The Piper guys were kind enough to give me the nickname “The Druid”, which I’ve been musing on lately. Of course, I’m not really a Druid – I haven’t been elected to the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain, nor am I ever likely to be! I suppose it’s possible that one day I might try for the language qualification and become an Ovate, an entry-level Druid as it were, but…. probably not!
Obviously, coming from Wales, I’ve always known about Druids. I don’t know what your mental image is when I use the term. Some people, I guess, will imagine them as Caesar described them, bloody to the elbows in entrails; others will think of Wicker Men, stuffed with captives waiting for the torch. Yet more will think of the neo-pagan movement and OBOD.
Me, I have a rather different conception of them. I see the Druids as observers and thinkers, heirs to the tradition of insight that goes back into the Neolithic period. Since the dawn of humanity, people were looking sitting on mountain tops, or venturing out to sea in tiny ships, and observing…. Observing the vast natural world, and pondering our place in it – and what makes us different. This was the slow thought, over years and decades, which gradually pieced together the great cycles of the stars and allowed the building of the megaliths and stone circles. I notice with interest the possible etymology of the name itself – most books will tell us that it’s somehow connected with the Celtic word for ‘oak’, but the Wikipedia entry suggests that it may rather have roots that mean “clear-vision” or “rooted knowledge”, something like that, which resonates with me.
I used to go solo up into the hills, back in the days when I lived in Wales. There’s something about being on a long ridgetop, with the bowl of the sky above you, the endless sea below on one side, the mountains receding to the distance below on the other, that clears the mind, that is so far beyond the reach of the mind, that the gates of comprehension are broken open and the fire of inspiration rushes through from the other side. When this energy is channeled into the grooves of practice and discipline, that’s when poetry and philosophy are created. It’s also the root of prophecy – when our knowledge is freed from the shackles of “I want”, or “I’m afraid”, and the truth of events can be seen – to the astonishment of those who won’t let themselves see….
In Welsh, we have a word for this, “Awen”. I’ve felt it on occasion; for example, there have been times when I’ve given an impromptu speech at Toastmasters, and felt the spirit take me; afterwards, people slap me on the shoulder and congratulate me on a great speech – but I really can’t remember what I said; the words just passed through me, not from me, it feels.
It was probably this sense of the Celtic poet/seer/Druid tradition that led me to adopt Thufir Hawat as one of the heroes of my teen years. Hawat, a character from Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune, was a Mentat-Assassin. A mentat is someone trained to use the full power of their mind. As Wikipedia puts it,
Mentats are not simply calculators. Instead, the exceptional cognitive abilities of memory and perception are the foundations for supra-logical hypothesizing. Mentats are able to sift large volumes of data and devise concise analyses in a process that goes far beyond logical deduction: Mentats cultivate “the naïve mind”, the mind without preconception or prejudice, similar to the contemporary practice of Zen, that can extract the essential patterns or logic of data, and deliver useful conclusions with varying degrees of certainty.
That, combined with martial arts knowledge? Wow! The Mentat Master of Assassins was a great role model!
It isn’t such a great step, either, from the mentat to the “Scholar Warrior”, the wuxia hero who cultivates mind as well as martial skill.
A Geordie girlfriend once complained to me that she thought the mountain-tops meant more to me than she did. She was right. She left the scene soon after, with no hard feelings on either side; my love for the hills still endures. Every now and again I get reminded that once I saw the truth; that once I had the clear vision, and deep-rooted knowledge. Time passes; material things and attachment cloud my sight, but I still know where the truth lies, when I’m reminded.
I’m writing this to remind you, the reader, and myself why it was that I got engaged in martial arts. Of late, I’ve been more and more focused on practical application – to the extent of losing sight of the bigger picture. To paraphrase Wang Xiangzhai, it’s an essential step – but only the first, and lowliest step.
Meditation, on its own, gives a lot of insight and detachment; it’s another route to that state of “no-mind”. I also need to work harder on my meditation! However, meditation is easy when you’re sitting comfortably on your cushions, safe in your home, with chanting or music on the mp3 player…. What about when you’re up against it, when things are not going your way, and the tide of the world is against you? This can happen on the mountain – the mist comes down, the storm rolls in, and suddenly you’re reduced to the most basic struggle of survival. Sometimes, one can transcend thought in these situations; the focus on finding your way out becomes a state of no-thought, no-mind, calm concentration on the task. Usually not, though… and even so, it’s not something we can organize or structure!
Martial arts, though… That’s the way… The internal martial arts have meditation built in; to keep one’s mind calm and empty, to loosen the grip of fear and attachments as someone actively tries to take you down… that is the way to develop strong meditation and detachment, calmness and freedom of mind and body, while under pressure. Furthermore, it’s something one can schedule, repeat, and learn from – unlike storms!
At the end of the day, that is why I’m studying martial arts. That is the journey that this blog is trying to chronicle!