contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: April, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: KLARA AND THE SUN

Klara and the Sun (1), is Kazuo Ishiguru’s most recent novel. It is a careful exploration of sentience, relationship and affection in a world increasingly reliant on artificial intelligence and genetic ‘enhancement’.

I found this book brilliant and haunting, with its combination of formal restraint and devastating insight. For readers familiar with Ishiguru’s work, its greatest resonance is with Never Let Me Go, though there are also echoes of The Remains of the Day. Klara is an AF (Artificial Friend), manufactured to befriend young people of the elite class during their adolescent years. These children themselves are, in most cases ‘lifted’ through genetic enhancement, to gain access to the colleges which act as gateways to elite roles in adulthood. In almost all cases, ‘lifting’ is a requirement for entry. Unfortunately, lifting is also hazardous for the young people concerned.

We meet Klara in the store where she is waiting to be bought. She has been manufactured to be sensitive, empathetic and observant. She watches and learns as customers come and go. Solar powered, she also develops an animistic devotion to the sun. She loves being close to the shop window. It improves her chances of purchase. It allows her to watch the street and its life. Above all improves her access to the sun and his nourishment. From the perspective of the reader, she is excruciatingly hopeful and content with her lot.

Most of the book is about Klara’s relationship with Josie, who chooses her as Artificial Friend. Klara has an unstinting love and loyalty for Josie, which is genuinely reciprocated to a degree, though not entirely reliably. Josie has had problems with being uplifted and her health is poor. As different characters come into play, we learn more about life in the elite of Klara’s world, their varying attitudes to Artificial Friends, and the place of non-elite humans. The story unfolds. Klara retains her love and loyalty towards Josie, and her devotional faith in the sun and his nourishment, from beginning to end.

Ishiguru creates a world that has fairy tale aspect, so his book is not exactly speculation about a possible future. Nonetheless, his themes are pertinent to possible futures, especially in the realm of AI. The writing combines beauty, economy and precision, all the better to wring the heart of the sensitive reader. My hope lies in the intimation that sentient beings can indeed find nourishment, even in a dystopic world.

(1) Kazuo Ishiguru Clara and the Sun London: Faber & Faber, 2021

REMEMBERING THE GLASTONBURY THORN

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), hawthorn presides from 1-23 May. It celebrates Beltane and the rising strength of the sun. Looking forward to that time, I think particularly of a specific tree, the Glastonbury thorn at Wearyall Hill, to represent that period. But the tree is gone, and is now unlikely to return, though ever-living in my heart and imagination..

It was a variety of common hawthorn (crataegus monogyna biflora) that flowered twice a year – first around Christmas and then in spring. I took the photograph in a misty Imbolc moment in 2007, between flowerings. It is the only one I will ever have, and for that reason I treasure it. The much revered tree was vandalised in 2010. New shoots appearing from March 2011 mysteriously disappeared. A new sapling, grafted from a descendent or the original tree, was planted in 2012 and consecrated – only to be snapped in half and irreparably damaged 16 days later. In May 2019, after some years of hesitation, the tree was entirely removed by the landowner in a final acceptance that the tree was lost. Sacred thorn trees, said to be descended from the same original, can still be found in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey and at the Church of St. John.

I particularly liked the Wearyall Hill tree, because it was physically removed from the bustle of Glastonbury as a twenty-first century spiritual centre. The hill just seemed quietly natural – pagan, if you wanted to think of it that way, or Christian, if you wanted to link it to the story of Joseph of Arimathea’s staff, and how it came to life and flowered when planted in a new land. I was shocked by the violence against the tree and against other people’s love for it.

An ancestor of thee thorn (the individual plants do not last forever) had been cut down before, probably in 1647 by a Parliamentary soldier in England’s civil war. For the thorn was strongly linked to royal patronage, the miracle of a Christmas flowering, and a link between sacred land and sacred kingship. The kind of Royalism represented by this constellation of ideas and images was strong in Somerset at that time, but so was religious Puritanism, allied to a wish for constitutional change. The war was bitterly fought within the county. The legend of the thorn, cultivated by one group of people, made it vulnerable to another group of people identified with different loyalties.

The modern destruction of the thorn also seems not to have been casual, or it wouldn’t have been repeated so systematically. But I am not sure of the motivation. I find myself understanding a seventeenth century act of violence better than the modern one. Was this venerated tree the victim of a current human culture war? Are there potential lessons for Avalonians? Whatever the case, I am still in mourning.

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: 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. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

‘WHIRLPOOL’: THE POWER OF AN IMAGE

For R. J. Stewart (1), the deepest vision and reality of the Underworld is “that the stars are within the Earth, within ourselves, not distant and remote”. He explains a vision in which our habitual awareness, personal and collective, “is on the surface of existence” and that “the primal reality is in the depths, not only of ourselves, but of the land and planet, which are of the universal Being. So we do not reach out and away from ourselves, but plunge into the otherworld that is the source of our own and, more important, is the source of the stars themselves.  In the Whirlpool realm, we find the deepest intimations of our inherent universal Being. It leads us to the sacredness of the planet, of the body, for deep within is all that is, the source of the four Powers emerging from the Void”*.

The Dreampower Tarot, which Stewart devised together with artist Stuart Littlejohn, is structured around a descent from the surface through three realms: stone, pearl and whirlpool. To a large extent these correspond to the traditional western distinctions of body, soul and spirit, though emphasising a journey of descent rather than ascent. The Whirlpool realm, and the individual Whirlpool card, involve a quest “for truth and reality that reaches within towards the source of Being. In this sense it also shows wonder and awe, the Mystery within that turns all existence, setting the worlds in motion through the cycle of the Powers and Elements.” Hence the Whirlpool can be called an archetypal image – putting a star field in the foundational depths of consciousness. The use of the term ‘whirlpool’ for a “spiralling nebula of stars” skilfully introduces water references into the picture, offering further disruptions of common sense for the imagination to make use of.

In an earlier work (2), Stewart places a star field at the centre of a creation myth, one that begins with darkness and void until light begins to appear, and “the light that spreads through the darkness is starlight, and we find that we are in the centre of a vast wheel of stars, rising and falling all around us”. Here he introduces the Goddess Ariadne, “Weaver of Being and Unbeing”, creator of form. Her description is too specific and too anthropomorphic for me. But there is something in the process which unfolds that resonates: “Out of the silence a sound emerges … It is the sound of breath. We become aware of a breathing in and out, and realize that this breathing is our breath and yet the breath of all Being. We breathe, Being breathes. Slowly we feel form assemble from the breathing, and realize that we have a body which is the body of all Being.  The stars are within us, we are formed of the Weaving.” 

I have a powerful sense of the motherhood of the cosmos, and of being companioned, though not instructed, in learning to breathe. I have intrauterine and early post natal experiences – not readily accessible, but held within me – to influence my shaping of experience. I have adult experiences of rebirthing and holotropic breathing that have enabled me to reprise the original process and helped me distinguish personal from transpersonal and universal elements. Today I can add the sense of a universe born with every breath, here and now. Somewhere here I do indeed find the Goddess, as I also find her in everything around me.

(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 Way of Merlin: the Prophet, the Goddess and the Land London: The Aquarian Press, 1991

*In this vision the Void is the source of all being, and the four powers are life, light, love and law – with the last being alternately understood as liberation. These powers are associated with the four elements, respectively air, fire, water and earth.

FAREWELL POEM

Passion too deep seems like none.

While we drink, nothing shows but the smile that will not come.

The wax candles feel, suffer at partings:

Their tears drip for us until the sky brightens.

Tu Mu (803-52)

From: Poems of the Late T’ang translated from the Chinese with an introduction by A.C. Graham Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965

Of this poet, Graham says: “Tu Mu is most admired as the master of chueh-chu, the New Style quatrain with an AABA rhyme scheme, like that of Omar Khayyam. The swift elegance of his verses, running effortlessly within strict formal limits, cannot be captured in my easy-going sprung rhythms.”

MORE AT HOME: APRIL 2021

I am feeling more at home in a number of ways. A much loved view through a bedroom window is enough. I can look out and lose myself, holding an image both of continuity and change as the seasons move. One way in which I experience the year is in two halves. Beltane initiates the summer half of a two season year, with Samhain beginning winter.

I often find the extended six months ‘winter’ to be productive for my contemplative inquiry. In the six months now about to end, I have completed an important shift, a shift that reframes an inquiry insight dating from 2018. At that time I said: “I discovered an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment, which nourishes and illuminates my life. Such at-homeness is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given.”

My view then was that it is best to steer away from metaphysical commitments, as the Buddha is said to have done. “At-homeness in the flowing moment” could work as a dignified existential choice for a humanist, an agnostic or a person with a stance of ‘sustainable nihilism’ (1). It could also work for people firmly based in contemplative versions of monotheist and polytheist spiritual traditions. Indeed it could work for anyone and would be blissfully light on doctrine and opportunities for argument and dissension.

That said, whist still fully embracing the original insight, I now find it incomplete. I have for some time been filled with the sense of a living cosmos, in a way that cuts across the grain of the culture I come from, with its parsimonious definition of ‘life’. I am animist in sharing Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of ‘Interbeing’, where everything is interconnected and nothing is really born, lives or dies in a state of separate selfhood (2). Life just changes. Now I have taken to heart the sense that the life which changes has a Source, or ground of Being, in which the whole web of life is embedded.

Hence I am human and I am also that ground of Being. Being cannot be found as an object, but I can apprehend Being in two ways. One is by looking in and finding my primordial and true nature in and as Being. The second is by looking out and finding Being everywhere and in everything. In each case, the inside/outside distinction finally dissolves. Humanly, I am distinct but not separate from Being, temporarily individuated in the world of space and time, as is everything else in this world. At the deepest level, as Being, I am no thing and yet present in and as everything.

I have reached a commitment to this view partly as a result of contemplative inquiry and partly as an act of faith, trusting my deepest understanding. In the wider world, this understanding is called ‘non-dual’ or ‘panentheist’. It is neither demonstrable nor falsifiable as a proposition, and I continue to appreciate that the map is not the territory. All words feel somehow wrong, just as the Tao Te Ching warns when it begins with “the name you can say isn’t the real name” (3). Yet Lao Tzu persisted with his writing, and gave the world one of its most loved scriptures. From time to time, the effort with language has to be made.

Modern movements (4,5) have made the experiential recognition of our true nature, or ultimate divinity, available to ordinary people through skilful means developed for our time. I have made connections with such movements, but I still anchor myself in Druidry. Humanly, a conscious I-I relationship with Source, or dwelling in and as Source, is not everything to me. I am drawn, too, to I-Thou relationship, honouring a devotional need that wants to be expressed. The Indian sages who first developed non-duality as a spiritual philosophy did not challenge or abandon the flourishing polytheism of their culture. They continued the practice of deity yoga. It serves the dance of being and becoming in this world. This, I believe, is the role of the Goddess in my life (6). I have much still to learn here. Meanwhile my at-homeness grows stronger.

(1) http://jonnyfluffypunk.co.uk/

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017

(3) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton)

(4) http://www.headless.org/

(5) https://eckharttolle.com/

(6) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/02/24/who-is-the-goddess-I-pray-to/

SILENT SITTING MEDITATION

There is the moment, and there is the flow. The photograph holds the moment and the image at first seems still. Looking more closely, we can infer the turbulence that accompanies flow. All those ripples, and wavelets and swirls. They testify to the life of the stream in time.

I have taken up silent sitting meditation after a long break, making a commitment to myself of at least thirty minutes a day. I have incorporated silent sitting meditation into both my morning and evening practices, so the individual sessions need not be long. I am not made for long meditations. but I do now find that an element of silent sitting meditation enriches my contemplative life and inquiry.

I like the term ‘silent sitting meditation’ for its plainness and descriptive accuracy. I am distinguishing this meditation from the ones that I learned through Druidry, which, even when not guided, depend on visualisation and narrative. At the same time I am avoiding close identification with the ‘mindfulness’ brand. It feels like a prescriptive pre-shaping of my lived experience as a meditator. A strong intuition, gift perhaps of the Goddess in her Wisdom, wants the meditative life to be free of such labels.

So I sit. With two sessions a day, I find that my natural length of session is from 20-35 minutes and so with two sessions I am overshooting my commitment. That’s a good indication that I am not straining myself. I don’t want my meditation to be goal-oriented. Rather, I open myself to the energy of living experience, and let it lead me.

I do begin, conventionally, with a breath focus, following the sensations and the gaps after in-breath and out-breath, with loving attention. I also open myself to other sensations, which (with my eyes closed) will mostly be internal body sensations or external sounds. I think that the love in loving attention matters. There are people within the mindfulness movement who think it might better have been called heartfulness. This introduces a sense of compassion for everything that arises. Within the experience, I can feel whole, at home in the Heart of Being which holds up and informs my human life. When I am consciously present, it is a place of peace, joy and inspiration.

In the course of a session, I will taste this state from time to time. At other times I find myself engaged with images (some seeming otherworldly), or narrative streams, that I also value. These experiences seem to have an authentic energy that I cannot simply dismiss as distractions. I want to allow them in and engage with them. Indeed, even where the passing content of experience seems entirely mundane or even distressed, I will welcome it and keep it company. I will hold it in love. Outside the meditation, it may provide a cue for some more dedicated healing or inquiry process.

It may be for this reason that I do not characteristically find distress distorted thoughts and feelings hijacking or sabotaging the meditative flow. They know my willingness to meet them. This means that the other experience, the wellspring of my life, is rarely far away and never forgotten. It doesn’t even require formal meditation. For me, silent sitting meditation supports a fuller life, lived from the Heart of Being. But it is not, by any means, a requirement for it.

TREE MANDALA: BLACKTHORN

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), blackthorn (ogham, straif) covers 8-30 April, the final twenty-three days before Beltane. It has a beautiful white flower and elegant sharp thorns. I have seen descriptions of the latter as ‘vicious’, but they only hurt us if we invade the blackthorn’s space. The plant is not a triffid. It doesn’t come after us. So I don’t follow the line of tradition that links blackthorn to harsh fate. Blackthorn doesn’t ask to be turned into guardian hedges or crowns of thorn. That is down to our fellow humans.

The picture above comes from my magic year of 2007, happily well documented, when I was much engaged with trees and Druid study. I felt a pull towards blackthorn, more than towards the generality of hawthorn during that period. (I will write about the Glastonbury Thorn, the exception, at Beltane, my last tree mandala with a ‘memory lane’ theme).

I am drawn particularly to the strand of tradition that links blackthorn to powerfully creative magic – for it was long used in the making of wizards’ staffs. The text of The Green Man Oracle (2) suggests that “we have forgotten the magic that lies within us”. Blackthorn in particular has the ability to “foster waking dreams”. The Oracle adds that, “to access this personal magic, we must step away from busy, surface consciousness, and sink deeply into the ever flowing stream of our magical dreams. The ideas, scenes and presences that throng the deepest levels of our understanding require intense listening” Such magic, the Oracle continues, brings a light into the darkest places. For me that would mean just enough light to illuminate them, and not so much as to dazzle them into negation. How otherwise can the denizens of the dark be offered a welcome home if they want it, and in any event a better understanding?

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

EARLY APRIL ENERGY 2021

April has been called the cruellest month. But I am experiencing a much hoped-for kindness right now. I am expansive and energised. Finally, it feels like spring in my neighbourhood. Spring as it is meant to be.

The natural world is changing, and a tentatively recovering human population is beginning to reclaim the outdoors. Now is a moment for celebrating the life force – nwyfre, viriditas, whatever we may want to call it. I find my own feelings reflected back in the vitality and vigour of the world I see around me.

The greening of the trees, and hence much of my local landscape, has started. I hope for a fuller transformation by Beltane – now less than four weeks away.

There is an abundance of colour in the woods, with the emphasis changing from the delicate blossoms we have already seen to more robust and stronger coloured flowers.

Even entering a built environment, floral energy arches across the paths.

In the animal kingdom, life is stirring too. On the canal, rivers and ponds around me, swans are now pairing and nesting. I hope they have another good year.

It almost hurts to know that life – so fleeting and variable – can be so good.

WHERE THE LIGHT GETS IN

The pot belongs to my wife Elaine*, and used to live outdoors. Late in the winter it filled with rain. Then there were days of frost and the water turned into ice. The ice needed more room, and pushed against the sides of the pot. When the ice melted the pot fell apart in two neat halves. Nature in action, over time.

As part of her work, Elaine knows something about kintsugi, which literally means “golden joinery”. This treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. Culturally, the approach is an aspect of wabi-sabi, the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Elaine’s repair, applying kintsugi, is literally illuminated.

The result reminds me of the refrain in Leonard Cohen’s Anthem.

“Ring the bells that still can ring.

“Forget your perfect offering.

“There is a crack in everything.

“That’s where the light gets in.”

After some hesitation, I added my Tibetan bells to the picture above. The cord attaching the two bells is about half its original length due to wear and tear. But the bells still ring. My ownership of them, here and now, is almost certainly the result of Tibet’s collective disaster and the resultant Tibetan diaspora. In the world of biological life and time, disaster and repair are a common theme. If the crack is where the light gets in, the work of repair is sacred.

*See https://elaineknight.wordpress.com

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