contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Contemplative inquiry

RED SKY AT DAWN

It is 7.30 am on Sunday 5 February 2023. Every dawn is different. Opening to this one, I am drawn, above all, into clarity and redness. I feel as if I have just about caught up with myself, after five days in a new home. In traditional language, my soul has caught up with me.

In recent days I have felt more like a slightly dated machine, reliable in getting the job done, though not super fast or shiny. Now I’m aware again of being a person, a living presence in communion with a living world. The key moment was when, yesterday afternoon, I found my Tibetan bells in a shopping bag with some electrical equipment. I feared that they had left me during the move. It was a more than expected relief to re-discover them.

Today, in celebration, I used them to demarcate a morning practice that I hadn’t done at all for a week. I was tentative, in a new and not yet fully established space. But the practice grounded me all the same. It set me up to meet the dawn. It’s been said, I think by Douglas Harding, that we are, essentially, clear awake space and capacity for the world. As today magnificently dawned, it seemed that way to me.

‘MAGIC/DELIGHT’

“When we see a magic trick – or anything else that catches us off guard in a magical way – in the moment of surprise our mind stops, and there is a flash of delight. We are in a state of mute wonder.

“The same bliss of wonder, delight, and amazement is the focus of this meditation. We use our response to propel ourselves into a state beyond the mind, a state where we see the magical nature of life.

Our delight in what we are seeing, coupled with an amazed mind, become a doorway into an intuitive flash in which we remember that life itself is like a magic show, a dream – and not at all what our worries little self was thinking it to be!

“This meditation encourages us to attend to all the moments of surprise and delight that occur throughout our day.

“The following contemplation can help prepare us to take full advantage of these moments.

Practice thinking of delight

“Bring to mind a memory of a time when you experienced surprise and delight;

“Focus on your reaction – feel fully your surprise and the wonderful sensation of your delight;

“In this thought-free moment, let the great bliss remind you of the true nature of reality;

“Remain alert for these moments as they occur throughout the day.” (1)

(1) Meditation 43 from: Lee Lyon The 112 Meditations from the Book of Divine Wisdom: the Meditations from the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra with Commentary and Practice Santa Fe, NM: Foundation for Integrative Meditation, 2019. See http://www.integrativemeditation.org

Lee Lyon’s introduction describes the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra as “a compendium of meditations from the 8th century Shaivite tradition in Kashmir. Acknowledged as one of the supreme jewels of the Tantric tradition of northern India, this much loved text had remained largely obscure until its rediscovery last century. … One of the great hallmarks of this tradition is its … enthusiastic engagement with all aspects of our life experience, even the ‘unspiritual’, as wonderful, natural gateways into our true nature”.

The basic teaching is to move through the surface appearance of our lives into “the pure energy behind form”. It is through engaging “the deeper energy in any experience, pleasurable or difficult, ecstatic or terrifying, that we move through the appearance of separation into the ever present Oneness.”

BRIGID AT IMBOLC

“Every day and every night

That I say the genealogy of Bride,

I shall not be killed, I shall not be harried,

I shall not be put in a cell, I shall not be wounded …

No fire, no sun, no moon shall burn me,

No lake, no water, no sea shall drown me.” (1)

Brigid has a long history, stretching back in Gaelic traditions to at least the pagan Celtic iron age. The words above come from the Western Highlands of Scotland, in this form probably dating to the traumatising early modern period. Caitlin Matthews suggests that, even though the the words are addressed to ‘St. Bride’ rather than the Goddess of poets, they still have the talismanic power to preserve life.

More recently, Brigid has been successfully revived as a Pagan Goddess, where, according to an affirming Imbolc self-dedication story by Morgan Daimler (2) she has lost none of her capacity to protect her devotees.

“When I decided that it was essential for me a self-dedication to the pagan path, just like all my books talked about, I chose Imbolc to do it on. At that point the holiday to me was on the 2nd, the same day as America celebrated Groundhog Day, and was about cleansing and blessing of the self, so it seemed ideal for a self-dedication. I got everything together and when the night of the ritual arrived I was excited to take such a life changing step. At 13, coming from a non-religious background, doing something like this was momentous and I felt like I was ready to commit myself to the spirituality I had been studying.

“I went out alone into the bitter cold, without a winter coat on, and tried to do the ritual the way I had learned how to, but it was hard to focus. February in Connecticut is frigid and the darkness on that particular night was total, without any moon to light my way. It was Brigid’s holiday, so I automatically started calling on her, asking for her help, for the strength to do what I planned to do. At the same time it was almost a reflex to call on a Goddess I associated with warmth a light under those circumstances. It was important to me to make a declaration of my religious path, the books I’d read at that point had emphasized the need to be outdoors, and I was too stubborn to let the cold weather stop me. So I prayed to Brigid.

“It’s funny the way, as children, we simply take experiences in our stride, without considering them at all out of the ordinary. I don’t remember ever feeling Brigid’s presence or having a sense of the numinous, but I prayed and then I was warm. The cold simply ceased to be something I noticed, as if everything around me had become an indoor room temperature. I took the usual half hour or so kneeling on the cold ground to do my ritual, dedicating myself to the Irish Gods and to pagan spirituality. And then I got up, collected my supplies and went back inside, feeling euphoric.

“At the time it never even registered that what I did was dangerous or that I was risking frostbite and hypothermia. And I never stopped and thought that it should seem at all remarkable to pray to Brigid for warmth and then be warm. It all seemed entirely natural and normal.

“We speak, and the Gods really do listen. Sometimes they even answer.” (2)

(1) Alexander Carmichael Carmina Gadelica Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1972 (Cited in Caitlin Matthews The Element of the Celtic Tradition Shaftesbury: Element Books, 1989)

(2) Morgan Daimler Pagan Portals – Brigid: Meeting the Celtic Goddess of Poetry, Forge, and Healing Well Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2016. Daimler identifies as a reconstructionist polytheist pagan working in the Irish tradition.

THE VIEW FROM HOME

This, now, is our view from home. It helped to sell a compact apartment to us. It is a place of light and sunshine for much of the time, and allows us to see beyond the perimeters of our small historic city. Looking out, I see an expanse of energised space, providing room for the fecundity of nature. A wonderful gift for an old Druid.

Tilting my gaze a little downwards, I have more sense of our neighbourhood and the inevitable presence of cars. There was once an elegant square here, now somewhat sacrificed for a modest amount of parking space. But I do like the sense of an outlook on everyday life. I don’t want to be cut off from it. I’m glad that it’s there.

Elaine and I have not fully moved in as yet. This is a transitional moment. There’s still much work to be done. But there seems to be a shift in gravity now, and the promise of a benign base. As I se it, human flourishing enables the spiritual path too. It supports our capacity to be present in and to the web of life. At times in the journey, deprivation may need to be faced. But it is not a virtue, and in this moment I am glad of a space where the heart can easily open. Feeling gratitude, I wonder how this adventure will unfold.

ALNEY ISLAND IMAGES

Alney Island is surrounded by the River Severn at Gloucester. It is mostly a water meadow and largely free of ‘development’. I have written about it before. I took the pictures on 15 January, greatly moved by this landscape, the water margin feel, and the energy of the river, whose ‘left channel’ flowed past me close by. I’m short on words, today. So I’m letting the pictures speak for me. In a certain light, they are a kind of visual hymn.

SKY

“Isaac spent all his time reading in a dark house, refusing to go out into the sunshine. His next-door neighbor was a hidden spiritual master, who periodically dropped by to say to Isaac, ‘don’t spend your whole life hunched over your desk in this dark room. Get out and look at the sky!’ Isaac would nod and keep on reading. Then one day his house caught fire. Grabbing what possessions he could, he ran outside. There, he saw the master, pointing upwards. ‘Look,’ said the master, ‘Sky!’ In this story, there are three elements that represent the process of awakening: the fire, the master, and the sky. Kali is all of them.” (1)

(1) Sally Kempton Awakening to Kali: The Goddess of Radical Transformation Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True, 2014

Sally Kempton belongs to the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism, and has described her path as a contemplative and devotional Tantra. For this tradition, a subtle vibratory energy is the substratum of everything we know, and the expression of a divine feminine power called Shakti. This power has five faces – the power to be conscious, the power to feel ecstasy, the power of will or desire, the power to know, and the power to act.

All of these powers come together in the act of cosmic creation, when divine intelligence spins a universe out of itself in Shakti’s dance. Her powers are constantly at play in ourselves and the world, nudging us towards an evolution of consciousness, with which we must align when we seek conscious transformation. Shakti, the formless source of everything, takes multiple forms. Indeed the whole complex Indian pantheon, gods and goddesses alike, are forms of Shakti.

Sally Kempton says that anthropologists have identified two basic versions of Kali, specifically, in popular Indian religion. There is a forest and village Kali represented as scary and half-demonic, and the urban and more modern Kali Ma – “a benign and loving source of every kind of boon and blessing”. Here, her wildness is largely symbolic. Kempton’s Kali seems to be a challenging, ruthlessly compassionate teacher and guide.

In a recent post I wrote: “it is as if I am resourced by a timeless, unboundaried dimension from which I am not separate”. (2) It is my current experiential understanding of the spiritual approach knowns as ‘non-dualism’. Kashmiri Shaivites, Including Sally Kempton, are non-dualists. They are entirely at ease with deity devotion as part of the path.

I am wondering now if, and how, a greater element of deity oriented and devotional practice might add to my own path. Just over three years ago I let go of a ‘Way of Sophia’ thread, with some pain, because it no longer felt authentic. All that’s left is my address to the Goddess (Primal Cosmic Mother, Lady Wisdom) in the Druid’s prayer. Something is missing, I think, and I feel close to another shift. Frankly, I feel nudged.

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2022/12/31/a-direction-for-2023/

JANUARY FEELINGS

My sense of January this year is one of bleakness qualified by promise. I spent the first week of the year grounded by back pain. So it was a pleasure, when the time came, to walk once more among trees. Their very bareness has a certain majesty. Their simple presence suggests the prospect of transformation as the year goes on.

Here, at 3.30 pm on January 9th,, I am noticing the slow lengthening of the day. It would have been twilight at this time three weeks ago. The change has an expansive note. A new lightness and colour are suggested below. They lead me further from the lassitude and brain fog of recent days. They make the world a genuinely felt privilege to be in.

Yet a taste of disenchantment does have its value. More than once, I have experienced it shortly in advance of a creative shift in energy and direction. My wife Elaine and I will soon be moving to the long=term home we have been working towards for some time. We will be setting it up, not just chasing after it, over the coming weeks. Without quite seeing the future, I do feel a returning zest and optimism.

A DIRECTION FOR 2023

I am writing on the last day of 2022. My very best wishes for 2023 to all readers. Many blessings for the year ahead!

The picture above was taken on 26 December (in England called Boxing Day/St. Stephen’s Day) – this year a chilly day of bright blue sky. The truncated spire* of St. Nicholas Church, Gloucester, reaches up towards the vivid sky, despite its history of damage. For me, this image of spire against sky is one of clarity, definition and spaciousness. It is a breath of fresh air.

I don’t know what 2023 will bring. I do want to bring clarity, definition and spaciousness to whatever unfolds. As my contemplative inquiry continues, I find that it subtly modifies its purpose. Discovering and re-discovering the purpose involves an element of divination, since my thinking personality is not exactly in charge.

It is as if authentic clarity and definition come out of the spaciousness itself, not out of cognitive review or ‘brain-storming’. These may be aids, but I have also to wait for signs. When I began this blog, I surprised myself by calling it ‘contemplative inquiry’ rather the ‘contemplative Druidry’. I see now that contemplative inquiry is the root description for my path.

For me, contemplation is a yin quality, an open and receptive engagement with experiences – most especially, with forms of relationship. Inquiry is a yang quality, actively deepening knowledge, refining understanding and seeking meaning. Together they support my path. Druidry is a vehicle that supports spiritual self-direction, and also challenges disastrous social norms concerning both nature and culture. Today I have revised the ABOUT section of this blog, on the eve of 2023, and my key statements are below:

“My contemplative inquiry began in 2012. It is grounded in modern Druidry, though not wholly defined by it. I acknowledge the influence of other sources, especially the wider turn towards an eco-spirituality that meets our historical moment. The inquiry process itself is my core practice, from which others radiate out.

“Over my inquiry years, I have found an underlying peace and at-homeness at the heart of experience. Here, it is as if I am resourced by a timeless, unboundaried dimension from which I am not separate. I find myself guided towards a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.”

*NOTE ON ST. NICHOLAS’ SPIRE: the church was first built in 1190 and added to over the centuries. A 200 ft. spire was built in the fifteenth century, but received a direct hit from cannon fire in 1643, during the English Civil War. The final repair waited until 1783, when the spire was reduced in height and capped.

MIDWINTER CONTEMPLATION 2022

The picture above, taken in the mid-afternoon of the recent Winter Solstice, shows a local water meadow after heavy rain. My eyes are drawn downwards, to the reflections in the water and beyond. But height is there too, with trees and an early sunset sky. All with a sense of stillness. I felt in touch with the unknown within and beyond me, and open to the world.

Earlier in the day I had already been profoundly moved by the live-streamed funeral of John Heron, an elder for me in the field of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, and also in what he called ‘participatory spirituality’. This describes a ‘spiritual animation’ that occurs ‘between people, between people and place and other kinds of beings in place’. He saw this as a spiritual inquiry process, largely outside the traditions.

Over the last several days, I have been contemplating words, not by John himself but by Carl Rogers, the originator of person-centred counselling, about this kind of openness and its power. He wrote them in continuous prose, but I have re-arranged the spacing to help with my contemplative process. I find that they help me to better understand both my failures and my successes. They are a kind of direction for me. Although they are about being with people, they have become linked also with this landscape, because of the openness I felt there, in this liminal space.

“I find that

when I am closest to my intuitive self

when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me

then whatever I do seems full of healing.

Then simply my presence is releasing and helpful to the other.

When I can be relaxed and close

to the transcendental core of me

it seems that my inner spirit has

reached out

and touched

the inner spirit

of the other.

Our relationship transcends itself

and becomes a part of something larger.”

PAGANISM IN ROMAN BRITAIN

This post concerns Ronald Hutton’s Gresham College lecture about Paganism in Roman Britain (1). In it, he summarises our current academic knowledge, and asks: how Romanised was British religion within the Roman Empire? It proves to be a hard question to answer, for three main reasons.

The first is that we know little about British religion immediately before the occupation, apart from the fact that Druids had a leading role in at least some religious activity.

The second is that, although the Romans generally honoured local gods and their worshippers, they made an exception for war gods and religious communities hostile to Roman rule. British Druids belonged to the latter category, so any ongoing British Druid activity is off the record. The Druids were in any case averse to written records about their calling.

The third is that we know the names of only a few people from this period, so get only occasional glimpses of individuals and their practices. Britons of any social standing tended to adopt Roman names, at least for the written record, but the records are too sparse to distinguish between the developing cultures of Romanised Britons and localised Romans. All we have is the Roman names. People who made do without Roman names go unrecorded.

These three limitations mean that we have limited knowledge, and that this knowledge is heavily tilted towards Roman practices and understandings. We do however have the names of a number of indigenous deities from the Roman period, and some understanding of their roles. According to Hutton, such deities tended to be highly localised, and connected to specific activities – like Coventina looking after the sacred spring at Carrowburgh not far from Hadrian’s wall. On the whole Goddesses were linked to the land, hills, rivers, springs and wells. Gods were concerned with war, protection, trade and travel.

Other gods were imported during the centuries of occupation. Continental Celtic culture brought Rosmerta, the Matres and Epona. Widely acknowledged Roman gods included Jupiter, Mars, Silvanus and Mercury. Other parts of the empire contributed Apollo, Bacchus, Mithras, Cybele and Athys, Isis and Serapis.

Hutton finds in both Romans and Celts a very different attitude to deity from that of the later arriving Christian faith. Pagan Gods asked for acknowledgement and respect. Beyond that they were not greatly interested in us. They did not make laws, issue commands or monitor our performance. The Latin word superstitio referred to excessive fear of the divine. Hutton characterises mainstream Roman British religion as largely transactional. Roman priesthood was a job for the local magistrates.

Hence, according to Hutton, there was no theology. If you wanted the gods’ help, and had the support and resources, you built shrines, enacted rituals and offered sacrifice. (Animal sacrifice was required to be swift and painless, or it did not please the gods.) If you looked for a deeper or more intense religious experience, and were deemed eligible, you sought initiation into a mystery school. If you were concerned with speculation about the cosmos and our place in it, or wanted a set of values and practices to live by, you turned to philosophy. The one religious demand made by the state was a public reverencing of the Emperor’s numen (the divine power within him) which the early Christians, other than Gnostics, risked martyrdom rather than acknowledge.

The lecture includes a discussion of hybridised (or ‘twinned’) deities and the high esteem in which they could be held – Sulis Minerva at Aquae Sulis (Bath), Apollo Maponus (with a major shrine a little beyond Hadrian’s Wall at Lochmaben) and Mars (or possibly Mercury) Nodens, at Lydney, close to the River Severn in the Forest of Dean.

Hutton ends with a rare opportunity to acknowledge a real, named person, Magnius. He is known to have been a Briton, a commoner with some resources. He had a tomb erected at Aquae Sulis for his daughter, who had died aged only eighteen months. A tomb for one so young was very rare, and the poignancy of this act reaches across the centuries to us, connecting humans who, from very different times and cultures, are united by the same capacity to love and to grieve. I found this a good note on which to end a lecture which provides some insight into a subject where much will always be unknown.

(1) https://www.gresham.ac.uk/ (Go to browse by series then lecture series 2022-23 then Finding Britain’s Lost Gods. The specific lecture is Paganism in Roman Britain.)

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2022/10/06/learning-about-our-pagan-ancestors-and-learning-from-them/

Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol, a specialist in Pagan and Druid studies, and enjoys a very high reputation within both the academic and Pagan communities.

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