contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: August, 2020

MR. BRAMBLE

In my mandala of the year (1), I have sixteen trees. In the quarter from Lughnasadh (or Lammas) to Samhain, these are apples, blackberry, hazel and rowan. Blackberry presides over the days from 24 August to 15 September.

My choices have as much to do with personal memories as with natural processes, traditional lore, or the ogham alphabet in which Blackberry is Muin. In England we have an August Bank Holiday in which the weekend is extended to include the last Monday of the month. This year it will be August 31st. I have early memories of blackberry picking walks during this holiday, with family groups doted around a wooded hillside, and an air of informal ritual. Although balmy days might follow, this was the final act of summer.

The plant, of course, is with us throughout the year. The Druid Plant Oracle (2) names it as Bramble. “If you have ever tried digging up Bramble roots, you will know how tenacious they are – they travel long and deep, and some root systems can cover a wide area and be of great age”. Blackberry was said to be the bush into which Lucifer fell when he was thrown out of Heaven. Bramble provided a challenge for the prince in Sleeping Beauty.

Bramble also provided much needed sustenance for the famished wayfarers in The Voyage of Maeldun. In Joanne Harris’ Blackberry Wine (3) a small rural community in the south of France is saved from unwanted gentrifying ‘development’ through the prickly stubbornness of key individuals. These, quietly supported by most of their community, defend their own vision of how to live in the face of personal, commercial and threatened legal pressures. Neglected flora, overlooked forms of intoxication and a little magic all contribute to the holding of a much loved space. Mr Bramble is a good friend to have.

(1) See the ‘house’ section of: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/12/meditation-wisdoms-house/

(2) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Plant Oracle: Working with the Flora of the Druid Tradition London: Connections, 2007 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)

(3) Joanne Harris Blackberry Wine London: Black Swan, 2000

(4) The image at the top is from John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003

MY DRUID PRAYER

I am fond of the Druid prayer despite my discomfort with petitionary prayer as a genre. This post looks at the prayer and describes a recent reframing for solo use.

The prayer dates back to the eighteenth-century origins of modern Druidry. I first encountered it in 1993 on joining OBOD (1). The custom there is to extend the ‘Grant O God’ opening to include Goddess and Spirit as alternatives.

Grant O God/Goddess/Spirit, your protection,

And in protection, strength,

And in strength, understanding,

And in understanding, knowledge,

And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice

And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it

And in the love of it, the love of all existences

And in the love of all existences, the love of God/Goddess/Spirit and all goodness”.

When using the prayer in group settings I use Goddess as a Pagan statement in a world where most religious movements still lean heavily towards patriarchy. I have noticed that Goddess and Spirit tend to be the preferred options among Druids today, with at least a few people finding time to say God and Goddess. God by himself is somewhat out of fashion.

In most religious movements this petitionary pluralism would likely seem disconcerting, but it is one of the things that I have appreciated in OBOD and Druid culture more widely. At a deeper level, I am not at ease with prayers to higher powers however they are named. I do not find myself standing congruently behind them. I can stay in a gathering and participate, acknowledging the good intentions of the occasion, but I am not 100% there, in the moment of petition.

On the other hand I like the values expressed in the prayer, as it develops from its base-line in hoped-for protection into that quality of strength which leads on to understanding, knowledge, justice, and – through the love of justice – the love of all existences. Protection and strength, as values, are thereby dissociated from ideologies of dominance and submission, or of power-over as the answer to anxieties and problems. Instead, they point to something fuller, where strength becomes the basis for a generous stance in life. The prayer both affirms the web of life and promotes justice within the web. The principles of the prayer call strongly to our own time.

My recent work has made it possible for me to use the prayer in solo practice. The key word is the sense of ‘Oneness’ as an expression of universal interbeing, or connectedness, rather than a singularity or monad: a Oneness (which I am willing to capitalise) that can manifest in ‘no boundary’ experiences yet also has room for the arrival and passing of individuals, collectives and relationships.

I am aware that, within the web, we find built-in elements describable as parasitic and predatory. Sentient life is necessarily stressed. But as a human I can be aware of this and create, of my own volition and with the aid of allies and available cultural resources, a values-based response. For me, the recognition of ‘Oneness’, as I have described it, widens the circle of care. This recognition may begin as intuited or as conceptual. Either way, I find that it changes the breadth and depth of experience – its taste, texture, tone and colouration. The state of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’ (2) points me to, and enables, the recognition Oneness in this sense. It opens the way to a form of the Druid prayer that I can fully embrace.

In the recognition of Oneness,

May I find protection,

And in protection, strength,

And in strength, understanding,

And in understanding, knowledge,

And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice

And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it

And in the love of it, the love of all existences

And in the love of all existences, the love of Oneness and all goodness.

In the light of recognition, the phrase ‘May I …’ asks me to take responsibility for my part in the Oneness. In one sense I am small and transient, in another sense timeless and unboundaried. There is something available beyond the little me, and I can affirm an intention in its name.

I notice that this approach to the prayer also reframes ‘goodness’. It loses any after echo of childhood obedience and a child’s hope of reward for being good. Indeed, it is not used here primarily as an ethical term – too vague, for one thing: ethical criteria need to be specified and their implications worked through, as in systems like virtue ethics or Buddhism’s eight-fold path. Although implying an ethics of empathy, this goodness is about flourishing at the personal, relational, collective and universal levels. The point of any ethics is to support this flourishing.

I will use and test this version of the prayer, as part of my inquiry, and see how it works as part of my practice.

(1) Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids: http://www.druidry.org/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/08/10/at-homeness-revisited/

THREE TREES

On recent walks I have been noticing trees in nearby woodland, and becoming aware of how I experience them at this moment in the year. The three tree pictured in this post illustrate my story for later August.

In the first, I saw my first real hint of autumn, as green starts to turn yellow and brown. At this stage, it is a subtle shift affecting only a few trees. But it is a harbinger, like street lights at 8.30 pm.

My liking for this time goes back to my later childhood. It was still summer and I had a lot of freedom. My hay fever was gone. Temperatures were a little down. It was easier for me to spend longer periods out in the sun. I felt at home in my environment. In these precious days, I felt expansive. The world was on my side, and a hopeful place to be in.

In an earlier post (1) I talked about this as being a time of apples in my Innerworld. This is true of my outer world too. I grew up in Somerset, in England, where apples are abundant. It is cider country, and the summer country of Arthurian romance. My home town, Yeovil, is 19 miles from Glastonbury, aka Avalon. When I was small, I was puzzled by injunctions not to take apples from the tree or eat the ones which fell on the ground, though these might possibly be cooked. Only the ones in shops were truly safe. Commerce made them righteous. For me, this got a little mixed up with forbidden fruit story in Genesis 3, since “the tree in the garden” was identified as an apple in our part of the world.

For all the autumnal qualities of this time, it still offers a naturalistic ‘tree of light’ experience if I am open to it. I experience this most when sunlight catches green leaves, especially if they shine from recent rain. I am glad that the metaphor of the tree of light – like those of the tree of life, or world tree – does not remove us far from our experience of the living world. One of my attractions to Druidry is that even its more esoteric, Otherworldly dimension stays loyal to nature.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/18/harvesting-in-mixed-weather/

BREATHING SPACE

“Once it happened that a man was very ill. The illness was that he continually felt that his eyes were popping out and his ears were ringing – continually. By and by he became crazy, because it went on for twenty-four hours a day. He couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t do his work.

“So, he consulted doctors. One doctor suggested, ‘remove the appendix’, so the appendix was removed, but nothing happened. Another suggested, ‘remove all the teeth’, so all his teeth were removed. Nothing happened; the man simply became old, that’s all. Then somebody suggested that the tonsils should be removed. There are millions of advisors, and if you start listening to all of them, they will kill you. So, his tonsils were removed, but nothing happened. Then he consulted the greatest doctor known.

“The doctor diagnosed, and he said, ‘nothing can be done because the cause cannot be found. At the most you can live six months more. And I must be frank with you, because all that could be done has been done. Now nothing can be done’.

“The man came out of the doctor’s office and thought, ‘if I only have six months to live, then why not live well?’ He was a miser and had never lived, so he ordered the latest and biggest car; he purchased a beautiful bungalow, he ordered thirty suits, he even ordered shirts made to order.

“He went to a tailor who said, ‘thirty-six sleeves, sixteen collar’.

“The man said, ‘no, fifteen, because I always use fifteen’.

“The tailor measured again and said, ‘sixteen!’

“The man said, ‘but I have always used fifteen!’

“The tailor said, ‘Okay then, have it your own way, but I tell you, you will have popping eyes and ringing in the ears!’ And that was the whole cause of his illness!

“You are missing the divine for not very great causes – no! Just a fifteen collar – and the eyes cannot see, they are popping; and the ears cannot hear, they are ringing. The cause of man’s illness is simple, because he is addicted to small things.”

(1) Osho The Mustard Seed: Discourse on the Sayings of Jesus from the Gospel According to Thomas Shaftesbury: Element, 1975

HARVESTING IN MIXED WEATHER

This picture was taken early one morning, at a moment slightly defended from the heat of early August. I was walking through woods to shelter from the sun.

Those days, intense in their moment, have already receded into the past. After a period of somewhat lower temperatures, and of flashes and rumblings in the sky followed by modest rainfall, we found ourselves in a flash flood on Sunday evening. For a relatively brief period, the A46 (a main road, locally) turned into a fast-flowing river not far from our house. Guttering held, but needs attention.

It was as if, following a period of contest, water had succeeded fire as the prevailing element. Now, the situation is less clear cut. But we are in a cooler and wetter place than we were at the beginning of the month. Daylight hours are reducing. We are leaning in to autumn.

During this time I have been busy with my own harvesting. The meditations presented in my last three posts (1) complete a basic repertoire of formal solo practice in my renewed Druidry. I have been fruitfully indoors during both heat wave (beyond my comfort zone) and the return of rain. I have been inwardly focused.

In my own Innerworld wheel of the year, apple presides over the first three weeks or so of the post Lughnasadh/Lammas quarter. Apple, in many traditions, is a Goddess tree, associated with both wisdom and healing (2). It is linked to a visionary ability to see beyond the surface: perceptions grow wiser and the heart sees further than it might otherwise do.

In Irish myth, Lugh was sent to collect apples from a Tree of Light found in the Otherworld. In Britain, after the Battle of Camlann, Arthur was taken by three Celtic goddesses to be healed on the Isle of Avalon (=Island of Apples).

In a more everyday way, my meditations serve the same goals. The timing of my work on them wasn’t exactly planned. But it doesn’t surprise me that my commitment to living the wheel of the year has led to this result.

(1) Links to the meditations:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/09/meditation-living-presence/

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/12/meditation-wisdoms-house/

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/15/meditation-energy-body/

(2) See: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Tree Oracle: Ancient Wisdom from the Greenwood London: Conections, 2003

MEDITATION: ENERGY BODY

This meditation is the last of three formal meditations for regular use in my current Druid practice. It draws on a variety of sources – Druid, Gnostic, Tantric – and accumulated personal experience. I use the term ‘energy’, where others might prefer ‘light’. This is to signal the importance of embodied, felt experience in this work.

I find Energy Body a valuable complement to my Living Presence and Wisdom’s House meditations. The image is from R. J. Stewart’s The Dreampower Tarot. (1)

I sit on a chair, feet on the ground and hands on knees. This meditation has a Kabbalistic Tree of Life frame of reference, and I begin with a short form of crossing practice, using my right hand for the movements. I say,  In the name of Wisdom (hand upwards to top of forehead), Love (hand downwards towards genitals), Justice (to right shoulder), Mercy (across to left shoulder) and Oneness (both hands over heart centre) Awen (chanted as aah-wen). (2)

Closing my eyes, I attend briefly to my body and senses, relaxing into being on the chair. When ready, I send my attention down below my feet, as if dousing for the energies of the deep earth and underworld. I rely primarily on the kinaesthetic sense – warmth, sensations, the pulse and vibration beneath me. Visual images may appear, but this journey is guided by feel.

The earth energy immediately beneath me is strong and relatively quiet, though I do sense the power of familiar organic life at this level. Deeper down, I get a cooler mineral sense. Deeper still, I connect with the heat and highly pressured turmoil of the underworld, as I get closer to the planetary core.

Directing my attention with the breath, I pull up energy from these realms, starting at the fiery volcanic level, and adding elements of the softer, cooler earth energy as I move up. I pull these energies up through my body and a field extending a little beyond it. I notice an energetic mobilisation – heat, tingling, a feeling-tone of energetic arousal, noting specific sensations in different parts of the body. I use the inbreath to raise this energy and the outbreath to distribute it. Eventually, fully enveloped in this active chthonic energy, I allow myself to bathe in it.

When the time is right, I direct my attention upwards. I sense the sky and the celestial realms beyond – the moon, sun and stars – now seeing both day and night skies from my perspective and bringing my visual sense into more prominence overall. I connect with these energies too, sensing and visualising the powers of a universe in motion at the macrocosmic level.

I draw energy into my field of awareness and intention, bringing it in a focused way, laser-like, somewhat in the manner of a lightning flash, down to the crown of my head. From there it zig-zags successively to my left temple, right temple, throat, left shoulder, right shoulder, heart centre, left hip, right hip, genital area, and feet. Here, I visualise a white lightning effect and feel the ignition of these 11 points, the sephira of the Kabbalistic tree of life.

I now sense a merging of the chthonic and celestial energies, and the rejuvenating power and vitality that this brings. When ready, I direct my energy with the breath up the back and down the front of my central channel, behind and then in front of the 5 energy centres found there: feet, genital area, heart centre, throat, crown. This becomes a circuit descending down the front of my body on the exhale and rising up the back of my body on the inhale.

Once this circuit is stabilised, I develop a second one rising up the right side on the inhale and descending down the left side on the exhale, moving past 8 centres: feet, right hip, right shoulder, right temple, crown, left temple, left shoulder, left hip, and feet again. I keep the two circulations going and use them to scan my wellbeing at the energetic level. At this point I might work with individual sephira and their relationships with each other, but such work is not typical within this generic meditation. Commonly, I simply acknowledge them.

For the next stage, I begin to see, as if from outside, a translucent egg-shaped light energy containing me, with its circuits and currents moving of their own volition. Falling back into place, I feel the benefits of being held within this field of light energy, expanding into it and entering a richer identity. Preferably, the field is porous and open to energy exchange with the world beyond. (If necessary, the eggshell can be made solid and impermeable, an adamantine shield). I stay in the experience for as long as feels right, allowing myself to be recharged and rejuvenated.

Finally I allow the porous egg shape to thin and become insubstantial. Boundaries dissolve. Experience can be imaged as an awareness of tiny sparks winking in and out of existence in a vast indigo field. It is a place of freedom and possibility at the threshold of being and unbeing. There is awareness without boundaries, and no localised sense of body. Sensations and perceptions rise and fall.

When the time is right, I return to my normal physical bandwidth and the journey is over. I enter a period of quiet contemplation.

After the meditation, standing in the centre of the circle, I say I give thanks for this meditation. May it nourish and illuminate my life. In the name of Wisdom, Love, Justice, Mercy and Oneness. Awen.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Underworld London: The Aquarian Press, 1993 Illustrated by Stewart Littlejohn

(2) R. J. Stewart The Miracle Tree: demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2003

MEDITATION: WISDOM’S HOUSE

The Wisdom’s House meditation descends from an earlier ‘Temple of Sophia’ practice (1). It owes something to the ‘art of memory’ of the ancient Greeks, a system of impressing places and images on the mind. The art of memory flourished again in the European Renaissance period, and late practitioners included Giordano Bruno and the English alchemist Robert Fludd (2). This post provides both an introduction and the full text of the meditation.

Many of the visualised images have a strong archetypal resonance, but I do not now look to them for dramatic experiences or insights. They are a familiar Innerworld landscape whose influence grows quietly over time.

I enjoy this meditation. It has a strong aesthetic and cultural dimension, valuing time and memory. It is an affirmation of belonging within modern Druidry, and an individual expression of what how my location in this tradition works for me. At the same time, it points to a more universal and perennial wisdom tradition. My current version has a clearer tilt towards the evening of my days than do earlier ones. As in the older versions, Wisdom is omnipresent, but She does not appear as a person within the meditation. The image above is from R. J. Stewart’s Dreampower Tarot. (3)

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/05/03/temple-of-sophia/

(2) Frances A. Yates The Art of Memory London: Pimlico, 1966

(3) T. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Underworld London: The Aquarian Press, 1993 Illustrated by Stewart Littlejohn

TEXT OF THE MEDITATION

Closing my eyes, I check out my body and sensations, and I let go of potentially distracting feelings and thoughts. I take 9 Awen breaths, and open myself to the images of the Wisdom’s House meditation. They generally appear as a sequence, but not as a fully connected narrative. I may follow the sequence, or I may linger on particular images – allowing them to change and develop beyond the script.

I find myself on a lake shore, looking westwards, out over the water to a wooded island in the lake, where Wisdom’s House is found.

I walk down to a small beach where a blue rowing boat is waiting to ferry me across. The rower is a person of indeterminate gender, robed, hooded and wearing a mask, somewhat in the manner of Greek and Japanese classical theatre. On seeing them, I bow. They bow in return, doffing their mask, and revealing the emptiness behind it.

I am in the boat, being rowed towards the lake. I notice light on the water, and the descent of the sun. The island is getting closer.

On reaching the western shore, I thank the rower before turning my attention to a cliff path, which is stepped, quite steeply, in certain places. Its base is marked by two carved stones. The one on the left shows Pictish dancing seahorses and the concealed image of Modron; the one on the right shows the Tree of Life, as a trees, with a serpent coiled around the bottom of the trunk, and a dove perched high in the canopy.

At the top of the hill, I am walking, east to west, through woods and then pasture, until I reach a gateway in a wall, behind which are the grounds of Wisdom’s House.

Entering the gate, I walk through a fine orchard before reaching the House itself, which has some church-like characteristics. It is a domed stone building. The main body is round, though arms are extended in each of the 4 cardinal directions to create an equal armed cross. These extensions do not run out very far – only enough for a porch, a modest side chapel, and room for covered flights of steps.

I enter the House through the porch that comprises the eastern wing. I look across the interior to the western wing, somewhat like a small chapel. Its most striking feature is a rose window with clear, though slightly pink-tinted, stained-glass. It is designed to catch the sunset. A little way in front of it is an altar whose white cloth is embroidered with a golden gnostic cross and strewn with white and red rose petals. At the centre stands a chalice, white candles on either side. Looking around me I see steps spiralling downwards to a crypt, right (northern extension) and steps spiralling upwards to an upper room, left (southern extension).

The interior is lit by chandeliers hanging from the ceiling as well as natural light from clear glass windows. On the floor is a large mosaic given definition by the golden outline of a circle, crossed at the cardinal points by golden lines which merge at the centre within a fully golden circle, which includes 3 white seed pearls in a triangular cluster at the centre.

Just outside the outer circle, around the wheel of the year, are depictions of 16 trees: yew, north-west; elder, north-north-west; holly, north; alder, north-north-east; birch, north-east; ash & ivy, east-north-east; willow, east; blackthorn, east-south-east; hawthorn, south-east; beech & bluebell, south-south-east; oak, south; gorse, south-south-west; apple, south-west; blackberry & vine, west-south-west; hazel, west; rowan, west-north-west.

Moving into the main circle, I find images of the elemental powers associated with the four directions: north, a white hart; east, an eagle with wings outstretched; south, a red dragon; west, a leaping salmon. At the golden centre of the circle, the cluster of three white pearls recollects the three drops of inspiration distilled from Ceridwen’s cauldron and the visionary power of Awen. There are also other trinities – the triple goddess; the Christian trinity; the divine mother, father and child; the 3 triads of Kabbalah together and separately, or the singularity of Tao becoming the two, three and 10,000 things.

Spiralling out of the circle, and exiting north, I descend into the crypt. Here I find an empty sarcophagus dimly lit by candles. Two or three steps below the sarcophagus is a small, warm pool, lit by night lights – a ‘birthing pool’, perchance a re-birthing pool. A dancing seahorses/Modron image is painted on the ceiling. I can spend time lying within the sarcophagus, contemplating change, death and dissolution. I can also move on to the birthing pool, immerse myself in it, and taste the experience there.

Leaving the crypt and moving across the house, I climb the steps to the upper room, which has a meditation chair at its centre, with a chalice, or grail, on a small table in front of it. A field of stars, white against an indigo, is painted on the ceiling; otherwise the room is plain. I centre myself on the chair and drink from the chalice.

I find myself in a garden. It has a fountain at the centre, surrounded by four flower beds of alternating red and white roses. There are fruit trees, apple, pear and plum, trained around the walls. It is noon and mid-summer. I can hear birdsong, and feel the warmth of the sun at my back.

My attention is drawn into the fountain until I experience myself as part of it. Propelled to the top, I fly as a single drop into the air, shot through with sunlight, as I begin my descent, which feels slow and gentle, into the pool below.

On coming back from the vision of the garden and the fountain, I sit and rest for a while, in the upper room. Eventually I leave the upper room and go down to the ground floor of the House. I walk to the south point of the circle and from there move, spiralling, into the centre. I face the altar at the west, bowing and giving thanks before I leave the House through the porch on my eastward return.

Finding myself in a dim pre-dawn light, and facing towards its source, I return to the lakeside and take the ferry back to the mainland.

MEDITATION: LIVING PRESENCE

‘Living Presence’ is a sitting meditation customised for my current morning practice. The name is inspired by phrases in my practice liturgy. When casting my circle, having called for peace in the four directions, the below and above, I move to the centre and say: I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence. At a later stage in the ritual I use the words: I am the movements of the breath and the stillness in the breath: living presence in a field of living presence, here, now, home.

This meditation is strongly anchored in modern Druid tradition as I follow it. It celebrates a form of animism: ‘living presence in a field of living presence’. It also works, with the same sense of stillness at the centre and movement around the periphery that is wired in to my circle practice.

Closing my eyes, I take a series of long, slow breaths, and anchor myself in the clarity, peace and stillness that I find deep within me. From this centre, engaged and empathetic, yet without becoming immersed or identified, I welcome the stream of experience moving and changing around this core.

To start with, I scan, in turn, my body and senses, my feelings, desires, images, thoughts, and personality patterns. As the myriad varieties of experience pour in, I keep them company, like Rumi when he wrote: “This being human is a guesthouse. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Entertain them all. Be grateful for whoever comes. For each has been sent as a guide from beyond” (2).

I, as stillness, am not a transcendent witness, elevated above the experiences that arise. I stay awake with them, in a process of holding and healing. This enacts my declaration that I am both the stillness in the breath and the movements of the breath.

Movement without stillness has vitality but little awareness. Without movement, stillness cannot come fully alive. They are distinct, but not separate. As they emerge in tandem, defining and modifying themselves in relation to each other, stillness infuses movement with its own qualities. In the moment of connection, stillness in not entirely still. It is lovingly relational. Movement thereby gains in peace and clarity, as it responds, and is nourished and illuminated by them. The whole gestalt is Living Presence.

This process models my current understanding of a unity (one meditation, one experience) that includes difference. It enacts my current understanding of non-duality and interbeing, at the level of an intrapsychic contemplative process. I am pleased with the way that this meditation is working so far. Its development has been supported by a number of influences outside Druidry, without my adopting any other system. As well as Kabinski and Rumi I would reference the current ‘mindful self-compassion’ tradition (3), the stance of Focusing, though it is a therapeutic practice and not a meditation (4), and the work of Jeff Foster (5)

(1) Living Presence is a Sufi term. See: Kabir Edmund Kabinski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self New York, Ny: Penguin Putnam, 1992 See also

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/04/18/rumi-being-human/

(3) https://centerformsc.org/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2018/05/14/new-directions-focusing/ See also: http://www.focusing.org/ and http://www.focusing.org.uk/

(5) http://www.lifewithoutacentre.com/

BOOK REVIEW: SOUL LAND

Highly recommended to anyone who values the poetry of place. Natalia Clarke’s Soul Land: Nature, Scotland, Love (1) is a chapbook featuring 22 poems about her connection with Scottish landscape. That connection is intense, and shared in these poems through a powerful and distinctive voice.

The poet grew up in Siberia, enjoying “immersive life and experiences with nature and magic” (2), before being exposed to “intense emotions of love and loss at a tender age”. Her journey took her to England and its publishing industry with a later shift into the field of psychotherapy and a personal spiritual awakening. This is the context for the visit to Scotland “that changed me on a profound level”. She fell in love with what she came to call her “Soul Land”.

In the poem Love Everlasting, she writes:

“My knees touched the greenness

of your body and in

awe I stood amidst a stone

circle feeling protected and

contained.

I lowered myself into your

cooling stream imagining I

washed myself anew”.

The words have both erotic and mystical resonances: perhaps it misses the point even to make the distinction. In another poem The Land of Me, she talks of the land “stealing my soul” and how this theft feels like “the gentlest fall into paradise”.

This is not a song of life and work within a landscape and the human culture it has shaped, and which has shaped it in turn. It is a personal I-Thou connection with a sacred space that the poet visits from time to time. Natalia Clarke is clear and sensitive about this, as shown in Through the Eyes of A Highlander, where we find a different consciousness of place, and in his case, its human history: “Where I see beauty he sees barren landscape … where I feel silence he shudders with sorrow”. Natalia Clarke knows that her sense of home, in this for her newly discovered land, is bound up with her own life and longing, and what she brings to the encounter.

In the later poems we find a closer observation of detail – “water silky soft and the colour of silver … green pine needles hitting my senses with clean potent fragrance”. The land feels more maternal – even, in a sense grandmaternal. In the poem In My Dreams You Visit Me the poet finds herself “transformed into the old Cailleach walking the hills and mountains with deer by her side”.

Natalia Clarke feels blessed in this wild space: “inhaling paradise, assured, grounded, humble, in your exquisite perfection”. Although led by her intuition and her feelings, she shows how her experience of the Scottish landscape has indeed grounded her.

“’All is well,’ the land whispers

into my soul spreading her

seasons around me”.

In a prose conclusion to the collection, Natalia Clarke also spells out the conceptual basis of her way of experiencing and relating. The key terms are ‘home’, ‘soul’s calling’ and ‘nature’. Home is “our secure ground, safety and knowing” with a feeling-tone that is “contented and contained”. She speaks here as a person who has lost her link with her “original motherland” and has needed to find ‘home’ elsewhere. A soul call is “very impulse driven, animalistic and instinctual”, asking us “to be more, to feel more” and join “something beyond yourself, new, meaningful and expansive”. Nature is not simply about solace. Deep understanding of nature can bring both peace and turmoil into our souls, “as processes are parallel within nature and if we tune into nature’s rhythms, we risk deeper understanding of ourselves”. True homecoming, the homecoming that involves soul, asks us to take risks as well as offering safety. For Natalia Clarke, Nature favours the brave.

(1) Soul Land: Nature – Scotland -Love Kibworth, UK: Matador, 2020

(2) https://rawnaturespirit.com/ (The collection can be ordered from this site by clicking on ‘publications’.)

AFTER MANY A SUMMER

I notice swans at this time of year. They are mute swans, the largest birds in Britain, and they live here throughout the year. In my locality, there is an abundance of fresh water and they tend to do well. Now they are in their family groups, with the cygnets becoming adolescent.

Watching swans, even this soon after Lammas, cues me in to an elegaic mood, a slight bitter sweetness in the heart. Their family life is in its later stages. The generations will go their own ways before long. The parents will stay together since the swans mate for life, but they will be moving into a new cycle of life and parenting. There’s an anticipatory poignancy about this, where the current moment knowingly invites images of a probable future. I sense impending separation, not precisely fixed in time.

I am influenced by literature and legend, as I slip in to the autumnal quarter. Yeats sets The Wild Swans at Coole (1) at a moment when “the trees are in their autumn beauty”. He counts 59 swans “upon the brimming water among the stones” and the poem gives voice to the soreness of heart that goes with a feeling of unwanted change, and the foreknowledge of their departure from the lake. There are resonances here of the legendary Dream of Oengus, where King Oengus and his secret Cymric lover Caer Ibormeith (Yewberry) can meet only for a brief time at Samhain, and then only every other year, in the form of swans (2).

But the main reference for me is Tennyson’s Tithonus, a Tojan hero who asks for eternal life, and is granted it, by his divine lover Eos the Goddess of Dawn. He neglects to ask for eternal youth, with very sad results.

“The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,

The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,

Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,

And after many a summer dies the swan.

Me only cruel immortality

Consumes: I wither slowly in thy arms,

To dwell in presence of immortal youth,

Immortal age beside immortal youth,

And all I was, in ashes.” (3)

Aldous Huxley published his novel After Many a Summer in 1939 (4). This was a year or two after he moved to California to become a Hollywood screen writer, and also to engage in earnest with Eastern spirituality. In a youth worshipping culture, a self-referential multi-millionaire hires an ambitious doctor/research scientist to extend his life span. What could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, in the wider world, Barcelona falls and the Spanish Republic is extinguished. At one level, the novel is a simple satire. At another it is a vehicle for Huxley’s view, on the eve of World War II, that political and military solutions to the world’s problems will, by themselves, always fall short. A spiritual dimension is needed to make a difference. Without such a dimension, ‘peace’ will be sought by unskillful means and ‘eternity’ will be confused with extended time. Both are found authentically in another – counter-cultural yet nonetheless accessible – approach to life. Huxley explores these ideas in more depth, with more of a sense of how to develop and maintain a healthy society, in his last novel Island (5) published in 1962.

Politically and culturally, I feel perplexed and disoriented. Individually, I have many ways of responding to my experiences of love and loss, growth and decay, life and death. Anxious anticipations of unwanted experiences and events are certainly a feature. My contemplative inquiry is in part about learning to be lovingly open and engaged with experience, whilst at the same time wisely anchored in the peace and stillness of living presence. An acceptance of falling short is baked into this stance.

(1) W. B. Yeats The Wild Swans at Coole In:A. Nroman Jeffares Poems of W. B. Yeats London: MacMillan, 1964 (Selected, with an introduction and notes)

(2) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Animal Oracle: Working with the Sacred Animals of the Druid Tradition New York, NY: Fireside, 1994

(3) Alfred, Lord Tennyson Tithonus (extract) In: Tennyson Poems and Plays London: Oxford University Press, 1968

(4) Aldous Huxley After Many a Summer Vintage Claasics e-book edition. (Original publication 1939)

(5) Aldous Huxley Island Vintage Classics e-book edition (Original publication 1962)

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