Category Archives: Ritual

Checking in

I’m a big fan of regularly taking stock of what’s going on. It’s the sort of thing you can do on your own, but which often works better when you have someone to check in with. I find it relevant in all aspects of life, and useful for making sure things are going as I want them to. It’s an antidote to getting distracted, losing your way, running out of ideas and getting overwhelmed.

When we check in with each other, it’s a process that affirms and builds relationship. For this to work the ‘how are you’ of standard greeting has to be meant. You have to have room to say, and hear more than an empty ‘fine thank you’ and it has to be balanced. If people really care, and listen to each other and speak honestly, that process of checking in can be really effective. Being heard, recognised, understood can do a lot to alleviate discomfort. It may lead to help or advice. It gives us all the chance to be there for each other.

We can give the same attention in non-verbal check ins with places, creatures, tools. A pause to see how things really are, and how we feel and what we’re bringing in can make a lot of odds.

Rituals provide a very natural space for a Pagan check in. In smaller groups, giving people time to say a few words about where they are and how life is for them can help that transition into ritual mode, and also help people bond and support each other. In bigger circles, inviting people to offer one word that says what they’re bringing gives people opportunity to check in with themselves and have something heard.

Any formal social gathering can include check in time. We used to do it when the contemplative Druids sat each month and I found it really helpful for getting things into perspective. Witnessing for each other also helps us make sense our own experiences as we put them in a context bigger than personal experience.

It doesn’t have to be about spiritual practice, either. I’m looking at developing a space for writing and works in progress, and I think the check in may be a good ingredient there. Having time to reflect on where you are with your work and how you feel about it can be really useful.

When there’s a lot going on, we tend to talk about it – it may take over. The check in can help keep that in balance. When there’s not much obviously going on, we may be quieter, but reflecting on the fallow patches can be enlightening in its own way, and opens us up to seeing bigger patterns in our lives. The experience of other people’s struggles and victories, busy times and quiet times helps put our lives into perspective.

We can of course do this for each other on social media, with no other framework at all.

We can also do it privately, without input from anyone else. A little solitary ritual or meditation space is all it takes to check in with yourself and ask how you are doing. If you don’t want it to be too much about you, then you can check in with something else – a house plant, a pet, or just reflecting on how things appear to be going for the people around you.

I think a reflective life is a life lived more fully and with more awareness. Conscious reflection on what’s going on, what we want, where we’ve been and where we are going is how we keep on track. It’s important to take a step back fairly regularly and look at the bigger picture of your life, and at your life in the context of other lives.

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Making dedications

Making dedications in a ritual context is a powerful process if you get it right. Even if you are solitary, ritual can give a sense of being witnessed, and of your dedication being held by something bigger than yourself. It can add weight and impetus to a project, and help you bring a sense of sacredness into your life.

The dedication itself is a good process for turning vague ideas into deliberate plans of action. In moving towards making a dedication, you are organising your thoughts, feelings, priorities and values. Figuring all this out is a good thing to do. What do you need to dedicate yourself to? What needs more of your time? What, in the immediate future, is going to be your sacred purpose?

Generally I’m a big fan of improvising in ritual, but not where vows and dedications are concerned. It is really important to spend time with this in advance. Figure out what you need to say and what you are willing to bind yourself to. Figure out how bound you need to be, and how much flexibility you need. It tends to work better if you don’t tie yourself down too precisely, and it is important to be realistic. “I dedicate myself to becoming an amazing artist” may not be realistic. “I’m going to draw something from nature every day for the next month” is totally realistic and will make you a better artist.

Dedications do not have to be forever, and it can be better to put a time frame on them and check in with them and see how it’s going. Do it for a month and report back to your sacred space. Do it for a year even. Give yourself room to put the dedication down when the work is done. “I dedicate my life to the protection of this wood” might not be the right answer – you could lose that fight. “I will fight for this woodland for as long as it takes to protect it, for as long as these trees remain’ is a much more functional sort of dedication.

If you make a dedication and then can’t keep it, honour that. Come back to your ritual space and speak of what has happened and why. Reword your dedication and start again. Don’t leave something hanging and unfulfilled, that won’t do you any good.

If you dedicate to something with an end point, celebrate the end point.

Dedications can strengthen resolve and help us work out how best to serve. If you work in a group, then hearing and supporting each other’s dedications can be inspiring and creates practical ways in which you can support each other. This kind of process can help a person be bolder, push the edges of their comfort zone, and find out who and what they want to be.


Magic and ritual

In witchcraft traditions, ritual (as far as I can tell from the outside) is what you do in order that a group of people can do magic together. There’s also an aspect of celebrating the seasons and honouring deity and the natural world.

Ritual for Druids is often more about the celebration, and less about deliberate intent to perform magic. There are groups and individuals who approach Druid ritual for magical purposes, but my experience has been that the majority gather to celebrate, above and beyond all else. It’s one of the reasons Druid rituals are more family friendly, because there isn’t the same demand for deep focus and intensity that collective spellwork requires.

Having said that, Druid ritual has the capacity for magic. It is more likely to be an emergent property rather than something intentioned. I’ve seen that magic take many forms, here are a few examples.

A growing sense of connection and community that changes how people relate to each other.

Empowering participants such that they find their own voices and creativity and are able to stand in their own power.

Connecting people with the land and seasons in a way that radically impacts on who they are and what they do.

Giving power to vows, dedications, offerings and intentions such that a person is more inspired to see it through, more invested and more able. Bringing the sacred to our commitments.

Feeling witnessed, heard, seen and held in the context of ritual space can be an incredible and transformative experience for a person.

Inspiration / awen, shared or individual, arising within the ritual can lead to wild creativity and improvisation, and again can change people in all kinds of ways.

A sense of the numinous can be a consequence of ritual.

If you’ve got any other examples you’d like to add, do please pile into the comments section.


Druidry and not so much ritual

For some time now, I’ve not being doing ritual. I had a few years when, living on a narrowboat I was so very close to the natural world, and so very far from other Druids that seasonal ritual made little sense. In recent years living in Stroud, there have been various forays into the possibility of seasonal ritual, but nothing has formalised. I find that I enjoy having the eight rounds of community gathering in a year.

There are things I definitely like about ritual – community, sharing bard stuff, getting outside together, and any gestures towards making beauty in some way. I hate scripts, and I’m not very easy with standard ritual language any more. It’s too formal, it feels weird. I’m wary of any kind of ritual structure that puts some people in charge in priestly roles and has others cast as onlookers. I want proper anarchy in my circles – no titles.

Once again I find myself asking how to make ritual work for me. Last year we tried holding bardic sessions at the full moon, but by October it was far too cold to be standing around at night. Given the people I hang out with, food and bardic contributions are a certainty. I’m intending to experiment a bit with talking sticks (well, a talking spoon is more likely…)

The very word ‘ritual’ suggests repetition, but repetition is problematic. It can create a firm underpinning, but it can equally dull people into careless lethargic states. It can help people connect, but you can end up connecting with the abstract ideas of the ritual and not with the experience of being alive and in a place on a day. High ritual language can empower, but it can also exclude. It can inspire, but it can oppress. There are no neat answers to this.

I’ve yet to find what I want from rituals. Even so, I can’t quite let go of the idea of them, I keep coming back to seasonal celebration and trying to figure out how I want it to be.


The validation of ritual

I’ve had periods of doing a lot of ritual, and periods of doing none, and at the moment am marking the seasons but not always in conventionally ritualistic ways. Looking back over the last fifteen years or so, I realise there’s a validation aspect to ritual that has had considerable value to me, but that I also feel ambivalent about.

Nothing makes me feel as much like a proper Pagan Druid as getting into circle with a bunch of people and doing a ritual eight times a year. I don’t even have much respect for the wheel of the year and the eight festivals as a concept, I never know what to do with equinoxes, but even so I find the act of doing ritual with fellow Pagans profoundly affirming.

Now, the question for me is, what am I affirming when I do ritual? I can find the ritual itself fairly superficial, and have no woo-woo type experiences at all and still feel significantly validated. Is it the effect of being with other Pagans openly? That seems fine to me as a thing to benefit from. Is it some kind of affirmation that I am all shiny and spiritual and special? I worry about this. I worry about how easy it is to have supposedly spiritual things turn out to be just epic ego massage. If I think something is good for me, is it really good for me? Is it ok to take the ego boost? I’m not swimming in self confidence…

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years thinking about what it is that we get out of religions and spiritual practices (Spirituality Without Structure is one of the many consequences of this). How much of what we get out of ritual is on purely human terms and not really about the divine at all? How much is it about connecting with people? How much can we do to connect with the land and the seasons when investing a couple of hours eight times a year? Lots of questions, no real answers.


Druid rituals

When I first came to Druidry, quite some years ago, I was really excited about doing ritual. I prepared in advance, I learned anything I was going to contribute, I chose offerings with great thought, planned what I would wear, made bread especially and so on and so forth. My own enthusiastic participation gave a sense of importance to ritual, and I got a lot out of doing it, at first.

I was lucky enough to be able to do ritual with a number of groups in different places. What I found was that plenty of the people attending weren’t putting everything they had into ritual. They didn’t learn the words, they brought pre-packaged food to share, they entered ritual space chatting, not in the state of awe and reverence I was trying to cultivate. Some of them chatted once the ritual had begun. Many turned up late.

I learned that it isn’t easy doing ritual as a deeply involved personal practice when the people around you are simply having a nice day out and some social time. For a while, I was resentful of this.

Over the years I softened at the edges, and I started to see how much most people needed that gentle time in the woods or sacred sites or other outside places. They needed the time to catch up with other Pagans – I couldn’t ask people to rock up and do all night vigils, they needed time to be with each other. I came to see ritual as primarily a community activity. My role in it shifted from the quest for personal enlightenment towards a role of serving and facilitating the people who wanted to be there. I brought talking sticks and toasting goblets so that people could share what they needed to say, and be witnessed.

I never got on with solitary rituals. Left to myself, there are other, simpler and more private things I will do. I figured out, eventually, that this is because I thrive on having an audience. Give me a bunch of people in front of whom I can look all spiritual, and I’ll play up to the role. There are plenty of people who want to watch ritual as a form of theatrical action, rather than do their own thing. It’s easy to get grumpy about what other people are doing, or not doing, and not look at your own crap. ‘Look at me, I’m being all spiritual here’ is not the most spiritual of things to be doing, after all.


Fox rituals

I don’t know how long the fox had been watching us, but he had stopped in the middle of the footpath to observe our approach. We’d been mostly looking up into the trees on the off-chance of owlets, and it took me a while to register the scrutiny, and longer again to spot him in the gloom. We stopped, and he stayed put, a length of fox across the middle of the path, eyeing us up. We said hi. We managed to hold that position for more seconds, and then the fox took off into the trees.

We saw him twice on the way home – each time he emerged from the undergrowth some yards ahead of us, trotted briskly down the path and then disappeared into the gloom. It was clearly the same fox – he’s pretty distinctive. A large male, skinny but clearly in good shape, with some distinctive white markings. We see him regularly – he saunters past our flat some nights, and we see him in the fields a well. Like us, he’s a creature of the borders between town and country. I guess he’s seen, or smelled us about, too.

It struck me, walking home, what a difference there is between saying ‘hail spirits of this place’ in a ritual and ‘hello Mr Fox’ in an encounter. We also stopped to say hi to a rabbit, who also watched us but did not run away. My feeling of being present, of being part of life on the path rather than just an observer or something passing through, was intense. I felt the connection I’d tried to make in ritual. I wonder about the way ritual helps us to engage with what’s going on, but is also a barrier simply because it is an elaborate human construct designed to move at its own pace.

In a Pagan ritual, often what we’re trying to do is connect with the season, and with the natural world. I’ve been walking the same path intermittently for years now – more evenings in the summer, earlier in the winter, the odd night excursion. I know who to expect where and when, broadly speaking. We’ve become creatures who use the path, along with the deer and numerous birds. We stop for them, and they carry on – last night two robins engaged in a strange song and dance routine that seemed very intimate. When they hopped into the leaf litter, their plumage and the gloom conspired to make them into uncanny, magical patterns of movement.

The fox no doubt has his own nightly rituals.


A barefoot labyrinth

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will have noticed that labyrinths have become a key part of my seasonal celebrations. Each one, so far, has brought significant new experiences.

My spring equinox labyrinth was the first one I’ve shared with a sizeable group – and perhaps most significantly, a group where the majority had not been involved in making the labyrinth. I found that quite affecting. There is a big difference for me in making something that is shared.

We used a different location – in the past I’ve built them all at the same spot in a public park – which has felt a bit exposed. This time we were in a very different public space. We were in a graveyard, with the ruins of a mediaeval church, an array of massive Victorian tombs, and the clearly marked square under which lies an Orphic mosaic. The labyrinth went over the mosaic, and coming from a mediaeval church design, seems quite at home there.

I had two striking experiences while walking the labyrinth. The first, on my way into it for the first time of the day, was a visceral sense of how that bit of the labyrinth sat on the ground in the park where we’ve previously done it, and a feeling of sympathy between the two locations.

There were gusts of wind, and at some point after I’d walked my way to the centre, the wind moved something. It’s likely that the other people with me fettled this, but fettled it the wrong way. This being a bigger labyrinth design, it’s not unusual to feel you must have gone wrong somewhere, and that you’ve walked this bit before as the paths fold back on themselves. As a consequence I was there for quite some time before I realised that the labyrinth had changed, creating a closed loop I could not leave. I returned to the centre, and pondered it out, and corrected things. It’s interesting to have the elements redesign the path in this way.

This is the first time I’ve been able to walk one of my labyrinths barefoot. This really adds to the experience, creating a much deeper feeling of rootedness and engagement. It becomes a much bigger sensory experience for having bare feet. It’s also easier to handle tighter turns – some uncertainty about space meant this was the smallest I’ve made the design, resulting in tight turns at the centre where attentive footwork was required – a smaller labyrinth encourages me to go slower, because of the tight turns. A bigger labyrinth creates the room and the incentive to pick up speed.

I don’t know where or when the next one will happen, but I’ve made a proper bag to hold the parts of the labyrinth, and that’s certainly a commitment to doing more of them.


Bardic initiation

Many Druid gatherings offer bardic initiations, although what’s meant by this can vary. My first initiation was at Stonehenge, in the dew of a midsummer morning, and I repeated back the words and wasn’t sure about them at all, but such is life. As a bard of the Lost Forest I both initiated bards, and re-dedicated myself.

It’s natural to want rites of passage to mark important points in the journey, but it’s also important to ask, and keep asking what initiation does, what it’s for, what it means.

Some people may experience a bardic initiation as opening them up to the Awen. For some, it’s an affirmation – community recognition of what they’re doing. For some, it will be a doorway opening onto a new path, and for some there is very little effect.

It’s good to make dedications, and to have them witnessed, and rituals can provide the ideal opportunity for this. I think the essence of dedicating to the bard path is dedicating to creativity, to honouring and working with the flows of inspiration and using that inspiration for the good of the land, and tribe – however you identify those. It is creativity as a spiritual journey, but to be a bard is to be public facing as well. Dedicating to this is powerful, if it’s meant and as is always the way of it, the more you invest in it, the more powerful it will be.

I feel quite strongly that true bardic initiation doesn’t happen as a thing that is done to you, or given to you in a ritual. It happens when you perform, and it happens repeatedly. The first time you step up as a bard, is a rite of passage. The first time you take any new way of performing into a public space. The first time you face a microphone, or you cock up in public – these are all rites of initiation. Either you go through them and grow, or you falter. Every time something magical happens while you’re creating or performing, there is also an aspect of being initiated into a new level.

No one can do this to you, or for you. It’s between you and the Awen, and the odds are each round will be a private process.


Ritual without authority

For some years now I’ve been uneasy about working in an authoritarian sort of way. I’ve been the benevolent dictator for a number of groups in the past, but it’s really hard work and takes a lot of energy and attention. For some time now I’ve been questioning the idea of hierarchy within spiritual practice. Power structures can leave us (me) wanting to be powerful and important, losing sight of what’s spiritual, getting mired in our own ego fragility. I know from experience that full democracy doesn’t work – generally speaking wholly democratic Druid groups get very little done. I’ve been part of one of those.

If there’s going to be a ritual, someone has to be responsible for naming the date and place. This can be done with discussion, but it has to be done. Someone has to call the shot, but it need not be the same person every time. Someone has to let people know. This doesn’t set anyone up to be a future archdruid, it’s just admin, if treated as such.

What happens if we get into ritual space with no plan? Sometimes we may default to familiar ritual forms. We may end up doing something that isn’t much like a ritual. What I’ve found where I’ve been experimenting over the last year, is that people are most likely to push for the bit of ritual they like, and let the rest go. Circles I’ve been in have tended to feature some act of recognition of spirits of place, chanting the awen, something bardic, and a passing of a drink.

For Imbolc, I’ve called a date and time that I already know will suit a lot of people. I’ve named a place we’ve used before and that won’t be too cold and windy. I’ve stated an intention to roll up and make a labyrinth, because that’s what I want to do. If anyone wants to do more conventional bits of Druid ritual around it, that’s welcome. We’ll go to the pub for any bard stuff so that we don’t freeze!

A ritual with no one in charge is an ongoing act of negotiation. Rather than it just rolling out smoothly, we have to keep checking in with each other. Is this ok? Do you want this? Do you want something else? It becomes collaborative, improvised, uncertain. The first few times, there was an assumption that I was running the ritual and would therefore provide lead and direction, and some odd moments as I declined to do that, but we came through something there, and I like what happened. I don’t want to have to do all the planning. I want room to be surprised, too, and inspired, and to be part of something collaborative.

As things stand, I think ritual is going to be a regular feature for me again, after a break of some years. I think it’s going to be far more improvised, with shared ownership, and no one really in charge. I like this prospect a lot.