©2004 by John Michael Greer. All rights reserved.
The approach to meditation that has been part of Druid traditions since early in the Revival echoes other meditation methods in many ways, but there’s one significant difference. This lies in the attitudes toward the thinking mind. Most systems of meditation teach the student to stop thinking altogether, by using mantras (special patterns of spoken sound) or symbolic visualizations, or concentrating on thought-stopping paradoxes such as the koans of Zen. This is effective enough as a way to achieve meditative states of consciousness, but too often it has the awkward side effect of producing mystics who can reach profound spiritual states but can’t think clearly.
In Druid meditation, by contrast, the more common path is to train and reorient the mind instead of shutting it down. Druidry, like other mystical traditions, has long recognized that reason divorced from reality and from other (and equally valid) forms of human experience is a form of madness. Ever since the time of Pythagoras, though, Western mystics and sages have also recognized that the mind need not be the enemy of the spirit, if it’s brought into harmony with itself, with the larger human self of which it forms a part, and with the cosmos as a whole. The rational can be a vehicle for the spiritual: this is the premise (and the promise) of most Western mystical paths, and this approach was adopted into Druidry from the earliest days of the Druid Revival.
Central to this process the ability to think in a meditative way. Like everything else, this takes practice, and you’ll find that the more often you practice meditation, the more effectively you can do this; daily practice is essential if you plan on getting good at it.
In this form of meditation, which is called discursive meditation, the thinking process is not stopped but redirected and clarified; thoughts are not abolished but made into a vehicle for the deeper movement of consciousness. This is typically done by focusing the mind on a specific topic, and allowing it to follow out the implications of that topic through a chain of ideas, while at the same time keeping it focused on the topic without straying. By doing this, the meditator gradually transforms thinking from half-random mental chatter into a powerful and focused way of understanding; at the same time, the knowledge that comes out of meditation of this sort can have a good deal of value on its own terms.
The mind of the meditator thus focuses on a previously chosen image or idea, which is called the theme of the meditation. The meditator considers the theme and follows out its implications and consequences, 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. Thus this form of meditation has two positive effects. Like every other form of meditation, it teaches mastery of attention and awareness. Unlike most other forms of meditation, it enables the meditator to understand the themes of meditation to a depth that ordinary thinking rarely reaches. Furthermore, many of the myths, symbols and teachings of the Druid tradition are specifically designed to yield up their meaning only to careful, focused attention. Discursive meditation thus becomes a key to the inner dimensions of the Druid path.
Certain preliminaries are valuable. The most important is the selection of a theme. Every aspect of Druid study and practice can provide themes; books worth studying are among the most common sources. Beginners often choose vast sprawling themes and either flounder about in them or skate over the surface, missing the potential depths of the practice. As a general rule, if your theme takes more than a fairly short sentence to describe, it’s too large for a single meditation and should be broken up into smaller bits, then recombined later.
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 against 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. This is an important aspect of Druid spiritual practice; as Druids, we are always part of a larger 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). If possible, it’s best to meditate facing east, to take advantage of currents in the subtle body of the Earth. A clock placed so that you can see it without moving your head completes the setting for meditation practice.
Once you’ve settled into your position, consciously relax each part of your body, starting with your feet and moving step by stap up to the top of your head. Then spend a few minutes paying conscious attention to your breath, breathing in and out slowly, evenly and fully. A traditional breathing exercise called the Fourfold Breath is commonly used here. Breathe slowly in while counting mentally from one to four; hold your breath in, while counting from one to four; breathe out, counting from one to four; and hold the breath out, with the lungs empty, while counting from one to four, 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, not by closing the throat, which can lead to health problems.
After you’ve paid attention to your breathing for perhaps five minutes, turn 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. Keep your mind focused on it for a 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. When your thoughts veer from it, as they almost certainly will in the early stages of training, don’t simply bring them back to the theme; follow your straying thoughts back to the point where they left the train of thought you were following, and proceed from there. Over time, this will teach your mind to return to your theme as readily as it strays from it.
It’s important to set a period of time for the meditation in advance, and stick to that, even if you don’t think you’re making any progress at all. Five minutes of breathing and ten minutes of actual meditation makes a good length of practice session for beginners. When you’re done, pay attention to your breathing or practice the Fourfold Breath again for a minute or so to help yourself make the transition back to ordinary awareness.
There are other details of practice, expansions of technique, and additional methods that can be combined with discursive meditation to strengthen its effects and make it applicable to many different forms of spiritual practice, in and out of Druidry. Some of these, and a great deal more on discursive meditation itself, are covered in more detail in my forthcoming book Druidry: A Green Way of Wisdom.
Useful books with material on discursive meditation include these:
- Adelaide Gardner, Meditation: A Practical Study (Wheaton, IL: Quest, 1968).
- William G. Gray, Western Inner Workings (York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1983).
- Manly Palmer Hall, Self-Unfoldment by Disciplines of Realization (Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, 1942).
- Gareth Knight, Occult Exercises and Practices (Albuquerque, NM: Sun Chalice, 1998).
- Mouni Sadhu, Concentration: A Guide to Mental Mastery (No. Hollywood, CA: Wilshire, 1959).
- Meditation: An Outline for Practical Study (No. Hollywood, CA: Wilshire, 1967).
- Ernest Wood, Concentration: An Approach to Meditation (Wheaton, IL: Quest, 1949).