This blog is about contemplative inquiry



Nimue Brown shares a chant that she offered in our Gloucestershire group and talks about chanting more broadly. Her chanting changed the space in the room, as resonant chanting does.

Originally posted on Druid Life:

Music has always been a big part of my life, and I’m deeply attracted to the bardic threads in the Druidic weave. I’m also interested in meditation and contemplation. Unshockingly, this has led to time spent chanting. I even run the odd workshop on subverting and messing about with chants to make group singing more collaborative and playful. Let’s face it, there’s only so many times a bunch of people can sing ‘we all come from the goddess’ until it tails off in awkward silence. We are more likely to fall into tedium than reverie, if my experience in circles is anything to go by. I’ve long been interested in finding ways of changing that experience, for myself and for those around me.

I’ve been blessed with some excellent chanting experiences, too – most notably those led by JJ Middleway. His ‘enchanting the void’ sessions offer room for creative exploration…

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Following the publication of ‘Contemplative Druidry’* I have been working on a residential retreat programme.  It is likely that three of us from the Gloucestershire group (discussed in the book) will be offering a pilot next April, sponsored by OBOD (the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids).  The proposed venue will take up to 20 people, which will allow us to do some real relationship and community building as well as sharing some of our practices. We don’t simply want to roll out a programme. Indeed, we hope to enrich our own work by learning from participants and extending our circle to include them if they wish it.

For me, the only way to strengthen the contemplative thread in Druidry is to build our work in a spirit of open inquiry and sharing, as well as holding a space for tranquillity and renewal through the practices themselves. This is why we are extending the work cautiously. We also hope to offer something at Druid Camp, Lughnasadh 2015, since many of the people in our local group and in the book are involved in The Druid Network. It’s not just an OBOD thing. Samhain this year will be the third anniversary of my commitment to a contemplative inquiry within Druidry. I’m looking forward to what the fourth year may bring.

*Contemplative Druidry is an Amazon CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing venture, involving me in learning a variety of new skills, and is mostly based on interviews with people involved in Druid contemplative practice. It includes a foreword by OBOD’s Philip Carr-Gomm.


This is a ‘learning from other traditions’ post. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, writes about Chuang Tzu, an early Taoist sage and story teller.

“Chuang Tzu is not merely a professional recluse. The ‘man of Tao’ does not make the mistake of giving up self-conscious virtuousness in order to immerse himself in an even more self-conscious contemplative self-recollection. One cannot call Chuang Tzu a Contemplative in the sense of one who adopts a programme of spiritual self-purification to attain to certain definite interior experiences, or even merely to ‘cultivate the interior life.’ Chuang Tzu would condemn this just as roundly as the ‘cultivation’ of anything else on an artificial basis. All deliberate, systematic, and reflexive ‘self-cultivation’, whether active or contemplative, personalistic or politically committed, cuts one off from the mysterious but indispensable contact with Tao, the hidden ‘Mother’ of all life and truth. One of the things that causes the young disciple of Keng Shan Chu (in a Chuang Tzu story) to be so utterly frustrated is precisely that he shuts himself up in a cell and tries to cultivate qualities which he thinks desirable and get rid of others he dislikes. … The true tranquillity is Ying ning, tranquillity in the action of non-action, in other words, a tranquillity which transcends the division between activity and contemplation by entering into union with the nameless and invisible Tao.”

For me, there is a fine line between making a real commitment to contemplative practice and allowing it to become an idolatry. I find that it does ask me to be intentional, to devote time and effort, to be willing to learn the  skills. So I have some sympathy for the immature student gleefully lampooned in the story. Yet I resonate with the larger point and look forward to shedding a residual anxiety and striving, a slightly distressed earnestness, in what I do. To release wonder more fully, to be immersed in exploration, and to experience connection with a Mystery that cannot, in the last resort, be named or possessed. I’m not sure whether this is what either Thomas Merton or Chuang Tzu were getting at, but it’s what I take from this reading.

Merton, Thomas (1965 &2004) The Way of Chuang Tzu Boston & London: Shambhala.


As part of my solo practice, I sometimes do Awen mantra meditation. Aah comes in with the inbreath and wen goes out with the outbreath. Classically, I have followed these two syllables into a felt sense of what has been called the Shakti of the mantra, the power of the mantra, its inner pulsation and grace. In my embodied poetry of practice, Awen resonates like the primal breath and energy of the Cosmos, a subtle vibration underlying the apparent world, welling from a paradoxically creative emptiness. Visually, if my eyes are shut, the world tends to dissolve into a river of tiny lights, set wide apart from each other. If they are open, my visual experience of space changes and boundaries become more porous. This tends to be a place of deep receptivity and renewal.

Just lately I have been experiencing Awen mantra meditation differently. I believe this relates to being more active in the world – paradoxically through the contemplative Druidry project itself, with its relationship building, writing and now publicising ‘Contemplative Druidry’, and the beginning of plans for retreats beyond the local group level. I like this side of things more than I anticipated, because it connects me in a different way. And I also find that, in these times, the Awen mantra meditation becomes more focused and directional. I start to have the traditional understanding of Awen, as creative inspiration, more in mind.

So working with the mantra takes on a sense of dedication and intent, and also an aspect of invocation. There is still a receptiveness in there, of making myself available to Awen, as a vehicle for it. But it’s not in the manner of possession or channelling, or any obvious sense of psychism. I have to keep my wits absolutely about me, hold my intent actively, use discrimination and make decisions.

When my contemplative work became a project as well as a practice, I feared that I would saw off the meditative branch that I am sitting on, and fall into a sort of repetitive busyness syndrome. Now I see a greater range of possibilities. Life and awareness are always moving, always in process, and require different means of grounding and centring at different times.


Since last February I have been working with others on a book about contemplative Druidry. It has now been published and it is available on and in paperback and on Kindle.

‘Contemplative Druidry: People Practice and Potential’ was written to show that contemplative approaches are growing in modern Druidry, and to look at ways in which they might be fostered. Practices discussed include solo and group meditation, contemplation in natural settings and contemplative arts.

In my approach to this project, I decided to take a snapshot of contemplative Druidry in a particular place and time. The place is England, with a particular (though not exclusive) focus on a Druid contemplative group meeting in Gloucestershire. The time is March-July 2014, where 15 Druids responded to a questionnaire either through face-to-face interviews or in writing.

The questionnaire was designed to let respondents talk freely about their understanding of ‘contemplative Druidry’ and its value in their lives. They first discuss relevant aspects of their early lives, such as love of the outdoors, the literatures that fed them, and forms of numinous and psychic experience that they had but could not language or contextualise. They talk about their spiritual questing, often in the arenas of Paganism, Shamanism and Earth spirituality more widely, as well as their specific attraction to Druidry. Then they discuss their contemplative practice and influences on it, in some cases, from other traditions such as Buddhism, neo-Gnosticism and mystical Christianity. Overall there is the sense of an identifiable contemplative thread within Druidry (or Druid thread within contemplative spirituality). There is a sense of a form of spiritual expression to nurture and develop.

The idea of a book offering a variety of voices was further strengthened by Philip Carr-Gomm, who has led the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD) since 1988.  His foreword ‘Deep Peace of the Quiet Earth: the Nature Mysticism of Druidry’ is a significant contribution in its own right, speaking of a contemplative turn in Druidry as “an idea whose time has come”.

With the permission of the posters and commenters, the book includes two threads from the Contemplative Druidry Facebook Group – ‘Contemplation and Mysticism’ and ‘Pilgrimage’ as Appendices. These are more international in flavour, and date from August 2012.

The people who joined me in responding to the questionnaire were: David Popely, Elaine Knight, Eve Adams, JJ Middleway, Joanna Vander Hoeven, Julie Bond, Karen Webb, Katy Jordan, Mark Rosher, Nimue Brown, Penny Billington, Robert Kyle, Rosa Davis and Tom Brown. My heartfelt thanks to all of them and everyone else who has supported this book and the work that stands behind it.


I went on a walk this morning, a two mile autumn stroll, mellow sunlight, leaves now turning, to Woodchester. I wanted to visit the old churchyard there. There is no church now, but an extensive walled graveyard and a significant history.

To get into it I stumbled, rather than walked, down a short set of crumbling steps, my eyes on fallen yew berries, lush red against the pale green grass, and absolutely not for eating. Raising my eyes I saw the oddly squat and almost bristling avenue of yews that leads to a stone arch now free of any building. Brambles are still producing blackberries, and together with ivy they cover some of the substantial stone tombs in the graveyard, whilst leaving others alone. These others are weathered and mossy, their eighteenth and earlier nineteenth century inscriptions now almost illegible. Most of the tombs are heavy and rectangular, though one sports a pyramid resting on a circular block mounted on a hexagonal one. The whole place is pleasingly unkempt, and removed from the demands of the everyday world. Yet I wouldn’t call it tranquil – certainly that’s not its gift to me.

My special interest, on this walk, was in a large and largely empty declivity within the graveyard. I walked to the centre, where there was a scattering of small, sad, bird feathers, mostly white and brown. I took a sample and discussed it later with my partner Elaine and we think they perhaps came from a young owl. Some way beneath my feet was Woodchester’s Orpheus mosaic, originally covering the main reception room of a Roman Villa. It was made in around AD 325 (1) by a dedicated mosaic shop in Corinium (Cirencester) that specialised in Orphic themes. The Villa estate had easy access to the benefits of a relatively urbanised culture, with Cirencester and Glevum (Gloucester) each less than 15 miles away and Aquae Sulis (Bath) less than 30.  Corinium was the largest city in Roman Britain apart from Londinium (London) and capital of the then province of Britannia Prima, which covered Wales and South West England (2). It boasted stone carvers, glass makers and goldsmiths as well as the bakers and blacksmiths you would hope to find in any town. Orphic themes were popular throughout the Roman Empire of the day and there is no surprise in finding him popular with the Romano-British aristocracy. What was there not to like about the archetypal Bard whose music charmed animals, caused trees to dance and energised the very stones; a walker between the worlds, destined ultimately to become a talking head speaking prophesies?

The centre of the Woodchester mosaic (damaged over the last 300 years by gravediggers and antiquaries)* is likely to have featured a small fountain fed by water from local springs. This was likely placed within a central octagon with a star radiating out from the fountain, surrounded by fishes. Next out is a circle of birds including pheasants, peacocks and doves, also incorporating Orpheus, his lyre and his hunting dog. Around it is a band of laurel leaves circled by a guilloche or plait. Then comes the animal circle, combining those then common in Britain – bear, stag, horse and boar – with exotic ones only seen in the amphitheatre – leopard, elephant, tiger and lion. There is also a mythological beast, a gryphon.

In the outermost group, towards the edge of the mosaic, we find the face of Neptune god of the sea. Flowing from him on either side in a complete circle is a beautiful acanthus roll which symbolises the restless movement of the waves. The whole circle is squared by four pairs of water nymphs, placed in the spandrels. A blue background represents their watery environment, also emphasised by water weeds.

This water theme is the imagery that draws me most. I link it to Orpheus’ role as the non-warrior Argonaut, whose job it was to work with the seas, negotiating passage with them.  For “the Argo was the first craft built to sail the deep, untraveled sea” (3) instead of hugging the coast and going from port to port. “Nothing like her had been seen or imagined before. Her hull timbers came from oaks and pines that Orpheus had charmed from the woods; they carried his liberating life in them and she leapt in the sea, like a deer”.  The deep sea was as new to him as to everyone else, a vastness that boiled and foamed, white on blue, like a whirlpool, the ‘end of the earth, the beginning of all’, an abyssos much like chaos before creation came.  In the Hymns conventionally attributed to Orpheus, the depths of the ocean “‘glossy’ and ‘black’ like Night herself, writhed with potential and with new forms swimming into life”. Roped fast in the pitching, heaving bow, Orpheus would fling out his hymns to the mounting walls of the waves. “Note by note he would urge them lower, resist them, coax them, until his music streamed down in foam and they deflated, slowly, to a cradling quiet. His spirit lay on the sea then, pressing it level like a band of light.”

I don’t know this aspect of the story particularly well. I grew up with Jason and the Argonauts. I’ve known a certain amount about Orpheus, especially the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. But not this. Certainly this is what took me to Woodchester today. To stand close to a resonant piece of ancestral craftsmanship, local in place and time yet also universal and timeless in reference, there in its original location, which I experience as an odd and slightly otherworldly place on any terms.  And I think about what Joseph Campbell, also with Orpheus in mind, says in his Creative Mythology, where the role of creative mythology is to renew “the act of experience itself … restoring to existence the quality of adventure, at once shattering and reintegrating the fixed, already known … as it is in depth, in process, here and now, inside and out”. (4)

  1. Cull, Reverend John (2000) Woodchester: its villa and mosaic Andover, Hampshire, UK: Pitkin Unichrome (Pitkin Guides)
  2. White, Roger (2007) Britannia Prima: Britain’s last Roman province Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Tempus Publishing
  3. Roe, Ann (2011) Orpheus the song of life London: Jonathan Cape
  4. Campbell, Joseph (1968) The masks of God: creative mythology Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

*The mosaic hasn’t done well out of its 12 exposures in the last 300 years or so and was reburied in 1973 for an indefinite period. A replica exists, though no longer for public display, and the mosaic has been very well drawn and photographed.


In my Active Imagination post on 18 August this year, I wrote about an image of a wild park, a tree, deep twilight, the moon, a river, a gorge, and a bridge, a city of lights, a messenger and a message. I owned every feature of the image as part of myself.

I’ve had another one, loosely connected to the first and also numinous for me, and compelling. I’m in a walled garden, now within the city of lights. It’s as if I’ve got the message and crossed the bridge. So there’s an element of journeying in the process after all, hidden behind the images themselves.

The city is surprisingly spacious and offers a sweet slowness as well. It could also be described as a little run down and depopulated. But an easy place to be, not a stressful one. The specific place in which I find myself seems familiar, though subtly changed.  I am in Sophia’s Garden, with its unmistakeable fountain in the centre surrounded by red and white rose beds. And there are fruit trees – apple, pear and plum – trained around the walls. In memory it is a noon time place where bright sunlight shines on the scene and strikes the dazzling water of the fountain.

Now it is late afternoon and the sunlight is muted.  The water from the fountain cascades from its bubbling centre, and individual drops – each the whole of H20 – fly out for their moment in the sun before falling into a pool below. The fountain seems eternal. Its water seems eternal. The roses seem eternal. The rest of the garden is in an advanced autumnal stage – certainly beyond Michaelmas. At best, a limited time (overtime?) left for harvesting. The Goddess is dispersed in everything, as everything. I as observer am very much involved. In this realm I am her eyes and must stand as her wisdom too. There is no one else to do it.  For there is a sense in which, like Neo in The Matrix, we are each the One in our own Universe.


An important, multi-layered, deeply rewarding book. Especially useful for Druids and Pagans with any concern for death and dying, bereavement and grief, or what, if anything, lies beyond our 3D existence.  Also of potential interest to people with similar concerns in other spiritual traditions or none. Highly recommended.

Kristoffer Hughes says of himself: “In my spiritual life I have developed into a priest of the dead, a walker between the worlds, a psychopomp.” He is a priest of the Celtic Druid tradition who leads the Anglesey Druid Order. He is also an autopsy technologist working for the UK Crown Coroner’s Service. ‘The Journey into Spirit’, draws on both of these roles. It also draws on other, more closely personal experiences. These include the loss of near kin and friends, shared in a moving, loving way. They include the author’s ‘clairsentience’, a psychic gift that enables a felt sense of presence, or spirit, in relation to those who have died. All of these aspects together make for an unusual richness of narrative and subtlety of approach. The inclusion of ‘contemplations’ – reflective exercises – invites us to extend our own lived understandings. Hughes’ own conclusion is that “through death I have learned the meaning of life, and I am comforted by my understanding and experience of the hereafter”.

The book is divided into four parts, the first three based on the system of three circles of existence outlined in the ‘Barddas of Iolo Morganwg’. The first circle is Abred (AH-bred), the realm of necessity, the physical world of 3D reality. The second is Gwynvyd (goo-IN-vid), the realm of spirit, a psychic/subtle realm usually not perceived yet interwoven with Abred. The third is Ceugant (KAY-gant), the realm of infinity, a source or causal realm.

In the section on Abred, the author quotes the triad: “the three principal calamities of Abred: necessity, forgetfulness, death”. This is where we learn to be human, surrounded by life, subjected to death, governed by the cycle of birth, life and death. The author explores ‘apoptosis’ (the dropping off of petals or leaves) and the need for organic life to die to make room for new growth. Yet a divine spark continues to live in everything. The whole section explores life and the consciousness of death, including fear of it, and our questions about what if anything comes after, drawing on a wealth of knowledge, experience and anecdote.

The section on Gwynvyd looks at the grief process – including a wonderful section on the ‘seasons of grief’, more fluid than familiar ideas about ‘stages’ of grief, let alone medicalized views of grief that now want to treat it as depression after the first 14 days. Part of this is coming to terms with the reality and finality of death. Yet the section also identifies what survives. For the author, the personality dies with the body, yet a substrate of witness consciousness, understood as unchanging, continues in some sense as the stuff of spirit. The forgetfulness of Abred, held in the flow of experience, leads us to forget this substrate. Yet it is eternally there: never born, it cannot die. “What remains constant is the spirit, and upon it is the imprint of the human that lived and breathed here in this world”. This is where a felt sense of connection, if the feelings are strong and the senses attuned, is possible. Gwynvyd is also described as the realm of gods, archetypes, and any beings including discarnate humans who have a role in mediating between Gwynvyd.

Ceugant is the place, or state, of origin. “It is from Ceugant that existence originates and it is to Ceugant that the Universe sings”. Yet it is no-thing, like Ain Sof in the Kabbalah. The author says that this realm, or core reality, can be intuited through visions and meditations, but that no attempt to describe or point to it can be more than an indication. Hughes’ most suggestive metaphor is of a return to a primal sea of potential. In terms of English etymology, he links this to the word ‘soul’, originally a sea-referenced word – and it is universal soul, rather than any personal soul, that he has in mind. He does strongly hold the view that Ceugant represents an ultimate belonging for us all, and so is not something to be achieved through long arduous tasks and learning. It is just there, twice removed from us in our present state.

The final section offers a set of rituals and practices – including a vigil for the dying; preparation of the body; funeral for a Druid; saying goodbye, and a treatment of Samhain as a three day festival of the dead with appropriate practices for each day. Like the rest of the book, these are creative suggestions, based on experience and insight, which we are invited to look at and take on board to whatever extent is right for us.  A welcome text on a sensitive topic.



‘Spirits of Annwn fly over reaped fields’ is a seasonal poem from Lorna Smithers’ From Peneverdant blog. I find its imagery resonant at this time, as we begin the move into the dark of the year.

Originally posted on From Peneverdant:

Spurned birds circle
fields weeping
for all that is good
in the world

dry harvest
all the legions of the dead
strewn fallen scattered
let them seed
this world in the arms of their loved ones

the circles begin again
hearts cut in twain

by the reapers’ blades
hear them come
softly sweeping bare-footed
with the silence of a love song

pile straw into carts

the hallowed dead
ascending in a cloud of wings

spirits of Annwn fly over reaped fields

then down and under
circling circling

View original


Up until recently I’ve practised Druidry as a ‘spiritual path’ rather than religion, and I’ve not strongly identified as Pagan. On launching my contemplative inquiry at the end of 2011, I assumed that this stance would be reinforced through the adoption of practices more widely associated with other spiritual families.

Now I’m taking stock. I begin to see my contemplative work as a Pagan religious practice. Three developments in the past year have made a difference. One is the consolidation of the Gloucestershire contemplative group within a regular and more committed meeting cycle. The second is the work of gathering contributions for the ‘Contemplative Druidry’ book due to appear later this year, which I will talk about in later posts. The third is my personal contemplative practice, my main focus in this one. Overall I’m finding a specific Pagan Druid note and seeing it mirrored in others.

Practices change their meaning according to the tradition in which they are located. Meaning-making is as much cultural as personal, though cultures – and particularly sub-cultures – are also influenced by persons.  When a group of contemplative Christians adopted a version of vipassana (insight or mindfulness) meditation from Theravadin Buddhism in the 1970’s, they looked deeply into their own tradition and called the practice ‘centering prayer’.  This was not just a re-branding, but a re-framing. Christian contemplative prayer is a “blind intent stretching to God” according to the English 14th Century ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ (1), a favourite text of centering prayer practitioners. It is a devotional theism, a focused synthesis of love and will. By contrast the Insight Meditation Society, from whom Father Thomas Keating got the practice, talks about “fundamental techniques for sharpening your awareness and releasing painful mental habits” (2), and thereby loosening the hold of pervasive underlying unease (dukka).

The procedure is much the same for both traditions– silent sitting whilst the restless surface mind is asked to attend to the breath and so undergoes an attentional training. But the larger aims are not the same. Christian contemplatives indeed sharpen awareness and release painful habits on the way to more directly encountering the Divine: they call it divine therapy. Buddhist meditators may enter the state of ‘bodhicitta’, the awakened heart – a space that becomes available when enough of this work has been done. Yet at a more fundamental level one tradition holds Deity as central and the other is not concerned with it. Theravadins are strict about this. They do not share the view of ‘Buddha nature’ or ‘original face’ found in Mahayana and Tantric traditions.

So what about me working specifically as a Druid, and not just someone with a background in Druidry who also meditates?  I prefer to talk of meditation rather than prayer, though I like the sense of dedicating the meditation (and myself) as an offering. In my Pagan Druid universe, where logos and mythos work together, the offering is to the Goddess, as the generativity, energy and consciousness of the cosmos.

I like ‘centering’ as an idea – establishing a centre, drawing myself into the still point, almost a vanishing point, at the centre, and radiating out again into 3D reality, bringing some of the stillness with me. For me the still point at the centre is within the heart, making a link to heart awakening (bodhicitta) and heart wisdom, a term used by some champions of centering prayer (3). The heart sits between the belly and sexual/sacral centres below, and the head, the place of reflexivity and self-awareness, above. Heart wisdom draws both into itself, validating and balancing them. For it is a wisdom of organic life in nature, as lived by a human – the life of extended sensory perception and reflective consciousness, always responsively in relationship of some kind, both without and within. In doing this, drawing energy and attention to the centre, heart wisdom contradicts archaic transcendentalist notions of a stairway to heaven.

I think that’s enough to give my practice a distinctive Pagan Druid note, though it’s still a work in progress. I share the work of attentional training, sharpening awareness and releasing painful habits that gets done, within the process, whoever does it. But it’s in the context of a specific and developing view, or meta-narrative.

That being the case, why not call it part of a religion? The core meaning of religion, like yoga, is about being tied or yoked to a discipline: connection to theistic beliefs is secondary. Religion has a tougher and more intentional ring than ‘spirituality’, and now sounds appropriate to me.  So I now call my contemplative practices – solo meditation included – both religious and Pagan. I will continue to learn from any source I value. But my personal inquiry is focused on deepening within my chosen path – deepening in experience and deepening in understanding.

1: Anonymous (late 14th century) A book of contemplation which is called the Cloud of Unknowing, in the which a soul is oned with God. (Edited from the British Museum MS. Harl. 674 with an introduction by Evelyn Underhill) London: John M. Watkins, 1924

2: Salzberg, Sharon & Goldstein, Joseph (1996) Insight Meditation: an in-depth correspondence course Boulder, CO: Sounds True

3: Bourgeault, Cynthia (2011) The Wisdom Jesus: transforming heart and mind – a new perspective on Christ and his message Boston & London: Shambhala


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