contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: contemplative spirituality

SKY AND WEATHER

The fog has gone now, for the time being. But its memory still clings to me. I can acknowledge its beauty as seen through the window of a warm room. But I would rather not be out there, tasting the fog, breathing it, trying to find my way in a clammy kind of cold. To go out, I wait for another day, with clear light and the effects, however subtle, of the winter sun. What a difference a day makes.

Part of my Druidry is about cultivating dimensions of experience ignored or unvalued in mainstream culture. Practice keeps my connection to them open. Tibetan Buddhists are sky watchers and have the saying; ‘you are the sky; everything else is weather’. This recognition does not erase the fluctuations in our weather, without and within, or our response to them. It does point to a capacity to hold them within a hidden dimension of clarity and stillness.

In the opening days of 2021, I have been taking in the likelihood of another collectively hard year, perhaps harder than 2020 in a different way. Last year I was more hopeful about this year than I am now. I don’t find this easy and I don’t ask myself to. What I can do is find a home in this seemingly unboundaried and seemingly timeless dimension, here called ‘the sky’, without abandoning the day-to-day.

I am the sky, and I hold the weather – fog and sunlight alike.

ALDER (FEARN) PROTECTION

Within my mandala of the year (1) Alder (2) is the fourth and final tree for the winter quarter that begins at Samhain. The overall movement of this quarter, in my world, is through death to regeneration. Alder presides from 8-31 January and links the regenerative aspect to a continuing need for protection already signalled by Holly (3). There is something foundational about protection. The late eighteenth century Druid prayer (4), which set the note for modern Druidry, begins by asking for protection, as the beginning of a journey that leads through the quest for justice to a place of universal love.

I live in a watery place and there are alders around, though – in contrast to willow – I have never been on hugging terms with this tree. But the oily and water resistant timber is well-adapted to its surroundings, and for humans has provided good timber for boats, bridges, and underwater foundations. Many medieval cathedrals were built on alder piling. Although the wood makes poor fuel, it is good for charcoal.

Round alder shields were once used as protection for warriors in Ireland, and “in Celtic myth, we read of palisades of alders that deter invasion of keep prisoners confined, and these fences are sometimes described as being decorated by a row of severed human heads” (2) . The Welsh hero Benedegeit Bran (Bran the Blessed) is reputed to have used his body to span the River Linon, forming a bridge to raise his followers above the dangerous waters, as the wood does when used as a building material. Later, when mortally wounded in a battle against the Irish, he gave them instructions to cut off his head and carry it with them. They were rewarded with song and prophecy from the head over many years.

Much more can be said about Bran (whose name means raven). My overall learning from alder is about a willingness and capacity to hold boundaries Bran adds sensitivity and openness to the larger context in which events are playing out. Placed at the end of the winter quarter, I see alder as guarding the tentative return of spring, as the light slowly returns and we find increasing signs of growth in the natural world. The weeks before Imbolc can be cold and dreary, but life is stirring both outwardly and inwardly. Alder reminds me of the need for protected spaces to nurture a latent abundance.

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

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the winter quarter from 1 November, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Yew, north-west, 1-23 November; Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December; Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January; Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January. The spring quarter then starts with birch at Imbolc. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/12/23/holly-tinne-the-turn/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/27/my-druid-prayer/

LIGHT RENEWED

I have now landed in 2021. I can see the renewal of the light; however tentative it might be. The winter quarter, from Samhain to Imbolc, is a season of dying and regeneration. I have glimpsed regeneration in nature and in myself – potentially in culture too. The collective crisis is deep, and projects remain on hold. But I can sense opportunity, and possibilities for creative change.

I have noticed a major transition in my work. I have entered a phase where contemplative inquiry is a strand in my life rather than a project called ‘Contemplative Inquiry’. I look back and see this transition as an accomplishment of 2020. Certain questions have been answered and won’t need much revisiting. I began an ended the project within a modern Druid orbit – saturnine in distance, perhaps, but still part of the family.

My view, values and practice have largely settled. A lightning-flash experience, or transformative encounter, might cause me to change them, for I retain a commitment to openness. But the project of Contemplative Inquiry will not. I am much less engaged with teachers, teachings and traditions than in former years, whether through literature, groups or events (live and virtual). Instead, I want to work more deeply and congruently within the frameworks I have already learned and developed. I tend to be a solitary practitioner at heart, though I also like some link to companions and community along my spiritually hermit way.

The great gift in this is the opportunity to live a life of ‘abundance in simplicity’ at the level of ideas as well as material goods and activities – to pare down in the very area where I am most tempted to seek variety and feast on new input. There is Sufi story in which the crazy wisdom master Shams persuades the more conventionally trained Rumi to throw all his religious texts down a well. I do not plan to go so far. But I recognise the time for a change in emphasis. As a trade-off, my monkey mind is freed for other subjects. I look forward to seeing how this new direction works, and how it affects this blog.

WELCOMING 2021

Love and blessings to everyone at the threshold of 2021. May we find both nurture and inspiration in the coming year. It comes to us amid multiple crises and disruptions. May we navigate safely through them during the coming months, finding opportunities within the undoubted challenges ahead.

I end 2020, as I began it, in a watery time and place. The picture above, taken after a storm on Christmas Eve, shows a lively flow of water at the gateway. Wellies are needed for anyone wanting to walk on through. This kind of flooding was once rare and has now become normal. (A more traditional after-rain normal is shown in the picture below.) Not far away, buildings were flooded. Since then there has been snow, which has stuck in some parts of our locality and not in others.

In my part of the world, raised levels of wind and flooding, this year and last – and in other years going back for over a decade – are enough to show climate change in action to anyone with their eyes open – though they are less dramatic than events in other parts of the world. There signs that the partly engineered trance of public inattention in much of our public discourse has started to weaken. As the worst of the Covid pandemic comes to an end, I hope that we see more focus to the underlying existential threat of climate change, backed up by levels of action that can make a real difference.

In my last post of 2020, I continue to draw strength from the rhythms and powers of nature, even in their alterations. The strength of a stream rushing into the Stroudwater canal, with the land and the exposed tree trunks all around, lifts my spirits. In 2020, I set out to give prominence to the wheel of the year in my contemplative inquiry, mapping it back into a Druid based spiritual culture. I focused less on the feast days themselves than on the gradual turning of the wheel. A tree mandala, based around sixteen trees, became an important means of supporting this, with the proviso that it is an aid to direct experience. It is not an overwriting of it or a substitute for it.

I am less clear about 2021. My guess is that I will reduce the volume of my blogging, at least for a while, as I have done at times in the past. It will depend on the flow of the year – what themes may be emerging, what else may be happening in my life – which this time I cannot predict. I hope to be safe and I trust that I will continue to be life-loving, beautifully companioned, curious and grateful. I wish all good things, whatever they are for you, to readers of this post.

THE PASSAGE OF TIME

The years roll on, with ever increasing speed. This is me in 1952, sitting to have my picture taken in a photographer’s studio. I just about remember the occasion as a significant event, for which I was carefully dressed and coached. I am pleased to report that this eager, inquisitive (if slightly anxious?) boy has never died, though at times he is hard to find. His image reminds me of the magical, light bringing child in each of us, whatever else we have become. Buried, it may be. Wounded, confined or hiding, in some cases, at some times. But still there, still embodied in old and hidden places, awaiting renewed recognition and love.

This is midwinter and a time of reminiscing and stocktaking. On 20 December 2019 I wrote: “I’m peering in to the 2020s. Calendar numbers might be arbitrary, but they are numbers of power in our culture. They award shape and identity to years and decades. Part of me sees the 2020s as pure science fiction, with an increasingly dystopian tilt. Themes of alarm, determination, resourcing and resilience come up for me at multiple levels”. (https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/20/approaching-the-years-turn/).

At that time I undertook to give more attention to the wheel of the year, and to cultivate certain values: lovingkindness; positive health and well-being; a life of abundant simplicity; and a spirit of openness, creativity and wisdom (https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/27/values-for-2020). Sometimes during the year I have been on point and sometimes I have not. I do feel overall that these were good choices for the year of Covid-19 and I have at least paid them conscious attention.

I do not approach 2021 with new and different thinking. I expect it to be another challenging year, especially in the early months, no doubt in a slightly different way. I will bring the same approach to 2021 as to 2020, perhaps enhancing the qualities of simplicity and openness, leaning more towards the centre rather than the periphery of the wheel. This could be the role of the elder within. There is room both for youth and age in one person.

HOLLY (TINNE) THE TURN

Holly (1) is a vivid, vital plant, and especially so at midwinter with its rich spiky evergreen leaves and its blood red berries. It is not afraid to take a strand in the world. Tradition names it as fiery in nature and it is described as ‘best in the fight’. In Celtic times the wood of the holly was used to fashion spear shafts. Amergin, the warrior bard and shaman who invaded Ireland, links himself to holly when declaring that ‘I am a battle waging spear’ among his many identifications.

Within my mandala of the year (2) holly initiates a major change of energy and direction. The winter quarter beginning on 1 November is a time of dying and regeneration, in the life of the land that I live in and in some sense in me. Elder has completed the work of descent into a form of death already signalled by the yew. Now, from 17 December to 7 January, it is for the holly energy to ignite my regenerative potentials and aid my birth into the life of another year.

Holly helps me with its vitality, strength, clarity of direction and balance. My worry this year has been about my own capacity to step up. But now, on 22 December, I feel the first stirrings of renewal. Under the aegis of holly I am in protected space and time. I can draw strength from the holly and regenerate in safety, during an extended holiday sheltered from the world. A blessing, indeed.

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

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

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

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

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

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

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

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

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

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

Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May

Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June

Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July

Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

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

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

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

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

CONTEMPLATING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHS

As we approach the turn of the year, I am thinking of recent ancestors and the visual records they have left. This photograph is of my paternal great grandmother was taken by a professional photographer in the first decade of the twentieth century. You can see that it has been carefully posed. This is before the era of family snaps, let alone selfies. Being photographed is an occasion.

At that time the family were tenant farmers in East Lothian, Scotland, and the photographer was based in Haddington, the county town. I am sad to say that I know very little about my great grandmother as an individual, of who she really was. In her picture I read both dignity and diffidence. A certain natural stillness, perhaps, and inner strength. In a sense she was the matriarch of an family group in which the tenancy was largely worked by two sons, one of whom had a family of his own, though I am not sure of how far she filled that role.

I feel frustrated by my lack of knowledge and understanding even as I write, and I’m trying not to default into writing about my great grand father instead. I do know a bit about him – strong traditional Presbyterian, Elder of the Kirk, political Unionist whose Unionism extended to the whole of Britain and Ireland. I do imagine my great grandmother as being in the slip stream of all this. She didn’t live long enough to be a voter; I don’t even know how she felt about this. She did live long enough to know my father and his sister as children and there is an indirect link through them, though they didn’t actually say much about her to me. The picture below is from 1909, with the two children looking dressed up and solemn.

I do not have to go far back in family history to find myself in an unfamiliar cultural landscape, and to appreciate that I am an outsider to my own family members. I was given little family information about these days when growing up, and the very aspects of pre-1914 history and culture that I have studied or engaged with were ones that didn’t enrol my great grandparents. They were the older generation, defined by both their immediate culture and the reign of Queen Victoria, only recently ended.

The world of these photographs was not to last. When my great grandfather, predeceased by my great grandmother, died in 1916, the tenancy ended and neither of his sons negotiated a new one. My grandfather, grandmother, father and aunt moved to Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, and became a corn merchant. His brother emigrated to Australia. The heavy duty politics and religion were ameliorated. A way of life had gone. My father, born in 1907, moved to England in 1929 and I was born in Somerset in 1949, much closer to my mother’s family who came from Exeter in Devon. The years have continued to roll on. 1949 was only forty years on from the picture of the two children. There have been seventy one years since, which is food for thought in itself. Looking at her portrait, I understand that whilst I do not know, and will never know, my great grandmother, I can appreciate her through the image that’s presented, without narrative information, and also without mythology or romance.

ELDER AGAIN

I am drawn to write again about the elder, the tree of the caileach, or crone (1). In my sixteen tree mandala of the year, it covers the period from 24 November to 16 December. I am writing on the last day, tuning into the image more deeply, open to an intuitive personal response.

I see grief, loss and limitation there, in a face both haunted and haunting. Survival at a price. It is what it is. I see neither the pretence of a good time, nor the shadow of self pity. The tree is alive and bearing fruit – alchemical fruit which is poisonous raw and safe after cooking. Perhaps it is the fruit of severity. In the face of a sacred tree, I see a face of the Goddess – an ageing, winter face, yet one that is strong and indomitable. I see this mirrored outside, and also within. Something in me is like this too.

From about the beginning of November, I have been dealing with a succession of minor health problems, not dangerous, but draining in their cumulative effects. I have had frequent experiences of lethargy and a kind of fog in the brain. I move between fundamental acceptance of the experience I am given, and a pragmatic need to push back. I am working at reduced capacity, I have some frustrations about this, and I am finding a new balance. I am glad to have made the core of my life and practice simple and easy to maintain. For me, simplicity allows focus on what really matters. Focusing on what really matters is what I need to do.

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

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

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

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

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

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

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

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

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

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

Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May

Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June

Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July

Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

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

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

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

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

AFFIRMATION: THOUGHTS OF A MODERN TAOIST

“Stand at the precipice

That existential darkness,

And call into the void.

It will surely answer.”

“The precipice represents our dilemma as human beings, the sense that this existence is all too random, all too absurd. Is there order? Is there a force directing things? These are the important issues, so important that we cannot rely on scripture, but must instead explore on our own.

“The followers of the Tao compare the void to a valley. A valley is void, yet it is productive and positive. The emptiness of the valley permits water to accumulate for plants. It allows life-giving sunlight to flood its surface. Its openness gives comfort to people and animals alike. The void should not be frightening. Rather, it contains all possibilities. Peer into it, call out, not just with your voice but with your whole being. If your cry is deep and sincere, an echo is sure to return. This is the affirmation of our existence, the affirmation that we are on the right path. With that encouragement, we can continue our lives and explorations. Then the void is not frightening, but a constant companion.”

Deng Ming-Dao 365 Tao: Daily Meditations New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992

RUMI: IN PRAISE OF MATURE COMPANIONSHIP

I say, Bring the simple wine that makes me loose and free!

You say, There’s a hurricane coming.

And I say, Let’s have some wine then,

and sit here like old statues and watch.

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

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