Archive for October 2011

“But ask the animals …”

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you” — Job 12:7-8.

Mourning doves at the feeder this morning, blue jays squabbling on our standing-seam metal roof, shortly before dawn a fox leaping through the snow nearby, mice in the garage foraging on birdseed I spilled and haven’t yet swept up, a few geese lingering and looking forlorn as they forage in the dark water of a lake, made darker by contrast with the surrounding snows.

Visible kin, feathered and furred.  Beneath the surface of the pond, a few salamanders who haven’t yet burrowed into the mud to winter there.  Scaled kin.

And golden till the end — leafy kin — a young maple in our back yard, shouldering its way up among larger pines.

What can I ask, and what will they teach, tell and declare?

Isn’t everything open and shut at the same time, the glory and the wretched side by side, the fox killing the hare, the wonder of sunrise, a birth and a death both?

But what of the between, where we all live, where it is often neither?  The third way we pass over, because it constantly moves with us, never stopping to be wholly seen or felt, a shadow at our backs, a light in front of us, a suspicion of beauty and the marvelous: peering through the grime and fog of a dirty window, a commuter on the way to work, waving; a bare branch with exactly seven sparrows wing to wing, puffed against the cold; the surprise of light on water, perfect mirror; a child’s unflinching gaze.  O my world, altar of how many things to see and know and suffer and enjoy and give up and welcome again, how can I do anything else than love you, in the end?

Simple Beauty: First Snow, Oct. 28

After a gentle, wet snow last night, the landscape is transformed.

The light before sunrise paints everything a lovely gray-blue, and in the stillness you can hear snow falling from branches as the temperature slowly rises.  Minute by minute the scene changes, so I hurry to photograph this brief beauty.

Our clothesline has quadrupled in size with its snow sheathe.

Even as I hurry to capture these images, still in the shade of the hill to the east, the tree-line across the road receives the sun, and the yellow leaves still on the trees begin to show through under the snow.

A few hours later, with the temperature risen to the mid-30s, the trees stand mostly snow-free.

Posted 28 October 2011 by adruidway in blessing, Druidry, nature, outdoors, trees

Sacrifice and Plenitude

As we near Samhain (see previous post), I want to do some thinking out loud about sacrifice.  And that includes moving randomly, and in less than smooth gestures, as thought moves (at least mine does), and leaving some avenues for later reflection.  And input from readers, too.

Sacrifice literally means something that makes sacred or holy, though a sacrifice in contemporary usage has come to signify as well a loss or voluntary giving-up, in return for some advantage.  Why should the holy link with a giving up?  Something good, in exchange for something better.  It carries with it associations of unpleasantness or suffering — the difficulty or pain involved in the giving up, even if the advantage is fully worthwhile.

But need the sacrifice always entail giving up?  The making sacred of each moment may involve my giving up scattered attention, or a bad mood, but these are not usually things I’ll miss.

I go to my altar during a ceremony or ritual, and give in offering something I have purchased, grown or made — most recently, some home-made incense.  It has “objective” value, as far as that can be measured, in dollars or in what dollars can purchase.  But it has “subjective” value in terms of what it’s worth to me.  I hope it may have value as well to whoever receives the sacrifice.  Even more, if it costs me something essential to provide it, people often consider it a more “true” sacrifice.  And if it’s a fair exchange, I’ll gain an equivalent for what I give.  Well and good.  Many sacrifices stop there.  But what of sacrifice that gives all and expects nothing?

There is a joy in that kind of giving, if the sacrifice is voluntary.  Much was made in ancient cultures of the “sacrifice that goes consenting.”  A sacrificial animal delivered a bad omen if it resisted axe or blade, or shied away from the sacrificer.  Human offerings, though apparently fairly rare, might have their senses dulled with drugs, so that the pain or apprehension — or defiance — did not taint or diminish the sacrifice.  Does this reduce its value?  Does the sacrifice still go “consenting”?

So far I’ve looked at this entirely from (my) human point of view.  If I make an offering to a god or thought-form or some higher wavelength of consciousness (and these may or may not be the same thing), I change the situation by my actions, even if only in a small way.  As a marker in memory, ritual breaks the flow of “profane” time with a division or irruption into consciousness of another kind of act.  Actions done consciously, with intention, in formal words and gestures and attitudes of mind and body, are simply different from our daily-life consciousness.  They feel different, and we remember them differently.  They mark time as altars, chapels, shrines, temples, churches and sanctuaries mark space.  Whether “holy” or not, they are different and distinctive for that reason.  They don’t fit the pattern.  In terms of consciousness, they are marked, while the “ordinary” is un-marked, the default mode of most of our experience.

But what of the view “from the other side”?  Apart from whether gods exist, the universe tends towards an equilibrium, at least locally.  Extremes don’t last, and we return to “normal.”  Almost.  The short span of “not normal,” of marked, of ritual time, of sacrificial consciousness, has left things changed, however small the change.  Does a god perceive such human action and awareness?  If so, how? And does what I’ve called ritual or sacrificial consciousness come across any differently to That Which Watches?

In crude terms, a sacrifice is a claim on another.  Roman culture expressed this as do ut des:  “I give, so that you may give.”  I’ll scratch your back if you will later scratch mine.  The initiative in this case comes from me:  if I act, you are obliged in some sense to respond.  There is trust here, a kind of faith in “how the universe works.” Many moderns might be utterly perplexed at this kind of thinking.  All I can say is, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

In mainland Chinese culture, everyone is conscious of guanxi, the obligation or connection they have with others.  In fact, one way of saying “you’re welcome” is mei guanxi — “no obligation or connection.” You don’t owe me; there’s no need to repay.  On the flip side is the the incidence of one Chinese literally chasing another down the street with a gift the first person does not wish to accept.  Take the gift and you acknowledge connection, obligation.  If the sacrifice is accepted, you’ve built up some credit with Another, with the divine, with Otherworld energies.  (Can we make a sacrifice without expecting anything, even if it’s just a sense of satisfaction or wholeness in the act of making the sacrifice?)

But the sense of sacrificial debt or obligation does not stop there. Again in Roman culture, the flip side, the necessary correspondence, is da ut dem:  “You give, so that I may give (in the future).”  Complete the cycle.  Establish reciprocity, build the relationship.  We depend on each other, gods on humans as much as humans on gods.  Note that the goal isn’t to pay off the debt, or reach a new equilibrium, but to establish a connection through mutual commitment and generosity — to build a history together.  In other words, to keep the exchanges going.

Eventually we may begin to see all our actions as ritual and as sacrifice.  Whatever we sanctify comes into to our lives through reciprocity, because we are inevitably part of the whole, in relationship with the cosmos.  “What you do comes back to you,” for the simple reason that you asked it to, by placing attention on it, by performing the ritual of desire and attention, and often, the dedication of resources, of the holy substance of the living world, to achieve or create or earn or win (or steal) whatever it was you thought you wanted.

But the act of desiring something, of investing energy and consciousness into it, changes us.  We all know the old saying:  be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.  When “it” comes, we’ve often moved on to other goals and desires, and no long wish for it, or even recognize it when it arrives.  We’re on to the next thing, and the consequences of one of our old wishes or desires may no longer fit us where we are.  We may even see it as a kind of obstacle, some piece of bad luck, a bump in the road, not knowing we asked for at some earlier point.

Here magic has its place, not as stage showmanship and illusion, not as Harry-Potter wand-waving, not as Hollywood “spfx” or special effects, but as a way of clarifying our desires and our consciousness, as well as reducing the occasions when we randomly or less than consciously send out desires for things we don’t actually want, or which won’t serve our best interests.  Instead, we learn (how slowly and often painfully!) to act with intention, to change consciousness through ritual, discipline, focused psycho-drama, meditation, making ourselves the center of change, which then ripples outward from our own changed awareness into the wider world around us.  All things flee from us, or come to us, in accordance with our state of awareness.

As a wise person said, “The only miracle is a changed consciousness.”  That is the chief form of the plenitude that comes with true sacrifice — a test for its validity.

OK — now I’ve given myself lots of abstractions to test with specific concrete examples from daily life.  Any comments or observations?

Summer’s End — Halloween — Samhain

We’re a few days from the old Celtic harvest festival at summer’s end.  For those of us the northeastern U.S., with the recent frosts and snow in the forecast, it feels like summer’s end as well.  As a time of endings and beginnings — the new year begins as the old one ends — it is a time of introspection, intuition, dream and creativity.  As an acknowledgment of change and completion, it can also include a remembrance of the dead.

The holiday was adopted by the Church and transmuted to a three-day observance from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2.  It begins the night before, on  All Hallows Eve*, or Hallowed Evening (Halloween), continues with All Saints Day, and concludes on All Souls Day.  In many other cultures there are similar observances, though not necessarily all on the same dates.  Spanish speakers celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, and Christian Arabs observe Yom El Maouta, both meaning “Day of the Dead.”  The Japanese observe O-Bon, remembering and honoring their ancestors. Held during July or August, depending on location and local tradition, the holiday feels to me (I lived in Japan for two years) like a cross between Halloween and the Fourth of July.  Originating as a Buddhist observance, it also includes a dance — the bon-odori — to give thanks for the sacrifices of ancestors, fireworks, carnivals and a concluding Lantern festival, imaging the return of the souls of the dead. This Asian holiday captures the Druid spirit of Samhain for me: celebratory yet reverent, and family-oriented.

Druids and other Pagans have adopted the older Celtic name of Samhain or Samhuinn (pronounced approximately SAH-wen or SOW-en — the “mh” in Irish spelling indicates a sound like “w”) — as they have other Celtic names, since for them the holiday has association and symbols different from those current in the Church.  The “sam-” is cognate with English “summer” — the word means simply “summer’s end.”  (Christian anti-Pagan propaganda tracts like this one ignorantly and wrongly portray Halloween as “The Devil’s Night” and “Saman” as an evil “Lord of Death” — scroll down to the 15th frame.  No evidence exists for a Celtic deity with that name and association.  Besides, American commercialization of the day has obscured the invitation of its spiritual potential, though it remains still at hand.  Somehow Americans also seem to have trouble achieving both “mirth and reverence,” as the “Charge of the Goddess” in the Wiccan tradition exhorts us.)

At the school where I’ve taught for a decade and a half, students themselves often took the initiative to celebrate this autumn holiday.  Some two months into the school year, with exams looming and — for the seniors — college apps drawing more and more of their attention, they still found a supervising adult so they could get official permission and use school meeting areas, put up posters to invite everyone who wished to attend, and write their own rituals.  I’ve saved several years’ worth of photocopied ceremonies in wildly varying degrees of elaboration, and I’ve attended both large and small gatherings, indoors and out.  Some were largely excuses, it’s true, to dress up in capes and masks, light candles, scare and amuse each other, and then gorge on candy afterward.  But others were moving commemorations of the season, an opportunity for acknowledgment from everyone who’d lost a relative or friend in the past year.  The event helped acknowledge grief and cleanse the emotions through a group ritual of shouting and crying, burning messages in a cauldron, and closing with a group meditation.  If the larger culture doesn’t make room for such things, subcultures often do.

The autumn equinox last month was the first time I celebrated that holiday as a Druid, and with fellow Druids, at the East Coast Gathering.  In my part of the U.S., Druids are thin on the ground, though a couple of us are considering a small gathering.  But whether or not in the end we manage to find time for a group celebration, I’ll also observe the day myself, this marker of moving in time and experiencing the fullness of human life.

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*”All Hallows Eve” precedes the day dedicated to the hallows or saints (Old English halga) — All Saints Day.

Dance image link

Lantern image link

Gifts of Druidry

On other blogs, I’ve also looked at practices and perspectives found in many places, Druidry among them, that are forming part of new-old ways of living on earth.  The video below captures something of what I’ve found in Druidry.  It’s got a nice flute solo and some good nature images.  How were you planning to spend the next two and a half minutes, anyway?!

What is it about trees?

That presence in forest, grove or single tree is something kindred to me, so I walk under the branches, and touch the bark and speak with them, and listen.  Their slow gestures move in the air above me.  And the silence rings in my hearing.  Druids and trees — that was something I understood right away.  In childhood my closest friends were trees.  What is it about them?

The German poet Rilke captures a piece of it in one of his Sonnets to Orpheus:

A tree ascended there.  Oh pure transcendence!
Oh Orpheus sings!  Oh tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed.  Yet even in that silence
a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared.

Creatures of stillness crowded from the bright
unbound forest, out of their lairs and nests;
and it was not from any dullness, not
from fear, that they were so quiet in themselves,

but from just listening.  Bellow, roar, shriek
seemed small inside their hearts.  And where there had been
at most a makeshift hut to receive the music,
a shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing,
with an entryway that shuddered in the wind —
you built a temple deep inside their hearing.

Trees get me to go “quiet in myself,” so that silence is not absence of speech, but a positive space that allows the stillness to unfold and open up and include the listener in it.  From it rises the “tall tree in the ear.”

Orpheus, the “you” of the last line, is a musician, a listener who hears the space between notes. He knows sound and silence blend to make possible the third thing of music. Wisdom speech, as opposed to chat and gossip, possesses that same character, emerging out of the silence which makes it possible, and bearing the imprint of its quality.

Such communion is a powerful tool. The rough “shelters” we construct out of our animal longings point us toward knowing these things, toward recognizing and gathering in the temple we can find “inside our hearing.”

Questioning Our Questions

For those of us on a Druid path, Druidry comes to mean more than the pleasure most of us find outdoors under a sunny sky on a beautiful afternoon, because it has something to say to us all on dark days as well as bright ones. [For some of the ideas in the second paragraph, the quotation in the fourth, and some of the questions in the fifth and sixth, I’m indebted to an article in The Utne Reader by Larry Robinson, about the emerging field of ecopsychology.]

A range of voices — scientific, religious, societal, educational — have told us for a long time that we are individual, distinct objects in a world of other objects.  We are our bodies, and our bodies are machines — sophisticated ones, but machines nonetheless — and the problems we experience are mechanical ones:  we need tune-ups, adjustments, fixes.  We are imperfect, weak, broken, sinful, damaged by our parents, our childhoods, heredity, our own human nature or the cruelties of other people who deny us what we need.  But with the appropriate training, teaching, medication, treatment, therapy, alignment, adjustment, we can regain optimum functioning and get back “on track,” into the “grind,” the “swing of things,” the “race.”

flat rock with moss and leavesIf we look to most advertizing, we’re told that the solution to our unhappiness also lies in things.  With the right food, clothes, phone, car, drink, partner or credit card or (carefully marketed) “experience,” we ‘ll find the fulfillment we’re seeking.  The nagging malaise we feel will abate — some thing can fill it — and company X or service Y has just what we lack.  It’s quite simple.  We are things.  Our problems also lie in things. The fix is a thing; find the thing, and get fixed.

But if we dull and drug the deeper lack by treating it with the surface stimulus of a “thing,” something else happens: “when we treat only the ‘presenting problem’ and fail to address deeper existential concerns, our silence on these issues communicates that we find them insignificant.” By refusing to let the real issue emerge, we shunt it off to the side, we disguise its potency and drive it deeper.  Our “fix” just damages more, like a bad patch job when it gives way just tears a bigger hole. From such acts, whole cultures can decay. If the emperor has no clothes, and everyone follows imperial fashion instead of telling the truth, when winter comes, large numbers will get frostbitten. Such deeply embedded cultural deceptions can erupt into concrete, far-reaching physical consequences.

Thus the questions we’ve been given and told to answer are “What’s wrong with me?” and “What do I want or need?” “How can I get it?” and “Who can sell it or give it to me?” Druids acknowledge  that we must breathe and eat and drink to sustain bodily life, but pose different questions for us to consider in place of the others above:

What’s my place in the world? Not socially or economically.  We might also ask it this way: where am I–literally?  What am I connected to?  What sustains me each day?  What do I have to be grateful for?  What comes to me unasked, unsought?  How does the world around me provide air and water and food?  Who else is walking with me through the world?  What is their place in the world?  What sustains them?

I’ll discuss my own answers in a  coming post.

“Happy Hunger”

I’m picking up on Steve Schwartzman’s recent comment here for a title to this post: “happy hunger.”  We usually think of hunger as a “simple” biological drive, the body’s impulse towards food or sex or life.  Yes, as sometimes conscious beings we can override our hungers, at least up to a point, for some other purpose.  But to think of these or any hungers as “happy” I take as a prod in a good direction — a pointer, a reminder, a prompt that a shift in attention and consciousness is possible and has arrived full of benefit.

street mirrorSo what of other hungers?  A hunger for connection, a hunger for the sacred, a hunger for contact with the natural world — all of them vital hungers which we struggle to answer and fill each day.  And so many “unhappinesses” when we don’t meet these hungers — crimes and random behavior and restlessness and secondary hungers for stimulation — sugar, fat, salt, second-hand sex (porn), alcohol and drugs (to change awareness any way we can!), gossip, fits of temper, violence — these stem, I know at least in myself, from unfulfilled primary hungers, from attempts to shift consciousness out of the bland, boring, mundane, even unreal sensation of “just existing.” As if life, the most real or literally “thingly” thing we experience, could also be “unreal.”*  (Which it also is.  And that’s neither a good or bad thing, but part of the way the universe apparently works.)

Those of you familiar with psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs know that, in his schema, these other hungers, and especially the hunger for the sacred, aren’t considered the “largest” or most “immediate” ones at all.  They’re at the top of his hierarchy, most distant from Maslow’s naming of our “primary” needs for food and sex and safety.  But I’d argue that in fact the need for the sacred is our primary hunger, and that all the rest fall in line behind it.  The less we’re connected to the sacred, the more we’re just flesh machines.  Fortunately we’re always connected to some degree — that’s what being alive is.  The task is to blow the spark to fire, to nourish and feed that singular flame through and with all the others, so that eating and lovemaking and all the “daily-ness” of our lives, potentially everything, becomes sacrament, a door for the sacred to enter this instant, right here, and transform us.  It’s what Christians call the abundant life, what Zen means by satori, and what we all experience in those transcendent moments that do not last because we also live through the (potential) sacrament of time, that sweeps us ever onward to the next, the latest, the new.  A physical world can only manifest eternity as time.  And our next task is to see time our ally, to make it and to know it as a sacrament as well.  Not as endpoint — it can’t be that, in its ceaseless flow — but as ongoing opportunity for practice and reverence and worship.

So the “happy hunger” is the hunger that connects us, the hunger we recognize and welcome and honor.  As a Druid I have a tool-kit to make room for the sacred, to invite and witness it around and within me and all whom I meet, to increase its presence in my consciousness,  and then to bring more of it into my world and surroundings and atmosphere and aura and presence, so that others may encounter it, too, and access it in their own lives.  We all have access points to many ways to do the same thing.  The tools aren’t what’s lacking.  It’s the courage and love and trust and responsibility to make use of them for our own good, for the good of the whole.  This is my prayer and my goal for practice, my ritual and my path.  May you strive and realize, delight and rejoice, as you discover and find your own.

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*”real,” from Latin re-alis, “real, thingly,” from re-s, “thing, matter, affair.”  Thus the “real” means simply whatever is a “thing,” and so the “unreal” is the realm where distinct “things” disappear, where there is a whole, a network, an interplay, an eco-system, and not a collection of separate things to be counted — the “real” is whatever we can count, or assign a number to.  And so then of course we turn around and protest that we’re not just numbers to be counted, we’re not just statistics, or collateral damage, we “matter” (odd use of the “material” to point to the sacred!).  Here is our recognition that the spark in us is sacred, that it knows more that “this.”


I am a whisper under the moon’s shadow, a song heard from the next room, a melody hummed under the breath;

I am the first bird to the feeder, the last star before dawn, the rain before the rainbow;

I am what I have forgotten so I can remember it again, a question at the altar, the answer of green leaves unfolding;

I am wherever the long dream draws its curtain, when I listen to the voices of ancestors, where the winds find their resting place;

I am why the swallow dips in flight, I am the luck of dice still tumbling, I am the interval when I can say  these things.

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Early Irish and Welsh poets such as Amergin and Taliesin composed related poems in the form of “I am” or “I have been” statements, with  imagery drawn from nature, which I’ve imitated here.  The Song of Amergin is one famous example which has survived in different versions.

Posted 18 October 2011 by adruidway in blessing, Druidry, experience, philosophy, poetry, spirituality

Just beyond our vision

Between legs of my flight back early this morning from my cousin’s wedding, I stood in an airport shuttle at Washington/Dulles, watching for a long minute as the sun edged into view in a glory of red and orange.  Then the shuttle turned as it headed towards the main terminal, and I couldn’t see the horizon anymore.

I glanced around at my fellow passengers.  Every single one of them was looking down, intent on a cell phone or iPad or some other device.  Had they all missed beauty?  Then finally I heard one couple directly ahead of me say something about the colors along the skyline.  How often have I missed what’s just beyond my vision at the moment, but accessible with just a slight shift of attention — off myself and onto things in the larger circles of the world?

How easy we overlook what’s freely given to us!  Would we attend to it, value it more, if we had to pay a small fee each time we wanted to witness a sunrise or a rainbow or a storm?!

It’s true that we often treat what we buy with more respect than what comes to us gratis.  It’s also true that by “owning” something we feel we have a right to do with it whatever we wish because it’s “ours.”  Nature as entertainment, as a product for consumption.  “My” holly bush, “my” yard.  Imagine nature a signatory even to one of our decrees concerning it.

Meanwhile, the holly spreads its sharp leaves, unconcerned.  Red berries flash into vision, and wind sifts between leaf and fruit.

Instinct and Wisdom

We’re often disposed toward or away from future experiences by previous ones, and for the bookish and private child I was while growing up, books provided me some of those experiences.  One favorite that I still re-read from time to time is the fantasy classic, LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.  And one of my favorite passages is a piece of wisdom that is pure Druidry in its nature-focus.  When the main character Ged has spent his power in a desperate attempt at healing a child, and afterward lies comatose, his pet otak, a weasel-like creature, gently licks him:

“It was only the dumb instinctive wisdom of the beast who licks his hurt companion to comfort him, and yet in that wisdom Ged saw something akin to his own power, something that went as deep as wizardry.  From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be earned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.”

This is some of the same instinctive wisdom, an inkling or hunch or suspicion about where wisdom may be found.  It is bodily wisdom, as least at first, the same kind of wisdom or knowing that helped save lives on Sept. 11, when some people obeyed an impulse to do something different that morning, take a different mode of transportation, or vary the route to work, call in sick, stop for a bite to eat before arriving at work, and so on.  We’ve all heard the stories.

If this is instinct, Druidry has no wish to domesticate it, but to extend it, to work in concert with it, to find out its wisdom and humbly listen to it.

I set myself to listen when I can.  I’ve long been uncomfortable around bees, wasps and hornets.  I got stung badly more than once as a child.  But this summer, hanging out laundry, I took myself in hand, and learned to watch them and listen to them and talk quietly to them instead.  Below the clothesline of our house, several bees busily gathered pollen from a clump of goldenrod growing there (we let a part of our backyard grow wild every year).  I acknowledged them and admired their steady labor and music, never hurrying, but also never pausing.  Talking to them did make me feel better.  In turn, the bees did not bother me, though they knew I was there.  The hum of their wings was steady and assured. A few investigated the damp towels I was pinning up, and several flew around me as they left. We worked in harmony at our respective tasks.  By establishing a vibration of peace, we could each do what the moment required.

Learning by Hearing

One of the options for the OBOD course I’m taking is to receive the course materials either as written text, or on CD (or both).  I opted for the CD version, and the experience of hearing the various narrating voices, the sound-scape rather than sight-scape (each lesson on the CD includes a musical transition between sections), and the absence of a text to refer to, all contribute to a remarkable different sense of learning from what I’m used to as a reader.  While I’m also taking an evening course at a seminary, and though that class is, like many, heavily discussion based, there’s a written syllabus (also online), we generally refer to one or more of the ten assigned class texts, and somehow the greater class experience still feels book-based, even though 95% of the in-class work is informal lecture and discussion.

In sum, the CDs have much of the effect of radio — sound builds different experience than vision.  Though the West is at present heavily biased in favor of sight over hearing, there is a primacy to sound that vision cannot touch.  In the beginning, we’re told, was the Word, the creative sound.  Interestingly, the Hindu tradition also begins with sound — Vac or Vak, the original Word.  Hearing wisdom makes it more visceral and immediate.

Posted 12 October 2011 by adruidway in Druidry, experience, knowledge, OBOD, spirituality

You will find more in woods than in books …

“Believe one who knows:  you will find more in woods than in books.  Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters” —  Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

Whether we believe Bernard or not, his claim is eminently testable.  After testing it for yourself, belief is rather beside the point. So what is it that trees and stones teach, and how does it differ from what we can learn from “masters”?  Some of this natural wisdom is difficult to put into words, not out of some obscurantist pseudo-mysticism, but because it is a kind of somatic knowledge — a knowledge the body  gains from doing as opposed to what the mind gains from thinking and conceptualizing.  How do we know how to ride a bicycle?   Once the body acquires the experience, it doesn’t forget — even if the actual knowledge is not something we can usefully put into a set of memorizable “instructions.”  That won’t help.  Your body has to learn how to ride and learn it by muscle memory, and no amount of intellectual learning will bring us closer to such knowledge.  Only experience will do.

moss rock

The bookish culture of medieval and early modern Europe referred to the “Book of Nature” as a source of great wisdom, alongside holy scripture.  For Druids, nature is scripture.  While there is plenty of book learning a Druid can acquire, the beginning and ending of Druidry lies in experience of the natural world.  If there are things I “can never learn from masters,” nevertheless a good master will turn me loose to experience them for myself.  However much I look out my front picture window at the wind bending the ash and the red maple, and the sun shining on them, I know little compared to what I learn feeling the wind on my face and the sun on my skin.  A sense of natural presences — of what have been called spirits, devas, elementals — is also something you can’t gain by thinking, any more than you can meet a new person by thinking about people you already know.  But time outdoors can deliver this new knowledge to you, if you’re patient and alert, and place this knowledge beyond intellectual argument, because it is at least partly somatic knowledge.  The body simply knows.  I found this out myself last week, astonished at the number of presences on the small piece of land where our house sits.  The back yard teemed with beings.  I didn’t have to “believe” in them, anymore than you have to believe in people picnicking near you in a park.  The decision at hand for me was whether or not to greet them.  They were so perfectly who and where they should be that for me it seemed discourteous not to.

Druids Gaming, Fictional and Real

Druids seem to be enjoying a superficial popularity these days.  Games like the world-wide phenomenon of World of Warcraft, a massively multi-player game, typically make up the first several listings on most search engines if you type in “druid.”  These druids are of course characters or roles that players adopt and then develop or “level up” through prolonged experience of the game, in ways both like and very unlike daily life.  Here’s an excerpt from the World of Warcraft Wiki:  “Druids are keepers of the world who walk the path of nature, following the wisdom of the Ancients and Cenarius, healing and nurturing the world. To a druid, nature is a delicate balance of actions, in which even the smallest imbalance can create storming turmoil from peaceful skies. Druids draw their power from this wild energy, using it to change their shapes and command the forces of nature.”

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The French comic series Asterix, better known in Europe than in the U.S., features the druid Getafix (his name, like those of many of the other characters in different translations, is either a pun or play on words):

In the world of fiction a casual reader can also encounter some engaging and reasonably accurate stories that attempt to portray Druids in a balanced way.  Fantasy and historical novelist Morgan Llywelyn has written several fine novels, one of her best being the eponymous Druids.  Set in Celtic Gaul (more or less modern France), the story takes place during the growing conflict between Julius Caesar and the Celtic tribes he is “pacifying.”

The tale is narrated by Ainvar, a young apprentice druid of the Carnutes, a historical Celtic tribe whose homeland was in central Gaul, south-west of the modern capital of Paris.  Ainvar is a “soul friend” (Gaelic anam cara) of Vercingetorix (82-46 BCE), chief of the neighboring Arverni tribe and another historical figure who stood against the incursion of the Romans under Caesar by attempting to unify the fiercely independent Celtic tribes against the Roman general’s encroaching legions.  He is even mentioned in Caesar’s military memoir The Gallic Wars and in a few other ancient sources.

Throughout Llywelyn’s book, several other Druidic practices and beliefs emerge in ways natural to character and story, notably a sense of the sacredness of the land, the interconnectedness of all things, the value of ritual and blessing to imprint events in consciousness and experience, and the balance and pattern of the world, of which humans are a part, and which we ignore at our peril.

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Contemporary British druids in ritual garb (Wikipedia image):

To every thing there is a season …

and a time to every purpose under the heaven, says Ecclesiastes.  Nowadays people say in partial and often unconscious echo, “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s a loaded statement.  In the natural world we can find pattern and order, and much of the appeal of Druidry lies in acknowledging and celebrating such patterns.  The physical world reflects an order that does not depend on human effort, a pattern which recurs and circles and balances itself: dark with light, death with life, decline with renewal.

These are comforting notions, but what of violent crimes,  natural disasters, horrific diseases?  Then the words turn glib and facile, if not downright cruel.  Tell a burn victim, a family made homeless by a tornado, the target of sexual assault that there’s a reason or purpose behind their suffering.  The statements are much less cheery or supportable in such instances.

But the statements assert even more this.  A “reason” suggests the “purpose” of the original quotation, an intention and even an intelligence behind it all, perhaps “out there” in the world, perhaps “in here” in human perception and the urge to make sense of experience.  Is the universe malevolent?  Does it intend us ill?   Or, as many suspect, is it in fact not conscious at all, and wholly indifferent to human presence?


[My wife and I found this  half-ton boulder two years ago when we dug up a new garden area.  It now sits upright in our front lawn, more or less aligned north-south, and it’s starting to acquire a patina of lichen.  Unsought.  Beautiful.]

My experience with Druidry thus far has pointed me toward a perspective that comes through experience rather than principally through argument or rational process.  These questions matter most prior to experience.

It can, for instance, be pleasant to lie in the sun.  Actually lying in the sun delivers this realization after the fact.   The warmth feels good, and the body responds to the heat and light.  But beyond that, the relaxation may bring a discovery about something completely unrelated to sunbathing — a problem or difficulty I’m having. Likewise, the practice of Druidry can put a Druid in the position of discovering and knowing things unsought, without feeling the need to take a position on them either for or against.  You simply know.

Of course we can seek out experiences expressly to test the validity of a belief or opinion for ourselves — that is, after all, good scientific method — but the after-the-fact quality of unsought insight allows one to absorb the experience in a less-conditioned way, without expectations or already-formed conclusions.  Experience is primary, and all our explanations follow.   Otherwise, we’re merely echoing others’ opinions about their experiences.  Once you’ve experienced it yourself, any opinions about it start to matter a lot less.

That’s one reason that Druids I’ve met are tolerant of often divergent beliefs — they know that experience can dissolve doubts and contradictions and disagreements and leave us on the far side of mental processes and constructs, where a new landscape has opened up, and the former questions don’t matter so much any more.  Or they’ve been transformed.  Or new questions have arisen that are much more challenging and engaging.  The world itself has changed for us.

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