Interview with Philip Carr-Gomm by Christopher Blackwell for AREN – The Alternative Religions Education Network Beltane 2013 Edition
There are people who cram a lot into their life and Phillip Car-Gomm seems to be one of them. He met his Druid teacher at age 11, followed a Bulgarian guru for seven years in his twenties, and began training in his thirties as a psychotherapist. He also trained as a Montessori teacher and even founded a Montessori school. He was asked to write a book when he was thirty, and has been writing ever since about a variety of subjects including Druidry and Magic. He helped to create three oracles (the Druid Animal and Plant Oracles and the DruidCraft Tarot), and has even written a book on the history of nakedness, exploring the issue of nudity in religion, politics and popular culture. He has been the Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids for twenty-five years. Busy as he is, he gave me some time for this interview.
Christopher: What was your family like when you were growing up?
Philip: In a nutshell I would say my family was a warm, supportive, atypical middle-class English household: mum and dad and two kids, with my sister being 3 years older. Atypical because my dad had sufficient private income to pursue his own dreams and so ran a history magazine from home, then became an impresario and put on recitals. My mum was at home and helped him, and there were often visitors in the house: artists, writers, and people with spiritual interests. My dad knew Christmas Humphreys, the founder of the Buddhist Society and Ross Nichols, the founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids, which is how I came to meet my Druid teacher when I was so young, because he often visited the house.
Even though many friends of my parents were interested in spirituality or the occult (like Justine Glass, a Wiccan and author) they themselves were agnostic and disliked the Church, so I grew up in an atmosphere of healthy open-mindedness. They knew psychoanalysts too and were probably ahead of their time in being quite open about the issues around sexuality. My dad wrote a book on Erotic Art for instance.
I grew up in Notting Hill Gate during the 1950s and 60’s, and in retrospect it feels as if everything around me changed from a black-and-white film to colour during that time. What I mean by that is that up until the early sixties in Britain the effects of the 2nd World War still lingered – in rationing (though I was too young to remember that, though I do remember the milkman coming round in a horse and cart incredibly) and in the bomb sites that were still around London. Then in the 60s, with Flower Power, it was if the colour got switched on.
Of course this matched my growing up, and I am probably ‘inventing’ this memory, because there is a way in which I got switched on too at that time. Three things really happened around the same time (or say within a period of about a year between 11 and 12 yrs): I met my Druid teacher, I read L.Adams Beck’s ‘The Life of the Buddha’ and I reached puberty. I felt as if I had woken up, and the spiritual search became a central focus for me, and has remained so ever since.
Christopher: Didn’t your formal studies start at 16?
Philip: Yes, I started visiting Ross (or Nuinn as he was known by his Druid name) once a week or so, calling by on my way home from school. He would make us tea and then would teach me in the same way a tutor might teach a kid maths in an after-school one-on-one. It was very formal really. He would read out material to me, comment on it as he went along, ask me if I had any questions, and then fix the next meeting and that was it. But in addition we would meet in a group for meditations once a fortnight or month and at the eight seasonal ceremonies too.
Christopher: How would that lead to studies outside of Great Britain?
Philip: In around 1973 I came across the work of a spiritual teacher in France called Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov, and with Danielle, my first wife, we started visiting his ashrams in Paris and the South of France for about seven years. Before that we had lived in Haiti for a bit when we first got married, and gained some experience of Voodoo, although only from the outside.
Christopher: With some religions focused on what happens after death, and many restrictions on life, haven’t you described Druidism as celebrating life?
Philip: I think modern Druidry celebrates the body, and the natural world in a way that avoids some of the problems that other approaches have, whereby the body is sensed as impure or as offering the temptation to sin. This is to a great extent because much of Druidry has been developed in the post-Freudian era even though it is inspired by its ancient roots.
But Druidry, like all spiritual paths, also recognizes the reality of death of the physical body, and of course the festival of Samhain is focussed on that phenomenon.
Christopher: Wasn’t the founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids also friends with Gerald Gardner? Doesn’t that give us a couple of religions that started in England?
Philip: Yes, if you regard Druidry as a religion (and not everyone does) and if you believe Caesar was accurate when he said that Druids from the Continent or Ireland travelled to mainland Britain to perfect their studies, because Druidry originated here. You might say that Britain rather than England would be more accurate since England didn’t exist prior to the 11th century, but then most of modern Druidry evolved in England in the last 300 years, and Wicca definitely did, so from this point of view, yes, England has given the two traditions of Wicca and Druidry to the world.
Christopher: Aren’t you also trained as a psychoanalyst and as a teacher, both in methods that believe in working with the individual, instead of fitting them to mold?
Philip: Not as a psychoanalyst, but in psychosynthesis psychotherapy, which is a little different. I wanted to be a Jungian analyst, and had a training analysis for several years (two and three times a week – it cost me a fortune!) But in the end I preferred the Psychosynthesis approach, which was developed by an Italian psychiatrist, Roberto Assagioli, who had been the first Freudian analyst in Italy, then the first Jungian, until he developed his own form of therapy which was based on his spiritual and esoteric understanding (he had been a pupil of Alice Bailey in the Arcane School).
I found when I trained in Montessori teaching that the same key idea was there: which is that it is the teacher’s/therapist’s job to help the person flourish/heal/grow and to get out of the way as soon as possible. In both situations the job is all about them and not about you, so you are just there to try to catalyse, suggest, reflect, or support something which is already there in potential within them – so it’s not about how powerful you are in influencing someone, but about how skilled you are in helping someone realize how empowered they can be.
I think it’s just a coincidence that both these systems came out of Italy, but it’s nice to see that symmetry, and it’s an approach that is at the heart of the training we do in OBOD. All the talks, printed lessons, and so on are designed with this in mind, and that is why I don’t consider myself a ‘spiritual teacher’ which seems too directive to me. I much prefer the idea of the New England Transcendentalists, like Emerson and Thoreau, who developed the idea of education being a conversation that one has between equals.
So when I give talks or workshops, for example, I don’t feel like I’m the expert coming in to ‘tell it like it is’, but more like someone who has spent some time researching or thinking about a certain topic and now we are here to all have a conversation about it together. I learn just as much during these conversations as anyone else, so I’m as much a learner as a teacher. So as you say, it’s not about trying to get everyone ‘on board’ with what you believe or know, but instead about creating situations whereby we can all hopefully be supported in being more of ourselves with more understanding, heart and soul.
Christopher: Doesn’t that same development of the person fit the purpose of Druidry?
Philip: Exactly. I don’t see our training, for example, as designed to churn out ‘perfect Druids’ all believing the same things, doing the same things. And when I look at our members I see an incredible diversity of types, of opinions and approaches. It’s very heartening at an OBOD gathering to see people who might think of themselves as Pagans rubbing shoulders with Christians, Buddhists, agnostics and so on, all holding hands together in a circle for example, and chanting!
Christopher: Would you say that much of your life has been as a teacher or a guide?
Philip: Well as I mention above, I don’t like to use the term teacher. In Psychosynthesis they use the term guide, but even there I find a resistance. With our training programme we encourage the 50 or so mentors we have around the world, who support students, to think of their job as guiding without being seen as guides, to avoid the projections such a term can evoke.
The neo-Jungian analyst James Hillman wrote a book called ‘The Soul’s Code’ which offers the idea that sometimes what we end up doing in our lives is strangely foreshadowed by what we do as children. During my wife Stephanie’s childhood her dad used to hang great long strips of blank wallpaper along the corridors which she then painted. Later she became a scenic artist for the theatre and ended up painting in a similar way.
When I was a kid I was cast as a psychoanalyst in the only play I was in, and when the school found out I was interested in Buddhism, they asked me to give a talk on it to a Religious Education class. Later I ran a school magazine and spent a lot of time printing it out. Later in life I found myself doing these things too, including printing lots of little booklets for our courses.
Christopher: How did you come to write your first book? How many books have you written yourself or with others?
Philip: I was asked to write my first book by someone I met at a dinner party. She was a commissioning editor for a publisher and rang me the next day and asked me if I would write a book (‘The Elements of the Druid Tradition’) I realize I have been incredibly lucky – I know how difficult it is to be published by a mainstream publisher.
I’ve written seven books by myself, and six with others. Eight of these were commissioned by publishers, and the others I managed to persuade publishers to take on as a project.
Christopher: I could not help notice one of the books, A Brief History of Nakedness, perhaps from my memories of the 1960s and 70s. How did you end up writing this book?
Philip: I can think of a number of moments that might have been catalysts: a time when Mara Freeman (author of ‘Kindling the Celtic Spirit’) and I sneaked on to a private beach in California and it was sunny and beautiful and I skinny-dipped and felt utterly free when doing this. Another time when I went on the walk I describe in ‘The Druid Way’ and got to a sacred spot and was very hot, and sat and meditated skyclad and felt ‘at one’ with all of Nature, and then became intrigued by the thought that I was possibly breaking the law, which felt absurd in that context.
These sort of experiences may have been precursors, but the real moment came when I was researching the biography of my teacher Nuinn for the book ‘Journeys of the Soul’. He had been a Naturist, but I had simply never researched that. I thought it was a bit silly, a bit passé somehow. We were liberated kids of the 60s and Naturism seemed very 1930s. But I went to the Naturist resort in Hertfordshire where he had a chalet (where Gardner used to go too) and found it utterly delightful: just completely natural and not at all sleazy or passé. Shortly afterwards I started studying the religion of Jainism whose monks are sometimes naked and I became intrigued by the connection between spirituality and nakedness and the book grew out of that.
Christopher: Where can people find out more about your books?
Christopher: How does being a Druid fit in with our modern world?
Philip: It seems completely crazy doesn’t it? To suggest that an old, old religion be a valid spiritual way in the 21st century! But the point is this: much of what Druidry is today was developed in the 1960s by my teacher Nuinn, and much in the 1990s when we all became aware of the need for geocentric rather than anthropocentric approaches. These two great influences need to be set in the context of almost 300 years of scholarship that has made modern Druidry – ever since what is called the Druid Revival of the late 17th and early 18th century.
So it’s not ancient, although it draws on ancient roots and forms part of the great chain of illumination that makes up the Western Mystery Tradition or the Universal Perennial Tradition that travels way back into pre-Christian times. We need Druidry today I believe because we need Earth-based, Nature-based spiritual approaches that have reverence for the Earth, as opposed to personal salvation, at their heart.
Christopher: How did you become Chief of Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids?
Philip: I was invited twice: first in the inner world, and then in the outer world. It was the oddest experience which changed my life completely. Nuinn died in 1975 when the Order was very small, and it ceased to function shortly after his death. Nine years later, while I was studying psychology at UCL, he appeared to me in a meditation quite unexpectedly and asked me to lead the Order again. He then gave me a series of tasks to accomplish which I was able to do through a series of synchronicities in the days that followed. Although these were remarkable and so unlikely in the ‘real’ world, I was still cautious because I know how wishful thinking can lead us to fool even ourselves. He had told me to prepare all that he had taught me so that I could show this to others, and that it would all become clear in the future.
So for four years I worked away at preparing the material (and getting his book published which was another of his requests) and then in 1988 three people connected with him asked to see me and asked me to lead the Order. They knew nothing of my inner experience four years previously, and I took this as a sign that I really was meant to ‘obey’ and set to work!
Christopher: You have been Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids for twenty-five years now, what are some of the things that you have tried to accomplish with the organization during that time?
Philip: When I was young, the Order only had a few dozen members, most of whom were over seventy. You could only learn about Druidry by visiting a Druid, or their grove (ie group).
When Nuinn appeared to me he said: “You know, Druidry is not anachronistic – some old arcane subject from the past. It is really relevant to today’s world and today’s problems and I want you to take all that you learnt and put it in the form of a training that can reach people wherever they are in the world.”
Well I did that, and I figured only a few dozen people would be interested. But how wrong I was! Today we’ve had over 15,000 enroll on the course in the English language, and it is also published in 6 other languages too.
What I wanted to accomplish was to (a) make Druidry relevant to today’s world and the challenges we face (b) to combine a contemporary psychological understanding (or psycho-spiritual understanding to be exact) with the teachings and ideas we’ve inherited (c) to create events and situations that were magical and inspiring and (d) to create a community where people who felt themselves spiritual but not necessarily religious, could come together and express their love for life and the world, and each other. And I think broadly we’ve been able to achieve this!
Christopher: How can people learn more about the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids?
Philip: The easiest way is to look at our website and to spend a while there looking at the text, audio and video material we have there: www.druidry.org