“There is a pervasive feeling of poignancy. It is like the cosmic hum, the radiation left over after the Big Bang. It is always present. It is the feeling of existence. We recognize ourselves as open awareness when we stand in the mystery of this feeling. This is our true nature, our open heart. We are searching for this total openness. We’re running from it too.
“We try to run from the poignancy at the heart of existence into plans, projects, fantasies, worries, regrets and images of serenity and peace. Or we try to perfect it, ‘tweak’ it somehow. But it is already perfect, in that it transcends any concept we would have of it. If we must have a project, we can appreciate the mystery of existence without trying to resolve it into a specific feeling or understanding that we will then articulate, control or repeat.”
J. Jennifer Mathews (2010) Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just As You Are.
I am writing on the last day of 2022. My very best wishes for 2023 to all readers. Many blessings for the year ahead!
The picture above was taken on 26 December (in England called Boxing Day/St. Stephen’s Day) – this year a chilly day of bright blue sky. The truncated spire* of St. Nicholas Church, Gloucester, reaches up towards the vivid sky, despite its history of damage. For me, this image of spire against sky is one of clarity, definition and spaciousness. It is a breath of fresh air.
I don’t know what 2023 will bring. I do want to bring clarity, definition and spaciousness to whatever unfolds. As my contemplative inquiry continues, I find that it subtly modifies its purpose. Discovering and re-discovering the purpose involves an element of divination, since my thinking personality is not exactly in charge.
It is as if authentic clarity and definition come out of the spaciousness itself, not out of cognitive review or ‘brain-storming’. These may be aids, but I have also to wait for signs. When I began this blog, I surprised myself by calling it ‘contemplative inquiry’ rather the ‘contemplative Druidry’. I see now that contemplative inquiry is the root description for my path.
For me, contemplation is a yin quality, an open and receptive engagement with experiences – most especially, with forms of relationship. Inquiry is a yang quality, actively deepening knowledge, refining understanding and seeking meaning. Together they support my path. Druidry is a vehicle that supports spiritual self-direction, and also challenges disastrous social norms concerning both nature and culture. Today I have revised the ABOUT section of this blog, on the eve of 2023, and my key statements are below:
“My contemplative inquiry began in 2012. It is grounded in modern Druidry, though not wholly defined by it. I acknowledge the influence of other sources, especially the wider turn towards an eco-spirituality that meets our historical moment. The inquiry process itself is my core practice, from which others radiate out.
“Over my inquiry years, I have found an underlying peace and at-homeness at the heart of experience. Here, it is as if I am resourced by a timeless, unboundaried dimension from which I am not separate. I find myself guided towards a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.”
*NOTE ON ST. NICHOLAS’ SPIRE: the church was first built in 1190 and added to over the centuries. A 200 ft. spire was built in the fifteenth century, but received a direct hit from cannon fire in 1643, during the English Civil War. The final repair waited until 1783, when the spire was reduced in height and capped.
I’ve been unwell for most of this month so far. But now I seem to be mending, and this is partly due to a dream.
I don’t have deeply healing dreams very often, but when they come they affect my whole bodymind. They don’t require much roof brain interpretation. I find it more important to tune in to shifts under the surface, and intuit guidance there. The dream feels like part of my inquiry, offering itself for contemplation, so I have decided to share it here:
“A grey shadow space, unformed … out of which comes a desire, rightly or wrongly framed as a necessity, for an important encounter. Perhaps a revelatory one.
“Now, the descent into a well-defined yet dark (because night-time) space. I am in a large city, which I know to be coastal. There is someone I have to meet within the next 48 hours. I know their name and neighbourhood, but not their address. I have hope, if not confidence, that I will find them. Nonetheless, I am anxious in this night.
“Walking out in the morning, I feel simple pleasure in being at large in the city. An unfamiliar locality approached from a beach suddenly becomes familiar when I realise that I have been here before from another direction. I am on a wide street, actually an avenue with trees. There are shops and businesses of various kinds on both sides. I could eat anything that the world offers, here.
“Later, still in a flaneur rather than questing mode, I become aware that time is passing, and indeed is running out. But instead of becoming anxious, I remain attentive to the scenes in front of my face. They seem like blessing enough, as long as my openness and attention are engaged.
“Now the scene has shifted again. I am in bed in a room, watching a clock with a severe Gothic face. It is two minutes to the midnight on which my time runs out. Then 10 seconds – (it no longer matters about meeting anyone). Ticking down – the clock becomes simpler and friendlier. I’m curious. At the very end I am relaxed and happy.
“Then I wake up, check out my surroundings, and enjoy the feeling of being blessed with a healing dream. I deeply believe that I am on the road to recovery, whatever recovery turns out to mean.”
It is colder now, and gloomier indoors for much of the day. But outside, this November keeps on giving. My walking range has increased again with a walk to nearby Nailsworth, a leisurely lunch in this little town, and a walk back again: ten miles. The picture above includes both a stream beside my path and a small lake nearby.
But my attention hasn’t been all on the world around me. I have been reflecting on an old statement about my practice, currently included in my About section, and finding that it still holds. “My inquiry process overall has helped me to discover an underlying peace and at-homeness in the present moment, which, when experienced clearly and spaciously, nourishes and illuminates my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I find that this perspective supports a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.”
There is no reliance on metaphysics here. This allows me a pared down focus on experience and values. My practice has been relatively stable over a long period, whereas my thoughts about metaphysical questions are more volatile. I experience thinking as volatile by nature, and fine within its limits. Over the years this blog has found room for diverse approaches to the meaning, if any, of terms like divinity and consciousness. I have wondered about the possibility (or desirability) of establishing any foundational truth about absolute or indeed conventional ‘reality’. I notice now that when I explore these questions – especially when reading – I am more interested in seeing how people put their worlds together than I am in identifying insights or finding answers to the questions themselves. It has become a human interest rather than a philosophical quest.
I have noticed this especially over recent days when engaging with Carlo Rovelli’s discussion of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (1,2). My interest was in seeing how a distinguished physicist makes use of Nagarjuna’s emptiness doctrine. I have less stake in assessing the view itself, because my peace and at-homeness are the result of an experiential inquiry, and not of speculative thinking. I continue to find that this perspective supports “a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence, and a life of abundant simplicity”, My inquiry focus, if ‘inquiry; is even the right word, is about how best to walk the talk.
(1) Carlo Rovelli Helgoland global.penguinrandomhouse.com 2020 (Translated by Erica Segre & Simon Carnell, 2021). Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who has made significant contributions to the physics of space and time.
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.
The years roll on, with ever increasing speed. This is me in 1952, sitting to have my picture taken in a photographer’s studio. I just about remember the occasion as a significant event, for which I was carefully dressed and coached. I am pleased to report that this eager, inquisitive (if slightly anxious?) boy has never died, though at times he is hard to find. His image reminds me of the magical, light bringing child in each of us, whatever else we have become. Buried, it may be. Wounded, confined or hiding, in some cases, at some times. But still there, still embodied in old and hidden places, awaiting renewed recognition and love.
This is midwinter and a time of reminiscing and stocktaking. On 20 December 2019 I wrote: “I’m peering in to the 2020s. Calendar numbers might be arbitrary, but they are numbers of power in our culture. They award shape and identity to years and decades. Part of me sees the 2020s as pure science fiction, with an increasingly dystopian tilt. Themes of alarm, determination, resourcing and resilience come up for me at multiple levels”. (https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/20/approaching-the-years-turn/).
At that time I undertook to give more attention to the wheel of the year, and to cultivate certain values: lovingkindness; positive health and well-being; a life of abundant simplicity; and a spirit of openness, creativity and wisdom (https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/27/values-for-2020). Sometimes during the year I have been on point and sometimes I have not. I do feel overall that these were good choices for the year of Covid-19 and I have at least paid them conscious attention.
I do not approach 2021 with new and different thinking. I expect it to be another challenging year, especially in the early months, no doubt in a slightly different way. I will bring the same approach to 2021 as to 2020, perhaps enhancing the qualities of simplicity and openness, leaning more towards the centre rather than the periphery of the wheel. This could be the role of the elder within. There is room both for youth and age in one person.
Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism (1) explores what a “nonreligious, this-worldly, secularised Buddhism” might look like. This post is part of my own inquiry into what it means to feel ‘secular’ whilst engaged in ‘spiritual’ practices and connected with modern Paganism. Batchelor uses ‘secular’ in three overlapping senses:
A general contemporary usage where ‘secular’ stands in contrast to whatever is ‘religious’ – the two terms being clearly polarised whilst not very clearly defined.
A Latin derived sense of ‘this age’ (saeculum) – referring to “those concerns we have about this world, that is, everything that has to do with the quality of our personal, social and environmental experience of living on this planet”.
A Western, historical-political sense, acknowledging a 2-300-year period of ‘secularisation’ that has transformed the whole culture to the point where most people can live “almost their entire lives without giving religion a thought”.
Stephen Batchelor talks about an “uncompromisingly secular reading” of the Buddha’s teaching, in which “one returns to the mystery and tragedy of the everyday sublime. Instead of nirvana being located in a transcendent realm beyond the human condition, it would be restored to its rightful place at the heart of what it means each moment to be fully human”. He is an admirer of Ludwig Feuerbach, a student of Hegel who came to reject his teacher’s emphasis on the primacy of Spirit in the unfolding of history and advocated instead a liberal, materialist and atheist view of the world. “Feuerbach’s basic idea is simple. ‘Religion’, he wrote in the preface to his most famous book, The Essence of Christianity (1841) ‘is the dream of the human mind. But even while dreaming we are not in heaven or the realm of Nothingness. We are right here on earth’”.
In this way, Batchelor acknowledges all three senses of ‘secular’: a distancing from traditional religious belief, an affirmation of the world and time, and the rise of modern secular belief systems – Feuerbach was an early influence on Karl Marx. I like the way Batchelor teases out these meanings, especially his acknowledgement of ‘movement in time’ aspects as well as ‘not religious’ ones. I am more open and agnostic about the language of ‘heaven or the realm of Nothingness’ alongside that of being ‘right here on earth’. If we treat these as states rather than places, then I can see them intertwined dimensions of being. But I do not hold this as an ideology. I stand, rather, in openness and unknowing: the direct experience of At-Homeness in a flowing now is my ground and source, with or without a cosmic warranty.
Another sense, that of interconnectedness in the web of life, grows out of my At-Homeness – and this is firmly situated in place, time, and history. That place and time, right now, is one of distress, division and confusion, facing runaway climate change as a collective existential threat. My inquiry asks to to be alive to this collective wounding, and to contribute to a healing. In previous inquiry phases, I worked with modern Druidry and Paganism, focusing largely on the ‘nature’ aspect, but also on the powers of imagination and deep cultural stories. I then turned to other paths with a stronger emphasis on contemplative practice and its benefits. There is a treasure trove of resources in all of these these explorations, and I shall continue to draw upon them in my new inquiry cycle.
(1) Stephen Batchelor Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017
Over the lifetime of this blog I have made frequent revisions of its ‘About’ statement. Most are small. Occasionally, I make a major revision which I also publish as a post. Below is my revised and edited ‘About’ of 19 April 2019.
I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. The Contemplative Inquiry blog started in August 2012, and includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. It explores contemplative themes and their role in human flourishing within the web of life.
In my own journey, I have found an At-Homeness in a flowing now, not linked to any specific doctrine. For me, this experience and stance enable greater presence, healing and peace. They also support imaginative openness and an ethic of aware interdependence.
I began this work within British Druidry. I continue to follow an earth-centred and embodied spiritual path, ‘secular’ rather than ‘religious’. I draw on diverse traditions, especially resonating with naturalist, eco-existentialist, pantheist and animist currents within and beyond modern Paganism.
I am wary of metaphysical truth claims, including materialist ones, with an ultimate stance of openness and unknowing. At the time of this revision, I am exploring a tradition initiated by the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, who developed his own school of contemplative scepticism after a visit to India.