I’m going to make a critique of ritual in Druidry, but before I can I have to explain where I’m coming from. I think we need to let go of the scripts and explore what it means to find the art of ritual, but I don’t mean we have to let go of the scripts altogether, we just need to recognise their function as form, not art. Let me explain.
When I found Druidry I was living in the UK in Glastonbury doing a pilgrimage trip to find out more about my passion in Paganism. I had spent the previous year living in Japan with my boyfriend at the time, studying martial arts as well as some other Japanese arts like calligraphy, ikebana and taiko drumming. On coming upon Druidry I had my head deep in Japanese philosophy as I’d experienced it, and although I had been Pagan more generally for many years before, this Japanese experience would come to shape the way I understood concepts like Awen and the focus of ritual, and I think it’s helped me a great deal. So I’d like to explain some of the concepts I learned about and then talk about how we might be able to apply those ideas to ritual practices in Druidry.
The Way 道
In Japanese, the word translated as ‘way’ is ‘DŌ’ or ‘TŌ’. You would have heard this in some words familiar in English like ‘Shinto’ which means ‘The Way of the Spirits/Gods’, the popular martial art ‘judo’ which is literally ‘the gentle way’, or ‘dojo’ which means ‘the place of the way’. The word ‘Daoism’ has the same root. The word also literally means path, road, or the way one goes somewhere.
In Japanese culture nearly everything has a ‘way’. It’s similar to how we might use the word ‘art’ in some senses, like ‘the art of…’ something. And in Japan there can be an art to anything and everything. It’s almost as though there is an art of finding the art in things that is a central idea in Japanese culture.
It’s imagined that there is a perfected and natural form that can be achieved in all actions, and that there is an ideal in finding this. It’s the way of the action. The art of it. In everything I studied there, from martial arts, to flower arrangement, to calligraphy, to watching someone wrap a gift – there was always a way. Just look up Japanese gift wrapping on You Tube and you’ll see what I mean. They have a particular knack to finding the art of things. As I lived there and observed this I found it could be understood through some concepts we spoke of often in martial arts.
In martial arts the most common activity of the dojo (Way Place, or training room) is to learn kata. Kata are the forms of the art. The word kata can mean either the way something is done, or the shape of something. In martial arts it means short explanations of actions that are repeated over and over until a familiarity and naturalness develops. So, this meant learning a sequence of attacks and defences in short succession and repeating them over and over with a partner, taking turns to either attack or defend, learning the movement until it became natural. In Bujinkan this would be done quite slowly and in a controlled way with a focus on flow in the movement. Almost like a meditation on full awareness of the body, the partner’s body, the effect of our movements and the forces between us in the space we created. The Kata is repeated over and over until the action becomes second nature or natural. In fact the name of the school we were learning that year I was there was ‘shizen’ which means ‘nature’ so it was even more important in the time I was there than when they are teaching other schools within this particular art.
At the point of natural movement when the mind is not attached to the action, the term ‘mushin’ was used. Mushin is a state of mind that we seek out after consciously learning the kata. It literally means ‘without mind’ but it doesn’t mean ‘mindless’, rather it means to let go of attachment to thought in order to move naturally and with flow. So instead of thinking ‘ah, no the punch comes in and I move my arm like so to block it, no, elbow a bit
higher, um… move the foot’ etc, we just do the action in flowing movement with a quiet mind. It just happens with very little effort, one movement flowing into the next. The voice in the mind stops and there is just the movement itself.
In a fight situation there is no time to think consciously about how to defend an attack. There is no time, there’s only what we can do in a split second’s movement and to do that well, it needs to be natural. Should we stop to think about the action, we will no doubt lose the fight. The art of the fight is to maintain the flow. And in that naturalness of flow, we find the Way.
The Way of Druidry
What I found in learning this is that something almost magical happens in those moments where we suddenly find mushin with something we had previously considered difficult. The sensation was as though the letting go of over-thinking and hesitation and moving into a state of flow allowed for something of ‘me’ or my consciousness to step aside for a moment and allow something else to flow through me particularly the first times that this happens for us. We could call that something else nature, or the universe, or spirit, or even, as I would come to discover… Awen.
The feeling of this will no doubt spark familiarity with anyone familiar with what Awen feels like. The poet or singer who steps on stage and feels as though they are listening but not the one who speaks, or the artist who watches their hands move in wonder that they could have made the art they are creating, the storyteller who suddenly finds themselves swept away by their own words as though speaking in a trance. Those moments where we are in the moment and the art we create somehow feels separated from us. There is a wonder and a magic in those moments as though the art itself is in connection with spirit.
The arts that we seek in Druidry might be song, poetry, storytelling, crafts, healing or philosophy, but they’re not limited to these. We talk about finding ‘our Awen’ as in finding the way that creativity moves through us. But I think we can find Awen in just about anything, just as there is a Japanese concept of dō in just about anything. Considering these concepts of kata, mushin and dō in the process of understanding Awen has helped me to discover it in many areas of my life.
Awen is a word we might use to describe that sensation we encounter when kata, through mushin, becomes dō; or in more familiar terms, when the forms we learn become natural and through that become art. It is when words become poetry, when sound becomes song, when images become artworks, when movement becomes dance; it’s also when ritual becomes magic.
My teacher Morgan was not a fan of scripts. She would bring a palm sized list of to-dos for the ritual that she kept in her pocket should she need it, but all of the invocations, blessings, and intention setting – every word spoken – was off the cuff. It was always poetic, inspired and in connection with the moment, and it was clear she had practiced the kata of ritual for many years, learning good ways to do each part of the ritual separately until they could flow with ease. Being impressed by her adeptness in this sense I was keen to let go of ritual scripting myself. Ritual scripts have never much interested me in Druidry as a result. I love going with the flow and feeling ritual come into form naturally as though the ritual itself is an artform in connection with Awen. I enjoy the ecstatic state I find in ritual as I commune with the powers of nature and spirit. I find it quite easy to do the same as Morgan did, setting a few intentions and a to-do list but not writing out any words to be spoken and just allowing the ritual to unfold naturally.
Scripts as Ritual Kata
I have found over the years, however that this is not the most common practice I have come across. I think it’s a shame, but I do understand the purpose of it. At most gatherings in Druidry that I have attended, each person is given an A4 ritual plan which will include a description of every movement, and a scripting of every word, with their part, perhaps highlighted, so that they can follow along and participate in some way when their turn comes. Now, a critique if you will. I can see the point of this, I can. It allows us to follow along with what is happening. It means we don’t wonder about what we should say or forget our lines, and it ensures those who are not as familiar with ritual as others to participate no matter the level of their experience.
I can’t help see how it disconnects us from the potential of deep connection in ritual. It disconnects us from the Awen of ritual, the flow and the trance, the letting go and allowing in of spirit. The scripts themselves create attachment of the mind. They disallow mushin to appear. It is as if a fight is occurring where both opponents are constantly checking if they are doing the kata off the scroll. There is something missing when we mistake the kata for the dō; when we mistake the form for the art; when we mistake the ritual plan for the ritual and the magic.
The typed-out pages of the ritual are like a list of kata to be performed. It’s my belief that as long as the pages are present, it’s just training, it’s not the real thing. Though we can still have profound experiences in ritual with the scripts present, when we let them go – not to find ourselves in chaos, but to know we have practiced the kata to the point of naturalness – we can go ahead finding the art of ritual together. It’s like a dance. We should know every step of the choreography so well, that it just flows from us and through us allowing us to experience it at a whole other level. There’s a magic and a beauty in that, that we should be striving for.
Perhaps this is overly optimistic? Perhaps you have a thousand reasons why having the scripts there is good. Look, I understand, I do see their value, I just see their value as kata, not as dō – as forms rather than art. I think we can learn to look for the art in ritual more now. We are ready. We have practiced our kata. Now it’s time to seek out mushin, to explore the art of ritual and to dance with it.
The Art of Ritual
I would like for more of us to understand this practice. To see ritual scripts as just kata – they are important in the learning phases, they can be turned to when we are unsure, we can use them to practice over and over our sacred rites until they come naturally to us. But then we should be looking to let them go. We should be working on making each familiar part of ritual come so naturally to us that we don’t need scripts; we can just be in the moment and allow the magic to happen. Sure, have a list of the order of things, but let’s let go of the scripted invocations and movements and feel into the magic that is letting Awen into our ritual practices. Let’s find the trance and the dance together and feel what it’s like for our ritual to become art.
I have so much gratitude for that time in Japan and for my time and friendship with Morgan Rhys-Adams in Glastonbury. Many blessings and thanks for everything you have taught me. Here’s a photo of Morgan and I last May spending not nearly enough time together at all when I visited her in Glastonbury for just a day.