BOOK REVIEW: THE AWEN ALONE
The Awen Alone, by Joanna van der Hoeven, is an economically and elegantly written introduction to modern Druidry for readers with a serious interest in practising. I like the use of awen, Druidry’s subtle magic, as the key word in the title. In the way that the author uses the term, it gets us straight to the point of why we practice.
The introduction skilfully builds rapport by bringing us into the rhythm of a normal working day. Only it isn’t quite everybody’s normal – it’s a reframed normal for a re-enchanted world and an intentional relationship with it. Joanna starts, in a matter-of-fact way, with a “Hail to the Day and Days Sons; farewell to Night and her Daughters” and ends with “Farewell to Day and Day’s Sons; hail to night and her Daughters”. In between, there are grumbles about the price of ethical toiletries alongside an affirmation of their value; a commitment to emotional intelligence amidst the stresses of working life, a noticing of what is going on in the landscape whilst travelling and in the garden at home, a soft threshold prayer to Nemetona, Lady of the Sanctuary, and a period of formal meditation.
The messages I would get from this as an inquiring reader are the intended ones. Druid life is shown to be the same life as anyone else’s, albeit lived with a distinctive quality of wonder and attention. Moreover, it is entirely possible to live such a life without being part of a Druid community.
The book is carefully structured into three parts.
- The first is about the basics of Druidry. It covers current views of Druid history; looks at what Druidry is; investigates the meaning of the key term awen (more about this below); explores deity in Druidry (some modern Druids are theistic and others not); affirms connection to ancestors (of blood, place and tradition); and describes the eightfold wheel of the year and its celebration.
- The second is about Druidry in practice. This looks at the roles of meditation, prayer, inner pathworking (guided meditation), outer pathworking (walking with awareness outside); altar creation and sacred space; seasonal rituals and other work connected with the seasons; and craft names.
- The third is about creating one’s own path and includes chapters on designing Druid ritual, daily practice and a more general consideration of “walking your own path”.
All of this work is well presented and gives a good overview of the way many Druids today think and practice. For me however, the really distinctive feature of this book is its discussion of awen. Awen is classically thought of as creative inspiration in a sudden, lightning flash form. But Joanna links awen, as inspiration, to the breath. The air we breathe is all around us. We take it in and give it back, a little bit changed. “The inspired Druid exhales the inspiration gained”. Awen is right here, in the web of what is, inherently present in the communication and relationships which make our interdependence work, enabling our creative choices and their results. For Joanna, awen is therefore linked also to our responsibility for personal awakening:
“Awake to our own energy and stretching out towards the energy of nature around us, we begin to see just what awen is. It is the opening of oneself … to see into the nature of all beings and indeed to see into the nature of simply being. … For awen to exist there must be relationship. We cannot be inspired unless we are open and we cannot be open unless we are in relationship, whether that is with the thunder, the blackbird or a god”. Joanna develops this theme further, seeing a cyclical process of giving and receiving at the heart of awen as we release ourselves “into the flow”. Ultimately we can be so attuned to “the threads that connect us all” that we can be inspired all the time – moving into the “bigger picture” of a compassionate and integrated life.
With this view of awen, at least as I understand it from reading the book, Joanna integrates her ‘Zen’ more fully into her Druidry. In the original Zen Druidry book, ground breaking as it was, I still had a sense of their being on parallel tracks. Thus The Awen Alone, although an introductory book, also offers an evolutionary step in the ‘Zen’ iteration of Druidry. For this reason it has importance not only to the inquirer and the newcomer, but to also to any Druid practitioner interested in the questions raised by this valuable work. Highly recommended.
Joanna van der Hoeven (2014) The Awen alone: walking the path of the solitary Druid Winchester: Moon Books
Thankyou for this review, I look forward to reading this one. I’ve read Zen Druidry, and I like the way Joanna sees empathy/relationship as being the parallel to Buddhist compassion.
I’m glad of the focus on the awen as breath; it has always made sense to me, if for no other reason than the word inspiration and breath draw from the same root. It also then allows for awen to become an intimate and ever-present aspect of meditation, as opposed to what might be seen as the more arbitrary and unpredictable ”descent of Grace”.
That’s how I see it too. The last sentence in your comment is the one I didn’t quite think of!
I’ve been influenced by what appears some parallels between inspiration and enlightenment. Although not the same, there seems some interesting commonality, and I think of one way I’ve heard the difference between the Soto and Rinzai approaches to enlightenment in Zen – where Rinzai aims for enlightenment as the sudden breaking open into that state, Soto sees it more as a walk through a mist, where somewhere along the process you move from dry to wet, without knowing exactly where.
Joanna introduces a similar sort of distinction it seems with the concept of awen and its presence.
I am in the process of reading the digital version at the moment and am finding it an excellent companion. I like the way in which Joanna synthesises her own experiences, thoughts and the Druid path.
Yes. It’s a good way to write about Druidry, I think – brings it alive.