contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

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BOOK REVIEW: THE GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT IN LIFE (REVISED AND UPDATED EDITION)

Highly recommended for anyone drawn to contemplative and mystical traditions. R. D. Krumpos’ The Greatest Achievement in Life: Five Traditions of Mysticism & Mystical Approaches to Life (1) is now available in print, in a new revised edition. I like having it now as an old-fashioned physical book that I can leaf through easily both for reference and for inspiration.

The book explores the mystical traditions embedded within Hinduism (Vedanta, Tantra), Buddhism (Zen, Vajrayana), Judaism (Hasidism, Kabbalah), Christianity (Gnostic and Contemplative currents) and Islam (Sufism). Krumpos shows how, underneath their manifold differences, they share an understanding of mysticism as the direct intuition or experience of God, or of an ultimate Reality not conceived as God.

Mystics are described as people whose spiritual lives are grounded “not merely on an accepted belief and practice, but on what they regard as first-hand knowledge”. Krumpos spells out the uncompromising idealism of this project. “Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called ‘this life’. Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is i,e, the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now”.

The book is divided into two main sections: Five Traditions of Mysticism and Mystical Approaches to Life. Within these sections there is a further division into short essays, which can be read either in sequence or independently of the whole. The essays are based both on conversations with mystics and engagement with mystical literatures. Krumpos draws directly on the words of well-known mystics themselves, with 120 quotations interspersed with the essays. He also offers his own commentary and reflections. The book can either be seen as a source and reference book, or as a practitioner aide. It includes sentences and paragraphs that can themselves be used as a basis for formal contemplation. It is not just an ‘about’ book, though it serves that purpose well.

The traditions presented are seen as having much in common at the core, and The Great Achievement bears witness to that commonality. Yet there is enough interior diversity to make it clear that mystics in these traditions are not all the same, or saying the same thing, in the way that is sometimes lazily claimed. Overall Ron Krumpos’ sense of ‘direct experience’ and his definition of gnosis describe a gold standard for what ‘the greatest achievement’ is, based on the accounts of the mystics cited and discussed. In the second half of this book, the focus valuably shifts from the nature of mystical experience itself, to a consideration of its implications for how to live and serve.

For me, the cultural moment in which The Great Achievement has been offered is significant one. Perennialism’s ideas have been popularised and repackaged over the period since World War II at an ever increasing rate. There is now an extraordinary global spiritual hunger at least partly influenced by the spiritual paths that it includes – some, indeed, speak of a ‘spiritual market place’. This is a promising development, yet one with its downside. Krumpos’ work reminds us what these older traditions are and where they stand. For readers in new (or new-old) spiritual traditions with a different approach, the book offers opportunities for comparing and contrasting the fruits of the five traditions with those of their own chosen paths. Krumpos does acknowledge the value of shamanic and indigenous traditions, and practitioners within these traditions, reading this book, might be inspired to develop this conversation further.

(1) R. D. Krumpos The Greatest Achievement in Life: Five Traditions of Mysticism & Mystical Approaches to Life Tucson, AZ: Palomar Print Design, 2022. (Originally a free e-book available from http://www.suprarational.org/ as a printable pdf, published in 2012).

NB This review is a revision of my review of the original edition. See:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/03/06/

WATER MEADOW WALK

A water meadow during a dry spell. A secluded space on the fringe of the old city. Luckily for its own life, it facilitates the management of flooding. This space is available to the public, on this walk less frequented than I would have expected. It is not grandly wild, but feels different to anywhere else I have discovered in easy walking distance from my home. I like its flatness, its greenness, and its openness to the sky.

I walk here in the early evening, grateful for the path, challenging the pollen to do its worst. Lifelong hay fever has made me less of a nature boy than I might have been, certainly at this time of year. But I don’t like feeling restricted, even with my new health complications. Walking in an open space like this, particularly when there is a good breeze, lifts my spirits.

From a contemplative perspective, I am in very friendly territory. My senses relax into a more porous relationship with my surroundings. I begin to disappear into the landscape, losing myself in the experience of the moment. Very briefly, I am the path, the sky and the bramble.

Back in my envelope of skin I see grey above me, and I start to wonder about rain. I am not dressed for it. Luckily, at least for me, no rain falls. I do notice that the riot of life around me might like a good fresh soaking. But I’m conscious of my own interests now. I head for the shelter of my home.

A CELTIC MIRROR

“About 2,000 years ago a very important woman was buried high on Birdlip Hill overlooking Gloucester. This was the time of the Roman invasion and Gloucester’s farmland was turning into a dangerous frontier between the Celtic Britons and the Roman Empire.” The mirror and bowls on display above are part of her grave goods. I used a mirror of my own to read the Gloucester Museum’s information about what has now become an ‘exhibit’.

Naturally enough, people want to know more than this. Stories connect ‘the very important woman’ to Boudicca, whose campaign against the Romans two decades after their initial takeover was well-documented and is well-remembered. But the location and manner of her death after her eventual defeat are not clear and have provided space for all manner of speculation. This gives improbable possibilities a certain amount of traction.

I turn my attention back to the mirror, as the undoubted product of an iron age culture with a wealthy aristocracy who spoke a Brythonic Celtic language. The designs on the back of the mirror (below) reflect the tastes of that culture. To me, they seem almost alive. They give me a tenuous sense of connection with a real person who was in this neighbourhood (and I would guess came from it) 2,000 years ago.

Being connected by place but separated by time is an odd feeling, even more complicated for me than being connected by time and separated by space. I have to be careful not to let my imagination colonise the past. It can be a distorting and invasive mirror. At the same time I do want a relationship with the past. I want to acknowledge it and be open to what it might teach me. In this case, perhaps, a commitment to beauty in a time of turmoil and danger. Or a commitment to different ways of looking, in a world where past and future may not exist in quite the ways that they appear to do.

STRENGTH IN SIMPLICITY

In recent days, living a pared down life, I have seen the strength in simplicity. Both my contemplation and my inquiry are reflecting this. I have a few simple practices adapted from a variety of sources. At first under the pressure of illness, I have moved away from the kind of system building that was drawing my attention a month ago (1). Now I have reminded myself that customising, using a light touch, and keeping practice relatively simple has been my generally preferred way of responding to influences. It helps me to avoid half-awarely ventriloquising teachers and to maintain my own discernment.

As an example (2), I describe a simple meditation. It focuses on the breath because that is something I am busy with – and ambivalent about thanks to my COPD. In it I draw on the understanding that breath and spirit share the same word in some languages (e.g pneuma in Greek). No more than ten minutes is needed for a session.

Although simple, the practice does have a liturgical framing – for instance adapting one of Stewart’s Qabalistic crossing forms from The Miracle Tree. I also draw on my OBOD background, especially the commitment to finding peace. This kind of framing helps. In formal practices like this, I am not just plunging into raw experience. I have other opportunities for that. Rather, the practice affirms an already existing perspective, developed over time, and this is what the words proclaim.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2022/04/05/towards-an-integration/

(2) See text below:

Crossing, using my right hand, I say: In the name of Wisdom (forehead), Love (pubic bone), Justice (right shoulder), Mercy (left shoulder), and the Living Breath (both hands over upper chest). I enter stillness. Then I say: Deep within my innermost being, I find peace. Silently, within the stillness of this space, I cultivate peace. Heartfully, within the wider web of life, may I radiate peace.

I do a breath exercise*, and then say: I am a movement of the breath and stillness in the breath; living presence in a field of living presence: here, now, and home.

Then, I begin slow, deep breathing, as if inviting the Cosmos to breathe through me. I may use the I AM mantra. For me it affirms the non-separation of the finite life and the Source, and the gift of a place within the ecology of being.

On completion I repeat the Crossing and say: I give thanks for this meditation. May it nourish and illuminate my life. May there be peace throughout the world.

*11x breathe in through nose, counting to 8; hold, counting to 8; out through mouth, counting to 8, hold, counting to 8.

MEETING THE SEASON

In these parts, there is a week at the end of April – St. George’s Day to Beltane Eve – that I would describe as mature spring. The rising year is leaning in to summer, but not quite there. I came close to missing it this year, at least as an outdoors event. I have made a good, if slightly fluctuating, recovery from the COPD flare-up described in recent posts. I met this moment, on this day, in the open air. At every level I feel better for the experience.

The location is Alney Island, now a nature reserve. The river Severn has divided into east and west channels, with Alney Island between them. Most of my pictures were taken near the (lesser) east channel, which flows into the Gloucester waterfront and becomes the Gloucester-Sharpness canal. Alney Island is not, for the time being, literally an island. The waters do not meet up again until the canal flows back in to the greater, western channel of the Severn, which by then is almost estuarial. However nothing stays the same and, as an aspect of the climate crisis, there are likely to be significant changes in these waters over the coming decades (1).

On 24 April 2022, I walked through an almost-city water margin. I was moved by its burgeoning growth, noticing the abundance of green in contrasting shades and forms. For awhile I had given up on going out during this delicious period. The experience, however fragile and transient both I and this space might be, was pure celebration. Taking pictures became an act of celebration, and also of giving thanks.

(1) https://coastal.climatecentral.org/ – I chose 2050 on ‘choose map’ and both ‘Gloucester UK’ and ‘Severn Estuary UK’ in ‘search places’.

WISDOM’S HOUSE

Two people hold each other in mutual gaze. Both their mutuality and their individuality are very clear. The space between them defines a chalice, or grail. In stillness they are present to each other, within a dynamic field of I-Thou relationship. The gestalt is one of communion. Their world has come alive.

Eckhart Tolle speaks of a wisdom that is not the product of thought, and which comes with the ability to be still. “Just look and listen. No more is needed. Being still, looking and listening activates the non-conceptual intelligence within you. Let stillness direct your words and actions” (1).

He goes on: “wisdom is not the product of thought. The deep knowing that is wisdom arises through the simple act of giving someone or something your full attention. Attention is primordial intelligence, consciousness itself. It dissolves the barriers created by conceptual thought, and with it comes the recognition that nothing exists in and by itself. It joins the perceiver and the perceived in a unifying field of awareness. It is the healer of separation”.

I think of wisdom, in this sense, as the healer in the heart. Not the organ that continues to pump at a not-too-elevated rate when my blood oxygen declines, and therefore a resiliency factor for my physical health. It is, rather, the heart of awareness – personified again as it has been before by a Goddess of Wisdom. She came to me, at night, at a wakeful time when my breathing was particularly laboured and I felt like a freshly landed fish. She acted as a discreetly background presence, pointing me to the vision of a radiant grail, palpably emanating the energy and resources of all four elementary powers.

Pragmatically I felt empowered to weather a challenging experience. Beyond that, the Goddess invites me to let go of identification with the mind-made ‘little me’ as a limited and confining construct. The reward is an expansion into love, joy, creativity and inner peace. I have bounced back from my COPD flare-up in the last few days and will do what I can to rebuild my physical capacity. But the lesson, that healing is not the same as being physically fixed, and asks for a different kind of commitment, applies both in bad times and good.

(1) Eckhart Tolle Stillness Speaks Novato, CA, USA: New World Library & Vancouver, BC, Canada: Namaste Publishing, 2003

GREYFRIARS: A SENSE OF PLACE

Greyfriars is the shell of a church that once belonged to the Franciscan friary founded in Gloucester, England, around 1231 (1). The friars rebuilt their church in 1519. What is left of it, after a series of violent transitions including its final restoration, is a slightly bleak twentieth century heritage ruin, saved for me by its elegant arches. It does, I find, support an aspect of tranquility in this neighbourhood, along with an active Quaker Meeting House purpose built early in the nineteenth century. I live in a city centre, on a densely populated estate, yet it doesn’t feel that way. Good modern insulation helps, but my sense of place suggests an underlying leaning towards calm.

I notice this because I have been more-or-less housebound since I last wrote, with a further deterioration in my health, until a welcome uptick in the last couple of days. The picture, taken on 9 April doesn’t do the building full justice. It is much more substantial than it looks, with both the nave and north aisle in place. But it is the view from my home. My sense of place within the confines of house, block and estate has sharpened. The Greyfriars ruins nourish me, as do sun, shadow and sky in this urban environment.

I have been processing health concerns: the advantages and limitations of having a label (COPD); dealing with health services and new medications; wondering about lifestyle adjustments; considering risk and resiliency factors, what’s in my power to influence and what isn’t; the ecology of relationship, especially thinking of my wife Elaine and challenges I may pose to her as a person with health issues of her own; feelings of relief that our cynically underfunded health system is holding me well, except at the political level where decision makers want to forget about COVID. (People with COPD are prone to infections, and this would not be a good one.) I also ask myself what role, if any, my spiritual view and practice might play. This is a whole line of inquiry in itself, and one to go into as I stabilise, and find a new ‘normal’.

(1) see https://gloucester500.co.uk/greyfriars/ for more illustrations and further information

LIMITS AND BLESSINGS

In my world, this is a time of laboured breath and limited capacity for walking. While medical investigations are underway, I am constrained in what I can do. But walking outside, taking slow deep breaths, and drinking plenty of water are medically and spiritually recommended. Today I went outside for the first time in some days, water bottle to hand, and a rhythm of slow, deep breathing established.

I walked in my neighbourhood and a nearby local park. The picture above is a treescape from that park. For me, it is images solidity and endurance alongside blue sky and spring growth. In itself, it occupies a unique niche in the web of life. I enjoy its company, and the opportunity to record its presence here.

My world may seem, at least for the time being, to have shrunken. My own presence in it, and my perceptions when present to it, do not have to shrink along with the physical distance I can cover. A necessary slowing down contains it own opportunities. I have space and time to enjoy the willows here, their leaves, and the shadows of their leaves. I am constrained to take notice. I appreciate the experience of noticing. I am reminded that I am just outside the period assigned to willow in my personal tree mandala (1,2), but of course it is not too late to connect and commune. There are compensations nested in my unwanted condition.

I find the houses and their surrounding plant life photogenic, not least under a blue April sky. The season has been advancing, the equinox now well past. Around me, I find an energetic acceleration towards summer. Hildegard von Bingen called this kind of natural power viriditas. I can recognise and enjoy it even when I’m lagging behind.

Very close to home I encounter the ruins of Gloucester’s Franciscan Priory, sadly with a nondescript mid C20th building tacked on behind them. They are a landmark for me on my return. I’m tired. I’ve about reached my limit. Although I’m sad that my walking distance is so limited, I feel blessed and nourished by what I find within the limitations. I am also glad to sit down and recognise feeling at once refreshed and exhausted.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/tree-mandala/willow/

(2) The 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 for this quarter 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/

TOWARDS AN INTEGRATION?

I contemplate an image is from R. J. Stewart’s The Merlin Tarot (1). It is the Ace of Beasts, the Earth suit. I sense it guiding me to a new phase of my inquiry, I hope a phase of integration. The stag has reached the point of stillness. There is nowhere to run, and no longer any need for running. Between his antlers sits a black mirror, showing the four powers of Life, Light, Love and Law unified by a central fifth. Here, it is the magical implement of the Earth element, an alternative to the shield or pentacle.

Stewart says of this image: “its deep power is that of Law and Wisdom, the Mystery of Night and Winter. Thus it can indicate a force or restriction that leads to liberation …. the Wisdom of endings that bring beginnings”. For the next phase of my formal inquiry practice, I will work through the programme of R. J. Stewart’s The Miracle Tree (2). I am already familiar with it, but I can drop into a beginner’s mind readily enough. The novelty is in being focused and systematic, as I was over the years of my training in OBOD (3), but here with a more closely defined and demarcated programme.

Why this? And why now? The Miracle Tree is based on the Western Way Qabalah, and its version of the Qabalistic crossing practice runs: “In the Name of the Star Father (right hand over forehead) Deep Mother (genitals) True Taker (right shoulder) Great Giver (left shoulder) We are One Being of Light (circle right and downwards from top of forehead to genitals, completing left and upwards to back of forehead)”. I like its integrative quality, and its way of presenting a non-dualist perspective – especially the use of ‘We’ in a statement affirming ‘One Being of Light’. It does not use the Absolute to crush the human and natural. It acknowledges the diversity held in ultimate unity, and embraces multiple forms and dimensions of Being. The Cosmic Tree shelters all, whilst not being separate from any.

Stewart says of this system: “the idea of relationship holds good for all world views and models. It is not so much a matter of their accuracy, for their accuracy is relative and ephemeral, but of their value to us as models of relationship to, and participation within, the greater world of which our human world is a small part”. The way to test the value of the model is experiential, and this is what I will do. For me, contemplative inquiry involves a surrender to, and immersion in, the work, whilst retaining a capacity to track and appreciate its effects. I do not expect this cycle to negate what has gone before but, rather, to complete it. Where appropriate, I will discuss this in the blog from time to time.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Complete Merlin Tarot: Images, Insight and Wisdom from the Age of Merlin: London: The Aquarian Press, 1992 (Illustrated by Miranda Gray)

(2) R. J. Stewart The Miracle Tree: Demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books,2003

(3) Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids – https://www.druidry.org/

IMAGINATION, ANIMATION, LIBERATION

Looking at the nymph statue above, I am reminded of The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe. There, the nymph would be one of Narnia’s magical beings, frozen in place as a statue. A malign ruler (for Lewis the witch) is at war with the free abundance of being with which Narnia has been blessed. Liberation, and reanimation, comes only at the end of a hard struggle.

I re-read The Chronicles of Narnia recently, and appreciate the series well enough to look beyond Lewis’ gratingly conservative and patriarchal theology. I like his use of imagination as a force that can bring us spiritually alive. In the sixth chronicle, The Silver Chair, a group of beings is held in a deep underworld realm with no access to the Narnian surface. Here, there is not even a limited or distorted opening to the light. The abundance of Narnia is not simply rejected and fought against. Instead, we find total denial of its existence. Here, there is a seemingly complete lack of access to enabling experiences and understandings. Moreover, this state of affairs is backed up by an active entrancement and policing of the subject population.

There is resistance all the same. Some of the denizens of this realm have been in Narnia, though they have been induced to forget it. Puddleglum, once a lugubrious marsh dweller in the upper world, finds courage and a voice even in this wretchedly dystopian place, infusing it with the promise of life even as he speaks: “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seems a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, it you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live like as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. …. We’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think,; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say” (1).

In such unpromising conditions, a quest is born.

(1) C. S Lewis The Silver Chair: Geoffrey Bles, 1953 (Chronicles of Narnia, Vol 6)

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