contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Interbeing

RIPPLE EFFECTS: WHERE PRAYER CAN BE VALID

The story of Elaine’s illness is her story. She is the central character and, in describing her experience, she has used the language of rebirth. Her words sound congruent and meaningful to me. I have a place in her story, and she in mine. We are together a lot of the time. Her dramatic hospitalisation and return have had significant ripple effects on me – not as a stone thrown into a pond rippling out in circles, but as distinctive currents moving in one body of water.

From an inquiry perspective, I find myself in a new place concerning prayer. Something in me broke open when Elaine was in hospital, after her own life-and-death crisis was past, but when she was still very ill, and it was still possible for something to go wrong. We couldn’t see each other of course but were texting. I wept and prayed when alone, having completely forgotten that I ‘don’t believe’ in petitionary prayer.

This is something that happens for many people in crisis, and I could have gone back to my previous setting, especially after Elaine came home, out of danger. But I haven’t – because I know that, regardless of any effect that my prayers may have had on Elaine’s wellbeing, they made me somehow more present, with a more porous and open sense being. Prayer seems to push me in the direction of compassionate capacity and availability, at the very least making me more conscious of my existing limitations and willing to move beyond them.

I have reflected on my practice, and the understandings behind it, and I have made changes. I wrote about my previous position in the post My Druid Prayer – https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/27/ . I still respect it. I stand by my references to ‘Oneness’ as universal interbeing. The version of the prayer I offered was liked both by Humanist and Naturalist Druids and by those influenced by the example of non-theistic forms of Non-Duality, such as Buddhism and Taoism. I am glad to have written this revision, and I will continue to use it on some occasions. But in my daily evening practice, when I say the Druid Prayer, I have returned to tradition, beginning ‘Grant O Goddess your protection’ rather than ‘In the recognition of Oneness I find protection’. For my changed relationship to prayer also opens up a changed relationship with the divine, which I am exploring now and will write about soon. I am working towards a more integrated Druidry, inclusive of a devotional space where prayer can be valid.

WOODS AND WATER

Yesterday, Thursday 18 February, was the first that felt like spring. The recent cold was gone. The rain that followed largely held off. I went out for a longer walk than for some time, and I felt a natural bubbling up of joy. It doesn’t take much, and I was able to open up to the renewing light and a sense of latent growth and possibility in the world around me. There are two months starting about now that have a sense of equinoctial wonder for me, with light and dark roughly in balance and a lot of change in the land. Yesterday felt like the beginning of this loved and valued time.

A good deal has been happening for me internally, which is influencing my spiritual practice and understanding in subtle but important ways. I will write about this in the weeks to come. But yesterday’s walk was a chance to be out in a woodland, as one being in the web of life connecting with others. Experiences like this are both simple and profound for me, and I feel grateful for the opportunity to have them.

THICH NHAT HANH ON LIVING BEINGS

In the extract below, Thich Nhat Hanh offers Buddhist thoughts, which seem to me to have considerable resonance for Druids, with their animist and earth-honouring perspective and their support for deep ecology.

“There is no absolute dividing line between animate and inanimate, between living matter and inert matter. In so-called inert matter there is life, and living beings are dependent on so-called inert matter. If we took the so-called inanimate elements out of you and me, we would not be able to live. We are made of non-human elements. This is what is taught in the Diamond Sutra, an ancient Buddhist text that could be considered the world’s first treatise on deep ecology. We cannot draw a hard distinction between human beings and other living beings, or between living beings and inert matter.

There is vitality in everything.

The entire cosmos is radiant with vitality.

“If we see the Earth as just a block of matter lying outside of us, then we have not yet truly seen the Earth. We need to be able to see that we are part of the Earth, and to see that the entire Earth is in us. The Earth is also alive; it has intelligence and creativity. … Looking with the eyes of non-discrimination, we can establish a very close relationship with the Earth. We look at the Earth with our heart and not with the eyes of cold reasoning. You are the planet, and the planet is you. The well-being of your body is not possible without the well-being of the planet. And that is why to protect the well-being of your body, we must protect the well-being of the planet. This is the insight of emptiness*.” (1)

  • To be empty, for Thich Nhat Hanh, is to be empty of a permanent, separate self. Hence ‘to be’ is to ‘inter-be’. He coined the word ‘inter-being’ to emphasise this point in his teaching.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017

MY DRUID PRAYER

I am fond of the Druid prayer despite my discomfort with petitionary prayer as a genre. This post looks at the prayer and describes a recent reframing for solo use.

The prayer dates back to the eighteenth-century origins of modern Druidry. I first encountered it in 1993 on joining OBOD (1). The custom there is to extend the ‘Grant O God’ opening to include Goddess and Spirit as alternatives.

Grant O God/Goddess/Spirit, your protection,

And in protection, strength,

And in strength, understanding,

And in understanding, knowledge,

And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice

And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it

And in the love of it, the love of all existences

And in the love of all existences, the love of God/Goddess/Spirit and all goodness”.

When using the prayer in group settings I use Goddess as a Pagan statement in a world where most religious movements still lean heavily towards patriarchy. I have noticed that Goddess and Spirit tend to be the preferred options among Druids today, with at least a few people finding time to say God and Goddess. God by himself is somewhat out of fashion.

In most religious movements this petitionary pluralism would likely seem disconcerting, but it is one of the things that I have appreciated in OBOD and Druid culture more widely. At a deeper level, I am not at ease with prayers to higher powers however they are named. I do not find myself standing congruently behind them. I can stay in a gathering and participate, acknowledging the good intentions of the occasion, but I am not 100% there, in the moment of petition.

On the other hand I like the values expressed in the prayer, as it develops from its base-line in hoped-for protection into that quality of strength which leads on to understanding, knowledge, justice, and – through the love of justice – the love of all existences. Protection and strength, as values, are thereby dissociated from ideologies of dominance and submission, or of power-over as the answer to anxieties and problems. Instead, they point to something fuller, where strength becomes the basis for a generous stance in life. The prayer both affirms the web of life and promotes justice within the web. The principles of the prayer call strongly to our own time.

My recent work has made it possible for me to use the prayer in solo practice. The key word is the sense of ‘Oneness’ as an expression of universal interbeing, or connectedness, rather than a singularity or monad: a Oneness (which I am willing to capitalise) that can manifest in ‘no boundary’ experiences yet also has room for the arrival and passing of individuals, collectives and relationships.

I am aware that, within the web, we find built-in elements describable as parasitic and predatory. Sentient life is necessarily stressed. But as a human I can be aware of this and create, of my own volition and with the aid of allies and available cultural resources, a values-based response. For me, the recognition of ‘Oneness’, as I have described it, widens the circle of care. This recognition may begin as intuited or as conceptual. Either way, I find that it changes the breadth and depth of experience – its taste, texture, tone and colouration. The state of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’ (2) points me to, and enables, the recognition Oneness in this sense. It opens the way to a form of the Druid prayer that I can fully embrace.

In the recognition of Oneness,

May I find protection,

And in protection, strength,

And in strength, understanding,

And in understanding, knowledge,

And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice

And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it

And in the love of it, the love of all existences

And in the love of all existences, the love of Oneness and all goodness.

In the light of recognition, the phrase ‘May I …’ asks me to take responsibility for my part in the Oneness. In one sense I am small and transient, in another sense timeless and unboundaried. There is something available beyond the little me, and I can affirm an intention in its name.

I notice that this approach to the prayer also reframes ‘goodness’. It loses any after echo of childhood obedience and a child’s hope of reward for being good. Indeed, it is not used here primarily as an ethical term – too vague, for one thing: ethical criteria need to be specified and their implications worked through, as in systems like virtue ethics or Buddhism’s eight-fold path. Although implying an ethics of empathy, this goodness is about flourishing at the personal, relational, collective and universal levels. The point of any ethics is to support this flourishing.

I will use and test this version of the prayer, as part of my inquiry, and see how it works as part of my practice.

(1) Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids: http://www.druidry.org/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/08/10/at-homeness-revisited/

VARIETIES OF ONENESS

When I say ‘oneness’, I mean interbeing rather than singularity. I am talking about the web of life, the great song, a field of living presence. Singularity allows only an I. Interbeing has room for I and You and We and They. This recent picture of a half-hidden corner in our garden, taken by my wife Elaine, makes the point. The fact that she took it also reminds me that the mature recognition of ‘you’ is the foundation of true relationship.

This oneness of interbeing does not need a myth of origin to sustain it. Interbeing just is. I’m an intuitive idealist, fascinated by metaphysical questions, including questions of origin, and the systems of myth and metaphor which address them. But I am not spiritually dependent on answers. That is the advantage of Druidry as a practice rooted in nature. Today is a day for celebrating the natural side of my path.

SPRING EQUINOX 2020: IMAGES OF HOPE?

A lone fawn protected by a dolmen. Boxing hares. A drill bow kindles a flame. As I move beyond the equinox into the second quarter of the year, what are these images telling me?

I am working with the Wildwood Tarot* as a resource for my journey through the wheel of the year. I’ve done a three card reading to intuit themes for the three months ahead. Each card is a lens on the whole period, revealing different aspects of the year’s second quarter, perhaps with an element of progression.

The key word for the 4 of stones, the one with the fawn, is ‘protection’. The supporting Wildwood text is largely a reflection on spiritual warriorship, with themes of testing, endurance, ethics and compassion. They help me to understand our public health crisis as also a spiritual crisis. Fortunately, the dolmen holding the fawn in immobilised physical safety can also be a space for spiritual renewal.

The 2 of stones, with its boxing hares, is another earth card and stereotypically seasonal. Its key word is ‘challenge’. In the traditional universe of the Tarot, One becomes two, and then three, and then the multitude. The opportunity for I-Thou relationship, diversity and the world of interbeing have been created. At the same time stress, tension and potential conflicts of interest have been born along with them. Interconnectedness sounds rich, creative and dynamically supportive. So it can be. Yet relationships involving dominance, submission, predation and parasitism are also forms of interconnection. Viruses too.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a hare. I have been told by other humans that boxing hares are playing a mating game, enacting a mating ritual, or demonstrating that female hares are capable of seeing off unwanted advances from males. Perhaps all of the above. They certainly demonstrate the complexities of interconnection. Currently I describe myself as ‘self-isolating’, and this is likely to go on for at least the whole quarter. Actually, I am self-isolating with my wife Elaine, and we are very conscious of needing to take active care of our own relationship and to maintain good distance links with others. The health of the interconnectedness within which we live is more important than ever. I take some comfort here from the boxing hares. Their energies are successfully held in balance. Their collective life and its continuation over the years are enabled. They are resourceful creatures and our traditional lore about them speaks of shape shifting capabilities and closeness to the Otherworld. They are survivors.

The key words for my third card, the Ace of Bows, are ‘spark of life’. In a reading without major trumps or court cards, this stands out as the fountainhead of the fire suit and in the Wildwood Tarot it points to the later stages of this quarter, from Beltane to the Summer Solstice and indeed beyond. It introduces human agency and technology, and is associated with creativity, enterprise and science: “The drill bow suggests the human element, our partnership with the environment in which we live and the mastery of its gifts”. I find myself placed in a somewhat passive position, but I am part of a wider community. I do have confidence that creatively scientific and genuinely enterprising efforts will be brought to bear on the current health crisis. ‘Spark of life’ resonates favourably for me, without saying anything specific about my individual future.

The three cards together encourage a strong focus on my contemplative inquiry, including this blog. The inquiry is personal, and in the language of Wildwood maintains my link to the Otherworld. It is also public, because of the blog, and can therefore play a role in a larger effort to use blogging and social media in the service of healthy interconnection. Wildwood’s suit of bows talks of ‘philosophical and esoteric pursuits’ as a form of “skilful ability fuelled by will”, along with the creativity, science and enterprise already noted. I would like to think of my contemplative inquiry as a manifestation of this, and I hope that it can be a form of service in the forthcoming quarter and beyond.

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

‘ABOUT’ FOR 2020

A happy New Year to all readers, as we begin to navigate the 2020’s! May we find compassionate and creative ways to flourish in the days ahead.

As my contemplative inquiry evolves, I update the ‘About’ section for this blog. Below is my revision for the beginning of 2020.

“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. I began my contemplative inquiry within modern British Druidry and my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

“Over time my inquiry became a wider exploration of contemplative spirituality, identified for a period as a Sophian Way. It drew on the enduring wisdom of many times and places and I came to experience it as a path of healing, peace and illumination. In particular, my inquiry identified an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment. Such at-homeness is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I have found that, for me, the realisation of this at-homeness has supported a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.

“The discovery of at-homeness emerged from an inward inquiry arc: noticing myself perceiving, making meaning, and finding a language to articulate my experience. Now I am on an outward arc. I am turning to a greater focus on relationships, community, culture, and the wider web of life. Druidry, as a modern eco-spirituality receptive to ancient wisdom, is renewing its importance in my life.”

EMPTINESS AND INTERBEING

At this point in my inquiry I want to refine my understanding of ’emptiness’. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is a great help here, in his final commentary on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra .

Thich Nhat Hanh discusses Buddha’s teaching that everything is “a manifestation of causes and conditions” and that nothing is permanent or unchanging. This applies to the whole cosmos, and not just to the apparent world. “Whether you call it atman (the soul) or Brahman (ultimate divinity), whether you call it the individual self or the universal self, you cannot find anything there”. Buddha’s teaching was aimed at undermining both of these notions. Nothing has any ‘self-nature’ (we might use the term ‘essence’).

Thich Nhat Hanh pursues this right into the territory of emptiness. “There are still many people who are drawn into thinking that emptiness is the ground of being, the ontological ground of everything. But emptiness, when understood rightly, is the absence of any ontological ground. … We must not be caught by the notion of emptiness as an eternal thing. It cannot be any kind of absolute or ultimate reality. This is why it can be empty. Our notion of emptiness should be removed. It is empty.”

He goes on to say: “the insight of interbeing is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else … looking from the perspective of space we call emptiness ‘interbeing’; looking from the perspective of time we call it ‘impermanence’ … to be empty is to be alive, to breathe in and breathe out. Emptiness is impermanence; it is change … we should celebrate. … When you have a kernel of corn and entrust it to the soil, you hope it will be a tall corn plant. If there is no impermanence, the kernel of corn will remain a kernel of corn forever and you will never have an ear of corn to eat. Impermanence is crucial to the life of everything”.

This is one side of an age old controversy within spiritualities of Indian origin. In this blog, I have given friendly attention to the other side as well – particularly Direct Path teachers like Rupert Spira and Greg Goode and the Indian influenced Douglas Harding. In the end I don’t make an absolute judgement about it. My Sophian ‘At-Homeness in the flowing moment’ is compatible with both views. But I’m now finding greater energy and aliveness in the framework here presented by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Increasingly, when I do Direct Path exercises I experience a breaking down of assumptions about experience itself, and a tremendous opening out … but no container called ‘Awareness’ to fill a God sized hole. It’s similar for me with the Harding exercises. My experience is broadly the same, but my felt sense has shifted, and my narrative with it. I’m moving away from big picture truth claims about this, because I have become sceptical that exercises like this provide any grounds for them, one way or the other. Rather, I lean in to an evolving personal understanding, always provisional, of my contemplative experiences.

As a shorthand, I can talk about the tension between a ‘Oneness’ framing and an ‘interbeing’ framing of what people call non-duality. The difference can seem subtle – and it may be best to use ambiguous, open-ended words like ‘Tao’ and preserve a sense of mystery. But at this turning of the year, ‘interbeing’ is my preferred term. It fits better with the eco-spirituality which I take from my Druid journey, and affirms the relational basis of my Sophian Way.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/ an earlier post that I’ve been able to draw on here.

WORD AND WAY

Sometimes I struggle with language. This struggle is part of my practice upon the Sophian Way. At times I think of it as a distraction, and perhaps a sign of incompetence. I become discouraged. How do I talk about something that can appear to be beyond a tantalising and distant horizon, while also being nothing other than the ground I walk on and the feet that do the walking? How could I ever find a language?

This is the edge of contemplative inquiry. This is the point where contemplation is asked to hold confusion and frustration. I am tempted to write them off as forms of failure or distraction, yet the stand at the heart of the practice. Writing now, I am not reporting on a practice. I am doing it. Sophia is not bought off by a spirituality of easy answers and sweet experiences. She is also not bought off by the line that ‘this is all beyond more words and thinking’, when spoken as a dismissal. That line is true, but it doesn’t let me off the effort of doing what I can to express what I experience. One of my experiences is this very struggle with words.

I once had a self-image that, in the evening of my days, I would be somehow beyond all this. At times I feel I am. In August 2018 I wrote: “Within my Sophian Way, I have found healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness. Everything else grows out of that – personal well-being, right relationship, life and expression in the world. It is the fountain that nourishes them all. All it needs is my attention”. At that time I believed that this blog had run its course. I looked forward to a period of “fruitful silence”, and I went on to have one. Essentially I stand by what I said then, about At-Homeness, and healing and grounding in a flowing now. It is an important practical take-away from my inquiry. But no formula stands eternal, or does everything. By April of this year I was writing again.

As I continue my inquiry, I will be asking myself more about the ways in which sensations, feelings, images, intuitions, thoughts, beliefs and self-image, shape my contemplative experience. I think this particularity matters. I, James, am in a different place from Douglas Harding, when he says: “Without God, Douglas would not exist but without Douglas God would have no awareness of Himself. It’s like light and darkness. You don’t have one without the other. But the Ultimate truth is that there is only God “. If I could only fall into line with this language, I would never have to think again. But I wilt in conditions of mono-cultural monologue. For me, it offers meaning at the price of love, energy and wonder, and the price is far too high.

In his own life, Douglas Harding was by no means short of love, energy or wonder, and he used a language that was entirely congruent with his truth. But I am different. I have a different view and I trust my feelings in this. I experience my personhood a valid in its own right, even though largely constructed and deeply enmeshed in wider systems. The cosmos I know expresses itself to me through its generativity and multiplicity. My own experience of the Headless Way experiments has been about losing the sense of a boundaried and separate self in an immersion, and a deep connection …. which I associate with notions of ‘inter-being’, and web of life … and I know that my language isn’t as clear and definite as Harding’s … and that I have different experiences at different times … and change my mind … and continue to struggle with words. I’m also discovering that I’m at peace with this. My inelegant inquiry is held within the flowing now, and forms part of my At-Homeness.

EYE OF SPIRIT

I walk my Sophian Way, seeking imagery for the end of November. The willows provide it. I see a dying back of the year, where the withdrawn and conserved life has a beauty of its own.

Stilling into presence, and holding the trees in loving attention, I act as the eye of spirit. I am aware equally of the uniqueness and otherness of the trees, and of my inter-being with them. I feel love, gratitude and wonder. I also feel a poignancy, and a sense of vulnerability – for them, and me, and everyone else.

I am glad to be taking pictures again after a gap of many years. There are dangers of displacing my attention into the process of photography, or of contracting into a collector’s obsession with ‘capturing’ images. My solution is to be artless and spontaneous in pressing the button – and to leave my phone in my pocket for most of the time. Once at home, I do find myself delighting in the record.

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