Life through the eyes of a tree: the heart

This is the first in a series of posts that tries to look at the world from the perspective of a tree.

To begin, I would like you to visualize the following. Go to a place in the forest that you feel closely connected to, and see yourself sitting there, with your back resting against a huge chestnut tree. It is autumn. Right in front of you, you notice one of its fruits, the prickly skin protecting the chestnuts from those that want to eat them before they are ripe.

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And you begin to wonder about that. Why the protective measures? Why does the tree not simply give away its fruits, but does feel the need to protect them?

And so you ask the tree if it will help you understand. In response, you feel your perspective changing, and it feels as if your body is slowly being absorbed inside the tree-body, and you become ‘the tree’. At first, that feels restrictive. You even panic slightly for a moment. What if you are not going to get out of here again? What if you are going to be a prisoner in here forever?

But then you relax. And slowly you begin to let go of your human senses, and you start to breathe with the tree. You listen to the sound of your heartbeat, and how it pumps the blood through your body. Relaxing further, you focus on that for a while.

As you do so, you feel your perspective expanding. You are walking around the forest again. Not in your human skin, but as a kind of expansion of the tree body. You see how you are attached to it through a kind of umbilical cord. And you realize that that cord does in no way restrict you, but instead, gives you freedom. For it takes care of all your material needs: as long as the tree is there, you are assured of nourishment, because the tree freely provides these for you.

Take some time to explore the forest from this new perspective. You are truly part of it now: for the tree not only shares its resources with you, but also its senses. Translated in a way you understand, that feels as if you have suddenly developed an ability for a kind telepathic communication: where before, the forest was a silent place, now it seems almost loud, as if multiple choirs are singing at the same time.

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It is hard to describe what it is exactly that you hear, and the word hearing isn’t exactly right either, for that would be a too one-dimensional way of describing it. For the ‘hearing’ that the tree provides you with, doesn’t happen with your ears alone, but engages all of your senses at the same time: you see it as a wave of colours, as an alphabet of perfume, interwoven with an ocean of sound. It is a language that is way more complex and rich than human language: it is as if every instant you engage with it, you receive treasure chests full of rich impressions, and whole stories download into your brain, instantly, complete with sounds, impressions, as if you were their protagonist.

As you walk through the forest, you realize that you are not simply visiting: in this moment, you ARE the forest.

Then you think back of what originally brought on this reverie, and you turn your attention back to where you came from, kneeling next to the tree to examine one of the chestnut burrs more closely. You admire the cosy little nest that they form around the seeds. You pick it up. And in that moment, you become it. Your mind links to the chestnuts, and you feel/hear/see the burr whisper to you in the colourful language of the forest: I will keep you safe until it is time for you to get born. I will pour all of my love into you, so that you get the best possible chance of survival.

And in that moment, you feel held and loved, not only by the burr, not only by the tree, but by the forest as a whole. You know that, whatever happens next, whether you manage to become a tree, or whether you become squirrel food, you are here, part of this family, part of this community. How you develop and where you end up growing roots will decide in which way you grow up, and what your experiences will be like, but you trust like you have never trusted before. You are part of the web of life. It breathes through you. And you are an immortal part of it.

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At that moment, you sense that it is time to go, and you feel yourself being sucked back into the tree, and then, after a few moments, find yourself back in your own body. And you hear the tree whisper ‘Did that answer your question?’

We are used to perceiving the world as human beings, locked into our own head, with our perspective limited to what our eyes can see, and where our legs can carry us. This visualization gives you a bit of a sense of just how limited that view is. For how can we know what the world is like when seen through senses that we do not possess ourselves? Next time you go to the forest, I invite you to try if you can repeat this exercise: go to a tree, and take time to introduce yourself: explain who you are, and what the world looks like for you. Then, ask if it would be willing to let you share in its perspective. If you receive a positive vibe, sit down with your back to the tree, close your eyes and let yourself be sucked in…

An invitation to die

What is personhood? It is a separation that allows us to develop a personal point of view that is not directed by those around us. It is deliberately blocking out the fact that the universe already knows everything in order to have a chance at deeper understanding by learning these truths through experience.

Some of that learning hurts, and some of that brings the most intense joy imaginable. That is what we call being alive: being fully immersed in it in a way that brings us face to face with its realities every single moment of our existence.

To die then means to become more and less at the same time. Our detachment to this particular time and place, to this little heap of flesh falls away from us. It makes us lose ourselves in the sense that any definition of who we were that was based in material considerations is no longer applicable. It is something that many humans suffer with a great deal: isn’t who we are the same as what we do, what we own, what we achieved in this lifetime? What will be left when all of this falls away from us? Who is the real us behind the mask?

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It is a question that many of us are afraid to pose, for fear of what the answer might be. For who knows really who they are themselves? As we rush through life, too busy to ever allow ourselves time to live it, it seems that what we do is the only thing that matters. Isn’t standing still the same as dying? Isn’t it a sign of giving up, of having lost our way in life?

This is a fear that is put inside us by modern society, where productivity is the scale on which the value of a human life is valued. And because we have been taught to think that way, we have also begun to see other life forms as less than ourselves. We see them as less economically active, and hence as less of a valued participant in the cycle of life, all the while forgetting that we owe our life to them, and that we wouldn’t even be here if they hadn’t been allowing us to use and abuse them for our own purposes.

It is hard then to confront the moment all of that posing will fall away from us. That is understandable. But.. maybe we can find another way? You know… why postpone death until our physical body dies? Why not do it now, or at least start contemplating what it would be like?

Once we start doing so, we realize just how much active dying is actually a way of becoming, of growing into ourselves, of stopping to put limits on how much we have to give. Of stopping to measure the monetary value of everything that we do, and everything that is given to us. If we choose to step past that boundary now, and remember that we are not separate, and have never been separate, then suddenly so much becomes possible.

When will you start dying?

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Gods of the land

You may have noticed that in my previous post, even though it was about the gods, I have not spoken much about things like reading their stories or studying their lore. The reason for that is because I wanted to encourage you to live in the here and now first, and to approach this with an open mind, rather than as an academic study.

For where did these stories start? Many of them began as encounters with a god, with a place, as a dream that wanted to be shared. Not as something for which you need to dig deep in old and dusty tomes to make sure that you get all details exactly right. It began as something that was very much a living thing.

And so I would like to argue that if we want to get to know the gods of the lands we live in, the first thing to do is to get to know that land. Get out there and listen, and allow it to speak to you. Make up your own stories. And even if you encounter statues, then don’t let yourself be paralyzed by the fact that you don’t know who they are ‘officially’. But take time to imagine them. Speak to them. Dream of them. Ask if they will tell you their tales. If we want to revive the old gods, we need to allow them to become alive in our minds once again. Allow the stories to continue.

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I do believe this is what the old peoples of Europe did, with the advent of Christianity, when they were no longer allowed to worship their familiar gods by the missionaries.

They disobeyed. They did it anyway, but just got creative, and used new names and invented new stories that would allow them to continue honoring the sacred in ways that felt appropriate. The only difference was that now they called them saints, or angels. And this must especially have been true for the gods that were most precious to the people: those that spoke of the connection to their lands, and to their ancestors.

And so, for a very long time, the old was not all that different from the new, except for an added layer of paint. The gods had adapted, and they had survived. The bigger threat to them came much later, with the advent of modern science, and the invention of the notion of ‘superstition’. That is when we truly began to lose the magic of connection…

So then, what are we, modern pagans to do, if we seek to reconnect? Do we look to distant lands, and to gods far, far removed from us in time? Or do we also dare to reclaim our heritage, and reconnect to the gods underneath the layers of paint, even if we do not know what their original names where? I challenge you to try. For I believe these gods have much to teach us.

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I would like to illustrate this by telling of my own encounters with the local Goddess of the land. Her name is Mary.

I do not have the luxury of living in a country that is full of standing stones. And the sacred places that exist, like sacred wells and other places where the power of the land is strong, have been Christianized, and often churches or little chapels have been built on these locations. And so it is quite impossible to simply pretend that the past 2000 years have not happened, and that I can simply take a time machine back in time, to connect with what used to be there before.

And I have begun to think that this is probably not such a bad situation. I have often heard pagans lament about how all of this is a disgrace, and that they stole ‘our’ sacred places. And yes, to a certain extent, this is true, and I am not trying to defend the missionaries. On the other hand, things could have been far, far worse. For most of these places are still held as sacred now, so many centuries later. Compared that to how the sacred places of the Native Americans were and are still being treated: many of them ended up being paved over to build a parking lot.

And so I began to look deeper. And it is interesting to notice how many of these places like sacred wells have chapels that are not devoted to the Christian god, but to the virgin Mary or to an (often female!) saint. Could it be that the connection between sacred wells and the divine feminine was just too strong, and that even a male-dominated church couldn’t afford to ignore that? Or… was it that maybe the deities were the ones who had the final word, and continued to claim these places as theirs?

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I live in a landscape that is littered with little chapels, most of them devoted to the virgin Mary. Many of these are placed in the last remaining spots of natural beauty. And so I began to frequent them, and honor the divine one that was present there, in much the same way as I would pray to Cernunnos or to Artemis at my home altar.

And she responded. Over time I have come to know her as one that uses many names. Or more importantly, one that does not really care so much what name you call Her, as long as you listen. As long as you honour what is sacred. For she is the Land. She is the Mother that feeds us all. And in giving us life, She is Us.

I do not consider myself a Christian, but connecting to Mary has lead to some of my strongest experiences of the Goddess. If this is the mask that she has chosen to put on in the place where I live, why should I turn my back on that? But make no mistake, for honey-sweet though the traditional church-depictions of her may be, that is far from the whole story…

Using the ‘automatic writing’-method I explained in my post on Awen, I asked her to speak to me. What came out was not exactly a gentle message, but more like a stern warning from an angry mother. Yet it does ring true…

 

I am you. Your essence is my essence. Your body is my body. All that you are and ever have been, you owe to me. I am the one who has fed you and nurtured you, ever since you were born. And I am the one who will one day claim your death.

This is a message to you. Remember that you are earth. Remember that your life has been gifted to you and should not be taken for granted. For it is a gift that I can take back when I deem your time on this earth has reached its natural conclusion.

Do not think of me as unkind or cruel for pointing this out to you. This is merely a reminder that you are no more special than any other creature living on the face of this planet. If you think it normal that plants die when winter starts, or that the lamb is eaten by the wolf, why do you think that you are the one exception that needs not give up his own place when your time has come?

I tell you, you are no more special to me than any other being. I will willingly nourish you and feed you, but I will not yield you preferential treatment.

And right now you have sorely tested my patience. Why are you ignoring all my gentle calls to remind you of your place? Why are you treating me as if I were just a thing, a commodity that can be used and abused at will? When will you ever give me the gratitude I deserve for all the many things I give you without ever asking anything in return? When?

For it is high time that you learn. That you remember. For if you refuse to learn of your own accord, then I will teach you. As your mother, I will interfere and correct your bad behavior. I will not do this because I hate you. I do not hate, I will do this out of love. But you may not like the lesson.

You are my children, and all I want is for you to grow up and become beautiful and wise and wonderful. But I am talking now of you as a species. I cannot continue to sustain every single one of you. The way you are living and abusing me now, is smothering me. And at some point I will need to take action. That time is nearer than you may think. Think about this. I beg you. Allow me to show you the way we can reconnect. I beg you. Even while threatening you, I would much prefer to be soft, but I can only do this if you agree to listen and learn from soft teaching methods.

Please. For I do love you all, and that will never change. But sometimes a mother has to discipline her children and tell them to play nice.

 

(Note: it is my belief that this method makes it possible for the gods to speak to us, much like we can also encounter them through shamanic journeying techniques and other methods. But I do acknowledge that ultimately I have no way to check the source of this, or how much this was influenced by my own thinking and my own subconscious. So believe what you want to believe, and see this as a message the earth might have sent to us, if she had a voice to speak with. )

Where do we meet our gods?

There’s many a discussion whether Druidry is even a religion. Some say yes, some say no, for many different reasons. No, because ‘religion means dogma’, means ‘someone telling you what you are supposed to believe’, and so on. My personal definition of religion is an extremely simple one. I’d say it means ‘doing some kind of devotional practice that involves honoring the divine and its expressions in the world around us.’ By that definition, I would say that yes, Druidry is a religion. (Or at least, my Druidry is. )

So then, how to go about it: how do we come face to face with the divine, where do we  even find these gods? How about taking inspiration from our ancestors? When reading the old tales, it becomes obvious where to look. The same place as where people have been finding them from the beginning of time. In our interactions with the world around us.

Many of us came to Druidry (or paganism) to satisfy a deep yearning, hoping to find something that they felt was missing from their life. A desire to connect with what was sacred. A desire to find our center. A desire to reconnect with nature, and to find true community. 

A desire to making living our  life a sacred act again.

And that begins by standing still. Stopping to run away. Finally starting to listen to ourselves, and truly seeing the world around us.

Stop what you are doing for a moment. Close your eyes. Breathe. Become conscious of the miraculous fact that you are alive. Then listen. To each thought that wells up. It doesn’t matter what it is. Listen to it. Acknowledge it. Give it space to be. If you continue doing this – not just in this moment, but for days, for months, probably for years to come, you will at some point reach a moment of stillness, when your conscious mind has told you everything it desperately wants you to hear, right now. The stillness means that it is satisfied that you are at least trying to listen to it.

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Enjoy the open space of that stillness, and keep listening. Keep listening for the voices that are coming next. For these are the voices of the sacred. These are the whisperings of the world around us. The voices that are always trying to reach us, but which are mostly being drowned out by the noise and static in our head.

Who is speaking now? Don’t worry about that at first. Don’t worry if no words come either. For not all spirits speak with human voices. If you feel like dancing, then do so. If you feel a sudden urge to go down on all fours, sniffing the grass and enjoying its aroma’s, then do so. And note what you are doing. You are beginning to interact. Dancing is a conversation with your body, with the air around you, with the space you are in. Taking in the aroma’s of the grass means starting to listen with different senses.

Continue your acts of listening. Go to different places and listen at different times.

Do not worry if sometimes (or maybe often, depending on your life situation), here-and-now thoughts and worries seem to take precedence. The fact that they are there means that they need to be listened to. (And interact with them. If they keep emerging again and again, that may simply mean that you have been trying too hard to ignore their existence.) If they are actual cold-hard real life worries that cannot be resolved in the short run (or which are beyond your power to fix by yourself), then simply listen, acknowledge, do what you can, then dismiss them for the time being. This is not an exercise in running away from life. This is an exercise in starting to live it. That means doing what you can (important!!), but not being a slave of pointless worries.

Start using all your senses. Make a habit of being open for listening. That is the only way hear.

For this is where you will meet your gods. In starting to be in conversation with the world around you. In walking through the forest, and having a sudden emotion well up while touching that special tree that means so much to you. By looking up at the full moon, and feeling blessed by the power of its light seeming to illuminate the way forward, and that sudden urge to do something crazy. In that one line that suddenly jumps out in the middle of a song, carrying special meaning. In walking through the city and suddenly seeing rainbows everywhere.

You want to meet the gods? Then be prepared to actually hear their call. Out in the world is where you will hear their whispers, not in the dusty tomes of the library. You may want to read these later, when you eventually want to give a name to what you felt or what called out to you. But that will rarely be the first step.

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And maybe you will never feel the need to connect your experience to something as official as a deity with a pedigree and a fully fleshed out mythology. In the end, names are not what counts most. For even that soft whisper from a tree, or the caress of the moonlight is a meeting with the sacred. And that is where it all starts. The place of relationship and connection. Where names and status are ultimately of minor importance…

Tell me: how many of your friends did you meet by looking up random names in the phonebook? How many of them did you meet by going out in the world and starting a conversation? And did you start out with the intention of meeting a celebrity, or did you simply want to make friends? Which approach, do you think, will be the most successful one? Meeting the gods is, ultimately, not all that different.

I plan to write about some of my own personal encounters with deity and spirit in upcoming posts. But if you have stories of your own to share, I’d love to hear them!

Coming face to face with death

This is the time of year when they say the veil between the world is thinnest. The time of year when we honour our ancestors and loved ones that have passed over to the other side.

A good time, too, to reflect on the way in which our society tends to deal with death.

This essay is based on my own personal encounter with death. My father died at the beginning of this year, after finally losing a 10-year battle with cancer. From the very first, we knew that there would be no healing for this. The cancer had already spread too far when it was first discovered, so all that could be done was to halt its progress for a while. How long, was something nobody was able to tell us at the time. ‘Until we run out of options.’ For cancer is devious: no matter how great a cure may seem for the first few months, after a while the cancer will find a way around it. One weapon down, on to the next one.

Until finally you know you are down to the last treatment, the final thing that can buy you some more time. After which, death is inevitable.

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It is that final journey I want to speak about, and about the lessons I learned from it. How it changed me, and how, paradoxical as it may seem, it took away most of my own fears regarding death. And how it showed me just how toxic the ways in which we deal with death in our society are.

It is a humbling and confronting journey, to see the man you once looked up to as a protector gradually become weaker. See the person, who, before, had been there to keep you safe from the world and who you could always lean on for assistance, now more and more begin to lean on you. Beginning with simply leaning on your arm when going up the stairs, until, towards the end, needing assistance with eating, and help to change the diapers he needed to wear now.

Coincidentally, at around the same time when the final decision was made to cease all treatments, my sister got her first child. And there was a curious inverse parallel between both journeys. One new life, completely helpless at first, then gradually beginning to explore and gain more and more control over her body. At the same time, an increasingly broken body, slowly falling apart, loosing control and abilities at about the same rate. One person being born into this world, one person being born out of this world, preparing for his journey towards the otherworlds.

The very last month, a decision was made to move him into hospice care, so that all care would be taken over by professionals, thereby giving us time to focus on what was truly important: saying our goodbyes, and preparing for the journeys to come. For all of us would have to make a journey after this death finally happened. Also those of us who stayed behind: a journey back to the world of the living.

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For that last month was spent somewhere in-between. In a place that was still here, but where death was a constant companion. A companion that was not hushed away, but that could be freely talked about. For we understood each other. Family members, soon-to-be-departed, hospice staff. There was no taboo. Here, death was simply part of everyday life.

And that made that this was a period that made it possible to focus on essentials. By not running from the truth, by not denying this reality, openings were created that would make the mourning process considerably lighter later on. This may sound weird, but I have almost exclusively positive memories of that final month.

How different things were afterwards. The return to the normal world. Going back to work for the first time. Seeing a hint of fear in people’s eyes when you speak to them for the first time. Having no idea how to confront this immensity, wishing it will simply go away if they keep silent. Then, immense relief when I choose to talk about something else. With the assumption that now, everything is back to normal and will now never have to be talked about again.

Can we stop doing that to each other, please? Can we, as a society, learn to start talking about death? Break the taboo? Be not afraid to talk about the fact that sometimes, we hurt? That one day we, too, will no longer be there? That missing someone does not finish after the funeral?

Let’s make it so that the most difficult part is missing someone, not having to fight for the right to feel sad. Where it does not feel as if you, as the person mourning, are responsible for shielding the people around you. Let us learn to carry each other, rather than building walls around death and sadness, stop pretending that it doesn’t exist as long as it isn’t our turn.

I am writing this on a Druid blog, because I strongly feel that we, Pagans and Druids, members of newly developing traditions, have a responsibility here. In our rituals, let us make space for this. In our sharing circles, let us not shy away from these difficult topics. When you know someone is hurting, let them know that you will hold space for them. That you are ready to listen to how much or how little they wish to share. Let death become a natural companion of the living once again, like it used to be for our ancestors.

Samhain musings

Have you ever wondered why we die? Why there is a time of winter following the time of summer? Why must all submit to the rule of nature that nothing lasts forever?

Well, isn ‘t it an obvious thing, once you start thinking about it more deeply? Because we all need a break. We need time to digest and have a more distant perspective.

For you have for sure experienced this for yourself. Standing on a high vantage point, overlooking the area, everything seems obvious. You can clearly see where all the roads are, where they will lead you to, and what path you need to take to get to a given destination. But then, once you have made your plans and set off for the journey, sooner or later doubt will start to set in. Was it left or right at this junction? And wasn’t there an easier road somewhere? You find that the road is riddled with obstructions that somehow hadn’t been visible from up high…

Yet we do the best we can. We live, we try our best. We have successes, and we make mistakes. We develop strategies that, for better or worse, allow us to navigate through the complexities of live. But there’s always a vague memory of that original vision, of that time when everything seemed clear.

That is why we need to die. To allow us to reconnect to the essence every once in a while. To recharge, to offload, and to prepare to begin anew.

This is, of course, not without sadness. For turning away means that we have to leave behind what we had started to build, say goodbye to those we loved. And that is hard.

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Maybe that is why it is good to think about the meaning of death while we are still alive. To get over our fears. To realize that there is fundamentally nothing to be afraid of. And that the only things we will be leaving behind, are things that are only of secondary importance. That we only leave behind that which we do not need anymore. For that is really all we lose. The connections that matter, the bounds forged by love, these will remain. And those that we care about will never forget us, and we will be able to keep in touch or see each other again on the other side later.

This Samhain, think of this. Think of what is so important for you that you will never leave it behind, and what are the things that you could do without. Then remind yourself of the implications. What are the things you spend most of your time on? If these are not the important things, then maybe you should rearrange your priorities…

Elder: Preparing for the Dark Times

I am elder. Tree-gift. Medicine.

Yet, beware, you who seek my lessons. Do not come to me unprepared. Have you come for learning? Then remember that learning requires the ability to hear. Have you come for healing? Then ask yourself whether you are prepared to become whole.

True wisdom, true healing will change you. It will force you to remember who you are, to reforge the net that connects you to the world around you. What is heard cannot be unheard. What is seen cannot be unseen. It is the story of Cerridwen’s cauldron, and it is my lesson as well.

So, come closer if you dare, and accept my healing.

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Are you ready for initiation? For that is my mystery. Those who are called to work with me are those who consciously step into the darkness to explore the inner mysteries. This is not a letting go like yew, but rather a deepening. My darkness is not one that needs to be healed and transcended, but one that calls to be embraced.

I call you to yourself. I call you to the otherworld. I cal you to the quest for understanding.

I am the tree that protects those that choose to put themselves in service to these mysteries. This is my gift to you. I will not make the path easier, but I promise you my medicine. In going deep, you are forced to let go of your defenses. And so I offer you mine instead.

Take my hand. I will help you step forward and honour your calling.

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The first step: gathering resources

Nobody should try to enter the deeper forest unprepared. Before you go, take time to gather ingredients and tools for the quest.

You may already have done that, and reached this point after years of preparation. Or it may be that you were only called to this quest a short time ago, and had little time to prepare. And even if you took a long time getting here, it may not be clear to you whether you managed to gather the right things.

So, let us start there now.

Ritual of gathering

  • Open ritual space (in your own way, or by using the suggestions given in the introductory section of this book)
  • Visualize yourself walking through the forest. The sun is shining, it is a beautiful late-summer day. However, you are very much aware that the first signs of autumn will be around soon, and you need to be prepared when that time comes. So, you call out for guidance.
  • As you look out in front of you, you notice how a particular pathway suddenly looks very appealing. Walk in that direction.
  • Follow the narrow trail. A very non-assuming tree on your left-hand side catches your attention. You notice a little old lady standing right next to you. She introduces herself to you as elder-woman.
  • She asks who you are, and what brings you to this place. So, you explain: what does the coming (metaphorical) winter mean to you? How have you prepared so far, and in what ways do you feel underprepared? What scares you?
  • She points to the berries on the elder-tree, explains their purpose to you, and invites you  to pick some. She adds a warning that, while a potion made from these berries will protect you against some of the hardships of winter, you should not eat them raw.
  • She offers you her help in brewing that potion. She gives you a list of further ingredients for you to gather, and asks you to return when you have found them.
  • You thank her, gather some of the berries, then walk back home, promising to return when ready.
  • finish the ritual in you usual way.

In the days that follow, take time to think more about the instructions you received. Do you understand the meaning of the extra ingredients you have been told to gather? Do some further meditation/questing on this if necessary.

These may be practical acts to perform, like talking to certain people, going places, learning about specific things. Let your intuition guide you. Be aware that the purpose behind an action may only become clear to you after you have performed it.

Another thing to keep in mind is the need for self-care.  Especially when a situation is difficult, it is important that you take good care of your own mental and physical health. There is no point in seeking healing while neglecting the needs of your body at the same time. Think about this, and how this also is a necessary ingredient for a potion intended to help you survive through difficult times. In what ways are you currently ignoring your own needs, and what could be added to the potion to help with that?