contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Imbolc

CHANGE IN MIND

The appearance of a daffodil in our garden is a delight. Daffodils in early February feel quite different from the iconic Imbolc snowdrops, whose beauty still feels wintry. The solar yellow of the daffodil disrupts my winter habits of mind. The flower is a clearer harbinger of spring in the world’s life and mine. In a number of different ways, I am recovering my belief in movement and change. The daffodil tells me that it is time for a vitalising re-orientation.

A Covid-19 vaccination tomorrow is another event in a new pattern of life and experience. My wife Elaine’s recovery following her recent hospitalisation is another and greater one. Her convalescence is a gradual process and we are still living very carefully. But we are thinking creatively about the new life before us and how best to inhabit it, even whilst living a day at a time.

I notice that I feel more spiritually sensitive and open. I do not know yet where this is going to take me. On the one hand I feel strongly moved by a single flower. On the other, the world of appearances feels dreamlike and provisional. Then there is the vividness of daily life and relationship. A change is happening and I’m not looking for an explanatory language to pigeonhole it, or to make it abstract and safe. For now, I am simply acknowledging a change in mind.

BIRCH: NEW BEGINNINGS

Within my mandala of the year (1) Birch – Beith in the Irish ogham alphabet (2) – is the first tree for the spring quarter beginning at Imbolc. The overall theme of this quarter, in my world, is one of early growth. Birch presides from 1-22 February and will become one of the first trees to flower in spring, from March onwards. It is also one of the first trees to colonise new ground.

In ogham lore Birch is understood to support new beginnings and to encourage careful preparation, a skilful laying of the ground on which we will build. “In making your spiritual journey with this tree as your guide, remember to concentrate your mind on the uplifting slender whiteness of the tree, a whiteness that stands out clearly from the tangled undergrowth and confusion of shrubs and thorny bushes that cover the floor and, hence, may inhibit an easy journey” (3). The Green Man’s wisdom (1) is that a good beginning leads to a good conclusion.

In runic tradition (4), where Birch (Beorc, Berkana) is also linked to new beginnings, there is specific reference to the young Goddess, sexuality and birth, as well as beauty and creativity more generally. Birch may signal a laying aside of old patterns, whether merely redundant or positively toxic, and a willingness to welcome new, more energising and nourishing ways of being.

For me, this is a welcome shift from the necessary defensiveness and protectiveness of alder. This year, it comes just at the moment where such a shift is possible – as my wife Elaine continues her recovery from major illness and we begin to dream and think our way forward, into a new cycle of life. The wheel turns, and there is a promise of positive change in the air.

(1) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

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

(3) Liz and Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison-Sadd, 1988 (Illustrated by Vanessa Card)

(4) Sweyn Plowright The Rune Primer: a Down to Earth Guide to the Runes Rune-Net, 2006

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/

ANOTHER DAWN

It is the dawning of 18 January 2021. The stark, bare beauty of the trees is set against a promising sky. Is the world beginning to open up? I can see a leaning in to Imbolc in this dawn, and a loosening in the hold of winter as the year moves on.

I cannot run out into this dawn, as I would like. I am in formal isolation, with a home testing kit for Covid-19 winging its way from NHS/Amazon. My symptoms are ambiguous. Covid-19 may not be the cause, but there is a real chance that it might. Meanwhile people in my 70’s age group are about to get vaccinated. Interesting times, for sure.

For me, the best way of addressing this is day at a time, whilst also assessing possible challenges sufficiently to be prepared for them. From a Druid perspective, I am finding the nemeton of my practice circle a tremendous resource. From the beginning of this year I have had both a morning and an evening circle. The former is built around energising myself and affirming both being and world. The second is contemplative, and built around both walking and sitting meditation. Each lasts for about half an hour.

I notice that I draw on Druid (largely OBOD) liturgy (1) , with modifications, quite a lot – for example, the approach to sacred space and use of the Druid prayer. This locates me within a training and community which add strength even at a distance. There are also aspects of practice drawn from other traditions and others which I have developed myself. The package overall retains a basic simplicity. It is a distillation of my contemplative inquiry – in a sense re-telling its unique story twice a day. I am finding this enormously helpful. I am reminded that the journey is what I had hoped it would be. This recognition holds me up, and is a dawning in itself.

(1) http://www.druidry.org/

(2)  https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/27/my-druid-prayer/

ALDER (FEARN) PROTECTION

Within my mandala of the year (1) Alder (2) is the fourth and final tree for the winter quarter that begins at Samhain. The overall movement of this quarter, in my world, is through death to regeneration. Alder presides from 8-31 January and links the regenerative aspect to a continuing need for protection already signalled by Holly (3). There is something foundational about protection. The late eighteenth century Druid prayer (4), which set the note for modern Druidry, begins by asking for protection, as the beginning of a journey that leads through the quest for justice to a place of universal love.

I live in a watery place and there are alders around, though – in contrast to willow – I have never been on hugging terms with this tree. But the oily and water resistant timber is well-adapted to its surroundings, and for humans has provided good timber for boats, bridges, and underwater foundations. Many medieval cathedrals were built on alder piling. Although the wood makes poor fuel, it is good for charcoal.

Round alder shields were once used as protection for warriors in Ireland, and “in Celtic myth, we read of palisades of alders that deter invasion of keep prisoners confined, and these fences are sometimes described as being decorated by a row of severed human heads” (2) . The Welsh hero Benedegeit Bran (Bran the Blessed) is reputed to have used his body to span the River Linon, forming a bridge to raise his followers above the dangerous waters, as the wood does when used as a building material. Later, when mortally wounded in a battle against the Irish, he gave them instructions to cut off his head and carry it with them. They were rewarded with song and prophecy from the head over many years.

Much more can be said about Bran (whose name means raven). My overall learning from alder is about a willingness and capacity to hold boundaries Bran adds sensitivity and openness to the larger context in which events are playing out. Placed at the end of the winter quarter, I see alder as guarding the tentative return of spring, as the light slowly returns and we find increasing signs of growth in the natural world. The weeks before Imbolc can be cold and dreary, but life is stirring both outwardly and inwardly. Alder reminds me of the need for protected spaces to nurture a latent abundance.

(1) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the winter quarter from 1 November, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Yew, north-west, 1-23 November; Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December; Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January; Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January. The spring quarter then starts with birch at Imbolc. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/12/23/holly-tinne-the-turn/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/27/my-druid-prayer/

LIGHT RENEWED

I have now landed in 2021. I can see the renewal of the light; however tentative it might be. The winter quarter, from Samhain to Imbolc, is a season of dying and regeneration. I have glimpsed regeneration in nature and in myself – potentially in culture too. The collective crisis is deep, and projects remain on hold. But I can sense opportunity, and possibilities for creative change.

I have noticed a major transition in my work. I have entered a phase where contemplative inquiry is a strand in my life rather than a project called ‘Contemplative Inquiry’. I look back and see this transition as an accomplishment of 2020. Certain questions have been answered and won’t need much revisiting. I began an ended the project within a modern Druid orbit – saturnine in distance, perhaps, but still part of the family.

My view, values and practice have largely settled. A lightning-flash experience, or transformative encounter, might cause me to change them, for I retain a commitment to openness. But the project of Contemplative Inquiry will not. I am much less engaged with teachers, teachings and traditions than in former years, whether through literature, groups or events (live and virtual). Instead, I want to work more deeply and congruently within the frameworks I have already learned and developed. I tend to be a solitary practitioner at heart, though I also like some link to companions and community along my spiritually hermit way.

The great gift in this is the opportunity to live a life of ‘abundance in simplicity’ at the level of ideas as well as material goods and activities – to pare down in the very area where I am most tempted to seek variety and feast on new input. There is Sufi story in which the crazy wisdom master Shams persuades the more conventionally trained Rumi to throw all his religious texts down a well. I do not plan to go so far. But I recognise the time for a change in emphasis. As a trade-off, my monkey mind is freed for other subjects. I look forward to seeing how this new direction works, and how it affects this blog.

LIGHT ON TREES

Bright light as a valley experience. Sunlight on trees. February 6, the day I took this picture, provided my first experience of intense sunlight this year. It got through to me even in a shady place. My eyes were dazzled and my head struck by an unexpected warmth.

I noticed mixed feelings. Yes, I celebrated the return of the light. Yes, it was a reference experience for the spring aspect of Imbolc in my part of the world. More visceral than snowdrops, the sun truly reached me and not just my nature-observant sensibilities. It was almost shocking.

Looking out, after that first moment, my world filled up with light on trees. I wondered if they too had any resistance to waking up and being visible and called upon to grow and change and open to the light more fully. I don’t know what it’s like to be a tree. Not really. Withdrawing my projections, I am turned back to my own responses. Parts of me have reservations about immersion in the light. Perhaps they have a wisdom of their own.

IMBOLC 2020

Spaces ‘between’ can be numinous. They feed the soul. Imbolc for me is like a pre-dawn light. I am not yet out of winter, but something else is happening, and palpably growing in strength.

The hierophant of the Wildwood Tarot – the Ancestor – is placed as a power of Imbolc. An antlered figure clothed in reindeer skins and evergreen leaves, she has a resonance of Elen of the Ways, the reindeer goddess who stands for the sovereignty of the land. She calls to us from a deep past where Ice Age hunters followed reindeer through ancient forest, “following the deer trods” (1,2) responsive to the herds and attuned to the landscape. They lived with little personal property and without long hours of alienating work. The Ancestor invites us to wonder what these early ancestors  might have to teach us under our very different conditions.

On the card, the Ancestor is sounding a drum and calling us into another consciousness – one more open and aware of our place within the web of life. In her world, deer and people are kin. She herself is ambiguous – she might be wearing a mask, or she might be a truly theriomorphic figure. I respond to her call by sinking deeply into my felt sense – the embodied life of sensation, feelings and belly wisdom. The call of the Ancestor  is a pathway to greater wholeness and connection, both personally and collectively. As the year wakes up, it is a good call to hear.

(1) Elen Sentier Elen of the Ways: British Shamanism – Following the Deer Trods Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2013 (Shaman Pathways series)

(2) Elen Sentier Following the Deer Trods: A Practical Guide to Working with Elen of the Ways Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2014 (Shaman Pathways series)

See also book review at: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/06/22/

JANUARY DAYS

I am conscious now of moving beyond midwinter and towards Imbolc (1 February), the first celebration of returning light. For me, the-mid January period is held in the above image. Tree trunks reflected in water evoke depth rather than height. The image faithfully depicts their withdrawn winter life whilst hinting at other life below the surface, as the world turns over in its sleep.

HOODED HERMIT

Winter in the  Wildwood Tarot lasts from Samhain (1 November) to Imbolc (1 February), whereupon the spring quarter begins. The hooded man, hermit of this deck, is shown as solstice figure whose influence pervades the whole winter. The image depicts a hooded figure, staff in the left hand and lantern in the right, standing by a great oak tree. The lantern illuminates a door in the tree, which itself suggests, through cracks in its timbers, an illuminated space inside. A wren sits on a stone nearby.

There is power in this image. The world tree, standing for life and wisdom, is both source and refuge. The hooded hermit seems to model intention and training, and his lantern and staff are potent tools. The wren once won a contest to be king of the birds by riding on the back of an eagle and thus flying highest. An animal ally, perhaps.

The face of the hooded hermit is hidden: no visible sign of a forest rebel; no sign, specifically, of a man. Does this suggest a talent for invisibility or shape-shifting? Perhaps. But what I chiefly sense is a Zen emptiness, of which Thich Nhat Hanh (2) says: “At first, we think emptiness is the opposite of fullness but, as we saw earlier, emptiness is fullness. You are empty of your separate self, but full of the cosmos.” According to another Zen writer (3), “the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’ …a flowing occurrence, and the outward form ,,, was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”

I am not a Buddhist and I do not seek to appropriate the hooded hermit for Buddhism. Similar ideas about the emptying out of personality to make room for a greater life can be found in Taoism (4) and Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (5). There’s a reminder here that path and goal are one, and that an emptied fullness of experiencing is available at any point of the journey.

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

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

(3) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

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

 (5) http://www.headless.org

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