Foreword to ‘Contemplative Druidry’
‘Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.’
We all know that Druidry is a magical path – Druids wear robes and conduct rituals with wands and candles, invocations to the directions, prayers to the gods. In a world sorely lacking in meaningful ritual, it can feel like a balm to the soul to engage in actions that are not obviously utilitarian, that are designed to help us enter into a deeper sense of engagement with life – to give expression to our belief in a world of Spirit that infuses this physical world with energies that bring healing and inspiration. And yet it can sometimes feel as if modern Druidry’s concern with ritual has placed too great an emphasis on the magical, at the expense of its equally important mystical concerns.
An interest in mysticism, and in the use of contemplation, meditation, and devotional practices that foster the aims of the mystic, has always been present in the modern Druid movement, but in the excitement of Druidry’s renaissance over the last twenty or so years, it is probably fair to say that the balance of attention has tipped towards the magical in Druidry, and that now it is time we paid more attention to the mystical. This book, therefore, is published at just the right moment in the unfolding story of Druidry as a vibrant contemporary spirituality, and gives voice to ‘an idea whose time has come’.
The magic in Druidry is based upon the knowledge that our actions, thoughts and feelings can influence the world for good, and can be enhanced in their effectiveness through the use of magical techniques. The mysticism in Druidry is based upon the experience of changes in consciousness: feelings of Oneness, of union with Spirit, God or Goddess, and the world of Nature, and it is perhaps best qualified as ‘Nature Mysticism’ or ‘Natural Mysticism’, to distinguish it from approaches that emphasize only union with Deity, or even a separation from the physical world in the pursuit of the Divine.
One of the beauties of Druidry is that it is not a dogmatic or formulaic approach – no ‘one size fits all’, and those of us who follow the Druid way are encouraged to craft our own practice in accordance with our inner guidance, our needs and wishes. And so, one person may feel more drawn to the magical, another to the mystical, but I’d imagine most of us need a mixture of both approaches, just as we need a range of practices to bring a sense of wholeness to our personal and spiritual lives. The philosopher Ken Wilber writes that we leave out any one of these practices at our peril: meditation, psychological – particularly interpersonal – work, some form of ‘sacred’ movement or exercise, and a study of spiritual teachings. To that list we might add some form of devotional practice and frequent drinking at the well of Bardism – the world of myth, story, poetry and song. Each of these practices informs the other, so that the world of the Bard can inspire us towards meditation, for example, while meditation can enable us to appreciate more deeply the offerings of the Bard. Sacred movement, such as Qi Gong or Yoga, can be a meditation in itself, and ensures we ground our awareness in our bodies, while meditation without psychological enquiry, as Wilber stresses, can provoke imbalances which negate its value.
The OBOD course in Druidry attempts to incorporate psychological work with teachings on meditation and an encouragement of the Bardic arts, but although there are some movement exercises suggested, a distance learning programme cannot effectively teach a system of psycho-spiritual physical exercise. Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, have all been developed over centuries to fulfil our need for such an activity, and perhaps one day specifically Druidic systems will be developed. One such system, known as Wyda, that claims to derive from Druidry, has already been promoted in a book only available in German, published in 1993. Mgr.Mael, the founder of the Orthodox Celtic Church in Brittany, who was a Druid and friend of the founder of OBOD, Nuinn, received a series of meditative physical exercises in vision, and taught these as a system of ‘Celtic Yoga’. Philip Shallcrass has developed a series of exercises based on the Ogham that he teaches in the British Druid Order’s Ovate course, and a few years ago I was given a simple movement meditation exercise after asking in spirit for many years for a meditation we as Druids could share widely. You can find it here.
All these attempts to create a specifically Druid method of sacred movement raise the issues of validity and authenticity, which apply equally to any attempts to offer methods of Druid meditation. Are such attempts valid, when so many other highly developed systems already exist? And are they not ‘fake’, having been so recently invented, while the Eastern systems are clearly genuine having been around for centuries? As regards validity, a method that is valid is one that works, however young or old it is. As regards authenticity, if a method is pretending to be one thing, while in reality being another, then that is indeed inauthentic. If Mgr.Mael had pretended his system of Celtic Yoga was practiced by the ancient Druids, this would have been inauthentic. But since he clearly stated he had received the exercises in a series of dreams, his system is authentically what it is stated to be: a method received in an altered state of consciousness. A false claim to ancient lineage made for a system that has only recently been created renders it inauthentic, but if no such claim is made, can we use the term ‘Druid’ to describe it?
Contemporary Druidry is a flourishing creative spirituality that is inspiring people the world over. Is it a closed system that was only open to new inputs several thousand years ago? Or is it an open system that allows for development and evolution? Modern Druidry has been growing and evolving for the last three hundred years and if we were to throw out any additions to its body of teachings and ritual practice made during this time, we would be left with a small and unworkable set of conjectures. If we didn’t allow ourselves to call something Druidic that has only recently been created, we would have no Druidry to practice. But this shouldn’t mean we can call simply anything Druidic. Druidry has specific features which help to define what it has become and how it is evolving. In particular, Druidry has developed into a spiritual and philosophical approach that embraces embodiment, that does not deny the gifts of the physical world and the body. In addition, it cultivates both inwardness and outwardness – an appreciation of the inner and outer worlds that fosters an engagement with the Earth and with community as much as it encourages an exploration of the depths of the soul and a merging with the Divine. The evidence of the centrality of this approach can be found in Druidry’s love of Nature, its reverence for the Earth, and its cornerstone of ritual observance: the Eightfold Wheel of the Year. These characteristics define Druidry and they also tell us what it is not.
And so when it comes to the subject of this book, contemplation and meditation within Druidry, it seems perfectly reasonable to me to talk in terms of ‘Druid meditation’ or to describe techniques or approaches as Druidic, if they fall within the ethos of Druidry, because that ethos is specific: it does not attempt to subjugate, transcend or deny the body. There is no emphasis on the illusory nature of the physical world. The goal in Druidry, and hence in meditation for Druids, is to enhance our engagement with our embodied life, not to distance or separate ourselves from it.
Humans have been borrowing from each other since the first person used another’s flint or axe. Scratch the surface of any religion or tradition and you find it is made up of a number of influences or elements. Examine a ritual text or liturgy and you can see the bricolage at work. We naturally understand the commonsense in not reinventing the wheel, even though we might adapt and embellish the wheel we make for ourselves. And so when looking at the question of meditation, I don’t believe we need to concern ourselves, beyond an honouring of whatever facts can be determined, with the source of our meditation techniques and styles. Mindfulness, the focusing of awareness on the breath, the scanning of our body awareness as practised in Vipassana, for example, may all be sourced in Buddhism, but Hindu and Jain scholars will say that such practices were already in use before the arrival of the Buddha, and if any of the theories of our common Indo-European ancestry turns out to be true, and the ancient Druids drew their teachings from the same well as the Brahmins or Jains, then in using these techniques we are indeed drawing from the source of our tradition as Druids. Whether or not this is historically the case, the reality is that there is nothing more natural than scanning our body with our awareness, sensing our breath, letting go of outside distractions to settle our restless minds and hearts, to come to a sense of stillness. And if we do find ourselves using techniques that seem to have originated elsewhere, we can embrace them in that same warm spirit of inclusion shown by the Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths who lived in Bangalore as a ‘Christian Yogi’, and became known as Swami Dayananda (‘Bliss of Compassion’).
This spirit of inclusion, of Universalism that happily recognizes the gifts that come from many different sources, can be found right here in the pages of this book. Here we find that mystical experience is not confined to the few ‘adepts’ or ‘evolved souls’ who stand out from the masses (an image fostered in both Eastern and Western spiritual literature) but that a democratisation exists, or has perhaps occurred in modern times. All the contributors have had access to altered states of consciousness, unforgettable moments of bliss or insight, that suggests the mystical state is a natural one within everyone’s reach. And so it is fitting that the book reflects this empowerment and this movement away from the individual teacher who is marked out from his or her contemporaries. Instead of one voice we hear many, and the book itself reflects the movement from individual to community, from ‘me’ to ‘we’ in the collective, in which we discover our common voice of humanity and at the same time our uniqueness.
The book ends with suggestions for the future, for ways in which the contemplative approach can become more prominent within contemporary Druidry and within OBOD. With its publication, and with its message being heard by others, I have the strong feeling that the hopes expressed by James and his fellow contributors will soon be realized!
Foreword to the collection Contemplative Druidry edited by James Nichol
See also Contemplative Druid Events