contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

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ALBAN ELFED: A TIME FOR RECEPTIVITY?

Blessings of the season! Where I live, the sun is descending but still has a certain power. We have entered the period of the Autumn Equinox, honoured by modern Druids in the festival of Alban Elfed. Traditionally, the emphasis has been on harvest, but Dana O’Driscoll (1) suggests ‘receptivity’ as a resonant theme, “because with receptivity, rather than cultivating an expectation of what we want and expect to come, we are open to what is and what comes our way”.

She relates her approach to the changes that the world is experiencing now. “It is a counter balance to the effort-reward cultural narrative that is tied to the Fall Equinox and themes of harvest. There is one enormous problem with the effort/reward theme on a larger cultural level. It belongs to a different age. It belongs to the Holocene, an 8,000-11,000 year period of stable climate that allowed humans to develop agriculture, allowed humans to have some predictability about their surroundings, and allowed us to develop symbolic understandings like those drawn upon for the modern wheel of the year. … But we are not in the Holocene any longer, both climate-wise and culturally; we’ve moved on to the Anthropocene … characterized by human-driven planetary changes which destabilize every aspect of our lives.”

I find the call to receptivity challenging. Part of me wants the late Holocene back, in a reformed version – socioeconomically, culturally, technologically. Part of me accepts that it has gone for good but doesn’t want to acknowledge the speed and severity of the transition. Currents of anger, fear and grief cry out for recognition. These are as much part of my life-world as are the climate crisis itself, initiatives for adaptation, and the forces undermining those initiatives. I somehow have to find a receptive space for all of the above, without being overwhelmed.

The good news is that my ‘receptivity’ seems to be sourced by a deep peace at the heart of experience, a peace that grows rather than diminishes with time. In my daily practice as a modern Druid I call for peace in the east, south, west, north, deep earth & underworld [below], and starry heavens [above]. Then I say: “I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence”. These words are vibrant with life for me however often I declaim them. I experience this deep peace as a fruit of my contemplative inquiry. Perhaps there is a harvest aspect here after all.

Certainly, to stand in such peace empowers my receptivity, linking it to other qualities like reverence, delight and awe. None of this changes the world. But it allows me to contemplate it with an underlying confidence, and to face its challenges in a more resourceful way. I am very happy to mark Alban Elfed as a feast of receptivity.

(1) https://thedruidsgarden.com/ – see Fall Equinox: a Spirit Walk and its internal reference to Equinox on Receptivity

NOTE: Pennsylvania-based Dana O’Driscoll is steeped in Druidry and the US homesteading movement. She is Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) and an OBOD Druid. She is a Mount Haemus scholar, lecturing on Channeling the Awen in 1912.

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/06/09/book-review-sacred-actions/ )

For AODA, see: https://aoda.org/

LIFE-FORCE: A TAOIST UNDERSTANDING

“Three subtle energy currents:

Twin helixes around a jade pillar.

This glowing presence

Is the force of life itself.

“Deep in meditation, it is possible to become aware of the life-force itself. You can see it if you learn to look within. To describe it as electricity, or power, or light, or consciousness is all somewhat correct. But such descriptions are inadequate. You have to see it for yourself. You have to feel it for itself. You have to know it for yourself.

“To be in its presence is to be in something primeval, basic, mysterious, shamanistic and profound. To be in its presences makes all references mute and all senses slack, leaving only deep awe. One is drawn to it in utter fascination. It is the mighty flame to our mothlike consciousness.

“This column of energy that coils around itself holds all the stages of our growth. It is our soul; it is the force that animates us and gives us awareness. If you want to engage your life completely, it is essential for you to come to terms with this inner power. Once you harmonize with it you can blend with the dynamics of being human.”

Deng Ming-Tao 365 Tao: Daily Meditations New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992

STATES OF LIGHT

This is the face of dawn outside my window, just after 6.30 a.m. I welcome the mid September day, appreciating this moment in the year. I like the infusion of pink into grey clouds, and the suggestion of warmth in the old church tower.

I have now grown used to getting up in the dark, and to beginning my morning practice with an awareness of darkness outside. The nurturing dark and enabling light are both part of my experience. A transient time of balance has begun. It feels numinous to me, and a time of great potential. I am energetically alert and alive.

Later, a little before 9 a.m., I am walking by the Gloucester-Sharpness canal. I notice light on leaves, and its influence on the gaps between trunks. The view, here, is over water. But it is the influence of sunlight that makes the greatest impression on me – captured in the picture as well as in real time.

By contrast, the spaces furthest away from the light source are able to show their earthiness, their woodiness and the depth of their green. The light is everywhere, but it is subtle and not over-bearing. It reveals its influence in different ways. Rather than radiating raw power, it allows possibilities in this small, fragile habitat. Contemplating autumnal states of light, as I approach the autumn equinox, I have been shown something about power and its manifestation.

AFTER RAIN

I am in Alney Island again, on the River Severn as it passes through the ancient city of Gloucester. Above, I am looking at the weaker, eastern channel of the river as it flows around the island. After rain, the water level seems adequate if relatively low, and the willows still seem lush. At first glance, as I walk past, the plant life seems healthy in this watery habitat. Stopping to look more closely, the scars of a summer both hot and dry become evident. The horse chestnut leaves, below, are dramatically shrivelled and their conkers are appearing early. Summer is becoming autumn swiftly and abruptly this year.

Much of Alney island is rough water meadow, as below, and it is a joy to see green grass. Normal? No longer a useful word in this, as other, contexts. In a time of climate chaos fatefully intertwined with runaway wealth, ‘normal’ loses shape and definition. Half-reluctantly, I am adjusting to a new, more dislocating and unpredictable reality.

On this walk I discovered a woodland on the island, shown below. It is far from ancient, being planted in 1983 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of a charter given to the people of Gloucester by King Richard III. A rare monument to the monarch in question.

Richard’s Wood is pleasant enough, although subject to somewhat whimsical curation. A decision was first made to plant non-native trees – red oak, turkey oak and horse chestnut; then to add native trees as well; and later still to thin out the trees so as to create a “wood/pasture habitat to contrast with the wetland meadows on the rest of the reserve”. ‘Rare breed’ cattle were introduced, though I have yet to see any.

I may be doing an injustice, but I get a sense of conservation by human taste and fancy, the manufacture of ‘scenery’ on a handy piece of wasteland that isn’t safe to build on. I don’t get any organic sense of the island, its history or its potential. I don’t get any sense of a wondering about what trees might be brought together to create a viable and self-sustaining woodland community, ‘native’ or otherwise. The horse chestnut, imported from Turkey in the sixteenth century, is now a well-loved English tree. The turkey oak is better suited to the southern England of today than the native species. I suspect they are a good choice. But I’m sorry about the thinning out. There’s no shortage of pasture in England. Overall I believe this kind of management to be a relatively innocent manifestation of the very mindset that is killing us.

Perhaps the trees will have a chance to develop in their own way. My feeling on being among them is gentle but muted. If I compare them with the crowded and chaotic wood that has grown up beside the Stroud cycle path, I sense a relative lack of viriditas – Hildegard of Bingen’s word for the green life energy in nature. It is a relative lack, not absolute. But as I go home, I feel a certain sadness all the same.

EUDAIMONIA: WISDOM AND HAPPINESS

“Aristotle made a crucial distinction between two forms of happiness: Hedonia and Eudaimonia” (1). Hedonia is a transient state of happiness brought about by pleasurable stimuli. Eudaimonia, literally, means the satisfaction of living in harmony with our guardian spirit (daimon in ancient Greek). We can think of it in a similar way, varied according to our specific beliefs and commitments. We can also frame it in terms of fulfilling our true nature, or, more simply, as living with a sense of meaning, purpose and integrity. In any of these senses, eudaimonia allows us to flourish even in the face of adversity. We have made ourselves present to something greater than our own limited existence. I see my contemplative inquiry as a eudaimonic process.

Carolyn Baker (2) says: “Meaning-making is far more than parroting glib slogans like ‘everything happens for a reason’ , or ‘God moves in mysterious ways’. It is the sense that meaning making is not just something I do but is, in fact, part of who I am, and that life is asking me to commit to the task, particularly with regard to all my unwanted and uninvited life experiences”. I began working with Carolyn Baker’s book at the same time as I was reading a novel that, for me, offers a powerful evocation of eudaimonia, beyond conceptual formalism.

In her semi-autobiographical novel Alberta Alone (3) Cora Sandel describes her heroine’s discovery of her vocation as a writer, and of the values that will drive her. Alberta is a young woman who has left her native Norway to live independently in the Paris of the early twentieth century, eking out an existence as an artist’s model and occasional contributor to Norwegian journals on the subject of life in Paris. She lives precariously on the fringes of the creative arts community, without material resources or confidence in her own capacity. She reaches the point of giving up, when on a lonely late winter’s day, she sees unexpected possibilities in some writing she’d played around with but not taken seriously. The moment then comes when, holding “her bundle of papers”, she rests her head on the window sill, beginning to relax in a warm gleam of unexpected February sunshine.

“And something dawned on her. All the pain, all the vain longing, all the disappointed hope, all the anxiety and privation, the sudden numbing blows that result in years going by before one understands what has happened – all this was knowledge of life. Bitter and difficult, exhausting to live through, but the only way to knowledge of herself and others. Success breeds arrogance, adversity understanding. After all misfortune perhaps there always comes a day when one thinks: It was painful, but a kind of liberation all the same; a rent in my ignorance, a membrane split before my eyes. In a kind of mild ecstasy Alberta suddenly whispered up to the sun: Do what you will with me life, but give me understanding, insight and perception”.

(1) Jeremy Lent The Web of Meaning London: Profile Books, 2021 (Cited by Carolyn Baker in Undaunted, below)

(2) Carolyn Baker Undaunted: Living Fiercely into Climate Meltdown in an Authoritarian World Hannacroix, NY: Apocryphile Press, 2022

(3) Cora Sandel Alberta and Freedom London: Peter Owen, 2008 (Peter Owen Modern Classics edition, with a forward by Tracy Chevalier. First English edition 1963. Translated from the Norwegian Alberta og Friheten by Elizabeth Rokken. Original Norwegian publication in 1931.)

NORTHWARD MIGRATION

For the last week I have been on Tyneside in North East England. My wife Elaine and I have been considering a northern migration for some while. It is too early to say whether and when this will happen. At the time of writing the prospects look good.

From a Druid perspective this is an opportunity for relationship with a new history and landscape. I enjoy the thought of this, even though I also like the locality I am in.

One aspect will be closer proximity to the sea. The pictures are of Tynemouth and what is left of its priory and castle, bravely facing the North Sea, whilst also overlooking an adjacent beach.

STOPPING FOR THE ANCESTORS

“I remember one morning contemplating a mountain in the early light of dawn. I saw very clearly that not only was I looking at the mountain, but all my ancestors in me were looking at the mountain as well.

“As dawn broke over the mountain peak we admired its beauty together. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. We were free. We needed only to sit there and enjoy the sunrise. Or ancestors may never have had the chance to sit quietly, peacefully, and enjoy the sunrise like that.

“When we can stop the running, all our ancestors can stop at the same time. With the energy of mindfulness and awakening, we can stop on behalf of all our ancestors. It is not the stopping of a separate self alone, but of a whole lineage. As soon as there is stopping, there is happiness. There is peace.” (1)

When Thich Nhat Hanh tells this story, he shows us ‘mindfulness’ as an art of living. He stops, looks at a mountain at dawn. His contemplation becomes a relationship, and the relationship is extended to the ancestors. For him, mindfulness sits together with interbeing, his word for interconnectedness. It is not a personal accomplishment, but the portal to an expanded, more inclusive, experience of life.

Thich Nhat Hanh was a great advocate and teacher of formal sitting meditation. But he didn’t fetishise it. The Mahayana Buddhist world view, and particularly its ethics, mattered more. I once heard a senior Vietnamese follower (also a psychiatrist) say that she was cautious about teaching meditation in Vietnam. She said that even in the 21st century, decades after the Japanese, French, American and Chinese wars, with elements of civil war thrown in, many people in Vietnam are too traumatised to benefit from meditation. What works best is participation in the Buddhist community and its ceremonial life, in a spirit of generosity and compassion. Mindfulness is essentially a value, not a contemplative technique.

I stop for my own ancestors, of both blood and other inheritances. I become aware of holding them in my heart. I let them in as I let in the world around me, and I experience that world with them and for them. We share a brief period of deep peace, and then let it go. For me, it feels mindful, Druidic, and very natural. Something to return to, whenever the moment feels right.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017 (Rider is an imprint of Penguin Random House UK)

HADEWIJCH THE BEGUINE

How could I believe this

If I had not found it true?

The soul that wanders in free nakedness

Births all that is and will be,

Participates in ecstasy

In engendering the Son

In creation and re-creation

Of all the worlds.

In sublimest mystery

All words drown.

From: Andrew Harvey (translator) Love is Everything: A Year with Hadewijch of Antwerp: 365 Poems Singapore: Medio Media, 2002 (Forewords by Matthew Fox and Laurence Freeman)

Hadewijch of Antwerp lived in the 13th. century. She was a Beguine, part of a women’s lay order who took no religious vows beyond promising not to marry “as long as they lived as Beguines”. They could leave at any time. For a period, they flourished in the Low Countries, France, and the Rhineland. The only definitely known Beguine community (Beguinage) in England was in Norwich in the 15th. century, well after the time of Hadewijch or indeed the English anchoress Julian. Beguines stressed voluntary poverty (though they could keep their own property), care for the sick, and a life of devotion. They worked in the world, for example in the woollen and silk industries, and in laundries. Leading figures such as Hadewijch also wrote for the wider community and effectively developed their own theology.

Andrew Harvey salutes Hadewijch as “one of the most incandescent and inspired of all Christian mystics” and sees her now as pointing the way to an “evolutionary transformation into embodied divinity” that “our devastating global dark night is both urgently demanding and making possible”. Literate in Latin and French as well as the middle Dutch in which she wrote, Hadewijch was well acquainted with with the literature of Christian mysticism and also the works of the troubadour tradition with its own philosophy of love. She is known to have written 31 letters, 14 visions, 45 poems and stanzas, and 16 poems in couplets, initially circulated in the Flemish lowlands and in the Rhineland.

Hadewijch was influential on the historically better known mystics of the 14th. century – particularly Jan Ruusbroec, who acknowledged her influence in his own work, and probably also Meister Eckhart. But she herself was forgotten by the end of the 15th. century and not rediscovered until the middle of the 19th. It is only in recent decades that she has once more received widespread attention.

The church and society of Hadewijch’s day were at best ambivalent about the Beguines and their relative independence. Hadewijch was able to flourish for a time, but “the intensity of her witness to Christ consciousness aroused bitter opposition from both church clerics and from within her own community”. She may have spent time in prison and possibly lived her last years serving and sleeping as an unpaid helper in a leprosarium.

By the early 14th. century, attitudes had become even harder. The French Beguine Marguerite de Porete was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310, as a ‘relapsed heretic’. In her widely popular book The Mirror of Simple Souls, she had written that “a soul, annihilated in the love of the creator could, and should, grant to nature all that it desires”. Her view was that such a soul could desire nothing but good, and was incapable of sin. But her words were interpreted as an invitation to ignore the moral law, and to suggest that one had no need for the Church and its sacraments or its code of ethics.

In 1311-12, the Council of Vienne attacked the Beguines for their alleged tendency to “dispute and preach about the highest Trinity and the divine essence and introduce opinions contrary to the Catholic faith concerning the articles of faith and the sacraments of the Church”. Although the Beguines continued to function, they became more cautious, more mainstream for their time and more likely to be aligned to other Orders. There were no more influential writers that I am aware of. Their wings had been clipped. They were no longer a threat.

I am drawn to Hadewijch’s writing for its eloquence in evoking profound contemplative experiences. Her spiritual boldness and unswerving commitment earn my deepest respect. She reveals the power in contemplative culture. Though not on the same path as Hadewijch, I am sensitive also to the heartbreaking gender, theological and institutional issues raised by her life and work.

My personal take-away is that innovative spiritual movements, however contemplative and mystical, are also part of the social world. They need to develop supportive communities, however precarious and marginal. They are effectively co-creating new culture, and it needs to be nurtured and protected. They also need to avoid turning entirely inwards and degenerating into cults. The Beguines seem to have got this balance about right, despite the highly repressive conditions of their time. This is a source of inspiration in itself.

THE GATEWAY TO TWILIGHT

High summer becomes late summer, in my world, with a gentle movement into the evening of the year. In the picture above, taken a little after 8 pm, I at first feel, as much as see, a suggestion of muting light. On looking up, the blue of the sky seems influenced by a subtle greying effect that is independent of the clouds. Looking down, the buildings are shadowy and their reflections in the water are set within a gathering darkness.

The picture below was taken at 9 pm on the following day. The grey in the sky owes everything to clouds, whereas the orange and yellow are connected to sunset. The latter is reflected in the water, and electric lighting is now also present. The day is changing, but not yet into night. This is an in-between time, twilight. It is its own, extended moment, quietly shifting in the physical world, profoundly influential in my psychic world.

I feel joy with an edge of melancholy. It is a familiar feeling that stretches deeply into my early life, prior to language, older than memory itself. It seems to come from deep time, and to be pre-personal, not just about ‘me’. I am any finite being, moving from day towards night, from summer towards winter, from life towards death. Having shifted decisively away from the zenith, I find myself, for now, in a beautiful moment. The Gloucester docks provide me with a magical space for walking, standing still, experiencing and recording this time.

POEM: CONFRONTED BY CHRYSANTHEMUMS

For his morning tea

A priest sits down

In utter silence –

Confronted by chrysanthemums.

Matsuo Basho The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches London: Penguin Books, 1966 (translated with an introduction by Nobuyuki Yuasa)

The introduction names Matsuo Basho (1644-94) as one of the greatest figures in Japanese literature, and describes his life and work. A younger son of a minor samurai family, at nine years old he was sent to the Todo family as page and study-mate for Yoshitada, its eleven year old heir. Yoshitada, born with a delicate constitution, was more interested in literary than in military arts, and he and Basho studied the fashionable art of linked verse under the poet Kigin.

When Yoshitada died at the age of 25, Basho left the service of the Todo family by running away to Kyoto where he spent five years studying Japanese and Chinese classics at Buddhist temples. Later he based himself in the younger city of Edo (now Tokyo) where he felt greater freedom to find his own direction as a poet.

Dissatisfied with the, to him, superficial culture of Edo’s ‘floating world’, Basho turned to Zen and learned meditation from the Zen priest Buccho. Poetry still came first for Basho, but his understanding and practice changed. He wrote of his own work: “What is important is to keep our mind high in the world of true understanding, and returning to the world of our daily experience to seek therein the truth of beauty. No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry”. Basho is a pen name, and the name of a species of banana tree about which Basho said: “the big trunk of the tree is untouched by the axe, for it is utterly useless as building wood. I love the tree, however, for its very uselessness … I sit underneath it, and enjoy the wind and rain that blow against it”.

Discussing the relationship between the poet and nature, he wrote: “go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective pre-occupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry might be – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”

By the time Basho came to write travel sketches, mixing haiku and prose in the genre known as haibun, he had spent some years casting away his material attachments. Now he had “nothing else to cast away but his own self which was in him as well as around him. He had to cast this self away, for otherwise he was not able to restore his true identity (what he calls ‘the everlasting self which is poetry’ in the passage above). … He left his house ‘caring nought for his provisions in the state of sheer ecstasy'”.

I love the haiku at the top of this post. I love the freshness and naturalness of the priest’s encounter with a flower that is steeped in the formal (and auspicious) symbolism of both Buddhist tradition and Japanese national culture, but is offered here in its simple yet extraordinary essence.

I cannot claim real understanding of traditional Japanese Zen culture and its relationship to creative arts. I have a smattering of knowledge and an awareness of some principles. But I am sure that much is lost in translation. What I do have is the capacity to open myself up to the words and images. Here I find the resonance of a richer experience of being, better grounded whilst also more spacious.

For his morning tea

A priest sits down

In utter silence –

Confronted by chrysanthemums.

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