Up until recently I’ve practised Druidry as a ‘spiritual path’ rather than religion, and I’ve not strongly identified as Pagan. On launching my contemplative inquiry at the end of 2011, I assumed that this stance would be reinforced through the adoption of practices more widely associated with other spiritual families.
Now I’m taking stock. I begin to see my contemplative work as a Pagan religious practice. Three developments in the past year have made a difference. One is the consolidation of the Gloucestershire contemplative group within a regular and more committed meeting cycle. The second is the work of gathering contributions for the ‘Contemplative Druidry’ book due to appear later this year, which I will talk about in later posts. The third is my personal contemplative practice, my main focus in this one. Overall I’m finding a specific Pagan Druid note and seeing it mirrored in others.
Practices change their meaning according to the tradition in which they are located. Meaning-making is as much cultural as personal, though cultures – and particularly sub-cultures – are also influenced by persons. When a group of contemplative Christians adopted a version of vipassana (insight or mindfulness) meditation from Theravadin Buddhism in the 1970’s, they looked deeply into their own tradition and called the practice ‘centering prayer’. This was not just a re-branding, but a re-framing. Christian contemplative prayer is a “blind intent stretching to God” according to the English 14th Century ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ (1), a favourite text of centering prayer practitioners. It is a devotional theism, a focused synthesis of love and will. By contrast the Insight Meditation Society, from whom Father Thomas Keating got the practice, talks about “fundamental techniques for sharpening your awareness and releasing painful mental habits” (2), and thereby loosening the hold of pervasive underlying unease (dukka).
The procedure is much the same for both traditions– silent sitting whilst the restless surface mind is asked to attend to the breath and so undergoes an attentional training. But the larger aims are not the same. Christian contemplatives indeed sharpen awareness and release painful habits on the way to more directly encountering the Divine: they call it divine therapy. Buddhist meditators may enter the state of ‘bodhicitta’, the awakened heart – a space that becomes available when enough of this work has been done. Yet at a more fundamental level one tradition holds Deity as central and the other is not concerned with it. Theravadins are strict about this. They do not share the view of ‘Buddha nature’ or ‘original face’ found in Mahayana and Tantric traditions.
So what about me working specifically as a Druid, and not just someone with a background in Druidry who also meditates? I prefer to talk of meditation rather than prayer, though I like the sense of dedicating the meditation (and myself) as an offering. In my Pagan Druid universe, where logos and mythos work together, the offering is to the Goddess, as the generativity, energy and consciousness of the cosmos.
I like ‘centering’ as an idea – establishing a centre, drawing myself into the still point, almost a vanishing point, at the centre, and radiating out again into 3D reality, bringing some of the stillness with me. For me the still point at the centre is within the heart, making a link to heart awakening (bodhicitta) and heart wisdom, a term used by some champions of centering prayer (3). The heart sits between the belly and sexual/sacral centres below, and the head, the place of reflexivity and self-awareness, above. Heart wisdom draws both into itself, validating and balancing them. For it is a wisdom of organic life in nature, as lived by a human – the life of extended sensory perception and reflective consciousness, always responsively in relationship of some kind, both without and within. In doing this, drawing energy and attention to the centre, heart wisdom contradicts archaic transcendentalist notions of a stairway to heaven.
I think that’s enough to give my practice a distinctive Pagan Druid note, though it’s still a work in progress. I share the work of attentional training, sharpening awareness and releasing painful habits that gets done, within the process, whoever does it. But it’s in the context of a specific and developing view, or meta-narrative.
That being the case, why not call it part of a religion? The core meaning of religion, like yoga, is about being tied or yoked to a discipline: connection to theistic beliefs is secondary. Religion has a tougher and more intentional ring than ‘spirituality’, and now sounds appropriate to me. So I now call my contemplative practices – solo meditation included – both religious and Pagan. I will continue to learn from any source I value. But my personal inquiry is focused on deepening within my chosen path – deepening in experience and deepening in understanding.
1: Anonymous (late 14th century) A book of contemplation which is called the Cloud of Unknowing, in the which a soul is oned with God. (Edited from the British Museum MS. Harl. 674 with an introduction by Evelyn Underhill) London: John M. Watkins, 1924
2: Salzberg, Sharon & Goldstein, Joseph (1996) Insight Meditation: an in-depth correspondence course Boulder, CO: Sounds True
3: Bourgeault, Cynthia (2011) The Wisdom Jesus: transforming heart and mind – a new perspective on Christ and his message Boston & London: Shambhala