contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Rumi

LIGHT RENEWED

I have now landed in 2021. I can see the renewal of the light; however tentative it might be. The winter quarter, from Samhain to Imbolc, is a season of dying and regeneration. I have glimpsed regeneration in nature and in myself – potentially in culture too. The collective crisis is deep, and projects remain on hold. But I can sense opportunity, and possibilities for creative change.

I have noticed a major transition in my work. I have entered a phase where contemplative inquiry is a strand in my life rather than a project called ‘Contemplative Inquiry’. I look back and see this transition as an accomplishment of 2020. Certain questions have been answered and won’t need much revisiting. I began an ended the project within a modern Druid orbit – saturnine in distance, perhaps, but still part of the family.

My view, values and practice have largely settled. A lightning-flash experience, or transformative encounter, might cause me to change them, for I retain a commitment to openness. But the project of Contemplative Inquiry will not. I am much less engaged with teachers, teachings and traditions than in former years, whether through literature, groups or events (live and virtual). Instead, I want to work more deeply and congruently within the frameworks I have already learned and developed. I tend to be a solitary practitioner at heart, though I also like some link to companions and community along my spiritually hermit way.

The great gift in this is the opportunity to live a life of ‘abundance in simplicity’ at the level of ideas as well as material goods and activities – to pare down in the very area where I am most tempted to seek variety and feast on new input. There is Sufi story in which the crazy wisdom master Shams persuades the more conventionally trained Rumi to throw all his religious texts down a well. I do not plan to go so far. But I recognise the time for a change in emphasis. As a trade-off, my monkey mind is freed for other subjects. I look forward to seeing how this new direction works, and how it affects this blog.

RUMI: IN PRAISE OF MATURE COMPANIONSHIP

I say, Bring the simple wine that makes me loose and free!

You say, There’s a hurricane coming.

And I say, Let’s have some wine then,

and sit here like old statues and watch.

From the collection Unseen Rain: Quatrains of Rumi translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1986

RUMI: THE MORNING WIND

The morning wind spreads its fresh smell.

We must get up and take that in,

that wind that lets us live.

Breathe, before it’s gone.

From the collection Unseen Rain: Quatrains of Rumi translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1986

BLESSINGS OF BROKENNESS

“At the heart of the Kabbalistic tradition, we find the origin story of the shattering of the vessels. It is said that God first created the world by attempting to emanate into ten holy vessels, ten spheres, or sephirot. But something went wrong. God was too eager and poured too much divine light into the vessels. The vessels were unable to contain this immensity of immanence and shattered. God had to start creation all over again, and the purpose of this second creation, our world, becomes Tikkun Olam, or ‘mending the world’. We are meant to do this through gathering the broken shards of the first vessels, by performing good deeds. It is said that each soul comes here to find the broken piece that only it can restore.

“Traditional interpretations regard the shattering of the vessels as a cosmic catastrophe – but what if it wasn’t a mistake, but the actual path? God wants us to know His broken, imperfect nature! After all, the only way to restore the world is in relationship with divine brokenness. The process of shattering can also be a model for our own spiritual lives. To awaken, to be whole, to become holy, we too must first become intimate with brokenness.”

In her piece The Blessings of Brokenness*, from which the above account comes, Vera de Chalambert surveys a number of traditions – Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Sufi and Buddhist – and finds that “Divine brokenness pervades the spiritual traditions, and the divine neither hides its brokenness nor turns away from ours. Instead, we are encouraged to pivot fully toward it and let it transform us. If we accept the blessing of brokenness, it will awaken the tenderness that changes everything”. Recalling Rumi’s statement that ‘where there is ruin there is treasure’, she concludes, “we might still find ourselves among the ruins, but we will become the treasure”.

*Vera de Chalambert The Blessings of Brokenness in Zaya & Maurizio Benazzo On the Mystery of Being: Contemporary Insights on the Convergence of Science and Spirituality Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2019

RUMI: BEING HUMAN

This being human is a guesthouse.

Every morning is a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all,

even if they’re a crowd of sorrows

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture.

Still, treat each guest as honourable.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

I discovered this poem when learning Focusing, a peer and reciprocal support system described by one group of practitioners as based on a ‘bio-spirituality’. As such ‘a guide from beyond’ would be described, rather, as ‘a guide from within’. From the perspective of the discursive mind, I find, it amounts to the same thing.

Focusing works on the understanding that we can hold every experience within a larger presence that is loving but not identified with the experience or lost in it. I am not ‘the dark thought, the shame, the malice’, but I can acknowledge it as something in me that I can lovingly welcome. I can keep it company. This welcoming and keeping company is the essence of the practice, discovering what unfolds – rather than trying to fix or banish the initially unwanted part. For there is a wisdom in the wound. As Leonard Cohen famously put it, ‘there is a crack in everything, that’s where the light comes in’.

For more information about Focusing, there are several useful websites:

https://focusingresources.com/

https://www.biospiritual.org/

http://www.focusing.org.uk/

https://www.livingfocusing.co.uk/

 

ORPHIC HYMN TO PERSEPHONE

An Orphic hymn to Persephone addresses her as the ‘much honoured spouse of Plouton’, who commands ‘the gates of Hades in the bowels of the earth’. ‘Queen of the nether world’, she reigns underground through four months of  winter, but the rest of the year, she is the ‘maiden rich in fruits, brilliant and horned, only beloved of mortals’. She nourishes us all, always, and kills us too. The hymn comes from a collection likely to have been compiled in the third century CE in Pergamum, a city in modern Turkey. It offers a glimpse of Greek-inspired pagan religion in what turned out to be its last phase.

Persephone, blessed daughter

of great Zeus, sole offspring

of Demeter, come and accept

this gracious sacrifice.

Much honoured spouse of Plouton,

discreet and life-giving,

you command the gates of Hades

in the bowels of the earth,

lovely-tressed Praxidike,

pure bloom of Deo,

mother of the Erinyes,

queen of the nether world, secretly sired by Zeus

in clandestine union.

Mother of loud-roaring,

many-shaped Eubouleus,

radiant and luminous,

playmate of the Seasons,

revered and almighty,

maiden rich in fruits,

brilliant and horned,

only beloved of mortals,

in spring you take your joy

in the meadow of breezes,

you show your holy figure

in grasses teeming with grass-green fruits,

in autumn you were made

a kidnapper’s bride.

You alone are life and death

To toiling mortals,

O Persephone, you nourish all,

Always, and kill them, too.

Hearken, O blessed goddess,

send forth the fruits of the earth

as you blossom in peace

and in gentle-handed health

bring a blessed life

and a splendid old age to him who is sailing

to your realm, O queen, and to mighty Plouton’s kingdom

Apostolos N. Athanasskis and Benjamin M. Wolkow The Orphic Hymns: Translation, Introduction and Notes Baltimore: MD: The John Hopkins Press, 2013.

In his introduction to this collection, Apostolos Athanassakis talks about Orphic hymns as instances of a devotional mysticism that uses “the power of clustering epithets” for the creation of “an emotional and spiritual crescendo that might raise our human spirit and help approach the divine”. They remind him of Vedic hymns, Rumi’s verses within the Islamic Sufi world, and aspects of his own Christian Orthodox upbringing. The hymns are beautiful to read – though it is worth remembering that they are designed for group practice in a charged, incense laded atmosphere, with repetition upon repetition, perhaps accompanied by swaying, movement or dance of various kinds.

The Orphic hymns date from a time of philosophical and religious change in the Roman Empire. They were popular for as long as it was possible to maintain a syncretistic religion forged of traditional pagan elements in those parts of the world (chiefly the Eastern Roman sphere) where it was practised. The hymns name specific pagan deities, yet appeal to universal spiritual powers. Devotees are not praying directly for a change in their fate, but in their own thoughts and feelings, in the hope that the energy of the goddess may assist them.

VALUES IN CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY

What form of inquiry best serves our times and the kind of consciousness we carry? This post, focusing on values, is the first of five on the topic. The nest three will cover methods and the final post will concern issues of interpretation.

Wishing to deepen my own intent and practice, I have been identifying helpful resources. One of these is Arthur Zajonc’s Meditation as contemplative inquiry: when knowing becomes love (1). Having dedicated my own contemplative inquiry to Sophia, I was delighted to discover, in Zajonc’s approach, a Sophian sensibility.

In Zajonc’s account the purpose of contemplative practice is to join insight and compassion, wisdom with love. Such a practice supports an awakening into what the New England sage Henry David Thoreau called the ‘poetic and divine life’.  Culturally, this means opening to an ecological world view, and a larger project of “embracing methods of inquiry that can accommodate the great advances of science but not be limited by the dogmatic perspectives of materialism and its associated economics”.  Now retired, Zajonc was until recently Professor of Physics and Interdisciplinary Studies at Amherst College, Massachusetts, also directing its Academic Program of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society – see http://www.contemplativemind.org . He was involved with setting up the Mind and Life Institute (see https://www.mindandlife.org), which, under the patronage of the Dalai Lama, is concerned with the scientific study of contemplative practice. As well as this he is a former General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in America, and his specific contemplative methods derive from the Steiner tradition.

Zajonc models a contemplative inquiry that is in and of the world, yet makes a clearly defined space for itself. On one hand he quotes Dag Hammarskjold, UN Secretary General 1953-61, as saying: “in our era, the road to holiness passes through the world of action”. On the other he offers the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s warning that “to allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times”.

Zajonc sees science/contemplation/insight/service as a package, which it clearly has been for him, and his own advice on approaching contemplative inquiry is to begin with an attitude of humility and reverence. For some, the route is prayer. For others, it is a sense of wonder and awe towards nature. In the latter respect, he quotes John Muir: “climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves” (2). Whether prayer or nature be the contemplative’s aid, there will be a certain setting aside of self and the moral confusions of egotism.

At the same time, Zajonc is from a Western tradition and sees a strong sense of individuality as a gift rather than a problem. A certain ‘inner solitude’, which makes us all potential hermits in the clamour of daily life, leads to fuller relationships, connects us to the ‘depth’ of the other, and indeed cherishes the very solitude of the other: solitude and love go together. Despite the power that group practice can have, Zajonc believes that solo practice is more essential. Group practice can become a ‘crutch’. Groups themselves need to honour freedom and individuality, and Zajonc stresses that the moral conditions for contemplative practice cannot be and should not be imposed from outside. I was pleased to read this. This view of the relationship of individual to group is very much what we have practised in Contemplative Druidry over the last four years, and it has served us well.

In recommended forms of preparatory meditation, we learn to enhance our sensory awareness, and our inner relationships with earth, water, air and light. We also learn to put space around our ‘negative’ thoughts and feelings. They no longer consume us. As we hold them in awareness, neither falling back into them nor repressing them, we move from the standpoint of our storying selves to a silent self who can observe these dramas from a distance and with compassionate understanding. This opens up contemplative space, and teaches generosity through an invitation to practice it on our own distressed and rejected parts. Here Zajonc quotes Rumi:

The dark thought, the shame, the malice

Meet them at the door laughing

And invite them in

Be grateful for whoever comes

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.

Contemplative inquiry is first person inquiry, working from the perspective of what phenomenologists call ‘the subjective life world’, yet it also reaches out to develop I-Thou relationship with what is being contemplated. Instead of distancing itself from direct experience for the sake of objectivity, “contemplative inquiry does exactly the opposite. It seeks to engage direct experience, to participate more fully in the phenomena of consciousness. It achieves ‘objectivity’ in a different manner, namely through self-knowledge and what [the 18th century German polymath] Goethe, in his scientific writings, named a ‘delicate empiricism’”.

Zajonc affirms that nothing can reveal itself to us which we do not love, so every way of contemplative knowing becomes a way of loving. Every epistemology [theory of knowledge] becomes an ethic. For him, contemplative inquiry is built on nine characteristics. This is my reading of what they do. The first two, respect and gentleness, set the conditions for aware engagement. With the next two, intimacy and participation, engagement becomes relationship. The next three are about the contemplative observer’s own willingness to change: the vulnerability of openness makes this possible; transformation represents significant responsiveness and change. ‘Organ formation’ suggests radical change, the development of new capacities fully to meet what we are engaging with – in the way that our remote pre-human ancestors became sensitive to light and gradually developed eyes for seeing. We know that intensive long-term meditation can change the brain, and even in modest and less obvious ways we are changed by what we attend to.  Zajonc’s last two characteristics are illumination and insight – the fruits of contemplative inquiry.

All of this makes me feel like a child in this field, and this does have advantages – novelty, wonder, lots to learn and explore. For now, ‘delicate empiricism’ is a phrase to take to heart.

  • Arthur Zajonc, Meditation as contemplative inquiry: when knowing becomes love Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Press, 2009
  • John Muir Our national parks Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1901

ORPHIC HYMN TO NIGHT

Today, where I live, we changed our clock time. Yesterday’s 7 p.m. is today’s 6 p.m. and the evenings get dark. This introduces the Samhain season for me and all that it brings. Here is a Hymn to Night, conventionally ascribed to Orpheus. According to translator and editor Apostolos Athanassakis, they were most likely written in their present form in the early third century AD in Pergamum, a city in modern Turkey .

I shall sing of Night,

mother of gods and men;

We call Night Kypris,

she gave birth to all.

Hear, O Blessed Goddess,

jet-black and starlit, for you delight in the quiet

and slumber-filled serenity.

Cheerful and delightful, lover

of the nightlong revel, mother of dreams,

you free us from cares,

you offer us welcome respite from toil.

Giver of sleep, beloved of all,

you gleam in the darkness as you drive your steeds.

Ever incomplete, terrestrial,

and then again celestial,

you circle around in pursuit

of sprightly phantoms,

you force light into the nether world,

and then again you flee

into Hades, for dreadful Necessity

governs all things.

But now, O blessed one – beatific,

desired by all – I call on you

to grant a kind ear

to my voice of supplication,

and to come, benevolent,

to disperse the fears that glisten in the night.

Apostolos Athanassakis  talks about Orphic hymns as instances of a devotional mysticism that uses “the power of clustering epithets” for the creation of “an emotional and spiritual crescendo that might raise our human spirit and help us approach the divine”. They remind him of Vedic hymns, Rumi’s verses within the Islamic Sufi world, and aspects of his own Orthodox Christian background. The hymns are beautiful to read – and it is worth remembering that they are designed for group practice in a charged, incense laden atmosphere, with repetition upon repetition, perhaps accompanied by swaying, movement or dance of various kinds.

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