Highly recommended. Druid author Joanna van der Hoeven writes for the ‘solitary seeker’ who wishes “to explore the magic and mystery” of the earth based spiritualities indigenous to Britain and Ireland. Another reviewer finds, in this book, “a spiritual path that values direct participation with, and first-hand knowledge of, the worlds within us, around us and beyond us”. After reading the book myself, I cannot improve on this as a summary statement.
The book is divided into four sections. The first and longest, ‘Theory’, offers background, context and framing for key concepts, values, and practices. Topics covered include Druids ancient and modern, Awen, Gods, and Ancestors; the three realms of land sea and sky; World Tree, Hedge and Otherworld; the wheel of the year and the four quarters; cycles of the Moon; meditation, prayer, and magic; Animism and connection.
The second section, ‘Practice’, offers a comprehensive range of practices to bring the exploration alive. These include suggestions for daily as well as occasional practice and for working both outside and indoors. The remaining two sections are briefer. ‘Study’ launches the seeker into the area of herblore, ogham and spellcraft. ‘Skills and Techniques’ covers the issues of ethics and peace and the roles of teacher, leader and priest – also looking at the importance of voice, body and movement, not least for practitioners who take on these roles.
Joanna van der Hoeven is an established Druid author, now also a teacher at Druid College UK*. The College works face-to-face with participants over an extended period and is designed for people who seek to be ‘carriers’ of the Druid tradition rather than simply followers This fruitful perspective is also discussed in The Book of Hedge Druidry. Experienced practitioners as well as beginners have something to gain from this book.
Joanna van der Hoeven The Book of Hedge Druidry: A Complete Guide for the Solitary Seeker Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2019
“Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions brought a surgeon to treat him, The man would say, ‘I would not pull out the arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; whether the arrow that wounded me was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed’.
“All this would still not be known to that man and in the meanwhile he would die. So too, Maunkyaputta, if anyone should say: ‘I will not lead the noble life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal, finite or infinite; whether the soul is the same as or different from the body; whether an awakened one continues or ceases to exist after death,’ that would still remain undeclared by the Buddha and meanwhile that person would die.” (1)
The Buddhist scholar and teacher Stephen Batchelor, quoting these early words, affirms a Buddha committed to “an existential, therapeutic and liberating agnosticism” concerned “with anguish and the ending of anguish”. He laments the historical tendency of Buddhism to lose this agnostic dimension and to become an institutionalised religion. He believes that “this transformation of Buddhism into a religion obscures and distorts the encounter of the dharma with contemporary agnostic culture. … The dharma in fact might well have more in common with Godless secularism than with the bastions of religion.”
At the same time, the force of the word ‘agnosticism’ has been lost in modern secular culture, becoming complicit with “the attitude that legitimises an indulgent consumerism and and the unreflective conformism dictated by mass media”. T. H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, understood agnosticism as “a method realised through the rigorous application of a single principle”. This was to follow our reason as far as it will take us, and not to pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. It is a principle that runs through western culture from Socrates to the axioms of modern science. Buddha and Huxley both advocate a method rather than a creed, opening the possibility of a conversation between them.
What does this tell me about my own path now? Contemplative inquiry is a method. It is based on phenomenology as a subjective life-world investigation, and mine tells me that fruitful spiritual practices do not depend on the metaphysical views that are often linked to them. I can interpret and value everything that I have done within a naturalistic framework. It is a significant conclusion for my inquiry.
This does not in itself invalidate the metaphysical views. I have simply withdrawn from my personal engagement with them, except to the extent that they are embedded in the authentic experiences and stories of other people, past and present. I can still value and learn from those. I find imaginative engagement with other points of view quite easy. But in my own spiritual understanding, I seem now to be with Huxley and the Buddha.
Contemplative inquiry is a valued method but I would not call it my path. My path is Druidry, and I have been re-establishing this consciously since the Winter Solstice of 2019. The default position of the Druidry I was trained in is a romantic theosophy, though one in active evolution, rich in variation and re-imagining. In my personal journey, I am now clearly in a naturalistic and secular space, animist in a sense (2) that is “‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical.” As a result of my inquiry, my Druid note is different than it was before I began.
I am clearer, lighter, more alive. It feels easier to experience the abundance in simplicity that I value. By letting the mystery be, I can immerse myself more deeply in the textured life of the world. Leaning in to naturalistic world view, I expand my sense of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’, and my Druid path feels stronger.
(1) Stephen Batchelor Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening London: Bloomsbury, 1998 (First published in the USA in 1997 by Riverhead Books)
” The moon was the image in the sky that was always changing yet always the same. What endured was the cycle, whose totality could never be seen at any one moment. All that was visible was the constant interplay between light and dark in an ever recurring sequence. Implicitly however, the early people must have come to see every part of the cycle from the perspective of the whole. The individual phases could not be named, nor the relations between them expressed, without assuming the presence of the whole cycle. The whole was invisible, an enduring and unchanging circle, yet it contained the visible phases. Symbolically, it was as if the visible ‘came from’ and ‘returned to’ the invisible – like being born and dying, and being born again.
“The great myth of the bronze age is structured on the distinction between the ‘whole’, personified as the Great Mother Goddess, and the ‘part’, personified as her son-lover or her daughter. She gives birth to her son as the new moon, marries him as the full moon, loses him to the darkness as the waning moon, goes in search of him as the dark moon, and rescues him as the returning crescent. In the Greek myth, in which the daughter plays the role of ‘the part’, the cycle is the same, but the marriage is between the daughter and a god who personifies the dark phase of the moon. The daughter, like the son, is rescued by the mother. In both variations of the myth, The Goddess may be understood as the eternal cycle s a whole: the unity of life and death as a single process. The young goddess or god is her mortal form in time, which, as manifested life, whether plant, animal or human being – is subject to a cyclical process of birth, flowering, decay, death and rebirth.
“The essential distinction between the whole and the part was later formulated in the Greek language by the two different Greek words for life, zoe and bios, as the embodiment of two dimensions co-existing in life. Zoe is infinite, eternal life; bios is finite and individual life. Zoe is infinite ‘being’; bios is the living and dying manifestation of this eternal world in time.”
(1) Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993
INQUIRY NOTE: For me this modern interpretation of Bronze Age myth offers a good Pagan way of talking about ‘non-duality’, a strong thread in my inquiry in recent years. In its Sanskrit origin, advaita simply means ‘not two’. It speaks of a unity that is not exactly oneness in the sense of complete assimilation. It points to the sense that we are bios in our transient personal lives yet also zoe the life eternal, both the wave and the ocean. In Western theistic culture this view seems consistent with either pantheism or panentheism. It also fits modern understandings of animism and biocentrism. While I find it useful to know about these models and frameworks, I avoid strong identification with them. There remains an underlying mystery, which is where myth and imagination come into their own.
Introducing The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (2013)* editor Graham Harvey describes animism as “a hard-working word”. For him, “it identifies a range of interesting phenomena but also labels several distinct ways of understanding such matters”.
Harvey’s own interest was sparked by postdoctoral research among varied groups of Pagans, which brought him into contact with people who identified as animists. It seemed to him that the word was being used in two contrasting ways. “Some Pagans identified animism as the part of their religious practice or experience which involved encounters with tree-spirits, river-spirits or ancestor-spirits. This animism was metaphysical … Other Pagans seemed to use ‘animism’ as a shorthand reference to their efforts to re-imagine and re-direct human participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community. This animism was relational, embodied, eco-activist and often ‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical.”
Fast-forward seven years to now, and ‘animist’ is clearly an important identifier for considerable numbers of people. many of whom draw on both kinds of understanding distinguished by Harvey. Accelerating environmental degradation, species loss and the ever more obvious climate crisis have given the second understanding greater salience and urgency, even when not reinforced by the first.
TheHandbook gives valuable information about the history and hinterland of a word that I and my spiritual community use. For ‘animism’ did not arise as a term for people to describe their own experience. It comes from 19th century anthropology, developed by people from a dominant culture (largely European/North American, with a mix of Christian and secular ideas) to study the traditional practices of other people, most of whom were in the process of becoming colonial subjects and living in cultures under stress. Even in the current collection, with its de-colonised anthropology and room for first nations voices, ‘animism’, however positively reframed, is still an awkward piece of labelling for some contributors. One says, “we just call it tradition”.
So ‘animism’ is not innocent. Yet despite this dubious history, it is clear that animism does have inspirational potential as a positive term in our faltering 21st century world. Regardless of where we stand in our metaphysics, any of us can work to re-imagine and re-direct our “participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community” in a way that is “relational, embodied” and, if we so choose, “eco-activist”. How we do these things is up to us. I will look at the work of some of the individual contributors in future posts.
Graham Harvey (ed.) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism London & New York: Routledge, 2014 (First published by Acumen in 2013)
Spaces ‘between’ can be numinous. They feed the soul. Imbolc for me is like a pre-dawn light. I am not yet out of winter, but something else is happening, and palpably growing in strength.
The hierophant of the Wildwood Tarot – the Ancestor – is placed as a power of Imbolc. An antlered figure clothed in reindeer skins and evergreen leaves, she has a resonance of Elen of the Ways, the reindeer goddess who stands for the sovereignty of the land. She calls to us from a deep past where Ice Age hunters followed reindeer through ancient forest, “following the deer trods” (1,2) responsive to the herds and attuned to the landscape. They lived with little personal property and without long hours of alienating work. The Ancestor invites us to wonder what these early ancestors might have to teach us under our very different conditions.
On the card, the Ancestor is sounding a drum and calling us into another consciousness – one more open and aware of our place within the web of life. In her world, deer and people are kin. She herself is ambiguous – she might be wearing a mask, or she might be a truly theriomorphic figure. I respond to her call by sinking deeply into my felt sense – the embodied life of sensation, feelings and belly wisdom. The call of the Ancestor is a pathway to greater wholeness and connection, both personally and collectively. As the year wakes up, it is a good call to hear.
(1) Elen Sentier Elen of the Ways: British Shamanism – Following the Deer Trods Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2013 (Shaman Pathways series)
(2) Elen Sentier Following the Deer Trods: A Practical Guide to Working with Elen of the Ways Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2014 (Shaman Pathways series)
Western Animism: Zen and the Art of Positive Paganism. Highly recommended.
Melusine Draco is an established Pagan author, here writing mostly about Japanese culture. She draws on her Shinto upbringing by her father, a martial arts instructor and countryman. She contrasts the Abrahamic stigmatisation of Paganism and Animism in the West with the peaceful co-existence of Buddhism and Shinto in Japan, to the point where the line between them can be “decidedly hazy”. She suggests that the Japanese approach makes positive spirituality and living easier. All it really takes is “time to appreciate white clouds against the bright blue of a winter sky; the whisper of falling rain; the aroma of freshly baked bread … if we make a practice out of seeking out the positive, we tend to find it everywhere – even on ‘bad, black dog days’ when we can still hear water dreaming, or listen to the stones growing”.
In five relatively brief chapters, Melusine Draco covers a great deal of ground. She discusses Ki, “the unseen life force in our body and everywhere”, and the sense that there is no dividing line between the divine and human. She describes Kami, “the most ambiguous of spirits” and talks of “sermons in nature”. She describes a Zen teacher who, at the beginning of a lecture, paused to listen to a songbird outside the window, and then dismissed the class. She explains Kensho moments, sudden insights and awakenings that help us on our way. Exercises to facilitate such moments are scattered through the book.
Draco evokes a culture that celebrates life and its transience; stylises and thus sacralises everyday skills and activities; and pays respectful attention to nature, including Kami. Religion itself is based on respect rather than faith. Drawing on these riches, Draco suggests an alternative wheel of the year inspired by Japanese festivals and adapted for the West. A chapter on the Zen garden includes a wider discussion of sacred space and the use of plants. Her final chapter looks at Zen arts and aesthetics – including wabi-sabi, “defined as the beauty of things ‘imperfect, impermanent and incomplete’”. It also covers a Japanese view of concentration, meditation, contemplation, and the differences between them. For Draco, “contemplation is that state of consciousness which brings clairvoyant power. It must, because the basis of contemplation is a clairvoyant perception, a kind of spiritual intuition”.
Anyone interested in Japanese spirituality, and willing to be inspired by it, would benefit from reading this book.
Melusine Draco Western Animism: Zen and the Art of Positive Paganism Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2019 (Pagan Portals series)
A happy New Year to all readers, as we begin to navigate the 2020’s! May we find compassionate and creative ways to flourish in the days ahead.
As my contemplative inquiry evolves, I update the ‘About’ section for this blog. Below is my revision for the beginning of 2020.
“I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. I began my contemplative inquiry within modern British Druidry and my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014. https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/
“Over time my inquiry became a wider exploration of contemplative spirituality, identified for a period as a Sophian Way. It drew on the enduring wisdom of many times and places and I came to experience it as a path of healing, peace and illumination. In particular, my inquiry identified an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment. Such at-homeness is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I have found that, for me, the realisation of this at-homeness has supported a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.
“The discovery of at-homeness emerged from an inward inquiry arc: noticing myself perceiving, making meaning, and finding a language to articulate my experience. Now I am on an outward arc. I am turning to a greater focus on relationships, community, culture, and the wider web of life. Druidry, as a modern eco-spirituality receptive to ancient wisdom, is renewing its importance in my life.”
At this point in my inquiry I want to refine my understanding of ’emptiness’. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is a great help here, in his final commentary on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra .
Thich Nhat Hanh discusses Buddha’s teaching that everything is “a manifestation of causes and conditions” and that nothing is permanent or unchanging. This applies to the whole cosmos, and not just to the apparent world. “Whether you call it atman (the soul) or Brahman (ultimate divinity), whether you call it the individual self or the universal self, you cannot find anything there”. Buddha’s teaching was aimed at undermining both of these notions. Nothing has any ‘self-nature’ (we might use the term ‘essence’).
Thich Nhat Hanh pursues this right into the territory of emptiness. “There are still many people who are drawn into thinking that emptiness is the ground of being, the ontological ground of everything. But emptiness, when understood rightly, is the absence of any ontological ground. … We must not be caught by the notion of emptiness as an eternal thing. It cannot be any kind of absolute or ultimate reality. This is why it can be empty. Our notion of emptiness should be removed. It is empty.”
He goes on to say: “the insight of interbeing is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else … looking from the perspective of space we call emptiness ‘interbeing’; looking from the perspective of time we call it ‘impermanence’ … to be empty is to be alive, to breathe in and breathe out. Emptiness is impermanence; it is change … we should celebrate. … When you have a kernel of corn and entrust it to the soil, you hope it will be a tall corn plant. If there is no impermanence, the kernel of corn will remain a kernel of corn forever and you will never have an ear of corn to eat. Impermanence is crucial to the life of everything”.
This is one side of an age old controversy within spiritualities of Indian origin. In this blog, I have given friendly attention to the other side as well – particularly Direct Path teachers like Rupert Spira and Greg Goode and the Indian influenced Douglas Harding. In the end I don’t make an absolute judgement about it. My Sophian ‘At-Homeness in the flowing moment’ is compatible with both views. But I’m now finding greater energy and aliveness in the framework here presented by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Increasingly, when I do Direct Path exercises I experience a breaking down of assumptions about experience itself, and a tremendous opening out … but no container called ‘Awareness’ to fill a God sized hole. It’s similar for me with the Harding exercises. My experience is broadly the same, but my felt sense has shifted, and my narrative with it. I’m moving away from big picture truth claims about this, because I have become sceptical that exercises like this provide any grounds for them, one way or the other. Rather, I lean in to an evolving personal understanding, always provisional, of my contemplative experiences.
As a shorthand, I can talk about the tension between a ‘Oneness’ framing and an ‘interbeing’ framing of what people call non-duality. The difference can seem subtle – and it may be best to use ambiguous, open-ended words like ‘Tao’ and preserve a sense of mystery. But at this turning of the year, ‘interbeing’ is my preferred term. It fits better with the eco-spirituality which I take from my Druid journey, and affirms the relational basis of my Sophian Way.
(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017
There’s a saying that we never see the same stream twice. It’s true, from a certain perspective. The water is always different. In this recent picture there’s more of it than is usual. The flow is faster and more energised. But in another sense, it is clearly the same stream. There’s a pattern and a placing that make it the same. Not forever. But enough to give it an identity of its own. Enough for us to recognise it, and to be in relationship with it over time.
I think of my inquiry in the same way. It is clearly a process of inquiring, not a thing. It has changed a lot over the years. But I notice, looking back, that it does also have characteristic points of reference and recurring themes. It has its own kind of flow. I see for example that whilst taking up practices of self-inquiry linked to non-dualist movements, I have not embraced the movements. I have gone to them for insight, not belonging. Instead, I have naturalised the insight and reframed it in my own terms – such as stilling into presence, or finding home in the flowing moment. The central focus on Sophia, and the naming of a Sophian Way, has helped here. In my world, contemplative inquiry is a core Sophian practice.
I have also kept a least half a foot in the cultural matrix of modern Druidry, Paganism, animism and eco-spirituality. These movements are closer to my heart and imagination, and feel more like my cultural home. For me, emptiness only has meaning as a home to fullness and and an exuberant multiplicity of forms. The Sophia card (Major Arcana II) in the Byzantine Tarot has a vision of Sophia as present in all of creation and the natural world, and also “watching over the steps of the Holy Fool on his journey and guiding those who seek her blessing to find their own path through the world”*. I am not at all sure about the word ‘holy’, but I see Sophia in the stream, and sense the guidance there.
*John Matthews and Cilla Conway The Byzantine Tarot: Wisdom of an Ancient Empire London: Connections, 2015