contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: active imagination

SOPHIAN REMINISCENCE

For me, sacred images are sometimes filled with life and potency and sometimes not. The important ones  explode as gifts from the hinterlands of the psyche. They are intensely moving, perhaps shocking, certainly state altering. They may be nurturing and easy to welcome. They may be surprising and demand unlooked-for adjustments. Over time they may continue to be influential, changing and developing with me. They may become formal and emblematic – no longer living yet still anchoring insight. Eventually they may fade. Such images are not possessions. Attempts to grasp or hoard them do not work.

I call my path a Sophian Way. I have an icon of Sophia on my desk and I check in with her from time to time. It still feels authentic and makes sense to me. At the same time, I am aware of how much has changed since Sophia erupted into my life twelve years ago.

In the summer of 2007, I was immersed in my OBOD Druid studies. It was one of the few times in my life when I have cleared whole days for ritual work, and whole days for recovering afterwards. I found the work generating its own momentum, in some ways fulfilling the agenda of my course and in some ways pointing in a different-seeming direction. Images and dreams of dove feathers, either falling or lying on the ground – and then their actuality – became very prominent. Key images and ankh images were present as well.

The powerful dove imagery evoked Goddess associations from the Pagan tradition and Holy Spirit from the Judaeo-Christian one. To honour both, I found a reference in a modern Gnostic group ( www.thepearl.org/ ) that seemed to fit:

“Mortals have been created to dwell in the Garden of delights. … In the Garden stands the holy Tree of Life. High in its branches sings a bird. Listen to the voice of the bird, for when you are properly aligned with heaven and earth, she will tell you all things. … This bird or dove is also called Sophia”.

This felt like an authentic, and unifying, message for me because of its attitude towards the Garden. I as a human belong there. My belonging is not in question. There is one tree, the tree of life. The ‘knowledge’ aspect, such a disaster in mainstream Christianity, is very different here. There’s no apple to pick from the bough, but a bird who will sing to me. But something is expected of me, all the same, if I want to enhance my life and understanding. I am asked to align myself with heaven and earth. If I do this, I am assured that “she will tell you all things”. I don’t understand this as a discourse on metaphysics. I understand it as me listening in another key, listening to bird song in this metaphor, and so refining my sensitivity. For me, the imagery of the tree and the singing bird high in its branches is as resonant of a Shamanic or Pagan world view as it is of a Gnostic or Christian one. I do not have to choose.

The Pearl website turns to Joseph Campbell, a modern spokesman for the meaning of myth, on this point. He says: “people say that what we’re all seeking is the meaning of life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we are seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within out innermost being and reality … as we get to know our innermost being we receive the keys that open up a life that is truly Life, for it is everlasting”.

My own sense of the ‘Life everlasting’ doesn’t pre-suppose an afterlife, re-incarnation, or any other world. Eternity, if anywhere, is present in the now. The song of the bird represents a neurosomatic wisdom, not a cognitive one, of living connectedness within one stream of life.

What I like about this reminiscence is that I have been given a chance to renew my sense of Sophia by returning to source. The original work is well-documented, so I haven’t had to rely on memory. I had completely forgotten about the ‘Pearl’ group. I’m also glad that I’ve seen more than first time round in terms of the tree and birdsong. At the time, I just recorded the images and threw down the references. It has renewed my relationship to the Sophia image in the now.

For information about OBOD see

http://www.druidry.org/

THE WAY OF SOPHIA REVISITED

Five months ago, I wrote a post summing up my recent inquiry work (1). I was moving into an engagement with ‘Direct Path’ approaches and during this period I have been in transition and flux. This has been liberating, but at times hard to articulate publicly. Partly, this is a penalty of lacking clear identification with a specific spiritual brand.

Now, I feel a new sense of synthesis. It is built on a fresh understanding of a tradition discussed in my November 2017 post. This is the Way of Sophia, which I conflated in the post with Sophian Gnosticism. I said:

“To the extent that it is connected to a method, the Sophian (or Magdalenian) journey is a Christian Kabbalist one, a Jacob’s ladder from the apparent world to a Void beyond describable divinity and back again to a new experience of the world as kingdom, transfigured by a super-celestial vision. To the extent that I find a problem with this method, it is a tendency for the reality of my true nature to seem remote and hidden, obscured by a too-vivid myth making. The spirit gets drowned in the cocktail.”

I also said: “When working with the image of Sophia, I found a more playful and free-spirited energy, not fitting easily in formal Gnostic Christian tradition. So, the system, as a system, doesn’t quite work for me.” I notice now that I had already separated my sense of Sophia from my sense of “the system”. I only half-noticed at the time because of my pull towards the Direct Path. I’m glad of this, because my extended check-in with the Direct Path has enabled me to build a new house on better foundations, though still using materials from the old one.

Direct Path teachers have enabled a more rigorous investigation of non-duality than I have experienced before, one that points to a simplified spiritual life now the investigation is complete. Christian Gnosticism and Mahayana Buddhism (including, in practice, Zen) are gradual path non-dualisms. The Headless Way is a variant form of direct path. I believe that the animist and pantheist (or panexperientialist) currents in Druidry and Paganism point in a non-dualist direction. Sophia, for me, is the patron goddess of non-duality.

Tantric tradition shows how we can have a goddess of non-duality without compromising a non-dualist view. Here, Shiva is the empty awareness at the heart of reality and Shakti is its energy and form. She is both the Cosmic Mother and everything that is. Neither can exist without the other. Shiva and Shakti are not in reality separate from each other and we are not separate from them. We are them.

The non-dualist teacher Francis Lucille said: “When we see that the mind, in spite of all its abilities, is absolutely unable to comprehend the truth for which we are striving, all effort to reach enlightenment ceases naturally. This effortlessness is the threshold of real understanding beyond all limitations.” (2) At this point I find that an element of mythology helps. I need stories and for me, a Tantric iteration of Sophia is closer than the more familiar Gnostic one. She is part of my-here-and now reality, rather than the illuminator of a distant goal.

As well as being a Cosmic Mother, Sophia becomes, in active imagination, a guide and focus for devotion – less abstract, more relational than the empty abstract Shiva. Even in recent months, I have continued the occasional practice of using ‘Ama-Aima’ as a mantra within a breath meditation that borders on prayer. Now, I reclaim the ‘Way of Sophia’ as the best way of describing my spiritual identity and path. Everything I’ve learned can be integrated under this single title.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/11/21/intensive-inquiry/

(2) Francis Lucille Eternity Now Temecula, CA: Truespeech Productions, 2006 (Edited by Alan Epstein)

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/11/26/the-way-of-sophia/

MODRON AND MABON: A VISION

An absence untouched by narrative. Or, perhaps, original presence as an unnameable intimacy of experiencing. Undivided, it cannot know itself as object.

As if ‘then’, there is an appearance of appearances. The knowing of a primal mist and mirk, shot through with luminous flashes. It seems to spread through a dawning space and time which are still malleable, not yet settled or regulated.

Aeons pass, and figures step out of the mist. They emerge into a pale and heart-breaking winter light, softened by gentle rain. There are evergreen leaves and tiny sparkles of light, offered as watery reflections.

The people – there are two of them – come like refugees, suitably attired for the North. One is the Mother of All, here known as Modron, the destined Kali of a cool ambiguous land. The other is Mabon, her magical child. Their purpose here is to remind people of who they really are.

The Modron will not hold her human form for long. She will dissolve into the landscape and the elements, though her energy will still move through them. The Mabon’s task, no small one, is to stand by the Mother, to enjoy her gifts, and to show the way home.

DOVE ENERGY

Guanyin is the Bodhisattva of compassion, who hears the cries of the world. In Chinese iconography, she is sometimes portrayed as seated on a lotus, holding a jar that contains pure water. It is the divine nectar of life, compassion and wisdom. She also has a small willow branch, to sprinkle on devotees and bless them with spiritual and physical peace. The willow teaches the wisdom of knowing how to bend rather than break, and has a history of use in Chinese shamanic and medical practice.

Often depicted as a woman in white (signifying purity and maternity) Guanyin may also have doves flying towards or around her. Doves are associated with fecundity, marital fidelity and longevity. There was a tradition of awarding a jade sceptre with the figure of a dove to people who reached the age of 70. Ritualized dove releases were used as a means of warding off evil. The Lotus Sutra (1) contains a chapter on the transformations of Avalokitesvara, Guanyin’s male alter-ego, travelling the world and “by resorting to a variety of shapes”, conveying beings to salvation.

I feel increasingly that Guanyin represents the same archetypal energy as Sophia, the Gnostic “mother of angels” (2). In my icon of Sophia, she holds a chalice at heart level, and a dove sits in it, facing out. When I had a Temple of Sophia practice, she often appeared in dove form rather than anthropomorphically. She inherits dove symbolism from the Goddesses of the Eastern Mediterranean, and from Jewish culture, again with dove symbolism, derives the role of revealing God’s inward thought, and communicating insight and knowledge to mankind.

For me it is as if a dove energy has relocated me to a new practice community. The opportunity to work more systematically on lovingkindness and compassion than heretofore, yet in a gentle unforced way. Hence the cultural change of garment from ‘Sophia’ to ‘Guanyin’. Early this year I had two episodes of active imagination (open waking dreams rather than structured guided meditations). In the first, I was a mouse in the talons of an owl, flying over water to an unknown destination. I knew that the owl was Sophia. In the second, I was under the tutelage of Sophia on a small ocean-going yacht. Here too, I didn’t know the destination. I remember her asking me to contemplate my existing resources, and I thought of Russel Williams talking about “stillness, pure consciousness, emptiness of being – based on sense-feeling, and filling the emptiness with lovingkindness” (3).

Some months later I contacted the Community of Interbeing. It’s a Mahayana Buddhist community, and so under the aegis of Guanyin, and is proving a good place to be. Beyond its regular meetings, there have been two spin-offs. The first is my Mindful Self-Compassion course (4). The second is a recent retreat with members and friends of my sangha. The theme was ‘embodiment’. The purpose was to make Buddhist practice more somatically aware and Earth honouring. We spent a significant amount of time outside and making use of local topography. It was very like my outdoor experiences of contemplative Druidry and included the same sensitivity to the politics of Deep Ecology In terms of Dove guidance, I feel that I have landed now, and I simply go on from here.

(1) The lotus sutra: saddharma-pundarika Translated by H. Kern, 1884 (Kindle edition)

(2) Jean-Yves Leloup The gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the gnosis of the sacred union. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003 (Translation and commentary from the Coptic. English translation, Joseph Rowe. Forward by Jacob Needleman)

(3) Russel Williams (2015) Not I, Not Other than I: the Life and Spiritual Teachings of Russel Williams (Edited by Steve Taylor) Winchester & Washington: O Books

(4) https://centerformsc.org/

TEMPLE OF SOPHIA

My ‘Temple of Sophia’ recollects the active imagination work I did when practising Druidry and the Way of Sophia as a fusion path. The Temple keeps the work alive for me, though its presentation lacks the dynamism of the original set of practices when I was working them. The Temple structure owes something to the ‘art of memory’ of the ancient Greeks This was a system of impressing ‘places’ and ‘images’ on the mind, which continued into the dawn of modernity. Late practitioners included Giordano Bruno and the English alchemist Robert Fludd (1).

Here is how the visualisation goes.

“[I am] …on the water of a lake, in a rowing boat … mooring on the western shore … walking eastwards on a path between carved stones … on the left hand a Pictish ‘dancing seahorse’ … on the right hand, a Levantine image (a pomegranate tree, serpent coiled around the base, dove at the top) … moving up to the western door of the Temple of Sophia, a domed stone building, half hidden in extensive tree cover … basically round but with arms extended in each of the 4 cardinal directions to create an equal armed cruciform shape.

“I enter the temple through a porch at the western end, over which are written two lines from Primary Chief Bard, in the Book of Taliesin (2): I stood at the cross with Mary Magdalene; I received the Awen from Ceridwen’s cauldron. I find myself facing the eastern wing. Its most striking feature is a rose window at the back. It also has an altar whose white cloth is embroidered with a golden gnostic cross, and strewn with white and red rose petals. At the centre stands a chalice, white candles on either side. Looking around me I see steps spiraling downwards to a crypt, left (northern extension) and steps spiraling upwards to an upper room, right (southern extension).

“The main body of the temple is lit by chandeliers hanging from the ceiling as well as natural light from the windows. On the floor is a large mosaic given definition by the golden outline of a circle, crossed at the cardinal points by golden lines which merge at the centre within a fully golden circle, which includes 3 white seed pearls in a triangular cluster at the centre.

“Just outside the outer circle, around the wheel of the year, are depictions of 16 trees: yew, north-west; elder, north-north-west; holly, north; alder, north-north-east; birch, north-east; ash & ivy, east-north-east; willow, east; blackthorn, east-south-east; hawthorn, south-east; beech & bluebell, south-south-east; oak, south; gorse, south-south-west; apple, south-west; blackberry & vine, west-south-west; hazel, west; rowan, west-north-west. Each representation of a tree on the mosaic offers a portal for further communication with the tree. If I visualize myself standing on the image, then I may enter another imaginal landscape for a fuller experience – whether through sensing or communicating with the tree in question, or indeed becoming it.

“Moving in to the delineated quarters of the main circle, I find: north, a seated white hart in a yellow square; east, an eagle with wings outstretched, in a blue circle; south, a mottled brownish adder in a red triangle; west, a silver salmon over a silver crescent moon. These positions, too, are potential portals into an Innerworld landscape. If I visualize myself standing on an image, it has the power to take me to another imaginal landscape, and to forms of engagement – whether simply connecting, communicating or indeed journeying there. At the golden centre of the circle, the cluster of three white pearls recollects the three drops of inspiration distilled from Ceridwen’s cauldron and the visionary power of Awen. There are also other trinities – the triple goddess; the orthodox Christian trinity; or the divine mother, father and child; or the singularity of Tao becoming the two, three and 10,000 things. This is more a place for simple contemplation.

“Spiraling again out of the circle, and exiting north, I descend into the crypt. Here I find an empty sarcophagus dimly lit by candles. Two or three steps below the sarcophagus is a small, warm pool, lit by night lights – a ‘birthing pool’, perchance a re-birthing pool. There is an image of a coiled serpent at the bottom of the pool and a red ankh painted at the centre of the ceiling. I can spend time lying within the sarcophagus, contemplating change, death and dissolution. I can also move on to the birthing pool, and taste the experience there.

“Leaving the crypt and moving across the temple, I climb the steps to the upper room, which has a meditation chair at its centre, with a chalice, or grail, on a small table in front of it. There is a white dove painted on the ceiling; otherwise the room is plain. If I centre myself and drink from the chalice, saying, my heart is home to Sophia, I may find myself in a Garden. It has a fountain at the centre, surrounded by four flower beds of alternating red and white roses. There are fruit trees, apple, pear and plum, trained around the walls. Sometimes, full bright sunlight shines on the scene and strikes the dazzling water of the fountain, warming an illuminating each drop as it falls. At other times, I am in moonlit or starlit night, and I hear as much as see the fountain. Either way, I open myself to the experience of the Garden. Sophia herself as psychopomp may or may not appear. Indeed, there is no ultimate distinction between Sophia, the Garden and me.

“On coming back from the vision of the garden, I sit and rest for a while. Eventually I leave the upper room, and, descending into the main body of the temple. I walk to the south point of the circle and from there move, spiralling, into the centre. I face the altar at the east, bowing and giving thanks before I leave the temple.”

(1) Frances A. Yates The Art of Memory London: Pimlico, 1966

(2) John Matthews Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland London: The Aquarian Press, 1991

METHODS IN CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY: PART 3

This post is about meditation, and looks at three approaches to meditation supportive of contemplative inquiry. The first is that of the Headless Way, the second is Sophian meditation, and the third is a form of breath awareness meditation.

The Headless Way

 I have been working with the Headless Way – a path devised by the late Douglas Harding (1) – for 3 months, having started at the end of March. I include a ‘headless’ exercise in my morning practice on completion of my chakra work and in my understanding the experience is that of the 7th chakra, an empty awareness holding all the others. It begins with pointing first outwards and then inwards at our own heads, and then coming up with a literal description of what we actually see. On doing this for the first time, I wrote: “Looking out – curtains, folds, blueness; Looking at body – arm, flesh, patterning; Looking in – nothing but space and the ‘external’ impressions that fill it. An odd sense of relief, building to lightness and joy”. Later I talked of “space instead of head, never moving, always now” and how “world and sky rested on shoulders”. This experience, “seeing through the eye of Spirit”, as I called it quite early in the piece, tended not to last long in linear time in the early days, but “I experienced an extended afterglow in which a warmth and radiance of being continued”.

I find that, as Douglas Harding said, “the initial seeing gives the ability to renew it. Since the Absence of things here is as plainly visible and as coolly factual as their presence there, the seeing of this Absence is available any time, at will”. Not dependent on ideas or feelings, it is a contemplative path without the trappings of mysticism, available “at least as much” in the market place as in the meditation hall. Now I am familiar with it, I probably wouldn’t say “seeing through the eye of Spirit”, and some of the glow has gone. But regular practice has given me a reliable method of establishing a habit of conscious 1st personhood as “No-thingness here”. The work now is to maintain this perspective whilst giving full honour to my embodied every day self – the life of the other six chakras.

Breath meditation

 I still have a role for breath based meditation, and I like the version I alluded to in a January 2016 (2) post reviewing Russel Williams’ Not I, Not Other Than I (3). Here are his instructions, followed by my comments:

“Feel down here, a little bit above the navel you’ll find the right place. Centre yourself there, in feeling. Observe your breathing, in the sense of the expansion and contraction of the outer part of the body, as if it were a balloon …” From here we are guided to notice the calming and peaceful effects of this “gentle movement, this comfortable gentle movement … absence of agitation, peacefulness … a kind of heartfelt warmth of feeling … it feels homely, as though you belong there … And as though it were a light”.  We then move outwards from the “balloon” to include the whole physical body and then go beyond it. “It reaches out in all directions … and begins to feel at home with all its surroundings, whether it be animate or inanimate … of the same nature” …. And so on into silence for a few minutes. At the end of the meditation the practitioner is asked to draw back into the “very centre”, making sure it is “still peaceful and warm” before returning to normal consciousness.

“What I learned from this was the flavour of ‘sense-feeling’, a specifically located warmth, a sense of quiet movement, qualities of gentleness and peace. Nurturing is another favourite Williams word. These qualities fill the body-mind and move beyond it, filling emptiness, engendering loving-kindness. In a group meditation, Williams reports that they can create a deep rapport and subtle meeting place between participants. The aim is to develop “such gentle perception that you could compare it to a finger, soft and warm, touching a snow flake, but so delicate that the flake doesn’t melt”. From there, we can begin to see into the nature of things, becoming aware of a different reality, expanding into it until we become “boundless”. This is achieved not by any great effort, but by simply letting go.”

Whereas Headless Way seeing is best done standing up, this meditation is for sitting or reclining. However, in the reclining position, especially on a bed, I am liable to go to sleep. The quality of sleep is deep and refreshing, and I like it. But the posture is undoubtedly problematic for the more earnest and goal-oriented meditator. For me, the Headless approach is linked more strongly to inquiry, so the relaxation offered here is absolutely fine.

Sophian Meditation

I gave an example of Sophia meditation in my Re-dedication post in May (4). I wrote: “I open my heart to the wisdom of Sophia and gaze at my icon”, then going into reflective mode about recent contemplative work in the Druid community. On completing this period of reflection, I went deeper, saying: “I close my eyes and slip into Sophia’s Innerworld nemeton, which takes the form of a walled garden”.

I do this mediation sitting, and despite closing my eyes I do not find myself going to sleep. The basic setting doesn’t vary much. It is a familiar and well-worked Innerworld space. “At the centre is a fountain surrounded by four rose beds separated by run-offs. Two of the beds hold white roses, and two hold red. There are seats around the fountain, big enough for two people, on all four sides. The rest of the garden is more of an orchard with many kinds of fruit tree, including some trained up the garden walls. These walls are brick, and have an eighteenth century feel.  The orchard isn’t over-manicured. It might indeed be described as slightly unkempt, though not with any sense of neglect.”

Specific characteristics vary a lot, and much of the communication available to me here is through the variances in setting, or how Sophia presents herself, rather than through actual dialogue.  When I visit this garden, the Sophia of the icon may sit opposite or beside me. But she may also take different forms – a dove, a rose, a tree, the fountain itself. She may be another bird or creature that turns up in the space. She may be sunlight in a drop of water. I may also experience her as all of it, so that goddess and nemeton are one. She is always a friend and guide. In my re-dedication piece, I went on the describe the specific circumstances of the day:

“This time she is in her icon form, though the dove is in a tree and the chalice by her side as she sits opposite me, in the late May dawn, east facing west. I go into my headless state and know that the same is true of her. But the context (the Innerworld, in this garden, with Sophia) changes the state, making it more intimate, relational and local. I like it. In my heart, I have more care about the particularities, indeed vagaries, of the writing than the pristine emptiness of the paper that holds them, though both perspectives matter and they do belong together. If form is nothing but emptiness, and emptiness nothing but form, then what we always have is paper being written on, and it is the story writing itself that mostly draws a storying monkey like me.

“As this thought, within my living dream of the garden, passes through, Sophia comes to sit beside me. We are simply companionable, watching the fountain, as the clear fresh water bubbles up. It is from an inexhaustible spring. In this archetypal garden setting, Sophia renews an eternal pledge – that wisdom’s commitment is to extend and transmute knowledge, and not to repress it. And in this moment the garden, the fountain and Sophia begin to fade …”

Next Post

The final post in this series will be about questions of interpretation in contemplative inquiry.

 (1)  Http://www.headless.org

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/book-review-not-i-not-other-than-i/

(3) Russel Williams Not I, not other than I: the life and spiritual teachings of Russel Williams Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: O Books, 2015 (Edited by Steve Taylor)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/05/26/re-dedication/

RE-DEDICATION

bcf2c26ec7720ed734fccc2b13534310Early this morning, I re-dedicated my contemplative inquiry. Yesterday was my 67th birthday. It seems like a good moment for re-visioning and renewal.  I recently received my Sophia icon from Hrana Janto* and finally understood that my contemplative inquiry is itself my Way of Sophia. I don’t see this as a project – more as an ongoing life practice. My contemplative Druid work and exploration of the Headless Way are aspects of inquiry, and this re-dedication is an integrating move.

The original dedication was at Samhain 2011. It assumed a Druid and specifically OBOD context, and I did see it as a project. I didn’t give it a timescale, but later I thought in terms of 5 years. The re-dedication comes a few months short of that, at a time when – amidst many continuities – there has been a clear shift in focus.

Today I made use of the icon, entered into a reflective space, before deepening into an Innerworld journey. Working with imagery puts me in a realm of what James Hillman (1) understands by ‘soul’ work. For him, soul (or psyche, or anima) is “a perspective, rather than a substance, a view point towards things rather than a thing in itself … by soul, I mean the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image and fantasy – that mode which recognizes all meanings as primarily symbolic or metaphorical”. For Hillman, soul makes meaning possible and turns events into experiences. It is communicated in love, and characteristically has a religious concern.

In my morning ritual, I open my heart to the wisdom of Sophia and gaze at my icon.  I remember and appreciate the initial inquiry – writing articles for OBOD’s member journal Touchstone; gradually bringing people together, holding the first events, launching the Contemplative Druidry Facebook Group, connecting with people in other Druid bodies (The Druid Network and Order of the Sacred Nemeton in particular); developing a monthly meeting cycle for the home group; writing the Contemplative Druidry book, offering contemplative Druid events to the wider Druid and fellow-travelling public, including both day retreats and a residential. This feels good to recall, because sometimes I think that the project hasn’t spread very far or been widely understood, mostly through my own limitations and relative reclusiveness. Here I can focus on what has been achieved, and allow myself to recognize that there is something to appreciate.

Completing this period of reflection, I close my eyes and slip into Sophia’s Innerworld nemeton, which takes the form of a walled garden. At the centre is a fountain surrounded by four rose beds separated by run-offs. Two of the beds hold white roses, and two hold red. There are seats around the fountain, big enough for two people, on all four sides. The rest of the garden is more of an orchard with many kinds of fruit tree, including some trained up the garden walls. These walls are brick, and have an eighteenth century feel.  The orchard isn’t over-manicured. It might indeed be described as slightly unkempt, though not with any sense of neglect. When I visit this garden, the Sophia of the icon may sit opposite or beside me. But she may also take different forms – a dove, a rose, a tree, the fountain itself. She may be another bird or creature that turns up in the space. She may be sunlight in a drop of water. I may also experience her as all of it, so that goddess and nemeton are one. She is always a friend and guide.

This time she is in her icon form, though the dove is in a tree and the chalice by her side as she sits opposite me, in the late May dawn, east facing west. I go into my headless state and know that the same is true of her. But the context (the Innerworld, in this garden, with Sophia) changes the state, making it more intimate, relational and local. I like it. In my heart, I have more care about the particularities, indeed vagaries, of the writing than the pristine emptiness of the paper that holds them, though both perspectives matter and they do belong together. If form is nothing but emptiness, and emptiness nothing but form, then what we always have is paper being written on, and it is the story writing itself that mostly draws a storying monkey like me.

As this thought, within my living dream of the garden, passes through, Sophia comes to sit beside me. We are simply companionable, watching the fountain, as the clear fresh water bubbles up. It is from an inexhaustible spring. In this archetypal garden setting, Sophia renews an eternal pledge – that wisdom’s commitment is to extend and transmute knowledge, and not to repress it. And in this moment the garden, the fountain and Sophia begin to fade …

I came away from my ritual of re-dedication feeling encouraged and refreshed, and a new cycle begins from here.

 

*http://Hrana.Janto.com

(1) Hillman, James The essential James Hillman: A blue fire London: Routledge, 1990. (Introduced and edited by Thomas Moore)

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: PAGAN DREAMING

jhp551bfc27c579fHighly recommended. Pagan Dreaming: The Magic of Altered Consciousness, to give it its full title, is an informed and thought provoking introduction to dreams and dream work. Although tailored specifically to a Pagan-oriented audience, it will be of interest to many other people as well.

Author Nimue Brown follows her familiar path of avoiding hackneyed or formulaic approaches to the subject. Instead, she draws on a rich variety of sources including her own experience of dreaming and working with dreams to ask fruitfully open questions and invite dreamers to explore this territory for themselves. She says of herself: “I am not a scientist or psychologist. I have not trained as a counsellor or psychoanalyst. … I am simply a Druid who has always worked with dreams, and I am sharing what I have. There is no dogma here, just ideas”. Whilst being clear that she is not writing as a therapist, she does indicate that dream work can have triggering (and therefore potentially therapeutic) effects, so that people doing it may want professional support in some circumstances.

The book discusses the physical, emotional and meaning-making aspects of dreams, emphasising how dreams work differently for different people – suggesting that standard schema for interpretation are of very limited use. Everyone has their own dream language and needs first to listen in to this. Only then are they in a position to interpret their own dream symbolism and develop their own dream work. The author includes a chapter on ‘Exploring a Dream Diary’ where she shares extensively from her own, and shows how to assess and draw conclusions from the material presented by the recorded dreams. She includes “daydreaming … along the edges of sleep” within the overall umbrella of dream work, and identifies this as a significant and creative state for her.

After a chapter on ‘Dreams and Magic’ (though “not the kind of magic that leads to definite outcomes”) the book concludes with ‘Into the Wilderness’, which explores the idea of “re-wilding your sleep” – physically, mentally, spiritually and socially. She moves on to speculation about where dreams come from – products of our own minds? The universe whispering to us as we sleep? The gods of dreaming as they carry us into other-worlds? Ancestral memories? She ends by saying: “none of these explanations is any less miraculous than any of the others”. That sense of an open and affirmatively questioning stance towards the ‘miraculous’ is for me the defining feature of this book: a refreshing treatment of a fascinating topic.

ETHICS AND THE ENDLESS KNOT

Exploring ethics through contemplative trance and active imagination

In Clear and Present Thinking (1) a book about logic, Brendan Myers includes a Chapter on Moral Reasoning. In this chapter he talks about Virtue Theory as one “where the weight of moral concern is on the character and identity of the person who acts and chooses, as well as the habits he or she develops and discharges through her actions and their consequences”.

Some days after reading this, I found myself in my inner sacred space, a heart space, the garden of the Goddess. I was not doing any formal practice. I was just there. When the garden first emerged, it was specifically as Sophia’s garden. And so it was this time.

There was a banner hanging from a tree branch, hawthorn I think. It was red, with a gold pentangle inscribed on it. I recognised it as the heraldic emblem from Gawain’s shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2). In this 14th century English poem the pentangle is introduced as a token of fidelity first devised by King Solomon. It is unbroken anywhere, and known in England as the ‘endless knot’. The poem involves an interrogation of ‘virtue’ as understood both in King Arthur’s Camelot and in the older world of the Green Knight far to the north. Gawain will have to navigate both physical perils and moral ambiguities.

Why did I find this device, as a spontaneously emerging image, in Sophia’s Garden? Firstly, I had been thinking about virtue ethics as described by Brendan Myers. Secondly, the pentangle in this form has been a significant image for me ever since I encountered the poem in my late teens. I’ve revisited it from time to time ever since, and this includes the reading of John Matthews’ Sir Gawain: Knight of the Goddess (3) which makes the link with Sophia. “In the Gnostic system, Sophia, the divine emanation of the Godhead, would not permit anyone to enter her Realm of Light, unless they were in complete balance, and bore the sign of the pentangle upon them”.

The offered meaning, as I see it, is that when addressing virtue ethics, I can’t rely on reason alone. Virtue ethics is up close and personal, more than an abstract principle or set of rules. I need to mobilise more of myself. In Sophia’s Garden I’m in a deepened form of awareness, and can contemplate the imagery using heart and intuition as well as rationality. They all work together.

Allowing the vision, I entered a light trance, with the image firmly in mind. I lay down with pen and paper near. I fell asleep for a short period – not part of the plan, but cleansing and useful. On waking I had words: Love/Wisdom. Sophia is Goddess of Love/Wisdom. The love is the greater quality, and it is an Eros fuelled love, for Sophia is the emanation of the Divine who ‘fell’ and then recovered (4). There must an opening up and movement towards someone or something, however slight and tentative, for it to be ‘love’. Whereas I owe justice and a pre-supposition of basic good will towards sentient beings, love is in my experience beyond command and does not result from a conscious act of will – though I can certainly work at expanding my potential to be a conduit. Wisdom is connected to this love, acting as a detector of distortions – empty or ungrounded sentiment, unaware compulsion, possessive attachment, ‘spiritual’ love as world rejecting flight, or driven and reckless forms of generosity lacking in self-care.

But love modifies wisdom too. Wisdom here is too energised to be altogether prudential. Counting the cost may make sense, but it’s not the only criterion. Wisdom uses the head yet is lodged in the heart. At the same time, wisdom also knows that ‘Love’ and ‘Wisdom’ as words can begin to solidify into things, always a problem with ‘nouning’. They can become wooden idealisations devoid of context and process, accessories to self-image, identity performance and external reputation. They can become alienated and commodified. They can even turn and be turned against us. So wisdom guards herself and love by guarding against too much reference to ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Love’.

At this stage I’m thinking again of the pentangle and wanting to use it to bring the virtues into relationship with each other rather than separating them out. I’m feeling happy about using this traditional framework so long as I can be playful with it. For I understand this to be the Sophian Way – with solemnity seen as having a stupefying effect, anaesthetising awareness. So in this ethics of the endless knot, I place love at the apex of the pentangle as I look at the banner, I move down to the base on my right, igniting the love/wisdom link.

Then, moving diagonally up left from the base I come to justice, for love and wisdom need justice in the world for the sake of their own flourishing: injustice inhibits the free flow of love and wisdom. I’ve already named justice, and fairness, as something I owe to all on a personal level, based on a presupposition of basic good will. I’m also clear about the need to work for justice in the wider world. On this, my vision is of a justice is careful of its methods, or it risks licensing revenge, both in power and opposition. Care about language and imagery are themselves a work for justice. Injustice wants to constrain and police these great resources. It seeks to close down their emancipatory magic. Working for justice is rational activity in service to love and wisdom. Sophia has always cried out against injustice, false justice and no justice. She has an ambivalent relationship with the law.

The classical virtue following on from justice, as I move in a straight line from left to right, is courage. What kind of courage am I looking at? For me it’s not about ‘warriorship’, with its theatricality and somewhat militaristic associations, however reframed for current values and conditions. (Perhaps that’s why my pentangle is inscribed on a banner rather than a shield.) Rather, it combines resilience with witnessing. Early Taoism captures the resilience aspect: “true goodness is like water … it goes right down to the low loathsome places, and so finds the way” and “the hard sword fails, the stiff tree’s felled. The hard and great go under. The soft and weak stay up” (5). I understand witnessing in a ‘truth to power’ sense and link it to my notion of care about emancipatory, life and world-expanding language and imagery and the need to guard them. This witnessing courage, to be honourable, may involve the willing loss of recognised honour and standing in a world that is formally virtuous. So it depends on a strong inner authority and a willingness to go against tribal custom. This is the courage I would tie in with love, wisdom and justice.

Moving down diagonally from courage, we come to the base of the golden pentangle on the left hand side, where I place temperance. In the course of its long history, ‘temperance’ has tended to shift from ideas of moderation to ideas of abstinence, as culture and religion have changed. Here and now, I have a resonance of ‘treading lightly on the earth’, in two senses. One is about limiting demands on material resources for the health and flourishing of the earth and its inhabitants. The other is about an ultimate non-attachment to material goods, contents of consciousness and the self-image they create. For me, there is a balance here which is why the word temperance comes in. I can love my possessions, my ideas and visions, my loved ones, my neighbours and my sense of who I am. But I am not fundamentally identified, not wholly immersed, in them. For these forms of love, if they are to flourish, demand some space around them, and there is a sense in which I am alone even within these nourishing interconnections. In another sense I am not. For I can go back to the simplicity of aware being and loving, timelessly arising from the fertile latency of the void. In this way I complete the endless knot.

This vision and reflection are only a beginning. I intend to continue engaging with this ethical approach, integrating it into my contemplative inquiry.

References

  1. Brendan Myers, Charlotte Elsby, Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray & Nola Semczyszyn Clear and Present Thinking: a Handbook in Logic and Rationality, Version 1.1 (21st May 2013) Available via brendanmyers.net or Amazon/Kindle
  2. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License – see creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/
  3. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight edited with an introduction, prose translation and notes by W. R. J. Barron. (Revised edition) Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1998
  4. John Matthews Sir Gawain Knight of the Goddess (Revised edition) Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1998
  5. Pistis Sophia: a Gnostic Gospel translated into English with an introduction and annotated bibliography by G. R. S. Mead. Blauvelt, New York: Spiritual Science Library, 1984 (New Foreword for American Edition by Richard K. Russell
  6. Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: a Book about the Way and the Power of the Way Shambhala: Boston & London, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. LeGuin)

BOOK REVIEW: STALKING THE GODDESS

jhp4ec2908d688eb_9781780991733_Stalking%20The%20Goddess_72Stalking the Goddess by Mark Carter was published by Moon Books in 2012 and is a critical examination of Robert Graves’ iconic The White Goddess. Carter has done a thorough job and I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in the subject specifically, or in modern Druid and Pagan culture more widely.  He painstakingly examines Graves’ sources of inspiration, sources of information, working methods and conclusions. He also looks at the extraordinary impact of The White Goddess over the period since its publication in 1948, especially on the growing neo-pagan community – much of it surprising to Graves himself. Stalking the Goddess (a title I have to say I don’t much care for) is of course dependent on The White Goddess for its interest and very existence, so I find I can’t talk about the one without the other.

What was Graves doing in The White Goddess that mattered so much?

Firstly, he took up suggestions from 19th and earlier 20th century literature (The Golden Bough being the single major source) about a primal religion based on sacrificial kingship. He linked it to ideas of an early political matriarchy that pre-dated human knowledge of paternity and began to weaken thereafter. In bronze and iron age times, Graves saw Europe from Bulgaria to Ireland subject to struggles and migrations in which increasingly patriarchal warrior peoples put a steadily intensifying pressure on opponents who, whilst themselves less and less likely to have matriarchal political systems, nonetheless preserved conservative features like strong Goddess traditions, matrilineal succession, and a view of the feminine as representing sovereignty over the land.  He also followed writers like Charles Leland and Margaret Murray in understanding medieval witchcraft as an underground pagan tradition in conscious struggle with the fully Romanised Christian church as aggressively representative of a wholly comprehensive expression of patriarchy in both religion and politics.

Graves also suggested that, in Celtic lands, there was a second dissident group that survived well into the medieval period and indeed beyond.  These were the Bards, descendants of the Pagan Druids, preserving their secrets within often obscure poetry based on a little known or understood set of mythic references, and a magical system of writing, the ogham (itself with early origins in South East Europe). The ogham was not just a script, it was also a hand signalling system – and had its own set of magical correspondences, of which those with a group of sacred trees were the most potent.  The Bards as poets were in service to The White Goddess of the title. Graves believed that all true poets are in such service, whether they know it or not – citing more recent poets like Keats as an example. Graves placed himself in such a line, and used the inspired technique of ‘analeptic memory’ to extend his understanding when his sources didn’t give him all the answers he needed. He wanted to show that he was up with the relevant scholarship and that he could make a logical and evidence based case. But in the last analysis he wasn’t bound by these. He was (although he didn’t use this term) one of the awenydd, the inspired ones, not a philosopher or academic.

Carter’s contribution, in Stalking the Goddess, is the rigorous application to The White Goddess and some of Graves’ other work (for example The Greek Myths and King Jesus), of a critique which is itself now quite well known. Based on more recent (though not necessarily much more recent) scholarship than that available to Graves, it tells us that neither the approach of The Golden Bough, nor the view of matriarchy and its purported link to early Goddess worship, nor its overthrow, are supported by good evidence. Especially when dealing with pre-history (history before written records) modern scholars are tentative about what we can say that we know. There’s just not enough there for a powerful unifying story, partly at least because the evidence basis just isn’t suited to providing such a story, and partly perhaps because the actual stories may be much more diverse. In the case of medieval witchcraft, the available records concerning victims don’t fit the profile of Pagan Goddess devotees. In the case of Celtic Bards, the evidence shows ogham as an exclusively Irish writing system, created for the carving of simple messages, in use for a fairly short period in the 4th and 5th centuries CE. It may be that it was used, in a spirit of self-conscious antiquarianism, as a largely mnemonic device for the Bards of later centuries.  In terms of Graves’ reading of key works in the Welsh tradition – the Hanes Taliesin and Cad Goddeu in particular – Carter suggests that Graves “bent them to support his views”.

I am sure that this critique is essentially correct, simply because it is based on better information than the alternatives and argued plainly. I can’t of course vouch for every detail because I haven’t done any individual work. But I do have to recognise that Graves’ own approach involves a considerable element of dogmatic intuitionism and interpretative high-handedness. For me, in a context of advocacy, the latter characteristics weaken a case rather than strengthening it.

And yet … true criticality like this, using effective and ethical working methods, is its own kind of homage. Stalking the Goddess will not, and should not, demolish The White Goddess. It will help to keep it alive and rightly so.  When T.S. Eliot decided to accept The White Goddess for publication by Faber & Faber after several rejections from other publishers, he described it as “a prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable book”. Yet he published it all the same. I for one am glad that he did. With that health warning from the original Faber catalogue, alerted to not taking The White Goddess entirely on its own terms, I am free to let it into my spiritual imagination. I can walk to my favourite spot at Woodchester (the old churchyard). I can stand in the avenue of yews, knowing that most of the ogham trees are in easy distance, and that Orpheus lies underground nearby, in the form of an early fourth century Romano-British mosaic. It was custom made for the villa on that site by a specialist mosaic workshop in Cirencester (Corinium) notable for its work on Orphic themes. Orpheus was from the Rhodope Mountains in Thrace (once thought of as ‘Mount Haemus’). Graves thought that the ogham first came from Thrace, believing Orpheus’ dance of trees to be a “dance of letters”.  So here, now and in Woodchester is the lyricist who could charm animals, cause trees to circle dance, animate a new ship for a deep sea voyage, descend to the underworld and return, be torn to pieces by maenads and continue on as a talking head, uttering prophecies for Apollo. Rich themes for Romano-British people, perhaps also seeing resonances with their own native stories. Inspired and inspiring myth can survive any attempt to explain it, explain it away, or package it in overdetermined forms.

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