A winter morning walk with the temperature gently rising above freezing. Internally I’m here, now and at home, as the world changes around me. Walking outside becomes a meditation without effort or solemnity.
It feels good to be reminded, on the cusp of a house move, that at-homeness is portable, embracing variety and change. Light dances with shade. Mist gradually disperses into a blue sky. Still images can point to the process of growth, as with the red berries below, which startled me with their vividness when I saw them.
I find it a comforting, simple pleasure to observe the changes in familiar spaces throughout the day and the year. Because I am leaving the locality, I am delighting in the images I take away from this day’s walk – the land, the water, sunlight and mist; a quietly decaying building and its reflection; railway arches, a footbridge over a stream. Soon, a new landscape will take on its own familiarity.
Finally, I am moved by the light and shade on our garden path, such a good way to end a walk.
A highly recommended illustration of spirituality in support of political action. In The Burning House: A Buddhist Response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency (1), author Shantigarbha affirms that ‘the ecological crisis is nothing if not a spiritual crisis, a crisis of meaning and direction for our civilisation’. Most Druids would say the same, and see value in his approach.
Shantigarbha (Seed or Womb of Peace) (2) is a teacher of Buddhism and Nonviolent Communication (NVC). He has also trained members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) in nonviolence and de-escalation skills. He believes that we cannot wait to change our lives before we change the world, or to change the world before we change our lives: we have to do the best we can with both, together, now. He sees the climate crisis as primarily one of ’empathy, connection and community’ and says that ‘when we use our energy to cultivate our own vitality, we naturally use the abundance we discover in the service of life’.
The book title The Burning House references a traditional Buddhist story about a father trying to get his children out of a burning house. There is no time to pick them up individually, so he simply commands them to leave. But they are busy playing with their toys and ignore him. He has to find a skilful means of getting them out. In his anguish (but also inspiration) he tells them that there are even more wonderful and exciting toys outside. In the parable the burning house stands for a life of samsara and unawareness. Outside there is the opportunity for awareness and the tools to develop it.
The book looks first at the climate crisis and ways it can be understood. There follow chapters on how Buddhist ethics support environmental ethics, and how compassionate action based on wisdom can enable the transformation we need. There are chapters on aspects of emotional intelligence. How to transform anger is the first – rather than acting out our anger or repressing it, we can identify and mobilise ‘the life in it’. Hatred, by contrast, is characterised as always toxic and self-harming. There are chapters on ecological grief and its potentially heavy weight – and also on gratitude for what we do still have. There is a beautiful quote from Francis Weller: ‘How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible’ (3).
Later chapters focus more specifically on nonviolent social change, on being the change, and on the role of nonviolent disruption in the pursuit of climate justice. Practical examples draw on UK experience in 2019, mostly in London and Bristol. Whilst illuminating, they are limited in place and time. The last chapter, Final thoughts: the beauty and terror, summarises what we can do both individually and collectively. It sees some grounds for hope – if we treat the climate and ecological emergency as an emergency. Shantigarbha draws on Sraddha, ‘the Buddhist equivalent of hope’, better translated as confidence or trust. It is not faith or hope in the ordinary sense. ‘Sraddha represents a higher or broader perspective, our connection with vision. It signifies an emotional response to our ideals. In terms of the burning house it represents the father’s cry of inspiration’. We are invited to have the courage and confidence to do what we can, and let the effects ripple out. It is what we can do, and all we can do.
The Burning House offers valuable perspectives both on Buddhist political engagement and on climate action. Each chapter contains a link to a guided meditation, offered as a resource to readers.
“Carl Jung coined the word synchronicity to refer to the remarkable coincidences most of us experience from time to time. They are remarkable in that they usually involve two or more unconnected events coming together in an unlikely way. These events seem to be more than coincidences, more than pure chance. They often seem like miracles, bringing us just what we need at just the right time, opening up new opportunities in our lives or supporting us in some other way.
” … The Maharishi, with whom I had the good fortune to study in India, explained this as ‘the support of nature’. When he wanted to assess how we were progressing in our practice, he was not interested in our experiences in meditation itself … he was more interested in whether we had noticed what he called ‘increased support of nature’. By this he meant, did we notice the world supporting our needs and intentions? That is to say, did we notice more synchronicity in our lives?
” … It might sound like magical thinking, but I’ve noticed that the degree of synchronicity in my life often reflects my state of conscious. When I meditate regularly, especially when I have been on a meditation retreat, life seems to work out well, with many little coincidences leading me to just what I need at the right time. It’s as if the Universe has my best interests at heart and arranges for their fulfilment in ways I could never have dreamed of.
“Conversely, when I’m stressed, not in touch with myself but caught up in worry or in some other way off-centre, synchronicities don’t flow so abundantly.
“Furthermore, synchronicities seem to happen more often when I’m engaged with the world. I can sit alone in a cottage in the middle of a forest, at peace and in touch with myself, yet few synchronicities occur. Significant ones nearly always involve other people in some way. It is as if my interplay with others gives cosmic choreography greater opportunities to reach me.
“Although we cannot make synchronicities happen – it’s in their nature to occur ‘by coincidence’ – we can encourage their occurrence. We can support nature by taking time to step back from our egoic thinking and reconnect with our essential being. Then, grounded in our true nature, we can go out and engage fully in the world. We can go out and play – play whatever game or role best fits our intentions and best serves our awakening, and that of others.
“And then enjoy, and perhaps marvel at, the way nature responds by supporting us.”
Peter Russell Letting Go of Nothing: Relax Your Mind and Discover the Wonder of Your True Nature 2021 http://www.newworldlibrary.com – (Foreword by Eckhart Tolle)
I like the way this presentation uses the word ‘knowing’ to point to our underlying condition. This usage is clearly separated from everyday knowledge of or about (something), or even of wisdom and understanding. It also avoids the term ‘consciousness’, which tends to invite metaphysical and scientific debates that lead us away from direct experience. ‘Awareness’ is a noun and so seems like a thing – we don’t generally talk about ‘awareing’. I personally like ‘being’ as an alternative, but it carries philosophical baggage and is not specific enough for the context of this presentation. Current usages within the Western Way of the term ‘gnosis’ do not generally reflect the view discussed here.
It may be true, as the Tao Te Ching says, that the Way that can be named is not the real Way. But we still need language, as a pointer, for that in us which needs to make sense of experience and to share it with others. Here, a skilful choice of words can make a difference, and I think this presentation models the skill. Dzogchen is a tradition within Tibetan Buddhism. ‘Rigpa’ is the Tibetan word used to describe ‘knowing’ in this sense.
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.
In the northern hemisphere we will soon be entering a quarter of harvests and waning light, starting with Lughnasadh/Lammas. In the south there will be the energy of rising light and growth. In the manner of the yin/yang symbol. a taste of that energy is present here too. As I approach Lughnasadh/Lammas this year, I am living largely day-at-a-time, and sense only the faintest outlines of what might be coming into my life. I intuit change, but not its nature, scale. or specific form.
So I look to harvesting possibilities that are within my power. I wrote recently that Druidry and the Eckhart Tolle Community are currently my key points spiritual reference. This invites a new synthesis and integration of spiritual practice and understanding. Druidry remains primary. It is the container. But there are two areas in which the Tolle work has strongly influenced me.
The first is through reframing my understanding of meditation. Instead of being a specialist activity, it has become the gateway to living from what Tolle calls ‘stillness’, ‘presence’ and the ‘Deep I’. These simple terms are pointers to a way of experiencing the world that cannot be accurately languaged but is easy to recognise if we are open to it. Meditation, here, is a state of openness and availability. It does not require extended time or any specific form.
I still value formal daily practice. It is a way of keeping fit in this domain. But while, in the past, I have seen meditation as a specific activity, I now see that anything can be a meditation if it is a gateway to stillness, presence, or the Deep I. Tolle tells a story about his early days as a teacher, when he would sometimes make presentations to the Theosophical Society in London. The first time he showed up with a set of notes virtually amounting to a script. His eyes were frequently on it and although he was received respectfully, many of his listeners’ eyes were glazing over. The next time he abandoned this approach, faced his listeners and simply waited, open and trusting, for the words to come. They did. He connected. Energy levels in the room were high, and the presentation was successful.
I’ve been taught versions of this lesson a number of times in my life, but I clearly needed to hear it again with a new and different language. For my second Tolle influence concerns ‘awen’. As a Druid I might want to use ‘awen’ in the context of Tolle’s story. But it doesn’t feel right. I love the awen chant and the awen symbol. I love the alchemy of the Hanes Taliesin and the way it points to possibilities of human transformation. But it belongs in a world that is not my own, that of Brythonic bardistry and seership. I feel more connected to my own experience when I use Eckhart Tolle’s language. It holds more possibilities for me. I do not count myself as among the awenyddion.But I can speak from stillness. I can speak from the Deep I.
Shakuhachi flute music is a meditation for players and listeners alike. It is dance of sound and silence, of movement and stillness. Some people call it, ‘blowing Zen’. In this music, a rise and fall of notes gives way to space and stillness, which in turn give way to a rise and fall of notes. Eckhardt Tolle identifies shakuhachi flute music as a portal to the experience of consciousness being conscious of itself – and so a direct realization of what he calls the Deep I.
Bamboo flutes first came to Japan from China in the 7th century CE (1). The current shakuhachi was developed in Japan in the16th century. It is called fuke shakuhachi because of the instrument’s role in the Fuke sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Monks known as komusu (priests of nothingness, or emptiness monks) who used the shakuhachi as a spiritual tool. Their songs were paced according to the players’ breathing and were considered meditation as much as music.
Their spiritual practice required them to move from place to place playing the shakuhachi and begging for alms. The monks wore wicker baskets over their heads, as a symbol of their detachment from the world. But the world being the place that it is, it was more like a semi-detachment. Travel around Japan was restricted by the Shogunate at that time, and the Fuke only got their exemption by agreeing to spy for the authorities and allowing the Shogun to send out his own spies in the guise of Fuke monks. In response to these developments, several particularly difficult shakuhachi pieces became known as tests. If you could play them, you were a real Fuke. If you couldn’t, you were probably a spy and might very well be killed in unfriendly territory. With the Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1868, the Fuke sect was abolished along with the Shogunate itself, and shakuhachi playing was banned for a number of years.
The Wikipedia article on shakuhachi (1) provides information about the instrument and its capabilities, as well as its current international popularity and the formal link with Zen broken.. There is an International Shakuhachi Society which maintains a directory of notable professional, amateur and teaching shakuhachi players.
I’m coming out of an extended period of laboured breathing, loss of voice, and bouts of coughing that didn’t want to stop. I cannot tell whether this represents a recovery or a respite. Medical tests so far have been reassuring, but there are others to come. I do know that the experience, whilst at one level a drain on my energy and attention, has been a teacher of what I am calling garden variety mindfulness.
I have been nudged into taking mindfulness off the meditation stool and into acts of daily living. I am thinking of breathing for the purpose of staying alive: staying present and awake whilst struggling; eating (what, when, how much and how fast or slow); the re-arranging, with negotiation, of living space and how it works; slowing down and paying better attention in all departments. This mindfulness has been the agent of significant practical change.
It does help to keep a formal meditation practice going as well, and for this I am tending to use models from Eckhart Tolle Now (https://eckharttolle.com/), since I am working with them. I am also entering meditational states in emergencies. On occasions when my breathing seemed very compromised, I would experience a raw fear that felt like a healthy body-mind response, but which I also wanted to put space around. Staying with the fear, and keeping it company, the loving awareness of of the Deep-I would wrap itself around the fear and hold it. As loving awareness I would allow the fear its run whilst also showing that I am not defined by any passing event or response to it.
I have also compassionately intervened with distress-laden narratives of helplessness and anticipated doom – constructing ‘my future’ in later life as having an inevitable downhill trajectory. This is an understandable story in the circumstances – and also a limiting and distorted one. I realise that I am more concerned about incapacity than I am about death itself. Death is something I need to face into and make room for.
I have developed a healing visualisation for my scratchy throat. First I pay attend to the felt-sense of scratchiness and become familiar with it. Then I see a cavern like space dotted around with luminous grit. This is gently washed by a liquid light energy that acts to dissolve the grit. I make sure that this liquid covers the grit on the cavern floor but doesn’t fill the cavern space as a whole. The visualisation has had a perceptible effect on the sensations in my throat, as well as contradicting any story of helplessness and being an effective way of paying attention to parts of me that are asking for it.. The whole story of this period, really, is about paying attention.
In the rich evening of my life, I’m experiencing a sense of latency. Good – in its suggestion of possibilities. Uncomfortable, in a context of possibilities deferred.
The context is that, for most of this year, I’ve been experiencing breath problems. Once I knew that I didn’t have Covid, I assumed they would go away with winter. But they haven’t. Next week I’ll be having a battery of tests including an electrocardiogram, blood tests and a chest X-ray. I want to find out what is going on, what if any formal medical intervention is required, and how to manage my health going forward. There may be a new normal to accept and work with. I try to cultivate a Druid sensitivity to the life energy within me and a sense of how to nurture it.
Meanwhile, I find that breathing exercises help. They are the same breathing exercises I use to connect with stillness, and rest in the heart of Being – an interesting state of affairs in itself. One one level I am semi-grounded by a degree of impairment and a lack of knowledge about what it implies. On another I am called to intensify my spiritual practice. Problem and opportunity in the same package. Whatever happens, I feel that the opportunity is greater, though it doesn’t always feel that way.
On another level again, my wife Elaine and I, both now twice vaccinated, are wanting to step out into the world again. Our eyes are looking north, towards York, the Tyne and Wear coast, and Scotland – specifically Edinburgh and the Lothians. We have family up there and want to live a little closer to them. We would also like to live closer to the sea. This is quite an old idea, interrupted at first by the uncertainties of Brexit, the pandemic, and Scotland’s future. One thing we have learned is to stop worrying about uncertainties, or we’ll die before making a move. But Elaine’s physical health is also compromised – she was very seriously ill in January, still recovering now – and we have to work to find the energy to make our house presentable, sell it, and settle in another part of the country. We are taking steps whilst being careful not to over-tax ourselves and push the river. A northern tour is planned for early June.
I notice that I am not going on local walks and taking pictures as much as for most of the last eighteen months. In some ways I regret that. In others, I am allowing a change of focus. I am conscious that 2021 has been slower to wake up and bloom here than in the wonderful late spring and early summer of the first lockdown. Cold northerly winds bringing hail and sleet have been a feature. Normally this wouldn’t be a deterrent to me. I like bracing weather and don’t mind getting wet. But this year I’m being cautious. There is a great deal going on, a lot to attend to, another life waiting to break through. I will be 72 later this month, and I’m calculating that I have time for a new worldly adventure, shared with Elaine. We cannot be certain of this, yet I have rarely felt so alive.
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.