contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Bio-spirituality

CONTINUITY AND CHANGE

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I took this picture on 1 October this year. The subject is a willow tree I befriended many years ago as part of my Druid training. It lives in Bristol beside the Avon as the river begins to leave the city, passing through the Clifton gorge and under the suspension bridge. The path, here at the edge of a park, is also a cycle track and continues towards the Severn estuary beside the river. Although I no longer live in Bristol, I continue to visit the willow from time to time and renew the contact.

My strongest link with the tree was in early spring. where I got the most powerful sense of its pulse and vibration, felt especially whilst touching the trunk with the palms of my hands. But I was careful to follow it through a year of regular communion during which it lost a substantial branch to a violent storm. I learned to associate this tree with regeneration, resilience and  generativity. The tree re-established its balance. The dead branch rotted gently in the ground, and contributed to other forms. Nothing was lost.

I’m about to go on a rare visit to my home town, partly to contemplate the continuities and discontinuities of my life and consider future directions. The image of the willow is with me.

 

CONTEMPLATION AND ENGAGEMENT

 

According to my dictionary, one of the meanings of ‘signature’ is, “a distinctive pattern, product, or characteristic by which someone or something can be identified: the chef produced the pate as his signature dish”.

I want to adjust the signature of this blog. I want now to explore the relationship between contemplation and engagement more explicitly. A blog is itself a form of engagement, and this one has so far combined a strong curatorial thread with personal sharing. Now, for me as for many others, a deepening social and ecological crisis asks for a work of preserving existing life-affirming aspects of our culture and developing new ones. I see this work as enhanced by outward-looking forms of contemplation. I want this blog to contribute.

I started this blog as a Druid. My personal path, which I have described more recently as a Sophian Way, has become more Universalist. I have described it as a path of healing, peace and illumination, which encourages a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity. Its ‘sacrament of the present moment’ involves resting in a place of underlying stillness, freedom and love within any experience – good experiences, wonderfully, but also bad ones that need active resisting on the ground. For some, this suggests an experience of divine support, or the activation of the divine within us or of the divinity that we truly are. For others it seems to come from a deep wellspring within the psyche that needs no further point of reference. This sacrament is my core practice, to be dropped into at any time. It doesn’t always take a pure form, but it usually makes a difference. In the myth of my own life, it is Sophia’s principal teaching.

At the level of the wider word, I continue to feel a strong sense of alignment with Pagan, Animist, and Earth spiritualities like Druidry – more than to the Buddhist or Gnostic families or to movements like the Headless Way, even though they have given me a lot. Philip Pullman in his The Secret Commonwealth* has a character who says that where we stand revolves around one key question – ‘is the world dead or alive?’ I say ‘alive’ without worrying about scientific definitions or the metaphysics of reality. Something in me just has to say ‘alive’ – alive and interconnected as a web of life. This re-affirmation is important to me, and as a ‘light bulb moment’ on a level with the more seemingly individual aspects of my Sophian Way. I don’t expect to change the blog that much, but there’s enough adjustment of signature here to demand explicit affirmation.

*Philip Pullman The Secret Commonwealth Oxford, David Fickling Books & London, Penguin, 2019 (Vol. 2 of The Book of Dust)

 

AT-HOMENESS REVISITED

A year ago, I wrote: “within my Sophian Way, I have found healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness. Everything else grows out of that”(1). This post is to re-affirm this insight and to take it forward.

I wrote of a ‘flowing now’ since ‘now’ is not a frozen unit of time but a living stream of experience. Past and future can indeed be conceived and imagined, but only within the flowing now. The experience of At-Homeness can either steal up of itself or I can invite it by slowing down and attentively companioning the flow as it moves, whatever is going on. It is a way of marking this space and time as sacred. My opening and attention are a sacrament, the means through which the flowing now – all that I can be sure of in this life – is recognised and blessed.

I didn’t invent the term At-Homeness. It comes from the proponents of ‘bio-spirituality’, who say (2) “that the beginning of a bio-spiritual awareness … is finding a way to some larger At-Homeness written deep within bodily knowing”. For them, an enabling and loving attention to the body and its processes gives the felt sense of At-Homeness a chance to ripen. My experience of Focusing over the last 15 months tells me this is true. My experience of Headless Way (3) opens up a world of vivid shapes and colours, all boundaries gone, no self in sight. Immersed in this world, I experience a lightness of being, and stillness in a world of movement. This, too, is At-Homeness in the flowing now.

I sense now, more clearly than before, that I am not at home in the realm of abstractions and absolutes. I do not find Sophia there. I flourish, rather, in processes and relationships. I can stand as awareness only through being aware (a process) of something/someone (a relationship). I find the love and magic in the cosmos, as well as its stresses and horrors, only within the play of movement and connection.

For me, Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of ‘Interbeing’ provides the most helpful presentation of a non-dual spirituality (4). “The insight of inter-being is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else. The insight of impermanence is that nothing is static, nothing stays the same. Interbeing means the absence of a separate self. Looking from the perspective of space, we call emptiness ‘inter-being’; looking from the perspective of time we call it impermanence”. Another modern Buddhist writer adds (5), “if you look at experience there are not fixed elements or even moments; there is simply a process, a transformation … the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’. He described himself as merely a flowing occurrence, and the outward for that took was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”

Reading this, I am pushed uncomfortably into the recognition of my own volatility. I explored this theme in October 2017 (6). However, because I found Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on long periods of sitting meditation, not right for me, I appear to have lost some of this insight, at least consciously. I am somewhat comforted that ‘At-Homeness in a flowing now’ at least preserves the gist, and the simple practices I’m using work well within an ‘inter-being’ framework. This is not so much because of its Buddhist origin, as because as an approach it seems to me to be on the side of life, relationship and movement. It brings me down to earth and closer to Sophia (Prajnaparamita, Guanyin).

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/

(2) Peter Campbell & Edward McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a Way to Grow Chicago, Ill: Loyola Press, 1985

(3) www.headless.org/

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

(5) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(6) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/

SOPHIAN WISDOM

This post is about Sophian wisdom and how to nurture it. It is based on a new understanding of a familiar story. In October 2016  (1), I reviewed Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight (2). Bolte Taylor, then a neuroanatomist at the Harvard Medical School, experienced a devastating stroke. There was terrible loss, and luminous discovery. Her left-brain hemisphere was almost destroyed and needed eight years of intensive work to recover. She lost her agency, her language centres, her narrative identity, her memories, her ambition, her busyness and her ‘hostility’ (her own word). “Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor died that morning”. But a quality of experiencing continued – peaceful, at times euphoric, with what Bolte Taylor subsequently described as a sense of grace, and of being-at-one with the universe.

Even from within this state, Bolte Taylor eventually found the will to recover what she had lost. But this would not be a simple return to life before the stroke. “It would have to be something new …When I experienced the haemorrhage and lost my left hemisphere language center cells that defined my ‘self’, those cells could no longer inhibit the cells in my right mind. As a result, I have gained a very clear delineation of the two very distinct characters cohabiting my cranium. The two halves of my brain don’t just perceive and think in different ways at a neurological level, but they demonstrate very different values based upon the types of information they perceive, and thus exhibit very different personalities. My stroke of insight is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely connected to the expression of peace, love, joy and compassion in the world”.

According to Bolte Taylor, “the right brain thinks in collages and images. Responding to the longer wave lengths of light, its visual perception is blended and softened, with a lack of edge that allows it to dwell on the bigger picture and how things relate to one another. It tunes in to the lower frequencies of sound that are readily generated by our body gurgles and other natural tones. It is biologically designed to readily tune in to our physiology”.

For me, now, Bolte Taylor’s story suggests an understanding of Sophia and what her wisdom might be pointing to. She quotes a saying: ‘peacefulness should be the place we begin rather than the place we try to achieve’.  We can live from this insight without the need for a stroke. My contemplative practice works to actualise this insight in a more gradual, gentler way. But to live a full human life, we need all our resources. As Bolte Taylor says. “We begin in this place, but we don’t isolate ourselves there. We need to use the skills of the left mind too, permeating it with this sense of peace and connectedness”.

The left mind “perceives the shorter wavelengths of light, increasing its ability to clearly delineate sharp boundaries – adept at identifying separation lines between adjacent entities. It tunes into the higher frequencies of sound, supporting the development and use of language. It speaks constantly, weaves stories, processes information with remarkable speed and efficiency, maintains personal identity and communicates with the outside world”, Thus the wisdom of Sophia starts from the peaceful and connected consciousness of our ‘right mind’ while using the skills of our’ left mind’ to bring it out in the wider world.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/stroke-of-insight/

(2) Jill Bolte Taylor My Stroke of Insight: a Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008

REVISED ‘ABOUT’ APRIL 2019

Over the lifetime of this blog I have made frequent revisions of its ‘About’ statement. Most are small. Occasionally, I make a major revision which I also publish as a post. Below is my revised and edited ‘About’ of 19 April 2019.

I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. It explores contemplative themes and their role in human flourishing within the web of life.

In my own journey, I have found an At-Homeness in a flowing now, not linked to any specific doctrine. For me, this experience and stance enable greater presence, healing and peace. They also support imaginative openness and an ethic of aware interdependence.

I began this work within British Druidry. I continue to follow an earth-centred and embodied spiritual path, ‘secular’ rather than ‘religious’. I draw on diverse traditions, especially resonating with naturalist, eco-existentialist, pantheist and animist currents within and beyond modern Paganism.

I am wary of metaphysical truth claims, including materialist ones, with an ultimate stance of openness and unknowing. At the time of this revision, I am exploring a tradition initiated by the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, who developed his own school of contemplative scepticism after a visit to India.

My book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

RUMI: BEING HUMAN

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.

Welcome and entertain them all,

even if they’re a crowd of sorrows

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture.

Still, treat each guest as honourable.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

I discovered this poem when learning Focusing, a peer and reciprocal support system described by one group of practitioners as based on a ‘bio-spirituality’. As such ‘a guide from beyond’ would be described, rather, as ‘a guide from within’. From the perspective of the discursive mind, I find, it amounts to the same thing.

Focusing works on the understanding that we can hold every experience within a larger presence that is loving but not identified with the experience or lost in it. I am not ‘the dark thought, the shame, the malice’, but I can acknowledge it as something in me that I can lovingly welcome. I can keep it company. This welcoming and keeping company is the essence of the practice, discovering what unfolds – rather than trying to fix or banish the initially unwanted part. For there is a wisdom in the wound. As Leonard Cohen famously put it, ‘there is a crack in everything, that’s where the light comes in’.

For more information about Focusing, there are several useful websites:

https://focusingresources.com/

https://www.biospiritual.org/

http://www.focusing.org.uk/

https://www.livingfocusing.co.uk/

 

EMBODIMENT AND AT-HOMENESS

In a previous post, (1) I told the story of Jill Bolte Taylor’s severe brain haemorrhage. For her, the experience contained a hidden blessing. As her ability to think disintegrated, Jill Bolte Taylor “felt enfolded in a blanket of tranquil euphoria … As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent and I became detached from the memories of my life, I was comforted by an expanding sense of grace … a ‘being at one’ with the universe, if you will.” Jill Bolte Taylor subsequently made a complete recovery from her stroke. Indeed, she was able to integrate the positive aspects of the stroke experience, leading to a fuller and richer life than she had had before.

In a gentler way, the proponents of ‘bio-spirituality’ are seeking a similar result. “The beginning of bio-spiritual awareness … is finding a way through to some larger At-Homeness written deep within bodily knowing.” (2) In ‘Focusing’, bio-spirituality’s recommended working method, practitioners address what they see as three critical issues in spirituality. The first is the “perennial problem of getting out of the mind”. The second is “the challenge of being drawn into an awareness of some Larger Process”. The third is the way in which “body knowing” helps with the first two. I have started using this approach as an active solo meditation, and so far I find the results promising. The core of this practice, when a solo meditation, is to hold an aware, enabling and loving attention to the body its processes, so that the felt sense of At-Homeness  has a chance to ripen.

For me, At-Homeness has become another way of describing non-duality as an experience. At-Homeness asks for a deepened embodiment, though for me ’embodiment’ is a more expansive term than is conventionally accepted. I work with a sense of three layers of embodiment, which I call physical, subtle and cosmic. The physical body is confined to the envelope of skin, whilst the subtle body extends further and is porous. The cosmic body is an emptiness body without boundaries. I believe that all are involved in body knowing and At-Homeness, and they are not ultimately separate. Reginald Ray has a good account (3) of how this works in his teaching and practice of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. In this, extended view of embodiment, I reach out beyond, and then further beyond, the strictly personal into a not-I-not-other-than-I territory. Yet I continue to stand on the Earth, a distinct sentient being interconnected with other sentient beings and the sentience of the world itself.  It is all my Home, and all needed for a full sense of At-Homeness.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/stroke-of-insight/ 

(2) Peter Campbell & Edwin McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a Way To Grow Chicago, Ill: Loyola Press, 1985

(3) Reginald A. Ray Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2009

NEW DIRECTIONS: FOCUSING

I am working through a spiritual shift strong enough to need a new language and practice. I am moving towards a spirituality without religion, which is simpler and more deeply rooted in experience. I have recently connected with the Focusing movement (1,2,3), as a potential source of support.

A Focusing text (4) speaks of “the process of listening to your body in a gentle, accepting way and hearing the messages that your inner self is sending you. It’s a process of honouring the wisdom that you have inside you, becoming aware of the subtle level of knowing that speaks to you through your body”. The term ‘bio-spirituality’ was coined for it by two Catholic priests who took up this practice. They called it a “sacred inward journey”, wrote a book about it (5) and developed their own network (6).

I do not see Focusing as a spiritual path in itself, but as a means of integrating what we conventionally call mind, body and spirit. The process can be run either solo or with a partner. I am already beginning to find it useful in a meditative state where I sit with loving attention and curiosity. Using this approach, I can establish a relationship with my ‘felt sense’, however it manifests, rather than just noticing it. I can work with the strains and tensions, issues and concerns, or the neglected joys in my life. I can extend this exploration in my journal writing after sessions. I have now had a session with a teacher and completed a week of daily meditations. They are already having a catalytic effect.

From the standpoint of continuity, this is an affirmation of embodied spirituality. It enables me to access ‘Wisdom’ as a living process with change-making power. The Sophia (Wisdom) of Gnostic tradition is often seen as a celestial and indeed super-celestial figure: yet she also embodies the re-visioned Earth – ‘the Kingdom’. To inhabit this space I need the vulnerability of openness. Such work reconnects me, with a new understanding, to an earlier time in my life and my involvement in co-counselling and psychotherapy.

For me thus far, focusing practice finds the seeds of action in contemplation itself. In stillness and silence I engage creatively with my life and world. Everything is held in the loving presence of a contemplative core. My inquiry moves forward in a new way.

I am taking a break from this blog for at least the rest of this month. On my return, I will explore this and other new directions more fully.

(1) focusing.org/

(2)  focusing.org.uk/

(3) https://www.livingfocusing.co.uk/

(4) Ann Weiser Cornell The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide To Emotional Self-Healing Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1996

(5) Peter A. Campbell and Edwin M. McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing As A Way To Grow Chicago, Il: Loyola Press, 1985

(6) https://www.biospiritual.org/

 

WHAT IF …?

In my first post of 2018, I said, ‘I have woken from my hibernation but am not yet out of my cave’ (1). Getting out of the cave has been a slow and tentative process this year. We have reached Beltane, and I can at last say that I have done it. Gratitude to the Merry Month!

In the same post I also sensed that I had ‘reached peak inquiry’. It looked that way at the time. But now I find myself unsatisfied with the place that I have reached. I have a vision of an abundance in simplicity, reached through a closer focus on direct experience, and better ways of writing about it. I ask myself: what will happen if I identify myself as a ‘secular contemplative’, centring myself within a space of ‘bio-spirituality’?

Following on from this, I ask, ‘how much continuity will I find, and how much change? What new possibilities will open? Will a stance of ‘spirituality without religion’ support the simplicity and closeness to experience that I aim for?

There are certainly points of continuity. The Contemplative Druid Group* (disbanded early in 2017) used simple, flexible methods. These were meditative, without featuring long meditations, and modelled a minimalist approach to ritual. The project saw itself as an innovation within modern Druidry and did not claim the mantle of Celtic language speakers in ancient or medieval times. Above all, it was nature-oriented, an Earth spirituality, and followed the wheel of the year as it happened – in and out of festival times.

This blog was linked to that culture, whilst always reaching out to other traditions as well. It has been an exploration of contemplative spiritualities, where ‘contemplative’ points to practices that train attentiveness, open spaces for wonder, and provide opportunities to reflect. When I looked at posts which people were reading, I identified a universalist rather than tribal approach, and ‘a readership more inspired by poetry and parables rather than sermons and sutras. Poetry tends to be suggestive rather than dogmatic and speaks directly to the heart’.

Going forward, I will continue to give Druidry and other traditions space in this blog, drawing on their creativity, healing power and wisdom. I have thoughts about new kinds of material to include as well. I’ll be looking at the same view from a different seat and using a slightly different language to describe what I see. That is my direction for contemplative inquiry now.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/01/05/contemplativeinquiry-setting-a-direction/

*The story of the development of Contemplative Druidry, its views and practice, is told in my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, published in October 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

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