Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sycamore Circle: A Study Group for Pittsburgh Druids

I might as well come out and admit it--ever since Jeff moved out here to Pittsburgh, I've been secretly plotting. Until now, I've been primarily a solitary practitioner, cultivating my own Druidry as time, energy and interest guided me, but over the past year or so I've also noticed a growing desire in myself to seek out spiritual community as well. This blog has been one forum for that sense of community, but there are limits to internet media. Discussion, challenge, inspiration and even comfort are here in abundance, but I long for people with whom I can practice, who can share with me a real living Druidic spirituality--people who will walk with me in the forests and share a drink with me over conversations about ritual and magic and the gods. And so, ever since Jeff moved to Pittsburgh, I've been reveling in the company of another real-life Druid, sharing times of meditation and prayer with him, walking through the forest with him, and plotting. If there were more of us, more inquisitive, contemplative types, more folks who loved music and poetry and art as inherent aspects of their spiritual lives, just a few more people who understood the potential power of authentic, organic ritual and saw in the natural world the beauty and rhythms that those rituals echo and invoke remake... if there were more of us, perhaps we could have a Grove.

Well, we're not there yet. But together, Jeff and I have taken the first step and officially announced the formation of an informal study group called Sycamore Circle (the group can be found on facebook, and perhaps eventually we'll have some other webpage for it as well). At the moment, the study group is not affiliated with any larger Druidic Order or organization, though it will be largely informed by our experiences in Revival Druidry and the slightly anarchistic mud-and-blood approach of Emma Restall Orr and The Druid Network. When I first conceived of the idea back in February 2008, I wrote a brief description of the group as "embodying a tradition of inclusiveness, for those with interests in: art, music, poetry and other sacred expressions of Awen; regular meditation and contact with nature as essential aspects of the spiritual life; scholarly study and intellectual integrity; exploring experiences of Spirit and encouraging personal growth and community evolution..." (If any of my readers live in or near the Pittsburgh/Allegheny County area, I invite you to explore the group page on fb or contact me for more information.)

Back at the end of August, Jeff and I began to set aside times during each month as "meetings," in order to establish a routine into which we might be able to introduce new members. We've been following TDN's Perennial Course in Living Druidry for the past month, holding informal meetings in the local park on the evenings of new and full moons, and occasionally times between, and these have already become very special and sometimes intense times for me, and I think for Jeff as well, as they've sparked experiences of the sacred and moments of connection as well as fascinating discussions that spill over into our mundane lives. True, with just the two of us, we make more of a line than a circle, more of a Sycamore Twig. But it's a start, a way of getting our feet wet.

Then, just this past week, two people from my work noticed the group announcement on facebook and approached me with some vague, hesitant interest. I was surprised, and a bit embarrassed, frankly. When I'd posted the announcement, I'd thought perhaps we'd eventually get a few strangers, people already involved in Pagandom in one way or another and who were looking for a local group... I never expected interest from anyone I already knew. I'm not sure why this caught me off guard, but I suspect it was just that it helped to bring home the reality of the thing, the very real potential that soon I would have to start navigating the complicated world of Group Politics (cue doomsday music). I've heard a lot of scary things about Witch Wars and Pagan Standard Time and other generally petty, irresponsible and power-hungry behavior from adults who should really know better. I want to strive to avoid these things, to cultivate a group atmosphere based on trust and mutual respect as well as shared interests and community practice. But I'm not usually a big group-joiner, let alone a group leader. So it's going to be a challenge.

Pondering Group Dynamics

My brief moment of panic has led to some deep thought and long discussions with Jeff over the past week about what we hope this study group will become, what we're looking for and looking to avoid. This discussion was helped along by a post to a Druid message forum recently that included questions about group politics and preferences. Some of the issues brought up were:

  • Size and Boundaries: A difficult issue for me as an introvert, as I often find large groups of people intimidating, not to mention clumsy to manage. Small groups can provide a sense of intimacy and trust, while large groups can too easily give rise to social pressures to play-act one's Druidry to impress others or go along with the majority. On the other hand, large groups can build momentum and embrace a larger diversity of talents, interests and personality types, ensuring that the group won't falter after a single falling-out between two people or the retirement of key active members. The question of how porous and open the boundaries of such a group can or should be is another challenge. I have joined larger Orders precisely because their espoused openness and tolerance appealed to me, only to discover that within such groups natural cliques sometimes form that can be just as disheartening and alienating, if not more so, for going unrecognized or unacknowledged by official group policy. On the other hand, a firmer boundary which asks newcomers to study the group's established focus and dynamics before they can enter as full members may be more honest and forthright, as well as protecting against the group being hijacked by those prone to egoism or melodrama, but it can also place real limits on membership that may not always serve the community and might leave some people out in the cold.

  • The Nature of Leadership: Another thorny issue, and I think probably the one that will cause me the most trouble, philosophically-speaking. My natural antiauthoritarian leanings, compounded by my strong (sometimes too strong) self-will, naturally leads me to dislike most forms of authority, while my introverted nature means that I rarely like to take on leadership roles myself. I'm much more inclined to forms of shared responsibility among equals, with respect for those who have areas of expertise and experience, and appreciation for the enthusiasm and creativity that the neophyte can bring. However, it seems pretty clear that plenty of Pagan groups fall apart or stall out precisely because of an impractical or overly-idealistic commitment to a false democratic "equality"-as-sameness that squashes down some and demands too much of others. My approach to leadership is more a pragmatic one, in which those "in charge" function more as managers than dictators and work primarily to give group members the freedom and opportunities to take on what roles they would, where their passions and interests guide them. There is a very real need for good leaders in the Pagan community, people who have the skills and talents it takes to manage the mundane practicalities of a group as well as inspire its members to participate and contribute and make it their own.

  • Member Relations and Mentoring: The means by which new members may be introduced into the group is another challenge, and one that I feel needs to be flexible depending on how the group grows and evolves over time. It's also probably the most pressing at the moment. Creating an environment of trust and respect that will encourage exploration, growth and openness among its members is essential, but part of me feels that conceiving of such an environment as one in which "we're all friends" is a bit impractical and leads to problems of its own. Friendship-based member relations can open the door to interpersonal conflicts that distract from the purpose of the group and can end up undermining or sabotaging personal and community growth, especially if new members feel they won't be as valued if they cannot establish themselves as part of the core circle of friends. When members instead understand their relationship with other members as a "working relationship," I've found that this sets natural boundaries that help to minimize bickering and melodrama, but I wonder if it also requires that members be motivated largely by personal interests and less by social needs, and if this is perhaps an unfair requirement or one that can render the group a mere convenience or superfluity (Hermits of the World United, so to speak). One-on-one mentoring is a potentially invaluable process that can introduce new members as well as give established members the opportunity to teach (and to continue to learn and refine) from their own experience. On the other hand, I haven't seen many mentoring programs set up in larger organizations that work effectively, often because only a few members pursue mentoring and end up taking on too many students.

  • Other questions regarding particular topics and practices, how group meetings are run, how often the group meets, and so on, are also essential, of course. But I feel as though, if we don't first think carefully about some of the above issues, these other concerns don't make much difference.

    In a post next week, I'm going to outline a "vision" for this new group, a personal exploration of what I hope Sycamore Circle can become. In the meantime, I would really appreciate feedback on some of these topics. What are your experiences in groups (Pagan and otherwise)? What were some of their rewards, things that kept you coming back or really helped to shape your spiritual path? What were some things you wished were different, that you found distracting or frustrating or detrimental? What, in your experience and understanding, is the role a group should play in the spiritual life, and how does it relate to the idea of spiritual community, and to solitary practice? Inquiring minds want to know!


    1. Best of luck indeed. I am sure it will work out find. I started off very much introverted but I've come out of my shell... not so much in the general public but when I am around people I know have similar views such as fellow druids and pagans.

    2. Hi Ali,

      Your ponderings, visions and images sound awfully familiar. They are very akin to what we are doing in DOTR. Have a look again. Maybe your circle could become a grove with us. It sounds like we are up to many of the same things, for very many of the same reasons and inclinations.

      Regardless of that, best wishes for what this Sycamore Circle may become.

      By sky, earth and sea,

      Bob Patrick

    3. Duir, Thanks very much for the encouragement. :) I have noticed my own de-shelling in recent years and I think I have my Druidic practices at least partly to thank for that. It is amazing the self-confidence that comes from simple practices like grounding and centering, and allowing yourself to rediscover that child-like sense of playfulness in the world around you!

    4. Bob, That had actually occurred to me as well, and I've sent Jeff a link to the DOTR webpage to check it out. I'm not sure what lies in Sycamore Circle's future, but I'm looking forward to finding out. :) I'm sure we'll be having lots more discussions about all of this in the future and debating what, if any, larger organizations or orders we may want to join up with. I was hoping you'd stop by this post in particular and share some of your own experiences with this kind of group work? How have things been going with DOTR? I see blog posts every once in a while on the ning, but I feel like I don't have much perspective without actually being there to attend gatherings and such...

    5. Don't be dismayed by the challenges of working with other humans. The contact with the gods and nature is intensely important, too, but we humans evolved as a social species. For us, work done with other humans is where the rubber hits the road, and if it is challenging, it's because that's where we get real about getting spiritual.

      It's easy to feel serene looking up at the stars through tree-limbs. It's hard to hang onto your wisdom and serenity when, after a fourteen-hour struggle to pull together a workable group ritual, a newcomer to the group blasts you for serving cheese containing rennin at the potluck--or an intimate, long-time friend gets sucked into gossip and politicking aimed at you.

      But when you can remember your way back to the grove and the gods while in company with real humans, the bitter and the sweet, you get to keep the gains you make. You're not a spiritual tourist anymore and you know it.

      Some things about being human can only be learned in the rough and tumble of working and playing with other seekers. It can be painful (oh, Holy Herne and Hecate, Batman, can it ever be!) but it is TOTALLY WORTH IT.

      If I were local to you guys, I'd join your grove in a heartbeat. I already know: your work has the Real Juice in it.

      You guys are going to be wonderful. (Can I say I knew you when?)

    6. My answer to this turned sort of monstrous, so it's a blog post now. I'll echo what Cat said, though - if you were local I would join your grove. You'll be terrific!

    7. Cat, I'm so glad you stopped by and shared some thoughts, considering the extensive experience you have with several different kinds of groups. I know you've written about the differences between Pagan and Quaker worship and community before and how you work with both. Perhaps I could prompt you to share a bit more about that? ;)

      As far as working with other humans (that phrase made me smile :), I definitely see what you're saying. I wouldn't want to claim that a solitary path is necessarily truncated, of course, as there are always opportunities to bring your spiritual life to bear on your social interactions. My family relations, for instance, have benefitted immensely from the grounding and self-awareness that personal spiritual practice has brought me, and I've written in this blog before about situations at work that challenge me and push me to work to truly embody my commitments.

      But.... I know there is something to group work that is essential, and I am determined to discover what that is. I've felt it in mundane group work like the high school marching band and theater group, and even at times in the kind of frenetic dance of a busy day waiting tables at my job. But to participate in something like this, where all the participates bring to it this awareness and intention towards the sacred.... well, I know this must be something, and that it will be worth whatever awkwardness or pain or struggle comes along.

      Thanks for the encouragement. Wish us luck in finding interested members out here in Pittsburgh! ;)

    8. Nettle, I hopped over to your blog to check out the post (found here for future readers' reference), and wanted to say thanks for such a thoughtful response! It's really intriguing to see the difference between the two groups. I'm not shocked that the Wicca coven has more hierarchy and structure, but I was actually a bit surprised that the Druidic group had so little, I suppose especially since I've always thought of Druidry as a more philosophical path (which is why I like it! ;). As someone who has never really been a big group person and has only had one (rather disappointing and buggy) experience of Pagan group ritual, it's really interesting to read a perspective that's so grounded in group work.

      I guess I'm still trying to figure out what kind of hopes and plans I have for this Sycamore Circle, and how to kick start it. :) I think I'm like you, in that I like school and my experience with one-on-one tutoring in writing is something I'd like to incorporate into my spiritual group work in some way... but finding a good balance that allows for flexibility and silliness is important, too. Hmm... lots to ponder. :) Thanks again for such an awesome reply!

    9. It's early morning here so my brain isn't firing on all cylinders yet but I felt really compelled to write and say congratulations on this new endeavor. I miss working with a small, intimate group of spiritual family very much. Though I do cherish my solitary wanderings as well, just for different reasons.

      Throughout all of this, don't forget to take time out to replenish your own batteries as well. In my group experiences, this is the biggest stumbling block I have found as an organizer/leader figure. You get so busy and concerned with group dynamic and growth and the evolution of your mates that you sometimes forget to step back and worship/recharge on your own. And it can lead to disconnection and burn out on your part. If you're not taking care of you, you're of no use to anyone else!

      Again, best of luck to you. I'm excited for you and enjoyed reading your exploration of what you're fostering here. Thank you for sharing with us!

    10. Good luck!

      This will be an odd suggestion, but I encourage you all to look at this website:


      (and don't stop with the introduction if you have a little time.)

      Yes, you have to filter out things that are Christian specific, but there is much there that applies to any religious group. If nothing else, there is food for thought and seeds for discussion.

    11. Lyon, Excellent advice! And I needed the reminder just in time, as I seem to have come down with a cold after pushing myself a bit too hard over the past week. Blah. :-p But live and learn. ;)

    12. Ian (aka lanternlight), Thanks for the article link. I'll definitely check it out. I also splurged on a bunch of books on group ritual and such on Amazon the other day after cashing in a gift certificate, so you can bet I'll be brainstorming and puzzling through this stuff for the next month or so!