Bright light as a valley experience. Sunlight on trees. February 6, the day I took this picture, provided my first experience of intense sunlight this year. It got through to me even in a shady place. My eyes were dazzled and my head struck by an unexpected warmth.
I noticed mixed feelings. Yes, I celebrated the return of the light. Yes, it was a reference experience for the spring aspect of Imbolc in my part of the world. More visceral than snowdrops, the sun truly reached me and not just my nature-observant sensibilities. It was almost shocking.
Looking out, after that first moment, my world filled up with light on trees. I wondered if they too had any resistance to waking up and being visible and called upon to grow and change and open to the light more fully. I don’t know what it’s like to be a tree. Not really. Withdrawing my projections, I am turned back to my own responses. Parts of me have reservations about immersion in the light. Perhaps they have a wisdom of their own.
Spaces ‘between’ can be numinous. They feed the soul. Imbolc for me is like a pre-dawn light. I am not yet out of winter, but something else is happening, and palpably growing in strength.
The hierophant of the Wildwood Tarot – the Ancestor – is placed as a power of Imbolc. An antlered figure clothed in reindeer skins and evergreen leaves, she has a resonance of Elen of the Ways, the reindeer goddess who stands for the sovereignty of the land. She calls to us from a deep past where Ice Age hunters followed reindeer through ancient forest, “following the deer trods” (1,2) responsive to the herds and attuned to the landscape. They lived with little personal property and without long hours of alienating work. The Ancestor invites us to wonder what these early ancestors might have to teach us under our very different conditions.
On the card, the Ancestor is sounding a drum and calling us into another consciousness – one more open and aware of our place within the web of life. In her world, deer and people are kin. She herself is ambiguous – she might be wearing a mask, or she might be a truly theriomorphic figure. I respond to her call by sinking deeply into my felt sense – the embodied life of sensation, feelings and belly wisdom. The call of the Ancestor is a pathway to greater wholeness and connection, both personally and collectively. As the year wakes up, it is a good call to hear.
(1) Elen Sentier Elen of the Ways: British Shamanism – Following the Deer Trods Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2013 (Shaman Pathways series)
(2) Elen Sentier Following the Deer Trods: A Practical Guide to Working with Elen of the Ways Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2014 (Shaman Pathways series)
I have never been much of a wilderness person. In times past I have foolishly used this to feel like a lesser Druid. ‘Near nature’ is my habitat. It is a world of parks, streams, canals, accessible hills, woodlands and former rail tracks. Human artefacts of varying vintages are very much part of the scene. These places keep on giving. Over the last couple of days a touch of frost coupled with brighter light has changed the feeling tone of a generally wet and clouded winter. Pictures celebrate this bounty.
I am conscious now of moving beyond midwinter and towards Imbolc (1 February), the first celebration of returning light. For me, the-mid January period is held in the above image. Tree trunks reflected in water evoke depth rather than height. The image faithfully depicts their withdrawn winter life whilst hinting at other life below the surface, as the world turns over in its sleep.
“Wander over to that oak, or a maple, or a sycamore, reach out your hand to feel the surface of a single many-pointed leaf between your thumb and fingers. Note the coolness of that leaf against your skin, the veined texture your fingertips discover as they roam across it. But notice, too, another slightly different sensation: that you are also being touched by the tree. That the leaf itself is gently exploring your fingers, its pores sampling the chemistry of your skin, feeling the smooth and bulging texture of your thumb even as the thumb moves upon it.
“As soon as we notice than our hands are being included within the tactile world, we are forced to notice this reciprocity: whenever we touch any entity, we are also being touched by that entity.
“Such reciprocity is the very structure of perception. We experience the sensuous world only by rendering ourselves vulnerable to that world. Sensory perception is this ongoing interweavement: the terrain enters into us only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be taken up within that terrain.”
David Abram Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology New York: Vintage Books, 2010
At the winter solstice, I began a year of enhanced attention to the wheel of the year. I have re-introduced the circle as container for my morning practice. The directions and elements are conventional for my location and tradition. The references are all naturalistic – with ‘heaven’ as the dome of the sky.
The journey around my circle begins and ends at the midwinter moment, in the north, domain of the powers of earth. The patterning is minimalist, though it still took awhile to get a language that feels just right. Now it grows in power and resonance with familiarity and repetition. For me, ritual patterning scarcely competes with complexity and flow of natural patterning, as I look at the pictures above and below. Compared with these, it is something of an abstraction. Yet I value it all the same. This simple patterning embodies my commitment. It will walk with me through the year.
I stand, north, facing south, ring my bells and say: 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.
North, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the north, element of earth, season of winter, time of dying and regeneration. Hail and welcome!
East, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the east, element of air, season of spring, time of early growth. Hail and welcome!
South, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the south, element of fire, season of summer, time of ripening. Hail and welcome!
West, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the west, element of water, season of autumn, time of bearing fruit. Hail and welcome!
Spiralling in to centre: I greet the power at the centre, the one world tree, giver of life and catalyst of wisdom. Hail and welcome! Back north, I begin a full round of the circle, sunwise, and say I cast this circle in the sacred grove of Wisdom. May there be peace throughout the world!
My closing is a reversal of the opening, with an uncasting of the circle, a repetition of the opening words and a final ringing of the bells. In the address to the directions, the words ‘thank and ‘farewell’ replace ‘greet’ and ‘welcome’. I have noticed that the other parts of my morning practice are subtly enriched by this new container.
A happy New Year to all readers, as we begin to navigate the 2020’s! May we find compassionate and creative ways to flourish in the days ahead.
As my contemplative inquiry evolves, I update the ‘About’ section for this blog. Below is my revision for the beginning of 2020.
“I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. I began my contemplative inquiry within modern British Druidry and my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014. https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/
“Over time my inquiry became a wider exploration of contemplative spirituality, identified for a period as a Sophian Way. It drew on the enduring wisdom of many times and places and I came to experience it as a path of healing, peace and illumination. In particular, my inquiry identified an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment. Such at-homeness is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I have found that, for me, the realisation of this at-homeness has supported a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.
“The discovery of at-homeness emerged from an inward inquiry arc: noticing myself perceiving, making meaning, and finding a language to articulate my experience. Now I am on an outward arc. I am turning to a greater focus on relationships, community, culture, and the wider web of life. Druidry, as a modern eco-spirituality receptive to ancient wisdom, is renewing its importance in my life.”
Happy Yule/Winter Solstice/Alban Arthan! A time I experience as an extended movement over two days starting on 21 December. Midwinter doesn’t have to be bleak and barren. This morning, 21 December 2019, I took these pictures to celebrate and contemplate a bright moment in Stroud. A small miracle of blue sky broke through the rain, cloud and gloom.
We have a small patch of garden at the front of our house, remodelled only a week ago. It has a modestly zen pagan reference, with just a hint of spiral. In the bigger picture, where I live, we are rapidly approaching the turn from an inward to an outer arc of life energy. The Winter Solstice is very close.
I’m not experiencing deep stillness this year. It feels more like an extended pause for breath – a time for taking stock and regrouping. 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.
I have checked out older resources which have been neglected for awhile. One of these is the popular and respected Wildwood Tarot. I bought it years ago but didn’t much engage. Now its time has come round, prompted by an impulsive consultation. It happened in the early hours of a recent morning, at a rare time of sleeplessness. I spent several hours getting to know it. Here it is enough to say that I am drawn by its strong wheel of the year orientation, by its choice of imagery for the major trumps in particular, and by its own focus on resiliency.
I am going to live the year from 22 December with heightened attention to the wheel of the year, and with this resource as my companion. My current warm up process is already changing the way I think and feel about contemplative inquiry and will re-shape how I do it. In the meantime I enjoy the front garden and await the return of the sun.
Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington
At this point in my inquiry I want to refine my understanding of ’emptiness’. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is a great help here, in his final commentary on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra .
Thich Nhat Hanh discusses Buddha’s teaching that everything is “a manifestation of causes and conditions” and that nothing is permanent or unchanging. This applies to the whole cosmos, and not just to the apparent world. “Whether you call it atman (the soul) or Brahman (ultimate divinity), whether you call it the individual self or the universal self, you cannot find anything there”. Buddha’s teaching was aimed at undermining both of these notions. Nothing has any ‘self-nature’ (we might use the term ‘essence’).
Thich Nhat Hanh pursues this right into the territory of emptiness. “There are still many people who are drawn into thinking that emptiness is the ground of being, the ontological ground of everything. But emptiness, when understood rightly, is the absence of any ontological ground. … We must not be caught by the notion of emptiness as an eternal thing. It cannot be any kind of absolute or ultimate reality. This is why it can be empty. Our notion of emptiness should be removed. It is empty.”
He goes on to say: “the insight of interbeing is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else … looking from the perspective of space we call emptiness ‘interbeing’; looking from the perspective of time we call it ‘impermanence’ … to be empty is to be alive, to breathe in and breathe out. Emptiness is impermanence; it is change … we should celebrate. … When you have a kernel of corn and entrust it to the soil, you hope it will be a tall corn plant. If there is no impermanence, the kernel of corn will remain a kernel of corn forever and you will never have an ear of corn to eat. Impermanence is crucial to the life of everything”.
This is one side of an age old controversy within spiritualities of Indian origin. In this blog, I have given friendly attention to the other side as well – particularly Direct Path teachers like Rupert Spira and Greg Goode and the Indian influenced Douglas Harding. In the end I don’t make an absolute judgement about it. My Sophian ‘At-Homeness in the flowing moment’ is compatible with both views. But I’m now finding greater energy and aliveness in the framework here presented by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Increasingly, when I do Direct Path exercises I experience a breaking down of assumptions about experience itself, and a tremendous opening out … but no container called ‘Awareness’ to fill a God sized hole. It’s similar for me with the Harding exercises. My experience is broadly the same, but my felt sense has shifted, and my narrative with it. I’m moving away from big picture truth claims about this, because I have become sceptical that exercises like this provide any grounds for them, one way or the other. Rather, I lean in to an evolving personal understanding, always provisional, of my contemplative experiences.
As a shorthand, I can talk about the tension between a ‘Oneness’ framing and an ‘interbeing’ framing of what people call non-duality. The difference can seem subtle – and it may be best to use ambiguous, open-ended words like ‘Tao’ and preserve a sense of mystery. But at this turning of the year, ‘interbeing’ is my preferred term. It fits better with the eco-spirituality which I take from my Druid journey, and affirms the relational basis of my Sophian Way.
(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017