contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Health

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)

CHERISHING LIFE

The world is changing, again. New growth insists on its place in the world, however icy the conditions. Life asserts its rights, as we move towards the festival of Imbolc. But this post is personal rather than generic. I am welcoming the return of my wife Elaine from seven days in the Royal Gloucester hospital, where she was treated for a life-threatening, non-Covid condition.

This was the background to my previously reported Covid test, (1) since we thought that Covid might be a factor for Elaine, whose symptoms were severer than mine. I have not said anything about this context up until now, because Elaine did not want to be mentioned in this blog at the time of the crisis. Now she is fine about it. In her first two or three days of Elaine’s hospitalisation, I was very worried about her. In the last couple of days I have been more relaxed and confidently looking forward to her return and a period of convalescence at home. Elaine speaks very highly of the hospital, its staff and the treatment she has received. I was able to communicate with her (and others) by text, email and sometimes (on her initiative) phone. So I did not feel cut off from her even though the hospital is operating a complete ban on visitors due to the Covid crisis.

The week has reminded me of the fragility of both life and love, and of their immense value. The outcome feels like a victory for life at a time when nature, in my neighbourhood, is pointing in this direction. Meanwhile the festival of Imbolc celebrates the return of the light. I will cherish this time as we move forward from here.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/01/18/another-dawn/

NAVIGATING TURBULENT TIMES

Ten suggestions for navigating turbulent times: I am interested in the following list by Carolyn Baker and Andrew Harvey (1). They are not from my tradition, but I find their thoughts relevant and challenging. They prompt me to wonder what my list would be. Their book, which I will review in a later post, was published in the USA in 2020, a little before the November elections.

“1. Stay Safe: wear masks when you are outside, continue social distancing as much as possible, and listen carefully to the scientists who are telling us we are in the middle of a second wave of the pandemic. Shun all large gatherings and rallies and find other ways to protest which can be just as effective.

“2. Take special care of your health and keep your body vibrant with exercise and good nutrition. The psychological and emotional demands of unfolding crises will be far more effectively sustained with a healthy body.

“3. Whatever your spiritual practice, plunge more deeply than ever into it. It is essential to pursue realization of your true Self with more faith and intensity in these exploding times than ever before.

“4. Fill your life with inspiration and beauty. Inspiration will keep your heart buoyant and alive, and beauty will remind you of the magnificence of life and fill you with the energy to want to safeguard it.

“5. If you can, spend 20 minutes in nature per day, experiencing your oneness with it and drinking in through every pore its steadiness and radiance. Allow yourself to become intimate with the Earth.

“6. Stay aware of how the pandemic and environmental crises are evolving. There is no security in denial or ignorance. Learn, however, to pace yourself because the ferocious information you will be taking in can become overwhelming.

“7. Take time to grieve. No one will escape heartbreak in a time such as this, and not attending to the suffering of the heart that inevitably rises in the face of so much destruction will lead to severe depression or a kind of inner deadness that makes it impossible to respond creatively. Get support from others who are also grieving alone, and there is no need to be alone in a crisis that is now global.

“8. Renew old friendships and relish and deepen the ones you have you have because everything now depends on the sanity and joy that only deep friendship and relationship can provide, Take special care and lavish special love on your animal companions, and they will reward you with their tender and miraculous love.

“9. Despite being mostly in lockdown, make an effort to practice Sacred Activism by giving wisely to those in need. Foodbanks need support as do healthcare workers and the homeless who are afraid of going to shelters because they are Petri dishes for the virus. If you are able to assist those in prison by standing up for their rights, or by encouraging them in any way, do so. Take seriously your right to vote, for everything depends throughout the world on turning back the tide of dark money-financed authoritarianism.

“10. Use this book as a way of training your inner eyes to see and celebrate the signs of the Birth of a new humanity that are rising everywhere amidst the obviously apocalyptic death. Note the heroism of extraordinary/ordinary people globally who are turning up to serve the sick and dying. Note the heroism of protestors after the horrific death of George Floyd. Read great evolutionary philosophers and mystics like Sri Aurobindo, Teilhard de Chardin, Bede Griffiths, Satprem, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich, and those who speak of the global dark night, giving birth potentially to an embodied divine humanity.”

(1) Carolyn Baker & Andrew Harvey Radical Regeneration: Birthing the New Human in the Age of Extinction Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2020

HEALTHY SPACES

Everyone benefits from healthy spaces. Such spaces may be physical, social or spiritual. They can be all three at the same time. I am glad that here in England park benches, given adequate physical distancing between people, are no longer out of bounds.

Where I live, the early weeks of the late-arriving Covid-19 lockdown seemed to create a fragile nemeton, a collective healthy space in which to take stock amidst empty roads, reduced noise, fresher air and a more reflective existence, all set in a beautiful spring. The circumstances meant that this could not apply to everyone, as those of us enjoying these conditions well knew. But there seemed to be a moment where this sense of an altered space was sufficiently present for a critical mass of people. It was a sacred space, a good space for the blossoming of generosity and compassion. Clapping for health and other key workers has been its brief weekly ritual. An atmosphere of community solidarity in the face of crisis and suffering was tentatively enabled.

The purity of the nemeton period did not last long. Aspects of it have been eroding for a while. But I notice that my personal Druid practice has been subtly influenced it, in a good way, at a time when I have also been considering my own vulnerability and mortality and that of loved ones. I seem to have made a hard-to-describe gain in depth and resiliency.

Although my ‘wheel of the year’ focus for the year from 21 December 2019 is proving very different from my original expectations, I have received an unlooked-for gift. I sense that I am not alone in this, and my hope is that positive influences from the lockdown experience will seed inspirational developments, personal and collective, over time. The human and social costs of the virus continue to be very high due both to the illness and its political mismanagement. Let them at least be honoured through commitments to fostering healthier and more creative ways of being in the future.

 

SPRING ABUNDANCE AND PUBLIC HEALTH

April growth, when it gets going, is abundant and exuberant. When the days are clear and warm and anticipate summer, I feel a surge of celebration. We are, at last, moving in the direction of Beltane and the merry month.

Since I last wrote, I have recovered my pleasure in outdoor walking. My body’s wish to be outdoors and moving, enjoying the gifts of the season, is stronger than any doubt or anxiety. My pleasure in taking pictures, for the last six months integral to my walks, is part of this. I am glad that my essential phone incorporates a conceivably non-essential camera.

I took the picture above specifically because it shows the lovingly cultivated flower bed in my local public park. This flower bed, and the park itself, exist to be seen and enjoyed, without any entrance charge, by anyone who wants to be there. They are examples of a highly pro-social resource. As we move towards an uncertain future, I hope that we continue to value such spaces, and take collective care to preserve them.

This morning, looking at the news, I see my view supported affirmed by current research. “Meredith Williams, a postdoctoral fellow at the London School of Economics’s school of geography and environment, said access to green space was vital to public health. ‘Even before the pandemic, there was an increasing focus on research on the physical and mental benefits of green space. Having access to nature gives us a sense of calmness and tranquillity … that helps with reducing the stress that comes especially from urban living'” (1). The context is rumours of enhanced lockdown in London’s parks, where the residents of poorer boroughs have less access both to private gardens and public parks, putting more pressure on the public spaces that do exist.

Yesterday I found Stratford Park in Stroud almost deserted, its carefully tended flower beds unobserved and unenjoyed. For me, publishing this picture honours the work of its gardeners. Their creativity deserves to be recorded and shared, both for what it is, and what he stands for, as the wheel of 2020 continues to turn.

(1) Guardian 11 April 2020 Coronavirus park closures hit BAME and poor Londoners most

WELL-BEING: CONTEMPLATING ACTION

“In The Spirit Level Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett put inequality at the centre of public debate by showing conclusively that less equal societies fare worse than more equal ones across everything from education to life expectancy. The Inner Level explains how inequality affects us individually, how it alters how we think, feel and behave. It sets out the overwhelming evidence that material inequities have powerful psychological effects: when the gap between rich and poor increases, so does the tendency to define and value ourselves and others in terms of superiority and inferiority. A deep well of data and analysis is drawn upon to empirically show, for example, that low social status is associated with elevated levels of stress hormones, and how rates of anxiety and depression are intimately related to the inequality which make that status paramount.” (1)

What links contemplation and action? My answer is creative and powerful ideas. In a recent post (2), I cited Brendan Myers (3) proposition that a flourishing life is ethically desirable and good (a powerful, creative idea), and that it depends on us supporting each other’s well-being and that of the biosphere and the Earth itself (another powerful creative idea). The Spirit Level and The Inner Level concern ‘developed’ countries in the 21st century and to an extent the last two decades of the 20th. They paint a depressing picture, especially for the U.K. and the U.S.A, and for me it shows the need to champion a social ecology that supports health and well-being.

For some years I worked at the interface between public health (i.e. population-based health, largely concerned with prevention work and the creation of more supportive environments) and mental health. So, I am interested in the recent publication of The Inner Level (4) and may write further about it. Thinking about ‘health’ in the bigger picture (with service provision as only one aspect) is a positive way into social justice work, where powerful ideas can (in principle) be realised through ethical passion and political will informed by scientific evidence. It is a notion of how to do public policy that needs to be kept alive.

I know this doesn’t happen much, now, in a culture like ours with high levels of bullying, confusion, distraction and misinformation. We seem to be living with an orchestrated dumbing down of political discourse in the service of oligarchic interests. So, my first action – not always recognised as action – is personal resistance to any onset of cynicism, numbness and despair within myself. My second action – also not always recognised as action – is to work at maintaining an adequate level of knowledge and understanding of what is happening in the world, using the lens of ‘powerful ideas’ to make sense of the information I digest. This includes having an historical perspective – both backwards and forwards – on current events. My third action is to place myself within networks that share my concerns and are responding to them in diverse ways – hopefully modelling cultures of: compassion (including ruthless compassion); openness and creativity; curiosity about the world; and criticality (deconstructive where necessary and appreciative where possible) in the realm of ideas and action. Further developments will come from there, and I will write about them within this blog.

Over time my contemplative life has moved towards a blend of energy work and meditative connection to source, with the practice forms kept simple. It is also the clear, awake space out of which I act in the world.

(1) https://www.equalitytrust.uk/

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

(3) Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: A Case for Optimism for the Future of Humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

(4) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-being

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