It is 7.30 am on Sunday 5 February 2023. Every dawn is different. Opening to this one, I am drawn, above all, into clarity and redness. I feel as if I have just about caught up with myself, after five days in a new home. In traditional language, my soul has caught up with me.
In recent days I have felt more like a slightly dated machine, reliable in getting the job done, though not super fast or shiny. Now I’m aware again of being a person, a living presence in communion with a living world. The key moment was when, yesterday afternoon, I found my Tibetan bells in a shopping bag with some electrical equipment. I feared that they had left me during the move. It was a more than expected relief to re-discover them.
Today, in celebration, I used them to demarcate a morning practice that I hadn’t done at all for a week. I was tentative, in a new and not yet fully established space. But the practice grounded me all the same. It set me up to meet the dawn. It’s been said, I think by Douglas Harding, that we are, essentially, clear awake space and capacity for the world. As today magnificently dawned, it seemed that way to me.
“Besides the countless particular miracles that we comprise, there is that supreme irregularity – the fact that anything exists at all. Most unnaturally, there is not just Nothing. How adroit for It to happen! How deserving of our congratulations It is, for having arranged its quite impossible existence! After that, what are a few billion universes more or less.”
These words are from Douglas Harding’s epilogue to The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth (1) published on the recommendation of C. S. Lewis, distinguished scholar and Inkling. Lewis’ introduction places it among “philosophies that have some of the same qualities as works of art”, and he is reminded in that respect of Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game.
Harding describes his work as “an unconventional attempt to discover, for myself and in my own way, what I am and what I amount to in the universe. What am I? That is the question. Let me answer it as honestly and simply as I can, forgetting the ready-made answers.”
Harding also has the courage to declare that he has not found an answer. Instead, he has entered a state of “amazed reverence” that reveals his whole inquiry as both “absurd” and “a needful absurdity”. He finds that “because all my roots are in the Undiscoverable, I also am undiscoverable: I will not bear inspection, and can never make head or tail of myself. Self-knowledge is the smouldering wick that is left after the light of wonder has been put out. … If this book quenches the feeblest flame of awe, of direct awareness, in myself or anyone else, then it were better never to have written it”.
Harding did not end his inquiry with The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth. Instead, he went on to become a midwife of direct awareness, and The Headless Way (https://www.headless.org) was born. Where The Hierarchy of heaven & Earth is concerned with exuberant yet disciplined system building, Harding’s later work challenges each of us to ‘look for yourself’ using a set of experiments, now accessible on The Headless Way website. I reported an early, intensive experience of them on return from a four day retreat with the Headless Way in 2016 – https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2016/07/28/look-for-yourself/ Interestingly, my wrap-around commentary, especially the post-workshop phase, would now be a little different from the one in that post, while my report of the direct experience remains the same. In my current practice, I particularly draw on a seven point version of the experiments presented in Head Off Stress (2).
I never met Douglas Harding in person – my discovery of the Headless Way is too recent. But his writing and recorded material show never-ending wonder at the miracle of existence. They also show his passion for facilitating a transformative recognition of who we really are, and then to live from that recognition.
“I certainly don’t find myself
on the brink of a bottomless abyss,
trying to make up my mind
whether to let go and take that dreadful plunge.
I am already clear of the brink
and have never been otherwise.
To see this,
all I have to do is look for myself,
and fail to find myself, and find instead
the treasure that has no name
in the well
at the world’s end.”
(1) D. E. Harding The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth London: The Shollond Trust, 2011 Introduction by C. S. Lewis. (Abridged edition – original edition published by Faber & Faber in 1952)
(2) D. E. Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (Originally published by Arkana in 1990)
(3) Douglas Harding Everyday Seeing: daily meditations on the One within London: The Shollond Trust, 2019 (Quotations selected by Richard Land)
I am looking downwards into water, identifying patterns, on a surface that swirls and moves and changes. I have the same impulse to identify patterns in my contemplative life. In essence, contemplative experience is simple, still, and drawn from wordless depths. But there’s a surface swirl that’s more agitated, largely driven by worries over naming and explaining, clarifying where my inquiry sits within human communities, and accurately representing spiritual philosophies. Here too, I am giving the surface swirl the attention it seeks. I do not ask the swirl to stop swirling, because swirling is what it does. There is value in the swirl.
I centre myself in modern Druidry, but my self-presentation from 2012 as a ‘contemplative Druid’ is slightly misleading – too narrow. I champion the value of a contemplative current within Druidry, and I am happy to describe my blog as a contemplative inquiry. But I also have a strong commitment to the life of the world and opportunities for the flourishing of all beings, within both the constraints and the opportunities of our interconnectedness. I am concerned with our planet and its biosphere; with human history and culture; with ethics and engagement; with beauty as well as truth and goodness; and with issues of wounding and healing. They are part of my inquiry. I cannot separate them from my contemplative commitment.
I also celebrate the influence of ‘nondual’ currents outside Druidry. Nondual is a translation of advaita (not-two) in classical Sanskrit philosophy. It describes the divine/human relationship. Its original home is the Advaita Vedanta path in India, but there are nondualists in other world religions, including the Abrahamic ones: Sufi currents in Islam, Jewish Kabbalah, contemplative Christianity. In Christian terms, you would say that we are all essentially Christs – in a creation of one Light and many lamps. In some interpretations, nonduality does not apply only to humans, but to all lives in the cosmos. Some iterations of nonduality – Mahayana Buddhist and Taoist in particular – avoid the language of divinity, preferring terms like ‘true nature’ or the deliberately undefinable ‘Tao’.
I have engaged with current nondualist teachings for some years, most recently with the Eckhart Tolle community – https://www.eckharttolle.com. I have learned a lot from them. In this blog’s About section, I say: “My inquiry process overall has helped me to discover an underlying peace and at-homeness in the present moment, which, when experienced clearly and spaciously, 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 could maintain this stance as a humanist or existentialist, but my deepest intuition is that the ‘present moment’ (or eternal now), fully experienced, links my passing personal identity to a cosmic one, a ground of being that is my true nature. Belief has come in: ‘willingness to follow one’s deepest intuition’ is one definition of faith, and I have surprised myself by becoming a person of faith in this sense. The purpose of continuing inquiry is to keep me open to new experiences, understandings, and connections, as well as teaching me how best to live from the peace and at-homeness of the centre.
My inquiry is a self-directed enterprise that welcomes input from multiple sources. But I draw on two main centres of community wisdom and support. The first is OBOD Druidry (https://www.druidry.org), with its embrace of the earth and its loyalty to the world of space and time, nature and culture. For many of us this includes the sense of a living cosmos and a divine ground. The second is the specifically nondualist Headless Way, based on the work of the late Douglas Harding (https://www.headless.org). I have started to think of myself as a Headless Druid, in a modern kind of way, whilst also aware of older traditions in which decapitation is indeed the gateway to a larger life:
‘It’s off with my head’, says the Green Man,
‘It’s off with my head’, says he.
Green Man becomes grown man in flames of the oak
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.
William Anderson Green Man: Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990.
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
“To have a perspective, a sense of Being has to be there first.
Is there any perspective if there is no sense of Beingness or sense of aliveness?
That same aliveness underlies every perspective.
The Questions – Does it help? Is it of value? –
are questions which people will have their own perspective on.
So, a wordless experience of being that is available to turn to 24/7,
not dependant on a particular feeling, thought or perspective,
All of which come and go.
Not being an attainment
it is not dependent on effort
but when consciously noticed
it is constant and obvious.”
These words from Steve Palmer of the Headless Way summarise my learning from that family when crafting a contemplative Druidry through my inquiry process. The noticing he talks about towards the end is at the centre. Everything else radiates out, re-visioned by the noticing.
This post follows on from my recent post on Patterns and Peace (1). There, I discussed the role of ritual patterning in a sunrise practice. Here, I discuss the role of meditation in a sunset one. In both cases I experience peace as an active energy – empowering, nourishing, and close to the Source.
In the evening I do not cast a circle. I simply sit down facing my altar and say: May there be peace in the seven directions. May I be present in this space. I say the Druids’ prayer, affirming the commitments to a love of justice and the love of all existences. I see them as the necessary context for the manifestation of true peace in the world.
I talk myself in to the meditation itself with other words customised from Druid tradition: Deep in my innermost Being, I find peace. Silently, in the stillness of this space, I cultivate peace. Abundantly, within the wider web of Being, may I radiate peace.
Starting with a focus on my heels, extended to include my feet as a whole, I tune in to my felt sense of body and life energy. Moving gradually up my body, I pay close attention to my emerging experience of a physical and energetic field, which I find to be light and spacious. I also notice the breath. Surrendering to this universe of internal experience, I can enter an awareness of deep peace, joy, and wonder at the miracle of experiencing. This is beyond ‘At-Homeness in the flowing moment’. I call it the Peace of the Goddess.
Coming out of meditation, I say I give thanks for this meditation. May it nourish and illuminate my life. May there be peace in the seven directions. May I be capacity for the world.
I do not meditate for long periods. This whole practice, including liturgy and meditation, takes about half an hour. The phrase ‘capacity for the world’ uses the language of the Headless Way (2) and indicates that if we enter into our true nature as clear awake space, we become, in our everyday lives, ‘capacity for the world’. The meditation is both the experience that it is, and a resource for life and contribution to the world.
I have done meditations of this kind for many years. Recently, this meditation has become richer and more focused. I believe this to be partly due to practice and partly to the season – I find both equinoxes enabling for meditation. But there is also the benefit of increased understanding. I am grateful to Eckhart Tolle, whose work I have begun to engage with, when he says: “What I call the ‘inner body’ isn’t really the body any more but life energy, the bridge between form and formlessness … When you are in touch with the inner body, you are not identified with your body any more, nor are you identified with your mind. … You are moving away from identification to formlessness, which we may also call Being. It is your essence identity”.
Looking out at the world, I see great variety. In one picture, above, I see a continuing wintry austerity. It is 26 February, somewhat before 9 am. I look up a hill on which the frost has yet to melt. It is daylight, with clear blue sky, but no direct sign of the sun. Light, indeed, but of a chilly kind. The trees have a stern look, reinforced by the battlements behind them – decorative though they might be on this nineteenth century folly of a fort.
The second picture, below, was taken a few minutes earlier, but lower down. There are no signs of frost. There wasn’t any, even on the ground where I was standing. here, I am physically closer to the trees and I feel closer to them. Sunlight is visible on their bark. The looks of these two pictures seem very different, even though they are not much separated in the world’s space and time. I am enchanted by small changes like this. I can lose myself in them.
On the morning of 26 February, there was still a tension between winter and spring characteristics. I do not feel that now, on 2 March, even though a return of frost is quite possible. The year has moved on and I seem to have moved with it. I feel re-invigorated. I feel clearer about the direction of my inquiry, now becoming a more focused contemplation on how I, as a human being, find “a balance between human and Being”, to use the words of Eckhart Tolle (1).
‘Being’ is a way to talk about the Divine, whilst keeping a distance from theistic language and its traditional associations. For Tolle, and I would say now for me, Being is found “in the still, alert presence of Consciousness itself, the Consciousness that you are. Human is form. Being is formless. Human and Being are not separate but interwoven”. This description deepens my existing “At-Homeness in the flowing moment”, identifying it unequivocally as the gateway to immersion in Being. I cannot state this as an objective truth claim. What I can say is that I am being truthful to my experience and deepest intuitions, and that there are many truthful people today and down the ages who have made sense, and continue to make sense of their experience in this way.
When I cast my Druid circle, asking for peace in the four horizontal directions, the below and the above, I finally turn to the centre as the seventh and final direction. Instead of saying, “may there be peace”, I say, “I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence”. I then chant the Awen. Peace, silence, stillness, emptiness, the space between thoughts, feelings and things – these in my experience do most to open me up to Being. Feelings of joy and lovingkindness are likely to enter in. The Headless Way community talk about our core, formless, identity – our true nature – as that of a clear awake space that is also ‘capacity for the world’. (2). Certainly for me, deepening into Being enriches the human dimension itself – with all of its relationships, activities and roles in 3D timebound reality. In older language, it brings heaven to earth. My contemplative inquiry continues, as a way of supporting this endeavour and sharing it, within the cultural framework of modern Druidry..
(1) Eckhart Tolle Oneness with All Life: Awaken to a Life of Purpose and Presence Penguin Random House UK, 2018 (First ed. published 2008)
As the autumn deepens, I find that my canal walking has slowed down and detached itself from notions of exercise. It has become spontaneously and informally meditative. I am simply noticing what is available, rather than striving to get to some other place in myself or in the world. Followers of the Headless Way (1) describe such attention as ‘being capacity for the world’, since the world knows itself through this awareness. One of the Headless Way’s poets, Colin Oliver, has the lines (2) “In the oneness of things/ I am nowhere in sight”. I am like that with my phone/camera. I rarely have it in the selfie mode, so it is a good device for the purpose.
My combined walking and photography have become a contemplative opportunity, an informal opening to the magic of what is given, here and now, which I sometimes refer to as ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. They have taken their place, unplanned, at the heart of my contemplative Druidry. They enable immersion in the apparent world, and provide a setting for what I like to call valley experiences, to distinguish them from the peak experiences more often discussed. I notice also an aversion to calling this activity a ‘spiritual practice’, a feeling that comes with the image of a caged bird. Not right for the context. Not right for that in me which does this.
Through this contemplative lens I can be appreciatively open even to appearances of dereliction and decay. They are simply part of what is. When I see an old and roofless building without this accepting contemplative gaze, I can become irritated and grumpy. Why isn’t it being renovated or pulled down, one or the other? Who is responsible? But in my picture taking mode, through the lens of contemplation, I am entirely at ease. The building has its place, just the way it is.
My meditative walk can highlight processes as well as still images. A decaying rose becomes a rose hip. The dying flower makes way for fruit, which will die back in its turn after seeding the next generation. ‘Decay’ is relative.
The lens of contemplation makes space for things that would be easy to miss otherwise. A waning moon, for example at 8 a.m. …
… or the delicacy, close-up, of old man’s beard …
… or a naturally sculpted head of an unknown bird or reptile, which also offers space for a cobweb …
These walks have taught me a lot. There must have been a gestation period between the time I gave them up – what with Covid-19 and my concerns about narrow paths and passing – and the time I resumed them. Along the way I’ve gained a different perspective on their role in my contemplative life. I used to see them as ancillary. Now they seem central.
“I am no longer your Master, because you have drunk, and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring.” From Saying 13, Gospel of Thomas (1).
In the Gospel of Thomas, Yeshua begins to treat Thomas as his peer. Asked by Yeshua “to what would you compare me?”, Thomas has replied, “Master, my mouth could never utter what you are like”. This reply contrasts sharply with Peter’s “you are like a righteous angel” and Matthew’s “you are like a wise philosopher”. Thomas has understood. He has dropped all his presuppositions and expectations. He has been able to meet Yeshua in living presence, at source. Whoever wrote this text is asking us to emulate Thomas, and therefore his teacher Yeshua. We all come from the same bubbling source, and are invited both to recognise this and live from the place of recognition. Peter and Matthew may remain constrained by limiting traditional narratives, but Thomas has understood, and two other disciples, Salome and Mary, are portrayed as being on the way.
Recently re-reading this story, I was moved by the force of the words ‘bubbling source from which I spring’. I am grateful to Jean-Yves LeLoup’s translation for this, because the standard academic translation speaks of the “bubbling spring that I have tended” (2), which for me lacks power in comparison. ‘Bubbling source from which I spring’ exactly describes my felt sense of ‘living presence’, recognising it in myself. In my formal practice, I work within a circle framework and I quickly grasped that it should be recognised as the power at the centre. Liturgically, I now greet it is ‘the bubbling source from which I spring and heart of living presence’. This feels right and good. It helps that ‘bubbling source’ is not specifically a water image in this translation. I am free to experience it internally, through my act of recognition, as a shift in energy and attention.
I feel as if I have integrated, or perhaps re-integrated, a depth dimension into the practice, and it feels richer. Since the Winter Solstice I have been closely following the wheel of the year. It represents the inheritance and continuing life of my Druidry. In many ways this is a naturalistic undertaking. But I am now powerfully reminded that my existing commitment to the flowing moment as my true home, and out of which these recent insights came, is not simply about living a slowed down time in a conventionally naturalistic sense. It is that – but it also allows the taste of timelessness and the sense of a primordial nature. The Thomas text reminds me of it. That I can recognise it is also partly thanks to my work in recent years with the practices of the Headless Way (3), the Direct Path (4,5), and Jeff Foster’s community (6). Ultimately this primordial nature is no-thing, but as no-thing it becomes everything, I discover a ‘bubbling source’. I seem to have reached a point where I can both integrate this learning and keep simple. Indeed the one seems to lead to the other. I am grateful that it is so.
(1) 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
(2) The Gospel of Thomas: the Hidden Sayings of Jesus (New translation with introduction and notes by Marvin Meyer. Interpretation by Harold Bloom). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992