The Essentials of Practice
The Foundations of Druid Magic
Meditation, the third leg of the cauldron of Druid magic, also provides the Druid path as a whole with its core inner practice. Nearly all the traditional Druid orders teach some kind of meditation, and most expect students to practice it regularly. The daily experience of turning inward in meditation is essential to the Druid path of nature spirituality, since it brings you into contact with the part of nature closest to you—the nature of your own body, enaid, and mind. As Philip Carr-Gomm reminds us in his inspiring book, The Druid Way, “Nature isn't only out there!”
Any form of meditation that directs attention inward, toward your own inner life and experience, makes a valuable part of a Druid path. The particular form of meditation taught and practiced in AODA and many other traditional Druid orders, however, fits particularly well with the needs of Druidry as well as those of Druid magic. The basics of this method can be summed up in a few pages, and this is what I have done here; a more complete discussion appears in The Druidry Handbook.
The most important detail about this method is also the easiest part to describe. Most of the methods of meditation practiced in the Western world nowadays teach the student to stop thinking entirely by chanting a mantra, focusing on breathing or the body, concentrating on thought-stopping paradoxes, or some similar tactic. These methods can get you to mystical states of consciousness, but shutting down the mind has its drawbacks as well. Too often people who pursue such methods intensively reach impressive spiritual states, but lose their ability to think clearly or deal with life in the ordinary world.
From a Druid perspective, thinking is natural to human beings, and trying to get rid of what is natural is always a mistake. Thus Druid meditation focuses on training the mind and harmonizing it with the rest of the self, not on shutting it down. This is done by directing the mind toward a previously chosen image or idea, called the “theme” of the meditation. After some simple preparations, the meditator explores the theme in thought, restraining the mind whenever it tries to stray from the theme but giving it free rein to follow the theme as far as it can. This kind of meditation is called “discursive meditation,” because it often takes the form of an inner discourse or dialogue as the mind works with the subject matter given by the theme.
This sort of meditation has the same benefits as any other method of meditation—it clears and centers your mind, relaxes and heals your body, and teaches you to shape your own inner life rather than being pushed around passively by it—but it has another benefit most others lack. Most occult traditions in the Western world use enigmatic images, symbols, and texts to conceal the deeper dimensions of their teachings. These are meant to be “unpacked” through discursive meditation, and they give up their secrets in no other way. Once you learn to meditate in this way, you have the key to most traditional occult lore.
The best way to harvest themes for meditation is to note down ideas and images that catch your attention, because they suggest interesting possibilities to you or because you can't figure them out at all. The minor themes are often just as important as the big ones. Beginners often choose big themes and either flounder about or skate over the surface, missing the potential depths of the practice. As a general rule, if your theme takes more than a short sentence to describe, it's too large for a single meditation and should be broken up into smaller bits, then put together later on.
Posture and Practical Issues
Start meditation practice by sitting down on a chair with a plain, cushionless seat. Sit far enough forward on it that your lower back isn't resting against the back of the chair. Your feet should be flat on the floor. Straighten your back without stiffening it, and hold your head upright, without letting it slump forward. Your hands rest palm down on your thighs, and your elbows are at your sides. This posture for meditation, unlike the cross-legged positions common in Eastern systems of meditation, doesn't seal your energies off from the rest of the cosmos. As Druids, we always participate in the dance of energies through the wider world.
Most people find it useful to meditate in the same place each day, and at the same time of day or the same point in the daily cycle for those who have variable schedules—right before breakfast, say. An outdoor setting is best, when weather and circumstances permit, but a corner of your bedroom or some other convenient indoor place will do nearly as well. If you can do so, meditate facing east, facing into the currents of energy flowing through the subtle body of the Earth; this is good for health and also helps develop the mind. A clock placed so that you can see it without moving your head completes the setting.
Meditation practice consists of three stages, which should be learned one at a time. Start out doing only the first stage, relaxation, in your daily meditation practice, and continue at that level until you feel that you have a good sense of the technique. Then add the next stage, breathing, and continue practicing relaxation and breathing each day until both of them feel familiar and comfortable. Only then go on to the third stage, meditation itself.
Start each practice by settling into the meditation position, and then consciously relax each part of your body, starting with your head and moving step-by-step down to the soles of your feet. Let the tensions drain downward, like water, and imagine them flowing out through your feet into the Earth, which absorbs them and transforms them into energy. Leave your body with only the muscular tensions you need to stay sitting up. Take as much time at this as you wish. The more muscular tension you can release, the easier and more productive your meditation practice will be.
Practice relaxation by itself until your body feels comfortably poised as soon as you settle into your meditation posture and begin relaxing. At that point, add the next stage.
After going through the process of relaxation, spend a few minutes paying conscious attention to your breath, breathing in and out slowly, evenly, and fully. A traditional breathing exercise called the “Rhythmic Breath” is commonly used here. Breathe slowly in while counting slowly and silently from one to three; hold your breath in, while counting from one to three; breathe out, counting from one to three; and hold the breath out, with the lungs empty, while counting from one to three, and repeat. The counts should all be at the same pace, and the breath should be held in or out with the muscles of the chest and diaphragm. Don't shut your throat during this practice, as this can lead to lung problems.
Practice relaxation, followed by breathing, as your daily meditation practice until the rhythm of the Rhythmic Breath becomes automatic and you can remain comfortably relaxed for five minutes of breathing. At that point, add the third stage.
After relaxation and five minutes or so of rhythmic breathing, turn your attention to the theme of the meditation. State the theme silently to yourself in a few words, or visualize it before you in a single image. Hold it in your mind for a short time, and then start thinking about it, turning it over and over in your mind, exploring its implications and connections. Choose one of these that appeals to you, and follow it out as far as you can. Keep working at it for the period of time you choose for your meditation—ten minutes is good to start with—and then pay attention to your breathing or practice the Rhythmic Breath again for a minute or so to help make the transition back to ordinary awareness.
When your thoughts veer from the theme during meditation, as they almost certainly will in the early stages of training, don't simply yank them back to the theme. Instead, follow your straying thoughts back to the point where they left the train of thought you were following, and proceed from there. If you started out meditating on the Sphere of Protection and ended up thinking about Aunt Martha's tortilla casserole, say, ask yourself what you were thinking about just before the casserole came to mind. If it was Aunt Martha, what came before that? Her apartment, of course, where a little statue in her china hutch came to mind when you were trying to think about the Welsh goddess Elen, the young goddess you invoke in the Sphere of Protection. Over time, this habit of tracing back your thoughts will teach your mind to return to your theme as readily as it strays from it.
Meditation should be practiced every day. Once you've learned all three phases of the practice, five minutes of relaxation, five minutes of breathing, and ten minutes of actual meditation makes a good session for beginners. Add more time gradually, as you learn how to keep your mind focused for longer and longer intervals.