Above, inside looking out. Below, outside looking in – with added reflections.
Below again, from a little further back, the full richness of a sunlit moment, in a particular time and place. For me, it becomes the image and feeling-tone of its day, and, later on, a soft thought in memory.
“Just as a wave doesn’t need to go looking for water, we don’t need to go looking for the ultimate. The wave is the water. You already are what you want to become. You are made of the sun, moon and stars. You have everything inside you.”
If I had authored the words above, they would be a clear statement of my stance as a modern Druid. In fact they were written by the Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who has spent the latter part of his life making Buddhism accessible to westerners. For me, this shows the wider resonance of his core understanding. Indeed he continues by using the language of a third tradition – the best known to most westerners – to develop his theme.
“In Christianity there is the phrase, ‘resting in God’. When we let go of all seeking and striving, it is as if we are resting in God. We establish ourselves firmly in the present moment; we dwell in the moment. We rest in our cosmic body. Dwelling in the ultimate doesn’t require faith or belief. A wave doesn’t need to believe it is water. The wave is already water in the very here and now.
“To me, God is not outside us or outside reality. God is inside. God is not an external entity for us to seek, for us to believe in or not to believe in. God, nirvana, the ultimate, is inherent in every one of us. The Kingdom of God is available in every moment. The question is whether we are available to it. With mindfulness, concentration and insight, touching nirvana, touching our cosmic body or the Kingdom of God, becomes possible with every breath and every step.”
Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Penguin Random House UK, 2017
A compassionate and discerning book, drawing on a wealth of experience and understanding. Highly recommended. Peter Russell sets the note of Letting Go of Nothing (1) with the sentence: “The call to let go lies at the heart of the world’s spiritual traditions”. He adds, “Not being attached to outcomes, surrendering desires, accepting the present, opening to a higher power, relinquishing the ego, practising forgiveness – all entail letting go”.
The book is arranged as a series of brief, accessible sections exploring different aspects of the theme. Letting go takes many forms, depending on context. Here, Russell is not primarily concerned with letting go of things, like books, houses, jobs or the grid. His focus is on letting go of fixed beliefs and being right; immutable perspectives on the past or inflexible expectations of the future; the mental/emotional weight of judgements and grievances; disabling attachment to toxic or lost relationships. “We are not letting go of things themselves as much as the way we see them. Hence the title of this book: Letting Go of Nothing. Or, as I sometimes like to put it, ‘Letting Go of No-Thing’.”
Some of the 41 sections that follow are autobiographical. A Change of Mind recalls how a change in perception made space for a change of heart in a close personal relationship. Some are more about method – Letting In and Letting Be deconstruct the widespread notion that letting go of something necessarily means getting rid of it. If we are holding on to a grievance, for example, we are advised to let the experience in and become more aware of its discomforts. Pain, including emotional pain, evolved to let us know that something is wrong. It needs our attention. There are times for ignoring it, but this is not sustainable as our only response.
What we can do is learn to distinguish pain from suffering. Much suffering stems from aversion to pain (physical, mental, emotional), creating a surplus layer of discomfort. To a greater or lesser extent, we can disperse this added level of stress and tension. The work is subtle. It includes a level of not resisting resistance itself, and always finding spaces and possibilities for a degree of inner peace and freedom. Peter Russell is not in the business of sudden transformational release, although this too is possible. His way has more to do with skilful, compassionate engagement with the stream of experience as it happens. It is the work of a lifetime. Sections on Letting Go of Feelings, Letting Go of Story, The Root of Suffering and Fall from Grace explore his core philosophy in more depth.
Some of the sections set out liberating values – Forgiveness, Kindness, Wisdom. Others describe spiritual principles and practices – Sat-Chit-Ananda, Reframing Enlightenment, The Path of No Path. Russell is committed to an understanding of the world that summons us to ‘the deep peace of our true nature’. Matthew Fox (2), in a review, sees a social-ecological dimension in this work. For him, Letting Go of Nothing is an affirmation that our species can “wake up to down-to-earth spiritual wisdom that all our religions, when healthy, call us to – keeping it simple, understandable, and effective so that we and the sacred planet we share might become sustainable once more”. This simple book offers guidance at many levels.
(1) Peter Russell Letting Go of Nothing: Relax and Discover the Wonder of Your True Nature Novato, CA: New World Library, 2021 (Foreword by Eckhart Tolle)
(2) Matthew Fox is the author of Creation Spirituality and Original Blessing. His championship of an earth inclusive spirituality and his denial of original sin led to his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church and move into the Episcopalian communion. His most recent book is Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic – and Beyond.
“Carl Jung coined the word synchronicity to refer to the remarkable coincidences most of us experience from time to time. They are remarkable in that they usually involve two or more unconnected events coming together in an unlikely way. These events seem to be more than coincidences, more than pure chance. They often seem like miracles, bringing us just what we need at just the right time, opening up new opportunities in our lives or supporting us in some other way.
” … The Maharishi, with whom I had the good fortune to study in India, explained this as ‘the support of nature’. When he wanted to assess how we were progressing in our practice, he was not interested in our experiences in meditation itself … he was more interested in whether we had noticed what he called ‘increased support of nature’. By this he meant, did we notice the world supporting our needs and intentions? That is to say, did we notice more synchronicity in our lives?
” … It might sound like magical thinking, but I’ve noticed that the degree of synchronicity in my life often reflects my state of conscious. When I meditate regularly, especially when I have been on a meditation retreat, life seems to work out well, with many little coincidences leading me to just what I need at the right time. It’s as if the Universe has my best interests at heart and arranges for their fulfilment in ways I could never have dreamed of.
“Conversely, when I’m stressed, not in touch with myself but caught up in worry or in some other way off-centre, synchronicities don’t flow so abundantly.
“Furthermore, synchronicities seem to happen more often when I’m engaged with the world. I can sit alone in a cottage in the middle of a forest, at peace and in touch with myself, yet few synchronicities occur. Significant ones nearly always involve other people in some way. It is as if my interplay with others gives cosmic choreography greater opportunities to reach me.
“Although we cannot make synchronicities happen – it’s in their nature to occur ‘by coincidence’ – we can encourage their occurrence. We can support nature by taking time to step back from our egoic thinking and reconnect with our essential being. Then, grounded in our true nature, we can go out and engage fully in the world. We can go out and play – play whatever game or role best fits our intentions and best serves our awakening, and that of others.
“And then enjoy, and perhaps marvel at, the way nature responds by supporting us.”
Peter Russell Letting Go of Nothing: Relax Your Mind and Discover the Wonder of Your True Nature 2021 http://www.newworldlibrary.com – (Foreword by Eckhart Tolle)
“Bow to your awkwardness. Kneel at the altar of your failures. Smile at your clumsiness. Befriend your incompetence. Laugh when you stumble and fall. These are all perfectly precious waves in the oceanic vastness of you.
“Perfection is unavailable in time, but found only in presence; the presence of imperfection makes you real, and relatable, and that’s perfect. You’ll be consistent when you’re dead. Until then, celebrate your silly old self, your marvelous inability to conform, or to live up to any image at all.
“Don’t bore yourself into a spiritual coma. Say the wrong thing, just for once. There is such freedom in allowing yourself to screw up, to be kind to your mistakes, to kiss the ground as you rise again, to adore the falling too.
“Don’t let your spirituality numb your humanity, your humility, and most important, your sense of humor.”
Jeff Foster The Way of Rest: Finding the Courage to Hold Everything in Love Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2016
My Druidry is an earth pathway and a nature mysticism – and it is more than that. It is concerned with recognising, and living from, a divine identity in a divine world. I practice a panentheist, non-dual, Druidry. But few of the mystical traditions known to history have fully held the two aspects together as one. Kashmir Shaivism, a form of traditional Indian Tantra, is an exception. Sally Kempton (1) explains.
“Rejecting the Vedantic view that the material world is illusory, an empty dream, the sages of Kashmir Shaivism saw all forms of the universe as manifestations of divine creative energy, of Shakti, the dynamic female principle. They worshipped Shakti in themselves, in the earth, and in every substantial and insubstantial thing, and they looked for the pulsing heart of divine bliss within all domains of experience. Astute seekers of the tradition knew innumerable pathways for uncovering the experience of the divine. They knew how to extract it from states like terror or pleasure or in the high point of a sneeze; the knew how to find the pulsation of ecstasy in empty space, in fixed attention, and in the sensations that come from swaying or twirling, or enjoying music or the taste of food.
“But the crucial insight of Shaivism is the recognition that when human consciousness lets go of its identification with the body and reflects back on itself, it is revealed as a perfect, if limited, form of the supreme ‘I’, which is God. By expanding their own I-consciousness beyond its limits, past its tendency to cling to narrow definitions of itself, yogis of the Shaivite path experienced God as themselves.
“Because they saw the world as divine, the Shaivite yogis of Kashmir had no difficulty enjoying life in all its different flavors. In this they differed from their Vedantic cousins and from the Madhyamika Buddhists who inhabited the same region of India. Shaivism was not a traditional renunciate’s path. Abhinavagupta (975-1025 CE), the preeminent genius of the tradition, was not only a philosopher and a widely revered guru but also an aesthetician, and artist and musician, and the center of a circle where sensory experience – including art, music and drama – was constantly being transmuted into yoga.
“It is this insight – that a serious practitioner of yoga does not reject their world, but instead transforms daily experience through their practice – that sets Kashmir Shaivism apart from many Indian yogic traditions, and has made this system particularly resonant for our time.”
(1) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011
“To have a perspective, a sense of Being has to be there first.
Is there any perspective if there is no sense of Beingness or sense of aliveness?
That same aliveness underlies every perspective.
The Questions – Does it help? Is it of value? –
are questions which people will have their own perspective on.
So, a wordless experience of being that is available to turn to 24/7,
not dependant on a particular feeling, thought or perspective,
All of which come and go.
Not being an attainment
it is not dependent on effort
but when consciously noticed
it is constant and obvious.”
These words from Steve Palmer of the Headless Way summarise my learning from that family when crafting a contemplative Druidry through my inquiry process. The noticing he talks about towards the end is at the centre. Everything else radiates out, re-visioned by the noticing.
I have already written about the Dancing Seahorses image (1) found on a Pictish stone from Aberlemno in the Scottish county of Angus. After seeing the stone on a visit there, in 1992, I bought Marianne Lines’ painting. I have felt strongly involved with this image ever since. I think of it as a friend and guide. In a sense, this post is about the modern use of archaic images by people, like Druids, who are drawn to them.
I do not know the intentions of the original carver. beyond celebrating beings who are half of this world, half of the otherworld, and who embody powerful water energies for Celtic peoples on the Atlantic coasts of Britain, Ireland and Brittany in ancient times. They are remembered in folklore to this day. I do know that the carving made a strong impression on me, when I first saw it on the stone itself. It stayed in my imagination, and over time has deepened and grown new meanings.
Four years after acquiring the painting, I had the image tattooed on each arm. By that time I knew of the way in which it had influenced the cover design for R. J. Stewart’s The Prophetic Vision of Merlin (2). This variant form was used to refer to the story of the young Merlin at Vortigern’s subsidence prone tower in Snowdonia, prophesying his way out of becoming a human sacrifice, and identifying two contending dragons under the foundations. In the book illustration, there is a yin-yang reference, with a suggestions of interdependent primal forces, each of which already contains the seed of the other, seeking balance and alignment. In the Western Mysteries quest for healing and transfiguration, the energy bodies of the land and of humans are deeply interwoven.
There is another, more recent level of understanding, that I derive from the painting and tattoos, but not evident in The Prophetic Vision of Merlin. I see both the dancing seahorses and a second image, behind and containing the immediately apparent one. As I wrote before, “the space where the horses legs are raised defines a shape, suggesting a head. The very emptiness there is a paradoxical mark of presence. To me it became the head of a goddess, with the seahorses then becoming her body. Still clearly appearing as a water being, her arms – if they are arms – are raised in blessing”. I would now add that in this way, she demonstrates the dance of emptiness and form. They are balanced. Neither is privileged over the other. The Celtic knot points both to interconnection and infinity.
I identified the Goddess whilst gazing directly at the original Dancing Seahorses picture, which hangs of a wall directly above my altar. However I believe I received a subconscious nudge from the High Priestess card in The Druidcraft Tarot (3). She wears the image herself. Her hands are raised. She stands as the Goddess. In the Druidcraft narrative, she “represents the magical power of stillness and depth”. For me, the Goddess in Dancing Seahorses represents the ultimate union of emptiness and form, and the rebirth of the cosmos in each moment. Her representation combines the aware potential of the void and a primal aquatic generativity that can inhabit other elements. The Druidcraft priestess is human, but one who wears an image that bespeaks the divine to me, and her role asks for “stillness and depth”.
In my work, the entry into stillness and depth is, firstly, to enter into I-Thou communion with the primal Goddess (Modron) and then to recognise my own true nature, as (mythically) her divine child (Mabon) – sensitive and busted open to the world. This recognition becomes a prayer of gratitude and a surrender of my passing private concerns to Who I really am.
Words and pictures are not enough, but, cherished and contemplated lovingly over time, together they can point the way..
I am feeling more at home in a number of ways. A much loved view through a bedroom window is enough. I can look out and lose myself, holding an image both of continuity and change as the seasons move. One way in which I experience the year is in two halves. Beltane initiates the summer half of a two season year, with Samhain beginning winter.
I often find the extended six months ‘winter’ to be productive for my contemplative inquiry. In the six months now about to end, I have completed an important shift, a shift that reframes an inquiry insight dating from 2018. At that time I said: “I discovered an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment, which nourishes and illuminates my life. Such at-homeness is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given.”
My view then was that it is best to steer away from metaphysical commitments, as the Buddha is said to have done. “At-homeness in the flowing moment” could work as a dignified existential choice for a humanist, an agnostic or a person with a stance of ‘sustainable nihilism’ (1). It could also work for people firmly based in contemplative versions of monotheist and polytheist spiritual traditions. Indeed it could work for anyone and would be blissfully light on doctrine and opportunities for argument and dissension.
That said, whist still fully embracing the original insight, I now find it incomplete. I have for some time been filled with the sense of a living cosmos, in a way that cuts across the grain of the culture I come from, with its parsimonious definition of ‘life’. I am animist in sharing Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of ‘Interbeing’, where everything is interconnected and nothing is really born, lives or dies in a state of separate selfhood (2). Life just changes. Now I have taken to heart the sense that the life which changes has a Source, or ground of Being, in which the whole web of life is embedded.
Hence I am human and I am also that ground of Being. Being cannot be found as an object, but I can apprehend Being in two ways. One is by looking in and finding my primordial and true nature in and as Being. The second is by looking out and finding Being everywhere and in everything. In each case, the inside/outside distinction finally dissolves. Humanly, I am distinct but not separate from Being, temporarily individuated in the world of space and time, as is everything else in this world. At the deepest level, as Being, I am no thing and yet present in and as everything.
I have reached a commitment to this view partly as a result of contemplative inquiry and partly as an act of faith, trusting my deepest understanding. In the wider world, this understanding is called ‘non-dual’ or ‘panentheist’. It is neither demonstrable nor falsifiable as a proposition, and I continue to appreciate that the map is not the territory. All words feel somehow wrong, just as the Tao Te Ching warns when it begins with “the name you can say isn’t the real name” (3). Yet Lao Tzu persisted with his writing, and gave the world one of its most loved scriptures. From time to time, the effort with language has to be made.
Modern movements (4,5) have made the experiential recognition of our true nature, or ultimate divinity, available to ordinary people through skilful means developed for our time. I have made connections with such movements, but I still anchor myself in Druidry. Humanly, a conscious I-I relationship with Source, or dwelling in and as Source, is not everything to me. I am drawn, too, to I-Thou relationship, honouring a devotional need that wants to be expressed. The Indian sages who first developed non-duality as a spiritual philosophy did not challenge or abandon the flourishing polytheism of their culture. They continued the practice of deity yoga. It serves the dance of being and becoming in this world. This, I believe, is the role of the Goddess in my life (6). I have much still to learn here. Meanwhile my at-homeness grows stronger.
This post follows on from my recent post on Patterns and Peace (1). There, I discussed the role of ritual patterning in a sunrise practice. Here, I discuss the role of meditation in a sunset one. In both cases I experience peace as an active energy – empowering, nourishing, and close to the Source.
In the evening I do not cast a circle. I simply sit down facing my altar and say: May there be peace in the seven directions. May I be present in this space. I say the Druids’ prayer, affirming the commitments to a love of justice and the love of all existences. I see them as the necessary context for the manifestation of true peace in the world.
I talk myself in to the meditation itself with other words customised from Druid tradition: Deep in my innermost Being, I find peace. Silently, in the stillness of this space, I cultivate peace. Abundantly, within the wider web of Being, may I radiate peace.
Starting with a focus on my heels, extended to include my feet as a whole, I tune in to my felt sense of body and life energy. Moving gradually up my body, I pay close attention to my emerging experience of a physical and energetic field, which I find to be light and spacious. I also notice the breath. Surrendering to this universe of internal experience, I can enter an awareness of deep peace, joy, and wonder at the miracle of experiencing. This is beyond ‘At-Homeness in the flowing moment’. I call it the Peace of the Goddess.
Coming out of meditation, I say I give thanks for this meditation. May it nourish and illuminate my life. May there be peace in the seven directions. May I be capacity for the world.
I do not meditate for long periods. This whole practice, including liturgy and meditation, takes about half an hour. The phrase ‘capacity for the world’ uses the language of the Headless Way (2) and indicates that if we enter into our true nature as clear awake space, we become, in our everyday lives, ‘capacity for the world’. The meditation is both the experience that it is, and a resource for life and contribution to the world.
I have done meditations of this kind for many years. Recently, this meditation has become richer and more focused. I believe this to be partly due to practice and partly to the season – I find both equinoxes enabling for meditation. But there is also the benefit of increased understanding. I am grateful to Eckhart Tolle, whose work I have begun to engage with, when he says: “What I call the ‘inner body’ isn’t really the body any more but life energy, the bridge between form and formlessness … When you are in touch with the inner body, you are not identified with your body any more, nor are you identified with your mind. … You are moving away from identification to formlessness, which we may also call Being. It is your essence identity”.