contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: OBOD

‘ABOUT’ FOR 2020

A happy New Year to all readers, as we begin to navigate the 2020’s! May we find compassionate and creative ways to flourish in the days ahead.

As my contemplative inquiry evolves, I update the ‘About’ section for this blog. Below is my revision for the beginning of 2020.

“I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. I began my contemplative inquiry within modern British Druidry and my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

“Over time my inquiry became a wider exploration of contemplative spirituality, identified for a period as a Sophian Way. It drew on the enduring wisdom of many times and places and I came to experience it as a path of healing, peace and illumination. In particular, my inquiry identified an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment. Such at-homeness is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I have found that, for me, the realisation of this at-homeness has supported a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.

“The discovery of at-homeness emerged from an inward inquiry arc: noticing myself perceiving, making meaning, and finding a language to articulate my experience. Now I am on an outward arc. I am turning to a greater focus on relationships, community, culture, and the wider web of life. Druidry, as a modern eco-spirituality receptive to ancient wisdom, is renewing its importance in my life.”

REVISED ‘ABOUT’: INQUIRY UPDATE

In my spiritual life, inquiry is one of the disciplines. This is why my contemplative blog is called a ‘contemplative inquiry’. As inquiries run through cycles, and aims are in some sense achieved, my direction needs to be revised and updated. This means that revising the blog’s ‘About’ statement from time to time is a necessary part of the process. When I make revisions I try to make the history clear as well as indicating the new direction. Sometimes, like now, I also want to indicate the shift through posting the new ‘About’ to existing readers. This revision adds a third paragraph to an already existing two – and changes tenses a little in the second.

“I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. I began my contemplative inquiry within modern British Druidry and my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

“Over time this blog became a wider exploration of contemplative spirituality, and I identified my path as a Sophian Way. Drawing on the enduring wisdom of many times and places, I have experienced it as a path of healing, peace and illumination. It has encouraged a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.

“The most recent phase of my inquiry has been solitary and inward. It had to be. But now I sense a change. As my Sophian Way develops, I am becoming more attentive culture, community and the wider world. Here, the influence of Druidry, as an animist Earth spirituality, takes on a renewed importance. ”

REVISED AND EDITED FRIDAY 6 DECEMBER 2019

INTEGRATION

This is my grail image. I can see a chalice against a formless yet shape-creating background, or I can see two beings, with an enabling space between them. Two worlds; one image. Flicking rapidly between them, there comes a point where I can see them both, in the same place, at the same time.

I see the whole as an image of integration. Myth making just a little, I can point to a primal void, from which I am in no way separate, a cosmic mother, from whom I am distinct yet also in no way separate, and the birth of multiple individual forms of which I am one. With individuality comes otherness – and a world of connection/separation, community/exile, love/hate, joy/fear, generosity/contraction, conflict/co-operation, solidarity/predation. By integration I don’t here mean making the bad stuff go away, though efforts in that direction are immensely important. I am pointing, rather, to a capacity to hold all experience in presence and awareness: the deep experiential acceptance that all of the above, right up to void and creation, are happening here and happening now. They are the reality within which I awaken.

The Christian grail quest, which concerns the healing of the soul and its opening into spirit, partly evolved from older stories about the healing of the land, and maintains a wasteland motif. In Mahayana Buddhism enlightenment makes no sense if any sentient being is left behind. The modern Western Mystery tradition provides ways of bringing these stories together, with more of a tilt at this point in our history towards the collective dimension. I have written before that “for me the grail represents the presence and energy of Sophia”*, and has power for me on my Sophian Way. On this way, the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ work go hand in hand: these are in any case conventional and limiting terms.

I understand the future as demanding cultures of resilience. Because of that I am glad that I have retained a foothold in Druidry and Paganism, because I see them as cultures of possibility in this regard. My Sophian Way has been a personal one, arising unexpectedly within my Druid education, and given some scope for recognition because of the way my Druid education worked. It fits better into the OBOD community, with its Universalist opening and invitation to learn from all traditions, than into any Christian, Gnostic or New Age community that I know of.

Yesterday I made a symbolic re-connection with OBOD (for I had never really left) by taking out a subscription to its magazine Touchstone after a lapse. Here at least I can name the Sophian Way unequivocally as a Goddess devotion without going through flips and twists about what ‘divine feminine’ might mean. At the same time, the name Sophia does reference insights and influences from other traditions, including secular philosophy, as befits a Goddess of Wisdom. For me, this is another kind of integration, whose fruits will manifest over time.

NOVEMBER REFLECTIONS

In recent years, I have experienced November as a special month. Moving on from Samhain, it begins winter, and where I live it sees most of the fall. It is a reorientation towards darkness and inwardness. I began my contemplative inquiry, at first limited to OBOD, then to Druidry more widely, finally becoming universal, in November 2011 following a Samhain ritual.

I find November calmer than December, where I tend to feel jangled by the agitated dominance of capitalist consumerism and its appropriation of a Christian festival, itself the appropriation of a Pagan one. The old festivals had an offer for everyone, at least in principle. Now you have to have money to participate, and increasing numbers of people don’t. So I find December an awkward, uneasy time, a ‘festive season’ that, collectively, doesn’t quite ring true.

This sense of a problematic December has made the whole month of November special to me, and powerful for my inquiry. This year I have rejigged my daily practice and replaced a long morning session with shorter sessions in the morning and evening. In the morning I wake up and greet the day with a slightly ritualised (thanks to Druidry) set of exercises. Before going to bed I do a yoga nidra meditation, listening to an audio download. Both practices are grounded in what I would now call a sacrament of presence, and awareness that every experience points towards a source of being from which I am not separate. In this intersection of time and eternity I find my home. I don’t need special ‘spiritual’ experiences. This spirituality doesn’t require them: the work is to enhance my capacity to welcome any experience, including my resistance to negative ones, and find ways to respond. Hence I look to simple, regular practices that provide pragmatic benefits and also remind me of this core insight.

I find that the inquiry aspect of my contemplative inquiry is shifting its focus to personal life, relationships, culture and nature. What’s going on? How am I placed? How am I responding? What difference does my Sophian Way – with contemplative inquiry as its main expression – actually make? These are my November reflections for 2019.

BOOK REVIEW: SEEK TEACHINGS EVERYWHERE

This post is about Philip Carr-Gomm’s Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the specific topic and/or the development of modern spiritual movements more generally.

Elegantly and accessibly presented, the book testifies both to a personal journey and a key role in developing modern British Druidry. Both the journey and the role are an interweaving of Pagan and Universalist threads. PCG’s approach has been to adopt Druidry as a ‘meta-path’, one able “to transcend religious distinctions”, and allowing of involvement in other paths as well. The Jain path, shared with his Druid mentor Ross Nichols, is the one given the greatest individual attention in the book, in a long section on Druidry and Dharmic traditions. This section touches also on other Indian derived movements and practices (Buddhism, Yoga Nidra) and speculates on ancient cultural and linguistic resonances between early Indian traditions and early European Druidry. PCG dedicates other sections of the book to Christianity and Wicca, with suggestions about how they too can harmonise with Druidry.

This overall approach is reflected in the lived culture of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), which PGC has led for thirty years. He is now in a process of stepping down from the role, and so the book is a timely account of both vision and legacy. He says: “each spiritual way has gifts to offer, and some people find in Druidry all the spiritual nourishment they need. Others combine their Druidry with other approaches, such as Wicca, Taoism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism or Jainism”. OBOD’s ancestry as a movement derives from Celtic and Western Way currents within early twentieth century theosophy. The Order remains true to that heritage – as evidenced by a website that actively describes synergies with other paths and provides links to them – see www.druidry.org/ .

My personal takeaway from the book concerns PCG’s substantial presentation of Jain ethics, grounded in three key principles: ahimsa, aparigraha and anekant, here described as the Triple A. PCG explains: “Ahimsa is the doctrine of harmlessness or non-violence, made famous by Gandhi, and espoused by the other Dharmic traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism”. Aparigraha, the doctrine of non-attachment, non-possessiveness or non-acquisition, likewise appears in these other schools. Anekant, a doctrine of many-sidedness, multiple viewpoints, non-absolutism or non-one-sidedness, is unique to The Jains. The three principles can be seen as completing each other – with many-sidedness an aspect of non-violence and non-attachment, and so on.

PCG recommends these principles for our time. They inform his own vision of Druidry. “We know that the world suffers from too much conflict, too much fundamentalism, and too much consumption. This suffering can be alleviated by applying the Triple A doctrines: seeking non-violent solutions, respecting and learning from others’ opinions and beliefs, and reducing consumption to sustainable levels”. In the Jain tradition, such an approach to life is supported by practices of ritual and meditation that work towards the release of negative attachments. PCG recommends versions of these as well.

Part of the beauty of this book is that different readers will find different reasons to take note and learn from it. I have found it valuable both as an authoritative record of a current in modern Druidry, and as a personal inspiration.

Philip Carr-Gomm Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions Lewes, UK: Oak Tree Press, 2019 (Foreword by Peter Owen Jones)

SOPHIAN REMINISCENCE

For me, sacred images are sometimes filled with life and potency and sometimes not. The important ones  explode as gifts from the hinterlands of the psyche. They are intensely moving, perhaps shocking, certainly state altering. They may be nurturing and easy to welcome. They may be surprising and demand unlooked-for adjustments. Over time they may continue to be influential, changing and developing with me. They may become formal and emblematic – no longer living yet still anchoring insight. Eventually they may fade. Such images are not possessions. Attempts to grasp or hoard them do not work.

I call my path a Sophian Way. I have an icon of Sophia on my desk and I check in with her from time to time. It still feels authentic and makes sense to me. At the same time, I am aware of how much has changed since Sophia erupted into my life twelve years ago.

In the summer of 2007, I was immersed in my OBOD Druid studies. It was one of the few times in my life when I have cleared whole days for ritual work, and whole days for recovering afterwards. I found the work generating its own momentum, in some ways fulfilling the agenda of my course and in some ways pointing in a different-seeming direction. Images and dreams of dove feathers, either falling or lying on the ground – and then their actuality – became very prominent. Key images and ankh images were present as well.

The powerful dove imagery evoked Goddess associations from the Pagan tradition and Holy Spirit from the Judaeo-Christian one. To honour both, I found a reference in a modern Gnostic group ( www.thepearl.org/ ) that seemed to fit:

“Mortals have been created to dwell in the Garden of delights. … In the Garden stands the holy Tree of Life. High in its branches sings a bird. Listen to the voice of the bird, for when you are properly aligned with heaven and earth, she will tell you all things. … This bird or dove is also called Sophia”.

This felt like an authentic, and unifying, message for me because of its attitude towards the Garden. I as a human belong there. My belonging is not in question. There is one tree, the tree of life. The ‘knowledge’ aspect, such a disaster in mainstream Christianity, is very different here. There’s no apple to pick from the bough, but a bird who will sing to me. But something is expected of me, all the same, if I want to enhance my life and understanding. I am asked to align myself with heaven and earth. If I do this, I am assured that “she will tell you all things”. I don’t understand this as a discourse on metaphysics. I understand it as me listening in another key, listening to bird song in this metaphor, and so refining my sensitivity. For me, the imagery of the tree and the singing bird high in its branches is as resonant of a Shamanic or Pagan world view as it is of a Gnostic or Christian one. I do not have to choose.

The Pearl website turns to Joseph Campbell, a modern spokesman for the meaning of myth, on this point. He says: “people say that what we’re all seeking is the meaning of life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we are seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within out innermost being and reality … as we get to know our innermost being we receive the keys that open up a life that is truly Life, for it is everlasting”.

My own sense of the ‘Life everlasting’ doesn’t pre-suppose an afterlife, re-incarnation, or any other world. Eternity, if anywhere, is present in the now. The song of the bird represents a neurosomatic wisdom, not a cognitive one, of living connectedness within one stream of life.

What I like about this reminiscence is that I have been given a chance to renew my sense of Sophia by returning to source. The original work is well-documented, so I haven’t had to rely on memory. I had completely forgotten about the ‘Pearl’ group. I’m also glad that I’ve seen more than first time round in terms of the tree and birdsong. At the time, I just recorded the images and threw down the references. It has renewed my relationship to the Sophia image in the now.

For information about OBOD see

http://www.druidry.org/

POEM: RAPT FORM

FIRE upon Night the way flashing

Cove within Earth the seed receiving

South into North of us –

Eagle upon mountain and the light ascending

The Bowl of the daily dark descending

Stars beyond the shore of us

The Centre stays and the pattern fixes

The Centre moves and the diagram mixes

For many and more of us.

The Eye shines as the cast is shining

The Bowl gathers darkness as the shade is spreading

The Pentagram weaves its tent overheading

The stars and the Polestar turning and twining

Until the rotating of day.

O day and night O night of time

[the weft upon the warp of rhyme}

I backward step to the abyss

Where Form ends and Nothing is –

Where Nothing ends and All-Thing is.

Ross Nichols Prophet Priest and King: The Poetry of Ross Nichols Lewes: The Oak Tree Press, 2001 (Edited and introduced by Jay Ramsay)

“Ross Nichols, who was a contemporary of Eliot, and rated highly by many including Edwin Muir, was Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) until his sudden and unexpected death in 1975. An accomplished prose writer, essayist, editor and water colourist who exhibited at the Royal Academy, we can now see him as one of the ‘Apocalypse poets’ of the 1940’s As Chief of the Order from 1964, his contribution was substantial, re-introducing into modern Druid practice the Winter Solstice Festival and the four Celtic Fire Festivals, which he led at London and in Glastonbury.”(Book blurb)

For information about OBOD see http://www.druidry.org/

CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY REVISITED

I experience this season as one of endings, fruitions and threads of continuity. I’m looking back at Contemplative Druidry (1), self-published on 9 October 2014, and currently with sales of just under 1200 – mostly through Kindle.

For me, the book feels true to its moment, a time when the ‘contemplative’ meme was still relatively unfamiliar in Druidry, but where we had already had two years to explore and develop it. The book drew on the experience of a local group in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England and the thoughts of the Contemplative Druidry Facebook Group in its formative period. Much of it was about people and their feelings, thoughts, identifications and values in the process of development.

The book offered no teachings or collective community line about contemplative Druidry. But it did offer a picture of who was involved, where they stood and what they did. I identified a tentative consensus that Druid contemplative practice happened in three main ways: formal sitting meditations (both ‘pathworking’ and ‘mindful’); being in nature and walking the land; and the contemplative use of creative arts. Practice could be solo or in groups, and the book itself helped to develop templates for group sessions and day retreats.

To balance this anarchic approach to spiritual development, I was lucky enough to have a foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm, who leads the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), to which I belong. Instead of the expected few words, he sent me his beautiful and inspirational essay Deep Peace of the Quiet Earth: The Nature Mysticism of Druidry. A treasure in itself, it has a deepening effect on the book as a whole.

Although the contemplative project, as a project, is finished, I am glad to know that the notion of a contemplative aspect in Druidry is no longer controversial. Within a few hours of launching the Contemplative Druidry Facebook group in 2012, I was challenged by two influential people in the Druid world. Now it has over 2,000 members and no-one turns a hair. The contemplative meme is there to stay, for its time, until it fades out again. The third anniversary of Contemplative Druidry finds me content.

(1) James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/KDP, 2014

VIRTUES AND VOWS

Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers describes virtue ethics as the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity (1). To live a fulfilling and happy life, we need to install ways of understanding and being in the world that support our aim: these are the virtues. Specifically, he talks about the virtues of wonder, such as open-mindedness, curiosity, creativity; the virtues of humanity, such as care, courage, respect and generosity; and the virtues of integrity, like reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

The approach of the Buddhist inspired Center for Mindful Self-Compassion – https://centerformsc.org/ – is remarkably similar. The Center teaches a process for identifying “core values”, where we ask ourselves what values we embody that give our life meaning. Center suggestions resemble those of Brendan Myers, and include compassion, generosity, honesty, courage, family, loyalty, service, curiosity and nature. The designers of my Four Noble Truths course – https://learn.tricycle.org/ – are on a similar track. Stephen Batchelor says: “Buddha’s vision was centrally ethical. I’m not referring to the moral precepts here”, but rather a way of life in which “you try to become the person you aspire to be and try to create a world that you aspire to live in”. He says more about this in a series of podcasts taken from a seminar sponsored by the Western Chan Fellowship in Bristol, England on 4 March 2017 and available on YouTube.

I’ve been prompted to look again at my MSC course in June/July of this year. I found the work on vows very valuable and wrote about it in a blog post at the time – https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/making-personal-vows/ . I have developed them a little more. I continue to find the process of identifying core values very helpful. But in all cases I went straight to a ‘doing’ statement. I didn’t isolate nouns that nominate virtues. These, even words like love, courage and wisdom, can seem both static and vague. These are the vows:

  • May I honour and enjoy the gift of life – through sensation, feeling, thinking, and intuition
  • May I be loving and compassionate towards myself and others
  • May I experience abundance in simplicity
  • May I work for the welfare of all beings, using the loving forces that work from individual to individual, as well as supporting larger projects

In terms of organized spiritual movements, I find myself in a debatable zone between neo-Paganism and modern Buddhism. It’s just as well that both traditions have open borders, able to accommodate people who are not signed up. The four vows to myself are the product of multiple influences, as well as my inner sense of direction.  The first owes much both to C. G. Jung and to modern Druidry (especially OBOD – www.druidry.org -); the second to the Buddhist tradition; the third and fourth to all the above. In the last vow, I owe the piece about ‘using the loving forces that work from individual to individual’ to the late C19th/early C20th American psychologist William James at a time when he was fed up with public life.

These vows are a work in progress, and will guide me in my inquiry going forward.

(1). Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017 See also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-reclaiming-civilization/

 

REDEMPTION SONG

In December 2010, Swithin Fry interviewed me for Stroud FM Radio. The focus was my spiritual path, combining Druid and Buddhist aspects. A shortened version is available at the OBOD website (1). The format was a bit like Desert Island Discs, and interspersed with music. The first piece I chose was Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, and I drew attention to the lines:

“Emancipate yourselves

from mental slavery.

None but ourselves can

free ours minds.”

Astonished that nearly seven years seem to have passed, I listened to my CD of the broadcast again today. What I noticed was a lot of continuity yet some difference of emphasis. At that time, the Buddhist influence – though strongly affirmed – was a bit sketchy. It was clear to me that Buddhist contemplative methods were a means of freeing the mind and seeing reality more clearly, but I talked much more about Earth spirituality and about Bardistry. These too have power to free the mind.

I see Marley as a major Bard of his generation, with a resonance beyond Rastafarianism and the slave-descended African diaspora in the Caribbean and the Americas. What makes him a Bard for me is his ability to speak for more than himself, and to provide a voice for the voiceless. Or even not exactly voiceless, but for people needing to have their experience reflected for them in a more telling, more powerful way, articulated somehow more fully. If strong enough, the song can potentially resonate for everyone, including those outside the specific cultural experience and heritage being referenced.

This isn’t quite the conventional definition of Bardistry. But it does have the sense of a public and performance oriented art that can influence people’s view of themselves and their world in emancipatory and expansive directions. It contradicts shutting down, isolation and contraction. I could call it a Bardistry for postmodern times, when issues of social and cultural identity are complex and stressed. It’s not about pleasing Chiefs any more, and hasn’t been for quite a while.

This is a thread I haven’t much engaged with since I started to specialize in the contemplative aspects of the path. However, the issues aren’t separate: freeing ourselves from mental slavery is for me the theme that binds them. I am now more fully engaged with specifically Buddhist practices than for a long time. But listening to this broadcast again, I still identify myself as a Dharma Druid rather than Buddhist tout court.

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