contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: December, 2020

WELCOMING 2021

Love and blessings to everyone at the threshold of 2021. May we find both nurture and inspiration in the coming year. It comes to us amid multiple crises and disruptions. May we navigate safely through them during the coming months, finding opportunities within the undoubted challenges ahead.

I end 2020, as I began it, in a watery time and place. The picture above, taken after a storm on Christmas Eve, shows a lively flow of water at the gateway. Wellies are needed for anyone wanting to walk on through. This kind of flooding was once rare and has now become normal. (A more traditional after-rain normal is shown in the picture below.) Not far away, buildings were flooded. Since then there has been snow, which has stuck in some parts of our locality and not in others.

In my part of the world, raised levels of wind and flooding, this year and last – and in other years going back for over a decade – are enough to show climate change in action to anyone with their eyes open – though they are less dramatic than events in other parts of the world. There signs that the partly engineered trance of public inattention in much of our public discourse has started to weaken. As the worst of the Covid pandemic comes to an end, I hope that we see more focus to the underlying existential threat of climate change, backed up by levels of action that can make a real difference.

In my last post of 2020, I continue to draw strength from the rhythms and powers of nature, even in their alterations. The strength of a stream rushing into the Stroudwater canal, with the land and the exposed tree trunks all around, lifts my spirits. In 2020, I set out to give prominence to the wheel of the year in my contemplative inquiry, mapping it back into a Druid based spiritual culture. I focused less on the feast days themselves than on the gradual turning of the wheel. A tree mandala, based around sixteen trees, became an important means of supporting this, with the proviso that it is an aid to direct experience. It is not an overwriting of it or a substitute for it.

I am less clear about 2021. My guess is that I will reduce the volume of my blogging, at least for a while, as I have done at times in the past. It will depend on the flow of the year – what themes may be emerging, what else may be happening in my life – which this time I cannot predict. I hope to be safe and I trust that I will continue to be life-loving, beautifully companioned, curious and grateful. I wish all good things, whatever they are for you, to readers of this post.

THE PASSAGE OF TIME

The years roll on, with ever increasing speed. This is me in 1952, sitting to have my picture taken in a photographer’s studio. I just about remember the occasion as a significant event, for which I was carefully dressed and coached. I am pleased to report that this eager, inquisitive (if slightly anxious?) boy has never died, though at times he is hard to find. His image reminds me of the magical, light bringing child in each of us, whatever else we have become. Buried, it may be. Wounded, confined or hiding, in some cases, at some times. But still there, still embodied in old and hidden places, awaiting renewed recognition and love.

This is midwinter and a time of reminiscing and stocktaking. On 20 December 2019 I wrote: “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”. (https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/20/approaching-the-years-turn/).

At that time I undertook to give more attention to the wheel of the year, and to cultivate certain values: lovingkindness; positive health and well-being; a life of abundant simplicity; and a spirit of openness, creativity and wisdom (https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/27/values-for-2020). Sometimes during the year I have been on point and sometimes I have not. I do feel overall that these were good choices for the year of Covid-19 and I have at least paid them conscious attention.

I do not approach 2021 with new and different thinking. I expect it to be another challenging year, especially in the early months, no doubt in a slightly different way. I will bring the same approach to 2021 as to 2020, perhaps enhancing the qualities of simplicity and openness, leaning more towards the centre rather than the periphery of the wheel. This could be the role of the elder within. There is room both for youth and age in one person.

HOLLY (TINNE) THE TURN

Holly (1) is a vivid, vital plant, and especially so at midwinter with its rich spiky evergreen leaves and its blood red berries. It is not afraid to take a strand in the world. Tradition names it as fiery in nature and it is described as ‘best in the fight’. In Celtic times the wood of the holly was used to fashion spear shafts. Amergin, the warrior bard and shaman who invaded Ireland, links himself to holly when declaring that ‘I am a battle waging spear’ among his many identifications.

Within my mandala of the year (2) holly initiates a major change of energy and direction. The winter quarter beginning on 1 November is a time of dying and regeneration, in the life of the land that I live in and in some sense in me. Elder has completed the work of descent into a form of death already signalled by the yew. Now, from 17 December to 7 January, it is for the holly energy to ignite my regenerative potentials and aid my birth into the life of another year.

Holly helps me with its vitality, strength, clarity of direction and balance. My worry this year has been about my own capacity to step up. But now, on 22 December, I feel the first stirrings of renewal. Under the aegis of holly I am in protected space and time. I can draw strength from the holly and regenerate in safety, during an extended holiday sheltered from the world. A blessing, indeed.

(1) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May

Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June

Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July

Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

CONTEMPLATING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHS

As we approach the turn of the year, I am thinking of recent ancestors and the visual records they have left. This photograph is of my paternal great grandmother was taken by a professional photographer in the first decade of the twentieth century. You can see that it has been carefully posed. This is before the era of family snaps, let alone selfies. Being photographed is an occasion.

At that time the family were tenant farmers in East Lothian, Scotland, and the photographer was based in Haddington, the county town. I am sad to say that I know very little about my great grandmother as an individual, of who she really was. In her picture I read both dignity and diffidence. A certain natural stillness, perhaps, and inner strength. In a sense she was the matriarch of an family group in which the tenancy was largely worked by two sons, one of whom had a family of his own, though I am not sure of how far she filled that role.

I feel frustrated by my lack of knowledge and understanding even as I write, and I’m trying not to default into writing about my great grand father instead. I do know a bit about him – strong traditional Presbyterian, Elder of the Kirk, political Unionist whose Unionism extended to the whole of Britain and Ireland. I do imagine my great grandmother as being in the slip stream of all this. She didn’t live long enough to be a voter; I don’t even know how she felt about this. She did live long enough to know my father and his sister as children and there is an indirect link through them, though they didn’t actually say much about her to me. The picture below is from 1909, with the two children looking dressed up and solemn.

I do not have to go far back in family history to find myself in an unfamiliar cultural landscape, and to appreciate that I am an outsider to my own family members. I was given little family information about these days when growing up, and the very aspects of pre-1914 history and culture that I have studied or engaged with were ones that didn’t enrol my great grandparents. They were the older generation, defined by both their immediate culture and the reign of Queen Victoria, only recently ended.

The world of these photographs was not to last. When my great grandfather, predeceased by my great grandmother, died in 1916, the tenancy ended and neither of his sons negotiated a new one. My grandfather, grandmother, father and aunt moved to Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, and became a corn merchant. His brother emigrated to Australia. The heavy duty politics and religion were ameliorated. A way of life had gone. My father, born in 1907, moved to England in 1929 and I was born in Somerset in 1949, much closer to my mother’s family who came from Exeter in Devon. The years have continued to roll on. 1949 was only forty years on from the picture of the two children. There have been seventy one years since, which is food for thought in itself. Looking at her portrait, I understand that whilst I do not know, and will never know, my great grandmother, I can appreciate her through the image that’s presented, without narrative information, and also without mythology or romance.

ELDER AGAIN

I am drawn to write again about the elder, the tree of the caileach, or crone (1). In my sixteen tree mandala of the year, it covers the period from 24 November to 16 December. I am writing on the last day, tuning into the image more deeply, open to an intuitive personal response.

I see grief, loss and limitation there, in a face both haunted and haunting. Survival at a price. It is what it is. I see neither the pretence of a good time, nor the shadow of self pity. The tree is alive and bearing fruit – alchemical fruit which is poisonous raw and safe after cooking. Perhaps it is the fruit of severity. In the face of a sacred tree, I see a face of the Goddess – an ageing, winter face, yet one that is strong and indomitable. I see this mirrored outside, and also within. Something in me is like this too.

From about the beginning of November, I have been dealing with a succession of minor health problems, not dangerous, but draining in their cumulative effects. I have had frequent experiences of lethargy and a kind of fog in the brain. I move between fundamental acceptance of the experience I am given, and a pragmatic need to push back. I am working at reduced capacity, I have some frustrations about this, and I am finding a new balance. I am glad to have made the core of my life and practice simple and easy to maintain. For me, simplicity allows focus on what really matters. Focusing on what really matters is what I need to do.

(1) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May

Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June

Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July

Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

AFFIRMATION: THOUGHTS OF A MODERN TAOIST

“Stand at the precipice

That existential darkness,

And call into the void.

It will surely answer.”

“The precipice represents our dilemma as human beings, the sense that this existence is all too random, all too absurd. Is there order? Is there a force directing things? These are the important issues, so important that we cannot rely on scripture, but must instead explore on our own.

“The followers of the Tao compare the void to a valley. A valley is void, yet it is productive and positive. The emptiness of the valley permits water to accumulate for plants. It allows life-giving sunlight to flood its surface. Its openness gives comfort to people and animals alike. The void should not be frightening. Rather, it contains all possibilities. Peer into it, call out, not just with your voice but with your whole being. If your cry is deep and sincere, an echo is sure to return. This is the affirmation of our existence, the affirmation that we are on the right path. With that encouragement, we can continue our lives and explorations. Then the void is not frightening, but a constant companion.”

Deng Ming-Dao 365 Tao: Daily Meditations New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992

RUMI: IN PRAISE OF MATURE COMPANIONSHIP

I say, Bring the simple wine that makes me loose and free!

You say, There’s a hurricane coming.

And I say, Let’s have some wine then,

and sit here like old statues and watch.

From the collection Unseen Rain: Quatrains of Rumi translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1986

DRUID ALCHEMY

“In the foreground we see Brighid. She is both Brighid Goddess of the Holy Flame and Holy Well, and a woman in her service, a Fferyllt, or Druid Alchemist, who combines the powers of fire and water to create harmony, balance and transformation.

“In the traditions of the nineteenth and twentieth century Druid revival, the Fferyllt were Druid alchemists who were said to live in the magical city of Dinas Affaraon, in the mountains of Snowdonia. Much of the work of DruidCraft can be seen as an alchemical process of uniting and combining different elements of the self to achieve wholeness, illumination and a release of our creative potential.” (1)

The words and illustration above are from The Druidcraft Tarot, where the writers are Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm and the illustrator Will Worthington. The card in question is the trump numbered fourteen, conventionally named Temperance. Here, after the manner of C. G. Jung, it points to the work of psycho-spiritual development. Affirming the fundamental unity of spirit and matter, it encourages us to extend the bandwidth of our experience beyond that provided by our early conditioning in modern mainstream culture. This work is placed in the context of modern Druidry and modern Druid training – specifically that offered by OBOD (see http://www.druidry.org/}.

Philip Carr-Gomm discusses this further elsewhere: “Alchemical Magic involves working on yourself. It is called alchemical because in alchemy the idea is to change ‘base metal’ into gold, the ordinary into the extraordinary. Our goal is to do this with our own lives, our own selves.  That is much of the purpose of following a path such as Druidcraft. … The idea in alchemy is that you start with the ‘base metal’ that is equivalent to all the raw material that you possess as a personality and a soul. Then, by following a spiritual path, you gradually transform this into a quality of being which literally radiates. That is why people who are on this path often have a quality of youthfulness and life which is almost tangible.” (2)

To this day, I have a section in my regular practice liturgy in which I say: “a blessing on my life; a blessing on the work; a blessing on the land”. My use of ‘work’ is an alchemical reference, invoking the classical alchemical opus as a transformative metaphor. I experience this as among other things a healing work, in a healing container, though it might not always feel that way. We can take the legacy of painful, problematic and confusing experiences and find the hidden gold within them.

There can be another discovery too. Jungian-influenced therapist Matt Licata writes: “through this exploration, we come to discover that although suffering feels and is personal, it is also archetypal and, as the Buddha noted, universal in human experience. The invitation is to allow our broken hearts, confused minds and vulnerable emotional bodies to serve as a bridge to a place where we make embodied, loving contact with the ‘others’ in our lives – not only the external others but the inner others who have become lost along the way.”

(1) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The DruidCraft Tarot: Use the Magic of Wicca and Druidry to Guide Your Life London: Connections, 2004. Illustrated by Will Worthington.

(2) Philip Carr-Gomm The Magic of Wicca and Druidry Lewes, UK: Oak Tree Press, 2013

(3) Matt Licata A Healing Space: Befriending Ourselves in Difficult Times Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2020

SIMPLE BLESSINGS

The entry into December is not all about dying and withdrawal. Nature is more nuanced than that. For me, the scene above is full of an early winter vitality. It is just after 8 am on 1 December, and the temperature three degrees (37.4 F) – cool and bracing. The stream is in rippling movement, full of vitality. The plant realm may be in a relatively austere phase, but there is green in the picture too. This is my first extended walk for some weeks and I find it an instant mood changer. I can immerse myself gladly in the spirit of this place at this time.

When I reach the canal path, I notice the difference in the water. It is slower and quieter, a place of slightly opaque reflections and relative stillness. I like seeing it in the context of a larger picture, that includes buildings, tree tops and sky. There are people too, though not many. In this picture a lone jogger is moving away from me and will soon be out of my sight. I continue to celebrate the day.

Skeletal trees seem like sculptures, artfully presenting themselves against a background of blue sky. “See the web of life in us”, they seem to say.

Meanwhile a willow, at other times the epitome of elegance, allows itself to relax in the off season. Even now, it has not entirely lost its green.

Further up the canal I see a family of swans. There are five in all, four of them visible above. They are moving swiftly and I feel blessed to get an image. The cygnets are more or less grown up, with their turn to a white adult plumage almost complete. I am pleased to see them doing so well and surprised that the family is still together. I imagine that will change soon enough.

I enjoy the way that leafless trees are only partially screening the houses, allowing both trees and houses to be in the picture. The houses are there, part of the current canal ecology. I don’t need them to be hidden. I continue to enjoy the nature/culture balance of this neighbourhood, and I am glad to be out in it. Some aspects of life can seem hard, but others are easy. Today is easy, a day for easy delight.

 

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