Tag Archives: slowing down

Bringing back the Hearth: Ancestral Fires for Protection, Connection, and Comfort

Sacred tea over the fire

Sacred tea over the fire

Fire is one of the most ancient tools that humans have and one of the things that separates our species from others on this beautiful planet.  Humans have an incredible ancestral connection to fire. Think about how a fire draws you in–when you see a campfire or fire in a hearth, you want to get close and stay warm. That is probably because we humans have been working with fire for somewhere between 1 million and 1.5 million years. 1.5 million years ago, our ancient ancestors would have been Homo Erectus; and so, as we evolved into Homo Sapiens, it is very likely that fire was already with us. For more information on fire and ancestral fires, I suggest checking out this post!

Because of this deep connection, if we move forward quite a bit in time, we can understand why as people built permanent homes, the hearth–that which contained the fire safely indoors–was the center of the home. Yet today, fire is something that many modern homes have completely lost–where we’ve boxed up fire in stoves or use electricity or gas instead of our more ancient heat, light, and cooking source.  Most people in modern homes have almost no connection to the equipment that keeps them warm in the winter or cooks their food–and that ancient ancestral connection to fire is missing.  So in today’s post, I wanted to talk about working with a hearth in a magical way–how you can reclaim an abandoned hearth, create a “hearth space” indoors even if you don’t have a hearth, or create an outdoor hearth, all as part of sacred actions.

A Hearth

A hearth has different levels of meaning and rich history in many different cultures.  Let’s start with language because language can offer fascinating aspects of history. “Hearth” itself can be traced back to Proto-Indo European *ker, which has connections to modern words in English including hearth, coal, and carbon.  Anything that goes back as far as Proto-Indo-European demonstrates a very common thing present in very ancient human cultures situated in Europe and India, and is a little slice into that ancestral history.  From there, we see that Hearth is present in Old  English as ‘heorð” later moving into our more modern term.  Latin also gives us another clue, with the Latin word for hearth being “focis” or “focus”, demonstrating the importance of the hearth.  Thus, value and connection to fire and to a hearth is literally woven into our language as far back as we can trace.

Traditional peoples give us another insight into the importance of fire. As explained in Ropes to God: Experiencing the Bushmen Spiritual Universe, Keeney describes how the Kalahari Bushmen, have the fire as part of the center of their community activities–the fire each night is where they share their stories of the day, eat, and connect with others.  Stories shared around this fire are the property of the entire community, and are a way for them to weave connection with their surrounding landscape.  Here in the US, you can see the importance of the indoor hearth by visiting our oldest houses or seeing historical reenactment.  In early US history, the hearth was centered in the home, massive hearths that measured 6 or more feet across with many different cooking tools.  These hearths started to slowly be replaced during the industrial revolution as a focus on efficiency and productivity became core values.  Thus, the traditional open hearth became replaced by more “efficient” and “hands-off” technologies in the last 150 or so years. In his book On Reverence of Wood, Eric Sloane describes fire as being “unceremoniously boxed up” in boxes of Iron; he argues that this “boxing” of fire created disconnection both with wood and fire.  While the idea of a hearth may look different in different cultures and parts of the world, the fact that some form of fire and heat exists to cook, to connect, and to warm with seems to be a staple of human existence.

A very different kind of hearth--the earth oven at the druid's garden homestead!

A very different kind of hearth–the earth oven at the druid’s garden homestead!

The traditional hearth even inside a house is the center of the home, and I would argue the hearth functions a bit differently than any modern equivalent, like a kitchen. If you think about the center of the home now, depending on the home and family, it is likely the living room, where everyone crowds around the TV, or perhaps the kitchen table, where everyone eats.  But neither of these spaces has quite the same relationship with you in terms of comfort, protection, and warmth that a traditional hearth has. I believe that in moving away from traditional fire cooking and hearths, we’ve lost something important, something rooted in slow time and slow living that would be useful for us to consider bringing back.

Key Features of the Hearth: Physically and Magically

If we want to think about re-creating some of these important spaces for ourselves (regardless of whether or not we have access to indoor fire), it’s useful to understand the different features of a hearth from both a physical and magical perspective.

On the practical side, a hearth is first and foremost a fireproof surface that creates a safe space for your fire or stove to burn.  The hearth extends well beyond your open fireplace or stove, creating, literally, a safety net for any coals, sparks, or flames that may jump out of the fire. The hearth is what contains the fire, makes it safe, and also provides us additional tools to engage with it. If we consider this from a magical perspective, the hearth literally is built for physical protection, making it potentially very good to use for magical protective work.

There’s also a communal aspect to the hearth.  Prior to the replacement of open fireplaces with coal, gas, or electric stoves/boilers/heaters, the hearth was also the source of warmth, heat, and light for much of the year.  As the cold and dark closed in during the dark times, families would gather around the hearth to tell stories, share meals, work on various handicrafts and repairs, and spend time together. We see this feature in hearths whether or not it’s an outdoor or indoor space. Thus, the hearth is a space that allows us to share with each other and to stay warm and comforted–again, connecting to blessing, protection, and stability.

The hearth at Yule with natural decorations

The hearth at Yule with natural decorations

Fire provides us safety and life. Making fire is a critical skill for all humans (going back to my discussion of Reskilling at Imbolc a few weeks ago). Making fire was certainly one of the very first skills our ancient ancestors would teach their young, because for many, it would mean the difference between life and death. A fire can be the difference between safety and fear, between freezing and warm, and between safe water to drink and unsafe water. Again, we see the theme of safety and also having something that is a powerful tool to help us provide for our needs.

The hearth also puts you in direct connection with the elements. To make a fire, you would have to gather wood and prepare it–requiring knowledge of the land, how to forage, dry and store wood, tinder, and kindling. You also need knowledge for how to use those materials to start a fire through the application of air and friction. These require connection to nature through the wood and stones in the hearth, the element of air for oxygen which feeds the flame, as well as the element of fire itself through the blaze.

Finally, the hearth is where, traditionally, meals are cooked and shared.  Before modern stoves or burners, a hearth was the only source of heat for cooking, and people spent a great deal of time at the hearth. Unlike your modern stove, hearth cooking requires a lot more monitoring, knowledge, time, and skill. That is, you are tending the fire, you are working carefully with the coals, and you are building a relationship with it as you cook your meal. There is simply no equivalent to cooking over the fire vs. cooking over a stove.   So here, we see the principles of connection as well as slowing down.

Thus, like many things that were developed before modern industrialization, to truly experience a hearth in a traditional sense requires that we move back to “slow time”. A hearth requires that we attend to it regularly. As we build and feed the fire, the fire requires our time and energy.  We have to gather the wood, store the wood, bring the wood in.  We have to make sure the fire stays burning in a safe way.  As we put our time and energy into the hearth, we are rewarded with a deepening sense of connection to that space as well as the warmth, protection, blessing, and stability of that place.  Even if you don’t have a hearth in your home, there are things that you can do to create this sense of warmth, protection, and comfort.

Creating and Tending a Hearth space

Depending on where you live, how you create a hearth space will likely be very different.  I’ll cover some options based on your living circumstances.  Ultimately, not everyone has a hearth or hearth space in their house that they could already use, so we can get creative.

A Traditional Hearth.  If you have any kind of wood-based heating in your house that is in your living area, this would be your obvious choice for cultivating a hearth space.  I’ve been in a lot of houses where their hearth sits unused in favor of more modern heating and cooking sources. My suggestion to those who are blessed with this feature in their home is to use it if they aren’t already!  Make this the center of some activity, such as through reading, cooking, entertaining friends, or spending long cozy nights near the hearth.  Spend time decorating your hearth, making it feel welcoming and homey. Make it a point to start a fire and enjoy being near it regularly.  Perhaps learn some hearth cooking. Do what you can to make this space welcoming, sacred, and inviting.

A Hearth Shrine and cozy space.  Many people do not have a traditional hearth space–maybe you live in an apartment or a more modern home that does not have a fireplace.  For many years, I was in this same situation, and I discovered that there are many other things that you can do to still bring that energy of protection, comfort, and fire to your life. Using the principles above, consider how you might create a space that is cozy, comforting, and that puts fire at the center. For example, place a shallow bowl with sand and add a number of beeswax pillar candles to the bowl–this will create a “fire area” that you can then safely enjoy.  Or, you can use a candelabra or some other candle holder, decorate it, and place it in a central space where you often spend time. I have found that using multiple candles really helps you get this “fire” effect.  The other piece of this is to make it comforting, inviting, and a place you want to spend time.  You can set your hearth candles up each time, or you can give it a permanent place in your home.  You may also be in a living circumstance where candles aren’t allowed to be burned (such as a college dorm or apartment).  In that case, you might look to electric candles or even those little plug-in fireplaces–something that will give you some fire-like effect. Around your hearth altar, you can practice bardic arts or crafts, read, meditate, eat your meals, spend time with others, and really practice slowing down.

An Outdoor Hearth Space.  Another option for the warmer months is to create an outdoor hearth space. Using the same principles as an indoor hearth, you can create a central firepit that can be lit regularly or even an outdoor kitchen, earth oven, or another outdoor cooking area. Outdoor hearths can be wonderful spaces to spend evenings in the spring, summer, and fall, and still practice connecting with fire, slowing down, and connecting to the living earth.  At the Druid’s Garden homestead, we’ve been working on building an outdoor kitchen–we have our cob earth oven mostly finished, we have a completed rocket stove griddle/ maple sap boiler, and we’ll be working on some rocket stove burners and a naturally built pavilion in the years to come.  This has become a center point for us–with cozy chairs and a warm fire, you can stay out near the outdoor kitchen and use it for sacred activities.

Hearth Space Activities

Now that you have created or reclaimed some space where you can have a hearth, you might wonder what kinds of spiritual activities and sacred work can be done at the hearth.  I would suggest a number of both mundane and magical practices.

Slowing down. Tending a fire requires us to slow down and move with earth time.  Committing to a hearth practice is a commitment to taking your time to tend a fire and give that space some of your attention.  Relaxing, breathing deeply, and simply getting into the rhythm of the flames is an extremely relaxing and important thing to do. One of the things your hearth space can remind you to do is just to slow down, breathe, and relax.

Cooking. If you are working with a fire, cookstove, or outdoor space, learning how to cook on the fire can be a really wonderful thing to do–it puts you in a much deeper relationship with food and with fire. I’ve started learning hearthside cooking in the last few years.  Fire cooking does require different tools than you might use in your traditional kitchen–one of the most useful is a cast iron dutch oven with small legs, which is typically used with coals.  You simply take coals from your fire and place them on the bottom and top of the oven (or set the oven in a fire that has gone to coals) and wait. Other useful tools are any cast iron pans (you can use them both on the fire and on your regular stove), griddles, trivets, and other tools.  Antique stores are one of the best places to pickup cast iron cookware–and this cookware will last you a lifetime. Once you’ve gotten your hands on a piece of cast iron or two, you can make many different dishes and start to explore this ancient art.

Spiritual Activities:  A hearth is an amazing time for any number of spiritual activities. Meditation, spending time connecting with the elements of fire and earth, ritual work or spiritual study are all good choices.

The hearth holding the 14 winter solstice candles--you can see the light of sunrise coming back in!  The long night is over and the hearth held space as we hold vigil.

The hearth holding the 14 winter solstice candles–you can see the light of sunrise coming back in! The long night is over and the hearth held space as we hold vigil.

Ritual activities: Your hearth can also be the center of ritual activities, particularly those in the dark half of the year if you are indoors, or outdoors during the light half of the year. Around our hearth we have in our home, we’ve held grove events and rituals that have centered on the hearth. For example, we have built ancestor altars using the mantle above the hearth, where then the ancestors are invited in for the rest of the gathering.  We have also used the hearth for celebrating the winter solstice, where we place 14 candles (representing the 14 hours of darkness) and each candle (for more on this, see The Druid’s Book of Ceremonies, Prayers and Songs, which has an entry by Robert Pactti on this approach).

These are just a small taste of the many things you can do as you are thinking about connecting with the ancient element of fire, connecting with nature and the living earth, and learning how to more fully embrace the ancestral ways–which will also be the ways of the future.

I would love to hear stories of your own fires, hearths, and work in this area!

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!

 

Slowing Down the Druid Way, Part IV: Slow Movements and Slow Spirituality

When I lived in Michigan, each Christmas, a local church just down the road from me put on a drive-by nativity scene. Cars full of people would line up for over half a mile and drive around this circular loop surrounding the church, where church members dressed up and enacted various kinds of nativity scenes.  I’m sure from the perspective of the church (who, clearly, invested a lot of time and resources, taking weeks to build the sets in the bitter cold in the time leading up to the event), it was a way to reach people who might otherwise not come through the church doors.  This same church also offered “speedy sermons” and other “quick” ways of getting busy people in the door. The idea behind these different initiatives was reaching out to people who were otherwise too busy to come to church–a reasonable and rather creative thing to do, given the time crunch everyone seems to be in these days. But for all that was gained (new members, new donations, etc) what was lost in the process of converting religion into a drive-through experience? Of course, just like the burger at McDonald’s vs. the burger you grill at home with time and care, there are likely some big differences not only in taste but also in presentation, nutrition, and energy.

 

In my last three posts in “Slowing Down the Druid Way”, we explored the history of time and our relationship to our working hours, and how we might begin to honor our time more fully.  This directly leads me to the topic of my final post on time and work: looking at the slow movements as a way of slowing down, making slowing down a conscious choice, and embracing leisure time.

 

The “Slow” Movements

The term “slow” has been increasingly used to describe many of the movements connected to sustainable living: you might have heard of slow food (as opposed to fast food or industrialized food) or slow money (in terms of investing, saving, and spending and in opposition to current derivatives/investment market).  We now also have slow schools, slow books, and even (in my own field) discussion of slow writing! The slow movement has, in fact, been around since the 1980’s; it was started by Carlo Petrini, who protested the opening of the “fast” food joint, McDonalds, in Rome, Italy. Since then, the movement has spread and deepened, connecting now to all aspects of life: travel, food, parenting, education, working, gardening, and more. Of course, you won’t see any discussion of this movement in mainstream culture–mainstream culture, here in the US, is focused on the idea that more and faster is better, and that kind of thinking takes some time to overcome.

 

A good slowing down spot!

A good slowing down spot!

The slow movements suggest that we are all the victims of “time poverty” and the slow movements are deliberate attempts by people to live at a reasonable pace (rather than a frantic one).  But these movements are more than just about slowing down–they recognize inherently that the faster we move, the fewer connections we make: with ourselves, with each other, with our creative gifts, and with the world as a whole.  So let’s now explore some of these slow movements and what they provide.

 

Nature Spirituality and Slow Spirituality

I’m going to start by introducing my own kind of “slow” movement: slow spirituality.  Cultivating a deeper relationship with time is certainly a principle that seems inherent in the druid traditions and in related nature-spiritual traditions. Anyone following the wheel of the year is certainly concerned a tremendous amount with time: the eight holidays on the wheel of the year are all about timing and the sun and it’s slow movement across the sky.  The phases of the moon reflect this on a monthly cycle. We focus on the interplay of light and dark, the slow changing of the seasons, the minute changes from day to day of weather patterns.  All of this takes observation and interaction with nature and a lot of time dedicated to understanding this larger cycle of the seasons.  Sure, there are ways of going about these practices that are “fast”, but moving fast means you miss most of the important pieces. In the AODA, for example, we ask that all members spend weekly time in nature, daily time in meditation, and time just observing and interacting with the world. This time is critical–and it is through these activities that deepest understandings are often cultivated.

 

In fact, I think part of the reason that so many people are drawn to meditation, ritual and other druid practices is that it offers a way to slow down and change pace. The more time you spend with these practices, the deeper they will go and the richer the rewards will be.  There is much room for exploration in linking the slow movements to the druid tradition and key practices within it.

 

Slow Travel

Another aspect of these slow movements is “slow travel.”  Slow travel refers to the idea, again, that efficiency is not always the best way to travel to new places and that we miss a lot if we don’t take opportunities to slow down. We are conditioned to work to get to a place as fast as possible: it’s how our GPS technology works and when we sit down to plan a trip, it is often getting from point A to B quickly.  But what about everything between point A and B?  Is that worth seeing?  What might be discovered there?

 

And so, here are a few simple ideas for slowing down: rather than taking the 70MPH highways for a whole trip, consider some 55MPH back country roads and see what there is to see.  This allows you some exploration time as well as gives you much better fuel efficiency!  Or, rather than default to taking flights everywhere, consider taking the train or a bus to get where you are going.  Train travel, in particular, is my favorite: you have ample room, you get to see a lot of the countryside, and you don’t have to deal with extremely intense security situations and screening and blaring televisions.  It also is a more earth-friendly way to travel. When you plan your trip, plan in a few “extra” stops that you aren’t planning. Give yourself some wiggle room so that you can explore and see what is out there.

 

The same applies to hiking and travel by foot–if you’ve ever been on any of the big trails, I’m sure you’ve seen the hikers with their poles, hiking like mad to get where they are going.  Most of them are so intent on their goal that they forget the journey itself!  I have the opposite approach; much to the frustration of some speedy folks with me, I like to take the time to wander, get lost, explore the woods, and more.

Things you see when you slow down!

Things you see when you slow down!

Even here in town, I budget a little extra time for my walk anywhere I am going so I can literally stop and smell the roses, visit the bramble bush each day to observe how it is changing and growing through the seasons, watch the flight of birds overhead, and so on.  Even that extra 5 minutes that I take on my walk to work or to the bank really gives me peace of mind.

 

I think in our travel, there are times we do really need to get somewhere, and there are times when we do not.  Finding a balance is one of the keys to this part of “slowing down.”

 

Slow Food

It is no surprise that the slow movement started as a resistance to fast food.  Fast food and industrialized food processes embrace the current ideas of efficiency and profit at the expense of all else, perhaps in some of the most egregious ways possible. But, as Wendell Berry points out in the Unsettling of America, industrialized farm systems’ emphasis on efficiency ends up exploiting the land for profit. Industrialized food treats nature, animals, plants, and humans all as machines, trying to get the most out of it in the fastest amount of time possible. In other words, if efficiency is the only metric by which we measure our food production and cheapness is the only metric that we use to measure its consumption, we lose much.

 

The slow food movement was born from a rejection of these industrialized food values: we should know where our food comes from, have relationships with our farmers or our own land, and grow food that is healthful and that is grown in a way that is healthful to the land. Wendell Berry writes that small family farmers aren’t concerned with efficiency as much as they are concerned with the long-term health of the land, the idea of doing things well, and building in nurturing practices. When we purchase their food at farmer’s markets, directly from them, or even in grocery stores (which are increasingly carrying more of these kinds of options), you are not only purchasing something better for you but also better for the land.

 

In addition to the rejection of fast food and other convenience foods, slow food focuses on cooking one’s own food from whole ingredients, growing food, knowing one’s farmers, and supporting businesses who are engaged in nurturing and healthful practices.  Those in this movement often have potlucks to break bread and share.

 

One of the things I like to do is a “slow food” metric and ask myself: how long would this take to produce at home? Can it be produced at home? That helps me stay away from too much processed stuff. Since I cook a lot from scratch, I’ve been learning how to make foods I like to eat from their base ingredients–this teaches me a lot about how processes something might be.  For example, I like to eat tortilla chips and hummus. Making my own tortilla chips was an incredibly gratifying, but intense, experience (I will be working on this again, hopefully, this year with better equipment!)  Even if I don’t want to make my own tortilla chips all the time, making them once has me much better appreciating what went into it.

 

Another aspect I see connected to slow food (although others might disagree) is fermentation of various kinds.  Most often, I make homemade sodas (using a ginger bug), dandelion wine, or saurkraut.  These foods simply take time and it is really exciting to see how they transform as they go through the stages of fermentation.  Slow food at its best!

 

A final aspect of slow food, in my opinion, is the act of eating itself. I have a number of friends who are mindfulness practitioners, and they have taught me much about enjoying a good meal. I think we are so accustomed to rushing through everything that meals aren’t an exception. Learning how to slow down, pay attention to the meal, chew your food well, and enjoy the company is a part of this slow food process–and a powerful one!

 

Slow Money

Slow money is a recent offshoot of the other slow movements–it is focused on slowing down the current derivative/investment banking and creating alternative systems of cash flow that are based on ecological and nature-honoring principles.  An organization tied to Slow Money is working to line up a variety of people to invest in ways that “bring funds back to earth.”  This movement is focused on investing locally, avoiding “too big to fail” banks and businesses, and investing in the health and fertility of our land (so you can see clear ties to the slow food movement above).  Groups connected to slow money are popping up all over the world! In fact, a whole range of alternative structures, particularly for financing, exist: land contracts arranged between buyers and sellers (so we don’t have to deal with big banks), micro-investments and loans, and so much more.  I’ve been happy to pursue some of these options in my own life and they have worked out really well!

 

Slow Living

A lot of the techniques I’ve shared on this blog over the years can be classified as slow living.  For example, living by candlelight naturally allows you to slow down and changes your life rhythms in subtle–yet powerful–ways. Using a compost toilet helps bring your own waste back into the cycle of life, as does various forms of composting. These are simple techniques, yet allow us to slow down and cycle nutrients.  Hiking and foraging, especially when you aren’t in a hurry and are willing to get lost in the woods, is a wonderful way just to slow down and take it easy.  There are so many options here–and each of us may find our way into slower living differently.  When we combine these physical things with the spiritual practices of meditation, regular ritual, honoring the seasons, and so forth–we can really bring our life more into a healthy balance.  One small step at a time helps you slow down and bring you more fully into the present moment.

 

Worm Castings (Vermicompost)

Worm Castings (Vermicompost)

A Slower Mindset

As I work to shift into “slower” ways of living and doing, the most important thing I’ve found to remember is that I need to shift my expectations. I can’t get a giant “to do” list done on my only day off from work. If I did that, I’d not have enough time to just sit in nature or spend time in my sacred garden. And so, a re-focusing of my own expectations helps me slow down and realize that there are things I just don’t have to do at this moment (and learn to put less of them on my plate to begin with). Once we begin to mentally adjust our schedules, plan not 100% of our waking hours but less of them, then we have an opportunity to slow down and enjoy what nature brings. Now, I schedule “open” weekends where I have nothing on my agenda, nowhere to go, and see what happens (usually, I end up in the woods and in the art studio–and these are amazing days!)

 
A second part of a slower mindset is recognizing the difference between doing something efficiently and doing something well.  Do we need to get all those things done, or can we just get one thing done well?  This is a question I am always asking myself: how can I do this one thing well?

 
A third part of a slower mindset has to do with cultivating patience. Impatience is widespread these days (try driving the speed limit around town, lol!)  One of the big shifts I’ve worked to make in the last few years is calm down and silence my inner “impatient” dialogue when I found myself waiting for people, waiting for things, etc.  It was a big issue for me, but I’m happy to say some progress has been made!

 

The Return of Creativity

I have a number of friends that practice “unschooling” with their children.  The stories they have shared with me all have many features in common.  Unschooling is self-directed learning–children decide what and how they want to learn and go about learning it. What my friends report happening in the transition to unschooling (especially out of public school, where children get no self-directed learning at all), is that the children, when given freedom, begin with a variety of electronic binging behaviors: excessive watching of TV, playing 12 and 14 hours of video games, and so on. But soon enough, usually within a few weeks, they get bored of playing video games and watching TV all day and their natural curiosity returns. Suddenly, they are inquisitive, questioning, and active in the world around them. Some of them begin to undertake considerable projects–building and launching weather balloons, understanding how to grow crystals, learning how to grow vegetables and learning about the biology of soil, making baskets, and so much more. I think this is a nice example here about the nature of unstructured leisure or play time, and how humans, when given the opportunity, naturally will find useful things in which to pursue if they have the time and energy to do so.

 

What unschooling does for children, leisure time can do for adults.  We once were those naturally curious and wonder-filled children, asking questions, being curious, being constantly at play, being able to move from playing music to making mud pies to building forts in the woods.  And then, modern life crushed our creativity with bells and demands and suddenly time wasn’t ours and our work consumed our lives and…yeah. The loss of our creative spirits and the loss of our creative selves happens as more and more demands are placed upon us. I believe this wonder-filled, creative, and curiosity-filled place to be one of our natural states of being.  One of the reasons retired people are often so interesting is that they find a hobby and pursue it with relentless passion–because they can.  I believe that slowing down and cultivating more unstructured/leisure time can allow us to get back to that place of creativity, curiosity, and wonder we had as children.

Here is just a small list of the things that leisure can get us:

  • A rest from daily stress (family, workplace, health-related, political, environmental); the ability to rebuild, nourish, support and heal the physical body
  • Time to think carefully and with a sound mind
  • Time to think about opposing ideas and carefully wrestle with the ideas they contain
  • Time to explore the wilds
  • Time to travel to other places
  • The ability to build and enjoy community and friends
  • Time to explore and experiment with options for sustainable living
  • Time to plant a garden (annual and perennial)
  • Time to gaze at the stars and clouds
  • Time to engage in spiritual practices of all sorts (meditation, outdoor activity)
  • Time to develop relationships and connections: with other humans, with plants/trees, with bodies of water, with the living earth
  • Time to get lost in the woods
  • Time to pick through trash to find treasures
  • Time to go foraging
  • Time to heal the land and scatter seeds
  • Time and energy to do all the things we say we “wish we had time” or “wish we had energy to do”
  • The time to engage in various bardic arts and learn new bardic arts / time to dedicate oneself to a craft or skill in seriousness
  • Time to read books and to ponder, meander, and think about them
  • Time to pick berries and can them
  • Time to do some home food preservation
  • Time to brew up some good ferments and good wine
  • Time to do all the things.  All the things.

 

I believe that we can fully embrace our human gifts if, and only if, we make the time and build in more unstructured time in our lives to do so.  This is about all I have to say at the moment on slowing down and thus, this concludes this post series at present.  Thank you to everyone who had such wonderful things to share as we worked through these issues–I gained much from reading your stories and from our conversations.

The Art of Getting Lost in the Woods, or Cultivating Receptivity

I think we’ve all had periods of our lives where we feel like we are moving like a stack of dominoes; we have so many things piled on us that we have to keep going, going, and going. In fact, I had a hard conversation this past week with a loved one, someone who is close to me and sees the everyday patterns of my life.  As part of this conversation, I realized that I had been, since moving to a new job a year and a half ago, literally zipping about. Most of my days were just like those dominoes–falling one after another. As soon as I completed a task I would move onto the next one, hardly taking a breath in between. Since moving and taking the new job, I find myself still settling in, still finding my new rhythms, and trying to fit my usual things into less time and space.  He recognized this in me, and asked me to take a few minutes to reflect on it. I’ve written about this before; our culture demands and glorifies the busification of our lives, the constant moving, doing, and pressing ever forward. We see this not only in the workplace, but in our expectations of our daily lives. I think this is especially true as we grow closer to the Western holiday season, where everything seems to be moving much more quickly than usual. It seems that celebrations and time off would be the perfect time to slow down, but instead, it seems that everything speeds up.

 

Time to slow down...

Time to slow down…

 

So today, I’d like to spend time focusing on the opposite of the hustle and bustle: the importance of observation and interaction through meandering, pondering, and wondering and the benefits of doing this work for our own health and nature-based relationships.  This post continues my “Permaculture for Druids” series, and focuses on some additional work with the “observe and interactprinciple.

 

Projective and Receptive States of Being

One useful way of framing today’s topic of being too busy too often is through two common terms used in many western magical systems: projection and reception. We can frame these two principles like taking a hike in the woods.  The first way to hike is with a set goal in mind: a trail we want to walk, a particular landmark we want to see, mushrooms to find, or some other goal to achieve.  This is the projective way of hiking: we are going to take X trail for X hours and see X landmarks.  We are going out to X spots to find X mushrooms.  But remember: that trail has been crafted by someone else, there are lots of people surrounding that popular landmark and our own plans can be disappointing. Or perhaps, the mushrooms are just not in the spot you’d hope they would be!

 

The protective principle is that of the masculine, of the sun, of the elements of air and fire. Projection in the world means that we are out there, doing something, working our wills and using our energy to enact change.  When we are projective, we are often setting ourselves a dedicated path and following that path; it implies that we have an end goal or destination in mind. This is the place we are in often–making plans, enacting them, working to push things forward, engaging in our work in the world.  Projectivity implies a certain kind of control–we are the actors upon our own destiny.  A projective view suggests that we have the power, and we are using that power to achieve our own ends.  Projectivity is both an inner and outer state–focus, determination, drive, and mental stamina are all part of the inner projective place while our specific actions towards a goal help propel us forward.  While projectivity certainly has its place, it can be rather exhausting if that is all we are doing. (And, I’ll just note here, that I wonder how much of these busy schedules really control us?)

 

The alternative way to hike, of course, is to enter natural spaces with a different kind of intent: the intent of wandering with no set goal, no set time frame, and simply seeing what unfolds before us.  This means that we engage in many activities that don’t necessarily have a positive connotation in our culture (but really should): mulling about, being directionless, meandering, and simply taking our time to smell the roses.

 

In western magical systems, the receptive principle is connected to the feminine energy of the moon and the elements of water and earth. And like those principles, receptivity means being open to those things, especially unexpectedly, that come into our lives–allowing things to flow in, allowing us to offer ourselves up to the experience without a set expectation or outcome. Receptivity means taking time to wander and wonder about things we aren’t sure of, to give space and voice to those things before firmly deciding any course or action or solution.  The receptive principle is all about creating space enough, slowing down enough, and turning off our projective natures, long enough to allow nature to have a voice and to take us by the hand and show us some amazing things.

 

Sometimes receptivity also means sitting back and not engaging in the world or putting off driving forward with plans; other times it means doing what we can and having faith in things beyond our control.  Sometimes, it means that the time is not right and the best thing you can do is wait. A lot of us have great difficulty in surrendering our control and simply trusting forces outside of ourselves to bring things in or waiting for a more opportune moment.  Sometimes, the more we try to make something happen, the less likely that thing will be the thing we really want to experience or the less likely it will actually occur. Receptivity applies both in terms of our own minds (cultivating a curiosity, pondering, wondering, and openness) and as well as in our outer experiences.

 

Trail into the woods....

Trails into the woods….

Since most of us have difficulty in particular with the receptive principle, I’m going to spend the remainder of this post talking through some specific activities with regards to interacting in nature that I think can help us cultivate receptivity, to observe, and to simply interact without a specific goal or agenda in mind. Nature is the best teacher with regards to most things, cultivating receptivity being no exception.

 

The Outer Work: The Art of Getting Lost in the Woods

I remember a warm summer day several years ago when three druids went out into the woods for the sole purpose of exploration. We literally picked a “green area” on the map and said “we wonder what’s there?” We had no set goals, no set timeframe, and a few backpacks of supplies–and off we went. It turned out that we had stumbled upon a recreation area/park that was no longer quite maintained by the township, and we had the place to ourselves.  The road we wanted was labeled “closed” but we went down it anyways and parked along the edge. We found a number of paths that were not exactly clear to walk on, as debris and fallen trees had come down in places.  The wildness of the place really added to the adventure. We found morel mushrooms growing up among the paths (which later made a delightful dinner). We found a downed sassafrass tree and used a small hand saw to harvest the roots; we also found a huge patch of stoneroot for medicine.  The further in we went the further in we wanted to go. And, best of all, we druids literally found a small stone circle there, tucked away in the forest along one of the abandoned path. We spent time in the circle, amazed at finding such a treasure.  This day, and the magic of it, remains firmly tucked in my mind as one of the most memorable and pleasurable I had had while living in Michigan for the simple fact that it was an adventure and none of us had any idea what we might find next.

 

When I say the art of getting lost in the woods, I’m not necessarily talking about physically getting lost (although that may also happen) but rather, to allow ourselves to get lost in the wonder and joy that is the natural world.  Getting lost with no set direction and seeing where nature leads.

 

I believe one of the best activities cultivate an open, receptive state is to enter the woods (or other natural area) with no set plans, agenda, or time frame–just like my story above describes. That is, to simply let the paths and forest unfold before you, to lead you deeper in, and to allow you to simply be. To slow yourself down, to make no plans, and to enter with an open mind, heart, and spirit. The key to all of this is to cultivate a gentle openness that is not in a rush to get somewhere, not on a time frame, and certainly not out to find something specific. The more that you try to project, the more that your projection frames your experience rather than nature and her gifts.

 

This is especially a powerful practice if you are able to go somewhere entirely new. When we visit new places, our minds are opened up to new ways of thinking, new experiences, new patterns, and new ways of being.  Find somewhere new, even if its local, and explore that place.  Even better–go to an unfamiliar ecosystem and give yourself a few days to explore it.  For example, if you a mountain-and-forest person (like I am), the rocky shore, lowland swamp, or sandy desert would be wonderful new spaces that could help you cultivate receptivity, observation, and peace.

 

If you are going more local, my favorite thing to do is pick a “green spot” on the map, show up there, find a trail, and begin walking (if its a very secluded area where getting lost might mean I don’t get found for a long time, I might get a park map, but often, I find a map itself is too constraining and instead focus on trail marking).  Sometimes I will go out wandering by myself, and other times, with friends.  A compass or finding your way techniques (like those discussed in Gatty’s Finding Your Way Without a Compass or Map) are necessary.  Just use your intuition and go where you feel led to go.  Bring along a hammock and tree straps if its a warm day–you’ll be glad you did!

 

I have also discovered the usefulness of “river trails” for this kind of activity.  This is where a river will decide where it wants to take you and how fast you will go.  For one, if you are used to being on the land, the river or lake offers a very new and delightful perspective.  For two, the river has a path of its own, and you are simply along for the journey of where it plans to go.  A long weekend with a few nights camping on the shore can be a wonderful way to allow nature to lead you in new directions and to new experiences.  The last river trail I did (which was a half day excursion on the Conemaugh river) allowed me to see three bald eagles–the first I had ever seen!  A gift indeed!

 

Unexpected mushrooms!

Unexpected mushrooms!

I’ll also note that winter is a really lovely time to do some of this work.  Put on your wool socks and warm clothes and just go.  If there is snow, you never have to worry about getting lost anywhere as you can simply follow your own trail home (and see the entire journey from a new perspective).  Winter and snow offers its own unique insights and lessons.

 

Sometimes, perfectly good trips are ruined by my strong desire to find some tasty mushrooms (and I have my mushroom eyes on, rather than just cultivating an openness of spirit and excitement for the journey).  Then, all that I do is look for mushrooms and feel disappointed when I don’t find them, rather than just enjoying my trip into the woods with no set purpose in mind.  The best times are when I go into the woods not to find mushrooms but simply to enjoy the journey (and then really unexpectedly come across a boatload of mushrooms).

 

Nature always has things to teach when we open spaces for her to do so, when we take time to get lost in the woods.  It makes it easier if we cultivate this through relinquishing our own control and simply taking the time to experience and explore new spaces with an open mind.

 

The Inner Work: Cultivating Openness and Curiosity

The inner landscape, too, greatly benefits from this same kind of “open space” that is free of both our own self-directed activities as well as other people’s words and ideas. Obviously, the material above on getting lost in the woods is of deep benefit to our inner landscapes as well.  But also of benefit is the simple act of inner pondering, wondering, and rumination.

 

Cultivating openness

Cultivating openness

I think the key here is cultivating openness. And I stress the word cultivation here, because, culturally and educationally, we are quick to make up our minds and stick to it and be in a perpetual protective state.  There is real value in withholding judgement, staying open, and gathering in more information that we initially think we need.  Continuing to ask “what if?” is a good way to start this process along.

 

There’s a lot of value in rumination, in simply thinking through things, wondering, and not settling on any one thing too quickly. Open and boundless spaces allow for creativity and awen (divine inspiration) to flow. Pondering is useful, in that it allows us to spend time asking “what if” over and over again until we reach an idea that we are satisfied.  One of my best teachers, Deanne Bednar of Strawbale Studio used this technique a lot as she taught natural building–she would take time to simply ask the students questions, come up with possible solutions, and ask for more until the class had exhausted many possibilities–only then would we move forward with a particular design decision or solution to the building problem we were facing.

 

Journaling and free association activities can be a great way to engage in pondering, as can discursive meditation on an open topic or theme.   Even conversations with the right kind of person, an open minded person who asks good questions and questions assumptions, can help you cultivate openness and receptivity. I use all of these often.

 

In permaculture design, this openness and receptivity is a very important part of the process. We are encouraged to spend a full year observing and interacting with our surroundings before completing a design and modifying any space–and it is really good advice.  Making plans to quickly leads to half-thought out designs. It is through the gentle time spent in nature, observing and pondering, and through focused meditation on key topics, that we might have the ability to craft and create designs that help change the course of our own lives, and our communities, for the better while regenerating our ecosystems around us.  While I think we are all pressed to act, acting too quickly can be worse than acting at all.

 

Finally, I want to mention briefly about screens, since they have become so pervasive and all-encompassing. Screens have a way of bringing in everyone else’s projections–and they literally project them into you.  Cultivating openness and curiosity means, for a lot of folks, seriously limiting screen time (try it with an open mind!)

 

Balancing Receptivity and Projectivity

The key to getting lost in the woods and finding your way back again is finding a healthy balance between receptivity and projectivity and understanding when we need to take control and when we need to surrender it.  I think when people think about doing the work of regeneration, of permaculture practice, of sacred gardening and the many other things I discuss here on this blog, they think about their own actions and plans. However, I have found that sacred healing work in the world, through permaculture practice or anything else is about the interplay between projectivity and receptivity, that is, between ourselves and nature. That is, while we are often those who make plans and initiate changes within a system (a garden, an ecosystem, a home, a community, etc) but also that we observe, creatively respond, and reflect upon what happens beyond us. We have to work both with enacting some changes, and also sitting back and simply observing what happens.  We have to be willing to receive nature’s messages and intentions before setting any of our own.

The Druid Retreat for Spiritual Work and Healing, Part II: What to do During Your Druid Retreat

Interplay of light and darkness on the landscape of Western PA

Interplay of light and darkness on the landscape of Western PA

Following the path of the sun and the moon we can learn much about the work of a druid retreat in our lives. The daylight is where we typically live–it is bright, it is loud, people are about, lots of activity is taking place. The daylight offers us a particular way of seeing the world, of interacting in it, and while everything is bright and illuminated, it is so bright that we see only what is there. We scurry about, we live our busy lives, the sun blazes down upon us.

 

Retreat allows us to transition out of that sunlight for a bit and have respite. As the retreat grows near, the sun begins to set, and things begin transitioning. You set your goals for the retreat; you pack your bags, and you do some initial spiritual work. Then, the retreat occurs: night is here,the incredible full moon and blanket of stars provide a different kind of vision and illumination. The sun may allow your physical body to cast a shadow, but the moon shows the shadow of your soul. You spend time in that darkness, exploring what you need to explore, letting go of what you need to let go of, scrubbing your lightbulb (discussed in part I of this article) clean so that shines upon the world clean. As you begin exiting the retreat, the sun’s energy begins to rise once again, and dawn approaches. The stars slowly fade (always there, but not always visible). You transition out of the retreat and returning once more to the sunlight once again to live your everyday life–rejuvenated, healed, and whole.

 

Last week, I introduced the idea of the Druid Retreat, discussing what it was, preparation for the retreat, decisions to make about the retreat, the possibility of fasting, what to take and what to leave behind, and herbal allies for your retreat.  This second post talks about the retreat itself: what do do leading up to the retreat, what to do when you get there, and how to transition back into everyday living.

 

Dusk: Leading into your Retreat

As I’ve hopefully illustrated above, transitioning in and out of your retreat is just as important as the retreat itself–we must help our bodies, minds, and souls enter into the sacred space of retreat and then exit peacefully again.  This requires some work on our parts, of course.  Here are the things I do to transition into this retreat space.

 

Setting goals and intentions for the retreat. It is a wise idea to articulate some basic goals for your druid retreat prior to actually going to the retreat.  They might be really broad (personal healing, spiritual rejuvenation, etc) or they might be quite specific (a new life path for myself; clarity on an important decision, etc). Before your retreat, spend some time in meditation and consider what you might need out of the retreat at this time. Write your goals down and have them accessible somewhere during your retreat.

 

When I am preparing for the retreat, I find that a series of meditations and nature walks will help reveal what is weighing on me or what needs I have concerning the retreat.  Keep a pen and paper handy, craft your goals, and return to them at least once or twice in the days and weeks leading to the retreat to have a clear vision for your retreat.

 

At the same time, don’t let the goals limit the scope of your retreat. Understand that these are some starting places for you–but the spirits will likely have their own work they want you to do.

 

Preparing physically for the retreat. If you are going to be fasting, or even if you are taking my advice of “eating lighter” during the retreat, I find that being mindful of my eating for a few days prior to the retreat can set my body up for deep healing work. By this I mean I avoid meat, fried foods, heavy foods, too much dairy and the like, and stick to light, fresh foods for the three days prior to my retreat. I find that this makes my body feel less heavy and more ready for the deep cleansing work. Part of this is that the heavy, greasy foods ground us firmly in the daylight of our lives, and we don’t want that kind of grounding during retreat.

The forest is calling you deeper....

The forest is calling you deeper….

Slowing down. Imagine a train moving at 100 miles per hour suddenly having to stop on the tracks.  That could cause a crash!  Because our lives are so busy, sometimes, going into retreat is kind of like trying to stop that heavy train immediately. A safe way is to slow the train down, to break, to make sure it pulls into that station carefully and purposefully. Given this, I try hard to “slow down” a few days before my retreat. No frantic running around, making sure tasks get done with grace, and so on. This helps me ease into the transition of the slow time that is key and present as part of the retreat.

 

Dusk turns to Night: The Preliminaries

Finally! Your retreat has come and you are ready to begin the work of the retreat…if you only knew what that work was to be! I have a few things I like to do on retreats, and I’ll share them here to help provide structure for your own retreat.

 

Slowing Down. Let your train fully come to a stop at the station; let the sun fully set and the moon and stars to illuminate once more. Once you arrive at your retreat, I would suggest spending the first hour or so decompressing, unpacking, setting up, and so on. Take your time with this–there is no rush. There is nowhere else you need to be but here, present, in this moment. Pay attention to all of your senses (how often do we do this?) and simply enjoy the work of setting up camp, unpacking, whatever it is that you need to do first.

 

Deep Breathing. After you allow yourself to slow down, do a little bit of deep breathing and meditation.  Let yourself settle in, let the slower rhythm weave into your bones.  Let your body and mind know, gently, that you can slow down and relax. Sit by a tree and breathe deeply, simply being, for a time, letting the stuff in the outside world slowly fall away. Once you’ve done some of this initial work, it is time to begin the more serious spiritual work of the retreat.

 

Cleansing.  I start my retreats with some kind of cleansing activity before opening up the space officially. There are so many ways you can cleanse, but for retreats, I like to do this in a few ways.  A glass of fresh spring water (or nettle tea) with a pinch of salt combined with a jump into a mountain stream, a cool shower, or bathing in cool water with a pinch of salt and vinegar.  I follow this usually with a full on smudge session.   You may also find it appropriate to cleanse the retreat space itself (this is good if its a rental cabin or something that a lot of people are coming in and out of; totally unnecessary if you are camping in the woods).  Once you have done whatever cleansing that you feel is necessary, you can go ahead and setup the sacred space and intentions for your retreat.

 

How to setup the sacred space for your retreat. Setting up the sacred space for healing as part of your retreat is also an important step. This might be something as simple as the following:

  • Start by stating my intention for the retreat: personal healing, rejuvenation, etc.
  • Call upon the four directions and four elements for their guidance
  • Make an offering in gratitude to the land and spirits of the land for hosting
  • Cast a circle around the space for the duration of the retreat

 

If you have a way of opening up a sacred space or grove, you can use that and keep it open for the duration of the retreat.  For me, I will use the AODA’s solitary grove opening, with some additions at the end like setting my intentions for the retreat and making an offering to the spirits of the land.  This opening ritual can be done, and the space open, for as long as the retreat goes on.

 

And that’s an important distinction: the retreat itself takes place in an open grove for the duration of the retreat.  The entire retreat is a ceremony, a ritual, a spiritual act.  Understanding this, and setting this up intentially, helps you do the work of your retreat.

 

Moon and Stars: The Work of Your Retreat

So at this point, all of the preliminaries are over with. Everything that you needed to do, you did do. This is usually when people start looking around and saying, “Ok, now what?” The work ahead is much less clear, and much more specific to each individual who is on the retreat. People who have been doing spiritual work: meditation, journeying, quiet jaunts in the forest, for a while likely don’t need me to tell them what to do at this point.  The spirits will do that for you! But those of you who are new to this kind of work, still fresh upon the path, might find the following suggestions really helpful.

 

Vision Quest Shelter

Vision Quest Shelter

No agenda. Its generally better if you go into a healing retreat without an agenda. You may find that you are lead to do different kinds of things, unplanned things, when you got there.  Its better not to plan it out, but let things unfold as they unfold.

 

Intuition. The most important advice I can give for what to do when you get to this point is let your intuition guide you.  You might get the idea of doing some things you would normally not do (screaming, dancing naked, cartwheels) or things that seem odd to you (placing stones in a ring around a tree).  Don’t evaluate or judge what you feel led to do–just do it.

 

Spirit Communication. All of us have the capacity to hear messages from the land, from the spirits, from whatever conception of divinity you hold. Maybe these messages come in physical form–animals, branches banging on a tree, the babbling of the brook. Maybe this comes from prayer to the divine. Often, these messages also have inner components.  I spoke about inner planes communication and messages with trees quite a bit in my Druid Tree working series, so I’ll refer you there for more details.

 

Being and Observing. One critical thing to do is to simply lay by the fire, or out in the snow, and simply be there, slow down, simply inhabit yourself and be present in the moment. We spend so much time darting from place to place, putting out fire after fire, that we don’t just get to sit.  A retreat should include a lot of sitting and being.  Ask questions, see how the land responds (and it will respond on its own time, which can be hours or days after a question is asked)!  The value in sitting for a number of hours (especially around dusk or dawn) is that you will see the forest in ways you will never see it if you are wandering about.  Sitting still means you will see animal movements; you will blend into your surroundings and become one with the forest.  There are incredibly deep insights and values in this kind of quiet observation and communion.

 

Staying put or Wandering. There are different beliefs about whether you should stay put or you should wander about during a retreat–and to you I say, try a bit of both.  When I went on my vision quest, it was very important that we setup our sacred space and then stayed put in about a 30 foot area of space.  This allowed nature to send messages to us, to sit in stillness, focus, and quietude.  And while I loved this, I also love the discovery of wandering through the forest (which will make noise, and not allow as many animals to visit and bring messages).

 

Looking for Signs and Symbols. Learn to read the messages that the land sends.  A book called Animal Speak is a nice one to bring along, although I don’t usually take too much stock in what books say about animal messages.  Usually, animals come for a specific reason and that reason might be very unique to you and your spiritual path.  So if a deer comes, its likely coming to you for a specific reason that you will understand and/or need to interpret.  Use your own intuition to interpret the signs you are given, and perhaps supplement with some resources.  Pay attention to directions and time (e.g. a hawk flies in from the east at dawn is a different message than the hawk spiraling overhead in the early afternoon).  You might also use divination systems here, but I find the retreat will usually provide the messages you need.

 

Signs and symbols  in wildlife during the retreat

Signs and symbols in wildlife during the retreat

Pilgrimages.  If you are in natural places, taking a journey to a particular special spot is also a great thing to include in a retreat. For me, these are often healing or mineral springs (of which we have many in this area).  Perhaps you want to plan a hike and journey as part of your retreat (although I’d recommend foot journeys if at all possible–technology, like riding in a car, can disrupt the energy and flow of your retreat).

 

Inner Journeys. Inner journeying work is certainly another important part of spiritual retreats. Spending time in an inner sacred grove, or inner realms is an important part of the retreat.

 

To sleep or not to sleep. While I am on retreat, I prefer cat naps during the hot parts of the day (like afternoons, in line with most of the animals ) to full on sleeping at night; I try to stay up at least one full night out in the wilds, observing and being present.   I find that this gives me perspective and new insights.   If you are going to stay up all night, do it without a campfire or light–just let your eyes adjust to the darkness and be present in your surroundings.

 

The lifepath experience and answering hard questions. Sometimes, it is useful to review your path, in its entirety–how you’ve gotten here.  Think about the different things you’ve experienced, the different decisions that you’ve made, your soul’s spiritual journey, the key aspects of your personality.  You might also work through some questions, the kinds that we usually don’t get to spend enough time with:

  • Am I happy with my path? If not, what could I change?
  • What am I holding onto that I need to leave go of? Why am I not letting it go?
  • What makes my soul sing? How often do I engage in those kinds of things?
  • What do I think is ahead for me on the path?
  • What is my life’s work? How do I know it?
  • Who am I, as a person?
  • What are the things that are the most important to me? Why?

 

Self-Expression. After some of your inner work is done, you might also find that retreats are an excellent space for engaging in some of the bardic arts: music, poetry, song, dance, visual arts.  For me, I bring along my flute and typically my watercolors, and that way, if the opportunity presents itself, especially on later days of the retreat, I might create something beautiful.  Often, when I’m on retreat I am given new songs for the flute and that’s pretty incredible as well!

 

Journaling and documenting your retreat. Some people don’t want to write during their retreats, but I have found that this really helps me “continue the ceremony” long after it ends in the physical world, and it allows me to return to the ceremony again and again and make sense of what I have experienced.  If you want to do this,  make sure you devote adequate time to  during your retreat to journaling about your experiences as soon as you can after they happen–write while you are still in the alternative perspective of the retreat.  What happens is that when we are in ritual space (and retreat is an extended ritual) we are in a particular frame of mind.  As soon as we remove ourselves from that ritual space, we cease to be in that frame of mind, and things are quickly lost from our minds.  Write everything you want to write before you close your ritual space and return to the mundane of everyday living.

 

Dawn: Closing the Retreat and Continuing the Ceremony

Just as you worked to ease into the Druid Retreat, you will also want to ease out of the retreat–daylight can be harsh if we are not careful.

 

Conclusions, Insights, and Next steps. As you are nearing the end of your retreat, take some time to write down the insights and conclusions you gained.  Maybe that’s a set of spiritual practices, maybe that’s something you need to do for yourself, maybe its an actionable list of items.  Or maybe it is none of these things, but a sense of tranquility and calm, of completeness.  Whatever it is, you want to do your best to preserve that mindset–that state–those feelings and words.  I usually give myself at least 2-3 hours for this kind of work. I am a visual artist and an avid writer, so I will usually do something visual to represent my retreat and also write extensively in my journal.  These tactile experiences help start to bring me back into my normal rhythms.

 

Gratitude. Express gratitude to the land, the spirits, those that helped you on your retreat.  Sometimes they may ask for something in return–do whatever it is they ask gladly.  After all, they held the space for your healing.  I also make it a point that once I’ve returned from my retreat, I write notes of gratitude and give them to anyone who helped make my retreat possible (kid/pet sitters, significant others, etc).

 

Closing the Retreat.   Since you’ve just spent some serious time in a sacred space, you can close out the sacred space as befitting your tradition (I would use AODA’s solitary grove closing for this).  A simple closing works like this:

  • Announce your intentions to close the space
  • Give thanks to the four directions/quarters
  • Make an offering to the land/spirits/diety
  • Take down the protective circle/sphere/etc.

 

Grounding Activities. At the end of the retreat, especially one with light-ish food choices or fasting, you will want to start bringing yourself back into the patterns of everyday typical living.  I find that it is helpful to eat something a bit more hearty at this point to help me return. Maybe that’s some eggs and cheese, or a piece of turkey jerky–something that will help me ground.

 

Transitioning Back in. Be careful about how you transition back into your everyday living.  I’ll share a story here to see why this is important.  A number of years ago, I went with a friend of mine to a week-long earth-centered spirituality event.  We had a long drive back to Michigan.  I spent a lot of time both with others but also alone.  It wasn’t a solitary retreat, like I’m talking about here, but it was certainly a different kind of energy and space.  After we left, we stopped at a highway rest stop and went in for some food and a bathroom break.  I entered the rest stop, and was greeted by a wall of plastic encrusted food, screaming children, several TV screens, a sad guy at the cash register, music blasting–it was all too much for me.  Normally, I had no difficulty navigating such a space (I’d hardly be a functional human being in American society if I did) but after being away for 7 days, I was completely in shock.  Panicked.  I had to leave, and then I was greeted by more concrete.  Finally, I found a little patch of grass and closed my eyes, laying on it.  I felt better.  I had never experienced such a shock, but it taught me something really powerful: the transition needs to be managed with care.  Even if we are “used” to it, we need that transitory time.

 

A Transition day. If at all possible, given my discussion of transitioning above, I would suggest ONE EXTRA DAY, at home, or even 4 hours, at home, to transition back from your retreat.  Ideally, you need time just to process once you’ve returned, and to reflect and integrate.  I realize this is not possible often, but it is ideal!

A beautiful mushroom is a gift during retreat!

A beautiful mushroom is a gift during retreat!

The Ceremony Continues

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about this kind of work comes from the Sweet Medicine Sundance tradition, and it is worth sharing here.  Your ceremony continues well beyond the time that you were in the woods, in retreat.  They believe that for another 7 days, the ceremony continues on.  If you go home and begin talking about everything you experienced and learned, you can “talk the magic out of it.”  And so, I would suggest that you keep quiet about the ceremony and the insights you learned.  They are yours, and yours alone.  After the seven day period is over, you might find it appropriate to share bits of the experience with others, but never share much.  There are many things from my own retreats and vision quests that I have not, and will not, ever share–there is magic in silence, tremendous magic in silence (a great discussion on this topic can be found in John Michael Greer’s Inside a Magical Lodge book).

 

Retreats as a Regular Spiritual Practice

A full blown druid retreat might be harder  to facilitate regularly, but I would say try to do one at least once a year if possible.  Even if you can’t do a full blown druid retreat, I have found that there is great benefit in a mini-retreat: an 4 or 8 hour retreat, where the same things can happen, but in a condensed time frame.  You aren’t going to get the deep insights you would get with a longer period of time, but even a short while away from things will do tremendous amounts of good in your life :).

 

Closing thoughts

I hope that this post series was inspirational for you and that you consider planning a druid retreat–even a short one.  I also wanted to let all of you know that I’ll be doing some retreat work myself in the second half of August and will be spending a week in the Hudson Valley taking my Permaculture Teacher Training course. Given this, I will not be posting new posts for the next two or three weeks, but I will return after my PDC Teacher training with an extended series of posts on Permaculture for Druids and some other spiritual gardening topics :).  Blessings!