Busy here getting the Zen Druidry online course ready, so apologies for the haphazard posting of late!
Here’s a short excerpt from the upcoming online Zen Druidry course, that delves deeper into the subject matter that was introduced in my first book, Zen Druidry as part of the Pagan Portals introductory books series. This course is quite extensive, with practical exercises, video links, audio files and more. We hope to release it by the Winter Solstice – keep everything crossed!
This excerpt is from the Wheel of the Year section, where each festival is looked at in depth and culminates in practical work that combines the elements of Zen Buddhism and Druidry.
The days are becoming longer, and though the air is still cold, the first signs of Spring emerge.
Extract from Zen Druidry: Living a Natural Life with Full Awareness by Joanna van der Hoeven:
At Imbolc we welcome the lengthening days and the first of the flowers, with the snowdrops coming into season. For those that celebrate by the calendar, Imbolc occurs on the 2nd February. I prefer to celebrate when the snowdrops are out, as I find this more in tune with the seasons. This could happen anytime from beginning of January to as late as March, depending on the winter. Imbolc is also the time when the sheep begin to produce milk – ewe’s milk, which is where we get the name Imbolc from. For our ancestors, this was a celebratory time, when cheeses and butter could once again be made to replenish the winter stores. Again, the milking time can occur anytime in February onwards – it’s always a joy to watch the fields and wait to see the new lambs scampering, flipping their ridiculous tails! This is a time for preparing the seeds of what we wish to achieve in the coming year, dreamt up over the long winter nights, but not yet ready to plant – we must still keep these dreams safe. With Zen, we can apply Right Concentration to this time of year, and focus on total immersion in the present moment.
As we have been using Right Mindfulness in the time from the Winter Solstice to the time of Imbolc, we will notice in our environment when the first snowdrops come out, the increasing amount of sunlight each day, the slow warming of the earth. We will feel the energy softly changing, moving from an introspective feel outwards towards the growing light.
The festival of Imbolc is one of gentle joy. Agriculturally our ancestors in the British Isles celebrated the time of lactation, when ewes first began to produce milk. The winter stores could be replenished with fresh milk and cheeses, to last the hungry time through Spring until the land began to offer her bounty once more and awake from her winter’s slumber. Imbolc is also a Fire Festival in the Celtic year, along with Samhain, Beltane and Lughnasad. The goddess Brighid has long been associated with this festival. She is a goddess of fire and water, of healing, poetry, smithcraft and more. This festival became Christianised as Candlemas, again showing the fire aspect of this time. The growing sunlight is reflected through earthly fire and flame. There are many ways to celebrate Imbolc, including household blessings, the making of Bride dolls, Brigid’s crosses, and more.
Become aware of how fire is a central aspect of your life, in all its manifestations. Give thanks when your central heating comes on. Give thanks for the sunlight that keeps our planet from becoming an ice cube hurtling through space. Give thanks for the gas that powers your stove/cooker, allowing you to have a hot meal. Look into a candle’s flame, or a fire in the hearth, and commune with the spirit of fire. Look at how fire is manifested within the body, in energy, emotion and more.
The Druid pays attention to her surroundings. With Right Concentration (sometimes referred to as Right Focus) she can hone her skills in mindfulness. Concentrating on being fully present, little will escape our attention and we will live a more integrated life with the natural world around us. Right Concentration is a skill that can be achieved through daily meditation. We begin with focusing on the breath and the body in meditation, and keeping our concentration centred within. We then move that focus outwards, without losing the concentration that keep us from distractions, from our chattering “monkey mind“.
It is easy to berate ourselves for not having enough concentration in our lives. In fact, when we look at modern-day society, we see that we are being bombarded by things that actually lessen our ability to concentrate for any period of time. We have smart phones that allow us to stop whatever it is we are doing at any given moment (apart from driving, we hope!) and look at/think about something else. We have telephones that ring us when we are at home. We have television shows, sometimes divided into 4-7 minute segments (mostly American shows) with advertising breaks in between. Our attention spans are becoming shorter and shorter simply through the media that we use. Twitter has a 140 character length, and if you can’t communicate what you have to say in that short space then you can’t say it at all. Their Vine app makes looping videos that are only 6.5 seconds long. The list continues.
We have to relearn how to concentrate, how to bring our awareness in directed focus on a subject in order for our minds, bodies and lives to begin to settle once more. As infants, we absorbed information in rapt attention, no matter if it was a light shining overhead or our mother’s voice. Toddlers exploring the world are intensely focused, beginning with their first steps and then on their goal. We begin to lose our abilities to concentrate with the more information we have to hand, thinking that we can absorb it all without actually realising the repercussions it has on our lives. Technology has advanced so much that our human bodies simply aren’t able to cope with the information overload, and we need to take a step back and refocus.
Most of the information we are receiving is not necessary to our daily function. Reading some celebrity’s tweet will not put dinner on the table. Checking replies to our Facebook status will not get our toilets cleaned. If you’ve spent a media-free day a week during the Winter Solstice to Imbolc period, then you probably have realised the benefit of stopping the information overload.
We begin with a simple candle meditation, incorporating the fire aspect of the season and the one-pointed focus required in this meditation. Sit before a candle, and simple watch its flame. When thoughts arise, notice them by saying “lunch” or “meeting” or “cat” and then let it go, returning your focus to the candle’s flame. If you have a family, it might be better to do this meditation either early in the morning or late at night when everyone is in bed. It doesn’t matter how many times you have to bring your focus back to the candle – what matters most is that you do it. Bring your attention and concentration back however many times you need to. Concentration is a skill, and any skill is something which is developed over time. It doesn’t happen in an instant.
Now is the time to take it a step further. Literally.
Walking meditation is a brilliant way draw focus into what we are doing, and help us to integrate with our natural surroundings on the Druid path. We can think of each step we take as kissing the earth, celebrating our love for life on this planet. Walking meditation began as an interlude to zazen, or sitting meditation, to allow the meditator to continue with their meditation while easing their body from a sedentary pose to a moving one, allowing for good circulation and bringing some exercise into the practice.
Walking meditation can be done indoors or outdoors. Zendos (Zen centres) will accommodate both practices in their buildings, but incorporating the Druid path into our spirituality means that we need to engage further with the natural world around us. Remaining indoors has its benefits, enabling us to concentrate better with less distractions, however, we can practice this outdoors with great joy. We can then let this practice become part of our lives to such a great extent that we walk mindfully, aware of our movements wherever we go, whatever we are doing. It requires Right Concentration. Do what you can, whether indoors or out.
Not only will we benefit personally from walking meditation, but the land will benefit as well. If we walk with love and with joy, instead of walking with anger or suffering, the land will also share in this experience. Too often we believe that we are the only beings experiencing, however, we can walk in the rain and experience the rain, knowing that the rain is also experiencing us. Let us make this a good experience.
With the exercise and fresh air, we also release stress and anxiety, as well as developing a practice that allows us to be in the world by silencing our monkey mind and embracing the world as it really is.
If you are lucky enough to have a backyard, these are ideal places to begin. It is out of doors, and relatively quiet, safe and secure. If you don’t have a backyard, you can try a local park that you feel is safe and secure, or a botanical garden, or even a friend’s backyard (with their permission, of course!). If you live deep in the heart of a city and don’t feel that you are able to access public parks with safety on your own, ask a friend or relative to join you. If you have wild stretches of forest or heathland at your doorstep, go for it, but do ensure that someone is aware of where you are going, and what you are doing. Again, take someone along if it makes you feel more at ease. If you have a young family, doing walking meditation with them is a great way to spend time together.
Barefoot walking is a great way to bring focus and attention to each and every step. However, it depends on your circumstances and whether this is a safe thing to do. Broken glass and other debris on city streets are not conducive to good barefoot walking meditation; neither is walking through gorse-laden brush in adder country. Be safe and responsible.
Really notice the feel of movement in your body as you slowly take one step, then another. Engage your whole foot in the step, touching the ground with the heel first, then rolling all the way to the tips of the toes. Be aware of what both feet are doing at the same time. This is surprisingly difficult at first, but it will hone your concentration. Breathe mindfully as if in meditation. Feel the air on your skin, the sunlight or the rain. Notice the light or darkness, the sounds and scents. Do not become lost in these, however; simply notice. Notice without judgement. You can even say to yourself “sunlight”, “dog barking”, “snowdrop”, “icy path” and allow your awareness of everything to keep you going. When you find the mind starting to wander, or you feel you begin to judge something, bring your attention back into your feet and your breath.
Walk as slowly or as quickly as feels comfortable. Most Zen walking meditation is done slowly, but some Zen centres do practice kinhin quickly, to get the blood flowing. As with everything, mindfulness is key. Do this every day if you can, noticing how your environment is changing through the seasons.
Some things to consider from Imbolc to the Spring Equinox are:
- Look at how fire manifests in your life. Look at the inner fire within. See how fire can destroy as well as bring nourishment and comfort. Learn how to harness the power of fire responsibly.
- Do the candle meditation each day, and then begin walking meditation after you have sufficiently honed your concentration with the candle meditation.
- Be kind and gentle with yourself. This is a season which can be difficult, even as it was for our ancestors, who lived through the lean months of Spring until food sources became more abundant.
- Do a house-blessing – research various forms or come up with your own.
- Prepare the seeds of your intention that you kept safe over Samhain and dreamt over during the Winter Solstice. Find out what they will require to bring them into fruition, but do not plant them just yet. Wait until the sun is a little stronger, the air a little warmer, and life generally a little more forgiving. Learn the value of patience.