contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Earth spirituality

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.

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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3 WATER MARGIN IMAGES

Three water margin images:

Above the surface: Vivid russet leaves, weeping into the water.

On the surface: Floating leaves, and indistinct reflections.

Below the surface? An inverted tree, suggesting another world.

BOOK REVIEW: THE BURNING HOUSE

A highly recommended illustration of spirituality in support of political action. In The Burning House: A Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency (1), author Shantigarbha affirms that ‘the ecological crisis is nothing if not a spiritual crisis, a crisis of meaning and direction for our civilisation’. Most Druids would say the same, and see value in his approach.

Shantigarbha (Seed or Womb of Peace) (2) is a teacher of Buddhism and Nonviolent Communication (NVC). He has also trained members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in nonviolence and de-escalation skills. He believes that we cannot wait to change our lives before we change the world, or to change the world before we change our lives: we have to do the best we can with both, together, now. He sees the climate crisis as primarily one of ’empathy, connection and community’ and says that ‘when we use our energy to cultivate our own vitality, we naturally use the abundance we discover in the service of life’.

The book title The Burning House references a traditional Buddhist story about a father trying to get his children out of a burning house. There is no time to pick them up individually, so he simply commands them to leave. But they are busy playing with their toys and ignore him. He has to find a skilful means of getting them out. In his anguish (but also inspiration) he tells them that there are even more wonderful and exciting toys outside. In the parable the burning house stands for a life of samsara and unawareness. Outside there is the opportunity for awareness and the tools to develop it.

The book looks first at the climate crisis and ways it can be understood. There follow chapters on how Buddhist ethics support environmental ethics, and how compassionate action based on wisdom can enable the transformation we need. There are chapters on aspects of emotional intelligence. How to transform anger is the first – rather than acting out our anger or repressing it, we can identify and mobilise ‘the life in it’. Hatred, by contrast, is characterised as always toxic and self-harming. There are chapters on ecological grief and its potentially heavy weight – and also on gratitude for what we do still have. There is a beautiful quote from Francis Weller: ‘How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible’ (3).

Later chapters focus more specifically on nonviolent social change, on being the change, and on the role of nonviolent disruption in the pursuit of climate justice. Practical examples draw on UK experience in 2019, mostly in London and Bristol. Whilst illuminating, they are limited in place and time. The last chapter, Final thoughts: the beauty and terror, summarises what we can do both individually and collectively. It sees some grounds for hope – if we treat the climate and ecological emergency as an emergency. Shantigarbha draws on Sraddha, ‘the Buddhist equivalent of hope’, better translated as confidence or trust. It is not faith or hope in the ordinary sense. ‘Sraddha represents a higher or broader perspective, our connection with vision. It signifies an emotional response to our ideals. In terms of the burning house it represents the father’s cry of inspiration’. We are invited to have the courage and confidence to do what we can, and let the effects ripple out. It is what we can do, and all we can do.

The Burning House offers valuable perspectives both on Buddhist political engagement and on climate action. Each chapter contains a link to a guided meditation, offered as a resource to readers.

(1) Shantigarbha The Burning House: A Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency Cambridge: Windhorse Publications, 2021 (https://www.windhorsepublications.com)

(2) See: https://www.SeedofPeace.org

(3) See: https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/478/the-geography-of-sorrow)

POEM: ASTONISHED BY THE ORDINARY

A discarded flowerhead, wet mud and grass.

I am drawn down into seeing,

And,

Astonished by the ordinary,

I am opened up to awe.

SEVEN IMAGES: LIGHT AND SHADE IN A GENTLY WANING YEAR

BENDIGEIDFRAN (BRAN THE BLESSED)

Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed, is a legendary King of the Britons. He is best known to us through the medieval Welsh text The Second Branch of the Mabinogi (1). The primary theme is hope betrayed, most chillingly by Efnysien, Bran’s “brother on his mother’s side”. A marriage feast ends in a series of disasters. But this is not the whole story.

The marriage is between Bran’s sister Branwen and Matholwch the King of Ireland, intended to bring the two kingdoms together in peace and amity. But Efnysien mutilates the Irish party’s horses at the celebration hosted by Bran. It is among the worst things he could do.

In one savage, impulsive act, Efnysien opens the space for an outpouring of resentment, suspicion and hostility – eventually, from both the Irish and the British people. Bran’s efforts to resolve the situation through explanation, consultation and negotiation end in failure. The level of compensation and apology he offers is too much for the British and too little for the Irish. The time comes when Branwen is seriously abused in Ireland. The absolute breakdown of trust between the two countries leads to a bitter, brutal war.

After the war, Bran returns from Ireland with seven surviving companions, his only victory being that he has got them home. Ireland is completely devastated. Bran has been wounded in the foot by a poisoned spear, probably a mortal wound. Bran makes a radical decision, leading to a period of healing and renewal for his companions and a new protective role for his country. “Bendigeidfran ordered his head to be cut off. ‘And take my head’, he said, ‘and carry it to the Gwynfryn in London (the White Mount, now the Tower of London) and bury it with its face towards France. And it will take you a long time; you will feast in Harlech for seven years, with the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. And you will find the head to be as good company as it ever was when it was on me. And you will stay for eighty years in Gwales in Penfro. And so long as you do not open the door to Aber Henfelin, facing Cornwall, you can remain there, and the head will not decay. But as soon as you open that door you can stay no longer. Make for London and bury the head. And now set off across the sea”.

Bran has never been an average human. Too big “to fit inside any house”, he wades across the sea to Ireland “carrying all the stringed instruments on his back”. Later, he bridges the River Liffey by lying down across the river: “hurdles were placed on him, and his men walked on top of him to the other side”. Bran is more than a physical giant. There is something numinous and otherworldly about him, built into his name Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed.

The term ‘blessed’ points to something other than it would in the life of a Celtic saint. Caitlin & John Matthews call Bran the Blessed a “titanic god of the Celts … a god of earth and mountain” (2). R. J. Stewart and Robin Williamson describe him as a “primal guardian deity” (3) enacting a role of sacred king traditionally concerned with music, poetry and bridging. In the narrative world of the The Second Branch, such roles are alluded to rather than fully described, but the world is full of magic and spiritually ambiguous, with formal religion little mentioned.

The decapitation of Bran is a magical act. It has two successive effects, both of them benign. The first is when the presence of the head enables an extended period of protected respite for Bran’s companions: the seven years when they feast and hear the birds of Rhiannon (4), and then eighty years as “the Assembly of the Noble Head”. During this time, they forget “all the sorrow they had themselves seen and suffered, [and] … any grief in the world”. Life is pleasurable and delightful and no one seems to age.

It has to end, for the story to continue. The western door is opened, by Heilyn son of Gwyn, driven by curiosity. Grief, loss and ageing return to the companions’ world. They hasten to London to complete their destined task. As long as the head remains buried, no enemy can conquer the kingdom. This is where The Second Branch story ends. Bran, through the agency of his buried head, is confirmed as enduring protector of the land.

There is a coda. It is said that King Arthur dug the head up in later days in the belief that no one but he should protect the country, and that subsequently the head was lost. In later days, the power of the head was transferred to the presence of resident ravens. Bran’s name means raven (also crow), which allows the ravens to take on his power. He is them. They are him. Ravens are kept in the Tower of London to this day, a practice insisted on by Charles II, concerned for the preservation of his country as a kingdom. During World War II the ravens fled after a bombing raid, and every effort was made to ensure that they were swiftly replaced. Seven ravens, the responsibility of Ravenmaster Chris Skaife, live in the Tower now. (5).

(1) The Mabinogion Oxford: the University Press, 2007. (Translated with an introduction by Sioned Davies)

(2) Caitlin & John Matthews The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition London: Arkana, 1985 (Foreword by Gareth Knight)

(3) R. J. Stewart & Robin Williamson Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids London: Blandford/Cassell plc, 1996 (Colour illustrations by Chris Down)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/8/4/a-bird-of-rhiannon

(5) https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/whats-on/the-ravens

AFTER THE EQUINOX

After the equinox comes a deepening of autumn. Light, colour, texture – my sense of the world is different. Images of this moment in the year shape my sense of time as well as of place. I savour the turning of the wheel. All time is transitional, yet every time has its own uniqueness.

Contemplating images like this is for me a way of sustaining what modern Druids sometimes call a re-enchantment with and of the world. Simple attention to the living world is a renewing experience, and protects the heart from what can seem like the half-life of a Wasteland culture. Opening to a living cosmos, I plead guilty, with pride, to the charge of Romanticism.

It is after 9 a.m. on Sunday 26 September, Locally I enjoy orange as a colour of ripening, rich and shiny with life, as the season of bearing fruit moves on.

There are trees whose leaves have already turned, but will stay on their branches for awhile, giving these woods a more mixed, autumnal appearance.

But there is still a preponderance of green, some of it surprisingly fresh. Here it provides a canopy of green light and shade.

The season is also asserting a downward pull, towards the earth and dissolution – a process, however, still in its early stages. The broken fence seems almost to be sharing this, beginning a return to the land.

Then there is the undergrowth, with its mix of living and dead wood, living and dead leaves, and the soil that holds them. The evergreen leaves are defiantly vivid. Taking pictures, I celebrate the time of year.

CATCHING A MOMENT

Above, inside looking out. Below, outside looking in – with added reflections.

Below again, from a little further back, the full richness of a sunlit moment, in a particular time and place. For me, it becomes the image and feeling-tone of its day, and, later on, a soft thought in memory.

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