contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Contemplative poetry

A CONTEMPLATIVE LENS

As the autumn deepens, I find that my canal walking has slowed down and detached itself from notions of exercise. It has become spontaneously and informally meditative. I am simply noticing what is available, rather than striving to get to some other place in myself or in the world. Followers of the Headless Way (1) describe such attention as ‘being capacity for the world’, since the world knows itself through this awareness. One of the Headless Way’s poets, Colin Oliver, has the lines (2) “In the oneness of things/ I am nowhere in sight”. I am like that with my phone/camera. I rarely have it in the selfie mode, so it is a good device for the purpose.

My combined walking and photography have become a contemplative opportunity, an informal opening to the magic of what is given, here and now, which I sometimes refer to as ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. They have taken their place, unplanned, at the heart of my contemplative Druidry. They enable immersion in the apparent world, and provide a setting for what I like to call valley experiences, to distinguish them from the peak experiences more often discussed. I notice also an aversion to calling this activity a ‘spiritual practice’, a feeling that comes with the image of a caged bird. Not right for the context. Not right for that in me which does this.

Through this contemplative lens I can be appreciatively open even to appearances of dereliction and decay. They are simply part of what is. When I see an old and roofless building without this accepting contemplative gaze, I can become irritated and grumpy. Why isn’t it being renovated or pulled down, one or the other? Who is responsible? But in my picture taking mode, through the lens of contemplation, I am entirely at ease. The building has its place, just the way it is.

My meditative walk can highlight processes as well as still images. A decaying rose becomes a rose hip. The dying flower makes way for fruit, which will die back in its turn after seeding the next generation. ‘Decay’ is relative.

The lens of contemplation makes space for things that would be easy to miss otherwise. A waning moon, for example at 8 a.m. …

… or the delicacy, close-up, of old man’s beard …

… or a naturally sculpted head of an unknown bird or reptile, which also offers space for a cobweb …

These walks have taught me a lot. There must have been a gestation period between the time I gave them up – what with Covid-19 and my concerns about narrow paths and passing – and the time I resumed them. Along the way I’ve gained a different perspective on their role in my contemplative life. I used to see them as ancillary. Now they seem central.

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

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2016/04/28/poem-the-oneness-of-things/

POEM: SENT TO A HUA MOUNTAIN MONK

I do not know of a Druid or Pagan currently living contemplatively in a mountain cave. But I would not be surprised to learn of one, somewhere in the world. The poem below comes from the contemplative culture of ancient China, where the Taoist and Ch’an Buddhist traditions, in some ways rivals, developed in a mutually influencing way. I believe that there is something for contemplatively inclined Druids and Pagans to appreciate and learn from these traditions. I like this poem because it is a nature poem as much as a contemplative one. Even the meditative turn towards mind is embedded in its natural setting, as the distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ is softened to the point of vanishing.

“From afar,

I know your white-rock hermitage,

hidden in a haze

of evergreen trees.

When the moon sets,

it’s mind-watching time;

clouds rise

in your closed eyes.

Just before dawn, temple bells

sound from neighbouring peaks;

waterfalls hang thousands of feet

in emptiness.

Moss and lichen

cover the cliff face;

a narrow, indistinct path

leads to you.”

Poem Sent to a Hua Mountain Monk from When I find you again, it will be in mountains: selected poems of Chia Tao (2000) Somerville, MA, USA: Wisdom Publications. English translation by Mike O’Connor.

Chia Tao (779 – 843) an erstwhile Ch’an monk, became a poet during China’s Tang Dynasty. Ch’an was the Chinese predecessor of Japanese Zen.

BOOK REVIEW: SOUL LAND

Highly recommended to anyone who values the poetry of place. Natalia Clarke’s Soul Land: Nature, Scotland, Love (1) is a chapbook featuring 22 poems about her connection with Scottish landscape. That connection is intense, and shared in these poems through a powerful and distinctive voice.

The poet grew up in Siberia, enjoying “immersive life and experiences with nature and magic” (2), before being exposed to “intense emotions of love and loss at a tender age”. Her journey took her to England and its publishing industry with a later shift into the field of psychotherapy and a personal spiritual awakening. This is the context for the visit to Scotland “that changed me on a profound level”. She fell in love with what she came to call her “Soul Land”.

In the poem Love Everlasting, she writes:

“My knees touched the greenness

of your body and in

awe I stood amidst a stone

circle feeling protected and

contained.

I lowered myself into your

cooling stream imagining I

washed myself anew”.

The words have both erotic and mystical resonances: perhaps it misses the point even to make the distinction. In another poem The Land of Me, she talks of the land “stealing my soul” and how this theft feels like “the gentlest fall into paradise”.

This is not a song of life and work within a landscape and the human culture it has shaped, and which has shaped it in turn. It is a personal I-Thou connection with a sacred space that the poet visits from time to time. Natalia Clarke is clear and sensitive about this, as shown in Through the Eyes of A Highlander, where we find a different consciousness of place, and in his case, its human history: “Where I see beauty he sees barren landscape … where I feel silence he shudders with sorrow”. Natalia Clarke knows that her sense of home, in this for her newly discovered land, is bound up with her own life and longing, and what she brings to the encounter.

In the later poems we find a closer observation of detail – “water silky soft and the colour of silver … green pine needles hitting my senses with clean potent fragrance”. The land feels more maternal – even, in a sense grandmaternal. In the poem In My Dreams You Visit Me the poet finds herself “transformed into the old Cailleach walking the hills and mountains with deer by her side”.

Natalia Clarke feels blessed in this wild space: “inhaling paradise, assured, grounded, humble, in your exquisite perfection”. Although led by her intuition and her feelings, she shows how her experience of the Scottish landscape has indeed grounded her.

“’All is well,’ the land whispers

into my soul spreading her

seasons around me”.

In a prose conclusion to the collection, Natalia Clarke also spells out the conceptual basis of her way of experiencing and relating. The key terms are ‘home’, ‘soul’s calling’ and ‘nature’. Home is “our secure ground, safety and knowing” with a feeling-tone that is “contented and contained”. She speaks here as a person who has lost her link with her “original motherland” and has needed to find ‘home’ elsewhere. A soul call is “very impulse driven, animalistic and instinctual”, asking us “to be more, to feel more” and join “something beyond yourself, new, meaningful and expansive”. Nature is not simply about solace. Deep understanding of nature can bring both peace and turmoil into our souls, “as processes are parallel within nature and if we tune into nature’s rhythms, we risk deeper understanding of ourselves”. True homecoming, the homecoming that involves soul, asks us to take risks as well as offering safety. For Natalia Clarke, Nature favours the brave.

(1) Soul Land: Nature – Scotland -Love Kibworth, UK: Matador, 2020

(2) https://rawnaturespirit.com/ (The collection can be ordered from this site by clicking on ‘publications’.)

FROM LACK TO ABUNDANCE

“Try to get

what you want,

and it’s already

far away.

Be what you want,

know it in your heart,

and it’s already yours.

The rest is details.

The rest,

you never really wanted anyway.

From lack to abundance,

in a heartbeat.” (1)

There is wisdom in this slender poem. Mediating wisdom is a traditional task of the Druid. This includes recognising wisdom in others and passing it on. For my own Druid path, the invitation to “be what you want, know it in your heart” has always had a resonance. The poem as a whole points to a more grounded stance in our lives.

Jeff Foster’s words are the product of recovery journey that led him out of debilitating levels of depression and suicide risk. This involved in inward turn, away from external markers for success in the wider world, that paradoxically enabled his true ability to connect. Hence his complete reframe of ‘abundance’. Elsewhere in the same book (1) he says: “abundance is your connection to each breath, how sensitive you are to every flicker of sensation and emotion in your body … the feeling of the afternoon breeze on your cheeks, the sun warming your face. It is meeting others in the field of honesty and vulnerability, connecting beyond the story, sharing what is alive”.

He also says that it is “knowing yourself as presence, the power that creates and moves worlds”. This has become a crucial understanding within my renewed and consolidated practice of Druidry. It is an insight common to the perennial wisdom traditions, and so a place where many paths converge. It aligns Jeff Foster with R. J. Stewart’s view, recently explored in this blog, that “we are the tree of life” and “the stars are within us” (2,3).

(1) Jeff Foster The Way of Rest: Finding the Courage to Hold Everything in Love Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2016

(2) R. J. Stewart The Miracle Tree: Demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books 2003

(3) R. J. Stewart The Way of Merlin: the Prophet, the Goddess and the Land London: The Aquarian Press, 1991

POEM: FIELD

They will not mesh, the very small and the large.

They will not converge.

On that side of the mirror, flickering fringes –

Superposition, quantum probabilities,

Shimmering light and dark; on this,

Nature has made its choice.

Time, space –

They will not bend both ways at once.

When the little ideas slip into bodies like clothes

They step through the mirror, enter

An irreducible level of noise –

Gravitational decoherence, dependent on mass.

Worlds, how sad we are to leave our dreaming behind.

So lovely we were then, so light, so playful.

But how compelling to have a body. In fact,

Irresistible.

From: Katrina Porteous Edge Hexham, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2019

Blurb note: “Edge contains three poem sequences, Field, Sun and the title sequence, which extend Porteous’s previous work on nature, place and time beyond the human scale. They take the reader from the micro quantum worlds underlying the whole Universe, to the macro workings of our local star, the potential for primitive life elsewhere in the solar system on moons such as Enceladus, and finally to the development of complex consciousness on our own planet. As scientific inquiry reveals the beauty and poetry of the Universe, Edge celebrates the almost-miraculous local circumstances which enable us to begin to understand it. All thre pieces were commissioned for performance in Life Science Centre Planetarium, Newcastle, between 2013 and 2016, with electronic music by Peter Zinovieff.”

WOODLAND HAIKU

This lone shape

emerging from under-wood:

Who am I?

RUMI: THE MORNING WIND

The morning wind spreads its fresh smell.

We must get up and take that in,

that wind that lets us live.

Breathe, before it’s gone.

From the collection Unseen Rain: Quatrains of Rumi translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1986

SELF COMPASSION AND DECISION MAKING

“Friend, please,
Do not try to decide now.
Do not shut any possibility out of your heart.
Honour this place of not-knowing.
Bow before this bubbling mess of creativity.

“Slow down. Breathe.
Sink into wonderment.
Befriend the very place where you stand.
Any decision will make itself, in time.
Any choice will happen when your defences are down.
Answers will appear only when they are ready.
When the questions have been fully honoured, and loved.


“Do not label this place ‘indecision’.
It is more alive than that.
It is a place where possibilities grow.
It is a place where uncertainty is sacred.


“There is courage in staying close.
There is strength in not knowing.


“Friend, please know,
There is simply no choice now.


“Except to breathe, and breathe again,
And trust this Intelligence beyond mind.”
 

 Jeff Foster. See: www.lifewithoutacentre.com/

JOHN COWPER POWYS: PORIUS AND TALIESIN

Porius (1) is John Cowper Powys’ last novel. It took him seven years to write, and he completed it in 1949, when he was 77. It is set in the year 499 CE, in North Wales. Porius is a Romano-British prince. Arthur, a suspect foreigner to most local people, reigns as Emperor. Rome is ruled by Goths, but links are maintained with Constantinople. The Saxons are an existential threat. People have to find a way of dealing with the situation in which they find themselves. But the book is at least as much about the inner lives of the characters as it is about the action they take.

Powys thought of Porius as his masterpiece. His publishers did not agree and insisted that he cut it by a third, which he did over two agonising years. Fortunately, a complete edition is available now thanks to modern editors Judith Bond and Morine Krissdottir. In her foreword Krissdottir says, “I am always reminded when I read the novel of these lines: ‘we are always in error, lost in the wood, standing in chaos, the original mess, creating a brand-new world’. Powys was as gloriously lost by the time he had written Porius as the reader sometimes is … but he was still the superb craftsman, who knew that it was the story itself that had the power to shape the forest within and without, that had the power to create a brand-new world”.

Instead of writing a review, I want to focus on one character, Taliesin, and what Powys has to say through him about the creative life. Powys has a number of point of view characters, with a variety of stances. He seems to give them equal air-time, making Porius a genuinely multi-vocal novel. Taliesin is portrayed as a young, mercurial bard, popular thanks to outstanding skill in cooking as well as poetry. (The cover illustration above is of Merlin – old, saturnine, more central to the book as a whole). Powys builds Taliesin’s bardic character, and the idiosyncratic working of his awen, with care.

“Taliesin had indeed worked out for himself, quite apart from his power of expressing it in such assonances and alliterations as had never been heard before, a really startling philosophy of his own. This philosophy depended on a particular and special use of sensation; and its secret had the power of rendering all matter sacred and pleasure giving to the individual soul. And it had the power … of fusing the immense past with the immeasurable future and of doing this, moreover, not by means of an ‘eternity’ beyond experience and imagination, but by means of a quivering vibrating, yet infinitely quiescent moment of real Time.”

Taliesin can rely on an easy fluency with language. More important is his capacity for open creative reverie, based on a deep sensitivity to the perceptions of the moment. He is described as sitting on a four-legged stool in the deepening of a late October evening. As he sits, he feels the full warmth of a fire and is able to see “the glittering path of moonlight on wind-ruffled water”. He can see a hawk’s nest, and the “ancestral sword of Cynan ap Clydno, thrust to the depth of half its blade, in the buried stump of a vanished oak tree”. The sword is reminiscent of a cross. Taliesin muses that “any sort of thing happening near a cross, not to speak of a sword, always seems in some way to be watched – if not heard and guarded against”. J.C. Powys comments, “considering the sword and the cross, the moonlit space between that figure on the four-legged stool and Clydno’s rusty weapon may well have vibrated with dangerous antipathy as the words ‘The Mothers’ and ‘Nothingness’ and ‘Annwfn’ floated away towards the lake. Rather than writing, Taliesin speaks into the darkness. Writing may come later. The piece that follows is lengthy, and eventually settles into a contemplation of “the thing none can utter, the thing inexpressible” yet “known from before the beginning”. Here is the final section:

“I know it from pond slime and

frog spawn and grub spit,

From bracken’s green coral,

white lichen, yellow mosses,

Newts sinking with their arms

out to reedy pools’ bottoms,

Swords rusting in their oak

stumps, wrapped in the long rains,

Eggs rotting in their lost nests,

enjoying the wild mists, I know it from all these, and to

men proclaim it:

The ending forever of the Guilt

sense and God sense,

The ending forever of the Sin

sense and Shame sense,

The ending forever of the Love

sense and Loss sense,

The beginning forever of the Peace paradisic,

The ‘I feel’ without question,

The ‘I am’ without purpose,

The ‘it is’ that leads nowehre,

the life with no climex,

The ‘Enough’ that leads forward

to no consummation

The answer to all things, that

yet answers nothing,

The centre of all things, yet all

on the surface,

The secret of Nature, yet Nature goes blabbing it

With all of her voices from

earth, air, fire, water!

Whence comes it? Whither

goes it? It is nameless; it is

shameless;

It is Time free at last from its Ghostly Accuser,

Time haunted no more by a

Phantom Eternal;

It is godless; but its gods are as

sea sand in number;

It’s the square with four sides

that encloses all circles;

Four horizons hath this Tetrad

that swallows all Triads;

It includes every creature that

Nature can summon.

It excludes from Annwfyn nor

man, beast nor woman!”

The mid twentieth century was a time of considerable interest in the Matter of Britain and Arthurian themes. But generally, then, we find a polished and rather conservative Christian perspective, applicable even to Taliesin. The Inkling Charles Williams wrote two collections of linked verse about him – Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars (2). The latter collection includes these lines from the poem Taliessin in the Rose Garden:

“I was Druid-born and Byzantium trained.

Beyond Wye, by the Cauldorn of Ceridwen, I saw

the golden cycle flash in the forest, and heard

the pagans mutter a myth; thence by the ocean

dreaming the matter of Logres I came where the heirarchs

patter the sacred names on the golden floor

under the throne of Empire.”

John Cowper Powys, too, was a man of his time. But insofar as his Porius relies on legendary history, he borrows more from archaic Welsh tradition than the better known pan European literature that developed out of it. He himself is much more nature friendly and Pagan in sensibility. I see him as following a broadly emancipatory direction in modern spiritual culture, and we are his heirs.

(1) John Cowper Powys Porius: a Romance of the Dark Ages Overlook Duckworth, 2007. Edited by Judith Bond and Morine Krissdottir, with a foreword by Morine Krissdottir. The first abbreviated edition was published in 1951.

(2) Charles Williams Taliessin Through Logres & The Region of the Summer Stars Berkeley, CA: The Apocryphile Press, 2016. Edited with an introduction by Sorina Higgins. (Taliesin Through Logres first published in 1938; The Region of the Summer Stars in 1944)

IMAGINING MYSTERY

‘Imagining mystery’ is the title given by Ursula K. Le Guin for Chapter 25 in A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, her English rendition of the Tao Te Ching.

“There is something

that contains everything

Before heaven and earth

it is.

Oh, it is still, unbodied,

all on its own, unchanging.

“all-pervading,

ever moving.

So it can act as the mother

of all things.

Not knowing its real name,

we only call it the Way.

“If it must be named,

Let its name be Great.

Greatness means going on,

going on means going far,

and going far means turning back.

“So they say, ‘the Way is great,

heaven is great, earth is great;

four greatnesses in the world,

and humanity is one of them’.

“People follow earth,

earth follows heaven,

heaven follows the Way,

the Way follows what is.”

Ursula Le Guin comments: “I’d like to call the ‘something’ of the first line a lump – an unshaped, undifferentiated lump, chaos, before the Word, before Form, before Change. Inside it is time, space, everything; in the womb of the Way. The last words of the chapter, tzu jan, I render as ‘what is’. I was tempted to say, ‘The Way follows itself’, because the Way is the way things are; but that would reduce the significance of the words. They remind us to see the way not as a sovreignty or a dominion, all creative, all yang. The Way itself is a follower. Though it is before everything, it follows what is.”

She also owns to a piece of creative editing. “in all the texts, the fourth verse reads: So they say, ‘the Way is great/heaven is great;/earth is great;/and the king is great./Four greatnesses in the world/and the king is one of them’.” Yet in the next verse, which is the same series in reverse order, instead of ‘the king’, it is ‘the people’ or ‘humanity’. I think a Confucian copyist slipped the king in. The king garbles the sense of the poem and goes against the spirit of the book. I dethroned him.”

I share Ursula Le Guin’s lens, and editorial calls like this are the reason I am drawn to her version more than any other. The text as a whole speaks to our experience of moving between non-duality, dualities, and the multiplicity of the 10,000 the things. For me, the work Ursula Le Guin has done, in reframing traditional understandings of A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, makes her a teacher in her own right.

She calls the first chapter of her version Taoing, emphasising process and flow, and the need to stay open to uncertainties and ambiguities. The text both acknowledges that words over-define experience (thus limiting and distorting it) and understands the need to use them (otherwise why write it?) When taoing, we hold such points of tension. For they are the key to imagining mystery.

“The way you can go

isn’t the real way,

The name you can say

isn’t the real name.

Heaven and earth

begin in the unnamed:

name’s the mother

of the ten thousand things.

So the unwanting soul

sees what’s hidden,

and the ever-wanting soul

sees only what it wants.

Two things, one origin,

but different in name,

whose identity is mystery,

Mystery of all mysteries!

The door to the hidden.”

Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way Boston & London: Shambhala A new English version by Rrsula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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