Tag Archives: Mark townsend

Falling Down

Falling down is an inevitable experience for anyone who thinks they are on some kind of upward spiritual journey. Perhaps ultimately what any spiritual path is for is some kind of growth, progress or ascension into a better and more enlightened state of being. The trouble is that as soon as you get into the idea of working really hard to become a more elevated, more enlightened sort of person, the slippery slope down into something else is also always really close.

In ‘The Gospel of Falling Down’ Mark Townsend talks about these issues with a degree of personal honesty and humility that really challenged me to look at what I do and what I think about myself. He’s absolutely right. There are things that all too easily take over from doing the work because they look like being important. Once you start thinking that being important is the measure of your path, the spiritual journey ceases to be the driving force in what you do. If you’re lucky, you fall from this, or something pushes you out of it and you have to reconsider and start over. The unlucky ones who continue unchecked may become smug, self important, dogmatic, egotistical and keep pushing away from the heart of what was once their spiritual journey.

Unlike some faiths, Druidry doesn’t hand out titles, but we can get very obsessed with giving ourselves titles and fretting about who is entitled to call themselves what. How big is your Grove? How many students have you got? How many books did you sell last year? Where are you on the billing? Did you get radio play? Are there enough 5 star reviews? How many people follow you on social media, follow your blog and how does that compare to the followers a more famous Druid has? Once these things start to become important, and you pay attention to them and pour energy into them, rather than the Druidry, it all starts to go awry.

I went through some of this earlier in the year, my third year booked for Druid Camp with no suggestion initially that I was worth putting on the fliers. It’s tough, being worth booking but not being worth mentioning, and I took it badly. However, the decision was made to include more of us who are not ‘big name Druids’ on the publicity, and so I managed to sneak in after all. A long way down the list. What smarted was the sense of not being able to break through. I do all the things – I blog and write books, I teach, I offer talks, I go to events if asked, I write articles and review books… but I can see no way at all of getting from where I am as a one of the many small and obscure Druids to being a headline act, a bestseller.

I realised I could pour more energy into feeling bitter and thwarted, in questioning my validity, in pushing myself forward and demanding attention. I was lucky, as much as anything, because I had nothing to support me in doing that outside of my own desires. I was also lucky in that Mark’s book turned up and reminded me of all the reasons that chasing fame is not what a spiritual path is all about. How many fans and followers and book buyers do I need to validate my path? And why would I imagine any of these things could validate my path? That it is meaningful to me should be the key thing, and if what I do helps someone else that’s great, and the rest really should not matter. I want to be a Druid more than I want to be an author or a big name.

Mark’s book is written from a largely Christian-centric position, but as Mark has also studied with OBOD, it’s a Pagan friendly sort of text. His subversive take on Jesus is something I find immensely cheering. If you’re feeling lost and out of sorts, the gentle humanity of Mark’s writing might be just what you need. This is a companion book for people groping about in the dark and wondering what they’re supposed to be doing. If you’re feeling smug and superior and sure that you’re better than all of this, you definitely want to read Mark’s book some time very soon.


Bird watching for enlightenment

There’s an issue I’ve been wrestling with for a while, and reading Mark Townsend’s work has really brought it into focus for me. There’s an aspect to following a spiritual path that says ‘you are not good enough right now, but if you do all the things you will get a better outcome’. Whether that’s enlightenment, heaven, or some other notion varies, but the idea of improving yourself is part (surely?) of what religion is for.

The idea of improvement creates problems though. I strive, and study and try and do all the right things. (Thank you Mark, for letting me know it isn’t just me, or I would not have been able to admit this). Sometimes, I start to feel like I’m getting somewhere. External achievements help with this. Ooh look, X has occurred and therefore I’m a better sort of Druid! Which on its own would be fine, but it raises the temptation to look around and see who isn’t this far down the path, isn’t this clever, or this good. It may be one of Druidry’s saving graces that we don’t have an agreed model for what the perfect Druid looks like, whereas Christianity suffers a good deal more from the effects of this because there are clearer patterns to follow.

I catch myself doing it sometimes, and it leaves me uncomfortable. In the recognition of this as ‘failure’ is also the sense that there should be some other, better way of doing this that doesn’t risk replacing wisdom with smugness or experience with superiority. It also makes me anxious because I worry about being judged by others, not being a good enough Druid myself, not keeping up, not knowing enough or being clever enough and all the rest of it.

I may have come up with something.

When you take up bird watching, there’s a sudden learning curve as all the anonymous and familiar birds around you become individuals you can name. It’s exciting. You move on to less common birds over time, you get more confident about telling one from another from a burst of song or a flash of tail. Then, quite possibly, a thing happens. It stops being the birds that are exciting, and starts to be about the bragging. It’s not the seeing the crane, it’s the knowing how jealous other people will be when you tweet about it (sorry, couldn’t resist). You travel hundreds of miles to see a bird that isn’t rare where it lives, but is blown off course. You dash in, get a picture, dash out – you’re a hardcore birdwatcher now, and you don’t bother yourself with boring, everyday birds.

I think this is how it can go with religion, all too often. The practice, the trappings, the process start to take over from the thing that is the core of what you are doing. In the case of bird watching, what’s called for is just being able to enjoy what is there, still being excited about the everyday birds. What is the equivalent for Druidry? As Druidry is harder to define in the first place, I think the short answer is ‘showing up’. Be present, do the things (whatever they are for you) show up and experience, and don’t let the idea of big shiny things take you away from the little everyday things. Get excited about seeing something rare and precious – that’s a blessing – but maybe it doesn’t mean much. Maybe it doesn’t mean we’re getting somewhere, maybe it’s just luck, or grace and we do not need to feel important.

I’m a cheerful, naive bird watcher who still gets excited about robins and blackbirds. I’m going to try and take more of that mindset into the Druidry, and see if I can fret less about being a good Druid.

Authenticity and the Druid

The idea of authenticity has been rattling round in my head for a while now, prompted by reading Mark Townsend’s thoughtful book ‘Diary of a Heretic’. Mark lost his place in the Anglican Church because he would not compromise, holding his honour, his integrity and his authenticity as more important than his employment. That takes some courage and a lot of conviction. Reading his work, I found myself wondering how authentic I am, and how that word relates to Druidry. (Mark also walks the Druid path).

It’s not just a case of being true to your emotions. Acting out of emotions in the moment only represents a part of the self. I am certain that unconsidered explosions of emotion where what we do we later have to explain as unmeant somehow, is not authentic. It is possible to feel, intensely in the moment emotion that does not fit with what we think or believe.

It’s not a case of being ruled by your logic and intellect. I’ve tried that one a few times, and emulating Mr Spok isn’t it either. Logic untempered by compassion can be brutal. Intellect that refuses to acknowledge emotion isn’t able to handle human situations. This is why there’s a whole section of the blog devoted to thinking about feeling. The interplay between emotion and reason is tremendously important.

I think it’s really important to have a philosophy that holds together your relationship with self and world in a coherent way. A belief system could equally hold this space, and often the two share and mingle. An understanding of what life is about, no matter how provisional that understanding is, gives us the means to choose. Does this idea fit with my beliefs? Is this emotion consistent with what my philosophy tells me I need to be doing? Even so, it is not our philosophy or belief that makes us authentic. If we hang on to belief when it is at odds with reason, or we stick to a philosophy that crushes our emotional life, we aren’t authentic, we’re merely dogmatic.

After much pondering, I’ve come to think of authenticity as the interplay between these three aspects. Emotion, intellect and belief. If those aspects of us are at odds, we aren’t authentic. There is simply no room for it in that level of inner conflict. If we stick rigidly with one part of self at the expense of the others, we aren’t authentic. To seek authenticity is to work on those conflicts between how we feel, what reason tells us, and what we think we ought to be feeling and thinking, based on the beliefs we hold. It’s a constant dance, an on-going shifting process of refining, experimenting, rejecting, getting confused and trying again. In theory there could be an end point of perfect balance, but I suspect life throws us too many curved balls to let us stay in one of those for long.

To be authentic is not, I am thinking, to be rigid and absolutely fixed in some aspect of self. Authenticity actually calls for a willingness to change. It’s not good being authentic about your feelings, for example, if the effect is that you destroy that which you need. It’s no good holding a belief that disallows some aspect of how you feel, or that is at odds with what you actually think. To seek authenticity is to seek a coherence of self, where heart and mind accord. It means living in a way where what we uphold as values, ideals, and virtues is manifest in what we do. Many religions offer means of achieving that – perhaps Buddhism most especially. However, there is no need to seek methods elsewhere. We can think and feel and imagine out our own approaches. All it really requires is paying attention to what we do, why we do it, how we feel about it and how that fits with what we believe, or want to believe.

And it beats the hell out of trying to be ‘good’. I realised this week that ‘good’ is all about how other people judge and measure us. The only person who can say if you are at all authentic, is you.

Jesus Through Pagan Eyes

My review of the recent book written by Mark Townsend, with additional content with probably every famous living pagan you’ve heard of. Published by Llewellyn.

This is one of the most fascinating and thought provoking books I’ve had the pleasure to read in a long time. Author Mark Townsend has considerable experience of both Christianity, and Druidry. As a Christian he’s even been part of the establishment, as a serving priest, and has had his faith challenged by having to deal with hostile reactions from the very Church he worked to serve. Organised Christianity is full of politics, and I learned things I could not have imagined about ‘orthodoxy tests’ and pressure to conform. But Mark is not a conforming spirit, and this is part of what makes him such an interesting figure.

What this book offers is some of Mark’s perspective on Jesus, as myth and historical figure. He takes us into the differences between Church and Jesus, picking up on the fact that many Pagans have no issue with Jesus and huge issue with what other people have done in his name. Then there are essays from leading Pagan figures, exploring ideas of Jesus, followed by interviews with further well known Pagans focusing on specific aspects of Jesus myths and attitudes. There’s a vast amount of insight, knowledge and diverse opinion here.

If my experience of moots is anything to go by, when three or more Pagans are gathered together, sooner or later the subject of Christianity comes up. I rather imagine that Jesus Through Pagan Eyes is going to keep plenty of moots in raw material for some time to come.

What I would have liked twice as much of, at least, was Mark himself, sharing his feelings, beliefs, insight and experiences. I’d not read any of his work before. In many ways the Pagan contributors were expressing views and opinions I’ve heard before, although with more quotes, references and whatnot. Mark, on the other hand, as a dedicated follower of Jesus whose relationship with the establishment is uneasy, intrigues me. He’s got a lovely, lively accessible writing style, and his was the view I most wanted to spend time with. I’m one of those fairly typical Pagans who sees Jesus as the original hippy, mostly has nothing to do with him spiritually but feels no animosity, whilst being very fond of pondering the history and implications of his life and legacy. Being some distance from both my life experience and beliefs, Mark himself cuts as a fascinating figure. Jesus Through Pagan Eyes felt to me like a book that had been put together more for Christians than Pagans. I would love to see Mark come at it the other way too, exploring Jesus more for Pagans by himself, or with other Christians. In the meantime, I shall be looking for more work by this author. I think for anyone working in interfaith he’s a must read, and for anyone wanting to know what some of the big names in modern Paganism really think about Christianity, this is going to be very interesting stuff!