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and puddle-wonderful "


Uncertainty, Humility and Nudity

November 28th, 2007

Today, in learning about the way in which the Indian Gymnosophist sage Sanjaya’s doctrine of uncertainty may have influenced the Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, has helped to connect a number of different threads of experience and thought in a very pleasing way.

I have always admired uncertainty as a quality and have been both repelled and attracted to certainty. I have admired it emotionally because an uncertain person is open, humble, willing to change, and I’ve admired the quality intellectually ever since I read Robert Frost’s saying  ‘Anyone with an active mind lives on tentatives rather than tenets’.

But certainty is attractive because it offers a sense of direction, safety and meaning. That is why gurus can be appealing – (‘Thank heavens at least someone knows what is going on’ the mind [not the soul] cries!) And that is why New Age publishers (particularly in the US) often insist on proscriptive writing: “Just tell us what to believe and what to do!” And that is why books like The Four Agreements are so depressing because they express absolute certainty about the way to behave as if their prescriptions will apply in every case.

The most extreme form of certainty is Fundamentalism and the fanaticism that comes with it, and it often seems a sure sign that someone isn’t as intelligent as we might hope when they act as if they are utterly certain that something is so – as if they haven’t experienced enough of life to discover that new facts come to light every day, that viewpoints by definition are limited and often relative!

Reading The Accidental American – Tony Blair and the Presidency by James Naughtie the other day helped me to understand the problem of certainty and at the same time clarified something that has been a mystery to me and most of the British (and probably world). Naughtie’s book finally explained to me why Tony Blair supported and is so close to George Bush.


What always puzzled me about Blair was that he appeared sincere, but in the end I started to believe that this was simply a cover for some darker motives or just a terrible weakness on his part. Naughtie’s book demonstrates convincingly that Blair’s sincerity is indeed genuine and his convictions are the very cause of his tragic decisions while in office. He hasn’t been ‘Bush’s lap-dog’ – cow-towing to someone else’s beliefs! His utter certainty about his (and Bush’s) rightness made him intransigent. And intransigence creates tragedy. Strength in the end becomes weakness. Certainty breeds doubt and conflict. ‘Morality’ becomes immoral. His case illustrates perfectly Laurens Van der Post’s remark that “Human beings are perhaps never more frightening than when they are convinced beyond a doubt that they are right.” Blair doesn’t doubt, he is sincere – he is utterly convinced he is right and won’t allow himself a moment of uncertainty.

From what we can tell of Pyrrho of Elis’ doctrines suggests that he was the first person (in the classical world) to fully articulate the concept of agnosticism – that the nature of reality dictates that we can never be certain of anything. And it is quite possible that he learnt this idea when he was in India with Alexander the Great. There he met the Gymnosophists – the naked sages whose distant heirs can still be found in India. And it seems that one of their philosophers whose doctrines are known to us, Sanjaya , taught an approach that is remarkably like Pyrrho’s.

It is no surprise that such ideas evolved amongst the naked sages of India. Being naked, emotionally and physically engenders a sense of humility – a sort of innocent vulnerability to the world and life.

And here is the connection: for doctrines of tentative enquiry, agnosticism and uncertainty also foster humility, just as certainty breeds arrogance and fundamentalism.

I wonder if it is a coincidence that those approaches which are the most fundamentalist and fanatical are also those approaches that are the most shocked by nudity?

Blogging, Surfing, Existentialism and a Lion

November 27th, 2007

One of the amusing effects of having a blog is that you can read what terms people use in search engines to get to your blog. To date the oddest is ‘Bart nevermore soundbyte’. That surfer must have arrived as a result of my mentioning the word soundbyte in a post a few days ago. This means that if I now say ‘existentialism’ I should get a bunch of philosophers surfing their way here.

For the philosophers, and everyone else here is something heart-warming to watch:

Druids call for a return of the Sabbath

November 26th, 2007

Yesterday was a Sunday and yet all day we had a crew replacing telegraph poles outside our house and a fencer popped round to give us an estimate for a new fence. It suddenly struck me that 4 or 5 years ago this never would have happened – no-one would have done this kind of work on a Sunday.  I think it’s all part of the creeping invasion of our leisure time by work. I’ve read about the fact that in the USA people are working longer and longer hours just to  keep afloat – and I think it’s happening in Britain now too. Last week I talked to a woman who holds down three jobs, in the last year Stephanie and I have been working most evenings and weekends, and I’ve noticed that everyone is busier around us – there are less and less social engagements as our friends have less and less free time.

As part of broad social trends this is troubling – the Big Brother state observes us more and more, we work harder and harder – they both diminish our sense of freedom.

It’s about time there was a return to the Sabbath – when you could be prosecuted for selling an egg on a Sunday!

Lewes is a Magical Town

November 24th, 2007

In my annual review for OBOD I talked about how this time last year the leader of Lewes District Council phoned me and invited us to watch the Winter solstice dawn with members of the local council, and then to have breakfast with them all. I was so surprised I asked her a little more and she told me she was a Wiccan and wanted to educate others in the council about the pre-Christian heritage of Lewes. I googled her name – Marina Baker – and found her in Wikipedia. She’s had a very interesting life! Lewes has the HQ of the world’s largest Druid Order, the council leader was (last year) an ex-Playboy model and a witch, and our Mayor is called Merlin Milner. And now something else…. we have probably the first and only ritual shop in Britain. This is not a shop selling crystals and books but a shop offering to create rituals for you – for birthdays, marriages, funerals, farewells, retirements and so on. We’ve heard they create very magical events – they’re called Light on Life and you can see their website here.

Lewes is also a Transition Town – working to reduce its carbon footprint.

PS Things are moving fast – last year we got that invitation. This year we had another invitation (along with thousands of other people) to participate in a synchronised outpouring of energy at this year’s solstice to help alter the earth’s collective atmosphere in the direction of peace. Rather like the idea of getting everyone in China to jump up and down at the same time to see if we can shift the earth’s axis, this suggests that if enough people have an orgasm at the same time we will affect the earth’s ‘energy’ for good. Although it sounds nutty, if you connect it with Rupert Sheldrake’s Morphic Resonance concept it starts to make a little more sense. What is interesting is that the people organising it are relating it to Princeton University’s random number generator investigations that mysteriously seem to suggest that changes in global consciousness register on these machines. I had pasted in an interview with the couple who came up with the idea, but I couldn’t turn the sound off, so I’ve removed it. It was an interesting discussion and you can see it and other material on their website. Instead I’ll paste in a clip whose sound you can control. It’s the ‘sound-byte’ version but conveys the basic idea.

Update29.12.07: Results not statistically significant, but worth looking at, along with results of other world events.

The Druid Plant Oracle

November 20th, 2007

Misteltoe by Will Worthington

This is an article that is appearing in Pagan Dawn magazine. Someone asked where they can buy this since it won’t be out in the USA until August 08 and Australia/NZ  April 08 (and in French, German, Dutch & Czech translations then too). Well you can buy it here (The OBOD bookstore) and it comes with a first edition card of black and white drawings by Will and signed by all three of us.


Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm’s The Druid Plant Oracle has just been published by Connections. In 1994 Connections published their Druid Animal Oracle and a decade later their DruidCraft Tarot appeared which soon became one of the most popular Pagan tarot decks due to Will Worthington’s extraordinary evocation of another world in his artwork and the way in which the authors’ weave Druid, Wiccan and Tarot lore seamlessly together. Here Philip Carr-Gomm talks about how the third in this trio of oracles was created.


Not of father nor of mother
Was my blood, was my body.

I was spellbound by Gwydion,
Prime enchanter of the Britons,
When he formed me from nine blossoms,
Nine buds of various kind;
From primrose of the mountain,
Broom, meadow-sweet and cockle,
Together intertwined,
From the bean in its shade bearing
A white spectral army
Of earth, of earthly kind,
From blossoms of the nettle,
Oak, thorn and bashful chestnut –
Nine powers of nine flowers,
Nine powers in me combined,
Nine buds of plant and tree.

Long and white are my fingers
As the ninth wave of the sea.

translated by Robert Graves

I first became interested in the Druid path about forty years ago. I used to visit a friend of my father’s, the old Chief Druid Ross Nichols at his home in London and he began training me. He would make two cups of tea for us and then would read to me from a set of teachings he had prepared, and I remember so clearly how it was the sections on trees or plants that really inspired me. He was a poet and was able to write in a lyrical way about Nature. The scholarly failings of Robert Graves’ White Goddess had not yet been revealed and he had absorbed Graves’ work avidly, and had built upon that.

As the years rolled by, and I learnt more and more about the Druid tradition, I became disappointed that there was so little plant and herblore within the tradition. Scholars would point out that we only had Pliny’s references to four of the Druids’ favourite plants and that was it.

I was writing about one of these four – Vervain – for the revised version of the Order’s Ovate teachings when it suddenly struck me that perhaps, as with the traditional animal lore that Stephanie and I had researched 14 years ago for The Druid Animal Oracle, the plant lore of the ancient Druids and their contemporaries was not totally lost but simply had to be looked for in a different way.

We began researching traditional plant lore – and to our delight we started to feel that we were beginning to piece together much of the old herb-lore that would have been used in those far-off times. We did this by drawing on information from five sources: the relatively new science of archaeobotany; the information given in the old herbals that were written at the time of the ancient Druids; accounts of the practices of later herbalists; the clues left to us in the old Irish and Welsh legends and in folklore; and the findings of botanical pharmacology.

In other words, if we found that a plant had been growing in the territory of the ancient Druids, and if its healing powers had been discussed in one of the old herbals that were written by their contemporaries (such as Dioscorides) we deduced that it was highly likely that the Druids would have used it. If, in addition, the plant was mentioned in one of the old legends and if it appeared in folklore then it was clearly entrenched in tradition and was even more likely to have been used by the ancient Druids. The other sources of information were sometimes able to help us too with supporting evidence.

By researching in this way we identified over 40 plants that we reckon were almost certainly used in those far-off times. Now, of course, it is perfectly possible to argue that Druidry is a living tradition and that if – for example – a Druid wishes to use or recommend the taking of Gingko Bilboa then the fact that the ancient Druids would not have used this is irrelevant. Even so, while fully accepting that Druid herblore today can be as eclectic and universal as it likes, the fact that we can identify those plants they are likely to have used inspires us, and we took that inspiration one stage further. We realised that each plant had a set of traditional associations, meanings or stories surrounding it. Just as there was a discernible body of sacred animal lore so too there was a similar body of lore around plants.

When we read the old stories about plants or animals we couldn’t help asking the questions “What do these stories mean? What are they trying to tell us?” ‘They’ are both the stories themselves and the Ancestors, who collectively have created this ‘lore’ over the centuries. By putting the stories, the images, the associations into the cauldron and stirring it a little we have been able to come up with oracular interpretations for a number of plants, just as we did earlier for the animals, and Will Worthington has managed to create beautiful pictures of them to accompany our interpretations.

As we began creating the oracle together we realised that we could ask the publisher to make the cards the identical size to The Druid Animal Oracle so that the two decks could be shuffled together, so that guidance could be received from both the plant and the animal realms.

The result? Will seems to be able evoke an enchanted world in his paintings – the images are on the one hand very realistic and yet something shines through them and invites us into them. The images are filled with resonances – moonlight glinting on arrow-heads, standing stones in the distance. We think they’re wonderful. As for the accompanying book it would be immodest to wax lyrical about that wouldn’t it?

Spiritual Nakedness and Reductionism

November 15th, 2007

In another post I listed the many reasons for having a blog. I have been amazed at how many of these there actually are. And now it’s time to reveal a deeper, darker, motivation behind many an author’s blogging efforts (and my own though in a minor way I hope) – which is that they are trying to ‘build a platform’. So many books are published, and the competition for contracts and publishers’ attention is so strong, that the more of an audience you have the better. If the publisher thinks people are listening to you, they are more likely to offer you a contract.

So if we are to believe this is of value, creating a blog becomes one of the things an author needs to do – just like creating a website, trying to get reviews and so on. Of course this isn’t news and isn’t really a ‘dark secret’ but I guess it just adds to the idea I’ve been pondering over: the concept of ‘spiritual nakedness’. It shows that some, perhaps many, of our actions have layers of intent and that attempting to be authentic is not as simple as it may appear.

The problem with the concept of spiritual or psychological nakedness is that it easily falls into the trap of reductionism – and worse, of a search for an illusory ‘purity’ – as if we can ‘strip’ away motivations to come to ‘the truth’ which we will discover to be one single thing. The reality is, I suspect, more interesting, more complex, more colourful and confusing. When we undress – psychologically or literally – we do not come to just one version of ourselves – the ‘true self’. Instead there are still a multitude of identities – the same naked person can be coy, calm, proud, appearing as an object or clearly as a subject. Despite our knowing that life, and we ourselves, are complicated and multi-faceted why do we yearn so for the pure and simple?

Gymnosophy for Beginners

November 12th, 2007

A key figure for students of Gymnosophy (from gymnos – naked and sophia – wisdom) is Dattatreya. Here he is in the Avadhoot Gita:

“With fuel and without fuel, I am always burning; With smoke and without smoke, I am always glowing; with flame and without flame, I am always shining; I am immortality in knowledge, I am equality in essence, I am like the sky. I burn the faggots of action and inaction; I burn the faggots of pleasure and pain; I burn the faggots of him who adores his body, I burn the faggots of him who ignores his body; I am immortality in knowledge, I am equality in essence, I am like the sky. I am fire that burns religion and irreligion, I am fire that burns merit and sin, I am fire that burns bondage and privilege, I am immortality in knowledge, I am equality in essence, I am like the sky.”

(The title for this entry is foolish – it should, of course, be ‘Advanced Gymnosophy’. I’m off now to burn a ‘faggot of inaction’.)

Why talking about Climate Change doesn’t work

November 9th, 2007

The other day The Times and The Independent ran front cover headlines featuring the UN’s latest report about the state of the planet, but other papers seemed to ignore it. The magnitude of what we face is of course very hard to confront, and I was interested to read a perceptive analysis of why so many people simply don’t confront it at all in The Psychology of Denial: our failure to act against climate change by George Marshall. Here is an excerpt:

denial cannot simply be countered with information. Indeed, there is plentiful historical evidence that increased information may even intensify the denial. The significance of this cannot be over emphasised. Environmental campaign organisations are living relics of Enlightenment faith in the power of knowledge: ‘If only people knew, they would act.’ To this end they dedicate most of their resources to the production of reports or the placement of articles and opinions in the media. As a strategy it is not working. Read more

George Monbiot for Prime Minister

November 9th, 2007

Richard’s book Endangered Species that I mentioned yesterday is all about the endangered species of English country folk, but after meeting with him I went on to hear George Monbiot, and three other speakers (one from Greenpeace, one from The Campaign Against Climate Change and one from the Heathrow Climate Camp) talk about the wider endangered species – the human being.

Monbiot should be Prime Minister. The situation is unbelievably gloomy and yet he is able to offer a lifeline of hope while still being sober and realistic. As a masterful orator he is completely conversant with his subject, and is able to talk about such a difficult situation with humanity and humour.

It’s best to go the horse’s mouth to hear what he has to say. Have a look at his website and at a project he refers to: Zero Carbon Britain. The latest research shows that only zero carbon emissions can now avert climate catastrophe. Although this seems impossible to achieve, Monbiot believes it can be done. It would apparently not be expensive to create an array of solar panels across the Sahara and a field of windmills in the North Sea that would feed into the European grid and give enough zero-carbon electricity to power all of Europe. But is there enough political will to achieve this? And then there’s the rest of the world…

But as he finished by saying: “If not now, when? If not here, where? If not us, then who?”

To give you a feel for the power of his ideas, here’s an excerpt from his site. He’s one of those people who dares to say what many of us only dare to think…

Bring on the Recession

How else will the destructive effects of growth be stopped?

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 9th October 2007

If you are of a sensitive disposition, I advise you to turn the page now. I am about to break the last of the universal taboos. I hope that the recession now being forecast by some economists materialises.

I recognise that recession causes hardship. Like everyone I am aware that it would cause some people to lose their jobs and homes. I do not dismiss these impacts or the harm they inflict, though I would argue that they are the avoidable results of an economy designed to maximise growth rather than welfare. What I would like you to recognise is something much less discussed: that, beyond a certain point, hardship is also caused by economic growth.

On Sunday I visited the only UN biosphere reserve in Wales: the Dyfi estuary. As is usual at weekends, several hundred people had come to enjoy its beauty and tranquillity and, as is usual, two or three people on jet skis were spoiling it for everyone else. Most economists will tell us that human welfare is best served by multiplying the number of jet skis. If there are two in the estuary today, there should be four there by this time next year and eight the year after. Because the estuary’s beauty and tranquillity don’t figure in the national accounts (no one pays to watch the sunset) and because the sale and use of jet skis does, this is deemed an improvement in human welfare….

George Monbiot