contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Colin Oliver

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/

POEM: FIELD AND SKY

At the sallow’s* gap

we step through the hedge

and are nothing but field and sky.

Hares race, lurching

to a tussle,

their frenzy printed in the soil.

The kestrel soars –

pausing, head down,

to sew with the finest needle.  (1)

I like this poem for two reasons. The first is as a beautifully written nature poem. The second is the experience it triggered for me in the second and third lines:

we step through the hedge

and are nothing but field and sky.

It is as if the hedge is a portal, and stepping through it takes us into another world, changing us into field and sky. Yet it is the same world, experienced differently. In this version we contain the natural world, holding the lives of hare and kestrel.

Contemplative moments like this – whether directly in nature or evoked in poetry – can take me out of my  boundaried sense of self and place me more fully in the flow of experience and relationship. In their afterglow, I feel a certain poignancy at the fragile, ephemeral, not-to-be-taken-for-granted quality of such connections.

*salix caprea, also called pussy willow

(1) Colin Oliver High River Sudbury: Downstream Press, 2006 (Available from poetry section of the shop at http://www.headless.org/ )

 

HEADLESS ZEN?

“Let go of emptiness and come back to the brambly forest. Riding backwards on the ox, drunken and singing, who could dislike the misty rain pattering on your bamboo raincoat and hat.” Chan Master Hongzhi.

Recently I came across Susan Blackmore’s Zen and the Art of Consciousness (1). Blackmore, though not a Buddhist, works experientially within the Chan tradition (Chan being a Taoist influenced form of Chinese Buddhism, and the precursor of Japanese Zen). It’s how she does her first-person, subjective lifeworld inquiry into consciousness, which she also studies as a cognitive scientist. The book shows her working through ten questions, starting with: ‘Am I conscious now’?

Question 3 is ‘Who is asking the question? Here she brings in Douglas Harding of the Headless Way* and uses some of his experiments. I worked with these last year. I didn’t maintain an ongoing connection with the Headless family for long, mostly because of Harding’s tilt towards self-identification with/as the One cosmic consciousness, as the means dis-identification from ‘self’ at the human level. I’ve discovered that I can’t align myself with it. I don’t want to be God. Yet the ‘headless’ experience and its value have stayed with me. After completing my first Headless Way* pointing experiment, I reported: “pointing out – ‘curtains, folds, blueness, a crack showing light. Right arm. Flesh, tattoos, patterning. Pointing in: nothing: a relief, really, and a joy.” As that work continued, the joy only grew when the exterior view rushed in to fill the space. I say ‘view’ rather than ‘world’ because the world I perceive is a co-creation of the (presumed) outside world and my own (presumed) senses. A bat would have a completely different experience. Still, there was a sense of ‘everything’ filling my nothing at the centre.

Blackmore’s version is this. She describes meditating and looking towards a flower bed. “I paid open attention to everything I could see and hear, and in the space at the top of my shoulders I found no head, only forget-me-nots. I looked for the self who was looking at the forget-me-nots, and simply became them. It was very simple; very obvious”. Blackmore’s subsequent understanding – “what I see is what I am’ – does not as I read it make ‘I am God’ cosmic consciousness claims. Indeed, she is influenced by the philosopher Dan Dennett, who thinks of ‘consciousness’ itself as not just a reification (turning a process into a substance) but an altogether redundant idea. He’s the opposite kind of monist to Douglas Harding.

Some people like to have a line to follow. I like openness, and the possibility of multiple perspectives. I like the gleeful return to the commonsense world indicated by the 12th century Master Hongzhi above. It’s in Blackmore’s book, as part of feedback from her own Chan teacher at a time when she was in relentless pursuit of the problem of consciousness, and may have needed some rebalancing and lightening up in her role as sentient being. I also like the Interbeing approach mapped out in Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary on the Heart Sutra (2) and more recent works such as his Love Letter to the Earth (3), with ‘We are the Earth’ as its first section and ‘Healing Steps’ as the second.

I will give the last word to a member of the Headless Way community. This is in the form of a poem by Colin Oliver called the Oneness of Things (4), which for me captures the ‘headless’ experience seamlessly, and – as only poets can – finds room for all of the above:

The sun low over the beach:

shining wires of dune grass,

stones and the shadows of stones.

On the shoreline, the rush of foam

mirrored in the wet sand.

In the oneness of things

I am nowhere in sight.

 

* www.headless.org/

(1) Susan Blackmore Zen and the Art of Consciousness, Oneworld Publications, 2014 (ebook edition)

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1988

(3) Thich Nhat Hanh Love Letter to the Earth, Berkeley, CA: Parallex Press, 2013

(4) Colin Oliver Nothing but this Moment: selected poems London: Shollond Trust, 2013

POEM: LULLABY

 

River stationed.

the damselfly

has stilled its wings,

 

blue lace folded

on a hunter’s slenderness.

 

Perch, slanted from their mouths,

speak to the surface an occasional O.

 

Lily pads are sunk and curled

by the river’s rub,

 

Papooses

nodding in the waterlight.

 

From Colin Oliver High River Sudbury, Suffolk: Downstream Press, 2006

 

POEM: THE ONENESS OF THINGS

The sun low over the beach:

shining wires of dune grass,

stones and the shadows of stones.

On the shoreline, the rush of foam

mirrored in the wet sand.

In the oneness of things

I am nowhere in sight.

 

Colin Oliver Nothing But This Moment: Selected Poems London: Shollond Trust, 2013

 

 

 

WISDOM OF SOPHIA

“I think I’ll go and meet her,” said Alice…
“You can’t possibly do that,” said the Rose, “I should advise you to walk the other way.”
This sounded nonsense to Alice, so she said nothing, but set off at once towards the Red Queen. To her surprise, she lost sight of her in a moment.

Lewis Carrol Through the Looking Glass

A significant thread within ancient Wisdom claims that we are not simply human. Outwardly we are human, but inwardly we are divine. According to this wisdom, the purpose of life is to awaken our divine inner self. If we awaken to who we really are, our lives will be blessed. This wisdom is sometimes known as the Sophia perennis, the eternal wisdom, and the cultural history of Sophia – whether as Goddess or Mother of Angels – is interwoven with it.

This wisdom is not confined to the Western Way or to a theistic use of language. Prajnaparamita (= Great Wisdom) is the Mother of Buddhas in Mahayana Buddhism, and the influential Lankavatara Sutra says: “Pure in its own nature and free from the category of finite and infinite, Universal Mind is the undefiled Buddha womb, which is wrongly apprehended by sentient beings”. Similar ideas, expressed a little differently, are to be found in Taoism.

Perennialism came to wide public notice when Aldous Huxley published The Perennial Philosophy in 1945, and has had a significant influence ever since. At the present time, terms like ‘nondual’ – as at www.scienceandnonduality.com – and ‘integral’ – https://www.integrallife.com –  are used for the current versions. In these, we find a partial shift from finding a common thread in ancient traditions to developing new ones, in some cases backed up by an ‘evolutionary’ narrative. My own active interest has been piqued by the Headless Way developed by Douglas Harding – www.headless.org – and I will be attending their residential workshop in Salisbury (Wiltshire, England) in July.

Colin Oliver is a poet of the Headless Way, and his poem Sea Shell appears on their website.

What secret lies
in the heart of a sea shell
you cannot tell.

But if one day
a shell on a rock should crack
and break its back

your gaze may fall
to find in its secret heart
nothing at all.

Then turning round
to the sea you may wonder
that the waves’ sound
can come from an empty heart.

POEM: BUMBLE BEE

 

Crawling

among blackthorn stars,

the bumble bee is drunk.

 

Petals float

from her blunders.

 

Her wings

move in and out of humming.

 

On her body is the glory

of the sun’s

wet shine.

 

From Colin Oliver High River Sudbury, Suffolk: Downstream Press, 2006.

 

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