This post updates the description of Contemplative Inquiry, using the text my newly revised ABOUT.
“I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. I began Contemplative Inquiry in August 2012 as part of a project within modern British Druidry. My book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014. It includes a foreword, Deep Peace of the Quiet Earth, by Philip Carr-Gomm, at that time Chosen Chief of OBOD (https://www.druidry.org). There are major contributions in the main text from 14 other Druids offering diverse perspectives on the topic: https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/
“Contemplative Inquiry includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. It reaches beyond Druidry into a wider exploration of contemplative spiritualities, drawing on the enduring wisdom of many times and places. Over time, I have found an ‘at-homeness’ in the present moment, which nourishes and illuminates my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given.
“I find that this perspective supports a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity. My practice seems to have its own evolving trajectory, whilst drawing on two spiritual families as active points of reference – OBOD Druidry (https://www.druidry.org) and the Eckhart Tolle Community – https://eckharttolle.com/.”
It is some time since the solstice. Where I live, the time between sunrise and sunset has shortened by about 20 minutes. Though the change is still slow, it is noticeable now. But I do not yet feel a pull towards Lughnasadh/Lammas. I took these pictures on 11 July, and this is its own time, a time of abundance and ripening. They give me the sense of a summer that has kept its promise and is managing to mature despite a year of patchy weather.
At this stage, the willows below, early to leaf, remain majestic in their abundance – whilst hinting at a tiredness that will manifest in late summer, when energy starts to withdraw, and turn inwards.
But this isn’t the case with the treescape as a whole. In the woods I continue to find the fresh green of a vigorous life energy. It is the time when I get the strongest sense of a canopy, even in a relatively small and modestly wooded space. It hints at the glories of old forest, even though it isn’t one.
Whilst there is a sense of flora moving into new stages of their cycle, the process is gradual. There is time and leisure for slow change. There is no sense of having to be perfectly one thing and then, immediately, perfectly another.
Above all. I notice subtle differences in shape and colour within a setting of predominantly green growth. My gaze is drawn by intricacies of variation, contrast and patterning within this always astonishing display of life, and its natural will to be and become.
In mid-July, life rests in its moment, with harvesting some way off.
In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), gorse covers the period from 9-31 July. It is the last tree of the summer quarter, handing over to apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas on 1 August. The illustration is from The Green Man Tree Oracle (2).
I know from my childhood that gorse can make a tame, gently sloping hill seem wild and edgy. Navigating through gorse requires an eye to self-care. Flowering gorse is not confined to summer, but for me it is anchored to summer in memory. Seen from afar, gorse was a vivid harbinger of the summer holidays with days of warmth (rising to heat) and freedom to roam. It carried a hint of adventure and disinhibition. Sometimes the promise was fulfilled. Sometimes there was a hot heavy dullness broken by only storms, and a degree of frustration. July days were unpredictable.
Gorse (ogham name Onn) was sacred to the Irish god Lugh, and thus to light, to all manner of skills, and to the fire in the head of ecstatic creativity. Lugh has a trickster aspect, and can be seen in certain lights as more a god of lightning than of the sun. He has a cousinship with the Brythonic Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the warrior magician of the fourth branch of the Mabinogi. He has also been linked to the Norse Loki, for tricksterism is an aspect of the smouldering fertile mind.
Gorse makes good fuel and so has an obvious role in fire festivals. In Brittany, 1 August was marked by the Festival of the Golden Gorse and gorse has has strong associations with the faery folk. It is a plant of power. We cannot make assumptions about how we stand with it. A wary respect might be wise.
NOTE: This post brings to an end a year in which I have featured the sixteen trees in this mandala. I began on 16 July 2020 with an out-of-sequence Rowan (3), because I had had a vivid encounter with a rowan tree in the woods. (Its time in the mandala is 9-31 October.). Then I moved on to apple(4) and blackberry (5). From the Autumn Equinox (1) the enterprise became more systematic. As a blogger, I won’t be repeating the cycle in the same way in the coming year. Once for the record feels enough.
(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/
(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Tree Oracle London: Connections, 2003
Peter Kingsley is a scholar of early Greek philosophy, and A Story Waiting to Pierce You (1) links Pythagoras (ca 590-470 BCE) with central Asian shamanism. Pythagoras got most of his own education outside of the Greek cultural sphere, and Kingsley focuses here on his relationship with Abaris the Hyperborean*, using ancient texts to guide him.
Abaris is not a personal name. It places its bearer as an Avar. The Avars are one of the peoples ancestral to modern Mongols. They still and still live under their older name in Dagestan, a Russian republic in the northern Caucasus. Kingsley’s Abaris walked, or in some sense flew, from his homeland to meet Pythagoras. He carried a golden arrow in his hand, though in a way it carried him. For Abaris was a wind walker, and on a mission.
Kingsley explains, using evidence from pre-Buddhist Tibet (where the practice has survived within Buddhism) as well as Mongolia: “Wind walkers could go anywhere; cover enormous distances with apparently effortless ease; find their way over every conceivable obstacle and straight past the most impassable landscapes … in one unbroken trance, holding their god inside them. That single-pointed focus, just like the intense attention required of an arrow maker or demanded of someone shooting arrows at their mark, had to be totally undisturbed”.
Abaris had been shown by the god within him that in Pythagoras he would find a living incarnation of the same god. Greek texts name the god as Apollo – understood here primarily as a god of healing, trance and prophecy. Abaris gave his arrow, as planned, to Pythagoras, in recognition of his true nature. Through Pythagoras, he hoped, the Greek world would be healed and purified.
Pythagoras had considerable success. He attracted an enthusiastic following, and coined the term philosopher (lover of wisdom) to describe his work. He taught kindness to humans and animals and championed an honest and simple life. He believed in metempsychosis (transmission of the soul after death into a new body, human or animal), and in the explanatory power of number. But he was one teacher among others, and even his enthusiastic followers played down the influence of Abaris and his culture. It did not suit the self-image of the Greeks to recognise nomadic barbarians as possible teachers. They were not alone in this. A similar view prevailed in China.
Why does this matter to us? Because we have kept on making the same mistakes. The early stigmatisation of Hyperborean culture in the ancient world has been repeated in the stigmatisation of the cognate cultures of First Nations people in North America. The Chinese version survives in their current governance of Tibet and Xinjiang. In the spiritual domain, we still maintain a disparaging distinction between shamanism and ‘higher’ traditions. By contrast, Kingsley describes shamanism as “constantly engaged with practising respect and consideration towards all forms of life in an overall framework of concern for both visible and invisible worlds” He adds, “the fact that a transcendent realm beyond the senses happens, in the hands of most true elders and shamans, to be seamlessly interwoven with this world to the point where the two become one is a sign not of inferiority but of a far greater capacity for integration.”
A Story Waiting to Pierce You is not Peter Kingsley’s most recent book, but for me it is the most accessible, in both price and presentation. The first half is written in a simple, spacious, almost mythic style that goes straight to the heart. The second half, comprising notes, offers more than a set of references, looking at scholarly arguments and matters of interpretation. I find this arrangement a satisfying way of handling the material overall. I strongly recommend this book for people interested in the cultural history of spirituality and the issues it raises.
(1) Peter Kingsley A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet, and the Destiny of the Western World Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2010
*Hyperborean = from Hyperborea, beyond the north wind.
“When you perceive nature only through the mind, through thinking, you cannot sense its aliveness, its beingness. You see the form only and you are unaware of the life within the form – the sacred mystery. Thought reduces nature to a commodity to be used in the pursuit of profit or knowledge or some other utilitarian purpose. The ancient forest becomes timber, the bird a research project, the mountain something to be mined or conquered” (1)
Since the beginning of March I have had a connection with Eckhart Tolle’s community (2). Over the next couple of months I will decide whether to make an ongoing commitment. Part of the process is to identify the points of compatibility with my Druidry so that both may support an integrated spiritual life. The view of nature is one point of compatibility, and there is a link to my sense of contemplative Druidry when Eckhart Tolle says: “When you perceive nature, let there be spaces for no-thought, no mind. When you approach nature, it will respond to you, and participate in the evolution of a human and planetary consciousness.” (1)
(1) Eckhart Tolle Stillness Speaks: Whispers of Now London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003
A blue sky frames quiet branches. It is the midsummer standstill in my neighbourhood – a period extending over several days. I took the picture on 23 June, in the early afternoon, a time of soft warmth and sunshine, with me able to meet it. I had been prepared to miss it this year, and was delighted when the opportunity came.
The picture below shows the play of afternoon light and shade in a semi-sheltered spot, where a footbridge crosses a stream.
The next picture makes it clear that there is substantial built environment too here – one of the things I like about this landscape – in the form of weathered railway arches visible behind the foreground green.
The nearby canal looks sleepier than the stream, as if dreaming in the lushness of the moment.
Below, water margin nettles stand out as part of the richness and fecundity of this space, calling for my attention. Clearly capable of being an irritant and seen largely as a nuisance today, the nettle was highly valued by our ancestors for food, fibre and medicine. The Druid Plant Oracle (1) describes it as “a storehouse of goodness” bearing hidden gifts. Nettle tea is widely thought of as health promoting, and modern research confirms that it is rich in antioxidants and vitamins. It is suggested that its polyphenols are helpful in managing chronic illnesses that involve inflammation. I am taking it up as a drink.
There are other, varied riches beside the path, easy to ignore, but also easy to notice and enjoy for their beauty and vitality alone.
I went for this walk without any intention of taking photographs and I travelled quite a way before I began. I felt as though the landscape was persuading me to record the day, and thus bear witness to the midsummer stasis. Yes, it happened in 2021, as it happens every year. Here is the evidence. I am glad I showed up to be part of it,
(1) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Plant Oracle: Working with the Magical Flora of the Druid Tradition London: Connections, 2007 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)
I’m coming out of an extended period of laboured breathing, loss of voice, and bouts of coughing that didn’t want to stop. I cannot tell whether this represents a recovery or a respite. Medical tests so far have been reassuring, but there are others to come. I do know that the experience, whilst at one level a drain on my energy and attention, has been a teacher of what I am calling garden variety mindfulness.
I have been nudged into taking mindfulness off the meditation stool and into acts of daily living. I am thinking of breathing for the purpose of staying alive: staying present and awake whilst struggling; eating (what, when, how much and how fast or slow); the re-arranging, with negotiation, of living space and how it works; slowing down and paying better attention in all departments. This mindfulness has been the agent of significant practical change.
It does help to keep a formal meditation practice going as well, and for this I am tending to use models from Eckhart Tolle Now (https://eckharttolle.com/), since I am working with them. I am also entering meditational states in emergencies. On occasions when my breathing seemed very compromised, I would experience a raw fear that felt like a healthy body-mind response, but which I also wanted to put space around. Staying with the fear, and keeping it company, the loving awareness of of the Deep-I would wrap itself around the fear and hold it. As loving awareness I would allow the fear its run whilst also showing that I am not defined by any passing event or response to it.
I have also compassionately intervened with distress-laden narratives of helplessness and anticipated doom – constructing ‘my future’ in later life as having an inevitable downhill trajectory. This is an understandable story in the circumstances – and also a limiting and distorted one. I realise that I am more concerned about incapacity than I am about death itself. Death is something I need to face into and make room for.
I have developed a healing visualisation for my scratchy throat. First I pay attend to the felt-sense of scratchiness and become familiar with it. Then I see a cavern like space dotted around with luminous grit. This is gently washed by a liquid light energy that acts to dissolve the grit. I make sure that this liquid covers the grit on the cavern floor but doesn’t fill the cavern space as a whole. The visualisation has had a perceptible effect on the sensations in my throat, as well as contradicting any story of helplessness and being an effective way of paying attention to parts of me that are asking for it.. The whole story of this period, really, is about paying attention.
This post is about a midsummer day’s dream in the the Scottish border country, a dream which included a certain kind of waking up. I have written about it before (1,2) but this is the first illustrated version. Fourteen years have passed since that day, which in many ways determined the form which my expression of Druidry would take.
I was near Melrose. The wild rose was one of many on the banks of the Tweed. In this photograph, I am on a riverside path, with my back to the river. I keenly noticed then, as I notice now, the difference between a wild rose and the more familiar cultivated ones. I love both. But I remember feeling a particular delight at the simplicity of the native flower, a sense of easy integration into habitat, and of a plant not committed to being red or white.
Looking more deeply, I have said in my earlier writing how I had a momentary experience in which, gazing at a rose, subject/object distinctions disappeared and it is as if time intersected with eternity. I have identified this with the Seeing experience more systematically explored by Douglas Harding and the community built up around his work (http://www.headless.org). This was the beginning my sense that direct experience of the world, manifesting through a form of nature mysticism, would be my way forward, eventually becoming a contemplative Druidry and the backbone of my contemplative inquiry. I experience this as a direct and simple route to stillness, presence, resting in being., and identifying with source.
My walk amongst the wild roses had a prequel. Firstly, I had already spent time in the well-preserved ruins of Melrose Abbey. It was a building of Green Man carvings, but, sadly, neither the monks who occupied it nor the iconoclasts who abandoned it had access to the Gospel of Thomas (3) or the words:
“His disciples said to him:
‘When will the dead be at rest?’
‘When will the new world come?’
He answered them:
What you are waiting for has already come,
but you do not see it.” (3)
Here I see the abbey as a solid, material buildings, built with love and care. Even today, it belongs in its landscape, as much as the Tweed or the nearby Eildon Hills, with a semi-wild orchard of apple, pear and cherry trees. What I haven’t written before, in times when I was busy making distinctions between available paths, is that time and eternity intersect in this place too. But, on the day in question, I didn’t have that experience in the abbey grounds. I had it only among the wild roses, down by the river.
The Eildon Hills are also part of the same landscape, indeed a more primal one. But they are fairy hills and they can hide themselves. On that day, they hid from me. There was no invitation – or, rather command – from the Queen of Elfland, who had once ridden out to summon Thomas the Rhymer to her service:
“But you maun go wi’ me now Thomas
True Thomas ye maun go with me
For ye maun serve me seven years
Through weel or wae as may change to be.” (4)
At midsummer in 2007 I was looking for a spiritual home that offered both depth and simplicity. The grim half hidden hills were not appealing to me and I was closed to their magic, with an invitation or without one. I did not want to court danger by ascending into their conceivably treacherous mists. The low road by the river was the one for me.
It was a good decision, and good came of it. But I do also understand that on a different day, those hills could be seen in a different light. I do not now feel constrained to make a neat choice between a broad road, a narrow road and a bonny road. Two cycles of seven years on, well rooted in a nourishing life and practice, I find myself in a more open space, wondering what lessons this Otherworld might yet offer.
(3) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005
(4) R. J. Stewart The Underworld Initiation: A Journey Towards Psychic Transformation Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1985
As its crown forms his mask and its leafage his features;
‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man.
‘I speak through the oak says he'” (1)
In my wheel of the year tree mandala (2), oak covers the period from 16 June-8 July and thus includes Alban Hefin, the summer solstice. I am starting to bring it in. The oak has many associations – regal strength, for example – but for me the sense of the green man, the archetype of our oneness with the earth, speaking through the oak, is the most numinous. At Dodona in ancient Greece (3) an oak shrine was “guarded by priestesses who interpreted the future from the rustling of leaves on the great tree, the voice of the sacred spring that rose at its root and the behaviour of birds in its branches”. Celtic tradition describes a number of sacred oak trees, themselves roosting places for sacred birds. I like the sense that the oak does not stand alone and autonomous in these stories. For leaves to rustle, the wind is needed. Birds and springs may also participate in the ecology, of a distributed wisdom – a wisdom of interdependence, of interbeing. The oak’s great branches are matched by still greater roots, and therefore an underground network of communication and exchange that we now know sustains a mature forest (4).
The ogham name for oak, duir, means door in both Sanskrit and Gaelic (5). This can bespeak solidity and protection, for the oak can survive lightning. It was sacred to Taranis, the Celtic god of lightning and storms, to Thor in the Nordic pantheon. and to Zeus among the Greeks. But a door isn’t just defensive. It is there to be opened as well, with a sense of welcome and relationship. Dagda, father god of Ireland, was associated with the oak and never failed to give hospitality to those who asked for it.
For Druids (whose name means ‘oak wisdom’) oak was the central tree in their mysteries. There is a theme, in these mysteries, of communication between worlds, with a sensed Otherworld being less than a heart beat away. The power of the oak combines strength and sensitivity. My mandala links oak to the period in which the light has its greatest expression, and then gives way, at first very slowly, to its necessary descent into the dark. The tree bears witness as the wheel continues to turn.
(1) William Anderson Green Man: Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990.
(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/
(3) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Tree Oracle London: Connections, 2003.
Highly recommended. Sacred Actions* is an excellent resource for developing sacred relationship with the earth in dedicated spiritual practice and acts of daily life. Pennsylvania-based author Dana O’Driscoll is steeped in Druidry and the U.S. homesteading movement. She is Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), and an OBOD Druid. She is a Mount Haemus scholar, lecturing on Channeling the Awen Within in 2018. In a recent blog post in Druid’s Garden (https://druidgarden.wordpress.com) she describes Sacred Actions as presenting “a hybridization of nature spirituality, sustainability and permaculture practice”.
The book is built around the wheel of the year and its eight festivals. O’Driscoll begins with the Winter Solstice, where her theme is the ethics of care, applied at both the private and public levels. New life practices are supported by specific exercises and rituals. She continues the same approach with the other festivals: Imbolc – “wisdom through oak knowledge and re-skilling”; Spring Equinox – “spring cleaning and disposing of the disposable mindset”; Beltane – “sacred action in our homes”; Summer Solstice – “food and nourishment”; Lughnasadh – “landscapes, gardens and lawn liberation”; Fall Equinox = “earth ambassadorship, community and broader work in the world”; Samhain – “sustainable ritual tools, items and objects”.
To prospective readers I suggest an initial reading, followed by more intensive engagement with the individual chapters, season by season. Use this text to identify what inspires and moves you and has the power to bring a richer sense of ‘sacred actions’ into your own life. Sacred Actions is a powerful source of ecological and ethical inspiration, and a fine addition to Druid literature.
* Dana O’Driscoll Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices Altglen, PA: Red Feather, 2021