The Heart of Annwn

On how playing a slow heart beat learnt on the Way of the Buzzard’s ‘Healing Drum’ course led me to the practice of aligning my heartbeat with the Heart of Annwn and to beginning to formulate ‘the Rule of the Heart’ with others within the Monastery of Annwn.

The Monastery of Annwn

It began with a drumbeat.

During the period I was struggling with anxiety about the disruption to my sleep pattern caused by night work, which was making me lose even more sleep, I found a helpful practice in the Way of the Buzzard’s ‘Healing Drum’ Course.

It was a drumbeat which echoed the sound of a heartbeat and which I found of use in slowing my own heartbeat and calming my anxiety before I went to sleep.

As I made playing this slow beat on my drum* a regular practice I found it not only slowed the rhythm of my heart but brought it into alignment with the beating of a far greater heart, which I intuited was ‘the Heart of Annwn’.**

A chant came to me:

Slow Beat

Slowly beats
The Heart of Annwn

Slowly beats
The Sacred Heart

And then another, which I imagined being played at the…

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The Call of the Hooded Man

He started appearing in my tarot readings at the beginning of the year: the Hooded Man. In my reading for 2020 on New Year’s Eve in the place of ‘home’, then again and again, strangely, mysteriously, as we shifted from a stormy winter to a glorious spring and I was spending more time with people outdoors.

In the Wildwood Tarot the Hooded Man occupies the traditional position of the Hermit. His ‘Position on the Wheel’ is ‘the mid-winter solstice’. Dressed in a black cloak adorned with holly he stands amidst the snow with a wren at his side, a staff in one hand, a shining lantern in the other. He points towards a doorway in a great tree with a wreath upon it, offering solace from winter’s harshness.

The main meaning of this card is ‘this is the time of solitude and contemplation’. Why was I getting this card when I was busying myself with work parties five days a week and preparing for an internship at Brockholes, which involved outdoor work and engaging with large groups of volunteers?

The answer came as the arrival of coronavirus, as the lockdown, the perfect reason to respond to his call. But what did I do for the first three weeks? Spend my time watching what everyone else was doing, beating myself up for not being busy, for not having a proper job, resisting the call of the Hooded Man.

And yes, I felt it, and he spoke to me clearly. On one occasion this was through the new module on ‘Holly’ in the Tree Spirit Medicine course on the Way of the Buzzard Mystery School. The course leaders, Jason and Nicola associate holly with ‘sanctuary, resilience, and protection’. These were qualities I felt I needed to draw upon and immediately I associated them with the Hooded Man. I journeyed to holly to ask ‘how to slow down and participate in the Hooded Man’s sanctuary.

Holly said:

The berries of life
are not always yours.

So what is yours?

How will you
grow your berries?

What can you offer?

How will you shape
your sanctuary?

I took this to mean that I couldn’t just barge into the Hooded Man’s sanctuary and assume his berries (the hard-won fruits of many years of solitude and contemplation) are mine for the taking. That I must take the time and effort to shape my own sanctuary, grow my own berries, share them with others.

What was particularly significant about this journey is that the day afterwards, after I had cut back and cleared the blackberry bushes which were taking over the bottom of my parents’ garden, I found a little holly sprig. Immediately I knew this was ‘the Hooded Man’s corner’: a place I could find sanctuary.

But still I resisted for fear that retreating would make me less of an awenydd to my community and gods. When I first set out on the awenydd path it was with the purpose of serving Gwyn and the spirits of the land through sharing poems and research on mythology and my personal journey.

Somewhere along the line, when I was involved with Dun Brython, when Greg Hill and I founded ‘Awen ac Awenydd’ I felt these responsibilities were nudging me toward community leadership. However, Dun Brython never grew due to a lack of interest in Brythonic Polytheism. Whilst the Awen ac Awenydd Facebook group generated some interesting discussions, the participants didn’t mesh enough to develop a shared practice, and the plans for a physical meet-up failed completely.

I reached the conclusion that Facebook is not a suitable platform for building meaningful relationships and left. ‘You’re not a follower but you’re not a leader,’ the words of my wise friend, who read my tarot, haunted me. What am I then? What is the role of an awenydd who neither leads nor follows?

“You must focus on your gift,” the voice of my god from within.

Reflecting on the nature of this gift I realised that it is the awen and the meaning of ‘gift’ is manifold. The awen is not only my gift, my talent, my role in the world, my destiny, but is given by the gods and something I have a responsibility to give back to others. This being gifted with and my giving of awen is of value in itself. I don’t need to be a leader or a spokesperson for my path.

This revelation came as a huge relief and has given me clarity about where I’ve made mistakes in the past. After watching a podcast with Martin Shaw on ‘Pandemic and Mythic Meanings of this Cultural Movement’ in which he posed the question ‘would this not be a good time to re-establish a relationship with our souls?’ I realised over the past few months I have neglected my soul’s journey.

When I journeyed to the Hooded Man for advice on how to focus on this he said I need to ‘clear space outer and inner’ and ‘cultivate a longing for the mysteries’ in the place of my anxieties.

What was of interest, and slightly disturbed me, was that he told me has had burning ambitions, been riddled by doubts, that he has made made mistakes, that his aura of calm is the result of centuries of inner work. That sometimes it is just a facade that covers over the conflicts he feels within.

For some reason I thought he had always been the Hooded Man at perfect peace in his self-mastery. Yet a story, or many stories, lie beneath the the hood of this man who has many faces.

Slowing Down

It happened when I was gearing up. Having given up my placement with Carbon Landscapes in Wigan as it was too office based I had returned to volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust closer to home and got the conservation internship at Brockholes.

One hundred per cent practical outdoor work, and just a 6 mile cycle ride away at a place I know and love, it promised to be my dream job. I’d completed my first 10k race in New Longton and was training for the City of Preston 10 miles. I was also preparing for my Taekwondo grading, on the Spring Equinox weekend, to gain my blue belt.

Then it struck. A series of lightning-like strikes. I’d heard the thunder. The first rumblings from China, the news the storm was getting closer, that it had hit Italy, Spain, France, arrived in the UK. We joked about it at first. Me with my perpetually runny nose, like a toddler, in spring, due to my hay fever. Anyone who coughed or sneezed, “I haven’t got coronavirus.” We’d seen it on the news but it didn’t seem real, like our little island with its green hills and fresh air granted some form of immunity. We’re British, right? We won the war. Then people started getting sick and started dying.

Around a fortnight ago hand washing or using antibacterial gel before eating became mandatory. On Monday the 16th of March when I was out with the Mud Pack at Brockholes the next step was stopping sharing PPE. No more slightly musty gloves from the collective stash. I was given my own hi-vis in preparation for beginning my internship on the Thursday. Still we worked together building a hibernaculum for great crested newts and ate our lunch outside on a day bright as coltsfoot.

On Tuesday the 17th of March we received an email saying we could no longer share lifts in the van or meet together inside. On Wednesday the 18th of March, another glorious spring day, I went out on another work party planting sarroccoca and eleganus amongst the daffodils on the rock garden on Avenham Park. There was little joking, even amongst the guys from Preston City Council, who were helping out. Everything felt ominous. Still, it came as a shock when I got home to find out all LWT volunteer work parties had been cancelled until the end of April along with my voluntary internship.

In some ways it was a relief because I live with parents who are over 70 and in ill health. I’d been torn between the choices, if I was to continue volunteering, of moving out or risking their lives. So I accepted it was for the best I isolated with them, just going out to do our shopping and to exercise.

Still, I was bitterly disappointed. After winning the struggle to give up alcohol and manage my anxiety without it, and feeling I was finally coming home from my exodus with Carbon Landscapes to the place and the job role in my local landscape where I truly belonged… this!

Yet, I also felt, in some ways my gods had been preparing me for it. If I hadn’t given up alcohol there is no way I would have coped with the situation or with the responsibility of looking after my parents. When considering whether to quit my placement I’d heard a clear voice telling me to “come home.”

Another point is that, at the beginning of January, after I had a mild attack of exercise-induced asthma as a consequence of running my fastest time of 25.21 for 5k on the Avenham Park Run, Gwyn told me during this Taekwondo belt (green with a blue tag representing growth toward the skies) I needed to ‘learn to breathe’. Since then I’ve been trying to discipline myself to spend time in stillness, focusing on my breath, in my morning and evening meditations, but not always managing it.

(What has struck me and many others is that breath is central to this situation on many levels. Coronavirus attacks the lungs and those who get seriously ill face a battle for their breath which, in some cases, can only be won with the aid of mechanical ventilators, and in others not at all. The places worst hit have been cities where the air is badly polluted. Now flights have stopped and most people have stopped commuting by car, the skies are clear of contrails and air pollution has dropped.)

At first, after all that gearing up, I felt like Wily Coyote poised in mid-air off the edge of a cliff with my legs still running. Over the past few days I have been striving to ground myself, to slow down, to process the changes, to find space to breathe. Not easy when surrounded by panic.

My first response was to hit the news and social media to find out what’s happening and what everyone’s doing, leading only to tight chest, shortness of breath. To rush to formulate my own words, to share poems addressing the situation. Like I have some kind of gods-given responsibility… whilst aware of adding to the din of others doing exactly the same and increasing the massive strain on the internet that we forget is causing air pollution as we don’t see the power stations.

“Slow down,” the message kept coming through, from the stopping of traffic the virus has caused. As I ran more slowly, no longer worried about beating my best times, happy to be in the moment, feet steady alongside the Ribble in time with her flow where the daffodils watch with sad beautiful faces.

“Slow down,” as I began to take my time in my parents’ garden instead of rushing through the tasks. Appreciating the sunlight on the pastel colours of the hyacinths and the scent of the magnolia, the steady chuck of spade in earth and textures of compost from the bottom of the heap rich from years of decay.

“Slow down,” every time I sat before my mantlepiece in my bedroom where I keep altars to my deities, feathers and stones, to which I’ve recently added photos of my family ancestors knowing I’ll need their help.

I had developed a new routine based around prayer, writing, housework, gardening, shopping, and exercise when lockdown struck. It didn’t hit too hard as I was already living under those rules.

I’m anticipating a greater slowing. Right now I feel like I’m in ‘defence mode’ with my main prerogatives being to tend to the needs of and protect my vulnerable parents and to maintain my own health. I have also offered to run deliveries on my bike for family and friends, including the older members of my poetry group, if they end up isolating either due to illness or the government order.

An important point of support has been the Way of the Buzzard Mystery School online journey circles and coaching calls. I have been involved with Jason and Nicola’s drumming circles at Cuerden Valley and the Space to Emerge camp since they began and have appreciated being able to continue getting together to do journeywork and discuss the current situation from a shamanistic perspective.

With my daily routine and a support network in place I’m hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. If the UK follows Italy’s curve it is possible that my friends, family, and myself, may be not only be slowed down but locked away by illness, that we may be halted by the life-or-death battle for our breath. That we may have to face the final stopping – death – as usual a topic few think or talk about.

I’ve long had a plan for my funeral but am aware it will be invalidated by these circumstances. There is a huge lack of information about what will happen to the bodies of those who die of coronavirus in the UK. How they will be dealt with, where they will go, how their passing will be acknowledged.

Yet this great slowing gives us time to pause for thought – about the fears we’d rather not face and the solace we can find in each moment of these spring days so beautifully bright in contrast.