Crocuses are appearing, harbingers of spring. In the middle of the day, I feel the power of the sun. In my own life, I am getting used to a smaller and lighter living space. The work of moving is almost done. I shed calculation and care, making room for curiosity and glee.
Some of this is visual. I track changes in daylight from misty early morning to strong sunlight and vivid blue sky at noon. Subtle shifts moment to moment lead to big changes over the hours.
A personal mood of renewal fits the change of season, now that we are clearly in a rising year. The difference is that I am allowing myself to experience a tiredness that I had not fully acknowledged when our moving process was at its height. I am also aware that there are still things to be done. I am not fully in a get-up-and-go frame of being. What I need most, right now, is an alert kind of rest.
I have a sense of coming to a place, and settling, and embracing the experience I am offered here. I’ve been working to refine my personal understanding of Eckhart Tolle’s use of ‘Presence’. For me, it seems to combine an immersion in the flow of experience and a communion with it. Not only bare awareness but also relationship. Being alive in a living cosmos. Opening up to gratitude and love.
This is a key aspect of my contemplative inquiry within the modern Druid tradition, though the experience pointed to is universal. Uncovering what is hidden in plain sight by polishing the lenses of perception. An alert kind of rest.
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.
This, now, is our view from home. It helped to sell a compact apartment to us. It is a place of light and sunshine for much of the time, and allows us to see beyond the perimeters of our small historic city. Looking out, I see an expanse of energised space, providing room for the fecundity of nature. A wonderful gift for an old Druid.
Tilting my gaze a little downwards, I have more sense of our neighbourhood and the inevitable presence of cars. There was once an elegant square here, now somewhat sacrificed for a modest amount of parking space. But I do like the sense of an outlook on everyday life. I don’t want to be cut off from it. I’m glad that it’s there.
Elaine and I have not fully moved in as yet. This is a transitional moment. There’s still much work to be done. But there seems to be a shift in gravity now, and the promise of a benign base. As I se it, human flourishing enables the spiritual path too. It supports our capacity to be present in and to the web of life. At times in the journey, deprivation may need to be faced. But it is not a virtue, and in this moment I am glad of a space where the heart can easily open. Feeling gratitude, I wonder how this adventure will unfold.
“The Albion sails on course. Black script on white wall. The spill-zone around Corbridge Crescent, the painted devil heads and hybrid monsters, the bare-breasted pin-ups from naughtier times mouthing Situationist slogans, are captured and made fit for purpose by film crews and television set-dressers, lighting technicians and catering caravans, responding to dissent as exploitable edge.
“LOADED WITH/ MEMORIES/ I WAS NOT AFRAID/TO SET OFF/ AN ADVENTURE/ ANY MORE.
“14 November 2016: the words I copied into my notebook yesterday are painted over with white undercoat, so that professionals can create rebellion suitable for television. For example, a Worholist head of Che Guevara – CHE GAY – inflated to cover an entire wall, with fake yelps about eating the rich to replace the groundwork of RIP and the Secret Society of Super Villains and Artists. NO PIGS ….
“The outlaw in his shack on the ledge by the canal sleeps through the entire fuss. He learnt his lesson after the first Immigration Enforcement raid. Now his shelter looks like the detritus of a lumberyard. ….
“A young boy cycles uncertainly to school, in the wake of his mother, wearing a silver skull mask. Welcome to the comic world, Hackney. At the base of the image swamp we find the sinister clown: child-catcher, grinning molester. The public joke, the big-haired politician who dissolves into the Joker of DC Comics.
“Extinguish fire with petrol. One of the latest Andrews Road defacements is a poster: SILENT BILL MUSE WANTED. Silence against the noise of imagery? The meditation of a hooded man sitting all day on a bench? Or another who dreams the fading city through all the hours in an Arsenal-branded sleeping bag? ‘Be silent in that solitude,’ said Edgar Allan Poe. ‘Let them come. The restless spirits of the dead are in death around thee’.” (1)
Iain Sinclair has a reputation as a leading figure in the practice of psychogeography, though he has now somewhat distanced himself from the word itself. He is quoted as saying (2) that “I buy into a union of writing and walking” and identifying with “the kind of writers who very definitely have, within their writing, this rhythm of journeys and walks and pilgrimages and quests”.
Sinclair’s work often celebrates London’s neglected and overlooked spaces, and draws on a visionary tradition of London writers from William Blake to Arthur Machen as well as the French situationists who developed psychogeography as a concept. His early reputation rests on the prose poem Lud Heat (1975) which was also influenced by Alfred Watkins and the earth mysteries school that followed in his wake. This work describes lines of force between Hawksmoor’s London churches to reveal the hidden relationship between the city’s financial, political and religious institutions. Peter Ackroyd drew on these themes for his later Hawksmoor (1985).
Last London (2017) is grittier and more concerned with a November 2016 witnessing of social breakdown in Hackney, a London borough that is being simultaneously gentrified. In the UK, it is also the year of the Brexit referendum (the Albion sails on course?) and in the US the month, November, of Donald Trump’s election as president (“at the base of the image swamp we find the sinister clown”).
Why am I drawn to this work? I lived in London for 17 years, from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s: there’s an element of nostalgia, and also of grief. Beyond that, my contemplative inquiry has led me in recent years to a practice of walking and writing. Are there lessons for me in Sinclair’s tradition?
My contemplative inquiry is not just about resting in the eternal moment – it also concerns life in place, time and culture. I’ve always liked walking meditation, mobile and open-eyed. Ideally, the still point and the moving line are both present, together as one. Often I stumble around between them, but that’s part of the journey: learning to be present in a field of living presence. I have a lot to learn.
(1) Iain Sinclair The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City London: OneWorld Publications, 2017
(2) Merlin Coverley Psychogeography Harpenden: Oldcastle Books Ltd, 2018 (first edition 2006) In his last chapter, Psychogeography Today, the author devotes a section to Iain Sinclair and the Re-branding of Psychogeography.
I took this picture some time ago and kept it as an image of tranquillity. Now, when I contemplate it for any length of time, the ripples on the water seem to be alive and moving. The vegetation, also alive, is still.
Although the scene presented here contains both stillness and movement, I identify strongly with the moving ripples in the background. Despite all my contemplative inquiring, movement continues to be my default setting, albeit now less agitated and turbulent than in the past. The phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ comes to mind. The natural flow of this stream includes spaces freed up from cogitation and narrative. But the stream flows on.
I am glad of this. Some traditional teachings, when emphasising the non-separation of ‘ocean and wave’, lean towards invalidating the individuality of the waves even whilst their brief distinctive identities last. But for me, the purpose of being human is to live a human life, knowingly embedded within a rich natural and cultural history. This is why I have stayed with modern Druidry as my main point of spiritual reference.
I have also found a liberating expansion of my human life in realising my non-separation from the living presence of the cosmos. It has busted me out of a certain kind of prison, one of neediness and dependency on surface satisfactions. Just as well, in an age of – increasingly surreal – ‘capitalist realism’ (1). Eckhardt Tolle has offered me the most convincing strategies for standing in the larger life – in particular through his recognition that ultimate satisfaction is inseparable from the present moment, and his account of what is really meant by that much abused term (2). He is currently a second point of reference in my spiritual work.
My photograph continues to offer an image of tranquillity. It is just that, at least for me, tranquillity isn’t as straightforward as it may look.
(1) Mark Fisher Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester, UK & Washington. USA: O Books, 2009
(2) Eckhardt Tolle A New Earth: Create A Better Life London: Penguin Books, 2016 (Rev. ed. First edition 2005)
In recent days, living a pared down life, I have seen the strength in simplicity. Both my contemplation and my inquiry are reflecting this. I have a few simple practices adapted from a variety of sources. At first under the pressure of illness, I have moved away from the kind of system building that was drawing my attention a month ago (1). Now I have reminded myself that customising, using a light touch, and keeping practice relatively simple has been my generally preferred way of responding to influences. It helps me to avoid half-awarely ventriloquising teachers and to maintain my own discernment.
As an example (2), I describe a simple meditation. It focuses on the breath because that is something I am busy with – and ambivalent about thanks to my COPD. In it I draw on the understanding that breath and spirit share the same word in some languages (e.g pneuma in Greek). No more than ten minutes is needed for a session.
Although simple, the practice does have a liturgical framing – for instance adapting one of Stewart’s Qabalistic crossing forms from The Miracle Tree. I also draw on my OBOD background, especially the commitment to finding peace. This kind of framing helps. In formal practices like this, I am not just plunging into raw experience. I have other opportunities for that. Rather, the practice affirms an already existing perspective, developed over time, and this is what the words proclaim.
Crossing, using my right hand, I say: In the name of Wisdom (forehead), Love (pubic bone), Justice (right shoulder), Mercy (left shoulder), and the Living Breath (both hands over upper chest). I enter stillness. Then I say: Deep within my innermost being, I find peace. Silently, within the stillness of this space, I cultivate peace. Heartfully, within the wider web of life, may I radiate peace.
I do a breath exercise*, and then say: I am a movement of the breath and stillness in the breath; living presence in a field of living presence: here, now, and home.
Then, I begin slow, deep breathing, as if inviting the Cosmos to breathe through me. I may use the I AM mantra. For me it affirms the non-separation of the finite life and the Source, and the gift of a place within the ecology of being.
On completion I repeat the Crossing and say: I give thanks for this meditation. May it nourish and illuminate my life. May there be peace throughout the world.
*11x breathe in through nose, counting to 8; hold, counting to 8; out through mouth, counting to 8, hold, counting to 8.
It is 1 March, a mixed day – bringing together grey sky, bare branches, emerging blossoms and vivid daffodils. It is chilly, and rain is likely, though not just yet. Daffodils (here the strongest sign of a changing year) are linked to St. David, the patron saint of Wales. 1 March is his feast day.
David lived during the sixth century CE, a flourishing time for Celtic Christianity. His defining early achievement was the founding of a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosyn (the Vale of Roses) on the west headland of Pembrokeshire (Si Benfro) where St. David’s Cathedral now stands. He went on to become a Christian leader of great authority, and was eventually canonised in the twelfth century, a different historical period with the church under stronger Vatican control and Welsh identity under threat from the English. David became the patron saint of Wales and his day is celebrated in Wales with parades and other public events.
Gloucester is very much an English city, though not so very far from Wales. Today’s weather conditions would not be out of place there. My wife Elaine and I went out on a morning walk with a sense of the saint’s day and how both the day and the coming of March represent a shift in the year. I noticed, too, how I can honour a saint without thinking of sainthood as a model, or even remotely wanting to be one. I acknowledge that I am on different kind of path, less defined, less heroic, and less religious.
When out walking, I see how the ordinary world seems to transform in the light of a loving gaze. I am looking at the world as it is, not for signs of a creator’s hand or influence or expectations. For me, laid out below – at the micro level – I find grass, earth, twigs, purple crocus and dead leaves. They are simply themselves. All ordinary in an ordinary moment. But an ordinary moment, as we might conventionally call it, is an extraordinary event. It is a small miracle, in its naturalistic way, yet easy to access in a receptive frame of mind.
I do appreciate that a ‘receptive frame of mind’, as a private experience, is facilitated by favourable public conditions, like a well-managed public park. I may not be dependent on such external conditions, but they do make a difference. I am grateful for their current presence in an uncertain world.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the much loved Buddhist teacher from Vietnam, died on 22 January at the age of 95. He had been unwell for some time. He is remembered as peace activist, inventor of the term ‘interbeing’ and teacher of mindfulness practice. For him, this is the practice of being aware of what is going on in the present moment. We can be mindful at any moment, whether we are sad, joyful, angry, and whilst cooking, driving or about to send an email.
I am not a Buddhist. Instead, I feel and recognise Thich Nhat Hanh’s influence on my practice of Druidry – especially my sense of at-homeness, or presence, in the living moment. In memory and appreciation of him, I want to share a piece he wrote about aimlessness as as a ‘door of liberation’ (1).
“The concentration on aimlessness means arriving in the present moment to discover that the present moment is the only moment in which you can find everything you’ve been looking for and that you already are everything you want to become.
“Aimlessness does not mean doing nothing. It means not putting something in front of you to chase after. When we remove the objects of our craving and desires, we discover that happiness and freedom are available right here in the present moment.
“We have a habit of running after things, and this habit has been transmitted to us by our parents and ancestors. We don’t feel fulfilled in the here and now, and so we run after all kinds of things we think will make us happier. We sacrifice our life chasing after objects of craving or striving for success in our work or studies. We chase after our life’s dream and lose ourselves along the way. We even lose our freedom and happiness in our efforts to be mindful, to be healthy, to relieve suffering in the world, or to get enlightened. We disregard the wonders of the present moment, thinking that heaven and the ultimate are for later, not for now.
“To practice meditation means to have the time to look deeply and see these things. If you feel restless in the here and now, or you feel ill at ease, you need to ask yourself: ‘what am I longing for? what am I waiting for? what am I searching for?'”
(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017
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)
For me, the skilful patterning of experience provides a gateway to re-enchantment. It reminds me that there are multiple ways of seeing the world, some obvious and others more occluded. The early morning can be a time of affirmation through ritual patterning that makes a mark on the day.
Mine begins with a morning circle which emphasises peace. Peace, here, is an active energy, not a passive absence of overt conflict, or a blind eye to dysfunction and injustice. Peace has to struggle, in this world, through skilful means that do not compromise its essence. Ritual can be one. I describe my morning circle below.
I go into my practice space, stand in the east facing west, ring my Tibetan hand bells and say the St. Patrick’s prayer (aka Cry of the Deer).
I arise today through the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendour of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth and firmness of rock.
Then I cast a Druid circle, calling on the four directions, each associated with a cosmic power, an element, a power animal, a quality, a time and a season.
East: May there be peace in the east, power of life, element of air, domain of the hawk, quality of vision, time of sunrise, season of spring and early growth.
South: May there be peace in the south, power of light, element of fire, domain of the dragon, quality of purpose, time of midday, season of summer and of ripening.
West:, May there be peace in the west, power of love, element of water, domain of the salmon, quality of wisdom, time of sunset, season of autumn and bearing fruit.
North: May there be peace in the north, power of liberation, element of earth, domain of the bear, quality of faith, time of midnight, season of winter, of dying and regeneration.
I also call the Below, the Above and the Centre, to make seven directions in all. Moving to the vertical dimension indicates a deepening, enacted by my spinning in place before bringing it in, and by the use of mythic names for the Below and Above.
Below: May there be peace below, in Annwn , realm of the the deep earth and underworld.
Above: May there be peace above, in Gwynvid, realm of the starry heavens.
This is followed by a further deepening into the centre, enacted through another spinning in place. Here, I am no longer calling for peace, but standing in its source.
I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence. Awen (chanted as aah-ooo-wen)
After a pause, I walk the circle, sunwise, east to east, and say I cast this circle in the sacred grove of Druids. May there be peace throughout the world. At this point I have established my sacred grove, my nemeton. All that follows is within this dedicated space until I uncast the circle on completion of my practice.
This ritual patterning, made substantial both physically and verbally, includes a celebration of sacred nature, provides a structure and a set of meanings to hold and guide me, and emphasises the commitment to peace.. Although I have personally customised this framework, most of it – anything to do with personality and external world – anchors me in modern Druid culture.
The centre is different. The centre is universal. It is the point where Oneness is recognised. “The bubbling source from which I spring” has a naturalistic feel whilst also referencing Jean-Yves Leloup’s translation of the Thomas Gospel, logion 13, where Yeshua says to Thomas: “I am no longer your master, because you have drunk , and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring” (1). ‘Heart’, as used here, is neither the physical heart nor the heart chakra, but “the Great Heart that contains All-that-is … the consciousness that underlies all forms” (2). ‘Living presence’ too points to the state of underlying conscious awareness that is here being recognised (3,4). For ritual language that honours that recognition, I draw on the mystical inheritance of the world and place myself in a wider circle of care.
At one time I tended to experience casting circles as a preliminary to practice, whilst also ‘knowing’ in a roof-brain kind of way that this was a mistake. Now I find it a powerful means of bringing me into the new day. Above all, it affirms my core understanding of world and life with every sunrise.
(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) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011
(3) Kabir Edmund Kabinski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, 1992
(4) Eckhart Tolle Oneness with All Life: Awaken to a Life of Purpose and Presence Penguin Random House UK, 2018 (First ed. published 2008)