A familiar sight at this time of year: a family of swans, adolescent cygnets with their parents. A superficial glance at the picture gives me a satisfying sense of near completion, of an annual cycle showing its results. It is a still image, literally a snapshot. Nothing in it can change.
Yet when I took the photo, the swans were highly mobile, constantly shifting their relative positions while sometimes gliding elegantly along the canal and sometimes pausing to investigate its banks. I also foresaw their likely passage through a more extended time. Soon enough, the cygnets will be grown up and on their own. A new beginning enabled by an ending.
I live in southern England, where daylight hours have begun noticeably to shorten. Lughnasadh (Lammas) marks the beginning of August. This festival initiates a quarter that moves through the autumn equinox and ends at Samhain. These three months embrace decline, decay and eventually death, whilst also celebrating grain and fruit harvests and (in past times) the culling of livestock to see us through the winter. The themes belong together.
I treasure this attunement to cycles of time. Part of my contemplative life rests in the timeless. Another part, more worldly, enriches my experience of time. By contrast mainstream western culture characterises time as a limited resource to be measured and priced; to be ‘spent’ productively and not ‘wasted’. The phrase ‘time is money’ comes to mind. This time hurtles onwards like a runaway train into a future always packaged as better, even redemptive, but now looking increasingly dystopian.
But any time we can know is a matter of human perception, and therefore malleable. There are, and have been, many ways for humans to live in time. For me, living the cyclical time of the eightfold wheel of the year, widely practised in Druid and Pagan culture, continues to be a re-enchanting experience.
For me, the skilful patterning of experience provides a gateway to re-enchantment. It reminds me that there are multiple ways of seeing the world, some obvious and others more occluded. The early morning can be a time of affirmation through ritual patterning that makes a mark on the day.
Mine begins with a morning circle which emphasises peace. Peace, here, is an active energy, not a passive absence of overt conflict, or a blind eye to dysfunction and injustice. Peace has to struggle, in this world, through skilful means that do not compromise its essence. Ritual can be one. I describe my morning circle below.
I go into my practice space, stand in the east facing west, ring my Tibetan hand bells and say the St. Patrick’s prayer (aka Cry of the Deer).
I arise today through the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendour of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth and firmness of rock.
Then I cast a Druid circle, calling on the four directions, each associated with a cosmic power, an element, a power animal, a quality, a time and a season.
East: May there be peace in the east, power of life, element of air, domain of the hawk, quality of vision, time of sunrise, season of spring and early growth.
South: May there be peace in the south, power of light, element of fire, domain of the dragon, quality of purpose, time of midday, season of summer and of ripening.
West:, May there be peace in the west, power of love, element of water, domain of the salmon, quality of wisdom, time of sunset, season of autumn and bearing fruit.
North: May there be peace in the north, power of liberation, element of earth, domain of the bear, quality of faith, time of midnight, season of winter, of dying and regeneration.
I also call the Below, the Above and the Centre, to make seven directions in all. Moving to the vertical dimension indicates a deepening, enacted by my spinning in place before bringing it in, and by the use of mythic names for the Below and Above.
Below: May there be peace below, in Annwn , realm of the the deep earth and underworld.
Above: May there be peace above, in Gwynvid, realm of the starry heavens.
This is followed by a further deepening into the centre, enacted through another spinning in place. Here, I am no longer calling for peace, but standing in its source.
I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence. Awen (chanted as aah-ooo-wen)
After a pause, I walk the circle, sunwise, east to east, and say I cast this circle in the sacred grove of Druids. May there be peace throughout the world. At this point I have established my sacred grove, my nemeton. All that follows is within this dedicated space until I uncast the circle on completion of my practice.
This ritual patterning, made substantial both physically and verbally, includes a celebration of sacred nature, provides a structure and a set of meanings to hold and guide me, and emphasises the commitment to peace.. Although I have personally customised this framework, most of it – anything to do with personality and external world – anchors me in modern Druid culture.
The centre is different. The centre is universal. It is the point where Oneness is recognised. “The bubbling source from which I spring” has a naturalistic feel whilst also referencing Jean-Yves Leloup’s translation of the Thomas Gospel, logion 13, where Yeshua says to Thomas: “I am no longer your master, because you have drunk , and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring” (1). ‘Heart’, as used here, is neither the physical heart nor the heart chakra, but “the Great Heart that contains All-that-is … the consciousness that underlies all forms” (2). ‘Living presence’ too points to the state of underlying conscious awareness that is here being recognised (3,4). For ritual language that honours that recognition, I draw on the mystical inheritance of the world and place myself in a wider circle of care.
At one time I tended to experience casting circles as a preliminary to practice, whilst also ‘knowing’ in a roof-brain kind of way that this was a mistake. Now I find it a powerful means of bringing me into the new day. Above all, it affirms my core understanding of world and life with every sunrise.
(1) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005
(2) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011
(3) Kabir Edmund Kabinski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, 1992
(4) Eckhart Tolle Oneness with All Life: Awaken to a Life of Purpose and Presence Penguin Random House UK, 2018 (First ed. published 2008)
Book review of Savage Grace: Living Resiliently in the Dark Night of the Globe, by Andrew Harvey and Carolyn Baker. The book has a U.S. centre of gravity and was written in the early months of 2017, triggered by Donald Trump’s assumption of the presidency.
The ‘dark night of the globe’ refers to an increasing risk of a wrecked biosphere (including human extinction) through runaway climate change or nuclear war. In such a scenario, resilience is a key quality demanded of us. They authors define this as a ‘life-giving ability to shift from a reaction of denial or despair to learning, growing and thriving in the midst of challenge’. The emphasis of this book is as much on essential psycho-spiritual resourcing as it is on direct political action. The authors see these as belonging together, recommending a staged strategy of reconnection, resistance, resilience and regeneration to its readers.
‘Reconnection’ is much like the ‘re-enchantment’ we talk about in Druidry. It is a response to disconnection from “our sacred inner wisdom, from all other living beings as a result of our delusional belief in separation, and from Earth and the reality that we are not only inherently connected with Earth, but, that in fact, we are Earth”.
‘Resistance’ is, first, about discerning “the nature of the myriad enemies of the mind, body and spirit with which we are being confronted in the current milieu” and to learn how to stand for “transparency and integrity in the face of massive assaults on our fundamental humanity”.
‘Resilience’ needs to be cultivated physically, emotionally and spiritually as an “essential life skill” in the face of increasing dangers and uncertainties in our communities and world.
‘Regeneration’ is about committing “to living lives of regeneration in all stages, even in what could be the terminal one”. If humanity is destined to vanish, “what matters most is not the outcome of our efforts, but rather, our inmost intention”.
Savage Grace is built around five main chapters. The first, Kali Takes America, explores the image of a country archetypally possessed by the dark side of the destroyer/creator goddess. Here ‘reconnection’ is about finding transformative possibilities within this predicament. The adoption of Savage Grace as the title owes something to this. Here the authors cite the work of Vera de Chalambert, which can also be found on https://youtube.com/results?search_query=vera+de+chalambert+kali/
The second chapter, Resisting the Modern Face of Fascism in the Age of Trump contains most of the social and political analysis offered in this book. It usefully draws on a 14-point list, devised by Umberto Eco in the 1990’s. on what ‘Fascism’ can be usefully thought to mean, and what makes it dangerous and wrong, given that it will look different in every incarnation, depending on time and leadership. (Eco grew up under Mussolini.) For strategies of resistance, they draw on Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough*, already published by the time Savage Grace was completed.
The remaining chapters are entitled Living Resiliently Amid Global Psychosis; Regeneration: the Legacy of Love in Action; and Celebrating Reconnection, Resistance, Resilience and Regeneration. These explore the building of psycho-spiritual resources at the personal, interpersonal and collective levels, and can be successfully accomplished only by looking at our own shadow sides. Otherwise we simply project them on to our opponents.
Savage Grace is written with urgency by authors who have been addressing its core themes for many years. I highly recommend it to anyone who acknowledges the personal and political, inner and outer, mundane and spiritual realms as facets of one interconnected life. No convenient compartmentalizing here. Savage Grace is a document for our historical moment. It asks readers to reflect on where we stand and how we are responding.
Andrew Harvey and Carolyn Baker Savage Grace: Living Resiliently in the Dark Night of the Globe. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2017 . (Foreword by Matthew Fox)
In an earlier post (1) I began a discussion about personal vows, and how they support of our flourishing. The key is to identify specific intentions about how we want to live, to declare them and then to work with them. In this context, it is important that they are personal and not connected to a third party or cause. We decide them for ourselves. We interpret them ourselves. We monitor them ourselves. It is an inner authority that gives them their power.
Later (2) I discussed the ancient Greek concept of ‘virtue ethics’ as a rationale for this approach. I would probably not use this label for myself. Modern English gives ‘virtue’ as slightly pious and solemn ring. It suggests the possibility of presenting an inauthentic front, not present in the earliest understandings. These concerned crafting a life with self-awareness and cultivating desired qualities and skills. The emphasis is on process and practice
In both posts I described personal work using this method. I have now completed a set of five vows, which for me seems like the maximum to work with. They are notes to myself as I move through time and chance, enough to set directions, but not enough to regulate specific conduct in specific situations. The core idea is to improve my own quality of life and that of others.
May I be mindful, open hearted and creative
May I honour and enjoy the gift of life, in my sensing, 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 through supporting larger projects
I believe in these vows, whilst knowing that I will not fulfil them all the time, or in the fullest measure. Yet I do expect them to make a difference. I have already opened myself to continuous learning about what the key value words mean in practice. How do I recognize, in sensory, behavioural and social terms: my mindfulness, open heartedness, creativity, honouring, enjoyment, love, compassion, abundance, simplicity and welfare?
If I am not actively in process with them, these words can fade into pompous rhetoric. Worse still, they could become ammunition in a form of virtue signaling. Meanings themselves may vary in different contexts, and one aspect of ‘creativity’, will be sensitivity to different circumstances, and flexibility within them.
I have been working with personal vows for a couple of months now, long enough to get used to the process and develop what seems like the full set using the best language. Although these vows draw on my life in both Druid and Buddhist settings, they are personal. I do not see them as belonging either to a Druid or a Buddhist path. They are about mindful living in a re-enchanted world They are my personal guide on how to flourish.