An attentive juggler keeps two coins in the air. As I contemplate the coins, they speak to me of well-being, health, and blessing, rather than every day money. They are coins of a different order, and they draw me into the card.
I was glad to pick the two of pentacles, from The Druidcraft Tarot (1), in my first use of cards for many months. I knew I wanted only one card in the moment of picking it up. The image, when I saw it, gave me the pleasure of recognition, of something about this feeling right for me. A relaxed juggling of no more than two coins seemed spacious and doable. I thought, ‘I can walk into the picture and be the figure on the shore-line. I can put myself into this flow of movement and attention with these coins’.
Now within the image, I notice that I have my back to the sea, and I assume a prior knowledge that the boats are friendly and capable of outrunning bad weather. I experience pentacles as having a protective resonance, so long as I am active in my own protection. I feel that, somehow, my juggling of the coins is a part of that protection, and protects the boats as well. I do not have a story about why this should be the case, but I trust that it is. That is all I need to do.
Bringing myself back into my normal state, I feel trust in my current direction, even though I cannot fully articulate it. I feel trust in my existing resources, of which the Tarot and my ease with it are two. I think about moving between different states of attention, in ways that are spacious and not overloaded. My contemplative inquiry is not now about asking fundamental questions or exploring new avenues. It seems more to be about balance and flow and living from an underlying stillness.
(1) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The DruidCraft Tarot: Use the Magic of Wicca and Druidry to Guide Your Life London: Connections, 2004. Illustrated by Will Worthington.
This post updates the description of Contemplative Inquiry, using the text my newly revised ABOUT.
“I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. I began Contemplative Inquiry in August 2012 as part of a project within modern British Druidry. My book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014. It includes a foreword, Deep Peace of the Quiet Earth, by Philip Carr-Gomm, at that time Chosen Chief of OBOD (https://www.druidry.org). There are major contributions in the main text from 14 other Druids offering diverse perspectives on the topic: https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/
“Contemplative Inquiry includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. It reaches beyond Druidry into a wider exploration of contemplative spiritualities, drawing on the enduring wisdom of many times and places. Over time, I have found an ‘at-homeness’ in the present moment, which 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. My practice seems to have its own evolving trajectory, whilst drawing on two spiritual families as active points of reference – OBOD Druidry (https://www.druidry.org) and the Eckhart Tolle Community – https://eckharttolle.com/.”
It is some time since the solstice. Where I live, the time between sunrise and sunset has shortened by about 20 minutes. Though the change is still slow, it is noticeable now. But I do not yet feel a pull towards Lughnasadh/Lammas. I took these pictures on 11 July, and this is its own time, a time of abundance and ripening. They give me the sense of a summer that has kept its promise and is managing to mature despite a year of patchy weather.
At this stage, the willows below, early to leaf, remain majestic in their abundance – whilst hinting at a tiredness that will manifest in late summer, when energy starts to withdraw, and turn inwards.
But this isn’t the case with the treescape as a whole. In the woods I continue to find the fresh green of a vigorous life energy. It is the time when I get the strongest sense of a canopy, even in a relatively small and modestly wooded space. It hints at the glories of old forest, even though it isn’t one.
Whilst there is a sense of flora moving into new stages of their cycle, the process is gradual. There is time and leisure for slow change. There is no sense of having to be perfectly one thing and then, immediately, perfectly another.
Above all. I notice subtle differences in shape and colour within a setting of predominantly green growth. My gaze is drawn by intricacies of variation, contrast and patterning within this always astonishing display of life, and its natural will to be and become.
In mid-July, life rests in its moment, with harvesting some way off.
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.
In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), gorse covers the period from 9-31 July. It is the last tree of the summer quarter, handing over to apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas on 1 August. The illustration is from The Green Man Tree Oracle (2).
I know from my childhood that gorse can make a tame, gently sloping hill seem wild and edgy. Navigating through gorse requires an eye to self-care. Flowering gorse is not confined to summer, but for me it is anchored to summer in memory. Seen from afar, gorse was a vivid harbinger of the summer holidays with days of warmth (rising to heat) and freedom to roam. It carried a hint of adventure and disinhibition. Sometimes the promise was fulfilled. Sometimes there was a hot heavy dullness broken by only storms, and a degree of frustration. July days were unpredictable.
Gorse (ogham name Onn) was sacred to the Irish god Lugh, and thus to light, to all manner of skills, and to the fire in the head of ecstatic creativity. Lugh has a trickster aspect, and can be seen in certain lights as more a god of lightning than of the sun. He has a cousinship with the Brythonic Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the warrior magician of the fourth branch of the Mabinogi. He has also been linked to the Norse Loki, for tricksterism is an aspect of the smouldering fertile mind.
Gorse makes good fuel and so has an obvious role in fire festivals. In Brittany, 1 August was marked by the Festival of the Golden Gorse and gorse has has strong associations with the faery folk. It is a plant of power. We cannot make assumptions about how we stand with it. A wary respect might be wise.
NOTE: This post brings to an end a year in which I have featured the sixteen trees in this mandala. I began on 16 July 2020 with an out-of-sequence Rowan (3), because I had had a vivid encounter with a rowan tree in the woods. (Its time in the mandala is 9-31 October.). Then I moved on to apple(4) and blackberry (5). From the Autumn Equinox (1) the enterprise became more systematic. As a blogger, I won’t be repeating the cycle in the same way in the coming year. Once for the record feels enough.
(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/
(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Tree Oracle London: Connections, 2003
“Bow to your awkwardness. Kneel at the altar of your failures. Smile at your clumsiness. Befriend your incompetence. Laugh when you stumble and fall. These are all perfectly precious waves in the oceanic vastness of you.
“Perfection is unavailable in time, but found only in presence; the presence of imperfection makes you real, and relatable, and that’s perfect. You’ll be consistent when you’re dead. Until then, celebrate your silly old self, your marvelous inability to conform, or to live up to any image at all.
“Don’t bore yourself into a spiritual coma. Say the wrong thing, just for once. There is such freedom in allowing yourself to screw up, to be kind to your mistakes, to kiss the ground as you rise again, to adore the falling too.
“Don’t let your spirituality numb your humanity, your humility, and most important, your sense of humor.”
Jeff Foster The Way of Rest: Finding the Courage to Hold Everything in Love Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2016
“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
A blue sky frames quiet branches. It is the midsummer standstill in my neighbourhood – a period extending over several days. I took the picture on 23 June, in the early afternoon, a time of soft warmth and sunshine, with me able to meet it. I had been prepared to miss it this year, and was delighted when the opportunity came.
The picture below shows the play of afternoon light and shade in a semi-sheltered spot, where a footbridge crosses a stream.
The next picture makes it clear that there is substantial built environment too here – one of the things I like about this landscape – in the form of weathered railway arches visible behind the foreground green.
The nearby canal looks sleepier than the stream, as if dreaming in the lushness of the moment.
Below, water margin nettles stand out as part of the richness and fecundity of this space, calling for my attention. Clearly capable of being an irritant and seen largely as a nuisance today, the nettle was highly valued by our ancestors for food, fibre and medicine. The Druid Plant Oracle (1) describes it as “a storehouse of goodness” bearing hidden gifts. Nettle tea is widely thought of as health promoting, and modern research confirms that it is rich in antioxidants and vitamins. It is suggested that its polyphenols are helpful in managing chronic illnesses that involve inflammation. I am taking it up as a drink.
There are other, varied riches beside the path, easy to ignore, but also easy to notice and enjoy for their beauty and vitality alone.
I went for this walk without any intention of taking photographs and I travelled quite a way before I began. I felt as though the landscape was persuading me to record the day, and thus bear witness to the midsummer stasis. Yes, it happened in 2021, as it happens every year. Here is the evidence. I am glad I showed up to be part of it,
(1) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Plant Oracle: Working with the Magical Flora of the Druid Tradition London: Connections, 2007 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)
I’m coming out of an extended period of laboured breathing, loss of voice, and bouts of coughing that didn’t want to stop. I cannot tell whether this represents a recovery or a respite. Medical tests so far have been reassuring, but there are others to come. I do know that the experience, whilst at one level a drain on my energy and attention, has been a teacher of what I am calling garden variety mindfulness.
I have been nudged into taking mindfulness off the meditation stool and into acts of daily living. I am thinking of breathing for the purpose of staying alive: staying present and awake whilst struggling; eating (what, when, how much and how fast or slow); the re-arranging, with negotiation, of living space and how it works; slowing down and paying better attention in all departments. This mindfulness has been the agent of significant practical change.
It does help to keep a formal meditation practice going as well, and for this I am tending to use models from Eckhart Tolle Now (https://eckharttolle.com/), since I am working with them. I am also entering meditational states in emergencies. On occasions when my breathing seemed very compromised, I would experience a raw fear that felt like a healthy body-mind response, but which I also wanted to put space around. Staying with the fear, and keeping it company, the loving awareness of of the Deep-I would wrap itself around the fear and hold it. As loving awareness I would allow the fear its run whilst also showing that I am not defined by any passing event or response to it.
I have also compassionately intervened with distress-laden narratives of helplessness and anticipated doom – constructing ‘my future’ in later life as having an inevitable downhill trajectory. This is an understandable story in the circumstances – and also a limiting and distorted one. I realise that I am more concerned about incapacity than I am about death itself. Death is something I need to face into and make room for.
I have developed a healing visualisation for my scratchy throat. First I pay attend to the felt-sense of scratchiness and become familiar with it. Then I see a cavern like space dotted around with luminous grit. This is gently washed by a liquid light energy that acts to dissolve the grit. I make sure that this liquid covers the grit on the cavern floor but doesn’t fill the cavern space as a whole. The visualisation has had a perceptible effect on the sensations in my throat, as well as contradicting any story of helplessness and being an effective way of paying attention to parts of me that are asking for it.. The whole story of this period, really, is about paying attention.
This post is about a midsummer day’s dream in the the Scottish border country, a dream which included a certain kind of waking up. I have written about it before (1,2) but this is the first illustrated version. Fourteen years have passed since that day, which in many ways determined the form which my expression of Druidry would take.
I was near Melrose. The wild rose was one of many on the banks of the Tweed. In this photograph, I am on a riverside path, with my back to the river. I keenly noticed then, as I notice now, the difference between a wild rose and the more familiar cultivated ones. I love both. But I remember feeling a particular delight at the simplicity of the native flower, a sense of easy integration into habitat, and of a plant not committed to being red or white.
Looking more deeply, I have said in my earlier writing how I had a momentary experience in which, gazing at a rose, subject/object distinctions disappeared and it is as if time intersected with eternity. I have identified this with the Seeing experience more systematically explored by Douglas Harding and the community built up around his work (http://www.headless.org). This was the beginning my sense that direct experience of the world, manifesting through a form of nature mysticism, would be my way forward, eventually becoming a contemplative Druidry and the backbone of my contemplative inquiry. I experience this as a direct and simple route to stillness, presence, resting in being., and identifying with source.
My walk amongst the wild roses had a prequel. Firstly, I had already spent time in the well-preserved ruins of Melrose Abbey. It was a building of Green Man carvings, but, sadly, neither the monks who occupied it nor the iconoclasts who abandoned it had access to the Gospel of Thomas (3) or the words:
“His disciples said to him:
‘When will the dead be at rest?’
‘When will the new world come?’
He answered them:
What you are waiting for has already come,
but you do not see it.” (3)
Here I see the abbey as a solid, material buildings, built with love and care. Even today, it belongs in its landscape, as much as the Tweed or the nearby Eildon Hills, with a semi-wild orchard of apple, pear and cherry trees. What I haven’t written before, in times when I was busy making distinctions between available paths, is that time and eternity intersect in this place too. But, on the day in question, I didn’t have that experience in the abbey grounds. I had it only among the wild roses, down by the river.
The Eildon Hills are also part of the same landscape, indeed a more primal one. But they are fairy hills and they can hide themselves. On that day, they hid from me. There was no invitation – or, rather command – from the Queen of Elfland, who had once ridden out to summon Thomas the Rhymer to her service:
“But you maun go wi’ me now Thomas
True Thomas ye maun go with me
For ye maun serve me seven years
Through weel or wae as may change to be.” (4)
At midsummer in 2007 I was looking for a spiritual home that offered both depth and simplicity. The grim half hidden hills were not appealing to me and I was closed to their magic, with an invitation or without one. I did not want to court danger by ascending into their conceivably treacherous mists. The low road by the river was the one for me.
It was a good decision, and good came of it. But I do also understand that on a different day, those hills could be seen in a different light. I do not now feel constrained to make a neat choice between a broad road, a narrow road and a bonny road. Two cycles of seven years on, well rooted in a nourishing life and practice, I find myself in a more open space, wondering what lessons this Otherworld might yet offer.
(3) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005
(4) R. J. Stewart The Underworld Initiation: A Journey Towards Psychic Transformation Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1985