The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Meditation Primer February 11, 2018

In this time as the light is coming back into the world, the time surrounding Imbolc, I find myself often going deeply inward for healing and strength and turning towards meditation as a guide for spiritual balance.  This deep winter period is, of course, coming on the heels of the frenzied holiday season where many of us get burned out by the amount of hustle and bustle.  Further, many of the demands of modern living, particularly for those working wage-earning jobs, require us to move faster, be always “connected” and present with new technology, and have an increasingly fast stream of information pouring in and out of our heads. This can lead to long-term drain on the spirit. In this quiet time of the year, amidst the snows and frozen earth, various meditation techniques allow for rest, centering, and rejuvenation.

 

The quiet that nature provides...

The quiet that nature provides…

Meditation offers us a quiet moment away from the hustle and bustle of normal life—a sacred moment, a moment that gives us peace and allows us to be only within our own minds. And yet,  I think that “meditation” for a lot of people raises up images of sitting cross legged ohm-ing or doing deep breathwork (the kind of meditation you might see on TV or find in a Yoga class). These forms of meditation are certainly effective, but represent only a small number of possibilities, and may not be as useful or practical to those who are on a druid path and seeking to connect deeply with nature. Particularly for those walking a nature-based spiritual path, other meditative forms might be more effective and connecting.  I would like to explore some of those today.

 

Three Outcomes of Meditation

Its always interesting to talk with a spiritual practitioner of another path. I have several good friends who have deep Yoga, Zen, and mindfulness practices, and when we talk about daily spiritual life, we find a lot of similarity–but also a lot of difference. In conversations with these friends, I have realized how important it is not to assume the word “meditation’ carries the same meaning, and to talk instead about the specific practices that we do. I have come to understand that  meditation is not a single technique but a wide range of techniques that work on the relationship between mind, body, and spirit and that offer spiritual benefit. These goals of meditation can manifest in at least three ways:

 

Clearing Meditation: Some forms of meditation encourage us to disconnect from the troubles and everyday grit of living–to facilitate peace, calm, tranquility. In eastern meditation, we might have “empty mind” kinds of meditation, where the goal is simply to clear one’s mind for a period of time or practice 30 or 45 minutes of quietude a few times a day. In druid and western meditation techniques, this might be when we practice a “fourfold breath” technique at the beginning of a meditation session to simply clear out what was there. Other forms may connect us to universal energies or our higher self. These goals are very “up and out” kinds of goals, and can certainly be useful and spiritually enriching. I also think these kinds of goals are really useful for distressing and finding ourselves again after busy life circumstances–the kinds of meditation that offer us real health benefits and stability.

 

Connection Meditation. Other kinds of meditation practices ask us to work to be fully present with the moment. I see mindfulness practices from Eastern tradition as a great example of this as well as the practices of nature observation, walking meditation, and other goals that connect us deeply with nature. In this broader goal then, the point of the meditation seems opposite of the first–it isn’t to help us clear and get us out of a present reality, but rather, put is in touch with one.

 

Focus Meditation. A final goal for some types of meditation is the goal of focus. I see this goal really clearly in the use of discursive meditation, where the goal of discursive meditation is to help direct thoughts and lead to deep insight. A second meditation where this happens is shamanic trance and journey work, where inner journeys are facilitated by a particular receptive–and yet focused–state of mind.

 

Reconnecting with the land

Reconnecting with the land

Breaking meditation into these three categories has helped me with my own meditation practice, and it has certainly also helped me teach these techniques to others and explain the benefits.  If you simply want to “meditate every day” as many druid and esoteric traditions suggest, you have to figure out what you’d like to get out of the meditation so that you can use appropriate techniques. If you use only one form of meditation always, you are getting a particular benefit but may not be getting the full range of benefits that different styles of meditation provides. You can also combine meditation styles (starting with a clearing meditation and moving into a focus meditation, for example) for maximum benefit.  So now that we have some sense of the goals of meditation, I’m going to share some meditative techniques that can be helpful for us to achieve them, specifically from a druid-based framework.

 

Preliminaries: Posture and Breathwork

Before you begin any kind of meditation, priming the body and mind for the meditation is necessary. This priming includes posture and breathwork.

Posture: Many meditation techniques suggest a particular posture (sitting in a straight-backed chair with the spine upright, sitting cross legged on the ground on a small pillow to elevate the spine, standing comfortably, laying flat on a hardwood floor with a yoga mat underneath, and so on). I have two thoughts on this subject.  First, because different meditation techniques have different outcomes, the position of the body may need to be different for these.  For deep journey work, for example, my preferred posture is laying on the ground on a yoga mat.  For a simple 10 minute clearing meditation, I’d prefer to sit cross legged outside on a stump or on the ground in front of a candle. So as you think about the roles and goals of your meditation, different postures may be helpful.

 

Another consideration is that some bodies do not do well with certain postures.  For example, some people are very comfortable sitting in straight-backed chairs or standing for long periods of time, while other bodies may hurt after only a few minutes of this practice.  While there is a body element to meditation, in that you can train your body, just as you train your mind, you can also be aware of what your body’s limits are.  Early on, for me, trying to maintain a rigid pose when my body doesn’t want to do that led me to frustration and shorter meditations.  When is tarted laying down and using a yoga mat, I was able to gain tremendous benefits without body sensitivity.

 

Breathwork is used in nearly all meditation styles, and styles of meditation connected with druidry is no exception.

  • Three Deep Breaths: Three deep breaths is a technique taught by OBOD and used at the start of many OBOD ceremonies.  It is a very simple clearing meditation technique where you take three deep breaths, typically tied to the elements of earth, sea, and sky.  So you can simply stand and take a deep breath with the sky above you, with the sea around you, and with the earth beneath you.  And those three deep breaths can be a very simple meditation technique in their own right or as a gateway to deeper work.
  • Four-fold breath. The four-fold breath is a breathing technique that helps you settle into a meditation and is used in many esoteric practices and traditions. I see it as being used for both focus and clearing purposes.  I was taught it through the work of John Michael Greer (Druidry Handbook and other works).  In this technique, you focus on counting to regulate your breath in four equal ways.  The way I do it is this: breathing in for the count of three, hold your breath (lightly) for a count of three, breath out for a count of three, and pause (again lightly) for a count of three.  JMG warns that if you close off your throat at either the inbreath or outbreath to severely, it can lead to long term health complications.   I like to see the fourfold breath almost like a pendulum or swing (breathing in to the moment of apex, where there is that pause and then outbreath, with another pause on the other end, except the time intervals are all equal).
  • Quiet Breath. JMG also describes “quiet breath” as another meditation technique–after doing a four-fold breath, for example, you might transition into quiet breath for the remainder of the meditation (this is the technique with discursive meditation, taught in the AODA’s tradition).  Quiet breath is a normal breathing pattern, where you are lightly breathing in and out in your normal rhythm.  The idea is transitioning away from breath being a central focus of your meditation and into other work.

 

Three Nature Meditations for Druids

Now that we have some of the preliminaries covered, I thought I’d share three meditation techniques that can work well for those practicing a druid path, framed within the three paths or perspectives of druidry: druid arts, ovate arts, and bardic arts.  I also want to indicate that I’m sharing new forms of meditation here–ones that are very connected to druid-based and nature spiritual purposes.

 

The flowing of awen and the river

The flowing of awen and the river

A Druid-Focused Meditation: The druid path asks us to connect deeply with spirit, thus, a simple “clearing” meditation is helpful for the druid path. To do this meditation, you should find a source of running water or falling water (so a rainstorm, stream, flowing spring, or seashore would be highly appropriate). Find a comfortable position near the body of water. Begin with three deep breaths followed by the fourfold breath where you work to simply be present and let go of anything you might be mentally carrying with you. You can switch at this point to quiet breath for the remainder of the meditation. As you enter quiet breath, close your eyes and allow the sound of the water to flow through you, within you, and over you. Simply be with the water, taking the sound into you, feeling the flow of it through you. Do this for a time until you find peace, tranquility, and presence.

 

Water is a very good element to start with for this meditation, but you can actually do it with any of the four elements for different effects. A windy day makes a nice air meditation, as does sitting by the fire, or digging one’s feet in sand or earth. This is a very sense-oriented meditation, but the overall goal is to work with that element to help clear and ground you.

 

I will also note that while I developed this meditation for the purposes of clearing, it also offers benefits for connecting and focus–in other words, it helps us meet all three goals of meditation.

 

An Ovate Mediation: The ovate path asks us to connect deeply with nature, so a walking meditation with a primary goal of “connecting” is a useful for this regard.  For this meditation, go to any natural area and be ready to walk.  Ideally, this should be a place where you are not going to run into a lot of other people, certainly, a place where you don’t have to interact or converse if possible. For this, I like to find a quiet and out of the way path at a state park (but you could go into any natural area that fits your . I begin by standing on the path and doing a simple earth-sea-sky breath and a quiet prayer to ask the spirits of nature to inspire me on this journey.

 

The idea of this meditation is a walking-based meditation, where you get into a state of focus on the world around you, and allow the spirits of nature to simply flow through you and be with you.  For this, the goal is to be in the present moment, experiencing whatever there is to experience, on whatever level there is to experience it.  Observing, interacting, and simply taking it all in and being part of the journey.  This practice leads to deep spiritual awakenings and insights–and each walk, even in the same natural area, can be completely different.

 

A Bardic Meditation: A bardic meditation is often a focus meditation, with the goal of the meditation to bring forth something into the world as part of a nature-enriched creative practice.  For this, it is best to find a place that you find inspiring–a place that sings to your soul.

 

For this meditation, you will want to go to that inspiring place and bring with you the tools of a bardic art you’d like to practice or already do practice. So you might bring an instrument, pen and paper, paints, and so on (I think it is ALWAYS a good idea to bring some kind of recording device as well).

 

Begin by opening up a sacred grove and using the fourfold breath and quiet breath to bring you to a receptive state. Transition into a series of Awen chants, and then simply take the place within you. Be like a sponge, pulling in the energy of that place, hearing that sacred place’s song, story, poem, painting–connecting deeply with spirit. The goal here is to be in a meditative and receptive state so if this place has something it would like you to bring forth, you are able to be ready to have a quiet and receptive mind to do so (the meditation part). The first few times you do this, you might not end up creating anything at all.  But with enough visits and practice, these techniques will put you into a receptive state where awen will flow when it is ready to do so.  

 

This technique, for me, has produced amazing paintings, songs, and words…many of which have ended up here on the Druid’s Garden blog!

 

Concluding Thoughts

There are so many other kinds of meditations that you can do that connect you with nature, your own spirit, and the bardic arts.  I think the important thing, with any of these, is making enough time for these connections to take place.  Not all spiritual work has to be planned–sometimes, the best experiences come from the unplanned things, the things that simply happen, or things for which we make space.

 

An Introduction to Druidry October 8, 2017

Two weeks ago, I was asked to speak at our local UU Church (First Unitarian Universalist Church of Indiana, PA) on the druid tradition.  Of course, given the diversity of the druid tradition and the perpetual challenge in answering the question “What do druids believe?” it took some time to sort out what I wanted to say.  I thought I might share these thoughts here as a good introduction to the druid path for those wanting to know more and/or as a resource to share with non-druids.

 

Hemlock Healing

Hemlock Healing

I grew up in the beautiful Laurel Highlands region of Western PA. As a child, I spent every free hour in the forest behind my house, building cabins, exploring, and talking with trees. When I was fourteen, the forest was logged, and my heart broke. For weeks, the grind of the chainsaw was in the air, and I suffered as the forest suffered, my own pain and past trauma welling up within me. I went down into the forest after it was over, to see which of my tree friends had remained–and it seemed like almost nobody had survived. It was so heartbreaking, I ended up not returning to the forest for many years.  Almost a decade later, a friend who was dying of cancer insisted I return with him to that forest—and so we did.  A miracle had occurred. No doubt, the forest was still full of downed trees and brush, but the way was passable, and the land had done tremendous healing. That step, back into the forest, and seeing the healing present, was the first formal step I took on the druid path, a path I’ve now been walking for over decade.

 

Druidry today has both ancient and modern roots.  The tradition is inspired by the ancient Druids, wise sages who kept history, traditions, and guided the spiritual life of their people. The ancient Druids had three branches of study: the bard (a keeper of history, stories, and songs), the ovate (a sage of nature or shaman), and the druid (the keeper of the traditions, leader of spiritual practices, and keeper of the law). Much of what we know about the Ancient Druids today comes through their surviving legends, stories, mythology, and the writings of Roman authors: the druids themselves had a prohibition against writing anything down that was sacred, and so, we have only fragments. But fragments cannot be a full spiritual tradition.

 

In the period between 1700 and 1800, radical changes were happening in the British Isles, here in the USA, and across much of the western world. The rise of industrialization shifted many relationships between humans and the land. Farmers and peasants who had lived, sustained, and tended the land for countless generations were driven from their homes to work in factories. My spiritual ancestors, those associated with what we now call the “Druid Revival” watched this scene unfolding: the land stripped of her resources for industrialization and progress; the growing emphasis on produced goods over communities; the rampant pollution and exploitation industrialization was creating; the relegating of humans, animals, and the land to a resource for extraction, a machine.  The importance of balance and nurturing the land was quickly being replaced by the ideas of infinite growth at any cost and exploitation. It was during this time that those that founded the druid tradition reached deeply–and creatively–into their own history to the ancient druids, to a time when humans and nature were more connected.  And thus, the beginnings of my tradition, “Druid Revival” was born.

 

A river in the PA Wilds region--once a site of logging, now a site of regrowth

A river in the PA Wilds region–once a site of logging, now a site of regrowth

Industrialization, with so much promise at the time, continues to cause considerable pain to our earth and our human communities—and certainly each community and person experiences this in extreme ways.

 

It is in this seeking of reconnection to nature that we can see how for two and a half centuries, modern druidry is a human spiritual response to the larger wheels of industrialization that have been thrust upon us in the Western world.

 

The ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis as much as it is a crisis of culture. Druidry is us finding our way “home”; back into deep connection with the living earth.  Many people today are drawn to the druid tradition there is “something” missing for them and it is that connection to nature.

 

Like the ancients, the modern druid tradition still recognizes the three divisions in druidry, and each druid embodies aspects of each of the paths of the bard, ovate, and druid.  So, now that we’ve talked about the history of this tradition, I’d like to share information on each of these paths.

 

The first path of druidry is the Druid Path which focuses on dedication, magic, and mystery.

In druidry, nature is our sacred text, and each druid’s relationship and interaction with nature is different–we live in different ecosystems and climates, we are engaged in different kinds of work with the land, we have different cycles and seasons. Because of this, the druid revival tradition recognizes and cultivates the development of a personal spiritual path, and in the druid tradition, these differences are encouraged rather than minimized. In this way, revival druidry has a very similar philosophy to the Unitarian Universalists – belief is an individual choice. Being a druid doesn’t mean you can’t also hold Christian, a Buddhist, a UU, Pagan, or Atheist perspectives. Some of us are simply druids, and many of us are on a pagan path, but we have plenty of others who combine druidry with other things, like Christianity or Hinduism. All are celebrated.

 

Nature

Nature

Of course, in the druid tradition, we have common frameworks inspired by our spiritual ancestors. I belong to two druid orders: the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD), which is based in the UK and is the largest druid organization in the world, and the Ancient Order of Druids in America (or AODA), in which I currently serve in a leadership capacity and is focused on North American druidry. In AODA, for example, we have a common set of practices and a three part study program that people can engage in to spiritually connect with nature. These practices include celebrating the solstices and equinoxes, working a daily energetic practice called sphere of protection, engaging in lifestyle changes that honor the earth, planting trees, observing nature, daily meditation; honoring our ancestors of land, tradition, and blood; and practicing of the druid, ovate, and bardic arts. However, the specific expressions of a particular member’s own inner truth are central to the way in which those practices manifest. In fact, different views of the druid tradition interpret the “druid” path in various ways: the druid path is a path of magic, a study of the esoteric arts, a path of advanced practices, and/or a path of leadership.

 

In other words, if you ask five different druids about their beliefs and spiritual path, you’ll likely get seven different answers. But inherent in each of those answers would be an acknowledgement of the sacredness of nature, the power of nature to teach us the deepest lessons, and the importance of reconnection with nature, our creativity, and our spirit.

 

The second path of Druidry is the Path of the Ovate, which focuses on the sacredness of nature.

When people ask what druidry is about, the first thing I share is that it is a path of nature spirituality, that it embraces relationship to nature at its core, and that it honors nature through various activity (like seasonal celebrations of the solstices and equinoxes, nature awareness, and ecological study). And yet, an individual druid’s relationship towards nature is multifaceted: we see nature as sacred, it is our source of wisdom, our sacred text, and our church/sacred space.

 

We recognize that in order to treat nature as sacred, we must align ourselves with nature and her cycles. For us, druidry is a path we strive to walk in each moment and each day, and we work to align our inner truths with our outer actions. We focus on healing the relationship between ourselves and the living earth (and each of us does this in our own way; you might note the number of plant walks I do for charitable causes each year—this is part of my own work on the ovate path). The more that we, as druids, understand the living earth, the more we are able to reconnect with her, but also, to protect and heal what we hold sacred.

 

Another part of the ovate path isn’t just learning about nature and honoring her, but recognizing the inherent role in humans have tending to nature. Many druids find themselves connecting their spiritual life to outer physical practices that give them tools to work with nature. I, for example, practice permaculture, which is a nature-oriented design system that offers me tools to regenerate damaged ecosystems and rather than focus on doing “less harm”, I focus on doing “more good.”

 

Worlds within and without!

Worlds within and without!  Moshashannon State Forst in PA.

Part of the ovate work is the energetic work we do with nature—for example, fracking wells are present throughout the world. Each year, at certain points, druids and other like-minded folks organize to send healing energy to the earth surrounding fracking. We recognize that even if we are physically unable to heal the land, we can energetically support it (much as the practice of Reiki supports a sick person). This practice aligns with a truth known in the druid tradition: as above, so below. As within, so without.

 

Writing in the early 20th century, Max Weber, a strong supporter of capitalism and industrialization, wrote that the world had been disenchanted. Druids, however, know that this is not the case: despite the many imbalances caused by humans in our age and in recent ages past, nature has not lost her magic. Druids see the land as not only a physical thing but a metaphysical thing.  Most druids believe in animistic views of the land, recognizing the soul or spirit in all living things (and often, in places as well). We have experienced, firsthand, the sacredness of the living earth, and it is a powerful thing.

 

The third path of druidry is the Path of the Bard, where Creativity is Sacred.

As the story of Taliesin in the Mabinogion describes, an emphasis on rekindling of our creative gifts is another central aspect of the druid tradition. It is our belief that a core birthright of humanity is to be able to use our bodies, minds, hands, and hearts for creative expression.

 

In fact, one of the core symbols of revival druidry, and a term we chant in our rituals, is “Awen” (Welsh term pronounced “ah-wen” or chanted “Ah-Oh-En”). It was “Awen” that flowed through the ancient bards as they crafted their stories and songs; it was this same awen that flowed through Gwion who became Taliesin. It is Awen that flows from an inspired pen, hand, and body as we learn to once again express ourselves and be whole. It is the “Awen” that has been systematically stripped from us as we allow other people’s commercialized creations to take the place of our own.  And it is the inspiration of Awen we seek as we reconnect with our own creative gifts and expressions and reclaim them.

 

At our gatherings, you will often see an Eisteddfod, or bardic circle, where we share stories, songs, music, poetry, dance, and more while we sit around a roaring fire.  Image it—a hundred druids or more gathered to appreciate and honor our creative gifts. In sum, the third path of druidry is in rekindling our own creative inspiration and recognize the inherent sacredness of our creative work.

 

Concluding thoughts

Stump with reishi growing!

Stump with reishi growing!

Let’s return to the forest of my childhood for just a moment. When I walk in that forest now, my studies in the ovate arts have helped me to understand the landscape: I can see the changes in the ecosystem based on different microclimates, I know the names and uses of many of the plants and trees. However, my years of mediation and energy work also allows me to sense the spirit of things; I can hear the laughter of the creek as it cascades down the blackened stones, and I can hear the message in the creak of the two old trees rubbing together. I come to the ancient Eastern Hemlock stumps that once were my friends and now are gracefully returning to soil, covered and moss and bright red shelf mushrooms. A closer look reveals that these stumps are growing Ganoderma Tsugae, the hemlock reishi, one of the most medicinal mushrooms in the world.

 

Nature’s response to the logging of the forest by human hands was a simple one: to regrow, to heal, and offer humans her own sacred medicine. In a time very soon, the forest may be logged again.  But even if that were to happen, nature will heal.  And in the process of that healing, she will welcome us into her sacred places, into her circle of stones and trees, with open arms.

 

 

PS: I have been selected as the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus scholar and am currently working on a research project about the bardic arts (tied to the learning research I do professionally). I am conducing a short survey to start the project off–if you are willing, I would very much appreciate it if you took my survey!  The link can be found here.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

What are the bardic arts?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

           

Challenging Social Structures and Creative Expression

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

 

Growing Up and the Langauge of Disempowerment

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Cultural Sources of Creative Disempowerment

Playing music from the 1750's

Playing music from the 1750’s

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Breaking Away from Cultural Challenges: Local Bardic Communities

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Traditional Western Herbalism as a Sustainable Druidic Practice July 24, 2014

Because of my ongoing study of Traditional Western Herbalism as a student of the amazingly awesome Michigan herbalist Jim McDonald.    I wanted to take some time today to discuss the potential of herbalism as an essential quality of druid practice.  I hope this post encourages others to also consider learning herbalism for their spiritual work, sustainable work, or both.  It is highly rewarding, with direct, tangible benefits.

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Making herbal tinctures from wildcrafted ingredients

Druidry, Sustainability, and Herbalism: A Natural Relationship

I’ve been exploring the relationship of my druidic path to that of my herbal studies, and I’ve come up with a number of ways that they are highly compatible:

 

1. Speaking with the plants, seeking connection with the natural world on the physical and metaphysical levels. Since druidry is a deep path of nature spirituality, following the cycles of the seasons, listening the voices of the spirits of the land, it only makes sense that one kind of oak knowledge we would seek would be that of the plant kingdom.  Herbalists speak in terms druids can understand and that aligns intimately with our tradition; when I open up herbals and I read about how we must listen to our “plant allies” and also work on an intuitive scale with the plants, I know that I’m reading something that can substantially deepen my practice and also improve my health.

 

2.  One branch of druidry, that of Ovate studies, directly connects with plant knowledge, divination, and the healing arts. The realm of the Ovate within the druid tradition is often associated with plants, the natural sciences and healing with said plants (also, often, divination). I see all of these intersecting with the work of an herbalist–an herbalist must know the plants very well, must understand their lessons and their medicine.  This means studying botany and ecology, being able to rightly identify herbs.  But this also has an intuitive side to discern signs and accurately assess someone’s condition in order to select the correct herbs and doses to use. These kinds of intuitive practices can be enhanced by druidic practice, such as discursive meditation, observation of the natural world, and naturalistic studies in the bio-region where the druid resides. Likewise, the practice of herbalism directly enhances a druid’s understanding of the world…when I go out in a field or forest, I know the qualities of the herbs that can help heal. That’s a powerful tool, and one that the ancient druids certainly held.  I honor my spiritual ancestors, and that ancient tradition, by learning the healing teachings of the plants as “oak knowledge” and “ovate knowledge.”

 

3.  The roots of druidry and herbalism are quite similar and work from similar frameworks.  Herbalism is a folk tradition, passed on, adapted and fluid.  Herbalists’ making of knowledge involves a combination of research from aging tomes, material directly passed down through teachers (orally, in the case of my own course), engagement in the natural world.  Each herbalist has her or his own unique approach, and yet herbalism is a framework in which all herbalists interact.  As #2 describes, herbalists also rely heavily on intuition and inner teachers and plant allies.  I find the epistemology of herbalism (that is, their ways of making knowledge and of knowing) extremely compatible with my druid path, where knowledge is constructed and practices are based in similar epistemologies.  That is, as a druid I read old texts and learn about the ancient druids and the revival druids, enjoy the myths and writings of those who came before.  I adapt these teachings and the basic frameworks to my own practice.  I learn from others, from correspondence courses and direct teachers, inner and outer.  I learn as much from nature as I do from anywhere else…..sound similar?  I think so!

 

Bunches of herbs getting ready to hang for drying

Bunches of herbs getting ready to hang for drying

4. There is magic in plants, and herbalists and druids both know it.  Herbalists have developed ways of reaching the magic of plants, ways that benefit druids to learn.  Tincture practices, practices of drying, dosing plants, and the like, can lead not only to greater health benefit for the druid and his/her family, friends, and community, but it can also lead to deeper magical practice.  I think studying the herbal healing arts gives us new and powerful ways of interacting with the plants, ways that maybe aren’t as accessible within the druidic traditions and training.  Likewise, practices rooted in druidic work (such as Greer’s Celtic Golden Dawn system) use spagyrics (or plant alchemy) to create extremely potent medicinal/magical tinctures.  Combining these two systems gives one a huge advantage in understanding the magic of plants on many levels.  I have found that the more one knows the plants….the better for so many reasons.

 

5. Knowing about the plants and their benefit to humanity can help save our lands.  This is perhaps the most pragmatic of the reasons, but in my mind, a critical one.  Druids value the land and seek to protect it, to preserve it, to revere it–especially our wild and unsettled spaces.  We can do that SO much more effectively if we can show others the value and benefit of plants within that landscape.  There’s a huge difference to the argument “don’t cut those tall weeds down, they deserve to live” (which they do, of course) to something like this “Those tall ‘weeds’ you are thinking of cutting down are St. John’s Wort plants. They have substantial medicinal value to you, including as a topical antiseptic and wound healing herb, a mood uplifter, a gentle astringent good for the urinary system, not to mention a great herb for native pollinators. Those other ‘weeds’ over there you are thinking of pulling are milkweed. In addition to being critical for the endangered monarch butterfly, you can eat them at most of their growing stages–shoot, bud, and pod, and they are absolutely delicious.” You get the idea.  The more you know, the more you can teach others, and the more they can then value the landscape around them. You’ve been seeing me use this approach with my blog–my post on dandelion, for example, encourages people to resee this plant as an incredibly useful herb, hopefully encouraging them not to dump weed killer on them or mow them all down before the bees have a chance to gather up pollen.  And honestly, I have found this approach to be invaluable. On a recent research trip with some colleagues, I pointed out numerous useful plants, helped one person with itchy bug bites and encouraged some aromatic relaxants for an upset stomach….all from the surrounding landscape.  Ideally, we want to shift to the point where life is valued for the sake of life, but arguments about nature’s benefits to humans is a good way to begin to cultivate such understandings.

 

6. Herbalism, especially locally-based herbalism, makes you pay attention to the seasons and observe/interact with the wild spaces in new and exciting ways. Since I’m determined to gather, dry, tincture, and make into oils and salves as many herbs as I will need to handle my own minor medicinal needs (outside of catastrophic illness/injury and regular check ups), I’ve been out each week, sometimes multiple times, gathering herbs.  This makes me pay such close attention not only to the passing of the seasons but also where I gather. For example, I’ve been eagerly awaiting goldenrod blooms all summer because I really need their medicine.  But I have to be careful where I gather, because I want my herbs to be clean, energetically excellent, free of chemicals or toxins, etc.  I have found myself, since becoming an herbalist, seeing the landscape in ways I never did before.

 

Herbs drying on a rack!

Herbs drying on a rack!

7. Herbalism can be an earth-centered and sustainable practice.  The more I learn about the modern pharmaceutical industry, the more convinced I am that many modern pharmaceuticals are not only unnecessary and overprescribed, but also unsustainable to our lands, with destructive outcomes for our waterways and the health of all beings on this planet. The environmental impact is staggering–a quick google search will reveal studies on the ecological effects of antibiotic overuse, the detection of pharmaceuticals in the soil, the amount of drugs going into the waterways, the list goes on.  The more that we can take care of our own needs, become resilient within our local communities and our own lives, the less strain we put on the planet as a whole and the less “consumer demand” we generate for destructive manufacturing practices and unnecessary products.  And the less funds go to companies who might do various kinds of evil with those funds.  If I have a bad cold and choose to stay home and treat that cold with herbs that I’ve gathered and grown throughout the year, that’s a heck of a lot more sustainable than driving out to the store and buying plastic bottles full of manufactured medicine that likely come with side effects.  This is especially true if the herbs are safer and better for me.  Using herbs in the place of over-the-counter drugs, like most sustainable practice, requires more work and knowledge, but I fail to see how that’s a bad thing.

 

8.  Herbalism as an empowering practice. When I began practicing druidry eight years ago, I found the practices and study courses to be incredibly empowering.  I had taken my spiritual practice into my own hands, it required my own interpretation and a dedication of my time in ways that spiritual practices of earlier times in my life had not.  I had to seek it out for myself, empower myself to learn and grow, and dedicate myself to the practice of it daily.  Herbalism is much the same thing.  It is an extremely empowering practice, and one that has positively altered my life much in the same vein that druidry did eight years ago. Going out and gathering my herbs, knowing how to treat myself when I get a minor illness, and being able to do it all with what is growing around me–that’s amazingly empowering!

 

Studying herbs and Druid Orders: I also want to mention that while some druid orders include healing material as an integral part of their training programs (usually as part of ovate studies) others cannot due to laws on discussing and teaching any kind of healing material in the US.  This means that taking up herbalism as a personal healing practice may or may not be part of the work you can do in an official capacity in an order’s study program, but that isn’t to say that you can’t learn this and integrate it into your druidic path on your own.

 

In my next post, I’m going to describe ways to begin to be an herbalist, so stay tuned!