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Black Elk

THE MENTAL HEALTH BENEFITS OF DRUIDRY

Published by Philip Carr-Gomm

A paper delivered at the Transpersonal Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society’s Annual Conference, Scarborough, Yorkshire, 2nd September 2023 . Amended for the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids Mental Health Group 27th February 2024

The aim of this paper is to suggest some of the factors within contemporary Druidry that might be responsible for the mental health benefits reported by followers, and to determine whether some or all of these could be utilised by mental health professionals to improve clients’ outcomes.
The contemporary Druid movement is partly Neo-Pagan, and partly defiant of such a descriptor, and is gaining in popularity as it becomes perceived as a ‘green spirituality’ that appeals to the growing constituency of those identified as SBNR (‘spiritual but not religious’). Anecdotal evidence, including published autobiographical accounts, and the findings of a 2020 study, suggests that many followers of Druidry experience significant improvements to their sense of mental well-being.
The 2020 study was carried out by the mentor coordinator of the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids, Dr Susan Jones. She researched all of the correspondence and comments of 3000 members, who had undertaken the first level of training in the Order between 2000 and 2019. She writes:
“In all the marvellous variety, themes became apparent. These themes resonate with what the founding father of psychotherapy research, Carl Rogers, identified as ‘the good life’. In his seminal book, On Becoming a Person , he describes ‘the good life’ as being where the organism continually aims to fulfil its full potential. Rogers listed the characteristics of a fully functioning person. Very briefly, they are:

• A growing openness to experience – with no need to prevent troubling stimuli from entering consciousness.
• An increasingly existential lifestyle – living each moment fully, “To open one’s spirit to what is going on now, and discover in that present process whatever structure it appears to have”
• Increasing organismic trust –trust in their own judgment to choose behaviour that is appropriate for each moment, trusting their own sense of right and wrong.
• Freedom of choice – able to fluently make a wide range of choices and feeling responsible for their own behaviour.
• Creativity – it follows that they will feel more free to be creative, creative in how they adapt to their own circumstances.
• Reliability and constructiveness – they can be trusted to act constructively.
• A rich full life – joy and pain, love and heartbreak, fear and courage are experienced more intensely.

These characteristics are remarkably close to what OBOD members report as being the effects of Druidry.” [Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person – A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Constable.]

In Applied Positive Psychology by Lomas, Hefferon and Ivtzan, the authors point out that certain positive psychology interventions have been developed from ideas or techniques found in Buddhism, and invite those with knowledge of other spiritual traditions to make similar contributions towards the promotion of optimal psychological health. [Lomas, Hefferon and Ivtzan, Applied Positive Psychology: Integrated Positive Practice, Sage 2014]
This paper takes up this invitation, and suggests a number of factors that might be responsible for the reported positive effects of pursuing Druidry. Only one of these factors, however, the experience of Druidic initiation, can be identified as exclusively Druidic, with all the others being also found within non-Druidic contexts. Since initiation cannot be offered as a mental health intervention separated from its context and tradition, this suggests that Druidry can only be offered as a contributor to mental health in its complete form, whereby all factors interact synergistically and holistically to induce positive change.

FACTORS LIKELY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE REPORTED POSITIVE EFFECTS OF PURSUING DRUIDRY

I believe we can identify at least nine of these, listed here in no particular order.
The first two factors, in common with other spiritual traditions and religions, are the fostering of community and a sense of meaning.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists offers comprehensive information showing the generally positive influence of being part of a religious or spiritual group brings. Central to this influence is the fostering of a sense of meaning and purpose, and all the benefits that belonging to a community of like-minded souls can bring. More recently, one of the most important systematic reviews in the history of Spirituality research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. [Balboni TA, VanderWeele TJ, Doan-Soares SD, et al. Spirituality in Serious Illness and Health. JAMA. 2022;328(2):184–197. doi:10.1001/jama.2022.11086] The review is titled Spirituality in Serious Illness and Health and includes hundreds of studies and many thousands of participants. The review found that spirituality is linked with various medical benefits and healthier lives, including greater longevity, less depression and suicide, and less substance abuse.
A third factor: Druidry can be described as an Embodied Spirituality. Its relationship to the Earth, the body, the Feminine, and sexuality is one of engagement, acceptance and celebration, rather than denial or repression. There is no emphasis in Druidry on seeking salvation, in Christian terms, or of trying to avoid rebirth, in Dharmic terms. The invitation in Druidry is to get more involved with life rather than less. Its invitation is for us to come fully into our awareness of our bodies, to ‘own’ or ‘inhabit’ our sense of embodiedness, including our instincts and drives. All the Neo-Pagan paths, including Wicca, have a similar emphasis. 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. They are therefore Post-Freudian approaches, and when one sees the amount of sexual repression and abuse caused by the attitudes to sexuality, the body and women that have been engendered by the Abrahamic religions, it seems quite reasonable to suggest that we need approaches to the mystery of being embodied that take into account modern psychological understanding. This factor could be described as one that cultivates a healthy relationship to our bodies and our sexuality, fully engaging with them, rather than attempting to transcend, repress or deny them.
A fourth factor: While most Druids will hold to certain shared beliefs common to many spiritual approaches, the actual path requires no adherence to any particular belief, 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, as seen in Fundamentalist approaches. Free of dogma, Druidry empowers those who appreciate its approach to think for themselves and encourages inner-directedness rather than outer-directedness.
A fifth factor: A key feature of Druidry involves encouraging creative expression and cultivating inspiration, known as Awen in Welsh and Imbas in Irish, which lies at the heart of the Bardic tradition and of the Eisteddfod tradition in Wales. The mental health benefits of story-making and telling, and of encouraging creative expression are well documented.
A sixth factor: By encouraging an exploration of our individual, family and collective stories, by studying folklore and mythology, by encouraging an engagement with locality, landscape and history, it is likely that someone pursuing a Druid path will develop an enhanced or more defined sense of identity, with improved ego-strength: sensing their place in the world, and counteracting that modern malaise alienation.
A seventh factor: One of the distinguishing characteristics of Druidry is that it is often pursued within the context of an initiatory tradition. There is a generally, but not universally, accepted view that 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 in continuity with a lineage – with 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 and build a relationship with what is essentially not coming from our own consciousness but from the Transpersonal, Archetypal or Collective realms.
An eighth factor: the emphasis on attention to and attunement with Nature and the Divine (variously conceived as deity, deities, a magical reality, the Otherworld, etc.) and the formalisation of some of this attunement in ritual and celebration, results in fostering attitudes, feelings and behaviours of gratefulness, awe, and mindfulness – all now well-researched as experiences worth cultivating for optimal wellbeing.
A ninth factor: One of the fundamental characteristics of Druidry is that it fosters Nature Connection. Often cited as one of the most important attributes of Druidry, followers study animal and plant, stone and star lore and celebrate eight seasonal festivals designed to foster a greater awareness of the seasons and of nature in general. Meditation and what we now describe as mindfulness in nature is encouraged, and trees in particular act as a focus for deepening our relationship with the natural world. A clearing in the forest, a sacred grove, is the favoured setting for druid gatherings, and the word druid means literally ‘oak seer’ or ‘forest sage’.
In summary the nine factors identified are:
1. Fostering a sense of community
2. Offering meaning-making
3. Cultivating a healthy relationship to our bodies and our sexuality
4. Offering a path, community and sense of meaning without dogma
5. Encouraging creative expression
6. Deepening our sense of identity
7. Connecting us to Transpersonal/Archetypal/Spiritual dimensions
8. Fostering attitudes, feelings and behaviours of gratefulness, awe, and mindfulness.
9. Encouraging nature-connection

In looking through the factors mentioned, clearly a number of them can be found in other spiritual approaches. It is the combination of these factors and the particular stresses on certain features, such as the importance of our relationship with trees, the celebration of the eightfold wheel of the year and the importance of the Awen and Eisteddfod – of creative expression and festivals of deep listening – that make Druidry unique.
Having said this, is there a case for extracting certain techniques or ideas used in Druidry that could be used separately by individuals or in group contexts to improve their mental health?

CAN SOME OR ALL OF THESE NINE FACTORS BE UTILISED BY MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS TO IMPROVE CLIENTS’ OUTCOMES?

It is important to 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 combination of some or all of the factors. Applying any one factor in isolation will not be making full use of its potential to effect transformation.
This argument has been used as a critique of taking Buddhist practices out of their embeddedness in Buddhist philosophy and practice, and using them as individual interventions, often in Positive Psychology or CBT sessions. [Kirmayer LJ. Mindfulness in cultural context. Transcultural Psychiatry. 2015;52(4):447-469. doi:10.1177/1363461515598949]
Nevertheless, research evidence shows that interventions such as the ‘metta’ Loving Kindness meditations can have a measurable positive effect even when used outside of traditional contexts, and it therefore seems reasonable to ask whether certain ideas or techniques found in Druidry might be used independently in a similar way.
No intervention applied on its own can offer the positive effects of (a) feeling a part of a community, (b) embracing a viewpoint that provides for a sense of meaning, (c) of feeling connected through initiation to a lineage or archetypal realm or collective consciousness and (d) of being immersed in a spiritual way which combines all nine factors in a synergistic way. However, the record of techniques and understandings being taken from Buddhism to good effect – as in the metta example given and more broadly in the mindfulness movement and within such modalities as ACT – suggests that in a similar way, we could fruitfully attempt to make use of certain elements found within the factors identified.
At this point in the argument, however, I regretfully find myself having to suggest that Druidry, unlike Buddhism, cannot offer specifically Druid techniques that might be of value if used in isolation. And the reason for this is simply that none of the factors that I’ve defined are exclusive to Druidry: developing community is a widespread feature of many endeavours, the eightfold wheel is celebrated by pagans and Wiccans as well as Druids, the Ogham trees are not the exclusive domain of Druidry, even the stories and myths used in Druidry are the common property of folklore. What makes Druidry unique and wonderful and a contributor to mental health is I believe its very specific and particular combination of all these factors combined with the magic ingredient – the connection to the Druid egregore, spirit, lineage, tradition. It’s the whole that counts.
Here’s an analogy: To explain the health-giving or simply delicious effect of Italian cuisine, you might isolate the ingredients – tomatoes, olive oil, herbs etc. Is each one good for you in isolation? Yes! Is it better if they’re all combined in special ways that allows you to label the cuisine Italian. Yes! If I take one ingredient in isolation can I call it Italian? No! You can find all the ingredients in other places. It’s the whole that counts.
This does not mean that we should not use the factors in isolation or different combinations to help people. Clearly fostering nature connection, forest breathing, celebrating the eightfold wheel, and so on, can all be beneficial. We need to recognize that many people may not want to embrace Druidry as their spiritual path, and yet may benefit greatly from one or more of the factors we’ve identified. We can choose to present it either with or without a Druidic gloss, but what we cannot do is claim it to be exclusively Druidic. In the end, this distinction is probably of little interest to those who simply want to know of tools and techniques that can help them or other people feel better, but for clinicians and practitioners it is important that we have clarity and integrity.
Having said this, in my experience only fellow practitioners are interested in provenance. Clients simply want to be helped and to be offered techniques that work. Whether they were developed last week by the therapist themselves or a thousand years ago by a sage in the forest is, I suspect, of little or only passing interest. It could even be argued that the fact that the individual factors, and any interventions developed from them, cannot be termed specifically druidic may be an advantage – removing unnecessary associations or concerns that the client may have about be getting involved in religious or cultish behaviour.

CONCLUSION
This paper suggests a number of factors that might be responsible for the reported positive effects of pursuing Druidry. Only one of these factors, however, the experience of Druidic initiation, can be identified as exclusively Druidic, with all the others being also found within non-Druidic contexts. Since initiation cannot be offered as a mental health intervention separated from its context and tradition, this suggests that Druidry can only be offered as a contributor to mental health in its complete form, whereby all factors interact synergistically and holistically to induce positive change. Despite this, it is clear that all the factors identified can be used to positive effect for the promotion of mental health.