contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: nature spirituality

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.

SIMPLY SEEING

Something happens when I simply see the world in front of me. Simply seeing involves the whole of my attention, with a de-cluttering of thoughts and other distractions. There is no tension in this spacious clarity.

But it doesn’t have to last long. Simply seeing is at heart a timeless act of recognition. There is no need to hold on to any particular state. I find it wiser to let the flow of experience move on.

If I am present to my immediate experience, it works as well for a photograph as it does in the original setting. Simply seeing the picture is not a recollection of my earlier walk. It is a unique moment of experience, and a joy in itself.

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/

ILLUSTRATED THOUGHT FOR NOW

“Whenever there is beauty, kindness, the recognition of the goodness of simple things in your life, look for the background to that experience within yourself. But don’t look for it as if you were looking for something. You cannot pin it down and say, ‘Now I have it, or grasp it mentally and define it in some way. It is like the cloudless sky. It has no form. It is space; it is stillness, the sweetness of Being and infinitely more than these words, which are only pointers. When you are able to sense it directly within yourself, it deepens. So when you appreciate something simple – a sound, a sight, a touch – when you see beauty, when you feel living kindness toward another, sense the inner spaciousness that is the source and background to that experience.”

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

TIME, SEASON AND TIMELESSNESS

Every process in nature has its season, and its interdependence with other processes and events occurring at the same time. Part of our climate crisis involves the breakdown of long-standing relationships of interdependence. Where I live, the year at least seems, mostly, to move in its time-honoured way, though with an increase in storms and flooding. The flowers of early spring are comforting both in their presence and promise. Yet there are nagging questions about what disruptions the future holds for us, and how soon. This is before I open my awareness to include what other people in other places are already having to deal with.

Such instability impacts my contemplative life. I cannot rely on an externalised ‘nature’ for re-assurance about a world and life that will endure for me, or for beings like me living lives I can recognise. Conceptually, I have always known this, at least since I read H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine when I was eleven years old. It opened me up to the full implications of evolution by natural selection, a memorable moment in my education. I can remember sitting in early summer grass absorbing the insight. Now, both context and understanding are different. I am a lot older, in a time where premonitions of decline and fall can be placed in a near rather than remote future.

Yet the wheel of the year continues to move beautifully around the circumference of my circle. The centre is a different space entirely. I name it, in the About section of this blog, as “an at-homeness in the flowing moment”. This phrase comes out of my own experience rather than from the language of the traditions, and it “is not dependent on belief or circumstances, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given”. I link this with peace and non-separation from source, a groundless ground though the latter might be.

Over the last year I have been influenced Robert Lanza and Bob Berman’s work on Biocentrism (1,2) discussed at https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/02/03/biocentrism/ – I find myself leaning into their view of a cosmos where space and time are removed as “actual entities rather than subjective, relative and observer-created phenomena” thereby pulling the rug “from the notion that an external world exists within its own independent skeleton”. Such cosmology, not yet on the horizon for the Wells of 1895, makes reality more provisional and more ultimately unknowable than the reality of common sense. But for me, common sense reality is not lessened by being relativised, and I remain very busy with space and time. Rather, it becomes richer and more vivid, and more imbued with possibilities and potentials than my blinkered understanding can readily grasp. My contemplative ‘centre’ (ultimately unboundaried) is paradoxically a setting of peace and happiness – and also one of creativity and hope.

(1) Robert Lanza, MD, with Bob Berman Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe Dallas, TX: Benbella Books, 2009

(2) Robert Lanza, MD, with Bob Berman Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, and the Illusion of Death Dallas, TX: Benbella Books, 2016

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.

CHERISHING LIFE

The world is changing, again. New growth insists on its place in the world, however icy the conditions. Life asserts its rights, as we move towards the festival of Imbolc. But this post is personal rather than generic. I am welcoming the return of my wife Elaine from seven days in the Royal Gloucester hospital, where she was treated for a life-threatening, non-Covid condition.

This was the background to my previously reported Covid test, (1) since we thought that Covid might be a factor for Elaine, whose symptoms were severer than mine. I have not said anything about this context up until now, because Elaine did not want to be mentioned in this blog at the time of the crisis. Now she is fine about it. In her first two or three days of Elaine’s hospitalisation, I was very worried about her. In the last couple of days I have been more relaxed and confidently looking forward to her return and a period of convalescence at home. Elaine speaks very highly of the hospital, its staff and the treatment she has received. I was able to communicate with her (and others) by text, email and sometimes (on her initiative) phone. So I did not feel cut off from her even though the hospital is operating a complete ban on visitors due to the Covid crisis.

The week has reminded me of the fragility of both life and love, and of their immense value. The outcome feels like a victory for life at a time when nature, in my neighbourhood, is pointing in this direction. Meanwhile the festival of Imbolc celebrates the return of the light. I will cherish this time as we move forward from here.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/01/18/another-dawn/

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/

LIGHT RENEWED

I have now landed in 2021. I can see the renewal of the light; however tentative it might be. The winter quarter, from Samhain to Imbolc, is a season of dying and regeneration. I have glimpsed regeneration in nature and in myself – potentially in culture too. The collective crisis is deep, and projects remain on hold. But I can sense opportunity, and possibilities for creative change.

I have noticed a major transition in my work. I have entered a phase where contemplative inquiry is a strand in my life rather than a project called ‘Contemplative Inquiry’. I look back and see this transition as an accomplishment of 2020. Certain questions have been answered and won’t need much revisiting. I began an ended the project within a modern Druid orbit – saturnine in distance, perhaps, but still part of the family.

My view, values and practice have largely settled. A lightning-flash experience, or transformative encounter, might cause me to change them, for I retain a commitment to openness. But the project of Contemplative Inquiry will not. I am much less engaged with teachers, teachings and traditions than in former years, whether through literature, groups or events (live and virtual). Instead, I want to work more deeply and congruently within the frameworks I have already learned and developed. I tend to be a solitary practitioner at heart, though I also like some link to companions and community along my spiritually hermit way.

The great gift in this is the opportunity to live a life of ‘abundance in simplicity’ at the level of ideas as well as material goods and activities – to pare down in the very area where I am most tempted to seek variety and feast on new input. There is Sufi story in which the crazy wisdom master Shams persuades the more conventionally trained Rumi to throw all his religious texts down a well. I do not plan to go so far. But I recognise the time for a change in emphasis. As a trade-off, my monkey mind is freed for other subjects. I look forward to seeing how this new direction works, and how it affects this blog.

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