contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Paganism

ROWAN

Walking in the woods yesterday, I was struck by the vitality of rowan leaves and berries. I haven’t done this walk for a while, so I’m not quite sure when the berries became so vivid. All I can say is that they powerfully drew my attention. They were just what I needed, in this time of tentative emergence from Covid-19 lockdown. I look forward to their companionship as the high summer leans into autumn and beyond.

Sometimes I feel ambivalent about tree lore. Too much lore can get in the way of living connection with a tree, or even displace it. But in this case it seems to fit. To me, rowan does look magical, and feels potentially protective. I am not surprised that our ancestors planted it for this use down the ages – to guard stone circles, sacred groves, churchyards and houses. The very name rowan is linked to the Norse runa, meaning ‘charm’. In Ireland, rowan was considered a Druid tree and linked to the blackbird as a Druid bird. The berries themselves present a pentagram image, linking us to notions of magical protection.

Rowan is said to be concerned with wisdom and foresight. Breathing in smoke from the burning wood was an aid to foreseeing danger. Rowan is associated with solar goddesses of wisdom, skill and fire energy: in Ireland, Brigid; and in Britain, Brigantia. Both are said to have possessed arrows of rowan, which could catch fire if necessary.

I find the presence of rowan subtly morale boosting as I negotiate a new normal with my wife Elaine and, together, with the wider world. We work with the knowledge that Covid-19 is not going away and that we do need to re-engage more directly with that world. The very physicality of the rowan tree is an invitation to step out, whilst also encouraging a sense of what to look out for, and how the next phase is likely to be.

ELAINE’S CAULDRON: BURNING DEAD LEAVES

My wife Elaine created this midsummer cauldron fire, now ten days ago. It was fuelled in part by dry dead leaves. She chose the evening of the day itself rather than the traditional eve. The point about midsummer (24 June) is that the sun is on the move again after its moment of stasis, clearly beginning its decline. It acts as the polar opposite of the Sol Invictus or Christmas festival in late December. The Church gives 24 June to John the Baptist, decapitated at the wish of his nemesis Salome.

In our neighbourhood, there is a paradox about July. It is the quintessential summer month, in which the light begins to diminish. At the moment, sunrise is at about 4.50 am., with sunset at 9.20 pm. By Lughnasadh, it will be rising at 5.25 am and setting before 8.50 pm. In August, the process will accelerate while the earth and sea remain warm by North Atlantic standards. Getting up an hour or so after sunrise I am tending to find a dull and cloudy sky. There can be a stillness in the air, disturbed perhaps by blackbird pair flying low amongst the trees. I have a sense of latency.

The inquiry phase beginning at the 2019 winter solstice has settled a number of issues. I am re-confirmed in a modern Druid practice that is held within a circle and seven directions (E, S, W, N, below, above, centre), and is mindful of the wheel of the year. I also settled my approach to ethics at the beginning of this inquiry year (1) drawing on the work of modern Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers with his re-visioning of ancient Greek ‘virtue’ ethics (2). I have deepened in my experience of an at-homeness in the flowing moment, and its therapeutic benefits, which I wrote about last year (3). Fully established in my life, these are no longer fundamental inquiry issues. The uncertainties I formerly had with them are like dead leaves, now safe to burn.

For all that I have gained from other paths – Tantra, Tao, Zen, other forms of Buddhism, and Christian Gnosticism – I know that I will not be practising or following them. I will continue to appreciate their literatures and cite them in this blog, but this will be from the perspective of the appreciative outsider. Here too the active inquiry is over. Uncertainties have shrunken into dead leaves, and are safe to burn.

I know that, in the turbulent, airy mental realm, I have contending gnostic and agnostic energies. They are co-arising twins, and neither is going away. I still have work to do to find a settled home for them both. I am also concerned about how, more elegantly, to fit an ‘emptiness’ understanding into an earth pathway. A feeling about myth, and the truth and beauty of myth, is tied up with this. In the coming phase, I will look again at R. J. Stewart’s Merlin work for help with these questions. This reprise is also part of my older person’s looking back, recalling what I have valued, and asking what role it can still play. It sets my direction for the second half of the year.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/12/27/values-for-2020/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2018/07/02/ethics-and-civilization/

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/06/30/meditation-and-healing/

WISDOM AT MIDSUMMER

The picture shows the power of sunlight on trees to an observer – me, using my sight and my phone camera. I am not sure what it is like for the trees themselves, but I imagine it to be a positive experience.

This post is about the effects of the same power in my own psychic life. In a personal meditation, “I find myself in a walled garden. It has a fountain at the centre, surrounded by four flower beds of alternating red and white roses. There are fruit trees, apple, pear and plum, trained around the walls. It is a warm and radiant midsummer morning. The full bright sunlight strikes the dazzling water of the fountain, warming and illuminating each drop as it falls. I can hear the plashing of the fountain, and birdsong a little further off. My bare feet are on the lush grass. The air is sweet. The sun is at my back, recharging my energy, in particular activating the sun in my heart”. From that point, the meditation can continue and deepen in a number of ways.

This  garden is the Garden of Wisdom, the Wisdom of William Anderson’s Green Man poem (1), a poem of 13 four-line verses, where each line covers a week. Though the Green Man has a lover in the spring, Wisdom is named, as Wisdom, in only one verse.

26 Oct-1 Nov:  The reedbeds are flanking in silence the islands

2 Nov–8 Nov: Where meditates Wisdom as she waits and waits.

9 Nov-15 Nov: ‘I have kept her secret’, say the Green Man.

16 Nov -22 Nov: ‘I have kept her secret’, says he.

But at the present time of year, the focus is on the transformation of the Green Man himself, his head having been offed between 25 May and 7 June.

8 June – 14 June: Green Man becomes grown man in flames of the oak

15 June-21 June: As its crown forms his mask and its leafage his features

22 June -28 June: ‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man,

29 June – 5 July:  ‘I speak through the oak’, says he.

Late in 2019, I stopped calling my inquiry path a ‘Sophian Way’ and re-centred it in Druidry. It was the right decision, and I have found it very fruitful. But at the psychic, Innerworld level, I have experienced a sense of loss concerning aspects of the Sophian Way, especially the space I called Sophia’s Garden. Now, thankfully, I have found that a simple re-naming as Wisdom’s Garden has been enough to re-integrate it within my current Druid practice. A more specific link with William Anderson’s Pagan, earth-centred poem also helps. Wisdom speaks through the wheel of the year, and acts as a companion and guide within my Druid path, on both the physical and psychic levels. She is also Zoe, the life beyond time, and the Green Man Bios, the life which is born, dies and is born again. It seems to me that we are both of them. Perhaps that is Wisdom’s secret.

(1) William Anderson Green Man: Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth: London and San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990 (Photography by Clive Hicks)

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/05/11/poem-green-man/

A LITTLE BOOK OF THE GREEN MAN

This post presents a poem and extract from The Little Book of the Green Man by Mike Harding, which includes photographs by the author. Most of the images are from English medieval churches, though two are from Paris and some are from different regions of India, from Nepal and from Borneo.

The book was published in 1998 and is still in print. I recommend it to anyone interested in Green Man imagery.

I am the face in the leaves,

I am the laughter in the forest,

I am the king in the wood.

And I am the blade of grass

That thrusts through the stone-cold clay

At the death of winter.

I am before and I am after,

I am always until the end

I am the face in the forest,

I am the laughter in the leaves.

The following extract describes green men in the ends of pews at Bishop’s Lydeard, Somerset, my native county. They were carved in the fifteenth century:

“Unlike many Green Men that are hidden on high in roof bosses or on capitals, the bench ends are close to ground level and would have been immediately on view to everybody entering the church.

“Only in Somerset is this tradition of carved pew-ends so widespread and it would appear that the same carvers worked on a number of churches in the area.

“While I was photographing these images a lady who was in the church arranging flowers came up to me quietly and, making sure that nobody else heard, whispered: ‘It’s nice to see that he’s being accepted again, isn’t it?’”

Mike Harding The Little Book of the Green Man London: Aurum Press, 1998.

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.

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