Watching the fast flowing ripples as wind moves over water. Enjoying the power of the elements in this playful mood. For a brief time, delightedly immersed. Then stepping back and taking a brief video and a still picture. Seeing, later, how different they are. Rich moments are not hard to find, it seems, if I’m willing to find them in simple experiences.
‘My spirituality’ (an odd term, though widely used) is becoming simpler and more natural. My defining term, contemplative inquiry, has begun to seem complicated and formal to me, though in essence I still find it valid. It also identifies a thread of continuity in a decade of exploration. I am going to keep it as a description of what I do, even as my specific practice and understanding develop. One of my hopes is to simplify my inquiry process itself, without diminishing it, as I continue to move and change. Ripple images feel relevant somehow, both in themselves and as a metaphor which I can’t quite, as yet, fully decode.
I’ve been unwell for most of this month so far. But now I seem to be mending, and this is partly due to a dream.
I don’t have deeply healing dreams very often, but when they come they affect my whole bodymind. They don’t require much roof brain interpretation. I find it more important to tune in to shifts under the surface, and intuit guidance there. The dream feels like part of my inquiry, offering itself for contemplation, so I have decided to share it here:
“A grey shadow space, unformed … out of which comes a desire, rightly or wrongly framed as a necessity, for an important encounter. Perhaps a revelatory one.
“Now, the descent into a well-defined yet dark (because night-time) space. I am in a large city, which I know to be coastal. There is someone I have to meet within the next 48 hours. I know their name and neighbourhood, but not their address. I have hope, if not confidence, that I will find them. Nonetheless, I am anxious in this night.
“Walking out in the morning, I feel simple pleasure in being at large in the city. An unfamiliar locality approached from a beach suddenly becomes familiar when I realise that I have been here before from another direction. I am on a wide street, actually an avenue with trees. There are shops and businesses of various kinds on both sides. I could eat anything that the world offers, here.
“Later, still in a flaneur rather than questing mode, I become aware that time is passing, and indeed is running out. But instead of becoming anxious, I remain attentive to the scenes in front of my face. They seem like blessing enough, as long as my openness and attention are engaged.
“Now the scene has shifted again. I am in bed in a room, watching a clock with a severe Gothic face. It is two minutes to the midnight on which my time runs out. Then 10 seconds – (it no longer matters about meeting anyone). Ticking down – the clock becomes simpler and friendlier. I’m curious. At the very end I am relaxed and happy.
“Then I wake up, check out my surroundings, and enjoy the feeling of being blessed with a healing dream. I deeply believe that I am on the road to recovery, whatever recovery turns out to mean.”
It is 1 March, a mixed day – bringing together grey sky, bare branches, emerging blossoms and vivid daffodils. It is chilly, and rain is likely, though not just yet. Daffodils (here the strongest sign of a changing year) are linked to St. David, the patron saint of Wales. 1 March is his feast day.
David lived during the sixth century CE, a flourishing time for Celtic Christianity. His defining early achievement was the founding of a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosyn (the Vale of Roses) on the west headland of Pembrokeshire (Si Benfro) where St. David’s Cathedral now stands. He went on to become a Christian leader of great authority, and was eventually canonised in the twelfth century, a different historical period with the church under stronger Vatican control and Welsh identity under threat from the English. David became the patron saint of Wales and his day is celebrated in Wales with parades and other public events.
Gloucester is very much an English city, though not so very far from Wales. Today’s weather conditions would not be out of place there. My wife Elaine and I went out on a morning walk with a sense of the saint’s day and how both the day and the coming of March represent a shift in the year. I noticed, too, how I can honour a saint without thinking of sainthood as a model, or even remotely wanting to be one. I acknowledge that I am on different kind of path, less defined, less heroic, and less religious.
When out walking, I see how the ordinary world seems to transform in the light of a loving gaze. I am looking at the world as it is, not for signs of a creator’s hand or influence or expectations. For me, laid out below – at the micro level – I find grass, earth, twigs, purple crocus and dead leaves. They are simply themselves. All ordinary in an ordinary moment. But an ordinary moment, as we might conventionally call it, is an extraordinary event. It is a small miracle, in its naturalistic way, yet easy to access in a receptive frame of mind.
I do appreciate that a ‘receptive frame of mind’, as a private experience, is facilitated by favourable public conditions, like a well-managed public park. I may not be dependent on such external conditions, but they do make a difference. I am grateful for their current presence in an uncertain world.
I was facing strong sunlight. I even felt warm. I risked taking a picture by angling down into the water. The water rewarded me with a patches of reflected light. I accepted a somewhat darkening effect in the photograph as a whole. The solar reality was brighter to my eyes, almost too much for them, flooding the path before me with intense light. When I looked back to where I had been, the light was gentler. My picture below shows a clear blue sky that I could confidently open up to include.
Though winter is not exactly over, I was experiencing an undoubtedly spring day. I was in a spring frame of mind, welcoming the change of season, as the wheel turns, and welcoming a still new landscape into my life. I have chosen this canal path as a place of regular walks and engagement. Over time, in the rising year, I will get to see and know it better. I seem to be a water margin Druid at heart, and I am finding possibilities in this new, more densely urban context. I find the energy of life everywhere I look – whether land, water, or sky.
“The nature of reality is multidimensional and creative. … Our spontaneous experience is so rich and deep that we can never give a complete account of it in any language, be it mathematics, science, music or art” – Alan Drengson’s introduction to Arne Naess’ Ecology of Wisdom (1).
Arne Naess (1912-2009) was chair of philosophy at the University of Oslo, Norway, before resigning to devote himself to environmental problems and pioneer the field of deep ecology. For him, philosophy is deep exploration of our whole lives and context, “in a loving pursuit of living wisely” (1). His book Scepticism (2), is focused on Sextus Empiricus (150-225 CE), the last known known representative of a philosophy school founded by Pyrrho of Elis (c360-c272 BCE). Pyrrho himself spent time with Jains (gymnosophists = naked philosophers) and, probably, Buddhists, on an extended visit to India, and was influenced by them.
Pyrrhonists neither made truth claims nor denied the possibility of making them. Instead, they cultivated an attitude of suspension of judgement (epoche), allowing possibilities to stand open within the process of continuing inquiry. This turning away from the drive for intellectual closure enables peace of mind (ataraxia) in our engagement with the richness and diversity of experience. Pyrrhonists left questions open, without leaving the question. Naess says of Sextus: “he has given up his original, ultimate aim of gaining peace of mind by finding truth because it so happened that he came to peace of mind in another way”.
In his account of the Jains, Philip Carr-Gomm (3), shows how they might have influenced Pyrrho. Jain ethics is grounded in three principles: ahimsa, aparigraha, and anekant. Ahimsa is the doctrine of harmlessness or non-violence. Aparigraha is the doctrine of non-attachment, non-possessiveness or non-acquisition. Anekant is the doctrine of many-sidedness, multiple viewpoints, non-absolutism, or non-one-sidedness. The three principles can be seen as complementing and completing each other, with non-absolutism as the intellectual aspect of non-violence and non-attachment. The Pyrrhonist tradition, and its influence on Naess, seems to combine the Jain view of non-absolutism with the Buddhist view of equanimity and freedom from dukkha (suffering or dis-ease).
The approach – which I sometimes lose sight of myself – allows me to avoid what the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor (4) calls “the language game ‘In Search of Truth'”, where “one is … tacitly encouraged to take a further step of affirming a division between ‘believers’ and ‘nonbelievers’, between those who have gained access to the truth and those who have not. This establishes the kind of cultish solidarity as well as hatred for others who fail to share one’s views. ‘When the word truth is uttered’ remarked the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, ‘a shadow of violence is cast’. (4)
I have written on this topic at earlier points in my inquiry*. I have come back to it now, because I want to refine my understanding of ‘peace’ as a quality of inquiry. The liturgy of my daily Druid practice asks for ‘peace throughout the world’. How might I better demonstrate peace in the inquiry process itself? Inquiry processes, and even contemplative spiritualities, can include their own kinds of dogmatism and aggression. I have work to do, wisdom work, hopefully gentle to self and others, in this domain.
(1) Arne Naess Ecology of Wisdom UK: Penguin Books, 2016 (Penguin Modern Classic. First published 2008)
(2) Arne Naess Scepticism Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 1968
(3) Philip Carr-Gomm Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions Lewes, UK: Oak Tree Press, 2019 (Foreword by Peter Owen Jones)
(4) Stephen Batchelor Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017
I took this picture from an upstairs window before 9 a.m. on18 February 2022,. It shows blue sky and the tower of St Mary de Crypt, Gloucester. The image is calm, and I enjoy its simple beauty. But I am bracing for a severe storm, officially named ‘Storm Eunice’. We are on red alert, which is very rare in this country. I contemplate the tower, which stands both for longevity and impermanence.
It is 10.15 a.m. now and the wind, at first just playful, has moved into serious gusting. Paper and leaves blow about in a courtyard. The sky is grey and there are raindrops on my window pane. Taking another picture, I notice I have lowered my sights. I have included more material substance, roof tops in particular. The invitation to skyward contemplation, so poignantly encouraged by towers like this, isn’t so present for me in this moment. The theme now is embodied endurance and solidity, weathering the winds of the world. For they don’t seem at all celestial, their current force at least partly the result of our own collective behaviour. Strong walls and a decent roof are the focus of my desire. I am, after all, a Pagan.
I am an urban Druid now, more clearly than before. It gives me a different view of nature. On one hand I am reminded that everything is included in ‘nature’. But in so far as I make a city/country distinction, I do notice a different experience of the elements, seasons, and the varieties of life. In an old and relatively small city (pop. 165,000) it is easier to see the evolution of human culture as a gradual and organic process than in other built environments. Today is a special day because raw and conceivably violent nature is coming on a visit. Whilst I notice fears around this, and am distressed by the notion of harm to anyone, I also find an aspect of Spring, and renewal, in this. I do feel energised, now, just after 11 a.m., and this at least is welcome. I have no idea of how the day is going to play out here, or what I am going to feel about my experience of Storm Eunice at the days end.
Today I felt settled enough in my new sacred space to consult the DruidCraft Tarot (1). It goes with a sense of full arrival in a new home and of readiness for a psychic check-in: what possibilities are latent or emerging in my journey through life?
I was presented with a three card narrative that I found encouraging. The first, the context that I am coming from, was the seven of wands with its sense of challenges successfully faced. The third, the Lady (DruidCraft’s Empress), heavily pregnant, points to abundance and fruition. But it was the middle card, the where-I-am-now card, that got my attention most. The Moon.
For me, the Moon points in particular to the deeper rhythms and tides of the unconscious, aspects of life that have their being outside the bright light of solar awareness, too easily edited out of my narrative identity. This is a world of powerful, yet dimly remembered dreams, unquiet moods and sensations, and half-articulate intuitions. There are qualities here, in this shadowy, softly lit world, to welcome and companion. They hide a distinctive wisdom of their own, unlike that of the image-conscious, yarn-spinning ego.
Much of my focus in recent years has been on the state I call, in ritual space, ‘the peace of the centre’ – sometimes the peace of the Goddess. This is well-anchored now and allows a more panoramic view. Under lunar influence, the peace of the centre is complemented by a perturbation of the margins, also part of the ecology of being human. The process of moving house has reminded me of my talents for anxiety and catastrophising ideation: limitations, perhaps, at times disabling. But they protect me from a blind trust in the world. They generate a wary alertness, and balance my deep sense of peace.
(1) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The DruidCraft Tarot: Use the Magic of Wicca and Druidry to Guide Your Life London: Connections, 2004 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)
I’ve been ‘plant-based’ or ‘mostly vegan’ for several years now, since coming to understand the role of livestock on the climate. But towards the end of 2020, my son asked if he could be properly vegan. I joined him and we have done it together. I haven’t mentioned this before on the blog. I see […]
I have been walking among buildings, before being drawn something different – at first, a fleeting impression to my right. I turn to face it. I walk forwards a few yards, as the new vision clarifies, and feel moved to take this picture. I am still aware of buildings, but boats and water now dominate. There are trees and moving clouds in the distance. The world lights up. It feels like a perceptual rebirth. I find myself in a new and different world.
I continue walking, towards the water. Then I turn left, I look left, I and both see and feel the energy of water and clouds. They invite me to follow them out of the city. I take the picture below, and register the prospect of another canal walk, quite different from the one I knew in Stroud.
In this time of changed perspectives, I notice a shift in my sense of contemplation and inquiry. I feel strongly anchored in this life and world, the place where experiences happen. The numinous is embedded in the everyday, and gifts me with a fruitful ground for continuing exploration.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the much loved Buddhist teacher from Vietnam, died on 22 January at the age of 95. He had been unwell for some time. He is remembered as peace activist, inventor of the term ‘interbeing’ and teacher of mindfulness practice. For him, this is the practice of being aware of what is going on in the present moment. We can be mindful at any moment, whether we are sad, joyful, angry, and whilst cooking, driving or about to send an email.
I am not a Buddhist. Instead, I feel and recognise Thich Nhat Hanh’s influence on my practice of Druidry – especially my sense of at-homeness, or presence, in the living moment. In memory and appreciation of him, I want to share a piece he wrote about aimlessness as as a ‘door of liberation’ (1).
“The concentration on aimlessness means arriving in the present moment to discover that the present moment is the only moment in which you can find everything you’ve been looking for and that you already are everything you want to become.
“Aimlessness does not mean doing nothing. It means not putting something in front of you to chase after. When we remove the objects of our craving and desires, we discover that happiness and freedom are available right here in the present moment.
“We have a habit of running after things, and this habit has been transmitted to us by our parents and ancestors. We don’t feel fulfilled in the here and now, and so we run after all kinds of things we think will make us happier. We sacrifice our life chasing after objects of craving or striving for success in our work or studies. We chase after our life’s dream and lose ourselves along the way. We even lose our freedom and happiness in our efforts to be mindful, to be healthy, to relieve suffering in the world, or to get enlightened. We disregard the wonders of the present moment, thinking that heaven and the ultimate are for later, not for now.
“To practice meditation means to have the time to look deeply and see these things. If you feel restless in the here and now, or you feel ill at ease, you need to ask yourself: ‘what am I longing for? what am I waiting for? what am I searching for?'”
(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017