Druiding without (an) Order — 2   2 comments

[Part 1 | Part 2]

path28In the previous post, I looked at thirteen facets of Doing Druidry that mostly revolve around inquiry and study. You can’t easily be a Druid without engaging in at least some form of one or more of them, because each of them connects you to the worlds where Druidry happens. (If that sounds restrictive or dogmatic or exclusive to you, just go back and look at the list! Got something to add that makes you a Druid? Tell us a little about your journey as you go for it!) The list doesn’t characterize only beginning Druidry, but serves as a rough outline for the kinds of studies that can occupy Druids their entire lives. However, that’s not the only thing happening in the life of a Druid.

In this second post on Doing Druidry without an Order, I want to look at five less tangible aspects of Druidry (and other traditions) that may have occurred to you as you read the previous post. These five are initiation, spiritual formation, community, proficiency and service. From the first glance it should be clear why they’re harder to talk about and describe in terms that people can identify. But that fact in itself makes it worthwhile to try. As you may come to see, these five aspects are closely linked things, almost versions of the same thing.

Initiation

Like other intensely personal experiences, initiation will always be a live issue for many of us. What it is, who can experience it, who can oversee, facilitate or “give” it, what happens when we undergo it, and what we become as a result,  can all provoke passionate discussion and disagreement. Most spiritual traditions have an equivalent of one or more initiations among their practices, and the most non-religious among us still experience “built-in” initiation in human events like birth, death, sex, grief and creative flow. Change characterizes each of them. You’re not the same afterwards. When and how you discover this, however, can range very widely.

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We could claim that one of the things that distinguishes modern Pagan practice from older traditions is the option of self and group initiation. As a comparison, Christians, for instance, can’t usually baptize themselves; to become a Muslim requires two witnesses to hear you recite the shahadah, and so forth.

Like other groups, OBOD succeeds tolerably well in having it both ways: the coursework for the grades of Bard, Ovate and Druid includes self-initiations that members can perform, and as a member of the Order you can request a group initiation with other members, and these two initiations aren’t “the same thing”. The rituals are different, the outcomes can be different, yet paradoxically they are in important ways “the same”.

You don’t need to do both a self and a  group initiation, but it makes little sense to continue unless you do one of them. (Doing both gives you a feel for their interconnections and value.) They’re part of doing Druidry. If you’re doing Druidry without an Order, you’ll come quite naturally to initiation in your own way. Your life will see to that. You can seek out initiation, of course, adapting published rituals to your purposes, or crafting something unique to your own experience. Or you can wait until an experience shapes itself into an initiation, which you may not recognize until after the fact.

For an earlier 3-part series on initiation, go here.

Spiritual Formation

This largely Christian term has no ready Pagan equivalent, though this aspect of practice certainly exists in all spiritual traditions. Christian spiritual formation means molding or conforming one’s life to Christ. In Pagan terms it means moving beyond, diving deeper, maturing in practice and wisdom. You begin to embody more of what your tradition values and holds up as an ideal, of what your deepest spiritual connection opens up to you, and open you up to. Pagans speak of Elders, those with earned authority and sacred connection, in ways similar to how Christians speak of saints, of holy individuals that spirit shines through.

One of the joys of a practicing group is the heightened chances of encountering and knowing such people, learning from their example and growing through associating with them. Being around them can constitute a form of initiation. As a number of the Wise have remarked, spirituality is “caught” rather than “taught”. We’re all in training.

Community

The most obvious difference between the experience of the Solitary and the Order member might seem to revolve around community. Christians acknowledge the priceless gift of others. In Hebrews 12:1, for instance, the sense of a supporting community, many without bodies, pervades the verse: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”. The interior worship spaces of Orthodox churches often have icons on almost every available surface, emphasizing this spiritual presence of a larger community than only those “with skin on”.

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icons at Varlaam Monastery — image courtesy Andrea Kirkby

Pagans may talk of raising power, while Christians acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit. Isaac Bonewits notes:

If the people in a group have bonds of genuine friendship or love between them, their ability to perform ritual will be greatly enhanced. The psychic and psychological barriers that most people keep between themselves will be fewer and more easily breached. This is why Wiccans place so much emphasis on “perfect love and perfect trust” — love and trust, even when imperfect, tend to strengthen each other and increase a group’s psychological and psychic unity (Rites of Worship: A Neopagan Approach, pg. 105).

Of course, one of the discoveries Druids make is that they are never alone. Solitary, but not alone. A whole world of Others surrounds them, and if that is where community lies for that particular Druid, that is the call to answer.

Proficiency

We can become refined in the presence of others. Lifted out of our own concerns by the group energy, we can begin to “see larger” than when we arrived, and to take something of that enlarged perspective home with us like a fragrance or flavor to our hours and days. Elastic beings that we are, the company of other people “facing the same direction” can stretch us more than we can easily stretch ourselves, making us more flexible, adaptable, compassionate and empathetic. Think of the privilege of finding a good listener, someone who can still their own concerns and focus their attention on you and your world. How many of us know the love another can express in hearing and seeing us, even if they say little or nothing else? Our lives have been witnessed, our struggles acknowledged, we can walk from there a little lighter of heart.

By their fruits you shall know them, says Jesus, and a good test of a group or Order in the simplest of terms is the kind of people they produce. Are they enjoyable to be around? Do they lift you up or drag you down? Are they kind to each other?

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Service

I desire to know in order to serve, runs the vow in more than one magical order of repute.

So I was struck when my teacher remarked one day that he serves in order to know. That’s how I grow and learn, he says. Offer yourself in “the unreserved dedication”, as some Orders call it, without qualification or expectation, and you will benefit. I get so tired of hearing about service, remarked one long-time member. Go apart for a while, counseled our teacher. You’ll be eager to return when you see how it’s a gift of love. You may just need to be on the receiving end for a time, for that to happen.

We may first begin to recognize the value of service when others serve us with love. If you’re like me, you may have a favorite restaurant (pre-virus, if necessary) where the food isn’t the main thing that draws you back. Yes, the meals are good. But it’s the ambience, the atmosphere, the attentiveness and welcome of the staff, the mood of other customers treated hospitably, that shapes your total experience. We go back for the service as much as anything, we say, when people ask.

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In every case, Solitaries find ways to fulfill these aspects. It may demand more flexibility and creativity, or it may take the Solitary in directions others do not understand. Service to the non-human world, for instance, can often pass unseen, unacknowledged for an entire lifetime, known only to the “bird and beast, bug and beech” the Solitary serves.

Druiding without (an) Order   Leave a comment

[Updated 28 May 2020]

[Part 1 | Part 2]

“Magical Properties and Benefits”, says the incense packet on my desk, and it then lists several qualities like “confidence” and “purification”, along with instructions to keep lit incense away from draperies, other flammable items, children, animals, etc. At the bottom, in small print, appears this brief notice: “Sold as curio only, no magical effects are guaranteed”.

The magic, as always, lies in our hands.

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“Druidry”, says one book blurb, “puts you back in touch with wild wisdom”. It’s “a spiritual path, a philosophy, a way of life, or all three” says another. “It’s free and open to join”, proclaims a third.

Intrigued, you light your incense, meditate on these varied impressions of Druidry, and decide to visit the website of one of the better-known Druid orders. “You must be 18 years of age”, you read. “Basic membership is a one-time fee of $50”. Additional study has additional one-time fees. Startled, you decide to check out the websites of a few other Orders. The next one says “Register for free”. That’s more like it, you think. Nothing about a minimum age requirement, either. You’re interested in Bardic study, and click on the link. Then you see the words “course fee”, and discover it’s £150, (about $US 185 as of today).

On to the next site. This one lists an even higher price of £195 ($US 241). Free and open to join? you mutter to yourself.

One more site to investigate. Basic membership is $30 per year. OK, mostly doable, but definitely not ‘free’, you say to yourself. That includes the beginning training program required of everyone. But additional studies have additional costs. Interesting. So there’s a real range among orders. It’s worth investigating a little further to see what’s included for each of these outlays of your hard-earned money and time. Sometimes no other materials are required; sometimes you’ll need books not included in the Order course of study. Sometimes significant additional publications come your way for that fee.

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It’s possible, of course, to find materials for extensive Druid study for free, or very inexpensively. You can locate remarkable amounts of material online, many introductory titles can be found at larger libraries, or through interlibrary loan, used bookshops can supply many unique and valuable resources no longer in print elsewhere, and you can join online forums and talk with other Druids and ask for their recommendations and reviews. (Ask three Druids, goes the saying, get ten answers.)

One advantage of a well-designed study program is its structure: much of the work described in the preceding paragraph has been done for you. Knowledgeable teachers have developed a meaningful sequence of materials, broken them up into manageable pieces, identified helpful ways to access additional information, explore outer and inner worlds, and advise you on how to avoid dead-ends and get more for the time and effort you put in.

Study programs of the four established Druid orders I name on Books and Links have been developed by experienced teachers, field-tested, used by many, and continue to be updated and refined. None of them are for-profit ventures. Druidry isn’t a cash cow. Printing and mailing and electricity for website servers and even small offices cost money. Travel to events where we want to see and hear speakers and leaders and musicians also costs money. Advertising, permits, minimal secretarial staff to answer phones, field questions, etc. — all additional costs.

Going it alone is cheaper, and you do get what you pay for, in both good and bad senses.

Leaders of all four groups know of each other, and generally speak well of others’ groups. Some of them have studied in more than one of the groups themselves, and can “speak from within”. Choosing membership will link you to exclusive member forums, alerts you to member-only information and events, and affords you just as much community as you would like. Some people make life-long friends. Some prefer to remain solitary. Among other things, shared rituals unite members of an Order; it’s a distinctive flavour, like the u in the British spelling, or cinnamon and cloves and allspice in a pie. It’s a recognizable style. It’s the stone steps along a well-worn path, walked by people you know. It’s never, however, the “only” way to go.

But if cost, or a distaste for group-think or others’ maps of reality, or an eremitic temperament, or physical isolation or some other reason obtrudes itself, no worries. Your study can begin the moment you notice your breathing and pulse, or look out a window.

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Begin where you are. That’s how all knowledge and civilization began. If you should reinvent the wheel on occasion, well, that can teach you things about wheels nothing else will. Your learning and experience will carry the stamp of firsthand engagement. People whose opinions are worth hearing will recognize the authority of any wisdom you accrue.

Thirteen Paths for Self-Directed Druid Study (in no particular order)

1 — Learn the trees and plants, birds and animals of your region. Seek and encounter them where they live, learn to recognize them in every season, observe them, meditate near them, ask them for insight, and keep studying. This by itself can be a lifelong project. Herbalism and healing, natural cycles and ecosystems, knowledge of subtle and less subtle shifts in habitat and non-human populations as climate change makes itself felt are all very worthwhile, and will only become more valuable in the ensuing decades.

2 — Draw up a reading list with the help of online websites, reviews on Amazon, the many free texts at websites like the extensive Internet Sacred Text Archive, and personal recommendations. Any good librarian can help you identify basic titles to explore almost any topic. Set yourself a study calendar that you can follow, read what interests you, check bibliographies of those same books for other titles on specific topics that interest you, and you’re off. Druids, and Pagans generally, are definitely readers, and independent lifelong learners.

3 — Master a musical instrument — this includes the human voice — and if you feel inclined, compose new music that expresses your experiences. Humans enjoy a truly enormous musical heritage, and more and more music (and training in music) is available online for free, or for a reasonable price per song or composition or class.

4 — Learn another language that will help open up cultural communities and wisdom, practices and traditions that intrigue you. Many study a Celtic language, or you may have an ancestral connection to other cultures and languages, and here again the internet can help smooth your path, and aid you in finding resources, chat rooms, and ways to practice even if you live many miles and kilometers from the nearest speaker.

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5 — Study the magic and traditions of another religion or spiritual path besides Druidry. This can be a valuable source of breadth and perspective when studying and understanding your own tradition, and it allows you an independence of thought not easily acquired in any other way. Insofar as you can do this respectfully, take part in the rituals and celebrations of the other tradition, ask questions, get to know the local community, and volunteer your help if it would be welcome.

6 — Seek out a deity whose stories, focus, symbolism, traditions and ritual speak to you. The deity may have called you, or you may be looking for a patron god or goddess. Or you may simply find it worth knowing more about the deity. Your level of engagement is a matter for you and your inner guidance, not a prescription or any kind of requirement. Nor is belief — encounter outweighs dogma.

7 — Study and practice with a set of symbolic elements. The classical four elements of European tradition, earth, air, fire and water (or five, with Spirit), have much to teach, and pervaded culture, myth, religion and science for over a thousand years, and still reverberate; other elemental symbolic systems have exerted similar influence. The four Orders I mentioned above make substantial use of these, and direct students to still other resources.

8 — Study a system of divination. More than one, if you’re so inclined, for the same reasons more than one of almost anything is worth knowing. What do you discover over time with regular practice? What would you teach another person? What remains largely unteachable? Runes, Tarot, ogham are just the beginning. Feeling constrained? Devise your own system of divination! Test it!

9 — Take up the study and practice of a system of sacred geometry. Though it’s fallen largely out of sight in the West, it remains alive and well in other parts of the world, and profound insights remain for the effort of learning and practicing. To name just one sub-study, architecture, especially of older structures across Europe, has much to teach about earth energies, proportion, symmetry, psychological effect, symbolism, etc.

10 — Study and practice ritual. We all do ritual already. Humans are a ritualizing species — so are many animals and birds. It repays richly to make at least some of our rituals more conscious and intentional, to learn and perform life-giving rites, and to develop new ones at need.

11 — Study and practice poetry, or word-awen. As with music, the field of poetry is vast. In spite of the bad experience many of us have with how “poetry” is taught in schools, the art is vital and alive and lives deep in our hearts in songs, sayings, chants, metaphors, idioms in language, and so on. Poetry slam competitions can be eye-opening for the power of spoken performance, and the best performers in most popular music are creative lyricists.

12 — A study and practice of astronomy and cosmology can open up literal and symbolic worlds. With some ingenuity and willingness to search for materials, inexpensive and partially home-made reflector telescopes are with the reach of many, and can help independent observers make useful and significant contributions to planetary and stellar science.

13 — Meditation, contemplation, dream-study and inner exploration complement the spiritual path anyone may take. The physiological benefits are well-established; the spiritual ones become apparent over time as well.

Things I’ve left off the list may be occurring to you even as you read this. But you get the idea. Druidry itself IS open and free. How you explore and what you choose to do with its many facets will involve you in different kinds of exchanges — time, money, study, effort, searching — for what you receive. Everyone can join and belong to DOYO — Druidry On Your Own.

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Images: Pexels.com

 

Back and Forth Through Time   Leave a comment

In Arthur Myghtern I looked at the king at the heart of one resonant mythos still living in the consciousness of many in the West. “King who was and will be”, myghtern a ve hag a vyth, Arthur points us toward a profound magical and spiritual technique: we can walk up and down, back and forth in time. We become truly “royal”, goes one interpretation, when we accept this capacity, when we rise to the occasion, grasping our spiritual destinies with both hands. (Of course, I can always stay where I am for a few more cycles, if I choose, and accept what comes with that choice. How often I’ve done just that!)

One of my poems, “Drinking with the Ancestors“, also tries to get at something of this experience, albeit in a jocular way. You might find these two articles helpful: Five Ways to Honor Your Ancestors (at ancestralmedicine.org), and Catriona McDonald’s “Spirits, Spirits Everywhere” on her blog. You can also check out my “Seven Seeds of an Ancestor Practice“.

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Chinese tradition of Qing-ming ancestral observance, after the Spring Equinox. Image Source.

Now “time travel” is easy to say and write. But what about doing it? Well, simply being alive is one technique — the ancestors live through us in surprising ways. (Does that feel too “easy”?) We carry their DNA, and we carry on far more of their traditions and perspectives than we might think at first — as almost any couple discovers when birthdays, holidays and other traditions from two different families run headlong into each other.

But while “living through our descendants” is one way to be a time-walker, there are others. The traditions of Samhain, “when the veil between worlds thins”, is one of them. For some the romance of those words is enough. If you have something to say to me, now’s a good time, says my inner skeptic, more interested in keeping a distance than in doing any listening. (Some of the best conversations are whispered up close and personal.) For many, it usually feels fitting to remember the dead, even if it’s once a year. Most of the rest of the time we’re too busy just trying to survive ourselves.

Observing birthdays and anniversaries of those who’ve passed into the Otherworlds can bring us closer, as can photographs and family stories. What is remembered lives, indeed. Dreamwork around an ancestral photo, carried on over several days, together with journaling, drawing and meditation, can often open up new territory of insight and subtly shift our spiritual practice. I gain clarity and self-understanding by looking at what my ancestors have bequeathed me, bad and good. Some of the inheritance consists of difficult gifts, but everything can be a resource for moving on from here, if only as a guide for what to avoid.

Visuals meant to suggest “time travel”, especially those courtesy of Hollywood sci-fi, can both help and hinder. We don’t need to “see” anything, or “go anywhere”, for time travel to happen, so we may miss it if that’s the confirmation we’re expecting. “Nothing happened” is our most common experience, as we tend to label it, ignoring most of what actually does take place where we’re not looking. Time travel may not offer anything to “see”, but what of other senses?

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What of the future? Using the image of the spiral of experiences and lifetimes, I’ve found that many of those portals that most readily open across time are those which are in harmony with this moment, both behind and ahead. When some people speak with conviction of past-life recall, there need not be any disjunct between that and a sense of ancestral influence — I may well “be” my own great-grandfather, whatever that “means”. More to the point, from the perspective of that past self, I am its future, and the two of us together converse with a combined past-future that is the same larger thing. You touch your past by wearing skin today, say the Ancestors. We touch our future the same way.

One of the more remarkable stories I’ve heard firsthand comes from a woman now in her 80s. She tells how her own past self, a Greek physician from centuries ago, healed her present self in a series of dream-visions. The sense of vertigo and time-shift I’ve felt as I enter such experiences is a valuable guide. We give ourselves wider permission to explore through such stories, and we start to break the hold that time-magic wields over us. They catch the imagination and liberate us, rather than chaining us to logic and binding us to present circumstances.

If I fear a future event — my cancer returning, the death of my wife or best friend, poverty and old age, whatever — I can begin to send strength and needed courage and inspiration to that future self, and rather than passively and fearfully dreading the arrival of the event, shift the quality of that experience through my efforts today. My present fear breaks up, and my future experience changes, too. At least if our ancestral recall has anything to say about it, my life today is the magic of my ancestors made manifest in the most concrete physical ways. I am their survival, their dreams come true, their hopes realized, their magic working still.

Various teachings and understandings of our human experience talk of M-E-S-T, matter, energy, space and time. (And “messed” it is, says my inner imp.) The harmonics of our common experience organize our worlds, but they needn’t be the only way we perceive. Each perspective offers gains and limits, and learning to shift among them broadens the field of “what’s possible”. In the process, we don’t “cheat death”, any more than we “cancel winter”, but we learn to walk with and through it into the following spring, both the “same” and utterly new.

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“Holy Zombie? Earth Guardian?”   Leave a comment

“You be the judge!”

[Updated Thursday, 23 May 2020]

[Alert: image of mummy appears in this post]

One of J. M. Greer’s “notes in passing” in his latest book, The Mysteries of Merlin, which I reviewed here, concerns a cross-cultural phenomenon that with careless treatment sounds like the makings of a script for some breathless “Hidden Mysteries” documentary, or a really good-bad horror film. With attention, though, we can discern a remarkable and ancient conception of sacrifice for the communal good that spans the globe.

In the West are the legends of Merlin, still alive and enclosed in his Crystal Cave, and Christian Rosenkreuz [Wikipedia link | Alchemylab account], reputed founder of Rosicrucianism, entombed for 120 years in a seven-sided vault, and eventually disinterred, perfectly preserved, with a book of Rosicrucian occult secrets in his arms.

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Monks carrying food at Okunoin mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Wikipedia/creative commons

A similar tradition emerges in Japan, with stories clustering around Kobo Daishi (774-835), founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Tradition holds that he did not die but remains in meditation to this day, entombed in Mount Koya, awaiting the future Buddha. Monks in the Shingon tradition present food at his shrine twice a day.

Greer points to stories of “an archaic magical operation by which a sufficiently knowledgeable and strong-willed person can pass into another mode of existence at death and function for many centuries thereafter as the guardian spirit of a family, a community, or an occult school. Legends in many lands tell of great sages and heroes of the past who descended into stone tombs beneath the earth while still alive, and the stone-chambered mounds of northern and western Europe are routinely connected with such legends” (Greer, pg. 33).

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Megalithic tumulus mound, Saint-Nazaire, France. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7077948

Legends such as that of the Seven Sleepers, a shared Christian and Muslim narrative, may also be connected here.

A successful outcome of such practices leads in Japan to people like Kobo Daishi, and to others who become sokushinbutsu, literally “living Buddhas” — the rite was performed as recently as 1903. Mummies of those who underwent the rite are preserved in Senninzawa (“Valley of the Swamp Wizards”), Yamagata Prefecture, and occupy locations of honor in temples otherwise reserved for figures of the Buddha. For a fascinating article on contemporary observances, with details of the living mummification regime, including a strict diet, pursued by those aspiring to this role, along with images of the mummified remains and the monks and temples caring for them, see The Buddhas of Mount Yudono.

Less successful outcomes of this operation, Greer suggests, account for at least some of Europe’s traditions of barrow-wights, vampires, and the orc-neas or “hell-corpses” of Anglo-Saxon legend (from which Tolkien lifted the name and image of the orc). In one sense, then, such beings are simply testimony to “good magic gone bad”.

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Odin — Georg Von Rosen, 1886. Public domain

One thread of this story of ritual death specific to Europe, Greer asserts, is the magical three-fold death of Indo-European tradition, linked to air, water and earth, which we see embodied in the Norse god Odin, who is ritually slain, depending on the source, by being hanged, drowned and stabbed.

Christianity runs with this idea of the power of a magical or holy death, making it the center of its faith in a single divine being whose death can save many. Central to all of these magical and ritual self-sacrifices is their voluntary nature — the “sacrifice goes consenting”; the gift of the self is given freely.

The biblical Book of Hebrews explains the continuity between Jewish traditions of animal sacrifice each year in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Christian conception of the holy and sacrificial death of a god in the form of Jesus: “Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice” (Hebrews 10). Animal or human sacrifices must be renewed because their benefit wanes over time. The sacrificial death of a god, on the other hand, need happen only once.

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Additional resources:

Jeremiah, Ken. Living Buddhas: The Self-mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan. (Link to Amazon.) McFarland, 2010.

Love in 5 Movements   Leave a comment

Some two years ago I commented: “… a devotional practice undertaken with love over time generates a momentum no finite thing can contain”. More than ever I’ve found that’s true, in ways easy and hard.

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a play of shadow and light

But what if you’re not devotionally minded? What does that even mean, anyway? Beyond humans and pets, who is there to be devoted to? (Some politicians and holy folks keep shedding our trust like snakes wriggling out of old dead skin.) Or if not an incarnate being, how can you be devoted to something (or someone) invisible? Gods may just not do it for you. And as for “momentum”: momentum toward what? I hear you, questioner. I hear you.

“You keep using these words,” goes the oft-quoted meme from The Princess Bride, “but I do not think they mean what you think they mean”. So do they mean anything?

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This morning my wife and I received word that a beloved friend just passed away yesterday in his wife’s arms. He was in his mid-60s, and his death wasn’t from the virus. So “plugged in” he was, to the cosmos, to the pulse-beat of things, to the endless possibilities of his life as a lacrosse coach, high school teacher, father, husband, and spiritual mentor to many, that it’s impossible to feel sad for him. But we sure feel sad for us, for his wife and son and many friends, for the prospect of no longer being able to hug him, talk with him, listen to his stories and his corny humor, his remarkable spiritual journeys and example, and the impact of his deep humility and love on everyone he met. He remarked in passing some months ago that he knew where he was going in “the next step along the journey”, and I’m convinced he did, that his words applied to his passing as much as to anything else. More to the point, we can know, too, if it’s something we want and need and choose to know. Where am I going, after all? Where are we all? No reason to make an idol out of him, something he would have detested. Every reason to make the most of the inspiration he provided.

As Ursula LeGuin writes in A Wizard of Earthsea, “Ged stood still a while, like one who has received great news, and must enlarge his spirit to receive it”.

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Grief is an energy flow, like so much else. So is love. Of course that’s not all they are, but I’ve found it’s often helpful to understand them in that way, to see how I can begin to provide a clear channel for their flow, rather than block or wallow or some other reaction. As with grief and love, provide a channel for inspiration, too. Learn how not to fear them, hoard or repulse them, how to see them as part of life, how each of us handles them somewhat differently, how to honor and respect them. Pit or portal? says a Native American elder. What will we make of such experiences? Part of their power is that in the end no one can rush them. They take their own time.

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the first of three loads for next winter

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“When I am among the trees”, writes Mary Oliver in a poem by that title,

especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often …

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So I walk, and bow as I go.

“The Truth *Against* the World”?   Leave a comment

Tuesday morning as my wife and I were returning with the rare indulgence of take-out breakfast from a local cafe we love, we saw a morning walker on the back roads wearing a fluorescent yellow vest with the black lettering “I own safety“. All I could think was, Wow! Really? Could I please borrow some from time to time?

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Steve writes in a couple of recent comments:

… set(s) the truth right side up again …

I have long thought one of the primary functions of the modern druid should be to keep truth on a firm foundation, both for oneself and one’s “tribe”. Truly a worthy task in a time when truth has often been a subjective commodity, sold to the highest bidder.

A worthy task indeed. Far too many people in this era seem confused about truth, even about whether it’s possible. I keep attempting to present on this blog an experimental knowledge anyone can test and duplicate for themselves, as one reliable way of getting to truth. That’s why I keep writing about practice, practice, practice in as many ways as I can. Practice helps keep me honest, and also gives me plenty of material.

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Words about truth can resemble what remains after a fire.

The Roman poet and satirist Horace (Horatius) is my bard today. Si quid novisti rectius istis, candidus imperti; si nil, his utere mecum. “If you can better these principles, tell me”, goes one translation. “If not, join me in following them” — Horace, Epistles, Bk 1, 6, 67-68. But that tame version takes the snarky edge off Horace: “If you have come to know any precept more correct than these, share it with me, brilliant one; if not, use these with me”. Or as we might say, “OK, genius, you got a better idea? No? Then let’s try this one”. (I let people like Horace be snarky for me, so I can pretend to claim higher ground.)

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Y gwir yn erbyn y byd, goes the Welsh tag: “The truth against the world”. This British blog attributes the words to Iolo Morganwg. Some claim them for much more ancient Druids, some for King Arthur, and some for Boudicca (Wikipedia | History.com), queen of the Celtic Iceni, who died in the year 61 fighting the Romans. (If the words do originate with her, they’d have first appeared in a much earlier form of Brythonic than the modern Welsh quoted above.) Amazon, no surprise, sells a black t-shirt emblazoned with them, accompanied by the awen /|\ symbol. (The Amazon page for the shirt airily notes, “Show your support for culture, history, tradition and peace”. Oh, where’s Horace when you need him?!)

The Gorsedd of the Bards has adopted the words as their motto, and there’s a bardic chair with them carved into its back for winners of the Welsh National Eisteddfod. (The words appear on the larger chair to the right, just below the /|\. The glare of the camera flash obscures part of the line.)

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creative commons/Wicipedia (Welsh Wikipedia)

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely considering we’re human, we want our truth boxed and bubble-wrapped and tamely waiting for when we deign to grant it our attention. We want to own it, defend it, and — gods help us — buy and sell it, like anything else. Fortunately, truth isn’t like “anything else”. I know it in its purest form when I serve it rather than try to possess it. And maybe it’s not a moving target: I am.

Christian, Pagan, humanist, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and so on — if you pray, meditate, study, struggle, do ritual, and pay attention, you too know these things from experience.

Rather than a list of principles straight from the mouth of deity, or set of ultimate equations about reality scrounged up in a Silicon Valley lab, truth seems to be a function, which Google obligingly tells me is “an activity or purpose natural to or intended for a person or thing”. We can live from it, in other words. We can express it through our lives and actions to a greater or lesser degree, but we’ll always find it hard to put into “words now and forever”. Words don’t do that kind of thing well at all*, and neither, the accumulating evidence of human history shows, should we.

So I can sing and dance the truth better than I can profess it from the soapbox of this little blog in the early decades of the 21st century. (You need to know I sing and dance quite badly.) And if it’s true that a person can experience deep realization gazing into the heart of a flower, as I noted in the previous post, any “truth” in that moment isn’t coming through words. It’s a function of the prepared individual and the flower and the moment of attention. It’s “an activity or purpose natural to or intended for a person or thing”. And so to the degree that I stray or get distracted from “the activity or purpose natural to or intended for me”, I lose the ability to serve truth.

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The “truth against the world” often means conflict and struggle. The “world” in this case seems to signify a human form of inertia and resistance to time’s change. The desire to box and bag the perfection of a moment effectively kills it, leaving me with a dead thing, a mental photograph that doesn’t show the living being that’s its original. The “world” doesn‘t seem to mean the tree outside my office window, the woodchuck nibbling the tender clover in the back yard, the sunlight blessedly falling all around, the “Time of New Talk”, as Rudyard Kipling called the springtime returning to India in The Jungle Book.

So if I want to serve truth, to practice “an activity or purpose natural to or intended for me”, I find I’m working with a kind of electrical circuit, with resistances and poles and a definite direction of flow. The more I struggle to own truth, to box it and lord it over others as if I finally “have” it, the more I forfeit the “spark” of my electricity — the metaphor’s a useful one — the very thing that keeps me alive and vital and rooted in what is “natural to or intended for” me.

The word “world” has a whole set of specifically Christian associations I’d like to glance at here. Be of good cheer, says Jesus at one point in the Gospels. I have overcome the world. To me one big takeaway of that is a priceless unspoken corollary. I have overcome the world, and so can you. The Galilean says to me, I have overcome the resistance in myself to serving truth, rather than owning it. Do that, and you too will be able to say of your holy experience “I’m the way, the truth and the life. Nobody gets to the Source, or stays centered in it, except like that”.

And I hold this out not as an “opinion”, or worse as some kind of dogma, Druidic or otherwise, but as a potential truth to try out, to test, to practice till I know it from my own experience and can live it more fully. Or prove it inaccurate, say so, and look elsewhere. And maybe you will, too. You can be my Horace: “if you can better these principles, tell me”. Because as one current meme suggests, I can hold all kinds of opinions without evidence. But as soon as I present them as “truth” to others, untested in my own experience, I’m guilty of lying and fraud.

To repeat Greer’s words from the previous post, “at the human level, the individual Awen for the first time may become an object of conscious awareness. Achieving this awareness, and living in accord with it, is according to these Druid teachings the great challenge of human existence”. The world (not the world that the truth is “against”) seems to manifest this out of the same awen, but without human conscious awareness. It’s what we’ve labeled instinct, though that doesn’t account very well for plant energies that manifest leaves and branches and fruit and roots. That’s one reason why we find the natural world a restorative presence when we walk in it, savor it, apprentice ourselves to it. Notice that you don’t have to believe nature is restorative. You know this from your experience in it, and any belief — more accurately, trust — comes after.

And so I return to words that are “holy” to me, because I keep discovering ways they prove worth my ongoing time and exploration. They’re also holy because the principle behind them can be rediscovered by anyone who does what they describe:

Druidry means following a spiritual path rooted in the green Earth …  It means embracing an experiential approach to religious questions, one that abandons rigid belief systems in favor of inner development and individual contact with the realms of nature and spirit. (Greer, John Michael.  Druidry — A Green Way of Wisdom, qtd. in Carr-Gomm, Philip. What Do Druids Believe? London:  Granta Books, 2006, p. 34.)

May your practice and path bring you into contact with what is deepest and most worthwhile within you.

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*Ursula LeGuin says it well: a writer attempts to “say in words what cannot be said in words”, as she puts it. And so a writer resorts to story, getting at the “truth” through imagination.

Off into the Deep End Again   2 comments

In what follows, among other things I’m setting out elements from my own peculiar spiritual journey. So if what I write irritates or angers you, that’s probably a good signal to stop reading and go do (or eat) something else. When it’s not to your taste, any more than a mayonnaise and peanut butter sandwich, there’s no need to take a second bite. Or even a first one!

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A recent comment on an old post asking “What’s the spiritual meaning of X?” is what launched this post. In some ways, the question asks, “What’s appropriate action in this moment?” Or maybe, “How might I respond to this appeal to my attention?” or “Should I even bother to pay attention?” (Maybe we should start with “What’s the physical meaning of X?”)

The X in the question above isn’t the main point (Yeah it is! shouts the seeker in me), for though it’s what snags my attention and draws a lion’s share of the drama, the meat of the question is about meaning, about how and where my attention is focused, and about what if anything happens as a result of that focus.

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One of the discoveries we can slowly make in worlds of time and space is that few things have a single meaning, spiritual or otherwise. At the most literal level, a good dictionary will list several meanings for almost every word. Even deceptively “little” words (“Those? They’re the absolute worst!”) like English a, an, the have numerous meanings, as learners of English discover to their dismay, and writers have attempted to catalog. (Alan Brender’s Three Little Words: A, An, The lists 52 meanings and uses for ’em — one for every week of the year.) What to do with a universe so perverse? says the rationalist in my spleen. Hey, you rhymed! says the bard at my elbow.

Meanings are almost always plural. OK, but does that in turn mean that it’s just “Pick a card, any card”? Well, it’s true that some days, or some whole lifetimes, can feel that way.

Usually if I’m noticing something, it’s communicating to me, and further, I usually already have a hunch or suspicion of some possible meaning(s) of that communication. These two go together, usually so intertwined I can’t separate them. We’re trained to sift and sort all the input from our senses and select only what we need to notice. If something’s already risen to my conscious awareness, the “meaning filter” has let it through. The “Ten Thousand Things” can fade into background. The particular thing or event or person now stands center stage.

My right shoulder and forearm have been bothering me on and off for over a month. Exercise helps some, but I’m still fine-tuning which exercises. As we age, the cartilage in the shoulder and spine, the facet joints, start to deteriorate, says my wife, with her physical therapy training. In fact, the shoulder is often the first to go.

And I can leave it at that. But I can also choose to listen how my experience opens up insight, including insight about the experiences of others.

If something’s already communicating to me, how can I respond?

Meaning-bearer, I greet you. Thank you for arriving in my world with your messages. As they unfold with my intention, may I honor and fulfill them with my life.

“Wait just a minute”, says another of the selves I wear. I can hear the outrage grow in his voice. “Do you mean I should be grateful for shoulder pain?!”

That’s not what I’m saying. Pain sucks. But like the X of the opening question, pain isn’t the final point. “If the world were only pain and logic”, says Mary Oliver in her poem “Singapore”, “who would want it?”

One of our great skills as humans is to bring the hidden into manifestation and to clothe the non-physical with form and shape. We do it throughout our lives, constantly. No surprise, we’re pretty good at it. (Wedding planners, investment bankers, gardeners, contractors, parents, janitors, children, athletes, generals, lovers, daydreamers, cooks, doodlers, singers … OK, you get the idea.) We bring into existence something that wasn’t there before. It’s also how we fall in love.

That spark of attention that events kindle in us also ignites our attempts to put them into words. For this reason many cultures consider speech a holy thing — words as spiritual objects are not to be lightly disrespected or misused. The Queen of Faerie tells Thomas the Rhymer to hold to silence in her realm, “so that his speech might store up power” for his return. In many cultures, songs and stories tell how speech is a divine gift, how creation happens through words, and knowing the right word, the true name for a thing, is a key that opens many doors.

Insofar as I think with words, then, I can hallow thinking through conscious intention. My attention and my intention, my noticing and the shaping of my consciousness in return, can be choices. (They’re also a deal of work, as anybody knows who’s tried.) They can be gifts to myself and to others around me, because they change me. Such holy things are never in vain. Even this much, just the attempt, although the fullness of meanings may not yet have come clear to me, takes me into sacred territory. With the sacred in my heart, I start to become a holy meaning maker with the materials of my attention and intention. These are among my return gifts to the sacred within and around me.

Stranger on earth, thy home is Otherworld. Pilgrim, thou are the guest of gods.

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The Céile Dé, Celtic Christian heirs to older teachings I mentioned in a previous post, offer on their website this article “Advice at the Threshold“, including the questions below, as a gauge to some of the challenges of conscious awareness of the awen:

In the course of what would be a typical week, would you say that you are very likely to experience one or more of the following?

+ hurt feelings
+ feel offended or insulted
+ lose your temper
+ act or react on impulse and regret it soon afterwards
+ complain about your lot
+ blame others for your inward state

If you want a clear account of my recent emotional geography, look no further than the list! (That unfriendly planetary virus that’s currently making the rounds doesn’t help.) But if I move beyond that threshold into realms of awen, I’m no longer a passive recipient of someone or something else’s meaning, floundering and struggling to figure out “what it all means”.

Oh, she meant well, we sometimes say. Or he didn’t mean it, we remark. But we usually offer these as excuses, rather than opportunities. J. M. Greer, citing the Barddas, that 19th century compilation of Druid Revival teachings, notes:

… a unique Awen is said to be present in each soul from the moment it comes into being, and guides it on its long journey up through the Circle of Abred — the realm of incarnate life in all its myriad forms — to the human level of existence. It is at the human level that the individual Awen for the first time may become an object of conscious awareness (Greer, The Gnostic Celtic Church, pg. 12)

As above, so below: we share in our humanity as individuals precisely because awen is present within each of us, but in each of us it’s a unique awen. To be a person is to be “awenized”, but also to be an awenizer. The Welsh call this awenydd, one filled with awen, a poet or bard.

Wait, you say. I’m not a poet or a bard.

Greer continues:

… the individual Awen for the first time may become an object of conscious awareness. Achieving this awareness, and living in accord with it, is according to these Druid teachings the great challenge of human existence.

Another way to approach it: You might say “awen isn’t just for poets anymore”.

When something comes into my awareness, catching my attention and seeming to signify s o m e t h i n g, “does it mean it”? One way to answer: Only if I respond and make meaning along with it.

Things “mean”, and “have meaning” for us, because in some way they are pointing us toward greater awareness of our awen, prodding us to become more conscious of it. Human existence provides a spiritual opportunity to make our awen a mode of consciousness — our prime mode of consciousness.

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If I and my life could mean anything right now, in addition to whatever they already mean, what do I want that to be?

One way to grapple with this enormous question is to reply with a question: How and where — because I can’t know it unless I’m already in touch with it — is my awen already emerging and appearing?

For me, oddly enough,  resistance is a key component. (Like so many people with mixed motives, I’m often working against my own destiny — a brutally efficient way to discover what it is when it smacks me in the face.)

“What are you rebelling against?” asks a character in The Wild One.

And Marlon Brando’s character Johnny Strabler replies, “What have you got?”

Johnny’s point underscores how rebellion or resistance is reactive — it takes a mechanical response to meaning-making, rather than a creative one. That is, the event, circumstance, or other person is still in control of what I do.

But once I get even some glimmers of my own awen, I start to know what’s right for me. Of course we can still confuse “what’s right for me” with ego, impulse, reactiveness and so on, but it’s a big step. Yes, I can cherry-pick meanings from the events in my life and miss larger beneficial meanings — we witness each other doing this all the time, while remaining half-blind when we do it ourselves.

But I sometimes think our resistance helps us from capsizing our lives with too much change all at once. The sailor’s strategy in heavy weather of deploying a sea anchor can stabilize a boat, keeping it pointed in the desired direction even as it slows forward movement. A little resistance can be a good thing, a way to try out the meanings I’m making, giving them a test drive.

“Find and follow your own awen” eventually becomes the foundation of each of our individual ways of life. That’s what gives them their integrity, power and beauty. And in the words of that wonderfully ambiguous expression current when I was in secondary school and still heard occasionally today, “It takes one to know one”.

Sometimes it takes one very far indeed.

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Can anyone identify either of the flowers above? The first is from a tree in our front yard that eventually produces a firm reddish-brown berry about the size and shape of a small olive. They remain on the boughs through the winter. Cedar waxwings come through in February and devour them all, usually in a single day.

The second, I’ve been told, is some kind of hyacinth, but I haven’t yet found a variety that matches. (Same color alone isn’t enough for identification!) Any ideas?

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