contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Eco-Spirituality

ELDER (RUIS) ENDING A CYCLE

Elder is the tree of the caileach, the crone, the wise older woman. The image above comes from the Green Man Tree Oracle (1), but for me an earlier work, Liz and Colin Murray’s The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination (2), offers a more illuminating narrative:

“This Ogham card is linked to the eternal turnings of life and death, birth and rebirth. It represents the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end; life in death and death in life; the casting out of the devils of the old year and the renewal of creativity of the new; the timelessness of the cycle by which the fading of old age is always balanced by the new start of birth.

“The card has no reversed position. The circle will always turn afresh, change and creativity arising out of the old and bringing about the new. All is continuously linked as phases of life and experience repeat themselves in subtly different forms, leading always to renewal”.

In my sixteen tree mandala of the year (3) elder covers the period from 24 November to 16 December, following Yew and preceding Holly. If the winter quarter beginning on 1 November is a time of dying and regeneration, then elder deepens the descent into death signalled by the yew, whereas holly brings in the note of regeneration and makes the transition into rebirth. So it is not surprising to me that in Christian folklore elder provided the wood both for the cross of Christ and the self-hanging of Judas Iscariot. There was also a belief that people living in houses built in the shadow of the elder were likely to die young. Indigenous folklore, more benignly, said that to sleep beneath an elder tree is to wake in the Otherworld. If you stood under an elder tree on Midsummer’s Eve you would see the faery troop go by. Casting away fear, and whatever the weather, we may find magic in this tree.

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

(2) Liz & Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison/Sadd Edition, 1988. (Illustrated by Vanessa Card).

(3) NOTE: This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

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

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

PATTERNS OF MIND

William Anderson’s Green Man poem (1) describes winter branches as like “veins in the brain” making “patterns of mind” on the sky. This is the bleak beauty I see through my bedroom window. Anderson uses imagery of this kind to affirm an aspect of his Green Man’s identity.

“I am thought of all plants”, says the Green Man.

“I am thought of all plants”, says he.

I am experiencing a beautiful bleakness right now, grounded, lethargic, and shut away from the world – yet keenly sensitive to “patterns of mind”, or rather bodymind. As I wrote in my last post (2) I strained my back two weeks ago, without any obvious triggering event, and have only just recovered my normal mobility. My recovery process has been slower, with more setbacks, than similar processes in the past, in part I am sure as a consequence of ageing. My sleeping patterns have been disrupted and not well calibrated to times of night and day. Within a weatherperson’s ‘dry spell’ on Wednesday, I found that simply being able to leave the house and sweep leaves off a garden path gave me a great sense of pleasure and accomplishment. I began to feel confident of recovery, and my recovery has gathered pace from that time.

At the same time, I believe there is a larger context for my sense of vulnerability to stresses and strains. My contemplative life is centrally about giving myself to the flowing moment, as living presence in a field of living presence. The moment holds everything. If the Green Man is ‘thought of all plants’, we as humans hold the life of the world, and its collective stresses and strains, within our extended sensitivities. At the personal level I ask myself, how much can I hold? Intuitively I answer that I am already holding more, like it or not, than I allow myself to realise. ‘Can’ doesn’t come into it. I speak from a place, individually, of relative safety and security, for which I am very grateful. But this personal life is only part of the story. I am involved, too, in a larger life. My current vulnerabilities have their own unique features, and also reflect the vulnerabilities of the world. I don’t feel alone in this experience. I believe that I share it with many other people, each with their own story about how it presents itself.

(1) William Anderson Green Man: archetype of our oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990. See:

https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/05/11/poem-green-man/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/11/10/bare-bones-bare-experience/

BARE BONES, BARE EXPERIENCE

Trees – at least the deciduous ones – are becoming skeletal in my neighbourhood. But I am grounded, after ‘doing my back in’ last Friday morning. I cannot go out among them and be present for their continuing transitions. Instead, my entry into the winter quarter this year is marked by lessons in bare experience.

During this period I have been able to lie and stand, with an element of clumsy ouchy drama when shifting between the two. I can walk, too, in an impaired and limited way. Today for the first time I can also sit on a chair, provided I don’t stay too long. I do best when I slow down and attend closely to my bodymind and environment as a single gestalt. I find this especially useful when moving. It is also a good alternative to roof brain chatter when I am lying down and not asleep. But I do not attempt to operate this way all the time. It is enough to be able to tune in at will. Distraction and diversion also have their place and I don’t want to fetishise special states of awareness. Awareness is already special.

I feel confirmed in my sense of contemplation, a sacrament of sentience, as a plain attentiveness that holds the apparent world in its embrace. The rest is lifestyle choice. A very stripped down form of experience, such as I am having now, is its own kind of blessing.

THE YEW AT SAMHAIN 2020

In my tree mandala of the year (1), yew is my Samhain tree, and to a large extent my November tree. It is an obvious choice, as I leave a quarter concerned with autumn and bearing fruit and enter one of winter and the dying of the year. Regeneration too, but that is some way off.

I admire the power and longevity of the yew, and am in some ways drawn to its energy. But I do not find the relationship easy. I can find it spiky and obscurely demanding. I can find myself resistant to the sensed demand. The alignment of tree and season alerts me to my own mortality and creates space for a reflective moment. But this year I’ve been alert to my mortality for much of the time. In reaction, at Samhain 2020, I feel naturally sluggish and drowsy. Something in me is happy to go down into the dark without too much awareness. Let the dying of the year be the dying of the year, it whispers. Just let it happen. Just let me go down into the dark and sleep.

The Green Man Tree Oracle (2) links the yew with perseverance, for ‘perseverance leads to achievement’. Right now I’m not much interested in achievement, but I notice that I can think of perseverance in another way. This has to do with sticking with the experience that presents itself, rather than life-coaching my way out of it.

I have been working with an intensified wheel of the year for the last 45 weeks. I have seen how easy it is to impose impose conventional or surface-willed patterns on my experience. The seasonal structure is real. I see, feel, hear, taste and smell it manifesting itself in the apparent world as the wheel turns. But the idea of the wheel still has the power to displace lived experience through formalised words, images and expectations. Perseverance on the path asks for two things, I think. One is permission to let go of any sense of project or practice when it loses authenticity. The other is to be truly sensitive and discriminating when I’m happy to be awake.

(1) NOTE: This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:

Yew, north-west, 1-23 November

Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December

Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January

Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

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

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003. Also source of the image at the top.

LATER AUTUMN

Sunday 18 October, on a walk beginning at 7.20 am. This is a later start than on the previous week (1), and headed in the opposite direction. The day is overcast and the feeling-tone of this walk entirely different. Last week was magical and illuminative. This week is a time of relaxed enjoyment, of simple openness to the world as I find it. I can let go of agendas.

The fall here is still tentative. It mostly happens in November, though there are plenty of leaves falling gently to the ground, and a breeze to encourage them. Overhead, the gaps in the canopy let the light in. The remaining leaves form patterns that draw my attention and raise my spirits in a strange primordial way.

I enjoy built environments up to a certain level of density, when they become oppressive and too much. Here, a canal bridge blends in with ivy, water, trees and undergrowth without any sign of artificial arrangement. The place has been largely left to itself to make its own accommodations and adjustments. They are what they are. They haven’t been created for effect. I notice that I feel in tune with this space.

I live in an urban setting that is not at war with trees. The early morning absence of traffic helps me to appreciate the autumn colours opposite. Today is a day when I am easily pleased by life and I find myself caught up in a moment of spontaneous gratitude.

Now, I am under an arch, looking at the canal, at reflections in the water, and at a canal side entrance to somebody’s house. I have the sense of a congenial, inhabited space. The stretch that I have been walking on today is relatively built up, still part of the town. My walk has involved the interplay of town and country. In one way it has been very ordinary. In another it has been a trigger for happiness. I have enjoyed being part of it.

The picture above – somehow, for me, beyond words. I lose myself in it.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/10/14/walking-towards-sunrise/

INQUIRY NINE YEARS ON

My contemplative inquiry began as part of a Druid initiative launched nine years ago on 1 November 2011. The inquiry “soon broadened into a wider exploration of contemplative spiritualities, drawing on the enduring wisdom of many times and places.” (1)

By August 2018, I had anchored the discovery of “an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment, which nourishes and illuminates my life. 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.” (1)

This is still my core insight. It does not tell me to be a Druid, or not to be a Druid. It does not give me a metaphysical or religious foundation of any kind, though it is possible to build these around it. It does not make my existential choices for me. I do find myself distant from faith based and devotional approaches to contemplation and spirituality. Recently, I have lost interest in debates about consciousness as foundational, or in distinctions between ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ manifestations of it. I was drawn to this philosophical openness in part by the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, himself influenced by (probably) Buddhist and Jain teachers in India (2).

Experientially, it is as if I exist within a field of awareness, or presence, whilst also living a human life between earth and sky. Here, I am intimate with the stream of experience, but not fused with it – allowing a space for compassion towards the apparently unwanted sensations, feelings, thoughts, images, and strings of cogitation that continue to arise. Stepping back from demands for ‘healing’ and ‘transformation’, I discover myself to be simply and securely held.

Looking out, I find a living world. I am part of the web of life, deeply interconnected with other lives and with the whole. Here I align myself to those Pagans, identified by Graham Harvey (3,4), who “use ‘animism’ as a shorthand reference to their efforts to re-imagine and re-direct human participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community. This animism was relational, embodied, eco-activist and often ‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical.”

Understandings like this have re-anchored me in Druidry and Paganism. The Wheel of the Year is a wonderful basis for outward attention in spirituality. I am now also strongly drawn to questions of culture, history and human imagination, which I will explore more in future. Here again, I find an open and inclusive Druid perspective to be a good base to work from.

I seem to have satisfied myself on the questions with which I started in 2011, though not in the way I expected to. But new questions arise, and I no longer see an end point to my contemplative inquiry.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/about/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/04/27/pyrrho-scepticism-arne-naess/

(3) Graham Harvey (ed.) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism London & New York: Routledge, 2014 (First published by Acumen in 2013)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/02/22/animism-is-a-hard-working-word/

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A CONTEMPLATIVE LENS

As the autumn deepens, I find that my canal walking has slowed down and detached itself from notions of exercise. It has become spontaneously and informally meditative. I am simply noticing what is available, rather than striving to get to some other place in myself or in the world. Followers of the Headless Way (1) describe such attention as ‘being capacity for the world’, since the world knows itself through this awareness. One of the Headless Way’s poets, Colin Oliver, has the lines (2) “In the oneness of things/ I am nowhere in sight”. I am like that with my phone/camera. I rarely have it in the selfie mode, so it is a good device for the purpose.

My combined walking and photography have become a contemplative opportunity, an informal opening to the magic of what is given, here and now, which I sometimes refer to as ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. They have taken their place, unplanned, at the heart of my contemplative Druidry. They enable immersion in the apparent world, and provide a setting for what I like to call valley experiences, to distinguish them from the peak experiences more often discussed. I notice also an aversion to calling this activity a ‘spiritual practice’, a feeling that comes with the image of a caged bird. Not right for the context. Not right for that in me which does this.

Through this contemplative lens I can be appreciatively open even to appearances of dereliction and decay. They are simply part of what is. When I see an old and roofless building without this accepting contemplative gaze, I can become irritated and grumpy. Why isn’t it being renovated or pulled down, one or the other? Who is responsible? But in my picture taking mode, through the lens of contemplation, I am entirely at ease. The building has its place, just the way it is.

My meditative walk can highlight processes as well as still images. A decaying rose becomes a rose hip. The dying flower makes way for fruit, which will die back in its turn after seeding the next generation. ‘Decay’ is relative.

The lens of contemplation makes space for things that would be easy to miss otherwise. A waning moon, for example at 8 a.m. …

… or the delicacy, close-up, of old man’s beard …

… or a naturally sculpted head of an unknown bird or reptile, which also offers space for a cobweb …

These walks have taught me a lot. There must have been a gestation period between the time I gave them up – what with Covid-19 and my concerns about narrow paths and passing – and the time I resumed them. Along the way I’ve gained a different perspective on their role in my contemplative life. I used to see them as ancillary. Now they seem central.

(1) http://www.headless.org/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2016/04/28/poem-the-oneness-of-things/

BOOK REVIEW: RIDERS ON THE STORM

“It is with the dignity of life on earth, and our human part in it, that the passion of this book is concerned.” Alistair McIntosh is a Scottish ecologist based on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis. Riders on the Storm (1) interweaves reflections on the scientific, social-ecological and spiritual aspects of the climate crisis. He writes from the standpoint of 2020, where this overarching existential threat enfolds the more limited and specific crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The early chapters consider the current science, “sticking closely to the peer-reviewed publications of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)”. There are individual chapters on land; oceans and ice; and on 1.5 degrees. They make it clear that scientific truth-telling in this complex domain is a work of establishing levels of confidence on how climate change is unfolding, and “narrowing uncertainty”, rather than establishing facts. McIntosh upholds the IPCC approach, “for all its limitations”, as a peer-reviewed, panel-appraised, consensus-settled science. He sees it as an outstanding model of co-operative working and the most reliable route to take.

The next chapters look at the wider community’s response to the scientific evidence, given the tension between what the science says and how different groups use it. McIntosh discusses the denialism spear-headed by lobby groups disguised as ‘think-tanks’ and their disastrous effects on public discourse, such as the false balance practised by media organisations, including until recently the BBC, in holding futile ‘debates’ between climate scientists and deniers. He also discusses the roles of climate change contrarianism and dismissal in the current moment when outright denial has become harder to maintain. McIntosh goes on to look at the psychology of denial amongst the wider public. He has a section on the intimidation of the scientists themselves, including the dissemination of conspiracy theories accusing their whole community of deliberate deception, and its psychological effects on them.

On the other side of the argument, McIntosh has a chapter on ‘rebellion and leadership in climate movements’. He sees Greta Thunberg as authentically taking on the traditional prophet’s role, which is “to pay heed to their inner calling, to read the outer signs of the times, and to speak to the conditions found upon the land to call the people and their leaders back to what gives life”. McIntosh does have concerns about ‘alarmism’ among some activists. Without giving it a false equivalence with denialism in terms of damage it may do, he sees a tendency to edge out of step with the science, “pushing a point to make a point”. He identifies this as a tendency within Extinction Rebellion (XR) (2), though not extending to XR as a whole. In this context, he also discusses the difference between his understanding of satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi’s grounded way of peace and social transformation, and instrumentalist versions of non-violent direct action applied simply as a tactic.

After an ambivalent consideration of proposed technical solutions to climate change, the later chapters “shift into story-telling mode” in order to “enter further into depth psychology and beyond”. McIntosh asks questions familiar from his other work (3): what does it take to reconnect with the earth, with spirituality, and with one another – with soil, soul and society? McIntosh’s own work is grounded in close-to-the-ground community development informed by the lens of human ecology, with its strong focus on interactions between the social environment and the natural environment in which we live. McIntosh emphasises grass roots led consensus building and decision making, drawing on emancipatory action research methodologies developed largely in the global south. The spiritual dimension of this, for McIntosh, lies essentially in “the interiority of outward things”, the profound interconnection of all things, and “the meanings of life as love made manifest”. Traditional stories and the wisdom they hold have a valuable role to play in such a project. In an earlier post (4) I extracted a Chinese rainmaker story presented in Riders in the Storm. Within the book, the value of traditional wisdoms is explored through a meeting between Hebridean and Melanesian community leaders and activists when the latter visited Lewis as guests of the former.

I found this book a rich and dense exploration of where we now stand with the existential threat posed by climate crisis. It does not read like a novel but is worth the effort and a great resource. McIntosh himself urges readers to use it in whatever way we want. To anyone committed to “the dignity of life on earth, and our human part in it”, this book has something to say.

(1) Alastair McIntosh Riders on the Storm: the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being Edinburgh, Scotland: Birlinn, 2020

(2) For a review by an XR insider, see https://earthbound.report/2020/08/24/book-review-riders-on-the-storm-by-alastair-mcintosh/

(3)Alastair McIntosh Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power London, England: Aurum Press, 2001

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/09/11/rainmaker/

EXPERIENCING LATE SEPTEMBER

I tend to feel thrown around energetically over two or three days during the autumn equinox period, and then a new calm takes over. I have crossed into the darker half of the year. I reached that place this year on 25 September and went out for a walk at 7.15 a.m., about 20 minutes after sunrise. The temperature was 8 degrees (46.4 F), not exactly cold, but enough to indicate a change in the year. I was glad to be wearing gloves. They demonstrated my acceptance of a new seasonal identity. There have been still lower morning temperatures in more recent days.

Walking by my local canal, I could see that 2020 has been a good year for its swans. I saw ten near-grown cygnets in a 3-4 mile stretch of water: the group of five in the picture, a group of three a couple of miles away, and two others on their own. I’m inclined to think that the full lockdown from late March until early June has played a role in making the swan population safer. A happy thought and a sad one at the same time.

I walked further out of town this time than I had since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis and went past more open fields. The grass was green but not growing wildly. I saw only subtle signs of a turn in these distant trees, and none really of a fall. The horses were contentedly outside: no need even for coats. It was dry. By this stage of my walk it was a little warmer, though never beyond 10 degrees (50F). The edge created by a cold breeze had gone. For me this image captures a tranquil moment, that represents my sense of this post-harvest moment in the year. The weather is adequately benign. The energy of nature feels partly withdrawn, into a subterranean state of latency.

Among the trees on the canal bank, I found much greater evidence of a turn. This is one of the times when I become particularly drawn to reflections in water, and the way in which they to an extent mirror the world above whilst also offering something of their own. The much quoted phrase, ‘as above, so below’ is altogether too neat and formulaic to describe a living world.

AUTUMN EQUINOX 2020: HAZEL, SALMON, AWEN

In the outer circle of my mandala of the year (1), hazel presides over the days from 16 September to 8 October.

In the middle circle, divided into quarters, the one beginning at Lughnasadh/Lammas is represented by a salmon.

In the inner circle, where there is no sub-division, I have three seed pearls standing for the Awen. The Autumn Equinox is a time when images from the three layers of the mandala line up particularly well. (See NOTE below)

The lore and legend surrounding hazel have a stronger hold on me than the physical tree, though I do find hazels in my locality. For the ancient Celts, the tree was linked with wisdom and known as the food of the gods. Irish tradition (2,3) speaks of the sacred salmon who swim in a pool surrounded by nine hazel trees. This pool was known as Conla’s Well or the Well of Segais and it is the source of the River Boyne. When the trees drop their nuts into the water below, the salmon eats them and so carries them into the sea and back in their annual spawning run. “The cycle was seen as a metaphor for the passing of wisdom from age to age and from person to person” (2). The ancient Druid temples of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth are to be found in the Boyne Valley.

Ireland and Western Britain are watery places, well-located for intimations of wisdom in watery forms. In modern Druidry, circle work makes links between the west, water and autumn, understood as the quarter following Lughnasadh/Lammas. There are suggestions, too, of love and intuition flowing together in harmony. The Autumn Equinox stands at the point where the light half of the year gives way to the dark half – not suddenly, or violently, but as part of a gentle transition, where the qualities are more or less balanced on both sides of the divide. Tradition also gives us the image of the Well of Segais  as “a shining fountain, with five streams flowing out of it” (3). Here, the invitation, at least for ‘the folk of many arts’, is to drink from the five streams (the five senses) and from the fountain itself (the source of life). In a nutshell, our wisdom is best served by drawing on both the life of the senses and on the flow of inner inspiration (Awen). Neither needs to be sacrificed to the other.

(1) See the ‘house’ section of: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/12/meditation-wisdoms-house/

(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003. Also source of the image at the top.

(3) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Animal Oracle: Working with the Sacred Animals of the Druid Tradition London: Fireside, 1994 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)

NOTE The two pictures below give a rough sense of the mandala, and of relationships at the Autumn Equinox, though not the way it looks as a mosaic in my innerworld. The tree images are taken from The Green Man Tree Oracle (2). They stand in for the ones in my mandala, which are more naturalistic and sometimes involve more than one plant: hazel, west; rowan, west-north-west, yew, north-west; elder, north-north-west; holly, north; alder, north-north-east; birch, north-east; ash & ivy, east-north-east; willow, east; blackthorn, east-south-east; hawthorn, south-east; beech & bluebell, south-south-east; oak, south; gorse, south-south-west; apple, south-west; blackberry & vine, west-south-west. The selection as a whole is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. The elemental images are from R. J Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003. Illustrated by Miranda Grey.

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