contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Health

A TAKE ON ‘GENEROSITY’

“Generosity begins in welcome: a hospitality that offers whatever the host has that would meet the need of a guest. The welcome of opening the doors of one’s home signifies the opening of the self to others, including guests who may disrupt and demand. To guests who suffer, the host’s welcome is an initial promise of consolation. If the cosmic creation of life is the founding act of generosity, the human gift of consolation has at least one analogous quality: no reciprocity is required, for indeed none may be possible.

“When the giving of consolation is taken to be the paradigm of generosity, our imagination of what might be a generous relationship moves beyond material gifts and the economy of exchange that material gifts instigate. Generosity transcends any expectation of what the gift may bring back in reciprocity. Generosity implies the host’s trust in the renewable capacity to give; the generous person feels no need to measure what is given against what is received. Generosity does not plan for the giver’s own future. It responds to the guest’s need.

“Yet because what is offered can never meet the guest’s need completely, the welcome that generosity offers contains a plea for forgiveness. The biblical story of Job’s three friends, who arrive to console him and stay to accuse him, reminds us that consolation will always go wrong to some degree, and generosity always falls short.

“Generosity accepts our ultimate human failure to be generous. What counts is continuing to reopen the door of hospitality, welcoming the guest who needs consolation.” (1)

(1) Arthur W. Frank The Renewal of Generosity: Illness, Medicine, and How to Live Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2004 (In the context of the book, Frank advocates a generosity of spirit both to the givers and receivers of care, in systems that tend to be technocratic and subject to resource constraints.)

STRENGTH IN SIMPLICITY

In recent days, living a pared down life, I have seen the strength in simplicity. Both my contemplation and my inquiry are reflecting this. I have a few simple practices adapted from a variety of sources. At first under the pressure of illness, I have moved away from the kind of system building that was drawing my attention a month ago (1). Now I have reminded myself that customising, using a light touch, and keeping practice relatively simple has been my generally preferred way of responding to influences. It helps me to avoid half-awarely ventriloquising teachers and to maintain my own discernment.

As an example (2), I describe a simple meditation. It focuses on the breath because that is something I am busy with – and ambivalent about thanks to my COPD. In it I draw on the understanding that breath and spirit share the same word in some languages (e.g pneuma in Greek). No more than ten minutes is needed for a session.

Although simple, the practice does have a liturgical framing – for instance adapting one of Stewart’s Qabalistic crossing forms from The Miracle Tree. I also draw on my OBOD background, especially the commitment to finding peace. This kind of framing helps. In formal practices like this, I am not just plunging into raw experience. I have other opportunities for that. Rather, the practice affirms an already existing perspective, developed over time, and this is what the words proclaim.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2022/04/05/towards-an-integration/

(2) See text below:

Crossing, using my right hand, I say: In the name of Wisdom (forehead), Love (pubic bone), Justice (right shoulder), Mercy (left shoulder), and the Living Breath (both hands over upper chest). I enter stillness. Then I say: Deep within my innermost being, I find peace. Silently, within the stillness of this space, I cultivate peace. Heartfully, within the wider web of life, may I radiate peace.

I do a breath exercise*, and then say: I am a movement of the breath and stillness in the breath; living presence in a field of living presence: here, now, and home.

Then, I begin slow, deep breathing, as if inviting the Cosmos to breathe through me. I may use the I AM mantra. For me it affirms the non-separation of the finite life and the Source, and the gift of a place within the ecology of being.

On completion I repeat the Crossing and say: I give thanks for this meditation. May it nourish and illuminate my life. May there be peace throughout the world.

*11x breathe in through nose, counting to 8; hold, counting to 8; out through mouth, counting to 8, hold, counting to 8.

WISDOM’S HOUSE

Two people hold each other in mutual gaze. Both their mutuality and their individuality are very clear. The space between them defines a chalice, or grail. In stillness they are present to each other, within a dynamic field of I-Thou relationship. The gestalt is one of communion. Their world has come alive.

Eckhart Tolle speaks of a wisdom that is not the product of thought, and which comes with the ability to be still. “Just look and listen. No more is needed. Being still, looking and listening activates the non-conceptual intelligence within you. Let stillness direct your words and actions” (1).

He goes on: “wisdom is not the product of thought. The deep knowing that is wisdom arises through the simple act of giving someone or something your full attention. Attention is primordial intelligence, consciousness itself. It dissolves the barriers created by conceptual thought, and with it comes the recognition that nothing exists in and by itself. It joins the perceiver and the perceived in a unifying field of awareness. It is the healer of separation”.

I think of wisdom, in this sense, as the healer in the heart. Not the organ that continues to pump at a not-too-elevated rate when my blood oxygen declines, and therefore a resiliency factor for my physical health. It is, rather, the heart of awareness – personified again as it has been before by a Goddess of Wisdom. She came to me, at night, at a wakeful time when my breathing was particularly laboured and I felt like a freshly landed fish. She acted as a discreetly background presence, pointing me to the vision of a radiant grail, palpably emanating the energy and resources of all four elementary powers.

Pragmatically I felt empowered to weather a challenging experience. Beyond that, the Goddess invites me to let go of identification with the mind-made ‘little me’ as a limited and confining construct. The reward is an expansion into love, joy, creativity and inner peace. I have bounced back from my COPD flare-up in the last few days and will do what I can to rebuild my physical capacity. But the lesson, that healing is not the same as being physically fixed, and asks for a different kind of commitment, applies both in bad times and good.

(1) Eckhart Tolle Stillness Speaks Novato, CA, USA: New World Library & Vancouver, BC, Canada: Namaste Publishing, 2003

GREYFRIARS: A SENSE OF PLACE

Greyfriars is the shell of a church that once belonged to the Franciscan friary founded in Gloucester, England, around 1231 (1). The friars rebuilt their church in 1519. What is left of it, after a series of violent transitions including its final restoration, is a slightly bleak twentieth century heritage ruin, saved for me by its elegant arches. It does, I find, support an aspect of tranquility in this neighbourhood, along with an active Quaker Meeting House purpose built early in the nineteenth century. I live in a city centre, on a densely populated estate, yet it doesn’t feel that way. Good modern insulation helps, but my sense of place suggests an underlying leaning towards calm.

I notice this because I have been more-or-less housebound since I last wrote, with a further deterioration in my health, until a welcome uptick in the last couple of days. The picture, taken on 9 April doesn’t do the building full justice. It is much more substantial than it looks, with both the nave and north aisle in place. But it is the view from my home. My sense of place within the confines of house, block and estate has sharpened. The Greyfriars ruins nourish me, as do sun, shadow and sky in this urban environment.

I have been processing health concerns: the advantages and limitations of having a label (COPD); dealing with health services and new medications; wondering about lifestyle adjustments; considering risk and resiliency factors, what’s in my power to influence and what isn’t; the ecology of relationship, especially thinking of my wife Elaine and challenges I may pose to her as a person with health issues of her own; feelings of relief that our cynically underfunded health system is holding me well, except at the political level where decision makers want to forget about COVID. (People with COPD are prone to infections, and this would not be a good one.) I also ask myself what role, if any, my spiritual view and practice might play. This is a whole line of inquiry in itself, and one to go into as I stabilise, and find a new ‘normal’.

(1) see https://gloucester500.co.uk/greyfriars/ for more illustrations and further information

LIMITS AND BLESSINGS

In my world, this is a time of laboured breath and limited capacity for walking. While medical investigations are underway, I am constrained in what I can do. But walking outside, taking slow deep breaths, and drinking plenty of water are medically and spiritually recommended. Today I went outside for the first time in some days, water bottle to hand, and a rhythm of slow, deep breathing established.

I walked in my neighbourhood and a nearby local park. The picture above is a treescape from that park. For me, it is images solidity and endurance alongside blue sky and spring growth. In itself, it occupies a unique niche in the web of life. I enjoy its company, and the opportunity to record its presence here.

My world may seem, at least for the time being, to have shrunken. My own presence in it, and my perceptions when present to it, do not have to shrink along with the physical distance I can cover. A necessary slowing down contains it own opportunities. I have space and time to enjoy the willows here, their leaves, and the shadows of their leaves. I am constrained to take notice. I appreciate the experience of noticing. I am reminded that I am just outside the period assigned to willow in my personal tree mandala (1,2), but of course it is not too late to connect and commune. There are compensations nested in my unwanted condition.

I find the houses and their surrounding plant life photogenic, not least under a blue April sky. The season has been advancing, the equinox now well past. Around me, I find an energetic acceleration towards summer. Hildegard von Bingen called this kind of natural power viriditas. I can recognise and enjoy it even when I’m lagging behind.

Very close to home I encounter the ruins of Gloucester’s Franciscan Priory, sadly with a nondescript mid C20th building tacked on behind them. They are a landmark for me on my return. I’m tired. I’ve about reached my limit. Although I’m sad that my walking distance is so limited, I feel blessed and nourished by what I find within the limitations. I am also glad to sit down and recognise feeling at once refreshed and exhausted.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/tree-mandala/willow/

(2) The mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees for this quarter are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

IN MEMORIAM: GRIEVING IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC

In Memoriam is a touring artwork by Bristol-based artist Luke Jerram. His installation, as shown on Weston beach on 16 September, is a temporary memorial for those lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a tribute to the NHS health and care workers who have been risking their lives during the crisis. I was in Weston with my wife Elaine at the time, and we explored the installation both separately and together.

The exhibition is made up of 100 flags, originally hospital bed sheets, planted in the sand. A bird’s eye view would show a blue cross against as white background. When I photographed the installation at sunset on 16 September, it felt numinous to me and slightly reminiscent, in its feeling-tone, of an ancient ritual site. I wonder if our distant ancestors had portable and perishable structures for enhancing ritual space as well as the great stone ones that remain part of our landscape. It seems likely.

Luke says of his work: “As we move towards the end of this pandemic in the UK, it feels like, as a nation, we need to come to terms with everything we’ve been through. With funerals limited in their capacity and places of worship closed, it’s been hard for many people to grieve properly.  I hope this artwork will create a framed space and moment in time for personal and shared reflection”. http://www.memoriamartwork.com/about

The exhibition has been deliberately placed in the open air and in windy locations, inviting people to enter, contemplate and explore the artwork.  The experience recorded above combined shape, colour, sound and movement – all at twilight, leaning in to the autumn equinox, in a meeting place of land sea and sky. For me, both the time and place made a difference, manifesting the power of liminal times and spaces wherever they are found.

My earlier, day-time experience of the installation had been different. Then, the scene felt defined and organised, with clear edges. A blue sky with light patches of cloud matched the flags. At the same time, the sense of a darker ground was evident, with shadows like freshly dug graves.

The flags installation has been touring the UK for about a year. It is due to move to Bristol on leaving Weston, where it forms part of a local health and arts festival. Weston and Bristol are its home, for it was commissioned by Culture Weston https://cultureweston.org.uk and the University Hospitals Bristol & Weston NHS Foundation Trust. It is also supported by the Without Walls street art consortium https://www.withoutwalls.uk.com and the Welcome Trust funded Weather Lives project based at the University of Durham.

MIDSUMMER STASIS 2021: A CELEBRATION

A blue sky frames quiet branches. It is the midsummer standstill in my neighbourhood – a period extending over several days. I took the picture on 23 June, in the early afternoon, a time of soft warmth and sunshine, with me able to meet it. I had been prepared to miss it this year, and was delighted when the opportunity came.

The picture below shows the play of afternoon light and shade in a semi-sheltered spot, where a footbridge crosses a stream.

The next picture makes it clear that there is substantial built environment too here – one of the things I like about this landscape – in the form of weathered railway arches visible behind the foreground green.

The nearby canal looks sleepier than the stream, as if dreaming in the lushness of the moment.

Below, water margin nettles stand out as part of the richness and fecundity of this space, calling for my attention. Clearly capable of being an irritant and seen largely as a nuisance today, the nettle was highly valued by our ancestors for food, fibre and medicine. The Druid Plant Oracle (1) describes it as “a storehouse of goodness” bearing hidden gifts. Nettle tea is widely thought of as health promoting, and modern research confirms that it is rich in antioxidants and vitamins. It is suggested that its polyphenols are helpful in managing chronic illnesses that involve inflammation. I am taking it up as a drink.

There are other, varied riches beside the path, easy to ignore, but also easy to notice and enjoy for their beauty and vitality alone.

I went for this walk without any intention of taking photographs and I travelled quite a way before I began. I felt as though the landscape was persuading me to record the day, and thus bear witness to the midsummer stasis. Yes, it happened in 2021, as it happens every year. Here is the evidence. I am glad I showed up to be part of it,

(1) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Plant Oracle: Working with the Magical Flora of the Druid Tradition London: Connections, 2007 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)

STILL MOMENTS FROM THE FLOW

In the dance of stillness and movement, I feel immersed in movement. I am open to this turn in experience. It’s fundamentally fine. But part of it involves pushing against limited energy in unfamiliar ways. I am needing to work at balancing self-care with getting things done.

I remain still at heart, with space for all the surface tensions, yet there’s an efforting in the day-to-day. I hardly know whether to resist or welcome this. I am living with elements of both. Self-compassion asks that both the resistence and the welcome be given their space.

For many years now, I have lived my spiritual life as a Druid contemplative inquiry. Contemplation is the receptive element and inquiry the active one. Nature, including mine, is the setting. Somehow, I find myself held.

I took this picture recently on a canal walk – the image is of an adjacent stream. Gazing into it now, I see a power and a swirl in this still image, whilst recalling the rapid movement and change of the stream at the time of picturing it. I find that the image evokes a sense of wonder at the power and beauty of moving water, revealing shapes and relationships that shifted too quickly to register fully on the day. In swiftly changing times, stilling and reflection offer a restorative experience.

SUNSET LATENCY

In the rich evening of my life, I’m experiencing a sense of latency. Good – in its suggestion of possibilities. Uncomfortable, in a context of possibilities deferred.

The context is that, for most of this year, I’ve been experiencing breath problems. Once I knew that I didn’t have Covid, I assumed they would go away with winter. But they haven’t. Next week I’ll be having a battery of tests including an electrocardiogram, blood tests and a chest X-ray. I want to find out what is going on, what if any formal medical intervention is required, and how to manage my health going forward. There may be a new normal to accept and work with. I try to cultivate a Druid sensitivity to the life energy within me and a sense of how to nurture it.

Meanwhile, I find that breathing exercises help. They are the same breathing exercises I use to connect with stillness, and rest in the heart of Being – an interesting state of affairs in itself. One one level I am semi-grounded by a degree of impairment and a lack of knowledge about what it implies. On another I am called to intensify my spiritual practice. Problem and opportunity in the same package. Whatever happens, I feel that the opportunity is greater, though it doesn’t always feel that way.

On another level again, my wife Elaine and I, both now twice vaccinated, are wanting to step out into the world again. Our eyes are looking north, towards York, the Tyne and Wear coast, and Scotland – specifically Edinburgh and the Lothians. We have family up there and want to live a little closer to them. We would also like to live closer to the sea. This is quite an old idea, interrupted at first by the uncertainties of Brexit, the pandemic, and Scotland’s future. One thing we have learned is to stop worrying about uncertainties, or we’ll die before making a move. But Elaine’s physical health is also compromised – she was very seriously ill in January, still recovering now – and we have to work to find the energy to make our house presentable, sell it, and settle in another part of the country. We are taking steps whilst being careful not to over-tax ourselves and push the river. A northern tour is planned for early June.

I notice that I am not going on local walks and taking pictures as much as for most of the last eighteen months. In some ways I regret that. In others, I am allowing a change of focus. I am conscious that 2021 has been slower to wake up and bloom here than in the wonderful late spring and early summer of the first lockdown. Cold northerly winds bringing hail and sleet have been a feature. Normally this wouldn’t be a deterrent to me. I like bracing weather and don’t mind getting wet. But this year I’m being cautious. There is a great deal going on, a lot to attend to, another life waiting to break through. I will be 72 later this month, and I’m calculating that I have time for a new worldly adventure, shared with Elaine. We cannot be certain of this, yet I have rarely felt so alive.

SLOW HEALING BREATH: CHANTING HELPS TOO

“When Buddhist monks chant their most popular mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, each spoken phrase lasts six seconds, with six seconds to inhale before the chant starts again. The traditional chant of Om, the “sacred sound of the universe” in Jainism and other traditions, takes six seconds to sing, with a pause of about six seconds to inhale. The sa ta ma na chant, one of the best-known techniques in Kundalini Yoga, also takes six seconds to vocalize, followed by six seconds to inhale. Then there are the ancient Hindu hand and tongue poses called mudras. A technique called khechari, intended to help boost physical and spiritual health and overcome disease, involves placing the tongue above to soft palate so that it’s pointed towards the nasal cavity. The deep, slow breaths taken during this khechari each take six seconds.

“Japanese, African, Hawaiian, Native American, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian – these cultures and religions all had somehow developed the same prayer techniques, using the same breathing patterns. And they all likely benefitted from the same calming effect.

“In 2001, researchers at the University of Pavia in Italy gathered two dozen subjects, covered them with sensors to measure blood flow, heart rate and nervous system feedback and then had them all recite a Buddhist mantra as well as the original Latin version of the rosary, the Catholic prayer cycle of the Ave Maria, which is repeated half by a priest and half by the congregation. They were stunned to find that the average number of breaths for each cycle was ‘almost exactly’ identical, just a bit quicker than the pace of the Hindu, Taoist, and Native American prayers: 5.5 breaths a minute”. [I find the same when chanting the awen – aah-ooo-wen – in Druidry: JN]

“But what was even more stunning was what breathing like this did to the subjects. Whenever they followed this slow breathing pattern, blood flow to the brain increased and the systems in the body entered into a state of coherence, when the functions of heart, circulation and nervous system are coordinated to peak efficiency. The moment the subjects returned to spontaneous breathing or talking, their hearts would beat a little more erratically, and the integration of these systems would slowly fall apart. A few more slow and relaxed breaths, and it would return again.

“A decade after the Pavia tests, two renowned professors and doctors in New York, Patricia Gerbarg and Richard Brown, used the same breathing pattern on patients with anxiety and depression, minus the praying. Some of these patients had trouble breathing, so Gerbarg and Brown recommended that they start with an easier rhythm of three-second inhales with at least the same length exhale. As the patients got more comfortable, they breathed in and breathed out longer.

“It turned out that the most efficient breathing rhythm occurred when both the length of respirations and total breaths per minute were locked into a spooky symmetry: 5.5-second inhales followed by 5.5 second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths a minute. This was the same as the pattern as the rosary. The results were profound, even when practised for just five to ten minutes a day”.

Extract from James Nestor Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art Riverhead Books: USA & Penguin Life, UK: 2020 (Kindle edition)

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