contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: contemplative spirituality

OLD CITY, NEW HOME

Above, a city park containing monastic ruins. I am beginning to make sense of a new habitat. The distance door-to-door is only about ten miles from the old one. But it feels very different. Stroud the Cotswold mill town is hilly and hard on the older pedestrian. Gloucester is an old English city on the river Severn, much flatter. The centre, where we now live, has become highly pedestrian friendly in recent years. This was a key motivator for our move and it already feels transformational.

On an exploratory amble on Sunday, Elaine and I were very aware of history. St. Oswald’s Priory, in the picture above, was founded by Lady Aethelflaed of Mercia, daughter of Alfred the Great, around 900. The Priory Church, initially dedicated to St. Peter, was constructed from recycled Roman stones. (The Romans founded the city, as Glevum, in the first century CE, and it never quite died after their departure from Britain). In Aetheflaed’s time it was a bold and unusual move to build a church as there were frequent Viking raids. Quite possibly Aethelflaed and her husband were later interred in the crypt. Archaeological excavations in the 1970s revealed a 10th century fragment of carved slab from the grave of someone of high importance.

In the centuries that followed St Oswald’s grew rich as a place of pilgrimage and was at the centre of a large parish. But later it declined, as institutions do. It was almost literally in the shadow of the more successful Abbey of St. Peter, now Gloucester Cathedral, where the power of the church was now based. Architecturally, the cathedral (below) still dominates the city.

When Elaine and I were walking together on Sunday, the bells were ringing and we found ourselves enjoying this as an expression of the old city’s identity. As in other old cathedral cities, the cathedral is characteristically approached through narrow, often arched lanes and then appears magnificently in front of us.

We have another church, St. Mary-Le-Crypt (below), even closer to home, and cut through its churchyard to get to a major traditional shopping street. Like the cathedral, it continues to serve Anglican (Episcopalian) worshippers and to be part of the wider community.

I have as yet no idea what effect, if any, living in Gloucester will have on my contemplative inquiry, nested as it is in Druidry and Earth spirituality. It is much too early to tell. From the perspective of the living moment, I am delighted to be soaking in new impressions, aware that this is where I live now. Looking out, this is what I will frequently see. These sights are part of the texture of my daily experience now, and I welcome them as such. It greet a new way of being at home.

READYING FOR RELOCATION

I will be moving house very soon. This will no longer be the view from my bedroom window. My gaze today is tinged with premature nostalgia.

This gaze shows continuity and slow, gradual change in the world outside. This world wears its winter look, with bare branches and extensive views. At other times of the year, both are covered by foliage. But the solstice darkness has already withdrawn from the mid-afternoon. Today is blessed with strong sunlight and blue sky. The year is turning again, now towards the light.

The house move feels more abrupt. I have lived here for longer than anywhere else in my adult life. Chiefly it has been the hallowed setting for my life with Elaine (1). Whilst living here, I completed my OBOD training, later beginning a self-directed exploration of contemplative Druidry, including a 4 year project within the Druid community (2). For a while, contemplative inquiry – within and beyond Druidry – became the guiding principle of my spirituality. Now it is more like an influential thread within my Druid practice.

I wonder what changes life in another location will make, as Elaine and I continue our journey together. There will be only a limited break from the past. We will be in the same county, though not the same town. But there will be differences too. The psychogeography will be different. The spirits of place will be different. The world beyond our windows will be new.

(1) http://www.elaineknight.wordpress.com

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

WELCOMING 2022

Bright Blessings to everyone at the turn of the calendar year. With some fears and greater hopes, I have crossed the threshold into 2022. I have welcomed it into my life and declared myself ready for the journey.

In a way, ‘2022’ is a fiction woven from our human experience of linear time and a cultural decision about numbers. But these things are thoroughly ingrained in me and feel like givens, completely natural. I remember clocking this, or signing up to the tribal custom, in the new year of 1957, when I was 7 years old and found myself remembering 1956 as a full, known year. It was the first time I had been conscious of such a thing. Now I was somewhere new and exciting (1957) though the feel of my bedclothes was familiar in the very dim early morning light. I remember this vividly and, truth be told, better than I remember waking up yesterday.

Flowing water is often used as an image for the passing of linear time. On my walk yesterday morning, I checked this out in nature and made two brief videos of a stream. Standing on the bridge at slightly different times, facing in opposite directions, I filmed a stream flowing both towards me and away from me. My feelings about the two were a little different.

The water coming towards me felt fresh and energised. I was curious about the patterns on the surface both from the flow itself and from the rain. I was drawn in, more meditatively, by the sound. I was also interested in what stories the water might hold. But I didn’t follow these up, out of concern for losing the immediate experience. Above all I, felt invigorated. I enjoyed this flow.

Flowing away was different. It wasn’t raining and I could hear – I think – sea gulls. They are certainly around. Again I enjoyed patterns in the water and the enlivening strength of the flow. But I was strongly aware of it moving away from me. Yes – it was reliably replenished … but for how much longer? And, in any case, a movement away is a movement away. Movements away carry a sense of loss. This isn’t just about my age. It is built into the experience of linear time. Things pass away into a temporal distance. Linear time is the mechanism that allows anything to ‘happen’ at all, but also the guarantor of impermanence. There’s a poignancy in this condition that I allow myself to experience and hold – not, here, seeking comfort in the eternal. I watch the power of a little stream, grateful for the miracle of existence, softly sad about its vulnerable brevity.

STILLNESS IN A TURNING WORLD

Late on Christmas morning, I went out for a midwinter walk. It was relatively warm outside (8C/46F). The world seemed static and still. Yet I had the sense of a new year quietly being born, somewhere under the surface. Ripples in the water seemed to me to confirm this.

The midwinter season that I observe in nature can be like that – superficial dullness masking dynamic transformation. Life is strong in this watery place. The wheel continues to turn. There may be harsh weeks ahead, but the overall movement of time is already leaning towards regeneration, rather than the seasonal dying of late autumn and early winter.

At times like this I sense the presence of an ancient cosmic motherhood that gives me hope for the coming year. May all beings be blessed.

CAILLEACH

I was on a train and had reached my destination. Descending onto the platform at 5.30 pm, I found myself in complete darkness. It might as well have been midnight. I understood that winter had come.

The Goddess in her cailleach, or crone, aspect presides over this time. She it is who determines the length and severity of winter. She is also embodied in the dark woman of knowledge who facilitates both death and transformation (1).

In the context of my contemplative inquiry/blog, I am experiencing a process of this kind, seemingly in a minor key. I want to call it ‘hibernation and renewal’, though I cannot predict how it will really be. In any event, I have decided to do no more posting until the new year. What happens then depends on what I am inspired to do at the time. But now is a time for surrender to endarkenment and sleep.

(1) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The DruidCraft Tarot: Use the Magic of Wicca and Druidry to Guide Your Life London: Connections, 2004. Illustrated by Will Worthington.

WHAT IS GIVEN

It is colder now, and gloomier indoors for much of the day. But outside, this November keeps on giving. My walking range has increased again with a walk to nearby Nailsworth, a leisurely lunch in this little town, and a walk back again: ten miles. The picture above includes both a stream beside my path and a small lake nearby.

But my attention hasn’t been all on the world around me. I have been reflecting on an old statement about my practice, currently included in my About section, and finding that it still holds. “My inquiry process overall has helped me to discover an underlying peace and at-homeness in the present moment, which, when experienced clearly and spaciously, nourishes and illuminates my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I find that this perspective supports a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.”

There is no reliance on metaphysics here. This allows me a pared down focus on experience and values. My practice has been relatively stable over a long period, whereas my thoughts about metaphysical questions are more volatile. I experience thinking as volatile by nature, and fine within its limits. Over the years this blog has found room for diverse approaches to the meaning, if any, of terms like divinity and consciousness. I have wondered about the possibility (or desirability) of establishing any foundational truth about absolute or indeed conventional ‘reality’. I notice now that when I explore these questions – especially when reading – I am more interested in seeing how people put their worlds together than I am in identifying insights or finding answers to the questions themselves. It has become a human interest rather than a philosophical quest.

I have noticed this especially over recent days when engaging with Carlo Rovelli’s discussion of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (1,2). My interest was in seeing how a distinguished physicist makes use of Nagarjuna’s emptiness doctrine. I have less stake in assessing the view itself, because my peace and at-homeness are the result of an experiential inquiry, and not of speculative thinking. I continue to find that this perspective supports “a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence, and a life of abundant simplicity”, My inquiry focus, if ‘inquiry; is even the right word, is about how best to walk the talk.

(1) Carlo Rovelli Helgoland global.penguinrandomhouse.com 2020 (Translated by Erica Segre & Simon Carnell, 2021) Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who has made significant contributions to the physics of space and time.

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/11/08/exploring-emptiness-carlo-rovelli-and-nagarjuna

EXPLORING ‘EMPTINESS’: CARLO ROVELLI AND NAGARJUNA

A modern western humanist learns from an ancient Buddhist philosopher. Carlo Rovelli’s book Helgoland (1) is mostly about the development of quantum mechanics in the early to mid-twentieth century and the scientists who developed it. The title references ‘Werner Heisenberg’s sojourn on the remote island of Helgoland working on the maths. But one chapter concerns the second century CE Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, and how his work has helped Rovelli to frame a philosophical understanding of quantum phenomena.

“When speaking about quanta and their relational nature I had frequently met people who asked: Have you read Nagarjuna? … Though not widely read in the West, the work in question is hardly an obscure or minor one: it is one of the most important texts in Buddhist philosophy. … The central thesis of Nagarjuna’s book is simply that there is nothing that exists in itself, independently from something else.

“The resonance with quantum mechanics is immediate. Obviously Nagarjuna knew nothing, and could not have imagined anything, about quanta – that is not the point. The point is that philosophers offer original ways of re-thinking the world, and we can employ them if they turn out to be useful. The perspective offered by Nagarjuna make perhaps make it a little easier to think about the quantum world (2).

“If nothing exists in itself, everything exists only through dependence on something else, in relation to something else. The technical term used by Nagarjuna the absence of independent existence is ‘emptiness’ (sunyata): things are ‘empty’ in the sense of having no autonomous existence. They exist thanks to, as a function of, with respect to, in the perspective of, something else.

“If I look at a cloudy sky – to take a simplistic example – I can see a castle and a dragon. Does a castle and does a dragon really exist, up there in the sky? Obviously not: the dragon and the castle emerge from the encounter between the shape of the clouds and the sensations and thoughts in my head; in themselves they are empty entities, they do not exist. So far, so easy. But Nagarjuna also suggests that the clouds, the sky, sensations, thoughts and my own head are equally things that arise from the encounter with other things: they are empty entities.

“And myself, looking at the star, do I exist? No, not even I. So who is observing the star? No one says Nagarjuna. To see a star is a component of that set of interactions that I normally call my ‘self’. ‘What articulates language does not exist. The circle of thoughts does not exist.’ There is no ultimate or mysterious essence to understand that is the true essence of our being. ‘I’ is nothing other than the vast and interconnected set of phenomena that constitute it, each one dependent on something else. Centuries of Western speculation on the subject, and on the nature of consciousness, vanish like morning mist.

“Like much philosophy and much science, Nagarjuna distinguishes between two levels: conventional, apparent reality with its illusory and perspectival aspects, and ultimate reality. But in this case the distinction takes us in an unexpected direction: the ultimate reality, the essence, its absence, is vacuity. It does not exist.

“If every metaphysics seeks a primary substance, an essence on which everything may depend, the point of departure from which everything follows, Nagarjuna suggests that the ultimate substance, the point of departure … does not exist.

….

“The illusoriness of the world, its samsara, is a general theme of Buddhism; to recognize this is to reach nirvana, liberation and beatitude. For Nagarjuna, samsara and nirvana are the same thing: both empty of their own existence. Non-existent.

“So is emptiness the only reality? Is this, after all, the ultimate reality? No, writes Nagarjuna, in the most vertiginous chapter of the book: every perspective exists only in interdependence with something else, there is never an ultimate reality – and this is the case for his own perspective as well. Even emptiness is devoid of essence: it is conventional. No metaphysics survives. Emptiness is empty.

“Nagarjuna has given us a formidable conceptual tool for thinking about the relationality of quanta: we can think of interdependence without autonomous essence entering the equation, In fact interdependence – and this is the key argument made by Nagarjuna, requires us to forget all about autonomous essences.

“The long search for the ‘ultimate substance’ in physics has passed through matter, molecules, atoms, fields, elementary particles … and has been shipwrecked in the relational complexity of quantum field theory and general relativity. Is is possible that a philosopher from ancient India can provide us with a conceptual tool with which to extricate ourselves?”

“The fascination of Nagarjuna’s thought goes beyond questions raised by contemporary physics. His perspective has something dizzying about it. It resonates with the best of much Western philosophy, both classical and recent. … He speaks about reality, about its complexity and comprehensibility, but he defends us from the conceptual trap of wanting to find it an ultimate foundation.

“His is not metaphysical extravagance: it is sobriety. It recognizes the fact that to inquire about the ultimate foundation of everything is to ask a question that perhaps simply does not make sense.

“This does not shut down investigation. On the contrary, it liberates it. Nagarjuna is not a nihilist negating the reality of the world, and neither is he a sceptic denying that we can know anything about that reality. The world of phenomena is one that we can investigate, gradually improving our understanding of it. We may find general characteristics. But it is a world of interdependence and contingencies, not a world that we should trouble ourselves attempting to derive from an Absolute.

“I believe that one of the greatest mistakes made by human beings is to want certainties when trying to understand something. The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical absence of certainty. Thanks to the acute awareness of our ignorance, we are open to doubt and can continue to learn and learn better. This has always been the strength of scientific thinking – thinking born of curiosity, revolt, change. There is no cardinal or final fixed point, philosophical or methodological, with which to anchor the adventure of knowledge.

“I am not a philosopher; I am a physicist: a simple mechanic. And this simple mechanic, who deals with quanta, is taught by Nagarjuna that it is possible to think of the manifestation of objects without having to ask what the object is in itself, independent from its manifestations.

“But Nagarjuna’s emptiness also nourishes an ethical stance that clears the sky of the endless disquietude: to understand that we do not exist as autonomous entities helps us free ourselves from attachments and suffering. Precisely because of its impermanence, because of the absence of any absolute, the now has meaning and is precious.

“For me as a human being, Nagarjuna teaches the serenity, the lightness and the shining beauty of the world: we are nothing but images of images. Reality, including ourselves, is nothing but a thin and fragile veil, beyond which … there is nothing.”

(1) Carlo Rovelli Helgoland global.penguinrandomhouse.com 2020 (Translated by Erica Segre & Simon Carnell, 2021) Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who has made significant contributions to the physics of space and time.

(2) The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika: Translation and commentary by Jay L. Garfield. Oxford: The University Press, 1995. Nagarjuna, who lived in South India in approximately the second century CE, is the most important, influential and widely studied Mahayana Buddhist philosopher. At the time of publication Jay L. Garfield was Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hampshire in India Program, an exchange program with the Tibetan Universities in exile, at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts. His translation is from a Tibetan, rather than Sanskrit, text.

BEING IN PLACE

The first days of November were kind to me, with bright sunshine and temperatures good for walking. I have felt fitter and healthier than for awhile, and completed a 7 mile walk on 1 November without much sense of wear and tear. I felt alive in an everyday kind of way and appreciative of the spaces I moved through. My main focus was movement itself, and I took photographs only of places beyond my current ‘normal’ range. Nothing mystical: just the simple pleasure of being in place.

1 November gave me autumn at its best rather than any sign of winter. The canal had, in places, a kind of dappled intimacy, aided both by unmanicured foliage and architecture on a human scale. The quality of light was heart-lifting too, always significant for me.

There were also other spaces, more open, allowing an overview of the canal landscape. The picture below gives an indication of how much blue sky there was, on the day. It was a delight to be able to see so far, and so clearly. I realise how much my resilience, at times wobbly, is supported by simple experiences like this.

A DANCE OF LIGHT AND SHADE

Sunday, 31 October. Hallowe’en. Greetings of the season! A chance for a ghost tree to move and dance?

Where I live, a change in clock time has made the morning a little lighter, wet and gloomy though it might be. The evening, of course, will be darker. It will launch an endarkening seven weeks for those open to the spiritual opportunities of this time.

I am noticing a dance of light and shade, at moments not defined by heavy cloud and rain. In these recent pictures I sense a yin/yang contrast where clear shafts of light illuminate, but do not dominate, spaces inclined to be shady. For me there is a living balance here – one thing that still pictures do not show is that the detail is constantly changing.

I celebrate the miracle of existence – my ability, or life’s ability, to see a world and be immersed in it. To respond to it and to share it. Sometimes this seems enough, with no need for any framework to explain or contextualise this astonishing fact. Here, from identifying a dance of light and shade, I can notice how this dance has different effects in different settings, a small sample of the vast diversity in our living world. As we move without illusions into the Cop26 summit, may it be preserved and protected!

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TOWARDS SAMHAIN 2021

Approaching Samhain, I feel drawn to themes of paring down and letting go. Pictures from a recent visit to Weston beach reflect this minimalist mood. The tide was out, leaving an expanse of flat muddy beach, not easy to distinguish from the sea. Sea-wrack and bare wooden posts were prominent features here. I enjoyed the clarity and immediacy of this setting, and also a sense of a quiet latency, before the water returned.

Samhain initiates a time of endings and transitions. Where I live, the dying of the year is generally not dramatic, but there is nonetheless considerable change. This speaks to something in me. My notion of a ‘contemplative inquiry’ is morphing as it strips down to essentials, and dissolves into a gentle holding and observation of experience in flow. I will give this morphing process space, and see what emerges from the descent of the year. I expect to post less frequently for a period of time.

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