contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: December, 2019

WANDERER

The Wanderer is the Fool of the Wildwood Tarot (1). To become the Wanderer is to let go of formless potential and take on identity and aspiration. Entering the Wildwood world, I find myself at midwinter. As I gradually get my bearings, I lean towards the first signs of a strengthening sun, and the distant promise of spring.

In my first use of the cards, I chose an eight-card spread. Four of the cards belong to Vessels, the water suit (2). They include both ace and king. Where I live, this fits with two or three months of rain and flood, well beyond what used to be normal. The placement of these cards suggests reasons to be hopeful, at a price. Another card, indicated as a helpful resource, is the Pole Star, the name given to Major Trump 17 in this pack.

These results have triggered memories of two Anglo-Saxon poems, often anthologised together: The Wanderer and The Seafarer. Both are voices from a Christianised culture in the old northern world. The first part of The Seafarer, possibly a separate composition from the second, “has variously been regarded as literal or allegorical, and related to such figures as the pilgrim.” (3). The extract below emphasises endurance in the face of adverse conditions. I like the seafarer for being an ordinary man of his time, and not an idealised hero. He does what he needs to, and won’t give up. He can find beauty and communion with bird life, in a harsh and lonely setting. But he also owns feelings of distress, sorrow and complaint. He belongs to history rather than myth.

“I sing my own true story, tell my travels,

How I have often suffered times of hardship

In days of toil, and have experienced

Bitter anxiety. My troubled home

On many a ship has been the heaving waves,

Where grim night-watch has often been my lot

At the ship’s prow as it beat past the cliffs.

Oppressed by cold my feet were bound by frost

In icy bonds, while worries simmered hot

About my heart, and hunger from within

Tore the sea-weary spirit. He knows not,

Who lives most easily on land, how I

Have spent my winter on the ice-cold sea,

Wretched and anxious, in the paths of exile,

Lacking dear friends, hung round by icicles,

While hail flew past in showers. There heard I nothing,

But the resounding sea, the ice-cold waves.

Sometimes I made the song of the wild swan

My pleasure, or the gannet’s call, the cries

Of curlews for the missing mirth of men,

The singing gull, instead of mead in hall.

Storms beat the cliffs, and icy-winged

The tern replied, the horn-beaked eagle shrieked.

No patron had I there who might have soothed

My desolate spirit. He can little know

Who, proud and flushed with wine, has spent his time

With all the joys of life among the cities,

Safe from such fearful venturings, how I

Have often suffered weary on the seas.

(1) Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

(2) See also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/12/30/

(3) Extract from The Seafarer in A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse London: Faber & Faber, 1970 (Selected with an introduction and a parallel verse translation by Richard Hamer)

WORLD TREE AND SOPHIA

The World Tree stands at 21, as the final trump in the Wildwood Tarot (1). It also has a specific link to wisdom. For some years I’ve thought of my path as a Sophian Way. So I assumed that the Tree would act as a Sophian card. But it doesn’t. The Tree feels fresh and new. For me, as I contemplate it now, it has nothing to do with Sophia. I knew this on my first significant seeing of the image, without needing to check it out any further or even know how I knew.

Then, in my first reading of the cards, I drew the 3 of Vessels (the water suit). Its placement in the western direction was linked to the question, ‘what do you leave behind you?’ The image shows three cranes dancing together in the air, with three vessels (golden, green and white) on the ground. In the narrative of the deck, the card represents joy, especially a familial or communal joy linked to favourable turns in circumstance. My first uncensored response was ‘no-why-me-it’s-not fair’. The second was ‘ah! They mean attachment to joy and not the experience itself. I know what to do about that.’ It didn’t help. Finally, I saw beyond the card and its narrative to my own deeper experience.

This is about letting go of my hitherto guiding archetypal image. This is about letting go of Sophia. Looking again at the card itself: 3, Vessels, West, Cranes, I found as good a Sophian reference as the pack can afford, given that the World Tree is not providing one. Once I recognised this, I started to recall how my recent attempts to articulate what Sophia means for me have become awkward and strained. If I have a sense of guidance from parts of me that my normal consciousness doesn’t seem to register, why not just say so? If my spirituality is about nurturing and developing a creative wisdom of the heart, why not just make that plain? If my contemplative inquiry is my main practice to this end, why don’t I just say that? Why call it a Sophian Way? Why use an image to point to something when I can point to it directly and make more sense?

I have never engaged wholeheartedly in a devotional religion. There have been times when my ama-aima mantra meditation, addressing Sophia as cosmic mother, has had flavour of this. But those times are gone. I have had to recognise that the image of Sophia has lost its power in my life. Right now, I have no sense of what this image is uniquely pointing to. I did not truly grasp this until the Wildwood Tarot showed me. The year’s journey will be taken without Sophia, and it is not what I expected.

(1) Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

WORKING WITH TAROT IMAGES

One of my inquiry intentions this year is to live the wheel of the year with heightened attention. For the Innerworld aspect of this journey, I am working with the Wildwood Tarot (1). I like its strong wheel of the year orientation, its choice of imagery and its focus on resiliency.

Tarot images are often described as archetypes. The word is derived ultimately from Plato’s eidos – the ideal forms that he saw as building blocks of the universe. They can be abstract – Justice, Wisdom, Beauty – or concrete – Horse, Wheel, Tree. Without these ideal forms in the mind of a Creator, their worldly approximations could not exist. They are “the absolute changeless objects of knowledge.” (2)

In the early 20th. Century, C.G Jung brought the archetypes into the realm of human history and psychology. June Singer explains how, for Jung, “the term archetype indicates the presence of … a universal and collective image that has existed since the remotest times. Archetypes give rise to images in … tribal lore, in myths and fairy tales, and in contemporary media. They are, by definition, unconscious, and their presence can only be intuited in the powerful motifs and symbols that give definite form to psychic contents.” (3)

The shift from ‘archetype’ to ‘archetypal image’ is a helpful one for me and can be taken further. James Hillman, a modern Platonist, pupil of Jung’s, and founder of an Archetypal Psychology, asks what makes an image archetypal, and concludes that: “any image can be considered archetypal … by attaching archetypal to an image, we ennoble or empower the image with the widest, richest and deepest possible significance.” (4) ‘Archetypal’ is a word that gives value, influencing our own response to an image and the way we treat it, contemplating it carefully, taking it into our hearts, and letting it work with our senses, feelings, intuitions and thoughts arising from it. With this approach, the descent from heaven to earth is complete. We are free to understand archetypal images as products of human consciousness that have the power to move and change us. Extending our imaginations, they extend our realities.

This is how I am going to work with The Wildwood Tarot. I am aware that the images can be mapped onto the Western Mystery tradition’s version of the Kabbalist Tree of Life, a highly conscious and artful meta-archetype, or blueprint for the cosmos. The greater trumps are archetypal images; the classical elements are archetypal images; each number is an archetypal image; key figures in patriarchal royal courts are archetypal images. All are linked together in an elaborate web of archetypal imagery. The architecture and arrangement of the Wildwood Tarot are fairly conventional, if I take the Rider Waite Tarot, understood as the effective origin of the modern form, as my point of comparison. But the concern with the wheel of the year, aspects of the narrative, and much of the imagery point in a somewhat different direction. I feel able to engage in a fresh way that both honours tradition and feels empowered to enter new and unexpected spaces. This process has already begun, and forms part of my inquiry.

(1) Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

(2) Thomas Mautner The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy London: Penguin, 1996

(3) June Singer Androgyny: Towards A New Theory of Sexuality London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1977

(4) The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire introduced and edited by Thomas Moore London: Routledge, 1990

VALUES FOR 2020

I want to give my contemplative inquiry for the next year a strong focus and intent. This includes re-stating the values in which it is grounded, updated after some reflection over the last twelve moths.

I  use the word values where others might choose ethics or virtues. I make commitments rather than resolutions or vows. These commitments commit me to ‘cultivate’ a quality or behaviour. Hence, for example, I say “I will cultivate lovingkindness”. I cannot guarantee acting with lovingkindness as a simple act of will. But I can cultivate this quality and help it grow in the rough and tumble of life. I would like lovingkindness to be my default response in the heat of the given moment.

This year I will work with four commitments, listed below with brief commentaries.

  • I will cultivate lovingkindness towards myself, others and the wider world. I find the Buddhist metta meditation  a good working method for this (1). Lovingkindness is different to what I mean by love, more in the territory of good will. Love involves my spontaneous natural affections and needs to be free.
  • I will cultivate positive health and well-being, within whatever constraints may apply. This includes work with diet and exercise, and resiliency factors for mental and emotional health, such as connecting, being active, taking notice, and continuous learning and giving (2).
  • I will cultivate a life of abundance in simplicity. The dance between these terms creates, for me, a specific quality of richness. More widely, it contributes to living lightly on the earth.
  • I will cultivate openness, creativity and wisdom, learning how better to understand these qualities and how to enact them. I am curious about how they can work together.

The commitments give me a set of value words to work with: lovingkindness, health, well-being, abundance, simplicity, openness, creativity, wisdom and cultivation. Part of the work is to develop my understanding and application of such terms in the light of experience and reflection. Although I am making use of abstract nouns, the process of working with values is dynamic and subject to revision. This post is a record of where I stand on the brink of the 2020s.

(1) We extend lovingkindness to beings in this order: ourselves; a person who has benefited us; a person about whom we have no strong feelings; an ‘enemy’ or person with whom we experience difficulties; all beings without exception. We want to be able to say, congruently: may I/you/we be free of danger; happy; healthy; live with ease. – See: Sharon Salzberg & Joseph Goldstein Insight Meditation Correspondence Course Work Book Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2004 (First published 1996)

(2) These are explained in detail at adrianharris.org/blog/2018/06/five-steps-to-mental-wellbeing/

MIDWINTER MORNING

Happy Yule/Winter Solstice/Alban Arthan! A time I experience as an extended movement over two days starting on 21 December. Midwinter doesn’t have to be bleak and barren. This morning, 21 December 2019, I took these pictures to celebrate and contemplate a bright moment in Stroud. A small miracle of blue sky broke through the rain, cloud and gloom.

APPROACHING THE YEAR’S TURN

We have a small patch of garden at the front of our house, remodelled only a week ago. It has a modestly zen pagan reference, with just a hint of spiral. In the bigger picture, where I live, we are rapidly approaching the turn from an inward to an outer arc of life energy. The Winter Solstice is very close.

I’m not experiencing deep stillness this year. It feels more like an extended pause for breath – a time for taking stock and regrouping. I’m peering in to the 2020s. Calendar numbers might be arbitrary, but they are numbers of power in our culture. They award shape and identity to years and decades. Part of me sees the 2020s as pure science fiction, with an increasingly dystopian tilt. Themes of alarm, determination, resourcing and resilience come up for me at multiple levels.

I have checked out older resources which have been neglected for awhile. One of these is the popular and respected Wildwood Tarot. I bought it years ago but didn’t much engage. Now its time has come round, prompted by an impulsive consultation. It happened in the early hours of a recent morning, at a rare time of sleeplessness. I spent several hours getting to know it. Here it is enough to say that I am drawn by its strong wheel of the year orientation, by its choice of imagery for the major trumps in particular, and by its own focus on resiliency.

I am going to live the year from 22 December with heightened attention to the wheel of the year, and with this resource as my companion. 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. In the meantime I enjoy the front garden and await the return of the sun.

Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

EMPTINESS AND INTERBEING

At this point in my inquiry I want to refine my understanding of ’emptiness’. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is a great help here, in his final commentary on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra .

Thich Nhat Hanh discusses Buddha’s teaching that everything is “a manifestation of causes and conditions” and that nothing is permanent or unchanging. This applies to the whole cosmos, and not just to the apparent world. “Whether you call it atman (the soul) or Brahman (ultimate divinity), whether you call it the individual self or the universal self, you cannot find anything there”. Buddha’s teaching was aimed at undermining both of these notions. Nothing has any ‘self-nature’ (we might use the term ‘essence’).

Thich Nhat Hanh pursues this right into the territory of emptiness. “There are still many people who are drawn into thinking that emptiness is the ground of being, the ontological ground of everything. But emptiness, when understood rightly, is the absence of any ontological ground. … We must not be caught by the notion of emptiness as an eternal thing. It cannot be any kind of absolute or ultimate reality. This is why it can be empty. Our notion of emptiness should be removed. It is empty.”

He goes on to say: “the insight of interbeing is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else … looking from the perspective of space we call emptiness ‘interbeing’; looking from the perspective of time we call it ‘impermanence’ … to be empty is to be alive, to breathe in and breathe out. Emptiness is impermanence; it is change … we should celebrate. … When you have a kernel of corn and entrust it to the soil, you hope it will be a tall corn plant. If there is no impermanence, the kernel of corn will remain a kernel of corn forever and you will never have an ear of corn to eat. Impermanence is crucial to the life of everything”.

This is one side of an age old controversy within spiritualities of Indian origin. In this blog, I have given friendly attention to the other side as well – particularly Direct Path teachers like Rupert Spira and Greg Goode and the Indian influenced Douglas Harding. In the end I don’t make an absolute judgement about it. My Sophian ‘At-Homeness in the flowing moment’ is compatible with both views. But I’m now finding greater energy and aliveness in the framework here presented by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Increasingly, when I do Direct Path exercises I experience a breaking down of assumptions about experience itself, and a tremendous opening out … but no container called ‘Awareness’ to fill a God sized hole. It’s similar for me with the Harding exercises. My experience is broadly the same, but my felt sense has shifted, and my narrative with it. I’m moving away from big picture truth claims about this, because I have become sceptical that exercises like this provide any grounds for them, one way or the other. Rather, I lean in to an evolving personal understanding, always provisional, of my contemplative experiences.

As a shorthand, I can talk about the tension between a ‘Oneness’ framing and an ‘interbeing’ framing of what people call non-duality. The difference can seem subtle – and it may be best to use ambiguous, open-ended words like ‘Tao’ and preserve a sense of mystery. But at this turning of the year, ‘interbeing’ is my preferred term. It fits better with the eco-spirituality which I take from my Druid journey, and affirms the relational basis of my Sophian Way.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/ an earlier post that I’ve been able to draw on here.

INQUIRING

Early in 2003 I came across the phrase ‘life lived as inquiry’ in The Handbook of Action Research (1). It described a very engaged kind of work, which usually had a marginal standing within University systems. The chapters included:

Citizen Participation in Natural Resource Management

Learning with ‘The Natural Step’: Action Research to Promote Conversations for Sustainable Development

Transforming Lives: Towards Bicultural Competence

Participatory Research for Education for Social Change: Highlander Research and Education Center

The Sights and Sounds of Indigenous Knowledge

Creative Arts and Photography in Participatory Action Research in Guatemala.

As my own inquiry changes, I remember that my introduction to self-reflective practice, based on “robust, self-questioning disciplines” (2), came from this discursive world, and not from the forms of spiritual self-inquiry offered by Ramana Maharsi or Douglas Harding. Here it was assumed “any self-noticing is conducted by selves beyond the screen of my conscious appreciation” because “the conscious self sees an unconsciously edited version of the world, guided by purposes. Hence the whole of the mind cannot be reported in a part of the mind. For me this is an important inquiry lens, explicitly placing limits on ‘self-awareness’.

I’m aware of feeling a certain nostalgia for this way of thinking and feeling, and for that period in my life. From 2003-2006, after returning to England from eight years residence in New Zealand, I led a participatory inquiry into creative ageing. The participants were two groups of people in their 50’s and beginning to think forward to their later years. It became the basis of my PhD. but didn’t lead to anything fresh of relevance to my interests within the University context.

Yet doing this work was a big success for me and I haven’t forgotten its lessons. They remind me not to discard resources from earlier periods of my life, even under new conditions. From the perspective of Sophian inquiry, I see continuity. I can understand the ‘whole mind’/’part mind’ distinction as a materialist way of talking about Sophia and me. In this context ‘whole mind’ (Sophia) would need to include body, sensations, feelings and imagination – a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, and with no sealed individual boundary. My conscious narrative identity and what it knowingly draws on make up the more limited and constructed ‘me’.

It’s an inexact translation, and reads rather oddly. But it’s just good enough to let me reach back to a past time in my life and find valuable continuities. Doing this, I can create a better inquiry and a richer relationship with the world.

(1) Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry & Practice London: Sage, 2001 Edited by Peter Reason & Hilary Bradbury

(2) Judi Marshall Self-reflective Inquiry Practices, Chapter 44 in Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry & Practice London: Sage, 2001 Edited by Peter Reason & Hilary Bradbury

WORD AND WAY

Sometimes I struggle with language. This struggle is part of my practice upon the Sophian Way. At times I think of it as a distraction, and perhaps a sign of incompetence. I become discouraged. How do I talk about something that can appear to be beyond a tantalising and distant horizon, while also being nothing other than the ground I walk on and the feet that do the walking? How could I ever find a language?

This is the edge of contemplative inquiry. This is the point where contemplation is asked to hold confusion and frustration. I am tempted to write them off as forms of failure or distraction, yet the stand at the heart of the practice. Writing now, I am not reporting on a practice. I am doing it. Sophia is not bought off by a spirituality of easy answers and sweet experiences. She is also not bought off by the line that ‘this is all beyond more words and thinking’, when spoken as a dismissal. That line is true, but it doesn’t let me off the effort of doing what I can to express what I experience. One of my experiences is this very struggle with words.

I once had a self-image that, in the evening of my days, I would be somehow beyond all this. At times I feel I am. In August 2018 I wrote: “Within my Sophian Way, I have found healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness. Everything else grows out of that – personal well-being, right relationship, life and expression in the world. It is the fountain that nourishes them all. All it needs is my attention”. At that time I believed that this blog had run its course. I looked forward to a period of “fruitful silence”, and I went on to have one. Essentially I stand by what I said then, about At-Homeness, and healing and grounding in a flowing now. It is an important practical take-away from my inquiry. But no formula stands eternal, or does everything. By April of this year I was writing again.

As I continue my inquiry, I will be asking myself more about the ways in which sensations, feelings, images, intuitions, thoughts, beliefs and self-image, shape my contemplative experience. I think this particularity matters. I, James, am in a different place from Douglas Harding, when he says: “Without God, Douglas would not exist but without Douglas God would have no awareness of Himself. It’s like light and darkness. You don’t have one without the other. But the Ultimate truth is that there is only God “. If I could only fall into line with this language, I would never have to think again. But I wilt in conditions of mono-cultural monologue. For me, it offers meaning at the price of love, energy and wonder, and the price is far too high.

In his own life, Douglas Harding was by no means short of love, energy or wonder, and he used a language that was entirely congruent with his truth. But I am different. I have a different view and I trust my feelings in this. I experience my personhood a valid in its own right, even though largely constructed and deeply enmeshed in wider systems. The cosmos I know expresses itself to me through its generativity and multiplicity. My own experience of the Headless Way experiments has been about losing the sense of a boundaried and separate self in an immersion, and a deep connection …. which I associate with notions of ‘inter-being’, and web of life … and I know that my language isn’t as clear and definite as Harding’s … and that I have different experiences at different times … and change my mind … and continue to struggle with words. I’m also discovering that I’m at peace with this. My inelegant inquiry is held within the flowing now, and forms part of my At-Homeness.

THE BLESSINGS OF TIME

The wheel of the year, particularly now, prompts me to attend to time and the blessings of being time-bound. In John Cowper Powys’ Porius (1), Myrddin Wyllt (Merlin) is an incarnation of Saturn, Cronos, Old Father Time. By the end of the book Porius its main protagonist understands himself as a devotee: “there are many gods; and I have served a great one”. Earlier he reflects on “a delicious human satisfaction, in defiance of so many austere and implacable metaphysicians, in thinking of Time, the alter-ego of crooked-counselling Cronos, as the creator of all the value and beauty there was in Space, if not of Space itself.”

This is directly contrasted with the view of the priest Minnawc Gorsant in the same story. “Upon what great word … does our Christian faith depend? … Eternity! … What eternity destroys – swallows up, rather! – is this contemptible, this miserable, this wretchedly human thing, Time!” Gorsannt goes on to assert that “the human race wasn’t created to be happy, or To be good, or to improve its lot. The human race was created, purely, solely, exclusively, arbitrarily, for the glory of God, and for that alone.”

If there is any meaning in the word eternity, it has proved to be the enabler of time, at least in this universe. Through time I am given life, relationship and agency, however transient they may be. They are the greatest gifts imaginable. If, at times, I also experience them as compromised, then I can look at negative experiences and their roots – physical, psychological, relational, social or ecological. I experience the ‘spiritual’ dimension as living in all of these, not as a separate realm. So distresses and dysfunctions need to be compassionately acknowledged, addressed, perhaps accommodated, perhaps challenged and transformed, at their own level. If I find myself seeing the world (rather than my limited and illusory sense of it) as a prison to bust out of, then something has gone very wrong, because for me there is nowhere else to go.

When I pay attention to the wheel of the year, I experience a day-by-day process where the festivals act as markers. They are not a prime focus, and I have even known them to become another way of being distracted from distraction by distraction. Following the wheel helps me to acknowledge both time and place. Whilst no two years are alike, this way of living in time emphasises the cyclic rather than linear, always with an ebb and flow, a dying away and (where I live, thus far) a promise of renewal.

The effect on me is to slow it down, localise it, and better allow me to discern patterns, rhythms and tides. I find it very suited to an earth-oriented eco-spirituality, and at chosen times it can become a meeting place between stillness and movement. Perception becomes richer and the desire to share this richness becomes stronger. It is a sacrament that collapses the distinction between sacred and secular. It is entirely dependent on time, If Time is a god, it is indeed a “great one”.

(1) John Cowper Powys Porius: a Romance of the Dark Ages Overlook Duckworth, 2007. Edited by Judith Bond and Morine Krissdottir, with a foreword by Morine Krissdottir. The first abbreviated edition was published in 1951.

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