contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: January, 2022

THICH NHAT HANH ON AIMLESSNESS

Thich Nhat Hanh, the much loved Buddhist teacher from Vietnam, died on 22 January at the age of 95. He had been unwell for some time. He is remembered as peace activist, inventor of the term ‘interbeing’ and teacher of mindfulness practice. For him, this is the practice of being aware of what is going on in the present moment. We can be mindful at any moment, whether we are sad, joyful, angry, and whilst cooking, driving or about to send an email.

I am not a Buddhist. Instead, I feel and recognise Thich Nhat Hanh’s influence on my practice of Druidry – especially my sense of at-homeness, or presence, in the living moment. In memory and appreciation of him, I want to share a piece he wrote about aimlessness as as a ‘door of liberation’ (1).

“The concentration on aimlessness means arriving in the present moment to discover that the present moment is the only moment in which you can find everything you’ve been looking for and that you already are everything you want to become.

“Aimlessness does not mean doing nothing. It means not putting something in front of you to chase after. When we remove the objects of our craving and desires, we discover that happiness and freedom are available right here in the present moment.

“We have a habit of running after things, and this habit has been transmitted to us by our parents and ancestors. We don’t feel fulfilled in the here and now, and so we run after all kinds of things we think will make us happier. We sacrifice our life chasing after objects of craving or striving for success in our work or studies. We chase after our life’s dream and lose ourselves along the way. We even lose our freedom and happiness in our efforts to be mindful, to be healthy, to relieve suffering in the world, or to get enlightened. We disregard the wonders of the present moment, thinking that heaven and the ultimate are for later, not for now.

“To practice meditation means to have the time to look deeply and see these things. If you feel restless in the here and now, or you feel ill at ease, you need to ask yourself: ‘what am I longing for? what am I waiting for? what am I searching for?'”

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017

OLD CITY, NEW HOME

Above, a city park containing monastic ruins. I am beginning to make sense of a new habitat. The distance door-to-door is only about ten miles from the old one. But it feels very different. Stroud the Cotswold mill town is hilly and hard on the older pedestrian. Gloucester is an old English city on the river Severn, much flatter. The centre, where we now live, has become highly pedestrian friendly in recent years. This was a key motivator for our move and it already feels transformational.

On an exploratory amble on Sunday, Elaine and I were very aware of history. St. Oswald’s Priory, in the picture above, was founded by Lady Aethelflaed of Mercia, daughter of Alfred the Great, around 900. The Priory Church, initially dedicated to St. Peter, was constructed from recycled Roman stones. (The Romans founded the city, as Glevum, in the first century CE, and it never quite died after their departure from Britain). In Aetheflaed’s time it was a bold and unusual move to build a church as there were frequent Viking raids. Quite possibly Aethelflaed and her husband were later interred in the crypt. Archaeological excavations in the 1970s revealed a 10th century fragment of carved slab from the grave of someone of high importance.

In the centuries that followed St Oswald’s grew rich as a place of pilgrimage and was at the centre of a large parish. But later it declined, as institutions do. It was almost literally in the shadow of the more successful Abbey of St. Peter, now Gloucester Cathedral, where the power of the church was now based. Architecturally, the cathedral (below) still dominates the city.

When Elaine and I were walking together on Sunday, the bells were ringing and we found ourselves enjoying this as an expression of the old city’s identity. As in other old cathedral cities, the cathedral is characteristically approached through narrow, often arched lanes and then appears magnificently in front of us.

We have another church, St. Mary-Le-Crypt (below), even closer to home, and cut through its churchyard to get to a major traditional shopping street. Like the cathedral, it continues to serve Anglican (Episcopalian) worshippers and to be part of the wider community.

I have as yet no idea what effect, if any, living in Gloucester will have on my contemplative inquiry, nested as it is in Druidry and Earth spirituality. It is much too early to tell. From the perspective of the living moment, I am delighted to be soaking in new impressions, aware that this is where I live now. Looking out, this is what I will frequently see. These sights are part of the texture of my daily experience now, and I welcome them as such. It greet a new way of being at home.

THE BLESSINGS OF A WINTER WALK

A winter morning walk with the temperature gently rising above freezing. Internally I’m here, now and at home, as the world changes around me. Walking outside becomes a meditation without effort or solemnity.

It feels good to be reminded, on the cusp of a house move, that at-homeness is portable, embracing variety and change. Light dances with shade. Mist gradually disperses into a blue sky. Still images can point to the process of growth, as with the red berries below, which startled me with their vividness when I saw them.

I find it a comforting, simple pleasure to observe the changes in familiar spaces throughout the day and the year. Because I am leaving the locality, I am delighting in the images I take away from this day’s walk – the land, the water, sunlight and mist; a quietly decaying building and its reflection; railway arches, a footbridge over a stream. Soon, a new landscape will take on its own familiarity.

Finally, I am moved by the light and shade on our garden path, such a good way to end a walk.

READYING FOR RELOCATION

I will be moving house very soon. This will no longer be the view from my bedroom window. My gaze today is tinged with premature nostalgia.

This gaze shows continuity and slow, gradual change in the world outside. This world wears its winter look, with bare branches and extensive views. At other times of the year, both are covered by foliage. But the solstice darkness has already withdrawn from the mid-afternoon. Today is blessed with strong sunlight and blue sky. The year is turning again, now towards the light.

The house move feels more abrupt. I have lived here for longer than anywhere else in my adult life. Chiefly it has been the hallowed setting for my life with Elaine (1). Whilst living here, I completed my OBOD training, later beginning a self-directed exploration of contemplative Druidry, including a 4 year project within the Druid community (2). For a while, contemplative inquiry – within and beyond Druidry – became the guiding principle of my spirituality. Now it is more like an influential thread within my Druid practice.

I wonder what changes life in another location will make, as Elaine and I continue our journey together. There will be only a limited break from the past. We will be in the same county, though not the same town. But there will be differences too. The psychogeography will be different. The spirits of place will be different. The world beyond our windows will be new.

(1) http://www.elaineknight.wordpress.com

(2) James Nichol , Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, Amazon/Kindle, 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

WELCOMING 2022

Bright Blessings to everyone at the turn of the calendar year. With some fears and greater hopes, I have crossed the threshold into 2022. I have welcomed it into my life and declared myself ready for the journey.

In a way, ‘2022’ is a fiction woven from our human experience of linear time and a cultural decision about numbers. But these things are thoroughly ingrained in me and feel like givens, completely natural. I remember clocking this, or signing up to the tribal custom, in the new year of 1957, when I was 7 years old and found myself remembering 1956 as a full, known year. It was the first time I had been conscious of such a thing. Now I was somewhere new and exciting (1957) though the feel of my bedclothes was familiar in the very dim early morning light. I remember this vividly and, truth be told, better than I remember waking up yesterday.

Flowing water is often used as an image for the passing of linear time. On my walk yesterday morning, I checked this out in nature and made two brief videos of a stream. Standing on the bridge at slightly different times, facing in opposite directions, I filmed a stream flowing both towards me and away from me. My feelings about the two were a little different.

The water coming towards me felt fresh and energised. I was curious about the patterns on the surface both from the flow itself and from the rain. I was drawn in, more meditatively, by the sound. I was also interested in what stories the water might hold. But I didn’t follow these up, out of concern for losing the immediate experience. Above all I, felt invigorated. I enjoyed this flow.

Flowing away was different. It wasn’t raining and I could hear – I think – sea gulls. They are certainly around. Again I enjoyed patterns in the water and the enlivening strength of the flow. But I was strongly aware of it moving away from me. Yes – it was reliably replenished … but for how much longer? And, in any case, a movement away is a movement away. Movements away carry a sense of loss. This isn’t just about my age. It is built into the experience of linear time. Things pass away into a temporal distance. Linear time is the mechanism that allows anything to ‘happen’ at all, but also the guarantor of impermanence. There’s a poignancy in this condition that I allow myself to experience and hold – not, here, seeking comfort in the eternal. I watch the power of a little stream, grateful for the miracle of existence, softly sad about its vulnerable brevity.

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