On 2 June I enjoyed a simple, senior day. A picture anchors its feeling-tone and will prompt my memory in times to come. On this day, I went nowhere. On this day, I did no inquiring. In this day, I could hardly tell the difference between thinking and looking out of the window.
The day was both ordinary and unique, tied to a cherished space and with its own distinctive features. It was the day before the weather broke, the last of a warm, dry and sunny spell that has blessed us during the lockdown. But the break was clearly coming and that, too, would be welcomed.
More importantly, my day was an extended moment of companionship with my wife Elaine (sometimes in separate spaces, sometimes sharing one). In part we were just there. In part I was time conscious, looking forward to Elaine’s coming birthday, not long after my own – and then our relationship anniversary in the coming June days. As the wheel turns, anticipation flavours the now. Memory flavours the now too, and I want to remember this day, and the value of its simple, senior pleasures.
My world is now in full summer, rich in life and growth, palpably drawn towards the solstice moment. Even in the middle of the woods the solar influence is evident, vivifying both light and shade. The power and clarity of midsummer’s day will be balanced by the different energy, conceivably more disturbing, of the midsummer night’s dream.
Sometimes it is easy to see the path behind, but not the one ahead. In the first half of this inquiry year I have refined my personal Druid practice and strengthened my contemplative inquiry. Giving more energy to this blog has helped. I am clear that, whilst not mobilised around deity and devotion, I also do not accept current positivistic science as a complete account of lived experience. I incline to a ‘consciousness first’ view of cosmos because it offers the richest contextualisation of the ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’ experience now at the core of my own life. But the map is not the territory, and I have stayed away from adopting this as a doctrine. It feels good to have clarity here, and also to remain appreciatively at ease with other points of view and their protagonists.
My recent awen inquiry has stirred up a range of feelings, thoughts, images and intuitions. I do not see a path ahead very clearly. But I intuit that my future direction may be explicitly age-related, at least to some degree. I had my 71st birthday last week. So now I’m not just 70: I’m ‘in my 70’s’. As a contemplation I am using a passage from James Hillman’s The Force of Character and The Lasting Life (1). As I get to know it better, I will discover what inspiration it offers.
“T. S. Eliot wrote that ‘Old men ought to be explorers’; I take this to mean: follow curiosity, inquire into important ideas, risk transgression. According to the brilliant Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, ‘inquiry’ is our nearest equivalent to the Greek alethia (2), … ‘an endeavour … to place us in contact with the naked reality … concealed behind the robes of falsehood.’ Falsehood often wears the robes of commonly accepted truths, the common unconsciousness we share with one another … we must become involved wholeheartedly in the events of ageing. This takes both curiosity and courage. By ‘courage’ I mean letting go of old ideas and letting go to odd ideas, shifting the significance of the events we fear.”
(1) James Hillman The Force of Character and the Lasting Life Milson’s Point, AUS: Random House Australia, 1999
(2) As in alethiometer, for readers of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy
‘Not in the entire living world is there to be found anything so deformed as that which does not have the gift of soul.’ Marsilio Ficino The Planets
“Soul is an elusive word. For many, soul has an invisible but finite essence, made of some spiritual substance, that keeps the body together and functioning in life and flies off to another dimension at death. In relation to the body, it is like a genie in a bottle …
“The soul that Ficino places at the center of his professional and personal life is not this creature of folk religion. For him soul is a quality of existence, and the human soul is precisely that which makes one a human. Soul is a quality rather than a quantity. For that reason it a better to speak of soul rather than a soul. …
” … Having soul, we feel a reverberation carrying through and beneath the surface of everyday experience. With soul, events are not merely two-dimensional; they carry an invisible but clearly felt dimension of depth. These resonances do not appear as meaning and explanation, nor even as understanding – that would be height, the work of intellect. Soul cannot be fabricated by evaluating experience, trying to figure it out, or through intense introspection. The significance of soul is clearly downward, away from the head, closer to the stomach where the outside world is absorbed, internalised and broken down …
” … In Greek mythology the natural world accessible to our senses is mirrored by an underworld where there is no flesh or bone but only phantasms or immaterial images. Here again are labyrinthine passages leading to numerous chambers where strange happenings reflect the world above … Soul, then, involves a dying to the natural world and indeed imagination is not unlike digestive transformation, To live with soul requires a willingness to descend into the depths of events, to let their literalness and our own literal reactions die in favour of another perspective, to see the world as if from below. Like Orpheus, we can sing of our exploits, having become acquainted with the underworld through a descent.” (1)
In my last post (2) I discussed a recognition in modern Druidry of three dimensions of experience: physical, psychic and causal. I said that my awen work was nudging me to strengthen the psychic level, the level of soul. The word soul itself appears in a variant form of the triad using the terms body (or matter), soul and spirit. In order to embrace this language again, I am reframing these terms as traditionally understood. On psyche, or soul, I find Thomas Moore’s interpretation of Marsilio Ficino’s (3) work very helpful for this purpose. My only reservation is that although he attributes ‘soul’ to books, art and music, he has little to say – at least here – about non-human beings or the land itself.
(1) Thomas Moore The Planets Within: The Astrological Psychology of Marsilio Ficino Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1990
(3) Marsilio Ficino lived in the fiftenth century Florence, the Florence of the Medici’s. He is remembered as one of the great minds of the Italian Renaissance, and Cosimo Medici supported him in the creation of the Florentine Academy. The Academy revived the perspectives of the last generations of Pagan philosophers in the Roman Empire. Ficino was grounded in the work of Plato and the Neo-Platonism of the later Roman period. He also translated the key texts of Hellenistic-Egyptian Hermetics. Ficino is a cultural ancestor for both humanist scholarship and esoteric spirituality.
Everyone benefits from healthy spaces. Such spaces may be physical, social or spiritual. They can be all three at the same time. I am glad that here in England park benches, given adequate physical distancing between people, are no longer out of bounds.
Where I live, the early weeks of the late-arriving Covid-19 lockdown seemed to create a fragile nemeton, a collective healthy space in which to take stock amidst empty roads, reduced noise, fresher air and a more reflective existence, all set in a beautiful spring. The circumstances meant that this could not apply to everyone, as those of us enjoying these conditions well knew. But there seemed to be a moment where this sense of an altered space was sufficiently present for a critical mass of people. It was a sacred space, a good space for the blossoming of generosity and compassion. Clapping for health and other key workers has been its brief weekly ritual. An atmosphere of community solidarity in the face of crisis and suffering was tentatively enabled.
The purity of the nemeton period did not last long. Aspects of it have been eroding for a while. But I notice that my personal Druid practice has been subtly influenced it, in a good way, at a time when I have also been considering my own vulnerability and mortality and that of loved ones. I seem to have made a hard-to-describe gain in depth and resiliency.
Although my ‘wheel of the year’ focus for the year from 21 December 2019 is proving very different from my original expectations, I have received an unlooked-for gift. I sense that I am not alone in this, and my hope is that positive influences from the lockdown experience will seed inspirational developments, personal and collective, over time. The human and social costs of the virus continue to be very high due both to the illness and its political mismanagement. Let them at least be honoured through commitments to fostering healthier and more creative ways of being in the future.
“Once you recognize the bright sun of awakened awareness, practising mindfulness can seem like shining a flashlight at midday in the hopes that it will make things brighter.” (1)
This post is about modern non-dual traditions and what I have learned from them in recent years. They have inspired me to practice a Druidry that recognises a ‘beyond mindfulness’ dimension of experience, in Western Mysteries tradition sometimes referred to as ‘causal’.
Stephan Bodian is a former Zen monk who went on to become a psychotherapist, mindfulness teacher, and a teacher in the Direct Path tradition founded by Shri Atmananda Krishna Menon. He says: “the act of being mindful is a portal to a deeper, enduring awareness that can’t be manufactured or practised. This deeper awareness is already functioning, whether we know it or not. Indeed, it is our natural state of spontaneous presence, without which there would be no experience at all. Instead of cultivating it like a talent or strengthening it like a muscle, we just need to recognize it and return to it”.
In my own inquiry, my ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’ came out working with resources developed by Direct Path teachers. I am now integrating this realisation into my Druid practice, supported by the modern tradition’s naming of a causal dimension in experience, akin to “our natural state of spontaneous presence”. It underlies both the physical and psychic levels. It is our original nature. It does not obscure or invalidate the stress and turbulence we find in the physical and psychic realms. It is not even a domain of peace, happiness, and love when understood as desired personal states. But it can act as an internal place of safety in difficult times.
In my awen work I am looking at pathways between the three dimensions, and what can be brought from the causal and psychic dimensions into the physical for both personal and collective wellbeing. For much of my contemplative inquiry I have looked at the link between the causal and physical dimensions of experience (the latter including world, body, feelings, thoughts and everyday self-sense) whilst relatively neglecting the psychic realm. I am changing and re-balancing this now, so as better to walk between these worlds.
(1) Stephan Bodian Beyond Mindfulness: The Direct Approach to Peace, Happiness, and Love Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2017
The image above is from The Dreampower Tarot (1) by R. J. Stewart and Stuart Littlejohn. It is called the Sleeper, and concerns dreams and unrealised potential. The pack as a whole is underpinned by R. J. Stewart’s view that “the surface world is reflected out of the Underworld, not vice versa”. Its imagery is drawn from “the mysterious inner and Underworld story of life before surfacing or outer birth”. An inverted tree stands at the back of every card, indicating a path of interiority and descent.
Over the years I have been deeply impacted by R. J. Stewart’s work, and I think of awen as an Underworld gift. Although I am not using the Dreampower pathway directly, I share its sense of a staged descent from physical (stone) to psychic (pearl) to causal (whirlpool) dimensions. The whirlpool is a field of stars at the deepest interior level, as physical and psychic reality dissolve into creative void, and the whole cycle is repeated.
In my last post https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/05/17/touching-awen/ I described a dream, which moved through three locations. Today in my awen mantra meditation, I followed the resonance of the mantra into three discrete images distilled from the dream. Moments rather than narrative vignettes, I find these slightly different in their new constellation.
First, I am in an almost dark tunnel. It is all encompassing but for a very distant light. There is a feeling tone of unease. It is not due to the pervasive wetness. It is due to what I would now language as an intimation of being separate .
This is pre-birth and approach of birthing imagery, womb imagery, perhaps with elements of something like pre-personal memory. In an awen context, it reminds me of the womb imagery in Taliesin – the lake, the cauldron, Ceridwen’s womb, the night-sea journey in the coracle. I am also reminded of Thomas the Rhymer’s journey with the Queen of Elfland:
For forty days and forty nights, he wade through red blude to the knee
And he saw neither sun nor moon but heard the roaring of the sea.” (3)
Second, I am present in the sunlit city, on one of its hills, and looking down. A sense of appreciation, at-homeness and freedom – familiarity and belonging within absolute novelty and strangeness.
I am in a state of simple innocence, which I might call grace. In this otherworldly place, pristine experiencing is normal.
Third, I am on the promenade at the beach, for me the most significant part of the city. I am aware of the sparkling sea, and of looking at the beautiful café nearby, wanting to eat and drink there. But I have got hold of the idea that I am not allowed to. I do not know what the penalty for this imagined transgression would be. My worst fantasies involve permanent entrapment in this space, or complete exile from it, no longer able to walk freely between the worlds.
There is a different feel to this part of the meditation. Thinking arises, with a strong sense of dilemma. Am I or am I not meant to obey this instruction, if there even is one? Is it a test of obedience or initiative, of acceptance or self-determination? This time, I know, it is OK to simply visit the beach, enjoy it, and be safe. I can feel restored just by looking at the cafe and the sea. But if I come here again, and do nothing, I may fade into primal non-being. If I go to the cafe, I am likely to empower hidden or lost potentials – at an unknown cost. I am the Child of Light in my own universe. It is entirely for me to decide.
At this time of writing, I know that I am engaged. I am in the slipstream of awen. Although I have talked of an ‘awen inquiry’, this no longer seems like skilful framing. For there is a surrender here, that asks for my trust and a different language. Finding resonant and empowered language, and knowing when silence works better, are part of this path. All that is asked of me, at this stage, is to consolidate my practice and to continue writing this blog.
(1) R. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Otherworld London & San Francisco: Aquarian Press, 1993
(2) R. J. Stewart The Underworld Initiation: A Journey Towards Psychic Transformation Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1985
This post describes a meditation in the late evening followed by a dream overnight. The two together became a way of touching awen. My intuition tells me that I need this dimension of experience to weather the pandemic and its aftermath.
I have a modern Druid’s understanding of awen at work in the activities of creativity, healing and the cultivation of wisdom. For me this means that each domain is at its best when influenced by the others – creativity, for example, as a form of healing and of wisdom generation. All of them have both a personal and collective dimension. We cannot be effectively creative, healthy and wise in a world turning to Waste and cursed with a Wasteland common sense. Even at its most apparently individualised and withdrawn, awen pushes back against Wasteland culture. Knowing this gives me resources and adds substance to my path.
For the meditation, I lay on my bed star-shaped, with my legs and arms spread out. I began with an awen mantra meditation synchronised with the breath. I let this go as I sank more fully into the meditative state I call ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment. Here, conventional distinctions between world, body and mind soon lose their hold. Words like ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ no longer describe anything. The at-homeness becomes dispersed and dissolved into simple experiencing, freed from any notion of a person having experiences.
What then arose, on this occasion, was a sense of the timeless origin of all possibilities and potentials. Narrating it now, I might talk of the feeling of an infinite space that is no place, where worlds and times are yet to be formed or named. In clock time this was a brief yet compelling experience. I ended the meditation with a strong sense of connection to source, and in the night that followed, I had a dream.
I find myself walking beside a river after sunset. I anxiously think: ‘I am not from around here. I need to be back by dark’. I have to go through a tunnel under a major intersection of modern roads. In this sparsely lit place, I realise that I am walking through water. It is over the top of my boots. They should be inundated, but they are not. My feet are happily dry. As I near the tunnel exit, I get a glimpse of the city ahead.
Then I am in full sunlight, in this city that I know and love, despite its never being in the same place or having the same architecture. This time it is metropolitan and coastal. It has wonderful buildings of varying vintages, intriguingly laid out, and calling me onward. Whenever I think about needing to get somewhere (and I’m not even sure where that somewhere might be, or what reason I would have for going there) new urban vistas appear before me, as if saying ‘Come and look at this … and this … and this’.
Now I am in a beach area – estuarial, rather than facing the open sea, and so a little sheltered. There are numbers of people around – walking or cycling mostly, not many in the water. It is far from overcrowded. As I continue walking, I see shops and cafes perched on a low cliff that seem tastefully designed and lovingly kept. But there is a prohibition on my interacting with anyone in this city, and my money is good for nothing. I settle for the simple enjoyment of this place. It is enough.
I wake up. The dream leaves me with feelings of lightness and wellbeing. I have a sense of touching awen.
Where I live, we are in the last stages of the rising year, the sweet period from Beltane to the Summer Solstice. The sun’s energy is waxing. The days feel abundantly alive and are marked by beauty. It is my favourite time of year, easy to enjoy. It reminds me of my debt to the sun.
Yet this period and its bounty are also fragile and evanescent. They pass soon enough. For me, peonies in a bowl are a perfect representation and celebration of this early summer moment – speaking also to the tender poignancy of impermanence, as the wheel continues to turn.
“There are seven primary materials of the world: the Blue Bard of the Chair has said it.
“The first, earth, from which are every corporeity and hardness, and every firm foundation;
“The second, water, from which are every humour and freshness;
“The third, air, from which are all respiration and motion;
“The fourth, sun, from which are all heat and light;
“The fifth, nwyfre, from which are all feeling, affection, and wantonness;
“The sixth, the Holy Ghost, from Whom are all understanding, reason, awen, and sciences;
“The seventh, God, from Whom are all life, strength, and support, for ever and ever.
“And from these seven primary materials are every existence and animation; and may the whole be under God’s regulation. Amen.” (1)
The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg, by J. Williams Ab Ithel, was published in 1862. It was presented as the lore of traditional Welsh Bardistry going back to Druid times, based on the earlier work of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams – 1747-1826). Iolo had organised the first Gorsedd of Bards for several hundred years at Primrose Hill, London, on 21 June 1792, thereby initiating the modern Welsh Eisteddfod movement. He was a personal friend of Tom Paine and George Washington subscribed to his first volume of poetry. He is said to have influenced William Blake’s poetry and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.
Iolo described himself as a Unitarian Quaker in religion, and a revolutionary Welsh nationalist in politics. In the later 1790’s the Glamorgan magistrates sent the yeomanry (a volunteer cavalry force drawn from the property-owning classes) to break up an open-air Gorsedd led by Iolo in that county. The reason given was that it was being conducted in the Welsh language and allegedly included a toast for Napoleon – then admired by radicals as defender of the French revolution. This is also a time of revolt in Ireland and the birth of Irish republicanism.
Culturally, Iolo was, as well as a poet in his own right, “a first-rate forger of literary Welsh; some have commented that his forgeries were as good or better than the real thing. Furthermore, he wrote much of the Barddas under the influence of laudanum (an opium-based medicine which he took for asthma)” (1). In consequence he has been widely dismissed as an embarrassing fraud. My response is more complicated. There is something poignant for me about ‘forgeries’ that are “as good or better than the real thing”. On the forgery question, I am sad that Iolo could not openly be a catalyst for the creation of new culture inspired by an old one, rather than having to pretend, even to himself, that he was recovering an old one as it had been (in his own mind perhaps through psychic means). As for medicinal laudanum, I wonder why this should be stigmatised in Iolo whilst accepted in his contemporary S. T. Coleridge. It may be is because Coleridge’s work was unambiguously original, and therefore seen differently. The issue of new culture creation in Druidry is a significant one to this day and is well discussed in Philip Carr-Gomm’s preface to Contemplative Druidry (2) where the voices of a number of open culture creators are included.
Going back to The Seven Primary Materials of the World, I feel friendly to this text despite its patriarchal language and its statement of a world view significantly different from my own. In my reading, it suggests a seven-step ladder from matter to the divine, with four material elements that point also to non-material qualities, where the the fourth and highest is not on the Earth. Then there are two subtle elements (though the first finds room for ‘wantonness’) and an ultimate ascent to the divine. It is the kind of evolutionary spiritual scheme that many transcendentalists down the ages have related to. Written at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and edited in mid Victorian times, it seems to me congruent with the outlook of medieval Welsh Bardistry as expressed in The Book of Taliesin (3), and the theology of the ninth century Irish scholar and contemplative mystic John Scotus Eriugena (4). It is a Christian referenced path that is not sin and fear based, and I am sure that many people involved in Druidry and Celtic Spirituality today would be in essential sympathy with it. Made up by Iolo or not, it reads as a clear and simple expression of a universalist and transcendentalist stance within a specific cultural setting. I find nothing fraudulent about it. It is what I would expect from place, time and person.
Indeed, key concepts remain relevant to my own Druid practice. I work with the wheel of the year and with the four classical elements, including fire. I am concerned with the Earth’s relationship to sun and moon. I work with my body and my sense of energy and think of nwyfre as synonymous with prana or chi, now well-known thanks to the popularity of yoga and Chinese energy arts.
At this stage in my personal journey, I am in renewed inquiry with awen. For the Barddas, it is a distinct higher mental faculty, close to the divine source like Coleridge’s primary imagination. In my own work I get a sense of energised and articulated insight. I do not think of awen as a substance in itself, but rather a quality of how we express ourselves when at our most enlivened and ‘on song’. But this inquiry is far from concluded.
Where the Barddas speaks of God, I speak of nature. I think of the web of life, and of our interbeing within it. I also think of the mysteries of quantum events, dimensions that we cannot perceive directly, galaxies flying apart and the possibility of multiple universes. But to me nature’s most extraordinary phenomenon is the gift of aware experiencing, with all the joy and suffering it brings, in the apparent here and now. To this I add the capacity to bear witness to this miracle through words, non-verbal media, silence, celebration and action. Here, I find myself still using most of the key terms from The Seven Primary Materials of the World. In this sense, I am happy to have The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg as part of my spiritual ancestry.
J. Williams Ab Ithel The Barddas of Ilo Morganwyg, Vol I & II: A Collection of Original Documents, Illustrative of Theology, Wisdom, and Usages of the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1862)
James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/Create Space, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)
William F. Skene The Four Ancient Books of Wales Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1868)
“Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions brought a surgeon to treat him, The man would say, ‘I would not pull out the arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; whether the arrow that wounded me was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed’.
“All this would still not be known to that man and in the meanwhile he would die. So too, Maunkyaputta, if anyone should say: ‘I will not lead the noble life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal, finite or infinite; whether the soul is the same as or different from the body; whether an awakened one continues or ceases to exist after death,’ that would still remain undeclared by the Buddha and meanwhile that person would die.” (1)
The Buddhist scholar and teacher Stephen Batchelor, quoting these early words, affirms a Buddha committed to “an existential, therapeutic and liberating agnosticism” concerned “with anguish and the ending of anguish”. He laments the historical tendency of Buddhism to lose this agnostic dimension and to become an institutionalised religion. He believes that “this transformation of Buddhism into a religion obscures and distorts the encounter of the dharma with contemporary agnostic culture. … The dharma in fact might well have more in common with Godless secularism than with the bastions of religion.”
At the same time, the force of the word ‘agnosticism’ has been lost in modern secular culture, becoming complicit with “the attitude that legitimises an indulgent consumerism and and the unreflective conformism dictated by mass media”. T. H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, understood agnosticism as “a method realised through the rigorous application of a single principle”. This was to follow our reason as far as it will take us, and not to pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. It is a principle that runs through western culture from Socrates to the axioms of modern science. Buddha and Huxley both advocate a method rather than a creed, opening the possibility of a conversation between them.
What does this tell me about my own path now? Contemplative inquiry is a method. It is based on phenomenology as a subjective life-world investigation, and mine tells me that fruitful spiritual practices do not depend on the metaphysical views that are often linked to them. I can interpret and value everything that I have done within a naturalistic framework. It is a significant conclusion for my inquiry.
This does not in itself invalidate the metaphysical views. I have simply withdrawn from my personal engagement with them, except to the extent that they are embedded in the authentic experiences and stories of other people, past and present. I can still value and learn from those. I find imaginative engagement with other points of view quite easy. But in my own spiritual understanding, I seem now to be with Huxley and the Buddha.
Contemplative inquiry is a valued method but I would not call it my path. My path is Druidry, and I have been re-establishing this consciously since the Winter Solstice of 2019. The default position of the Druidry I was trained in is a romantic theosophy, though one in active evolution, rich in variation and re-imagining. In my personal journey, I am now clearly in a naturalistic and secular space, animist in a sense (2) that is “‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical.” As a result of my inquiry, my Druid note is different than it was before I began.
I am clearer, lighter, more alive. It feels easier to experience the abundance in simplicity that I value. By letting the mystery be, I can immerse myself more deeply in the textured life of the world. Leaning in to naturalistic world view, I expand my sense of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’, and my Druid path feels stronger.
(1) Stephen Batchelor Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening London: Bloomsbury, 1998 (First published in the USA in 1997 by Riverhead Books)