contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Nature mysticism

TREE MANDALA: BLACKTHORN

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), blackthorn (ogham, straif) covers 8-30 April, the final twenty-three days before Beltane. It has a beautiful white flower and elegant sharp thorns. I have seen descriptions of the latter as ‘vicious’, but they only hurt us if we invade the blackthorn’s space. The plant is not a triffid. It doesn’t come after us. So I don’t follow the line of tradition that links blackthorn to harsh fate. Blackthorn doesn’t ask to be turned into guardian hedges or crowns of thorn. That is down to our fellow humans.

The picture above comes from my magic year of 2007, happily well documented, when I was much engaged with trees and Druid study. I felt a pull towards blackthorn, more than towards the generality of hawthorn during that period. (I will write about the Glastonbury Thorn, the exception, at Beltane, my last tree mandala with a ‘memory lane’ theme).

I am drawn particularly to the strand of tradition that links blackthorn to powerfully creative magic – for it was long used in the making of wizards’ staffs. The text of The Green Man Oracle (2) suggests that “we have forgotten the magic that lies within us”. Blackthorn in particular has the ability to “foster waking dreams”. The Oracle adds that, “to access this personal magic, we must step away from busy, surface consciousness, and sink deeply into the ever flowing stream of our magical dreams. The ideas, scenes and presences that throng the deepest levels of our understanding require intense listening” Such magic, the Oracle continues, brings a light into the darkest places. For me that would mean just enough light to illuminate them, and not so much as to dazzle them into negation. How otherwise can the denizens of the dark be offered a welcome home if they want it, and in any event a better understanding?

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

EARLY APRIL ENERGY 2021

April has been called the cruellest month. But I am experiencing a much hoped-for kindness right now. I am expansive and energised. Finally, it feels like spring in my neighbourhood. Spring as it is meant to be.

The natural world is changing, and a tentatively recovering human population is beginning to reclaim the outdoors. Now is a moment for celebrating the life force – nwyfre, viriditas, whatever we may want to call it. I find my own feelings reflected back in the vitality and vigour of the world I see around me.

The greening of the trees, and hence much of my local landscape, has started. I hope for a fuller transformation by Beltane – now less than four weeks away.

There is an abundance of colour in the woods, with the emphasis changing from the delicate blossoms we have already seen to more robust and stronger coloured flowers.

Even entering a built environment, floral energy arches across the paths.

In the animal kingdom, life is stirring too. On the canal, rivers and ponds around me, swans are now pairing and nesting. I hope they have another good year.

It almost hurts to know that life – so fleeting and variable – can be so good.

TREE MANDALA: WILLOW

I walk past these willows and they awaken my joy in natural beauty. Their full splendour may yet be to come, but they are already abundant with new life and growth. I am lifted by the promise that’s in them.

In my mandala of the year (1), willow presides over period from 17 March to 7 April. Working with trees in my Druid training, I developed a close contact with a willow near to where I then lived in Bristol. I also made a willow wand, from a dead branch I found lying around in another part of town.

In the course of this work I developed a sense of willow that does not exactly match our inherited lore. My records tell me that my main personal impressions concerning willow were of “resilience and generativity” and of “vibrancy in early spring”. Those impressions still stand. I don’t link myself so much to associations with the dark side of the moon (and moon goddess) or the many uses of wicker.

I do make connections between willow and the energy of water, and I can know of willow as a portal to gently magical experiences. Below, I offer a digitised picture of my Bristol tree, taken on 21 March 2007, and an account of time spent with it that afternoon. I enjoy the chance to share this fourteen year old memory, and bring a small piece of my personal Druid history into the present. Intentional reminiscence can be a deeply satisfying here-and-now experience.

“This afternoon I went out to see the trees – beautiful sunshine. The willow I’ve connected with looked very willowy – buds, leaves, catkins. It seemed solid, vibrant, pulsing. Leaning against the trunk from shoulder to hip, I sensed a resonance connected to the contact. Tuning in, I began to make a sound. The note that developed was light and optimistic, but strong enough fully to reach me in the belly. It had a potency that surprised me. I felt carefree, I could take in the cool equinoctial breeze with the warm equinoctial sun and enjoy a moment of holy idleness after a time of rushing around and work.”

I avoid talking about this experience in the language of relationship with the tree, though part of me would like to. I do not know what it is like to be a willow tree, but I am sure it is like something. I know of no way to check in with the tree that allows it to contradict my own precious intimations of communion, should it want to. I suspect that it barely noticed me. Yet the experience felt healing, and I have never forgotten it.

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

PATTERNS AND PEACE

For me, the skilful patterning of experience provides a gateway to re-enchantment. It reminds me that there are multiple ways of seeing the world, some obvious and others more occluded. The early morning can be a time of affirmation through ritual patterning that makes a mark on the day.

Mine begins with a morning circle which emphasises peace. Peace, here, is an active energy, not a passive absence of overt conflict, or a blind eye to dysfunction and injustice. Peace has to struggle, in this world, through skilful means that do not compromise its essence. Ritual can be one. I describe my morning circle below.

I go into my practice space, stand in the east facing west, ring my Tibetan hand bells and say the St. Patrick’s prayer (aka Cry of the Deer).

I arise today through the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendour of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth and firmness of rock.

Then I cast a Druid circle, calling on the four directions, each associated with a cosmic power, an element, a power animal, a quality, a time and a season.

East: May there be peace in the east, power of life, element of air, domain of the hawk, quality of vision, time of sunrise, season of spring and early growth.

South: May there be peace in the south, power of light, element of fire, domain of the dragon, quality of purpose, time of midday, season of summer and of ripening.

West:, May there be peace in the west, power of love, element of water, domain of the salmon, quality of wisdom, time of sunset, season of autumn and bearing fruit.

North: May there be peace in the north, power of liberation, element of earth, domain of the bear, quality of faith, time of midnight, season of winter, of dying and regeneration.

I also call the Below, the Above and the Centre, to make seven directions in all. Moving to the vertical dimension indicates a deepening, enacted by my spinning in place before bringing it in, and by the use of mythic names for the Below and Above.

Below: May there be peace below, in Annwn , realm of the the deep earth and underworld.

Above: May there be peace above, in Gwynvid, realm of the starry heavens.

This is followed by a further deepening into the centre, enacted through another spinning in place. Here, I am no longer calling for peace, but standing in its source.

I stand in the peace of the centre, the bubbling source from which I spring, and heart of living presence. Awen (chanted as aah-ooo-wen)

After a pause, I walk the circle, sunwise, east to east, and say I cast this circle in the sacred grove of Druids. May there be peace throughout the world. At this point I have established my sacred grove, my nemeton. All that follows is within this dedicated space until I uncast the circle on completion of my practice.

This ritual patterning, made substantial both physically and verbally, includes a celebration of sacred nature, provides a structure and a set of meanings to hold and guide me, and emphasises the commitment to peace.. Although I have personally customised this framework, most of it – anything to do with personality and external world – anchors me in modern Druid culture.

The centre is different. The centre is universal. It is the point where Oneness is recognised. “The bubbling source from which I spring” has a naturalistic feel whilst also referencing Jean-Yves Leloup’s translation of the Thomas Gospel, logion 13, where Yeshua says to Thomas: “I am no longer your master, because you have drunk , and become drunken, from the same bubbling source from which I spring” (1). ‘Heart’, as used here, is neither the physical heart nor the heart chakra, but “the Great Heart that contains All-that-is … the consciousness that underlies all forms” (2). ‘Living presence’ too points to the state of underlying conscious awareness that is here being recognised (3,4). For ritual language that honours that recognition, I draw on the mystical inheritance of the world and place myself in a wider circle of care.

At one time I tended to experience casting circles as a preliminary to practice, whilst also ‘knowing’ in a roof-brain kind of way that this was a mistake. Now I find it a powerful means of bringing me into the new day. Above all, it affirms my core understanding of world and life with every sunrise.

NOTE: The image above is by Elaine Knight, part of a project where, immersing herself in a landscape, she took pictures, abstracted them, and gave them a new form. See also https://elaineknight.wordpress.com/2021/03/07/nature-and-abstraction/

(1) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005

(2) Sally Kempton Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011

(3) Kabir Edmund Kabinski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self  New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, 1992

(4) Eckhart Tolle Oneness with All Life: Awaken to a Life of Purpose and Presence Penguin Random House UK, 2018 (First ed. published 2008)

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/03/20/the-peace-of-the-goddess/

 

TREE MANDALA: ASH AND IVY

Within my mandala of the year (1) Ash and Ivy together are part of a playful period extending to midsummer. The picture above holds memories of the year 2007, when the original photograph was taken in a wood near Bristol. It has recently been digitised and stylised by Elaine Knight, a frequent companion in my adventures with trees during that year.

I was enthusiastically connecting with them at the time, spurred on by an OBOD course (see http://www.druidry.org). My main focus was on being present in the presence of the living trees and connecting with them. I had a secondary concern with information about them. This includes traditional lore now often linked to the ogham alphabet. In that alphabet, ivy is gort and ash is nuin.

In my personal mandala of the year, ash and ivy preside from 23 February to 16 March. Ivy, as ever, is luxurious and abundant. Ash, at this time, is mostly tall and sleepy. I have a strong memory of finding them together as I walked up a tangled, sloping path. I felt an immediate connection with them, which I recorded at the time, though I hardly needed to. The occasion has stayed vividly in my mind ever since. Indeed the wish to celebrate that memory prompted me to include them in my tree mandala when it developed a year or so later.

In ogham lore, ash is connected with themes of rootedness and endurance (2). An ash can bear weight and absorb shocks. It has been the second most popular tree, after hawthorn, for planting at holy wells. It has also been a popular choice for maypoles. In the northern, Viking, tradition, it is Yggdrasil, world tree and wisdom steed of Odin. It links underworld, earth and heaven. It links macrocosm to microcosm, and the inner and outer worlds.

Ivy embodies the strength that can come from seeking support, whilst also being associated with poetry and intoxication. Its spiralling, labyrinthine dance turns both inwards and outwards. Ivy is a tenacious plant, skilled in binding and attachment. It is said also to connect us with our own inner resources, giving us “the ability to see through the eyes of the soul beyond the material world” (3).

I am fascinated by the way in which we can read the characteristics of our own hearts and imaginations into the life of trees whilst also connecting with their independent existence and what it can teach us about, for example, interdependence, a slower rhythm of life or the simple miracle of being. When among trees, I am taken up with the life of the tree on its own terms, more than with either botanical knowledge or inherited mythologies pointing to a larger life. It is when I am away from them that I turn fruitfully to their role in the collective imagination. There are different kinds of attention in play here, and I find that it helps to be aware of the difference without doing too far in disentanglement.

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(2) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(3) Liz and Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison-Sadd, 1988 (Illustrated by Vanessa Card)

 

WOODS AND WATER

Yesterday, Thursday 18 February, was the first that felt like spring. The recent cold was gone. The rain that followed largely held off. I went out for a longer walk than for some time, and I felt a natural bubbling up of joy. It doesn’t take much, and I was able to open up to the renewing light and a sense of latent growth and possibility in the world around me. There are two months starting about now that have a sense of equinoctial wonder for me, with light and dark roughly in balance and a lot of change in the land. Yesterday felt like the beginning of this loved and valued time.

A good deal has been happening for me internally, which is influencing my spiritual practice and understanding in subtle but important ways. I will write about this in the weeks to come. But yesterday’s walk was a chance to be out in a woodland, as one being in the web of life connecting with others. Experiences like this are both simple and profound for me, and I feel grateful for the opportunity to have them.

CHANGE IN MIND

The appearance of a daffodil in our garden is a delight. Daffodils in early February feel quite different from the iconic Imbolc snowdrops, whose beauty still feels wintry. The solar yellow of the daffodil disrupts my winter habits of mind. The flower is a clearer harbinger of spring in the world’s life and mine. In a number of different ways, I am recovering my belief in movement and change. The daffodil tells me that it is time for a vitalising re-orientation.

A Covid-19 vaccination tomorrow is another event in a new pattern of life and experience. My wife Elaine’s recovery following her recent hospitalisation is another and greater one. Her convalescence is a gradual process and we are still living very carefully. But we are thinking creatively about the new life before us and how best to inhabit it, even whilst living a day at a time.

I notice that I feel more spiritually sensitive and open. I do not know yet where this is going to take me. On the one hand I feel strongly moved by a single flower. On the other, the world of appearances feels dreamlike and provisional. Then there is the vividness of daily life and relationship. A change is happening and I’m not looking for an explanatory language to pigeonhole it, or to make it abstract and safe. For now, I am simply acknowledging a change in mind.

SKY AND WEATHER

The fog has gone now, for the time being. But its memory still clings to me. I can acknowledge its beauty as seen through the window of a warm room. But I would rather not be out there, tasting the fog, breathing it, trying to find my way in a clammy kind of cold. To go out, I wait for another day, with clear light and the effects, however subtle, of the winter sun. What a difference a day makes.

Part of my Druidry is about cultivating dimensions of experience ignored or unvalued in mainstream culture. Practice keeps my connection to them open. Tibetan Buddhists are sky watchers and have the saying; ‘you are the sky; everything else is weather’. This recognition does not erase the fluctuations in our weather, without and within, or our response to them. It does point to a capacity to hold them within a hidden dimension of clarity and stillness.

In the opening days of 2021, I have been taking in the likelihood of another collectively hard year, perhaps harder than 2020 in a different way. Last year I was more hopeful about this year than I am now. I don’t find this easy and I don’t ask myself to. What I can do is find a home in this seemingly unboundaried and seemingly timeless dimension, here called ‘the sky’, without abandoning the day-to-day.

I am the sky, and I hold the weather – fog and sunlight alike.

ALDER (FEARN) PROTECTION

Within my mandala of the year (1) Alder (2) is the fourth and final tree for the winter quarter that begins at Samhain. The overall movement of this quarter, in my world, is through death to regeneration. Alder presides from 8-31 January and links the regenerative aspect to a continuing need for protection already signalled by Holly (3). There is something foundational about protection. The late eighteenth century Druid prayer (4), which set the note for modern Druidry, begins by asking for protection, as the beginning of a journey that leads through the quest for justice to a place of universal love.

I live in a watery place and there are alders around, though – in contrast to willow – I have never been on hugging terms with this tree. But the oily and water resistant timber is well-adapted to its surroundings, and for humans has provided good timber for boats, bridges, and underwater foundations. Many medieval cathedrals were built on alder piling. Although the wood makes poor fuel, it is good for charcoal.

Round alder shields were once used as protection for warriors in Ireland, and “in Celtic myth, we read of palisades of alders that deter invasion of keep prisoners confined, and these fences are sometimes described as being decorated by a row of severed human heads” (2) . The Welsh hero Benedegeit Bran (Bran the Blessed) is reputed to have used his body to span the River Linon, forming a bridge to raise his followers above the dangerous waters, as the wood does when used as a building material. Later, when mortally wounded in a battle against the Irish, he gave them instructions to cut off his head and carry it with them. They were rewarded with song and prophecy from the head over many years.

Much more can be said about Bran (whose name means raven). My overall learning from alder is about a willingness and capacity to hold boundaries Bran adds sensitivity and openness to the larger context in which events are playing out. Placed at the end of the winter quarter, I see alder as guarding the tentative return of spring, as the light slowly returns and we find increasing signs of growth in the natural world. The weeks before Imbolc can be cold and dreary, but life is stirring both outwardly and inwardly. Alder reminds me of the need for protected spaces to nurture a latent abundance.

(1) The image is from: John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.

(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the winter quarter from 1 November, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Yew, north-west, 1-23 November; Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December; Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January; Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January. The spring quarter then starts with birch at Imbolc. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/12/23/holly-tinne-the-turn/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/08/27/my-druid-prayer/

WELCOMING 2021

Love and blessings to everyone at the threshold of 2021. May we find both nurture and inspiration in the coming year. It comes to us amid multiple crises and disruptions. May we navigate safely through them during the coming months, finding opportunities within the undoubted challenges ahead.

I end 2020, as I began it, in a watery time and place. The picture above, taken after a storm on Christmas Eve, shows a lively flow of water at the gateway. Wellies are needed for anyone wanting to walk on through. This kind of flooding was once rare and has now become normal. (A more traditional after-rain normal is shown in the picture below.) Not far away, buildings were flooded. Since then there has been snow, which has stuck in some parts of our locality and not in others.

In my part of the world, raised levels of wind and flooding, this year and last – and in other years going back for over a decade – are enough to show climate change in action to anyone with their eyes open – though they are less dramatic than events in other parts of the world. There signs that the partly engineered trance of public inattention in much of our public discourse has started to weaken. As the worst of the Covid pandemic comes to an end, I hope that we see more focus to the underlying existential threat of climate change, backed up by levels of action that can make a real difference.

In my last post of 2020, I continue to draw strength from the rhythms and powers of nature, even in their alterations. The strength of a stream rushing into the Stroudwater canal, with the land and the exposed tree trunks all around, lifts my spirits. In 2020, I set out to give prominence to the wheel of the year in my contemplative inquiry, mapping it back into a Druid based spiritual culture. I focused less on the feast days themselves than on the gradual turning of the wheel. A tree mandala, based around sixteen trees, became an important means of supporting this, with the proviso that it is an aid to direct experience. It is not an overwriting of it or a substitute for it.

I am less clear about 2021. My guess is that I will reduce the volume of my blogging, at least for a while, as I have done at times in the past. It will depend on the flow of the year – what themes may be emerging, what else may be happening in my life – which this time I cannot predict. I hope to be safe and I trust that I will continue to be life-loving, beautifully companioned, curious and grateful. I wish all good things, whatever they are for you, to readers of this post.

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