Philip Carr-Gomm lives in Sussex, England, with his wife Stephanie and their children. From an early age Philip studied with Ross Nichols, the founder of The Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. He has a degree in psychology from University College London, and trained in psychotherapy for adults at The Institute of Psychosynthesis, and in play therapy for children with Dr Rachel Pinney. He also trained in Montessori education with the London Montessori Centre, and founded the Lewes Montessori School. In 1988 he was asked to lead The Order of Bards Ovates and Druids, and he combines his role in the Order with writing, and giving talks and workshops.
His books are published by HarperCollins, Random House, Simon & Schuster, St.Martin’s Press, Quercus, John Murray, Granta and Reaktion, and have been translated into many foreign language editions.
First off Philip, let me thank you for granting me this cyber interview. I know you have done many interviews throughout the years, but I wanted to something a bit different. If at anytime there is question that you simply do not wish to answer feel free to skip over it. I do understand and respect that we all have our personal lives away from our public ones and that there might be some things that are just too personal to share with the public. So, without further ado on with the interview.
So many interviews have focused on Druidry and your role as Chosen Chief of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD). But I wanted to learn more – I wanted to get to know YOU, outside of your professional life. So tell us, what are your passions, interests, activities outside of the Order and your work as an author?
It is the spiritual life which has been my main focus and passion ever since the age of 11. It was at that time that I met my spiritual teacher Nuinn, and read a book ‘The Life of the Buddha’, and on doing so felt that the pursuit of enlightenment was the most important activity in the world. What ‘the spiritual path’ and ‘enlightenment’ actually mean has changed for me over time. I have slowly come to understand that the spiritual life is a process rather than a state – a journey to be enjoyed, not a goal to be achieved as quickly as possible Like many of my generation who grew up in the 1960s, I was ‘hell-bent on enlightenment’ as one author put it, and it has taken me decades of effort to let go of my drivenness and Capricornian tendency to view these concepts as goals, instead of simply allowing that sense of inner direction and mysticism to flower – in other words to enjoy the journey rather than keep trying to get to a destination.
All my other interests in psychology, religion, nature, culture, and so on, flow from this one central passion. A particular interest of mine has been in the vehicles we create to convey spiritual teachings, and over the years I have built up a collection of courses and books on the subject. How spiritual development can be aided by the word – by books, lessons, and so on – has always interested me and that includes the spoken as well as the written word, and so I have a collection of audio material too. Words are like seeds which can either flower and give nourishment or can be sterile and useless. So I really feel like a nursery-man who is passionate about seeds and experimenting with different kinds of pots and compost.
Some of my happiest times have involved looking at a spiritual ‘delivery system’ – whether that is a 1930s correspondence course on magic or an entire religion. I only realized what a minority pursuit this was when I was in a bookshop in New Zealand about ten years ago. I engaged in my usual tactic – which is to browse the Psychology and Religion shelves looking for obscure books or (joy of joys!) a set of course materials, and then if unsuccessful to question the owner: “Do you have any courses in personal or spiritual development by any chance?” In this instance the owner asked me what I meant. I explained that sometimes spiritual teachers or organizations put their teaching in the form of a course, which is then offered either as a book, a set of lessons, or in an audio format. On hearing this, she simply said ‘No, we have nothing like that’, but it was the way she looked and said this that made me suddenly realize the very obvious fact that for most people this is not very exciting! But I guess it makes sense that someone who has worked on creating a spiritual course over the last 27 years should find this subject interesting! (I say 27 years because I started on the project in 1984 and just completed the revision of the Druid grade in February 2011). At one level, I guess what I’m saying is this: that I have been fortunate enough to discover my purpose early on, and this has formed the focus for my passions, interests and activities. At another level you could say I have found a way to satisfy the hunter inside me. When I am researching spirituality and religions I’m like some old bloodhound sniffing for its quarry…And I get that same sense of the excitement of the hunt when I start working on a book and researching it.
But the focus is changing for me now. Because I’m reaching 60 next year and I’ve always felt that to be a significant time for change and deepening, and since I have also finished the 27 year project of the course, I am now less interested in the delivery systems I mentioned. I feel I’ve spent enough time looking at these and I want to go deeper. But there’s still the hunter in me. I still love research, but I am waiting in the darkness now – waiting for inspiration for the next step.
Apart from research and writing, the other things I enjoy doing are their equivalent in the physical world: exploring new territory, whether that is by trekking in the countryside or visiting a new country. I love Naturism – soaking up the sun and swimming without clothes in the way, but I’m not good at staying still for long – so to combine the two is fabulous. I’ve only done it once in New Zealand, but trekking in the wilderness in the buff is just incredible – you feel so close to nature, like a kind of wild, innocent animal. But even with clothes on, hiking is fantastic, and one of my goals is to do more of it. Finally, far more than a ‘passion, interest or activity’, the most important part of my life is also the source of my greatest happiness: my children and grandchildren.
Tell us a bit about your family history and about your surname: where does Carr-Gomm come from? What’s the brief history behind it?
On my mother’s side I’m descended from Robert Peel, who five generations back was the Prime Minister. My Christian names (Richard Philip) come from another ancestor on my mother’s side, Dick King, who became famous for riding 600 miles on horseback to get help for the British who were being beseiged by the Boers at Port Natal in South Africa. It was through my mother’s family, when they were living in Oxford, that Nuinn became a family friend, and his retreat wood was coincidentally next door to my godmother’s house and woodland in Oxfordshire.
On my father’s side, my grandad was a friend of Alfred Watkins and helped to start ‘The Straight Track Club’ which was the first Ley Hunters’ society. My grandmother was a devout Christian fascinated by the idea of ‘spiritual light’. She wrote a play called ‘The Light’ and worked with Olive Pixley, who developed a meditation system based on the visualization of a body of light which she outlines in her book ‘The Armour of Light’. My great-grandfather was the chairman of the London hospital who took care of the Elephant Man. (You can see John Geilgud play my great grandad in the film ‘The Elephant Man’). He agreed to take on the Gomm part of the surname in 1878 when Elizabeth Lady Gomm, the widow of Field Marshall Sir William Maynard Gomm, left her estate to his wife, her niece Emily Blanche Carr.
How did you and Stephanie meet?
When I began studying with Nuinn at the age of sixteen a girlfriend introduced me to her friend and it was love at first sight. We just recognized each other instantly. Stephanie sewed my first robe that I was initiated in on Glastonbury Tor, but after two years of being together we moved to different parts of the country – she to art college in Wiltshire and me to university in Sussex. We agreed to split up because it all felt too easy – as if we’d found each other too early in the journey of growing up. We both then had very difficult marriages, but seventeen years later we met again and decided to live together. Those seventeen years just vanished like a dream, a bubble, and we were together again, only we were in our mid-thirties rather than our teens. We moved into a flat in Primrose Hill on Imbolc 1988.
What are your personal views on deity?
I want to feel Deity rather than think about it, and one of the reasons I have continued to be a spiritual seeker for so many years is because I have, on occasions, had mystical experiences in which I feel I have experienced Deity. So I have faith and belief in my heart, but when it comes to how I conceive of Deity in my mind, then I am a transigtheist. Ignosticism, or igtheism, is the theological position that every other theological position (including agnosticism) assumes too much about the concept of god and many other theological concepts. Transtheism refers to a system of thought or religious philosophy which is neither theistic, nor atheistic. Ideologist Heinrich Zimmer applies the term to the theological system of Jainism, which is theistic in the limited sense that the gods exist, but become immaterial as they are transcended by moksha (that is, it is a system which is not non-theistic, but in which the gods are not the highest spiritual instance). This may seem an overly subtle or even evasive reply to the question, but my point is that I don’t think we can think about this – deity truly is a mystery that can be experienced, but not rationally or analytically explained or understood.
Some would say that heroes of myth and lore are deities in their own right. To you, is there a difference between deity and heroes of myth and lore?
Yes it feels to me that they are personifications of aspects of entities which are trans-dimensional. To make this clearer: imagine a deity as a being – a consciousness that is vast and existing on many planes at once. So it transcends Time and Place. Imagine it can ‘extrude’ or ‘project’ a part of itself, a window into itself, into a specific Time-Space context: that would be a mythical figure.
I hear that you and Philip Shallcrass (Chief of The British Druid Order) are good friends, what would you say are the key differences between the BDO and the OBOD?
I don’t really know because I am not in the BDO, but Philip has been kind enough to send me his new course materials for the BDO’s Bardic Grade. They are very different to the OBOD course, and I prefer ours – which is natural I guess! But really you would need to ask someone who has tried both as a student. Philip is great fun and we get along very well together. He comes to our camps which means I always get the chance to catch up with him and share stories. The great thing about following Druidry today is that there is such a choice of paths to take through the forest!
How did you and your colleagues come up with the curriculum for each grade of the OBOD?
The basic structure and some of the teaching material of the grades was already there, with the material I inherited from Nuinn, but the most important thing to grasp about the OBOD course curriculum is that the Order is a Mystery School and that the gwersi do not represent a ‘correspondence course’, but an initiatic school’s teaching conveyed through the magic of the word.
Even though I have always been interested in the way that spiritual ideas are conveyed, and this interest has undoubtedly affected my work with the course, the gwersi were not developed in an analytic, rational way. Instead they have been created with huge amounts of synchronicity, serendipity, and – I believe – Awen. Because the course has evolved over 27 years, it is also the result of interaction with thousands of members around the world. Their comments, reviews and projects – and all the interactions with members at camps and workshops over the years – have fed back into the course, so that now it really has become the creation of a whole group of souls.
It has always felt to me like the course, or rather the journey it takes us on, is there as a reality, as a landscape, partly in this world and partly in the Otherworld. My job was just to ‘hear it’, ‘see it’, and transcribe it. I sincerely believe that the inspiration for much of the material, and the particular ‘energy’ or ‘feeling’ that it has, is a result of its essential source (or the way it connects us to that), which lies in the Otherworld. Someone once wrote that every time they work with the course they feel like they are stepping into a river – and that’s exactly it I think. Somehow, in a way which is mysterious and that I don’t fully understand, the course can connect one to a ‘stream’ of spiritual energy or teaching which goes beyond the simple words on the page.
How do you envision the future of the Order?
When I first joined as a teenager I had all sorts of dreams about how it could be. There were so few of us, and most members were very elderly, but I could sense the potential, the life within it. The year I first met Nuinn was the year he founded the Order, and he must have had dreams for it too. When I was initiated on Glastonbury Tor I could sense how it could be: with lots of people and children celebrating in the circle. At that time there were just a dozen or so of us. Now, today it’s as if this vision has come true, and when we perform the summer solstice on the Tor it’s just wonderful to see so much life there! In those days I also dreamt of a place in the country where the Order would have a community, a stone circle, a school and woodland. But when I was asked to lead the Order, the events that led to this were so unexpected that I simply surrendered to the process in a spirit of ‘May Thy will, not mine, be done.’ I remember photocopying the first gwersi and thinking ‘Well I guess a dozen or so people might be interested in this.’ Never in my wildest dreams did I think that 20 years later 16,000 people would have started the course and that it would be published in seven languages. Since that time I have tried to lead the Order in a spirit of service because it seems to have a life and a destiny of its own. In psychotherapy and Montessori education (which I trained in) the main way of working is to combine being fully present to the best of your ability with ‘getting out of the way’ which is when the magic happens. So I apply this approach in leading the Order: rather than trying to steer it in a direction which I think is best, I just want to be in service for it to flourish in whatever way it needs.
When Ross Nichols passed away in 1975, the OBOD passed with him, later to be resurrected by you in 1988. Are there precautions in place for the future of the Order for when the day comes (many, many decades down the road) that the Order needs a new Chosen Chief?
I know that what is called ‘Succession Planning’ is important, and a member who specializes in this field has kindly given me a great deal of advice on this, but we still need to do more work on this. I, and those I have consulted with, have still not received an insight into the best way, or how we would choose the best person, to lead the Order once I have gone.
I want to thank you, Philip, for granting me this interview. I feel this will help fellow members who live outside of England, and those who don’t get a chance to meet you in person, get to know the man outside of his role of Chosen Chief of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Many blessings go out to you and your family.
For more info on Philip Carr-Gomm, please visit philipcarrgomm.druidry.org