The Three Circles of Existence

The Three Circles of Existence can be traced back to Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg by his bardic name) who claimed they were part of ancient druid tradition but are largely accepted to be inventions of his own. Still, much of his work has contributed to modern druidic tradition, such as the Druid’s Prayer, and even the Three Circles can provide inspiration for modern druidry.

The Three Circles through which a soul journeys are Annwn, Abred and Gwynvid. Finally there is Ceugant which represents the Infinite, God or Spirit. The journey of the soul begins in Annwn, the Cauldron of Rebirth. From here souls are incarnated in the physical world, Abred, and when the body dies the soul returns to Annwn with the lessons learnt. The soul continues evolving through mineral, vegetable, animal and human forms, until finally it reaches a spiritual perfection where it may then enter heavenly realm of Gwynvid, from where it need not return.

In naturalist terms this doesn’t hold water, but I have found a parallel in Teilhard de Chardin’s work on cosmology: Annwn represents the geosphere (inanimate matter), Abred represents the biosphere (biological life), and Gwynvid represents the noosphere (human consciousness and its development). Annwn is the entire material universe, within which we can find the living world of Abred, and from that evolves Gwynvid.

There is a constant “reincarnation” or recycling of matter through biological lifeforms: soil is consumed by a plant, incorporated into the plant as a leaf, the leaf then dies and returns to soil (or it is eaten and recycled/reincarnated through the food chain). Life evolves, and from it appears the noosphere, specifically human consciousness.

For me, this fits with the Gaian worldview (see Gaia Theory by James Lovelock), where the planet as a living system has developed a mind through humanity, which forms a network of consciousness (noosphere). At present the noosphere is disparate and even volatile, and certainly not a harmonious contributor to the ecosphere, but we can see through history how it and human culture have developed, and how ideas have travelled and helped form a globalisation of culture (and with the advent of the Internet, information can now travel round the world at the blink of an eye, making the Internet function like a nervous system for the noosphere). As each individual develops noetically, the noosphere in turn evolves, becoming more refined and coordinated, and it becomes another part of the evolution of Gaia, a composition of Annwn, Abred and Gwynvid.

Ceugant is a bit more difficult to include, but we could say it parallels Teilhard’s Omega Point, the apex of the evolution of consciousness. Ceugant stands beyond what we can know, and perhaps represents an “infinite mystery”. We may never reach beyond the known, but there is always the possibility that the unknown can, progressively, become known. There are plenty of horizons of potential!

The Pacifist Druid and Budo

“Let us begin by giving peace to the quarters, for without peace can no work be.” from OBOD ritual

One theme that is strong in modern Druidry is that of peace. The image of the ancient druids as “peacemakers” (whether accurate or not) is a compelling one, such as the one of a druid walking between two armies to stop them from fighting.

In OBOD ritual we are taught to call for peace to each of the cardinal points (North, South, West, East) for “without peace can no work be.” Many modern druids have different ideas about peace and pacifism, but for me peace is an important part of my druidry, and I look for practical and creative ways to live my life by it. One way, perhaps surprisingly, is through martials arts, more specifically aikido, which has a philosophy of non-violence and peace. It emphasises harmony between humanity and nature, mind and body, attacked and attacker, all of which are intimately related.

Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, learnt various forms of jujutsu. Later he became involved with Ōmoto-kyō, a Shinto sect where pacifism is very important, and so he began to develop his martial art in a way that not only became effective way of defending oneself, but also a way of not harming your attacker, if done skilfully. There are ways to let their energy pass, reflect it back or use their movement to unbalance them.

In aikido you don’t attack first because 1) it is a response to violence, not a way to achieve it and 2) when someone initiates an attack, their own aggression becomes a source of imbalance, and can be used against them. All techniques are defensive, and any strikes and punches are for distraction. Having said that, all techniques have their origin in causing pain and damage; where one technique involves an elbow strike to the throat, in aikido this becomes a way to simply touch the chin and tip over the opponent with little effort.

Ueshiba included Budo, or the Way of the Warrior, as part of his philosophy, but it is not a way to hurt or destroy others. It includes, instead, a martial attitude, discipline, sense of honour and inner rectitude for facing the “enemy”. Not the outer enemy that attacks us, but the inner enemy that produces weaknesses in us and prevents us from living life harmoniously.

Here is something that Ueshiba said about Budo.
“The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter – it is the Art of Peace, the power of love.”

I think there is an idea about pacificm (which I’ve held) that is about avoiding violence or “being passive”, even. Budo, in the context of aikido, does not avoid violence, it faces it. But then, instead of responding to violence with violence we learn to face it and actively transform it, neutralising it through harmony. This principle can be applied not just to martial arts but to different aspects of our lives, which is certainly something to be encouraged for any Pacifist Druid.

Druidic Theism

Within modern Druidry there is a wide range of theistic belief. Most Pagan druids will describe themselves as polytheistic or pantheistic, though there are others that embrace monotheism, duotheism, monistic-polytheism, panentheism, and even atheism and agnosticism. In this post I describe a little about my ‘theistic’ beliefs and how atheism, polytheism and pantheism have inspired me.

So, since I’m a naturalist and materialist/physicalist, that must mean I’m an atheist or agnostic. Well, yes… and no. I don’t subscribe to traditional theistic beliefs, meaning that labels such as personhood, consciousness and purpose can only be fully applied to humans (acknowledging other forms personality, awareness and intention in some life forms). As a basic intellectual statement of belief I could describe myself as an atheist or agnostic. But the gods that appear in world mythology do exist… albeit within the confines of the human imagination. But we can say that they represent something real, dressed in human form to make them more relatable.

Looking at definitions of polytheism, there is a weak polytheism that regards the gods as aspects of the One or as representing archetypes and natural forces, and a strong form that believes in them as literal beings, not just symbols. If this is so, then I am a “weak” polytheist. I don’t believe that archetypes and natural forces are endowed with consciousness or purpose; they are forces that follow inner patterns without planning or reflection.

One definition of theism I like is that of pantheism, or more or more accurately scientific or naturalistic pantheism. As Paul Harrison defines it “Pantheist beliefs are above all statements of an emotional response of reverence and belonging to Nature and the wider Universe in all their power, beauty and mystery.” I am in constant amazement of the Universe, and find science a wonderful source of inspiration and wonder, which leaves me with a sense that the universe is indeed “divine”. The gods represent parts of the whole or All that is the universe.

C.G. Jung said “You can take away a man’s gods, but only to give him others in return.” Certainly, in terms of natural forces and archetypes we can strip away consciousness, purpose and the anthropomorphic appearances from the world myths, but the underlying realities that they represent remain. Gods can also represent our highest values and aspirations, an aspect of human nature, and even if we remove the images of the gods, the underlying values remain. Money, science, family, work, art are all things we can find valuable in our lives without having to mention “God”. They give us sense, meaning and direction without being labelled “gods”. But they represent the focus of meaning and direction in our lives. In this sense, theism is not a statement of intellectual belief in something, it is an innate sense of value within each of us.

The Naturalist Druid

Naturalism is the idea that only nature exists, or to put it another way, everything that exists is nature. In this view there is no room for the supernatural. Also, the scientific method provides the best way to objectively explore the Universe.
I started with “weak” naturalist view, that is to say I believed in gods, spirits and otherworlds, but they could all be considered as part of nature, not separate from it. But bit by bit I relinquished this view, becoming more materialist or physicalist, i.e. everything can be explained by a physical view of the universe.

I considered the “duality” between spirit and matter and, like many followers of a nature-based spirituality, saw this view as part the root of our environmental problems. When spirit is somehow seen as something “better than”, “higher than” or “separate” from nature, we denigrate it through our indifference to or distain of it. From then on I could not take seriously anything that separated soul and body, which I see as two sides of the same coin (roughly speaking, the internal and external experience of ourelves).

I said above that everything can be explained in physical terms. I think everything can be explained in physical terms, but human perception is not limited to rational empiricism. We are intuitive, symbolic, irrational creatures, and certainly not limited to “physical only” thinking, no matter how hard we try.

Categories like “spirit”, “soul”, “gods”, and “Otherworld” are useful way of describing how we perceive the world around us or ourselves. They are symbolic of the human being and its relationship to the world within and without. The gods became archetypes; soul, the psyche; the Otherworld, the unconscious. The world religions represent a real need for humans to understand the world around us in other-than-physical terms, though science can, for me, play an important role in our religious thinking.

For a while I was an active member of Caer Abred, the Druid Order of Naturalists’ online forum. The forum no longer exists, and the Order is effectively defunct, but there is still a Wikispace page here if you want to have a look at how others have combined Druidry and Naturalism. I contributed some things on this wikispace (mostly about the Holistic Spectrum Mercenaries on the Gangster Connection page), which I’ll shortly publish here.

Being Organised

For a while I’ve had several things that I’ve been wanting to do, but not been able to do them. Not out of lack of time, but because I’ve not known how to prioritise them. So now I have a list of things I’ve been meaning to do and a timetable to do them.

Monday I practiced on my didgeridoo and bodhrán, yesterday a spot of bird spotting, and today some art and fiction writing. Tomorrow’s a day off, but Friday I’m gonna work on my Psychosynthesis lesson. Just an hour for each thing, and the rest of the day leaves me free to do other things like cleaning the house, gardening and so on.

This also includes blogs. So every-so-often, like today, I can find myself some time to write something.

Locating my Druidry

When someone says “I’m a druid” they could be talking about any number things, depending on the Order, Grove or Gorsedd. When I say “I’m a druid”, what am I saying? Here’s a little historical context (for something more in depth, go here).
The modern Druid movement is a lively and growing tradition (or variety of traditions), born out of the Druid Revival of the 18th Century – to see how varied, take a peek here. There is little or no connection with the ancient druids, of whom we know very little, and the contents of modern Druidry have a much wider source than archeological remains, historical records and folkloric heritage of the Celtic peoples.
Out of the Druid Revival arose three distinct but related branches: there are “fraternal druids” that are organised and behave in much the same way as Freemasons and other fraternal organisations; there are “cultural druids”, like the gorsedds and eisteddfods of Wales, that get together and celebrate their Celtic cultural heritage without significant religious content; and there are “spiritual druids” that think of Druidry as something religious or spiritual, perhaps hailing back to the pre-Christian Celtic religions. The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), the druid order I’m a member of, can be considered as part of the latter.
Next to these Revival Druids a new druidry has emerged, Reconstructionist Druidry, that bases itself as much as possible on historical accuracy, instead of invention and eclecticism. Personally, I’m happy with being a Revival Druid, since all religious and spiritual traditions are, in some way, invented and eclectic, and so little is known of the ancient druids that “filling in the blanks” is unavoidable. But I do think that reconstructionism adds a bit of objective integrity to the movement, so when we are “making things up” we don’t trick ourselves into thinking we aren’t. That doesn’t make it any less meaningful for us though.
Another strain of Druidry that deserves consideration is “activist druidry” based on activism and social reform. The image of the ancient druids is as the professional elite, acting as counsellors, judges and mediators. They were actively involved in the functioning of their society. In some cases this Activist Druidry stands alone (they profess no spiritual or cultural interest in Druidry, but the druid-image suits their purposes), and sometimes it is a part of the above “strains” of Druidry. I’ve already written on the Function of Druidry, something I consider vitally important to how I understand Druidry.
In the near future I will be writing on various spiritual, religious and philosophical influences that I consider as part of my druidry.

Polytheistic Meanderings

This is my reply to a forum discussion about “hard and soft polytheistic beliefs“:

My first brush with polytheism was with Wicca’s duotheism: “all gods are apects of one god and all goddesses are aspects of one goddess.” Later I added “and both are the same.” So the idea that “the gods are aspects of the same thing” was present early on. And I was interested in mysticism, so the unity of Ultimate Reality was something present, too.

Later I started to consider that the gods represented aspects of nature, so when I started to look for the “boundaries” that made each god (read aspect of nature) an individual, I saw too much overlap, flow and interdependence, so the whole “gods embody natural forces” reinforced for me that they’re all aspects of the same underlying, unified, interdependant nature/universe/reality, and that the gods of the different myths are interpretations of each culture of the “divine presence/s” in nature. The divisions of the roles and functions of each god at times seemed to arbitrary. They also appeared too human and culturally specific, and the “character” of nature didn’t seem to match the anthropomorphic images we find in myths.

Animism also had its hand in eroding hard polytheistic ideas: I considered “each thing” as having a spirit/soul, and as I considered “each thing” it became clear that even atoms have their own soul/spirit/consciousness. Could it be that my soul is made up of the souls of my body’s atoms? My answer became yes. This meant that the gods (forces of nature) were in turn constituted by smaller gods and spirits, in the same way that all forests are constituted by different forests, forests by trees, trees by cells, cells by atoms, and so on. If the whole Earth is a deity, then it is comprised of all the gods of nature, whether they represent seas, land, sky, weather, forests, deserts, fish, trees, people, rocks, etc.. Even humanity is an aspect of this god/dess.

Pantheism too: the universe is “God”, and everything is a part of the universe, so yes, the gods (polytheism) are aspects of the same God/ess (pantheism).

This eroded ideas about a soul surviving my body after death, too. When my body disintegrates, my soul disintegrates, though its constituent parts (the atoms) carry on. And even they are subject to disintegration at some point. I was strongly influenced by Buddhist ideas about impermanence, applying the idea to my soul and even the gods. [i]Everything[/i] is impermanent, without exception. The different aspects of nature are in a constant state of flux and transformation, meaning the gods are in a constant state of flux and transformation. And they cannot be subjected to our anthropomorphisms.

I also felt that belief in the afterlife contributed to dualistic thinking that separates spirit and matter, and from there the disconnection of humans from our environment and our harmful actions within it. “As above, so below” became for me a confirmation that there is no duality between spirit and matter. The nature-based aspect of Paganism was always what interested me more than the traditional polytheistic beliefs. I was more of an ecomystic than polytheist.