contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: April, 2020

BELTANE 2020

Greetings and Blessings for the fast approaching festival of Beltane/Samhain. May we all find ways to stay safe and to flourish! This post focuses on my sense of the Wheel at Beltane – aware also that each season contains the seed of its opposite.

For The Wildwood Tarot, Beltane is the moment when “the polarised energies of the land interweave and intertwine around the staff of the heavens, generating the pulse of life”. It is also concerned with balance, and linked to the traditional trump for temperance. There’s a call to discover what balance, balancing and re-balancing might look like in 2020. Where might different balancing acts take us? How does ‘balance’ apply collectively, with a continuing public health crisis?

In the card, the primal energies of the serpents, echoing both the caduceus symbol and the double helix, are vividly in the foreground. By contrast the mask-like human head towards the bottom of the picture is almost hidden. For me, it is sombre, an image inviting uncertainty and unknowing rather than ‘balance’ or any steady state. Beltane 2020 finds a world in flux. Anything is possible. At the personal level, balance might morph into a kind of poise, without attachment to specific outcomes, yet with a preparedness to navigate uncharted waters.

INWARD TRAINING

The Way fills the entire world

It is everywhere that people are

But people are unable to understand this.

When you are released by this one word:

You reach up to the heavens above;

You stretch down to the earth below;

You pervade the nine inhabited regions.

What does it mean to be released by it?

The answer resides in the calmness of the mind.

When your mind is well ordered, your sense are well ordered.

When your mind is calm, your senses are calmed.

What makes them well ordered is the mind;

What makes them calm is the mind.

By means of the mind you store the mind.

Within the mind there is yet another mind.

That mind within the mind: it is an awareness that precedes words.

Only after there is awareness does it take shape;

Only after it takes shape is there a word.

Only after there is a word is it implemented.

Only after it is implemented is there order.

Without order, you will always be chaotic.

If chaotic, you die. (1)

The early Taoist classic Inward Training (Nei-yeh) (1) comes out of an oral tradition in which teachers gave their pupils verses to learn and study. Hence the emphatic and somewhat repetitive flavour of the text. Teacher pupil relationships of this kind are very ancient in China, likely emerging out of an indigenous Chinese shamanism (2).

Translator and editor Harold Roth suggests that the ‘one word’ that releases people is Tao itself, used as the focus of meditation, somewhat in the manner of mantra work. When the mind is calm, another mind becomes available – the mind within the mind, that precedes words and takes shape prior to their emergence.

Tao, in this understanding, is experienced as a foundational and pervasive cosmic process in which we can centre ourselves. The recommended practice helps us to cleanse the doors of perception, and achieve that centring. My experience of contemplative inquiry, and the Druid training that preceded it, is that ‘inward training’ works.

(1) Roth, Harold D. (1999) Original Tao: ‘Inward Training’ and the foundations of Taoist mysticism New York, NY: Columbia University Press

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/08/12/

LEARNING FROM THE WATERCOURSE WAY

Alan Watts (1) describes Taoism as the ‘watercourse way’. For him, this ancient philosophy is “a skilful and intelligent following of the course, the current, and grain of natural phenomena – seeing human life as an integral feature of the world process, and not something alien and opposed to it.” It is a point of view that I find of direct relevance to modern Druidry, nature spirituality and ecosophy. (2)

The ancient Taoists themselves said that “true goodness is like water. Water’s good for everything. It doesn’t compete. It goes right down to the low loathly places, and so finds the way”. (3)

Alan Watts continues (1): “Looking at this philosophy with the needs and problems of modern civilisation in mind, it suggests an attitude to the world which must underlie all our efforts towards an ecological technology. The development of such techniques is not just a matter of the techniques themselves, but of the psychological attitude of the technician”.

A detached attitude of objectivity is inadequate for solving the problems we face. Subject and object cannot be separated, for “we and our surroundings are the process of a unified field, which is what the Chinese called Tao”. We have no alternative but to work along with this process by attitudes and methods which could be as technically effective as “judo the ‘gentle Tao’ is effective athletically”. Watts reminds us that human beings have to make the gamble of trusting one another to make any kind of workable community, and concludes that “we must also take the risk of trimming our sails to the winds of nature. For our ‘selves’ are inseparable from this kind of universe, and there is nowhere else to be.”

(1) Alan Watts Tao: the Watercourse Way Souvenir Press: undated Amazon Kindle edition (with the collaboration of Al Chung-Liang Huang ; additional calligraphy by Lee Chih-chang)

(2) Arne Naess Ecology of Wisdom UK: Penguin Books, 2016 (Penguin Modern Classic. First published 2008)

(3) 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)

SAVED FROM TRASH

A murky evening moment at a magical time of year. St. George’s Day coming soon, and then Beltane. A seeming failure to get a good image. Street lights come on just as the picture is taken. Freshly green trees are obscured by gathering darkness, and reduced to silhouettes. I am shooting through a window that needs cleaning. I delete the picture. I send it to trash.

Then I find myself haunted by an after image of those apparent pink clouds in the sky. I rescue them. I have better pictures of clouds, but as I imagine them now, these shapes are no longer clouds for me. I see the courtship – I’m oddly sure it’s a courtship – of two beings. In this liminal twilight sky, in a meeting of air and fire, they are materialising in time-bound 3D reality. I might, doubtless incorrectly, call them dragons in my nervous need for naming. In truth I don’t know who or what they are, or where they come from, or how they got here. This is 2020, a twilight zone in itself.

I see no purpose or plan here, though the courtship of these beings is well synchronised for time and place. They are a sign and a wonder. Though their story is unknown, I welcome these beings who are not of this world. I am touched by their appearance and glad to be sharing it.

CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY: REFLECTING ON THE PROJECT

In his foreword to Contemplative Druidry (1) Philip Carr-Gomm talks about “Nature Mysticism, or Natural Mysticism” in modern Druidry. He suggests that such mysticism is grounded in changes in consciousness, and feelings of bliss or oneness, with no accompanying “separation from the physical world in pursuit of the Divine”. For me, it is especially about meeting the moment within the physical world, including our own body/mind. Sometimes the meeting comes through formal practice. Sometimes it is spontaneous and unannounced.

I built the main body of the text in Contemplative Druidry around a series of interviews with practitioners, which I designed, conducted and transcribed in the spring and summer of 2014. I then identified patterns in what people had been saying and decided on themes for chapters. I wasn’t working in an academic role, so my own linking text was a matter of curation rather than analysis. At that time the notion of a ‘contemplative’ approach to Druidry seemed weird to many people. But it was clear to me from the interview material that all the contributors had relevant experiences to talk about. They seemed to point to what PCG subsequently called ‘natural mysticism’ as a domain of personal and cultural experience readily within reach if people want it to be.

This book itself came out of a project I began working on in 2011, when I was a Bard and Ovate mentor in OBOD. I activated it in 2012, when I began to reach out to people with an offer of contemplative sessions, workshops and retreats – continuing with these until the end of 2016. 2012 also saw the birth of this blog and the Contemplative Druidry Facebook group, which I administered for the first year. Looking back from 2020, I feel that the contemplative meme is established within Druidry. ‘Contemplative’ has become a frequently used term in Druid discourse.

In the early days I thought a specific iteration of contemplative Druidry, launched by the project, might become a distinct Druid brand within and beyond the current Druid communities. From this distance it is easier for me to see that my will and energy were for initiating a conversation and modelling a set of possibilities, rather than working to establish a new sub-tradition. At the same time I continue to invite Druids and fellow travellers to be open to their ‘natural mysticism’ in ways that work for them.

(1) James Nichol , Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, Amazon/Kindle, 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

LUNAR WISDOM

” The moon was the image in the sky that was always changing yet always the same. What endured was the cycle, whose totality could never be seen at any one moment. All that was visible was the constant interplay between light and dark in an ever recurring sequence. Implicitly however, the early people must have come to see every part of the cycle from the perspective of the whole. The individual phases could not be named, nor the relations between them expressed, without assuming the presence of the whole cycle. The whole was invisible, an enduring and unchanging circle, yet it contained the visible phases. Symbolically, it was as if the visible ‘came from’ and ‘returned to’ the invisible – like being born and dying, and being born again.

“The great myth of the bronze age is structured on the distinction between the ‘whole’, personified as the Great Mother Goddess, and the ‘part’, personified as her son-lover or her daughter. She gives birth to her son as the new moon, marries him as the full moon, loses him to the darkness as the waning moon, goes in search of him as the dark moon, and rescues him as the returning crescent. In the Greek myth, in which the daughter plays the role of ‘the part’, the cycle is the same, but the marriage is between the daughter and a god who personifies the dark phase of the moon. The daughter, like the son, is rescued by the mother. In both variations of the myth, The Goddess may be understood as the eternal cycle s a whole: the unity of life and death as a single process. The young goddess or god is her mortal form in time, which, as manifested life, whether plant, animal or human being – is subject to a cyclical process of birth, flowering, decay, death and rebirth.

“The essential distinction between the whole and the part was later formulated in the Greek language by the two different Greek words for life, zoe and bios, as the embodiment of two dimensions co-existing in life. Zoe is infinite, eternal life; bios is finite and individual life. Zoe is infinite ‘being’; bios is the living and dying manifestation of this eternal world in time.”

(1) Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993

INQUIRY NOTE: For me this modern interpretation of Bronze Age myth offers a good Pagan way of talking about ‘non-duality’, a strong thread in my inquiry in recent years. In its Sanskrit origin, advaita simply means ‘not two’. It speaks of a unity that is not exactly oneness in the sense of complete assimilation. It points to the sense that we are bios in our transient personal lives yet also zoe the life eternal, both the wave and the ocean. In Western theistic culture this view seems consistent with either pantheism or panentheism. It also fits modern understandings of animism and biocentrism. While I find it useful to know about these models and frameworks, I avoid strong identification with them. There remains an underlying mystery, which is where myth and imagination come into their own.

LIVING OUR EXPERIENCE

“I have been fascinated and waylaid by abstraction, painting the picture I would rather have instead of living the experience I would rather not have.

“What I abstract never comes to be, or only sometimes flickers into life like a watered-down approximation.

“My abstraction is a smoke-screen born from longing or frustration, and it offers me a holiday of dreams. It is always safe and predictable, and an indulgence in the known.

“When abstraction collapses there is what there is … my bodily sensations, the symphony going on. Not necessarily in tune, but nonetheless constantly changing and moving, coming and going. Something is happening here or there … it evaporates and something else takes its place. There is nothing that I can control or manipulate. It is immeasurable and unknown, being and then not being.

“In the same way, if I seem to let go and listen, touch, taste, smell or see, there is no way of knowing beforehand the exact quality of those sensations. I could say that I can anticipate the sound of a bird singing, but it is only on information based on memory.

“It is not alive, vital and unknown. The sound I actually hear, the sound of what is, will not be the same as my abstraction of it. When I first listen to the sound I will try to grasp it and label it in order to control it. When I apparently let go of that control, there is simply the listener and the sound. When the listener is dropped, there is only the sound. I am no longer there – there is simply the naked and vibrant energy of what is. Nothing is needed. All is fulfilled.

“It is within the very alchemy of this beingness that freedom resides.

“Life beckons me. It whispers, it calls to me and in the end it screams at me. The scream of crisis or disease is often what will bring the rediscovery of what I am, for it is difficult to abstract suffering.”

Tony Parsons The Open Secret Shaftsbury: Open Secret Publishing, 1995 (Updated 2011)

NOTE: Tony Parsons describes The Open Secret as “a book declaring that enlightenment is a sudden, direct and energetic illumination that is continuously available. It is the open secret which reveals itself in every part of our lives. No effort, path of purification, process or teaching of any kind can take us there. For the open secret is not about our effort to change the way we live. It is about the rediscovery of what it is that lives”.

See: www.theopensecret.com/

SPRING ABUNDANCE AND PUBLIC HEALTH

April growth, when it gets going, is abundant and exuberant. When the days are clear and warm and anticipate summer, I feel a surge of celebration. We are, at last, moving in the direction of Beltane and the merry month.

Since I last wrote, I have recovered my pleasure in outdoor walking. My body’s wish to be outdoors and moving, enjoying the gifts of the season, is stronger than any doubt or anxiety. My pleasure in taking pictures, for the last six months integral to my walks, is part of this. I am glad that my essential phone incorporates a conceivably non-essential camera.

I took the picture above specifically because it shows the lovingly cultivated flower bed in my local public park. This flower bed, and the park itself, exist to be seen and enjoyed, without any entrance charge, by anyone who wants to be there. They are examples of a highly pro-social resource. As we move towards an uncertain future, I hope that we continue to value such spaces, and take collective care to preserve them.

This morning, looking at the news, I see my view supported affirmed by current research. “Meredith Williams, a postdoctoral fellow at the London School of Economics’s school of geography and environment, said access to green space was vital to public health. ‘Even before the pandemic, there was an increasing focus on research on the physical and mental benefits of green space. Having access to nature gives us a sense of calmness and tranquillity … that helps with reducing the stress that comes especially from urban living'” (1). The context is rumours of enhanced lockdown in London’s parks, where the residents of poorer boroughs have less access both to private gardens and public parks, putting more pressure on the public spaces that do exist.

Yesterday I found Stratford Park in Stroud almost deserted, its carefully tended flower beds unobserved and unenjoyed. For me, publishing this picture honours the work of its gardeners. Their creativity deserves to be recorded and shared, both for what it is, and what he stands for, as the wheel of 2020 continues to turn.

(1) Guardian 11 April 2020 Coronavirus park closures hit BAME and poor Londoners most

LOOKING THROUGH WINDOWS

There is a world through my window. April has often been a magical month in my year, and 2020 need not be an exception. I link April with intensified and palpable greening, of soft sunsets at an attractive time of day. It is still happening out there and when I lose myself in the image it is happening in here too. Essentially there’s no difference. It is wonderful. of an evening, to follow the sunset process through its many stages of development.

I notice that, here in the UK, some attitudes to the current lockdown have been utilitarian to the point of puritanism. It is not enough for our behaviours to be safe in relation to Covid-19. They have to be ‘essential’, and it seems that essential activities can’t be tainted with any suggestion of idleness or pleasure. I can jog through a beauty spot, but I’m letting the side down if I sit down to rest or enjoy it – even if there’s no-one else around. This goes against everything we know about mental and emotional wellbeing, where such opportunities can be vital resources in the face of stress and depression.

I don’t like this and I am confident that I am right. Yet something in me has been influenced by this atmosphere and has started to feel that outdoors is a forbidden zone. When I do go out, I have to push against this and feel slightly transgressive. Of course, something else in me quite likes that, too. But it’s not the sort of enjoyment I’m really looking for, and I’m experiencing this whole cultural overlay – one that’s arisen so quickly – as saddening.

I like my home and garden and I can enjoy looking out through upstairs windows. I’m concerned that others don’t have this advantage and may be deprived of a vital safety valve. I am also aware that the lockdown has to work, especially since it was initiated later and more haltingly than the pandemic requires, and not in tandem with the testing and contact tracing that have been working well elsewhere. I understand the public policy difficulties in the place where we are.

One way or another, indoors or out, I will not miss out on the magic month of April and the merry month of May. After a rugged winter, I will open myself to nature’s change of energy.

GNOSIS AND LOVE

This post looks at two sentences from the Gospel of Thomas and concludes a series of three posts about this text and how I read it.

“Yeshua said: When you bring forth that within you, then it will save you. If you do not, then that will kill you”. (From saying 70)

What is ‘that’? I could jump in and say the experience of ‘living presence’, in contact with the ‘bubbling source’ discussed in earlier posts on this theme, and this feels right to me. But I also find my understanding extended by translator and commentator Jean-Yves LeLoup, who offers two meanings for that, gnosis and love. Although he doesn’t fully spell it out, the sense I get from him is that they are co-arising and belong together. LeLoup understands gnosis, as Yeshua uses this term, to be “a consciousness that arises directly from knowledge of ourselves, of the ‘Living One’ within us”. He also describes it as “a transparency with regard to the ‘One who Is’ in total innocence and simplicity”. He adds: “this is why the qualities of the gnostic are said to be unconditioned, to resemble those of ‘an infant seven days old'”. Without gnosis, “the universe remains radically alien and incomprehensible”. With gnosis, love is free to flourish. LeLoup describes those who live in gnosis and love as “able to marvel at the vast richness in the tiniest manifestation of being”, graced with what seems like “unreasonable abundance”. In the absence of gnosis and love, we are vulnerable to experiencing life as stale, depleted and desolate. Yeshua is uncompromising on this point. This is the core of his teaching.

When encountering the Yeshua of this text, I have tried to let go of all other associations with the names Yeshua or Jesus. I have striven for a pristine response, as if I had not heard of this teacher before and knew nothing of the points of view claimed for him by the Thomas writer vast numbers of other people over the centuries. I haven’t found this easy. When I succeed, at least relatively, and respond to this text alone, I experience a fiercely and impatiently compassionate teacher who wants to shock people into an awakening to that – gnosis and love, in the sense understood in this text.

Yeshua’s compassion lies in his deep appreciation of the benefits of being awake, and the wish that others would share them. The impatience, perhaps a slightly wounded and bewildered one, comes from the way in which most people seem to be finding endless ways of not joining Yeshua in the sweet place where he dwells. So he uses a hyperbolic language in which that will either save you if you take it on or kill you if you don’t. Commentators say that, as a man of his place and time, Yeshua drew both on his Jewish inheritance and a Greek tradition of radical Stoicism, known as Cynicism (the modern definition is misleading) (2). Both had elements of exasperation with the public and lack of deference to the ruling class. People could be wiser and better than they are. So, why aren’t they? – and what can be done?

Hence the gospel of gnosis and love is not all about the inner life. Saying 3 of Thomas says; “the Kingdom is inside you, and it is outside you”. Jean-Yves LeLoup salutes this as “the wisdom of non-dualist language”: ‘inside’ alone “would give one-sided privilege to inner experiences and meditations. This would encourage us to flee the world, to disregard what is going on around us”. But ‘outside’ alone would encourage us to transform the world and convert others at all costs, “and it would be selfishness to sit in silence and listen to the song of the Living One in our heart”. We are asked to work with both dimensions, in this teaching, for gnosis and love to flourish.

(1) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005

(2) The Gospel of Thomas: the Hidden Sayings of Jesus (New translation with introduction and notes by Marvin Meyer. Interpretation by Harold Bloom). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992. “The Cynics emerged from the philosophical tradition of Socrates as social critics and popular philosophers who lived a simple life and employed sharp, witty sayings in order to make people raise questions about their own lives. The influence of the Cynics and other Hellenistic thinkers is evident in the Galilee of the first century; Jewish wisdom literature itself bears the marks of Hellenistic concerns.”

NOTE: This post continues a discussion begun at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/3/28/living-presence/ and continued at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/4/02/wisdom-writing/ and https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/4/04/the-bubbling-source/

PUBLISHED: April 4, 2020

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