This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: August, 2014


Time was, according to Anne Baring and Jules Cashford (1) when “the Tree of Life was one of the primary images of the goddess herself, in whose immanent presence all pairs of opposites are reconciled. Growing on the surface of the earth, with roots below and branches above, the tree was the great pillar that united earth with heaven and the underworld, through which the energies of the cosmos poured continuously into earthly creation. The animating spirit that moved within it was the serpent, guardian also of the fruit or treasure of the tree, which was the epiphany of the goddess, therefore the experience of unity”.

Without necessarily romanticizing the lived experience of the Bronze Age, we can honour the power and beauty of this imagery. Indeed, in our own time, kundalini yoga, based on a serpent metaphor (2), and Qabalah, based on a tree metaphor (3), have become popular working models. They are inscribed on the body and its subtle energy systems, allowing for an embodied contemplation; they connect earth to heaven and back again; they affirm the possibilities of both immanence and transcendence, energy and consciousness. They have a view of wholeness, realization, and integration.

But much of Western (and Middle Eastern) spiritual history has repudiated this frame of reference and followed a divergent path. Orthodox forms of Abrahamic religion are heirs to a radical reframe of the older goddess iconography, namely the Eden myth in Genesis, and hold to a doctrine of the two trees. Joseph Campbell (4) calls this a “mythic dissociation by which God and his world, immortality and mortality, are set apart in a separation of the Tree of Knowledge from the Tree of Immortal Life. The latter has become inaccessible to man through a deliberate act of God, whereas in other mythologies, both in Europe and in the Orient, the Tree of Knowledge is itself the Tree of Immortal Life and, moreover, still accessible to man”.

In the specific case of Western Christianity, the sense of dissociation increased with the victory of St. Augustine’s doctrines of original sin (intensifying the consequences of the fall) and predestination (the fall was always in the mind of God, its consequences already decided). These emphasize the moral impotence of human will and provide for an absolute alienation from the divine for anyone not of the faith, with a doubtful prospect of grace for those in it. To Augustine’s supporters this confirmed the need for external control (a Christian state and an imperially supported Church) in matters of religion (5).

This meant that contemplative mysticism was subject to forms of doctrinal surveillance that could be suspicious and unsympathetic even towards respected insiders. The contemplative could not legitimately aim for, or claim, unity or oneness as an experience, since God and the world were divided. Even in a period of doctrinally softened Christianity and increasing secularism, we are still living out the ill-effects of this inheritance. This is why, with a natural pre-disposition to a contemplative spirituality, I chose to locate it within Druidry, as an emerging tradition that keeps its feet on the ground.

1: Baring, Anne & Cashford, J. (1993) The myth of the Goddess: evolution of an image Harmondsworth: Penguin Arkana Books

2: Swami Satyananda Saraswati (1984) Kundalini Tantra Munger, Bihar, India: Yoga Publications Trust

3: Stewart, R. J. (2003) The miracle tree: demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NY: New Page Books

4: Campbell, Joseph (1964) Occidental mythology: the masks of God Harmondsworth, England: Penguin

5: Pagels, Elaine (1989) Adam, Eve and the Serpent New York: Vintage


jhp5322da8f27f31Highly recommended When a Pagan Prays by Nimue Brown is an ambitious book, and a courageous one. On my reading it blends two voices. The first offers a cool appraisal of prayer by a Pagan Druid strongly influenced by existentialist philosophy. It tells us that value and meaning are not written in the stars: we have to provide them for ourselves, and it’s our responsibility as self-aware humans to do so. The second voice describes a personal journey, essentially a recovery story centred on re-connection with the “numinous”. This leads to a re-frame of scepticism about prayer and a hard-won willingness to say: “I like prayer. I’m not angry with it any more. I’ll keep doing it, keep asking and searching, doubting and wondering”.

I will start with the second voice, for me the predominant voice of the book, though it takes a while to be heard. This is at least in part because of the author’s decision not to make retrospective changes to early chapters in which this “somewhat agnostic Druid took an academic interest in prayer” and had not yet found that this “wasn’t going to work”. The shift came when she began an experimental practice and stayed with it long enough for it to bear fruit. She was helped by Thich Nhat Hanh’s view of how prayer affects us: “when love and compassion are present in us, and we send those outwards, then that is truly prayer”. This allowed a move away from an originally limited framing of prayer as petitionary prayer to named Deity/Deities) into something more spacious and allowing. As a Druid, she was also partly influenced by the idea of kami – the spirits or phenomena revered in Japanese Shinto. As spirits of the elements in nature, or ancestors, or animals, creationary forces in the universe, part of nature and not separate from it, such beings seemed on a scale approachable through attunement, potentially available for conversation.

At night and on the edge of sleep, the author decided to see what happened when she opened her heart and sought peace with herself. She wasn’t seeking “grace or purity”, but “wholeness, wellness, connection”. Prayer became “an act of opening awareness”, of being open to the numinous, open to the divine. She stood before the unknown, holding her mind in a state of readiness, not expecting coherence, in a place that is perhaps beyond both doubt and belief. And she was thus willing, both to say “my prayer has had real and discernable effects for me” and that “this proves nothing”. In the end she says: “there are aspects of being that cannot be usefully discussed in terms of ‘realness’. That may be where the gods live”. A voice that at first has been buried, and then emerged in a hesitant way, can now celebrate re-connecting with the felt numinosity of early life, able to let go of the “defensive rationalism” that for a time played a necessary role.

The rational voice, the first voice, still has its place. This book isn’t all personal story. It considers the nature of prayer, the ethics of prayer, the social functions of prayer, and practicalities of prayer. It looks at the relationships between prayer and ritual, prayer and magic, and the idea of life itself as prayer if lived prayerfully. The author thinks through prayer as a concept (or set of related concepts), and its context, and how most effectively and ethically to pray. This voice too is an honest voice. It does not make assumptions, or hypnotise the reader into agreement. We are asked to think and reflect. In the end, the first voice becomes the servant of the second. It’s questioning both demands and enables the integrity of the author’s personal experiment in prayer. The resulting fruits of practice, and the conclusions of the book, are owed to the presence of both voices, and the author’s willingness to be loyal to them both through a time when they were as yet unreconciled.


For some while most of my meditation has been about cultivating awareness in the here-and-now, somewhat in the manner now widely packaged as ‘mindfulness’. But it wasn’t always so. Over my life as a whole, I’ve had more investment in meditations that explore inner world imagery. These include the contemplation of still images (like Tarot trumps), OBOD’s sacred grove practice, visualisations involving journeys and encounters, and active imagination – Jung’s name for spontaneous and meaningful ‘daydreams’.

A little while ago I had such a daydream, and it got me wondering whether this kind of experience will again find a place in my life. It was during the day, in high summer. But I had a powerful and compelling image of a late twilight, lit by a near full moon, well into the autumn. I was standing in an altered, or stylised, version of a real place. I was at the edge of a park in Bristol (although it was wilder in the vision) overlooking the Bristol Avon. My eyes turned left, and I could see a more primitive version of the Clifton suspension bridge, a small city of lights in what is now Clifton on the far bank of the river, and the vague shape of the gorge. I was standing by a willow tree (a real one, with which I have had a connection for many years). I was approached by an androgynous young person, clearly a messenger from the city of lights visible above me on the Clifton side. And I was invited to remember that in this scene I am everything that I can imagine, or I would not be imagining it.

So over time I have become the wild park, the tree, deep twilight, the moon, the river, the bridge, the gorge, the city of lights, the messenger and the message. I can make a story about them all and interpret it. The symbolism is archetypal and so in a sense obvious enough. But I’ve held off doing too much of that. I’m more concerned with the power and suggestiveness of the individual images. Overall, I take it as a declaration that my active imagination channel is open, with a strong sense that I should allow the images their spontaneity and not turn this into a formal practice. I already have a formal practice, and it is fine as it is. This is something different.


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.


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



For me, ‘self’ is a vulnerable, unstable, temporary construct – yet one we are still programmed to develop, and as real as anything in the apparent world.  Speaking for ‘myself’ I might put it like this: arising from a chaos of confused and contradictory perceptions, needs and desires; easily stressed and distressed, prone to distorted assessments of the world and my place in it, the process of ‘selving’ is nonetheless a necessary personal and social skill. For better and for worse, it makes me human.

So I’m not a fully paid up subscriber to the view of ‘self’ as simply a misguided idea (though I do go along with ‘no separate self’). But I can value the pure version of the no-self approach as an occasional lens to use. A good look can yield valuable insights.  The radical non-dualist writer J. Jennifer Matthews shows how:

“‘Selving’ is a misunderstanding which causes us to problematize our experience. As soon as we postulate an independent and closed self, we start to bother ourselves.

“Allow me to speak for myself. I have been possessed by a kind of madness. This madness takes shape as a definite tendency to fixate on a person or way of life as my salvation. I abandon the ordinary; the day-to-day. I go for the highest, the most intense experiences, which allow me the most special and rarefied self-images. I reject what is right in front of me, and situate passionate dedication into the receding future.

“Oh alienating desire, that poison of the mind, which makes my friends’ faces foreign; the blue sky dull, food tasteless, and my passions mere shades, however fervently I pursue them! When I am in this particular, er, frame of mind, I keep trying to get to the part of the story where the heartache stops, as Gordon Lightfoot would say. And when I finally manage to stop this, or to use my favourite phrase, when I finally ‘start stopping’ here is the mystery. Right here.

“These crows cawing outside my window, have they always been here? And what about this rain, making soft riplets in the puddles on the walk?”

J. Jennifer Matthews (2010) Radically condensed instructions for being just as you are