Things seem broken right now. These last two weeks have been very hard weeks for many people. The national conversation here in the USA grows more difficult by the day, and it seems nearly every nation is facing many kinds of serious issues. These challenges are happening concurrently at many levels—internationally, but also in communities, we care about, in our families, in our homes. Things are tough. They seem tougher for many of us today than they were yesterday. Many of us fear that they will likely be even tougher tomorrow. This is the reality of industrial decline, the reality of the climate crisis before us.
The question that I’ve had for myself, and my fellow druids is a simple one: what can druidry offer us in these dark times?
I’ve been thinking about the role of druidry in all of this, this question a lot, not only over the last several weeks but over the last few years as it becomes more and more obvious that humanity has chosen for itself a course that we cannot escape from. I wanted to share with you some of my own thoughts and practices that you, too, may find healing and strength in them. I’ll group my answers to this question in three areas, reflecting the three major branches of druidry: that of the bard, the ovate, and the druid, and then offer some overall thoughts on the tradition and druidic philosophy itself.
Bardic Responses: Within and Without
The bardic arts within the druid tradition are varied and multiplicitious. In my OBOD 2018 Mount Haemus Lecture, when I researched the bardic practices of almost 250 druids worldwide, I found that nearly all of them saw their bardic practices first and foremost as a spiritual practice that gave them peace, strength, and the ability to function better in the world. For a much smaller portion of people, art was a medium for them to express their feelings, hopes and dreams–about nature, about the crisis of our age–through their bardic expression. We’ll now consider each of these in turn.
Bardic Arts as Inner Healing
For many of us, during these difficult times, it is important to have something to retreat to. Soemthing that calms us, provides us distance, space, and perspective. For those of us who practice a bardic art, the practice of that art can certainly be a source of refuge. Druids from around the world use the bardic arts as a way of making meaning of the world, processing difficult things, and grounding.
Some bardic practitioners work best when they are in a “healthful” headspace, however, and feel that they can’t create something if they aren’t happy. But my response to that is–create. Express. Get it out. The audience for some of our bardic expressions can be only us, never anyone else, and that is healthful and helpful for these dark times. For me, I use art journaling as a bardic expression that is meant solely as a healing medium–one that nobody else has to see, and not even one I necessarily hold onto after it is completed (I’ve thrown many a journal in the Samhain fires to release the energy I put into them!). The point here is to find something you can do from a bardic perspective: song, dance, drumming, photography, artwork, writing, singing, movement, woodworking, and so on–and let it help you find peace. If you aren’t sure how to get started in this, you might check out my Taking up the Path of the Bard series of artices here, here, and here.
Bardic Arts as Outward Response and Change
It has long been the case that artists, musicians, dancers, singers, storytellers, and the like, helped carry parts of culture with them, respond to culture, and work to change culture through their art. Consider the power of a photograph, a story, or a song. Sometimes, a single image can impact people–and enact changes in perceptions and behaviors–in ways other forms of communication cannot.
And so, for those of us drawn to it, the other way our bardic practices may help us respond and deal with the crisis of our age is through external expressions–bardic practices that help us get our message out there, help us help others, help others see a new perspective, and so on. Unsurprisingly, for me, that’s a lot of the writing I do on this blog–I can’t control what is happening more broadly, but I do feel, at least in this small corner of the web, that I am doing something good. It doesn’t have to be big, the important thing is feeling empowered to do something.
Ovate Responses: Seeking Solace in the Living Earth
Part of the challenge in present culture is the constant flow of information, the constant bombardment. These larger cultural currents seem to crash over and over again like powerful waves, knocking us over, beating us up, and then knocking us over again. Finding ways of shielding against this flow of information and getting regular—and long—breaks from it can be very helpful. For this, I like to find quiet time in nature.
Grounding and Flow, or the Druid Elements of Calas and Gwyar
A while ago on a similar topic, I wrote about the interplay between calas (grounding/stability) and gwyar (flow/adaptablity) and how both are necessary in these times. Seeking solace in nature can offer us either–or both–of these things as we need them.
Seeking the stabilizing forces of nature can help give us strength in these difficult times. Work with stones, the earth, trees, mountains, or caves can be particularly powerful to help connect with Calas and offer us grounding. The Oak tree down by the river is not going to throw re-traumatizing bullshit my direction, she is not going to bombard me with things I don’t want to see, or frustrate me with her lack of integrity. She is simply going to be as she always is: stable, welcoming, and powerful. When I sit with her, and simply breathe. I can sit with her for 5 minutes or 5 hours, and she will always offer me the grounding and stability of her presence.
Similarly, these times require us to be flexible, to be adaptable, and to be willing and ready to change, even if the change is difficult. Nature also offers us the energy of gywar for this purpose, primarily through clouds, wind, and water. When I go out on my kayak on the Clarion river, I am offerd both zero cell phone signal (so no unwanted intrusions) and the activity of learning to go with the flow, to float, and to let the river guide me. Likewise, laying on the solid earth and watching the leaves blow and the clouds flow is another excellent way to connect with this energy.
Retreat and Rejuvenation: Nature Heals
In this broken time, I like to places that are damaged and in the process of healing. Nature is a master healer and learning to read her landscape and the healing that happens in each breath can remind us of our own capacity to heal. Old fields that are now bursting with life, logged forests that are coming back into health. The dandelion, in her bravery, pushed up through the sidewalk and giving no care. The mushrooms on the stumps offer the promise of new beginnings from old wounds, breaking down the old so that the new can come in.
Here in Pennsylvania, almost all of our forests are in a state of healing. 100 years ago, according to the 1898 PA Department of Agriculture Forestry publication, 98% of Pennsylvania’s forests were logged. Stripped bare,, used to support mines, lay rails, and make charcoal for steel production. Some of these forests are so regenerated that its hard to tell that they had ever been damaged. Others show the tell-tale signs of ecosystems still regenerating. I like to go to these places, these healing-in-progress places, and be reminded that nature can heal all wounds, given time. We are part of nature, and therefore, we, too, can heal. You can also take this idea much further by doing a druid retreat–retreat into nature for a time (a few hours, a day, a week or more).
Druid Responses: Stability in our Practices
Spiritual practices offer much in the way of healing and strengthening us in these difficult times, and in the druid arts, these primarily center around the practices of ritual and mediation.
Daily Meditation as Emotionally Beneficial and Balancing
Daily deep breathing, mediation (of any form, but especially nature-based) and simply being quiet for a time can greatly aid us. Even taking three deep breaths when we get upset, maybe closing our eyes for a few moments to let the intense emotions slip away–these simple mediative practices can be incredibly sheltering during these times. More and more research is coming out on the benefits of mediation as a way of promoting more happiness, less anxiety, and better approaches to handling stress and strain. Daily meditation practice offers you such benefits–and certainly, it is a core part of our tradition.
Meditation in the druid tradition is often combined with being in nature–walking meditation, meditation in stillness or focus, or simply, sitting quietly and not allowing your thoughts to overtake you. Discursive meditation also ofters a powerful tool to step back from emotions and think through them.
Here are a few powerful tools:
- Observation meditation: Find something you want to observe for a period of time (an intricate flower, a lizard, a bird, a tree). Do three deep breaths, then return to a normal breath pattern. Observe and be in stillness.
- Oneness meditation: Similar to the above, find a part of nature with which you want to connect. A waterfall, a stone, a tree, etc. Mind your breath and then imagine that part of nature encompasing you, and bringing you in line with its energy. Take that energy within you with each breath, and on each outbreath, release any pain or suffering.
- Discursive meditation. Discursive meditation helps with focused thinking; the idea, in a nutshell, is that you choose a theme for meditation. This can be something that is causing you pain or something you want to understand more. Now, think deeply about it, following one thought to the next. If you find yourself deviating from the original thought, trace it back through. I have found this strategy particularly helpful for working to get at the root of emotions–why am I having this emotion? And once I have the root, I can work on it directly.
The Wheel of the Year and Ritual Work for Clearing and Healing
In the Druid’s wheel of the year, we recognize that the dark times are part of the natural cycle of things, that they are part of life and the passage of time. Still, it is difficult to live in a time of decline, when we know that winter is quickly approaching, and there is nothing we can do to shelter from that storm. Take advantage of the season that is upon us for introspection and healing work that the dark half of the year provides. It allows–and encourages us–to go deeply within, to cast off that which no longer serves us, to re-orient our relationship to the darkness of this time, and to bolster ourselves and strengthen ourselves for what is to come.
Ritual work can be highly effective for this goal. Writing simple rituals for yourself, tied to the wheel of the sun and the phases of the moon (or simply, when you need them) can greatly aid you in these dark times. Rituals don’t have to be elaborate affairs, they can be simple. Some ritual actions you might take include:
- Releasing: Letting go of emotions, feelings, pain, other things that are not serving you any longer. Rituals where you throw things into water or where you release things with water are particularly helpful here.
- Cleansing: simple rituals to cleanse you (particulalry after releasing) can also be helpful here. Smudging with herbs, asperging with water, doing a naked or barefoot forest bath, clearing yourself with the energy of the sun–all of these can be powerful cleansing rituals.
- Energizing/strengthening: Bringing in energy to help bolster you during these difficult times. Drawing in the power of nature, the energy of the sun, the strength of the oak–whatever you need to help strengthen and ground you.
- Shielding: Shielding rituals are particularly effective in this day and age, and I suggest every person develop one and use it if they don’t already have one. I use the AODA’s Sphere of Protection (which offers banishing, energizing, and shielding in one 5-minute or less ritual)–using this daily helps clear me and offer me balance and strength.
These are just some simple ideas–the important point here is to work with nature, work with whatever other powers you have, to find ways of strengthening you, cleansing you, energizing you, shielding you, and releasing the pent up emotions of these hard times.
Druidry as an Alternative Life Philosophy
Observing and interacting with nature in a sacred manner offers us much in the way of re-aligning ourselves, and our worldview, towards that of the living earth. Modern industrial and consumerist culture has a set of beliefs that have spiraled us into many of the challenges we face–and druidry offers us alternative perspectives and philosophies that can be counter-balancing in these times. These include:
- Tertiary thinking. Tertiary thinking encourages us to avoid false binaires and to consider alternative perspectives beyond those which are given
- Recognizing the cycle and season. Modern American culture (and I suspect many others) demands that we are always in what I’ll call “high summer.” High summer is high energy, with lots of activity, long days, and lots of abundance. But life isn’t like that–and the more that you follow and align yourself with a wheel of the year and the cycles of nature, the more that this view will shift into a view that embraces, or at least accepts, that we also go through cycles in our lives, and cycles in our culture.
- Nature as sacred and healing. Unlike much of culture, which sees nature as something that can be exploited, we druids recoginize the sanctity of all life, the sacredness of the living earth, and her power to heal. This can, by extension, put us in a different relationship with everything–for all things, ultimately, come from her and return to her.
- Understanding time differently. Living by the seasons and wheel of the year also puts us in a different relationship with time; rather than time being a line, time can be a circle or spiral, which offers us powerful tools for reflection and strengthening. I wrote more about this in my series on time a few years ago here, here, here, and here.
Druidry as A Response to this Age
If you think about what druidry does, what the different paths do, it very much is a way of reconnecting us with those things that are the most important: our connection with nature, our connection with core practices that sustain us, and our connection with our creative spirit. It offers us tools, strategies, and powerful metaphors to help us adapt, reflect, and ground.
Druidry as a spiritual tradition is a response to our age. As druidry develops, as we figure out what the druidry of the 21st century should be (as opposed to the druidry of the 19th century or even druidry of the 20th century), I think all of us have much to contribute to this conversation. I would love to hear your own thoughts on what druidry–or other earth-centered spiritual practices– do for you, how they help, and what potential it may have for us during these dark times.