contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Mysticism

STEPHEN BATCHELOR: THE EVERYDAY SUBLIME

Stephen Batchelor explores his view that “the mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it”. For me, this discussion has a resonance beyond the ranks of ‘secular Buddhism’. The passage below is from his book After Buddhism: rethinking the Dharma in a secular age (1). I am attracted to his view of ‘the everyday sublime’ and for me at least, its relevance extends well beyond Batchelor’s specific context.

“Meditation originates and culminates in the everyday sublime … [It] is about what is happening to this organism as it touches the environment in this moment. I do not reject the experience of the mystical. I reject the view that the mystical is concealed behind what is merely apparent, that it is anything other than what is occurring in time and space right now. The mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it. ‘The mystical is not how the world is,’ noted Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921, ‘but that it is.’

“As understood by Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets, the sublime exceeds our capacity for representation. The world is excessive: every blade of grass, every ray of sun, every falling leaf is excessive. None of these things can be adequately captured in concepts, images, or words. They overreach us, spilling beyond the boundaries of thought. Their sublimity brings the thinking, calculating mind to a stop, leaving one speechless, overwhelmed with either wonder or terror. Yet for we human animals who delight and revel in our place, who crave security, certainty and consolation, the sublime is banished and forgotten. As a result, life is rendered opaque and flat. Each day is reduced to the repetition of familiar actions and events, which are blandly comforting but devoid of an intensity we both yearn for and fear.

“To experience the everyday sublime requires that we dismantle the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing ourselves and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid, and ‘mine’. It means to embrace suffering and conflict rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the embodied attention that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing. This takes time. It is a life-long practice.

“The ordinary sublime is our ordinary life experienced from the perspective of the fourfold task [NB Batchelor’s reframe of the Buddhist four noble truths JN].  …

  • An open-hearted embrace of the totality of one’s existential situation
  • A letting go of the habitual restrictive patterns of thought and behavior triggered by that situation
  • A conscious valorization of those moments in which such reactive patterns have stilled
  • A commitment to a way of life that emerges from such stillness and responds empathetically, ethically and creatively to the situation in hand.

“Understood in this way, meditation is not about gaining proficiency in technical procedures claimed to guarantee attainments that correspond to the dogmas of a particular religious orthodoxy. Nor is its goal to achieve a privileged, transcendent insight into the ultimate nature of reality, mind, or God. In the light of the fourfold task, meditation is the ongoing cultivation of a sensibility, a way of attending to every aspect of experience within a framework of ethical values and goals.

…..

“As a sensibility, meditation enables us to cultivate an understanding of moment-to-moment experience much as we develop an appreciation of art or poetry or nature. Grounded in the body and the senses, we value an open-mindedness to what is unfamiliar, probe our sensorium with relentless curiosity, listen attentively to what others have to say, are willing to suspend habitual attitudes and opinions, and questions what is going on instead of simply taking things for granted. The disengagement of meditation is not an aloof regard (or disregard) but a perspective that engenders another kind of response to what is happening. And it begins with the breath, our primordial relationship to the fabric of the world in which we are embedded.”

  • Stephen Batchelor After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015

MYSTERY

“We usually describe the world in terms of trees, mountains, rivers, clouds, cars, houses, people, and so on. But a chemist could say: ‘No, this is not how things truly are! The world is basically composed of molecules which are ceaselessly combining one with another at random’. However, a physicist would reply: ‘Not at all! Reality is actually made up of intermingling fields of energy/matter where the dance of waves/particles takes place ceaselessly’.

“Who is right? Who is wrong? All of them are clearly mere conceptual descriptions that can just supply a relative view of reality. We do not actually live in ‘reality’, but rather in a description of it, that is like a ‘bubble’ of concepts and words all around us, which in time builds up a fictitious view of ourselves and the world. Even non-dualism (as any other -ism without exception) is just a conceptual description of reality, that hopelessly tries to point to the unknowable ‘Whatever it is’: in so far as it becomes an ideology that relies on words and thoughts, it is unable to enjoy the taste of Being.

“So we live in concepts without realizing it. We blindly believe that reality is just as our thought represents it. Science gives us an ‘objective’ description of the material world that, to some extent, can be very useful for the improvement of humankind, however relative and incomplete it is. Non-duality – as far as it still relies on words and thoughts – is just another conceptual description of reality, though its understanding of non-separation can dispel a huge amount of suffering in one’s life. Neither of them is more or less right, and both are useful. But as long as we rely merely on them, we remain trapped in the net of concepts.

“Just as the fisherman’s net can catch only fishes, but not the water that passes through it and even supports it, so the thinking mind can grasp only concepts, but not the awareness that perceives it as an object: the ‘water of awareness’ can never be detected by the net of the thinking mind.

“Indeed, awareness is a paradoxical mystery: on the one hand its evidence is undeniable for the very fact that we are aware of objects, but on the other hand it is unknowable, just as the existence of the eye is undeniable for the very fact that we can see objects, though it always remains invisible, outside the picture. However, even ‘awareness’ is just a concept: through it, we are ultimately confronted with the unknown ‘bottom line’ of any human knowledge. No understanding whatsoever can touch the unknowable Source of everything.

“What if any idea about who I am, including even the idea of ‘consciousness’, totally collapses? What if any idea about reality, including even the idea of ‘non-duality’, totally collapses? What if even these very words you are reading now lose any meaning whatsoever and fall away? What remains when every attempt to understand or to know reality reveals its utter futility? Then, out of frustration, the thinking mind cannot help saying “I don’t know” and finally quits.

But when that “I don’t know” plunges off the head into the heart, the philosopher dies and the mystic is born. It is not a process in time. It is a singularity where all the known collapses and disappears. It is a timeless explosion of pure wonder and awe that blows away everything else. And what remains is a wild, free, spontaneous, and utterly unknowable aliveness, within the glowing darkness of the Mystery that we ultimately are.”

Mauro Bergonzi

FULLNESS

Yesterday I spent 90 minutes watching trees, their branches now bare, against a steadily darkening sky. I forgot myself in the scene, feeling filled with it. The core experience was fullness.

I suppose that this is what I mean by the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ – though this experience was of the flowing present, extended over time, noticing and enjoying change in nature. On later reflection, I was less reminded of mystics and meditators than of poets, particularly John Keats and his ‘negative capability’. He contrasted this with another type of response, which he called “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime”. Negative capability is “everything and nothing – it has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon poet”. (1)

‘Everything and nothing’ can be experienced as empty or full. I’m increasingly finding fullness. This has the effect of holding me in nature and time, in my unique human life soon enough to be over. This is where I want to be, with the important qualification that ‘fullness’ gives me a additional sense of being resourced by a larger well-spring of life than I might otherwise recognise. Experienced fullness doesn’t come simply from trees and sky. It comes also from the receptive openness I access when my senses are attuned. I find myself feeling a stillness underneath and within all movement; hearing a silence underneath and within all sound; seeing a soft luminescence underneath and within all colour and form, and in darkness too. These are the keys to fullness – a fullness where everything stills and slows down yet doesn’t stop.

Largely this is what I now mean (for myself) by a ‘contemplative’ state. Its development reflects a magpie approach to learning and my felt sense of what is right for me. I discovered the stillness through Buddhist breath meditation (movement of the breath as the belly rises and falls; yet stillness within). But I am not a Buddhist. I learned the silence through listening to the Oran Mor (Song of the World), though I don’t currently work within Gaelic traditions. I discovered (what should I call it?) primordial luminescence within the Headless Way (2). But I’m not continuing with the Headless path, because the headless trope itself now feels tedious and I don’t entirely share the Harding world view. Fullness has a link to Sophian Gnosticism, of all these traditions the closest to my heart, under the Greek name Pleroma. But my ‘fullness’ has come out of direct experience and I’m being careful to keep it that way. I like the resonance of the English word fullness, and it helps to maintain a degree of separation from the ancient view. Yet even whilst maintaining my inner authority, I am grateful for these inputs from the world’s spiritual heritage. I remain indebted whilst crafting my own path.

I’m not Keats and, for me, negative capacity for fullness tends to come as an alloy. It is generally interspersed with a certain amount of egotistical sublime, in my case as an upgraded stream of consciousness or monkey mind narrative. In my universe, that’s fine too, and all part of the fullness. I would like more skill in switching between the two modes at will, and I believe this to be achievable. At another level, it doesn’t really matter.

(1) Keats selected poems and letters Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1995 (Selected by Robert Gittings; edited by Sandra Anstey)

(2) http://www.headless.org

THOMAS TRAHERNE DAY

Two months ago I wrote a about Thomas Traherne (1), pointing out an unexpected resonance between this seventeenth century English clergyman and the ideas of Douglas Harding (2). Only later did I discover that such parallels had already been noted – particularly by Alan Mann (3) and also The Incredible String Band, way back in the 1960’s (4).

Thanks to Alan Mann, I subsequently found my way to the Thomas Traherne Association (5) and attended the Traherne’s Day Celebrations on 10 October at Hereford Cathedral. These were built around a choral Evensong followed by a lecture. The speaker was the Revd Dr Paul Fiddes, Professor of Systematic Theology at Oxford University. Prof Fiddes has a particular interest in the relations between theology and literature, and his topic was The Poetics of Desire in Thomas Traherne and C. S. Lewis.

Lewis admired Traherne, especially the Centuries of Meditations, though he felt that Traherne was insufficiently concerned with original sin and too ready to find heaven in the here and now. For Traherne wrote that every person “is alone the Centre and Circumference of [Infinity]. It is all his own, and so Glorious, that it is the Eternal and Incomprehensible Essence of the Deitie.” (6). He also wrote at the time when the Royal Society was founded and what we now call Science became respectable. Traherne followed progress with the telescope and microscope and the worlds they were beginning to reveal. Perhaps such developments and the inquiries they opened up encouraged him to write the lines:

“Heaven surely is a State and not a Place

To be in Heaven’s to be full of Grace.

Heaven is where’re we see God’s face.” (6)

and

“This busy, vast, enquiring Soul

Brooks no Controul,

No limits will endure,

Nor any Rest: It will all see

Not Time alone, but ev’n Eternity”. (6)

At the same time, Prof. Fiddes’ lecture showed how Lewis was at one with Traherne in apprehending a God who is present in human imagination and creativity – Traherne’s words being, “for God hath made you able to Creat Worlds in your own mind, which are more Precious unto Him that those which He created”. Perhaps reflections like this freed Lewis’ own imagination in his fiction:

“Each grain is at the centre. The dust is at the centre. The Worlds are at the centre. The beasts are at the centre. The ancient peoples are there. The race that sinned is there… Blessed be He! Where Maleldil is, there is the centre. He is in every place … Because we are with him, each, each of us is at the centre … there seems no centre because it is all centre … “(7)

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! … This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.” (8)

It was C.S. Lewis who helped Douglas Harding find a publisher for The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth and wrote the introduction to it. My knowledge of this link was a prompt to attend the Traherne Day lecture, though I might have gone any way. I was brought up in the Church of England, and C.S. Lewis had a place in my imaginative hinterland. So did metaphysical poetry (though not especially Traherne’s), before I parted ways. I enjoyed Evensong last Monday, especially hearing the choir. Whilst feeling no pull to re-communicate, I felt very much at peace both with the aspect of heritage and that of spiritual community. This was a blessing in itself, and I am grateful for the occasion and to the people who made it happen.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/seeing-thomas-traherne

(2) headless.org

(3) capacitie.org

(4) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AK2m7rYjZ54

(5) thomastraherneassociation.org

(6) Denise Inge (ed.) Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and his writings Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2008

(7) C.S. Lewis, Perelandra London: Bles, 1943

(8) C.S. Lewis The Last Battle London: Collins, 1956

(9) Douglas Harding The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth: a new diagram of man in the universe London: Faber and Faber, 1952 (Introduction by C.S. Lewis)

 

SEEING: THOMAS TRAHERNE

“Will you see the Infancy of this sublime and celestial Greatness? Those Pure and Virgin Apprehensions I had from the Womb, and the Divine Light wherewith I was born, are the Best unto this Day, wherein I can see the Universe …. They are unattainable by Book, and therefore I will teach them by experience.” (1)

‘Unattainable by Book’ was fighting talk  in seventeenth century England. What sort of person was using this language? Thomas Traherne (1636-74) was the son of a prosperous Hereford shoemaker – big house, numerous resident apprentices.  He grew up during the civil war (1642-49) and England’s  republican experiment (1649-1660) in a naturally royalist area. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1652 (16 being a normal age at the time) under a strictly Puritan head, took  a BA in 1656 and was appointed minister at the Herefordshire Parish of Credenhill by the Commissioners for the Approbation of Public Preachers in 1657. As soon as Charles II returned to England Traherne arranged to be ordained as Credenhill’s Anglican vicar, developed strong links with the renewed life of Hereford Cathedral, and also found time to be Chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Charles’ Lord Privy Seal. A modern commentator (1) describes Traherne as “distinguished from his seventeenth century peers by the fact that he is blissfully untroubled by the tensions, doubts, anxieties that (we are repeatedly told) mark the age in general”.

Traherne is best remembered as a mystic, and his reputation has strengthened over the last century. His diction is of his time, but in the culture of the English language his note seems that of a later age, whilst ultimately timeless.

“Your Enjoyment of the World is never right, till evry Morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your father’s Palace: and look upon the Skies and the Earth and the Air, as Celestial Joys: having such a Reverend Esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels …

“You never Enjoy the World aright, til the Sea itself floweth in your Veins, till you are clothed with the Heavens, and Crowned with the Stars: and perceiv yourself to be the Sole Heir of the whole World: and more then so, becaus Men are in it who are evry one Sole Heirs, as well as you….

“Till you are intimately Acquainted with that Shady Nothing out of which the world was made … you never Enjoy the World.”

I’ve enjoyed Traherne for some years. A highly committed Christian, he breaks through formalistic theology, as if drinking directly from a Divine spring. I’ve appreciated him as a kind of Romantic panentheist, from before the time when either term came into use. Now I’m reading him as a Seer as understood in the Headless Way, and I have a clearer focus – the previous one was already fine, but a little fuzzy. Traherne’s human account of Seeing is embedded in time, place and tradition – as is mine. At another level – one awakened joy.

(1) Thomas Traherne Poetry and Prose London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002. (Selected and introduced by Denise Inge for the series The Golden Age of Spiritual Writing)

 

 

 

 

SOPHIAN MAGIC 101

My Temple of Sophia is a magical space. So what do I mean by magic? What is its place in a contemplative inquiry? What makes it Sophian?

On magic, I tend to take my cue from R.J. Stewart (1). He says: “Magic is a set of methods arranging awareness according to patterns. The serious application of magical methods leads to transformation; it is the transformation that is of value, not the magical methods themselves. The basis of magic is utterly practical and experiential”.

This is very good news from an inquiry point of view. Stewart is careful to say that magic is neither a truth or religion – nor yet a philosophy, though “echoes of profound philosophy” are to be found within magical traditions. In my universe, the Way of Sophia is more than a magical tradition. But magic, with its precise focusing of will and intention, its experimental approach, and its interest in outcomes, has a strong and valued place.

When starting an inquiry, I prefer to start with some sort of model, from which I will depart over time after I have gained enough experience to evaluate and modify it. R.J. Stewart – again – is a good model of Western Way integration, in particular through bringing together Celtic traditions and Kabbalah. In my Way of Sophia work I will be drawing on  Kabbalist patterning – again with the intention of gaining experience and then playing creatively. Indeed, this process has already begun.

I inaugurated my Temple of Sophia at about 4 a.m. on Tuesday 22 March and I am following Stewart in his view of five fundamentals in magical practice. As I move around the circle, I notice a cousinship with my previous OBOD Druid practice, whilst also recognizing difference.

CONCENTRATION – linked to the east, the element of air, and a view of origination.

MEDITATION – linked to the south, the element of fire, and a view of creation.

VISUALISATION – linked to west, the element of water, and a view of formation.

RITUAL PATTERNING – linked to the north, the element of earth, and a view of expression.

MEDIATION – the fifth fundamental, associated with Spirit, and in circle terms at the centre. Stewart points out that in mystical and religious discourse, the word ‘inspiration’ is used as an alternative. But in this context I find mediation the better word, more powerful as well as more specific. In the most general terms, we mediate the “constant power of Spirit”.

I want to say a little bit about all five fundamentals, with a particular emphasis on CONCENTRATION at this stage. Stewart says that before even starting, we need some ability to achieve inner silence, stilling the repetitive dialogue that we all have. In this context we are simply looking for a level of silence that will allow us to switch our focus fully onto the relevant inner disciplines. We are not here in the business of investigating the monkey mind itself. Stewart (1) offers brief exercises specifically for stilling the mind and generating silence. Having achieved this, we launch the work. Achieving silence is the first use of concentration. Holding it throughout the magical working is the next. Will Parfitt (2) has a valuable comment about concentration. It is often seen as strenuous, about being “very deliberate”, indeed somewhat compulsive – and above all an effort. He reminds us that it does not have to be this way. He notes that children at play concentrate effectively – to the point where it is hard to draw them away – yet without obvious strain and effort. This is possible because they are interested and excited. He says “it is that simple – if you are interested you can concentrate; if you are not interested you can’t and would be better off doing something else”. When I re-read this I felt sad for the many children and adults who lack adequate choices in this matter. More happily, I have noticed that I am finding concentration in the Temple of Sophia easy. My will and enthusiasm are behind it.

R.J. Stewart offers concise and simple definitions of meditation, visualization and ritual in magical work, and I will see how I go with these, in this inquiry, as time goes on:

MEDITATION: the discipline of directing consciousness inwardly upon chosen subjects.

VISUALIZATION: the act of controlled image making and development of inner vision.

RITUAL PATTERNING: the fusion of creative imagination with effective expression.

On MEDIATION I need to say a bit more, because this is where I become specifically Sophian. The purpose of my Temple is to mediate the Light of Sophia. For me, at this stage, this involves both energetic and contemplative work.

The energetic work is based around a strong development of Kabbalist middle pillar practice where I open myself to the light presence and light energy of Sophia, and let them fill me. Over the last few days this has had very strong effects. At an inquiry level, outside the Temple, it raises a Kabbalist version of the “are chakras real?” question. I’ll be writing about that in due course. On the contemplative side – again using an R.J. Stewart definition relating to magical work – I enter into a “wordless, formless fusion of consciousness with a chosen subject”.

This is the Light of Sophia – and I sit within the light generated by the energy work, and indeed go through a process that leads, when the work is going well, to the wordless, formless fusion described, wrapped and rapt in a form of Samadhi. But the larger aim is both to be and to represent that Light in the world – to mediate it. I will say more about all this, and what it means, when I better understand the implications for me. So far I know only that I have a strong sense of contact and a general direction. The inquiry itself will show me the way.

  • J. Stewart (1987) Living Magical Arts: Imagination and Magic for the 21st. Century Poole: Blandford Press
  • Will Parfitt (1988) The Living Qabalah: A Practical and Experiential Guide to Understanding the Tree of Life Shaftesbury: Element Books

I AND YOU

MBI and Thou was written by the Jewish scholar and theologian Martin Buber in the 1920’s and first translated into English in 1937. I’ve used a 1970 translation by Walter Kaufmann*, who prefers the term ‘I and You’ since ‘I and Thou’ sounds formal and churchy in modern English. The subject is ‘I-ness’ and the way it comes into existence only through alterity, though linkage to the other: for Buber this means other humans, other life in nature, and spiritual beings. Buber distinguishes two forms of such linkage: ‘I-It’ and ‘I-You’. The second demands more of us – and it brings “the breath of eternal life” into the world. Buber makes this distinction very clearly in the passage below.

“The I of the basic word I-You is different from the basic word I-It.

“The I of the basic word I-It appears as an ego and becomes conscious of itself as a subject (of experience and use).

“The I of the basic word I-You appears as a person and becomes conscious of itself as subjectivity (without any dependent genitive).

“Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos.

“Persons appear by entering into relation with other persons.

“One is the spiritual form of natural differentiation, the other that of natural association.

“The purpose of setting oneself apart is to experience and use, and the purpose of that is ‘living’ – which means dying one human life long.

“The purpose of relation is the relation itself – touching the You. For as soon as we touch a You, we are touched by the breath of eternal life.

“Whoever stands in relation, participates in an actuality, that is, in a being that is neither merely a part of him nor merely outside him. All actuality is an actuality in which I participate without being able to appropriate it. Where there is no participation, there is no actuality. Where there is self-appropriation, there is no actuality. The more directly the You is touched, the more perfect is the participation.

“The I is actual through its participation in actuality. The more perfect the participation is, the more actual the I becomes.”

Buber has been described as a ‘religious existentialist’, though he personally didn’t like the term. Whilst willing to share with all, He was not a Universalist and always saw himself as speaking specifically out of his ancestral tradition. He also wrote Tales of the Hasidim about the intensely devotional form of mystical Judaism that first developed in Central and Eastern Europe and then found new homes elsewhere, especially in North America and the Holy Land itself.

*Martin Buber, I and Thou Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York City, NY, USA, 1970 (A translation with a Prologue I and You and notes, by William Kaufmann)

THE MYSTIC SENSE

In his book on Zen Paganism (1), Tom Swiss has a chapter called The Mystic Sense. He includes Mystic, a poem by D.H. Lawrence.

 

They call all experiences of the

senses mystic, when the

experience is considered.

So an apple becomes mystic

when I taste in it

the summer and the snows, the

wild welter of earth

and the insistence of the sun.

 

Swiss notes, “one specific, wonderful deep type of beauty comes … from the perception of a relationship between our immediate subjective experience and the broader world”. He adds that depending on our social conditioning and religious training we may come to conceptualise this in terms like ‘cosmic consciousness’, ‘the presence of the divine’, ‘the perception of emptiness’, a feeling of ‘oneness with the universe’, or of ‘sacredness’ or an experience of ‘no-mind’. They are all expressions of the mystical sense, and we have entered a period in which we can let go of any residual belief that this sense is a rare possession, or the exclusive province of a few spiritual specialists and champions.

The way we make meaning and find a language for such experiences may still be heavily conditioned by culture and still be used to justify the truth of dogmas that have in reality “only provided a filter” and “determined what color glasses” we are wearing when we “behold the Clear Light”. But behold it we do, in many different ways, and “with practice we can develop this sense”. Indeed we can “even manage to perceive the mystical experience from multiple perspectives, to swap the glasses for a couple of different colors”. In this context, Swiss reminds us that “this is one of the goals of ceremonial magic, as practised by occultists and Pagans” and not at all confined to still, meditative states.

 

  1. Swiss, Tom (2013) Why Buddha touched the earth: Zen Paganism for the 21st. century Stafford, UK: Megalithica books
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