Everyone benefits from healthy spaces. Such spaces may be physical, social or spiritual. They can be all three at the same time. I am glad that here in England park benches, given adequate physical distancing between people, are no longer out of bounds.
Where I live, the early weeks of the late-arriving Covid-19 lockdown seemed to create a fragile nemeton, a collective healthy space in which to take stock amidst empty roads, reduced noise, fresher air and a more reflective existence, all set in a beautiful spring. The circumstances meant that this could not apply to everyone, as those of us enjoying these conditions well knew. But there seemed to be a moment where this sense of an altered space was sufficiently present for a critical mass of people. It was a sacred space, a good space for the blossoming of generosity and compassion. Clapping for health and other key workers has been its brief weekly ritual. An atmosphere of community solidarity in the face of crisis and suffering was tentatively enabled.
The purity of the nemeton period did not last long. Aspects of it have been eroding for a while. But I notice that my personal Druid practice has been subtly influenced it, in a good way, at a time when I have also been considering my own vulnerability and mortality and that of loved ones. I seem to have made a hard-to-describe gain in depth and resiliency.
Although my ‘wheel of the year’ focus for the year from 21 December 2019 is proving very different from my original expectations, I have received an unlooked-for gift. I sense that I am not alone in this, and my hope is that positive influences from the lockdown experience will seed inspirational developments, personal and collective, over time. The human and social costs of the virus continue to be very high due both to the illness and its political mismanagement. Let them at least be honoured through commitments to fostering healthier and more creative ways of being in the future.
The image above is from The Dreampower Tarot (1) by R. J. Stewart and Stuart Littlejohn. It is called the Sleeper, and concerns dreams and unrealised potential. The pack as a whole is underpinned by R. J. Stewart’s view that “the surface world is reflected out of the Underworld, not vice versa”. Its imagery is drawn from “the mysterious inner and Underworld story of life before surfacing or outer birth”. An inverted tree stands at the back of every card, indicating a path of interiority and descent.
Over the years I have been deeply impacted by R. J. Stewart’s work, and I think of awen as an Underworld gift. Although I am not using the Dreampower pathway directly, I share its sense of a staged descent from physical (stone) to psychic (pearl) to causal (whirlpool) dimensions. The whirlpool is a field of stars at the deepest interior level, as physical and psychic reality dissolve into creative void, and the whole cycle is repeated.
In my last post https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/05/17/touching-awen/ I described a dream, which moved through three locations. Today in my awen mantra meditation, I followed the resonance of the mantra into three discrete images distilled from the dream. Moments rather than narrative vignettes, I find these slightly different in their new constellation.
First, I am in an almost dark tunnel. It is all encompassing but for a very distant light. There is a feeling tone of unease. It is not due to the pervasive wetness. It is due to what I would now language as an intimation of being separate .
This is pre-birth and approach of birthing imagery, womb imagery, perhaps with elements of something like pre-personal memory. In an awen context, it reminds me of the womb imagery in Taliesin – the lake, the cauldron, Ceridwen’s womb, the night-sea journey in the coracle. I am also reminded of Thomas the Rhymer’s journey with the Queen of Elfland:
For forty days and forty nights, he wade through red blude to the knee
And he saw neither sun nor moon but heard the roaring of the sea.” (3)
Second, I am present in the sunlit city, on one of its hills, and looking down. A sense of appreciation, at-homeness and freedom – familiarity and belonging within absolute novelty and strangeness.
I am in a state of simple innocence, which I might call grace. In this otherworldly place, pristine experiencing is normal.
Third, I am on the promenade at the beach, for me the most significant part of the city. I am aware of the sparkling sea, and of looking at the beautiful café nearby, wanting to eat and drink there. But I have got hold of the idea that I am not allowed to. I do not know what the penalty for this imagined transgression would be. My worst fantasies involve permanent entrapment in this space, or complete exile from it, no longer able to walk freely between the worlds.
There is a different feel to this part of the meditation. Thinking arises, with a strong sense of dilemma. Am I or am I not meant to obey this instruction, if there even is one? Is it a test of obedience or initiative, of acceptance or self-determination? This time, I know, it is OK to simply visit the beach, enjoy it, and be safe. I can feel restored just by looking at the cafe and the sea. But if I come here again, and do nothing, I may fade into primal non-being. If I go to the cafe, I am likely to empower hidden or lost potentials – at an unknown cost. I am the Child of Light in my own universe. It is entirely for me to decide.
At this time of writing, I know that I am engaged. I am in the slipstream of awen. Although I have talked of an ‘awen inquiry’, this no longer seems like skilful framing. For there is a surrender here, that asks for my trust and a different language. Finding resonant and empowered language, and knowing when silence works better, are part of this path. All that is asked of me, at this stage, is to consolidate my practice and to continue writing this blog.
(1) R. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Otherworld London & San Francisco: Aquarian Press, 1993
(2) R. J. Stewart The Underworld Initiation: A Journey Towards Psychic Transformation Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1985
This post describes a meditation in the late evening followed by a dream overnight. The two together became a way of touching awen. My intuition tells me that I need this dimension of experience to weather the pandemic and its aftermath.
I have a modern Druid’s understanding of awen at work in the activities of creativity, healing and the cultivation of wisdom. For me this means that each domain is at its best when influenced by the others – creativity, for example, as a form of healing and of wisdom generation. All of them have both a personal and collective dimension. We cannot be effectively creative, healthy and wise in a world turning to Waste and cursed with a Wasteland common sense. Even at its most apparently individualised and withdrawn, awen pushes back against Wasteland culture. Knowing this gives me resources and adds substance to my path.
For the meditation, I lay on my bed star-shaped, with my legs and arms spread out. I began with an awen mantra meditation synchronised with the breath. I let this go as I sank more fully into the meditative state I call ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment. Here, conventional distinctions between world, body and mind soon lose their hold. Words like ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ no longer describe anything. The at-homeness becomes dispersed and dissolved into simple experiencing, freed from any notion of a person having experiences.
What then arose, on this occasion, was a sense of the timeless origin of all possibilities and potentials. Narrating it now, I might talk of the feeling of an infinite space that is no place, where worlds and times are yet to be formed or named. In clock time this was a brief yet compelling experience. I ended the meditation with a strong sense of connection to source, and in the night that followed, I had a dream.
I find myself walking beside a river after sunset. I anxiously think: ‘I am not from around here. I need to be back by dark’. I have to go through a tunnel under a major intersection of modern roads. In this sparsely lit place, I realise that I am walking through water. It is over the top of my boots. They should be inundated, but they are not. My feet are happily dry. As I near the tunnel exit, I get a glimpse of the city ahead.
Then I am in full sunlight, in this city that I know and love, despite its never being in the same place or having the same architecture. This time it is metropolitan and coastal. It has wonderful buildings of varying vintages, intriguingly laid out, and calling me onward. Whenever I think about needing to get somewhere (and I’m not even sure where that somewhere might be, or what reason I would have for going there) new urban vistas appear before me, as if saying ‘Come and look at this … and this … and this’.
Now I am in a beach area – estuarial, rather than facing the open sea, and so a little sheltered. There are numbers of people around – walking or cycling mostly, not many in the water. It is far from overcrowded. As I continue walking, I see shops and cafes perched on a low cliff that seem tastefully designed and lovingly kept. But there is a prohibition on my interacting with anyone in this city, and my money is good for nothing. I settle for the simple enjoyment of this place. It is enough.
I wake up. The dream leaves me with feelings of lightness and wellbeing. I have a sense of touching awen.
Where I live, we are in the last stages of the rising year, the sweet period from Beltane to the Summer Solstice. The sun’s energy is waxing. The days feel abundantly alive and are marked by beauty. It is my favourite time of year, easy to enjoy. It reminds me of my debt to the sun.
Yet this period and its bounty are also fragile and evanescent. They pass soon enough. For me, peonies in a bowl are a perfect representation and celebration of this early summer moment – speaking also to the tender poignancy of impermanence, as the wheel continues to turn.
“There are seven primary materials of the world: the Blue Bard of the Chair has said it.
“The first, earth, from which are every corporeity and hardness, and every firm foundation;
“The second, water, from which are every humour and freshness;
“The third, air, from which are all respiration and motion;
“The fourth, sun, from which are all heat and light;
“The fifth, nwyfre, from which are all feeling, affection, and wantonness;
“The sixth, the Holy Ghost, from Whom are all understanding, reason, awen, and sciences;
“The seventh, God, from Whom are all life, strength, and support, for ever and ever.
“And from these seven primary materials are every existence and animation; and may the whole be under God’s regulation. Amen.” (1)
The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg, by J. Williams Ab Ithel, was published in 1862. It was presented as the lore of traditional Welsh Bardistry going back to Druid times, based on the earlier work of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams – 1747-1826). Iolo had organised the first Gorsedd of Bards for several hundred years at Primrose Hill, London, on 21 June 1792, thereby initiating the modern Welsh Eisteddfod movement. He was a personal friend of Tom Paine and George Washington subscribed to his first volume of poetry. He is said to have influenced William Blake’s poetry and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.
Iolo described himself as a Unitarian Quaker in religion, and a revolutionary Welsh nationalist in politics. In the later 1790’s the Glamorgan magistrates sent the yeomanry (a volunteer cavalry force drawn from the property-owning classes) to break up an open-air Gorsedd led by Iolo in that county. The reason given was that it was being conducted in the Welsh language and allegedly included a toast for Napoleon – then admired by radicals as defender of the French revolution. This is also a time of revolt in Ireland and the birth of Irish republicanism.
Culturally, Iolo was, as well as a poet in his own right, “a first-rate forger of literary Welsh; some have commented that his forgeries were as good or better than the real thing. Furthermore, he wrote much of the Barddas under the influence of laudanum (an opium-based medicine which he took for asthma)” (1). In consequence he has been widely dismissed as an embarrassing fraud. My response is more complicated. There is something poignant for me about ‘forgeries’ that are “as good or better than the real thing”. On the forgery question, I am sad that Iolo could not openly be a catalyst for the creation of new culture inspired by an old one, rather than having to pretend, even to himself, that he was recovering an old one as it had been (in his own mind perhaps through psychic means). As for medicinal laudanum, I wonder why this should be stigmatised in Iolo whilst accepted in his contemporary S. T. Coleridge. It may be is because Coleridge’s work was unambiguously original, and therefore seen differently. The issue of new culture creation in Druidry is a significant one to this day and is well discussed in Philip Carr-Gomm’s preface to Contemplative Druidry (2) where the voices of a number of open culture creators are included.
Going back to The Seven Primary Materials of the World, I feel friendly to this text despite its patriarchal language and its statement of a world view significantly different from my own. In my reading, it suggests a seven-step ladder from matter to the divine, with four material elements that point also to non-material qualities, where the the fourth and highest is not on the Earth. Then there are two subtle elements (though the first finds room for ‘wantonness’) and an ultimate ascent to the divine. It is the kind of evolutionary spiritual scheme that many transcendentalists down the ages have related to. Written at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and edited in mid Victorian times, it seems to me congruent with the outlook of medieval Welsh Bardistry as expressed in The Book of Taliesin (3), and the theology of the ninth century Irish scholar and contemplative mystic John Scotus Eriugena (4). It is a Christian referenced path that is not sin and fear based, and I am sure that many people involved in Druidry and Celtic Spirituality today would be in essential sympathy with it. Made up by Iolo or not, it reads as a clear and simple expression of a universalist and transcendentalist stance within a specific cultural setting. I find nothing fraudulent about it. It is what I would expect from place, time and person.
Indeed, key concepts remain relevant to my own Druid practice. I work with the wheel of the year and with the four classical elements, including fire. I am concerned with the Earth’s relationship to sun and moon. I work with my body and my sense of energy and think of nwyfre as synonymous with prana or chi, now well-known thanks to the popularity of yoga and Chinese energy arts.
At this stage in my personal journey, I am in renewed inquiry with awen. For the Barddas, it is a distinct higher mental faculty, close to the divine source like Coleridge’s primary imagination. In my own work I get a sense of energised and articulated insight. I do not think of awen as a substance in itself, but rather a quality of how we express ourselves when at our most enlivened and ‘on song’. But this inquiry is far from concluded.
Where the Barddas speaks of God, I speak of nature. I think of the web of life, and of our interbeing within it. I also think of the mysteries of quantum events, dimensions that we cannot perceive directly, galaxies flying apart and the possibility of multiple universes. But to me nature’s most extraordinary phenomenon is the gift of aware experiencing, with all the joy and suffering it brings, in the apparent here and now. To this I add the capacity to bear witness to this miracle through words, non-verbal media, silence, celebration and action. Here, I find myself still using most of the key terms from The Seven Primary Materials of the World. In this sense, I am happy to have The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg as part of my spiritual ancestry.
J. Williams Ab Ithel The Barddas of Ilo Morganwyg, Vol I & II: A Collection of Original Documents, Illustrative of Theology, Wisdom, and Usages of the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1862)
James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/Create Space, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)
William F. Skene The Four Ancient Books of Wales Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1868)
“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)
2020 is beginning its journey from Beltane to Midsummer in my neighbourhood, and I am feeling the call of Awen. Hence the pendant. I am also looking at the theme of balance (1). There’s a question for me about balancing the call of Awen with my commitment to the deep rest of contemplation and its nourishing effects.
As a fruit of my contemplative inquiry, I found ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. This at-homeness nourishes my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that the experienced moment is what is given. Being alive, having experiences, and being aware that I have experiences is an extraordinary set of gifts. But it has taken me a while to find deep rest in simple experiencing, at will.
When I go home to the flowing moment, I slow down the stream of consciousness without attempting either to halt it or to put it to work. A stillness lives within the flow and finds its place there. I experience ‘now’ as state of presence, rather than a unit of time. A pervasive sense of deep rest emerges from ‘just being’. Immersed in being, I can lose my sense of a boundaried, separate self.
But I am also an embodied human, in a perpetual process of becoming, When I hear the call of Awen, I feel as if a larger life is inviting me to share in the magic of creation as a co-creator. It is likely that humans began calling, chanting and music-making before they developed conceptual speech. Awen is close to source, deeply involved in the emergence and flourishing of our collective and personal voices. Gaelic tradition speaks of the Oran Mor as the great song in which all beings have a part.
In this final, dynamic stage of the rising year, I do feel called in this way. My initial response has been to re-incorporate Awen into my practice both as a three-syllable chant (aah-ooo-wen) and as a two-syllable mantra meditation (aah, on the inbreath; wen, on the outbreath). This is already changing the feel of the practice. When chanting this is through the sound, with its distinctive pulse and vibration, and through a strong felt resonance in my body. In the meditation, the awen mantra seems to enliven my breath, making it very real as the breath of life. It also energises my body as a whole, less dramatically but more subtly than the chant. Overall, I sense myself as enlivened, inspired, and activated. Awen is influencing my experience, and my inquiry. I will see where this magic leads me.
Greetings and Blessings for the fast approaching festival of Beltane/Samhain. May we all find ways to stay safe and to flourish! This post focuses on my sense of the Wheel at Beltane – aware also that each season contains the seed of its opposite.
For The Wildwood Tarot, Beltane is the moment when “the polarised energies of the land interweave and intertwine around the staff of the heavens, generating the pulse of life”. It is also concerned with balance, and linked to the traditional trump for temperance. There’s a call to discover what balance, balancing and re-balancing might look like in 2020. Where might different balancing acts take us? How does ‘balance’ apply collectively, with a continuing public health crisis?
In the card, the primal energies of the serpents, echoing both the caduceus symbol and the double helix, are vividly in the foreground. By contrast the mask-like human head towards the bottom of the picture is almost hidden. For me, it is sombre, an image inviting uncertainty and unknowing rather than ‘balance’ or any steady state. Beltane 2020 finds a world in flux. Anything is possible. At the personal level, balance might morph into a kind of poise, without attachment to specific outcomes, yet with a preparedness to navigate uncharted waters.
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
A murky evening moment at a magical time of year. St. George’s Day coming soon, and then Beltane. A seeming failure to get a good image. Street lights come on just as the picture is taken. Freshly green trees are obscured by gathering darkness, and reduced to silhouettes. I am shooting through a window that needs cleaning. I delete the picture. I send it to trash.
Then I find myself haunted by an after image of those apparent pink clouds in the sky. I rescue them. I have better pictures of clouds, but as I imagine them now, these shapes are no longer clouds for me. I see the courtship – I’m oddly sure it’s a courtship – of two beings. In this liminal twilight sky, in a meeting of air and fire, they are materialising in time-bound 3D reality. I might, doubtless incorrectly, call them dragons in my nervous need for naming. In truth I don’t know who or what they are, or where they come from, or how they got here. This is 2020, a twilight zone in itself.
I see no purpose or plan here, though the courtship of these beings is well synchronised for time and place. They are a sign and a wonder. Though their story is unknown, I welcome these beings who are not of this world. I am touched by their appearance and glad to be sharing it.