contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: contemplative spirituality

A MIDSUMMER DAY’S DREAM

This post is about a midsummer day’s dream in the the Scottish border country, a dream which included a certain kind of waking up. I have written about it before (1,2) but this is the first illustrated version. Fourteen years have passed since that day, which in many ways determined the form which my expression of Druidry would take.

I was near Melrose. The wild rose was one of many on the banks of the Tweed. In this photograph, I am on a riverside path, with my back to the river. I keenly noticed then, as I notice now, the difference between a wild rose and the more familiar cultivated ones. I love both. But I remember feeling a particular delight at the simplicity of the native flower, a sense of easy integration into habitat, and of a plant not committed to being red or white.

Looking more deeply, I have said in my earlier writing how I had a momentary experience in which, gazing at a rose, subject/object distinctions disappeared and it is as if time intersected with eternity. I have identified this with the Seeing experience more systematically explored by Douglas Harding and the community built up around his work (http://www.headless.org). This was the beginning my sense that direct experience of the world, manifesting through a form of nature mysticism, would be my way forward, eventually becoming a contemplative Druidry and the backbone of my contemplative inquiry. I experience this as a direct and simple route to stillness, presence, resting in being., and identifying with source.

My walk amongst the wild roses had a prequel. Firstly, I had already spent time in the well-preserved ruins of Melrose Abbey. It was a building of Green Man carvings, but, sadly, neither the monks who occupied it nor the iconoclasts who abandoned it had access to the Gospel of Thomas (3) or the words:

“His disciples said to him:

‘When will the dead be at rest?’

‘When will the new world come?’

He answered them:

What you are waiting for has already come,

but you do not see it.” (3)

Here I see the abbey as a solid, material buildings, built with love and care. Even today, it belongs in its landscape, as much as the Tweed or the nearby Eildon Hills, with a semi-wild orchard of apple, pear and cherry trees. What I haven’t written before, in times when I was busy making distinctions between available paths, is that time and eternity intersect in this place too. But, on the day in question, I didn’t have that experience in the abbey grounds. I had it only among the wild roses, down by the river.

The Eildon Hills are also part of the same landscape, indeed a more primal one. But they are fairy hills and they can hide themselves. On that day, they hid from me. There was no invitation – or, rather command – from the Queen of Elfland, who had once ridden out to summon Thomas the Rhymer to her service:

“But you maun go wi’ me now Thomas

True Thomas ye maun go with me

For ye maun serve me seven years

Through weel or wae as may change to be.” (4)

At midsummer in 2007 I was looking for a spiritual home that offered both depth and simplicity. The grim half hidden hills were not appealing to me and I was closed to their magic, with an invitation or without one. I did not want to court danger by ascending into their conceivably treacherous mists. The low road by the river was the one for me.

It was a good decision, and good came of it. But I do also understand that on a different day, those hills could be seen in a different light. I do not now feel constrained to make a neat choice between a broad road, a narrow road and a bonny road. Two cycles of seven years on, well rooted in a nourishing life and practice, I find myself in a more open space, wondering what lessons this Otherworld might yet offer.

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

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/07/16/seeing-contemplative-druidry/

(3) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005

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

TREE MANDALA: OAK

“Green man becomes grown man as flames of the oak

As its crown forms his mask and its leafage his features;

‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man.

‘I speak through the oak says he'” (1)

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (2), oak covers the period from 16 June-8 July and thus includes Alban Hefin, the summer solstice. I am starting to bring it in. The oak has many associations – regal strength, for example – but for me the sense of the green man, the archetype of our oneness with the earth, speaking through the oak, is the most numinous. At Dodona in ancient Greece (3) an oak shrine was “guarded by priestesses who interpreted the future from the rustling of leaves on the great tree, the voice of the sacred spring that rose at its root and the behaviour of birds in its branches”. Celtic tradition describes a number of sacred oak trees, themselves roosting places for sacred birds. I like the sense that the oak does not stand alone and autonomous in these stories. For leaves to rustle, the wind is needed. Birds and springs may also participate in the ecology, of a distributed wisdom – a wisdom of interdependence, of interbeing. The oak’s great branches are matched by still greater roots, and therefore an underground network of communication and exchange that we now know sustains a mature forest (4).

The ogham name for oak, duir, means door in both Sanskrit and Gaelic (5). This can bespeak solidity and protection, for the oak can survive lightning. It was sacred to Taranis, the Celtic god of lightning and storms, to Thor in the Nordic pantheon. and to Zeus among the Greeks. But a door isn’t just defensive. It is there to be opened as well, with a sense of welcome and relationship. Dagda, father god of Ireland, was associated with the oak and never failed to give hospitality to those who asked for it.

For Druids (whose name means ‘oak wisdom’) oak was the central tree in their mysteries. There is a theme, in these mysteries, of communication between worlds, with a sensed Otherworld being less than a heart beat away. The power of the oak combines strength and sensitivity. My mandala links oak to the period in which the light has its greatest expression, and then gives way, at first very slowly, to its necessary descent into the dark. The tree bears witness as the wheel continues to turn.

(1) William Anderson Green Man: Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

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

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/05/23/suzanne-simard-finding-the-mother-tree/

(5) Liz & Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: a System of Divination London: Eddison/Sadd Editions, 1988 (Illustrated by Vanessa Card)

BOOK REVIEW: SACRED ACTIONS

Highly recommended. Sacred Actions* is an excellent resource for developing sacred relationship with the earth in dedicated spiritual practice and acts of daily life. Pennsylvania-based author Dana O’Driscoll is steeped in Druidry and the U.S. homesteading movement. She is Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), and an OBOD Druid. She is a Mount Haemus scholar, lecturing on Channeling the Awen Within in 2018. In a recent blog post in Druid’s Garden (https://druidgarden.wordpress.com) she describes Sacred Actions as presenting “a hybridization of nature spirituality, sustainability and permaculture practice”.

The book is built around the wheel of the year and its eight festivals. O’Driscoll begins with the Winter Solstice, where her theme is the ethics of care, applied at both the private and public levels. New life practices are supported by specific exercises and rituals. She continues the same approach with the other festivals: Imbolc – “wisdom through oak knowledge and re-skilling”; Spring Equinox – “spring cleaning and disposing of the disposable mindset”; Beltane – “sacred action in our homes”; Summer Solstice – “food and nourishment”; Lughnasadh – “landscapes, gardens and lawn liberation”; Fall Equinox = “earth ambassadorship, community and broader work in the world”; Samhain – “sustainable ritual tools, items and objects”.

To prospective readers I suggest an initial reading, followed by more intensive engagement with the individual chapters, season by season. Use this text to identify what inspires and moves you and has the power to bring a richer sense of ‘sacred actions’ into your own life. Sacred Actions is a powerful source of ecological and ethical inspiration, and a fine addition to Druid literature.

* Dana O’Driscoll Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices Altglen, PA: Red Feather, 2021

 

LEARNING FROM OTHER TRADITIONS: KASHMIR SHAIVISM

My Druidry is an earth pathway and a nature mysticism – and it is more than that. It is concerned with recognising, and living from, a divine identity in a divine world. I practice a panentheist, non-dual, Druidry. But few of the mystical traditions known to history have fully held the two aspects together as one. Kashmir Shaivism, a form of traditional Indian Tantra, is an exception. Sally Kempton (1) explains.

“Rejecting the Vedantic view that the material world is illusory, an empty dream, the sages of Kashmir Shaivism saw all forms of the universe as manifestations of divine creative energy, of Shakti, the dynamic female principle. They worshipped Shakti in themselves, in the earth, and in every substantial and insubstantial thing, and they looked for the pulsing heart of divine bliss within all domains of experience. Astute seekers of the tradition knew innumerable pathways for uncovering the experience of the divine. They knew how to extract it from states like terror or pleasure or in the high point of a sneeze; the knew how to find the pulsation of ecstasy in empty space, in fixed attention, and in the sensations that come from swaying or twirling, or enjoying music or the taste of food.

“But the crucial insight of Shaivism is the recognition that when human consciousness lets go of its identification with the body and reflects back on itself, it is revealed as a perfect, if limited, form of the supreme ‘I’, which is God. By expanding their own I-consciousness beyond its limits, past its tendency to cling to narrow definitions of itself, yogis of the Shaivite path experienced God as themselves.

“Because they saw the world as divine, the Shaivite yogis of Kashmir had no difficulty enjoying life in all its different flavors. In this they differed from their Vedantic cousins and from the Madhyamika Buddhists who inhabited the same region of India. Shaivism was not a traditional renunciate’s path. Abhinavagupta (975-1025 CE), the preeminent genius of the tradition, was not only a philosopher and a widely revered guru but also an aesthetician, and artist and musician, and the center of a circle where sensory experience – including art, music and drama – was constantly being transmuted into yoga.

“It is this insight – that a serious practitioner of yoga does not reject their world, but instead transforms daily experience through their practice – that sets Kashmir Shaivism apart from many Indian yogic traditions, and has made this system particularly resonant for our time.”

(1) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011

TREE MANDALA: BEECH AND BLUEBELL

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), beech and bluebell together cover the period from 24 May-15 June – taking over from hawthorn and handing on to oak. In this instance, I am drawn by the powerful visual effects of bluebells carpeting woodland in which beech is the dominant tree.

The picture above is an old one. The last year in which Elaine and I went into this space (2018 or 2019) the wood felt weird. Part of it – not quite the area in the picture – was a scene of desolation. A lot of the trees had been taken down, with a kind of ragged insensitivity. It felt like a bad moment in Lord of the Rings. I don’t know the story behind this. Perhaps there was disease, or some other genuine need for a thinning out of trees. It was certainly systematic, with notices about the work being done – the result of management, and not of vandalism, in the conventional usage of our language.

The beech is an elegant tree, and I experience it as having a soft energy. It has been traditionally feminised, and thought of as ‘Queen of the Woods’, sharing the place of honour with the kingly oak according to The Green Man Tree Oracle (2). The same source says that “slivers of beech wood and leaves were once carried as talismans to bring good luck and increase creative energy”. Local British traditions associate the beech (ogham name phagos) with serpents “probably because of its long serpentine root systems”, they add – and I wonder too about the archaic link between the Goddess and serpent power in many cultures.

.

My personal connection with the tree itself is limited. It concerns this time of year and the association with bluebells. Indeed the bluebell is my main focus, with the beech as complementary. If they are separated, I follow the bluebell, and the picture below is a recent one, of the Spanish variety, from our garden. For me, it represents a favourite moment in the year, to be appreciated while it lasts. It reminds me simultaneously of the poignancy of impermanence (including my own) and the beauty of the eternal present (within which I am held).

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

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

SUZANNE SIMARD: FINDING THE MOTHER TREE

Dr. Suzanne Simard grew up in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia, in a family of low impact traditional foresters. She worked for many years a researcher in the Canadian Forest Service, before moving into academia. She is currently Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry. Throughout her career she has had a leading role in changing the way that science thinks about trees and forests. Her research on tree connectivity, communication and cooperation – and their impact on the health and biodiversity of forests – has shown how the imposed monocultures of commercial forestry are a disaster for forests, forestry and the wider ecology of the planet.

Her book Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest was published by Penguin Books in the UK, USA, Canada, Ireland and Australia in 2021 in paper, kindle and audio versions. It describes both a personal journey and a scientific one, and shows how the work Simard came to do grew out of the place and culture in which she was raised. It is as if her achievement had her name on it even at the beginning. I highly recommend this book to any one with an interest in ecology and the sentience of trees.

I cannot do justice in to this inspiring book and its thesis in a single post. Instead, I refer readers to a TED talk on How Trees Talk To Each Other (1), which Simard gave in 2016, summarising her work and its implications in just over 16 minutes. If the talk whets your appetite, the book will likely satisfy it. It says more about Suzanne Simard’s personal and family journey. It describes her ground-breaking (though also fraught and frustrating) time within the Canadian Forest Service in some detail. It also says something about the ecological wisdom of the indigenous peoples of the forest and takes Simard’s own research up to 2020.

(1) http://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other?language=en/

SUMMER’S GATEWAY 2021

For me, 2021 has been a testing year so far. Part of the test has been a cold, wet and hesitant spring – very different from the tantalising splendour of 2020 and the first lockdown. But this morning, 19 May, I had two hours of what I most love in the transition from spring into summer. It was a refreshing and healing experience to be in the woods, hard to describe in words. I am letting pictures do most of the work.

The woodland I walk in is hardly pristine. It grows in a long-disused railway cutting, now refashioned into a cycle track. At this time of year, and throughout the summer, it is wonderfully green and vital. Here, in this early stage, it feels especially fresh and alive.

Although it is limited in size and partly defined by a path, there is enough room in this little domain for both a tangle wood effect and for a spacious carpet of wild garlic among the trees.

Since I was very young, hawthorn and cow parsley have been a feature of this time, in woods and hedgerows. I was pleased at their presence today, and glad to be able to show up and be present for them.

The overall effect was one of exuberant abundance, a life that will declare its power and beauty given any chance. I will give the last image to the hawthorn.

BEING AND PERSPECTIVE

“To have a perspective, a sense of Being has to be there first.

Is there any perspective if there is no sense of Beingness or sense of aliveness?

That same aliveness underlies every perspective.

The Questions – Does it help? Is it of value? –

are questions which people will have their own perspective on.

So, a wordless experience of being that is available to turn to 24/7,

not dependant on a particular feeling, thought or perspective,

All of which come and go.

Not being an attainment

it is not dependent on effort

but when consciously noticed

it is constant and obvious.”

These words from Steve Palmer of the Headless Way summarise my learning from that family when crafting a contemplative Druidry through my inquiry process. The noticing he talks about towards the end is at the centre. Everything else radiates out, re-visioned by the noticing.

http://www.headless.org/

STILL MOMENTS FROM THE FLOW

In the dance of stillness and movement, I feel immersed in movement. I am open to this turn in experience. It’s fundamentally fine. But part of it involves pushing against limited energy in unfamiliar ways. I am needing to work at balancing self-care with getting things done.

I remain still at heart, with space for all the surface tensions, yet there’s an efforting in the day-to-day. I hardly know whether to resist or welcome this. I am living with elements of both. Self-compassion asks that both the resistence and the welcome be given their space.

For many years now, I have lived my spiritual life as a Druid contemplative inquiry. Contemplation is the receptive element and inquiry the active one. Nature, including mine, is the setting. Somehow, I find myself held.

I took this picture recently on a canal walk – the image is of an adjacent stream. Gazing into it now, I see a power and a swirl in this still image, whilst recalling the rapid movement and change of the stream at the time of picturing it. I find that the image evokes a sense of wonder at the power and beauty of moving water, revealing shapes and relationships that shifted too quickly to register fully on the day. In swiftly changing times, stilling and reflection offer a restorative experience.

SUNSET LATENCY

In the rich evening of my life, I’m experiencing a sense of latency. Good – in its suggestion of possibilities. Uncomfortable, in a context of possibilities deferred.

The context is that, for most of this year, I’ve been experiencing breath problems. Once I knew that I didn’t have Covid, I assumed they would go away with winter. But they haven’t. Next week I’ll be having a battery of tests including an electrocardiogram, blood tests and a chest X-ray. I want to find out what is going on, what if any formal medical intervention is required, and how to manage my health going forward. There may be a new normal to accept and work with. I try to cultivate a Druid sensitivity to the life energy within me and a sense of how to nurture it.

Meanwhile, I find that breathing exercises help. They are the same breathing exercises I use to connect with stillness, and rest in the heart of Being – an interesting state of affairs in itself. One one level I am semi-grounded by a degree of impairment and a lack of knowledge about what it implies. On another I am called to intensify my spiritual practice. Problem and opportunity in the same package. Whatever happens, I feel that the opportunity is greater, though it doesn’t always feel that way.

On another level again, my wife Elaine and I, both now twice vaccinated, are wanting to step out into the world again. Our eyes are looking north, towards York, the Tyne and Wear coast, and Scotland – specifically Edinburgh and the Lothians. We have family up there and want to live a little closer to them. We would also like to live closer to the sea. This is quite an old idea, interrupted at first by the uncertainties of Brexit, the pandemic, and Scotland’s future. One thing we have learned is to stop worrying about uncertainties, or we’ll die before making a move. But Elaine’s physical health is also compromised – she was very seriously ill in January, still recovering now – and we have to work to find the energy to make our house presentable, sell it, and settle in another part of the country. We are taking steps whilst being careful not to over-tax ourselves and push the river. A northern tour is planned for early June.

I notice that I am not going on local walks and taking pictures as much as for most of the last eighteen months. In some ways I regret that. In others, I am allowing a change of focus. I am conscious that 2021 has been slower to wake up and bloom here than in the wonderful late spring and early summer of the first lockdown. Cold northerly winds bringing hail and sleet have been a feature. Normally this wouldn’t be a deterrent to me. I like bracing weather and don’t mind getting wet. But this year I’m being cautious. There is a great deal going on, a lot to attend to, another life waiting to break through. I will be 72 later this month, and I’m calculating that I have time for a new worldly adventure, shared with Elaine. We cannot be certain of this, yet I have rarely felt so alive.

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