contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Earth spirituality

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/

STATES OF LIGHT

This is the face of dawn outside my window, just after 6.30 a.m. I welcome the mid September day, appreciating this moment in the year. I like the infusion of pink into grey clouds, and the suggestion of warmth in the old church tower.

I have now grown used to getting up in the dark, and to beginning my morning practice with an awareness of darkness outside. The nurturing dark and enabling light are both part of my experience. A transient time of balance has begun. It feels numinous to me, and a time of great potential. I am energetically alert and alive.

Later, a little before 9 a.m., I am walking by the Gloucester-Sharpness canal. I notice light on leaves, and its influence on the gaps between trunks. The view, here, is over water. But it is the influence of sunlight that makes the greatest impression on me – captured in the picture as well as in real time.

By contrast, the spaces furthest away from the light source are able to show their earthiness, their woodiness and the depth of their green. The light is everywhere, but it is subtle and not over-bearing. It reveals its influence in different ways. Rather than radiating raw power, it allows possibilities in this small, fragile habitat. Contemplating autumnal states of light, as I approach the autumn equinox, I have been shown something about power and its manifestation.

AFTER RAIN

I am in Alney Island again, on the River Severn as it passes through the ancient city of Gloucester. Above, I am looking at the weaker, eastern channel of the river as it flows around the island. After rain, the water level seems adequate if relatively low, and the willows still seem lush. At first glance, as I walk past, the plant life seems healthy in this watery habitat. Stopping to look more closely, the scars of a summer both hot and dry become evident. The horse chestnut leaves, below, are dramatically shrivelled and their conkers are appearing early. Summer is becoming autumn swiftly and abruptly this year.

Much of Alney island is rough water meadow, as below, and it is a joy to see green grass. Normal? No longer a useful word in this, as other, contexts. In a time of climate chaos fatefully intertwined with runaway wealth, ‘normal’ loses shape and definition. Half-reluctantly, I am adjusting to a new, more dislocating and unpredictable reality.

On this walk I discovered a woodland on the island, shown below. It is far from ancient, being planted in 1983 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of a charter given to the people of Gloucester by King Richard III. A rare monument to the monarch in question.

Richard’s Wood is pleasant enough, although subject to somewhat whimsical curation. A decision was first made to plant non-native trees – red oak, turkey oak and horse chestnut; then to add native trees as well; and later still to thin out the trees so as to create a “wood/pasture habitat to contrast with the wetland meadows on the rest of the reserve”. ‘Rare breed’ cattle were introduced, though I have yet to see any.

I may be doing an injustice, but I get a sense of conservation by human taste and fancy, the manufacture of ‘scenery’ on a handy piece of wasteland that isn’t safe to build on. I don’t get any organic sense of the island, its history or its potential. I don’t get any sense of a wondering about what trees might be brought together to create a viable and self-sustaining woodland community, ‘native’ or otherwise. The horse chestnut, imported from Turkey in the sixteenth century, is now a well-loved English tree. The turkey oak is better suited to the southern England of today than the native species. I suspect they are a good choice. But I’m sorry about the thinning out. There’s no shortage of pasture in England. Overall I believe this kind of management to be a relatively innocent manifestation of the very mindset that is killing us.

Perhaps the trees will have a chance to develop in their own way. My feeling on being among them is gentle but muted. If I compare them with the crowded and chaotic wood that has grown up beside the Stroud cycle path, I sense a relative lack of viriditas – Hildegard of Bingen’s word for the green life energy in nature. It is a relative lack, not absolute. But as I go home, I feel a certain sadness all the same.

THE GATEWAY TO TWILIGHT

High summer becomes late summer, in my world, with a gentle movement into the evening of the year. In the picture above, taken a little after 8 pm, I at first feel, as much as see, a suggestion of muting light. On looking up, the blue of the sky seems influenced by a subtle greying effect that is independent of the clouds. Looking down, the buildings are shadowy and their reflections in the water are set within a gathering darkness.

The picture below was taken at 9 pm on the following day. The grey in the sky owes everything to clouds, whereas the orange and yellow are connected to sunset. The latter is reflected in the water, and electric lighting is now also present. The day is changing, but not yet into night. This is an in-between time, twilight. It is its own, extended moment, quietly shifting in the physical world, profoundly influential in my psychic world.

I feel joy with an edge of melancholy. It is a familiar feeling that stretches deeply into my early life, prior to language, older than memory itself. It seems to come from deep time, and to be pre-personal, not just about ‘me’. I am any finite being, moving from day towards night, from summer towards winter, from life towards death. Having shifted decisively away from the zenith, I find myself, for now, in a beautiful moment. The Gloucester docks provide me with a magical space for walking, standing still, experiencing and recording this time.

LUGHNASADH 2022: RE-ENCHANTING TIME

A familiar sight at this time of year: a family of swans, adolescent cygnets with their parents. A superficial glance at the picture gives me a satisfying sense of near completion, of an annual cycle showing its results. It is a still image, literally a snapshot. Nothing in it can change.

Yet when I took the photo, the swans were highly mobile, constantly shifting their relative positions while sometimes gliding elegantly along the canal and sometimes pausing to investigate its banks. I also foresaw their likely passage through a more extended time. Soon enough, the cygnets will be grown up and on their own. A new beginning enabled by an ending.

I live in southern England, where daylight hours have begun noticeably to shorten. Lughnasadh (Lammas) marks the beginning of August. This festival initiates a quarter that moves through the autumn equinox and ends at Samhain. These three months embrace decline, decay and eventually death, whilst also celebrating grain and fruit harvests and (in past times) the culling of livestock to see us through the winter. The themes belong together.

I treasure this attunement to cycles of time. Part of my contemplative life rests in the timeless. Another part, more worldly, enriches my experience of time. By contrast mainstream western culture characterises time as a limited resource to be measured and priced; to be ‘spent’ productively and not ‘wasted’. The phrase ‘time is money’ comes to mind. This time hurtles onwards like a runaway train into a future always packaged as better, even redemptive, but now looking increasingly dystopian.

But any time we can know is a matter of human perception, and therefore malleable. There are, and have been, many ways for humans to live in time. For me, living the cyclical time of the eightfold wheel of the year, widely practised in Druid and Pagan culture, continues to be a re-enchanting experience.

INNERWORLD HARVESTING

The Innerworld has its own times and seasons. When I attune myself carefully, it speaks to me through images in the DruidCraft Tarot (1). Today (20 July) I encountered the 7 of Pentacles (above), with its image of winter harvest. A Druid, equipped with a golden sickle, takes mistletoe from a tree. Where is the wisdom here? What am I being told?

‘Take note of the obvious’ is an early thought. ‘Be willing to state it’. After ten years of contemplative inquiry, I am still anchored in Druidry. Yes: my practice forms are idiosyncratic and contemplatively inclined. Yes: my inquiry process is personal and self-directing. Yes: I continue to learn from other traditions and sources outside the traditions. But what I do comes out of an immersive OBOD training of many years and would not be the same without it. I continue to belong to the Order and identify with the modern Druid tradition. Being clear about this is a fruit of my inquiry.

The form of words that we know as the St. Patricks’ Prayer, alternatively as the Cry of the Deer, runs: “I arise today through the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendour of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth and firmness of rock”. In my own usage I think of ‘heaven’ simply as a sky or firmament word, majestically naturalistic. But my greatest sense of support comes from the words ‘stability of earth and firmness of rock’. The 7 of Pentacles Tarot image includes seven pentacle signs carved on to mossy rock. It is a strongly earth-related image. I feel grounded and affirmed by this powerfully Pagan imagery.

There is much more to be learned from the 7 of Pentacles image, but these obvious recognitions, easily taken for granted and thus overlooked, are a good place to start. They have allowed me to identify some fundamental understandings that my inquiry has provided, and to clarify its direction for the future.

(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)

REFLECTIONS IN A PRIORY GARDEN

In my formative years, high summer presented me with a world of manicured green. Mown grass dominated both private and public spaces. Garden lawns, parks, tennis courts, cricket grounds, golf courses, bowling greens: all highly managed. Much water was lavished on their severely cropped verdure, given its enhanced tendency to dry up in hot weather.

This is still happening, but fashions have changed to a degree. The photos above and below show the grounds of the Llanthony Secunda priory in Gloucester. In line with new custom, space is now given to a limited urban rewilding. I am inspired by this small miracle of growth and abundance.

This is an odd summer for me. I am at ease in a congenial place. My wife Elaine and I have moved house successfully. I have stabilised after a period of illness. But this is a transitional period. We are not at our destination, and anticipate more upheaval in the second half of the year. I am divided between here-and-now enjoyment of my surroundings, and concern over possible futures, strategising next steps and feeling the tensions of uncertainty.

In the ABOUT section of this blog, I write of “an underlying peace and at-homeness in the present moment, which, when experienced clearly and spaciously, nourishes and illuminates my life”. That statement is a fruit of my inquiry – it wasn’t there at the beginning. That is the nature of contemplative inquiry: my understanding changes over time, in line with deepening experience.

I am finding that my peace and at-homeness have room for both my day-to-day contentment and my anxiety about possible futures, personal and collective. I don’t strip out my ‘future’-based concerns (themselves part of my present time experience) to tidy up my mental and emotional states. That seems like a superficial understanding of here-and-now acceptance. I find, rather, an invitation to embrace the turbulence too, as part of what is given. The peace arising from innermost being makes room for turbulence, for such peace is not just another passing state. In some hard-to-understand way, it has the capacity to be infinitely spacious, and present in the flux of time and events. All I have to do is trust this peace and let it in.

I do not think of myself as a person of faith. I am more of a ‘philosophical’ Druid rather than a religious one, though I don’t believe that we have to choose between the two. But trusting the peace of innermost being is certainly, in part, a matter of faith, where ‘faith’ involves harmonising with my deepest intuition rather than signing up to statements of belief.

OBOD liturgy includes the words: “deep within my innermost being may I find peace”. This resonates powerfully with me, but I have recently let go of the word ‘my’, because ‘innermost being’ no longer feels exactly personal – it seems, experientially, to be more like being resourced from a timeless, unboundaried dimension from which I am not separate. This realisation, if it is a realisation, is now at the core of my spirituality. I am reluctant to make metaphysical truth claims about it, but it is firmly implanted in my experience. The opportunity, now, is to give it the freedom to grow, within my inquiry and my life.

MIDSUMMER CELEBRATION 2022

The place is called Lower Parting, though it is actually a joining. The parting is 3km (just under two miles) up river. There, the River Severn divides into two channels, east and west, to flow around Alney Island. When taking the picture above, I was standing near the point where the channels meet again. It was around 9 a.m. on 22 June. I had not been there before.

Although every time and place is ultimately sacred, some times and places are easier for me to honour. In my experience this is partly a property of the times and places, partly down to culture and tradition, and partly to do with my own inner and outer availability.

On this occasion, I was within a midsummer period which for me lasts from a day or so before the solstice until around 25 June. I like to acknowledge the stasis (standstill) element within the solstice experience. It is not just about a point of time. Like its midwinter opposite and twin, my midsummer allows an extended pause before the wheel of the year turns. My walk on 22 June was an intentional celebration of the midsummer stasis, something between an outdoor walking meditation and a miniature festival pilgrimage. It was built around my first encounter with an intuited special place, now that I am fit enough once more to walk the required distance.

I can easily understand why people in many parts of the world have seen water, especially flowing water, as sacred. I am on a quiet part of a quiet island in the middle of Gloucester city. The wetland here is blissfully unfit for development, and now a nature reserve. I was able to stand here and look out at the joining of the waters, under a blue sky, and surrender to a benign spirit of place. I didn’t have to attend to my attention. In this extended, flowing, moment, nature was doing that for me. I found, here, a generous horizon, and a living peace that invites participation. I am glad and grateful to have discovered this place on this day.

In my tradition, at every seasonal festival, we are asked to think not only of the time we are celebrating, but also of its opposite. Walking back from Lower Parting, I see features in the landscape that help me. My pictures below do not evoke winter, but they do show light and shade within a single image. On planet Earth, the time of my summer is the time of someone else’s winter. These are both ways in which opposites complement each other in an interconnected world.

BOOK REVIEW: BEYOND SUSTAINABILITY

Highly recommended. Beyond Sustainability – Authentic Living at a Time of Climate Crisis – offers an insightful exploration of the changes we need to make at the personal and collective levels. It is part of Moon Books’ Earth Spirit series, and will be released on 28 April 2023.

Author Nimue Brown says that, “as a Druid, I’ve spent my adult life trying to live lightly. There is a great deal to learn about what is possible, and what’s effective, and this is always a work in progress and never as good as I want it to be. I feel very strongly about the need for real change and quietly rage about greenwashing and the ridiculousness of ‘offsetting’. Harm cannot be offset”.

The book is economical with words and rich in content. Its introduction reflects that “humans are increasingly a miserable species, caught in ways of behaving that give us very little and will cost us the earth”. Brown argues that it doesn’t have to be this way and in seven chapters she sketches out pathways to an alternative.

Chapter 1 – What Makes an Authentic Life?- advocates ‘conscious living’, in which we resist the pressure to “to construct our identities out of consuming products”. Instead, we are challenged to discover what inspires and uplifts us, and to build meaningful relationships, with creative and productive communities emancipated from the trance of consumerism.

Chapter 2 – Authenticity and the Unsustainable – explores the narratives that limit and distract us, the stresses of high speed living, the hunger for possessions and ‘experiences’, and the rise of debt culture.

Chapter 3 – Slow Life Sustainability – suggests that ‘life in the slow lane is gentler’. It includes sections on slow fashion, slow transport, slow food, and slow shopping.

Chapter 4 – Wealth in Relationships – looks at ways in which we can support and appreciate each other, and has specific sections on spiritual community, community action, privilege/prejudice and the power of sharing.

Chapter 5 – Creativity for All – emphasises that “being able to imagine is an essential skill for moving towards more sustainable ways of life”. We are nourished by our own creativity and each others.

Chapter 6 – Privilege, Poverty, Inclusion – looks at bigger picture political change, starting with the thought that “sustainability cannot be just a middle class hobby”. There are a lot of things you can’t do if you are poor; shaming and blaming poor people is cruel and useless. Redistribution of wealth is therefore an essential step towards greener living.

Chapter 7 – Political Changes – discusses specific measures such as right of repair, universal basic income, a four day working week, radical changes to agriculture, reducing waste, ‘stop making money out of money’, and not relying simply on changes in technology.

Beyond Sustainability is an informed and distinctive contribution to an increasingly important conversation. It deserves to be widely read and discussed. I suggest that readers of this blog make a note or add it to their lists.

(1) Nimue Brown Beyond Sustainability: Authentic Living at a Time of Climate Crisis Winchester, UK & Washington, USA, 2023 (Part of the Earth Spirit series)

SURFACE AND DEPTH

I took this picture some time ago and kept it as an image of tranquillity. Now, when I contemplate it for any length of time, the ripples on the water seem to be alive and moving. The vegetation, also alive, is still.

Although the scene presented here contains both stillness and movement, I identify strongly with the moving ripples in the background. Despite all my contemplative inquiring, movement continues to be my default setting, albeit now less agitated and turbulent than in the past. The phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ comes to mind. The natural flow of this stream includes spaces freed up from cogitation and narrative. But the stream flows on.

I am glad of this. Some traditional teachings, when emphasising the non-separation of ‘ocean and wave’, lean towards invalidating the individuality of the waves even whilst their brief distinctive identities last. But for me, the purpose of being human is to live a human life, knowingly embedded within a rich natural and cultural history. This is why I have stayed with modern Druidry as my main point of spiritual reference.

I have also found a liberating expansion of my human life in realising my non-separation from the living presence of the cosmos. It has busted me out of a certain kind of prison, one of neediness and dependency on surface satisfactions. Just as well, in an age of – increasingly surreal – ‘capitalist realism’ (1). Eckhardt Tolle has offered me the most convincing strategies for standing in the larger life – in particular through his recognition that ultimate satisfaction is inseparable from the present moment, and his account of what is really meant by that much abused term (2). He is currently a second point of reference in my spiritual work.

My photograph continues to offer an image of tranquillity. It is just that, at least for me, tranquillity isn’t as straightforward as it may look.

(1) Mark Fisher Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester, UK & Washington. USA: O Books, 2009

(2) Eckhardt Tolle A New Earth: Create A Better Life London: Penguin Books, 2016 (Rev. ed. First edition 2005)

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