Firstly, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to me today, leading a spiritual order that has grown into major movement must be as demanding as it is rewarding. How has the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids managed to reach out and resonate with so many people at this time?
It’s funny isn’t it? The title Order of Bards Ovates & Druids sounds so very old-fashioned, with the word ‘Order’ evoking images of cloistered monks, Bards Shakespearian figures or medieval troubadors, Druids old bearded fellows, and Ovates sounding plainly mysterious, since I imagine most people don’t know what Ovates are. And yet, as you say, what we do and are seems to resonate with many people today. And I reckon this is for at least three reasons:
More and more people are seeking a spirituality that is ‘green’, that is Earth-respecting, and that doesn’t carry the baggage of the major religions. The fact that our organization is an ‘Order’ isn’t really an issue, and in fact in today’s chaotic world the idea of some order can seem quite attractive! Just to clarify this point, the term ‘Order’ in the way it is used by us comes from the tradition of magical orders not religious orders.
Although the image of the Druid might seem too arcane for some, for many it symbolizes the wisdom of the ancestors, of an ancient tradition that inspires us and that we can try to reclaim.
The Bard symbolizes the singer, the artist, the Creative Self in each of us, and I think more and more people are drawn today to ways that can help them nourish their inner Bard.
So I think the way we combine a love of the Arts with a love of Nature, while being rooted in a spiritual tradition, is the main reason why we are seeing so many people getting involved in our work these days.
Your own introduction to the spiritual path came under the guidance of OBOD founder Ross Nichols. If you had never made his acquaintance, do you believe you would have followed a similar path anyway?
At the time I met him I was also very interested in Buddhism, and so it is possible I would have pursued that way instead if he had never appeared in my life. However, although I feel very drawn to Buddhism (and Jainism), Druidry speaks to a connection to the land and to the traditions and culture of the country I was born into, and I think for that reason I would have made my way towards it even if I had never met him.
In works such as ‘The Druid Mysteries’ you talk about the benefits of reintegrating our lives back into the natural patterns of the seasons, the cross quarter festivals of the solstices and equinoxes and the larger reality of the natural world. Could you explain the advantages of this approach? Do you think many of the problems of industrial society are due to the severance of our connection from nature?
This one issue – the way we have become alienated from the natural world – lies at the roots of the dire situation we find ourselves in today. If we were aware of the interconnectedness of all life, and sensitive to it, we would be unable to destroy and pollute the Earth in the ways we have done. Any method or way that we can use to become more aware of our intimate relationship with all of life is of value.
One of the central practices of a Druid today lies in observing the eightfold wheel of the year (the solstices and so on that you mention). This means that every six weeks or so we come together and attune ourselves to the cycle of the Earth and her seasons. We open ourselves to the deeper meaning of Time and Place and their relationship. If you do this, year after year, it forms a sort of living mandala, a warp and weft, that nourishes you spiritually and gives you a sense of being part of a greater life beyond your own individual life.
You also emphasise the positive power of meditation, do you think that anybody can reap benefit from the practice regardless of their spiritual inclinations or daily schedule?
If you change ‘anybody’ to ‘most people’, I think the short answer is ‘yes’, but with some qualifications. There are many different forms of meditation, and some methods are more suited to certain types of person and lifestyles than others. We also seem to go through ‘seasons’ in our life, and daily meditation may be just the thing we need in one season, while at another time perhaps very little will be best.
A good analogy would be with physical exercise. Generally, of course, it is a beneficial activity, but the question then is: ‘What kind of exercise should I do and how often?’ And as we know there are many different kinds of exercise, and there is no one-size-fits-all.
There are some people who should proceed very cautiously with any kind of exercise, and it’s the same with meditation.
Meditation can open you to deeper parts of the Self, and depending upon your psychological state this can sometimes be counter-productive.
We offer a very simple exercise which should be safe for anyone to perform and which can act as a preliminary to other deeper kinds of meditation:
Society does seem to be changing as the collective realisation of where we are now increasingly triggers positive action. Are you optimistic that there’ll be enough momentum to steer us voluntarily towards a more harmonious relationship with each other and Earth? Has the current paradigm run its course?
I’m very optimistic and I’m very pessimistic about the future. I have spent years trying to decide which of these feelings is the right one, but I have come to the conclusion that there are certain questions that naturally evoke an ambivalent response, and that rather than trying to reject one in favour of the other, I need to accept both.
On the one hand I see the global awakening that is occurring, the thousands of fantastic projects that are being born (Paul Hawken in ‘Blessed Unrest’ is good on this), and the incredible new inventions that suggest we really can turn things around. And on the other hand I see the mass extinction of species that is occurring, I see war, starvation and the destruction of the Earth continuing unabated, and I can see nothing but a bleak future for our grandchildren.
Somehow I have to hold both those feelings in my mind, for to focus only on the positive seems like naïve denial, and to focus only on the negative is just a recipe for unhappiness and renders me less able to be of any use in the world.
It’s in response to this question that I believe a spiritual path can be of real value. We all need inspiration, a sense of meaning, nourishment, connection, and support on our journey through life. If we are to give of our best we need these things, and it’s the job of a spiritual way, and of spiritual leaders and teachings, to offer these things.
If we are able to plug into this flow of meaning and encouragement, we can ride the waves of hope and despair in relation to the future, and as a result be of more use to ourselves and those around us.
I believe in planting trees in order put back what had been taken. The order has a tree planting programme too; could you tell us a little about what you wish to achieve with that?
I think that’s a fantastic project that you run, and I wish more organizations did this. We started our project (called the ‘Sacred Grove Planting Programme’) 25 years ago, and it was founded (a) to replace the trees we were responsible for felling, in all the paper and carbon we were using, and (b) to create a tree-planting project with a difference, that had a historical and spiritual dimension to it, reviving the idea of the Sacred Grove – which is a sacred space which can act as a sanctuary, a place of peace and meditation for humans, a nature sanctuary for animals and birds too.
We hear about sacred groves in many different parts of the world: in Greece, in India, in Ireland and Britain – it’s an idea that transcends religious divides and speaks eloquently to our need today for more places that are treated as sacred, and which can answer the needs of all living beings.
So our vision is of temples all over the world, but temples that require no bricks and concrete, and no tree-felling. Next year (2014) will be our Order’s 50th anniversary, and we are hoping to plant a number of ‘endangered-species sacred groves’ using varieties of trees that are at risk of disappearing.
Finally, what brings you the greatest inspiration?
The answer to this has to be the countryside: the natural world all around me. We are lucky enough to live in the South Downs, and every day I try to take a walk down by the stream or up on the hill behind our house. Sometimes the natural world will inspire me directly – with an impressive sky or vista, for example – but often the inspiration works in a less specific way, and instead creates a feeling, or supports a mood, or somehow nourishes me so that I find myself thinking more clearly, or getting new and utterly unexpected ideas. I lived in the city for 35 years, but I never want to go back… this green is too precious to me now.