contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Perennial Philosophy

BOOK REVIEW: THE GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT IN LIFE

The Greatest Achievement in Life is a free e-book available from http://www.suprarational.org/ as a printable pdf, published in 2012. Author R. D. Krumpos looks at five traditions of mysticism, in which mysticism is understood as a direct intuition or experience of God, or of an ultimate Reality not conceived as God. Mystics are described as people whose religion and life are grounded “not merely on an accepted belief and practice, but on what they regard as first-hand knowledge”. Krumpos himself speaks of finding that “preeminent Reality is the holy One in All and All in the wholly One”.

The five mystical traditions examined are those embedded within Hinduism (e.g. Vedanta, Tantra), Buddhism (Zen, Vajrayana), Judaism (e.g. Hasidism, Kabbalah), Christianity (e.g. Gnostic and Contemplative currents) and Islam (e.g. Sufism). I imagine that many people reading this blog will be working outside these traditions. But I recommend the book to anyone with a serious interest in mysticism, however you define it, given that the influence of these traditions is pervasive to the point where it can be virtually unconscious. As a person on a modern Druid path committed to inquiry and with a leaning towards mysticism, I have found Krumpos’ work very helpful in reminding myself of what the ‘five traditions’ are pointing to.

The book is brief and divided into two main sections: Five Traditions of Mysticism and Mystical Approached to Life. Within these sections there is a further division into short chapters, which can be read either in sequence or independently of the whole. Krumpos draws heavily on the words of well-known mystics themselves, as well as offering his own commentary and reflections. The book can either be seen as a source and reference book, or as a practitioner aide. It includes sentences and paragraphs that can themselves be used as a basis for formal contemplation. It is not just an ‘about’ book, though it serves that purpose well.

The traditions presented are seen as having much in common at the core, and The Great Achievement bears witness to that commonality. Yet there is enough interior diversity to make it clear that mystics in these traditions are not all the same, or saying the same thing, in the way that is sometimes lazily claimed. Overall Ron Krumpos’ sense of ‘direct experience’ and his definition of gnosis describe a gold standard for what ‘the greatest achievement’ is, based on the accounts of the mystics cited and discussed. In the second half of this book, the focus valuably shifts from the nature of mystical experience itself, to a consideration of its implications for how to live and serve.

For me, the cultural moment in which The Great Achievement has been offered is significant one. Perennialism’s ideas have been popularised and repackaged over the period since World War II at an ever increasing rate. There is now an extraordinary global spiritual hunger at least partly influenced by the spiritual paths that it includes – some, indeed, speak of a ‘spiritual market place’. This is a promising development, yet one with its downside. Krumpos’ work reminds us what these older traditions are and where they stand. For readers in new (or new-old) spiritual traditions with a different approach, the book offers opportunities for comparing and contrasting the fruits of the five traditions with those of their their own chosen paths. Krumpos does acknowledge the value of shamanic and indigenous traditions, and practitioners within these traditions, reading this book, might be inspired to develop this conversation further.

BREATHING SPACE

“Once it happened that a man was very ill. The illness was that he continually felt that his eyes were popping out and his ears were ringing – continually. By and by he became crazy, because it went on for twenty-four hours a day. He couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t do his work.

“So, he consulted doctors. One doctor suggested, ‘remove the appendix’, so the appendix was removed, but nothing happened. Another suggested, ‘remove all the teeth’, so all his teeth were removed. Nothing happened; the man simply became old, that’s all. Then somebody suggested that the tonsils should be removed. There are millions of advisors, and if you start listening to all of them, they will kill you. So, his tonsils were removed, but nothing happened. Then he consulted the greatest doctor known.

“The doctor diagnosed, and he said, ‘nothing can be done because the cause cannot be found. At the most you can live six months more. And I must be frank with you, because all that could be done has been done. Now nothing can be done’.

“The man came out of the doctor’s office and thought, ‘if I only have six months to live, then why not live well?’ He was a miser and had never lived, so he ordered the latest and biggest car; he purchased a beautiful bungalow, he ordered thirty suits, he even ordered shirts made to order.

“He went to a tailor who said, ‘thirty-six sleeves, sixteen collar’.

“The man said, ‘no, fifteen, because I always use fifteen’.

“The tailor measured again and said, ‘sixteen!’

“The man said, ‘but I have always used fifteen!’

“The tailor said, ‘Okay then, have it your own way, but I tell you, you will have popping eyes and ringing in the ears!’ And that was the whole cause of his illness!

“You are missing the divine for not very great causes – no! Just a fifteen collar – and the eyes cannot see, they are popping; and the ears cannot hear, they are ringing. The cause of man’s illness is simple, because he is addicted to small things.”

(1) Osho The Mustard Seed: Discourse on the Sayings of Jesus from the Gospel According to Thomas Shaftesbury: Element, 1975

MEDITATION: WISDOM’S HOUSE

The Wisdom’s House meditation descends from an earlier ‘Temple of Sophia’ practice (1). It owes something to the ‘art of memory’ of the ancient Greeks, a system of impressing places and images on the mind. The art of memory flourished again in the European Renaissance period, and late practitioners included Giordano Bruno and the English alchemist Robert Fludd (2). This post provides both an introduction and the full text of the meditation.

Many of the visualised images have a strong archetypal resonance, but I do not now look to them for dramatic experiences or insights. They are a familiar Innerworld landscape whose influence grows quietly over time.

I enjoy this meditation. It has a strong aesthetic and cultural dimension, valuing time and memory. It is an affirmation of belonging within modern Druidry, and an individual expression of what how my location in this tradition works for me. At the same time, it points to a more universal and perennial wisdom tradition. My current version has a clearer tilt towards the evening of my days than do earlier ones. As in the older versions, Wisdom is omnipresent, but She does not appear as a person within the meditation. The image above is from R. J. Stewart’s Dreampower Tarot. (3)

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/05/03/temple-of-sophia/

(2) Frances A. Yates The Art of Memory London: Pimlico, 1966

(3) T. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Underworld London: The Aquarian Press, 1993 Illustrated by Stewart Littlejohn

TEXT OF THE MEDITATION

Closing my eyes, I check out my body and sensations, and I let go of potentially distracting feelings and thoughts. I take 9 Awen breaths, and open myself to the images of the Wisdom’s House meditation. They generally appear as a sequence, but not as a fully connected narrative. I may follow the sequence, or I may linger on particular images – allowing them to change and develop beyond the script.

I find myself on a lake shore, looking westwards, out over the water to a wooded island in the lake, where Wisdom’s House is found.

I walk down to a small beach where a blue rowing boat is waiting to ferry me across. The rower is a person of indeterminate gender, robed, hooded and wearing a mask, somewhat in the manner of Greek and Japanese classical theatre. On seeing them, I bow. They bow in return, doffing their mask, and revealing the emptiness behind it.

I am in the boat, being rowed towards the lake. I notice light on the water, and the descent of the sun. The island is getting closer.

On reaching the western shore, I thank the rower before turning my attention to a cliff path, which is stepped, quite steeply, in certain places. Its base is marked by two carved stones. The one on the left shows Pictish dancing seahorses and the concealed image of Modron; the one on the right shows the Tree of Life, as a trees, with a serpent coiled around the bottom of the trunk, and a dove perched high in the canopy.

At the top of the hill, I am walking, east to west, through woods and then pasture, until I reach a gateway in a wall, behind which are the grounds of Wisdom’s House.

Entering the gate, I walk through a fine orchard before reaching the House itself, which has some church-like characteristics. It is a domed stone building. The main body is round, though arms are extended in each of the 4 cardinal directions to create an equal armed cross. These extensions do not run out very far – only enough for a porch, a modest side chapel, and room for covered flights of steps.

I enter the House through the porch that comprises the eastern wing. I look across the interior to the western wing, somewhat like a small chapel. Its most striking feature is a rose window with clear, though slightly pink-tinted, stained-glass. It is designed to catch the sunset. A little way in front of it is an altar whose white cloth is embroidered with a golden gnostic cross and strewn with white and red rose petals. At the centre stands a chalice, white candles on either side. Looking around me I see steps spiralling downwards to a crypt, right (northern extension) and steps spiralling upwards to an upper room, left (southern extension).

The interior is lit by chandeliers hanging from the ceiling as well as natural light from clear glass windows. On the floor is a large mosaic given definition by the golden outline of a circle, crossed at the cardinal points by golden lines which merge at the centre within a fully golden circle, which includes 3 white seed pearls in a triangular cluster at the centre.

Just outside the outer circle, around the wheel of the year, are depictions of 16 trees: yew, north-west; elder, north-north-west; holly, north; alder, north-north-east; birch, north-east; ash & ivy, east-north-east; willow, east; blackthorn, east-south-east; hawthorn, south-east; beech & bluebell, south-south-east; oak, south; gorse, south-south-west; apple, south-west; blackberry & vine, west-south-west; hazel, west; rowan, west-north-west.

Moving into the main circle, I find images of the elemental powers associated with the four directions: north, a white hart; east, an eagle with wings outstretched; south, a red dragon; west, a leaping salmon. At the golden centre of the circle, the cluster of three white pearls recollects the three drops of inspiration distilled from Ceridwen’s cauldron and the visionary power of Awen. There are also other trinities – the triple goddess; the Christian trinity; the divine mother, father and child; the 3 triads of Kabbalah together and separately, or the singularity of Tao becoming the two, three and 10,000 things.

Spiralling out of the circle, and exiting north, I descend into the crypt. Here I find an empty sarcophagus dimly lit by candles. Two or three steps below the sarcophagus is a small, warm pool, lit by night lights – a ‘birthing pool’, perchance a re-birthing pool. A dancing seahorses/Modron image is painted on the ceiling. I can spend time lying within the sarcophagus, contemplating change, death and dissolution. I can also move on to the birthing pool, immerse myself in it, and taste the experience there.

Leaving the crypt and moving across the house, I climb the steps to the upper room, which has a meditation chair at its centre, with a chalice, or grail, on a small table in front of it. A field of stars, white against an indigo, is painted on the ceiling; otherwise the room is plain. I centre myself on the chair and drink from the chalice.

I find myself in a 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 noon and mid-summer. I can hear birdsong, and feel the warmth of the sun at my back.

My attention is drawn into the fountain until I experience myself as part of it. Propelled to the top, I fly as a single drop into the air, shot through with sunlight, as I begin my descent, which feels slow and gentle, into the pool below.

On coming back from the vision of the garden and the fountain, I sit and rest for a while, in the upper room. Eventually I leave the upper room and go down to the ground floor of the House. I walk to the south point of the circle and from there move, spiralling, into the centre. I face the altar at the west, bowing and giving thanks before I leave the House through the porch on my eastward return.

Finding myself in a dim pre-dawn light, and facing towards its source, I return to the lakeside and take the ferry back to the mainland.

FROM LACK TO ABUNDANCE

“Try to get

what you want,

and it’s already

far away.

Be what you want,

know it in your heart,

and it’s already yours.

The rest is details.

The rest,

you never really wanted anyway.

From lack to abundance,

in a heartbeat.” (1)

There is wisdom in this slender poem. Mediating wisdom is a traditional task of the Druid. This includes recognising wisdom in others and passing it on. For my own Druid path, the invitation to “be what you want, know it in your heart” has always had a resonance. The poem as a whole points to a more grounded stance in our lives.

Jeff Foster’s words are the product of recovery journey that led him out of debilitating levels of depression and suicide risk. This involved in inward turn, away from external markers for success in the wider world, that paradoxically enabled his true ability to connect. Hence his complete reframe of ‘abundance’. Elsewhere in the same book (1) he says: “abundance is your connection to each breath, how sensitive you are to every flicker of sensation and emotion in your body … the feeling of the afternoon breeze on your cheeks, the sun warming your face. It is meeting others in the field of honesty and vulnerability, connecting beyond the story, sharing what is alive”.

He also says that it is “knowing yourself as presence, the power that creates and moves worlds”. This has become a crucial understanding within my renewed and consolidated practice of Druidry. It is an insight common to the perennial wisdom traditions, and so a place where many paths converge. It aligns Jeff Foster with R. J. Stewart’s view, recently explored in this blog, that “we are the tree of life” and “the stars are within us” (2,3).

(1) Jeff Foster The Way of Rest: Finding the Courage to Hold Everything in Love Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2016

(2) R. J. Stewart The Miracle Tree: Demystifying the Qabalah Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books 2003

(3) R. J. Stewart The Way of Merlin: the Prophet, the Goddess and the Land London: The Aquarian Press, 1991

BOOK REVIEW: SEEK TEACHINGS EVERYWHERE

This post is about Philip Carr-Gomm’s Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the specific topic and/or the development of modern spiritual movements more generally.

Elegantly and accessibly presented, the book testifies both to a personal journey and a key role in developing modern British Druidry. Both the journey and the role are an interweaving of Pagan and Universalist threads. PCG’s approach has been to adopt Druidry as a ‘meta-path’, one able “to transcend religious distinctions”, and allowing of involvement in other paths as well. The Jain path, shared with his Druid mentor Ross Nichols, is the one given the greatest individual attention in the book, in a long section on Druidry and Dharmic traditions. This section touches also on other Indian derived movements and practices (Buddhism, Yoga Nidra) and speculates on ancient cultural and linguistic resonances between early Indian traditions and early European Druidry. PCG dedicates other sections of the book to Christianity and Wicca, with suggestions about how they too can harmonise with Druidry.

This overall approach is reflected in the lived culture of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), which PGC has led for thirty years. He is now in a process of stepping down from the role, and so the book is a timely account of both vision and legacy. He says: “each spiritual way has gifts to offer, and some people find in Druidry all the spiritual nourishment they need. Others combine their Druidry with other approaches, such as Wicca, Taoism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism or Jainism”. OBOD’s ancestry as a movement derives from Celtic and Western Way currents within early twentieth century theosophy. The Order remains true to that heritage – as evidenced by a website that actively describes synergies with other paths and provides links to them – see www.druidry.org/ .

My personal takeaway from the book concerns PCG’s substantial presentation of Jain ethics, grounded in three key principles: ahimsa, aparigraha and anekant, here described as the Triple A. PCG explains: “Ahimsa is the doctrine of harmlessness or non-violence, made famous by Gandhi, and espoused by the other Dharmic traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism”. Aparigraha, the doctrine of non-attachment, non-possessiveness or non-acquisition, likewise appears in these other schools. Anekant, a doctrine of many-sidedness, multiple viewpoints, non-absolutism or non-one-sidedness, is unique to The Jains. The three principles can be seen as completing each other – with many-sidedness an aspect of non-violence and non-attachment, and so on.

PCG recommends these principles for our time. They inform his own vision of Druidry. “We know that the world suffers from too much conflict, too much fundamentalism, and too much consumption. This suffering can be alleviated by applying the Triple A doctrines: seeking non-violent solutions, respecting and learning from others’ opinions and beliefs, and reducing consumption to sustainable levels”. In the Jain tradition, such an approach to life is supported by practices of ritual and meditation that work towards the release of negative attachments. PCG recommends versions of these as well.

Part of the beauty of this book is that different readers will find different reasons to take note and learn from it. I have found it valuable both as an authoritative record of a current in modern Druidry, and as a personal inspiration.

Philip Carr-Gomm Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions Lewes, UK: Oak Tree Press, 2019 (Foreword by Peter Owen Jones)

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