Archive for December 2017

Gods, Porn, Methods

End of year thoughts.

The caption of the photo below has a mini-spoiler — skip as needed.

tradition-books

Yoda has good counsel about books in “Last of the Jedi”

“I do not believe in God any more than I believe in Hamlet”, writes author, Buddhist and atheist Stephen Batchelor, “but this does not mean that either God or Hamlet has nothing of value to say” (Batchelor, Stephen. Living with the Devil. New York: Riverhead Books/Penguin, 2004). I gotta ask you: Doesn’t that deserve its own t-shirt?!

What are some of the things that God (or Hamlet) says to us? For the sake of foolishness or efficiency, let’s lump them together, prince and deity.

As late incarnations of the Fisher King, Hamlet, his father and his uncle all share a corruption also infecting their land itself: “something rotten in the state of Denmark”, indeed. Any sources of healing? A grail? There must be something.

Hmm. Fratricide, regicide, suicide — really no good options there. Hamlet at over 400 years old isn’t quite yet as immortal as a god, but it’s on its way, and even a god might well draw the line at three such wretched choices. There may be “special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, the prince reflects, recalling Scriptural assurances of a Divine Plan behind things, but you can tell when such lines have their own threads in our online fora, with people asking “What does it mean?” that the current beta version of the Divine Plan has sent all birds south for the winter of our play. No birds to save us here, no dove for any Ark, wren for inspiration, Eagle of the West to airlift us out of Mordor.

In a word, things suck. It’s gotten to the point where the Prince selfishly denies even his best friend Horatio the “felicity” or happiness of suicide: “Absent thee from felicity awhile/And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/To tell my story”. But, I ask Hamlet and God, are any of our stories worth that? Have things always sucked this much? Do we have any overarching story that can make sense of this world for us? (Three questions, Existential Triad #26.) In all its delicious suffering and gloom and razor wit, we could fairly call Hamlet (the play) a piece of Renaissance theater porn.

Is a spiritual search pornographic? Do we play out spiritual scripts to arouse ourselves in ways others (or we ourselves) deem destructive? (Is that a rhetorical question?!)

Horatio says, speaking of Hamlet — and speaking of all of us, too, because that’s what great cultural achievements do, after all — “he was likely, had he been put on/To have proved most royal”. Yes, along with the dead prince, we’re all “put on”, and all “likely”: life as a matter of the odds.

The “royal” part, though — we just can’t accept that yet, even in the face of stories trying their level best to show us, and teach us how. That identity — it implies too much, the gap yawning between what we are and what we could be, an open wound. So we reject it whenever possible, saving such inward knowing for our most unguarded moments with our favorite music, books, films, crafts, people, waking dreams. (Yes, these things rank nearly equal in my life.) Or “children’s movies” we watch with the kids, that may get it half-right, half of the time.

A 27 Dec. ’17 article (film spoiler alert!) in The Atlantic gets in on the Game.  (We’re all playing.) Writing in “Why The Last Jedi Is More ‘Spiritual’ Than ‘Religious'”, Chaim Saiman begins:

For at least two generations, the Star Wars saga has served as a kind of secularized American religion. Throughout the series, the Force is a stand-in for a divine power that draws on a number of mystical traditions, representing the balance of good and evil, the promise of an ultimate unity, and the notion that those learned in its ways can tap into the infinite.

As Saiman scrutinizes the distinctly contemporary sensibility pervading “Last of the Jedi’s” attitude towards tradition, he concludes “… even a fictional secular religion will likely reflect the spiritual economy of its time”. Our tendency to value experiences over learning, or feeling over wisdom (not that these pairs equate) means we often hold traditions suspect without ever having immersed ourselves in them to learn them from the inside. So we often run from one workshop or neo-tradition or guru to another, collecting them like trophies or merit badges. Unlike Rey, we don’t come with a Force chip apparently pre-installed and active as a standard factory setting. (“Oh yes we do!”, say the stories.) Sci-fi porn?

If there’s a shift in the philosophical and religious tone in “Jedi” from the 1977 original Episode IV “A New Hope”, Saiman asserts, it’s that traditions have failed, and we’re thrown back on ourselves. Self-help porn?

So what, in turn, does that mean for our “spiritual economy”?

The great critic and author Harold Bloom told his students, referring to literary criticism, that interpretation is another form of more or less “creative misreading”.

Let’s extend Bloom’s insight where he never intended it, a popular form of magic in itself. How often we misread our lives and each other, the influences they bear on us, and our own motives and desires! Particularly well-done misreadings fill our theaters and earphones, climb our playlists and Top Tens, shaping the zeitgeist ever since zeits became geisty.

Bloom was famous for telling his students “There is no method except yourself” as far as criticism is concerned, and that too feels more widely applicable to our lives.

Or at least to mine. So here goes. Traditions exist, wisdom exists, we encounter them and decide out of all that we are what we will choose and value. In a pinch, we even creatively assign responsibility for our choices to any and everyone else, out of all sorts of motives, honing and refining our method.

Truth is never OSFA, “one size fits all”, though we recognize reflections everywhere, shards of what often feels like an original Mirror. Human traditions often grab hold of a single shard and — terrified they’ll lose even that one — erect it as the sole truth. Maybe this is our original and only idolatry.

So Hamlet instructs the actors for the play-within-the-play, stand-ins for all of us: “Hold the mirror up to nature (or, we might say, existence), to show … the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”. If there’s one thing true wisdom does, it’s to show us such forms and pressures. Not only the holes of a culture and civilization at any given moment, especially our own, but also the rebalancing factors and energies we can apply to survive and thrive in that civilization, and when it starts to falter, after.

In the end, the problem isn’t tradition or ritual, but dead tradition and rotting ritual. The soup of spirituality needs the pot of form, or we go about a life or five with vague intentions that ultimately give us little and fail us at need. “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s”, wrote William Blake.

Almost right.

St Augustine caravaggioFor once I’ll trust old Auggie, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), with the last words this time, with a few annotations. Words suitable to conclude this blog for 2017, and open the way for a new cycle in the new year.

So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not [only] in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do — sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy [unless you need to!], but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going.

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Images: tradition; Caravaggio’s St. Augustine.

 

True News, A Birthright

“Our task”, says Rilke, “is to listen to the news that is always arriving out of silence”.

I usually avoid the political on this blog, and I’ll touch on it here only tangentially, because my purposes aren’t usually aligned with politics anyway. It’s simply not an arena where I work most effectively, having honed other skills for other goals. And by the time you’ve finished this post, you may be annoyed enough that you know as well as I do why I don’t “go political” any more often than I do. I usually irritate people on all sides.

It seems the job of our human ingenuity to rebel against absolutes, and against such tasks as others impose on us, even if they’re poets. Maybe especially if they’re poets. We turn away from our birthright, like a nursing infant fussing and refusing breast or bottle. Even the word “birthright” has gone out of fashion. (“Birthright? What’s that?”) And the cosmos spots us plenty of slack at first to rebel, to defy the augury, to “do it my way”. (After all, they say, “it takes all kinds to make a world”.)

True news a birthright?

So much of what passes for news isn’t even other people’s, but a kind of noise we make to fill up the silence, the same noise that rises up when we try to meditate or discover some silence in ourselves. And while it’s important to keep track of the world, up to a point, I often spin well past that point, leaving it far behind in the dust. When I return, I can’t even see it anymore, just my own footprints. On the trail of everything else but what and where I am, what else can I encounter but fake news?!

But “the news that’s always arriving out of silence” doesn’t originate from a partisan source, unless you feel the cosmos has recently turned partisan. I hear myself in it, my own deepest concerns, as much as anyone else’s. It doesn’t strive to convince me of anything. Like sun and rain, it exists, indifferent to whether I care or pay attention at all.

I don’t know about you, but my ancestors within my living memory talked of “inner resources”, and silence often was chief among them.

I note that Rilke doesn’t say we have to do anything beyond listening. (Did he know from experience that the initial choice and challenge to listen already demanded enough of us? And was it really any easier then, during his lifetime, to listen?) In listening, each person may hear something slightly or very different. But listening’s a place to begin.  It’s a practice. Listen, and we apprentice ourselves to true news.

We also hear a lot about rights these days, with nearly everyone insisting on them, like children squabbling over cookies. We hear much less about responsibilities, about the tasks and practices Rilke and others among the Wise have set before us. As with prayer in the previous post, if we’re all saying “give” and holding out for gifts, who’s doing anything else? Who’s taking up the task of embodying rather than merely asking? There’s a place for petition. But if I first take up my responsibility, I find that rights begin to fall into place more readily. In fact, I submit that’s the only way it can happen. Responsibilities first, rights second. We can’t have one without the other. If I have to wait until “someone else gives me the right to …”, I must also wait until that someone else picks up the responsibility that underlies it.

The sequence of responsibility first and rights second can help sidestep obsessions with privilege and race and identity and all the other noises we’re distracting ourselves with these days. Insofar as Druidry is political, it says that what we need most deeply has always been with us. We don’t need to go looking elsewhere. The Wiccan Charge of the Goddess, subversive still, echoes this:  “… if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without. For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am that which is attained at the end of desire”. (The wisdom may have originated with Rumi: “If you find me not within you, you will never find me. For I have been with you from the beginning”.)

We may despise such wisdom and call it privilege or some other distracting name, without ever noticing it’s still true, and acting on it to find out how it might transform us.

We also don’t like prophets who tell us “The poor you will always have with you”. It seems an admission of defeat, or an acknowledgement of hopelessness. But it doesn’t mean that we ignore the issue. It can mean rather that we see it as characteristic of a predicament rather than a situation admitting a solution. There’s no “fix”, but there are stances, perspectives, approaches that work better than our present strategies. “There are no lakes till eternity”, Rilke says elsewhere.

We are not permitted to linger, even with what is most intimate. From images that are full, the spirit plunges on to others that suddenly must be filled; there are no lakes till eternity.

We face climate change and climate deniers, right and left, public and private, ecological and economic, old and young, male and female. We face fear in equal parts with love. Problems we thought solved haven’t gone away but instead sprout new thorns. We may wish these weren’t our challenges. “So”, says Gandalf, “do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”. Or refuse to. Native peoples in the Americas tried to make choices with the next seven generations in mind. We’re often choosing for just the next election cycle, let alone a single generation. In the end, diagnosis isn’t what we need. Prognosis would help. A course of treatment would help more. “Our task”, says Rilke …

And, peace to the pop Wizards among us, we do keep deciding. And deciding. Those decisions, not some imagined ideal, but what we actually do, are what shape our days. But this isn’t bad news. It can be liberating: we can choose, and do, differently if we will. It lies with us. We make, and break, and some live through it to remake again. Slow learners all. I’ve got snow to shovel.

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Prayer — “Grant” vs “Embody”

If you join rituals of many of the contemporary Druid orders, you’ll encounter the Druid Prayer frequently. (In OBOD rituals it’s simply standard practice.) Some Reconstructionist Druid groups may eschew it because it originates during the “Druid Revival” period beginning in the 1600s, rather than from what we can recover of historical Druidry, but for all that, the claim often used to introduce it, that it “unites all Druids”, is more than wishful thinking. Or it could be.

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back yard, facing east

Also called the Gorsedd Prayer (Welsh Gweddi’r Orsedd), it’s long been part of the Welsh National Eisteddfod as well. The “inspired literary scalliwag” Iolo Morganwg composed it, and you can find several versions of it, including the Welsh originals, here. It’s survived because of its power:

Grant, O God (or Goddess/Spirit/etc.), Thy protection;
And in protection, strength;
And in strength, understanding;
And in understanding, knowledge;
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice;
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it;
And in that love, the love of all existences;
And in the love of all existences,
the love of God (or Goddess/Spirit/etc.) and all goodness.

As a prayer of pure petition, it has value. The prayer makes no mention of reciprocity — the petitioner doesn’t promise to do anything in return for these very large gifts. In short, stripped of the politeness of the first word “grant”, the prayer says “Give.”

But if the Granter gives, the effects of the gift do provide a kind of return. If we’re protected, strengthened, granted understanding, knowledge, love of justice, of all existences and of God, you could argue that large transformative effects will doubtless follow, and constitute their own return. We certainly won’t be the same, act the same, or — most likely — pray the same. If we can’t get there any other way, sincere and heartfelt petition can do the trick.

As with so many elements of our group practice, we too rarely talk about them; first we’re busy preparing and then doing them, and feasting and socializing after. The sense of having “held up our end” can be palpable after ritual: the atmosphere tingles with a sense of scales recalibrated yet again. Witnesses, petitioners, performers, vessels and channels for holy energies to enter the world through our own imperfect and holy lives, we’ve reconnected, remembered, listened.

But because I know how I can end up mouthing the words, even as their familiarity is a comfort and a part of the ritual energy flow, I keep returning to the practice of embodying rather than merely asking. I need something to stop me, shake me, take me out of myself, and yes, out of the ritual moment, while holding me to a higher standard than I came with. It’s a kind of second prayer, or personal ritual. It may take me 10 or 20 minutes to fulfill it, because I need to slow down to do it, whether I say the words aloud or bring them to awareness in some other way, feeling them in my bones, touching the earth, cupping a ritual flame, gazing at the horizon, repeating them till they sink in, carrying their vibration till a door opens inwardly, any and every one of these ritual gestures. “Do till it’s true”. I want to realize “as above, so below” however I can. All I know is that for me the energies of this different manner or form of prayer also differ — and I need that difference.

So here’s one version of the words, a small part of what feels to me more of an “embodying” prayer:

Holy Ones,
in your protection I stand here,
strengthened, understanding your ways,
knowing and loving your honor as the source of mine.
The justice I do today and every day
mirrors my love for the good things
you give, just as the love I receive
is justice, the sword of truth you raise
in my life, handle toward me.
Wherever I am, may I remember
and live these things always.

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Four Rituals for Happiness

The prompt for this post comes from a Feb. ’16 article in The Week — nearly two years ago. The inevitable article or podcast or meme about how depressing the holidays can be merits a judicious counterbalance — it deserves an “on the other hand” in rebuttal. So here’s one contribution toward that goal. It may help to read the article in The Week first. Or not — your call.

Now the pop neuroscience that the article’s based on — “Neuroscience reveals 4 rituals that will make you happy”, the title crows — isn’t actually particularly astonishing in itself. But the “four rituals” are interesting because they’re behaviors every human already practices anyway. That means — to me anyway — I’ve already got something to start with and build on. The magical principle here: What we make conscious gains power from focus.

winter scene

Snow, then ice: 23 December 2017

At this point those who think ritual doesn’t interest or concern them may be tempted to turn away. (There is after all a whole Net out there to click through. Go ahead if you need to!) But as anthropologists and neuro-folk have discovered, to be human is to ritualize our experience. It’s as if we each need to wear t-shirts that say: “What rituals are you practicing today?” You know, just to keep the activity in mind. If we’re ritualizing, what are its effects? Is it a helpful ritual? What are we doing?

As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog,

From small rituals like shaking hands vs. bowing, or saying your culture’s equivalents of “please” and “thank you,” to family traditions at the holidays, and outward to public ceremonies like reunions, annual festivals, weddings, funerals, ship-launchings, inaugurations, dedications, etc., ritual pervades all human cultures.

Some of our most potent and invisible rituals shape our daily experience in profound ways. The trick, I conclude, is to domesticate my rituals, expand on the most effective ones, and put more of them to work on my behalf. (By the law of reversed effort, they may become much wilder as a result.)

In fact, we ritualize such a large portion of our days, that when something breaks our routines (read ritual as “habit” here), it may annoy or even anger us as much as it may pleasantly surprise or intrigue us.  Let me find road work or a detour along a customary route, a power outage, a closed restaurant I was counting on (but hadn’t called ahead for, because it’s “always open”), and I’m thrown out of routine, forced to reshape something I’d previously planned and ritualized. We count on ritual to streamline and organize experience. Maybe that’s why we discount magical rituals. Ritual is so commonplace, after all, that it can feel “nothing special” by itself.

It’s what we do with it that counts.

So here’s a Druidified version of the four rituals, each now associated with an element and a direction. The ritually minded can expand on these “core four”, rearrange the associations, and so on. After all, if ritual or magic can’t deliver even a smidgen of happiness, it ain’t worth much.

Earth/North: Practice gratitude.

Give thanks for good things. Gratitude, as my longtime readers know, is one of my go-to techniques. Pairing it with appropriate action helps intensify it — write it down, etc. Earthy forms of gratitude may loom particularly prominently in your awareness right now — sweaters, wool socks, hot drinks, etc. Go for it. Earth the gratitude. Ground it in awareness and in gesture, in action, etc.

Air/East: Name the negatives.

Turns out our capacity for shame, guilt and worry can be productive, says the article. (Good thing, since so many of us specialize in one or more of these. Collect all Three!) And though labelling often comes in for a bad name in our politically distraught and extreme age, it’s one of the things that language is for, what it excels at. One key is the appropriate label: “Name it and tame it”. And “getting a handle on something” can include naming it accurately. And also knowing when to turn off language altogether for an interval — a magical technique all its own. Trance, music, daydream — we hold the reins in our hands.

Interrogating habits, whether “good” or “bad”, can reveal unsuspected wealth both for themes for meditation, and for material for ritual. What we really want can surprise us: going through the motions of a habit can block us from discovering what actually powers the habit in the first place. Studying the habit, revolving it in clear daylight, returning it to consciousness, can teach us much of value. Ritualizing it empowers us to live its full potential rather than shoving to one side, where it collects dust and rust and small rodents as it putrefies. A purified habit is a happy habit.

As J. M. Greer notes,

[t]he tools of magic are useful because most of the factors that shape human awareness are not immediately accessible to the conscious mind; they operate at levels below the one where our ordinary thinking, feeling, and willing take place. The mystery schools have long taught that consciousness has a surface and a depth. The surface is accessible to each of us, but the depth is not. To cause lasting changes in consciousness that can have magical effects on one’s own life and that of others, the depth must be reached, and to reach down past the surface, ordinary thinking and willing are not enough (J. M. Greer, Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, Weiser Books, 2012, pg. 88)

Fire/South: Make a decision.

Starting with small decisions helps me access the spark that follows this act. After consciously telling myself I will do this after writing this sentence, I rise and go put in a load of laundry. I’m back, and the act of getting up literally and psychologically to carry out, to follow through on a decision, is useful to enact and then to examine critically for its effects. A magical insight here: switch hemispheres frequently!

(Perfectionists may want to aim for “good-enough” decisions. Consciously wallowing in mud, working up a sweat, or making some kind of a mess — your choice! — may help defuse some of the OCD tendencies of perfectionism — short circuit it intentionally. Hey, it’s worked for me! Making a conscious decision about something very small can open up clarity on the decision-making capacity itself, without the distraction of the incidental content of the decision.)

If “ordinary thinking and willing are not enough”, there’s plenty we can do.

Water: Touch living things.

So many … loved ones, pets, plants and trees, the green earth. Touch as the most concrete of the senses can take us out of heads and into our bodies, letting the other elements do their work more directly, without all the wards and barriers and avoidance strategies we deploy whenever we practice unconscious black magic on ourselves. Which we do constantly. Connection drags us out of the solitary hells that the West has come to specialize in helping us to manifest. “Only connect!” goes the magical refrain — “Live in fragments no longer” (E. M. Forster, Howards End).

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Change up the elemental associations, and the rituals will shift subtly if not significantly. Armed with the earth of the body, the air of the breath, the fire of spirit and water of blood, we may ritualize our ways to places of surprise and delight. Happiness can’t be an endpoint anyway — it’s a practice to take up and improve.

Retrospective: A Druid Way’s Top Posts

[Edited 20 Dec 2017]

It’s that time of year again, to take stock, look back, and ponder the shifts and fortunes of life as it has manifested on this planet during its most recent revolution around its star. (There — that sure can put any individual ego in its place.)

First, a few honorable mentions: several posts tied for 11th place, falling just a little short of the list:

Brighid of the Snows” — a meditation on Damh the Bard’s lovely song “Brighid”.

Triple Solstice, 2017” — three celebrations of the 2017 Summer Solstice.

Doing the Work” and its paired post, “Not Doing the Work” — among other things, a reflection on the value of spiritual practice.

East Coast Gathering 2017” — a continuing series since 2012, featuring the annual OBOD autumn equinox weekend camp in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Druid Clickbait” — a Druid twist on the wry appeals of typical clickbait.

Now for the Top 10:

10–“Binding, Blessing and Changing” (tying with an older post, “Fake Druidry and OGRELD“) — the first examines the ill-formulated though intermittently well-intentioned magical attempt to “bind Donald Trump”. Looking for ongoing empirical tests of magical effectiveness? Exhibit A for what not to do. The second post deals both humorously and seriously with the modern practice of Druidry.

9–“Grace for Lunasa Season” — a meditation on Irish poet Dennis King’s poem “Altú” — “Grace”. Just what are the ancestors doing, anyway?!

8–“Druid and Christian – Samhuinn and Sovereignty” — finding links and connections between traditions — “successful ritual means good relationships”.

7–“Ancestry, Polytheism, Tradition” (tying with another older post, the first of the seven-part “Earth Mysteries” series examining the seven principles from J M Greer’s book Mystery Teaching from the Living Earth) — a look at what the ancestors bring and the very broad context they offer us. The other post considers each of the seven core teachings.

6–“Mantle of Brighid about Me“, sneaking in from December 2016, and tying with “Beltane 2015 and Touching the Sacred“) — the first is the ritual implicit in John O’Donohue’s lovely poem. The second celebrates the May festival.

5–“Jesus and Druidry, Part 3” (tying with “Shinto – Way of the Gods” from 2012) — “My Druid is Christ”, wrote St. Columba. The links between the two practices are deep and long-standing. The Shinto post links to a couple of series and individual posts, all continuing to draw readers and demonstrating the appeal of earth religion.

4–“Review of John Beckett’s The Path of Paganism” — John Beckett’s book differs from the typical Pagan 101 text, and conveys much of John’s balance, insight and hard-won practice.

3–“Romuva — Baltic Paganism” — after the fall of the Soviet Union, the native Pagan faith of Lithuania re-surfaced — it never completely died out. Some fascinating material and images are available, including videos.

2–“Grail and Cross — Druid and Christian Theme 5” — “… both Grail and Cross are now firmly entrenched in the Western world as specific symbols, straddling Pagan and Christian understandings of emotion and physicality, manifestation and transformation, magic and divinity”.

1–“MAGUS 2017 — The Mid-Atlantic Gathering US” — a review of the first instance of what richly promises to be an annual event, the OBOD Mid-Atlantic Gathering U.S. (MAGUS) at Four Quarters Sanctuary in Artemas, Pennsylvania. A tribute to the work of Four Quarters Sanctuary and to the organizers.

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Posted 19 December 2017 by adruidway in Druidry

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Solstice and Druidry from Wales

Note on the Welsh stories of Taliesin as one source of widespread contemporary Druid training and myth:

[They] belong to the islands of Britain and to anyone who connects to them, regardless of one’s position on the planet. The tales arose from the landscape of Britain and were relevant to the inhabitants of these lands then as they are now, but the mysteries contained within them cannot be confined to location. The origins of the tales’ creation may well be locality-specific, but the mysteries they contain are soul-specific – they apply to anyone, anywhere …

— Kristoffer Hughes. From the Cauldron Born. “Introduction”

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Fans of the Druid author, the wonderfully articulate Kristoffer Hughes, will particularly enjoy this 23-minute video, “Kris the Pagan”, in Welsh with English subtitles, from Welsh National TV. But anyone who’s been following this blog can find something of value and pleasure.

The video dates from the time Kris’s book From the Cauldron Born appeared (2012), and includes much of interest to Druids and Pagans generally, as well as friends of Kris: images of Solstice and Wassail celebrations, an overview of Druidry, a visit to the Pagan publisher Llewellyn Press in Minnesota, images of Kris on Anglesey, and Kris narrates the whole thing.

The video could also serve as a good introduction to the feel of Druidry, as distinct from a dry lecture, as Kris keeps it warmly personal and reflective. (And if you love the sound of Welsh, as I do, that’s just an added bonus!)

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“What needs to be born?”

I’m borrowing the title for this post, a lovely question, from John Beckett’s recent article here.

As we approach the turn of the year, we have W. B. Yeats’s version, the evocative query ending his poem “The Second Coming“:

… what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

For we give birth to all manner of things, and not always to our benefit. Like the young mage Ged in LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, “who raged at his weakness, for he knew his strength”, we sense an inchoate energy at work in so many things, if we could only align it to our purposes. Or is it time to listen more, and align ourselves with the energies of the intelligent universe all around us, that brings forth beasts and birds as well as humans who ask such questions?

And there’s our challenge: alignment. Complete the circuit. Our youth culture “hooks up” without finding satisfaction or connection. Loneliness, anxiety, depression afflict so many. Pain both physical and psychological drives an opioid crisis. What spiritual prescription can begin to address such heavy concerns?

If we’ve been paying attention, we know that no single solution works for everyone. This holds true in religion and spirituality, too, though plenty of one-true-wayers will beg to differ. So we turn again to do what we can, each in our own way.

As one of the Wise observes,

The ideal that you hope to achieve is always to be ready for an incarnation, whether it is in this world or those planes beyond. But unless an incarnation can be offered its birth through you, though, it is incapable of being brought into the manifestation of life. Therefore, your attitude should be one in which … you alone accept the responsibility of incarnating a new and greater value of yourself.*

Examining what needs to be born is a first step in bringing about a birth. (Following the metaphor further, we can of course rush to conception, and deal with the aftermath later. Some of us at least have learned that doesn’t always end well.)

1–What can we help be born in our homes and yards? I’ll start here with Earth. This time of year is perfect for dreaming with garden catalogs. What else? Is there a spot of backyard I can allow to grow wild, or at least wilder? The front lawn may feel more public, or be subject to various town or highway ordinances. But especially if you have even a couple acres like I do, consider whether a spot of wild is both “creature-kinder” and asks less mowing and upkeep. Brush from winter windfall can get it started.  Erecting even a few birdhouses for the more shy species that favor cover can also help. We’re still shaping what we’ve received from the previous owner of our land. I’m less green-thumbed than many, but even a thoughtful neglect to mow absolutely everywhere can encourage many species. We have a working truce with our feisty moles, renewed each year with a ritual and a few conversations, to keep them from our garden areas.

Is the way open for berry bushes, which birds may have obligingly already started for you? Along fence lines and beneath their favorite perching and nesting shrubs and trees, birds drop seeds that will grow in a few seasons to a source of blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, and more. Staring at snowdrifts can serve up good practice for imagining spring and planting and new green.

2–What can be born in my spending habits? I’ve come to appreciate small changes, because they’re easiest to stick with. There’s more virtue and occasion to feed the ego (and thereby nurture a positive practice) if I follow through for a year, rather than think big but end up doing nothing. Combine errands and car trips? Recycle used oil, parts, tires, cardboard, glass? Many communities are moving toward better custodianship of resources, and starting to offer better options. Inherit a shed filled with rusting things, and badly-labelled containers of possibly petroleum substances? Any clean-up is “more than before”. Shop used when possible. The northeast U.S. reads a lot through the winter months, and well-patronized library book sales often have surprisingly current titles. With many large libraries so short-sightedly downsizing their collections, you can sometimes enjoy remarkable finds.

3–What can be born in my practice? By this I mean spiritual practice. Whatever yours is, feed it. Make it easier for you to do it, whatever form that may take. If you haven’t taken up a practice, the new year is a good time to try one out, if not today. Again, make it easy on yourself. Huge numbers of possibilities: five minutes for sacred reading (and you decide what’s sacred to you), stretching, breathing exercises, clearing a chest of drawers or closet or room, an artistic practice, listening to music, yoga, meditation, home renovation, volunteering, helping a neighbor, shoveling a driveway, driving someone to an appointment. Writing actual letters. Listening. Singing or playing an instrument. Cooking. Tending a household shrine. Photography. Weaving.

Whatever it is, I succeed most when I begin with such a small period of time I can’t NOT begin. As a writer, I practiced with 10 words a day during my busiest times. (Too small not to succeed! Easy to make up for the next day, with 20, if I “forgot” the previous day.)

4–What can be born in other quarters of my life? I’m often not a very social person. (My default mode is reading or writing, rather than hanging out and talking.) This blog is part of what I do to connect beyond my own immediate circle. I’m also not a major volunteer, either, but rather than guilt myself up about it, I choose options where volunteering at all will encourage me to do it again. A monthly open discussion series at a local library starting in January is one of my current outlets. Supporting my wife, who’s the current wage-earner in the family, is another. Laundry, dishes, fire (our heat source), snow removal from driveway and solar panels, and I’m serving, acting outside myself, encouraging flow.

5–And I make and find rituals for what needs to be born, to help keep the doorways open. What needs to be born?, I ask, and light a candle, gazing at its yellow flicker. What needs to be born in me?, I ask, and spend time writing in my journal the response that comes. What needs to be born that’s already taking shape, that I can help with? What’s about to be born, that I can work with, and foster, and celebrate? What’s born among friends, when we gather in two days on the 17th in their backyard, to light a fire, and talk and snack and sit on lawn chairs in the snow, feet toward December flames?

Asking the question as I go, keeping the fire of my attention burning, helps the new thing be born.

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*Paul Twitchell. The Key to Secret Worlds, pg. 7.

Seven Druid Advantages

Edited 10 Jan 2018

[No, I’m not talking about the “open-source analytics data store designed for OLAP queries on timeseries data”. How the word Druid ever got patented and copyrighted, I’m not sure. Imagine trying to do the same with Christian or Hindu or Muslim!]

Recently the word “privilege” has accrued all manner of emotional loading with connotations of wokeness and political correctness, while one of its primary meanings — advantage — remains largely untouched. While I do see the seven points below as privileges, an accurate synonym is advantage, and so it’s this sense I want to examine here. Note also that I’m not claiming these advantages belong only to Druidry. But in my experience, Druids seem aware of them in uniquely Druid ways that contribute much to the experience of Druidry.

LA -- J Babin

Gulf Coast Gathering ’17 — photo courtesy Julie Babin

Seven Druid Advantages

1–Druids (and Pagans generally) are so clearly a minority in the West that they enjoy a built-in remedy against arrogance. The misconceptions about Druidry and Paganism still rampant can, at their best, make a person laugh. Yes, there’ll always be individuals who try on an inflated self to see just how far such a blimp will carry them. The cosmos deflates most swollen and bloated things in its own good time. But for the rest of us, humility is a useful place to begin almost any human activity. Except maybe politics. Minority status points Druids naturally towards humility and humor.

2–Druids do community about as well as anyone. (Visit a Druid camp or Gathering and test this firsthand.) While acknowledging the valleys and caves and hermitages our solitaries occupy — many community folks are solitaries, and vice-versa — we get plenty of practice in loving others. Because in the end, that’s why we connect. The currents and energies of the cosmos also dwell in other people. Looking to power a rite or discover a richer truth or share the inspiration of awen? When we attempt these things, we draw on each other at least as much as on the sun, moon, stars and spirits. Living things make up much of “the power of the land within and without”, as the OBOD invocation puts it. Druid community is practice for love.

3–With the practice of Druidry comes a discovery of the need for discipline. No one checks up on us. If we want something to happen, we need to be open to it and also help set it in motion. Achievement takes work, a basic truth we seem in danger of ignoring in Western culture. Through making a choice for a particular practice of discipline, we gain increased self-respect. We’ve earned what we know. (If we haven’t, someone will probably point it out to us.) The opportunities Druidry offers to practice self-discipline also build self-respect.

4–Because of the diversity of training, experience, location and heritage among Druids, our practices help keep us open to surprise. Whether we meet in community or keep in touch through books and online, we’re always encountering new insights, ideas, perspectives and techniques. We’ll never know it all, and that’s part of the wonder of the path. We gather in circles, and they always open into spirals. The path doesn’t stay the same, and neither do we. Druid practice helps keep us open to surprise.

5–An experimental mindset powers much of our practice, as it does our gardening and beast-craft and spiritual exploration. “If it’s operational, it’s true” goes the old tag from the 60s, and it still has validity for most Druids. From this attention to reality comes a particular integrity in the Druid experience. Dogma still creeps in from time to time, but attention to what’s happening to the land, to what the spirits and guides are showing us, to what our studies reveal, and what our dreams and visions and hunches direct us to consider, mean that unlike religions that center on professions of faith, Druids are busy exploring to find out for themselves. Once you know, you no longer need to believe. Belief’s often a useful tool, but it’s just one among many. The experimental mindset that Druidry encourages promotes spiritual integrity.

6–Druid teaching, ritual and practice spark many Druids to explore their artistic and creative sides. Yes, Druidry is a spiritual path that specially honors and fosters creativity. Meet and talk with Druids and you’ll also discover how creative people are drawn to Druidry because they seek a path where imagination plays a primary role in spiritual experience, rather than a suspect behavior leading to heresy, diabolic influence and poor choices. Druidry knows passion and vision and creative exploration are spiritual gifts.

7–The Great Mystery that lies at the heart of the manifest and unmanifest is what powers Druidry. It sparks humans and other creatures, burns at the heart of planets and stars, and shines out of the cosmos whenever we pay reverent attention. The open-endedness of Druidry, its sense of a new horizon beyond the next hilltop, make it both  welcoming, exciting and challenging. The heart of Druidry is both spiritual welcome and provocative challenge.

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Winter Quests, Visions, Pilgrimages

winter solstice 17

winter solstice, 2016

One of the great discoveries we keep (re)making is that in and around doing the work and not doing the work, this winter season is crammed full of vision and dream and inward turns. Any physical slump we may feel often comes courtesy of ancient programming to conserve energy, store fat, distill insights and experiences, lick our wounds and wait for the Light to strengthen again. The cold doesn’t help either, though it’s a marvelous tonic once we slough off the inertia and bundle up and head out to breathe air sharper than our athames and paring knives.

I write from my time and place, New England in winter. Translate to your own environment. You know it, are learning it with each day, ground under your feet, shapes of trees or endless grasses, desert or horizon or mountains in the distance, ocean blue-gray-green and immense beyond your sight.

Samhain may mark with a ritual day a time when the veil thins, but for me the whole season is paper-thin, a Japanese shoji screen between me and Otherworld, a spidersweb thickness away, the same soft, uncanny brush against the cheek of everything that “daylight brain” pushes away. But night brain rejoices, says yes! says come! says I know you! and speaks in exclamation points and question marks and all the punctuation you rarely see in our scientific waking life of categories and forms and lists and schedules and business hours.

I slip into daydream over breakfast, at work, while driving. Night threatens to take over. We turn to (more) caffeine, chocolate, anything to prop awake the animal self that seeks to settle into that intermittent twilight drowse. The season has already lifted the cover and left the door ajar. The challenge isn’t to do either of these things — they’ve already been done for us, courtesy of biology and the annual ritual of sun and planets and time — but to stay out of the rabbit hole, avoid the Cave, do the daylight things we’re called to do and not slide off into othering. Because night brain sends us thoughts and feelings unbidden, and it can be a rich time to set down in paint or on paper or in fiber or other craft something of the energies at work in this dark half of the year.

One way to see it and work with it: the mulch and compost and ferment already begun in us mean that the ancestors are putting forth their voices and desires. As their descendants, we carry on some of the work of their blood and sinew. At the same time, being wholly ourselves and not our ancestors, changes seethe and bubble upward from within, brew of the Cauldron. We quit a job, or a relationship, or others do these things for and with and against us out of their own ferment. We cast about for “what next?” and any answers may come not in daylight terms, necessarily, but in hunches and doubts and the same turns that dogs and chickens make before they lie down to rest and nest. Only we do this inwardly. Turn, turn, walk down the new-old bed we’ve made to lie in. And we try it on and test it for fit. Or walk away.

Often we expect any vision to come clear, to walk before our inner sight like TV characters do, crisp in their makeup and perfect hair and wardrobe, when often what comes is all shadowy and indistinct as faces around a ritual circle by firelight. A half-turn or blink and then it’s a single face we see in profile, up close. But what we think is I need to breathe or I gotta make a change. But we don’t or can’t talk easily about such things with anyone else, because it’s hard to explain the link between what vision gives us and what we feel. Just like in a dream, the inner journey brings me to a field of sunflowers and suddenly I know I have to change my life. The dream logic between the two is undeniable, even if it bypasses daytime reasoning. It’s not cause and effect, or before and after. No, it’s all one thing. And we seem to know it all at once, too. (But talking about it requires us to examine it piecemeal, like trying to push a whale through a sieve. It just doesn’t work. So we fall back on trying to explain that, too, and soon we’re twice removed from the original experience.)

So we make our pilgrimages through winter, pondering the pieces of dark world wisdom that arrive like that touch of coolness when we wake and find we’ve kicked off a blanket. Or in the dark, up to get a drink in the night, we step on a marble or raisin or kernel of popcorn and the surprise feels all out of proportion to the actual size of the thing that we set a tender foot on. Old photo or yearbook or holiday letter from the past, object unearthed when we were looking for something else. We sit with it and an hour passes in reverie. We chew and digest our lives and come to perceive something of their value and nourishment in such moments, unplanned, perpendicular to schedules and calendars.

Let me honor the dark, I whisper to myself.

Let me draw darkness around me like a blanket, feeling its folds.
Let me say its names as they come to me, strange sounds, rumbles and squawks in the throat, thing animals say to each other and us.

Let me caress the soft animal of my life.

Let me linger in the dark and its warm silences, welcome its cold shivers.
Let me weep when tears are tribute, salt and water to bless and purify.

Let me hold myself like a child in the womb,
rocking under the heart’s own rhythm, fetal and new.
Let me wake to darkness as to light,
and feel at home and welcome.

Let me honor the dark.

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Not Doing the Work

Because sometimes, especially this time of year as we approach the Solstice, an animal lethargy creeps in and “what matters most” means eating and sleeping. You should be hibernating, whispers Oldest Brain. And I long to listen.

Not doing the work is familiar by now. And all around us flash examples too numerous to count. Headlines and posts and memes and Facebook feeds, what’s trending, and even our friends may not offer what we need. Or indeed be working actively against it. Peep at a partner and they’re no help either, most likely because they’re in the thick of their own version. Or will be soon enough. (Sometimes it’s the height of respect simply not to dump my load onto my wife’s.) To lift a few lines from Rilke for my purposes,

Often a star was waiting for you to notice it.
A wave rolled toward you out of the distant past,

or as you walked under an open window, a violin yielded itself to your hearing.
All this was mission. But could you accomplish it?

Look, if we want an easy Bard, then we need to tune to another channel. Rilke isn’t it.

Sometimes it’s not even clear what he’s naming for himself, for us by proxy, though we may feel it in our marrow. Possibility slips by and sleep calls, that easy drowse-and-wait. Sometimes, true enough, sleep is good strategy. Only you and you and I and she and he and they can tell, each by ourselves, if such a strategy fits right now, peering between a dream and a nightmare and the choices seen and unseen that keep tickling our skin and our blood.

For it seems that everything hides us.
Look: trees do exist; the houses that we live in still stand.
We alone fly past all things, as fugitive as the wind.
And all things conspire to keep silent about us, half out of shame perhaps, half as unutterable hope.

If we’re hidden, what luck finding anything else, or anything else finding us?! Especially what we feel we need most — that’s the most fugitive thing of the whole lot. I’m standing here looking and listening for a sign, but it turns out I’m it, tagged by the universe, which runs away — it wants to play — while I’ve got all this serious sh*t to deal with! If there’s a conspiracy, it’s a cosmic one, with shame and hope for fuel, a secret formula we’ve paradoxically always known.

So we take December mindsets like these with us as we go, turning them over to see where the light leaked out of what looked so very promising last week, or a month or year or decade ago.

Have I named it yet, this mood? Pause a moment and toss your own contribution onto the heap. Plenty of room.

Food-scraps-compost-640x360

There’s nothing wrong with composting these things, though we can often feel ashamed of all the brown leaves and earthy smells. It’s the right season for it. Rot and spoilage and scraps, odds and ends of the year all go in, and earth begins its long work over again, and transmutes it. Serious sh*t and funny stuff, dead skin and ideas, fingernails and ashes and brown lettuce leaves and apple-cores and the last squash that never grew once the days turned cold. That deformed pumpkin from the front steps, mummified relic of Halloween, and the remarkable sludge from the back of the vegetable drawer in the fridge. Fling in those irritations and annoyances and petty snarks. Spites and attitudes all go in, rattling as they hit the sides and bounce around against the Cave of Souls and disappear deeper down its gullet. We see that yawning mouth of darkness that terrifies us, even if only a little or for an instant, then realize we were just standing too close to the mirror and caught a glimpse of ourselves up close. So we do the work anyway, just as it does us without our permission. Because to be alive at all, we’re in it.

It’s good to take these things out and air them, get them the turning and churning and the even exposure they need, basting them in earth, so they transmute all the more readily. Everyone’s got them. Think of them as the scraps at the end of the craft session, husks and shells and scurf and skin, bone and gristle dropped into the sink after the holiday dinner’s done and guests gone, before the grand cleanup begins. Shards left over after creation’s finished. What gets swept up from the garage and basement floor. What the kids tracked in from outdoors, the carcass the dog dragged around the yard and left near the mailbox, the small furred or feathered corpse that the cat so thoughtfully dropped on the doormat. We’re always putting a foot in it.

So we squawk and shrink and blanch at these things, disowning them if we could, turning away, dismayed the universe sends such awkwardness our way. Among difficult gifts, the mind of winter ranks pretty high, because it’s pretty (not pretty at all) rank. Overripe, expired, corrupt, foul, putrid, excremental, cadaverous in its open decay.

“This too is mission”. And I can achieve it. I grasp the shame by its least offensive corner,  or shove my arm in up to the elbow and shuffle it along, helping it slither and slide into its next moment. And I might catch the eye of someone else doing the same. We nod stiffly at each other, almost imperceptibly. Earth blesses it, blesses us, accepting nothing short of all.

And I sigh and begin again, making room for that second part, unutterable hope. Which, as all Bards do, I keep trying to put into words.

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Image: Compost.

 

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