contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Awareness

BEYOND MINDFULNESS

Once you recognize the bright sun of awakened awareness, practising mindfulness can seem like shining a flashlight at midday in the hopes that it will make things brighter.” (1)

This post is about modern non-dual traditions and what I have learned from them in recent years. They have inspired me to practice a Druidry that recognises a ‘beyond mindfulness’ dimension of experience, in Western Mysteries tradition sometimes referred to as ‘causal’.

Stephan Bodian is a former Zen monk who went on to become a psychotherapist, mindfulness teacher, and a teacher in the Direct Path tradition founded by Shri Atmananda Krishna Menon. He says: “the act of being mindful is a portal to a deeper, enduring awareness that can’t be manufactured or practised. This deeper awareness is already functioning, whether we know it or not. Indeed, it is our natural state of spontaneous presence, without which there would be no experience at all. Instead of cultivating it like a talent or strengthening it like a muscle, we just need to recognize it and return to it”.

In my own inquiry, my ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’ came out working with resources developed by Direct Path teachers. I am now integrating this realisation into my Druid practice, supported by the modern tradition’s naming of a causal dimension in experience, akin to “our natural state of spontaneous presence”. It underlies both the physical and psychic levels. It is our original nature. It does not obscure or invalidate the stress and turbulence we find in the physical and psychic realms. It is not even a domain of peace, happiness, and love when understood as desired personal states. But it can act as an internal place of safety in difficult times.

In my awen work I am looking at pathways between the three dimensions, and what can be brought from the causal and psychic dimensions into the physical for both personal and collective wellbeing. For much of my contemplative inquiry I have looked at the link between the causal and physical dimensions of experience (the latter including world, body, feelings, thoughts and everyday self-sense) whilst relatively neglecting the psychic realm. I am changing and re-balancing this now, so as better to walk between these worlds.

(1) Stephan Bodian Beyond Mindfulness: The Direct Approach to Peace, Happiness, and Love Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2017

INWARD TRAINING

The Way fills the entire world

It is everywhere that people are

But people are unable to understand this.

When you are released by this one word:

You reach up to the heavens above;

You stretch down to the earth below;

You pervade the nine inhabited regions.

What does it mean to be released by it?

The answer resides in the calmness of the mind.

When your mind is well ordered, your sense are well ordered.

When your mind is calm, your senses are calmed.

What makes them well ordered is the mind;

What makes them calm is the mind.

By means of the mind you store the mind.

Within the mind there is yet another mind.

That mind within the mind: it is an awareness that precedes words.

Only after there is awareness does it take shape;

Only after it takes shape is there a word.

Only after there is a word is it implemented.

Only after it is implemented is there order.

Without order, you will always be chaotic.

If chaotic, you die. (1)

The early Taoist classic Inward Training (Nei-yeh) (1) comes out of an oral tradition in which teachers gave their pupils verses to learn and study. Hence the emphatic and somewhat repetitive flavour of the text. Teacher pupil relationships of this kind are very ancient in China, likely emerging out of an indigenous Chinese shamanism (2).

Translator and editor Harold Roth suggests that the ‘one word’ that releases people is Tao itself, used as the focus of meditation, somewhat in the manner of mantra work. When the mind is calm, another mind becomes available – the mind within the mind, that precedes words and takes shape prior to their emergence.

Tao, in this understanding, is experienced as a foundational and pervasive cosmic process in which we can centre ourselves. The recommended practice helps us to cleanse the doors of perception, and achieve that centring. My experience of contemplative inquiry, and the Druid training that preceded it, is that ‘inward training’ works.

(1) Roth, Harold D. (1999) Original Tao: ‘Inward Training’ and the foundations of Taoist mysticism New York, NY: Columbia University Press

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/08/12/

SCEPTICISM, OPENNESS AND FLOW

This post summarises where I stand philosophically at this stage of my inquiry, and how my stance affects my practice. When investigating the Direct Path (1) I realised that one possible destination might be a radical scepticism about everything. Awakening to Awareness as ultimate ground of being is not the inevitable end point. The only Direct Path teacher who publicly discusses this is Greg Goode (2), who says: “Over the years, I had studied many philosophies and paths. I was aware of a variety of vocabularies. And now, unless I was explicitly playing the role of a direct path participant, none of these vocabularies seemed preferable in terms of truth or accuracy. When I was left to myself, experience didn’t show up as anything at all. There was nothing strictly true or strictly false to say about it”.

Goode reports a sense of confirmation on reading a privately circulated document attributed to Shri Atamananda Krishna Menon, founder of the Direct Path. According to Greg Goode, the gist is “that we can’t say anything at all … everything is paradoxical. We can’t even say that it’s consciousness or that anything exists! It’s a joyful, effusive case of saying without saying!” It helped Goode to get to his final position of ‘joyful irony’, which I have discussed in an earlier post. (3). His key point is that “the joyful ironist has found loving, open-hearted happiness without dogmatism”. For this to work “the joy and the irony must work together. If you’re joyful without being ironic, you’ll still have attachments to your own views of things. And if you’re ironic without being joyful, you may be bitter, cynical, sarcastic and pessimistic. Heartfelt wisdom includes both sides. Joy adds love to irony. Irony adds clarity to joy.” (2)

This sounds almost postmodern, but in fact echoes an ancient wisdom. Philip Carr-Gomm (4) shows its presence in Jain ethics, grounded in the 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 a doctrine of many-sidedness, multiple viewpoints, non-absolutism or non-one-sidedness. The three principles can be seen as completing each other, with non-absolutism as an intellectual aspect of non-violence and non-attachment, and hence a virtue.

Pyrrho of Elis, a Greek philosopher of the fourth century BCE, probably met both Jains and Buddhists, when accompanying Alexander ‘the Great’ to India. Indian influence is certainly evident the school of philosophy he created on his return home. In Greek culture this school was treated as a form of Scepticism, but unlike other Sceptics, Pyrrhonists “neither made truth claims nor denied the possibility of making them. Instead, they cultivated a deeply embedded attitude of suspension of judgement (epoche), allowing possibilities to stand open within the process of continuing inquiry. Such a turning away from the drive for intellectual closure enables peace of mind (ataraxia) in our engagement with the richness and diversity of experience” (5).  This teaching seems to combine the Jain view of non-absolutism and the Buddhist view of equanimity and freedom from dukka, (suffering or dis-ease).

As my contemplative inquiry has progressed, I have grown increasingly attracted to the wisdom of this view. I name it as openness, to keep my inquiry process appreciative rather than deconstructive. I have written about it before and this post builds on others. What I notice now is a greater clarity and confidence in this view, reinforcing my stance of At-Homeness in ‘the flowing moment’. Although not perfectly reliable, this At-Homeness is as close as I get to a place of safety. Everything else is uncertain. Everything else can be taken away. I treat ‘flowing moment’ as a simple description of living experience. I find stillness there if I slow down and attend to it. Stillness can be a portal to spontaneous joy and appreciation if I open up and am present to them . It is a good basis for coming back to Earth. From this space I can better connect with other beings, the wider world and the wheel of the year.

(1) A name given to the teachings inspired by Shri Atmananda Krishna Menon (1883 -1959).

(2) Greg Goode After Awareness: The End of the Path Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2016

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/06/11/greg-goode-and-joyful-irony/

(4) Philip Carr-Gomm Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions Lewes, UK: Oak Tree Press, 2019 (Foreword by Peter Owen Jones)

(5) Arne Naess Scepticism Abingdon: Routledge, 2015 (First published 1968. Scepticism is the last book Arne Naess wrote as an academic philosopher, before going on to devote himself to the development of deep ecology, coining the term ecosophy to describe his stance.)

EMPTINESS AND INTERBEING

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

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/ an earlier post that I’ve been able to draw on here.

WINTER MORNING LIGHT

This is 7 December where I live, a little after 8 am, itself a little after the moment of dawn. The sunrise is still early in its process, fifteen days before the turn of the year. I took the pictures on one of my regular canal walks, this time between Stroud and Brimscombe in Gloucestershire, England.

This year I am paying close attention to the dance of place and time. It is part of my re-grounding after my adventures in non-duality, yet retaining the learning they brought. I surrender to the experience of winter sunlight. I breathe it in, and it fills the world, enacting a primal awareness. At the same time I acknowledge the particularity of time and place, of movement and change in nature. I also know that my observation of this winter light, at this time and in this place, is unique. It will never happen again in quite this way. It makes me glad to be alive and here for it. This gift is all the greater, and all the more to be treasured, for that very vulnerability, personal and collective, of which I am also conscious.

INTEGRATION

This is my grail image. I can see a chalice against a formless yet shape-creating background, or I can see two beings, with an enabling space between them. Two worlds; one image. Flicking rapidly between them, there comes a point where I can see them both, in the same place, at the same time.

I see the whole as an image of integration. Myth making just a little, I can point to a primal void, from which I am in no way separate, a cosmic mother, from whom I am distinct yet also in no way separate, and the birth of multiple individual forms of which I am one. With individuality comes otherness – and a world of connection/separation, community/exile, love/hate, joy/fear, generosity/contraction, conflict/co-operation, solidarity/predation. By integration I don’t here mean making the bad stuff go away, though efforts in that direction are immensely important. I am pointing, rather, to a capacity to hold all experience in presence and awareness: the deep experiential acceptance that all of the above, right up to void and creation, are happening here and happening now. They are the reality within which I awaken.

The Christian grail quest, which concerns the healing of the soul and its opening into spirit, partly evolved from older stories about the healing of the land, and maintains a wasteland motif. In Mahayana Buddhism enlightenment makes no sense if any sentient being is left behind. The modern Western Mystery tradition provides ways of bringing these stories together, with more of a tilt at this point in our history towards the collective dimension. I have written before that “for me the grail represents the presence and energy of Sophia”*, and has power for me on my Sophian Way. On this way, the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ work go hand in hand: these are in any case conventional and limiting terms.

I understand the future as demanding cultures of resilience. Because of that I am glad that I have retained a foothold in Druidry and Paganism, because I see them as cultures of possibility in this regard. My Sophian Way has been a personal one, arising unexpectedly within my Druid education, and given some scope for recognition because of the way my Druid education worked. It fits better into the OBOD community, with its Universalist opening and invitation to learn from all traditions, than into any Christian, Gnostic or New Age community that I know of.

Yesterday I made a symbolic re-connection with OBOD (for I had never really left) by taking out a subscription to its magazine Touchstone after a lapse. Here at least I can name the Sophian Way unequivocally as a Goddess devotion without going through flips and twists about what ‘divine feminine’ might mean. At the same time, the name Sophia does reference insights and influences from other traditions, including secular philosophy, as befits a Goddess of Wisdom. For me, this is another kind of integration, whose fruits will manifest over time.

NON-DUALITY AND YOGA NIDRA

This post is built around Dr. Richard Miller’s approach to Yoga Nidra (1) and my response to it. The resource I am working with – a book and a CD – was published in 2005. My concern in writing is with how a “meditative practice for deep relaxation and healing” can also be what one reviewer (2) described as the “perfect tool” for the author’s non-dual teachings. For the recommended practices “require only presence, and as such represent both the path and the goal of non-dual practice.”

The word non-dual is a translation of the Sanskrit advaita, literally ‘not two’. I remember a podcast in which Peter Russell (3), a long-term practitioner and writer in this field, cautioned against a tendency to equate ‘not two’ with ‘one’. He then told an ancient Indian story about the making of clay pots. A potter takes a lump of clay and makes two pots. One clay; two pots. In the Indian tradition, this is a ‘consciousness first’ understanding, and modern versions draw on terms like presence, awareness, ground of being, or true nature to point to our ultimate identity as this consciousness. ‘God’ is also used in this way. The understanding is that we are never separate from this identity, though we may feel separate from it, or forget it, or ‘not believe’ in it. After all, most of our attention is on our individual life in the world with all its pulls, stresses and demands.

Early in his book, Richard Miller describes his first experience of Yoga Nidra:

“Our instructor led us through Shavasana, the traditional yogic pose for inducing deep relaxation while lying completely still on the floor. The instructor expertly guided us into being conscious of sensations throughout our body, as well as to opposing experiences, such as warmth-coolness, agitation-calmness, fear-equanimity, sorrow-joy, and separation-oneness. I was invited to rotate may attention through the sensations elicited by pairs of opposites until I was able to embody these opposing experiences with neither attachment or aversion to what I was experiencing.

“I drove home that evening feeling totally relaxed and expansively present. For the first time in years, I felt free of all conflict, radiantly joyful, and attuned wit the entire universe. I experienced life as being perfect just as it was and felt myself to be a spacious nonlocalized presence. Instead of my usual experience of being in the world, I was having a nonmental experience of the world being within me, similar to experiences I had known as a child”.

Miller’s motivation to continue was “a longing in me to consciously awaken into and fully abide as this sense of presence”. As well as becoming a yoga teacher and psychotherapist he has worked with Direct Path teachings as a student of Jean Klein. He describes the very term Yoga Nidra as a paradox, a play on the words ‘sleep’ and ‘awake’ as it means ‘the sleep of the Yogi’. The implication is that the normal person is asleep to their true nature through all states of consciousness – waking, dreaming and deep sleep – while the Yogi is one who is awake and knows his or her true nature across all states, including sleep. The practice therefore involves both deep relaxation and deep inquiry.

A full practice on Miller’s CD begins with two commitments – one to a form of mindfulness at the edge of sleep where, for the reasons pointed to above, it is OK to ‘fall asleep’ since there is a trust that the process will continue to run at other levels. The second is described as a ‘heartfelt prayer’, articulated as though it has already been fulfilled – for in the absolute, there is only now: Miller gives the example ‘my friend is whole, healed and healthy’. Then the meditation moves through seven stages, the first six of which address specific forms of awareness: body and sensation; breath and energy; feelings and emotions; thoughts, beliefs and images; desire, pleasure and joy; and witness/ego-I. The final stage (sahaj) is our natural state, ‘the awareness of changeless Being’. Each stage provides an opportunity to identify conventionally positive and conventionally negative experiences, and to hold both in a wider embrace. The sixth stage inquires into the very nature of the ‘I’ that believes itself to be a separate witness, enabling the simple being of the final stage. The whole practice lasts about 35 minutes.

I’ve been looking for an evening practice to complement my morning one. After only a week, it has the right feel, the right format and the right length for me at this point in my life. Over the last three or four years non-duality has become my common sense. During this period I have worked a good deal with the ‘Seeing’ experiments of Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (4) and also with substantial resources from Direct Path teachers Greg Goode (5) and Rupert Spira (6). A non-dual view, as a working assumption, is now both cognitively and experientially well installed.

I don’t have a deep interest in non-dualist metaphysics for its own sake. I am deeply committed to this world and my human life. What I find is that a non-dual model of reality adds to my experience of human life in the world, and cannot be separated from it. I find myself leaning in to this nourishing and illuminating possibility, and committed to commit to living by it. Roger Miller’s Yoga Nidra has met me where I am. I am very grateful for this gentle, life-affirming, and subtle practice, which helps to maintain me on this path.

(1) Richard Miller Yoga Nidra: A Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Holding Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2005

(2) Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self and The Wisdom Of Yoga

(3) https://www.peterrussell.com/

(4) http://www.headless.org/

(5) Greg Goode The Direct Path: A User Guide Non-Duality Press, 2012 (UK edition)

(6) Rupert Spira Transparent Body: Luminous World: the Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

INQUIRY AND HEART

Recently I have noticed a change in my notion of inquiry. I experience, at the same time, both a greater precision and a softening in my understanding of ‘inquiry’. Rupert Spira (1) makes a helpful point.

“This path is sometimes referred to as self-inquiry or self-investigation. However, these terms – translations of the Sanskrit term atma vichara – are potentially misleading. They imply an activity of the mind rather than, as Ramana Maharshi described it, a sinking or relaxing of the mind into ‘the heart’, that is, into its source of pure Awareness and Consciousness. The term may, therefore, be more accurately be described as ‘self-abiding’ or ‘self-resting’, and is the essence of what is known in various spiritual and religious traditions as prayer, mediation, self-remembering, Hesychasm in the Greek Orthodox Church, or the practice of the presence of God in the mystical Christian tradition.”

At the time of writing, I have three means of heart inquiry by this definition. The first is quintessentially Sophian – a repetition, synchronised with the breath, of the name Ama-Aima (pronounced ahh-mah-ahee-mah). In its tradition of origin (2). this Aramaic name for the Divine Mother brings together Her transcendental and immanent aspects, and the repetition of the name invokes Her light energy and presence, which is the light energy and presence of the cosmos. As I breathe the name, entering into its pulse and vibration, I begin to find that this presence-energy is breathing me, until the distinctions themselves disappear. I treat this work formally, as a sacrament or mystery, and part of a daily practice.

The second is Seeing, and the practices of the Headless Way, described as ‘experiments’ in that family. – see www.headless.org/. I use a variety of these practices depending on the circumstances. The advantage of Seeing is that I can drop into it at any time during the day.

The third is the rawer approach laid out by Jeff Foster (https://lifewithoutacentre.com/ ), which turns the ‘Light of Oneness’, back onto the experience of the struggling human. It flows from his own journey of “venturing into the darkness of myself” (3), before “breaking through the veil of dualistic mind to a   Light that had been there all along”. Here, we enter into a loving encounter with whatever experience is happening and finding a way to accept  – not the content of the experience itself, which may be horrible and need resisting – but the reality that this is the experience that is happening, the one demanding attention. Loving attention to our struggles may not stop suffering but can make them more workable. As with Seeing, I can drop into this meditation at any time – by slowing down, breathing and just being there, with loving curiosity and attention. It works with mixed and good experiences too.

I find that a combination of these practices serves me well. Reading, writing and digital media of relevance to the practices support my sense od direction and my understanding.

(1) Rupert Spira Transparent Body, Luminous World: The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

(2) Tau Malachi Gnosis of the Cosmic Christ: a Gnostic Christian Kabbalah Saint Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2005

(3) Jeff Foster The Joy of True Meditation: Words of Encouragement for Tired Minds and Wild Hearts Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019

MEDITATION AND HEALING

“The healing journey is not about ‘getting rid’ of the unwanted and ‘negative’ material within us, purging it until we reach a perfect and utopic ‘healed state’. No. That is the mind’s version of healing. Healing is not a destination. True healing involves drenching that very same ‘unwanted’ material with love, presence and understanding.   For what we attend to, we can love.

“Meditation just means looking with fresh eyes, being aware and awake to what is, flushing our embodied experience with attention, and thus can only ever happen in the newness of the present moment.

“You can drop into this space of meditation wherever you are and whatever you are doing. On the bus or train or resting cross-legged and eyes-closed in your living room, walking through the forest or through a shopping centre, or sitting on a park bench or in a doctor’s waiting room.

“You can do it alone or with others. Every moment of your life, there is always the wonderful possibility to slow down, breathe deeply and get curious about where you are. To begin again, to see life through the eyes of not knowing. To stop thinking about your life in the abstract, to stop seeking some other state or feeling, to stop running towards another moment, and really fully experience this unique instant of experience.”

Jeff Foster The Joy of True Meditation: Words of Encouragement for Tired Minds and Wild Hearts Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019

REVISED ‘ABOUT’ APRIL 2019

Over the lifetime of this blog I have made frequent revisions of its ‘About’ statement. Most are small. Occasionally, I make a major revision which I also publish as a post. Below is my revised and edited ‘About’ of 19 April 2019.

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. It explores contemplative themes and their role in human flourishing within the web of life.

In my own journey, I have found an At-Homeness in a flowing now, not linked to any specific doctrine. For me, this experience and stance enable greater presence, healing and peace. They also support imaginative openness and an ethic of aware interdependence.

I began this work within British Druidry. I continue to follow an earth-centred and embodied spiritual path, ‘secular’ rather than ‘religious’. I draw on diverse traditions, especially resonating with naturalist, eco-existentialist, pantheist and animist currents within and beyond modern Paganism.

I am wary of metaphysical truth claims, including materialist ones, with an ultimate stance of openness and unknowing. At the time of this revision, I am exploring a tradition initiated by the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, who developed his own school of contemplative scepticism after a visit to India.

My book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

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