Tag 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.


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.


Celebrating the Equinox

I’ve always found equinoxes tricky, not least because I’ve never found much in the way of folk tradition to draw on. There is a lovely modern tradition that makes the 21st of September International Peace Day, and that’s something worth tapping into, certainly.

This equinox might, therefore be a good time to think about who we include in our ritual circles, and who we don’t. Superficial peace is easily achieved – distance, absence, ignoring, denying, silencing, disappearing, disempowering – all of this can make for a peaceful scenario for those who come out on top. However, for those who are silenced and vanished, the problems and the effect of being denied is the exact opposite of peace.

In the long term, the superficial peace that silences the unpeaceful will beget future conflicts. Real peace means dealing with the problems. It means looking at our conflicts and trying to work out what to do with them. It means asking what we do about people who mistreat others within our communities, and it means recognising that to do nothing is always to support the aggressor and to deny the victim.

It is ok for people to fall out, disagree, find they can’t work together and move on. Great things can come from people realising they don’t like a thing and striking out to make the thing they want on their own terms. This kind of division does not have to be ultimately unpeaceful. The separation may be messy, but if we can respect our differences, we can all move on in good ways.

Sometimes the actions, words or behaviour of one person will put another person in a situation they can’t deal with. We tend to treat this as an individual problem rather than a community one. We let the person go who feels least able to stay. Power and popularity may prove more important than justice and fairness. If there’s nothing more to it than a personality clash, then perhaps the only thing to do is weather the short term grief and start over. Some things cannot easily be fixed.

Groups in the habit of pushing people out are not good groups to be in. Groups that tacitly support bullying, because there’s someone powerful in the centre of the group, are not good spaces. So much of this echoes the playground, where there are always kids who will gravitate towards the deliberately nasty one in the hopes that by supporting them, they will never be the victim themselves.

So at this time of balance, I invite you to think about how we hold our edges. How we let people go when they need to, and how we work together when there’s conflict that needs collective solutions. What we do with people when they are out of order, what we do with people when they are hurt? If you are standing in circle today, or at the weekend, think about the peace of your circle and what maintains it, think about your community as a whole. Ask whether you have true peace, or the calm that comes from ignoring the issues, or making the problems go away.


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.


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.


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.


The Imbolc Labyrinth

It was cold, I grant you, but not too cold. Making a labyrinth is, as I discovered back in 2016, an intensely physical business taking me an hour to an hour and a half (depending on extra hands). But, it’s not the kind of physical activity to make you warmer, so I was unsure as to whether we’d get away with it in early February.

We did.

The making process means a person has to engage with the great outdoors for the duration, and that in turn prompts meditations on the season and its implications. I can’t say I went into the labyrinth with a clear head and walked it in a perfectly contemplative state, because my concentration wasn’t equal to that. But, I walked it twice, thinking about spring, and listening to the bird song – which has noticeably increased in recent days. I walked thinking about my intentions for the year and what I want to bring into the world. Each time I walked out of the labyrinth feeling clearer in my sense of direction.

The process of building and walking inspired me to think about when and where I want to make future labyrinths, and who I might want to make them for. I also came away with the certainty that I need to make a bag for the labyrinth to live in when it’s at home, and I need more material. I became aware of how the things I use for building only have this role, and have a growing identity as a labyrinth. I need to build on that with a labyrinth bag.

I find rituals difficult if it’s just me, or me and my immediate family – three isn’t enough people for ritual. It is enough people for a labyrinth. I can accommodate more if I need to. There’s little planning- just pick the time and place. At the moment, the labyrinth seems like a better answer to seasonal ritual for me than actual seasonal ritual. It will be interesting to see how this plays out through the year.