Where I live, we are in the last stages of the rising year, the sweet period from Beltane to the Summer Solstice. The sun’s energy is waxing. The days feel abundantly alive and are marked by beauty. It is my favourite time of year, easy to enjoy. It reminds me of my debt to the sun.
Yet this period and its bounty are also fragile and evanescent. They pass soon enough. For me, peonies in a bowl are a perfect representation and celebration of this early summer moment – speaking also to the tender poignancy of impermanence, as the wheel continues to turn.
“There are seven primary materials of the world: the Blue Bard of the Chair has said it.
“The first, earth, from which are every corporeity and hardness, and every firm foundation;
“The second, water, from which are every humour and freshness;
“The third, air, from which are all respiration and motion;
“The fourth, sun, from which are all heat and light;
“The fifth, nwyfre, from which are all feeling, affection, and wantonness;
“The sixth, the Holy Ghost, from Whom are all understanding, reason, awen, and sciences;
“The seventh, God, from Whom are all life, strength, and support, for ever and ever.
“And from these seven primary materials are every existence and animation; and may the whole be under God’s regulation. Amen.” (1)
The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg, by J. Williams Ab Ithel, was published in 1862. It was presented as the lore of traditional Welsh Bardistry going back to Druid times, based on the earlier work of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams – 1747-1826). Iolo had organised the first Gorsedd of Bards for several hundred years at Primrose Hill, London, on 21 June 1792, thereby initiating the modern Welsh Eisteddfod movement. He was a personal friend of Tom Paine and George Washington subscribed to his first volume of poetry. He is said to have influenced William Blake’s poetry and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.
Iolo described himself as a Unitarian Quaker in religion, and a revolutionary Welsh nationalist in politics. In the later 1790’s the Glamorgan magistrates sent the yeomanry (a volunteer cavalry force drawn from the property-owning classes) to break up an open-air Gorsedd led by Iolo in that county. The reason given was that it was being conducted in the Welsh language and allegedly included a toast for Napoleon – then admired by radicals as defender of the French revolution. This is also a time of revolt in Ireland and the birth of Irish republicanism.
Culturally, Iolo was, as well as a poet in his own right, “a first-rate forger of literary Welsh; some have commented that his forgeries were as good or better than the real thing. Furthermore, he wrote much of the Barddas under the influence of laudanum (an opium-based medicine which he took for asthma)” (1). In consequence he has been widely dismissed as an embarrassing fraud. My response is more complicated. There is something poignant for me about ‘forgeries’ that are “as good or better than the real thing”. On the forgery question, I am sad that Iolo could not openly be a catalyst for the creation of new culture inspired by an old one, rather than having to pretend, even to himself, that he was recovering an old one as it had been (in his own mind perhaps through psychic means). As for medicinal laudanum, I wonder why this should be stigmatised in Iolo whilst accepted in his contemporary S. T. Coleridge. It may be is because Coleridge’s work was unambiguously original, and therefore seen differently. The issue of new culture creation in Druidry is a significant one to this day and is well discussed in Philip Carr-Gomm’s preface to Contemplative Druidry (2) where the voices of a number of open culture creators are included.
Going back to The Seven Primary Materials of the World, I feel friendly to this text despite its patriarchal language and its statement of a world view significantly different from my own. In my reading, it suggests a seven-step ladder from matter to the divine, with four material elements that point also to non-material qualities, where the the fourth and highest is not on the Earth. Then there are two subtle elements (though the first finds room for ‘wantonness’) and an ultimate ascent to the divine. It is the kind of evolutionary spiritual scheme that many transcendentalists down the ages have related to. Written at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and edited in mid Victorian times, it seems to me congruent with the outlook of medieval Welsh Bardistry as expressed in The Book of Taliesin (3), and the theology of the ninth century Irish scholar and contemplative mystic John Scotus Eriugena (4). It is a Christian referenced path that is not sin and fear based, and I am sure that many people involved in Druidry and Celtic Spirituality today would be in essential sympathy with it. Made up by Iolo or not, it reads as a clear and simple expression of a universalist and transcendentalist stance within a specific cultural setting. I find nothing fraudulent about it. It is what I would expect from place, time and person.
Indeed, key concepts remain relevant to my own Druid practice. I work with the wheel of the year and with the four classical elements, including fire. I am concerned with the Earth’s relationship to sun and moon. I work with my body and my sense of energy and think of nwyfre as synonymous with prana or chi, now well-known thanks to the popularity of yoga and Chinese energy arts.
At this stage in my personal journey, I am in renewed inquiry with awen. For the Barddas, it is a distinct higher mental faculty, close to the divine source like Coleridge’s primary imagination. In my own work I get a sense of energised and articulated insight. I do not think of awen as a substance in itself, but rather a quality of how we express ourselves when at our most enlivened and ‘on song’. But this inquiry is far from concluded.
Where the Barddas speaks of God, I speak of nature. I think of the web of life, and of our interbeing within it. I also think of the mysteries of quantum events, dimensions that we cannot perceive directly, galaxies flying apart and the possibility of multiple universes. But to me nature’s most extraordinary phenomenon is the gift of aware experiencing, with all the joy and suffering it brings, in the apparent here and now. To this I add the capacity to bear witness to this miracle through words, non-verbal media, silence, celebration and action. Here, I find myself still using most of the key terms from The Seven Primary Materials of the World. In this sense, I am happy to have The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg as part of my spiritual ancestry.
J. Williams Ab Ithel The Barddas of Ilo Morganwyg, Vol I & II: A Collection of Original Documents, Illustrative of Theology, Wisdom, and Usages of the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1862)
James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/Create Space, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)
William F. Skene The Four Ancient Books of Wales Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1868)
“Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions brought a surgeon to treat him, The man would say, ‘I would not pull out the arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; whether the arrow that wounded me was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed’.
“All this would still not be known to that man and in the meanwhile he would die. So too, Maunkyaputta, if anyone should say: ‘I will not lead the noble life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal, finite or infinite; whether the soul is the same as or different from the body; whether an awakened one continues or ceases to exist after death,’ that would still remain undeclared by the Buddha and meanwhile that person would die.” (1)
The Buddhist scholar and teacher Stephen Batchelor, quoting these early words, affirms a Buddha committed to “an existential, therapeutic and liberating agnosticism” concerned “with anguish and the ending of anguish”. He laments the historical tendency of Buddhism to lose this agnostic dimension and to become an institutionalised religion. He believes that “this transformation of Buddhism into a religion obscures and distorts the encounter of the dharma with contemporary agnostic culture. … The dharma in fact might well have more in common with Godless secularism than with the bastions of religion.”
At the same time, the force of the word ‘agnosticism’ has been lost in modern secular culture, becoming complicit with “the attitude that legitimises an indulgent consumerism and and the unreflective conformism dictated by mass media”. T. H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, understood agnosticism as “a method realised through the rigorous application of a single principle”. This was to follow our reason as far as it will take us, and not to pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. It is a principle that runs through western culture from Socrates to the axioms of modern science. Buddha and Huxley both advocate a method rather than a creed, opening the possibility of a conversation between them.
What does this tell me about my own path now? Contemplative inquiry is a method. It is based on phenomenology as a subjective life-world investigation, and mine tells me that fruitful spiritual practices do not depend on the metaphysical views that are often linked to them. I can interpret and value everything that I have done within a naturalistic framework. It is a significant conclusion for my inquiry.
This does not in itself invalidate the metaphysical views. I have simply withdrawn from my personal engagement with them, except to the extent that they are embedded in the authentic experiences and stories of other people, past and present. I can still value and learn from those. I find imaginative engagement with other points of view quite easy. But in my own spiritual understanding, I seem now to be with Huxley and the Buddha.
Contemplative inquiry is a valued method but I would not call it my path. My path is Druidry, and I have been re-establishing this consciously since the Winter Solstice of 2019. The default position of the Druidry I was trained in is a romantic theosophy, though one in active evolution, rich in variation and re-imagining. In my personal journey, I am now clearly in a naturalistic and secular space, animist in a sense (2) that is “‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical.” As a result of my inquiry, my Druid note is different than it was before I began.
I am clearer, lighter, more alive. It feels easier to experience the abundance in simplicity that I value. By letting the mystery be, I can immerse myself more deeply in the textured life of the world. Leaning in to naturalistic world view, I expand my sense of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’, and my Druid path feels stronger.
(1) Stephen Batchelor Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening London: Bloomsbury, 1998 (First published in the USA in 1997 by Riverhead Books)
On 1 May I strode out with a spring in step, for my statutory walk. I was stir crazy and determined to meet the day. I made sure to take my camera with me. I wanted both to savour and record the fresh abundance of the green. Although I was in a familiar landscape, both the look and the feel of it had changed. I was in places I hadn’t been in for a week or more, and the world seemed dynamically verdant with a new intensity. I had a transformative hour of it before returning home.
In his Green Man (1), William Anderson reminds us that the Green Man utters life through his mouth. “His words are leaves, the living force of experience … to redeem our thought and our language”. Anderson’s Green Man speaks for the healthy renewing of of our life in and as nature.
He also suggests that the emerging science of ecology – the study of the house-craft of nature – is one such form of utterance. It gives us a language of inquiry into the interdependence of living things. My sense is that 1960’s images of Earth from space have also provided support to concepts like that of a planetary biosphere, and for the revival of Gaia as an honoured name. As a species, quality knowledge, rooted in quality imagination, is our greatest resource. Anderson’s book was published in 1990, based on ideas that had already been maturing over many years. I am sad that we are where we are in 2020. But the message of hope still stands, and the energy of a green May bears witness to it.
(1) William Anderson Green Man: the Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth London & San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990 (Photography by Clive Hicks)
A murky evening moment at a magical time of year. St. George’s Day coming soon, and then Beltane. A seeming failure to get a good image. Street lights come on just as the picture is taken. Freshly green trees are obscured by gathering darkness, and reduced to silhouettes. I am shooting through a window that needs cleaning. I delete the picture. I send it to trash.
Then I find myself haunted by an after image of those apparent pink clouds in the sky. I rescue them. I have better pictures of clouds, but as I imagine them now, these shapes are no longer clouds for me. I see the courtship – I’m oddly sure it’s a courtship – of two beings. In this liminal twilight sky, in a meeting of air and fire, they are materialising in time-bound 3D reality. I might, doubtless incorrectly, call them dragons in my nervous need for naming. In truth I don’t know who or what they are, or where they come from, or how they got here. This is 2020, a twilight zone in itself.
I see no purpose or plan here, though the courtship of these beings is well synchronised for time and place. They are a sign and a wonder. Though their story is unknown, I welcome these beings who are not of this world. I am touched by their appearance and glad to be sharing it.
In his foreword to Contemplative Druidry (1) Philip Carr-Gomm talks about “Nature Mysticism, or Natural Mysticism” in modern Druidry. He suggests that such mysticism is grounded in changes in consciousness, and feelings of bliss or oneness, with no accompanying “separation from the physical world in pursuit of the Divine”. For me, it is especially about meeting the moment within the physical world, including our own body/mind. Sometimes the meeting comes through formal practice. Sometimes it is spontaneous and unannounced.
I built the main body of the text in Contemplative Druidry around a series of interviews with practitioners, which I designed, conducted and transcribed in the spring and summer of 2014. I then identified patterns in what people had been saying and decided on themes for chapters. I wasn’t working in an academic role, so my own linking text was a matter of curation rather than analysis. At that time the notion of a ‘contemplative’ approach to Druidry seemed weird to many people. But it was clear to me from the interview material that all the contributors had relevant experiences to talk about. They seemed to point to what PCG subsequently called ‘natural mysticism’ as a domain of personal and cultural experience readily within reach if people want it to be.
This book itself came out of a project I began working on in 2011, when I was a Bard and Ovate mentor in OBOD. I activated it in 2012, when I began to reach out to people with an offer of contemplative sessions, workshops and retreats – continuing with these until the end of 2016. 2012 also saw the birth of this blog and the Contemplative Druidry Facebook group, which I administered for the first year. Looking back from 2020, I feel that the contemplative meme is established within Druidry. ‘Contemplative’ has become a frequently used term in Druid discourse.
In the early days I thought a specific iteration of contemplative Druidry, launched by the project, might become a distinct Druid brand within and beyond the current Druid communities. From this distance it is easier for me to see that my will and energy were for initiating a conversation and modelling a set of possibilities, rather than working to establish a new sub-tradition. At the same time I continue to invite Druids and fellow travellers to be open to their ‘natural mysticism’ in ways that work for them.
” The moon was the image in the sky that was always changing yet always the same. What endured was the cycle, whose totality could never be seen at any one moment. All that was visible was the constant interplay between light and dark in an ever recurring sequence. Implicitly however, the early people must have come to see every part of the cycle from the perspective of the whole. The individual phases could not be named, nor the relations between them expressed, without assuming the presence of the whole cycle. The whole was invisible, an enduring and unchanging circle, yet it contained the visible phases. Symbolically, it was as if the visible ‘came from’ and ‘returned to’ the invisible – like being born and dying, and being born again.
“The great myth of the bronze age is structured on the distinction between the ‘whole’, personified as the Great Mother Goddess, and the ‘part’, personified as her son-lover or her daughter. She gives birth to her son as the new moon, marries him as the full moon, loses him to the darkness as the waning moon, goes in search of him as the dark moon, and rescues him as the returning crescent. In the Greek myth, in which the daughter plays the role of ‘the part’, the cycle is the same, but the marriage is between the daughter and a god who personifies the dark phase of the moon. The daughter, like the son, is rescued by the mother. In both variations of the myth, The Goddess may be understood as the eternal cycle s a whole: the unity of life and death as a single process. The young goddess or god is her mortal form in time, which, as manifested life, whether plant, animal or human being – is subject to a cyclical process of birth, flowering, decay, death and rebirth.
“The essential distinction between the whole and the part was later formulated in the Greek language by the two different Greek words for life, zoe and bios, as the embodiment of two dimensions co-existing in life. Zoe is infinite, eternal life; bios is finite and individual life. Zoe is infinite ‘being’; bios is the living and dying manifestation of this eternal world in time.”
(1) Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993
INQUIRY NOTE: For me this modern interpretation of Bronze Age myth offers a good Pagan way of talking about ‘non-duality’, a strong thread in my inquiry in recent years. In its Sanskrit origin, advaita simply means ‘not two’. It speaks of a unity that is not exactly oneness in the sense of complete assimilation. It points to the sense that we are bios in our transient personal lives yet also zoe the life eternal, both the wave and the ocean. In Western theistic culture this view seems consistent with either pantheism or panentheism. It also fits modern understandings of animism and biocentrism. While I find it useful to know about these models and frameworks, I avoid strong identification with them. There remains an underlying mystery, which is where myth and imagination come into their own.
“I have been fascinated and waylaid by abstraction, painting the picture I would rather have instead of living the experience I would rather not have.
“What I abstract never comes to be, or only sometimes flickers into life like a watered-down approximation.
“My abstraction is a smoke-screen born from longing or frustration, and it offers me a holiday of dreams. It is always safe and predictable, and an indulgence in the known.
“When abstraction collapses there is what there is … my bodily sensations, the symphony going on. Not necessarily in tune, but nonetheless constantly changing and moving, coming and going. Something is happening here or there … it evaporates and something else takes its place. There is nothing that I can control or manipulate. It is immeasurable and unknown, being and then not being.
“In the same way, if I seem to let go and listen, touch, taste, smell or see, there is no way of knowing beforehand the exact quality of those sensations. I could say that I can anticipate the sound of a bird singing, but it is only on information based on memory.
“It is not alive, vital and unknown. The sound I actually hear, the sound of what is, will not be the same as my abstraction of it. When I first listen to the sound I will try to grasp it and label it in order to control it. When I apparently let go of that control, there is simply the listener and the sound. When the listener is dropped, there is only the sound. I am no longer there – there is simply the naked and vibrant energy of what is. Nothing is needed. All is fulfilled.
“It is within the very alchemy of this beingness that freedom resides.
“Life beckons me. It whispers, it calls to me and in the end it screams at me. The scream of crisis or disease is often what will bring the rediscovery of what I am, for it is difficult to abstract suffering.”
Tony Parsons The Open Secret Shaftsbury: Open Secret Publishing, 1995 (Updated 2011)
NOTE: Tony Parsons describes The Open Secret as “a book declaring that enlightenment is a sudden, direct and energetic illumination that is continuously available. It is the open secret which reveals itself in every part of our lives. No effort, path of purification, process or teaching of any kind can take us there. For the open secret is not about our effort to change the way we live. It is about the rediscovery of what it is that lives”.
There is a world through my window. April has often been a magical month in my year, and 2020 need not be an exception. I link April with intensified and palpable greening, of soft sunsets at an attractive time of day. It is still happening out there and when I lose myself in the image it is happening in here too. Essentially there’s no difference. It is wonderful. of an evening, to follow the sunset process through its many stages of development.
I notice that, here in the UK, some attitudes to the current lockdown have been utilitarian to the point of puritanism. It is not enough for our behaviours to be safe in relation to Covid-19. They have to be ‘essential’, and it seems that essential activities can’t be tainted with any suggestion of idleness or pleasure. I can jog through a beauty spot, but I’m letting the side down if I sit down to rest or enjoy it – even if there’s no-one else around. This goes against everything we know about mental and emotional wellbeing, where such opportunities can be vital resources in the face of stress and depression.
I don’t like this and I am confident that I am right. Yet something in me has been influenced by this atmosphere and has started to feel that outdoors is a forbidden zone. When I do go out, I have to push against this and feel slightly transgressive. Of course, something else in me quite likes that, too. But it’s not the sort of enjoyment I’m really looking for, and I’m experiencing this whole cultural overlay – one that’s arisen so quickly – as saddening.
I like my home and garden and I can enjoy looking out through upstairs windows. I’m concerned that others don’t have this advantage and may be deprived of a vital safety valve. I am also aware that the lockdown has to work, especially since it was initiated later and more haltingly than the pandemic requires, and not in tandem with the testing and contact tracing that have been working well elsewhere. I understand the public policy difficulties in the place where we are.
One way or another, indoors or out, I will not miss out on the magic month of April and the merry month of May. After a rugged winter, I will open myself to nature’s change of energy.
In my part of the world, we have begun the greening of the year. But I can’t go out to meet it, or if so, only a little. I can’t go out, so I have to go in. In the greening of my contemplative life, a sense of ‘living presence’ has been the key.
My bespoke liturgy speaks to me and at times asks for change. A section of my morning practice, an affirmation of ‘at-homeness in the present moment’, wants to expand into a ‘celebration of living presence’. At-homeness stood for a place of safety and regeneration. ‘Living presence’ includes that and points to more. In the celebration, I affirm myself as ‘living presence in a field of living presence: here, now and home’. I’ve added a period of walking meditation (20 minutes or so), mindful to breath and footfall and also including liv-ing pres-ence as a mantra over two full breaths.
The Phrase ‘living presence’ came up spontaneously but realising that I didn’t actually make it up, I checked up on where I first came across it. It comes from the Sufi teacher Kabir Edmund Helminski (1). “Presence signifies the quality of consciously being here … the way in which we occupy space. Presence shapes our self-image and emotional tone. Presence determines the degree of our alertness, openness and warmth. Presence decides whether we leak and scatter our energy or embody and direct it”.
For Helminski, presence is also our link to the divine. since in the bigger picture it is “the presence of Absolute Being reflected through the human being. We can learn to activate this presence at will. Once activated, we can find this presence both within and without. Because we find it extending beyond the boundaries of what we thought was ourselves, we are freed from separation, from duality. We can then speak of being in this presence”.
My picture of leaves in light against a darker background is, for me, an image of living presence. It wasn’t intended to look like this, but I’m glad that it does. It said ‘living presence’ to me as soon as I saw it. Each leaf grows out of the tree and is extended by the light of the sun. All are enabled and nourished by ‘interbeing’, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s (2) reframe of ‘dependent origination’. But the elements of darkness and shade, whilst delineating the tree trunk, also suggest the mystery of a primordial nature, no-thing in itself yet making everything possible. The picture seems to be saying that the potential for greening is everywhere, outside and within.
(1) Kabir Edmund Helminski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992
(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017