contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: imagination

AWEN: FRUITS OF DREAMING

The image above is from The Dreampower Tarot (1) by R. J. Stewart and Stuart Littlejohn. It is called the Sleeper, and concerns dreams and unrealised potential. The pack as a whole is underpinned by R. J. Stewart’s view that “the surface world is reflected out of the Underworld, not vice versa”. Its imagery is drawn from “the mysterious inner and Underworld story of life before surfacing or outer birth”. An inverted tree stands at the back of every card, indicating a path of interiority and descent.

Over the years I have been deeply impacted by R. J. Stewart’s work, and I think of awen as an Underworld gift. Although I am not using the Dreampower pathway directly, I share its sense of a staged descent from physical (stone) to psychic (pearl) to causal (whirlpool) dimensions. The whirlpool is a field of stars at the deepest interior level, as physical and psychic reality dissolve into creative void, and the whole cycle is repeated.

In my last post https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/05/17/touching-awen/ I described a dream, which moved through three locations. Today in my awen mantra meditation, I followed the resonance of the mantra into three discrete images distilled from the dream. Moments rather than narrative vignettes, I find these slightly different in their new constellation.

First, I am in an almost dark tunnel. It is all encompassing but for a very distant light. There is a feeling tone of unease. It is not due to the pervasive wetness. It is due to what I would now language as an intimation of being separate .

This is pre-birth and approach of birthing imagery, womb imagery, perhaps with elements of something like pre-personal memory. In an awen context, it reminds me of the womb imagery in Taliesinthe lake, the cauldron, Ceridwen’s womb, the night-sea journey in the coracle. I am also reminded of Thomas the Rhymer’s journey with the Queen of Elfland:

For forty days and forty nights, he wade through red blude to the knee

And he saw neither sun nor moon but heard the roaring of the sea.” (3)

Second, I am present in the sunlit city, on one of its hills, and looking down. A sense of appreciation, at-homeness and freedom – familiarity and belonging within absolute novelty and strangeness.

I am in a state of simple innocence, which I might call grace. In this otherworldly place, pristine experiencing is normal.

Third, I am on the promenade at the beach, for me the most significant part of the city. I am aware of the sparkling sea, and of looking at the beautiful café nearby, wanting to eat and drink there. But I have got hold of the idea that I am not allowed to. I do not know what the penalty for this imagined transgression would be. My worst fantasies involve permanent entrapment in this space, or complete exile from it, no longer able to walk freely between the worlds.

There is a different feel to this part of the meditation. Thinking arises, with a strong sense of dilemma. Am I or am I not meant to obey this instruction, if there even is one? Is it a test of obedience or initiative, of acceptance or self-determination? This time, I know, it is OK to simply visit the beach, enjoy it, and be safe. I can feel restored just by looking at the cafe and the sea. But if I come here again, and do nothing, I may fade into primal non-being. If I go to the cafe, I am likely to empower hidden or lost potentials – at an unknown cost. I am the Child of Light in my own universe. It is entirely for me to decide.

At this time of writing, I know that I am engaged. I am in the slipstream of awen. Although I have talked of an ‘awen inquiry’, this no longer seems like skilful framing. For there is a surrender here, that asks for my trust and a different language. Finding resonant and empowered language, and knowing when silence works better, are part of this path. All that is asked of me, at this stage, is to consolidate my practice and to continue writing this blog.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Otherworld London & San Francisco: Aquarian Press, 1993

 (2) R. J. Stewart The Underworld Initiation: A Journey Towards Psychic Transformation Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1985

TOUCHING AWEN

This post describes a meditation in the late evening followed by a dream overnight. The two together became a way of touching awen. My intuition tells me that I need this dimension of experience to weather the pandemic and its aftermath.

I have a modern Druid’s understanding of awen at work in the activities of creativity, healing and the cultivation of wisdom. For me this means that each domain is at its best when influenced by the others – creativity, for example, as a form of healing and of wisdom generation. All of them have both a personal and collective dimension. We cannot be effectively creative, healthy and wise in a world turning to Waste and cursed with a Wasteland common sense. Even at its most apparently individualised and withdrawn, awen pushes back against Wasteland culture. Knowing this gives me resources and adds substance to my path.

For the meditation, I lay on my bed star-shaped, with my legs and arms spread out. I began with an awen mantra meditation synchronised with the breath. I let this go as I sank more fully into the meditative state I call ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment. Here, conventional distinctions between world, body and mind soon lose their hold. Words like ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ no longer describe anything. The at-homeness becomes dispersed and dissolved into simple experiencing, freed from any notion of a person having experiences.

What then arose, on this occasion, was a sense of the timeless origin of all possibilities and potentials. Narrating it now, I might talk of the feeling of an infinite space that is no place, where worlds and times are yet to be formed or named. In clock time this was a brief yet compelling experience. I ended the meditation with a strong sense of connection to source, and in the night that followed, I had a dream.

I find myself walking beside a river after sunset. I anxiously think: ‘I am not from around here. I need to be back by dark’. I have to go through a tunnel under a major intersection of modern roads. In this sparsely lit place, I realise that I am walking through water. It is over the top of my boots. They should be inundated, but they are not. My feet are happily dry. As I near the tunnel exit, I get a  glimpse of the city ahead.

Then I am in full sunlight, in this city that I know and love, despite its never being in the same place or having the same architecture. This time it is metropolitan and coastal. It has wonderful buildings of varying vintages, intriguingly laid out, and calling me onward. Whenever I think about needing to get somewhere (and I’m not even sure where that somewhere might be, or what reason I would have for going there) new urban vistas appear before me, as if saying ‘Come and look at this … and this … and this’.

Now I am in a beach area – estuarial, rather than facing the open sea, and so a little sheltered. There are numbers of people around – walking or cycling mostly, not many in the water. It is far from overcrowded. As I continue walking, I see shops and cafes perched on a low cliff that seem tastefully designed and lovingly kept. But there is a prohibition on my interacting with anyone in this city, and my money is good for nothing. I settle for the simple enjoyment of this place. It is enough.

I wake up. The dream leaves me with feelings of lightness and wellbeing. I have a sense of touching awen.

GREEN MAY

On 1 May I strode out with a spring in step, for my statutory walk. I was stir crazy and determined to meet the day. I made sure to take my camera with me. I wanted both to savour and record the fresh abundance of the green. Although I was in a familiar landscape, both the look and the feel of it had changed. I was in places I hadn’t been in for a week or more, and the world seemed dynamically verdant with a new intensity. I had a transformative hour of it before returning home.

In his Green Man (1), William Anderson reminds us that the Green Man utters life through his mouth. “His words are leaves, the living force of experience … to redeem our thought and our language”. Anderson’s Green Man speaks for the healthy renewing of of our life in and as nature.

He also suggests that the emerging science of ecology – the study of the house-craft of nature – is one such form of utterance. It gives us a language of inquiry into the interdependence of living things. My sense is that 1960’s images of Earth from space have also provided support to concepts like that of a planetary biosphere, and for the revival of Gaia as an honoured name. As a species, quality knowledge, rooted in quality imagination, is our greatest resource. Anderson’s book was published in 1990, based on ideas that had already been maturing over many years. I am sad that we are where we are in 2020. But the message of hope still stands, and the energy of a green May bears witness to it.

(1) William Anderson Green Man: the Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth London & San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990 (Photography by Clive Hicks)

LUNAR WISDOM

” The moon was the image in the sky that was always changing yet always the same. What endured was the cycle, whose totality could never be seen at any one moment. All that was visible was the constant interplay between light and dark in an ever recurring sequence. Implicitly however, the early people must have come to see every part of the cycle from the perspective of the whole. The individual phases could not be named, nor the relations between them expressed, without assuming the presence of the whole cycle. The whole was invisible, an enduring and unchanging circle, yet it contained the visible phases. Symbolically, it was as if the visible ‘came from’ and ‘returned to’ the invisible – like being born and dying, and being born again.

“The great myth of the bronze age is structured on the distinction between the ‘whole’, personified as the Great Mother Goddess, and the ‘part’, personified as her son-lover or her daughter. She gives birth to her son as the new moon, marries him as the full moon, loses him to the darkness as the waning moon, goes in search of him as the dark moon, and rescues him as the returning crescent. In the Greek myth, in which the daughter plays the role of ‘the part’, the cycle is the same, but the marriage is between the daughter and a god who personifies the dark phase of the moon. The daughter, like the son, is rescued by the mother. In both variations of the myth, The Goddess may be understood as the eternal cycle s a whole: the unity of life and death as a single process. The young goddess or god is her mortal form in time, which, as manifested life, whether plant, animal or human being – is subject to a cyclical process of birth, flowering, decay, death and rebirth.

“The essential distinction between the whole and the part was later formulated in the Greek language by the two different Greek words for life, zoe and bios, as the embodiment of two dimensions co-existing in life. Zoe is infinite, eternal life; bios is finite and individual life. Zoe is infinite ‘being’; bios is the living and dying manifestation of this eternal world in time.”

(1) Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993

INQUIRY NOTE: For me this modern interpretation of Bronze Age myth offers a good Pagan way of talking about ‘non-duality’, a strong thread in my inquiry in recent years. In its Sanskrit origin, advaita simply means ‘not two’. It speaks of a unity that is not exactly oneness in the sense of complete assimilation. It points to the sense that we are bios in our transient personal lives yet also zoe the life eternal, both the wave and the ocean. In Western theistic culture this view seems consistent with either pantheism or panentheism. It also fits modern understandings of animism and biocentrism. While I find it useful to know about these models and frameworks, I avoid strong identification with them. There remains an underlying mystery, which is where myth and imagination come into their own.

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

A PICTURE ON THE WALL

I imagine a fairly distant future. People are living underground or in domed settlements. The population, though nothing like today’s, is recovering. It is gaining in confidence and ambition. They hope that by continuing their own genetic modification, and terra-reforming the planet, they will be able to live outside again. They have museums, and the stretch of wall above is a prized artefact from a half-legendary pre-apocalyptic time.

What do observers make of it? What, if anything, do they know about birds? Can they name and recognise a ‘duck’ without expert input? If so, do they have any idea of why the representation on the wall is not entirely naturalistic? What about the conventions of thought bubbles and question marks? Would even the curators know about graffiti, and their role in late pre-apocalyptic culture? How do they stand with the notion of ‘humour’?

Conceivably, they know little about us and our intentions. The memory of us may be disturbing to them. This image may be seen as a riddle and a mystery – somewhat magical, somewhat uncanny. It may create a mixture of fascination and unease, ensuring its place as a guaranteed magnet for visitors.

What stories do our remote descendants tell, when contemplating this relic of the past? What, for them, does the picture on the wall say about us? Would we want to know?

SOPHIAN REMINISCENCE

For me, sacred images are sometimes filled with life and potency and sometimes not. The important ones  explode as gifts from the hinterlands of the psyche. They are intensely moving, perhaps shocking, certainly state altering. They may be nurturing and easy to welcome. They may be surprising and demand unlooked-for adjustments. Over time they may continue to be influential, changing and developing with me. They may become formal and emblematic – no longer living yet still anchoring insight. Eventually they may fade. Such images are not possessions. Attempts to grasp or hoard them do not work.

I call my path a Sophian Way. I have an icon of Sophia on my desk and I check in with her from time to time. It still feels authentic and makes sense to me. At the same time, I am aware of how much has changed since Sophia erupted into my life twelve years ago.

In the summer of 2007, I was immersed in my OBOD Druid studies. It was one of the few times in my life when I have cleared whole days for ritual work, and whole days for recovering afterwards. I found the work generating its own momentum, in some ways fulfilling the agenda of my course and in some ways pointing in a different-seeming direction. Images and dreams of dove feathers, either falling or lying on the ground – and then their actuality – became very prominent. Key images and ankh images were present as well.

The powerful dove imagery evoked Goddess associations from the Pagan tradition and Holy Spirit from the Judaeo-Christian one. To honour both, I found a reference in a modern Gnostic group ( www.thepearl.org/ ) that seemed to fit:

“Mortals have been created to dwell in the Garden of delights. … In the Garden stands the holy Tree of Life. High in its branches sings a bird. Listen to the voice of the bird, for when you are properly aligned with heaven and earth, she will tell you all things. … This bird or dove is also called Sophia”.

This felt like an authentic, and unifying, message for me because of its attitude towards the Garden. I as a human belong there. My belonging is not in question. There is one tree, the tree of life. The ‘knowledge’ aspect, such a disaster in mainstream Christianity, is very different here. There’s no apple to pick from the bough, but a bird who will sing to me. But something is expected of me, all the same, if I want to enhance my life and understanding. I am asked to align myself with heaven and earth. If I do this, I am assured that “she will tell you all things”. I don’t understand this as a discourse on metaphysics. I understand it as me listening in another key, listening to bird song in this metaphor, and so refining my sensitivity. For me, the imagery of the tree and the singing bird high in its branches is as resonant of a Shamanic or Pagan world view as it is of a Gnostic or Christian one. I do not have to choose.

The Pearl website turns to Joseph Campbell, a modern spokesman for the meaning of myth, on this point. He says: “people say that what we’re all seeking is the meaning of life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we are seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within out innermost being and reality … as we get to know our innermost being we receive the keys that open up a life that is truly Life, for it is everlasting”.

My own sense of the ‘Life everlasting’ doesn’t pre-suppose an afterlife, re-incarnation, or any other world. Eternity, if anywhere, is present in the now. The song of the bird represents a neurosomatic wisdom, not a cognitive one, of living connectedness within one stream of life.

What I like about this reminiscence is that I have been given a chance to renew my sense of Sophia by returning to source. The original work is well-documented, so I haven’t had to rely on memory. I had completely forgotten about the ‘Pearl’ group. I’m also glad that I’ve seen more than first time round in terms of the tree and birdsong. At the time, I just recorded the images and threw down the references. It has renewed my relationship to the Sophia image in the now.

For information about OBOD see

http://www.druidry.org/

DEFINING ‘SECULAR’

Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism (1) explores what a “nonreligious, this-worldly, secularised Buddhism” might look like. This post is part of my own inquiry into what it means to feel ‘secular’ whilst  engaged in ‘spiritual’ practices and connected with modern Paganism. Batchelor uses ‘secular’ in three overlapping senses:

  1. A general contemporary usage where ‘secular’ stands in contrast to whatever is ‘religious’ – the two terms being clearly polarised whilst not very clearly defined.
  2. A Latin derived sense of ‘this age’ (saeculum) – referring to “those concerns we have about this world, that is, everything that has to do with the quality of our personal, social and environmental experience of living on this planet”.
  3. A Western, historical-political sense, acknowledging a 2-300-year period of ‘secularisation’ that has transformed the whole culture to the point where most people can live “almost their entire lives without giving religion a thought”.

Stephen Batchelor talks about an “uncompromisingly secular reading” of the Buddha’s teaching, in which “one returns to the mystery and tragedy of the everyday sublime. Instead of nirvana being located in a transcendent realm beyond the human condition, it would be restored to its rightful place at the heart of what it means each moment to be fully human”. He is an admirer of Ludwig Feuerbach, a student of Hegel who came to reject his teacher’s emphasis on the primacy of Spirit in the unfolding of history and advocated instead a liberal, materialist and atheist view of the world. “Feuerbach’s basic idea is simple. ‘Religion’, he wrote in the preface to his most famous book, The Essence of Christianity (1841) ‘is the dream of the human mind. But even while dreaming we are not in heaven or the realm of Nothingness. We are right here on earth’”.

In this way, Batchelor acknowledges all three senses of ‘secular’: a distancing from traditional religious belief, an affirmation of the world and time, and the rise of modern secular belief systems – Feuerbach was an early influence on Karl Marx. I like the way Batchelor teases out these meanings, especially his acknowledgement of ‘movement in time’ aspects as well as ‘not religious’ ones. I am more open and agnostic about the language of ‘heaven or the realm of Nothingness’ alongside that of being ‘right here on earth’. If we treat these as states rather than places, then I can see them intertwined dimensions of being. But I do not hold this as an ideology.  I stand, rather, in openness and unknowing: the direct experience of At-Homeness in a flowing now is my ground and source, with or without a cosmic warranty.

Another sense, that of interconnectedness in the web of life, grows out of my At-Homeness – and this is firmly situated in place, time, and history. That place and time, right now, is one of distress, division and confusion, facing runaway climate change as a collective existential threat. My inquiry asks to to be alive to this collective wounding, and to contribute to a healing. In previous inquiry phases, I worked with modern Druidry and Paganism, focusing largely on the ‘nature’ aspect, but also on the powers of imagination and deep cultural stories. I then turned to other paths with a stronger emphasis on contemplative practice and its benefits. There is a treasure trove of resources in all of these these explorations, and I shall continue to draw upon them in my new inquiry cycle.

(1) Stephen Batchelor Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017

REVISED ‘ABOUT’ APRIL 2019

Over the lifetime of this blog I have made frequent revisions of its ‘About’ statement. Most are small. Occasionally, I make a major revision which I also publish as a post. Below is my revised and edited ‘About’ of 19 April 2019.

I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. It explores contemplative themes and their role in human flourishing within the web of life.

In my own journey, I have found an At-Homeness in a flowing now, not linked to any specific doctrine. For me, this experience and stance enable greater presence, healing and peace. They also support imaginative openness and an ethic of aware interdependence.

I began this work within British Druidry. I continue to follow an earth-centred and embodied spiritual path, ‘secular’ rather than ‘religious’. I draw on diverse traditions, especially resonating with naturalist, eco-existentialist, pantheist and animist currents within and beyond modern Paganism.

I am wary of metaphysical truth claims, including materialist ones, with an ultimate stance of openness and unknowing. At the time of this revision, I am exploring a tradition initiated by the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, who developed his own school of contemplative scepticism after a visit to India.

My book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

GUANYIN IN NOVEMBER

Six months ago I re-oriented my sacred space around an image of Guanyin, an eastern Sophia of Silk Road origin. She hears the cries of the world beyond sectarian boundaries, being equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics.

In the dominions of Mahayana Buddhism, she takes on the guise of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. But for me she is not fully defined by that identity. She is also a dragon lady, reflecting ancient beliefs in divine animal powers, “still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the source of life … movers of the world”. She is the sacred mare, great mother goddess, roaming the wild fields of the earth. Arriving in China, she links with and transforms other goddesses, “the sea-goddesses of China’s many port cities, the tribal and mountain mothers who protect birth and children, and the dark female, valley spirit of the Taoists”.

On the evening of 2 November, I consulted the Guanyin oracle. I was given verse 81, ‘The Weary Travelers’ (1).

In late fall

Leaves fall from the oaks

And weary travelers leave like migratory birds.

Heaven will protect their journey.

It seems very suited to place and time. In the commentary, Guanyin asks me to “turn away from the busy world” so that “a new spring, blessed by heaven, emerges within for you and your loved ones”. I am offered the image of another journey – seemingly in company, metaphorically on wings – at a time of physical lassitude. There is a promise of blessing, or regeneration, that will also impact on my loved ones.

Guanyin cherishes and helps to awaken her devotees, always challenging us to return to the source and the way. “Her compassion and wisdom offer an exit from the compulsive worlds of greed, lust and power and a return to the true thought of the heart.” In my life, she forms part of a poetry of practice, a poetry that the heart demands, not linked to any external truth claim. As I wrote when I began this phase of my work (2), this is a matter of feeling and imagination, not of cosmology or belief. In this respect, I feel like Soren Kierkegaard, the religious existentialist who talked about loyalty to a ‘subjective truth’ of his own existence, facing the uncertainties of the world with passionate commitment to a way of life.

Throughout my six months of sitting before this altar and exploring Buddhism, the image of Guanyin has kept me both devoted and free-spirited. I have found a Buddhist sangha that I can be part of, but I am not a Buddhist and have no aspiration to make a formal commitment to Buddhism. As an Existentialist, I am a kind of doubting Gnostic, and the ancient Gnostics were people who attached themselves “to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them in order to orient us toward the gnosis”. My centre is my contemplative inquiry, over which the goddess of wisdom and compassion imaginatively presides. I continue to sit at her altar, and I will consult her oracle from time to time.

(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009.  (NB I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.)

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/sophia-and-guanyin/

 

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