contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: emptiness

DOUGLAS HARDING: THE MIRACLE OF EXISTENCE

“Besides the countless particular miracles that we comprise, there is that supreme irregularity – the fact that anything exists at all. Most unnaturally, there is not just Nothing. How adroit for It to happen! How deserving of our congratulations It is, for having arranged its quite impossible existence! After that, what are a few billion universes more or less.”

These words are from Douglas Harding’s epilogue to The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth (1) published on the recommendation of C. S. Lewis, distinguished scholar and Inkling. Lewis’ introduction places it among “philosophies that have some of the same qualities as works of art”, and he is reminded in that respect of Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game.

Harding describes his work as “an unconventional attempt to discover, for myself and in my own way, what I am and what I amount to in the universe. What am I? That is the question. Let me answer it as honestly and simply as I can, forgetting the ready-made answers.”

Harding also has the courage to declare that he has not found an answer. Instead, he has entered a state of “amazed reverence” that reveals his whole inquiry as both “absurd” and “a needful absurdity”. He finds that “because all my roots are in the Undiscoverable, I also am undiscoverable: I will not bear inspection, and can never make head or tail of myself. Self-knowledge is the smouldering wick that is left after the light of wonder has been put out. … If this book quenches the feeblest flame of awe, of direct awareness, in myself or anyone else, then it were better never to have written it”.

Harding did not end his inquiry with The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth. Instead, he went on to become a midwife of direct awareness, and The Headless Way (https://www.headless.org) was born. Where The Hierarchy of heaven & Earth is concerned with exuberant yet disciplined system building, Harding’s later work challenges each of us to ‘look for yourself’ using a set of experiments, now accessible on The Headless Way website. I reported an early, intensive experience of them on return from a four day retreat with the Headless Way in 2016 – https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2016/07/28/look-for-yourself/ Interestingly, my wrap-around commentary, especially the post-workshop phase, would now be a little different from the one in that post, while my report of the direct experience remains the same. In my current practice, I particularly draw on a seven point version of the experiments presented in Head Off Stress (2).

I never met Douglas Harding in person – my discovery of the Headless Way is too recent. But his writing and recorded material show never-ending wonder at the miracle of existence. They also show his passion for facilitating a transformative recognition of who we really are, and then to live from that recognition.

“I certainly don’t find myself

on the brink of a bottomless abyss,

trying to make up my mind

whether to let go and take that dreadful plunge.

I am already clear of the brink

and free-falling,

and have never been otherwise.

To see this,

all I have to do is look for myself,

and fail to find myself, and find instead

the treasure that has no name

in the well

at the world’s end.”

(1) D. E. Harding The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth London: The Shollond Trust, 2011 Introduction by C. S. Lewis. (Abridged edition – original edition published by Faber & Faber in 1952)

(2) D. E. Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (Originally published by Arkana in 1990)

(3) Douglas Harding Everyday Seeing: daily meditations on the One within London: The Shollond Trust, 2019 (Quotations selected by Richard Land)

MUSICAL MEDITATION: THE SHAKUHACHI FLUTE

Shakuhachi flute music is a meditation for players and listeners alike. It is dance of sound and silence, of movement and stillness. Some people call it, ‘blowing Zen’. In this music, a rise and fall of notes gives way to space and stillness, which in turn give way to a rise and fall of notes. Eckhardt Tolle identifies shakuhachi flute music as a portal to the experience of consciousness being conscious of itself – and so a direct realization of what he calls the Deep I.

Bamboo flutes first came to Japan from China in the 7th century CE (1). The current shakuhachi was developed in Japan in the16th century. It is called fuke shakuhachi because of the instrument’s role in the Fuke sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Monks known as komusu (priests of nothingness, or emptiness monks) who used the shakuhachi as a spiritual tool. Their songs were paced according to the players’ breathing and were considered meditation as much as music.

Their spiritual practice required them to move from place to place playing the shakuhachi and begging for alms. The monks wore wicker baskets over their heads, as a symbol of their detachment from the world. But the world being the place that it is, it was more like a semi-detachment. Travel around Japan was restricted by the Shogunate at that time, and the Fuke only got their exemption by agreeing to spy for the authorities and allowing the Shogun to send out his own spies in the guise of Fuke monks. In response to these developments, several particularly difficult shakuhachi pieces became known as tests. If you could play them, you were a real Fuke. If you couldn’t, you were probably a spy and might very well be killed in unfriendly territory. With the Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1868, the Fuke sect was abolished along with the Shogunate itself, and shakuhachi playing was banned for a number of years.

The Wikipedia article on shakuhachi (1) provides information about the instrument and its capabilities, as well as its current international popularity and the formal link with Zen broken.. There is an International Shakuhachi Society which maintains a directory of notable professional, amateur and teaching shakuhachi players.

(1) https://en.wkipedia.org/wiki/Shakuhachi/ (NB This reference gets you to a page where you will need to type in Shakuhachi)

DANCING SEAHORSES II

I have already written about the Dancing Seahorses image (1) found on a Pictish stone from Aberlemno in the Scottish county of Angus. After seeing the stone on a visit there, in 1992, I bought Marianne Lines’ painting. I have felt strongly involved with this image ever since. I think of it as a friend and guide. In a sense, this post is about the modern use of archaic images by people, like Druids, who are drawn to them.

I do not know the intentions of the original carver. beyond celebrating beings who are half of this world, half of the otherworld, and who embody powerful water energies for Celtic peoples on the Atlantic coasts of Britain, Ireland and Brittany in ancient times. They are remembered in folklore to this day. I do know that the carving made a strong impression on me, when I first saw it on the stone itself. It stayed in my imagination, and over time has deepened and grown new meanings.

Four years after acquiring the painting, I had the image tattooed on each arm. By that time I knew of the way in which it had influenced the cover design for R. J. Stewart’s The Prophetic Vision of Merlin (2). This variant form was used to refer to the story of the young Merlin at Vortigern’s subsidence prone tower in Snowdonia, prophesying his way out of becoming a human sacrifice, and identifying two contending dragons under the foundations. In the book illustration, there is a yin-yang reference, with a suggestions of interdependent primal forces, each of which already contains the seed of the other, seeking balance and alignment. In the Western Mysteries quest for healing and transfiguration, the energy bodies of the land and of humans are deeply interwoven.

There is another, more recent level of understanding, that I derive from the painting and tattoos, but not evident in The Prophetic Vision of Merlin. I see both the dancing seahorses and a second image, behind and containing the immediately apparent one. As I wrote before, “the space where the horses legs are raised defines a shape, suggesting a head. The very emptiness there is a paradoxical mark of presence. To me it became the head of a goddess, with the seahorses then becoming her body. Still clearly appearing as a water being, her arms – if they are arms – are raised in blessing”. I would now add that in this way, she demonstrates the dance of emptiness and form. They are balanced. Neither is privileged over the other. The Celtic knot points both to interconnection and infinity.

I identified the Goddess whilst gazing directly at the original Dancing Seahorses picture, which hangs of a wall directly above my altar. However I believe I received a subconscious nudge from the High Priestess card in The Druidcraft Tarot (3). She wears the image herself. Her hands are raised. She stands as the Goddess. In the Druidcraft narrative, she “represents the magical power of stillness and depth”. For me, the Goddess in Dancing Seahorses represents the ultimate union of emptiness and form, and the rebirth of the cosmos in each moment. Her representation combines the aware potential of the void and a primal aquatic generativity that can inhabit other elements. The Druidcraft priestess is human, but one who wears an image that bespeaks the divine to me, and her role asks for “stillness and depth”.

In my work, the entry into stillness and depth is, firstly, to enter into I-Thou communion with the primal Goddess (Modron) and then to recognise my own true nature, as (mythically) her divine child (Mabon) – sensitive and busted open to the world. This recognition becomes a prayer of gratitude and a surrender of my passing private concerns to Who I really am.

Words and pictures are not enough, but, cherished and contemplated lovingly over time, together they can point the way..

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/06/25/dancing-seahorses/

(2) R. J. Stewart The Prophetic Vision of Merlin London & New York: Arkana, 1986

(3) Philip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druidcraft Tarot: Use the Magic of Wicca and Druidry to Guide Your Life London: Connections, 2004 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)

PHILIP CARR-GOMM: DELICIOUS EMPTINESS

I attach a link to Philip Carr-Gomm’s podcast Delicious Emptiness, in his Tea with a Druid series. The series is produced by the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD) which Philip led for over thirty years. The podcast beautifully describes meditation as a means of cultivating ‘delicious emptiness’ and its possible fruits. Highly recommended. OBOD can be found on http://www.druidry.org/ .

THE PASSAGE OF TIME

The years roll on, with ever increasing speed. This is me in 1952, sitting to have my picture taken in a photographer’s studio. I just about remember the occasion as a significant event, for which I was carefully dressed and coached. I am pleased to report that this eager, inquisitive (if slightly anxious?) boy has never died, though at times he is hard to find. His image reminds me of the magical, light bringing child in each of us, whatever else we have become. Buried, it may be. Wounded, confined or hiding, in some cases, at some times. But still there, still embodied in old and hidden places, awaiting renewed recognition and love.

This is midwinter and a time of reminiscing and stocktaking. On 20 December 2019 I wrote: “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”. (https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/20/approaching-the-years-turn/).

At that time I undertook to give more attention to the wheel of the year, and to cultivate certain values: lovingkindness; positive health and well-being; a life of abundant simplicity; and a spirit of openness, creativity and wisdom (https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/27/values-for-2020). Sometimes during the year I have been on point and sometimes I have not. I do feel overall that these were good choices for the year of Covid-19 and I have at least paid them conscious attention.

I do not approach 2021 with new and different thinking. I expect it to be another challenging year, especially in the early months, no doubt in a slightly different way. I will bring the same approach to 2021 as to 2020, perhaps enhancing the qualities of simplicity and openness, leaning more towards the centre rather than the periphery of the wheel. This could be the role of the elder within. There is room both for youth and age in one person.

DRAGONS, ARCHETYPES & STORYTELLING

Extract in which Ursula K. Le Guin looks at the creative evolution of her six Earthsea books. The focus is on new perspectives in the fourth book, Tehanu.

“In Tehanu, Tenar is brushing her hair on a windy dry morning, so that it crackles and makes sparks, and the one-eyed child Therru is fascinated, seeing what she calls ‘the fire flying out all over the sky’.

“At that moment, Tenar first asked herself how Therru saw her – saw the world – and knew that she did not know; that she could not know what one saw with an eye that had been burned away. And Ogion’s words – ‘they will fear her’ – returned to her, but she felt no fear of the child. Instead, she brushed her hair again, vigorously, so the sparks would fly, and once again, she heard the little husky laugh of delight.

“Soon after this scene, Tenar herself has a moment of double vision, seeing with two different eyes. An old man in the village has a beautiful painted fan; on one side are figures of lords and ladies of the royal court, but on the other side, usually hidden against the wall:

Dragons moved as the folds of the fan moved. Painted faint and fine on the yellowed silk, dragons of pale red, blue, green moved and grouped, as the figures on the other side were grouped, among clouds and mountain peaks.

‘Hold it up to the light’, said old Fan.

She did so, and saw the two sides, the two paintings, made one by the light flowing through the silk, so that the clouds and peaks were the towers of the city, and the men and women were winged, and the dragons looked with human eyes.

‘You see?’

‘I see,’ she murmured.

“What is this double vision, two things seen as one? What can the blinded eye teach the seeing eye? What is the wilderness? Who are the dragons?

“Dragons are archetypes, yes; mind forms, a way of knowing. But these dragons aren’t St. George’s earthly worm, nor are they the Emperor of China’s airy servant. I am not European, not Asian, and I am not a man. These are the dragons of a new world, and the visionary forms of an old woman’s mind. The mythopoeticists err, I think, in using the archetype as a rigid, filled mold. If we see it only as a vital potentiality, it becomes a guide into mystery. Fullness is a fine thing, but emptiness is the secret of it, as Lao Tze said. The dragons of Earthsea remain mysterious to me.”

(1) Ursula K. Le Guin Earthsea Revisited In Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition London: Gollanz, 2018 Illustrated by Charles Vess.

Earthsea Revisited is a printed version of a lecture delivered in 1992, in which Ursula K. Le Guin described the lifelong revisioning of gender and culture which changed her approach to storytelling. This evolution moved her decisively away from the traditional, masculine, ‘hero’s journey’ framework with which she started. Books of Earthsea brings together all six books, with additional stories and authorial reflections from different periods. Some of this work has been familiar to me for a long time, and some is new. I found it helpful to have all of the material collected in one volume.

THICH NHAT HANH ON LIVING BEINGS

In the extract below, Thich Nhat Hanh offers Buddhist thoughts, which seem to me to have considerable resonance for Druids, with their animist and earth-honouring perspective and their support for deep ecology.

“There is no absolute dividing line between animate and inanimate, between living matter and inert matter. In so-called inert matter there is life, and living beings are dependent on so-called inert matter. If we took the so-called inanimate elements out of you and me, we would not be able to live. We are made of non-human elements. This is what is taught in the Diamond Sutra, an ancient Buddhist text that could be considered the world’s first treatise on deep ecology. We cannot draw a hard distinction between human beings and other living beings, or between living beings and inert matter.

There is vitality in everything.

The entire cosmos is radiant with vitality.

“If we see the Earth as just a block of matter lying outside of us, then we have not yet truly seen the Earth. We need to be able to see that we are part of the Earth, and to see that the entire Earth is in us. The Earth is also alive; it has intelligence and creativity. … Looking with the eyes of non-discrimination, we can establish a very close relationship with the Earth. We look at the Earth with our heart and not with the eyes of cold reasoning. You are the planet, and the planet is you. The well-being of your body is not possible without the well-being of the planet. And that is why to protect the well-being of your body, we must protect the well-being of the planet. This is the insight of emptiness*.” (1)

  • To be empty, for Thich Nhat Hanh, is to be empty of a permanent, separate self. Hence ‘to be’ is to ‘inter-be’. He coined the word ‘inter-being’ to emphasise this point in his teaching.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017

ELAINE’S CAULDRON: BURNING DEAD LEAVES

My wife Elaine created this midsummer cauldron fire, now ten days ago. It was fuelled in part by dry dead leaves. She chose the evening of the day itself rather than the traditional eve. The point about midsummer (24 June) is that the sun is on the move again after its moment of stasis, clearly beginning its decline. It acts as the polar opposite of the Sol Invictus or Christmas festival in late December. The Church gives 24 June to John the Baptist, decapitated at the wish of his nemesis Salome.

In our neighbourhood, there is a paradox about July. It is the quintessential summer month, in which the light begins to diminish. At the moment, sunrise is at about 4.50 am., with sunset at 9.20 pm. By Lughnasadh, it will be rising at 5.25 am and setting before 8.50 pm. In August, the process will accelerate while the earth and sea remain warm by North Atlantic standards. Getting up an hour or so after sunrise I am tending to find a dull and cloudy sky. There can be a stillness in the air, disturbed perhaps by blackbird pair flying low amongst the trees. I have a sense of latency.

The inquiry phase beginning at the 2019 winter solstice has settled a number of issues. I am re-confirmed in a modern Druid practice that is held within a circle and seven directions (E, S, W, N, below, above, centre), and is mindful of the wheel of the year. I also settled my approach to ethics at the beginning of this inquiry year (1) drawing on the work of modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers with his re-visioning of ancient Greek ‘virtue’ ethics (2). I have deepened in my experience of an at-homeness in the flowing moment, and its therapeutic benefits, which I wrote about last year (3). Fully established in my life, these are no longer fundamental inquiry issues. The uncertainties I formerly had with them are like dead leaves, now safe to burn.

For all that I have gained from other paths – Tantra, Tao, Zen, other forms of Buddhism, and Christian Gnosticism – I know that I will not be practising or following them. I will continue to appreciate their literatures and cite them in this blog, but this will be from the perspective of the appreciative outsider. Here too the active inquiry is over. Uncertainties have shrunken into dead leaves, and are safe to burn.

I know that, in the turbulent, airy mental realm, I have contending gnostic and agnostic energies. They are co-arising twins, and neither is going away. I still have work to do to find a settled home for them both. I am also concerned about how, more elegantly, to fit an ‘emptiness’ understanding into an earth pathway. A feeling about myth, and the truth and beauty of myth, is tied up with this. In the coming phase, I will look again at R. J. Stewart’s Merlin work for help with these questions. This reprise is also part of my older person’s looking back, recalling what I have valued, and asking what role it can still play. It sets my direction for the second half of the year.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/27/values-for-2020/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2018/07/02/ethics-and-civilization/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/06/30/meditation-and-healing/

LIVING WITH EASE

By simply looking out from my bedroom window, I can enjoy the abundance of high summer, as the year moves on from the solstice. The lush foliage speaks of ease and fulfilment. ‘Summertime and the living is easy’, says the old song. In a customised version of the Buddhist lovingkindness meditation, I say: ‘A blessing on my life. May I be free from harm; may I be healthy; may I be happy; may I live with ease’ … gradually extending the circle of care through my loved ones through wider circles of acquaintance, eventually including all beings throughout the cosmos. But what does living with ease add to freedom from harm, or to health and happiness?

In my experience, this comes from my experience of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. I treat the flowing moment as a quality of experience rather than a unit of time. Otherwise I might be tempted to measure the right length of a moment’ to be ‘present’ or ‘flow’ in. It would have to be brief, but long enough to register experientially. Even so, I would probably find myself lying in wait for such a moment in the hope of catching one before it went. This would not be a skilful means of living with ease.

Instead, I enter the flowing moment, intentionally, by slowing down and taking notice. Eyes open, I take in the world visually, in all its riches, and check out my sensations, feelings, thoughts and any internal imagery that might override the physical view. I am not identified with any of these experiences. They are not me. I am empty and at home in the flow of sensation and perception. In this state, I ideally avoid stories like ‘there are trees on the other side of this window’. If I enter such a story, that is just another passing experience, a bubble in the flowing moment. It is in my empty core that the flowing moment becomes my home. In a sense, it is the emptiness itself that is the home. But it feels most like home when a world of sensation and perception appears to fill the space. Emptiness and form are interdependent. They need each other to flourish.

The flowing moment is not my default setting in daily life. Other states of attention come to the fore. The flowing moment, which I can enter and leave at any time, is available as a home to go to when I want or need it: hence my phrase ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. Entering and leaving is a conscious, careful decision, though it does not require retreat conditions or labelling as a formal spiritual practice.

‘At-homeness in the flowing moment’ can work in bad times as well as good. For the emptiness at my core can also be full and loving. It does not judge distressed and negative reactions. It does not try to smooth over feelings of dismay about the wider world. It holds them in peace and lovingkindness. In my morning circle, I ask for peace in the four directions, in the below, the above and throughout the world. But the centre is different. I stand in the peace of the centre, at the heart of living presence. This is the source of my ease, the nurturing emptiness that stands behind my at-homeness in the flowing moment .

EMPTINESS AND INTERBEING

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

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/ an earlier post that I’ve been able to draw on here.

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