contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: May, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: STALKING THE GODDESS

jhp4ec2908d688eb_9781780991733_Stalking%20The%20Goddess_72Stalking the Goddess by Mark Carter was published by Moon Books in 2012 and is a critical examination of Robert Graves’ iconic The White Goddess. Carter has done a thorough job and I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in the subject specifically, or in modern Druid and Pagan culture more widely.  He painstakingly examines Graves’ sources of inspiration, sources of information, working methods and conclusions. He also looks at the extraordinary impact of The White Goddess over the period since its publication in 1948, especially on the growing neo-pagan community – much of it surprising to Graves himself. Stalking the Goddess (a title I have to say I don’t much care for) is of course dependent on The White Goddess for its interest and very existence, so I find I can’t talk about the one without the other.

What was Graves doing in The White Goddess that mattered so much?

Firstly, he took up suggestions from 19th and earlier 20th century literature (The Golden Bough being the single major source) about a primal religion based on sacrificial kingship. He linked it to ideas of an early political matriarchy that pre-dated human knowledge of paternity and began to weaken thereafter. In bronze and iron age times, Graves saw Europe from Bulgaria to Ireland subject to struggles and migrations in which increasingly patriarchal warrior peoples put a steadily intensifying pressure on opponents who, whilst themselves less and less likely to have matriarchal political systems, nonetheless preserved conservative features like strong Goddess traditions, matrilineal succession, and a view of the feminine as representing sovereignty over the land.  He also followed writers like Charles Leland and Margaret Murray in understanding medieval witchcraft as an underground pagan tradition in conscious struggle with the fully Romanised Christian church as aggressively representative of a wholly comprehensive expression of patriarchy in both religion and politics.

Graves also suggested that, in Celtic lands, there was a second dissident group that survived well into the medieval period and indeed beyond.  These were the Bards, descendants of the Pagan Druids, preserving their secrets within often obscure poetry based on a little known or understood set of mythic references, and a magical system of writing, the ogham (itself with early origins in South East Europe). The ogham was not just a script, it was also a hand signalling system – and had its own set of magical correspondences, of which those with a group of sacred trees were the most potent.  The Bards as poets were in service to The White Goddess of the title. Graves believed that all true poets are in such service, whether they know it or not – citing more recent poets like Keats as an example. Graves placed himself in such a line, and used the inspired technique of ‘analeptic memory’ to extend his understanding when his sources didn’t give him all the answers he needed. He wanted to show that he was up with the relevant scholarship and that he could make a logical and evidence based case. But in the last analysis he wasn’t bound by these. He was (although he didn’t use this term) one of the awenydd, the inspired ones, not a philosopher or academic.

Carter’s contribution, in Stalking the Goddess, is the rigorous application to The White Goddess and some of Graves’ other work (for example The Greek Myths and King Jesus), of a critique which is itself now quite well known. Based on more recent (though not necessarily much more recent) scholarship than that available to Graves, it tells us that neither the approach of The Golden Bough, nor the view of matriarchy and its purported link to early Goddess worship, nor its overthrow, are supported by good evidence. Especially when dealing with pre-history (history before written records) modern scholars are tentative about what we can say that we know. There’s just not enough there for a powerful unifying story, partly at least because the evidence basis just isn’t suited to providing such a story, and partly perhaps because the actual stories may be much more diverse. In the case of medieval witchcraft, the available records concerning victims don’t fit the profile of Pagan Goddess devotees. In the case of Celtic Bards, the evidence shows ogham as an exclusively Irish writing system, created for the carving of simple messages, in use for a fairly short period in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. It may be that it was used, in a spirit of self-conscious antiquarianism, as a largely mnemonic device for the Bards of later centuries.  In terms of Graves’ reading of key works in the Welsh tradition – the Hanes Taliesin and Cad Goddeu in particular – Carter suggests that Graves “bent them to support his views”.

I am sure that this critique is essentially correct, simply because it is based on better information than the alternatives and argued plainly. I can’t of course vouch for every detail because I haven’t done any individual work. But I do have to recognise that Graves’ own approach involves a considerable element of dogmatic intuitionism and interpretative high-handedness. For me, in a context of advocacy, the latter characteristics weaken a case rather than strengthening it.

And yet … true criticality like this, using effective and ethical working methods, is its own kind of homage. Stalking the Goddess will not, and should not, demolish The White Goddess. It will help to keep it alive and rightly so.  When T.S. Eliot decided to accept The White Goddess for publication by Faber & Faber after several rejections from other publishers, he described it as “a prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable book”. Yet he published it all the same. I for one am glad that he did. With that health warning from the original Faber catalogue, alerted to not taking The White Goddess entirely on its own terms, I am free to let it into my spiritual imagination. I can walk to my favourite spot at Woodchester (the old churchyard). I can stand in the avenue of yews, knowing that most of the ogham trees are in easy distance, and that Orpheus lies underground nearby, in the form of an early fourth century Romano-British mosaic. It was custom made for the villa on that site by a specialist mosaic workshop in Cirencester (Corinium) notable for its work on Orphic themes. Orpheus was from the Rhodope Mountains in Thrace (once thought of as ‘Mount Haemus’). Graves thought that the ogham first came from Thrace, believing Orpheus’ dance of trees to be a “dance of letters”.  So here, now and in Woodchester is the lyricist who could charm animals, cause trees to circle dance, animate a new ship for a deep sea voyage, descend to the underworld and return, be torn to pieces by maenads and continue on as a talking head, uttering prophecies for Apollo. Rich themes for Romano-British people, perhaps also seeing resonances with their own native stories. Inspired and inspiring myth can survive any attempt to explain it, explain it away, or package it in overdetermined forms.

THE GARDEN AND THE GODDESS

I was sitting in meditation this morning, a simple attention-to-the-breath practice. I found myself flooded with a specific stream of imagery, and recognised three options. The first was to pull my attention back to the breath and keep it there. The second was to surf it awarely, with my attention focused on holding an observer position. The third was to surrender to it, also awarely – and to follow the images, the spontaneous stream of consciousness, and enter into them.

In the context I found the first choice a bit blinkered and almost aggressive and the second not quite satisfying. The third was the way to go. So I found myself in a garden, a walled garden, with the Song of the World, audible, expressing itself as the song of the sea not very far away. I recognised the place I was in. The garden was connected to a ruined temple, or chapel. I couldn’t determine what kind of people had built it, or worshipped there. It didn’t matter. The garden itself was the nemeton: tended not manicured, balancing cultivation and wildness.

At the centre of the garden was a fountain, surrounded by beds of roses, white and red. The rest of the garden was dedicated to fruit trees – apple, pear, peach, and also cherry – going so far indeed as to include fig and pomegranate and vines trained up the walls. There, too, was a white dove, moving between the trees. A magical place.

I knew this garden. It had changed somewhat, but I knew it. It was connected with the final version of the visualisation based meditations I used to do, in fact a modified version of the Sacred Grove meditation we do in OBOD. It’s my sacred space in the heart, an imaginal space in a realm of greater depth and interiority than the energetic heart centre, an Innerworld gateway to an intimated Otherworld.

When left to itself and not being edited by me for the purposes of Druidry, the feeling-tone is culturally at least as much Hellenistic and Levantine as indigenous and Celtic, and there are suggestions of places further away. At heart I am spiritually syncretistic and eclectic. When I first opted for Druidry as a community I chose OBOD because it provides a home for Druids of this ilk.

The garden has also, traditionally, been a place of the Goddess, a place for meeting and communion with Her.  When I used to do this practice, and named her, I called her Sophia – the Lady Wisdom.  But she has many names and took many forms. She was the fountain, the roses and the trees. She was garden itself, and the neighbouring sea. She was the dove. She could also be a serpent or an owl, especially at night in moonlight. But usually the garden was a day space, a solar space. I could feel her, more personally, as an invisible presence in the atmosphere of place. Very occasionally she appeared as a human woman – sometimes in the garden and focused on it, not engaging directly with me; more rarely still holding extended eye contact (‘soul-gazing’); once or twice standing behind me, Her hands on my shoulders. Today, in the vision of the garden, She returned to me, as deep recollection and as living presence.

Yet only a short time ago I wrote:

“The sense of the Goddess (under different names) as both cosmic birther and mentoring intermediary, which I have had throughout the whole period of my association with Druidry and Paganism, has died. This is not a matter of ultimate belief, where I have always had a form of non-dual view, but rather in a sense of a shift in archetypal poetics and psychology, of imaginal perception. It gives me a sense both of mourning and of release, of loss and of spaciousness”.

What do I make of this now? The dissolution of Goddess into Oran Mor (and of Oran Mor into latency, or Void, at some ultimate level) is a real experience.  The Goddess in the Garden is also a real experience – the experience of a numinous and compelling image. As I look at my previous words, ‘cosmic birther and mentoring intermediary’, I find them a little formulaic, a bit concrete and literal, and therefore a kind of subtle idolatry, by which I mean an unconscious manipulation of numinous imagery: re-making the Goddess in my image, rather than simply accepting the gift. It suggests an instrumental kind of relationship, with me covertly in charge whatever level of reverence or devotion I might proclaim: not quite authentic and not quite healthy. No wonder the Goddess dissolved. She had to, for a while.

The return feels different, because I’m allowing an image, giving space to it. An image is an image. The Goddess image has tremendous power, for me. It doesn’t ask for explanation or belief. It is just there, offering itself for connection. In the meditation of the garden, I let the image be. I don’t have a script. I don’t run a narrative. Of course the pattern of imagery builds an Innerworld presence of some consistency, as well as changing over time. Essentially, though, I let it be. I don’t go to the garden asking questions, asking for help, or entering into bargains, discussions and exchanges. They aren’t the point. The point is connection and deep communion. I used to think that breath meditation was passive and Innerworld work active. Now I think of it as almost the other way round.

CELEBRATIONS: THE SONG IN THE HEART IN THE SONG OF THE WORLD

Within my contemplative practice, I use a process called ‘celebrations’.

It is not a meditation as I use that term, because it includes discursive thinking and reflection.

It is not prayer: no being or presence or energy is addressed or born in mind as an auditor.

It is not lectio: it is based on a text I wrote myself, which I revise in the light of continuing inquiry and experience.

It is not simple ‘affirmation’ – because it works with an edge and can bring up ‘negative’ feelings and experiences of alienation, as well as being pleasurable and affirming.

The sequence, which can take variable amounts of time to work through, goes like this:

Celebrating body and senses.

Celebrating life energy.

Celebrating feelings, thoughts and images.

Celebrating the space inside the breath, and the healing in that space.

Celebrating the song in the heart in the song of the world:

Living presence, in a field of living presence,

Always enough; always at home.

I don’t say ‘I celebrate my …’. In this practice I use the gerund ‘celebrating’ and leave out ‘my’ so as to keep the focus processual and thereby avoid turning it in to a ‘who am I?’ practice. Such practices are widely available and are designed to disidentify practitioners from the body, senses, life energy, feelings, thoughts, images, ‘I-ness’ (or ego), finally to rest in an observer position, which, despite the residual dualism in the whole notion of observation, is often seen as the threshold of an enlightenment or theosis. In this practice I want to stay immersed in the process, and leave the ‘I’ question out.

I owe ‘celebrating’ to my background in humanistic psychology and co-counselling in particular. In a therapeutic context a phrase like ‘celebrating body’ could easily provide an ample agenda for a weekend workshop, given the level of negative body image and negative body experience that people find themselves dealing with  – but also given the joy and liberation that come with healing. For the invitation to ‘celebrate’ paradoxically evokes distress, where the way of ‘celebration’ at best seems artificial and a worst a cruel mockery. The work is to stay with the notion of celebration, to give the distress its due and then let it go, and find a place where there is something authentically to celebrate. In the therapeutic context, a number of methods may be used to assist this process. In the contemplative context, aware contemplation itself can have a transmuting effect.  When I turn my attention to my body and run through what’s going on throughout my body and five senses, I generally find myself noticing the strains, anxieties and discomforts of the moment and then moving to a celebration of embodiment itself, the sheer gift of being in this world, in this way, at this time and with this experience. The same is true of life energy, feelings, thoughts and images.

At the fourth line, ‘Celebrating the space inside the breath, and the healing in that space’ I find a change in feeling tone, since the practice tends to become naturally celebratory – though this is not always the case, since I may feel cut off from the power of contemplative practice itself. For this is an affirmation of meditative states in their therapeutic aspect, and I tend to drop in to a fully meditative state during this phase, letting go for a while of the words and celebration, indeed of the exercise itself for a period.

At the fifth line, I move to my sense of the Oran Mor (the song in the heart in the song of the world), which celebrates my sense of the numinous, of my connection to or involvement in Mystery. The last two lines introduce no new celebration. They are an elaboration of ‘celebrating the song in the heart in the song of the world’.  I said in a recent post that I experienced the Goddess dissolving into the Oran Mor. In this practice I may likewise almost experience the ‘song in the heart’ dissolve into ‘the song of the world’. I can certainly visualise and intuit this. Terms like ‘song in the heart’, Goddess, Oran Mor, become porous and hard to distinguish. Yet here too, in this section of the practice, I can also experience dis-connection and alienation. If I find myself needing to accept this as my actual state, then the celebration is of the words themselves and the recognition that I wrote them myself, with integrity, at an earlier time: it is me who is reminding myself of what becomes available in a state of openness and celebration.

POEM: BLOSSOM

This poem, by Jay Ramsay, was recently published on Philip Carr-Gomm’s weblog. I like it very much.

THE BLOSSOMING for Martin

You know the story. After months of grey

rain, wind and weather wet

the cherry blossom suddenly appears

with the merest touch of late April sun,

its three or four day lover. Blossom

filling the branches, and up against the blue

as you gaze up…its delicate pale pink chandeliers

each hanging by a thread, intact.

But then three days of blasting wind

billowing up the path, around the house

battering it, beating at it, torn

down in bucketfuls, coating the front bed

and the lawn inches deep—

with the waste of it only just blossomed.

Why do you care? Because it’s moved you

because every beautiful thing you’ve seen

has entered your heart, aware or unaware

becoming part of you extending out

you can’t escape now, it’s too late

your heart is open and it can’t close again.

You care because it’s all you are

this beautiful ravaged world now

resurrected then crucified…and as the wind dies

with all we still have, as it returns.

I call it poetry, with or without words

the one language we know without speaking

that seeks us out from the Beginning

because it knows we must blossom

there is no other hope, no other way

to become human, but to love, and lose

turned inside out and outside in—

and this, my God and yours, is the operation.

“THE WORSHIP OF THE GODS IS NOT WHAT MATTERS” BY BRENDAN MYERS

I’ve been writing this week about the possibilities of a non-theistic approach to contemplative druidry, and potential synergies between druidry and forms of humanism. So I’ve enjoyed coming across ventures into similar territory by Brendan Myers, the Canadian philosopher, pagan and druid.

Humanistic Paganism

“The sacred, I shall say, is that which acts as your partner in the search for the highest and deepest things: the real, the true, the good, and the beautiful.” —Circles of Meaning, Labyrinths of Fear

I don’t normally see omens or other messages from the gods in the way many other pagans say they do. I’m not especially interested in ritual or magic or spellcraft. I do not sense auras, I do not feel the energies, I do not read tarot cards or cast the runes. In fact, around ten years ago or so, I hit upon one of the most liberating and life-changing propositions ever to have entered my mind, which is that the worship of the gods is not what matters. What, then, am I still doing in the pagan community? And if the worship of the gods isn’t what matters, then what does?

People…

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JOHN HERON AND ‘FOURTH WAVE’ HUMANISM

Western Humanism, in John Heron’s view, comes in waves. The first began in 5th century BC Greece, when the Sophists and Socrates “called philosophy down from heaven to earth” by introducing social, political and moral questions. The second began in the Italian Renaissance, which affirmed the worth and dignity of human achievement over against the Christian pre-occupation with sin. The third began with the Enlightenment of the 18th century and became the rational scientific, secular and atheistic humanism of modern times. For Heron, there has also been a fourth wave, distinct in many respects from the third, which began in the domain of humanistic psychology.

The two primary protagonists of humanistic psychology, which emerged in the USA in 1961, were Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. At that time they were clearly aligned to the humanism of the third wave. Maslow was concerned to demonstrate that “spiritual values have naturalistic meaning; that they are not the exclusive possession of organized churches; that they do not need supernatural concepts to justify them; that they are well within the jurisdiction of a suitably enlarged science.” Rogers had a more experiential and phenomenological approach: “It is to experience that I must return again and again; to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming in me. Neither the Bible nor the prophets – neither Freud nor research – neither the revelations of God nor man – can take precedence over my direct experience.”

Over time, both Maslow and Rogers shifted their views. Maslow and other colleagues like Stanislav Grof, became increasingly concerned that they had left out a ‘spiritual’ element within the human psyche and wanted a psychology “that would honour the entire spectrum of human experience, including various non-ordinary states of consciousness”. So they invented a new discipline of ‘transpersonal psychology’ that over time came to be supported by existing, in some ways more traditional, psychological movements with a spiritual dimension – such as the successors of Carl Jung (including the archetypal psychology of James Hillman) and the psychosynthesis tradition initiated by Roberto Assagioli. Carl Rogers was slower to embrace spirituality within psychology and didn’t involve himself in the transpersonal movement. But towards the end of his life he spoke increasingly of presence, inner spirit and self-transcending relationship. “I find that when I am closest to my inner intuitive self, when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me then whatever I do seems full of healing. Then simply my presence is releasing and helpful to the other. When I can be relaxed and close to the transcendental core of me it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself and becomes part of something larger”.

John Heron draws on Rogers for his understanding of a fourth humanist wave. The core precept of fourth wave humanism concerns animation through reaching out and connection: an animism of process rather than ideology. It differs from the doctrinally naturalist view of the third wave by suggesting that our reality exists within a field of what might be called divine potential, or becoming: “the self-determining capacity of humans … presupposes a dynamic context of spiritual animation/inspiration [NB reminiscent of imbhas/awen in Druid tradition] in which persons can actively participate”. In Carl Rogers’ terms, inner spirit reaches out, touches the inner spirit of the other, thereby transcending itself and becoming part of something larger. In Heron’s language, spirit exists within us, between us (named by someone in one in one of his groups as “the band of golden silence”) and beyond us, where an ‘I am’ statement can bring us to a threshold “where personal consciousness is open to consciousness that is anywhere and everywhere”.

Fourth wave humanism, though grounded in human experience, moves on from the exclusivist human centric stance of the third wave. Spiritual animation occurs between people, between people and place and other kinds of beings in that place, or between other kinds of beings independently of humans – the “deep resonance” between trees in the forest is one obvious example. Indeed, like the second wave humanism of the Renaissance, fourth wave humanism makes provision for (but does not insist on) an Otherworld within an extended view of nature/spirit/reality – one with denizens who may be available for animating connection. It is understood that different people – indeed beings – are gifted with different bandwidths of perception, which they will then give an account of in different ways in the light of both personal and cultural factors.

Fourth wave humanism has a strong view of personhood, but one with an alert sense of the tension between the individual and universal. “The spiritual animation between people appears to have a basic polarity, a radical and dynamic complementarity: there is the impulse to realize the individual distinctiveness of being and the impulse to realize interactive unity within wider fields of being … it is a subtle balance: too much individualism leads to egocentric narcissism; too much universalism leads to spiritual fascism, authoritarianism and oppression.” Sometimes, as an alternative to fourth wave humanism, Heron uses the term ‘participatory spirituality’ or a ‘participatory paradigm’ as his world view. This is supported by various co-operative endeavours involving a delicate dance of hierarchy, peer co-operation and personal autonomy and by the discipline of spiritual inquiry.

There is much more to be said, and Humanism: the fourth wave, can be found in full on http://www.human-inquiry.com/hum4.htm I spent many years teaching co-counselling, the peer and reciprocal support system at the heart of John Heron’s work, and also (against my career interests) undertook both Masters and Doctoral degrees using co-operative inquiry, his other major working method, as my methodology. So in a sense this kind of understanding is an embodied part of me – inevitably not in quite the way presented by John Heron himself. I don’t now use either co-counselling or co-operative inquiry as working practices. But I do see my current direction as one of synthesising the best of ‘fourth wave humanism’ with the best of modern Druidry: I discern fruitful synergies between them. My view and practice of Contemplative Druidry (both personal and group based) have already incorporated aspects of this approach. This can be taken further.  For me, embodied and lived ideas inform our stand in life and influence its effectiveness. They have consequences in the wider world.

CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY, THE ORAN MOR, AND FARE-WELLING DEITY

I want to say three in things in this post. The first is to clarify what I mean by contemplative inquiry, the name of this blog, and outline the implications of calling it contemplative inquiry rather than contemplative Druidry. The second is to describe my recent contemplations on the Oran Mor, or Great Song, the metaphor which has become central in how I experience my world. The third is to explain my decisive shift to a non-theistic spirituality.

Contemplative inquiry, for me, is a living process and the heart of my spiritual identity. My Druidry itself is subject to the inquiry, and in consequence my contemplative life doesn’t work through marinating me in a received tradition and leading me into experiences that are declared to be the appropriate fruits of the practice. That’s why I’m glad to be in a young tradition, where the jelly still hasn’t set. I work with feelings, thoughts, insights and intuitions arising from my practice and reflection. I’ve abandoned the high language of ‘gnosis’ because it suggests pre-mapped attainments, privileged cosmic knowledge already somehow present and waiting to be discovered in the experience of the practitioner. That’s not what happens for me: everything is tentative and provisional and the aim, if it is an aim, is to sit within an expanded story of being, one that has integrity and can frame abundant life.

How does this apply to the Oran Mor, an auditory metaphor which takes in all my senses and synaesthetically extends them? I can enjoy the sound of a sunrise, the felt resonance of trees, and the lingering note of a caress.  All are encompassed in the Oran Mor. My experience of the Oran Mor confirms for me the felt sense of not being separate or alone. Behind the Oran Mor, and interweaving it, is a silence – not a cold silence, but a warm silence of fecund latency. The Oran Mor points beyond itself as a sensory experience to that underlying substrate of energy, that pulse and vibration of the cosmos, whose fruits include the privilege of our time-bound 3D being. I am the Oran Mor, currently a distinct though passing note within the greater pattern of the Song. So are you. Many forms of communion are available within the Oran Mor.

The invitation to us is to sing our own note within the Song. For all that we are interconnected and interdependent, the way in which we sing the note involves something distinct and individual, a personal existential choice: this at least is the human experience. It works best if we are awake to the rest the Song, as manifested in other notes, in the greater patterns, and the silence. This is why I’ve started to use the word ‘attunement’, despite its hackneyed New Age ring: it’s an accurate description of something I want to do.

As I’ve deepened into this sense of the Oran Mor and how it shapes me, there are certain words that are becoming more pertinent and powerful. In my morning practice I have for some years used the words known either as St. Patrick’s prayer or the 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.’

I experience this as a summarising the Oran Mor – that which is – in a way that has a contemplative and prayerful aspect, makes good liturgy, and is not a petitionary prayer. I do not pray to the Oran Mor. I do not think of the Oran Mor as our Celtic ancestors did, as a name for God. I do not use it a translation of what is often meant by ‘Spirit’. The ‘I’ who arises is as much included in the Oran Mor as the sun, moon, fire, lightning, wind, sea, earth and rock. In the experience of the Oran Mor, there is no distinction between ‘Spirit’ and ‘Nature’. There’s a sense in which, despite their pragmatic value in everyday use, both terms become redundant.

I’m also continuing to work with the Ceile De fonn A Hu Thi (ah – hoo – hee), using simple breath and silent sounding, first described in an earlier post at https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/3/6/. For me this continues to describe and enact the eternally-co-creative aspect of the Oran Mor. I find in my world that the A sets up a sense of latency, a subtle pulse and vibration on the brink of becoming. I feel it in the quality of my inbreath, as a kinaesthetic song. Hu the outbreath feels more vigorous and intentional; there’s a real sense of movement, expressed as exhalation – the breath moves out from my body, through my nostrils. Thi breathed in feels like the delighted expression of a new reality, the world born again in every moment.

The last effect of my continuing engagement with the Oran Mor concerns Brighde as Goddess and it is very recent. Essentially, the Goddess dissolves into the Oran Mor and I find myself fare-welling deity in my poetry of practice. The sense of the Goddess (under different names) as both cosmic birther and mentoring intermediary, which I have had throughout the whole period of my association with Druidry and Paganism, has died. This is not a matter of ultimate belief, where I have always had a form of non-dual view, but rather in a sense of a shift in archetypal poetics and psychology, of imaginal perception. It gives me a sense both of mourning and of release, of loss and of spaciousness.

I am aware of talking about language and imagery, about subjective experience. I do not presume to make statements about the cosmos or recommend ‘beliefs’ to others on the strength of my work or its evolution, or to use it either to question or to validate anyone else’s path. I’m in the throes of letting go a profoundly significant image and concept, one that has had a defining role in my spirituality, and I find it a very considerable attachment to let go of. I did not expect this. It will take a bit of getting used to, actually a lot of getting used to. It is a very significant change. Yet it is the fruit of honest inquiry – of meditative and contemplative practice, and reflection thereon. My trackless path, it seems, is wholly non-theistic.

REFLECTION ON CHINESE POETRY

In his poem Written on a Cold Evening Yang Wan-li* writes:

The poet must work with brush and paper,

but this is not what makes the poem.

A man doesn’t go in search of a poem –

The poem comes in search of him.

I realise, that when I read or present classical Chinese poems, I am not just working with translations from another language, but with translations from a completely different approach to the art of writing itself. So here I’ve added a piece about Chinese calligraphy, taken from an article by Dawn Delbanco, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University which is available on: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chcl/hd_chcl.htm

Calligraphy, or the art of writing, was the visual art form prized above all others in traditional China, revered as a fine art long before painting. What makes the written language distinctive is its visual form. Unlike written words formed from alphabets, Chinese characters convey more than phonetic sound or semantic meaning. Written words play multiple roles: not only does a character denote specific meanings, but its very form manifests the energy of the human body and the vitality of nature itself. Writings on calligraphy use nature metaphors to describe the sense of wonder, the elemental power, conveyed by written words:

“[When viewing calligraphy,] I have seen the wonder of a drop of dew glistening from a dangling needle, a shower of rock hailing down in a raging thunder, a flock of geese gliding [in the sky], frantic beasts stampeding in terror, a phoenix dancing, a startled snake slithering away in fright.” (Sun Guoting, 7th century)

How can a simple character convey all this? The seeming simplicity of the tools is belied by the complexity of effects. A multiplicity of effect is produced in part by varying the consistency and amount of ink carried by the brush. Black ink is formed into solid sticks or cakes that are ground in water on a stone surface to produce a liquid. Calligraphers can control the thickness of the ink by varying both the amount of water and the solid ink that is ground. Once they start writing, by loading the brush sometimes with more ink, sometimes with less, by allowing the ink to almost run out before dipping the brush in the ink again, they create characters that resemble a shower of rock here, the wonder of a drop of dew there.

Unlike a rigid instrument such as a stylus or a ballpoint pen, a flexible hair brush allows not only for variations in the width of strokes, but, depending on whether one uses the tip or side of the brush, one can create either two-dimensional or three-dimensional effects. Depending on the speed with which one wields the brush and the amount of pressure exerted on the writing surface, one can create a great variety of effects. The brush becomes an extension of the writer’s arm, indeed, their entire body. The physical gestures produced by the wielding of the brush reveal much more than physical motion; they reveal much of the writers themselves – their impulsiveness, restraint, elegance, rebelliousness.

I would add that this kind of writing enacts the dance between ‘emptiness and form’ referred to in the Buddhist Heart Sutra (a favourite text in China) and the earlier references to that same dance in the Tao Te Ching, where it says, less abstractly:

Thirty spokes meet in the hub

Where the wheel isn’t, is where it’s useful.

Hollowed out, clay makes a pot

Where the pot’s not is where it’s useful.

Cut doors and windows to make a room.

Where the room isn’t, there’s room for you.

So the profit in what is, is in the use of what isn’t. **

In Chinese calligraphy and painting the empty spaces can be as significant as the filled ones. The two cannot be separated and this is an enduring lesson both of Chinese arts and spirituality (in their Taoist and Buddhist influenced versions). For me it’s a key lesson of the contemplative journey in any culture.

*From Yang Wan-li Heaven my Blanket: Earth my Pillow: Poems from Sung Dynasty China New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1975 (Translated and introduced by Jonathan Chaves)

** From Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: a Book about the Way and the Power of the Way Shambhala: Boston & London, 1998 (new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin)

 

ANIMISTIC HERMETICS

Following my last post I have received requests to describe ‘Animistic Hermetics’.

Animistic Hermetics involves going out into nature and carefully selecting something to work with. This might be something obviously alive, like a leaf or plant. It might be something conventionality regarded as inanimate, like earth or stone.

Once this is done, we go back into a group setting where the facilitator takes us through a 7 step process:

  1. An attunement to energetic self-awareness
  2. if granted permission, attunement to the chosen form (e.g. leaf, stone) in all senses
  3. a full meeting, approaching, merging, identification with the chosen form
  4. a withdrawal from the identification, and a parting with thanks
  5.  re-connection with energetic self-awareness
  6. writing/drawing
  7. sharing if appropriate

Elaine Knight, who has developed this practice in the form presented, adds:

“The steps 1 to 5 involve an energetic level of activation, attunement and sensing, meeting and communion, separation and return. Be respectful, ask permission and give thanks. Be receptive and open to what arises. Ground yourself well on your return. I recommend that the practice be guided by someone experienced and that plenty of time is allowed for each stage.

“I would like to thank Julie Bond for sharing her Lectio Divina reading from the book of nature as it inspired me to use my own energy work and hermetic practice in a completely different way.

“The attunement I use involves activating the light body and becoming aware of one’s core star. My hermetic journeying practice was originally concerned with the inner world  This practice however involves an open encounter and communion with a object co-existing in the apparent world.  An “I – Thou” experience rather than an “I – it” experience to quote Graham Harvey.  To date the experiences reported by those participating have been overwhelmingly animistic and often bardic and poetic. Animism and Hermetics I believe sit well together and I look forward to further encounters and explorations using the practice of Animistic Hermetics.”

GROUP WORK IN CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY

In a recent blog post on https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/4/26/ I discussed the first weekend retreat offered by Contemplative Druid Events. I talked three about “developing a tradition” but I didn’t say much about the kind of work we did. Here I look at group practice in Contemplative Druidry and where I see my own place and contribution.

For me the retreat confirmed an existing sense of what a Contemplative Druid group looks like, certainly as developed through Contemplative Druid Events so far.

  • We are offering something different from a collective extension of solo practice. My solo practice is fairly typical of contemplative work in any tradition: a specific ritual and liturgical framework holds long periods of sitting meditation, with shorter periods of walking meditation, exercise and energy work. The group practice we’ve developed includes these, whilst being more outward-looking and interactive – more relational.
  • Our approach is especially suited to small groups – about 8-12 people – allowing time for people to build community and to share and process experience. We also place value on formal sharing, getting to know each other through introductory and check-in processes, reconnecting each morning through a process called ‘overnight phenomena’ and engaging in specific exercises where we have the opportunity to reveal a bit more about ourselves (or not) with supportive attention.
  • We practice ‘lean ritual’, minimalist and powerful, thoroughly grounded in Druid and Pagan tradition, which holds us in a dedicated Contemplative Druid circle and marks transitions in our group process within that circle. We build periods of silent attunement, 5-10 minutes long, into our ritual and transitioning spaces.
  • As a defining group practice, we have ‘Awen space’ and we chant the Awen for a period when entering and exiting that space. We open ourselves, becoming more receptive and sensitive, more present to what is in us, between us and in the space. Whatever follows will be whatever it is. Some of the time we remain silently aware of group and space; some of the time we chant, talk or sing, surrounded by silent attention which continues into the after echo of the sound. On this retreat we had a 45 minute Awen space following directly on from a 15 minute meditation
  • We are in some sense an experimental group. We’ve looked at various ways of incorporating sound, music and movement. We have used both ‘Lectio Divina from the Book of Nature’ and ‘Animist Hermetics’ – similar activities with different pedigrees and different philosophical assumptions, and looked at the different results that they produce. We have included long silent walking meditations outdoors and are looking to add a long narratised walking meditation outdoors later this year. What difference will that make? We have had one led session of ‘belly-breathing’ meditation (actually belly-heart-head with belly first and foremost) that seems highly congruent with Earth spiritualities and Druidry in particular. It isn’t the cauldron of Poesy (being more naturalistic), but it has a certain cousinship to it: another valuable exploration.
  • We have started to build a cadre of facilitators who, amongst our many roles in life and Druidry, are able to co-lead groups under the banner of Contemplative Druid Events.

It is likely – and desirable – that we will see other people picking up the ‘contemplative’ meme in Druidry and Paganism more widely.  There will be many approaches. But I’m clear that my personal focus and fealty are to the stream of work I’ve been involved in since the first Contemplative Druid day in July 2012. The work described above has followed on from that and it is still very much a work in progress.

For information on Contemplative Druid Events, or the books Contemplative Druidry and Druidry and Meditation, please see http://contemplativedruidevents.tumblr.com/.