It is 7.30 am on Sunday 5 February 2023. Every dawn is different. Opening to this one, I am drawn, above all, into clarity and redness. I feel as if I have just about caught up with myself, after five days in a new home. In traditional language, my soul has caught up with me.
In recent days I have felt more like a slightly dated machine, reliable in getting the job done, though not super fast or shiny. Now I’m aware again of being a person, a living presence in communion with a living world. The key moment was when, yesterday afternoon, I found my Tibetan bells in a shopping bag with some electrical equipment. I feared that they had left me during the move. It was a more than expected relief to re-discover them.
Today, in celebration, I used them to demarcate a morning practice that I hadn’t done at all for a week. I was tentative, in a new and not yet fully established space. But the practice grounded me all the same. It set me up to meet the dawn. It’s been said, I think by Douglas Harding, that we are, essentially, clear awake space and capacity for the world. As today magnificently dawned, it seemed that way to me.
The picture above, taken in the mid-afternoon of the recent Winter Solstice, shows a local water meadow after heavy rain. My eyes are drawn downwards, to the reflections in the water and beyond. But height is there too, with trees and an early sunset sky. All with a sense of stillness. I felt in touch with the unknown within and beyond me, and open to the world.
Earlier in the day I had already been profoundly moved by the live-streamed funeral of John Heron, an elder for me in the field of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, and also in what he called ‘participatory spirituality’. This describes a ‘spiritual animation’ that occurs ‘between people, between people and place and other kinds of beings in place’. He saw this as a spiritual inquiry process, largely outside the traditions.
Over the last several days, I have been contemplating words, not by John himself but by Carl Rogers, the originator of person-centred counselling, about this kind of openness and its power. He wrote them in continuous prose, but I have re-arranged the spacing to help with my contemplative process. I find that they help me to better understand both my failures and my successes. They are a kind of direction for me. Although they are about being with people, they have become linked also with this landscape, because of the openness I felt there, in this liminal space.
“I find that
when I am closest to my intuitive self
when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me
then whatever I do seems full of healing.
Then simply my presence is releasing and helpful to the other.
Highly recommended. Brendan Myers’ The Circle of Life is Broken (1) is subtitled “an eco-spiritual philosophy of the climate crisis”. Myers is a Pagan identified author and a professional philosopher who teaches at Heritage College, Gatineau, Quebec. His Paganism is naturalistically oriented, and animist in a sense that “the things of the natural world are in some hard-to-express manner alive and spiritually present”.
The book begins with an view of the Earth from outside, through the loving eyes and words of astronauts. “It is as if the Earth as a whole was only discovered in 1968, when Apollo-8 astronaut William Anders shot the famous Earthrise photograph; the image of the Earth coming out from behind the edge of the moon”. This ‘overview effect’ is balanced at the end of the book by an invitation to immerse ourselves more fully and awarely within the world, through the practices of a weekly green sabbatical and an annual ecological pilgrimage.
Between this beginning and ending there are three main sections, each addressing a ‘root question’. Each question is rigorously explored, before receiving a carefully formulated answer.
The first question asks: what is the circle of life? A key understanding is that ecologists today do not see the Earth as “an aggregate of individuals competing for resources and survival”. Rather, they “are teaching us to see the Earth as a complex system in which everything is directly or indirectly involved in all the life around it, and in which symbiosis and cooperation, across multiple levels, keep the system as a whole flourishing”. This is the circle of life that is now breaking down. “It isn’t simply changing form. It is also short-circuiting; it is falling apart”.
The second root question asks: who faces the circle of life? This concerns humans and how we deal with realities of a higher order than our own. The exploration includes a look at how people see the world at different life stages. Myers wants to know “what becomes of the human reality when cast in terms of the encounter with the Circle of Life as the ultimate reality?” He notes that the Circle goes almost unmentioned in the history of Western philosophy, and also explores a perceived a tension between our ‘being-ecological’ and our ‘being-free’.
The third root question asks: can the circle be healed? Myers quotes a saying of the philosopher Hegel: “the owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering”. When things are bad, new ideas and possibilities can emerge and philosophers especially are challenged to think big. Myers looks at the political and cultural obstacles to any healing process, with good sections on ‘eco-fascism’ and the ‘gatekeepers of human nature’. He also makes a number of specific positive proposals.
Although written in plain English as far as possible, The Circle is Broken is not a book to read in one sitting. Myers’ thinking is holistic, with room for scientific information, complex argument, deep feeling, contemplation and engagement. It is written with love and a sense of wonder, generously drawing on personal experience. I think of it as a long-term companion, a gift to anyone concerned with the climate crisis and creative responses to it.
(1) Brendan Myers The Circle of Life is Broken: An Eco-Spiritual Philosophy of the Climate Crisis Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books 2022 (Earth Spirit series)
(2) For other posts about Brendan Myers’ work, see:
Klara and the Sun (1), is Kazuo Ishiguru’s most recent novel. It is a careful exploration of sentience, relationship and affection in a world increasingly reliant on artificial intelligence and genetic ‘enhancement’.
I found this book brilliant and haunting, with its combination of formal restraint and devastating insight. For readers familiar with Ishiguru’s work, its greatest resonance is with Never Let Me Go, though there are also echoes of The Remains of the Day. Klara is an AF (Artificial Friend), manufactured to befriend young people of the elite class during their adolescent years. These children themselves are, in most cases ‘lifted’ through genetic enhancement, to gain access to the colleges which act as gateways to elite roles in adulthood. In almost all cases, ‘lifting’ is a requirement for entry. Unfortunately, lifting is also hazardous for the young people concerned.
We meet Klara in the store where she is waiting to be bought. She has been manufactured to be sensitive, empathetic and observant. She watches and learns as customers come and go. Solar powered, she also develops an animistic devotion to the sun. She loves being close to the shop window. It improves her chances of purchase. It allows her to watch the street and its life. Above all improves her access to the sun and his nourishment. From the perspective of the reader, she is excruciatingly hopeful and content with her lot.
Most of the book is about Klara’s relationship with Josie, who chooses her as Artificial Friend. Klara has an unstinting love and loyalty for Josie, which is genuinely reciprocated to a degree, though not entirely reliably. Josie has had problems with being uplifted and her health is poor. As different characters come into play, we learn more about life in the elite of Klara’s world, their varying attitudes to Artificial Friends, and the place of non-elite humans. The story unfolds. Klara retains her love and loyalty towards Josie, and her devotional faith in the sun and his nourishment, from beginning to end.
Ishiguru creates a world that has fairy tale aspect, so his book is not exactly speculation about a possible future. Nonetheless, his themes are pertinent to possible futures, especially in the realm of AI. The writing combines beauty, economy and precision, all the better to wring the heart of the sensitive reader. My hope lies in the intimation that sentient beings can indeed find nourishment, even in a dystopic world.
(1) Kazuo Ishiguru Clara and the Sun London: Faber & Faber, 2021
I am feeling more at home in a number of ways. A much loved view through a bedroom window is enough. I can look out and lose myself, holding an image both of continuity and change as the seasons move. One way in which I experience the year is in two halves. Beltane initiates the summer half of a two season year, with Samhain beginning winter.
I often find the extended six months ‘winter’ to be productive for my contemplative inquiry. In the six months now about to end, I have completed an important shift, a shift that reframes an inquiry insight dating from 2018. At that time I said: “I discovered an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment, which nourishes and illuminates my life. Such at-homeness is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given.”
My view then was that it is best to steer away from metaphysical commitments, as the Buddha is said to have done. “At-homeness in the flowing moment” could work as a dignified existential choice for a humanist, an agnostic or a person with a stance of ‘sustainable nihilism’ (1). It could also work for people firmly based in contemplative versions of monotheist and polytheist spiritual traditions. Indeed it could work for anyone and would be blissfully light on doctrine and opportunities for argument and dissension.
That said, whist still fully embracing the original insight, I now find it incomplete. I have for some time been filled with the sense of a living cosmos, in a way that cuts across the grain of the culture I come from, with its parsimonious definition of ‘life’. I am animist in sharing Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of ‘Interbeing’, where everything is interconnected and nothing is really born, lives or dies in a state of separate selfhood (2). Life just changes. Now I have taken to heart the sense that the life which changes has a Source, or ground of Being, in which the whole web of life is embedded.
Hence I am human and I am also that ground of Being. Being cannot be found as an object, but I can apprehend Being in two ways. One is by looking in and finding my primordial and true nature in and as Being. The second is by looking out and finding Being everywhere and in everything. In each case, the inside/outside distinction finally dissolves. Humanly, I am distinct but not separate from Being, temporarily individuated in the world of space and time, as is everything else in this world. At the deepest level, as Being, I am no thing and yet present in and as everything.
I have reached a commitment to this view partly as a result of contemplative inquiry and partly as an act of faith, trusting my deepest understanding. In the wider world, this understanding is called ‘non-dual’ or ‘panentheist’. It is neither demonstrable nor falsifiable as a proposition, and I continue to appreciate that the map is not the territory. All words feel somehow wrong, just as the Tao Te Ching warns when it begins with “the name you can say isn’t the real name” (3). Yet Lao Tzu persisted with his writing, and gave the world one of its most loved scriptures. From time to time, the effort with language has to be made.
Modern movements (4,5) have made the experiential recognition of our true nature, or ultimate divinity, available to ordinary people through skilful means developed for our time. I have made connections with such movements, but I still anchor myself in Druidry. Humanly, a conscious I-I relationship with Source, or dwelling in and as Source, is not everything to me. I am drawn, too, to I-Thou relationship, honouring a devotional need that wants to be expressed. The Indian sages who first developed non-duality as a spiritual philosophy did not challenge or abandon the flourishing polytheism of their culture. They continued the practice of deity yoga. It serves the dance of being and becoming in this world. This, I believe, is the role of the Goddess in my life (6). I have much still to learn here. Meanwhile my at-homeness grows stronger.
My contemplative inquiry began as part of a Druid initiative launched nine years ago on 1 November 2011. The inquiry “soon broadened into a wider exploration of contemplative spiritualities, drawing on the enduring wisdom of many times and places.” (1)
By August 2018, I had anchored the discovery of “an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment, which nourishes and illuminates my life. 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.” (1)
This is still my core insight. It does not tell me to be a Druid, or not to be a Druid. It does not give me a metaphysical or religious foundation of any kind, though it is possible to build these around it. It does not make my existential choices for me. I do find myself distant from faith based and devotional approaches to contemplation and spirituality. Recently, I have lost interest in debates about consciousness as foundational, or in distinctions between ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ manifestations of it. I was drawn to this philosophical openness in part by the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, himself influenced by (probably) Buddhist and Jain teachers in India (2).
Experientially, it is as if I exist within a field of awareness, or presence, whilst also living a human life between earth and sky. Here, I am intimate with the stream of experience, but not fused with it – allowing a space for compassion towards the apparently unwanted sensations, feelings, thoughts, images, and strings of cogitation that continue to arise. Stepping back from demands for ‘healing’ and ‘transformation’, I discover myself to be simply and securely held.
Looking out, I find a living world. I am part of the web of life, deeply interconnected with other lives and with the whole. Here I align myself to those Pagans, identified by Graham Harvey (3,4), who “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.”
Understandings like this have re-anchored me in Druidry and Paganism. The Wheel of the Year is a wonderful basis for outward attention in spirituality. I am now also strongly drawn to questions of culture, history and human imagination, which I will explore more in future. Here again, I find an open and inclusive Druid perspective to be a good base to work from.
I seem to have satisfied myself on the questions with which I started in 2011, though not in the way I expected to. But new questions arise, and I no longer see an end point to my contemplative inquiry.
In the extract below, Thich Nhat Hanh offers Buddhist thoughts, which seem to me to have considerable resonance for Druids, with their animist and earth-honouring perspective and their support for deep ecology.
“There is no absolute dividing line between animate and inanimate, between living matter and inert matter. In so-called inert matter there is life, and living beings are dependent on so-called inert matter. If we took the so-called inanimate elements out of you and me, we would not be able to live. We are made of non-human elements. This is what is taught in the Diamond Sutra, an ancient Buddhist text that could be considered the world’s first treatise on deep ecology. We cannot draw a hard distinction between human beings and other living beings, or between living beings and inert matter.
“There is vitality in everything.
“The entire cosmos is radiant with vitality.
“If we see the Earth as just a block of matter lying outside of us, then we have not yet truly seen the Earth. We need to be able to see that we are part of the Earth, and to see that the entire Earth is in us. The Earth is also alive; it has intelligence and creativity. … Looking with the eyes of non-discrimination, we can establish a very close relationship with the Earth. We look at the Earth with our heart and not with the eyes of cold reasoning. You are the planet, and the planet is you. The well-being of your body is not possible without the well-being of the planet. And that is why to protect the well-being of your body, we must protect the well-being of the planet. This is the insight of emptiness*.” (1)
To be empty, for Thich Nhat Hanh, is to be empty of a permanent, separate self. Hence ‘to be’ is to ‘inter-be’. He coined the word ‘inter-being’ to emphasise this point in his teaching.
(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017
‘Living Presence’ is a sitting meditation customised for my current morning practice. The name is inspired by phrases in my practice liturgy. When casting my circle, having called for peace in the four directions, the below and above, I move to the centre and say: I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence. At a later stage in the ritual I use the words: I am the movements of the breath and the stillness in the breath: living presence in a field of living presence, here, now, home.
This meditation is strongly anchored in modern Druid tradition as I follow it. It celebrates a form of animism: ‘living presence in a field of living presence’. It also works, with the same sense of stillness at the centre and movement around the periphery that is wired in to my circle practice.
Closing my eyes, I take a series of long, slow breaths, and anchor myself in the clarity, peace and stillness that I find deep within me. From this centre, engaged and empathetic, yet without becoming immersed or identified, I welcome the stream of experience moving and changing around this core.
To start with, I scan, in turn, my body and senses, my feelings, desires, images, thoughts, and personality patterns. As the myriad varieties of experience pour in, I keep them company, like Rumi when he wrote: “This being human is a guesthouse. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Entertain them all. Be grateful for whoever comes. For each has been sent as a guide from beyond” (2).
I, as stillness, am not a transcendent witness, elevated above the experiences that arise. I stay awake with them, in a process of holding and healing. This enacts my declaration that I am both the stillness in the breath and the movements of the breath.
Movement without stillness has vitality but little awareness. Without movement, stillness cannot come fully alive. They are distinct, but not separate. As they emerge in tandem, defining and modifying themselves in relation to each other, stillness infuses movement with its own qualities. In the moment of connection, stillness in not entirely still. It is lovingly relational. Movement thereby gains in peace and clarity, as it responds, and is nourished and illuminated by them. The whole gestalt is Living Presence.
This process models my current understanding of a unity (one meditation, one experience) that includes difference. It enacts my current understanding of non-duality and interbeing, at the level of an intrapsychic contemplative process. I am pleased with the way that this meditation is working so far. Its development has been supported by a number of influences outside Druidry, without my adopting any other system. As well as Kabinski and Rumi I would reference the current ‘mindful self-compassion’ tradition (3), the stance of Focusing, though it is a therapeutic practice and not a meditation (4), and the work of Jeff Foster (5)
(1) Living Presence is a Sufi term. See: Kabir Edmund Kabinski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self New York, Ny: Penguin Putnam, 1992 See also
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)