Watching the fast flowing ripples as wind moves over water. Enjoying the power of the elements in this playful mood. For a brief time, delightedly immersed. Then stepping back and taking a brief video and a still picture. Seeing, later, how different they are. Rich moments are not hard to find, it seems, if I’m willing to find them in simple experiences.
‘My spirituality’ (an odd term, though widely used) is becoming simpler and more natural. My defining term, contemplative inquiry, has begun to seem complicated and formal to me, though in essence I still find it valid. It also identifies a thread of continuity in a decade of exploration. I am going to keep it as a description of what I do, even as my specific practice and understanding develop. One of my hopes is to simplify my inquiry process itself, without diminishing it, as I continue to move and change. Ripple images feel relevant somehow, both in themselves and as a metaphor which I can’t quite, as yet, fully decode.
I’ve been ‘plant-based’ or ‘mostly vegan’ for several years now, since coming to understand the role of livestock on the climate. But towards the end of 2020, my son asked if he could be properly vegan. I joined him and we have done it together. I haven’t mentioned this before on the blog. I see […]
On 1 September 2002 I began a journal, which I have kept up ever since. I was inspired by some advice on the spiritual dimension of life. The gist of it was: stay in contact with supportive companions; live mindfully; meditate; develop a spirit of inquiry; be willing to take risks; find time for supportive reading. My journal was primarily an inquiry tool, and spiritual inquiry has been a leading theme of my life ever since.
My Druid training was, in part, an inquiry. My contemplative exploration has been, in part, an inquiry. My book Contemplative Druidry (1) had an inquiry flavour, offering readers a democratic, multi-vocal, and open approach to the subject. I named this blog Contemplative Inquiry because my personal inquiry has included engagement with other movements and traditions.
Now, 19 years on, inquiry is losing momentum as a guiding principle. It is beginning to feel obsolete. I notice that 19 years is the length of a Metonic cycle (2), roughly the time it takes for the phases of the moon to recur at the same time of year. 19 years also once marked the completion of a formal Druid training. May be there is something in the ancient interest in this lunisolar relationship. Perhaps it has had a subtle influence on me: as above, so below.
I cannot imagine a satisfying life without both contemplation and inquiry, and all of the learning from my dedicated inquiry years stands behind me. But now is a time for an informal harvesting, a process that feels quite different, not a project but a more natural grounding and deepening, and less self-conscious in the conceptual realm. I will continue the blog, and see how it develops and changes in the coming months.
(2) The Metonic cycle is named after after the ancient Greek philosopher Meton, who used a 6940-day period as the basis for his lunisolar calendar. Such calendars appear in many cultures, and may have informed the construction of our ancient sacred sites.
There is the moment, and there is the flow. The photograph holds the moment and the image at first seems still. Looking more closely, we can infer the turbulence that accompanies flow. All those ripples, and wavelets and swirls. They testify to the life of the stream in time.
I have taken up silent sitting meditation after a long break, making a commitment to myself of at least thirty minutes a day. I have incorporated silent sitting meditation into both my morning and evening practices, so the individual sessions need not be long. I am not made for long meditations. but I do now find that an element of silent sitting meditation enriches my contemplative life and inquiry.
I like the term ‘silent sitting meditation’ for its plainness and descriptive accuracy. I am distinguishing this meditation from the ones that I learned through Druidry, which, even when not guided, depend on visualisation and narrative. At the same time I am avoiding close identification with the ‘mindfulness’ brand. It feels like a prescriptive pre-shaping of my lived experience as a meditator. A strong intuition, gift perhaps of the Goddess in her Wisdom, wants the meditative life to be free of such labels.
So I sit. With two sessions a day, I find that my natural length of session is from 20-35 minutes and so with two sessions I am overshooting my commitment. That’s a good indication that I am not straining myself. I don’t want my meditation to be goal-oriented. Rather, I open myself to the energy of living experience, and let it lead me.
I do begin, conventionally, with a breath focus, following the sensations and the gaps after in-breath and out-breath, with loving attention. I also open myself to other sensations, which (with my eyes closed) will mostly be internal body sensations or external sounds. I think that the love in loving attention matters. There are people within the mindfulness movement who think it might better have been called heartfulness. This introduces a sense of compassion for everything that arises. Within the experience, I can feel whole, at home in the Heart of Being which holds up and informs my human life. When I am consciously present, it is a place of peace, joy and inspiration.
In the course of a session, I will taste this state from time to time. At other times I find myself engaged with images (some seeming otherworldly), or narrative streams, that I also value. These experiences seem to have an authentic energy that I cannot simply dismiss as distractions. I want to allow them in and engage with them. Indeed, even where the passing content of experience seems entirely mundane or even distressed, I will welcome it and keep it company. I will hold it in love. Outside the meditation, it may provide a cue for some more dedicated healing or inquiry process.
It may be for this reason that I do not characteristically find distress distorted thoughts and feelings hijacking or sabotaging the meditative flow. They know my willingness to meet them. This means that the other experience, the wellspring of my life, is rarely far away and never forgotten. It doesn’t even require formal meditation. For me, silent sitting meditation supports a fuller life, lived from the Heart of Being. But it is not, by any means, a requirement for it.
The sun is there, of course. There could be no picture without it. But this is a moment in my world where the sun is hidden, slow to advance and light up the day. As I continue looking through the window, the mist seems thicker, more dominant than the picture records. I am glad to be warm and in the house. I am glad not to be going out to work. I am glad not to be going out to walk, content with the view through a widow. It looks cold out there. Today, I am willing to let the Mystery be.
But the Mystery takes different forms and I find myself peering into a different unknown. There is another hidden sun, within. Thanks to this interior sun I glimpse a direction for my inquiry after the end of this cycle, as we move beyond midwinter into a new calendar year. First, I see the inquiry continuing, supported by curiosity, wisdom and compassion – three qualities for me to cultivate. Second, I am aware of an emerging question about ‘healing’, and what it means for me at this time in my life and the world’s. I am especially drawn to ways in which healing and contemplation matter to each other, and to senses of healing that are not over-preoccupied with ‘fixing’. Third, I realise that I have already begun gathering resources that can support me in this venture. In a somewhat dreary time, I have just enough light to find my way.
My wife Elaine created this midsummer cauldron fire, now ten days ago. It was fuelled in part by dry dead leaves. She chose the evening of the day itself rather than the traditional eve. The point about midsummer (24 June) is that the sun is on the move again after its moment of stasis, clearly beginning its decline. It acts as the polar opposite of the Sol Invictus or Christmas festival in late December. The Church gives 24 June to John the Baptist, decapitated at the wish of his nemesis Salome.
In our neighbourhood, there is a paradox about July. It is the quintessential summer month, in which the light begins to diminish. At the moment, sunrise is at about 4.50 am., with sunset at 9.20 pm. By Lughnasadh, it will be rising at 5.25 am and setting before 8.50 pm. In August, the process will accelerate while the earth and sea remain warm by North Atlantic standards. Getting up an hour or so after sunrise I am tending to find a dull and cloudy sky. There can be a stillness in the air, disturbed perhaps by blackbird pair flying low amongst the trees. I have a sense of latency.
The inquiry phase beginning at the 2019 winter solstice has settled a number of issues. I am re-confirmed in a modern Druid practice that is held within a circle and seven directions (E, S, W, N, below, above, centre), and is mindful of the wheel of the year. I also settled my approach to ethics at the beginning of this inquiry year (1) drawing on the work of modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers with his re-visioning of ancient Greek ‘virtue’ ethics (2). I have deepened in my experience of an at-homeness in the flowing moment, and its therapeutic benefits, which I wrote about last year (3). Fully established in my life, these are no longer fundamental inquiry issues. The uncertainties I formerly had with them are like dead leaves, now safe to burn.
For all that I have gained from other paths – Tantra, Tao, Zen, other forms of Buddhism, and Christian Gnosticism – I know that I will not be practising or following them. I will continue to appreciate their literatures and cite them in this blog, but this will be from the perspective of the appreciative outsider. Here too the active inquiry is over. Uncertainties have shrunken into dead leaves, and are safe to burn.
I know that, in the turbulent, airy mental realm, I have contending gnostic and agnostic energies. They are co-arising twins, and neither is going away. I still have work to do to find a settled home for them both. I am also concerned about how, more elegantly, to fit an ‘emptiness’ understanding into an earth pathway. A feeling about myth, and the truth and beauty of myth, is tied up with this. In the coming phase, I will look again at R. J. Stewart’s Merlin work for help with these questions. This reprise is also part of my older person’s looking back, recalling what I have valued, and asking what role it can still play. It sets my direction for the second half of the year.
My world is now in full summer, rich in life and growth, palpably drawn towards the solstice moment. Even in the middle of the woods the solar influence is evident, vivifying both light and shade. The power and clarity of midsummer’s day will be balanced by the different energy, conceivably more disturbing, of the midsummer night’s dream.
Sometimes it is easy to see the path behind, but not the one ahead. In the first half of this inquiry year I have refined my personal Druid practice and strengthened my contemplative inquiry. Giving more energy to this blog has helped. I am clear that, whilst not mobilised around deity and devotion, I also do not accept current positivistic science as a complete account of lived experience. I incline to a ‘consciousness first’ view of cosmos because it offers the richest contextualisation of the ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’ experience now at the core of my own life. But the map is not the territory, and I have stayed away from adopting this as a doctrine. It feels good to have clarity here, and also to remain appreciatively at ease with other points of view and their protagonists.
My recent awen inquiry has stirred up a range of feelings, thoughts, images and intuitions. I do not see a path ahead very clearly. But I intuit that my future direction may be explicitly age-related, at least to some degree. I had my 71st birthday last week. So now I’m not just 70: I’m ‘in my 70’s’. As a contemplation I am using a passage from James Hillman’s The Force of Character and The Lasting Life (1). As I get to know it better, I will discover what inspiration it offers.
“T. S. Eliot wrote that ‘Old men ought to be explorers’; I take this to mean: follow curiosity, inquire into important ideas, risk transgression. According to the brilliant Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, ‘inquiry’ is our nearest equivalent to the Greek alethia (2), … ‘an endeavour … to place us in contact with the naked reality … concealed behind the robes of falsehood.’ Falsehood often wears the robes of commonly accepted truths, the common unconsciousness we share with one another … we must become involved wholeheartedly in the events of ageing. This takes both curiosity and courage. By ‘courage’ I mean letting go of old ideas and letting go to odd ideas, shifting the significance of the events we fear.”
(1) James Hillman The Force of Character and the Lasting Life Milson’s Point, AUS: Random House Australia, 1999
(2) As in alethiometer, for readers of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy