contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Contemplative inquiry

SIMPLE BLESSINGS

The entry into December is not all about dying and withdrawal. Nature is more nuanced than that. For me, the scene above is full of an early winter vitality. It is just after 8 am on 1 December, and the temperature three degrees (37.4 F) – cool and bracing. The stream is in rippling movement, full of vitality. The plant realm may be in a relatively austere phase, but there is green in the picture too. This is my first extended walk for some weeks and I find it an instant mood changer. I can immerse myself gladly in the spirit of this place at this time.

When I reach the canal path, I notice the difference in the water. It is slower and quieter, a place of slightly opaque reflections and relative stillness. I like seeing it in the context of a larger picture, that includes buildings, tree tops and sky. There are people too, though not many. In this picture a lone jogger is moving away from me and will soon be out of my sight. I continue to celebrate the day.

Skeletal trees seem like sculptures, artfully presenting themselves against a background of blue sky. “See the web of life in us”, they seem to say.

Meanwhile a willow, at other times the epitome of elegance, allows itself to relax in the off season. Even now, it has not entirely lost its green.

Further up the canal I see a family of swans. There are five in all, four of them visible above. They are moving swiftly and I feel blessed to get an image. The cygnets are more or less grown up, with their turn to a white adult plumage almost complete. I am pleased to see them doing so well and surprised that the family is still together. I imagine that will change soon enough.

I enjoy the way that leafless trees are only partially screening the houses, allowing both trees and houses to be in the picture. The houses are there, part of the current canal ecology. I don’t need them to be hidden. I continue to enjoy the nature/culture balance of this neighbourhood, and I am glad to be out in it. Some aspects of life can seem hard, but others are easy. Today is easy, a day for easy delight.

 

DREAMING THE MAGICAL CHILD

I often experience winter as a time of powerful dreams, and I had one yesterday night. It moved through three phases, ending with the image of a magical child as guide.

First phase: I am in a crowded place in a sizeable town. I am apparently in charge of two or three young children – close relatives, by the feel of it, though I am not clear on the specific relationships. I do know that I am of the grandparental generation. Suddenly, I notice them running off towards a stretch of park and woodland. I need to catch up and keep them safe.

Second phase: As I mobilise and follow, I am not catching up as rapidly as I had hoped. I notice that the terrain is wetter and rougher than fits with the initial image. The location feels quite different. I may have to cross water and am I not dressed for it for this eventuality. I assume that the children find this easier than I do, and I have confidence that they are OK. I am less sure about myself. This pursuit is a bit of a stretch.

Third phase: I halt at a riverbank. The boy – only one child, the others somehow no longer present or relevant to this dream – has stripped to the waist and taken like a fish to the water, swimming strongly against the current. He seems to be older than when I last looked. I have a moment of panic and dismay before leaping in after him. Fortunately for me, a sort of backpack I have been wearing turns into a comically inflatable throne. There is no doubt now that the boy knows what he is doing and is purposefully leading me upstream towards the source of the river. Paddling with my hands and arms, my task now is to follow as best I can. As I start following in earnest, I wake up.

The ‘I’ of the first phase is apparently in charge, yet vague and inattentive. Only action by the children gets me to notice and pay attention, though I continue to sport an air of responsible authority, with the felt need to keep the children safe. In the second phase ‘I’ am different, becoming aware of a more rugged environment and feeling challenged by it. I am more positive about the children’s capacity, and less so about my own. The third phase is different again. Halting at a riverbank, I recognise the boy as a version of the archetypical magical child, who naturally finds the sacred in all things, connecting us to a larger life. He is numinously present in this phase of the dream. He is the leader. I am the follower. My means of locomotion is clumsy and absurd. But at least I have one, and I do follow. The constructed ego has a significant part to play, it seems, on this journey, but not the leading role it has imagined for itself. Once I start ‘following in earnest’, I am free to wake up.

At the outer world level, culturally, perhaps the wisdom of age includes recognising and making space for the wisdom of youth. In Irish myth, the elderly poet, shaman and sage Finnegas spent seven years trying to catch the salmon of knowledge. When he finally caught the salmon, he asked his apprentice Demne to cook it. As he worked, the boy burned his thumb and instinctively sucked it – and so it was he, not his teacher, who became imbued with the salmon’s wisdom. Finnegas graciously gave Demne the whole salmon to eat, renaming him Fionn. Fionn went on to become the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool).

A HIDDEN SUN

The sun is there, of course. There could be no picture without it. But this is a moment in my world where the sun is hidden, slow to advance and light up the day. As I continue looking through the window, the mist seems thicker, more dominant than the picture records. I am glad to be warm and in the house. I am glad not to be going out to work. I am glad not to be going out to walk, content with the view through a widow. It looks cold out there. Today, I am willing to let the Mystery be.

But the Mystery takes different forms and I find myself peering into a different unknown. There is another hidden sun, within. Thanks to this interior sun I glimpse a direction for my inquiry after the end of this cycle, as we move beyond midwinter into a new calendar year. First, I see the inquiry continuing, supported by curiosity, wisdom and compassion – three qualities for me to cultivate. Second, I am aware of an emerging question about ‘healing’, and what it means for me at this time in my life and the world’s. I am especially drawn to ways in which healing and contemplation matter to each other, and to senses of healing that are not over-preoccupied with ‘fixing’. Third, I realise that I have already begun gathering resources that can support me in this venture. In a somewhat dreary time, I have just enough light to find my way.

ELDER (RUIS) ENDING A CYCLE

Elder is the tree of the caileach, the crone, the wise older woman. The image above comes from the Green Man Tree Oracle (1), but for me an earlier work, Liz and Colin Murray’s The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination (2), offers a more illuminating narrative:

“This Ogham card is linked to the eternal turnings of life and death, birth and rebirth. It represents the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end; life in death and death in life; the casting out of the devils of the old year and the renewal of creativity of the new; the timelessness of the cycle by which the fading of old age is always balanced by the new start of birth.

“The card has no reversed position. The circle will always turn afresh, change and creativity arising out of the old and bringing about the new. All is continuously linked as phases of life and experience repeat themselves in subtly different forms, leading always to renewal”.

In my sixteen tree mandala of the year (3) elder covers the period from 24 November to 16 December, following Yew and preceding Holly. If the winter quarter beginning on 1 November is a time of dying and regeneration, then elder deepens the descent into death signalled by the yew, whereas holly brings in the note of regeneration and makes the transition into rebirth. So it is not surprising to me that in Christian folklore elder provided the wood both for the cross of Christ and the self-hanging of Judas Iscariot. There was also a belief that people living in houses built in the shadow of the elder were likely to die young. Indigenous folklore, more benignly, said that to sleep beneath an elder tree is to wake in the Otherworld. If you stood under an elder tree on Midsummer’s Eve you would see the faery troop go by. Casting away fear, and whatever the weather, we may find magic in this tree.

(1) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) Liz & Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison/Sadd Edition, 1988. (Illustrated by Vanessa Card).

(3) NOTE: This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

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

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

PATTERNS OF MIND

William Anderson’s Green Man poem (1) describes winter branches as like “veins in the brain” making “patterns of mind” on the sky. This is the bleak beauty I see through my bedroom window. Anderson uses imagery of this kind to affirm an aspect of his Green Man’s identity.

“I am thought of all plants”, says the Green Man.

“I am thought of all plants”, says he.

I am experiencing a beautiful bleakness right now, grounded, lethargic, and shut away from the world – yet keenly sensitive to “patterns of mind”, or rather bodymind. As I wrote in my last post (2) I strained my back two weeks ago, without any obvious triggering event, and have only just recovered my normal mobility. My recovery process has been slower, with more setbacks, than similar processes in the past, in part I am sure as a consequence of ageing. My sleeping patterns have been disrupted and not well calibrated to times of night and day. Within a weatherperson’s ‘dry spell’ on Wednesday, I found that simply being able to leave the house and sweep leaves off a garden path gave me a great sense of pleasure and accomplishment. I began to feel confident of recovery, and my recovery has gathered pace from that time.

At the same time, I believe there is a larger context for my sense of vulnerability to stresses and strains. My contemplative life is centrally about giving myself to the flowing moment, as living presence in a field of living presence. The moment holds everything. If the Green Man is ‘thought of all plants’, we as humans hold the life of the world, and its collective stresses and strains, within our extended sensitivities. At the personal level I ask myself, how much can I hold? Intuitively I answer that I am already holding more, like it or not, than I allow myself to realise. ‘Can’ doesn’t come into it. I speak from a place, individually, of relative safety and security, for which I am very grateful. But this personal life is only part of the story. I am involved, too, in a larger life. My current vulnerabilities have their own unique features, and also reflect the vulnerabilities of the world. I don’t feel alone in this experience. I believe that I share it with many other people, each with their own story about how it presents itself.

(1) William Anderson Green Man: archetype of our oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990. See:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/05/11/poem-green-man/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/11/10/bare-bones-bare-experience/

BARE BONES, BARE EXPERIENCE

Trees – at least the deciduous ones – are becoming skeletal in my neighbourhood. But I am grounded, after ‘doing my back in’ last Friday morning. I cannot go out among them and be present for their continuing transitions. Instead, my entry into the winter quarter this year is marked by lessons in bare experience.

During this period I have been able to lie and stand, with an element of clumsy ouchy drama when shifting between the two. I can walk, too, in an impaired and limited way. Today for the first time I can also sit on a chair, provided I don’t stay too long. I do best when I slow down and attend closely to my bodymind and environment as a single gestalt. I find this especially useful when moving. It is also a good alternative to roof brain chatter when I am lying down and not asleep. But I do not attempt to operate this way all the time. It is enough to be able to tune in at will. Distraction and diversion also have their place and I don’t want to fetishise special states of awareness. Awareness is already special.

I feel confirmed in my sense of contemplation, a sacrament of sentience, as a plain attentiveness that holds the apparent world in its embrace. The rest is lifestyle choice. A very stripped down form of experience, such as I am having now, is its own kind of blessing.

THE YEW AT SAMHAIN 2020

In my tree mandala of the year (1), yew is my Samhain tree, and to a large extent my November tree. It is an obvious choice, as I leave a quarter concerned with autumn and bearing fruit and enter one of winter and the dying of the year. Regeneration too, but that is some way off.

I admire the power and longevity of the yew, and am in some ways drawn to its energy. But I do not find the relationship easy. I can find it spiky and obscurely demanding. I can find myself resistant to the sensed demand. The alignment of tree and season alerts me to my own mortality and creates space for a reflective moment. But this year I’ve been alert to my mortality for much of the time. In reaction, at Samhain 2020, I feel naturally sluggish and drowsy. Something in me is happy to go down into the dark without too much awareness. Let the dying of the year be the dying of the year, it whispers. Just let it happen. Just let me go down into the dark and sleep.

The Green Man Tree Oracle (2) links the yew with perseverance, for ‘perseverance leads to achievement’. Right now I’m not much interested in achievement, but I notice that I can think of perseverance in another way. This has to do with sticking with the experience that presents itself, rather than life-coaching my way out of it.

I have been working with an intensified wheel of the year for the last 45 weeks. I have seen how easy it is to impose impose conventional or surface-willed patterns on my experience. The seasonal structure is real. I see, feel, hear, taste and smell it manifesting itself in the apparent world as the wheel turns. But the idea of the wheel still has the power to displace lived experience through formalised words, images and expectations. Perseverance on the path asks for two things, I think. One is permission to let go of any sense of project or practice when it loses authenticity. The other is to be truly sensitive and discriminating when I’m happy to be awake.

(1) NOTE: This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

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

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003. Also source of the image at the top.

HUNGRY GHOSTS

“These various spirits may live on the earth, beneath its surface, in the ocean or in the air. Although there are many different kinds, traditionally they are all pictured as one type, a kind of caricature expressing their hungry nature. They have tiny mouths, long thin necks and huge, swollen bellies, which can of course be a sign of starvation as well as greed. Their inability to satisfy their hunger manifests in different ways, according to whether they have distorted perceptions of the external world, of their own inner condition, or both.

“In the first cases, some search desperately for food and drink, but can never find any. Some imagine that they can see it in the distance, like a mirage, but when they get nearer, it turns out to be an illusion. Others can see a feast laid out for them and are just about to eat it when fearsome guards appear and chase them away.

“The second category of hungry ghosts have food available to them, but their mouths and throats are so small, and their stomach so large, that they would never be able to consume even a fraction of the amount they need. They have long, grasping fingers, with which they frantically grab and try to swallow whatever they can, but it only makes them feel more and more empty.

“Hungry ghosts in the third category are subject to various inner and outer hallucinations, so they cannot benefit from their food. For some of them, food and drink burst into flames inside them and burn them from within. For others, it turns into revolting substances like blood, pus and urine, which they eat; still others find that they are biting into their own flesh; and for some, food becomes inedible material, like iron or straw.

“The basic subjective feeling of this realm is overwhelming deprivation, a sense of poverty combined with greed. Paradoxically, the hungry ghosts are surrounded by an environment of richness and abundance; everything they want is already there, but their hunger prevents them from enjoying it. Self-preservation is very strong, so there is little sense of openness or relaxation. They are totally obsessed with trying to satisfy their own needs, so they cannot afford to feel the pain of others or arouse the slightest generous impulse. Birth in this condition of existence is the result of extreme avarice, meanness and stinginess.”

Francesca Freemantle Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2003

NOTE: In Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, there are six realms of existence in the wheel of life: two higher realms of gods and jealous gods, two intermediate realms of humans and animals, and two lower realms of hungry ghosts and hell-beings. Although not liberated from the wheel of life, the divine realms are places of reduced suffering and greater freedom. The results of positive actions outweigh the negative. In the lower realms, negative karma is very strong.

But these issues are not just something for another life. To Tantric Buddhists, nirvana and samsara are one. Every moment can be seen as a new birth. All realms are part of our lived experience, here and now. We do not have to look outside for hungry ghosts, or hell-beings (locked in a distorted logic of aggression that always puts the blame on others). They are part of us. There are times when we see them and times when we don’t.

HUMAN IMAGINATION

The Paris Situationists of the 1968 uprising used the slogan “l’imagination au pouvoir”, giving human imagination a Romantic and emancipatory ring. Historian Yuval Noah Harari (1) is brutally anti-Romantic on imagination, pointedly using terms like ‘gossip’ and ‘fiction’ to describe its manifestations. But he too sees its potential power. Indeed, he makes the case that, both for better and for worse, the imagination holds power already.

For Harari, we humans are a rationalising species rather than a rational one. We developed our distinctive ways of thinking and talking primarily to connect with and influence other people. Understanding the wider world, problem solving, and developing technologies are supported by our language skills. But they take more effort. They don’t come as ‘naturally’.

“In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.

“How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

“Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, and ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths … States are rooted in common national myths …Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths.

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

“Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a ‘legal fiction’. It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. … It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it.

“In the case of Peugeot SA the crucial story was the French legal code, as written by the French parliament. … Once the lawyers had performed all the right rituals and pronounced all the necessary spells and oaths, millions of upright French citizens behaved as if the Peugeot company really existed.

“Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. … Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work toward common goals.”

For me, Harari underemphasises the inequalities of power in story-telling that have featured so influentially in achieving widespread belief, or the compliant appearance of belief, in privileged stories. The authorisation of some stories and beliefs has gone hand in hand with the repression and erasure of others. The imagination, as (somewhat reductively) understood here, has been a weapon in a long history of human dominance and submission. Fortunately, it can be a form of resistance too, as the Situationists of fifty years ago declared. Where there is imagination, there is also the possibility of re-imagination, and this possibility offers hope.

(1) Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind London: Vintage, 2011

LATER AUTUMN

Sunday 18 October, on a walk beginning at 7.20 am. This is a later start than on the previous week (1), and headed in the opposite direction. The day is overcast and the feeling-tone of this walk entirely different. Last week was magical and illuminative. This week is a time of relaxed enjoyment, of simple openness to the world as I find it. I can let go of agendas.

The fall here is still tentative. It mostly happens in November, though there are plenty of leaves falling gently to the ground, and a breeze to encourage them. Overhead, the gaps in the canopy let the light in. The remaining leaves form patterns that draw my attention and raise my spirits in a strange primordial way.

I enjoy built environments up to a certain level of density, when they become oppressive and too much. Here, a canal bridge blends in with ivy, water, trees and undergrowth without any sign of artificial arrangement. The place has been largely left to itself to make its own accommodations and adjustments. They are what they are. They haven’t been created for effect. I notice that I feel in tune with this space.

I live in an urban setting that is not at war with trees. The early morning absence of traffic helps me to appreciate the autumn colours opposite. Today is a day when I am easily pleased by life and I find myself caught up in a moment of spontaneous gratitude.

Now, I am under an arch, looking at the canal, at reflections in the water, and at a canal side entrance to somebody’s house. I have the sense of a congenial, inhabited space. The stretch that I have been walking on today is relatively built up, still part of the town. My walk has involved the interplay of town and country. In one way it has been very ordinary. In another it has been a trigger for happiness. I have enjoyed being part of it.

The picture above – somehow, for me, beyond words. I lose myself in it.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/10/14/walking-towards-sunrise/

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