I walked into a bookshop and looked at the religion and spirituality section, and there before me were two scriptures from the East: the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching, so I bought them and read them. Out of the two the Tao Te Ching spoke to me the most, and I soon became enthusiastic about its philosophy.
One allegorical painting, The Vinegar Tasters, depicts China’s three main philosophies and their reactions to life: Confusianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Confucius, the Buddha and Lao-Tzu are standing around a vinegar pot and they have each stuck their finger in the pot, taken a taste and are left with different expressions on their faces. Confucius has a sour look, seeing life as out of harmony with Heaven and thus needing the proper rules and institutions to regulate it. The Buddha has a bitter look, seeing life as something we suffer (First Noble Truth: “Life is suffering”) and from which we should seek liberation. Lao-Tzu has a happy look because he realised that vinegar (or life) is as it should be, and it is our meddling in it that causes problems for us. The taste of vinegar is not pleasant, but that is as it should be; it is vinegar being vinegar!
Here was a philosophy that affirmed that life and nature are fundamentally good, and not something we should control or seek liberation from, which really clicked with my Pagan and Gaian sensibilities.
There is a principle of harmony and unity at work in nature, called the Tao, or Way. It is not one particular way, it is the Way of All Things, of Heaven and Earth and the “ten thousand things,” so it cannot be constricted or encapsulated by any one belief or thought system, which are all partial and limited.
Each being has its own contact with the Tao, called Te meaning virtue, the inborn nature of each being that has its source in the Tao. A mountain has its Te, as do the stars, as do ants, as does a rock, as does a flu virus, as does a water molecule, as do human beings! All things have their own Te, which is, by nature, in harmony with the Tao. If we are in harmony with our own Te, we are in harmony with the Tao, and if we are in harmony with the Tao then we are in harmony with the Te of All Things. No need for control, no need for liberation. All things can happen “Self-so”, if we let them.
But I cannot now say this is my philosophy, because this is something that is “done without doing”, a concept known as wu-wei. It has become a non-philosophy for me, because it is something achieved without contrived effort, it is something we are born with and not something we can achieve, it is something we simply are – if only we would let ourselves! What is the Uncarved Block? It is the form of the block in its naturalness before human hands took it and shaped it, it is the tree in its natural state. This is the Uncarved Block. Wu-wei is simply letting the Uncarved Block be what it is, a tree in its natural state.
In considering wu-wei, Taoism is not a system that can be applied like other philosophies, it cannot be thought out, planned or systemised, because it represents Nature as it is. Its goal is Harmony with Nature, except that Nature is Harmony, and so it is impossible to achieve with the usual goal-driven manner of thinking. It already exists. But even the goal-driven conscious ego has its own Te, its own function in the nature of things. It is not a matter of denying this ego, to stop it interfering but to observe nature (including the Nature within the human mind) and learning from and applying its principles, and let Nature transform our way of thinking.
We can plan, scheme, manage, invent and have goals and expectations, because that is simply the nature of the conscious mind, and how we evolved, but we can do it in harmony with nature. The conscious mind can consider itself as one function within the wholeness of the human psyche, and the human being can consider itself as one part of how Nature functions, instead of somehow separate from, better than or above it.
Buddhism has had a great impact on my thinking, and though I may not officially take refuge in “Buddha, Dharma, Sangha”, or adopt the Buddhist precepts as a rule of life, many of its ideas have helped me overcome many philosophical tangles, simplifying and clarifying many of my thoughts.
The appeal of Buddhism for me is its universalism, that the Buddha’s teachings weren’t simply directed towards a specific tribe, ethnicity or culture but were used to describe the human condition, in much the same way as I see Christ and his teachings. Of central importance to both is love or compassion, conceived of and practiced in slightly different ways, but essentially the same. Bodisattvas delay complete release from Samasara (cycle of rebirth) in order to help others in their search for enlightenment and the cessation of suffering. For me enlightenment and compassion have become closely allied if not synonymous.
The concepts that really underpin what I’ve received from Buddhism are the three signs of being: dukkha, anicca and anatta, roughly translated as suffering, change and no-self, respectively. All beings suffer, all beings are subject to change and all beings are lacking in any permanent sense of self. The sense of self itself can change over time, but also it can appear and disappear, much like the light in a light bulb (science seems to confirm this: “I” am a cluster of neurons that serves the purpose of identity in this organism). I think in the realisation and acceptance of dukkha, anicca and anatta, I suffer less, I worry less about these things and learn the meaning of The Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
The Buddha originally sought a way to cease suffering through spiritual means, and this culminated in his enlightenment, Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, but what he taught was the Middle Way, moderation between the extremes of hedonism and asceticism, that both extremities can become obsessions and thus sources of suffering instead of liberation from it. Perhaps even the pursuit of moderation can become obsessive, so we can say “All things in moderation, including moderation.” The Buddha offered a way to help the world, and so he encouraged people to take what they felt was helpful in their lives and not obsess over or accept all his teachings.
Recently, I saw a picture of the Buddha “going to Nirvana”. It was an image of his death and around his body were his followers in various states of mourning. We tend to think of Buddhism as encouraging detachment and dispassion, yet here is a scene of pain and passion! Buddhism certainly isn’t about denying these feelings, but just not becoming attached to or obsessed over them. Feelings come and go like the tides, like the tides of change. In the acceptance of this we can find a measure of peace, even in extreme times, and develop a mindful attitude of acute observation. For me, Buddhism is a deeper and clearer way of feeling and living, and not letting ourselves become overcome by our passions.
Having grown up with Christian beliefs and then experimenting with Spiritualist and New Age ideas in my teens, I didn’t start an active spirituality until I discovered Neo-Paganism. Here I started to examine my previous ideas and experiment with new ones.
Modern Paganism offered me a spirituality that was non-dogmatic and experiental, leaving me to experiment and investigate various beliefs without committing myself to any particular one. Above all, it offered me a spirituality connected to nature, affirmed life and inspired me with myths and symbols forgotten after the coming of Christianity.
Pagan (or pre-Christian) religions represent a long buried source of spiritual inspiration that is not Christian or an exotic Eastern one. They are native to the Western psyche, with symbols and myths corresponding to a deeper “archeological” layer of our cultural psyche.
Neo-Paganism is often described as a Revival or Reconstruction of ancient pagan religion, but I would not describe it like that but I think of it in terms of Reconnection: we can reconnect to the ancestral traditions, which can bring us insights about ourselves, our world and the universe, insights that can reconnect us with our instinctive selves and with nature. This also means that other sources of spiritual inspiration are not precluded; Paganism represents just one layer in my spirituality, one of primal religion, connected to instincts and nature. Christianity provides another substantial layer in my thinking, as do Buddhism and science.
Aspects relating to this “primal religion” are polytheism, pantheism, Goddess worship, animism, shamanism, celebration of the seasons and reverence for the ancestors and their ways, which I’ll describe briefly here:
Pantheism and Polytheism the universe and the natural forces that comprise it are divine and so sacred and worthy of our respect, individually and as a whole.
Goddess Worship for many centuries Western culture has held fast to the image of the Divine as masculine, a significant part of Neo-Paganism is to redress this imbalance, reviving the image of the Divine Feminine. In it, women may find empowerment and respect, positive “feminine”* qualities can be given due credit, and we can find ways of living harmoniously with the Earth Mother instead of exploiting her. (*here I talk of a cultural definition of gender that is by no means pan-cultural, and may in fact belong to men as much as women).
Animism the universe is alive, as something organic and not merely mechanical. Each being and presence in nature deserve recognition and respect.
Shamanism the awareness of hidden aspects of ourselves and the world around us, we see all things as interconnected, and the human mind reveals itself to be something more than just a conscious ego, but contains upper, middle and lowers worlds through which we can “travel”.
Celebration of the Seasons a major part of modern Paganism is the use of the Wheel of the Year. With eight, roughly equidistant festivals we observe the changing seasons, celebrating them and integrating our observances into our lives, which all too often are urbanised and disconnected from nature.
Reverence of the Ancestors the past is often forgotten in the rush to get the newest, shiniest electronic devise before the next one comes along in six months. We advance in ignorance of our roots at our own risk! To know our roots or ancestors is a way of knowing the ground we walk on and the wisdom (or lack thereof) of its stability. But here we must also apply discrimination, sorting the wheat from the chaff, as not all we inherit has necessarily been for our own good or that of the future. And let us not forget Reverence for the Descendants, those who will be left with the legacies (good and bad) that we leave behind.
From this we have a life-affirming spirituality that is ecological in nature, integrating all that is organic, interdependent, primitive, wild and instinctive in harmony with our modern intellectual and technological ways. I feel this integration is an important part of gaining stability as we advance into the future.
Samhain is the traditional name for Gaelic festival that precedes Halloween and the Christian festivals of All Saints and All Souls. It observes the end of the “light” half of the year and the beginning of the “dark”.
Like any Celtic festival, it starts at dusk and ends at dusk the next day. So this Samhain started last night and will continue until tonight. This is because the Celtic day, like the Jewish day, starts at dusk and ends at dusk the next day. And so it is also that Samhain has been described as the Celtic New Year (some neo-Pagan groups may even sing Old Lang Syne at this time).
The symbolism is interesting, showing that the “new” starts in the darkness. Before the tree there was a seed waiting in the darkness of the soil, before birth there was the infant waiting in the darkness of the womb, before the Big Bang there is a Mystery that lies beyond the light of our knowledge, and for a while the Universe was a soup of matter and energy long before stars came to shine, and certainly before there were eyes to see them.
We are in darkness, and it is a time to look inwards, our thoughts perhaps turning to the ancestors, death and the past. In an age of plastic, hand-held Internet technology and convenience, these must seem very unusual, and yet they have been and are important aspects of our lives, whether we heed them or not.
The neo-Pagan wheel of the year is cyclical in nature, reflecting on the turning of the natural year equating them with human life phases (Samhain with death and Winter Solstice with birth, etc.). Each festival becomes a natural time to reflect of aspects of our own lives as well as the changing of seasons.
Right now many people will be experiencing the change of the season differently, depending on climate and hemisphere, and perhaps the traditional associations of Samhain don’t always apply – Spain certainly differs from England in many ways.
Recently the black redstarts have arrived from elsewhere in the Penisula, the ash trees have lost their leaves, the fig tree is still in the process of losing its own, and the mushroom-picking season is drawing to a close. And one day shortly I will be eating chesnuts cooked over a fire!
I was reading through the European Unitarian Universalists’ website and I found an interesting article called May I have a Word with You? (last article on the page).From it I saw a quote from Mark Twain:
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightining and the lightning bug.
There are many moment when I have read or heard something that made me think “I agree wholeheartedly… except for that one little word, which changes everything.” Sometimes I can overlook it, taking a “between the lines” interpretation, so that my own bias towards certain word doesn’t get in the way of communication. Other times I have to take a word seriously because it changes the sense of a sentence too much for me to ignore. Words aren’t just intellectual categories, they have instinctual and in intuitive aspects to them, too.
Words fascinate me for a number of reasons (or perhaps one reason dressed as many). I’ve written a lot of poetry, which I used as a device to express my inner process. As a writer, words gives form to my thought processes, so I can share ideas; it can also help me create whole new worlds and characters from the imagination. I am a student of languages, Spanish, French and Catalan, learning their similarities and difference (and a student of English – even though I’m a native speaker, there are still things I can learn about it), and a creator of others, inventing news vocabularies, grammars and pronounciations for my invented peoples.
In ecopsychology we learn of “verbalisation”, which has the scientific quality of sharing emprical data through language, and just as (if not more) importantly it has the psychological function of making the unconscious conscious, enhancing experience and impressions by giving it definition instead of letting it sink into anonymity and another thing that we “take for granted”.
Between the anonymity of birth and the anonymity of death there is life. But life doesn’t have to be anonymous, so long as we verbalise.
Today, through a mistake in Spanish, I learnt that emersion and immersion are opposites, where I’d been thinking of them as “immersion”. There’s little difference in pronounciation (or pronunciation for the orthographically correct); both can be /i-MUR-shuhn/, though emersion can also be /ee-MUR-shuhn/). I pronounce them both /i-MUR-zhuhn/ (zh as in viSion, Genre or miraGe), but who’s being picky, right?
Though just to be picky, I pronounce emersion /i-MURJ/ and spell it <emerge>. ;)
My earliest religious experience was within the context of a Christian church, a “happy-clappy” Baptist church, an overall positive experience with singing, celebration, fun Sunday school games and the love of a benevolent God. It left me with a lasting interest in all things religious and spiritual. During my adolescence I identified with Spiritualist and New Age ideas, though continued visiting the local Christian youth group. I then discovered Paganism, rooting my idea of spirit in nature and ancestral Pre-Christian traditions. But Christianity, or at least Christ, was always there, and if I were to be consistent in recognising and honouring my ancestors, then I would have to look to Christianity as well as Pagan religions for inspiration and understanding of my roots. Perhaps the pre-Christian religions of Europe represent a long-forgotten “deeper” legacy than Christianity, but that doesn’t make Christianity’s impact on my life and culture any less true or relevant.
Modern Druidry has its own roots in Christian tradition, with specifically Pagan Druidry emerging in the 20th century. Some 18th century Revivalists saw in the ancient druids a precursor to Christianity, perhaps containing little or no differences in doctrine. At other times Christian gentlemen in long, white robes would gather at Stonehenge or other significant places to conduct “druidic” ceremonies, though for fraternal or cultural motives rather than the revival of ancient religion. And today there are still plenty of modern druids that identify as Christian, combining a faith in Christ with a druid-inspired nature-based spirituality.
I’m not a follower of Christ or a believer in Christian doctrine, but I recognise the impact of it on my life and the inspiration that the teachings of Christ continue to have for me. And I can say, as Columcille once said, that “Christ is my Druid”, seeing in him a model for being a Christian, a druid and a human.
Three keys essential on the path to self-knowledge: acceptance, rejection and synthesis.
Acceptance of those elements that are ours but we have rejected; rejection of those elements that aren’t ours but we have accepted; a synthesis with a more adjusted sense of wholeness and centred in a more essential sense of self.
I’m a regular reader of Druid Life, which has interesting articles such as Know Thyself. Nimue Brown was also helpful in publicising the Vote for the Conservation of the Glorieta Stream. Occasionally I comment on Nimue’s blogs, like Know Thyself, which I share here:
Identity and self-knowledge are very interesting subjects, which are two different but related things. The former gives us material to work with, the latter, a means to make sense of it.
The ego is a fragment that thinks it’s a whole, but once it realises that the human psyche is higher, deeper and wider than it’s own limits, well, we have a whole journey on our hands!
The closest I come to a “pure self” is the “I” without identity, it is the conscious, directive element in the psyche, and around this has formed the baggage of the ego (i.e. identity – there is a distinction here between identity and identifier). Roberto Assagioli said: “We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we dis-identify ourselves.”
Identity has it’s function, but it is less fundamental to my being than I often think. In studing Psychosynthesis, I’m learning that this “disidentifiying” has nothing to do with rejecting my identity (who I think I am), but simply changing my perspective of it as something that is not at the centre of the whole psyche. I “disidentify” from the ego’s box, which allows me to integrate and accept elements of the psyche that don’t fit in with the ego’s prejudices.
Sense of self expands and the process of psychic wholeness, or individuation, begins, moving the centre from the ego to the Self.
As a human being and druid, I believe that being human and human beings are important and valuable. This value transcends culture, religion and nationality. Human nature is something that is universal, and over which no one has a monopoly; it is something that connects us all. What it is and how to recognise it are on-going processes involving the self-discovery of each individual and the evolution of the human race as a whole as we realise just how many ways there are to be “human” and how deep our cultural conditioning goes.
One image of the ancient druids that inspires me is that of a network of Celtic intelligensia that worked between tribes, kingdoms and cultures that make up the diverse range of peoples we call “Celtic” (with an area stretching between the British Isles, Iberian Peninsula and Turkey). Their wisdom and training transcended their tribal loyalties and traditions to bind them together with a common human spirit. The value of this image is not whether it is fact or fiction but how it inspires us to live our lives.
A modern druid, like anyone in the world today, is in contact with and influenced by international ideas and relations. Indeed, they may even find themselves outside the traditional range of the Celts, and perhaps not even with Celtic ancestry. Modern druidry and its ideas themselves are not limited to Celtic tradition, but have for centuries been mixed with others.
We live in an era where international human rights have been developed and agreed upon, we are connected by the Internet and other forms of media that stretch across the world, bringing us information instantly. Inevitably, the mix of cultures can prove a volatile powder keg, provoking much conflict. But a modern druid takes all this in their stride, joining with the flux of culture that lays over the undercurrent of humanity.
This particularly resonates with me, being a British expat living in a bilingual part of Spain with a French-speaking Swiss family. I have gone beyond the “comfort” of my anglo-centric box and discovered other cultures and other parts of the world. And when relating to other human beings, I cannot rely on the familiar or conventional ways I was brought up with, but must learn to relate to other human beings, not as a druid or a Brit, but as a human being.
I don’t think we have to deny our cultural backgrounds, and trade them in for something more universal, but simply put them into perspective. To misquote Jesus Christ, “Humanity was not made for culture/science/art/religion; culture/science/art/religion were made for humanity.”