He who binds himself to a joy
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
William Blake Complete Writings Oxford University Press, 1972 (edited by Geoffrey Keynes)
He who binds himself to a joy
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
William Blake Complete Writings Oxford University Press, 1972 (edited by Geoffrey Keynes)
“In this Temple Space (Aeon) you become all things,
and you see yourself no more;
and in that All-Other you become all things
and never cease to be yourself.
“Light and darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers and sisters. They are inseparable.
“This is why goodness in not always good, violence not always violent, life not always enlivening, death not always deadly …
“All that is composite will decompose
and return to its Origin;
but those who are awake to the Reality
without beginning or end, will know the uncreated, the eternal.
“The words we give to earthly realities engender illusion; they turn the heart away from the Real to the unreal. The one who hears the word God does not perceive the Real, but an illusion or an image of the Real.
“It is impossible to see the everlasting Reality and not become like it.
The Truth is not realised like truth in the world:
those who see the sun do not become the sun;
those who see the sky, the earth or anything that exists, do not become what they see.
“But when you see something in this other space, you become it.
If you know the Breath, you are the Breath.
If you know the Christ, you become the Christ.
If you see the Father, you become the Father”.
Jean-Yves LeLoup The Gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, And the Gnosis of Sacred Union Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2004 (Translation from the Coptic and commentary by Jean-Yves Leloup; foreword by Jacob Needleman. English translation by John Rowe. Original French edition published 2003.)
Like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip is a Nag Hammadi text, and a central one for a nondual current within Christian Gnosticism. In places the text seems almost Taoist (the fluid inter-relatedness of polarities within a greater unity, the suspicion of words and naming). For me it also resonates with the practice of Seeing in the tradition of Douglas Harding (see http://www.headless.org) It is one of my ‘special books’(see https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/
I read recently that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf includes an ‘I’, a ‘we’ and a ‘they’, but no ‘you’. The same writer (1) also reflects on the bible story of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, and how it can be seen to place the origin of human violence in the elimination of the ‘you’.
I am interested in how this insight can be applied to non-dual spirituality, and find help in the Gospel of Thomas (2). Here, Thomas is described as Jesus’ twin. How are we to understand this? There is a point at which Jesus says:
“’I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended’.
“And he took him and withdrew and spoke three sayings to him. When Thomas came back to his friends, they asked him, ‘what did Jesus say you?’”
Thomas feels unable to tells his friends, because the three sayings seem so shocking, and they are not recorded. However, a persuasive commentary (3) on this text suggests that the three sayings are: ‘I am God; You are me. We are the kingdom of God’. The already existing human connection between Jesus and Thomas is raised to another level because they are able to recognise the divine both in themselves and in each other. This is the view also recognised in the Sanskrit greeting Namaste.
Cynthia Bourgeault makes a similar same point in the context of the connection between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (4). Singleness is not all. “There is still one greater mystery to be revealed. … Deeper than at-one-ment lies communion …. the nondualism of the Western metaphysical stream is a flowing unity – a ‘not one, not two, but both one and two’ in which the continuous exchange of twoness and oneness in the dance of self-giving love captures the very dynamism of the divine life itself”.
(1) Karl Ove Knausgaard The End (My Struggle: 6) Vintage Digital, 2018 (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett & Martin Aitkin)
(2) The Gospel of Thomas in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007 (ed. Marvin Meyer)
(3) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introduction to ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013
(4) Cynthia Bourgeault The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity Boston & London: Shambhala, 2010
“In the new land, Mary loved to go into the woods for prayer and meditation, just as, in the Holy Land, she had enjoyed retreats into the wilderness of the desert”. Today, 22 July, is St. Mary Magdalene’s day. To honour this, I have chosen to focus on an old tradition that she went to in southern Gaul (France) sometime after Jesus was gone.
The suggestion is that she needed to get away from people in power and a section of the new movement that didn’t want her to teach. It seems she went to Massilia (modern Marseilles). Like Alexandria, the city was a significant Mediterranean port, a Greek foundation with a thriving Jewish community, now under Roman rule. It explains why the Celtic Druids of the region wrote commercial correspondence in Greek, the common language of Mediterranean trade at the time. The city is an entirely plausible choice for an exile in Mary’s position at that time.
Legend says that Mary did not stay in the city but went out into the Gallic hinterland and began a teaching and healing mission. It is not surprising that her lore has incorporated indigenous themes (1):
“One time a young disciple followed her into the woods, wishing to be near her and to see what she was doing. When she passed through a clearing and went into the treeline on the other side, the disciple lost site of her. He ran to catch up, and just as he entered among the trees he found himself surrounded by a pack of wolves, each wolf staring at him in silence. He was frozen with fear and dare not move for fear the wolves would swiftly be upon him. The Lady Mary appeared and said to him, ‘I did not ask for your company. Why are you following me?’ He responded, ‘My Lady I sought only to be near you and see what you were doing’. She said to him, ‘it is dangerous to draw near to a queen without the permission of the king or the queen herself, for her guards are likely to kill a man intruding on her privacy. I go out to meet with my Beloved and it is a private matter. It is unbecoming that you have followed me. Return to your place, and do not come out or go in unless the Spirit of the Lord moves you. Having said this, Lady Mary vanished into the woods. The wolves vanished with her, leaving the young man in awe. Needless to say, the young disciple never followed the Lady Mary into the woods again.
“There were many times the disciples saw wolves going along with the Holy Bride in the woods, as well as other wild beasts. …. There were so many stories of people seeing Our Lady with wild creatures in the woods that many called her the Lady of the Forest, others called her the Mistress of Wild Things and sometimes Lady of the Beasts.”
(1) Tau Malachi St. Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Tradition of the Holy Bride Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2006
A modern naturalistic account of Mary’s life, including later years in southern France, can be found in: Michele Roberts The Secret Gospel of Mary Magdalene London: Vintage Books, 2007 (originally published by Methuen is 1984 as The Wild Girl)
My contemplative inquiry is in a dynamic phase, as it refines and clarifies its purpose. Although I have always allowed myself a wide frame of reference, the original inquiry had a firm base in modern Druidry. That changed. My Druid journey will always be part of me. Nothing is lost or discarded. But my centre of gravity shifted. For a while I did not have a centre, until one crystallised a year ago with the fuller sense of what I named as ‘an At-Homeness in a flowing now’.
I thought my inquiry was over, and I stopped blogging for seven months. Then I felt prompted to begin again, I think for two reasons. The first is that I had new sense of inquiry as an ongoing, indefinite process, not something that would end with any single insight or discovery. The second was a sensed need for a stronger container without this becoming rigid or formal. I asked myself how I could give a Sophian Way more specific substance. This is what I have been doing in recent weeks.
I have made a new revision of the ‘About’ section of the blog. Reading it, I think that the first two paragraphs are here to stay. There may be a further evolution of the third, though with the essential direction still in place.
“I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. I began my contemplative inquiry within modern British Druidry and my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014. https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/
“Over time this blog became a wider exploration of contemplative themes and their role in human flourishing within the web of life. In my own journey, I have found an At-Homeness in a flowing now. I find that this experiential discovery has enabled greater presence, healing and peace. It also supports imaginative openness and an ethic of aware interdependence.
“As I deepen into At-Homeness, I call my path a Sophian Way, understood as a modern Gnostic path drawing on the wisdom of many times and places. I am currently inspired by Douglas’ Harding’s Headless Way, and incorporating it into my life and practice.”
“The whole truth about you is three-fold. Instead of being the mere thing they told you you were, you turn out to be (i) No-thing at all, and (ii) the Totality of things (and, as these, altogether safe) and (iii) every particular thing that lies between (and, as such, altogether unsafe and at risk). Yes, you are wholly free from harm by your very nature as (i) and (ii), and wholly free from the stresses and strains of the world of things: and, by your very nature as (iii) wholly caught up in them. The difference between you as Container (i & ii) and as Contents (iii) is infinite, the separation is nil. On the one hand, each of those things counts as just itself, just one thing. You, on the other hand count as zero and an infinity of things, and each of them in particular, as well. As 0 and ∞ you are stress-free. As what lies between them you are stress-bound.” (1)
Harding goes on to describe how “the contents that fill your ever-peaceful Container build a Universe out of their clashing”, as a horseshoe takes shape from the downward blows of the hammer and the upthrust of the anvil. But does that mean that we have to take on all the world’s stress, “all its catastrophes and pain and alienation – even finding room for its terrible weight of greed and hate and fear? … How can you be the stress-free All without embracing every stressful part?”
Harding addresses these questions by looking at four people and their responses to personal and collective suffering.
The first is a Red Cross worker who showed an agony of stress in her voice and on her face. “She could not have cared more. Her involvement was complete, her detachment non-existent”. For Harding, it seemed that her wellbeing and effectiveness were compromised by a lack of access to that “interior Rest … which can not only receive without harm, but also transmute, all the world’s unrest”.
The second is Douglas Harding himself, on first becoming a Seer and discovering that Emptiness which gave “peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden”. He had learned the lesson of absolute detachment, but not yet the lesson of absolute involvement. He writes that his support of famine relief efforts in Bengal, where he was serving at the time (it was 1943), were real, but “uninvolved, detached, cool”.
The third is the Bengali saint and seer Anandamayi Ra, who Harding met at her ashram twenty years later. He remembers her ability to weep alongside a bereaved mother, fully sharing her grief, without losing her own serenity. “She took on the other’s grief by being herself free of grief, just as she took on the other’s face by being herself faceless. Fully to appreciate what this means in practice you have, like Ma, to see steadily Who you are. To get the point you have only to see, right now, how your own Emptiness is empty for these comments on her”. Harding concludes “Anandamayi Ra was neither attached to nor detached from the mother and her grief. She was both. Her message for her devotee, as for me then and ever since that memorable occasion was, I AM YOU”.
The fourth is Mother Teresa who, according to Harding, had “in her own fashion … broken through to confidence in place of fear, love in place of hate, abandon and detachment and surrender in place of craving.” She too had solved the problem of stress by immersion in it, “by being it absolutely and not being it absolutely”.
Harding concludes with three recommendations for day-to-day practice. The first is to “stop playing ostrich” about our own mortality and our collective human vulnerability to catastrophe, including catastrophes we create for ourselves. We have no reason to expect that “our troubles will somehow blow over. They won’t”. The second is to check in regularly with our place of safety – Who we really are, through Harding’s own exercises or some other means. The third, however, is not to get stuck in the Container at the expense of its contents, the world. Harding says that this isn’t a recommendation for moderation, but for extremism, and finding the unique role that best expresses “this truly amazing union of perfect freedom with total involvement … let us remember that living thus, consciously, is the very best thing we can do for our disaster-prone world”.
(1) Douglas Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom-Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (First published by Arkana in 1990)
See also: http://www.headless.org/
Thinking globally. Since 2015, the interwoven factors of war, poverty and climate crisis have undermined previous progress on world hunger. This here-and-now reality is in no way fenced off from my contemplative inquiry. It is part of it, an asks for a response.
Hunger and famine have dogged humanity all through history, but in recent decades, it looked as though we were winning the fight. The number of people going hungry in the world was falling. In percentage terms it halved between 1990 and 2015 – and that, unfortunately, is where progress has stopped.
Here are the percentages (grey line) and the numbers (orange line) of people malnourished today, according to the UN FAO’s latest State of Food Security report.
Some 820 million people are undernourished, 1 in 9 of us. Over twice that number struggle to get nutritious and healthy food. There are over a billion people facing food insecurity in Asia alone. Women and children are disproportionately affected.
We are failing the challenge of feeding the world.
Why? The FAO give three main reasons:
War: chronic hunger is often the result of conflict. People are on the move, and agriculture…
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Recently I have noticed a change in my notion of inquiry. I experience, at the same time, both a greater precision and a softening in my understanding of ‘inquiry’. Rupert Spira (1) makes a helpful point.
“This path is sometimes referred to as self-inquiry or self-investigation. However, these terms – translations of the Sanskrit term atma vichara – are potentially misleading. They imply an activity of the mind rather than, as Ramana Maharshi described it, a sinking or relaxing of the mind into ‘the heart’, that is, into its source of pure Awareness and Consciousness. The term may, therefore, be more accurately be described as ‘self-abiding’ or ‘self-resting’, and is the essence of what is known in various spiritual and religious traditions as prayer, mediation, self-remembering, Hesychasm in the Greek Orthodox Church, or the practice of the presence of God in the mystical Christian tradition.”
At the time of writing, I have three means of heart inquiry by this definition. The first is quintessentially Sophian – a repetition, synchronised with the breath, of the name Ama-Aima (pronounced ahh-mah-ahee-mah). In its tradition of origin (2). this Aramaic name for the Divine Mother brings together Her transcendental and immanent aspects, and the repetition of the name invokes Her light energy and presence, which is the light energy and presence of the cosmos. As I breathe the name, entering into its pulse and vibration, I begin to find that this presence-energy is breathing me, until the distinctions themselves disappear. I treat this work formally, as a sacrament or mystery, and part of a daily practice.
The second is Seeing, and the practices of the Headless Way, described as ‘experiments’ in that family. – see www.headless.org/. I use a variety of these practices depending on the circumstances. The advantage of Seeing is that I can drop into it at any time during the day.
The third is the rawer approach laid out by Jeff Foster (https://lifewithoutacentre.com/ ), which turns the ‘Light of Oneness’, back onto the experience of the struggling human. It flows from his own journey of “venturing into the darkness of myself” (3), before “breaking through the veil of dualistic mind to a Light that had been there all along”. Here, we enter into a loving encounter with whatever experience is happening and finding a way to accept – not the content of the experience itself, which may be horrible and need resisting – but the reality that this is the experience that is happening, the one demanding attention. Loving attention to our struggles may not stop suffering but can make them more workable. As with Seeing, I can drop into this meditation at any time – by slowing down, breathing and just being there, with loving curiosity and attention. It works with mixed and good experiences too.
I find that a combination of these practices serves me well. Reading, writing and digital media of relevance to the practices support my sense od direction and my understanding.
(1) Rupert Spira Transparent Body, Luminous World: The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016
(2) Tau Malachi Gnosis of the Cosmic Christ: a Gnostic Christian Kabbalah Saint Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2005
(3) Jeff Foster The Joy of True Meditation: Words of Encouragement for Tired Minds and Wild Hearts Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019
There is a dance between experience and meaning. Experience informs meaning, yet the meaning given to significant experiences can change over time, in the light of later experiences. Looking back at my introduction to Contemplative Druidry (1), I now sense that my contemplative journey was triggered by a kind of Wild Seeing, long before I encountered the work of Douglas Harding (www.headless.org/ ). Here is what I wrote.
“On 22 June 2007 my centre of gravity shifted. It was late morning. I was just outside the Scottish Border town of Melrose, drawn in three possible directions. One was up the hills at the back of the town – the Eildon Hills, the hollow hills where the Queen of Efland took Thomas the Rhymer; True Thomas as he became. The second was the fine, if half-ruined, Abbey and its grounds; a place of Green Man carvings, fruit trees, and the heart of Robert the Bruce. The third was the banks of the Tweed.
“I took the third option and walked into a wholly unexpected and not at all dramatic epiphany. It was triggered simply by noticing and contemplating a wild rose, growing on the banks of the river. It lasted a few moments, just long enough for me to register it, and to experience a subtle shift of awareness in consequence. For some weeks I woke up every day with a sense of joy and connection. Months later, I wrote the verse that expressed it:
I am Rose. I am wild Rose.
I am Rose at Midsummer.
The river flows by me.
Fragile, I shiver in the wind.
And I am the heart’s core, mover of mountains.”
I was aware at the time that I was contrasting three choices in a fairy tale kind of way. The first was the path of magic (the Queen of Elfland). The second was the path of contemplative religion (Melrose Abbey). The third was the path of direct experience (wild rose on the riverbank). I chose the third. The poem best shows the import of this deceptively simple experience, especially in the last line. ‘I am the heart’s core; mover of mountains’ is more than a nature mysticism. I speak not only as the rose, but as the heart’s core, mover of mountains. I speak from the source.
During its collective life, contemplative Druidry did take its stand in direct experience. It was also very open – we talked of being of like intent rather than like mind; there was no consensus cosmology or belief. On the whole we were naturalistic, but not quite in the humanist or materialist sense. The use of terms like ‘Earth spirituality. ‘nature mysticism’. pantheism’ and ‘animism’ pointed to something more expansive. Now my experiences of Seeing, support the view advocated by Douglas Harding and described as nondualist and panentheist. In everyday terms we can say that we have two identities, one as humans and the other as the ground of being. Ultimately, there is no separation and so only one true identity. Seeing is offered as a skilful means of learning to recognise this identity, and then to live from it.
My Sophian Way is now firmly in this territory. My challenge is to cleave to the experiential practice and its fruits whilst staying open about metaphysical claims. The intelligence of the heart is nourished by this view and is attracted by the reassurance of a clear and simple narrative. The mind wants to stay agnostic and provisional. When mobilised, it can ferret out weaknesses in the view. The Sophian Way is a way of wisdom, as well as a salute to the cosmic mother and healer in the heart. Wisdom invites me to trust the process – maintaining just enough scepticism to avoid attachment to views.
(1) James Nichol , Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, Amazon/Kindle, 2014. https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/
I’m thinking about special books. Many spiritual traditions have special books and they are given tremendous authority. For the committed practitioner, the prescribed way of working with them is some version of Lectio Divina. This goes beyond knowing what the book says and giving our assent. We need to bring the words alive through a contemplative immersion. As deep and devoted readers, we learn to identify layers of meaning and apply them in our lives. Checking out our experience in the light of what is written, we learn to mould our experience in accordance with the writing. There is no room for a mixed or negative assessment of the text itself or wish to depart from it. The furthest we can go in this direction is through a device like Hebrew midrash. This a form of commentary, sometimes taking the form of stories, that can stretch an original meaning or introduce a new perspective on it.
But for me, the direct value of texts lies in the extent to which they support my practice and experience. The practice and experience themselves are my authority. My original education was literary, reflecting the creative and critical values of the humanities. I am educated in what Samuel Johnson called ‘the art of true judgement’, and also understand that older texts need to be understood in relation to the cultures of their day. I don’t come to this work with a Lectio Divina mindset. But I still like the idea of having special books, of focusing in closely on a few texts of special value to me.
This is partly to counterbalance my natural tendency to be restless and mercurial in my reading. I move rapidly not just between books and ideas but kinds of books and ideas, with quite different understandings of life and the universe. I get multiple overviews at the risk of losing my own thread. I’m also like a magpie in identifying pieces of text that shine, which is great, but supports an attachment to shininess, aka psychoactive writing.
Hence, I now find myself wanting to slow down and consolidate, identifying a small number of special books, selected as Wisdom literature for this stage of my journey, and keeping company with them. I have chosen six. Three are from the ancient world and have been my friends for many years. Three are modern and discuss the Harding method of ‘Seeing’ ( www.headless.org/) , in which I am increasingly experiencing as a support for my Sophian Way. I’m not going to say more about them in this post, but I will feature them in future ones. Here is the list:
Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about The Way and the Power of The Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998. (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton)
Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017 (A new translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries)
Alan Jacobs The Gnostic Gospels London: Watkins Publishing, 2005 ( My focus is on four texts: The Gospel of Thomas, The Fable of the Pearl, The Gospel of Philip and Thunder)
Douglas Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom-Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (First published by Arkana in 1990)
Douglas Harding Look for Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust, 2015 (First published by The Head Exchange Press in 1996)
Karin Visser The Freedom to Love: The Life and Vision of Catherine Harding Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019 (First edition 2016
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