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The Journey into Spirit: A Pagan’s Perspective on Death, Dying and Bereavement

Friday, October 31st, 2014

Journey into Spirit

A review of Kristoffer Hughes’ book The Journey into Spirit: A Pagan’s Perspective on Death, Dying and Bereavement by Maria Ede-Weaving

Druidry teaches us to honour death and to remember the dead with reverence. However, for most of us, our wider culture has hidden much of death’s processes from view.  The physical realities of this most inevitable and unavoidable rite of passage have been obscured and this has only served to intensify the fear of death and sever the connection to its deeper mysteries. We live in a world of plastic, a substance which by its very nature defies the laws of decomposition, and this seems to reflect on some inner level, the chronic fear with have of the dissolution and decay that are the vital foundations of renewal and life.

This is a subject close to my heart. I have lost most of my close family over time and last year my father died. We were very close and his death was unexpected; the grieving has been intense. When Philip asked me to read and review Kristoffer Hughes’ The Journey into Spirit: A Pagan’s Perspective on Death, Dying and Bereavement, I had mixed feelings – although of late I have sensed an emerging from the darker spaces of my grief, parts of me still feel a little raw, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to gaze into death’s face again quite so soon, even if only in the pages of a book. Despite my fears, I am so pleased that I read this wonderful book.

Kristoffer Hughes is uniquely qualified to guide his readers through the realm of the shades. For over two decades he has worked in morgues as a pathology technologist and this coupled with his roles as a Druid Priest and Funeral Celebrant, gives him a special sensitivity and understanding of this challenging subject matter. As we read, it is clear that Hughes is acting as Psychopomp, a wise and compassionate guide on an extraordinary journey into the dark light that is death and loss.  I found that from the very first page I trusted him to guide me with honesty and sensitivity. The tone is never patronising; Hughes’ exploration of death expresses both reverence and empathy for both the dead and the living. It’s a book where the author’s humanity shines through constantly, and in doing so, keeps us connected to our own as we are inevitably taken back to our memories of death and bereavement, and ponder our own mortality.

Kristoffer Hughes

Kristoffer Hughes

The book is divided into four main sections, three of which take us through the Druid Realms of Abred, Gwynvyd and Ceugant.In the circle of Abred, Hughes explores the physical dimensions of death, the visceral reality of it. He shows that an honest  engagement with the physical processes of death and dissolution are a gateway to the spirit and the soul, which he examines in the Circle of Gwynvyd and Ceugant respectively. The last section of the book is a selection of beautifully written rituals, one of which is a particularly moving preparation of the body ceremony.

Hughes manages to maintain an extraordinary balance throughout between his role as guide and priest on the one hand and as a fellow companion of bereavement on the other. He doesn’t flinch from revealing the rawness and pain of his own grieving, sharing accounts of his personal losses with a tender honesty that adds a power to his overall message: death serves life, and when we engage with it with an open heart it reveals to us its healing and transformative nature.

There is a fantastic section about the ‘Seasons of Grief’ which, as a grieving person, I found enormously insightful and helpful. There are also useful and thought-provoking exercises and meditations throughout the book. Hughes encourages the reader to explore the mystery of death for themselves; illustrating that we can become our own wise and trusted guides, and in doing so, find an authentic understanding of death’s greater mysteries, one that has meaning and relevance for us personally.

I cried at sections, laughed too, and had numerous ‘Yes!’ moments. The Journey into Spirit is never morbid; from the painful core of our loss, Hughes shows us the pearl of light at its heart. With wisdom and humility he encourages us to recognise just how magical and awesome the process of death is, of how it connects us to the whole of creation – all that has preceded us and all that will come after.

The Journey into Spirit reminds us of the potency and potential wisdom and healing inherent in our most painful and dreaded experiences. It is a life-affirming work of value not only to Druids and Pagans but to those of all faiths and none. A beautifully written book, full of deep wisdom – hard-won but generously and compassionately shared.

Kristoffer is founder and head of the Anglesey Druid Order. Their website can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contemplative Druidry

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

ContemplativeDruidry copy

A review by Maria Ede-Weaving of  ‘Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential’ by James Nichol

Modern Druidry is an evolving spirituality; each of its practitioners is continually adding to the breadth and depth of this path through their experiences. What gives a spirituality its power is it practices and approaches, and these are far from static – they live and breathe, grow and change, as we do. For a path to flourish and mature, it requires that we engage, question and explore, remaining open to the possibilities of change whilst honouring the wisdom already shared. James Nichol’s Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential is a wonderful example of this process in action.

Nichols has gathered a group of Druids to discuss their experiences of contemplative practice. Fifteen Druids share their thoughts about both their solo and group encounters with contemplative meditation and how these have impacted upon their Druidry and wider lives.

The book is in three main sections: ‘People, Practice and Potential’ with contributors not only reflecting on what drew them to contemplative Druidry and how such is expressed in their spiritual practice, but also posing the question of how such approaches might manifest in the wider Druid community, should they be more readily explored.

It is clear from these accounts that sitting meditation is only one part of this approach; mindful walking, chanting, daily offices, communion with nature/the divine and creative activities also play a part in keeping contributors present and connected. There is a real sense that each – for want of an established Druid-based contemplative framework – has been quietly experimenting, acting as pioneers exploring their own frontiers in order to find what works.  In doing so, they have been planting the seeds of a tradition that could potentially flourish into a valid and inspiring area of Druidry, one that until now has been rather ignored. Many have taken their inspiration from other spiritualities such as Buddhism and Christianity, however, their practices have developed a flavour that is distinctly Druidic. It’s a fascinating read and interesting to see how meditative practices give depth to Druid concepts such as the Awen and Nwyvre;  how Druid contemplation and mindfulness might  help to shape, transform or deepen a connection to life and self.

In the Neo-Pagan movement and the Western Mystery Tradition there has been a dominant focus on what might be perceived to be ‘active’ meditation techniques; the use of visualisation and path-working holding a dominant place. The Eastern approach to meditation has often been assumed to facilitate a removal of self from the world in an attempt to transcend its illusions. As such it might be perceived to be at cross purposes with the Druid world view where life and earthly experiences are celebrated. Most of us understand  Druid spiritual practices to be a gateway to deepen one’s involvement with earthly life, as opposed to escaping it via ascetic disciplines, however, what Nichol’s book illustrates is that the contemplative approach, explored from a Druid perspective, can be a tool that moves us into a richer and deeply felt relationship with nature, community and self.

Reading through the book’s many thought-provoking accounts I had that sense of excitement you get when a long-held suspicion about something is validated by another’s experience. My first encounter with meditation came years ago via the practice of Yoga. For me, regardless of how one might interpret the philosophy of Yoga, what its practices illustrated was that these techniques of mindful movement, breath and contemplation could actually help me to feel more embodied and present on this planet. They were immensely practical and useful , not only in aiding my physical well-being but also in creating a healthier flow between my body, mind and emotions, and in doing so, opening the door to my spiritual journey. The book’s examples makes it clear that I am not alone in my view that these techniques are not ring-fenced by any religion or path but are open for all to use. I see no contradiction in including them as part of my Druid practice. It is true that each spiritual path will approach these techniques through their own spiritual lens – and even each individual within each path will bring their own unique focus to bear – but Nichol’s books suggests that there is a rich seam of spiritual nourishment to explore here, and that even if such practices are not for us, then the debate about them can only deepen and widen what Druidry has to offer.

There is much here that gives food for thought. Contemplative Druidry is a valuable springboard for further discussion and a great starting place for those who are interested in including contemplative meditation in their practice. Nichol’s book encourages us to really think about what a contemplative Druidic practice might be. What is clear from each contributor’s experience is that it is an approach that is nature and body affirming, one that offers us a means to engage more fully with self and the world around us. In time, as this discussion deepens, as more people engage with these practices and share the results, I feel sure that many more benefits will become apparent. All this can only add to the richness and diversity of the Druid path.  – Maria Ede-Weaving

James’ book is available from Amazon and will shortly be available from the OBOD shop.

 

 

 

 

Dancing & Cooking – Druidry as a Way of Being

Monday, October 27th, 2014

After 50 years of the Order’s existence and 25 years of its distance learning course now is a good time for us to assess what this has brought, to celebrate it – and allow ourselves to critique it too if we wish. And then we can look forward to what the next 50 years might bring – to envision it, dream it, sow seeds of intention. If we look around us – at the tribe, the community of people who are drawn here today – there is such diversity, and yet some common music holds us together, brings us together. Such diversity, and yet such unity! I remember being at an Eisteddfod at Glastonbury a few years ago and we had an opera singer, a Dutch member, singing arias from Bellini and Verdi; we had a duo – Marianne, also from the Netherlands playing the electric double-bass, with Jim Faupel singing and playing guitar; we had Arthur with his Druid camp blues, Damh with his pagan rock anthems, and of course many more. So diverse and yet held together by some mysterious threads of connection – by our unity!

And this was the theme of this year’s Dryade International camp too – the diversity that is held within that wider context that we call Druidry and OBOD.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find myself frustrated by this wider context – it often seems to me that OBOD Druidry is so wide a term, so loose both in its structure and its philosophy (if it even has one) that I don’t know what it is! And this is coming from someone who is apparently helping to lead the Order, who has more or less immersed himself in the subject for the last fifty years –

Read more

Whatever Happened to MBS?

Sunday, October 26th, 2014
The wonderful Himalaya Bookshop & Tea House in Amsterdam - A Thing of the Past Now

The wonderful Himalaya Bookshop & Tea House in Amsterdam – A Thing of the Past Now

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
MBS stands for ‘Mind Body Spirit’, and is the category used by publishers for books on Spirituality/New Age/Popular Psychology and Self-Help. In the 90s whole sections of stores like Borders and Waterstones would be devoted to MBS, but over the years those sections seem to have shrunk to a few shelves. A niche within MBS is ‘Magic & the Occult’ and in London two fabulous bookshops – Atlantis and Treadwells – manage to flourish selling these kind of books, and Watkins in Cecil Court manages to thrive with a broader range that includes MBS titles, so the situation isn’t clear-cut. But, on the whole, it seems to me, the broader category of MBS looks as if it has been on the decline for years. This was very obvious to me on a recent visit to Amsterdam. The huge building on Prins Hendrikkade that once housed Oibibio – an MBS emporium on five floors with shops, therapy rooms and a café – is now an office block with a shop selling T-shirts. And the wonderful Himalaya has become a delicatessen! You can still find it described on websites: “Himalaya, a Bookstore and Tea-house, is an ideal retreat for anyone who desires a spiritual experience. Located between the busy streets of Red Light District and the Dam, Himalaya creates an ambience described as an Oasis by its many happy customers.” Those happy customers can no longer even visit its other shop in Rotterdam, which is apparently closing down. What do you think happened? Have we all grown up? Or been dumbed down? Did publishers and authors flood the market? I’d love to hear what you think about why this has happened.

Move your Goat

Saturday, October 25th, 2014
This beautiful Capra Ibex doesn't want to move

This beautiful Capra Ibex doesn’t want to move anywhere

A friend, Barry Winbolt, who has been developing a creative combination of mindfulness, eco-psychology and solutions-focused psychotherapy under the banner of Inner Landscapes, has begun a daily blog of short, thoughtful pieces of advice for everyday living. I like his down-to-earth, easy-going way of expression and practical advice. Here’s yesterday’s post:

Make no mistake, words can hurt you. Despite the “sticks and stones” incantation that many of us hear from an early age, words can be lethal. People can and do say hurtful and destructive things. But to be effective any insult or put-down must find its mark. Even the most wounding remark is harmless until it finds its target.
As someone once said, “In order to get your goat they must first find your goat.” My advice? Move your goat.  Read the full post

Knowing the Past to Create the Future

Saturday, October 25th, 2014

‘The foundations of the future are always latent in the past, and without a thorough knowledge of a tradition it is impossible either to pass it on and develop it further or to alter it. Any radical revolution requires a rediscovery of the roots of that which one desires to transform.’

R.Panikar introducing ‘The Unknown Pilgrims’ by N.Shanta

The Gatekeeper Trust Annual Conference

Monday, October 20th, 2014

gatekeeper

The Gatekeeper Trust is a lovely organisation that encourages a deep spiritual connection to the land as a way of healing our planet, communities and selves. They are holding their annual conference on the 29-30 November in Pewsey, Wiltshire. Here is an extract from their website about their approach and some information about the forthcoming conference:

At this time when we are desecrating our planet as never before, there is a real need to rediscover our connection with our  environment, to be in tune with the landscape at a deeper level, and to realize how it affects us, and we it.

It is known that we are affected mentally and  emotionally for the better by living in peaceful and beautiful  surroundings. Each of us knows at least one place where we feel special – somewhere that makes us seem more alive, more truly ourselves.  It is here that we connect with the spirit of place and find universal  harmony. By going to places to which you feel drawn, and offering your  healing love through meditation, dance, song and prayer, or whatever  feels right, places and communities can be transformed,  atmospheres made lighter and more harmonious. Often a corresponding  change takes place in you too! ‘We live in the landscape and the landscape lives in us’…

…The Gatekeeper Trust welcomes the interest and support  of all who respond in their hearts to the adventure of Temple seeking  and renewal, or simply enjoy walking with mindfulness. We not only exchange consciousness with the land, but also explore  history, mythology, archaeology, poetry and the arts, and their  relevance in today’s changing world. We have a programme throughout the  year of local and national events. Groups frequently meet at the  equinoxes and solstices and other traditional festival  times to celebrate The Wheel of the Year through pilgrimage. Journeys through the outer landscape can create within us new frontiers of inner  perspective, new depths of potential within ourselves. The Earth has an  abundance of simple gifts to be enjoyed and  released within us. We invite you to discover them with us.

The Butterfly is our symbol – the Gatekeeper or Hedge  Brown has orange-brown wings and a black spot with two white pupils on  its forewings. Known for its guardianship of gates and hedges, it is  most often seen as one goes in and out of fields  and woods and along roadside verges. The butterfly is the Earthly  partner of the elemental kingdom, its presence frequently accompanies us  on pilgrimage – a sign as one crosses the threshold of a sacred place  and seeks permission to enter. Engaged with the  fairy and nature realms, the butterfly reminds us of the alchemical  transformation of Earthly substance, keeping the Temples mysteriously  tended and alive for humanity to rediscover. ~ Roma Harding, Gatekeeper Friend

ANNUAL CONFERENCE
29 – 30 November 2014
Bouverie Hall, North Street, Pewsey, Wiltshire, SN9 5ES
Weekend ticket – £65, One day only – £35

URBAN PILGRIM
with
Sarah Dawkins, Christian Kyriacou, Sylvia Francke, David Furlong,
Caroline Hoare, Eric Maddern, Karen Ralls and Jeremy Rye

I think what has happened to the human community in our times is that we are talking to ourselves. We are not talking to the river, we are not listening to the river. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking the conversation, we have shattered the universe. ~ Thomas Berry

Many famous routes of pilgrimage follow ancient tracks through beautiful countryside. Yet pilgrimage is equally alive in town, with famous routes connecting historic towns and cities. As so many people live in densely built up places, seemingly disconnected from nature, this weekend conference will explore what it means to be an urban pilgrim and how we can renew ‘the great conversation’ with nature.

For more information about the Conference click hereThe Gate Keeper Trust website can be found here.

Dutch Tarot Conference

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014
'Are We All on the Same Camera/Page?' LtoR: PCG, Agnes Yntema-De Vries, Kirsten Buchholzer, James Wanless, Petra Stam

‘Are We All on the Same Camera/Page?’ LtoR: PCG, Agnes Yntema-De Vries, Kirsten Buchholzer, James Wanless, Petra Stam

Conferences can be dull affairs. Endless speakers droning on, weak coffee, and that little voice inside that says “Go on, no-one will notice, just sneak off after this talk…”But the recent Plant Consciousness event in London avoided this by having singing plants, a great venue, and frequent interludes with poetry, a beat-box rapper and strong coffee! And of course thrilling speakers…

And the Dutch Tarot Conference I attended in Utrecht a few days ago avoided conference fatigue too. It began well with an interesting venue that challenged us all to find  (so we were wide awake with our Sherlock Holmes hats on right from the start). And just as the Plant event kicked off with an American speaker gifted with pizazz (John Perkins who started the Be the Change movement) so we had the fantastic James Wanless, creator of the Voyager Tarot, who has a great presentation style – easy-going, Californian, high-energy, witty and very knowledgeable; followed by Kirsten Buchholzer, President of the German Tarot Association, who revealed to us the power of an extremely evocative deck that was new to many of us – the Rohrig deck; then Petra Stam who has created a beautiful Moon Deck, and is the author of a number of illustrated books on the Goddess and Spirituality (in Dutch only unfortunately); then Agnes Ynetma-De Vries from the Buro Voor Tarot who gave her unique perspective on working with the Tarot, which included a dramatic tearing up of a Tarot card. (If only I could understand Dutch!)

The Magician, from the Rohrig deck

The Magician, from the Rohrig deck

Jurre Yntema, who organised the conference (and distributes the OBOD course in the Dutch, French and German languages) had kindly given me the last slot of the day – nice, because one tends to remember the last item in a series, but not nice since by now it was 4pm and we’d been indoors all day. The solution? Fresh air and exercise! In the evening sun we went outside and I took everyone through a movement-meditation series based on the first eight cards of the Major Arcana. Back inside we looked at the theme: When Psychotherapy meets the Tarot. Psychology met the Tarot a while back, and Jungian insights in particular have been well integrated into Tarot lore. But perspectives from psychotherapy do not seem to sit so comfortably, and this was the field I wanted us to explore together. I’ll post a write-up on this at some point…

Tarot Cult Activity in the Netherlands

Fresh air and exercise! Tarot Cult Activity in the Netherlands

“Go to Stonehenge Alone…”

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014
Stonehenge c.1885

Stonehenge c.1885

Back from a thought-provoking Tarot conference in the Netherlands, and here at OBOD HQ we have just published the latest Mt Haemus paper. Every year, for the last fifteen years, we have given an award for a work of scholarly research into Druidry or a related subject, and this year the award goes to Dr Julia Farley for her study of the way archaeologists’ relationship to Druids and Druidry has changed over the years.

Julia has produced a very engaging paper, and I can’t resist a quote from it here! (I’ve removed the refs to make it easier to read. All refs given in full in the paper).

From: The Fifteenth Mt Haemus Lecture by Dr Julia Farley:

‘This is why the history of the discipline of archaeology is important. Archaeologists are not impartial, neutral observers, but people with personalities and personal motivations, enmeshed in the particular passions and politics of their own society. This is as true for archaeologists today as it was for Daniel and Piggott, as it was for Aubrey and Stukeley before them. We cannot, in telling the story of the past, remove the perspective of the storyteller.

In the years since Piggott and Daniel were writing, archaeology has changed. The ways we seek to understand the past, and the understanding of the nature of that exercise, have shifted. In 1963, Daniel lambasted Ross Nichols’ suggestion that people should (in Daniel’s words) “set aside the findings of archaeologists and historians and… go to Stonehenge alone and commune there so that the truth would seep into their minds”. The lived experience of being in the landscape, the social and emotional response to an artefact or site, were not seen as valid sources of information about the past.

More recently, new movements in archaeology which have their roots in the post-processual school of the 1980s and 1990s might suggest that archaeologists have something to learn from modern pagan engagements with the landscape. It is impossible to re-construct a prehistoric mind-set or worldview, and the landscape we find ourselves in today is hugely different to the one experienced by our ancestors, but it is crucial for archaeology to engage in alternative perspectives. In a debate on alternative archaeologies at a 1999 conference in Southampton, Richard Bradley, Professor of Archaeology at Reading University, expressed a dissatisfaction with modern ‘consumption’ of archaeological sites, which I think goes to the heart of Ross Nichols’ message to Daniel. Bradley suggested that we need to:

“get used to monuments, spend time with them, be patient with them, before insights arise. There is an analogy between our instant consumption of monuments like Stonehenge and the deficiencies of traditional archaeology; we have no patience. We have no patience as tourists and we have no patience as academics. It’s no good having forty-five minutes access to Stonehenge whether you pay or not. What you need is the possibility for spending a long time at it, of being able to look at it in different lighting conditions, for instance. And that goes for all monuments, not just Stonehenge. The health of the discipline as a whole depends on a change in mindset and the way we expect people to experience these sites.”

The experiential approach of engaging with the landscape as a mode for studying the lived experience of people in the past was quite new to archaeologists in the 1990s, but it was not so far removed from Nichols’ own suggestion, made nearly forty years earlier, and such experience-based work had long been a cornerstone of modern Druidic practice.’

Read the full paper here

The Long Barrow at All Cannings

Monday, October 13th, 2014
Tim Daw, Creator of The Long Barrow

Tim Daw, Creator of The Long Barrow

I have recently discovered an amazing project happening just outside the village of All Cannings in the magical and evocative landscape of the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire. Farmer Tim Daw and his team have designed and built a traditional long barrow to house cremated remains. It has been built with an alignment to the Winter Solstice sunrise, when the sun with send a shaft of light into the internal stone passageway. Here is some more information from the project’s website:

Within the chalk mound there are five chambers arranged off the passageway that starts at the local Sarsen stone entrance, the original plans are for seven chambers, the other three may be added in the future.

The Long Barrow Passage

The Long Barrow Passage

 

The chambers, or columbaria, have niches built into the natural limestone walls. Each niche is about 600mm by 600mm and 400mm tall and is designed to be a family vault for the storage of cremated remains in urns. Depending on the size of the urns six to eight can be placed in each niche. The niches can be sealed with a memorial stone if required. There are also smaller niches for single and paired urns.

The long barrow is for anyone.  It is for those of any religion or none. The field it is in is being restored to native chalk grassland and will be kept as natural as possible for visitors to enjoy its beauty and solitude.

All Cannings lies within the Marlborough Downs area of outstanding natural beauty and is between Avebury and Stonehenge. This ancient landscape is renowned for its chalk downland and ancient history. The long barrow is designed to complement it and become part of it.

 

Niches

Niches

In recent years many people seem drawn to explore different ways to honour their loved ones after death, not only in the ceremonies that they use but also in the nature of committal. The Woodland Burial Movement has grown rapidly in popularity and The Long Barrow Project is a fascinating and very beautiful alternative for those who wish to be cremated. It is moving to think that for the first time in five millennia, the dead will be laid to rest in a barrow of this kind in a landscape that still speaks so strongly to us of our ancestors.

The barrow is a stunningly beautiful structure and there will be an opportunity to visit it as there will be an open morning at The Long Barrow between 10am-12pm on Saturday 25th October 2014. The project also has a Facebook page here with more wonderful photos and updates.