contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Paganism

HYPATIA

March 15 is a day of remembrance for Hypatia, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer from Alexandria in Roman Egypt. Hypatia is claimed both as a Pagan and an Atheist martyr, for in 415 or 416 a mob of Christian zealots dragged her into a church, stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. Then they tore her body apart and burnt it. Her crime was a combination of her gender, education, non-Christian views and role as a publicly respected teacher.

In an article for Smithsonian.com (1), Sarah Zielinski says, “though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life is a fascinating lens through which we may view the plight of science in an era of religious and sectarian conflict”. Hypatia’s life (350/70? – 415/16?) was devoted to the Alexandrian Academy, where she was the pupil and subsequently colleague of her father Theon. She became the head of the Academy on his death and as a teacher is best remembered for her contribution to mathematics.

Hypatia has been described as “the first recognizably Neoplatonic teacher in Alexandria” (2), which links her into a belief system in which everything emanates from the One, but where the One is not the personal God of popular religion. Her pupils included Synesius of Cyrene, who later became a Christian Bishop of Ptolemais. Her public lectures were popular and drew crowds. “Donning the robe of a scholar, the lady made appearances around the centre of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato and Aristotle”, wrote the philosopher Damascius after her death.

She was also admired by Orestes, the Roman Governor of Alexandria. But this was less of a protection than it might seem. For many years, the city had been beset by fighting among Christians, Jews and Pagans, as the pressure for religious uniformity grew. Notable casualties included the city’s once famous Library and Museum. The last remnants “likely disappeared … in 391, when the Archbishop Theophilus tore down the temple of Serapis, which may have housed the remaining scrolls, and built a church on the site” (1). Hypatia’s father, Theon, was the last known member of the Museum. The Academy continued, with Theon and Hypatia working together, and then with Hypatia by herself taking pupils at home. Lessons included instruction on how to design an astrolabe, a kind of portable astronomic calculator that continued in use until the nineteenth century. Hypatia also wrote commentaries on important texts of the day.

In 412 Alexandria got a new Archbishop – Cyril, nephew to Theophilus. The hostile pressure on other faiths, now including Christian heresies, continued. One of Cyril’s first actions was to close and plunder the Churches of the Novatian sect. It became a fight over who controlled Alexandria. The Governor Orestes was a Christian, but not in this bigoted form, and in any case did not want to cede power to the Church. In 415 a three-sided feud broke out over the regulation of Jewish dancing exhibitions in Alexandria (3), with the Jewish community, Cyril’s Christian faction and the civil power all taking different positions. It seems that Orestes consulted Hypatia for neutral advice. The situation escalated. Orestes tortured one of Cyril’s followers on suspicion of instigating an anti-Jewish riot; Cyril then threatened “utmost severities” against the whole Jewish population; a group of Jewish extremists responded by killing several of his followers. At this point Cyril “rounded up all the Jews of Alexandria, then ordered them to be stripped of all possessions, banished them from Alexandria, and allowed their goods to be pillaged by the remaining citizens of Alexandria”.

Orestes was incensed and wrote to the Emperor, “excessively aggrieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population”. Cyril, too, wrote to the Emperor. Then he changed tack and tried to restore relations with Orestes, but Orestes refused. Cyril changed tack again and brought down 500 monks of “a very fiery disposition” from the mountains of Nitria into the city. They attacked Orestes’ chariot in the street and tried to stone him to death, but they were driven off. One of the monks, who had struck the Governor on the head with a rock, was arrested and executed. Cyril’s people had come off worst and needed a counter blow.

Hypatia was an easier target than Orestes. A rumour was spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from settling their differences. A contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus of Constantinople, tells of “the fierce and bigoted zeal” with which she was waylaid, and the great public revulsion against the Alexandrian Christian community that followed her brutal murder. He laments, “surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort” (3). But 200 years later, in a world of deepened Orthodoxy, John of Nikiu celebrates the final defeat of Pagan idolatry “And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a Pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes, and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles … a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the Magistrate … and they proceeded to seek for the Pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the Prefect through her enchantments”. John seems entirely at ease as he goes on to recount the story of Hypatia’s death.

Even in later times Hypatia remained controversial. The Deist/Pantheist scholar John Toland defended her in the early eighteenth century. but got a spirited reply from Thomas Lewis, in a 1721 tract The History of Hypatia, a most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria, Murder’d and torn to Pieces by the Populace, in Defence of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy, from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland. In 1853 Charles Kingsley needed to adjust history. Hypatia; or New Foes with an Old Face initially portrays the scholar as a “helpless, pretentious and erotic heroine”, though later she is redeemed her through her conversion by a Jewish Christian character, Raphael Aben-Ezra, having supposedly become disillusioned with Orestes.

More recently, Hypatia has attracted more favourable attention from people as diverse as Carl Sagan and Judy Chicago. Iain Pears features a Hypatia-like figure in his novel A Dream of Scipio. Maria Dzielska published Hypatia of Alexandria, a scholarly study of her life, in 1995 and Michael Deakin wrote a book of the same name in 2007. The Indiana University Press publishes Hypatia: a Journal of Feminist Philosophy. The Spanish film Agora tells a fictional story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) struggling to save the library from Christian zealots, which is nonetheless faithful to the issues raised by her life and death. For me Hypatia’s is a living story, with lessons still to offer. It is well worth a day of remembrance.

 

  • Pauliina Remes Neoplatonism Stocksfield: Acumen Press, 2008

 

 

 

WARMEST WISHES

In my final blog of 2016, I want to send all readers my warmest wishes at the turn of the year – as we move through the  winter/summer solstice and into 2017.

Among other things, this is a time when I feel the force of strong invitations to reflect in specific ways about the season. Generally I am happy to follow these suggestions to a large extent. But I am also checking in to my more personal and idiosyncratic response to this point in the year.

I’m in a misty muggy valley in a warmish seeming winter. The sky is overcast and it is relatively dry. I don’t feel traditionally seasonal, though I do feel comfortable, and I do resonate with the subtle tensions of stilling and latency in the land.

I want to lie fallow, right now. It feels like the creative thing to do. I’ve decided to do less reading and writing – and therefore also blogging – for a while. I believe it will be good for me. I am not making a vow, or time specific commitment. But my direction is to hold off blogging for two or three months. In the meantime this blog as it stands will continue to be available and I will respond to any comments that might come in. As 2017 develops, I will get a sense of whether (and if so how) to return to posting..

Once again – warmest wishes to all, now and for the future.

 

 

MIDWINTER THOUGHTS

I am tuning in to midwinter, before it gets overlaid with festivity. Outside, I encounter skeletal trees and the dying back of the land. Inside, I am half inclined to hibernate. I am sleeping longer and more heavily at night. During waking hours, I want to pars everything down. I want to be simple and minimalist.

This mood includes me and ideas. I want to shut them down for a while. But before I do, one topic is holding my attention: agnosticism and its spiritual value. I feel nudged to write now and then leave my seed thoughts to germinate when 2017 gets under way.

Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor says, “the force of the term ‘agnosticism’ has been lost. It has come to mean: not to hold an opinion about the questions of life and death; to say ‘I don’t know’ when you really mean ‘I don’t want to know’” (1). He goes on to say that “for T.H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through the rigorous application of a single principle’. He expressed this principle positively as: ‘Follow your reason as far as it will take you’ and negatively as: ‘Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable’. This principle runs through the Western tradition from Socrates … to the axioms of modern science. Huxley called it ‘the agnostic faith’”.

Batchelor characterizes early Buddhism as agnostic in this sense. “Buddha said the dharma was permeated by a single taste: freedom. He made no claims to uniqueness or divinity and did not have recourse to a term we would translate as ‘God’. …The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do.” In Batchelor’s account, Gautama Siddhartha was seeking to create an existential and therapeutic culture of awakening, refracted through the symbols, metaphors and images of the Gangetic basin in the sixth century B.C.E. Inevitably over time, the movement tended to lose its agnostic dimension and to become institutionalized as a religion. “The power of organized religion to provide sovereign states with a bulwark of moral legitimacy while simultaneously assuaging the desperate piety of the disempowered” was too politically useful to be ignored by rulers in the Buddhist influenced world.

Looking at Buddhism in the modern West, Batchelor says that while Buddhism’s establishment has long “tended to become reductively identified with its religious forms” today it is in the further danger of being reductively identified with its forms of meditation. The danger is the “loss of potential to become realized as a culture, an internally consistent set of values and practices that creatively animates all aspects of human life”.

I am not a Buddhist and do not share these specific concerns. And yet I sense something there to reflect on. Modern Druidry and Paganism, as coherent movements, are new. But they are no longer brand new. We do have institutions, and the beginnings of wider social recognition. We enter religious alliances like Interfaith. We intervene in political and other civil society environments. I feel increasingly that I want to apply the test of agnosticism, or something like it, both to my own practice and to any public identity that I might have. I will need to be sensitive and careful. My practice and view are grounded in feelings and intuition. I came to Druidry as a path of beauty and wonder, of nature and the senses, willing to embrace the joys and sorrows of embodied human life. I will not wield the sword of discrimination recklessly. My hope indeed is that a little mental housecleaning will refresh me, bringing a greater clarity and purpose.

I wonder what changes I might make in how I express myself. I wonder about re-assessing my previous work. I wonder what I might seek to develop and engage with in the future. An agenda for the coming year.

Stephen Batchelor Buddhism without beliefs: a contemporary guide to awakening London: Bloomsbury, 1997

AWEN AND CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY

A Contemplative Druidry (1) reader has asked me to say more about Awen, which had a chapter in the book. Introducing interview extracts in my Awen chapter, I wrote, “Awen is classically seen in Druidry as the power of inspiration, and in particular the creative force for poetry and prophecy. It is what transformed the boy Gwion – though not before further trials and transformations – into Taliesin, the radiant browed Bard. Many of the participants in this work uphold this tradition in its conventional form. Others seek to extend the traditional meaning better to express their own experiences and aspirations. Some don’t connect with Awen experientially and treat it as a convention – mainly as a shared chant, which brings Druids together”.

My self-criticism here is that the chant is itself an experience, frequently state-altering for both the chanters and in a sense for the space. I might have done better to say, ‘some don’t connect with it conceptually’. I see from my interview questions appendix that the Awen question was about meaning. If I did this work again, I would start with the sound, the feeling, and senses of occasion, and work out from those.

Pondering Awen afresh, I find myself drawn to deep human ancestry, and especially the early emergence of speech and music. These brought a new kind of identity: new experiences, new awareness, new feelings, new understanding, new forms of connection and solidarity – new worlds. Unsurprisingly, many cultures have subsequently developed creation stories linking origin with sound. In India, the phrase Nada Brahma tells us that God is sound/the world is made of sound. OM is the primordial sound form, the vibratory essence from which the universe emanates – and the universe needs to emanate only the smallest step (if any) to get to us. Kabir said, “if you want the truth, I’ll tell you the truth. Listen to the secret sound, the real sound, which is inside you” (2). A major philosophical school, Kashmir Shaivism, is referred to as ‘the doctrine of vibration’ (3). It talks of ‘spanda’ as “the primordial vibration at the root of all manifestation, a form of Shakti” (a term equally meaning ‘power’ or ‘goddess’).

Welsh Bardistry gives us Awen and the Taliesin story, which can be read as working with related themes, whilst diverting our main attention to the Bard as trickster/hero. In the old Gaelic world, we have the term Imbhas, equivalent to Awen, and a more touching story about the eating of the salmon of wisdom, in which the old Bard (as I read it) sets himself up to pass on the true nourishment to a promising youth. We also have the notion of the Oran Mor (Song of the World). Frank MacEowan (4) writes: “a conscious knowing of the ancient ‘music behind the world’ has always been woven into the daily awareness of the adherents of various Celtic traditions. In the words of Stuart Harris-Logan, a Gaelic healer, scholar, and author of Singing with Blackbirds, ‘out on the Isle of Barra, the people have long spoken of the Oran Mor as one of the old names of God. The Oran Mor is the Great Song from which all things have arisen’”.

Jason Kirkey (5), an associate of Frank MacEowan, treats ‘Oran Mor’ and ‘Divine Ground’ as synonymous both with each other and with David Bohm’s ‘implicate order’, in which the world of space, time and individual particles are enfolded into an undifferentiated wholeness that provides the holographic pattern (each part contains the pattern of the whole) by which reality unfolds. In Ireland, a sense of the Oran Mor could legitimately continue into Christian times. St. John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (6) This greatly moved John Scotus Eriugena, the great Irish philosopher/theologian of the ninth century – the time of Viking invasions in north west Europe. In his commentary on the Gospel he says, “John, the theologian – ascends beyond all visible and invisible creation, passes through all thought and intellect, and deified, enters into God who deifies him … John, the observer of the inmost truth, in the paradise of paradises, in the very cause of all, heard the one Word through which all things are made … Therefore, most confidently he cried out, ‘in the beginning was the Word.” (7) True knowledge and experience of the primal Word are divinizing – a remarkable statement for a western Christian of the day. John Scotus had learned Greek at a monastic school in his native Ireland (then not an available option elsewhere in western Europe) and was familiar with neo-Platonist thought. Perhaps that and his indigenous culture together allowed an understanding that the Word calls us to recognize our own divinity.

Modern Druidry was Universalist before it was Pagan, and retains a willingness to learn from other traditions. I believe that we can use the wider cultural history I’ve identified to inform our sense of what we are invoking when we chant the Awen. This chanting is something which Druid contemplative practitioners share with other Druids. Our unique practice is the ‘Awen space’ that follows the chant. Like other Druids, we do not require people to gather together under the umbrella of a common cosmology. It is OK to have different understandings, and it is OK for us to change and develop our personal understandings over time. That said, I end this piece with a reflection about the broad intentions behind our inherited Celtic spirituality, to provide a cultural context for Awen/Imbhas and where they might fit. It’s from Frank MacEowan (8): “The ancient Celts … were … ever yearning to connect with divine inspiration (imbhas), and ever longing to live a life of beauty imbued with connection and spirit. We are also on this path, and the fulfillment of our collective task as a human community lies in the process of actualizing a deeper communion with these same life-affirming powers. Celtic spirituality is an ongoing initiation into a life of beauty and a mindful preparation for the passage of death. The ancient spirituality of the Celtic peoples has always been a dynamic orientation to the ebb and flow of the seasons, daily practices that foster an awareness of the passage of our lives and of thanatology (a vision and study of our death and dying). This vision is of a life ending in a wondrous death journey to a home we have all been away from. When death is really an experience of going home, what is there to fear?”.

(1) James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: people, practice and potential Amazon/KDP, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)

(2) Sally Kempton Meditation for the love of it: enjoying your own deepest experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011 (Foreword by Elizabeth Gilbert)

(3) Mark S.G. Dyczkowski The Doctrine of vibration: an analysis of the doctrines and practices of Kashmir Shaivism Delhi, India: Divine Books, 1987

(4)Frank MacEowan The Celtic way of seeing: meditations on the spirit wheel Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

(5) Jason Kirkey The Salmon in the spring: the ecology of Celtic spirituality San Francisco, CA: Hiraeth Press, 2009 (Foreword by Frank MacEowan)

(6) Holy Bible (authorized version)

(7) The voice of the eagle: John Scotus Eriugena’s homily on the prologue to the gospel of St. John Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2000 ed. (Translated by Christopher Bamford, foreword by Thomas Moore)

(8) Frank MacEowan The mist-filled path: Celtic wisdom for exiles, wanderers and seekers Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)

EPICURUS AND THE BUTTER

“Epicurus had a garden just near Athens. He was also one of the rarest of men, just like Chuang Tzu. He didn’t believe in God, he didn’t believe in anything, because belief is nonsense. Only foolish people believe. A man of understanding has faith, not belief. Faith is different. Faith means trusting life, trusting it so absolutely that one is ready to go with it, anywhere.

“He had a small garden, and he lived there with his disciples. People thought that he was an atheist, immoral. He did not believe in God, he did not believe in the scriptures, he did not believe in any temple. He was an atheist. But he lived in such a great way. His life was superb, magnificent, even though he had nothing, even though they were very poor. The king heard about them and wanted to see how they lived, and how they could be happy without belief. If you could not be happy even with a belief in God, how could these people be happy without God?

“So he came one evening to visit Epicurus’ garden. He was really surprised, amazed – it was a miracle. They had nothing, almost nothing, but they lived like emperors. Like gods they lived. Their whole life was a celebration.

“When they went to the stream to take their bath, it was not simply a bath; it was a dance with the river. They sang and they danced and they swam and they jumped and they dived. Their eating was a celebration, a feast, and they had nothing, just bread and salt, not even butter. But they were so thankful that just to be was enough; nothing more was needed.

“The emperor was very much impressed, and he asked Epicurus: ‘next time I come, I would like some gifts for you. What would you like?’

“Epicurus said, ‘Give us time to think. We never thought that anybody would give us gifts, and we have so many gifts from nature. But if you insist, then bring us a little butter, nothing else. Just that will do.’”

  • Osho When the shoe fits: commentaries on the stories of the Taoist mystic Chuang Tzu London: Watkins Publishing, 2004

 

BOOK REVIEW: THE BROKEN CAULDRON

14606507_342051356186231_2360625875228974566_nHighly recommended. Author Lorna Smithers describes The Broken Cauldron as “a fragmentary collection of essays, stories and poems”. Yet I experienced this book as a unity, a poet’s meditation even when presenting technical information about fracking and nuclear power. For it is built around a compelling core image, made visible in Tom Brown’s striking cover illustration.

At its fullest and most majestic, that image is “a cauldron full of stars”, the womb of Ceridwen, Old Mother Universe, and traditionally the source of inspiration, wisdom and rebirth. Yet here the cauldron lies shattered, the universe is fragmented, and the world is out of kilter. Smithers takes myth out of archetypal romance and into the wounded world of history, making it awkward, jarring – and dynamic. She confronts us with where we are and transmits a warning wake-up call from gods and storytellers.

In her introduction, Smithers explains how she was led into a quest to understand the significance of the broken cauldron in ancient British history. The myths she studied were penned in medieval Wales but are rooted in an older oral tradition. All tell the story of the cauldron. When it is broken or stolen, cataclysmic consequences are unleashed. Smithers was particularly drawn “to the violence of Arthur’s raid on Annwn (the Otherworld) and assault on its inhabitants. The moment Lleog thrusts his flashing sword into the cauldron came to symbolize the patriarchal world view … founded on oppression of the Other”. In her poem about this she writes:

“The sinking blade lit like lightening.

Reflected in it faces of a million million souls,

Eyes melting, disintegrating like shadows

Into pure white light.”

Lleminog, another of Arthur’s companions, carries the broken prize away:

“Lleminog scooped the cracked cauldron

Into his hand,

Escaped like a thief into the night

With moon, stars, sun, broken pieces

Of Old Mother Universe jangling in his pocket.”

Smithers works under the aegis of Gwyn ap Nudd, a god “who haunts the peripheries of the Bardic tradition”. His world is Annwn – an Otherworld described as ‘not-world’ and ‘the deep’. There he keeps a cauldron that is whole and filled with stars, “the infinite reflection of the womb of Old Mother Universe, Ceridwen”. Much of our inherited Bardic tradition is seen as problematic. In particular, “Taliesin epitomizes all that is questionable and dislikeable” about it. The poet of The Broken Cauldron.is an outsider “watching with horror as Gwion escapes with the Awen and Gwyddno’s horses perish in the poison” – paying the terrible price for three drops of inspiration. The Gwion who becomes Taliesin pays little attention to this and becomes a sycophantic court Bard as kingdoms fall.

Gwyn offers the possibility of fixing the broken cauldron by gathering the poison back into it from the land, and Lorna Smithers supports this work by telling the stories of “marginalized figures – the overshadowed, the oppressed and the slaughtered”. The Broken Cauldron is divided into five sections: The Broken Cauldron and The Flashing Sword, Ridiculous, Drowned Lands, Operation Cauldron and Uranium.  The urgency of myth trying to reconstruct itself for are times is conveyed in a number of ways. One is the striking language of set piece poems, as in Dumb Man:

You come mouthing words.

There are burnt out cities in your mouth.

The vocabulary of sign language

Cannot convey the stories

You need to tell.

There are the cumulative effects of the giant Diwrnach’s repeated death in slightly variant stories from different regions of Celtic Britain, as he defends a cauldron in a feasting hall and is slain by his own sword. Smithers describes this back-to-backing of versions as a ‘montage’. There is dark whimsical fantasy in The Day I Raised the Dead, which takes place in The Court of the Sons of the King of Suffering – a “joyless place”. There is a realistic account of a journey to find out about, and find, the drowned Porth Wyddno, once one of “the three chief ports of the island”, which Smithers places in Lancashire rather than at Borth in west Wales. There is a discussion of uranium and the nuclear power station at Sellafield aka Windscale aka Calder Hall, and its inclusion in the myth of the “cauldron which is filled with stars” and dangerously toxic when messed with.

Most poignant, for me, is the story of Morfran, which straddles time. His mother, “a scientific genius with a meticulous eye for detail” runs an award winning chemical plant. Growing up gawky and ugly as a cormorant, he has been nick-named Afagddhu (utter darkness) by a mother who is determined to fix him and make him presentable. Events occur, though not to him. At the end of his story, he muses “perhaps that’s where I’ll go, down into the deep where there is no ugliness and no perfection, surface with a fish for a clean breath or air before her child is born and the cycle begins again.”

There is much more. The Broken Cauldron is a wonderful example of the re-visioning of myth, fully immersed in the old traditions, yet bringing out new meanings and new possibilities for our time.

 

Lorna Smithers The Broken Cauldron King’s Lynn, Norfolk: Biddle’s Books, 2016 Cover art by Tom Brown.

DRUID CONTEMPLATIVE DAYS

 

On 1 October Elaine Knight and I will be holding our tenth Druid contemplative retreat day since we began in July 2012. Over the years we have also offered shorter sessions and a weekend retreat (in April 2015). Yet by and large we find that day retreats are the best format for our offer to the community.

Shorter monthly sessions work fine for our local ongoing group, in a context of experience and continuity. But when new people are coming in and meeting each other, we want the spaciousness of a day. A day is enough to build the kind of experience we are aiming at. We are not offering complex teaching that needs extended time to unfold, and we don’t need the dynamics of residential community for our focused and limited purpose.

It looks as though we will have 10-12 people on 1 October and we have reached the point at which we know the day will pay for itself. This is within the ideal range for our kind of day – two or three more or less is also fine. Elaine and I will be co-facilitating this event with Nimue and Tom Brown.

I look back and see ‘contemplative Druidry’ as a project. Retrospectively, I find project a better word than ‘inquiry’, though an inquiry element has been present. I began the project by testing the word ‘contemplative’ itself. Was it going to be resonant or even meaningful in Druidry? I wrote articles in the OBOD membership publication Touchstone asking for people to contact me with their views and, subsequently, describing our early ventures. I created the Contemplative Druidry Facebook Group in August 2012. This is still going strong with nearly 1700 members (as at 12 September 2016), though I have not been involved in moderating it for over three years. Over time it became clear that the term does mean something. Although it caused some confusion and questioning at first, it has been taken up. As we developed our practical work, it became easier to explain and discuss.

With the help of a considerable number of other people I was able to publish the book Contemplative Druidry in October 2014. It is still selling and still witnesses the life experience of real people exploring Druidry (frequently among other traditions) and explaining why a contemplative thread matters to them. As time has gone on one of the outstanding questions has been whether there is a particular group of people who can be marked out as ‘contemplative Druids’. I think at this distance the answer is a qualified ‘no’, qualified, because some are clearly contemplative in emphasis. But Druidry is such an extensive field, or interlocking set of fields, that only a few people cover everything. In the end I decided for myself that ‘Contemplative Druid’, as a description of particular people, was a splitting and otherising kind of term (potentially in both directions) and so best avoided. This is why we now talk of ‘Druid contemplative days’ rather than ‘Contemplative Druid days’.

My sense of project is coming to an end. My personal contemplative inquiry, which has always had a degree of separation from the project, is continuing with a different emphasis. But we have a group, and we have the days. Our capacity to provide days is proportionate to the demand for them: no problem there. So I expect this work to continue. For me, it will be my one active role in Druidry. It doesn’t contradict anything else I am doing or likely to be doing. So I look forward to this day, and the continuing life of the group.

Further information on the days can be found at http://contemplativedruidevents.tumblr.com/

James Nichol (2014) Contemplative Druidry people, practice and potential Amazon/Kindle (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Contemplative-Druidry-People-Practice-Potential-ebook/dp/B00OBJAOES/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1

 

METHODS IN CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY: PART 2

In my last post I talked about the ritual patterning of my morning practice and, in my understanding, the Sophian values it enacts. Here I discuss what happens in the main body of the practice. This begins with a set of physical and breath related exercises, which I originally learned in a Tantric setting. They draw on a kundalini yoga tradition (1) and to an extent on Chinese energy arts. I call them ‘rejuvenation exercises’ and I do them because I like them and find them beneficial.

I do not have a strong view of subtle energy or deep experience of energetic healing. But I do feel charged by this work and I go on to a contemplative engagement with the chakra system. This system  is now widely use and has been described as “part of a common, New Age esotericism in the West, entering from pan-Hindu use of the six or seven chakras in Yoga to indicate centres of power within the body and specifically arranged along the central axis of the trunk. Within Indian medicine this central axis became identified with the spinal column, and there are … fusions of Western anatomy with Indian esoteric anatomy (2)”. Druids and Pagans use this system too, and are therefore to my mind a sub-set of the ‘New Age’ in this regard. For me, the main value of this work is that it offers a for of practice that is both contemplative and embodied.

Historically, “the Tantric body is encoded in tradition-specific and text-specific ways. The practitioner inscribes the body through ritual and forms of interiority or asceticism, and so writes the tradition onto the body. Such transformative practices are intended to create the body as divine. This inscribing of the body is also a reading of text and tradition … Any distinctions between knowing and acting, mind and body, are disrupted by the Tantric body in the sense that what might be called imagination becomes a kind of action in tantric ritual and the forms that the body takes in ritual are a kind of knowing”. The description describes an Indian spiritual culture, transgressive in certain respects, but quite typical of medieval (and to a degree modern) cultures in creating practices where first person, subjective experience is moulded by reference to authoritative texts. Tantric teachers took care to write their works in Sanskrit, no longer spoken but still the holy language of their cultural zone.

I’m aware of being from a different culture in both time and place. For me the chakra rainbow works because it creates the body as more fully human, rather than ‘divine’. For this very reason it suits me better, I now find, than the Kabbalistic middle pillar system which I have sometimes used as an alternative. I begin this section of  my morning practice by raising my arms and holding them up with the palms of my hands pressed together just above the crown of my head. Then I move down the chakra positions, using gesture, sound, and colour to inscribe and energize them:

At crown level, palms in prayer position, syllable nngg as in sing, colour violet-flecked white.

At 3rd eye level, index fingers touching brow, syllable mmm as at end of Om, colour indigo.

At throat level, hand cupped below my throat, syllable eee, colour bright blue.

At heart centre level, hands crossed over my heart centre, syllable ayy as in play, colour green.

A little above my navel, hands clasped together, syllable ahh as in father, colour yellow.

At the pelvic level, hands in a diamond mudra, syllable oooo as in rule, colour orange

Bent down, each hand on a foot, syllable ohh as in road, colour red.

 From here, I turn my attention around and move slowly up again, elaborating meanings, and noticing my responses – sensations, feelings, thoughts. The following is an example of how I can work in a session, here using affirmations. I check out my congruence in using the chosen words: how fully do I stand behind them? Do I experience any promptings to change them?  I also check out the ‘demons’ present at each level and ways in they test the affirmations.

Feet: earth/body/senses: ‘I am a child of the Earth. I am welcome here.’ [Demon: Fear]

Sexual/Sacral: water/desire/sexuality/feelings: ‘I embrace sensory pleasure’ [Demon: Guilt]

Belly:  fire/will/power/self-sense: ‘I celebrate my personal power’ [Demon: Shame]

Heart: air/thinking/social sense: ‘I love and am available for love’ [Demon: Grief]

Throat: sound/resonance/creativity/expression: ‘I speak my truth’ [Demon: Lies]

Brow: light/imagination/vision: ‘I am guided by the Light of Sophia’ [Demon: Illusion]

Crown: awareness/capacity: ‘Empty awareness, holding the world’ [Demon: Attachment]

I have to say that there is indeed a text behind this practice, and a tradition. The text is Eastern Body: Western Mind by Anodea Judith, and I picked it up and worked with it easily because I already shared certain cultural features – some background in ‘New Age’ Tantra, more extensive background in humanistic/transpersonal and in particular Jungian psychology and therapeutics, and a knowledge of developmental psychology. This presentation of the chakras draws attention to the human life course. The upward hierarchy is aligned to the developmental tasks of different age groups – root, pre-birth to one year; sexual/sacral six months to two years; belly two to four years; heart four to seven years; throat, seven to twelve years; brow, adolescence; crown, adult. The practice is made powerful by the reality that ideal development is not normal, and most of us live with some level of wounding at more than one developmental stage. Our younger selves, and their needs, continue to live within us.

Contemplative chakra work  reinforces my commitment to the human side of human spirituality. The stresses and distresses of the human body/mind are part of contemplative work in my view and this work is a direct challenge to ‘bypassing’ – the flight into love and light as a means of escape from aspects of life experienced as negative or distasteful. I don’t treat Judith’s work as gospel and I have customised her framework in important respects. But in what I hope is an authentic and creative way, I freely acknowledge being text and tradition based in my use of chakras, happily using conventional frameworks and understandings to the extent that I find them useful.

In my next post I will discuss the forms I meditation I currently use and why I have chosen them for this stage of my inquiry.

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

(2) Gavin Flood The Tantric body: the secret tradition of Hindu religion London & New York: I.B. Taurus, 2006

(3) Anodea Judith Eastern body: Western mind: psychology and the chakra system a a path to the self Berkeley, CA, 2004 (rev. ed.)

 

BOOK REVIEW: SPINNING IN PLACE

4163oG+V32L._AC_US160_Highly recommended: Spinning in Place is a clear and thought-provoking guide to the festival year from the perspective of a humanist/naturalist Pagan. Bart Everson describes it as not so much a ‘how to’ as a ‘why bother’ book, for “no-one can dictate what the festivals mean or how to observe them”.

What he offers is a narrative of how he works the widely adopted eight festival cycle in New Orleans, and “idiosyncratic encouragement” to “spin your own wheel”.  The reader he imagines is “an atheist, or perhaps a pantheist or an agnostic”, someone “without a strong belief in gods or supernatural powers”.  Yet, within this philosophical naturalism, he imagines also an interest in religion and spirituality – perhaps in the form of “being surprised by a sudden awakening” and entering upon “a quest for something more”. For me, it also has a value to anyone with an interest in the Wheel of the Year.

Everson makes two important points about the festivals in general. One is the sense of a holiday as more than a vacation – more than time off for relaxation and recreation, important though these are. A true holiday enshrines values, “reminding us again and again of certain existential truths”. Modern ‘Western’ style societies tend to be “mobile, rootless, divorced from the specific realities of a particular place … it’s my thought that if we spin in one spot for a while, dervish-like, perhaps we’ll corkscrew right down into the Earth and regain our sense of location.”

The second point to remember is that “seasonal variation happens according to its own schedule and not according to any calendar devised by humans.” When festivals become entrenched, “conventions have a tendency to become concretized in our minds, as if they were the primary reality rather than a convenient symbolic expression”. Everson invites an open and fresh approach to ritual celebration. This will of course include the repetition of loved and familiar patterns, but not imprisonment within them.

The book gives a chapter to each season, opening with December: Solstice Connections where the solstice is seen not as a Solar event (nothing happens to the sun) but an Earth-Solar event. Everson’s ritual year is about Earth and its cycles, celebrating an Earth spirituality. January/February: Searching the Depths remind us that there is no Nordic winter in New Orleans, and a Carnival season starting at Twelfth Night, with Mardi Gras any time from 3 February – 9 March. For Everson, it is the time for Candlemas and Brighid crosses. March: Spring in the Subtropics, Spring in the Self – and oak pollen on the porch a sure sign of the equinox. A theme of balance rather than excess: purification understood as “feeling good, staying strong, promoting vitality, improving focus, and nurturing inspiration”. April/May:  May Day x2 The Worker’s holiday matters as much as Beltane to Everson: celebration of revolutionary political desire, the notion of power to the imagination, the spiritual dimension of politics – “the sense of connection to Earth and humanity fuels outrage at manifest injustices”.

To begin the second half of the year we have June: Flowers to Flame, a time of sunshine and superabundance – yet at the same time, acknowledging limits set by nature. Flowers coming to full form, and flowers given over to the bonfire’s flames. Then comes July/August: How Lammas Changed my Life The warmth of the year has continued to increase. Everson remembers his first link to a local Pagan group, a Paganism for kids event to which he took his daughter. Making corn dollies. Still making them, and baking bread together. September: The Other Equinox is elusive as a season, though it is getting darker and it is the time of Lycoris radiata – naked ladies, red magic lilies, hurricane lilies locally. The hurricane season peaks on 10 September and goes on to 1 November. Themes of loss and darkness, yet also gratitude (rather than fear or denial). Making ‘gratitude garlands’, since gratitude is always for something and to someone. Finally, we have October/November: Dead Time where All Saints, All Souls and Dia de los Muertos are all celebrated locally. Everson talks both of celebrating ancestors’ night and what he calls “surfing the new spooky” – “there is something delectable about the spooky, something desirable, something necessary”.

Spinning in Place shows how to create a wheel of the year which honours tradition, place and personal history. This approach allows fluidity and responsiveness to environment, community and culture both past and present. It clearly works for Bart Everson. Spinning in Place does not offer an off the peg set of rituals. Rather, it asks readers to wonder what we might do, in our place, using our histories and our forms of expression. That’s what makes it inspiring.

 

Bart Everson Spinning in place: a secular humanist embraces the wheel of the year New Orleans, LA: Frowning Cat Books, 2016 (E-book available on Amazon Kindle)

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: RAGNAROK

The book is A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarok: the end of the gods (1) and I highly recommend it. A labour of love, this piece is part review, part celebration, and part reflection.

Ragnarok is sparely and powerfully written. Above all, it shows a people held in the trance of their own dominant myth. Prediction is predestination. What must be, must be.

“This, they thought, was how it would be when the Fimbulwinter came. The fat sun was dull red, sullen, like embers. She gave little light, and what there was was ruddy or bloody. They longed in their bones and their brains for clear light, for a warm wind, for buds, for green leaves. The winter stretched into another year, and another. The seas froze: icebergs clashed by the coasts, and floated into the bays. This was, they began to understand, not a likeness of the Fimbulwinter, but the thing itself. Wind time, Wolf time, before the world breaks up.”

For the gods, it is a little different. They are better situated, and have some apparent agency. Odin can gather information and consider options. But Asgard is weakening; the health of the world tree is compromised; there is paralysis and decay.

“In Asgard the sheen on the gold was dulled, but the magic boar could still be eaten at night and reborn for the next feast. Yggdrasil was shaking all over, leaves were falling, branches were wilting, but the tree still stood. Odin went down to the well at its roots and spoke to Mimir’s head under the black ruffled water. No one ever knew what he learned, but he came back set and cold. They waited. They did not act, they did not think, perhaps could not think. Idun lay, curled in her wolfskin. The apples of youth were withered and puckered.”

In the end, all they can do is to continue what they have been doing all along, which is to follow the course that confirms their fate, in the guise of an attempt to resist it. They ride out for their last battle, already compromised and doomed.

“The gods went over the bridge, Bifröst, the rainbow bridge that linked Asgard and Midgard. They were damaged already, when they set out. Tyr had lost his arm to the wolf, Odin his eye to Mimir, Freyer had given away his magic sword, Thor’s wife, Sif, had seen all her magical hair fall away from her bald head. Thor himself, according to some poets, had lost the hammer he had thrown after the Midgard-serpent. Baldur had lost his life. There are two ways, in stories, of winning battles – to be supremely strong, or to be a gallant forlorn hope. The Ases were neither. They were brave and tarnished. Yggdrasil drooped. Its leaves hung and flapped. Its roots were shrinking.  … Black birds spun away from the branches into a red sky.” The outcome is the expected one, as everyone had known it would be.

Myths are different from fairy tales, and both are different from stories about real people or ‘imaginary real people’, according to the author. “The thin child, reading and re-reading the tales, neither loved nor hated the people in them – they were not ‘characters’ into whose doings she could insert her imagination. As a reader, she was a solemn, occasionally troubled, occasionally gleeful onlooker. But she almost made an exception of Loki. Alone among all these beings he had humour and wit. His changeable shapes were attractive. His cleverness had charm. He made her uneasy, but she had feelings about him, whereas the others, Odin, Thor, Baldur the beautiful were as they were, their shapes set. Wise, strong, lovely.”

In Byatt’s rendition, there are no new heaven and earth to follow the destruction. This is because she first encountered the story in a version that dropped this as a late Christian interpolation, imposing redemption where it did not belong. Yet it was her childhood favourite, and Byatt brings her childhood self into the book as “the thin child”. It is war time, in Yorkshire. She knows that the story is a Viking one, and that Yorkshire was once a Viking place. So, “these are her stories”. Her book is a translation from a German one, so it talks about the old Germanic world with its secrets and wonders. She asks herself, “who were these old Germans, as opposed to the ones overhead, now dealing death out of the night sky?” She thinks of the latter as Odin’s wild riders. She lives in fear that her own father, another flier, will never come home. Indeed, she is certain of it – though he does eventually, “his red-gold hair shining, gold wings on his tunic, his arms out to hold her as she leaped at him”. The old Ragnarok story, perhaps because of its pessimism, has helped her through World War II.

Ragnarok: the end of the gods was published in 2011, when the historical context had changed again. Byatt’s adult fascination with Loki is if anything greater than before. She says:

“There are no altars to Loki, no standing stones, he had no cult. In myths he was a third of the trio Odin, Hodur, Loki. In myths, the most important comes first of three. But in fairy tales and folklore, where these gods also play their parts, the rule of three is different; the important player is the third, the youngest son, Loki.”

“When I came to write this tale I realised that Loki was interested in Chaos – his stories contain flames and waterfalls, the formless things inside which chaos theorists perceive order inside disorder. He is interested in the order in destruction and the destruction in order. If I were writing an allegory he would be the detached scientific intelligence which could either save the earth or contribute to its rapid disintegration.”

In a section of Thoughts on myths at the end of her book, Byatt says: “If you write a version of Ragnarok in the 21st century, it is haunted by the imagining of a different end of things. We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our own kind, and a biologically built-in short-sightedness.” She muses about the humanness of the Norse gods. “They know Ragnarok is coming but are incapable of imagining any way to fend it off, or change the story. They know how to die gallantly but not how to make a better world … Loki is the only one who is clever and Loki is wayward and irresponsible and mocking.”

The great Norse myth offers no salvation, and nor does A.S. Byatt. She ends with the sentence: “As it is the world ends because neither the all too human gods, with their armies and quarrels, nor the fiery thinker know how to save it.” And yet … she does show how we can see beyond our myths. The imagination is bigger than any of them. It is creative and flexible. It is subtle, shifting, multi-perspectival and articulate. For me, an unstated hope lies in the work itself.

(1) Byatt, A. S. Ragnarok: the end of the gods Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2011