contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: At-Homeness

MEDITATION, AND A BILLION-YEAR-OLD SENSE OF BEING

I enjoyed a recent piece on meditation by poet and spiritual teacher Jeff Foster. He is not talking about a traditional practice regime – whether of a mindfulness, pathworking, or energy-focused kind. Rather, he describes an encounter with the sacred in everyday life. Initially, this meditation attends to the flow of ordinary, embodied experience. It is informal, and not dependent on a dedicated environment or special conditions. As it develops, it sets free a healer in the heart, who stands by and resources the meditator rather than fixing their problems.

Meditation becomes as a ‘field of love, an ever-present ground of safety, presence and stillness’. It is personified through references to a ‘loving friend in the breath’, a ‘mother in the motherless places’, and a ‘billion-year-old sense of Being’. This is not meditation as generally understood. But I notice that I am nourished by Foster’s recommended approach, and I find myself responding to his impassioned language. Part of me wants to resist such intensity, but then happily melts on immersion in the process. Here is his piece in full:

“Meditation is not about getting yourself into altered states. Altered states do not last. It’s about becoming intimate with this state – this present moment, this day, this Now, its textures, tastes, vibrations, contractions and aches.

“Meditation is not an out-of-body experience. It’s the opposite. It’s a full experience of the body and its ever-changing sensations, its amorphous clouds of shivers, tickles, undulations and pulsations, throbbings, fizzles, its pain and its pleasure, its opening and closing, its ever-changing form.

“Meditation does not always make you feel ‘good’. In meditation, you feel exactly as you feel, and you learn to love that, or at least to allow it, or at least to tolerate it a little more than you did yesterday. Meditation makes you feel more like… you.

“Meditation is not about getting anywhere. It’s about discovering that there is nowhere to get to. That you are already home, and your body is the ground of all grounds. It is about discovering true safety in the feet, in the hands, in the pit of the belly. It is about finding a sanctuary in your chest, a sacred shrine between your eyes, a loving friend in the breath, a mother in the motherless places.

“Meditation is not something that you do with your mind. In meditation, the mind relaxes into the heart, seeking relaxes into finding, and even the most intense anxiety finds its home. You cannot make it happen, but you can fall into it.

“Meditation is not for experts, or the ones who know. Meditation is for absolute beginners, those who are willing to face their present experience with wide open, curious eyes.

“Meditation is a field of love, an ever-present ground of safety, presence and stillness, that you remember, or forget, or remember again.

“Meditation never leaves you. It whispers to you in the stillness of the night. And even in the midst of an activated nervous system, a full-on panic attack, suffocating claustrophobia or the urge to get out of your body… meditation is right there, holding you, loving you, gently kissing your forehead, willing you on.

“It will not abandon you, and ultimately, you will not abandon it.

“And closing your eyes to sleep at night, meditation is there, snuggling right up to you.

“Your soft pillow, the rising and falling of your own delicious breath, a light breeze coming in from the window, that billion-year-old sense of Being…

“You are safe in your own body, my love. You are safe.”

– Jeff Foster http://www.lifewithoutacentre.com/

REFLECTIONS IN A PRIORY GARDEN

In my formative years, high summer presented me with a world of manicured green. Mown grass dominated both private and public spaces. Garden lawns, parks, tennis courts, cricket grounds, golf courses, bowling greens: all highly managed. Much water was lavished on their severely cropped verdure, given its enhanced tendency to dry up in hot weather.

This is still happening, but fashions have changed to a degree. The photos above and below show the grounds of the Llanthony Secunda priory in Gloucester. In line with new custom, space is now given to a limited urban rewilding. I am inspired by this small miracle of growth and abundance.

This is an odd summer for me. I am at ease in a congenial place. My wife Elaine and I have moved house successfully. I have stabilised after a period of illness. But this is a transitional period. We are not at our destination, and anticipate more upheaval in the second half of the year. I am divided between here-and-now enjoyment of my surroundings, and concern over possible futures, strategising next steps and feeling the tensions of uncertainty.

In the ABOUT section of this blog, I write of “an underlying peace and at-homeness in the present moment, which, when experienced clearly and spaciously, nourishes and illuminates my life”. That statement is a fruit of my inquiry – it wasn’t there at the beginning. That is the nature of contemplative inquiry: my understanding changes over time, in line with deepening experience.

I am finding that my peace and at-homeness have room for both my day-to-day contentment and my anxiety about possible futures, personal and collective. I don’t strip out my ‘future’-based concerns (themselves part of my present time experience) to tidy up my mental and emotional states. That seems like a superficial understanding of here-and-now acceptance. I find, rather, an invitation to embrace the turbulence too, as part of what is given. The peace arising from innermost being makes room for turbulence, for such peace is not just another passing state. In some hard-to-understand way, it has the capacity to be infinitely spacious, and present in the flux of time and events. All I have to do is trust this peace and let it in.

I do not think of myself as a person of faith. I am more of a ‘philosophical’ Druid rather than a religious one, though I don’t believe that we have to choose between the two. But trusting the peace of innermost being is certainly, in part, a matter of faith, where ‘faith’ involves harmonising with my deepest intuition rather than signing up to statements of belief.

OBOD liturgy includes the words: “deep within my innermost being may I find peace”. This resonates powerfully with me, but I have recently let go of the word ‘my’, because ‘innermost being’ no longer feels exactly personal – it seems, experientially, to be more like being resourced from a timeless, unboundaried dimension from which I am not separate. This realisation, if it is a realisation, is now at the core of my spirituality. I am reluctant to make metaphysical truth claims about it, but it is firmly implanted in my experience. The opportunity, now, is to give it the freedom to grow, within my inquiry and my life.

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.

THICH NHAT HANH ON AIMLESSNESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OLD CITY, NEW HOME

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT IS GIVEN

It is colder now, and gloomier indoors for much of the day. But outside, this November keeps on giving. My walking range has increased again with a walk to nearby Nailsworth, a leisurely lunch in this little town, and a walk back again: ten miles. The picture above includes both a stream beside my path and a small lake nearby.

But my attention hasn’t been all on the world around me. I have been reflecting on an old statement about my practice, currently included in my About section, and finding that it still holds. “My inquiry process overall has helped me to discover an underlying peace and at-homeness in the present moment, which, when experienced clearly and spaciously, nourishes and illuminates my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I find that this perspective supports a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.”

There is no reliance on metaphysics here. This allows me a pared down focus on experience and values. My practice has been relatively stable over a long period, whereas my thoughts about metaphysical questions are more volatile. I experience thinking as volatile by nature, and fine within its limits. Over the years this blog has found room for diverse approaches to the meaning, if any, of terms like divinity and consciousness. I have wondered about the possibility (or desirability) of establishing any foundational truth about absolute or indeed conventional ‘reality’. I notice now that when I explore these questions – especially when reading – I am more interested in seeing how people put their worlds together than I am in identifying insights or finding answers to the questions themselves. It has become a human interest rather than a philosophical quest.

I have noticed this especially over recent days when engaging with Carlo Rovelli’s discussion of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (1,2). My interest was in seeing how a distinguished physicist makes use of Nagarjuna’s emptiness doctrine. I have less stake in assessing the view itself, because my peace and at-homeness are the result of an experiential inquiry, and not of speculative thinking. I continue to find that this perspective supports “a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence, and a life of abundant simplicity”, My inquiry focus, if ‘inquiry; is even the right word, is about how best to walk the talk.

(1) Carlo Rovelli Helgoland global.penguinrandomhouse.com 2020 (Translated by Erica Segre & Simon Carnell, 2021) Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who has made significant contributions to the physics of space and time.

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/11/08/exploring-emptiness-carlo-rovelli-and-nagarjuna

CATCHING A MOMENT

Above, inside looking out. Below, outside looking in – with added reflections.

Below again, from a little further back, the full richness of a sunlit moment, in a particular time and place. For me, it becomes the image and feeling-tone of its day, and, later on, a soft thought in memory.

MADE OF THE SUN, MOON AND STARS

“Just as a wave doesn’t need to go looking for water, we don’t need to go looking for the ultimate. The wave is the water. You already are what you want to become. You are made of the sun, moon and stars. You have everything inside you.”

If I had authored the words above, they would be a clear statement of my stance as a modern Druid. In fact they were written by the Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who has spent the latter part of his life making Buddhism accessible to westerners. For me, this shows the wider resonance of his core understanding. Indeed he continues by using the language of a third tradition – the best known to most westerners – to develop his theme.

“In Christianity there is the phrase, ‘resting in God’. When we let go of all seeking and striving, it is as if we are resting in God. We establish ourselves firmly in the present moment; we dwell in the moment. We rest in our cosmic body. Dwelling in the ultimate doesn’t require faith or belief. A wave doesn’t need to believe it is water. The wave is already water in the very here and now.

“To me, God is not outside us or outside reality. God is inside. God is not an external entity for us to seek, for us to believe in or not to believe in. God, nirvana, the ultimate, is inherent in every one of us. The Kingdom of God is available in every moment. The question is whether we are available to it. With mindfulness, concentration and insight, touching nirvana, touching our cosmic body or the Kingdom of God, becomes possible with every breath and every step.”

Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Penguin Random House UK, 2017

MORE AT HOME: APRIL 2021

I am feeling more at home in a number of ways. A much loved view through a bedroom window is enough. I can look out and lose myself, holding an image both of continuity and change as the seasons move. One way in which I experience the year is in two halves. Beltane initiates the summer half of a two season year, with Samhain beginning winter.

I often find the extended six months ‘winter’ to be productive for my contemplative inquiry. In the six months now about to end, I have completed an important shift, a shift that reframes an inquiry insight dating from 2018. At that time I said: “I discovered an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment, which nourishes and illuminates my life. Such at-homeness is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given.”

My view then was that it is best to steer away from metaphysical commitments, as the Buddha is said to have done. “At-homeness in the flowing moment” could work as a dignified existential choice for a humanist, an agnostic or a person with a stance of ‘sustainable nihilism’ (1). It could also work for people firmly based in contemplative versions of monotheist and polytheist spiritual traditions. Indeed it could work for anyone and would be blissfully light on doctrine and opportunities for argument and dissension.

That said, whist still fully embracing the original insight, I now find it incomplete. I have for some time been filled with the sense of a living cosmos, in a way that cuts across the grain of the culture I come from, with its parsimonious definition of ‘life’. I am animist in sharing Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of ‘Interbeing’, where everything is interconnected and nothing is really born, lives or dies in a state of separate selfhood (2). Life just changes. Now I have taken to heart the sense that the life which changes has a Source, or ground of Being, in which the whole web of life is embedded.

Hence I am human and I am also that ground of Being. Being cannot be found as an object, but I can apprehend Being in two ways. One is by looking in and finding my primordial and true nature in and as Being. The second is by looking out and finding Being everywhere and in everything. In each case, the inside/outside distinction finally dissolves. Humanly, I am distinct but not separate from Being, temporarily individuated in the world of space and time, as is everything else in this world. At the deepest level, as Being, I am no thing and yet present in and as everything.

I have reached a commitment to this view partly as a result of contemplative inquiry and partly as an act of faith, trusting my deepest understanding. In the wider world, this understanding is called ‘non-dual’ or ‘panentheist’. It is neither demonstrable nor falsifiable as a proposition, and I continue to appreciate that the map is not the territory. All words feel somehow wrong, just as the Tao Te Ching warns when it begins with “the name you can say isn’t the real name” (3). Yet Lao Tzu persisted with his writing, and gave the world one of its most loved scriptures. From time to time, the effort with language has to be made.

Modern movements (4,5) have made the experiential recognition of our true nature, or ultimate divinity, available to ordinary people through skilful means developed for our time. I have made connections with such movements, but I still anchor myself in Druidry. Humanly, a conscious I-I relationship with Source, or dwelling in and as Source, is not everything to me. I am drawn, too, to I-Thou relationship, honouring a devotional need that wants to be expressed. The Indian sages who first developed non-duality as a spiritual philosophy did not challenge or abandon the flourishing polytheism of their culture. They continued the practice of deity yoga. It serves the dance of being and becoming in this world. This, I believe, is the role of the Goddess in my life (6). I have much still to learn here. Meanwhile my at-homeness grows stronger.

(1) http://jonnyfluffypunk.co.uk/

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017

(3) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton)

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

(5) https://eckharttolle.com/

(6) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/02/24/who-is-the-goddess-I-pray-to/

SILENT SITTING MEDITATION

There is the moment, and there is the flow. The photograph holds the moment and the image at first seems still. Looking more closely, we can infer the turbulence that accompanies flow. All those ripples, and wavelets and swirls. They testify to the life of the stream in time.

I have taken up silent sitting meditation after a long break, making a commitment to myself of at least thirty minutes a day. I have incorporated silent sitting meditation into both my morning and evening practices, so the individual sessions need not be long. I am not made for long meditations. but I do now find that an element of silent sitting meditation enriches my contemplative life and inquiry.

I like the term ‘silent sitting meditation’ for its plainness and descriptive accuracy. I am distinguishing this meditation from the ones that I learned through Druidry, which, even when not guided, depend on visualisation and narrative. At the same time I am avoiding close identification with the ‘mindfulness’ brand. It feels like a prescriptive pre-shaping of my lived experience as a meditator. A strong intuition, gift perhaps of the Goddess in her Wisdom, wants the meditative life to be free of such labels.

So I sit. With two sessions a day, I find that my natural length of session is from 20-35 minutes and so with two sessions I am overshooting my commitment. That’s a good indication that I am not straining myself. I don’t want my meditation to be goal-oriented. Rather, I open myself to the energy of living experience, and let it lead me.

I do begin, conventionally, with a breath focus, following the sensations and the gaps after in-breath and out-breath, with loving attention. I also open myself to other sensations, which (with my eyes closed) will mostly be internal body sensations or external sounds. I think that the love in loving attention matters. There are people within the mindfulness movement who think it might better have been called heartfulness. This introduces a sense of compassion for everything that arises. Within the experience, I can feel whole, at home in the Heart of Being which holds up and informs my human life. When I am consciously present, it is a place of peace, joy and inspiration.

In the course of a session, I will taste this state from time to time. At other times I find myself engaged with images (some seeming otherworldly), or narrative streams, that I also value. These experiences seem to have an authentic energy that I cannot simply dismiss as distractions. I want to allow them in and engage with them. Indeed, even where the passing content of experience seems entirely mundane or even distressed, I will welcome it and keep it company. I will hold it in love. Outside the meditation, it may provide a cue for some more dedicated healing or inquiry process.

It may be for this reason that I do not characteristically find distress distorted thoughts and feelings hijacking or sabotaging the meditative flow. They know my willingness to meet them. This means that the other experience, the wellspring of my life, is rarely far away and never forgotten. It doesn’t even require formal meditation. For me, silent sitting meditation supports a fuller life, lived from the Heart of Being. But it is not, by any means, a requirement for it.

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