contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Pantheism

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.

EYE OF SPIRIT

I walk my Sophian Way, seeking imagery for the end of November. The willows provide it. I see a dying back of the year, where the withdrawn and conserved life has a beauty of its own.

Stilling into presence, and holding the trees in loving attention, I act as the eye of spirit. I am aware equally of the uniqueness and otherness of the trees, and of my inter-being with them. I feel love, gratitude and wonder. I also feel a poignancy, and a sense of vulnerability – for them, and me, and everyone else.

I am glad to be taking pictures again after a gap of many years. There are dangers of displacing my attention into the process of photography, or of contracting into a collector’s obsession with ‘capturing’ images. My solution is to be artless and spontaneous in pressing the button – and to leave my phone in my pocket for most of the time. Once at home, I do find myself delighting in the record.

BOOK REVIEW: GREENING THE PARANORMAL

I recommend this book to anyone concerned with deep ecology, animism, or the kinds of phenomena we describe as ‘paranormal’. It opens with two substantial framing pieces, a foreword by Paul Devereux and an introductory chapter by editor Jack Hunter. These are followed by 16 chapters from a diverse range of contributors, mostly seeking to combine direct witness with a workable form of academic analysis. To an extent this book is a story of how to face this difficult challenge. Very early, in his foreword, Paul Devereux shows how the challenge can come from the ‘phenomena’ themselves.

“We were trying to geographically map generations of old accounts of fairy paths we had uncovered in the verbatim records of University College Dublin. Suddenly, standing in the grass, there was a figure, between two and three feet tall. It was anthropomorphic and fully three dimensional (as we could clearly determine while we were drifting slowly past. It had sprung its appearance out of nowhere, and it caught my wife’s and my own transfixed attentions simultaneously.

The figure was comprised of a jumble of very dark green tones, as if composed of a tight dense tangle of foliage rather like the stand of woodland a hundred yards or so beyond the sward of grass. It didn’t seem to quite have a face, just a head with deep set eyes appearing out of the green tangle. It presented a distinctly forbidding appearance. As we crawled past in our car, the figure started to turn its head in our direction, but then vanish.

“Charla called out, ‘Oh, shit!’ We looked at each other, both of us wide-eyed and thoroughly disconcerted. ‘You saw that!’ I asked rhetorically. The whole episode had lasted for only about half a minute or so, but it was unequivocally an actual. if transient, objective observation.”

The running inquiry question throughout the book is, what do we make of experiences like this, if we are determined to honour rather than dismiss them? Devereux senses four major themes in the suggested ‘greening of the paranormal’ in our time. The first is animism, the ‘Big Step for our culture to take’: the sense that the elements of the non-human world are animate in some way – rocks, rivers, soil, as well as plants and living organisms. This involves a deep relationship with the land beyond utility and subsistence. The second theme is the vision quest, a wilderness journey which is more about paying attention and being open to what unfolds, rather than posing questions. The third concerns the ‘liminal’ places that seem to support our breaking through into other-world realms or altered mind states. The fourth is inter-species communion with the animal and plant kingdoms. In the language used by Jack Hunter, we find ourselves dealing with a “profoundly mindful, sentient and agentic world” and the potential re-opening of lost forms of communication and connection.

Many of the contributors believe that we are unlikely to get through the climate crisis if we continue to ignore dimensions of experience from which our cultural filters have exiled us. Some of them live or work in countries that have been colonised by Europeans, but where pockets of traditional indigenous wisdom remain. They recognise that in some cases there are invitations to share in this. There are also concerns about appropriation and the dynamics of the researcher/subject relationship. There is a questioning of the word ‘shamanism’ as currently used – and arguably over-extended and suspect.

This book does not read like a novel. Although I have read it all, there were two or three chapters which didn’t speak to me. Others were riveting. I see it as an excellent book to own and keep for reference. The foreword and first chapter each stand alone and I recommend reading both of them. The other chapters can be cherry picked according to taste or need. Overall there’s a strong invitation to wake up to the aspects of world, life and experience that are being pointed to. The book suggests that they are needed for our personal, social and global healing.

 

SEEING: CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY

There is a dance between experience and meaning. Experience informs meaning, yet the meaning given to significant experiences can change over time, in the light of later experiences. Looking back at my introduction to Contemplative Druidry (1), I now sense that my contemplative journey was triggered by a kind of Wild Seeing, long before I encountered the work of Douglas Harding (www.headless.org/ ). Here is what I wrote.

“On 22 June 2007 my centre of gravity shifted. It was late morning. I was just outside the Scottish Border town of Melrose, drawn in three possible directions. One was up the hills at the back of the town – the Eildon Hills, the hollow hills where the Queen of Efland took Thomas the Rhymer; True Thomas as he became. The second was the fine, if half-ruined, Abbey and its grounds; a place of Green Man carvings, fruit trees, and the heart of Robert the Bruce. The third was the banks of the Tweed.

“I took the third option and walked into a wholly unexpected and not at all dramatic epiphany. It was triggered simply by noticing and contemplating a wild rose, growing on the banks of the river. It lasted a few moments, just long enough for me to register it, and to experience a subtle shift of awareness in consequence. For some weeks I woke up every day with a sense of joy and connection. Months later, I wrote the verse that expressed it:

I am Rose. I am wild Rose.

I am Rose at Midsummer.

The river flows by me.

Fragile, I shiver in the wind.

And I am the heart’s core, mover of mountains.”

I was aware at the time that I was contrasting three choices in a fairy tale kind of way. The first was the path of magic (the Queen of Elfland). The second was the path of contemplative religion (Melrose Abbey). The third was the path of direct experience (wild rose on the riverbank). I chose the third. The poem best shows the import of this deceptively simple experience, especially in the last line. ‘I am the heart’s core; mover of mountains’ is more than a nature mysticism. I speak not only as the rose, but as the heart’s core, mover of mountains. I speak from the source.

During its collective life, contemplative Druidry did take its stand in direct experience. It was also very open – we talked of being of like intent rather than like mind; there was no consensus cosmology or belief. On the whole we were naturalistic, but not quite in the humanist or materialist sense. The use of terms like ‘Earth spirituality. ‘nature mysticism’. pantheism’ and ‘animism’ pointed to something more expansive. Now my experiences of  Seeing, support the view advocated by Douglas Harding and described as nondualist and panentheist. In everyday terms we can say that we have two identities, one as humans and the other as the ground of being. Ultimately, there is no separation and so only one true identity. Seeing is offered as a skilful means of learning to recognise this identity, and then to live from it.

My Sophian Way is now firmly in this territory. My challenge is to cleave to the experiential practice and its fruits whilst staying open about metaphysical claims. The intelligence of the heart is nourished by this view and is attracted by the reassurance of a clear and simple narrative. The mind wants to stay agnostic and provisional. When mobilised, it can ferret out weaknesses in the view. The Sophian Way is a way of wisdom, as well as a salute to the cosmic mother and healer in the heart. Wisdom invites me to trust the process – maintaining just enough scepticism to avoid attachment to views.

(1) James Nichol , Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, Amazon/Kindle, 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

REVISED ‘ABOUT’ APRIL 2019

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.

My book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014.  https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

PANPSYCHISM: A NOTE

Non-dualist author Peter Russell is happy to use the Western terms ‘panpsychism’ and ‘panexperientialism’ when discussing what he calls the “mystery of consciousness”. These terms are both modifications of ‘pantheism’ and the ideas have a kinship with those of modern animism. From a Druid perspective, I find it valuable to see this kind of connection being made with the non-dualist systems of Indian origin – whether Tantric, Vedantic, Buddhist or Jain. Challenging our modern mainstream culture’s assumptions about consciousness, Russell says:

“The underlying assumption of the current meta-paradigm is that matter is insentient. The alternative is that the faculty of consciousness is a fundamental quality of nature. Consciousness does not arise because of some particular arrangement of nerve cells or processes going on between them, or from any other physical features. It is always present.

“If the faculty of consciousness is always present, then the relationship between consciousness and nervous systems needs to be rethought. Rather than creating consciousness, nervous systems may be amplifiers of consciousness, increasing the richness and quality of experience. In the analogy of a film projector, a nervous system is like having a lens in the projector. Without the lens there is still a light on the screen, but the image is much less sharp.

“In philosophical circles the idea that consciousness is in everything is called panpsychism, from the Greek pan, meaning all, and psyche, meaning soul or mind. Unfortunately, the words soul and mind suggest that simple life forms may possess qualities of consciousness found in human beings. To avoid this misunderstanding, some contemporary philosophers use the term panexperientialism – everything has experience.

“Whatever name this position is given, its basic tenet is that the capacity for inner experience could not evolve or emerge out of entirely insentient, non-experiencing matter. Experience can only come from that which already has experience. Therefore, the faculty of consciousness must be present all the way down the evolutionary tree.

“We know that plants are sensitive to many aspects of their environment – length of daylight, temperature, humidity, atmospheric chemistry. Even some single-celled organisms are sensitive to physical vibration, light and heat. Who is to say that the do not have a corresponding glimmer of awareness?

“According to this view, there is nowhere we can draw a line between conscious and nonconscious entities; there is a trace of experience, however slight, in viruses, molecules, atoms and even elementary particles.”

Peter Russell From Science to God: a Physicist’s Journey into the Mystery of Consciousness Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002

CONTEMPLATING SOUL

What do we mean by soul? Why does it matter? For me, soul is a bandwidth of experience rather than a detachable entity. James Hillman described it as “a world of imagination, passion, fantasy, reflection, that is neither physical nor material on the one hand, nor spiritual and abstract on the other, yet bound to them both. By having its own realm psyche has its own logic, psychology – which is neither a science of physical things nor a metaphysics of spiritual things”. As Jung’s successor, he believed that “psychological pathologies also belong to this realm. Approaching them from either side, in terms of medical sickness or religion’s suffering, sin and salvation, misses the target of soul”.

As a champion of soul, Hillman is contrastingly a bit grumpy about spirit, another bandwidth of experience, which according to him “always posits itself as superior, operates particularly well in a fantasy of transcendence among ultimates and absolutes … strait is the gate and only first or last things will do … if people choose to go that way, I wish they would go far away to Mt. Athos or Tibet, where they don’t have to be involved in the daily soup … I think that spiritual disciplines are part of the disaster of the world … I think it’s an absolute horror that someone could be so filled with what the Greeks called superbia to think that his personal, little, tiny self-transcendence is more important than the world and the beauty of the world: the trees, the animals, the people, the buildings, the culture”.

Hillman’s sense of soul is deeply intertwined with “a style of consciousness – and this style should not even be called polytheistic, for, strictly, historically, when polytheism reigns there is no such word. When the daimones are alive, polytheism, pantheism, animism and even religion do not appear. The Greeks had daimones but not these terms, so we ought to hold from monotheistic rhetoric when entering that imaginative field and style we have been forced to call polytheistic”. Then, he says, soul can show its patterns through imagery, myth, poetry, storytelling and the comedy and agony of drama – releasing “intuitive insight” from the play of “sensate, particular events”.

A universe of soul is a pluralistic universe, a world of Eaches rather than the One or the All. For Hillman oneness can only appear as the unity of each thing, being as it is, with a name and a face – ensouled by and within its very uniqueness. He quotes William James as saying: “reality may exist in distributive form, in the shape of not of an all but of a set of eaches, just as it seems to be … there is this in favour of eaches, that they are at any rate real enough to have made themselves at least appear to everyone, whereas the absolute (wholeness, unity, the one) has as yet appeared immediately only to a few mystics, and indeed to them very ambiguously”.

For me this is where the terms Oran Mor (Great Song) and Web of Wyrd – from the Celtic and Northern traditions respectively – come into their own. The diversity and uniqueness of every note in the song, of each position within the web, are fully honoured and acknowledged. But these metaphors do also speak of a song and a web. Their unity is a unity of interconnectedness and relationship. Our current scientific metaphor of the Big Bang is a bit similar, in giving us a vast universe (or multiverse) bursting from a point at which time and space themselves originate. This image will doubtless change and may come to be seen as a ‘local’ presence/event (?) within a yet ‘larger’ system (?) ‘beyond’ our knowledge. But it offers a sense of being of the same stuff, and having a common source which in time bound 3D terms we come from and in eternal terms we simply are. Some non-dualists make much of this second aspect and frame it as an affirmation of divinity. But I see such an ultimate unity-at-source as a weak aspect of any identity I can usefully lay claim to and I’m agnostic veering sceptical about any evolutionary teleology or ‘as-if’ intentional drive. The gift  – a gift, certainly, evoking deep gratitude even in the absence of a discernible giver – is my precious, vulnerable, fleeting human life, time and space bound though it is. That’s why I value Hillman’s lens of ‘soul’, whilst also choosing to incorporate ‘spiritual’ disciplines into my own life.

  1. Hillman, James The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire London: Routledge, 1990 (Introduced and edited by Thomas Moore)

BOOK REVIEW: THE EARTH, THE GODS AND THE SOUL

jhp51efa580a1aafThe Earth, the Gods and the Soul: a History of Pagan Philosophy, from the Iron Age to the 21st Century by Brendan Myers fully justifies the ambition of its title. I see it as a must-read for anyone with an interest in pagan ideas and culture – past and present. Part of the author’s  mission is to demonstrate that “a pagan culture can be artistically vibrant, environmentally conscious, intellectually stimulating, and socially just”.

Myers provides useful working definitions of both ‘pagan’ and ‘philosophy’, whilst also showing the complexities involved in each term. He limits ‘pagan’ to people in the nations of the west and their predecessor societies in Europe and the Mediterranean, whose religion is non-Abrahamic (not Judaism, Christianity and Islam). This may now be complicated by patterns of migration and the Western impact of dharmic religions, but it works well enough if you are looking for a specific pagan tradition and its origins. Modern paganism, according to Myers, is informed by three families of ideas – pantheism, neo-Platonism, and humanism: these address the “immensities”, respectively, of Earth, Gods and Soul.

‘Philosophy’, for Myers, is an intellectual discipline that seeks answers to the ultimate questions about ‘life, the universe and everything’ using reason rather than the authority of dogma or an intuited divine source. He usefully lists 7 branches of this discipline: logic, ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, phenomenology, aesthetics and the history of ideas. Western philosophy’s origins are in Greece, and linked to the ‘know yourself’ injunction outside the temple of the Delphic Oracle. Myers sees this as a basic ethical demand for an honestly examined life, especially when wishing to enter the presence of a god. It leads to a wider view that self-knowledge heals, enlightens and empowers, though it may also at times judge and condemn.

The book is arranged as if musically, in an overture and six movements. The people chosen for inclusion are in many cases neither philosophers not pagans, and in many others only one of the two. But they have helped to define modern pagan ideas, culture and sensibility. Each movement covers a different historical period:

  1. A look at the old northern (‘barbarian’) world includes the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, Iceland’s Elder Edda, early writings about Druids, Irish wisdom texts and the Pelagian heresy (an early Christian heresy popular in the Celtic lands). There is no direct voice from a pagan culture in north west Europe, so Christians with half a foot in the old pagan world, or (in the case of the Druids) Greek and Roman authors are cited.
  2. A substantial collection of pagan Greek or Greek influenced philosophers from the early pre-Socratic period to the pagan martyr Hypatia of Alexandria. Also included are the Irish Christian neo-Platonist John Scotus Eriugena, and a section on the much later Italian renaissance. The people in this section, up to and including Hypatia, are both pagans (as we use that word today)and philosophers (in the ancient Greek understanding of that term).
  3. This movement is called ‘Pantheism in the Age of Reason’ and includes 18th century figures like John Toland, Edward Williams (aka Iolo Morganwg) and the Platonist and translator Thomas Taylor – as well as the more famous Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For the nineteenth century, we have Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
  4. A movement on pagan ‘resurgence, reinvention and rebirth’ begins with Helena Blavatsky and the launch of 19th century Theosophy, going on to include J.G. Fraser of The Golden Bough, Robert Graves of The White Goddess, George William (A.E.) Russell of A Vision and Aleister Crowley. It goes on to look at the background to Gerard Gardner’s work and the Book of Shadows, then at the appearance of American Feminist Witchcraft and also at the separate stream of Eco-Spirituality and Deep Ecology.
  5. The fifth movement comprises ‘living voices’, so Stewart Farrar and Isaac Bonewits are placed at the end of the fourth, whereas Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone appear here. So too do Starhawk, Emma Restall-Orr, John Michael Greer, Vivianne Crowley, Michael York and Gus diZerega. There is also a section on ‘the critique of monotheism’. Myers praises Emma Restall-Orr for her work on ethics, its spirit of critical inquiry and her formal use of philosophical sources.
  6. Here we find Brendan Myers’ personal commentary. He talks about a hoped-for development of a critical tradition on paganism, and the value of ‘institutions’ in maintaining such a tradition. (He acknowledges that this may go somewhat against the grain of paganism as a dissident culture). He talks about modern to paganism’s history of ‘faulty ideas’, and promotes the development of better ideas for the future.  He also celebrates the health of a ‘will to live in an enchanted world’. Myers has ‘no special teachings’ of his own. A declared pagan philosopher, he builds his personal inquiry around four questions: how shall I dwell upon the earth? How shall I converse with all people? How shall I emerge from my loneliness? How shall I face my mortality? He then goes on to discuss what these questions bring up for him.

Myers ends his book by saying: “the best music is made with humanity, integrity and wonder – everyone has instruments to hand … When I hear music I share it … when I make music I share it too … I hope that my people will celebrate with me and play along … when I make dissonant or offending sounds, I trust my people will warm me, so I can make amends … nothing more, perhaps, could be asked of anyone. And, perhaps, nothing less”.

The Earth, the Gods and the Soul is a well-informed and simply written history of pagan ideas, which tells modern pagans a lot about the shoulders we sit on. It is a great reference book. But what it did mostly for me was to get me thinking about my own relationship to philosophy and its working methods. I call my own journey a contemplative inquiry. How could I use tools from philosophy’s  toolkit to improve my own inquiry in service of a pagan critical tradition? That’s where there’s an inspiration for me – because I sense an invitation there, from a professional philosopher, to make use of this toolkit. Myers’ forward includes a reference to Clear and Present Thinking, written by him with support from a number of University colleagues for a general audience, and freely downloadable. It’s another good job, and very useful to have.

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