contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Awen space

AWEN AND CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY

A Contemplative Druidry (1) reader has asked me to say more about Awen, which had a chapter in the book. Introducing interview extracts in my Awen chapter, I wrote, “Awen is classically seen in Druidry as the power of inspiration, and in particular the creative force for poetry and prophecy. It is what transformed the boy Gwion – though not before further trials and transformations – into Taliesin, the radiant browed Bard. Many of the participants in this work uphold this tradition in its conventional form. Others seek to extend the traditional meaning better to express their own experiences and aspirations. Some don’t connect with Awen experientially and treat it as a convention – mainly as a shared chant, which brings Druids together”.

My self-criticism here is that the chant is itself an experience, frequently state-altering for both the chanters and in a sense for the space. I might have done better to say, ‘some don’t connect with it conceptually’. I see from my interview questions appendix that the Awen question was about meaning. If I did this work again, I would start with the sound, the feeling, and senses of occasion, and work out from those.

Pondering Awen afresh, I find myself drawn to deep human ancestry, and especially the early emergence of speech and music. These brought a new kind of identity: new experiences, new awareness, new feelings, new understanding, new forms of connection and solidarity – new worlds. Unsurprisingly, many cultures have subsequently developed creation stories linking origin with sound. In India, the phrase Nada Brahma tells us that God is sound/the world is made of sound. OM is the primordial sound form, the vibratory essence from which the universe emanates – and the universe needs to emanate only the smallest step (if any) to get to us. Kabir said, “if you want the truth, I’ll tell you the truth. Listen to the secret sound, the real sound, which is inside you” (2). A major philosophical school, Kashmir Shaivism, is referred to as ‘the doctrine of vibration’ (3). It talks of ‘spanda’ as “the primordial vibration at the root of all manifestation, a form of Shakti” (a term equally meaning ‘power’ or ‘goddess’).

Welsh Bardistry gives us Awen and the Taliesin story, which can be read as working with related themes, whilst diverting our main attention to the Bard as trickster/hero. In the old Gaelic world, we have the term Imbhas, equivalent to Awen, and a more touching story about the eating of the salmon of wisdom, in which the old Bard (as I read it) sets himself up to pass on the true nourishment to a promising youth. We also have the notion of the Oran Mor (Song of the World). Frank MacEowan (4) writes: “a conscious knowing of the ancient ‘music behind the world’ has always been woven into the daily awareness of the adherents of various Celtic traditions. In the words of Stuart Harris-Logan, a Gaelic healer, scholar, and author of Singing with Blackbirds, ‘out on the Isle of Barra, the people have long spoken of the Oran Mor as one of the old names of God. The Oran Mor is the Great Song from which all things have arisen’”.

Jason Kirkey (5), an associate of Frank MacEowan, treats ‘Oran Mor’ and ‘Divine Ground’ as synonymous both with each other and with David Bohm’s ‘implicate order’, in which the world of space, time and individual particles are enfolded into an undifferentiated wholeness that provides the holographic pattern (each part contains the pattern of the whole) by which reality unfolds. In Ireland, a sense of the Oran Mor could legitimately continue into Christian times. St. John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (6) This greatly moved John Scotus Eriugena, the great Irish philosopher/theologian of the ninth century – the time of Viking invasions in north west Europe. In his commentary on the Gospel he says, “John, the theologian – ascends beyond all visible and invisible creation, passes through all thought and intellect, and deified, enters into God who deifies him … John, the observer of the inmost truth, in the paradise of paradises, in the very cause of all, heard the one Word through which all things are made … Therefore, most confidently he cried out, ‘in the beginning was the Word.” (7) True knowledge and experience of the primal Word are divinizing – a remarkable statement for a western Christian of the day. John Scotus had learned Greek at a monastic school in his native Ireland (then not an available option elsewhere in western Europe) and was familiar with neo-Platonist thought. Perhaps that and his indigenous culture together allowed an understanding that the Word calls us to recognize our own divinity.

Modern Druidry was Universalist before it was Pagan, and retains a willingness to learn from other traditions. I believe that we can use the wider cultural history I’ve identified to inform our sense of what we are invoking when we chant the Awen. This chanting is something which Druid contemplative practitioners share with other Druids. Our unique practice is the ‘Awen space’ that follows the chant. Like other Druids, we do not require people to gather together under the umbrella of a common cosmology. It is OK to have different understandings, and it is OK for us to change and develop our personal understandings over time. That said, I end this piece with a reflection about the broad intentions behind our inherited Celtic spirituality, to provide a cultural context for Awen/Imbhas and where they might fit. It’s from Frank MacEowan (8): “The ancient Celts … were … ever yearning to connect with divine inspiration (imbhas), and ever longing to live a life of beauty imbued with connection and spirit. We are also on this path, and the fulfillment of our collective task as a human community lies in the process of actualizing a deeper communion with these same life-affirming powers. Celtic spirituality is an ongoing initiation into a life of beauty and a mindful preparation for the passage of death. The ancient spirituality of the Celtic peoples has always been a dynamic orientation to the ebb and flow of the seasons, daily practices that foster an awareness of the passage of our lives and of thanatology (a vision and study of our death and dying). This vision is of a life ending in a wondrous death journey to a home we have all been away from. When death is really an experience of going home, what is there to fear?”.

(1) James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: people, practice and potential Amazon/KDP, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)

(2) Sally Kempton Meditation for the love of it: enjoying your own deepest experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011 (Foreword by Elizabeth Gilbert)

(3) Mark S.G. Dyczkowski The Doctrine of vibration: an analysis of the doctrines and practices of Kashmir Shaivism Delhi, India: Divine Books, 1987

(4)Frank MacEowan The Celtic way of seeing: meditations on the spirit wheel Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

(5) Jason Kirkey The Salmon in the spring: the ecology of Celtic spirituality San Francisco, CA: Hiraeth Press, 2009 (Foreword by Frank MacEowan)

(6) Holy Bible (authorized version)

(7) The voice of the eagle: John Scotus Eriugena’s homily on the prologue to the gospel of St. John Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2000 ed. (Translated by Christopher Bamford, foreword by Thomas Moore)

(8) Frank MacEowan The mist-filled path: Celtic wisdom for exiles, wanderers and seekers Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY: MEME OR MOVEMENT?

On 3 October Contemplative Druid Events (CDE) – see http://contemplativedruidevents.tumblr.com – will hold its last planned event for 2015. This will be a Contemplative Day, in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The facilitators will be James Nichol, Elaine Knight and Nimue Brown. Our programme is designed for a group of up to 15 people, and 12 are already committed. With just over a month to go we have a comfortable size of group, with room for a few more.

CDE offerings are built around insights from the book Contemplative Druidry: People Practice and Potential about the kinds of contemplative work that most seemed to resonate for the present generation of Druids. We offer sitting meditations of based both on a bare attention and on active imagination. We have outdoor walking meditations and opportunities simply to be, with awareness, in natural settings. We use methods that draw on creative arts. We have developed ‘Awen space’ as a group opening to, in and as Spirit. We build our repertoire as we gain in experience.

Is CDE spearheading Contemplative Druidry as a movement? I don’t see it that way. CDE was created as a minimal level of organisation for a single purpose. This is to offer a particular kind of event to small groups of Druids and fellow-travellers willing to join us. In doing this, we also promote the contemplative Druid meme, which now seems to be well recognised in modern Druid culture. But the CDE brand does not exhaust the possibilities of contemplative Druidry and we wouldn’t want it to. Modern Druidry, which is in some senses a postmodern Druidry, has a strong commitment to free exploration and diversity. The contemplative meme will find its place within that wider cultural framework. For better or for worse, we will never, as a collective, be organised around a Druid ‘four noble truths’. Contemplative Druidry will mean different things, and inspire different journeys, for different Druids.

DRUID CAMP, STROUD CONTEMPLATIVE DAY, SMALL GROUPS

I’ve just had a couple of lazy summer days and I feel all the better for them. They’ve been interwoven with a relaxed stocktaking about contemplative Druidry and my part in it. I notice that my main focus is on small groups.

As I write, I’m at peace with my personal life and practice. At the collective level, I’ve had recent good news. My friend and colleague JJ Howell has let me know the specific roles that my partner Elaine Knight and I will be playing at Druid Camp in four weeks’ time. Druid Camp – www.druidcamp.org.uk  – is a large group (200-300 people), but we’ll be working with small groups, offering contemplative sessions from the repertoire built up by our local group over the last year. Meanwhile I also know that an open contemplative day in Stroud, organised by our own outreach arm Contemplative Druid Events –   http://contemplativedruidevents.tumblr.com  – is now viable and will go ahead on 3 October. We have seven people fully booked and three more with strong expressions of interest, with 15 being our max.

The overall position is that we have a flourishing local group, now three years old; a book largely though not exclusively based on the thoughts of its members; and an outreach arm able to offer an annual residential retreat (The Birchwood Retreat) every April and an open contemplative day in October 2015, which might become annual too. In all cases the events concerned will have no more than 15 participants. We could do a little bit more – providing small group sessions at other larger events, or offering more contemplative days either locally or elsewhere. But my sense is that we need to respect limitations in our capacity, stick to the small group approach, and make sure that all our work is experiential and not simply discursive. People need to taste it.

For me perhaps the greatest value of the small group is the opportunity for all participants to introduce ourselves and be heard. For that to work fully, we need a quality of listening which itself becomes a practice and part of our culture, and whose intention is to ensure that no one is either misrecognised or ignored. This in itself is counter to mainstream communication, including ours, and needs conscious practice. It will include mis-steps from time to time within our own groups. So it’s not about ‘getting it right’ all the time: the point is to be conscious. In a contemplative context, we can hope to go further: establishing a level of trust that opens the door to deeper I-Thou recognition and communion. It’s a different opportunity to those provided when large numbers of people become immersed together in prayer, song, ritual or formal meditation. It’s more personal, in the best sense of that term. I find it both more challenging and rewarding, whilst believing that all of these approaches have their honoured place.

Small groups have other advantages too. It is easier to be flexible on programming within the event. It is easier to offer activities which demand time for reflection and debriefing. It is easier to become aware of other people as spiritual companions, even if we have not met them before or do not know them well. I think, too, that it’s easier to learn, not least when in a facilitative role, because the style of the event can be person centred rather than goal centred. Activities are designed to support us in our human, and therefore spiritual, flourishing. They are not Everests to be climbed so we can say that we ‘knocked the bastard off’.

I think this is why we have not oriented our contemplative Druidry around long meditations or meditation training. It was one way to go, and in some ways the obvious one. It would certainly be the most traditional one and my solo practice is very much tilted that way. But the group context changes things. Pragmatically, our local group is about evenly divided between people who gain from long meditations and those who don’t. We would lose people by taking this approach. More importantly, the group is co-creating a culture in which the blessing of space and silence is received differently – through short meditations, attunement to the seasonal moment, silent walks, or activities like ‘Awen space’ in which we sit with each other, open to spirit, and can speak, chant or sing into the silence when so moved. We can also explore co-creation from silence into sound and story, or find different ways of awakening to the fields of energy and presence within us, between us, and around us. It’s a subtle and sensitive kind of work. It needs times of stillness and silence. It also needs times of movement, sound and speech. It needs times of reflection and relaxation.

In my view, we are still at an early stage of this exploration. We have a name – Contemplative Druidry – to hold us. We have literature – Contemplative Druidry and also Nimue Brown’s Druidry and Meditation – to support us. We have a dedicated group and an outreach arm. The small group approach has evolved quite naturally and I see it as a critically important aspect of how we work.

AWEN SPACE

I’ve heard it said that attempting to describe actual spiritual practice is folly. It’s like pinning up butterflies for display – you retain the husk whilst losing the flight. But sometimes the endeavour seems worth the risk. I want to talk about the group practice of ‘awen space’ that forms a part of my Druidry.

My local contemplative Druid group met for two hours last Tuesday, 9 December. We connect for two hours in the afternoon on the second Tuesday of every month, except for May and November – a pattern that has now lasted for just over a year. In those months we meet for a full Saturday, sometime after the festivals of Beltane and Samhain. The days offer the advantage of time for a greater variety of practice, the presence of people from outside our local catchment area, and an introductory space for new members. 19 people are now at least provisionally involved, and we have decided to close the group. The Tuesday sessions offer a greater sense of continuity, a more intimate atmosphere, and even greater focus and simplicity. Attendance currently fluctuates between five and nine. This week eight of us were present.

Our usual structure for a two hour session tends to be

  • Pre-meeting for greetings and refreshments
  • Entry into sacred space through a brief ritual opening
  • Group check in
  • A period of silent sitting meditation (about 20 minutes)
  • A move into the awen field (for about 35-40 minutes)
  • Group check-out
  • Exit from sacred space
  • Farewells

Although our use of ritual is lean and parsimonious, it is a very important part of this process. It is the first step in making our attention intentional, and in turning a domestic hearth into a nemeton. Over time, we have tended to favour putting our personal check-ins and check-outs within the nemeton, since we are entering into sacred relationship as well as sacred space, tuning into each other as part of the practice – not just as a preliminary or warm-up. We use a talking stick process for this, to emphasise the intentional and ritualised aspect of what we are doing.

I think of the awen space as being the most distinctive part of the session. We enter the space through a repeated chanting of awen – how much, or whether we ‘cascade’, depends on our sense of the moment – and then enter silence, consciously together rather than meditating side by side as in the simple sitting meditation that precedes this practice. We may maintain this collective and relational silence or we may choose to sing, chant or say things. In this sense it is an interactive practice albeit a subtle one. It is most powerful when we can hold back from entering into actual dialogue and exchange whilst at the same time moving with the current of communication and relationship which we are generating both through our silence and our utterance. There’s a fine point of balance and tension here. When the awen space is over – it’s over, so it’s not strictly timed. There’s a person whose job it is to lead us both into and out of the space and they make the call. Usually it reflects everyone’s sense of the appropriate ending. We chant awen on our way out of this space as well as into it.

In this context we experience awen, Druidry’s subtle magic, as an energetic field in which we are inspired to be more open and receptive to each other – and at times to find authentic here-and-now language for our felt sense of co-presence and connection within an enlivened space. So it’s something within and between us when we are together, not so much a lightning flash from above. Sometimes our experience completely flows; sometimes it’s more halting. The space gives us a mirror, say rather an echo, of what we bring to it on the day. The physical space matters too – on Tuesday it was a space of wood burner glow and tiny lights in a deepening dusk, and a circle of people working gently together. For me, the feeling-tone and the imagery of this space, lodged in the shifting ever-now of memory, are my key reference point for ‘contemplative Druidry’ as a unique spiritual note. And I am made even more grateful to be able to practice in this way with a group of good companions.

 

A CONTEMPLATIVE DRUID EVENT

Thanks to the interest generated by Contemplative Druidry, members of the Gloucestershire contemplative group have set up an entity called Contemplative Druid Events. So far we have a blog at http://contemplativedruidevents.tumblr.com/ and a forthcoming retreat.

The retreat is being held on the weekend of 17-19 April 2015 at Anybody’s Barn, Birchwood Hall, Storridge, Nr. Malvern, Worcestershire WR13 5EZ.  Details of the retreat can be found on the blog.

I am excited by this prospect. It provides the opportunity to work with a larger group of people and to learn from them. Contemplative Druidry doesn’t come with a long specific tradition or an inherited set of practices and teachings. As modern Druids, we are engaged in an exploratory and co-creative enterprise. Events will extend the experience and understanding of participants and facilitators alike.

At the same time we do have a vision of what we are offering, and a sense of how the retreat will work. We will use the Friday evening to enter sacred space and move into introductions and a culture setting process. I consider the way in which we enter into relationship with the space and each other to be a highly significant part of the event and not just a warm up or preamble. It does much to determine the quality of living presence in the space, as important as any practice or activity. As for practices and activities – there will be sitting meditations and an introduction to what our existing local group calls “Awen Space”. Other offerings may include chanting, sacred movement, outside walking meditation and ‘lectio divina’ from the book of nature. We will likely make use of a fire pit on the Saturday evening.

The retreat also gives us the chance simply to be, alone and with fellow travellers, in a beautiful nurturing space. (After the opening process, every activity is an invitation to the participants, rather than a demand on them.) We will work with a maximum of sixteen people, including ourselves – there are five of us with facilitator roles from the Gloucestershire group. This is not the full capacity of the centre we are using, for we wanted a spacious environment on the physical as well as other levels.

I have a strong belief in this way of working and look forward to sharing it with new people.

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