This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: September, 2014


In my Active Imagination post on 18 August this year, I wrote about an image of a wild park, a tree, deep twilight, the moon, a river, a gorge, and a bridge, a city of lights, a messenger and a message. I owned every feature of the image as part of myself.

I’ve had another one, loosely connected to the first and also numinous for me, and compelling. I’m in a walled garden, now within the city of lights. It’s as if I’ve got the message and crossed the bridge. So there’s an element of journeying in the process after all, hidden behind the images themselves.

The city is surprisingly spacious and offers a sweet slowness as well. It could also be described as a little run down and depopulated. But an easy place to be, not a stressful one. The specific place in which I find myself seems familiar, though subtly changed.  I am in Sophia’s Garden, with its unmistakeable fountain in the centre surrounded by red and white rose beds. And there are fruit trees – apple, pear and plum – trained around the walls. In memory it is a noon time place where bright sunlight shines on the scene and strikes the dazzling water of the fountain.

Now it is late afternoon and the sunlight is muted.  The water from the fountain cascades from its bubbling centre, and individual drops – each the whole of H20 – fly out for their moment in the sun before falling into a pool below. The fountain seems eternal. Its water seems eternal. The roses seem eternal. The rest of the garden is in an advanced autumnal stage – certainly beyond Michaelmas. At best, a limited time (overtime?) left for harvesting. The Goddess is dispersed in everything, as everything. I as observer am very much involved. In this realm I am her eyes and must stand as her wisdom too. There is no one else to do it.  For there is a sense in which, like Neo in The Matrix, we are each the One in our own Universe.


51bkGc06cCL__AA160_An important, multi-layered, deeply rewarding book. Especially useful for Druids and Pagans with any concern for death and dying, bereavement and grief, or what, if anything, lies beyond our 3D existence.  Also of potential interest to people with similar concerns in other spiritual traditions or none. Highly recommended.

Kristoffer Hughes says of himself: “In my spiritual life I have developed into a priest of the dead, a walker between the worlds, a psychopomp.” He is a priest of the Celtic Druid tradition who leads the Anglesey Druid Order. He is also an autopsy technologist working for the UK Crown Coroner’s Service. ‘The Journey into Spirit’, draws on both of these roles. It also draws on other, more closely personal experiences. These include the loss of near kin and friends, shared in a moving, loving way. They include the author’s ‘clairsentience’, a psychic gift that enables a felt sense of presence, or spirit, in relation to those who have died. All of these aspects together make for an unusual richness of narrative and subtlety of approach. The inclusion of ‘contemplations’ – reflective exercises – invites us to extend our own lived understandings. Hughes’ own conclusion is that “through death I have learned the meaning of life, and I am comforted by my understanding and experience of the hereafter”.

The book is divided into four parts, the first three based on the system of three circles of existence outlined in the ‘Barddas of Iolo Morganwg’. The first circle is Abred (AH-bred), the realm of necessity, the physical world of 3D reality. The second is Gwynvyd (goo-IN-vid), the realm of spirit, a psychic/subtle realm usually not perceived yet interwoven with Abred. The third is Ceugant (KAY-gant), the realm of infinity, a source or causal realm.

In the section on Abred, the author quotes the triad: “the three principal calamities of Abred: necessity, forgetfulness, death”. This is where we learn to be human, surrounded by life, subjected to death, governed by the cycle of birth, life and death. The author explores ‘apoptosis’ (the dropping off of petals or leaves) and the need for organic life to die to make room for new growth. Yet a divine spark continues to live in everything. The whole section explores life and the consciousness of death, including fear of it, and our questions about what if anything comes after, drawing on a wealth of knowledge, experience and anecdote.

The section on Gwynvyd looks at the grief process – including a wonderful section on the ‘seasons of grief’, more fluid than familiar ideas about ‘stages’ of grief, let alone medicalized views of grief that now want to treat it as depression after the first 14 days. Part of this is coming to terms with the reality and finality of death. Yet the section also identifies what survives. For the author, the personality dies with the body, yet a substrate of witness consciousness, understood as unchanging, continues in some sense as the stuff of spirit. The forgetfulness of Abred, held in the flow of experience, leads us to forget this substrate. Yet it is eternally there: never born, it cannot die. “What remains constant is the spirit, and upon it is the imprint of the human that lived and breathed here in this world”. This is where a felt sense of connection, if the feelings are strong and the senses attuned, is possible. Gwynvyd is also described as the realm of gods, archetypes, and any beings including discarnate humans who have a role in mediating between Gwynvyd.

Ceugant is the place, or state, of origin. “It is from Ceugant that existence originates and it is to Ceugant that the Universe sings”. Yet it is no-thing, like Ain Sof in the Kabbalah. The author says that this realm, or core reality, can be intuited through visions and meditations, but that no attempt to describe or point to it can be more than an indication. Hughes’ most suggestive metaphor is of a return to a primal sea of potential. In terms of English etymology, he links this to the word ‘soul’, originally a sea-referenced word – and it is universal soul, rather than any personal soul, that he has in mind. He does strongly hold the view that Ceugant represents an ultimate belonging for us all, and so is not something to be achieved through long arduous tasks and learning. It is just there, twice removed from us in our present state.

The final section offers a set of rituals and practices – including a vigil for the dying; preparation of the body; funeral for a Druid; saying goodbye, and a treatment of Samhain as a three day festival of the dead with appropriate practices for each day. Like the rest of the book, these are creative suggestions, based on experience and insight, which we are invited to look at and take on board to whatever extent is right for us.  A welcome text on a sensitive topic.


‘Spirits of Annwn fly over reaped fields’ is a seasonal poem from Lorna Smithers’ From Peneverdant blog. I find its imagery resonant at this time, as we begin the move into the dark of the year.

From Peneverdant

Spurned birds circle
fields weeping
for all that is good
in the world

dry harvest
all the legions of the dead
strewn fallen scattered
let them seed
this world in the arms of their loved ones

the circles begin again
hearts cut in twain

by the reapers’ blades
hear them come
softly sweeping bare-footed
with the silence of a love song

pile straw into carts

the hallowed dead
ascending in a cloud of wings

spirits of Annwn fly over reaped fields

then down and under
circling circling

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Up until recently I’ve practised Druidry as a ‘spiritual path’ rather than religion, and I’ve not strongly identified as Pagan. On launching my contemplative inquiry at the end of 2011, I assumed that this stance would be reinforced through the adoption of practices more widely associated with other spiritual families.

Now I’m taking stock. I begin to see my contemplative work as a Pagan religious practice. Three developments in the past year have made a difference. One is the consolidation of the Gloucestershire contemplative group within a regular and more committed meeting cycle. The second is the work of gathering contributions for the ‘Contemplative Druidry’ book due to appear later this year, which I will talk about in later posts. The third is my personal contemplative practice, my main focus in this one. Overall I’m finding a specific Pagan Druid note and seeing it mirrored in others.

Practices change their meaning according to the tradition in which they are located. Meaning-making is as much cultural as personal, though cultures – and particularly sub-cultures – are also influenced by persons.  When a group of contemplative Christians adopted a version of vipassana (insight or mindfulness) meditation from Theravadin Buddhism in the 1970’s, they looked deeply into their own tradition and called the practice ‘centering prayer’.  This was not just a re-branding, but a re-framing. Christian contemplative prayer is a “blind intent stretching to God” according to the English 14th Century ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ (1), a favourite text of centering prayer practitioners. It is a devotional theism, a focused synthesis of love and will. By contrast the Insight Meditation Society, from whom Father Thomas Keating got the practice, talks about “fundamental techniques for sharpening your awareness and releasing painful mental habits” (2), and thereby loosening the hold of pervasive underlying unease (dukka).

The procedure is much the same for both traditions– silent sitting whilst the restless surface mind is asked to attend to the breath and so undergoes an attentional training. But the larger aims are not the same. Christian contemplatives indeed sharpen awareness and release painful habits on the way to more directly encountering the Divine: they call it divine therapy. Buddhist meditators may enter the state of ‘bodhicitta’, the awakened heart – a space that becomes available when enough of this work has been done. Yet at a more fundamental level one tradition holds Deity as central and the other is not concerned with it. Theravadins are strict about this. They do not share the view of ‘Buddha nature’ or ‘original face’ found in Mahayana and Tantric traditions.

So what about me working specifically as a Druid, and not just someone with a background in Druidry who also meditates?  I prefer to talk of meditation rather than prayer, though I like the sense of dedicating the meditation (and myself) as an offering. In my Pagan Druid universe, where logos and mythos work together, the offering is to the Goddess, as the generativity, energy and consciousness of the cosmos.

I like ‘centering’ as an idea – establishing a centre, drawing myself into the still point, almost a vanishing point, at the centre, and radiating out again into 3D reality, bringing some of the stillness with me. For me the still point at the centre is within the heart, making a link to heart awakening (bodhicitta) and heart wisdom, a term used by some champions of centering prayer (3). The heart sits between the belly and sexual/sacral centres below, and the head, the place of reflexivity and self-awareness, above. Heart wisdom draws both into itself, validating and balancing them. For it is a wisdom of organic life in nature, as lived by a human – the life of extended sensory perception and reflective consciousness, always responsively in relationship of some kind, both without and within. In doing this, drawing energy and attention to the centre, heart wisdom contradicts archaic transcendentalist notions of a stairway to heaven.

I think that’s enough to give my practice a distinctive Pagan Druid note, though it’s still a work in progress. I share the work of attentional training, sharpening awareness and releasing painful habits that gets done, within the process, whoever does it. But it’s in the context of a specific and developing view, or meta-narrative.

That being the case, why not call it part of a religion? The core meaning of religion, like yoga, is about being tied or yoked to a discipline: connection to theistic beliefs is secondary. Religion has a tougher and more intentional ring than ‘spirituality’, and now sounds appropriate to me.  So I now call my contemplative practices – solo meditation included – both religious and Pagan. I will continue to learn from any source I value. But my personal inquiry is focused on deepening within my chosen path – deepening in experience and deepening in understanding.

1: Anonymous (late 14th century) A book of contemplation which is called the Cloud of Unknowing, in the which a soul is oned with God. (Edited from the British Museum MS. Harl. 674 with an introduction by Evelyn Underhill) London: John M. Watkins, 1924

2: Salzberg, Sharon & Goldstein, Joseph (1996) Insight Meditation: an in-depth correspondence course Boulder, CO: Sounds True

3: Bourgeault, Cynthia (2011) The Wisdom Jesus: transforming heart and mind – a new perspective on Christ and his message Boston & London: Shambhala


jhp52d894a224871Highly recommended. ‘Trees of the Goddess’ is the latest in a series of books written by Elen Sentier for Shaman Pathways. It is both deeply traditional and highly innovative – very much this author’s note. It goes with her championship of the way of the awenyddion, standing for the ever-renewing indigenous seership of Britain.

The innovation is simple yet profound. This book directly concerns our relationship with the trees, rather than letters or divination. That relationship, like everything on the planet, has a context of cycles and seasons. Our life-world, and that of the trees, is defined by the dance of earth, moon and sun. We have this in common with our ancestors, attested by their lore and stories, and it establishes our continuity with them. The book is a reflective celebration of these simple truths and their archetypal resonance. The framework of the ogham tree alphabet provides a strong and focused conceptual foundation, in service to direct experience. The suggested activities at the end – in sections on ways to work with the trees, moon bath, allies, making your ogham staves and spirit keeping, are an invitation to experiential exploration.

The book is traditional in its use of the ogham tree alphabet and largely faithful to Robert Graves’ ‘The White Goddess’. The author endorses his linking of 13 of the trees to Ogham consonants as they move through the 13 months of the lunar year from the winter solstice; and the linking of the 5 Ogham vowels to 5 stations of the solar year (the solstices, equinoxes and Samhain). She largely follows Graves’ trees, in his order, though there are some exceptions – the vine is banished, leaving bramble to take the full weight of Muinn; and there are some changes of terminology, like guelder rose instead of ‘dwarf elder’. I realise that many people today are highly sceptical of Graves’ work, but its problems are for me not relevant to this book. For ‘Trees of the Goddess’ is not much concerned with the history of ogham, its specific cultural origin, or its use as an alphabet. It is about here-and-now relationship with the trees, honouring the Goddess and aware that our ancestors had some such relationship too.


Druidry has its own view of the magical, redemptive child or youth: the Mabon. Here is my transcription (and I apologise for any inaccuracies) of Mabon, a song recorded by Silver in the Tree as part of their Eye of the Aeon album in 1991 and re-recorded on Dreaming the God in 2007.

I am the Mabon I am the child
I am YR the golden bough
I am the dart the yew lets fly
Three pure rays the pillars of light
I am the Wren the King of Birds
I am Bard and teller of lies
I am a song within the heart
I am a light that will never die
I am stars within the void
I am the Eye of the Aeon

In Celtic times the reference is always to Mabon, son of Modron (Youth, son of Mother), “the primal child who was in existence at the beginning of things” (1). The story of How Culhwch won Olwen (2) includes a section where a search is mounted to find and rescue the lost and imprisoned Mabon. Roman Britain and Gaul record devotion to a youthful male deity called Apollo Maponus, very well described by Lorna Smithers in a From Peneverdant post on 26 December 2012

In the medieval poem Primary Chief Bard – attributed to Taliesin – Christ is referred to as the “merciful Mabon” and the “Maiden’s Mabon” (3) The Taliesin of the Hanes Taliesin (3) is himself a Mabon figure. The area around Loch Maben in Dumfriesshire is tied to stories of Lailoken, the Scottish Merlin (see also and his interaction with St. Kentigern (aka St. Mungo) at the time of Christian conversion (4).  When I visited the Loch at Lochmaben some years ago, the water’s edge, in morning mist, had some of the numinous feel of Llyn Tegid at Bala, though the Scottish loch is much smaller.

Modern Druidry gained momentum as a spiritual tradition at the beginning of the 20th century, a time when, more widely, a ‘Celtic twilight’ current met that of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (think of W. B. Yeats). Hence in some iterations of modern Druidry, the Mabon can be understood as a Celtic Hermes, birthed within the practitioner as the fruit of inner alchemical work. It may also be that the “Eye of the Aeon” reference at the end of the Mabon song nods in the direction of Aleister Crowley’s view of our ‘new age’ as being the Aeon of Horus (5). The eye of the Aeon is also the ‘I’ of the Aeon, the you and me of the Aeon, because that’s how this age is understood to work. It’s about transformation of consciousness, and if we want to use such a term, divinisation, within the individual – Jung’s journey of individuation, from self to Self.

The Mabon is a primary archetypal image within Druidry, and we can relate to this image – resonance, presence – in many ways. For me, Mabon, the song has power. Ten brief lines, each one a portal in itself. Silver on the Tree can be found at

1: Matthews, Caitlin & John The western way: a practical guide to the western mystery tradition (volume 1: the native tradition) (1985) London: Arkana

2: Davies, Sioned The Mabinogion (2007) Oxford: The University Press

3: Matthews, John Shamanism and the bardic mysteries in Britain and Ireland (1991) London: the Aquarian Press


5: DuQuette, Lon Milo (2003) Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth tarot San Francisco, CA: Red Wheel/Weiser


Here are some Taoist thoughts about the way of the ‘spiritual dragon’, which seems like a good Druid topic. They come from Awakening to the Tao, by Liu I-Ming, a set of ‘contemplations’ translated by Thomas Cleary (1). Liu I-Ming was a Taoist adept and a scholar of Buddhism and Confucianism. Born around 1737 he started writing on Taoism in the 1790’s and continued until around 1826.

“A dragon, as spiritual luminosity, can be large or small, can rise or descend, can disappear or appear, can penetrate rocks and mountains, can leap in the clouds and travel with the rain. How can it do all this? It is done by the activity of the spirit.

“What I realize as I observe this is the Tao of inconceivable spiritual transmutation. The reason humans can be humans is because of the spirit. As long as the spirit is there, they live. When the spirit leaves, they die.

“The spirit penetrates heaven and earth, knows the past and present, enters into every subtlety, exists in every place. It enters water without drowning, enters fire without burning, penetrates metal and rock without hindrance. It is so large that it fills the universe, so small that it fits into a hairtip. It is imperceptible, ungraspable, inexplicable, indescribable.

“One who can use the spirit skilfully changes in accordance with time, and therefore can share the qualities of heaven and earth, share the light of sun and moon, share the order of the four seasons, command nature in the primordial state, and serve nature in the temporal state. This is like the transformations of a spiritual dragon, which cannot be seen in the traces of form.”

In this piece a dragon is equated with “spiritual luminosity”, which elsewhere in Liu I-Ming’s work is linked to the experience of ‘Tao mind’, mind in accord with original nature. In this understanding, the individual human mind is the very vehicle that blossoms into Tao mind. Human mind, uncultivated, is a state of understandably confused and distracted latency. It is not, in this presentation, the dubious Old Adam of ‘ego’ we find in the semi-Christian New Age. The promise of cultivation is that, “great though the universe may be, it is as though in the palm of your hand; many though the myriad transformations may be, they are not outside the body” (2). This I think is what is meant by the capacity to “command nature in the primordial state, and serve nature in the temporal state”. It is not the statement of an arrogant or dissociated magician. It is more that the essence of nature is deeply within. So in Tao mind the practitioner stands and acts as that essence.

I like Liu I-Ming’s use of dragon imagery in this context. From my very human point of view, the vision of the sage (or Druid) with spiritual dragon as deeper identity works for the boy inside me as well as holding a complex and elusive teaching.

1: Liu I-Ming (1988) Awakening the Tao Boston & London: Shambhala (Translated by Thomas Cleary)

2: Cleary, Thomas (ed.) (1991) Vitality, energy, spirit: a Taoist sourcebook Boston & London: Shambhala (Shambhala Dragon edition)


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