contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: imagination

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/

 

ONCE AND FUTURE WIZARD

I first encountered Merlin when I was nine years old, through T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. It includes a wonderful account of shape-shifting and indeed of education (as imaginative, experiential, self-reliant). As time went on I didn’t exactly get Arthur, the Wart’s, education. But I got enough to feed both memory and hope as enhancements of here-and-now experience rather than distractions from it. I didn’t forget, or if so, not completely. Thanks to Elen Sentier for reminding me in her recent book, which I plan to review soon.

“The thunder-clouds which usually go with hot weather were there, high columns of cumulus with glaring edges, but there was not going to be any thunder. It was too hot even for that. ‘If only’, thought the Wart, ‘I did not have to go into a stuffy classroom, but could take off my clothes and swim in the moat’.

“They crossed the courtyard, having almost to take deep breaths before they darted across it, as if they were going quickly through an oven. The shade of the gatehouse was cool, but the barbican, with its close walls, was hottest of all. In one last dash across the desert they had reached the drawbridge – could Merlyn have guessed what he was thinking? – and were staring down into the moat.

“It was the season of water-lilies. If Sir Ector had not kept one section free of them for the boys’ bathing, all the water would have been covered. As it was, about twenty yards on each side of the bridge were cut each year, and one could dive in from the bridge itself. The moat was deep. It was used as a stew, so that the inhabitants of the castle could have fish on Fridays, and for this reason the architects had been careful not to let the drains and sewers run into it. It was stocked with fish every year.

“’I wish I was a fish’, said the Wart

“’What sort of fish?’

It was almost too hot to think about this, but the Wart stared down into the cool amber depths where a school of small perch were aimlessly hanging about.

“’I think I should like to be a perch,’ he said. ‘They are braver than the silly roach, and not quite so slaughterous as the pike are.”

“Merlyn took off his hat, raised his staff of lignum vitae politely in the air, and said slowly, ‘snylrem stnemilpmoc ot enutpen dna lliw eh yldnik tpecca siht yob sa a hsif?’

“Immediately there was a loud blowing of sea-shells, conches and so forth, and a stout, jolly-looking gentleman appeared seated on a well-blown-up cloud above the battlements. He had an anchor tattooed on his stomach and a handsome mermaid with Mabel written under her on his chest. He ejected a quid of tobacco, nodded affably to Merlyn and pointed his trident at the Wart. The Wart found that he had tumbled off the drawbridge, landing with a smack on his side in the water. He found that the moat and the bridge had grown a hundred times bigger. He knew that he was turning into a fish.

“’Oh, Merlyn,’ he cried, ‘please come too.’

“’For this once,’ said a large and solemn tench beside his ear, ‘I will come but in future you will have to go by yourself. Education is experience, and the essence of experience is self-reliance.’”

(1) T. H. White The sword in the stone Volume 1 of The once and future King London: Collins, 1958

(2) Elen Sentier Merlin once & future wizard Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2016 (Pagan Portals series)

 

THOMAS TRAHERNE DAY

Two months ago I wrote a about Thomas Traherne (1), pointing out an unexpected resonance between this seventeenth century English clergyman and the ideas of Douglas Harding (2). Only later did I discover that such parallels had already been noted – particularly by Alan Mann (3) and also The Incredible String Band, way back in the 1960’s (4).

Thanks to Alan Mann, I subsequently found my way to the Thomas Traherne Association (5) and attended the Traherne’s Day Celebrations on 10 October at Hereford Cathedral. These were built around a choral Evensong followed by a lecture. The speaker was the Revd Dr Paul Fiddes, Professor of Systematic Theology at Oxford University. Prof Fiddes has a particular interest in the relations between theology and literature, and his topic was The Poetics of Desire in Thomas Traherne and C. S. Lewis.

Lewis admired Traherne, especially the Centuries of Meditations, though he felt that Traherne was insufficiently concerned with original sin and too ready to find heaven in the here and now. For Traherne wrote that every person “is alone the Centre and Circumference of [Infinity]. It is all his own, and so Glorious, that it is the Eternal and Incomprehensible Essence of the Deitie.” (6). He also wrote at the time when the Royal Society was founded and what we now call Science became respectable. Traherne followed progress with the telescope and microscope and the worlds they were beginning to reveal. Perhaps such developments and the inquiries they opened up encouraged him to write the lines:

“Heaven surely is a State and not a Place

To be in Heaven’s to be full of Grace.

Heaven is where’re we see God’s face.” (6)

and

“This busy, vast, enquiring Soul

Brooks no Controul,

No limits will endure,

Nor any Rest: It will all see

Not Time alone, but ev’n Eternity”. (6)

At the same time, Prof. Fiddes’ lecture showed how Lewis was at one with Traherne in apprehending a God who is present in human imagination and creativity – Traherne’s words being, “for God hath made you able to Creat Worlds in your own mind, which are more Precious unto Him that those which He created”. Perhaps reflections like this freed Lewis’ own imagination in his fiction:

“Each grain is at the centre. The dust is at the centre. The Worlds are at the centre. The beasts are at the centre. The ancient peoples are there. The race that sinned is there… Blessed be He! Where Maleldil is, there is the centre. He is in every place … Because we are with him, each, each of us is at the centre … there seems no centre because it is all centre … “(7)

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! … This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.” (8)

It was C.S. Lewis who helped Douglas Harding find a publisher for The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth and wrote the introduction to it. My knowledge of this link was a prompt to attend the Traherne Day lecture, though I might have gone any way. I was brought up in the Church of England, and C.S. Lewis had a place in my imaginative hinterland. So did metaphysical poetry (though not especially Traherne’s), before I parted ways. I enjoyed Evensong last Monday, especially hearing the choir. Whilst feeling no pull to re-communicate, I felt very much at peace both with the aspect of heritage and that of spiritual community. This was a blessing in itself, and I am grateful for the occasion and to the people who made it happen.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/seeing-thomas-traherne

(2) headless.org

(3) capacitie.org

(4) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AK2m7rYjZ54

(5) thomastraherneassociation.org

(6) Denise Inge (ed.) Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and his writings Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2008

(7) C.S. Lewis, Perelandra London: Bles, 1943

(8) C.S. Lewis The Last Battle London: Collins, 1956

(9) Douglas Harding The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth: a new diagram of man in the universe London: Faber and Faber, 1952 (Introduction by C.S. Lewis)

 

GOOD WILL

Dissolving into the dark, in a deeply receptive state, I find myself entertaining the word ‘will’, which soon morphs into ‘good will’.

Midwinter is traditionally a season of good will. I notice that I do feel largely at peace in my personal world, though distressed by many aspects of the bigger picture. Right now I’m experiencing a state of good will and I’d like to offer my good will to anyone who reads this post.

I’m also thinking about ‘will’, including good will, in another way. After the stasis, the turn. The seed of the turn is in the stasis; an awareness and anticipation of movement even in the moment when the sun seems at rest. A part of me is already looking forward, throwing my imagination before me, consciously willing, crafting intent.

This year my Contemplative Druidry book began to map out some potentials for contemplative practice based in Druidry, as seen by the book’s contributors, and the Contemplative Druid Events blog on www.contemplativedruidevents.tumblr.com is a vehicle to set out what we are offering. There will be more to come – mostly emphasising half day sessions and one-day ‘contemplative days’. Whilst this activity is growing, I want to work more deeply at mapping possible relationships between the contemplative aspect of spirituality and its ritual and magical aspects (however defined) and its ethical (and by extension political) aspects. My starting point is that they all involve the issue of where we choose to put our attention, and how we enact and sustain our choices intentionally. ‘Will’ is a key term, and what we mean by will is a key inquiry.

ANCESTORS

I generally meditate in a Druid circle sitting in the northern quarter, facing south. It is early morning and my eyes are open, ideally with a soft and panoramic gaze. There is a curtained window in the south east, so I am alerted to the coming of the light. At one level, subtle shifts in the quality of light are just passing phenomena. At another level I experience myself in a liminal, numinous space, not entirely of this world, as I slowly re-engage with daily life.

According to the archaeologist Francis Pryor my positioning, and to an extent perhaps its meaning, is deeply traditional. In the long transition from ‘neolithic’ to ‘bronze age’ culture, north was the direction of the dead and the ancestral realm, and materially marked by stone; south was the domain of the living and the everyday world, and materially marked by wood. So I’m working with a spiritual sense of direction which in some ways echoes theirs, without being the same. It would make sense to me if this were true, for I am here on the same part of the earth, with the same relationship to the sun, as my ancestors of this period.

Talking in more detail about Avebury and Stonehenge specifically, Pryor proposes (1) that the great stone complexes, when fully developed in stone, were a place of the ancestors, of the dead. The place of the living, the place of wood, was to their south. Here is how he describes it:

“The second main period of ritual landscape development at Avebury recalls that at contemporary Stonehenge. Again we see the henge suddenly ‘harden’, with the construction of the great outer circle of massive stones, spaced around the inside of the henge ditch and two (actually three) inner circles of stones. This marks Avebury’s change into a new monument. The domain of the living would have been south of the Kennet, and access to the no man’s land between it and the realm of the ancestors would have been via the river and the great complex of great timber circles and enclosures  recently excavated by a team directed by Alasdair Whittle. From this ‘reception’ area funeral parties would move to the West Kennet Avenue. Turning right, to the south, would bring them to the Sanctuary, which had also ‘hardened’ from a timber to a stone circle by this time. … Most parties visiting the ritual landscape in ancient times would have taken the processional route northwards, leaving the vast bulk of Silbury Hill on the left, a silent outpost on the edge of the next world. Eventually they would pass through the enormous portal stones that still guard Avebury’s southern entrance into the West Kennet Avenue. They were then within the circle of the ancestors.

“If travel, or some form of symbolic progression from one state to another, did play a significant part in the way ritual landscapes were experienced, it may also have been important to look backwards and forwards at the same time: backwards towards previous or existing states of being, and ahead towards worlds that were yet to come. Maybe that was why certain key transitional places, such as the Sanctuary or the King’s Barrow ridge at Stonehenge, were so important. To be able to look both ways can be a humbling experience, but it can also sharpen one’s sense of self and appreciation of the here and now. Archaeologists, in their natural enthusiasm to explain the workings of prehistoric minds and the landscapes they inhabited, should be aware that we will never explain all aspects of past spiritual experiences. There will always be lost dimensions of meaning and mystery – which is one of the things that make the subject so addictive.”

I don’t have the knowledge or standing to say whether Francis Pryor is right in his hypothesis, which as he says himself can only be tentative and provisional. I do deeply appreciate him for being willing to risk using his imagination, whilst informing that imagination with the best evidence that he can muster. He looks back to ancestors who in their turn show a high level of imaginative engagement with their own. We can read what he writes in our here and now and thus, within that here and now, are able to anchor a sense of continuity and connection, through our own imaginative openness. The people who built those monuments were essentially like us. They were mortal like us, and they knew it like us. They had a relationship with the earth, sun and stars like us. They had imagination like us. And they had a relationship with death and the unknown like us. Something to do with these characteristics that we share moved them to change their physical landscape. Those are the things that connect us, more importantly than details of custom or belief – rightfully fascinating though they are.

  1. Pryor, Francis Britain BC: life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans HarperCollins e-books (Hardback first published 2003)
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