Why the Dedicant Path Matters (Even if You’re Not New to Druidry)

I’ve seen a few folks lately complaining that the Dedicant Path (a requirement for many of ADF’s advanced study programs) isn’t relevant to them: they’re not new to Paganism or even Druidry, the essay requirements are cheesy and noob-ish, the recommended reading is too basic, and, in short, they’re just not interested.

I feel you, guys. I do. The advanced classes are more interesting and challenging. The specialized reading material is better sourced and better written. If you already know the basics of Neo-Paganism, you’ll end up learning a lot more once you get to the advanced courses—and the DP may feel repetitive to you if you’ve already been celebrating the eight High Days for a decade.

But that doesn’t make the Dedicant Path any less valuable for you. (And keep in mind—you’re not required to complete the DP coursework, or any coursework at all. But don’t let discomfort with the coursework hold you back.) By asking you to consider pagan practice in relationship to ADF Druidry, framing pagan practice in ancient and modern context, and requiring you to answer a specific set of exit standard essays, the Dedicant Path will give you common ground for discussion with other ADF members, and, further, it will help to shape a common experience for the organization’s diverse global membership.

Think about it this way, if you like: consider an institution like Indiana University, my alma mater. The school serves 40,000 students at its Bloomington campus alone, and the vast majority of those students come from places other than Bloomington, Indiana; most of them also enter as freshmen, but plenty (like myself) attend as transfer students and/or graduate students. There’s not always a lot of common ground.

And so IU offers a “core curriculum,” required of all incoming undergraduates, that is almost painful in its simplicity. Some of the courses, like, “Understanding Diversity” and “Mathematical Modeling” are, to an outsider, perhaps absurdly basic. “Understanding Diversity” would make an anthropologist cry in her sleep, and “Mathematical Modeling” might bore a mathematician to manic laughter. And a transfer student, entering IU as a junior or a senior will probably bitterly resent the course hours she must dedicate to to the classes. But will these courses help an 18-year-old from a struggling high school in rural Indiana find her place at a Big 10 University? Absolutely. And more importantly, hours dedicated to these courses will enable students to pass other courses with flying colors, and to engage in informed, equal discussion with their peers.

In the end, the basic courses provide the foundation that all students need to pursue their degree, even if some benefit more from it than others.

The Dedicant Path provides a less-specialized grounding in ancient paganism, modern paganism, and ADF Druidry itself, and it asks students to build a consistent practice rooted in ADF’s customs, or to consider their existing practice through the lens of ADF’s cosmology. Not only that, the Dedicant Path helps you to provide context for your own practice by exploring the traditions (ancient and recent) from which your own work is descended.

For the beginner, the Dedicant Path walks a student through the recent and ancient roots of Paganism, beginning with generalized Indo-European studies on a very basic levels, and branching into hearth studies with slightly more advanced texts. Moving from there, the DP looks at contemporary paganism and then more specifically at ADF Druidry. By the end of the work, the student is able to consider his or her own ritual work with a critical eye, and discuss that shared work (or collaborate on new work) with any other ADF Druid. More importantly, the student has learned what it means to be a modern druid, and has begun to define her understanding of that role.

For a more advanced student, the DP offers an opportunity to review and revise existing understandings of that role. Although the student may already be well-rooted in ancient pagan studies and modern pagan practices, a review will enable her to demonstrate that knowledge, revise and clarify her positions and practices, and share that experience with fellow Druids. Further, the work of the Dedicant Path will allow the more experienced student to deepen her practice by exploring it in a new light: by seeking to answer specific questions about her existing knowledge and practice, she may discover things about paganism (and even herself) that she may not have already known.

Finally, the DP asks students to create a standard basic practice (through understanding and celebration of the High Days) and worldview (through basic understanding of cosmology and virtue) that becomes a common experience for all ADF Druids. Dedicants not only share the experience of answering the same questions in the same way, keeping journals for the same reasons and with the same aims, and celebrating the same High Days in the same time frames, but also share an experience of questioning and learning, theoretical learning and practical paganism, regardless of experience level. Hellenic Druids will have explored the same issues as Celtic Druids, and diverse students will have an understanding of shared roots.

When we have this shared basic experience, we’re all building on the same foundation. Although we may specialize with more advanced classes and with expertise in our hearth cultures, we all have a basic awareness of our druidry that we share. It’s a reminder that we’re walking the same path, even if the scenery looks a little different, and that common ground should (hopefully) keep us moving in the same direction. We have similar values, even if we express them differently, and if we don’t have the same beliefs, we’re likely to look at the world in a similar way—and even if we don’t, our shared experience of learning and questioning has hopefully trained us to explore our different beliefs in a thoughtful, open-minded way.

So consider this: if you’ve been a practicing pagan for a decade, and you’re not feeling keen on writing about the meanings of the High Days, try to make it an interesting challenge for yourself. Yes, you must meet the basic requirements of the essay, but try to think about what the High Day means to you. What myths play into your understanding of this day’s ritual? What traditional practices have made it into your own at-home celebration?

While the DP does serve to give us this shared starting point (it’s our version of the Core Curriculum), it’s still meant to help you as an individual. Let the knowledge that you’re forging yourself a place in our tribe  inspire you, but then challenge yourself to learn. Make the Dedicant Path your own so that it may help us grow as a community.

Dedicant Path – Completed!

Well, I’m all certified and finished! I submitted my work last night and got approved today.

Needless to say, I’m unbelievably thrilled, and I have some big plans for the near future. I’ve had some rough times lately, but I’m also on the cusp of some truly amazing things.

In the meantime, though, my biggest plan is putting my DP work up on a separate section on this blog. As I’ve said, I apologize in advance if this messes with your feed or your email updates. Having other people’s approved DP-work available to read was a source of inspiration and guidance for me, and I’d like to pay that aid forward.

I won’t be giving up this blog, though. Grey Wren’s flight will continue to new places, and I have some detailed druidy posts coming up. Thanks to everyone who has read this blog and given me support, especially Grey Catsidhe, aka the Ditzy Druid, my ADF mentor.

 

Oath Rite — Completed

Well, I’m all oathed. The rite went beautifully, I’m pleased with the oath I wrote, and the omens I received were fantastic. I am, in short, elated. I still have to do my official evaluation, but I think I’ll be submitting my DP work on Monday!

For now, though, I’m going to celebrate by exploring my oath-gift to myself, a copy of The Celtic World, edited by Miranda J. Green. Incidentally, it’s almost heavy enough to use for weightlifting–two gifts in one?

I have some very exciting things planned for the near future, but I think I’m going to spend some time basking in my success and beefing up my Dedicant practices. I’ve had a rough few months, practice-wise, and I need to get back to basics. I’d like to develop a true daily devotional, internalize some common ritual phrases, practice my divination skills, and work on getting over my singing-in-public phobia. I also have some in-depth blog posts planned, and I think I’d like to try publishing something in Oak Leaves.

That seems like a lot of rest-period goals, doesn’t it? Still—I can’t wait.

Mental Discipline: I Has It?

While I did keep a five-month meditation journal, I opted to write an essay for review rather than submitting my 6000-word journal. Here is what I wrote…

This was, hands down, above and beyond, the hardest part of the Dedicant Path for me to walk. I have a very active mind: in my work as a fiction writer, I live almost entirely in my imagination, while in my work as a reporter and blogger, I am perpetually analyzing the world around me. I daydream to fall asleep, while I’m running, when I’m listening to music, when I’m washing the dishes, in the shower… Any time I’m not actively working on something, my mind is wandering. It took my three tries to complete a five-month period of meditation, and I believe it’s finally ‘stuck’: I muddled my way to an understanding of the Two Powers, I developed two specific and regular uses of meditation in my daily life, and Brighid worked her way into my meditation, just as she works her way into almost everything that I do.

First, to get some logistics out of the way, the date I managed to begin a consistent meditation practice was November 28, 2011, and I continued journaling my meditation experiences through May 2012. While I continue to meditate, I no longer journaled after that point, simply because of the sheer busyness that came from planning a wedding. During that November to May period, I averaged meditating about three times a week, some weeks containing five or six sessions, others just one or two. However, I discovered that tying meditation to personal devotionals at the least (i.e., I do meditate at other times), kept my practice consistent.

My previous two attempts (December 2010-April 2011 and June 2011-August 2011) both ended abruptly when emotional disturbances disrupted my practice: the first time, my husband and I moved across the country, and the second time, my grandmother died and we learned about my mother-in-law’s breast cancer in the same week. While understandable, perhaps, this pattern is very telling: I was not associating mental discipline with my heart in any way. As soon as I became upset, I became unable to retain control of my thoughts—though, in the second instance, I quite excusably just didn’t care to try. This taught me for the third attempt that I needed to try to integrate meditation into my life in a more real way, and, because I perform devotionals at least once a week, emotional rain or shine, associating my meditation with my spiritual work made it far easier to do the bare minimum.

Overview aside, let’s talk about what I did. When I began, I found it necessary to use a prerecorded script of the Two Powers meditation to keep me focused. As I’ve said, I have a very active mental life, and stillness is hard for me to achieve. By having someone describe the Two Powers and how I should be relating to them, I could follow along with less effort than if I simply tried to still my mind on my own. The recording gave me a focus and even after I ‘graduated’ into working without it, I found that returning to the recording helped me concentrate on days when my mind refused to stop bouncing. Over the course of all my attempts, I can see a pattern of experimentation (moving meditation, meditation on questions, strict breathing-regulation, etc.), but I did find that the tried-and-true Two Powers worked the best for me. Eventually, the experimentation faded and I found myself using one form of the Two Powers or another to ground and center myself.

In general, I found that giving myself a single thing to focus on helped me more than anything else, whether that ‘thing’ was a recorded voice, a crystal, the ground beneath me, or the tree I was leaning on. I found that really enveloping my mind in an object kept my ‘monkey mind’ occupied and quiet. This is, however, a very limiting form of meditation that (for me) keeps the mind bound to the focus, thus preventing trance or any sort of detached mental exploration. One type of focus-exercise that did work well for me, however, was controlling my breath in a 3-counts-in, 3-counts out pattern and then concentrating on individual body parts, tensing and then relaxing them, until I reached my mind. I found that I could, from that relaxed state, then dissociate from my body quite easily.

This type of physical meditation helped me develop the strongest practice I still have, that of knowing the “feeling” of the Two Powers in my body and calling them up by concentrating on the sensation. (It’s very difficult to describe, but I’ll do my best.) After relaxing my body, I draw up the Earth power, feel it pooling in my body, healing and providing raw energy that replaces the physical tension I relaxed away. Then, I draw in the Sky power, illuminating the pools of earth power and electrifying my relaxed body. The resulting sensation, what I called in my journal, “the flowing-glowing feeling of connection to the earth and sky,” is one of potential energy, simultaneously relaxed and ready for action. While there’s no way to put the sensation into words, I can say that by imagining that feeling in my body, I could quickly ground myself and center my energies. This was a method that I could only build by experience: once I knew the ‘feeling,’ I could call it up without a very long visualization.

And no, the irony is not lost on me that the mentally-active girl found a physical way to get centered.

My flame-keeping shifts for Brighid also played a prominent role in my meditation. In March, I wrote, “I really love having these Brighid days to re-center on my hearth. It gives ‘grounding and centering’ a new layer of meaning, because, for me anyway, my hearth goddess is my grounding and centering. She is, at least, the center of my home and in the center of my heart. Focusing on her for a day realigns me. I found it much easier to perform a scripted Two Powers meditation when I was already focused and calm because of my time spent with her.” There are many instances in which I describe centering on Brighid, which is appropriate, given the hearth goddess’s central place in the home and practice. Brighid in particular is also a fitting deity for the Two Powers, given her association with both fire and wells.

Over the course of my journal, my ability to draw on the Two Powers and the “flowing-glowing feeling” grows strong enough that I mention using it to stay calm in tense situations. For example, I meditate to get centered and help myself fall asleep or I call on the Earth power to “ground” my temper when dealing with an unpleasant customer. I even once meditated to stay relaxed during a dental appointment! In April, I wrote, “It seems to me that I’ve developed two branches of meditation: an active meditation, that prepares me for ritual/magic/spiritual questing, and a passive meditation, for lack of a better term, that just relaxes and centers me.” This was not an intentional development, and I don’t think now that it’s quite as simple as two branches: rather, it’s two uses of meditation, two ways of directing the Third power, as I discuss in my Two Powers essay. For the active branch, I harness the Two Powers to do creative work, while for the relaxing branch, I allow the Two Powers to burn and wash away my stress.

So there you have it. I had to learn how to incorporate my meditation into my practical life in order to overcome my emotional upsets, but I discovered that associating meditation with something I do regularly helped me develop an ongoing practice. I developed my own personal understanding of the Two Powers, and I saw how my work and spiritual life are both influenced by the powers. My patronness showed me yet another aspect of the Two Powers and taught me another meaning of ‘centering’. I even learned a technique for staying calm while someone wields a drill in my mouth. I have, in spite of my best efforts, learned to quiet my overly-active mind. I’ve also become a Two Powers convert. I’d say I learned a lot, and I have a bizarre desire to make an Academy Award-style acceptance speech in which I thank ADF for finally teaching me the value of meditation. Instead I’ll just say that what felt like a chore at first ended up developing a skill that will help me in all aspects of my life.

Nature Awareness

I wrote this today. I’m not sure it’s quite right for the DP documentation, but I think it’s a nice essay and I thought I’d share it here. Thoughts, those of you who have finished? Will this work?

Intimate awareness of nature follows naturally from a religious practice that venerates nature, and respect for the spirits that share our world arises from that awareness.

But action is easier said than done, I think. It’s easy to feel respect, but it’s an entirely different thing to make that respect tangible. Sometimes making sustainable choices is hard, and I know: I chose not to replace my car when it was totaled in 2010. Still, I found that after joining ADF and becoming truly aware of the spirits surrounding me, I felt a desire to change some of my actions to make less of an impact on the world I live in. I also felt a keen interest in learning about the lands I’ve called home in the past two years.

While I’m tempted to jump into the, “I’ve done this and that,” inventory of my accomplishments, it seems appropriate to begin at the beginning. For as long as I can remember, much of my creativity has come from the world around me. I sat, as a child, on the banks and in the caves along the Roaring River in the Ozarks of Missouri, and imagined unicorns and elves in the woods lining like sentinels the river’s the rocky banks. Long before I ever even thought about religion, I loved the land I loved in. The Ozarks were my heart’s home.

I’ve moved a lot since then, living in seven states and on two continents, and when I began the Dedicant Path, I lived in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico. I drove home through the pink-tinted badlands and stopped in silence to revere the Rio Grande and Santa Cruz Rivers. In rural New Mexico, nature rules: we were subject to the elements in a way I never had been before, driving over washed-out roads and watching the diverted river run through the acequia literally right under our doorstep. In early 2011, though, we moved back to yet another place I called home: Bloomington, Indiana, in the midst of the hardwood forests on the limestone karst deposits of southern Indiana.

Upon moving back here in May 2011, I wrote the following:

Throughout my childhood, through college and the last few years, when I’ve lived in four different states in four years, Indiana has been the constant, the one place I came back to almost every year. My older brother is buried here. It has, somehow, become home.

I can feel the very land refreshing me. Perhaps it’s because I’m an open pagan now, but I’m very aware of the land spirits and the spirit of the land. Returning here is returning to my roots. It’s like homecooking, the recipes your mother made and your grandmother made: you can live without it, but life lacks a certain richness and comfort. I feel my spirit drawing strength from the tall, straight trees, the greenery, the little streams, the rolling hills. I am at peace again.

That’s all pretty ethereal, though, so perhaps I should describe something practical. I love and have loved the Earth, and it was time to make some decisions to make Her life easier.

After starting the Dedicant Path, I evaluated many of my choices. At first we couldn’t afford to replace my car, but as I considered it, I decided I could afford not to replace it. I work from home and my husband visits the office only three days a week: a second car is an unnecessary luxury, one that would pollute the earth merely by resting upon it. The second realization I made involved my monthly cycle—I truly hope I’m not “TMI-ing” my reviewer right now, but I started to think of the vast piles of plastic tampon applicators that litter the beaches of our planet, and I quickly switched to a reusable method of menstrual maintenance.

The final decision I made was a more definitive lifestyle choice, and one that has proved more difficult than the car or the menstrual difficulties: I became a vegetarian. While the choice was, for me, mostly an ethical one (I don’t want to eat another living being), the effects of factory farming on our environment played a role. I have no desire to eat another mammal, for example, but the raising of the mammals that fed me probably did more damage to the environment than my underused car ever did. It’s been rough, and my omnivore husband (who has digestive issues) and I have had a few rows about what to cook and how to cook, but I feel happier and healthier for living purely off vegetable life.

I’ve also made a few smaller lifestyle choices: cooking with cast iron instead of nonstick cookware; switching to more natural, homemade cleaning chemicals, shampoo, and conditioner; making an effort to by local and organic foods. I am a member of our local co-op grocery store, and, though I live in an apartment I’m even growing a few of my own vegetables this year. I am trying to make my footprint smaller. I would still like to make a number of changes, though. We don’t recycle, for instance, because we don’t have the space or the facilities at our apartment complex. I’d also like to find a more sustainable method of birth control, since science has shown that I’m leaching hormones into the water supply. I would also like to grow still more of our vegetables and even expand my container garden to include some cold-weather crops.

Finally, to return to my spiritual life, I’m trying to learn the land I call home. I’ve learned that our water comes from the White and Jordan rivers and that our lakes are reservoirs, not natural features. I’m learning the trees of the area, and while I miss the aspens of New Mexico and the eucalyptus of California (which, while non-native, is everywhere and speaks to me of the land), I love the sycamores that adorn our land with their white mottled bark and golden autumn leaves. The hardwood forests speak to me of woods that will long outlive me, and I take comfort in their upward-reflection of the bones of the earth. My grove does much to honor the Earth Mother, more, I’m told, than many groves do, and that practice has trickled into my home practice: my representation of the Earth Mother never leaves the main surface of my altar.

One More Step Along the Way

I’ve just finished up the last of my High Day essays, which means that I’ve completed the “research-based” portion of my Dedicant Path documentation!

Still to-do:

  • Home shrine essay (which I’m looking forward to writing!)
  • Two Powers essay
  • Nature awareness essay
  • Three Kindreds essay(s)
  • Personal religion essay (which I’m also eager to write)
  • Oath rite/essay

All listed together, that looks like a lot, but it’s really just a compilation and personal synthesis of work I’ve already done over the past 18 months.

I’m off to do my happy dance right now, and then I’ll write about my home shrine.

While I’m posting, I’ll tell you that in the coming weeks, I’m going to reorganize this blog a bit so that the DP documentation is more easily visible—I know that in the last 18 months, looking at others’ work has been helpful to me, and I’d like to make my work a little more easily accessible for those who are just starting out. Why am I telling you this? Well, I’m not sure how WordPress will handle the updates, so if I end up flooding your email or RSS feed, you have my deepest apologies in advance!

Second bit of news: Last Friday, I wrote on my professional blog about religion in urban fantasy, and we’ve had some interesting discussion. It’s a topic I’d like to treat here, too, but right now I need to focus on my dedicant work. In the mean time, if you’re interested, mosey on over to my other blog to check out that post.

Stealth Work?

I just discovered a draft post I wrote about Beltane—in May of 2011. It’s been fun to read it and see how my understanding of the High Day has changed, as well as how my understanding of writing about the High Days has shifted.

I think that’s one of the unsung values of the Dedicant Path: a permanent record of how our spirituality develops, or at least of how our understanding of the druid path develops. I came to this path, a former Catholic, back in 2010 with very little understanding (beyond a childhood reading of The Mists of Avalon) of what it truly means to be a pagan. I knew that the Wiccan practice of what Isaac Bonewits calls duotheism wasn’t for me; I knew that I felt called to the Celtic cultures, myths, and religion; and I knew that there was a very real, very deep hole in my life where spirituality should have been.

I found ADF and quickly knew I was home.

But I’ve learned so much in the past 18 months, so much that I’m very glad I started this blog, even if my posting has gotten intermittent. My thoughts here are a record of my quest for understanding and a personal map through my own dark spiritual times. I’ve been in a practice rut lately, crippled by some personal dilemmas and unable to hoist myself up out of a dark place. I’m on my way out of there now—I think, I hope—and seeing how far I’ve already come gives me a needed boost.

So much of the work I’ve done has been by accident. I follow a tangent, I ask a question, I pull at a thread, and suddenly I’m studying something completely unrelated to what I “should” be working on. That’s why it’s taken me this long to even get a good start on my Dedicant Path work—I’m just to damn curious for my own good.

Still, all those kinks in my path have shaped my understanding of what we’re doing, and I would never give that up.