“I don’t really know how religion works as a functioning part of a normal life. It is still something separate, something different, something set aside.”
– Juni, Living the Path of Mist
Practicing the Daily Simple
One conviction that has led me so assuredly onto and along the Druid path is the conviction that no amount of philosophizing and debate can make up for a lack of daily, practical work in the spiritual life. It’s easy to forget that any one system can start to seem like the single Truth if you spend too much time within it, and not enough time allowing your body and its natural energies free range to roam. I can hypothesize about the nature of deity, the relationship between free will and destiny, the role of love and grief… and in some ways, this process of writing and thinking is indeed a kind of practical work, too. It does help to clarify, to enlighten, and just as often to frustrate and to reveal the stumbling blocks hiding just beneath the surface. I follow my words like hounds I’ve set loose on the hunt, never quite knowing where they will lead or what scent will send them howling.
But there is other work to do, as well. These simple, daily works are as much a part of my religious practice as the esoteric and exotic, the sacred “set-apart-ness” of much of religious life. I don’t always have the energy — or the time! — to go hunting through poetic imagery and the dense tension of metaphor, weaving my way through the lush undergrowth of belief, identity, paradox and process. Sometimes I have to come home to myself, sometimes I have to clean the hearth and feed the dogs.
Sacred attending is, perhaps, the most important aspect of my practical spiritual work as a Druid, because it is something that can be done anywhere and at anytime — but furthermore, right here and right now. You, in front of your computer screen, take a moment to attend. Notice the shape and color of the computer, the dust that may have collected on it, the desk and its odds and ends, the creaking chair, the window outside of which the rain is sometimes loud and pounding, the snow sometimes too soft to hear above the buzz of fluorescent lights.
How did I learn to engage the present, and to make it such a natural part of my everyday awareness? Honestly, I’m not sure, though I have a suspicion that writing poetry helped. Especially writing poetry while sitting in the back of my high school math classes, recalling the weather, the smile of a boy, the lace slip peeking out beneath the hem of an elderly, enthusiastic English teacher as she raised her arms for emphasis, the smell and feel of chalk, the deathly activity of the eraser across the black-gray board… When you’re a teenager trying to learn how to write poetry, what can you turn to? Not long years of memory, not exciting experiences of foreign, exotic places… When your boredom forces your irresistible creative impulses into poetry — or doodling — or playing the guitar — what else can you do but attend to the dull but bursting world around you? I’m not sure you can learn to attend in any other way. Maybe that’s why mystics of the past have so often retreated for a time into the boredom of the desert, the hermitage or the dark.
The Eastern (and in particular, Zen Buddhist) tradition of meditation seeks to empty and quiet the “monkey mind,” to burn away the false sense of self and attain to the nothingness of Holy Void, which is itself not anything. Many people never quite find the knack of this approach. Rather than being restful and revitalizing, they discover that they have to exert a great deal of energy to keep themselves centered in anatman (no-self). Druidry offers another approach to meditation, rooted firmly in Western rather than Eastern spiritual practices. Well-known author and AODA Archdruid John Michael Greer writes, “In Druid meditation, by contrast, the more common path is to train and reorient the mind instead of shutting it down. […] In this form of meditation, which is called discursive meditation, the thinking process is not stopped but redirected and clarified; thoughts are not abolished but made into a vehicle for the deeper movement of consciousness.”
When I first began working with this form of Druidic meditation, I quickly found myself enjoying both the practice itself, and its benefits. Rather than a strain, it became an exercise in unifying and harmonizing myself, working towards a more complete spiritual integrity. In some ways, this method of meditation takes the engaged presence of attending to the “outside” world and turns that attention to the mind itself. Rather than trying to deaden or quiet the mind, one can watch its processes, trace its pathways, and ride the activity of reasoning itself, learning to hone and clarify it. While it is certainly beneficial to set aside time regularly throughout the week for meditative sessions, the process of discursive meditation can be employed fruitfully during the course of the ordinary day as well, whenever the mind needs a boost of energy or a new perspective.
In some ways, having a visual-poetic kind of mind by nature, the practice of discursive meditation led me into the technique of creative visualization. Many people use this technique to visualize goals or positive outcomes, to go on prescribed “guided visualizations,” and the like. I found these uses to be a bit too specific to make for practical daily use (though I will sometimes take a moment over breakfast in the morning to visualize or imagine myself having a stress-free, prosperous and enjoyable day at work). I most commonly use creative visualization for sensing or “playing with” energy. When walking somewhere, I run my fingers over passing shrubbery, chain-link fences, the bark of trees or even the brick walls of buildings — experiencing the changing energies each thing radiates. When the wind is strong or the sun warm, I’ll open “wings” out to gather in the power, and when it’s cold outside, sometimes I’ll send down “roots” seeking solidity and warmth within the earth. And every once in a while, I’ll be sitting at my desk, or curled up reading a book, or even at work bustling around, when I’ll open my hand, palm upwards, as if to hold a gently glowing, floating “ball” of energy before me, as if to concentrate and activate it before reabsorbing or dissipating.
To call these activities “visualizations” might be a bit misleading. I do not close my eyes, I do not call up stark images in my mind as if looking at a movie screen behind my eyelids, and I do not actually see anything other than the physical reality in front of me. But in the same way that complicated philosophical ideas will sometimes present themselves all at once in idea-maps charted in spatial relations which then take paragraphs to delineate and describe, so too can someone experience this “sense” of space, energy and movement that extends beyond the physical boundaries of the body — a sense of space that is not auditory or olfactory, but which seems very much a visual sensation, though it is far from literal. These experiences are what St. Theresa of Avila described in her work as “intellectual visions.” Though her understanding of such visions were as revelations from God, the principle of experiencing and cultivating them seems, to me, to be much the same. They become daily reminders of the nonmaterial or transmaterial world, moments at a stoplight or waiting in line at the grocery store when we can remind ourselves to “look” for the interconnective energies we have believed in and experienced before.