How to carry on
And that is it, if you follow the steps above you will be meditating in a basic fashion. This basic set of techniques is the basis of all the advanced techniques that come afterwards such as visualisation. The mind has to be calmed and cleared before you can begin to visualise; after all you don’t begin to paint a picture over a print of a Jackson Pollock, you choose a blank canvas. Cultivating this blank canvas can take time and maintenance, most teachers would recommend about five minutes twice a day to begin with gradually increasing the length of time and the quality of the sessions to at least two twenty minute sessions twice a day. Twenty minutes, twice a day of pure meditative equipoise is far better than an eight hour session of stop-start meditation once a week.
A little and very often is the way to go, traditionally early morning and late evening are the times to sit but I find that a session when I get in from work makes a clean break between my work life and my home life. I am a morning person so I can easily get up half an hour early to jump in the shower and then sit and meditate before everyone else gets up, but for some people this can be a very onerous chore. Night people can benefit from a lunchtime session if their work patterns allow or maybe a session when you get back from work and another late at night when you would normally be going to bed, fortunately you can meditate without waking the neighbours so it is suitable for any time of day.
Once you have practiced in this way for a while you might think about going on to more advanced forms of meditation. The meditation on calming the mind is often called placement meditation and is the counterpart to analytical meditation or sometimes visualisation. I shall cover these two forms briefly with some Druid-friendly exercises for you to try.
Analytical meditation is using this bright shiny laser-beam-focussed mind and applying it to an question internally. The techniques of calming allow the mind to stay on topic and not to wander off into side streets and backwaters. You have all head of the Zen riddle (Koan) “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “if a tree falls in the forest and no-one is there to observe it, does it make a sound?”, well those are a highly specialised form of analytical meditation designed to shock the analytical mind into a higher state. You will be glad to know that this is not what we are going to do, you really need a good teacher for that and preferably in face-to-face teaching. There is much that you can do on your own though and a few of these are listed below:
Always start off with a short session of placement meditation in order to settle down and get into a receptive frame of mind. Then imagine an acorn or a tiny nut that lies in the earth with the potential to grow into a mighty tree. Where is that potential stored? Where does all that complexity come from to design every leaf and bark-gnarl? Use your new-found ability to concentrate your mind to question this over and over, never straying from the topic. Allow yourself to become absorbed into the question to the point where you might become the acorn and approach the question from the inside out. Don’t strain for absolute answers, just become immersed in the conundrum and see where your mind takes you. You mind knows all the answers to everything but you need to train yourself to listen properly to what it says, you can’t hear the answers directly and you might catch glimpses here and there as you become familiar with the object of analysis. Like a badly tuned radio there is a lot of noise that distorts and obscures the signal you desire.
The example above is one of the ultimate questions about life, the universe and everything (hah! you just thought “forty-two” didn’t you!), but there are other questions that can be analysed. If you are given ambiguous signs during your Pathworkings or other inner work then analytical meditation can help you to sort out what those signs mean to you. Ethical questions are particularly good for this approach, the way we treat other people, our attitudes to our fellow human beings, animals or the plant kingdom can all be scrutinised in this way. Then there are the abstract meditations used to train the mind to work in a different way to the normal rational mind. The Golden Dawn tradition uses a series of meditations upon symbols starting from the contemplation of a mathematical point and working up through the symbols of the elements and on to the tree of life itself and the qabalistic symbolism contained therein.
A Druid might choose to contemplate the symbols of Druidry, the symbols given to each grade within the order or the outer symbols such as the awen or the individual ogham. In the case of the ogham there is really no question to be asked as such, other than a general “what does this mean to me?” The associations can be distilled down from the mass of memories that you possess, creating a truly unique and personal symbol that has a very real kind of magic for you alone.
One further technique that is peculiar to Christian and some Eastern schools is known in the west as Lectio Divina or divine reading. This usually involves a sacred text which is read in a meditative state, a sentence at a time and thoroughly internalised and analysed. For Druidic purposes this is an ideal technique to apply to reading a particularly emotive poem or maybe a triad or riddle. Use counting the breath to calm the mind and then read the text, one line or sentence at a time concentrating on the point of the piece, whether that is the imagery, the emotional content or the moral behind the story. As you digest each chunk, drift off into analytical meditation for a short while making associations and relating it to your own experiences. As you reach a conclusion to each meditation, take a short time to calm your mind again and then have a go at the next sentence. It might take an hour to read a short poem but in that time you have truly read it, not just listened to the words in your head, you have entered into the poem at a symbolic level and taken it into your heart.
Finally let me say a few words about visualisation, building a stable mental picture. This is familiar to most people as the mind is good at making pictures of faces, cars, the pattern in our bathroom wallpaper, these are all the ways we recognise the familiar. This is the value of visualisation; it allows us to build a mental picture of something that has value to us and to allow our minds to become familiar with it. The object of visualisation depends on the tradition; Buddhists create elaborate images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas whereas a Druid might find it useful to create an image relating to a seasonal festival or a sacred place.
I have encountered two forms of practice when it comes to visualisation and both are aimed at getting over that first hurdle, creating the visualisation. The first and most commonly encountered technique is that of creating the scene piece by piece, building up the world in your visual imagination from easily imagined building blocks. For instance if you were wanting to visualise a woodland scene you might start with a basic ground and sky, when you have those firmly imagined add some grass, fallen leaves, twigs and maybe the odd mushroom. With these embedded in the scene you can then add the trees, starting with the ones at the back and gradually adding them one by one until you reach the most prominent tree in the foreground. Hold this picture for as long as you can, keeping every detail pin-sharp. When you can create a scene like this then you can begin to add other details, flora fauna and maybe supernatural elements, limited only by the amount of complexity you have trained yourself to cope with. This can be a good way of exploring the god and goddess forms, by building them up one attribute at a time and then holding that image while your mind familiarises itself with that form. It is also a good way of awakening your visual creative faculties if you think you might want to paint what you imagine.
The other school of visualisation starts with the scene already built but with the details obscured as if behind a sheet of tracing paper or through a fog. Gradually you add in detail as the fog disperses until you have a pin-sharp image of your meditation object. I have to admit that I am not very good at this method, possibly because of my mathematical/engineering background which means I like to take things apart and put them back together again. I have it on good authority that the fog method is a useful technique for exploring a subject of which you have only a very fuzzy concept. For instance, if you wanted to meditate on a stone circle but not one you have visited, an inner stone circle if you like, you could imagine the ground and sky with some blurry grey patches in between and as you reveal the scene let your unconscious mind fill in the details for you. Using the building blocks method requires you to know the shapes of the stones before you get that far.
Well I hope that I have given enough detail to allow you to get a firm footing on the road to becoming a seasoned meditator. Learning from words on a page is a poor substitute for learning under a true meditation master and learning from my words on a page is poor fare indeed. Having said that, not everyone can take years out of their lives to sit in draughty halls at five in the morning and a little common sense can work wonders. The most important advice I can give is to urge you to sit every day if possible and give it time, the basics might seem boring or easy but it is easy to delude yourself into thinking you are meditating when you are actually thinking about yourself meditating. Along the way you will hopefully gain a new appreciation of the fantastic nature of the mind that is indefinable yet contains the very core of our being, our thoughts.
Good luck and enjoy your journey.
Thich Nhat Hanh (1991) The Miracle of Mindfulness, London: Rider. This is short, easy to read and low on Buddhist religious stuff, a gem of a book and no intro to meditation could fail to acknowledge the usefulness of this work.
Batchelor, Martine (2001) Meditation for Life, London: Frances Lincoln Ltd. A fantastic easy to read introduction by a western nun in the Korean Buddhist tradition.
Levey, Joel & Michelle (2003) The Fine Arts of Relaxation, Concentration and Meditation, Boston: Wisdom Publications. This is crammed with exercises and techniques to try, written from a less traditional viewpoint and with an emphasis on modern life.
Gunaratana, Bhante Henepola (2002) Mindfulness in Plain English, Boston: Wisdom Publications. This is THE best introduction to Buddhist meditation I have ever read, widely acknowledged as a modern classic. There is hardly any Buddhist doctrine so don’t let it put you off.
McDonald, Kathleen (2005) How to Meditate, Boston: Wisdom Publications. This is a good solid introduction but does rather focus on the religious side of Tibetan Buddhism (but she is one of my teachers so I feel I ought to plug her book!)
Sekida, Katsuki (1985) Zen Training, New York: Weatherhill. A masterful book full of the real nuts and bolts of Zen meditation. Not for the faint hearted but for the curious it is a real compendium of eastern ideas about mind training.
Farrell, Nick (2004) Magical Pathworking - Techniques of Active Imagination, St. Paul MN: Llewellyn. I know, it's from that publisher but this really is very good. Pages 24-31 give intstructions on meditation in the western magical tradition and some exercises to try. The rest of the book is concerned with pathworking which is very much of relevance to Druidry.
Greer, John Michael (2007) The Druid Magic Handbook, San Francisco: Weiser. Pages 87-93 contain the basics of meditation applied to the Druid path and how the AODA apply it in their training.
Carr-Gomm, Philip (2002) Druidcraft – The Magic of Wicca and Druidry, London: Thorsons. Not a how-to manual but this does contain many ideas for meditations on the more magical side of Druidry.
White, Julie & Talboys, Graeme (2005) The Path Through the Forest – A Druid Handbook, Girvan: Grey House in the Woods. Again this has a few ideas for meditations rather than instructions on how to meditate.
Greer, John Michael (2007) Paths of Wisdom – a Guide to the Magical Cabala, Loughborough: Thoth. This is a wonderful book on the rather involved subject of qabalistic meditation, self-transformation through meditating on the tree of life – the foundation of mystical Judaism.