contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: present time

TREE MANDALA: WILLOW

I walk past these willows and they awaken my joy in natural beauty. Their full splendour may yet be to come, but they are already abundant with new life and growth. I am lifted by the promise that’s in them.

In my mandala of the year (1), willow presides over period from 17 March to 7 April. Working with trees in my Druid training, I developed a close contact with a willow near to where I then lived in Bristol. I also made a willow wand, from a dead branch I found lying around in another part of town.

In the course of this work I developed a sense of willow that does not exactly match our inherited lore. My records tell me that my main personal impressions concerning willow were of “resilience and generativity” and of “vibrancy in early spring”. Those impressions still stand. I don’t link myself so much to associations with the dark side of the moon (and moon goddess) or the many uses of wicker.

I do make connections between willow and the energy of water, and I can know of willow as a portal to gently magical experiences. Below, I offer a digitised picture of my Bristol tree, taken on 21 March 2007, and an account of time spent with it that afternoon. I enjoy the chance to share this fourteen year old memory, and bring a small piece of my personal Druid history into the present. Intentional reminiscence can be a deeply satisfying here-and-now experience.

“This afternoon I went out to see the trees – beautiful sunshine. The willow I’ve connected with looked very willowy – buds, leaves, catkins. It seemed solid, vibrant, pulsing. Leaning against the trunk from shoulder to hip, I sensed a resonance connected to the contact. Tuning in, I began to make a sound. The note that developed was light and optimistic, but strong enough fully to reach me in the belly. It had a potency that surprised me. I felt carefree, I could take in the cool equinoctial breeze with the warm equinoctial sun and enjoy a moment of holy idleness after a time of rushing around and work.”

I avoid talking about this experience in the language of relationship with the tree, though part of me would like to. I do not know what it is like to be a willow tree, but I am sure it is like something. I know of no way to check in with the tree that allows it to contradict my own precious intimations of communion, should it want to. I suspect that it barely noticed me. Yet the experience felt healing, and I have never forgotten it.

(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the spring quarter from 1 February, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Birch, north-east, 1-22 February; Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 February – 16 March; Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April; Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April. The summer quarter then starts with Hawthorn at Beltane. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/

FEELINGS AND CONTEMPLATION

“In meditation, when a wave of feeling comes to visit – a grief, a fear, an unexpected anger or melancholy – can you stay present with that wave, breathe into it, let go of trying to ‘let go’ of it, and simply let it be, let it live, let it express itself right now within you? Can you notice the impulse in you to resist it, to refuse it, distract yourself from it and move away from your experience? Don’t judge or shame yourself for that impulse either, for wanting to have a different experience that you’re having – it’s an old habit, this urge to disconnect, this impulse to flee, this addiction to ‘elsewhere’.

” But see, today, if you can stay very close to ‘what is’, see if you can actually connect with the visiting feeling, gently lean in to your experience as it happens. Instead of shutting down, moving away, denying the energy in the body, can you gently open up to it? Can you flush it with curious attention? Let it move in you? Stay present throughout its life cycle, as it is born, expresses what it has to express, and falls back into Presence, its oceanic home?” (1)

The extract above is from a piece by Jeff Foster called When We Push Feelings Away. I support his approach, though I don’t now make firm distinctions between an activity called ‘meditation’ and the spontaneous flow of attention. I can stay present with the wave of feeling, and breathe into it, whether I’m ‘in meditation’ as a defined practice or not.  Meditation, once exotic and formal, has become naturalised. My contemplative life is pared down and minimalist, holding a strong sense of the sacred in daily life, including the work of self-healing. Jeff Foster continues:

“… One day, deep in meditation, perhaps, we remember, all feelings are sacred and have a right to exist in us, even the messiest and most inconvenient and painful ones. And we remember to turn towards our feelings instead of turning away. To soften into them. To make room for them instead of numbing them or ignoring them. …. So much creativity is released, so much relief is felt, when we break this age-old pattern of self-abandonment and repression, go beyond our careful conditioning, and try something totally new: staying close to feelings, as they emerge in the freshness of the living moment, waving to us, calling to us, seeking their true home in our heart of hearts.”

Jeff Foster calls this piece Pushing Feelings Away. I like his concern with holding and acceptance within what he calls Presence. I call my overall path a Sophian Way, and not The Sophian Way, because it is a solitary path that morphs and shifts.  Jeff Foster works with personal feelings from a transpersonal, non-dual  perspective that I find very Sophian, characterised  by wisdom, contemplation and compassion. My own path brings together this approach with the Eco-spirituality – or ‘Nature Mysticism’ – catalysed by my experience of modern Druidry.

(1) Jeff Foster The Joy of True Meditation: words of encouragement for tired minds and wild hearts Salisbury: New Sarum Press, 2019

AT-HOMENESS REVISITED

A year ago, I wrote: “within my Sophian Way, I have found healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness. Everything else grows out of that”(1). This post is to re-affirm this insight and to take it forward.

I wrote of a ‘flowing now’ since ‘now’ is not a frozen unit of time but a living stream of experience. Past and future can indeed be conceived and imagined, but only within the flowing now. The experience of At-Homeness can either steal up of itself or I can invite it by slowing down and attentively companioning the flow as it moves, whatever is going on. It is a way of marking this space and time as sacred. My opening and attention are a sacrament, the means through which the flowing now – all that I can be sure of in this life – is recognised and blessed.

I didn’t invent the term At-Homeness. It comes from the proponents of ‘bio-spirituality’, who say (2) “that the beginning of a bio-spiritual awareness … is finding a way to some larger At-Homeness written deep within bodily knowing”. For them, an enabling and loving attention to the body and its processes gives the felt sense of At-Homeness a chance to ripen. My experience of Focusing over the last 15 months tells me this is true. My experience of Headless Way (3) opens up a world of vivid shapes and colours, all boundaries gone, no self in sight. Immersed in this world, I experience a lightness of being, and stillness in a world of movement. This, too, is At-Homeness in the flowing now.

I sense now, more clearly than before, that I am not at home in the realm of abstractions and absolutes. I do not find Sophia there. I flourish, rather, in processes and relationships. I can stand as awareness only through being aware (a process) of something/someone (a relationship). I find the love and magic in the cosmos, as well as its stresses and horrors, only within the play of movement and connection.

For me, Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of ‘Interbeing’ provides the most helpful presentation of a non-dual spirituality (4). “The insight of inter-being is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else. The insight of impermanence is that nothing is static, nothing stays the same. Interbeing means the absence of a separate self. Looking from the perspective of space, we call emptiness ‘inter-being’; looking from the perspective of time we call it impermanence”. Another modern Buddhist writer adds (5), “if you look at experience there are not fixed elements or even moments; there is simply a process, a transformation … the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’. He described himself as merely a flowing occurrence, and the outward form that took was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”

Reading this, I am pushed uncomfortably into the recognition of my own volatility. I explored this theme in October 2017 (6). However, because I found Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on long periods of sitting meditation, not right for me, I appear to have lost some of this insight, at least consciously. I am somewhat comforted that ‘At-Homeness in a flowing now’ at least preserves the gist, and the simple practices I’m using work well within an ‘inter-being’ framework. This is not so much because of its Buddhist origin, as because as an approach it seems to me to be on the side of life, relationship and movement. It brings me down to earth and closer to Sophia (Prajnaparamita, Guanyin).

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/

(2) Peter Campbell & Edward McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a Way to Grow Chicago, Ill: Loyola Press, 1985

(3) www.headless.org/

(4) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

(5) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(6) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/

CHILD OF THE NOW

“They said to him

‘Tell us who you are

so that we may believe in you.’

He answered them

You search the face

of heaven and earth,

but you do not recognise

the one who is in your presence

and you do not know how to experience

the present moment.

“We are always asking for signs and omens so that we may believe. It is as if we want to be compelled from outside ourselves. But Yeshua offers no proofs, omens or explanations. He is what he Is. All who question must encounter him in the present if they want to see.

“He reminds us again that what we are looking for is already here and now. Here and now are the place and time to recognize, to experience, to taste the vastness of the present moment in all its dimensions of time, of space and of beyond space-time.

“The Gnostic is the Child of the Now.”

Jean-Yves Leloup The Gospel of Thomas: The Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005 (Translation from the Coptic and commentary by Jean-Yves Leloup; foreword by Jacob Needleman. English translation by John Rowe. Original French edition published 1986)

WALKING THE SOPHIAN WAY

Today I tweaked my morning practice, strengthening it as part of a Sophian Way, and recognising how this Way stands at the heart of my life, and has deepened over time.

When I stopped posting for a period of several months, I wrote (1): “within my Sophian Way, I have found healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness. Everything else flows out of that – personal well-being, right relationship, life and expression in the world. It is the fountain that nourishes them all. All it needs is my attention”.

I wouldn’t now say “all it needs is my attention”. Resting in the flowing now is not enough. I want a greater sense of a specific spiritual culture and point of reference. I also said that ‘Sophian Way’ was not using “the metaphor of a path or a journey”, but “describing a way of life”. I now see the Sophian Way, quite literally, as a path, a journey and a way of life.

Some years ago, I was moved by a powerful image. It arose within a visualisation of being in a rose garden (Sophia’s garden) and watching the fountain at the centre – the source of life. The image zoomed in to drops of water flying from the top, scattering outwards, destined to hit a wide sculpted pool at the bottom. Zooming in further, I found a single, separate drop, and froze it in the midst of its descent. It was sun kissed, I as I recall.

I didn’t ‘become’ the drop, at that time. But from my observer position I knew that it was me: one drop, and the whole of H2O. The story of the drop is of separation (and fleeting individual shape) and of fall (or leap, or dance). Then it re-joins the whole and something else happens (oblivion from a drop perspective, still H2O in the bigger picture: no change there).

This was gnosis as a sign-posting experience, not fully embodied, but still vivid, recurrent (outside formal practice settings as well as within them) and easily brought back. It nudged me towards the Way of Sophia, best described in conceptual language as a non-dual Gnosticism. It is Gnostic because it recognises an intelligence of the heart, which, when cultivated, can lead to self-knowledge and the realisation of our original nature (described as divine in Western Way teachings).

Non-dual is admittedly a problem word, because it defaults to readily into ideology and dogma (‘Down with Dualism!’ or ‘I’m more non-dual than you are’). In fact, ‘non-dual’ cannot be opposed to something else called ‘duality’ or to anything else. It makes room for all stories, including those that are dualistic. As Jeff Foster has written (2): “what we are really trying to do when we say ‘non-duality’ is point to life as it is right now, before the appearance of concepts and labels; before thought creates a world of things: table, chair, hand, foot, me, you, past, future”. ‘Non-dual’ points to “an intimacy, a love beyond words, right at the heart of present moment experience. It’s a word that points us back home”.

Going forward, I want to pay more detailed attention to my Sophian Way, and to the Gnostic and non-dual streams that flow into it. Where looking beyond these sources of inspiration, I will discuss their relevance to me and my path.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/

(2) https://www.lifewithoutacentre.com/writings/what-is-nonduality/

MEDITATION AND HEALING

“The healing journey is not about ‘getting rid’ of the unwanted and ‘negative’ material within us, purging it until we reach a perfect and utopic ‘healed state’. No. That is the mind’s version of healing. Healing is not a destination. True healing involves drenching that very same ‘unwanted’ material with love, presence and understanding.   For what we attend to, we can love.

“Meditation just means looking with fresh eyes, being aware and awake to what is, flushing our embodied experience with attention, and thus can only ever happen in the newness of the present moment.

“You can drop into this space of meditation wherever you are and whatever you are doing. On the bus or train or resting cross-legged and eyes-closed in your living room, walking through the forest or through a shopping centre, or sitting on a park bench or in a doctor’s waiting room.

“You can do it alone or with others. Every moment of your life, there is always the wonderful possibility to slow down, breathe deeply and get curious about where you are. To begin again, to see life through the eyes of not knowing. To stop thinking about your life in the abstract, to stop seeking some other state or feeling, to stop running towards another moment, and really fully experience this unique instant of experience.”

Jeff Foster The Joy of True Meditation: Words of Encouragement for Tired Minds and Wild Hearts Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019

TRUE MEDITATION AND THE GRACE OF DISAPPOINTMENT

“If you run from disappointment, you run from life itself. Disappointment can soften the mind and open the heart. If you let it.

“…. When life doesn’t turn out the way we’d hoped, disappointment can burn hot inside. The invitation? Turn towards the burning place. Actually feel the pain, instead of numbing it or running towards some new dream. It’s more painful to run away, in the end. The pain of self-abandonment is the worst pain of all.

“Break the addiction to ‘the next experience’. Bring curious attention to that which you call ‘disappointment’. Contact the fluttery sensations in the belly, the constricted feelings in the heart area, the lump in the throat, the fogginess in the head. Stay present for what’s alive …. Do not refuse the now.

“Turn towards this burning moment; this is true meditation. Breathe into the uncomfortable place. Don’t abandon yourself now for a new imagined future. Don’t leave yourself for the world of thought. Find your home in what is.

“Let the mind chatter away today, but don’t take it as reality. Disappointment is bringing you closer to yourself. To your breath. To the weight of your body upon the Earth. To the sounds of the afternoon. To the evening’s song. To the sense of being alive. To a deep surrender to the imperfection of this human experience.

“… Return to the heart …Soften into the moment. Return Home . The moment as it is … The moment as it is. Let all expectations melt. Into the silence. Into a new beginning. Disappointment is the gateway.”

Jeff Foster The Joy of True Meditation: Words of Encouragement for Tired Minds and Wild Hearts Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019

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/

URSULA LE GUIN: HYMN TO TIME

Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.

And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.

Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.

Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.

Quoted by Maria Popova in https://www.brainpickings.org/newsletter/

PRESENT MOVEMENT

“We have been taught to think of ‘the present moment’ as an infinitesimally small slice of time, sandwiched between the past and the future, but that is not quite right. Instead of calling it ‘the present moment’, let’s call it ‘the present movement’ and see it differently: as the present dance of life, this real-time, immediate, vibrant, ever-changing dance of thought sensation, feeling, sounds, smells, urges, impulses, images, memory and dreams.

“When we take a fresh look at where we are, all we ever find is this present movement, not ‘in’ the past or future, but alive and happening Now. Of course, past and future appear here, too, as images and feelings, as memories and projections. There is only this present movement, inclusive of ‘your’ past and future, and it’s all you’ve ever known, and all you will ever know, for it includes all knowledge and doubt, too.

“Now is not a tiny slice of time between past and future, but the capacity for past, present and future, the unlimited potential for experience, and so we can say this:

“You cannot go ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the Now. You are the Now.”

Jeff Foster The Way of Rest: Finding the Courage to Hold Everything in Love Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2016. (Extracted from a longer piece entitled In and Out of the Now.)

 

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