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)
Alan Watts (1) describes Taoism as the ‘watercourse way’. For him, this ancient philosophy is “a skilful and intelligent following of the course, the current, and grain of natural phenomena – seeing human life as an integral feature of the world process, and not something alien and opposed to it.” It is a point of view that I find of direct relevance to modern Druidry, nature spirituality and ecosophy. (2)
The ancient Taoists themselves said that “true goodness is like water. Water’s good for everything. It doesn’t compete. It goes right down to the low loathly places, and so finds the way”. (3)
Alan Watts continues (1): “Looking at this philosophy with the needs and problems of modern civilisation in mind, it suggests an attitude to the world which must underlie all our efforts towards an ecological technology. The development of such techniques is not just a matter of the techniques themselves, but of the psychological attitude of the technician”.
A detached attitude of objectivity is inadequate for solving the problems we face. Subject and object cannot be separated, for “we and our surroundings are the process of a unified field, which is what the Chinese called Tao”. We have no alternative but to work along with this process by attitudes and methods which could be as technically effective as “judo the ‘gentle Tao’ is effective athletically”. Watts reminds us that human beings have to make the gamble of trusting one another to make any kind of workable community, and concludes that “we must also take the risk of trimming our sails to the winds of nature. For our ‘selves’ are inseparable from this kind of universe, and there is nowhere else to be.”
(1) Alan Watts Tao: the Watercourse Way Souvenir Press: undated Amazon Kindle edition (with the collaboration of Al Chung-Liang Huang ; additional calligraphy by Lee Chih-chang)
(2) Arne Naess Ecology of Wisdom UK: Penguin Books, 2016 (Penguin Modern Classic. First published 2008)
(3) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Power and the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)
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.
April growth, when it gets going, is abundant and exuberant. When the days are clear and warm and anticipate summer, I feel a surge of celebration. We are, at last, moving in the direction of Beltane and the merry month.
Since I last wrote, I have recovered my pleasure in outdoor walking. My body’s wish to be outdoors and moving, enjoying the gifts of the season, is stronger than any doubt or anxiety. My pleasure in taking pictures, for the last six months integral to my walks, is part of this. I am glad that my essential phone incorporates a conceivably non-essential camera.
I took the picture above specifically because it shows the lovingly cultivated flower bed in my local public park. This flower bed, and the park itself, exist to be seen and enjoyed, without any entrance charge, by anyone who wants to be there. They are examples of a highly pro-social resource. As we move towards an uncertain future, I hope that we continue to value such spaces, and take collective care to preserve them.
This morning, looking at the news, I see my view supported affirmed by current research. “Meredith Williams, a postdoctoral fellow at the London School of Economics’s school of geography and environment, said access to green space was vital to public health. ‘Even before the pandemic, there was an increasing focus on research on the physical and mental benefits of green space. Having access to nature gives us a sense of calmness and tranquillity … that helps with reducing the stress that comes especially from urban living'” (1). The context is rumours of enhanced lockdown in London’s parks, where the residents of poorer boroughs have less access both to private gardens and public parks, putting more pressure on the public spaces that do exist.
Yesterday I found Stratford Park in Stroud almost deserted, its carefully tended flower beds unobserved and unenjoyed. For me, publishing this picture honours the work of its gardeners. Their creativity deserves to be recorded and shared, both for what it is, and what he stands for, as the wheel of 2020 continues to turn.
(1) Guardian 11 April 2020 Coronavirus park closures hit BAME and poor Londoners most
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.
I began closely following the wheel of the year – not only the festivals – just before the winter solstice. I wrote then that “my current warm up process is already changing the way I think and feel about contemplative inquiry and will re-shape how I do it”*. How has the first quarter been?
I’ve been outside, taking pictures, concerned with visual images and the stories they tell. There’s been some tension between communing with nature and being a self-conscious observer, actively selecting images. But on the whole it works. Taking pictures slows down my walks, opening up opportunities for stillness and mindful micro movement. Special moments come by themselves – or not. In sharing my experience, the process offers the opportunity to show as well as tell.
The quarter has been very wet – the picture above, taken on 15 March – shows a continuing abundance – to the point of excess – of water. It is beautiful and entirely natural, but for me also part of a story of times out of joint, and the increasing impact of the climate crisis. The picture below, also taken on 15 March, adds to this story in two ways. One is the suggestion of dank fecundity in the abundance of moss on a branch. The second is the indication of a lost branch from the same tree. High winds have caused considerable destruction in the woods in my neighbourhood. In both pictures, there are cues for appreciation and tranquillity, whilst also an indication that significant other things are going on. My current approach to contemplative inquiry has helped me to notice this and pay greater attention to it than I might otherwise have done.
The second quarter of the year will be different. I have self-isolated in response to Covid-19 though I am still going out on walks. I am likely to double down on contemplative practice and inquiry at home. I strongly believe in contemplative practice as, among other things, a resiliency factor in personal wellbeing, enhancing my experienced quality of life. I will talk more about this in future posts.
In my world, early March is a pre-equinoctial period of its own. In the emergence from winter, it manifests both resilience and regeneration. This year I have experienced an elephant’s ears plant (bergenia cordifolia) as an marker for resilience. This evergreen lives close to our back garden gate. It has been flowering, and it leaves have kept shiny, for most of 2020 so far. It has given me a lift every time I have walked past it, in all manner of weather. I feel grateful to it just for being there.
Why have I noticed it this year in particular? In the past I’ve taken this plant for granted. I’ve walked past without seeing it. I’ve only paid attention when the leaves need pruning, having strayed onto a path. Yet now this plant feels like a friend and nourishes me with its presence. It doesn’t just demonstrate its own resilience. It supports mine. I’ve been experiencing 2020 as tough and likely to stay that way, so I suppose that something in me has been looking for ways of feeling resilient. As a result, I’ve been able to notice something that’s been there all along, though largely neglected.
As well a resilience, I’ve been having a sense of regeneration, though the dynamics are a little different. One difference is that I expect to be leaning into regeneration at this time because it’s part of my wheel of the year narrative. I also expect it to be linked to the presence of willow trees (see picture below) because I befriended one many years ago. I have stayed in touch even after moving to a different town. The early re-greening of willow trees is part of my direct experience, and also part of my myth. It feels as if I am being taken by the hand and led towards the equinox.
I don’t want to get there prematurely. A patient, attentive journey emphasises the freshness and novelty of each year. I took the photograph below a couple of days ago on impulse, and it felt like a nudge into a process of renewal that I don’t want to undertake too quickly and don’t want to make assumptions about. Regeneration happens. Although I’m starting to feel my age, I’m still part of it. Let’s see how it goes in 2020.
Reblog of a recent Druid Life post, about the turning of the Wheel in the Stroud district of the English Cotswolds, and the way it is being influenced by the climate crisis. “It feels too early. I’d expect the fruit trees to start flowering around now, but there are leaves unfurling on a number of trees as well – most notably the elders in the more sheltered spots. I can remember springs when there were very few leaves until April and one year, May. Spring did not […]