Interview with Joanna van der Hoeven: Breathing the Ancient Breath

Joanna van der Hoeven: Breathing the Ancient Breath



Joanna van der Hoeven is a best-selling author, teacher, and co-founder of Druid College UK. Joanna took some time out to speak to Mabh here at Pagan Pages.

Mabh Savage: Pagan Portals: The Awen Alone has been an incredibly popular release. Tell us a bit about the book, and why you think it has such wide ranging appeal.

Joanna van der Hoeven: I’m absolutely delighted at the reception The Awen Alone: Walking the Path of the Solitary Druid has received. It’s a book in the Pagan Portals series, a lovely series of books that provides an introduction to a certain topic in around 100 pages or less, and which are subsequently very affordable. I’ve had so many emails from readers, from all over the world, thanking me for this work and telling me how it has resonated with them, how it’s helped them to find their own path. I feel so blessed to have been a part of their journey, to have helped in some small way. Perhaps its wide-ranging appeal has to do with the fact that Druidry is a religion or spiritual tradition rooted in nature, which is all around us, all the time, and accessible to us each and every moment of our lives. To learn to live in balance and harmony with nature can never be a bad thing! The tenets of Druidry also work brilliantly with other traditions, from all over the world.

MS: What was your biggest challenge when writing the book?

JvdH: Trying to fit it all into 100 pages or less!

MS: And what did you enjoy the most about the process?

JvdH: I think the feedback that I’ve received from readers is the most wonderful part of it, to hear their stories, to learn about them and how they have interpreted the work. To know that you’ve made a difference in someone’s life is so humbling, and so wonderful to experience. To have people take time out of their busy lives to write to you is simply heart-warming. If you’ve loved a book from an author, write to them, tell them! To have that human to human interaction, to hear that your words have been heard, can make all the difference to an author. A musician performing to an audience has instant feedback from the crowd, but authors often feel like they’re out there, writing and talking to themselves, not sure if there’s an audience out there listening or not. Writing can often be lonely. I enjoy working by myself, I enjoy solitude, but it’s still really nice to get feedback on your work.

MS: Zen for Druids hits our bookshelves very soon. Does this volume simply build on your earlier book, Pagan Portals: Zen Druidry, or is there a lot more to it?




JvdH: Zen for Druids: A Further Guide to Integration, Compassion and Harmony with Nature is the natural extension to the introductory Pagan Portals book, Zen Druidry. It dives deeper into some of the work from Zen Druidry, as well as covering a lot of new material. We examine very closely how Druidry and the teachings of Buddhism can combine, as well as how they can integrate into the eightfold Wheel of the Year. We take a closer look at meditation, its preparation and posture, and there is also a basic mindfulness meditation provided. There are also a couple of essays on mindfulness, as well as on integration: how to live an eco-centric life, as opposed to an ego-centric one. Zen Druidry: Living a Natural Life with Full Awareness is almost a pre-requisite for this work, if one is new to either Zen Buddhism, Druidry, or both. It covers the historical and practical background of both traditions, setting the scene for Zen for Druids.

MS: What prompted you to look at the cross over of Zen and Druidry?

JvdH: I had been practicing Zen Buddhism for years. I started out on my Pagan path as a Wiccan back in the early ’90s, and then stepped off that way for about five years to dive deeply into Zen Buddhism. When I found Druidry, I saw that they both had a lot in common with each other, and so I was able to combine and practice both, truly living each tradition with every breath. I did a lot of research, and discovered that Druidry shared many roots with other Dharmic traditions. Indeed, the words dru and vid appear in the Sanskrit language, and translate as “immersion in wisdom” or “immersion in knowledge”. There is a lot of research being done on the common Indo-European roots that Druidry shares with the traditions of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids even run a project called The One Tree Project, exploring and celebrating the idea that Indian and European culture share a common origin. It’s all very fascinating.

MS: How long have you been a druid?

JvdH: Well, I feel that I have been a Druid all my life, I just didn’t have a name for it. I came across Druidry around fifteen years ago, and it really resonated with me.

MS: And what’s the most important thing about being a druid in our modern world?

JvdH: I think it comes down to making your tradition relevant for the day and age in which you live. Druidry is all about having a deep love for nature, and allowing that love and reverence to inspire you to live your life accordingly. It’s important that a Druid walks her talk. It’s not just an academic exercise, or a spiritual escape, but a journey that incorporates all that you do, from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep, into how you live and breathe your Druidry.

MS: What prompted you to write Pagan Portals: Dancing with Nemetona?




JvdH: Dancing with Nemetona: A Druid’s Exploration of Sanctuary and Sacred Space was a labour of love, demonstrating my close work and devotion at the time to Nemetona, the goddess of Sanctuary and Sacred Space. I had worked deeply with her for many years, and this little book was a way of sharing my experiences of Her. It was so important for me at the time to have a place of sanctuary, to carry that sense of peace and calm with me wherever I was in the world. Dancing with Her, I was able to explore and extend myself even further into my studies in the Druid tradition, knowing that I was held in her embrace, that she would guide me where I needed to go.

MS: Do you think it’s important to reintroduce modern Pagans to more ‘obscure’ or partially forgotten deities?

JvdH: I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s important, but I do feel that research methodology is a tool that is necessary for the Pagan to develop. I had practiced my religion for many years, but not done the research. When I finally did the research, the tradition was even more inspiring, richer for all that work and knowledge. It’s important to know your roots, the roots of the tradition that you are following, as well as diving into comparative religion, so that you gain a better understanding of the world around you, in my opinion. That being said, you have to live your path, you can’t just read about it or study it. It’s not an academic exercise, but something that has to be incorporated into everyday life. There’s knowledge, which is gained through study, and then there’s wisdom, which is the application of knowledge in an experiential context.

MS: Are there any other lesser known deities or entities you are particularly close to or fascinated with?

JvdH: Lesser known, perhaps not. I have worked closely with Brighid these last few years, and have always been under the watchful eye of Morrigan all my life. Andraste has come to me in a tribal context this year, making the songs of the land where I live in Suffolk truly come alive.

MS: Do you have a favourite time of the year? If so, why?

JvdH: I love autumn. I adore autumn. My craft name is Autumn Song, for that very reason. It’s such a reflective and beautiful time of the year. Where I grew up in Quebec, Canada, autumn (fall) is a gorgeous display of colour and smells: the fiery hues of maple and the golden birches and the scent of wood smoke on the wind. I love the warm sun and cool breezes, the crisp nights and misty mornings. I love the sense of everything winding down. Twilight is my favourite time of day, and I get that sense all season long with autumn. Here where I live in Suffolk, UK, it’s also the season of the deer rut, where the stags proudly display their enormous racks, calling to the does. The smaller herds come together, and it’s so lovely to see them, from about 50 to 100 strong, running across the heathland and through the forest all autumn and winter. I only wish that the season was longer!

MS: And if you had to pick one special or sacred place above all others, where would this be?

JvdH: I’m not sure I could pick just one place. My backyard is just as sacred and special to me as Avebury’s stone circle is, or the Red and White Springs in Glastonbury. I love being in the Scottish Highlands, or out on the mountaintops of the Lake District. I adore the national parks of Quebec, where you can camp alongside the bears and wolves. The forests where I grew up hold a special place in my heart, where my imagination was able to roam free in my teenage years, creating stories and allowing me to open my soul to the songs of nature.

MS: Tell us a bit about Druid College UK.

JvdH: Druid College UK is a three-year training programme for people interested in the Druid tradition. It’s run over four weekends a year, with lectures, ritual, guest speakers and more. The college devotes its presence to preparing priests of nature, to help people develop their skills and knowledge in the Druid tradition in the capacity that works best for them, and to provide a platform for their ongoing and also further studies. It’s about living a life in service to the land, to the gods and to the ancestors. It all comes down to service, for those who wish to take up the mantle of service, where we can find perfect freedom and deep sacred relationship.

In Year 1 we begin with a deep dive into the core principles of Druidry. The course will cover the three aspects of druid training, exploring the gifts and crafts of the Bard, Ovate, and Druid. Each core craft works to reweave our soul connection to the land we live in. The goal is not to make every person a druid, but to learn how to craft a sacred relationship to the land, the people, and the Divine. This is the beginning of the path, not the end. The first year will provide the student many tools to explore the world around them, helping regain that sense of wonder we had as children, dancing in the beauty of Nature, running through the world guided by our curiosity. Using the three worlds of Land, Sea and Sky, with sacred Fire at the centre as our framework for the year, we guide the student in how to work intimately with Nature, how to craft a deeper, more wakeful relationship to the Earth. Using tools from Druidry, we wake up our soul. We learn to listen with our entire being. Reweaving our connection to the land and our personal cultural heritage, we find our place in the world. Year One is a deeply transformational year. It offers the student an intense study into the world of Druidry and Nature-based spirituality. Providing experiential learning opportunities, each gathering is wrapped in ritual with study and mentoring between weekends.

With Year 2, having journeyed a full year reweaving our connection to Nature, rooting ourselves in the land, year two leaps into realms of myth and transformation, we dive head-long into “Cerridwen’s cauldron”, so to speak. This is a year of working with energy, the unseen as we learn to build bridges between us, our ancestors, and the spirits of nature. This is a year of deeply shamanic exploration, learning the arts of transformation and “shapeshifting” – essential tools for priests of Nature. The use of ritual and trance is heavily emphasized in year two. Where year one was about finding ourselves, working to understand edges and boundaries, year two is about crafting flexible boundaries, so that we may change and shift them as needed. Exploring potentiality, possibility and prophecy, year two is about letting go into the darkness, seeking inspiration without limits. In year two we learn about integration, allowing growth for the “I” without the “me” getting in the way. We learn to let our edges soften, becoming one with the landscape, allowing our souls the opportunity for immersion with the natural world around us. We learn our own importance without being self-important, and we learn the importance and sacredness of all existence. Year two also focuses on developing teachers (if one chooses this role). The goal isn’t simply to provide experiences for the apprentice to do their own work. We are dedicated to true equality. We train apprentices, not students. Therefore we teach people how to facilitate these same practices and sacred rites for their own students and apprentices. Year two is learning about leadership and responsibility. Having journeyed through light and dark, through myth and metaphor, rooted firmly in the Earth, supported by our ancestors and having crafted true intimate connection with the gods, we are able to take on the role of priest, as Druid, as Shaman, Witch, whatever the appropriate name for our work. At the centre of all of this is walking with the wisdom of Nature, fed by Nature, taught by Nature, healed by Nature. Having done this work, we have the skills and potential to lead others back into the forest of great learning and wisdom.

The nature of Year 3 is that of being in the role as priests. This is a year of one walking their path and sharing their activities with the staff and other apprentices, learning from each other and acknowledging the work. It consists of: Declaring your “Chair” and manifesting it locally, purposeful sharing in community, applied trancing as priestly evolution, and training to lead ecstatic ritual. It’s a more independent year of study, where we gather only twice in the year to discuss our work all together. It’s about finding that place where we can be of service, and living it out in our everyday life.

MS: When you aren’t writing or teaching, how do you relax?

JvdH: I think it’s very important to take time out for yourself, to recharge the batteries, so to speak. I do so by taking long walks out in the countryside, by reading lots and lots of books, by visiting my family and friends back in Canada. I like to relax in the autumn and winter months by listening to music, lectures, podcasts and so on while knitting. Meditation is an important part of my daily life, and it helps me to reconnect with myself, bringing the illusory divide between the physical and the spiritual tumbling around my ears. I also like to get away with my husband for long weekends, perhaps taking the canoe out and exploring new rivers, or hiking a part of this land that we’ve never seen before.

MS: And finally, what other projects do you have on the horizon?

JvdH: I’ve just finished writing another Pagan Portals book, entitled The Crane Bag: A Druid’s Guide to Ritual Tools and Practices. It should be ready by spring 2017. It covers a lot of material that can be easily overlooked in other sources, and puts it all together in one convenient place. I’m also currently working on another book, a full length book on Druidry in a sort of fictional context. I’m using the style of a colloquy, a dialogue between student and teacher, to present the work. I hope to have it released by late autumn/early winter 2017. I’m also exploring putting out some music in the next couple of years, because I’ve always enjoyed singing and playing instruments. It’s important not to restrict yourself to one medium of expression, at least in my opinion, in order to keep that curiosity that keeps us going strong.

For more information on Joanna van der Hoeven, please visit her website at www.joannavanderhoeven.com/. She blogs at Down the Forest Path, as well as having a Down the Forest Path Video Blog. She also blogs for SageWoman Magazine, and writes for The Druid Network. You can support Joanna at her Patreon Page.

Mabh Savage is a journalist, musician and author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft. Find out more here.