contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: October, 2019

MAP AND TERRITORY

The Empress Wu Zetian ruled the Chinese empire alone from 690-705, the only woman ever to do so. It was the time of the Tang dynasty, when China was open to central Asian and Indian cultural influence. Wu herself had a strong Buddhist commitment.

She was curious about the world view of an esoteric Buddhist school, the Hwa Yen. In this view, all the universes were seen as a single living organism, characterised by mutually interdependent and interpenetrating processes of becoming and unbecoming. The Empress asked for a simple and practical demonstration of this complex vision.

The Hwa Yen sage Fa-tsang was given a palace room in which he placed eight large mirrors, each at one of the eight points of the compass. He placed a ninth mirror on the ceiling and a tenth on the floor. Then he suspended a candle from the ceiling in the centre of the room. The Empress was delighted at the effects thus created. ‘How beautiful! How marvellous!’ she cried. Fa-tsang explained how the reflection of the flame in each of the ten mirrors demonstrated the relationship of the One and the many, and also how each mirror also reflected the reflections of the flame in all the other mirrors, until myriad flames filled them all. The reflections were mutually identical. In one sense they were interchangeable; in another sense they existed individually. Then Fa-tsang covered one of the reflections to show the significant consequences this had for the whole. He described the relationship between the reflections as ‘One in All; All in One; One in One; All in All ‘.

Hwa Yen Buddhists also spoke of ‘The Great Compassionate Heart’. They understood it as a quality of awareness that sees all phenomena including ourselves as arising out of Emptiness, remaining part of the Emptiness whilst assuming a temporal form, and finally falling back into Emptiness and being reabsorbed. “It is a quality of awareness that quite naturally expresses itself in acts of deepest, yet quite unsentimental reverence and compassion for all that is, the just and the unjust, humans, animals, plants and stones”.*

Fa-tsang was careful to provide a ‘the-map-is-not-the-territory’ caveat. “Of course, I must point out, Your Majesty, that this is only a rough approximation and static parable of the real state of affairs in the universe – for the universe is limitless and in it an all is in perpetual, multidimensional motion”. Yet he had still taken care to provide his Empress with a beautiful, memorable and instructive map. Such maps, and the sense of ‘Great Compassionate Heart’ which they foster are of great value. They can nourish the seeker and illuminate the way, for rulers and non-rulers alike.

*Richard Miller Yoga Nidra: a Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2005 (A more extended version of the story is included in this book.)

CELEBRATING THE MYSTERY

Yesterday my wife Elaine and I went to visit Gloucester Cathedral, where a beautifully crafted model of the moon has been hung in the body of the church. There were many visitors, most of them clearly drawn to this display and enlivened by it. For everyone there was something special about a scientifically accurate depiction of the moon in a medieval Christian building that continues to be an active space for worship. For some, the presence of the moon would also have suggested Pagan and archetypal references to provide a balancing influence in a splendidly patriarchal setting. It also allowed for a sense of only slightly subdued informality and fun, which I don’t generally associate with Church of England cathedrals. People felt free to enjoy themselves, and I give great credit to the organisers for their achievement.

The concept paid tribute to our age-old human search for meaning, and a sense of place within the cosmos. I was reminded of some reading I’d done only a couple of days before, and I’ve checked out the reference. For me, the image above and the words below show the same attractive spirit, one I find an inspiration for my contemplative inquiry.

“Both science and spirituality reflect our human urge to know – that perennial itch to make sense of the world and who we are. This quest is an essential part of being human. We probe reality as best we can with our tools of understanding – structures, models, theories, myths, beliefs, teachings – but those tools of understanding also define the limits of our knowledge. … There is no ultimate truth. No teacher, no scientist will give us all the answers. Let us simply bow to the intelligence of our hearts, drop into not knowing, keep our minds open, cherish the questions, and let the answers arise and evolve, all the while celebrating this mystery called life.”*

*Zia and Maurizio Benazzo On the Mystery of Being: Contemporary Insights on the Convergence of Science and Spirituality Oakland, CA: Reveal Press, 2019. (Reveal Press is an imprint of New Harbinger Press)

XR STORIES

This re-blog, from The Earthbound Report, presents three stories from the recent Extinction Rebellion (XR) action in London. Written from an insider perspective, they illustrate the movement culture that XR seeks to model.

Three little XR stories you won’t read in the papers — The Earthbound Report

FEELINGS AND CONTEMPLATION

“In meditation, when a wave of feeling comes to visit – a grief, a fear, an unexpected anger or melancholy – can you stay present with that wave, breathe into it, let go of trying to ‘let go’ of it, and simply let it be, let it live, let it express itself right now within you? Can you notice the impulse in you to resist it, to refuse it, distract yourself from it and move away from your experience? Don’t judge or shame yourself for that impulse either, for wanting to have a different experience that you’re having – it’s an old habit, this urge to disconnect, this impulse to flee, this addiction to ‘elsewhere’.

” But see, today, if you can stay very close to ‘what is’, see if you can actually connect with the visiting feeling, gently lean in to your experience as it happens. Instead of shutting down, moving away, denying the energy in the body, can you gently open up to it? Can you flush it with curious attention? Let it move in you? Stay present throughout its life cycle, as it is born, expresses what it has to express, and falls back into Presence, its oceanic home?” (1)

The extract above is from a piece by Jeff Foster called When We Push Feelings Away. I support his approach, though I don’t now make firm distinctions between an activity called ‘meditation’ and the spontaneous flow of attention. I can stay present with the wave of feeling, and breathe into it, whether I’m ‘in meditation’ as a defined practice or not.  Meditation, once exotic and formal, has become naturalised. My contemplative life is pared down and minimalist, holding a strong sense of the sacred in daily life, including the work of self-healing. Jeff Foster continues:

“… One day, deep in meditation, perhaps, we remember, all feelings are sacred and have a right to exist in us, even the messiest and most inconvenient and painful ones. And we remember to turn towards our feelings instead of turning away. To soften into them. To make room for them instead of numbing them or ignoring them. …. So much creativity is released, so much relief is felt, when we break this age-old pattern of self-abandonment and repression, go beyond our careful conditioning, and try something totally new: staying close to feelings, as they emerge in the freshness of the living moment, waving to us, calling to us, seeking their true home in our heart of hearts.”

Jeff Foster calls this piece Pushing Feelings Away. I like his concern with holding and acceptance within what he calls Presence. I call my overall path a Sophian Way, and not The Sophian Way, because it is a solitary path that morphs and shifts.  Jeff Foster works with personal feelings from a transpersonal, non-dual  perspective that I find very Sophian, characterised  by wisdom, contemplation and compassion. My own path brings together this approach with the Eco-spirituality – or ‘Nature Mysticism’ – catalysed by my experience of modern Druidry.

(1) Jeff Foster The Joy of True Meditation: words of encouragement for tired minds and wild hearts Salisbury: New Sarum Press, 2019

NINESPRINGS

IMG_20191020_091537This is my image of Autumn for this year. Before Samhain. Before most of the fall. Leafy and watery. The sun is still an influence, a soft one. I took the picture this morning whilst walking in Ninesprings (one word), the gem of the Yeovil Country Park.

I took a number of pictures and then had to stop and just be there. It’s a carefully managed area, hardly wild nature. But it has a long history in roughly it’s present form and is linked for me with positive childhood memories. It is a great place to visit again, and balm for the soul. And it is more than that. The English West Country is my motherland. This place represents it, in my consciousness a half degree lusher than where I live now. When here today – without turning it into too much of an exercise – I found myself entering rapport with the spirit of place and renewing the connection.

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HOME

IMG_20191019_100111This is Wyndham Hill, Yeovil. I was born only a few hundred yards away, and I felt a close connection with it throughout my childhood. As representing ‘nature’  or the countryside, it felt safe when I was little  and reassuring later on. It hasn’t changed much, and I am still reassured.

IMG_20191019_094110  Above is the house I grew up in – the grey one. It was a pharmacy when I lived there, though it ceased to be that in 1973, three years after I left home at the age of 21. Its value as a retail site and community resource had long been weakened by a movement of people away from the old town and the building of a ring road within the modern town rather than around it. I don’t know about the later history of the house that brought about its dereliction. Clearly the house doesn’t now evoke the sense of safety and reassurance that it once did.

By a happy chance I read some these  words in a novel today, a few hours after taking the pictures. “Home  is a feeling. The memory of a warm bed. The voice of your parents calling you to breakfast. Home isn’t a roof or four walls. It’s  not a place at all. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to find again once you’ve been gone too long. “*

I could end by recollecting my own inquiry insights about ‘at-homeness in the present moment ‘. But in the moment – this one – I need to find room, within that very at-homeness, for heartache and sadness about the fate of my childhood home.

* Sebastien de Castell Spellslinger 6: Crownbreaker Hot Key Books, 2019

 

 

 

 

CONTINUITY AND CHANGE

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I took this picture on 1 October this year. The subject is a willow tree I befriended many years ago as part of my Druid training. It lives in Bristol beside the Avon as the river begins to leave the city, passing through the Clifton gorge and under the suspension bridge. The path, here at the edge of a park, is also a cycle track and continues towards the Severn estuary beside the river. Although I no longer live in Bristol, I continue to visit the willow from time to time and renew the contact.

My strongest link with the tree was in early spring. where I got the most powerful sense of its pulse and vibration, felt especially whilst touching the trunk with the palms of my hands. But I was careful to follow it through a year of regular communion during which it lost a substantial branch to a violent storm. I learned to associate this tree with regeneration, resilience and  generativity. The tree re-established its balance. The dead branch rotted gently in the ground, and contributed to other forms. Nothing was lost.

I’m about to go on a rare visit to my home town, partly to contemplate the continuities and discontinuities of my life and consider future directions. The image of the willow is with me.

 

CONTEMPLATION AND ENGAGEMENT

 

According to my dictionary, one of the meanings of ‘signature’ is, “a distinctive pattern, product, or characteristic by which someone or something can be identified: the chef produced the pate as his signature dish”.

I want to adjust the signature of this blog. I want now to explore the relationship between contemplation and engagement more explicitly. A blog is itself a form of engagement, and this one has so far combined a strong curatorial thread with personal sharing. Now, for me as for many others, a deepening social and ecological crisis asks for a work of preserving existing life-affirming aspects of our culture and developing new ones. I see this work as enhanced by outward-looking forms of contemplation. I want this blog to contribute.

I started this blog as a Druid. My personal path, which I have described more recently as a Sophian Way, has become more Universalist. I have described it as a path of healing, peace and illumination, which encourages a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity. Its ‘sacrament of the present moment’ involves resting in a place of underlying stillness, freedom and love within any experience – good experiences, wonderfully, but also bad ones that need active resisting on the ground. For some, this suggests an experience of divine support, or the activation of the divine within us or of the divinity that we truly are. For others it seems to come from a deep wellspring within the psyche that needs no further point of reference. This sacrament is my core practice, to be dropped into at any time. It doesn’t always take a pure form, but it usually makes a difference. In the myth of my own life, it is Sophia’s principal teaching.

At the level of the wider word, I continue to feel a strong sense of alignment with Pagan, Animist, and Earth spiritualities like Druidry – more than to the Buddhist or Gnostic families or to movements like the Headless Way, even though they have given me a lot. Philip Pullman in his The Secret Commonwealth* has a character who says that where we stand revolves around one key question – ‘is the world dead or alive?’ I say ‘alive’ without worrying about scientific definitions or the metaphysics of reality. Something in me just has to say ‘alive’ – alive and interconnected as a web of life. This re-affirmation is important to me, and as a ‘light bulb moment’ on a level with the more seemingly individual aspects of my Sophian Way. I don’t expect to change the blog that much, but there’s enough adjustment of signature here to demand explicit affirmation.

*Philip Pullman The Secret Commonwealth Oxford, David Fickling Books & London, Penguin, 2019 (Vol. 2 of The Book of Dust)

 

BOOK REVIEW: DRUIDRY AND THE FUTURE

Highly recommended. Druidry and the Future is intended as “antidote to despair” according to author Nimue Brown. She continues:

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“This book explores the many ways in which the Druid path can help us to respond to climate chaos, necessary cultural change and political uncertainty. By mixing the spiritual and practical we can be more resilient and resourceful, and aspire to live in regenerative and generous ways.”

An affordably priced and relatively slender volume, Druidry and the Future is full of ideas. It is built around 16 essays covering diverse topics: working with Pagan stories: seasonal living: bardic powers; ‘pragmatic’ animism; working with the elements (three essays); de-colonising your soul; your body is nature; justice and balance; honouring the divine through action; putting ourselves back in the landscape; community solutions; self-care and kindness; trees and wetlands; regeneration and restoration. For me, there is a single overarching theme: enlisting the resources of modern Druid culture to build resilience in the face of climate catastrophe. This resilience includes personal and collective aspects, where humans and their communities are understood as wholly embedded in the wider web of life.

Nimue Brown is clear that “it is not enough to be sustainable”. The crisis invites, or rather requires, a radical change in values and behaviour. Human civilization is ‘just people’ and we have the capacity to live differently. For her, “this is what Druidry means right now. It’s about answering the question of how to put civilization in balance with our living planet. This is Druidry for radical change and I think we’re well placed to take on this work and to inspire others. Philosophy has always been part of Druidry, so has teaching and communication, inspiration and vision. We can, and must make a difference.”

A SMALL GOD OF THE EARTH ATTAINS BUDDHAHOOD

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I have had this statue for awhile, and intend to pay it more attention. He might be a small god. or he might be a human priest or shaman, acting as guardian of a sacred place. I imagine it as including a waterfall and springs, with  rocks and earth and trees. Either way he would be eligible to become, or realise that he latently is, a Buddha or Taoist Immortal, to use another framework from his culture of origin.

There are even rumours of his being Maitreya, the next world saviour, on account of his laughing, ecstatic demeanour. For me, this works best in a model where we could all be prompted into saving the world together. I’m not sure how best to name and describe him – what words to use, or references to make. So I took this picture instead.

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