NOTE: Earl Livings lives in Melbourne, Australia and edited Divan, Australia’s first all-Australian online poetry journal from 1999 to 2013. His first poetry collection Further than Night, was published in 2000, and in 2005 he won the Melbourne Poets Union International Poetry Competition. His poetry and fiction have been published in journals and anthologies in Australia, Britain, Canada, the USA and Germany. He is currently working on a Dark Ages novel and his next poetry collection.
In my part of the world, we have begun the greening of the year. But I can’t go out to meet it, or if so, only a little. I can’t go out, so I have to go in. In the greening of my contemplative life, a sense of ‘living presence’ has been the key.
My bespoke liturgy speaks to me and at times asks for change. A section of my morning practice, an affirmation of ‘at-homeness in the present moment’, wants to expand into a ‘celebration of living presence’. At-homeness stood for a place of safety and regeneration. ‘Living presence’ includes that and points to more. In the celebration, I affirm myself as ‘living presence in a field of living presence: here, now and home’. I’ve added a period of walking meditation (20 minutes or so), mindful to breath and footfall and also including liv-ing pres-ence as a mantra over two full breaths.
The Phrase ‘living presence’ came up spontaneously but realising that I didn’t actually make it up, I checked up on where I first came across it. It comes from the Sufi teacher Kabir Edmund Helminski (1). “Presence signifies the quality of consciously being here … the way in which we occupy space. Presence shapes our self-image and emotional tone. Presence determines the degree of our alertness, openness and warmth. Presence decides whether we leak and scatter our energy or embody and direct it”.
For Helminski, presence is also our link to the divine. since in the bigger picture it is “the presence of Absolute Being reflected through the human being. We can learn to activate this presence at will. Once activated, we can find this presence both within and without. Because we find it extending beyond the boundaries of what we thought was ourselves, we are freed from separation, from duality. We can then speak of being in this presence”.
My picture of leaves in light against a darker background is, for me, an image of living presence. It wasn’t intended to look like this, but I’m glad that it does. It said ‘living presence’ to me as soon as I saw it. Each leaf grows out of the tree and is extended by the light of the sun. All are enabled and nourished by ‘interbeing’, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s (2) reframe of ‘dependent origination’. But the elements of darkness and shade, whilst delineating the tree trunk, also suggest the mystery of a primordial nature, no-thing in itself yet making everything possible. The picture seems to be saying that the potential for greening is everywhere, outside and within.
(1) Kabir Edmund Helminski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992
(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017
I am still going for walks, though not every day, and not for so long. The pictures I am sharing are from Tuesday 24 March, with a new social reality now firmly in place. The road above is the A46, running through Rodborough Parish into Stroud Town. The time is late morning. Normally, it takes a far greater volume of traffic, including much heavier traffic, than it was built for. It is frequently gridlocked. There are too few crossings, and it is a real obstacle for pedestrians. A mile or so away, close to a large Tesco supermarket, we find a roundabout where much the same could usually be said. Not any more.
Walking right across the middle of the roundabout with ease, I went on to Stratford Park, one of the town’s great amenities. The Museum in the Park in particular is a major cultural hub.
When I got here, I experienced a change of mood. I’d been enjoying the state of the roads. It felt like a holiday. I wish I lived in a world of much lighter traffic. But the museum notice was sobering. I had a real sense of loss.
The park itself felt surreal. It wasn’t quite deserted. There were a few people like me, now careful in keeping a distance from each other, in some cases wryly smiling or gesturing a friendly sense of shared plight in our manoeuvres of avoidance. Major features in the park, like the orangery, and the trees behind it, had an aura of lonely magnificence. The human element was dwarfed.
Entering the orangery, I felt sad that the flower beds laid out there won’t be seen by many people this year. In this bright, sunny day, they were stunning.
This walk was the first on which I felt less relaxed about being out – a little on guard and wary. I was somewhat reassured by the built and cultivated environment I was in. It hadn’t changed and in some ways was easier to enjoy, with fewer people, greatly reduced traffic and little obvious busyness. The people I encountered were clearly doing their best. But I was also conscious that this is an early stage in a process that has a long way to go. There was surface tranquillity on a beautiful spring day. But I was uneasily aware of a great deal going on that I didn’t see, in the many houses I passed by, and which my camera hasn’t captured.
As part of my contemplative inquiry, I have been looking at recent work by Rupert Sheldrake (1, 2). He identifies himself as “not a guru but an explorer”. I like that notion of ‘explorer’, with its sense that there is always space for new learning and development.
Sheldrake’s affirms that spiritual practice and research are “entirely consistent with the scientific method, which involves the formation of hypotheses – guesses about the way the world works – and then testing them experimentally. The ultimate arbiter is experience, not theory. In French, the word experience means both ‘experience’ and ‘experiment’. The Greek word for experience is empeiria, the root of our English word ‘empirical’. The exploration of consciousness through consciousness itself is literally empirical, based on experience. Spiritual practices provide ways in which consciousness can be explored empirically.”
In recent years, Sheldrake (1,2) has written two books based on this approach. Each discusses seven different practices that have been investigated empirically, both by the practitioners themselves and by scientists studying the effects of those practices. Every practice gets a chapter. The first book, Science and Spiritual Practices, offers:
Meditation and the Nature of Minds
The Flow of Gratitude
Reconnecting with the More-Than-Human World
Relating to Plants
Rituals and the Presence of the Past
Singing, Chanting and the Power of Music
Pilgrimages and Holy Places
The second Book, Ways To Go Beyond, covers:
The Spiritual Side of Sports
Learning from Animals
Cannabis, Psychedelics and Spiritual Openings
Powers of Prayer
Holy Days and Festivals
Cultivating Good Habits, Avoiding Bad Habits, and Being Kind
Sheldrake’s choices are all practices he has taken part in, which have also been studied scientifically. He looks at both the ‘subjective’ experience and the ‘objective’ evidence and discusses the ways in which the practices seem to work. He also offers guidance to readers about engaging with the practices. He is very clear that the two books “do not constitute a comprehensive survey of all spiritual practices, emphasising his point by listing others that have been left out: “yoga, service to others, tai chi, chi gong, devotional worship or bhakti, tantric sex, caring for dying people, dream yoga, and the practices of the arts”. He makes it clear that “some practices are better at some times of life than others, and all religious traditions have their own combinations”. I have already discussed Sheldrake’s work on gratitude at www.contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/03/14/ and will discuss others in future posts.
Sheldrake’s overall purpose is “to show that there is a wide variety of ways to connect to greater conscious realities, however we conceive of them, and that the effects of these practices can be investigated empirically”. Sheldrake is an optimist about the possibilities of science and spirituality working together in the service of human flourishing. “We are on the threshold of a new era of the exploration of consciousness, both through a revival of spiritual practices and also through the scientific study of them. After several generations in which science and spirituality seemed to be in opposition, they are becoming complementary. Together they are contributing to an unprecedented phase of spiritual evolution, beginning now.”
(1) Rupert Sheldrake Science and Spiritual Practice: Reconnecting Through Direct Experience Coronet, 2017
(2) Rupert Sheldrake Ways to Go Beyond, and Why They Work Coronet, 2019
NOTE: Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than eighty technical papers and ten books, including A New Science of Life. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, where he was Director of Studies in cell biology, and was also a Research Fellow of the Royal Society.
From 2005-2010 he was the Director of the Perrott-Warwick Project for research on unexplained human abilities, funded from Trinity College, Cambridge. He is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California, and a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute in Connecticut.
A lone fawn protected by a dolmen. Boxing hares. A drill bow kindles a flame. As I move beyond the equinox into the second quarter of the year, what are these images telling me?
I am working with the Wildwood Tarot* as a resource for my journey through the wheel of the year. I’ve done a three card reading to intuit themes for the three months ahead. Each card is a lens on the whole period, revealing different aspects of the year’s second quarter, perhaps with an element of progression.
The key word for the 4 of stones, the one with the fawn, is ‘protection’. The supporting Wildwood text is largely a reflection on spiritual warriorship, with themes of testing, endurance, ethics and compassion. They help me to understand our public health crisis as also a spiritual crisis. Fortunately, the dolmen holding the fawn in immobilised physical safety can also be a space for spiritual renewal.
The 2 of stones, with its boxing hares, is another earth card and stereotypically seasonal. Its key word is ‘challenge’. In the traditional universe of the Tarot, One becomes two, and then three, and then the multitude. The opportunity for I-Thou relationship, diversity and the world of interbeing have been created. At the same time stress, tension and potential conflicts of interest have been born along with them. Interconnectedness sounds rich, creative and dynamically supportive. So it can be. Yet relationships involving dominance, submission, predation and parasitism are also forms of interconnection. Viruses too.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a hare. I have been told by other humans that boxing hares are playing a mating game, enacting a mating ritual, or demonstrating that female hares are capable of seeing off unwanted advances from males. Perhaps all of the above. They certainly demonstrate the complexities of interconnection. Currently I describe myself as ‘self-isolating’, and this is likely to go on for at least the whole quarter. Actually, I am self-isolating with my wife Elaine, and we are very conscious of needing to take active care of our own relationship and to maintain good distance links with others. The health of the interconnectedness within which we live is more important than ever. I take some comfort here from the boxing hares. Their energies are successfully held in balance. Their collective life and its continuation over the years are enabled. They are resourceful creatures and our traditional lore about them speaks of shape shifting capabilities and closeness to the Otherworld. They are survivors.
The key words for my third card, the Ace of Bows, are ‘spark of life’. In a reading without major trumps or court cards, this stands out as the fountainhead of the fire suit and in the Wildwood Tarot it points to the later stages of this quarter, from Beltane to the Summer Solstice and indeed beyond. It introduces human agency and technology, and is associated with creativity, enterprise and science: “The drill bow suggests the human element, our partnership with the environment in which we live and the mastery of its gifts”. I find myself placed in a somewhat passive position, but I am part of a wider community. I do have confidence that creatively scientific and genuinely enterprising efforts will be brought to bear on the current health crisis. ‘Spark of life’ resonates favourably for me, without saying anything specific about my individual future.
The three cards together encourage a strong focus on my contemplative inquiry, including this blog. The inquiry is personal, and in the language of Wildwood maintains my link to the Otherworld. It is also public, because of the blog, and can therefore play a role in a larger effort to use blogging and social media in the service of healthy interconnection. Wildwood’s suit of bows talks of ‘philosophical and esoteric pursuits’ as a form of “skilful ability fuelled by will”, along with the creativity, science and enterprise already noted. I would like to think of my contemplative inquiry as a manifestation of this, and I hope that it can be a form of service in the forthcoming quarter and beyond.
*Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington
I began closely following the wheel of the year – not only the festivals – just before the winter solstice. I wrote then that “my current warm up process is already changing the way I think and feel about contemplative inquiry and will re-shape how I do it”*. How has the first quarter been?
I’ve been outside, taking pictures, concerned with visual images and the stories they tell. There’s been some tension between communing with nature and being a self-conscious observer, actively selecting images. But on the whole it works. Taking pictures slows down my walks, opening up opportunities for stillness and mindful micro movement. Special moments come by themselves – or not. In sharing my experience, the process offers the opportunity to show as well as tell.
The quarter has been very wet – the picture above, taken on 15 March – shows a continuing abundance – to the point of excess – of water. It is beautiful and entirely natural, but for me also part of a story of times out of joint, and the increasing impact of the climate crisis. The picture below, also taken on 15 March, adds to this story in two ways. One is the suggestion of dank fecundity in the abundance of moss on a branch. The second is the indication of a lost branch from the same tree. High winds have caused considerable destruction in the woods in my neighbourhood. In both pictures, there are cues for appreciation and tranquillity, whilst also an indication that significant other things are going on. My current approach to contemplative inquiry has helped me to notice this and pay greater attention to it than I might otherwise have done.
The second quarter of the year will be different. I have self-isolated in response to Covid-19 though I am still going out on walks. I am likely to double down on contemplative practice and inquiry at home. I strongly believe in contemplative practice as, among other things, a resiliency factor in personal wellbeing, enhancing my experienced quality of life. I will talk more about this in future posts.
On Friday 13 March I tasted spring in its fullness. I was flooded with gratitude. Yet ‘gratitude’, especially in religious settings, was for a long time a tainted term in my life.
Growing up, I faced demands to be grateful whether I felt it or not. Over time I came to link this idea to formal performance and competitive public piety: being seen to be ‘good’. It also left my natural feelings of gratitude, when they came up, unrecognised and untended. In this stunted state I developed a cynicism about how language is used, rather than finding ways about how, authentically, to identify and cultivate my own sense of gratitude.
I am sad about this, because, even from a self-referential perspective, the capacity for gratitude is linked to wellbeing, happiness, self-acceptance and a sense of purpose in life. Psychological studies (1) show that gratitude is an active agent and not simply the result of already existing wellbeing. Exercises in gratitude work for many people, for much of the time. There are now considerable academic and self-help literatures on the subject.
Most spiritual traditions recommend gratitude, and for many of them this is linked to a sense of the divine, or some other ultimate point of reference. But this isn’t necessary. Gratitude is named as the third of thirteen principles in Atheopaganism (2), which is based on an entirely naturalistic, science-based cosmology. Here too, gratitude is seen as a habit that has to be learned and practised. The practice can alter both our internal dialogue and our behaviour. “It is good for ourselves, our relationships, our society and our world”.
I came late to gratitude, in the sense being discussed. But I’m a convert now. Being older has somehow helped. There was a decisive moment just under fifteen years ago, when I was 56 years. I was diagnosed with a cancer that might have killed me and I started to ask myself how I was going to maintain my quality of life remaining if I found myself on a downward slope.
I concluded that I would need to do what I could to count my blessings whilst I still lived. I recovered – with the insight still in place. I have built on that with greater awareness over the years, especially since beginning my contemplative inquiry. Now I’m nudged by the coronavirus and the same principles apply. I’m enjoying the experience of spring, usefully aware of my mortality, and grateful to be here, now.
(1) Rupert Sheldrake Science and Spiritual Practices Coronet, 2017
(2) Mark A. Green Atheopaganism: an Earth-Honoring Path Rooted in Science Green Daragon Publishing, 2019 (Foreword by John Halstead)
In my world, early March is a pre-equinoctial period of its own. In the emergence from winter, it manifests both resilience and regeneration. This year I have experienced an elephant’s ears plant (bergenia cordifolia) as an marker for resilience. This evergreen lives close to our back garden gate. It has been flowering, and it leaves have kept shiny, for most of 2020 so far. It has given me a lift every time I have walked past it, in all manner of weather. I feel grateful to it just for being there.
Why have I noticed it this year in particular? In the past I’ve taken this plant for granted. I’ve walked past without seeing it. I’ve only paid attention when the leaves need pruning, having strayed onto a path. Yet now this plant feels like a friend and nourishes me with its presence. It doesn’t just demonstrate its own resilience. It supports mine. I’ve been experiencing 2020 as tough and likely to stay that way, so I suppose that something in me has been looking for ways of feeling resilient. As a result, I’ve been able to notice something that’s been there all along, though largely neglected.
As well a resilience, I’ve been having a sense of regeneration, though the dynamics are a little different. One difference is that I expect to be leaning into regeneration at this time because it’s part of my wheel of the year narrative. I also expect it to be linked to the presence of willow trees (see picture below) because I befriended one many years ago. I have stayed in touch even after moving to a different town. The early re-greening of willow trees is part of my direct experience, and also part of my myth. It feels as if I am being taken by the hand and led towards the equinox.
I don’t want to get there prematurely. A patient, attentive journey emphasises the freshness and novelty of each year. I took the photograph below a couple of days ago on impulse, and it felt like a nudge into a process of renewal that I don’t want to undertake too quickly and don’t want to make assumptions about. Regeneration happens. Although I’m starting to feel my age, I’m still part of it. Let’s see how it goes in 2020.
Reblog of a recent Druid Life post, about the turning of the Wheel in the Stroud district of the English Cotswolds, and the way it is being influenced by the climate crisis. “It feels too early. I’d expect the fruit trees to start flowering around now, but there are leaves unfurling on a number of trees as well – most notably the elders in the more sheltered spots. I can remember springs when there were very few leaves until April and one year, May. Spring did not […]
Introducing The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (2013)* editor Graham Harvey describes animism as “a hard-working word”. For him, “it identifies a range of interesting phenomena but also labels several distinct ways of understanding such matters”.
Harvey’s own interest was sparked by postdoctoral research among varied groups of Pagans, which brought him into contact with people who identified as animists. It seemed to him that the word was being used in two contrasting ways. “Some Pagans identified animism as the part of their religious practice or experience which involved encounters with tree-spirits, river-spirits or ancestor-spirits. This animism was metaphysical … Other Pagans seemed to use ‘animism’ as a shorthand reference to their efforts to re-imagine and re-direct human participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community. This animism was relational, embodied, eco-activist and often ‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical.”
Fast-forward seven years to now, and ‘animist’ is clearly an important identifier for considerable numbers of people. many of whom draw on both kinds of understanding distinguished by Harvey. Accelerating environmental degradation, species loss and the ever more obvious climate crisis have given the second understanding greater salience and urgency, even when not reinforced by the first.
TheHandbook gives valuable information about the history and hinterland of a word that I and my spiritual community use. For ‘animism’ did not arise as a term for people to describe their own experience. It comes from 19th century anthropology, developed by people from a dominant culture (largely European/North American, with a mix of Christian and secular ideas) to study the traditional practices of other people, most of whom were in the process of becoming colonial subjects and living in cultures under stress. Even in the current collection, with its de-colonised anthropology and room for first nations voices, ‘animism’, however positively reframed, is still an awkward piece of labelling for some contributors. One says, “we just call it tradition”.
So ‘animism’ is not innocent. Yet despite this dubious history, it is clear that animism does have inspirational potential as a positive term in our faltering 21st century world. Regardless of where we stand in our metaphysics, any of us can work to re-imagine and re-direct our “participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community” in a way that is “relational, embodied” and, if we so choose, “eco-activist”. How we do these things is up to us. I will look at the work of some of the individual contributors in future posts.
Graham Harvey (ed.) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism London & New York: Routledge, 2014 (First published by Acumen in 2013)