This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: October, 2015


I watched the BBC series The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice recently and felt depressed – addicted as well, but depressed. My problem? I didn’t feel connected to anybody in the story. I couldn’t fully empathise. I acknowledge descent from people like them – probably in a humbler station of life than those who got the attention. I could offer gratitude and respect for their fecundity/virility, for their resilience, for doing the best they could with the life on offer. I felt uneasy at the display of their mortal remains on TV. But connection? Not really.

So where would I look for living ancestry? If we take the Eurasia of the time as a whole we find, as part of the cultural mix, an acute consciousness of something painful and awry in the military-aristocratic cultures of the day, perhaps in the very cosmos itself. We can follow this as a persistent theme in powerful emergent literatures. Such indeed was the revulsion that some teachers and writers became world and life denying. But that’s not true of everyone. The words below, attributed to the early Chinese Taoist Lao Tzu, seem grounded enough:

Brim-fill the bowl,

It’ll spill over.

Keep sharpening the blade,

You’ll soon blunt it.

Nobody can protect a house full of gold and jade.

Wealth, status, pride

Are their own ruin.

To do good, work well, and lie low

Is the way of the blessing. (1)

In Athens, a little closer to home, Socrates suggested that our highest good lies in our moral centre and best self, and that all external goods, such as bodily pleasure, health and social reputation are correspondingly of subordinate value. Essential good was to be sought within rather than in externals. Socrates himself was famous for the simplicity of his way of life. His ascetic follower Diogenes, a kind of crazy wisdom master described by Plato as “Socrates gone mad”, is said to have had a late life encounter with the young Alexander of Macedon, soon to become ‘the Great’. Alexander asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him, reckoning that if Diogenes came up with something it would establish a relationship of patronage and dependency. Diogenes was sitting against a wall and had been enjoying the sunshine until Alexander came along and loomed over him. So he requested the King to stand away from his sun. Alexander went on to fight his way through the Persian Empire all the way to India. There he cornered a group of gymnosophists (= naked sages, either Jain or Yogi) and happily repeated his pattern of asking clever questions and receiving sagely answers.

I am not a follower of Lao Tzu, Socrates or Diogenes, but I do feel connected to them. I have involved them in my contemplative inquiry. In this sense they are my ancestors. Edited and mythologised though they may be, they speak to me over the centuries. I realize that literary wisdom comes out of older, oral traditions. Humans are capable of wisdom and it doesn’t depend on writing. The Tao Te Ching is an anthology of verses passed from teachers to pupils who were expected to memorise them. I understand that their initial recording and publication were controversial in their day. Socrates and Diogenes didn’t care much for writing: they left that to others. I do not doubt that there were paths and people of wisdom in the Celtic-speaking lands – people who stuck by the way of personal relationship and oral transmission in their teaching: this is, after all, the rumoured way of the Druids. I just doubt that we would find them amongst the princes, warriors and court Druids presented in The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice.

So my Samhain thoughts this year turn to exemplars, teachers and sharers of wisdom – firstly and obviously those who are publicly known and remembered; secondly and perhaps more importantly with those who remain unknown but whose invisible influence has leavened the life of the world.

  1. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: a book about the Way and the Power of the Way (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) Shambhala: Boston & London, 1998.


Pentacle_background_whiteA Samhain gift from Sophia. Here, the pentagram image stands for a cycle of meditations, a pathway to wisdom. We move from peace (bottom left, the earth position) to joy (right hand, the water position) to love (left hand, the air position) to healing (bottom right, the fire position) to wisdom (top, the spirit position) and back to peace again.

It seems that for me inner peace, as well as being a condition of any real peace, is also the beginning of wisdom. Inner peace is a blessing and it is also a skill. We can learn how to access and develop it, though for many of us it doesn’t come easy.

The learning and practice are likely to involve encounters with distraction, agitation and turmoil. I find that there are two ways of addressing this – one is to have ways of diminishing and dispersing them; the other is to find a still point of peace within the distraction, agitation and turmoil themselves. Peace has its place within aroused states as well as calm ones. Essentially, I experience peace as a fundamental at-homeness, an affirmative being and belonging in the world.

Peace is the bedrock. But it isn’t everything. Rather, it opens possibilities. The first is joy, a kind of joy that comes from within peace. This joy may be still. It may be flowing. It may be calm. It may also be ecstatic. Peace and joy together create a very powerful internal state and in my view form the basis for the outward turn to love and aware engagement. This in turn enables the energy of healing – in relation to self, other and world.

The step to wisdom is next, though it assumes a parallel work of knowledge-building and understanding outside the meditative setting.  Wisdom depends on these, yet is qualitatively different. In my experience it’s the qualities nurtured by intentional contemplative practice that make the difference.

In this view I acknowledge the influence of the Mahayana Buddhist idea of prajna, where wisdom is a union of spiritual knowledge (jnana) and compassion. The core text of Mahayana Buddhism is the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra (1), with prajnaparamita represented as a deep meditative state and also personified as Prajnaparamita mother of the Buddhas, just as further to the west Sophia has been represented as the mother of angels. In the text of the Heart Sutra the Buddha Gautama Siddhartha provides instruction to his disciple Avolokitesvara, who went on to develop a powerful female alter ego as the great Chinese bodhisattva Guan Yin – another Sophian figure.

The Sophian pentagram first came to me as a compelling image; then as a sequence of words. From there I quickly identified specific practices (already individually familiar) to work with the named qualities and states. It feels as if I’ve been given a direction for the next phase of my personal inquiry and practice, and it’s good to have that direction as a Samhain gift from Sophia.

  1. The Heart Sutra: the Womb of the Buddhas Translation and Commentary by Red Pine. Berkeley, CA, USA: Counterpoint, 2004



PD197-500x500Gratitude and celebrations! The new edition of Pagan Dawn has given me the opportunity to describe contemplative Druid practice, as we have been developing it in recent years, to a wider Pagan and like-minded public.

In the meantime Contemplative Druid Events has arranged three open events for 2016:

7 February Dark of the Moon workshop in central London in Treadwell’s workshop space at 33 Store Street, London, WC1E 7BS. Facilitated by James Nichol and Elaine Knight. We will greet the dark of the moon using contemplative and visionary methods drawn from the evolving tradition of modern contemplative Druidry. Our programme will include contemplative exercises, subtle energy work, animist communion, silent sitting and Awen space group meditation.  Anyone with an interest is welcome to come.

15-17 April Our annual Birchwood Retreat at Anybody’s Barn, Birchwood Hall, Storridge, Nr. Malvern, Worcestershire WR13 5EZ. Facilitated by James Nichol, Karen Webb, Elaine Knight and J.J.Howell. Arrivals from 4.30 p.m. for 6.30 p.m. supper on Friday; departures by 4.30 p.m. on Sunday. Accommodation and full board included. Anyone with an interest is welcome to come.

1 October Contemplative Day in Stroud, from 10.30 a.m. – 4.30 p.m. at the St. Luke’s Medical Centre, 53 Cainscross Road, Stroud GL5 4EX.  Facilitation by James Nichol, Elaine Knight, Nimue Brown and Tom Brown. Anyone with an interest is welcome to come.      At the time of writing there are places on all of these events, though the London one is now filling up. For information on costs please see: or write to

For Pagan Dawn, if you’re in the UK, check this link:


A good book review of This Ancient Heart, copied from A Bad Witches Blog –

 This Ancient Heart: Landscape, Ancestor, Self is a new compilation of essays on subjects at the core of many pagans’ spiritual beliefs – the relationship between the landscape, our ancestors and ourselves.

“Edited by Caitlín Matthews, author of dozens of books including Singing the Soul Back Home and Celtic Visions, with druid and activist Paul Davies, This Ancient Heart offers ten different perspectives on how our place of birth, the country we live in, those who have lived before us and those we share the land with now, can inspire and affect our spirituality.

“It starts with beautiful and inspiring writing from Emma Restall Orr and Philip Shallcrass (Bobcat and Greywolf) and ends with an afterword by celebrated historian Professor Ronald Hutton, author of Pagan Britain. The words of other luminaries grace the pages in between.

“Emma offers an impassioned call to respect the bones of those who have died – for them to remain buried rather than be dug up by archaeologists and put in museums. She has long campaigned for this as a founder of Honouring the Ancient Dead, and in her essay here she explains her thoughts and feelings on this subject. I know her writing is powerful because it made me question how I had thought about this in the past.

“Questioning is good. This is, overall, a book that makes you question preconceived ideas, not a book that reaffirms comfortable complacency. Professor Ronald Hutton, at the end of the book, states that some may feel aggrieved over this, ‘but they should not, if they really intend this book to have some effect on readers.’

“The essays are extremely wide-ranging in their subjects and styles. Greywolf talks about his connection with a tribe of wolf spirits – how that came about where it led him, including his own questioning of whether to eat a venison feast offered to him despite previously having been vegetarian.

“Jenny Blain looks at how the ‘spiritual ways of ‘seidr’ might give some insight to an understanding of the interaction of place and human-person, and how in turn relationships with wights [land spirits] and ancestors form part of how seidr is worked’.

“Robert J Wallis offers an evocative description of falconry on a cold winter morning and how it fits into the world-view of a heathen archaeologist.

“Caitlin Matthews, as well as co-editing the book, has written a chapter called Healing the Ancestral Communion: Pilgrimage Beyond Time and Space. This offers a practical guide to spiritually connecting with the land in which one lives and also the land of one’s birth. As Caitlin points out, these can be very different. She provided meditative and sensory exercises to heal the rift of disconnection.

“Camelia Elias offers a eulogy for a modern ancestor of tradition, Colin Murray. Throughout the 1970s and 80s Murray was responsible for the revival of all things Celtic in a way that was quite unprecedented”

“Pagans are not the only ones who find meditating on nature can be a spiritual practice. Quaker Sarah Hollingham offers examples and practical exercises in Tuning into the Landscape, that people of all spiritual paths and none could learn from.

“Science is addressed in How Genetics Unravels the Role of the Landscape in the Relationship Between Ancestors and Present by Luzie U Wingen.

“David Loxley looks at linguistics and how the way we frame sentences affects our view of the past, present and future.

“In The Heart of the Land: The Druidic Connection, Penny Billington looks at the importance of keeping balance – symmetry – between literal reality and spiritual yearning. She asks the reader to ‘imagine yourself for a moment on a hill at sunset, with the quiet buzzing of the insects invisible in the soft light.’ She continues: ‘From your vantage point you look over the dark lake to the west, where the molten streaks of light reflect in a shimmering water-path leading to you, and with the quiet stars appearing in the deep blue overhead. This momentary turning of our attention to the world of nature, even in the imaginal realm, can prompt a surprising sense of relaxation that slows our breathing and our over-busy brains’. She points out: ‘Science backs up these instincts’.

“Perhaps that is the overall message of the book; that it is good for us to feel a connection with the landscape and with those who have gone before us. Whether we follow a religion or spiritual path, or whether we are atheists, it is good to know where we are and where we come from, and spending time in the natural world can be healing.

This Ancient Heart: Landscape, Ancestor, Self is published by Moon Books


The peace of Sophia, given a chance, heals the violence within. This violence can be obvious and crying out to be worked with. It can also be hidden, unawarely latent, insidiously shaping both words and actions. In Thomas Keating’s language, such violence “reduces and can even cancel the effectiveness of the external works of mercy, justice and peace” (1). It is an argument he uses for promoting contemplative practice within the Catholic Church and Christian communities more widely.

In my exploration of contemplative traditions, Cynthia Bourgeault is the Christian writer to whom I have paid the most attention. An Episcopalian priest based in the USA, she is a long-term associate of Father Keating in the development and teaching of centering prayer. This is a modern contemplative practice modelled partly on Theravadin Buddhist insight meditation, and partly on the contemplative approach recommended in The Cloud of Unknowing, an English text from the later fourteenth century. “For heaven ghostly is as nigh down as up, and up as down: behind as before, before as behind, on one side as other. Insomuch that whoso had a true desire for to be at heaven, then that same time he were in heaven ghostly. For the high and the next way thither is run by desires and not by paces of feet” (2).

I think of Bourgeault as a Sophian teacher working within a Christian framework. I get this sense through a reading of three of her books: The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, The Wisdom Jesus and Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. She has incorporated ‘Gnostic’ Nag Hammadi texts into her recommended sacred literature, especially The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. In her references to what Christians call ‘The Old Testament’ I see a leaning towards The Psalms, The Book of Proverbs and The Song of Solomon. I am neither qualified nor inclined to discuss her theology. But I do get the flavour of a Sophian sensibility that seems to me to inform her view and practice of (to use my language) meditation.

Bourgeault speaks of “a warm practice, a bit sloppier and dreamier than the classic methods of attention and awareness practices. You lose some time in day-dreaming, at least at the start, and that vibrant tingling sense of ‘I am here’ prized in so many meditation practices is not really a goal in Centering Prayer” (2). The key word is intention rather than attention, and the specific intention is to be deeply available – Bourgeault would say to God, I would say to a deeper nature. This means “available at the depths of being, deeper than words, memories, emotions, sensations, deeper even than your felt sense of ‘I am here’”.

Bourgeault counsels against the aim of making ourselves empty or still, saying that it is “like trying not to think of an elephant” and pretty much assures a constant, non-stop stream of thoughts. Instead, once the intent is established, it is a surrender method, “not working with mind at all, but going straight to the heart”. She says that “for most people, a typical Centering Prayer period looks like a sine wave: lots of ups and downs. There are moments when the mind is more restless and jumpy and thoughts come one on top of another. There are also moments of stillness, sometimes very deep stillness. You won’t be able to retrieve these moments of stillness directly, of course, because as soon as you start thinking about them they’re gone. But you will ‘remember’ them through a certain quiet gathered-ness that accompanies you as you get up and move about your day. Through the cumulative energy of this gathered stillness, Centering Prayer gradually imprints itself upon the heart”.

I’ve been drawn back to Cynthia Bourgeault’s work because of my inner promptings about peace, and the peace of Sophia. I will continue my exploration of her work. Whilst engaging I will of course be conscious of her theistic and Christocentric framework and the knowledge that I do not share it. This I think will make the experience all the richer, because it will include the challenge of fully accepting difference, and fully accepting the gift within it.


  1. Cynthia Bourgeault Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening Lanham, MD, USA: Cowley Publications, 2004 (from the Foreword by Thomas Keating)
  2. A Book of Contemplation the which is called The Cloud of Unknowing, in which the Soul is Oned with God Anonymous (edited from the British Museum MS. Harl. 674 with an introduction by Evelyn Underhill) London: John M. Watkins, 1922
  3. Cynthia Bourgeault Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His message Shambhala: Boston & London, 2011


This post is about the anam cara, or spiritual friend in Gaelic tradition, and about the use of language. Recently I wrote about allowing more space and using fewer words. This wasn’t a renunciate view of language, which I value highly. My hope was that “more space” would allow “something new to emerge”, and that my words, though fewer, would be better chosen.

I am starting to see some fruits from this strategy. I’ve also recently said that I experienced Sophia “as a psychopomp or inner guru”. Now I would say, “anam cara”. This term is known from the early days of Christian monasticism in Ireland and is in current use within the Scottish-based Celie De – see

It is a mentoring relationship, not a peer one, but it includes the sense of a real personal connection, not just a role. People speculate about whether it is an inheritance from indigenous Druidry. Subjectively, my relation with Sophia feels like this: much more than psychopomp or inner guru. In my understanding ‘anam cara’ is gentler, subtler and less formal.

The Sophia I experience is not a rhetorical device (personification) or a glove puppet arbitrarily selected by me. She is also not – in my sense of things – a mind independent celestial being. Rather she is the felt presence, the voice, and at times the image of a deeper nature – and my inner link with the Oran Mor (the song of what is). From a personality perspective, this deeper nature is ‘not me’ and not owned and controlled by ‘me’, so I have to work at relationship.

From the perspective of deeper nature, the separation doesn’t exist. At times Sophia can point beyond herself and then I may enter the subjectivity of deeper nature and experience the world differently. The little ‘I’ and the anam cara are as one, beyond separation and immersed in the song. But most of the time that’s not how it is in my subjective life world, and a link to that fuller reality is provided by Sophia and her nudgings and promptings.

I don’t make any fundamental distinction between nature and spirit. All, for me, is contained in the word nature (or terms like the Oran Mor).  Nothing is lost. Cosmos, relationship and practice remain the same. But the use of a nature language is truer to my experience.


There are times, moods really, where the Druid path feels a bit rugged and aspirational. For such occasions the poet Hugo Williams offers another option.

If it were up to me

I would make use of sleep.

Going to church

Would involve a flight of stairs

To a familiar bedroom,

Where a broken alarm clock told the time.

The spreading of sheets,

The turning down of blankets,

Would be followed by the drawing of curtains in broad daylight,

The ritual of undressing.

Members of my religion

Would be encouraged to sleep in

On Monday mornings

And any other morning they felt like it, with no questions asked.

Sleep notes would be provided.

Couples would be authorised

To pull the covers over their heads

And spend their days tucked up

In cosy confessionals,

Where all their sins would be forgiven.

Hugo Williams, West End Final London: Faber & Faber, 2009. The publisher’s blurb describes this collection as a set of “sardonic investigations into the fault line between voice and projection”, if that’s any help.


I sense that we are finding a contemplative note in Druidry. To an extent we have had it for a while, but it’s becoming more assured. Last Saturday we had an open contemplative day in Stroud for Druids and fellow travellers willing to join us. I worked with Elaine Knight and Nimue Brown as co-facilitators. Some of the participants travelled a considerable distance for the event. Many of those present were new to each other. Some were new to this kind of event.

Yet the day felt very cohesive. For me, the group note resonated strongly though also softly. The vibration was a subtle one, interwoven with silence and stillness, whilst also clear and distinct. Building community together, and working together, we were more than the sum of our parts. We created a group identity, and sounded our note. I understand this as our small contribution and offering to the Oran Mor, the great song of what is.

I’ve been reflecting on how this happened, and on lessons to take forward. The main single factor has to be that everyone in the group understood the offer, was open to the experience, and wanted it to work. This is such an obvious aspect of a success that it can go unrecognised, like the so-called ‘placebo’ effect in healing: people engage their good will, almost unconsciously, and it has a strong positive effect.

On the facilitator side, there are several things we got right and that I want to remember. Having a record will help that.

We made a good choice of venue for the occasion, and this was supplemented by the blessing of a golden autumn day. The programme relied on activities, which someone at another of our events named as “simple but profound”. This choice is definitely part of our note. The building of our ritual container, whist still ‘lean’, was just a little bit more elaborate than in our local group. It clearly marked our sacred space and our expectations about how we would work in it.

I also found myself casting our circle in ‘the contemplative grove of druids’. This time I was careful to avoid the term ‘grove of contemplative druids’.  I have found naming ‘contemplative druidry’ to be a useful way of classifying a sub-set of interests within druidry. But I now believe that to think of people themselves as ‘contemplative druids’, a separate species within larger druid genus, is potentially divisive and doesn’t allow individuals to have inconveniently multiple interests. At the same time, when we join together in a contemplative event, we are indeed being intentional about contemplative practice. I have come to think of Contemplative Druid Events as a vehicle for a latent grove, a grove which constellates during our events and therefore deserves to be named. This grove provides space for our emerging note.

The note was considerably enriched when Nimue led a session that involved us in finding simple personal sounds and vocalising them over an extended period of time. After a while we could sense those diverse and discordant seeming sounds (our individual notes) come together as a collective sound where people spontaneously worked together. So the group note was worked for, discovered and explored in an absolutely literal way – and one which changed the atmosphere of the room. Later in the day, Elaine took the group through a version of an energy body exercise that went on to identify and reinforce the energetic connections between people, linking us as a group at subtle levels before moving into an animistic exercise. In my experience as a participant, these sections of the day were simple, profound and powerful too.

We made sure that we varied the pace of the day. Some of the work was relatively intense, but we had more leisurely and relaxed spaces as well, enjoyed time outside and made sure of an abundant supply of refreshments. For me, 3 October 2015 was a step forward in the evolution of our work. My heartfelt thanks to everyone involved.


This post is about contemplation and peace – peace as lived experience, rather than as hope or idea. I am discovering the peace of Sophia.

In my practice I experience Sophia as a psychopomp or inner guru. Conventionally she is a guide of light. Actually she is a guide of dark as well. Either way she points beyond herself. Generally using a method of subtle prompts and suggestions, she opens my way to a deeper nature.

Just recently she has been showing me a way to peace as an inner space, like a well-spring at the core of being. This is not a new idea, nor yet a new experience. But there’s more clarity around it, more definition – also, in a felt sense, more weight.

It began with an intense vision of braided threads – black, white and red, the traditional goddess colours. I felt nudged to identify the colours with peace, joy and love. Peace had some primacy. Although this is a triadic image, I began to see it as a four: black, white, red and black. Here the peace of the Goddess is defining. It is linked both to origin and return, and to spaces within and between other forms of experience. It may seem like simple negation. But it is an active force, like the ‘emptiness’ in some Asian traditions.

The good news is that ‘peace’ does not depend on external conditions. It can be accessed and developed within, both individually and collectively. This is why, to a certain extent, practices like meditation can be a protective or resiliency factor in relation to bad outside conditions. The trick here is to avoid a descent into the wrong kind of magical thinking and expect too much. Challenges still have to be dealt with at their own level: it’s just that having a baseline of inner peace tends to make practitioners more resourceful in dealing with the busy apparent world.

Cultivating the peace of the Sophia is currently centre stage in my solo work. In his foreword to Contemplative Druidry Philip Carr-Gomm quoted the well-known line “Deep peace of the quiet Earth”. My extension of that thought, based my current experience, is to say ‘as without, so within’. I believe this double recognition is necessary. To the extent that I am a nature mystic, the aspect of nature with which I am most concerned is me, in particular a deeper nature behind the surface personality.  Only by attending to both this nature within and nature around and beyond me can I refine the relationship between them and so identify any gift I might have for the world.


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