contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Awareness

DOUGLAS HARDING: THE MIRACLE OF EXISTENCE

“Besides the countless particular miracles that we comprise, there is that supreme irregularity – the fact that anything exists at all. Most unnaturally, there is not just Nothing. How adroit for It to happen! How deserving of our congratulations It is, for having arranged its quite impossible existence! After that, what are a few billion universes more or less.”

These words are from Douglas Harding’s epilogue to The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth (1) published on the recommendation of C. S. Lewis, distinguished scholar and Inkling. Lewis’ introduction places it among “philosophies that have some of the same qualities as works of art”, and he is reminded in that respect of Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game.

Harding describes his work as “an unconventional attempt to discover, for myself and in my own way, what I am and what I amount to in the universe. What am I? That is the question. Let me answer it as honestly and simply as I can, forgetting the ready-made answers.”

Harding also has the courage to declare that he has not found an answer. Instead, he has entered a state of “amazed reverence” that reveals his whole inquiry as both “absurd” and “a needful absurdity”. He finds that “because all my roots are in the Undiscoverable, I also am undiscoverable: I will not bear inspection, and can never make head or tail of myself. Self-knowledge is the smouldering wick that is left after the light of wonder has been put out. … If this book quenches the feeblest flame of awe, of direct awareness, in myself or anyone else, then it were better never to have written it”.

Harding did not end his inquiry with The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth. Instead, he went on to become a midwife of direct awareness, and The Headless Way (https://www.headless.org) was born. Where The Hierarchy of heaven & Earth is concerned with exuberant yet disciplined system building, Harding’s later work challenges each of us to ‘look for yourself’ using a set of experiments, now accessible on The Headless Way website. I reported an early, intensive experience of them on return from a four day retreat with the Headless Way in 2016 – https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2016/07/28/look-for-yourself/ Interestingly, my wrap-around commentary, especially the post-workshop phase, would now be a little different from the one in that post, while my report of the direct experience remains the same. In my current practice, I particularly draw on a seven point version of the experiments presented in Head Off Stress (2).

I never met Douglas Harding in person – my discovery of the Headless Way is too recent. But his writing and recorded material show never-ending wonder at the miracle of existence. They also show his passion for facilitating a transformative recognition of who we really are, and then to live from that recognition.

“I certainly don’t find myself

on the brink of a bottomless abyss,

trying to make up my mind

whether to let go and take that dreadful plunge.

I am already clear of the brink

and free-falling,

and have never been otherwise.

To see this,

all I have to do is look for myself,

and fail to find myself, and find instead

the treasure that has no name

in the well

at the world’s end.”

(1) D. E. Harding The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth London: The Shollond Trust, 2011 Introduction by C. S. Lewis. (Abridged edition – original edition published by Faber & Faber in 1952)

(2) D. E. Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (Originally published by Arkana in 1990)

(3) Douglas Harding Everyday Seeing: daily meditations on the One within London: The Shollond Trust, 2019 (Quotations selected by Richard Land)

WOODLAND CONTEMPLATION

Becoming the single eye, the eye of contemplation, I am a stressless, frameless window. Unboundaried and immersed, beyond the sense of window, joyful experiencing is vivid and intimate. I am a broken branch, stuck in mud. I am a sticky ooze. I am the shadowy reflection of a tree. I am ripples on water.

Walking, I am a body in movement. Then I become a space for memories. I recall the words: “a green thought in a green shade”. Relishing these words, I become a green thought in a green shade. Then I fall into the role of self-conscious observer, morphing from my original state into another one – lacking the immediacy of the first, yet still worthy of welcome.

The woods reach out to me. They and I are distinct now, though we are still held together in the dynamism of a living world. The whole of life is in these woods as summer starts to wane.

SPIRITUAL ‘KNOWING’

I like the way this presentation uses the word ‘knowing’ to point to our underlying condition. This usage is clearly separated from everyday knowledge of or about (something), or even of wisdom and understanding. It also avoids the term ‘consciousness’, which tends to invite metaphysical and scientific debates that lead us away from direct experience. ‘Awareness’ is a noun and so seems like a thing – we don’t generally talk about ‘awareing’. I personally like ‘being’ as an alternative, but it carries philosophical baggage and is not specific enough for the context of this presentation. Current usages within the Western Way of the term ‘gnosis’ do not generally reflect the view discussed here.

It may be true, as the Tao Te Ching says, that the Way that can be named is not the real Way. But we still need language, as a pointer, for that in us which needs to make sense of experience and to share it with others. Here, a skilful choice of words can make a difference, and I think this presentation models the skill. Dzogchen is a tradition within Tibetan Buddhism. ‘Rigpa’ is the Tibetan word used to describe ‘knowing’ in this sense.

PATTERNS OF MIND

William Anderson’s Green Man poem (1) describes winter branches as like “veins in the brain” making “patterns of mind” on the sky. This is the bleak beauty I see through my bedroom window. Anderson uses imagery of this kind to affirm an aspect of his Green Man’s identity.

“I am thought of all plants”, says the Green Man.

“I am thought of all plants”, says he.

I am experiencing a beautiful bleakness right now, grounded, lethargic, and shut away from the world – yet keenly sensitive to “patterns of mind”, or rather bodymind. As I wrote in my last post (2) I strained my back two weeks ago, without any obvious triggering event, and have only just recovered my normal mobility. My recovery process has been slower, with more setbacks, than similar processes in the past, in part I am sure as a consequence of ageing. My sleeping patterns have been disrupted and not well calibrated to times of night and day. Within a weatherperson’s ‘dry spell’ on Wednesday, I found that simply being able to leave the house and sweep leaves off a garden path gave me a great sense of pleasure and accomplishment. I began to feel confident of recovery, and my recovery has gathered pace from that time.

At the same time, I believe there is a larger context for my sense of vulnerability to stresses and strains. My contemplative life is centrally about giving myself to the flowing moment, as living presence in a field of living presence. The moment holds everything. If the Green Man is ‘thought of all plants’, we as humans hold the life of the world, and its collective stresses and strains, within our extended sensitivities. At the personal level I ask myself, how much can I hold? Intuitively I answer that I am already holding more, like it or not, than I allow myself to realise. ‘Can’ doesn’t come into it. I speak from a place, individually, of relative safety and security, for which I am very grateful. But this personal life is only part of the story. I am involved, too, in a larger life. My current vulnerabilities have their own unique features, and also reflect the vulnerabilities of the world. I don’t feel alone in this experience. I believe that I share it with many other people, each with their own story about how it presents itself.

(1) William Anderson Green Man: archetype of our oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990. See:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/05/11/poem-green-man/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/11/10/bare-bones-bare-experience/

BARE BONES, BARE EXPERIENCE

Trees – at least the deciduous ones – are becoming skeletal in my neighbourhood. But I am grounded, after ‘doing my back in’ last Friday morning. I cannot go out among them and be present for their continuing transitions. Instead, my entry into the winter quarter this year is marked by lessons in bare experience.

During this period I have been able to lie and stand, with an element of clumsy ouchy drama when shifting between the two. I can walk, too, in an impaired and limited way. Today for the first time I can also sit on a chair, provided I don’t stay too long. I do best when I slow down and attend closely to my bodymind and environment as a single gestalt. I find this especially useful when moving. It is also a good alternative to roof brain chatter when I am lying down and not asleep. But I do not attempt to operate this way all the time. It is enough to be able to tune in at will. Distraction and diversion also have their place and I don’t want to fetishise special states of awareness. Awareness is already special.

I feel confirmed in my sense of contemplation, a sacrament of sentience, as a plain attentiveness that holds the apparent world in its embrace. The rest is lifestyle choice. A very stripped down form of experience, such as I am having now, is its own kind of blessing.

INQUIRY NINE YEARS ON

My contemplative inquiry began as part of a Druid initiative launched nine years ago on 1 November 2011. The inquiry “soon broadened into a wider exploration of contemplative spiritualities, drawing on the enduring wisdom of many times and places.” (1)

By August 2018, I had anchored the discovery of “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. I have found that, for me, the realisation of this at-homeness has supported a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.” (1)

This is still my core insight. It does not tell me to be a Druid, or not to be a Druid. It does not give me a metaphysical or religious foundation of any kind, though it is possible to build these around it. It does not make my existential choices for me. I do find myself distant from faith based and devotional approaches to contemplation and spirituality. Recently, I have lost interest in debates about consciousness as foundational, or in distinctions between ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ manifestations of it. I was drawn to this philosophical openness in part by the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, himself influenced by (probably) Buddhist and Jain teachers in India (2).

Experientially, it is as if I exist within a field of awareness, or presence, whilst also living a human life between earth and sky. Here, I am intimate with the stream of experience, but not fused with it – allowing a space for compassion towards the apparently unwanted sensations, feelings, thoughts, images, and strings of cogitation that continue to arise. Stepping back from demands for ‘healing’ and ‘transformation’, I discover myself to be simply and securely held.

Looking out, I find a living world. I am part of the web of life, deeply interconnected with other lives and with the whole. Here I align myself to those Pagans, identified by Graham Harvey (3,4), who “use ‘animism’ as a shorthand reference to their efforts to re-imagine and re-direct human participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community. This animism was relational, embodied, eco-activist and often ‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical.”

Understandings like this have re-anchored me in Druidry and Paganism. The Wheel of the Year is a wonderful basis for outward attention in spirituality. I am now also strongly drawn to questions of culture, history and human imagination, which I will explore more in future. Here again, I find an open and inclusive Druid perspective to be a good base to work from.

I seem to have satisfied myself on the questions with which I started in 2011, though not in the way I expected to. But new questions arise, and I no longer see an end point to my contemplative inquiry.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/about/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/04/27/pyrrho-scepticism-arne-naess/

(3) Graham Harvey (ed.) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism London & New York: Routledge, 2014 (First published by Acumen in 2013)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/02/22/animism-is-a-hard-working-word/

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A CONTEMPLATIVE LENS

As the autumn deepens, I find that my canal walking has slowed down and detached itself from notions of exercise. It has become spontaneously and informally meditative. I am simply noticing what is available, rather than striving to get to some other place in myself or in the world. Followers of the Headless Way (1) describe such attention as ‘being capacity for the world’, since the world knows itself through this awareness. One of the Headless Way’s poets, Colin Oliver, has the lines (2) “In the oneness of things/ I am nowhere in sight”. I am like that with my phone/camera. I rarely have it in the selfie mode, so it is a good device for the purpose.

My combined walking and photography have become a contemplative opportunity, an informal opening to the magic of what is given, here and now, which I sometimes refer to as ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. They have taken their place, unplanned, at the heart of my contemplative Druidry. They enable immersion in the apparent world, and provide a setting for what I like to call valley experiences, to distinguish them from the peak experiences more often discussed. I notice also an aversion to calling this activity a ‘spiritual practice’, a feeling that comes with the image of a caged bird. Not right for the context. Not right for that in me which does this.

Through this contemplative lens I can be appreciatively open even to appearances of dereliction and decay. They are simply part of what is. When I see an old and roofless building without this accepting contemplative gaze, I can become irritated and grumpy. Why isn’t it being renovated or pulled down, one or the other? Who is responsible? But in my picture taking mode, through the lens of contemplation, I am entirely at ease. The building has its place, just the way it is.

My meditative walk can highlight processes as well as still images. A decaying rose becomes a rose hip. The dying flower makes way for fruit, which will die back in its turn after seeding the next generation. ‘Decay’ is relative.

The lens of contemplation makes space for things that would be easy to miss otherwise. A waning moon, for example at 8 a.m. …

… or the delicacy, close-up, of old man’s beard …

… or a naturally sculpted head of an unknown bird or reptile, which also offers space for a cobweb …

These walks have taught me a lot. There must have been a gestation period between the time I gave them up – what with Covid-19 and my concerns about narrow paths and passing – and the time I resumed them. Along the way I’ve gained a different perspective on their role in my contemplative life. I used to see them as ancillary. Now they seem central.

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

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2016/04/28/poem-the-oneness-of-things/

THE SPACE BETWEEN BREATHS

“When a pendulum swings, there is a fraction of a moment at the end of each swing when the movement stops, before the pendulum starts to swing back. That moment of pause is the madhya, the central still point out of which the pendulum’s movement arises. All movement – whether the swing of an axe, the movement of the breath, or the flow of thought – arises out of such a point of stillness.

“That still point is an open door to the heart of the universe, a place where we can step into the big Consciousness beyond our small consciousness. As the medieval English saint Julian of Norwich wrote, ‘God is at the midpoint between all things’.

“… Such points exist at many different moments. One of these is the pause between sleeping and waking, the moment where we first wake up before we become fully conscious. Another is the moment before a sneeze or at the high point of a yawn. Another is the space between thoughts.” (1)

For Sally Kempton, this is the inner realm that mystics and sages have called the Heart – not the physical heart, or even the heart chakra, but “the Great Heart that contains All-that-is … the consciousness that underlies all forms”. Her recommendation to meditators is to follow the breath, and to enter the madhya in the spaces between the inhalation and the exhalation, and between the exhalation and the inhalation. Focusing on the sound of the breath with a subtle and relaxed attention, we find the gaps and over time, without forcing the process, we find them expanding.

Sally Kempton’s Meditation for the Love of It has companioned me for the better part of a decade, and I am grateful for her influence on me as a contemplative practitioner. I do not follow her path of Kashmir Shaivism and the Tantric philosophy that underpins it. But I have always liked her framing of ‘meditation for the love of it’, which I see as a Druid and Pagan friendly approach. I also like the quality of her writing, and many of her practical recommendations.

In the present instance, I have found that the space between breaths is indeed a portal – placing me, in my own language, as ‘living presence in a field of living presence’. My experience is that the discovery of the space between breaths can lead on to a discovery of stillness even within the breath as it rises and falls. Stillness in the breath, co-existent with the movement of the breath, is potentially available at all times. It is largely through Sally Kempton’s work that I learned this lesson, and I am grateful to her for the experience and insight that I have gained.

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

MEDITATION: LIVING PRESENCE

‘Living Presence’ is a sitting meditation customised for my current morning practice. The name is inspired by phrases in my practice liturgy. When casting my circle, having called for peace in the four directions, the below and above, I move to the centre and say: I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence. At a later stage in the ritual I use the words: I am the movements of the breath and the stillness in the breath: living presence in a field of living presence, here, now, home.

This meditation is strongly anchored in modern Druid tradition as I follow it. It celebrates a form of animism: ‘living presence in a field of living presence’. It also works, with the same sense of stillness at the centre and movement around the periphery that is wired in to my circle practice.

Closing my eyes, I take a series of long, slow breaths, and anchor myself in the clarity, peace and stillness that I find deep within me. From this centre, engaged and empathetic, yet without becoming immersed or identified, I welcome the stream of experience moving and changing around this core.

To start with, I scan, in turn, my body and senses, my feelings, desires, images, thoughts, and personality patterns. As the myriad varieties of experience pour in, I keep them company, like Rumi when he wrote: “This being human is a guesthouse. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Entertain them all. Be grateful for whoever comes. For each has been sent as a guide from beyond” (2).

I, as stillness, am not a transcendent witness, elevated above the experiences that arise. I stay awake with them, in a process of holding and healing. This enacts my declaration that I am both the stillness in the breath and the movements of the breath.

Movement without stillness has vitality but little awareness. Without movement, stillness cannot come fully alive. They are distinct, but not separate. As they emerge in tandem, defining and modifying themselves in relation to each other, stillness infuses movement with its own qualities. In the moment of connection, stillness in not entirely still. It is lovingly relational. Movement thereby gains in peace and clarity, as it responds, and is nourished and illuminated by them. The whole gestalt is Living Presence.

This process models my current understanding of a unity (one meditation, one experience) that includes difference. It enacts my current understanding of non-duality and interbeing, at the level of an intrapsychic contemplative process. I am pleased with the way that this meditation is working so far. Its development has been supported by a number of influences outside Druidry, without my adopting any other system. As well as Kabinski and Rumi I would reference the current ‘mindful self-compassion’ tradition (3), the stance of Focusing, though it is a therapeutic practice and not a meditation (4), and the work of Jeff Foster (5)

(1) Living Presence is a Sufi term. See: Kabir Edmund Kabinski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self New York, Ny: Penguin Putnam, 1992 See also

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/04/18/rumi-being-human/

(3) https://centerformsc.org/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2018/05/14/new-directions-focusing/ See also: http://www.focusing.org/ and http://www.focusing.org.uk/

(5) http://www.lifewithoutacentre.com/

BEYOND MINDFULNESS

Once you recognize the bright sun of awakened awareness, practising mindfulness can seem like shining a flashlight at midday in the hopes that it will make things brighter.” (1)

This post is about modern non-dual traditions and what I have learned from them in recent years. They have inspired me to practice a Druidry that recognises a ‘beyond mindfulness’ dimension of experience, in Western Mysteries tradition sometimes referred to as ‘causal’.

Stephan Bodian is a former Zen monk who went on to become a psychotherapist, mindfulness teacher, and a teacher in the Direct Path tradition founded by Shri Atmananda Krishna Menon. He says: “the act of being mindful is a portal to a deeper, enduring awareness that can’t be manufactured or practised. This deeper awareness is already functioning, whether we know it or not. Indeed, it is our natural state of spontaneous presence, without which there would be no experience at all. Instead of cultivating it like a talent or strengthening it like a muscle, we just need to recognize it and return to it”.

In my own inquiry, my ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’ came out working with resources developed by Direct Path teachers. I am now integrating this realisation into my Druid practice, supported by the modern tradition’s naming of a causal dimension in experience, akin to “our natural state of spontaneous presence”. It underlies both the physical and psychic levels. It is our original nature. It does not obscure or invalidate the stress and turbulence we find in the physical and psychic realms. It is not even a domain of peace, happiness, and love when understood as desired personal states. But it can act as an internal place of safety in difficult times.

In my awen work I am looking at pathways between the three dimensions, and what can be brought from the causal and psychic dimensions into the physical for both personal and collective wellbeing. For much of my contemplative inquiry I have looked at the link between the causal and physical dimensions of experience (the latter including world, body, feelings, thoughts and everyday self-sense) whilst relatively neglecting the psychic realm. I am changing and re-balancing this now, so as better to walk between these worlds.

(1) Stephan Bodian Beyond Mindfulness: The Direct Approach to Peace, Happiness, and Love Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2017

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