What is it that feeds our spirits? When we feel the onset of foolishness, myopia, cowardice, miserliness, and wanting to give up, to what (or to whom) do we turn? When things seem darkest, what do we do?
How do we get to a place where we are living the “good life”? When I say “good life” I don’t necessarily mean living a happy, carefree life, or a life void of suffering. I mean the life lived through eudaimonia, the state or condition of “good spirit,” as defined and understood by the ancient pagan philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as the Stoics. I mean a life lived with excellence, with arete, the full realization of one’s potential or inherent function.
So, I ask again: what do we do when things seem darkest?
It’s been my observation throughout my time in ADF that the majority of us turn to our gods, our ancestors, and to the spirits of the natural world around us; in other words, we turn to The Kindreds Three. We seek refuge in the peace that comes with connecting to our known-but-unseen allies, our patrons, and our heroes from long ago. These practices of making offerings, taking omens, and meditating/trance-journeying can help us feel like we can make it through the hard times we face. This is piety. This is our right-relationship with The Kindreds feeding our spirits.
But, piety is only ONE NINTH of the virtues… and therefore, only one ninth of a “complete meal.”
I’m proposing that if we arm ourselves with a deep, complex virtue practice, like a complex yet well-balanced meal, we would be able to face the challenges of life with the full strength of our human potential… a strength that can only be reached through juggling ALL nine virtues, and not simply retreating into the feel-good actions of piety alone.
I say “feel-good” actions because when we over-focus our practice on piety, we only get feedback from those unseen beings of the Cosmos, rather than the physical, sentient beings with whom we also build relationship in our mundane lives. When we focus only on the ethereal truths of the unseen Kindreds, we risk losing perspective on meat-space truth. What I mean to say is that when we over-focus or exclusively focus on the cognitive, nonphysical, action-on-the-otherworldly-only instead of expanding our focus to include the embodied, actionable engagement in the physical world, we do ourselves a huge disservice. It can be easy to buy into, or settle on stories about how the gods want us to do this and the spirits want us to do that, justifying our actions and detaching us from meat-space reality and creating pleasant fantasies with which to “root” our lives.
When we exercise a COMPLETE virtue practice, however, we see that virtue-ing is the very thing that helps us grow stronger in the here and now, more resilient in person-to-person interactions, and ultimately, become better human beings, in service to humanity. Through a strong, complex virtue practice, we feed our souls the healthiest spirit-food possible… and while virtue doesn’t always “taste decadent,” it always nourishes us in ways that the easy “fast-food” options don’t.
But, how do we manage virtue-ing in a world where selfishness, greed, egotism, and pride rule? How do we get out in front of those negative qualities that all human beings have, ourselves included?
I propose that there are a few tips and tricks in training we can apply to increase our virtue engagement, and ultimately, strengthen our coordinated virtue muscles. These three tips and tricks, which I have taught in my ministry through classes, sermons, and workshops, are ways to contemplate and practice with the nine virtues so that our thoughts, actions, and feelings can be in accordance with Cosmos… a healthy, balanced, active virtuous life, complete with struggle and challenge, as well as the tools to overcome those roadblocks.
These contemplative training methods are: the Virtue Matrix, the Virtue Mobile, and the Three Orthos.
The Virtue Matrix
Individual virtues, like wisdom, courage, and fertility, do not exist as singularities. By this, I mean to say that the virtues are not stand-alone merit badges of ethical accomplishment. The virtues, like the whole of the philosophy/theology of Our Druidry, are based in fostering, building, and maintaining relationships.
In the Virtue Matrix model, each virtue informs and is informed by the others. Each virtue contains relationships to all the other virtues. Let’s take a look at an example: Wisdom.
If you’ve been through the Dedicant Program, you’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the nature of each virtue, lay out a personal definition of that virtue, and talk about your understanding of it. This is an excellent way of gaining a base understanding of each virtue, but doesn’t factor in the inherent relationship between one virtue and another. As an aside, this “define each virtue” method doesn’t get us thinking about what virtue is, how and why we practice virtue-ing, as well as what benefits can be ours if we do, and what we suffer from if we don’t… but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Back to the matrix.
Virtue matrix-ing is the practice of focusing on a virtue, wisdom in this example, and looking at it with and through the lenses of the other virtues. Here’s what that looks like when we meditate on the virtues using this practice:
What is Wisdom? What is Wise Piety? How about Wise Courage? Wise Hospitality? How are those different from pious wisdom, courageous wisdom, or hospitable wisdom?
By going through each virtue and its relationship to the other virtues, we gain a deeper understanding of how the virtues are always trying to act in relationship and harmony with one another. Practice this reflection with each virtue, exploring the idiosyncratic differences between, for example, wise courage and courageous wisdom.
Juggling virtues in the matrix model can be a rewarding thought exercise, and can ultimately grant us a richer, more nuanced understanding of each virtue, equipping us to move through the world with virtue as an ally, not as weapons of our sanctimonious ego. Speaking of virtues used as weapons, that offers a perfect segue to…
The Virtue Mobile
Another thought exercise, the Virtue Mobile, is a graphically descriptive way of understanding what happens when we strive for virtue but miss the mark, even though we think we’re hitting it.
So… I’m one of those people who thinks in pictures. A few years back this image came to me while reflecting on the virtues. I should mention that it came to me right after I did some reading on “idiot compassion,” a term coined by Chogyam Trungpa, the retired Buddhist monastic and founder of my alma mater, Naropa University. According to Trungpa, “idiot” compassion happens during those times when we are trying to display compassion but end up letting the person walk all over us. He posits that this most often happens when we are fearful or avoidant of conflict. Additionally, he offers that “idiot” compassion happens when we give for our own benefit, not for the recipient's, because we can't bear to see them suffering. Idiot compassion is avoiding conflict, letting people walk all over us, not giving people a hard time when actually they need to be given a hard time. It’s “being nice,” or “being good.” It’s saccharin sweetness.
This idea got me thinking about other ways we miss the mark when aiming for virtue.
That being said, imagine, if you will, some sort of tall, climbable structure (I like to imagine an obelisk). Atop the structure is, what I’ve come to call, the “apex” virtue: the highest, healthiest, most holistic ideal of that particular virtue. This is the virtue experience we’re all trying to achieve when we strive for virtue.
These three “arms” can be described briefly as the absence of the virtue, the “idiot” expression of the virtue, and the “weaponized” version of the virtue.
I know this all seems terribly abstract, so let’s use everyone's favorite virtue, hospitality, as an example:
We’re presented with the opportunity to be virtuously hospitable, so we start to climb the structure toward the apex virtue. We arrive at the top, but while trying to get our balance and get hold of the apex virtue, we’re fumbling with those three pesky arms. Here’s what it looks like when we take hold of each of the arms:
If we grab hold of the “absence of virtue” arm, we can make excuses and justify to ourselves why we do not need to be hospitable. We justify our miserliness. So, miserliness would be the “absence of” arm for hospitality.
If we grab hold of the “idiot virtue” arm of hospitality, we would give more than would be sustainable (e.g., giving so much that we don’t leave enough for ourselves or our families), OR we provide a level of hospitality that enables the recipient to persist with negative or harmful behaviors.
Finally, if we grab the “weaponized” arm, the most insidious one, we provide what would otherwise be reasonable hospitality, but we “flag” that hospitality so we can come back to it in the future and “use it against” the recipient. For example, you generously offer a ride to a friend who is stranded at the airport, even though it’s late and out of the way. Some time later, you have implicit (or explicit) expectations of that friend who, for whatever reason at this time, cannot help you with whatever you need help with. You “remind” them of the “debt” they owe, throwing the past kindness of hospitality in their face, hoping to guilt or badger them into compliance to get your needs met. Any practice of a virtue with the intention of gaining social status or power by earning a reputation as a “virtuous” person is indicative of sliding down this arm of “weaponized” virtue.
Using this reflection process, we can see how the virtue mobile is a tool designed to avoid or prevent otherwise virtuous actions from being tainted with sanctimonious, justified non-virtue; enabling others or overextending the virtue performed; or, finally, completing the virtue with secret, selfish agendas.
However, I was left with the question of HOW can we train ourselves to hit the apex virtue more than we miss the mark? What tools can we use to maximize our apex virtue experience without the pitfalls of the virtue mobile? The tool I came up with was…
The Three Orthos
In ADF, we privilege orthopraxy; the DOING is more important than the BELIEVING. Much of our orthopraxy-privileged druidic practice suggests that virtu-ing is all about the DO-ING of virtue. Actions = important. Thoughts = not important. Right? WRONG! That’s just too dualistic for me, and it should be for any of us too, dear readers. Begrudgingly handing someone a “cup of welcome” with resentment or ugliness in our hearts IS NOT apex hospitality. Over-focusing on the doing, the right-action, the orthopraxy of it all, leads to hollow, performative virtue, offering no sustaining, nourishing spirit-food for us or for the recipients of said virtue. To prevent this, we must add right-thought and right-heartfulness to the already existing right-action part.
The inherent dualism that arises from the orthopraxy/orthodoxy binary pushes single-answer solutions to life, refusing to accept that there is not only ONE answer to our complex reality. To live full, nourishing lives we need to seek out the more-than-two solution, the complex understanding of what's real which I’ve come to refer to as polyconsciousness. When we step outside the dualistic, we can see that orthopraxy alone doesn't support the ever-growing and expanding polyconscious perspective needed to live virtuously.
The tool of the “Three Orthos” came to me through the lens of a four decade practice of Japanese and Korean martial arts (Black belts in Aikido, Hapkido, HanMuDo, and kyu rank in Shindo Muso Ryu Jojutsu). These practices talk about the unification of mind, body, and spirit. They speak to how deep power comes from the holistic, unified action of all three.
In ADF, we often discuss the dichotomy between orthodoxy (i.e., right belief) and orthopraxy (i.e., right action). But we should remember that it’s not about one over the other. It’s not about an either/or. It’s about a BOTH/AND. We NEED both orthodoxy AND orthopraxy; right-mind AND right-body. And as mentioned above, polyconsciousness is all about finding the more-than-two. Therefore, I humbly offer a THIRD ortho for your consideration: Orthopathy.
- Ortho = right, true, straight
- Praxis = process, practice
- Doxa = opinion
- Pathos = feeling, suffering, emotion
- Orthopraxy = right-practice, right actions, or right do-ing through the vehicle of the body;
- Orthodoxy = right-opinion, right thought, or right thinking through the vehicle of the mind; and
- Orthopathy = right-emotion, right heartfulness, or right sentiment through the vehicle of the heart or spirit.
I teach at Mountain Ancestors Grove that we need ALL THREE orthos to maximize our apex virtue experience, feeding ours and others' souls with the most nutritious, “calorie dense,” soul food possible.
When we are operating with all three orthos, we have the ability to not only maximize the virtue experience, but we are empowered to avoid the pitfalls that come with the virtue mobile.
For an example, let's revisit hospitality.
When we're in tune with all three orthos, hospitality involves knowing what is right to do and why it is right to do it, doing the actions you already know to be right and good, and feeling how a sincere heart can bring the deep, fulfilling joy that comes from being a good guest or a gracious host, both roles open and accepting, as well as generous and thoughtful.
Conclusion and Invitation
The virtues aren’t just a list of do-good things we think about for a hot minute during our dedicant work. These nine (or more) themes permeate, inform, and influence each action we do, as well as each thought and feeling we have. They have the power to unlock our greatest selves, but only when approached mindfully, holistically, and with the goal of attaining the “good life”.
The techniques found in the Virtue Matrix, the Virtue Mobile, and The Three Orthos will help a diligent practitioner transform their life, and thus, transform the word.
If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.
That being said, in case anyone would like to discuss the above ideas and perspectives more, or if there are questions regarding an odd turn of phrase or idea, I invite you to reach out to me at William@MountainAncestors.org. I’d LOVE to hear from you and help y’all navigate the buffet of virtue. It can be overwhelming, intimidating, and scary. There are so many combinations and themes. It helps to have a guide.
As a southerner, I have a particular skill set when it comes to buffets. ;) I can assure you that we’ll get through any questions or challenges together with full soul-bellies and nourished spirits.