The Potential Mental Health Benefits Of Druidry
by Philip Carr-Gomm
The subject of this essay is the contribution that contemporary Druidry might play in promoting psychological wellbeing. I’ll begin by setting the scene for you, telling you a little bit about who I am, and about why I have chosen this theme, and then we’ll move into the specifics of the topic.
I’ve been involved in the Druid movement for over 50 years, ever since I was 16. And for the last 35 years, I’ve been particularly interested in seeing how transpersonal psychology can illumine this particular spiritual path, that from one perspective is about 250 years old, stemming from a period in the 18th century known as the Druid Revival, when people became interested in their pre-Christian heritage in Britain and on the Continent. From another perspective, you can say that it’s a wisdom tradition that is far older, drawing as it does on ancient roots. And from another perspective still, you can say that it’s a very recent phenomenon, stemming really from the 1960s. However you characterize it, and there are convincing arguments for each of these perspectives, the reality is that thousands of people today follow Druidry as a spiritual path, and we can legitimately talk about such a phenomenon as ‘contemporary Druidry’ regardless of how far back we may wish to trace its origins.
Given that contemporary Druidry is a spiritual path that is appealing to many people, let me describe my experience of it. I’ve been leading the world’s largest group, with a membership of about 29,000, the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids, for the last 32 years, and recently retired from that role. We have a training course that’s published in six languages with members from all over the world, and during this time, I’ve had the privilege of reading hundreds of members’ reviews of their experiences of training, and one of the things that has struck me is the remarkable degree of personal transformation and psychological and spiritual growth that following Druidry has brought to so many people.
Our tutor coordinator for many years, Dr. Susan Jones, has dedicated a paper to this topic, and there’s currently at least one person doing their PhD research on the psychologically transformative power of Druidry. So it’s not only I who has observed a huge amount of positive effects at the level of mental wellbeing from the pursuit of Druidry. In the last few years, I’ve become very interested in why exactly this is so, and whether we can perhaps identify some of the ingredients that make for this positive effect.
I currently work for the Synthesis Institute, based in the Netherlands and the United States, that is at the forefront of researching the use of psychedelics for positive change, and with them I have spent a year working with a client group from the Imperial College trial of psilocybin-assisted therapy for people with treatment-resistant depression. One of the reasons I was hired to work with this group was not only because I’m a psychosynthesis psychotherapist, but also because of my interest in Druidry, because the clinical psychologist who had developed the integration programme for these clients had become particularly interested in the therapeutic benefit of working with trees. (See my conversation with Dr Rosalind Watts here and details of her ACER Integration Programme here).
And so over the course of a year, every month we conducted an online session for three hours, working with a different tree each time that is considered sacred in the Celtic and Druid traditions, and using introspective exercises, meditation, breakout rooms, and so on, to very positive effect. I was delighted with this work because it combined these two areas of interest for me, psychology and Druidry, which of course centres around a reverence for trees and a belief in their healing powers.
At around the time that I was engaged in this work, I was also studying positive psychology, and I read Applied Positive Psychology by Lomas, Hefferon and Ivtzan, in which the authors invited people from different spiritual traditions to make contributions to positive psychology, having pointed out that so far it has been primarily from Buddhism that the various positive psychology interventions (PPIs as they’re called), have been developed, such as the metta meditation. In reading this invitation, I decided to respond to it and began working on this topic.
So let’s dive in now and look at the influence that Druidry might have on our psychological wellbeing. To begin with, we should recognize that a particular spiritual approach is likely to be working holistically, and that the reason why following Druidry as a spiritual path might have positive psychological benefits, may well be due to the synergy created by particular factors, and that teasing these out analytically, and then applying them in isolation may not be making full use of their potential to effect transformation. And whilst some of these factors might be used as PPIs, in order to help people, if one really wants to get the full benefit, then one would want to take the medicine in its natural state: the obvious analogy here being herbalism, whereby a herbalist might argue that rather than isolating the chemical ingredient that is doing the healing work, one wants to ingest the whole plant because of various synergistic effects between the ingredients in the plant.
Notwithstanding this caveat, let’s proceed now to be analytical and ask: “If you’ve read hundreds of people’s reports of the positive psychological effects of working within the Druid spiritual tradition, what do you think the factors are that have caused this?” Well, the first one that comes to mind naturally is the positive effect that being involved in any spiritual path brings. The Royal College of Psychiatrists offers comprehensive information showing the generally positive influence of being part of a religious or spiritual group brings. This includes the fostering of a sense of meaning and purpose, and all the benefits that belonging to a community of like-minded souls can bring. Now, in addition to these features of encouraging a sense of belonging and meaning, that apply to every religious and spiritual group, each group, or spiritual path, is likely to have its particular characteristics. So what are the characteristics of Druidry?
What Druidry seems to do is bring together an encouragement to connect to nature, while also fostering a sense of connection to heritage and the past, alongside an appreciation of the arts, and the value of expressing one’s creativity. And all this is bundled together with a sense of reverence for life and a desire to cultivate virtues, or attributes of consciousness, such as calm, equanimity, peace, illumination, reverence and awe.
Now all these ingredients are not unique to Druidry and can be found in many places, both secular and spiritual. And here a cooking analogy can be helpful. The ingredients in any particular cuisine are likely to be the same: carrots, potatoes, and so on. It’s just how they are combined, perhaps the spices that are added and the way that they’re cooked, that will make one cuisine different from another: Thai food from Italian food and so on. So the basic ingredients of Druidry aren’t particularly unique, it’s the way these are brought together that makes it particular. Having said that, though, there are certain aspects, such as the attention given in Druidry to the spiritual meaning and purpose of trees, which are very particular to Druidry. But going back to our cooking analogy, you’ll get certain vegetables, fruits and spices, that are particular to certain cuisines.
The point I’m making here is that I’m not claiming that modern Druidry is unique in the variety of methods it uses or approaches it takes. But what I am arguing is that the particular combination, and the stresses and emphases, its choice of both the tree and the Awen as central, for example, make it unique. Let’s look at what these might be now. First of all, an emphasis that is characteristic of Druidry is that it is an ‘embodied spirituality’. There isn’t a stress on trying to find salvation, trying to find a way of not being reborn on this earth. There aren’t teachings or ideas that say “Life is a bridge, cross over it, but don’t pitch your house on it”. Quite the contrary. The invitation in Druidry is to get more involved with life: to sense being alive as deeply meaningful and special. Its invitation is to come into our bodies, to own our sense of embodiedness, alongside our instincts and drives.
All the Neo-Pagan approaches, including Wicca, have a similar emphasis, and it feels very much as if these approaches are for our time. There’s a good case for arguing that modern-day Druidry and Wicca, the two great pillars of Neo-Pagan tradition in the West, were developed to a great extent from the mid-20th century onwards. These are therefore Post-Freudian approaches, and when one sees the amount of sexual repression and abuse caused by the attitudes to sexuality that have been espoused by the Abrahamic religions, it seems quite reasonable to suggest that we need approaches to the mystery of humanity that take into account modern psychological understanding.
One of the goals that I set myself when I was asked to lead The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, was to bring a psychological understanding and in particular, a psycho-spiritual understanding, into Druidry. And I’m very excited now, to have been invited to take druidic ideas and to bring them into the field of psychology, so that the benefit can be mutual.
Thus far in our exploration of the potential mental health benefits of Druidry, we’ve had an understanding that it offers a holistic approach, but nevertheless, we’ve decided to analyze it and we’ve seen that it’s an embodied spirituality and that it’s a post-Freudian spirituality that’s really developed from the mid- 20th century, that responds to our needs for a different understanding of our bodies and our sexuality. And yet at the same time, Druidry is deeply rooted in ancient wisdom, in cultural heritage. More and more, we’re starting to recognize the value of cultural heritage and indigenous traditions. In some places in the world, such traditions and heritage seem more readily available. People are perhaps generally less aware of such phemonena in the West, and in the British Isles in particular, and yet, scratch beneath the surface, study the folklore, look at the archeology and the history, and the landscape, and a vivid picture starts to emerge.
This is really what Jez Butterworth’s play ‘Jerusalem’ was all about. And this is what in our Druid group, we work with. We start by exploring a classic ‘Hero’s Journey’, as delineated by Joseph Campbell, the story of Taliesin, whose roots can be traced back to the 6th century, though it has an even more ancient feel than that. It talks about essentially the journey from childhood to adulthood and the awakening of the creative self, and it evokes a concept that is essential in Druidry, which is that of seeking inspiration, Awen, which in Christian terms might be seen as seeking the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and in Buddhist terms as seeking enlightenment.
This brings us to the reverence for art, music, story and poetry, that we find as a central concern in Druidry. It’s the bardic tradition, and this lies at the heart of many oral and indigenous cultures. And although this culture was, to a great extent, lost in these lands with the coming of Christianity, this new faith had a love/hate relationship with paganism, and Christian scholars wrote down the old stories. Hence, we have a record of the old myths and legends. And it’s through these myths and legends that we can get a glimpse into the ancient wisdom teachings of these lands.
This reverence for story, poetry and art can be seen in the eisteddfod tradition in Wales, which is part of the Druid tradition, and which has a really interesting chain of continuity, way back through the centuries. The eisteddfod is a festival of listening, a festival in which people come together to share their creative abilities. In many Druid ceremonies, there will be a period of eisteddfod, where people sing, or recite poetry, or tell stories.
Another ingredient in Druidry, in addition to its fostering of and reverence for art, folklore and story, is its reverence for the natural world, and the belief that the natural world is potent, and alive, and has spiritual gifts to give us. This is one of the themes in Druidry that is, of course, so attractive to people nowadays, where we understand that the onslaughts on the natural world threaten not only our physical continuity and wellbeing, but also our mental health. There’s increasing evidence to show that many mental health issues are related to a lack of a sense of connection, and the problems of loneliness, of separation from the natural world, and the natural cycles.
A core practice in Druidry is the observation of an eightfold calendar of the solstices and equinoxes, and the midpoints between those times, known as the Celtic fire festivals or the quarter days. This provides a structure which encourages us to spend time opening up to the particular season, the particular time of year, and to pay attention to this. Even at its simplest level, in terms of guiding people’s attention to the outside world, helping them to move the focus away from their internal condition, towards an appreciation of the outside world, can of course be a tremendous help.
But something more is going on. There’s something about observing these moments in the year, about every six weeks or so, that helps us to weave ourselves back into the fabric of life, and that rather from shuttling from box to box, looking at the boxes of our computers, and the glass box of the office, and then coming home in a metal box to sit in front of the TV box, and then go to sleep, is that it’s taking us out into the natural world and encouraging us to look and listen, feel and smell.
We know that it can be helpful in times of psychological crisis to have something to look forward to, and to have our time structured in some way rather than in sensing it unfolding in one continuous line from where we are now to our demise. The observation of these eight festivals creates a holding, a container for us to be in the world and to organize our time, so that we start to recognize patterns as we celebrate, once again, the winter solstice, once again, the summer solstice, and so on.
In working with people with treatment-resistant depression who had been in the clinical trials with psilocybin at Imperial College, one of the interesting things was to see how in our work with the trees, they not only acted as potent metaphors for psychological states or mechanisms, which enabled the clients to access material that perhaps wasn’t fully conscious, e.g., working say with the holly tree, which has associations to shields and spears, gave us the opportunity to talk about our defenses, and explore what sort of spears and shields we have in our lives. But in addition to using the tree as a metaphor, there was a sense in which the trees themselves somehow conveyed some kind of spiritual or magical illumination and connection for us.
Now, whether or not we choose to see this as real or imagined is really beside the point. The fact is that people found this beneficial and helpful. Seeing the outside world as living, and as capable of communicating with us in whatever form is clearly of tremendous benefit. From a Jungian or archetypal perspective, the tree is, of course, a tremendously potent symbol, with its roots stretching into the soil, with its evocation of ideas, of the past, of groundedness, and of connecting to the family tree, and the roots of our inheritance, and of the collective. And then with the branches and leaves evoking ideas of the superconscious, of the way in which we are both rooted on the Earth, and yet we aspire to the heavens. And of the crown of the tree somehow symbolizing this, even the higher self perhaps. And again, with the trunk of the tree representing a sense of solidity, and stability, and uprightness. And ourselves as we are in the world.
So of course, the images used in Druidry, from the old stories and tales, and from the use of natural imagery from an archetypal perspective, will be potent in itself. And perhaps additionally so because these are contextualized within a wider framework of a particular spiritual tradition. Which leads us to the fascinating area, that some people will reject and others will embrace wholeheartedly, of the concept of a collective consciousness, and of a group consciousness as well.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Druidry is that it is an initiatory tradition. If you want to really follow it in its depth, you become initiated. And for many people, this represents a way of opening to a deeper sense of self and also to something beyond the self, to a community of fellow souls, who are following this way together and with a continuity with the past as well – all those previous generations who have followed this way. This is a powerful idea and one that opens up the possibility that we can receive information that is essentially not coming from our own consciousness but from the Transpersonal, Archetypal or Collective realms.
This particular detail shows why attempting to extract particular interventions or particular ideas from a spiritual tradition like Druidry, and to apply them as PPIs, whilst that may be helpful is not really making use of the full benefit that these methods might offer.
What I mean by this is if you take, for example, the idea of working with trees and you say, “Okay, this is great. We can let go of all the spiritual ideas around Druidry and just work with trees,” you will get very far with that. But if your work with trees is also embedded within this wider context, so you are entering as it were the collective field, with its roots in the past, and with other intelligences involved in this collective field, then the potential is just so much greater. An interesting work in this regard is Christopher Bache’s ‘The Living Classroom: Teaching and Collective Consciousness’ (Suny Series in Transpersonal and Humanistic Psychology) 2008 which recounts one educationalist’s experience of the sorts of collective fields of awareness that can develop amongst groups of students.
Another interesting feature of Druidry today is that whilst on the one hand most Druids will hold to certain beliefs, the actual path itself is almost totally belief-free and there will be no one set of beliefs that are held by all Druids, which leads us to an interesting hypothesis that potentially this is a spiritual path that encourages psychological flexibility and psychological richness, whereas a more dogmatic system that requires adherence to certain beliefs may do the reverse: just think of the degree of psychological rigidity likely to be found within Fundamentalist approaches.
Again, this could be understood as something very contemporary and needed in the world today. Philosophers have explored this in their observations of Druid ethics, which are more akin to classical ideas of virtue ethics, where individual virtues of honesty, integrity, and so on are encouraged, which then enable the individual to make ethical decisions rather than having a set of commandments or rigid beliefs being imposed upon them from the outside.
So again, if one takes another psychological concept, which is of the internal versus external locus of control, you could see that religions and spiritual paths can so easily cater to or can foster a sense of an external locus of control. Whereas ideally we need ways of personal and spiritual development that foster a sense of internal locus of control, which is precisely what Druidry does by not imposing a rigid belief or even ethical system.
In addition to encouraging the cultivation of Awen, of personal inspiration that can then infuse one’s creativity and encourage one’s creative potential, another important strand within Druidry is that of attuning to the land, of developing a sense of place, of exploring one’s locality and opening to the stories and the feelings that the land evokes in us, and of helping restore and rewild the natural world.
All of these contribute to a sense of living in a meaningful universe rather than one devoid of meaning and created by chance. Studies of the importance of not only nature connection, but of cultivating feelings of awe, have shown how vital this is for optimal mental health. And Druidry certainly contributes to cultivating this sense by encouraging its adherents to spend time in the natural world cultivating both a sense of awe and meaning.
Forgive me, this essay has rambled somewhat. But perhaps there’s some value in wandering through a topic rather than our walk being overly directed, and I wanted to share with you these thoughts as a report on a work-in-progress.
Let’s sum-up: Druidry when followed as a spiritual way can have clear mental health benefits. Within it, a number of features seem to combine in a particular way to make it attractive to many contemporary seekers, who may fall into the category of being ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ (SBNR). These features include fostering creativity, nature-connection, a sense of meaning and community, internal locus of control and psychological flexibility and richness. Specific methods within Druidry, such as the observation of the eightfold seasonal calendar, engagement with trees, plants and animals as potential allies, teachers and healers, may also be utilized separately to good effect, while recognizing that embracing a complete spiritual tradition may open the possibility to us of engaging with a field of collective or transpersonal consciousness which may in itself bring benefits.