This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: November, 2015


Khing, the master woodcarver, made a bell stand

Of precious wood. When it was finished,

All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be the work of spirits.

The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:

“What is your secret?”

Khing replied, “I am only a workman.

I have no secret. There is only this:

When I began to think about the work you commanded

I guarded my spirit. I did not expend it

On trifles, that were not to the point.

I fasted in order to

Set my heart at rest.

After three days fasting,

I had forgotten gain and success.

After five days,

I had forgotten praise and criticism.

After seven days

I had forgotten my body

With all its limbs.

By this time al thought of your Highness

And of the court had faded away.

Al that might distract me from the work

Had vanished.

I was collected in the single thought of the bell stand.

Then I went into the forest

To see the trees in their own natural state.

When the right tree appeared before my eyes,

The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond


All that I had to do was to put forth my hand

And begin.

If I had not met this particular tree

There would have been

No bell stand at all.

What happened?

My own collected though

Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;

From this live encounter came the work

Which you ascribe to the spirits.”


Merton, Thomas (1965 & 2004) The Way of Chuang Tzu Boston & London: Shambhala.


Chuang Tzu, one of the great figures of early Taoism, lived around 300 BCE. The frontispiece of this edition says: “He used parables and anecdotes, allegory and paradox, to illustrate that real happiness and freedom are found only in understanding Tao or Way of nature, and dwelling in its unity. The respected Trappist monk Thomas Merton spent several years reading and reflecting on four different translations of the Chinese classic that bears Chuang Tzu’s name. The result is this collection of poetic renderings of the great sage’s work.







“A Sufi mystic was staying with Rabiya. His name was Hasan. He must have heard Jesus Christ’s statement: ‘knock and it shall be opened to you. Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek and you will find it’. So every day in his morning prayer, afternoon prayer, evening prayer, night prayer, five times a day he said to God, ‘I am knocking, Sir, and I am knocking so much. Why has it not opened up to now? I am beating my head against your door, Sir. Open it.

“Rabiya heard it one day. Rabiya heard it the second day. Rabiya heard it the third day. Then she said, ‘Hasan, when will you look? The door is open. You go on talking nonsense – ‘I am knocking, I am knocking’ – and the door is open all the time. Look! But you are too concerned with your knocking and asking and desiring and seeking, and you cannot see. The door is open.” (1)

For me Rabiya is the Sophia in this story, the teacher and guide. Sophia emerges in the eastern Mediterranean. She is most associated with contexts that are urban, multicultural and entranced by the power of the written word. She inherits the rose from Aphrodite and Isis, and the grove from Asherah, the lost goddess of Israel. She becomes a traveller, eastward bound on the Silk Road, taking other names.

The Sophia of my experience is not quite the being of the traditions, though the traditions have fed me (2, 3). As a living presence, anam cara and guide, she undermines my pompous attempts to impose narrative order on the cosmos and thus possess the infinite. She stands for creative mythology, continuous revelation, and a compassionate free spirit. Infinitely sceptical and infinitely believing, she embraces the life of the senses, feeling and thinking. Yet she points also to other possibilities: nourishment in the silent heart of being, and the energy of what Coleridge called the primary imagination and Druids call Awen.

  1. Osho Zen: the path of paradox New York, NY: Osho International Foundation, 2001
  2. Caitlin Matthews Sophia Goddess of Wisdom, Bride of God Wheaton, ILL: Quest Books, 2001
  3. Anne Baring & Jules Cashford The myth of the Goddess: evolution of an image London: Arkana, 1993
  4. Samuel Taylor Coleridge Biographia Literaria: or biographical sketches of my literary life and opinions London: Dent, 1965 (Edited with an introduction by George Watson)



Golden SeedIn 2014 The Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD) celebrated its 50th anniversary. It’s now just over 22 years since I first joined. Where am I now?

I remember being reassured by the way in which OBOD was able to hold a point of tension between two seemingly competing narratives. The first was the sense of living relationship with the land and the inheritance of ancestral stories. The second was an open and generous universalism. Without the first, the second could be vague and vapid. Without the second, the first could become culturally inward-turning and defensive. I’ve always been grateful for this balance.

As part of the 50th anniversary year, Sharon Zak and Maria Ede-Weaving put together The Golden Seed: Celebrating 50 Years of OBOD as “an anthology of prose, poetry, images and crafts” (including a DVD) created by OBOD members and friends. It is still referenced at though currently unavailable. In my own entry I said I was more comfortable with a language of “practising OBOD Druidry” than “being an OBOD Druid”. That’s how I still see it and I would now want to add that this practice itself sits within a (for me) larger framework that I would name as the Way of Sophia. This has been true for quite a while, and I will write about it more in the future. Here I just want to say where my Druidry continues to fit.

There are two huge lessons that I draw from Druidry. The first is about how to do solo practice. I can’t now imagine a core solo practice that doesn’t take place in a sacred circle, woven of ritual and liturgy. Allowing a slow evolution of movement and liturgy, I gain insight into my purpose and intent in a way that offers both clarity and embodiment. Within that circle, I include body and energy work and also some form of sitting meditation: the precise forms vary. There’s also an aspect of healing and blessing. Thanks to the OBOD distance learning course, this approach to practice has become second nature. Someone could have given me a list of instructions to this effect on the back of an envelope and I might have had a go with different aspects from time to time before coming across something else on the back of another envelope. But I had the chance to build an evolving practice over an extended period, in a way that was both self-directing (I have an allergy to gurus) and within a tradition that made support and guidance available (I also don’t operate brilliantly if unwitnessed and alone). This combination is quite rare in spiritual education, and it’s a great privilege to have a continuing relationship with this work on the mentoring side. The course covers a lot of other ground as well. But this was the piece that was transformational for me.

The second lesson concerns two intertwining challenges. Both are connected to the contemplative inquiry I’ve been involved in for just over four years. One is the challenge of responding to the Order’s invitation to members to take initiatives and offer varying forms of leadership, whilst still (if we so choose) being held within the collective and feeling part of it. The other is the contemplative journey itself. This has involved the further evolution of solo practice, but more importantly to the co-creation of an innovative house-style in group work and in particular of Day Retreats for small groups. I and my colleagues seem to have a good handle on this now, both within our own local group and in the wider community of Druids and fellow travellers.

These lessons are my guide as to where to put my energy within Druidry, offering contexts of connection, service and nourishment.



Tides in a life. A sea-change. My contemplative inquiry is gentling, in its fifth and final year. I began with charged and focused intent. Willing a change in self and world, I surrendered to a vision. I accepted the risk of becoming driven, of being one-eyed and obsessional to the point of self-caricature. Mr. Contemplative.

I don’t believe it’s ever been quite that bad. Loving and accepting love matter more to me than seeing through the eye of the divine, to the extent indeed that the two are even different. Contemplative traditions and their practices, even when adequately customised, internalised and working effectively, have never been my absolute priority. Nonetheless the intent to live from a deeper dimension, fed by an inner spring of stillness and spaciousness, has been a key life direction during this period.

I can sense a difference now, a relaxation. For me there’s a point at which enhanced study and practice in any field encounters a law of diminishing returns. I’ve got what I’m going to get out of the exercise. The field itself may be one of infinite possibilities – yet I reach a point of needing to begin a process of detachment where I recognise the fruits of my inquiry and ease in to a new normal.

The new normal incorporates what I need, or can take in, from the inquiry process. I’ve had this experience twice before, in relatively recent years. The first was a doctoral project about a developmental approach to ageing: the idea that later life offered specific potentials for growth and creativity not generally recognised in mainstream culture. As a project, this was summed up in the thesis itself, and I moved on. But the core idea continues to guide me. The second was the current version of the OBOD distance learning course, which also had a specific summation – and also continues to inspire me. I’m not sure whether to document my contemplative inquiry in this kind of way – my book Contemplative Druidry was something different, a collaborative piece which opened up the topic in a Druid context. A more personal piece is something to ponder over the next year.

In terms of fruit, there are a few things that I can say now. The first is that I’ve got a contemplative practice that I’m at ease with. I notice that I’m spending less time on it than at the height of the inquiry period. This feels like a natural adjustment. More importantly, I celebrate finding spiritual companions, with whom I have been able to develop group practices that are both contemplative and relational. For example, we’ve got a tried and tested model for how a local group can work, a model for day retreats, and a model for weekend retreats. These are developments that I expect to take forward. Our local group has a day retreat this Saturday (21 November), and my partner Elaine and I are offering a Dark of the Moon day retreat in London on 7 February 2106 – see – so I may have more to say about these in future posts. We plan a residential retreat for next April.

I don’t want to get consumed by organising and facilitating small group events. But I certainly expect them to outlive the inquiry, and to make them part of the new normal as I broaden my overall field of attention once more.



The wisdom of diffident humanism. Spontaneity, immersion-in-the-moment and dissolved boundaries aren’t everything. Our narrative natures may be present, self-conscious and hyper-sensitive as we negotiate connection between self and other.  In my world this too has integrity, beauty, and tenderness.

I lie in bed, watching you

Dress yourself in nudity

For your part in a story

You are about to tell me.

Once upon a time, you seem to say,

There was a woman who took off all her clothes

And stood for a moment

With one hand on her hip.

You have my full attention

As you pile your hair on top of your head

And let it fall down again.

Up to this point I am familiar with the story.

Your movements suggest a possible outline,

But nothing is certain yet.

You lift your arms above your head

In a gesture of boredom or surrender.

Your hands touch in mid-air

And you turn them palm-side out

In a kind of question mark,

As you ask for help with the ending.

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”.


I was recently introduced to this poem, about being older, by my friend Rosa Davis. I’m grateful for the discovery.

It’s not quite god

Pocketed deep inside you now

This wording of your inner voice

No longer needing an answer

This chest-centred warmth

Stillness of snow

Sheltering every branch and twig

Not god, only a sense

That this is enough.

From Caroline Natzler, Only Grenadine Press, Catford: 2015


What do we mean by soul? Why does it matter? For me, soul is a bandwidth of experience rather than a detachable entity. James Hillman described it as “a world of imagination, passion, fantasy, reflection, that is neither physical nor material on the one hand, nor spiritual and abstract on the other, yet bound to them both. By having its own realm psyche has its own logic, psychology – which is neither a science of physical things nor a metaphysics of spiritual things”. As Jung’s successor, he believed that “psychological pathologies also belong to this realm. Approaching them from either side, in terms of medical sickness or religion’s suffering, sin and salvation, misses the target of soul”.

As a champion of soul, Hillman is contrastingly a bit grumpy about spirit, another bandwidth of experience, which according to him “always posits itself as superior, operates particularly well in a fantasy of transcendence among ultimates and absolutes … strait is the gate and only first or last things will do … if people choose to go that way, I wish they would go far away to Mt. Athos or Tibet, where they don’t have to be involved in the daily soup … I think that spiritual disciplines are part of the disaster of the world … I think it’s an absolute horror that someone could be so filled with what the Greeks called superbia to think that his personal, little, tiny self-transcendence is more important than the world and the beauty of the world: the trees, the animals, the people, the buildings, the culture”.

Hillman’s sense of soul is deeply intertwined with “a style of consciousness – and this style should not even be called polytheistic, for, strictly, historically, when polytheism reigns there is no such word. When the daimones are alive, polytheism, pantheism, animism and even religion do not appear. The Greeks had daimones but not these terms, so we ought to hold from monotheistic rhetoric when entering that imaginative field and style we have been forced to call polytheistic”. Then, he says, soul can show its patterns through imagery, myth, poetry, storytelling and the comedy and agony of drama – releasing “intuitive insight” from the play of “sensate, particular events”.

A universe of soul is a pluralistic universe, a world of Eaches rather than the One or the All. For Hillman oneness can only appear as the unity of each thing, being as it is, with a name and a face – ensouled by and within its very uniqueness. He quotes William James as saying: “reality may exist in distributive form, in the shape of not of an all but of a set of eaches, just as it seems to be … there is this in favour of eaches, that they are at any rate real enough to have made themselves at least appear to everyone, whereas the absolute (wholeness, unity, the one) has as yet appeared immediately only to a few mystics, and indeed to them very ambiguously”.

For me this is where the terms Oran Mor (Great Song) and Web of Wyrd – from the Celtic and Northern traditions respectively – come into their own. The diversity and uniqueness of every note in the song, of each position within the web, are fully honoured and acknowledged. But these metaphors do also speak of a song and a web. Their unity is a unity of interconnectedness and relationship. Our current scientific metaphor of the Big Bang is a bit similar, in giving us a vast universe (or multiverse) bursting from a point at which time and space themselves originate. This image will doubtless change and may come to be seen as a ‘local’ presence/event (?) within a yet ‘larger’ system (?) ‘beyond’ our knowledge. But it offers a sense of being of the same stuff, and having a common source which in time bound 3D terms we come from and in eternal terms we simply are. Some non-dualists make much of this second aspect and frame it as an affirmation of divinity. But I see such an ultimate unity-at-source as a weak aspect of any identity I can usefully lay claim to and I’m agnostic veering sceptical about any evolutionary teleology or ‘as-if’ intentional drive. The gift  – a gift, certainly, evoking deep gratitude even in the absence of a discernible giver – is my precious, vulnerable, fleeting human life, time and space bound though it is. That’s why I value Hillman’s lens of ‘soul’, whilst also choosing to incorporate ‘spiritual’ disciplines into my own life.

  1. Hillman, James The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire London: Routledge, 1990 (Introduced and edited by Thomas Moore)

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