This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: February, 2016


Last Wednesday, 17 February 2016, I married Elaine Knight. We’ve known each other for something like 25 years. We’ve been partners for nearly 11 years, living together for over 7 of them. Elaine is still Elaine Knight – she’s not changing her name. We will continue to have large spheres of autonomy  as well as togetherness. Yet we agree that our simple ceremony and the exchange of rings has made a significant difference. Just looking at mine, or touching it, inspires feelings of peace, joy, love and gratitude – towards Elaine, and in the wider what-is.



There’s a possibly related process running in my formal spirituality, which for around a decade has been predominantly though not exclusively under the aegis of OBOD Druidry. In recent months I’ve sensed a reduction in intensity. The flavour now seems to be one of consolidating and easing into a new normal, a spirituality, alive as an ever-present background influence and less compelling as a foreground pre-occupation. I intend to continue my service roles – OBOD mentoring, and the offer of contemplative spaces with Elaine and other companions – whilst finding that I feel more relaxed about them. That’s probably good for my performance of the roles.

In the meantime Elaine and I will be spending time together and with close relatives in York and Edinburgh over the next 10 days and I won’t be writing another blog post until my return.




Where the dogs bark

By roaring waters,

Whose spray darkens

The petals’ colours,

Deep in the woods

Deer at times are seen;


The valley noon:

One can hear no bell.

But wild bamboos

Cut across bright clouds,

Flying cascades

Hang from jasper peaks;


No one here knows

Which way you have gone:

Two, now three pines

I have lent against.


Li Po (701-62)


‘Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him’ is a common theme in Chinese poetry. The full title for the particular poem above is: ‘On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai T’ien Mountains and Not Finding Him’. Li Po is regarded as one of China’s greatest poets and wrote it between the ages of 17 and 19.

According to translator Arthur Cooper, such a poem is more than a ‘nature poem’ but “relates in its thought to the ‘spirit journeys’ of which Li Po himself was particularly fond and which are to be found in early Chinese poetry”.  In such poems the wise hermit ‘teaches without telling’, by letting the poet wait and not even meet him. Awakening to the landscape (external or internal) carries more spiritual meaning than speculation about the whereabouts of the hermit.

Another approach to the same theme is offered in a famous poem by Chia Tao (777-841):


Under a pine,

I asked his pupil

Who said, “Master’s

Gone gathering balm


Only somewhere

About the mountain:

The cloud’s so thick

That I don’t know where.


Li Po and Tu Fu Poems Selected and translated with an introduction and notes by Arthur Cooper. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973



Good news for Druids, I think, and for all followers of life-affirming paths. A study from the University of California, Berkeley, published in the journal Emotion (1) suggests that “the feeling of awe we may experience during encounters with art, nature and spirituality has an anti-inflammatory effect, protecting the body from chronic disease”. The researchers found a correlation between feelings of awe and lower levels of cytokines, markers that put the immune system on high alert by triggering a defensive reaction known as inflammation. While inflammation is essential to fighting infection and disease when the body is presented with a specific threat, chronically high levels of cytokines have been linked to a number of health problems, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression and autoimmune conditions.

Dacher Keltner, a member of the research team, defines ‘awe as’ being “in the upper reaches of pleasure, on the border of fear”. She says the finding that “awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions -– a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – have a direct influence upon health and life expectancy” (2).

Meanwhile other studies have shed light on the relationship between awe and mindfulness, seen as two of the core elements of many spiritual traditions. Here, awe is defined as a “feeling of fascination and amazement invoked by an encounter with something larger than ourselves that is beyond our ordinary frameworks of understanding”. In one experiment the researchers recruited 64 undergraduate participants to view and respond to a number of images. All of participants were shown two sets of images: one set of images was used to inspire awe (the Grand Canyon, majestic mountains, a view of the Earth from space) while the others were meant to inspire feelings of positivity (kittens, flowers, baby chicks), and asked to rate their awe and positivity responses on a scale of 1 to 7. Prior to viewing the images, half of the participants listened to a 10-minute mindfulness audio tape, while the other half listened to non-mindfulness control audio. The participants who took part in the brief mindfulness exercise experienced a greater awe reaction than the control group in response to the awe-provoking images.

University of Groningen psychologist Dr. Brian Ostafin , quoted in Huffpost Science (3), theorises quite generously from this limited data that  “you can’t digest [the object of awe] with your cognitive structures — it’s too big for you. So there’s a need for accommodation, to change your mental structures to understand what that is. This is the key element of the spiritual experience in a number of different religions. … And mindfulness is a little bit about that too, because you’re paying attention and exercising non-conceptual awareness, so you should be more open to the immensity that’s there. You step out of the small frame that you have and this small idea of what the world is… You’re not stuck in your own story … When we practice mindfulness (the cultivation of a focused, non-judgmental awareness on the present moment), we’re more able to open our mind to make sense of new experiences”.

This research is indicative rather than conclusive, especially it seems to me in the case of the Groningen study.  The research design there seems to me to be based on the offer of rather modest doses of mindfulness and somewhat modest opportunities for awe. Yet there was a real difference in the reported experiences of the mindfulness participants and the control group – so something at least is being suggested about states of attention and experienced quality of response. I find it heartening that this kind of research is going on and intend to keep an eye on it as part of my inquiry.

(1) Stellar, Jennifer E. (et al) Positive affect and markers of inflammation: discreet positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines Emotion Vol 15 (2), April 2015, 129-133

(2) Caroline Gregoire Experiences of Art, Nature, and Spirituality May Help Prevent Disease, Study Finds Huffpost Science, 5 Feb 2015, updated 2 April.

(3) Caroline Gregoire How Meditation Primes the Mind for Spiritual Experiences Huffpost Science 3 January 2015, updated 1 March 2015


OBOD member Siobhan McGee has just alerted me to The Heart of Silence conference on 16-19 April 2016 at Regent’s University London – see

The full title is Exploring the Place of Silence in Psychotherapy, Society and our World and the conference is dedicated to the proposition that:

Through Silence we are able to deeply listen to ourselves, one another and our Planet, and from this place we can act.  

 The organizers are the Association of Core Process Psychotherapists, and the event is open to anyone wanting to explore and experience the value of silence. The organizers say:

In Silence we can connect with the heart and during this Conference there will be the opportunity to experience and embody Silence together.   

The speakers and plenaries will focus attention on two central questions: 

What is the nature and role of Silence in relationship?
How can Silence unify us, in the midst of life today?

The keynote speaker is Brian Keenan, who, more than most, has had to confront the reality of enforced silence during his four and a half year incarceration as a hostage in Beirut.

The other speakers are:

Maura Sills, Founder of the Karuna Institute and one of the original mindfulness based psychotherapies, has been teaching mindfulness and silence practices to psychotherapists for more than 30 years.

Rebecca Crane is Director of the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor University.

Matthew Adams and David Harley are researchers of silence at the University of Brighton.

Catherine McGee is an International Meditation teacher who brings an interest in the silent heart.

Mac Macartney, an author and founder of Embercombe, asks if, through silence, we can remember our humanity.

The workshop leaders are Amaranatho, an ex-Buddhist Monk and Alastair McNeilage, a Core Process Psychotherapist and writer.

The two day conference is fully catered.


Not a twig or leaf on the old tree,

Wind and frost harm it no more.

A man could pas through a hole in its belly,

Ants crawl searching under its peeling bark.

Its only lodger, the toadstool which dies in a morning,

The birds no longer visit in the twilight.

But its wood can still spark tinder.

It does not care yet to be only the void at its heart.


By Han Yü (768-824)

From: Poems of the Late T’ang translated from the Chinese with an introduction by A.C. Graham Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965

Han Yü was primarily an essayist and polemicist, and initiated an ultimately successful Confucian revival at a time of Buddhist cultural dominance. When writing verse, he adopted devices traditionally confined to prose and to fu (prose poems) and sought to attend to the social and human content of poetry.


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