contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: embodied spirituality

TURN ME TO GOLD

Turn Me to Gold: 108 Poems of Kabir (1) is a beautiful book, and the fruit of “five years spent in the unremitting presence of Kabir”. For Andrew Harvey, “Kabir is far more than a poet; he is a universal initiatory field, as expansive as Rumi and as embodied, radical and ferocious as Jesus”. Harvey himself is more than a translator, working with his “whole mind, heart and body on breathing and living his words, the fierce temperature of his truth” and speaking of his own work as “strange, precise” and “ecstatic”. I do not think of this post as an attempted book review, since both Kabir and Harvey are asking to be met rather than evaluated. Rather, I am attempting an act of recognition.

I have written about Kabir’s work before in this blog. In the past I have used other translations (2,3), particularly Robert Bly’s. Having now read Harvey’s work, I am clear that it would now be my first port of call when engaging with Kabir, whilst retaining my respect for the other translations and feeling glad to have them. When a text from another language, culture and time is important to me, I like to have multiple translations. Turn Me to Gold has the additional merit of Brett Hurd’s accompanying photographs of modern Varanasi.

A weaver by trade but a poet-singer by calling, Kabir lived in the Varanasi (Benares) of the fifteenth century. His philosophy incorporated various beliefs of both Muslims and Hindus and later became one of the major influences behind Sikhism. Like Rumi, further to the west and generations earlier, he followed a devotional and ecstatic path, and like Rumi he tried to be a bridge builder between traditions. His work, written as songs for public performance with musical accompaniment, was enduringly popular, surviving in late manuscripts from different parts of India, which show modification over time by the region, religion and caste position of generations of listeners. Kabir experienced himself as filled with the Divine, simply, directly and completely, and so was not a friend of religious formalism or extreme practices done for their own sake:

“I’m not in austerities, not in meditation,

Not in feasts, not in fasts,

Not in rituals laid down in sacred texts,

Not in yogic exercises –

Look for Me with passionate sincerity,

I’ll be beside you immediately.

Kabir says; Listen to Me –

Where your deepest faith is, I am.

Kabir had no truck with waiting for an afterlife: “everyone says they’re going to ‘Heaven. Where this ‘Heaven’ is, I don’t know … As long as you look for ‘Heaven’, you’ll never find your home’. To come alive, spiritual experience needs to be present and embodied:

“More than anything else

I cherish at heart,

What in this world

Makes me live

A limitless life”.

That sense of living a “limitless life” in “this world” connects Kabir’s poetic witness to my own contemplative inquiry, helping to enrich its purpose and meaning. I am a modern Druid, more Universalist than Pagan, and I have been concerned, though active, practical inquiry, to craft a practice that I call ‘contemplative’. But this identification, socially useful as it is, dissolves within the molten core of the practice itself. I do not have quite the sense of personified divinity that Kabir and Harvey do, but I have what I imagine to be the cognate experience of at-homeness in the flowing moment. In practice terms, this is represented in the “peace” at the centre of my circle, which I describe further as “the bubbling source from which I spring and heart of living presence”. This is an energised, dynamic and joyful peace, not a calm or static one. Such a peace, for me, is a taste of limitless life in this world. I find it hard to talk or write about – the words keep going subtly wrong for me. Kabir and Harvey use the language of love, and perhaps they are right. This peace is an aspect of love.

“You can’t tell

The story of love.

Not a word of it

Has ever been told.

A dumb man

Eats a sweet

And smiles for joy.”

(1) Kabir Turn Me To Gold: 1018 poems of Kabir Unity Village, MO: Unity Books, 2018 Translations by Andrew Harvey Photographs by Brett Hurd.

(2) Kabir Ecstatic Poems Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992 English versions by Robert Bly

(3) Kabir Songs of Kabir New York, NY: MacMillan, 1915 Translated by Rabindranath Tagore, assisted by Evelyn Underhill

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.

ANIMISM IS A HARD-WORKING WORD

Introducing The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (2013)* editor Graham Harvey describes animism as “a hard-working word”. For him, “it identifies a range of interesting phenomena but also labels several distinct ways of understanding such matters”.

Harvey’s own interest was sparked by postdoctoral research among varied groups of Pagans, which brought him into contact with people who identified as animists. It seemed to him that the word was being used in two contrasting ways. “Some Pagans identified animism as the part of their religious practice or experience which involved encounters with tree-spirits, river-spirits or ancestor-spirits. This animism was metaphysical … Other Pagans seemed to 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.”

Fast-forward seven years to now, and ‘animist’ is clearly an important identifier for considerable numbers of people. many of whom draw on both kinds of understanding distinguished by Harvey. Accelerating environmental degradation, species loss and the ever more obvious climate crisis have given the second understanding greater salience and urgency, even when not reinforced by the first.

The Handbook gives valuable information about the history and hinterland of a word that I and my spiritual community use. For ‘animism’ did not arise as a term for people to describe their own experience. It comes from 19th century anthropology, developed by people from a dominant culture (largely European/North American, with a mix of Christian and secular ideas) to study the traditional practices of other people, most of whom were in the process of becoming colonial subjects and living in cultures under stress. Even in the current collection, with its de-colonised anthropology and room for first nations voices, ‘animism’, however positively reframed, is still an awkward piece of labelling for some contributors. One says, “we just call it tradition”.

So ‘animism’ is not innocent. Yet despite this dubious history, it is clear that animism does have inspirational potential as a positive term in our faltering 21st century world. Regardless of where we stand in our metaphysics, any of us can work to re-imagine and re-direct our “participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community” in a way that is “relational, embodied” and, if we so choose, “eco-activist”. How we do these things is up to us. I will look at the work of some of the individual contributors in future posts.

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

POEM: FIELD

They will not mesh, the very small and the large.

They will not converge.

On that side of the mirror, flickering fringes –

Superposition, quantum probabilities,

Shimmering light and dark; on this,

Nature has made its choice.

Time, space –

They will not bend both ways at once.

When the little ideas slip into bodies like clothes

They step through the mirror, enter

An irreducible level of noise –

Gravitational decoherence, dependent on mass.

Worlds, how sad we are to leave our dreaming behind.

So lovely we were then, so light, so playful.

But how compelling to have a body. In fact,

Irresistible.

From: Katrina Porteous Edge Hexham, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2019

Blurb note: “Edge contains three poem sequences, Field, Sun and the title sequence, which extend Porteous’s previous work on nature, place and time beyond the human scale. They take the reader from the micro quantum worlds underlying the whole Universe, to the macro workings of our local star, the potential for primitive life elsewhere in the solar system on moons such as Enceladus, and finally to the development of complex consciousness on our own planet. As scientific inquiry reveals the beauty and poetry of the Universe, Edge celebrates the almost-miraculous local circumstances which enable us to begin to understand it. All thre pieces were commissioned for performance in Life Science Centre Planetarium, Newcastle, between 2013 and 2016, with electronic music by Peter Zinovieff.”

LIGHT ON TREES

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.

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/

REBLOG: ATHEOPAGANISM FOR SOLITARIES

We’re a subgroup of a subculture. Of a couple of them, actually: atheism and Paganism. So it’s not a surprise that though there are many of us collectively, we are spread thinly and may live far away from anyone else who identifies as practicing the path of Atheopaganism. Thus, this post, about practicing as a […]

Atheopaganism for Solitaries — Atheopaganism

XR STORIES

This re-blog, from The Earthbound Report, presents three stories from the recent Extinction Rebellion (XR) action in London. Written from an insider perspective, they illustrate the movement culture that XR seeks to model.

Three little XR stories you won’t read in the papers — The Earthbound Report

FEELINGS AND CONTEMPLATION

“In meditation, when a wave of feeling comes to visit – a grief, a fear, an unexpected anger or melancholy – can you stay present with that wave, breathe into it, let go of trying to ‘let go’ of it, and simply let it be, let it live, let it express itself right now within you? Can you notice the impulse in you to resist it, to refuse it, distract yourself from it and move away from your experience? Don’t judge or shame yourself for that impulse either, for wanting to have a different experience that you’re having – it’s an old habit, this urge to disconnect, this impulse to flee, this addiction to ‘elsewhere’.

” But see, today, if you can stay very close to ‘what is’, see if you can actually connect with the visiting feeling, gently lean in to your experience as it happens. Instead of shutting down, moving away, denying the energy in the body, can you gently open up to it? Can you flush it with curious attention? Let it move in you? Stay present throughout its life cycle, as it is born, expresses what it has to express, and falls back into Presence, its oceanic home?” (1)

The extract above is from a piece by Jeff Foster called When We Push Feelings Away. I support his approach, though I don’t now make firm distinctions between an activity called ‘meditation’ and the spontaneous flow of attention. I can stay present with the wave of feeling, and breathe into it, whether I’m ‘in meditation’ as a defined practice or not.  Meditation, once exotic and formal, has become naturalised. My contemplative life is pared down and minimalist, holding a strong sense of the sacred in daily life, including the work of self-healing. Jeff Foster continues:

“… One day, deep in meditation, perhaps, we remember, all feelings are sacred and have a right to exist in us, even the messiest and most inconvenient and painful ones. And we remember to turn towards our feelings instead of turning away. To soften into them. To make room for them instead of numbing them or ignoring them. …. So much creativity is released, so much relief is felt, when we break this age-old pattern of self-abandonment and repression, go beyond our careful conditioning, and try something totally new: staying close to feelings, as they emerge in the freshness of the living moment, waving to us, calling to us, seeking their true home in our heart of hearts.”

Jeff Foster calls this piece Pushing Feelings Away. I like his concern with holding and acceptance within what he calls Presence. I call my overall path a Sophian Way, and not The Sophian Way, because it is a solitary path that morphs and shifts.  Jeff Foster works with personal feelings from a transpersonal, non-dual  perspective that I find very Sophian, characterised  by wisdom, contemplation and compassion. My own path brings together this approach with the Eco-spirituality – or ‘Nature Mysticism’ – catalysed by my experience of modern Druidry.

(1) Jeff Foster The Joy of True Meditation: words of encouragement for tired minds and wild hearts Salisbury: New Sarum Press, 2019

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