Hedge Riding: The Art of the Hedge Witch

Bringing the Hedge back into Hedge Witchcraft, working with liminal spaces and the Otherworld

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The Soul Behind the Soul

Hildegard von Bingen wrote: “The soul is not in the body; the body is in the soul.” (Vol XXII, No. 5). This is a concept that I’ve been thinking about all week, and how we have tried to place unnatural limitations upon the body and soul based on our dualistic way of thinking.  I suppose a true Zen answer would be the body is the soul and the soul is the body, but right now I’m enjoying thinking that the soul contains the body. Next week I’ll probably veer off into a more Zennist approach.

For this to happen, the soul must accept the body, not the other way around. As I’m not entirely certain that there is even such as thing as an individual soul, it’s an interesting concept.  What if the “life force” on this little ball of rock hurtling through space is all soul, all an expression of soul?  What if everything is an expression of the Earth’s soul, or the soul of the universe?

In Druidry many see the gods as being many, in a polytheistic approach.  Some see them all as aspects of one deity, or of nature itself as a single entity, which is a more pantheistic approach. But what lies beyond the concepts of polytheism and pantheism? I don’t know yet, I just thought I’d throw that question out there.

After many brilliant short essays on the nature of the soul in a Celtic context, Tom Cowan towards the end of his fabulous book, Yearning for the Wind tantalises us with something similar.  In an exercise that he suggests, we are offered the opportunity to try to see the soul behind the soul.  While Cowan seems to willingly accept a single Creator deity (which doesn’t feel right to me, I’m much more of a “everything is soul and soul is everything” without the need for any one Creator or Creatrix) he does speak of a certain “yearning” for the soul to express itself.  For me, this is close to what I’m currently exploring in terms of everthing being an expression of either a collective soul or an ongoing soul that has no begninning and that has no end.  I’m not satisfied with the Big Bang Theory (the scientific theory, I love the show), in that there has to be a starting point for all creation.  I see the universe as constantly being in flow, things arising and falling away, matter being transformed into other things along the way.  Carl Sagan said “ The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apples pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars.  We are made of star stuff.”  I’ve no burning need to document a start point for this process, for I simply don’t see one; when does the life cycle of an oak tree begin? When the acorn grows on the branch? When it falls to the ground? When the seedling emerges from the soil?  Half of me existed as an egg in my mother’s womb while she was growing in her own mother’s womb.  When did I start to be?

There is a Zen koan: “What is the face you wore before you were born?” – again, asking us to look beyond the limitations of a start point and an end point of existence.  Why is it so difficult for many to simply accept that there is just existence, ever flowing, every changing, atoms moving around and becoming worms and skyscrapers and stars?  I think it’s part of the body and soul concept, a duality that there are two separate things, for if the soul is contained within the body, there is a kind of start and end point that most people think has a beginning and end in a very basic and more often than not visual impression of something that wasn’t there, now it is there without truly exploring all the transformations that are perhaps not visible to the naked eye, ie. the decomposition of a human body into the soil, into the air, into the water, being taken in by the trees, the earth, ingested by worms and snails and humans in all its various forms. Some Buddhist sects do meditate on a decaying corpse to perhaps see this process up close and personal, as well as contemplating the impermanence of all things, including their own being.

When we see the soul behind the soul, we see that we are everything and everthing is in us.  I am reminded of Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings on seeing the sun in a piece of paper or an apple, seeing the farmers or foresters that worked with it, the rain and wind and trucks that transported it, etc.  In this regard, looking at the soul behind the soul, seeing beyond labels and dualities, realising that we are all a part of something particularly grand, our own joy and love loses its limitations.  As Tom Cowan stated when speaking of the soul behind the soul, you may just “feel the great peace that will come over you: the peacefulness that arises when you are one with another creature of beauty and power such as yourself. This is the peace that comes from recognising and experiencing your oneness with another created being... That Power and those Elements are already in you.”

We catch glimpses of this Power, of this peace, when our sense of self drops away. Watching a sunset, often we lose ourselves in the colours, the sights and sounds around us, becoming one with it. Zen archery is all about becoming one with the target. When making love, when doing Tai Chi, when walking in the forest, watching the deer in the moonlight – when thoughts of our own self have drifted away and we are simply humans being, instead of human beings, then we come very close to the soul behind the soul. The Druid, the mystic, the shaman – they take that slight step further into the mystery that lies beyond.

The thing that perceives another thing is a functional tool, but we have become so obsessed with the tool that we’ve forgotten what it is that we are trying to do with it. Our sense of self is just like that: we’ve got to stop being so wrapped up in the self that we forget what it is that we are trying to create in the world as an expression of the earth’s creativity (more on this in a future blog).  The divide between humanity and nature falls away. The divide between body and soul falls away. The soul is boundless, reaching to the far ends of the earth.  When we realise this, we realise just how expansive other things can be, such as love, peace, happiness and joy. Working with our truths and simply existing as expressions of the Earth itself, fulfilling our incarnations in whatever forms we are currently holding at this very moment, we can live our truths and radiate those things all around us.  The only limitations we have are those that we impose, and even then I’m not quite sure they work, instead perhaps being deceptions we fool ourselves with time and again in order to stay fixed in our current view of reality, instead of experiencing reality as it really is.

The soul is not in the body, the body is in the soul. This body is made of star stuff. Your body is made of star stuff.  Everything is made of star stuff, and whatever existed before stars, whatever soul lay behind the soul of a star.  In this I find a great reverence for all existence, for all beings, for life in all its forms and incarnations.  Perhaps this is at the heart of compassion, not only being an understanding of the shared suffering of all things, but of the shared soul of all things.


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  Joanna van der Hoeven is a Hedge Witch, Druid, and a best-selling author. She has been working in Pagan traditions for over 20 years. She is the Director of Druid College UK, helping to re-weave the connection to the land and teaching a modern interpretation of the ancient Celtic religion.  


  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Tuesday, 22 September 2015

    I really love this conversation, Joanna. I've been recently speculating that each planet's level of vibrational consciousness allows its residents to perceive themselves as solid forms - whereas, in truth, atoms are 99% empty space, and all forms are comprised of atoms! This would help to explain different dimensions and levels of perception; everything exists together at the same time, but we only perceive what we are currently programmed to perceive. People living on giant gas planets, for example, which we think are devoid of life, would experience themselves as corporeal but might not be aware of us at all. And, of course, those who have "passed over" are still here with us, experiencing the Summerland even as our atoms pass through each other and we think that we have lost them.

    Star stuff, indeed. How cool is that?

  • Joanna van der Hoeven
    Joanna van der Hoeven Wednesday, 23 September 2015

    I know - it blows my mind each and every day. Perception is such a strange beast :)

    Why can't you trust an atom? Because they make up everything... :D

  • Molly
    Molly Wednesday, 23 September 2015

    Lovely reflections. Thanks!

  • Joanna van der Hoeven
    Joanna van der Hoeven Wednesday, 07 October 2015

    You're most welcom, Molly!

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