contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: January, 2021

TURN ME TO GOLD

Turn Me to Gold: 108 Poems of Kabir (1) is a beautiful book, and the fruit of “five years spent in the unremitting presence of Kabir”. For Andrew Harvey, “Kabir is far more than a poet; he is a universal initiatory field, as expansive as Rumi and as embodied, radical and ferocious as Jesus”. Harvey himself is more than a translator, working with his “whole mind, heart and body on breathing and living his words, the fierce temperature of his truth” and speaking of his own work as “strange, precise” and “ecstatic”. I do not think of this post as an attempted book review, since both Kabir and Harvey are asking to be met rather than evaluated. Rather, I am attempting an act of recognition.

I have written about Kabir’s work before in this blog. In the past I have used other translations (2,3), particularly Robert Bly’s. Having now read Harvey’s work, I am clear that it would now be my first port of call when engaging with Kabir, whilst retaining my respect for the other translations and feeling glad to have them. When a text from another language, culture and time is important to me, I like to have multiple translations. Turn Me to Gold has the additional merit of Brett Hurd’s accompanying photographs of modern Varanasi.

A weaver by trade but a poet-singer by calling, Kabir lived in the Varanasi (Benares) of the fifteenth century. His philosophy incorporated various beliefs of both Muslims and Hindus and later became one of the major influences behind Sikhism. Like Rumi, further to the west and generations earlier, he followed a devotional and ecstatic path, and like Rumi he tried to be a bridge builder between traditions. His work, written as songs for public performance with musical accompaniment, was enduringly popular, surviving in late manuscripts from different parts of India, which show modification over time by the region, religion and caste position of generations of listeners. Kabir experienced himself as filled with the Divine, simply, directly and completely, and so was not a friend of religious formalism or extreme practices done for their own sake:

“I’m not in austerities, not in meditation,

Not in feasts, not in fasts,

Not in rituals laid down in sacred texts,

Not in yogic exercises –

Look for Me with passionate sincerity,

I’ll be beside you immediately.

Kabir says; Listen to Me –

Where your deepest faith is, I am.

Kabir had no truck with waiting for an afterlife: “everyone says they’re going to ‘Heaven. Where this ‘Heaven’ is, I don’t know … As long as you look for ‘Heaven’, you’ll never find your home’. To come alive, spiritual experience needs to be present and embodied:

“More than anything else

I cherish at heart,

What in this world

Makes me live

A limitless life”.

That sense of living a “limitless life” in “this world” connects Kabir’s poetic witness to my own contemplative inquiry, helping to enrich its purpose and meaning. I am a modern Druid, more Universalist than Pagan, and I have been concerned, though active, practical inquiry, to craft a practice that I call ‘contemplative’. But this identification, socially useful as it is, dissolves within the molten core of the practice itself. I do not have quite the sense of personified divinity that Kabir and Harvey do, but I have what I imagine to be the cognate experience of at-homeness in the flowing moment. In practice terms, this is represented in the “peace” at the centre of my circle, which I describe further as “the bubbling source from which I spring and heart of living presence”. This is an energised, dynamic and joyful peace, not a calm or static one. Such a peace, for me, is a taste of limitless life in this world. I find it hard to talk or write about – the words keep going subtly wrong for me. Kabir and Harvey use the language of love, and perhaps they are right. This peace is an aspect of love.

“You can’t tell

The story of love.

Not a word of it

Has ever been told.

A dumb man

Eats a sweet

And smiles for joy.”

(1) Kabir Turn Me To Gold: 1018 poems of Kabir Unity Village, MO: Unity Books, 2018 Translations by Andrew Harvey Photographs by Brett Hurd.

(2) Kabir Ecstatic Poems Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992 English versions by Robert Bly

(3) Kabir Songs of Kabir New York, NY: MacMillan, 1915 Translated by Rabindranath Tagore, assisted by Evelyn Underhill

CHERISHING LIFE

The world is changing, again. New growth insists on its place in the world, however icy the conditions. Life asserts its rights, as we move towards the festival of Imbolc. But this post is personal rather than generic. I am welcoming the return of my wife Elaine from seven days in the Royal Gloucester hospital, where she was treated for a life-threatening, non-Covid condition.

This was the background to my previously reported Covid test, (1) since we thought that Covid might be a factor for Elaine, whose symptoms were severer than mine. I have not said anything about this context up until now, because Elaine did not want to be mentioned in this blog at the time of the crisis. Now she is fine about it. In her first two or three days of Elaine’s hospitalisation, I was very worried about her. In the last couple of days I have been more relaxed and confidently looking forward to her return and a period of convalescence at home. Elaine speaks very highly of the hospital, its staff and the treatment she has received. I was able to communicate with her (and others) by text, email and sometimes (on her initiative) phone. So I did not feel cut off from her even though the hospital is operating a complete ban on visitors due to the Covid crisis.

The week has reminded me of the fragility of both life and love, and of their immense value. The outcome feels like a victory for life at a time when nature, in my neighbourhood, is pointing in this direction. Meanwhile the festival of Imbolc celebrates the return of the light. I will cherish this time as we move forward from here.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/01/18/another-dawn/

NAVIGATING TURBULENT TIMES

Ten suggestions for navigating turbulent times: I am interested in the following list by Carolyn Baker and Andrew Harvey (1). They are not from my tradition, but I find their thoughts relevant and challenging. They prompt me to wonder what my list would be. Their book, which I will review in a later post, was published in the USA in 2020, a little before the November elections.

“1. Stay Safe: wear masks when you are outside, continue social distancing as much as possible, and listen carefully to the scientists who are telling us we are in the middle of a second wave of the pandemic. Shun all large gatherings and rallies and find other ways to protest which can be just as effective.

“2. Take special care of your health and keep your body vibrant with exercise and good nutrition. The psychological and emotional demands of unfolding crises will be far more effectively sustained with a healthy body.

“3. Whatever your spiritual practice, plunge more deeply than ever into it. It is essential to pursue realization of your true Self with more faith and intensity in these exploding times than ever before.

“4. Fill your life with inspiration and beauty. Inspiration will keep your heart buoyant and alive, and beauty will remind you of the magnificence of life and fill you with the energy to want to safeguard it.

“5. If you can, spend 20 minutes in nature per day, experiencing your oneness with it and drinking in through every pore its steadiness and radiance. Allow yourself to become intimate with the Earth.

“6. Stay aware of how the pandemic and environmental crises are evolving. There is no security in denial or ignorance. Learn, however, to pace yourself because the ferocious information you will be taking in can become overwhelming.

“7. Take time to grieve. No one will escape heartbreak in a time such as this, and not attending to the suffering of the heart that inevitably rises in the face of so much destruction will lead to severe depression or a kind of inner deadness that makes it impossible to respond creatively. Get support from others who are also grieving alone, and there is no need to be alone in a crisis that is now global.

“8. Renew old friendships and relish and deepen the ones you have you have because everything now depends on the sanity and joy that only deep friendship and relationship can provide, Take special care and lavish special love on your animal companions, and they will reward you with their tender and miraculous love.

“9. Despite being mostly in lockdown, make an effort to practice Sacred Activism by giving wisely to those in need. Foodbanks need support as do healthcare workers and the homeless who are afraid of going to shelters because they are Petri dishes for the virus. If you are able to assist those in prison by standing up for their rights, or by encouraging them in any way, do so. Take seriously your right to vote, for everything depends throughout the world on turning back the tide of dark money-financed authoritarianism.

“10. Use this book as a way of training your inner eyes to see and celebrate the signs of the Birth of a new humanity that are rising everywhere amidst the obviously apocalyptic death. Note the heroism of extraordinary/ordinary people globally who are turning up to serve the sick and dying. Note the heroism of protestors after the horrific death of George Floyd. Read great evolutionary philosophers and mystics like Sri Aurobindo, Teilhard de Chardin, Bede Griffiths, Satprem, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich, and those who speak of the global dark night, giving birth potentially to an embodied divine humanity.”

(1) Carolyn Baker & Andrew Harvey Radical Regeneration: Birthing the New Human in the Age of Extinction Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2020

ANOTHER DAWN

It is the dawning of 18 January 2021. The stark, bare beauty of the trees is set against a promising sky. Is the world beginning to open up? I can see a leaning in to Imbolc in this dawn, and a loosening in the hold of winter as the year moves on.

I cannot run out into this dawn, as I would like. I am in formal isolation, with a home testing kit for Covid-19 winging its way from NHS/Amazon. My symptoms are ambiguous. Covid-19 may not be the cause, but there is a real chance that it might. Meanwhile people in my 70’s age group are about to get vaccinated. Interesting times, for sure.

For me, the best way of addressing this is day at a time, whilst also assessing possible challenges sufficiently to be prepared for them. From a Druid perspective, I am finding the nemeton of my practice circle a tremendous resource. From the beginning of this year I have had both a morning and an evening circle. The former is built around energising myself and affirming both being and world. The second is contemplative, and built around both walking and sitting meditation. Each lasts for about half an hour.

I notice that I draw on Druid (largely OBOD) liturgy (1) , with modifications, quite a lot – for example, the approach to sacred space and use of the Druid prayer. This locates me within a training and community which add strength even at a distance. There are also aspects of practice drawn from other traditions and others which I have developed myself. The package overall retains a basic simplicity. It is a distillation of my contemplative inquiry – in a sense re-telling its unique story twice a day. I am finding this enormously helpful. I am reminded that the journey is what I had hoped it would be. This recognition holds me up, and is a dawning in itself.

(1) http://www.druidry.org/

(2)  https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/27/my-druid-prayer/

SKY AND WEATHER

The fog has gone now, for the time being. But its memory still clings to me. I can acknowledge its beauty as seen through the window of a warm room. But I would rather not be out there, tasting the fog, breathing it, trying to find my way in a clammy kind of cold. To go out, I wait for another day, with clear light and the effects, however subtle, of the winter sun. What a difference a day makes.

Part of my Druidry is about cultivating dimensions of experience ignored or unvalued in mainstream culture. Practice keeps my connection to them open. Tibetan Buddhists are sky watchers and have the saying; ‘you are the sky; everything else is weather’. This recognition does not erase the fluctuations in our weather, without and within, or our response to them. It does point to a capacity to hold them within a hidden dimension of clarity and stillness.

In the opening days of 2021, I have been taking in the likelihood of another collectively hard year, perhaps harder than 2020 in a different way. Last year I was more hopeful about this year than I am now. I don’t find this easy and I don’t ask myself to. What I can do is find a home in this seemingly unboundaried and seemingly timeless dimension, here called ‘the sky’, without abandoning the day-to-day.

I am the sky, and I hold the weather – fog and sunlight alike.

ALDER (FEARN) PROTECTION

Within my mandala of the year (1) Alder (2) is the fourth and final tree for the winter quarter that begins at Samhain. The overall movement of this quarter, in my world, is through death to regeneration. Alder presides from 8-31 January and links the regenerative aspect to a continuing need for protection already signalled by Holly (3). There is something foundational about protection. The late eighteenth century Druid prayer (4), which set the note for modern Druidry, begins by asking for protection, as the beginning of a journey that leads through the quest for justice to a place of universal love.

I live in a watery place and there are alders around, though – in contrast to willow – I have never been on hugging terms with this tree. But the oily and water resistant timber is well-adapted to its surroundings, and for humans has provided good timber for boats, bridges, and underwater foundations. Many medieval cathedrals were built on alder piling. Although the wood makes poor fuel, it is good for charcoal.

Round alder shields were once used as protection for warriors in Ireland, and “in Celtic myth, we read of palisades of alders that deter invasion of keep prisoners confined, and these fences are sometimes described as being decorated by a row of severed human heads” (2) . The Welsh hero Benedegeit Bran (Bran the Blessed) is reputed to have used his body to span the River Linon, forming a bridge to raise his followers above the dangerous waters, as the wood does when used as a building material. Later, when mortally wounded in a battle against the Irish, he gave them instructions to cut off his head and carry it with them. They were rewarded with song and prophecy from the head over many years.

Much more can be said about Bran (whose name means raven). My overall learning from alder is about a willingness and capacity to hold boundaries Bran adds sensitivity and openness to the larger context in which events are playing out. Placed at the end of the winter quarter, I see alder as guarding the tentative return of spring, as the light slowly returns and we find increasing signs of growth in the natural world. The weeks before Imbolc can be cold and dreary, but life is stirring both outwardly and inwardly. Alder reminds me of the need for protected spaces to nurture a latent abundance.

(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 winter quarter from 1 November, the positions and dates of the four 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. The spring quarter then starts with birch at Imbolc. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/12/23/holly-tinne-the-turn/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/27/my-druid-prayer/

LIGHT RENEWED

I have now landed in 2021. I can see the renewal of the light; however tentative it might be. The winter quarter, from Samhain to Imbolc, is a season of dying and regeneration. I have glimpsed regeneration in nature and in myself – potentially in culture too. The collective crisis is deep, and projects remain on hold. But I can sense opportunity, and possibilities for creative change.

I have noticed a major transition in my work. I have entered a phase where contemplative inquiry is a strand in my life rather than a project called ‘Contemplative Inquiry’. I look back and see this transition as an accomplishment of 2020. Certain questions have been answered and won’t need much revisiting. I began an ended the project within a modern Druid orbit – saturnine in distance, perhaps, but still part of the family.

My view, values and practice have largely settled. A lightning-flash experience, or transformative encounter, might cause me to change them, for I retain a commitment to openness. But the project of Contemplative Inquiry will not. I am much less engaged with teachers, teachings and traditions than in former years, whether through literature, groups or events (live and virtual). Instead, I want to work more deeply and congruently within the frameworks I have already learned and developed. I tend to be a solitary practitioner at heart, though I also like some link to companions and community along my spiritually hermit way.

The great gift in this is the opportunity to live a life of ‘abundance in simplicity’ at the level of ideas as well as material goods and activities – to pare down in the very area where I am most tempted to seek variety and feast on new input. There is Sufi story in which the crazy wisdom master Shams persuades the more conventionally trained Rumi to throw all his religious texts down a well. I do not plan to go so far. But I recognise the time for a change in emphasis. As a trade-off, my monkey mind is freed for other subjects. I look forward to seeing how this new direction works, and how it affects this blog.

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