Living a Charmed Life

While the winds howl outside as winter lets us know that just because we have celebrated Imbolc, it doesn’t yet mean Spring is here, I have taken the last two weeks to rest in solitude. Staying home, organising and having a big clear-out, cleaning and simplifying has been a challenging fortnight. After the big family gatherings and the busy pace of the Yuletide holidays, Imbolc is often a quiet time for reflection. Being thrust into solitude after weeks spent with happy, noisy family members can be quite a shock to the system, but there are lessons to be learned with everything in life.

I give thanks that I have a home, a beautiful home that shelters me from the winter’s rages. As I lie in bed and hear the wind whipping around the house, the rain lashing against the window panes I remember that there are many who do not have this luxury, both human and non-human. As I walk outside in my garden, seeing the snowdrops and the crocus, the daffodils and the hellebore in flower I am reminded of the quiet, elegant beauty that exists even as the torrential storms pass overhead. The white serpent energy is slowly stirring in the ground beneath my feet, connecting all the areas of these sacred isles in a web of existence upon whose threads we can travel, if we dare. The hearth flame is utterly sacred, whether it is candles burning upon the mantlepiece or a cozy fire crackling in the evening. Being utterly awake to all these things reminds me of the constant stream of blessings and the sacredness of everything. There is nothing mundane in this world.

Chanting prayers to Brighid upon rising, giving thanks as the sun shines upon a new day, singing songs to the land as I dig into the earth of my garden, I know that there is no separation between what is sacred and what is not. I have come to realise that reciting little chants and prayers throughout the day helps to remind me of the sacredness of each and every moment, from preparing and eating food to cleaning the floors and windows, to laying myself down each night in the shelter of my home, my husband and cats with me. Inspired by the charms and chants, blessings and prayers found in works such as the Carmina Gadelica has led me to create my own, which is an incredibly fun thing to do in and of itself. But when applied to everyday life, singing my prayers throughout the day I really feel an ever deeper connection to the gods, the ancestors and the spirits of place. I can’t take them for granted anymore.

It brings a whole new meaning to living a charmed life.

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Blessings of Imbolc!

http://www.paintingdreams

Brighid by Wendy Andrew http://www.paintingdreams.co.uk

 

Blessings of Imbolc!

It has been a mild winter here in the UK, and though where I live in Suffolk we haven’t had any floods, the ground is wet and squishy (where it isn’t sandy) and everything is looking forward to a good drying out. The little lawn out back has done its usual shift from grass to moss, and is utterly delightful underfoot (though wet). Deer and pheasants are regular visitors, especially now that food is becoming scarce and we put out birdseed, apples and bread daily. My husband did the RSPB Birdwatch yesterday, and we had a good number of different species to record and submit.

The land is stirring slowly from its light slumber. Last weekend at Druid College we noticed the blackthorn is in flower already, and we had two daffodils over the winter solstice on the south slope of our garden. The buds are on the birch and apple trees, the crocuses are poking through, and colour is slowly returning to the green and brown palette of winter.

As we were out walking yesterday, we felt the sun upon our backs, stronger and warmer than it had been for a long time. The scents from the ground rose to greet our noses with a wonderful sharp, earthy smell. The birdsong is changing, and the badger mums are out in full force foraging to keep their bellies full and provide milk for their young.

It’s a soft time of year, when things happen slowly, unlike the Spring Equinox, when everything seems to happen at lightning speed. We awaken groggy from our slumber, and move with care, taking our time and not rushing anything. This is the goddess Brighid’s time, a deity of infinite patience and understanding, of mindfulness and co-operation.

Tonight I shall be holding vigil after sunset, and on the morrow honouring Her with all that I am. Having spent the last three years getting to know Her better, a shift in our relationship seems nigh, and I eagerly anticipate working with Her guidance and inspiration on an even deeper level. She is the land of Britain itself, the green paddocks and pastures, the brown heathland, the dark forests and wind-swept moors. She is the serpent energy lying just beneath the surface of the earth, stirring it awake with her sinuous movement. She is the holy well and sacred flame. She is inspiration. She is the adder basking in the sun, the ewe and the lamb, the cattle that is so much a part of our history.

I know not what this year holds, but I do know that I walk it with Brighid.

 

I kindle my soul with the flame of Brighid:

Flame of courage, flame of joy.

Blessings of the deep well be upon me:

Drops of awen on my lips, on my work.

May Brighid guide me in my endeavours

This day and every day.

 

I lay myself upon the anvil of Brighid;

May my soul be tempered by experience,

May my heart be strengthened with compassion,

May my thoughts be shaped by love,

May I walk forth anew with the blessings of Brighid,

The Forger and the Flame.

Excerpt from my upcoming Zen Druidry Online Course

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.

Imbolc

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Do the candle meditation each day, and then begin walking meditation after you have sufficiently honed your concentration with the candle meditation.
  3. 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.
  4. Do a house-blessing – research various forms or come up with your own.
  5. 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.

The blessing of Imbolc

Fantasy artwork by Mictones

Fantasy artwork by Mictones

Imbolc is fast approaching. Here in my garden in the UK, the crocuses are starting to come out, and a lone daffodil stands courageously amidst the dried, chopped stalks of last year’s growth. Traditionally, it was the time when the ewes began to lactate, providing much needed milk for the farmers whose food stores were becoming low. Nowadays, the sheep are birthing at different times of the year – at one farm here where I live in Suffolk, the farmer timed it so that they would birth during the Christmas holidays, as that was when he had the most time to dedicate to them, to see to their health and welfare during this time. Luckily for all, it has been a mild winter, all things considered – I would hope that if weather conditions were harsh, the farmer would be prepared to bring them all indoors. Some pagans celebrate Imbolc when the first snowdrops are out, but again that could be anywhere from beginning of January to March, weather depending. I’ve even seen snowdrops out on a sunny bank in December. Most Pagans today follow the festivals by the calendar year, and the 2nd of February (or the evening before, as the Celts began their day at sunset) is when this special time is celebrated.

It is also a festival connected to Brighid, whether it be the Celtic goddess or the Irish saint. If you do a little research into Her, you will find many connotations, associations and roles that she plays both in mythology and in the cycles of life and death. For me, Brighde as I know her is a little less known; she is the White Serpent of Albion.

You won’t find much lore relating to this aspect of Her. This is based on small snippets of information and a huge amount of experiential ritual, practice and connection. She first came to me several years ago at Imbolc, as I was performing a solitary ritual in my backyard on the mossy ground beneath the beech tree. I placed my hands upon the soft earth, grounding and feeling the earth’s energies stirring as the growing heat of the sun shone on my head and shoulders. An image of a large, coiled white serpent or a dragon beneath the dark earth sprang into my mind. The serpent was slowly stirring, rising up through the ground, slowly uncoiling towards the warmth and light from its dark and comfortable winter slumber. A flash, and suddenly I was connected to sacred sites across this whole island – Avebury and Glastonbury, stone circles in the Scottish Highlands, dolmen in Ireland and Wales, the tumuli several fields over. As quickly as it flashed through my mind it was gone, but I felt the energy, the connection thrumming through my veins for days afterwards. Even simply thinking about that experience brings the connection back, though every now and then I go to my little sacred spot in the garden and perform this ritual again, to re-establish or reaffirm that connection when the need arises.

This is Brighde as I know Her. The serpent energy that connects and flows through these lands. Her gift is awen, inspiration, the fire in the head and the fire in the belly. There is fire within her serpentine body, fire in the sky that she rises towards in her journey throughout the year. After the summer solstice she begins her descent again into the earth, into the darkness. Nwyfre, the life force, flows through her; she is the life force itself. Where she touches flows awen, inspiration and connection to that force. It is beautiful and powerful, a kind of power that sparks the soul and body into action, into seeing beyond the self and into a whole other world that might otherwise go unnoticed. Through that connection, everything is sacred.

I’ve worked with Brighde’s serpent energy for a couple of years now, and it sings to me in times of joy and in times of despair. When I need that connection I can simply remember that moment, if I am not able to go outside and touch the earth. Touching the earth is such a great experience – every Pagan should try it. It takes the gods, the ancestors, the elements out of an abstract and into being. It is life and death, the cycle, the spiral, the great dance.

And so I look forward to this special time of year, and re-establishing that connection, feeling my energies rising even as the serpent below me uncoils towards the surface. I can feel it in my spine, chakras opening as the serpent rises through my body. I can feel it humming in the spirals of my DNA. I can feel it resonating throughout the spiral galaxy and beyond.

I wish you all a blessed Imbolc and Brighde’s blessing to you all.

Imbolc

snowdropslambs Imbolc – when the first signs of Spring begin to appear after a dark winter on these British Isles.  I have always found this seasonal celebration to be one of the “softer” celebrations – the quieter, more solitary of the rites from the pagan Wheel of the Year.  Usually, any snow that we receive in January is long gone, those one or two brief weeks of the year when a beautiful mantle of white covers the ground, allowing a period of rest and quiet.  In Suffolk, the snows melted over the weekend with the sun and the rain, and the birds, especially the great and blue tits have come out in full force, their songs echoing through the little streambed valley behind my house.  The blackbird cocks are fighting over the food supply, expending far too much energy when they could simply share and all eat a fine meal – instincts are hard to overcome.  The little muntjac deer are often in the garden, day and night, eating birdseed and the first green shoots from various places in my garden, leaving their fertilising little pellets everywhere – a fair exchange, in my opinion. The air is warmer now, the sun holds some strength when it is out in full glory, the pond is thawing and the first signs of new growth are slowly appearing.

Many Druids celebrate Imbolc as the festival of snowdrops, when these seemingly fragile little flowers first appear.  Others celebrate when the ewes begin the lambing season, and the lactation cycle begins.  It was an important time for our ancestors, as this time of year was the hungry time – the winter food stores were running low, and the flow of new milk a welcome and necessary part of survival.  Cheese could once more be made, to accompany the last of the supplies until the first wild food and crops came into season.

I normally celebrate Imbolc when the first snowdrops appear, but I fear my little deer friends may have eaten the first shoots, and perhaps my daffodil bulbs as well.  This year, it is the softness in the air that alerts me to the coming of Spring, to Imbolc.  The birdsong has changed, the snows have melted and everything is slowly awakening from a long slumber. Imbolc comes in the warm southerly breezes, a festival of the element of Air.

With gifts of bread, milk, cheese and song, I give back to the earth, nourishing the little creatures that share the place where I live.  It is a time of reflection – a time to recall the dreams that we dreamt over the long winter, the ones that appeared to us at the winter solstice in the darkest time of the year.  These dreams, like everything, require nourishment, especially at this time of year, or they will fail to come into reality.  And so, at this time of year, we focus, we concentrate our energies into making these dreams come true – we plan, we figure out the logistics, and we celebrate.

It is not yet time to plant these dream seeds, however – February and March can be difficult months, both in the natural world and in the human environment.  Outside, the weather can change in an instant, and we may get more snow, or thick frosts – our seeds would quickly sprout and then die.  In the human environment, February and March are, for many, a financially difficult time of the year. Bills from the holiday season come in, fuel bills and other heating sources must be paid for, and work shifts can decrease due to the slow months after the January sales for those not on a permanent salary. We must carefully look at our resources, and our dreams, to ensure that they don’t fail in these hungry months ahead.

So we plan, and we patiently await the time until the tide turns, at the Spring Equinox, where the days finally become longer than the nights, and our dreams finally emerge from hibernation into the light of reality.  So too do our bodies respond, like the snowdrops and daffodils, to this increase of light from the winter solstice – if we can just make it through to Imbolc, we find that the darkness is in fact receding, that our moods, our bodies, our finances are recovering, and we wait in anticipation for Spring. We need to focus, to concentrate, on making them a reality.  The intention is everything.

May you hold your dreams with nurturing love, and may they be blessed by the coming of Spring.