contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: February, 2021

TREE MANDALA: ASH AND IVY

Within my mandala of the year (1) Ash and Ivy together are part of a playful period extending to midsummer. The picture above holds memories of the year 2007, when the original photograph was taken in a wood near Bristol. It has recently been digitised and stylised by Elaine Knight, a frequent companion in my adventures with trees during that year.

I was enthusiastically connecting with them at the time, spurred on by an OBOD course (see http://www.druidry.org). My main focus was on being present in the presence of the living trees and connecting with them. I had a secondary concern with information about them. This includes traditional lore now often linked to the ogham alphabet. In that alphabet, ivy is gort and ash is nuin.

In my personal mandala of the year, ash and ivy preside from 23 February to 16 March. Ivy, as ever, is luxurious and abundant. Ash, at this time, is mostly tall and sleepy. I have a strong memory of finding them together as I walked up a tangled, sloping path. I felt an immediate connection with them, which I recorded at the time, though I hardly needed to. The occasion has stayed vividly in my mind ever since. Indeed the wish to celebrate that memory prompted me to include them in my tree mandala when it developed a year or so later.

In ogham lore, ash is connected with themes of rootedness and endurance (2). An ash can bear weight and absorb shocks. It has been the second most popular tree, after hawthorn, for planting at holy wells. It has also been a popular choice for maypoles. In the northern, Viking, tradition, it is Yggdrasil, world tree and wisdom steed of Odin. It links underworld, earth and heaven. It links macrocosm to microcosm, and the inner and outer worlds.

Ivy embodies the strength that can come from seeking support, whilst also being associated with poetry and intoxication. Its spiralling, labyrinthine dance turns both inwards and outwards. Ivy is a tenacious plant, skilled in binding and attachment. It is said also to connect us with our own inner resources, giving us “the ability to see through the eyes of the soul beyond the material world” (3).

I am fascinated by the way in which we can read the characteristics of our own hearts and imaginations into the life of trees whilst also connecting with their independent existence and what it can teach us about, for example, interdependence, a slower rhythm of life or the simple miracle of being. When among trees, I am taken up with the life of the tree on its own terms, more than with either botanical knowledge or inherited mythologies pointing to a larger life. It is when I am away from them that I turn fruitfully to their role in the collective imagination. There are different kinds of attention in play here, and I find that it helps to be aware of the difference without doing too far in disentanglement.

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

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

(3) Liz and Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison-Sadd, 1988 (Illustrated by Vanessa Card)

 

WHO IS THE GODDESS I PRAY TO?

The Goddess I pray to has neither name nor form. Concerning Her, I have a felt sense of primal cosmic motherhood. I avoid imagery, whilst assuming that She could take any form in the apparent world and does in fact take every form.

She does not have to be female, in the world’s understanding – though for me ‘She’, ‘Goddess’ and ‘Cosmic Mother’ are the best terms for affirming a connection. Praying to Her spontaneously, I, James, fragile and mortal human, find an I-Thou connection to the living heart of being. In the formal setting of the Druid prayer, where I may be feeling naturally integrated, asking the Goddess for protection increases my sense of sacred openness and enlivens me energetically. Sometimes, I feel the grace of an ageless power at my back as I say the prayer.

I think of a Greek wisdom tradition, evolving over time from a veneration of the Moon (1,2), in which She is Zoe, the life beyond time, and I, as one of her children, am Bios, the life which is born, dies and is born again. Ultimately, I find is no separation between us. Indeed, the smallest blade of grass is imbued with the power and presence of the Goddess, the source of all. But there are times when I strongly and appropriately sense my individual littleness. Then especially I look for an I-Thou relationship with a perceived higher power. In this relationship, prayer is valid.

Bringing prayer into my practice moves my inquiry forward in two ways. The first works by integrating Sophian themes from earlier inquiry into my practice of Druidry (3,4). The second is a tilt towards a faith position of sorts, which I have stood back from hitherto. Greg Goode may be right to say that (5) “everything is paradoxical. We can’t even say that it’s consciousness or that anything exists”. But I have pitched my tent, all the same: I am working in the faith that the term ‘consciousness’, like ‘living heart of being’ or ‘source of all’, points to a cosmic foundation from which I, as human, am not separate.

I have arrived at a form of panentheism, a Oneness that allows for a zone of distinction between the human and the divine. This view provides a clearer context for my At-Homeness in the flowing moment, the experience where I lean most into union. At other times, praying to the Goddess may help to soften me up. In the softened state, I more readily re-connect with source and all. I am enabled to be a more effective agent, and capacity for the world. All of these experiences and understandings are now included in my Druid view and practice.

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

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/04/16/lunar-wisdom/

(3)https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/11/05/sophian-way/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/30/world-tree-and-sophia/

(5) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/01/19/scepticism-openness-and-flow/

RIPPLE EFFECTS: WHERE PRAYER CAN BE VALID

The story of Elaine’s illness is her story. She is the central character and, in describing her experience, she has used the language of rebirth. Her words sound congruent and meaningful to me. I have a place in her story, and she in mine. We are together a lot of the time. Her dramatic hospitalisation and return have had significant ripple effects on me – not as a stone thrown into a pond rippling out in circles, but as distinctive currents moving in one body of water.

From an inquiry perspective, I find myself in a new place concerning prayer. Something in me broke open when Elaine was in hospital, after her own life-and-death crisis was past, but when she was still very ill, and it was still possible for something to go wrong. We couldn’t see each other of course but were texting. I wept and prayed when alone, having completely forgotten that I ‘don’t believe’ in petitionary prayer.

This is something that happens for many people in crisis, and I could have gone back to my previous setting, especially after Elaine came home, out of danger. But I haven’t – because I know that, regardless of any effect that my prayers may have had on Elaine’s wellbeing, they made me somehow more present, with a more porous and open sense being. Prayer seems to push me in the direction of compassionate capacity and availability, at the very least making me more conscious of my existing limitations and willing to move beyond them.

I have reflected on my practice, and the understandings behind it, and I have made changes. I wrote about my previous position in the post My Druid Prayer – https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/27/ . I still respect it. I stand by my references to ‘Oneness’ as universal interbeing. The version of the prayer I offered was liked both by Humanist and Naturalist Druids and by those influenced by the example of non-theistic forms of Non-Duality, such as Buddhism and Taoism. I am glad to have written this revision, and I will continue to use it on some occasions. But in my daily evening practice, when I say the Druid Prayer, I have returned to tradition, beginning ‘Grant O Goddess your protection’ rather than ‘In the recognition of Oneness I find protection’. For my changed relationship to prayer also opens up a changed relationship with the divine, which I am exploring now and will write about soon. I am working towards a more integrated Druidry, inclusive of a devotional space where prayer can be valid.

WOODS AND WATER

Yesterday, Thursday 18 February, was the first that felt like spring. The recent cold was gone. The rain that followed largely held off. I went out for a longer walk than for some time, and I felt a natural bubbling up of joy. It doesn’t take much, and I was able to open up to the renewing light and a sense of latent growth and possibility in the world around me. There are two months starting about now that have a sense of equinoctial wonder for me, with light and dark roughly in balance and a lot of change in the land. Yesterday felt like the beginning of this loved and valued time.

A good deal has been happening for me internally, which is influencing my spiritual practice and understanding in subtle but important ways. I will write about this in the weeks to come. But yesterday’s walk was a chance to be out in a woodland, as one being in the web of life connecting with others. Experiences like this are both simple and profound for me, and I feel grateful for the opportunity to have them.

PHILIP CARR-GOMM: DELICIOUS EMPTINESS

I attach a link to Philip Carr-Gomm’s podcast Delicious Emptiness, in his Tea with a Druid series. The series is produced by the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD) which Philip led for over thirty years. The podcast beautifully describes meditation as a means of cultivating ‘delicious emptiness’ and its possible fruits. Highly recommended. OBOD can be found on http://www.druidry.org/ .

TIME, SEASON AND TIMELESSNESS

Every process in nature has its season, and its interdependence with other processes and events occurring at the same time. Part of our climate crisis involves the breakdown of long-standing relationships of interdependence. Where I live, the year at least seems, mostly, to move in its time-honoured way, though with an increase in storms and flooding. The flowers of early spring are comforting both in their presence and promise. Yet there are nagging questions about what disruptions the future holds for us, and how soon. This is before I open my awareness to include what other people in other places are already having to deal with.

Such instability impacts my contemplative life. I cannot rely on an externalised ‘nature’ for re-assurance about a world and life that will endure for me, or for beings like me living lives I can recognise. Conceptually, I have always known this, at least since I read H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine when I was eleven years old. It opened me up to the full implications of evolution by natural selection, a memorable moment in my education. I can remember sitting in early summer grass absorbing the insight. Now, both context and understanding are different. I am a lot older, in a time where premonitions of decline and fall can be placed in a near rather than remote future.

Yet the wheel of the year continues to move beautifully around the circumference of my circle. The centre is a different space entirely. I name it, in the About section of this blog, as “an at-homeness in the flowing moment”. This phrase comes out of my own experience rather than from the language of the traditions, and it “is not dependent on belief or circumstances, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given”. I link this with peace and non-separation from source, a groundless ground though the latter might be.

Over the last year I have been influenced Robert Lanza and Bob Berman’s work on Biocentrism (1,2) discussed at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/02/03/biocentrism/ – I find myself leaning into their view of a cosmos where space and time are removed as “actual entities rather than subjective, relative and observer-created phenomena” thereby pulling the rug “from the notion that an external world exists within its own independent skeleton”. Such cosmology, not yet on the horizon for the Wells of 1895, makes reality more provisional and more ultimately unknowable than the reality of common sense. But for me, common sense reality is not lessened by being relativised, and I remain very busy with space and time. Rather, it becomes richer and more vivid, and more imbued with possibilities and potentials than my blinkered understanding can readily grasp. My contemplative ‘centre’ (ultimately unboundaried) is paradoxically a setting of peace and happiness – and also one of creativity and hope.

(1) Robert Lanza, MD, with Bob Berman Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe Dallas, TX: Benbella Books, 2009

(2) Robert Lanza, MD, with Bob Berman Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, and the Illusion of Death Dallas, TX: Benbella Books, 2016

CHANGE IN MIND

The appearance of a daffodil in our garden is a delight. Daffodils in early February feel quite different from the iconic Imbolc snowdrops, whose beauty still feels wintry. The solar yellow of the daffodil disrupts my winter habits of mind. The flower is a clearer harbinger of spring in the world’s life and mine. In a number of different ways, I am recovering my belief in movement and change. The daffodil tells me that it is time for a vitalising re-orientation.

A Covid-19 vaccination tomorrow is another event in a new pattern of life and experience. My wife Elaine’s recovery following her recent hospitalisation is another and greater one. Her convalescence is a gradual process and we are still living very carefully. But we are thinking creatively about the new life before us and how best to inhabit it, even whilst living a day at a time.

I notice that I feel more spiritually sensitive and open. I do not know yet where this is going to take me. On the one hand I feel strongly moved by a single flower. On the other, the world of appearances feels dreamlike and provisional. Then there is the vividness of daily life and relationship. A change is happening and I’m not looking for an explanatory language to pigeonhole it, or to make it abstract and safe. For now, I am simply acknowledging a change in mind.

BIRCH: NEW BEGINNINGS

Within my mandala of the year (1) Birch – Beith in the Irish ogham alphabet (2) – is the first tree for the spring quarter beginning at Imbolc. The overall theme of this quarter, in my world, is one of early growth. Birch presides from 1-22 February and will become one of the first trees to flower in spring, from March onwards. It is also one of the first trees to colonise new ground.

In ogham lore Birch is understood to support new beginnings and to encourage careful preparation, a skilful laying of the ground on which we will build. “In making your spiritual journey with this tree as your guide, remember to concentrate your mind on the uplifting slender whiteness of the tree, a whiteness that stands out clearly from the tangled undergrowth and confusion of shrubs and thorny bushes that cover the floor and, hence, may inhibit an easy journey” (3). The Green Man’s wisdom (1) is that a good beginning leads to a good conclusion.

In runic tradition (4), where Birch (Beorc, Berkana) is also linked to new beginnings, there is specific reference to the young Goddess, sexuality and birth, as well as beauty and creativity more generally. Birch may signal a laying aside of old patterns, whether merely redundant or positively toxic, and a willingness to welcome new, more energising and nourishing ways of being.

For me, this is a welcome shift from the necessary defensiveness and protectiveness of alder. This year, it comes just at the moment where such a shift is possible – as my wife Elaine continues her recovery from major illness and we begin to dream and think our way forward, into a new cycle of life. The wheel turns, and there is a promise of positive change in the air.

(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 spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(3) Liz and Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison-Sadd, 1988 (Illustrated by Vanessa Card)

(4) Sweyn Plowright The Rune Primer: a Down to Earth Guide to the Runes Rune-Net, 2006

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