This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: November, 2014


For me, this poem by Chia Tao is a contrasting twin to Poems Just Dotted Down in my last blog. On the one hand it is more self-conscious and struggling, and on the other more poignant and touching with the human face revealed. I like to read them together.

For ten li

I’ve been searching for the hidden temple

Up branches

Of the cold stream.

Monks sit Ch’an,

One with the snowy night;

Wild geese, approaching Ts’ao-t’ang,

Fly within hearing.

With lamp flames dying,

Our words are subdued;

The rest of our lives

Should be clouds and high peaks.

Up to now,

I’ve been sick a lot,

And the Enlightened Prince

Does not know my name.

From When I find you again, it will be in mountains: selected poems of Chia Tao (2000) Somerville, MA, USA: Wisdom Publications

Chia Tao (779 – 843) an erstwhile Ch’an monk, became a poet during China’s Tang Dynasty. Ch’an was the Chinese predecessor of Japanese Zen.

English translation by Mike O’ Connor.


In the middle of the night,

I suddenly rise;

Draw water

From the deep well.

White dew

Covers the woods;

Morning stars

Dot the clear sky.

From When I find you again, it will be in mountains: selected poems of Chia Tao (2000) Somerville, MA, USA: Wisdom Publications

Chia Tao (779 – 843) an erstwhile Ch’an monk, became a poet during China’s Tang Dynasty. Ch’an was the Chinese predecessor of Japanese Zen.

English translation by Mike O’Connor.


Thanks to the interest generated by Contemplative Druidry, members of the Gloucestershire contemplative group have set up an entity called Contemplative Druid Events. So far we have a blog at and a forthcoming retreat.

The retreat is being held on the weekend of 17-19 April 2015 at Anybody’s Barn, Birchwood Hall, Storridge, Nr. Malvern, Worcestershire WR13 5EZ.  Details of the retreat can be found on the blog.

I am excited by this prospect. It provides the opportunity to work with a larger group of people and to learn from them. Contemplative Druidry doesn’t come with a long specific tradition or an inherited set of practices and teachings. As modern Druids, we are engaged in an exploratory and co-creative enterprise. Events will extend the experience and understanding of participants and facilitators alike.

At the same time we do have a vision of what we are offering, and a sense of how the retreat will work. We will use the Friday evening to enter sacred space and move into introductions and a culture setting process. I consider the way in which we enter into relationship with the space and each other to be a highly significant part of the event and not just a warm up or preamble. It does much to determine the quality of living presence in the space, as important as any practice or activity. As for practices and activities – there will be sitting meditations and an introduction to what our existing local group calls “Awen Space”. Other offerings may include chanting, sacred movement, outside walking meditation and ‘lectio divina’ from the book of nature. We will likely make use of a fire pit on the Saturday evening.

The retreat also gives us the chance simply to be, alone and with fellow travellers, in a beautiful nurturing space. (After the opening process, every activity is an invitation to the participants, rather than a demand on them.) We will work with a maximum of sixteen people, including ourselves – there are five of us with facilitator roles from the Gloucestershire group. This is not the full capacity of the centre we are using, for we wanted a spacious environment on the physical as well as other levels.

I have a strong belief in this way of working and look forward to sharing it with new people.


Juicy apple, pear and banana,

Gooseberry … They all speak of

Death and life in the mouth … I have a presentiment …

Read it from a child’s expression

If she savours them. It comes from far, from far …

Aren’t you slowly becoming aware of something inexpressible in your mouth?

Where a moment ago there were words, a flowing discovery

Is released, startling, from the fruit’s flesh.

Venture to say what your apple is called.

This sweetness, which originally condensed itself,

Spreading out, slowly in being tasted rose up

To achieve a clarity, awake and of transparency,

Resonant of opposites, sunny, earthy, of the here and now – :

Oh the experience of it, the feeling, the joy -, immense!

From Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, translated by Robert Temple


Philip Carr-Gomm wrote an essay, Deep Peace of the Quiet Earth: the Nature Mysticism of Druidry, as his foreword to Contemplative Druidry (1). Emma Restall Orr talked about her own nature mysticism in a recent radio interview, published on Joanna Vander Hoeven’s Down the Forest Path blog (2). Last year Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist scholar and teacher who leads the ‘Community of Interbeing’ (and is now perhaps near the end of his journey) wrote a deceptively simple-seeming work called Love Letter to the Earth (3), with chapter headings like: We are the Earth, Practices for Falling in Love with the Earth and Ten Love Letters to the Earth.

These prompts have led me to reflect more deeply on how I use Nature language and what, specifically, I mean by it. Thich Nhat Hanh’s starting point (3) is a helpful one: “at this very moment the Earth is above you, below you, all around you, and even inside you. The Earth is everywhere. … The Earth is not just the environment we live in. We are the Earth and we are always carrying her within us. Realizing this, we can see that the Earth is truly alive … we can begin to transform our relationship to the Earth.”  The overall point, familiar enough yet made here with fresh elegance and clarity, is one with which Druids and Buddhists alike can find a ready resonance. But its main effect on me this time round was to get me wondering about the language of Nature.

What do I understand by Nature? For me, the key word is Nature rather than Earth. The Earth is a subset of Nature, larger than you and me who are indeed contained within it, but still a subset. In my understanding, Nature is simply what there is. And ‘what there is’ seems to us, in this culture at this time, to have exploded out of a remarkably fertile emptiness, into the 3D and time-bound reality that our perceptions somewhat mesh with, and of course a great deal more outside our normal range and beyond our range entirely. We humans are wholly natural with all our known and realised potentials – and others too that are but dimly intuited and largely untapped.

We cannot individually encompass the whole of Nature. We must choose, at whatever levels of relative awareness, where to put our efforts and attention. Thich Nhat Hanh is pretty clear about his: he has a strong intent, which involves a mutually sustaining balance of contemplation and action. My key ‘contemplative’ choice, not feeling very accomplished, is to enter more fully into the Heart identity I spoke in my Heart Language post. This seems like a good thing for me, and likely to improve my relationships and connections, particularly with my local world – the Earth and its inhabitants. I could call it extending the human side of human nature, a natural thing for a human to do.

(1) Nichol, James (2014) Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing


(3) Thich Nhat Hanh (2013) Love Letter to the Earth Berkeley, California: Parallax Press


I tend to feel most centred and empowered when using heart language. By ‘heart’ I don’t mean the physical heart, or even the heart chakra, but the mystical Great Heart, a place of ultimate stillness, where the microcosm of the human heart opens to the macrocosm. Some people, for example in the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, think of this as the consciousness that underlies all forms, the divine mind, the Self (1).

There are those, like the Sufi teacher Kabir Edmund Helminski (2) who, for the very best reasons, make a separation between Heart as “the subconscious/superconscious mind and all the faculties that are non-intellectual” and the thinking mind activated by will and reason. For me this creates a separation and dualism. In my world Heart includes the reasoning mind, and continues to hold it at some level, even though the existential angst of the reasoning mind itself may defensively lose connection with the greater whole.

I do however share the view that Heart is accessed through the growth of a sensitive awareness that allows us to be receptive and whole by entering in to a more spacious ‘I’, a more integrated quality of presence. Through a fine balance of passive and active attention we can view the present moment through the eye of eternity, a viewpoint from which many wounds can be healed, many mistakes forgiven, many losses accepted. Whilst Great Heart cannot be grasped or understood through consciousness alone, “we can see with its eyes, hear with its ears, act with its will, forgive with its forgiveness, and love with its love” (2).

1: Sally Kempton (2011) Meditation for the love of it: enjoying your own deepest experience  Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True

2: Kabir Edmund Helminski (1992) Living presence: a Sufi way to mindfulness and the essential self   New York, New York: Penguin Putnam


I generally meditate in a Druid circle sitting in the northern quarter, facing south. It is early morning and my eyes are open, ideally with a soft and panoramic gaze. There is a curtained window in the south east, so I am alerted to the coming of the light. At one level, subtle shifts in the quality of light are just passing phenomena. At another level I experience myself in a liminal, numinous space, not entirely of this world, as I slowly re-engage with daily life.

According to the archaeologist Francis Pryor my positioning, and to an extent perhaps its meaning, is deeply traditional. In the long transition from ‘neolithic’ to ‘bronze age’ culture, north was the direction of the dead and the ancestral realm, and materially marked by stone; south was the domain of the living and the everyday world, and materially marked by wood. So I’m working with a spiritual sense of direction which in some ways echoes theirs, without being the same. It would make sense to me if this were true, for I am here on the same part of the earth, with the same relationship to the sun, as my ancestors of this period.

Talking in more detail about Avebury and Stonehenge specifically, Pryor proposes (1) that the great stone complexes, when fully developed in stone, were a place of the ancestors, of the dead. The place of the living, the place of wood, was to their south. Here is how he describes it:

“The second main period of ritual landscape development at Avebury recalls that at contemporary Stonehenge. Again we see the henge suddenly ‘harden’, with the construction of the great outer circle of massive stones, spaced around the inside of the henge ditch and two (actually three) inner circles of stones. This marks Avebury’s change into a new monument. The domain of the living would have been south of the Kennet, and access to the no man’s land between it and the realm of the ancestors would have been via the river and the great complex of great timber circles and enclosures  recently excavated by a team directed by Alasdair Whittle. From this ‘reception’ area funeral parties would move to the West Kennet Avenue. Turning right, to the south, would bring them to the Sanctuary, which had also ‘hardened’ from a timber to a stone circle by this time. … Most parties visiting the ritual landscape in ancient times would have taken the processional route northwards, leaving the vast bulk of Silbury Hill on the left, a silent outpost on the edge of the next world. Eventually they would pass through the enormous portal stones that still guard Avebury’s southern entrance into the West Kennet Avenue. They were then within the circle of the ancestors.

“If travel, or some form of symbolic progression from one state to another, did play a significant part in the way ritual landscapes were experienced, it may also have been important to look backwards and forwards at the same time: backwards towards previous or existing states of being, and ahead towards worlds that were yet to come. Maybe that was why certain key transitional places, such as the Sanctuary or the King’s Barrow ridge at Stonehenge, were so important. To be able to look both ways can be a humbling experience, but it can also sharpen one’s sense of self and appreciation of the here and now. Archaeologists, in their natural enthusiasm to explain the workings of prehistoric minds and the landscapes they inhabited, should be aware that we will never explain all aspects of past spiritual experiences. There will always be lost dimensions of meaning and mystery – which is one of the things that make the subject so addictive.”

I don’t have the knowledge or standing to say whether Francis Pryor is right in his hypothesis, which as he says himself can only be tentative and provisional. I do deeply appreciate him for being willing to risk using his imagination, whilst informing that imagination with the best evidence that he can muster. He looks back to ancestors who in their turn show a high level of imaginative engagement with their own. We can read what he writes in our here and now and thus, within that here and now, are able to anchor a sense of continuity and connection, through our own imaginative openness. The people who built those monuments were essentially like us. They were mortal like us, and they knew it like us. They had a relationship with the earth, sun and stars like us. They had imagination like us. And they had a relationship with death and the unknown like us. Something to do with these characteristics that we share moved them to change their physical landscape. Those are the things that connect us, more importantly than details of custom or belief – rightfully fascinating though they are.

  1. Pryor, Francis Britain BC: life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans HarperCollins e-books (Hardback first published 2003)

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