Category Archives: What is Druidry?

A body in a landscape

One of the reasons I’ve not written a Pagan book in quite some time, is that my practice has changed and I didn’t want to over-intellectualise the process. I realised that I needed to get out there and try things without setting myself up to think that I was going to come back and write a book about it afterwards, and in terms of my personal spiritual journey, that’s been a really good thing. I don’t find this blog gets in the way, because there’s always stuff going on that I want to talk about.

I love words, language and communication. Which at first made it a bit odd for me wanting to go into something that wasn’t about words, and where the communication wasn’t about dealing with other humans.

It was an idea that occurred to me while working on the Pagan Pilgrimage project. I was going to write a book about that, but was finding the writing process getting in the way. I hit on a phrase – walking my body into the landscape and the landscape into my body, and beyond that statement, there was no real place for words. Mostly there still isn’t, although I’m getting to the point where I feel a bit more able to talk about what I’m doing.

Too often, the use of planned and ritualised language can actually take us away from the living moment and all that is happening in it. If we go in knowing what we’re going to say, our words get between us and our experiences. We make the spiritual experience about the inside of our own heads and not about any relationship with what’s outside our heads. Wordless and without so much agenda, there’s room for other experiences.

I’ve become interested in how sounds impact on my body. I’ve become alert to how the shifting patterns of sun and shade affect my mood when I’m walking. There are places I’ve walked often enough over a long enough time now that the shape of them, and the rhythm of moving over them is very much inside me. I don’t have much language for expressing this well. I’m not even sure I should be looking for such a language. Perhaps it is enough to offer wordy gateways, because any expressing of my experience, is only ever that, and what’s called for here is the first hand encounter between body and place.

We need to put ourselves back into the landscape. We need to stop treating landscape as a pretty background in which to do our exclusively human things. We need to get over the idea of scenery and into the idea of relationship. We need to show up, in our bodies, with our senses, and be places. Be part of places, involved with them, not casual users passing through. Not so locked into our human-centric concerns that we don’t see the wood, or the trees.

Things happen when you do this. Things that are not translatable into human words. Body knowledge and awareness. Felt things. We change, when we let the landscape inhabit us. It is a good change and I recommend exploring it.

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What is sacredness?

While I was planning my talk for the recent market and conference in Wolverhampton, I had a bit of a light bulb moment. I was talking about sacred places, so of course the question of ‘what makes something sacred?’ was very much on my mind. Why are we more able to see the sacred some places than others? Why is Stonehenge sacred, while the Stonehenge car park isn’t? Why do we identify some days as more sacred than others?

The barrow I frequent is a sacred place for me. Other people go there to fly remote controlled aeroplanes, and to ride down the sides on mountain bikes. It is not a sacred place for them. The sacredness I experience is not self-announcing.

It struck me that it might be entirely off the mark to think of sacredness as being inherent in an object, place or time. What if sacredness is the kind of relationship we have? It follows that ancient sites and places of beauty are more likely to inspire us to a feeling of sacred relationship than a supermarket car park. At the same time, it means that someone who was looking for sacredness in a supermarket car park could do just that.

I have, as it happens. Supermarket car parks attract foxes – I assume they come for the rodents who come for the scraps. I’ve had a number of beautiful fox encounters on car parks, and that has given me a sense of sacredness in places that otherwise in no way seem to invite it.

In theory then, anything can be sacred. In practice, our little monkey brains can only do so much. Relationship is a conscious thing, it requires engagement, deliberateness, participation. Trying to be in sacred relationship with everything all the time would be exhausting. Perhaps when we are very old, and very wise, with decades of sacred relationships behind us, it will simply be a state we have entered, but that’s a ways off for me. Most of the time, it is enough to make the sacred relationships we can. Be that with a place, or a time, a creature or a tree, an idea or an experience. Sacredness can be the terms on which we choose to engage.


Hail Spirits of Place

“Hail spirits of this place” is a popular Druid line for ritual, in that brief bit at the beginning where we normally honour whatever is around us. It’s something I do outside of ritual situations, and something I like to invest more time in during rituals.

Saturday found me in Wolverhampton, talking about sacred places. Much of the venue was lovely – the hall the market was in had beautiful light, a lot of wood, lovely acoustics and would have been a great place to do ritual. The area for talks had a stage, microphone and lighting, making it a good place for talks, but it didn’t have much atmosphere, it was a bit dead acoustically. In the right space, if I’m talking about ritual or sacred places, I’ll have a play with the room acoustics because that can be magical. I got off the microphone briefly, and went straight back because the room wasn’t going to give me anything.

All the same, I got to talking about spirits of place in ritual, and offered my ‘hail spirits of place’ and something shifted. I felt hairs rising, and gooseflesh breaking out on my shoulders and arms. A keen sense of something with me and behind me that hadn’t been there before. Something friendly and supportive, and glad to be noticed.

I’ve greeted spirits of place in all kinds of places. I’ve done it when I didn’t feel safe, and it has always helped. I do it before talks even when the talks aren’t Pagan. Sometimes the effects are more dramatic than others. Saying it out loud is important – although sometimes that’s a whisper in a toilet cubicle. It’s enough.

Spirits of place do not belong only to distant wild places and iconic ancient sites. They are in your living room, your garden, your workplace. They’re on the school run, the commute, in the car park. Acknowledge the possibility of them and they may acknowledge you in return.


Druids who do not speak to kings

Where myth and history meet there are tales of Druids who spoke with Kings, and who could stand on battlefields and bid the armies cease in their fighting.

We are not such Druids. May we live to see the day when there are no kings left to speak to. No unelected men with any titles, no such forms of absolute power.

We can speak truth to power. We can do so not because we have a big, shiny title everyone respects (it cheers me how far we are from that) but because truth should be spoken to power wherever power is oblivious to truth.

We can speak to anyone who will hear us.

We can speak for those who have no voices – the land, the creatures, the ancestors, the Gods. However, when we do so, we must be careful that we aren’t speaking for ourselves and claiming to voice something other in order to look good.

When we speak for those who have no voices, we must remember that most people have voices and their problem is about not being heard or taken seriously. If we speak for them, we may only add to this. We can help to amplify them.

Before we speak, we need to pause. To listen to the living voices around us. To listen to the voices of spirit and inspiration that might come to us if we make room. To listen to what we intend to say so we can figure out if it has any merit. Better to listen a lot, and talk less, but talk with insight, with inspiration, with understanding.

And when we speak as Druids, let it be because Druids are called to serve, and not from a desire to have our voices heard over all others, and not from a desire to be important and powerful. There is no need for us to be the Druids who speak to Kings.


Druidry, service, exploitation and entitlement

In theory, service is part of the Druid path. However, it is all too easy for things to go wrong around service, taking us either towards exploitative situations, or ones where people develop unreasonable feelings of entitlement. Which way a person goes I think often depends on how they were to start with. People with low self esteem and poor boundaries are easily exploited. People with unhealthily big egos easily develop entitlement issues.

Most places that need volunteers have more that needs doing than there are resources to get the things done. A willing volunteer is often at risk of being asked to do more, and more. If that volunteer can’t hold their boundaries, they can end up working themselves into the ground, burning out, becoming ill. It’s not an acceptable outcome. In some cases, the exploitation can be deliberate, and this tends to happen when there’s someone in the mix who wants power and feels entitled.

When volunteers have entitlement issues, they feel that the work they do (and often they don’t do much) entitles them to certain kinds of treatment. They should be given more power, power over others. They demand unearned respect, resources flow towards them that should not flow towards them. They become more important than the project. Volunteers with entitlement issues drive away or break the volunteers who came to give. They distort projects, sometimes they ruin them.

How do we avoid this happening? I think the key thing is to look at the contract between volunteers, or between volunteers and organisations. Most of the time, that contract is never explored or spoken of, but it exists nonetheless in people’s minds.

A good volunteer comes to the work first and foremost because they believe in it. They are sustained if they have the resources and support to do the work and the feedback to know they are effective and valued. Good volunteers probably want to feel part of something, and they need watching to make sure they aren’t over-burdened. They need respect, taking seriously, and acknowledgement.

An exploiter will withhold information and resources, refuse to praise and encourage, and always ask for more. People who came to give cannot keep giving in such environments. Where a culture of supporting volunteering in the way I’ve suggested above is in place, it’s more obvious when someone is there for a power trip.

The entitled volunteer spends more time talking about how great they are than they spend doing anything. They will use the cause as a platform to raise their own profile. They can be charismatic, confident and apparently very useful indeed which makes spotting them harder, but not impossible. It takes collective willingness not to give power to someone with entitlement issues. If the people around them will not massage their egos, they will eventually give up and move on, but this is not easily achieved. If you are running volunteers, it is worth dropping people with manifest entitlement issues because they will damage the rest of the volunteers to get ahead, and damage any culture you may have been trying to build.

Ask outright what people want from volunteering, and listen carefully to what they tell you.


Druid Community

Is there such a thing as Druid community? It’s a question I’ve revisited repeatedly. I’ve been a member of The Druid Network and Henge of Keltria – my inclusion or exclusion dependant largely on whether I am willing to pay for membership. Technically I will always be a member of OBOD, but unless I pay for the magazine, I don’t have much direct contact. I believe there are boards I could use, but I spend too much time online as it is. Experience of physically meeting up in groves and groups has also demonstrated to me how easy it is to come in, and to leave.

Communities have to have permeable edges. If people can’t come in, or move on, then you have something stagnant and unhealthy. But at the same time I think that it’s too easy to solve things by leaving, by letting people leave, and thus by not really sorting things out at all.

For me, community means working together to maintain relationships. It’s not simply paying to access the same space, or temporary allegiances. Community means dealing in some way with our conflicts, differing needs, issues and so forth, rather than rejecting anyone who isn’t a neat fit outright. How far we are willing to go to include and to look after each other is a question I think we need to be asking.

Thanks to the internet, and to modern transport most of us aren’t obliged to deal with the Druids around us. There are no real pressures on us to work together. And if the ‘problem’ just leaves, problem solved! I think in this way, Druids are simply reflecting the rest of how things work generally. We move on, we leave jobs, we move away from difficult neighbours, we cut off friends we’ve fallen out with… These are all things that individuals in conflict have little scope of handling well.

Peace is something we talk about a lot around Druidry, but it’s not something we all practice. We don’t all seek peaceful resolutions for each other. We don’t all tend to intervene to resolve things, we often just let the problem move on, or encourage it to. Let the awkward person go somewhere else. Let the person who lost the argument quit.

Mediation is hard work. It can call for challenging people, and for investing time, care and effort in trying to resolve things. To do it, we’d have to really care about each other… like we were some kind of community or something.

(I expect there are Druid communities out there that do this for each other, but mostly my experience has been of the other sort of thing.)


Eternal Student

Is there a point where we can rest on our laurels and feel that we know it all? Obviously not, because there’s far more to learn than any one person can know. Is there a point when we know enough that we can consider ourselves an authority and not study further? Then it gets interesting.

Of course the most obvious risk if you stop studying is that what you know becomes out of date. Other younger, sharper, hungrier creatures will outlearn you and pass you by. You’ll become irrelevant. The applications for this in any aspect of work are pretty obvious, but it’s easy to think that in spiritual matters, the person who has it figured out doesn’t need to keep on sitting in the student seats.

The person who knows it all, who is wise and enlightened and really spiritual, doesn’t need to keep studying. Or so it may seem. There’s a point of achievement imaginable that says now you are the authority, the guru, others should learn from you now. For me, that’s a bit of a warning sign. I don’t think any of us humans ever get to be so clever and wise that we have nothing more to learn. I do think there’s something distinctly off when people aren’t excited enough to want to learn.

To learn is to admit that you didn’t already know. Or that you weren’t the best you could be. It requires a healthy ego, able to aspire, rather than fragile and unable to admit there’s more to do. To my mind, being human means there’s always more scope. There’s something very healthy about taking off the authority, the teaching role, the status, and rocking up somewhere as a student. It’s releasing. It allows us all to be imperfect works in progress. Also, learning new stuff is great fun.

I read other authors to learn from them. I’m going to some writing workshops this summer because I know I’ll learn things by doing that. I’m doing a free online course in eco-linguistics. I like picking up new craft skills when I can. I like the challenge of learning a new job.

I also really like what happens when, within a community, people pass the ‘teacher’ hat round and take it in turns to hold temporary authority. I like it when everyone is able to sit down and listen to someone else’s teaching. I like how it reduces feelings of hierarchy, superiority and power over, and increases feelings of mutual respect and recognition.


Summer trees and Druid wanderings

Sometimes the great British summer produces hot days. I’m one of the many people whose body is invariably startled by this. I find in hot weather that being under trees is really the only way of being comfortably outside in the daytime.

Walk through woodland on a scorching hot day, and you’ll be in balmy conditions with a little dampness in the atmosphere and pretty much no risk of sunburn. The bright light that can leave you squinting, and for the long term, more at risk of cataracts doesn’t reach through. Intense sunlight filtered through leaves becomes something gentle, joyful and habitable.

I can’t walk in direct sunlight for any significant time without a hat, and even with a hat, the risk of headaches and queasiness remains high. In woods, I can be out all day in high summer and this just isn’t a problem. I don’t dehydrate as quickly, I don’t feel uncomfortable in my own skin.

In the absence of trees to wander beneath, the shade of a tree in park or garden is always a blessed relief in the height of summer.

There are plenty of reasons to connect the idea of ancient Druidry with the idea of tree lore and tree wisdom. From the Roman reports of Druids meeting in sacred groves to possible etymologies relating the word Druid to names for oak, I am inclined to think of Druids as tree people. The simplest and most powerful tree lore for high summer is that to experience the sun filtered through leaves is kinder and safer than to be under its direct glare.

Many spiritual paths are keen to use light as a metaphor for goodness – ‘enlightenment’ when you think about it, is a word with light in it. At the same time we tend to associate darkness with evil, and these habits of thought are deeply ingrained in our culture. Trees do not offer us light, but gentle and friendly shade, with patterns of shifting light and darkness. Too much light will hurt you, blind you and burn you. Our bodies do not thrive when overexposed to sunlight. We benefit from places of ambiguous light, softer light, and cool shadow.

 


Looking hard at compassion

‘Compassion’ is one of those words easily chucked about that does a good line in making you sound spiritual and enlightened. I think it’s always worth poking anything that can be wafted about easily to make sure we’re doing what we think we’re doing.

Is the compassion something that lives in our heads, or is it translating into action? We can feel compassion for the hungry, the homeless, etc, but if it’s just about our feels, it does nothing to alleviate suffering. Telling ourselves we are feeling compassion may be a way of letting ourselves off the hook, assuaging guilt without actually doing anything useful.

The ‘I’m feeling so compassionate towards you right now’ stance can also be a way of disempowering the other. Here I am, all big, spiritual, shiny and wise feeling compassion for you because clearly you need it. Smug compassion can be more about making ourselves feel bigger than the one who needs our compassion. If it takes that shape, it does no good at all. Compassion can be a re-framing of pity, and pity only drags people down, it never lifts them.

‘I’m being compassionate towards myself’ can be a fantastically effective way of re-branding selfishness. It can be used to justify self interest and to protect us from having to look at the things which might otherwise make us feel uncomfortable. Ironically the people who most need to practice self care are the ones most likely to be hauling themselves over the coals, and the ones who can easily announce their compassion for themselves are, from what I’ve seen, the ones who have least need for it. And if you’re the kind of overthinker who perpetually tries to second guess their own motives, sorry about this paragraph. There’s nothing wrong with being kind to ourselves, unless we do that as a way of not being responsible or honourable.

I admit that if I encounter someone who talks a lot about how compassionate they are, I become rapidly sceptical. I’m interested in people talking about how to practice compassion effectively, how to do it more and better, but that’s got a very different swing to it. I’m also much more interested in people talking about what they do that helps, in whatever way, at whatever level. How do we make things better? How can we be kinder to each other and take better care of each other? Not by poncing about announcing how very, very compassionate we are, that’s for sure.

(And yes, if I was a better sort of person I might know how to feel compassion for the people who have to wave the idea of their own compassion about in this attention seeking way, but I don’t. )


Tao, Druidry and authenticity

I first became aware of Taoism in late childhood, via The Tao of Pooh, which I read, loved and no doubt mostly didn’t understand at all. But it spoke to me nonetheless and when opportunities have come up to explore further, I’ve taken them. I own several interpretations of the Tao Te Ching. My Druidry has always been coloured somewhat by the things I’ve learned from Taoism.

One of the Taoist ideas I find especially appealing to explore is the role of personal authenticity. Religions that are about transcending this world tend to encourage practitioners to put aside the self, the ego, the illusion in order move on up into the realm of spirit. I’m a spiritual materialist, my feet are on the earth and my sense of the sacred is earthly. I’ve no desire to transcend.

Taoism says be yourself, but see yourself as part of something far bigger and longer lasting than you. It teaches that human nature is naturally in tune with the Tao, if we let it flow, and that human artifice is the thing that keeps as away from being part of the flow of the universe. To live well and live simply is the goal, to be quietly part of the world and acting from our true nature so as to be aligned with the Tao. I’ve been in too many contexts that wanted me to hack bits off myself. The affirmation that my most authentic self is a good thing is something I find helpful, and healing.

It’s a line of thought that brings me back to Mary Oliver’s ‘You do not have to be good, you only have to left the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’ For me this has been the basis of stripping away artifice and finding my authentic self. Whatever that is. I’m still looking, still finding things that aren’t me but have been squashed onto my surfaces. Still hunting out bits that have been hacked off in the past.

There’s a ‘good enough’ notion at the core of this. A human is fundamentally good enough. What we do to ourselves and each other can take us away from that, when we deform who we are to try and become what we think we should be… But in essence we are all good enough, we just need to settling into that, be with it, make room for it. Cruelty is not natural, nor is taking far, far more than we need in order the waste the vast majority of it. Our animal selves are likely much better than the weird socially constructed humans we’ve been cobbling together for thousands of years.

I do not have to overcome my ego. I do not have to deliberately crush any part of me that feels good about things. I do not have to punish my body to be spiritual. I do not have to deny my earthly being and my earth-based life to be spiritual. I just need to settle down in this soft animal body I have, and love the warmth of sunlight on my skin, and love the tactile surfaces and the warmth of other soft animal bodies, the hills beneath my feet, the shade of trees, the sunset… Rather than the spiritual path seeming like some vast and daunting effort, it seems gentle, easy even.