The Tree of Contemplative Practices

While talking with my husband I realized that many of the arguments I’ve been making during my conversations with hard polytheists, particularly with Galina Krasskova (read our Facebook chat here and see the post it inspired from her here), are not necessarily reflected in or supported by the evidence of my own practice.

Or, in other words, I think Galina may have been right about a few things that I wasn’t admitting.

First, a regular devotional practice is a good — even great — foundation for a meaningful spiritual life.

Galina, and other hard polytheists I’ve spoken with, put significant value around the development of a devotional practice. If they were proselytizers (which they aren’t, technically) that might be the one message they’re preaching: develop a devotional practice. Do the work.

Act as if, Galina writes.

I’m familiar with the approach. And, in spite of all the things I’ve said in the past week or so, I have benefited from it at times.

My own practice has become much less regular and much less of a devotional practice in recent weeks and months. Interestingly, it stopped being quite so devotional after I had a very profound and palpable encounter with the Morrigan. One might think that there would be even more desire to develop a sturdy, robust devotional practice after something so visceral, but that isn’t how it’s happened and I don’t know why.

The periods in my life as a practicing Pagan that were most rich with spiritual awareness and the sense of connection were times when I had the most consistent and reliable devotional practice. During these times I was also much less concerned with critical thinking as it pertained to things like the nature of the gods, or the logic (or lack thereof) behind my actions. My actions were serving a spiritual purpose. They were keeping me in relationship with the gods.

At least, they were strengthening my personal sense of relationship. I was showing up before the shrine, doing the work, and as a result I felt more connected.

Now, during this period of less engagement with a devotional practice, I feel several things:

For one, I feel as though my critical thinking skills are getting a workout. I’m much more inclined toward objective analysis. That becomes problematic when I’m unable to shut that part of my mind off. My husband reminded me that ritual — like the kind I used to do daily in my devotional practice — can work wonders for shutting that function down for a while. In many ways, that’s ritual’s sole purpose. It prepares us for an encounter with the holy.

But I’ve also experienced a desire to do something different than what I used to do in my devotional practice. I want something less wordy, less structured. I want for something that isn’t so centered around ADF’s cosmology, or language that I’ve crafted for the Fellowship. This desire for fewer words comes, I think, from the fact that words are what tend to send my mind into an overactive frenzy.

For as much as I find liturgy to be valuable, especially when it comes to the regular celebration of High Days, in my daily practice I think I want something a little more formless. I’m not sure what that looks like, or how much it would resemble any kind of devotional practice.

I think, though, that the first step is to start listening more than I speak. I’ve been doing a lot of outward-focused work, and the ideas are flowing quite steadily in that direction. But it may be time to reverse the flow. It may be time for more listening.

I stumbled across this image, The Tree of Contemplative Practices, while searching out contemplative practices. It was published on the website of The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, an organization that seeks to incorporate more contemplative practices into higher ed. In my ongoing pursuit to discover what a distinctly Pagan contemplative practice might look like, I find that this illustration demonstrates that there are many, many ways of developing a contemplative practice. As I wrote in my last post, cultivating a devotional practice may be one way to do that, but I feel the need to give myself permission to explore other ways of achieving the same state of awareness.

Perhaps beginning with one of these branches is a start.

© The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society Concept & design by Maia Duerr; illustration by Carrie Bergman
© The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
Concept & design by Maia Duerr; illustration by Carrie Bergman

Have you found any of these practices to be relevant and meaningful in your personal spiritual journey? Perhaps they naturally fit into your religious tradition, as with the “Ceremonies and rituals” branch. But what about Silence? Storytelling? Deep listening? I know that I “bear witness” quite often on this site, and I like the idea that it may be a component of my own contemplative practice as a Pagan.

Tell me:

What do you reach for on The Tree of Contemplative Practices?


11 responses to “The Tree of Contemplative Practices”

  1. eelsalad Avatar

    Aikido is absolutely a spiritual and contemplative practice — I’d argue it’s also a magical one. High-level Aikido is indistinguishable from magical energy work (seriously, I attended a high-level seminar a year or so ago that was almost entirely energetic, with very little recognizable technique). I miss my regular practice, and am looking forward to my health improving enough to start up again!

    In the meantime, my spiritual work is about half-and-half devotional and contemplative. I journal, meditate, and volunteer, and spend time on devotional practices as well.

  2. Editor B Avatar

    I have had the Tree of Contemplative Practices hanging on the wall of my office for a few years now — going back to the previous version of the graphic — and I find it a tremendous inspiration and a great way to get people talking and thinking about the subject.

    It’s really great to see this image in this context.

    I do mindfulness meditation daily. I feel it’s been useful in continuing and deepening the ongoing transformational process at work in my life, and hopefully in the lives of those around me.

  3. Treeshrew Avatar

    The tree is a wondeful visual aid, Teo!

    I’m a skeptical non-theist and a theologian-by-training, so I definitely do need theories, stinking or otherwise! I’m trying to get used to a druidry that is more about practice than belief, but it’s a difficult transition from my usual analytical thinking style. I’m finding silence and meditation more ‘me’ for daily practice than ritual and ceremony, but YMMV.

  4. John H Halstead Avatar
    John H Halstead

    “… I had a very profound and palpable encounter with the Morrigan. One might think that there would be even more desire to develop
    a sturdy, robust devotional practice after something so visceral, but
    that isn’t how it’s happened and I don’t know why.”

    I had a similar experience when I was Christian. As soon as I (finally) had an experience of being saved, I ironically lost any sense of need for Christianity. An experience that I thought should lead to me becoming more Christian, led me in the opposite direction. It was as if Christianity had fulfilled its function for me, healing me and freeing me to move on. I’m not saying the same is necessarily true in your case. I just think it’s interesting that sometimes powerful spiritual experiences within a specific spiritual framework can lead, not to greater commitment to that framework, but to some other unexpected transformation.

    “This desire for fewer words comes … the first step is to start listening more than I speak.”

    Again, I had a similar experience after devoting literally years to crafting an intricate and heavily researched 52-week liturgy, I came to feel a deep need to let it all go, listen deep, and go with whatever presented itself. What has resulted is a much less structured practice (logically, it’s a mess), but one that feels more right for me. And intentional silence has been an essential practice for me ever since.

  5. Erik Avatar

    I *love* that Aikido is included in this graphic, because along with my singing, that’s absolutely what gets it for me. I am more centered and focused while training (either vocally or on the mat) than at any other time.

  6. Peter Dybing Avatar
    Peter Dybing

    Stillness and activist would be the branches that have the most place in my practice. Generally I attempt to invoke ( attempt to settle into) the first before the second.

  7. John Beckett Avatar

    I love this tree! Returning to daily spiritual practice – in one form or another – is always a good idea.

    “the first step is to start listening more than I speak”. I got this message loud and clear a couple years ago. I need to be reminded of it every now and then.

    I’ve been following the discussion between you and Galina and others. I mostly agree with Galina, but I NEED theory – I need a model, a framework for what I’m doing. I couldn’t “just believe” the fundamentalist religion of my childhood and I can’t “just do” the Pagan religion of this path either. I don’t need proof, but I do need reason.

    At the same time, I have to avoid the tendency to overintellectualize my practice. Doing is more important than believing. Experiencing is more important than explaining. I don’t have to fully understand what the gods are in order to have a mutually beneficial relationship with them.

    I’m curious as to why you stopped / cut back on your devotional practice after your strong experience of Morrigan. Was that experience so strong that the “boost” of daily practice couldn’t compare? Did you feel like you had achieved what you had been practicing toward and so you didn’t need to practice any more?

    You don’t say one way or another, but I suspect this was an unconscious, rather than a conscious decision. It’s really none of my business, but you may find exploring “why” to be helpful.

    1. John H Halstead Avatar
      John H Halstead

      “I don’t need proof, but I do need reason.”

      Well put!

  8. Kenneth Apple Avatar
    Kenneth Apple

    The curse of the left brainer, trying to keep balance in our approach to life. I do notice when I work with rituals for myself and trying to fit them into quiet moments in my life, I end up cutting them way back, shorter, shorter, always shorter. I have such ups and downs. I am in awe of people like Rev. Koishi Barrish, a Shinto priest here in Washington State who had done Misogi, the purification rite, everyday for twenty years.

    1. John H Halstead Avatar
      John H Halstead

      “The curse of the left brainer …”

      Yes! Curse of the *spiritual* left brainer.

      I’ve decided I’m never going to be the guy who does the same rite every day for years. I’m just not constitutionally capable of it. Part of my spirituality is a continually evolving practice. It makes me seem pretty flaky. But I’ve just had to get comfortable with that.

  9. Eilidh Nic Sidheag Avatar
    Eilidh Nic Sidheag

    That’s a neat graphic! I’m somewhat surprised to note that all of those branches are represented at least to some extent in my Druid practice:

    Stillness: meditation (I do a form of mantra meditation)

    Generative: visualisation (the Two Powers, every morning)

    Creative: singing, with a choir that provides music for left-wing and environmental events, so that doubles for the Activist branch

    Relational: Dialogue with/listening to other ADF members, other Pagans and people of other beliefs, through my blog and other social media

    Movement: walking meditation and yoga

    Ritual/cyclical: establishing a sacred space (my home shrine), ceremonies and rituals (Moon Days and the ADF High Days)

    I’d like to develop all of them further. At the moment I’m working through the DP, and after that I’ll need to think about whether to move on to the GSP or one of the more specific programs.

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