Tag Archives: mystery


I have gazed into wild eyes, made unexpected bonds with owls and foxes at twilight.

Once a sparrowhawk, tree perching beside the path, stared at me with great intent and a purpose I could not fathom. Seared by scrutiny, exposed to that raptor glare and yet none the wiser for being pierced to the core.

Deer in the long meadow grass, intent and watchful, alert to threats. I have felt those stares so many times, finding them through the focus of their attention. Looking back, but not too long for fear of causing alarm. I am no predator come to harm you. Trust my gentle gaze.

I see the unknown in those other eyes. Spirit and intent, awareness beyond my understanding. Lives connecting in a brief moment, a spark shared, while the difference and distance remain unbridged. 

You will always be mystery. I can only gaze with wonder.


Last night the local film club put on a film called ‘Mountain’ – 72 minutes of mountain footage directed by  Jennifer Peedom with a script by said director and Robert McFarlane. If you enjoyed his book ‘Mountains of the Mind’ it’s a natural accompaniment. It deals (in far less depth) with all the same issues – obsession, our need for wild places, the way perceptions of mountains have changed. For someone like me, who does not go up mountains the footage of places I could never properly imagine, was most welcome.

The take-home line for me came as the film (narrated by Willem Dafoe) considered the relationship between colonialism and mountains. “Replacing mystery with mastery.” It struck a chord. This urge to get to the top of mountains is one I’ve always found a bit odd. I love mountains, I love looking at them, but the language of ascent and conquest makes me uneasy.

What is it that gives some people a desire for extreme experiences? Why can some people only feel truly alive while staring death in the face? The mountain climbers in the film where overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) affluent white men. You only have to look at the kit to know this is not a hobby for the poor. It is the people with the most control and the least risk in their lives apparently who feel the need to get out there and seek risk. And I have to question what they do to landscapes in their quest for thrills.

The footage of long lines of people under supervision, following the established ropes up Everest demonstrates that what we do with wilderness is try to tame it. The urge to conquest destroys the very wildness that was attractive in the first place. When you consume landscape in this way – building roads and base camp and ski lifts and whatnot, the very thing you were chasing, is driven out of reach.

Walking back home afterwards, through a chilly winter’s night, we reflected (Tom and I) that this was as cold as we wanted to get while walking. We wondered about the kind of life that sends a person chasing such risks. I find I do not have to be staring death in the face in order to feel alive. I generally feel alive. I feel alive in all my encounters. Being able to feel alive and present in my day to day life, I do not need to shock myself with danger or overwhelm myself with enormous things in order to break through my own apathy or indifference.

I wonder how much of it stems from a loss of mystery and meaning.

The voice of God

I wanted to be a polytheist. It’s not an easy confession to make, because despite my best efforts at various times in my life, I have never had any coherent experience of deity. Only shadows and suggestions, and odd moments in dreams. I’ve encountered enough words from true polytheists to know that personal gnosis is a big part of how they experience the world. My failure to have any kind of serious firsthand experience informed a lot of writing When a Pagan Prays. It’s not a book for people who have comfortable exchanges with their deities – more for anyone else out there who does not get what they went looking for, or is not easy with believing.

I had a bit of a lightbulb moment last week. I realised that I’ve been so busy angsting over my failure to experience deity, that I really haven’t given enough thought or attention to what I do experience. There are other things in my life, and it’s subtle, it seldom comes with a side-order of words, (although I talk to everything) and it occurs to me that this is, for me at least, the most important stuff.

Here’s an example. My computer is at the window, if I raise my gaze I can see trees, and sky. On any given day I will at some point raise my head at just the right moment to see buzzards, a heron, woodpeckers, nuthatches, flocks of little birds, comedy squirrel activity, rainbow light, tiny whirwinds… It’s the same when I go walking – I always see something. If I walk the hills I’ll find fossils, or limestone quartz. It’s easy not to notice, because it is normal for me. I’m very open to what’s around me, and had got into the habit of considering it all fairly mundane.

On the Five Valley’s Walk we saw a lizard and a deer. 1700 people walking the 21 mile route – hardly an invitation to wild things to show up. I watched half a dozen other people walk right past the lizard, not seeing it, but I had been drawn to it at once. I knew it was there. I see kingfishers and little grebes, I hear owls. I do not experience these as messages from the divine or the otherworld, just nature doing its thing and me noticing. I do not read what I see for omens or symbols, but I do feel blessed.

Even as I try and square up to the idea that this could be something really precious and important, I am conscious of my own reluctance to put any big names on it. Knowing when to turn my head to see the deer is just being present. It’s not the voice of gods or the voice of spirit, it’s just me in a wood and everything else in the wood. Would someone else construct a different narrative? Would someone else feel the need to turn, and in turning, see something beautiful, and understand that as the presence of deity?

I’ve spent about twenty years stumbling around, feeling lost and that on a very fundamental level, I wasn’t a very good Pagan at all. It may be that I just do not default to the language of deity when making sense of experience. I don’t see the horned god in the deer, I don’t see goddess in the flash of kingfisher wings. I see the deer and the kingfisher. Perhaps that isn’t a failing. Perhaps I am not as shut out of mystery, as incapable of experiencing it as I had feared myself to be. It may have been the case that I’ve been so busy being enchanted by one tree at a time that I did not grasp that I’d been in the forest all along. I don’t know. Not knowing is pretty fundamental to how I interact with the world. My not knowing has shifted in tone a tad, opening up new possibilities.

Escapist Druid

In the last week, I’ve spent time in Middle Earth, visited Japan with Arriety, wandered Wonderland and seen something of the surreal world of Professor Elemental. In the physical world, I’ve not been more than ten miles from my usual haunts. This combination is not unusual for me. I travel more in thought than in body. The mind can go anywhere, unhampered by cost, timetables or physical health. I always was a daydreamer.

In my imagination and meditations, I can go to Stonehenge or Avebury. I can go back to scenes and places of abject wounding to try and reclaim parts of my soul. There are otherworlds to explore, imaginatively, even if I’m not confident of my ability to make real journeying. (How do you tell?) As an author I’ve always lived a lot in my own imagination.

It’s grey, wet and cold here. Yet another rainy day, but at least the wind has dropped. It’s so wet underfoot that walking and cycling are miserable, and I don’t have a car. I have nowhere to go, and am still ill. The imagination calls. I’m surrounded by books, each one of them a doorway into another world, or time, or location. My childhood was full of books, and this sort of escape. Life always seemed too narrow, dreams could take me anywhere, and usually those dreams were shaped by books. Aged 11, I wrote quite a long story for a school project that was supposed to be “how I became famous”. I pictured myself as a successful author, so involved with the fictional world I’d created that I became unable to function in the real world, and was only able to re-engage after a train crash allowed me to fake my own death and start over. That was the future I saw for myself, aged eleven. Lost in my own imagination, isolated, a bit mad, but writing books. However rich the dreamworlds might be, there was always that skein of darkness in the mix.

I didn’t get that life, for which I am grateful. I’ve learned a thing or two about the escapism and the lands of dream and fiction, too. They only work when they hold real life resonance and relevance. Go too far into fantasy and you get nonsense. Alice in Wonderland may be surface nonsense, but it’s the existential crisis of Alice that makes it compelling. How do any of us know who we are, after all? Or what the rules really are? Wonderland is also the insanity of this world.
I escape into books and films looking for inspiration, wonder and enchantment. When life seems grey, or I’m ill, those escapes give me back a sense of possibility and magic. The trick is to bring that with me, back to here and now, and do something about the greyness, or my perception of it, or share a flicker of possibility with someone else.

Two years ago to the day, I married a fellow dreamer. Someone with whom I can make the journeys to those other places, and come back again. It’s the dreams we make for our own shared life that are the most powerful, though. Daring to imagine better ways of living and more potent things to be doing. Refusing to become banal, resisting mediocrity and the insipid norms of the consensus reality. If fantasy tells you that you can’t have those dreams as real things in this life, then the fantasy itself is doing it wrong, and exists to trap you, not to set you free.

If, as my younger self imagined, the journey into creativity is a one way ticket to madness and isolation, you’ve missed the point. It’s not the going there, it’s the coming back, and what you bring with you from the journey. Because if you bring it back and make it shareable, it becomes real. At eleven I didn’t understand the power of a story told, the magic of sharing a daydream. It’s not the lonely place I thought it would be, and out of those dreams, all kind of real things are born.

A surfeit of light

One of the features of the modern age is our mastery of light. I’ve talked before about the suggestion that pre-industrial sleep patterns were very different, with two separate ‘sleeps’ and a time of wakefulness in the dark between them. I’m currently reading Lee Morgan’s fascinating book on witchcraft – Deed without a name. The author has flagged up another contribution to ideas around sleep and darkness. Our ancestors used to spend a lot more of their time in gloom, twilight, candlelight, firelight.

If we are awake, we tend to have bright light (romantic diners and dingy pub gigs aside).  Illumination has become normal, and goes interestingly alongside enlightenment. We live in an age that aspires to know everything and that tends to view everything as potentially comprehensible. If we don’t understand a thing, its because we’ve not yet got the right maths to measure it with, the right technology to observe it, the right theory to rationalise it. We bring everything into the light, where we can clearly see the edges.

Twilight is a place of uncertainty where a crouching man merges with the plant life and you can’t tell whether its mice or spirits making the noises in the undergrowth. Candle light and firelight fill the corners with dancing shadows, reinvent the world as mysterious and turn the familiar into the uncertain. Our ancestors had this as part of their normal, every day reality. Not all things could be brought into the light, and light was not available at the touch of a button to dispel all confusion. To a mind that encounters shadows, gloom and twilight on daily basis, the unknown is inevitable. The unknowable is a daily feature. To the person who lives with light levels they can immediately control, the sharp edges of the world are always visible.

We assume, I think, that the sharp edges and boundaries made apparent by our reliable light sources are real, and that the uncertainties of twilight are illusions brought on by an insufficiency of light. To our ancestors, those uncertainties were real. But here’s a thing. Our light is artificial. The gloom of twilight, the strange partial light of a full moon – these are real conditions. Darkness and shadow are real. Times of warped perception are real. What we have chosen to irradiate is a real and potentially meaningful state.

We throw light on things. We push away the shadows of superstition. We illuminate the issue. We cast it in a new light. We throw the spotlight on it. We put it under the spotlight. Darkness is ignorance. Darkness is superstition. Our man-made light is the really real reality and we believe in it. The light tells us that everything has edges, everything can be known. Yet the further the science goes, the more we see the dark spaces filled with something we cannot illuminate. The more physics I read, the less I feel I know and understand. Perhaps what the turning on of light must inevitably show us, is the sheer extent of the darkness.

Twilight is my favourite time of day. I love the way the light and shadows create a different kind of reality, one with softer edges and less certainty. I love spending time in firelight and candle light, and I wonder what would happen to my perceptions if I gave up electrical illumination entirely, and accepted either the darkness, or the candle. Would I think and feel differently? I’m inclined to suspect I would. In the twilight, mystery is natural, uncertainty is natural, doubt is natural. Perhaps we need a bit more of that to balance up what we’ve learned from switching the lights on.

The mystery of brains

Most of the time, parenting isn’t excessively difficult. Children progress in coherent, predictable ways from one day to the next as skills evolve, understanding grows, bodies adapt and so forth. Every so often there’s a sudden leap, and the impossible becomes easy, the unthinkable becomes the thought. These are always startling and tend to come without any kind of warning.

A lot of it has to do with how the human brain develops when we’re young. My grasp of the technicals isn’t superb but the gist is that the brain has physical structures, and the way in which paths are formed between brain cells shapes how we are able to think. Child development psychology flags up that there are some things young children just aren’t capable of thinking about. Then the brain changes, and *ping* you’re on a new level. It can be startling to watch. Some of the manifestations are simple – going from sky as blue line across the top of a picture to a sense of how objects exist in relation to each other is one of those transitions, but not a challenging one.

Sudden shifts in the way a child is capable of thinking are also very exciting times. As adults we tend to get this less, our brain growth has mostly settled. Perhaps more importantly, we don’t seek it. When allowed to develop naturally, children are voracious in their quest for information. They want to know everything about everything. How we support and teach them inform whether than continues or not. A child who hears ‘because I said so’ and ‘because it just is’ will learn not to bother to ask. The child for whom learning is turned into a miserable chore won’t stay inspired to learn, that natural hunger squashed. And of course children whose hunger for input is fed by television and computer games, who get a steady diet of empty noise and meaningless drivel by way of content, cannot develop much. I recognise that there is educational content out there, but when the aim is to pacify the child and make them easy to look after, the effect is…. Pacification.

From what I can tell by observing my son, and what I remember of the process myself, the sudden brain leaps don’t really register. You forget that you couldn’t think that way before, the new way becomes natural so quickly and there’s not much incentive to question it. Sometimes, you don’t notice how much your own capacity to think has changed. As adults, we’re both less likely to change, and more likely to notice it. Revolution between the ears is a very big deal once you’re physically mature. It is possible, though.

How we think, and the structures we have physically in our brains, develops over time and with use. The person who devotes a lot of time to music does, I gather, have a visibly different brain structure to someone who doesn’t. What we do with our brains shapes what we are able to do, informs what comes easily, determines where we might go next. Anyone who dedicates themselves to a spiritual path, or a path of personal growth, is very precisely working to keep their brain developing.

There are a great many people out there I could wish a mental revolution upon. I wish they could change with the sudden explosion of insight that hits my child every now and then. There are so many people who seem to have stopped thinking, questioning, wondering and growing far too early, settling into the comfort of their own narrow world view and filtering out everything that doesn’t fit. Far too many of them have also taken up careers in politics. But in adults, Road to Damascus moments are few and far between. Grand epiphanies don’t turn up unsought, eureka moments will not come to the person who wasn’t looking for an answer in the first place.

Brains are such fabulous, mysterious, exciting things. I just wish people would notice that more, celebrate the wonder that is us a bit more, think a bit more…

The mysteries of teaching

In any mystery tradition there can be tension between how much you tell the student up front, and how much is sprung upon them in surprising and dramatic ways, calculated to change their awareness. Initiations are a prime example of this. How much should be unknown and unexpected, and how much should be done with the consent of the student?

I’ve had experience of teachers who liked to say ‘trust me and I will open the way for you’ and who wanted me to surrender myself into their hands, be guided, trust that they would do the right things for me. I’ve never been at ease with that. I’ve read about people who have undergone surprising initiations, to good effect, and I’ve listened to people who have been shocked and distressed by things done to them in initiation.

If you take on the responsibility of making choices for your student, you have to be aware that you can get it wrong. I once used a meditation I’d taken from a book, which involved starting with just one candle in a darkened room and then blowing it out. After the meditation I learned that one of my crew suffered claustrophobia and that darkness was a trigger. She’d got through, but it was a humbling and life changing lesson for me. I would not want to hold that responsibility for anyone, I would rather ask. I have yet to find any teaching situation where I couldn’t usefully say something in advance about what it was for or what might happen. I’d rather do that precisely because it makes the student an equal partner in a process. I think informed consent is important.

There’s also the mindset of the teacher to consider. I’m sure there are folk out there wise and aware enough to handle the spiritual path of another person, but I’d also bet they aren’t the majority. Taking that responsibility can be all about ego and self importance. Saying ‘I know better than you what it is that you need’ is not always a safe and healthy approach. It makes it easy for us to try and control and direct another person, to hold power over them, to make them do what we think they should be doing, not what their soul needs. All souls are different. The teacher who persuades, guides and suggests has to work a lot harder, can be argued with, and will have to justify themselves. A teacher in that position is also learning.

When we start out along any spiritual path, the idea of mystery can be exciting. Yes, we want to be led blindfolded into a ritual where amazing transformations occur. What we’re rather looking for there, can be for something from outside to come to us and do all the work. Magical transformation, not transformation we have laboured for. And yes of course the theatre is alluring, the sense of stepping away from conventional reality. But does that make it productive? Maybe not.

The world is full of mysteries and wonders without our needing to stage them. My personal preference is to engage knowingly with a teacher, free to take on what works for me and reject what does not. (Thank you OBOD for allowing me to do just that.) And as a teacher, I just don’t want the responsibility. I’d rather offer a possibility and let a student decide whether they like it or it makes sense for them. I know that when I started teaching, I thought people would expect me to be all wise and all knowing. I rather thought I ought to be. I felt like a bit of a fraud, truth be told. But over the years I’ve become a lot more comfortable with not needing to be any kind of guru. I don’t have all the answers. I can’t tell you what you most need to do. I will not take you blindfolded into a ritual unless you’ve told me there’s something of that shape you need.

There are many different styles of teaching out there, and increasing numbers of teachers. If you run into something you don’t like, then it is important to know this isn’t the only available way. (And some less ethical ‘teachers’ may well try to claim there is only their way, just ignore them.) There are many ways, many styles, and the odds are good that somewhere, someone will be teaching at least some of the things you want to learn. You may need to go through several teachers to find your own way. You may end up doing it yourself from a selection of sources. But the bottom line is, if the experience does not feel right to you, then it isn’t right, no matter how much someone else may think they know best. Saying ‘I know what you need better than you do’ does not make it so. This holds up outside magical and spiritual training too. Informed consent is always, in my opinion, the best life choice. I’d ask serious questions of anyone who wanted me to take too much on trust, in any scenario.

Of Druidry and time

One of the things I’ve become really conscious of this week, is that engaging with nature has a time element to it. Different parts of the day belong to different entities. The same place has a very different character, set of inhabitants and, arguably, spirit, depending on time of day. While the sun is up, I have birds and butterflies. At twilight the fish are jumping, the bats and owls come out, the toads are more active. Into the night there are foxes, badgers, hedgehogs, and at least rumours of otters. I’ve seen glow bugs lately as well.

We all have to sleep. When we’re asleep, we’re not out there encountering the wildlife or engaging with the spirits of place. I find that I can’t go messing about with my sleep patterns without consequences, so while the odd all nighter, random early morning and the such is ok, mostly for my own wellbeing I need a fairly stable sleep/wake pattern.

One of the consequences of needing to engage with the rest of the world, is that I can’t have the summer sleep pattern I really want. I’m a creature of twilight by preference, but to do dawn and dusk when the nights are so short here, I would need to sleep for a few hours in the middle of the day. One of my longstanding ambitions is to have the time and space for experimenting with how this affects me.

No matter how deep a spiritual bond we have with a space, there will always be things we do not know about it. If I’m watching the fish, I will not see what the birds are doing. The more attention I give to one aspect of what is around me, the more likely I am to miss something in the bigger picture. There are balances to strike, between focus and wider awareness. We need that bigger picture – without context, and a sense of how it all fits together impressions readily distort. We also need the deeper, more involved relationships. And thus we come back to the issue of time. There’s only a finite number of hours at our disposal. I cannot forage with the badgers, and dive with the terns, and sing with the dawn chorus and the evening blackbirds and have time to work and eat and fulfil other duties and needs.

Therefore there are always going to be times when what happens around me remains a mystery.  I may get odd glimpses. When I say ‘hello spirits of place’ even though I know the place well, I hold an awareness that I am also speaking to the mysteries, the unknown, the things that come out to play when I am asleep.

There were eleven badgers last night, one rabbit who I watched for ages, one fleeting visit from a fox cub, and a great number of glow bugs, several bats, and no doubt far more small things that I didn’t see. Hello mysteries.