This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: April, 2016


The sun low over the beach:

shining wires of dune grass,

stones and the shadows of stones.

On the shoreline, the rush of foam

mirrored in the wet sand.

In the oneness of things

I am nowhere in sight.


Colin Oliver Nothing But This Moment: Selected Poems London: Shollond Trust, 2013





In my introduction to Contemplative Druidry (1) I describe “a wholly unexpected and not at all dramatic epiphany … triggered simply by noticing and contemplating a wild rose”. Although the experience lasted for only a few moments, “for some weeks I woke up every day with a sense of joy and connection”. It was a shift in my spiritual centre of gravity.

This happened on a midsummer morning in 2007, just outside the Scottish Border town of Melrose on the bank of the Tweed. It is a place loaded with religious and mythic reference – Melrose Abbey with its Green Man carvings and the heart of Robert the Bruce; the Eildon Hills, those hollow hills where the Queen of Efland took True Thomas, making it clear to him that she was not the Queen of heaven.

I had chosen to walk away from those, and towards a riverside path. My experience of the rose was entirely natural, in this legend laden land. In that sense I can call it an instance of nature mysticism, and a nudge towards a contemplative Druidry largely shorn of mythic narrative for the sake of a clearer eye. Looking back, I understood my experience as a lesser form of the one reported by the German mystic Jacob Boehme, who “fell into a trance upon looking into a burnished pewter plate that reflected the sun. In his ecstasy he saw into the very heart of nature itself and felt totally at harmony with creation” (2). Unusually for a seventeenth century Protestant, Boehme had a sense of the Divine feminine, and thought of Sophia as “the visibility of God”. He went on to be a key inspiration in a growing movement for a kinder, gentler version of the reformed faith despite the trials and trauma of his time. Boehme’s work finally appeared in English in 1662 and gave rise to a group called the Philadelphians, less known or numerous than the home grown Quakers.

Now I have entered another, different, phase. It is marked by a demystification of mysticism itself. It involves a deeper, more conscious inquiry into what I mean by ‘nature’ – the nature I see, the nature I am, and the relationship between them. On 23 May 2014 I scribbled down some words attributed to the 20th. Century teacher and sage Nisargadatta Maharaj and posted on the Science and Nonduality website. I thought of working them into the text of Contemplative Druidry. But though I found them inspirational, I hadn’t tested them or assimilated them into my experience, and so I left them out. These words are: “Love says ‘I am everything’, Wisdom says ‘I am nothing’. Between the two, my life flows. Since at any point of time and space I can be both the subject and the object of experience, I express it by saying that I am both, and neither, and beyond both”.

My new connection with the Headless Way, with its simple, transparent processes, provides a framework for doing the work I had not done two years ago. My readiness to do it owes much to my experience of contemplative Druidry during the intervening time, just as my earlier work with contemplative Druidry probably helped me to recognize the value of Nisargadatta’s words in 2014. As I move forward, I increasingly see the threads of continuity in my overall inquiry, and this gives me confidence and energy for the work itself.

  • James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/KPD, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)
  • Caitlin Mathews Sophia Goddess of Wisdom, Bride of God Wheaton IL: Quest Books, 2001


People of like intent working together. That was an early principle of our Druid contemplative retreat days, when we started in July 2012. We didn’t have to be like-minded, in the sense of having a common doctrine, or even of entering a common spiritual trance. That’s one reason for choosing plain, open and simple practices.

We have carried on in that spirit ever since, and it means that people who have otherwise diverse practices and views can comfortably share our contemplative space. My sense over the years has been that, essentially, this way of working has a restorative and regenerative role for people who live with the pressures of busy and/or challenging lives. That would include most of us, Druids or not.

Then there is the thought of being ‘simple and profound’. The ‘simple’ is easy to describe. We are very sparse in our use of ritual or mythic narrative. Rather, we enter into more conscious relationship with the space we are in and with each other. We are attentive to where we stand in the wheel of the year, what the actual conditions are like, what we notice around us and the effects on us. On retreat days we make sure of including time outdoors. We spend time side by side in solo meditative silence, turning within. We also spend time in a more outwardly attuned collective silence (Awen space), from within which we may speak or sing out. Sometimes we have specific activities like toning, chanting, meditative exercises, or contemplative drawing.

What about the ‘profound’? In Moon Book’s recently published Pagan Planet (1) I wrote a short piece called Living Presence in a Field of Living Presence: Practicing Contemplative Druidry.  For me, being ‘living presence within a field of living presence’, and living this presence more consciously, is the key to any deepening that we may find in our simplicity. It enables both the transformative potential of ‘knowing’ ourselves a little more, and does so within a context of interconnectedness.

I find that when I cut to the chase, and get to this experiential level, I need have no worries about working the Headless Way or how it fits with Druidry. My solo practices and meaning-making have indeed undergone a shift, yet Druid contemplative sessions and retreat days remain a highly appropriate and nourishing vehicle for practice and community.

(1) Nimue Brown (ed.) Pagan Planet: Being, Believing & Belonging in the 21st. Century Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2016



Douglas Harding (1909 – 2007) described his ‘Headless Way’ as a “truly contemporary and Western way of ‘seeing into one’s Nature’ or ‘Enlightenment’” He went on to say that “though in essence the same as Zen, Sufism, and other spiritual disciplines, this way proceeds in an unusually down-to-earth fashion” which would save the Seeker/Seer “years of reading, lecture-attending, thinking, ritual observances, and passive meditation of the traditional sort”.

This is achieved by “a variety of simple, non-verbal, fact-finding tests, all of them asking: how do I look to myself? They direct my attention to my blind spot – to the space I occupy, to what’s given right here at the Centre of my universe, to what it’s like being 1st-person singular, present tense” (1). Elsewhere he describes “a Reality which is Indivisible …not a thing, nor even a mind, but pure Spirit or clear Consciousness; and we are That and nothing but That … and the only way to find It is to look steadily within, where are to be found utmost peace, unfading joy, and eternal life itself” (2).

Harding claims that this experience is natural, ordinary and easy to obtain – not at all something that demands extreme practices for spiritual heroes. The real question is about how to make the experience habitual and how, if at all, we might need to do life differently. He is careful to say that “by habitual I mean remaining in contact with one’s central clarity and not … clinging to it. Not demanding that it should remain in the forefront of one’s attention in all the changing circumstances of life. The alternative is a crippling obsession. ‘In darkness are they who only look outwards, but in thicker darkness are they who only look within” (1).

I am now working with the Headless Way, a path culturally grounded in the Sophia Perennis – see  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress/2016/04/11/wisdom-of-Sophia/ – here based in Western modernity yet with a global and trans-historical frame of reference. I have known about it for some time, but discovered it in earnest only three weeks ago whilst checking information about something else. I do feel in some way nudged. I find the way of working very effective, partly because I have been warmed up to this kind of spirituality for many years without finding quite the right vehicle for it. This changes things for me.

The main change is that Headless Way exercises have largely replaced the Kabbalah based work I was planning and beginning as a complement to my Druidry. The new methods move me away from the direct heritage of the Occult revival and its use of Jewish tradition. Not completely – I still use the Middle Pillar, with vowel sounds instead of the names of God, as an energy/light body exercise. The Sophia icon described in my last post remains highly important to me as a visual and symbolic representation, with Sophia sensed as a psychic power of guidance. But that’s about it. Relative plainness is my direction now, with an emphasis on brief and tightly focused formal practices.

As it happens, my personal practice of Druidry – especially the contemplative work – has moved stylistically in the same direction: naturalism, minimalism, plainness, economy of form; making sure that the spirit isn’t lost in the cocktail. The integration, it seems to me at this early stage, is that for me the Headless Way primarily supports an inward arc, from the apparent world to the central clarity of the void. Druidry, as embodied earth spirituality, supports an outward arc, from the central clarity back to the apparent world. My life experience is made different by this two-way flow, now more fully known as contained within the Oneness. But from the standpoint of my life in the apparent world, this is a work of progress, and moving quickly. From this perspective I don’t yet know how the process is going to evolve.

(1) Douglas Harding The Headless Way Leaflet out of print. There is now a website of that name at

(2) Douglas Harding Religions of the World London: Shollond Trust, 2014. Revised edition.



This is my icon of Sophia. It was created by New York based artist and illustrator Hrana Janto and I am using it with her permission. More of her work can be found at

I like this image. It is both traditional in symbolism and somewhat naturalistic in style. There is an energetic balance of belly, heart and head. Sophia’s gaze is present and level. She has – beautifully – the accoutrements of a celestial being, whilst powerfully suggesting the stance of the realized, self-recollecting human.

Currently I am working with a small print-out pasted on card, but I have arranged to buy a full-sized print from the artist. Since I have been connecting with this image, and working a Sophian practice, my experiential understanding of who she is continues to change and develop.

I encounter Sophia within, as both a voice and a silence, the movement of the breath and a stillness in it. She makes herself known as an access of energy, an opening in the heart, a steadiness at my back. She inspires my glimmers of insight, and nudges my intuition. She calls me to the recollection of my true nature. That is her Wisdom. She will provide a theatre of fall, struggle and ascent if I forget myself and need reminding. She guides me to places where remembering is easy, if I am but willing to allow this.

As such she inhabits, in my subjective life world, what western tradition describes as psychic space, a middle ground between the physical realm of the everyday and the causal realm of luminous emptiness. All of these are known to me and experienced as One when I am truly awake.


In my last post I said that I was exploring a modern tradition known as the Headless Way. I’ll be mentioning it from time to time in future posts as I go on. So I have looked around for a congenial explanation of what it stands for, written by an experienced practitioner.

Jim Clatfelter’s Headless Dao is a version of the Tao Te Ching modified by a ‘headless’ lens. Each chapter is reinforced by a commentary. It is written in a breezy, jingling verse in some contrast with my favourite free-form version by Ursula K. Le Guin. Yet it is very successful in making its point, and I value it for that – especially appreciating the commentary to the extract from Chapter 42 below. The overall view is one which I essentially share. It makes sense to me and fits my experience.

I’ve chosen extracts from two chapters and their commentaries to offer a taste of Clatfelter’s work. I’ve kept the chapter headings so that readers can compare it with other versions. Ursula Le Guin’s is still the one that I would take to a desert island.



Before the first beginning

An emptiness is here

Alone forever and at peace

This side of what appears,

Eternally unchanging

And lacking any limit

The void of all potential

The present ultimate.

It enters all appearance

And then returns to source

It’s ever at your center

Your only true recourse

For here begin the heavens

The earth and humankind

Following this greatest way

You cannot be confined.


“Here Laozi gives us an outline of his view of existence. What appears to us as a void or an absence or emptiness is truly a mystery. It’s the ultimate. The absolute. It’s the source of existence in its infinite potential.

“It’s also a presence, pure and unchanging awareness, the always-so. This presence contains all that comes and goes in the here and now moment. It is your true, unchanging and eternal identity. It is beyond time because it contains time.

“Can you see this Dao first in all things? You are the Dao, the one awareness, the only awareness. This awareness is very close at hand. It’s at your very center, and it’s always available. It’s who you really are, and it’s always at peace and beyond upset.”



Dao enfolds a oneness

Holds yin and yang as two

Within a single presence

As two sides of the view

With yin upon my shoulders

And yang in my embrace

I live the presence of the Dao

Where all is in its place.

When the two appear as one

It’s wholeness that I see

And balance has to follow

As well as harmony.


“In Laozi’s original, this verse begins: from one comes two, and this makes three, and thus 10,000 come to be. What do these numbers refer to? …. One is Dao, the single presence. Two are yin and yang, the complementary opposites of Dao. Three is the sum, the whole.

“Laozi goes on to locate yin and yang in our direct experience. Just what is Dao?  It is yin on my shoulders and yang in my arms. The three terms Dao, yin and yang are not metaphysical terms. They are not mere words and names. They are concrete, physical and visible. You can literally point to them with a finger. To look at the yin, point to your own faceless awareness. To look at the yang, point your finger to the world of appearances (the 10,000 things) directly in front of you. See that nothing separates this yin and yang. They are two views of your presence, your life in the moment, two views of Dao. Can you see both ways and harmonize and balance the two views? It’s the Way to wholeness.”

Jim Clatfelter Headless Dao London: Shollond Trust, 2015. The Sholland Trust acts as the administrative arm of the Headless Way, which can be found at


“I think I’ll go and meet her,” said Alice…
“You can’t possibly do that,” said the Rose, “I should advise you to walk the other way.”
This sounded nonsense to Alice, so she said nothing, but set off at once towards the Red Queen. To her surprise, she lost sight of her in a moment.

Lewis Carrol Through the Looking Glass

A significant thread within ancient Wisdom claims that we are not simply human. Outwardly we are human, but inwardly we are divine. According to this wisdom, the purpose of life is to awaken our divine inner self. If we awaken to who we really are, our lives will be blessed. This wisdom is sometimes known as the Sophia perennis, the eternal wisdom, and the cultural history of Sophia – whether as Goddess or Mother of Angels – is interwoven with it.

This wisdom is not confined to the Western Way or to a theistic use of language. Prajnaparamita (= Great Wisdom) is the Mother of Buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism, and the influential Lankavatara Sutra says: “Pure in its own nature and free from the category of finite and infinite, Universal Mind is the undefiled Buddha womb, which is wrongly apprehended by sentient beings”. Similar ideas, expressed a little differently, are to be found in Taoism.

Perennialism came to wide public notice when Aldous Huxley published The Perennial Philosophy in 1945, and has had a significant influence ever since. At the present time, terms like ‘nondual’ – as at – and ‘integral’ – –  are used for the current versions. In these, we find a partial shift from finding a common thread in ancient traditions to developing new ones, in some cases backed up by an ‘evolutionary’ narrative. My own active interest has been piqued by the Headless Way developed by Douglas Harding – – and I will be attending their residential workshop in Salisbury (Wiltshire, England) in July.

Colin Oliver is a poet of the Headless Way, and his poem Sea Shell appears on their website.

What secret lies
in the heart of a sea shell
you cannot tell.

But if one day
a shell on a rock should crack
and break its back

your gaze may fall
to find in its secret heart
nothing at all.

Then turning round
to the sea you may wonder
that the waves’ sound
can come from an empty heart.




among blackthorn stars,

the bumble bee is drunk.


Petals float

from her blunders.


Her wings

move in and out of humming.


On her body is the glory

of the sun’s

wet shine.


From Colin Oliver High River Sudbury, Suffolk: Downstream Press, 2006.



In the Thoth Tarot (1), the Fool has both feet planted unfirmly in the air – falling, or perhaps rather leaping, into manifestation. In conventional packs the Fool generally retains one foot on the earth, the other poised to take the fateful leap into the abyss. In this as in other respects, artist Frieda Harris and author Aleister Crowley took a different approach. According to Lon Milo DuQuette (2) Crowley thought of the Fool as “the Nothing we refer to when we say ‘Nothing created God. Nothing is beyond God. Nothing is greater than God … In essence, there are not really 22 trumps, there is only one – the Fool. All the other trumps live inside (and issue from) the Fool.” That’s why the Fool is 0 rather than 1. Crowley himself wrote (2) that “the Fool is the negative issuing into manifestation, its purpose accomplished, ready to return”.

I use Tarot images as contemplative tools and the Kabbalist schema as a valuable map. But it is not the territory and I treat the system as a suggestive and inspiring means of furthering my contemplative inquiry. Only timelessness is timeless, and whilst Kabbalah may point to the timeless, it is itself the product of a complex history, just like alchemy and the other ingredients of the Thoth Tarot.

What attracts me to this Fool is his world-enabling negative capability. As a cosmic creation myth, I like the idea of Emptiness finding a pathway to Wisdom (Hokhmah) as the first act of descent down the Tree of Life. In my universe both Hokhmah and Binah (Understanding) are aspects of Sophia, who is both our cosmic mother and the guiding archetype of human evolution, drawing us beyond the perils of mere knowledge.

Beyond the card itself I am left with a reflection on the relation between Wisdom and Emptiness. If we are climbing up the tree, then the Fool offers a path from Wisdom to Emptiness. The Goddess willingly points us even beyond herself, perhaps reminding us of a true nature in which we are both everything and nothing. Fools, one and all.

(1)Aleister Crowley & Frieda Harris (1983) Thoth Tarot Deck Stamford, CT, USA: U.S. Games Systems Inc.

(2) Lon Milo DuQuette (2003) Understanding Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot San Francisco, CA, USA: Red Wheel/Weiser LLC




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