contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: May, 2021

LEARNING FROM OTHER TRADITIONS: KASHMIR SHAIVISM

My Druidry is an earth pathway and a nature mysticism – and it is more than that. It is concerned with recognising, and living from, a divine identity in a divine world. I practice a panentheist, non-dual, Druidry. But few of the mystical traditions known to history have fully held the two aspects together as one. Kashmir Shaivism, a form of traditional Indian Tantra, is an exception. Sally Kempton (1) explains.

“Rejecting the Vedantic view that the material world is illusory, an empty dream, the sages of Kashmir Shaivism saw all forms of the universe as manifestations of divine creative energy, of Shakti, the dynamic female principle. They worshipped Shakti in themselves, in the earth, and in every substantial and insubstantial thing, and they looked for the pulsing heart of divine bliss within all domains of experience. Astute seekers of the tradition knew innumerable pathways for uncovering the experience of the divine. They knew how to extract it from states like terror or pleasure or in the high point of a sneeze; the knew how to find the pulsation of ecstasy in empty space, in fixed attention, and in the sensations that come from swaying or twirling, or enjoying music or the taste of food.

“But the crucial insight of Shaivism is the recognition that when human consciousness lets go of its identification with the body and reflects back on itself, it is revealed as a perfect, if limited, form of the supreme ‘I’, which is God. By expanding their own I-consciousness beyond its limits, past its tendency to cling to narrow definitions of itself, yogis of the Shaivite path experienced God as themselves.

“Because they saw the world as divine, the Shaivite yogis of Kashmir had no difficulty enjoying life in all its different flavors. In this they differed from their Vedantic cousins and from the Madhyamika Buddhists who inhabited the same region of India. Shaivism was not a traditional renunciate’s path. Abhinavagupta (975-1025 CE), the preeminent genius of the tradition, was not only a philosopher and a widely revered guru but also an aesthetician, and artist and musician, and the center of a circle where sensory experience – including art, music and drama – was constantly being transmuted into yoga.

“It is this insight – that a serious practitioner of yoga does not reject their world, but instead transforms daily experience through their practice – that sets Kashmir Shaivism apart from many Indian yogic traditions, and has made this system particularly resonant for our time.”

(1) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011

TREE MANDALA: BEECH AND BLUEBELL

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), beech and bluebell together cover the period from 24 May-15 June – taking over from hawthorn and handing on to oak. In this instance, I am drawn by the powerful visual effects of bluebells carpeting woodland in which beech is the dominant tree.

The picture above is an old one. The last year in which Elaine and I went into this space (2018 or 2019) the wood felt weird. Part of it – not quite the area in the picture – was a scene of desolation. A lot of the trees had been taken down, with a kind of ragged insensitivity. It felt like a bad moment in Lord of the Rings. I don’t know the story behind this. Perhaps there was disease, or some other genuine need for a thinning out of trees. It was certainly systematic, with notices about the work being done – the result of management, and not of vandalism, in the conventional usage of our language.

The beech is an elegant tree, and I experience it as having a soft energy. It has been traditionally feminised, and thought of as ‘Queen of the Woods’, sharing the place of honour with the kingly oak according to The Green Man Tree Oracle (2). The same source says that “slivers of beech wood and leaves were once carried as talismans to bring good luck and increase creative energy”. Local British traditions associate the beech (ogham name phagos) with serpents “probably because of its long serpentine root systems”, they add – and I wonder too about the archaic link between the Goddess and serpent power in many cultures.

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My personal connection with the tree itself is limited. It concerns this time of year and the association with bluebells. Indeed the bluebell is my main focus, with the beech as complementary. If they are separated, I follow the bluebell, and the picture below is a recent one, of the Spanish variety, from our garden. For me, it represents a favourite moment in the year, to be appreciated while it lasts. It reminds me simultaneously of the poignancy of impermanence (including my own) and the beauty of the eternal present (within which I am held).

(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/

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

SUZANNE SIMARD: FINDING THE MOTHER TREE

Dr. Suzanne Simard grew up in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia, in a family of low impact traditional foresters. She worked for many years a researcher in the Canadian Forest Service, before moving into academia. She is currently Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry. Throughout her career she has had a leading role in changing the way that science thinks about trees and forests. Her research on tree connectivity, communication and cooperation – and their impact on the health and biodiversity of forests – has shown how the imposed monocultures of commercial forestry are a disaster for forests, forestry and the wider ecology of the planet.

Her book Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest was published by Penguin Books in the UK, USA, Canada, Ireland and Australia in 2021 in paper, kindle and audio versions. It describes both a personal journey and a scientific one, and shows how the work Simard came to do grew out of the place and culture in which she was raised. It is as if her achievement had her name on it even at the beginning. I highly recommend this book to any one with an interest in ecology and the sentience of trees.

I cannot do justice in to this inspiring book and its thesis in a single post. Instead, I refer readers to a TED talk on How Trees Talk To Each Other (1), which Simard gave in 2016, summarising her work and its implications in just over 16 minutes. If the talk whets your appetite, the book will likely satisfy it. It says more about Suzanne Simard’s personal and family journey. It describes her ground-breaking (though also fraught and frustrating) time within the Canadian Forest Service in some detail. It also says something about the ecological wisdom of the indigenous peoples of the forest and takes Simard’s own research up to 2020.

(1) http://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other?language=en/

SUMMER’S GATEWAY 2021

For me, 2021 has been a testing year so far. Part of the test has been a cold, wet and hesitant spring – very different from the tantalising splendour of 2020 and the first lockdown. But this morning, 19 May, I had two hours of what I most love in the transition from spring into summer. It was a refreshing and healing experience to be in the woods, hard to describe in words. I am letting pictures do most of the work.

The woodland I walk in is hardly pristine. It grows in a long-disused railway cutting, now refashioned into a cycle track. At this time of year, and throughout the summer, it is wonderfully green and vital. Here, in this early stage, it feels especially fresh and alive.

Although it is limited in size and partly defined by a path, there is enough room in this little domain for both a tangle wood effect and for a spacious carpet of wild garlic among the trees.

Since I was very young, hawthorn and cow parsley have been a feature of this time, in woods and hedgerows. I was pleased at their presence today, and glad to be able to show up and be present for them.

The overall effect was one of exuberant abundance, a life that will declare its power and beauty given any chance. I will give the last image to the hawthorn.

BEING AND PERSPECTIVE

“To have a perspective, a sense of Being has to be there first.

Is there any perspective if there is no sense of Beingness or sense of aliveness?

That same aliveness underlies every perspective.

The Questions – Does it help? Is it of value? –

are questions which people will have their own perspective on.

So, a wordless experience of being that is available to turn to 24/7,

not dependant on a particular feeling, thought or perspective,

All of which come and go.

Not being an attainment

it is not dependent on effort

but when consciously noticed

it is constant and obvious.”

These words from Steve Palmer of the Headless Way summarise my learning from that family when crafting a contemplative Druidry through my inquiry process. The noticing he talks about towards the end is at the centre. Everything else radiates out, re-visioned by the noticing.

http://www.headless.org/

STILL MOMENTS FROM THE FLOW

In the dance of stillness and movement, I feel immersed in movement. I am open to this turn in experience. It’s fundamentally fine. But part of it involves pushing against limited energy in unfamiliar ways. I am needing to work at balancing self-care with getting things done.

I remain still at heart, with space for all the surface tensions, yet there’s an efforting in the day-to-day. I hardly know whether to resist or welcome this. I am living with elements of both. Self-compassion asks that both the resistence and the welcome be given their space.

For many years now, I have lived my spiritual life as a Druid contemplative inquiry. Contemplation is the receptive element and inquiry the active one. Nature, including mine, is the setting. Somehow, I find myself held.

I took this picture recently on a canal walk – the image is of an adjacent stream. Gazing into it now, I see a power and a swirl in this still image, whilst recalling the rapid movement and change of the stream at the time of picturing it. I find that the image evokes a sense of wonder at the power and beauty of moving water, revealing shapes and relationships that shifted too quickly to register fully on the day. In swiftly changing times, stilling and reflection offer a restorative experience.

SUNSET LATENCY

In the rich evening of my life, I’m experiencing a sense of latency. Good – in its suggestion of possibilities. Uncomfortable, in a context of possibilities deferred.

The context is that, for most of this year, I’ve been experiencing breath problems. Once I knew that I didn’t have Covid, I assumed they would go away with winter. But they haven’t. Next week I’ll be having a battery of tests including an electrocardiogram, blood tests and a chest X-ray. I want to find out what is going on, what if any formal medical intervention is required, and how to manage my health going forward. There may be a new normal to accept and work with. I try to cultivate a Druid sensitivity to the life energy within me and a sense of how to nurture it.

Meanwhile, I find that breathing exercises help. They are the same breathing exercises I use to connect with stillness, and rest in the heart of Being – an interesting state of affairs in itself. One one level I am semi-grounded by a degree of impairment and a lack of knowledge about what it implies. On another I am called to intensify my spiritual practice. Problem and opportunity in the same package. Whatever happens, I feel that the opportunity is greater, though it doesn’t always feel that way.

On another level again, my wife Elaine and I, both now twice vaccinated, are wanting to step out into the world again. Our eyes are looking north, towards York, the Tyne and Wear coast, and Scotland – specifically Edinburgh and the Lothians. We have family up there and want to live a little closer to them. We would also like to live closer to the sea. This is quite an old idea, interrupted at first by the uncertainties of Brexit, the pandemic, and Scotland’s future. One thing we have learned is to stop worrying about uncertainties, or we’ll die before making a move. But Elaine’s physical health is also compromised – she was very seriously ill in January, still recovering now – and we have to work to find the energy to make our house presentable, sell it, and settle in another part of the country. We are taking steps whilst being careful not to over-tax ourselves and push the river. A northern tour is planned for early June.

I notice that I am not going on local walks and taking pictures as much as for most of the last eighteen months. In some ways I regret that. In others, I am allowing a change of focus. I am conscious that 2021 has been slower to wake up and bloom here than in the wonderful late spring and early summer of the first lockdown. Cold northerly winds bringing hail and sleet have been a feature. Normally this wouldn’t be a deterrent to me. I like bracing weather and don’t mind getting wet. But this year I’m being cautious. There is a great deal going on, a lot to attend to, another life waiting to break through. I will be 72 later this month, and I’m calculating that I have time for a new worldly adventure, shared with Elaine. We cannot be certain of this, yet I have rarely felt so alive.

SLOW HEALING BREATH: CHANTING HELPS TOO

“When Buddhist monks chant their most popular mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, each spoken phrase lasts six seconds, with six seconds to inhale before the chant starts again. The traditional chant of Om, the “sacred sound of the universe” in Jainism and other traditions, takes six seconds to sing, with a pause of about six seconds to inhale. The sa ta ma na chant, one of the best-known techniques in Kundalini Yoga, also takes six seconds to vocalize, followed by six seconds to inhale. Then there are the ancient Hindu hand and tongue poses called mudras. A technique called khechari, intended to help boost physical and spiritual health and overcome disease, involves placing the tongue above to soft palate so that it’s pointed towards the nasal cavity. The deep, slow breaths taken during this khechari each take six seconds.

“Japanese, African, Hawaiian, Native American, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian – these cultures and religions all had somehow developed the same prayer techniques, using the same breathing patterns. And they all likely benefitted from the same calming effect.

“In 2001, researchers at the University of Pavia in Italy gathered two dozen subjects, covered them with sensors to measure blood flow, heart rate and nervous system feedback and then had them all recite a Buddhist mantra as well as the original Latin version of the rosary, the Catholic prayer cycle of the Ave Maria, which is repeated half by a priest and half by the congregation. They were stunned to find that the average number of breaths for each cycle was ‘almost exactly’ identical, just a bit quicker than the pace of the Hindu, Taoist, and Native American prayers: 5.5 breaths a minute”. [I find the same when chanting the awen – aah-ooo-wen – in Druidry: JN]

“But what was even more stunning was what breathing like this did to the subjects. Whenever they followed this slow breathing pattern, blood flow to the brain increased and the systems in the body entered into a state of coherence, when the functions of heart, circulation and nervous system are coordinated to peak efficiency. The moment the subjects returned to spontaneous breathing or talking, their hearts would beat a little more erratically, and the integration of these systems would slowly fall apart. A few more slow and relaxed breaths, and it would return again.

“A decade after the Pavia tests, two renowned professors and doctors in New York, Patricia Gerbarg and Richard Brown, used the same breathing pattern on patients with anxiety and depression, minus the praying. Some of these patients had trouble breathing, so Gerbarg and Brown recommended that they start with an easier rhythm of three-second inhales with at least the same length exhale. As the patients got more comfortable, they breathed in and breathed out longer.

“It turned out that the most efficient breathing rhythm occurred when both the length of respirations and total breaths per minute were locked into a spooky symmetry: 5.5-second inhales followed by 5.5 second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths a minute. This was the same as the pattern as the rosary. The results were profound, even when practised for just five to ten minutes a day”.

Extract from James Nestor Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art Riverhead Books: USA & Penguin Life, UK: 2020 (Kindle edition)

DANCING SEAHORSES II

I have already written about the Dancing Seahorses image (1) found on a Pictish stone from Aberlemno in the Scottish county of Angus. After seeing the stone on a visit there, in 1992, I bought Marianne Lines’ painting. I have felt strongly involved with this image ever since. I think of it as a friend and guide. In a sense, this post is about the modern use of archaic images by people, like Druids, who are drawn to them.

I do not know the intentions of the original carver. beyond celebrating beings who are half of this world, half of the otherworld, and who embody powerful water energies for Celtic peoples on the Atlantic coasts of Britain, Ireland and Brittany in ancient times. They are remembered in folklore to this day. I do know that the carving made a strong impression on me, when I first saw it on the stone itself. It stayed in my imagination, and over time has deepened and grown new meanings.

Four years after acquiring the painting, I had the image tattooed on each arm. By that time I knew of the way in which it had influenced the cover design for R. J. Stewart’s The Prophetic Vision of Merlin (2). This variant form was used to refer to the story of the young Merlin at Vortigern’s subsidence prone tower in Snowdonia, prophesying his way out of becoming a human sacrifice, and identifying two contending dragons under the foundations. In the book illustration, there is a yin-yang reference, with a suggestions of interdependent primal forces, each of which already contains the seed of the other, seeking balance and alignment. In the Western Mysteries quest for healing and transfiguration, the energy bodies of the land and of humans are deeply interwoven.

There is another, more recent level of understanding, that I derive from the painting and tattoos, but not evident in The Prophetic Vision of Merlin. I see both the dancing seahorses and a second image, behind and containing the immediately apparent one. As I wrote before, “the space where the horses legs are raised defines a shape, suggesting a head. The very emptiness there is a paradoxical mark of presence. To me it became the head of a goddess, with the seahorses then becoming her body. Still clearly appearing as a water being, her arms – if they are arms – are raised in blessing”. I would now add that in this way, she demonstrates the dance of emptiness and form. They are balanced. Neither is privileged over the other. The Celtic knot points both to interconnection and infinity.

I identified the Goddess whilst gazing directly at the original Dancing Seahorses picture, which hangs of a wall directly above my altar. However I believe I received a subconscious nudge from the High Priestess card in The Druidcraft Tarot (3). She wears the image herself. Her hands are raised. She stands as the Goddess. In the Druidcraft narrative, she “represents the magical power of stillness and depth”. For me, the Goddess in Dancing Seahorses represents the ultimate union of emptiness and form, and the rebirth of the cosmos in each moment. Her representation combines the aware potential of the void and a primal aquatic generativity that can inhabit other elements. The Druidcraft priestess is human, but one who wears an image that bespeaks the divine to me, and her role asks for “stillness and depth”.

In my work, the entry into stillness and depth is, firstly, to enter into I-Thou communion with the primal Goddess (Modron) and then to recognise my own true nature, as (mythically) her divine child (Mabon) – sensitive and busted open to the world. This recognition becomes a prayer of gratitude and a surrender of my passing private concerns to Who I really am.

Words and pictures are not enough, but, cherished and contemplated lovingly over time, together they can point the way..

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/06/25/dancing-seahorses/

(2) R. J. Stewart The Prophetic Vision of Merlin London & New York: Arkana, 1986

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

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