contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Consciousness

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)

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.

MUSICAL MEDITATION: THE SHAKUHACHI FLUTE

Shakuhachi flute music is a meditation for players and listeners alike. It is dance of sound and silence, of movement and stillness. Some people call it, ‘blowing Zen’. In this music, a rise and fall of notes gives way to space and stillness, which in turn give way to a rise and fall of notes. Eckhardt Tolle identifies shakuhachi flute music as a portal to the experience of consciousness being conscious of itself – and so a direct realization of what he calls the Deep I.

Bamboo flutes first came to Japan from China in the 7th century CE (1). The current shakuhachi was developed in Japan in the16th century. It is called fuke shakuhachi because of the instrument’s role in the Fuke sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Monks known as komusu (priests of nothingness, or emptiness monks) who used the shakuhachi as a spiritual tool. Their songs were paced according to the players’ breathing and were considered meditation as much as music.

Their spiritual practice required them to move from place to place playing the shakuhachi and begging for alms. The monks wore wicker baskets over their heads, as a symbol of their detachment from the world. But the world being the place that it is, it was more like a semi-detachment. Travel around Japan was restricted by the Shogunate at that time, and the Fuke only got their exemption by agreeing to spy for the authorities and allowing the Shogun to send out his own spies in the guise of Fuke monks. In response to these developments, several particularly difficult shakuhachi pieces became known as tests. If you could play them, you were a real Fuke. If you couldn’t, you were probably a spy and might very well be killed in unfriendly territory. With the Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1868, the Fuke sect was abolished along with the Shogunate itself, and shakuhachi playing was banned for a number of years.

The Wikipedia article on shakuhachi (1) provides information about the instrument and its capabilities, as well as its current international popularity and the formal link with Zen broken.. There is an International Shakuhachi Society which maintains a directory of notable professional, amateur and teaching shakuhachi players.

(1) https://en.wkipedia.org/wiki/Shakuhachi/ (NB This reference gets you to a page where you will need to type in Shakuhachi)

PERCEIVING NATURE

“When you perceive nature only through the mind, through thinking, you cannot sense its aliveness, its beingness. You see the form only and you are unaware of the life within the form – the sacred mystery. Thought reduces nature to a commodity to be used in the pursuit of profit or knowledge or some other utilitarian purpose. The ancient forest becomes timber, the bird a research project, the mountain something to be mined or conquered” (1)

Since the beginning of March I have had a connection with Eckhart Tolle’s community (2). Over the next couple of months I will decide whether to make an ongoing commitment. Part of the process is to identify the points of compatibility with my Druidry so that both may support an integrated spiritual life. The view of nature is one point of compatibility, and there is a link to my sense of contemplative Druidry when Eckhart Tolle says: “When you perceive nature, let there be spaces for no-thought, no mind. When you approach nature, it will respond to you, and participate in the evolution of a human and planetary consciousness.” (1)

(1) Eckhart Tolle Stillness Speaks: Whispers of Now London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003

(2) https://eckharttolle.com/

SPRING CLARITY

Looking out at the world, I see great variety. In one picture, above, I see a continuing wintry austerity. It is 26 February, somewhat before 9 am. I look up a hill on which the frost has yet to melt. It is daylight, with clear blue sky, but no direct sign of the sun. Light, indeed, but of a chilly kind. The trees have a stern look, reinforced by the battlements behind them – decorative though they might be on this nineteenth century folly of a fort.

The second picture, below, was taken a few minutes earlier, but lower down. There are no signs of frost. There wasn’t any, even on the ground where I was standing. here, I am physically closer to the trees and I feel closer to them. Sunlight is visible on their bark. The looks of these two pictures seem very different, even though they are not much separated in the world’s space and time. I am enchanted by small changes like this. I can lose myself in them.

On the morning of 26 February, there was still a tension between winter and spring characteristics. I do not feel that now, on 2 March, even though a return of frost is quite possible. The year has moved on and I seem to have moved with it. I feel re-invigorated. I feel clearer about the direction of my inquiry, now becoming a more focused contemplation on how I, as a human being, find “a balance between human and Being”, to use the words of Eckhart Tolle (1).

‘Being’ is a way to talk about the Divine, whilst keeping a distance from theistic language and its traditional associations. For Tolle, and I would say now for me, Being is found “in the still, alert presence of Consciousness itself, the Consciousness that you are. Human is form. Being is formless. Human and Being are not separate but interwoven”. This description deepens my existing “At-Homeness in the flowing moment”, identifying it unequivocally as the gateway to immersion in Being. I cannot state this as an objective truth claim. What I can say is that I am being truthful to my experience and deepest intuitions, and that there are many truthful people today and down the ages who have made sense, and continue to make sense of their experience in this way.

When I cast my Druid circle, asking for peace in the four horizontal directions, the below and the above, I finally turn to the centre as the seventh and final direction. Instead of saying, “may there be peace”, I say, “I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence”. I then chant the Awen. Peace, silence, stillness, emptiness, the space between thoughts, feelings and things – these in my experience do most to open me up to Being. Feelings of joy and lovingkindness are likely to enter in. The Headless Way community talk about our core, formless, identity – our true nature – as that of a clear awake space that is also ‘capacity for the world’. (2). Certainly for me, deepening into Being enriches the human dimension itself – with all of its relationships, activities and roles in 3D timebound reality. In older language, it brings heaven to earth. My contemplative inquiry continues, as a way of supporting this endeavour and sharing it, within the cultural framework of modern Druidry..

(1) Eckhart Tolle Oneness with All Life: Awaken to a Life of Purpose and Presence Penguin Random House UK, 2018 (First ed. published 2008)

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

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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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

A PATH FORWARD?

My world is now in full summer, rich in life and growth, palpably drawn towards the solstice moment. Even in the middle of the woods the solar influence is evident, vivifying both light and shade. The power and clarity of midsummer’s day will be balanced by the different energy, conceivably more disturbing, of the midsummer night’s dream.

Sometimes it is easy to see the path behind, but not the one ahead. In the first half of this inquiry year I have refined my personal Druid practice and strengthened my contemplative inquiry. Giving more energy to this blog has helped. I am clear that, whilst not mobilised around deity and devotion, I also do not accept current positivistic science as a complete account of lived experience. I incline to a ‘consciousness first’ view of cosmos because it offers the richest contextualisation of the ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’ experience now at the core of my own life. But the map is not the territory, and I have stayed away from adopting this as a doctrine. It feels good to have clarity here, and also to remain appreciatively at ease with other points of view and their protagonists.

My recent awen inquiry has stirred up a range of feelings, thoughts, images and intuitions. I do not see a path ahead very clearly. But I intuit that my future direction may be explicitly age-related, at least to some degree. I had my 71st birthday last week. So now I’m not just 70: I’m ‘in my 70’s’. As a contemplation I am using a passage from James Hillman’s The Force of Character and The Lasting Life (1). As I get to know it better, I will discover what inspiration it offers.

“T. S. Eliot wrote that ‘Old men ought to be explorers’; I take this to mean: follow curiosity, inquire into important ideas, risk transgression. According to the brilliant Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, ‘inquiry’ is our nearest equivalent to the Greek alethia (2), … ‘an endeavour … to place us in contact with the naked reality … concealed behind the robes of falsehood.’ Falsehood often wears the robes of commonly accepted truths, the common unconsciousness we share with one another … we must become involved wholeheartedly in the events of ageing. This takes both curiosity and courage. By ‘courage’ I mean letting go of old ideas and letting go to odd ideas, shifting the significance of the events we fear.”

(1) James Hillman The Force of Character and the Lasting Life Milson’s Point, AUS: Random House Australia, 1999

(2) As in alethiometer, for readers of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy

CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY: REFLECTING ON THE PROJECT

In his foreword to Contemplative Druidry (1) Philip Carr-Gomm talks about “Nature Mysticism, or Natural Mysticism” in modern Druidry. He suggests that such mysticism is grounded in changes in consciousness, and feelings of bliss or oneness, with no accompanying “separation from the physical world in pursuit of the Divine”. For me, it is especially about meeting the moment within the physical world, including our own body/mind. Sometimes the meeting comes through formal practice. Sometimes it is spontaneous and unannounced.

I built the main body of the text in Contemplative Druidry around a series of interviews with practitioners, which I designed, conducted and transcribed in the spring and summer of 2014. I then identified patterns in what people had been saying and decided on themes for chapters. I wasn’t working in an academic role, so my own linking text was a matter of curation rather than analysis. At that time the notion of a ‘contemplative’ approach to Druidry seemed weird to many people. But it was clear to me from the interview material that all the contributors had relevant experiences to talk about. They seemed to point to what PCG subsequently called ‘natural mysticism’ as a domain of personal and cultural experience readily within reach if people want it to be.

This book itself came out of a project I began working on in 2011, when I was a Bard and Ovate mentor in OBOD. I activated it in 2012, when I began to reach out to people with an offer of contemplative sessions, workshops and retreats – continuing with these until the end of 2016. 2012 also saw the birth of this blog and the Contemplative Druidry Facebook group, which I administered for the first year. Looking back from 2020, I feel that the contemplative meme is established within Druidry. ‘Contemplative’ has become a frequently used term in Druid discourse.

In the early days I thought a specific iteration of contemplative Druidry, launched by the project, might become a distinct Druid brand within and beyond the current Druid communities. From this distance it is easier for me to see that my will and energy were for initiating a conversation and modelling a set of possibilities, rather than working to establish a new sub-tradition. At the same time I continue to invite Druids and fellow travellers to be open to their ‘natural mysticism’ in ways that work for them.

(1) James Nichol , Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, Amazon/Kindle, 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

SCIENCE AND SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

As part of my contemplative inquiry, I have been looking at recent work by Rupert Sheldrake (1, 2). He identifies himself as “not a guru but an explorer”. I like that notion of ‘explorer’, with its sense that there is always space for new learning and development.

Sheldrake’s affirms that spiritual practice and research are “entirely consistent with the scientific method, which involves the formation of hypotheses – guesses about the way the world works – and then testing them experimentally. The ultimate arbiter is experience, not theory. In French, the word experience means both ‘experience’ and ‘experiment’. The Greek word for experience is empeiria, the root of our English word ‘empirical’. The exploration of consciousness through consciousness itself is literally empirical, based on experience. Spiritual practices provide ways in which consciousness can be explored empirically.”

In recent years, Sheldrake (1,2) has written two books based on this approach. Each discusses seven different practices that have been investigated empirically, both by the practitioners themselves and by scientists studying the effects of those practices. Every practice gets a chapter. The first book, Science and Spiritual Practices, offers:

  1. Meditation and the Nature of Minds
  2. The Flow of Gratitude
  3. Reconnecting with the More-Than-Human World
  4. Relating to Plants
  5. Rituals and the Presence of the Past
  6. Singing, Chanting and the Power of Music
  7. Pilgrimages and Holy Places

The second Book, Ways To Go Beyond, covers:

  1. The Spiritual Side of Sports
  2. Learning from Animals
  3. Fasting
  4. Cannabis, Psychedelics and Spiritual Openings
  5. Powers of Prayer
  6. Holy Days and Festivals
  7. Cultivating Good Habits, Avoiding Bad Habits, and Being Kind

Sheldrake’s choices are all practices he has taken part in, which have also been studied scientifically. He looks at both the ‘subjective’ experience and the ‘objective’ evidence and discusses the ways in which the practices seem to work. He also offers guidance to readers about engaging with the practices. He is very clear that the two books “do not constitute a comprehensive survey of all spiritual practices, emphasising his point by listing others that have been left out: “yoga, service to others, tai chi, chi gong, devotional worship or bhakti, tantric sex, caring for dying people, dream yoga, and the practices of the arts”. He makes it clear that “some practices are better at some times of life than others, and all religious traditions  have their own combinations”. I have already discussed Sheldrake’s work on gratitude at www.contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/03/14/ and will discuss others in future posts.

Sheldrake’s overall purpose is “to show that there is a wide variety of ways to connect to greater conscious realities, however we conceive of them, and that the effects of these practices can be investigated empirically”. Sheldrake is an optimist about the possibilities of science and spirituality working together in the service of human flourishing. “We are on the threshold of a new era of the exploration of consciousness, both through a revival of spiritual practices and also through the scientific study of them. After several generations in which science and spirituality seemed to be in opposition, they are becoming complementary. Together they are contributing to an unprecedented phase of spiritual evolution, beginning now.”

(1) Rupert Sheldrake Science and Spiritual Practice: Reconnecting Through Direct Experience Coronet, 2017

(2) Rupert Sheldrake Ways to Go Beyond, and Why They Work Coronet, 2019

NOTE: Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than eighty technical papers and ten books, including A New Science of Life. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, where he was Director of Studies in cell biology, and was also a Research Fellow of the Royal Society.

Sheldrake resigned his position at Clare and went to work on the physiology of tropical crops in Hyderabad, India, as principal plant physiologist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) from 1974 to 1978. There he published on crop physiology] and co-authored a book on the anatomy of the pigeonpea. Sheldrake left ICRISAT to focus on writing A New Science of Life, during which time he spent a year and a half in the Saccidananda Ashram of Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk.

From 2005-2010 he was the Director of the Perrott-Warwick Project for research on unexplained human abilities, funded from Trinity College, Cambridge. He is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California, and a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute in Connecticut.

His website is www.sheldrake.org/

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