contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: imagery

DREAMING THE MAGICAL CHILD

I often experience winter as a time of powerful dreams, and I had one yesterday night. It moved through three phases, ending with the image of a magical child as guide.

First phase: I am in a crowded place in a sizeable town. I am apparently in charge of two or three young children – close relatives, by the feel of it, though I am not clear on the specific relationships. I do know that I am of the grandparental generation. Suddenly, I notice them running off towards a stretch of park and woodland. I need to catch up and keep them safe.

Second phase: As I mobilise and follow, I am not catching up as rapidly as I had hoped. I notice that the terrain is wetter and rougher than fits with the initial image. The location feels quite different. I may have to cross water and am I not dressed for it for this eventuality. I assume that the children find this easier than I do, and I have confidence that they are OK. I am less sure about myself. This pursuit is a bit of a stretch.

Third phase: I halt at a riverbank. The boy – only one child, the others somehow no longer present or relevant to this dream – has stripped to the waist and taken like a fish to the water, swimming strongly against the current. He seems to be older than when I last looked. I have a moment of panic and dismay before leaping in after him. Fortunately for me, a sort of backpack I have been wearing turns into a comically inflatable throne. There is no doubt now that the boy knows what he is doing and is purposefully leading me upstream towards the source of the river. Paddling with my hands and arms, my task now is to follow as best I can. As I start following in earnest, I wake up.

The ‘I’ of the first phase is apparently in charge, yet vague and inattentive. Only action by the children gets me to notice and pay attention, though I continue to sport an air of responsible authority, with the felt need to keep the children safe. In the second phase ‘I’ am different, becoming aware of a more rugged environment and feeling challenged by it. I am more positive about the children’s capacity, and less so about my own. The third phase is different again. Halting at a riverbank, I recognise the boy as a version of the archetypical magical child, who naturally finds the sacred in all things, connecting us to a larger life. He is numinously present in this phase of the dream. He is the leader. I am the follower. My means of locomotion is clumsy and absurd. But at least I have one, and I do follow. The constructed ego has a significant part to play, it seems, on this journey, but not the leading role it has imagined for itself. Once I start ‘following in earnest’, I am free to wake up.

At the outer world level, culturally, perhaps the wisdom of age includes recognising and making space for the wisdom of youth. In Irish myth, the elderly poet, shaman and sage Finnegas spent seven years trying to catch the salmon of knowledge. When he finally caught the salmon, he asked his apprentice Demne to cook it. As he worked, the boy burned his thumb and instinctively sucked it – and so it was he, not his teacher, who became imbued with the salmon’s wisdom. Finnegas graciously gave Demne the whole salmon to eat, renaming him Fionn. Fionn went on to become the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool).

A VISION

I look into the emptiness of the hooded one, no longer expecting to see a face or head. I know the hooded one only as the being who ferries me to Wisdom’s Island, each journey an Imramm in itself. That is all. No context or history for the hooded one. Just a tightly delimited contact.

Nevertheless, the question I have carefully not asked is telepathically answered. The voice in my head, which I know to be the voice of the hooded one, tells me: “whatever can be imagined has a form of existence – for better and for worse, as blessing and as curse”.

“Slightly theatrical” I think, as I stand in the rain and, already soaked, scan the sky for thunder. The lake, however, is not especially turbulent. I have no good reason to avoid the crossing. I take my seat. I sense the water getting deeper and see the island drawing nearer. I am committed, now.

The cliffs, usually nominal, rear above me. The path up is not merely steep but slippery. The actual ascent is almost as anxious making as the anticipation. I do not know whether the hooded one is watching me, but I like to think not. I certainly do not look down to check it out.

The woods at the top, a joy to reach, are dense and tangled in a way I have not experienced before. But they readily grant me passage into the sheep pasture beyond them. The sheep look stoical and accepting in the still driving rain.

The door in the wall is, as ever, open. It is good to be in the orchard, even in the rain. I feel warmer and easier inside. I begin to relax. But as I enter Wisdom’s House, I find the interior unlit. I can barely see the mosaic floor or the Rose Chapel opposite. The only light is on the stairs to the Upper Room. I take the hint.

A force like the wind, but subtler, thrusts me into a chair and puts a chalice into my hands. I cannot do other than drink from it, and so I am taken to the deeper interiority of Wisdom’s Garden. I am not an observer here. I become the fountain at the centre, which is the wellspring of the world. Rivers flow from me in each cardinal direction. As this vision fades, I become the tree of life, with roots extending deep into the underworld and branches reaching up to the stars.

Then I become the primal human pair, in an embrace that maintains aspects of union, brings the gift of relationship, and also introduces a new note of separation. At this point I am restored to the everyday world with a heightened, and perhaps more compassionate, sense of its challenges.

None of these images stay with me for long. They flash by with great intensity, leaving a strong imprint in my senses, mind and imagination. It is as if I have visited the place where the rich latency of unbeing starts to be. I see this as a current reality, always and everywhere, with the the journey and its metaphors as a useful aid to awareness. Whatever can be imagined has a form of existence, for better or worse, as blessing or as curse.

NOTE: this vision arose within my ‘wisdom’s house’ meditation practice. See: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/12/meditation-wisdoms-house/

MEDITATION: WISDOM’S HOUSE

The Wisdom’s House meditation descends from an earlier ‘Temple of Sophia’ practice (1). It owes something to the ‘art of memory’ of the ancient Greeks, a system of impressing places and images on the mind. The art of memory flourished again in the European Renaissance period, and late practitioners included Giordano Bruno and the English alchemist Robert Fludd (2). This post provides both an introduction and the full text of the meditation.

Many of the visualised images have a strong archetypal resonance, but I do not now look to them for dramatic experiences or insights. They are a familiar Innerworld landscape whose influence grows quietly over time.

I enjoy this meditation. It has a strong aesthetic and cultural dimension, valuing time and memory. It is an affirmation of belonging within modern Druidry, and an individual expression of what how my location in this tradition works for me. At the same time, it points to a more universal and perennial wisdom tradition. My current version has a clearer tilt towards the evening of my days than do earlier ones. As in the older versions, Wisdom is omnipresent, but She does not appear as a person within the meditation. The image above is from R. J. Stewart’s Dreampower Tarot. (3)

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/05/03/temple-of-sophia/

(2) Frances A. Yates The Art of Memory London: Pimlico, 1966

(3) T. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Underworld London: The Aquarian Press, 1993 Illustrated by Stewart Littlejohn

TEXT OF THE MEDITATION

Closing my eyes, I check out my body and sensations, and I let go of potentially distracting feelings and thoughts. I take 9 Awen breaths, and open myself to the images of the Wisdom’s House meditation. They generally appear as a sequence, but not as a fully connected narrative. I may follow the sequence, or I may linger on particular images – allowing them to change and develop beyond the script.

I find myself on a lake shore, looking westwards, out over the water to a wooded island in the lake, where Wisdom’s House is found.

I walk down to a small beach where a blue rowing boat is waiting to ferry me across. The rower is a person of indeterminate gender, robed, hooded and wearing a mask, somewhat in the manner of Greek and Japanese classical theatre. On seeing them, I bow. They bow in return, doffing their mask, and revealing the emptiness behind it.

I am in the boat, being rowed towards the lake. I notice light on the water, and the descent of the sun. The island is getting closer.

On reaching the western shore, I thank the rower before turning my attention to a cliff path, which is stepped, quite steeply, in certain places. Its base is marked by two carved stones. The one on the left shows Pictish dancing seahorses and the concealed image of Modron; the one on the right shows the Tree of Life, as a trees, with a serpent coiled around the bottom of the trunk, and a dove perched high in the canopy.

At the top of the hill, I am walking, east to west, through woods and then pasture, until I reach a gateway in a wall, behind which are the grounds of Wisdom’s House.

Entering the gate, I walk through a fine orchard before reaching the House itself, which has some church-like characteristics. It is a domed stone building. The main body is round, though arms are extended in each of the 4 cardinal directions to create an equal armed cross. These extensions do not run out very far – only enough for a porch, a modest side chapel, and room for covered flights of steps.

I enter the House through the porch that comprises the eastern wing. I look across the interior to the western wing, somewhat like a small chapel. Its most striking feature is a rose window with clear, though slightly pink-tinted, stained-glass. It is designed to catch the sunset. A little way in front of it is an altar whose white cloth is embroidered with a golden gnostic cross and strewn with white and red rose petals. At the centre stands a chalice, white candles on either side. Looking around me I see steps spiralling downwards to a crypt, right (northern extension) and steps spiralling upwards to an upper room, left (southern extension).

The interior is lit by chandeliers hanging from the ceiling as well as natural light from clear glass windows. On the floor is a large mosaic given definition by the golden outline of a circle, crossed at the cardinal points by golden lines which merge at the centre within a fully golden circle, which includes 3 white seed pearls in a triangular cluster at the centre.

Just outside the outer circle, around the wheel of the year, are depictions of 16 trees: yew, north-west; elder, north-north-west; holly, north; alder, north-north-east; birch, north-east; ash & ivy, east-north-east; willow, east; blackthorn, east-south-east; hawthorn, south-east; beech & bluebell, south-south-east; oak, south; gorse, south-south-west; apple, south-west; blackberry & vine, west-south-west; hazel, west; rowan, west-north-west.

Moving into the main circle, I find images of the elemental powers associated with the four directions: north, a white hart; east, an eagle with wings outstretched; south, a red dragon; west, a leaping salmon. At the golden centre of the circle, the cluster of three white pearls recollects the three drops of inspiration distilled from Ceridwen’s cauldron and the visionary power of Awen. There are also other trinities – the triple goddess; the Christian trinity; the divine mother, father and child; the 3 triads of Kabbalah together and separately, or the singularity of Tao becoming the two, three and 10,000 things.

Spiralling out of the circle, and exiting north, I descend into the crypt. Here I find an empty sarcophagus dimly lit by candles. Two or three steps below the sarcophagus is a small, warm pool, lit by night lights – a ‘birthing pool’, perchance a re-birthing pool. A dancing seahorses/Modron image is painted on the ceiling. I can spend time lying within the sarcophagus, contemplating change, death and dissolution. I can also move on to the birthing pool, immerse myself in it, and taste the experience there.

Leaving the crypt and moving across the house, I climb the steps to the upper room, which has a meditation chair at its centre, with a chalice, or grail, on a small table in front of it. A field of stars, white against an indigo, is painted on the ceiling; otherwise the room is plain. I centre myself on the chair and drink from the chalice.

I find myself in a garden. It has a fountain at the centre, surrounded by four flower beds of alternating red and white roses. There are fruit trees, apple, pear and plum, trained around the walls. It is noon and mid-summer. I can hear birdsong, and feel the warmth of the sun at my back.

My attention is drawn into the fountain until I experience myself as part of it. Propelled to the top, I fly as a single drop into the air, shot through with sunlight, as I begin my descent, which feels slow and gentle, into the pool below.

On coming back from the vision of the garden and the fountain, I sit and rest for a while, in the upper room. Eventually I leave the upper room and go down to the ground floor of the House. I walk to the south point of the circle and from there move, spiralling, into the centre. I face the altar at the west, bowing and giving thanks before I leave the House through the porch on my eastward return.

Finding myself in a dim pre-dawn light, and facing towards its source, I return to the lakeside and take the ferry back to the mainland.

DANCING SEAHORSES

This painting, Dancing Seahorses, is by Edinburgh-based artist Marianne Lines. I bought it in 1992 to support a growing interest in Celtic spirituality. The image is taken from a Pictish standing stone in Aberlemno in the county of Angus (1). To this day, the beings portrayed are well-known to Scottish folklore as sea horses, water horses, kelpies or each-uisge. They are also found in Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales, Brittany and Cornwall. Manifesting in slightly different forms, they can appear in the sea, lakes, rivers and waterfalls.

For me, the painting evokes the primal energies of water, as embodied in these otherworldly seeming beings, who nonetheless might show up from time to time. The pair in the picture are entwined in ways that suggest many possible forms of connection – dancing, embracing, lovemaking, playing, fighting, competing, joining together in tranquillity, or a combination of the above.

I had owned the painting for some while before I began to see a second image, in a sense behind and containing the immediately apparent one. 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.

The sea-horse image is clear and naturalistic, though stylised and showing creatures we strongly imagine but rarely meet. By contrast, the goddess image needs more work. I see her as Modron, the primal mother, in a marine guise. She seems to come out of a remote past with little story beyond her parenting of Mabon. I am glad not to have inherited too much lore about her. A sense of unfilled space and of mystery is part of what makes her numinous.

I did not make these connections as part of a plan. They grew up over time, feeling increasingly right. They are my own myth-making. I realise that, for me, meeting with an image is simpler and more direct than meeting with a fully developed narrative. There is an immediate impact, followed by a growing familiarity and a fuller relationship. From this, a story may grow, even one about a relative absence of story that points towards silence. Such images can have a lasting power, as this one has certainly had for me.

(1) There are four such stones from different periods. This is from the one listed as ‘Aberlemno 2’, where this image is on the lower right hand side of the front face. The stone is now thought of as being from the mid-ninth century C. E. – rather later than previously believed. The custodians of the stones place it in a genre of ‘zoomorphic designs’ also found in other Celtic Christian art of the time that draws on indigenous themes – for example in the Book of Kells, and in Celtic influenced Northumbrian work. This is in contrast to many Pictish standing stone images, which seem unique to that culture.

WISDOM WRITING

At this strange moment in my life, I want to make my contemplative work more focused and integrated. Communing with the image above led to a deepening, related to the experience of ‘living presence’, and reported in a recent post (1). The process of writing that post has prompted further developments. One of them is a renewal of engagement with ancient wisdom writing.

My favourite books in this genre are the Tao Te Ching (2) and the Gospel of Thomas (3). My work with them has two aspects. One is to understand their cultural contexts, assisted by editors and commentators and further reading. The other is my direct response to the sayings. I am currently focusing on Thomas because some it its sayings influence my practice. Below I summarise contextual information. Each of my next two posts will cover a specific saying.

As a text, Thomas has more resemblance to ancient Jewish Wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes/Sirach) than either the canonical gospels or most Gnostic literature. Numbers of the sayings do also appear in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and Jesus/Yeshua defends Mary Magdalene against Peter – a common Gnostic trope. So there is some relationship with the canonical and Gnostic literatures. But there is no biographical information and no presentation of the teacher as a saviour from a super-celestial realm. There is no sense of the material world as a fallen or evil creation whether undermined by a cosmic adversary or ruled by a false god. Indeed there is no sense of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ being somewhere else at all: rather, it is “spread out over the whole earth, and people do not see it” – Saying 113 (1). Thomas can be seen as Gnostic in its sense of self-knowledge (gnosis) as transformational and because the individual is asked to identify with Jesus rather than ‘believe in’ him (4). The text is about self-transformation through a wisdom teaching that points us to our true nature. This makes it very different in cosmology and emphasis from the Gnostic movement that coalesced in the decades after Thomas was written.

Thomas was probably written in Edessa (now Urfa, a city of two million people in south east Turkey, close to the Syrian border), with the Coptic Nag Hammadi version (our only complete copy) a translation from a Greek or possibly Aramaic original (4). At the time of writing, thought to be the middle of the second century C.E., it was the capital of a Roman satellite state, not counted as within the borders of the empire. It rivalled Alexandria as a centre for book production, but had a different cultural feel – ascetic, contemplative and devotional, less concerned with creative myth-making. Christianities influenced by a Thomas tradition (though not necessarily this text) looked east and for many centuries flourished in the Middle East, Central Asia, China and India. In contrast to Europe, they were not religions of power and had to negotiate with other faiths – leading to significant cross-pollination in ways unimaginable in Constantinople or Rome. For example, they are said to have been an influence on Islamic Sufism, and as late as the thirteenth century, Rumi enjoyed good relations with a local Nestorian monastery (5). These eastern churches have stood by a view of theosis, full participation in the life of God. This is understood to have three stages: first, the purgative way, purification, katharsis; second, illumination, the illuminative way, the contemplative vision of God, theoria; and third, sainthood, the unitive way, theosis.

Essentially, this is a gradual path non-dualism. The Gospel of Thomas itself reads to me like a direct path non-dualism, as it does to other people at the present time – like Douglas Harding (6) and Francis Lucille. However I wouldn’t want to go too far in appropriating this ancient text for the purposes of a modern movement. It should be met, as far as possible, as what it is. I am concerned to respect and respond to it. I don’t need to agree with it or (worse) to make it agree with me.

The saying I want to look at in my next post is:

“I am no longer your Master, because you have drunk, and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring.” (from Saying 13)

In the following post, I will turn to:

“Yeshua said: when you bring forth that within you, then that will save you; if you do not, then that will kill you.” (Saying 70)

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/03/28/living-presence/

(2) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way (A new English version by Ursual K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998

(3) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005

(4) Nicola Denzey Lewis Introduction to ‘Gnosticism’: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds New York & Oxford: OUP, 2013

(5) Philip Jenkins The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and How It Died HarperCollins e-books, 2008

(6) Douglas Harding A Jesus for Our Time. Chapter 14 in Look for Yourself: the Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust 2015 (first published the The Head Exchange in 1996)

WORKING WITH TAROT IMAGES

One of my inquiry intentions this year is to live the wheel of the year with heightened attention. For the Innerworld aspect of this journey, I am working with the Wildwood Tarot (1). I like its strong wheel of the year orientation, its choice of imagery and its focus on resiliency.

Tarot images are often described as archetypes. The word is derived ultimately from Plato’s eidos – the ideal forms that he saw as building blocks of the universe. They can be abstract – Justice, Wisdom, Beauty – or concrete – Horse, Wheel, Tree. Without these ideal forms in the mind of a Creator, their worldly approximations could not exist. They are “the absolute changeless objects of knowledge.” (2)

In the early 20th. Century, C.G Jung brought the archetypes into the realm of human history and psychology. June Singer explains how, for Jung, “the term archetype indicates the presence of … a universal and collective image that has existed since the remotest times. Archetypes give rise to images in … tribal lore, in myths and fairy tales, and in contemporary media. They are, by definition, unconscious, and their presence can only be intuited in the powerful motifs and symbols that give definite form to psychic contents.” (3)

The shift from ‘archetype’ to ‘archetypal image’ is a helpful one for me and can be taken further. James Hillman, a modern Platonist, pupil of Jung’s, and founder of an Archetypal Psychology, asks what makes an image archetypal, and concludes that: “any image can be considered archetypal … by attaching archetypal to an image, we ennoble or empower the image with the widest, richest and deepest possible significance.” (4) ‘Archetypal’ is a word that gives value, influencing our own response to an image and the way we treat it, contemplating it carefully, taking it into our hearts, and letting it work with our senses, feelings, intuitions and thoughts arising from it. With this approach, the descent from heaven to earth is complete. We are free to understand archetypal images as products of human consciousness that have the power to move and change us. Extending our imaginations, they extend our realities.

This is how I am going to work with The Wildwood Tarot. I am aware that the images can be mapped onto the Western Mystery tradition’s version of the Kabbalist Tree of Life, a highly conscious and artful meta-archetype, or blueprint for the cosmos. The greater trumps are archetypal images; the classical elements are archetypal images; each number is an archetypal image; key figures in patriarchal royal courts are archetypal images. All are linked together in an elaborate web of archetypal imagery. The architecture and arrangement of the Wildwood Tarot are fairly conventional, if I take the Rider Waite Tarot, understood as the effective origin of the modern form, as my point of comparison. But the concern with the wheel of the year, aspects of the narrative, and much of the imagery point in a somewhat different direction. I feel able to engage in a fresh way that both honours tradition and feels empowered to enter new and unexpected spaces. This process has already begun, and forms part of my inquiry.

(1) Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

(2) Thomas Mautner The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy London: Penguin, 1996

(3) June Singer Androgyny: Towards A New Theory of Sexuality London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1977

(4) The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire introduced and edited by Thomas Moore London: Routledge, 1990

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