contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: embodied knowledge

IMBOLC 2020

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)

See also book review at: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/06/22/

AT-HOMENESS REVISITED

A year ago, I wrote: “within my Sophian Way, I have found healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness. Everything else grows out of that”(1). This post is to re-affirm this insight and to take it forward.

I wrote of a ‘flowing now’ since ‘now’ is not a frozen unit of time but a living stream of experience. Past and future can indeed be conceived and imagined, but only within the flowing now. The experience of At-Homeness can either steal up of itself or I can invite it by slowing down and attentively companioning the flow as it moves, whatever is going on. It is a way of marking this space and time as sacred. My opening and attention are a sacrament, the means through which the flowing now – all that I can be sure of in this life – is recognised and blessed.

I didn’t invent the term At-Homeness. It comes from the proponents of ‘bio-spirituality’, who say (2) “that the beginning of a bio-spiritual awareness … is finding a way to some larger At-Homeness written deep within bodily knowing”. For them, an enabling and loving attention to the body and its processes gives the felt sense of At-Homeness a chance to ripen. My experience of Focusing over the last 15 months tells me this is true. My experience of Headless Way (3) opens up a world of vivid shapes and colours, all boundaries gone, no self in sight. Immersed in this world, I experience a lightness of being, and stillness in a world of movement. This, too, is At-Homeness in the flowing now.

I sense now, more clearly than before, that I am not at home in the realm of abstractions and absolutes. I do not find Sophia there. I flourish, rather, in processes and relationships. I can stand as awareness only through being aware (a process) of something/someone (a relationship). I find the love and magic in the cosmos, as well as its stresses and horrors, only within the play of movement and connection.

For me, Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of ‘Interbeing’ provides the most helpful presentation of a non-dual spirituality (4). “The insight of inter-being is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else. The insight of impermanence is that nothing is static, nothing stays the same. Interbeing means the absence of a separate self. Looking from the perspective of space, we call emptiness ‘inter-being’; looking from the perspective of time we call it impermanence”. Another modern Buddhist writer adds (5), “if you look at experience there are not fixed elements or even moments; there is simply a process, a transformation … the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’. He described himself as merely a flowing occurrence, and the outward form that took was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”

Reading this, I am pushed uncomfortably into the recognition of my own volatility. I explored this theme in October 2017 (6). However, because I found Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on long periods of sitting meditation, not right for me, I appear to have lost some of this insight, at least consciously. I am somewhat comforted that ‘At-Homeness in a flowing now’ at least preserves the gist, and the simple practices I’m using work well within an ‘inter-being’ framework. This is not so much because of its Buddhist origin, as because as an approach it seems to me to be on the side of life, relationship and movement. It brings me down to earth and closer to Sophia (Prajnaparamita, Guanyin).

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/

(2) Peter Campbell & Edward McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a Way to Grow Chicago, Ill: Loyola Press, 1985

(3) www.headless.org/

(4) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

(5) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(6) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/

EMBODIMENT AND AT-HOMENESS

In a previous post, (1) I told the story of Jill Bolte Taylor’s severe brain haemorrhage. For her, the experience contained a hidden blessing. As her ability to think disintegrated, Jill Bolte Taylor “felt enfolded in a blanket of tranquil euphoria … As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent and I became detached from the memories of my life, I was comforted by an expanding sense of grace … a ‘being at one’ with the universe, if you will.” Jill Bolte Taylor subsequently made a complete recovery from her stroke. Indeed, she was able to integrate the positive aspects of the stroke experience, leading to a fuller and richer life than she had had before.

In a gentler way, the proponents of ‘bio-spirituality’ are seeking a similar result. “The beginning of bio-spiritual awareness … is finding a way through to some larger At-Homeness written deep within bodily knowing.” (2) In ‘Focusing’, bio-spirituality’s recommended working method, practitioners address what they see as three critical issues in spirituality. The first is the “perennial problem of getting out of the mind”. The second is “the challenge of being drawn into an awareness of some Larger Process”. The third is the way in which “body knowing” helps with the first two. I have started using this approach as an active solo meditation, and so far I find the results promising. The core of this practice, when a solo meditation, is to hold an aware, enabling and loving attention to the body its processes, so that the felt sense of At-Homeness  has a chance to ripen.

For me, At-Homeness has become another way of describing non-duality as an experience. At-Homeness asks for a deepened embodiment, though for me ’embodiment’ is a more expansive term than is conventionally accepted. I work with a sense of three layers of embodiment, which I call physical, subtle and cosmic. The physical body is confined to the envelope of skin, whilst the subtle body extends further and is porous. The cosmic body is an emptiness body without boundaries. I believe that all are involved in body knowing and At-Homeness, and they are not ultimately separate. Reginald Ray has a good account (3) of how this works in his teaching and practice of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. In this, extended view of embodiment, I reach out beyond, and then further beyond, the strictly personal into a not-I-not-other-than-I territory. Yet I continue to stand on the Earth, a distinct sentient being interconnected with other sentient beings and the sentience of the world itself.  It is all my Home, and all needed for a full sense of At-Homeness.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/stroke-of-insight/ 

(2) Peter Campbell & Edwin McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a Way To Grow Chicago, Ill: Loyola Press, 1985

(3) Reginald A. Ray Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2009

NEW DIRECTIONS: FOCUSING

I am working through a spiritual shift strong enough to need a new language and practice. I am moving towards a spirituality without religion, which is simpler and more deeply rooted in experience. I have recently connected with the Focusing movement (1,2,3), as a potential source of support.

A Focusing text (4) speaks of “the process of listening to your body in a gentle, accepting way and hearing the messages that your inner self is sending you. It’s a process of honouring the wisdom that you have inside you, becoming aware of the subtle level of knowing that speaks to you through your body”. The term ‘bio-spirituality’ was coined for it by two Catholic priests who took up this practice. They called it a “sacred inward journey”, wrote a book about it (5) and developed their own network (6).

I do not see Focusing as a spiritual path in itself, but as a means of integrating what we conventionally call mind, body and spirit. The process can be run either solo or with a partner. I am already beginning to find it useful in a meditative state where I sit with loving attention and curiosity. Using this approach, I can establish a relationship with my ‘felt sense’, however it manifests, rather than just noticing it. I can work with the strains and tensions, issues and concerns, or the neglected joys in my life. I can extend this exploration in my journal writing after sessions. I have now had a session with a teacher and completed a week of daily meditations. They are already having a catalytic effect.

From the standpoint of continuity, this is an affirmation of embodied spirituality. It enables me to access ‘Wisdom’ as a living process with change-making power. The Sophia (Wisdom) of Gnostic tradition is often seen as a celestial and indeed super-celestial figure: yet she also embodies the re-visioned Earth – ‘the Kingdom’. To inhabit this space I need the vulnerability of openness. Such work reconnects me, with a new understanding, to an earlier time in my life and my involvement in co-counselling and psychotherapy.

For me thus far, focusing practice finds the seeds of action in contemplation itself. In stillness and silence I engage creatively with my life and world. Everything is held in the loving presence of a contemplative core. My inquiry moves forward in a new way.

I am taking a break from this blog for at least the rest of this month. On my return, I will explore this and other new directions more fully.

(1) focusing.org/

(2)  focusing.org.uk/

(3) https://www.livingfocusing.co.uk/

(4) Ann Weiser Cornell The Power of Focusing: A Practical Guide To Emotional Self-Healing Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1996

(5) Peter A. Campbell and Edwin M. McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing As A Way To Grow Chicago, Il: Loyola Press, 1985

(6) https://www.biospiritual.org/

 

SPIDER

I’ve been busy with spiders over the last few weeks, noticing their variety both indoors and out. There’s one outside my window as I write. Some of this attention has involved removing spiders from the house. As I become more sensitized to their sentience, I’ve grown somewhat ambivalent about this. Yet from a wider household perspective, it does need to be done. The extract below is from David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous and looks at the life of a spider.

“Consider a spider weaving its web, for instance, and the assumption still held by many scientists that the behavior of such a diminutive creature is thoroughly ‘programmed in its genes.’ Certainly, the spider has received a rich genetic inheritance from its parent and predecessors. Whatever ‘instructions’, however, are enfolded within the living genome, they can hardly predict the specifics of the microterrain within which the spider may find itself in any given moment. They could hardly have determined in advance the exact distances between the cave wall and the branch that the spider is now employing as an anchorage point for her current web, or the exact strength of the monsoon rains that make web-spinning a bit more difficult on this evening.

“The genome could not have explicitly commanded the order of every flexion and extension of her various limbs as she weaves this web into its place. However complex are the inherited ‘programs’, patterns or predispositions, they must still be adapted to the immediate situation in which the spider finds itself. However determinate its genetic inheritance, it must still, as it were, be woven into the present, an activity that necessarily involves both a receptivity to the specific shapes and textures of that present and a spontaneous creativity by which every animate organism necessarily orients itself to the world (and orients the world around itself), that we speak of by the term ‘perception’”.

David Abram The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World New York: Vintage Books, 1997 & 2017

This book has been an inspiration to many people over the last 20 years, including both naturalist and animist Pagans. The extract comes from a section entitled The Mindful Life of the Body.

POEM: I CAN WADE GRIEF

 

I can wade Grief –

Whole pools of it

I’m used to that –

But the least push of Joy

Breaks up my feet

And I tip –

drunken

 

Emily Dickinson

JOHN HERON AND ‘FOURTH WAVE’ HUMANISM

Western Humanism, in John Heron’s view, comes in waves. The first began in 5th century BC Greece, when the Sophists and Socrates “called philosophy down from heaven to earth” by introducing social, political and moral questions. The second began in the Italian Renaissance, which affirmed the worth and dignity of human achievement over against the Christian pre-occupation with sin. The third began with the Enlightenment of the 18th century and became the rational scientific, secular and atheistic humanism of modern times. For Heron, there has also been a fourth wave, distinct in many respects from the third, which began in the domain of humanistic psychology.

The two primary protagonists of humanistic psychology, which emerged in the USA in 1961, were Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. At that time they were clearly aligned to the humanism of the third wave. Maslow was concerned to demonstrate that “spiritual values have naturalistic meaning; that they are not the exclusive possession of organized churches; that they do not need supernatural concepts to justify them; that they are well within the jurisdiction of a suitably enlarged science.” Rogers had a more experiential and phenomenological approach: “It is to experience that I must return again and again; to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming in me. Neither the Bible nor the prophets – neither Freud nor research – neither the revelations of God nor man – can take precedence over my direct experience.”

Over time, both Maslow and Rogers shifted their views. Maslow and other colleagues like Stanislav Grof, became increasingly concerned that they had left out a ‘spiritual’ element within the human psyche and wanted a psychology “that would honour the entire spectrum of human experience, including various non-ordinary states of consciousness”. So they invented a new discipline of ‘transpersonal psychology’ that over time came to be supported by existing, in some ways more traditional, psychological movements with a spiritual dimension – such as the successors of Carl Jung (including the archetypal psychology of James Hillman) and the psychosynthesis tradition initiated by Roberto Assagioli. Carl Rogers was slower to embrace spirituality within psychology and didn’t involve himself in the transpersonal movement. But towards the end of his life he spoke increasingly of presence, inner spirit and self-transcending relationship. “I find that when I am closest to my inner intuitive self, when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me then whatever I do seems full of healing. Then simply my presence is releasing and helpful to the other. When I can be relaxed and close to the transcendental core of me it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself and becomes part of something larger”.

John Heron draws on Rogers for his understanding of a fourth humanist wave. The core precept of fourth wave humanism concerns animation through reaching out and connection: an animism of process rather than ideology. It differs from the doctrinally naturalist view of the third wave by suggesting that our reality exists within a field of what might be called divine potential, or becoming: “the self-determining capacity of humans … presupposes a dynamic context of spiritual animation/inspiration [NB reminiscent of imbhas/awen in Druid tradition] in which persons can actively participate”. In Carl Rogers’ terms, inner spirit reaches out, touches the inner spirit of the other, thereby transcending itself and becoming part of something larger. In Heron’s language, spirit exists within us, between us (named by someone in one in one of his groups as “the band of golden silence”) and beyond us, where an ‘I am’ statement can bring us to a threshold “where personal consciousness is open to consciousness that is anywhere and everywhere”.

Fourth wave humanism, though grounded in human experience, moves on from the exclusivist human centric stance of the third wave. Spiritual animation occurs between people, between people and place and other kinds of beings in that place, or between other kinds of beings independently of humans – the “deep resonance” between trees in the forest is one obvious example. Indeed, like the second wave humanism of the Renaissance, fourth wave humanism makes provision for (but does not insist on) an Otherworld within an extended view of nature/spirit/reality – one with denizens who may be available for animating connection. It is understood that different people – indeed beings – are gifted with different bandwidths of perception, which they will then give an account of in different ways in the light of both personal and cultural factors.

Fourth wave humanism has a strong view of personhood, but one with an alert sense of the tension between the individual and universal. “The spiritual animation between people appears to have a basic polarity, a radical and dynamic complementarity: there is the impulse to realize the individual distinctiveness of being and the impulse to realize interactive unity within wider fields of being … it is a subtle balance: too much individualism leads to egocentric narcissism; too much universalism leads to spiritual fascism, authoritarianism and oppression.” Sometimes, as an alternative to fourth wave humanism, Heron uses the term ‘participatory spirituality’ or a ‘participatory paradigm’ as his world view. This is supported by various co-operative endeavours involving a delicate dance of hierarchy, peer co-operation and personal autonomy and by the discipline of spiritual inquiry.

There is much more to be said, and Humanism: the fourth wave, can be found in full on http://www.human-inquiry.com/hum4.htm I spent many years teaching co-counselling, the peer and reciprocal support system at the heart of John Heron’s work, and also (against my career interests) undertook both Masters and Doctoral degrees using co-operative inquiry, his other major working method, as my methodology. So in a sense this kind of understanding is an embodied part of me – inevitably not in quite the way presented by John Heron himself. I don’t now use either co-counselling or co-operative inquiry as working practices. But I do see my current direction as one of synthesising the best of ‘fourth wave humanism’ with the best of modern Druidry: I discern fruitful synergies between them. My view and practice of Contemplative Druidry (both personal and group based) have already incorporated aspects of this approach. This can be taken further.  For me, embodied and lived ideas inform our stand in life and influence its effectiveness. They have consequences in the wider world.

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