contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: contemplative spirituality

ACCEPTING THE ARRIVAL OF WINTER

It was 26 November 2022, 11 a.m. I was at the Gloucester end of the Gloucester-Sharpness canal. I found myself accepting the arrival of winter. I was observing three cygnets, now without their parents but still keeping company with each other. The underlying temperature was around 7 C (44.6 F) and good for walking, But I was feeling the pinch of a cold wind. In memory I am feeling it now. The water and sky looked grey. The trees were starting to feel skeletal, whilst still retaining some leaves. My lingering sense of autumn had finally drained away.

To accept winter’s arrival in the presence of swans felt numinous. Swans are otherworldly birds in Celtic tradition. The three together, not yet in their full adult plumage, seemed auspicious. They suggested coming opportunities for creativity, love and celebration. Winter can be a preparation for renewal, both as season and as state of mind. My acceptance goes with a faith in winter’s regenerative darkness, and the riches this can bring.

BRENDAN MYERS: A FOREST ENCOUNTER

“Over the last twelve years I have walked every trail, every hillcrest, every stream-edge within a two hour walking radius of my house: everything between Lac-Des-Fees and Pink Lake, and a little beyond. …. I still encounter things I never saw before. Last year I saw a Great Horned Owl in the park for the first time. Its swift yet stately flight above my head caught my eye; a dark shadow in front of the sun, silent, and powerful in its silence.

“It rested on a tree branch not more than twenty meters away, and regarded me. I regarded him in turn. I had known for years that there are owls in the area: I’ve heard their hooting, and seen their pellets on the ground. But until that day and for ten years, I hadn’t seen one here before. Further, and I think more importantly, since I had entered the forest that day for no particular purpose but to enjoy a warm afternoon, to reaffirm my love of for the park’s landmarks and vistas, and to experience a few hours of pure human freedom, in simpler words to play, the encounter with the owl could take on a magical meaning.

“In the light of such magic, what a magnificent animal he was! How proud he seemed, as though in charge of the world, as though I required his permission to take another step. How unpretentious too: this owl had no need to pretend to be something he was not. The size of his claws, the laser-focus of his eyes meeting mine, was proof enough that he was a predator. No need to flex his weapons or brandish them. And what a delightful conversation we might have, if he were to speak. How much he could tell of the places he had seen, the adventures he had while hunting, and the pleasure of flight… Much as I would have loved to stay and hear him speak, I decided to move on after a few minutes. I did not know whether meeting his eyes might be provocative. And much as I might enjoy telling the story of how I got owl-claw scars on my face, I would certainly not enjoy getting them.

“…. Such is the magic of the forest. It can mean what you want it to mean under the aspect of play, yet at the same time it can surprise, and threaten and reveal itself, in ways no human artifact can do. It can suggest a kind of magic no human artifact can adopt: the dramatic discovery of a world not made by human hands. Thus it participates in the play, bringing its own contribution to the emergence of meaning.” (1)

(1) Brendan Myers The Circle of Life is Broken: An Eco-Spiritual Philosophy of the Climate Crisis London UK & Washington USA: Moon Books (Earth Spirit Series)

NOTE: Brendan Myers is a Canadian philosopher and author currently living in Quebec, where he teaches philosophy at Heritage College, Gatineau. He has written extensively on Pagan themes from a philosophical perspective, and his most recent book takes them further through an exploration of the climate crisis. I will review the book in my next post.

AN EARLY WINTER TWILIGHT

Winter shows itself though early twilight. The pictures above and below were taken at about 5 pm (GMT, now, with summer time a fading memory). The sky retains a certain diversity of colour – clouds are still visible. But there is a leaning towards indigo. St. Mary le Crypt sits in stillness and tranquillity.

For me, the artificial lighting behind the stained glass is just right for supporting these qualities. It illuminates but does not glare. It feels homely and welcoming. The heavy stone of this medieval church is softened by dusk. Christmas is coming – a friendly period in the church calendar.

Twilight makes space as well for another, more carnival mood. Gloucester holds a lantern procession and Christmas light switch-on every year at approximately this time and date (19 November). It winds through the old town, lights switched on overhead as it passes, to the Cathedral where a carol service is held. This year’s event was very well supported, with large numbers of people either following the procession or lining the route. It was as if everyone was ready for a festive moment, a chance for celebration and fun in a generally tough time.

Local artists had teemed up with local schools to work on an Alice in Wonderland theme for 2022. Hence the Mad Hatter in the shifting and slightly out of focus picture below. I think the makers have successfully created a Tricksterish image for him. Not entirely safe or bland.

In Lewis Carroll’s 1865 book, Alice is annoyed by the twilight zone of the Mad Hatter’s language. It seems to have “no sort of meaning” and yet be “certainly English”. He boasts about the great concert given by the Queen of Hearts, where he sang: “twinkle, twinkle little bat/How I wonder what you’re at/ Up above the world you fly/ Like a tea tray in the sky”.

What is the Mad Hatter bringing to the streets of Gloucester on this early winter’s evening? He is certainly a presence here, if hard to read, for the brief time it takes him to pass through. Winter twilight offers spaces for healing and festivity. As a liminal time, it is an arena for Tricksters too. Many possibilities are latent under this enigmatic sky.

THE ALBION SAILS ON COURSE (NOVEMBER 2016)

“The Albion sails on course. Black script on white wall. The spill-zone around Corbridge Crescent, the painted devil heads and hybrid monsters, the bare-breasted pin-ups from naughtier times mouthing Situationist slogans, are captured and made fit for purpose by film crews and television set-dressers, lighting technicians and catering caravans, responding to dissent as exploitable edge.

“LOADED WITH/ MEMORIES/ I WAS NOT AFRAID/TO SET OFF/ AN ADVENTURE/ ANY MORE.

“14 November 2016: the words I copied into my notebook yesterday are painted over with white undercoat, so that professionals can create rebellion suitable for television. For example, a Worholist head of Che Guevara – CHE GAY – inflated to cover an entire wall, with fake yelps about eating the rich to replace the groundwork of RIP and the Secret Society of Super Villains and Artists. NO PIGS ….

“The outlaw in his shack on the ledge by the canal sleeps through the entire fuss. He learnt his lesson after the first Immigration Enforcement raid. Now his shelter looks like the detritus of a lumberyard. ….

“A young boy cycles uncertainly to school, in the wake of his mother, wearing a silver skull mask. Welcome to the comic world, Hackney. At the base of the image swamp we find the sinister clown: child-catcher, grinning molester. The public joke, the big-haired politician who dissolves into the Joker of DC Comics.

“Extinguish fire with petrol. One of the latest Andrews Road defacements is a poster: SILENT BILL MUSE WANTED. Silence against the noise of imagery? The meditation of a hooded man sitting all day on a bench? Or another who dreams the fading city through all the hours in an Arsenal-branded sleeping bag? ‘Be silent in that solitude,’ said Edgar Allan Poe. Let them come. the restless spirits of the dead are ‘in death around thee’.” (1)

Iain Sinclair has a reputation as a leading figure in the practice of psychogeography, though he has now somewhat distanced himself from the word itself. He is quoted as saying (2) that “I buy into a union of writing and walking” and identifying with “the kind of writers who very definitely have, within their writing, this rhythm of journeys and walks and pilgrimages and quests”.

Sinclair’s work often celebrates London’s neglected and overlooked spaces, and draws on a visionary tradition of London writers from William Blake to Arthur Machen as well as the French situationists who developed psychogeography as a concept. His early reputation rests on the prose poem Lud Heat (1975) which was also influenced by Alfred Watkins and the earth mysteries school that followed in his wake. This work describes lines of force between Hawksmoor’s London churches to reveal the hidden relationship between the city’s financial, political and religious institutions. Peter Ackroyd drew on these themes for his later Hawksmoor (1985).

Last London (2017) is grittier and more concerned with a November 2016 witnessing of social breakdown in Hackney, a London borough that is being simultaneously gentrified. In the UK, it is also the year of the Brexit referendum (the Albion sails on course?) and in the US the month, November, of Donald Trump’s election as president (“at the base of the image swamp we find the sinister clown”).

Why am I drawn to this work? I lived in London for 17 years, from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s: there’s an element of nostalgia, and also of grief. Beyond that, my contemplative inquiry has led me in recent years to a practice of walking and writing. Are there lessons for me in Sinclair’s tradition?

My contemplative inquiry is not just about resting in the eternal moment – it also concerns life in place, time and culture. I’ve always liked walking meditation, mobile and open-eyed. Ideally, the still point and the moving line are both present, together as one. Often I stumble around between them, but that’s part of the journey: learning to be present in a field of living presence. I have a lot to learn.

(1) Iain Sinclair The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City London: OneWorld Publications, 2017

(2) Merlin Coverley Psychogeography Harpenden: Oldcastle Books Ltd, 2018 (first edition 2006) In his last chapter, Psychogeography Today, the author devotes a section to Iain Sinclair and the Re-branding of Psychogeography.

A CONTEMPLATIVE PERSPECTIVE ON WISDOM

For me, wisdom can take many forms. Below, Eckhardt Tolle emphasises contemplative process over cognitive product. I don’t treat this as an exclusive definition of the word wisdom. But I have certainly been nourished by taking Tolle’s understanding to heart and learning how to let the process unfold.

“Wisdom is not a product of thought. The deep knowing that is wisdom arises through the simple act of giving someone or something your full attention. Attention is primordial intelligence, consciousness itself. It dissolves the barriers created by conceptual thought, and with this comes the recognition that nothing exists in and by itself. It joins the perceiver and the perceived in a unifying field of awareness. It is the healer of separation.” (1)

(1) Eckhardt Tolle Stillness Speaks Vancouver, Canada: Namaste Publishing, 2003

ON THE CUSP OF SAMHAIN: A NEW MOON

You can just see it, above the buildings, at the last breath of sunset. A sliver of light over murky cloud, the slender crescent of a new moon has appeared. I took the picture just after 6.45 pm on 28 October, still inside British Summer Time. I chose this time on this day because it was not yet dark. The sky is making room for a variety of effects, not just the stark duality of darkness and light. I stand at the cusp of the year’s endarkenment, before the festival of Samhain.

At this time of this year, I find myself tuning in to the lunar cycle as much as the solar one. To me, now, it feels subtler and more nuanced. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford describe its significance in a way I find illuminating:

“The moon was an image in the sky that was always changing yet was always the same. What endured was the cycle, whose totality could never be seen at any one moment. All that was visible was the constant interplay between light and dark, in an ever-recurring sequence. Implicitly, however, the early people must have seen every part of the cycle from the perspective of the whole.

“The individual phases could not be named, nor the relations between them expressed, without assuming the presence of the whole cycle. The whole was invisible, an enduring and unchanging circle, yet it contained the visible phases. Symbolically, it was as if the visible ‘came from’ and ‘returned to’ the invisible – like being born and dying, and being born again.” (1)

When out walking, I noticed that Christmas lights had started to appear. The ones below, at Gloucester Quays, seemed suitable for a new moon. They shifted on and off in a flowing, liquid kind of way, at slightly different times. They did not dazzle or glare or demand my whole attention. They illuminated the space without dominating it. They did not claim that their light was all that mattered.

If I tune in the another cycle, the wheel of the day, I remember how much to thank the sun for. Barely half an hour before I took the pictures above, I experienced the very different colours of the two immediately below. In the first, there is the pink of sunset cloud and some draining of blue from the sky – but, still, a sense of vivid green in the grass. An autumn evening in what is still the light of day.

The second shows a tree-lined street, with full autumn colours, fittingly sundown colours, against a misty looking autumn sky.

It seems that I am saying farewell to one season whilst welcoming another, and that my evening walk on 28 October, partially shared with my wife Elaine, somehow enabled this. There is a starkness and wildness in my last image from that walk, below, which draws me in, despite the remarkable contrast with what has gone before. Just to notice, to fully experience, and make meaning of, the cycles of moon, sun, day, year and life itself gains importance for me year by year, as the wheel turns.

(1) Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993

BEING IN PLACE

Dawn is late now, and all the more welcome when it comes. Looking out on the world after morning meditation, I see light shining on the tower of St. Mary Le Crypt. I am seeing with fresh eyes, and the knowledge that Elaine and I will be staying in Gloucester. A local house move is planned, conceivably before the turn of the year, a few minutes walk from here.

We will not be migrating north (1). Our plans fell through. We have some disappointment about this. But there’s also an element of relief that at the prospect of a less disruptive move. In many ways we are already settled. Moving house is now a major detail rather than a life-changing event. We can focus on being in place.

For me, this includes deepening my connection with the landscapes I walk in as the wheel of the year turns. Autumn is my favourite season and October can be a special month. This is my first year in Gloucester. Taking these October pictures, I can celebrate the here and now. Having them, I can enjoy the record of a new chapter in my life, with other years, with their own Octobers, to come. I don’t know what the future will bring. I do know that I find this framing nurturing and hopeful. It is part of bringing meaning to my world.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2022/08/20/northward-migration/

LEARNING ABOUT OUR PAGAN ANCESTORS, AND LEARNING FROM THEM

Recently I watched Ronald Hutton’s first Gresham College lecture about Gods of Pagan Britain on youtube (1). It sets the scene for a series, raising questions about what we can know about the spiritual lives of our ancestors, what we can fruitfully imagine, and how to tell the difference.

Professor Hutton explores two specific topics. The first is our current archaeological understanding of the Stonehenge monument on Salisbury Plain, England, together with its legendary history and place in the public imagination. The second is the case of the Lindow Man, who was violently killed and thrown into a peat bog in Derbyshire, thus partly preserving his body for conceivably (but probably not) 2,000 years. He has been widely considered, including at times by archaeologists, to be the victim of a Druid sacrifice, though Hutton points out that there are good reasons to question this.

I was drawn to this lecture, both informative and entertaining, by my interest in learning from an ancestral culture without its own texts, as well as about it. This is part of my reason for following a modern Druidry that embraces indigenous themes long pre-dating the Druidry of the Celtic iron age. The people who built Stonehenge in the third millennium BCE bequeathed us the wheel of the year, with its circle and cycles, and its focus on the solstices and equinoxes. We can be inspired by this and honour the ancestors by embedding it in our own lives in ways that suit our time and culture.

For readers who have not yet seen and heard the lecture, I recommend that you take a look at the video.

(1) https://youtube.com/watch?v=QjC0lGr4h04&t=5s/

Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol, a specialist in Pagan and Druid studies, and enjoys a very high reputation within both the academic and Pagan communities.

BEYOND THE EQUINOX: THE PLEASURES OF A LATE SEPTEMBER WALK

Some days seem truly blessed and easy. For me this autumn moment is one of them. I have stumbled across a previously unknown place that radiates the beauty of the season. Woods and river call to me and I respond. I like being where I am, open to the day, free of complications.

I like not knowing what’s round the next corner, whilst enjoying the new spaces I am already in. I notice how small changes of position alter the feeling-tone of place.

There’s little to say, at a time like this. There is the experience and there is the visual record. I hope the images suggest something of my simple delight in being here.

The path below seems to be telling me that there’s always somewhere else to go, but here is where I decide to stop taking pictures. A certain kind of moment is over, and best recognised as such. Nonetheless, I bask in the happiness of connecting with this new and unsuspected space.

ALBAN ELFED: A TIME FOR RECEPTIVITY?

Blessings of the season! Where I live, the sun is descending but still has a certain power. We have entered the period of the Autumn Equinox, honoured by modern Druids in the festival of Alban Elfed. Traditionally, the emphasis has been on harvest, but Dana O’Driscoll (1) suggests ‘receptivity’ as a resonant theme, “because with receptivity, rather than cultivating an expectation of what we want and expect to come, we are open to what is and what comes our way”.

She relates her approach to the changes that the world is experiencing now. “It is a counter balance to the effort-reward cultural narrative that is tied to the Fall Equinox and themes of harvest. There is one enormous problem with the effort/reward theme on a larger cultural level. It belongs to a different age. It belongs to the Holocene, an 8,000-11,000 year period of stable climate that allowed humans to develop agriculture, allowed humans to have some predictability about their surroundings, and allowed us to develop symbolic understandings like those drawn upon for the modern wheel of the year. … But we are not in the Holocene any longer, both climate-wise and culturally; we’ve moved on to the Anthropocene … characterized by human-driven planetary changes which destabilize every aspect of our lives.”

I find the call to receptivity challenging. Part of me wants the late Holocene back, in a reformed version – socioeconomically, culturally, technologically. Part of me accepts that it has gone for good but doesn’t want to acknowledge the speed and severity of the transition. Currents of anger, fear and grief cry out for recognition. These are as much part of my life-world as are the climate crisis itself, initiatives for adaptation, and the forces undermining those initiatives. I somehow have to find a receptive space for all of the above, without being overwhelmed.

The good news is that my ‘receptivity’ seems to be sourced by a deep peace at the heart of experience, a peace that grows rather than diminishes with time. In my daily practice as a modern Druid I call for peace in the east, south, west, north, deep earth & underworld [below], and starry heavens [above]. Then I say: “I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence”. These words are vibrant with life for me however often I declaim them. I experience this deep peace as a fruit of my contemplative inquiry. Perhaps there is a harvest aspect here after all.

Certainly, to stand in such peace empowers my receptivity, linking it to other qualities like reverence, delight and awe. None of this changes the world. But it allows me to contemplate it with an underlying confidence, and to face its challenges in a more resourceful way. I am very happy to mark Alban Elfed as a feast of receptivity.

(1) https://thedruidsgarden.com/ – see Fall Equinox: a Spirit Walk and its internal reference to Equinox on Receptivity

NOTE: Pennsylvania-based Dana O’Driscoll is steeped in Druidry and the US 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 in 1912.

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/06/09/book-review-sacred-actions/ )

For AODA, see: https://aoda.org/

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