Urban nature meditation

Ideally, take yourself outside in an urban space. If outside is unfeasible, inside at a window will do, to hear or look depending on which senses work best for you. Sit, stand or walk as you prefer – make sure that you are safe to ignore things like traffic, pick somewhere you can afford not […]

via Urban Nature Meditation — Druid Life

A simple yet effective meditation for nature awareness for those of us in suburbs and cities from Nimue Brown at Druid Life.

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Book review: Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival. Image from the Book Depository.

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival. Image from the Book Depository.

Melusine Draco, Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival: A Magical Anthropology. Moon Books, 2013

I’m not a witch, and witchcraft has never been my spiritual path, although I know that for many people Wicca is their first exposure to Paganism. However, I have always seen Druidry and witchcraft as cousins, or as different branches on the same tree, and I have a passing interest in the practices and history of witchcraft, ancient and modern. So when my amazing wife came back from a trip to the library with a copy of Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival, I knew I was in for a treat.

The back-cover blurb of the book says:

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival takes us on a journey int the past, along the highways and byways of our pagan heritage to discover when the different aspects of magical influence entered traditional witchcraft. It will appeal to everyone with an interest in magic, witchcraft and paganism – from grass roots to the more advanced levels of Wicca – who wish to learn more about the different traditions and their antecedents.

In just under 200 pages, Melusine Draco, herself a traditional witch, takes us from stone age pre-history through the Celts and Druids, the Romans and the imposition of Christianity, to the witch-hunts, the Elizabethan revival of Ceremonial Magic and the construction (or reconstruction) of modern Wicca and Paganism.

While there is a lot of misinformation out there about the history of witchcraft, Draco admirably uses real scholarship, real history and real archaeology to piece together what we actually know or can infer about how practices we now know as “witchcraft” may have developed over the centuries. She is bluntly (and rightly) dismissive of what she refers to as “fake-lore and fantasy” in modern Paganism and takes a refreshingly factual approach to figuring out what is real history, what is folklore and what is modern invention.

Where Draco does tend to speculation, for instance about the survival of “Old Craft” practices through to the modern age, or the intriguing proposal that faery legends “may have evolved from far-off memories of a Stone Age race that once lived in these [British] islands”, she is clear in letting the reader know that this is one possible interpretation and that the evidence is ambiguous at best.

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival is a well-structured book, not only in that it proceeds chronologically but each chapter is also connected thematically, and one nice device which ties the different themes and time periods together is a summary at the end of each chapter showing the “Story so Far”, which recaps what we have learned and connects ideas across chapters.

Draco does argue for some survivals of ancient Pagan practices, but makes no grand claims about modern witchcraft being transmitted unchanged for thousands of years.She writes that we should not be “fooled by a tradition that claims to trace its antecedents back to medieval or even pre-historic times…In all reality, the tracing of any genuine Old Craft coven back more than 150 years is a challenge in itself.”

The book’s style is easy to read and, while clearly well-researched, wears its scholarship lightly, never becoming “dry” as some history books can tend to be. For me personally, Draco’s discussion of the Druids was obviously of interest, and the way that Druidry both connects to and is independent of witchcraft practices is probably worthy of a book in itself.

I found one comment in Draco’s introductory chapter very interesting. After a discussion of animism, syncretism and eclecticism she writes about the various Pagan gods, saying:

“It is also important to accept that Names of Power do not represent real people, semi-divine or otherwise: this is a Christian concept that God is sitting there just waiting for our call. It is also detrimental to effective magical thinking. In magic, we use these mind-pictures, or correspondences, as a means of invoking (or evoking) the conceptualised power of individual energy-sources. In ancient times the priesthood understood this – even if the common man did not.” (Emphasis in the original).

This seems very close to a non-theistic, archetypal, understanding of the Pagan gods, which ties in with Draco’s repeated references to the Jungian idea of the “collective unconscious” throughout the book and hints at a non-literal form of Paganism as being not a modern abberation, but one line of thought that may have ancient roots.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism and want to tease out the real history from the “fake-lore and fantasy” out there. Draco also has a range of books on practicing traditional witchcraft in different locations, from forests to cities, and I am definitely planning on giving some of those a read too.

Paganism and Politics

Sigil of the Warriors' Call: Pagans United Against Fracking. Image from druidry.org

Sigil of the Warriors’ Call: Pagans United Against Fracking. Image from druidry.org

I haven’t really been following the Pagan blogosphere as much as usual lately, which to be honest has been good for my sanity and good for my Druidry as I’ve been able to focus instead on daily practice. However, I have noticed that there’s been a bit of discussion of late about the relationship between Paganism and politics. In the wake of the disaster that is Brexit, the new Tory government, and my recent decision to join the Green Party, this got me thinking.

Of course, other writers have spoken far more eloquently than I can about these issues. For a good look at both “sides” of the debate, read John Beckett’s article Why the Gods come before politics which argues that Paganism is a set of religions without a “political test” for membership, and where the gods should take priority over politics; and John Halstead’s rebuttal How “Gods before politics” perpetuates privilege, which argues that being non-political is only an option for people who are not already marginalised by contemporary politics, and so is a statement of privilege.

For what it’s worth, I lean more to John Halstead’s view (I know, shocking, right?), but I also see John Beckett’s point about wanting to keep the *religion(s)* of Paganism separate from the *politics* of Paganism. Yet, as John H. points out, when John B. says there is no room for racism or transphobia in his Paganism, that is a political viewpoint. Conversely, ignoring racism and transphobia so we cal all get along as Pagans is also a political stance.

In general, I am a pretty passionate secularist, up to being a fully subscribed member of the National Secular Society. Secularism in this context is not, despite the misuse of the term by religious apologists, the same as atheism. The NSS defines secularism as “a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.”

This secular separation of religion and politics not only protects non-religious folk, but “seeks to ensure and protect freedom of religious belief and practice for all citizens. Secularism is not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.”

So as a secularist, I want to keep my Druidry and Paganism separate from my politics. I don’t want to see people in government making political decisions based on their interpretation of the Barddas any more than I would want to have politicians legislate based on their interpretation of the Bible or Qu’ran.

Yet, the problem with this strict secular separation is that life is not so simple. You can’t compartmentalise aspects of your worldview neatly into boxes marked “religion” and “politics”. Especially when both religion and politics are concerned with how we should live, what is morally right, how to create a good society, what are our ultimate concerns etc.

A person’s religion will, if they take it seriously, influence their politics. And a person’s politics will, if they take it seriously, influence their religion.

I can’t deny that my first decision to look into Druidry was inspired by my own environmentalist (political) leanings. Likewise my Druidry (religious for want of a better word) has inspired my environmentalism and also led me to be more concerned with issues of freedom, equality and social justice that has directly led to me being more involved in political activism.

Where I think that both the Johns (narrowly) miss the mark is in the suggestion that one or the other, gods or politics, must “come first”. I would assert that rather than a hierarchy, what we see here is a spiral, or a turning wheel. At times, it is important for politics to come to the fore and to speak out against inequality, injustice and environmental devastation. At other times, it is right for religion (or spirituality, or whatever your preferred term is) to take priority, and to focus on the fundamentals and practices of your path.

In neither case are you putting one before the other, or ignoring the influence each have on the other. It’s like how we can’t fight all the battles at once. Sometimes we need to focus on LGBT rights, sometimes on poverty, sometimes on anti-fracking campaigns, and sometimes, yes, we need to recognise what we can’t (immediately) change and focus on our Pagan paths, our spiritual community, our rituals and the Sacred.

All that said, I do think that when we are talking politics in the public sphere (as opposed to on a private blog etc.) we should leave Paganism out of it, unless we’re specifically dealing with issues of minority religions and freedom of worship. No MP is going to be persuaded to back down on, say, a road being built through a wood because a Druid thinks it’s sacred space. But they might be persuaded by secular arguments and evidence of rare ecosystems, the value of the wood to local communities, the effect of the trees and roots on soil erosion and flooding etc. We need solid, secular, reasons for our political views, reasons which are understandable by everyone and support everyone regardless of religion.

If in our private practice we see the wood as sacred and do a protection ritual for it as well, that’s up to us. But to expect the religion to work, to make change in the world, without the politics is naive. And to expect the political to inspire our hearts to work for change without a “religious” sense of the Sacred is perhaps equally so.

Image from Joanna Van Der Hoeven.

Image from Joanna Van Der Hoeven.

*Note: in this post, I use the word “religion” in the broadest sense, without narrow reference to theistic belief. I normally don’t like the word, but as both John Halstead and John Beckett use it in their blogs, it made sense for me to speak in those terms. Feel free to substitute “religion” for “spirituality” or “life-way” or whichever term you prefer throughout.

Down to the sea

Norfolk coast, image by me

Norfolk coast, image by me

Has it really been over a fortnight since I posted here? Blimey! Truth be told, I’ve not had time for blogging because the past couple of weeks have been pretty busy. I’m still looking for a job, but now I’ve started doing some volunteering in local museums to pass the time and gain some new skills, and I’m taking on a couple of online short courses as well.

Combine that with my OBOD coursework, learning guitar, working through my ever-increasing reading list, and trying to squeeze in something like a social life, I wonder how I ever had time for a full-time job as well!

So to take a break from taking a break, I went (with my wonderful wife) to the seaside for a short getaway. Whenever I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, the sea is always my refuge. There is something magical about the liminal space of a seashore, the place where the land meets the sea and the sky, where the three realms join together.

Sunset, image by me

Sunset, image by me

I’m incredibly lucky that I live in a part of the world where I can hop on a train or bus and be at the coast in just over a couple of hours, and I try to get away there as often as time and money allows.

The sound of the waves on the pebble beach is like a meditative breath, and it’s surprisingly easy to just sit on the seashore and gaze out to the water, then check your watch and find that an hour or more has passed by.

While I rarely do any formal Druid/Pagan rituals or meditations while on holiday, I always find that simply sitting and being in the presence of Nature and the Sacred is more authentically “spiritual” than saying scripted words.

As always, I collected a couple of small stones from the beach (including one with a self-bored hole in the middle) which now sit on my Home Shrine as a reminder of my connection to this special place.

Land, sea and sky. Image by me

Land, sea and sky. Image by me

Book review: Rewilding our Hearts

Rewilding our Hearts, and Marc Bekoff with a wolf. Image from "Read the Spirit".

Rewilding our Hearts, and Marc Bekoff with a wolf. Image from “Read the Spirit”.

Bekoff, Marc. Rewilding our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence.  Novato, CA., New World Library, 2014.

“When human beings lose their connection to nature, to heaven and earth, then they do not know how to nurture their environment or how to rule their world – which is saying the same thing. Human beings destroy their ecology at the same time that they destroy one another. From that perspective, healing our society goes hand in hand with healing our personal, elemental connection with the phenomenal world” -Chogyam Trungpa.

This quote opens Marc Bekoff’s Rewilding our Hearts, and it sums up the central theme and argument of the book: that our current ecological crisis is a personal crisis, and that the solution to our society’s imbalanced relationship with nature has to involve changing our mind-set and how we interact with it.

In wildlife conservation, the term “Rewilding” refers to restoring habitats and creating “corridors” between preserved areas to allow declining species populations to recover.

Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, takes this concept and applies it to ourselves, suggesting that we can heal our disordered relationship with the natural world by “Rewilding our hearts” at a personal, community and broader sociological level.

Bekoff says that “Rewilding our hearts is about becoming re-enchanted with nature. It is about nurturing our sense of wonder. Rewilding is about being nice, kind, compassionate, empathic, and harnessing our inborn goodness and optimism”.

By contrast, much of society today is the result of “unwilding”: “the process by which we become alienated from nature and non-human animals; it’s how we deny our impacts and refuse to take responsibility for them; and it’s how we become discouraged and overwhelmed, and thus fail to act despite the problems we see”.

Rewilding our Hearts is a short book, only 150 pages (followed by a large amount of references, bibliographies and endnotes) and it only took me two days to read through it. But it is vast in its scope, taking a “big-picture” look at the problems facing our world today, including climate change, overpopulation, loss of biodiversity and ecological devastation, and proposes a way to begin to fix them.

Bekoff does not dwell on the negatives. While he sets out in no uncertain terms the severity of the problems we face, he remains an optimist, and sees Rewilding, both in the ecological sense and in the sense of Rewilding our hearts, as the key solution, a way of returning to a deep, even spiritual, sense of connection and interdependence with nature.

Rewilding our hearts fundamentally takes place at a personal level: by spending time in nature, immersing ourselves in it, learning its ways and adapting to it, we can be filled with a love of the natural world and non-human species that can inspire us to work for change, great or small, and start Rewilding our world as well.

This is not a task for governments or politicians alone, this is a task for us all.

Rewilding our Hearts is a clarion call to action, and to deeper contemplation as well. While by no means a Pagan book, it is one I would recommend to anyone on a nature-centred spiritual path such as Druidry or Paganism.

Bekoff concludes by saying:

“We live in a magnificent and wounded world. Despite all of the rampant destruction and abuse, it remains a magnificent world filled with awe and wonder. If you’re not in awe, you’re not paying attention. So let’s get on with it. Open your heart to nature and rewild as you go through your daily routines and rituals. The beginning is now.”