contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Earth spirituality

CANAL BANK: LATE SUMMER

It is late summer now, where I live. I am conscious of earlier sunsets and darker evenings. I also notice the canal bank in floral abundance as the year begins to decline. This set of pictures was taken in a small area close to my home. The predominant colours are mauve/purple, white, and pink – all set within a rough carpet where green still predominates.

When I walk by this small stretch of land and water, I am astonished by a burst of colour and fecundity, an extraordinary profusion of life. It has the visual effect of a firework display, though silent and not perceptibly in motion to the human eye. The declining year technically makes this a decadent time, now giving the place itself an almost decadent feel. For me, the combination of mallow and purple loosestrife below illustrates this quality. I get a brief image of Morgause’s kitchen garden, seen through the eyes of a hostile Arthurian narrator, where the very lushness has a toxic and scary edge. Then the image disperses, and I am present, and myself, on the canal path once more.

Looking more deeply, I see life finding a way to flourish whenever and wherever it can. These plants, with their natural will to thrive, have found this land a good place to take root. This is good to know, providing a moment of simple happiness.

My last picture shows both sides of the canal at a narrow point. I particularly notice the grass on the far bank, waving with the breeze when it blows; otherwise still. On the near bank I see it largely as a background to more vivid and colourful plants. But on the far bank it is the foreground. I enjoy its taken-for-granted strength and tenacity for awhile, before continuing my walk.

DION FORTUNE: THE SEA PRIESTESS

I like to attune myself, imaginally, to significant moments in time, place and culture. I have always done this but I now think of it as an aspect of my Druidry. I have become more conscious about it.

Here I am contemplating an alignment of 1930’s Britain, Brean Down on the North Somerset coast (Bell Head in the book), and the occultist Dion Fortune. I am especially thinking of her determination to “bring back into modern life something that has been lost and forgotten and that is badly needed”. Rather than being a review of her book The Sea Priestess (1), this post is a reflection on spiritual ancestry, and an acknowledgement of her project’s success. As the publisher of the 2003 edition happily notes, “The Sea Priestess is a classic occult teaching novel with romantic overtones, and a foundation work for modern Wicca, paganism, and ritual magic”.

Gareth Knight outlines the main theme in his foreword to the 2003 edition. “The story concerns a high initiate, Vivien Le Fay Morgan – or Morgan Le Fay as she comes to be called – who is about to undertake a major work of sea and moon magic for which purpose she needs to find a suitable location upon which to build a temple complete with living accommodation. At the same time she needs to find a man suitable to train as her assistant in the magical work. With commendable economy of means, she kills two birds with one stone by selecting a local real estate agent, Wilfred Maxwell, who has the necessary professional contacts to find a location, together with sufficient skills to help her refurbish and redecorate it appropriately. He also has the temperament and personal circumstances that can make him a capable, if unlikely, magical apprentice.”

Wilfrid and Morgan get to know each other at weekends where he is busy turning an old army fort at the point of Bell Head, named Bell Knowle, into Morgan’s temple. They become close. But Morgan’s purpose is not personal. Working under the aegis of the Priest of the Moon, a discarnate being, she seeks to connect herself to “the ultimate spiritual source, known to Qabalists as the Great Unmanifest, the formless power behind the fount of creation itself. This in turn relates to the great zodiacal tides of the precession of the equinox, whereby in the coming Age of the Aquarius the old gods will be coming back, after another manner. Her own part in this is to make the way clear for the realization of the divine feminine as part of the cult of the Great Goddess, who, as our Lady Isis, comprises all goddesses – of the corn, of the dead, of the sea, of the moon”.

Morgan needs Wilfrid’s help in performing a ritual that depends on an exchange of sexual energy without involving physical sex. He needs to be in love with her, or at least infatuated, for the ritual to work. But there is to be no relationship thereafter. Morgan is completely honest about this with Wilfrid, but he finds it too difficult to take in. After the ritual, and the great storm and destruction of the temple that follows, Morgan disappears. Wilfrid is left with a brief letter re-emphasising that there is to be no further contact between them. There is no forwarding address. Wilfrid falls to pieces.

But this is not the end. Morgan has scrupulously adhered to an ethic of reciprocity in work of this kind. She has subtly nudged events so that he makes a connection with a young woman – his secretary at the estate agency – and they marry. There are pragmatic reasons for this too. Molly needs to escape from a violent and chaotic step father. Wilfrid (now aged 36) needs to stop living with his mother and older sister; he also needs to sort out his post-ritual depression and alcohol problems. Marriage as a solution is enabled by Wilfrid’s domestic neediness and Molly’s compulsive care-giving, shaky emotional foundations for a life-partnership. Morgan’s contribution is to lay the ground work for greater possibilities. She has already arranged to leave her magically imbued sapphires for Wilfrid’s wife to be.

After their marriage, the newly weds move out of town to Bell Head, where Morgan’s caretakers had kept a small farm. Morgan’s temple is ruined, but they inherit her books and magical working records. These influences inspire Molly to start “talking to the moon”. She begins to take on her own priestess role. Wilfrid recollects: “it was all different here from the fort, and yet it was taking on a life of its own. There was more of earth and less of the sea than out on the point, just as there was more of earth in Molly than in Morgan; yet it was cosmic earth, and I remember that the Great Goddess ruled both moon and earth and sea. Molly would never be a Sea Priestess, like Morgan, but there was awaking in her something of the primordial woman, and it was beginning to answer to the need in me.”

At the end of the book, on a midsummer’s night, the couple light a fire of cedar, sandalwood and juniper. Such a fire is known as a Fire of Azrael, first prepared by Wilfrid when working with Morgan. It enables trance states and communication with the ‘inner planes’, especially if blended with moonlight. Molly receives an extended transmission from the Priest of Moon, and her subtle sexual energies are enlivened. For “the Astral plane is ruled by the moon and the woman is her priestess; and when she comes in her ancient right, representing the moon, the moon-power is hers and she can fertilise the male with vitalising magnetic force”. Molly initiates the consummation of the couple’s magical relationship. They have now received the touch of Isis and the gates of the inner life are open.

I experience The Sea Priestess now, on the third of three readings separated by many years, as a voice from long ago. In some ways it isn’t. My parents were born within a few years of the fictional Molly, and had nowhere near this sense of gender, sexuality or spirituality, let alone magic. I suppose my own sense of temporal distance is partly due to the dynamic evolution of her influence, and that of others like her, in successive generations – not least in the thirty years since I first read The Sea Priestess. If she now seems old-fashioned, it is a back-handed tribute to the creative power she helped to unleash. Before we think of her being old-fashioned even today, we have to ask ourselves: compared to whom?

(1) Dion Fortune The Sea Priestess Boston, MA & York Beach, ME: Weiser, 2003 (Copyright 1935 Society of the Inner Light)

INQUIRY: A 19 YEAR CYCLE

On 1 September 2002 I began a journal, which I have kept up ever since. I was inspired by some advice on the spiritual dimension of life. The gist of it was: stay in contact with supportive companions; live mindfully; meditate; develop a spirit of inquiry; be willing to take risks; find time for supportive reading. My journal was primarily an inquiry tool, and spiritual inquiry has been a leading theme of my life ever since.

My Druid training was, in part, an inquiry. My contemplative exploration has been, in part, an inquiry. My book Contemplative Druidry (1) had an inquiry flavour, offering readers a democratic, multi-vocal, and open approach to the subject. I named this blog Contemplative Inquiry because my personal inquiry has included engagement with other movements and traditions.

Now, 19 years on, inquiry is losing momentum as a guiding principle. It is beginning to feel obsolete. I notice that 19 years is the length of a Metonic cycle (2), roughly the time it takes for the phases of the moon to recur at the same time of year. 19 years also once marked the completion of a formal Druid training. May be there is something in the ancient interest in this lunisolar relationship. Perhaps it has had a subtle influence on me: as above, so below.

I cannot imagine a satisfying life without both contemplation and inquiry, and all of the learning from my dedicated inquiry years stands behind me. But now is a time for an informal harvesting, a process that feels quite different, not a project but a more natural grounding and deepening, and less self-conscious in the conceptual realm. I will continue the blog, and see how it develops and changes in the coming months.

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

(2) The Metonic cycle is named after after the ancient Greek philosopher Meton, who used a 6940-day period as the basis for his lunisolar calendar. Such calendars appear in many cultures, and may have informed the construction of our ancient sacred sites.

INTIMATIONS OF RENEWAL

I took this picture on the North Somerset coast (UK) last September. It is an autumnal and sunset picture, which paradoxically offers me a vision of renewal. The location is Weston-super-Mare, at the Brean Down end and facing the Island of Steep Holm. It is a place that draws me, and I wrote about it at the time (1).

Elaine and I will be spending time there in September this year, investigating a possible move. We both have reasons for wanting this, and it has been in our minds for awhile. But the uncertainties of Covid-19, its wayward management in England, and our own separate health problems have slowed us down.

I have become unused to moving. On my return to the UK in 2003, I lived in Bristol before coming to Stroud at the end of 2008. By that time I was already familiar with this old Cotswold mill town, more recently the birthplace of Extinction Rebellion.. For many years I was essentially living a Stroud/Bristol life. It hardly felt like moving.

In the new plan, Bristol will still be our city. But I’m a different person now, and the move feels like a major operation. Almost daunting. I feel stable and secure in my current home, and a part of me is tempted to cleave to the apparent stability and security of a familiar property and community.

Another part is concerned with the energetic costs of stagnation. Yesterday I drew the 4 of Cups card from The Duidcraft Tarot (2). I am using the pack as a simple psychic mirror, rather than for classical divination. I draw a card when I feel a need to check-in with the oracle. In this instance, I found myself faced with a jaded youth. I am neither jaded nor a youth, But I do feel as if I have been in Stroud for long enough. I catch myself at times in moods of lassitude and an undefined discontent. I am looking for a different experience, and knowing this helps me to raise my energy levels and recover a willingness to take risks. Writing about it is an energiser.

The risks themselves are modest. Weston is familiar to us and the distance not great. There are shared pragmatic reasons for the choice. Beyond these, we both look forward to open ourselves to the local energy of earth, sea and sky in the liminal space where they meet. I also like the notion of living in the English west country, where I was born, and having the opportunity to re-connect with the psychogeography of the region and in particular its coasts, more deeply.

I vividly remember seeing this solitary crow on last year’s visit. It was busy, head down, making a living on the muddy, still estuarial beach. It was a peaceful moment, framed between sunlight and shade. I stepped into peace myself, better to capture the moment and to avoid disturbing the bird. I felt alive and receptive to the setting, which even then felt like a potential home.

Only time will tell.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/09/23/

(2) 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.

A TAROT CONTEMPLATION

An attentive juggler keeps two coins in the air. As I contemplate the coins, they speak to me of well-being, health, and blessing, rather than every day money. They are coins of a different order, and they draw me into the card.

I was glad to pick the two of pentacles, from The Druidcraft Tarot (1), in my first use of cards for many months. I knew I wanted only one card in the moment of picking it up. The image, when I saw it, gave me the pleasure of recognition, of something about this feeling right for me. A relaxed juggling of no more than two coins seemed spacious and doable. I thought, ‘I can walk into the picture and be the figure on the shore-line. I can put myself into this flow of movement and attention with these coins’.

Now within the image, I notice that I have my back to the sea, and I assume a prior knowledge that the boats are friendly and capable of outrunning bad weather. I experience pentacles as having a protective resonance, so long as I am active in my own protection. I feel that, somehow, my juggling of the coins is a part of that protection, and protects the boats as well. I do not have a story about why this should be the case, but I trust that it is. That is all I need to do.

Bringing myself back into my normal state, I feel trust in my current direction, even though I cannot fully articulate it. I feel trust in my existing resources, of which the Tarot and my ease with it are two. I think about moving between different states of attention, in ways that are spacious and not overloaded. My contemplative inquiry is not now about asking fundamental questions or exploring new avenues. It seems more to be about balance and flow and living from an underlying stillness.

(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.

HIGH SUMMER 2021

It is some time since the solstice. Where I live, the time between sunrise and sunset has shortened by about 20 minutes. Though the change is still slow, it is noticeable now. But I do not yet feel a pull towards Lughnasadh/Lammas. I took these pictures on 11 July, and this is its own time, a time of abundance and ripening. They give me the sense of a summer that has kept its promise and is managing to mature despite a year of patchy weather.

At this stage, the willows below, early to leaf, remain majestic in their abundance – whilst hinting at a tiredness that will manifest in late summer, when energy starts to withdraw, and turn inwards.

But this isn’t the case with the treescape as a whole. In the woods I continue to find the fresh green of a vigorous life energy. It is the time when I get the strongest sense of a canopy, even in a relatively small and modestly wooded space. It hints at the glories of old forest, even though it isn’t one.

Whilst there is a sense of flora moving into new stages of their cycle, the process is gradual. There is time and leisure for slow change. There is no sense of having to be perfectly one thing and then, immediately, perfectly another.

Above all. I notice subtle differences in shape and colour within a setting of predominantly green growth. My gaze is drawn by intricacies of variation, contrast and patterning within this always astonishing display of life, and its natural will to be and become.

In mid-July, life rests in its moment, with harvesting some way off.

TREE MANDALA: GORSE

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), gorse covers the period from 9-31 July. It is the last tree of the summer quarter, handing over to apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas on 1 August. The illustration is from The Green Man Tree Oracle (2).

I know from my childhood that gorse can make a tame, gently sloping hill seem wild and edgy. Navigating through gorse requires an eye to self-care. Flowering gorse is not confined to summer, but for me it is anchored to summer in memory. Seen from afar, gorse was a vivid harbinger of the summer holidays with days of warmth (rising to heat) and freedom to roam. It carried a hint of adventure and disinhibition. Sometimes the promise was fulfilled. Sometimes there was a hot heavy dullness broken by only storms, and a degree of frustration. July days were unpredictable.

Gorse (ogham name Onn) was sacred to the Irish god Lugh, and thus to light, to all manner of skills, and to the fire in the head of ecstatic creativity. Lugh has a trickster aspect, and can be seen in certain lights as more a god of lightning than of the sun. He has a cousinship with the Brythonic Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the warrior magician of the fourth branch of the Mabinogi. He has also been linked to the Norse Loki, for tricksterism is an aspect of the smouldering fertile mind.

Gorse makes good fuel and so has an obvious role in fire festivals. In Brittany, 1 August was marked by the Festival of the Golden Gorse and gorse has has strong associations with the faery folk. It is a plant of power. We cannot make assumptions about how we stand with it. A wary respect might be wise.

NOTE: This post brings to an end a year in which I have featured the sixteen trees in this mandala. I began on 16 July 2020 with an out-of-sequence Rowan (3), because I had had a vivid encounter with a rowan tree in the woods. (Its time in the mandala is 9-31 October.). Then I moved on to apple (4) and blackberry (5). From the Autumn Equinox (1) the enterprise became more systematic. As a blogger, I won’t be repeating the cycle in the same way in the coming year. Once for the record feels enough.

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: 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. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Tree Oracle London: Connections, 2003

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/rowan/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/three-trees/

(5) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/mr-bramble/

BOOK REVIEW: A STORY WAITING TO PIERCE YOU

Peter Kingsley is a scholar of early Greek philosophy, and A Story Waiting to Pierce You (1) links Pythagoras (ca 590-470 BCE) with central Asian shamanism. Pythagoras got most of his own education outside of the Greek cultural sphere, and Kingsley focuses here on his relationship with Abaris the Hyperborean*, using ancient texts to guide him.

Abaris is not a personal name. It places its bearer as an Avar. The Avars are one of the peoples ancestral to modern Mongols. They still and still live under their older name in Dagestan, a Russian republic in the northern Caucasus. Kingsley’s Abaris walked, or in some sense flew, from his homeland to meet Pythagoras. He carried a golden arrow in his hand, though in a way it carried him. For Abaris was a wind walker, and on a mission.

Kingsley explains, using evidence from pre-Buddhist Tibet (where the practice has survived within Buddhism) as well as Mongolia: “Wind walkers could go anywhere; cover enormous distances with apparently effortless ease; find their way over every conceivable obstacle and straight past the most impassable landscapes … in one unbroken trance, holding their god inside them. That single-pointed focus, just like the intense attention required of an arrow maker or demanded of someone shooting arrows at their mark, had to be totally undisturbed”.

Abaris had been shown by the god within him that in Pythagoras he would find a living incarnation of the same god. Greek texts name the god as Apollo –  understood here primarily as a god of healing, trance and prophecy. Abaris gave his arrow, as planned, to Pythagoras, in recognition of his true nature. Through Pythagoras, he hoped, the Greek world would be healed and purified.

Pythagoras had considerable success. He attracted an enthusiastic following, and coined the term philosopher (lover of wisdom) to describe his work. He taught kindness to humans and animals and championed an honest and simple life. He believed in metempsychosis (transmission of the soul after death into a new body, human or animal), and in the explanatory power of number. But he was one teacher among others, and even his enthusiastic followers played down the influence of Abaris and his culture. It did not suit the self-image of the Greeks to recognise nomadic barbarians as possible teachers. They were not alone in this. A similar view prevailed in China.

Why does this matter to us? Because we have kept on making the same mistakes. The early stigmatisation of Hyperborean culture in the ancient world has been repeated in the stigmatisation of the cognate cultures of First Nations people in North America. The Chinese version survives in their current governance of Tibet and Xinjiang. In the spiritual domain, we still maintain a disparaging distinction between shamanism and ‘higher’ traditions. By contrast, Kingsley describes shamanism as “constantly engaged with practising respect and consideration towards all forms of life in an overall framework of concern for both visible and invisible worlds” He adds, “the fact that a transcendent realm beyond the senses happens, in the hands of most true elders and shamans, to be seamlessly interwoven with this world to the point where the two become one is a sign not of inferiority but of a far greater capacity for integration.”

A Story Waiting to Pierce You is not Peter Kingsley’s most recent book, but for me it is the most accessible, in both price and presentation. The first half is written in a simple, spacious, almost mythic style that goes straight to the heart. The second half, comprising notes, offers more than a set of references, looking at scholarly arguments and matters of interpretation. I find this arrangement a satisfying way of handling the material overall. I strongly recommend this book for people interested in the cultural history of spirituality and the issues it raises.

(1) Peter Kingsley A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet, and the Destiny of the Western World Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2010

*Hyperborean = from Hyperborea, beyond the north wind.

PERCEIVING NATURE

“When you perceive nature only through the mind, through thinking, you cannot sense its aliveness, its beingness. You see the form only and you are unaware of the life within the form – the sacred mystery. Thought reduces nature to a commodity to be used in the pursuit of profit or knowledge or some other utilitarian purpose. The ancient forest becomes timber, the bird a research project, the mountain something to be mined or conquered” (1)

Since the beginning of March I have had a connection with Eckhart Tolle’s community (2). Over the next couple of months I will decide whether to make an ongoing commitment. Part of the process is to identify the points of compatibility with my Druidry so that both may support an integrated spiritual life. The view of nature is one point of compatibility, and there is a link to my sense of contemplative Druidry when Eckhart Tolle says: “When you perceive nature, let there be spaces for no-thought, no mind. When you approach nature, it will respond to you, and participate in the evolution of a human and planetary consciousness.” (1)

(1) Eckhart Tolle Stillness Speaks: Whispers of Now London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003

(2) https://eckharttolle.com/

MIDSUMMER STASIS 2021: A CELEBRATION

A blue sky frames quiet branches. It is the midsummer standstill in my neighbourhood – a period extending over several days. I took the picture on 23 June, in the early afternoon, a time of soft warmth and sunshine, with me able to meet it. I had been prepared to miss it this year, and was delighted when the opportunity came.

The picture below shows the play of afternoon light and shade in a semi-sheltered spot, where a footbridge crosses a stream.

The next picture makes it clear that there is substantial built environment too here – one of the things I like about this landscape – in the form of weathered railway arches visible behind the foreground green.

The nearby canal looks sleepier than the stream, as if dreaming in the lushness of the moment.

Below, water margin nettles stand out as part of the richness and fecundity of this space, calling for my attention. Clearly capable of being an irritant and seen largely as a nuisance today, the nettle was highly valued by our ancestors for food, fibre and medicine. The Druid Plant Oracle (1) describes it as “a storehouse of goodness” bearing hidden gifts. Nettle tea is widely thought of as health promoting, and modern research confirms that it is rich in antioxidants and vitamins. It is suggested that its polyphenols are helpful in managing chronic illnesses that involve inflammation. I am taking it up as a drink.

There are other, varied riches beside the path, easy to ignore, but also easy to notice and enjoy for their beauty and vitality alone.

I went for this walk without any intention of taking photographs and I travelled quite a way before I began. I felt as though the landscape was persuading me to record the day, and thus bear witness to the midsummer stasis. Yes, it happened in 2021, as it happens every year. Here is the evidence. I am glad I showed up to be part of it,

(1) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Plant Oracle: Working with the Magical Flora of the Druid Tradition London: Connections, 2007 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)

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