Respect and Conduct at Public Sacred Sites

When visiting a sacred site, we can get carried away. We can often forget that at public sacred sites there are others there who are on their own quest, pilgrimage, whatever. We want to rush in, to do the work, to perform ritual, to connect, to sing, chant and celebrate. But we have to think more carefully about shared space.

I recently went to the White Spring with my Druid College Year 3 apprentices. I adore the White Spring; it’s such a lovely site. However, after about 15 minutes various people and groups piled in to temple, and the words “Pagan Circus” comes to mind…

At one point, we had some Druids chanting the awen softly one corner. Lovely. But then another woman began singing in another corner. In a third corner, a man was standing and singing at the top of his lungs (which in that space is really, really loud). Trying to get away from all this noise, I made my way the quietest part of the Mirror Pool in the middle of the temple. I gazed into the water, slowly collecting my thoughts and meditating upon the sacred water, when suddenly three women, two naked and one clothed, clambered into the Mirror Pool, stood in the middle of it and held hands, performing some sort of ritual between themselves. Needless to say, my meditation was, by then, a hopeless cause.

We have so little opportunity to be who we are, especially at such sacred sites as the White Spring. But we also have to bear in mind that this is a public space. There are other Pagans there who are attempting to commune with the energies, the gods and goddesses, the spirits of place, and who don’t need others crashing in on their precious few minutes in that area. These sites are not a Pagan free-for-all. We must respect others and the place. You would never see a group of monks from an abbey in the south of France rock up to Ely Cathedral and suddenly perform Mass, or chant their evensong while the resident monks and visitors alike are doing their thing. We have to bear this in mind, that other people’s experiences are just as important and valid as our own.

And it’s not just Pagans visiting these spaces. The White Spring is open to everyone, from groups of nuns visiting from Spain to families from Yorkshire on a weekend getaway. There are very practical things we need to bear in mind at such places. For one, it’s still illegal to be naked in a public space. For another, not everyone wants to see naked people, for various reasons. Imagine the Catholic nun trying to connect with St Brigid, and then having a group of naked priestesses splashing her habit as they clamber in and out of the sacred pool (there is, indeed, a separate plunge pool for people to dip in, should they wish!). Imagine a primary school teacher asking the young girl what she did on the weekend, and her reply was “Daddy and I went to visit a spring, and watched naked ladies.”

Many of these sacred sites have special out of hours timings for those who wish to hold private ritual. Both Chalice Well and the White Spring offer this, and it should be borne in mind by those who wish to hold ritual at these sites. That way, you won’t be intruding on anyone’s time spent at these sites, or offend anyone who’s beliefs are not your own. It requires advance planning and commitment, but it’s not that hard. I’ve done it myself, and had private time at the White Spring to plunge my naked self in the icy waters with a couple of friends, or visited the Red Spring after closing hours.

Let’s bear in mind other people’s experiences, which are just as valid as our own. Let’s not turn our sacred sites into spaces of competing rituals and rites all happening at the same time. Let’s honour the sacredness of the site, and remember that it’s not just there for us. The energy of these spaces is not only for our own spiritual nourishment. We take, take, take all the time. Receive healing, inspiration and more at these sites, by all means. But remember to give back, by respecting the site, and other people visiting it.

Make it an enjoyable and memorable experience for all.

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Working with Anger, Working with Community

An article by Sophie Dòbhran and Joanna van der Hoeven

As Druids, as Pagans, and also in the role of priestess it can sometimes become really hard to stay connected with people who are cultivating rage and anger towards an event that creates a painful gap between what they wish and what is happening. One reason might be that they seem so shocked towards the event, as if they had just realized that such things are possible in our world. The first surge of anger is necessary, in order to provide a little release from the pain and suffering of the first wounding, but then we keep wounding ourselves again and again by cultivating the anger. And in doing so through our connection with others, we cultivate misery and pain together and nurture our being entitled to it.

Is it in how we resist a situation, and in doing so how we are ourselves nurturing the rage and anger and blind suffering that we so loudly condemn?

Even more troubling, is that it seems that the journey stops there: misery seeks misery, people suffer together then turn the page and go back to watching violent forms of entertainment on television and in the movie theatres but all that’s acceptable in our society. Until the next shocking thing happens. It’s like awakening sporadically is so painful and shocking that it doesn’t stick.

It is so difficult to feel the anger properly, and then to let it go. Anger perpetuates more anger, more suffering, and more pain.

Sometimes we need anger to begin a new motivation, a new revolution. However, a revolt that is perpetually based in anger turns into the riots in the streets of London a few years back, where innocent people were hurt, shops destroyed and more. That sort of anger doesn’t produce any results other than more suffering. Yet the anger that the women of the suffragette movement felt turned into courageous and defiant acts against the establishment that won women the vote, and more rights to come.

We could look at it as differentiating between holding the anger as motivation, or holding the anger as instigation. The preferable way would be the former, and then with a level-head find the solution after gone through the initial suffering. But there is a boiling anger in society that’s continuously being repressed, both here in the UK and in the USA, which will eventually explode if nothing is done about it, if there isn’t an outlet for it. Peaceful demonstrations seem to have little effect anymore on the establishment, and the media can just block it out as if it never happened. So, there’s the anger there, and it’s not going away soon…

Perhaps it has to do with the general isolation that has taken place, people being so disconnected from each other, and from Nature. We are no longer used to being mindful, to listen to silence. We are addicted to all kinds of fake relationships, superficial activities, superficial foods, and so on.

We need to remember that it’s all energy; sometimes the energy of anger isn’t appropriate. And when it’s no longer appropriate, when it becomes harmful instead of leading us out of apathy, for instance, then we need to repurpose that energy into something useful.

“Useful” is something each person must define for themselves, for each situation is unique. In order to do that, we need to step back from the situation and get perspective in order to discern just action. Anger, like a barking dog, can alert us that our boundaries have been crossed. But are we going to let the dog address this situation for us? How about when we cultivate anger together and become a pack of barking dogs?

Perspective needs distance and silence to produce clarity. No one can understand just why we are so angry better than we do. What follows is compassion. Compassion is not always soft and gentle. Sometimes, compassion means strengthening boundaries or raising one’s voice to be heard. Compassion means observing the situation with distance and clarity in order to discern the best path of action inherent to it.

It’s easy to be angry and feel desperate, lost and confused. Or to think that a public demonstration will change things, because we are now used to getting immediate satisfaction all the time. And yet if we truly pay attention, we realize that we can truly cultivate the change we want to see in the world. On a much smaller scale, maybe, but it is real and it is tangible, and it is satisfying.

Given that we are already what we condemn, we never have to look very far to create mindful actions that reverse that negative flow. It doesn’t change the world or impact politicians, but it changes our world, from our nemeton to another’s nemeton. Aren’t our nemetons microcosms?

Druidry is a religion based on locality first and foremost, and so, when we are upset or angry, it’s our immediate locality that bears the brunt of it. Our immediate locality is also the thing that we can affect most in our lives. When we’re angry at the government or our employers, we can do what we can to be heard: writing letters, signing petitions, talking and organizing unions, etc. But we have no control over what happens after that.

However, in our own environment, in our own bodies and for the most part, in our own houses and land we do have some control, and these are the areas that we can affect to effect change. Only we can change ourselves. We can think and act locally first and foremost, instead of the usual “think globally, act locally” because our range of influence is not all-encompassing. We can think all we want (and post all we want on social media), but that does not effect change. If we bring it down into bitesize chunks that we can handle, then we’re able to really do the work that needs doing.

So, we work in our area, to clear litter, to do ritual work, to contact the Fair Folk, to work with the ancestors and the spirits of place because that is where we live, because that is where we get our nourishment and sustenance. It is also useful to become members of their parish council, or join other committees in the community. That way, we have a real vote on planning applications and housing developments, environmental and health issues and more. In doing so, our environment affects us and we affect it. Then, like little ripples from a pond, that changed and charged energy can spread out. We create an effect in the world.

Think of your locality, think of your tribe. When your tribe is strong, let that energy permeate the rest of the world. This is not to say that we must become insular, separatist and isolated, but more as a ways and means of really affecting change in our own worlds. Become aware of the energy of anger, and how it is being used. Take care of your community, of your locality, and be conscious of the choices you are making and the reasons behind those choices. When we are conscious of our behaviour, we work with right action, and our work will benefit in a holistic pattern that emanates from a strong and true core of personal sovereignty.

Sophie Dòbhran was born in Quebec and lives in a farmhouse on a small island near Quebec city with her husband, her son, two cats and a dog. She studied under Swami Premananda Saraswati for a certification in Hatha yoga and also studied with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. She joined the Sisterhood of Avalon in 2014 and has been actively cultivating an avalonian spiritual practice since. She facilitates Red Tents once a month, as well as druidic rituals and an SOA learning circle in her community. To find out more, visit her website at http://www.ileauxpommes.wordpress.com.  

Joanna van der Hoeven is a Druid, Witch and a best-selling author. She has been working in Pagan traditions for over 20 years and is also a member of the Sisterhood of Avalon. She is the Director of Druid College UK, helping to re-weave the connection to the land and teaching a modern interpretation of the ancient Celtic religion. To find out more, please visit http://www.joannavanderhoeven.com

Hope

Hope can be a double-edged sword. It can lift our hearts, rally us towards a cause, or it can lead us to the depths of despair when it dies. I’ve often wondered whether it is better to have hope or not, whether hope is a carrot dangling in front of us, or whether it is that very real need to invest our emotions into the belief that we can change our world. Back in 2012, I wrote about the Zen approach, in a piece entitled “No Hope“. The words that I wrote four years ago still resonate strongly within me, even as my relationship to hope has changed.

When we are at our lowest, we might still have some hope that things will get better. This hope may be the only thing that gets us through those long, dark nights of the soul. Then again, that hope may be what is preventing us from achieving things in our own right. Hope may cause complacency. If we work without hope, without expectation, then we may be even more motivated to make a positive change in the world in our own right, for the benefit of all.

With hope comes expectation. When we have expectations, we can be thrown against the rocks of frustration, anxiety, anger and despair when those expectations are not met, when things do not go the way that we would like them to. We want people to behave the way we think they should, for the benefit of all. We want our politicians to think of the people that they represent instead of their own agendas. We want colleagues to pull their own weight, spouses and partners to be there for us, children to love us. When things don’t go according to our plans, or according to our expectations, we might crash and burn. We might dive into darkness at seeing a new President-elect, we might look at the environment and realise that perhaps we have simply gone too far, and there is no remedy for what we have done. When this happens, we can lose momentum, we can get stuck. Hope might be the thing that brings us out of this stagnation, or it might leave us altogether, so that we are in an even worse state than before.

So how do we work with hope? I’ve found it useful in the last couple of years to work with Hope as a god. I’ve worked with Time in the same context, and it has been illuminating for me in so many ways. Working with the gods, we learn to create a relationship with them, one that is nurturing for all involved. There is a give and take, a sustainable and reciprocal feeling to it that means that we cannot rely on them to do everything for us, and vice versa. It is in mutual respect where we meet, where we realise that we are part of an ecosystem, and where we need to strengthen the bonds of relationship so that it functions for mutual benefit. We learn from permaculture that diversity is key, that edges are where things happen. We learn to work with both, and in doing so can make this planet a better place. If we give up Hope in this context, if we give up Hope as deity, then there will be a very real feeling of bereavement in our lives; we will be bereft. That relationship will be gone, and when it is gone then to whom do we relate?

Others would say that this might be preferable, and in giving up Hope as deity we then become more self-reliant. But self-reliance is a myth. We are all co-dependent upon everything else on this planet. We do not exist in a vacuum. We need others in order to exist, let alone thrive. We are not separate. Without the innumerable other factors in our lives, beings seen and unseen, we simply could not be. I think that this is why I believe in the gods. The gods are all about relationship, about relating to our world through a means which is personal to each and every being. This is why I’m starting to work with Hope on a new level, when it seems perhaps that all hope is lost. Otherwise, I fear I might spiral into apathy, or depression. If I work with Hope, if I talk to Her and connect those threads of sustainable relationship, then I might be inspired to solve a problem, mend something that is broken, reweave the threads of connection in the best way that I can.

Hope can be the spark of inspiration, the awen that sings to us in the dead of night when all seems lost. Hope can also be a force that keeps us from changing our lives for the better, hoping someone else, someone more powerful or intelligent will do it for us. But when we work with Hope as deity, then things begin to change. Hope will not save us from ourselves. But Hope may inspire us to do better, to be better, to be the change that we wish to see in the world.

Or so one can only Hope.

The Stoic Druid – Part Two

Running a little behind in my course on Stoicism, I’m now getting up to date on the second week’s programme. This section challenges me to live in accord with Stoic values (virtues) and to set consistent goals in my daily life. It focuses more on my intentions and actions, i.e., my behaviour throughout the day. The ancient Stoics viewed their ethics as the very cornerstone of their philosophy. I also see my ethics as the cornerstone of my Druidry.

Living in accordance with nature is the goal of the Stoic. While many see have translated this as “living in accordance with virtue” for me it is the same thing. To live a life in balance and harmony with the natural world is to live a life of virtue. But what is virtue?

The dictionary’s first two definitions of virtue are:

  1. moral excellence; goodness; righteousness.
  2. conformity of one’s life and conduct to moral and ethical principles; uprightness; rectitude.

There are other definitions, such as chastity and virginity, but these are irrelevant to the topic. What is important is that the Stoic definition of virtue is not the same as the modern definition that often is confused with righteousness, but is rather a striving for excellence in living in accordance with one’s ethical principles, a flourishing of that which makes us live well. Many people when they first hear the word “virtue” they think of someone who thinks they are better than someone else, and this is simply not the case in Stoicism. Valued living is often replacing virtue in both modern-day Stoicism as well as psychology, and this term is less confrontational as well as being more descriptive.

So, this week is all about learning what is under my control, and what is not. It’s a very Zen way of thinking, which I can relate to easily. Stoicism also throws in a few other concepts, such as when we act or behave well, we are working with virtue, and when we are acting or behaving badly, we are working with vice. Again, we have to remember the Stoic’s definition of virtue and vice, where virtue is living well and in accordance with nature, and vice is not. Everything not under our control is termed indifferent. The Stoic definition is something that we have no control over, fortune and misfortune. We might be striving towards personal excellence, and this is virtue, however, we might be working under conditions of illness or physical pain, over which we have no control. It is preferred, of course, to be hale and healthy, and the preferred does make an appearance in this section of the work. So, to sum it up, we have:

  1. Externals, such as health, wealth, and reputation, which are merely “preferred” and
  2. Virtues, such as wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline, which are considered the chief “good” in life.

So, this week I begin by working with “values clarification”. This is an exercise which I’ve fallen out of the habit of doing, as I have done it previously in my Zen Buddhist studies. It is asking “are you sure” or “is that so” when you react to a situation or when you define your life in general. It is realising that your perception is only a tiny point on the compass, and that there are 359 other degrees from which to view it. It is questioning everything that we say or do, questioning our goals and how we live, questioning very deeply, and requires a lot of attention and focus.

To quote Marcus Aurelius:

“To what use then am I putting my own soul? Never fail to ask yourself this question and to cross-examine yourself thus: “What am I making of this part of me they call the ‘central faculty’ of the mind? And whose soul do I have now anyway? The soul of a child? Of a youth? […] Of a tyrant? Of a grazing animal? Of a wild beast?” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.11

And so, the fundamental questions that are posed to me on this course right now are:

  • What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?
  • What do you want your life to “stand for” or “be about”?
  • What would you most like your life to be remembered for after you’ve died?
  • What sort of thing do you most want to spend your life doing?
  • What sort of person do you most want to be in your various relationships and roles in life, e.g., as a parent, a friend, at work, and in life generally?

To begin with, what is the most important thing in life to me? It’s a hard choice, between my family and working towards creating a world where nature is honoured. In fact, the two are indeed a part of each other, for my blood relatives are an extension of my connection to the entire world – they are just more immediate to me DNA-wise. The most important thing is that the world we live in, nature and the natural world, is respected, not abused and is loved so that all future generations of beings can enjoy it.

What do I want my life to stand for or be about? I would like my life to stand for working together to create peace and harmony with the natural world, with each other, co-existing as we do on this little ball of rock hurtling through space. I’d like my life to be about re-enchanting our souls with the wonder of nature, of the gods and the ancestors, the spirits of place that have such meaning and provide us a context for our lives wherever we are in the world.

What would I like to be remembered for? I hope that in my work as a Druid, my words and deeds inspire others in their reverence for the land and for the past, present and future ancestors.

What sort of thing to I want to spend my life doing? What I am doing now, writing and sharing my experiences on the Druid path, hoping to gain a little wisdom and insight, and sharing the awen in a continuous cycle of inspiration and creativity.

What sort of person do I most want to be in my various relationships and roles in life? As a Druid, one works in harmony with nature. As an author, one whose words inspire. As a friend, someone who supports and is there for others. In life, someone who is genuine, living life to the fullest in harmony, and in doing so honouring the gods, the ancestors, my friends, colleagues, readers, neighbours, spirits of place and so on.

Now it’s my turn to consider these responses for the next few days, to see if they change, or how true they remain. To talk to friends and family, to share points of view. We then move on to more questions, to delve deeper into personal ethics, but first, I’m going to spend a good few days here, really defining my terms and finding the truth in the words.

 

Letting Go: Beware the Children of Anger

Letting go is truly a difficult thing to do, and yet seems so simple. Human beings, with their human consciousness, are just not that simple.

I’ve written before on how letting go is a process we have to repeat over and over again; it’s not a one-time event. We have to continually make the choice to let go, in order to truly live our lives in the present moment, in the here and now, emotionally responsible for ourselves and finding an ethically sound way of being in the world. I haven’t discussed the finer process of letting go, however, in any great detail and here are a few words from my own experience.

People are going to hurt us in one way or another, based upon expectations, behaviour, upbringing, environment and a whole host of factors that we simply have no control over. Our response to this is what is most important: our response-ability. When we have the ability to respond in a thoughtful, compassionate way then we are truly working to be a part of the world, a weave of the web that strengthens the whole.

Yet it is so hard to be compassionate when people deliberately hurt us, and sometimes even when it’s not deliberate but perhaps uncontrolled aggression from their past experience, current physical pain or more. But the ability to understand that there are more factors involved in any given situation that you are simply unable to perceive is at the heart of compassion. Compassion is a willingness to understand.

People have hurt me in the past, willingly and unwillingly. Colleagues and co-workers, lovers, strangers; there is no telling where the next experience will come from. However, noticing the stages that we go through when we are being hurt can help us on the path to letting go with an awareness that will allow us to not slip into the easy patterns of denial, whether that is of our own behaviour or that of others.

When we are hurt, usually our first response is anger. For most people, anger is something that time heals, though the length of time is relative to the person and their situation. Anger isn’t the most difficult thing to move through, as we can recognise anger much more easily than its children: pity being one of them. Often when we move through anger towards pity, we don’t know that we are still dealing with anger, with an abstract notion of the other person. Pity does not have empathy. Pity does not have anything to do with compasssion. Pity is the result of dualistic thinking, of an Us and Them mentality. We pity someone because we are separate from them. Pity is so often tinged with bitterness and anger that they are almost inseparable. When we have finished being angry with someone, we move on towards pitying them, in a passive/aggressive way of still attacking them. Pity the poor fool.

When we bypass pity through working around our anger, we find empathy instead, which holds no judgement of the individual.

Sometimes pity is replaced with its older sibling: contempt. We have been a victim of someone’s abuse, and though we realise we are no longer going to take their crap, we hold them in high contempt for putting us through that. They may have spent months trying to hurt us in various ways; we are so over that now and could they just get in with their own lives, please? So trapped in their little world, so lost…

Contempt is just as easy a trap to fall into as pity. Again, contempt has absolutely no compassion, no element of trying to understand involved in its process; it seeks only to make us feel better about ourselves. In the web of existence, we can’t just work on ourselves: we have to work on the whole.

We don’t have to stick around for further abuse, but we do have to be on our guard for feelings such as pity and contempt to flag up the fact that we haven’t actually moved on, we haven’t let go of our anger, we’ve only put a new hat on it and deceived ourselves with its shiny new appearance. When we find ourselves dancing with the feelings of contempt or pity, we can stop, untangle ourselves, bow and walk away, breathing into the wild winds of change. We know that we can choose our dance partners, and in that choosing find glorious freedom and self-expression. We know that we are part of an eco-system, part of a whole, where every part is acknowledged and sacred. The flows of the gods of humanity that we choose to dance with, however, it entirely up to us.

In the Key of Bee…

One of the perks of working for a music and arts organisation is the inside scoop on really interested projects.  One of my colleagues has just finished this video on one of our Artist’s Residency projects, and I had to share!

Rafting the currents of emotion

Tomorrow my students and colleagues gather round for our second weekend of Druid College in the lovely Essex countryside. During this first year, we are introducing and exploring the three realms of land, sea and sky, as well as sacred fire at the centre for the final weekend. This coming weekend, we move from the realm of the land to the realm of the sea.

A part of working with the realm of the sea is learning to work with emotions. As living creatures, we experience all sorts of things and transmute that experience into thoughts and memories, forming our worldview. We are creatures that feel, and feel very deeply, with a wide range of emotions. What I will be exploring with my students this weekend is the current of emotion that runs through humanity, and how we can better work in the world by rafting these currents with skill and compassion.

I’m sure we all know people whose emotions seem to rule their entire world: people who lead reactionary lives. If they are upset or experience any sort of negative emotion, they lash out, immediately trying to hurt another in response to a hurt that they have experienced themselves. This is a cycle that is self-perpetuating, but only if we engage with it. When we become actively involved in our emotions, rather than reactionary, we are better able to deal with situations that could otherwise cause harm both to ourselves and to others.

As Druids, we understand that we are part of a wider functioning of the world, that we are part of an eco-system. We know that in order for us to survive, we must work towards the benefit of the whole rather than just our own well-being and satisfaction. We must work together to create a cohesive, sustaining environment in which to live, and that will continue to ensure the survival of the whole. We know that there is no separation.

If we allow our emotions to rule us, we disassociate ourselves from this integrated perspective, and become self-centred in our point of view. Often it comes in the form of “saving face”, or seeking to undermine others, all the variants that our brilliant minds can come up with or order to justify bad behaviour. We are such intelligent creatures that we are able to delude ourselves in order for our egos to remain intact.

When we step away from this ego self-preservation in its abusive context, we are able to raft the currents of emotion with much better skill. We are not ruled by our emotions, but rather allow them to inform us of our experience in life, and then take the useful information and use it without prejudice in order to provide our lives with a balance and harmony that any healthy ecosystem enjoys. We know that this doesn’t mean that we don’t feel emotions, but rather we feel them even more deeply, because we are thinking about them as well as feeling them. We are able to put them into a context, seeing the reason why we do the things we do, and better able to understand others in the process. Even in the face of an emotional storm, we are able to see the situation more clearly, feel the emotion more deeply, and work towards a resolution that is not self-destructive or that perpetuates abuse in any shape or form.

It takes time, energy and skill to be able to do this, but the key component is compassion. When we see in others all that is negative in ourselves, we are able to understand and in understanding lies the heart of compassion. When we are able to see all that is positive in another being, we are inspired and in that inspiration lies the heart of the quest in Druidry: awen.

We think deeply, we feel deeply. Yet we are responsible for our actions, our behaviour. We take this responsibility very seriously, and work to stop destructive habits and emotions that threaten the wellbeing of the ecosystem in whatever shape or form it takes.

Being aware of your emotions is not something easily done. It’s so easy to think that we are self-aware, but even thinking that can be a delusion. What we can do is work to the best of our ability to be self-aware, and remember that the integration, the part of being a whole is at the heart of Druidry, enabling us to create long-lasting, deep sustainable relationships. We put aside our self-centredness and see the vast perception of a holistic worldview that is truly and deeply inspiring, allowing us a freedom that we never thought possible.