contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: shamanism

BOOK REVIEW: MERLIN

Elen Sentier’s Merlin Once & Future Wizard is a marvel, highly recommended. The author effortlessly charms us into a fresh and extended understanding of Merlin, introducing us to a “huge, ancient, wise and powerful” being –  teacher, trickster and friend. For me, her introductory Who Is Merlin? chapter offers the best description of the essential Merlin I have ever read.

“Merlin is a liminal being. Liminal means a threshold, a place between past and future, between here and there, between one world and another … and he is always standing at that threshold. He is that place. And that ever-changing constant threshold is now, the here-and-now, and it’s constantly in motion like the sea”. Merlin teaches us, if we are willing, to “be continuously and consciously aware that you stand in the middle of change all the time, whatever is going on”. This is a lifelong learning. It cannot be hurried, and it cannot be branded or packaged.

Happily, however, it can be pointed towards, “if you can find someone who knows Merlin intimately and is willing to walk beside you on your journey to know him – and there are quite a few of us about if you look … You don’t feel alone, and they help you stop that nasty subliminal feeling that you really are nuts.”

Elen Sentier walks beside us to great effect. She has known Merlin since early childhood, when she joined the company of walkers-between-the-worlds, which means having a foot in the everyday world at the same time as having the other foot in the otherworld. She describes herself both as “an ordinary elderly woman” and an “awenydd”, or spirit-keeper in the old Brythonic tongue.

For readers who are new to Merlin, the book takes care to cover Merlin in history, stories and poetry – and even adds (for me at least) new material from the Welsh Marches in the chapter Pig Moor: Dyfrig, Ergyng and Mynydd Myrddin. But the greatest strength of Merlin Once & Future Wizard is the personal sharing interwoven with this traditional lore, showing how the author’s own relationship with Merlin has unfolded. At heart this book is a personal testament to a life lived under Merlin’s influence and inspiration. The effect is to give it added weight and authenticity, supported rather than undermined by an informal and chatty style.

Elen Sentier Merlin once & future wizard: Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2016 (Pagan Portals series)

SOPHIA, GNOSTICISM AND CONTEMPLATION

When I wrote Contemplative Druidry I said that “in many ways this is a story of neo-Pagan sensibility and its growth since World War Two”. In addition to their Druidry, many of the book’s contributors reported involvement in Witchcraft and/or the indigenous Shamanism of other lands.

I also said in many cases this sensibility was modified by other influences, “most notably Buddhist philosophy and meditation, Christian mysticism and other Western Way paths with Gnostic and Hermetic traditions specifically mentioned”. I made the point that such influences are significant for contemplative practice, because to an extent they provide models. In the book I mostly focused on Buddhist influences, because they were the most common. I also paid  attention to the Christian ones, notably the Ceile De, Anglican mysticism in the tradition of Evelyn Underhill, and the partly Franciscan inspiration behind the (Druid and Pagan) Order of the Sacred Nemeton. I didn’t say much about other Western Way traditions, though I mentioned R. J. Stewart as a personal influence on me and also my training at the London Transpersonal Centre. This was essentially Jungian and thus based on a modern Gnostic psychology.

The key images from my last post, Sailing to Byzantium, were images of Sophia and the Holy Fool from The Byzantine Tarot. They made an intense and (in common sense terms) disproportionate impact on me. For they reminded me of my own Gnosticism, a current that qualifies and modifies my Druidry. I am talking about modern Gnosticism, “based in an affirmation of nature and the world and a positive relationship to embodiment, not the classical Gnosticism of world-denial or pure transcendentalism.  It is a gnosis based on bringing the world fully to life, while also enjoying the state of embodiment and sensual pleasure, without excess or obsessive appetite”*.  Thus far, I could be talking about modern Druidry without any need to look elsewhere.

But, to follow Irwin further, Gnosticism also talks of “visionary awakening” through the power of archetypal imagery. From such a perspective, affirmation of the world also requires an affirmation of the World-Soul as “the primary ground of a living and animate nature”. This can inspire “states of unity and participation in the creative founding of human experience”. The key is the “animating vitality” of images, which can arouse “a cascade of energy and potential surpassing the image and leading into a more luminous condition of being and seeing”.

According to Irwin, the traditional fields for study and practice in Western Gnosticism are neo-Platonism, hermetics, alchemy, kabbalah, mystical theology, comparative theology and meditative disciplines: quite a curriculum. But the essence is quite simple. We are invited to work with Being as embodied (through exercise, body awareness and energy work), imaginal (connected to the mundus imaginalis, open to its power) and illuminated (through contemplative practice and insight).  Much of this is offered within Druidry – for example, to anyone who takes full advantage of the OBOD distance learning course. Yet for me, here and now, once again, it is the image and name of Sophia that gives me my orientation and guides me on my path. I’ll explain that resonance and consequences more fully in later posts. In practical terms, for now, I’ve made two small adjustments in my morning practice. One is to cast my circle specifically in the sacred grove of Sophia. The other is to begin sitting meditation, or contemplative communion, by saying “I open my heart to the Light of Sophia”. It doesn’t seem much, but it shifts my centre of gravity to a place where a feel more empowered and more at home.

  • Irwin, Lee Gnostic Tarot: Mandalas for Spiritual Transformation York Beach, ME, USA, 1998 (There is no pack of cards with this book. It’s a set of interpretations emphasising “spiritual transformation and illumined states of awareness”. The Universal Waite Deck and the Ravenswood Tarot Deck have been used as points of reference.)

BOOK REVIEW: THE NEW MONASTICISM

New_MonasticismHighly recommended. I knew I would be in business with this book as soon as I got wind of it, and it will take further contemplation and inward digestion before I fully understand my relationship with it. I believe that this is the kind of effect that what The New Monasticism: an Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living intends to create.

‘Monasticism’ is refreshingly used here “simply to denote a level of commitment to a spiritual life”. It is not about specific beliefs or a specific lifestyle. It asks us to free ourselves from our cultural conditioning and an unquestioning and un-questing life. Avoiding identification with material success, living in the midst of a contemporary society that does not support such a calling, we may enter a space of “radical profundity and divine transformative energy”. We seek simplicity not through renunciation but through ‘integration’.  We do need retreat space, so some people will indeed be called as specialists to hold the “containers of silence”. But most will pursue vocation in the world, in a life made up of contemplative practice, heartfelt conversation and sacred activism.

Authors Rory McEntee and Adam Bucko are situated within the Roman Catholic tradition, in an emancipatory strand which is reaching out to others and hoping to transcend itself. The term ‘interspirituality’ was coined by Brother Wayne Teasdale, an ordained Christian Sannyasin who  presided over an ashram in India. The authors see interspirituality as “humbly placing itself in partnership and collaborative discernment with our time-honoured religious traditions”.  In the last decade we have also seen the linking of Father Thomas Keating (who developed ‘centering prayer’ as a Christian answer to Buddhist-style meditation) with Ken Wilber’s Integral Life project, which is itself increasingly seeking alliance with like-minded Christian communities. Indeed a lot of the philosophy, psychology and social science in this book comes straight from Ken Wilber and the stance of the Integral movement. The authors come from a collectively confident and mature spiritual base, and there are advantages in that. The book is rich with specific suggestions about life and practice in the new monasticism, drawing for its core inspiration on an ‘Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Life in the 21st. Century’ following a week long dialogue with Father Thomas Keating at his monastery in Colorado in 2012.

McEntee and Bucko are both “under 40” and feel a connection with the younger generation now coming into adulthood. Bucko works with young homeless men in New York City. They see a potentially emergent spiritual culture that is: “spiritual not religious”; this worldly and concerned with nature and the fate of the earth; has (post) modern commitments to personal ‘authenticity’; and finds the sacred in the secular. They believe that these values can be championed within a further development of their own tradition, transforming the tradition itself. For them the path is as much about the life and health of the earth as it is with an individual communion with the Divine: indeed, it is false to separate the two. Realisation is less a “gnostic quest for truths beyond the world” than “a reflection on certain processes taking place within the world”. Interspirituality wants to be the midwife of this, and in doing so become attractive to people, especially young people, who would not be drawn to more traditional approaches.

The New Monasticism is a valuable contribution to the re-visioning of spirituality and concomitant life practices. Given its provenance, it is not surprising that the reaching out to other traditions is quite selective. Beyond Christianity, the traditions being engaged with are neo-Vedanta, Tibetan Buddhism and to a lesser extent Zen, modern Sufism and to some degree the Hasidic movement in Judaism and Martin Buber. ‘Indigenous religions’ are mentioned in two inclusivity lists, without definition or description. Shamanism is mentioned as a particular model of spiritual service. There is nothing specific from the Western Way outside Christianity.  Within Christianity, much is drawn from the contemplative strand in Orthodoxy, including an understanding of theosis (or divinisation) and the role of Sophia as guide. This is accompanied by an intent to “claim the wisdom dimension of all traditions and let the wisdom guide you” – a view which they attribute to Matthew Fox. Ethics is seen as “the call to active co-operation with the sophianic transfiguration of the world”. Quaker processes also get a mention because of their democratic and dialogical way of bringing people into Presence with each other. Since I am personally positioned in modern Druidry, Paganism and Earth Spirituality I have to express some disappointment here. However I don’t feel deliberately excluded. It’s just that these authors have their attention focused elsewhere.

I do have a worry, all the same, an area where I think that Earth and Goddess traditions could do with being heard. This is when McEntee and Bucko talk about ‘axial ages’, a view of spiritual/religious history once again taken from Ken Wilber. It depends on an evolutionary view of human culture as an aspect of a Divine awakening. In this view, the first axial age, from 800 BCE – 200 CE was a time of radical transformation marked by the appearance of great teachers who catalysed major literatures: Lao-Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Mahavir (of the Jains), Zoroaster, the Jewish prophets and Greek philosophy, as well as Jesus and the gospels. These people could stand apart from the tribe, question the worldview they had been given, and think for themselves. They could also wake up from the trance of complete immersion in nature and objectify it – seen here as a positive step, albeit one with a shadow side. They represented the coming of reflexive subjectivity and the technology (writing) that made it sustainable. Admittedly, the narrative goes, this tended to take world denying, sex denying, misogynist and more generally oppressive forms. But overall it is read as a cultural gain. Now we are seen to be in a second axial age where the perceived challenge is to transcend the limitations of the first whilst preserving the gains, and thus renew our overall movement onward. “We need both our individuality … and an understanding of our intrinsic belonging within a vast Kosmos”. I’ve been aware of Wilber’s position on this since he wrote Up from Eden in the mid 1980’s. It has always read to me as a one-eyed narrative, the mirror image of the primitive matriarchy still espoused by many Pagans.  One of its effects has been to offer a language of canny and limited concession by hitherto dominant traditions as they respond to an unstoppable shift in culture. Here is where the Earth traditions could have a role in the dialogue, to support a view of individuality and inter-connectedness, indeed, but which is less masculinist in language (I’m thinking about how the book suggests “dialogical sophiology” as the way of meeting with the divine feminine), more open, and more widely informed than this.

I am glad to be living in a time of spiritual ferment. It breathes life and hope in an otherwise darkening time. I acknowledge and celebrate the achievement of The New Monasticism and am already involved in exploring contemplative life in Druidry. I notice that I, and others who I have been linked with, have in some ways come to similar conclusions about life and practice, if not entirely of view. This book, although from a very different background, has stimulated and encouraged me. I hope it has this role for many other readers.

BOOK REVIEW: THE SALMON IN THE SPRING

41-SK1+8TrL__BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX324_SY324_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA346_SH20_OU02_This is the review of Jason Kirkey’s Salmon in the Spring which I wrote for Amazon in 2010 (and for Touchstone, the OBOD in-house journal). It was the book that introduced me to The Great Song/Oran Mor – earlier explored in Frank MacKeown’s The Celtic Way of Seeing and The Mist-Filled Path. MacKeown wrote the foreword for Kirkey’s book. Kirkey revises the traditional sense (in the Christian centuries)  of the Oran Mor as a name for God. He says, rather, that “immanent in material processes is the implicate order of the cosmos: spirit, divine ground, Oran Mor (Great Song)”. I will say more about what this has meant both experientially and conceptually for me in future posts.

The review was a 5 star review and I strongly recommend it, as a book that manages both to be clear and to accommodate complexity.

“At the age of 12, Jason Kirkey had one of those ‘light bulb’ moments that can set a direction for life. A relative told him ‘nature does not require our belief. It is right there for us to experience’. Jason is from Massachusetts, of partly Irish ancestry and over time his new found awareness lead him to discover the ‘interplay of nature, story and ancestry’ as a practitioner of ‘Irish Earth-based spirituality and shamanism’.

“Jason presents personal story a thread within a larger, collective story; one in which spiritual traditions are moving through a process of re-imagination – of integration into the new story of the 21st century’. He describes going through a ‘dark night of the soul’ when an over-identified ‘attachment’ to his own tradition became narrow and constraining. He found resolution through the practice of sitting meditation and study at the Naropa University in Colorado. It wasn’t a matter of moving from one tradition to another, but of integrating the qualities of both.

“The Salmon in the Spring explores traditional stories – including the second battle of Maigh Tuireadh, Connla’s Well and the Song of the Silver Branch – in a process of creative revisioning for Celtic spirituality. It is a pioneer’s book and I recommend it to anyone interested in the possible futures of Celtic spirituality, Druidry and other paths in which the old stories are coming alive in new ways.”

Jason Kirkey The Salmon in the Spring: the Ecology of Celtic Spirituality San Francisco, CA, USA: Hiraeth Press, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: FOLLOWING THE DEER TRODS

jhp5423fc87b679cThe full title of this book is Following the Deer Trods: a practical guide to working with Elen of the Ways. It is written as part of Moon Book’s Shaman Pathways series, and is positioned as a stand-alone introduction to its topic, which includes working methods for the aspiring practitioner. As such this book certainly meets its criteria.

I personally think it works best in tandem with Elen Sentier’s other book on the topic, also a Shaman Pathways book, Elen of the Ways; following the deer trods – the ancient Shamanism of Britain, which I reviewed in July 2014. This earlier book establishes the overall context much better and for me they belong together.

Following the Deer Trods begins with a summary of the ideas offered in Elen of the Ways. This works well, even magically, in the opening pages – but I was saddened by a seeming loss of perspective when we get to the Romans and beyond. The author shows no recognition of Christianity as a diverse, complex and internally contested path, not least in the Celtic lands; or of the effects which holding political power can have on religious traditions, regardless of the actual faith. There’s also no clear flagging of the extent to which the positive, Pagan side of the story is necessarily reliant on intuitive reconstruction, relevant records being sparse and problematic, oral traditions highly mutable over time, and material remains providing only limited insight into hearts and minds. There is so much we don’t know, and will never know, about our ancestors, their traditions and what it was like to be them. When talking about them, we do best to avoid the language of certainty.

For me the book picks up from that point, providing the promised guide to working in a series of well-organised practice chapters. The main areas covered (in my language) are meditation, energy work, service, shamanic journeying, relationships with familiar spirits (power animals), and working with trickster figures. The author also discusses the ‘journey horse’ or method of trance induction – and the relative merits for this purpose of drumming, the sound of waves, rain, or a flowing stream; the steady roaring of wind; the recorded purring of cats. That bit of the discussion is a true gem, reflecting a lot of playful trial and experience.

These chapters also lay out a basic cosmology for the work – a cosmology of three worlds (middle, lower, and upper) on the vertical axis and four elements radiating out from the middle world on the horizontal, with the nigh universal notion of the world tree/tree of life very much in mind. Elen describes the image of the six armed cross as a means of bringing them together. She talks about her understanding of the inner world of the journey as a place of ‘interface’, the portal which she, as awenydd, and the Otherworld co-create as a meeting place between them.

The instructions for practice are highly specific and directive and therefore best-suited to people who are new to this kind of work, who don’t have access to hands-on teaching or established learning communities, and who need nonetheless to be strongly held as they begin their exploration. Other readers will look to the offerings provided as a source of new or variant ideas, or information about a specific way of working.

My heart didn’t sing, when I read this book, as it had when I read its predecessor. But it makes its contribution and, with the one significant reservation about the presentation of history, I’m happy to recommend it.

CONTEMPLATION AND SHAMANISM

The early Taoist classic Inward Training (1) says:

 By concentrating your vital breath as if numinous, the myriad things will all be contained within you.

The word translated as ‘numinous’ is ‘shen’. And it shows the contemplative Taoist’s debt to China’s long tradition of shamanism. For shen can also refer to the external spirits or numina of mountains, rivers or ancestors, “the powers that descended into early Chinese shamans and shamanesses during their ritualized trances”.

Harold Roth (the translator of Inward Training into English) also points out that this text does not use a word for ‘emptiness’. Instead, it uses a metaphor – ‘cleaning out the lodging place of the numinous’. This is suggestive of either an external temple being cleansed in preparation for the descent of a divinity or the purification of a shaman in preparation for serving as a medium. Roth quotes A. C. Graham (2) as suggesting “that the meditation practised privately and recommended to rulers as an Arcanum of government descends directly from the trance of the professional shaman”.

The Indian story is somewhat similar, according to Mircea Eliade (3): most Indian spiritual practice inherits the structure of early shamanistic culture. He reminds us that the shamanic tree has seven, nine or sixteen steps, each symbolising a heaven, and climbing it is the equivalent of ascending the cosmic tree or pillar. Then he goes on to say, “The Brahmanic sacrificer mounts to heaven by ritually climbing a ladder; the Buddha ascends the cosmos by symbolically traversing the seven heavens; the Buddhist yogin, through meditation, realizes an ascent whose nature is completely spiritual. Typologically, all these acts share the same structure: each on its own plane indicates a particular way of transcending the profane world and attaining to the world of the gods, or Being or the Absolute. The one great difference between them and the shamanic experience of ascent to heaven lies in the intensity of the latter: … the shamanic experience includes ecstasy and trance”.

It seems to me that early images of an antlered sitter – on a seal from Mohenjodaro, the ancient city state of India, and on the Gundestrop cauldron (4) – are equally appropriate to vatic trance, walking-between-the-worlds and contemplative meditation. Indeed is perhaps anachronistic to make such distinctions, for we know little about actual practices in their cultures of origin.  What we can say is that contemplative and shamanistic traditions share the same roots and that modern practitioners – like Druids! – may stand to gain from exploring both at the same time.  The Tibetan Bon tradition has adopted this approach for many centuries, as Tenzin Wangal Rinpoche shows when looking as the five elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra and Dzogchen (the contemplative aspect), brought together as a unified developmental system within the Bon path.

References:

 1: Roth, Harold D. (1999) Original Tao: ‘Inward Training’ and the foundations of Taoist mysticism New York, NY: Columbia University Press

 

ELDERS AND MEMORY

A Guatemalan story illustrates the traditional role of elders. The Goddess of Water has been dismembered and her heart captured by the Lords and Ladies of Death. Her (non-divine) partner collects her bones together and descends into the infernal realm to recover her heart. He succeeds at a price, returning to the earth’s surface with only a toe bone and a tooth to go with the recovered heart of the Goddess, himself do badly wounded that he dies.

Four elders – Grandmother Growth, the Father of the Mountain, the Old Woman and the Old Man – now intervene. Covering the body of the man and the toe bone, tooth and heart of the Goddess with a blanket, they sing their wisdom. ‘The world wept and whimpered in the ground while the two gods and two old humans sang the ancient life-giving songs’ (1). After the old ones have nearly exhausted their repertoire of 200 songs, the blanket is lifted. Man and Goddess (now a mortal woman) have revived and are whole. The elders comment, ‘it’s the same every year’.

The story contrasts the distinctive roles of the younger and older generations. For the former the action presents a vivid and dramatic trial. The old ones participate through their knowledge of the ‘ancient live-giving songs’ and with the relative detachment of those who’ve seen it all before. They have not ‘retired’ but they have progressed to a different and more reflective way of making an impact on their world, using their resources as culture bearers.

Martin Pretchel, who recorded this story, spent his life ‘married to the meaning’ of such stories. In the Guatemalan Highlands of the 1980’s the indigenous Mayan community was under enormous pressure and threat. Martin, a mixed ancestry outsider from New Mexico, joined several hundred old Mayan men and women and ‘like a friar I became another of their wool-blanket-wearing order, dedicated to remembering back to life She who had been dismembered and therefore do what we could to keep Holy Nature dancing’.

The story telling activities of the elders are not simply forms of reminiscence. They can a front-line in the defence of land, life and culture. (Martin Pretchel eventually took refuge from threatened assassination in an unfriendly US embassy and was promptly deported.) It seems that deep Bardistry, maintaining the long cycles of cultural memory, and current political witness go hand in hand.

  1. Martin Pretchel The toe bone and the tooth London: Thorsons, 2002

BOOK REVIEW: ELEN OF THE WAYS (SHAMAN PATHWAYS)

jhp5135021762fb1Highly recommended both to a core readership interested in British indigenous Shamanism and to anyone uneasy with a world where loss of connection with nature (and thus spirit) is so prevalent.  Author Elen Sentier describes herself as “awenydd, a spirit weaver and tale keeper from a long family lineage”. The word is from British Celtic tradition, but it is being used to name a quality of being extending back much further in time, and of universal application. “Walking the deer trods is to learn how close we are to nature … how we are connected to anything whether or not it appears inanimate and this is what the awenydd knows”. The presiding spirit of this path is the elusive deer goddess  Elen of the Ways, who the author encountered as a young adult, thereby entering a lifetime of service to her. This book is about both context and story of this service, an invitation to “open yourself to Elen’s complex, multiple and beautiful ways”.

Elen Sentier takes us back to an archaic northern world in which most people lived by following herds of reindeer on their migrations – following rather than leading or managing: the deer decided when and where to go. She evokes the culture and spirituality of this relationship, describing a hunter gatherer society that once lived well without private property or long hours of work. She talks about communities that understood reciprocity and interdependence and lived by a practice of gift-giving and receiving both in the everyday world and that of spirit – themselves seen as hardly separated from each other. She sees this as a culture of sensitivity to all life, including the interconnectedness of “what you eat and what eats you”, and alive to the energies of the land itself.

The book traces this history through iconography and myth – with the figure of the antlered reindeer goddess standing for the Sovereignty of the land. It also describes “journeying” as a here-and-now practice for being in natural settings, tuning in with respect, entering relationship, preferably with a minimal reliance on satnavs, compasses and maps. Here is nourishment for spirit, available if we are.

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