contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: mindfulness

MADE OF THE SUN, MOON AND STARS

“Just as a wave doesn’t need to go looking for water, we don’t need to go looking for the ultimate. The wave is the water. You already are what you want to become. You are made of the sun, moon and stars. You have everything inside you.”

If I had authored the words above, they would be a clear statement of my stance as a modern Druid. In fact they were written by the Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who has spent the latter part of his life making Buddhism accessible to westerners. For me, this shows the wider resonance of his core understanding. Indeed he continues by using the language of a third tradition – the best known to most westerners – to develop his theme.

“In Christianity there is the phrase, ‘resting in God’. When we let go of all seeking and striving, it is as if we are resting in God. We establish ourselves firmly in the present moment; we dwell in the moment. We rest in our cosmic body. Dwelling in the ultimate doesn’t require faith or belief. A wave doesn’t need to believe it is water. The wave is already water in the very here and now.

“To me, God is not outside us or outside reality. God is inside. God is not an external entity for us to seek, for us to believe in or not to believe in. God, nirvana, the ultimate, is inherent in every one of us. The Kingdom of God is available in every moment. The question is whether we are available to it. With mindfulness, concentration and insight, touching nirvana, touching our cosmic body or the Kingdom of God, becomes possible with every breath and every step.”

Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Penguin Random House UK, 2017

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.

BARE BONES, BARE EXPERIENCE

Trees – at least the deciduous ones – are becoming skeletal in my neighbourhood. But I am grounded, after ‘doing my back in’ last Friday morning. I cannot go out among them and be present for their continuing transitions. Instead, my entry into the winter quarter this year is marked by lessons in bare experience.

During this period I have been able to lie and stand, with an element of clumsy ouchy drama when shifting between the two. I can walk, too, in an impaired and limited way. Today for the first time I can also sit on a chair, provided I don’t stay too long. I do best when I slow down and attend closely to my bodymind and environment as a single gestalt. I find this especially useful when moving. It is also a good alternative to roof brain chatter when I am lying down and not asleep. But I do not attempt to operate this way all the time. It is enough to be able to tune in at will. Distraction and diversion also have their place and I don’t want to fetishise special states of awareness. Awareness is already special.

I feel confirmed in my sense of contemplation, a sacrament of sentience, as a plain attentiveness that holds the apparent world in its embrace. The rest is lifestyle choice. A very stripped down form of experience, such as I am having now, is its own kind of blessing.

BEYOND MINDFULNESS

Once you recognize the bright sun of awakened awareness, practising mindfulness can seem like shining a flashlight at midday in the hopes that it will make things brighter.” (1)

This post is about modern non-dual traditions and what I have learned from them in recent years. They have inspired me to practice a Druidry that recognises a ‘beyond mindfulness’ dimension of experience, in Western Mysteries tradition sometimes referred to as ‘causal’.

Stephan Bodian is a former Zen monk who went on to become a psychotherapist, mindfulness teacher, and a teacher in the Direct Path tradition founded by Shri Atmananda Krishna Menon. He says: “the act of being mindful is a portal to a deeper, enduring awareness that can’t be manufactured or practised. This deeper awareness is already functioning, whether we know it or not. Indeed, it is our natural state of spontaneous presence, without which there would be no experience at all. Instead of cultivating it like a talent or strengthening it like a muscle, we just need to recognize it and return to it”.

In my own inquiry, my ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’ came out working with resources developed by Direct Path teachers. I am now integrating this realisation into my Druid practice, supported by the modern tradition’s naming of a causal dimension in experience, akin to “our natural state of spontaneous presence”. It underlies both the physical and psychic levels. It is our original nature. It does not obscure or invalidate the stress and turbulence we find in the physical and psychic realms. It is not even a domain of peace, happiness, and love when understood as desired personal states. But it can act as an internal place of safety in difficult times.

In my awen work I am looking at pathways between the three dimensions, and what can be brought from the causal and psychic dimensions into the physical for both personal and collective wellbeing. For much of my contemplative inquiry I have looked at the link between the causal and physical dimensions of experience (the latter including world, body, feelings, thoughts and everyday self-sense) whilst relatively neglecting the psychic realm. I am changing and re-balancing this now, so as better to walk between these worlds.

(1) Stephan Bodian Beyond Mindfulness: The Direct Approach to Peace, Happiness, and Love Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2017

LIVING PRESENCE

In my part of the world, we have begun the greening of the year. But I can’t go out to meet it, or if so, only a little. I can’t go out, so I have to go in. In the greening of my contemplative life, a sense of ‘living presence’ has been the key.

My bespoke liturgy speaks to me and at times asks for change. A section of my morning practice, an affirmation of ‘at-homeness in the present moment’, wants to expand into a ‘celebration of living presence’. At-homeness stood for a place of safety and regeneration. ‘Living presence’ includes that and points to more. In the celebration, I affirm myself as ‘living presence in a field of living presence: here, now and home’. I’ve added a period of walking meditation (20 minutes or so), mindful to breath and footfall and also including liv-ing pres-ence as a mantra over two full breaths.

The Phrase ‘living presence’ came up spontaneously but realising that I didn’t actually make it up, I checked up on where I first came across it. It comes from the Sufi teacher Kabir Edmund Helminski (1). “Presence signifies the quality of consciously being here … the way in which we occupy space. Presence shapes our self-image and emotional tone. Presence determines the degree of our alertness, openness and warmth. Presence decides whether we leak and scatter our energy or embody and direct it”.

For Helminski, presence is also our link to the divine. since in the bigger picture it is “the presence of Absolute Being reflected through the human being. We can learn to activate this presence at will. Once activated, we can find this presence both within and without. Because we find it extending beyond the boundaries of what we thought was ourselves, we are freed from separation, from duality. We can then speak of being in this presence”.

My picture of leaves in light against a darker background is, for me, an image of living presence. It wasn’t intended to look like this, but I’m glad that it does. It said ‘living presence’ to me as soon as I saw it. Each leaf grows out of the tree and is extended by the light of the sun. All are enabled and nourished by ‘interbeing’, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s (2) reframe of ‘dependent origination’. But the elements of darkness and shade, whilst delineating the tree trunk, also suggest the mystery of a primordial nature, no-thing in itself yet making everything possible. The picture seems to be saying that the potential for greening is everywhere, outside and within.

(1) Kabir Edmund Helminski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

ENLIGHTENMENT IS NOW

“Enlightenment is always enlightenment about something. You don’t need to practice eight years to have some enlightenment. Enlightenment is our daily business. If you practice mindfulness and concentration you may get insight, or enlightenment, several times a day. Just breathing in, you can be enlightened about the fact that you are alive. To be alive is already a miracle. While breathing in and making one step, we allow the light of mindfulness to be lit like a candle in our heart. We know that to be walking on this beautiful planet Earth is a wonder. And that kind of awareness and insight can bring peace and happiness already. We don’t want anything else. To be alive, to breathe in, and to make one step, is already wonderful enough. This is already enlightenment. And with the light of mindfulness in us we become a saint, we become a Buddha, we become a bodhisattva. We are a light for the world.”

Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

TRUE MEDITATION AND THE GRACE OF DISAPPOINTMENT

“If you run from disappointment, you run from life itself. Disappointment can soften the mind and open the heart. If you let it.

“…. When life doesn’t turn out the way we’d hoped, disappointment can burn hot inside. The invitation? Turn towards the burning place. Actually feel the pain, instead of numbing it or running towards some new dream. It’s more painful to run away, in the end. The pain of self-abandonment is the worst pain of all.

“Break the addiction to ‘the next experience’. Bring curious attention to that which you call ‘disappointment’. Contact the fluttery sensations in the belly, the constricted feelings in the heart area, the lump in the throat, the fogginess in the head. Stay present for what’s alive …. Do not refuse the now.

“Turn towards this burning moment; this is true meditation. Breathe into the uncomfortable place. Don’t abandon yourself now for a new imagined future. Don’t leave yourself for the world of thought. Find your home in what is.

“Let the mind chatter away today, but don’t take it as reality. Disappointment is bringing you closer to yourself. To your breath. To the weight of your body upon the Earth. To the sounds of the afternoon. To the evening’s song. To the sense of being alive. To a deep surrender to the imperfection of this human experience.

“… Return to the heart …Soften into the moment. Return Home . The moment as it is … The moment as it is. Let all expectations melt. Into the silence. Into a new beginning. Disappointment is the gateway.”

Jeff Foster The Joy of True Meditation: Words of Encouragement for Tired Minds and Wild Hearts Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019

CONTEMPLATION AS SACRAMENT

Everything is sacred, but dedicated time and space provide a focus. They deepen our recognition of what is already true. Sacrare in Latin means ‘to hallow’ and I feel hallowing to be mostly about my quality of attentiveness. Although, subjectively, I am always here and always now, I can be here and now, and relate here and now, in a more conscious and loving way, when the time and space are dedicated.

Since beginning contemplative inquiry in November 2011, I have had a morning practice that has been structurally constant whilst varying in specifics. It is framed by a minimalist Druid liturgy to establish and hold the nemeton, the dedicated sacred space. It includes exercise and energy work, walking and sitting meditations, and a brief loving-kindness meditation. These activities have referenced different traditions at different times, whilst preserving a consistent outline and intent.

This practice is the heart of what I do in formal contemplative practice. Since I draw on diverse traditions, this solo practice has developed within an overall context and narrative determined by and for me. I have never worked through a simple adoption of ‘teachings’, to me a somewhat infantilising term, and a residue of authoritarian spirituality. I have always maintained an independent approach, which I find necessary to a critical and creative culture of inquiry. It necessarily includes a meta level of evaluating traditions as well as a normative one of learning their views and practices.

I will continue with the same practice structure post-inquiry. Fundamentally (in I hope a good sense) I understand my practice as a sacrament, celebrating ordinary incarnation in this world. It works on two levels. The first is the dedication and framing of the whole practice. The second, more intensive level, is within my sitting meditation. This now uses a Shaivite Tantric rather than Buddhist form. It is an eyes closed meditation, aligning the breath to a mantra – which is something I’ve quite often done over the years, including the use of the Druid ‘awen’*. Here I use ham-saa. Traditionally this invokes Shiva as the empty awareness of the Cosmos and Shakti as its energy and form. My own sense is of deepened appreciation of the miracle of being and becoming, and a sense of how this is at once personal and universal.

I sometimes find that all my attention dissolves into the mantra. Its pulse and vibration become all that exists in my awareness. The meditative disidentification from world and perception, body and sensation, feeling and thought, leaves this one reality. The experience here is of existence acknowledging itself, in a way that doesn’t seem to be about me, as such, or in any sense a personal possession. Whether or not the experience happens in full, or whether the practice simply points to it, this mantra meditation hallows my contemplative practice. It is the heart of its heart.

Paradoxically, as this practice deepens, my ‘inquiry’ energy  begins to fall away. Where I am now feels like a destination. Though I still have work to do in the integration of experience and understanding, I am no longer looking for new frameworks or resources.  On completion of the inquiry, my contemplative life will continue, but it will have a different note.

https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/awen-mantra-meditation/

BEYOND MINDFULNESS?

“Mindfulness alone” (1) can’t offer “stable, enduring peace and well-being because it’s a state of mind you believe you have to cultivate, sustain and protect. … Like every other mind-state, mindfulness is impermanent and arises and passes away depending on the strength and consistency of your practice. … In fact, the very notion that your mind needs to be settled and calmed or that negative emotions need to be eliminated, based on some predetermined standard of how your mind should look, marks a major distinction between the path of mindfulness and the direct approach of awakened awareness.

“From the perspective of unconditional openness, every thought that arises, no matter how seemingly negative or discordant, is welcomed just as it is, and this very welcoming reveals an equanimity that can’t be disturbed even by the most negative experiences. By not preferencing one mind-state over another, so-called positive over so-called negative, awakened awareness moves beyond dualistic thinking to encompass life fully, in all its richness and complexity. Yet awakened awareness is not a state you can cultivate, but your natural state that’s always already available and just needs to be acknowledged and accessed.

“For all its wonderful benefits, the practice of mindfulness … tends to maintain a subject-object split, the gap between the one who’s being mindful, the act of being mindful, and the object of mindful attention. In other words, no matter how mindful you become, there’s always a you that has to practice being mindful of an object separate from you. As a result, mindfulness perpetuates the very sense of separateness it’s designed to overcome. … you may eventually discover that you are trapped in the detached witnessing position … Witnessing has become another identity or point of view that you ultimately have to relinquish.”

For many years Stephan Bodian practised mindfulness meditation as a Buddhist monk. He found it very beneficial. He became calmer and “more disengaged from the drama that had seemed to be my life”. Customary anxiety was replaced by ease and contentment. Stephen found that his concentration deepened, he live more in the moment, and his relationships improved. “From a nervous intellectual, I was transformed into a paragon of patience, groundedness and equanimity. I was a completely different person.”

What’s not to like? After long years immersed in a culture of mindfulness – including a teaching role – Stephen discovered a sense of feeling disengaged from life, as if experiencing it at a distance, his meditations themselves seeming somehow dry and lacking in energy. His teacher told him to meditate more. After “considerable soul searching” Stephan left the monastic life to study Western psychology. “I knew there were other ways of working with the mind and heart, and I wanted to learn what they had to offer”.

Looking back, Stephan still finds mindfulness valuable – but not enough. Some of the problems are cultural rather than intrinsic. A goal oriented culture turns the practice into a method for achieving goals and part of a self-development project. Yet it can also be a bridge. It can “take you beyond mindfulness to your natural state of awakened awareness”.

The term ‘awakened awareness’ is not used to describe another mental state. It is an attempt, using the compromised medium of language, to point to “the deepest level of reality” which is “the ground of openness in which everything arises. Whether or not you recognize it, it is always already the case. At the experiential level, however, awakened awareness does not dawn in your life until you realize that this ground of awareness is your natural state, in fact, is who you really are. This shift from recognizing awareness as a function, to recognizing awareness as the ground, to realizing it to be your fundamental nature and identity, is the awakening that the great spiritual masters describe.”

I’ve been moved by Stephan Bodian’s account. It reminds me of the time I spent working with Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (2), which I have pulled back from over the last year. I’m very clear, now, that there’s something limiting for me about conventional mindfulness meditation. I have decided to work experientially in this area as the major focus of my personal contemplative inquiry. Fortunately, there are now many ‘Direct Path’ teachers to turn to – Stephan Bodian being one of them. One advantage of the digital age is that gathering resources and contacts in the field of spiritual teaching has been made so easy.

(1) Stephan Bodian Beyond Mindfulness: the Direct Approach to Lasting Peace, Happiness and Love Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2017

(2) http://www.headless.org/

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