contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Mindful Self-Compassion

BOOK REVIEW: LETTING GO OF NOTHING

A compassionate and discerning book, drawing on a wealth of experience and understanding. Highly recommended. Peter Russell sets the note of Letting Go of Nothing (1) with the sentence: “The call to let go lies at the heart of the world’s spiritual traditions”. He adds, “Not being attached to outcomes, surrendering desires, accepting the present, opening to a higher power, relinquishing the ego, practising forgiveness – all entail letting go”.

The book is arranged as a series of brief, accessible sections exploring different aspects of the theme. Letting go takes many forms, depending on context. Here, Russell is not primarily concerned with letting go of things, like books, houses, jobs or the grid. His focus is on letting go of fixed beliefs and being right; immutable perspectives on the past or inflexible expectations of the future; the mental/emotional weight of judgements and grievances; disabling attachment to toxic or lost relationships. “We are not letting go of things themselves as much as the way we see them. Hence the title of this book: Letting Go of Nothing. Or, as I sometimes like to put it, ‘Letting Go of No-Thing’.”

Some of the 41 sections that follow are autobiographical. A Change of Mind recalls how a change in perception made space for a change of heart in a close personal relationship. Some are more about method – Letting In and Letting Be deconstruct the widespread notion that letting go of something necessarily means getting rid of it. If we are holding on to a grievance, for example, we are advised to let the experience in and become more aware of its discomforts. Pain, including emotional pain, evolved to let us know that something is wrong. It needs our attention. There are times for ignoring it, but this is not sustainable as our only response.

What we can do is learn to distinguish pain from suffering. Much suffering stems from aversion to pain (physical, mental, emotional), creating a surplus layer of discomfort. To a greater or lesser extent, we can disperse this added level of stress and tension. The work is subtle. It includes a level of not resisting resistance itself, and always finding spaces and possibilities for a degree of inner peace and freedom. Peter Russell is not in the business of sudden transformational release, although this too is possible. His way has more to do with skilful, compassionate engagement with the stream of experience as it happens. It is the work of a lifetime. Sections on Letting Go of Feelings, Letting Go of Story, The Root of Suffering and Fall from Grace explore his core philosophy in more depth.

Some of the sections set out liberating values – Forgiveness, Kindness, Wisdom. Others describe spiritual principles and practices – Sat-Chit-Ananda, Reframing Enlightenment, The Path of No Path. Russell is committed to an understanding of the world that summons us to ‘the deep peace of our true nature’. Matthew Fox (2), in a review, sees a social-ecological dimension in this work. For him, Letting Go of Nothing is an affirmation that our species can “wake up to down-to-earth spiritual wisdom that all our religions, when healthy, call us to – keeping it simple, understandable, and effective so that we and the sacred planet we share might become sustainable once more”. This simple book offers guidance at many levels.

(1) Peter Russell Letting Go of Nothing: Relax and Discover the Wonder of Your True Nature Novato, CA: New World Library, 2021 (Foreword by Eckhart Tolle)

(2) Matthew Fox is the author of Creation Spirituality and Original Blessing. His championship of an earth inclusive spirituality and his denial of original sin led to his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church and move into the Episcopalian communion. His most recent book is Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic – and Beyond.

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/08/19/the-support-of-nature/

GARDEN VARIETY MINDFULNESS

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.

SILENT SITTING MEDITATION

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.

MEDITATION: LIVING PRESENCE

‘Living Presence’ is a sitting meditation customised for my current morning practice. The name is inspired by phrases in my practice liturgy. When casting my circle, having called for peace in the four directions, the below and above, I move to the centre and say: I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence. At a later stage in the ritual I use the words: I am the movements of the breath and the stillness in the breath: living presence in a field of living presence, here, now, home.

This meditation is strongly anchored in modern Druid tradition as I follow it. It celebrates a form of animism: ‘living presence in a field of living presence’. It also works, with the same sense of stillness at the centre and movement around the periphery that is wired in to my circle practice.

Closing my eyes, I take a series of long, slow breaths, and anchor myself in the clarity, peace and stillness that I find deep within me. From this centre, engaged and empathetic, yet without becoming immersed or identified, I welcome the stream of experience moving and changing around this core.

To start with, I scan, in turn, my body and senses, my feelings, desires, images, thoughts, and personality patterns. As the myriad varieties of experience pour in, I keep them company, like Rumi when he wrote: “This being human is a guesthouse. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Entertain them all. Be grateful for whoever comes. For each has been sent as a guide from beyond” (2).

I, as stillness, am not a transcendent witness, elevated above the experiences that arise. I stay awake with them, in a process of holding and healing. This enacts my declaration that I am both the stillness in the breath and the movements of the breath.

Movement without stillness has vitality but little awareness. Without movement, stillness cannot come fully alive. They are distinct, but not separate. As they emerge in tandem, defining and modifying themselves in relation to each other, stillness infuses movement with its own qualities. In the moment of connection, stillness in not entirely still. It is lovingly relational. Movement thereby gains in peace and clarity, as it responds, and is nourished and illuminated by them. The whole gestalt is Living Presence.

This process models my current understanding of a unity (one meditation, one experience) that includes difference. It enacts my current understanding of non-duality and interbeing, at the level of an intrapsychic contemplative process. I am pleased with the way that this meditation is working so far. Its development has been supported by a number of influences outside Druidry, without my adopting any other system. As well as Kabinski and Rumi I would reference the current ‘mindful self-compassion’ tradition (3), the stance of Focusing, though it is a therapeutic practice and not a meditation (4), and the work of Jeff Foster (5)

(1) Living Presence is a Sufi term. See: Kabir Edmund Kabinski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self New York, Ny: Penguin Putnam, 1992 See also

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/04/18/rumi-being-human/

(3) https://centerformsc.org/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2018/05/14/new-directions-focusing/ See also: http://www.focusing.org/ and http://www.focusing.org.uk/

(5) http://www.lifewithoutacentre.com/

VIRTUES AND VOWS

Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers describes virtue ethics as the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity (1). To live a fulfilling and happy life, we need to install ways of understanding and being in the world that support our aim: these are the virtues. Specifically, he talks about the virtues of wonder, such as open-mindedness, curiosity, creativity; the virtues of humanity, such as care, courage, respect and generosity; and the virtues of integrity, like reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

The approach of the Buddhist inspired Center for Mindful Self-Compassion – https://centerformsc.org/ – is remarkably similar. The Center teaches a process for identifying “core values”, where we ask ourselves what values we embody that give our life meaning. Center suggestions resemble those of Brendan Myers, and include compassion, generosity, honesty, courage, family, loyalty, service, curiosity and nature. The designers of my Four Noble Truths course – https://learn.tricycle.org/ – are on a similar track. Stephen Batchelor says: “Buddha’s vision was centrally ethical. I’m not referring to the moral precepts here”, but rather a way of life in which “you try to become the person you aspire to be and try to create a world that you aspire to live in”. He says more about this in a series of podcasts taken from a seminar sponsored by the Western Chan Fellowship in Bristol, England on 4 March 2017 and available on YouTube.

I’ve been prompted to look again at my MSC course in June/July of this year. I found the work on vows very valuable and wrote about it in a blog post at the time – https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/making-personal-vows/ . I have developed them a little more. I continue to find the process of identifying core values very helpful. But in all cases I went straight to a ‘doing’ statement. I didn’t isolate nouns that nominate virtues. These, even words like love, courage and wisdom, can seem both static and vague. These are the vows:

  • May I honour and enjoy the gift of life – through sensation, feeling, thinking, and intuition
  • May I be loving and compassionate towards myself and others
  • May I experience abundance in simplicity
  • May I work for the welfare of all beings, using the loving forces that work from individual to individual, as well as supporting larger projects

In terms of organized spiritual movements, I find myself in a debatable zone between neo-Paganism and modern Buddhism. It’s just as well that both traditions have open borders, able to accommodate people who are not signed up. The four vows to myself are the product of multiple influences, as well as my inner sense of direction.  The first owes much both to C. G. Jung and to modern Druidry (especially OBOD – www.druidry.org -); the second to the Buddhist tradition; the third and fourth to all the above. In the last vow, I owe the piece about ‘using the loving forces that work from individual to individual’ to the late C19th/early C20th American psychologist William James at a time when he was fed up with public life.

These vows are a work in progress, and will guide me in my inquiry going forward.

(1). Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017 See also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-reclaiming-civilization/

 

MAKING PERSONAL VOWS

On Monday I completed a Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course (1). It was not strictly Buddhist, but the teachers and all the participants were sufficiently Buddhist influenced to have had existing experience of both of mindfulness and loving-kindness practices. At the same time I believe that the overall approach can offer something for anyone concerned with the issues addressed.

One of these is making and living with vows. In this context, we make the vows to ourselves and there are two key criteria. The first is that the vow anchors an intention, rather than operating as a binding contract. The second is that vows flow out of our core values. Hence, we need to get clear about these values before making any vows.

The process for checking core values is a simple one. Bringing warm-hearted awareness to ourselves and our experience, we imagine being near the end of our lives and looking back. We ask ourselves what has given us the deepest satisfaction, joy and contentment. What values did we embody that gave our life meaning? In other words, what core values were expressed in our lives? Possible examples given by the people who developed the MSC programme are: compassion, generosity, honesty, courage, family, loyalty, service, curiosity and nature.

Having done this, we select a core value that we would like to manifest for the rest of our lives and write it in the form of a vow. In the construction of the vow, ‘May I …’ language is recommended. This strengthens a kind of commitment which is about working towards, and deepening into, the expression of the core value, rather than getting tied up in a drama of binary obedience/disobedience.

When making my own vows, I found it good to remember that they are personal and not set in concrete. They can be further changed and developed – or even dropped, if they cease to sit well. They are tools rather than rules. With the two below, I found that care with language was key to the credibility of the vow. Worded to be both simple and demanding, such vows can allow for degrees of fulfilment, and provide a kind of coaching.

May I be loving and compassionate in my personal interactions

Mindful Self-Compassion begins with ‘self’ but doesn’t – and couldn’t meaningfully – stop there. One of its merits is to resource loving-kindness and compassion to others and in the wider world. It is a preventative measure against cold charity and compassion fatigue. In the context of this vow, loving-kindness and compassion are specific terms. Loving-kindness is a basic stance of positive regard, not necessarily fuelled by natural empathy or emotion beyond a basic inclination to warmth. Compassion is loving-kindness in a situation where the other person or being is suffering. MSC, and the wider culture of Buddhist lovingkindness, provide working methods that include being kind to ourselves when we struggle with the stance of loving-kindness and compassion towards others. In working with this vow, I am not dependent on factors like self-image or passing sentiment. I have practices to support me in making the vow meaningful.

May I experience abundance in simplicity

This vow depends on a dance between two qualities that might be thought of as pulling in opposite directions. To the extent I might experience a tension myself, I am challenged to develop my understanding both of ‘abundance’ and of ‘simplicity’. One synthesis, an important one, finds a path through living lightly on the Earth as a personal witness in the face of world-pillaging and climate crisis. There’s a set of lifestyle choices to be made here, finding riches within apparent frugality. But for immediate experience, I go straight to simplicity. By this I mean slowing down, and opening to the simple now. I immerse myself in the texture of what is abundantly here and freely given. I look out of my window at late summery yellow-green ivy … abundance-in-simplicity comes in and sits on my shoulders. The point of the vow is to remind me of the miracle of being alive and to open me more fully to the gift.

(1) https://centerformsc.org/

DOVE ENERGY

Guanyin is the Bodhisattva of compassion, who hears the cries of the world. In Chinese iconography, she is sometimes portrayed as seated on a lotus, holding a jar that contains pure water. It is the divine nectar of life, compassion and wisdom. She also has a small willow branch, to sprinkle on devotees and bless them with spiritual and physical peace. The willow teaches the wisdom of knowing how to bend rather than break, and has a history of use in Chinese shamanic and medical practice.

Often depicted as a woman in white (signifying purity and maternity) Guanyin may also have doves flying towards or around her. Doves are associated with fecundity, marital fidelity and longevity. There was a tradition of awarding a jade sceptre with the figure of a dove to people who reached the age of 70. Ritualized dove releases were used as a means of warding off evil. The Lotus Sutra (1) contains a chapter on the transformations of Avalokitesvara, Guanyin’s male alter-ego, travelling the world and “by resorting to a variety of shapes”, conveying beings to salvation.

I feel increasingly that Guanyin represents the same archetypal energy as Sophia, the Gnostic “mother of angels” (2). In my icon of Sophia, she holds a chalice at heart level, and a dove sits in it, facing out. When I had a Temple of Sophia practice, she often appeared in dove form rather than anthropomorphically. She inherits dove symbolism from the Goddesses of the Eastern Mediterranean, and from Jewish culture, again with dove symbolism, derives the role of revealing God’s inward thought, and communicating insight and knowledge to mankind.

For me it is as if a dove energy has relocated me to a new practice community. The opportunity to work more systematically on lovingkindness and compassion than heretofore, yet in a gentle unforced way. Hence the cultural change of garment from ‘Sophia’ to ‘Guanyin’. Early this year I had two episodes of active imagination (open waking dreams rather than structured guided meditations). In the first, I was a mouse in the talons of an owl, flying over water to an unknown destination. I knew that the owl was Sophia. In the second, I was under the tutelage of Sophia on a small ocean-going yacht. Here too, I didn’t know the destination. I remember her asking me to contemplate my existing resources, and I thought of Russel Williams talking about “stillness, pure consciousness, emptiness of being – based on sense-feeling, and filling the emptiness with lovingkindness” (3).

Some months later I contacted the Community of Interbeing. It’s a Mahayana Buddhist community, and so under the aegis of Guanyin, and is proving a good place to be. Beyond its regular meetings, there have been two spin-offs. The first is my Mindful Self-Compassion course (4). The second is a recent retreat with members and friends of my sangha. The theme was ‘embodiment’. The purpose was to make Buddhist practice more somatically aware and Earth honouring. We spent a significant amount of time outside and making use of local topography. It was very like my outdoor experiences of contemplative Druidry and included the same sensitivity to the politics of Deep Ecology In terms of Dove guidance, I feel that I have landed now, and I simply go on from here.

(1) The lotus sutra: saddharma-pundarika Translated by H. Kern, 1884 (Kindle edition)

(2) Jean-Yves Leloup The gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the gnosis of the sacred union. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003 (Translation and commentary from the Coptic. English translation, Joseph Rowe. Forward by Jacob Needleman)

(3) Russel Williams (2015) Not I, Not Other than I: the Life and Spiritual Teachings of Russel Williams (Edited by Steve Taylor) Winchester & Washington: O Books

(4) https://centerformsc.org/

HERE-AND-NOW STONE

I am carefully sitting in a balance of warmth and shade. In the palm of my right hand is a small sandy brown stone. My four fingers are gently folded over it, the thumb resting beside them, unobtrusively pointing out. The stone is a good fit and the texture relatively smooth, with just enough variation to offer tactile interest. This is a pleasing stone to hold, as it exchanges warmth with my friendly hand. I feel in relationship with this stone, most likely collected from a beach though I don’t know when and where.

I am doing this as part of a formal exercise – you might think, a Druid one. I can recall ones very like it. But in this case, it is linked to a Mindful Self Compassion programme, research based but with an explicitly Buddhist inspiration. I’m asked to enjoy the stone. After some time I open my hand and gaze at the subtle variations in colour, and a dusting of tiny white crystalline spots. I pick the stone up and rub it against my skin. There’s just enough roughness in the contact to generate a real aliveness.  The taste is slightly salty. I am thoroughly engaged with the stone.

The framers of the exercise link this combination of focus and appreciation with coming home to the present moment, a place with no room for regret or worry, past or future. Their recommendation, going forward, is to keep the stone in my pocket, or somewhere handy. Then, whenever I feel swept up in hurt feelings or distracted ones, I can take myself back home by rubbing the stone with my fingers. I am sure that this is true and I will begin using it this way. Overnight, it can be the first stone on my Guanyin altar.

I also believe that my Druid background adds value. If I treat this action purely as a psychological exercise, it might come to seem a little calculated and Pavlovian. In my universe, I am entering a relationship with an entity from the mineral kingdom, receiving a gift, and hopefully offering one too. I believe that this understanding will add power, beauty and magic to an apparently simple activity.

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