contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

CONTEMPLATING BELIEF

Spiritual commitment – faith in the path, and the perspectives underpinning it – need not depend on received understandings of ‘belief’. Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor discusses this issue below.

“The views that I hold about the things that really matter to me – meaning, truth, happiness, goodness, beauty – are finely woven tissues of belief and opinion. These views enable me to get by in my workaday world but would not stand up to a great deal of scrutiny from someone who was not sympathetic to them. I am prepared to defend some of them with greater vigor and passion than others. I drift and swim through life on a tide of derivative beliefs that I share with others who belong to the same kind of cultures as myself.

“Most Buddhists throughout Asia are and always have been polytheists. They believe in the existence of a range of spirits and gods whose worlds intersect with our own. These entities do not have a merely symbolic existence: they are real beings with consciousness, autonomy and agency … But since many of these spirits are fickle beings like ourselves, they cannot ultimately be trusted. On formally becoming a Buddhist, one ‘takes refuge’ in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, thereby renouncing reliance on those beings. But the spirits and gods are only downgraded, not abolished. They continue to play a role in one’s personal and social life. This is the thought-world one finds throughout the Pali Canon. Siddattha Gotama did not reject the existence of the gods, he marginalised them. He may have mocked their conceits, but he acknowledged their presence. At times they even functioned as inspirational voices that prompted him to act.

“However tempting it is for me to dismiss the existence of gods and spirits as outdated nonsense, I need to be aware of the equally tenuous foundations of my own beliefs. If challenged I would be incapable of persuading someone who does not already share my view of the universe or of human life that my beliefs about them are true. I once spent a couple of hours trying to persuade a learned and intelligent Tibetan lama that the world is spherical in shape – but with little success. I would have had even less success had I tried to convince him of other beliefs I held: those about the Big Bang, evolution by natural selection, or the neural foundations of consciousness. I believed in these on much the same ground as he believed in disembodied gods and spirits. Just as I unquestioningly accepted the authority of distinguished scientists, so he accepted the authority of eminent Buddhist teachers. Just as I trusted that what the scientist claimed to be true can be backed up by observation and experiment, so he trusted that what his teachers claim to be true can be backed up by direct meditational insight. I had to recognize that many of my truth claims were no more or less reasonable than his.

“Following the example of William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty, I have relinquished the idea that a ‘true’ belief is one that corresponds to something that exists ‘out there’ or is beyond reality somewhere. For pragmatist philosophers such as these, a belief is valued as true because it is useful, because it works, because it brings tangible benefits to human beings and other creatures. Siddattha Gotama’s Four Noble Truths are ‘true’ not because the correspond to something real somewhere, but because, when put into practice, they can enhance the quality of your life. … What draws me to Buddhism is not because it has a more convincing explanation of the nature of reality than other religions, but that it offers a methodology which might actually work in addressing the question of suffering.” (1)

(1) Stephen Batchelor Confession of a Buddhist Atheist New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011

PATTERNS AND PEACE

For me, the skilful patterning of experience provides a gateway to re-enchantment. It reminds me that there are multiple ways of seeing the world, some obvious and others more occluded. The early morning can be a time of affirmation through ritual patterning that makes a mark on the day.

Mine begins with a morning circle which emphasises peace. Peace, here, is an active energy, not a passive absence of overt conflict, or a blind eye to dysfunction and injustice. Peace has to struggle, in this world, through skilful means that do not compromise its essence. Ritual can be one. I describe my morning circle below.

I go into my practice space, stand in the east facing west, ring my Tibetan hand bells and say the St. Patrick’s prayer (aka Cry of the Deer).

I arise today through the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendour of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth and firmness of rock.

Then I cast a Druid circle, calling on the four directions, each associated with a cosmic power, an element, a power animal, a quality, a time and a season.

East: May there be peace in the east, power of life, element of air, domain of the hawk, quality of vision, time of sunrise, season of spring and early growth.

South: May there be peace in the south, power of light, element of fire, domain of the dragon, quality of purpose, time of midday, season of summer and of ripening.

West:, May there be peace in the west, power of love, element of water, domain of the salmon, quality of wisdom, time of sunset, season of autumn and bearing fruit.

North: May there be peace in the north, power of liberation, element of earth, domain of the bear, quality of faith, time of midnight, season of winter, of dying and regeneration.

I also call the Below, the Above and the Centre, to make seven directions in all. Moving to the vertical dimension indicates a deepening, enacted by my spinning in place before bringing it in, and by the use of mythic names for the Below and Above.

Below: May there be peace below, in Annwn , realm of the the deep earth and underworld.

Above: May there be peace above, in Gwynvid, realm of the starry heavens.

This is followed by a further deepening into the centre, enacted through another spinning in place. Here, I am no longer calling for peace, but standing in its source.

I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence. Awen (chanted as aah-ooo-wen)

After a pause, I walk the circle, sunwise, east to east, and say I cast this circle in the sacred grove of Druids. May there be peace throughout the world. At this point I have established my sacred grove, my nemeton. All that follows is within this dedicated space until I uncast the circle on completion of my practice.

This ritual patterning, made substantial both physically and verbally, includes a celebration of sacred nature, provides a structure and a set of meanings to hold and guide me, and emphasises the commitment to peace.. Although I have personally customised this framework, most of it – anything to do with personality and external world – anchors me in modern Druid culture.

The centre is different. The centre is universal. It is the point where Oneness is recognised. “The bubbling source from which I spring” has a naturalistic feel whilst also referencing Jean-Yves Leloup’s translation of the Thomas Gospel, logion 13, where Yeshua says to Thomas: “I am no longer your master, because you have drunk , and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring” (1). ‘Heart’, as used here, is neither the physical heart nor the heart chakra, but “the Great Heart that contains All-that-is … the consciousness that underlies all forms” (2). ‘Living presence’ too points to the state of underlying conscious awareness that is here being recognised (3,4). For ritual language that honours that recognition, I draw on the mystical inheritance of the world and place myself in a wider circle of care.

At one time I tended to experience casting circles as a preliminary to practice, whilst also ‘knowing’ in a roof-brain kind of way that this was a mistake. Now I find it a powerful means of bringing me into the new day. Above all, it affirms my core understanding of world and life with every sunrise.

NOTE: The image above is by Elaine Knight, part of a project where, immersing herself in a landscape, she took pictures, abstracted them, and gave them a new form. See also https://elaineknight.wordpress.com/2021/03/07/nature-and-abstraction/

(1) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005

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

(3) Kabir Edmund Kabinski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self  New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, 1992

(4) Eckhart Tolle Oneness with All Life: Awaken to a Life of Purpose and Presence Penguin Random House UK, 2018 (First ed. published 2008)

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/03/20/the-peace-of-the-goddess/

 

ILLUSTRATED THOUGHT FOR NOW

“Whenever there is beauty, kindness, the recognition of the goodness of simple things in your life, look for the background to that experience within yourself. But don’t look for it as if you were looking for something. You cannot pin it down and say, ‘Now I have it, or grasp it mentally and define it in some way. It is like the cloudless sky. It has no form. It is space; it is stillness, the sweetness of Being and infinitely more than these words, which are only pointers. When you are able to sense it directly within yourself, it deepens. So when you appreciate something simple – a sound, a sight, a touch – when you see beauty, when you feel living kindness toward another, sense the inner spaciousness that is the source and background to that experience.”

Eckhart Tolle Oneness with All Life: Awaken to a Life of Purpose and Presence Penguin Random House UK, 2018 (First ed. published 2008)

BOOK REVIEW: THE GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT IN LIFE

The Greatest Achievement in Life is a free e-book available from http://www.suprarational.org/ as a printable pdf, published in 2012. Author R. D. Krumpos looks at five traditions of mysticism, in which mysticism is understood as a direct intuition or experience of God, or of an ultimate Reality not conceived as God. Mystics are described as people whose religion and life are grounded “not merely on an accepted belief and practice, but on what they regard as first-hand knowledge”. Krumpos himself speaks of finding that “preeminent Reality is the holy One in All and All in the wholly One”.

The five mystical traditions examined are those embedded within Hinduism (e.g. Vedanta, Tantra), Buddhism (Zen, Vajrayana), Judaism (e.g. Hasidism, Kabbalah), Christianity (e.g. Gnostic and Contemplative currents) and Islam (e.g. Sufism). I imagine that many people reading this blog will be working outside these traditions. But I recommend the book to anyone with a serious interest in mysticism, however you define it, given that the influence of these traditions is pervasive to the point where it can be virtually unconscious. As a person on a modern Druid path committed to inquiry and with a leaning towards mysticism, I have found Krumpos’ work very helpful in reminding myself of what the ‘five traditions’ are pointing to.

The book is brief and divided into two main sections: Five Traditions of Mysticism and Mystical Approached to Life. Within these sections there is a further division into short chapters, which can be read either in sequence or independently of the whole. Krumpos draws heavily on the words of well-known mystics themselves, as well as offering 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 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.

SPRING CLARITY

Looking out at the world, I see great variety. In one picture, above, I see a continuing wintry austerity. It is 26 February, somewhat before 9 am. I look up a hill on which the frost has yet to melt. It is daylight, with clear blue sky, but no direct sign of the sun. Light, indeed, but of a chilly kind. The trees have a stern look, reinforced by the battlements behind them – decorative though they might be on this nineteenth century folly of a fort.

The second picture, below, was taken a few minutes earlier, but lower down. There are no signs of frost. There wasn’t any, even on the ground where I was standing. here, I am physically closer to the trees and I feel closer to them. Sunlight is visible on their bark. The looks of these two pictures seem very different, even though they are not much separated in the world’s space and time. I am enchanted by small changes like this. I can lose myself in them.

On the morning of 26 February, there was still a tension between winter and spring characteristics. I do not feel that now, on 2 March, even though a return of frost is quite possible. The year has moved on and I seem to have moved with it. I feel re-invigorated. I feel clearer about the direction of my inquiry, now becoming a more focused contemplation on how I, as a human being, find “a balance between human and Being”, to use the words of Eckhart Tolle (1).

‘Being’ is a way to talk about the Divine, whilst keeping a distance from theistic language and its traditional associations. For Tolle, and I would say now for me, Being is found “in the still, alert presence of Consciousness itself, the Consciousness that you are. Human is form. Being is formless. Human and Being are not separate but interwoven”. This description deepens my existing “At-Homeness in the flowing moment”, identifying it unequivocally as the gateway to immersion in Being. I cannot state this as an objective truth claim. What I can say is that I am being truthful to my experience and deepest intuitions, and that there are many truthful people today and down the ages who have made sense, and continue to make sense of their experience in this way.

When I cast my Druid circle, asking for peace in the four horizontal directions, the below and the above, I finally turn to the centre as the seventh and final direction. Instead of saying, “may there be peace”, I say, “I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence”. I then chant the Awen. Peace, silence, stillness, emptiness, the space between thoughts, feelings and things – these in my experience do most to open me up to Being. Feelings of joy and lovingkindness are likely to enter in. The Headless Way community talk about our core, formless, identity – our true nature – as that of a clear awake space that is also ‘capacity for the world’. (2). Certainly for me, deepening into Being enriches the human dimension itself – with all of its relationships, activities and roles in 3D timebound reality. In older language, it brings heaven to earth. My contemplative inquiry continues, as a way of supporting this endeavour and sharing it, within the cultural framework of modern Druidry..

(1) Eckhart Tolle Oneness with All Life: Awaken to a Life of Purpose and Presence Penguin Random House UK, 2018 (First ed. published 2008)

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

TREE MANDALA: ASH AND IVY

Within my mandala of the year (1) Ash and Ivy together are part of a playful period extending to midsummer. The picture above holds memories of the year 2007, when the original photograph was taken in a wood near Bristol. It has recently been digitised and stylised by Elaine Knight, a frequent companion in my adventures with trees during that year.

I was enthusiastically connecting with them at the time, spurred on by an OBOD course (see http://www.druidry.org). My main focus was on being present in the presence of the living trees and connecting with them. I had a secondary concern with information about them. This includes traditional lore now often linked to the ogham alphabet. In that alphabet, ivy is gort and ash is nuin.

In my personal mandala of the year, ash and ivy preside from 23 February to 16 March. Ivy, as ever, is luxurious and abundant. Ash, at this time, is mostly tall and sleepy. I have a strong memory of finding them together as I walked up a tangled, sloping path. I felt an immediate connection with them, which I recorded at the time, though I hardly needed to. The occasion has stayed vividly in my mind ever since. Indeed the wish to celebrate that memory prompted me to include them in my tree mandala when it developed a year or so later.

In ogham lore, ash is connected with themes of rootedness and endurance (2). An ash can bear weight and absorb shocks. It has been the second most popular tree, after hawthorn, for planting at holy wells. It has also been a popular choice for maypoles. In the northern, Viking, tradition, it is Yggdrasil, world tree and wisdom steed of Odin. It links underworld, earth and heaven. It links macrocosm to microcosm, and the inner and outer worlds.

Ivy embodies the strength that can come from seeking support, whilst also being associated with poetry and intoxication. Its spiralling, labyrinthine dance turns both inwards and outwards. Ivy is a tenacious plant, skilled in binding and attachment. It is said also to connect us with our own inner resources, giving us “the ability to see through the eyes of the soul beyond the material world” (3).

I am fascinated by the way in which we can read the characteristics of our own hearts and imaginations into the life of trees whilst also connecting with their independent existence and what it can teach us about, for example, interdependence, a slower rhythm of life or the simple miracle of being. When among trees, I am taken up with the life of the tree on its own terms, more than with either botanical knowledge or inherited mythologies pointing to a larger life. It is when I am away from them that I turn fruitfully to their role in the collective imagination. There are different kinds of attention in play here, and I find that it helps to be aware of the difference without doing too far in disentanglement.

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

(3) Liz and Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison-Sadd, 1988 (Illustrated by Vanessa Card)

 

WHO IS THE GODDESS I PRAY TO?

The Goddess I pray to has neither name nor form. Concerning Her, I have a felt sense of primal cosmic motherhood. I avoid imagery, whilst assuming that She could take any form in the apparent world and does in fact take every form.

She does not have to be female, in the world’s understanding – though for me ‘She’, ‘Goddess’ and ‘Cosmic Mother’ are the best terms for affirming a connection. Praying to Her spontaneously, I, James, fragile and mortal human, find an I-Thou connection to the living heart of being. In the formal setting of the Druid prayer, where I may be feeling naturally integrated, asking the Goddess for protection increases my sense of sacred openness and enlivens me energetically. Sometimes, I feel the grace of an ageless power at my back as I say the prayer.

I think of a Greek wisdom tradition, evolving over time from a veneration of the Moon (1,2), in which She is Zoe, the life beyond time, and I, as one of her children, am Bios, the life which is born, dies and is born again. Ultimately, I find is no separation between us. Indeed, the smallest blade of grass is imbued with the power and presence of the Goddess, the source of all. But there are times when I strongly and appropriately sense my individual littleness. Then especially I look for an I-Thou relationship with a perceived higher power. In this relationship, prayer is valid.

Bringing prayer into my practice moves my inquiry forward in two ways. The first works by integrating Sophian themes from earlier inquiry into my practice of Druidry (3,4). The second is a tilt towards a faith position of sorts, which I have stood back from hitherto. Greg Goode may be right to say that (5) “everything is paradoxical. We can’t even say that it’s consciousness or that anything exists”. But I have pitched my tent, all the same: I am working in the faith that the term ‘consciousness’, like ‘living heart of being’ or ‘source of all’, points to a cosmic foundation from which I, as human, am not separate.

I have arrived at a form of panentheism, a Oneness that allows for a zone of distinction between the human and the divine. This view provides a clearer context for my At-Homeness in the flowing moment, the experience where I lean most into union. At other times, praying to the Goddess may help to soften me up. In the softened state, I more readily re-connect with source and all. I am enabled to be a more effective agent, and capacity for the world. All of these experiences and understandings are now included in my Druid view and practice.

(1) Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/04/16/lunar-wisdom/

(3)https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/11/05/sophian-way/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/30/world-tree-and-sophia/

(5) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/01/19/scepticism-openness-and-flow/

RIPPLE EFFECTS: WHERE PRAYER CAN BE VALID

The story of Elaine’s illness is her story. She is the central character and, in describing her experience, she has used the language of rebirth. Her words sound congruent and meaningful to me. I have a place in her story, and she in mine. We are together a lot of the time. Her dramatic hospitalisation and return have had significant ripple effects on me – not as a stone thrown into a pond rippling out in circles, but as distinctive currents moving in one body of water.

From an inquiry perspective, I find myself in a new place concerning prayer. Something in me broke open when Elaine was in hospital, after her own life-and-death crisis was past, but when she was still very ill, and it was still possible for something to go wrong. We couldn’t see each other of course but were texting. I wept and prayed when alone, having completely forgotten that I ‘don’t believe’ in petitionary prayer.

This is something that happens for many people in crisis, and I could have gone back to my previous setting, especially after Elaine came home, out of danger. But I haven’t – because I know that, regardless of any effect that my prayers may have had on Elaine’s wellbeing, they made me somehow more present, with a more porous and open sense being. Prayer seems to push me in the direction of compassionate capacity and availability, at the very least making me more conscious of my existing limitations and willing to move beyond them.

I have reflected on my practice, and the understandings behind it, and I have made changes. I wrote about my previous position in the post My Druid Prayer – https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/27/ . I still respect it. I stand by my references to ‘Oneness’ as universal interbeing. The version of the prayer I offered was liked both by Humanist and Naturalist Druids and by those influenced by the example of non-theistic forms of Non-Duality, such as Buddhism and Taoism. I am glad to have written this revision, and I will continue to use it on some occasions. But in my daily evening practice, when I say the Druid Prayer, I have returned to tradition, beginning ‘Grant O Goddess your protection’ rather than ‘In the recognition of Oneness I find protection’. For my changed relationship to prayer also opens up a changed relationship with the divine, which I am exploring now and will write about soon. I am working towards a more integrated Druidry, inclusive of a devotional space where prayer can be valid.

WOODS AND WATER

Yesterday, Thursday 18 February, was the first that felt like spring. The recent cold was gone. The rain that followed largely held off. I went out for a longer walk than for some time, and I felt a natural bubbling up of joy. It doesn’t take much, and I was able to open up to the renewing light and a sense of latent growth and possibility in the world around me. There are two months starting about now that have a sense of equinoctial wonder for me, with light and dark roughly in balance and a lot of change in the land. Yesterday felt like the beginning of this loved and valued time.

A good deal has been happening for me internally, which is influencing my spiritual practice and understanding in subtle but important ways. I will write about this in the weeks to come. But yesterday’s walk was a chance to be out in a woodland, as one being in the web of life connecting with others. Experiences like this are both simple and profound for me, and I feel grateful for the opportunity to have them.

PHILIP CARR-GOMM: DELICIOUS EMPTINESS

I attach a link to Philip Carr-Gomm’s podcast Delicious Emptiness, in his Tea with a Druid series. The series is produced by the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD) which Philip led for over thirty years. The podcast beautifully describes meditation as a means of cultivating ‘delicious emptiness’ and its possible fruits. Highly recommended. OBOD can be found on http://www.druidry.org/ .

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