Mystical musings and iridescent insights
02 October 2016
What Is Your Energy Source?
By James Karran
Revolution!!!!!!! To some this word is exciting, filled with the promise of newness. To others it is fearful, threatening violent change. To still others it represents a desperate last act, a road to be followed only when all else has failed. I was talking to a friend recently who is becoming more and more dismayed about the state of the world, especially the rampant injustice and growing gap between rich and poor. She was saying that she longs for the ‘revolution’ to come, as things have gotten so bad that nothing less than seismic political change will make things better. It is the only recourse left.
This got me thinking about revolution and where I stand on it. As a bearded lefty, I am very sympathetic to many of the points of view that lead revolutionaries to their conclusions, but I have to say that on reflection I’m not a fan. At least, not of the political kind. I believe that no revolution (or any political change) will have a lasting transformative effect on society if it is not preceded and accompanied by an inner revolution.
It’s about the energy source that powers our well-intended actions to help make things ‘better’. The source of our emotional energy will dictate things like how long we can keep actions up before getting burned out, the shape our help will take and even whether or not it is actually help at all (and not just what we think is help). This is why it is important to identify where our energy is coming from. If for example a person honestly identified feelings of guilt, dread and sadness at the state of the world as their energy, their actions would be dictated by the demands of these things (which usually boil down to ‘I don’t want to feel like this anymore so I’ll do anything to make the feeling go away!). This can be very detrimental to any cause we might want to champion.
All spirituality (and good religion) is ultimately concerned with teaching us how to let go of our own energy sources, to ‘step out of the way’ so to speak and allow the infinite energy of Divine Love to flow through us, so we become nothing more than conduits. That is not to say these negative emotions are bad. By recognising, embracing and owning ‘negative’ emotional responses (sadness, fear, etc.) the emotion begins to teach us true love and compassion. In other words, by NOT wanting to make the emotion ‘go away’ so that we can feel better, by refusing to act from this energy source we find ourselves naturally letting go of it, even experiencing it transforming into the energy of Love! It is then we can act powered by real compassion, not by ego-driven pain masking as compassion.
So you see why I am very skeptical about any ‘revolution’ that has not been preceded by an inner revolution. All it will do is set up another hierarchy of people energised by pain, sadness, anger etc., and that will get us nowhere. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is spreading through the world like yeast in dough, which was his way of saying that revolution is happening, but it will not be sudden. One transformed person at a time, infecting their little piece of the world with joy, peace, compassion and love. This is the kind of revolution I can get behind.
21 September 2016
Druidic Survivals in Celtic Hagiography part 3 – Magi and Magic-Users in the Celtic Vitae
As we turn to search for druidic survivals in Celtic hagiography, it soon becomes apparent that this process has continued to such an extent that there is no longer any trace left of the classical ‘druid.’ In fact, we are hard pressed to find any recognisable allusions to the druids at all. The term often rendered as ‘druid’ in English translations of the Celtic vitae is magos or magus. This happens continuously in texts such as Bieler’s translation of Muirchu’s Life of St. Patrick. For example, the passage:
“Hic autem scivos et magos et aurispices et incantatores et omnis malae artis inventores habverat…”
Bieler translates as:
“He had around him sages and druids, fortune-tellers and sorcerers, and the inventors of every evil craft…”
There is nothing in the original text to suggest that the author intended the word magos to be understood as druid, at least not in the classical sense. A more logical suggestion is that Muirchu had in mind the magi who came from the east to worship Christ at his birth, or the Egyptian magi who attempted to recreate the miracles of Aaron and Moses, when he uses the word in his text. Both of these uses of are found in Jerome’s vulgate and carry a general idea of ‘wise men’ or ‘magicians’. This understanding of the term is much truer to the context of Muirchu’s text and the only explanation for Bieler’s translation is that his understanding of ‘druidism’ was not based on any historical precedent, but on a romanticised, contemporary and popular perception. Richard Sharpe notices a similar mal-practise in many traditions concerning St. Columba of Iona and druids. The popular notion of druids being on the island of Iona before Columba established his monastery there is based on nothing more than the mistranslation of the Irish word drui in a middle Irish homily. This word, according to Sharpe, is an abbrviation for druineach, meaning ‘craftsmen’, and not an allusion to druids. For his part, Sharpe never once allows a druid into his translation of Adomnan’s vita of St. Columba, instead, quite correctly, describing Columba’s various confrontations with wizards, magicians and sorcerers.
Indeed, there are many different terms used to describe, for want of a better term, ‘magic-users’ in Celtic hagiography, most of which have been associated with the druids or druidism. Unfortunately however, the only actual links that can be found between these characters and the historical druids are in the later, degenerated druidic stereotype, that of the mysterious, sinister, grove-dwelling hermit. A varied selection of such characters can be found in the seventh century life of St. Samson of Dol, one of the most interesting being a wild, trident-wielding sorceress. Samson happens upon the crazed hag while travelling through a forest with some of his saintly brethren. One of his companions, unable to contain his terror at their predicament, flees manically into the trees, only to be pursued and killed by the witch. When Samson catches up with them, finding his monk dead on the floor, he demands to know who and what she is. The hag replies by saying, “theomacha sum”. Theomacha is a Latinised form of the Greek word θεομαχος, meaning ‘one who fights against God’. Although nothing in the name implies a user of magic as such, the fact that Samson demands that she revive the dead monk suggests she was thought to possess some otherworldly power. As well as this, she also describes herself as “morally perverse” and explains that she is the last one of her kind left in that wood. Such a description does agree with the later druidic image; the name theomacha as well as the claim to be the last of her kind could suggest that she was a throwback to earlier, pagan times. What is more, there is evidence that points to the existence of female druids, such as Lampridius’s account of how Alexander Severus met a ‘woman of the druids’, who shouted at him, “Hurry forward, but do not hope for victory, nor put your trust in soldiers.” However, the fact remains that allusion and suggestion are far from unequivocal truths and, unfortunately, these are all we have that link this character to the druids. Even if the passage is referring to a druid, then we must also accept that it is an image of druidism very far away from the important class of philosopher-priests described in the classical sources.
In conclusion, we have seen that the ‘druid’ is a shadowy figure in history, and one that is very difficult to tie down. However, working mainly from classical Latin and Greek texts, it has been possible to suggest that the druid was a central figure in Celtic society, fulfilling such diverse roles as judge, learned teacher and having some form of ritual responsibility. Over time and especially after the Roman repression, Druidism was forced further and further into the social periphery. With the rise of Christianity, this was undoubtedly carried further and the hagiographical record contains no firm evidence of classical druidism, instead making vague and general reference to magic users who may or may not have had something to do with the remnants of druidic survivals. For all intents and purposes, it does appear that the ‘true’ druid became extinct long before insular monasteries began compiling the acts of their patron saints.
 Bieler, Ludwig, The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh (Dublin 1979)
 Muirchu, Life of Saint Patrick, 1.10.2
 Sharpe, Richard, Adomnan’s Life of Saint Columba (Harmondsworth 1995), p. 20
 Life of Saint Samson, ch. 27
 Lampridius, Alexander Severus 59.5
19 September 2016
Druidic Survivals in Celtic Hagiography part 2 – The Alexandrian Authors
Apart from a reliance of Poseidonius, another reason for grouping Diodorus, Strabo and Caesar together is that they share a general tone. Emphasis on grizzly rituals that include the most hideous forms of human sacrifice, cannibalism and homosexuality combine to give an impression of the Celts, and especially their druidic masters, as being violent, barbaric and generally in desperate need of the cleansing flame of Imperial civilization. However, the later Greek authors give an altogether different impression. These were the scholars who trained at the University of Alexandria from about the first century AD and include Dio Chrysostom, Diogenes Laertius, Polyhistor and Clement of Alexandria. Although writing comparatively late, these authors all draw frequently from much earlier sources. The tone of their references to the druids is less negative than that of the Poseidonian authors, even appearing respectful. It is clear that for the writers of Greece, the druids were a noble caste of learned philosophers from whom the Greco/Roman civilizations can and should learn and seek wisdom.
Arguably, the point most dwelt upon in the material from this group is to do with the philosophical beliefs of the druids and a number of sources liken the druids to similar classes in other barbarian cultures. For example, Diogenes Laertius says:
“Some say that the study of philosophy first developed among the barbarians. For the Persians had their Magi, the Babylonians or Assyrians their Chaldeans, the Indians their Gymnosophists, while the Celts and Galatae had those called Druids and Semnotheoi, according to Aristotle in the Magicus and Sotion in the 23rd book of his Successions.”
Dion Chrysostom ranks the druids of the Celts alongside the Magi of Persia, the holy men of Egypt and the Brahmins of India. Clement of Alexandria says that “the very useful study of philosophy flourished in the past among the barbarians…”, before giving a list of the most important adherents to this practise which includes the prophets of the Egyptians, the Chaldeans of the Assyrians, the Druids of the Galatae, the Samnaeans of the Bactrians, the philosophers of the Celts and the Magi of the Persians. There is also an emphasis on the association between druidic belief and Pythagorean philosophy to an extent that goes beyond what has already been noted in the Latin sources. Hippolytus writes:
“The Celtic druids eagerly took up the philosophy of Pythagoras, having been introduced to the study by Zalmoxis, a Thracian slave of Pythagoras. He came to those lands after his master’s death and explained to them his philosophy. The Celts hold the druids as prophets and foretellers of future events because they predict certain events by Pythagorean science and mathematics…The druids also use magic.”
Clement of Alexandria goes further than this, noting that Alexander asserts in his book on the symbols of Pythagorean belief that Pythagoras learned his philosophy from the Galatae and Brahmins. However historically unlikely this conclusion may be, such a statement at least shows that the Celtic druids were known for their philosophical learning enough for the idea not to seem unbelievable to those who would read it.
It is impossible for us to know the precise relationship between the druids and Pythagorean doctrine, but one thing seems to be suggested in both the Poseidonian and Greek texts: the druids were primarily philosophers of some ilk and any other roles that they may have fulfilled were sufficiently ambiguous to appear confused and contradictory in the accounts. However, as time goes by, the idea of the druid as philosopher becomes less and less prominent and in the early centuries of the first millennium, the term druid is used more and more to refer to a mysterious and dangerous group of social outcasts. The Emperors Augustus, Tiberius and finally Claudius all passed repressive measures that curtailed the influence of the druids, the latter outlawing druidism completely, as we are told by Suetonius. Opinion is divided over why increasingly harsh measures were taken against them. Nora Chadwick believes that it was to separate the citizens of the Empire from an influence that was “wholly nationalistic”, where as Hugh Last sees no evidence for such political motivations in the sources, attributing the repression merely to a Roman distaste for “savage practices”. Whatever the reasons might be, from the first century onwards outside Alexandria, druidism is seen increasingly as secretive and secluded. Lucan, in his famous poem Pharsalia, paints a very vivid picture of druidic practise:
“To your barbarous rites and sinister ceremonies,
O druids, you have returned since weapons now lie still.
To you alone it is given to know the gods
And the spirits of the sky, or perhaps not to know at all.
You dwell in the distant, dark and hidden groves.
You say that shades of the dead do not seek
The silent land of Erebus or the pallid kingdom of Dis,
But that the same spirit controls the limbs in another realm.
Death, if what you say is true, is but the mid-point of a long life.”
We can see in this text some vestiges of the old philosophical emphasis; the transmigration of souls idea comes through strongly, yet here the druids dwell in “distant, dark and hidden groves”, performing “barbarous rites and sinister ceremonies”. Again, Pomponius Mela affirms that the druids teach, but they do so in “caves or hidden groves.” Tacitus records that, once the Roman army had overcome resistance on the druidic sanctuary of Mona, the garrison “vanquished and destroyed their groves, places of savage superstition.” The most likely conclusion to be drawn from this, as both Chadwick and Ann Ross suggest, is that after druidism as an integral part of Celtic society was abolished, the druids themselves were forced to find a new identity. This they did by withdrawing to the periphery of Roman civilization. Here, they became to be seen as hermitical soothsayers, fortune-tellers and hedge wizards.
 Diogenes Laertius, Vitae, Intro.
 Dion Chrysostom, Orations, 49
 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 220.127.116.11
 Hippolytus, Philosophuma 1.25.
 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 18.104.22.168
 Suetonius, Claudius 25.
 Lucan, Pharsalia, 1.450-58
 Pomponius Mela, De Situ Orbis, 3.2.18-19
 Tacitus, Annals, 14.30
18 September 2016
Druidic Survivals in Celtic Hagiography part 1 – The Poseidonian Authors
By James Karran
The following three posts will be based on a paper I wrote as part of my MPhil research at Cardiff University. They are for the interest of anyone who would like to understand one way in which native Celtic religion and Christianity interacted in Britain and Ireland during the Early Medieval period (c. 3rd-10th centuries). I shall include a bibliography at the end of the complete article.
The aim of this paper is to provide a working understanding of the historical druid, including practices, beliefs and social roles, and to examine the extent to which this image has survived in Celtic hagiography. The study is based primarily on textual analysis, first of ancient Latin and Greek sources in order to establish the nature of druidism, which is the main focus, before moving on to analysing some examples of the Welsh and Irish vitae sanctorum in order to highlight any points of continuity in these later texts.
The first corpus of texts consists of those authors who, at least in part, owe their accounts of druidic practise to the writings of the Stoic philosopher Poseidonius. Unfortunately, none of Poseidonius’s writings have survived, but they are so numerously quoted by other authors that scholars such as I.G. Kidd have been able to collect the extant fragments and recreate most of his works. Most of the authors who use Poseidonius cite him directly, but others are not so obliging, and we are only aware of his influence in these texts by implication and through comparison with the cited Poseidonian texts.
The three primary druidic commentators of the Poseidonian tradition are Strabo, Diodorus Siculus and Julius Caesar. Each author was writing around the first century BC and all have striking similarities, yet their accounts are not identical. Diodorus writes concerning the Gauls that:
“They have lyric poets called Bards (Βαρδοι), who, accompanied by instruments resembling lyres, sing both praise and satire. They have highly honoured philosophers (φιλόσοφοι) and theologians (θεόλογοι) called Druids (Δρυΐδαι). They also make use of seers (μάντεις), who are greatly respected.” (1)
He goes on to describe a particularly grisly method employed by the mantays of foretelling the future that involved stabbing a sacrificial victim in the chest and divining from the spurting blood. It should be noted here that it is not, according to Diodorus, the druids who perform the sacrifice, but this designated class of seers. The philosophoi (in effect druids) are to be present during the sacrifice though, for “they believe sacrifice should be made only by those supposedly skilled in divine communication.” Diodorus tells us also that the druids and ‘lyric poets’ often come between two opposing armies and prevent battle taking place, for such is the honour and esteem ascribed to these men. It is not always easy from the text, however, to make sense of which class is being referred to fulfilling which duty. Nora Chadwick points out that the distinction between ‘druids’ and ‘mantays’ in this section is especially unclear; the unqualified use of “these men” in referring to those who step between the battle lines could equally suggest either group in the context of the passage, or even both.
For his part, Strabo also attests to a three-fold division of the Celtic honoured classes. This is how he describes them in his Geography:
“As a rule, among the Gallic peoples three sets of men are honoured above all others: the Bards (Βάρδοι), the Vates (ουάτεις), and the Druids (Δρυϊδαι). The bards are singers and poets, the Vates overseers of sacred rites and philosophers of nature, and the Druids, besides being natural philosophers, practise moral philosophy as well. They are considered to be the most just, therefore are entrusted with settling both private and public disputes, so that in earlier times they even arbitrated wars and could keep those intending to draw themselves up for battle from doing so…” (2)
Not only do both authors agree on a three-fold division, but, as the this quotation reveals, they also agree on the functions that these different classes performed. The only difference between the accounts is that the ‘priestly’ class, i.e. the group described as being involved with ritual practise, are called mantays in Diodorus but vates (greek euatays) in Strabo. However, Strabo’s account does not make such a clear-cut distinction between the functions of druid and vate as both are said to be natural philosophers, the only difference being that the druids also practise moral philosophy. It is also interesting to note that, according to Strabo, it is the vates who oversee ‘sacred rite’ and, as far as he tells us, the druids had no part in it. This is different from the account of Diodorus. The lack of clarity here could be the result of a misunderstanding by one of the authors of the common source that they were no doubt drawing upon; unfortunately however, we have no way of telling who is correct, if either are. It also means that we can draw no firm conclusions as to the relationship between the druids and ritual practise.
Caesar’s account of the druids presents further problems in trying to extract a consistent picture. The most obvious difference is that Caesar only recognises two elite classes, the druids and the equites. Obviously the second class has no relevance for the present discussion, being a purely ‘secular’ class and, as far as is possible to tell, having nothing to do with the druids. The druids, we are told, “intervene in divine matters; they look after public and private sacrifices; they interpret religious matters: to them a great number of young men rush together for the sake of instruction, for the druids are great in honour before them.” These functions, all to do with ritual practise, are basically the equivalent of those performed by the vates and mantays as described in Strabo and Diodorus. This being said, the fact that we are presented here with a further divergence from both of the previous authors means that it is still very difficult to draw any conclusions.
Another function that is dwelt upon by Caesar and is also noted by Strabo is that of the just judge. Caesar says that the druids “settle all public and private disputes and, if some crime has been committed, or if a slaying done or if it concerns inheritance or a border dispute, the same druids decide.” This should be compared to Strabo’s statement that “they are considered to be the most just and therefore are entrusted with settling both public and private disputes, so that in earlier times they even arbitrated wars and could keep those intending to draw themselves up for battle from doing so.” Diodorus picks up on this last point in saying that druids often came between two opposing armies as they were about to join battle and prevented any bloodshed.
However, the most concrete role of the druids that all three authors emphasise is that of philosopher and teacher. Caesar claims that, due to the social benefits enjoyed by the druidic class, such as exemption from military service, taxes and all lawsuits, many young men went to them for teaching and instruction. The training period, however, was twenty years and included memorising a huge number of verses. Caesar writes that they “debate concerning the heavens and their movement, concerning the size of the universe and the earth, the workings of nature, the strength and power of the immortal gods, and these things they hand down to the young men.” Both Strabo and Diodorus agree with this fundamental understanding of the druids. Strabo says that the druid is versed in both natural and moral philosophy and Diodorus also calls them “highly honoured philosophers and theologians.” Of all the doctrines taught, Caesar tells us that the foremost tenet was that the soul is immortal and crosses over upon death to continue existence in another place. This ties in with an interesting association between druidic belief and Pythagorean philosophy, an idea found expressly in a number of sources including Diodorus, who also claims that the druids believed in the transmigration of souls. Nora Chadwick notes that the very clear emphasis in these texts on the druid as learned teacher, in comparison to the ambiguous statements concerning their role in ritual practise, suggests that their primary function in Celtic society was philosophical and not priestly.
 Dio. Sic., Histories, 5.31
 Chadwick, The Druids, p. 23
 Strabo, Geog., 4.4.4
 Caesar, De Bello Gallico, 13
 See above
 Caesar, De Bello Gallico, 6.14
12 August 2016
Meditation and Medicine Balls
By James Karran
One of the highlights of the Olympics for me so far has been seeing the reaction of Chinese swimmer Fu Yuan Hu to her third place win in the women’s 100m backstroke semi-final. After the race, the young Olympian was interviewed by by the media and told, to her obvious shock and delight, that she had come in third. The response was priceless. She suddenly erupted with a surprise and unadulterated positivity that is impossible not to be infected by. However, it was the reason she gave for her impressive performance that really caught my eye. She said she used her “HONG HUANG ZHI LI”, which was subtitled as “Mystic Energy” and I understand refers to a kind of primal, otherworldly power that is often found in Chinese mythology.
Whatever Fu meant precisely by the phrase, it brought into focus something that has been at the back of my mind for a while now: the connection between contemplation and physical exercise. You wouldn’t know it just by looking at me, but I have been keeping up a daily exercise routine for about ten years. I alternate daily between cardiovascular and conditioning exercises (which is a posh way of saying I either run around or lift stuff up). I have a day off on a Sunday (day of rest and all that). It’s not a routine I have read about or picked up from anywhere, but it seems to work for me. It’s become so ingrained in my psyche that it actually takes more effort not to exercise. Even sat here talking about it now I can feel my arms beginning to twitch.
And I hate it.
Seriously. I know that some people loooooooove the exercise. Do ALL the exercises!!! I look on in awe at photos of my Facebook friends and their Crossfit exploits. Sheesh. Not for me. But I do it, partly because it does help keep me fit, partly because I like looking at my shoulders in the mirror (resist the selfie. RESIST THE SELFIE), and partly because it’s just too much effort to stop. But I am definitely NOT a gym bunny.
So I am constantly looking for new and innovative ways to make exercise sessions more bearable. This is where contemplation comes in.
I have made the surprising discovery that contemplation (meditation) and exercise are natural bedfellows. There is a lot going on with the body during any amount of physical exercise: the heart rate increases, breathing quickens and deepens, muscles burn, joints strain under impact etc. In short, there are loads of interesting and intense sensations to be fully experienced by the present mind. I have found that deliberately being aware of these sensations has the dual effect of bringing me powerfully into the present moment and enabling me to let go of the torrent of negative feelings I have toward the exercise. Result.
But the relationship goes deeper still. I recently came across the concept of Mushin, a Japanese Zen Buddhist term which is usually translated as ‘no mind’. Mushin is that state where all thoughts, all feelings, all desires, all anxieties have been purged from the mind and replaced by a nothingness, or emptiness. This is the state of instinct, when an athlete has trained to such an extent that the movements, the power, the grace are not things they need to remember or recall, they are them. Quite literally there is a oneness between the athlete as subject, the subject’s intention, and whatever the object might be (the water of the swimming pool, the racing bike, the horse, the weights etc). The British Kendo master John Howell says this about Mushin in relation to swordsmanship:
“However well a man (or woman) be trained in the art, the swordsman can never be the master of his technical knowledge unless all his psychic hindrances are removed and he can keep the mind in a state of emptiness, even purged of whatever technique he has obtained. The entire body together with the four limbs will be capable of displaying, for the first time and its full extent, all the art acquired by the training of several years.” (‘Mushin’ in Kihaku, magazine of the British Kendo Federation, Issue 1 2016)
Have you noticed the intent expression on the face of Michael Phelps, or Bradley Wiggins, or Jessica Ennis Hill before they do their thing? That’s Mushin. Elite sports people have an advantage over the rest of us in that they discover No Mind naturally, as part of their rise to greatness. However, No Mind is exactly the same state as non-dual mind, the ‘God perspective’ on the world. It is the goal of contemplation and the gateway to peace, love and contentment. It is the essence of True Life.
So next time you’re trying to drum up the will to exercise (I feel your pain), remember that it can be, if approached properly, a potent tool for your meditative journey.
Right, I’m off for a run.
27 July 2016
A Fairy Tale For Our Times
By James Karran
In the church tradition I grew up in, folk are very big on evangelism. Evangelism is one of those uniquely religious words that has no meaning or relevance for anyone other than churchy types, and is often only vaguely understood by them. It originally comes from the Koine Greek word εὐαγγέλιον (pronounced eu-ang-ellion), which means ‘glad tidings, good or joyful news’. This naturally suggests that evangelism should essentially be about, well, good stuff. Stuff like telling people something good, or bringing positivity to situations, or being hopeful, or somehow in someway facilitating change and transformation for the better. Wow. In that case, who wouldn’t want evangelism? Evangelism should be everywhere! Politicians should have as their campaign slogans, “I will do evangelism”! If there’s one thing this world needs right now, it’s evangelism.
Of course the problem is that this beautiful concept has been misunderstood and misused by the only group who have ever seen fit to make use of it: the church. In the flavours of Christian-ness that I have been closest to, an honest primer for evangelism would read something like this:
Phase one: convince everyone they need saving because really they’re all rotters, even if they don’t think they are (and most don’t).
Phase two: Having successfully completed Phase One and everyone is thoroughly convinced of their rottenness, tell them the wonderful news that actually they CAN be saved because God’s Son took all the punishment for the rottenness that they, by rights, should be suffering because – don’t forget – really they’re all rotters.
Hmm. Does anyone else see the problem here? By this understanding you have to go in with bad news BEFORE you can hit them with good news that is only relevant because of the bad news you’ve just told them!!! It’s like beating someone with a brick and then telling them it’s okay because you also have first aid training! There are no ‘glad tidings’ here in any meaningful sense. I can only conclude that this is not evangelism. It’s (to quote the Apostle Paul) σκύβαλον (poo).
Conversely, the Mystics of Christianity (as well as of other traditions) were all about the good news, the joy, the happy ending. Julian of Norwich’s most enduring insight was that “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well”. All things! Meister Eckhart said that “Nobody at any time is cut off from God.” Nobody! At any time! Henri Nouwen wrote that “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing-sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death-can take that love away.” Un-con-ditionally loved!!!
This stuff sounds more worthy of evangelism to me. How would the world be changed if these truths began to infect people, communities, nations? If the good folk of the world could know, on the deepest level, that they ARE truly and unconditionally loved and valued, that all things will be well so they don’t need to try and force their agendas on others, that they are and always have been united with God/Higher Purpose/Mystery/Love, what effect would these things have on our world?
But we’re talking about experience here. One cannot simply choose to ‘agree’ with these things, especially when so many of us have experienced the exact opposite in many instances. These things must be Known, not with our minds, but with our whole being. There needs to be some kind of perspective transplant, where the neural pathways in our brains are rewired to see differently. Can this happen? The testimony of Mystics through the ages as well as that of modern neuroscience is yes, it can. How? One way is through contemplation, which is the practice of deliberately dying to one’s own anger, bitterness, defensive barriers, perceived desires and need to be right, all the things that we use to cope with the world. Contemplation teaches us how to embrace our truest self, which sparkles like a diamond inside each of us, a source of love and peace and hope. In Christian language this is called the Holy Spirit, God in each person. On one occasion Jesus said “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) This is a perfect metaphor for the process of contemplation. Death to old perspectives so that new, rich, full life can grow.
The world needs evangelism. It needs people who have experienced at the core of their beings, through contemplation or some other way, that they are Loved, and with this knowledge go and infect the world with glad tidings, good news and joy. Once others get a whiff of this irresistible aroma, I have no doubt they’ll want some of it too, and so person by person, slowly, inexorably, things will change. Does this sound too much like a fairy tale? Perhaps it does, but perhaps fairy tales are our truest selves trying to tell us something: from the tiniest particle to the largest galaxy and everything in between (including you and me), creation will live happily ever after, to the end of its days.
07 July 2016
The Key To Life: Learn To Love Yourself
By James Karran
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ – Yeshua Ben Joseph
I’ve been learning many things during my adventures in mysticism, but one of the most profound is a secret that I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of: the key to Fullness of Life is learning how to love yourself.
Before I catch anyone eye-rolling, let me be clear I am not advocating the kind of fluffy, substanceless life philosophy one used to hear spouted by Jerry Springer back in the 90s. To truly love (which means accepting and embracing everything, warts and all) yourself is very practical, very real, and VERY difficult. This is the kind of lifelong project that makes Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling look like one of Tony Hart’s five minute doodles in comparison.
I’ve always thought that phrase from Jesus was rather odd. He seems to be saying that loving others and loving yourself are equally important, in fact linked somehow. It just seems so counter intuitive. Everything inside us wants to reject it. Yes, of course, loving OTHERS is important. We all know that we’re supposed to be kind and caring towards one another, and if everyone could do this simple thing then the world would be a happier place, but loving MYSELF? I mean, have you seen me? How am I supposed to love that? And besides, other people might love me, but THEY don’t know the things I’ve done, or the kinds of things I think. No one would love me if they could see all that.
And herein lies the rub. Most of us spend our lives seeing things in this way. Some things are good, some things are bad. The good things are acceptable, the bad things need to be thrown out. Or at least pushed under the carpet. In many eastern spiritual traditions the term for this is dualism, or seeing things with a dualistic mind. It is the default position for the human race, unless we learn how to change it, and is exactly why we so often balk at the idea of loving ourselves. Now, many people have developed coping mechanisms for this. For example, a person might subconsciously choose to see all of the dark parts of their own souls in other people, thus legitimising hatred of those others (this is called projection). Another person might create a ‘mask’ of goodness for themselves, only allowing people to see this mask and hiding the truth away in a deep, dark place (this is called the ‘false self’ or ‘ego’). However people cope, the fundamental issue is never really dealt with – we just don’t like ourselves very much.
But what if there were another way of seeing ourselves (and everything)? What if we could let go of this ingrained, primal need to categorise things into ‘acceptable’ and ‘not acceptable’, ‘worthy’ and ‘not worthy’? What if we could learn how to see everything as accepted, worthy and of value? And I do mean everything, regardless of its usefulness or attractiveness to us, regardless of what other people think or societal conventions, regardless of any considerations of good or bad. So, that pen on your desk: accepted and of value. That co-worker who you find so annoying: accepted and of value. That homeless woman who sits by the shop doorway you guiltily ignore every day: accepted and of value. Paedophiles, terrorists, mass-murderers: accepted and of value. Your own darkness: accepted and of value.
Eastern traditions call this non-dualistic seeing. Jesus called it forgiveness. Forgiveness is the conscious choice to accept and embrace. Or perhaps more accurately it is learning how to accept and embrace. If we can learn how to accept ourselves entirely – to know that our value and worthiness do not depend on the things we do, say, think, or have done but instead are ours simply by virtue of the fact that we exist – then we are truly, truly, truly free. We are no longer imprisoned by the need to project, or to hide behind a mask. We no longer hate ourselves because of what we think we are. We no longer have to bury the less ‘acceptable’ parts of ourselves, denying their existence. To quote Florida Scott Maxwell, we finally become “Fierce with reality”!
So learning how to love yourself is indeed the key to Fullness of Life. It makes you indestructible, immune to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, for nothing can stop you from resting in the knowledge that you are intrinsically of value. And it cannot be separated from learning how to love others . If you accept yourself as fully worthy, then you can accept all others as fully worthy too. The road to this way of thinking is long and arduous, but it begins with the single step of realising that herein lies truth. And I am convinced that this realisation is what it means to truly, deeply, profoundly know the Love of God.
01 April 2016
Mysticism and Christianity: Touching The Silence
By James Karran
“After this he immediately used to seek cold water, in which by lingering a long while wet he subdued every heat of the flesh.” ~Rhygyfarch’s Life of St. David, 31
Thus St David’s hagiographer, Rhygyfarch, described his patron’s habitual practice of spending long periods of time standing in freezing water as one of his spiritual disciplines. A casual reader would assume this habit was an excessive demonstration of ascetic rigour that has no relevance to anything, other than to make Dewi sound ‘super holy’ in a medieval kinda way. However, anyone who regularly practices some form of meditation or contemplative prayer might see something different in this.
I believe David was using this rather extreme practice in order to ‘touch the Silence’. I don’t know if anyone has coined this phrase before me (apologies for not crediting if so), but it’s the best way I can describe an experience I often have during meditation. It feels like there is a state of being, almost another place, that is beyond egoic thought with all its worries, concerns, desires, regrets, dreams, anxieties, apprehensions, pride and distractions which one glimpses, or brushes ever so lightly, while in contemplative prayer. It’s a realm of pure presence, of absolute silence, of unsullied reality. And it’s where God is.
Even as I write these words I’m aware they are inadequate and sound like meaningless hyper-spiritual platitudes. Sorry for that. As always, trying to explain right brain experiences using left brain methods (i.e. writing) is problematic. I hope something connects with the reader though, because these things are vitally important. Touching the Silence helps so many things taught by Jesus to make sense, or sense on a new level (I don’t doubt this is the case with the teachings of other religions too). All of a sudden the Teacher’s declaration “my peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you, ” (John 14:27) comes alive. His statement that “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21) clicks. His insistence that “whoever eats me will live because of me” (John 6:57) explodes with vibrant colour. I can’t explain how this happens, but it does.
And what’s more, I suspect that my phrase ‘touching the Silence’ is indicative of the fact I am very inexperienced in contemplative prayer. My suspicion is that it is possible not only to touch the Silence fleetingly, but to actually enter and dwell there. And wouldn’t it be amazing, life changing, if one could dwell there permanently? Always be in that state? Always be aware of Divine Mercy permeating and cementing everything?? I’m pretty sure this was Jesus’ experience.
So, like Dewi Sant, I’ll continue practising contemplative prayer, and hopefully by God’s grace I’ll be drawn deeper into this bright and shining realm. If anyone reading this feels inspired to go on the same journey, the only way is to do it! Take your queue from David (although perhaps not quite to such extremes, at least initially): go into nature and simply begin noticing. Notice what you can see, smell, hear, feel. Notice your own body. Allow the stillness to wash over you. If you persist in this, regularly engaging in meditative disciplines, I’m sure you too will experience the awesomely gentle touch of Silence.
26 March 2016
Mystic Meditation: Simon of Cyrene
By Kirsty McGovern
1st Century, Palestine.
A man named Simon was walking home from work when told by soldiers
to carry Jesus’ cross. He wasn’t even watching the condemned men; he
was just trying to get home. Maybe he was thinking about his day or the
evening ahead of him and then, suddenly, he was forced to be involved
in something he hadn’t chosen. What had all this to do with him
Albany Road, Cardiff. March 23rd 2016
I was zipping up Albany Road on my bike, I had many things to do and
didn’t want to be distracted. Coming out of the post office I saw a guy I
used to work with selling the Big Issue. I smiled but didn’t stop; my purse
was packed away in my bike bag, I didn’t know if I had change and
anyway he didn’t ask me to buy the Issue he was just standing there.
I crossed the road and unlocked my bike. I knew I’d made the wrong
decision and my heart felt heavy. It was only a small thing but it felt
bigger that that – I knew I’d gone against something I believed in and
there was only one way to make it right. I crossed back over the road
and dug out my purse – yes I did have change and found also that I had
time to chat.
As I was leaving I wondered why it had seemed so hard to stop? Why it
had seemed so unimportant when I know that the day is made important
by all those little kindnesses’ we do, not just for others but for
ourselves. If there is no ‘other’, no ‘you’ or ‘me’, then when I ignore
another I ignore myself. Condemn myself to a day apart and separate.
I’m glad I saw through the illusion.
Simon saw through the illusion too. Whilst carrying the cross for Jesus
he didn’t just see what Jesus was going through he felt it too and it
changed his life.
22 December 2015
A Mystic Perspective: The Force Became Flesh
By James Karran
The mystic tradition offers some alternative and profoundly insightful perspectives on aspects of Christian theology. These perspectives are not necessarily to be swallowed whole, but when added to the smorgasbord of theological opinion can at least provide some welcome spice (welcome, that is, as long as you like your theology spicy).
One such perspective is on the Incarnation, or the mysterious phenomenon of divinity uniting with the physical world. For me this belief is so central to Christian theology that I have it tattooed on my arm (Literally. John 1:14. On the inside of my right arm). It is explicitly referenced in the first chapter of John’s gospel, which states that ‘The Λόγος became flesh’ (ὁ Λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο – see my arm).
The Λόγος (commonly translated ‘word’) is one of those cosmically epic mind-bending concepts that makes me love studying theology. It is a Stoic philosophical term, and my favourite translation of it is ‘the organising principle in the universe that creates and takes back all things’ (Yes, we are actually talking here about The Force. The Force is in the Bible. I said it). The Fo…sorry, Λόγος was understood to proceed from Most High God. Traditional Christian belief, then, is that at a certain point in history, in a certain place, The Divine Λόγος ‘became’ a human being, uniting him/her/itself with humanity once and for all time.
So what’s the Mystic perspective on all this craziness? Actually it’s a pretty mystical thing anyway, as there’s no way to ‘understand’ the Λόγος by human rationality, it has to be ‘known’ on a deeper level. But there’s more. A major hallmark of mysticism is claiming that experience as more important than belief, so simply assenting to a cognitive position is never enough for the mystic to see a thing as true, the mystic has to experience a thing to recognise it as truth. The real question, then, is how can the incarnation be experienced?
Now we’re at the crunch. What if, for one moment, we broadened our horizons and saw the incarnation as not JUST something that happened in a Palestinian town some 2000 years ago, but that this event was a sort of acheptype of the Divine’s relationship with the universe throughout time? What if the baby in the manger was for OUR benefit, a signpost, a clue, to point us towards the very nature of God and all things? What if God and the physical world are inextricably linked, and divinity is present as much in this keyboard I’m tapping as it is in rainbows, roller skates and refugees? What if everything that exists is bound together by the common truth that it has merely borrowed existence from the only Reality that can truly be said to exist?
If we are able to countenance this perspective, it changes everything. It means that any time I bite an apple, look at a cricket ball, speak to a stranger, hug a friend or hear a car horn, I am directly interacting with God. It means that everything has an intrinsic value that transcends the value I put on it based on how useful I perceive it to be. It is a challenge for us to let go of our dualistic mindset that separates into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and to embrace a non-dual mindset that sees ALL THINGS as they truly are – included.
Now we’re talking Mystic.