contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Buddhism

LIVING WITH EASE

By simply looking out from my bedroom window, I can enjoy the abundance of high summer, as the year moves on from the solstice. The lush foliage speaks of ease and fulfilment. ‘Summertime and the living is easy’, says the old song. In a customised version of the Buddhist lovingkindness meditation, I say: ‘A blessing on my life. May I be free from harm; may I be healthy; may I be happy; may I live with ease’ … gradually extending the circle of care through my loved ones through wider circles of acquaintance, eventually including all beings throughout the cosmos. But what does living with ease add to freedom from harm, or to health and happiness?

In my experience, this comes from my experience of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. I treat the flowing moment as a quality of experience rather than a unit of time. Otherwise I might be tempted to measure the right length of a moment’ to be ‘present’ or ‘flow’ in. It would have to be brief, but long enough to register experientially. Even so, I would probably find myself lying in wait for such a moment in the hope of catching one before it went. This would not be a skilful means of living with ease.

Instead, I enter the flowing moment, intentionally, by slowing down and taking notice. Eyes open, I take in the world visually, in all its riches, and check out my sensations, feelings, thoughts and any internal imagery that might override the physical view. I am not identified with any of these experiences. They are not me. I am empty and at home in the flow of sensation and perception. In this state, I ideally avoid stories like ‘there are trees on the other side of this window’. If I enter such a story, that is just another passing experience, a bubble in the flowing moment. It is in my empty core that the flowing moment becomes my home. In a sense, it is the emptiness itself that is the home. But it feels most like home when a world of sensation and perception appears to fill the space. Emptiness and form are interdependent. They need each other to flourish.

The flowing moment is not my default setting in daily life. Other states of attention come to the fore. The flowing moment, which I can enter and leave at any time, is available as a home to go to when I want or need it: hence my phrase ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. Entering and leaving is a conscious, careful decision, though it does not require retreat conditions or labelling as a formal spiritual practice.

‘At-homeness in the flowing moment’ can work in bad times as well as good. For the emptiness at my core can also be full and loving. It does not judge distressed and negative reactions. It does not try to smooth over feelings of dismay about the wider world. It holds them in peace and lovingkindness. In my morning circle, I ask for peace in the four directions, in the below, the above and throughout the world. But the centre is different. I stand in the peace of the centre, at the heart of living presence. This is the source of my ease, the nurturing emptiness that stands behind my at-homeness in the flowing moment .

AGNOSTIC BUDDHA: NATURALIST DRUID

“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)

(2) Graham Harvey (ed.) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism London & New York: Routledge, 2014 (First published by Acumen in 2013) see also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/02/22/

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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.)

VALUES FOR 2020

I want to give my contemplative inquiry for the next year a strong focus and intent. This includes re-stating the values in which it is grounded, updated after some reflection over the last twelve moths.

I  use the word values where others might choose ethics or virtues. I make commitments rather than resolutions or vows. These commitments commit me to ‘cultivate’ a quality or behaviour. Hence, for example, I say “I will cultivate lovingkindness”. I cannot guarantee acting with lovingkindness as a simple act of will. But I can cultivate this quality and help it grow in the rough and tumble of life. I would like lovingkindness to be my default response in the heat of the given moment.

This year I will work with four commitments, listed below with brief commentaries.

  • I will cultivate lovingkindness towards myself, others and the wider world. I find the Buddhist metta meditation  a good working method for this (1). Lovingkindness is different to what I mean by love, more in the territory of good will. Love involves my spontaneous natural affections and needs to be free.
  • I will cultivate positive health and well-being, within whatever constraints may apply. This includes work with diet and exercise, and resiliency factors for mental and emotional health, such as connecting, being active, taking notice, and continuous learning and giving (2).
  • I will cultivate a life of abundance in simplicity. The dance between these terms creates, for me, a specific quality of richness. More widely, it contributes to living lightly on the earth.
  • I will cultivate openness, creativity and wisdom, learning how better to understand these qualities and how to enact them. I am curious about how they can work together.

The commitments give me a set of value words to work with: lovingkindness, health, well-being, abundance, simplicity, openness, creativity, wisdom and cultivation. Part of the work is to develop my understanding and application of such terms in the light of experience and reflection. Although I am making use of abstract nouns, the process of working with values is dynamic and subject to revision. This post is a record of where I stand on the brink of the 2020s.

(1) We extend lovingkindness to beings in this order: ourselves; a person who has benefited us; a person about whom we have no strong feelings; an ‘enemy’ or person with whom we experience difficulties; all beings without exception. We want to be able to say, congruently: may I/you/we be free of danger; happy; healthy; live with ease. – See: Sharon Salzberg & Joseph Goldstein Insight Meditation Correspondence Course Work Book Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2004 (First published 1996)

(2) These are explained in detail at adrianharris.org/blog/2018/06/five-steps-to-mental-wellbeing/

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.

SACRED SOUNDSCAPES

“Concepts of animism can take many forms. … The idea of the land being capable of speaking to humans was probably widespread in ancient sensibility. Sacred soundscapes were simply a natural corollary.

“The basic notion of the land having speech, or being read like a text, was lodged deeply in some schools of Japanese Buddhism – in early medieval Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, founded by Kukei, for instance. He likened the natural landscape around the Chuzenji temple and the lake at the foot of Mount Nantai, near Nikko, to descriptions in the Buddhist scriptures of the Pure Land, the habitation of the buddhas. Kukei considered that the landscape not only symbolised but was of the same essence as the mind of the Buddha. Like the Buddha mind, the landscape spoke in a natural language, offering supernatural discourse: ‘Thus, waves, pebble, winds, and birds were the elementary and unconscious performers of the cosmic speech of buddhas and bodhisattvas,’ explains Allan Grapard (1994).

” …. ….

“Throat singers in Tuvan, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, developed their vocal art originally as a means of communicating with their natural environment, not for entertainment. Throat singing involves the production of resonant sounds, overtones and whistles within the throat, nasal cavities, mouth and lips, and was used to provoke echoes or imitate natural sounds like waterfalls or wind. The master throat singers can select precise locations inside caves where the resonances are exactly right to maximise the reverberations of their songs. They even wait until atmospheric conditions are perfect for the greatest effect. It is in essence a technology of echoes. At one locale, where a singer called Kaigal-ool performed in front of a cliff face, ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin reported that ‘the cliff and surrounding features sing back to the musician in what Kaigal-ool calls a kind of meditation, a conversation I have with nature‘ (Levin & Suzukei, 2006).

“It is only in our modern culture that we have stopped listening to the land within a spiritual context. If we could fashion a modern, suitably culturally-ingrained animistic model, we would treat the environment with much more respect.”

Paul Devereux, in his Foreword to Greening the Paranormal: Exploring the Ecology of Extraordinary Experience August Night Press, 2019. Edited by Jack Hunter. See: http://www.augustnightpress.com

POEM: MATSUO BASHO

In imagination,

An old woman and I

Sat together in tears

Admiring the moon.

Matsuo Basho The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches London: Penguin Books, 1966. (Translated from the Japanese with an introduction by Noboyuki Yuasa.) The strongly Zen influenced Basho lived from 1644 – 1694 and is considered one of the greatest figures in Japanese literature.

MAP AND TERRITORY

The Empress Wu Zetian ruled the Chinese empire alone from 690-705, the only woman ever to do so. It was the time of the Tang dynasty, when China was open to central Asian and Indian cultural influence. Wu herself had a strong Buddhist commitment.

She was curious about the world view of an esoteric Buddhist school, the Hwa Yen. In this view, all the universes were seen as a single living organism, characterised by mutually interdependent and interpenetrating processes of becoming and unbecoming. The Empress asked for a simple and practical demonstration of this complex vision.

The Hwa Yen sage Fa-tsang was given a palace room in which he placed eight large mirrors, each at one of the eight points of the compass. He placed a ninth mirror on the ceiling and a tenth on the floor. Then he suspended a candle from the ceiling in the centre of the room. The Empress was delighted at the effects thus created. ‘How beautiful! How marvellous!’ she cried. Fa-tsang explained how the reflection of the flame in each of the ten mirrors demonstrated the relationship of the One and the many, and also how each mirror also reflected the reflections of the flame in all the other mirrors, until myriad flames filled them all. The reflections were mutually identical. In one sense they were interchangeable; in another sense they existed individually. Then Fa-tsang covered one of the reflections to show the significant consequences this had for the whole. He described the relationship between the reflections as ‘One in All; All in One; One in One; All in All ‘.

Hwa Yen Buddhists also spoke of ‘The Great Compassionate Heart’. They understood it as a quality of awareness that sees all phenomena including ourselves as arising out of Emptiness, remaining part of the Emptiness whilst assuming a temporal form, and finally falling back into Emptiness and being reabsorbed. “It is a quality of awareness that quite naturally expresses itself in acts of deepest, yet quite unsentimental reverence and compassion for all that is, the just and the unjust, humans, animals, plants and stones”.*

Fa-tsang was careful to provide a ‘the-map-is-not-the-territory’ caveat. “Of course, I must point out, Your Majesty, that this is only a rough approximation and static parable of the real state of affairs in the universe – for the universe is limitless and in it an all is in perpetual, multidimensional motion”. Yet he had still taken care to provide his Empress with a beautiful, memorable and instructive map. Such maps, and the sense of ‘Great Compassionate Heart’ which they foster are of great value. They can nourish the seeker and illuminate the way, for rulers and non-rulers alike.

*Richard Miller Yoga Nidra: a Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2005 (A more extended version of the story is included in this book.)

A SMALL GOD OF THE EARTH ATTAINS BUDDHAHOOD

IMG_20191011_101101_kindlephoto-8745263

I have had this statue for awhile, and intend to pay it more attention. He might be a small god. or he might be a human priest or shaman, acting as guardian of a sacred place. I imagine it as including a waterfall and springs, with  rocks and earth and trees. Either way he would be eligible to become, or realise that he latently is, a Buddha or Taoist Immortal, to use another framework from his culture of origin.

There are even rumours of his being Maitreya, the next world saviour, on account of his laughing, ecstatic demeanour. For me, this works best in a model where we could all be prompted into saving the world together. I’m not sure how best to name and describe him – what words to use, or references to make. So I took this picture instead.

BOOK REVIEW: SEEK TEACHINGS EVERYWHERE

This post is about Philip Carr-Gomm’s Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the specific topic and/or the development of modern spiritual movements more generally.

Elegantly and accessibly presented, the book testifies both to a personal journey and a key role in developing modern British Druidry. Both the journey and the role are an interweaving of Pagan and Universalist threads. PCG’s approach has been to adopt Druidry as a ‘meta-path’, one able “to transcend religious distinctions”, and allowing of involvement in other paths as well. The Jain path, shared with his Druid mentor Ross Nichols, is the one given the greatest individual attention in the book, in a long section on Druidry and Dharmic traditions. This section touches also on other Indian derived movements and practices (Buddhism, Yoga Nidra) and speculates on ancient cultural and linguistic resonances between early Indian traditions and early European Druidry. PCG dedicates other sections of the book to Christianity and Wicca, with suggestions about how they too can harmonise with Druidry.

This overall approach is reflected in the lived culture of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), which PGC has led for thirty years. He is now in a process of stepping down from the role, and so the book is a timely account of both vision and legacy. He says: “each spiritual way has gifts to offer, and some people find in Druidry all the spiritual nourishment they need. Others combine their Druidry with other approaches, such as Wicca, Taoism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism or Jainism”. OBOD’s ancestry as a movement derives from Celtic and Western Way currents within early twentieth century theosophy. The Order remains true to that heritage – as evidenced by a website that actively describes synergies with other paths and provides links to them – see www.druidry.org/ .

My personal takeaway from the book concerns PCG’s substantial presentation of Jain ethics, grounded in three key principles: ahimsa, aparigraha and anekant, here described as the Triple A. PCG explains: “Ahimsa is the doctrine of harmlessness or non-violence, made famous by Gandhi, and espoused by the other Dharmic traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism”. Aparigraha, the doctrine of non-attachment, non-possessiveness or non-acquisition, likewise appears in these other schools. Anekant, a doctrine of many-sidedness, multiple viewpoints, non-absolutism or non-one-sidedness, is unique to The Jains. The three principles can be seen as completing each other – with many-sidedness an aspect of non-violence and non-attachment, and so on.

PCG recommends these principles for our time. They inform his own vision of Druidry. “We know that the world suffers from too much conflict, too much fundamentalism, and too much consumption. This suffering can be alleviated by applying the Triple A doctrines: seeking non-violent solutions, respecting and learning from others’ opinions and beliefs, and reducing consumption to sustainable levels”. In the Jain tradition, such an approach to life is supported by practices of ritual and meditation that work towards the release of negative attachments. PCG recommends versions of these as well.

Part of the beauty of this book is that different readers will find different reasons to take note and learn from it. I have found it valuable both as an authoritative record of a current in modern Druidry, and as a personal inspiration.

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

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