Another Way of Seeing
Here’s the vision: there is a way of being in the world, seeing in the world, that can free us from the grip of the ordinary, the tired, consuming, reducing mind. The next time you are feeling in this grip, go to somewhere like Friends’ Clump in Ashdown Forest when it’s night-time. If you’re lucky, the moon and stars will be out and all around you will be magnificent scenery. Set off through the bracken, down into the valley and into the forest alongside the stream. Gods willing, you will be able to shake off the trance of consumer culture, of what has been called ‘consensus reality’, and you will find the magic that enables you to enter that Other World that is just as real – more real many of us believe – than the one you have just left.
All around us the landscape is positively brimming with magical sites that convey their own special powers once you have broken the spell of consensus reality. Of course every country has its magical spots and landscapes, but England in particular has a high concentration of them, and in The Book of English Magic Richard Heygate and I go into detail about this. Here in Sussex we are in a land of old trackways and pilgrimage routes, ley lines, tumuli and tumps, standing stones, chalk hill figures, sacred groves, holy wells, Romano-British temple sites and ancient churches. Imagine that these features are somehow alive, that they carry the power of myth and story, of magical energies even, and that all of these places form a matrix of sacred sites connected by lines of power. If this is true, you’ve ended up living in one of the most complex areas of the matrix, of Indra’s jeweled web, that covers the entire globe.
This is a way of seeing the world that is inspiring and exciting, but how do you sustain such a vision? It’s so easy for the daily grind to wear us down, to tell us that this is romantic hogwash and that the ‘real world’ is the one we see every night on the News at Ten and when we look in dismay at our bank statements and overflowing email.
The Deepening – Sustaining the Vision
Here are some suggestions on how to sustain the vision, drawn from the wisdom that can be found in the Bardic and Druid tradition, but that can be found elsewhere too – three activities that can be helpful in nourishing this other way of being in the world: walking, uncovering the old stories, and observing the Eightfold Wheel of the year.
Walking the land, perhaps along the old tracks or pilgrimage routes, in a spirit of openness and sensitivity, learning about the folklore and mythology of the places you visit, and going out to special spots in the landscape to celebrate the turning wheel of the year every six weeks or so, all help to keep us in tune with the land around us and help to keep the magic alive in us. If you can combine them, so much the better! Let me give you an example of how you can do this. Imagine gathering with friends in Firle village an hour before dawn on the winter solstice. You then start walking towards the Giant’s Grave on Firle Beacon which stands 540ft above sea level on the South Downs Way. As you walk you can almost sense the people who for centuries have walked these ways. As you reach the summit, you look out across the valley to Mount Caburn and you know that off in the distance there is the home of the Wilmington Giant, who once had a stone-hurling contest with the Firle Giant, who now lies buried in the barrow you are standing beside. As the sun begins to rise, you turn to face it on the horizon and join in the ceremony that is being created around you – drawing on ancient roots, this ritual seems at the same time utterly new – and so it should be: helping to bring you ever deeper into the here-and-now, into this moment here in this place on the Earth.
On Firle Beacon at the festival times these days you are likely to encounter several dozen or more people, and the rituals enacted there feel as if they stand at the cutting edge of a new global spirituality – at once rooted in locality and tradition, in this case of the Pagan and Christian heritage of Sussex, but at the same time global and universal, with elements familiar to every spiritual tradition around the planet.
By combining these three activities you have a practical way of helping to ground yourself and open your awareness to the Here and Now – one of the great aims of spiritual teachings. You take Time – a key moment in the year, and Place – a special spot on the planet, and put them together with an awareness of Story – which of course is rooted in Time and Place as well.
Let’s look at some other examples. Take the local landscape here and look for a holy well, an old barrow, an ancient church, a chalk hill figure and a mound, tump or toot. And let’s say you plan four good walks this coming year at the time of the fire festivals: Imbolc on February 1st, Beltane on May 1st, Lughnasadh on August 1st and Samhain on November 1st.
At Imbolc you could walk to the Long Man of Wilmington. Imagine walking from the chalk horse at High and Over, looking down towards the sea and the cliffs of the Seven Sisters to your right, Snake River (the Cuckmere) winding below, the Waste of Ondred way off to your left. It’s about a three or four mile walk dropping down to the river, crossing it and then making your way to Windover Hill to stand at the feet of the giant. Time it right and you will arrive just as the Anderida Gorsedd begin their Imbolc Druid ceremony on the strange flat shaped hill that the prosaic will explain as the spoil heap from the chalk pit, but which you will know has been fashioned by the giant himself for worshippers to adore him. If you are wise you will then make your way back to the car park at High & Over; foolish and you will join the motley throng of celebrants in The Giant’s Rest in Wilmington village, which proudly displays its certificate of ‘the Most Druid-friendly pub in Sussex’.
At Beltane you could walk along the South Downs Way from Birling Gap, or from Beachy Head if you have to make the journey back again to a car, down to the Italian Gardens in time for the May Day Morris dancing celebrations. Unless, of course, you agree with Sir Thomas Beecham when he said ‘in this life try everything once, except incest and Morris dancing.’ If you feel that way, you might prefer to linger by Beachy Head to see if you can spot the ghost of Aleister Crowley who once demonstrated his mountaineering prowess by climbing directly up it. But be careful you are not tempted to hurl yourself over the cliff by two other ghosts, a lady in grey and a monk in black, who are said to lure people into the Otherworld in this way. Then make your way down to that magical spot below the gardens, where it is thought the name Holy Well comes from, where fresh water springs out from the rocks. Others think the name comes from a holy man who lived nearby, others think the spring was by a Holly tree and it was originally called Holly well. Here, if you are lucky the sun will warm you as you face the sea, and you can pause to meditate on the inner meaning of Beltane – the time when fire and water meet in creative union.
At Lughnasadh you might like to walk from Glynde, walking quietly so as not to disturb the Gill giant who lies sleeping in a barrow there. It’s a fantastic walk, over Mount Caburn, where there was an Iron Age hill-fort or perhaps not a fort but a ritual centre. Between 3400 and 2000 BC the hilltop was covered by dark yew woodland, and as the Times correspondent writing about the archaeological research there in 2001 wrote: ‘In Roman times a broad, deep ritual shaft was dug, and this together with the other evidence leads the investigators to ask whether the Caburn “was not a hillfort at all, nor even a settlement, but rather an arena for the public display, at a discreet distance, of private ritual acts, an enclosure filled with holy pits and shafts replacing the sacred yew grove?” If so, they believe, it was almost certainly Christianity “that ended the old ways at Caburn”.
As you walk from Mount Caburn towards Lewes you could be anywhere – one seems miles away from civilization here. And then coming up from Bible Bottom onto the golf course you pass tumuli as you begin to see Lewes spread out below and you walk down the lovely Chapel Lane into town. Resist the cafes in the Cliffe and press on to the Lammas Mound of the tump beside the station. There, climbing the spiral path you might meet others who have come to celebrate this first of the harvest festivals. Or you may find yourself alone, able to sit or stand on the mound and reflect on all that you have experienced and received in your life. This is a time for recollection, for recognition, for thankfulness, and also for the beginning of endings as the harvest marks the start of the end of summer.
At Samhain, you could sample the Vanguard Way, which is a 66 mile route that runs from Newhaven to East Croydon. Samhain is a time for reverencing the ancestors, so you could make a pilgrimage from one ancient tumulus and church to another, walking the two or three miles along the Vanguard Way from Berwick to Alfriston. At both places, an old tumulus nestles beside a church – neatly symbolising the way in which our past combines both Christian and Pagan influences, and both places are replete with stories to uncover. You could celebrate this time inside or out depending on the weather and perhaps on your religious convictions.
The Eightfold Wheel of the Year contains eight festival times, but these four examples feel enough for now. Hopefully they show how the three practices of pilgrimage, observing the festivals, and knowing the stories can combine to act as a way of sustaining our awareness of the magical nature of the world we live in. But to what end, you might ask?
Do you remember listening to Pink Floyd singing ‘Set the controls for the heart of the sun’? How many of us thought that this was a thrilling idea that somehow signaled piloting yourself back to the Source of All Being, going back to base? And how many thought, rather more realistically, that this was a frightening idea that would involve being deep-fried very fast? 88% of my blog readers who responded to a poll thought it was a great idea to head towards the sun. We all have a homing instinct, however out of whack it might be!
But what if we really could set the controls to take us home? This is the purpose of the practice I have suggested. It is a way to help us come more fully into an awareness of being Here and Now, coming into a deeper realization of our incarnation – of our embodiment. In doing this our goal is to feel more and more at home – in our body, heart and mind, in the physical building we call our home, in our community, in the landscape and country we live in, and finally in the world. To foster these feelings is not simply to indulge in feel-good goals purely for ourselves. In these times of ecological crisis it is vital. Human beings have such a tendency to disassociation – which has its value in protecting us from pain – but it also allows us to carry out all kinds of acts of cruelty and harm to the planet. So there is an imperative here at this time of ecological crisis to do our bit by trying not to disassociate – by starting instead to feel at home here on this beautiful planet.