“Deep in meditation, it is possible to become aware of the life-force itself. You can see it if you learn to look within. To describe it as electricity, or power, or light, or consciousness is all somewhat correct. But such descriptions are inadequate. You have to see it for yourself. You have to feel it for itself. You have to know it for yourself.
“To be in its presence is to be in something primeval, basic, mysterious, shamanistic and profound. To be in its presences makes all references mute and all senses slack, leaving only deep awe. One is drawn to it in utter fascination. It is the mighty flame to our mothlike consciousness.
“This column of energy that coils around itself holds all the stages of our growth. It is our soul; it is the force that animates us and gives us awareness. If you want to engage your life completely, it is essential for you to come to terms with this inner power. Once you harmonize with it you can blend with the dynamics of being human.”
Deng Ming-Tao 365 Tao: Daily Meditations New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992
“I remember one morning contemplating a mountain in the early light of dawn. I saw very clearly that not only was I looking at the mountain, but all my ancestors in me were looking at the mountain as well.
“As dawn broke over the mountain peak we admired its beauty together. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. We were free. We needed only to sit there and enjoy the sunrise. Or ancestors may never have had the chance to sit quietly, peacefully, and enjoy the sunrise like that.
“When we can stop the running, all our ancestors can stop at the same time. With the energy of mindfulness and awakening, we can stop on behalf of all our ancestors. It is not the stopping of a separate self alone, but of a whole lineage. As soon as there is stopping, there is happiness. There is peace.” (1)
When Thich Nhat Hanh tells this story, he shows us ‘mindfulness’ as an art of living. He stops, looks at a mountain at dawn. His contemplation becomes a relationship, and the relationship is extended to the ancestors. For him, mindfulness sits together with interbeing, his word for interconnectedness. It is not a personal accomplishment, but the portal to an expanded, more inclusive, experience of life.
Thich Nhat Hanh was a great advocate and teacher of formal sitting meditation. But he didn’t fetishise it. The Mahayana Buddhist world view, and particularly its ethics, mattered more. I once heard a senior Vietnamese follower (also a psychiatrist) say that she was cautious about teaching meditation in Vietnam. She said that even in the 21st century, decades after the Japanese, French, American and Chinese wars, with elements of civil war thrown in, many people in Vietnam are too traumatised to benefit from meditation. What works best is participation in the Buddhist community and its ceremonial life, in a spirit of generosity and compassion. Mindfulness is essentially a value, not a contemplative technique.
I stop for my own ancestors, of both blood and other inheritances. I become aware of holding them in my heart. I let them in as I let in the world around me, and I experience that world with them and for them. We share a brief period of deep peace, and then let it go. For me, it feels mindful, Druidic, and very natural. Something to return to, whenever the moment feels right.
(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017 (Rider is an imprint of Penguin Random House UK)
Matsuo Basho The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches London: Penguin Books, 1966 (translated with an introduction by Nobuyuki Yuasa)
The introduction names Matsuo Basho (1644-94) as one of the greatest figures in Japanese literature, and describes his life and work. A younger son of a minor samurai family, at nine years old he was sent to the Todo family as page and study-mate for Yoshitada, its eleven year old heir. Yoshitada, born with a delicate constitution, was more interested in literary than in military arts, and he and Basho studied the fashionable art of linked verse under the poet Kigin.
When Yoshitada died at the age of 25, Basho left the service of the Todo family by running away to Kyoto where he spent five years studying Japanese and Chinese classics at Buddhist temples. Later he based himself in the younger city of Edo (now Tokyo) where he felt greater freedom to find his own direction as a poet.
Dissatisfied with the, to him, superficial culture of Edo’s ‘floating world’, Basho turned to Zen and learned meditation from the Zen priest Buccho. Poetry still came first for Basho, but his understanding and practice changed. He wrote of his own work: “What is important is to keep our mind high in the world of true understanding, and returning to the world of our daily experience to seek therein the truth of beauty. No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry”. Basho is a pen name, and the name of a species of banana tree about which Basho said: “the big trunk of the tree is untouched by the axe, for it is utterly useless as building wood. I love the tree, however, for its very uselessness … I sit underneath it, and enjoy the wind and rain that blow against it”.
Discussing the relationship between the poet and nature, he wrote: “go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective pre-occupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry might be – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”
By the time Basho came to write travel sketches, mixing haiku and prose in the genre known as haibun, he had spent some years casting away his material attachments. Now he had “nothing else to cast away but his own self which was in him as well as around him. He had to cast this self away, for otherwise he was not able to restore his true identity (what he calls ‘the everlasting self which is poetry’ in the passage above). … He left his house ‘caring nought for his provisions in the state of sheer ecstasy'”.
I love the haiku at the top of this post. I love the freshness and naturalness of the priest’s encounter with a flower that is steeped in the formal (and auspicious) symbolism of both Buddhist tradition and Japanese national culture, but is offered here in its simple yet extraordinary essence.
I cannot claim real understanding of traditional Japanese Zen culture and its relationship to creative arts. I have a smattering of knowledge and an awareness of some principles. But I am sure that much is lost in translation. What I do have is the capacity to open myself up to the words and images. Here I find the resonance of a richer experience of being, better grounded whilst also more spacious.
I enjoyed a recent piece on meditation by poet and spiritual teacher Jeff Foster. He is not talking about a traditional practice regime – whether of a mindfulness, pathworking, or energy-focused kind. Rather, he describes an encounter with the sacred in everyday life. Initially, this meditation attends to the flow of ordinary, embodied experience. It is informal, and not dependent on a dedicated environment or special conditions. As it develops, it sets free a healer in the heart, who stands by and resources the meditator rather than fixing their problems.
Meditation becomes as a ‘field of love, an ever-present ground of safety, presence and stillness’. It is personified through references to a ‘loving friend in the breath’, a ‘mother in the motherless places’, and a ‘billion-year-old sense of Being’. This is not meditation as generally understood. But I notice that I am nourished by Foster’s recommended approach, and I find myself responding to his impassioned language. Part of me wants to resist such intensity, but then happily melts on immersion in the process. Here is his piece in full:
“Meditation is not about getting yourself into altered states. Altered states do not last. It’s about becoming intimate with this state – this present moment, this day, this Now, its textures, tastes, vibrations, contractions and aches.
“Meditation is not an out-of-body experience. It’s the opposite. It’s a full experience of the body and its ever-changing sensations, its amorphous clouds of shivers, tickles, undulations and pulsations, throbbings, fizzles, its pain and its pleasure, its opening and closing, its ever-changing form.
“Meditation does not always make you feel ‘good’. In meditation, you feel exactly as you feel, and you learn to love that, or at least to allow it, or at least to tolerate it a little more than you did yesterday. Meditation makes you feel more like… you.
“Meditation is not about getting anywhere. It’s about discovering that there is nowhere to get to. That you are already home, and your body is the ground of all grounds. It is about discovering true safety in the feet, in the hands, in the pit of the belly. It is about finding a sanctuary in your chest, a sacred shrine between your eyes, a loving friend in the breath, a mother in the motherless places.
“Meditation is not something that you do with your mind. In meditation, the mind relaxes into the heart, seeking relaxes into finding, and even the most intense anxiety finds its home. You cannot make it happen, but you can fall into it.
“Meditation is not for experts, or the ones who know. Meditation is for absolute beginners, those who are willing to face their present experience with wide open, curious eyes.
“Meditation is a field of love, an ever-present ground of safety, presence and stillness, that you remember, or forget, or remember again.
“Meditation never leaves you. It whispers to you in the stillness of the night. And even in the midst of an activated nervous system, a full-on panic attack, suffocating claustrophobia or the urge to get out of your body… meditation is right there, holding you, loving you, gently kissing your forehead, willing you on.
“It will not abandon you, and ultimately, you will not abandon it.
“And closing your eyes to sleep at night, meditation is there, snuggling right up to you.
“Your soft pillow, the rising and falling of your own delicious breath, a light breeze coming in from the window, that billion-year-old sense of Being…
“You are safe in your own body, my love. You are safe.”
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.