Thursday, December 13, 2007

Practicing the Daily Simple, Part I

"I feel as though we've reached a point where we're not really learning how to write better anymore, we're just learning how to talk better about what we've written."

- a friend discussing advanced creative writing college courses

I do a lot of talking in this blog. Sometimes, I worry, a bit too much. I can become caught up in the endless backtracking of self-reference, utilizing my creativity and longing not for the sake of new growth, but for buttressing up old lifestyles and habits of mind. It's easy to forget that any one system can start to seem like the single Truth if you spend too much time within it, and not enough time allowing your body and its natural energies free range to roam.

One conviction that has led me so assuredly onto and along the Druid path is the conviction that no amount of philosophizing and debate can make up for a lack of daily, practical work in the spiritual life. I can hypothesize about the nature of deity, the relationship between free will and destiny, the role of love and grief... and in some ways, this process of writing and thinking is indeed a kind of practical work, too. It does help to clarify, to enlighten, and just as often to frustrate and to reveal the stumbling blocks hiding just beneath the surface. I follow my words like hounds I've set loose on the hunt, never quite knowing where they will lead or what scent will send them howling.

But there is other work to do, as well. I don't always have the energy--or the time!--to go hunting through poetic imagery and the dense tension of metaphor, weaving my way through the lush undergrowth of belief, identity, paradox and process. Sometimes I have to come home to myself, sometimes I have to clean the hearth and feed the dogs.

Engaged Presence

Regular readers of this blog will remember a few months ago several entries about the value of sacred attending. This is, perhaps, the most important aspect of my practical spiritual work, because it is something that can be done anywhere and at anytime--but furthermore, right here and right now. You, in front of your computer screen, take a moment to attend. Notice the shape and color of the computer, the dust that may have collected on it, the desk and its odds and ends, the creaking chair, the window outside of which the rain is sometimes loud and pounding and sometimes too soft to hear above the buzz of fluorescent lights.

How did I learn to engage the present, and to make it such a natural part of my everyday awareness? Honestly, I have no idea, and I have no advice for how to go about learning it. I have a suspicion that writing poetry helped. Especially writing poetry while sitting in the back of my high school math classes, recalling the weather, the smile of a boy, the lace slip peaking out beneath the hem of an elderly, enthusiastic English teacher as she raised her arms for emphasis, the smell and feel of chalk, the deathly activity of the eraser across the black-gray board... When you're a teenager trying to learn how to write poetry, what can you turn to? Not long years of memory, not exciting experiences of foreign, exotic places... When your boredom forces your irresistible creative impulses into poetry--or doodling--or playing the guitar--what else can you do but attend to the dull but bursting world around you? I'm not sure you can learn to attend in any other way. Maybe that's why mystics of the past have so often retreated for a time into the boredom of the desert, the hermitage or the dark.


I began this practice in college, though it took several years before it became a regular discipline. Originally, I followed the Eastern (and in particular, Zen Buddhist) tradition of meditation, which seeks to empty and quiet the "monkey mind," to burn away the false sense of self and attain to the nothingness of Holy Void, which is itself not anything. I never quite found the knack of it. Rather than being restful and revitalizing, I found that I had to exert a great deal of energy to keep myself centered in anatman (no-self). It occurred to me that this was not only self-defeating, but probably not the intention of such meditation to begin with; yet being in college, I did not exactly have the time (or even the desire, really) to seek out some guru from whom I might learn.

Then I came across an AODA article about a form of meditation based more in the Western esoteric tradition. Greer writes, "In Druid meditation, by contrast, the more common path is to train and reorient the mind instead of shutting it down. [...] 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." In some ways, this method of meditation takes the engaged presence of attending to the "outside" world and turns that attention to the mind itself. Rather than trying to deaden or quiet the mind, one can watch its processes, trace its pathways, and ride the activity of reasoning itself, learning to hone and clarify it.

Upon discovering this form of meditation, I suddenly found myself enjoying both the practice itself, and its benefits. Rather than a strain, it became a exercise in unifying and harmonizing myself, working towards a more complete spiritual integrity. I've now reached a point where I meditate before bed three to four nights a week, sometimes taking breaks during the day to meditate as well, if the spirit moves me. (Anyone interested in this alternative form of meditation, I highly recommend checking out the AODA article linked above.)

Creative Visualization

In some ways, having a visual-poetic kind of mind by nature, the practice of discursive meditation led me into the technique of creative visualization. Many people use this technique to visualize goals or positive outcomes, to go on prescribed "guided visualizations," and the like. I found these uses to be a bit too specific to make for practical daily use (though I will sometimes take a moment over breakfast in the morning to visualize or imagine myself having a stress-free, prosperous and enjoyable day at work). I most commonly use creative visualization for sensing or "playing with" energy. When walking somewhere (since I don't have a car, I walk pretty much everywhere), I run my fingers over passing shrubbery, chain-link fences, the bark of trees or even the brick walls of buildings--experiencing the changing energies each thing radiates. When the wind is strong or the sun warm, I'll open "wings" out to gather in the power, and when it's cold outside, sometimes I'll send down "roots" seeking solidity and warmth within the earth. And every once in a while, I'll be sitting at my desk, or curled up reading a book, or even at work bustling around, when I'll open my hand, palm upwards, as if to hold a gently glowing, floating "ball" of energy before me, as if to concentrate and activate it before reabsorbing or dissipating.

To call these activities "visualizations" might be a bit misleading. I do not close my eyes, I do not call up stark images in my mind as if looking at a movie screen behind my eyelids, and I do not actually see anything other than the physical reality in front of me. But in the same way that complicated philosophical ideas will sometimes present themselves to me all at once in idea-maps charted in spatial relations which then take paragraphs to delineate and describe, so too do I get this "sense" of space, energy and movement that extends beyond the physical boundaries of my body--a sense of space that is not auditory or olfactory, but which seems very much a visual sensation, though it is far from literal. These experiences are what St. Theresa of Avila described in her work as "intellectual visions." Tthough her understanding of such visions were as revelations from God, the principle of experiencing and cultivating them seems, to me, to be much the same. They become daily reminders of the nonmaterial or transmaterial world, moments at a stoplight or waiting in line at the grocery store when I can remind myself to "look" for the interconnective energies I have believed in and experienced before.


  1. I really enjoyed the post - what is the daily work of spiritual life? And more importantly, how is one to approach doing such work?

    While I myself have not of late intentionally meditated, nor have I even done creative visualizations, I am still aware of the effort to remain truly present. And to maintain that awareness over a period of time. I find I can perhaps remain aware while in natural settings, but when I get to an overcrowded city - I will soon be distracted away, or simply daze out of where I am so I don't have to acknowledge the fact I am crammed in a stinky,uncomfortable subway car. Am I someone who requires nature for a more spiritual and fulfilling life? - I think so.

    Also, I am glad you explain the Druid approach to meditation. When in High School I was fascinated by Zen Buddhism and often attempted to meditate. But, I had found more ease and in fact a more spiritually fulfilling experience when I was in middle school and would kneel before the alter after school praying on my own. I needed words, images, something tangible. I felt mute when I tried to meditate. Perhaps I might get more out of trying the meditation described in the article.

  2. Interesting, your comment on Druid meditation. I've tried other forms of meditation and had varying degree of success, however, I've let my practice slip lately. This Druid path is a new one for me, so maybe I'll explore this mediation.