By Mam Adar
I once read an interesting book called The Gethsemani Experience the outgrowth of a conference in which Buddhist and Christian monks gathered to share their traditions at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where Thomas Merton lived. Merton, a Trappist who achieved unexpected fame as a writer when he published his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, spent the last few years of his life exploring interfaith dialogue with Buddhists and other contemplatives of the East, and died while attending an interfaith monastic conference in Bangkok. One of the monks quoted in the book said that there was a bit of trouble communicating at first, and discussions about meditation and contemplation went round in circles. However, the participants eventually figured out that what the Buddhists called “meditation”, the Christians called “contemplation”, and what the Christians called “contemplation”, the Buddhists called “meditation”.
Most people nowadays, even in traditionally Christian contexts, are apt to assume the Buddhist definitions of these two words. If they think about these concepts at all, people are likely to define meditation as blanking the mind, suppressing thoughts, or letting thoughts go, letting them drift, and look for what lies beneath or behind thoughts, the thinker, the observer. This definition has much more in common with the Buddhist idea of meditation than with the Western idea. To a Buddhist using English, “contemplation” means focusing the mind on a set concept, such as a mandala, a thangka (the devotional paintings of Tibet), or a mental image of a deity, buddha, or bodhisattva, minutely described by tradition.
In Christian tradition, however, “contemplation” means a quiet opening to God without words or images. It may be helped by the use of words, such as by repeating a single word or a short prayer, or by images such as the icons of the Eastern Church, but it aims for a communion with the Divine that transcends such things and the limited understanding they embody. What then is meditation? Not only in Christian tradition but in the Western magical tradition, meditation means, fundamentally, thinking: disciplined, directed thinking about a chosen topic. It’s a way of unpacking the meaning in a tradition. Many Christian monastics, over the centuries, have compared it to the rumination of a cow, chewing over an idea to get as much mental nourishment out of it as possible.
Christians might meditate on a passage from Scripture, a story from the Gospels, or a doctrine such as the Resurrection. In the traditional Benedictine formulation, they practice lectio divina: lectio, reading of Scripture; meditatio, meditation, rumination, digesting ideas; oratio, speaking to God about the passage; contemplatio, resting in the divine presence. Thomas Cranmer, in a famous collect in The Book of Common Prayer, prayed that he might learn, mark, read, and inwardly digest the meaning and truth of Christian Scripture.
What, then, might Druids of the AODA meditate on? What is it that we seek to learn, mark, read, and inwardly digest, and how do we do so? I started with the middle section of our Grand ArchDruid’s book, The Druidry Handbook. “Wisdom of the Stone Circle: Three Triads of Druid Philosophy” is an excellent summary of the lore of Revival Druidry, couched in a typically Druidic and Celtic form: the triad or set of three. The first set of three which our ArchDruid proposes is the Three Rays of Light, which includes the origin story of the Revival: How Einigen the Giant, the first of all beings, saw three rays of light descending from the heavens, and how these rays were also three sounds, the syllables of the secret name of Celi the creating spirit.
How I have dealt with meditating on this theme is just one possible way, but I’d like to share it because it’s a way that’s adapted to my particular lifestyle, as yours should be. First of all, I must admit that I do very poorly sitting still in one place and thinking. If I am going to sit and think, I want to have a notebook in front of me and a pen in my hand. I’ve kept a journal for over twenty years, and writing, for me, is itself a form of meditation, or perhaps I should say contemplation, a way of watching the mind. Writing meditation would seem to come naturally to me, but with my current work schedule and other druid activities, I didn’t want to attempt a lengthy session at my desk. So I adopted a suggestion from Oakmouse, ArchDruid of Fire of the Grand Grove, and tried a different type of writing, called clustering, which was discovered by Gabriele Rico.
In the evening, before I settle down to go to sleep, I read a bit of “Wisdom from the Stone Circle”, until something grabs my attention. Then, I open up my notebook and write a cluster about it, putting the topic in a circle in the center of the page and letting other ideas branch out from it. The resulting mass of circles, lines, and words resembles a flowchart gone amok. I leave my notebook open and my pen handy so that I can record my dreams when I wake, and then I sleep on it, letting the nonconscious parts of my mind work on the meditation material.
In the morning, I have time to review what I wrote before setting out to walk to work. My pace is unhurried, and I typically go by the same route each day, which takes me thirty to forty minutes. After doing the Sphere of Protection and some other energy working, I turn my attention to the meditation subject I prepared the night before. Walking the familiar route to work, which I almost never vary, is highly conducive to my pursuing directed thinking; I don’t have to think much about the terrain or the traffic signals because I know them well, and thus I can devote most of my attention to the topic at hand.
What I then do is simply think about the topic. I follow the train of ideas which it stimulates. If I am foggy, having trouble concentrating, I may just repeat a key phrase over and over again, like saying a rosary, but usually I am able to tease out ideas, connections, associations, applications which illuminate my life in some respect. Some days are better than others as far as making those applications and deriving insight, but the effort is always worthwhile.
The chief drawback to this method is that I am apt to be asked for directions as I walk, but that’s a small hazard. On the weekends, a walk around my neighborhood can take the place of the trek to work and give me opportunity to reflect. Meditating while walking has the added advantage of getting me out into contact with nature, which is also a requirement for practicing AODA Druidry.
One part of this process which I haven’t begun but intend to do is to write down insights gleaned from the meditation. I may try to do this in a linear, discursive way, but I may also try to do it in a poetic way. I have also thought of trying to draw or paint images from the meditation, and I would highly recommend that anybody who is primarily visually-oriented should try that. One could also compose a song or even create a dance. For the fruits of meditation to flow out into works of art is itself an intrinsic part of the Druid Revival and of its creation story, for the three rays of light which Einigen saw become three staves of rowan wood on which he carves all knowledge. His creative work benefits Menw, the first bard,