contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Nature

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.

ELDER AGAIN

I am drawn to write again about the elder, the tree of the caileach, or crone (1). In my sixteen tree mandala of the year, it covers the period from 24 November to 16 December. I am writing on the last day, tuning into the image more deeply, open to an intuitive personal response.

I see grief, loss and limitation there, in a face both haunted and haunting. Survival at a price. It is what it is. I see neither the pretence of a good time, nor the shadow of self pity. The tree is alive and bearing fruit – alchemical fruit which is poisonous raw and safe after cooking. Perhaps it is the fruit of severity. In the face of a sacred tree, I see a face of the Goddess – an ageing, winter face, yet one that is strong and indomitable. I see this mirrored outside, and also within. Something in me is like this too.

From about the beginning of November, I have been dealing with a succession of minor health problems, not dangerous, but draining in their cumulative effects. I have had frequent experiences of lethargy and a kind of fog in the brain. I move between fundamental acceptance of the experience I am given, and a pragmatic need to push back. I am working at reduced capacity, I have some frustrations about this, and I am finding a new balance. I am glad to have made the core of my life and practice simple and easy to maintain. For me, simplicity allows focus on what really matters. Focusing on what really matters is what I need to do.

(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 wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the 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

Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February

Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March

Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April

Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April

Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May

Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June

Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July

Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July

Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August

Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September

Hazel, west, 19 September – 8 October

Rowan, west-north-west, 9 – 31 October.

See also https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

SIMPLE BLESSINGS

The entry into December is not all about dying and withdrawal. Nature is more nuanced than that. For me, the scene above is full of an early winter vitality. It is just after 8 am on 1 December, and the temperature three degrees (37.4 F) – cool and bracing. The stream is in rippling movement, full of vitality. The plant realm may be in a relatively austere phase, but there is green in the picture too. This is my first extended walk for some weeks and I find it an instant mood changer. I can immerse myself gladly in the spirit of this place at this time.

When I reach the canal path, I notice the difference in the water. It is slower and quieter, a place of slightly opaque reflections and relative stillness. I like seeing it in the context of a larger picture, that includes buildings, tree tops and sky. There are people too, though not many. In this picture a lone jogger is moving away from me and will soon be out of my sight. I continue to celebrate the day.

Skeletal trees seem like sculptures, artfully presenting themselves against a background of blue sky. “See the web of life in us”, they seem to say.

Meanwhile a willow, at other times the epitome of elegance, allows itself to relax in the off season. Even now, it has not entirely lost its green.

Further up the canal I see a family of swans. There are five in all, four of them visible above. They are moving swiftly and I feel blessed to get an image. The cygnets are more or less grown up, with their turn to a white adult plumage almost complete. I am pleased to see them doing so well and surprised that the family is still together. I imagine that will change soon enough.

I enjoy the way that leafless trees are only partially screening the houses, allowing both trees and houses to be in the picture. The houses are there, part of the current canal ecology. I don’t need them to be hidden. I continue to enjoy the nature/culture balance of this neighbourhood, and I am glad to be out in it. Some aspects of life can seem hard, but others are easy. Today is easy, a day for easy delight.

 

HUMAN IMAGINATION

The Paris Situationists of the 1968 uprising used the slogan “l’imagination au pouvoir”, giving human imagination a Romantic and emancipatory ring. Historian Yuval Noah Harari (1) is brutally anti-Romantic on imagination, pointedly using terms like ‘gossip’ and ‘fiction’ to describe its manifestations. But he too sees its potential power. Indeed, he makes the case that, both for better and for worse, the imagination holds power already.

For Harari, we humans are a rationalising species rather than a rational one. We developed our distinctive ways of thinking and talking primarily to connect with and influence other people. Understanding the wider world, problem solving, and developing technologies are supported by our language skills. But they take more effort. They don’t come as ‘naturally’.

“In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.

“How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

“Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, and ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths … States are rooted in common national myths …Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths.

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

“Peugeot is a figment of our collective imagination. Lawyers call this a ‘legal fiction’. It can’t be pointed at; it is not a physical object. But it exists as a legal entity. … It can open a bank account and own property. It pays taxes, and it can be sued and even prosecuted separately from any of the people who own or work for it.

“In the case of Peugeot SA the crucial story was the French legal code, as written by the French parliament. … Once the lawyers had performed all the right rituals and pronounced all the necessary spells and oaths, millions of upright French citizens behaved as if the Peugeot company really existed.

“Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. … Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work toward common goals.”

For me, Harari underemphasises the inequalities of power in story-telling that have featured so influentially in achieving widespread belief, or the compliant appearance of belief, in privileged stories. The authorisation of some stories and beliefs has gone hand in hand with the repression and erasure of others. The imagination, as (somewhat reductively) understood here, has been a weapon in a long history of human dominance and submission. Fortunately, it can be a form of resistance too, as the Situationists of fifty years ago declared. Where there is imagination, there is also the possibility of re-imagination, and this possibility offers hope.

(1) Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind London: Vintage, 2011

LATER AUTUMN

Sunday 18 October, on a walk beginning at 7.20 am. This is a later start than on the previous week (1), and headed in the opposite direction. The day is overcast and the feeling-tone of this walk entirely different. Last week was magical and illuminative. This week is a time of relaxed enjoyment, of simple openness to the world as I find it. I can let go of agendas.

The fall here is still tentative. It mostly happens in November, though there are plenty of leaves falling gently to the ground, and a breeze to encourage them. Overhead, the gaps in the canopy let the light in. The remaining leaves form patterns that draw my attention and raise my spirits in a strange primordial way.

I enjoy built environments up to a certain level of density, when they become oppressive and too much. Here, a canal bridge blends in with ivy, water, trees and undergrowth without any sign of artificial arrangement. The place has been largely left to itself to make its own accommodations and adjustments. They are what they are. They haven’t been created for effect. I notice that I feel in tune with this space.

I live in an urban setting that is not at war with trees. The early morning absence of traffic helps me to appreciate the autumn colours opposite. Today is a day when I am easily pleased by life and I find myself caught up in a moment of spontaneous gratitude.

Now, I am under an arch, looking at the canal, at reflections in the water, and at a canal side entrance to somebody’s house. I have the sense of a congenial, inhabited space. The stretch that I have been walking on today is relatively built up, still part of the town. My walk has involved the interplay of town and country. In one way it has been very ordinary. In another it has been a trigger for happiness. I have enjoyed being part of it.

The picture above – somehow, for me, beyond words. I lose myself in it.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/10/14/walking-towards-sunrise/

INQUIRY NINE YEARS ON

My contemplative inquiry began as part of a Druid initiative launched nine years ago on 1 November 2011. The inquiry “soon broadened into a wider exploration of contemplative spiritualities, drawing on the enduring wisdom of many times and places.” (1)

By August 2018, I had anchored the discovery of “an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment, which nourishes and illuminates my life. Such at-homeness is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I have found that, for me, the realisation of this at-homeness has supported a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.” (1)

This is still my core insight. It does not tell me to be a Druid, or not to be a Druid. It does not give me a metaphysical or religious foundation of any kind, though it is possible to build these around it. It does not make my existential choices for me. I do find myself distant from faith based and devotional approaches to contemplation and spirituality. Recently, I have lost interest in debates about consciousness as foundational, or in distinctions between ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ manifestations of it. I was drawn to this philosophical openness in part by the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, himself influenced by (probably) Buddhist and Jain teachers in India (2).

Experientially, it is as if I exist within a field of awareness, or presence, whilst also living a human life between earth and sky. Here, I am intimate with the stream of experience, but not fused with it – allowing a space for compassion towards the apparently unwanted sensations, feelings, thoughts, images, and strings of cogitation that continue to arise. Stepping back from demands for ‘healing’ and ‘transformation’, I discover myself to be simply and securely held.

Looking out, I find a living world. I am part of the web of life, deeply interconnected with other lives and with the whole. Here I align myself to those Pagans, identified by Graham Harvey (3,4), who “use ‘animism’ as a shorthand reference to their efforts to re-imagine and re-direct human participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community. This animism was relational, embodied, eco-activist and often ‘naturalist’ rather than metaphysical.”

Understandings like this have re-anchored me in Druidry and Paganism. The Wheel of the Year is a wonderful basis for outward attention in spirituality. I am now also strongly drawn to questions of culture, history and human imagination, which I will explore more in future. Here again, I find an open and inclusive Druid perspective to be a good base to work from.

I seem to have satisfied myself on the questions with which I started in 2011, though not in the way I expected to. But new questions arise, and I no longer see an end point to my contemplative inquiry.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/about/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/04/27/pyrrho-scepticism-arne-naess/

(3) Graham Harvey (ed.) The Handbook of Contemporary Animism London & New York: Routledge, 2014 (First published by Acumen in 2013)

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/02/22/animism-is-a-hard-working-word/

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ATLANTIC ANCESTORS

I am beginning to feel the pull of Samhain. It is not here yet, but its themes are drawing my attention. One of these is the remembrance of ancestors.

A recent post by poet and awenydd Lorna Smithers (1) has prompted me to look again at Barry Cunliffe’s work, and the book I have to hand is Facing the Ocean (2). It is about early human history in Atlantic maritime Europe. including Britain and Ireland. One of its threads concerns living with the ocean. Another, related to the first, looks at communication by sea at a time when land travel was difficult. I will follow up these threads in future posts. In the meantime, Cunliffe’s sense of the interaction between nature and culture is shown in the extract below.

“To stand on a sea-washed promontory looking westwards at sunset over the Atlantic is to share a timeless human experience. We are in awe of the unchanging and unchangeable as all have been before us and all will be. Wonder is tempered with reassurance: it is an end, but we are content that the cycle will reproduce itself the sun will reappear. The sea below creates different, more conflicting, emotions. True, there is the comfortable inevitability of the tides, but there is also an unpredictability of mood, the sea constantly changing, sometimes erupting in crescendos of brute force destroying and remoulding the land and claiming human life. The sea is a balance of opposites. It gives and takes. It can destroy quickly and build new; it sustains life and it can kill. Small wonder that through time communities have sought to explain these forces in terms of myth and have attempted to gain some puny influence over them through propitiation.

“Nowhere is this relationship more apparent than in the legends and folk traditions of Brittany. In the howl of the wind can be heard the screams and laments of those drowned at sea, and much of human life – birth and the gender of the newborn and death – was believed to be conditioned by the tides. Below a thin veneer of Christianity lie beliefs deeply rooted in time. A century ago, in the parish of Ploulec’h on the north Breton coast, the first Sunday in May saw the people in procession climb to La Croix du Salut – an isolated landmark that could be seen from far out to sea offering assurance of the approach to a safe haven. Here the sailing community gave thanks for their safe returns before descending to the chapel of Notre-Dame across the bay on the headland of Le Yaudet. In the church today, fine model sailing ships hanging from the roof beams are among the more evocative offerings made to the Virgin by grateful mariners. The deep underlying awe of the ocean is poignantly expressed by the Breton poem

War vor peb ankenn

War vor peb peden

(Sur la mer toute angoisse, sur mer toute priere

At sea all is anguish, all is prayer).”

(1) https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2020/10/04/britain-begins-debunking-the-myth-of-celtic-invasions/

(2) Barry Cunliffe Facing the Ocean: The *Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000 BC-AD 1500 Oxford: the University Press, 2001

*NOTE: I wish the subtitle had specified ‘eastern Atlantic’, since every corner of the Americas has been populated for periods ranging from 12,000-24,000 years. The western Atlantic coastal people amongst them are not my focus, but in a post about ancestors I don’t want them to be implicitly erased.

A CONTEMPLATIVE LENS

As the autumn deepens, I find that my canal walking has slowed down and detached itself from notions of exercise. It has become spontaneously and informally meditative. I am simply noticing what is available, rather than striving to get to some other place in myself or in the world. Followers of the Headless Way (1) describe such attention as ‘being capacity for the world’, since the world knows itself through this awareness. One of the Headless Way’s poets, Colin Oliver, has the lines (2) “In the oneness of things/ I am nowhere in sight”. I am like that with my phone/camera. I rarely have it in the selfie mode, so it is a good device for the purpose.

My combined walking and photography have become a contemplative opportunity, an informal opening to the magic of what is given, here and now, which I sometimes refer to as ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. They have taken their place, unplanned, at the heart of my contemplative Druidry. They enable immersion in the apparent world, and provide a setting for what I like to call valley experiences, to distinguish them from the peak experiences more often discussed. I notice also an aversion to calling this activity a ‘spiritual practice’, a feeling that comes with the image of a caged bird. Not right for the context. Not right for that in me which does this.

Through this contemplative lens I can be appreciatively open even to appearances of dereliction and decay. They are simply part of what is. When I see an old and roofless building without this accepting contemplative gaze, I can become irritated and grumpy. Why isn’t it being renovated or pulled down, one or the other? Who is responsible? But in my picture taking mode, through the lens of contemplation, I am entirely at ease. The building has its place, just the way it is.

My meditative walk can highlight processes as well as still images. A decaying rose becomes a rose hip. The dying flower makes way for fruit, which will die back in its turn after seeding the next generation. ‘Decay’ is relative.

The lens of contemplation makes space for things that would be easy to miss otherwise. A waning moon, for example at 8 a.m. …

… or the delicacy, close-up, of old man’s beard …

… or a naturally sculpted head of an unknown bird or reptile, which also offers space for a cobweb …

These walks have taught me a lot. There must have been a gestation period between the time I gave them up – what with Covid-19 and my concerns about narrow paths and passing – and the time I resumed them. Along the way I’ve gained a different perspective on their role in my contemplative life. I used to see them as ancillary. Now they seem central.

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

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2016/04/28/poem-the-oneness-of-things/

BOOK REVIEW: RIDERS ON THE STORM

“It is with the dignity of life on earth, and our human part in it, that the passion of this book is concerned.” Alistair McIntosh is a Scottish ecologist based on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis. Riders on the Storm (1) interweaves reflections on the scientific, social-ecological and spiritual aspects of the climate crisis. He writes from the standpoint of 2020, where this overarching existential threat enfolds the more limited and specific crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The early chapters consider the current science, “sticking closely to the peer-reviewed publications of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)”. There are individual chapters on land; oceans and ice; and on 1.5 degrees. They make it clear that scientific truth-telling in this complex domain is a work of establishing levels of confidence on how climate change is unfolding, and “narrowing uncertainty”, rather than establishing facts. McIntosh upholds the IPCC approach, “for all its limitations”, as a peer-reviewed, panel-appraised, consensus-settled science. He sees it as an outstanding model of co-operative working and the most reliable route to take.

The next chapters look at the wider community’s response to the scientific evidence, given the tension between what the science says and how different groups use it. McIntosh discusses the denialism spear-headed by lobby groups disguised as ‘think-tanks’ and their disastrous effects on public discourse, such as the false balance practised by media organisations, including until recently the BBC, in holding futile ‘debates’ between climate scientists and deniers. He also discusses the roles of climate change contrarianism and dismissal in the current moment when outright denial has become harder to maintain. McIntosh goes on to look at the psychology of denial amongst the wider public. He has a section on the intimidation of the scientists themselves, including the dissemination of conspiracy theories accusing their whole community of deliberate deception, and its psychological effects on them.

On the other side of the argument, McIntosh has a chapter on ‘rebellion and leadership in climate movements’. He sees Greta Thunberg as authentically taking on the traditional prophet’s role, which is “to pay heed to their inner calling, to read the outer signs of the times, and to speak to the conditions found upon the land to call the people and their leaders back to what gives life”. McIntosh does have concerns about ‘alarmism’ among some activists. Without giving it a false equivalence with denialism in terms of damage it may do, he sees a tendency to edge out of step with the science, “pushing a point to make a point”. He identifies this as a tendency within Extinction Rebellion (XR) (2), though not extending to XR as a whole. In this context, he also discusses the difference between his understanding of satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi’s grounded way of peace and social transformation, and instrumentalist versions of non-violent direct action applied simply as a tactic.

After an ambivalent consideration of proposed technical solutions to climate change, the later chapters “shift into story-telling mode” in order to “enter further into depth psychology and beyond”. McIntosh asks questions familiar from his other work (3): what does it take to reconnect with the earth, with spirituality, and with one another – with soil, soul and society? McIntosh’s own work is grounded in close-to-the-ground community development informed by the lens of human ecology, with its strong focus on interactions between the social environment and the natural environment in which we live. McIntosh emphasises grass roots led consensus building and decision making, drawing on emancipatory action research methodologies developed largely in the global south. The spiritual dimension of this, for McIntosh, lies essentially in “the interiority of outward things”, the profound interconnection of all things, and “the meanings of life as love made manifest”. Traditional stories and the wisdom they hold have a valuable role to play in such a project. In an earlier post (4) I extracted a Chinese rainmaker story presented in Riders in the Storm. Within the book, the value of traditional wisdoms is explored through a meeting between Hebridean and Melanesian community leaders and activists when the latter visited Lewis as guests of the former.

I found this book a rich and dense exploration of where we now stand with the existential threat posed by climate crisis. It does not read like a novel but is worth the effort and a great resource. McIntosh himself urges readers to use it in whatever way we want. To anyone committed to “the dignity of life on earth, and our human part in it”, this book has something to say.

(1) Alastair McIntosh Riders on the Storm: the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being Edinburgh, Scotland: Birlinn, 2020

(2) For a review by an XR insider, see https://earthbound.report/2020/08/24/book-review-riders-on-the-storm-by-alastair-mcintosh/

(3)Alastair McIntosh Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power London, England: Aurum Press, 2001

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/09/11/rainmaker/

EXPERIENCING LATE SEPTEMBER

I tend to feel thrown around energetically over two or three days during the autumn equinox period, and then a new calm takes over. I have crossed into the darker half of the year. I reached that place this year on 25 September and went out for a walk at 7.15 a.m., about 20 minutes after sunrise. The temperature was 8 degrees (46.4 F), not exactly cold, but enough to indicate a change in the year. I was glad to be wearing gloves. They demonstrated my acceptance of a new seasonal identity. There have been still lower morning temperatures in more recent days.

Walking by my local canal, I could see that 2020 has been a good year for its swans. I saw ten near-grown cygnets in a 3-4 mile stretch of water: the group of five in the picture, a group of three a couple of miles away, and two others on their own. I’m inclined to think that the full lockdown from late March until early June has played a role in making the swan population safer. A happy thought and a sad one at the same time.

I walked further out of town this time than I had since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis and went past more open fields. The grass was green but not growing wildly. I saw only subtle signs of a turn in these distant trees, and none really of a fall. The horses were contentedly outside: no need even for coats. It was dry. By this stage of my walk it was a little warmer, though never beyond 10 degrees (50F). The edge created by a cold breeze had gone. For me this image captures a tranquil moment, that represents my sense of this post-harvest moment in the year. The weather is adequately benign. The energy of nature feels partly withdrawn, into a subterranean state of latency.

Among the trees on the canal bank, I found much greater evidence of a turn. This is one of the times when I become particularly drawn to reflections in water, and the way in which they to an extent mirror the world above whilst also offering something of their own. The much quoted phrase, ‘as above, so below’ is altogether too neat and formulaic to describe a living world.

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