contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Naturalistic Paganism

PRIMARY MATERIALS

 

“There are seven primary materials of the world: the Blue Bard of the Chair has said it.

“The first, earth, from which are every corporeity and hardness, and every firm foundation;

“The second, water, from which are every humour and freshness;

“The third, air, from which are all respiration and motion;

“The fourth, sun, from which are all heat and light;

“The fifth, nwyfre, from which are all feeling, affection, and wantonness;

“The sixth, the Holy Ghost, from Whom are all understanding, reason, awen, and sciences;

“The seventh, God, from Whom are all life, strength, and support, for ever and ever.

“And from these seven primary materials are every existence and animation; and may the whole be under God’s regulation. Amen.” (1)

The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg,  by J. Williams Ab Ithel, was published in 1862. It was presented as the lore of traditional Welsh Bardistry going back to Druid times, based on the earlier work of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams – 1747-1826). Iolo had organised the first Gorsedd of Bards for several hundred years at Primrose Hill, London, on 21 June 1792, thereby initiating the modern Welsh Eisteddfod movement. He was a personal friend of Tom Paine and George Washington subscribed to his first volume of poetry. He is said to have influenced William Blake’s poetry and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.

Iolo described himself as a Unitarian Quaker in religion, and a revolutionary Welsh nationalist in politics. In the later 1790’s the Glamorgan magistrates sent the yeomanry (a volunteer cavalry force drawn from the property-owning classes) to break up an open-air Gorsedd led by Iolo in that county. The reason given was that it was being conducted in the Welsh language and allegedly included a toast for Napoleon – then admired by radicals as defender of the French revolution. This is also a time of revolt in Ireland and the birth of Irish republicanism.

Culturally, Iolo was, as well as a poet in his own right, “a first-rate forger of literary Welsh; some have commented that his forgeries were as good or better than the real thing. Furthermore, he wrote much of the Barddas under the influence of laudanum (an opium-based medicine which he took for asthma)” (1). In consequence he has been widely dismissed as an embarrassing fraud. My response is more complicated. There is something poignant for me about ‘forgeries’ that are “as good or better than the real thing”. On the forgery question, I am sad that Iolo could not openly be a catalyst for the creation of new culture inspired by an old one, rather than having to pretend, even to himself, that he was recovering an old one as it had been (in his own mind perhaps through psychic means). As for medicinal laudanum, I wonder why this should be stigmatised in Iolo whilst accepted in his contemporary S. T. Coleridge. It may be is because Coleridge’s work was unambiguously original, and therefore seen differently. The issue of new culture creation in Druidry is a significant one to this day and is well discussed in Philip Carr-Gomm’s preface to Contemplative Druidry (2) where the voices of a number of open culture creators are included.

Going back to The Seven Primary Materials of the World, I feel friendly to this text despite its patriarchal language and its statement of a world view significantly different from my own. In my reading, it suggests a seven-step ladder from matter to the divine, with four material elements that point also to non-material qualities, where the the fourth and highest is not on the Earth. Then there are two subtle elements (though the first finds room for ‘wantonness’) and an ultimate ascent to the divine. It is the kind of evolutionary spiritual scheme that many transcendentalists down the ages have related to. Written at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and edited in mid Victorian times, it seems to me congruent with the outlook of medieval Welsh Bardistry as expressed in The Book of Taliesin (3), and the theology of the ninth century Irish scholar and contemplative mystic John Scotus Eriugena (4). It is a Christian referenced path that is not sin and fear based, and I am sure that many people involved in Druidry and Celtic Spirituality today would be in essential sympathy with it. Made up by Iolo or not, it reads as a clear and simple expression of a universalist and transcendentalist stance within a specific cultural setting. I find nothing fraudulent about it. It is what I would expect from place, time and person.

Indeed, key concepts remain relevant to my own Druid practice. I work with the wheel of the year and with the four classical elements, including fire. I am concerned with the Earth’s relationship to sun and moon. I work with my body and my sense of energy and think of nwyfre as synonymous with prana or chi, now well-known thanks to the popularity of yoga and Chinese energy arts.

At this stage in my personal journey, I am in renewed inquiry with awen. For the Barddas, it is a distinct higher mental faculty, close to the divine source like Coleridge’s primary imagination. In my own work I get a sense of energised and articulated insight. I do not think of awen as a substance in itself, but rather a quality of how we express ourselves when at our most enlivened and ‘on song’. But this inquiry is far from concluded.

Where the Barddas speaks of God, I speak of nature. I think of the web of life, and of our interbeing within it. I also think of the mysteries of quantum events, dimensions that we cannot perceive directly, galaxies flying apart and the possibility of multiple universes. But to me nature’s most extraordinary phenomenon is the gift of aware experiencing, with all the joy and suffering it brings, in the apparent here and now. To this I add the capacity to bear witness to this miracle through words, non-verbal media, silence, celebration and action. Here, I find myself still using most of the key terms from The Seven Primary Materials of the World. In this sense,  I am happy to have The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg as part of my spiritual ancestry.

  1. J. Williams Ab Ithel The Barddas of Ilo Morganwyg, Vol I & II: A Collection of Original Documents, Illustrative of Theology, Wisdom, and Usages of the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1862)
  2. James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/Create Space, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)
  3. William F. Skene The Four Ancient Books of Wales Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1868)
  4. https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/07/12/the-eye-of-contemplation/ 

AGNOSTIC BUDDHA: NATURALIST DRUID

“Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions brought a surgeon to treat him, The man would say, ‘I would not pull out the arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; whether the arrow that wounded me was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed’.

“All this would still not be known to that man and in the meanwhile he would die. So too, Maunkyaputta, if anyone should say: ‘I will not lead the noble life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal, finite or infinite; whether the soul is the same as or different from the body; whether an awakened one continues or ceases to exist after death,’ that would still remain undeclared by the Buddha and meanwhile that person would die.” (1)

The Buddhist scholar and teacher Stephen Batchelor, quoting these early words, affirms a Buddha committed to “an existential, therapeutic and liberating agnosticism” concerned “with anguish and the ending of anguish”. He laments the historical tendency of Buddhism to lose this agnostic dimension and to become an institutionalised religion. He believes that “this transformation of Buddhism into a religion obscures and distorts the encounter of the dharma with contemporary agnostic culture. … The dharma in fact might well have more in common with Godless secularism than with the bastions of religion.”

At the same time, the force of the word ‘agnosticism’ has been lost in modern secular culture, becoming complicit with “the attitude that legitimises an indulgent consumerism and and the unreflective conformism dictated by mass media”. T. H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, understood agnosticism as “a method realised through the rigorous application of a single principle”. This was to follow our reason as far as it will take us, and not to pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. It is a principle that runs through western culture from Socrates to the axioms of modern science. Buddha and Huxley both advocate a method rather than a creed, opening the possibility of a conversation between them.

What does this tell me about my own path now? Contemplative inquiry is a method. It is based on phenomenology as a subjective life-world investigation, and mine tells me that fruitful spiritual practices do not depend on the metaphysical views that are often linked to them. I can interpret and value everything that I have done within a naturalistic framework. It is a significant conclusion for my inquiry.

This does not in itself invalidate the metaphysical views. I have simply withdrawn from my personal engagement with them, except to the extent that they are embedded in the authentic experiences and stories of other people, past and present. I can still value and learn from those. I find imaginative engagement with other points of view quite easy. But in my own spiritual understanding, I seem now to be with Huxley and the Buddha.

Contemplative inquiry is a valued method but I would not call it my path. My path is Druidry, and I have been re-establishing this consciously since the Winter Solstice of 2019. The default position of the Druidry I was trained in is a romantic theosophy, though one in active evolution, rich in variation and re-imagining. In my personal journey, I am now clearly in a naturalistic and secular space, animist in a sense (2) that is “‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical.” As a result of my inquiry, my Druid note is different than it was before I began.

I am clearer, lighter, more alive. It feels easier to experience the abundance in simplicity that I value. By letting the mystery be, I can immerse myself more deeply in the textured life of the world. Leaning in to naturalistic world view, I expand my sense of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’, and my Druid path feels stronger.

(1) Stephen Batchelor Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening London: Bloomsbury, 1998 (First published in the USA in 1997 by Riverhead Books)

(2) Graham Harvey (ed.) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism London & New York: Routledge, 2014 (First published by Acumen in 2013) see also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/02/22/

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OPENING TO SUBTLE CHANGES

A good reflection on giving attention from Mark Green’s in Atheopaganism blog.

Atheopaganism

A lot of what being a Pagan is about is paying attention.

Being connected to the world and to yourself means being aware of subtle feelings and changes in conditions that many around us simply may not notice.

Some of this is knowing the Earth lore for your region: what is the first tree to flower in spring where you are? What are the native wildflowers, and in what order do they appear? When do leaves begin to turn in the autumn, and which trees turn first?  Which asterisms (“constellations”) are ascendant at a given time of year? These are indicators–data points that can help us to notice that changes have arrived or are coming.

Some of it is watching, very carefully, for changes that happen so incrementally that the day-to-day changes are almost imperceptible: the changes to the angle of light and the color of the sky as…

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SHADOW

“We identify our shadow … with that visible shape we see projected on the pavement or the whitewashed wall. Since what we glimpse there is a being without depth, we naturally assume that shadows themselves are basically flat – and if we are asked, by a curious child, about the life of shadows we are apt to reply that their lives exist only in two dimensions.

“Suppose, however, that on the same afternoon a bumblebee is making its way from a clutch of clover blossoms on one side of the road to another cluster of blooms in an overgrown weedlot across the street, and that as it does so the bee happens to pass between me and the flat shape that my body casts upon the pavement. The sunlit bee buzzes toward me, streaking like an erratic, drunken comet against the asphalt sky, and then it crosses an unseen boundary in the air: instantly its glow dims, the sun is no longer upon it – it has moved into a precisely bounded zone of darkness that floats between my opaque flesh and that vaguely humanoid silhouette laid out upon the pavement – until a moment later the bee buzzes out the opposite side of that zone and emerges back into the day’s radiance.

“Although it was zipping along several feet above the street, the bumblebee had passed into and out of my real shadow. Its visible trajectory – gleaming, then muted, then gleaming again – shows that my actual shadow is an enigma more substantial than that flat shape on the paved ground. That silhouette is only my shadow’s outermost surface. The actual shadow does not reside primarily on the ground; it is a voluminous being of thickness and depth, a mostly unseen presence that dwells in the air between my body and that ground. The dusky shape on the asphalt touches me only at my feet, and hence seems largely separate from me, even independent from me – a kind of doppelganger. The apparent gap between myself and that flat swath of darkness is what prompts me, now and then to accept its invitation to dance, the two of us then strutting and ducking in an improvised pas de deux wherein it’s never very clear which one of us is leading and which is following. It is now obvious, however, that that shape slinking along on the pavement is merely the outermost edge of a thick volume of shade, an umbral depth that extends from the pavement right up to my knees, torso, and head – a shadow touching me not just at my feet, but at every point of my person.”

David Abram Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology New York: Vintage Books, 2011

ATTENTIVENESS AND WONDER

I began my contemplative journey with a sense of mysticism, which I would now reframe as “attentiveness and wonder” (1). My path has become firmly this-worldly, a stance that has varied over the six years since I launched the inquiry, at a solo Samhain Druid ritual. The group practice that developed for contemplative Druidry was naturalistic from the beginning, finding the numinous within the mundane. The Buddhist sangha with which I am linked (2) is also world oriented. It emphasizes the interconnectedness of all that the earth contains, and a way of wisdom and compassion in every day life.

My path continues to be a contemplative inquiry. It is an inquiry, because I am in an open process of bringing my truth into being, a truth which remains provisional, agnostic, limited by my human horizons. Within this inquiry, contemplative methods both train the attention and open up spaces for wonder.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, initiator of the secular mindfulness movement, calls it ‘reverence’. For him this touches us when we are “transported by some marvelous strain of music, or when struck by the artistry of a great painting … I am speaking of the mystery of the very existence of an event or object, its ‘isness’. In the case of a work of art, even the artist can’t tell how it came about” (3). At such times, it is better leave words alone and allow our senses, and our feelings, to speak for themselves.

But Kabat-Zinn warns that, since we don’t have words for “ for such numinous and luminous feelings”, we often forget how prevalent they are in our experience. We can easily become inured to them and cease noticing that we even have such feelings or are capable of having them, so caught up we can be in a certain way of knowing to the exclusion of others.” (3). This provides one of my motivations for formal spiritual work (the others having to do with wisdom and compassion).  It helps to me to shake up the mindset that stops me from noticing. To speak of the results in an Existentialist’s language of ‘attentiveness and wonder’ works well for me, better than my older use of ‘mysticism’.

(1) Maurice Merleau-Ponty Phenomenology of Perception. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1945 (first published in English by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962). Merleau-Ponty wrote in his preface: “Philosophy is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth, but, like art, the act of bringing the truth into being. … It is as painstaking as the works of Balzac, Proust, Valery or Cezanne – by reason of the same kind of attentiveness and wonder, the same demand for awareness, the same will to seize the meaning of the world or history as that meaning comes into being”.

(2) https://coiuk.org/

(3)Jon Kabat-Zinn Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness Hyperion e-Book, 2005

SPIDER

I’ve been busy with spiders over the last few weeks, noticing their variety both indoors and out. There’s one outside my window as I write. Some of this attention has involved removing spiders from the house. As I become more sensitized to their sentience, I’ve grown somewhat ambivalent about this. Yet from a wider household perspective, it does need to be done. The extract below is from David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous and looks at the life of a spider.

“Consider a spider weaving its web, for instance, and the assumption still held by many scientists that the behavior of such a diminutive creature is thoroughly ‘programmed in its genes.’ Certainly, the spider has received a rich genetic inheritance from its parent and predecessors. Whatever ‘instructions’, however, are enfolded within the living genome, they can hardly predict the specifics of the microterrain within which the spider may find itself in any given moment. They could hardly have determined in advance the exact distances between the cave wall and the branch that the spider is now employing as an anchorage point for her current web, or the exact strength of the monsoon rains that make web-spinning a bit more difficult on this evening.

“The genome could not have explicitly commanded the order of every flexion and extension of her various limbs as she weaves this web into its place. However complex are the inherited ‘programs’, patterns or predispositions, they must still be adapted to the immediate situation in which the spider finds itself. However determinate its genetic inheritance, it must still, as it were, be woven into the present, an activity that necessarily involves both a receptivity to the specific shapes and textures of that present and a spontaneous creativity by which every animate organism necessarily orients itself to the world (and orients the world around itself), that we speak of by the term ‘perception’”.

David Abram The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World New York: Vintage Books, 1997 & 2017

This book has been an inspiration to many people over the last 20 years, including both naturalist and animist Pagans. The extract comes from a section entitled The Mindful Life of the Body.

NATURALISTIC ANIMISM: SEEING THE TREES FOR THE ENTS

Great contribution by John Halstead to the re-visioning of Animism.

Naturalistic Paganism

The Tree or the Spirit of the Tree?

Those who believe in personal gods sometimes have difficulty understanding non-theistic nature worship. I have heard it said that we cannot possibly be worshipping natural phenomena, like the sun or trees; we must be worshiping a divine force “within” or “behind” the natural phenomena, something like Greek dryads or J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional Ents, the personification of the spirits of the trees.

From a theistic perspective this makes sense. After all, Orthodox Christians do not worship their icons, and Pagan polytheists do not worship the statues that represent their gods. So some theists have difficulty understanding the non-theistic worship of physical nature. They assume that worship requires a conscious person on the other end that appreciates the worship. And if you start with that assumption, then it seems absurd to worship unconscious nature.

On the other hand, many Naturalistic Pagans are uncomfortable with…

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WARMEST WISHES

In my final blog of 2016, I want to send all readers my warmest wishes at the turn of the year – as we move through the  winter/summer solstice and into 2017.

Among other things, this is a time when I feel the force of strong invitations to reflect in specific ways about the season. Generally I am happy to follow these suggestions to a large extent. But I am also checking in to my more personal and idiosyncratic response to this point in the year.

I’m in a misty muggy valley in a warmish seeming winter. The sky is overcast and it is relatively dry. I don’t feel traditionally seasonal, though I do feel comfortable, and I do resonate with the subtle tensions of stilling and latency in the land.

I want to lie fallow, right now. It feels like the creative thing to do. I’ve decided to do less reading and writing – and therefore also blogging – for a while. I believe it will be good for me. I am not making a vow, or time specific commitment. But my direction is to hold off blogging for two or three months. In the meantime this blog as it stands will continue to be available and I will respond to any comments that might come in. As 2017 develops, I will get a sense of whether (and if so how) to return to posting..

Once again – warmest wishes to all, now and for the future.

 

 

EPICURUS AND THE BUTTER

“Epicurus had a garden just near Athens. He was also one of the rarest of men, just like Chuang Tzu. He didn’t believe in God, he didn’t believe in anything, because belief is nonsense. Only foolish people believe. A man of understanding has faith, not belief. Faith is different. Faith means trusting life, trusting it so absolutely that one is ready to go with it, anywhere.

“He had a small garden, and he lived there with his disciples. People thought that he was an atheist, immoral. He did not believe in God, he did not believe in the scriptures, he did not believe in any temple. He was an atheist. But he lived in such a great way. His life was superb, magnificent, even though he had nothing, even though they were very poor. The king heard about them and wanted to see how they lived, and how they could be happy without belief. If you could not be happy even with a belief in God, how could these people be happy without God?

“So he came one evening to visit Epicurus’ garden. He was really surprised, amazed – it was a miracle. They had nothing, almost nothing, but they lived like emperors. Like gods they lived. Their whole life was a celebration.

“When they went to the stream to take their bath, it was not simply a bath; it was a dance with the river. They sang and they danced and they swam and they jumped and they dived. Their eating was a celebration, a feast, and they had nothing, just bread and salt, not even butter. But they were so thankful that just to be was enough; nothing more was needed.

“The emperor was very much impressed, and he asked Epicurus: ‘next time I come, I would like some gifts for you. What would you like?’

“Epicurus said, ‘Give us time to think. We never thought that anybody would give us gifts, and we have so many gifts from nature. But if you insist, then bring us a little butter, nothing else. Just that will do.’”

  • Osho When the shoe fits: commentaries on the stories of the Taoist mystic Chuang Tzu London: Watkins Publishing, 2004

 

INTERPRETATION IN CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY

This post, the last in a series on practising contemplative inquiry, concerns interpretation. Previous posts covered values and methods.

In my post about values (1) I introduced ‘delicate empiricism’, an idea that goes back to Goethe and which I see as very Sophian. Arthur Zajonc recommends this idea to us by reflecting that “we have precious little information that bears directly on the true nature of reality. Data and theories are bound to experience, so we cannot say what reality is ‘in itself’, but only how it appears to us” (2).  Such a view invites us to “set aside all notions of a real world beyond experience and stay with experience itself. We cultivate an attitude that values phenomena of all types”. We simply give space for experiences to unfold and “resist the tendency to explain them away as merely brain oscillations, or to imagine them as the visitation of angelic presences. Neither view is admitted. We stay with them, allowing them their time and place in our attention”.

When I do exercises from the Headless Way (3), I enter into a state in which I experience myself as ‘clear awake space, and capacity for the world’. I explore this state both as an experience and as a resource. Douglas Harding speaks with certainty that “this Clarity I see here and now (with or without the aid of this in-pointing finger) is that of each of my constituent cells, molecules, atoms, particles, as well as of my planet, star and galaxy and universe, no less than it is Douglas Edward Harding’s. As this Clarity or Void, I embrace this hierarchy throughout time, and I AM the Timeless and Changeless Origin and Centre of all those timeful and changing things. Not just his brain, but every part of him is born and dies. I do neither.” (4)  I do not share the certainty that being ‘clear awake space’ fills a God sized hole that is also my ultimate identity. I know that this is the view of many non-dualist traditions. I entertain the possibility. At times I work ‘as if’ it were true, to get a sense of a life lived from such an understanding, and the difference it makes. Yet I remember that this story is not the state itself. Delicate empiricism finds strength and value in unknowing, gently contradicting any desire for closure, or for refuge in belief.

Sam Harris makes the opposite interpretive error, in my view. Harris is one of the “Four Horsemen of the Non Apocalypse” (5) linked to the emergence of the anti-theistic New Atheism of a decade ago. (The others are Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.) He rightly says, “there is experience, and then there are the stories we tell”. But he then goes on to assert: “these stories come to us bundled with ancient confusion and perennial lies … altered states of consciousness are empirical facts, and human beings experience them under a wide range of conditions. To understand this and to seek to live a spiritual life without deluding ourselves, we must view these experiences in universal and secular terms” (6). Harris values meditative states both as a practitioner and a neuroscientist. He describes Harding’s account of ‘Headlessness’ very respectfully as that of a “contemplative who, to the eye of anyone familiar with the experience of self-transcendence, has described it in a manner approaching perfect clarity”. But Harris will not entertain Harding’s further step. He dismisses the possibility that “a person can realize their identity with the One Mind that gave birth to the cosmos” as a New Age delusion. He shuts the subject down.

Harding and Harris would both claim the mantle of empiricism in their approach to spiritual inquiry. Both are willing to learn from ancient traditions, whilst seeking to update them with science based understandings and a scientific approach towards spiritual insight. But in each case there seems to be a point where they fail to recognize their own ‘story’ (in Harris’s case an anti-story) and fall all the more heavily into its trance. For me this perfectly illustrates the value of a more tentative, delicate empiricism to contemplative inquiry.

 

 

 

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