contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: January, 2020

IMBOLC 2020

Spaces ‘between’ can be numinous. They feed the soul. Imbolc for me is like a pre-dawn light. I am not yet out of winter, but something else is happening, and palpably growing in strength.

The hierophant of the Wildwood Tarot – the Ancestor – is placed as a power of Imbolc. An antlered figure clothed in reindeer skins and evergreen leaves, she has a resonance of Elen of the Ways, the reindeer goddess who stands for the sovereignty of the land. She calls to us from a deep past where Ice Age hunters followed reindeer through ancient forest, “following the deer trods” (1,2) responsive to the herds and attuned to the landscape. They lived with little personal property and without long hours of alienating work. The Ancestor invites us to wonder what these early ancestors  might have to teach us under our very different conditions.

On the card, the Ancestor is sounding a drum and calling us into another consciousness – one more open and aware of our place within the web of life. In her world, deer and people are kin. She herself is ambiguous – she might be wearing a mask, or she might be a truly theriomorphic figure. I respond to her call by sinking deeply into my felt sense – the embodied life of sensation, feelings and belly wisdom. The call of the Ancestor  is a pathway to greater wholeness and connection, both personally and collectively. As the year wakes up, it is a good call to hear.

(1) Elen Sentier Elen of the Ways: British Shamanism – Following the Deer Trods Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2013 (Shaman Pathways series)

(2) Elen Sentier Following the Deer Trods: A Practical Guide to Working with Elen of the Ways Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2014 (Shaman Pathways series)

See also book review at: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/06/22/

SELF COMPASSION AND DECISION MAKING

“Friend, please,
Do not try to decide now.
Do not shut any possibility out of your heart.
Honour this place of not-knowing.
Bow before this bubbling mess of creativity.

“Slow down. Breathe.
Sink into wonderment.
Befriend the very place where you stand.
Any decision will make itself, in time.
Any choice will happen when your defences are down.
Answers will appear only when they are ready.
When the questions have been fully honoured, and loved.


“Do not label this place ‘indecision’.
It is more alive than that.
It is a place where possibilities grow.
It is a place where uncertainty is sacred.


“There is courage in staying close.
There is strength in not knowing.


“Friend, please know,
There is simply no choice now.


“Except to breathe, and breathe again,
And trust this Intelligence beyond mind.”
 

 Jeff Foster. See: www.lifewithoutacentre.com/

BOOK REVIEW: WESTERN ANIMISM

Western Animism: Zen and the Art of Positive Paganism. Highly recommended.

Melusine Draco is an established Pagan author, here writing mostly about Japanese culture. She draws on her Shinto upbringing by her father, a martial arts instructor and countryman. She contrasts the Abrahamic stigmatisation of Paganism and Animism in the West with the peaceful co-existence of Buddhism and Shinto in Japan, to the point where the line between them can be “decidedly hazy”. She suggests that the Japanese approach makes positive spirituality and living easier. All it really takes is “time to appreciate white clouds against the bright blue of a winter sky; the whisper of falling rain; the aroma of freshly baked bread … if we make a practice out of seeking out the positive, we tend to find it everywhere – even on ‘bad, black dog days’ when we can still hear water dreaming, or listen to the stones growing”.

In five relatively brief chapters, Melusine Draco covers a great deal of ground. She discusses Ki, “the unseen life force in our body and everywhere”, and the sense that there is no dividing line between the divine and human. She describes Kami, “the most ambiguous of spirits” and talks of “sermons in nature”. She describes a Zen teacher who, at the beginning of a lecture, paused to listen to a songbird outside the window, and then dismissed the class. She explains Kensho moments, sudden insights and awakenings that help us on our way. Exercises to facilitate such moments are scattered through the book.

Draco evokes a culture that celebrates life and its transience; stylises and thus sacralises everyday skills and activities; and pays respectful attention to nature, including Kami. Religion itself is based on respect rather than faith. Drawing on these riches, Draco suggests an alternative wheel of the year inspired by Japanese festivals and adapted for the West. A chapter on the Zen garden includes a wider discussion of sacred space and the use of plants. Her final chapter looks at Zen arts and aesthetics – including wabi-sabi, “defined as the beauty of things ‘imperfect, impermanent and incomplete’”. It also covers a Japanese view of concentration, meditation, contemplation, and the differences between them. For Draco, “contemplation is that state of consciousness which brings clairvoyant power. It must, because the basis of contemplation is a clairvoyant perception, a kind of spiritual intuition”.

Anyone interested in Japanese spirituality, and willing to be inspired by it, would benefit from reading this book.

Melusine Draco Western Animism: Zen and the Art of Positive Paganism Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2019 (Pagan Portals series)

NEAR NATURE

I have never been much of a wilderness person. In times past I have foolishly used this to feel like a lesser Druid. ‘Near nature’ is my habitat. It is a world of parks, streams, canals, accessible hills, woodlands and former rail tracks. Human artefacts of varying vintages are very much part of the scene. These places keep on giving. Over the last couple of days a touch of frost coupled with brighter light has changed the feeling tone of a generally wet and clouded winter. Pictures celebrate this bounty.

SCEPTICISM, OPENNESS AND FLOW

This post summarises where I stand philosophically at this stage of my inquiry, and how my stance affects my practice. When investigating the Direct Path (1) I realised that one possible destination might be a radical scepticism about everything. Awakening to Awareness as ultimate ground of being is not the inevitable end point. The only Direct Path teacher who publicly discusses this is Greg Goode (2), who says: “Over the years, I had studied many philosophies and paths. I was aware of a variety of vocabularies. And now, unless I was explicitly playing the role of a direct path participant, none of these vocabularies seemed preferable in terms of truth or accuracy. When I was left to myself, experience didn’t show up as anything at all. There was nothing strictly true or strictly false to say about it”.

Goode reports a sense of confirmation on reading a privately circulated document attributed to Shri Atamananda Krishna Menon, founder of the Direct Path. According to Greg Goode, the gist is “that we can’t say anything at all … everything is paradoxical. We can’t even say that it’s consciousness or that anything exists! It’s a joyful, effusive case of saying without saying!” It helped Goode to get to his final position of ‘joyful irony’, which I have discussed in an earlier post. (3). His key point is that “the joyful ironist has found loving, open-hearted happiness without dogmatism”. For this to work “the joy and the irony must work together. If you’re joyful without being ironic, you’ll still have attachments to your own views of things. And if you’re ironic without being joyful, you may be bitter, cynical, sarcastic and pessimistic. Heartfelt wisdom includes both sides. Joy adds love to irony. Irony adds clarity to joy.” (2)

This sounds almost postmodern, but in fact echoes an ancient wisdom. Philip Carr-Gomm (4) shows its presence in Jain ethics, grounded in the three principles: ahimsa, aparigraha and anekant. Ahimsa is the doctrine of harmlessness or non-violence. Aparigraha is the doctrine of non-attachment, non-possessiveness or non-acquisition, Anekant is a doctrine of many-sidedness, multiple viewpoints, non-absolutism or non-one-sidedness. The three principles can be seen as completing each other, with non-absolutism as an intellectual aspect of non-violence and non-attachment, and hence a virtue.

Pyrrho of Elis, a Greek philosopher of the fourth century BCE, probably met both Jains and Buddhists, when accompanying Alexander ‘the Great’ to India. Indian influence is certainly evident the school of philosophy he created on his return home. In Greek culture this school was treated as a form of Scepticism, but unlike other Sceptics, Pyrrhonists “neither made truth claims nor denied the possibility of making them. Instead, they cultivated a deeply embedded attitude of suspension of judgement (epoche), allowing possibilities to stand open within the process of continuing inquiry. Such a turning away from the drive for intellectual closure enables peace of mind (ataraxia) in our engagement with the richness and diversity of experience” (5).  This teaching seems to combine the Jain view of non-absolutism and the Buddhist view of equanimity and freedom from dukka, (suffering or dis-ease).

As my contemplative inquiry has progressed, I have grown increasingly attracted to the wisdom of this view. I name it as openness, to keep my inquiry process appreciative rather than deconstructive. I have written about it before and this post builds on others. What I notice now is a greater clarity and confidence in this view, reinforcing my stance of At-Homeness in ‘the flowing moment’. Although not perfectly reliable, this At-Homeness is as close as I get to a place of safety. Everything else is uncertain. Everything else can be taken away. I treat ‘flowing moment’ as a simple description of living experience. I find stillness there if I slow down and attend to it. Stillness can be a portal to spontaneous joy and appreciation if I open up and am present to them . It is a good basis for coming back to Earth. From this space I can better connect with other beings, the wider world and the wheel of the year.

(1) A name given to the teachings inspired by Shri Atmananda Krishna Menon (1883 -1959).

(2) Greg Goode After Awareness: The End of the Path Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2016

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/06/11/greg-goode-and-joyful-irony/

(4) Philip Carr-Gomm Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions Lewes, UK: Oak Tree Press, 2019 (Foreword by Peter Owen Jones)

(5) Arne Naess Scepticism Abingdon: Routledge, 2015 (First published 1968. Scepticism is the last book Arne Naess wrote as an academic philosopher, before going on to devote himself to the development of deep ecology, coining the term ecosophy to describe his stance.)

JANUARY DAYS

I am conscious now of moving beyond midwinter and towards Imbolc (1 February), the first celebration of returning light. For me, the-mid January period is held in the above image. Tree trunks reflected in water evoke depth rather than height. The image faithfully depicts their withdrawn winter life whilst hinting at other life below the surface, as the world turns over in its sleep.

HOODED HERMIT

Winter in the  Wildwood Tarot lasts from Samhain (1 November) to Imbolc (1 February), whereupon the spring quarter begins. The hooded man, hermit of this deck, is shown as solstice figure whose influence pervades the whole winter. The image depicts a hooded figure, staff in the left hand and lantern in the right, standing by a great oak tree. The lantern illuminates a door in the tree, which itself suggests, through cracks in its timbers, an illuminated space inside. A wren sits on a stone nearby.

There is power in this image. The world tree, standing for life and wisdom, is both source and refuge. The hooded hermit seems to model intention and training, and his lantern and staff are potent tools. The wren once won a contest to be king of the birds by riding on the back of an eagle and thus flying highest. An animal ally, perhaps.

The face of the hooded hermit is hidden: no visible sign of a forest rebel; no sign, specifically, of a man. Does this suggest a talent for invisibility or shape-shifting? Perhaps. But what I chiefly sense is a Zen emptiness, of which Thich Nhat Hanh (2) says: “At first, we think emptiness is the opposite of fullness but, as we saw earlier, emptiness is fullness. You are empty of your separate self, but full of the cosmos.” According to another Zen writer (3), “the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’ …a flowing occurrence, and the outward form ,,, was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”

I am not a Buddhist and I do not seek to appropriate the hooded hermit for Buddhism. Similar ideas about the emptying out of personality to make room for a greater life can be found in Taoism (4) and Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (5). There’s a reminder here that path and goal are one, and that an emptied fullness of experiencing is available at any point of the journey.

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

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

(3) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(4) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Power and the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

 (5) http://www.headless.org

DAVID ABRAM: RECIPROCITY

“Wander over to that oak, or a maple, or a sycamore, reach out your hand to feel the surface of a single many-pointed leaf between your thumb and fingers. Note the coolness of that leaf against your skin, the veined texture your fingertips discover as they roam across it. But notice, too, another slightly different sensation: that you are also being touched by the tree. That the leaf itself is gently exploring your fingers, its pores sampling the chemistry of your skin, feeling the smooth and bulging texture of your thumb even as the thumb moves upon it.

“As soon as we notice than our hands are being included within the tactile world, we are forced to notice this reciprocity: whenever we touch any entity, we are also being touched by that entity.

…..

“Such reciprocity is the very structure of perception. We experience the sensuous world only by rendering ourselves vulnerable to that world. Sensory perception is this ongoing interweavement: the terrain enters into us only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be taken up within that terrain.”

David Abram Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology New York: Vintage Books, 2010

WORLD TREE: A HOLOTROPIC VISION

“The unified field of cosmic energy that I had experienced before now became a massive tree of radiant energy suspended in space. Larger than the largest galaxy, it was composed entirely of light. The core of the tree was lost to the brilliant display but limbs and leaves were visible around its edges. I experienced myself as one of the leaves, the lives of my family and close friends were clustered around me on a small branch. All of our distinguishing characteristics, what made us the individuals we were, appeared from this perspective to be quite minor, almost arbitrary variations of this fundamental energy.

“I was taken around the tree and shown how to move from one person’s experience to another and it was ridiculously easy. Different lives around the globe were simply different experiences the tree was having. … At this point, I was the tree. Not that I was having the full range of its experience, but I knew myself to be this single, encompassing Consciousness. I knew that its identity was my true identity. … To experience my true Identity filled me with a profound sense of numinous encounter”.

The above experience is reported by one of Stanislav Grof’s research subjects in his inquiry into “non-ordinary states of consciousness”. As a young psychiatrist in Soviet era Czechoslovakia Grof pioneered the therapeutic use of LSD. The authorities welcomed ‘progressive’ chemical treatments as an alternative to the bourgeois introspection of psychoanalysis. Seeking greater freedom, and given an opportunity to work in the USA, Grof became a Professor in the John Hopkins University School of Medicine. He continued his clinical and research work until it was banned in 1967 due to a moral panic about psychotropic drugs. His response was to invent holotropic breathing, a ‘natural’ and legal method of giving people access to the same states. Grof became a founder of the Transpersonal Association, which affirmed the place of spirituality in the therapeutic domain. Grof also developed a close association with the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and became a leading figure in the counter-culture of the day.

Grof disliked the limitations he perceived in conventional scientific culture, in particular the view that “our boundaries were defined by the surface of the skin, and consciousness was seen as nothing more than the product of that thinking organ known as the brain”. He thought that scientific culture had developed in an ethnocentric way and was irrationally closed to information gained in non-ordinary states. For him, there was a limiting conflation of ‘objective reality’ and ‘consensus reality’. Anything referenced beyond this was open to dismissal “as the product of an overly active imagination or a mental disorder”, and thus delegitimised in conventional scientific discourse. Grof became interested in archetypal images like the world or cosmic tree because he found them coming up frequently in sessions, as phenomena inviting “numinous encounter”.

For me, reports of this kind add strength to the image of the world tree, though my personal experience of it is different. Some images, like that of the the world (or cosmic) tree, or tree of life, appear in many different cultures and historical periods. They are widely thought of as universal. But the specific ways in which they appear, and the meanings ascribed to them, vary with place, time and culture.

Stanislav Grof The Holotropic Mind: the Three Levels of Human Consciousness and How They Shape Our Lives San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993 (Written with Hal Zena Bennett)

NATURAL AND RITUAL PATTERNING

At the winter solstice, I began a year of enhanced attention to the wheel of the year. I have re-introduced the circle as container for my morning practice. The directions and elements are conventional for my location and tradition. The references are all naturalistic – with ‘heaven’ as the dome of the sky.

The journey around my circle begins and ends at the midwinter moment, in the north, domain of the powers of earth. The patterning is minimalist, though it still took awhile to get a language that feels just right. Now it grows in power and resonance with familiarity and repetition. For me, ritual patterning scarcely competes with complexity and flow of natural patterning, as I look at the pictures above and below. Compared with these, it is something of an abstraction. Yet I value it all the same. This simple patterning embodies my commitment. It will walk with me through the year.

I stand, north, facing south, ring my bells and say: I arise today through the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendour of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth and firmness of rock.

North, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the north, element of earth, season of winter, time of dying and regeneration. Hail and welcome!

East, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the east, element of air, season of spring, time of early growth. Hail and welcome!

South, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the south, element of fire, season of summer, time of ripening. Hail and welcome!

West, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the west, element of water, season of autumn, time of bearing fruit. Hail and welcome!

Spiralling in to centre: I greet the power at the centre, the one world tree, giver of life and teacher of wisdom. Hail and welcome! Back north, I begin a full round of the circle, sunwise, and say I cast this circle in the sacred grove of Wisdom. May there be peace throughout the world!

My closing is a reversal of the opening, with an uncasting of the circle, a repetition of the opening words and a final ringing of the bells. In the address to the directions, the words ‘thank and ‘farewell’ replace ‘greet’ and ‘welcome’. I have noticed that the other parts of my morning practice are subtly enriched by this new container.

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