This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: January, 2013


Some systems of training – R.J. Stewart in ‘The Way of Merlin’ and the OBOD Ovate Course for example – ask us to develop a long term relationship with a specific tree.  In my case it was a willow.  At that time I had already made a willow wand from wood that had fallen off another tree, and though I don’t use wands or other tools much in circle casting, I do use this wand occasionally.  It’s a wood that I find it easy to connect with.

My willow stands on the banks of the Avon at Bristol, in sight of the Clifton suspension bridge and the gorge.  I was living within walking distance of it at the time.  In terms of ‘head knowledge’ I wasn’t quite sure whether it was technically a weeping willow or a hybrid and decided it didn’t matter.  Its branches certainly bowed to the flowing Avon water and to the ground.  Through dedicated tree hugging practice I discovered a strong Nwyfre  or life force, running up and down the tree.  This was about the time of the Spring Equinox in a prematurely warm and burgeoning year.  I had the pleasure of watching catkins and early leaves growing and of active bees.  So I created an energetic bond with the physical tree, at the edge of a public park, greeting it and fare-welling it at each encounter without developing a detailed botanical knowledge.

I also did inner work with the tree, through visualization.  Usually the visualization was an idealized version of the physical reality, prompting a slightly different set of feelings and reflections.  There was one major difference.  During a gale, the wind broke one of the major branches from the tree.  I was very distressed to see that branch partly on the ground and partly hanging on to the rest of the tree by thin strands of bark.  Then the branch got chopped off.  I was in mourning.  Yet my visualization didn’t change.  At that level, the tree was still there and whole.  And in fact the physical changed and grew new branches, not in quite the same place, to fill the gap of the big one that had gone.  I supplied the distress and mourning.  The tree simply adapted.  Throughout the physical process, I felt little difference in its energy.

In the back of my mind I was also aware of traditional knowledge, both specific to Ogam lore and the more diffuse inheritance of popular tradition.  I tended to hold this lightly, feeling imaginatively enriched whilst putting personal lived experience first.  I do know that leaning against the tree whilst looking across the water to the bridge and the gorge were (and are) good for refreshment, reverie and lazy, half conscious forms of reflection.  Out of this can come a creativity that doesn’t come from the willed marshaling of correspondences.  And to be fair, the traditional willow correspondences say as much, when they talk of openness and receptivity to Otherworld and the inspiration of the Goddess.  When I first knew the willow, it was at a time of fecundity – I’ve already mentioned the vibrancy of catkins and new leaves, the early appearance of bees.  So I’m not surprised that William Anderson’s green man poem says, for the period running from 13 April to 10 May:

 In and out of the yellowing wands of the willow

The pollen-bright bees are plundering the catkins;

‘I am honey of love’, says the Green Man

‘I am honey of love’, says he.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that in the Romanian Gypsy Festival of Green George (needless to say on 23 April)  a young and leafy willow, already felled, is erected and decorated with streamers and ribbons.  The community’s pregnant women gather around the tree, each laying out one piece of clothing.  If, overnight a leaf falls from the tree on to the clothing, it is said that the goddess of the tree promises both an easy delivery and a gifted child.”

Such associations are in the background of my relationship to Willow if not the foreground.  They touch my imagination, especially the parts that are nurtured by a sense of place and of history.  They amplify my direct here-and-now experience, adding emotional texture to sensory immediacy.  They extend what’s already there, in the tree, the setting, my presence, and our connection.


Sometimes, as over the turn of the year, I feel like blogging fairly frequently.  At other times, like now, I don’t.  I’m still integrating my work with the Ceile De paidirean (beads) and fuinn (chants).  It takes a while.  I suspect that I’m entering a quiet period.

Yet as I do so I want to say a little bit about what contemplative practice means to me now. Centring in silence is the essence of the practice. In sitting meditation I enter silence with a contemplative intent. The process is one of self-emptying, but not in a self-wounding spirit of renunciation, of holy war on ‘ego’, of pushing away the immature self-sense like an unwanted child.

Self-emptying is simply the will to let things come and go without grabbing on, making room for something else to be.  Warmly spacious, it invites a more expansive way of being.  We do not let go in order to get something better.  The letting go is itself the something better, freeing us from our habitual self-protectiveness and contracted activities like taking, defending, hoarding, and clinging. For this reason Cynthia Bourgeault talks of ‘kenosis’ (self-emptying) as “primarily a visionary tool rather than a moral one; its primary purpose is to cleanse the lens of perception”*. 

Having said that, I am finding that the contemplative shift into self-emptying does tend to open up states of acceptance (including self-acceptance), gratitude, peace, joy and love.  They come in and are present, just naturally there, not in any way willed or dutiful, some of the time. They come and go, while contemplation remains centred in stillness and silence, and “looks at the world through a single lens of wholeness”*. 


* The meaning of Mary Magdalene: the woman at the heart of Christianity. Cynthia Bourgeault. Shambhala: Boston & London, 2010


I have continued to experiment with the forms of contemplative prayer and mantra work I use in connection to my Ceile De paidirean.  Having worked some time now with the heart prayer, I have started to engage with other expressions of this tradition. These are drawn from the wider range of Ceile De fuinn (chants).

My overall morning practice is customarily held within a circle cast in “the Sacred Grove of Sophia, the luminous spirit of wisdom”. I have found a fonn (chant) for my walking meditation that links back, for me, to her.  The words are:

Gun tigeadh solas nan solas air mo chridhe; gun tigeadh ais an spiorad air mo chridhe

Goon tee-guch solus nan solus air mo chree; goon tee-guch aysh an speer-utch air mo chridhe

Come light of lights to my heart; come wisdom of spirit to my heart

When I use this fonn (chant) in walking meditation, I use Sireadh Thall (Sheer-ich Hall) as a mantra, for periods of time, when sitting. It means “seek beyond” and according to the Ceile De, Sireadh Thall is “one of the many poetic names for the Great Goddess of the Gael, Brighide or Bridget”. She has sometimes been called the northern Sophia (as in Caitlin Matthews’ book, ‘Sophia’).  Sireadh Thall, as a divine name, gives me a sense of the Goddess pointing beyond herself to a place where names, forms and images of the divine dissolve.

Gun tigeadh solas nan solas air mo chridhe; gun tigeadh ais an spiorad air mo chridhe is the fifth fonn on the first Ceile De fonn CD.  Sireadh Thall is the tenth.  I find this latter especially moving.  For me it is presented here in a perfect weaving of voices.  There is no soloist, yet the loss of any one voice – each with its unique integrity – would diminish the piece.  So collectively this fonn gives voice to the Oran Mor, the great song of what is.

In working with different fuinn in this way, I can listen in to them, feel them, taste them – their resonance, their energy, and their inspiration. I get closer to finding my note within that song.

(Sireadh Thall can be accessed and downloaded on


I started wearing my Paidirean – the Ceile De prayer beads – for my morning practice on 19 December.  In the Ceile De Order they are used in conjunction with what in this tradition is called the Heart Prayer:

 A Thighearna … Solus an domhain … Chriost mo chridhe … dean trocair oirnn

 Ah hee-earn-ah … Solus on dowain … Chree-ost mo chree … Jaun trok-ir orn

O Lord … Light of the world … Christ my heart … show mercy/compassion/grace

I don’t follow the practice as prescribed, but I notice that I soon started saying this prayer aloud (having listened carefully to the Ceile De CD) when doing walking meditation – initially drawn in by the sound of the old language.  In walking meditation I am mindful to each footfall and so in working the Heart Prayer I have become mindful to each footfall and a syllable of the Heart Prayer as well (except of course when I am not).  As time has gone on I have increased the use of the prayer, sometimes said aloud, sometimes not.  I intersperse this with times of complete silence within as well as without to make the practice more spacious. Likewise in sitting meditation, essentially a plain breath meditation, I have introduced the key phrase “Chriost mo chridhe”, as an intermittent mantra within the practice.  These words in particular anchor in my sense that ‘Christ’ stands for an interior awakening rather than an external or historical being.

Why has this prayer become resonant to me?  I am reminded again of the summer of 2007.  At midsummer I went to Melrose and had the experiences I described in my previous blog post.  On a weekend late in July I was scheduled to go to a conference with my partner Elaine. The plan involved getting from Bristol, where I lived, to Stroud, where she lived.  But we were cut off from each other by floods: roads closed, railway in chaos.  So we both stayed put.  I was following the OBOD Ovate course at the time and decided to have a day of ritual derived from the course followed by a day of reflection and recovery.  The main result of all this, the one image that fully imprinted itself and which I took away, was that of a dove feather falling gently down beside me  It felt initiatic and it gave me my felt sense of connection with Sophia the Holy Wisdom.  It changed the course of my work.  My centre of gravity had shifted and I realised that I had quite a bit of work to do to make this breakthrough good.  How was I going to use the altered state of the ritual experience to create a more lasting change?  Although not fully recognized at the time, this was the beginning of my ‘contemplative’ turn.

Sophia brings a gnostic understanding to Christ consciousness, awakening the practitioner to a non-dual awareness where knower, known and knowledge, lover, love and beloved, are one.   Except that this last sentence is also a formula of sorts and formulas – even if authentic messages from those who have gone before us – are necessarily suspect.  This, at least, is what I take away from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas:

“Jesus said to his followers, ‘compare me to something and tell me what I am like. Simon Peter said to him, ‘you are like a just messenger’. Matthew said to him, ‘you are like a wise philosopher’. Thomas said to him, ‘Teacher my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like’. Jesus said, ‘I am not your TeacherBecause you have drunk, you have been intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have measured out.’  Two followers have personal and cultural presuppositions so strong that their availability for direct experience is compromised.  Only one is sufficiently open and unknowing to make the connection and the shift that goes with it.

Thich Nhat Hanh puts it another way.  “In Buddhist circles, we are careful to avoid getting stuck in concepts, even concepts like ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Buddha’.  If you think of the Buddha as someone separate from the rest of the world, you will never recognize a Buddha even if you see him on the street.  That is why one Zen Master said to his student, ‘When you meet the Buddha, kill him’.  He meant that the student should kill the Buddha-concept in order for him to experience the real Buddha directly.”  (From Living Buddha, Living Christ.)

Following my experience in late July 2007, I wrote a blackberry Lughnasadh verse for my wheel of the year tree poem.

 I am Blackberry

The bramble and the fruit and the wine

And the spirit.

Intoxication as from a bubbling spring,

Freely measured out.

It alluded to the words in St. Thomas and reflected my realization, such as it was. It was not particularly mature or fully integrated, but it did push me into seeking and developing a more rigorous and systematic personal practice.  My hope is that the new shift inspired by the paidirean will deepen and extend it.