This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: January, 2015


I like this post from ‘Single Session Therapy’, not least because it’s coming from a therapeutic and Human Potential Movement angle.


When moles still had their annual general meetings

and when they still had better eyesight it befell

that they expressed a wish to discover what

was above.

So they elected a commission to  ascertain what was above. The commission despatched a sharp-sighted fleet-footed

mole. He, having left his native mother earth,

caught sight of a tree with a bird on it.

Thus a story was put forward that up above

birds grew on trees. However,

some moles thought that this was

too simple. So they dispatched another

mole to ascertain if birds did grow on trees.

By then it was evening and on the tree

some cats were mewing. Mewing cats,

the second mole announced, grew on the tree.

Thus an alternative theory emerged about cats.

The two conflicting theories bothered an elderly

neurotic member of the commission. And he

climbed up to see for himself.

By then it was night and all was pitch-black.

Both schools are mistaken, the venerable mole declared.

birds and cats are optical illusions produced

by the refraction of light. In fact, things above

Were the same as below, only the clay was less dense and

the upper roots of the trees were whispering something,

but only a little.

And that was that.

Ever since then moles have remained below ground:

they do not set up commissions

or presuppose the existence of cats.

Or if so only a little.

In On the Contrary and Other Poems by Miroslav Holub (Newcastle-on-Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1984 – translated from Czech by Ewald Osers)


The Mind and Life Institute can be found on

Founded in 1987 it was largely the inspiration of the current Dalai Lama. Its aim is to bring together contemplative practitioners and the academic community to investigate contemplative states and their value. Although it has a largely Buddhist orientation, it is not confined to Buddhists.

One of their current offerings is the 2015 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute (MLSRI) to be held from 13-19 June 2015 at the Garrison Institute, Garrison NY. The topic is ‘Fear and Trust in Self and Society’. (For anyone interested, the application deadline is 18 February,) The Institute says:

“This is is a week-long program to advance collaborative research among scientists, contemplative scholars, other humanities scholars, and contemplative practitioners, based on a process of inquiry and dialogue. With this unique program, we are not only nurturing a new generation of scientists interested in exploring the influence of contemplative practice and meditation on the mind, but are also fostering the development of new fields of research collectively referred to as the ‘contemplative sciences.’ This year’s institute will be held June 13-19, 2015 and will be located at the Garrison Institute in Garrison, New York, 50 miles north of New York City in the Hudson River Valley.

“The 2015 MLSRI will be devoted to examining fear, trust, and social relationships. Presentations and discussions will draw on research in both the sciences and the humanities, including neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, religion, and contemplative studies. Over the week, we will explore biological and experiential aspects of fear, its influence on our cognition and emotion, and its expression in both healthy states and clinical disorders. Critically, we’ll also be examining the role of trust and interpersonal connection as a counterpoint to fear, so we will also address the protective functions of secure attachment and compassion. Finally, we will ask how contemplative practices might be used to help us work with fear and cultivate social bonds.

“We encourage interested scholars to apply as either a Research Fellow or Senior Investigator:

  • Research Fellow candidates include students in contemplative traditions, as well as undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows in relevant academic fields.
  • Senior Investigator candidates are established researchers, faculty, teachers, scholars, or practitioners in a relevant field.

“We are now accepting applications online. Applications close on February 18, and applicants will be notified of selection by April 3. There is a $45 application fee. The all-inclusive program cost is $525 for Research Fellows and $775 for Senior Investigators. For more information, please visit our event website: MLSRI 2015.”

Although I sometimes worry about topics like this becoming over-academic, I like the way in which contemplative inquiry is being given increasing attention through initiatives such as  the Mind and Life Institute.


jhp5423fc87b679cThe full title of this book is Following the Deer Trods: a practical guide to working with Elen of the Ways. It is written as part of Moon Book’s Shaman Pathways series, and is positioned as a stand-alone introduction to its topic, which includes working methods for the aspiring practitioner. As such this book certainly meets its criteria.

I personally think it works best in tandem with Elen Sentier’s other book on the topic, also a Shaman Pathways book, Elen of the Ways; following the deer trods – the ancient Shamanism of Britain, which I reviewed in July 2014. This earlier book establishes the overall context much better and for me they belong together.

Following the Deer Trods begins with a summary of the ideas offered in Elen of the Ways. This works well, even magically, in the opening pages – but I was saddened by a seeming loss of perspective when we get to the Romans and beyond. The author shows no recognition of Christianity as a diverse, complex and internally contested path, not least in the Celtic lands; or of the effects which holding political power can have on religious traditions, regardless of the actual faith. There’s also no clear flagging of the extent to which the positive, Pagan side of the story is necessarily reliant on intuitive reconstruction, relevant records being sparse and problematic, oral traditions highly mutable over time, and material remains providing only limited insight into hearts and minds. There is so much we don’t know, and will never know, about our ancestors, their traditions and what it was like to be them. When talking about them, we do best to avoid the language of certainty.

For me the book picks up from that point, providing the promised guide to working in a series of well-organised practice chapters. The main areas covered (in my language) are meditation, energy work, service, shamanic journeying, relationships with familiar spirits (power animals), and working with trickster figures. The author also discusses the ‘journey horse’ or method of trance induction – and the relative merits for this purpose of drumming, the sound of waves, rain, or a flowing stream; the steady roaring of wind; the recorded purring of cats. That bit of the discussion is a true gem, reflecting a lot of playful trial and experience.

These chapters also lay out a basic cosmology for the work – a cosmology of three worlds (middle, lower, and upper) on the vertical axis and four elements radiating out from the middle world on the horizontal, with the nigh universal notion of the world tree/tree of life very much in mind. Elen describes the image of the six armed cross as a means of bringing them together. She talks about her understanding of the inner world of the journey as a place of ‘interface’, the portal which she, as awenydd, and the Otherworld co-create as a meeting place between them.

The instructions for practice are highly specific and directive and therefore best-suited to people who are new to this kind of work, who don’t have access to hands-on teaching or established learning communities, and who need nonetheless to be strongly held as they begin their exploration. Other readers will look to the offerings provided as a source of new or variant ideas, or information about a specific way of working.

My heart didn’t sing, when I read this book, as it had when I read its predecessor. But it makes its contribution and, with the one significant reservation about the presentation of history, I’m happy to recommend it.


Where I lived – winter and hard earth.

I sat in my cold stone room

choosing tough words, granite, flint,

to break the ice. My broken heart –

I tried that, but it skimmed,

flat, over the frozen lake.

She came from a long, long way,

but I saw her at last, walking,

my daughter, my girl, across the fields,

in bare feet, bringing all spring’s flowers

to her mother’s house. I swear

the air softened and warmed as she moved,

the blue sky smiling, none too soon,

with the small shy mouth of a new moon.

In The world’s wife: poems by Carol Ann Duffy (London: Picador, 1999)


Ancient Gaelic culture had a tradition of the Imramm – well-described by Caitlin and John Matthews (1). Imramma are “voyage quests, whereby a hero is called to penetrate to the furthest west to find wisdom, healing or paradise. For the Celtic peoples, the lands westward over the Atlantic have ever been the regions of the Blessed Isles, the happy Otherworld from which faery visitants, empowering objects and supra-human wisdom derive. As with the Grail quest, the Imramma are found in both pre- and post-Christian traditions, testifying to their importance, which may have been remnants of a once-coherent ‘book of the dead’ teaching, preparing people for states of existence after death, similar to the Tibetan bardo wisdom”.

I have one which was presented to me as a voyage to discover heaven and hell. I do not know its date or precise origin. The monks – I think they were monks – sailed past many islands in their hard journey into the open sea, their craft small and vulnerable, the conditions variable and sometimes scary. Occasionally they were able to land and refresh themselves – without finding anything much beyond the means of continuing subsistence. Eventually they grew close to a relatively large and inhabited island. They couldn’t see it very well through the mist and rain, but they could hear the cries and shouts of a human-seeming population in distress. Getting closer the voyagers glimpsed large, steaming cauldrons on the shore and the smell coming from these was succulent, not bad at all. Yet angry and emaciated figures were huddled around them – some were snarling, jostling and fighting; others were paralysed with despair and sunken into vacancy and helpless gibbering; yet others were just a little bit more solution focused (as we might now say) and caught up in their own private frustration about how to get food from the cauldrons into their mouths with the very long spoons provided. They were so caught up in this that none of them even noticed the travellers, who found it wisest to back away from this scene before they were discovered in ways that might turn ugly.

The voyage continued … and continued. Eventually, as the story goes, and on a brighter calmer morning, the monks found themselves approaching another island, with an uncanny resemblance to the first. Quite large, with similar human-seeming inhabitants and large, steaming cauldrons on the shore and the same succulent smell. The beings gathered around them even wielded the same awkward, ungainly and very long spoons. The only difference, of course, in the whole scene, is that they were using these spoons to feed each other.

There are three things I particularly like about this story. One is that the ethics of empathy can grow in very pragmatic soil, the soil of enlightened self-interest, the soil of common sense. The turn to co-operation doesn’t have, in itself, to be especially high-minded. So in a way the ethics of empathy, in a fuller sense, can develop out of the experience of simple, practical co-operation. The second is that, although hell is all too easy to get into, it is also quite possible to get out of: no need to abandon hope. The third is that the Otherworld journey takes us straight back into the realm of everyday life and how we do it.

  1. Matthews, Caitlin and John (1994) The encyclopaedia of Celtic wisdom: the Celtic shaman’s sourcebook Shaftsbury, Dorset, UK: Element (also published by Element in Rockport, Massachusetts, USA and Brisbane, Queensland, Australia)


Some reflections by Osho. I extend the word ‘God’ to include any ego ideal. It brings this piece closer to home.

“Man has always been thinking of himself as the most superior creation in existence. Man has thought of himself only as next to God and feels very happy. That, too, we say just to be polite; deep down you know that God is next to you.

“Even when you are a great worshipper … every moment you are trying to manipulate God according to you. ‘Do my will!’ That’s all your prayer means. That’s all your prayer means. ‘Do according to me. Listen to me’. Your whole effort is to convert God into your servant. You call him ‘Lord’. ‘Master’, but those are just briberies; you are trying to manipulate him. You say, ‘I am nobody, you are all’ – but deep down you know who is who. In fact even when you fight for your God, it is your God. Even when you sacrifice yourself on some pedestal, some altar, it is to your God that you sacrifice. When you bow down to an image of God in a temple, a mosque, in a church, it is to your image that you have created, to your God. You are bowing down to your own creation. You are bowing down as if before a mirror.

“Remember we are fuelling our egos in every way possible – gross or subtle, direct or indirect. And a really religious person is one who knows this, becomes aware of this, and in that awareness the ego disappears. A really religious person has no idea who is superior. A religious person cannot say, ‘I am superior to the tree, I am superior to the animal, I am superior to the bird.’ A religious person cannot say, ‘I am superior’. A religious person has come to know that ‘I am not’ and in that experience of ‘I am not’ joy flows in; the rock has been removed.”

Osho (1990) Tao: the pathless path New York: St. Martin’s Griffin


I read the songs of Kabir, partly for their power and beauty, partly for their touching humanity and partly to learn something as a contemplative practitioner. The songs themselves, according to John Stratton Hawley, have survived in late manuscripts from different parts of India, modified over time by the region, religion and caste position of their listeners. When it comes to translation, Hawley notes that Robert Bly presents a Kabir who stands for self-reliance (like Emerson), principled disobedience (like Thoreau) “and a set of practices that honors the meeting of mind and body and celebrates the intense emotions that connect them (like Bly himself?)”

So I feel I’m in good company when putting two songs together in a way that makes the second answer the first, in the pursuit of my own inquiry. It’s about this: how do I avoid the trap of working on my small personal narcissism only to embed a larger spiritual narcissism?

Here is the first, scene-setting song.

Friend, please tell me what I can do about this world

I hold to, and keep spinning out!

I gave up sewn clothes, and wore a robe,

But I noticed one day the cloth was well woven.

So I bought some burlap, but I still

Throw it elegantly over my left shoulder.

I pulled back my sexual longings,

And now discover that I’m angry a lot.

I gave up rage, and now I notice

That I am greedy all day.

I worked hard at dissolving the greed

And now I am proud of myself.

When the mind wants to break its link to the world

It still holds on to one thing.

Kabir says: Listen my friend,

There are very few that find the path.

Here, in the second poem, I find a way through – by not going anywhere. I read the “wanting-creature” below to be bound up in ‘Spiritual’ wanting, rather than the average sensual kind.

I said to the wanting-creature inside me:

What is this river you want to cross?

There are no travellers on the river-road, and no road.

Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or resting?

There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.

There is no tow rope either, and no one to pull it.

There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford!

And there is no body, and no mind!

Do you believe that there is some place that will make the soul less thirsty?

In that great absence you will find nothing.

Be strong then, and enter into your own body;

There you have a solid place for your feet.

Think about it carefully!

Don’t go off somewhere else!

Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things,

And stand firm in that which you are.

Kabir Ecstatic poems Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992 (The English translations are free enough for Robert Bly to call them ‘versions by Robert Bly’. There is an earlier set of translations published by MacMillan in New York in 1915 by Rabindranath Tagore assisted by Evelyn Underhill under the title Songs of Kabir. Whilst I don’t follow Bly in calling the English of the earlier work “useless”, I do find that Bly’s interpretation has more passion and power. The Bly work includes an insightful afterword Kabir and the transcendental Bly by John Stratton Hawley).


After the publication of Contemplative Druidry last October, I set up Contemplative Druid Events together with my partner Elaine Knight, supported by other members of our local group – particularly Nimue Brown, Julie Bond, JJ Middleway and Karen Webb. Our main purpose is to organise, publicise and run a limited number of contemplative Druid events for the wider Druid community and others of like intent. We will also respond to inquiries from people wishing to join a Druid contemplative group or start one of their own.

We have arranged three events for 2015:

  1. A half day introduction to contemplative Druidry in London on Sunday 22 February
  2. A weekend retreat near Malvern from Friday 17- Sunday19 April
  3. A contemplative Druid day in Stroud on Saturday 3 October

For more information, or to arrange a booking please go to our dedicated blog at

These events are all in southern England. I am open to going further afield, and other colleagues might be. In this regard I am happy to hear proposals from people who are willing to gather together their own group and to negotiate times, programme and costs.

Overall our vision for the contemplative thread in Druidry is that it will develop organically, with initiatives coming from different sources and taking different forms. We don’t seek to own or manage this development under the banner of Contemplative Druid Events, though we do see a value in offering programmes of our own on a modest scale.


Romany Rivers is my sixth and final poet from the collection ‘Moon Poets: Six Pagan poets’ published by Moon Books and edited by Trevor Greenfield. This poem concerns the struggle of a mother to find space for her own personhood. She is “a British born Witch, Reiki Master and Artist living in Canada, exploring a life of personal passion, spirituality and creativity … When not writing, creating or running around after two energetic children, Romany turns her hand to individual healing sessions and community projects that provide family support”. The collection as a whole also includes work by Beverley Price, Martin Pallot, Tiffany Chaney, Lorna Smithers, and Robin Herne.

Stolen Seconds

Sometimes I steal into the garden

And stand by the washing line

Laundry forgotten in my hands as my eyes search the skies

Looking for something

Seeing everything

Noticing nothing

I breathe deeply

And release one long shuddering sigh

A breath held without conscious thought

Waiting for just a few minutes peace to fly free from the constricted chest

I look down

At my trembling hands

Clutching my clothes

Representations of the miniature people

Who take up enormous space within my daily life

Leaving little room for me as I shrink and shrivel to give them more room

I let go

Of the laundry

Of the breath

Of the stress

Of the tiredness

Of the constant needing, feeding, reading, singing, sighing, playing and praying for peace

I let go

And close my eyes

Wondering if tears will kiss my cheeks in gratitude

For the silent still moments

Stolen swiftly

Beside the washing line.


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