contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Awareness

PNEUMA: THE DIVINE BREATH

Some years ago, this phrase suddenly appeared during a breath meditation: the movement of the breath and stillness in the breath. Meaning has developed gradually. The movement of the breath feels entirely natural, and a comfort to attend to mindfully. Stillness signals another dimension within and behind the movement. In a world like ours, it is a great thing to experience stillness, however fleetingly. There is something healing about it, and it is not dependent on formal meditation. A brief time out can be enough to make a difference.

Going a little deeper has offered more. The quality of stillness cues me in to the ‘not-I-not-other-than-I’ experience. From a Sophian standpoint, traditionally a Gnostic one, I think of the Greek word pneuma which means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’. Gnostic teacher Stephan Hoeller says: “in Gnosticism pneuma is a spark sprung from the divine flame, and by knowing the pneuma the Gnostic automatically knows the spiritual source from whence it has come … to know one’s deepest self is tantamount to knowing God”. (1)

In my discussions of non-duality, I have generally held to non-theistic language, using terms like ‘Awareness’, ‘Being’, ‘Emptiness’, ‘Fullness’, ‘Openness’, ‘Original Nature’, ‘True Nature’ or ‘Tao’. I have avoided ‘God’ or ‘Spirit’, though in the context of non-duality all these terms point the same way. Yet I have worked with an Ama-Aima breath and mantra meditation, where Ama is the transcendent aspect of the Divine Mother and Aima the immanent aspect. In the myth of Sophia, Ama-Aima is her name as Mother.

I feel more urgently drawn into the orbit of Sophia. C.G Jung, important to modern Gnosticism as well as analytic psychology, believed that we can find ourselves held – almost possessed – by an image of the Divine that calls to us. The call is from beyond our personal will. How we respond is up to us, with consequences attached to any choice. Gnosticism speaks through intuition, imagination and metaphor: in this current, imagery matters. My image is that of Sophia. It is not new, but it is becoming more vivid.

It is as if everything I have learned on my hitherto eclectic journey needs to be brought together – and that I can best achieve this within a distinctive Sophian Way. My recent post –  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/06/07/embodiment-and-at-homeness/ ‎ described an aspect of it even whilst referencing Focusing and Tibetan Tantric Buddhism as influences. The essence of this Way is simple. The movement of the breath, and stillness in the breath, properly recognized, open me to the experience of pneuma. Everything else, directly or at a remove, flows from that.

(1) Stephan A. Hoeller Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing Wheaton, ILL & Chennai (Madras), India: Quest Books, 2002

 

RESTING IN BEING

Last autumn I worked with two on-line resources developed by Peter Russell (1). The first was a brief meditation course, which nudged me into a particularly easeful and surrendered meditative style. The second was a webinar series under the Science and Nonduality umbrella (2), Resting in Being. From this I picked up a helpful definition of nonduality (a translation of Sanskrit advaita). Going back to the time of the Upanishads (3), it invites us to think of ourselves as clay pots. If we look at two pots together (or any number) we find only one clay. Peter Russell describes the clay as ‘mind stuff’. Older Vedantic tradition uses the language of divinity, whilst Tantric Buddhists speak of ‘primordial nature’ (4). Russell is careful to distinguish nonduality from union, unity, or complete identity. My human relationship to the clay (mind stuff, primordial nature) is one of ‘not I not other than I’ (5). I am distinct but not separate.

This ground reality is ever-present and pervasive, yet oddly hard to recognize. No recognition is necessary for a successful human life, yet without it many people experience a sense of loss and alienation or intuit that something of consequence is missing. We invent grail quests and ladders to heaven, strategies for enlightenment or redemption, to address the perceived deficit. These in turn tend to become displacement mechanisms, deflecting us from the very goal we seek. The direct approach points us back to our immediate experience. Peter Russell uses words like ‘being’ and ‘awareness’ – suggesting indeed that that latter might also be turned into a doing word: ‘awareing’. Process terms better express both the movement of experience and the stillness within it. Ursula Le Guin does the same with ‘Taoing’ (6).

As a term, I find ‘resting in being’ useful in guiding me into contemplative awareing. I feel opened, energized and expanded. My centre of gravity shifts. I feel porous, spacious, held within the whole: here, now and home. The years of contemplative inquiry have boiled down to this. It is the stance I am taking away. My remaining sense of inquiry concerns the influence of this stance on the rest of my life and I will look at this in another post.

(1) Spirit of Now website peterrussell.com

(2) https://www.scienceandnonduality.com

(3) The Upanishads Introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, CA: Niligri Press, 2007 (2nd  ed.)

(4)  https://www.dharmaocean.org/

(5)  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/book-review-not-i-not-other-than-i/

(6) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (New English version by Ursula K. LeGuin with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton)

DIRECT PATH

I am working with a set of contemplations devised by Rupert Spira, a teacher in the ‘Direct Path’. Direct means not progressive: the view that there is no need to progress towards a desired spiritual goal, for we have always been at home. Our task is to live from this recognition.

The contemplations are presented in a book and six MP3 CD box set, with 24 guided meditations, each of which lasts for an hour or somewhat longer (1). I have worked with 12 so far. I have fully accepted the pre-suppositions of the teaching for the purposes of my inquiry, willing to discover what happens when I do. For me, it’s a game of ‘as-if’, which works better than either blind belief or defensive wariness.

It is proving a powerful experience, with gifts of tears and fears, safe and beautiful. It leans into lightness and joy. I’m reminded of therapeutic environments years ago. I am fully engaged, at an edge.

Part of the magic lies in Rupert Spira’s combining of Advaita Vedanta, India’s classical renunciate spirituality, with Kashmir Shaivism, a form of Tantra. He says: “the two traditions … are complementary aspects of a complete approach to the exploration of experience and not … at odds with each other …The Tantric path, of which the meditations presented in this collection are a contemporary expression, involves a turning towards experience.

“It is an exploration of objective experience in the light of our enlightened understanding, rather than a turning away from our experience in favour of its background of pure Awareness, as is the case of the Vedantic approach. If the Vedantic path is the path from ‘I am something’ – a body and a mind – to ‘I am nothing’, the Tantric path could be said to be the path from ‘I am nothing’ to ‘I am everything’. If the Vedantic path is one of exclusion and discrimination, the Tantric path is one of inclusion or love”.

I find the Direct Path, when presented in this way, clear, accessible, and effective. My work is solo and self-directed. I am free to engage with the whole of my experience and there is no need for preliminary practices or tribal norming. Yet I do have the assurance of knowing that Rupert Spira and his support team are contactable. These are ideal conditions for me when doing leading-edge personal work.

I am continuing my morning practice, which has been largely consistent over the last eight years, despite shifts of emphasis, and I maintain my link with a local Buddhist group. These are good, stabilizing things to do. But the energy of my contemplative inquiry is now in this new work – Rupert Spira’s programme and other direct path resources.

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

BEYOND MINDFULNESS?

“Mindfulness alone” (1) can’t offer “stable, enduring peace and well-being because it’s a state of mind you believe you have to cultivate, sustain and protect. … Like every other mind-state, mindfulness is impermanent and arises and passes away depending on the strength and consistency of your practice. … In fact, the very notion that your mind needs to be settled and calmed or that negative emotions need to be eliminated, based on some predetermined standard of how your mind should look, marks a major distinction between the path of mindfulness and the direct approach of awakened awareness.

“From the perspective of unconditional openness, every thought that arises, no matter how seemingly negative or discordant, is welcomed just as it is, and this very welcoming reveals an equanimity that can’t be disturbed even by the most negative experiences. By not preferencing one mind-state over another, so-called positive over so-called negative, awakened awareness moves beyond dualistic thinking to encompass life fully, in all its richness and complexity. Yet awakened awareness is not a state you can cultivate, but your natural state that’s always already available and just needs to be acknowledged and accessed.

“For all its wonderful benefits, the practice of mindfulness … tends to maintain a subject-object split, the gap between the one who’s being mindful, the act of being mindful, and the object of mindful attention. In other words, no matter how mindful you become, there’s always a you that has to practice being mindful of an object separate from you. As a result, mindfulness perpetuates the very sense of separateness it’s designed to overcome. … you may eventually discover that you are trapped in the detached witnessing position … Witnessing has become another identity or point of view that you ultimately have to relinquish.”

For many years Stephan Bodian practised mindfulness meditation as a Buddhist monk. He found it very beneficial. He became calmer and “more disengaged from the drama that had seemed to be my life”. Customary anxiety was replaced by ease and contentment. Stephen found that his concentration deepened, he live more in the moment, and his relationships improved. “From a nervous intellectual, I was transformed into a paragon of patience, groundedness and equanimity. I was a completely different person.”

What’s not to like? After long years immersed in a culture of mindfulness – including a teaching role – Stephen discovered a sense of feeling disengaged from life, as if experiencing it at a distance, his meditations themselves seeming somehow dry and lacking in energy. His teacher told him to meditate more. After “considerable soul searching” Stephan left the monastic life to study Western psychology. “I knew there were other ways of working with the mind and heart, and I wanted to learn what they had to offer”.

Looking back, Stephan still finds mindfulness valuable – but not enough. Some of the problems are cultural rather than intrinsic. A goal oriented culture turns the practice into a method for achieving goals and part of a self-development project. Yet it can also be a bridge. It can “take you beyond mindfulness to your natural state of awakened awareness”.

The term ‘awakened awareness’ is not used to describe another mental state. It is an attempt, using the compromised medium of language, to point to “the deepest level of reality” which is “the ground of openness in which everything arises. Whether or not you recognize it, it is always already the case. At the experiential level, however, awakened awareness does not dawn in your life until you realize that this ground of awareness is your natural state, in fact, is who you really are. This shift from recognizing awareness as a function, to recognizing awareness as the ground, to realizing it to be your fundamental nature and identity, is the awakening that the great spiritual masters describe.”

I’ve been moved by Stephan Bodian’s account. It reminds me of the time I spent working with Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (2), which I have pulled back from over the last year. I’m very clear, now, that there’s something limiting for me about conventional mindfulness meditation. I have decided to work experientially in this area as the major focus of my personal contemplative inquiry. Fortunately, there are now many ‘Direct Path’ teachers to turn to – Stephan Bodian being one of them. One advantage of the digital age is that gathering resources and contacts in the field of spiritual teaching has been made so easy.

(1) Stephan Bodian Beyond Mindfulness: the Direct Approach to Lasting Peace, Happiness and Love Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2017

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

FINDING PEACE AND HAPPINESS

“The dissolution of the mind’s limitations, which is itself the experience of peace or happiness … takes place momentarily on the fulfilment of a desire, when the mind’s activity of seeking comes briefly to an end, and, as a result the mind plunges into its source and briefly tastes the unconditional peace and inherent fulfilment of its true nature. After this experience of peace or happiness, the mind, on rising again within the ocean of consciousness, usually attributes the fulfilment that it experienced to the object, substance, activity or relationship that preceded it, and therefore seeks the same experience again.

“Although these brief moments give the mind samples of the lasting peace and happiness it desires, they never fully satisfy it. At some point it begins to dawn on the mind that it is seeking peace and happiness in the wrong place. This intuition may occur spontaneously as a result or repeatedly failing to secure happiness in objective experience, or as a result of a moment of despair or hopelessness when the mind, having exhausted the possibilities of finding fulfilment in objective experience, finds itself at a loss and, with no known direction in which to turn, stands open, silent and available. In this availability the mind is receptive to the silent attraction of its innermost being, drawing it backwards, inwards and selfwards, a call that is always present but usually obscured by the clamour of its own seeking.

The unwinding of the mind may also be effected in more extreme moments of great fear, sorrow or loss, when the coherence of the mind is temporarily disturbed, and it is ‘thrown back’ into its original condition, a fact that the Tantric traditions have developed into a series of formal practices in which the mind surfs intense emotion back to the shore of awareness. It can also be brought about by moments of heightened pleasure, such as sexual intimacy, when the mind is expanded beyond its customary confines by the intensity of the experience and, as a result, tastes the nectar of its own immortality.

“In fact, from this perspective, the experience of pleasure, normally the enemy of spiritual realisation in the religious traditions, is considered a taste of pure consciousness. In the moment of aesthetic pleasure, the wandering mind is brought to bear so intimately on the object of perception as to merge with it. In this merging the mind briefly loses its limitations, and in essence of pure consciousness shines. That is the experience of beauty. It is the experience that the artist seeks to evoke, and to which Paul Cezanne referred when he said he wanted to give his art to give people a sense of nature’s eternity.

…..

“This dissolution can also be solicited, invoked or fostered in meditation or prayer; likewise, through a conversation or a passage in a book, through words that are informed by and infused with its silence. Or it may be precipitated by a question such as

“’Are you aware?

“’What is the nature of the one you call I?

“’What is the nature of the knowing with which you know experience?

“Likewise, the mind may be drawn spontaneously into its source of unlimited consciousness simply by the silent presence of a friend in whom the recognition of their true nature has taken place, without the need for conversation.”

Rupert Spira The Nature of Consciousness: Essays on the Unity of Mind and Matter Oxford: Sahaja Press, 2017

BARE BONES

Where I live, November is the month when deciduous trees finally lose their leaves. It hasn’t happened yet, for all the leaves that have already been shed. The winter landscape of stark, skeletal trees against the skyline has still to come. But the process is happening, and I feel in tune with it. My spiritual view and practice are taking on a greater simplicity and economy, a clearer and starker definition.

My true home, or refuge, is presence in the stream of experiencing. This presence is a felt sense and a wordless kind of knowledge. It doesn’t seem like ‘self’ – and certainly not personality. It doesn’t seem like ‘other’ either. There’s no sense either of separation or of immersion. It doesn’t quite fit the Mahayana Buddhist or Advaita Vedanta descriptions of non-duality that I have seen, or the Western Way versions either. But it does point to the sacrament of the present moment.

I say sacrament because, for me at least, the full experience of presence has to be cultivated through attentiveness and a certain reverence. In one sense I am of course always present in the moment and cannot be otherwise. In another sense, I am often distracted from the fullness of this experience through inattention, fascination, distress and compulsive narration. I am not claiming an ontological difference between being awake to the present moment in this sense and being asleep to it. The differences are in core contentment, in seeing others and the world more clearly and compassionately, and the enhanced quality of life that goes with such shifts.

I am a meditator, because I find that meditation helps. But I do not fetishize formal meditation, or think that more necessarily means better. Meditation is a method, not the goal, and there are other routes to being mindful – anything, really, that makes us attentively alive. Some modern teachers of Direct Path Advaita Vedanta take the emphasis away from meditation, because it can encourage a deficit view of practice – that we lack something and need to have it, leading to a kind of inner materialism with ‘enlightenment’ as the desired possession. The work, to the extent there is work, is to recognize what we already are.

These are the bare bones of my spirituality, and it doesn’t require much of a superstructure. I attend a local meditation group. I have a parallel interest in ethics, and in other aspects of philosophy and culture, which in some ways come out of my spiritual stance. But at heart it is very simple.

MINDFULNESS AS A WAY OF LIFE

According to Thich Nhat Hahn’s Community of Interbeing (1) “mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply.” This approach turns mindfulness from a set of practices into a way of life, and this view of mindfulness has helped to draw me in to the local sangha of the COI as a fellow traveler.

That said, we have five formal practice arenas: mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of eating, mindfulness of walking, mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of bells. A lot of this is familiar to me. For the last seven years my daily practice has included some form of sitting meditation, walking meditation and body/energy work. I already include outside walking meditation and exercise. I use bells in my dedicated sacred space at home, and love the liminal after echo as they pass out of hearing. But bringing things together within this community encourages me to refine and deepen this work.

Checking in with myself, I notice that I have been only half-conscious about eating. In this community, eating mindfulness is not just about slow and appreciative eating. It is also about the global context, “reflecting deeply on what we buy and what we eat”. The COI gold standard is to be vegan. This is a hot button topic in Druidry and Paganism too. It’s an area that I feel nudged to look at again.

I also notice that I’ve done less conscious relaxation than I would like. Yet I know its softening, opening, and enabling effects – a balance to rectify there, I feel. Mindfulness may sound like an effortful regimen, but it doesn’t have to be that way. On sitting meditation specifically, the COI website approvingly quotes Matsuo Basho, the seventeenth century Japanese poet, when he writes:

Sitting quietly

Doing nothing

Spring comes

And the grass

Grows

By itself.

 

(1) https://coiuk.org

 

AIMLESSNESS

We often talk about our ‘path’ or ‘journey’, and this can have a value. Yet at heart spirituality is about being somewhere rather than getting somewhere – recognising the home we have never left.

“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 to us 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 yet lose ourselves along the way. We may 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 if you feel ill at ease, you need to ask yourself: ‘what am I longing for?   What am I searching for? … What am I waiting for?”

Thich Nhat Hanh The art of living London: Rider, 2017

MYSTERY

“We usually describe the world in terms of trees, mountains, rivers, clouds, cars, houses, people, and so on. But a chemist could say: ‘No, this is not how things truly are! The world is basically composed of molecules which are ceaselessly combining one with another at random’. However, a physicist would reply: ‘Not at all! Reality is actually made up of intermingling fields of energy/matter where the dance of waves/particles takes place ceaselessly’.

“Who is right? Who is wrong? All of them are clearly mere conceptual descriptions that can just supply a relative view of reality. We do not actually live in ‘reality’, but rather in a description of it, that is like a ‘bubble’ of concepts and words all around us, which in time builds up a fictitious view of ourselves and the world. Even non-dualism (as any other -ism without exception) is just a conceptual description of reality, that hopelessly tries to point to the unknowable ‘Whatever it is’: in so far as it becomes an ideology that relies on words and thoughts, it is unable to enjoy the taste of Being.

“So we live in concepts without realizing it. We blindly believe that reality is just as our thought represents it. Science gives us an ‘objective’ description of the material world that, to some extent, can be very useful for the improvement of humankind, however relative and incomplete it is. Non-duality – as far as it still relies on words and thoughts – is just another conceptual description of reality, though its understanding of non-separation can dispel a huge amount of suffering in one’s life. Neither of them is more or less right, and both are useful. But as long as we rely merely on them, we remain trapped in the net of concepts.

“Just as the fisherman’s net can catch only fishes, but not the water that passes through it and even supports it, so the thinking mind can grasp only concepts, but not the awareness that perceives it as an object: the ‘water of awareness’ can never be detected by the net of the thinking mind.

“Indeed, awareness is a paradoxical mystery: on the one hand its evidence is undeniable for the very fact that we are aware of objects, but on the other hand it is unknowable, just as the existence of the eye is undeniable for the very fact that we can see objects, though it always remains invisible, outside the picture. However, even ‘awareness’ is just a concept: through it, we are ultimately confronted with the unknown ‘bottom line’ of any human knowledge. No understanding whatsoever can touch the unknowable Source of everything.

“What if any idea about who I am, including even the idea of ‘consciousness’, totally collapses? What if any idea about reality, including even the idea of ‘non-duality’, totally collapses? What if even these very words you are reading now lose any meaning whatsoever and fall away? What remains when every attempt to understand or to know reality reveals its utter futility? Then, out of frustration, the thinking mind cannot help saying “I don’t know” and finally quits.

But when that “I don’t know” plunges off the head into the heart, the philosopher dies and the mystic is born. It is not a process in time. It is a singularity where all the known collapses and disappears. It is a timeless explosion of pure wonder and awe that blows away everything else. And what remains is a wild, free, spontaneous, and utterly unknowable aliveness, within the glowing darkness of the Mystery that we ultimately are.”

Mauro Bergonzi

BOOK REVIEW: ZEN FOR DRUIDS

jhp574843867221aIn this user-friendly book, Joanna van der Hoeven further develops ideas already present in her earlier ones, especially Zen Druidry. On my reading, this book will work best for Druids committed to a modern eco-spirituality. I imagine readers already re-enchanted by their experience of the natural world, who want a harmonious relationship with that world, and to honour, protect and preserve it. Zen for Druids confirms this stance and adds something else: the interwoven ethical and attentional training of the Buddhist tradition.

The author draws specifically on Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Master who founded the Community of Interbeing and is a leading model and exponent of ‘engaged Buddhism’. This cultivates personal, social and ecological levels of awareness. It recognizes the radical interdependence of all beings and a need to make ethical/political choices in line with this interdependence. Such Buddhism is not in any way world denying, in the way that Buddhist tradition has at times been in the past. I see Thich Nhat Hanh as a perfect source of influence for this book, and several of his own works are cited in the bibliography.

Zen for Druids is divided into five parts. The first is a clear exposition of Buddhist basics, helped by that tradition’s own style of clear exposition and list making. It includes chapters on the three treasures, the four noble truths, the five basic precepts for lay Buddhists, the eightfold path and the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts. By age-old Buddhist design, there is a certain amount of repetition in these lists, with the same issues coming up again in slightly different contexts. Each individual chapter ends with a set of questions designed to engage the reader in their own reflections.

The second part moves through the eightfold wheel of the year, frequently found as a festival year in Druid and Pagan communities. Each festival is given its own chapter, and each chapter combines traditional Druid and Pagan themes with a principle from the Buddhist eightfold path. The author starts at Samhain (right effort), moves on to the Winter Solstice (right mindfulness), Imbolc (right concentration), Spring Equinox (right intention), Beltane (right view), Summer Solstice (right action), Lughnasadh (right speech) and the Autumn Equinox (right livelihood). Each section is followed by a list of suggestions for practice.

The book’s remaining three parts are shorter. They concern, respectively, meditation, mindfulness and integration. In two chapters on meditation, the first explores ‘mind traps’ – “those little prisons of our own making. We are constantly hijacked by our thoughts and feelings, attachments to them and our egos, such that we spin endlessly in circles until we fall down”. The second shows us to how do a brief meditation session in the Zen manner. The following section, concerning mindfulness in the world, suggests a practice of ‘mindful Mondays’ and explores the relationship between present time awareness and an animist world view. The final section, on integration, focuses on our integration with nature, looking at the issue of ‘ego, self and identity’ before reflecting on ‘awen and relationship’. For Joanna van der Hoeven, indeed, “awen is relationship and integration, the connecting threads that bind us soul to soul”.

In Zen for Druids, one Druid shows how she has taken an iteration of Zen Buddhism into her life and practice, combining them into one path. She sets out her stall very clearly and offers the reader specific opportunities and resources for practice and reflection. This book does a valuable job well.

Joanna van der Hoeven Zen for Druids: a further guide to integration, compassion and harmony with nature Winchester & Washington: Moon Books, 2016

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