Contemplative Druidry

By James Nichol

Image: Darren Bailey, visit darrenbaileyart.com

I sit in darkness, eyes open. Darkness embraces me and within it, I hold my awareness. It is Samhain 2011 and I am beginning a contemplative exploration. Samhain seems like the right time, marking a descent into darkness, stillness and latency. Emma Restall Orr writes: “At its most fundamental, nature is darkness… In stillness, formless, in the darkness, nature is whole.”1

The weeks from Samhain to Yule move through dying to birthing with the birthing paradoxically closer the more we go into the dark. I initiate my exploration in ritual space and dedicate it to the Goddess in her wisdom aspect. My exploration – at first solo – was always intended to become collective. As a Druid, I wrote in a Druidic publication, inviting people to a contemplative day. This manifested on July 7th 2012, in Stroud, Gloucestershire. Six of us, all members of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids, spent the day listening to each other’s stories, thoughts and feelings regarding contemplative practice within Druidry.

We saw the contemplative aspect of Druidry as under-developed and under-recognised in the wider community. We wanted to put ‘Contemplative Druidry’ on the Druidic map and extend opportunities for practice. Many of us already had a solo practice but more than one of us described how hard it can be to maintain without shared opportunities to slow down, to enter a nemeton of interwoven silence and reflection, and deepen practice, together.

Sharing her responses later in my book Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential2, one participant said she had experienced “far more” than the anticipated “gentle day” and felt “opened, stirred, deepened and confirmed… in my own spiritual practice” after recognising the common threads that had brought us together. “I was left with a deep sense of your continuing companionship along my solitary way.”

Speaking from the heart

Another pointed out how “lean ritual and a simple, slow process created a spaciousness which allowed a deepening of my own experience” and enabled “speaking from the heart”.

Overall, participants said that a stillness-allowing simplicity of structure engenders a powerful sense of presence. This was described in terms such as authenticity and flow – silence, yet also laughter and wildness; a trusting of process and allowing for “not knowing: always such a rich resource for nurturing and learning”.

The day had an affirming and renewing quality and we agreed to continue meeting. One participant later recalled the day in these lines, summarising the feeling-tone of the event:

“Six Druids sit silent

Speak, seek, remember, laugh:

Gentle healing day.”

At the end of our day, we decided to create an ongoing group and began to invite more people. The group grew and we moved from occasional days to a monthly meeting cycle including two full days a year.

I launched the Contemplative Druidry Facebook group at Lammas 2012. Much later, my partner Elaine Knight and I co-created Contemplative Druid Events as one vehicle for the holding of a contemplative thread in Druidry. Long before the contemplative inquiry, we had been considering a project inclusive of contemplative elements. We brought this energy into CDE.

We are committed to running an annual retreat near the Malvern Hills and occasional days and half-days in other places. The Gloucestershire group is now a flourishing concern and other members – including Julie Bond, JJ Howell, Karen Webb and Pagan Dawn columnist Nimue Brown – are involved in CDE as facilitators and have supported the project in other ways.

CDE does not require participants to be affiliated Druids. Our events are open to any fellow traveller willing to work with us in our way. We are committed to working in small groups and this gives all participants the opportunity to introduce themselves and be heard. We encourage a quality of listening which itself becomes a practice, intended to ensure that no one is misrecognised or ignored. This is counter to mainstream communication and so needs conscious attention. It is not about ‘getting it right’ all the time. The point is to be conscious.

In a contemplative context, we can hope to go further, establishing a level of trust that opens the door to deeper ‘I-Thou’, recognition and communion. Thus, events are enabled to be person rather than activity-centred.

This is one reason why we have not structured our work around long meditations or meditation training. Rather, we co-create a culture in which the blessings of space and silence are channelled into short meditations, attunement to the seasonal moment, silent walks and activities like ‘Awen space’ in which we sit with each other, open to spirit, and can speak, chant or sing into the silence when so moved. We awaken to the fields of energy and presence within us, between us and around us.

Periods of silent attunement

Our 2015 Spring Retreat was such a small group with only a short time for building community and working. Yet it was a setting for potent experiences. We used the approach of ‘lean ritual’, minimalist and powerful, to hold us in a dedicated contemplative Druid circle and mark transitions in our group process within that circle.

We built periods of silent attunement, five to 10 minutes long, into our ritual and transitioning spaces. We also provided spaces for formal sharing, getting to know each other through introductory and check-in processes, reconnecting each morning through a process called overnight phenomena and doing specific exercises offering the opportunity to reveal a bit more about ourselves (or not) with supportive attention.

The retreat included sitting meditations of 15 or 20 minutes (not long by many meditators’ standards), where we asked people to use whatever meditations they had been taught. During the retreat, Karen Webb offered a belly-breathing meditation (actually belly-heart-head with belly first and foremost). Imported from other work that she does, it nonetheless seemed highly congruent with Earth spiritualities and Druidry in particular. We worked with ‘Awen space’ and other practices that have become part of our repertoire, such as silent outdoor walking, in this case for just over an hour.

Elaine Knight offered Animist Hermetics, adapted from a Lectio Divina from the Book of Nature first developed by our colleague Julie Bond. This was a powerful practice, which got people very close to the aspect of nature with which they chose to engage. JJ Howell offered a version of his Enchanting the Void chants, developed independently of the contemplative exploration and now widely loved as a practice both within and beyond Druidry. It worked beautifully within the container of the contemplative retreat and, interspersed with Eisteddfod offerings, made for a magical Saturday evening.

In an inspirational talk on meditation at Rainbow Druid Camp 2015, Philip Carr-Gomm emphasised the primacy of the body and experiences of pain and pleasure as foundational to our awareness, as well as the meditator’s work in combining the seemingly polarised qualities of focus and surrender. For me, contemplative awareness involves an extended sensory perception – perhaps best languaged through poetry:

“Venture to say what your apple is called.

This sweetness, which originally condensed itself,

Spreading out, slowly in being tasted rose up

To achieve a clarity, awake and of transparency,

Resonant of opposites, sunny, earthy, of the here and now – :

Oh the experience of it, the feeling, the joy – immense!”3

This contemplative flavour extends beyond Druidry. In a Beltane article for 2015 Vivienne Crowley writes: “The days grow longer, the weather draws us out of doors… the energy of Beltane is all about wakefulness.”4

We can become aware of what is around us, living fully in the moment. She suggests the current surge of interest in mindfulness practice demonstrates a hunger for such awakening and points out that Buddhism was not alone in creating tools for such a process. “Indigenous traditions often emphasise this mode of being with the natural world – aware, awake and attentive to our interconnectedness with all that is around us.”

So, while personally working in a largely Druid context, I foresee a promising future for contemplative methods throughout our Pagan communities. At all points in the wheel of the year, I find myself conscious of their polar opposites. While the energies of Samhain and Beltane may be different, there is a contemplative call in each.

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Notes

  1. Restall Orr, Emma The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature Winchester, UK: Moon Books, 2012.
  2. Nichol, James Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing, 2014. Print and Kindle. (Foreword ‘Deep Peace of the Quiet Earth: the Nature Mysticism of Druidry’ by Philip Carr-Gomm.)
  3. http://www.sonnetstoorpheus.com/book1_13.html Rilke, Rainer Maria Sonnets to   Orpheus, translated by Robert Temple 25/10/2014 (Book 1, Sonnet 13)
  4. Crowley, Vivienne Beltane: The Sleeper Awakes? In Patheos Pagan Channel, Greening the Spirit: Writings on Pagan Spirituality, 23 April 2015