contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Paganism

BELTANE 2020

Greetings and Blessings for the fast approaching festival of Beltane/Samhain. May we all find ways to stay safe and to flourish! This post focuses on my sense of the Wheel at Beltane – aware also that each season contains the seed of its opposite.

For The Wildwood Tarot, Beltane is the moment when “the polarised energies of the land interweave and intertwine around the staff of the heavens, generating the pulse of life”. It is also concerned with balance, and linked to the traditional trump for temperance. There’s a call to discover what balance, balancing and re-balancing might look like in 2020. Where might different balancing acts take us? How does ‘balance’ apply collectively, with a continuing public health crisis?

In the card, the primal energies of the serpents, echoing both the caduceus symbol and the double helix, are vividly in the foreground. By contrast the mask-like human head towards the bottom of the picture is almost hidden. For me, it is sombre, an image inviting uncertainty and unknowing rather than ‘balance’ or any steady state. Beltane 2020 finds a world in flux. Anything is possible. At the personal level, balance might morph into a kind of poise, without attachment to specific outcomes, yet with a preparedness to navigate uncharted waters.

LUNAR WISDOM

” The moon was the image in the sky that was always changing yet always the same. What endured was the cycle, whose totality could never be seen at any one moment. All that was visible was the constant interplay between light and dark in an ever recurring sequence. Implicitly however, the early people must have come to see every part of the cycle from the perspective of the whole. The individual phases could not be named, nor the relations between them expressed, without assuming the presence of the whole cycle. The whole was invisible, an enduring and unchanging circle, yet it contained the visible phases. Symbolically, it was as if the visible ‘came from’ and ‘returned to’ the invisible – like being born and dying, and being born again.

“The great myth of the bronze age is structured on the distinction between the ‘whole’, personified as the Great Mother Goddess, and the ‘part’, personified as her son-lover or her daughter. She gives birth to her son as the new moon, marries him as the full moon, loses him to the darkness as the waning moon, goes in search of him as the dark moon, and rescues him as the returning crescent. In the Greek myth, in which the daughter plays the role of ‘the part’, the cycle is the same, but the marriage is between the daughter and a god who personifies the dark phase of the moon. The daughter, like the son, is rescued by the mother. In both variations of the myth, The Goddess may be understood as the eternal cycle s a whole: the unity of life and death as a single process. The young goddess or god is her mortal form in time, which, as manifested life, whether plant, animal or human being – is subject to a cyclical process of birth, flowering, decay, death and rebirth.

“The essential distinction between the whole and the part was later formulated in the Greek language by the two different Greek words for life, zoe and bios, as the embodiment of two dimensions co-existing in life. Zoe is infinite, eternal life; bios is finite and individual life. Zoe is infinite ‘being’; bios is the living and dying manifestation of this eternal world in time.”

(1) Anne Baring Anne and Jules Cashford The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image London: Penguin, Arkana Books, 1993

INQUIRY NOTE: For me this modern interpretation of Bronze Age myth offers a good Pagan way of talking about ‘non-duality’, a strong thread in my inquiry in recent years. In its Sanskrit origin, advaita simply means ‘not two’. It speaks of a unity that is not exactly oneness in the sense of complete assimilation. It points to the sense that we are bios in our transient personal lives yet also zoe the life eternal, both the wave and the ocean. In Western theistic culture this view seems consistent with either pantheism or panentheism. It also fits modern understandings of animism and biocentrism. While I find it useful to know about these models and frameworks, I avoid strong identification with them. There remains an underlying mystery, which is where myth and imagination come into their own.

SPRING EQUINOX 2020: IMAGES OF HOPE?

A lone fawn protected by a dolmen. Boxing hares. A drill bow kindles a flame. As I move beyond the equinox into the second quarter of the year, what are these images telling me?

I am working with the Wildwood Tarot* as a resource for my journey through the wheel of the year. I’ve done a three card reading to intuit themes for the three months ahead. Each card is a lens on the whole period, revealing different aspects of the year’s second quarter, perhaps with an element of progression.

The key word for the 4 of stones, the one with the fawn, is ‘protection’. The supporting Wildwood text is largely a reflection on spiritual warriorship, with themes of testing, endurance, ethics and compassion. They help me to understand our public health crisis as also a spiritual crisis. Fortunately, the dolmen holding the fawn in immobilised physical safety can also be a space for spiritual renewal.

The 2 of stones, with its boxing hares, is another earth card and stereotypically seasonal. Its key word is ‘challenge’. In the traditional universe of the Tarot, One becomes two, and then three, and then the multitude. The opportunity for I-Thou relationship, diversity and the world of interbeing have been created. At the same time stress, tension and potential conflicts of interest have been born along with them. Interconnectedness sounds rich, creative and dynamically supportive. So it can be. Yet relationships involving dominance, submission, predation and parasitism are also forms of interconnection. Viruses too.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a hare. I have been told by other humans that boxing hares are playing a mating game, enacting a mating ritual, or demonstrating that female hares are capable of seeing off unwanted advances from males. Perhaps all of the above. They certainly demonstrate the complexities of interconnection. Currently I describe myself as ‘self-isolating’, and this is likely to go on for at least the whole quarter. Actually, I am self-isolating with my wife Elaine, and we are very conscious of needing to take active care of our own relationship and to maintain good distance links with others. The health of the interconnectedness within which we live is more important than ever. I take some comfort here from the boxing hares. Their energies are successfully held in balance. Their collective life and its continuation over the years are enabled. They are resourceful creatures and our traditional lore about them speaks of shape shifting capabilities and closeness to the Otherworld. They are survivors.

The key words for my third card, the Ace of Bows, are ‘spark of life’. In a reading without major trumps or court cards, this stands out as the fountainhead of the fire suit and in the Wildwood Tarot it points to the later stages of this quarter, from Beltane to the Summer Solstice and indeed beyond. It introduces human agency and technology, and is associated with creativity, enterprise and science: “The drill bow suggests the human element, our partnership with the environment in which we live and the mastery of its gifts”. I find myself placed in a somewhat passive position, but I am part of a wider community. I do have confidence that creatively scientific and genuinely enterprising efforts will be brought to bear on the current health crisis. ‘Spark of life’ resonates favourably for me, without saying anything specific about my individual future.

The three cards together encourage a strong focus on my contemplative inquiry, including this blog. The inquiry is personal, and in the language of Wildwood maintains my link to the Otherworld. It is also public, because of the blog, and can therefore play a role in a larger effort to use blogging and social media in the service of healthy interconnection. Wildwood’s suit of bows talks of ‘philosophical and esoteric pursuits’ as a form of “skilful ability fuelled by will”, along with the creativity, science and enterprise already noted. I would like to think of my contemplative inquiry as a manifestation of this, and I hope that it can be a form of service in the forthcoming quarter and beyond.

*Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

SPRING, GRATITUDE AND COVID-19

On Friday 13 March I tasted spring in its fullness. I was flooded with gratitude. Yet ‘gratitude’, especially in religious settings, was for a long time a tainted term in my life.

Growing up, I faced demands to be grateful whether I felt it or not. Over time I came to link this idea to formal performance and competitive public piety: being seen to be ‘good’. It also left my natural feelings of gratitude, when they came up, unrecognised and untended. In this stunted state I developed a cynicism about how language is used, rather than finding ways about how, authentically, to identify and cultivate my own sense of gratitude.

I am sad about this, because, even from a self-referential perspective, the capacity for gratitude is linked to wellbeing, happiness, self-acceptance and a sense of purpose in life. Psychological studies (1) show that gratitude is an active agent and not simply the result of already existing wellbeing. Exercises in gratitude work for many people, for much of the time. There are now considerable academic and self-help literatures on the subject.

Most spiritual traditions recommend gratitude, and for many of them this is linked to a sense of the divine, or some other ultimate point of reference. But this isn’t necessary. Gratitude is named as the third of thirteen principles in Atheopaganism (2), which is based on an entirely naturalistic, science-based cosmology. Here too, gratitude is seen as a habit that has to be learned and practised. The practice can alter both our internal dialogue and our behaviour. “It is good for ourselves, our relationships, our society and our world”.

I came late to gratitude, in the sense being discussed. But I’m a convert now. Being older has somehow helped. There was a decisive moment just under fifteen years ago, when I was 56 years. I was diagnosed with a cancer that might have killed me and I started to ask myself how I was going to maintain my quality of life remaining if I found myself on a downward slope.

I concluded that I would need to do what I could to count my blessings whilst I still lived. I recovered – with the insight still in place. I have built on that with greater awareness over the years, especially since beginning my contemplative inquiry. Now I’m nudged by the coronavirus and the same principles apply. I’m enjoying the experience of spring, usefully aware of my mortality, and grateful to be here, now.

(1) Rupert Sheldrake Science and Spiritual Practices Coronet, 2017

(2) Mark A. Green Atheopaganism: an Earth-Honoring Path Rooted in Science Green Daragon Publishing, 2019 (Foreword by John Halstead)

ANIMISM IS A HARD-WORKING WORD

Introducing The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (2013)* editor Graham Harvey describes animism as “a hard-working word”. For him, “it identifies a range of interesting phenomena but also labels several distinct ways of understanding such matters”.

Harvey’s own interest was sparked by postdoctoral research among varied groups of Pagans, which brought him into contact with people who identified as animists. It seemed to him that the word was being used in two contrasting ways. “Some Pagans identified animism as the part of their religious practice or experience which involved encounters with tree-spirits, river-spirits or ancestor-spirits. This animism was metaphysical … Other Pagans seemed to 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.”

Fast-forward seven years to now, and ‘animist’ is clearly an important identifier for considerable numbers of people. many of whom draw on both kinds of understanding distinguished by Harvey. Accelerating environmental degradation, species loss and the ever more obvious climate crisis have given the second understanding greater salience and urgency, even when not reinforced by the first.

The Handbook gives valuable information about the history and hinterland of a word that I and my spiritual community use. For ‘animism’ did not arise as a term for people to describe their own experience. It comes from 19th century anthropology, developed by people from a dominant culture (largely European/North American, with a mix of Christian and secular ideas) to study the traditional practices of other people, most of whom were in the process of becoming colonial subjects and living in cultures under stress. Even in the current collection, with its de-colonised anthropology and room for first nations voices, ‘animism’, however positively reframed, is still an awkward piece of labelling for some contributors. One says, “we just call it tradition”.

So ‘animism’ is not innocent. Yet despite this dubious history, it is clear that animism does have inspirational potential as a positive term in our faltering 21st century world. Regardless of where we stand in our metaphysics, any of us can work to re-imagine and re-direct our “participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community” in a way that is “relational, embodied” and, if we so choose, “eco-activist”. How we do these things is up to us. I will look at the work of some of the individual contributors in future posts.

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

LIGHT ON TREES

Bright light as a valley experience. Sunlight on trees. February 6, the day I took this picture, provided my first experience of intense sunlight this year. It got through to me even in a shady place. My eyes were dazzled and my head struck by an unexpected warmth.

I noticed mixed feelings. Yes, I celebrated the return of the light. Yes, it was a reference experience for the spring aspect of Imbolc in my part of the world. More visceral than snowdrops, the sun truly reached me and not just my nature-observant sensibilities. It was almost shocking.

Looking out, after that first moment, my world filled up with light on trees. I wondered if they too had any resistance to waking up and being visible and called upon to grow and change and open to the light more fully. I don’t know what it’s like to be a tree. Not really. Withdrawing my projections, I am turned back to my own responses. Parts of me have reservations about immersion in the light. Perhaps they have a wisdom of their own.

IMBOLC 2020

Spaces ‘between’ can be numinous. They feed the soul. Imbolc for me is like a pre-dawn light. I am not yet out of winter, but something else is happening, and palpably growing in strength.

The hierophant of the Wildwood Tarot – the Ancestor – is placed as a power of Imbolc. An antlered figure clothed in reindeer skins and evergreen leaves, she has a resonance of Elen of the Ways, the reindeer goddess who stands for the sovereignty of the land. She calls to us from a deep past where Ice Age hunters followed reindeer through ancient forest, “following the deer trods” (1,2) responsive to the herds and attuned to the landscape. They lived with little personal property and without long hours of alienating work. The Ancestor invites us to wonder what these early ancestors  might have to teach us under our very different conditions.

On the card, the Ancestor is sounding a drum and calling us into another consciousness – one more open and aware of our place within the web of life. In her world, deer and people are kin. She herself is ambiguous – she might be wearing a mask, or she might be a truly theriomorphic figure. I respond to her call by sinking deeply into my felt sense – the embodied life of sensation, feelings and belly wisdom. The call of the Ancestor  is a pathway to greater wholeness and connection, both personally and collectively. As the year wakes up, it is a good call to hear.

(1) Elen Sentier Elen of the Ways: British Shamanism – Following the Deer Trods Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2013 (Shaman Pathways series)

(2) Elen Sentier Following the Deer Trods: A Practical Guide to Working with Elen of the Ways Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2014 (Shaman Pathways series)

See also book review at: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/06/22/

BOOK REVIEW: WESTERN ANIMISM

Western Animism: Zen and the Art of Positive Paganism. Highly recommended.

Melusine Draco is an established Pagan author, here writing mostly about Japanese culture. She draws on her Shinto upbringing by her father, a martial arts instructor and countryman. She contrasts the Abrahamic stigmatisation of Paganism and Animism in the West with the peaceful co-existence of Buddhism and Shinto in Japan, to the point where the line between them can be “decidedly hazy”. She suggests that the Japanese approach makes positive spirituality and living easier. All it really takes is “time to appreciate white clouds against the bright blue of a winter sky; the whisper of falling rain; the aroma of freshly baked bread … if we make a practice out of seeking out the positive, we tend to find it everywhere – even on ‘bad, black dog days’ when we can still hear water dreaming, or listen to the stones growing”.

In five relatively brief chapters, Melusine Draco covers a great deal of ground. She discusses Ki, “the unseen life force in our body and everywhere”, and the sense that there is no dividing line between the divine and human. She describes Kami, “the most ambiguous of spirits” and talks of “sermons in nature”. She describes a Zen teacher who, at the beginning of a lecture, paused to listen to a songbird outside the window, and then dismissed the class. She explains Kensho moments, sudden insights and awakenings that help us on our way. Exercises to facilitate such moments are scattered through the book.

Draco evokes a culture that celebrates life and its transience; stylises and thus sacralises everyday skills and activities; and pays respectful attention to nature, including Kami. Religion itself is based on respect rather than faith. Drawing on these riches, Draco suggests an alternative wheel of the year inspired by Japanese festivals and adapted for the West. A chapter on the Zen garden includes a wider discussion of sacred space and the use of plants. Her final chapter looks at Zen arts and aesthetics – including wabi-sabi, “defined as the beauty of things ‘imperfect, impermanent and incomplete’”. It also covers a Japanese view of concentration, meditation, contemplation, and the differences between them. For Draco, “contemplation is that state of consciousness which brings clairvoyant power. It must, because the basis of contemplation is a clairvoyant perception, a kind of spiritual intuition”.

Anyone interested in Japanese spirituality, and willing to be inspired by it, would benefit from reading this book.

Melusine Draco Western Animism: Zen and the Art of Positive Paganism Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2019 (Pagan Portals series)

‘ABOUT’ FOR 2020

A happy New Year to all readers, as we begin to navigate the 2020’s! May we find compassionate and creative ways to flourish in the days ahead.

As my contemplative inquiry evolves, I update the ‘About’ section for this blog. Below is my revision for the beginning of 2020.

“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. I began my contemplative inquiry within modern British Druidry and my book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

“Over time my inquiry became a wider exploration of contemplative spirituality, identified for a period as a Sophian Way. It drew on the enduring wisdom of many times and places and I came to experience it as a path of healing, peace and illumination. In particular, my inquiry identified an ‘at-homeness’ in the flowing moment. 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.

“The discovery of at-homeness emerged from an inward inquiry arc: noticing myself perceiving, making meaning, and finding a language to articulate my experience. Now I am on an outward arc. I am turning to a greater focus on relationships, community, culture, and the wider web of life. Druidry, as a modern eco-spirituality receptive to ancient wisdom, is renewing its importance in my life.”

WANDERER

The Wanderer is the Fool of the Wildwood Tarot (1). To become the Wanderer is to let go of formless potential and take on identity and aspiration. Entering the Wildwood world, I find myself at midwinter. As I gradually get my bearings, I lean towards the first signs of a strengthening sun, and the distant promise of spring.

In my first use of the cards, I chose an eight-card spread. Four of the cards belong to Vessels, the water suit (2). They include both ace and king. Where I live, this fits with two or three months of rain and flood, well beyond what used to be normal. The placement of these cards suggests reasons to be hopeful, at a price. Another card, indicated as a helpful resource, is the Pole Star, the name given to Major Trump 17 in this pack.

These results have triggered memories of two Anglo-Saxon poems, often anthologised together: The Wanderer and The Seafarer. Both are voices from a Christianised culture in the old northern world. The first part of The Seafarer, possibly a separate composition from the second, “has variously been regarded as literal or allegorical, and related to such figures as the pilgrim.” (3). The extract below emphasises endurance in the face of adverse conditions. I like the seafarer for being an ordinary man of his time, and not an idealised hero. He does what he needs to, and won’t give up. He can find beauty and communion with bird life, in a harsh and lonely setting. But he also owns feelings of distress, sorrow and complaint. He belongs to history rather than myth.

“I sing my own true story, tell my travels,

How I have often suffered times of hardship

In days of toil, and have experienced

Bitter anxiety. My troubled home

On many a ship has been the heaving waves,

Where grim night-watch has often been my lot

At the ship’s prow as it beat past the cliffs.

Oppressed by cold my feet were bound by frost

In icy bonds, while worries simmered hot

About my heart, and hunger from within

Tore the sea-weary spirit. He knows not,

Who lives most easily on land, how I

Have spent my winter on the ice-cold sea,

Wretched and anxious, in the paths of exile,

Lacking dear friends, hung round by icicles,

While hail flew past in showers. There heard I nothing,

But the resounding sea, the ice-cold waves.

Sometimes I made the song of the wild swan

My pleasure, or the gannet’s call, the cries

Of curlews for the missing mirth of men,

The singing gull, instead of mead in hall.

Storms beat the cliffs, and icy-winged

The tern replied, the horn-beaked eagle shrieked.

No patron had I there who might have soothed

My desolate spirit. He can little know

Who, proud and flushed with wine, has spent his time

With all the joys of life among the cities,

Safe from such fearful venturings, how I

Have often suffered weary on the seas.

(1) Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

(2) See also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/12/30/

(3) Extract from The Seafarer in A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse London: Faber & Faber, 1970 (Selected with an introduction and a parallel verse translation by Richard Hamer)

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