Emma Restall Orr learns from her forebears, the Druids of ancient Britain.

”Open yet critical” – Learning on a spiritual path

Three voices. A Buddhist, a neo-pagan Druid and a Transcendental Meditation teacher share their learning philosophies.


In times past, the place and culture you were born into largely determined your religion – and opting out of religion altogether was rarely an option.

In today’s global culture, the religious teachings and ideologies of much of human written history are all available for the seeking mind.

Paavo Hirn from Helsinki, Finland is a practicing Shambhala Buddhist. Emma Restall Orr, from Warwickshire, UK, draws on the pagan Druidist traditions of her forebears. Alena Citterbergova, from the Czech capital Prague practices and teaches Transcendental Meditation, a technique with roots in the Indian Vedic tradition.

For all three of them, their spiritual path has also been a learning path.

Paavo Hirn: Shambhala Buddhism

I practice Shambhala Buddhism, which is a lineage of Buddhism coming to the West through Tibet. Buddhism is fundamentally pragmatic and non-dogmatic. Shambhala Buddhism emphasizes a vision of good society and culture based on this understanding. My understanding of Buddhism comes mainly from my meditation practice and education in this tradition.

The core message of Buddhism cannot be comprehended purely theoretically. It is necessary to open our mind through the practice of meditation as well as practicing compassion and wisdom in our daily living to fully realize that our existence is basically good. This realization frees us to live in this world in a wholesome and beneficial way with courage, wisdom and kindness.

My learning philosophy: open yet critical

I try my best to stay open yet critical. I think this is based on both my scientific and Buddhist education as well as my temperament. I’ve learned almost all that I’ve learned through genuine interest in how our world works. I naturally tend to integrate everything that I’ve learned.

We often try to secure our ground and this seems to show in dogmatic thinking. I find it unfortunate when reasoning is used out of fear to solidify our own point of view, whether it is a scientific paradigm or a religious dogma. I think that truly critical thinking has to acknowledge that whatever we think we know is at best a temporary approximation of reality. This view is related to the Buddhist view of emptiness which has to do with the fluid and open nature of reality that is fundamentally beyond concepts.

Reality as relative and absolute

Does this kind of mindset contradict with a scientifc worldview, then? In Buddhist tradition, two approaches to reality are important: reality as relative and reality as absolute. On the relative level we can use all manners of skillful approaches such as scientific inquiry to understand reality in a way that is practical in an everyday context. The absolute view can be approached intellectually or mystically, but it is beyond concepts. The culmination of the relative is compassion. The culmination of absolute is wisdom. Together they open as unconditional compassion and complete freedom of mind. My understanding and experience here is utterly elementary. However for me this is a reminder to not get fixated on favorite scientific hypotheses or theories at the cost of what is important in life, being human in this world.

Buddhist learning: pragmatic and subtle

Learning in Buddhism is based on combining meditation practice and theoretical education. Emphasis on meditation practice and oral transmission is typical of my tradition. A teacher relates much more than just words to their student. The environment and atmosphere of the teaching situation is important. This is how a culture of kindness, fearlessness and dignity is created.

The philosophy of learning is first and foremost pragmatic. Practice gives experiential knowledge, which transforms us. There is a multitude of meditation techniques but the core is training in stability and clarity of mind, which is then used to look deeply at our mind and phenomena.

Buddhism is non-exclusive

I’ve studied and practiced Buddhism for a little over a decade so I’m very much a beginner still. I’m a huge fan of books so love to read them as e-books as well as traditional ones. Sometimes I read a chapter or a paragraph and contemplate on it like taking a bath in it. Sometimes I like to read a book from front to back to have a good overview. Other times I thrill in studying one topic as written by several authors. The most rewarding however is when I suddenly recognize understanding something on a deeper level based on both the intellectual and the meditative training. I’ve always found joy in understanding the workings of this world and the human mind is perhaps the most intriguing subject of all.

The Shambhala training path is definitely open to everyone. The mind training techniques and teachings can deepen anyone’s appreciation for our humanity and our world without having to become a Buddhist. Hundreds of Shambhala centers and groups around the world offer open house evenings as well as courses like Contentment in Everyday Life and Art of Being Human to the public. This is an opportunity to learn mindfulness and other meditation techniques, connect with others interested in compassionate activity and discuss themes that are deeply meaningful in our lives.

Patience and exertion

The most important thing I have learned from Buddhism is patience and exertion. Applying myself to my education and training continuously without expecting a particular outcome at a particular time. I’m still learning this but I seem to be on the right path as I’m more content and much kinder to myself. Thus I believe that my input in this chaotic world is more constructive and I could help others live a more meaningful and happy life.

Paavo Hirn

  • 35 years old;
  • lives in Helsinki with his wife Kaisa and their two poodles Mörkö and Into;
  • works in public health-care as a physiotherapist;
  • studied philosophy and comparative religion in Helsinki University but switched to physiotherapy;
  • is trained as a meditation instructor in the lineage of Shambhala Buddhism and dreams of one day becoming a teacher in this tradition. Plans to train himself professionally as well but those plans are in motion at the moment.
  • Motto: “Training in wisdom and compassion is a bumpy road that takes a lifetime to travel, but the journey is a good one.”

Photo: Paavo Hirn’s archive.


Emma Restall Orr: Druidry


Druidry could be described in quite different ways by different Druids or historians. For myself, it is simply the religion of Britain before the Roman cultural and political invasions, going back perhaps thousands of years. Whether the priests of our tribal ancestors called themselves Druids 5000 or 8000 years ago doesn’t matter: language evolves, as does religious practice. But the fundamental tenets were those of an polytheistic animism, with a priesthood who held the knowledge of the tribe.

For me still, Druidry is a nature-based religion with a polytheistic animistic perspective, and a crucial emphasis on learning. We learn about nature – not just the world around us but also our own human nature – and in doing so learn how to live with respect and grace, in harmony with our environment, causing least unnecessary harm.

My own religious practice has changed its focus, in that I would now call it animistic mysticism. I have a strong focus on metaphysics and communion with the essential divinity within nature. Such practices tend to lead us away from community and towards solitary exploration, silence and stillness.

Holistic learning

For me learning cannot be done in isolation. You can’t learn the history of a place and period by just studying the battles of rulers – you need to know about the landscape, farming, language, literature, geography, riverways, music and so on.

Every subject needs as much of its context as can be found. Ideally, we need to study outdoors as much as indoors – touching, walking, breathing, sniffing, getting involved. Then talking, sharing, debating, then writing, drawing, retelling the tale.

Science is anthropocentric

Druidry guides us to learn everything we can about nature – non-human nature and human nature: geology, hydrology, botany, herbalism, psychology, history, archaeology, astronomy, mythology, and so on and on.

The fundamental scientific method that questions and learns from observation does not contradict the Druidic perspective. However, where the scientist believes that what is observed is objectively true – in other words, where the scientist believes he is able to dissolve the filters of his own human consciousness , and see nature as it is in itself – then, yes, there is a contradiction. In this respect, science is blind to the anthropocentricity of its own standpoint. The animist, believing that the foundation of nature is mindedness, or consciousness, there is a recognition of those filters of consciousness that alter each individual perception.

Further, where the scientist isolates some focus of study from its natural context, and still maintains there is broad value in that study, there is a contradiction with Druidry and animism, for the latter’s belief in the integrity of the whole is not present.  For myself, then, I am careful not to generalise about any study, scientific or otherwise, but to consider the basis of that study, and the ‘truths’ declared from what has been learned.

There is no philosophy of how to learn within Druidry, but there is certainly powerful motivation, for everything we learn is learning about the sacred, the divine, nature. Again, it is the integrated approach that is important, and is fundamental to a nature-based tradition, which perceives circles not straight lines!

Apprenticeship opened the learning path

My own studying was a mixture of reading, courses by correspondence and group work, but the most valuable was apprenticeship. It is only this way of teaching that allows us to get deep into ourselves and integrate all we are exploring. The problem is finding a good teacher.

Everyone can learn Druidry. It is open to all peoples, of all ages and nationalities. Its core is very much the wonder and enjoyment of nature, and the desire to learn.

A sustainable, respectful life

The most important thing have learned is the sanctity of nature. If all nature is sacred, how do we live without harming the sacred? Ethics are a very important part of my life and my study. If we are always mindful, we can live without the decadence and excess of consumer culture, without causing unnecessary harm, in a way that is more sustainable and respectful.

Emma Restall Orr

  • 50 years old;
  • lives in rural Warwickshire in the heart of England;
  • manages a natural burial ground and nature reserve;
  • left school at 17 and is almost entirely self-educated.
  • Motto: “Live in such a way that your ancestors would be proud of you.”

Photo: Emma Restall Orr’s archive

Alena Citterbergova: Transcendental Meditation

Transcendental Meditation, or TM, is an educational technique, part of a specific educational system called “Consciousness-Based Education”. This technique involves “transcending”, which means slipping beyond the surface level of thinking and experiencing finer levels of mental activity and finally the source of thought.

It is a scientific, easy and effective procedure for training our brain to function more effectively. It gives deep rest, relaxation and regeneration to mind and body and simultaneously removes tensions and stresses. It is practiced in a sitting position with eyes closed for 20 minutes, every morning and evening. In long term practice TM develops a full mental potential that was hidden deep in the mind.

The process of learning TM takes place through oral tradition, and unfolds in systematic steps in direct personal learning with a teacher. After the TM course the participant is self-sufficient to practice by him or herself at home, or take up follow-up programmes. TM is taught in TM Centers that are part of a worldwide organization “Global Country of World Peace”.

Roots in ancient Vedic texts

TM draws on ancient Indian Vedic tradition. TM was revived from the Vedic Literature by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. TM is not a religion. It is a completely neutral psycho-physiological process. Anyone can practice it regardless of religion, education, abilities, beliefs, nationality, or world view.

In TM’s learning philosophy one must first develop one’s mind and consciousness, and then all learning is easier and more productive. The main motto of Consciousness-Based-Education is: “Knowledge is structured in consciousness and knowledge is different in different states of consciousness”. According to Vedic psychology, revived by Maharishi, human potential consists out of 7 states of consciousness. In the higher states of consciousness, achieved through TM, we develop better functioning of mind and body and their integration.

From learner to teacher

I learnt TM from a certified TM teacher on a week-long course. It felt very easy and yet very systematic. First introduction, then preparation, then personal interview, theoretical steps and then four consecutive days of instructions and practice followed. Since first practice I was surprised how fresh and clear I felt after several minutes of TM. Having medical background and being a researcher I felt thirsty for more knowledge and a scientific explanation of this procedure. There are over 700 scientific studies on the method.

I started to study the method in more detail and my learning still continues. I have taken courses, read literature and studied at the Maharishi University of Management in USA. Later I went to a TM Teacher Training Course, successfully completed it and finally became a TM teacher myself.

Practicing TM has enabled me to get acquainted with the more silent levels of my mind and thinking. I use TM every day not only for relaxation, health and regeneration but it serves me as a lifelong educational tool for continuing learning and improving myself.

Alena Citterbergova

  • 65 years old; lives in Prague, Czech Republic;a teacher by profession; studied at university
    Motto: “To know myself and develop myself fully to be able to live life fully.”

    Photo: Alena Citterbergova’s archive

Did you find this article?
  • Interesting 
  • Useful 
  • Easy to read