A Walk In The Woods: Liminality And Its Benefits. Three Stories


The imagination of the Ancients taught them wisdom that is lost to many today. Ancient Celts, Druids, Pagans and others knew more than we can guess, and yet many of the practices they observed are open to us today. They were ‘connected’ in a way that is only just being (re-)discovered, and the benefits, especially as regards liminality are enormous.

It was evening and the sun was sinking behind Cadair Idris, that wonderful mountain at the southern end of Snowdonia in Wales, that I frequented a lot as a teenager. Cadair Idris means the ‘Chair of Idris’ and was the giant warrior poet of Welsh renown. But, it was the setting sun that caught my attention.

The air temperature was dropping considerably as I stood on the mountain side, and long shadows ‘overwhelmed’ me, as the setting sun took my breath away. As I gazed in its direction the sun changed colour, diminished in brightness, but it was awe that embraced me, and that was so overpowering.

‘I have a thing for doors. I always think of them as a threshold to something new’. Jada Pinkett Smith

Yes, it was a liminal moment, a threshold event, a peak experience, a door to something or somewhere else as some might describel it.

Many shy away from the word surrender, but witnessing that awesome event, with no real thought prevalent in my mind, I basked in silence, motionless at the experience. I was in awe, connected to the universe and all that is. I had surrendered to the event, the handiwork of the Source of All, and the Source of All was palpable to me in some strange, unexplainable way. And, it was good.

Indeed, a liminal experience. Just then, the thought of capturing the moment occurred and I reached for the camera hanging around my neck, lifted it, took aim and photographed that amazing sunset. At I gazed through the camera’s viewfinder my eyes welled up, as I realised that I had left that liminal moment behind. In trying to preserve that wonderful moment of connectedness, I had lost it. Gone.

It was a group event, a workshop, and the first exercise was for the group to close there eyes, and having mentioned centering, beforehand, each member of the group was asked to imagine a walk in an imaginal forest, a walk in the woods, that started in the corner of the room they were in. The forest had a defined path, it was evening and quite dark, but in the distance there was a light, and each group member was asked to, imaginally, walk towards it. The path led to a clearing, and there each member was encouraged to imagine themselves sitting on a bench in the middle of the clearing and just ‘be’. After ten minutes I asked them to journey back on the path, out of the clearing and back into the room.

‘There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception’. Aldous Huxley

This was the first exercise of the day and was an essential step to cover the wonderful themes on the days curriculum, but in sharing their imaginal journey, it was clear that this was, indeed, the first step of many. Some shared and described the wonderful forest they were in and related as to how, as they sat in that imaginal forest, it took them back to their childhood. Another, related how a bird’s song sounded like a mobile ‘phone and they they really must ‘phone an old friend. Another, recounted how they felt cold and a small wind was rustling leaves and wondered if the central heating was on at home, and so it went on.

The first exercise of that workshop (as it was meant to) showed how easy it is to fill our minds with thoughts – the monkey mind – when meditating or when on an imaginal journey, as that exercise was, and what could be a liminal event of ‘being’, can so easily turn into a non-liminal event of thinking or ‘doing’. We then ‘step out’ of that liminal time and so miss out, or worse, we fool ourselves into thinking that we have had a liminal event when it was only a liminoid event (a near miss, but not the real thing).

‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.’ Albert Einstein

I was about nine years old, and my grandmother, having finished one of her amazing stories, looked at me and said, ‘It’s time for something a bit deeper, dear one. Time for an encounter’. The grandfather clocked had just chimed 7.30pm. ‘Good,’ she said, ‘No interruptions’.

She asked me to sit up, breathe regularly, close my eyes, and I did. She mentioned a few preparatory things to do, and then talked about a forest in the corner of the room, a walk in the woods, and asked me to imagine it, and to imagine that I was walking along a path. It was fun, and very easy for me to do – my childhood imagination worked ‘overtime’ at the best of times (and, still does!).

With my eyes closed, she asked me to imagine that I was walking towards a clearing, where there was a bench in the middle, upon which I was to sit, and do nothing else. I did as she asked, and in my mind’s eye saw an old stone bench in the middle of a large gap, a clearing in the trees. I approached it, and sat on it, and waited.

‘I looked for someone among them who would…stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land…but I found no one’ Ezekiel 22.30 (part), The Book

A few thoughts arose, and a stirring in the undergrowth at the edge of the clearing caught my attention, but I knew that I wasn’t to hold onto these thoughts, but just let them go. I sat. Little or no grasping thoughts arose, and it seemed to get easier, and I waited patiently.

As I sat there, in that imaginal clearing, even the trees and the edge of the clearing seemed to dissolve and to become unimportant. Was I sitting or standing? No thought arose, as whatever I was, was (just) there. There was silence. There was darkness, or was it light? There was nothing.

Just then, I heard my grandmother’s pleasant and melodic voice call out to me. ‘Tadhg, it’s time to come back’, and she guided me to that path I had taken earlier. In my mind’s eye I was walking along that path and back to the room, and sat down’. You can open your eyes now, but do it slowly, little one’. She also ensured that I was ‘grounded’, and then told me to relax. I did.

She asked about my experience, but all I could say was that, during the few minutes of the exercise, nothing had happened. ‘Aha, then you encountered for sure’, she beamed.

‘Encountered what? And, why did it last only a few minutes?, I pleaded as if I had been short-changed by the experience.

‘The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough’. Rabindranath Tagore

‘Ah, those are good questions. Some believe they encounter elementals or their guardian spirit, others say that they encounter angels in silence and invisibly, and others say they encounter the Source of All. So, you did encounter Tadhg. You did’, she said. She was so pleased.

‘So, it’s like being in the company of a friend that you can’t see, can’t touch, can’t speak to, and can’t hear’, I said somewhat sarcastically, and looking a bit puzzled I think. ‘Exactly’, she replied, and laughed. ‘Exactly, so!’.

‘Then how do I know I encountered?’, I asked.

‘Well, you’ll know, you’ll just know, but usually always after the event’, she said in her lyrical Welsh accent. ‘The One you wanted to encounter is more eager to encounter you, so whether you know it or not, an encounter takes place,’ she continued.

‘What you seek is seeking you’. Rumi

Just then, the grandfather clocked chimed. It was 8pm. My grandmother gave me a knowing look! And smiled. She knew!

Even at that young age I was struck by the fact that that imaginal journey seemed to take less than five minutes, but it had, infact, lasted thirty minutes. I knew I had encountered. I knew I had experienced the liminal. Such thresholds are indescribable, take one’s breath away, affect us at a soul or spiritual level, and skew time, my grandmother later explained.

’But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.’ 2 Peter 3.8, The Book

As I look back, bearing in mind there have been numerous encounters, and I’m a regular traveller of imaginal journeys and meditation even today – I lead individuals in such imaginal journeys; both kataphatic and apophatic, but more of that soon – I often wonder, when time goes by so quickly in those sessions, what is actually happening? And at what level? Physical? Soulish? Spiritual? But, it doesn’t really matter. An encounter is an encounter, and it is beyond reason. It isn’t irrational, but ‘arational’. It is above and beyond, and it is good.

The benefits of such encounters, of which the accounts above are but one type, and there are many, are transformational. I would encourage you to undertake such imaginal journeys to encounter, and to be alone with the Alone.


The Tree Called Coeden Niwl: A Different Perspective

2018012 A TREE CALLED COEDEN NIWL A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVEMy grandmother used to love to name things. Usually it was the trees at the far end of the garden or nearby this cottage (near Capel Curig, north Wales). Sometimes it was large rocks, the boundary rivulet, but always things that would last the test of time.

There are some large trees at the end of the garden, here, interspersed with moderately sized trees, but the one that catches your eye, if you were here with me know looking at it, is a majestic one, larger and older than all the others. Its trunk is wide, and gnarled through age, and its many branches reach out and are twisted like a ballerina’s arms when ‘warming up’, and doing exercises to loosen taut muscles. The seem to dart out an odd angles, but are strong and unmoving, unyielding.

Some may see just trees and a larger one, here, standing above all the rest, but I see more. That tree, a huge alder is full of meaning to me, especially but not only when I was a wee lad.

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.’ William Blake

This wonderfully large, old, noble tree was called by my grandmother, ‘Coeden niwl’, and to this day, and as I look at it now, that is the name I know it by.

As a wee lad I would play in that garden, and with the far end somewhat wild and where these larger trees grew, I was in a world of my own. Just like now. Frequently, mist would roll down from the mountains, tumble across the field and waft, effortlessly into the garden, or heavy, thick, grey clouds would descend without notice, and I loved it. Then, all but the tallest trees and nearby shrubbery would disappear, sounds would be muted and then I was alone, or was I?

Ah, the trees were here, and they’re alive.  And, the large alder tree, the one called Coeden niwl by my grandmother was here. Never alone. When I was a small boy, should I ever get lost, my grandmother always told me to look for Coeden niwl. Coeden niwl (pronounced ‘koh-ih-dun noo-ul’, meaning ‘mist-tree’ or ‘fog-tree’). Whether my grandmother called it that name because even in the mist and fog that tree is visible and is a good landmark, or whether the tree, itself, ‘invites’ the mist or fog, I don’t know. But, I loved that name for this tree, and still do.

‘Man gave names to all the animals
In the beginning, in the beginning.’ Bob Dylan, song.

Why name a tree, why give it a personal name?

In ancient cultures someone’s name marked them out as special, and in very ancient cultures, a name was thought to confer power (or power over someone) and so it was usual for there to be a public name that everyone was to use (and that name might be declared by the baby’s father), and the baby also would have a real and deeply meaningful name (and that name would probably be whispered into the baby’s ear by his or her mother). Names confer meaning, respect and power, and allow relationship. And, this tree deserves it.

’No naming is causally performed in this old country. Names hold power, and memory; names tell stories of people and their relationship with the land.’ Sharon Blackie, The Enchanted Life

I believe my grandmother gave this tree the name Coeden niwl so that it would be remembered, and it has, and to build up a relationship with it. It would be difficult for me to fell the tree, without knowing that it has a name. It is not just a tree, an anonymous lump of wood, or an incumbrance. It is Coeden niwl, and the tree is alive, and I value trees (especially the ones with personal names). And, yes, I admit it….when no one is around I speak to Coeden niwl. How about that for relationship?

It is alive, after all.

’The tree and I are having a conversation. Yes, without words. In fact, I’ve learned that trees don’t use words…The tree, located in a favourite park that is a visiting place of mine, is 300 years old. Now, I have discovered the trees have their own lives, quite separate from ours. Yet the tree and I are mysteriously close friends. We share a lot of feelings. We don’t exactly share a sense of humour, but genuine friendship stirs between us.’ Malcolm Boyd, author, gay elder and civil rights pioneer, Episcopal priest.

Coeden niwl, as an alder tree is sociable. Not just to me. The alder tree (Alnus glutinosa) is noted for its important symbiotic relationship with a nitrogen-fixing bacterium called Frankia alni. This bacterium is found in the root nodules of alder trees, and it absorbs nitrogen from the air and makes it available to the tree. The alder, then, in turn, provides the bacterium with much-needed sugars, which it produces through photosynthesis. Amazing. And, the alder trees catkins provide an early source of nectar and pollen for many under-threat bees. Relationship.

The sap, leaves and bark of the alder were all used to make dyes; green from the leaves, red from the sap and brown from the bark. Wood of the alder is flexible and resistant to the rotting effects of water, and was much used in ancient house building.  Relationship.

But, there’s more about these wonderful trees. In Irish mythology the first human man was made from the alder tree, and it is also considered a tree of the fae (fairies), protected by the water fairy-folk but also representing fire and earth. In various parts of old Ireland it was said to a crime to cut down an alder tree because it would offend the tree spirit.

We’re losing trees at an alarming rate. What better way, well, one way at least, to take more of an interest in trees than by naming one local large tree or more than one? Whether you live in a rural area, or an urban area (with a park nearby) I would encourage you to name a tree, take an interest in it, maybe one that you can sit near or under, perhaps; and build a relationship with it.

Whether or not you believe in elemental spirits inhabiting or frequenting trees, it cannot be denied that that view, in ancient times, meant that ancient Celtcs, Druids and others saved so many trees and they cultivated a greater respect for trees and the natural order  (and which is sorely missing today).

It was reported that In 1999 the upgrading of the National route from Limerick to Galway was delayed, rerouted and eventually opened nearly ten years after it was supposed to have started, because part of their contract stipulated that they had protect the fairy tree, and that ‘access is not permitted within a minimum 5m radius and a protective fence has been erected around it.’. Newspaper report.

And now as I stand in front of Coeden niwl a fine mist is drifting down from the mountains and starting to blanket this and other trees with an other-worldly veil. Slowly, the landscape is drained of its colour, sound is muted, and everything seems to take on a ‘flat’, two-dimensional look. The mist moving slowly, holding water, leaves minute drops of cold water on my hair and skin, and I can feel the fresh wetness bathe me, almost. I can only stand and watch, and be in awe at nature and this tree in particular, as the mist gets thicker and thicker, and the landscape takes on an even more mysterious look.

’But a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground.’ Genesis 2:6, The Book

Things happen at such times, such liminal times as these, and perhaps Coeden niwl, the fog tree or mist-tree, does actually attract the mist and usher in liminal sacred-space/time events. What happened next is the subject of another article.