contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Present moment

WATER MEADOW WALK

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

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

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

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

ST DAVID’S DAY 2022: A WALK IN THE PARK

It is 1 March, a mixed day – bringing together grey sky, bare branches, emerging blossoms and vivid daffodils. It is chilly, and rain is likely, though not just yet. Daffodils (here the strongest sign of a changing year) are linked to St. David, the patron saint of Wales. 1 March is his feast day.

David lived during the sixth century CE, a flourishing time for Celtic Christianity. His defining early achievement was the founding of a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosyn (the Vale of Roses) on the west headland of Pembrokeshire (Si Benfro) where St. David’s Cathedral now stands. He went on to become a Christian leader of great authority, and was eventually canonised in the twelfth century, a different historical period with the church under stronger Vatican control and Welsh identity under threat from the English. David became the patron saint of Wales and his day is celebrated in Wales with parades and other public events.

Gloucester is very much an English city, though not so very far from Wales. Today’s weather conditions would not be out of place there. My wife Elaine and I went out on a morning walk with a sense of the saint’s day and how both the day and the coming of March represent a shift in the year. I noticed, too, how I can honour a saint without thinking of sainthood as a model, or even remotely wanting to be one. I acknowledge that I am on different kind of path, less defined, less heroic, and less religious.

When out walking, I see how the ordinary world seems to transform in the light of a loving gaze. I am looking at the world as it is, not for signs of a creator’s hand or influence or expectations. For me, laid out below – at the micro level – I find grass, earth, twigs, purple crocus and dead leaves. They are simply themselves. All ordinary in an ordinary moment. But an ordinary moment, as we might conventionally call it, is an extraordinary event. It is a small miracle, in its naturalistic way, yet easy to access in a receptive frame of mind.

I do appreciate that a ‘receptive frame of mind’, as a private experience, is facilitated by favourable public conditions, like a well-managed public park. I may not be dependent on such external conditions, but they do make a difference. I am grateful for their current presence in an uncertain world.

THICH NHAT HANH ON AIMLESSNESS

Thich Nhat Hanh, the much loved Buddhist teacher from Vietnam, died on 22 January at the age of 95. He had been unwell for some time. He is remembered as peace activist, inventor of the term ‘interbeing’ and teacher of mindfulness practice. For him, this is the practice of being aware of what is going on in the present moment. We can be mindful at any moment, whether we are sad, joyful, angry, and whilst cooking, driving or about to send an email.

I am not a Buddhist. Instead, I feel and recognise Thich Nhat Hanh’s influence on my practice of Druidry – especially my sense of at-homeness, or presence, in the living moment. In memory and appreciation of him, I want to share a piece he wrote about aimlessness as as a ‘door of liberation’ (1).

“The concentration on aimlessness means arriving in the present moment to discover that the present moment is the only moment in which you can find everything you’ve been looking for and that you already are everything you want to become.

“Aimlessness does not mean doing nothing. It means not putting something in front of you to chase after. When we remove the objects of our craving and desires, we discover that happiness and freedom are available right here in the present moment.

“We have a habit of running after things, and this habit has been transmitted to us by our parents and ancestors. We don’t feel fulfilled in the here and now, and so we run after all kinds of things we think will make us happier. We sacrifice our life chasing after objects of craving or striving for success in our work or studies. We chase after our life’s dream and lose ourselves along the way. We even lose our freedom and happiness in our efforts to be mindful, to be healthy, to relieve suffering in the world, or to get enlightened. We disregard the wonders of the present moment, thinking that heaven and the ultimate are for later, not for now.

“To practice meditation means to have the time to look deeply and see these things. If you feel restless in the here and now, or you feel ill at ease, you need to ask yourself: ‘what am I longing for? what am I waiting for? what am I searching for?'”

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Rider, 2017

OLD CITY, NEW HOME

Above, a city park containing monastic ruins. I am beginning to make sense of a new habitat. The distance door-to-door is only about ten miles from the old one. But it feels very different. Stroud the Cotswold mill town is hilly and hard on the older pedestrian. Gloucester is an old English city on the river Severn, much flatter. The centre, where we now live, has become highly pedestrian friendly in recent years. This was a key motivator for our move and it already feels transformational.

On an exploratory amble on Sunday, Elaine and I were very aware of history. St. Oswald’s Priory, in the picture above, was founded by Lady Aethelflaed of Mercia, daughter of Alfred the Great, around 900. The Priory Church, initially dedicated to St. Peter, was constructed from recycled Roman stones. (The Romans founded the city, as Glevum, in the first century CE, and it never quite died after their departure from Britain). In Aetheflaed’s time it was a bold and unusual move to build a church as there were frequent Viking raids. Quite possibly Aethelflaed and her husband were later interred in the crypt. Archaeological excavations in the 1970s revealed a 10th century fragment of carved slab from the grave of someone of high importance.

In the centuries that followed St Oswald’s grew rich as a place of pilgrimage and was at the centre of a large parish. But later it declined, as institutions do. It was almost literally in the shadow of the more successful Abbey of St. Peter, now Gloucester Cathedral, where the power of the church was now based. Architecturally, the cathedral (below) still dominates the city.

When Elaine and I were walking together on Sunday, the bells were ringing and we found ourselves enjoying this as an expression of the old city’s identity. As in other old cathedral cities, the cathedral is characteristically approached through narrow, often arched lanes and then appears magnificently in front of us.

We have another church, St. Mary-Le-Crypt (below), even closer to home, and cut through its churchyard to get to a major traditional shopping street. Like the cathedral, it continues to serve Anglican (Episcopalian) worshippers and to be part of the wider community.

I have as yet no idea what effect, if any, living in Gloucester will have on my contemplative inquiry, nested as it is in Druidry and Earth spirituality. It is much too early to tell. From the perspective of the living moment, I am delighted to be soaking in new impressions, aware that this is where I live now. Looking out, this is what I will frequently see. These sights are part of the texture of my daily experience now, and I welcome them as such. It greet a new way of being at home.

WHAT IS GIVEN

It is colder now, and gloomier indoors for much of the day. But outside, this November keeps on giving. My walking range has increased again with a walk to nearby Nailsworth, a leisurely lunch in this little town, and a walk back again: ten miles. The picture above includes both a stream beside my path and a small lake nearby.

But my attention hasn’t been all on the world around me. I have been reflecting on an old statement about my practice, currently included in my About section, and finding that it still holds. “My inquiry process overall has helped me to discover an underlying peace and at-homeness in the present moment, which, when experienced clearly and spaciously, nourishes and illuminates my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given. I find that this perspective supports a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.”

There is no reliance on metaphysics here. This allows me a pared down focus on experience and values. My practice has been relatively stable over a long period, whereas my thoughts about metaphysical questions are more volatile. I experience thinking as volatile by nature, and fine within its limits. Over the years this blog has found room for diverse approaches to the meaning, if any, of terms like divinity and consciousness. I have wondered about the possibility (or desirability) of establishing any foundational truth about absolute or indeed conventional ‘reality’. I notice now that when I explore these questions – especially when reading – I am more interested in seeing how people put their worlds together than I am in identifying insights or finding answers to the questions themselves. It has become a human interest rather than a philosophical quest.

I have noticed this especially over recent days when engaging with Carlo Rovelli’s discussion of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (1,2). My interest was in seeing how a distinguished physicist makes use of Nagarjuna’s emptiness doctrine. I have less stake in assessing the view itself, because my peace and at-homeness are the result of an experiential inquiry, and not of speculative thinking. I continue to find that this perspective supports “a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence, and a life of abundant simplicity”, My inquiry focus, if ‘inquiry; is even the right word, is about how best to walk the talk.

(1) Carlo Rovelli Helgoland global.penguinrandomhouse.com 2020 (Translated by Erica Segre & Simon Carnell, 2021) Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who has made significant contributions to the physics of space and time.

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/11/08/exploring-emptiness-carlo-rovelli-and-nagarjuna

POEM: ASTONISHED BY THE ORDINARY

A discarded flowerhead, wet mud and grass.

I am drawn down into seeing,

And,

Astonished by the ordinary,

I am opened up to awe.

INQUIRY, IDENTITY AND COMMUNITY

I am looking downwards into water, identifying patterns, on a surface that swirls and moves and changes. I have the same impulse to identify patterns in my contemplative life. In essence, contemplative experience is simple, still, and drawn from wordless depths. But there’s a surface swirl that’s more agitated, largely driven by worries over naming and explaining, clarifying where my inquiry sits within human communities, and accurately representing spiritual philosophies. Here too, I am giving the surface swirl the attention it seeks. I do not ask the swirl to stop swirling, because swirling is what it does. There is value in the swirl.

I centre myself in modern Druidry, but my self-presentation from 2012 as a ‘contemplative Druid’ is slightly misleading – too narrow. I champion the value of a contemplative current within Druidry, and I am happy to describe my blog as a contemplative inquiry. But I also have a strong commitment to the life of the world and opportunities for the flourishing of all beings, within both the constraints and the opportunities of our interconnectedness. I am concerned with our planet and its biosphere; with human history and culture; with ethics and engagement; with beauty as well as truth and goodness; and with issues of wounding and healing. They are part of my inquiry. I cannot separate them from my contemplative commitment.

I also celebrate the influence of ‘nondual’ currents outside Druidry. Nondual is a translation of advaita (not-two) in classical Sanskrit philosophy. It describes the divine/human relationship. Its original home is the Advaita Vedanta path in India, but there are nondualists in other world religions, including the Abrahamic ones: Sufi currents in Islam, Jewish Kabbalah, contemplative Christianity. In Christian terms, you would say that we are all essentially Christs – in a creation of one Light and many lamps. In some interpretations, nonduality does not apply only to humans, but to all lives in the cosmos. Some iterations of nonduality – Mahayana Buddhist and Taoist in particular – avoid the language of divinity, preferring terms like ‘true nature’ or the deliberately undefinable ‘Tao’.

I have engaged with current nondualist teachings for some years, most recently with the Eckhart Tolle community – https://www.eckharttolle.com. I have learned a lot from them. In this blog’s About section, I say: “My inquiry process overall has helped me to discover an underlying peace and at-homeness in the present moment, which, when experienced clearly and spaciously, nourishes and illuminates my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given”.

I could maintain this stance as a humanist or existentialist, but my deepest intuition is that the ‘present moment’ (or eternal now), fully experienced, links my passing personal identity to a cosmic one, a ground of being that is my true nature. Belief has come in: ‘willingness to follow one’s deepest intuition’ is one definition of faith, and I have surprised myself by becoming a person of faith in this sense. The purpose of continuing inquiry is to keep me open to new experiences, understandings, and connections, as well as teaching me how best to live from the peace and at-homeness of the centre.

My inquiry is a self-directed enterprise that welcomes input from multiple sources. But I draw on two main centres of community wisdom and support. The first is OBOD Druidry (https://www.druidry.org), with its embrace of the earth and its loyalty to the world of space and time, nature and culture. For many of us this includes the sense of a living cosmos and a divine ground. The second is the specifically nondualist Headless Way, based on the work of the late Douglas Harding (https://www.headless.org). I have started to think of myself as a Headless Druid, in a modern kind of way, whilst also aware of older traditions in which decapitation is indeed the gateway to a larger life:

‘It’s off with my head’, says the Green Man,

‘It’s off with my head’, says he.

Green Man becomes grown man in flames of the oak

As its crown forms his mask and its leafage his features;

‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man.

‘I speak through the oak’, says he.

William Anderson Green Man: Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990.

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2021/6/14/tree-mandala-oak and https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2017/05/11/poem-green-man

CATCHING A MOMENT

Above, inside looking out. Below, outside looking in – with added reflections.

Below again, from a little further back, the full richness of a sunlit moment, in a particular time and place. For me, it becomes the image and feeling-tone of its day, and, later on, a soft thought in memory.

MADE OF THE SUN, MOON AND STARS

“Just as a wave doesn’t need to go looking for water, we don’t need to go looking for the ultimate. The wave is the water. You already are what you want to become. You are made of the sun, moon and stars. You have everything inside you.”

If I had authored the words above, they would be a clear statement of my stance as a modern Druid. In fact they were written by the Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who has spent the latter part of his life making Buddhism accessible to westerners. For me, this shows the wider resonance of his core understanding. Indeed he continues by using the language of a third tradition – the best known to most westerners – to develop his theme.

“In Christianity there is the phrase, ‘resting in God’. When we let go of all seeking and striving, it is as if we are resting in God. We establish ourselves firmly in the present moment; we dwell in the moment. We rest in our cosmic body. Dwelling in the ultimate doesn’t require faith or belief. A wave doesn’t need to believe it is water. The wave is already water in the very here and now.

“To me, God is not outside us or outside reality. God is inside. God is not an external entity for us to seek, for us to believe in or not to believe in. God, nirvana, the ultimate, is inherent in every one of us. The Kingdom of God is available in every moment. The question is whether we are available to it. With mindfulness, concentration and insight, touching nirvana, touching our cosmic body or the Kingdom of God, becomes possible with every breath and every step.”

Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Penguin Random House UK, 2017

SILENT SITTING MEDITATION

There is the moment, and there is the flow. The photograph holds the moment and the image at first seems still. Looking more closely, we can infer the turbulence that accompanies flow. All those ripples, and wavelets and swirls. They testify to the life of the stream in time.

I have taken up silent sitting meditation after a long break, making a commitment to myself of at least thirty minutes a day. I have incorporated silent sitting meditation into both my morning and evening practices, so the individual sessions need not be long. I am not made for long meditations. but I do now find that an element of silent sitting meditation enriches my contemplative life and inquiry.

I like the term ‘silent sitting meditation’ for its plainness and descriptive accuracy. I am distinguishing this meditation from the ones that I learned through Druidry, which, even when not guided, depend on visualisation and narrative. At the same time I am avoiding close identification with the ‘mindfulness’ brand. It feels like a prescriptive pre-shaping of my lived experience as a meditator. A strong intuition, gift perhaps of the Goddess in her Wisdom, wants the meditative life to be free of such labels.

So I sit. With two sessions a day, I find that my natural length of session is from 20-35 minutes and so with two sessions I am overshooting my commitment. That’s a good indication that I am not straining myself. I don’t want my meditation to be goal-oriented. Rather, I open myself to the energy of living experience, and let it lead me.

I do begin, conventionally, with a breath focus, following the sensations and the gaps after in-breath and out-breath, with loving attention. I also open myself to other sensations, which (with my eyes closed) will mostly be internal body sensations or external sounds. I think that the love in loving attention matters. There are people within the mindfulness movement who think it might better have been called heartfulness. This introduces a sense of compassion for everything that arises. Within the experience, I can feel whole, at home in the Heart of Being which holds up and informs my human life. When I am consciously present, it is a place of peace, joy and inspiration.

In the course of a session, I will taste this state from time to time. At other times I find myself engaged with images (some seeming otherworldly), or narrative streams, that I also value. These experiences seem to have an authentic energy that I cannot simply dismiss as distractions. I want to allow them in and engage with them. Indeed, even where the passing content of experience seems entirely mundane or even distressed, I will welcome it and keep it company. I will hold it in love. Outside the meditation, it may provide a cue for some more dedicated healing or inquiry process.

It may be for this reason that I do not characteristically find distress distorted thoughts and feelings hijacking or sabotaging the meditative flow. They know my willingness to meet them. This means that the other experience, the wellspring of my life, is rarely far away and never forgotten. It doesn’t even require formal meditation. For me, silent sitting meditation supports a fuller life, lived from the Heart of Being. But it is not, by any means, a requirement for it.

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