Last week, I was privileged to speak to a number of high school students in an alternative humanities program here in Columbus, on the topic of Druidry. I gather that they get to write response papers to my presentation, but something struck me today as I was thinking about the experience: I sort of want to write a response to the experience of speaking to them.
One of the interesting things about this particular group of kids is that they always come with good, high quality questions. I've been coming to speak to them for about six years (since 2009, though one year my slot got snowed out), and it's always been fun.
This year was no different in the fun department, but I did lead a basic Two Powers meditation for the class this time, which I had not done before. Typically, this class hears from a number of speakers and has a number of experiences with non-mainstream religions as part of their world religions section. Very often, those presentations inform the sorts of questions I receive.
Thinking about the questions that they asked (on the afterlife, on what a ritual is like and why we do those things, on an example of "working" magic, and on how we strive for "perfection"), I began to look at them in the broader religious and spiritual context that these questions represented. What I realized is that Druidry is very different from a lot of other religions, in its basic premise: we are far more concerned with how we act in relation to others and the cosmos than other religions are.
Most religions are, on balance, interested in the self. The assumptions made about where they're coming from and where they're going are very different. Other religions place emphasis on things like:
- These are the things I have to do or believe for me to get to X kind of afterlife, or to ensure that I'll see my loved ones when I get there.
- There's an external sort of thing to strive for, a "perfection" we might wish to achieve, or an escape from the state that is this world.
- Things are best divided, between spiritual and physical, between sacred and profane, between self and other.
Instead, we focus almost exclusively on our relationships in this life:
- How do my actions affect the cosmos? How do we affect the world we live in?
- What is the affect of my actions on others? Is this behavior ethical, given all that I know about how the world can and should work?
- It's okay to make mistakes: the important thing is to take ownership of them.
- The functional divide between that which is "spiritual" and that which is "physical" is hardly important: both the physical and the spiritual are equally important in our lives. Indeed, both of them have equal value in our lives.
- Do what works for you, not what someone tells you will work; your quirks might form an interesting and powerful relationship.
But a lot of it is being aware that others are not a vehicle to our own benefit. We are, instead, in this together, and entering into relationships with one another. As humans, we're engaged in a broader web, one we may not always understand, but which we clearly feel that we gain from and give back to. We only gain when others gain. We don't have to improve our lives at the expense of others: we can best improve them when we bring others with us.
A lot of that has to do with offering help where we can, being kind to others, and being open to the possibility of a *Ghos-ti- relationship (indeed, it is important to take the first step in forming a relationship even when there is not one). This seems to be important on both a local scale, and on a broader cosmic scale. Doing so, we think, will improve and enrich our lives in ways that it is often hard to describe, but easy to relate to.
Other religions are often concerned with these things as well: kindness is not rare as a virtue among religions, for example. Yet it seems that the focus on creating relationships because they improve the cosmos instead of the self seems to be something strange and out of step, particularly with mainstream religions and the culture that they provide. . . and the questions about our religion that they seem to raise most often.