contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: outside walking meditation

WATER MEADOW WALK

A water meadow during a dry spell. A secluded space on the fringe of the old city. Luckily for its own life, it facilitates the management of flooding. This space is available to the public, on this walk less frequented than I would have expected. It is not grandly wild, but feels different to anywhere else I have discovered in easy walking distance from my home. I like its flatness, its greenness, and its openness to the sky.

I walk here in the early evening, grateful for the path, challenging the pollen to do its worst. Lifelong hay fever has made me less of a nature boy than I might have been, certainly at this time of year. But I don’t like feeling restricted, even with my new health complications. Walking in an open space like this, particularly when there is a good breeze, lifts my spirits.

From a contemplative perspective, I am in very friendly territory. My senses relax into a more porous relationship with my surroundings. I begin to disappear into the landscape, losing myself in the experience of the moment. Very briefly, I am the path, the sky and the bramble.

Back in my envelope of skin I see grey above me, and I start to wonder about rain. I am not dressed for it. Luckily, at least for me, no rain falls. I do notice that the riot of life around me might like a good fresh soaking. But I’m conscious of my own interests now. I head for the shelter of my home.

MEETING THE SEASON

In these parts, there is a week at the end of April – St. George’s Day to Beltane Eve – that I would describe as mature spring. The rising year is leaning in to summer, but not quite there. I came close to missing it this year, at least as an outdoors event. I have made a good, if slightly fluctuating, recovery from the COPD flare-up described in recent posts. I met this moment, on this day, in the open air. At every level I feel better for the experience.

The location is Alney Island, now a nature reserve. The river Severn has divided into east and west channels, with Alney Island between them. Most of my pictures were taken near the (lesser) east channel, which flows into the Gloucester waterfront and becomes the Gloucester-Sharpness canal. Alney Island is not, for the time being, literally an island. The waters do not meet up again until the canal flows back in to the greater, western channel of the Severn, which by then is almost estuarial. However nothing stays the same and, as an aspect of the climate crisis, there are likely to be significant changes in these waters over the coming decades (1).

On 24 April 2022, I walked through an almost-city water margin. I was moved by its burgeoning growth, noticing the abundance of green in contrasting shades and forms. For awhile I had given up on going out during this delicious period. The experience, however fragile and transient both I and this space might be, was pure celebration. Taking pictures became an act of celebration, and also of giving thanks.

(1) https://coastal.climatecentral.org/ – I chose 2050 on ‘choose map’ and both ‘Gloucester UK’ and ‘Severn Estuary UK’ in ‘search places’.

CHANGING PERSPECTIVES

I have been walking among buildings, before being drawn something different – at first, a fleeting impression to my right. I turn to face it. I walk forwards a few yards, as the new vision clarifies, and feel moved to take this picture. I am still aware of buildings, but boats and water now dominate. There are trees and moving clouds in the distance. The world lights up. It feels like a perceptual rebirth. I find myself in a new and different world.

I continue walking, towards the water. Then I turn left, I look left, I and both see and feel the energy of water and clouds. They invite me to follow them out of the city. I take the picture below, and register the prospect of another canal walk, quite different from the one I knew in Stroud.

In this time of changed perspectives, I notice a shift in my sense of contemplation and inquiry. I feel strongly anchored in this life and world, the place where experiences happen. The numinous is embedded in the everyday, and gifts me with a fruitful ground for continuing exploration.

THE BLESSINGS OF A WINTER WALK

A winter morning walk with the temperature gently rising above freezing. Internally I’m here, now and at home, as the world changes around me. Walking outside becomes a meditation without effort or solemnity.

It feels good to be reminded, on the cusp of a house move, that at-homeness is portable, embracing variety and change. Light dances with shade. Mist gradually disperses into a blue sky. Still images can point to the process of growth, as with the red berries below, which startled me with their vividness when I saw them.

I find it a comforting, simple pleasure to observe the changes in familiar spaces throughout the day and the year. Because I am leaving the locality, I am delighting in the images I take away from this day’s walk – the land, the water, sunlight and mist; a quietly decaying building and its reflection; railway arches, a footbridge over a stream. Soon, a new landscape will take on its own familiarity.

Finally, I am moved by the light and shade on our garden path, such a good way to end a walk.

WALKING TOWARDS SUNRISE

Sunday, 11 October, 6.40 am. My plan is to walk towards the dawn of a new day, but I take time to stop and photograph this liminal moment. It is still, on this normally busy road. It makes me almost nostalgic for the early days of lockdown in the spring.

In this moment, there are no cars and no other people. I am fine with the artificial light. I like the contrast of the street lights (bright and focused) with the softer light in the sky, dim yet with a promise of expansiveness. I enjoy the shadows and the presence, too, of outright darkness at this stage of my walk.

It takes me twenty minutes of enchanted meander to reach my next point, pictured above. The scene is inherently more spacious. Water and sky are prominent. It takes notable artefacts to make their presence felt. The main theme of the picture, as I look in a generally eastern direction, is the coming of the light. Clouds do not obscure it. The buildings have become more than silhouettes. There are the beginnings of colour and the detail it brings. I judge it OK to walk on the canal path itself, just visible on my right.

Another twenty minutes and the light seems to predominate, though I am not yet in full daylight. I am on the canal path. Even though the surroundings of the towpath are lushly green, the world I stand in is a little dusky, or dawny if there were such a word. Crepuscular. Looking up, I see pinkness in the sky, white clouds, hints of blue. I feel heartened and strangely moved by the effects of light on the autumn trees. They give me a warm sense of walking towards the sunrise, and encourage me to move on.

The picture immediately above is not part of my plan. It stems from delighted surprise followed by purposeful calm. Knowing about the heron in advance, I would likely have botched my picture in an anxious, clumsy effort to put the bird on record. I always have before. I think that herons fly away from me out of disdain rather than fear. This time I am a quiet human in a quiet world. I stand still for awhile and am almost elegant in my use of the phone. I wait for an intuited ‘right time’ before pressing the button. There is no drama at all. I do not know if the heron even notices me. The whole incident feels like a blessing of the still early morning.

Now, further on in my walk, the sun is on its ascent through the sky and I can picture it indirectly. The contrast between the sun kissed light areas and the shady ones is strong and vivid. I notice that, as the fading trees accept that their season is over, the ‘parasitic’ mistletoe – even the Druid Plant Oracle (1) calls it that – is gleefully green.

Now I am on my way back home. What draws my attention, after a little exploration, is the white owl. To me it looks very present and collected, situated just where it wants to be. It seems also to be acting as gatekeeper for its own arch.

I make stream of consciousness connections. I began my walk on the Bath Road. Bath is less than 30 miles away. There, the Romans turned a Celtic shrine into a city and called it Aquae Sulis (see http://www.romanbaths.co.uk/), acknowledging Sulis the Celtic goddess of the shrine. She was concerned with its waters and their healing potential whilst doubling up as a solar deity as well. The Romans called her Sulis Minerva, and that links her with owl wisdom. The white owl has a rich hinterland of associations for me. It makes the encounter significant. I note that two resonant avian images have met me on this walk into the sunrise, offering avenues for further contemplation.

(1) Philip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Plant Oracle: Working with the Magical Flora of the Druid Tradition London: Connections, 2007. Illustrated by Will Worthington.

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/

NEAR NATURE

I have never been much of a wilderness person. In times past I have foolishly used this to feel like a lesser Druid. ‘Near nature’ is my habitat. It is a world of parks, streams, canals, accessible hills, woodlands and former rail tracks. Human artefacts of varying vintages are very much part of the scene. These places keep on giving. Over the last couple of days a touch of frost coupled with brighter light has changed the feeling tone of a generally wet and clouded winter. Pictures celebrate this bounty.

POEM: WALKING

Poem by seventeenth century Anglican mystic Thomas Traherne, whose life will be celebrated tomorrow, 10 October.

To walk abroad, is not with Eys

But Thoughts, the Fields to see and prize;

Els may the silent Feet,

Like Logs of Wood,

Mov up and down and see no Good,

Nor Joy nor Glory meet.

Ev’n Carts and Wheels their place do change,

But cannot see, tho very strange

The Glory that is by;

Dead Puppets may

Move in the bright and glorious Day,

Yet not behold the Sky.

And are not Men than they more blind,

Who having Eys yet never find

The Bliss in which they mov;

Like statues dead

They up and down are carried,

Yet neither see nor lov.

To walk is by a Thought to go;

To mov in Spirit to and fro;

To mind the Good we see;

To taste the Sweet;

Observing all the things we meet

How choice and rich they be.

To note the Beauty of the Day,

And golden Fields of Corn survey;

Admire the pretty Flow’rs

With their sweet Smell;

To prais their Maker, and to tell

The Marks of His Great Pow’rs.

To fly abroad like active Bees,

Among the Hedges and the Trees,

To cull the Dew that lies

On evry Blade,

From evry Blossom; till we lade

Our Minds, as they their Thighs.

Observ those rich and glorious things,

The Rivers, Meadows, Woods and Springs,

The fructifying Sun;

To note from far

The Rising of each Twinkling Star

For us his Race to run.

A little Child these well perceivs,

Who, tumbling among Grass and Leaves,

May Rich as Kings be thought.

But there’s a Sight

Which perfect Manhood may delight,

To which we shall be brought.

While in those pleasant Paths we talk

‘Tis that tow’rds which at last we walk;

But we may by degrees

Wisely proceed

Pleasures of Lov and Prais to heed,

From viewing Herbs and trees.

Denise Inge (ed.) Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and His Writings Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2008 (Canterbury Studies in Spiritual Theology)

WHAT MATTERS?

“People and relationships matter. The earth matters. Life, yours and mine, matters. Art, music, culture, science, justice, knowledge, history, peace and any other similar thing that enriches your experience of life and your relations with the world, also matter. The extent to which life is worth living matters. Death matters. And thinking about these things matters, too.” (1,2)

These words, from Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers’ Reclaiming Civilization, resonate for me. After some years of inquiry, I feel grounded in a version of non-dualism that maintains a primary focus on being human in this world. This is a world of multiplicity and interconnectedness, and of opportunity for I-Thou relationships. It is where things happen.

In an early post for this blog (3) I discussed Satish Kumar’s recollection of his mother’s walks around their family farm in India. “For mother, walking was much more than a physical exercise, it was a meditation.  Touching the earth, being connected to the soil and taking every step consciously and mindfully, was supremely conducive to contemplation.” She was not setting up special walks for meditation.  She walked a good deal during the working day and could be meditative in her walking. She was being mindful to self and world and their interdependence.  It was less a practice than a way of life.

As the distinction between ‘practice’ and ‘life’ continues to blur, with contemplation and inquiry as aspects of living rather than a defined project, I feel very open about the future of this blog. Rather than planning a new direction, I will let it evolve in its own way.

(1) Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-reclaiming-civilization/

(3) Satish Kumar You Are therefore I Am: A Declaration of Dependence Totnes: Green Books, 2002

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/outdoor-walking-meditation/

MINDFULNESS AS A WAY OF LIFE

According to Thich Nhat Hahn’s Community of Interbeing (1) “mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply.” This approach turns mindfulness from a set of practices into a way of life, and this view of mindfulness has helped to draw me in to the local sangha of the COI as a fellow traveler.

That said, we have five formal practice arenas: mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of eating, mindfulness of walking, mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of bells. A lot of this is familiar to me. For the last seven years my daily practice has included some form of sitting meditation, walking meditation and body/energy work. I already include outside walking meditation and exercise. I use bells in my dedicated sacred space at home, and love the liminal after echo as they pass out of hearing. But bringing things together within this community encourages me to refine and deepen this work.

Checking in with myself, I notice that I have been only half-conscious about eating. In this community, eating mindfulness is not just about slow and appreciative eating. It is also about the global context, “reflecting deeply on what we buy and what we eat”. The COI gold standard is to be vegan. This is a hot button topic in Druidry and Paganism too. It’s an area that I feel nudged to look at again.

I also notice that I’ve done less conscious relaxation than I would like. Yet I know its softening, opening, and enabling effects – a balance to rectify there, I feel. Mindfulness may sound like an effortful regimen, but it doesn’t have to be that way. On sitting meditation specifically, the COI website approvingly quotes Matsuo Basho, the seventeenth century Japanese poet, when he writes:

Sitting quietly

Doing nothing

Spring comes

And the grass

Grows

By itself.

 

(1) https://coiuk.org

 

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