contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: contemplative practice

AWEN: FRUITS OF DREAMING

The image above is from The Dreampower Tarot (1) by R. J. Stewart and Stuart Littlejohn. It is called the Sleeper, and concerns dreams and unrealised potential. The pack as a whole is underpinned by R. J. Stewart’s view that “the surface world is reflected out of the Underworld, not vice versa”. Its imagery is drawn from “the mysterious inner and Underworld story of life before surfacing or outer birth”. An inverted tree stands at the back of every card, indicating a path of interiority and descent.

Over the years I have been deeply impacted by R. J. Stewart’s work, and I think of awen as an Underworld gift. Although I am not using the Dreampower pathway directly, I share its sense of a staged descent from physical (stone) to psychic (pearl) to causal (whirlpool) dimensions. The whirlpool is a field of stars at the deepest interior level, as physical and psychic reality dissolve into creative void, and the whole cycle is repeated.

In my last post https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/05/17/touching-awen/ I described a dream, which moved through three locations. Today in my awen mantra meditation, I followed the resonance of the mantra into three discrete images distilled from the dream. Moments rather than narrative vignettes, I find these slightly different in their new constellation.

First, I am in an almost dark tunnel. It is all encompassing but for a very distant light. There is a feeling tone of unease. It is not due to the pervasive wetness. It is due to what I would now language as an intimation of being separate .

This is pre-birth and approach of birthing imagery, womb imagery, perhaps with elements of something like pre-personal memory. In an awen context, it reminds me of the womb imagery in Taliesinthe lake, the cauldron, Ceridwen’s womb, the night-sea journey in the coracle. I am also reminded of Thomas the Rhymer’s journey with the Queen of Elfland:

For forty days and forty nights, he wade through red blude to the knee

And he saw neither sun nor moon but heard the roaring of the sea.” (3)

Second, I am present in the sunlit city, on one of its hills, and looking down. A sense of appreciation, at-homeness and freedom – familiarity and belonging within absolute novelty and strangeness.

I am in a state of simple innocence, which I might call grace. In this otherworldly place, pristine experiencing is normal.

Third, I am on the promenade at the beach, for me the most significant part of the city. I am aware of the sparkling sea, and of looking at the beautiful café nearby, wanting to eat and drink there. But I have got hold of the idea that I am not allowed to. I do not know what the penalty for this imagined transgression would be. My worst fantasies involve permanent entrapment in this space, or complete exile from it, no longer able to walk freely between the worlds.

There is a different feel to this part of the meditation. Thinking arises, with a strong sense of dilemma. Am I or am I not meant to obey this instruction, if there even is one? Is it a test of obedience or initiative, of acceptance or self-determination? This time, I know, it is OK to simply visit the beach, enjoy it, and be safe. I can feel restored just by looking at the cafe and the sea. But if I come here again, and do nothing, I may fade into primal non-being. If I go to the cafe, I am likely to empower hidden or lost potentials – at an unknown cost. I am the Child of Light in my own universe. It is entirely for me to decide.

At this time of writing, I know that I am engaged. I am in the slipstream of awen. Although I have talked of an ‘awen inquiry’, this no longer seems like skilful framing. For there is a surrender here, that asks for my trust and a different language. Finding resonant and empowered language, and knowing when silence works better, are part of this path. All that is asked of me, at this stage, is to consolidate my practice and to continue writing this blog.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Otherworld London & San Francisco: Aquarian Press, 1993

 (2) R. J. Stewart The Underworld Initiation: A Journey Towards Psychic Transformation Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1985

TOUCHING AWEN

This post describes a meditation in the late evening followed by a dream overnight. The two together became a way of touching awen. My intuition tells me that I need this dimension of experience to weather the pandemic and its aftermath.

I have a modern Druid’s understanding of awen at work in the activities of creativity, healing and the cultivation of wisdom. For me this means that each domain is at its best when influenced by the others – creativity, for example, as a form of healing and of wisdom generation. All of them have both a personal and collective dimension. We cannot be effectively creative, healthy and wise in a world turning to Waste and cursed with a Wasteland common sense. Even at its most apparently individualised and withdrawn, awen pushes back against Wasteland culture. Knowing this gives me resources and adds substance to my path.

For the meditation, I lay on my bed star-shaped, with my legs and arms spread out. I began with an awen mantra meditation synchronised with the breath. I let this go as I sank more fully into the meditative state I call ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment. Here, conventional distinctions between world, body and mind soon lose their hold. Words like ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ no longer describe anything. The at-homeness becomes dispersed and dissolved into simple experiencing, freed from any notion of a person having experiences.

What then arose, on this occasion, was a sense of the timeless origin of all possibilities and potentials. Narrating it now, I might talk of the feeling of an infinite space that is no place, where worlds and times are yet to be formed or named. In clock time this was a brief yet compelling experience. I ended the meditation with a strong sense of connection to source, and in the night that followed, I had a dream.

I find myself walking beside a river after sunset. I anxiously think: ‘I am not from around here. I need to be back by dark’. I have to go through a tunnel under a major intersection of modern roads. In this sparsely lit place, I realise that I am walking through water. It is over the top of my boots. They should be inundated, but they are not. My feet are happily dry. As I near the tunnel exit, I get a  glimpse of the city ahead.

Then I am in full sunlight, in this city that I know and love, despite its never being in the same place or having the same architecture. This time it is metropolitan and coastal. It has wonderful buildings of varying vintages, intriguingly laid out, and calling me onward. Whenever I think about needing to get somewhere (and I’m not even sure where that somewhere might be, or what reason I would have for going there) new urban vistas appear before me, as if saying ‘Come and look at this … and this … and this’.

Now I am in a beach area – estuarial, rather than facing the open sea, and so a little sheltered. There are numbers of people around – walking or cycling mostly, not many in the water. It is far from overcrowded. As I continue walking, I see shops and cafes perched on a low cliff that seem tastefully designed and lovingly kept. But there is a prohibition on my interacting with anyone in this city, and my money is good for nothing. I settle for the simple enjoyment of this place. It is enough.

I wake up. The dream leaves me with feelings of lightness and wellbeing. I have a sense of touching awen.

PRIMARY MATERIALS

 

“There are seven primary materials of the world: the Blue Bard of the Chair has said it.

“The first, earth, from which are every corporeity and hardness, and every firm foundation;

“The second, water, from which are every humour and freshness;

“The third, air, from which are all respiration and motion;

“The fourth, sun, from which are all heat and light;

“The fifth, nwyfre, from which are all feeling, affection, and wantonness;

“The sixth, the Holy Ghost, from Whom are all understanding, reason, awen, and sciences;

“The seventh, God, from Whom are all life, strength, and support, for ever and ever.

“And from these seven primary materials are every existence and animation; and may the whole be under God’s regulation. Amen.” (1)

The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg,  by J. Williams Ab Ithel, was published in 1862. It was presented as the lore of traditional Welsh Bardistry going back to Druid times, based on the earlier work of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams – 1747-1826). Iolo had organised the first Gorsedd of Bards for several hundred years at Primrose Hill, London, on 21 June 1792, thereby initiating the modern Welsh Eisteddfod movement. He was a personal friend of Tom Paine and George Washington subscribed to his first volume of poetry. He is said to have influenced William Blake’s poetry and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.

Iolo described himself as a Unitarian Quaker in religion, and a revolutionary Welsh nationalist in politics. In the later 1790’s the Glamorgan magistrates sent the yeomanry (a volunteer cavalry force drawn from the property-owning classes) to break up an open-air Gorsedd led by Iolo in that county. The reason given was that it was being conducted in the Welsh language and allegedly included a toast for Napoleon – then admired by radicals as defender of the French revolution. This is also a time of revolt in Ireland and the birth of Irish republicanism.

Culturally, Iolo was, as well as a poet in his own right, “a first-rate forger of literary Welsh; some have commented that his forgeries were as good or better than the real thing. Furthermore, he wrote much of the Barddas under the influence of laudanum (an opium-based medicine which he took for asthma)” (1). In consequence he has been widely dismissed as an embarrassing fraud. My response is more complicated. There is something poignant for me about ‘forgeries’ that are “as good or better than the real thing”. On the forgery question, I am sad that Iolo could not openly be a catalyst for the creation of new culture inspired by an old one, rather than having to pretend, even to himself, that he was recovering an old one as it had been (in his own mind perhaps through psychic means). As for medicinal laudanum, I wonder why this should be stigmatised in Iolo whilst accepted in his contemporary S. T. Coleridge. It may be is because Coleridge’s work was unambiguously original, and therefore seen differently. The issue of new culture creation in Druidry is a significant one to this day and is well discussed in Philip Carr-Gomm’s preface to Contemplative Druidry (2) where the voices of a number of open culture creators are included.

Going back to The Seven Primary Materials of the World, I feel friendly to this text despite its patriarchal language and its statement of a world view significantly different from my own. In my reading, it suggests a seven-step ladder from matter to the divine, with four material elements that point also to non-material qualities, where the the fourth and highest is not on the Earth. Then there are two subtle elements (though the first finds room for ‘wantonness’) and an ultimate ascent to the divine. It is the kind of evolutionary spiritual scheme that many transcendentalists down the ages have related to. Written at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and edited in mid Victorian times, it seems to me congruent with the outlook of medieval Welsh Bardistry as expressed in The Book of Taliesin (3), and the theology of the ninth century Irish scholar and contemplative mystic John Scotus Eriugena (4). It is a Christian referenced path that is not sin and fear based, and I am sure that many people involved in Druidry and Celtic Spirituality today would be in essential sympathy with it. Made up by Iolo or not, it reads as a clear and simple expression of a universalist and transcendentalist stance within a specific cultural setting. I find nothing fraudulent about it. It is what I would expect from place, time and person.

Indeed, key concepts remain relevant to my own Druid practice. I work with the wheel of the year and with the four classical elements, including fire. I am concerned with the Earth’s relationship to sun and moon. I work with my body and my sense of energy and think of nwyfre as synonymous with prana or chi, now well-known thanks to the popularity of yoga and Chinese energy arts.

At this stage in my personal journey, I am in renewed inquiry with awen. For the Barddas, it is a distinct higher mental faculty, close to the divine source like Coleridge’s primary imagination. In my own work I get a sense of energised and articulated insight. I do not think of awen as a substance in itself, but rather a quality of how we express ourselves when at our most enlivened and ‘on song’. But this inquiry is far from concluded.

Where the Barddas speaks of God, I speak of nature. I think of the web of life, and of our interbeing within it. I also think of the mysteries of quantum events, dimensions that we cannot perceive directly, galaxies flying apart and the possibility of multiple universes. But to me nature’s most extraordinary phenomenon is the gift of aware experiencing, with all the joy and suffering it brings, in the apparent here and now. To this I add the capacity to bear witness to this miracle through words, non-verbal media, silence, celebration and action. Here, I find myself still using most of the key terms from The Seven Primary Materials of the World. In this sense,  I am happy to have The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg as part of my spiritual ancestry.

  1. J. Williams Ab Ithel The Barddas of Ilo Morganwyg, Vol I & II: A Collection of Original Documents, Illustrative of Theology, Wisdom, and Usages of the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1862)
  2. James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/Create Space, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)
  3. William F. Skene The Four Ancient Books of Wales Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1868)
  4. https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/07/12/the-eye-of-contemplation/ 

INWARD TRAINING

The Way fills the entire world

It is everywhere that people are

But people are unable to understand this.

When you are released by this one word:

You reach up to the heavens above;

You stretch down to the earth below;

You pervade the nine inhabited regions.

What does it mean to be released by it?

The answer resides in the calmness of the mind.

When your mind is well ordered, your sense are well ordered.

When your mind is calm, your senses are calmed.

What makes them well ordered is the mind;

What makes them calm is the mind.

By means of the mind you store the mind.

Within the mind there is yet another mind.

That mind within the mind: it is an awareness that precedes words.

Only after there is awareness does it take shape;

Only after it takes shape is there a word.

Only after there is a word is it implemented.

Only after it is implemented is there order.

Without order, you will always be chaotic.

If chaotic, you die. (1)

The early Taoist classic Inward Training (Nei-yeh) (1) comes out of an oral tradition in which teachers gave their pupils verses to learn and study. Hence the emphatic and somewhat repetitive flavour of the text. Teacher pupil relationships of this kind are very ancient in China, likely emerging out of an indigenous Chinese shamanism (2).

Translator and editor Harold Roth suggests that the ‘one word’ that releases people is Tao itself, used as the focus of meditation, somewhat in the manner of mantra work. When the mind is calm, another mind becomes available – the mind within the mind, that precedes words and takes shape prior to their emergence.

Tao, in this understanding, is experienced as a foundational and pervasive cosmic process in which we can centre ourselves. The recommended practice helps us to cleanse the doors of perception, and achieve that centring. My experience of contemplative inquiry, and the Druid training that preceded it, is that ‘inward training’ works.

(1) Roth, Harold D. (1999) Original Tao: ‘Inward Training’ and the foundations of Taoist mysticism New York, NY: Columbia University Press

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/08/12/

CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY: REFLECTING ON THE PROJECT

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

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

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

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

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

GNOSIS AND LOVE

This post looks at two sentences from the Gospel of Thomas and concludes a series of three posts about this text and how I read it.

“Yeshua said: When you bring forth that within you, then it will save you. If you do not, then that will kill you”. (From saying 70)

What is ‘that’? I could jump in and say the experience of ‘living presence’, in contact with the ‘bubbling source’ discussed in earlier posts on this theme, and this feels right to me. But I also find my understanding extended by translator and commentator Jean-Yves LeLoup, who offers two meanings for that, gnosis and love. Although he doesn’t fully spell it out, the sense I get from him is that they are co-arising and belong together. LeLoup understands gnosis, as Yeshua uses this term, to be “a consciousness that arises directly from knowledge of ourselves, of the ‘Living One’ within us”. He also describes it as “a transparency with regard to the ‘One who Is’ in total innocence and simplicity”. He adds: “this is why the qualities of the gnostic are said to be unconditioned, to resemble those of ‘an infant seven days old'”. Without gnosis, “the universe remains radically alien and incomprehensible”. With gnosis, love is free to flourish. LeLoup describes those who live in gnosis and love as “able to marvel at the vast richness in the tiniest manifestation of being”, graced with what seems like “unreasonable abundance”. In the absence of gnosis and love, we are vulnerable to experiencing life as stale, depleted and desolate. Yeshua is uncompromising on this point. This is the core of his teaching.

When encountering the Yeshua of this text, I have tried to let go of all other associations with the names Yeshua or Jesus. I have striven for a pristine response, as if I had not heard of this teacher before and knew nothing of the points of view claimed for him by the Thomas writer vast numbers of other people over the centuries. I haven’t found this easy. When I succeed, at least relatively, and respond to this text alone, I experience a fiercely and impatiently compassionate teacher who wants to shock people into an awakening to that – gnosis and love, in the sense understood in this text.

Yeshua’s compassion lies in his deep appreciation of the benefits of being awake, and the wish that others would share them. The impatience, perhaps a slightly wounded and bewildered one, comes from the way in which most people seem to be finding endless ways of not joining Yeshua in the sweet place where he dwells. So he uses a hyperbolic language in which that will either save you if you take it on or kill you if you don’t. Commentators say that, as a man of his place and time, Yeshua drew both on his Jewish inheritance and a Greek tradition of radical Stoicism, known as Cynicism (the modern definition is misleading) (2). Both had elements of exasperation with the public and lack of deference to the ruling class. People could be wiser and better than they are. So, why aren’t they? – and what can be done?

Hence the gospel of gnosis and love is not all about the inner life. Saying 3 of Thomas says; “the Kingdom is inside you, and it is outside you”. Jean-Yves LeLoup salutes this as “the wisdom of non-dualist language”: ‘inside’ alone “would give one-sided privilege to inner experiences and meditations. This would encourage us to flee the world, to disregard what is going on around us”. But ‘outside’ alone would encourage us to transform the world and convert others at all costs, “and it would be selfishness to sit in silence and listen to the song of the Living One in our heart”. We are asked to work with both dimensions, in this teaching, for gnosis and love to flourish.

(1) 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

(2) The Gospel of Thomas: the Hidden Sayings of Jesus (New translation with introduction and notes by Marvin Meyer. Interpretation by Harold Bloom). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992. “The Cynics emerged from the philosophical tradition of Socrates as social critics and popular philosophers who lived a simple life and employed sharp, witty sayings in order to make people raise questions about their own lives. The influence of the Cynics and other Hellenistic thinkers is evident in the Galilee of the first century; Jewish wisdom literature itself bears the marks of Hellenistic concerns.”

NOTE: This post continues a discussion begun at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/3/28/living-presence/ and continued at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/4/02/wisdom-writing/ and https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/4/04/the-bubbling-source/

PUBLISHED: April 4, 2020

THE BUBBLING SOURCE

“I am no longer your Master, because you have drunk, and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring.” From Saying 13, Gospel of Thomas (1).

In the Gospel of Thomas, Yeshua begins to treat Thomas as his peer. Asked by Yeshua “to what would you compare me?”, Thomas has replied, “Master, my mouth could never utter what you are like”. This reply contrasts sharply with Peter’s “you are like a righteous angel” and Matthew’s “you are like a wise philosopher”. Thomas has understood. He has dropped all his presuppositions and expectations. He has been able to meet Yeshua in living presence, at source. Whoever wrote this text is asking us to emulate Thomas, and therefore his teacher Yeshua. We all come from the same bubbling source, and are invited both to recognise this and live from the place of recognition. Peter and Matthew may remain constrained by limiting traditional narratives, but Thomas has understood, and two other disciples, Salome and Mary, are portrayed as being on the way.

Recently re-reading this story, I was moved by the force of the words ‘bubbling source from which I spring’. I am grateful to Jean-Yves LeLoup’s translation for this, because the standard academic translation speaks of the “bubbling spring that I have tended” (2), which for me lacks power in comparison. ‘Bubbling source from which I spring’ exactly describes my felt sense of ‘living presence’, recognising it in myself. In my formal practice, I work within a circle framework and I quickly grasped that it should be recognised as the power at the centre. Liturgically, I now greet it is ‘the bubbling source from which I spring and heart of living presence’. This feels right and good. It helps that ‘bubbling source’ is not specifically a water image in this translation. I am free to experience it internally, through my act of recognition, as a shift in energy and attention.

I feel as if I have integrated, or perhaps re-integrated, a depth dimension into the practice, and it feels richer. Since the Winter Solstice I have been closely following the wheel of the year. It represents the inheritance and continuing life of my Druidry. In many ways this is a naturalistic undertaking. But I am now powerfully reminded that my existing commitment to the flowing moment as my true home, and out of which these recent insights came, is not simply about living a slowed down time in a conventionally naturalistic sense. It is that – but it also allows the taste of timelessness and the sense of a primordial nature. The Thomas text reminds me of it. That I can recognise it is also partly thanks to my work in recent years with the practices of the Headless Way (3), the Direct Path (4,5), and Jeff Foster’s community (6). Ultimately this primordial nature is no-thing, but as no-thing it becomes everything, I discover a ‘bubbling source’. I seem to have reached a point where I can both integrate this learning and keep simple. Indeed the one seems to lead to the other. I am grateful that it is so.

(1) 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

(2) The Gospel of Thomas: the Hidden Sayings of Jesus (New translation with introduction and notes by Marvin Meyer. Interpretation by Harold Bloom). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992

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

(4) http://www.rupertspira.com

(5) http://www.greg-goode.com/

(6) http://www.lifewithoutacentre.com/

NOTE: This post continues a discussion begun at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/3/28/living-presence/ and continued at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/4/02/wisdom-writing/

WISDOM WRITING

At this strange moment in my life, I want to make my contemplative work more focused and integrated. Communing with the image above led to a deepening, related to the experience of ‘living presence’, and reported in a recent post (1). The process of writing that post has prompted further developments. One of them is a renewal of engagement with ancient wisdom writing.

My favourite books in this genre are the Tao Te Ching (2) and the Gospel of Thomas (3). My work with them has two aspects. One is to understand their cultural contexts, assisted by editors and commentators and further reading. The other is my direct response to the sayings. I am currently focusing on Thomas because some it its sayings influence my practice. Below I summarise contextual information. Each of my next two posts will cover a specific saying.

As a text, Thomas has more resemblance to ancient Jewish Wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes/Sirach) than either the canonical gospels or most Gnostic literature. Numbers of the sayings do also appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and Jesus/Yeshua defends Mary Magdalene against Peter – a common Gnostic trope. So there is some relationship with the canonical and Gnostic literatures. But there is no biographical information and no presentation of the teacher as a saviour from a super-celestial realm. There is no sense of the material world as a fallen or evil creation whether undermined by a cosmic adversary or ruled by a false god. Indeed there is no sense of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ being somewhere else at all: rather, it is “spread out over the whole earth, and people do not see it” – Saying 113 (1). Thomas can be seen as Gnostic in its sense of self-knowledge (gnosis) as transformational and because the individual is asked to identify with Jesus rather than ‘believe in’ him (4). The text is about self-transformation through a wisdom teaching that points us to our true nature. This makes it very different in cosmology and emphasis from the Gnostic movement that coalesced in the decades after Thomas was written.

Thomas was probably written in Edessa (now Urfa, a city of two million people in south east Turkey, close to the Syrian border), with the Coptic Nag Hammadi version (our only complete copy) a translation from a Greek or possibly Aramaic original (4). At the time of writing, thought to be the middle of the second century C.E., it was the capital of a Roman satellite state, not counted as within the borders of the empire. It rivalled Alexandria as a centre for book production, but had a different cultural feel – ascetic, contemplative and devotional, less concerned with creative myth-making. Christianities influenced by a Thomas tradition (though not necessarily this text) looked east and for many centuries flourished in the Middle East, Central Asia, China and India. In contrast to Europe, they were not religions of power and had to negotiate with other faiths – leading to significant cross-pollination in ways unimaginable in Constantinople or Rome. For example, they are said to have been an influence on Islamic Sufism, and as late as the thirteenth century, Rumi enjoyed good relations with a local Nestorian monastery (5). These eastern churches have stood by a view of theosis, full participation in the life of God. This is understood to have three stages: first, the purgative way, purification, katharsis; second, illumination, the illuminative way, the contemplative vision of God, theoria; and third, sainthood, the unitive way, theosis.

Essentially, this is a gradual path non-dualism. The Gospel of Thomas itself reads to me like a direct path non-dualism, as it does to other people at the present time – like Douglas Harding (6) and Francis Lucille. However I wouldn’t want to go too far in appropriating this ancient text for the purposes of a modern movement. It should be met, as far as possible, as what it is. I am concerned to respect and respond to it. I don’t need to agree with it or (worse) to make it agree with me.

The saying I want to look at in my next post is:

“I am no longer your Master, because you have drunk, and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring.” (from Saying 13)

In the following post, I will turn to:

“Yeshua said: when you bring forth that within you, then that will save you; if you do not, then that will kill you.” (Saying 70)

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/03/28/living-presence/

(2) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way (A new English version by Ursual K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998

(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) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introduction to ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds New York & Oxford: OUP, 2013

(5) Philip Jenkins The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and How It Died HarperCollins e-books, 2008

(6) Douglas Harding A Jesus for Our Time. Chapter 14 in Look for Yourself: the Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust 2015 (first published the The Head Exchange in 1996)

LIVING PRESENCE

In my part of the world, we have begun the greening of the year. But I can’t go out to meet it, or if so, only a little. I can’t go out, so I have to go in. In the greening of my contemplative life, a sense of ‘living presence’ has been the key.

My bespoke liturgy speaks to me and at times asks for change. A section of my morning practice, an affirmation of ‘at-homeness in the present moment’, wants to expand into a ‘celebration of living presence’. At-homeness stood for a place of safety and regeneration. ‘Living presence’ includes that and points to more. In the celebration, I affirm myself as ‘living presence in a field of living presence: here, now and home’. I’ve added a period of walking meditation (20 minutes or so), mindful to breath and footfall and also including liv-ing pres-ence as a mantra over two full breaths.

The Phrase ‘living presence’ came up spontaneously but realising that I didn’t actually make it up, I checked up on where I first came across it. It comes from the Sufi teacher Kabir Edmund Helminski (1). “Presence signifies the quality of consciously being here … the way in which we occupy space. Presence shapes our self-image and emotional tone. Presence determines the degree of our alertness, openness and warmth. Presence decides whether we leak and scatter our energy or embody and direct it”.

For Helminski, presence is also our link to the divine. since in the bigger picture it is “the presence of Absolute Being reflected through the human being. We can learn to activate this presence at will. Once activated, we can find this presence both within and without. Because we find it extending beyond the boundaries of what we thought was ourselves, we are freed from separation, from duality. We can then speak of being in this presence”.

My picture of leaves in light against a darker background is, for me, an image of living presence. It wasn’t intended to look like this, but I’m glad that it does. It said ‘living presence’ to me as soon as I saw it. Each leaf grows out of the tree and is extended by the light of the sun. All are enabled and nourished by ‘interbeing’, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s (2) reframe of ‘dependent origination’. But the elements of darkness and shade, whilst delineating the tree trunk, also suggest the mystery of a primordial nature, no-thing in itself yet making everything possible. The picture seems to be saying that the potential for greening is everywhere, outside and within.

(1) Kabir Edmund Helminski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

SCIENCE AND SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

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

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

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

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

The second Book, Ways To Go Beyond, covers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His website is www.sheldrake.org/

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