivity and honor the harvest is to take up a wild food foraging practice and take a day to go out and seek out wild foods.  Wild foods can be found in all settings, from urban to wilderness, and its just a matter of time and building your knowledge.   See if you can find enough for to create at least part of a meal.  This time of year in Eastern North America, they are particularly abundant–you can find wild apples, hardwood nuts (hickories, chestnuts, butternut, walnuts, hazelnuts, acorns);fall greens (usually there is a second harvest of greens like dandelion); grain harvests (wild amaranth, lambs quarters, or yellow dock); and fall mushrooms (Hen of the Woods, late Chicken of the Woods, Honey Mushrooms, etc).  Building an ethical foraging practice and bringing some of this into your regular practice allows for not only a deep knowledge and reverence of nature, but also a way to align with ancient human ancestors and cultivate receptivity.

With any wild food foraging practice, I want to stress the importance of ethical harvest.  Offer gratitude and respect to what you are harvesting, seek permission, and monitor wild food populations. For an introduction to ethical foraging, please see this post.  I also have two general posts that can get you started on wild foraging with resource and book suggestions: here and here.

So as a fall equinox celebration, you might gather some wild foods leading up to the Fall Equinox and then prepare a celebratory meal in gratitude and reverence for what the land has provided.  Supplement this with food from your own garden or farmer’s market and enjoy the feast!

Receptivity: A Fall Equinox Journey of Spirit

On the druid side, we might think about how to create receptivity through spiritual connection and ritual.  Druid practices are about ritual, meditation, and celebration.  For this practice, rather than planning a formal Fall Equinox ceremony, you will simply allow yourself to experience the magic and enchantment of the living earth, be guided by spirit, and create an ongoing ceremonial experience for yourself.

To do this, plan on spending some deep time in nature, at least an hour or more. Ideally this will be a place with some wildness to it. You might take a few tools with you–an offering blend, a harvest knife, your crane bag, a spiritual journal. But don’t plan too much–the idea is to allow the ceremony to unfold on your journey.

When you get where you are going, start by opening up yourself to a ceremonial experience. Keep your mind and intentions open but do any protective work you see as necessary (e.g. I would do AODA’s Sphere of Protection ceremony to begin).  After that, begin to walk and explore, seeing what you are drawn to.  Leave offerings, talk with trees, and spend time simply communing with the living earth.  Look for messages in the forms of animals, clouds, wind, trees.  See what calls to you and the work you can do to celebrate this year.  This might be a tree meditation, a grounding ceremony in the woods, forest bathing, taking a nap, making offerings, building a nature mandala, etc.  The point here is that rather than prepare a pre-concieved plan for your Fall Equinox, you simply allow spirit to guide you.

As you are exiting the forest, give yourself some time to return.  Breathe deeply, “close” the ceremonial experience in whatever way you see fit, and take time to return to the mundane world.  Carry what you’ve learned about yourself and nature with you into the coming season.

Receptivity: Cultivating in Community

Bardic practices involve both creative expression as well as community, and in this case, this practice focuses more on cultivating open relationships with others.  The practice is simple:

Talk to someone who believes very differently than you do in a non-judgemental, open way*.  One activity to help you cultivate receptivity is to find someone who has very different life experience, different political or social views, and/or a different way of seeing the world from you. Spend time asking that person questions to understand what they believe and why they believe it.  As you are listening, work to withhold your own judgment (note your emotional reactions) and also work hard not to respond to them in a way that would put your own beliefs at the center of the discussion. Ask questions, listen, and absorb what they are saying. After you’ve done this, express gratitude to the person for sharing their time and thoughts. (And yes, I realize how incredibly hard this might be to do, at least for those in the US right now.  Try it anyways.  Strip aside the common political stigmas and simply listen to a person as a human being).

After you’ve done this, meditate on the experience. What did you gain from this experience? Did it reaffirm your beliefs or did it allow you to really experience a new perspective? Do you have more empathy and understanding for those who may believe differently than you?

(*I am grateful to  Dr. Abby Michelini for this practice.  Abby recently completed a dissertation and I was honored to be a dissertation reader on her project. Her project was to create poetic narratives from people on radically different sides of the spectrum and use those as a way of cultivating deep listening to bridge political and cultural divides. And you know what? It worked. After seeing her study, this practice gave me a lot of hope.  I started trying this practice in my own life and I was really grateful for this as a new tool to cultivate openness and receptivity towards others! So I’m sharing it here!)

Closing

Learning how to cultivate receptivity in such challenging times offers us a powerful tool.  It allows us to be more flexible and adaptable to things that we can’t change and encourages us to find delight in the unexpected.  May your feet tread ever lightly upon the soil and your lungs fill with clean air at this blessed Fall Equinox!

Also, If you are interested more in this topic, cultivating your intuition, connecting with our primal ancestral roots, and in connecting deeply with nature, I wanted to draw your attention to a fabulous 8 week online course by Jon Young, Nate Summers, and Sarah Fontaine starting soon! Here’s a link to the Intuitive Tracking course https://www.primalnate.com/intuitivetracking   I’ll be taking this course, and I hope you consider it as well!

The Practice of Deep Gratitude

At the heart of the challenges, we face in transitioning from a life-destroying culture to a life-honoring one is to disentangle the many underlying myths and narratives that subconsciously or consciously drive our behaviors.  These myths include the myth of progress, the myth of infinite growth, the lure of materialism, and the assumption that nature is there only to serve our needs. These myths have, in part, been the underlying forces that have driven us to the present challenges of our age. I believe many of these myths are rooted in colonialism, and if we are ever to end this awful practice and its centuries-old impacts, we must address them. They drive both larger systems at play as well as each of us. And while we can look to broader

A nature mandala offered in thanks for our land that provides so much to us.

systems of power and privilege that sustain these myths, it’s important to realize that they are as much embedded in our individual hearts and minds–and thus, are worth countering directly. But here’s the thing: even if you understand these myths on a mental level, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are easy to be rid of.  Thus, while meditating on these myths and coming to understand them is fundamental to us creating a better future and vision for the future, it’s also in our actions where we can begin to address them.  That’s the whole principle of “sacred action” that I talk about in my book Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Based Sustainable Practices: engaging in behaviors that help us live in a more sustaining and sacred way. That’s also part of what I see as the necessary de/un-colonizing work we all must do.

One of the most important myths to counter is the idea of nature being at our disposal to use as we see fit–and for this, a counter practice that I share today is what I call “deep gratitude.” Deep gratitude is developing a consistent, mindful, and sustaining gratitude practice for the world around you.

Three Reasons to Practice Deep Gratitude

If you want to get right to the practice, skip this section.  If you want to hear why I believe deep gratitude is critical and some of the things we need to counter, keep reading!

Nature Loyalty over Brand Loyalty. One of the problems with industrialization, consumption, and materialism is that we lack a true sense of gratitude for the earth that provides for us. The system purposely disconnects us from our food and the sources of our food and the land that sustains us. The system disconnects us from the sources of nature which provide the goods we use (e.g. the “distributed by” label). Instead of having gratitude for nature, which literally provides our every need (even very indirectly in this current age), we have brand loyalty. Companies and corporations steal that loyalty, cultivate it, and we somehow feel beholden to them.  But the true source of our clothing, housing, food, and possessions is the earth, and thus, we need to cultivate gratitude and loyalty to the earth from which everything is derived. So one way we might realign ourselves with the correct loyalty (to the living earth) rather than the things that strip the earth of resources (Walmart) is by simply practicing deep gratitude.

Gratitude for the sun, rain, and mists that provide sustenance to the land

The other thing here is that brand loyalty erases the other part of this equation: the people whose labor makes these things we consume happen. The hands that grow, and pick, and package, and ship, and sell. These people aren’t just cogs in a machine, their labor–which allows us to eat, have clothes, etc–also matters.

The Lure of Money. I another reason that gratitude matters is because of the disconnection and greed that money fosters. Money disconnects us and, like brand loyalty, cultivates a deep love and desire for money. If you think about it on an abstract level, the system is kind of bonkers: you labor for someone, and they give you money.  Then you go to the store and use the money to buy what you need (clothes, food, etc). That whole exchange privileges money and wealth; what it doesn’t privilege is natural abundance or the earth from which all flows. Money disconnects us.  Money creates a whole lot of intermediaries that distance us from the earth and from our fellow humans.  We are the only beings on the planet who live in such a way.  Everyone else for the most part (unless they are domesticated and live with us) depends directly on the natural earth for everything. At the same time, we can be grateful for our own labor that has produced the funds necessary to procure the goods that sustain us.  Self-care and self-love is certainly part of the deep gratitude equation.

Nature is not Walmart.  But what about things that don’t involve money or aren’t part of the larger industrial system?  We still need gratitude.  I have seen the ramifications of this lack of gratitude in many places, but perhaps none so glaring as in the wild food foraging community.I used to teach a lot of wild food foraging classes locally and regionally, and I’ve paused those classes (the verdict is still out on whether I will again in the future).  Despite my best efforts, I watched people descend upon nature like pirates raiding a merchant ship.  Nature was the treasure and they were treasure hunters.  I watched a group of people–who I had just spent 20 minutes talking to about ethics, reciprocation, and gratitude–strip a patch of woodland nettles down to their roots before I could stop them. I’ve seen people I’ve taught in my previous plant walks posting on social media unsustainable harvests. I feel at least partially responsible for those actions. I’ve been kicked out of multiple foraging groups on social media for talking about the lack of sustainability of harvesting five gallons of ramps with the bulbs intact (my blog readers will know I have a deep love for these endangered woodland medicinal species!)  I offer this example of wild food foraging because getting into the woods isn’t enough–the myths and materialistic forces that drive us there.  So what’s the alternative?

Practicing Deep Gratitude

This all leads me to the practice of deep gratitude as a way of countering these myths. What I mean by deep gratitude is this:

Taking small moments to acknowledge what nature has provided to you and be in gratitude for those gifts. Thinking about the natural resources as well as the human hands that created, moved, and sold things to you so that you can be healthy, comfortable, and well-fed. Slowing down enough to be grateful for what you have and how it has come to you.  Acknowledging the lives and labor that have produced what you will consume and giving thanks.

The practice itself is simple.

If you are consuming anything, have take a moment for gratitude.  If you eat something, have gratitude.  If you purchase something, have gratitude. You want to honor the life or resources that was given (because something is almost always given when we consume).  Take a moment to simply express your gratitude and thanks for what nature has provided you.

Gratitude for the abundance of nature!

For example, let’s say you are having a banana for breakfast. Spend a moment honoring the tree that that banana came from, the soil web that sustained it, the hands that tended that tree and harvested it, and those people who helped get it to you. If you are engaging in repairs to your house, be grateful for the materials–where they came from, what was given (the life of the tree for the board for your home), etc.  Simply take the time to honor and acknowledge the earth that provided, the hands that provided, and be thankful.

If you harvested something directly, either from a garden you grew or from nature in the wild, be grateful.  Before you harvest, ask permission.  If you can, leave a small offering before you take anything.

Try this practice as often as you can–I suggest starting for a week and seeing how it goes. Even if you don’t do it for everything, start with one thing, like what you eat or what you wear.  Practice gratitude at your meals, for example, or for anything new that you buy.  I don’t think you can do this all the time, but if you do it some of the time, that is enough to help cultivate this gratitude within you.

I’ve been practicing this for some time now, and it has done a few things for me.  First, I have paid a lot more attention to the steps and ways in which things get to me: if I’m eating a banana (which obviously doesn’t grow here in Pennsylvania), I think about the steps it took to reach me and offer gratitude to everything from the living earth to those who grew and sold it.  Second, it affirmed the need to source everything as locally as possible (which I already do) so that I can offer my gratitude directly.  For example, I buy milk from my local farmer.  I can take a moment to thank the farmer and when I visit to pick up the milk, thank the cows and the grass that sustains them. Another thing this practice does is center permaculture ethics in my life: I am constantly thinking of the triad of earth care, people care, and fair share as I go throughout my day. I’m thinking about these ethical dimensions and drawing attention to both the earth-based and human-based ways in which others have touched me, nourished me, and helped sustain me. I’m stripping out loyalty to oppressive systems and instead focusing on what actually provides for me: the living earth and those others who are directly involved. Finally, this practice has created more joy in my life. Rather than rushing through a meal, I take the time to savor it, being grateful for a full belly and the beautiful asparagus from the garden.

Deep Gratitude for a misty dark forest in the rain

Deep Gratitude for a misty dark forest in the rain

Deep gratitude is a fundamentally transformational practice. It encourages you to slow down, pause, and be grateful. Being grateful makes things more meaningful, and our experience is richer for it. It roots us in the here and now and re-aligns our minds and hearts with the living earth. I think  I hope you’ll give it a try (if you don’t do something like this already). I would love to hear your thoughts about how you practice gratitude in your life!

PS:  I have a few updates on my new book!  Thanks to all who have already supported me by purchasing it!  First, I was featured on the latest Druidcast (episode 171) talking about my new book Sacred Actions.  The book also has a number of reviews: one from Nimue Brown at Druid Life, one from Bish at the Druid’s Network, one from Dean Easton at A Druids Way, and one from James Nichol at Contemplative Druidry, one from Regina Chante, and more out soon!

Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year Through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices

Sacred Actions book!

I’m really excited to announce that my new book through REDFeather / Shiffer Publishing is now availableo!  The Book is titled Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year Through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices. I wanted to give you an introduction to the book and the concepts behind the book.  If you’ve been reading the blog for any length of time, you’ll see a great deal of familiarity: my explorations and writing on this blog shaped this book, although the book goes well beyond the blog.  In a nutshell, Sacred Actions presents a hybridization of nature spirituality, sustainable living, and permaculture practices and ethics.   I can’t wait to introduce it to you in today’s post!

Order in the US or UK from the Publisher (available now). Pre-order from Amazon (US) or Amazon (UK).  Pre-Order in Australia from Booktopia. 

As I’ve written on this blog before, I believe that we are possible of creating a better future–a healed, nurtured world where humans, animals, plants, and all life can live in harmony and balance. Not only is this possible, but it is also critically necessary for us to survive. Perhaps this seems like a far-off fantasy, but I have hope in this future. To build this future for our descendants and for all life on earth, this work starts with both a vision and starts in the lives of each of us who desire to take up this work.  Consider Sacred Actions a manual of personal empowerment for those who want to integrate nature spirituality, sustainability, permaculture, and earth-honoring approaches and build a better tomorrow.

Graphic from book: creating a sacred space in your home through signs and reminders

Graphic from book: creating a sacred space in your home through signs and reminders

It’s no secret that it’s extremely hard to practice any nature-based spirituality in an age where the destruction of nature is a product of daily human activity.  The deeper that you go into any path of nature spirituality, like Druidry, the more you experience this dissonance.  How do we practice nature spirituality when we are experiencing ecological decline: extinction, pollution, global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, and much more? Seeing news reports and dealing with ecological issues in our own region and communities can leave people feeling lost, confused, and stuck in a place of inaction. People come to paganism, Druidry, and nature spirituality because they want to reconnect with nature. But in the process of doing this, they also struggle with the integration of spiritual practices with their everyday lives and balancing their lives with the harsh ecological realities we face. As we are increasingly confronted with the catch-22 of holding nature as sacred but participating in a culture that is harming nature and threatening ecosystems globally, the question that so many of us ask is: how can I integrate an earth-based spiritual practice with an earth-honoring lifestyle?

Inside of book – Food and Nourishment / Summer Solstice Chapter

To address these challenges, I wrote Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year Through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices.  What is sacred action? Sacred action is the principle through which we can solve the challenges I’ve shared above.  Recognizing that everyday, mundane life can be an opportunity for deepening our spiritual practices and connections with the living earth by living in a way that honors nature through those everyday actions.  It is the process of transforming our lives, through our intentions and action, where we turn the mundane through a wide set of new practices, skills, and activities.  It’s about taking small steps towards a brighter future.

Graphic from book: Three sacred garden designs

This book was born here on the Druid’s Garden blog. For years, as part of my own path, I explored a wide range of practices and worked to integrate my own path of druidry into my everyday life by learning sustainable living, organic gardening, permaculture, herbalism, and so much more.  In time, I learned to teach these things to others, organize community groups, and start to spread the word further. I have written the book to be accessible to anyone, regardless of their living circumstances, resources, or life path.

Book Overview

Sacred Actions offers a wide variety of sustainable living activities, rituals, stories, and tools using an eight-fold wheel of the year approach. Thus, this book is a synthesis between nature-based spirituality and sustainable living practices through explorations of a wide variety of topics.  Each chapter, tied to one of the eight holidays, offers a specific theme, rituals and activities for sustainable living, stories, and fun graphics.

Graphic from Book: Permaculture’s Principle of the Zone

One of the core aspects of the book is that I use permaculture ethics (people care, fair share, and earth care) to weave through the book. People care focuses on making sure ourselves, our families, and those around us have their basic needs. Earth care focuses on attending to sustaining our earth and all life on earth through our own actions. Fair share focuses on taking only what we need so that others may have what they need too.  Through the presentation of these ethics of care from permaculture, we are able to re-see a number of everyday life practices through the lens of sacred action.

The eightfold wheel of the year is the framework through which I present stories, practices, rituals, activities, and much more with the goal of helping readers further practice sacred action. The book begins at the Winter Solstice, where I offer core rituals and activities surrounding an ethic as care as a core foundation of sacred action using permaculture’s three ethics of care as a foundation of the book: people care, earth care, and fair share.  At Imbolc, we focus on the principles of drawing upon the wisdom of the ancestors through reskilling and knowledge building.  At the spring equinox, I present one of the most challenging topics: addressing consumption, materialism, and waste, and I show many alternatives to typical living such as worm composting, ecobricks, and spiritual tools and rituals for various kinds of spring cleansings.  Beltane focuses on our homes and everyday lives–exploring sustainable options for cooking, heating, water usage, cleaning, lighting, and so much more.   At the Summer Solstice, we think about the energetic and ethical dimensions of food, developing seasonal food rituals, and honoring the land through our daily eating choices.  At Lughnasadh, we explore sacred gardening, planting by the signs, growing food indoors and outdoors, lawn conversions, and so much more (this is my favorite chapter, haha!).  At the fall equinox, we explore how to take things into our community: in our workplaces, creating and organizing groups, transportation, rituals and tools for our broader action in the world.  Finally, at Samhain, we explore how to create more sustainable ritual tools and working with nature outside of our door.

Graphic from the book: how to create a root cellar barrel to store garden produce!

Here is a list of just some of the topics covered in this book:

  • The ethics of care: people care, earth care, and fair share
  • Rituals for harvest, planting and growing
  • Rituals to honor food
  • Composting methods (vermicompost, compost piles, humanure, liquid gold)
  • Lawn liberations and conversions
  • Sacred gardening techniques (Planting by the signs, preparing soil, using available resources, swales, hugelkultur, organic gardening, pollinator-friendly spaces)
  • Indoor sacred gardening techniques (container gardening, sprouting, sacred herb windowsill garden)
  • Developing ritual tools and materials sustainably and locally
  • Turning waste into resources (ecobricks, trash-to-treasures, upcycling)
  • Cooking by the sun or sustainably (hay boxes, solar cookery)
  • The home as a sacred space
  • Ethics of food and how to work with times of local abundance
  • Honoring food through ritual and ceremony
  • Energy and transportation
  • Food storage and sustainability (pantry, root cellar, root cellar barrels, canning and more)
  • Community organizing, groups, and earth ambassadorship
  • Developing workplace sustainability practices
  • Rituals for sacred activity and bringing the sacred into everyday life
  • Reskilling and honoring ancestral wisdom

Inside of book -rituals and activities section

Thus, through reading this book, readers will gain access to rituals, philosophies, ethics, tools, practices, and activities that they can use to integrate, and expand, their own spiritual practices and tie these to earth-honoring living.  It is, ultimately, a manual of empowerment for neo-pagans wanting to make more earth-honoring lifestyle choices.

If you want to hear more about the book, you can also view my recent interview with Chris McClure on Facebook live with Shiffer/Red Feather here.  You can also listen to the upcoming Druidcast (releasing in June with Philip Carr Gomm) or the Carrowcrory Cottage Podcast with John Wilmott (Woodland Bard) on June 27th at 9am EDT!   I’ll share more links as they come through.

To order: Order in US or UK from the Publisher (available now). Pre-order from Amazon (US) or Amazon (UK).  Pre-Order in Australia from Booktopia. 

Thank you, readers, for your longstanding support, comments, and faith in me. This book exists because you have supported me for so many years! If you have enjoyed this blog and this journey, please consider picking up a copy of sacred actions. I am in gratitude for your support.